March 06, 2010

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it -- talking trade balances here -- once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here -- once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel -- once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani bricklayer would consider to be prosperity

I had forgotten how specific to America and free trade that jeremiad was. No-one can tell us what to do, so we hang separately rather than together, literally losing much of the nation to extraterritorial franchises like the English compounds in China before the Opium Wars.

Find in a Library: Snow Crash

So wrote clew.

September 14, 2009

Witchdame, Kathleen Sky

This reminded me pleasantly of E. R. Eddison, good heavens, without being an imitation; rather, Sky has the same flavor of treating the language and customs of (literary) Tudor England as a pile of rubble to rebuild with, without bothering much about deep commonality. It should come out as a bad costume job, but I was convinced. I liked the witchdame magic; theater and boasting and architecture, in keeping with, say, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance without having either a classical or much of a Christian structure. There's something vulgar and Norse in it, and something from Avram Davidson's Virgil.

Find in a Library: Witchdame

So wrote clew.

The Edge of Reason, Melinda Snodgrass

Deeply disappointing; it blurbs itself as 'A novel of the war between science and superstition', but the unsubtly-plumped Good Guys of science don't use science at all, or even reason, really. They depend on a magical mcguffin artifact made by a supernatural big daddy, and occasional paladins born with the ability to wield it, and yer general narrativium of suffering nobly and therefore winning. The unspeakable forces of evil, on the other hand, not only use physics but combine it with reality; and they are also better at psychology and politics.

Another blurb says 'will ... outrage true believers -- of all stripes'; the story goes on to posit that there is good Christianity, which is still a matter of dangerous belief but was invented by the good demon to spike evil Christianity. There is nothing carefully thought through in this entire plot, and I don't think it could outrage anyone more conventional than Robert Ingersoll.

Do not find in a library.

So wrote clew.

August 10, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith

The action-movie parts don't reach Jane Austen's prose style, but get stiff trying. The interpolations do patch something that makes Austen's novels hard to read as realistic novels now; 'zombie-fighting skill' is used to replace 'good birth' as a social essential. It's not as good a replacement as 'high school cool' is, because it doesn't have the network effects or the effects of charisma, but at least the sense of importance is right.

Nor was I convinced by Japan as a contemporaneous source of mysterious fighting skills. Of course, if one is imagining ninjas, they would have existed then, but I don't think England of the day would have been thinking of ninjas. Studying with the Old Man of the Mountain would seem more likely to me, or learning from a mysterious temple in India; something inherited from the Gothics or Wilkie Collins.

I didn't finish the book, so; not a fair review.

Find in a Library: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

So wrote clew.

June 24, 2009

The Great Romance, The Inhabitant, Dominic Alessio, ed.

The introduction was more interesting than the novel itself -- in the first paragraph, Alessio hopefully describes it as "technological sophistication combined with a relatively not-too-turgid prose style", but given how dreadful nineteenth century SF could be, this is faint praise. Still, it is mildly interesting to think of this New Zealand novel as boosterism for New Zealand and therefore a peaceful-exploration novel, an optimists' view of the future because the present was turning out so well. (Is there 19th c. SF from Africa? Algiers? Afghanistan?) It might even have been historically effective as a precursor to Looking Backward, although there's only (lots of) indirect evidence.

Find in a Library: The Great Romance

So wrote clew.

Ill Met in the Arena, Dave Duncan

Basically an Andre Norton novel (witch queens, war dukes, intrigue) told by a duke. Silly, but good-tempered enough, and Stuff Happens. Also a version of a locked-room puzzle like Jumpers.

Find in a library: Ill Met in the Arena

So wrote clew.

June 09, 2009

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway

The Friendship Pagoda is unassuming to begin with, but the good ones unfold and whir and glow much longer than expected, and sometimes catch on fire. Friendship is underrated.

The Gone-Away World is as perfect as a firework in its outer plot. It's a kung fu science-fiction apocalypse revenge story. I know there are a lot of those, but this one has all the proper virtues well crafted (elegiac tone; training montage; set-pieces on unlikely sets) and shuffles them nicely to keep it lively. Basically the parts, the deaths and trauma and restoration of the civil order, are not in their usual places. Good beach reading.

I thought the writing was good, too; not flashy very often, but often enough to seem restrained rather than simple, with a consistent voice for the main character.

What really makes my knees weak, though, and I love this book so much it's embarassing to say, is the moral structure that underlies just about all the important plot events. Not everyone I've lent the book to noticed this at all, it isn't didactic, so I feel a bit black-beret coffeehouse going on about this, but the moral is handy for our Or Any Other days... and it's used in enough aspects that I'm having trouble picking the best catchphrase. "Only connect the beast and the monk.", definitely; or, you will be what you have done. What you do for a nation, or corporation, or religion, or love, is still your action. But also, lightheartedly, and yet the same theorem; beware bug-eyed alienation of labor; or, keep an eye on the invisible hand. Harkaway doesn't make many of the jokes he could, not explicitly, but since the story reifies reification I'm pretty sure there's some coffeehouse in his temperament too.

It's a manly-man tale, but the women have character and consequence; this is not to be relied on, in either SF or philosophical novels, so it was a relief. It does remind me of Snow Crash, which was also a young man's coming-of-age story but with real female characters. This is a bit worrying, as I think Stephenson's increasingly crackerjack-prize women are a direct response to his worldly success as a writer.

The dust jacket on the (US?) hardback is fuzzy, which is seriously flocked-up, man. Partly fuzzy. Partly glossy. Should be slightly jelly-textured in parts to get across the unnervingness of parts of the story.

Find in a Library: The Gone-Away World.

So wrote clew.

May 05, 2009

The Blue Germ, Martin Swayne

The Blue Germ makes man and animals immune to disease and aging -- and desire and ambition. The narrator is one of the inventors, and was not expecting ambition to be lost; but then he wasn't expecting the uninfected young to systematically slaughter the old, who own almost all property, either.

It's not a very *gripping* novel, all the same -- there's not much done with the difference of affect as the narrator catches the disease, or with the characters of the few who catch it and aren't undone:

Those who still retained sufficient individuality to continue existence were the strangest mixture of folk, for they were of every class, many of them being little better than beggars. They were people in whom the desire of life played a minor part. They were those people who are commonly regarded as being failures, people who live and die unknown to the world. They were those people who devote themselves to an obscure existence, shun the rewards of successful careers, and are ridiculed by all prosperous individuals.

and it ends "and then everybody got over it and woke up", cutting off the narration rather than working out any of the psychological or political effects one would expect. So; mildly interesting as a precursor of Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, etc., but not so much in itself.

Project Gutenberg file #26852: The Blue Germ

So wrote clew.

December 29, 2008

Kris Longknife: Intrepid, Mike Shepherd

It is not at all generally the case that alluvial soil, after a few days' exposure to air, turns "as hard as concrete". That would be plinthite, probably, on Earth, which gets that way not from an alluvial origin but from high iron concentrations in steadily wet conditions.

Perhaps the planet in question has a lot of iron and arable alluvial soils are also indurable, but it's not something you could expect people to deduce from 'alluvial' and no other data.

That pedogenic detail aside, I have generally enjoyed this space-opera series. The main characters talk about how awful war is in a way that doesn't ring true to me for what adults would actually say, but I can take as a broad-brush painting of how the characters plausibly feel about morally iffy things they know they've decided to do. Possibly it's all aimed at the genre's twelve-year-old ideal reader. This would also explain the great care in knowing when the characters have on their special undies of various sorts; it's all very literal. And, come to think of it, sex is adumbrated, not twee but not laid out lasciviously.

And it mines history, mostly Napoleonic naval and US military, but anything where needed... I had forgotten that a filibuster was originally a opportunist invader from the States.

I was creeped out by Marque and Reprisal because its armed princess heroine decides that anyone who doesn't enjoy killing her enemies is weak. Maybe it's over-picky of me to question the tone of a character I find saner, especially when it makes this readable when actual history is too strong for my stomach. And there's plenty of it, at least six novels now.

Find in a Library: Kris Longknife: Intrepid

So wrote clew.

December 11, 2007

A Journey in Other Worlds, J. J. Astor

Very, very bad, with brief descents into being humorously bad. It opens with a landing on Jupiter in its temperate forests:

"I hope we may find some four-legged inhabitants," said Ayrault, thinking of their explosive magazine rifles. "If Jupiter is passing through its Jurassic or Mesozoic period, there must be any amount of some kind of game."

In the fraction of the book I pressed through, that's as lively as the dialogue gets, and the action is no stronger.

The good bit is the grandeur of the terraforming plans -- Terra-forming, in fact; our own planet requires improvement:

As long ago as 1890, Major-Gen. A. W. Drayson, of the British Army, showed, in a work entitled Untrodden Ground in Astronomy and Geology, that, as a result of the second rotation of the earth, the inclination of its axis was changing, it having been 23@ 28' 23" on January 1, 1750, 23@ 27' 55.3" on January 1, 1800, and 23@ 27' 30.9" on January 1, 1850; and by calculation one hundred and ten years ago showed that in 1900 (one hundred years ago) it would be 23@ 27' 08.8". This natural straightening is, of course, going on, and we are merely about to anticipate it. When this improvement was mooted, all agreed that the EXTREMES of heat and cold could well be spared. 'Balance those of summer against those of winter by partially straightening the axis; reduce the inclination from twenty-three degrees, thirty minutes, to about fifteen degrees, but let us stop there,' many said. Before we had gone far, however, we found it would be best to make the work complete. This will reclaim and make productive the vast areas of Siberia and the northern part of this continent, and will do much for the antarctic regions; but there will still be change in temperature; a wind blowing towards the equator will always be colder than one blowing from it, while the slight eccentricity of the orbit will supply enough change to awaken recollections of seasons in our eternal spring.
"The way to accomplish this is to increase the weight of the pole leaving the sun, by increasing the amount of material there for the sun to attract, and to lighten the pole approaching or turning towards the sun, by removing some heavy substance from it, and putting it preferably at the opposite pole. This shifting of ballast is most easily accomplished, as you will readily perceive, by confining and removing water, which is easily moved and has a considerable weight. How we purpose to apply these aqueous brakes to check the wabbling of the earth, by means of the attraction of the sun, you will now see.
"From Commander Fillmore, of the Arctic Shade and the Committee on Bulkheads and Dams, I have just received the following by cable telephone: 'The Arctic Ocean is now in condition to be pumped out in summer and to have its average depth increased one hundred feet by the dams in winter. We have already fifty million square yards of windmill turbine surface in position and ready to move. The cables bringing us currents from the dynamos at Niagara Falls are connected with our motors, and those from the tidal dynamos at the Bay of Fundy will be in contact when this reaches you, at which moment the pumps will begin. In several of the landlocked gulfs and bays our system of confining is so complete, that the surface of the water can be raised two hundred feet above sea- level. The polar bears will soon have to use artificial ice. Perhaps the cheers now ringing without may reach you over the telephone.'"

There is so much exposition that two of the chapters are:

IV.-PROF. CORTLANDT'S HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE WORLD IN A.D. 2000
V.-DR. CORTLANDT'S HISTORY CONTINUED

Bits of the 'history' are mildly interesting for their take on redesigning urban transit, but not very.

Eventually they meet a ghost Bishop on Saturn, who lectures them on physics and morality. This is to Swedenborg as the hunting on Jupiter is to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Project Gutenberg etext #1607. They file it under 'Utopias'.

So wrote clew.

December 10, 2007

The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett

Proto-heroines cause nothing to actually occur in the plot -- they may, for instance, have outridden every cowpunch in the state in the establishing scenes, and yet get shot promptly as soon as a love-interest is there to be preëminent. Annoying. And, partly because it's difficult to have two of the simpler kind of adventure lead in the same plot, when a hero and heroine marry one of them sort of has to stop... Rochester? reformed rakes in toto? Ekaterina, in the last Barrayar novel; I was annoyed about that.

In contrast, Vimes' subtle wife causes almost everything in this book; she makes the suggestion to Vetinari that puts the plot as a whole in motion, she notices one of Vimes' best clues, she outfaces a king and gets in some gratuitous gratifying violence when locked up. Pratchett has some throwaway, academic-humor lines about the Fifth Elephant as a dwarf's metaphor for the secret pattern, and Lady Sibyl is the Fifth Elephant.

Now, to the dwarves, the Fifth Elephant is also a handy source of schmaltz; and Lady Sibyl also. A coloratura! Really! Such typecasting!

Find in a Library, The Fifth Elephant

So wrote clew.

June 16, 2007

Spinners, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

An elegant, tragic retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, explaining who that little bent man was, and how he gained the power to spin straw into gold, and why he wanted the child of the miller's daughter.

Find in a Library: Spinners

So wrote clew.

March 18, 2007

[P|M]atriarchy

I have been cogitating (much of this is from a comment elsewhere) on matriarchies and patriarchies in SFF; I guess *archies are easier to write than an-archies. Certainly the one can be a comment on the other. ...I barely resisted the urge to partial-order them, but I cannot help but categorize.

The current sex-role-reversal, or 'exceptional woman' novel, I think most interesting is Karen Travissí series from City of Pearl to Matriarch(more coming); she starts with a kickass, tormented female soldier, who is introduced to several seemingly utopian societies, which get more frightening on closer acquaintance. (I am more than a little nervous about the idyllic society with a) males physiologically dependent on female affection, and b) spectacular biotech.) The series is a bit unusual for SF in that the obviously damaging societies do not seem any less frightening--no Pangloss comfort.

Califiaís Daughters (Leigh Richards, AKA Laurie King) has reversed-patriarchy matriarchy, generated by a sex-linked disease, and I think the denoument is humanist and feminist, though thereís no expectation that it will be utopian.

Elizabeth Bearís Carnival plays with a reversed-patriarchy and a surviving patriarchy, mostly as commentary on our expectations (her mats. are horrified by abortion; her pats. are strict animalsí-rightists). Wen Spencerís A Brotherís Price is a sex-reversed Regency romance and not subversive at all. (The Sharing Knife is a Regency romance in grubby clothes; the Ranger is a lot like the standard tormented-by-the-Napoleonic-Wars hero. )

The class-trumps-gender stories squick me out, probably because itís so easy for me to enjoy them because my class position is comfy. The Barrayar stories rule this genre, because Cordelia, who is Never Wrong, is so explicit about it; Ďitís easy for a democrat to adopt to an aristocracy if she gets to be an aristocrat!í Not really the point, Cordelia. Nor is your personal attempt to ameliorate the society you profit from. The fantasy that it would be OK to be on the top of such a hierarchy because *we* would be, you know, *nice* slaveowners is poison. It's wine for us drunkards. The Wizard Hunters, vols. i_iii, were similar in the end and I reread them over and over as escapism; an active woman from a patriarchal culture moves to a matriarchal culture, marrying one-or-more unusually active men there. All parties respect each other more than the recipient has been brought up to expect. It's actually pretty easy to believe that they will all be happier than they would be trying to fix injustices directly, but it still seems like free-riding on the immoral acts of others.

(Barbara Hambly is the opposite; check out her evolution from wizards and beleaguered marcher kingdoms to Patriot Hearts.)

