The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan | Book Review

TBoGEAuthor: Greg Egan

Illustrator: David Ho

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Published: October 2019

Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Pages: 736

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“The wormhole makes tangible the most basic truths of existence. You cannot see the future. You cannot change the past. All of life consists of running into darkness. This is why I’m here.”

     – Greg Egan, “Into Darkness” in The Best of Greg Egan

Science fiction fans will be happy to note that there is no such thing as “the best.” This is the appropriate irony of this collection, as it unwittingly, clumsily, and carefully challenges the idea of an idea of an idea into infinity and beyond any foreseeable, preventable, diagnosable end. Time, existentialism, number theory, artificial intelligence, naturalism, simulated reality, metaphysics, human consciousness, religion (consistently battered, bruised, and bullied into a biased, likeable unlikelihood), quantum mechanics, and the existence of frontiers without the capability of definition, except through jerry-rigged laws and yet-to-be-believed theories in their place and paces, make up these thirty years of hard science fiction. Between the seasoned fact-checkers and mathematical zealots to the lighthearted space opera goers and speculative enthusiasts, there stands a haughty anomalist who comes from the nineteen-nineties (it would be criminal and oxymoronic to call him an Australian science fiction writer at this point) Greg Egan who has a hunch for what his best (so far) is, and what a hunchback he has (or not, since keeping up appearances is not his thing, and neither is Google).

From Subterranean Press, The Best of Greg Egan collects cybernetic think pieces with remarkable haptic situations. His depth of field is diverse and perverse, foreboding and familiar, experimental yet elastic. Although these stories manage a clarity that confounds itself as it grows more curious, a lot is still to be questioned despite the seeming disconnects threaded and plot holes filled. Characters are painfully aware and disturbingly made unaware of their second class citizenship and the capitalist and commercialist gains forced onto them in stories like “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer.” The willful ignorance and digital dire straits following the forgone autonomy for transhumanist robot bodies and plastic replicas, the literal turning over of the human brain and body to technology is all cause for concern, but never in time to admit the mindless reliance placed on these drawn-and-quartered alternatives. Before any digital dust kicks up, there are some novella-length companion pieces that bid for the noninvasive engineering of the human spirit. “Oracle” and “Singleton” share a skewed timeline between worlds not too foreign from one another that both raise the question posed by Alan Turing of whether or not a computer can think. That and if a computer can impersonate human behavior, social cues, and desires that may or may not be able to alter the visible and invisible universe, like in transcendental and nature-bending tales, “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” and “Chaff” or “Luminous” and “Dark Integers.”

A few one-off stories also hold their own merit in this short story collection, bringing a singular, personal lens to the unnatural made natural. From a man’s brain being kept alive via blood from his wife’s uterine walls to the cultish outbreak of a dermatological disease worse than leprosy that burns the underside of the entire body’s skin, to the acts of faith put to work for an ocean-cultured boy placed on dry land and a chemical engineer and Iranian, Muslim girl inventing a breakthrough her country never knew it could have, it is etymologically more than possible Egan is a lionized substrate of a tin man made human rather the opposite way around. The guesswork is cleaned and polished yet still gets its nose gritted by the grindstone. The outlandishly unorthodox remedies to change the fallible into the infallible, the overwhelming indecision and limitations of physicality are these stories bread and butter or quarks and neutrinos. Whether he be man, machine, both, or none of the above, readers can be certain, and linguists can determine, that Egan is not without the remnant of a heart.

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Red/Blue Pill

Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents by Lise Funderburg | Book Review

Apple, Tree

Author: Lise Funderburg

Illustrator: Nathan Putens

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Published: September 2019

Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Memoir

Pages: 232

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“I suppose there’s a pleasure in that wistfulness too–in remembering the way something was and holding tight to what will also one day be a memory.”                     – Lauren Grodstein, “Around the Table” from Apple, Tree

Childhood is reverse parenting. Growing up takes on the responsibility of becoming, which is found in the adults who rear the child. Growing down however leads one to becoming what is else, what is more, what is unexpected. Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents by Lise Funderburg explores the adolescent trappings and developments of its contributors, starting from the root and out to the branch where gravity took a hold of them and plotted them in front of the parental gaze. Far pass Freudian theory, this collection on child rearing and family dynamics informs the writer’s life as something both undesirable and desirable as bath time. The dichotomous relationship of the apple (child) and the tree (parent) can be felt first in the bifurcation by the comma in the book’s title. Difference within or between family members is not always apparent, but as the tree holds the apple, the parent holds onto the child, until the child notices just how far out of reach the parent is and vice versa. The proverbial fall experienced by these collected writers attempts to find out if this transition into adulthood should be a rude awakening or a heedful reminder.

