Swords Against Wizardry, by Fritz Leiber (2020-64)

Volume 4 in the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

This volume contains four stories: two short ones, each of which serves as a setup for a long one.

Short #1: "In the Witch's Tent". Fafhrd and the Mouser consult a fortune teller, and barely get away with their lives, not to mention her tent.

Long #1: "Stardock". A tale of mountineering, with supernatural interludes and a large feline companion, to find a legendary treasure at the top.

Short #2: "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar". Temporarily estranged from each other, the two heroes arrange, separately, to sell the weird gems they acquired at Stardock. 

Long #2: "The Lords of Quarmall". Two brothers quarrel violently about who will inherit a mostly-underground kingdom. Each hires one of our heroes to protect him from the other's champion. Their father has other plans.

"The Lords of Quarmall" contains the only material in the canonical series _not_ written by Leiber: in 1936, Leiber's friend Harry Otto Fischer wrote some fragments of a swords'n'sorcery story into which, many years later, Leiber stitched Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, expanding and completing the tale.

Overall judgement: Good fun, but not the best of these I've read. Also, female characters continue problematic, though they hae a bit more noon-villainous agency here than in previous books.

Another posting from elsewhere

The question was:

People nowadays rarely read serious literature.agree or disagree? Why?

My answer was: 

I disagree. I, for example, am in a years-long reading project of the complete works of Virginia Woolf. When I’m done that I think I’ll tackle Proust. And in the meanwhile I read other literature; for example, I recently read Faulkner’s Light in August.

This is mixed in with reading science fiction, fantasy, comics, the occasional mystery novel … most of which are pretty serious, though I have to take a break now and then to lighten up (my current lightening-up is a read through the OZ books).

Oh, and I’m teaching myself Spanish. I started with Duolingo, and when I finished that I started in on Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, figuring something moderately familiar would help me learn to think in the language. It’s actually working; I don’t have to mentally translate, except when I hit a word I don’t know (which started at about five words/page and is now down to about two-and-a-half as I learn the words Duolingo didn’t teach me).

I suspect that I am like a lot of heavy readers. The distinction between “serious” and “fun” literature is being dissolved, and people can read both.


...someone challenged some claims I made about the (average) moral superiority of Democrats. Here is my reply:

Well, Mr. X, let’s go point by point, saving the best for last, because I have some statistics for you there.

“Democrats donate less than charity than conseravtives…’

That depends on whose statistics you use. Also, keep in mind that Republicans are, on the average, a bit richer than Democrats. Yes, there are poor Reps and billionaire Dems. Average. And here is some interesting information to suggest that this is accurate:

Among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike, almost exactly half of the group averaged $100-$999 in annual charitable donations at the time of this 2005 poll. There was virtually no difference among the parties in the size of that moderate-giving group, so those results were not included in the graph to the left.

If, however, you zero in on giving that is heavier or lighter than the middle range (the bars pictured here), you find that the parties differ a lot. Democrats and Independents both had many zero-to-very-light givers (less than $100 for the year), and modest numbers of heavier givers. Republicans, in comparison, had comparatively few skinflints, and numerous serious donors—31 percent sharing at least $1,000 with charity, versus 17 percent among Democrats, and 20 percent among Independents.

(Source: Philanthropy Round Table)

And of those billionaires - do you know any Republican billionaires who have signed up for the Billionaires’ Pledge?

One more point: it would be interesting to see what charities each give to. I suspect that, if you pull SuperPACs out of the equation, things change a bit.

“Obama has the largest 8-year deficit…” Yes.

Most of that is due to paying for a war that George Bush paid for on the credit card. And yet he still reduced the year-over-year deficit regularly. Bush inherited a balanced budget, and handed over a disaster to Obama. The only time the economy actually gets better is when Democrats are in office.

