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Why why YA?

3rd Feb. 2016 | 07:36 pm

My reading rate has slowed over the last couple of months, and I’m trying to decide why. I’ve been having trouble concentrating while reading, and scenes with social awkwardness have made me uncomfortable in a way violence and open hostility can never do.

Thousand Pieces of You coverI recently finished A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray tonight, 2 ½ weeks after starting it. It usually doesn’t take that long for me to read a book; Strange Country by Deborah Coates, a book of similar length (about 350 pages), took me only five days. Was my difficulty internal, or did it have something to do with Thousand Pieces itself?

On one hand, my enthusiasm for my reading materials has certainly diminished over the last couple of months. Protagonists embarrassing themselves has made me even more uncomfortable than usual, and several times this month I’ve had to close a book after a protagonist did something severely stupid. Several times I put Strange Country aside for a few moments or even a night to read something else. Two Christmas gifts from my wife that I was anticipating reading — It Happened on a Train and Danger Goes Berserk — should have taken me a night or two to read, but the latter took me four days. Danger is not a complicated book; it’s written at the level of a Hardy Boys book (because it’s a parody of a Hardy Boys book). Late last year, I also found it difficult to get through The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty, but I blamed that on Shambling Guide’s clichéd romantic entanglements and a narrator who waved away the immensely difficult work she had to do. I didn’t consider that my slowed reading speed be part of a trend. Maybe it was just the beginning …

On the other hand, Thousand Pieces struck me as more young adult than most of the YA novels I’ve read. Gray captures the teenage voice, unpolished but full of emotion, in a way that’s remarkable for its rarity. But for me, that makes the book less appealing; I prefer more refined prose and a distance from a book’s emotional context, as my discomfort with social tension shows.

In Thousand Pieces, Marguerite, the teenage daughter of physicists, pursues the man she thinks killed her father through alternate dimensions. Accompanying one of her parents’ graduate assistants on this mission, they discover the man they are pursuing (another of her parents’ GAs) isn’t the murderer, a fact the reader will have figured out long ahead of Marguerite. If the reader makes the jump to the next logical suspect, the reader will not be wrong. Marguerite becomes a London socialite and a Romanov princess before going home; she discovers true love and (somewhat surprisingly) has sex … but that’s in another dimension, and another body. Should this matter? No, no, it should not, but it does to everyone. Ah, young love — everything is simultaneously so simple and so complicated.

I think my problem is more with Thousand Pieces than myself, though. I managed to finish People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, an even longer book, in just a few days. This isn’t a reflection on Thousand Pieces’ quality, but more a statement that it just doesn’t catch my interest.

Maybe I should avoid YA if I’m uncomfortable with awkward emotion? Yes, that might be the lesson here.

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Three Things about ... the Dragonlance Campaign Setting (3.5)

29th Jan. 2016 | 01:40 am

Three things about the Dragonlance Campaign Setting by Margaret Weis and Don Perrin, with Jamie Chambers and Christopher Coyle:

Dragonlance Adventures cover
  1. Not one penny for indexing: This book could have benefited from a few editorial additions. There is no index, for instance, and no good, single map of the world to allow readers to relate the maps of different regions to one another; there are few descriptions of characters or magic items, something the first edition Dragonlance Adventures had in spades. There are umpteen pages for dragon flight rules and a nice color map of the constellations, but there’s no room for a double-paged map of Ansalon or third-edition stats of Raistlin Majere or Tanis Half-Elven? Or even Palin Majere, for heaven’s sake?

    At least there are 3rd edition statistics (technically, 3.5) for Draconians. Frankly, that’s the only reason I kept the book.

  2. The way the world turns: I’ve always been more of a Dragonlance fan than a Forgotten Realms reader, but I can’t help but think that after reading the two campaign settings that the Forgotten Realms seems so much better put together. Part of it is that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting gives so much more detail of its world; the book describes so many different nooks and crannies than the Dragonlance Campaign Setting does. Sure, the FRCS has 32 more pages, but that’s not that many. The small type in the FRCS does make it look like they’re trying to cram everything they can into one book, but isn’t that what the reader usually wants? The DCS is a much easier read, with its larger type, plenty of white space, and generous margins, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to stuff the reader with information. Whereas the FRCS has dozens of magic items and NPCs, the DCS has but a few of each. Where the FRCS has decent maps (including a folded, pull-out version!) and an index, the DCS has neither.

    Another point about the presentation: while the Forgotten Realms relates the history of the Realms so that you can see how the setting got into its current mess, the DCS presents the different eras of Ansalon as different settings for campaigns, static moments without historical movement. Moreover, sometimes you can see the cracks in the history, where it has been broken by a quick reversal of editorial direction. Most of Dragonlance’s history since the War of the Lance feels like it has been whipsawing back and forth looking for a solid direction:

    • OK, there’s no magic and no gods;
    • now there’s an infestation of evil dragons;
    • wait, wait: there are dragon overlords, of hideous size, from other worlds causing the land to change in hideous ways;
    • this time I’ve got it: the dragons are killed, and the gods return, except Takhisis, who is killed, and Paladine, who has to give up his divinity to balance things out.

    Honestly. The world of Krynn goes hundreds of years with the status quo of good driving the evil dragons from the land (Age of Dreams). Then, the good humans run things for hundreds of years before the gods get sick of them and drop a mountain on them (Age of Might). Then there are a few hundred years without gods (Age of Despair). These are fairly stable periods, when things changed slowly. Even during the War of the Lance, the status quo shifted in slow, perceivable ways. But in the Age of Mortals — just a couple of human generations — there’s a new development every little whipstitch. Psychologically damaged kender! The end of the Towers of Sorcery! Minotaur invasions!

    Although I have to admit I wouldn’t have minded a little more information on the Dragon Overlords. They’re gone now, so even if there was a 4th or 5th edition Dragonlance book, I probably wouldn’t get that info.

  3. Stupid sexy centaurs: There is a drawing of an obviously female centaur that accompanies the entry on the centaurs, which players can choose for their characters’ race. This brings up two thoughts, and I’m not sure which is worse: that my first thought was, “I’ve never heard of centaurs in Krynn,” or that the second was, “Why have I never realized that there were female centaurs before?”

    I think there were some centaurs early on in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, but that’s a pretty slim thread to hang a PC race on. As for the second, I think it’s because of classical definition of the centaur: they reproduced (forcibly or not) with human women. I suppose there could have been daughters of those unions, but … I dunno. It still feels wrong, though, that that centaur isn’t wearing any underwear. (But it never bothered me that male centaurs went through life Donald Duck style, so what do I know?)

