The Library of Babel: March 2004

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for March of 2004.

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March 28, 2004

Heat of Fusion and Other Stories by John M. Ford. Speaking of brilliant but somewhat inscrutable authors (as I was just a moment ago, namely Gene Wolfe), here's a new collection of John M. Ford's stuff. There's a little overlap with the NESFA collection From the End of the Twentieth Century, which everybody ought to buy right now (read "Scrabble With God" in the store if you aren't convinced), but most of these stories and poems are collected here for the first time.

This is a very difficult book to write up here, because the contents are so weird and varied. There are excellent short stories written in a fairly straightforward manner ("The Persecutor's Tale," "Preflash," "Shelter From the Storm," "Tales From the Original Gothic"), more structurally challenging pieces ("Chromatic Aberration," "Heat of Fusion," and the brilliant "Erase/ Record/ Play: A Drama for Print"), slightly bent takes on Classical themes ("Dateline: Colonnus," and "The Lost Dialogue," but sadly not "Troy: The Movie") and Shakespeare ("Third Thoughts," "Letter From Elsinore"), and poems on everything from the Matter of Britain ("Winter Solstice, Camelot Station") to fannish in-jokes ("SF Cliches: A Sonnet Cycle," "Shared World") to September 11 ("110 Stories"). Plus other, weirder things.

There's an astonishing variety of stuff here, and nearly all of it is excellent. I highly recommend this book, and pretty much anything else of his that you can lay hands on. The only thing the collection lacks is some sort of introduction or conclusion talking about the stories and poems, but maybe it's best to let them speak for themselves.

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March 25, 2004

The Knight by Gene Wolfe. I picked this up during a bookstore run one weekend, along with a bunch of space opera books. I ended up reading this first, rather than space opera, for the silliest of reasons: we had recently gone to a Richard Thompson concert, which got me to buy his greatest hits package, and Richard Thompson isn't really a good soundtrack for space battles.

This is Wolfe's take on "crossover fantasy," a story in which a person from our world somehow crosses over into a fantasy world, and becomes a Person of Great Importance. The Knight of the title is Sir Able of the High Heart, who begins the tale as a young American boy. While out hiking in the woods, he comes across an odd tree, cuts a branch from it, and ends up in Mythgarthr, the middle of seven worlds (above Niflheim, Muspel, and Aelfrice, below Skai, Kleos, and Elysion). In fairly short order, he acquires a new name, a brother, and a new adult body. Soon to follow are a variety of magical weapons and companions, along with a Quest or two.

It didn't occur to me until I sat down to booklog this, and discovered that it fell right after The Last Light of the Sun that you might view this as Wolfe's version of the Fionavar Tapestry. It's a crossover fantasy set in a world that's a weird mix of various mythologies (mostly Norse, but bits of other stuff). Of course, Wolfe being Wolfe, there are some differences: rather than a party of college students (the traditional crossover group), he starts with a single young boy; the narrative structure is a little odd (the book is written in the form of a letter to Able's brother back in our world, and frequently alludes to future events), and the narrator may not be entirely reliable; and everything is fraught with symbolism, even when I can't quite figure out what it means. There's also a quirky humor in a lot of the book, demonstrated nicely in this exchange between Able and his dog Gylf:

"I want you to tell me what you are."

"Dog." Gylf sat too.

"No ordinary dog can do what you do. No ordinary dog can talk, for that matter."

"Good dog."

(There are also weird echoes of Chabon's Summerland, another "young boy caught up in syncretic fantasy world" story.)

This is actually the first part of a larger work, "The Wizard Knight," with the second volume, The Wizard to be published sometime next year. As such, I almost have to reserve judgment on this book, until I've read the second volume, and gotten somebody really smart to explain to me what the hell just happened.

That said, this is a very good book. It's not a hard slog like some of Wolfe's other books, and while it's not immediately clear what everything means, Able's adventures are enjoyable to read about in a straightforward manner, whatever new spin may be put on them when the work is complete and the symbolism more clear. It's a unique take on the crossover story, but then you'd expect nothing less from Wolfe.

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March 21, 2004

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay. The latest pseudo-historical fantasy from the author of Tigana, A Song For Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and the Sarantine Mosaic (Kate has nice reviews of these: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors).

Unfortunately, I have to agree with the first sentence of Mike's review: this isn't one of his best. My overall impression is a little more positive than Mike's, in the end-- he complains about "how densely [Kay] peppers this tale with Great Men," but really, the super-genius warrior-poet-kings are what I read Kay for, so that didn't bug me. The preachy bits, however, were an irritation, and I'm not wild about the device of occasionally breaking off from the main tale to tell the entire life story of a bit player. Kay has an interview in a recent issue of Locus in which he talks about his decision to do the life-story thing, and it sounds really nice, but like many such ideas, it's kind of annoying in practice.