“Democrats believe they should have authority to force more fortunate to help less fortunate. Kinda like people with guns passing around the donation plate….they aint asking”

Ummmm…right. In fact, this is completely true. If people won’t do their duty, they can be forced. If they want to control where the money goes, they can reduce their taxes by giving to charity. — but, like Eisenhower (the last Good Republican), I believe in taxing the wealthiest at 90%.

“Not aware of any confirmed crimes commited in the white house since Nixon other than Clinton lying under oath.”

H’mmm. First of all, let’s include crimes done by other people on behalf of the President. (Remember Ollie North? There was a fine Republican for you…)

In 5.6 years in office, the Nixon administration had 76 indictments, 55 convictions, and 15 prison sentences. Let’s go with convictions: 55/5.6 = 9.8 convictions/year. Let’s call that the Gold Standard.

Ford: 1 conviction in 2.4 years, for a very respectable average of 0.4 convictions/year

Carter: 4 years, 0 convictions. 0 convictions/year. Perfect score!

Reagan: 8 years, 16 convictions, a decent enough average of 0.5 convictions/year

Bush-1: 4 years, 1 conviction. 0.25 convictions/year.

Clinton: 8 years, 2 convictions. 0,25 convictions/year, tied with Bush.

Bush-2: 8 years, 16 convictions; an average of 2 convictions/year.

Obama: 8 years, not even an indictment. 0 convictions/year.

Trump: In his first two years in office, 24 convictions, for an average of 12 convictions/year, more than twice as high as the Nixon administration.

So, from best to worst:

Obama, Carter (tie), 0.

Bush-1, Clinton (tie), 0.25

Ford, 0,4

Reagan, 0.5

Bush-2, 2

Nixon, 5.6

Trump, 12

Note that three of the top five are Democrats. It would probably be five of the top five, but only 3 Democrats have been elected in the past 50 years.

The Republican party is deeply and fatally morally diseased.


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (2020-63)

Between life and some of the tough things I've been reading, I've needed something easy, familiar, and comforting, which this pretty much fits. Amazon had a package of all Baum's OZ books for In rereading I was struck, again, by how thoroughly the story had been altered by the committee of (according to IMDB) twenty writers* and six directors**. 

Dorothy, in the book, is a bit of an unsufferable goody-two-shoes twit. (Well, I suppose that describes Judy Garland's Dorothy too...) Her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry most assuredly do not have three hired men; they are on the poor side; in fact, there is no correspondence between the Kansas characters (= Dorothy, Toto, Em, and Henry) and the characters she meets in Oz. No Professor Marvel, no Miss Gulch. *And* the Gatekeeper is not the same person as the Great and Powerful OZ.

As for it being all a dream, a break unto me give. That movie - as Peter David has ably pointed out - has a horrible message for young girls: "Don't dream, there's no place like home, stay there and fit into your niche."

Mind, it's still a great movie. But it is problematic.

Anyway, about the book. Everybody talks in a slightly stilted "proper" way, including the Narrator, which gets a bit annoying for a while, and then sort of disappears as you get used to it. The style _almost_ talks down to the child-reader, but not _quite_; somehow Baum knew where that edge was and came right up to it but didn't cross it. 

Perhaps the most important way in which the book is radically different from the movie: the Wicked Witch of the West. She is an old lady with one eye, who knows nothing at all about Dorothy or the death of the Witch of the East until Dorothy and Company are almost at her castle - at which point she sends wolves, crows, and bees after them before resorting to the Winged Monkeys. The WInged Monkeys are summoned by the wearer of a magical cap, and a given user can only summon them three times, and this is her last go. The Monkeys drop the Woodman on rocks, denting him to the point where he can't move; they pull all the stuffing out of the Scarecrow; and they bring Dorothy and the Lion to the Witch, because she thinks the Lion will make an excellent steed, and she saw the Silver Shoes through her telescope and wants them (but can't actually harm Dorothy because the Good Witch of the North kissed her a Mark of Cain, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but does here).

