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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

Thursday, December 30, 2004

What You See is What You Get

In the interest of trying to clear out the backlog of books quickly, I'm going to knock off two in one post: Dave Duncan's Impossible Odds, the latest King's Blades novel (in paperback-- I don't buy them in hardcover), and Joel Rosenberg's Not Really the Prisoner of Zenda, the latest Guardians of the Flame book.

Lumping these together actually makes a fair bit of sense, for a number of reasons. For one thing, they share at least one plot element (saying what that is would be a spoiler for both books). They were also both in-transit reading during some of my recent running around, which has caused them to blend together to a small degree.

But mostly, what links these books is that they're each exactly what they appear to be: perfectly competent new entries in continuing series of workmanlike swashbuckling fantasy novels. There's nothing particularly inspired about either, and nothing particularly inspiring, either. They tell straightforward stories in a fairly straightforward manner, and if you liked the previous books in the series, you won't be terribly upset by either.

If pressed, I'd say that the Duncan is the better of the two, because it's a self-contained story with new characters, where the Rosenberg is tying up loose ends in a long and continuing plot. I don't think it's actually true that more time is spent explaining the vast quantities of baggage that the characters have brought in from previous Guardians novels, but it sort of feels that way. It's certainly true that the plot would be nothing without that baggage, so if you haven't read the previous umpteen books, don't even bother. Duncan's book draws on the setting of past Blades novels, but the plot and characters more or less stand on their own after that.

I realize that this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of either of these books, and you might well be asking why I'm still reading these series in the first place. All I can say is that they served admirably in their intended role, namely, they kept me from fretting about whether the tiny little prop planes I took to and from Sudbury were going to crash. And that's worth eight bucks a pop to me.

Posted at 11:12 PM | link |
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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Old Man's War

I've got a bunch of books queued up for booklogging (stuff I read on planes and in hotel rooms, mostly), but I said when I re-launched this site that I wasn't going to feel bound by chronological order, so I'll skip ahead a bit to review John Scalzi's Old Man's War. It's John's first published novel, and he's been working hard to promote it, and, well, he deserves to sell a bunch of copies of it. So I'll throw what little power I have behind the book, because it's great fun.

The basic set-up of Old Man's War is sort of obvious from the title: there's a war, and it's fought by old people. Specifically, it's a sort of funhouse-mirror Starship Troopers: the only people who can join the Colonial Defense Forces and battle aliens on distant planets are people who have reached their 75th birthday. In exchange for up to ten years spent in the CDF, they'll receive new bodies, and eventually a spot on a colony world. Of course, they need to survive, first, and the universe is a nasty place...

Knowing a bit about the people involved in the origin of the book adds a little extra twist to reading it. (For those who don't know the story, Scalzi wrote the book a while ago, and posted it on his web site for interested readers to download. Patrick Nielsen Hayden saw it there, and bought it for Tor.) Knowing Patrick a little bit, it's easy to see why the book would appeal to him, and knowing John, well, the dialogue should be readily identifiable to any reader of the Whatever:

"Is this going to hurt?" I asked.

"Not so much," he said, and tapped his PDA screen. 20,000 microsensors slammed themselves into my skull like four axe handles simultaneously whacking my skull.

"God damn it!" I grabbed my head, banging my hands against the crèche door as I did so. "You son of a bitch," I yelled at Dr. Russell. "You said it wouldn't hurt!"

"I said 'not so much'," Dr. Russell said.

"Not so much as what? Having your head stepped on by an elephant?"

"Not so much as when the sensors connect to each other," Dr. Russell said. "The good news is that as soon as they're connected, the pain stops. Now hold still, this will only take a minute." He tapped the PDA again. 80,000 needles shot out in every direction in my skull.

I have never wanted to punch a doctor so much in my life.

The book follows an old man named John from Ohio through the usual trajectory of a military story: enlistment, boot camp, first combat and all the rest. The world he moves through is richly detailed, often with a comic twist: The basic training sequence is a hoot, the aliens he faces are very inventive, and the battle scenes are well executed.

It's very much a book in the tradition of Robert Heinlein, only, you know, not so annoyingly polemical. A good deal of the exposition is handled by having characters explain things to one another, giving it a bit of a Golden Age feel, but the dialogue is snappy enough that it doesn't get annoying. And while there's obviously been a fair bit of thought put into the way the CDF is organized, we're spared the lectures on how it's the one true way of doing things.

It wouldn't be a Library of Babel post if I didn't find something to quibble about, so I'll mention one thing that bugged me: I'm not sure the concept of the Ghost Brigades makes any real sense. Explaining the exact nature of the problem would be a spoiler, so I'll leave it for the comments if anybody wants to know, but it does undermine the ending a little bit.

That said, it's a really fun read. I tore through it over the weekend, and annoyed Kate by trying to read funny bits out loud to her when she was trying to work. I definitely recommend it to any SF reader, and I'm not just saying that because I'm part of the evil Religious Tolerance Cabal.

