Thursday, March 25, 2010

Readings — Deep Future

Deep Future
by Stephen Baxter

This is a slim book of what might be called ‘popular cosmology’. Baxter takes a look at where the universe-at-large is going, according to the best that was known at the time of writing, and what science tells us about what’s coming up in the future. He spends some time considering possible futures of human technology, but so much is unknowable about how that’s likely to develop that he soon widely leaves this field to talk about the slow aging of the universe, and strategies for us to cope with same.

I gather Carl Sagan wrote books something like this, popular science outlining the grand scale of the universe we live in. Baxter’s used to that scale from his sf writing, and he plays with big ideas and vast reaches of time and space just as in a big-screen sf story. The writing’s not terribly sophisticated, but it is clear and non-technical while still being detailed. Overall, well-written and mind-expanding.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Readings — Nifft the Lean

Nifft the Lean
by Michael Shea

A collection of fantasy short stories in the Vancian mode, characterised by elaborate diction and a decadent mood. Like Vance, the diction isn’t quite supported by a style as smooth as that of, say, Clark Ashton Smith (whose work this sort of thing otherwise recalls). On the other hand, Shea’s work is probably more intensively plotted than Smith’s, and the volume’s tied together by ‘introductions’ that help situate the stories in their subject’s overall career. There’s an abundance of imagination on display, and the sort of cheerful refusal to take itself wholly seriously that can result in characters with names like Vulvula, the Vampire Queen.

But as you might imagine, it is a bit rich. I found the whimsy of the book, along with its richness of diction, made it best absorbed in small-to-mid-size doses. Which was a bit of a problem, in that one of the stories is a long novella in which Nifft and an associate wander through Hell. It’s not a particularly clever Hell, in the sense of presenting new spiritual tortures; but it’s quite spectacular, in the sense of presenting new physical tortures and gothic imagery. Still, it does start to become repetitive, and I at least needed some time away from the story by the mid-point in order to return later with refreshed eyes.

This is actually a bit odd, in that much of what makes Shea’s style (and Vance’s style, and Smith’s style) work is its novelty. That is, what really makes them stand out is not the ostentatiousness of the words they use, but the whimsy. The unexpected word that’s not only right, but arch, and throws a new light or an ironic tint across the whole scene or story. Shea does that, but while with Smith I’ll joyfully immerse myself in his wordplay for hours at a time, Shea’s prose tends to push me out. I think this speaks to a slight difference in the type of irony he uses; a little bit less profound, or else a little bit more prone to contrast itself with reality, I think (though, oddly, his world’s more fully-developed in terms of history and geography than anything I know of by Smith). Well worth reading, then, but the ultimate effect will likely be determined by your personal reaction to Shea’s tonal choices.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Readings — The Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer

The Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer
text by T.D. Barlow

This is a small book (about 12 by 18 cm) from 1948 reproducing many of Dürer’s designs, along with a helpful introduction by Barlow situating the images in the context of the times and Dürer’s development as an artist. Curiously, the selection omits Melencolia I, Knight, Death, and the Devil, and St. Jerome In His Study (though another cut of Saint Jerome is included), nor are they mentioned in the introductory text. Still, what is here is well-reproduced and clearly-printed, to my eye. It’s just a pity the book couldn’t have been a bit more thorough.

Breaking Radio Silence

So of course the reason why you don’t make public resolutions is that, as my brother once pointed out to me, the universe runs on irony; and as soon as you say what your goal is, forces will conspire to make it impossible to realise. Or at least a major uphill struggle. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve been pretty ill lately, making my aim of reading thirty-one books by the end of March virtually impossible.

Still, I am feeling better now, which is good. And I suspect I’ve finally kicked some sort of infection that’s been troubling me since January. Or else the advent of spring has given me some new energy. Either way, I’m actually feeling better than I have in months. So, if not thirty-one in March, perhaps thirty in April. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, we may be living in the neighbourhood of a thieving cannibal planet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Readings — Behold the Man

Behold the Man
by Michael Moorcock

One of the stranger books I’ve read of late, the high concept of this book is simple: a London student in the 1970s takes part in a time travel experiment, and goes back to the days of Jesus — where he finds himself taking over the role of Christ. To Moorcock’s credit, he doesn’t rely on the concept alone to carry the book. It’s structured nicely, and spends much of its time taking apart the character of Karl Glogauer, its lead.