The cornucopias assume away scarcity of resources (Ian Banksí Culture novels, obviously) leaving puzzles and the insoluble quirks of human nature to drive the plot. They seem feminist to me in about the same measure as the authorís assumptions about human nature do. This makes them rather like lit-fic Ďmundaneí novels in which everyone has an OK job of about the same salary; the cornucopias have fancier sets, which I enjoy.

The rarest books must be the ones that convince me the hero isnít always the hero, without making that into an excuse to leave obvious injustices be. Terry Pratchett, who can often make me cry, puzzles me about this; he makes a good argument that quiet, scorned, womanly magic makes the world tolerable (Granny Aching), and that the best a male hero can do is seek obscurity (Carrot) or inactivity (Unseen University). I find this fairly plausible as a description of power. It still bothers me because it has been so useful an argument in telling the powerless to be grateful that they're weak and virtuous. I think virtue is generally strong enough to withstand several courses at dinner and a soft bed.

So wrote clew.

April 16, 2006

Dread Empire's Fall: Conventions of War, Walter Jon Williams

The cover art, the spongy paperback format with the proportions of a brick, the blurbs, the title all announce that this "towering epic of intergalactic war" has no subtlety of character whatsoever. It has more subtlety than Snobs, even though Snobs is about an existing society, is written by a member of it, and confines itself to plausible people and events.

Dread Empire has a lot of unsubtle entertainment, and spreads over many pages, but the human events -- the only ones that were not predictable at the beginning of the trilogy -- are not far from Phineas Finn &ff. Say, ...Finn with the addition of the few cheerful parts of A Farewell to Arms, set in a universe borrowed from E. E. "Doc" Smith. Lots of time is spent on invented space tactics that depend on imaginary science, and descriptions of fancy dinners and cute aliens; there's a murder mystery with no relation to the putative military plot; we get the id-pleasure of identifying with the protagonists as they blow things up and prove their superiors wrong. It's definitely fluff. And yet, the thread holding together the two main streams of plot is one Fellowes and Trollope used; how an entrenched class system co-opts most of its attackers and sloughs off the rest.

The character who seems most heroic to me, the genius who fights her way out of the gutter, passes as an aristocrat, and builds a successful resistance on a conquered planet, gets the least regard in the bells-and-banners triumph at the end of the plot. Perhaps this is historically obvious; museums have told me that, say, French Resistance fighters were rather an embarrassment to France until they were safely very old. Certainly she couldn't get all the prizes without making the story as frivolous as it pretends to be. But what happens to her? She walks offstage; to what? To be a philosopher, or a prophet, or a conqueror, or a hermit?

Worldcat/Find in a Library: Dread Empires' Fall: Conventions of War

So wrote clew.

April 03, 2006

Two too princesses

If one has to write cod-medieval adventures with the depressing parts of history toned down (and someone must: I read so many that if no-one else did, I would have to), I am mildly sympathetic to the over-representation of princesses. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland might explain why princesses were under particular social constraints not to act independently, but I can see throwing in a currently-believable spunky princess and getting on with the adventures.

(As I write this, I am losing my sympathy, because even if one has to have a royal character why can't she be a queen? Children in adventure stories are disproportionately orphans, and an orphaned princess should be a queen. Older brothers are rare, unless minions of evil, which ought to remove one from the succession.)

Both Poison Study, by Maria K. Snyder, and The Decoy Princess, by Dawn Cook, do not need princess-dom. They're nearly redshirts. The first heroine learns palace intrigue from other servants and soldiers, and the second is brought up as a princess but turns out to be a tethered goat for assassins; in both cases they have time and reason to practice suitable skills for going off and having exciting adventures.

And, in both cases, they turn out to actually be the princess-equivalents in, basically, magic ninja societies. These characters did not need to haul around that crutch. Oh, well.

Find in a Library: Poison Study, The Decoy Princess, or Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

So wrote clew.

February 02, 2006

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones

Oh, wow, this is great. It's completely over-the-top, plot developments are surprises because they've been spelled out in fireworks too big to look at all at once, it's all gloomy and it uses at least three of my least favorite tricks o' SF and I loved it anyway. All the sequels seem to be coming out in the US at once, joy.

The setting is the very-near-future ecological and social collapse of Britain, slow but sure; the characters mythic -- in fact, it's the Matter of Britain, especially if you think of the recently-fashionable setting in the end of the Roman age. Many other frameworks are thrown in, including a Gloriana that nods to history and to A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden. And yet, the characters aren't schematic. They're improbably talented in unrelated fields, which is one of my pet peeves, and they all hang together in a government-by-gang o' cool friends, which peeves me a lot more, but my disbelief was suspended in the course of the action.

Nor is it principally an action novel; specific scenes are set-pieces of war, riot, seduction, even a murder mystery, but I was most struck by the way Juggernaut events are grinding the characters into their mythic shapes, although they don't want to be ground and are conscious of how they're succumbing. Several sentences were excellently pointed commentaries on how one makes a bad decision in the face of worse ones.

It's obviously the sort of thing a Ken McLeod fan would like, but by the end the future history was also giving me the sense of fun-but-horrifying inevitability that Snow Crash did.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 30, 2005

A Brother's Price, Wen Spencer

Spencer inverts a cliché like a stage-magician turning a set table upside down and dining from it; one of the underlying assumptions is completely gone, but all the rest are reinforced.

It's basically a Regency romance, this, in which the gently-reared ingenu of a gentry house must Marry Well for their fortunes; when he daringly rescues someone from bandits, and the someone turns out to be royalty pursued by traitors, and moreover the royalty needs to get married too, and they're all beautiful and they like each other... well, we're pretty sure we know how it's going to turn out, and then it does.

But I wasn't mis-spelling 'ingenu' up there; Spencer has a consistent world in which healthy men are so rare that living brothers are the main economic asset of a family. There's a really impressive lack of As-you-know-Bob; the characters give us background while arguing about what to do, but no-one explains all the history everyone knows.

So the funniest thing about the Regency romance is that it makes, if anything, more sense in this world than it did in ours; the extreme, dehumanizing sexism which always points up the escape of the heroine is no weaker in Spencer's reversed formulation, and the root need is species survival, not inherited wealth.

It's no better a system, of course. It fits my loose belief that the willingness to oppress classes of people, no matter how much one loves members of the class, may begin with material need but becomes an end in itself. Now, Spencer isn't at all preachy about this, which she partly doesn't have to be because we knoooow that oppressing men is wrong - Man bites Dog - and partly doesn't have to be because it's also a subtext of lots of romances (pretty much all the ones with spunky heroines who can ride, as opposed to tender ones who can suffer).

I have a mental test for said romances, kind of like the Mo Movie Measure, which in fact I apply to wish-fulfillment literature in general; is the gift (love, superpowers, inheritance) used to amend the injustice? In Regency romances, the Improbably Ethical Endings usually have her dowry legally under her control, or his money and power used to protect orphans and legless veterans, or so forth.

In A Brother's Price, it only helps one person. In fact, his whole life is charmed. So the adventure/love story is restful, but not interesting.

The worldbuilding is great, though. My theory about the cause - all spoilers from here - is that syphilis, which does damage pregnancies, mutated to be almost always lethal to male infants. That would cause the sex imbalance. Even societies that understand transmission don't control STDs, so syphilis would still be endemic in the population, serving as a motive to value chastity. The second zinger Spencer adds makes it just imaginable that most families actually maintain chastity; family successsion from cohort to cohort of sisters, one generation the mothers of the next with the husband they all share. Now, this is a solid fix from the point of view of the gene, which is why bees and maybe lions work this way. It's also an imaginable human society, because each sister has to stay clean or her sisters will catch it through their mutual - and irreplacable - husband. Husbands don't have the power to enforce chastity, any more than wives can in patriarachal societies; but sisters and mothers do. Law and economy have to change to reflect this; basically sisters are legally one person - they might get knighted, for instance, and become the Sirs Lastname, or they might all be executed for the treason one of them commits. Very nice. Finally, the technology is plausible assuming that this variant of syphilis arose in the discovery of the New World and wiped out nearly everyone, leaving a very weakly European society to regenerate over some hundreds of years.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 26, 2005

The Family Trade, Charles Stross

In Iron Sunrise and Singularity Sky I was bowled over by Stross' ability to live up to, indeed build on, all the drama and bombast of the microgenre while kindly and affectionately taking the piss out of it.

I was disappointed for most of The Family Trade because it didn't seem to be doing that; seemed to be just chugging along in the train of Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. The crossover characters are female, which is a little different, but then they're accidental-career tech writers, which is awfully self-indulgent; there are too many IT grunts reading SF for this sort of thing, you know, BOFH saves the multiverse, not to seem a soft pitch to the peanut gallery. Also, the start of the action seems just dead slow.

On the other hand, it's not as inactive as the last Amber pastiche I read. Maybe Zelazny had this endless subcritical power-up and I just don't remember it. Also on the justifying hand, the accidental-career tech writers aren't bad as plot hooks because they will clearly use what they learned for their curtailed first careers.

And finally, the glorious jerk on the rug as far as the genre goes, our modern heroine flung into a secret and decadent aristocracy doesn't like it. It's not just that she makes sure she learns the maids' names and cries when she eats their oysters. She doesn't like it either viscerally or in detail and (plot spoiler) she has a plan to fix it, fiat justicia. That could get interesting.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 02, 2005

The Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein

Just as good as the first two, without either dropping plots or slowing the pace; in fact, I am wondering whether any of the detailed background will stay background, or whether 'Here there be Monsters' will always unfold into a whole new ecology, anthropology, and tearjerking adventure story. I was getting a little breathless. I worried that the heroine, tough and brilliant as she is, should be getting worse than breathless, but one advantage of traveling by foot and small boat is that she has weeks between terrors and betrayals. Also, she is getting pretty grim.

There is clearly an underlying science fiction story, but I can't tell yet which one it is; there's a whole world of people being lied to, about the nature of high technology for one thing, and they only have eight hundred years of history, but they retain traditions from before this planet. How was their half-amnesiac planet set up? It seems to have run pretty well, suggesting Foundation psychohistory skills; or maybe it's just that a society with a land base that expands every year is relatively easy to run.

There's also a good brisk sailing adventure requiring that the anchor get thrown overboard; not Patrick O'Brien, but
funnier: 'Little snails!'

To my tremendous dismay, I am told that Kirstein is having trouble getting the remaining books in the series published; but I want to read them, oh yes I do.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

July 16, 2005

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

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2005

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss

Emotionally, City of Pearl ends with a maxim from Rouchefoucald; it's one character's interpretation of a second's hard choices as acceptably moral, even heroically moral. It's a nice yardstick to set next to the whole story in hindsight, where it would have been too didactic during the action.

The action is moved by the slow and horrible collapse of Terran governments under environmental disaster, but mostly occurs on another planet. bearing a human colony but managed by a race given to low-impact environmental absolutism (their cities are, ideally, invisible). There are other sentient species, including some cephalopods, who I'd like to hear more of.

There's some Ken McLeodism in the heroine, who is a hard-core hard-case environmental enforcer, a police officer who impresses Marines. The Cassini Division idea about "someone has to do the dirty work, so I might as well" fits her like a T-shirt.

ISBN: 0060541695

So wrote clew.

June 25, 2005

Od Magic, Patricia McKillip

If you like McKillip's books, you will almost certainly like this one, because it shuffles themes and characters she's used before; I'd say this is closest to Shadows in Ombria and The Riddle-master of Hed.

Well, if you like McKillip's books, as I do, you probably don't think of her style as something as scuffed as shuffling; the pleasure is more like that in a villanelle, in which you very soon know what will happen and venture on to hear how.

Spoiler:

I wasn't convinced by the gentle ending; a tyrant changes his behavior based (mostly) on fear, but the fear is based on historical knowledge, not anything he's seen. Maybe. I didn't mind not seeing half the characters killed in resistance. I've happened across enough grim light fiction recently, for one thing, and for another McKillip doesn't make the danger seem trivial.

Worldcat doesn't seem to have it yet;

ISBN: 0441012485

So wrote clew.

Dog Warrior, Wen Spencer

Not as good as the first one; has lost some originality, as an adventure story, and didn't pick up character depth to make up for it.

I didn't think the two characters who are Exactly The Same But Different made sense, really, not even the poetic sense of All Shall Be Revealed Later. Which is a pity, I had hoped that the silver purity of one of them would make a good foil.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

So wrote clew.

June 23, 2005

Murder by Magic: Twenty Tales of Crime and the Supernatural, Rosemary Edgehill, ed.

Of these short stories, only "Cold Case" was both a supernatural story and a 'fair' mystery, meaning one in which the reader has clues sufficient to solve the puzzle but isn't likely to. Diane Duane didn't use much otherworldly material, and didn't overexplain it. (And it's just a neat, spine-chilling little ghost story.)

Of the rest, some are successful because they reuse the background from longer books. Debra Doyle, e.g., has much fun with pseudo-academic footnotes pointing out what she hasn't explained; she also has a classic ghost-story ending. "Doppelgangster" (Laura Resnick) lives up to its silly name. But mostly the stories were too short for the idea: so much of the 'magic' had to be explained to make the 'mystery' comprehensible that there was a constant rumble of stage-machinery coming on and off set, and no time for misdirection.

ISBN: 0446679623

So wrote clew.

Cagebird, Karin Lowachee

And I hope this concludes my accidental series of grimly realistic novels of the hero's journey, because this one was so plausibly grim that I didn't finish it. When I want to be this depressed, I turn to modern history.

The hero was brought up as the slave, catamite, and protegé of a pirate captain, and the parts of the novel not set in one captivity or another are dedicated to catching and enslaving other people. He manages to be a not totally unsympathetic character, but as he seems to be a hopeless one (I didn't finish; this is not a fair review...) that only makes it more depressing. There's some learning and growing; I don't remember any acceptance or healing, nor any occasion for them.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

So wrote clew.

Not Exactly the Three Musketeers, Joel Rosenberg

This is an example of the current trend of heroism with extra grime and gloom, and there's a series by this author alone with the same spin on a slew of classics. I like the titles, I didn't finish this one, I won't read more.

The prose is full of jarring errors, suggesting that it wasn't sold by the word so much as by the stopwatch. For instance, a woman described as 'unbecoming' when Rosenberg clearly means 'uncomely'.

The descriptions of the not-three-musketeers' not-heroism lag, and I'm having a hard time deciding why, especially in comparison to pointless paragraphs in The Oakdale Affair. I think it's a failing of perspective; the characters are purportedly soliloquizing to themselves about behavior they unthinkingly accept... so really they're soliloquizing to us, but they aren't that sort of character. Dunno.

Now that I think of it, The Three Musketeers in the original are fairly horrible people, but it's easier for a modern reader not to notice because they really do unthinkingly accept their cruelties. Also, of course, Dumas keeps everyone busy, having seemingly been paid by the pound.

ISBN: 0812550463

So wrote clew.

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

... speaking of the Brontës; I'm not sure whether the Miyazaki movie or the original best rings the Jane Eyre bell.

