REVIEW: "The Compleat Enchanter" -- More like "meh"nchanter

The Compleat Enchanter The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on the recommendation of Lester del Rey in his The World of Science Fiction, 1926 - 1976: The History of a Subculture (reviewed here), and having greatly enjoyed de Camp's short story "A Gun For Dinosaur" (as performed on the X Minus One radio show in the late 1950s). Unfortunately, in marked contrast with that story, I don't think The Compleat Enchanter holds up that well in 2016.

The premise is amusing enough: a research psychiatrist (because it's the 1950s, and psychiatry is hot shit) discovers that one can translate oneself to parallel worlds by reciting alternative logical formulae, such as the laws describing how magic works―"like affects like," and so on. The Compleat Enchanter follows Harold Shea as he bounces between worlds from Earth's mythical and literary history, interacting with the characters therein: first as he accidentally winds up in the world of Norse mythology on the eve of Ragnarok, second in the world of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and third in the world of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

And that's about the right decreasing order of quality. Shea's adventure in Asgard is actually pretty fun, mostly because of the incongruity between a brash 1950s guy and the heroic characters of Norse myth, and Shea's discovery of how magic works. The key humorous element of the stories is that magic works, but not very reliably: if you scrounge up the right materials and chant some doggerel poetry, supernatural effects happen, but maybe at 1/10th or 100 times the desired effect.

I suspect there are other elements that are intended to be humorous, but let's just say that the stories are pretty relentlessly 1950s. Shea (and, in the third story, the seemingly pointless character of Polacek) speak in a (to my 2016 ears) ridiculous style, giving the whole thing an almost too-pulpy feeling. This might have been the point, but the high-contrast was probably funnier back in the day when pulp style hasn't been mocked (with and without irony) for the past half-century.

The other thing is that Shea (and Polacek more so) never seem to get that the worlds they travel to are consequential, even as those worlds continuously demonstrate that they are. This comes to a head in the third book (again with Polacek), where the characters from Earth are held hostage in the castle of a Muslim sorcerer: no matter the situation, Shea and Polacek blunder around saying "What's the big idea?" and casually challenging people to fights (or just threatening them with knuckle sandwiches). Again, maybe that's supposed to be funny, and maybe it was funny back in the Fifties, but to me it's just dumb.

For all that, I liked the book well enough; there were some pretty cool moments and enough amusing scenes (especially when magic is involved) to keep my interest. But I think the premise has been done better by later authors, in both humorous and straight contexts. Overall I would recommend this mostly for its historical value.

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REVIEW: "The World of Science Fiction, 1926-76" -- Life in the gutter

This was a very pleasant surprise used-bookstore buy. Written in the late Seventies, and so just after the premiere of "Star Wars" (but before the sea-change in pop culture that Star Wars inspired could take full effect), Lester del Rey gives a mostly-objective historical account of science fiction, which he divides into four "ages" spanning (then) fifty years. Though some of the material can be quite dry, del Rey's writing style is congenial and makes for an entertaining and enlightening read overall.

Del Rey sets down the genesis of science fiction as a true category to be 1926, when Hugo Gernsback (the namesake of the Hugo Awards) published a pulp magazine specifically for what he then called "scientifiction." From there we have the era of John W. Campbell, who almost single-handedly elevated sf to a higher standard, the bust of the Fifties, and the rise of the "New Wave" and fracturing of the category into various disparate sensibilities. Throughout, del Rey highlights authors and stories that he considers particularly meritorious or significant to the development of sf; while his tastes are strongly stated, he's mostly careful about noting when a story appeals to him personally or is significant to the category as a whole. There's a consolidated list of recommended reading in the appendices, with helpful notation marking whether a work is notable primarily for historical value.

As the growth of sf for most of its first fifty years was almost entirely in magazines, del Rey goes through a lot of timeline-esque publication listings. That may have more merit to scholars of science fiction than to the casual reader; however, it's often notable just how many acknowledged masters of the field were discovered by a single magazine editor, or how many seminal stories were published in the same year.

