21 March, 2018

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

1. “I got rambling / I got rambling on my mind / I got rambling / I got rambling all on my mind.” So sang Robert Johnson in 1936, when he also recorded the classic, “I Believe I’ll Dust my Broom”. These two songs ran through my head the whole time I was reading this book about voodoo, witches engaging in tourism to the discworld analogy of Louisiana, and the power of stories. The whole book ruminates on stories and the power they have—certain things need to happen in this tale because they have happened in other tales, and Pratchett says so. His real thrust is this line from the book: “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.” We create stories, and in so doing the stories create us. Pratchett plays this point for humor, as usual, but the point isn’t lost in the jokes. The two support each other in a way indicative of Pratchett’s brilliance.
Nanny Ogg knew how to start spelling 'banana', but didn't know how you stopped.

2. The characters are less revealing here than the theme. Pratchett doesn’t run wild or create too many new characters, rather, he lets characters we already know run the show. It could be seen as fan service, I guess, but it could also be Pratchett expanding the scope of his usual cast of characters. To me, because the novel is so smitten with the theme, it doesn’t come off like fan service.
Cats gravitate to kitchens like rocks gravitate to gravity.

3. Again, this novel follows episodic lines, but Pratchett has grown as an author. This isn’t a bad fix-up like the first two discworld novels were. The theme carries the whole with more consistency than Eric did, being so focused on one thing, rather than the three separate wishes of the boy Faust Eric. This consistent theme, and the consistent main characters, keeps the novel a novel, and means that it’s much stronger than Equal Rites. But the fact still remains that this rumination on stories is not structured as concisely as a typical novel. Variety is the spice of writing. Sometimes, when I see a novel and it’s composed of three or four different episodes, I’m wishing there was a term to put on the cover that would warn me. Here, it works, but not brilliantly. It works by contrast with other novels, as a break from the typical novel structure.
“Good and bad is tricky," she said. "I ain't too certain about where people stand. P'raps what matters is which way you face.”

4. So, it’s a novel, but just. It explores an interesting theme with wonderful humor, but plays heavy towards the humor. The characters feature more complexity than in past works, but are still familiar enough that the question of fan service is present. In all, I thought it was a fun book, a good one, even. But if you’re not into vampires or voodoo, it might not be as gripping for you.
Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them... you could use them, you could change them.

19 March, 2018

Way Station / Here Gather the Stars by Clifford D Simak

This novel holds peace up as an answer to humanity’s problems. However, Simak doesn’t go into what he means by peace. He seems to be applying four aspects of peace: as the antonym to war, as a lack of conflict with neighbors, as contentment with life and the unexpected results of choices, and/or as a connection with a higher spiritual force. The first is unexplained and told as a given—which is where this novel tries to delve into the Cold War setting. The second is detailed the most, but more in action than rumination, meaning that it could be easy to miss the point. The third occupies most of the book, as it follows the main character (Enoch Wallace) who is struggling with peace and loneliness in his own life. And the fourth is a deus ex machina, literally—there’s a machine called The Talisman that accentuates a spiritual person’s connection with the spiritual realm. I am dissatisfied at the depth Simak analyses all but the third aspect of this theme. He fails to write out a definition of peace, and for a novel where that concept is the resolution, this lack seems curious. Now, I’m happy if I have an understanding of what he means by peace from the rest of the text, but he leaves off discussing it, just on the cusp of discussing it, more times than he actually delves into the central concept. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the resolution seemed too pat, and if I had more foreshadowing and discussion of the central concept, it would’ve been less out of left field, and could have worked better. I’m disappointed simply because the book is enjoyable to read, and having that final impression show some shallowness that wasn’t present in other aspects of the book—building the main character, the complex galactic situation politically, the realistic actions that followed rationally one to the next and made sense—left me wanting the book to be a few more chapters long. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Though Simak tempered the deus ex machina with a later disappointment for Enoch in his loneliness and potential love life, it still left me dissatisfied.

Novels are stories that touch on so many aspects of the human experience, so choosing where to focus and where to expand is an important part of the writing process. And this book expands and focuses in appropriate ways, except that last bit. Simak brushes against peace, spirituality, galactic cofraternity, the Cold War, the CIA, illegal family businesses, communication, heuristics, loneliness, and the list goes on. I don’t expect any author to explore every little facet of every theme they bring up, but I do expect the central one to be more explored than others, than peace was here. As an aside, the Talisman itself is foreshadowed enough that it doesn’t strike me as a horrible deus ex machina; I wish peace had the same treatment.
He stood quietly in the dark and silence, and the voice of a century of living seemed to speak to him in a silent language. All things are hard, it said. There is nothing easy.

But the plot and story are strong and carried me through the novel. Simak writes best when he is explaining actions. Scenes like the virtual reality gun range speed up and get the blood pumping, while discussions about loneliness slow down as the emotion takes over Enoch’s mind. There is not a pre-arranged pattern of plot pacing, but a plot that speeds and slows as the story dictates. Simak masters pacing through paying attention to the story and what he’s already said in it. However, the book does seem like it’s split in two—there seems to be a first and second half to this novel: the build-up and the crisis respectively. This split nature may be a result of its original publishing as a serial story in a magazine. (I noticed the split while reading, then checked later and saw that it was serially published originally.)
Tonight, he thought, he probably should tell Ulysses about the watch that had been put upon the station. Perhaps he should have told him earlier, but he had been reluctant to admit that the human race might prove to be a problem to the galactic installation.

Simak develops Enoch as a loner, so his actions and interior monologue inform the reader most; but Simak doesn’t let the few moments of dialogue go ignored either—they are dense with revealing moments about Enoch’s character and priorities. Some of the dialogue surprises because it reveals such a different side of him. Outside of the spoken word, the way he reacts and prioritizes inform who he is throughout, and it’s a strong tactic that left me understanding Enoch.
It was a hopeless thing, he thought, this obsession of his to present the people of the Earth as good and reasonable. For in many ways they were neither good nor reasonable; perhaps because they had not as yet entirely grown up. They were smart and quick and at times compassionate and even understanding, but they failed lamentably in many other ways.