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On the Theme of Bond

7th Nov. 2015 | 12:43 am

Goldfinger posterSpectre, the new James Bond film, was released in America yesterday. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the new Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall,” by Sam Smith. When I first heard it, I was so bored I dozed off about a minute into it; it turns out the entire song takes that concentrated boredom and somehow manages to amplify and stretch it out to fill an entire song. Impressive, really, in its own way.

But a new Bond song invites comparison to old Bond songs. Is it the worst Bond song? No, not at all. My extreme disinterest aside, it’s a middling pop song dedicated to one of the most exciting fictional spies and his chief adversaries, with a bit of John Barry bolted on to remind you that it’s a Bond song. (Sort of the way modern country music stars wear cowboy hats and boots, so that they can remind you and themselves of what genre they’re supposed to be.)

There are better Bond themes, of course. Here are all the previous Bond themes — excepting Barry’s Dr. No James Bond theme, because it’s in every Bond movie — listed in order of best to worst:
  1. “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey. It is the — and I’m not asking you to pardon the pun, but if you hold it against me, I can’t promise you won’t be terminated — gold standard of Bond themes. Bassey’s strong, brassy vocals mesh with the orchestral strings and brass like vodka and vermouth. More importantly, Bassey does not sing the praise of the title villain; she tells you of his evil. You can’t say you haven’t been warned about the kinds of things Auric will do during the best Bond movie.
  2. “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings. Alternately contemplative and bombastic, “Live and Let Die” owes little to previous Bond songs and succeeds because of that. The explosive opening chorus puts this above its closest competitors, although McCartney as a vocalist is no Bassey. Still, this song lives up to the billing of “written by Paul McCartney.”
  3. “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran (which is neither a Duran nor a Duran). The contrast with the previous three Bond themes makes “View” even better; I can almost imagine Simon le Bon using records of “Moonraker,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “All Time High” for target practice, gleefully blowing them to smithereens. “View” is rock and jagged edges, intrigue and danger, and it deserves to be associate with a better Bond outing than this movie. (For that matter, so did Patrick McNee, who played an MI-6 agent.)
  4. “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell (from Casino Royale). Cornell’s raw vocals and driving guitar heralded a new era for the films, one with a more violent, more blunt Bond. You can argue it’s not classy enough for a movie named for a Monte Carlo casino, but c’mon — they’re playing Texas Hold ‘em in Monte Carlo, and the movie has a parkour sequence. A rock song with occasionally screamed vocals is a perfect fit.
  5. “The World Is Not Enough” by Garbage. Shirley Manson’s vocals are as slinky as a low-cut evening gown, and the chorus is almost criminally catchy. The electronic touches that Garbage gives the song set it apart from its forebears, but the orchestral bits are solid Bond.
  6. “The Living Daylights” by A-ha. Similar in some ways but more low-key than the previous theme, “A View to a Kill,” “Daylights” is another excellent Bond theme. Whereas “View” relies on high-energy danger, “Daylights” chooses a more melancholy, solitary tension in its music and lyrics. The New Wave-y, saxophone-accented tune is quintessentially ‘80s without being cheesy — perfect for the new James Bond of the ‘80s, Timothy Dalton.
  7. “Nobody Does it Better” by Carly Simon. This one works better than the other slow, ballad-y soft rock themes because of Simon’s and the lyrics’ ambivalence to Bond’s greatness: “Nobody does it better / Although sometimes I wish someone would,” Simon sings wistfully. Also, lyricist Carole Bayer Singer manages to work the movie’s awkward title, The Spy Who Loved Me, effortlessly into one of the verses.
  8. “Diamonds Are Forever” by Shirley Bassey. Bassey’s second attempt isn’t as good as “Goldfinger,” but what is? Bassey’s vocals fit the jaded lyrics perfectly. “Diamonds” also sounds surprisingly modern, something its contemporaries can’t brag about.
  9. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” by the John Barry Orchestra. The only orchestral theme other than the iconic Dr. No theme, this one is heavy with menace: heavy brass and a Moog bassline. (You can hear its influence in some of the ‘70s themes as well.) The reason it’s an instrumental? Because John Barry decided it would be too hard to fit the movie title into the lyrics. Good thinking.
  10. “Goldeneye” by Tina Turner. “License to Kill” was an underwhelming theme, but the producers went with a somewhat similar artist to sing “Goldeneye,” and it works much better. Written by Bono and the Edge of U2, Turner’s vocals are sharp at the peak of her late-career renaissnance. The synth beat is a nice touch, although it can only carry the song so far. On the negative side, the word “Goldeneye” has nothing to do with the rest of the lyrics — it’s just something Turner keeps repeating to remind you what movie you’re watching.
  11. “From Russia with Love” by Matt Monro. Interestingly, this song isn’t used prominently in the movie; it plays on a radio while Bond is romancing a woman and then over the film’s end credits. It’s not a bad little love song, but it’s not a memorable one either.
  12. “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra. Many people appreciate the faux-Oriental aspects of “You Only Live Twice,” but they make me almost as uncomfortable as Sean Connery posing as Japanese in the movie. The lyrics are wistful, but they’re a bit too wistful for this movie; Bond loses another lover, but that happened twice in Goldfinger, and none of those three women are as important to Bond as Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The Western strings are great, though.
  13. “License to Kill” by Gladys Knight. After “Living Daylights,” Bond moved back into more familiar territory: a ballad-y song from a female artist with a strong voice and excellent range. Unfortunately, the lyrics are as forgettable as the movie, and the music struggles to keep up with Knight’s energy, even if it does rip off the horn line from “Goldfinger.”
  14. “Tomorrow Never Dies” by Sheryl Crow. Well. This song certainly exists, I’ll give it that. I even usually remember that it exists. The music sounds like a stripped-down Bond song (or maybe a sincere cover version); the lyrics are about what it’s like to be a Bond girl. Neither is all that exciting.
  15. “Thunderball” by Tom Jones. “Thunderball” isn’t the name the villain — Operation Thunderball is a MI6 mission in the film — but the lyrics are clearly about the antagonist, who “strikes like thunderball.” The song was a late addition to the film, which explains the ham-handedness in shoving the title into the song. Unlike Bassey with “Goldfinger,” Jones isn’t warning you about the villain (Emile Largo); the song is more a laundry list of his attributes, most of which refer to his selfishness. (Or Ayn-Randiness.) Jones gives it a game try, but smooth vocals and a final, tremendous high note can’t save this confused theme.
  16. “Skyfall” by Adele. I do not understand why “Skyfall” is so lauded. Adele’s vocals put me to sleep — in all her songs, not just this — and this seems an especially somnolent effort to me. “Skyfall” has an especially slow build, and the first two minutes are a struggle to get through. And if the vocals aren’t there, the barely-there music isn’t going to make an impact.
  17. “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys (from Quantum of Solace). This guitar rock theme doesn’t work as well as “You Know My Name.” Jangling guitars and out-of-sync vocal styles make this a bit of a mess that the Barry-like touches can’t smooth over.
  18. “The Man with the Golden Gun” by Lulu. Like “Thunderball,” it’s a laundry list of the villain’s selfish characteristics, but neither Lulu nor the music seems to take his menace seriously. Also, having Roger Moore recite some of the lyrics when he’s asked about the movie’s villain makes the song seem even sillier. You may assume there is a sexual innuendo in the title, if you will; I don’t think it changes anything.
  19. “Moonraker” by Shirley Bassey. Bassey had to record this song at the last moment, and it shows; on short notice, not even she can elevate a slow song with forgettable lyrics and no real chance to display her voice.
  20. “Die Another Day” by Madonna. Who would have thought the electronically altered voice of Madonna would have been such a bad fit for a Bond theme? Perhaps Sigmund Freud!
  21. “For Your Eyes Only” by Sheena Easton. The second in an embarrassing troika of consecutive Bond themes, “For Your Eyes Only” followed “Moonraker” and immediately gave the Bond themes a low-wattage addition that is best forgotten. In that, it certainly matched the movie. It’s like the song was meant to suppress all of Easton’s personality and energy. After listening to this tune, I imagine Easton spending the rest of the ‘80s in a coma, with an occasional snatch of lyrics coming out of her mouth. Are they part of a conscious process? Is she just dreaming? Who knows?
  22. “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge (from Octopussy). And the last of the three back-to-back-to-back awful themes: an embarrassingly bad song for a merely bad Bond movie with an embarrassing title. (Fortunately, “Octopussy” is not part of lyrics.) The adult-contemporary sound of this song makes it sound as if that high were a week-long heroin nod. The Washington Post review uses “lethargy” to describe Coolidge’s performance, and I can’t improve on that.
I haven’t heard “The Writing’s on the Wall” enough to be sure where it goes, but my initial hunch is that it fits above “The Man with the Golden Gun.” I certainly wouldn’t put it any higher.

