Joe Hill Sets the World Ablaze: The Fireman

Our embrace of eternity engenders in us an equal but opposite reaction – our eagerness for Apocalypse. We cannot wait for the world to end, and as it is doing so extremely slowly, if at all, we enlist our best and our brightest to offer up suggestions. Fire’s good. Fire is fine, and Joe Hill sets the world ablaze with authority and an almost shockingly sweet charm in The Fireman. If the world is going to end under our watch, we can only hope that it happens with the graceful cheer of Harper Grayson. She makes Apocalypse not just acceptable, but out-and-out fun.

hill-the_firemanThis is not to say that The Fireman is not serious, because it is. Hill’s vision of the end begins with a plague called Dragonscale, a sort of fungus that causes those who fall victim to it to burst into flame. Hill’s done his homework, and he crafts a disease that seems quite capable of annihilating civilization, and not just because most humans die. Once we get past that bridge, handled with great economy by an author at the height of his powers, what we like to call civilization begins to rebuild. Alas, it proves to have been pretty loosely defined and well regulated by the masses. In their absence, something rather different arises.

Harper Grayson is a survivor because statistically in any plague there will be survivors. And she’s a unique, wonderful character who deserves both observation and celebration. She’s not a tough-as-nails, armed-to-the-teeth survivor type. She’s cheerful, intelligent and resourceful. She’s also pregnant, and determined to live long enough to give birth. Like others who survive Dragonscale, she’s become aware that it has other side effects beyond self-immolation. Those side effects lead her to the Fireman of the title and through the bulk of this engrossing, involving novel.

Heretofore, the bulk of the bulky Apocalypses we’ve spawned have tilted towards the page-turning side of the scale. And make no mistake, The Fireman will keep you up at night. But it’s not a book that you will read to find out what happens as much as it is a book that you will read to be in the world created by Joe Hill, in the company of Harper Grayson, and yes, a few, less savory types as well. Harper Grayson is a character both believable enough and powerful enough to make reading about the end of the world a cheerful experience. While to be sure, the unpleasant types have their ways and days, The Fireman is more a book about why we might ultimately survive rather than why we deserve to die.

Hill’s conflicted Apocalypse, then, is crafted with a degree and type of page-turning tension that we’ve not seen before. This is indeed a test of survival with characters who manage to stare into the abyss without succumbing to it. Some, at least, and that makes sense and that’s enough. This is the sort of book that bears and indeed rewards re-reading. It’s a world you want to be in, even as most of it goes up in flames.

Listeners to my podcasts probably guess that in general, I tend to edit them carefully. In the case of this conversation with Joe Hill, I’ve taken the opposite tack, that is to say, I’ve included casual conversation outside the actual chat. Listeners can thank the crew at KQED for this; my engineer has the mics on when Joe and I were just talking beforehand, and it proves that Joe has some great observations on genre that were outside the range of the conversation about his book. You can hear that conversation by downloading it from this link, or listen below.

Not surprisingly, I also did a lightning round with the wonderful Mr. Hill. Be sure to listen and hear about the movie. And you can hear that conversation by downloading it from this link, or listen below.


Sean Carroll Gets The Big Picture: Our Lives in the Quantum Fields Interviews and Review

We are faced with the quandary every day of our lives. We are without question physical beings in a physical world. In theory, it should be obvious that physics, then, offers the last word on all that we are. But by virtue of the fact that we can understand the word “I” in all its implications, it is also quite clear that there must be something that physics cannot explain. We must be more than particles, more than a chemical reaction.

Sean Carroll is a physicist with a brace of wonderfully smart questions, intelligent answers that hew to the latest scientific discoveries and an open mind willing to explore philosophy in order to get to the bottom of it all. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a thoroughly engaging look at everything in the universe, from the bottom up. Carroll calls for a perspective of poetic naturalism to understand that we have to explain reality at different levels of granularity. Reality, understanding and life itself are all down to appropriate storytelling.

