June 28, 2014

Book 15: Amped

Daniel H. Wilson

Despite being somewhat disappointed in Robopocalypse, I decided to give Daniel H. Wilson's novel Amped a chance, as the premise seemed solid and the narrative structure more straightforward than in the previous novel. And indeed, Amped does have a blockbuster premise, delivered with Wilson's obvious knowledge and enthusiasm: what happens when people can get brain implants to control certain medical conditions, and how does our attitude change when those same implants directly impact intellectual abilities? At first, it seems as though Amped will engage these topics in a meaningful way, given the narrator's first-hand experiences with these brain-enhancing "amps" and the inclusion of invented primary source materials (such as excerpts from Supreme Court decisions, legislation, and speeches); unfortunately, however, it all starts to come apart with Wilson's inability to effectively juggle thriller-paced plotlines with his intended level of introspection. Readers are left with a book that sits uncomfortably between genres: never quite thrilling, but not consistently philosophical enough to be particularly intellectually engaging. This is a shame; the first chapters are engrossing and, though they employ some stereotypical clich├ęs, there is enough inherent promise in the premise to encourage readers along. After all, there's no need to reinvent the wheel in every novel.

As the book proceeds, however, it loses sight of its philosophical implications and becomes disjointed in an apparent attempt to become more action-oriented. Never mind that Wilson, whose narrator is wonderfully aware of ethical ambiguity early on, drops a bombshell that, while not unexpected, is never really engaged philosophically. This creates a kind of abrupt shift in tone and expectations; rather than a thoughtful exploration of what makes humans, well, human, the novel is reduced to the level of a brainless shooter. What's worse, Wilson maintains the pretension of philosophical engagement throughout the book, making the narrator's occasional intellectual curiosity seem at odds his actions (and, indeed, the story he's in) and creating a book that's seemingly at war with itself. Thus, while the faux-historical documentation seemed like an effective way to deal with necessary and enriching exposition between the first few chapters, it serves only to break up clumsy, unresolved cliffhangers later in the book. Far too often, readers leave a chapter with the hero dangling metaphorically on the ledge of destruction, only to discover a dry (but usually passable enough) imitation of a news report on the opposing page, dispelling any suspense. To compound his sins, Wilson often fails to adequately return to the scene of the action; most of the later chapters' cliffhangers are resolved off-screen, so to speak, resulting in a thriller that isn't thrilling at its climax and a philosophical science fiction novel that refuses to deal with the most interesting implications of its central technology. In the end, despite a strong premise, an encouraging start, and a few moments of promise, Amped falls flat and is ultimately disappointing.

Grade: B-

June 21, 2014

Book 14: Agents of Treachery

Agents of Treachery
Edited by Otto Penzler

With a sort of hectic work schedule (this is my 16th-straight day at one of my two jobs), I figured that a short story collection would be a wise selection for my next book. I was immediately attracted to Agents of Treachery because of my fondness for spy stories and my present reluctance to get involved with lengthy, ongoing series; I have always enjoyed the few espionage stories that crop up in the Best American Mystery Stories volumes from time to time, and I figured that an entire collection of high stakes escapism would be right up my alley. Happily, I was entirely correct. Though shades of Charles McCarry's "The End of the String" and James Grady's "Destiny City" (both absolutely excellent) were familiar to me because I had read the corresponding Best American volume, I enjoyed being drawn into these worlds again, particularly in the latter story, and found them just as suspenseful as upon first reading. There is, in fact, only one total dud in the book, Lee Child's "Section 7(A) (Operational)," which is filled to the brim throughout until an absolutely awful failed attempt at a gotcha ending- if that's even what it is.