The result is one of Moorcock’s better books, I think. It’s short, focussed, and gets at a lot of material in a short space. It’s both experimental and highly disciplined. And it has to be said that Moorcock’s quite adept at using the Christ scenario to tap a kind of iconic energy. He does it with a light touch, setting up a properly inevitable climax. It’s a subversive take on the Christ story, of course, but Moorcock handles it well enough that, to me (and I’m not a Christian), it doesn’t feel exploitative. In fact, because it’s not exploitative, it is that much more powerful — compare, by contrast, something as witless as Garth Ennis’ Preacher graphic novels, and you’ll see what I mean. Overall, then, quite a success.

Readings — Lightning

by Dean Koontz

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It has a nice hook: a man appears at crucial moments to save of the life of a girl; she grows older, he stays the same age, eventually it becomes clear that he’s a time traveller. But is he from the future, or the past? In fact, it’s the latter, and the novel’s playing with the old idea of Nazis trying to get their hands on future technology.

Still, I didn’t care for it. I found the prose flat and unengaging. The attempt to make the story fit with history seemed a bit sloppy. And there’s a passage in the book where the main character equates genocide and pacifism, which is a little strange, especially as it seems to be meant literally. So, no, on the whole, not my cup of tea.

Readings — Star of Gypsies

Star of Gypsies
by Robert Silverberg

Stunningly well-written, this is a book about a King of the Gypsies in the far future, where humankind has spread among the stars and the Romani are the only people who can navigate the ships that travel from sun to sun. Yakoub, the King, abdicated some years ago; now his brutal son has taken the throne, and Yakoub must face the responsibilities he abandoned. Sentence for sentence, this is easily the finest book by Silverberg that I’ve read, and one of the finest sf books I know. There’s a wealth of invention here that recalls Lord Valentine’s Planet, but the scope is even larger, and Silverberg creates societies and planets and larger-than-life personalities in glorious profusion.

That being said, I did often feel myself a bit detached from the story. That’s due to two reasons, I think. The first is that among all the extravagant characters in the book, Yakoub never finds (or admits to) a peer. He stands head and shoulders above all the other characters in the book, if only in his account; but then, while he certainly has a self-aggrandizing streak in him, I don’t think that estimation is wrong. In the long run, this tends to make the main story of the book less than gripping — his estranged son never really seems to have a chance. Basically, Yakoub comes up with a plan to remove him, executes the plan, and the plan pretty much goes just as he figured it would. Yakoub has no real rivals, and nobody to balance him or challenge him.

The other reason I felt a bit removed from the book was Silverberg’s decision to tell much of it in flashback, unreeling Yakoub’s early life in detail. He comes up with very elegant ways to introduce the flashbacks, and they’re as well-written as the rest of the book — in fact, they probably make up the majority of the book’s text. Silverberg gives Yakoub the ability to blur past and present; he can ‘ghost’ into the past, to be present at any point in history (this strikes me as a bit under-thought, though; it’d be a great way to spy on your enemies, but neither Yakoub nor anyone else ever uses it as such). He spends much of his time, then, observing or recalling his past. Effectively, the present-day story is like the surface tension on a lake, while the main part of the book, those past years, is the depths below. The problem is that the exploration of the depths makes the surface feel a bit thin. Oddly, I wonder if the present was less developed if I might have had an easier time with the book. But then again, as I say, perhaps it’s the mix of past and present (both of them looking toward the future) that’s the real point here.

So I’m hesitant to say that the problems I had with the book are real problems. They may well be cases of assumptions I made as a reader that were wrong-headed. Certainly the writing’s gorgeous, and Yakoub’s a vivid character — warm and clever, but so arrogant he’s difficult to warm up to; accomplished and yet flawed (I don’t feel I know anywhere near enough to speak knowledgeably about how he fits into traditions of romanticised depiction of the Romani; all I can say is that on its own terms, it seems to work). The depiction of the Romani as effectively an alien race is odd (it seems to relate to events in another of Silverberg's novels, Letters From Atlantis, which I have not read), but the depiction of their history is heartfelt, if not particularly novel. Mainly, the great strength of the book is its wildness, its invention, its unpredictability, and the elegance of its writing. As such, it’s well worth reading.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Readings — An Evil Guest

An Evil Guest
by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe’s latest novel strikes me as a mixed bag, both in terms of contents and in overall effect. By ‘contents’, I mean that it includes time travel, stage musicals, musings on celebrity charisma, dread Cthulhu, and a host of other things up to and including time-travel and aliens. By ‘effect’, I mean that I’m not sure Wolfe builds an involving novel out of the whole.

