July 23, 2005

The Winter of the World, Michael Scott Rohan

Like The Steerswoman's Road this trilogy shows us what we call technology so that it looks like magic; but this is not fundamentally a rationalist novel. It may, like The Lord of the Rings, be more of an epic than a novel. I kept thinking of Tolkien in comparison, and not just because I was deciding if author Rohan had matched his model; there are a bunch of places, chiefly the embodiment of magic, in which I think Rohan decided to solve a problem Tolkien had in a different way, which was neither better nor worse.

Tolkien's prose does beat him hollow for flexibility; Rohan-author has a slightly formal, highflown style that holds its tenor better than almost all adventure fantasy, but it's only one style. There's nothing like the change to poetry that Tolkien used in, coincidentally, his description of Rohan.

The Winter of the World is most flexible when mixing fantasy and science; a little like Terry Pratchett, with utterly different purpose. The whole plot is the coming of the last Ice Ages, and the geology and geography is joyous. But in this book the Ice Ages are caused by a battle between gods, and the gods take physical form and are affected by them. Similarly, the details of some of the magical works slip from pretty-much-science to a fistful of fusion, and very gracefully. The other background is North European myths, and the three twine when we get a sort-of transition from magical dwarves to Neanderthals.

My favorite bit is that the hero, a smith, spends decades of single-minded, often solitary, toil learning his craft even though he is chosen of the gods. It's not that the gods couldn't install the skill, if one assumes gods; it's that it makes a damned dull novel, and if you're going to have actual characters they'd better have to work for their skill.

My least favorite bit was the conflation of anti-aristocratism with ultimate evil. Given the gods and mythology, aristocratism is to be expected, but I thought it was not only excessive but surprisingly bad storytelling to make the representative republican carry quite so many flaws. He'd have made more sense as a minor and deluded villain.

Find in a Library: The Anvil of Ice

The Forge in the Forest

The Hammer of the Sun

Posted by clew at 08:18 PM

The Steerswoman's Road, Rosemary Kirstein

Oh, joy, a rationalist's adventure novel. (Two novels, originally; The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret.) It has paladin researchers, and a great deal of ecology, and a central friendship, and a fundamentally anti-aristocratic political stance, and a tragedy that doesn't turn out better than it ought to. The heroines are good at things because they've spent years, decades, practicing them with the best people they can find, not because they were chosen by fate. There are goats, doing what goats do best. All my buttons neatly pushed.

The world has a small and seemingly beleaguered human settlement, with barbarian outlands and troublesome wizards; the main character belongs to a very open college of mapmakers and inquirers who travel all the time to find out and share information. She gets hold of a thread that turns out to be a World-Shattering Plot.

She might be too smart to be realistic, though Kirstein does a pretty good job of tracing out leaps of plausible inference. Kirstein doesn't try the bravura trick of writing that mental experience from the inside, although she does describe the elation of having it.

This is the novel I wish Forge of Heaven had been, in that the whole problem isn't explained at the beginning, and the central characters are interesting ones. There's still a central villain to be met, too; there are two more novels in the series. Oh, joy.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 07:41 PM

July 16, 2005

A Dornfield Summer, Mary Murkland Haley

My city library has a selection of "Books Your Parents and Grandparents Loved" out, a mishmash of reprinted classics, old Issue Novels, and gloriously moldy cheese. I twirled my whiskers and went for the cheese.

This one does well by its mold. It's basically a Louisa May Alcott story, of an opinionated, bookish, pre-Woman young woman who makes mistakes and learns to be a better person. This is not tedious because Haley isn't cheating; her heroine really does make mistakes and they're embarassing and she changes afterwards, though not lots. The visiting poor cousin neither worships at her shrine nor gets molded into an upper-class young thing. (More on that later; it gave me the one total surprise of the book.)

Nor are there plot coincidences or deathbed conversions; although hugely concerned with being good Christians, these people live in a world of practical causality. The didacticism is under control.

Historical details:

...having had a small fortune left him, he[r father] was able to give up a profession [in the law] for which he did not care much, to take up the farm life he did enjoy.

a saleratus cake (it goes wrong, because made by the poetry-quoting rich daughter Gertrude, not the practical and precise poor cousin Florence).