“We Have All the Time in the World,” performed by Louis Armstrong and with lyrics by Hal David, can be considered an additional theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; the lyrics fit the movie extremely well — the title is taken from Bond’s final dialogue in the movie — but the music is a bit too poppy for the solemnity of that scene to make it an outstanding Bond theme. (Put it between “You Only Live Twice” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.”) For those who are curious, “Never Say Never Again” by Lani Hall — the theme for the non-Bond Bond film starring Sean Connery — is tied with “For Your Eyes Only,” which is sad, but there you go. The “Casino Royale” theme from the original, 1967 comedy starring (among other) Peter Sellers and Woody Allen ranks … ranks … you know, I can’t remember the theme for the life of me. Give me a moment …

No, I have to draw the line somewhere, and ranking Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass performing a Burt Bacharach song is that exact place. If I go on, I’ll be commenting on Weird Al’s “Spy Hard,” and that’s not something anyone wants to do.

If you want to read rankings by insane people, Watch Mojo and Rolling Stone both have lists. But they’re wrong. I realize my list isn’t divine law or anything, but you could do worse than take a hammer and chisel and copy it down on a convenient bit of slate.

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Mutant Misadventures in Anatomy (Part II)

4th Nov. 2015 | 01:44 am

So last time I discussed the horrific anatomy present on the cover of Psylocke & Archangel: Crimson Dawn #2. It was awful and pointless and supposed to be titillating, but it looked asinine.

In addition to the less-than-appealing art, the series had a plot. Really! In an X-Men story, Psylocke had been gutted by Sabretooth, and Archangel (her boyfriend) and Wolverine had saved her life with a mystic force called the Crimson Dawn. (Hence the name of this miniseries.) What the Crimson Dawn did and why it healed Psylocke has been left vague, and writer Ben Raab is supposed to give some answers in the series.

He kinda does. By the time #4 has rolled around, Psylocke has been mystically summoned / kidnapped / beaten to pay back her debt to the Crimson Dawn. How does she do that? She serves the new master of the Crimson Dawn as one of his “Undercloaks,” which are shadowy mystic ninjas. Wait — Marvel already has shadowy mystic ninjas: they’re called the Hand, and Wolverine and Daredevil beat them by the dozen. How are the Undercloaks different?

They are extradimensional, I suppose. And they are beaten up by Archangel, a guy whose only power is to fly. He doesn’t carry a gun or even a lead pipe; he just flies. If you’re a ninja, it’s hard to recover from the embarrassment of being punched out by ol’ Featherwings …

Anyway, all this boils down to Psylocke being mystically transformed into a different kind of ninja, which gives us this opening splash page from Psylocke & Archangel: Crimson Dawn #4:

Splash page from Psylocke & Archangel: Crimson Dawn #4

Her skin color has been changed to blue, obviously. (Or maybe, like Tobias Funke, she just blue herself.) She’s fully clothed, for once, which just goes to show that not all changes have to be bad. Her psychic knife is perpendicular to her right hand, which is strange — it doesn’t seem like she should be able to wield it that way. Maybe we just can’t see her left hand, which is holding the psychic blade. But if her left hand is there, then …

What’s …

That’s not …


It appears Psylocke’s transformation into an Undercloak has gifted / cursed her with a vagina hand. She’s using that hoohah hand to toss shuriken at Archangel, although given that Archangel is literally — literally! — a leg’s length away from her, and one shuriken has almost fallen to the ground and the other two have already reoriented themselves to have their flat side toward the target, I’m guessing the extra extremity doesn’t make Cooch Hand Liz* any more effective.

Now I’m wondering if all the female Undercloaks have this extra hand. And maybe the males have their own as well! Use your own imagination about where this extra fist should pop out of, because I don’t want to have to think about it.

*I’m very sorry about this. But I’m also very proud.

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Mutant Misadventures in Anatomy (Part I)

28th Oct. 2015 | 02:39 am

I know I’m probably not the first to point this out, and I probably won’t be the last, but no human’s body is built to bend like Psylocke’s does on this cover:

Psylocke and Archangel: Crimson Dawn #2 cover

Or maybe I will be the last person to comment on it. It’s the cover to Psylocke & Archangel: Crimson Dawn #2, an almost 20-year-old comic that wasn’t very good and is about two second-tier X-Men characters with confusing backstories. This issue covers part of Psylocke’s backstory, but it’s not like it does so in an entertaining or clear way.

What I’m more interested in is how this cover came to be published. Obviously Psylocke is being drawn in a way so that her face is directed toward the reader, but the reader also gets a butt-shot. An innovation, I suppose, since the only character I can remember being posed anything like this is Spider-Man, a loose-limbed hero who gets contorted into unbelievable shapes all the time. (I’d be curious if any of the Spider-Women had covers like this, but I doubt it — they most likely weren’t popular enough to have many covers in the ‘90s, which was the heyday of awkward, “sexy” poses like this.)

