Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The love lives of physicists

I'm about halfway through Richard Cox's novel The God Particle. That would be the Higgs Boson, for those that don't regularly read the New York Times's Science Times page. The Higgs is the particle that supposedly cements the Standard Model of quantum physics and possibly connects it to other parts of physics, like general relativity and string theory. "Finding Higgs," as the physicists in the book put it, would be an earth-shaking development.

For physicists, at least, and physics-loving geeks like me. Unfortunately, the actual process in the search involves combing through petabits of data coming out of an accelerator, looking for the random squiggle that might represent a "Higgs event," then refining the search by applying complex statistical models to eliminate noise and outliers. Not exactly page-turning material. Clearly this presents Cox with a challenge when he's trying to come up with interesting conflicts for the novel.

To a large degree he's chosen to overcome it by focusing the novel on his characters' sex lives, or, since they are after all physics geeks, frequently the lack of them. This allows him to have Mike McNair, the main protagonist and head of the accelerator that's searching for the Higgs, explain why the Higgs is so important in the process of hitting on Kelly, a Dallas news reporter who's his seatmate on an airplane. McNair has a problem; his boss is pushing to find the Higgs faster and is hinting that he might push Mike out and replace him with Amy, a hotshot he brought over from CERN. Then there's the problem of trying to control his old college friend and current network administrator Larry, an alcoholic stalker creep who keeps harassing the other women working at the laboratory. And somehow this story will at some point be connected with Steve, an auto parts executive who has been thrown out the window of a whorehouse in Germany, resulting in severe brain damage and hallucinations (or not?) that he can read people's minds and levitate.

Cox's characters' personalities are painted with a brush wide as a paint roller, but they are entertaining and believable enough. You really want things to work out for Mike, and for him and Kelly to get something going. Even the bad guys are all bad for self-consistent reasons, so when he tells things from their point of view you can see why they think their actions are justifiable.

For awhile, the search itself seems pretty secondary to the plot, but as it advances it becomes more and more central. Cox is trying to do something with the synthesis of science and faith, since Kelly is a sort of believer (well, a Unitarian, but it seems like you can talk them into about anything). But the conversations about this are the least interesting part of the book. Still, I'm engaged enough that I'm looking forward to finishing it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

At least I'm still reading

Haven't been writing, haven't been posting. But at least I'm still reading, thanks to the long train ride to the Bronx. So what have I been reading?

Graham Joyce - Limits of Enchantment
When I first saw this writer's books at Powell's my first thought was that with a name like that they probably don't even read your manuscript first, they just send it straight to the printer. But in this author's case, that would be the right move. This is his third book that I've read, the first two being Indigo and The Tooth Fairy. Each book deserves a complete post, but I'll focus on Limits for now.

This is the best book about witches I have ever seen. Joyce never uses the 'w' word except once in the book, and then it's used in reference to another character in its derogatory sense, as a substitute for 'bitch'. But it's clear immediately that that's what Mammy and her young apprentice Fern are. Mammy is also a midwife who gives abortions, which isn't so popular in late-60's England. The story is really about the coming-of-age, sexually and otherwise, of Fern. But it blends ancient forgotten mysticism perfectly into the description of a time when the whole country was turning upside down.

To put it simply, Joyce understands how to use magic in a story. He understands that magic isn't science by a different system, and it's not run by a set of rules you learn at Hogwarts. It's mysterious, it's unpredictable, it comes from someplace you'll never fully comprehend and it does things that you did not tell it to do. Sci-fi Diplomat has had some problems with fantasy, and I understand why. If he ever decides to re-involve himself in the commonwealth, this book might change his mind.

Ian M. Banks The Excession
This is most certainly one of the strangest and most inaccessible sci-fi books I've ever encountered. Not that the premise is all that difficult, when you get to it. Basically, a galaxy-spanning Stage Three civilization encounters a piece of extra-Universal technology (the "Excession") that makes even their kilometers-long sentient superluminal starships seem like horses and chariots by comparison, and sends a diplomat named Hofoen to find the stored personality of a starship captain who may have seen it before. Subplots include a conspiracy among sentient starships, a 40-year pregnancy, and a war with a thuglike race of sadists who may not be so bad after all. Banks brings all these together, in a box-checking kind of way, but not in the sort of mind-blowing "Oh, that's why he did that!" sort of way that you want when you've got a lot going on in a book.

Banks must have read that business-motivational book "First, Break All the Rules" before he wrote this one, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a better book. He has the worst case of POV-hopping going on in this book I've ever seen; there must be at least ten major perspectives, including sentient drones and super-sentient starships, and most of them are not really that interesting. He devotes almost no time at all to establishing the science behind his tech; he has starships hopping around at hundreds of thousands of times light speed with no more justification than hand-waving references to "hyperspace." (Take that mundanists!) He fills pages of early chapters with incomprehensible techno-babble whose meaning is only revealed chapters later.

In truth, a lot of that stuff wouldn't bother me that much, though how he got it past the editor I have no idea. What bothered me a lot more was that the central, plot-closing relationship of the book was not even established except through a dream sequence three-quarters of the way in. To be honest, if 'The Algebraist' hadn't been so brilliant, I wouldn't have forced my way through this one, so read that book if you want to start somewhere with Banks.

Steve Cash, The Meq

This book reminds me more than anything else of Interview with a Vampire, which remains a stellar novel if you can ignore the rotting horse of its premise that Anne Rice's next 87 books have flogged to death next to it. Like Interview it's about a near-immortal race, seperate from humanity yet connected to them. It stretches across many years of history, and is full of half-forgotten mysteries and discoveries.

The Meq are a magical race associated with the Basque who only grow to age 12, then stay that way. They can live for millenia, and only mature past adolescence when they meet their Ameq, or true love, at which time they can 'cross over' and age and die like normal people. Zianno, or Z as he likes to be called, is a Meq who only learns what he is when his mother and father die in a train wreck. Of course Z is not just any Meq; he is the long-awaited 'one' who can uncover the curses and mysteries of the Meq, all in the process of finding his own Ameq and defeating a perverted evil Meq assassin.

Like Rice's work, the book flirts with the conventions of romance novels. It's full of faraway ports of call, mysterious strangers hinting at forgotten knowledge, secrets from the ancient mists of time, and villains with luscious names like Corsair Bogy and Fleur-du-Mal. Cash did enough research to write a historical novel, inserting historical characters like Scott Joplin and T.S. Eliot in peripheral parts in the book.

The book has a few weaknesses. The biggest one is that it slips too easily into racial and nationalistic stereotypes for character-building. Solomon, a wise old German Jew who is Z's guide for an early part of the book, is also a money-counting merchant whose tag line is 'Zis is good business.' Later Solomon is protected by a Chinese man named Li, eternally loyal because - you guessed it - Li saved Solomon's life once and is bound by that old kung-fu movie cliche that only applies to character parts destined for early death. The Scottish guy is super-efficient and reliable, the Arabs are slavers trading in young white flesh, and so on. A more minor complaint is that the age the characters are stuck at, 12, is the beginning of sexuality for most people, but the Meq don't really seem to have any sexuality until they meet their Ameq, and even then it is sort of bolt-from-the-blue starry-eyed certainty rather than the messiness of actual early adolescence. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be, but if it is the kids aren't really 12, they're something else.

But if you can get around that, the book is engaging and fun and never gives you a break. Like Joyce, Cash also gets that magic is inexplicable and unpredictable, and he knows how to set up the plot dominoes and knock them down, an underrated skill that keeps me turning pages. I'm not done yet, but I am looking forward to my train ride tomorrow.