The Library of Babel: December 2003

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

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December 27, 2003

The Riddle-Master of Hed (series) by Patricia McKillip. This is really a set of three books (The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind), but I read them all at once, so it really doesn't make sense to booklog them separately.

This is another re-read of something I first read back when Reagan was president. My impression from that first read was pretty vague, and a re-read about eight years ago didn't clarify it much. This is a set of books that I recall as a collection of beautiful fragments-- a magic harp whose lowest note will shatter weapons, a tower in a ruined city whose top can't be reached no matter how long you climb, a High One who rules from under a distant mountain, and communicates through his harpist, a shape-shifter who can become a tree, an army of ghosts bound to protect a peaceful land that's not their own. These are all images that stick in my mind, but I don't remember much of what connects them. This is basically the same recollection I have of Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, though I do remember McKillip being a better writer.

These get praised fairly frequently in fantasy circles, and clearly mean a lot to some people who strike me as pretty smart. Most recently, they've been mentioned a few times in this mammoth comment thread about Tolkien, and that drove me to pick them up again.

After finishing them a few days ago, I can say that my impression of them is of a series of brilliant fragments, with vague and hazy connective material. They're loaded with beautiful scenes and images-- far more than I remembered before I picked them up again-- but I can already feel the plot slipping away from me, and I'm sure that some of the great images will start to fade soon. A lot of the action was forgotten almost as soon as I read it. Reading these books was an odd experience-- there's the occasional moment of crystalline perfection, where everything comes together memorably, but then it goes all vague and abstract again. It's like the literary equivalent of improvisational jazz, only I known that it had to be carefully plotted. Or at least I think I know that-- I can't quite recall the details of the plot.

I don't know. Maybe my brain just isn't wired the right way to really appreciate these.

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December 21, 2003

Startide Rising by David Brin. This is an old favorite, one of the few books I've literally read until it fell apart. As with Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power, I've been a little hesitant to re-read it recently, for fear that it wouldn't hold up well.

Something made me pick it up a week ago, though (I'm not sure what, exactly, though a psychologist could probably make something of the fact that I picked it up shortly after spending a bunch of time thinking about Tolkien), and I'm happy to report that it's still almost as good as I remember it. There are a few clunky bits of exposition, but those were easy to brush aside, and the story makes it easy to just go with the flow.

This is kitchen-sink Space Opera. There are loads of Evil Aliens, Galaxy-spanning civilizations of vast power, huge battles, nifty weapons, and it goes all myffic (as Nanny Ogg might say) at the end, to great effect. The good guys are magnificently good, the bad guys delightfully twisted, and everything shakes out in a way that's satisfying both as a story and as a fan rooting for the good guys.

The book tells part of the story of the Streaker, the first ship sent out from Earth under the command of genetically modified dolphins (in this universe, species reach full sentience through the process of Uplift-- Patron species tinker with the genes of pre-sentients to produce client races. Humans, lacking a patron, are something of an anomaly.) on a survey mission for the Library (an institution dating back billions of years, and the great repository of Galactic knowledge). While doing some routine scouting of a not-very-interesting cluster of stars, the Streaker stumbles across a huge fleet of ancient ships, and all Hell breaks loose, with dozens of fanatical alien races trying to capture the ship and wring the secret of the mysterious fleet out of them.

I say "part of the story" because the book starts and stops in the middle of things. The actual discovery of the ships takes place off-stage, and the story begins when the Streaker arrives at the water world of Kithrup, to hide in the ocean after being ambushed while attempting to return to Earth. The dolphin crew, with the aid of a handful of humans (and one uplifted chimp), must find a way to repair their wounded ship and escape the huge alien fleets warring over them, while avoiding a number of internal conflicts which threaten to tear the crew apart.

Solutions to the immediate problems are found, though not without cost, and the book does come to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. The resolution of the main plot arc, and the revelation of the secret of the ghost fleet, is left for another set of books.

Sadly, the eventual resolution comes in the form of trilogy that's grossly inferior to the original book, despite Brin becoming a more polished writer in the intervening decade. The problem, ultimately, is one of tone-- while there are weighty issues involved in Startide Rising, they're handled in a relatively light and uncomplicated manner. The later volumes attempt to add more psychological depth and complexity, at the cost of the simpler pleasures that make this book so much fun.

(There's also the classic problem of setting up a Grand Mystery that is so Grand that no actual solution to it can be satisfying. See also "Simmons, Dan.")

All of that is immaterial for this book, though-- it's easy to ignore the existence of the later books, and just enjoy this for what it is. There are lots of delightful little touches, here-- I love the conceit of having the dolphin language be haiku-based, the world they inhabit has a real sense of depth, the plan they eventually come up with is wonderfully daring, and it's got one of my favorite lines of space battle description ever ("The little scout departed the universe in a manner that was picturesque, if ultimately lethal."). There are inspiring deeds by both humans and dolphins, and a handful of memorable characters to root for or against.