Besides the horrific butt / thigh / leg abomination, I don’t think Psylocke’s head could fit on her body as contorted, either, and I’m not sure about her arms. She’s a ninja, though, so I’ll let the arms go. The head and butt and leg … This isn’t even considering Archangel; I defy you to keep your lower back flat like he has it and be able to have his pectorals at an almost 90-degree angle to his abs.

Anyway. So the editor is looking at this, probably approving of the “sexiness” and probably also approving of the ninjas, despite the ninjas being poor at ninja-ing; one of them is being humiliated by non-metal winged Archangel and another is failing to stab him in the back. How does he not see the anatomical improbability of Psylocke on this cover? I see three possibilities:
  • The editor, Matt Idelson, didn’t care. This is a miniseries written by Ben Raab, never a star, and drawn by Salvador Larroca, who I remember being big-ish at the time. Idelson might have been concerned with making sure Raab didn’t do anything stupid, and he’s just glancing at the cover to make sure the cover artist, Liquid! (a studio rather than a person), didn’t draw inappropriate crotch bulges or nipples. Maybe he was more worried about ethnic slurs in the text and inappropriate body parts in the art.

  • The time pressure was too great. Everybody saw the problem, but there was no time to correct it. I doubt if pushing back an issue of Psylocke & Archangel: Crimson Dawn would cause major repercussions, but what do I know? Maybe it was the lynch pin of the entire Marvel publishing plan. Or maybe it was pushed ahead because Marvel was in bankruptcy protection, and needing the cash flow, it couldn't justify the delay.

  • It’s an optical illusion. Like when “the” is placed on two consecutive different lines (as in “Paris in the the springtime,” the editors’ minds fixed on Psylocke’s ass, which looks normal, and to the thigh, which also looks normal, without ever noticing that they don’t look right together.
I’m not holding this up as the worst comic art ever, or even really an astonishingly bad one. This is just one example of a bad comic art, one that was lucky to come out before the Web was something everyone used. But I am honestly fixated on the process of how this came to published. If it was Liefeld or McFarlane or another artist whose name sold comics, I can see an editor shrugging and telling him- or herself, “That’s what the readers want.” But this is Liquid!, a studio best known for its coloring. Why wouldn’t you tell them, “This isn’t good enough”?

Maybe it was good enough. Huh. I hadn't considered that. Maybe it was just part of the accepted aesthetic that torturing the human anatomy was fine, as long as it put more a. on the cover. (Maybe Idelman disapproved of the relatively small amount of t. shown but let it pass anyway.)

I can’t help poking at this cover, like someone with a sore tooth. I must keep testing. How could this have happened?

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My Thoughts, Once Again, on the Wild Card in Baseball

15th Oct. 2015 | 01:49 am

[expletive deleted]. [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted], those [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] goat [expletive deleted] that would [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] a beachball until it [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] and then -- then! -- [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] an [expletive deleted] stuffed rabbit, again and again, before [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted].

[expletive deleted].

Lost to a third-place team. [expletive deleted].

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Down in Egypt

30th Sep. 2015 | 03:10 am

I grew up in Southern Illinois, a land also called “Little Egypt.” Down Don’t Bother Me, a mystery novel by Jason Miller, is set in Southern Illinois. Few books are set in Egypt, so Down aroused my curiosity. It’s a pretty good story, full of noir atmosphere, coal mining, and economic distress. If you like stories about common guys who get in over their heads after being pressured to insert themselves in a criminal investigation they have no business being in, then Down is an enjoyable use of your time and money.

Down Don’t Bother Me coverHowever, I bought Down mainly because it was set in Southern Illinois. Unfortunately, the Southern Illinois in Down Don’t Bother Me is not the Southern Illinois I grew up in. I understand one must allow the author liberties, and Miller has obviously taken Southern Illinois and crammed it into the role a noir setting must fulfill: danger, poverty, corruption, a place for bad men to fester into worse. But reading it made me reconsider my perceptions of the land I grew up in.

Comparing Miller’s Southern Illinois to the one in my memory is unfair, since I grew up more than two decades ago, and I haven’t lived in Southern Illinois in more than a decade. Down is set very much in the present, and things change over the years. Additionally, when I was growing up, I had a child’s understanding of my surroundings, and I might not have understood the violence inherent in unions and mines at the time. That should explain a lot of the differences between Down and my memories without putting either version forward as gospel.

Part of the difference is my perception of the economic viability of the mines and the United Mine Workers of America’s fall from power — and, frankly, the decline in the power of all unions. In Down, mines are seemingly a hairsbreadth from closing, and the UMWA is nowhere to be found. Admittedly, the UMWA has been in a tailspin for decades; I was shocked to hear the last union mine in Kentucky had closed. And a little research shows that, as Miller’s characters point out, union mines in Illinois are almost gone. But as a graph in the latter link shows, Illinois coal production is the highest it’s been in a quarter century. Also, a few years ago a mining company threw a lot of money around to open White Oak #1, which employs almost 300 people, in the county I grew up in. One incident is not a trend, but it does show I have a slightly a different frame of reference than what Miller describes, even if he’s indisputably right about the union.

Both my parents were members of unions: my father in the ‘70s and ‘80s, working a couple of factory jobs, and my mother in the ‘00s, working in a municipal employees union. Dad’s union in the ‘80s went on strikes frequently — well, it felt frequent, although it was probably the threat of strikes that were frequent. His employers in both jobs do what employers do to unions they can’t beat: they ran away, moving the factory somewhere where workers didn’t feel they can say no to whatever crap employers dished out. Since my mother worked for the county government, her employers couldn’t do that — can’t outsource government to a non-union state (yet). As such, she has the pension that is held out as an inducement to Down‘s protagonist, Slim, the entire novel. When Slim talks to the sheriff of Randolph County, the sheriff seems like he’d shoot someone for a pension too, but he should be a member of the same union my mother was — and Mom has her pension.

Another part of the dissonance between Miller’s Egypt and mine is the violence and deaths in the mines. Miller’s characters talk about frequent deaths in the mines, both from accidents and violence. I have not had much that much contact with miners; one of my cousins worked in a mine until he died a little more than a decade ago. (It had nothing to do with the mines; he was killed in a rodeo training accident.) Admittedly, the mine in the town where I went to high school shut down thirty years ago, and the accidents from other mines that I would expect to see in the newspaper and local news might not have been newsworthy, showing up only in the obits. Or maybe they happened frequently, and I filtered it out. One death in the mines every few months or so might have been merely background noise for a child. Who can understand mortality rates as a 10 year old?