There seems to be a serious labor dearth, so much so that household servants set their conditions, though maybe not their wages. True, in 1906? This is set outside commuting distance from any large city, and I think the family isn't quite rich enough that their help lives in.

Haley (like Alcott; see An Old-Fashioned Girl) approves of women who support themselves. It's Florence who didn't think there was a ladylike way to do that:

... the warm friendship of these girls for each other, on terms of perfect equality, though Miss Casson, incomparably the gayer, better-dressed and more popular, was working her own way through college, while Emma was a rich man's daughter, brushed away a few more of her disappearing class prejudices.

Of Casson and a young man:

Miss Casson, by the way, took the reins from Thorsby at the end of the first mile, remarking that as she was not now playing golf, she preferred to go around the hazards rather than over them. She knew how to drive and he did n't, so both were satisfied.

There's also a nontraditional young man, who everyone takes lightly, but who is going to go to the city and make a living as a wallpaper designer.

Florence figures out how she's going to make her living when a masonry accident brings a crushed hand into the house, and she's the calmest person there. Send me to the bottom of the class; I thought she was going to train to be a nurse - but the doctor says,

"Well, young lady, do you think you'll be able to take off a man's fingers yourself next time?" This was his only recognition of her coolness, when all was done.
"I mean to, sometime." The admission was drawn from her by the excitement of the hour, which she had not otherwise shown except by the darkening of her eyes. ... "I should n't care for the pills and powder people so much. I might not have patience, I'm afraid, with their whims and complaints. But—yes, I should like to 'chop.' I'd like to see how the inside of you looks this minute, Gertie Gleason!"...
"It cannot be unwomanly to make the best of any talent God has given you.

that last from the mother of the family, who is Perfect. Nor is this dreamy utopianism; the novel is dedicated to three girlhood friends, one of whom "was to be known in a great city with M.D. written after her name".

The Seattle Public Library copy was given by Haley herself, and for all I can tell is the second-to-last trace of her; Worldcat doesn't list it, but she did write a story indexed in FictionMags. FictionMags is a serendipitous find; the tables-of-contents are such a picture of daily worries and ambitions.

Haley, Mary Murkland. A Dornfield Summer. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1906.

Posted by clew at 05:32 PM

The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss

Unromantic. It's the fragmented story of a generation ship's crew that leaves Central America and finally makes landfall on a tough planet. Most such stories are adventure stories, or at least intrigues of politics or love, and so all romances or Romantic. This ship was commissioned and crewed by a Society of Friends, Quakers, and they succeed by concentrating on "the boring parts". Endless meetings, crowded quarters, and no idle hands at all: everyone does what we would think of as two or three jobs, skilled ones, often one technological and one agricultural; and when sitting around jawing they're always shelling beans or teasing fiber or something.

It sounds interesting, although exhausting. After Biosphere turned out to be harder to run than expected it seems realistic that a spacefaring ecosystem should take such constant, detailed attention. Definitely there are more hours spent worrying about the balance of insect species than about the solar sails; unsaid, and slowly obvious, is that the machinery is simpler. Farmers once agree to carry branches from flourishing plants to feed an ant colony that's moved to a rare hedge, for instance. They don't want to lose the hedge, or even the ants, and they don't know why the ants moved so they don't risk trying to persuade them elsewhere.

The ecological detail is not overwhelming, though. I'd have liked more, e.g. in the discussion of A and B soil horizons on the new planet.

The cover blurb is from Ursula K. Le Guin. I am now cogitating on whether Le Guin ever was romantic; less so than most people who write fantasies and allegories, certainly, and maybe not at all.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 04:55 PM

July 15, 2005

The Cassandra Complex, Brian Stableford

As-you-know-Bob, science fiction is plagued by lecturing, or info-dumps. You'd think that research facilities would be, too, but I have found that the universal tendency to lecture controls itself; everyone wants to talk and they don't spend all that much time not interrupting each other.

