August 31, 2005

Ex Libris Reviews

Howdy! The September Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line. As usual, all of my reviews appeared here in the weblog first, but Craig Clarke's contributed a couple of new ones.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:07 PM | Comments(0)

August 28, 2005

In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden

Phillipa Talbot, head of a department in the British Ministry of Trade and Information at a time when women simply did not hold such posts, is poised for a promotion when, instead, she resigns her position and seeks admittance as a postulant to Brede Abbey, a house of Benedictine nuns. What follows is an amazing tale, to which I simply cannot do justice.

To begin with, it's a novel.

When you go to the bookstore, you see the fiction divided by category, which the publishers miscall "genre". In fact, the genre is the form of the work--the novel, the short story, and so forth. To publishers, the word novel means simply any book-length work of fiction. In fact, there two classical book-length forms: the novel and the romance. Tales of adventure, of derring-do, of space opera or feats of arms, indeed any book in which the primary action and conflict and movement is external is a romance--and the fact is, that's what I usually read. In the novel proper, the primary action and conflict and movement is internal. Accustomed as I am to speaking of premises and plots and all the wonderful externalities of fantasy and science fiction, I am usually somewhat nonplussed when faced with writing about a proper novel. Sure, I can write about the externalities, but to do so is to misrepresent the story. And yet, I don't have the vocabulary to speak about the internals with any assurance. Bear with me, please.

In addition to this basic problem, there is the difficulty of conveying the feeling of Brede Abbey, the peace that lingers about it and fills the book from one end to the other, the voices of the nuns raised in plainsong as the canonical hours pass day by day. To do so I would need to tell you about stern Dame Agnes, skillful Dame Maura, quiet Dame Catherine, staunch Sister Cecily, ladies of great faith and holiness--but I can't. Godden reveals them herself, so well, so deftly, little by little filling in each portrait until the whole is revealed that I should feel like a vandal if I were to attempt to summarize Godden's prose and so reveal details out of order.

But I have to say something, or why bother reviewing the book at all? So here are a few points.

There are a number of crises in the book, involving fiscal mismanagement, bad vocations, controlling parents, sudden illness, and the like, with which the abbey community must contend, and Sister Phillipa must, of course, do her part. But the crises, and the times of peace in between them, are not the story; the story is about Sister Phillipa's giving of herself to her Beloved Lord bit by bit and piece by piece. It is about redemption; sacrifice, self-denial, submission, hard work, and a joy and a peace which passes understanding.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Some thanks are in order. I first heard of the book on the 25 of August, 2000, five years almost to the day before I actually opened a copy and began to read, from an e-mail correspondent named Rachel. She wrote me again in 2001, and again in 2002, each time prompting me to give the book a try. And I did look for it, but never found a copy; it had gone out of print. (Yeah, I know, I could try the library; somehow, I never do that.) And then Amy Welborn of the blog Open Book began working with the Loyola Press on reissues of a series of classic Roman Catholic novels, one of them being In This House of Brede. I ordered a copy on-line, and it arrived, and after a couple of weeks I picked up and devoured it.

So thanks to Rachel, and thanks to Amy; I hope I can repay the favor some day.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:36 PM | Comments(0)

August 24, 2005

Warlock, by Andre Norton

Here's yet another Norton omnibus, of three novels in this case: Storm Over Warlock, Ordeal in Otherwhere, and Forerunner Foray. The first two are directly related and take place on the planet Warlock; the third is only loosely related to the first two. All three were pretty good, especially Forerunner Foray. Ironically, I tried reading the latter two when I was a kid, and didn't get very far into either one.

The main difference between Norton's work and the science fiction being published today, it seems to me, is primarily one of length--science fiction and fantasy novels have gotten much, much longer over the last fifty years, to the point where it takes two or three of the older novels to fill out a paperback to a respectable length. As a result, current novels are richer in detail and description, and to some extent in character development as well, without necessarily adding anything more in the way of plot or imagination. For example, it's become clear to me that most of Norton's science fiction takes place in a single consistently realized future. She doesn't really call attention to this, and it's a big enough future that we rarely meet the same characters twice, but the connections are there if you look for them.