Carroll packs quite a bit of science and philosophy in this book, but he writes well and in brief chapters, so that all this is quite easily read. The book is divided into six larger parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking and Caring. Carroll offers a lot of mini-biographies of scientists who changed the world, and lots of great science on parade. He spends quite a bit of time in the world of philosophy, trying to understand how we understand. Expect to come away with a new understanding of and respect for Bayesian reasoning.

carroll-the_big_pictureCarroll is not averse to making big statements. He avers that the current level of quantum physics explains everything we encounter in every day life, including consciousness and caring. That is to say, he is certain we need no “woo” factor to account for our understanding of the word “I.” And while time travel may be possible, psychic powers of the sort we love to attribute to super-heroes and the supernatural are simply not possible.

Throughout the book, Sean Carroll tells a variety of stories, with skill and excitement. Moreover, he’s adept at weaving the smaller stories into bigger ones, and the bigger ones into the overall thrust of this book. The structure of the book mirrors one of the themes, then; different levels of granularity call for different levels of storytelling. Sure, you can describe a table atom by atom, or even particle by particle. You can describe it at a quantum level. But it’s a waste of time and misses the point, the “tableness” of the table.

For all his adherence to the world of fact, there is nonetheless a political agenda somewhere in this book – a ghost in the machine. You’ll hear more than a bit about global climate change and lots of pointers to arguments about facts. The political agenda, so to speak is not more threatening than this. The world is real. We must live in the real world. We ignore the facts of this real world at our peril.

Sean Carroll is an amazing speaker. You can hear our lightning-round interview by following this link and downloading the MP3 audio file. Or you can listen right here:

You can hear our in-depth interview by following this link and downloading the MP3 audio file. Or settle back, enjoy your lunch and listen right here:

Guy Gavriel Kay Children of Earth and Sky: Shakespearean Fantasy Interview and Review

We find ourselves to be strangers, facing the unfamiliar. The setting is ever changing. But that up-against-it feeling of having to make it up as we go is ever with us. Sometimes we must re-frame the questions to begin the journey towards answers. A soupçon of the strange is sometimes all we need to shake us out of the blindness of the bland and help us make sense of the endless new that confronts us.

Literature, and particularly literature with elements of the fantastic can give us the off-angle we need to actually see ourselves. We can thank Guy Gavriel Kay, then, for his latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, a fantasy set in a Shakespearean world that manages to speak to our world while it entertains the hell out of readers with a truly ripping yarn. Utterly original, filled with thrilling characters and stunning set pieces, Children of Earth and Sky is no less a powerful parable of politics, family, and just how much of a difference any given individual can make.

A young woman pirate makes a daring raid; a young artist is sent to paint foreign noble’s portrait; a young merchant finds himself at a pivot point of power, and a young soldier proves his talent and trains for glory. Kay crafts on a huge canvas, but he keeps the stories personal and easy to follow as they converge and spin around one another. Children of Earth and Sky is page-turning and poignant.

Moreover, given the setting, Kay manages the almost impossible task of reminding readers of Shakespeare with incredible grace. His prose is crisp enough to read smoothly while his dialogues have a wonderfully poetic ring. Children of Earth and Sky is a testament to the power of the literature with elements of the fantastic (not too many, just enough) to explore realms beyond the standard-issue remixes of Tolkien. And Kay has a nicely understated sense of humor so that matters never seem fraught. There’s more than a bit of swashbuckling fun here, but the book always feels pleasing gritty.

In the final analysis Children of Earth and Sky is very much it’s own novel, unlike anything you’ve read unless you’ve read the other books that Kay crated with this backdrop. This is not to say that it is part of a novel-in-ten-books series. It stands alone, a stranger facing the unfamiliar. We all feel lost now and again. Losing one’s self in Children of Earth and Sky might very well be the best first step you can take homeward.

I spoke with Guy Gavriel Kay about Children of Earth and Sky, and while we spoke, time stood still around us while the rest of the world went about its business. Here’s a link to the long form chat. We’ll give you some great insights into how the book was crafted and Kay’s thoughts about the themes in the book without going too deeply into the plot. Perfect commute listening while the book you just bought at your local independent bookseller accompanies you on the drive home. But, you can also put on your headphones and tell the boss you’re hard at work and listen here.