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19th July 2019
Letters from Amherst, by Samuel R. Delany (2019-47)
In an early _Peanuts_ cartoon, Linus pesters his sister Lucy to read him a book. Finally, she takes the book and says: "A man was born. He lived and he died. The end." "What a fascinating account," Linus says. "It almost makes you wish you had known the fellow." :
Generous is the word I tend to use when describing Delany's letters and essays about his own life (_1984_, _The Motion of Light in Water_, _Heavenly Breakfast_...). I can't explain too well what I _mean_ by that, but reading this collection of five long letters, the word came to mind again - along with the word amiable. Together these two characteristics make for very pleasant reading, even when describing something bloody awful.
(Okay, I'll try a little bit on "generous." Delany's world seems to contain no villains, no secondary characters.Everyone he meets, from his dearest friends to a brief chance meeting on a bus, is spoken of with respect and honesty, and clearly lives in his or her own world as real as Delany's, mine, or yours. Objects to which he attends are filled with thing-ness and have weight and color. And he is always _specific_: in the very first paragraph of the first letter he mentions, in passing, that he has just paid several bills. "I just paid several bills" would be a satisfactory way of saying so, but no, Delany "Spent the morning at home, making out checks for $316.89 worth of bills." So he is generous to his subjects, and at the same time to the reader.
"Amiable" I hope speaks for itself!)
The letters range from early '89 to late '91, during which time Delany was teaching in the Comparative Literature department (and twice its Acting Head) at the University of Massachusetts at, yes, Amherst. During this time he had an apartment in Amherst while maintaining his fifth-story walk-up in New York, and incidents and adventures in both places fill its pages. So we see Delany, an utter New Yorker, as a fish both in and out of his native water.
The temptation with a writer like Delany who publishes so richly and so intimately about his own life (_Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_, "Shadows", "Ash Wednesday"...), is for a reader to assume that they "know" the writer because they have read "all" of his books. Even worse, some readers will assume that the writer somehow knows _them_. (The late Harlan Ellison encountered this all the time, and summed it up in his speech at Iguanacon in 1978: "I don't know you, and you don't know me.")
Then there's the Appendix: Ten letters written over five years to Delany's daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, at her summer camp in Vermont. The textures are similar, but the contents are slightly simpler and the letters shorter (they average about four printed pages, while the "main" letters average about twenty-five).
The letters' contents range from the quotidian (the paying of bills, a description of his Amherst apartment's seemingly-random furnishings...) to the intense (the self-immolation of a neighbor, the funeral of an uncle...) Perhaps the most charming anecdotes concern Delany's partner Dennis Rickett; their first meeting and getting-together is described in Letter #2 (occasionally in words similar to those in _Bread and Wine_...), and he appears regularly thereafter.
When talking about a new Delany, the subject of the book's sexual content inevitably comes up. It is here, and intimate, but never excessively detailed, will not raise any but the bluest of noses. In fact, except for his initial encounter with Dennis, things rarely go beyond "I went to bed with him."
I was unsatisfied by this book, but only because it's so short (171 pages); I wanted more.
18th July 2019
To the MOON, Alice!
posted his memories of the Apollo 11 mission. Mine are not dissimilar to his, except that I was much more emotionally involved in it than he was; I was very much a Space Baby.
I do remember being puzzled: Why, if it was a Moon shot, did they name it after a Sun god?
Some years ago I wrote this song (it has a tune, and, yes, it is copyright ME):
I was only twelve1
, my parents let me stay up late
I'd dreamed this day since I was five. Now I could hardly wait!
That afternoon I'd tried to sing, but I couldn't find a tune2
'cause just that day they'd gone and set a fire on the Moon3
Now Houston, Houston, do you read? I'd mortgage half my soul,
If I could see it one more time - Apollo; Ground Control,
I can't forgive the men4
who killed the dream that died too soon
And all my dreams are haunted by a fire on the Moon.
I don't mind unmanned probes, but you can ram your SDI:
I don't need damned war machines cluttering up my ski.
Every day at midnight, and every night at noon,
I raise my eyes and howl to see a fire on the Moon.
Now Houston, Houston, do you read? I swear I'd sell my soul5
If I could see it one more time - Apollo; Ground Control,
The Devil take the men who killed the dream that died too soon
And all my dreams are haunted by a fire on the Moon.
1. Okay, I was actually eleven, but that didn't scan.
2. Yes, I really did
try to make up a song about it that day but failed.
3. Yes, I know that's Mailer's title.
4. Yes, it was men
who killed Apollo prematurely. Nixon and co.The fuckers.
5. No, I would't actually
sell my soul to bring back Apollo - but I'd be tempted.
14th July 2019
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, by JRR Tolkien, more or less (2019-46)
As is well known, JRR Tolkien has published far more since his death than in his lifetime. But this is something really quite rare in the Tolkien postmortemabilia: two long poems that are actually complete. :
The first, longer, poem concerns the Norse heroes Sigmund and Sigurd, in stories quite different from the stories in the _Nibelungenlied_ or the _Ring des Nibelungen_. While Odin (pardon; Odín, but I'm going to stop using the accent marks except for first introduction of a name because they're a big pain on this keyboard) does indeed manipulate the events - indeed, in a much more hands-on manner than in the operas - there's no Rhinegold, no building of Valhalla (Valhöll), and while there are many cognate scenes they are, not only in detail but in significance, quite different.
