invisible airwaves crackle with life

This week’s media blow can download over either the 3G or standard wireless networks.

House of Sand and Fog: Brutal and moving and impressive. Kathy, a recovering addict whose husband has just abandoned her, gets evicted from her Pacific Coast bungalow for failure to pay a small business tax that she does not owe. In the ensuing time that she’s absent, her house is bought up by Massoud Behrani, former colonel in the Iranian Air Force and current convenience store clerk. Neither Kathy nor Behrani seem willing to give up the house, and they both have perfectly valid claims to it.

The premise itself is amazing enough – two families whose lives are ruined by the brute ignorance of large institutions – but Dubus’s ability to put the reader inside each character’s head is what makes this genius. Both Kathy and the Colonel are equally pitiable and sympathetic. Sure, Kathy could have probably stayed in the house by organizing her correspondence with the state a little neater, but she clearly doesn’t deserve to be evicted for that failing. And, yes, Behrani may have served the Shah of Iran, but he’s merely trying to provide a home and an income for his family. Both sides to this struggle have equally valid points of view, and it takes Dubus’ genius to depict them.

In the broadest scope, House of Sand and Fog is about how hard a time we have adapting to change. Kathy is given the opportunity to sue the county for wrongfully evicting her, but she doesn’t want a lawsuit. She wants to be back in the house her father built; she wants to not be the fuck-up addict daughter her family thinks she is, who lost their dead father’s last treasure. Similarly, Behrani has the chance to sell the house back to the county at the price he paid, but he’s already had it appraised at four times its auction value. He wants to restore his family to the life of prosperity they knew in Tehran. Both sides want to cling to a prettier past life, and the steps they’ll take to get it turn this story into tragedy.

State of Play: Saw this with the family this past weekend. A fun little government conspiracy thriller, but it’s not going to win any awards or light anyone’s ass on fire any time soon. Russell Crowe is That Sloppy Journalist who believes in following hunches; Rachel McAdams is That Spunky, Fresh-Faced Cub Reporter who’s still getting her balance; Helen Mirren is That Hard-nosed Editor who wants the hot story but is getting pressure from the publishers to go to press now; Ben Affleck is That Young, Impassioned Congressman who gets in trouble. You’ve seen this story before; what makes it interesting is the caliber of actors telling it.

Also, according to Dad, it’s nowhere near that easy to get into Crystal City at night, to say nothing of the Capitol Building.

Accelerando: Singularity sci-fi on hyperdrive. Stross buffets the reader with concepts from page one, barely wasting a second on exposition. Don’t worry if most of the jargon, like “gravity well” and “nanoassembly conformation” and “surplus neurotransmitter molecules,” run over your head. Stross takes frequent breaks to recap, recontextualize and give a tired reader a break.

Although, in a way, the breathless rush of unimaginable concepts sets a good tone for the story – an explosion of technology that transforms What It Means To Be Human, pushing the species along so fast that the next generation looks alien.

The first (of several) protagonists, Manfred Macz, is a hyperactive information junkie who gives away lucrative business propositions for free in an effort to liberate the human race from the constraints of classical economics. As an econ nerd, I find the notion of freeing human beings from Supply and Demand about as plausible as freeing human beings from evolution – but then, a significant portion of the novel is given over to uploading our neurons into massive computers, so why not? I have no particular bias toward marginal utility, downward sloping demand curves and time preference! They’re cruel beasts. It’s just that right now they’re the only game in town.

Also: I wonder how Stross avoided getting tagged with the “asshole” brush that so many people labeled Rand with. Both Accelerando and Atlas Shrugged are about the same thing: Nietszchean super-geniuses who never make mistakes, doing end-runs around giant government agencies and incompetent corporations, bringing the benefits of high technology to their like-minded friends and family while the rest of the human race gets eaten alive. But I’ve never seen Stross get the same griefing that Rand does.

(This may be partly because Rand spends a lot more time dwelling on how pathetic and miserable her ideological enemies are, and partly because Stross is a genuinely better author)

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