The characters don't change as much in the movie, and it certainly isn't as puzzle-box-like as the book. I missed Sophie's growing up as Jane Eyre did, although the visual variation of the spell on Sophie was terrifically clever and at least as informative as prose about it. On the other hand, the Miyazaki Howl has all the blinded romantic hero glamour; Jones' (query: Jones or Wynne Jones?) is a regular guy, although clever and likeable.

War stuff in the movie, thrillingly creepy; on the other hand, why no Wales? I was really looking forward to

  • hearing the saucepan song (in Welsh), which should sound foreign in either English or Japanese so wouldn't need translation, except
  • perhaps it would need to be translated for the Welsh version of the movie, should there be such a thing.

On the whole, I think the movie did a decent job of telling a slightly different story with pretty much the same characters, so that one can enjoy them in either order without feeling betrayed that something fundamental has been changed. The movie is prettier; the book is smarter.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

So wrote clew.

June 17, 2005

Firethorn, Sarah Micklem

Triple-decker fantasy novels are increasingly often trying for realism and grittiness, for instance by a exaggeration of the Parsifal lowly childhood before heroic glory. (The Deed of Paksennarion; The Books of Ash.) Micklem goes one better; her heroine is still a camp-follower at the end of the first volume, and might remain so; and it's no fun at all.

She is a witch, and the leman of the most glorious soldier of the aristocracy, and possibly the favored pawn of a god. None of these are without their cost. Witches, in this shamanic society, half-poison themselves and have no guild; the most glorious soldier is most likely to die in battle and leave her stranded; and the gods are not convenient allies. The Hallowed Hunt and Lois McMaster Bujold's other Chalion novels talk about the harsh and glorious duty of acting in the world for divinity, but that challenge is like a kind parent's treasure hunt compared to the bafflement and lack of affection Micklem's people feel in the face of their gods. The hardware is, maybe, 8th century, CE; but the sense of Fate is more like the 8th century BCE.

Come to think of it, I think Bujold falls into wish-fulfillment characterization not of her angst-hero Miles Vorkosigan but of his parents. So universally perfect, so modestly boastful! so much unquestioning approval from their children, envious approval from their peers! And then Bujold set up a theology for her fantasy novel that's explicitly familial: the gods are a family, mortals are in that family, and the family is fundamentally fair and loving although it's too realistic to make life easy. It's locally benign, as wish-fulfillment goes. I am much more bothered by her using a similar theology in the SF novels, and using it to paper over sins of class.

Micklem's use of language is like experiments that excise all Latinate words from English, though that's not exactly what Micklen's done. She has a skewed wordlist, slightly formal, reliably vulgar, very specific; but few invented words or none.

ISBN: 0743247949

So wrote clew.

June 16, 2005

Market Forces, Richard K. Morgan

I think this is an expansion of a Harlan Ellison story from the '70s or thereabouts. In the Ellison story, lethal driving was a matter of personal duelling, with race/class undertones; in Market Forces it is the approved field of competition for salarymen (and salarywomen). There's room for commentary on how all the violence flows downhill into poorer countries, while the money flows back up, but it's really a story about one man near the top of the system.

The protagonist starts as the most moral company man, but is seduced into the popular justifications; seduced largely by his own skill at winning, though his competitors and bosses try all the other seductions too. It's a violent novel, and gloomy, and is probably meant to become a movie, which I won't be tempted to see.

ISBN: 0345457749

So wrote clew.

June 15, 2005

Crucible, Nancy Kress

When I imagined writing a space-opera based on Alcibiades' career I was always looking at him from Athens' point of view: the desirable scandalous youth, rumors in absence, the return. Kress gives us the eyes of the innocent colony he descends upon. He rips them right apart; they have no immunity to rhetoric, let alone betrayal.

History is an overt theme. The colony remembers very little about Earth except that everything had gone disastrously wrong; they have intentionally ignored history, believing it irrelevant. (Clearly, not; the memory should have made them wary.) By the end of the story, they have probably made themselves unique among human settlements, and past knowledge is less relevant to them. They regret having ignored the past, but I can imagine Kress going on and showing that they become so different they can't understand it.

ISBN: 0765306883

So wrote clew.

June 04, 2005

The Queen's Necklace, Teresa Edgerton

The title is an accurate hint that this is another Dumas homage. It's slowed down in its opening third by needing to explain much of Edgerton's clockwork-complicated world, but it gains speed and dash as it goes on. I thought it had all the charms of Edgerton's The Gnome's Engine, for instance, and a lot more excitement.

The politics and fashion feel a bit later than the Musketeers' setting, and perhaps a bit more Germanic. The states are small, there is more urban immiseration than rural (or swashbucklers don't plot in the turnip-fields), and the clockwork (though putatively the legacy of a decayed magic) follows the fashion of the late 18th century. This is style, not plot, though; the trends we think of as arising with the Enlightenment aren't important here. They are more used in Gnome's..., which might be why it's more tasteful and slow.

ISBN: 0380789116

So wrote clew.

May 24, 2005

Marque and Reprisal, Elizabeth Moon

When is space opera like Emma? When I suspect it of being an experiment in an unlikable heroine. I hope, accordingly, that Moon will not give in to the McCaffrey Disease and try to convince us that all the flaws in the heroine are justified, Poor Baby.

My hopes are not high. The heroine repeatedly enjoys killing people who are trying to kill her, and she wonders if this makes her sane or not sane. Those aren't convincing as her sole categories, because she was purportedly raised in an anti-killing religion. Given that, she should be wondering also about, say, right/wrong or good/evil.

The other thing that still just completely fails to convince me is that the background universe makes any sense at all. It's all based on armed mercantilism, except when it's convenient for Moon to throw in stuff that we're used to that works because we have larger legal principles (and structures and enforcers). The gooniest case was when two sets of complete strangers, on a not-very-friendly planet foreign to both of them, can carry out negotiations about third parties because the 3rd parties are "bonded and certified". What! No! Back to Civilization and Capitalism vol. III! You would at least have to specify who they're bonded and certified by... and for; there are definitely people in her universe who don't consider each other possible contractual parties.

But there are violent EVAs and mines and rubberbands, for those in the mood for that sort of thing. And the heroine is consistently what she is, e.g. the closing paragraphs.

ISBN: 0345447581

So wrote clew.

May 02, 2005

Lords of Grass and Thunder, Curt Benjamin

This is a good thick book and promises sequels the same. That isn't my only requirement in an escapist fantasy novel, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Next requirement met: lots happens. Humor! Pathos! Battles! Seductions good and bad! Spirit quests! Third requirement: worldbuilding: in this case, done by picking up Mongol society of the Golden Horde era and transplanting it to its more-and-better-besides world; real magic, two suns, several moons. Exotic societies that the Greeks described far to their east are exotic societies far to the west; nice touch.

I think there could have been more attention paid to material existence, especially of the common people, especially of all the work it takes to have such enormous horse herds ready to ride. On the other hand, the best food anyone eats is mutton-fat, and one of the risks of riding is getting trapped under a fallen horse, so the details convinced me even if they weren't filled in.

What does fill in many and many pages, and I liked a lot, is parallel scenes in the adventures of all the minor characters. This avoids the token-collecting feeling that bad versions of the Heroic Quest so often provide ("Tius-dag, loyal retainer of demented ruler, one secret, one shiny button, check, g'bye"). It also fills out what I thought was the moral problem of the novel: how an absolute ruler with power held by the somewhat-violent election of his underlings balances doing honor to those underlings, but not empowering them enough to make them rivals, or thwarting them enough to make them rivals. Most of the good and bad decisions in this story turn on that problem.

There are also demons and a frog princess. The prince is buffeted by events, but he seems to have had a lengthy previous series to recover from.

The failing of the whole is the writing. At best, it's flatly descriptive. This is okay when lots happens. There are too many contemporary turns of phrase, especially 'thing' for any complicated emotional shock. Finally, the proofreading is abysmal, with terrible typos and unmatched double-quotation marks.

ISBN: 0756401976

So wrote clew.

April 01, 2005

Roger Zelazny's The Dawn of Amber, John Gregory Betancourt

Up to p. 118, this is inexplicably dull. At that point I gave up.

It's dull partly because it's remarkably like the opening of Nine Princes in Amber, without elaborating on (much less playing against) the expectations set up by the similarity. Also, the main character is duller; doesn't crack wise like the original, isn't nearly as convincingly sneaky and suspicious.

We know how this part of the story turns out; there ought to be more surprises getting there.

Also, the type is large, the margins generous, the paper average, and the book is still shortish; I fear the whole thing is an attempt to respin a hommage into as many hardbacks as possible.

ISBN: 0743452402

March 29, 2005

Trading in Danger, Elizabeth Moon

The current issue of Nature has an excellent supplement on art and science. There's not just the usual artists' representation of what science looks like to them (well, there is some of that, in which the sculpture especially is annoyingly stuck on accidental rather than inherent characteristics; never mind), but an elegant discussion of several ways in which art serves as evidence of and experiments on human perception. The essay on what wild inaccuracies painters can get away with was especially easy to follow, as it provided examples with captions and closeups pointing out what was wrong. (We really don't care where the illumination comes from, is what I remember from the article, although we will use it for some clues. Vermeer used that, didn't he? his scenes are sometimes painted as though his subjects are literally glowing, although the subjects themselves are not painted so?) There's also a nice long essay by A. S. Byatt which is mostly about how she used what science she could learn to structure and pattern the novel cycle that began with The Virgin in the Garden.

One of the ideas about novels, several times refigured, is that they are like psychological experiments. 'Experiments' is the word I remember, but it seems to me 'models' would be more appropriate; if you're a total genius, Albert Einstein or George Eliot, your gedankenexperiments (sp?) will be so accurate that the rest of us use them as experiments instead of models. Most of us make choices of what to assume away or make homogeneous or let-approach-to-infinity that are obvious or unconvincing or infuriatingly tendentious.

Here I arrive at Trading in Danger, and infuriatingly tendentious I find it, so much so that it almost convinces me that it's a parody despite its marketing. It combines several popular wish-fulfillment tropes. The first is basically Mary-Sue-ism, the heroine who is just perfect and always right and therefore unfairly attacked by the Bad characters and unfailingly supported by the Good ones. This is embarrassing, as visible wish-fulfillment, and also pretty dull. Moon's early books The Deed of Paksenarrion had less of each flaw even though the main character was a literal saint and the world an extension of Tolkien and his medieval characterizations.

Second annoying trope is that the perfect princess faces the difficult life burden of a rich and indulgent family. The terrible trauma, her eye-opening experience of reality, is to be thrown out of the military and promptly given private command of a trading vessel with an experienced and loyal crew. It took volumes and volumes of characterization, not to mention some actual history, for Patrick O'Brien to make that seem painful for Jack Aubrey; on the whole I think most spiritual buccaneers would be chuffed from the outset, even if they did have to be bought a whole new fancy wardrobe to go with it, poor things.

Third annoying trope; Servants Love Their Masters. Okay, happens sometimes. I'll even hope that it's sometimes justified and returned. In this case, though, it's an extension of that unconvincing difficult life burden; when push comes to shove, someone else dies for our heroine. She does kill his killer. The most completely icky part of her repetitive self-justification is her private scorn for her father because he has never killed anyone. He was apparently too smart to need to, and smart enough to develop this crew that kept her alive long enough to fire, but that just makes him a useful chump.

Actually, in this ?moral? universe, maybe there are just chumps and killers. It's such a nasty society that I don't believe it could get as complicated as it is; it's mastered by unrestrained and violent commercial enterprise, and I don't believe they wouldn't have fallen already to faction, schism, nationalism, or sheer desperate opting-out. (Ma Bell/ICANN as the profit arm of a supraplanetary army is the most vivid case.)

In contrast, for instance, Lois McMaster Bujold rides the range with aristocratic fantasies Two and Three, above, but she uses too much, oh, basic biology and game theory to write worlds in which those fantasies are accurate descriptions of the real world. I think her particular Barrayaran heroes and heroines have gotten away in velvet a lot longer than is likely and almost longer than is interesting, but then I remember Talleyrand, so she's within the realms of historical plausibility; and I think it's clear that the fantasy is a permanent burden on Barrayar, which may yet present the bill. I really hope she writes that novel.

To get back to the flawed model; it is a common experiment, in fiction, to think 'under what conditions would I/the character have to do this Most Awful Thing?' Crime and Punishment; Sophie's Choice; jokes about the Donner Party or plane crashes. There is a creepier version, which would be the same experiment if it were objective but is very different in psychology: the question is, 'under what conditions would I/the character have an excuse to do this Most Awful Thing?' And sometimes an author looks rather too hard for an excuse. That is properly the fatal flaw of characters, e.g. Raskolnikov, not of the author.

I think of this as the Cold Equations disease. That's a powerfully popular story, has been since it was published, in which the hero has to—has to, for moral reasons—kill a lovely innocent young girl who has to like it. It's porn in the worst sense. I find it so because the 'what conditions' are so feebly set up, given that the lethal excuse happens a lot; we are to believe that society expects ruthless armed killers where this story gives us a feckless maiden, but this (spacetravelling) society can't put together (say) a mass balance and oxygen monitor to exclude the killers and, incidentally, the maiden. I think it's extra odd that this story was considered so groundbreaking after the historical versions that abounded throughout, e.g., WWII; and can only conclude that the desired high was the pretense of righteousness over the joy in murder.

Destroyer, C. J. Cherryh

Hm. I enjoy the worldbuilding, the backstory, of this whole series rather more than I'm enjoying the actual story. Part of the problem is that I don't think the main character, the hero, is nearly the most interesting character in the book; I don't find him as unconvincing as the young man in Forge of Heaven, but he doesn't have the internal drama that many of the supporting cast presumably have.

Specifically, I don't believe he really has divided or uncertain loyalties. He ought to. He thinks he does, sometimes at annoying length. The driving force of the alien society in which he lives is loyalty, its demands and subterranean faults; so there should be a hell of a story in which human loyalties are backgrounded and backlit by the alien loyalties. But I don't believe it. Eight novels in and his behavior is, meseems, getting more and more predictable, given the actually complex and ambivalent stimuli of the characters around him.

Also, I admit, I am annoyed and unconvinced by yet another infallible, loyal-and-loving suite of retainers. There's no moral excuse for SF's dependence on this trope, and Cherryh knows too much history for her to think it likely. That's why I still like the backstory and worldbuilding; nothing is guaranteed there, so it feels far more real.

ISBN: 0756402530

Alphabet of Thorn, Patricia A. McKillip

Did this remind anyone else of McKillip's Stepping From the Shadows? That was mostly gloomy, lost, seen from the viewpoint of the youth in the dark wood; this has some, not all, of the threats from the first, but the youth has a safe home, so it's not surprising that the story turns out well. Well, well enough.

Maybe the connection is that the safe home is a library; the orphan is actually raised in and by a library and librarians. The anima-and-shadow heroine of Stepping... has to absorb and rebuild literature to make herself a safe world, even though she had family all along.

Probably the real connection is that I react so strongly to mentions of libraries.

ISBN: 0441011306

Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, Kage Baker

Good short stories, independent of their several related longer works.