The book itself is a thinly fictionalized story of the British Isles, involving a collision between three cultures (Angles, Celts, and Vikings, basically) on the far edge of the world of the Sarantium books. The Christian-analogue religion (Jaddism) has reached the area, but not quite taken over, and older gods and wild magics still linger around the edges of human settlements. Three Cyngaels (Celts) of the royal line planning a raid on an isolated farm end up being converted to honored guests by a chance encounter, and are staying the night when a bloody Erling (Viking) raid on the farm sets in motion a chain of events that bring the Erlings, Cyngael, and Anglcyn (guess) into violent collision, and set a new course for the island's future.

There's some great stuff here-- revenge, epic journeys, a grand sweep of history, more explicit magic than Kay has had in the last several books. The characters edge toward excessively superlative, but they're engagingly drawn all the same, and aside from a few unfortunate stylistic choices, the writing is excellent as always. The story and writing definitely drew me in, and I read this very quickly.

It's a very good book, but just doesn't rank with Kay's best.

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March 16, 2004

Omega by Jack McDevitt. Somewhere in early March, we picked up a copy of Locus's "Recommended Reading" issue, which featured quite a few reviews talking about the "rebirth of space opera" and that sort of thing. Which got me thinking that I really wanted to read some really large scale science fiction, so a bookstore run was made, and a stack of books was brought home.

A number of reviewers said very nice things about this book, which turns out to be the latest volume in a loosely connected series begun with The Engines of God (about which more later). It probably would've been a good idea to read some of the other books before reading this, but it's actually written in such a way that it's not a big problem.

The concept is just fantastic stuff: In 2230 or thereabouts, humanity has expanded out into the Galaxy, but failed to find any other advanced civilizations. Remnants of such civilizations have been turned up, though, and they show an oddly cyclical pattern of utter catastrophe every 8000 years or so. This is eventually traced to waves of "omega clouds," strange cloud-like objects that sweep through the galaxy in waves, attacking and destroying technological civilizations (somewhat indirectly-- they home in on and attack structures containing right angles).

The operation of the clouds is completely mysterious-- nobody knows how they hold together, let alone how they locate their targets-- but there's no real sense of urgency about the question, as the cloud that's headed toward Earth won't arrive for another thousand years or so. But then, a routine survey of an unexplored star system turns up something that changes everything: a thriving pre-industrial civilization, sitting directly in the path of an omega cloud. Suddenly, a way needs to be found to stop the cloud, and fast.

This is sort of a cross between a Space Opera and a Big Dumb Object story. The clouds are basically BDO's, but the scramble to save the "Goompahs" (as the aliens are christened, based on a resemblance to some beloved cartoon characters) has some of the "plucky band of adventurers thwart an alien menace" feel of good Space Opera. Whatever it is, it's great fun. There are nifty alien societies, cool technical gizmos, wonderful cosmic mysteries, and the resolution of the whole omega question is about as good as you'll find for SF on this scale. The plot throws enough twists to keep you on your toes, and none of them feel cheap.

I wouldn't call this Great Literature-- the writing is unexceptional, and the characters a little flat-- but it's a good, fun book in the fine tradition of large-scale SF. It's like Rendezvous With Rama, only with a plot, or Brin's Uplift Trilogy, only with a halfway sensible conclusion. I definitely recommend it, and plan to go back to read the earlier volumes (and, in fact, have finished The Engines of God, though there are several books ahead of it in the booklog queue).

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March 3, 2004

New Magics by Patrick Nielsen Hayden (editor). This is the fantasy companion volume to New Skies, a collection of noteworthy science fiction stories compiled with a younger audience in mind.

Sadly, I wasn't as impressed with this collection as with the previous volume. Partly, this is a matter of having read some of the stronger stories before (Neil Gaiman's "Chivalry," Doyle and Macdonald's "Stealing God," Andy Duncan's "Liza and the Crazy Water Man"), but some of the other stories just failed to grab me. Ellen Kushner's "Charis" is from the Bordertown shared world series, and doesn't really stack up to the stories Emma Bull and Will Shetterly wrote there. Susan Palwick's "Jo's Hair" fell completely flat for me, because I just don't care about the subject. And Orson Scott Card's "Hatrack River" was faintly annoying, for no reason I can really put my finger on. It certainly didn't inspire me to go out and read the Alvin Maker books.

There's some very good stuff here-- aside from the stories mentioned above, Jane Yolen's "Mama Gone" is very creepy, and Sherwood Smith's "Mom and Dad at the Home Front" puts an interesting spin on a classic fantasy trope-- and a few things that fall just short-- Emma Bull's "A Bird That Whistles" was good, but felt like more of a John M. Ford sort of story-- but it's not as strong a collection as the other. Which is praising with faint damns, because New Skies was really exceptional.

All in all, it's a collection well worth owning, for the Introduction by Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, even if you already own all the best stories in another form. And if you know someone who's just starting to read fantasy, and could use a nice, convenient introduction to the more literary side of the field, this would be an excellent volume to get them.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001