The second takes place after the deaths of Sigurd and Brynhild at the hands of the Gjúkings (well, Brynhild dies by her own hand, but it's the fault of the Gyuking women really). Gudrún, who was briefly married to Sigurd, becomes "wild and witless" for a time, then settles down to weave a tapestry summarizing the first poem. But her brothers and scheming mother determine that she must marry Atli (Attila the Hun) for political reasons. She resists at first but ultimately cannot refuse her mother. And all is well until Atli decides that he wants the Nibelungs' gold (complicated, it was the hoard of Fáfnir - no Fasolt, here, though he *does* murder a brother- and wound up with the Gyukings, who are apparently the Nibelungs also...), and comes up with a scheme to get it by ransoming the brothers. It winds up with the brothers all dead, and Atli murdering Atli's sons, feeding their blood to him, and murdering him in his sleep.
Good clean fun in the nifty Norse manner.
The poems are written in stanzas (staves?) of eight alliterative half-lines each, quite skillfully wrought. There are occasional variations in the stanza form, but most of the poem by far is in this form and it never becomes tedious.
Then there is the (inevitable) apparatus surrounding them. Christopher Tolkien (whom I shall refer to as "Christopher" and his father as "Tollkien" because why not?) provides a lengthy introduction, incorporating Tolkien's various notes on the Eddaic and other Norse poems, as well as the Nibelunginlied - oddly, there are almost no notes or workings surviving regarding the two poems.
In this introduction, as well as the copious footnotes and the first Appendix, Christopher uses available lecture notes and similar to reconstruct Tolkien's views of the origins of and "proper" content of the stories here related. As a result, we do not get Christopher's opinions on the matter; nor do we get Tolkien's opinions on the matter; what we get is Christopher's (well-informed) opinions of Tolkien's opinions on the matter.
...which has, really, been true of almost everything Christopher has edited since his father's death in 1974. I'm just dumb enough not to have realized it till now. Never really thought about it.
8th July 2019
The Aggrieved Parties, by Mike Guest (2019-45)
Kind of a thriller, sort of, not really, but in that neighborhood. :
Also, parts of it may be a bit triggery. You have been warned.
When Phany Som was a little girl in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, she saw a neighbor and two others beat and torture her father; this led to their desperate escape, along with her mother, to neighboring Thailand and ultimately to the US. In the present she works in Cambodia for UNESCO, as does her lover Thom.
Alder Noren, an Australian, lives in Japan with his Japanese wife Remi and their daughter. They might as well be estranged; indeed, Remi has procured the services of the Pintan detective agency (Ping-On Tsu, proprietor) to get the goods on him: She is sure he is having an affair. (He isn't,but he does "pay for play" at a local business supplying, ah, specialized personal services.) Also, he has met Phany professionally and they quickly became friends.
When Alder loses his job in bad circumstances, he decides to disappear and hires one CD Derkatch, of "Strategic Solutions" in Thailand, to help him make the break.
But there is a tie between Strategic Solutions, which also fences stolen artifacts from Cambodia, and the man who nearly killed Phany's father.
The situation is rife. Everybody is aggrieved, and some are out for revenge - and some of them get it. Whether it makes them happy is another question.
The plotting here is as tight as you could ask for, with everything coming to a head at the same time (because that's how thriller-type-things work, when they work at all). The characters are vivid and, while most of them aren't exactly _likeable_, they are identifiable, which is more important. The last 50 pages or so kept me up well past my bedtime.
The writing is "clear," almost never getting in the way (except for a few spots early on where the writer unnecessarily addresses the reader directly). Guest uses the "omniscient third person", but uses it responsibly: we always know whose mind we're supposed to be in.
This is one great ride.
5th July 2019
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie (2019-44)
This is a rather strange book, but then Rushdie has always been a rather strange writer. Two stories are being told here, one on top of the other. :
The bottom story is the story of the "Golden" family, Indian ex-pats (though they never say where they're from or why they left), they move into a big house in Greenwich Village on the day of Obama's inauguration as President. The Goldens are:
--Nero Golden, paterfamilias and provider. There is clearly something shady in his past but we are not to learn what until much later. He is a stern, demanding father who plays a violin for relaxation.
--Petronius "Petya" Golden, the eldest son, an inhabitant of the autism spectrum and agoraphobe.
--Apuleius "Apu" Golden, the middle son, an artist of some merit.
--Dionysius "D" Golden, the youngest son, who harbors a secret he keeps even from himself.
The sons are reasonably likeable characters; the father not so much.
Their story is a classical tragedy, their flaws (and especially those of the father) bringing on their respective Nemeses. The Goldens and a reasonably-sized supporting cast play out their roles, if not with relish, at least with flair; and they all have their various lovers/romantic partners/crushes. Perhaps the most important of these is Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a stupendously beautiful Russian woman who charms (in every sense of the word) Nero Golden and plays her own part in the grand tragedy.
I'm avoiding too much plot information because the twists come thick and fast. I consider the blurb on the hardcover edition to be fairly spoily; you might want to avoid it until you're a hundred pages or so in.
So then there's the story on top of the story, the story of René, a film student / filmmaker who, with a group headed by the young genius Suchitra Roy, works on a variety of projects, mostly political campaign films. René lives on the same garden square as the Golden house, and decides to make the Goldens' story the subject of his first feature film. To this end, he connives to learn more and more about them., and becomes closely entangled in their lives: in fact, far too entangled, creating moral and personal dilemmas for himself and others.
