I kept a detailed journal while I was in Australia, and I'll be posting edited bits from it over the next couple of weeks. I thought I'd start by explaining why I was going to Australia in the first place, what with war in the offing and all (in the event, the war started a week after I arrived).
I didn't really want to go. But I work at JPL, where I work on the ground system used to communicate with our planetary spacecraft. JPL has a network of ground stations around the globe, one of which is in Australia. We just delivered a major update to the part of the system for which I'm responsible, and the last time I went overseas was just under four years ago. So, basically, my boss told me it was high time I went to Australia and spent some time with my customers. She was right, of course, even though it meant leaving Jane and our three kids at home alone for two weeks. Oh, I could have gone for a single week--but nobody should have to go through the plane flight, the jet lag, and the subsequent reorientation twice in seven days.
So I was looking forward to two weeks at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, which is located about half-an-hour from Canberra's city center at a place called Tidbinbilla. "Tidbinbilla" is apparently an English corruption of an aboriginal word which means "The place where boys go to become men." It's also fun to say: Tid-Bin-Billa.
Four years ago I went on my own; this time I had a travelling companion. His name is John; he's a young feller fresh out of college who was hired to help our testers with their documentation. My boss sent him along to learn more about how our system is used in practice.
On Thursday, March 13th, we went to the airport and got on the plane, and off we went. But more of that in my next post.
The April Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now available. Come welcome our new reviewer, Felicity McCarthy!
Reading this book was a mistake.
You almost certainly misunderstood that last statement.
I like Stephen King. He's a darn good story teller, and he's darn good at evoking just the response he wants (which, it seems to me, isn't quite the same thing). I use to buy all of his books as they came out, until I got to Insomnia, which was frankly a waste of time. He told the story well, but the story itself was too silly for words. After that I more or less stopped buying him, and even got rid of all but my favorite books by him.
I kept all of his short story collections. He's a darn good story teller. So when I saw Everything's Eventual at the bookstore and realized it was a new collection, I almost bought it. Almost, but not quite. I wasn't in a buying mood, and I wasn't in a Stephen King mood.
Well, then came the day when I was to leave for Australia. I didn't much want to go, so I was in a foul mood. And then I came across this book again, at the airport, and thought it would distract me a bit, and so I bought it and started reading it in lieu of the book I'd brought for the trip.
That was the mistake.
See, when you write a horror novel you can make it as scary and awful as you like, and still provide a bit of a happy ending after all of that catharsis. When you write a short story in the same genre, you mostly can't--there's not time or space. Reading a short horror story is something like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer, because it feels so good when you stop. The horrible thing happened to someone else, someone you don't know, someone who isn't even real.
If you read a horror anthology straight through in one sitting, it doesn't stop. You just keep getting hit with that hammer through story after story. It's enough to make a guy feel really lousy, and indeed that's usually the effect a Stephen King collection has on me if I'm stupid enough (after all this time) to read it that way.
I started reading Everything's Eventually in the terminal. I continued reading it on the plane. And when I finished a story, I was still on the plane, with many hours to go (it was a fourteen-and-a-half-hour flight) before I got to Australia, feeling cramped, confined, and really out-of-sorts about leaving my family.
I guess you could say that the book fit my mood...but on the whole I'd have been better off with something cheerful. At the very least, I didn't do the stories justice, reading them that way.
Which is a pity, because it's really a rather good book, if you like that sort of thing.
...or whatever it is I've been for the last couple of weeks. Actually, I got home yesterday about noon, but two activities--getting reacquainted with my family, and sleep--have taken priority up until now. I'm still not over the jet lag. But I read a lot of books while I was gone, and of course there is the tale of my Australian journey to unfold, so expect posting to resume in earnest.
I'm leaving for Australia tomorrow, and I'll be gone for two weeks. (Such timing!) I hope to be able to access my e-mail during that time; I also hope to be able to update this web log with details of the trip. But then, I always hope that. Anyway, the earliest I'll be able to get on-line is next Monday or Tuesday (Australian time).
