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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Stable Strategies and Others

I saw a big stack of Eileen Gunn's Stable Strategies and Others on a table in the Dealer's Room at Worldcon one morning, and didn't think much of it. Later that day, it got mentioned as a fabulous small-press success, and when I went back to look at it again, the publisher had sold out. Word of mouth works, I guess...

Anyway, this is a short-story collection including pretty much everything Gunn's ever written, I believe. It also boasts appreciative essays (and one bit of doggerel) by William Gibson, Michael Swanwick, and Howard Waldrop, which pretty much tells you what you're going to get. At least, assuming you've read those three.

The twelve stories in this book are so carefully crafted that it's easy to see why there aren't more of them. They feel as if the deletion of a single adjective would cause the whole thing to dissolve, like a special effect from a Thursday Next book. They're also all very odd, and mostly satirical. In "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," people undergo extensive bioengineering to fit in better with corporate culture, while "Fellow Americans" imagines Richard Nixon as a tremendously popular game-show host, in a world where Barry Goldwater was elected President.

This sounds utterly bizarre, I'm sure, but they mostly work very well. The only exceptions are the two co-authored pieces, "Nirvana High" and "Green Fire." The former runs afoul of my low opinion of Kurt Cobain, while the latter (which puts Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein at the center of the "Philadelphia Experiment") is just too cute to really work.

Ten out of twelve is pretty darn good, though. It's a fine collection, and deserves to be a smashing success for its publisher.

Posted at 8:26 PM | link |
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one comment

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Giving Up

The pile of unread and in-progress books on my bedside table had grown to the point where it was beginning to block the light from the lamp, making it hard to read in bed. A little weeding was in order, and in the process, I've been forced to admit that I've given up on some of the books in the stack. Three, in particular, I doubt I'll be able to ever finish.

The first of these, chronologically, is David Brin's Kiln People. I no longer recall whether I started this before or after the Boskone Incident, but I've been stuck eighty pages in since not long after that. It's a little hard to nail down the exact problem I have with the book-- basically, it just failed to grab me. I've had this problem with some of his other non-Uplift books as well (Earth and Glory Season were kind of a slog), but I'm going to have to face the facts, and just give up on this one.

The second book in the pile, Madeleine Robins's The Stone War is a little better, in that I can say exactly why I ran out of steam in it. The book is a story of a dystopian near-future New York, to which Something Weird happens. The problem is with the dystopian aspects-- it feels more like the crime-ridden New York of the 1970's than anything that might reasonably have grown out of the New York of the 90's. I realize that the books quickly moves away from that, and doesn't really return, but it soured me on the whole thing from the beginning, and I lost momentum completely.

The third is probably the best-known of the lot: China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. There's enough buzz about Mieville that I overcame some early reservations to actually start reading this, and I got a hundred pages in before I got bogged down. Something about the combination of reach-for-the-dictionary obscure vocabulary, hugely overwritten descriptive passages, and general squalor just wore me out. It's fantastically inventive, but unpleasant, and reading it had become a chore. I may pick it up again someday, but not soon.

There were a couple of other books unearthed (Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Perrotta's Little Children that I almost certainly will finish, but those, too, have been removed from the table for now, the better to see Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Or, possibly, Florence of Arabia, if I'm feeling lowbrow...

Posted at 8:31 PM | link | 3 comments

Dog Warrior

Dog Warrior by Wen Spencer is the fourth book following the adventures of Ukiah Oregon. The first three, Alien Taste, Tainted Trail, and Bitter Waters, have been logged here previously.

This book introduces a new POV character, Ukiah's "brother" Atticus Steele, who shares Ukiah's heritage and abilities (and his dumb-as-a-sack-of-hammers lack of curiosity about them), but lacks the knowledge of his true origins. This helps a bit with the problem of clumsy exposition that marred the previous book. I have an easier time with clunky backstory-laden dialogue when at least one of the characters doesn't already know what's being said.

Unfortunately, the introduction of Atticus brings in a bunch of new problems. For one thing, having an exact duplicate of Ukiah running around really throws the more "Mary Sue"-ish aspects of the character into sharp relief. He's just a little too good to be true, and there's some gag-inducing dialogue to that effect in the middle of this book. His relationship with his partner, Hikaru Takahashi was another problem point for me-- it felt sort of like fanfic pre-emption, as if the author was trying to head off Ukiah Oregon slash by throwing some actual homosexual content into the books. It didn't really work for me (the relationship as written, not the pre-emption-- I never had any interest in Ukiah Oregon slash fanfic).

The biggest problem, though, is the effect that Atticus has on the structure of the plot. There's a great deal of coming-to-terms-with-his-true-nature stuff in the book, which compresses the overarching alien-invaders plot to the point where it feels really rushed. The action on the continuing storyline doesn't really get started until about fifty pages before the end, and it's all resolved a little too neatly.

The first couple of books in the series were good fun, but in this one, the flaws sort of overwhelm the good points of the story. It does, however, boast what may be the best Boston-related typo in publishing history, when one character is said to be lost after making a wrong turn onto "Sorrow Drive." So, you know, that's something.

Posted at 8:01 PM | link | [ hide comments ]

I thought the story arc momentum was starting to run out steam in the last book, so if it's continuing to run down, I may not be real motivated to pick this up, even if I'm in a trashy fiction mood (and who isn't, every now and then?).

And as to "Mary Sue", I read Spencer's _Tinker_ a few months ago, and the protagonist there is even more Mary-Suish than Ukiah Oregon, leading me to wonder if Spencer is capable of writing a non-thinly veiled wish-fulfillment main character.