Child's clumsiness is highlighted by those stories that successfully pull off the kind of plot twists and surprise revelations that make the best spy fiction work, even when they're a bit obvious, and many of the stories have pitch-perfect finales that made me want to immediately re-read them. Chief among these are James Finder's "Neighbors," a humorous take on modern paranoia, and "Father's Day," which offers a devastating glimpse of  the War on Terror. Likewise, Olen Steinhauer's "You Know What's Going On is a standout for its parallel narrative structure that proves, yet again, that oft-maligned "genre" fiction deserves far more credit than it gets and that good literature can be innovative, emotionally resonant, and, you know, entertaining. "The Interrogator" is an excellent example of this kind of self-aware fiction, using suspenseful story elements, a familiar genre setting, and a suitably ambiguous ending to form a moral exploration of interrogation methods. Many of the authors use more cloak and less dagger, but there stories are only the better for it, expertly balancing the fun of escapism with the moral ambiguity of the postmodern world. All told, editor Otto Penzler's all-star lineup exceeds all expectations, and Agents of Treachery offers an enchanting variety of spies, settings, and stories sure to please most readers.

Grade: A

June 5, 2014

Book 13: The First Tycoon

The First Tycoon: the Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
T. J. Stiles

Even though I've spent much of the past four years significantly immersed in 19th-century U.S. history, I realized upon picking up The First Tycoon that I knew very little about Cornelius Vanderbilt beyond a vague sense that he was one of the country's most successful robber barons. According to the pleasantly enlightening biographical note that T. J. Stiles appends to his meticulously researched biography of the transportation titan, this is partially due to the fact that Vanderbilt receives surprisingly little academic attention, especially relative to the class of magnates (the household names Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan come to mind) that followed in his wake. Despite the fact that Vanderbilt has seemingly become merely an historical footnote, Stiles effectively utilizes the facts of Vanderbilt's life to highlight the sweeping economic and social changes that his subject experienced and influenced throughout his lengthy tenure as a steamship and railroad executive.

Indeed, if there is a primary complaint to be made about the book, it is that Stiles focuses almost exclusively on Vanderbilt's extensive economic endeavors, often ignoring his personal life or interrupting otherwise compelling narratives of personal feuds, corporate takeovers, and civil wars (not just ours) with non-sequitur anecdotes. Though Stiles attempts to relate these brief notes into relevant points of the greater narrative (and makes it quite clear that there exists little evidence of the man's personal life and private relationships), they often seem a bit ham-fisted; there surely could have been a more effective way of integrating them into the larger portrait of Vanderbilt. Likewise, Stiles seems fond of dropping foreshadowing hints before brief and long breaks alike, making it sometimes difficult to follow the thread of a particular story or business relationship across several chapters. His adherence to chronology does, however, give the book crucial momentum despite the inherent difficulties Stiles faces in relating stories that are strikingly similar to one another and that rely heavily on complex financial maneuvers that are almost certainly foreign to the bulk of his readership. This momentum, along with the author's consistent focus on his subject's forceful personality, make the book a strikingly readable account of business history that rarely becomes boring even to the uninitiated (such as myself).

The book's economic approach to Vanderbilt's life, though obviously warranted, necessitates frequent explanations and asides regarding the rapidly changing economic and political context of his times. Stiles handles these admirably, and the book is as enlightening for its insights into the world of 19th-century social customs and financial systems as it is for its retellings of Vanderbilt's various professional achievements. He clearly had a general audience in mind while writing the book, yet he strikes the right balance between explaining the obvious and becoming mired in tedious (and unnecessary) details. Some of the intricacies involved in stock maneuvers continue to elude my understanding in spite of his best efforts, but given my personal history with attempts to understand the period's economic theory I'm not sure it's quite fair to blame Stiles for that; in fact, he should be lauded for his success in making some of this stuff actually make sense to my notoriously business-averse mind. Those familiar with the era's politics will recognize and appreciate the ways in which Jacksonian laissez faire radicalism gradually became more stringent Democratic conservatism over the course of Vanderbilt's considerably influential career, and Stiles includes plenty of relevant context for those approaching the era decades after their high school history classes.

All told, Stiles has put together a compelling academic study of a man and his contemporary context that is far from dry, despite relying on the intricate economics of business deals for many of its most potent plot points. Somehow, in his hands the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt is continually compelling, both a vivid portrait of the man and a reasonably nonpartisan exploration of the monumental economic, political, and social changes he saw- and significantly contributed to- throughout his lifetime. The First Tycoon is a well-written, unapologetically academic, and appealing history, representing an admirable (and largely successful) attempt to understand the seemingly inextricable history of both Cornelius Vanderbilt and the economic climate of the 19th-century United States.

Grade: A-