Sunday, August 30, 2015

Make a short story short

Here's another not-review of a book in the Summer Reading Program: under consideration is New Frontiers, a collection of stories by long-time, award-winning SF writer Ben Bova.

A golf tournament on the moon. An asteroid miner whose ship is under attack from pirates.  Cryogenically frozen billionaires. A road race on the moon. Virtual reality duels. Astronauts trapped on Mars. The aging leader of an interstellar empire considering the fate of Earth. It's like 1972 all over again - this one has enough nostalgie de la boue to fill a lunar landing module.
Maybe that's a little too much: some of the stories don't just echo with familiarity, but actually creak a little bit, as well. I mean, two guys fighting over which of them gets to take a woman to Aspen for the weekend? Women lawyers trying to desegregate the men-only bar at a private club? Isn't this stuff a little dated?

This summer's reading has comprised a lot of revisiting of old favorites and favorite styles in my favorite genres - as opposed to last summer, during which the reading list included almost exclusively non-fiction. There's a lot of fun to be had there - I don't need all or even most of my fiction to be "literary" - but I guess I don't want to just re-hash the past, either. Those were good times, but that was then and this is now. As much as we cherish what was good about the old stuff, we need to keep moving with times and freshen up the act.

(In a similar vein, I just read an excerpt from a Seven Soldiers of Victory comic published in 1941. As much as I would like to see more of that straightforward storytelling and art today, I certainly wouldn't want to reproduce its casual racism.)

In any case, this is a decent collection of short stories (with the emphasis on short) that come closer to what I used to read in high school than anything else I have encountered. Take that as an endorsement or warning or both.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

1. Another Summer Reading book, this one the fifth in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross.  (This appears to be my summer for coming in late on book series.) The Rhesus Chart is the latest entry in the continuing escapades of The Laundry, the British intelligence agency chartered to combat supernatural threats in a particularly Lovecraftian world. You might think X-Files or Torchwood but not really close: this group fights elders gods and eldritch horrors that make most demons look like chumps. Even vampires (the antagonists of this book) are in the minor leagues in this world.

2. Stross has a great conceit for incorporating monsters and magic into the modern world: complex operations of higher math serve as spells or rituals for opening gateways to other, nastier dimensions. Just thinking hard about certain calculations or formulas can lead to Bad Things happening - and with computers increasing our capability for calculation, more Bad Things are happening more often. The Laundry are just the folks who can control the Bad Things better; the agents are mostly wizards of some kind or another. There's a character call the Eater of Souls - and he's one of the good guys.

3. After mashing up arcana and espionage, Stross spreads a layer of satire over the whole thing. The Laundry is an organization subject to committee meetings, expense vouchers, strategic plans, health & safety regulations and all the rest: bureaucracy at its most relentless. Our protagonist, Bob Howard, is subject to "matrix management" and has to divide his time between his work as an IT professional and as a field agent. In many ways, this is the most enjoyable aspect of the book, but it takes an awful lot of suspension of disbelief to think that the organization wouldn't be run along more military lines, given the nature and scale of the threats they face.

4. That bureaucratic milieu does give the book a feeling more like LeCarre or Deighton than Fleming - this book could have been called Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sorcerer for all the double-talking, double-dealing, and duplicity within the agency.

5. Overall, the biggest issue I have with book is not the setting or the characters or even the plot, which was a little plug-and-chug but all right in the end. It's that Stross just doesn't write with enough economy. Howard is very self-conscious narrator and Stross uses devices such as footnotes, digressions, and deliberate awareness of the story as a story, and these are tools that need finesse. A Pratchett or an Adams can handle them just fine; Stross often comes across as just too pleonastic and tedious. Still and all, it's not a bad diversion, if you like spies, horror, and bureaucracy and and can wade through fifty or sixty more pages than you need to.

Friday, August 21, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

1. So, once more the Summer Reading Program is featured on Thark. This work is John Scalzi's "reboot" of Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper's celebrated 1962 novel, which is now in the public domain. As might be inferred from my previous discussion of the beloved Bay Ridge library, I read the original work as a young man and have a dim memory of it. I recall that it was pretty good, but I daresay Fuzzy Nation is better.

2. In his author's note, Scalzi compares his re-imagining of the story to the recent Star Trek film reboot, and jokes that it should have better science. And he's right - the science part of this science-fiction story hits just the right notes. The technology pertinent to the story appears reasonable, plausible, and consistent, and to the extent that technological details matter to the plot, Scalzi always plays fair - there are no convenient rabbits out of hats. The bigger issues - interplanetary travel, for example - are hand-waved in a businesslike manner and don't distract from the main human story.