Anyway, I enjoyed these; it was especially nice discovering that Forerunner Foray is a good read after all.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:52 PM | Comments(0)

August 18, 2005

Mutineer's Moon,
The Armageddon Inheritance, by David Weber

While I was on this David Weber kick, I figured I'd re-read some of his older non-Honor Harrington books. These are two that I enjoyed the first time I read them, and I picked them up again with great expectation.

The premise is high space-opera, to say the least. Earth's Moon is not, in fact, a moon; it's a giant warship disguised as a moon. It entered the Solar System about 50,000 years ago, at which time there was a mutiny among the ship's crew. Shortly before the mutineers would have captured the bridge, the captain invoked certain special programs in the ship's Central Computer which drove all crewmembers, loyalists and mutineers alike, off of the ship and locked the door behind them. Central Computer was to repair the damage to the ship, and only when systems were fully functional were any crewmembers to be allowed back on board. Any loyalist crewmembers--mutineers who approached the ship after leaving were to be summarily destroyed.

That was 50,000 years ago; and guess what! The descendants of the loyalists and mutineers are still here. That is, we are they. But, in fact, the ringleaders of the mutiny are still here too, in person, thanks to high technology, time spent in stasis, and a penchant for moving their brains to new bodies as the old ones wear out.

Oh, and a swarm of xenophobic aliens will be swooping down on Earth in five years or so, and destroying all life they find.

Our hero has to somehow manage to break the power of the mutineers, which is still considerable, acquire a crew, and defeat the oncoming swarm; and it isn't going to be easy.

There's some fun stuff here, and if you like space opera it's worth taking a look at; but they really are pretty light-weight, and I didn't enjoy them nearly as much this time around.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:54 PM | Comments(0)

August 16, 2005

At Death's Door, by Robert Barnard

I usually like Barnard's stuff; this one was adequate--I mean, I've read much worse--but there really wasn't anything about it that grabbed me. It's your basic whodunnit, and there are some nicely drawn obnoxious characters, but that's really about all there is to say about it.

Nothing to see here, let's move along.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:50 PM | Comments(0)

August 13, 2005

Gods and Androids, by Andre Norton

Like Time Traders, Gods and Androids is an omnibus of two novels, Android at Arms and Wraiths of Time. In this case, though, the two novels share a theme rather than a narrative thread. The theme is a common one in Norton's work: a person stumbles into another world, a world very different from his own, where in order to survive he must take the place and identity of someone who has just died. Of the two, Wraiths of Time is the better tale; it's also one I remember reading and enjoying when I was kid. Android at Arms has the feel of a failed experiment--the plot flails around in odd ways, and doesn't deliver on all of its promises. Neither of them are particularly deep, but the writing was pretty good; in places, Android at Arms reminds me strongly of Jack Vance

The poorly named Android at Arms is the tale of Andas, the heir to the throne of the planet of Inyanga. He wakes to find himself in a cell in a strange prison. The power fails due to a lightning strike, and with it the lock on his cell. He finds that he has been incarcerated with half a dozen other people, all of them notables on their respective planets, all apparently captured (no one knows by who) at a pivotal moment in their planet's history.

And though it seems like yesterday to each of them that they were last at home, the last date each remembers are many decades apart. Clearly, some of them have been on ice for a very long time.

A supply ship comes eventually, and Andas and the others manage to take the ship and escape. Naturally they each wish to return to their home planets, and Andas does manage to make his way back to Inyanga--where decades have indeed gone by, and a man with his name and face is on the throne. Who is he? Is he an android, put in place after the real Andas was captured? Or is our Andas, he who escaped from prison, is he an android, part of a plot that never came to fruition?

It's at this point that the plot takes a dramatic right turn, and while the denouement is entertaining enough, we never do find out where the other Andas came from.

Wraiths of Time is more satisfying than Android at Arms; the characterizations and settings have a depth and solidity and Andas' tale lacks.

