dukedom_enough in the twenty-first (and 11/100ths) century

KeskusteluClub Read 2011

Liity LibraryThingin jäseneksi, niin voit kirjoittaa viestin.

dukedom_enough in the twenty-first (and 11/100ths) century

Tämä viestiketju on "uinuva" —viimeisin viesti on vanhempi kuin 90 päivää. Ryhmä "virkoaa", kun lähetät vastauksen.

joulukuu 13, 2010, 9:44 am

The suspense is killing me.

tammikuu 1, 2011, 8:13 pm

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

tammikuu 1, 2011, 8:14 pm

Just finished Event Factory by Renee Gladman; review will be forthcoming in Belletrista.

Meanwhile, I still intend to put up one or two reviews of books completed in 2010 but not reviewed yet.

tammikuu 1, 2011, 8:19 pm

#3 Shall look forward to your review.

tammikuu 1, 2011, 8:52 pm

4 - Sounds interesting...I'll be looking forward to it even though Belletrista is WGH (wishlist growth hormone). :)

tammikuu 1, 2011, 9:00 pm


It's quite a short book, you could read it in no time!

tammikuu 1, 2011, 9:00 pm

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 23, 2011, 8:14 pm

At Belletrista, I have participated in a conversation about Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 8:31 pm

#9 Michael, I've just read your conversation and it was very interesting. I think the Conversation is a great addition to Belletrista.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 8:39 pm

Thank you. It's a fairly easy book, really - something more complex might present a tougher case. It was fun to do; akeela did the difficult part of stitching it all together.

helmikuu 10, 2011, 12:51 am

I agree, when I read the conversation I was really impressed by the job akeela did!

helmikuu 23, 2011, 8:21 am

hmmm. I see you have updated your reading list at the top.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 6:26 pm

Was by Geoff Ryman

“There’s no place like home.” Most of us remember Judy Garland, as Dorothy in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, wishing herself back to Kansas with that phrase. The stress seems to be on “home” there - but for many people this side of the rainbow, the words “no place” carry the real meaning: no true home, anywhere, for them.

Was tells the stories of four people. All, to various degrees, are affected by adults exploiting a child’s or young adult’s dependency and wish to please. All are asked to live according to others’ aims and needs.

Jonathan, diagnosed with autism as a child in the 1950s, grows into an adult in the 1980s who lives at right angles to other people, never acting as neurotypicals do, even with those he loves. (We’d most likely use “Asperger’s,” not autism, today.) The first TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz in 1956 has a big impact on him.

Bill, as a young man in 1950s Kansas, must grow out of an impulse to conform his life to others’ expectations. His path is the easiest of the four.

We meet Judy Garland first as a child in the 1920s, bearing up much too well under the great emotional investment her parents have made in her, their youngest child, as a sort of saviour of the family. We meet her again during the filming of Wizard, still playing to her audience, on and off camera, at all times.

And, most extensively, we meet the newly parentless, five year old Dorothy Gael, with her dog Toto, arriving in Kansas in 1875, to live with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. In Was, Ryman has imagined a fictional little girl who will later meet L. Frank Baum, inspiring him to create the Dorothy of Oz.

But Ryman’s Dorothy lives, not in Baum’s briefly drawn Kansas, but on the real, grim, nineteenth century American prairie. In her life and her neighbors’, all is deprivation, abuse, hardship, exploitation, conformity, and loneliness. Dorothy loses all the precious things of her earliest years, as she is forced to conform to Aunt Em’s beliefs and limitations. Kansas life warps her, as it has warped Em and Henry. The story of her crushed dreams, and the angry, self-destructive ways in which she resists, is almost unbearably sad.

The four stories connect mainly through Jonathan, whose love for the 1939 movie leads him into an acting career. As AIDS closes in on him in 1989, he seeks to learn what he can about Ryman’s Dorothy, seeking, in historical knowledge, in reaching back from Is to Was, a measure of - redemption? Solace?

Ryman maintains a motif of emptiness: the emptiness of the Kansas prairie, the vacuum at the center of a tornado, the emptiness of a person living only for others. Here and in The King’s Last Song, he is superb at showing the psychology of an abused person - unparalleled at that among the SF writers I’m familiar with.

But Ryman hits many more notes than that. Minor characters are made vivid in a few words. Humor threads through the sorrow. Even the devouring adults get their due - Aunt Em, in particular, is heir to a proud, abolitionist tradition. Kansas was a crucial battleground between slaveholders and slavery abolitionists in the decade before the American Civil War. Aunt Em eventually proves to have a thoughtful side, beyond her obsessions with her family’s decline.