So through magical schemery, she trips Dorothy, and one of the Silver Shoes falls off. When the Witch grabs it, Dorothy gets pissed off and _that's_ when she throws the bucket of water. (Perhaps this is one of the best things the movie changed.)

When the Wizard is revealed, he actually gives the Scarecrow brains, the Woodman a heart, and the Lion some courage ... through the power of humbuggery.

And the Silver Shoes really do take Dorothy home, where Uncle Henry has built a new farmhouse because the old one really did blow away with Dorothy in it and it wasn't a stupid dream.

* Including Baum, of course, but also Ogden Nash, of all people
** Of whom only VIctor Fleming was credited

Jesus Motherfucking Christ

It's apocalyptic outside.

The sky is orange, you can look directly at what was once the sun without your eyes hurting (probably a bad idea though), and I can't see all the way to the corner. 

Wildfires + inversion layer == the Bay Area deeply covered in smoke.

Thank God I got a new inhaler recently.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2020-62)

One of the things I love about my office book club (currently 100% virtual but going strong...) is that it often takes me out of my comfort zone. This book is a prime example.

Kambili Achike is the daughter of Eugene Icheke, a successful (read: very wealthy) Igbo businessman in Nigeria, and owner of the _Standard_, an opposition newspaper for which he has won the Amnesty World award. He is very, extremely, Roman Catholic. 

He is also an abusive father and husband. When his wife or child do something he regards as "sinful", he _has_ to punish them, to remind them of the Hell that awaits sinners. So he beats, he slaps, in one particularly horrific incident he pours boiling water on his childrens' feet. He always feels bad about it afterwards - seems to really - but that doesn't make it any better. Maybe worse.

But enough about him. The book is about Kambili, our narrator, and her brother Jaja (a nickname; his real name is Chukwuka). As the story begins, Kambili and her parents come home from Palm Sunday Mass, and Eugene has an anger-fit at Jaja, who had chosen not to go. He throws a heavy book at Jaja, who wisely ducks; the Missal strikes an étagére where their Mama keeps her porcelain figures of ballet dancers.

We then flash back to the previous year. Kambili disappoints her father by being the second-best in her grade. At school, she is considered a snob by the other girls, because she runs to the gate when school is over (because her father's driver is waiting with the car) rather than hanging around with them. She is having trouble studying - "The words in my textbooks kept turning to blood each time I read them."

In December, the Achekes take their annual trip to the huge house they keep in Abba, Eugene's ancestral village, where his father still lives. Eugene has all but cut off his father, who is a "traditionalist" who still prays to Chineke, the all-god of the old Igbo faith. Once a year he lets the children spend fifteen minutes with the man, and sends a small gift of money.

A day or so later, Eugene's sister, Aunty Ifeoma, arrives. She is a Catholic also, but a rather liberal professor of African studies at the University (where nobody has been paid for a long time). She talks Eugene into letting Kambili and Jaja come to visit her and her three chiildren. Here Kambili and Jaja taste something like freedom for the very first time, and the struggle is on; further Kambili falls (though she doesn't use the word) in deep crush with the Catholic chaplain, Father Amadi. .

This is not a happy-go-lucky tale. It is the tale of difficult people living in a difficult time. People die. People are jailed for no reason, except once. The ending is sad but hopeful. And the writing is simply beautiful, if you can handle frequent use of Igbo words and phrases (you can find a useful glossary for the book with a quick Web search, it helped me a lot). 

I believe I shall read more by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, though not immediately.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2020-61)

Nerdgasm. Nerdvana. Okay, now that's off my chest...

2040: Halliday, also known as Anorak, the übergeek creator of the most successful immersive massively multiplayer virtual reality system, the OASIS, dies. He leaves his wealth (in the tens of billions of dollars) to whoever finds three keys, goes through three gates, and collects the Easter egg he has hidden in the OASIS. Naturally, many people become obsessed with getting that money.

The serious searchers divide into two categories: Gunters and Sixers. Gunters are independents, or small groups, that attempt to find the FIrst Key. Sixers work for IOI, a classic soulless corporation, which will do anything to get control of the OASIS.