Del Rey also gives a running history of science fiction fandom, which is especially interesting when compared to the pop-culture domination of science fiction tropes in modern fandoms today. Many of the conflicts that launched a thousand think-pieces have historical analogues from back when hardcore science fiction fans numbered in the mere hundreds! But of particular interest is the knowledge that sf has always been a category of several interests, not always in agreement—for example, it grew out of pulp adventure stories and tinkerer science-enthusiast fiction, which until 1926 were quite separate entities, and cared differently about the relative importance of scientific plausibility and strong plotting to a story.

Del Rey's editorial distance declines quite a bit as the history becomes more contemporary; his remarks on the so-called "New Wave" of sf were hilarious to me, if a bit strident. Still, I think his comments there, and then his recommendations towards a proper critical theory of science fiction, are instructive even for modern readers; certainly there's no lack of controversy over genre norms in modern science fiction and fantasy.

Overall this is a fine history of sf literature. Del Rey makes a good case for the seminal works in the field, and his recommendations should make for a nice introduction to the "deep norms" of sf as a literary category. I'm not sure how much I believe the conjecture that "you can't write science fiction unless you've read lots of its background material," but it certainly wouldn't hurt!

REVIEW: "The Stress of Her Regard" -- Sing, O Muse, and bite me on the neck

The Stress of Her Regard The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by Tim Powers (the first being The Anubis Gates) and it certainly won't be the last. I'm somewhat of a sucker for secret-history fiction and both those books fall squarely in that genre, but Powers' bigger strength is the way he portrays the supernatural as something recognizable but also ineffably weird. In The Anubis Gates you had a body-swapping werewolf-spirit-thing and wizards who sacrificed contact with the earth in exchange for contact with otherworldly powers. In The Stress of Her Regard, you have a race of creatures who are basically all the seductive nasties of Western mythology, rolled into one. Plus more than a bit of Lovecraftian horror.

It's not really a spoiler to say reveal the book's central conceit: that human history, and in particular the lives of poets and artists, has been shaped by contact with a second intelligent race living on Earth. As it turns out, the frail and tragic lives of most of the Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, and Keats in particular) were that way precisely because they were the lovers/prey of these beings.

Call them vampires, lamiae, gorgons, nephilim: they're all those things from mythology, rolled into one. Powers' explanation for why they're all the same race is interesting and more than a bit weird, and it's nice that the explanation comes from characters who clearly are just trying to piece it all together: enough happens that even those details, while seemingly true, never seem true enough. Powers is a bit more on the "this is all knowable" side of things than, say, Lovecraft was, but you never feel like the characters, at least, reach a point of knowing the enemy fully.

Speaking of Lovecraft, there were several scenes in TSoHR that could have been ripped from the pages of a particularly epic Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign, and I say that in the most positive way. (No spoilers, but remember this during the scene in the Alps, and both adventures in Venice.)

I listened to the Audible recording of the book, narrated by Simon Vance. I really really like Vance as a narrator, and he does a fine job here. That said, I think he's better at reading straight fantasy rather than horror, as TSoHR tends to become.

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REVIEW: "Night Watch" -- A Glasnost nocturne

Night Watch Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Supernatural beings called Others walk among us, aligned with either the forces of Light or the forces of Darkness. To police each other, there exist the Watches: the Day Watch, who monitor the Light on behalf of the Darkness, and the Night Watch, who monitor the Darkness on behalf of the Light. But these stories are set in end-of-the-Cold-War Moscow, so everyone's sort of a bastard.

I first encountered the Night Watch through the movie adaptation by Timur Bekmambetov, who also directed its sequel, Day Watch; Wanted; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I've seen all of these movies, somehow). The two Watches were reasonably fun dark-urban-fantasy movies, notable for their action scenes, decent FX, and pretty cool "active" subtitles that were integrated into the scene rather than just white letters at the bottom. I had heard good things about the original book series, so I picked up the Audible version.