Ryman is known as a science fiction writer. In this beautiful novel, there is perhaps just a touch of the fantastic. Sadly, the injuries inflicted on children by bad parenting exist in the real world, and are not fixed by clicking one’s heels in ruby slippers.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 6:33 pm

14 - Sounds interesting. I added it to the wishlist.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 7:29 pm

Nice review. Sounds tempting.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 7:41 pm

What they said. And that also reminds me that I've had Ryman's The Child Garden on my TBR Pile since approximately forever ago. I really need to get around to that.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 8:07 pm

Fascinating review -- I'd like to read it, and I think it's something my daughter too might jump into (I'm always trying to find something to tempt her into reading).

helmikuu 26, 2011, 9:25 pm


Age-appropriateness warning: read it before giving it to your daughter. 13-year-old Dorothy suffers sexual abuse.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 26, 2011, 9:52 pm


I haven't read ChildGarden. avaland did, and liked it.

helmikuu 26, 2011, 9:52 pm

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

maaliskuu 9, 2011, 7:33 am

avaland will be bringing home an ARC of Embassytown tonight, so I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 9, 2011, 9:32 am

19> dukedom -- I did read Was before giving it to my daughter, not because I was worried about her (she's 25), but because I wanted to read it. A sad and haunting tale.

maaliskuu 9, 2011, 4:48 pm

>22 dukedom_enough: How do you know I haven't squirreled it away somewhere? Are you saying that a Miéville novel wins out over wallpapering with me?

maaliskuu 9, 2011, 8:10 pm

Oh, um, of course I prefer wallpapering with you!

maaliskuu 9, 2011, 8:10 pm

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

maaliskuu 13, 2011, 11:12 am

Am now 50-some pages into the ARC of Embassytown (in between wallpapering sessions), and at least so far, China Mieville is on form. If you were wondering.

maaliskuu 31, 2011, 8:17 am

#25 Congratulations on your successful wallpapering, which I'm sure you enjoyed tremendously.

maaliskuu 31, 2011, 8:28 am

Well, our marriage survived the process, which is good. :-)

maaliskuu 31, 2011, 5:16 pm

>28 amandameale:, 29 The chocolate may have helped.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 5, 2011, 8:18 am

Writer Carol Emshwiller is being celebrated. Belletrista has recently republished a story of hers.

huhtikuu 5, 2011, 3:40 pm

I wanted to bring this to your attention:

Paul Macauley's "How to Write a Generic SF Novel"

Having read that one several times myself, a commenter there pretty well summed it up:

That's perfect. Now I don't have to read any more books. I am done with books. I now live in a post-book future.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 5, 2011, 3:44 pm

(Whoops, another double-post. I HAVE to get a better connection....)

huhtikuu 5, 2011, 9:01 pm

Cool. And to go with the generic SF novel, we have the generic song.

huhtikuu 5, 2011, 11:16 pm

#34 I have some teenage piano students who learn accompaniments to the generic song. That means I have to listen to it several times, write the chords in, copy the lyrics. I think that your link represents the generic song in a more sophisticated way than it deserves. These are from my recent experiences.

My Generic Song A
Verse 1: You left me
Chorus: I'm miserable/I hate you
Verse 2: You left me
Chorus: I'm miserable/I hate you
Instrumental etc.

My Generic Song B
Verse 1: I love you
Chrous: I love you
Verse 2: I love you
Chorus: I love you
Instrumental etc.

huhtikuu 6, 2011, 7:06 am

Ah. So, when the Generic Art Awards (the "Genies"?) come around, would the Da Vinci's Notebook song I linked be ahead, or behind your examples, in the betting for Most Generic Song?

huhtikuu 6, 2011, 9:19 am

Well, I just prefer economy in writing, which I think my examples have.

huhtikuu 10, 2011, 8:59 pm

Finished Embassytown. Review will follow, but briefly: excellent. Much improved over Kraken, though not quite up to The City & The City.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2011, 8:22 am

Embassytown by China Mieville

China Mieville, who has written fantasy novels thus far, switches to science fiction for this superb novel. I think of it as a notional twin to 2009’s The City and The City. Where the earlier book centered on perception, and how we use and are used by it, Embassytown is about language. As always with Mieville, the theme is developed subtly, but with the intellectual fireworks we’re now used to expecting from him.

Again, Mieville starts with a city. In Embassytown, the eponymous city is a colonial enclave, an outpost of a human interstellar empire that is, in turn, but a tiny part of a huge, old, complex galaxy, of which the reader learns just enough to glimpse how much more is untold. Most of the book is set on Arieka, a planet far from the rest of the known galaxy, where the Embassytowners have coexisted with the strange, nonhuman, native Ariekei for a couple of centuries, facilitating trade in technologies and studying the unique language. The humans’ colonial relations with the Ariekei are a bit more enlightened than most in Earth’s history, and they rely on Ariekei resources for survival - even for the very air they breathe.

Avice Benner Cho grows up here, having the usual childhood experiences, plus one quite unusual encounter with the Ariekei. She crews a starship during her young adulthood, then returns to Embassytown with a husband, not long before a new development in communication with the Ariekei changes the status quo.

(Spoiler warning for the remainder of this review.)

Could there be a language without lies, whose speakers only ever say true things? But what is true? How might this language work? Might its speakers be interested in learning how to lie? How fragile a worldview might those speakers have? What of language may vary, and what is intrinsic? Mieville takes William S. Burroughs’ famous “language is a virus from outer space” and presents a case where it is we who are the virus, with deadly consequences for both humans and Arekei.

Again Mieville’s fabulous imagination is on display. In his Bas-Lag novels, he mechanizes the biological, many characters being Remade into part-mechanical beings. Here, he biologizes the mechanical: Arekei technology uses designed creatures as technology - everything in their built environment is alive.

Mieville expertly uses SF tropes - infodumps where necessary, incluing in most places - to create the impression of a different world. From the beginning of the book, after a shuttle has landed from an orbiting starship:

...a window metres high and wide, which overlooked the city and Lilypad Hill. Behind that slope was the boat, loaded with cargo. Beyond kilometres of roofs, past rotating church-beacons, were the power stations. They had been made uneasy by the landing, and were still skittish, days later. I could see them stamping.

