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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
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
There's an epic origin story behind Stephan Zielinski's Bad Magic (alluded to here), but it's not really mine to tell. It does end happily at least: the book is now in print, and I picked up a copy very shortly after it came out, and interrupted The System of the World to read it. How could I not bump it to the head of the queue when it boasts a tagline like:
There are some things people weren't meant to know. Some people know those things anyway. Sucks to be them.
This is the story of a very dark world not unlike our own, in which vast, cosmic, evil forces have the upper hand, only most people have no idea. Only a very small number of people can open their third eye, and see the magic going on around them, and they mostly don't last very long. Particularly in San Diego.
The book follows a San Francisco-based cell of the dwindling resistance to the dark forces known as the Incumbents, through a series of very odd adventures battling evil. Magic in this book is a kitchen-sink sort of thing, with elemental magic, totemist shamans, alchemists, and synesthetic mages coexisting uneasily.
The setting sounds pretty dark, but the whole thing is written with a bizarre humor, as in this exchange that Nathan is sure to love:
"Okay. So we're dealing with people who accelerate personal and social decay."
"Boy, that narrows it down," mutters Arbeiter.
"The obvious place to look is a center of personal and social decay."
"What, Los Angeles?" queries Rider.
Whitlomb snaps his fingers. "No! Of course, why didn't I think of it before? Stanford!"
There are a number of quirky things about the writing that may not be to all tastes-- the entire thing is written in present tense, for example, and there are a couple of odd narrative intrusions. There's also a very strange (but funny) academic appendix about zombies, which doesn't connect all that directly to the main story. The whole thing has some ragged first-novel edges, but it's certainly a fresh and distinctive voice.
Really, this is one of those books that just isn't quite like anything else. If you think you might like weird urban fantasy with a dark edge but a lot of humor, I highly recommend this book. If that doesn't sound quite like your thing, well, I'm probably not doing it justice, so check it out anyway.
Posted at 6:09 PM | link |
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Thursday, November 18, 2004
When I wrote about Gene Wolfe's The Knight, I said that I wanted to reserve judgement on it until I got a chance to read the second half of the story, The Wizard. Well, it's out now, and I've read it, so I need to say something about the story as a whole.
It's still not exactly easy to give an opinion of the book(s). There are enough mythological references thrown in that I'm half convinced there's something really Deep going on that I don't quite follow, but on the surface, the story is pretty straightforward: a young boy whose real name will not be a huge surprise (but I won't give it here) is transported from our world into the magical world of Mythgarthr, where he is transformed into Sir Able of the High Heart, and becomes a knight of great reknown. When last we saw him in The Knight, he had ascended from Mythgarthr to the world of Skai, and the hall of the Valfather. In this book, he's back, to finish various tasks that were left undone, and to earn the chance to be with his love, the Aelf queen Disiri. The story ranges from Skai all the way to the lowest world of Niflheim, and is centered around two royal courts: the court of the giants in Jotunland, and the human kingdom of Celidon.
This volume of the story is sort of oddly paced, with some fairly uneventful bits near the start feeling awfully drawn out, while the hugely eventful ending feels sort of rushed. The weird pace is partly explained by the fact that the story is framed as a "letter" from Able to his brother Ben in our world. This device means that the whole thing is subject to the unreliable-narrator games that Wolfe is so fond of, and there are odd omissions and minor distortions throughout, and as a result many important events are skipped over fairly lightly.
It's a very rich story, though, and it's easy to forgive the pacing. There's everything you could really want from a fantasy novel here: mythic resonance galore, fights, tournaments, and battles, powerful and subtle magic, and epic clashes of supernatural beings. It's also loaded with moral lessons-- in many ways, it's a book-length meditation on ideas of courage and leadership and honor.
I think I even understand what went on at the end, though I have a nagging feeling that I missed something (in part simply because it's a Gene Wolfe book). It does make me sort of want to re-read both books, just to have a better feel for the story as a whole (my memory of the first volume isn't all that complete), though I don't have time.
