Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part IV

"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."

Phase 11: Of Ducklings and Pelican Shit

The Book: A great combination of sci-fi elements, classic literary themes, and Three's Company shenanigans. I love Miles' accidental competence and how the narrative seems to develop as a series of digressions. Bujold has quickly climbed up my list of favorite writers (based on this and more recently read non-Vorkosigan titles). She writes smooth and direct prose, great dialogue that always advances the plot, and revealing inner monologues that perfectly outline moral dilemmas and internal conflicts. And you can't talk about Miles Vorkosigan these days without mentioning Tyrion Lannister. I'm a huge fan of Martin's series, but this appropriation of character is highway robbery. Certainly both characters are archetypal and Shakespearean, but the parallels run too deep - the sense of humor, the physical deformities, and, of course, the acquisition of your own mercenary army to be hand delivered to your perpetually disappointed father.

The Ride: Ducklings and pelican shit. The extremes of nature, as far as what I've found on my ride. Seeing a mother and father duck, or goose, or whatever, swimming along with the little babies in a neat row between them, always seems a too perfect and fragile thing for this world. It's the kind of scene that arrests all other activity. Like even the wind stops blowing to watch these precious little families pass by. I watch it with a force-ten sense of dread because deep in my meconium heart I'm certain every one of those little ducklings will grow up a huge art school-attending disappointment. And then there's pelican shit, on the other end of the spectrum, very large puddles of it. Half-digested fish. Blood. White goop. I've never been the victim of a direct hit, as evidenced by the existence of this blog. Should that day ever come, I will pedal my bike into the crashing surf and never reemerge.

The Confluence: Of all the Big Themes found in this book, I was most interested in the way the journey kept getting in the way of the destination. It's not much of a stretch to see my own sci-fi bike commute as developing in a similar way. Initially conceived as a means to get from home to work and back again, while saving on gas and getting some exercise, the daily experience has replaced "My Job" as the most direct link I have to the outside world. I see nature and humanity, the sky and space, tides moons and very fat wet people. I see familiar faces, some who wave, and some who look at me, every single day, like I am a raving lunatic. I see the planes take off and land, the little faces behind the windows, journeying in and out of control. It's so much more than mere transportation, this bike ride. And the audiobooks, the narrative soundtracks, filter it all through some crazy impossible world of tomorrow.

Phase 12:  Dogs Who Carry Their Own Leashes

The Book: First of all, why would anyone write a book without the Shrike in it? Sometimes subtlety and nuance in writing is overrated. Why not just create the scariest fucking creature you can think of and put him on the cover of your book? Make him all powerful, all seeing, all knowing. Make him cruel. Make him a god. Make him want nothing less than the sacrifice of your only child. Why not? I was initially hesitant when the structure of the novel became clear - pilgrims each telling their own story. I generally don't like books with narrative gimmickry. But in finding each story as fascinating as the one that came before it, I started to appreciate how the storytelling structure allowed for some complex world-building. So much of what happens in this story seems absurd, even by sci-fi standards, that you have to admire Simmons for seeing it all through. I mean, a top secret project to recreate cybrid human personalities based on 19th century poets? It does seem a tad self-indulgent, but okay. And, of course, it all works perfectly. The literary and artistic foundations of the story allow for metaphysical romping and the ultimate inclusion of some great poetry.

The Ride: The most interesting thing I've seen on my bike commute so far has to be this young family I pass almost every morning. There are seven of them, mom and dad, and five children all under the age of twelve. They each ride a bike that pulls a long, wheeled sled. Sometimes the sleds are piled high with collected cans and bottles. Sometimes they are piled with surfboards. All the little girls are dressed in adorable pink. The boys in blue. The family rides in silence and the children offer perfect obedience. I don't know anything about them, but I've thought about this family plenty. Is it possible they are completely off The Grid? A family of seven? Is it possible the cans they collect are enough to pay the rent on an RV parked someplace nearby? Is that all they do, ride around and surf and collect cans? There's probably some intense home schooling going on as well. I want that to be the whole story. I'm rooting so hard for this family. You just don't see parents blazing their own trail like this anymore.

The Confluence: You remember the foul-smelling sewage treatment plant I mentioned back in Part 1 of the Sci-Fi Bike Commute, the one whose stench I blamed on people staying in the campground? Well, it's called the HYPERION Treatment Plant! Wow. How do you name a sewage treatment plant after a mythological Titan? What's the connection? It certainly smells like the toilet of the gods, but I doubt that was mentioned at the pitch meeting.

Phase 13: Wipeout!

The Book: I've been surprised throughout this sci-fi bike commute project to see what a large role religion plays in almost every story I've "read". I would have expected these techno-futures to have dismissed spirituality as an archaic vestige of a primitive humanity. And while religious characters are often presented as single-minded fringe kooks standing in the way of real progress, their presence is acknowledgment of the idea that humans will always seek God, even in a universe with skip drives, farcasters, and DR devices. In this excellent sequel, Simmons takes the future of religion and spirituality and puts it on center stage and smushes it right in your face and rubs it all around. He doesn't simply borrow ideas from our current religious model (martyrdom, extremism, poly vs. mono-theism), he imagines a wild (and deeply confounding) new theology. He digs deep, surrounds himself with some seriously absurd and ambitious notions, and does not let go. It's a bit of a bait-and-switch from the first novel, which is a much more straight-forward sci-fi tale.  In this story, plausibility takes a back seat to speculation about what God looks like on a universal scale. I love it.

The Ride: Dread is the fear of the inevitable. It's been there since I bought this new bike. There is simply no way you can ride 100 or so miles a week and not eventually have a big wipeout. So I knew it was coming. But when? How hard? What pain and where? Naturally, it did not come when I expected it would - traversing a pile of sand with too much speed, or getting clipped by a garbage truck. Which is not to say the story is surprising...I stopped at a friend's house during my return trip home, drank just three little shots of Jamison, sampled a few strong Belgian ales, and ate a handful of peanuts for dinner. Then I switched on my headlamp and started pedaling...presumably. Cut to me on the floor of my bathroom doing the double-step concussion/booze puke thing. Fade out. Cut to me waking up with shooting pains in my ribs and thanking God I didn't...lose my phone! Shame and dread is the ham sandwich of the underworld.

The Confluence: Like Hyperion, I fell. Can I leave it at that?

Comments appreciated!

Click here for Part V of The Sci-Fi Bike Commute...I break my own rules! The Sci-Fi Bike Commute becomes the Gothic Fantasy-of-Manners Bike Commute for an all-Gormenghast edition!


  1. Wow thanks I didn't know there WAS a sequel to Hyperion!
    For riding, commuting and otherwise I usually try to find the longest books I can. Have you tried Alistair Reynolds of Peter F. Hamilton? Both have some superb foot-smashers out as audiobooks.

  2. Thanks, I've read them both. Check out earlier posts of The Sci-Fi Bike Commute. I write about Pandora's Star, Judas, The Voids, etc...and Revelation Space.

  3. "Serious" literature can also be imbibed biking. Try "War And Peace". Seriously. The audio book is +60 hours it will keep you busy for a long time. Get the version narrated by Frederick something or something Frederick I forget which but he's great. I'm finishing "The Recognitions" by William Gaddis it's fantastic not that I've exactly followed it but you don't have to really it's that sort of book.

  4. This sci-fi is new to me. Like you suggest, classic lit is great too. Recently I listened to The Idiot. Some of my favorites are The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Don't listen to the end of The Road in public! Also I love the Librevox Shakespeare stuff.