January 23, 2005

Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers

I wasn't moved by the mathematical analogy but I was really moved by the alternate Walt Disney history. It made great use of the difference between art and reality and the uses of art. It was also better integrated into the family grief, even though the math was more thought about by the family. (Specifically, the family payoff matrix doesn't much match PD. It doesn't matter to the psychological use of the motif, as it was believable that Artie would spend time worrying about a bad analogy.)

A very minor tangent; there's a brief reference to a Black American singer of early music, probably in the 1970s or early '80s; like the protagonists of In the Time of Our Singing.

ISBN: 002036055X

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January 22, 2005


A word that imitates the sound it names is onomatopoetic. Is there one translation of this into ASL, or two? Onomatopoetic doesn't seem to come from any root specifically meaning sound, so I can imagine it logically being translated for any mimetic word; but if one were trying to explain the origin of either a word or a sign one might want two distinct words. For that matter, my cursory Googling suggests that Korean has mimetic words but maybe not onomatopoetic words. ??.

T'other year I heard Terry Pratchett speaking, and he read a bit of (I assume) Going Postal, which has a lot of semaphores in it. His speech was being interpreted in sign, and the sign for 'semaphore' is delightful, not so much for its direct mimicry as for the flowing transitions between it and the surrounding signs. Pratchett noticed that the audience was staring behind him, and Pratchett stepped sideways and gestured the interpreter up and read more about semaphores, to admire. He may have thrown some other unlikely words in, just to see if they were good fits.

I still remember it not principally for the 'semaphore' joke but for Pratchett's good humor and happiness at sharing a stage. He seemed like a complete mensch.

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The Anvil of the World, Kage Baker

Baker wrote this like a stage magician with a sense of humor; it's a mosaic of tricks that one has seen tiresomely often, and just as you roll your eyes there's a flash on the other side of the stage. The usual tricks got your eye off the rabbit, which is now a - nother thing. Also, the usual tricks are done well, as in a pleasant stage magic show.

One can tell that it began as juvenilia. There's a lot of Jack Vance in it, and probably a lot of nineteenth-c. gentlemen's adventure stories. I wonder if the hero was originally much younger; he has to decide what to do with unusual powers, but it isn't a "Boy Finds Hands" story because the hero is an adult when we begin, and can use his hands, and has to choose what for.

I thought the mythological background was especially good in being about right for the California Dreamtime antecedents of non-indigenes living in California. It isn't a rewrite of the actual native mythology; nor is it particularly a transplant of pastoral European myths; it is fit for a region of traders and travellers and cities of short life-expectancy. Not California as it specifically actually is, but closer than Yeats' bean rows. Baker also sort of does this in her SF series, In the Garden of Iden &ff., in which Secret Things have been going on on Catalina and in San Francisco for a long time.

ISBN: 0765308185

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January 19, 2005

Greenmantle, John Buchan

My nation's policy now has less compassion and insight than a John Buchan hero. Thus Richard Hannay:

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter's cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany's madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children's bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.

For those who haven't read Greenmantle, sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, think of him as a James Bond precursor; a man's man, happy in war, daring behind the lines, dauntless in fisticuffs and accurate with "a German Mauser of the latest pattern". He also praises himself as a "nigger-driver". This is not a puling new-man liberal hero.

He would, though, stick at killing the parents in front of the child.

Project Gutenberg etext #559

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January 17, 2005

Second Star, Dana Stabenow

Aww, and I like Stabenow's mysteries so much! Some first tries should be decently buried.

The fault with this is that it's very perfunctory Heinlein, late Heinlein to boot, without the voluminous pulp practice that at least smoothed out the pacing in Heinlein's tomes. The political, or rather emotional, system is the same; a bunch of omni-competent friends run everything according to Stern but Fair principles, except when the principles are hard to live up to, when they compliment each other on breaking them. For light comedy, they have (undescribed) excellent sex, which they then compliment themselves on in front of a knowing preteen. This is particularly Heinleinish and particularly creepy.

Stabenow's gang bows out and leaves for new frontiers when their new space colony gets its first load of democratic colonists, so they aren't the hypocritical thugs that I would expect in reality from a group with their non-principles, but I still don't believe their historical arguments from the US frontiers; it's convenient for the spacers that there aren't any indigenes to kill, but the analogy doesn't work backwards. It does seem that the colony has decided to renege on the building loan from a devastated and starving Earth. The government they're dealing with is treacherous, so maybe that's a moral wash.

