Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute

When I bought my bike last August and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks. No music, no podcasts, no waves crashing. Not even the profound genius of my own inner monologue. Nothing else would be authorized in this newly conceived and newly sacred venue. I signed-up with Overdrive through my county library and cross-referenced their catalogue with a list of books I compiled from trolling blogs with postings like, "The 50 Greatest Science Fiction Books Ever Written!" or, "The 10 Science Fiction Books Everyone Should be Reading!" I didn't go into this venture a complete sci-fi rookie. I've read the first four Ender books, the Zahn Star Wars books, the first four Foundation books, Dune...and that's about it. Got my new bike, my new helmet, and my stylish blue milk crate ziptied to the back fender rack. Off we go, minor spoilers ahead!

Phase 1: My Ass Hurts All the Time

The Book: Compelling mystery, cool science, cheesy dialogue, gratuitous sex, and a balls-out alien invasion. Perfect place to start. The title gives a lot away, a la Return of the King, but even knowing what's going to happen doesn't stop me from appreciating how it happens. I particularly love the chapters told from the Prime's point-of-view, the origin story of MorningLightMountain and the "interrogation" of Dudley and his companion (Those aren't his sensor stalks!). The book is read by John Lee, who has his hands full managing a sprawling cast, and some dubious technobabble. He's pretty great, and I'm not sure if I enjoy this book so much because of the great story, or just because it's nice to have an old English guy in your head for a couple hours a day. 

The Ride: I'm fortunate that most of my route is on a bike path along the beach. I also pass a major airport, where huge planes land and take off just above my head. This never gets old, but I can't seem to watch a plane fly out over the ocean without also imagining it exploding. I also pass an RV campground that smells awful every morning. I wonder what these people are eating. I wonder how any of them can even sleep. I'm serious. The smell is inexplicably thick in the air. In my mind I associate it all somehow with RV culture.

The Confluence: I discover very early on that the story, the narrator, the bike route, and the physicality of riding, all coalesce into this wonderful nebulous sensation. It's transportive and surreal, and even gives me a bit of swagger, as if I know things and have been places of great importance.

Phase 2: Just How Many Hot Cheetos Are We Going to Eat?

The Book: Really just a continuation of Pandora's Star. Still not sure which character is supposed to be Judas. Doesn't matter. I don't enjoy this one as much. The long, long chase scenes can be hard to picture, and certain intensely foreshadowed events don't really amaze when they actually happen. I want more scenes with the Bose Motile. And the whole genocide-is-wrong argument seems ridiculous, considering who the Primes are. And the absurd escalation of weaponry sounds a lot like a battle between Gillette and Schick. But really I love the story. I do. And Hamilton has to be credited for the richness of his imagination.

The Ride: Friday mornings and Monday mornings on the bike path are depressing. The amount of trash left from Thursday night bonfires and weekend parties is shocking. I know some of it gets pulled out of garbage cans by seagulls, but most of it is scattered by humans. It takes an army of tractors pulling sifters, and guys cruising around with trash pokers to get the beach area all clean again. This usually happens by Thursday morning, just in time for it to get re-trashed. Frito Lay has to take some responsibility here. I'm not kidding. I'd say 99.8% of the trash is Doritos and Cheetos bags. The remaining 0.2% is a mix of Solo cups, diapers, exploded firecrackers, and Capri Sun straws. Thank goodness I watch busloads of convicts in reflective vests pull into the various beach parking lots as I go by in the morning. Presumably they pick up trash too.

The Confluence: Geographically, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained take place across many worlds scattered throughout our galaxy. The setting of the story covers an absurd amount of real estate. And the author is British. So imagine my surprise when a Starflyer agent escapes the authorities by diving into the exact marina I AM RIDING MY BIKE PAST AS I'M LISTENING and then disappears down a canal THAT IS ACROSS THE STREET FROM WHERE I WORK!