Most of the book works pretty well on its own terms, but I can't help wondering how much of what I disliked is just an artifact of translation, or of audiobook narration. Don't get me wrong, Paul Michael does a great job for the vast majority of the lines, and does all the character's voices in (varied!) Slavic accents. Some of the characters come off sounding a bit too drawling or "sleepy" for my taste, though, which makes their philosophical conversations (especially in the later two stories in the book) sound rather odd.

The translation has a few quirks, too. For example, men below a certain age are all, invariably, "young guys." Michael also reads this, invariably, with the emphasis on the second word, so it's "young GUYS" all the time. For some reason I couldn't get over it; but I suspect it's less of an issue in text form.

The biggest letdown is the party scene at the cabin in the third story (really, most of the third story is weird), where our protagonist, Anton, mopes around for the whole thing and has pretty bullshit reasons for doing so. The main arc (centered on what exactly the Light tries to do to make a better world) is interesting, and suggests that maybe it's a case of Lawful Stupid rather than Lawful Good, but I don't think it works well enough to be dragged out into a full story.

The first and second stories work better, with the first being, I think, the best. It's probably no wonder the movie is based on it, while the sequel is based on heavily adapted versions of the other two stories. It's a good mystery with a satisfying series of twists, and a nice introduction to the world, with some commentary (both subtle and unsubtle) thrown in for good measure.

Overall I'd highly recommend the first story ("Destiny") in Night Watch, and the others mostly for completion's sake (especially the third story).

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REVIEW: "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever" -- Not quite canonical

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

NOTE: This is a review of the audiobook. For the physical book, I'd probably rate it 4/5.

The Portable Atheist is an interesting anthology. The late "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens compiled snippets from all corners of the general intellectual tradition that touches on the Abrahamic religions, from people who generally disagreed with the mainstream versions of those religions. That said, I think everything about the title of this book is inaccurate.

First of all, not everyone in this book is, strictly speaking, an atheist, nor are all the excerpts attacking theism or defending atheism. Rather, the unifying antagonists are (1) the notion of a personal god, particularly one that punishes its creations; and (2) the dogmatic religion set up around this notion. A better title might be The Portable Freethinker, and as a collection of people challenging dogma and asserting an unfettered human dignity, it's a pretty good one. If nothing else, some less-famous (or less-famous-as-nonbelievers) choices in here will make good starting points for a wider-ranging library of free thought across the ages.

Notably, though, one has to keep a certain frame of mind while going through the book. Hitchens is sloppy in his introduction, I think, because he says "religion" and "god" when he really means "monotheistic religion such as grew to dominate Europe and the Middle East for the past few millennia"―that's why the furthest East you'll go is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One can more easily forgive the historical writers themselves, because in the globally-minded world of the pre-20th c., "religion" really did mean "the Christian religion," and "God" really did mean "the God of Abraham."

The selections, too, vary somewhat in quality and directness to the cause, as it were. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura is mildly interesting, but rather tangential. And Karl Marx's bit (the essay that includes his famous "opium of the people" quote) is overlong and tedious in the extreme: his convolutions of language made it very hard to pay attention or, indeed, to care much about what he was trying to say. The rest of the selections range from good to great.

The audiobook, however, is decidedly less good. The narrator, George Ball, has a fine voice and at times really brings out the rhetorical force of those writers. But the editing (or perhaps his own performance) is such that he at times has a very odd cadence―pausing briefly, but starting again as though on a fresh sentence. It can be jarring. Then there's the problem of Hitchens' introductory remarks on the work, which Ball doesn't read in a different style or even pause before continuing on to the work in question. This confused me more than once. The audiobook format is sometimes less effective than print: for example, H. L. Mencken's "Graveyard of Dead Gods" essay becomes very tedious when read aloud, as it's mostly a list of dead gods from foreign cultures. All the names sort of blur together in the ear. And some of the earlier works (Lucretius, Hobbes) can be tough listening due to their rhetorical structure.

