Growth, by A. J. Smith

This novel was really something special, definitely a new favorite and a book that I’ll be coming back to often in the future. It’s undeniably clever, darkly humorous, and highly self-aware. It’s cerebral and incredibly well written. It rewards the reader, and sends them down and through a rabbit hole of literature. I found myself torn between wanting to read it slowly, savoring the prose and unique deconstruction of language, and wanting to quickly arrive at the resolution because the story was so engaging. I ended up reading the first half over three or four days, and slamming the second half all in one sitting.

Growth’s main character Bburke is a relatively uneducated fellow, living a simple life, rooted in the present. His primary pursuits are his artistic passion toward landscaping, and consuming a comically large but sadly plausible quantity of cheap beer. He’s never learned how to properly probe the depths of his lack of self-awareness. Ambrose Bierce’s highly cynical early twentieth century lexical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, said it best when it defined Education as: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” The question is: To which camp does Bburke belong? Is he wise or foolish?

Sometimes blissful ignorance may be preferable to a better understanding, especially when that better understanding holds the power to make us painfully aware of the sad state of our affairs. Enter S.A. and Dickie T, Bburke’s “well-read” recently higher educated hired helpers at his landscaping company. Bburke is about to receive an education of sorts, whether he’d like to or not.

I loved the unique structure used to frame the story. Different literary forms and styles are stacked and layered, like a cake that at first glance has six layers, but on closer inspection actually contains three sublayers inside each macro one. Hopping from style to style kept things fresh, but throughout all of this was a taut narrative thread, tightly connecting events and creating a barreling momentum. The result was a highly engaging, fun, character based tale that never sacrificed quality prose or form in pursuit of being fun or engaging.

It’s safe to say this is a book written for book lovers. Those familiar with the works of Camus, David Foster Wallace, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and others will be pleasantly surprised. A lot of the main story revolved around the ways in which steeping oneself in literature can change a person, for better and worse. Reading a book is often said to be like having a conversation with the author, and Growth utilized a fun, postmodern take on that saying to illustrate the method in which Bburke internalizes what he reads. He is a non-traditional learner, and he reads in unconventional ways. Have I mentioned how fun this novel is yet? It’s very fun.

Growth actively comments on itself throughout. This is a living breathing thing. The narrator calls out obvious macguffins in the plot and marks future ones as such, the legitimacy of thin characters is called into question, and Bburke himself occasionally seems right on the cusp of realizing that he might exist only as a character in a novel. I’m a sucker for anything that continues in-line with that terrific Cervantes tradition.

The way that Dickie T and S.A.’s dialogue was handled is so perfect. They read like two halves of the same theoretical person, and their banter felt straight out of a DeLillo or DFW novel. Since they are the two characters who are readers, it seems most likely that S.A and Dickie T are familiar with those writers, wish they existed in their novels, and choose to speak as if they do. So much is revealed about them just through the form of their banter. Basically, they’ve read some books, and they think oh so highly of themselves for it. Writing their dialogue, and only their dialogue in this style shows fantastic restraint on Smith’s part. The form itself served the characters and story.

I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to the classics, but I could see Growth rewarding those who are. I wouldn’t say being well-read is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but I think there’s another layer of entertainment available to those who are. I think this works on many different levels for many different readers. Be forewarned though, it will instill in you a desire to revisit some classics, or maybe even approach them for the first time. There are definitely a few more books on my TBR because of this one.

I don’t want to say any more or comment on any vital story points, because I think this is probably best experienced with unspoiled eyes. Check it out, it’s fantastic.

Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith

A solid little collection of human stories. Clever themes, tight writing, and very vibrant three dimensional characters. Something to relate to in every story, with only one stinker in the bunch. Neil Smith is Canadian, so there was a little more french in it than I was prepared for. I should probably learn at least some basic French at some point. 3.5 stars averaged, rounded up because there are some killer ones in here.

Isolettes: 4/5
Sad, but very poetic and knowing. Love this guy’s writing.

Green Fluorescent Protein: 3/5
Coming of age, dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Being comfortable with yourself.