To an extent, the violence Slim’s union-leader father suffers and carries out — murders and counter-murders — feels like something out of the first quarter of the 20th century, not the ‘70s. I wasn’t alive for part of the ‘70s, and I wasn’t all that perceptive for the rest, but the news carried stories of strikes in my childhood. The printing plant my father worked for went on strike in the ‘80s; the teachers at my school went on strike. (Some school district in Southern Illinois went on strike every year; someone should have started a gambling pool to guess which one.) Yet I don’t remember anything harsher than pointed rhetoric passing between labor and management.

I have less trouble believing the numerous deaths the characters say are caused by the meth trade. Since the meth epidemic arose after I left the area, that detail does not clash with my memories of the area.

And then there’s the corruption. Rich people controlling local governments, especially law enforcement, is a staple of noir fiction, but I have a hard time believing a mine owner could avoid jail and large fines after being responsible for large-scale pollution and the murder of a fellow mine owner. I don’t feel like that level of corruption is or was present in Southern Illinois, especially given that the area being polluted in Down, Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, is a federal wildlife refuge, so the people making the final decisions to prosecute that violation wouldn’t be local. Then again, local corruption is present in Southern Illinois; barely a month ago the housing authority in Alexander County was accused of misusing public funds for years to line the pockets of the director.

The largest component of the dissonance is where I lived. I grew up in a county where the mines had closed, surrounded by people who worked as farmers, teachers, and (after the mines closed) prison guards. It’s hard to outsource education, so the teachers’ union had more bargaining power; the prisons were already outsourced, so to speak, since the rest of the state didn’t want the prisoners in their back yard. Even though Miller and I went to high school only 30 miles apart, his upbringing was probably far different, especially given that his father worked in a mine. (Miller was raised in Johnston City; I looked up where he grew up before I read the book, but I didn't need to, since Johnston City is the only community that gets far more description than it needs.)

I’ve expressed doubts about my own perceptions of reality above, but I’m more confident that Miller has warped geography for his own purposes. Slim travels between Randolph County and Herrin in no time. (And without mentioning Perry County much.) Although Slim talks about “country distances,” he seems to travel at speeds I was never able to attain. Man, I tried, too. If I had to go between two places more than once, I would try to find alternate routes to improve my time, but it was hard to shave off more than a few minutes, and that was if I was traveling for an hour. Miller covers that in a standard note at the beginning of the book, writing off geographical inconsistencies to “the whim of the author.”

That disclaimer only goes so far, though. For instance, I don’t think you chalk up the protagonist getting beat up on the shoulder of Highway 13, the area’s most traveled road, without drawing a great deal of attention from passersby or the police as a “whim.”

But maybe I just don’t understand Miller’s world at all. The main character named his daughter Anci, and he doesn’t feel the need to explain that decision. But Anci is a name that demands an explanation: is it short for something? Is it something her hippie mother came up with in a patchouli haze? Is it a family name? What would possess an adult human to name another human being “Anci”?

Then again, Slim points out miners give each another stupid names all the time. Maybe a stupid name is his way of passing on an inheritance to her.

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Final 2015 Hugos post

21st Aug. 2015 | 03:45 pm

The Hugo awards will be presented tomorrow night. For the last six years, I have read the nominees for the best novel award, with the exception last year of the entire Wheel of Time series. (Fourteen thick novels are too many for this penny-ante operation; that’s months of reading and time I’d never recover.)

This year, I have already read three nominees — Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu), and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison — because they were also nominated for the Nebula for best novel. None of them won, although I suspect one of them will win the Hugo. I doubt either of the other two nominees — Skin Game by Jim Butcher or The Dark between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson — will win.

I am not, however, declining to read those books because I think their prospects of winning are dim. I am not reading them because their nominations exemplify the worst kinds of tokenism, rewriting history to justify a self-victimization.

Those two books were pushed forward as part of an organized voting bloc of fans called the Rabid Puppies (and to a lesser extent a similar bloc called Sad Puppies). This bloc, rallied by horrible human being (?) Theodore Beale, pushed a slate that pushed mainly white male authors in response to an increasing amount of non-white, female authors and viewpoints that had garnered awards. You can read an encapsulation of the controversy around the Internet; suffice it to say that many were unamused by Beale’s campaign, so much so that two nominees pushed onto the final ballot by the Rabid Puppies refused the nomination. (One of those who withdrew from consideration was Marko Kloos, whose Lines of Departure was on the best novel list.)

I hold no animosity toward Butcher or Anderson or their works. Both have strong fan followings that are no doubt deserved, and I’m sure they will continue to enjoy their fans’ support. But I have trouble believing that the fifteenth novel in the Harry Dresden series is finally the one that fans like so much to nominate for the best novel Hugo; I don’t believe that a space-opera epic by Kevin J. Anderson, which has gotten little critical buzz beyond the Hugos, is one of the five best speculative fiction novels of 2014.

Either one of these books could win the award, I suppose. It’s the fans’ award, and the fans will vote for whomever they want. Do they want Skin Game or The Dark between the Stars? Possibly. (I would choose Ancillary Sword, but that is because it’s the least flawed of the three remaining, more ambitious, nominees.) But given the obvious bias that went into putting them on the ballot, neither of them should win, and I want no part in legitimizing their place on the ballot.

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Questions posed by Crooked by Austin Grossman

4th Aug. 2015 | 03:08 pm

So in Crooked, Austin Grossman’s new novel, Richard Nixon battles dark, Lovecraftian forces, as President Dwight Eisenhower did before him. This raises a few questions:

1) If you had to bet on a winner of Dick Nixon vs. Cthulhu, who would you put your money on? (Grossman nerfs Nixon’s abilities, so Crooked is not a fair representation of the battle.)

2) If you had to root for either Nixon or Cthulhu, who would you choose?

3) That last one is too easy, of course. But here’s a better one: what if Cthulhu were Communist? Who’d you want to win then?

Crooked, of course, takes a lot of liberties with Nixon’s life and career, but one thing Grossman gets absolutely right is that Nixon faked his own death. (That’s not a spoiler; it’s revealed very early on in the book.) Nixon is still out there, somewhere, waiting to make his ultimate comeback.

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Hoye Crest, Maryland

3rd Aug. 2015 | 02:32 am

Sign for highest point in Maryland, even though the sign is in West VirginiaIf you are on West Virginia route 219 and you see this sign, you might think, “Oh, how nice! A quick little jaunt, and I can say I’ve been to the highest point in the state of Maryland.” (I know you think that way. Don’t deny it.)