The opening is strong. Simak starts with the CIA crew discussing the strange case of Enoch Wallace, giving the reader an intro to the novel that doesn’t rely on an intro-info dump, but does connect the reader with the intrigue of the novel right away. By the end of that opening, I am as full of questions about Enoch as the CIA is. Then Enoch comes on-scene and takes over the novel, but the CIA people keep popping up in interesting ways, meaning that the opening is not forgotten. It’s a sensational tactic and one that draws me in instantly.
A man could be as self-effacing as he well could manage and still he could not hide. Soon or late the world would catch up with him and would come crowding around his door, agog to know why he might be hiding.

So, in closing, Simak creates a unique situation with a strong opening, tries to use the situation to its strengths, populates it with a well-built character, and lets the story dictate the pacing. These aspects are done very well. However, the story ignores the implications of every idea it brings up, the end was capped off by a deus ex machina that solved almost every problem in the book too perfectly, and who in the world thinks its a good idea to have a last page reveal of what the whole book was about? That's worse than an intro-info-dump. That said, the strength of the action and plot means that I will definitely be looking for more Simak to read.

06 March, 2018

Second 50 Novels

In the last fifty-eight posts, I have posted notes on fifty novels here, three of which I had read before. I want to use a brief post to place these forty-seven new ones in categories for myself, and write what I most remember about them now:

Great Books by date published:
Matter, 2008: Three pairs of main characters discuss and exercise power and slowly come together for a climactic end-scene battle. The focused discussion allows a depth of discernment that staggers me. The varied writing and ensemble structure match the tale perfectly. Read it already.
Finity’s End, 1997: This novel perfects Cherryh’s writing and storytelling skills, a tour de force. Couching a normal, emotionally dramatic tale in a setting of science fiction allows the two to play off each other in illuminating ways.
Guards! Guards!, 1989: Confident satirizing, self-assured writing, breadth of humor, depth of characters, and drive of the story. This may be the best Discworld novel, and one of the best novels I’ve read.
Cyteen, 1988: Spectacular psychological thriller. Cherryh writes like no other author with her tight, third person, focused voice that almost disposes setting description to zoom in on the characters and story.
Downbelow Station, 1981: Military space opera done perfectly while focusing on both the psychology of the characters and adventures they go through. The writing shows varied voices for the character groups, and the novel works in surprising, inspiring ways.

Close on their heels are Good Books by date published:
Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017: A book that impressed me immensely, but will probably be relegated to the “Literary Nerds Only” pile. As confusing as Ulysses? No. Also destined to be a cult classic? Probably.
The Fifth Season, 2015: The word choices and redundant sex scenes keep this book from being great, but it was strong enough that buying the next book in the series was a no-brainer. And the third too.
Surface Detail, 2010: A solid book. I know this book doesn’t belong one category up, but I can’t tell you why. I wrote a bunch of notes trying to figure out why, and I still haven’t.
The Chronoliths, 2001: The violence is tempered by using it to explore deeper themes. Though the writing is a touch bland, the book is engrossing.
Look to Windward, 2000: Though the resolution of the central theme of death is a little unsatisfying, the novel is wonderfully written and the characters are particularly engaging. This also comes off as a rumination on international politics.
Pyramids, 1989: Pratchett takes swings at the nature of belief, reality, and perception. The results leave me laughing and thinking simultaneously, and if that’s not Pratchett, I don’t know what is.
Rimrunners, 1989: This book used sexual and physical violence to build a main character that was sympathetic to read. Cherryh doesn’t use the situations sensationally, but everything has meaning, as usual for Cherryh. Engaging throughout.
Wyrd Sisters, 1988: Almost perfect Shakespearean satire. The balance between humor, characters, ideas, and plot poises the novel for greatness.
Mort, 1987: The first time Pratchett put the novel in the driver’s seat instead of the jokes, and it works. It talks about employment, but in a typically satirising and humorous way that is more black humor than gag humor.
Merchanter’s Luck, 1982: This is a great adventure tale. Cherryh’s tightly focused voice fits this tale perfectly. It’s a bit more in depth than pulp fiction with psychological and political rumination.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968: Yeah, the androids are allegorical. It might be too focused on the theme, and cavalier with some of the characters, but it filled my brain full, and that’s a positive.

Interesting Flawed Books, also known as Enjoyable Books, by date published:
Death’s End, 2010, (2016 Trans.): Inconsistent pacing and excessive scientific exposition of fictional phenomena kept the wonderful depth of the main character from entrancing me more.
Obelisk Gate, 2016: While Jemisin got better as a writer in her word choices and sentence structures, she regressed as a story-teller, writing a novel that doesn’t have legs of its own (sorry, Alabaster), and falls into an unfortunate sequel trap.
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, 2015: Everything works out too perfectly all the time, and the book could’ve used an editor. But I enjoyed it. Just not enough to continue reading the series.
All the Light We Cannot See, 2014: Some over-the-top, redundant, character "development" pairs with a nagging lack of challenge to the reader, and lets this book’s structure, writing, and story down.
Hydrogen Sonata, 2012: Great dialogue and an unusual plot structure for a Culture novel do not overshadow the two dimensional protagonists and lazy use of violence to drive the plot.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010: An above average ensemble book of interconnected short stories, potentially pretentious, but too clearly exhibits the typical downfalls of the type—quality control, depth of characters, and pacing.
Regenesis, 2009: Taking up right where Cyteen left off, this book doesn’t stand on its own. It needs the reader to have read Cyteen. But it’s a fun read and a great read.
Thief of Time, 2001: Scattershot satire that should have focused in on a few less themes. Seems more like an overview of Pratchett ideas than an aimed critique. But the humor-idea balance is perfect.
Tripoint, 1994: Good book, but doesn’t stand on its own. Cherryh needed to do a lot more heavy lifting about context in order to get this novel to stand on its own.
Hellburner, 1992: A sequel that reads like a sequel. It’s a great sequel, but even the author admits you need to read the first book in the series to get this one.
Reaper Man, 1991: Again, Pratchett bites off more than he can chew. Hugely enjoyable book while simultaneously moderately frustrating to comprehension.
Heavy Time, 1991: As Cherryh tries to find the appropriate level of detail for her tightly focused voice, she went a little too tight here. Not enough is on-page to keep me invested throughout.
Moving Pictures, 1990: Pratchett is focused here, but has an awkward time integrating his focus on satirizing Hollywood into his Discworld. The story gets away from him a bit, and it might require a cinema nerd to really love this book. Thankfully, I am a cinema nerd.
Faust Eric, 1990: Four interconnected short stories, like the first two Discworld novels, but much better than those due to the superb humor about metaphysical and historical Earth things. But they're loosely connected still.
Sourcery, 1988: Characters lack depth. Themes and plots jump around so much that it comes off like a D&D campaign. But so much of fantasy is written like that, and this example stands out for good quality.
Equal Rites, 1986: Two stories that share a theme are crushed together. The problem is that each has their own arc, and the two arcs do not align very easily. Enjoyable for sure.
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, 1983: More of a study in a situation than a novel. As such, the characters are mostly viewpoints instead of characters, the writing delves into scientific reporting and memos instead of storytelling. But I enjoyed it way more than this description makes it sound.
Serpent’s Reach, 1980: Where the world-building is impressive in the way it integrates every little comment and aside into meaning later, the world built is pretty boilerplate.
Fires of Azeroth, 1979: She balances the darkness that is overbearing in the other books of this series, with some periods of calm and peace that make the book much more readable.
Well of Shiuan, 1978: Not bad, but also not good. It’s fine pulp fiction, but as a fan of her later work, I’m left anticipating her later strengths and clinging to what hints of them I find here.
A Time of Changes, 1971: Though the ideas and characters are well done, the structure and writing left me wanting.
Greylorn, 1959: Slavish story considerations kept this from sticking, but if you’re looking for simple pulp fiction, you can do worse. You can do a lot worse.

