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4th February 2019
Conversations with Octavia Butler, ed. by Consuela Francis (2019-5)
A good look into the life-history and creative processes of a major SF writer, through a collection of interviews with various newspapers, magazines, websites, and radio shows, over a 26-year period. :
By the very nature of the book, there is some repetition. Interviewers ask the same, or similar, questions and get the same, or similar answers. (There is one vignette, about the genesis of Kindred
, that reappears with very little variation, at least ten times.
a good vignette, though.) But every interview has some new nugget, right down to the final interview taken shortly before Butler's untimely and unfortunate death. The (or at least one) original, base intention/inspiration of all her major works is discussed, and she is very forthcoming.
She was an articulate interviewee, and seems to have been equally comfortable with academics, fans, local newspapers, and NPR hosts.
This book makes me sad for all the books Butler never got to write.
26th January 2019
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (2019-4)
Getting the obvious out of the way first: not only is this the first novel by a Black woman to win the Hugo, it is the beginning of the first time anyone has one the novel Hugo for three consecutive years, and the first time that all three volumes of a trilogy have done so. :
In what appears to be a distant-future Earth, all the continents seem to have come together once again into a supercontinent ironically called The Stillness - ironically because it is anything but still. It hugely tectonically active, and every few hundred to few thousand years, some event - usually a supervolcano - causes a "Fifth Season," a time when the normal order of life is disturbed, typically by a superlong winter.
In this environment there are people called "orogenes," practicing a kind of magic or psi-power that allows them to ease at least some of the destructive geological activity. It also gives them power to kill and destroy. They are hated and feared by the "stills"; to survive, they have organized themselves into a place and organization called the Fulcrum, where - protected and controlled by Guardians - they learn to control their orogeny and use it to serve and protect the "stills".
Also, floating around the skies of this world there are obelisks whose nature and purpose no one understands.
Also, there are "stone eaters," a non-human race who pass through rock as we pass through air and whose purposes and motives ... no one understands.
As the novel begins, two things happen: a man (who we quickly realize must be a powerful orogene) creates a rift that subsumes the capital city of Yumenes and tears the continent in half; and a village woman, who is mourning the death of her three-year-old son, uses her hidden orogeny to protect her village from the most immediate effects of that thousand-miles-away disaster - though she can do nothing to prevent the Fifth Season it will cause.
The story threads between three orogene women:
Damaya, a child who is taken by a Guardian and brought to the Fulcrum for training;
Syenite, a young woman sent out from the Fulcrum on a mission with a powerful orogene (with whom she is expected to breed);
Essun, the woman whose child was murdered by his father.
The relationship between these woman (though many readers will guess it in advance) is revealed only at the end of the book - which is shocking enough for other reasons.
Damaya's story is the story of a smart and powerful child brought to a school where she is taught to use and control her power. But the Fulcrum is no Hogwarts; it is a place of casual cruelty, because the young orogenes ("roggas", as the stills call them) must learn to keep calm and controlled in the face of hostility. It is a story of discovery.
Syenite's story is the story of a person who is denied the respect that Stills give each other without question. Also, it is a brutal story of survival against bad odds.
Essun's story is the story of a journey from her village, in pursuit of the father who (presumptively) still has their daughter, in the company of some unlikely companions. Also, Essun is referred to throughout the narrative not as "she" but as "you," for reasons that eventually come clear.
The second-person present-tense voice is incredibly difficult to carry off. That Jemisin carries it off casually and makes it feel - well, not natural, but _appropriate_ - is a sure sign of a major stylistic talent.
I want the second book, and I want it now. However, I will have to wait a few days...
23rd January 2019
Shrek the Musical (2013)
(ETA: This was a DVD of the Broadway production.) :
I think it would be fair to describe this as "better than it has any right to be."
Since the success of the Broadway productions of _The Lion King_ and _Beauty and the Beast_, animated features (and especially Disney animated features) are being translated to the stage, generally as musicals, faster than you can say "Supercalifragilisticexpiali d'oh shit," and most of them are - I base this on others' testimony, as I live nowhere near Broadway - (well, there *is* a Broadway in my home town, but you know what I mean) - ot-nay oo-tay ood-gay.
The relative success of Shrek as a musical has relatively little to do with the songs. They're there, they advance the plot and allow for the occasional production number, but there's no "Hakuna Matata" or "Let it Go" here; not even a "Morning Report" or "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?". There are a few songs that work, but a couple - particularly the songs that establish Shrek's and Fiona's characters (respectively, "Big Bright Beautiful World" and "I Know It's Today") fall flat. Probably the best songs are the production numbers, especially those sung by the fairytale creatures ("Story of My Life," which owes a bit to Avenue Q's "It Sucks to Be Me", and "Freak Flag").
What makes the play work then?