Some of Stableford's As-you-knows are attempts to explain the historical details of his background world. By line count, vastly more of the dumps are theorists pontificating to each other, which I found unrealistic for two reasons: first, because I don't believe the other one would be so quiet, second, because they were pontificating at such a low level of info. Third, their minimal info was 'stuck'; almost all of it was based on some Garret Hardin. Now, after forty years of the world collapsing under overpopulation, I would really really expect people to mention subsequent authors, both scholarly or popular; or Malthus, if they were devotedly antiquarian. Discussing various scholarly views and experiments could also be done with two different worldviews, thus replacing slabs of monologue with slices of dialogue.

Also, surely someone should have mentioned Elinor Ostrom, unless it's part of the point that everyone in the novel wants to be in a Cabal; they really, really believe that a collective-action problem has a top-down solution.

Within this talky constraint, there's a decent police adventure novel, and the characters have complicated motivations. Few of the villains are totally villainous; some are deludedly heroic, some are not so much deluded as possibly wrong in the same way the protagonist might be wrong. The pettiest is moved by personal jealousy. This was the most realistic part of the whole, I thought, probably inherited from good police novels rather than apocalyptic SF novels.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 06:25 PM

July 13, 2005

Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern, Alexander Tzonis

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 

A while ago City Comforts had a minor theme on columns, colonnades, classicism and neo-classicism in architecture. One of the obvious problems was that 'classicism' is regularly redefined. I don't think the discussion there really settled on a definition; David Sucher felt that the term is used to mean anything pre-automobile, especially with columns and cornices. The architects (?) were earnest that classical architecture is a language in which c. and c. are words but not required words; they didn't demonstrate this in Backus-Naur. I found an online version of Vitruvius, which I boiled down for a comment (copied below); he's very appealing, I think, in his combination of aesthetic and practical concerns.

Classical Greek Architecture stood out on the new-books shelf of the library for its size and glossy whiteness. Its purpose seems to be to reprint some lovely, probably pre-WWI photographs of classical ruins, especially the Acropolis, said ruins sizeable and white on unpeopled hills. Most of those ruins are of temples and temenos, temple complexes, not places many people lived; but the book also has site plans of entire cities, and close-ups of columns and bases.

The text was probably speaking to those who already know; for one thing, its 'modern' seems to mean 'not archaic', and almost to mean 'rational'. There is a little historical comment on one of the more recent 'moderns', which explains some of the anxiety around The Decipherment of Linear B. 19th c. and 20th c. scholars, especially German ones, really wanted the classical Greeks to have come as a group from Northern fastnesses and immediately leapt to greatness, without cultural cross-pollination; so the language of a pre-greatness not-blond group wasn't 'supposed' to be Greek. Perhaps there was a little crosstalk between that theory and the desire to remake the world that led also to what we think of as Modernist architecture. That's my interpolation; Tzonis is explicit that classical revivals have been used for all sorts of political movements, not all compatible with each other, and indeed that the Homeric age itself was doing exactly the same thing: "forging a Hellenic identity through reconstruction of the past." (p. 23)

Even inside that reconstruction, there was a split now familiar; Tzonis, partly in tracking cultural cross-pollination, remarks that technicians, builders and makers, were already thought of as naturally cosmopolitan and often expats; he cites the Odyssey, Herodotus, Plutarch. Culture at large found innovation worrisome because it might be impious.

They had plenty of innovation, including the introduction (possibly from Egypt) of gridded urban planning, to which the Greeks used to separate public/business and residential areas and also to reflect the democratic equal allocation of land shares (p. 150). Of this: "stoae began to flank the main streets... enhancing environmental comfort and enabling social interaction." Also, "the stoa became the first kind of building in ancient Greece that was used as a means of defining an outside area... of forming places, rather than simply as an independent object inserted in space." There's a lot more by Tzonis on how the columns around a building made it a discrete spatial object, unlike the stuck-together palace complexes of the Mycenaeans; and also an object that was an expression of a total rational plan, of world-making. The pictures show the grid beginning to apply to everything, not just the buildings in a new town and the columns along the building but the elements of the frieze and the stones themselves of the wall, all on the same grid. It still looks pretty good; I expect it stunned the perception of anyone who had seen only natural, never comprehensible, geometry. This is where Tzonis sees the modern; systematic thinking, with "no place for falsehood or accident".