I'm being awfully vague, I know, but I don't want to spoil the plot (I'll be happy to discuss it in comments, though). I also probably need to think about this a little more, but my immediate impression of the story is very favorable indeed, and I definitely recommend it. Whether you follow the mythic stuff or not, the main plot is more accessible than many of Wolfe's other books, and the writing is superb. He's one of the best authors around, and I think this will stand up as one of his best books.
Posted at 8:12 PM | link |
Saturday, November 13, 2004
In a weird way, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell feeds very nicely into James Gleick's Isaac Newton. There's more than a little of Newton in Gilbert Norrell's attempts to completely dominate English magic, and his petulant responses to any challenge or criticism.
This is a very short book for a biography of such an eminent scientist-- less than 200 pages of text, plus another sixty-odd pages of notes and citations. It's also a very impressionistic sort of biography. Gleick doesn't go into a great deal of detail about any phase of Newton's life, giving only brief sketches of how and where he lived, focussing instead on the evolution of his ideas, and the big picture of his contributions to science. Descriptions of his interactions with other people are pretty much limited to excerpts from the innumerable pissy letters Newton wrote to other natural philosophers of his day. He may well have been, as Gleick puts it, the "chief architect of the modern world," but the man appears to have had the social skills of a rabid weasel.
Gleick does an excellent job of sketching out Newton's ideas, and showing just how revolutionary they were for their time. It's sort of amazing to realize what a dramatic change these things were, as Newton's Laws have so completely been internalized in modern society. Students in my intro mechanics classes are generally unimpressed with the whole business, and it's hard to get them to appreciate what a big step these things were. This book gives a good sense of the magnitude of the changes Newton wrought.
It's also amazing to realize the bizarre and fanatical dedication he had to his work. This is a man who worked a knife in behind his own eyeball, just to see what would happen, and who nearly blinded himself by staring at the Sun, in hopes of gaining new insight into the nature of light. That sort of approach was probably necessary for his success, but also probably goes a long way toward explaining his many personal issues.
Anyway, it's a fascinating book, and should serve well as a bridge between Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Stephenson's The System of the World, which is next in the queue.
Posted at 4:23 PM | link |
Friday, November 12, 2004
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is unquestionably one of the most talked about books of the year, so I was very interested to read it and see what all the hype was about. Unfortunately, it's also unquestionably one of the heaviest books of the year, so getting through it took a while.
It's a very strange book, taking place at the time of the Napoleonic wars in an alternate Europe in which the northern part of England was ruled for a long time by a mighty magician called the Raven King, but where magic has faded from everyday life. Gilbert Norrell is a reclusive magician living near York, who decides to return practical magic to prominence in England, and rises to great importance. Jonathan Strange is a moderately wealthy dillettante, who decides to become a magician as well, and becomes Norrell student and adversary. Together, they find that restoring English magic is more than they bargained for.
There are a number of oddities about the book, ranging from fairly trivial eccentricities of spelling ("chuse" for "choose" throughout, for example), to the more puzzling question of what, exactly, it's meant to be-- there are quasi-academic footnotes scattered all through the text, but only parts of it are written in academic style, while others are a fairly standard tight third person. Some of the best parts are in the quasi-academic bits, as when Strange is campaigning with Wellington in Spain:
Meanwhile, the Spanish Regency Council in Cadiz became rather alarmed at this development and began to wonder whether, when they finally regained their country from the French, they would recognize it. They complained to the Foreign Secretary (which many people thought ungrateful). The Foreign Secretary persuaded Strange to write the Regency Council a letter promising that after the war he would replace the river in its original position and also "... any thing else which Lord Wellington requires to be moved during the prosecution of the war." Among the many things which Strange moved were: a wood of olive trees and pines in Navarra; the city of Pamplona; and two churches in the town of St. Jean de Luz in France.
with footnotes explaining the various moves, including:
Owing to a mistake in Wellington's maps of Spain the city of Pamplona was not exactly where the British had supposed it to be. Wellington was deeply disappointed when, after the Army had marched twenty miles in one day, they did not reach Pamplona which was discovered to be ten miles further north. After swift discussion of the problem, it was found to be more convenient to have Mr. Strange move the city, rather than change all the maps.