Trent, 10.21.2004, 7:03pm | permalink

It's not the net amount of overall plot action, which would've been fine. It's that it's all packed into the last fifty pages of the book, and gets kind of short shrift after all the character stuff.

Had the plot that's in this book been spread more evenly, I think it would've been fine.

Chad Orzel, 10.21.2004, 8:21pm | permalink

I liked the book and have often found that if people go into something expecting it to live up to an expectation that they have set up then it will not live up to that expectation. If you went into this book looking for something that you did not find in the previous three then you will be dissapointed.

Nicko, 07.25.2005, 7:49pm | permalink

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

Going Postal

Going Postal is the Nth book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (I can't be bothered to try to count them). I heard him read a bit of this one at Worldcon, which made me more interested to read it than I might otherwise have been (his last couple of main sequence Discworld books have been a bit uneven). It arrived when I was already halfway through Deep Secret, but I happily put that book aside to tear through this one.

Going Postal tells the sotry of Moist von Lipwig, an exceptionally accomplished con man who has been apprehended by the Ankh-Morpork Watch, and sentenced to hang. A little bit after the last minute, he's given a reprieve by Lord Vetinari, on the condition that he reform the Post Office. And a golem is assigned to watch over him, to make sure he stays on the straight and narrow.

"Parole officer?"

"Yes. I'm not completely stupid, Mr. Lipwig. He will meet you outside the Post Office building in ten minutes. Good day."

When Moist had left, Drumknott coughed politely and said, "Do you think he'll turn up there, my lord?"

"One must always consider the psychology of the individual," said Vetinari, correcting the spelling on an offical report. "That is what I do all the time and lamentably, Drumknott, you do not always do. That is why he has walked off with your pencil."

The job, of course, turns out to be more than it first appears, and Moist, of course, finds surprising reserves of character within himself when faced with the challenge. Lord Vetinari, tyrant though he may be, knows what he's doing.

This is a more explicitly political book than many of the Discworld books, commenting rather directly on the current sorry state of American corporate capitalism. It's hard to miss the point, but Pratchett has enough skill as a writer that it didn't bug me. Also, I agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

Some people have felt that Pratchett has been phoning it in for the last few books; on first reading at least, this is much better than that. It may not be his best work, but it's not far down the list. This would be a terrible book to start the series with, but if you're already reading the Discworld books (and if you're not, why not?), it won't disappoint.

Posted at 9:11 PM | link | 2 comments

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Deep Secret

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. Diana Wynne Jones is a much beloved author in a large segment of fandom, but I haven't had great results with her work. The oft-cited Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a long catalogue of genre fantasy cliches, isn't sporting enough to count as "shooting fish in a barrel." The novelization of the Guide, Dark Lord of Derkholm, was enjoyable enough, but the sequel, Year of the Griffin was actively irritating.

I needed something light to read after The Year of Our War, though, and Kate suggested Deep Secret, about the antics of several wizards at an SF convention in Britain. It was certainly lighter than the Swainston, but I can't really say it was a success.

There are a number of reasons why it didn't really work-- it had half again as much plot as it needed, the convention scenes are a bit too Bimbos of the Death Sun-- but the main one is the characters. It's basically the same problem I had with Pamela Dean's Tam Lin: I kept wanting to slap the people the author clearly wanted me to sympathize with. That pretty much prevented me from ever really getting into the book, though I did finish it, which counts for something.

Ultimately, I think Diana Wynne Jones just doesn't really work for me. The book did bridge the gap between The Year of Our War and Going Postal, though.

Posted at 8:48 PM | link | 4 comments

The Year of Our War

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston. I picked this up in the dealer's room at Noreascon, after hearing it praised as the "best first novel" of 2004 and also getting one or two votes for "best fantasy novel" from some of the distinguished panel (John Clute, Charles N. Brown of Locus, a couple of others). It's an imported British hardcover, but the praise was high, and the jacket copy sounded interesting:

Jant is the Messenger, one of the Circle, a cadre of only fifty immortals who serve the Emperor. He is the only immortal, indeed the only man alive, who can fly.

The Emperor is seeking to protect mankind from the hordes of giant insects who have plagued the land for centuries, overwhelming towns with their beautiful nests, eating everything an everyone in their path. But he must also contend with the rivalries and petty squabblings of his chosen immortals. These are squabbles that will soon spill over into open civil war.

In the manner of all jacket copy, however, this turns out to be somewhat misleading. For one thing, the Emperor is barely a character at all, and it leaves out a bunch of stuff-- like, for instance, the fact that Jant is a junkie, and spends half the book shooting up, and half of that time in a hallucinatory dream world.

It will surprise approximately no one to learn that actions in the dream world of Jant's drug trips turn out to affect events in the real world. I'm not entirely sure why this seems like such a played-out idea, as I can't really come up with that many examples of books using it, but my immediate reaction was a sort of eye-rolling "oh, God, not again...", which colors my reaction to the book as a whole.

On top of that, the book goes a little overboard striving to be gritty, for lack of a better word. There's all sorts of sordid stuff, from grotesque battle deaths to Jant's drug trips, to a completely pointless flashback sex scene late in the book. Swainston works really hard to make things as sordid as possible, and the overall effect is sort of "China Mieville with fewer big words."

It's not a bad book-- the setting is fascinating, and the plot is interesting enough, once you get past the grime. But ultimately, it's sort of the literary equivalent of recent albums by Radiohead and Wilco: I understand why critics really like it, but that doesn't really make it appealing to me.

Posted at 8:27 PM | link | no comments

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