Our heroine is Egyptologist Tallahassee Mitford, who is asked to identify an ancient African artifact that's recently been discovered. It's not quite like anything found before; on top of that, it's quite radioactive. Tallahassee tentatively ascribes it to the ancient Empire of MeroŽ, a Nubian offshoot of the civilization of Egypt. Peculiar events ensue, and Tallahassee finds herself in another world, in (unsurprisingly) the Empire of MeroŽ--but a MeroŽ not of the distant past but of the present day, a world in which ancient MeroŽ was nearly destroyed but was reborn and is now one of the dominant world powers. She has been brought there by accident, and the act has proved fatal to the one who brought her, a priestess/princess named Ashake. Fortuitously, Tallahassee, who is black as any Nubian, is Ashake's double, Ashake as she was in our world. She can touch the ancient artifact, a thing of great power, just as Ashake could--for Ashake died to bring the artifact back to her world.

Politically, Ashake must not be dead; Tallahassee is compelled to take her place.

All in all, not a bad book; I rather enjoyed making Tallahassee's acquaintance once again.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:37 PM | Comments(0)

Time Traders, by Andre Norton

Two things happened almost simultaneously a couple of months ago. The first was that my brother pointed out that I hadn't read any Andre Norton in years, judging by my published reviews, and that I should do something about that, especially since a number of her books were come back in print just now. And then Ian Hamet reviewed The Time Traders on his weblog, and that was the final nudge.

I did read quite a few of Norton's books many, many years ago, most of them while I was in my teens. Some of them I liked, some I didn't; her "Witchworld" series was famous, for example, but I was never able to get through the first book. And over the years, I gradually got to thinking that I'd outgrown her. But with two folks pushing me from two different directions, I decided to give her another chance.

Time Traders is actually two complete novels, The Time Traders and Galactic Derelict; both were written in the late 1950's. A lot of the Norton re-prints currently in the stores are similar, packaging two or three of Norton's classic novels, so be warned.

The Time Traders is quite good; indeed, it's surprisingly good. It concerns a street kid and small-time criminal named Ross Murdock who's caught and given a second chance, working as a volunteer on a top-secret government project called Operation Retrograde. It seems that the Russians have found the secret of time travel, and have somehow found a source of superlatively high-tech gadgetry somewhere in the past; the Feds are resolved to find it and acquire the gadgetry for themselves. They've got a time machine, but they need agents to go back in time and hunt for the Russians. The agents need to be highly mobile, but they also need to fit in; in short, they need to masquerade as traders, in whatever form trade takes in that era.

It's good, old-fashioned science fiction; and if it isn't as rich in detail and setting as the science-fiction being written today is, it's pretty darn good for the late 1950's. And as Ian points out in his review, Norton predicts the break-up of the Soviet Union with surprising accuracy.

Galactic Derelict is a sequel of sorts; Ross Murdock and his boss are present, but the viewpoint character is different. It seems that the Feds have discovered a derelict spacecraft in the remote past. It's abandoned, but as our heroes discover it's still in working order, and they get taken on an unexpected tour of the galaxy. Of course the derelict was found in the distant past, and it commenced its journey shortly after it was brought forward to the present day, so the galaxy is a little different than when the ship was built....

I didn't like this one as well. It lacks the depth of its predecessor; and though the places they visit have a certain "gosh, wow" quality at first, they aren't all that interesting in the long run. I don't feel I wasted my time, on it though, and the book's worth buying for The Time Traders anyway.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:45 PM | Comments(0)

Good Grief!

It's been a full week since I last posted. I have trouble believing that; but I've been working hard and reading a lot and with that and piano practice not much else has been getting done. I'll have to do something about that.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:20 PM | Comments(0)

August 05, 2005

Creation, Intelligent Design, and Evolution

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere and elsewhere about Intelligent Design over the last few weeks, and I'm afraid that much of what I've seen is appears both sloppy and uninformed, to wit, many pundits have equated Intelligent Design with Creation Science. They are undoubtedly linked, in that both posit a Creator, but they are most definitely not identical.