Part of it is that Shrek (Brian d'Arcy James), Fiona (Sutton Foster) and Donkey (Daniel Breaker) have some real chemistry between them. Part of it is the added slams at Disney (among other things, it turns out that Lord Farquaad's father is Grumpy). But the biggest part, I think, is sheer brass, refusing to be limited by thoughts of what won't work on the stage.
(Oh, yes; there are a number of things that have to be left out because of the limits of stagecraft, the most notable of which is the grand chase setpiece in the dragon's castle. But a great deal is accomplished by a judicious use of stage magic, and especially black art.)
Brass: The easy way to do Lord Farquaad is to hire a dwarf. But someone, somewhere along the way made the decision to hire a normal sized person (one Christopher Sieber) and have him do the whole show, including dance numbers, on his knees; and they made it work. Really really well.
Brass: the transformation of Princess Fiona at the end is done completely on stage; she looks at the alter for a few moments - a minute at most - and turns back to us fully Ogratized.
Brass: Speaking of which, James and Foster act through such a mass of prosthetics and makeup and they pull it off completely, convincingly, and naturally. Breaker's Donkey is a bit less visually convincing, but pulls it off by well applied charisma.
Brass: The various fairy-tale creatures present various challenges; but they make Pinocchio's nose grow, they make the mice convincingly blind, and Gingy - well, they took a page from Avenue Q for Gingy. And it works.
If I were travelling to New York, this wouldn't be my first choice for a Broadway show (even if it hadn't closed), but I certainly wouldn't turn down free tickets to a quality production.
22nd January 2019
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
After _The Fifth Element_ I thought that Luc Besson + _bande dessinee_ would surely = cool. I was half-right. Besson is a master of the surprising and arresting visual, but he kind of forgot to write a real script for this one. (It's based on a _bande dessinee_ called "Valerian and Laureline," by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, unlike _Fifth Element_, which was a Besson original story with a strong influence from Moebius.) :
The other thing is that _TFE_ had Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich in major roles. The two main roles here are covered by Dane DeHaan (Major Valerian) and Cara Delevingne (Sgt. Laureline). There are some significant stars - Rihanna (Bubble), a shapeshifting exotic dancer who wants out and Ethan Hawke as her pimp. There's also jazzman Herbie Hancock as the Defence Minister, for what that's worth. Rihanna does a great job in her small role, but it's nowhere near enough to make up for the wooden DeHaan and the better but limited Delevingne.
What's it about? Really, that's hard to say. Not because it's too complicated, so much as that it's mostly "about" a series of action sequences that are individually beautiful but don't add up to much.
... well, okay. There was this civilized race living in harmony and blah blah, which was nearly wiped out by an Ultimate Weapon used in somebody else's war. Their way of life depended upon Converters, little critters that could create vast numbers of some "pearls" that can do just about anything for them. There is one converter known to be left in the Galaxy, and that's the Maguffin that everybody is chasing after. There's also Alpha, a space station that grew and grew until it became "The City of a Thousand Planets," a Babylon 5 kind of place where representative populations of many planets live together in peace, if not quite harmony. And, of course, there's a traitor.
Well, no; it isn't quite as bad as I'm making it out, but it isn't terribly good either.
20th January 2019
No Time to Spare, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2019-3)
This appears to be (alas) Le Guin's last book of prose - unless, of course, someone takes on a Christolkienean role and organizes all her various things that haven't been put into books. :
It's a collection of pieces from the bloggishness Le Guin produced at Book View Cafe in the last several years of her life. It is actually some of her best writing, not something I would have expected in that medium: that is it is warm, wise, and witty, discussing things that were on Le Guin's mind in the last decade of her earthly existence.
Topics include letters from readers, letters from children, aging (oh, especially aging), writing, reading, living, random social issues, and encounters with animals like a rattlesnake, a lynx, and her cat Pard. All of them live, and they hum as they come from her keyboard to the page before me.
The pieces are short enough to read at casual moments - not unlike the old _Reader's Digest_ goal of short enough to read in one sitting on the porcelain throne - and so to discuss any of them in detail would be to commit spoilers. So I'll just say, this is a lovely book.
15th January 2019
Let It Be (1970)
Let me say right up front that I probably did not watch this movie legally, so to speak. It appeared for a few days on YouTube, then was pulled down, presumably at the request of one of the remaining Beatles (who have agreed that it will not be released again during their lifetimes). :
The film is, roughly, one hour of the Beatles rehearsing and half an hour of the famous "rooftop concert." The rehearsal footage is interesting not only for the glimpses of the Beatles' working methods, but also for the glimpses of why they fell apart less than a year after these rehearsals. There are tensions in the air, and they do not by any means all involve Yoko Ono. The tensest moment is between Paul and George, in which George becomes upset at Paul's apparently controlling manner, and walks out.
(The Beatles nearly broke up then, and there was talk of replacing George with Eric Clapton, but none of that is shown. Eventually George was coaxed back into the studio and the filming continued.)