Posted at 9:31 PM | link | one comment

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Stupidest Angel

Subtitled "A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror," The Stupidest Angel is a holiday story that only the author of Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story could write. It's also a sequel of sorts to The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, which is itself a sequel of sorts to Practical Demonkeeping. As a bonus, there's an appearance by a couple of characters from Island of the Sequined Love Nun, and the angel of the title previously appeared in Lamb.

So, what I'm saying here is: don't read this book if you haven't read any Christopher Moore before. Of course, that also makes it sort of difficult to review this book: if you've never read Moore, you shouldn't read this first (start with Bloodsucking Fiends, which is self-contained), but if you have read him before, you pretty much know what you're going to get. I will say that this book isn't as preachy as Lamb or Fluke (sometimes), and also that it takes a while to really get going, but it's a good read.

To fill out a booklog post, then, I'll quote the section in which Moore proves that he understands the psychology of the Labrador Retriever better than any other author:

Well, there it was. Tragedy. A thousand trips to the vet, a grass-eating nausea, a flea you will never, ever reach. Bad dog. For the love of Dog! He was a bad dog. Skinner dropped his prize and assumed the tail-tucked posture of absolute humility, shame, remorse, and overt sadness. He whimpered and ventured a look at the Food Guy, a sideways glance, pained but ready, should another BD come his way. But the Food Guy wasn't even looking at him. No one was even looking at him. Everything was fine. He was good. Were those sausages he smelled over by that table? Sausages are good.

Posted at 10:12 PM | link | no comments

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

In Praise of the Artful Fade

There's an interesting post and long comment thread (of course) over at Making Light on the idea of slash fanfic as a writing laboratory, and ways in which authors can get beyond the fade-to-black method of dealing with sex between characters. The discussion has introduced the phrase "Id Vortex" as a term for the "massively distracting issues... Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer," which is a great image, but I kind of feel left out of a lot of the discussion.

It's not just that I don't much care for fanfic in general, slash or otherwise (I tend to think it's impolite), though that obviously prevents me from recognizing a lot of the examples. It's just that there's a lot of talk about the wonderful literary qualities of sex scenes and their essential role in character development, and I just don't really get it.

I mean, sure, there are sex scenes out there that are very powerful and erotic, and all that, but I have a hard time coming up with any explicit sex scenes (which I'm taking to mean anything that includes a description of the relative positions of Tab A and Slot B (or whatever the appropriate collection of parts is)) that really work for me as an essential part of the story. After a good bit of staring at the book shelves, I came up with one, in Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman. The next best candidate is probably Iain Banks's Complicity, which is an unpleasant little book with some moderately unpleasant sex scenes, which makes them at least thematically appropriate (of course, by that logic, the icky sex stuff in Mother of Storms is just great, so I don't know that we want to go there). A question mark would be Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack, which I remember as having a good sex scene, but I no longer quite recall the context.

Other than that, explicit sex in novels tends to just register as a distraction. Sometimes it's a pleasant diversion, sometimes an excruciatingly awkward digression (Guy Kay, I'm looking at you), and sometimes a shameless side trip into open porn (not that I've read any of those sorts of books), but it's extremely rare for me to hit a detailed sex scene in which I feel that including the detail serves any real literary purpose. The fact that the characters had sex usually serves a purpose, but information about the actual hydraulics, as it were, I could generally do without.

I dunno. Maybe I'm just not reading the right books.

Anyway, given that I generally prefer the "fade to black" method of dealing with sex scenes, I though it would be worth highlighting a few people who do that well.

It tends to be easiest to manage in first-person narratives, particularly in the more conversational first-person styles, where you can essentially have the narrator tell the reader "the rest of this is none of your business." Will Shetterly does this pretty effectively in either Elsewhere or Nevernever (I forget which), and Steven Brust has a couple of good dodges in the Vlad Taltos books ("Love, like murder, shouldn't have witnesses.").

There's also the classic dialogue-only method, of which my favorite is Steven Gould's Jumper ("I read a lot"). Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint also has a pretty good example of a way to skip the actual details, while making it crystal clear what's going on, and what sort of relationship the characters have (in fact, I think you could make a case that foreplay is actually more informative, in terms of character development, than the mechanics of intercourse).

My all-time favorite, which probably sticks in my head because it's so cinematic, is in William Gibson's "Burning Chrome," ending with "it rained all afternoon, raindrops drumming on the steel and soot-stained glass above Bobby's bed." Obviously, there's context missing, but in the story, I think that's an absolutely terrific scene.

Done well, I think the fade-to-black can actually be more effective than an explicit sex scene. And while there are some dreadfully clunky cutaways (usually of the "what happened next, dear reader..." school of cloying narration), even the run-of-the-mill clumsy fade-out is better than an awkward amount of detail.

So, give it up for the tasteful and discreet authors out there, who know when to have the camera pan up to the rain on the glass. Give it up tastefully and discreetly, that is...

Posted at 9:15 PM | link | 28 comments

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