I'm not sure how well it would work for someone reading it now for the first time, but I still love it on the umpteenth re-read. Even the fact that the author is kind of an ass doesn't spoil the sheer fun of this book for me, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

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December 15, 2003

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is a more-or-less direct sequel to The Curse of Chalion, which has the distinction of being the very first entry in this booklog.

This book follows the adventures of the Dowager Royina Ista, mother of the female protagonist in Chalion. Released from years of insanity by the events of the previous book, she embarks on a pilgrimage as a way of re-starting her life. War is looming in the northern parts of Chalion, though, and she quickly finds herself caught up in strange happenings at a border keep, where more is at stake than just the fate of human kingdoms.

This book serves as a very nice demonstration of why I have a hard time taking Bujold's books as seriously as some other people take them. While this is a very competently done book, and almost compulsively readable (I stayed up late finishing it), it never had any real suspense for me. The plot had a certain momentum (hence the staying up late), but not much tension.

Part of the problem is that I never believe her main characters are in any real danger of being killed off. Another problem with this specific book is that it too closely mirrors the previous book-- it was clear from very early on that the gods would take a hand in the action before the end of the book, and Ista's ranting about how peeved she was at the gods only served to nail down the exact nature of their involvement. (I'm being vague to avoid egregious spoilers, but let's just say that her remarks are the theological equivalent of a character in a war movie waxing wistful about retiring to Montana when the war is over...) But I managed to catch the other major plot points well in advance, as well, so it's not just the parallel structure. An off-hand remark by one character early on tipped off the big climax, and I guessed the other big revelation a chapter or two ahead of the characters. As a result, I knew where the plot was headed, and how it would resolve itself, and only the details remained to be sketched in.

(It's not just this book, either-- I've had similar problems with a number of her other books, most notably Memory, where the introduction of a new class of Imperial employment early on told me where the book would end. I can't really nail down what it is, but something about the way she introduces major plot points trips all sorts of alarms.)

Which is not to say that the process of filling in details isn't interesting. It just lacks a certain tension that's there in better books-- I don't seriously believe that the main characters in any of the books I read are in mortal danger (which is why authors like Guy Kay and George R. R. Martin are able to shock me), but some authors do a better job of selling it than others. The book (and Curse of Chalion before it) also reaches for the sort of moral weight that a book like The Sparrow has, and falls short by quite a bit.

Of course, that all makes it sound like I thought this was a bad book, which it's not. My excessive negativity is largely just a conditioned response from years of hearing excessive praise for Bujold on Usenet and elsewhere. This is a better book than the vast majority of what's out there, and a diverting read. It's popcorn reading of the very highest quality, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.

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December 11, 2003

Rescue by Jeremiah Healy. When the time came to select a book for my second day of jury duty, I was tempted by Healy's The Only Good Lawyer. I figured that might get me bounced more quickly. Alas, Rescue comes before it in the series...

This is another John Francis Cuddy book, and there's really not much to say beyond that. Cuddy makes a promise to a young boy in the first chapter, a promise that eventually leads him into confrontation with a nasty religious cult in the Florida Keys.

The cult is rather impressively awful, and the final showdown is pretty gruesome. There are some nice touches along the way, though, including Cuddy's visit to the Wall in DC, and a reasonably good depiction of the Keys (I spent several weeks there on fishing trips when I was in junior high).

Anything else I might say has pretty well been covered in the first half-dozen booklog entries about the series.

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December 9, 2003

Breakout by "Richard Stark" (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake). I picked this up on the lunch break during my first day of jury duty, once it had become apparent that I wouldn't be sent home quickly. It was the best option in the tiny used book store on Jay St. in downtown Schenectady, and a good thing, too, because I finished it during the afternoon session.

This is the most recent entry in Stark/Westlake's series about a master criminal named Parker (no other name is given). As you might guess from the title, Parker gets arrested in the first chapter, and has to break out of jail (actually, a temporary holding facility). This turns out to be the first of a string of crimes, all of which involve breaking out in some manner.

It's a very clever book, without being annoying about it. And it was just the right thing for an unpleasant afternoon in a courthouse-- Parker's schemes are inventive enough to be distracting, and his contempt for the justice system suited my mood well.

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December 4, 2003

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. I actually started reading this before the movie came out, but was only a hundred pages in when we went to see the movie. That kind of puts an odd spin on both book and movie.

O'Brian is an author who probably qualifies for "honorary SF author" status, given the number of SF readers who like the books. It probably has something to do with the painstaking reconstruction of the operation of a British Navy ship in the Napoleonic era-- an amazing amount of technical detail is provided, and some aspects of the culture are pretty alien.

