Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute:Part VI

"When I bought my bike last August [2012] and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks." [edit: and some fantasy]

Phase 14: Really, wind? In my face both directions? And on a Monday!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Book: This was my first real detour into the lesser known (to me) depths of the fantasy genre. Mostly I've stuck to the well-known stuff, Tolkien and Martin. I've always had it in my head that everything in the genre is ultimately derivative of Tolkien anyway, so what would be the point of reading inferior versions of the same basic tale? This opinion was at first refuted by the fantastic Game of Thrones books, but then more recently confirmed when I read (okay, listened to) the first half of The Eye of the World, which was ridiculously (offensively! preposterously!) similar to The Fellowship of the Ring. But once again, the limits of the library’s Overdrive catalog left me with no choice but to try Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion. Which was fine. My experience with Gormenghast – which I don’t consider to be a fantasy series at all - has encouraged me to branch out a bit from my initial “sci-fi or die” constraints for this audiobook blog project. So, it turns out I love The Curse of Chalion, particularly the main character Caz and his steadfast humility, his dependability, and his unflappable goodness. I thought of this story as nice counterpoint to the Game of Thrones epic, which now seems like a post-modern take on the fantasy genre, the way it plays against every convention, with its lack of heroes, ambiguous morality, its justicelessness, its absence of Chivalry, and total disregard for such things as romance and happy endings. In light of this, The Curse of Chalion felt delightfully old-school. It’s small,  simple, occasionally brutal, often sweet, and you read it with a genuine sense that things will resolve themselves tidily. It focuses on wholesome things like gratitude and service. And it’s also very clean and chaste, which is surprisingly refreshing after experiencing Martin’s crude treatment of sex, or the way sci-fi writers like Peter F. Hamilton so often cram in unnecessarily graphic and painfully awkward depictions of futuristic humans getting it on. I liked the fact that the dirtiest thing there is in The Curse of Chalion is a passing reference to a concealed erection. This isn’t a book to change your life, or cause you to petition HBO to turn it into a mini-series, but it’s well-written, well-plotted, addictive and weird. And it raises the fundamental question we all ponder in our lives: what if the soul of your defeated mortal enemy took refuge in your gut, where it festered and raged like a depraved sentient cancer?

The Ride: I pass through many different municipal districts and jurisdictions on my bike commute. Each one is responsible for maintaining their own section of the bike path or road. Since I started riding to work much of my route has been rebuilt, repaved, repainted, or repaired. Frequent winds along the path bring sand and debris, which sits there until someone decides to send a crew out to move it. You can learn a lot about a town or a country by studying the quality of the bike path, and how it’s maintained after a big wind. I move from freshly applied black asphalt into a sea of dunes, then out again onto swept concrete, into fields of palm trunk husks, then onto more dunes, a gauntlet of broken glass and razor sharp mussel shells, over sections made bumpy by subterranean tree roots, onto slick new city streets. You learn the ups and downs, the grooves and bumps and little minefields. Most interesting of these obstacles are the sand dunes. Because the sand on the path is dry, most passing bikers fail to carve out a trench to the asphalt. Sand gets pushed back and forth, without a clear thoroughfare ever developing. So I’m pedaling along and there’s a mini-dune of indeterminate length on the path ahead, and I have to decide; do I take it slow and steady and risk losing momentum and steering, and end up dismounting or wiping out at an embarrassingly low speed, or do I pedal as hard as I can and hit the obstruction with the goal of forcing my will upon the sand, and risk losing steering and wiping out for real, with all the attendant consequences? Making the correct decision requires the evocation of a paradox that has confounded me since I was two years-old and put on my first pair of skis: the faster you go, the more control you have. It’s certainly counterintuitive, not to mention dangerous. But it’s interesting to expand this basic tenant of physics to the larger world, which is somehow more manageable, and you yourself become more functional and effective, if you accelerate into danger. If you slow down and try to micromanage a situation, you often flounder. It’s the old “pitch it, don’t aim it” scenario. Certain physical realities in our world seem to intentionally push us out of our comfort zones, into danger, where moments take on greater significance. Kids who are bored in school think inaction is the solution; they don’t want to be there so they do nothing. In reality, the cure for boredom is action. The kid who truly hates school should work at it, so time passes more quickly. The way out, is in. A nice side effect is all the learning that takes place while that student is just trying to beat the clock. It’s sort of all the same thing, isn't it? So I hit the dunes full speed and barrel through upright and unharmed, for now…

