Thursday, July 2, 2009

Recent Reading

Lisa Scottoline's newest, Look Again, has a terrific hook: A single mother sees a flyer about a missing child who bears an astonishing resemblance to her adopted son. Being a reporter, mom can't keep her curiosity down but can investigate. Along the way, at an excruciatingly inappropriate time (p. 242 if I remember correctly) mom does the deed with her editor, instead of sharing vital information, a laugh out loud moment that brings the thriller momentum to a dead halt. Letting the fish off the (thriller) hook is not good.

The mystery itself depends upon a truly senseless determination by the villain that killing everyone is exactly what he needs to be safe, instead of returning the boy for more money. Since the natural mother is a gambling slut (not to worry, God aka the author punishes her,) she has a lot to lose if he is returned. It is a really weird plot when you realize that he cared enough for his other girl friend to keep the boy for her, but had no qualms about killing her when the plot required it!

There is a great deal of sentimentality about motherhood, most appropriate to a character who would make a single parent adoption. That text is somewhat tiring reading. The subtext about fatherhood is considerably edgier. The heroine mom discovers a letter from her late mother to her father. Given an unconvincing sentimental resolution with her own father, the multiple killer father of the adoptive son and the philandering putative father of the boy the book seems inadvertently to be an artless fantasy. Daddy issues are floating about, propelling the plot in strange directions while attaching to story elements and giving them a weight that sinks them instead of adding to their impact. A conspicuous lapse in characterization of the key character, the reporter mom, is her indifference to the question of the editor's attitude towards the boy. He's a sexy Brazilian (editor of a Philadelphia paper? You don't have to have elves for it to be a fantasy, do you?) Basically he's rejected as a father. Yet somehow reporter mom has him and her son. Wishful thinking, anyone?

Scottoline's previous strengths have been a genuine empathy for the difficulties of career women and a genuine knowledge of the law (her original field.) Her authorial voice has been extremely inhibited. The irruption of such unconscious aggressions is surprising. It may be that her success (she's parlayed novels into a newspaper column as well,) is leading her to put herself into her books more. The difficulty is that this is very hard to do with artistic control. My guess she must become more self conscious, instead of expansive, more artful, instead of natural.

Jonathan Kellerman's True Detectives deemphasizes his old team of child psychologist Alex Delaware and gay police detective Milo Sturgis. They make appearances, as well as police detective Petra Connor, another effort by Kellerman to get away from a series detective. This is understandable. Although series detectives sell better, so much so that mystery fans often refer to a stand alone novel as a "singleton," the series stories are almost invariably inferior. Usually the first (often the origin story,) is the best. Occasionally there is an archvillain captured or a big case lost or true love found that makes another novel in the series much better. But perhaps I should stop reading past the first novels?

This would be a good example. The titular characters are two half-brothers, a mixed race private detective and a white police detective. Their fathers were a black/white team of patrol cops. These characters were introduced in the last Delaware novel. The sibling rivalry and marked personality contrasts between the brothers were explored then. Nothing interesting has been added, especially not some weird caricature mommy monster who's supposed to explain the Odd Brothers. They were best in their first appearance. This series is already going down hill.

As all the characters traipse around, they exercise what has become the signature Kellerman judgmentalism. Over the years, Kellerman's fiction has been marked more and more by a vicious aggressiveness. Delaware's superior sensitivity of course has become greater and greater, especially shown by his wonderful taste. There has been much ink about his lifestyle, which does not strike me as that of a child psychologist. A flattering portrait of a novelist's? Somebody with money.

Kellerman hasn't had good luck with Hollywood adaptations, so The Industry has taken its licks, along with poor people in general. (Let me be fair, Kellerman has always spent a lot of time trying to establish what respectable poor people are like. Usually, that means not smelling bad, but at least he's trying.) Mel Gibson and Michael Moore are blended together (Kellerman seems to be a right wing Zionist. His wife's mystery series is unspeakably tawdry,) to form a wifebeating villain, who naturally is slain for his sins. A male actor is both anorexic and drug addicted and is part of a murder. The good guy characters of course ritually abuse the Hollywood figures as spoiled. Kellerman even has one character think of anorexia as a rich man's disease!

Considering that he also condemns the Moore/Gibson blend for "class warfare" documentaries, it is obvious that Kellerman's natural viciousness is escaping onto the page. Since he came from child psychology (for a long time, his shtick was Alex Delaware hunting down child predators,) I think it far better he work out his aggressions on paper. Perhaps in person he's delightful. Best that he collect royalties than work with children for a living though.

Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is very much like John Ridley's There Will Be Darkness or Perry Moore's Hero in its manic effort to blend superhero tropes with supposed contemporary reality. Unlike them, it's hard to know what the point is. Ridley may not have known his book was a thoroughly convincing origin story for a supervillain (maybe he did, since he killed her off in the sequel,) but Grossman's supervillain narrator lacks all conviction. Grossman's superheroine narrator achieves, decides, learns? Precisely the problem. If the point was deconstructing the superhero myth, in superficial terms Alan Moore's Watchmen or Supreme has already done it better. And for true deconstruction, high school physics will do the job better. That's always been true. The only thing that sticks with me is how Grossman puts magic into his superhero universe but can't figure out any real role for it in the actual plot. His magic hero, Mr. Mystic, is barely on stage. The magical Macguffin simply becomes part of a machine to control the Earth's orbit.

Eric Brown's Necropath is another of the novels that finds the exotic past in the future. Chris Roberson discovered Qing dynasty China on Mars. Brown discovers Nineteenth Century India and Thai sex tourism on Bengal Station, a giant spaceport in the Indian Ocean. Such nonsense as a doctor performing amputations on street kids so they can be successful beggars may be sensational but it severely stresses the willing suspension of disbelief.

The hero is a telepath. The reader is expected to remember the pseudoscience for this by himself. The point here, is that the hero, Vaughan (I'm impressed I can remember!) is a suffering hero. His cross to bear is exposure to the filthiness of the human soul. Very trendy stuff, this. Always nice to see a writer with a firm grasp on the approved cliches.

There are a couple of exceptions, two girl orphans, sisters, with pure souls, despite being Thai child prostitutes. One of course dies, so that the hero suffers intensely her loss. The other of course saves Vaughan from his mortal enemy. There is an undercurrent of sexual attraction for children that is a little disquieting. It is blended with Vaughan's profession as a telepath who can read dying minds, which adds an undercurrent of necrophilia which is also a little disquieting. Of course all this may be artifacts of a general disposition to think that sex is bad and sexlessness (i.e., children and dead people) are therefore purer. Really it is better if the writer has conscious control of his material.

There's also something about an alien monster who emits drugs that bring people to feed themselves to it in search of cosmic unity. Questions about the nutritional value of human flesh are not embarrassed by answers. The hero somehow has a telepathic conversation with it. Naturally he expresses moral disapproval of the need to eat. It's all rather boring. Which makes one wonder why exactly he is praised by the blurbs for bringing the fun back to science fiction. Unless you think that shameless acceptance of bad science is fun?

The Unknown Universe
This science popularization by Richard Hammond of open questions is mostly repetitive to those who follow popularizations. But I do want to note his discussion of the renormalization problem. His explanation that in quantum mechanics, using the mass of the electron by itself, leads to infinities. But using the mass of the electron plus the mass contribution of virtual electrons, leads to more infinities that cancel out the other infinities leads to the natural question: Isn't the fundamental entity the whole wave of virtual electrons? In what sense is there a "real" electron, except that conservation of energy and momentum means that interactions between waves of virtual electrons must take the form of a single electron? (Obviously, you can substitute any elementary particle for "electron.")

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