Broadly speaking, Creation Science is the attempt to enlist scientific evidence to support the proposition that the Earth was created as described in the book of Genesis--that is, that it was created in six days some six-thousand years or so ago. No doubt I'm ignoring some subtleties, but I believe that's the general picture.

I've known fine and honorable people who find this to be a reasonable position; as for me, I've never found it intellectually acceptable. The conviction of science, based on innumerable observations, is that the universe is not thousands but billions of years old. I'm fine with that. The geological record indicates that the Earth itself is millions of years old. OK by me. Dinosaurs once roamed the earth. Okey-dokey. Current life-forms appear to have derived from simpler, more primitive life-forms.

I've no problem with any of that. When it comes to drawing sound conclusions from physical evidence, the scientific method is the best tool yet found. If the consensus of the brotherhood of geologists is that the fossil record shows that dinosaurs must have lived millions of years ago, I see no reason to demur.

Where I disagree with the hardline evolutionists is not on their observations and analysis, but on their philosophy, which is strictly materialist. Richard Dawkins' faith--I use the word advisedly--that random chance and time are sufficient to explain the world we see about us today is based on his belief that only the natural world, that which can be seen and felt and measured and experimented upon, is real--that there is no supernatural realm, that the supernatural is, in fact, inconceivable, that the Almighty cannot exist because He cannot be measured.

Perhaps he's right, but whether he is or not isn't a scientific hypothesis. You can't run experiments on God to see whether he exists or not; the idea is ludicrous on the face of it, rather like a character in a novel shouting his loudest in hopes of taking the author by surprise.

So though I cannot accept the Creation Science view, no more can I accept the strict materialist line either. I accept the fossil record simply because I don't believe that the Creator of the Universe is a liar. He speaks through His creation as he speaks through the Bible, and the two (as St. Thomas Aquinas taught) can never truly be in conflict.

So far as I can tell from my reading, the Intelligent Design crowd fall into my camp. On the one hand, they believe that the Almighty God created the universe and all that is in it; on the other hand, they accept the geologic record. The chief difference between the ID'ers and the strict evolutionists is not scientific but philosophical. Where the strict evolutionists take it on faith that evolution is the product of time and chance and natural processes, the ID'ers believe that the Almighty had a hand in things. The crux of the Intelligent Design argument, as I've seen it expressed, is that certain biological features are "irreducibly complex"--that is, they consist of a constellation of innovations which as a set are indeed very useful to the organism and enhance its ability to survive, but independently are neither here nor there. The example that I saw was the flagellum of a paramecium, which has many complicated parts, all of which are needed to make the flagellum work. Any one of the parts could have arisen as a mutation; but there would be no reason for it to have been preserved in the population long enough for the other parts to be assembled into a complete package.

I am not concerned here with defending this view, and especially not as I've stated it; I'm not a student of Intelligent Design, and might have presented it badly. My point is that the ID'ers are not intending to pooh-pooh or otherwise reject the fruits of scientific observation. Rather, they are pointing out places where they believe the best scientific explanations break down--and suggesting that those are the places where God might have taken a direct hand. In a sense, they are treating the geologic record as a whodunnit, and dusting it for God's fingerprints.

Myself, I think it's a losing game. Current science might not explain the cases they point out; not having studied it, I don't know one way or the other. If it does not, then the evolutionists have a job ahead of them--to explain, in a way that's more than hand-waving and invocations of random chance, just how these irreducibly complex features could have arisen. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, given time and chance, they come up with an answer that works--which would leave the ID'ers grasping at straws.

As I say, the basic proposition is not one that's scientifically verifiable one way or the other. But insofar as there is evidence for or against the supernatural, that evidence is surely in the plus column, for most men and women, in most times and places, based on the evidence of their senses and the world around them, have rejected the notion that the natural world is all there is. If you are strict materialist, you might well believe that you are right and the vast bulk of humanity through time has been wrong, that you are smarter than they are; and perhaps you're right. It must surely be comforting to think so, anyway. For my part, I'm confident that there is a God, that He did create the universe and all that is in it, and that His fingerprints are all over the place. Trying to find them is a worthy goal; but it's not mine. I'd rather take it for granted and move on.