Several of them are Trad. fairy-tales reset to be peculiar to California. These are fine and not forced; the mysterious prince in Winchester House is especially good, using the post-Civil-War background of the Wild West (cf. The Virginian) to replace Old World dynastic tropes.

I prefer the stories that make up a Stone Age for present California without external colonization, as The Anvil of the World did; a mythology that would make sense if we knew the present conditions of the West Coast and nothing of its actual past.

That may not be what Baker is trying to do at all; or maybe it comes naturally with writing time-travel stories that must hide a different present and cataclysmic future in what we do know of the past.

ISBN: 1892389754

February 24, 2005

The Porcelain Dove, Delia Sherman

Five-sixths of the way through this book, one knows that a grand fairy-tale adventure is happening far from the narrator; the foreshadowings were clear, the conditions were met, the pages compress. But the narrator is bespelled in an isolated castle, and the book has been so strongly in her voice that one wouldn't want a Odysseus-at-dinner told tale intruding. What happens instead is that a small theater group appears, notices nothing of the odd enchantments and madnesses in the castle, and performs, or transmits, the adventure itself, with the narrator in the audience narrating to us. It works like clockwork, like a Vaucanson duck, like the storytelling gestures in a ballet.

The whole story is built from odd parts fit neatly together; the event is a cursed noble family, cruel and decadent, and the balance between the damage the curse finally does them and the rescue their least member achieves. The story is told by a lady's maid who grew up on the Paris streets, who has heard fine speech most of her life but isn't a précieuse, who lives by the pleasure of aristocrats but knows why the peasants hate them. The remote family castle is 'really' in the timeless high medieval era; but the curse hits them as the French Revolution hits Paris. The lady's maid Berthe both loves and hates her mistress, who she has served since they were both girls; the sublimation of anger, and dependency, and romantic love, and parental love into that single relationship is fascinating.

ISBN: 0525936084

January 22, 2005

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

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

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

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

January 06, 2005

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

December 02, 2004

Voyage of the Shadowmoon, Sean McMullen

One of the inconveniences of being middle-aged is the difficulty in finding a good triple-decker fantasy novel to revisit the comfort they gave when I was fourteen. I suppose it's like petrochemicals: it didn't occur to me in my youth that I was mining decades of writing, E. R. Eddison and Mervyn Peake through Ursula Le Guin and all, the best of threescore years and ten. Between their natural rarity and my now-non-fourteen-year-old tastes (Anne McCaffrey used to make me happy) I don't even finish most first volumes any more.

I can't think of an analogy to energy dependence and smog and global warming. Perhaps without the soft path of fantasy I'd have only read pastorals, in the original Latin.

I wanted to know how this story turned out, although in hindsight it isn't as coherent even as it seemed at the time. The oddest disjunction is that the plot is gory and awful, but the author and most of the characters are bouncy and good-natured. In the course of events, these opposites combine by having almost all the deaths rather quick; people die by beheading, or having their spines severed, or by sorcerous flash-combustion. They don't die of gut wounds or infections or third-degree burns or anything smelly. This seems like a healthy absentmindedness on the part of the author, if not outright intentional.

There is a second volume, but this one ends pretty well as a finished book. The ends aren't tied up but they're no looser than they were at the in medias res start of the picaresque.

ISBN: 0312877404

October 26, 2004

Short stories by novelists

After reading Tim Powers' Night Moves and Julian Barnes' Cross Channel in close succession—alternation, really—I'd look for more short Barnes, as efficient doses of what I like Barnes for; but not for more short Powers. I have been wondering whether the problem is that Powers' style doesn't excerpt well, or whether it's that Powers tries to compress his stories instead of excerpting, and they really don't work for that. (His own afterword suggests that he thinks much the same.) One gets three brisk movements: something is creepy; it leaps dangerously to the foreground; the survivors face the rest of their lives with relief and diminished ambition. It's not a bad plot, but I like it better with the room for misdirection, foreshadowing, and research that his novels give him.

Cross Channel's stories sometimes resolve into diminished expectation, and they have enough WWI in them to obtain a little of the creepy, but they have a much wider range in pace and characterization. He doesn't compress as much plot into one story, although the whole make an arc. And, of course, Barnes is all lit'ry, which tends to excerpt well.

I especially liked "Hermitage", which improves two familiar genres by joining them: its main characters move to France to avoid the stuffy social conventions of England, but they don't go wild in Paris, they weave themselves into a rural southern village. I suppose it's three genres, if you count the depiction of a happy lasting marriage as a genre. The parallel that leaps to mind is Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends", but there must be enough novels to make it a genre.

ISBN: 1892284901 (Night Moves)

ISBN: 0679446915 (Cross Channel)

October 16, 2004

The Companions, Sheri S. Tepper

This is Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Blue-Flag in the Bog", scientificted. The Gods are super-evolved aliens and the scrap to save is dutiful and diligent, man's friend, dog, genegineered to speak. Like the poem, the book is twee but not too.

In comparison with Radiant, the super-aliens are only concerned with what weak creatures do to each other, which I find more plausible both as a moral opinion and as a plot constraint. Tepper's heroine has much of the same put-upon competence as James Alan Garner's, though.

ISBN: 006053821X

October 14, 2004

Tooth & Tongue, Bret Fetzer

I am thinking of the Oulipo. These fifteen fairy tales have all the standard parts, maybe only the standard parts; with so many canny peasants, greedy rulers, and pairs of sisters (pretty, plain), it should have felt repetitive; but it isn't. It's less repetitive than anthologies by different authors often are.

Therefore I have an image of Grimm's Fairytales cut into a prime number of cards (probably thirteen) and permuted; but not cut at the obvious lines. The results are exhaustive without being predictable.

This is a very dweeby reaction to have. I have no evidence from the book. I should instead praise the teasel prose and hyacinth dialogue. Also, there are illustrations, all disturbing.

Try reading the stories out loud for Halloween. If in Seattle, try to hear Fetzer read them himself; if not, he's recorded six stories as Fish & Fable.

ISBN: 097247630X

September 27, 2004

Radiant, James Alan Gardner

The Expendable universe is a great setup for medium-light fiction. Its advanced aliens are so advanced that they give both magic-show technology and deus ex machina moral strictures to the comically adolescent younger races, including humans. Between one and the other, each novel has a puzzle with an intellectual and a moral side, but the moral dilemmas don't play Top That! to the limit of belief; the aliens are supposed to leave an answer, not necessarily an easy one.

I liked this a lot. It seemed to prevent the superhero series problem of winning every fight, and collecting powers with each win, and accordingly facing progressively more dramatic and less plausible enemies. Remember the E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman books, which as I understood them followed the reasoning to an O altitudo! that left the universe in the loving hands of a psychically incestuous band of siblings; that's where the ideals of inherited aristocracy and sublimated life-force take you.

I don't need many stories along those lines, and it's far too common for the reasoning to lose altitude and decide that the grand plan will reward us for what we'd mostly do anyway. I was, therefore, alarmed when the standing heroine of the ostracized elite Explorer Corps, and a new heroine who makes a pretty bookmatched set with her, decide that they are the representatives of advanced races who need something from humanity that the advancement lost. Oh, sure, we're here to remind the gods of something; the meaning of 'hubris', I hope, but all too often in SF not. Humanity's puning self-esteem is braced from below when the other young races are like caricatures of stereotypes of aspects of our own; a bit too Here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, if taken seriously. (Taken lightly, and with humans just as annoying, I enjoy the parodies as mockery gently directed at the author and readers.)

Maybe Gardner isn't going to write the triangles a three-sided god. The 'avatars for the gods' bit is a cautious guess on the parts of the characters. They've been wrong before. Me, I was thinking of dog-breeding and pigeon-fancying, which are known interactions between a powerful species and a weak one, and are even defended as polishing the best traits of the weak species.

ISBN: 0060595264

September 02, 2004

The Light Ages, Ian R. MacLeod

I don't know why magic - "aether" - had to be added to this political bildungsroman, which was otherwise like Nicholas Nickleby with a taste for To the Finland Station. Perhaps the magic exaggerated the moral of historical inertia? or because we use the Victorian age as a bridge to fantasy, the way they used the medieval ages? I never did think the fantasy was necessary, but it was consistent enough that I soon stopped worrying about it.

The other incongruity is that the plot is full of adventure, but the pace is leisurely by mondern standards, more like a family saga. It does have as much briskness as a Wilkie Collins thriller, in which the excitement of reading about a shocking event directly is never as valuable as finding out later what happened, and who tried to conceal it.

As semi-Victorianism goes, I was fond of Hallam Tower, and sorry not to get a reference to Michelson & Morley.

ISBN: 0441010555

August 22, 2004

Cold as Ice, Charles Sheffield

Sheffield is often called a Golden Age author, meaning one like Arthur C. Clarke, but I was here reminded of a Connie Willis character describing Golden Age mysteries, and Wilkie Collins to boot: the real crime wasn't what everyone thought it was, the real crime happened years ago and hardly anyone noticed.

Sheffield's plot is like that, and also has serious conflict between incompatible goods (and their reasonably-likeable proponents), which is as much characterological subtlety as one is supposed to expect from a Golden Age author. Sheffield elsewhere has had much more subtle characterization. I think he might have been avoiding a singularity problem: some of his characters might not think like us at all, at all, and with too much introspection that might have been either obvious or unbelievable.

It's a little like the plot of The Moonstone, in that way.

Dark As Day is said to be a sequel, I wonder if it deals with the 'everything changed' problem. Wilhelmina Baird surprised me a lot when she stepped up to it; her first three novels are increasingly sweeping space-opera, ending in deus ex machina; the fourth, not exactly a sequel, is different in construction and style; heady, nearly unhinged; a shot at reflecting a material difference as great as that between, say, Gower's Confessio Amantis and Mina Loy. Okay, on reflection, Baird doesn't make as big a change as that, but few SF writers make a larger one. Some New Wave novelists do, but over the course of their own stylistic development, not directly in the service of a story.

ISBN: 0812511638

The Zenith Angle, Bruce Sterling

Awfully tired, for a Sterling novel. Sterling's past form on adulation of youth doesn't leave him much room for world-weariness, but a novel written after 9/11 and after the Net-stocks crash had to have some, and it warps the fabric.

I was surprised that the best writing was like weak Neal Stephenson, specifically, the flat-affect no-subjectivity-here juxtaposition of quotidian details; when good, an irreversible change in perspective; when weak, like clumsy product placement in a movie. I don't remember that as a Sterling technique. I remember his making up lots of new weird details and world-building with those. Now I don't know if I want to reread the Sterling novels I liked; what if they all seem to be leading to this one?

I was more surprised, or maybe dismayed, that the main character becomes so outright evil in the course of the novel and I'm not sure he recognizes it, or even that the narration does. I can't tell if his having beaten up another agent, thus glorifying his nerd-dom by the standards of a high-school bully, is supposed to distract us (or him) from noticing that he's destroyed his scientist wife's life work and lied to her about it and is set to use her next job as cover. Appeasing high-school critics by violating both scientific and marital mores is a stupid tradeoff.

Maybe in a lit'ry way this reflects the death of moral judgements, or absolutes, etc, in modern geopolitics. I didn't really get that out of the book, not that it's anything I'm eager to find.

ISBN: 0345460618

July 30, 2004

The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh, C. J. Cherryh

I really like Cherryh's writing, so much so that I don't have anything to say about it; but I wanted to note that she mentions Jeffery Farnol. I've lost the page-reference, though, and will have to read the stories again.

ISBN: 0756412174

The Ships of Air, Martha Wells

A good second volume. I am enormously happy that the ineffective interior dialog that repeatedly broke me out of the first volume is gone; there's some italicized Thought, but it's more to explain the character's reasoning and less twee.

At one point the heroine thinks "Gah", which isn't unreasonable as an expression of startlement, but I did snag on it because it seems to me to be a SF-ism, for no particular reason. "Pure quill" seems to be that now, though it wasn't originally. At some point in-group language isn't a condensation of agreed ideas, it's a shortcut around ideas. This is too large a concern to hang on "Gah", of course.

I wonder if three-volume-ism is related to the triple-decker or the roman fleuve, the pleasures of big nineteenth-century novels, or is it only a parallel quirk in the economics of publishing. How did ninteenth-c. readers think of the volume break? Album sides on LPs, query.

ISBN: 0380977893

June 21, 2004

Keep on the Borderlands, Ru Emerson

Friends of mine used to share a plywood palace on the outskirts of town and called it the "Keep on the Borderlands". I am given to understand that the starter adventure for D&D was called this; I don't see any reference to D&D or Gary Gygax on the copyright page here, but who knows where Wizards of the Coast, Inc., mined their ore?

People talk of the .com rage as a phoenix, a comet; but WoTC was even more sudden and surprising in both its rise and its fall.

Anyhow. This particular novel, judging by its first sixty pages, has no good parts that aren't done better by Barbara Hambly, particularly in The Witches of Wenshar &ff. That also has a failing empire, monster-troubled wastes, comrades in arms drawn from distant lands, and a blonde icy swordswoman, all at least as convincing. The swordswoman in Hambly is a lot more convincing; her qualms and weaknesses are more neatly drawn from her background, and she doesn't whimper about them to her men-at-arms, which really I don't find likely. I've just reread the first three Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels, so have just seen really well-done examples of commanders hiding or failing to hide their weaknesses from the crew.

ISBN: 0786918810

June 11, 2004

The Battle of Evernight, Cecelia Dart-Thornton

The inventive language of the first volume has petered out in this one, but the plot ticks along satisfactorily, with event and pageantry and an ambiguous conclusion.

There's one very odd thing in the plot. The heroine did a terrible, destructive, stupid thing in the second volume, against clear instructions from a reliable source. I don't think she's ever chastised for it. She does suffer another haunted hike through thorny jungles, as in the first volume; maybe that's the sentence, but it isn't an obvious penance like that of, say, Psyche. I would have expected the bereaved survivors of the disaster to tell her off, especially since they have to slog along with her.

The oddity in the telling is an exhaustion in retelling. She's still using a good tasty stew of mostly-Irish fairytales as her figured background, but two of them, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market most noticeably, appear as tales told by other characters. Rossetti's wonderful Tale is long out of copyright and easily available, but Dart-Thornton gives it back in truncated and imitative prose; not an improvement.

ISBN: 0446528072

June 10, 2004

Girl Genius, issue 11, Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio, Laurie E. Smith

!!!

ISBN: 1890856282

June 09, 2004

The Sky So Big and Black, John Barnes

Everything I remember fondly from Heinlein's novels is in here, including a much more interesting Podkayne as well as Mars; but not the trivialization and flattening of enemies and the weak that weakened RAH's arguments fatally, and his stories frequently. (Not always; not in Podkayne....)

It's also a good noir detective or psychological story and leaves room for an entire philosophical sequel built around AI and disease evolution.

ISBN: 0765342227

June 02, 2004

Frodo Hill, Maria-Susannah Cleland

Everything that failed in Ill Met by Moonlight's fan-ficcery of Shakespeare is done gloriously well here. Alas, the better work is unlikely ever to see print, let alone hardback, because it uses characters from The Lord of the Rings.