A running theme in Apple, Tree is the child who believes to possess large philosophies while the parents have small ones. It is not until they have aged that they realize it is the opposite. In some cases, these philosophies are challenged. Reading Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s piece, “Lies My Parents (Never But Maybe) Should’ve Told Me,” one finds the impossibly delicate veil that lies between humoring a white lie and the, sometimes, harrowing truth at the end of its punchline. In Avi Steinberg’s “Household Idols” and Donna Masini’s “What We Keep,” stories of heirlooms are rummaged for in what would be the unmistakable home of an accidental, sometimes purposeful, hoarder. Some authors here have struggled with identifying with their parents, sharing similar appearance (“Sisters” by Ann Patchett) or judgment (“One Man’s Poison” by Kyoko Mori). A chance to pervade rather than drown in the genetic pool still exists yet. From her story, “Unlived Lives,” Laura Miller writes that parents “can be the most familiar people in the world and total strangers; they have a dark side like the moon, that’s invisible to us as long as we remain locked in the fixed orbit of the parent-child bond” (87). Dissidence and denial delineates and loosely defines the duality a parent and child share. Daniel Mendelsohn’s mother has a neat-freak personality, for example, causing her to chase the life she could have had by keeping her house a spotless sheen in the hopes that time lost will return to her. It is behaviors like this, the need to meet perfection, that leave both the parent and child less than imperfect.

Funderburg mentions in her introduction that Apple, Tree is an exploration of “the space between the apple and the tree…” She also quotes John Freedman as saying that this exploration of family is a “love [that] is in clarity, not sentiment” (Funderburg xii). Perhaps there is no one answer to all the unanswered questions children may have for their parents. Parents too, may not know or have all the answers themselves until their children come up with better questions. The theory that the apple does not fall from the tree must have some truth in it. Maybe the answers present themselves only in practice? Here is one more attempt to answer a proverb with another: when the apple is ripe, it will fall.

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Green Rose

How Reading Fast Slows You Down

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On to the next book!

“It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well”

Writing a book and literary blog has me thinking if I will have time to read all the books I want. I know I still can but it requires enough time management to pull off. How will I ever balance the time I spend reading with the time I spend writing? Simple, just learn how to speed read. Speed-reading is a straightforward practice. By extending the landscape of your peripheral view and minimizing the information or “skimming” for the most important information written on a page, you are on your way to being a speed-read demon! Read again.

When you read this sentence, as a reader, you cannot predict the following sequence of the message being told without having to see and read each and every word. Are there certain phrases you can notice based on diction and punctuation that serve no other purpose but to be an aesthetic and transitory choice? Most certainly, but not every sentence is worth skimming. This is not new age flash fiction. One word makes all the difference to the meaning presented versus the one personally given. Of course, the point of speed-reading then becomes less about sensibility or memory and more about tangibility or information.

I thought I would be able to devote more time, and in effect more quality, to my writing if I could just get from cover to cover in the least amount of time possible. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, my writing suffered. Speed-reading restricts a complete understanding of a text by acknowledging only the information it provides and not the expression of it. What does reading mean for me if I am just flipping pages as fast as I would recite the alphabet?

Speed reading proves ineffectual if you intend on retaining and comprehending what you read. Otherwise, it is a remarkable feat to see how fast you can turn a page without receiving a paper cut. Your writing on a subject will be a reflection of how well you read that subject too. It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well. Friends of mine tell me how fast they read, some coming in at less than a few hours. I cannot help but wonder why they read so fast other than to get to their next book as soon as possible. Now I am not saying it is not possible to retain a story’s characters and events within such small amounts of time, but memory does not always end up being 20/20 hindsight.

To get through every page without skipping a word (and I do falter and have to back track to words, even sentences, I missed if I am not careful) is a challenge but it does not have to be. Why bother reading fast if the margin for error is higher than your comprehension? While it seems the only benefit speed-reading has is surveying the page for grammatical errors and typos, it is a potential malpractice we can correct. Instead of measuring the pages to minute scrutiny, find the right pace.

Pacing allows you to read at the speed where you will best comprehend a text. Staples tests how fast you can read with real pieces of literature and my results were 282 words per minute which is close to the average of 300 for adults. Staples’ test also shows you how long it would take you to read certain pieces of literature after the results. I do not know if the test is giving me the benefit of the doubt or adding insult to injury, because I do know it took me a month to digest the brick that is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and that was with devoted hours set aside every Thursday through Sunday.

My general rule of thumb tends to be lenient with a chapter or more for reading and a page or more for writing each hour. I do this with the same attitude as Anne Lamott’s “small assignments” from her book Bird by Bird. Lamott says to read and write in balanced and gradual amounts, enough to fill a “one-inch picture frame,” to avoid getting bogged down by the rest you have to read or have to write (17). A paragraph is much more manageable than a whole page, let alone an entire book.

I am satisfied with my pace and it may be slower than yours, but reading the fastest is not what is important. Reading to comprehend regardless of when you finish reading is. Challenge yourself, read something unfamiliar to you; I would not have thought twice about reading Bleak House given its intimidating length but I was better for knowing the difference between Lord Doodle and a Dandy (by the way, not so different).

Slow and steady is the approach I take and I may not win the race of time. What I do win is the pleasure and quality of reading long after having read.