November 23, 2002

Black Projects, White Knights, Kage Baker

Baker's series of timetravel novels has done such a good job setting up intrigues, doublecrosses, and moral quandaries that I haven't expected the finale to be written quickly. (I am rather more afraid that it will get out of hand and have an unconvincing ending; not because she's a bad writer, because it's so ambitious.)

This collection of short stories about Company operators is a good palate-teaser while waiting. I think the stories would be good if I hadn't read the novels; those written from the POV of an outsider might be even more eerie. If you like SF, and haven't read her books, and happen across this book, please read the last story - the Hotel at Harlan's Landing - first; then maybe The Wreck of the Gladstone and Smart Alec, and then tell me what you thought.

The Literary Agent is mostly an argument with Robert Louis Stevenson about the ethics of writing adventure stories. It's a good thing the dialogue is so snappy, or it would have been too distracting to apply Stevenson-the-writer's arguments against writing compelling villains to Baker-the-writer's own stories.¹ I can't remember if Milton ever wrote anything implying that he knew he had done the same.

A side comment: the hardcover, published by Golden Gryphon, is physically very nice. There is real cloth in the binding and the pages are folded into signatures; it's much more solid than mass-market 'hardbacks'. I would take this as a hopeful sign that binding standards were going up, but according to the colophon, three thousand copies were printed by this manufacturer. That seems very low, as does the $25 price, if underdown is right. This is a labor of love? No-one made any money on it? Odd. I don't see why the economies of scale, for both the seller and the reader, don't put bestsellers in sturdy bindings and obscure books in fragile ones. (Bestsellers get loaned out a lot, among me & mine, although I suppose we don't destroy them often enough to really justify extra solidity: the imitation sturdy binding is a faint excuse for what's actually demand pricing.)

¹Baker's plotters, the ones with all the Machiavellian charm, are coerced into many of their awful acts by even worse villains. These really bad ones aren't compelling in their turn because they are terribly cowardly and stupid; they're dangerous enough to (possibly) justify the charming villains' acts of lesser evil because they are our far future, and have inherited stupendously powerful technology. This is a good first solution to the problem.

I'm not sure how it holds up under examination, because the intermediate villains - and the really interesting characters who may or may not descend into efficient heartlessness - are so powerful that it seems unlikely they aren't partly responsible for the collapse of the future society. This may be exactly where Baker is heading, in the many adumbrated plots, but if so our villains are real villains after all.

Maybe she just doesn't agree with her version of Stevenson. Maybe she does agree, but thinks anything else makes a dull book.

Posted by clew at 01:38 AM

November 19, 2002

The Perfect House, Witold Rybczynski

It is excessively refined of this book to have so few illustrations, mostly line-drawings the size of a business card, a few grayscale reproductions of Palladio's own plans.

Since the book is mostly the story of Rybczynski's trips near Venice to visit Palladio's houses, with historical background and some decductions about what makes good architecture, the minimal illustrations are good enough: you probably won't enjoy the book if you don't know a little about late Renaissance and early Enlightenment architecture, or care much about expensive architecture. If you do know a little of the relevant history, Palladio's career will be a nice colored-in detail; he was of humble stoneworking beginnings, near a city subsidiary to Venice, near the beginning of Venice's political subsidence, and despite that his reinvention of classical architecture was so good that it still identifies seats of power and claims thereto. Rybczynski makes some of an argument that Palladio's architecture was influential because he was late and provincial: as an adult, he saw some ancient buildings and early-Renaissance attempts to build in the ancient style, but it was new and fresh to him. Interesting; a comfort for anyone who feels that all the important stuff has been thumbed through; unprovable. I wonder what being a mason did: there is a contemporaneous description of him being cheerful and attentive and teacherly towards the workers. Surely this made the commissions more likely to be finished; possibly, they were more likely to last.

About the houses themselves, Rybczynski notes that the proportions are not as mathematically exact as some people have assumed, but also are usually not far off simple ratios of size. It does occur to me that since most of his floorplans are tidily rectangular, and symmetrical around at least one axis, it would be hard not to have rectangular rooms come out with simple ratios of sizes.