Also fascinating is the difference between the rehearsal versions of songs and the way they finally appeared on record.
As for the concert footage, what comes across to me is that the Beatles could have been a powerful live act throughout the '60s if it were not for Beatlemania...
If you get a chance to see this, and you are at all interested in the Beatles or pop music, do.
Artemis, by Andy Weir (2019-2)
OK, so. Andy Weir wrote a book called _The Martian_ and shared it on the Intartoobz, and it got a realio-and-for-true book contract, became a best-seller and a hit motion picture with Reel Starz. :
It appears that Weir is no one-hit wonder.
There are similarities between _Artemis_ and _The Martian_, in that both are carefully-worked-out SF/techno-thrillers with likeable protagonists, whose solution to one problem sets up the next, often worse, problem.
But where _The Martian_ was about a man alone, _Artemis_ is about a woman in a community. The Artemis colony is the only human colony on another world (the Moon), and has a carefully-worked-out ecology, economy, and political setup. Artemis was made possible by Kenya grabbing supremacy in space (a realer possibility than you might think).
Jasmine "Jazz" Bashara, the daughter of a welder, lives in nearly-squalid circumstances underground in one of Artemis's four interconnected domes. She works as a courier and, not at all coincidentally, has a healthy little smuggling operation going. No major flammables, no firearms, she has standards.
A billionaire to whom Jazz regularly delivers his illicit cigar supply comes to her with an interesting proposition. If she will perform a slightly more illegal act on his behalf, he'll pay her a cool million. The problem is that the s.m.i.a. is sabotage of Artemis's biggest industry, so her billionaire friend can take it over. Taking on the job is risky, but Jazz has some big debts to pay. She takes it.
After almost succeeding - and almost getting killed doing it - Jazz finds her billionaire employer murdered.
After that, things get worse.
Aside from ridiculously tight plotting and a scrupulously worked out scenario, _Artemis_'s main strength is Jasmine's network of friends and family, who will risk everything to bail her out of a tight spot. They are interesting individuals in themselves, made even more interesting by being presented through the lens of Jazz's perceptions and prejudices.
Weir has staked out a clear territory for himself with just two novels: a territory somewhere between a less-preachy Heinlein, a less-naive Asimov, and a Niven who actually understands that stories are about people, not cool ideas. May he write much more.
10th January 2019
Provenance, by Ann Leckie (2019-01)
The strengths Ann Leckie demonstrated in the _Imperial Radch_ trilogy, are many. To name a few: the ability to create richly different human (and alien) societies, the ability to populate them with plausible and interesting humans (and aliens); the ability to give those people the kind of problems that the reader can care about; the ability to find interesting resolutions for those problems; the ability to write a damn fine sentence; the ability to pace things so the story keeps moving but only reaches breakneck speeds when appropriate; and, I'm sure, quite a few more. :
These strengths are all on display in _Provenance_. In it, Leckie explores quite different corners of the same fictive universe; indeed, except for a few background details (which could have been changed easily in a new fictional world) and a single, minor Radchaai character, it has very few things in common with those novels - and yet the feeling of that universe is there.
Ingray Aughskold is the (adopted) daughter of Netano Aughskold, the head of a powerful family on the planet Hwae. Netano seems to think only of how to increase her family's power. Ingray and her brother Danach are competing to be named the next Netano (which is as much a title as a name). In a play to increase her standing with Netano, Ingray conceives of a scheme to bring Pahlad Budrakim, a notorious forger, back to Hwae from Compassionate Removal, where e was sent for eir crimes. (Humans of this time seem to have three basic genders: men, women, and nemen.)
Compassionate Removal is "not a prison ... it's a place. Where [criminals] can be away from regular people. They can do whatever they want, go wherever they want ... so long as they stay there. ... Once you go in you don't come out. You're legally dead."
Pahlad is a scion of the Budrakim, who was sentenced to Compassionate Removal for having stolen many of the Budrakim family vestiges (basically, historical artifacts kept as treasures) and replaced them with forgeries. Ingray's idea is to have him reveal to here where the real vestiges are, and so to embarrass Netano's chief political rival shortly before an election.
The people who fetch em out of Compassionate Removal deliver em to Ingray in a suspension pod. When the pod is opened, the occupant - who certainly _looks_ like Pahlad Budrakim - denies being em. E takes on a false identity Ingray had purchased for Pahlad, and returns with her to Hwae.
That's about the first twenty pages of the book. Then things start getting really complicated. And pretty weird. The ambassador from the Geck, race of aliens who never leave their planet, claims that the ship Ingray has contracted to take her back to Hwae is stolen. When they return to Hwae, Netano is dealing with humans from Omkem who want to dig up a public park on Hwae in search of proof that Hwae was theirs before it was colonized by the current inhabitants; and then one of them is murdered in front of Ingray's eyes, with no possible murderer.
