The Library of Babel: April 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for April of 2003.

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April 26, 2003

Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman and a cast of thousands.

"To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due."

That toast, offered by the immortal wanderer Hob Gadling to Dream of the Endless, forms the center of this story. Dream has a discreditable act thrown in his face at a family gathering, and sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the emptying of Hell, the dead returning to Earth, and a squabble among the deities of dozens of pantheons over the ultimate fate of "the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things."

I picked this up looking for something quick to read, and because it's probably the most self-contained of the Sandman collections. The story is set in motion on the first page, and concluded on the last, and while there are elements and themes that tie it into the larger series (Loki and Satan figure prominently in the concluding volumes), but pretty much everything you need to understand the story lies within the covers of this one volume, including the capsule descriptions of the six remaining Endless. The one missing piece is the details of the failed romance that provides the "lost love" in the story, which appears in A Doll's House instead.

It's not as impressive a story as what unfolds later, but it's still a nice piece of work. The art in this one is pretty good, too-- a bit cartoonish (duh), but better than the ultra-abstract stuff in The Kindly Ones. And if you haven't read the Sandman books, and would like an introduction, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.

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April 23, 2003

Sewer, Gas & Electric by Matt Ruff. I bought this in part because the author used to hang out (and for all I know still does hang out) on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written, back when I read the group regularly. He was one of a large cadre of people who would veer off-topic into political threads that generally annoyed me, but he was fairly reasonable about the whole deal (for a person on Usenet, at least), so I bought this book to find out what sort of thing a person like that would write.

It turns out, he'd write stuff like this:

"That's the other member of our team," Hartower told him. "Joan Fine." In a conspirator's tone: "Formerly Joan Gant."


"Ex-wife of the billionaire," said Prohaska. "She was the chief advertising executive over at Gant Industries, comptroller of public opinion. Once upon a time."

"Not only that," added Hartower, "but she's also the illegitimate test-tube daughter of Sister Ellen Fine, the renegade nun who led the Catholic Womanist Crusade back in the Oughts."

"Womanist Crusade?"

"You know: the lesbian habit-burners who wanted the Pope's permission to be ordained and have babies."

"Oh," said Eddie, who didn't know, actually. "So if her ma was a queer nun and her husband was a billionaire, what's she doing working in the sewers?"


Not really what I would've expected. But fun stuff all the same.

I'm not sure there's a name for it, but this book belongs in the same category of hyperactive satirical fiction as things like Neal Stephenson's The Big U and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. The world described is almost indescribably daft: you've got a black Amish pacifist eco-pirate roaming off the US coast sinking polluting ships with kosher salami; eccentric billionaire Harry Gant, whose fantastic ability to develop and sell new neat ideas is matched only by his short attention span; mutant great white sharks roaming the sewers of New York City, and a cargo-cult Nazi submarine base under the Statue of Liberty; a 181-year-old one-armed Canadian-born Civil War veteran; the aforementioned Joan Fine, and all the backstory that goes with her; and a holographic simulacrum of Ayn Rand in a hurricane lamp. It doesn't really make any sense, but then it's so ridiculously inventive that it doesn't really have to.

It's an uneven book in many ways, but it has some wonderful set-piece bits. The scene where advertising trainees learn the difference between chemically identical brands of toothpaste is great stuff, the secret brotherhood of guys who hide all the library books containing dirty pictures is a terrific image, and the unflattering capsule description of Atlas Shrugged ("'Pinch me if I missed a punchline somewhere,' Joan said, 'but this book is not intended as a spoof, correct? It's not an incredibly understated parody?'") is simply wonderful (in some ways, this is Atlas Shrugged in a fun-house mirror, but it wouldn't do to push that too far). There's a nice little tribute to The Hunt for Red October in there, too, and the Queen Elizabeth cameo is priceless.

Other bits don't fare quite as well. There are a few plot lines that really don't go anywhere at all, some fairly pointless scenes that drag on too long for no real purpose, and a few named characters who could've been left anonymous without damaging the book (had this been a runaway best-seller, I might almost expect to see an "unabridged" edition restoring dozens of pages about people who just make cameos in the copy I have...) Most annoyingly, the ending skips a whole subset of characters in the "what happened next" round-up.

All in all, though, it's a fun read, and the good bits are very memorable. The same is also true (more or less) of his earlier Fool on the Hill, though the similarities between the books end there (Fool on the Hill is a college fantasy novel, with a parallel plot involving cats and dogs. In many ways, it's Pamela Dean's Tam Lin as written by the kind of people I hung out with when I was in college...). Recent reviews suggest that the same may be true of his new book-- I'll know soon, as it's been ordered from Amazon and should be here soon...

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April 6, 2003

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde. This is the sequel to The Eyre Affair, continuing the adventures of Thursday Next, LiteraTec extraordinaire.

The Eyre Affair was a real delight to read, in part because it was so strikingly different from anything else I'd read recently. The sequel, predictably enough, fares slightly less well, in part because the novelty has worn off to some degree. Thursday's world is still the same dazzlingly improbable place, but it's not a surprise this time around, which weakens the effect. (Being without power over the weekend didn't really help, either...)

Still, the book has much of the same manic energy as its predecessor, and some wonderful set-piece scenes, such as Thursday's trial before the Examining Magistrate from Kafka:

The Magistrate looked at me, took out his watch, and said: "You should have been here an hour and five minutes ago."

There was an excited murmur from the crowd. Snell opened his mouth to say something, but it was I that answered.

"I know," I said, having read a bit of Kafka in my youth and attempting a radical approach to the proceedings, "I am to blame. I beg the court's pardon."

At first the Magistrate didn't hear me and he began to repeat himself for the benefit of the crowd: "You should have been here an hour and-- What did you say?"