And Bad Books I wish I hadn't read, by date published, with quotes from my notes:
Seveneves, 2015: “First things first: after six hundred pages this book begins its last chapter with the phrase “5000 years later”, and that last chapter is three hundred pages long. Is it the world’s longest epilogue, or are the prior six hundred pages the preface to end all prefaces? Every character is now dead, even the earth and our solar system are changed beyond recognition. This works out exactly as well as you think. If I hadn’t been reading this book for a friend, I would’ve quit. After finishing the book, I’m sad I didn’t quit—it wasn't worth it to continue.”
Uprooted, 2015: “In all, I feel like I missed something here. It’s a well-told story in all its parts, but it feels like it wanders overall. It’s got an engaging main character but I’m typically annoyed at her reactions—also at the reactions of the other characters. It’s got no theme really, but the myths are still interesting. It builds an engaging world, but then tells a typical fantasy messianic tale. It tries to encourage working together, then spends hundreds of pages showing how people can’t work together. It goes one layer deeper into the myth, uncovering possible causes for some of the fairy tale tropes, but doesn't really coalesce into a consistent vision of the world or myths.”
The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and Legacy, 2006 & 2007: “The way the opening was written, I didn’t expect the romance and wasn’t looking for it. Therefore, it felt like a short story—a really good short story ending after the malice kill—that she then decided to tack a novel onto. It felt disjointed: after the malice kill, she has to reintroduce the reader to the second part, which takes up the rest of these two books, which deals with the romance and the families of the two paramours. I don’t find this restart to be smoothly accomplished: she paid so much attention to world building in the first part, that the second part switches tracks too awkwardly.”
Gate of Ivrel, 1976: “The beginning of this novel is difficult to get through: so self-indulgent in that density of unknown names in the intro info dump—fifteen or sixteen made-up fantasy names in a page and a half. Your reader has not been given the chance to know or care yet! This is the worst intro info dump I’ve read.”
The Wanderer, 1964: “The opening chapters left me wondering when he would leave off the fractured narrative jumping between the character groups, and dig into the ideas he left floating off, making them interesting. He didn’t. He just kept jumping around and missing opportunity after opportunity. [Yet awkwardly including sex with a space-cat.]”
They’d Rather be Right / The Forever Machine, 1955: “And that’s the problem with this story. Some interesting ideas are brought up, but they are dropped. The story shows promise, but progresses in fits and false starts so when the end finally comes, it is a relief. [...] It comes off like wish fulfillment of broadcasting telepathy for personal uses—which is problematic in all sorts of ways that are not even glanced at.”
Farmer in the Sky, 1950: “It didn’t have a plot so much as episodes, it didn’t have characters because it examined colonization from one sixteen year old boy's point of view instead, and it didn’t have much relatable to a reader who isn’t colonizing Ganymede.”

So you don't have to go through a process of elimination, I had already read:
The Light Fantastic, 1986: The continuation of The Colour of Magic added a central plot to the short stories being loosely strung together, and it’s better for it. Better, not great.
The Colour of Magic, 1983: Sloppily shoves four stories together that share little. Too focused on the jokes and fantasy tropes. But hilarious and endearing for all its awkwardness.
Last and First Men, 1930: Though the reread helped me appreciate the book more as a cultural artifact, it didn’t induce me to go and read Star Maker yet. It’s not a novel so much as a collection of straw men for Stapledon’s personal philosophy to win over.

01 March, 2018

They'd Rather Be Right / The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

This novel feels like a big plan aborted. The authors set up a bunch of themes: redemption, humane-ness, reason and prejudice, the nature of change and time, American social classes, and more. And then this book drops all of them as it abruptly ends on the eve of the universal release of Bossy, the transcendent AI. The last third speeds up, but not in a “we want to accelerate the action to ramp up the tension” way, but rather in a “we’re both bored now” way. It speeds up and decreases tension. The main character takes long walks to explicate the novel, then rushes back to a situation already in development, based upon what he was just thinking. It’s a rough book that starts with promise.
He seemed determined to demonstrate the old truism again: that the only enemy man has is man. The universe does not care whether man unlocks its secrets or leaves them closed. Water does not care whether man bathes in it or drowns in it, whether it waters his fields or washes them away. If man masters its laws and utilizes his knowledge, water becomes a force in his favor. But, enemy or servant, water does not care. Of all the forces, only man seems determined that man shall not master the universe.