Well, and also it's naughty, naughty, naughty; Frodo Hill is outright slash. But tasteful! for which it deserves great commendation.

Now, the obvious charm of the work is its consistent writing style:

But to my story -- You must know, that at the time when Gondor and all the lands of Men were under Seige by the Creatures of the Dark Lord, that our fair Country of Ithilien was then nothing like it is now in these happier Days. Now the blessings of Peace smile upon the Land; then the God of War strode angry across it; now Ithilien is a Garden; then it was a Wilderness; now it basks in the Light of Gondor; then it lay in the shadow of Mordor. Nay, Ithilien itself had been long abandon'd by all decent Folk, and was the abode of foul Wraiths and of the wretched Things who served them. No Men would have walked those haunted Woods were it not for the Courage of the soldiery of Gondor. Led by the young Captain Faramir, their Daring knew no Bounds, for in frequent Raids they harried the Enemy even to the very Gates of the City of the Wraiths.
Yet even the greatest Courage will falter with constant and unvarying Exercise; and no Soldier, however bold his Spirit, will continue in the same happy Condition without occasional Rest. And so it was that Captain Faramir and his men would oft resort to the city of Osgiliath and to such Recreations as that Place could afford.

Setting Fanny Hill, q.v., in Osgiliath is an act of minor but undeniable genius. Providing Tolkien's characters with sex-lives as we understand them is clearly not at all a stretch for the modern imagination; plenty of people have more trouble imagining a world without modern sex-lives. But that wasn't all that was missing from J. R. R. Tolkien; he had written something like an England without London, even a Europe without cities. I remember hardly any makers and traders; Gondor certainly seemed to me like an institutional city, all government and ceremony. This is no fault in Tolkien; he wasn't writing realism.

Gondor would have to have an economy if it was realistic, but the trades need not have been in the (confined and expensive) City itself. If Osgiliath was the Other Bank for Other Ranks, Osgiliath had the corner shops and tanneries and Times Square and all; so also brothels; so Fanny Hill.

If this sounds amusing, but you don't like explicit sex scenes, I have doublechecked that the first webpage/chapter is strongly suggestive but not explicit. The whole has great fun with suggestiveness, including the extended tease in which † Letter the Fifth †is followed by Letter the Fifth-and-a-Half, then Letter the Fifth-and-Three-Quarters; finally † Letter the Sixth; and even the Sixth and climactic appears in a PG version directly, and a NC-17 version only if you ask. (I think the PG version is better.)

URI: http://members.aol.com/Brumblepop/fics/fh/index.html

Ithanalin's Restoration, Lawrence Watt-Evans

My first thought was that this has much in common with Howl's Moving Castle but carries a smaller emotional charge. My second thought is that it has a smaller charge because the young-adult heroine isn't so preposterously crippled by timidity, and that's fine.

However, because she has a pretty good idea of what her failings are and how to fix them, there's not a lot of suspense in the plot; I'd have liked more play with the Society of Mind accident. (Which Howl's... has also, and doesn't use much more.)

ISBN: 0765300125

June 01, 2004

Ill Met by Moonlight, Sarah A. Hoyt

Nice idea, annoying characters, tone-deaf prose.

The idea is that Will Shakespeare actually met the fairies; that his wife was abducted and they had to wile their way back to the mortal world, through Court politics that provided inspiration for his love poetry and his dramas. Terry Pratchett has done half of it much better, but there's room for another try.

The prose makes my eyes roll so hard I can't focus, though; that and the direct-from-anime hermaphrodite fairy prince:

A prince, he thought he looked, a wronged prince, the color of his attire the external expression of his inner tumult.
Yet, how should a prince look who knows his brother has murdered their parents and now sits, remorseless, on his stolen throne?

There's more 'attire' in the second para, but I can't bring myself to repeat it. It's not the feebly precious words that slay me, it's the murder they do to the rhythms of the sentences.

Will and Nan are much better characters, earthy and foolish. Nan gets the best prose, sometimes plain sometimes not:

Will! He stood at the edge of the river, but in the mortal world, so that his feet sank in the mud to the ankle. The rain that fell soaked his poor wool suit, and made him look like a wet cat, when all its fur—the ornament and grace of its state—clings to its poor frail frame and leaves the cat nothing more than a bag of bones, pitiful and pitiable.

ISBN: 0-441-00860-7

May 24, 2004

The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

This third volume is weaker than the second, by exaggerating the weaknesses the second has when compared to the first. It's still an amusing book, but it isn't worth reading twice.

This is a pity, because the weakness that annoys me is a lack of character development in the main character, and I quite liked her in the first book. Nor should she be so unconvincing; much is happening, she considers and acts; if I outline her behavior in the course of the book it looks like a character arc; but I didn't see more than the outline in the actual novel. It's crowded out by jokes about Generic characters.

Next's memory is being damaged by an malicious and personal enemy, and writing soliloquy on top of that and the plot would make this a very good, a Philip K. Dick-ambitious, novel; again, I am more critical this time because I remember the first novel doing a better job with the same challenge.

The literature-world also moved me less this time around; I felt as though the plot was mostly a game to get between set pieces, for instance Miss Havisham telling off Heathcliff. It's a great idea as a set piece, and wasn't wholly unconvincing, but unfortunately stood out from most of the rest of the book. (My other favorite scenes also had Havisham in them. Possibly I would have liked this book to be about her instead, with Next as a supporting character. Next could rest and recoup and be the plucky student who needs expository dumps.)

It's filed with the SF in my local bookstore. Same generally? The jacket fuzzes it as "fantasy/detective", and I wonder if some of its popularity comes from having that SF fizz but being lit'ry instead of skiffy. After all, it mentions Serious Authors, so it can't be just pulp, eh? But it could be decaying into a franchise of exquisite middlebrow appeal, mentioning classics but living in the genres.

ISBN: 0670032891

May 17, 2004

The Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells

Anthony Trollope frequently assures the reader that everything will turn out well enough for his heroines. Wells, contrariwise, begins after the death of all the favorite characters from The Death of the Necromancer, and better, subtitles this one "Book One of the Fall of Ile-Rien"; Ile-Rien the loved home of the heroine.

Book One mostly introduces the story, with a hand of likable and independent characters and more eerie settings than they have time to explore. The villains are flat, but they have airships. (Why, in our age, so many dirigibles?)

Only the style of interior monologue given to the heroine jarred me; first, it's much more slapdash and modern than her loosely-Edwardian world and dialogue. Worse, it reminds me of Buffy or Lois McMaster Bujold pastiche, or cute romantic murder mysteries generally (examples page 33, 73, in fact most of Tremaine's thoughts set in italic). Most perplexing, these stagy little bits aren't needed; both the knowledge and the emotions they call out are perfectly clear in Well's prose and dialogue.

On the other hand, Vita Sackville-West's novel Challenge is authentic Edwardian adolescent adventure angst, and I have given up reading it at all; the characters are even more annoying at length than they would be flip & brief. Pity, I like her The Edwardians.

ISBN: 0380977885 (The Wizard Hunters)

ISBN: 0380003597 (Challenge)

May 13, 2004

The Lady of the Sorrows, Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Not as good as the first book in the trilogy, mostly hampered by its language. Our heroine has left the lower classes for the Court, and Dart-Thornton's version of formal language is tangled without period, which does not convince as the courtesies of a thousand-year-old dynasty. There's plenty of panoply, some probably Burgundian some suggesting Versailles, but strings of rare words are not as lovely as strings of pearls.

The book also has some plot problems common to second volumes—worst, that many dramatic events were so strongly foreshadowed in the first volume to be a letdown now—but plenty of plot to go on with. And, when it slows, the characters tell each other classic folktales, and there's a bibliography of sources in the back.

ISBN: 044652803X

May 03, 2004

The Ill-Made Mute, Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Good fluff. It has a glee of inkhorn words; enough slodging through the scullery and striving middle class of a cod-medieval world to quiet The Tough Guide to Fantasyland; and the grace to not only borrow enthusiastically from folktales, but to put in a bibliography.

Lots of the source books have pre-1923 publication dates; work for Project Gutenberg.

ISBN: 0446610801

April 27, 2004

Outrageous Fortune, Armin Shimerman

John Dee transported to the future by lizardy aliens, fighting a zombie army and allied to a rat prince... it should be more of a romp than it is. Not really fair of me to start in Volume Two, but it's still a problem that I don't see why John Dee should be the author's choice. He doesn't quiver with life on the page, nor do I find his actions dependent on his original era.

But hey, zombie armies! More, the fake messiah lizard zombie-maker succumbs to the tragic clash of world-views that I think Dee should suffer.

ISBN: 0-671-03593-2

April 25, 2004

Drakon, S. M. Stirling

More space-opera aristocrats, sforzando. These are designed to rule, by an alternate-history empire formed out of the American South slaveholders and South Africa. Homo drakensis are perfect physical machines with pheromones to reinforce their completely dominating natures; not sadistic natures, I was relieved to find, though violent. In their world they've replaced Homo sapiens with a literally subject species which is biologically happy to serve them. The remaining 'wild' humans have survived mostly by flight, and partly by technological superiority.

Me, I think that superiority is something between unconvincing and special pleading; the claim is that the gengineering destroyed some ineffable creativity in the Drakons, making them not really scientists. This is awfully convenient to the plot, as the Drakons win every other suit; it would be more likely that the Drakons secretly enjoy toying with the Homo sapiens and don't want technological superiority. Or maybe it's a subtle comment on the middle-class nature of technological revolutions. Very, very subtle, if so.

Other than that, I was interested by the ideological characterizations in our world, after the Tyger in the night is thrown here by accident. Of course she plans conquest; one wild human from her universe is here to stop her; a few humans in this world ally with or fight against her. Her most willing subjects are left-coast-leftist tropes; a Jane Fonda analogue tempted by eternal youth, and a Deep Ecology type convinced that saving the remains of Earth as a nature preserve is better than seeing Earth and humans lost together to technological poisons. (Both of the alternate-history, super-tech visitors assume that our Earth, as is, is helplessly doomed. It seems to me that the pure utilitarian argument for becoming a nature preserve would then deserve rather more consideration than it gets in the book.) There are some bribable business and gov't types who sell the goods and ask no questions; but I was rrrather hoping to meet a Bell Curve enthusiast and see what reaction s/he had to suddenly being down in the middle of the curve.

Maybe the rest of the series gets more complex, but it feels just as likely that the people-like-us conquer by some plot-gimmick trait. That would be so enormously irritating that I think I'll just stop here and imagine endings for myself.

ISBN: 0-671-87711-9

Tales from the Crypto-System, Geoffrey Maloney

A lot like Peter Carey's short stories. SF themes, in a magic realism/'No BEMs Here'/plausible horror way; and lit'ry delineation of character, although the first-person characters seemed awfully similar to me. Nice tight storytelling.

ISBN: 1-894815-23-8

Tango Midnight, Michael Cassutt

"Classic hard SF", sensibly updated. Cassutt is a professional writer with a massive interest in the space program, so the depiction of NASA's internal politicking is probably reporting.

The fictional characters are profoundly, gloriously square; emotional without being introspective. That is, not introspective in the time-consuming, Wertherian way; they do know that their emotions may be bounding their rationality. Probably realistic for astronauts, they have a lot to do, Werther wasn't so productive.

There are human complications that wouldn't have been made so explicit in 1960s near-space stories. The square reaction is bemused and polite. It's a usable first-order reaction, and a standard of comparison for characters who are said to be gentlemen and gentlewomen but couldn't be so calm.

ISBN: 0-765-30645-X

March 25, 2004

Wasteland of Flint, Thomas Harlan

Even when I try to ignore the psychological and social oddities of space opera aristocracies, I get hung up on the historical ones. I don't have to accept the entire, what?, Weberian thesis that Northern European Protestantism was the necessary and sufficient matrix for technological takeoff to be puzzled by ancient cultures surviving massive technological change. It should be more destabilizing. The States has scarcely kept its plutocracy through three hundred years on one planet; it doesn't seem very likely that Iron Age social structures would last through half a millennium of interstellar colonization.

On the other hand, the Japan-and-Méxica background is a nice change from eternal England, and is even just, barely, plausible, as Samurai William suggests. For all I know Harlan altered large chunks of it as though they had experienced something as complicated as Protestantism, universal suffrage, and the rise of the technocratic middle class. Doesn't sound like it, much. Nor was there room, I admit; it's a thick brisk book.

In small details, it's straightforward and suspends disbelief nicely. The archaeologists sent to the wrecked planet of the elder races are perpetually concerned with boots, publication, warm hats, censorship, fuel-line repairs, military intervention, the social problems of crushes in camp, and nanotech chilblains. (Suspension of disbelief w.r.t. the main outlines is a matter of taste.) I think the social interactions are well-done, especially when Harlan just describes them without giving us explanatory flashbacks and social commentary.

ISBN: 0-765-34113-1

March 22, 2004

Dread Empire's Fall: The Sundering, Walter Jon Williams

The ponderous constructs of the first installment are gathering speed—falling downhill, maybe, like a crate of anvils from Acme Co.

Williams is doing at least one clever, history-minded, contrarian thing with his bag of Space Opera parts. His aristocracy is a dragging bane on its society, wasteful of everything, even the talents of the aristocrats. His main characters, each clawing their way to higher status, are not kindly or enlightened except when it pays. But they aren't melodrama villains either; nor is there a pornographic tone of 'Vicious them! how virtuous us!' to the narrative. Williams lets his aristocracy convict itself without pretending that most people would do better in the same circumstances. This is rather like Anthony Trollope's assessments of character.

It is totally unlike the current trend in SF&F aristocrats, which makes its aristocrats likeable and virtuous by our standards while they prance around in all the unearned advantages of theirs. Elizabeth Moon does some of this, although her society is threatening to break down under it. A. J. Hall, who has written an elegant fanfic crossing Lois McMaster Bujold's characters with the Harry Potter ones, gravely dislikes Elli Quinn for a related reason. If remember Hall's argument correctly, she finds it disgusting that Quinn pitched someone else out of life-support when Miles Vorkosigan needed it. Me, I agree it might have been a morally disgusting action, but not Quinn's fault more than the Vorkosigans'. First, that seems like the usual deal for either a mercenary soldier or a feudal vassal. That's why they guard the hiring general. Like a henhouse rooster, they are to die noisily and valiantly—but first. Second, Miles is by assumption a genius at tactics and strategy, and his survival presumably saves more soldiers than one.¹ Third, to rejoin my original thoughts about depictions of aristocracy, the Vorkosigans have other people do their dirty work all the time. Then they get props not just for getting the work done, but for forgiving the doer. This may be an accurate view of the emotional billing-system of inherited power, but I can't gloss over it nearly as well as Bujold seems to.

In Williams' defense, thinking historically, I should point out that Jeffery Farnol has nice nobles, but he's Edwardian/modern as well as escapist. G. A. Henty characters take advantage of their own enlisted men. Don Quixote laughingly beats up on all slow-footed peasantry, as do the gallant rogues who are lieutenants to Magistrate Bao.