"I said I was sorry and begged your pardon, sir," I repeated.

"Oh," said the Examining Magistrate as a hush fell upon the room. "In that case, would you like to go away and come back in, say, an hour and five minutes' time, when you will be late through no fault of your own?"

The plot, as usual, defies description-- Thursday's husband is eradicated by the ChronoGuard, and she embarks on a series of odd adventures in an attempt to get him back. Oh, yeah-- she also needs to find a way to prevent the entire world from being turned into pink goo starting on the twelfth of December, 1985. No, this doesn't make much sense, but then, it doesn't really have to.

Annoyingly, this book is much less self-contained than The Eyre Affair-- it reads almost like the success of the first book has provided some series security for Fforde, who decided to give the subsequent books an overall plot arc. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did catch me a bit off guard when the plot didn't resolve itself completely at the end. You have been warned.

Anyway, while it isn't quite as much fun as the original, that's not really the fault of this book. As the series continues, it may start to get overly cute, but that hasn't really happened yet. This is still a fun read, and I definitely recommend it.

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April 4, 2003

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. When award time comes around next year, should Pattern Recognition be up for a Hugo or Nebula award, be prepared for an acrimonious argument about whether it qualifies. It's hard to find anything in this that a purist would readily identify as SF, though it has an SF sort of "feel" to it.

But it's a wonderfully written book-- Gibson may have drifted out of genre waters with this one, but the man has lost none of his flair for imagery:

Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.

It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.


She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.

Gibson has a flair for description and an eye for small details that frequently leaves me saying "Yes! That's it exactly!" His depiction of Usenet-type collections of obsessives is dead-on, his fashion commentary beggars the The Poor Man ("There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul."), and his description of the view from a Tokyo hotel room ("a remarkably virtual-looking skyline, a floating jumble of electric Lego, studded with odd shapes you somehow wouldn't see elsewhere, as if you'd need special Tokyo add-ons to build this at home") was vivid enough to evoke memories of a surreal dinner at the top of a department store in Shinjuku.

This talent for description, rarely matched in or out of the SF genre, is put in the service of a plot that's decidedly odd for Gibson. For one thing, it's an oddly specific book-- most of his other works take place at some poorly specified time in the future, but this book is set not long after September 11, 2001. The main character's father vanished on that day somewhere in Manhattan, and frequent references are made to the terrorist attacks. These references are somewhat jarring, as most of the rest of the book has the same sort of otherworldly feel as the rest of his books.

More importantly, though, this is the first Gibson novel I can think of where the protagonist isn't a loser. Gibson's other books are characterized by what Bruce Sterling referred to as "low life and high tech"-- his protagonists in the past have been drug-addicted petty criminals just scraping by, who find themselves caught up in events beyond their comprehension. Cayce Pollard, on the other hand, is definitely upper-middle-class-- she has a comfortable life, hob-nobs with corporate heads and noted film directors, and is a fairly experienced world traveler. It's an odd departure for Gibson, as if he decided to write a novel using Bruce Sterling characters for variety. Or maybe Neal Stephenson characters, as Cayce's violent allergy to corporate branding is a very Snow Crash sort of touch.

In another sense, though, it's familiar territory-- the plot concerns the search for the maker of mysterious, haunting snippets of some sort of movie (called "footage" by the enthusiasts who collect the scraps and debate their origin). Cayce, a "footagehead" herself, is hired to find the maker by an advertising magnate, who wants it for his own, possibly nefarious, purposes. The whole business is strongly reminiscent of the Cornell boxes in Count Zero. The nationality of the mafiosi involved in the plot has changed from Japanese to Russian, and the resolution is considerably different, but the similarities are hard to ignore.

(Parts of the book are also oddly reminiscent of Iain Banks's The Business. I'm not sure what this means, other than that I read too much, and am prone to free-associating...)

Ultimately, the book is more successful in atmospheric terms than more conventional matters of plot. Gibson's world has a wonderful feel to it, and the writing really sucked me in, but in the end, I'm not convinced the plot really hangs together. But oh, what a wonderful job he does with the atmosphere...

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April 1, 2003

The Thrones of Kronos by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge. The conclusion to the Exordium series, though as the dictionary meaning of the series title would indicate, it's as much a beginning as an ending. Which isn't to say that the series is incomplete-- the major plot conflicts are all brought to a satisfactory conclusion. It's just that that conclusion, in keeping with the conventions of really good Space Opera, will allow future conflicts in the same universe.

In some ways, this is a very different book from the rest of the series. The bulk of the book is set in a single location under the control of the Bad Guys. Well, sort of-- they don't entirely control the location, any more than the Good Guys who are in their hands do, which gives much of the book a nasty, claustrophobic sort of feeling. It's well done in terms of effectively establishing a tense and creepy atmosphere, though the Bad Guy culture remains a bit too cartoonishly villainous to really work for me.

In the end, it's got everything you could really want in a space opera series-- otherworldly settings, both good and bad; noble heroes, villainous villains, and charming rogues; Lots of fighting, hand-to-hand as well as flashy space battles; crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses; and, of course, True Love in various forms. The rightful King is restored to his place, and while some bits of the ending are a little too reminiscent of the cringe-inducing medal ceremony scene in the original Star Wars (re-imagined here by a person with way too much free time), that passes quickly, and the overall effect is good.

The series is not without flaws-- the Weird Mystical Stuff plot never entirely came together for me, though a second look at the ending might make it make more sense (I read the last half of this book in one sitting last night, and some of it went by pretty quickly). It's definitely quality work, though.

Kate mentioned a rumor that these might be picked up by Baen, which would probably be a good fit for them, if Tor lets them go. It would definitely be nice to see some more stories in the same setting, and a reprinting (on paper or through the Baen Free Library) of the original books would be good as well.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001