2045: Wade, also known as Parzival, is a poor gunter who mostly lives in his aunt's laundry room. He finds the first key, passes the test of the first gate - and then his troubles really begin. IOI offers Wade a job - if he'll sell his gunter soul. He refuses and they attempt to kill him in RL, by blowing up his aunt's place and making it look like a drug lab. 

Wade flees, goes underground.

Four other gunters get the key - and then the Sixers do, and seal off the source to keep any other gunters from gaining access. The hunt is on in earnest, and nobody will be safe.

Much of the charm of _Ready Player One_ lies in nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s, which is when Halliday grew up. Gunters are fanatic students of that decade, and Wade and others reel off '80s trivia at the drop of a hat.They are expert players of '80s videogames, can recite entire movies from memory, name not only that song and artist but the album, year, and release date. They are guided by "Anorak's Almanac", a memoir-cum-cluebook Halliday left behind as part of his challenge.

This book is just a ton of fun for someone like me. For someone who doesn't fondly remember the 1980s, well, your mileage may vary.

Summa Technologiae, by Stanisław Lem (2020-60)

I have been a sporadic fan  of Stanisław Lem since I read The Cyberiad in the late '70s. (I also became a huge fan of the translator, Michael Kandel, who did an amazing job of translating a book that depends - heavily at times - on wordplay.

Lem, for those who do not know, was the best-selling non-Anglophone science fiction writer of (at least) the second half of the 20th Century - with the possible exception of the committee that was writing the Perry Rhodan books at the time. He was a witty satirist, a deep thinker, and one of the most creative minds the human race has ever produced. (He also wrote books of reviews / introductions for non-existent books, simultaneously saving him the time and trouble of actually writing them and getting the opportunity to tell folks what he would have wanted themto take away from them if he had.)

The Summa Technologiae is generally held to be Lem's masterpiece, and I was terribly disappointed to learn that it had never been translated into English. So imagine my surprise and delight to learn a few weeks ago that it had at last been translated - and published -seven years ago! I of course immediately ordered a copy, and here it is.

What, you may ask, is it about?

Well, to begin with, it isn't a novel. It isn't exactly science fictoin, but it isn't exactly not science fiction, either: that is, it plays wildly with science-fictional ideas, but it isn't a work of fiction, at least in any sense in which I understand the word. It's more of a book of speculative science and philosophy.

Lem begins and ends with evolution, and keeps it close by his side through the whole book. He draws parallels between biological evolution and technological "evolution", pointing out (though not in these words) that the latter actually is an inarguable example of "evolution by intelligent design". 

From here he moves on to the question of life in the greater Universe, rapidly and repeatedly drawing and discarding conclusions regarding whether there is intelligent life Out There and, if so, why we can't "see" it.

Next, he tackles the question of "intelectronics," the advancing world of computers and cybernetics. (It must be noted here that Lem first published the Summa in 1964, with revisions appearing until 1974. So his ideas about computers, and every other scientific and technological subject, are informed by those dates.) He rejects the Frankenstein scenario, but cautions against giving too much control to advanced computers, and is canny about the question of whether they can actually become conscious.

Lem continues through a variety of other technologies, including what we now think of as "fully immersive virtual reality", plus the creation of self-contained universes, life extension, cyborgization, and others, all with wit, clarity, and incisiveness. He concludes with a "Lampoon of Evolution", in which he points out rather sharply the limits within which evolution has to work. By comparison, technological evolution need not become stuck in culs-de-sac the way biological evolution sometimes does; further, technological evolution allows for a much greater degree of hybridization between different "species".

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It took me nearly three weeks to read (only 361 pages, plus copious notes and a translator's introduction), but I didn't regret a minute of it. I can't judge how accurate the translation is (I was able to make that judgment about The Cyberiad because I compared notes with a Polish acquaintance), but it's very readable if at times quite dense.