But be warned: To get to the highest point, Hoye Crest, you’ll have to walk 1 mile, and you’ll gain more than 600 feet of altitude. (Which, if my math is correct — and it probably isn’t — comes out to more than an 11 percent grade.) It is almost all uphill; you won’t lose any altitude on the climb, and the only near flat bits are when you approach the top.

But hey! After that mile and 600 feet, you can say you’ve been to the highest point in Maryland! (It will be a thrill you someday will tell your grandkids — your incredibly bored grandkids.)

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2014 Nebulas: Compare!

6th Jun. 2015 | 03:36 pm

I have to admit, I am disappointed with this year’s crop of Nebula nominees.

I made the decision not to break down the books by facet and give them ratings this year on a whim. I decided I wanted the freedom for my little posts to go wherever they led when I wrote them, but as it turned out, I used the old rating system as a guide for what to write about anyway. So the freedom thing didn’t work out that much.

Still, I’m glad I didn’t use a rating system this year, as I think it would have looked as if I was recommending one book more enthusiastically than the others. Let me be clear: this year, no book clearly stood out among the nominees, either as a winner or as a book I will remember in a few years. No book made an impression like Ancillary Justice and The Ocean at the End of the Lane last year; no book unexpectedly electrified me like The Drowning Girl two years ago or God’s War three years ago.

I was (and remain) puzzled why Coming Home by Jack McDevitt and Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon were nominated. The former was an enjoyable enough book, and the latter represents a subgenre that perhaps does not get all the respect it deserves, but I saw nothing that truly elevated them above the mass of books released last year. Each of them was a series book, which sapped their ability to surprise and innovate; neither of them said anything surprising.

Rationales for the other books are easier to construct. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is a sequel to last year’s Nebula and Hugo winner. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the first English language release by one of China’s most prominent science fiction authors, and the novelty (and fresh viewpoint) of a major Chinese science fiction release is compelling. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is atmospheric and well written. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is … “hopeful” and conflict averse, which I must admit is novel — fiction is often supposed to be about conflict, yet Addison put together a novel that avoids it as much as possible.

But each of these have flaws — deep flaws, to be honest. Ancillary Justice and Annihilation suffer from being merely a part of a larger story; the latter because the story doesn’t advance enough and its consequences are seemingly so much less than the first book in the series, and the latter because it is too obviously only part of the story, which given the book’s length (only 195 pages) feels like a cheat. The Three-Body Problem’s antagonists are goofier than they are menacing, and readers are subjected to the world’s worst MMORPG (that most people are uninterested is mentioned in the book, though). The protagonist in The Goblin Emperor hopes, and does little else.

If I had to choose one of these nominees to win award, it would be Annihilation. It was the only book that made me feel anything other than annoyance, and its brevity never let me get tired of reading it. Its concept was fresher and stronger than any of the other books’. The unsatisfying ending is mitigated by the other two books in the trilogy being released within months (although that mitigation is, itself, unsatisfying when considering Annihilation’s merits).

If I had to guess which book would win the award, I would say the best bets are Ancillary Justice, riding on the goodwill, praise, and excitement of last year, or The Three-Body Problem, because of its novelty. I lean more toward Three-Body, in part because sci-fi literary heavyweight Ken Liu did the translation and in part because it’s more likely its excellence lies in my blind spot. It is possible I am missing some crucial element that makes Three-Body so widely praised; perhaps I cannot get beyond my own preconceptions and see its true merits. I do not know. I cannot see outside myself.

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2014 Nebula nominee #6: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

6th Jun. 2015 | 03:30 pm

Annihilation coverThe last of the Nebula nominees is actually the first that I read: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Annihilation, the first book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, follows four women sent to explore the bizarre Area X, a wild region that has a habit of destroying expeditions, although not through direct attacks. The unnamed narrator in Annihilation is part of the twelfth expedition into Area X … or that’s what she’s been told, anyway.

VanderMeer is aiming for creepy suspense, and he hits the mark. The biologist — the narrator is referred to only by her role, never by name — discovers the team leader, the psychologist, can control members of the team by post-hypnotic suggestion. Not her, though, which she surmises is because she inhaled a cloud of spores just after arriving in Area X — not exactly a reassuring immunity. The group also finds a shaft into the earth, which the biologist insists on calling a tower, for reasons even she does not understand; on the walls of the tower are written a rambling sentence in fungus. At the bottom is the creature writing the message, its intentions unclear. At a distant lighthouse, the biologist finds evidence that the Southern Reach, the corporation that sent her into Area X, has been lying to her about the history of Area X and the reason for exploring it. Between the lighthouse and tower are strange, somewhat human animals.

So: paranoia and danger abound.

The book’s main flaw is that it is too obviously the beginning of a trilogy. Annihilation ends with the biologist resolving to stay in Area X, but nothing is resolved about her journey or about the nature of Area X; the only closure is that the so-called twelfth expedition has ended. VanderMeer can’t reveal too much of the mystery; after all, the trilogy still has two more books to go. Still, I expected more to the ending than the unnamed biologist’s decision to roam the haunted Area X.

The lack of closure would be less unsatisfying if I felt much of a connection with the protagonist. However, there is not much to her. The narrator becomes withdrawn after her exposure to the spores; she is placid, almost stoned, at times when danger surrounds her. That and her anonymity makes it difficult to identify with the character and lessens the impact of her personal revelations. Who was she before she came to Area X? She has a deep interest in biology and she had a husband, who was on the previous expedition and came to a strange end. The biologist finds some answers about her husband, but she’s left with more supposition about him. Many of the book’s flashbacks go into their relationship, but I found it hard to sympathize with the relationship of unnamed reserved woman and outgoing unnamed man. (At least, I suppose, we did learn they were of different genders.)

This is not the first time VanderMeer has used fungus to frighten or give an alien feeling to his books. The antagonists in VanderMeer’s Ambergris books — City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch — all have a race of humanoid fungi as antagonists. In Finch, they have conquered Ambergris, and the entire city relies on unsettling fungoid technology: weapons, communications, even food are based on fungi. Still, fungi is a well that is not often gone to in other speculative fiction; even malevolent insects, I think, are used more often in science fiction / fantasy entertainment than fungus. That’s a shame, because fungi such as black mold are health problems in the real world, and playing off that fear would make for great fiction.

Despite what I perceived as flaws, Annihilation did leave me wanting answers, so it’s a success on that level. And with two more books in the series, that’s probably the best recommendation of Annihilation.

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2014 Nebula nominee #5: Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon

6th Jun. 2015 | 12:40 am

Trial by Fire coverIn Charles E. Gannon’s Fire with Fire, a Nebula nominee from last year, the world’s most perceptive man, Caine Riordan, talked with aliens, some of whom were hostile toward humans. At the end of Fire with Fire, humanity has been denied entrance to the very small alien United Nations, and dark times are prophesied.