Here we have the comforting familiarity of a window that people look through, roofs, and a landmark with an earthlike name - but also the unfamiliar: churches have beacons that rotate? Power stations can be skittish, and they stamp? The first-person narration lets Avice gloss over things familiar to her, utterly strange to us. The centuries of makeshifts by which the humans communicate with the Ariekei are strange, yet finally almost convincing - not hard SF, but quite satisfying.

In 2010’s Kraken, Mieville’s amazingly fecund imagination was so much on display that it cramped all the other elements of the fiction. Here, he reins it in, concentrating more on his main ideas. This is not to say that it is absent. Avice meets her husband at a convention of linguists:

“I’m working in Homash. Do you know it?” said one young woman to me, apropos of nothing. She was very happy when I told her no. “They speak by regurgitation. Pellets embedded with enzymes in different combinations are sentences, which their interlocutors eat.”

A typical Mieville throwaway, striking, grotesque, not reused in the book and probably not in anything else he’ll ever write. Encountering these is one of the delights of Mieville’s fiction, but they are not present in such overabundance as in Kraken.

Politics, as always for Mieville, is present. To live is to be political, for both species, and for both Embassytown and its parent world. The pace and excitement of the latter part of the book, as the fate of every living thing on Arieka comes into question, and Avice and her allies struggle to survive, is as great as in any of his earlier books. Embassytown leaves The City & The City as Mieville’s best work, but it is a definite step up from Kraken, and further proof that here we have a writer who always has something new and original for us.

huhtikuu 21, 2011, 4:50 pm

Excellent review of Embassytown. I have not read any Mieville since The Scar and so I have a lot to catch up on. I might just go for The city and the city first though.

huhtikuu 21, 2011, 8:12 pm

Of the two, City is the one to read first.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 30, 2011, 2:28 pm

Just read the currently Hugo-nominated short story "The Things" by http://www.librarything.com/author/wattspeter-1::Peter Watts. Excellent. It's a retelling of the events of the John Carpenter horror movie The Thing, which in turn is based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 story "Who Goes There" and on the 1951 Howard Hawks movie The Thing from Another World. But told from the point of view of the creature(s), who has good reasons for what it does.

The story is online. Not that long, highly recommended. It helps to have seen the Carpenter movie - not strictly necessary, but many events will be very underexplained if the movie's not fresh in your mind. I actually had not seen it before this week, when I watched it via Netflix. It is a horror movie, note.

For me this reading crystallized a realization that Watts can be compared to James Tiptree, Jr. As I see it, both get their best work from a deep understanding that the universe, and particularly biology, are not our friends. We thinking, feeling beings are conditioned by our evolution, which puts survival and reproduction in first place, ahead of justice, mercy, and happiness.

However, a trigger warning: the last line of the story uses imagery that could upset abuse survivors. I think it's gratuitous, and Watts could have had his shock effect without it. In comment 12 following the story, Watts acknowledges the problem.

The story presents a scientific speculation about biology which may rise to the level of true hard SF, though I think probably not. It also reminds me of James Nicoll's line: "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."

huhtikuu 30, 2011, 2:26 pm

huhtikuu 30, 2011, 9:02 pm

Thanks for the nudge, I had been meaning to go read this. Good stuff.

huhtikuu 30, 2011, 9:32 pm

"I shared my flesh with thinking cancer." Now this is a reason to read SF.

huhtikuu 30, 2011, 11:37 pm

Not as catchy as the similar (if lighter) "They're made out of meat!"

toukokuu 1, 2011, 8:12 am

I just watched a short about two aliens discussing how the human race is "made out of meat!" Is that a real story?

toukokuu 1, 2011, 8:39 am

#42- I enjoyed that. Thanks for link and review.

toukokuu 1, 2011, 10:15 am


Yes, a story by Terry Bisson, who has written a great deal of good stuff.

toukokuu 1, 2011, 10:17 am


Well, I finish so few novels, so I'm filling in with the short fiction I read.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 1, 2011, 3:30 pm

#47: Thanks for the tip, I didn't know the movie version existed.

As it turns out, the Watts story has already been included in Strahan's The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 5.

toukokuu 1, 2011, 5:00 pm

BTW, there's an upcoming October 2011 release of another version of The Thing. This seems intended to be the story of the Norwegian base which Carpenter inserted into Campbell's story. Looks like a mixed US-Norwegian cast and a Norwegian director.

toukokuu 11, 2011, 6:32 pm

Great review of Embassytown; I'm planning to read The City & The City later this year.

toukokuu 12, 2011, 7:33 am


Insofar as I understand your tastes, The City & The City would be the one for you to read. I'll be very interested in your take on it.

His Un Lun Dun might be good for one of your young patients, if you need a recommendation sometime, though bystander characters do get killed in the story.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 14, 2011, 12:55 pm

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

We all plan, right? We plan our work, our meals, our travel - our lives, so far as we can. Our parents taught us to do that, and we know it’s best to plan. Wouldn’t our entire society - our economy, especially - work better if it were planned, optimized?

Much of the twentieth century was shaped, at least nominally, by an ideological disagreement about this ultimate level of planning. The West, especially the US, stood for free enterprise, while the East, especially the Soviet Union, stood for a planned economy. Red Plenty is the story of what the Soviets thought they were doing with planning in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they hoped to improved their methods, finally to overtake the West in civilian material development, thus fulfilling the promise of the Russian Revolution.