And much, much more.
The amazing thing is that, despite the way these things unfold in a relatively-short amount of text (I don't think anything I've described goes beyond the first third of the book), none of it feels rushed or compressed. We have time to get to know the characters fairly well, and see the cross-motivations that propel the story. I have hardly, _could_ hardly have, given you an idea - beyond the concept of the neman - how alien and yet perfectly human Hwae's culture is, and several other cultures are sketched in in some detail also.
Leckie is clearly a writer to keep watching.
4th January 2019
Wonder Woman (2017)
After all the hype, this fillum had a lot to live up to. Mostly, it did. :
The story is slightly different from the traditional comic story. Hyppolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, tells her eight-year-old daughter, Diana (Lily Aspell) that she is not to practice the warrior's arts like the other Amazons, and tells her the story of how Ares destroyed all the other gods of Olympus. The Amazons were created to fight Ares, and Diana sneaks out to train under Antiope (Robin Wright). After some adventures of 12-year-old Diana (Emily Carey), we see grown Diana (Gal Godot) fighting a particularly fierce Antiope. Losing, she produces a force blast that throws Antiope a great distance and nearly kills her. Diana goes off to mope and consider on the cliffs that overlook the beaches of Themyscira (several locations in Italy) .
A lone pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, far better suited to the role than to Kirk) somehow breaches the barrier that keeps Themyscira hidden and crashes in the water. Diana leaps from the cliffs and saves him, but he is followed by German ships - this is World War I, and Trevor is a British spy who has learned about a secret weapon being built by the evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. "Dr Poioson" Maru, a chemical genius. They have created a gas that ignores gas masks and dissolves flesh.
When the Germans hit the beach, the Amazon army takes them on and, with a small amount of help from Trevor, wipes them out. Diana keeps her mother from also killing Trevor. She decides that the war is spawned by Ares, and that it is her duty to go put an end to his evil.
Naturally, Hyppolyta forbids it.
That night, Diana steals the great weapons of the Amazons - a sword that is said to be capable of killing Ares and the Lasso of Truth - and sets off in a boat with Trevor. Her mother confronts her and tells her that if she leaves Themiscyra she can never come back. They leave.
Plot, plot, plot, and of course eventually Diana confronts Ares and defeats him, but at Such A Cost.
The whole thing is wrapped in a pair of scenes in modern times, where Bruce Wayne's people deliver to Diana the original of the only known photo of Diana and her WWI companions.
OK, it isn't as dumb as it sounds. Also funny in places: there are some cute bits where Diana simply does not get the customs of "Man's World," and a wonderful - apparently improvised - discussion of the "pleasures of the flesh" in which Diana severely discomfits Trevor.
All in all, this is far and away the best DC comix movie I've seen to date. I look forward to the sequel (apparently set in 1984).
3rd January 2019
For years, I have occasionally checked thewaythefutureblogs.com to see if there were any updates from Elizabeth Anne Hull and company. (Generally, there weren't.) The website is now gone; at a guess, they decided to stop paying to maintain it. This is a pity, because it contained a significant amount of reminiscences and opinions by the late Frederik Pohl. They are now gone from the webworld.
Ladies and Gentlemen...
...raise your libation of choice and join me in a toast: the Professor!
2nd January 2019
A Martian Named Smith, by William H. Patterson Jr. & Andrew Thornton (2018-94)
This is a study of various aspects of Robert A. Heinlein's _Stranger in a Strange Land_, whose main effort is to examine the book as a Menippean satire, or anatomy. Britannica describes a literary anatomy as "the seperating or dividing of a topic into parts for detailed examination or analysis." :
In particular, it is - and this should be obvious even to those who have not read _Grumbles from the Grave_ - a satire on sex and religion, as they were practiced in the United States in the late 1950s; that is, a satire on hypocrisy. This argument is reasonably well-made, especially in the authors' use of external sources such as Heinlein's letters in which he described _SiaSL_ as a "Cabellian satire," meaning, in the manner of James Branch Cabell. To try to explain Cabell for those unfamiliar with him would be too much of a digression here; indeed, the authors apparently found it too much of a digression: which is odd, because the book is _full_ of digressions; is, in fact, itself, an anatomy.
It is a fascinating read, for those (like me) who enjoy such things, though it has its flaws.
Perhaps the greatest of these is defensiveness - not of the authors' own theses, but of the reputation of _SiaSL_. The longest chapter in the book, entitled "Martyrdom," is a sequential defenestration of various critics (mostly within the SF world) who had the nerve to say bad things about it.
I also find it fascinating that the authors never seemed to pick up on another genre to which _SiaSL_ clearly belongs: the American tall tale. The first page of the restored edition makes this clear. Valentine Michael Smith and especially Jubal Harshaw are the type of over-the-top characters whose adventures would be related around a campfire (a mode to which Heinlein's folksy sit-down-and-I'll-tell-you-a-story style was well suited).