In Trial by Fire, those dark times come to pass: In 2119, two races of aliens invade Earth for semi-mysterious reasons, setting up an occupation in Indonesia after brushing aside Earth’s space defenses. Riordan is still the main character in Trial, which is set mainly on Earth, but Gannon spends a lot of time with other (mostly military) viewpoint characters.

And that’s a relief, really. Trial by Fire is a modern take on a traditional military sci-fi book, and Riordan is not a soldier; he’s an analyst. His inexperience would interfere with what Gannon is trying to do in Trial: explain military sci-fi things. Weapons are described in loving detail. Ships … ships are not described in loving detail, although Gannon is sure to make sure we know there are a lot of different kinds of ships and drones. (He’s less clear on the different Earth factions that control these ships.) Physics is taken as seriously as I take baseball, although to be fair, Gannon doesn’t spend as much time explaining physics as I spend watching baseball in a week. (It’s a closer race than either of us would be comfortable with, I think.) Inferences based on evanescent data points are spun out into pages-long explanations about their meanings, which lead quickly into plans to exploit these conclusions. Military plans are … look, I hate using “porn” as a descriptor of non-sexual content more than anyone, but this is plan porn.

Holy God, sometimes I think half the book is taken up by describing the far-seeing, far-reaching plan that humans are using to destroy the invaders. No part of the plan is skipped; we even get a scene aboard freighters firing missiles — missiles whose only purpose is to confuse and harry the enemy anti-missile defense system. (That is, the missiles aren’t expected to do any damage.) The book is filled with leading questions, “Explain”s, “Huh?”s, and all manner of attempts by one character to elicit explication from another. Even when it is not in a queried character’s best interest, he or she feels compelled to answer, and answer in detail. The details! Often irrelevant, they are larded into the narrative so that no one can ever say, “I don’t understand,” without the author or someone else being able to say, “It’s clearly explained on pg. [x].” Gannon’s idea of subtlety is wrapping a brick in a thick, woolen sock before smashing someone in the head with it, over and over again.

As an example of what I mean: at one point an Australian soldier asks what a group American soldiers is doing in a part of Indonesia far from the main insurgency. The American officer responds — and I swear this is true — with an irrelevant three-page travelogue of how they got to the jungles of Indonesia. The character doesn’t even answer the question, but he takes three damn pages to do it. (Pages 286-8 in the TPB version, if you’re playing along at home.)

The aliens in Trial are defeated in part by an Indonesian insurgency supplied and often directed by other nations and by a dead spymaster’s long-term plan. Mostly they are defeated by ethics, the same sort of ethics that allow asymmetrical war to exist at all. That is, if these fearsome invaders were willing to venture upon genocide, then humanity could not have done anything about it. But by restricting themselves to the Indonesian battlefield and not taking hostages or choosing human targets indiscriminately, the invaders gave themselves a huge disadvantage — one the humans did not share, as they showed themselves more than willing to nuke Indonesia to win.

So the invaders’ morals (and fear of the consequences of genocide) make them vulnerable long enough for humanity to defeat them. What is the plan? Let the aliens think they’ve defeated humanity so completely that occupy Earth (or part of it) and split their fleet. Then take the ships the aliens thought they destroyed — what was really destroyed were half-completed decoys — and come back to attack months after the invasion, after the insurgency has sapped the ground-based forces. As the space battle is set to begin, the humans marshal all the assets and materiel they have stockpiled and begin a huge assault on the aliens’ landward assets.

It’s not a bad plan. It seems somewhat wasteful, though, substituting pre-war production capacity for actual inventiveness. And if I’m an Indonesian, I have a hearty “fuck you” in store for my fellow Earthicans after everything is over. Doubly so if I ever learn about the willingness to nuke Jakarta.

Trial by Fire is a book that would fit in well with Brad Torgersen’s Sad Puppies slate, and indeed, it is listed among the preferred Best Novel nominees. (It didn’t get a Hugo nomination because unlike Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars, Marko Kloos’s Lines of Departure, and Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, it was not also a part of Theodore Beale’s Rabid Puppies slate — something I will not link to.) Not only is it very earnest about its subgenre, and very clear about what that subgenre is, it’s a manly book, with traditional gender roles, and women are mostly in the background. Women are also very easily impregnated: The book has two supporting female characters, both of whom have been accidentally impregnated by the protagonist after relatively brief relationship. (Birth control 100 years from now is, evidently, nonexistent.)

I will not lie: I wanted so much to give up on this book. So, so much. It was the last of the Nebula nominees I had to read, but I still stopped reading for a week after page 50. I could not imagine putting up with the lumpen exposition, technical descriptions, and uninspiring prose for 550 more pages. But I did make it, it wasn’t as hard as I thought, and I am fairly ashamed that I thought of giving up — not that I’m ashamed of giving up but of entertaining such a rational thought on a project that is, after all, a waste of my time.

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2015 Hugo nominee #3 and 2014 Nebula nominee #4: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

5th Jun. 2015 | 05:37 pm

The Goblin Emperor coverIf the previous nominees that I have discussed seemed to have few action sequences, they seem like thrillers compared to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.

Maia, the emperor’s fourth son, has spent his entire life exiled from the court because he is half goblin. (There seems to be little difference between elves and goblins other than skin and usual eye color.) When an air crash kills his father and three older half-brothers, Maia becomes the eponymous emperor. His guardian (and frequent abuser) makes sure he gets to the capital before his father’s chancellor can make Maia dance completely to his tune. From there, Maia struggles to … struggles to …

Hmm. To be the best darn emperor he can, I suppose.

A reader’s opinion of the book will likely depend on their opinion of the eponymous emperor. Maia is certainly good-hearted, a young man who embodies all the progressive virtues for his culture: he believes women should be able to be something other than mothers and wives; he treats all people, regardless of economic or caste status, as worthy of respect for what they do; he is not repulsed by homosexuality; unsurprisingly, he doesn’t believe in elven superiority or racial purity. He doesn’t have a prurient bone in his body. Maia seems almost impossibly without flaws —well, except for his passivity and timidity, as Maia seems to be unable to get on top of either the machinations of the elven court or his extreme lack of policy knowledge.

What does Maia want? Well, he wants to never see his abusive guardian again, which he eventually manages. He wants some privacy, which as an emperor is impossible. He wants to not be emperor, which he also can’t achieve. As for personal aspirations — he doesn’t have any. Maia’s a bit of a directionless mope, really.