So if you send me e-mail, or you're worried because there haven't been any new posts in days, don't worry; things will be back to normal when I get back at the end of the month.
At the same time I started my Ngaio Marsh re-reading plan, I thought I'd do the same with Josephine Tey, another author whose work I've not re-read since I first discovered it. And again, it seemed worthwhile to read her books in order of publication, just to see how her writing develops.
I had a similar experience as I had with Marsh--part way through this book, I was asking myself just what it had been that pleased me so much about Tey's writing. And then, suddenly, Inspector Grant follows his quarry to Scotland and the book takes wing and turns out to be much more enjoyable than I'd feared.
This book also has a bearing on my post about imagination: Grant is known for his intuitive "flair", which his boss (the intelligent but methodical Superintendant Barker) recognizes but mistrusts. And sure enough, toward the end of the book when Grant is agonizing because he's might have arrested an innocent man, he tells himself that Barker has no more imagination than a paving stone.
I go to 19th century literature when I want to escape. I have been spending far too much time lately thinking intensely about education, the act of reading, what makes good writing and whether the role of public education is to fulfill the expectations of the parents or to fulfill some larger social purpose such as creating a literate public. And what is a "literate public" anyway? Or, and even scarier, do kids go to school to be socialized and exactly what does that mean? From what I can tell, manners are not part of the equation. Wearing the correct clothes and using the approved language is. Heavy stuff after a long day at work analyzing data about child care and what the projected state level budget cuts will do to the availability of quality care for parents. Not to mention my job, which may disappear pretty soon.
Anyway, I picked up The Woman in White. I've never read any of Wilkie Collins' work though I have read about it in the context of Dickens and the publishing world of Victorian London. Somehow I got the impression he wrote lurid, sensational novels that were hugely popular but of inferior quality. But this book, unlike most of what was published then, has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1860. Something has to be going on here.
What I found were amazingly well drawn characters.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward. Walter Hartwright, a young drawing teacher, has been offered the financially lucrative opportunity to go to the house of a Mr. Fairlie to teach his young wards drawing. Late at night, on the way back from a farewell visit to his mother's house just outside London, he encounters a ghostly woman dressed completely in white asking his aid in getting to London. She is mysterious, nervous and attractive. After walking with her the rest of the way and finding her a cab, he overhears the conversation of men looking for her. She has escaped from an insane asylum. And, later, after arriving at the house he is to teach in, his new student is the spitting image of her. That is just the opening. The story is told by various narrators telling their version of events from Walter's meeting with the mysterious woman to the marriage of Laura Fairlie and the final escape made from it and the revelation of Sir Percival Glyde's "Secret". There are some melodramatic moments though by current standards they wouldn’t frighten a five year old. And the sexual innuendos are so tame by comparison I had to consciously think back to the times the book was written in to appreciate them.
But the characters are wonderful. Count Fosco is so hypnotically evil he sends shivers up your spine. And the interesting part is that his nastiness is so under the surface, so seemingly congenial that you just want to believe he's a good guy. Yet something about him is off. The other bad guy, Sir Percival Glyde is the foil that sets him off. He's manipulative and cunning but can't keep the ruse up in the face of frustration. His true self shows through and you hate him. But he gets it good in the end.
The good characters are just as much fun. Walter Hartwright's initial description of Marian Halcombe, the principal female narrator, is perfect. He lovingly describes her goddess-like figure from bottom to gloriously described bust and hair only to come to her face, which is, deep intake of breath here, UGLY. Ugly beyond belief. Gargoyle ugly. Butt ugly. She has hair on her upper lip. Fortunately for Marian, she has a fine mind and a perfect temperament. Laura Fairlie doesn’t quite fair so well. She is perfect in a more conventional sense--frail, blonde and unassumingly compliant. I just wanted to take her by her lovely locks and shake her up a little. But had she had more backbone, the plot of the book would have been disrupted.
