I got 130 pages into Kim Stanley Robinson's latest, 2312, before resignedly setting it down. The story takes place across our solar system, with humans (and altered variants of humans) living on other planets, moons, and asteroids. A death in the family causes our protagonist to be drawn into a tale of interplanetary intrigue . . . which is pretty much all I learned about where the plot was headed. I think the focus was going to turn around the idea of somehow fixing globally warmed Earth. The book reads something like John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (which borrows stylistically from Dos Passos's U.S.A.) in its use of chapters that contain snippets of information that seem to be randomly gathered from various data sources. Other chapters hold straight-out explanations of future scientific achievements, such as terraforming and making livable asteroids. Even the narrative chapters that follow the story shift point of view every time, maintaining a third-person anonymous narrator but varying which character gets the interior attention. The writing was excellent—and I want to especially praise a chapter in which the main character returns to Earth; Robinson captures how that must feel to be an Earthling who has spent a great deal of time away, as there's something unique about being on this world, where humans can breathe and where water runs and the sun isn't too close or far off. Despite the fine writing, the constant interruptions in the narrative flow cost the novel, I think. Are they needed in order to understand the story? I don't know, but the book was going to take too long, it wasn't holding me, and a clumsy character introduction sank it for me.
I also set aside, though with less reluctance, Jess Walter's new novel, Beautiful Ruins. I hadn't read Walter, and the first chapter, taking place in a sad, imaginary town below the line of Italian coastal towns that form the Cinque Terre, was wonderful, introducing an interesting character and demonstrating a witty tone and clever phrasing. Unfortunately, the novel shifts, in its second chapter, from the humble town and protagonist in 1962 to some profoundly unlikable modern folk involved in Hollywood. The tone I'd liked now grated, and the writing felt forced. Why am I reading about these people? I wondered. Well, I would read about them no more.
Perhaps shamefully, I also stopped progress (arguably, the novel itself stopped its progress) on Malcolm Lowry's "classic" (so it is viewed), Under the Volcano. Its story of a besotted and bewildered and cuckolded ex–Mexican consul is minutely told in the style that has its origins in Proust, but the plot, such as it is, proceeds like a tired and meandering burro. One wanted to urge it to "Giddup," but it stuck to its pace—and actually seemed to slowing down the farther it went. I did not want to wait around for it to keel over where it stood. I read about a quarter of the novel, so at least now I know something of it, if not how it ends (though I suspect a sad conclusion for our "hero").
Under the Volcano put me in the mood for denser stuff than Walter's novel, and something more assuredly literary than Robinson's quite literate writing—and so I turned to Conrad's Lord Jim. I'm about a third of the way through and loving it. Conrad is just so much fun, full of marvelous phrasing and wild overstatement and grand moments of physical drama and human suffering. No, the plot doesn't fly along, but there's a sense of movement, and the voice is compelling. Plus, he's already fooled me twice about where the story is going.
I also read the first story in Fred Chappell's new collection, Ancestors and Others. Seeing the list of works by Chappell dismays me: How have I never heard of him? The first story, a five-pager entitled "The Overspill" (I have no idea why the first tale is italicized, both in the title and throughout, unless it's meant to serve as some kind of preface to everything that will follow), tells of a boy and father who build a garden and a bridge during the boy's mother's absence. It's exciting and emotional, and the ending is stunning. It reminds you, after my above disappointments, of what surprises are possible in fiction.
Lastly, as I await publication of and reaction to "Unearthed," forthcoming in the September Asimov's, out in a few weeks, I'm getting a fair amount done on "Absolute Zero," the next Old Man tale. There's a twin-streamed plot, and I'm writing very drafty sections first, mostly (there's one solid scene and much scattered dialogue), in order to make sure the structure is in order. Should be a fun one.