The prose is sparkling, occasionally dropping into other forms akin to film scripts and soliloquies. The close observation is what we would hope to find in a filmmaker - or, indeed, a novelist. And the storytelling, pacing and plotting and such? Simply masterful. I'm beginning to think Rushdie may be Nobel-worthy (though, due to A Certain Incident in his past, I feel certain that he will never get the nod).
25th June 2019
The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town, by Gregory Miller (2019-43)
Well, this is a right return to the October Country: thirty-three stories, loosely linked, all purporting to hail from a town in Western Pennsylvania called "Uncanny Valley". There are witches, vampires, all manner of living dead and dead dead (but no zombies to speak of), people with special abilities, murderers, and just plain weird stuff, and the writing really _does_ resemble the early Bradbury (in a good way). :
H'mm. I guess that's all I really have to say about it, because I don't want to go through it story by story. It's a lot of good fun.
23rd June 2019
Jacob's Room, by Virginia Woolf (2019-42)
There's a sea change between _Night and Day_ and this book, and that change seems heralded by the stories in _Monday or Tuesday_, where Woolf is clearly experimenting with different ways of writing. :
Well, _Jacob's Room_ is an explosion, the experimentation become technique. It's a book with a hole in its center, and that hole is the main character, Jacob Flanders.The book follows him from his childhood in Cornwall to a bit after his death during World War I (possibly, indeed, at Flanders Field). That death, like most of the significant events in Flanders's life, we never see. We see Jacob from many angles - the angles being the perceptions of other characters - but rarely do we get inside his own head. We also have scenes featuring those other characters in which Jacob is present only as an absence.
Except for that odd fact, this might be a classic novel of character. It is certainly a kind - an odd kind - of bildungsroman, for we do see Jacob's character formed, but (again) from every point of view but his own. Jacob grows up, goes to Cambridge, is moderately successful, and - just before the Great War breaks out - goes for a holiday in Paris and Greece. He has lovers. He has opinions, and argues for them. But, somehow, the reader never feels Jacob as a personality, a person (a "character").
In fact, I suspect that this is Woolf's whole point, suggesting that we can never really know another person, can only have impressions of them. It's a view with which I feel a certain amount of sympathy; at times those I am closest to are utter mysteries to me. But it is the opposite of the "novelistic" tradition in literature. It is, in short, one of the root points of "modernist" writing.
Plot? There hardly is one; rather than the flow of Jacob Flanders's life, we have a series of set pieces, individual gems that seem almost unrelated to each other, strung together only by the tenuous thread of his enigmatic self.
18th June 2019
Khatru 3 & 4, ed. by Jeff Smith (2019-41)
Okay, it's a fanzine. It's also as long as many books I've read, and denser than many, so I'm counting it. :
In 1974, sf fan Jeff Smith approached a star-studded collection of women involved in written SF (Suzy McKee Charnas; Virginia Kidd; Ursula K. Le Guin; Vonda N. McIntyre; Raylyn Moore; Joanna Russ; Luisa White; Kate Wilhelm; and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) to participate in a written symposium - basically, an exchange of letters - on the subject of "Women in SF." He also invited two men, Samuel R. Delany and (ironically) James Tiptree, Jr., whom nobody at the time knew was really Alice Sheldon. He published the result, edited somewhat, as combined issues 3 & 4 of his fanzine _Khatru_ (named, presumably, for the YES song "Siberian Khatru").
The result was an eye-opener, and an instant legend in the SF world. Copies were precious until it was reprinted in 1993, with additional comments by several of the original participants, plus several additional women. Then in 2009, it was reprinted again (with no additional material) by the JamesTiptree Jr. Literary Award Council, presumably to keep Tiptree's substantive contributions before the SF public. That is the edition I have here; it is quite nicely printed, with a solid binding and good quality paper.
Yes: I've been avoiding discussing the contents. It's brutally hard to discuss, especially as a man in Trump's 2019 America, when some of the gains women have made over the past 50 years are being eroded by, yes, men. But it's also hard to discuss because it is such a scattershot of topics.
If I learned one thing from this symposium- one thing I should have learned years ago - it is to SHUT UP AND LISTEN. (Freud complained that he did not know what "woman" wants; apparently it never occurred to ask "her.") It is not for the privileged to "give" the oppressed their rights as if they were some sort of gift, but to listen to what the oppressed want and need, and not to stop them from getting it; to help them where this will be useful, and stay out of the way otherwise.
Also: it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the privileged. That's just adding another log to the load already on their backs.
I also learned a great deal about something I already knew: that oppression (patriarchy, racism, ageism, ableism, etc.) is less a question of what I think or feel than the system of which I am, willingly or not, a privileged part. "Giving up my privilege" not only won't help the oppressed (women, non-whites, people even older than me, the "handicapped", etc.): it isn't possible short of a radical change in the nature of the social fabric. What can I do to change that fabric? A good question, given that anything I do is done from and necessarily reinforces a position of privilege. Again: Listen. Help where useful (and that is _not_ for me to judge!). Stay out of the way.
Oh, I guess there is some value to "being supportive," but it don't scale the fish. (Again: listen. Ask if support is wanted.)
Finally: This symposium (despite the presence of Delany, Smith, and the ephemeral Tiptree), and feminism in general, belongs to women. I can (and really should) learn from it, but it is in no way mine. (This is not "giving women their space." It is declining to lay claim to it.)
It is available - I don't know how many copies - on Amazon. Get it. Read it. Educate yourself.
14th June 2019
The Galaxy Primes, by E.E. "Doc" Smith (2019-40)
I've (of course) read the "Lensman" and "Skylark" series, but not in years, and never anything else by Smith. So when I saw this was available in public domain, I decided to satisfy my own curiosity about his standalone novels. :
The short version: Not worth it.