There are also several humorous grace notes. Mrs. Vesey, the companion of Laura and Marian, is a woman who sits. That's her role and she fulfills it splendidly. And the Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, chitters away in broken English in a perfect rendition of a Victorian writer's attempt at displaying a foreigner.
It's a good book. Read it slowly and enjoy.
One of the joys of running a website is checking your stats; and one of the minor joys of checking your stats is finding out what odd queries to search engines brought people to your site. Most of the queries I get are fairly predictable, but once in a while I get something that makes me chuckle. For example:
ginmill strip club wisconsin
Now, I've clearly never used that precise phrase on any of my pages, so it must have been put together from unrelated words. I've never been to Wisconsin (though co-blogger Deb English is from there); the "ginmill" part almost certainly comes from Lawrence Block's book When the Sacred Ginmill Closes; what the words "strip" and "club" were doing on that same page I've no idea.
As I noted a couple of days ago, I'm starting to re-read all of Ngaio Marsh's work in order of publication. And I was shocked, once I cracked this one open and remembered which one it was, to find out that it was only her second published work. It's far and away better than A Many Lay Dead.
Gone is the country house, gone is the absurd Russian Secret Society; instead, this is the first of a number of her books that take place at the Unicorn Theater in London. Nigel Bathgate's sweetheart being unavailable, he asks his new friend Inspector Alleyn to join him at the theater. The play is a tale of crime and betrayal, and ends with a shooting, only on this occasion the shooting is real--and it was the victim himself who was responsible for loading the gun with dummy bullets. Suicide? Or was he pushed?
Some books just become dated; others age gracefully into period pieces, and this is definitely one of the latter.
...especially coming after the Science Fiction Book Club's fifty most significant science fiction and fantasy books of the last fifty years. I received e-mail from Borders Books saying that they now had a web page listing essential science fiction and fantasy books--and here's their complete list:
Now, I can't deny the quality of most of these. I think Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has degenerated into pointlessness, and I have doubts about Terry Goodkind, as no one has ever recommended his stuff (her stuff?) to me. But why only nine? And why these nine in particular? Why The Hobbit, rather than The Lord of the Rings?
And therein lies the answer--every one of the books listed above, except for poor, lonely Fahrenheit 451, is the first in a series.
This is not a war blog, and so I haven't been posting much that pertains to the pro-war/anti-war debate. But if you're against the war, that is, if you think the administration's rhetoric about the liberation of the Iraqi people is simply rhetoric, you might be interested in reading this. And if you think Jacques Chirac is being obstructionist purely out of principle, you might be interested in knowing about this. Interestingly, I didn't see either of these stories in our local paper, the Los Angeles Times.
Over at Banana Oil, Ian Hamet takes issue with my suggestion that Lois McMaster Bujold belongs on the list of 50 most significant science fiction and fantasy novels of the last 50 years, and thinks that C.J. Cherryh belongs there instead. I'll go one farther, and say that they should have included Cherryh's masterwork Cyteen (or any one of a number of others).
He questions Bujold because he's not sure how influential she's been; but on the other hand he's only read a couple of her short stories and Ethan of Athos. That's one of her two or three weakest books. Ian, if you've only read "Ethan", you've never read Bujold. Go find a copy of The Warrior's Apprentice, and have fun.
I first discovered Ngaio Marsh a couple of years ago. I usually like to read an author's books in the order they were written, but as Marsh wrote lots of books, and as the inside cover of the current edition list them all in alphabetical order, I didn't bother; instead, I just grabbed three every time I went to the book store, and over a period of some months I'd read them all.
Now, I'm off on a business trip to Australia in a couple of weeks, and I've been saving new, unread books for the flight. So I was looking for something to read last week, and decided that it would be fun to start with Marsh's first book and read them in order, just to see how her writing and her characters evolve. Not all at once, mind you; I'll be reading other things as well.