Therefore I can believe a great deal of architectural mysticism on the part of the Greeks, although it's hard to believe that, for instance, the Myceneans didn't experience their palaces as defined places. I was also struck by how the technical challenges of building were being met by columns; the Telesterion of Eleusis held thousands of people, the Thersilion has a surprising arrangement of columns allowing (I think) good sightlines for the people in it.

ISBN: 2080304429

Moving from Greece to Rome, Vitruvius appeals to my practical sense. My cherry-picking of his On Architecture, copied from City Comforts, where we were arguing over the usefulness of classicism for cities with cars:

I was going to say what Chris Burd just said about the grid being classical even if you think it's obvious. I'd go a little further and say that the enthusiasm that built the courthouses and public squares in the gridded railroad towns was often consciously, if naively, classicist.

About how classicists would deal with the urban car: there's precedent, of course. The city is built to be navigated on foot, and wheeled traffic for heavy deliveries is limited to after dark. Works for me. Heck, it might take the Eleusinian Rites to build transit in Seattle. (I am mixing my references. Sorry.)

Seriously, though, you could consult Vitruvius to see if the canonical classical architect is concerned with plan as well as elevation. One summary of Book V, put up by Bill Thayer, runs:

"In which the author warns you that architecture is highly technical, then proves it in spades in his exposition of civil public spaces: the forum, the basilica, the theatre and its porticos, the palaestra and the baths; harbors. "

There are specific measurements for pillars and so forth, but part of the Classic habit was the reasoning given for the standardized site designs. Particularly 3-Rules-relevant stuff:

"for the convenience of the spectators, the intercolumniations must be wider; and the bankers' shops are situated in the surrounding porticos with apartments on the floors over them, which are constructed for the use of the parties, and as a depôt of the public revenue. "

"The basilica should be situated adjoining the forum, on the warmest side, so that the merchants may assemble there in winter, without being inconvenienced by the cold. "

"The tribunal is in the shape of a segment of a circle; the front dimension of which is forty-six feet, that of its depth fifteen feet; and is so contrived, that the merchants who are in the basilica may not interfere with those who have business before the magistrates. "

And, my favorite; a completely utilitarian reason given for a cornice:

"The [curia] walls, moreover, at half their height, are to have cornices run round them of wood or plaster. For if such be not provided, the voices of the disputants meeting with no check in their ascent, will not be intelligible to the audience."

Later he worries about the walkways of the city; they should ideally be protected, verdurant, well-drained, and made of charcoal that will serve as fuel during sieges.

In book VI he considers private buildings. He also manages to explain why every climate except that of Italy develops inferior people, but the discussion of climate starts with:

"These [private buildings] are properly designed, when due regard is had to the country and climate in which they are erected. For the method of building which is suited to Egypt would be very improper in Spain, and that in use in Pontus would be absurd at Rome: so in other parts of the world a style suitable to one climate, would be very unsuitable to another..."

His practical argument for arches: beams sag and are very hard to repair in place. The upper story, he says, can be built as you like, beams or arches, because it can be redone if you get it wrong.

Posted by clew at 08:48 PM

July 08, 2005

Hard Contact, Karen Traviss

I liked City of Pearl enough to read Traviss' Star Wars novel Hard Contact, which is mostly about clone troops and not bad. Not surprising either, but it's satisfying young-adult storytelling about Coming of Age, and conscious of the larger problems of, say, diplomacy and mutually exclusive moral goods. The Jedi officer is awful whiny, but that leaves more room for the nobility of the troops. Also, of course, Luke was pretty whiny, maybe it's an unexpected side-effect of the Force. Okay, thought I, the movies tanked out but group action has developed a universe around them; that explains some lingering loyalty. So I picked out one of the last books in the closing series, in which the original characters are gray-haired grownups and their children are having coming-of-age-journeys; and it was awful. Far too many words are spent on naming weapons, far too many pages are spent making sure that every copyrighted character does a character turn. But the basic problem is that the closing series doesn't seem to build on the close of the middle series; instead of the necessary process of putting the galaxy back together after all kinds of civil war, some implausibly successful aliens attack from another galaxy and Han, Luke, etc. come back to do exactly what they did in the movies. Don't worry, kids, no-one has to learn anything complicated when they grow up! You just suffer until you start glowing. Either that or you're a redshirt. See inside bottletop; cash value 1/10 of a cent.