But to return to my main point, the equation of Intelligent Design theory with Creation Science is simply false, and it doesn't behoove honest men and women to keep repeating it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:12 PM | Comments(0)

August 03, 2005

Crown of Slaves, by David Weber and Eric Flint

Hold on to your hats, it's old home week in the Honorverse.

Crown of Slaves is the first full-length novel set in Weber's Honorverse that doesn't directly involve Honor Harrington herself. Coincidental in time with War of Honor it involves a grand pageant of characters from all over the Honorverse with a plot that's really too complicated for me to even attempt to explain it.

Anton Zilwicki is sent by Queen Elizabeth III as Manticore's envoy to the funeral of the Solarian League's leading opponent to genetic slavery. The funeral is to be held in the star nation of Erewhon, which makes things tricky. Erewhon is one of the charter members of the Manticore-led Alliance against the People's Republic of Haven, but the government formed by Baron Highridge at the end of Ashes of Victory has been doing its darnedest to alienate all of Manticore's allies--at least it seems that way--and Erewhon has recently been flirting with Eloise Pritchart's new Republic of Haven. With Zilwicki go his wife, Cathy Montaigne, formerly Countess of the Tor, his daughter Berry, whom he adopted at the end of "From the Highlands" in Worlds of Honor #3: Changer of Worlds, and also by Ruth Winton, daughter of Prince Michael's wife Princess Judith. Remember Judith? She was captured by the Masadans as a young girl and led a successful exodus of women off-planet--with Prince Michael's help.

Zilwicki and his charges travel to Erewhon in a ship provided by--for all intents and purposes--the anti-slavery organization called the Audubon Ballroom, a group his wife has supported for many years, and also a group that helped him rescue his daughter Helen from the Scrags under Old Chicago.

Of course, fanatic revolutionary Victor Cachat had a hand in that rescue as well; and he's come to Erewhon as the envoy of Havenite President Eloise Pritchart. And Manticoran Captain Michael Oversteegen is in-system as well, just to keep an eye on things.

Of course, there's a plot by Manpower Unlimited, working with a group of Masadan terrorists and the aforementioned Scrags, to kidnap Princess Ruth; an amoral and ambitious Solarian officer who's taken to playing power politics of a particularly dirty kind; and and an Amazon of a Solarian Marine Lieutenant who thinks that Victor might just be her cup of tea.

There's a lot to like about this book; it's wickedly funny in spots, the action sequences are good, and it's completely unpredictable. Both Weber and Flint are good spinners of tales, and it was fun watching them work together. On the other hand, a number of the characters, notably Victor Cachat and Lieutenant Thandi Palane, are (not to put to fine a point on it) monsters. They are on the right side, mostly, and are fighting against the Bad Guys, but there's too much moral ambiguity and sick violence in them for them to really be Good Guys--and yet, the authors mostly treat them as Good Guys. If they are monsters, one can hear them saying, then at least they are Our Monsters. There's a thin line between encouraging the reader to identify with seriously flawed characters and praising those characters for their monstrosity. Weber and Flint don't quite cross that line--at least, I don't think they do. But this is an uncomfortable book in places nevertheless. praising

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:35 PM | Comments(0)

August 02, 2005

Worlds of Honor #4: The Service of the Sword, by David Weber et al

This is the fourth (and to date, the final) anthology in Weber's "Honorverse" series; this time, Weber shares the stage with Jane Lindskold, Timothy Zahn, John Ringo, Victor Mitchell, and Eric Flint.