Williams' protagonists fight for unfair advantage but are conscious of it. The smartest one, having finally won a job that lets her commit war profiteering with inside knowledge, thinks to herself that now she really feels like a Peer. That's the true-quill early nineteenth century speaking.

¹ I might disapprove of this application of utilitarianism, but I'd still distinguish between Quinn a Bad Person and Quinn being the sharp end of a value system shared by the Good characters. Should Quinn have whined and suffered more? Ick; like the walrus hiding behind his handkerchief.

ISBN: 0-380-82021-8

Fifty-One Tales, Lord Dunsany

The Assignation is so pretty and formal that it warrants letterpress. It's so short that it would still fit on a large postcard. There wouldn't be much of a market, though; it could announce auctions by the executor, or serve as a refusal notice from those imaginary editors as cruel as a A. C. Swinburne daydream.

The Assignation
Fame singing in the highways, and trifling as she sang, with sordid adventurers, passed the poet by.
And still the poet made for her little chaplets of song, to deck her forehead in the courts of Time: and still she wore instead the worthless garlands, that boisterous citizens flung to her in the ways, made out of perishable things.
And after a while whenever these garlands died the poet came to her with his chaplets of song; and still she laughed at him and wore the worthless wreaths, though they always died at evening.
And one day in his bitterness the poet rebuked her, and said to her: "Lovely Fame, even in the highways and the byways you have not foreborne to laugh and shout and jest with worthless men, and I have toiled for you and dreamed of you and you mock me and pass me by."
And Fame turned her back on him and walked away, but in departing she looked over her shoulder and smiled at him as she had not smiled before, and, almost speaking in a whisper, said:
"I will meet you in the graveyard at the back of the Workhouse in a hundred years."

Gutenberg etext #7838

March 20, 2004

Sunshine, Robin McKinley

An ex-busker I once worked with divided acts into Cheap Tricks and Sure Things. These overlap, he said, but not much. Most of us mostly make our living on Cheap Tricks that work pretty well; too often we stick to a trick while it loses all its pull. While young or driven, we might work hard enough to pull off the really expensive Sure Things.

Watching a recording of Alegría reminded me of that; I have mixed feelings about the Cirque du Soleil because the physical work is very sure-thing (and definitively expensive); the costuming also; but the framing narratives such-as-they-are and the style of the music get boring because I can guess the cheap trick coming. (It all sounds like Vangelis' version of the "Orchestra Hit" button on a synthesizer.)

Sunshine had a similar effect on me. That is, I was glued to the pages, but there were many annoying stretches barely rescued by McKinley's ability to revivify clichés. The worst cliché is the Doomed Romance with a vampire who's a Good Guy, Really, But Tormented. Cheap trick! The heroine is too smart and world-wise for me to really believe the romance, even though the vampire in question isn't a bad antihero. Maybe she'll cut out her own heart to get away from him in a sequel.

I'm afraid she won't have to, because she has inherited unprecedented abilities that take some work, but not nearly as much work as everyone else's seem to. That's a pet peeve of mine. In a book, you'd think more people would be willing to admit seven years of study and practice, if compressed into one chapter.

The rest of the heroine's life is convincingly complex; she's the baker for the linchpin coffeehouse in a recovering bad neighborhood. The baking is really convincing. For one thing, she has worked at learning it for her whole life, leaving little time to do or even think of anything else. Her experiments are still actual experiments; many fail. Also, even while famished she criticizes other bakers' cheap tricks.

The neighborhood is recovering from an overt war with the vampires, which everyone knows humans barely won, if we won at all. Vamps control a great deal of global capital already, and some ill-defined fraction of the Internet, etc. These bits gave me a nice schematic view of the vampires as the aristocrats of late-stage capitalism, devouring ag towns and rust-belt cities around the world. The café and the baker are the Jane Jacobs and Slow Foods and human-scale forces feebly allied against the vampires. I doubt McKinley meant that schema, but because she writes descriptions of magic that do use isomorphisms, my ear was tuned to catch such patterns and that one swam right in.

It might be as sensible a story as one can construct from post-Buffy pop vampires. I think it's more sensible than Buffy, perhaps because shorter and therefore less full of conflicting plot detail and retroactive-continuity. McKinley almost avoids the goshawful plot-device information dumps characteristic of Laurel K. Hamilton.

ISBN: 0425191788

March 19, 2004

The Scoundrel Worlds, Chris Bunch

Thin, alas, with three saving charms. First, Bunch picks good old warhorses of history to throw his interstellar A-Team into. In this novel, it's mostly l'affaire Dreyfus. Second, every so often there's a literate-tough-guy sentence that rings like Dashiell Hammett. Third, lots happens.

He doesn't knit together originally disparate histories the way Pratchett knits fairytales, unfortunately. Bunch may abut them in time or space, but their causative links are separate. And the Hammett lines never string together into Hammett dialogue. Punk's Wing was poetry and music in comparison.

One oddity for its subgenre is that I'm pretty sure the characters know they're bad guys. They mostly fight much worse guys, but still; some of the comments about their moral ambiguity didn't come off as apologia or boasting.

ISBN: 0-451-45936-9

March 09, 2004

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya

Russia in a fantastic, tumorous re-Neolithic age, after a perplexing Blast; published without illustrations, but those can be assembled from elsewhere. My library had it out in a pile of 'Gloomy Russian Novels to make February seem Pleasant by Contrast', but this one isn't gloomy. The scraps-and-mutations culture post-Blast is tragic or cathartic, but usually violently cheerful; they live on mice & under Directives, but with high spirits.

Tolstaya's prose is vast, rumpageous, cheery, full of dialogue that it's a pleasure to repeat out loud. (Honor to the translator.) One of the cover blurbs calls it 'postmodern'; it reminds me more of the less refined works of science fiction's "New Wave". (Am I redundant?) A Canticle for Leibowitz, obviously, but with gusto.

The burden of the tale is to do both with post-Blast—post end-of-USSR, in part—politics, and with culture literary and material. Much poetry is quoted - more honor to the translator! - and and index of authors is given at the end. Chapter X runs through a fool's categorization of everything printed, The Yellow Arrow to Plaiting and Knitting Jackets.

Translated by Jamey Gambrell.

ISBN: 0-618-12497-7

February 19, 2004

Araminta Station, Jack Vance

This has a less predictable story than early Vance (say, The Demon Princes) and rather less surreal prose and scenery.

The cultural background is a multiplanetary, generations-old ecological group which has decayed from its original cause, has long dispensed bureaucratic entitlement by inheritance leavened by meritocracy, and is increasingly vulnerable to the temptation to become an aristocratic estate. The idea that each form of government carries the seeds of its own decay is old, of course, but given the recent Nature Conservancy embarrassments this is timely - though it was published in 1988.

ISBN: 0-812-55709-3

December 30, 2003

The Yellow Arrow, Victor Pelevin

It's like all the non-B-movie elements of an Iain M. Banks novel. The technology is vast, destructive, implausible; the humans petty and melancholy; the end not happy, but less painful than I had expected. Pelevin's version is very short.

If I were not so low in my tastes, I would probably be thinking of other Russian novels, all of them about passive accomodation to hurtling doom. The Yellow Arrow is a train that never stops, so large the the protagonist has never seen either end, and it's heading for a ruined bridge. Most of the riders are unconscious of this; they scuffle for better berths, steal bits of the train itself, throw the uncoffined dead ceremoniously out the window.

Translated by Andrew Bromfield.

ISBN: 0-8112-1324-2

December 26, 2003

Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear

This might have started the same way Darwinia did, as an affectionate sequel to Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. Bear took exactly the opposite tack in fitting that world to ours; he rearranges geography a bit to make the survival of dinosaurs just plausible, keeps to the 1940s to make the mentalite of the heroic narration just plausible - but the novel is entirely about getting particular dinosaurs to a particular place, and then maybe getting home again.

Bear fully indulges dinosaur geekery, and there are wonderful descriptions of reconstructed or extrapolated dinosaurs. Charming illustrations, too.

ISBN: 0-446-60666-9

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I admire the sinuous mind that can enjoy Anthony Trollope's novels but decide that they aren't really about humans - women, especially, being misrepresented - but about dragons. Tooth and Claw is a cross-section of major Trollopian themes, in a society of dragons with explicit biological reflections of Victorian landed morals. For instance: inheritances include the right to feast on the dead, and lordship the right to feast on the weak; a maiden is covered with an unmistakable blush when a suitor gets too close to her, and a blushing maiden is either engaged or ruined. Parsons aren't supposed to fly, much less hunt, and have crises of faith when confronted with the Old beliefs.

I recognize the Victorian novel in all this, and some sentences are outright Trollopian. I enjoyed it greatly. It was a romp. The oddity, though, is that the accusation is particularly unfair to Trollope. I really don't think he believed that women were innately what Victorian mores expected them to be; in Can You Forgive Her?, for instance, it seems to me that by expectation you can't, but by Trollope's leading you can. I also remember him being startlingly more accepting of "Boston marriages" than, for instance, Henry James' The Bostonians, although to my embarassment I can't remember which Trollope novel I'm thinking of... Trollope certainly thought people would be happier if they could conform themselves to society, but he didn't think everyone could, he sympathizes with some characters who can't, and he's always conscious of the enormous pressures brought to bear on everyone in society to keep them all mutually sociable. This is one reason his novels are so gloriously long.¹

However, Walton's argument is a fair attack on Charlotte M. Yonge². Yonge was pinned into a narrow ecclesiastical taste; her good women accordingly must renounce their own gifts; villainesses are interesting but far too rare.

¹All of which can be argued over at nearly equal length, and regularly is.

²Pushing a little harder, it's effective mockery of such evo-socio-biologists as reliably find that our nature and development fit us just exactly to a society in which those who are now rich and powerful will continue to be so. I doubt it's what Walton meant, I don't remember anything that seemed a commentary on modern life or even from a modern perspective. But writing about dragons who have to act so cruel, or starve, points up the free will we, or the Victorians, had in most of those acts of cruelty. ...And now that I think about it, even her dragons might not need to be so cruel, they just find it hard to resist the comparative advantage from being so. There is an emancipation movement, little detailed.

ISBN: 0-765-30264-0

Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

I might say that Wilson starts with an Arthur Conan Doyle plot, connects it to Edgar Rice Burroughs, notices that neither makes sense in light of current science, distracts us with a classic gaslight-era Destruction of London, explains the destruction with science-fiction reminiscent of Greg Egan's Permutation City, explains that with an enormous nod to Cordwainer Smith, makes the whole feel like the snakes-and-spiders Change War of Fritz Leiber; and haunts all of it with a World War I that never happened, so the Wilfrid Owen horror is phrased in Civil War melancholy. And I'd enjoy saying it. I enjoyed the novel, too.

ISBN: 0-812-56662-9

December 23, 2003

Low Port, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, eds.

The theme of the anthology is poor, background & support characters - on the lower decks of the space ship or in the castle kitchen. The perfume of High Melodrama which one expects from the editors shows up in the plots: most of the characters are the most successful of the low, they survive and usually win their battles against the law. If the stories were turned into novels, I'd expect these protagonists to turn into powerful people not confined to Low Port.

This is more pleasant to read than a realism in which all the heroes die or wish they had. I just think it makes the premise usual.

Of the stories, I particularly liked Bidding the Walrus (Lawrence M. Schoen), a funny take on a famous fairytale; Find a Pin (Ru Emerson), not science fiction or fantasy, which has a character most morally heroic and least conventionally heroic - and most hurt by success. I want to read the unionizing-in-space novel that should grow out of The Gate Between Hope and Glory (Holly Phillips). Angel's Kitchen (Chris Szego) would make a good song, in a Loreena McKinnit filkable way.

I continually expected Grimjack to show up.

ISBN: 159222012-6

December 17, 2003

Spaceland, Rudy Rucker

This is of course a follow-on to Flatland, with a four-spatial-dimensional creature visiting a human. Rucker's version of Flatland itself is less socially parodic but much more biologically witty.

The fourth dimension is also, I think, a raunchy parody of The Divine Comedy. Very loose if so, but I ought to go check the geography of Heaven and Hell.... and Rucker's four-dimensional shining city is curiously Swedenborgian.

The rest of it is a parody of high-tech IPOs.

ISBN: 0-765-30367-1

November 29, 2003

Warchild, Karin Lowachee

My other half remarked that this was trying to be a C. J. Cherryh novel and not quite making it, which is pretty well true but not at all damning. Not damning, first, because I enormously like most Cherryh novels and would be happy to see her polis throw out colonies; second because this is a first novel and Cherryh has been writing for decades.

The parts that are Cherryh-like are the really horrible circumstances into which the young hero falls. Civilizations are locked in deadly battle, both sides want his allegiance, and he painfully learns that neither side is wholly good or wholly bad and - maybe worse - that he doesn't often guess correctly as to who is what. It's like Rimrunners with more idealism to lose.

The prose is plainer, the dialogue less sinewy, than Cherryh's. Or maybe less forced; matter of taste. The only place I think Lowachee really needed to do more work was in the alien society, which is far too much like an Edwardian view of feudal Japan (all the philosophy is alien, all the economics human). I was massively unconvinced by the human sympathizers becoming masters of an alien sword-form in two generations, for instance; especially when the aliens are described as being innately swift and graceful, and the humans are half a generation from space travel.

I do wonder if Japanese SF automatically uses Great-White-Fleet-era images of the West for its boil-in-bag alien societies. Anyone want to make an argument from anime?

ISBN: 0-446-61077-1

November 24, 2003

The Silver Gryphon, Gary Turner, Marty Halpern, eds.

I picked this up for the Kage Baker 'Mendoza' story, which was good, as were the rest in their range of genres. The writing-styles also differ bracingly. On my scale of taste, all were writerly enough to improve on mere plot, without being so mannered as to distract from it. I could even have done with a bit more mannerism, as I like a bit of overwrought prose.

R. Garcia y Robertson's "Far Barbary" reminded me a lot of the picaresque sections of Quicksilver. There's a travelling mercenary soldier who gets a large share of clever female company, for reasons he rarely understands, and a habit of cross-cultural analysis that tips from the insightful to the snide.

ISBN: 1-930846-15-0

Flame, Hilari Bell

Sturdy young-adult heroic fantasy, and not quite standard. It's set in a high-medieval nation ruled by a caste of aristocrats, based on ancient or mythical Persia. Hrum, imperial Rome, is about to invade and the disorganized nobles on their splendid horses have barely a clue how unprepared they are.

The novel twist is that several of the young protagonists are not aristocrats, and are more or less consciously attracted to the equal rule of law in nations controlled by Hrum. Since these characters are quite young, and are moreover living through personal and national tragedies, their feelings and actions with regard to the conquerors veer wildly about.

One youngster is most aristocratic, a sulky hotheaded snobbish young woman who manages to be barely likable to the characters around her. Clearly she has a lot of personal charm, and will probably Learn and Grow in the rest of the series. Maybe she won't; Bell has already put in one completely tragic scene where heroic logic required, and she didn't foreshadow it any too heavily, either.