I should make clear that the novel giving me hiccups isn't by Traviss; I have already forgotten who it's by and what it's called and don't even want to look it up.

The plot stagnation is particularly annoying given the generation of offspring available for the adventure story; one didn't need the grayhairs to posture their way through it, even if all one wanted to write was youth adventure. Clearly I have been too annoyed at Lois McMaster Bujold; at least her children-of-the-powerful learned something from it.

ISBN: 0345478274

Posted by clew at 04:41 PM

Hammered, Elizabeth Bear

There are several other novels with pretty much the same cover (female in jumpsuit; boots gun and hint of cleavage, no face), and I've started at least two of them that bored me silly, but I guess the id-coding of pulp art isn't perfect yet because this one is a blast.

The story has much in common with Wilhelmina Baird's first couple of novels; urban chaos, environmental disaster, a neighborhood held together by rising warlords and retired military cyborgs. Bear uses less art than Baird, both in her characters' lives and in the prose, but her pace and dialog vary with the characters. One of the characters is Feynman, not as vivid as in his own words.

The main character is more like Swordfish than like Cassandra, to finish the Baird comparison; less swoony from the inside than the outside but more interesting.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 03:58 PM

Swing Shift, Howard M. Brier

What I principally enjoyed in this WW II story was the careful namechecking of Seattle and Puget Sound places and sights, including the Kalakala, which was considered an eyeful back in the day too.

The second-best bit was the tale of a young North Dakota lad becoming entranced with heavy industry and forging his way to competence through a love of logistics and a great facility at making friends. He walks down to the waterfront his first day off the train and meets the son of a shipyard owner; on his way to the recommended work he meets an old bosun type who explains shipfitting. He also gains the regard of the owner by reading Walt Whitman.

The espionage plot wasn't as good, because he was pretty stupid (Tell the Grownups, subcategory iii: Tell the FBI) and didn't suffer for it; the German-named saboteurs with little black mustaches get caught.

No ISBN, and it isn't listed by Worldcat even though I checked it out of the Seattle Public Library, which generally does show in those listings. Behold a gap in the internet, tho' I guess I'm doing my bit to darn it.

Brier, Howard M. Swing Shift. New York: Random House, 1943.

Posted by clew at 03:28 PM

Suzy Zeus Gets Organized, Maggie Robbins

Light chick lit might as well be verse, since verse shows off imagery and zingers and what else does one read this stuff for? Robbins adds a discernible plot, with dating and religion and a bit of a nervous breakdown, but the fun is the rhythm and the rhyme:

Ancient Greeks, with nine to choose from,
sipped their ouzo, heard their muse.
Suzy wonders, was that real, or
was it maybe just the booze?
Suzy hears a thought. His roommate
isn't just his roommate, Suze.

Is it a trend? Is it a Movement? Another three of the books I've blogged in Poetry are this-sort-of-thing, especially The Beauty of the Husband; then two of them are antiquarian (The Emperor's Babe, The Penelopeia) where 'Zeus' in this title is oblique. Definitely a trend.

Of the Nine, none were devoted
To shopping, chocolate or shoes.

Later: That was too cheap a shot. I should have remembered one of the sweeter poems from the tenth muse:

I have no embroidered headband to give you, Cleis, such as I wore
and in my mother's day a purple ribbon was the height of fashion
but we were dark; a girl as fair as sunshine
should only wear flowers.

Fashion; wedding (?) worries; generational saga... it's not the plot that makes great literature.

The above is my memory of, almost certainly, Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho. Since Barnard mostly had memory-jogger-size scraps to translate, it's hard to quote her in proportions small enough to be definitely fair use...

Find in a Library from Worldcat

Posted by clew at 03:19 PM
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