What modern non-architects notice, I gather, is that the designs put impressiveness well ahead of comfort: scant privacy, weird interconnections that send people out onto the porch or down into the basement to get between adjacent rooms, exteriors that look like two enormously tall stories because the practical rooms have been fitted into short inter-stories (which must, I think, be poorly lit, but were originally servant's quarters, so ha! Who would care then?) With this much effort, with their technology, a house could have been built that provided the owners privacy and reliable warmth in winter. One should remember that pre-modern wealth was quite fond of some immaterial luxuries that democracy forgoes. Display, patronage, service, pomp; I don't think it's just the twenty-foot entrance halls that provide this, or the existence of servants to make up for having all the closets in the attic (or in the garden, if counting water-closets). I think the effect was partly made by having no merely comfortable space, nowhere the owner could be imagined slouching or looking after himself. Snout-houses undo their "gracious estate entrances" by having a family-room at all. (I should say that Rybczynski didn't find the Villa Saraceno uncomfortable, although he did not stay there in pomp.)

Somewhere around the - perfectly interesting - history of Palladian architecture's dominance as the powerful building style in Enlightenment England and colonial America, I started wondering if inexpensive Palladian architecture was possible, if it could be used for distributed, rather than civilized, dignity. Rybczynski lightly touches on the matter in his last chapter, on a stay in the Villa Saraceno. He discusses the difference between size and scale, implying that things can be of big and comforting scale without being of big and expensive size; but, alas, on the previous page he mentions that the wonderful windows are all 4.5 by 8.5 feet. I am sure that it isn't merely standardization that makes windows of that size more expensive than the modern standard of, oh, 36" by 54".

Studio loft apartments might be what moderns have instead, and for recognizable reasons: open plans and huge windows that make them stage-sets, displayed not just to guests in them but possibly to everyone in the street below and the building across the way. Minimalism that has no extraneous possessions or comfortable chairs demonstrates a minute devotion to style, which might explain more of its appeal than photographic charm; most houses only demonstrate what the owner has; it takes a difficult house to demonstrate anything about what the owner is.

Posted by clew at 11:09 PM

November 11, 2002

Bad elves

Little People, Tom Holt
The Last Hot Time, John M. Ford

These are both okay fantasy novels, middling for their respective genres, I'm not likely to remember the characters or the worlds on their own. Reading them back-to-back pointed up something about the genres, though.

Many British fantasy writers, melting away from the style of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, are producing an excellent tradition of sardonic, pull-the-other one fantasy; Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Mary Gentle's Grunts, Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. They often have happy-enough endings, but not very grand ones: happy enough to survive the battles of unearthly powers, no need to become one. You could put in Recessional as an endpiece, and it would usually fit.

The Minneapolis school, which probably has a name I don't know, feeds a style of fantasy that too often pretends to be gritty and realist but then wraps things up in a made-for-TV plot conclusion. I particularly dislike being able to tell in the first chapters of a book which characters are going to die in order for the hero to get less stupid. I like some of the Minneapolis school's books a lot; but the good ones I can think of are good not because they avoid the triumphal ending, but because they provide convincing reason for it. Nor does it have to be logically convincing; it's all escapism.

No, when the punk-elf Americans disappoint me, it's usually because the character development is dim. This particular subgenre sends a lonesome tough-but-basically-innocent young person to the streets of the Big City, where they discover that elves are glamorously running the rock music/streetlife/stock car racing trade, and also discover that elves really really need a tough-but-basically-innocent young person, who has more power than s/he thinks. I am not immune to this plot as a wish-fulfilment, but if badly done it should be left to Marvel Comics' Teenage Mutant X-Men Together, or whatever they're doing this decade. It can't be carried off with much pretense to realism, because it takes a lot of effort for even enormously talented real people to affect history, unless you drag in the divine right of kings or midichlorians. The Last Hot Time doesn't do anything nearly that distasteful; the world clearly needs a nice-ish guy, and our nice-ish guy steps in and takes some risks and does some suffering, but... I just wasn't convinced. If being fundamentally decent was that important, it's not clear to me that the protagonist is more decent than some of the characters there already; and I didn't see any sufficient change in the character himself. The prose is tidy but flat from beginning to end.

The Little People does something more complicated in the prose; the first-person narrator is something of an Adrian Mole nebbish, but grows up over the course of the book. In the first few chapters the nebbishness is so irritating that I nearly quit, but he's a smart nebbish, so there were occasional cracks of laughter. Somewhere more than half through I noticed that the prose and the character's understanding had both grown up; it was then a much better book. The irruptions of elfdom - to a shoe-factory, just to keep the gritty theme sensible - are slightly tedious and mechanical, but the character is ambivalent enough about what he ought to do that the little-green-men set-pieces didn't bother me.