During the 1950s, the USSR grew economically faster than any nation except Japan. The world just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight, one of a number of events which seemed to presage the hoped-for surpassing of the West. But growth slowed with the years. The Soviet planners hoped to do much better using modern mathematical techniques, but those hopes foundered on the constraints of the existing system.

Francis Spufford’s book is a nonfiction novel, a hybrid of the two forms. It has the endnotes and extensive bibliography of a well-written nonfiction summary in the secondary literature, and the major sections are introduced with nonfiction discussions of about ten pages each. But the bulk of the book consists of fictional vignettes, with characters both historical and invented, showing how the policy moves played out in the lives of the Russian people.

These vignettes illustrate the great scope of an economy and the complex interactions of the people in it. Spufford is excellent at showing us the variety of the world and peoples’ motivations. In the introduction to part 4, and its first fictional subsection, “The Method of Balances,” we see an important bureaucrat carrying out part of the “balancing” that was needed to ensure that factories produced enough of the right materials to supply industrial and consumer needs. The central quest in the book is the search for ways to use the science of linear programming, implemented on computers, to replace the price signals that a free market economy uses to the same end.

There’s not actually a lot of economics in this book. See Spufford’s bibliography if you want pointers to thorough analyses. The vignettes show us scientists hoping to perfect planning methods, politicians facing success and failure, and everyday people, coping with a Soviet system where money was nearly useless next to connections as a means of getting what one wanted - where a factory manager might reasonably conclude that sabotaging a machine central to his factory might be the only way to save his career.

Spufford is good at imagining the mindset of people who must always choose their words carefully, and who know just what can and cannot be said - a limit which changed over time, and was fairly permissive during the early 1960s, tightening after Krushchev was deposed. These are people whose environment may not be materially comfortable, but who at least can finally do some real biology, say, which was next to impossible under Stalin. Yet still they believe in communism. Spufford illuminates some aspects of the utopian nature of Soviet thought by referencing science fiction writers - books by Jack Womack, H. G. Wells, Ken Macleod, and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky all come up in the endnotes.

Despite its many excellences, I like this book less well than commentary around the web led me to expect. Spufford has not managed the novelist’s feat of creating believable, sympathetic characters, nor the short story writer’s trick of capturing some particularity. If anything, he has taken the science-fiction writer’s approach: acting out the interplay of ideas through somewhat generic, everyperson viewpoints. The book might have been better at greater length, letting us have more than a few pages to get to know the single-mother scientist moving to Academgorodok, or the clever, rising manager, or the young woman whose plans for future success are derailed at an exhibition of US consumer goods. The major exception is the longer chapter, “Favours,” about the bad day of an entrepreneurial dealmaker, or “fixer”, both needed and despised by a system in which his work was illegal. I would like to hear more about Comrade Chekuskin, whose story could probably expand to a novel’s length.

Spufford’s book shows us how smart, basically well-meaning people will behave in essentially insane ways when so constrained by their social system. I live in a country on the winning side of the last century’s competition, but our economic and political trends of recent decades suggest that we are not immune from this sort of insanity. That alone might be reason enough to read the book.

toukokuu 14, 2011, 2:06 pm

Brilliant as always, dear. :-)

toukokuu 14, 2011, 2:15 pm

It's your belief in me that keeps me going, dear...

toukokuu 14, 2011, 5:53 pm

>55 dukedom_enough:: Bravo! for your fabulous review of Red Plenty, dukedom_enough.

toukokuu 14, 2011, 6:19 pm

Excellent review of Red Plenty It sounds a fascinating book on a subject that I want to know more about. It is on my to buy list.

toukokuu 14, 2011, 6:36 pm

OK, you've sold me on it.

toukokuu 14, 2011, 9:20 pm

We seem to be in a Russia mode these days, having lately watched both the 1965 and 2002 film versions of Doctor Zhivago. I am so glad I didn't live in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. Very interesting times, indeed.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 14, 2011, 9:35 pm

SF writer and literary academic Adam Roberts really loves Red Plenty. His review leaves me thinking that I might have liked the book better had I not read the endnotes until after I finished the main text. I read them after completing each chapter, mainly, which does break up the flow.

Hope you who pick it up based on my review like it, kidzdoc, baswood, Bob.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 14, 2011, 9:37 pm

(In reply to #62)
Hmm. Must be all the radiation in the atmosphere reminding us of the Cold War: this morning I bought a DVD of the 1965 Dr. Z.

Hope you who pick it up based on my review like it, kidzdoc, baswood, Bob.

Is it OUT here?

toukokuu 14, 2011, 10:10 pm

US edition is due July 7, if I can believe amazon. I'd recommend waiting; one problem I omitted, because the review was already long, is that the spine emits ominous cracking sounds as the book is opened to only 90 degrees or so. Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist of a few years back was also a rather poorly made hardcover - does anyone know whether that's common in current British hardcovers?

toukokuu 14, 2011, 10:29 pm

As for the Two Doctors (Zhivago), Keira Knightley makes a more convincing 17-year-old at the beginning than Julie Christie did, because Knightley really was 17 while Christie was more like 25 during filming, and Christie's hairdos look quite strange nowadays, but otherwise Christie is superior. Omar Sharif is far superior to Hans Matheson.

toukokuu 15, 2011, 12:09 am

US edition is due July 7, if I can believe amazon.