The authors bring up some interesting points: for example, viewed in the light of satire, Foster's Church of the New Revelation is not an "opposite" of Smith's Church of All Worlds, but its complement. The two are actually structured very similarly, with inner and outer layers to the church/Nest, but where the Fosterite church is externally Dionysian but internally Apollonian, the Nest is externally Apollinian and becomes more Dionysian as seekers move deeper into it.
One interesting claim, which is central to some of their arguments, is that the Martian language is "mathematical" in its nature. I do not recall anything in _SiaSL_ which would justify this claim; nor do the authors provide any citation to support it.
Still, as I said above, I enjoyed engaging with this book - even where I disagree with it.
28th December 2018
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan (2017-93)
Wow, this _totally_ wasn't what I'd expected. It's a middle-future SF noir mystery with a perverse twist in the tale. :
Humanity has begun to colonize the galaxy by massive colony ships, where the human cargo are carried as a combination of frozen embryos and minds in altered carbon. Faster than light communication is available, through "needlecast."
Altered carbon is never explained too much, but it is a magic material that lets human personalities and memories be stored and retrieved. For those who can afford it, this provides a kind of serial immortality, moving from one "sleeve" to the next. If you have a "stack" inserted into your spine, it can automatically back your memories up regularly (the interval depends on your needs and willingness to pay). It also provides a new kind of criminal justice: criminals are sentenced to storage for some period of years, emerging into a world that has changed by some amount, depending on what the sentence length is. When you're sentenced, your body is sold or rented as a sleeve that others may use for a variety of purposes.
The various colony worlds - the "Protectorate" - is ruled by Earth's governing body, the UN, whose "Envoys" enforce their laws and decrees. Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy who's experienced some bad stuff and taken up a life of info-crime with his parnter Sarah, on Harlan's World (which I at first assumed must be Medea, but it isn't). The two of them are taken prisoner (by killing their sleeves) by cops in the first few pages. Kovacs next awakens on Earth, in "Bay City" (the former San Francisco), where he has been put into a sleeve by a gazillionaire named Bancroft, who wants Kovacs to find out the truth behind his most recent death. The police have written it off as suicide, but Bancroft isn't buying that. His last backup was well before the event, so he has no idea what might have happened.
The search takes Kovacs into the sleazier parts of Bay City, and brings him up against powerful people who want the case dropped - including Bancroft's wife. He quickly learns that his sleeve is the body of a cop who was busted for corruption; that cop's partner is the cop who called Bancroft's death a suicide. They were lovers, and Kovacs being in his body causes her some emotional distress.
There is violence (a lot of it, some of it quite grisly). There are a number of clever and not-immediately-obvious implications (social and technical) of altered carbon technology. There is some philosophizing here and there. There is a surprisingly satisfying solution that ties everything up in a not-very-neat bundle. The good guys win (not that you ever thought they wouldn't -- but who are the good guys?).
_Altered Carbon_ is, in all, a very worthwhile read.
27th December 2018
Kindred, by Octavie E. Butler (2018-92)
I _never_ read a book in one days these days, unless it's a children's book or a novella published as a book. :
I read this in one day. It is (definitely!) not a children's book, and my copy is 324 normal-type pages, so it ain't a novella.
Dana, an African-American woman in 1976, is happily married to white Kevin. They are both writers, and they are just moving into a house in Altadena (a few miles from LA) that Kevin's latest novel has bought them. And it's Dana's 26th birthday.
Dana is briefly dizzy, and then finds herself beside a river. A young, red-haired white boy is drowning. Dana saves him, gives him artificial respiration, then finds herself facing, first the boy's hysterical mother, and then his father who threatens to shoot her ...
... and she finds herself back in the Altadena house. Kevin notices that she has moved a few feet, but doesn't entirely believe her story despite her being wet and having mud on her.
The experience is repeated, but now the boy is a few years older, and has just set the drapes in his house on fire.
Over time, Dana learns that she is travelling three thousand miles, plus a century and a half, to Maryland in the early 1800s. A Slave state, and the boy (Rufus)'s father is a plantation owner with a number of slaves and a bad attitude. She also figures out that Rufus is her great-great-grandfather.
Dana's trips there/then have a repeating pattern: she arrives when Rufus is in some kind of serious trouble, and returns when she is terribly frightened by something. She learns how to bring objects with her, and then accidentally brings Kevin. On this trip, to keep matters simple, they pretend that Kevin is her owner... but then she returns to 1976 without him. Kevin is stuck in the 1800s for five years and absorbs some of the attitudes, though he remains at core the same person; he returns with her on her next trip.