Phase 3: I Owe the RV Campers and Men in Reflective Vests an Apology

The Book: I welcome the whimsy of Niven's story and Grover Gardner's brilliant narration, especially after the brutally deadpan and humorless Commonwealth books. I'm already realizing a huge peril (or delight) about audiobooks, which is that the narrator's voice becomes an essential element of the story. The reader sets the tone in ways the author may not have intended. So some of the purity of the reading experience is lost. But then again, if the reader is good at his job, and the tone is effective, where's the foul? That's one of the reasons I think I chose science fiction for this project. Though many of the books are great, I don't consider them sacred literary cows. I mean, look at that picture of Nessus above.  This isn't Cormac McCarthy we're dealing with. Much of the Ringworld experience is about real science, imagining the actual structure, how it functions as a physical object. I spend a lot of time thinking about gravity and light spectrums and atmospheric density. This element of the book contrasts perfectly with the absurd characterizations, the floating buildings, and the actual ridiculous plot.

The Ride: Okay, this is embarrassing. You know the busloads of guys in reflective vests I assumed were convicts coming to clean up the beach? Well...turns out they're not convicts. And their job isn't to clean up the beach. In fact, they're employees who work at a local power plant along my route. There's not enough on-site parking, and since the beach lots are mostly empty during the week, they have permits and are shuttled to work. Not only was I wrong, I might have also been a tad racist. And I was wrong about another thing too. You know those good folks and their RV culture, the ones I accused of stinking up the beach with their fried-Snickers farts? Well...turns out there's an enormous sewage treatment plant about a hundred yards from the campground. These poor folks are victims! In fact, as a local resident, I may very well be partly responsible for stinking up their good time.

The Confluence: Humans are lucky. We exist and thrive in spite of ourselves. This is what I like most from Ringworld. Riding along the beach in the morning, there's sometimes a sunrise, a planet, or a moonset. I even saw a shooting star once. There's a very real sensation that I live on a rock in space. I watch the planes take off and land and think about how goddamn precise they need to be. I think about how my bike doesn't tip over as long as I have momentum, how there are physical laws, and within those laws, biological laws, and how it's somehow all tuned so perfectly for our survival. There really might not be anyone else out there. That's how lucky we are.

Phase 4: What Is It About Traveling On Two Wheels That Turns People into Such Assholes?

The Book: Back to earth. In every sense. If you're a writer who grew up in the seventies and eighties, with Atari and Star Wars and all that other stuff, then this book is just depressing. Because it's so good, so relentlessly entertaining. And so...obvious. Why didn't I write this? Well, because hidden underneath all the pandering madcap geek referencing is a very well crafted novel. It's not something just anyone could have done, and the fact that it feels so easy and effortless is just more proof that Ernest Cline deserves the millions he's making right now. Wil Weaton's narration is perfect. I'm three-for-three on that account so far. Maybe everything just sounds great when you're riding a bike. I don't know. I haven't devoured a book this compulsively, maybe ever. I'd say I've read better books, books that have stuck with me or even changed my life. But what's the real test? That look-the-fuck-out-ima-read-this-book! feeling isn't something you get with Faulkner.

The Ride: I'm already unclear about which type of motorcyclist is the bigger asshole, the Harley revving three-year-old trapped in a man's body, or the crotch-rocket psychopath who's going to get me killed on the freeway. Really, it's a toss-up. I hate them all. And now I've discovered a sub category of two-wheeled dickheads, the Alphatards. These are the guys in the Lycra bodysuits advertising oil companies and...the Post Office! And that's all fine I guess, and who am I to judge work-out fashions, except that they ride with a sense of entitlement, and a complete lack of joy, and they shine ridiculously high-powered headlights into my eyeballs, and yell at kids and beach goers, and RIDE WAY FASTER THAN I DO!

The Confluence: This is all pretty obvious, that riding a bike is really a child's game. Sure, it can serve a real purpose in the adult world, but when you're 38 years old and hop on a bike for the first time in a long time, you're immediately reminded of your childhood. You think back to your first bike, your first crash. And that's Ready Player One all the time, just a full surge beam of pure nostalgia. And it's not cheap or pandering or any less propulsive and real than the bike itself, which like a book, is a time machine, and a space machine.

Click here to read Part II


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