And, in the end, he gets some but not all of the dangerous decisions right: gritty realism, only mildly diluted. Gentle will give you grit undiluted - you can pity her orcs without liking them at all, and one of her novels ends exactly the way Foolish Mortals against Unearthly Powers ought to end, very like the Ring cycle. The operas. I won't tell you which one; you should read them all, and each with increasing nerves as the telltale compression of the pages begins.

Holt has written better novels and worse; I prefer Here Comes the Sun, for instance.

The perfect innocent-young-person-saves-the-world fantasy novel is Diana Wynne Jones' The Homeward Bounders, of course. US readers should nip out and get it, it's on drugstore shelves with a perfectly inoffensive cover, and that's two things to encourage.

Posted by clew at 09:00 AM

November 07, 2002

WWII mysteries

The Chinese Chop, Juanita Sheridan
Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, John Dunning
Sweet and Lowdown, Lise McClendon

The Dunning and McClendon mystery novels are set in and just before WWII, but are modern; Sheridan's is set in 1949, and was written then. Read the modern ones first, since they're really better mysteries, but keep an eye out for Sheridan's books; the modern recreation of her times may make you curious about how they saw themselves.

Two O'Clock... is the best mystery of the three; it also makes very graceful use of WWII as a background, since what the characters are worried about is not always what we think, with hindsight, they should have been worrying about. Sweet... uses the Depression and WWI to set the stage, too, so it could be an awfully depressing book, but her series character is ambiguously between being too tough to like and not tough enough to be creditable as a detective.

Posted by clew at 08:49 AM

Making the Mass Market

Satisfaction Guaranteed, Susan Strasser is a fine book on "The Making of the American Mass Market", but I think her books on housework (Never Done) and garbage (Waste and Want) are better.

Land of Desire, William Leach, covers a lot of the same territory as Satisfaction... but more vividly.

Strasser's books, taken together, describe the changes in household habits that moved the US to modernity; from a producer society to a consumer society. Satisfaction Guaranteed and Land of Desire both describe the changes in opinion, as well as production and retail, that made this possible. Packaging, advertising, pure-food laws, the parcel post, the idea that the 'good life' is made of goods, and the acceptance of credit - all rose together. Credit might be the most surprising one; that a nation proud of its Puritans managed to accommodate itself to the easy extension of credit at all, let alone for frivolities, is surprising.

Strasser is clear on the practical impediments to selling and buying in the modern way, and how they were overcome. Leach's book is more interesting when he's making clear how dreamy, hypnotic, seductive, and new advertising and the big department stores were. Some of the department-store pictures are breathtaking now, and put fancy modern stores to shame. There was a higher standard set by the decorative standards of the magnificoes and the decorative possibilities of swoony Orientalism; without gilding and pneumatic tubes and white-gloved ranks of attendants, I am not going to be impressed. I am also never going to read L. Frank Baum quite as innocently; he was an advertising man, and Leach's description of Oz as shopping-land is persuasive. I do want to see the beautifully color-printed edition of The Wizard of Oz, though. I read a bit of The Gardens of Allah, which Leach mentioned as symbolic of the new indulgence, but the characters were too irritating to go on with.

Posted by clew at 08:33 AM

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine

Hine describes American teen-age as a twentieth-century invention designed, more or less intentionally, to keep teenagers out of the serious labor market while grooming them as a consumer market. The details are interesting either if you're thinking about current problems of development, and what social systems have worked or failed to work, or if you want some background for old fiction. Good bits are the demographics of the US during the Revolution (half the population under sixteen, most of them working adult jobs as soon as they were strong enough) through Lowell mill girlhoods, Flaming Youth, Depression-era laws keeping teenagers out of work - driving them into delinquency or the unprepared high schools, and effectively forcing the age-segregated youth culture we think of as 'teenagerhood' today. He doesn't think our policy of refusing self-determination based on age is a very good one, especially when the legal system is swinging towards treating juvenile crimes like adult ones.

Also has a popularizing but not trendy sense of humor and a helpful, though not scholarly, bibliography.