So. . . somebody might have a copy in stock at ReaderCon. . . .

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 15, 2011, 7:38 pm

#61I am so glad I didn't live in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century.

I've been reading a lot of Soviet-era fiction and nonfiction about the period too, and I can echo that sentiment as heartily as possible. The combination of the different wars, Stalin, and the immense number of people killed both by war and Stalin, is overwhelming.

toukokuu 15, 2011, 6:49 pm

>64 dukedom_enough:, 66 The Amazon information for a "US edition" seems dubious. If you want it bad enough, it will have to be the Book Depository...

toukokuu 18, 2011, 10:04 am

Terrific reviews, Michael.
I'm up for a Russian experience soon: my first reading of Dr Zhivago.

toukokuu 18, 2011, 6:52 pm

avaland and I have lately seen both the 1965 and the 2002 movie versions, as you probably know. I read the book a long time ago, now, while I was still in high school. I no doubt missed a lot.

toukokuu 18, 2011, 11:32 pm

I don't think I would like to see the new film version. The faces of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are so embedded in my memory, as is the music - "Lara's Theme".

toukokuu 19, 2011, 4:51 am

>55 dukedom_enough: - I'm puzzled by why Spufford choose to write the short stories? Is it because he couldn't find appropriate real-life examples of what he was discussing? That would raise interesting issues about the validity of his factual discussion. Or is it because he, or his publishers, thought that the public couldn't handle a straightforward treatise and therefore created some fictionalised characters to empathise with? (It reminds me of documentaries nowadays - where talking heads are replaced with tacky dramatisations?)

>71 amandameale: - 1967 version has Julie Christie; 2002 version has Keira Knightley - that's enough of an argument for me.

toukokuu 19, 2011, 7:29 am

71, 72,

Actually, avaland and I agreed that Knightley was a more credible 17-year-old schoolgirl, in the early part, than Christie. Knightley really was 17, Christie about 25. But Christie was superior everywhere else, and the male lead was far inferior to Sharif.

Interestingly, the earlier film outdid the 2002 for spectacle - I suppose because the 2002 was made for TV? Our Blu-Ray disc is letterboxed, to fit the 2.2:1 Panavision image onto the HDTV screen, and it worked very well. You need a big screen for Russia.


I think the rationale was to bring the story to life by showing interior points of view, which are possible in real history only when there's a well-written diary entry or the like? Don't know.

toukokuu 25, 2011, 7:45 am

Looking back at Embassytown, here's the last paragraph from Garky K. Wolfe's Locus Magazine Review, with his abundant spoilers trimmed out:

Readers enamored of the kinetic pace of Kraken, or even the police-procedural narrative hook of The City & The City, may find the opening chapters of Embassytown comparatively static, as Miéville lays out both the colonial/native tensions on Arieka and the backstory ... and Avice herself, despite her early promise as a chosen child and her various romantic entanglements, ... as an oddly passive narrator for much of the novel, which in the opening chapters shifts between "Formerly" and "Latterday" in a sometimes disorienting manner. Once the central crisis unfolds, however, the plot noticeably accelerates, and we learn that Avice is not only a more complex character than we’d suspected, but that some of the secondary characters ... take on a compelling life as well. And as the narrative begins to deepen into a kind of tragic power, Miéville’s style gains momentum as well, in some of the most nuanced and evocative prose I’ve seen from him. ...

kesäkuu 21, 2011, 7:28 am

Have read My Sister Chaos by Lara Fergus, review in the next Belletrista.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 22, 2011, 7:47 am

"The Music Master of Babylon" by Edgar Pangborn

If I'm not reading novels, I at least manage to reread novelettes. I read this 1954 story sometime in the early 1960s and, I think, not between then and now. I liked it then, and have liked it even more in memory, but have wondered: does Pangborn hold up? He was a recipient of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, his novels get reprinted in high-quality editions, and people remember him fondly, but the writing standard in SF has become so much higher over the decades. Thinking back, wasn't he rather sentimental?

Brian Van Anda was a concert pianist. That ended 26 years ago, along with the lives of most of the people on earth, in a world war. For the last 25 of those years, Brian has not seen a single living person. The only resident of what's left of Manhattan, he lives in a museum, north of 125th street, surrounded by the finest of human art - he pilots a raft over the water above Michaelangelo's Moses on the museum's first level, which is flooded, like the rest of the island, by rising seawater from melting polar caps. He hunts game across the river in New Jersey, reads books and musical scores, and keeps a grand piano tuned and playable, continuing with his music. As he ages through his seventies, he practices the most important sonata of humanity's last great composer, hoping to play it better than anyone before. The Australian LTers hereabouts will perhaps be pleased that Pangborn's imaginary, great composer was Australian.

On the day of the story, matters change.