_Kindred_ is a well-written, horrifying (though not "horror" in the traditional sense) novel that grabs you by the throat on page one and does not let go till the end. The characters are treated with honesty and nuance - no "blacks good, whites bad" simplicity here - and Dana comes to care for the people she encounters. She comes to understand, all too well, how quickly and easily a person can be made into a slave, how the self-reinforcing system of plantation slavery forces everybody in it into its patterns, and how it changes people - especially Rufus, who hardens as he grows up.
This may not be Butler's "best" book, but it is one of the most powerful.
26th December 2018
The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (2018-91)
This massive tome is the sequel to the only-slightly-less-massive _The Name of the Wind_, which introduced us to the world of Kvothe, a young man who loses everything and then gains admission to the University, where students learn about "arcane" things. He proves to be a brilliant but troublesome student with an arch-enemy from the privileged class... :
...which sounds a *lot* like Harry Potter, only it isn't. Really. For one thing, it isn't a wish-fulfillment fantasy for children; Kvothe's life is nothing any normal child would aspire to. For another, Kvothe doesn't have a fortune left him by his parents; he's dirt-poor and has to struggle to come up with tuition.
What it _does_ resemble in many more ways, is the Thousand Nights and a Night: it is a tale told by, well, a tale-teller, with interruptions, and stories within the story (and occasionally stories within those, though it doesn't go as many layers deep as Scheherazade's tales). The flavor is very different from those stories, though, with more detail and less of the "ooo, wow" factor.
Let's take a step back.
In the first volume, Kote, an innkeeper in a small village, is trapped by Chronicler, a scribe, into admitting that he is in fact the famous Kvothe, and inveigles him into telling him (Chronicler) his (Kvothe's) life story, though Kote insists that he will give no more than three days to the telling. This thousand-page tome is Day Two; Kote must talk, and Chronicler write, mighty quickly. The interruptions to the story come Kote doing his business as an inn-keeper, and other such. (At one point, Bast, Kote's assistant and Kvothe's student, interrupts to protest that something just narrated cannot possibly be true, because its consequences are too horrible for Bast to contemplate.)
The story is told freshly and smoothly at all its levels. It does not have the linguistic gymnastics of a Wolfe, or, I suspect, the depth of a Le Guin, but it is engrossing and puts me alongside the many who are waiting for Rothfuss to complete Day Three, which will apparently be called _The Doors of Stone_.
17th December 2018
The Children of Men, by P.D. James (2018-90)
As you know, Bob, when a writer with very little background in SF decides to write an SF novel, they make beginner mistakes: in this case, beginning with a forty-page expository lump, in the form of the main character's journal. Just why he is explaining the past 25 years in a journal he has no intent of sharing with anyone (he intends to burn it before he dies, and in fact chucks it in a lake near the end of the book). :
In this novel, written in the early 1990s, something unknown happened around 1996 that caused all male humans to become suddenly and irrevocably sterile. As a result, in 2021, no children have been born in 25 years. The last generation - called Omegas - are nihilistic and occasionally violent, and the rest of humanity is passive and depressed.
Now, this future is in fact well-imagined, with the kind of little details that makes a future feel lived-in and real. (Women buying superrealistic baby dolls; christenings for kittens...)
Our hero - our journalist - is Theo Faron, a historian at Oxford, with no young people to teach. He teaches adult enrichment classes to middle-aged people who want to fill the void in their lives. He is also cousin and one-time advisor to the Warden of England, an all-powerful but mostly-benevolent dictator. Theo's wife left him after he accidentally ran over and killed the one child they had before the Omega event.
One day at church services (which he attends mainly for the music) he encounters Julian, a younger woman (but not an Omega), who wants him to petition the Warden to relax some of the measures that are less benevolent. She is a member of a conspiracy, the Five Fishes, who will do anything to bring about their desired reforms. After checking on some of their claims, he does indeed visit his cousin, and is turned down.
From there on the story takes some unexpected turns - and some which any longtime SF reader will very much expect - and winds up with a glimmer of hope for humanity, but only that.
This is not as depressing as (say) Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_, but it is a pretty dark and downbeat book.
12th December 2018
Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien (2018-89)
Some years ago I had a vision of two-dimensional time with respect to a created universe: in-universe time, and Creator-time, which, from the in-universe perspective, would have the appearance of "Eternity." In such a setup, the in-universe timeline would flow smoothly from its Alpha to its Omega, until the Creator meddled in it in some way - by changing initial conditions, or subtly influencing the paths of some things within the universe, or by causing abrupt breaks in the flow of things ("miracles" from the in-universe perspective). This formulation, it seemed and seems to me, clears up a number of theological problems. :
I had thought of using the evolution of Middle-earth (possibly the evolution of Círdan) as an example of this, and intended, one day, to take one thread from that cosmology, and trace its evolution along the timeline of Tolkien's life as an illustration of in-Universe time v. Creator-time.
