Yet more books

Still catching up … CITY COME A WALKIN’ by John Shirley was a 1980 urban fantasy set in the far future of 2008, wherein a San Francisco night club owner is roped into a scheme by the city’s collective unconscious, which seeks to crush a scheme to eliminate hard currency in favor of digital transfers and to prevent telecommuting (for fear the resulting decentralization will lead to the death of cities). This is considered a cyberpunk precursor, but it seems more in terms of influence (Gibson admits in the intro to this edition that he idolized Shirley when he was starting out) than concepts. Not bad, but not great (though I suspect it would have seemed fresher back in 1980).
A MURDER OF QUALITY was John LeCarre’s second novel, in which a friend asks Smiley (now retired and separated from his faithless wife) to investigate a schoolmaster’s wife’s claims that her husband is trying to killer; when Smiley arrives at school, the brutal murder has already happened. While I found Call for the Dead to be very detective-story in style, this is even more so, having no spy element. At the same time it’s also very much in LeCarré’s usual vein, with the public school setting showing the same kind of backstabbing, snobbery and conniving that LeCarré finds in espionage. Smiley, too, shows the mix of basic decency and relentless cunning that makes him an interesting protagonist.
THE FIRST FOSSIL HUNTERS: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor shows how the fairly common European remains of fossil elephants, rhinos and other animals fascinated inhabitants of classical times as much as they do our own era prompting stories of Giants of the Past, Fabulous Monsters or fairly accurate assessments of ancient beasts (Mayor makes a good case that griffins were based on protoceratops skeletons found further east in Asia). Mayor concludes that the ancients imagined more than we usually think, with some conceiving of extinction and others coming close to a concept of survival of the fittest to explain the disappearance of centaurs and similar creatures.
A BELL FOR ADANO was John Hersey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1944 novel dramatizing how the American administrator of one Italian town does right by the community despite both the stupidity of higher-ups (which ultimately gets him punished for doing the right thing) and the wacky antics of the Italians (this reminds me a lot of McHale’s Navy during their stint in Italy). I can see why this impressed the Pulitzer committee when the occupation was front page news; today, the most noteworthy thing is the complete lack of cynicism (not only does the novel embrace the innate goodness of America, but it assumes that this alone can transform the world).
NOBODY GETS THE GIRL by James Maxey is a super-hero novel in which a man erased from reality by time-traveling super-genius Dr. Know (“As a result of my unwitting interference, your father bought a package of condoms none of which broke.”) discovers his nonexistence has turned him into a living phantom and thereby a perfect agent for Know’s utopian crusades. Better than most of this genre, with a couple of ingenious ideas and good action sequences. On the other hand, the final revelations and Dr. Know are pretty predictable, and Nobody himself is a bit bland (so his personal arc lacks much punch).

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