The long version: Smith built the interstellar adventure story about as well as anyone of his generation; arguably, he originated it. But "of his generation" means a lot of things: cardboard characters, unlikely coincidences, and an appreciation for science precisely as far as, and no further than, it served the story. (I remember howling with laughter at the excuse for FTL travel by simple acceleration in _The Skylark of Space_: "After all, E=mc² is just a theory!")
So this one is about two women and two men who build an experimental starship and get lost in space. They have a lot of adventures and eventually find their way back home. Eventually they pair off and marry.
At that level, it's a retelling of the first Skylark book, only without Blackie DuQuense, In fact, there are no "bad guys" in this book (though there is an obnoxious bureaucrat). The women are much more competent in this book than in the other series,which is a plus.
So: in an indeterminate future, apparently ruled by corporations, an independent group called the Galaxian society builds - with grants from a corporation - an experimental starship. It is capable of going anywhere in the Universe in the twinkle of a Christmas light, and it's huge, capable of holding (briefly) a hundred people in its main hall. The people who run it must be Operators - psychics - and, in particular, Prime Operators. The Primes of the crew are Dr. Cleander "Clee" Garlock, the physicist whose theories run the ship, and a Dr. "Belle" Bellamy - though what she is a doctor of escaped me. The regular Operators are a woman named Lola Montandon, a sociologist; and James James James the Ninth, the engineer that built the _Pleiades_.
None of these is a character, of course. They are bundles of canned personality traits who are clearly destined to fall in love despite (or because of) early animosity.
Anyway, the only problem with the ship is that there's no know way to steer it. But they try it anyway, and find themselves in some other galaxy too far for them to identify or know the direction home. Hopping galaxies aimlessly, they discover that Earth-style planets are a dime a dozen, and all of them have humans, exactly like Earth's, interbreedable. Further, each of these worlds has "guardians of mankind," sort of sapient four-armed dog-creature,who protect the people of each world from a variety of monsters.
When they learn to steer it - psychically of course! - they head back to the Milky Way and learn two things: first, that there are no guardians of mankind here; and second, that every Earthlike planet has bred exactly one pair of Primes, who are in various stages of building their own starships.
I cease here lest the gentle reader be nauseated.
13th June 2019
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn (2019-39)
Heinlein was notably intolerant of criticism about his work, claiming that the critics could not read what was right in front of them. I think he might have been reasonably tolerant of this book. :
Armed with RAH's complete oeuvre, Patterson's biography, and a bunch of other stuff, Mendlesohn attempts to "tease out what I find fascinating about Heinlein, good, bad, and reprehensible, and to understand his work as a close-to-fifty-year-long argument with himself and those he admired." I have no idea whether she ended up teasing out what _she_ finds fascinating, but she certainly hit a lot of the spots for me, as well as teasing out a lot of good interpretation (if that's the word I want) new to em; and she certainly makes the case for the "argument".
This is no chronological study, for all it begins with a potted biography (heavily dependent upon Patterson). Rather than taking up Heinlein's texts individually, Mendlesohn identifies a set of characteristics (not exactly _themes_), gives each a chapter, and discusses the texts that contribute usefully to the argument for each characteristic.
It is also no hagiography, nor a slam job, but a balanced consideration of Heinlein's work as a whole. Much (not all!) of what appears horrific in RAH, especially late RAH, is explained - not excused - in ways that bring insight into the work and the mind that created it. Mendlesohn even partially rehabilitates _Farnham's Freehold_, noting that its biggest problem is simply that it goes on beyond its proper end point.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me, is the one on "Technique". Without claiming that Heinlein is a brilliant stylist, she identifies several "features" that wind through the texts. Observing that Heinlein's second marriage (during which he began his writing career) was to "a noted script editor", Mendlesohn makes a strong case for Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein as Heinlein's writing coach and editor, bringing out a strongly "cinematic" flavor to much of his work. Similarly, she points out that Heinlein's focal characters are often sidekicks, while the true protagonist is someone else.
Perhaps the strongest thread running through the book is Heinlein's attempt to discover and portray what is mature, responsible behavior. Throughout Heinlein's work there is the sense, not (as commonly thought, especially by the libertarian bunch) of the supreme value of the The Sovereign Individual, so much as the role of the individual, and especially the special individual, as a contributor to and shaper of civil/civic society. (Consider "Waldo" as the typecase for this.)
In all, Mendlesohn makes good arguments, and entertains while doing so. Her style is clear and generally demotic (though not "folksy": this is an academic book, after all) and her evidence clearly laid out.
More the pity then that the book desperately needed a copy editor familiar with the subject matter. It is riddled with small errors, which generally don't affect the quality of the anallysis, but which are _annoying_ to someone who _is_ familiar with the subject matter. They range from the petty - inconsistently naming Valentine Michael Smith as Michael Valentine Smith - to the egregious.
Probably the worst of these is a passage which speaks of _I Will Fear No Evil_in great detail. On pp 376-8, Mendlesohn describes _The Passion of New Eve, an Angela Carter novel published in 1970 - only it was really 1977. She then revers to IWFNE as being published 7 years earlier - which is true for the correct date - well, that _could_ be a typo, probably is, but should have been caught. What is _not_ a typo, however, is the placement on p 366: "...it's worth remembering that this book was written in 1982, just as Americans were becoming aware of AIDS and before it changed the face of American gay life." That kind of thing could, and should, have been caught, as could-should the rather sloppy indexing.