So, A Man Lay Dead is her first book; it not only marks the first appearance of Inspector Roderick Alleyn, but also that of his friend and occasional Watson, reporter Nigel Bathgate, and of Nigel's sweetie Angela North. And frankly, it's only the presence of the three of them that really save this book.
It's not a bad book, by any means; I enjoyed it. But it's a typical country house mystery, nothing too special there, and the subplot involving a mysterious Russian secret society makes it sound just a little too much like one of Bertie Wooster's favored brand of pulp thriller for comfort.
But if the plot and the perpetrators don't shine, Nigel and Angela do; and while Inspector Alleyn isn't quite himself yet, he gets the job done.
There's been a fair amount of talk on the web lately about the book A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al. Although it's a book on architecture and urban planning, I first heard of it in the context of software engineering. Alexander uses the term "pattern" to mean an archetypal solution to a certain kind of problem--a solution you can apply over and over again in different situations which nevertheless match the pattern. For a while, patterns were the next silver bullet in software engineering; that initial glow has faded, but both the idea of patterns and a number of specific patterns have taken firm root in the software community.
But I'm not intending to talk about patterns in software; instead, I want to talk about Alexander's book. It's been recommended to me by several people, some on line, and some I've actually met; the idea of patterns is appealing to me; and the recent discussions piqued my curiousity to the extent that I actually bought a copy. But the thing is, I find I can't review it the way I ordinarily would. It's a big, thick book, chock-full of ideas, all of them cross-referenced to other ideas. It's not the sort of thing you read cover to cover; it's the sort of thing you browse. And any short review I might right will utterly fail to do it justice. So I've decided to embark on a rather more ambitious plan.
I'm going to browse in it, and read it, and browse some more, and every so often I'm going to write about one single pattern. That's an idea that's completely incompatible with Alexander's goals, by the way; the patterns aren't intended to stand alone. But it's the only way I'll be able to present my thoughts.
The book is divided into three sections, called "Towns", "Buildings", and "Construction". The first section contains patterns on how to lay out towns and the things in them so as to make them delightful places to live. And the first of those is called Independent Regions (1). (That "1" is the pattern number; by convention that's always included in the name, to help people look them up.)
In Alexander's view, the world should be divided into a thousand or more independent regions, each with its own local government, and each part of a world federation. (What this has to do with architecture, I'm not sure.) Surprisingly, he doesn't suggest this as a means of centralizing urban planning within each region; Alexander doesn't believe in central planning. Within the region, each city and town is responsible for its own land; and within each city and town, each group or individual is similarly responsible for its own territory. If all of them conscientiously rely on Alexander's patterns as they do their planning, the world will be a beautiful place.
Instead, he lists several other reasons: government becomes unwieldly at any other size; the current trend toward globalization is homogenizing cultures the world over, whereas his notion would preserve them; those times and places where the basic political unit has been the city-state have been seen an outpouring of art and architecture.
What he seems to forget is that those same times and places also saw frequent outpourings of blood. The Italian Renaissance produced Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and scads of other noteworthy turtles--ah, artists--but it was also the golden age of the European Mercenary Company, and the city-states of Italy were constantly at war. The great ruling families were patrons of the arts, it's true, but there's a reason why the names Borgia and Medici have an ominous sound in our ears.
I suppose he thinks this "world federation" will somehow manage to keep the peace among the thousand regions. But just because fifty states can be stable, it doesn't follow that 1000 states will also be stable. With fifty states, every state is important; even little New Hampshire is the star of every presidential campaign. With 1000 states, no individual state is important enough to make its voice heard in the assembly. I can't see that such a body can keep order without instituting such tight control over the member regions as to destroy the indepence that's their reason for being.