Actually, this was better than I expected. Pangborn restrains his language sufficiently that he avoids most of the story's potential for overstatement. Brian's thoughts about a prehistoric clay figurine in the museum betray a view of premodern peoples as "savages," something a modern anthropologist would doubtless object to. The contrast Pangborn shows between the Last Cultured Man and the Savages of the Future avoids the obvious, violent ending it might have had, but still is awfully schematic. Finally, I suppose I can't be objective about stories, like this, that are sort of hardwired into my nervous system, but "Music Master" does seem worth reading still for more than scholarly interest.

heinäkuu 9, 2011, 9:00 am

A post by Lisa Goldstein on the Inferior+1 group blog points to a list of 225 women SF writers. Good to remember if you encounter someone who thinks women don't write SF.

elokuu 2, 2011, 7:36 am

Robert Shearman, whom avaland and I have met, has become writer in residence at Napier University in Edinburgh.

elokuu 28, 2011, 7:23 pm

My review of Vertical Motion by Can Xue will appear in the upcoming issue of Belletrista.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 19, 2011, 4:14 pm


Muokkaaja: lokakuu 19, 2011, 8:56 pm

Hi Michael. Long time. Funny I should drop in now and find you've reviewed a story about a pianist, and an Australian. I might even read it!

lokakuu 21, 2011, 4:48 am

>79 dukedom_enough: I bought Vertical Motion earlier this week, so I look forward to your review of it.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 21, 2011, 7:27 am

Whoops, sorry kidzdoc, it's there. I haven't been keeping this thread up! Would like to hear what you think of it.

Amandameale, I don't know your tastes well enough to guess whether you'd like it. Would be interesting to find out.

avaland, happy birthday, young person.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 24, 2011, 8:12 am

And in the next issue of Belletrista, my review of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan will appear. Very different book from the Can Xue.

lokakuu 21, 2011, 7:35 am

amandameale, of course we must remember the quote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

lokakuu 21, 2011, 9:27 am

*smacks forehead*

Ooh, "vaguely sinister doctors"? Sounds good!

lokakuu 21, 2011, 11:12 am

I have Vertical Motion too -- meant to read it a few weeks ago and got caught up in other reads . . .

lokakuu 23, 2011, 3:18 pm

>82 kidzdoc:, 87 Though I did not read it, judging from dukedom's description and review, the Can Xue sounds very similar to what I read of Snow Plain, stories by Duo Duo.

lokakuu 24, 2011, 8:13 am

kidzdoc, I very much doubt that your hospital could be anything like the one in "Red Leaves."

lokakuu 25, 2011, 7:58 am

>89 dukedom_enough: I don't know; several of the neurologists are pretty creepy.

marraskuu 15, 2011, 8:02 am

My review of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is now up at Belletrista.

marraskuu 15, 2011, 1:07 pm

Nice review of When She Woke, I'll be adding it to the wishlist.

marraskuu 16, 2011, 7:33 am

stretch, hope you like it.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 16, 2011, 7:35 am

Beside all else that's been said about When She Woke, I want to point something out.

Jordan takes a small set of current trends, adds a new feature (the infertility plague), and projects their effects on society over time. We see this world through the eyes of someone who has grow up and feels at home in it. With her, we then see through the facade of accepted belief to an underlying cruelty and disorder; the rules aren't what Hannah thought they were. The author fills in small details (fingernail holograms, extended drought due to climate change, the "port" as everyone's connection to the internet) without dwelling on them, any more than Hannah would - they're part of her life, no more remarkable than autos are to us. This last is solid incluing, just as author and critic Jo Walton has defined it.

So, this novel is a perfectly formed example of extrapolative science fiction. I can imagine it being serialized in Galaxy magazine, starting maybe six months after the July-August 1952 run of Gravy Planet - if I pretend that abortion was mentionable then. I know of no evidence about whether Jordan is at all familiar with science fiction, and I wonder whether this book is yet another sign that the techniques of SF are now part of every writer's kit.

marraskuu 16, 2011, 7:55 am

>94 dukedom_enough: Interesting remarks...

marraskuu 16, 2011, 8:06 am

Would have been peripheral to the Belletrista review, for most readers, so I didn't put it in there.

marraskuu 16, 2011, 8:06 am

I can always find something more to say!

marraskuu 19, 2011, 1:17 pm

Softspoken by Lucius Shepard

Avaland and I have been sick (colds), and I'm at home with little energy for anything. A good ghost story seemed just the thing.

Sanie Bullard is 29; she and her husband Jackson Bullard are staying at the large, decaying, antebellum Bullard mansion in rural South Carolina, where he grew up, and from which he later escaped. Her career ambitions are on hold, while he studies to be admitted to the bar. Their relationship has also decayed, with Jackson treating her more and more as a servant and sexual convenience. The house is also inhabited by Jackson's extremely eccentric brother and sister.

Sanie begins hearing a spectral, man's voice addressing her, wishing that she could see him. This is the start of her gradual entry into an unseen world existing within the manse. Contrasted with the house is the rest of the small town, whose inhabitants seem to promise her a life after, and without, Jackson - who is losing his ambition and becoming threatening as he begins to resemble his notoriously mad, late father.

This is a classic ghost story plot given the Shepard treatment. He writes a woman's point of view here better than I've seen him achieve before, although still not fully convincingly - men's POVs are still his forte. The novel is filled with his trademark, spectacular descriptive writing about visions of the fantastic.

I should note a trigger warning for anyone considering the book: the end is violent in ways that might not be expected for something called a ghost story. Many of Shepard's stories bring their protagonists to a place of escape, rest, or at least acceptance of whatever dark thing they met in the story. This isn't one of those.