3. I'd put Scalzi up there with Arthur C. Clarke for his presentation of humans in space acting like real humans: they all have jobs with organizations or corporations, and work with bosses and colleagues, and deal with rules and regulations. They even pay bills. Scalzi creates a realistic versions of the bureaucratic infrastructure, political and commercial, that would both result from and be necessary for humanity's off-planet expansion.

4. Scalzi does a great job with the individual characters as well, in particular with the protagonist Jack Halloway. He keeps the reader guessing until the very end just exactly what kind of man he is and what his motivations are, while making him engaging and identifiable.

5. The oddest bit about this book is that in the end, it is really a legal thriller, like something that John Grisham might write if he tried his hand at SF. The protagonist is a disbarred lawyer and legal niceties play an integral role in the plot - the first precedent-setting court case is cited on page 23, and it's not the last. Climactic scenes take place in front of a judge. It's a fascinating bit of genre-blending, and not something I remember from the original. But perhaps I should go back and check.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Just like old times

So, although this post is part of the Summer Reading Program, it is less a book review than a rumination, because reading Old Venus was less a literary experience than an evocation of times gone by.

Concept anthologies are pretty common in science fiction - those collections of stories written to meet particular specifications in theme or conceit. Carmen Miranda's Ghost Is Haunting Space Station 3 is one such collection - every story had to include that titular sentence. In the case of Old Venus, the unifying concept is a bit broader: authors were asked to write stories set on the Venus we "knew" before Mariner 2 took all the fun out of it: that perpetually cloudy, perpetually rainy, many-oceaned, deeply-swamped planet of mystery. that we know now was never more than a fiction. And the anthology delivers, in spades.

I think I know whereof I speak. When I was a kid, I basically read out the sci-fi section of the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, a collection comprising mostly material from before the New Wave era, Golden Age greats and material from that period one critic calls the Radium Age. I read Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs and "The Long Rain" by Ray Bradbury and everything else between and around them. Venus was a popular spot for science fiction. Sword & planet stories as they call them now, or space operas, or speculative fiction, or hard SF - all varieties of narrative could be told there.

And the there was key: Venus was not just another generic backdrop. There was something about the relentless, remorseless dreariness of the planet that added a dimension to whatever story was being spun. In the best tales, Venus itself became another character in the narrative. And in this new collection of Old Venus, most of the stories more than meet that bar.

There is a great variety in the presentation -  a former Buffalo Soldier surviving the Titanic sinking only to be swept into a conflict between blue people and birdmen, hard-bitten mercenaries versus forgotten Venusian gods, scientists and poachers and adventuresses exploring the planet, Russian communists and Nazis, and even a Bertie and Jeeves pastiche. In only a couple of cases did I feel the author just took an already-begun story and set it on Venus to meet the criterion; in just about all of the contributions, the Venus we wished we'd known is evoked in glorious damp detail and becomes an integral part of the story.

Just like the old days.

Whether you're a long-time reader of SF who wants to revisit the wonder, or a newer reader who wants to know what it was like Back in the Day, this is the collection for you. Apparently there's an Old Mars, as well; I need to seek that one out.

Last note: This is listed as "edited by" George R.R. Martin as well as Gardner Dozois. Dozois wrote the introduction and, as near as I can tell, the biographical notes; I have no idea what Martin did besides get his name on the cover to sell copies.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Just Cos

So, there's a complex post on the Taxonomy of Cosplay™ in the pipeline, but here's my idea for my own cosplay at the next con I attend.

Wonfer Wife and I have been watching The Finder, another cancelled one-season wonder, a sort-of spin-off from Bones but based on a different series of books. It qualifies as sci-fi in a half-baked way: the titular protagonist, Walter Sherman, suffered a brain injury while serving in Iraq and gained the ability to see patterns and connections that others can't. He uses this preternatural ability to help people find things - missing evidence, stolen goods, and so on. Whatever. Anyway, his sidekick and attorney is Leo Knox, played by the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan and it's a cosplay made in heaven: I already have the wardrobe.

See what I mean? Now, admittedly, the series is set in Florida, so Leo's color palette skews a little bit lighter than my Seattle basic black, but given the new-normal, warmer summer we are having up here, I have already filled my closet with some more beige and taupe shirts, so that's covered.

All I really need are some black sleeveless t-shirts, which Leo always wears underneath. Oh yeah - and much bigger guns.

For the record: I am 86% of Duncan's height, 67% of his weight, and my biceps are 59% his size. Close enough for cosplay - look out con!