Posted by clew at 07:53 AM

Mysterious Victorian women

The Law and the Lady, Wilkie Collins
The Leavenworth Case, Anna Catherine Green
The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon, Brian Thompson

The biography of Mrs. Weldon has more vivid and unlikely events than the Wilkie Collins novel, and that's a high standard. Collins' Lady is the actor in her own life, both making mistakes and ferreting out the truth, which seems fresh and lively enough for its day; but the truly disastrous Mrs. Weldon had as much vigor and more tragic, real-life flaws. She was important in the reframing of British laws on lunacy and women's rights; she argued many cases herself partly because she was, in fact, talented, and very often because she overestimated her own talents. She never believed she was wrong, and she hardly ever believed she would lose, and she got away with rather more than the strict facts of her life would seem to justify. If looking for something pleasantly scandalous to read on a train, and your own diary won't do, consider that - since he does not write for Household Words - Thompson can be a bit more specific about parts of Weldon's private life than Collins could be about anyone's. Mrs. Weldon's private life involved Gounod and a lengthy lesbian affair and orphans and madhouses, and was documented pretty well, since she was generally in either the courts or the newspapers and also wrote an enormously long autobiography to justify herself.

Green was a bestseller in her day and respected for her fiction's grasp of law, but it's a stiff novel, and even the hero's description of the heroine is not moving. Elizabeth Peters recommends Green's The Affair Next Door, which I will keep looking for.

Posted by clew at 07:27 AM

Machines Out of Control

Flesh and Machines, Rodney A. Brooks
Out Of Control, Kevin Kelly

Kelly wanders enthusiastically over a wide landscape of cool techno-bio projects in the Wired-typical ecstasy over scary change that will likely do some people a lot of good. I find it easy to grant that most of the projects he describes might do a lot of people a lot of good, but the bland acceptance of the risks puts me off. However, it's no worse than the magazine, and it has plain old legible typography and an extensive bibliography. Brooks wrote the journal article Fast, Cheap and Out of Control from which Kelly gets his title. Flesh and Machines is principally about his research developing robots and using their interaction with the physical world to drive their behavior almost directly. His specific discussion of how very simple states in each of six legs of a robot can produce successful walking is delightful. From this he derives the subsumption architecture, building complex behavior out of unchanged elements of simpler behavior (instead of overlapping small programs into a big program ), and a belief as much philosophical and practical that intelligence requires embodied existence. The book ends with understandable pseudocode for one of his early robots.

There are huge social implications in Brooks' discussions of his work, though. He and his students have already had practical results, ranging from the Sojourner mission to Mars to emotion-aping toys aimed at the mass market. He expects more, from the autonomous exploration of the solar system to autonomous cheap housecleaning robots to widespread international labor markets using telepresence to avoid immigration. His imagined housecleaning robots would make subsumption architecture obvious; each of them deeply stupid and nearly random in its motion, in a range of sizes none very big, and reliably keeping a house clean by their interactions. On the other hand, those haven't been built yet, and his description of trying to use robotic lawn mowers makes rabbits seem safer, simpler, cheaper, and more usefully controlled.

One of the oddites in Brooks' book is in guessing what his attitude towards humans is; I was somewhat taken aback by a comment, early on, that he yearned to see Hal exist even though that computer went mad and murderous. He also describes human behavior as automatic in a way that I associate with politics that consider human happiness irrelevant. I suspect this of being a subtle joke, though; late in the book, after several anecdotes of people who had programmed emotion-imitations reacting to their robot with (human and therefore presumably) real emotions, he branches into a discussion of the philosophical arguments about whether "real life" could ever exist in a machine. He summarizes most of the arguments against as versions of There Must Be Some Special Stuff In Us Because We're Special, descendants of vitalism, and himself strongly states that he thinks of people as machines. However, he also points out that although he believes his children to be fundamentally machines, he loves them dearly and not for their biochemistry; he wants robots to be treated well when they can feel well or ill, even though we may have made them differently than our born children are made. He also has some practical arguments about why autonomous robots are not likely to take over the world, and an interesting discussion of Asimov's Three Rules.

After deflating Searle and other robot-pessimists, he deflates the extropian freeze-me-for-later techno-eschatologists, citing a history of such predictions that put the date just about when the predictor would turn 70. The belief that we live in exactly the right Special Time is about as irrational as the belief that we contain exactly the right Special Stuff, he implies.

I'm not convinced that telepresence work - for instance, staffing Japanese hospitals over phone lines from the Philippines - would actually be a boon for the poor workers. Much depends on the relative value of autonomy and physical safety; while sewing machines are inherently less dangerous than unmechanized farm labor, working in a sweatshop can be much more dangerous than working one's own farm. Also, if the rich never meet their poor help, there's less likelihood that the poor will be paid enough for the infrastructure the prevents infectious diseases.

Posted by clew at 05:39 AM
« October 2002 | Main | December 2002 »