This is, of course, a quibble, though in places a rather large one. _The Pleasant Profession_ is a good book, an entertaining book, an informative book, and (to me at least) a valuable book.
12th June 2019
The Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (2019-38)
In Book One of the "Earthseed" duology, Lauren Oya Olamina, cursed with feeling any pain she can see, successfully founds a colony called Acorn, based on her Earthseed religion/philosophy. Five years later she is pregnant with her first child, and the colony is nervous about the possibility that a demagogue named Jarrett is entirely too likely to win the Presidency. Jarrett encourages the worst in Americans, lets them wrap it in the flag and Christianity, and vows to "Make America great again." (This was written in the 1990s, folks!) :
He wins. Lauren's daughter, Larkin, is born...
...and warriors of "Christian America" invade Acorn.They enslave everyone, kill some (including Lauren's husband), and regularly rape the women - all in the name of turning these "heathen cultists" into good Christians. They also take away the youngest children to be raised in Good Christian Homes.
Each chapter of _Talents_ begins with a quotation from Lauren's "Book of the Living," the basis of the Earthseed religion. Each also has an introduction or commentary of some sort by the person Larkin becomes. It's pretty devastating.
Yet, as with the first book, there is hope. Things do gradually get better, and in the end Lauren lives to see the first of the Earthseed ships being prepared for its interstellar flight of colonization.
These books, as with all Butler's work (that I have read), are beautifully written, taking us into Lauren's (and other folks') mind and feelings, never calling attention to the words, keeping the fictional dream vivid and powerful. I recommend them highly.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (2019-37)
A tale of hope (maybe) set in a grim and all-too-realistic future, this is the first book of what Butler initially planned to be about six, but in the end wrote only two. :
As the environment deteriorates, so too does American society.
In 2024, Lauren Oya Olamina lives with her father, stepmother, and stepbrothers in a walled neighborhood in the Los Angeles area. Note that this is not a planned "walled community," but a suburban court whose residents walled it in as protection from growing violence and vagrants. This is a serious wall with barbed wire and "lazor wire" on its top, and the keys to the gate are jealously guarded. Her father, a minister of a Baptisty sort of home church, works as a college professor, which he mostly does from home, but has to go in now and then for administrative duties, which is dangerous.
Olamina herself has a serious problem: her mother was using a drug when she was pregnant with her, which resulted in Lauren having a neurological disability that causes her to feel others' pain. It isn't true empathy; she feels it only if she can see it. She cannot believe in her father's religion, and starts keeping notes for her own religion, which she calls Earthseed. It is a bit of a survivalist religion, a bit of a protect-the-earth religion, and its goal, if it has one, is to colonize the stars. Its god is Change. It is actually a very positive faith, with a bit of a Taoist feel to me.
The first half or so of the book is about things Gradually Getting Worse. Lauren's oldest step brother escapes the community, joins a gang, brings the family valuable presents, and is finally brutally murdered. Her father simply disappears on his way home from work. Company towns make a reappearance.There is a new drug going around that makes people want to burn things; fire is experienced as more pleasurable than orgasm.
Finally, in an orgy of destruction, Olamina's community is destroyed by a gang of fire addicts and general looters. With two other survivors, she heads north, looking for a place where she can settle down and start a community of Earthseed. She actually makes converts as she travels, and finds a place. Setting it up as a community is the end of Book One.
11th June 2019
Credit where credit is due.
I believe that one should be gracious and show respect to a political opponent when they do something definitely good. :
This includes Donald Trump.
Therefore, I list here all his positive accomplishments as President:
5th June 2019
Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf (2019-36)
This collection of eight of Woolf's early short stories is quite varied. Several stories made a strong impression on me. :
"A Haunted House" is a ghost story with a nice twist - not a horror story though.
"A Society" is an almost science-fictional story of some women who form a society to observe men in order to determine, in effect, whether the species is worth continuing. The end is disappointing, but I suspect nothing more radical could have been thought of in 1921.
"Monday or Tuesday" is a weird little stream of consciousness vignette.
"An Unwritten Novel" is a set of speculations about a woman Woolf (presumably) sees in a railway carriage. It shows (I presume) her creative process at work.
"The String Quartet" did not make much of an impression on me at all.
"Blue and Green" is another stream of consciousness vignette, or rather two vignettes ("Blue" and "Green").
"Kew Gardens" observes a small spot in the titular park, and the various events that take place in that spot over the course of an afternoon, including the attempts of a snail to get past a leaf.
"The Mark on the Wall" is a near-horror story remniscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." A woman obsesses over a spot on a wall until it turns out to be a snail that has somehow gotten into the house.
As a whole, the collection shows that Woolf's range this early in her career was huge.
Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf (2019-35)
Woolf's second novel is a huge step above _The Voyage Out_. The social observation is better, and funnier (I laughed out loud more than once), and the style smoother. :
The plot follows the pattern of Shakespearean comedies of the he-loves-her-but-she-loves-that-other-gu
y-who-loves (etc.) variety. We meet Katherine Hiberry at a tea party, where she meets Ralph Denham, a solicitor who reviews law books for her father's journal. He falls in love not with her, but with his idea of her. She becomes engaged to William Rodney, whom she loves but is not _in_ love with. They both are acquainted with Mary Datchet, a young woman working at a suffragette organization, who falls in love with Denham. About half way through, Katherine's cousin Cassandra is introduced, and Rodney falls madly in love with her.
And so on.
I am encouraged to continue.
