The Library of Babel: November 2001

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for November of 2001.

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November 30, 2001

Orca by Steven Brust. Described by the author as "The book I wanted Yendi to be." There are certainly some strong similarities: both feature twisty plots which Vlad must unravel with the help of his friends and colleagues and wise-ass jhereg, both feature big "everything you thought you knew was wrong" revelations near the end. Orca is more complex, in that the narrative is structured oddly, with alternating sections narrated by Kiera the thief and Vlad himself (talking to Kiera), and occasional interludes from a lunch meeting between Kiera and Cawti, Vlad's ex-wife (who he met in Yendi, bringing the whole thing full circle. Or something.).

It's the odd narrative structure that caused me to re-read this, to compare with the Amber books. I realized on starting it that it's one of the few Vlad books I've never re-read before. Which is sort of interesting, because it's the book that changes most on re-reading: there's a pair of big revelations at the end which completely change the effect of much of the rest of the book when you already know about them. Unfortunately, this fact also makes it difficult to talk about the book in any meaningful way without spoiling the surprise for anybody who hasn't read it...

As a compromise, I'll say that if you haven't read the book, read it. Actually, read the rest of the series first (Jhereg, Yendi, Taltos, Teckla, Phoenix, and Athyra), because it won't make any sense otherwise. But read those (and don't let the weirdness of Athyra throw you), then read this. It's good, and all the books are worth reading.

If you've read it before, follow this link to the discussion with spoilers.

November 28, 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling. Strictly speaking, this ought to be Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but the copy I have is the lame Americanized edition (I have British copies of the second and third, purchased in France, oddly enough). The Americanization of the book wouldn't be nearly as annoying if they hadn't done such a half-assed job of it-- they change "Philosopher's Stone" to "Sorcerer's Stone" and "football" to "soccer," but the students all run around eating British food and doing British things (hint: Americans don't eat steak and kidney pie, and "holiday crackers" in the US is more likely to refer to Triscuits dipped in eggnog than a toy which makes a loud noise and releases a cheap prize). Removing all the Britticisms is a hopeless task, and removing only half of them is stupid and annoying.

It was probably a mistake to re-read this, but having seen the movie over Thanksgiving, I wanted to take a quick look back at the original book (see also Kate's comments). Unfortunately, since I already knew what was going to happen, I had more time to dwell on the obvious flaws of the book. It's not just Quidditch that makes no sense at all (though I like Mark Leeper's description of it as being like "the rules of basketball were altered so that there was also a side game of thumb-wrestling for a hundred bonus points"), or the fact that it never really occurs to any of the students to consult with an adult (which is a standard element of the school story), but the whole world that makes no sense. Why is the existence of magic kept secret from Muggles? Why the whole parallel society thing? Isn't that an awful lot of work for no gain?

There are a number of structural problems as well, all faithfully replicated in the movie. The opening sequence with the Dursleys is striving and straining to be Roald Dahl, but Rowling isn't quite charming enough to keep the over-the-top child abuse from feeling icky. The plot is necessarily sort of lumpy, as with all school stories, but if you're not charmed by a particular magic class vignette, it can be a hard slog to get to the next section (giving the reader more time to ponder how, exactly, the wizarding folk maintain a functioning society when every wizard save Albus Dumbledore and a handful of eleven-year-olds is so unbelievably thick...). A couple of whole chapters seem to be completely orthogonal to the main plot.

There are a couple of positive things to note in the re-read: Rowling obviously had the future deepening of the story in mind, as hinted at by the scene with the centaurs and Dumbledore's speech at the end. There's a reference to Sirius Black at the beginning, too, which is a nice touch. And the original has a strong element of whimsy which is oddly absent from the movie. Dumbledore in particular has had all the humor sucked out of him by Richard Harris, who seems to still be playing King Arthur from Camelot. I much prefer the version in the book, who proclaims:

"Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I'd like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

"Thank you!"

OK, Lewis Carroll it isn't, but it is a good deal more amusing than what got put on film.

November 27, 2001

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. Technically, this is a set of five books: Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos-- collectively known as the Chronicles (or "First Chronicles," given the existence of a later series of five books set in the same universe, or the "Good Chronicles," given that many people don't like the second series...). Books three and four end on horrible cliff-hangers, though, and they're all quite short, so it's hard not to read all five at once. Having cleverly managed to leave the second volume of Peter Hamilton's Oversexed Space Pirates vs. the Living Dead behind after a visit to Kate's parents, I re-read these over Thanksgiving (having borrowed the first three (in paperback editions sporting truly dreadful cover art) from Kate, and recovered the other two paperbacks from my parents' basement). I had been planning a re-read anyway, having read a fair bit of Zelazny recently, and having realized that I remembered almost nothing of this, arguably his most famous work.