ISBN: 0-689-85413-7

November 06, 2003

Memory, Linda Nagata

Wonderful heroic fantasy, in a thin veil of 'hard SF'.

I do not mean insult, although I know some people would take it so. I don't care, in speculative fiction, whether the unlikely powers are coherent with modern science or not: I care whether they're internally consistent. It helps if they don't provide too many deus ex machina or machina ex deus.

That brings us back to Memory; there are divinities and avatars, illimitable wealth, insidious dangers, a wounded world and a mad goddess - a quest across lifetime and chasms - really, heroic fantasy. Slghtly Jack Vance, and as in much Vance, the world runs on something like science - in this case, nanotech sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Which is in its extravagances delightful, like the swoonier descriptive scenes from Yeats or Keats or Swineburne, but as with Vance's novels, the heroic quest is the better part.

I liked lots of techniques in the writing. They probably have names I don't know: the reuse of terms common now for clever futuristic devices, in ways that only slowly become clear; in fact, the uses of the items themselves only slowly become clear. But, however nifty, the supertech doesn't suddenly appear to get over difficulties we had been led to think insuperable challenges to our heroine. On the contrary, the most impressive capabilities are usually described in the heat of the action as the devices finally prove insufficient to the adventure. And this, of course, is how we experience most real technology: by the time we're running it flat out we usually need more than it can do.

I liked the language, too; precise and very slightly archaic, which fits the half-understood high-technology world on both its sides. And the young heroine leaving home is neither insipid nor dislikeable, and yet is a credible adolescent.

ISBN: 0-312-87721-8

October 09, 2003

Druid's Blood, Esther M. Friesner

We're in Victorian London, with Queen Victoria and the sense of propriety that gives Watson (and the sidekicks in Talbot Mundy novels) their ballast - but England runs on Druidic magic, which is to say earthy, and there's a certain Golden Bough air to the Queen's garnering her power. How England could have a recognizable Q. V. with such a different history is deeply odd, but it didn't bother me at the time.

It probably works by distraction; everyone who would be fun to write turns up. Byron, Ada, Wilde, Kitchener, shy 'tweenys, counterjumpers.

ISBN: 0-451-15408-8

October 01, 2003

The Lord of Castle Black, Steven Brust

Brust is playful with the melodrama, the language, the references to Dumas - which he rearranges at his convenience as Dumas rearranged his references to history - and possibly the connections to Brust's related novels, or maybe I am following a red herring. Fluff, but honest work.

ISBN: 0-312-85582-6

September 23, 2003

Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis, Walter Jon Williams

I understand the urge to write more Patrick O'Brian novels, because I would certainly like to read more, but this is either too far from or too close to the source.

Williams' connections-and-seniority Navy is in a practically Nilotic alien empire, which has conquered many a race, convinced most of them to live by its sclerotic rules, and then died of ennui or existential despair or something. I found it jarring to have the human uniforms sound so Nelsonian. At least the space tactics use three dimensions.

It might be less of a pastiche and more of an thought-experiment in subsequent books, as the dread empire falls apart. (Added later: And it's not so bad at deriving consequences from hypotheses that I don't want to read the next ones - it just has hypotheses I consider barely less silly than an alien empire that venerates Elvis impersonators.)

ISBN: 0-380-82020-X

September 02, 2003

Green Rider, Kristen Britain

I was, alas, mostly reminded of Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and its catalogue of the predictable and incoherent in fantasy novels. There isn't anything seriously icky or totally ill-planned in this one, but there also isn't anything new or surprising¹ and there are far too many sentences that jolt me to a halt. Not worth finishing.

If you like your next fantasy novel to be very *like* other thick fantasy novels, the sentences He was slender like a reed, but not bereft of heft and muscle. At first it was a bit sour, but after a while, she was convinced of its fruity flavor. don't bother you, and you know me, drop by and pick it up.

Updated Sep. 7th, 2003: Also fruity and a bit sour; the Evil Warlord wondering how to get across to his Icy Henchwoman that he finds her attractive. He worries like a stock Corporate Evildoer trying to seduce his CFO despite his paunch and fear of lawsuits. In someone purportedly proud of his murderous, wolf-on-the-fold ancestors, it's risible.

¹ Old clichés shuffled would be fine.

ISBN: 0-88677-858-1

June 17, 2003

The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Gail Carson Levine

An invented fairy-story, strongly to type: the kingdom withers from plague, because of a character flaw in its king and people. The narrator, the shy one of two princesses, fulfils the prophesied requirements to break the curse.

It would be a better story, but maybe less of a fairy-story, if the readers were unsure that the curse would be broken. It's a pretty good one because the heroine is convincingly unsure she'll succeed, though she risks a lot to try.

Definitely a children's novel.

"For there is no friend like a sister † † † † †
In calm or stormy weather; † † † † †
To cheer one on the tedious way, † † † † †
To fetch one if one goes astray, † † † † †
To lift one if one totters down, † † † † †
To strengthen whilst one stands."
-- Goblin Market, Christina Rosetti

ISBN: 0-06-029315-2

June 02, 2003

Lost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

More relentlessly twee than its predecessor (The Eyre Affair). I laughed out loud more than once, but I don't think it would be funny on rereading; the emotional parts of the plot are less fleshed out, and the jokes are largely of the shaggy-dog and funny-voice kind, all on literary subjects.

ISBN: 0-670-03190-9

May 30, 2003

Kedrigern Chronicles, John Morressy

Flat. Flat prose, flat dialogue, flat challenges to the protagonist. If you're amused by representations of wizardry as being a bungee consultant in a two-career marriage in the exurbs, here's your joe.

Terry Pratchett could be said to do that, but if you translated Pratchett novels into mundanity they would still be funny and wry, like David Lodge crossed with A. S. Byatt. If I take the fancy-dress off one of these stories, what's left is a skeleton of description of office politics.

ISBN 189206577-0

May 28, 2003

Engine Summer, John Crowley

I reread this because of some reviews of Atwood's new novel, which I haven't read yet. I was thinking about Novels, whether they are 'supposed' to be about character development with or without interesting action in the outside world. One pair for comparison, the Trollopes mother & son, the belief when she grew up that novels were an intrinsically frivolous form; I think the definition of the frivolous changed as much as the standard of what went into a novel did. Recently, Oryx & Crake has caused a small flurry of redefinitions; it is SF, it's a good novel so it can't be SF, all literature and no SF is about X or Y, etc etc. Margaret Atwood herself splits the hair delicately:
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?

I'd bet that Atwood knows perfectly well that "If This Goes On" is one of the classic forms of science fiction, but believes that saying "This is science fiction without BEMs; it invents nothing we haven't already invented..." would lose some significant part of her readers and reviewers in the first four words. Fair enough. In a generation or two everyone will notice that technological change is one of the defining experiences humans have in our age; just as the late Victorians finally noticed that social change, and individual redefinition in the shifting game, was a defining experience in theirs. The fact came before the fiction, and the fiction before the critical acceptance.

...And I haven't read O&C yet, though I notice with great pleasure that the electronic version is finally cheaper than the hardback.

Engine Summer is postapocalyptic in a prelapsarian way; the survivors decided what to forget as much as what to remember. (They are also gardeners again.) We get no comprehensive explanation of the last days of the tech world, nor of the disasters that brought it down; but surviving objects, and rumors about the odd way things used to be, are precise: like Homer's clear descriptions of a few artworks, which stand out from the much more stylized descriptions of the deaths of the heroes and their age.

I wasn't very far into Engine... before I had stopped thinking about Novel of Character vs. Novel of Ideas, etc., and that's more because the voice of the narrator is so intriguing, and the truths and half-truths and unintentional misdirections by other characters are so interesting. I don't think it matters that he loses his first love because of a personality difference that, in this book, is reinforced by a preposterous machine. I find a lot of Henry James' characters incredibly stylized and mechanical; it doesn't matter to me whether the force making them so is the weight of French aristocratic custom, or a crystal sphere and a silver glove: what matters to me is whether the personalities are coherent and their interactions resonant inside the novel. James and Crowley both have it so.

(edited slightly 2003-05-30 15:18:30)

ISBN: 0-385-12831-2

May 21, 2003

Accidental Creatures, Anne Harris

If ever we do create a race of mutants, it's a pity the script is so well-known: hated as children, a few turn against humans, and the rest form uneasy alliances to save ungrateful humans from their own kind. What is that a metaphor for? Childrearing? Racism? Fear of beef cattle?

Harris does a good job with a story close to that outline. Her setting and details are pleasing: hollowed-out Detroit, with a steady trickle of praise for the beautifully detailed Fischer building, surviving in a society with 50% unemployment; a few corporate sharks and a lot of labor getting driven down the scale to temps. Birth of a union, birth of an Overmind, subtle assumptions about the relation between embodiment and cognition. If Eric Raymond's screed about shrill economic-libertarian tracts always selling to SF readers didn't convince you either, try this.

ISBN: 0-312-86538-4

May 07, 2003

The Exploits of Engelbrecht, Maurice Richardson

Here's a demented companion piece to Lust over Pendle; another skew descendent of Wodehouse. It's very promising that Martin Rowson praises it, since his The Waste Land is also a brilliant work that slips the surly bonds of parody.

I'll never forget the time I met Engelbrecht, the surrealist boxer, and I don't suppose he will either. We were both staying down at Nightmare Abbey, old Iddesleigh's place, for the Walpurgis Night Witch Shoot.

Thanks to Gallowglass for mentioning it.

URL: http://www.abel.net.uk/~savoy/engel.pdf (first chapter, with illustrations)

ISBN: 0 86130 107 2

May 06, 2003

Burning the Ice, Laura J. Mixon

Good nearly-hard SF. There's too much action in cyberspace to judge it as really hard SF, but even there the resource-starved fight with entropy that drives most of the plot applies.

The main characters are semi-willing colonists, left poorly-supplied on a nearly uninhabitable moon by vicious shipmates. (Those villians are more credible than most irreparably evil villains: they are themselves the result of a generation or two of bad faith, bad decisions, and bizarre material circumstances.) Their society is mostly made up of clones, which has both technological and social effects. The main character is solitary, which helps drive the plot; it would have been interesting to see clones, less like us, as the main actor, but it is already a long book.

ISBN: 0-312-86903-7

So wrote clew.

April 30, 2003

The Last Hero, Terry Pratchett

Patrick O'Brian is at least one cb, or cookbook, which we can regard as a measure of saleability of popular authors. Terry Pratchett is too, of course, and Barbara Cartland has published at least two, although they seem both to be out of print. I don't believe Frank Herbert published a vanity cookbook, but I do remember a recipe for No-Bake Spice Cookies in the "Dune Activity Book" when the movie came out.

So cookbooks are a common category, bigger than a millihelen but smaller than a Oprah. Pratchett can sell an oversized hardback illustrated with knackneed flappy-breasted old guys in scanty loincloths, and I can't think of another one of those. New unit of publishing force, right up there with the complete edited letters and notes, Tolkien, q.v.

Other than that it's an okay Discworld novel, a quick orchestral reprise of Interesting Times.

ISBN: 0-06-104096-7

So wrote clew.

Rock'n'Roll Babes from Outer Space, Linda Jaivin

Boring, with sex.

Summarily: three polymorphic aliens leave their prudish planet for Earth in order to be Rock'n'Roll Babes; they land in Sydney among slackers; comic misunderstanding marks time until the final Dionysiac concert flummoxes the pursuing parental figures. I'd say it was a standard teen movie but with more sex, but I don't know how much sex teen movies are currently allowed.

ISBN: 0-7679-0165-7

So wrote clew.

April 23, 2003

The Castle of the Silver Wheel, Teresa Edgerton

Good followup to The Prize in the Game. Castle... is based on later myths, possibly the Mabinogion, Welsh tales that combine very early myths and euhemerized divinities with later Arthurian and Christian stories (material that Chrêtiens and Malory tidied up into 'the' Grail stories, for instance).

Edgerton's story is mostly a romance, with a rescued maiden and witches and murder and what-all. I liked best the straightforward interior reasoning of the characters. People do odd things in the originals - Owein & Luned, Gereint and Enid and their mutual misunderstandings - and I liked the modern description of consciousness that Edgerton supplies her characters to explain their foolishness.

I think the book would be better for a less matter-of-fact attitude towards all the magic; she has at least two kinds of magic, three if one counts miracles. It's the one place where I think the characters claim to have feelings that aren't supported in the writing. Maybe she was reflecting the straightforward descriptions of marvels in the old stories, but in this book it shows up as a change of tone & in the wrong direction.

The place of the Church is odd in both Castle... and the Mabinogion. People talk about it, and act as though it were a power temporal or miraculous, but neither the Church nor any clergyman do anything interesting. Compare to, say, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, in which Mary is constantly invoked and quirkily active: when a is unjustly accused of stealing some porkchops, the porkchops are found when they begin to dance and sing; when a monk steals altar linen, Mary makes his ill-gotten undies shrink until he sees the error of his ways.

ISBN: 0-441-09275-6

So wrote clew.

Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm

Hm. The plot relies too much on some clichéd oppositions for me to really like the book - male/female, forcing/adapting, space/nature, Euro-American/Native American. On the other hand, the Anglo-American woman who makes a key to the plot's puzzle doesn't get it for free in either tradition. And, most realistically, the key she thinks of comes from her understanding, as an outsider, one of the cultures she's only half in. It isn't a solution to the questions either of the cultures were working on in their own frames.

ISBN: 0-671-83336-7

So wrote clew.

April 19, 2003

Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, Pat Murphy

It's only meant to be a divertissement, I think, a silliness with Quantum as its excuse - and Narrativium too - but I don't think it was funny enough, or eerie enough. Nothing awful about it; too many pages between the good bits, is the worst I would say.

ISBN: 0-312-86643-7

So wrote clew.

The Prize in the Game, Jo Walton

Whoo!

For a modern fantasy novel, this has a solid quantity of wierdness (oddity or fate, choose your meaning) not explained away into hex-paper boredom. I also liked the characters, except the ones no-one could like. And there is plenty of excitement and romance, not damaged by the foreshadowing granted by this being sort-of a telling of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, q.v.

The Táin itself is much much wierder. "His face and features became a red bowl: he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek from the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. " Nor is that a monster - it's the handsome hero. Enormously high body-counts, lots of poetry, and women who do interesting things.

The modern novel sorts out a fair amount of the magic and religion into systems that make the duels-and-herding life less awful; there is a limit on population growth, many of the wounds taken in the constant battles can be healed immediately, the most important laws are enforced by the gods; or nearly everyone believes they will be, which is nearly as useful. Some books make this twee, as though heroism were imaginable but dirty hair weren't. Walton's builds a prelapsarian or Silver Age society, one in which the fates play with humans but without loading the dice first. (Her earlier books are later in the history of this world, and see its rules rearranged.)

How much magic (or indistinguishable technology) is needed to make a set of rules seem fair is a measure of something, the harshness of the rules, say. For instance, The Stone Canal handed just enormous capabilities to the system it described without convincing me that it would be a pleasant system for most of its inhabitants. ...I very faintly recall that someone in the 19th century wistfully wrote that if only food production could really keep up with population, the problems of the world would dwindle, since of course it does the rich no good to hoard more food than they can eat. (File that under: technical solutions do not suffice for social problems.)