24th May 2019
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino (2019-34)
An odd bird, this little novel It feels exactly like a fantasy novel except that nothing fantastical//magickal/supernatural takes place in it. Rather, it is the working out of a simple conceit. :
In 1767, Cosimo, the oldest son of a Baron with Ducal pretensions, argues with his father over a meal. Sent from the table, he goes outside, climbs a tree, and declares that he shall never come down - a declaration to which he holds steady for the rest of his days. Cosimo becomes adept at moving from tree to tree, hunting, farming, making love ... all without departing from his arboreal existence for a moment.
And that's really the whole story. Into the mix come Barbary pirates, Freemasons, Jesuits, Napoleon, and much else, but really they are just incidents.
It's a delightfully pleasant story, and a quick one, with humor, pathos, and satire inmixed in good proportions. Archibald Colquhoun's translation is quite readable. Some knowledge of the events and personae of the Age of Revolution certainly help to comprehend it, but I judge that one could enjoy it without.
21st May 2019
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (2019-33)
Ted Chiang has some mighty big boots to fill, and they are his own. His first collection, _Stories of Your Life and Others_, with stories like "Tower of Babylon," "Seventy-two Letters," and of course,"The Story of Your Live," is so massively good that the "sophomore" volume might easily disappoint. :
It doesn't, I am happy to say. Each of the nine stories in _Exhalation_ is a gem of stfnal alienation, neither longer nor shorter than it needs to be to do the job it does.
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a time travel tale that evokes the "Thousand Nights and a Night" tales, and takes on the question of free will and inevitability -- a recurring theme in this collection.
"Exhalation" is easily the weirdest tale in this collection, and I admit it took me a few pages to get into it. It might be an allegory of environmental decay. It is certainly an illustration of the Third Law of Thermodynamics.
"What's Expected of Us" is another take on free will. The shortest story in the collection, it is less a story than a _gedankenexperiment_. What if a machine could accurately know what you will do in five seconds? (Shades of resublimated thiotimoline!)
"The Lifecycle of Software Objects," is the longest. Here we have software agents designed to be cute, as pets, with fairly-strong AI powering them. Directly attacks the question of animal rights, which we will see again in a short while.
"Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" is an almost-plausible bit of alternate Victoriana - not quite steampunk, but certainly compatible with it. A bit of a horror story under the tale of a marvelous invention that isn't so marvelous after all.
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" is about the kind of stories we construct about ourselves, and two kinds of truth: what we "know" to be true, and facts.
"The Great Silence" is told by a parrot, who wants to know why we are wasting our time on SETI when we have other species to talk to right here.
"Omphalos" is the second weirdest story in the book. Its basic premise is an alternate world where archaeology turns up proof of a young Earth, rather than the extensive fossil record, and what it would take to shake faith in a world like that.
"Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" is another meditation on free will, as well as an exploration of how to turn your life around. "Prisms" let you talk to alternate versions of yourself, in worlds that branch off just as the prism is activated.
The thing is, Chiang isn't just doing intellectual exploration of "big ideas". Other than a couple of thought-experiment stories, these stories all go for the feels, putting human beings into situations derived from the big ideas - and they do it well.
16th May 2019
The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun, by J.R.R.Tolkien (2019-32)
During the 1920s, Tolkien apparently went through a "Celtic" period in which, among other things, he read a number of Breton poems and adapted and evolved them. "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" (literally, The Lord and The Lady) is the final product of this process. :
The poem is about 500 lines long, and concerns a lord whose lady is childless. He seeks out the Corrigan (a fairy of sorts), who gives him a potion and explains that she'll have her fee when he is satisfied. Well, the lady gives birth to twins, and the Corrigan shows up and, wouldn't you know it, the schmuck refuses to pay her fee (which is to have sexual union with her), so she curses him, and he dies, and the lady dies, and that's a pretty standard story of the Fair Folk This is presented with introduction and notes...
But wait! There's more! There are two "Corrigan" poems Tolkien wrote before the "Lay", plus drafts of the "Lay", plus some other ancillary, nay, tertiary stuff.
I enjoyed the "Lay" and the "Corrigan" poems quite a lot. The introduction and notes to them were interesting, too. But the drafts and ancillae grew a bit tedious for me.
Octavia Gone, by Jack McDevitt (2019-31)
Another pleasant enough episode in the ongoing adventures of Alex Benedict and his pilot/assistant Chase Kolpath (who narrates all but the first novel). Alex spends a fair amount of time offscreen in this one, as Chase winds up piloting his uncle Gabe Benedict (who was, previously, rescued after 11 years/3 weeks in a spacetime anomaly) around nearly as much as Alex. :
This installment has two Mcguffins. The first is the disappearance of space station Octavia, about eleven years ago. Octavia had been making major breakthroughs in the study of wormholes around a black hole, when transmissions suddenly stopped. Rescue teams found no sign of the station, its four-person crew, or its shuttle.
The second Mcguffin is a possibly-alien artifact that had been in the possession of one of the Octavia's crew. It had been on Benedict's shelves for study when the crewperson' s heir claimed it; it disappeared afterwards, possibly into the trash.
Naturally, the two puzzles intersect, and their joint solution is reasonably satisfying - but creates a new problem; how to explain the loss of the Octavia without betraying confidences and without causing further pain to the bereaved. I'm not so sure that the solution here is satisfactory, but that's the nature of human problems, I suppose.