It's great fun (the footnote explaining the churches is even better), but the shifts in voice are kind of baffling.
As for the plot, well, the book is sort of odd there, too. It's extremely readable, with lots of very enjoyable passages, but it never really acquires much in the way of momentum. Great Events are set in motion, and impressive magics are unleashed, but I never felt the need to stay up late reading it, or to re-arrange my schedule to allow time to read it. It was terrific while I was reading it, but when I wasn't reading it, I didn't think about it much. It's a very comfortable sort of book, in that sense.
So, in the end, it's not much easier to make a definitive statement about it now that I've finished it than it was before I started. It's a deep and fascinating world, rich with inventive detail, but it's not as captivating or immersive as many other books in the genre. Then again, I never begrudged reading it, though I did set it aside to read Florence of Arabia when I felt the need for something lighter. It's wonderfully written, and well worth reading, but it just doesn't quite resolve into a coherent whole in my mind.
It's a great, sprawling, magnificent mess of a book, and you'll have to read it for yourself if you want to make sense of it.
Posted at 8:56 PM | link |
Saturday, November 06, 2004
Florence of Arabia
Christopher Buckley (son of William F.) is best known for Thank You for Smoking, a satirical novel about a PR flack for the tobacco industry. This is a good thing, as it's his best book, with a wonderfully silly plot, and great moments of satire directed at both liberals and conservatives. He's written several others since (The White House Mess, Little Green Men, the investment guide parody God Is My Broker, and most recently No Way to Treat a First Lady, which I haven't read), none of which have worked quite as well.
Florence of Arabia is his latest, a satirical take on the Middle East, which is certainly topical, if not necessarily wise. The "Florence" of the title is Florence Farfaletti, a State Department functionary who becomes radicalized after the execution of the rebellious wife of the Ambassador from the Kingdom of Wasabia, a fictitious Middle Eastern nation with a feudal government, a host of princes, a deeply repressive state version of Islam, and extremely close ties to the current American President. Any resemblence to a real country, living or dead, shoule be bliningly obvious to anyone who's ever read a newspaper.
Florence finds herself cashiered from her State Department job after a failed attempt to grant the Ambassador's wife asylum, and is surprised when she's approached by a shadowy figure calling himself "Uncle Sam," who seems to represent the US Government. "Sam" is a man with many resources, and offers to bankroll her revenge against the Wasabis. She assembles a motley team to help her, and sets off for the Wasabia's neighbor, the Emirate of Matar (pronounced "Mutter"), where she starts a satellite network aimed at Arab women, and ignites a revolution of sorts.
Parts of the book are really good. The shows Florence and her team dream up for their network are pretty entertaining, and Buckley has great fun poking fun at the more repressive religious practices of the region. He also manages a couple of pretty good action sequences later in the book. The main plot is kind of fun, in a blatant wish-fulfillment kind of way.
In the end, though, it's not entirely successful. Ten years ago, this might've worked better, but I'm not sure this is really the right time for a daffy Middle Eastern satire. There's really serious stuff at the core of the book, and the light treatment he gives it doesn't really feel appropriate. It doesn't help that he's chosen to indulge his weakness for really dreadful puns a little too frequently (as you can see from the title and the country names). He also throws in one plot twist too many at the very end.
Looking at Buckley's body of work, he seems to have a bit of a Goldilocks problem. This book doesn't quite work, because the core issues are a little too serious, and the treatment a little too light. Little Green Men doesn't quite work because the satirical treatment is a little too heavy for a fairly lightweight subject. It's only in Thank You For Smoking that he gets it Just Right-- a subject that's serious, but not crushingly so, and a satirical approach that hits everybody equally.
Posted at 9:28 AM | link |