ISBN: 0-765-30263-2

So wrote clew.

April 10, 2003

The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke

Okay children's fantasy/mystery/adventure story, but I don't think it's as good as The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which is a close analogy. That might be because I'm too old to read either now, but I still think there should have been either more or less magic in Thief Lord.

ISBN: 0-439-40437-1

So wrote clew.

April 09, 2003

Futuretrack 5, Robert Westall

This is a much better YA novel on 'bad education as an implement of dystopia' than Higher Education. It is clear throughout how the destructive system benefits enough people to keep it stable; the hero-narrator isn't so dim at the beginning that his further education is incredible; and different virtues of many layers of the damaged society get acknowledged.

ISBN: 0-688-02598-6

So wrote clew.

April 01, 2003

Higher Education, Charles Sheffield & Jerry Pournelle

Earth is a Riders-of-the-Purple Wage sort of setup, with the schools used mostly to opiate the masses under pretense of not damaging any child's self-esteem. Our idiot young hero pranks out; his sole chance at a job is an asteroid mining firm, which is all Tough but Fair about teaching last-hopers Real Math and Reading because otherwise Space Will Kill You, Kid.

I found that a bit creaky; the setup on Earth was so bad that I thought it unlikely anyone coming out of it could be taught as much as they were taught and as quickly. Also, the setup on Earth was so bad that it wasn't clear why it was stable; no-one at all seems to profit from it. When I was particularly unconvinced by it, the whole thing smelled like old geezers complaining that things aren't now what served them well in their youth, pass the port and Stilton.

However, our loutish hero is being sent back to Earth later in the series, and maybe he will understand more or at least have more explained to him, which in turn might make the setup more politically plausible.

So wrote clew.

March 27, 2003

Queen of Angels, Greg Bear

Totally failed to draw me in. The stream-of-consciousness narration reminds me of Beat poetry I don't like, the dialogue is slow, I thought the "in Country" mind exploration was treacly, and I don't know what happens in the plots because I didn't finish. Beats me; people I usually agree with liked it fine.

ISBN: 0-446-36130-5

So wrote clew.

March 21, 2003

Stupid Heroes and Shipboard Intrigue

A Princess of the Aerie, John Barnes

Boy, do I read schlock when I'm depressed.

This is the sequel to The Duke of Uranium, which was less annoying. The whole is set in a thoroughly settled Solar System with an array of possibly tongue-in-cheek political arrangements. Our main character is also most bearable if taken a bit tongue-in-cheek; strong, impulsive, thinks well of himself but is maybe not as bright or as trustworthy as he thinks. I enjoy King of the Khyber Rifles with that feeling; I shouldn't object to a book in which the author more plausibly allows it.

And, in the first book, I didn't. Fisticuffs, shipboard romance, intrigue among rival noble houses; as good as a bag of cheap chips. This one, however, has a heavy subplot in which a princess has our hero, also a lot of other men, conditioned through psych and drugs to be sex slaves, and it was all too gratuitous. The mean-minded repetitive sex scenes weren't either good or horrifying enough to keep me from noticing that if conditioning is that effective, much of the politicking the harem arrangement is said to support isn't necessary, including the princess' own upbringing. Once the thin edge of disbelief got in, I became more dubious about the balance of power between warships that never make habitats uninhabitable and the manufacturing societies; much confusion can be written off to the idiocy of our hero, but that's losing its charm.

Good setup among the oppressed miners on Mercury, though.

ISBN: 0-446-61082-8

Hunted, James Alan Gardner

Hunted also has fisticuffs, shipboard romance, intrigue among rival noble houses, but I was not embarassed to finish, nor yet reread, the book. His hero is stupid, but learns, changes, repents some of his actions. Also there's no carefully delineated sex slavery.

There are mechanical similarities between the plots: unbelievably powerful ancient alien races, who sit in lethal judgement on the characters; enormously different competing societies easily seen as caricatures of parts of our own; scary loyal sidekick aliens; indistinguishable-from-magic technology. Gardner is just better at it, especially the ignorant narrator. (In Ascending he has a wilfully ignorant but quite bright narrator with a voice so delightful I quoted her for days.)

ISBN: 0-380-80209-0

So wrote clew.

March 10, 2003

The Tomorrow Log, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

Too predictable. The good characters are too virtuous; they overcome the prejudices and cruelties of their upbringings too easily, with too few errors. They avoid both the minor errors made from confusion and the major ones normally made in the chaos renovating one's entire worldview.

The Regency manners failed to convince me; in the Liaden worlds of Agent of Change, &c., I thought them supportable; but in a different political setting, not.

As a shallow book it isn't bad, but their first ones were better.

ISBN: 189206587-8

So wrote clew.

March 04, 2003

Rereading

Cryptonomicon doesn't have any interiors to its women. This is a pity, as Stephenson's satire is most effective and kind when showing flaws from both the inside and the out. It's also a pity because the tragic freedom fighter Glory would have had a really interesting inside story, especially in parallel with the tragic Marine Bobby Shaftoe (silver buckles...); and their descendant Amy is not reliably distinguishable from a Barbie doll with a sneer and a big knife. YT had insides; so did her mother, who was unromantically not just a Mom but a petty government official. Clearly Stephenson can manage it. I hope he didn't take it out to write a saleable airplane book, or at least, that the next one will be saleable even with more perspectives.

Dunnett's Lymond novels are still fun, but the period dialogue now sounds a lot more first-half-of-the-twentieth to me, and less gloriously sixteenth. On the other hand, as I read plenty of the originals after tracking down a Dunnett quote, I am still in her debt. (And 1920-1950 are falling into the past enough to have a quaint charm.)

ISBN: 0-380-97346-4

ISBN: 0-7126-0386-7

So wrote clew.

February 12, 2003

Engine City, Ken MacLeod

There are other SF series that combine the Vast Forces of History with long-pursued personal human intrigue, and aliens and magical technology, but I cannot think of another living writer who compresses it into as few pages.

"I apologize for sending you such a long letter; I did not have time to write a short one." (Attributed to Wilde, Kipling and Churchill; Kipling seems unlikely.)

ISBN: 0-765-30502-X

So wrote clew.

February 11, 2003

Kiln People, David Brin

Lots of merry mayhem here, and a soulful conclusion, both evolving from the hypothesis of the novel: that it is possible to put a copy of one's consciousness into a clay golem, which is guaranteed to live no longer than a day, but can transfer all its memories into the original if it lives to get back home. It's also a "down these mean streets" rugged-detective novel, and the temporary copies exaggerate that charmingly; like Philip Marlowe, they bull through beatings and worse, but it's much more plausible that a physically new copy can go out & do it again tomorrow.

There's a constant interplay between the hijinks and violence and cruelty that people can indulge in in copy, which drive the action of the plot, and the philosophical and moral issues raised by having arbitrarily good copies, each of whom feels, on creation, like the original. I think the hijinks are rather better done, probably because they're easier to compare with people's current behavior. The soul-wave science that allows the copying technology is a little too contrived for me to be swept into philosophizing that deduces things from it. The phil. isn't annoying.

Tidbits: many puns; a Transparent Society.

ISBN: 0-765-34261-8

So wrote clew.

February 10, 2003

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

A Tim Powers plot, written in a Robert B. Parker voice. No, that's not fair; the plot is from two-three Tim Powers books and the narrator far more personable and changeable than Spenser. I read it with enjoyment, although not staggering awe and a coldness after which I will never be warm again.

It does have one common oddity which, like the homosexual reimaginings of slash, bothers me because it is frequent without bothering me in any instance. Here's heaps of magic, much-telegraphed links between rites of power and the obsessions of our most primitive, String-and-Bone age ancestors, and there is hardly any food. Sex and gore play better now, but if I'm going to believe that rituals and obsessions are that old, they have to involve great lashings of food sacrificed or invoked. Especially in midwinter; the Hogfather needs his turnips. My superficial memory of various anthropology museums bears this out; I should look it up.

ISBN 0-380-78903-5

So wrote clew.

February 08, 2003

Xanadu, ed. by Jane Yolen

I looked this antholgy up for the story Owlswater, which is a bit of th history of Pamela Dean's wonderful Secret Country trilogy (soon to be reprinted, I hear; hurrah!). the story answers some questions and opens rather more, just as history ought.

Much of the anthology is good-to-excellent, in fact, with poetry both light and serious (but always brief. 'Female villainy occurs in lyric poetry, but not at sufficient length.")

So wrote clew.

January 20, 2003

The Lady Vanishes and Other Oddities of Nature, Charles Sheffield

Ah, delicious. Tidy techie short stories, believable dialogue, and a couple of hard yanks on the heartstrings.

So wrote clew.

January 18, 2003

Lust Over Pendle, A.J. Hall

We are all lying n the mud, but some of us are looking at the stars; Lust Over Pendle is slashy fanfic and stands on its own.

Gentle readers as much as five minutes farther behind the times than I am may need to know that fanfic is amateur fiction written as extensions to and with the characters of a more famous, probably professional, work. There's a lot of it, for television shows and movies and comics and books and probably the more vivid commercials; most of it is awful. The general idea produced the Metamorphoses, and there are lot of pastiches in the juvenilia of subsequently respectable authors, so it isn't new.

Slash gets its name from the Virgule: it adds a love-relationship between some characters, e.g. Yorick/Hamlet. Usually it's a homoerotic love-relationship, and most of them are sexually explicit. I have worried for some time why there were so many straight women busily writing homoerotic fiction, not because I am against homoeroticism or inventive reuse of cultural materials, but because one grown practitioner told me - a while ago, on a defunct website - that they had to write romances between male characters, because they couldn't possibly add enough to the female characters to make them credibly interesting. Now, that's clearly not true in general, because we've had decades of re-envisionings of various myths with more vim in the women - low culture or high; Modesty Blaise to The Robber Bride; I should mention the Heroides to be fair. (Maybe that's low culture to medium. Since, for a while, terribly high fiction hasn't expected the characters to actually do anything but talk, women have not been at the same disadvantage in it: consider The Golden Bowl.) I have been wondering why anyone would say it was true in a fiction universe as pliable as Star Trek or Harry Potter. Maybe it's a cover for the reading woman's version of the watching man's enthusiasm for lesbian porn scenes. Possibly there' s a de/marg(anil)ization of the gaze and subjectivity, or it could just be a efficient way to get the sexually uninteresting characters offstage. Most of it's too drecky for me to care.

I read Lust Over Pendle because Kate Nepveu recommended it as a comedy of manners, and hey, it is one: of the Avengers era rather than that of Lady Windermere's Fan, with a '20s English country detective air and some Buffy. This surprised me the more because it's an extension to the Harry Potter books. (I've only read the first Potter book, some time ago, didn't much like it, & haven't seen the movie, but I understood the plot despite an admirable lack of expository dump.) One great advance on the originals, to my taste, is that Hall sets the book in the character's (just) adulthood; it also has active and opinionated women, including older wiser & definitively experienced ones; and the central relationship is credible but not the whole of the plot.

So wrote clew.

January 12, 2003

The Fat Man In History, Peter Carey

Grim little collection of stories with just-off-stage violence;
reminded me of The Lottery more than once.

The publisher categorizes it as "Fiction/Literature", cautious praise, mentioning nothing of its near-SF plotlines. Too respectable to be SF; how'd he pull that off so young? Without even being called "magic realism"?

So wrote clew.

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.

So wrote clew.

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.

So wrote clew.

August 28, 2002

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Just silly, and I mean that kindly.

The oddest thing in the universe of this book is not that time travel works, and can change history; it isn't even that a mad scientists' invention can send people into great books. The oddest thing is that literature is as important to the people on the street as, say, sports is to us; coin-op machines perform Shakespeare soliloquies and so many people change their names to that of their favorite poet that the Tennysons, for instance, are required to wear registration numbers. Wales is independent, which is probably an homage to the guy who both declared Hay-on-Wye an independent state and made it a used-bookstore tourist destination.

Down these twee streets a character must go who is not herself twee. Tuesday Next is a noir detective, shouldering the gloom of military stupidity in her tour as a soldier in the Crimean War, facing down lost love & a complicated family loyalties (I suspect her name is a parental joke about her conception: her father is a time-travel agent too). She rises from a career as a minor literary detective when she must thwart a supervillian and his threat to kill Martin Chuzzlewit. Reckless rule-breaking leads to promotion; the whole leads to a sequel.

So wrote clew.

August 25, 2002

Never After, Rebecca Lickiss

Light fantasy - a rearrangement of a bunch of fairytales (Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstilskin, etc) into one narrative. Not Pratchett. Not awful - the joks are internal to the plot, not anachronisms, and there are some really clunky sentences in the beginning ("Its turrets and towers standing defiant though surrounded and overrun by herbage.") but either the prose improved, or the plot was a distraction, by the end.

A sequel might be a better book: the best characters in this one are also the ones who ride off into the sunset to have more adventures.

2003-04-03: Outside of a Dog gives very clear reasons for disliking Never After a great deal; I can no longer remember it in enough detail to agree or disagree.

So wrote clew.

August 16, 2002

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Julie E. Czernada

Another lost-psychic-falls-in-love-with-the-older-tough-guy-who-reluctantly-rescues her novel. The Liaden books are much better at the psychic-Cinderella cliché. Cherryh is worlds better at the growing-up-tough-in-the-spaceport genre in general. Czernada is not actively awful, but she uses a lot of capital letters instead of worldbuilding, and a great deal of the dialogue could be read by William Shatner, and the psychic-preying-mantis improvement-of-the-species sexual thing, and... so I didn't finish.

I may have missed great improvement, but I recommend you try this from the library, not even a used bookstore.

So wrote clew.

June 25, 2002

The Lord of Middle Air, Michael Scott Rohan

Shares substance with The Steel Bonnets (strongly) and perhaps Avram Davidson's Virgil the Magician books, both of which I like. The writing isn't as baroque as Davidson's, nor as chewy as Border Marches pastiche can be, but is crisp and plain and moves the plot right along.
So wrote clew.

May 18, 2002

Invasion of the Sea, Jules Verne

Verne's last whole novel, only recently translated into English. Interesting idea - the French digging a channel to make an inland sea in Tunisia and Algeria, partly to increase trade and prosperity in the French style, partly to confound the Tuareg banditry, probably from nineteenth-century fascination with technical possibility, and with total indifference to the destruction of the existing date groves. Unfortunately, the characters are stock characters and sketchy at that - I think the characterization in Beau Geste is deeper, and drives the plot more. This would be okay if there was more force given to Clash of Civilizations, or Forces of History, but there isn't. Machina ex deus, actually, which is weak for a scientifiction novel.

However, it's short, vaguely topical, has a colorful final scene, and is well-illustrated. Contemporaneous photos of earth houses and date palms alternate with contemporaneous engravings of dashing Frenchmen on feminine horses.

So wrote clew.

May 09, 2002

Artemis Fowl

Awful writing - more Formica than wooden. Story setup reasonably amusinq. I only got to p. 88; maybe it gets better.
So wrote clew.