Remember the happy accident of stumbling across unknown treasures in bookstores? Me neither. I’ve got omniscient and dimple cheeked algorithms pointing out books for me now, and they’re more well-informed and elegant than the earnest youngsters at Chapters were.
Or are they?
Right now, for instance, Amazon’s algorithms think I’d like Ready Player One (where “entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner”) and Armada (both by Ernest Cline), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, Seven Eves by Neal Stephenson, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, and Warship: Black Fleet Trilogy 1 by Joshua Daizelle. I have no idea where they got those sci-fi choices, Warship and Red Rising. I have this adore-despise thing with sci-fi. I’m not angry with it; just disappointed, which as you know is the worst thing a parent or girlfriend or critic can say. I like smart and sharpened writing, and felt betrayed by Hominids and Robert Sawyer, in whom I’d put a lot of faith, but couldn’t get beyond the first neanderthalic chapter. I betray my age when I say every sci-fi writer should be Phillip Kindred Dick, but even I think he could sometimes set a better example for his siblings—less listening to suggestions from his cat, maybe?
Anyway, those recommendations were based on my browsing history, which is not to be trusted anyway. It’s like saying I should date a particular kind of girl just because…no wait, I don’t like where this metaphor is going, so I’ll just drop it here. Amazon did a lot better with their Recommended for You page, which included the more high-falutin’ Andre Alexis and Marina Endicott (favourite reviewer quote of her: “Relentless, unstoppable expectancy,” said T. F. Rigelhof) and Salman Rushdie, Heather O’Neill, Patrick DeWitt, Guy Vanderhaeghe and a little Temple Grandin thrown in. The Algorithms were just flattering me, I knew; I can’t have been that literary all the time.
People talk about the science of The Martian, and I’m sure its bang on and everything, but it’s the tin man of novels, and even Dorothy couldn’t find its heart with a Google search engine.
Within the last weeks, I’ve bought Confidence by Russel Smith, Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, The Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Martian by Andy Weir, and a beautiful 65th anniversary edition of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. The Algorithms have no idea that I was also given a copy of Huckleberry Finn from my mother-in-law, bought a worn paperback of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil from my local bank for a charity fundraiser, and recently purchased a cut-rate boxful of Sons and Mothers: Stories from Mennonite Men (I was a contributor to that anthology). And I urge you not to tell them either. If they knew all that, those proselytizing programs would probably try to push their tattered copy of Peace Shall Destroy Many by Rudy Wiebe on me, and that dog-ear don’t hunt.
Well, I’ll be writing about some of those books in the future, and some of them I’ll completely ignore, and at least one of them I’ll warn you away from (Here’s looking at you, kid Andy Weir). I’m going to try really hard to not get all snarky about authors and tear out pages of books, in the admirable mode of The Believer magazine and Saint Nick (Hornby), in the hopes of supporting my fellow writers, and with the belief that there are enough great books around to not have to waste bandwidth on griping. But please, unless you like to read what amounts to film scripts written by intelligent people with no understanding of what it means to be human, stay away from The Martian, and go see the film instead, which from the trailers already looks far more introspective, emotionally aware and realistic from the viewpoint of how a person stranded alone on Mars might react; ie, they would be truly transformed by such a isolated death sentence. People talk about the science of the book, and I’m sure its bang on and everything, but it’s the tin man of novels, and even Dorothy couldn’t find its heart with a Google search engine. Maybe Matt Damon and Ridley Scott will. Ridley already beautifully answered that eternal question about android dreams.
I think I’ve got to look into Ready Player One, but only if the Algorithms promise not to advocate for more sci-fi books with cheesy covers. And only after writing this whole blurt do I now see why (Hello, Earth to Byron) they did that: The Martian, blast him. To paraphrase Truman Capote writing about Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s data entry.