These books are sort of the quintessential example of First Person Smartass narration, and when reading them it's easy to see the huge debt Steven Brust owes to Zelazny. Corwin of Amber, one of the Nine Princes of the title, begins the series bereft of his memory, but never once loses his poise, as he manages to bluff his way past two of his siblings for long enough to get his memory restored. Then the real fun starts.

The narration is wonderfully breezy, and full of beautiful little asides:

My tomb is a quiet place. It stands alone in a rocky declivity, shielded on three sides against the elements, surrounded by transplanted soil wherein a pair of scrubby trees, miscellaneous shrubs, weeds, and great ropes of mountain ivy are rooted, about two miles down, in back of the crest of Kolvir. It is a long, low building with two benches in front, and the ivy has contrived to cover it to a great extent, mercifully masking most of a bombastic statement graven on its face beneath my name. It is, understandably, vacant most of the time.

(from Sign of the Unicorn). The plot is enjoyably twisty, with enough family intrigue and backstabbing for a dozen soap operas, and the setting and characters are interesting. All in all, it's a fun read.

There's something slightly... off about the whole series, though. It's hard to say exactly what, but the whole thing feels sort of slapdash. It's not really the case that the author is making it up as he goes-- occasional asides throughout the books locate the exact moment at which Corwin is telling the story, near the end of the final book, so he must've known from the beginning where it would end up, but somehow the whole thing has the feel of an inspired bit of improvisation, as if Zelazny concocted the whole thing over a few beers with some writer friends one night, and never read it over before sending it off to the publishers. The abilities of the Amberites seem to shift subtley to suit the needs of the plot at any given moment, and the narrative tone is maddeningly inconsistent. For most of the tale, the narration is in a clear late-20th-century American colloquial English, complete with the odd pop-culture reference, but every now and again, it gets all archaic, with "thee"'s and "thou"'s and verbs in the wrong order put. And the prose is peppered with grammatical clunkers like the second sentence quoted above (the ivy's roots are two miles down?). These latter two are almost believable, as the sort of thing that you get in a story told by one person to another, particularly when one of them is centuries old and practically a demigod. At other times, though, the descriptions pick up an immediacy and level of detail that's inconsistent with this framing device.

This is a problem I have with most of Zelazny's writing. Lord of Light veers crazily from colloquial English to a sort of faux-prophetic tone, and back, with occasional slips into absurdity ("Then the fit hit the Shan..."). (Zelazny had an unfortunate taste for abysmal puns: "Silence beats a chamber pot in Amber." "How's that?" "'Tis gilt, m'lord, like a royal flush.") This Immortal can't quite decide what it wants to be, as a book, and wanders from subgenre to subgenre. A Night in the Lonesome October (noted below) is the only one of his books that I've read which doesn't suffer from this sort of thing. (Unless you count the short stories in The Last Defender of Camelot, where he just doesn't have room enough to wander from one style into another...). This problem is even more pronounced in the second set of Amber books (narrated by Merlin, Corwin's son). I'll probably re-read those, too, but I need a bit of a break first.

I don't mean to imply that the books aren't fun to read. They're a lot of fun, and I recommend them to anyone looking for enjoyable First Person Smartass novels to read. They're just a little weird, that's all, and don't really reward thinking about them too much. But as fun escapist SF, they're hard to top.

November 11, 2001

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton. I've seen these books around in stores for quite some time now, but never bothered to buy one, for one reason or another. When I stumbled onto this and the sequel (The Neutronium Alchemist) in hardcover for five bucks apiece, I figured they were worth picking up.

I wasn't prepared for just how utterly daft this book was, though. It's so daft that it's almost inspired: On a backwater colonial world, a "waster kid" transported from Earth starts an insurgency movement among the other transportees, and, in the course of the Satanic ritual sacrifice (did I mention that they're Satanists?) of one of their overseers, accidentally traps the Mystic Alien Energy Being in some sort of interdimensional rift, allowing powerful demons from the Dungeon Dimensions to take over the bodies of the ivets (I hate it when that happens). Except they're not really powerful demons from the Dungeon Dimensions, but rather the lost souls of dead humans back from the beyond (the afterlife really, really sucks, and they want out), granted magical powers through their dimensional transferrance (they can fling firebolts from their hands, survive almost any attack, and re-shape reality in their vicinity), and able to bring more souls in to possess others by torturing people until their will snaps and they acquiesce to being possessed. Their goal is to conquer all of human-controlled space, and they are resisted in this by a cast of ridiculously oversexed space pirates, plus the obligatory priest suffering a crisis of faith (if any member of my family ever becomes the victim of demonic possession, I'm going to run right out and find the biggest, most worthless washed-up drunk of a clergyman I can lay hands on. Those guys always end up kicking ass...).