Bonus coolness:  MCD was a vegetarian!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Small wonder

So, Wonder Wife and I needed to buy a third-birthday gift for the daughter of some friends and thought it would be cool to get her some Wonder Woman-themed clothes. We took ourselves down to the local discount department store and rummaged among the toddler apparel. We didn't find anything Amazonian, but there were several items with some sort of superhero design. Unfortunately, they all had once characteristic in common:


We talk about this stuff all the time - the gendering of children's toys and clothes and the subtle socialization that comes along with that. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse instead of better, perhaps due at least in part to the rise of Princess Culture. In any event, it's one thing to talk about it in the blogosphere and another to come face-to-face with it when you just wanted to buy a cool present. All we wanted was a star-spangled outfit - sweats, a t-shirt, a hoodie, whatever - in the Wonder Woman red, blue, and gold motif. (Wonder Wife did say it would be great if we could find something that came with silver bracelets.) Instead, what we found was nothing but girlied-up versions of superhero logos and images - nothing that resembled the actual characters or their actual design elements.

So, we out together a punk-rock tutu outfit instead, and she will be an awesome power grrl (even though we couldn't find little Doc Martens). But I lost an opportunity to spread my geek culture to the newest generation.

I guess it's Pinterest and Etsy now!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Due respect

So, Wonder Wife and I needed to mail in some primary election ballots the other day. Ever since Wonder Wife wound down her in-home business, things like stamps aren't as readily accessible as they once were. After a little digging, we found a leftover sheet of Batman Forever Stamps - as in Forever Stamps honoring Batman, not stamps honoring the movie.

Of the 20 stamps on the sheet, 16 had been regular rectangle stamps with images of Batman, but the only two that were left were from the four circular Bat-signal stamps. I'm not sure I ever used a circular postage stamp before, and for a second Wonder Wife thought they were just decorative stickers, until we looked closely at them and she remembered using the other two.

After using the last stamps on the sheet, I took a look at the back:

So, is Jim Lee's version to go-to marketing image for Batman now? I remember when just about everything from stickers to pajamas had a Dick Giordano drawing. I guess Lee does do a good job of presenting a Batman recognizable to older fans but still in line with the more current, armor-y version.

Besides the image, the back has a bunch of text. In describing the images on the stamps, the text mentions how the depictions move through the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages, but it really only talks about Batman's origin in the thirties. There's no specific mention of the TV show or any of the various cartoons or any of the movies - it takes three paragraphs to move from Action #1 in 1938 to Detective #27 in 1939.

And the most impressive thing about this obscure little text is its matter-of-fact recognition of the contribution of Bill Finger:

Wow - has this battle actually been won? It was heartening to see Finger get the recognition that he so richly deserves, even in such an ephemeral genre as the postage stamp sheet.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

1. So, once again this is part of the Summer Reading Program but is showing up here on Thark instead of Epicurus because, well, this is where it belongs (as I sort of made clear here.) Raising Steam is the last Discworld book published before author Terry Pratchett's death earlier this year; one more volume is due out later this month, but that will apparently be the end of the series, at least for contributions from its originator. The world that Pratchett created is so rich and detailed that I would be surprised if there weren't more books to come from other authors, perhaps even in some sort of shared-world deal.

2. The idea of other authors writing Pratchett's characters came up for me when I was reading Raising Steam, because honestly, it didn't have the same crackle and spark usually marks Pratchett's writing. His struggle with early-onset Alzheimer's was widely publicized, and it is sad to think that his last works might have been marred by the effects of the disease, or by Pratchett's need for collaboration from lesser lights. I guess we'll never know for sure under what conditions the book was written, and I'll definitely be curious about The Shepherd's Crown, the posthumous novel.

3. Much of the flatness of the story lies in the narrative. While the stakes are enormous - the plot centers on a coup within the dwarf nation by fundamentalist terrorists, a not-very-subtle allegory - the protagonists never seem to be at very much risk or to suffer any serious setback. In fact, in neither the political situation nor the technological challenge of bringing steam locomotion to Discworld does   failure ever seem to be a threat at all: terrorists, physical adversities, and railway accidents are all dealt with summarily and successfully, and the body count (except for Bad Guys) is really quite low, all things considered.

4. I think that Pratchett also fell victim to something I saw in the later films of Christopher Guest. I felt Guest started to like his characters too much: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind are progressively less edgy and dark (although For Your Consideration get a lot of that juice back). Similarly, I think Pratchett grew a little too fond of Vetinari, Vimes, Moist, and the others; they shine a little too brightly and achieve a little too easily, their flaws plastered over. I liked the the Moist who was always a step away from cutting and running; he was someone not to be entirely trusted instead of a happily married hero, and that made him more interesting.

5. All that said, there is enough good stuff in the book to make it worth the read - and I still did laugh out loud while reading it. Reading even a lesser effort from Sir Terry is excellent way to pass the time.