This shouldn't be your first Shepard, but if you're already a fan, certainly worth a try. Three stars.

marraskuu 19, 2011, 1:23 pm

And I've been owing a review of Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson, which I actually read a while ago. Soon, hope.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 19, 2011, 2:08 pm

I enjoyed the Wiki link you gave above (at #94) to "incluing":

Incluing is a technique of world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the author is building, without them being aware of it.
This in opposition to infodumping, where a concentrated amount of background material is given all at once in the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called As you know, Bob conversation.)

marraskuu 19, 2011, 3:26 pm

SF has been doing this since before "the door dilated", as you know (AsYouKnow_Bob), but AFAIK there's no other short name for the technique - which is a bit surprising.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 15, 2011, 8:19 am

A thoughtful, challenging blog post (you have to click the post title to get a popup with her full text) by Nnedi Okorafor, on being the first black person to win a World Fantasy Award, and thereby receiving a bust of the racist H. P. Lovecraft as a trophy. Warning, extremely vile, racist, Lovecraft poem right at the top.

Via writer Nick Mamatas' blog.

joulukuu 15, 2011, 10:56 am

Thanks for posting that excellent blog by Nnedi Okorafor. I hadn't heard of the author before, and I was unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft and his virulently racist beliefs, which seem to be excessive even for that shameful period in American history. Have you read any books by Okorafor? If so, which one(s) would you recommend?

joulukuu 15, 2011, 9:04 pm

>103 kidzdoc: Darryl, I read her first, The Shadow Speaker, which was a YA-adult crossover, SF And fantasy mix, young woman's coming-of-age story set in Niger in the future. I thought it refreshingly different and quite decent. Fannyprice read her 2nd, Who Fears Death, an adult story I believe, and reviewed it for Belletrista.

Actually, she may have had some other titles before these, but these two got her some attention.

joulukuu 16, 2011, 7:06 am

The cult of Lovecraft is one that just leaves me baffled. Why is he held in such regard in some places? He was a wretched human being and an equally wretched writer (and I'm with Mieville - his writing does reflect his personal opinions) but his supporters have a 1001 excuses.

joulukuu 16, 2011, 7:23 am

kidzdoc, the World Fantasy winner, Who Fears Death, is probably your best bet. I confess I haven't read anything of hers. There's a short story related to Who Fears Death free online at Clarkesworld Magazine, if you want to sample.

Jargoneer, me too. I see how HPL's concepts grab peoples' attention, but the writing isn't that good, and one can find better Cthulhu Mythos stories by other writers.

joulukuu 27, 2011, 7:21 am

I remembered a couple more books I read this year. I do still mean to review all these, if only in the new year.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 27, 2011, 7:40 am

Outposts in Space by Wallace West
No excuse except nostalgia for reading this, a book I read probably just when it was published in 1962. There were large parts I didn't remember, turns out, and I don't think I had quite, at age ten or eleven, acquired the skills properly to decode plots. At the time, that effect made books seem mysterious and wonderful.

Like many titles published by Avalon Books in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fix-up, or compilation, of related stories published at various times from 1931 through 1962, mostly in the 1950s. They comprise an episodic novel, more or less, about the early exploration of the solar system. The plot is inconsequential, having elements of planetary romance in adventures on the Moon and a jungle-covered, habitable Venus. The story looked forward to futuristic dates from 1969 through 2069.

The main lesson to draw is how greatly writing standards have risen in science fiction over the decades. Also, I was struck by how goofy some of West's ideas now seem. Written before anyone actually flew in space, this story employs the minor trope that I think of as "the great pain of space" -- the phrase from Cordwainer Smith, the idea that space travel would be harmful in ways that we now know it isn't. West assumed that low or zero gravity would discombobulate the human system in severe ways. The members of the first circumlunar expedition are paralyzed by gravity's absence, and later travelers must hibernate between Earth and Venus. In the 1/6 G at the Moon's surface, people get by - but do much better when music is played in the corridors to help them coordinate their muscles. Scenes with people dancing through the colony, to foxtrots and tangos. A pursuit by foot is speeded up as the music changes to "The Campbells are Coming." I don't think modern SF television has quite caught up with West's vision in this regard.

Venus, where incorrigible criminals are sent, is what you'd get if you explained libertarianism to a seven-year-old boy. By law, partnerships and cooperation are forbidden, although murder is fine if you can get away with it. However, if you rob someone and take his gun (mostly "tommy-guns", everyone has one), you must leave him with another weapon.

West is a bit shakey on some of his science. In trajectory to the Moon, sensed gravitational acceleration in the spacecraft falls off gradually, reaching zero only near the Moon. In one place, West seems to suggest that the natural logarithm of 2 might be changed. No.

Some of the dates don't seem quite to line up properly either, a plotting problem.

I was also reminded of how society has changed since West wrote. Hitting a 14 year old to get her to attend to her studies is presented as a reasonable thing to do, and a source of light comedy. Sexism isn't as great as in some era stories, but it's there; as was common, the female lead character is of the "spunky" variety.

In the end, the gang bosses of Venus are defeated and a bright new age dawns.

I can't possibly rate this, but can't recommend it for most readers.

joulukuu 27, 2011, 10:06 am

That was a brave thing to do.

joulukuu 27, 2011, 10:14 am

Hmm..... trips down memory lane can come up with plenty of unwelcome surprises.

joulukuu 27, 2011, 10:36 am

cf. The Suck Fairy, as popularized by Jo Walton.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 7:17 am

Well, this wasn't so bad - I knew pretty much what to expect. I'm a bit wary of rereading early Zelazny or Delany, or our Sturgeon collected short stories, though - that would be a great disappointment if they turned out not to be what I remember.

