August 13th, 2010


August Books 10) A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

When I first read this I didn't know Vinge's work all that well, and now I've read a few more of his books I can spot some of the standard elements - viewpoint characters who are young or even children, dark ill-explained conspiracies in the background, slightly deus ex machina ending. But what makes this book special is the alien Tines, a lovely concept of packs of four to eight dog-like aliens with mini-hive minds, and the political economy of what happens to their pre-industrial culture when two different factions rescue children off a crashed earth ship and start developing human technology to try and defeat each other with. (This is in the context of a bigger galactic power game, whose details I really failed to grasp, affecting the rescue ship.) It goes on a bit for what is in it, but generally a good read; I much preferred it to the prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, which also won the Hugo several years later.

A Fire Upon The Deep shared the Hugo with Connie Willis' Doomsday Book (which I personally preferred) and beat KSR's Red Mars, which is on my current reading list, Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, which is somewhere on the to-read shelves, and Steel Beach by John Varley, which I haven't otherwise heard of. More remarkable perhaps is the absence of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, surely at least as important a book as any of the above, from any of the short lists.

August Books 11) A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

I picked this up last night and really couldn't put it down. Despite the instinctive racism (against Australian aborigines and Japanese, though the Malays get off rather better) and the resounding endorsement of Shute's firmly conservative values, I found Jean Paget a fascinating character - survivor and leader of a group of prisoners in Malaya during the second world war, then pursuing the man she loves and thought was dead to his home in Australia, then when she finds his home town is not the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, she decides to turn it into the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, basically by using her unexpectedly inherited fortune to create a local economy based on employing the local young women. Shute is not exactly a progressive writer, but Jean Paget surely counts as a feminist protagonist even though not written by a feminist author; she challenges and to a certain extent gets around gender roles, particularly in the constrained social environment of 1940's Australia. Even if she does win all her wars, she suffers enough setbacks in the process to keep our sympathy, all told in Shute's crystal-clear, direct prose. I really enjoyed it.