My problem with the book is in the second word of this review. It's _pleasant_. Our heroes are never in any personal, professional, or any other sort of danger, and fit into this novel like an old glove. Nobody really grows - well, there's a romantic subplot, but nobody grows as a result of the main story. I have been known to say of Agatha Christie that she wrote excellent puzzles but forgot to wrap them in an actual novel. I fear that this is the case, too, with McDevitt's last few books. He's too good a writer to go on cruise like this; I hope his next book is more challenging both to him and to his readership, i.e., me.
11th May 2019
My Adventure in Creative Reading, by M. Todd Gallowglas (2019-30)
I liked this book. It is the chronological record of all the fiction and non-fiction Gallowglas wrote for two semesters of his Masters of Fine Arts degree, with responses from his mentors (apparently at the school he attended you get a different mentor each semester - interesting!).They are, in general, interesting and well-written pieces, with the writing visibly improving along the axis of time. :
I wanted to like it a great deal more. I found it a very _frustrating_ book to read, for two main reasons.
At least one of these reasons is forgivable, as it is inherent to the nature of the book: Each semester, Gallowglas began a new novel. Neither was complete at semester's end. And I *wanted* to read them in their entirety. The first novel is amusing and plays nicely with some fantasy cliches. And the second novel is harrowing, as far as it goes. (Much of the nonfiction is responses to his reading during the semester. Not reviews, but personal responses. I found them fascinating for the books I have read, and tantalizing for some of those I haven't.)
But the other reason is not as forgivable. The book appears not to have been proofread at all. Misspellings, extra or missing words (sometimes both), and other bugbears haunt just about every page. I could accept, perhaps, that he wanted to present the work as his mentors saw it - but it isn't just in the work. There are similar problems with the material he adds from the present of the time of the assembly of the book.
Even the back cover. The blurb gets the book's title wrong - twice! - and has a sentence made nonsensical by a missing noun.
So in the end, I recommend it, at least to students of the craft of writing, but with those two caveats.
8th May 2019
Space Chantey, by R.A. Lafferty (2019-29)
Who knew that there was not one but two Space Odysseys released in 1968? :
This is Lafferty's first published novel, and pretty much his shortest -- at 123 pages, the "short side" of an Ace Double. Lafferty is still a tyro at this novel business here, but it's a fun read, even if the schtick does run thin at times.
Schtick? Well, yes; Lafferty at his best was raucously howlingly funny even while telling you terrible things. Here, he tells the story of Captain Roadstrum (no first names given to spacers here!), who fought for ten years in a war then took ten more years to get home. And, yes, that should sound familiar, because it is a science-fiction-izing (and tall taling) of Odysseus' journey. Roadstrum ("the mighty Road-Storm") and his crew struggle through Lotophagians and Laestrygonians, and clashing rocks and the great vortex, and a planet devoted to gambling (where did that come from?), and many more episodes before Roadstum, all alone, makes it home. But then, the story doesn't end with the killing of the suitors; it goes on past that, and says something essential about space captains who have these adventures. Lafferty did not care for that sort of hero, and this shows in a great deal of his later work.
It is only raucously howlingly funny in places. In others it is amusing. What it never is is _boring_.
5th May 2019
The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch (2019-28)
This is the best of these I've read so far. (There's only one left. for me to read) :
In the first two volumes, the wizards of Unseen University accidentally created a Universe, which fortunately fit inside a manageable container. In this Universe, they found what they called "Roundworld", a fictional(?) version of our Earth; and proceeded to save it, or rather its humans, from a variety of ills (such as an invasion of Elves. Discworld Elves are nasty critters).
As before, the format of this book is chapters of a Discworld novella featuring the wizards, alternating with chapters of science illustrating and illustrated by the fictive chapters.
The fictional part is easily described. Malign forces seek to prevent humanity surviving (by leaving the Earth before it becomes an iceball). They are doing this by sabotaging a key point of the scientific advancement - in particular, they have caused a Reverend Charles Darwin to write _Theology of Species_, which fully supports Paley's watch. So they have to figure out how this is happening, and maybe even who is behind it, and put things right.
The nonfiction chapters are not so easily described. They mostly cover evolutionary science, but also bits of cosmology (a fairly thorough treatment of the multiple universes interpretation of quantum theory wanders in), history, sociology, etc. But they are very readable and entertaining (to the mind interested in such things).
30th April 2019
Year One, by Nora Roberts (2019-27)
OK, so. I have been addicted for some years to her science-fiction-police-procedural-vaguel :
y-romance-ish novels as "J.D. Robb" for some years. I read one of her novels as Nora Roberts (_Montana Sky_) some years ago and decided that it was competent entertainment, but not for me. And now here is SFF under the Roberts name, so I had to give it a try.
The premise is drearily familiar, especially if you've read Kings THE STAND and McCammon's SWAN SONG: in the wake of a devastating worldwide plague, people with uncanny powers and abilities begin to crop up, and everything is headed toward a big conflict between Good and Evil.Only, where King and McCammon took one big novel each to tell this story, Roberts is taking three.
And now I admit that the above paragraph is decidedly unfair. Fantastic postapocalyptic novels go well back before King and McCammon, and the outline is less than what you do with it.
And what, you may justly ask, does Roberts do with it?
Well, frankly, for much of the book she hews to the King formula: Society collapses, and in the aftermath, people of goodwill begin recreating society and decency. But even in this section there are a few left turns: some of the "uncanny" discover that they are Elves and Faeries, and we learn, about half-way through, that the baby one woman is carrying is "the One" (the trilogy is called "Chronicles of the One"), and its destruction is the focus of the evil powers abroad in the world. And near the end of the book, a further left turn is taken which would be decidedly spoily indeed.