Finally, the audiobook version is disappointingly abridged. I'm not entirely sure why, as the abridged version only comes out to 11 hours: they could have splurged for an extra few more.

Overall I think that the references are more important than the book itself, although (at least in print) it's a fine collection of essays and excerpts. Even for religious people, the voices of the past have some important things to say about all the ways to do religion poorly.

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REVIEW: "Last Argument of Kings" -- So THAT'S why this series is grimdark...

Last Argument of Kings Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so the First Law trilogy comes to a close, full of sound and fury...

In Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie utterly hammers home the "low fantasy" aspect and themes of this series: people may have the capacity to change, to become better, but they often choose not to. Or the true assholes of the world force them down darker paths. No bleaker a vision of humanity than this, even wrapped around a truly pyrotechnic series of battles.

When we last saw our various POV characters in Before They Are Hanged, the Union was at war on two fronts, against Bethod the King of the Northmen, and the Empire of Gurkul in the south. Sand dan Glokta, Superior of the Inquisition, had just been recalled from the Byzantium-like city of Dagoska before it fell to Gurkish might, presumably with the entire population slaughtered or enslaved. The ersatz Fellowship-of-the-Ring company led by Byaz, the First of the Magi, had tried to find an object of dark powers, the Seed, and... failed. And so on.

Well, in Last Argument things get turned up to eleven. The Gurkish invade the Union proper, and start blowing things up with gunpowder bombs. The cannibalistic acolytes of Kalul, a traitor(?) to the Order of Magi, endowed with superhuman powers, descend on the city of Adua seeking Byaz's blood. Logen Ninefingers returns to the North to settle his score with Bethod, who has made deals with very dark powers indeed.

And it all goes to shit. To actually give details would be spoiler-riffic, because they contain what really makes this series special, and almost grotesquely grimdark.

When I first started reading The First Law books (well, listening to them, because the Audible versions are just so damn good in their own right) I imagined the world had an aesthetic similar to the Warhammer universe: namely, a baroque medieval sensibility with many long coats and high collars. The Abercrombie-authorized graphic novel (now sadly defunct) agrees with me somewhat on that score.

But the Warhammer universe is cartoonishly grim and dark, while the IN SPAAAACE version Warhammer 40,000 is that much more over-the-top. While I'm told that some of the fiction set in the WH40k universe contains some compelling stories and characters, that's not really the essence of 40k.

Not true with Abercrombie: characterization really is the essence of the First Law books. So when the shit hit the fan for our heroes, anti-heroes, anti-villains, and other point-of-view characters, I really felt the moral weight of those blows to their dignity and their realizations that the world was well and truly fucked. Not in a "this is the apocalypse" sense---though the near-thermonuclear climax of the siege of Adua certainly counts---but in a "boot stamping on a human face, forever" sense.

I listened to the Audible version as always, and Steven Pacey is so damn good as a narrator that I think he's actually killed my ability to read further Abercrombie books in print. Thankfully the stand-alone works are also Pacey read, and they're definitely on my list. Abercrombie's prose seems especially suited to being read aloud, and Pacey really is a delight. He adds a highly emotive, energetic, theatrical flair to the characters' voices that make them memorable, in a way that even someone as talented as Jim Dale didn't quite achieve. (I can remember Dale's McGonagall, and, weirdly enough, his Ron Weasley. Granted it's been years since I listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks, but I'm pretty sure I could identify most random snippets of First Law dialogue a year from now.)

Of course, it's made easier by Abercrombie's careful attention to mannerism and, for lack of a better word, catchphrases. To some extent it's reflective of the different characters' upbringings---folksy-barbaric for the Northmen, self-loathing for Glokta, wtf for Brother Longfoot, "sssssss" and "fucking Pinks" for Ferro---but now that I understand Abercrombie's vision for this world, I see that it's also yet one more way to emphasize the "people don't really change" theme. People repeat themselves.