Well, Christopher Tolkien has saved me the trouble. Though he doesn't use that formulation, _Beren and Lúthien_ is a perfect illustration of what I have thought about all these years: it starts with the "Lost Tales" version of the story, and works forward through the _Lay of Leithian_ and the various Quentas and Chronicles (this last only lightly touched-upon) to produce, well, the evolution of this time-slice of Middle-earthian history along the timeline of Tolkien's life, or, at least, up to the '50s - at any rate, a good thirty-year span of Creator-time.
Now, all of this material has been published before, in the various volumes of the _History of Middle-earth_ and, a bit, in _The Silmarillion_. There is nothing strictly new to the Tolkien-o-phile here. What is new is the arrangement of the materials so that one can see, without searching through several volumes of _HoMe_, how Tolkien transformed the tale as his imagination "discovered" new facets of the "Elder Days." Where _HoMe_ was and is an "edition" of the various texts, _Beren and Lúthien_ is a study in those texts.
What needs saying clearly: this is not a straightforward tale for casual readers, like the published volume of _The Children of Húrin_. It tells the story once, in its most-primitive form, then tells various parts of it varying numbers of times. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful story, to be sure, but having it presented like this is almost cold in its effect. (Am I saying that CJRT would have done better to produce a novelistic volume like _Children_? No; but I'm cautioning potential readers that this is _not_ such a volume.)
It is what it is, and it is good at being what it is.
10th December 2018
A Lit Fuse, by Nat Segaloff (2018-88)
Subtitle: "The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison." :
_A Lit Fuse_ is neither hagiography nor hatchet-job; it is not even a "warts-and-all" book, though that's the closest traditional biographical style I can think of. This is Ellison's authorized ... well, it's not exactly a biography. In a way, it's Ellison, through Segaloff, summing up the case in his ... well, not exactly a defense. It might be called an apologia pro vita sua, a defense of his life, except it is in no way defensive.
At one level it's a collection of "Harlan stories", with glue applied to make a continuous-ish narrative. At another, it's a recital of the facts of Ellison's life, leavened with plenty of anecdotes. Neither of these levels, nor the two of them taken as obverse and reverse, is quite a full description of what this book is.
Segaloff clearly did his homework, interviewing close to fifty persons whose lives have crossed Ellison's. Most of those people were friends of Ellison; his enemies (who are not few) mostly declined to be interviewed. In addition, he interviewed Ellison forty times over a period of five years.
The book starts in a roughly-chronological order, but this soon dissolves into chapters which focus (more or less) on various achronological topics. A typical example would be "The Cordwainer Chronicles," which concerns Ellison's nom-de-phuqueyou, "Cordwainer Bird," with which he would replace his own byline when production of his work did not meet his standards, which was mostly. Then, at the end, there are a couple of chapters on the endgame of Ellison's life up to and after his 2014 stroke.
The facts of Ellison's life are a complicated mess. A troublesome kid who ran away from home many times, he worked at a huge variety of jobs to make ends meet while he was gathering the initial mass of experiences that he would transform into his fiction (or would, at least, inform it). He ultimately managed to succeed in Hollywood despite having surprisingly little work actually produced (his one produced feature film was the notrious stinker _The Oscar_). Survivor of four bad marriages and God only knows how many relationships, he at last found True Love only after he'd decided it was unobtainable, marrying Susan Toth in 1986 and staying with her until he died this June.
One thing that comes clear is that Ms. Ellison did not thrive in Ellison's presence by having the patience of a saint; rather, she matched him in stubbornness and integrity.
Which is the theme that, perhaps, comes across more than any other in this book: Ellison's dedication to what he perceived as his integrity. There are anecdotes and facts that may lead one to think that Ellison's integrity was not all he thought it was; the hundreds of broken promises surrounding _The Last Dangerous Visions_ stand as probably the most blatant example of Ellison's failings. (One chapter dedicated to the _DV_ books discusses what happened and how, if perhaps not so much why.)
But... He at least attempted perfect integrity, which is more than most of us can claim. His idea of "integrity" may have been a little different from yours or mine, but it was coherent and he abode by it, not only to the point of accepting personal physical, emotional, and financial danger at various times, but to the point of copping to it when he failed.
This is a 2017 book, so Ellison was alive and approving of the project to its completion. It presents Ellison, we may presume, as he wished to be presented, modulo _Segaloff's_ integrity (which I take for granted). It is an enjoyable read, and redolent of Ellison's style through the frequent quotation from those five years of interviews.
It may fall to another to produce a proper, scholarly biography of Harlan Ellison. In the meanwhile, this is a satisfying substitute.
6th December 2018
Dark in Death by J.D. Robb (2018-87)
This is, if I am counting aright, the 48th book in J.D. Robb's "In Death" (a/k/a Dallas and Roarke) series of futuristic police procedurals with occasional bouts of red-hot passion. The latter are, I'm afraid, becoming pretty much rote, boring, and perfunctory; I think the books would at this point be better if they were phased out. :
At any rate.