The main theme sees the heroes throwing aside their preconceptions and prejudices, embracing scientific facts and reason, with the hope of attaining corporeal immortality and transcendent telepathy, all through physiologically invasive psychology. While reading, this sounds a bit like some of the basic tenets of Scientology, and I discovered after the fact that some attributed this Hugo win to the popularity of that religion at the time the book released. But just taking the book as a book, it’s bad.
A human being is seldom bothered with insufficient data; often the less he has, the more willing he is to give a firm opinion, and man prefers some answer, even a wrong one, to the requirement that he dig deeper and find out the facts.

The characters are shells of ideas, and not complicated by anything. They would be fine as short story characters, and a couple even undergo major changes; but any conflicts are aborted through good telepathic vibes, and the changes are more to reveal the reality the novel sets up, and not to develop the character. What I mean is that it would be difficult to write a detailed analysis of any of the characters because they all act like secondary characters.
He had understood abstractly why it was they so often substituted measurement for meaning.

What they are trying to be secondary to are the ideas, which fall flat. The authors don’t spend enough time exploring the ideas, and the what exploration exists lacks depth that would interest a reader. The introduction of these ideas sets the novel up as a wonderful exploration, but the analysis within, and the resolution at the end, lacks staying power because the first is shallow, and the latter is short-circuited. The authors appear to have bored.
As he continued with the reassembly, Hoskins grew deeply troubled. At times he felt as if he were on the verge of some vast concept not quite grasped; as if he caught hazy glimpses of an outline of a totally unknown continent where, always before, all science had assumed there were only empty seas. He cursed the sterility, the rote memorization which passed for learning. He bitterly accused his own mind of being like a wasted muscle, long unused, now incapable of a task which should be accomplished with ease.

And that’s the problem with this story. Some interesting ideas are brought up, but they are dropped. The story shows promise, but progresses in fits and false starts so when the end finally comes, it is a relief. The idea that body and mind affect each other isn’t new, the take on that idea that the book comes to is certainly old; but instead of doing something with an old idea, the book isn’t written well enough to support any concise synthesis or fascinating exploration of it. It comes off like wish fulfillment of broadcasting telepathy for personal uses—which is problematic in all sorts of ways that are not even glanced at.
The human race was like a universe of material bodies, each with its own eccentric orbit, blindly crashing into one another, caroming off, senselessly changing direction as a consequence of random contact. The miracle was that even rudiments of order, on a few occasions of history, had somehow been achieved.

03 February, 2018

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

This book plays out as a series of fractured narratives of different character groups—who are spread across the globe—as a planet turned into a spaceship emerges from hyperspace near earth, then eats the moon. This causes massive tidal strain, including death and destruction in coastal and low-elevation areas. It also causes personal changes in the people the narratives follow.

But the book never really finds its footing. Leiber focuses on the story, which could excuse much of this lack of footing, but it doesn’t for me. None of the groups mesh to me: they’re not informing some shared discussion of concepts, they’re not building the tension for each other in ways that seem intentional, and they’re not all converging on a central point for a big finale. There are no threads that show something interesting—a conversation about a concept carried through all these character groups. Nothing ties them together except the fact that they’re all reacting to the earthquakes, tides, fires, changed weather patterns, and new planet in the sky. And their responses also show an opportunity missed by Leiber: this could’ve been an interesting conversation about humans in extremes, but none of the situations or analysis is allowed to get enough depth to be fascinating or informative. Instead of and ensemble film where each character group informs the reading of the others, this was like a few different short stories cut up and interlaced, but going in different directions and discussing different themes.
“No, I don't think so, though I suppose vanity plays a part." He touched his beard. "No, it was simply because I'd found people who had something to follow and be excited about, something to be disinterestedly interested in—and that's not so common any more in our money-and-sales-and-status culture, our don't-give-yourself-away yet sell-yourself-to-everybody society. It got so I wanted to make a contribution of my own—the lecturing and panel bits.”

Part of the lack of depth comes from the ensemble cast and quick jumps between the groups of people. This book is made up of hundreds of snapshots of scenes, vignettes of story that aren’t long enough to develop depth. This type of fractured narrative can be done well—like when Iain M Banks draws all the character groups together for a final showdown where their differing opinions are given space to grow, then come together and explode. But it’s not done well here, partly because the jumps are so short, and partly because Leiber drops the ball on exploring any almost interesting idea he has.
Not for the first time, Richard reflected that this age's vaunted "communications industry" had chiefly provided people and nations with the means of frightening to death and simultaneously boring to extinction themselves and each other.

Leiber has no theme here, really. He may be trying to put in themes, but they all fail to reach clarity. The saucer students are surprisingly functional when led, but that’s not dwelled on. Paul opens his mind to new experiences, but this isn’t explored either because Tigershika spends so much time explaining the science fiction of the story. The poet is a passionate drunk; okay, I’ve heard that before, yet Leiber adds nothing new to the conversation. I'm not going to list them all, but each character group fails to pull out their theme in any meaningful way.
Intelligent life spreads faster than the plague. And science grows more uncontrollably than cancer. On every undisturbed natural planet, life crawls and flutters for billions of years, then overnight comes the blossoming, the swift explosion across the great black distances of seeds that grow like weeds wherever they fall, and then the explosion of their seeds on, on, to the incurving ends of the universe.

There are plenty of science fiction themes thrown in here, but these are dropped as quickly as Leiber introduces them. For instance, galactic politics reflecting human politics: an idea which isn’t given enough space or depth or uniqueness to be interesting, but which also doesn’t terribly inform the story outside of a deus ex machina. The reasons for the Wanderer’s existence and existence near earth interest me, but only because that story is the only thing happening in the novel; and not enough is done with it for me to be satisfied. Another idea deals with relationships between aliens and humans, yet it's delivered awkwardly (sex with a lady space-cat), and lack of followthrough takes the legs out from under it before it gets started.
Then had come three fleeting yet shockingly vivid flashes: first, a huge, tapering, greenish-purplish cat face; second, two staring eyes with incredible five-petaled irises around the black five-spiked stars of the pupils; third, a long, slim, hand-sized paw with narrow indigo pads and four cruel curving claws of translucent, violet-gray horn—he had the impression that they'd just been buried in the scruff of his coat, and maybe his neck, too, hastening him.

However, the book is written wonderfully. The intro chapters particularly hold my attention. Passages throughout the book are well written and beautiful. Leiber practices rhyme and consonance to create captivating sentences. I’ve quoted some of my favorites here.