The depiction of magic, too, was interesting. In The Blade Itself I thought the magic of this setting was sort of "Lord of the Rings"-esque, that is, potentially powerful, but rare and precious even for magical beings to employ. And certainly the actual "First Law" states as much: It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct, to converse with devils... but in this world there simply are no laws for those who can seize enough power...

Overall, the First Law trilogy ended up being pitch-dark, full of character and more than a little humor, and thoroughly recommended.

And that's a fact.

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REVIEW: Before They Are Hanged -- We should forgive our morally gray protagonists, because they're such a blast to read about

Before They Are Hanged Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before They Are Hanged is very much a "second of three" book, but in all the best ways. I think that Abercrombie found a very sweet spot in balancing the mini-arcs of this book-in-itself with the overall series arcs. And of course the characterization and grimdark setting were in full force, which is the whole reason I've been enjoying this series so far.

One of the pleasures of The First Law as a genre fan is that one can read certain of Abercrombie's characters as deliberate twistings on typical high-fantasy characters. For example, the "quest" arc featuring Bayaz, Logen, Jezal, and Ferro is very "Lord of the Rings"-esque, even featuring a forced detour through the ruins of a civilization fallen to a nameless disaster. Only, if Bayaz is the Gandalf figure, he's a Gandalf who's kind of an asshole, in love with himself and the romanticized Golden Age of the past. And instead of questing to destroy an object of supernatural evil, they seem to be questing to seek it out to use as a weapon for Bayaz's own side of a fantastical war: one which, even though the other side seems obviously evil (sacrificing slaves to cannibalistic zombie-wizards, anyone?) it's not at all clear that Bayaz is really on the side of the angels.

Meanwhile the war-hero-turned-torturer, Sand dan Glokta, has been promoted to Superior of the Inquisition in the Byzantium-like city of Dagoska. Glokta's storyline is a mystery with more than a few elements reminding me of Greek tragedy, of all things. Basically, Glokta is a very clever man, whose cold pragmatism almost-but-not-quite covers a lingering sense of decency, but he's trapped in a web of conspiracies both vast and petty, that force him to move disastrously or to become yet another "body found floating by the docks." Watch and cringe as his few impulses towards mercy or truth nearly destroy him, yet remain strangely fascinated.

If anything is more straightforward in the fantasy department, it's the storyline of the "Named Men" and Collum West, who are on a collision course ever since the Union army shipped north to fight the power-mad self-styled King of the Northmen, Bethod. One might have predicted even in Book 1 that Bethod, having obviously made deals with eldritch forces beyond mortal ken, was going to have the upper hand against the squabbling feudal lords of the Union, and yeah, no spoilers to say that it happens. Still, even here there's lots of interesting character development, especially for West. Not for nothing does he have an old friendship with Glokta; whereas Glokta gets entangled through his introspection and inquisitiveness, West gets similarly entangled, but through his integrity and moral certitude. He tries to protect those that need protecting, and it gets him into many interesting situations.

In terms of the writing itself, Abercrombie remains a very interesting writer when it comes to narration. Each POV character's chapters have a slightly different narrative style. The most obvious are Logen's narratives, having short choppy sentences befitting an uneducated Northern barbarian, and Glokta's, with the vast majority of dedicated introspection befitting a circumspect and brooding Inquisitor. Abercrombie adds fullness to the voices of all his characters by peppering their speech with certain turns of phrase that mark out their cultures and identities. Logen has Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers..., "you have to be realistic about these things," and of course, "Still alive." Glokta has Body found floating by the docks and (at least in the excellent Audible version) a lisp from his missing teeth. Ferro has (again in the Audible narration) a distinguished French-sounding accent and, of course, "fucking Pinks."

As with The Blade Itself, I listened to the Audible version of the book, again read by Steven Pacey. Pacey is a great narrator, adding even more richness to the idiosyncrasies of Abercrombie's prose, and lending each character a distinct voice. At points it seems more like listening to a play being read than a book, due to all of Pacey's emotive narration.