Ultimately, this kind of fell flat for me for a couple of reasons. For one, I just didn't care enough about the naval details to try to puzzle out what everything did, so there were large sections of text that I read with mental subtitles ("Ship stuff happens," "The crew do naval things in order to make the ship go faster," or "Bits of ship are repaired."). Another problem is that the plot steadfastly refuses to resolve into a continuous arc-- it's very episodic, and every time I started to think we were developing an overall plot to the book, it would come to an abrupt stop. This eventually became very annoying, especially when a conflict that had been building between two characters, that seemed to be heading somewhere interesting, was cut off by the sudden death of one of the two.

The biggest problem, though, has to do with the writing. It's not imitative enough of nineteenth-century novels to really be called a pastiche, but it's written in a style that consciously evokes older modes of writing. Unfortunately, these mostly drive me nuts, such as the technique of describing action through long rambling monologues in single paragraphs:

"Nothing pleasanter than good shipmates. May I offer you a whet? Our seamsn's drink, that we call grog-- are you acquainted with it? It goes down gratefully enough at sea. Simpkin, bring us some grog. Damn that fellow-- he is slow as Beelzebub... Simpkin! Light along that grog. God rot the flaming son of a bitch. Ah, there you are. I needed that," he said, putting down his glass. "Such a tedious damned morning. Each watch has to have just the same proportions of skilled hands in the various stations, and so on. Endless discussion. And," said he, hitching himself a little closer to Stephen's ear, "I blundered into one of those unhappy gaffes... I picked up the list and read off Flaherty, Lynch, Sullivan, Michael Kelly, Joseph Kelly, Sheridan and Aloysius Burke-- those chaps that took the bounty at Liverpool-- and I said 'More of these damned Irish Papists; at this rate half the starboard watch will be made up of them, and we shall not be able to get by for beads'-- meaning it pleasantly, you know. But then I noticed a damned frigid kind of a chill and I said to myself, 'Why, Jack, you damned fool, Dillon is from Ireland, and he takes it as a national reflexion.' Whereas I had not meant anything so illiberal as a national reflexion, of course; only that I hated Papists. So I tried to put it right by a few well-turned flings against the Pope; but perhaps they were not so clever as I though, for they did not seem to answer."

(This example was chosen by the ultra-scientific technique of riffling through the pages until I saw a big chunk of text with quote marks around it. In other works, randomly...)

This style of writing crops up a lot, mostly in older books (it seems), and it never fails to annoy me (my one foray to date into Dorothy Sayers (The Nine Tailors, pre-booklog) suffered the same problem). It ends up producing whole pages of densely packed text, that are all one character speaking, on several different topics, and I find it very difficult to read. Like most stylistic devices, it does eventually become a bit easier, if I go through big chunks of text at one sitting, but I hardly ever manage that these days, and the writing ends up being a big obstacle to getting into the book.

All that said, it's an enjoyable enough story, and some of the problems I had with it probably resolve themselves as the books go on (particularly the plot thing, which is most likely the result of this being the first book in a long series). I can understand why people find them enjoyable, and I may read more some day. But it won't be all that soon-- if nothing else, I need to take another whack at Sayers, first...

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December 2, 2003

Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman. A collection of seven new stories in the Sandman universe (see previous entries here and here), one for each of the Endless.

If you follow the field of SF at all, or read his online journal, you know that Neil Gaiman is something of a literary jack-of-all-trades. He writes comics (excuse me, graphic novels), short stories, poems, songs, screenplays, regular novels, and children's books, and that's probably not a complete list. He's a fearsomely talented individual, sort of like a John M. Ford with a more regular publishing schedule.

Every now and then, though, he turns out a work that makes you kind of wish he'd focus a little more on one thing. Endless Nights, sad to say, is such a book. It doesn't appear to have any concrete reason for existing, save that Vertigo wanted another Sandman book, and Gaiman saw the chance to work with a few new artists, so the stories have a sort of tossed-off quality to them. This doesn't read like a book that came about because he was dying to tell these stories, but rather a bunch of stories that came about because he needed to do another book, and rummaged through his desk to find scraps of ideas that didn't make the original run.

Which is not to say that they're bad-- a few of them are quite good (Death, Desire, and Despair). They're just sort of... there. Dream's tale explains a bit of backstory that didn't really need explaining, Destiny's "story" is just an expansion of the character sketch in Season of Mists, and Destruction's doesn't really seem to have a point. I haven't really decided what I think of the Delirium story.

Had these appeared in the regular run of the series, I probably wouldn't be complaining. As a collection, it's probably on a par with the collections containing the single-issue stories from the original series (Dream Country and Fables and Reflections). As a long-awaited return to the Sandman universe... well, I could've waited a little longer.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001