In closing, the opening chapters left me wondering when he would leave off the fractured narrative jumping between the character groups, and dig into the ideas he left floating off, making them interesting. He didn’t. He just kept jumping around and missing opportunity after opportunity. It’s a book I will not read again.

18 January, 2018

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

A lot of Heinlein’s earlier work was tied up in Juvenile novels for Putnam, and this was one of those. I’m fine with that though. Starship Troopers was one that Putnam didn’t want to publish, breaking the relationship between author and publisher; and that’s a good book, whoever the intended audience was.

However, this one seemed juvenile in the way it engaged meaningful themes: namely, it didn’t. For instance, almost two thirds of the population of Ganymede died at one point, at least 24,000 of 37,000 people. Heinlein dropped that ball like a hot potato:
Like myself, Hank had been outside when it hit, still looking at the line up. The fact that the big shock had occurred right after the line up had kept a lot of people from being killed in their beds—but they say that the line up caused the quake, triggered it, that is, with tidal strains, so I guess it sort of evens up. Of course, the line up didn't actually make the quake; it had been building up to it ever since the beginning of the atmosphere project. Gravity's books have got to balance.

The colony had had thirty-seven thousand people when the quake hit. The census when we finished it showed less than thirteen thousand. Besides that we had lost every crop, all or almost all the livestock. As Hank said, we'd all be a little hungry by and by.

They dumped us back at the Receiving Station and a second group of parties got ready to leave. I looked for a quiet spot to try to get some sleep.
That’s how the whole situation was dealt with. Heinlein allowed a bit more about the main characters’ sister and his neighbors, but the whole episode happened out of nowhere, and went nowhere.

It’s indicative of what I hated about this novel: it read like it was initially serialized in the Boy Scouts of America magazine. Which it was. That’s not inherently a bad thing. But it affected the novel in two ways: first, each chapter had a reference to scouting in it—usually well integrated, but sometimes a little awkwardly shoehorned in there. Second, it also meant that every chapter was its own self-contained thing: this book read like a comic book that slavishly adhered to the twenty-four page pacing. I didn’t know it was serialized when I was going into it, but I guessed it by the time I was done reading it.

Let me go through a couple of examples of placed where Heinlein should have expanded:
1. Two-thirds of the population dies.
2. Evidence of extraterrestrial life is discovered and saves the main characters’ life.
3. The spaceship Mayflower gets a hole in it.
4. The dead woman Anne.
5. The shotgun wedding of George and Molly.
6. The weird way that George and Bill interact.
7. Bill’s offer to go back to earth with his step sister.

As annoying as the pacing and depth was, I finished reading this novel, and even enjoyed parts of it. Primarily, the whole is organized around the nuts and bolts of terraforming: politically, ecologically, physically, the engineering behind it, and the human side of it. What most attracted me was this human side of it. The trip from Earth to Ganymede had some pretty memorable, Heinlein lines.
But then things quieted down and I was almost happy in a miserable sort of way.


And there I got my first view of Earth from space. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I expected. There it was, looking just like it does in the geography books, or maybe more the way it does in the station announcements of Super-New-York TV station. And yet it was different. I guess I would say it was like the difference between being told about a good hard kick in the rear and actually being kicked. Not a transcription. Alive.


The people from the Daedalus and the Icarus were supposed to be stowed away by the time we got there, but they weren't and the passageways were traffic jams. A traffic jam when everybody is floating, and you don't know which end is up, is about eight times as confusing as an ordinary one.

So, despite everything that made this a bad novel—it didn’t have a plot so much as episodes, it didn’t have characters because it examined colonization from one sixteen year old boy's point of view instead, and it didn’t have much relatable to a reader who isn’t colonizing Ganymede—the small amount of human interest sections were very welcome. Most of them were also dropped balls but hey, it was a short book and I finished it.

Not his best, not by a long shot. But it was fascinating for me to look back at some of his early stuff and see how it differed with his later stuff.

01 January, 2018

A Great & Terrible King by Marc Morris

Historical non-fiction books that I tend towards typically organize around a story: Kon Tiki, The Motorcycle Diaries, Endurance. I rarely read biographies because I’m just not that interested in minutiae of major historical figures. However, when a historical popularizer takes on a biography of a long-dead, often misunderstood English king, and Amazon puts it on sale, I am ready to try again.

Edward I, Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots, was somebody I knew little about. He appeared tempestuous, but rarely; just but vengeful; loving to his wife, always; and effective nine times out of ten. Those couple of mistakes he makes are glaring—freeing prisoners, ignoring his councellors about Gascony, and taxing his subjects too heavily. However, he also had a series of wars to fight that left him broke, so the latter makes some sense.

In building the character of Edward, Marc Morris let’s the events do the talking before filling in the details from primary documents after the fact. The problem with this style of character building is that I’m too often surprised by the actions of the King. Maybe he was a surprising person, but when all is said and done, I feel like I understand Edward I in all of his actions, but that’s the conclusion of the book, and it runs the risk of leaving me wondering through far too much of the book itself. It holds the cards too close to the chest.

But the impetus for holding cards close rests in the narrative style of chronological telling. Morris just runs through Edward’s life, from A to B, then ends the book with a brilliant chapter that briefly weighs up a conclusion based on all the evidence given. Like a pulp author, there are cliff-hangers in many of the chapters and sections within chapters: none more striking to me than ending a chapter with the phrase, “The Devil had assumed a new guise, and his name was William Wallace.” These cliffhangers work for me, as they are often moments of surprise for Edward in his own life: the death of the Maid of Norway, the murder of Comyn, the sudden rise of William Wallace. Why not surprise the readers with what also surprised Edward? It’s a tactic I appreciate in this history book, and one I wish more people employed as it gets me excited for the next chapter.

The writing works well enough—nothing to praise highly, but nothing to call out as particularly bad either. There is one part, near the end, where Morris seems to have discovered the word precocious, but that’s actually the only writing that annoys me.

The focus, or theme of the book appears to deal more with Edward’s role in spending thirty years to set a foundation to what came after. The subtitle of this book—Edward I and the Forging of Britain—sets the tone for the whole. He conquers Wales, and the focus in on the conquering, and not Edward in that situation. He hammers Scotland, but again, the focus is on the attempt, and not the thoughts—though Morris does tend to let Edward’s thoughts into the book, I wanted a little more.