Phase 15: End of Daylight Savings = sunrise and sunset, five commutes a week 

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

The book: This is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion. But it doesn’t continue the events from the first book; rather, it tells a new story with a new protagonist. I was at first disappointed, because really loved Caz, the hero of the first book. Now, instead of a continuation of his story, I found myself forced to hear about Ista, some crazy lady who had a very minor role in the first book. I didn't enjoy this book as much, even though I eventually came to appreciate Ista every bit as much as I did Caz. What I didn't like was how much the story relied on its own universe’s somewhat abstract and arbitrary natural (and unnatural) laws. As a reader, you don’t know what is possible and what isn't. Therefore, when a problem arises, or a mystery develops, you can’t make assumptions or predictions because you don’t know what the rules of the game are. If a bunch of people get trapped in a castle and are slowly dying of starvation, you don’t know if someone might just summon up some food out of nowhere, or if a god will magically make everyone’s belly full, or if the enemy will be smitten down by some character’s discovery of a secret ability. Anything can happen, so there’s nothing clever about how problems are solved. Every time you think you understand the protagonists gifts, she suddenly has a conversation with a god and realizes she can do even more cool stuff than she thought she could.  That said, I still liked the book for many of the same reasons I liked its predecessor. The story telling is direct and economical. Everything that happens relates to the ultimate conclusion. There are no wasted moments or characters. Everything is neat and tidy. All the messes get cleaned up, everyone finds their intended mate, the bad guys are either vanquished or forgiven, and the gods can relax and go back to whatever it is they do when they’re not preoccupied with human fallibility. I don’t read very many books like this, with nary an ironic twist, a random act of depravity, or a character who doesn't get exactly what he or she deserves in the end. There’s a third book in the series, but I think I've had enough of this good clean fun. I need more nerded-out space sex and less magic.

The Ride: Whether it’s the start of a tough day at work, or the end of a long one, I often daydream about a less complicated and less stressful existence. I’ll do things like watch seagull standing on the beach as I ride my bike to work, and think, those guys don’t have to do anything today. They have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no performance reviews. No inane conversations. They just sit there or fly around. They eat from the bounty of the ocean (and the beach trash cans). And that’s it. A beautiful simple life. Of course any seagull would be happy to tell me it’s not all wine and roses. I get that. I also do the same thing with people, or specifically, with their occupations. During my ride to and from work I pass numerous people who are “on the job”, spending their work-hours engaged in far more satisfying, less stressful, activities than what I do. There are the physical trainers and yoga instructors, the lifeguards, the surf coaches, the garbage men, the delivery drivers, the road construction crews, etc. But there are two jobs in particular I observe with a genuine, somewhat absurd longing. First is the power washer. This is the guy with the wand that shoots pressurized water at the ground to remove dirt and grime and gum. I've used a power washer before on a job years ago, and I've used a similar device at a do-it-yourself car wash.  I find the whole experience to be aesthetically satisfying on some core level. In this case I really couldn't say if it’s just me, or if everyone gets a kick out of feeling the jolt of pressure shoot out at the ground, washing away the sins of the weekend, leaving glimmering virginal concrete. I could do it eight hours a day. Ten hours. Twelve. It could be some kind of Freudian hyper-ejaculatory fantasy. Or not. I don’t know. But it’s deep in there. When I see these guys I try to really look at them, to see if there’s evidence of a primal fulfillment. Usually there isn't. And not only do these guys  get to man the pressure hose all day long, they also get to wear these crazy big rubber boots. The other job I see during my ride, is the sand cleaner. This is the guy who drive a tractor across the beach, pulling some device that rakes and cleans the sand, leaving a smooth uniform surface that reminds me of fresh powder snow. The appeal of this job is similar to that of the power washer, with a lawn-mowing component I relate to as well, having worked as a landscaper for years. I love the way the tractor lays down a smooth clean line, and then lays down another on his next pass, right next to the previous one. And then another and another. I love the uniformity, the systematic approach. When he’s done the beach is all neat and tidy (I must be going through my neat and tidy phase). It’s litter-free, seaweed-free, even seagull poop –free. It’s all so damn satisfying. And the guy driving this tractor gets to spend his whole day at the beach, every day. It probably pays little more than  minimum wage, but in many ways it’s my dream job.