And yet, there's something oddly compelling about the book. The plot and characters are simply preposterous, and even when the thesaurus is safely out of reach (a nuclear explosion is described, in part, as "the usurping totem of the radiant mushroom cloud"), the writing is nothing to write home about (the viewpoint frequently shifts characters midway through a scene, sometimes without so much as a paragraph break, and characters wander in and out of the story like partygoers trying to locate the bathroom...), and yet there's something compulsively readable about it. Much of the book is really, really bad, but it's an Evil Dead 2 kind of bad-- you can almost see Bruce Campbell playing Joshua Calvert... It's trash, but on some level, it knows it's trash, and plays it to the hilt.

Not a book to give to someone you're trying to convince of the larger literary merits of SF, but a fun read if you enjoy Mystery Science Theater or see the humor in The Eye of Argon (or both, for that matter...).

November 4, 2001

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson. From Zelazny, on to Gibson, another of the genre's master stylists. William Gibson has had all manner of praise and scorn heaped upon him for being one of the fathers and most visible writers of "cyberpunk." What most of the praise skips past, and most of the scorn willfully ignores, is that the man can write beautifully. He's got far more talent in terms of putting words in a line to make mental pictures than any of the dozens of would-be imitators who peopled books with mirror-shade-wearing ninja hacker assassins. Which probably explains why he's published by Putnam these days, while most of the imitations are gathering dust on the shelves of used bookstores somewhere.

Still, while the quality of the prose is sort of compelling, and makes the reading a joy, I can't quite think of another author who has written quite so many books that left me saying "What the hell was that?" Certainly not one I buy in hardcover. This is largely due to Gibson's signature mixture of "low life and high tech" (as Bruce Sterling put it)-- he tells big stories of world-changing events from the perspective of rag-tag bands of misfits and outcasts who somehow get swept up in the plot, but never really understand what's going on. Which tends to leave the reader similarly bewildered. You can usually piece together what really happened later, but the end of the actual book tends to be disorienting.

Some of the same thing occurs here. The characters and setting are drawn from Virtual Light and Idoru, so the book can be doubly disorienting, if you don't remember those books clearly. Still, while the characters never quite grasp what's going on, the resolution of the plot is actually fairly clear and satisfying. Exceptionally so for a Gibson novel.

The real pleasure here is not in the main plot arc, though, but in the tangle of relationships and obsessions which the characters have outside the context of the world-shaking change that is on the way. The drunken country singer looking for a break, the woman fleeing an abusive relationship, the obsessed would-be documentarian-- all of them are drawn well, and putting them front and center reminds us how even the most dramatic changes in the world as a whole can fade to insignificance (in a sense this is a book-length version of the passages in Guy Kay's Lord of Emperors which document the lack of effect the fall of kings has on most of the citizens of the Empire). Which is actually sort of comforting in light of the repeated assertions that the world changed forever on September 11th-- while geopolitics may have changed forever, daily life has changed remarkably little. My students seem more worked up by the new campus alcohol policy and my grading policy than by George Bush's foreign policy, and I think I'd be worried if it were any other way. And drunken country singers are still looking for their big breaks, women are fleeing abusive boyfriends, and film students are bothering their friends to get their documentaries made...

November 2, 2001

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. I didn't manage to finish re-reading this before the full moon on Halloween night, but that's OK, as the Closers seem to have won again this year. Unless "Vice President Cheney has been moved to an undisclosed location" is shorthand for "He's been eaten by Cthullu. Ia! Shub-Niggurath!" I wouldn't put it past Ari Fleischer.

This book is the story of the occasional Game between those who would open a gate into this world for the Lovecraftian Elder Gods and those who would bar their way, set one October in Victorian London (the actual opening is only possible when the moon is full on Halloween, and the actual Game takes most of the month), as told by Jack the Ripper's faithful watchdog Snuff. As has been noted elsewhere, "the dog is a very low-key narrator."

Down in the cellar, the Thing in the Circle had become a Pekingese.

"You like little ladies?" it asked. "Come and get it, big fella."

It still smelled of Thing rather than dog.

"You're not really very bright," I said.

The Peke gave me the paw as I departed, and it's hard to turn your leg that way.

Some of Zelazny's other books are marred by the contrast between the serious subject matter and the breezy narration or moments of whimsey. While the subject of this one is technically at least as grim as the subjects of Lord of Light and This Immortal, it's a little hard to give much moral weight to a story which has you rooting for Jack the Ripper to save the world from the Elder Gods. The central conceit is brilliant, the dog's low-key narration is well-executed, and combining those elements with the ingeniuously intricate plot makes this book a wonderfully fun read. It's always interesting to read a book where the author is clearly having a grand old time playing around with the setting and characters, but it's rare to find one that works quite as well as this.

Begun: 7 August, 2001