Now that I'm 67% of the way through the First Law trilogy, I can wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the better ones on the scene. Plus, it's blessedly finished unlike some also-excellent ones (*cough*Kingkiller Chronicle*cough*). I definitely will pick up Last Argument of Kings (Book 3) and the other stand-alone works that follow up the main story. The Circle of the World is a far too interesting place to leave any story untold!

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Wednesday Links - 6 April 2016

Yikes, I was remiss in my linkage for a while there. It's been a period of transition—well, still is—so there's that. This week it's a potpourri of land-and-water economics, science fiction that people usually don't think of, super cartoonishly racist dystopian books, super cartoonishly stupid ways to serve food, and more!

One of the things I started getting really interested in is urban planning. Yeah, like literally zoning laws and transportation policy, which is weird because those are exactly the things that six-year-old me couldn't understand about SimCity 2000. Yet it probably shouldn't be that weird: given that I live in Seattle, one of the current crucibles of urban-planning debates, it should come as no surprise that I'm starting to find this fascinating, nor that Seattle has some really good blogs covering the ins and outs of good policy. See now this article in The Urbanist, explaining an alternative economic model to the supply-demand curve that seems to better explain housing patterns. Read it while riding the new Link light rail between Capitol Hill and the University of Washington!

And in the lighter side of bad urban planning, our very own Federal Way has made it into StreetsBlogUSA's "Parking Madness" Final Four! Yay? (But really, check out the aerial photo. It's embarrassing.

The invisible hand tickles some fish: setting quotas and giving out fishing permits is, according to a new study, the best way to save the world's fisheries from annihilation. Better yet, with proper regulation they could bounce back to full and sustainable health as early as 2050. It turns out that, at least for dynamic resources like fish (that tend to be hard to monitor closely) it can be a good idea to adopt a trust-but-verify strategy: the vast majority of fishers will want to continue fishing and not lose out, so they will also want to report bad actors.

Sometimes Twitter can be a force for good after all: it helped to deconvert a member of Fred Phelps' notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

From The Week: "The dystopian, anti-immigration book The Camp of the Saints is really racist. So why are a bunch of smart conservatives praising it?" I feel like "So why are a bunch of smart conservatives praising it?" has been a common question about a lot of things recently. See also the Trumpenstein.

We Want Plates is a photo blog documenting the absurdities that some restaurants serve their food (or "victuals," or "edibles" or...) on—anything but a simple plate, no matter how impractical. I think "wasabi spongecake on a tree" is perhaps the most sublime.

David Brin makes a case for the Sixth Amendment (Specifically, its guarantee of the rights of accused persons "to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him [and] to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor [...]") as the best weapon against "Big Brother"-style abuses of surveillance power, rather than the oft-cited First Amendment. Meanwhile, some people have looked at the Third Amendment (basically the twelve-sided die of the Bill of Rights amendments), but the arguments there are much more circumspect.

The other thing I've been getting into more (though it's always been obvious) is science fiction, its history, and its genre norms. One odd thing is that many criticisms often mistake sf literature as being only (or at least mostly) Buck-Rodgers-type pew-pew-guns-and-robots-and-save-the-space-princess stories of Manly Men of Science. Well, that stuff exists, but the best sf (and there is a lot of it) is much more interesting and complicated. It should come as no surprise that movie studios and radio/television producers grabbed the pew-pew stuff, because it's easy. (Mass media settling for easy over quality? What a shock!)

To that end, here are two lists of diverse-er sf stories, from African-American and feminist authors, respectively. I think "African American genre fiction" is probably a safer description of the first list, as (notwithstanding the author's well-taken point that many black people weren't allowed to access the kinds of sub-cultures that gave rise to sf) many of the stories were written in the 19th century, whereas I think one can justifiably argue that sf really got its start as a 20th-c. (post-WW1) phenomenon. More amusingly, I have books by several of the authors on the black sf list, and I didn't even know they were black! So I guess that's sort of part of the problem, isn't it...