Now, I’m not sure how much of that lack of thoughts is down to lack of access to Edward himself—he’s dead. But still, I knew he liked building things—from his actions, not his thoughts—until way late in the book when Morris gets into some of the specifics: Edward, in his sixties, is deep into the minutiae of designing a wooden fort’s ditch depth.

In all, I finished this book and loved it. I looked forward to reading it every day. And I read it late until my eyes stopped being able to focus. It’s something I would recommend to nerds of this sort of thing, and even people interested in this sort of thing, but not to people uninterested—like I would Kon Tiki or Endurance. I’ll look for another Marc Morris book in the future. Actually, I've already got one picked out.

13 December, 2017

Histories by Polybius

Translated by Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh.

I open with a quote from this massive, fragmentary book:
When Hannibal, after conquering the Romans in the battle at Cannae, got possession of the eight thousand who were guarding the Roman camp, he made them all prisoners of war, and granted them permission to send messages to their relations that they might be ransomed and return home. They accordingly selected ten of their chief men, whom Hannibal allowed to depart after binding them with an oath to return. But one of them, just as he had got outside the palisade of the camp, saying that he had forgotten something, went back; and, having got what he had left behind, once more set out, under the belief that by means of this return he had kept his promise and discharged his oath. Upon the arrival of the envoys at Rome, imploring and beseeching the Senate not to grudge the captured troops their return home, but to allow them to rejoin their friends by paying three minae each for them—for these were the terms, they said, granted by Hannibal—and declaring that the men deserved redemption, for they had neither played the coward in the field, nor done anything unworthy of Rome, but had been left behind to guard the camp; and that, when all the rest had perished, they had yielded to absolute necessity in surrendering to Hannibal: though the Romans had been severely defeated in the battles, and though they were at the time deprived of, roughly speaking, all their allies, they neither yielded so far to misfortune as to disregard what was becoming to themselves, nor omitted to take into account any necessary consideration. They saw through Hannibal’s purpose in thus acting—which was at once to get a large supply of money, and at the same time to take away all enthusiasm from the troops opposed to him, by showing that even the conquered had a hope of getting safe home again. Therefore the Senate, far from acceding to the request, refused all pity even to their own relations, and disregarded the services to be expected from these men in the future: and thus frustrated Hannibal’s calculations, and the hopes which he had founded on these prisoners, by refusing to ransom them; and at the same time established the rule for their own men, that they must either conquer or die on the field, as there was no other hope of safety for them if they were beaten. With this answer they dismissed the nine envoys who returned of their own accord; but the tenth who had put the cunning trick in practice for discharging himself of his oath they put in chains and delivered to the enemy. So that Hannibal was not so much rejoiced at his victory in the battle, as struck with astonishment at the unshaken firmness and lofty spirit displayed in the resolutions of these senators.
This quote is sensational. If only all of Polybius’ Histories was as good. These Histories cover the years of Roman history from 264 to 146 BC, and much of the book is lost or fragmentary. It covers the first, second, and third Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage; the first, second, third, and fourth Macedonian Wars; the Roman-Seleucid War; and the Achaean League thing that is basically a war.
The one aim and object, then, of all that I have undertaken to write is to show how, when, and why all the known parts of the world fell under the dominion of Rome.
Polybius was one of the 1,000 hostages Rome took from the Achaean League in 167 BC, and he fell in love with Roman culture. Rome then used him to travel around Greece and calm people's fears about Roman rule, and it seems like his Histories largely grew out of that task: he explains the Romans to the Greeks, showing why their constitution and military might are superior and how they are benevolent rulers. Therefore, the book is mostly political, not military history. But it delves heavily into military history too.

There are two roads to reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others: the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.
The book is 1/3 spectacular, and 2/3 drudgery. The slog comes from Polybius' task and involves way too many Greek names and places that he assumes his reader knows. I would have been unsurprised to hear him discuss a single, well-known tree, for instance: "You know that [named] tributary between those two [named] cities that has that big oak tree there where it turns South? Yeah, that's where [so and so did such and such]." This annoys me quite a bit as that tree is long gone, or that person is lost to history, or that town no longer exists, or that stream has changed course since his life—not enough context or explanation is given to make some things memorable to people who are not Greeks living through this time period. To subvert one of his quotes, I have a strange ignorance of these districts. I wish he had entered into specific details less later in the book. To use another quote, in Book 1 he writes,
To enter into minute details of these events is unnecessary, and would be of no advantage to my readers.
In essence, it’s often both too detailed and not detailed enough: too many names dropped and places listed, not enough context about, or repetition of, those details to make them useful to the reader. He could’ve edited some, for sure. But he’s also one of the first historians talking about first-hand knowledge, so some leeway is granted to the pioneer by me.

His fate may teach posterity two useful lessons—not to put faith in any one lightly; and not to be over-confident in the hour of prosperity, knowing that, in human affairs, there is no accident which we may not expect.
The 1/3 spectacular is the military history part. Polybius seems to have done extensive research: he personally traveled to and inspected battlefield sites, he interviewed veterans and their families to gather stories, and he actually fought in some of the battles listed, giving his first-hand account of why these battles were won or lost. It seems like he retraced Hannibal's path through the Alps to get a sense of what it was like before writing it down. This is really great stuff and admirable research. You can’t beat Polybius on some of these battles, if he actually writes about them or we still have his text of it.

Nature, as it seems to me, has ordained that Truth should be a most mighty goddess among men, and has endowed her with extraordinary power. At least, I notice that though at times everything combines to crush her, and every kind of specious argument is on the side of falsehood, she somehow or another insinuates herself by her own intrinsic virtue into the souls of men. Sometimes she displays her power at once; and sometimes, though obscured for a length of time, she at last prevails and overpowers falsehood.
His writing often relies on a cause and effect structure for each episode, where he outlines the causes—including character assessments of the players—then describes the action, lists the effects of the action, and finally moralizes on the whole episode. Through the surviving parts of the book, his discussion usually centers around the nature of Fortune and spends a lot of time showing how virtuous, honorable, and meticulous leaders often attain more Fortune than drunkards, back-stabbers, or lazy leaders. This tactic fills this book with memorable one-liners that reward the reader, even in the midst of the worst drudgery slog:
A city is not really adorned by what is brought from without, but by the virtue of its own inhabitants.