I'm not sure the space details were carefully researched, because Stabenow's explanation of having many women in charge in space is that wages were equal in space but still sexist on Earth. Well, insofar as there are wages in space, which is elided more than a little. The irrational mechanisms don't extend? Tell Jerri Cobb or the telegraph operators. Happy thought, though.

ISBN: 0441757227

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January 15, 2005

Alien Taste, Wen Spencer

I enjoyed this as a prose novel even though I regularly thought, "This would make a great comic book." Its ancestors are comics from before graphic novels: Superman is raised by werewolves and is then adopted by Batman.

I don't think the backstory sustains examination, but it's just fine for light reading. The writing starts out a bit clunky - too much "strangely" when plain description would do; once I decided that these mark what would be a funny-perspective closeup in a comic or film noir, I stopped noticing them. There are also some action punchlines that would have been more fun with the usual two-page drawing.

The subtlest thing I liked is that the main character, the superpowered adoptee, is convincingly perfectly moral; and I mean perfectly, like a Wagner hero only not so annoying. It's only the characterization that makes it convincing, because unquestioned kindness and generosity in that particular character doesn't make nearly as much sense in light of the plot. There are other cases of homely, quotidian themes balancing out the extravagant plot elements.

I wonder if the balance holds through the sequels.

ISBN: 0451458370

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January 10, 2005

Stable Strategies and Others, Eileen Gunn

While these stories are really good, I wish I hadn't read them all at once, because the overriding impression afterwards was not of their style or subjects but of extreme authorial control over both. It was counter-effective to be noticing the artistry of the transparent style.

I can imagine that the control is really impressive to writers, which helps explain why she has the blurb-power of a battleship. (Also, one rapidly gathers, she is personally strongly connected in the SF world.)

I am not as impressed as the blurbs are with the madness of her vision, because it doesn't seem too far off the classics of the New Wave. Probably what this actually shows is that I am old and and blasé and have forgotten (because old) that the New Wave itself is half forgotten, and (because blasé) that it's still impressive.

ISBN: 189239118X

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The Life of Insects, Victor Pelevin

Pelevin pursues Kafka by seeing everyone as an insect, of insect kind depending on their human business. It's blackly funny but mostly disturbing.

The flap copy flaps on about how insect analogies are perfect for post-Soviet Russia, but I was equally reminded of Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management", which is more likely to be a roman à clef for Microsoft.

On the whole, I preferred Pelevin's The Yellow Arrow, probably because I liked the narrative structure better. ...Insects is a series of nested braces with all the wierdness closing with the last brace; ...Arrow is a slippery slope tipping from oddity towards doom. Both structures are beautifully integrated with the subject matter.

ISBN: 0374186251

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January 07, 2005

The Claverings, Anthony Trollope

If you liked Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw and feel like starting in on Trollope in some parallel novel, try The Claverings. It isn't a perfect parallel, but consider:

"You know her to be treacherous, false, vulgar, covetous, unprincipled. You cannot like her. You say she is a dragon."
"A dragon to you, I said. [...] How am I better than her, and why should I not associate with her?"
"Better than her! As women you are poles asunder."
"But as dragons," she said, smiling, "we come together."

Fortuitous turn of phrase aside, two of the other Tooth and Claw tropes appear: this novel does not allow the maiden once besmirched (though legally) to find love and happiness with Another; and the inheritance of power is pretty grim. There isn't any hungry looming round the deathbed, but the charming hero is very like his unpleasant forbears, it's just that he's charming enough that no-one notices for long. He marries a sweet sprig of the industrial class; maybe she improves their children. Well, also, he is different in having meant to join the industrious before he inherited; he just wasn't reliable at showing up for work.

There doesn't seem to be an online version.

ISBN: 0486234649

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January 06, 2005

The Garden Book

Phaidon organized these five hundred gardens by their designers; Aalto to Zug, each is represented by one garden, each garden represented by one small vivid photograph and about three paragraphs of text. It isn't, therefore, much use if you're looking for something relevant to any particular garden; but all the photos are good of their kind, so it's very calming to flip through. Since the five hundred most glorious gardens tend to have been built with lots of space, and lots of money, and often lots of time, it wasn't going to be a utilitarian book anyway.

There are more photos than I would like of a single built object rather than a plant or landscape layout. Sometimes this is reasonable; the Chinese teahouse at Sanssouci is a joy.

I was enthralled by the tiny description of the Quinta de Regaleira, built by someone amazingly rich even by the standards of the Gilded Age and very fond of symbolism and mystery; it's described as "the garden of an obsessive", or "allegorical", and seems to be composed largely of turrets and grottos, or dry wells, connected by half-hidden ways. Clearly a mastermind of ambiguous morality should live there.