I can't honestly recommend this either as sff or as literature; but as a good entertaining thriller, it passes.
25th April 2019
Voyage, Orestes!, by Samuel R. Delany (2019-26)
During his late teen, early 20ish years, in which Samuel R. Delany wrote and published his first few science fiction novels, he also wrote several "mainstream" (mimetic, bourgeois) novels, which have, for better or for worse, been lost to posterity. :
Except for this bit.
The hundred eighty pages of text published here for the first time represent a section from towards the beginning of a massive (_Dhalgren_-sized at 1056 ms pages) novel whose genesis is described in some detail, but in no really full form, in _In Search of Silence_ (the first published volume of Delany's journals) and _The Motion of Light in Water_ (a memoir of those years). Despite the destruction of both the carbon (in a buried file cabinet) and the top copy (in a box lost during the relocation of Delany's agent), this chunk turned up many years later in the posession of a friend-and-mentor of Delany's, Bernard Kay.
Those previously-published notes gave me no real sense of the novel's overall shape. Nor does this fragment, though I suspect that, armed with it I could return to the journals and figure out more than I know now. What we have, then, is an almost pure artifact of words and sentences - always Delany's great strength as a writer - from which emerge some characters, some incidents.
In the fragment, the narrator - Jimmy Calvin - returns from a solo trip to New England he took to escape from the pressures of his family. His father, an undertaker, is dying of lung cancer, and in fact dies shortly after Jimmy's return. Over the course of a few days, Jimmy meets up with some old friends, makes a few new ones, and (off-page) attends his father's funeral.Then, with some of these friends, is just setting out for Harvard, for a "hootenanny", when the fragment comes abruptly to an end,
Well, it _is_ a fragment.
A few things fascinate this longtime follower of Delany's work.
1) The near-autobiographical similarity of Jimmy Calvin to the young Chip Delany. There are major differences, but this is definitely a case of "write what you know best."
2) What I can only call _sideshadowing_ of Delany's simultaneously-written (and more commercially-successful) science fiction works. The source of the title "The Fall of the Towers" is rehearsed here, as the inspiration for a poem-cycle by Jimmy's friend Geo Keller. Names like Geo and Jimmy (= Iimmi) and especially Snake, a young man whose tongue has been cut out, resonate from _The Jewels of Aptor_. And many smaller details surface that resonate with details from those early books.
3) One thing I _did_ successfully gather from the journals, which this fragment reinforces, is how heavily architected the novel would have been had it survived, in the manner of _Fall of the Towers_ (and, to a lesser extent, of _Dhalgren_). Characters come and go in patterns, incidents reflect one another both synchronically and diachronically, words pick up charges of "meaning" ("significance") and then lend those charges to their later reappearances.
In a way we have, here, a glimpse of an "alternate" Delany.
At the end of _Motion_, Delany ponders on the question of where his life is taking him. Is he going to pursue writing (perforce science fiction, since that's where he's finding success)? Commit full time to folk music (where he had had some moderate success in the Village coffeehouses)?
In an only slightly alternate world, _Voyage, Orestes!_ would have been published by a major house in 1964 or so, and our hypothetical Delany would have had a third career direction to consider seriously. That third choice followed would have led to a very different Delany of today indeed; one whose early SF novels would be considered juvenilia, and _Voyage_ would be considered his first "serious" work. Such a Delany might have produced some mighty fine novels - but even in the realm of mimesis, I doubt very much that we would have anything to match _Dark Reflections_ or _Atlantis: Three Tales_.
None of which matters, of course. What happened, happened, and the world, whatever other books we may be poorer by, is richer by the few dozen books the real Delany really wrote and published.
And, yes, by this fragment.
23rd April 2019
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okoraror (2019-23,24,25)
Three books and a short story in one volume: :
_Binti: Sacred Fire_
_Binti: Home__Binti: The Night Masquerade_
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka s a young girl - about 18? - of the Himba people, on the edge of the Namibian desert. The Himba are looked-down-on by the more powerful neighboring Khoush people; the Himba in turn look down on the "Desert People." Because of her skill at the mathematical techniques called "treeing" and "harmonizing", Binti has been invited to join the prestigious Galactic Oomza University.
This is an interesting future world, where the only humans ever mentioned are those from the Namibian area of Africa. The Khoush have recently reached a truce, of sorts, with the Meduse, a violent and honor-bound alien race. Many Khoush travel to the stars; Binti is the first Himba to do so, and she is violating a dozen tribal norms by doing so.
The ship to Oomza is attacked by Meduse, and Binti, the only survivor (apparently due to her possession of an ancient artifact), finds herself drawn to "harmonize" a peace between the Meduse and the University. But to make her plausible, to them, as their representative, the Meduse sting her, causing her hair to be replaced by _okuowo_, tentacles that are inherent to the Meduse physiology. This is the first in a series of events which lead Binti to question her nature, her identity, and whether she really belongs anywhere in the Universe.
And that's about half of book 1. The story convolutes, contracts in on itself and spins outward, and Okorafor takes the trouble to invite her readers to genuinely ask the hard questions that many SF writers seem to think they have answered, usually in some smug aphorism. The Binti books offer no smug easy answers, only harder strictures on what an answer might look like.
It's all too frequently done to posit writer X as the successor to writer Z. I think that a good case can be made that Okorafor is, at least, _a_ successor to Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer more interested in questions than answers, in human implications than kewl gadgets, and in personal than universal significances,