A crowd is ever easily misled and easily induced to any error.

Fortune is envious of mortals, and is most apt to show her power in those points in which a man fancies that he is most blest and most successful in life.

I admit, indeed, that war is a terrible thing; but it is less terrible than to submit to anything whatever in order to avoid it. For what is the meaning of our fine talk about equality of rights, freedom of speech, and liberty, if the one important thing is peace?

So entirely unable are the majority of mankind to submit to that lightest of all burdens—silence.

Hannibal: “I have learnt by actual experience that Fortune is the most fickle thing in the world, and inclines with decisive favour now to one side and now to the other on the slightest pretext, treating mankind like young children.”
In short: this book was months and months of reading. It was sometimes painful and sometimes so great I couldn't put it down. As painful as about 2/3rds of it was, I have taken more notes from this book than any other that I have read, I have pulled out more quotes, and I have shared more stories from this than any other book. I compiled around 40 pages of quotes alone that I have linked here.
—Before reading Polybius I didn't understand the value of "the classics": why disagree with a bunch of dead people when there are so many live people to disagree with, and they can offer discussion? But the nature of Polybius turns constantly towards a lesson, towards a moral, towards applicable advice obtained from historical events. This tendency springs from his tactic of organizing each episode into cause-action-effect-reflection. In that nature Polybius sets himself apart from modern historians who shy away from morals, and establishes himself as a reasonable, opinionated man. He lays out his biases clearly, then proceeds to state why he moralizes what he does from events, and give counter-examples to support his opinion, or wrinkle the lesson learned. I may disagree with his lessons here or there, but I still wish the rest of the work had survived. The book is filled with things to think about and has inspired at least one short story of mine.

It was then that the story goes that, upon a certain Senator intending to speak against accepting the terms and actually beginning to do so, Hannibal came forward and pulled the man down from the tribune; and when the other senators showed anger at this breach of custom, Hannibal rose again and “owned that he was ignorant of such things; but said that they must pardon him if he acted in any way contrary to their customs, remembering that he had left the country when he was but fourteen, and had only returned when now past forty-five. Therefore he begged them not to consider whether he had committed a breach of custom, but much rather whether he were genuinely feeling for his country’s misfortunes; for that was the real reason for his having been guilty of this breach of manners. For it appeared to him to be astonishing, and, indeed, quite unaccountable, that any one calling himself a Carthaginian, and being fully aware of the policy which they had individually and collectively adopted against the Romans, should do otherwise than adore the kindness of Fortune for obtaining such favourable terms, when in their power, as a few days ago no one—considering the extraordinary provocation they had given—would have ventured to mention, if they had been asked what they expected would happen to their country, in case of the Romans proving victorious. Therefore he called upon them now not to debate, but unanimously to accept the terms offered, and with sacrifices to the gods to pray with one accord that the Roman people might confirm the treaty.” His advice being regarded as both sensible and timely, they resolved to sign the treaty on the conditions specified; and the senate at once despatched envoys to notify their consent.

12 December, 2017

Greylorn by Keith Laumer

1. This novella tells the story of a struggling earth trying to find a human colony that they have lost contact with, in order to gain assistance to free earth from its infection: the red tide. The red tide is a biological infection that covers most of the world. In the past, the world sent out 25 colony ships, but has since lost contact with one of them, on which they pin their last hopes to save earth. I describe this story because Laumer has well matched it to his pacing. He skips over large portions of the story in order to focus on just the interesting bits. In the opening chapter, two hours of debate is skipped, while the important bits are focused on. Then, the book skips ahead to when the mutiny happens, almost five years later. And without a lengthy info dump, Laumer introduces the new time period with one sentence, then it’s back to the action. Laumer admirably focuses on his plot, driving the book forward in a way consistent with pulp novellas, instead of filling in the gaps with rumination and tangential sideplots.

The Commander turned his eyes to the world map covering the wall. With the exception of North America and a narrow strip of coastal waters, the entire map was tinted an unhealthy pink.

“The latest figures compiled by the Department of the Navy indicate that we are losing area at the rate of one square mile every twenty-one hours. The organism’s faculty for developing resistance to our chemical and biological measures appears to be evolving rapidly. Analyses of atmospheric samples indicate the level of noxious content rising at a steady rate. In other words, in spite of our best efforts, we are not holding our own against the Red Tide.”
2. The characters fit archetypes, and that’s the biggest negative of this novel. Captain Greylorn is too perfect. Yeah, he gets shot and allows the mutiny to happen. But he figures out the mystery and saves the day, while probably looking handsome. Kramer acts just like an antagonist throughout: going off the handle with incomplete information. Thomas plays the part of helpful Forest Gump. But none of these are wrinkled. The plot is the focus, and that’s what puts the pressure on the characters, not themselves. The plot drives everything, and the characters are largely uninteresting.
—The aliens themselves, the Mancji, are a bit more interesting, but so much is unknown about them that they don’t really act like characters in the novel, rather, like an archetype of the unknown. I wonder if this novella is a part of a series and more is known about the Mancji in other works.

They filed out, looking as foolish as three preachers caught in a raid on a brothel.
3. The tone of the book is mystery and adventure. Especially with the last chapter, I think of this book like a mystery. In other words, situations are setup and information is withheld from the reader. Later, this information comes up and provides an “ah ha” moment for the reader, explaining everything that went on before.
—But it’s also an adventure tale. There is shooting, and crawling through trash compactor chutes, and fist fights, and chases. And more.
—The wording fits this, in a way that Dashiell Hammett could recognize. Witty asides, colloquial phrases, and short sentences that focus on the action itself.

Thomas grinned. “I useta be a radar technician third before I got inta waste disposal,” he said. “I had to change specialities to sign on for this cruise.”

I had an idea there’d be an opening for Thomas a little higher up when this was over.

