Fragments of books: Infinite Jest

Inifinte JestIf you enjoy books that run to over a thousand pages of mind-boggling literary showmanship, then there comes a day when someone recommends David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to you as the great 1990s equivalent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or something similarly dense and critically acclaimed. Heed these people.

Let me clear the room first: this novel is rambling and circuitous and there are plotlines that start and don’t go anywhere, and it could do with a lot more editing. I can make a case for why all these qualities are integral to the themes of the book, but I won’t. There are some conventional cliffhanger-type storytelling moments near the beginning that lure you in with the promise of a plot, but if plot is something that matters to you above all else in a book – run away from this one.

There’s also the matter of the slightly surreal projected-near-future setting, in which corporate sponsors get to name calendar years (so most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), Organization of North American Nations has turned most of southeastern Canada and northeastern US into a toxic waste dump (with all the associated birth defects, feral packs of mutant animals, and large-scale weather pattern disruptions) and there’s a far-reaching Quebecois-separatist organization of ruthless wheelchair-bound assassins. All these things are peripheral and – disappointingly, to a Sci-Fi fan – only meagerly fleshed out.

Mainly, this book is about addiction. Also depression, despair, disillusionment and tennis.

Most of the action takes place in a tennis academy and in an addicts’ halfway house in Boston, where seemingly disparate and unrelated characters and storylines come together.

And if, like me, you start reading this book, you go, “It’s very literary and well written and there’s the whole Hamlet allusion thing going on, but does it all have to be so terribly depressing, and I really can’t empathise with this miserable lot of junkies and I just don’t give a rat’s ass about tennis,” – stick with it a bit longer. There’s some genuinely funny parts coming up. New neural connections – along pathways twisted and dark – will be mapped for all your future tennis associations. As for the junkies – you do begin to Identify with them.

Some of my favorite passages in the novel deal with the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and twelve-step recovery program. There are wonderful scenes in which newly recovering addicts incredulously realize that the program works. Despite their intellectual objections to its corny platitudes, and their atheistic objections to its daily prayer requirements, and their overall feeling that it’s all a load of BS – as long as they stick with it and go through the required motions, it works. No one can explain how it works, but after months of barely hanging in, they wake up to find that they no longer crave the Substance.

Like the AA program, Infinite Jest – if you stick with it – works. If you hang in despite its jarring nature, it draws you in and takes hold of you and shows you insightful and non-trivial things about the world. I can’t explain how it does this, but it does.

On the other hand, I have been reading this book for nearly three frigging months, so this might just be Stockholm Syndrome talking.

Fragments of books: The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistI don’t want to give you the impression that I only read books with “optimist” in the title, but this was another great one that I wanted to share.

For me, the appeal of books that take an optimistic stance on humanity’s current conditions and future prospects is in the suggestions of positive directions to take. The benefit of learning about the promising options available – rather than the ways in which we are messing things up – is encapsulated in this statement from The Rational Optimist: “If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue.”

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents a compelling argument for the role of specialization and trade in enabling the evolution of technology and the remarkable increases in human prosperity. He demonstrates how vast improvements in living standards over the ages and across the globe can only be expected to continue, as long as commerce and innovation remain unrestricted.

Presenting the reader with a historical overview – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – of the state of technology, prosperity, morals, health, and the environment, The Rational Optimist shows how in every age innovation and technological progress resulted in finding solutions to problems that previous generations thought insurmountable, and in improving the quality of life of a great number of people along the way.

Remaining optimistic even about such tough issues as the future economic prosperity of African nations and the potential outcomes of climate change, Matt Ridley argues that slowing economic progress today in order to mitigate probable future harm would be detrimental to humanity’s prospects, and that letting innovation and economic growth take their course is the only means to ensure continuing decreases in human misery, famine and ecological degradation.

The Rational Optimist‘s narrative style is slightly more academic than is typical of many popular science books today, and dry rather than humorous. Matt Ridley presents his arguments persuasively, forcefully, often sternly. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating, stunningly insightful read, vitally relevant to an understanding of the dynamics of technological evolution and human prosperity, and I highly recommend it.

Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

Continue reading » » »

Fragments of books: Distrust That Particular Flavor

I usually prefer works of fiction to speak for themselves, without the need for behind-the-scenes commentary, the making of, or biographical information about the author. I never seek those things out and often actively avoid promotional material and reviews of those books that I know I will be reading anyway, so that someone else’s editorial commentary doesn’t get too much in the way of my own first impressions.

I guess that’s how I managed to read all of William Gibson‘s novels and short story collections without ever seeing an interview with him. I knew about his role in founding the cyberpunk genre from the university Sci Fi course that first introduced me to Neuromancer. After reading that novel, I didn’t really need to know anything else about the author because I was hooked on the fiction. It is excellent and smart and techy, with an elusive undercurrent of the arcane cutting edge.

Cover of Distrust That Particular FlavorWhen Gibson’s first non-fiction collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor, came out in January, I went to see him speak about the book as part of Toronto Public Library author talks & lectures and found that the man behind the fiction was even cooler than his cyberpunk heroes. Speaking slowly, with a calm assurance and intense intelligence, he was engaged with the audience, often funny and, perhaps by contrast with a buffoonish interviewer, seemed … regal.

Most of the nonfiction pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor make the same impression their author does – they are utterly captivating. Written over the last two decades for publications such as Wired, The New York Times and The Guardian, the articles range from book and album reviews to observations of Japan, Singapore and the film industry, impressions of a pre-Google internet and details of Gibson’s own obsession with eBay, which started his antique watch collection. One of the most engaging pieces in the volume is the introduction, which details Gibson’s discomfort with writing non-fiction. Despite feeling out of his element, he pulls off nonfiction rather brilliantly.

Continue reading » » »