And then, I think that there's another reason the United States has gotten along so well (mostly) for over two centuries--they began with a relatively homogeneous political, legal, and moral culture rooted in the rights of Englishmen and the English common law. It's true that America is a melting pot, and I've no wish to disparage the contributions of any of the other groups involved. But there's a distinct different between the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man--the Bill of Rights is a record of rights the founding fathers felt that they already had, even if they sometimes had them only in the breach. They wrote the Bill of Rights to protect those rights, and to make sure that no one could take them away in the future. They'd gone to war with England because England hadn't respected their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, by contrast, is a record of rights most Frenchmen had never enjoyed up until that time, the rights the leaders of the Revolution felt that they should have--and given that the French have since had two emperors, a number of kings, and (if I recall correctly) five or six republics, not to mention two German invasions, it's not clear how often they've enjoyed them since.
Thus, I think the diversity of cultures that Alexander wishes to protect with his thousand independent regions would instead prevent his "world federation" from keeping the peace--and his plan would degenerate into warfare and bloodshed until the regions would be forced to join into larger countries for their own safety. Just as they did historically.
So OK, Alexander's a utopian dreamer. I suppose that shouldn't surprise me. But it does bug me a little that this is one of the patterns he and his co-authors marked with two asterisks, "**", indicating that it presents a solution that they are absolutely, positively, 100% sure of despite being architects rather than political theorists or historians. But I gather that no one has ever accused Alexander of modesty.
Ian Hamet has some comments. I have some comments of my own, some of which are comments on his comments. To wit, he says,
Now let's peruse 11 through 20. I read SF avidly, and am utterly unfamiliar with The Children of the Atom (number 14), or Cities in Flight (number 15), though the title of the former sounds familiar, and I've read some stories by the author of the latter. But then we have number 16, Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic. I've never gotten into Pratchett, but isn't this one of his lesser works?
I can only assume they wanted to reference Pratchett's Discworld series and rather than choose between the many excellent possibilities, they just chose the first one. It's OK, but Pratchett gets much, much better. Me, I'd have chosen Wyrd Sisters instead.
Cities in Flight is a collection of four short novels, of which the first is marginal, the middle two are pretty good, and the last is OK (it's basically a continuation of the third one). The first novel talks about the invention of a space drive that's capable of lifting entire cities into space effortlessly, providing both motive power and pressure containment; the remaining three take place in the world that results. It's dated; in one book germanium is a treasure metal because they make transistors out of it, and the drive on particular city is so old it still uses vacuum tubes. But it's good stuff, a book I discovered in my teens and still pick up now and again.
I have never heard of The Children of the Atom, and I've been reading this stuff voraciously for thirty years.
Ian also wonders where Poul Anderson is, and mentions Three Hearts and Three Lions; I have to agree. If you're speaking of influence, I don't see how you can omit it and still include Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer. Moorcock made a career out that one book by Anderson. He also thinks that Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress should be there, and again I agree.
But I've got some problems of my own with this list. I can't argue with the inclusion of Neuromancer, given that it spawned an entire sub-genre, even though I found it possible to read. Including John Crowley's book Little Big is silly; it's got lots of style, but it didn't make much sense the first time through and I've never managed to get through it again. The most significant thing about Dhalgren is that most people can't get through it. I never saw anything special in either Timescape or Gateway, and whatever the author has done since, The Sword of Shannara is an egregious piece of derivative hackwork (an opinion I've held since I read it as a young, not particularly discerning Tolkien fan).
And then there are the omissions: where is Lois McMaster Bujold? If I'm not mistaken, she's won more Hugo awards than anybody but Heinlein; surely at least one of her Miles Vorkosigan books should be listed (I nominate A Civil Campaign). Where's C.S. Lewis? They might be kid's books, but any of the seven books in "The Chronicles of Narnia" is a darn sight better than The Sword of Shannara. Where's Steven Brust? Where's Neil Gaiman? Good grief, where's L.E. Modesitt? And though I've given up on Robert Jordan, you can't deny his presence in the field.