As 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, and the year of the John Carter film, I expect I'll be rereading at least A Princess of Mars in the new year. Again, low expectations are a must...

joulukuu 28, 2011, 8:15 am

Also, for Outposts, if one has LT's only copy of a work, one really ought to write at least a short review.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 10:13 am

or our Sturgeon collected short stories

Yeah, after wading through a couple early volumes of The Complete Sturgeon, I found I had OD'd on mediocre Sturgeon, and lost my appetite for pressing on through the series.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 5:25 pm

I've heard that about the Sturgeon collections. I think they did a best-of around volume 10. Wish someone would go through and list just the good stories.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 5:26 pm

I notice that my Outposts review is actually the only West review on LT - there's something for Lords of Atlantis, but it's just a broken link. Does duty call? ...not soon, anyway.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 7:52 pm

Holy crap, I actually own Lords of Atlantis.

I wouldn't spent the time re-reading that unless somebody threw in an immortality treatment beforehand.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 8:24 pm

Edgar Rice Burroughs - the prince of story tellers. I could be tempted to re-read one of the John Carter of Mars books.

joulukuu 28, 2011, 8:28 pm

In the trailer that I have seen a couple of times now for the movie John Carter he is called 'John Carter of Earth.' I wondered about that; I had 'John Carter of Mars' in my memory. It looks pretty cheesy, but I'll probably see it in IMAX.


joulukuu 29, 2011, 4:55 am

I think we can guarantee that John Carter (as it is now known) is going to be a dud. It is has been in post-production for 18 months now and that's never a good sign. I kept wondering why John Carter looked like Conan of Mars in the trailer.
Still it will be better than the mockbuster, A Princess of Mars that came out in 2009.

joulukuu 29, 2011, 7:25 am


Ah, do you remember what it was about, more or less? Entertaining...


Well, the first three are an arc in which he becomes the Warlord of Mars, and taken together they're probably only about the length of a standard modern novel.


The explanation I heard was that Mars Needs Moms flopped, so the studios don't want movies with "Mars" in the title.

I thought the trailer looks pretty good, actually - special effects are go good these days. I had always pictured the green Martians as looking more insectile and bug-eyed around the face than the film has them, and they look too short: 11-12 feet where they should be 15 feet, IIRC. And how do tusks grow out of their cheeks, not their jaws? The red Martians have been whitewashed; they should be darker.

At least Dejah Thoris is played by an actual adult, not some teenager.


I'd rather the movies kept their sticky hands off my childhood memories, but we'll see. Yes, I understand the 2009 Dejah Thoris is blonde?! Did you see it?

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 29, 2011, 8:29 am

Ah, do you remember what it was about, more or less? Entertaining...

Nominally, it's the old trope (and it's old enough that it might even be the source of the old trope) that, after the place is destroyed, the scientists of Atlantis carry on the gods of the Greek pantheon.

But mostly - and after 40-some years, it's noteworthy that I still remember - it was the source of the important life-lesson: "Wow, I really need to learn to manage my time better."

joulukuu 30, 2011, 6:43 am

>121 dukedom_enough: - I'm not proud of it but I have seen it. (I would like to point out now that no money left my wallet to see this, it is shown regularly on a free movie channel). Dejah Thoris is indeed blonde, and in her early 40's, as she is played by Traci Lords (in probably the best performance in the film).
What always intrigues me about the makers of these mockbusters is that they can't be bothered to even try to be good, it is just a race to get into the stores as quickly as possible and they all end up the same - cheap effects, lousy script and mediocre acting.

Actually now I think about the only differences between mock and block busters much of the time are the effects and the level of acting - who cares about a script when CGI allows you block things up so easily.

joulukuu 30, 2011, 7:11 am


See, you can learn something from West!

I sort of think of myself as the Last Wallace West Fan, so I'm willing to be a bit more patient with him. Besides, where else are you going to get dance as a necessary mode of transport on another planet?


"...shown regularly on a free movie channel..." - you used electricity to operate your TV! You paid for that power! Waste!

Actually, thanks for warning me. I had put it on avaland's and my Netflix list; now I can safely take it off.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 30, 2011, 7:48 am

I thought there was an agreement that "Avatar" was pretty much a redo of Princess of Mars...also.

joulukuu 30, 2011, 7:57 am

Cameron cited Burroughs as an inspiration, yes.

joulukuu 30, 2011, 10:40 am

Avatar seems less based on A Princess of Mars than it does Ferngully.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 30, 2011, 6:58 pm

Besides, where else are you going to get dance as a necessary mode of transport on another planet?

Obligatory xkcd reference:
I'm put in mind of #108 - - "The girl whose only mode of transportation is the MC Hammer slide"

I sort of think of myself as the Last Wallace West Fan...

's'OK - - me, I have a soft spot for Wolheim's Secret of the Martian Moons....

joulukuu 31, 2011, 9:16 am




Munroe probably stole the idea from West. :-)
Re: Wolheim - see, we all have our weaknesses.

joulukuu 31, 2011, 9:25 am

Ah, such sentimentality as the year closes...and here I am being wistful about a Classics Illustrated Jane Eyre...

tammikuu 1, 2012, 10:21 am

Have decamped to my Club Read 2012 thread. See you there.