These stunnerous gardens don't last forever; war and development took some, many of them require constant upkeep, others were plowed under by inheritors of money but not taste, many are ruins thousands of years old (and still striking), some of them had natural lifespans limited by the lives of trees. I am made the more happy by the Cang Lang Ting:

The Cang Lang Ting is one of the oldest gardens in Suzhou and has been so miraculously preserved that it still resembles the drawing its creator, the scholar and poet Su Zimei, made when he designed the garden in 1044. Carved on to a black stone, which still stands at the entrance to the garden, the plan shows a bird's-eye view[...]

It was moved or rebuilt in the 17th century, but everyone says it kept the spirit of the Song builders.

A significant number of the gardens are 'out of place' in some way, as when Catherine the Great hired a Scottish architect to build a Chinese village and a pyramid mausoleum (for her dogs!) .East and West exchanged styles, also North and South, and maybe the transplants required more genius to flourish; or maybe they stayed famous because they were so obviously made things. The pyramids are a recurring theme, too, said to represent reason and enlightenment but often associated with secrets.

ISBN: 0741843555

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Forge of Heaven, C. J. Cherryh

All the details of this were enjoyable in a mid-range Cherryh way, and then I summarized it for my other half (to explain where it fits into her considerable ouevre) and he just destroyed it for me by making the accurate observation, "So, another 'Boy Finds Hands'?"

Alas, it is another 'Boy Finds Hands', which Cherryh chugs out with regularity suggesting that those are the ones which sell. (To do: check Amazon rankings?) The deeply, deeply annoying thing about them is that the plots, the rest of her universes, are sufficiently complex and adult that there are always much more interesting characters who we mostly see through the blinkered eyes of the Boy. I find Tripoint the most exasperating of the lot, as the Boy didn't have much more on his hands than many adolescents, but his combined love-interest/dea ex machina (sp?) had a powerfully interesting backstory, which we don't see. I want a novel about her instead.

In Forge..., I have as usual nothing against the reasonably nice pupal bureaucrat who finds his hands; but I would rather have seen more of Marak's thinking; he found his hands in Hammerfall and is now capable of deciding what to do with them. Even the adult bureaucrats are more interesting than the larva. And, finally, I lost some suspension of disbelief not in the deep space/nanotech plot but in the chance that a powerful alien would be so impressed by the larva. He is a perfectly decent young man and may be impressive later, but I sure don't see the aura of greatness now.

All the women are backgrounded, too, which is increasingly annoying as the novel goes on; they tend to come into play when they do foolish things for personal reasons, which doesn't even make much sense when one of them is a near-immortal of species-spanning importance and unknown Deep Plans.

ISBN: 0380979039

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Talking it Over, Julian Barnes

He do them all in different voices; the whole joy of this is the narration done in a dozen different voices, all first-person, arguing with the interviewer and each other.

The story is a love-triangle with associated failures of self-presentation, like @expectations, for instance, but better told.

ISBN: 0679405259

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@expectations, Kit Reed

I lost sympathy on the second page, when it became obvious that this was failing to be a Richard Powers novel. It would have been between The Gold Bug Variations and Plowing the Dark, only the characters are more predictable and less tragic, the prose more often falls out of alt into breathlessness, and theorems get name-dropped before any situation they could metaphorically be thought to describe is constructed.

It might have been choked at birth with chick-lit ambitions. I admit I suspect this partly because of the cover art, which looks like an ad for an online pregnancy test. The next suspect failing is that the female, lovestruck protagonist has a professionally competent history and no sign of being surprised that she's currently acting like such a goopy fool. I know that real people do this, hold all the cards but temporarily think like a fourteen-year-old, but I don't find it credible that they get all the way to the Learning and Growing stage without some amazement and self-recrimination for their own stupidity.

The last failing is an odd case of claiming something instead of writing so that it's obvious. The engine of the plot is a reckless romance in a MOO, and the credibility that someone could fall hopelessly in love in text is undermined by the slow, mechanical explication of exactly what gets typed, control characters and all. I think it would have been far more effective to have written the first MOO scenes as though they were materially real, because the story doesn't make any sense unless you believe that the characters experience the MOO as a heightened reality. Prose has better tools than a change in typeface and some @ symbols to indicate that.

This is a funny case of show-don't-tell because it's possible to literally show what the character would literally type, but doing so is what fails to show what we are told the character experiences. Possibly it was all meant to undercut our sympathy for the character, but nothing else suggests that this is so, including the reasonable and kindly ending.

ISBN: 0312874863

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