I asked him to take a look at the televideo, too. I was beginning to realize that Thomas was not really simple; he was merely uncomplicated.
4. This adventure novel focuses on adventure, setting up mysteries to help the plot drag the reader along. I enjoyed the ride, and have read it twice, but only want to read more Laumer when I feel like reading pulp fiction. Good, plot driven pulp fiction, instead of Hammet’s more character driven pulp. [Reading Laumer's Wikipedia page, it seems some of his other stuff might be more interesting to me personally. So maybe I should find some more of his stuff.]

They were frozen together into one solid mass. Kramer was right. They were as human as I. Human corpses, stripped, packed together, frozen. I pulled back the lightly frosted covering, and studied the glazed white bodies.

Kramer called suddenly from the door. “You found your colonists, Captain. Now that your curiosity is satisfied, we can go back where we belong. Out here man is a tame variety of cattle. We’re lucky they didn’t know we were the same variety, or we’d be in their food lockers now ourselves. Now let’s get started back. The men won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

10 December, 2017

Commentarii de Bello Gallicum by Julius Caesar

Translated by W.A. MacDevitt.

1. Caesar’s Commentaries are splendid, if you’re into this sort of thing. Your initial interest lies at the heart of whether this book hits you or not. The book deals with Caesar’s military expeditions to Gaul and Britain in the mid-50s BC. It is written by Caesar as a straight from the horse's mouth account. We get some of the thinking behind Caesar’s decisions, and a portrayal of the information he had available. These insights are valuable to understanding the campaigns in Gaul. But, because this book uses naming conventions that are obscure to me, living in the 21st century, I am sometimes lost. For instance, when Caesar turns North, doing the equivalent of burning the ships, it's pretty obscure; my understanding of that risky strategic decision doesn't so much come out from this book as from knowledge about the campaign that I already had before I read. And contextual understanding was key to my enjoyment of this book.

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are farthest from the civilisation and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war. The Belgae rise from the extreme frontier of Gaul, extend to the lower part of the river Rhine; and look towards the north and the rising sun.
2. Caesar’s concise writing tends to descriptions and chronological progression—pushing the plot forwards instead of spinning off into sidetracks. For instance.
Caesar, being informed of these things by Crassus, since he was so far distant himself, orders ships of war to be built in the meantime on the river Loire, which flows into the ocean; rowers to be raised from the province; sailors and pilots to be provided. These matters being quickly executed, he himself, as soon as the season of the year permits, hastens to the army.
Yes, he writes in third person. But you can see how, outside of the Latin tendency to phrases built on phrases, this is pretty concise writing compared to other classical writers. It’s direct. How he talks ties directly into that tone he has set.

In the camp of the Helvetii, lists were found, drawn up in Greek characters, and were brought to Caesar, in which an estimate had been drawn up, name by name, of the number which had gone forth from their country of those who were able to bear arms; and likewise the boys, the old men, and the women, separately. [...] The sum of all amounted to 368,000. Out of these, such as could bear arms [amounted] to about 92,000. When the census of those who returned home was taken, as Caesar had commanded, the number was found to be 110,000.
3. The tone of the book sets the stage for the two thousand years of debate that have followed. On one hand, this book summarizes his dispatches to Rome, his political bonifides to help him be popular in Rome. He talks about certain soldiers, names them specifically, and praises them, to show how tied in he is with all strata of Roman classes—something he does in his life continually. He discusses his own astounding acts—building a bridge in ten days, visiting Britain, and his military exploits. He doesn’t so much praise himself as spend enough time talking about them that the reader can’t help but understand how incredible his actions are.
—But the real question is how he treats the Gauls, Belgae, and Germans in the book. He treats them with a weird mix of respect and disdain, and this has been the source of debate ever since. Is Caesar a genocidal maniac? Is he a liberator? What are his intentions with Gaul, not why is he there—to escape his debtors—but what does he intend to do with it once he has conquered it? Or pacified Gaul into a desert. The Gauls come off like William Wallace—shouting “FREEDOM” and running out of the woods towards the civilized invaders. Yet Caesar goes around killing them over and over again. And discusses how they are not housebroken. My personal answer to this question is that Caesar is trying to strike a balance between establishing his credentials, while also lessening the Roman fear of the Gaul so that they can assimilate.

Caesar, for those reasons which I have mentioned, had resolved to cross the Rhine; but to cross by ships he neither deemed to be sufficiently safe, nor considered consistent with his own dignity or that of the Roman people. Therefore, although the greatest difficulty in forming a bridge was presented to him, on account of the breadth, rapidity, and depth of the river, he nevertheless considered that it ought to be attempted by him, or that his army ought not otherwise to be led over. He devised this plan of a bridge. He joined together at the distance of two feet, two piles, each a foot and a half thick, sharpened a little at the lower end, and proportioned in length to the depth of the river. [...] These beams were bound together by timber laid over them in the direction of the length of the bridge, and were [then] covered over with laths and hurdles; and in addition to this, piles were driven into the water obliquely, at the lower side of the bridge, and these serving as buttresses, and being connected with every portion of the work, sustained the force of the stream: and there were others also above the bridge, at a moderate distance; that if trunks of trees or vessels were floated down the river by the barbarians for the purpose of destroying the work, the violence of such things might be diminished by these defences, and might not injure the bridge. Within ten days after the timber began to be collected, the whole work was completed, and the whole army led over.
4. In all, great book. Glad I read it. But not great for everybody. It’s incredibly focused and concise, but it also glosses over some of his defeats and successes. It also hides information behind archaic naming conventions. It’s interesting to get Caesar’s thoughts on these events in his life, but some of my enjoyment of this book comes from this inherent interest in Caesar and this time period, rather than the book drawing me in.

Caesar, having stationed his army on both sides of the fortifications, in order that, if occasion should arise, each should hold and know his own post, orders the cavalry to issue forth from the camp and commence action. There was a commanding view from the entire camp, which occupied a ridge of hills; and the minds of all the soldiers anxiously awaited the issue of the battle.[...] When the Gauls were confident that their countrymen were the conquerors in the action, and beheld our men hard pressed by numbers, both those who were hemmed in by the line of circumvallation and those who had come to aid them, supported the spirits of their men by shouts and yells from every quarter. As the action was carried on in sight of all, neither a brave nor cowardly act could be concealed; both the desire of praise and the fear of ignominy, urged on each party to valour.