"Promised Land", by Jane Lindskold, is the story of a young Grayson girl, the daughter of spacers, whose ship is captured by Masadan pirates. Her parents are killed; she is taken home by the Masadan captain, who in the fullness of time marries her. Masadans view women as property, and are also polygamous, so Judith becomes a very junior wife in a rather unpleasant household. But Judith has a secret weapon--though her "husband" doesn't know it, her parents had already taught her how to read. She plans to escape...and finds some surprising allies. The story takes place at around the same time as The Honor of the Queen, and adequately explains (if any further explanation were necessary) why Manticore chose to ally with the Graysons rather than the Masadans. As a story, it's OK; I enjoyed it mildly.

"With One Stone", by Timothy Zahn, concerns Honor Harrington's executive officer, Rafe Cardones. It appears that somebody has been testing a secret weapon in the Silesian Confederacy--a device that can take down a ship's gravity wedge at a range of millions of kilometers. In Weber's universe, a ship's gravity wedge is its chief source of propulsion, and also its best armor. Such a weapon would turn the world of naval tactics upside-down in an instant, especially if Haven had it and Manticore didn't. Cardones gets dragooned by Naval Intelligence to help look for it. Again, not a bad story; it's got some quite nice bits in it. But Zahn's portrayal of Cardones wasn't particularly interesting.

"A Ship Named Francis", on the other hand, is quite good fun. Over and over in the Harrington books we meet naval officers and crews who are strong, resolute, and adept at their duty, with a handful of bad apples to give the plot some savor. Given Sturgeon's law, that implies that there are a lot of screw-ups, idiots, fumble-fingers, and general incompetents hiding somewhere out of sight. According to John Ringo and Victor, that place is the Grayson Space Navy's ship Francis--and an appalling picture it is, too.

Ringo continues this theme in "Let's Go To Prague", in which two Manticoran spies, members of the elite Covert Insertion Teams, decide to take their vacation time on the planet of Prague--a planet which happens to be under Havenite control. Much robust and ribald comedy ensues, and our heroes (if that's the right word for them) are lucky to escape with their skins and careers intact.

"Fanatic" is by Eric Flint. In Worlds of Honor #3: Changer of Worlds, Flint introduced us to a young man named Victor Cachat, a man committed to the principles of the Rob Pierre's revolution, a man, indeed, far more deeply committed to those principles than Rob Pierre or his cronies. Victor works for the Office of State Security; and being both competent and politically correct, he has become one of the OSS director's fair-haired boys. And so, in the wake of Esther McQueen's failed coup, Victor is sent to the La Martine sector, there to take over and purge the Havenite naval and OSS forces stationed there of undesirable elements. Of course, his notion of which elements are undesirable might be a bit different than his boss's....

Victor Cachat remains a lunatic, but he's an extremely skilled lunatic, and I enjoyed this story thoroughly; it's worth the price of admission all by itself.

Finally, Weber contributes "The Service of the Sword", a story of the first ever midshipwoman in the Grayson Space Navy. We met Abigail Hearns briefly during her time at Saganami Island in Ashes of Victory; here we get to ride along on her middie cruise. We also get to meet Captain Michael Oversteegen, a delightful character we'll see later on in Crown of Slaves (review forthcoming). The story itself is entertaining enough; but it wasn't particularly memorable.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:35 PM | Comments(0)

Oh, Rats!

Saw the doctor today, and there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that I'm down another three pounds, making 46 pounds since I started my diet six months ago.

The bad news is that I had a blood test last month, and my cholesterol is way back up--higher than it was six months ago, in fact.

I had a blood test two months into my diet; I'd been on Lipitor for two months, and had been eating no red meat or egg yolks. My cholesterol was way down, right where it ought to be. I continued with the Lipitor for another month, but my doctor let me open up my diet a bit. Jane had read something that indicated that the link between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol was weaker than is generally thought, and switched me to something more like a typical Atkins diet, with lots of red meat and lots of eggs.

Whoops.

So I'm off eggs again, and red meat will once again be a treat rather than a staple. We'll see how it goes; I'd rather change my diet than take Lipitor for the rest of my life.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:49 PM | Comments(0)

August 01, 2005

Ex Libris Reviews

The August issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line.
Posted by Will Duquette at 07:31 PM | Comments(0)