A person who has attempted to befriend a popular writer of murder mysteries feels rejected and betrayed, and begins murdering people in ways that match said writer's book series. Eve Dallas and company must catch the killer. That's pretty much the plot.
The book gets a bit meta in places, as one sometimes gets the feeling that J.D. Robb is addressing some of her own "biggest fans" here...
3rd December 2018
The Long Sunset, by Jack McDevitt (2018-86)
One of the most developed characters in space fiction, Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchinson, returns for a trip to new places. :
A physicist, Derek Blanchard, accidentally discovers a clear video transmission that appears to emanate from a star very far away. (Well, not by galactic measures. But far.) It's a waterfall, but (checking against the possibility of some kind of echo) no waterfall on Earth.
There's a problem, though. Politics. The Academy has been shut down, and interstellar flight, other than a bit of sightseeing for the wealthy and supplying a few colonies, is shutting down. The President has favored a measure that would end all stellar exploration, because we might find somebody scary out there.
In this environment, Blanchard and Hutch quickly put together an expedition to chase the signal. A group of five barely makes it out of the launch station, with legal threats hanging over their heads, but away they go and discover...
...no planet there. No _star_ there. A black hole has come through and trashed the neighborhood.
No, they don't give up; and then things start to get interesting.
This is a book about moral courage, courage without a direct threat of violence, winning against the odds.
Well done, Mr. McDevitt!
30th November 2018
Phallos, by Samuel R. Delany (2018-85)
This is a book of absences and echoes. :
One thing that is absent is a novel called _Phallos_. There is a summary of it by one (presumably fictional) Randy Pedersen, with occasional helpful comments from his friends Binky and Phyllis. _Phallos_ is a gay porn novel, and _one_ of the things Pedersen leaves out is the lubricious content that makes porn porn.
His summary tells of a man from 2nd-century Syracuse, who, through a series of plot machinations, winds up searching for the golden phallos of the Nameless God. He never finds it, but along the way he meets his life-partner.
Binky and Phyllis suggest that, even on the level of plot, Randy has left a great deal out.
Meanwhile, outside this, before this, there's a brief description of a young man named Adrian Rome, who occasionally encounters a copy of _Phallos_, but never manages to acquire and read it - in the end, all he gets to read is Randy's summary. But, in the search, he meets his life-partner...
26th November 2018
Okla Hannali, by R.A. Lafferty (2018-84)
For the second time, the commentbox of one of my posts was taken over by people holding a lengthy conversation in what looked like Chinese, so I deleted it and here's the repost: :
**********This is a weird book, even by Lafferty standards.At one level, it is a true story. That is, it is the true - as true as an Oklahoma white man could get - story of the Choctaw nation from around 1800 to 1900, including the great removal, the civil war, the destruction of the Native American (Lafferty, writing in the early '70s, says "Indian") peoples, and a great deal more. It is carefully, deeply, and exactingly researched - as far as I can tell. Certainly it has been praised by NA people for its truth.But at another level, it's a vast and at times hilarious tall tale, whose hero is Hannali Innominee, a Choctaw whose life coincides with the 19th Century. Hannali is born in the Okla Hannali "district" of the Choctaw nation, one of the Five Civilized Tribes inhabiting the Deep South before whites came along. He is born to a Catholic full-blood Choctaw family, who maintain their faith despite seeing a priest come through perhaps once every five or ten years.Hannali rises to fame and power in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), is ruined, and rises again, though never so far as he did before. In the end, he and his family and his people have become, for all practical purposes, white men.That isn't much detail, because everything is so intertwisted and wound that I can't give _this_ detail without explaining _that_ and then _that_ would entail explaining _those_ other three, which... But it's a helluva good read. Trust me, okay?
25th November 2018
The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass (2018-83)
This is, like, the granddaddy of all slave narratives, and it was about time I got around to reading it. The reader knows going in that Douglass escaped to freedom, which frames the whole. :
The opening chapter sears with the bloody and detailed whipping of young Frederick's elderly aunt, while small-child Frederick cowers in a closet, sure he is next. Frederick grows up a relatively-privileged house slave in Maryland, and then, as a youth, is sent to Baltimore to be his owner's grandson's nanny (if I have the relationships worked out right). Here the mistress of the house begins teaching him to read, until stopped by her husband who makes the cogent argument that an educated slave is an unhappy(ier) slave and likely to attempt rebellion or escape. He continues his lessons by bribing local white boys to teach him.
After a while he finds himself back in Maryland where he offends sufficiently against his owner that he is leased for a year to a slave-breaking specialist, who is brutal but in his own way fair. Halfway through the year he sets hands on the breaker and wins the fight, following which he vows never to be whipped again without fighting.
I could go on with a catalog of the injustices done him and his, but what good would it do either of us when you really ought to read this terrible, wonderful book for yourself...