The tone, for example, is engaging, but noncommittal. What seems like it should be in one spot a screwball romp out of The Sound of Music, and then in another a suspenseful edge-of-your-set noir thriller, becomes flattened into an oddly grey, rambling story which contains these things but seems to lack their flavour. The setting is ostensibly the future, practically seems more like the big city of a 1930s Hollywood film, and feels really like nothing in particular. Sure, Wolfe’s linguistic dexterity is on display, his tricks with showing only what characters see (including what they see wrongly) are there as well, and it’s a book which will reward the engaged reader more than the casual page-turner — but I don’t know whether the reward’s really that great.

The WolfeWiki suggests an alternative reading of the work which is logical, internally consistent, and yet weirdly unaffecting. Which I think is my ultimate problem with the book. It’s too detached. Much of the effect of Wolfe’s writing, one way or another, comes from keeping the reader at a certain distance. I think for this book to work, the lighter sequences would need to be more affecting, and that’d probably mean allowing the reader a bit closer in. Lacking that, I found myself uninvolved with the characters and the world.

Now, it doesn’t help that the central character is not, to my mind, terribly well-written. Cassie Casey really hearkens back to the women in those ’30s films I mentioned above, and not in a good way. It’s not that she’s flat or unintelligent, though she’s both, it’s that she’s not credible. She sounds like a movie character, which means what a bunch of men in a smoke-filled room think a spunky woman sounds like — or what they think she ought to sound like. Adam Roberts, in his thoughtful review of the book, seems to me to have it exactly right: “Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative’s notion of a strong woman: an "Of Queen's Gardens" woman, permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it.”

A concern with old movies is hardly new in Wolfe’s fiction; consider There Are Doors. But while that novel was, to me, genuinely eerie and unpredictable, An Evil Guest seems to struggle more with the pulp formulas it plays with. Certain Wolfeisms seem oddly out of place. For example, his fondness for what I think of as “Thursday” figures, after G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Without giving anything away about that remarkable book, its central figure is a mysterious man, fat, cunning, and wise, who has a disturbing amount of both power and charisma, and who is perceived at the beginning of the book in a sinister light but who ends it being revealed to be something different and greater than was previously suspected. Wolfe frequently uses similar figures in his writing, some of them sinister and some of them not, some of them variations on the archetype; consider Benjamin Free in Free Live Free, or Rex von Madadh in Castleview. The point I’m getting around to is that you'd expect a figure like that — and there are two of them in this book, though they might actually be one and the same, depending on how you read it — to fit naturally with noir themes. But they don’t, really. They seem, to me, out of place; as though Wolfe hadn’t quite worked out how to make some of his recurrent imagery harmonise with the other images he was working with.

In the end, An Evil Guest seems to me more an interesting book than a good one. It’s intriguing, and worth thinking about, and moves at a relentless clip. Its language is spare and pared-down, but the dialogue is often jarringly improbable. What I suppose you can say is that for good or ill — for good and ill — it seems weirdly characteristic of Wolfe. It’s far from his best book, but it is still recognisably his.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Media Linkage

Wandering around the internets, I found the Muppet Wicker Man. Which is quite brilliant. Technically, I suppose that's actually a mash-up that could have occurred back in the 70s — but it took today's modern technology (in the form of Photoshop) to make it happen. Good job, modern technology.

And the other day HBO officially announced that they're ordering nine episodes of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. In more peculiar media announcements, there's this.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

February 2010 Reading Summary

Not a great February on a number of levels (but then is there such a thing?). A plumbing incident in my apartment disrupted the first half of the month, and I think the repairs brought on a nasty allergic reaction from all the plaster dust floating around. At any rate, I was groggy and generally headachy throughout much of the month, which was only partially alleviated by arguably the greatest hockey tournament in history. The upshot is that I only completed two books this month. Plus, blog posting slowed down.

Bearing that in mind, I’m going to say this: I aim to read thirty-one books in March, and update this thing every day of the month from this point forward. I'd like to start talking about other topics here as well, but we'll see how that goes.