I'm glad to see Cordwainer Smith listed, though. The book The Rediscovery of Man is a fairly recent anthology of all of his short fiction, and deserves a spot on your shelf.
This is the most recent of Block's Matthew Scudder novels. Matt is on the wagon, married, and reasonably respectable. And after a gala evening at the Mostly Mozart festival, Matt discovers that a pair of his fellow Patrons of the Arts were murdered in a particularly gruesome way when they returned home from the Lincoln Center. It's really nothing to do with him, but eventually he starts looking into it anyway.
And that's the problem with this book--it's really nothing to do with Matt Scudder. It's about the perpetrator, and Matt's just a foil. Block would have done better to rewrite this without Matt Scudder at all.
This is the fourth book in Drake's Isles series; I didn't enjoy it quite as the others, but I was in a foul mood and blowing my nose every ten minutes, so I'm not sure if that means anything. Certainly the writing was as good as before, and once again the action wasn't simply a rehash of the previous books.
I've finally figured out what really makes this series taste different than others I've read recently--it really is a series. That is, it's a series in the old sense of a collection of standalone books about a continuing set of characters, rather than one gargantuan tale broken into N elephantine tomes. This is common enough in the mystery and historical genres (as the books of Patrick O'Brian bear witness), but it's come to be unusual in the fantasy biz.
Here the series is simply about the trials of Prince Garric and his buddies as they try to keep the Kingdom of the Isles from going under. This is an open-ended premise, as there will always be new foes and new crises; an author could milk it indefinitely. And, as it happens, the fifth Isles book is being published in hardcover this summer.
But the neat thing is, if there were never going to be any more Isles books, I wouldn't be disappointed. The fourth book ends satisfyingly; and so did each of its predecessors. I have similar expectations of the fifth, which I'll buy and read when it comes out in paperback.
For some time now, Jane and I have been pondering a quality that we've noticed that some people have and some don't. While we could easily agree on which of the people we know have it and which don't, we'd been quite incapable of putting a name to it, and so for a long time we referred to it as "that quality that some people have and some don't."
Oh, there were symptoms we could point to. I have a much easier time talking with people who possess this quality. They get my jokes. More to the point, they can tell when I'm joking and when I'm not. They are easy to talk to, because they are quick to see the implications of things they or other people say. They seem to have brighter eyes than other people. They tend to have a way of looking beyond the surface of things from a sideways direction that manifests itself in quips and humorous asides. Usually, they aren't benign. (I don't mean to imply that, being "not benign", they must therefore be malign. It's just like when C.S. Lewis says of Aslan that he's not a tame lion. Aslan isn't benign. Neither are any of the members of my family.) People who have "it" tend to be clever and innovative, and good at solving problems. Not all of the software engineers I know have it--but the best ones all do.
On the other hand, there are some things that clearly are not part of this quality. Intelligence, to begin with: I know many extremely bright people who don't have "it". And amiability for another: I know dozens of very nice, friendly people who don't have "it", whatever "it" is.
But Jane and I were out on a date the other night, and as we were waiting for our table we were discussing a person of our acquaintance who manifestly doesn't have "it". And I happened to say, "And of course she has no imagination whatsoever." Jane agreed, and in a sudden rush of insight I said, "That's it! That's the quality that some people have and some don't! Imagination!"
That bald statement probably doesn't convey the depth of excitement I felt as that word snapped into place. And after we'd gone through our lists people of who do and don't have "it" and had agreed that "imagination" was the mot juste, I realized that I'd often seen the word used just that way--in books. How often have you read about one character who comments about another something like, "He's an outstanding officer--but he has no imagination at all." It's the ability to look at things from more than direction: to move beyond the obvious answer, and pick up the situation in your head and turn it around.
Usually when one person calls another imaginative, they mean that either the second person writes fiction, or simply daydreams a lot--two things the speaker never does himself. I'm not sure that imagination in that sense is quite what I'm talking about--but perhaps it is, especially the daydreaming part. But more on that later.