Phase 16: Cops punishing homeless guys by impounding their unlicensed dogs 

File:Evolutionary void cover uk.jpg

The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton

The Book: Back into space. Back home, actually, in many ways. Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga is the heart and soul of this sci-fi bike commute project. It’s where I began. And John Lee’s narration of this series has warmth and familiarity that lets me settle down into my ride and just enjoy everything. This, unfortunately, is the last book available in the series. I understand Hamilton is writing two more, but it will no-doubt be a few years until they are available as audio books, and even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll be available on Overdrive. I might be going back to Audible soon. In any event, The Evolutionary Void wraps up the Void Trilogy, a richly imagined space opera, full of clever ideas, fascinating technology, and just enough plausibility to keep the whole thing grounded. It’s hard to separate this book from the others. In fact, the whole Commonwealth Saga is really just one long book. I would echo the complaints of many of Hamilton’s readers and say the ending isn't quite as satisfying as I would have liked it to be. I think this is a function of the massive world building the author does, rather than a shortage of ideas. There’s simply too much going on for it all to just come neatly together at the end. Things get pretty abstract down the stretch and I’m not sure if you asked me to explain what happened, if I even could. A couple times in the series Hamilton has broken out of his normal narrative mode and experimented with different ways of delivering his story. The brief history of MorningLightMountain in Pandora’s Star, the Prime’s interrogation of Dudley Bose, and the battle scene in The Evolutionary Void where Aaron reverts to his default cybernetic survival mode, are all examples of non-traditional story telling that give the reader a more immediate understanding of character and point-of-view. I wish he did this sort of thing more. Something else I really liked about this whole Commonwealth Saga is the fact that it really doesn't ever present itself as a cautionary tale. I don’t know all that much about science-fiction writing, but it seems that older, “golden age” writers had a point. Like you get in Star Trek. This is what will happen if we do not evolve as a species. Hamilton’s works, like many contemporary sci-fi books I've read, are more interested in speculating about how technologies (immortality treatments and wormholes and that sort of thing) will drive the human narrative. It’s kind of a Darwinist approach. This is what humans do. We will always do it. We will evolve as a species only to the extent that it serves out own individual interests.

The  Ride: Speaking of technology, there is one truly amazing gift from the future, that allows me to fine tune the experience of riding to and from work, and allows me to alter reality based on my mood, my interests, and my responsibilities. I’m talking about Siri. I know Siri is useful in a number of different situations, but I think she’s most helpful to a bicyclist. I use her to send text messages and make calls, to change the music, to start and stop audio books, and take down notes. The fact that I can do all of this hands-free, while pedaling along is by far the most sci-fi thing I do all day. I mean, what’s more futuristic than talking to a computer and having it do what you want it to? Smartphone and microphone technology in general is pretty fantastic. I’m cruising along. “Call my wife,” I say. Suddenly my audio book stops, my wife is talking through my headphones. I talk without having to break stride or even adjust my head to direct sound into a microphone. We talk. I pedal along. We hang up. The audio book resumes. It’s crazy. I can ride my bike and speak into the air and communicate in real time with someone on the other side of the planet if I wanted to. My wife can put the phone up to my baby daughter’s mouth and I can hear her weird noise-making just like I’m in the room with her. We take some of these things for granted. The telephone itself is an incredible technology. But something about using Siri and a headphone mic to communicate, all while riding a bike on the beach is surreal. We live in incredible times. 

Click here to read part VII: The Sci-fi Bike Commute goes to Mars! 

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