Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

In university, I took a Literary Traditions course that featured Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. It tells the story of Coketown, a fictional, industrial mill town in the 1850s where buildings are bland, sooty, carbon copies of one another. Things are overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and rigid, hard-nosed educator Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s job is to stamp out any and all creativity from the town’s schoolchildren, thereby creating useful automatons for Bounderby’s factory. The workers get married, have families, and put their children in Gradgrind’s care. Thus, the cycle never ends.

In our first class about the book, the professor asked us who we thought the protagonist of the story was. Since most of the characters are given equal weight, we gave a variety of answers. Most thought it was Thomas Gradgrind, some thought it was his daughter, Louisa. A few thought it was Bounderby, others guessed Stephen Blackpool, a lowly worker in Bounderby’s factory.

Then there was the guy who sat next to me, who gave what would go down as the worst answer I heard in my six years of university. With the embarrassing esotericism that only self-conscious suck ups can muster, he said, “I think the main character is Coketown.”

This answer was stupid for two reasons: 1) he just wanted to appear like an interesting, philosophical contrarian (he was the type to wear a huge scarf indoors in September and glasses without a perscription), and 2) no matter how fleshed out a city is, settings cannot, by definition, be characters (which are, by definition, people).

I bring this up because I just finished reading China Mieville’s setting-rich sci-fi novel Perdido Street Station. Then I read some of the reviews, seemingly written by other non-prescription-wearing, scarf-toting poseurs and my life flashed before my eyes.

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Vacationland by John Hodgman

Vacationland audiobook reviewI’m an absolute sucker for wise father figures.

Sandy Cohen. Johnathan Kent. Doctor Morgenes. Shaun Maguire. Few things hit me harder than moral, compassionate, middle-aged men with wisdom to burn and shithead kids who just won’t listen … until they do.

When I was a teenager my father wasn’t really around to teach me much of anything. You’d think this would explain my predilection* for paternal wisdom, but that theory falls apart pretty quickly when you consider what an unstoppable geyser of folksy insight my step-father was (albeit on matters of fishing, forestry, the Titanic, and surviving the damp winters of Eastern Canada in little more than a t-shirt and sandals). He delivered one of his children by himself as a 19-year-old, and might be the most self-sustaining person I know.

*Sidenote: why does “predilection” sound like such a gross word? More at 11.*

My attraction to gentleman sages like John Steinbeck may, in fact, be me making up for lost time, given how persistently I ignored my step-father’s step-fatherly advice when I was a shithead kid, myself.
I bring this up because not only is John Hodgman’s Vacationland an (admittedly) early contender for my 2018 Book of the Year, it features a wonderful addition to the Annals of Fatherly Wisdom.

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