B9ers: 3/5
Clever and cute story about pushovers and correlation. One race based plot point fell flat for me near the end.

Bang Crunch: 5/5
Really reminded me of Ted Chiang’s writing. Good stuff.

Scrapbook: 3/5
Could’ve been terrific, but ultimately left me wanting something more from it. I’m not sure what, so that may just be my fault.

The Butterfly Box: 5/5
Damn, this was beautiful and real.

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Weird: 4/5
Alcoholism and dealing with loss. Excellent follow-up on a specific secondary character from Green Fluorescent Protein.

Extremities: 1/5
Just not a good story at all. It felt more like a creative writing exercise on weird POVs.

Jaybird: 5/5
Thespian life has always seemed for the crazies. I went back and forth between loving and hating this one as I read it, ultimately I settled on loving it. Revenge against a crazy industry, and life working better when you accept who you are and work with it instead of against it.

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This is my first Alastair Reynolds standalone novel. Having previously absorbed everything remotely related to his Revelation Space series over the last few years, I wanted to dip my toes into some of his one-off writing before digging into his newer series work. For some reason this book has been out of print in the US for a few years, making a physical copy a little tedious to come by, but I did eventually find one. Come on ACE, it’s time for a reprint!

Coming from the RS camp, I was surprised with the linearity of this story. The whole thing is written in first person, with two main point of view characters in alternating chapters. Every 6-7 chapters brings a flashback interjection that slowly reveals details and moves everything forward. I suppose adding unnecessary linear complexity to a story that already has so many strange new concepts in it, might’ve been overkill on the reader. As a result, the story flows nicely and was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I’d say this would be a terrific jumping in point if you were interested in checking out Reynolds’ work.

House of Suns is epic in every way the word can be defined. The scale of some of the conceptual elements was so broad that I initially had some difficulty finding a handhold to comprehend them. I felt like it stretched my mind a little bit just reaching for a way to relate. The best Science Fiction always does this for me in some way. It exists in that sweet spot directly between what you currently understand, and what you are capable of understanding. The best stories can be a linchpin, connecting you to your future, slightly more experienced self. I suppose this is true of all fiction, but I find it particularly so with the genres of Speculative Fiction, which are after all, more interested in investigating the “other” than fiction firmly rooted in the realm of realism often is.

The amount of mind-bending concepts Reynolds managed to pack into this novel while maintaining a coherent story is impressive: Star dams, ring worlds, causality, time dilation, artificial intelligence, solar system relocation, ancient technology, the nature of memory, longevity, cloning, wormholes, civilizational “turnover”, etc. It’s simply exploding with these huge ideas, but the story is never sacrificed in favor of them. It churns along, always moving forward.

Reynolds occasionally gets some slack for his character development or lack thereof, each character’s voice tending to just be the author’s voice, etc. So, when I realized that most of the characters in House of Suns were literal clones of the same character, I rolled my eyes a little and thought “Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the criticism.” But, it actually worked very well here.

These clone characters are “shatterlings” with indefinitely long lifespans that have drifted from their source individual, and each other, for 6 million years (epic scale!) and are essentially unique individuals as a result of their differing life experiences. Because they are clones, instead of noticing their similarities, you’re drawn toward their differences. The ways in which they are similar just reinforce the fact that they started from a near identical point. It’s a brilliant way to reframe the reader’s perception regarding character work without actually changing the writer’s approach to characterization. It feels very self-aware, and it’s clever as hell. It’s almost like he’s acknowledging his critics, but saying “See, it’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how you look at it”. Personally, the character work in Reynolds’ books has never bothered me, but if it bothered you, I think you’ll find this one has a refreshingly different take.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but leaves some things open for more. I would absolutely love another novel set in this universe, and the point at which this novel arrives could be seen as a great widening of that universe’s potential scope. It’s ripe for more tales, and I hope we get them. Reynolds has said: “I would like to return to this universe but I have no fixed plans for when that will happen.” Fingers crossed that those plans will materialize soon!