[FoRK] Welcome to Havana, Señor Hemingway AND The Zenith Angle

Contempt for Meatheads jbone at place.org
Sun May 2 16:42:07 PDT 2004

Two quick reviews.


I mentioned The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling the other day.  Read it 
last night.  One of those things where you expect greatness and come 
away feeling underwhelmed.  I LIKE Sterling;  I've drank the man's beer 
on more than one occasion before and hope to again, so this isn't a 
slam.  But the book feels rushed, incomplete, shallow, hallucinatory 
--- disconnected.  The words of Sterling's own characters might be 
describing his creative process in writing this story:  "I do assemble 
my deals in rather remarkable ways, sometimes.  Through pastiche and 
collage, basically.  It's very postmodern."

That by itself isn't a bad thing, necessarily;  it's a stylistic 
choice, and one that Sterling's used before to good effect in examining 
the near and not-so-near future.  But the stakes are too high, here;  
the book's too ambitious for that style to be effective, too ambitious 
for its own good really.  The Zenith Angle tries (and fails) to be an 
examination of two big, important topics:  the post-Bubble 
transformation of American geek culture and the post-9/11 
transformation of American society.  If we want pastiche and collage of 
contemporary American society, we've got CNN;  if we want pastiche and 
collage of contemporary American geek culture, we've got FoRK and a 
thousand other microcultures.  There's both story and message to be had 
here, and both are compromised.

In the end you're left feeling like Sterling's not quite getting it, 
like he's about a half-cycle out of phase in either direction with both 
his audience and his subject respectively.  You get the feeling that 
Sterling is both fascinated by, bored with, and contemptuous of his 
subject matter, like he senses that there's big stuff happening out 
there but that perhaps it's arbitrary, inexplicable, and ultimately 
inaccessible.  Minor nits abound on the technical and political fronts, 
and major holes exist in the cartoonish character development.  On the 
whole of the book ends up being less than the sum of its parts.  IMHO.  
Read it if you're a Sterling fan, but don't look for it to be as 
profound or insightful as some of his stuff.  SHORT VERSION:  Bruce 
tries to be Neal Stephenson-meets-Tom Clancy --- and fails.


OTOH, I discovered a gem by accident:  Welcome to Havana, Señor 
Hemingway by Alfredo José Estrada.


Occasionally end-cap marketing works.  I just happened to randomly 
notice this one on the way out of Barnes & Noble on Friday, and picked 
it up.  This is why the physical bookstore shouldn't ever go away:  
these non-referral, non-reviewed, serendipitous little random finds.  
This book's jumped to the top of my "favorite books of the year so far" 
list instantly.  (I do admit, though, to a fascination with Hemingway, 
with pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and with non-US American fiction in 

Had been a while since I'd been on a Latino / Hispanic / South American 
lit bender, and I'd forgotten how rich and sumptuous, how humourous and 
lively that tradition can be while simultaneously being plain-spoken 
and earthy and totally accessible.

Rather than spoil anything, here's the opening paragraph.  It just gets 
better and better:

"My grandfather once knocked down Ernest Hemingway, or so I was told.  
This quixotic legend was duly recounted by my Cuban relatives at our 
family reunions, together with the stories of all they had lost in the 
Revolution.  I didn't know whether to believe them, given their 
tendency to exaggerate."

Jeff Bob sez check it out. ;-)



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