Many of the reviews of Emperor have noted its hopeful tone. It is a hopeful book, and it is inarguable that Maia’s empire is much better at the end of book than it is at the beginning. But it’s also true that most of what Maia accomplishes is by hoping; his non-personal, non-carnal desires come true because of the respect given to his office. Maia makes few choices of his own, and the few times he is in trouble, he is saved by others. He makes one policy choice, which turns out well, but for most of the book, he’s floundering to understand what’s going on. In a normal book, the emperor would make heroic strides to rectify his ignorance, but Maia is not up to that task. His best act is one made blindly: he appoints as his secretary the courier who delivered the news that his father is dead, and Csevet turns out to be a supremely skilled personal secretary. On the other hand, Maia had no other candidates, so that’s attributable to luck rather than any evaluative skill.

If Csevet had an ounce of corruption in him, or any desire to foil Maia’s aims, Maia would have been doomed. In many ways, Csevet is the hero of the book, the one doing all the work: Archie Goodwin to Maia’s ignorant but lightweight Nero Wolfe. We learn little about Csevet, however.

The book seems to be saying Maia’s passivity is better read as a restraint of his own power, and that and his real concern for those around him allow the good people in his service to flourish and make the empire better. I am too cynical for that message to have any resonance with me. In a slightly more ruthless age, Maia would be utterly annihilated by his court and nobles. Perhaps it’s better to ask if we live in a more ruthless age; it certainly seems like we have the same sort of respect for the institutions of law and order as the elves, making the lessons Maia learns applicable for today.

Still, the message comes across as, “Wish, and it shall be so.” This may be true for an emperor, but the rest of us who wish for something and work toward it with the same dedication as Maia will find ourselves with little. (My father had a crude saying about comparing the product of hoping to elimination, and asking which one produced more concrete results, that I find relevant here.)

The villains in Emperor seem like credible threats, but given how easily they are defeated, I can’t say they are impressive. Maia survives a coup attempt because he and his nephew, whom the conspirators want to put on the throne, stall long enough for Maia’s personal guard to arrive. The book gives no indication the conspirators put much thought into their plan after abducting the emperor, which given how powerful the conspirators were, seems asinine.

Another attempt made on Maia’s life is the equivalent of a lone gunman, a single person striking out against the emperor; however, this loner was actually the head of the conspiracy that killed Maia’s father. So this man was able to think long term and put together an intricate plot that successfully removed the previous emperor without any obvious links to himself, but he can’t figure out how to get rid of the vulnerable new emperor except to pick up a knife and try to stab him before the emperor’s bodyguards get him. That’s … that’s not really consistent, no matter how much you try to say the man’s frustrations unhinged his mind.

The Goblin Emperor throws unfamiliar and barely explained names at the reader in an assault that does not let up. I suppose this should make us sympathize with Maia, who is similarly thrown into a world in which he knows none of the names, and the reader at least gets a glossary of names at the end to help out. (Not expecting there to be such an aid — it’s not listed in the table of contents — I had read half the book before I knew it was there.) On the other hand, Maia does know what the titles and honorifics are, and these are not listed in the glossary. They are listed in another section at the end of the book, although not exhaustively, and none of the honorifics that are added after the person’s name are mentioned in either spot. Finding the names can be difficult as well, as there’s no cross-references for characters that are usually referred to by one name; for instance, I looked in this glossary for Csevet, to double check on some biographical details, and he’s not listed under that name. He has a surname, but it rarely was mentioned, so I have no way of finding it.

Whatever the reason for this onslaught of the unfamiliar, it’s difficult to read a book when you’re stopping every five pages and asking, “Who the grawlix is this guy?” Perhaps it’s me; perhaps I’m getting old, and my brain is insufficiently flexible to take in so much. I don’t think so, though.

It’s rare to see a book that requires so little from its protagonist. Most fantasy books would see Maia do something to defend his crown or policies — leading men toward a battle, a rousing speech, even fleeing. The Goblin Emperor is entirely about governance: continuity, the importance of a light hand in policy, and responsiveness to the citizens. That's a nice message, but I don’t think I needed to read a 500-page book to get it.

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2015 Hugo nominee #2 and 2014 Nebula nominee #3: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

5th Jun. 2015 | 04:49 pm

Three-Body Problem cover The Three-Body Problem begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Author Cixin Liu shows readers a China that is alien to modern readers, a China in which intellectuals are punished for thoughts that ordinary in their fields but deemed reactionary by the government. Despite being drawn from real-world history, the persecution of Ye Zhitai and his daughter Wenjie is bizarre, almost unimaginable for modern Americans (and probably for many young urban Chinese). The prologue ends with Wenjie, slightly rehabilitated by the harsh environment and her punishment, ushered into the Chinese military’s version of SETI.

This opening gives the reader a setting both relatable and strange, with a strong science foundation. But it’s interesting to see how quickly the narrative flees from that. After the first 50 pages, Liu places his story in a modern-day China that is not that different from a Western setting. Nanomaterials engineer Wang Miao is summoned by the Chinese military to help explain the rash of suicides among cutting-edge scientists. Wang has no real explanation for the deaths or the strange results uncovered at particle accelerators around the world. Wang is then asked to infiltrate a worldwide scientific group, Frontiers of Science. In his dabblings in the world of the Frontiers of Science, he discovers the Three Body video game.

Wang is a colorless protagonist. He is an accomplished engineer with a wife and child, but his family (and Wang’s thoughts of them) disappear almost immediately. His work life is mentioned for the last time soon after he starts playing Three Body. Wang comes under assault from strange forces early on, and Liu communicates Wang’s fear and desperation in a way that makes him sympathetic. But once that threat is over, Wang never experiences any jeopardy, and the reader loses a great deal of empathy for him. Instead, Wang spends most of his time in the Three Body game.

The use of the Three Body video game is a mistake, I think. First, it’s not a very good video game; I can’t imagine who would want to play a game in which you play for subjective months (and probably objective hours) and wait to see if one person’s guess about the nature of planetary motion is correct. Second, this boring MMORPG is pretty much the opposite of science fiction — it’s an attempt to learn about science fact. And thirdly, it’s meant to introduce people and readers to aliens, but it makes the aliens seem cartoonish — they’re reduced to anachronistic avatars and seemingly silly computer mechanics.

Police Captain Shi Qiang is a much stronger personality and thinker than Wang (or anyone else in the book). Clever, possibly corrupt, and occasionally vicious, Shi is the only character who defeats the aliens and their human quislings either physically or intellectually. It’s a shame we can’t see more of him; I would trade all the sections on Three Body for one on Da Shi.

The villains of the piece are the aliens’ collaborators, but they don’t seem to do much, nor do they menace Wang or Shi. The villains have developed a schism, which results in one death and one attempted murder among the villains, but not much else happens. Readers barely even meet the leader of the genocidal group of collaborators, and he’s dispensed with before he can do any real damage.

Liu also spends very little time developing the aliens, whom he calls Trisolarians (from their planet’s three suns); I think he spends more time recounting their attempts to fold a nine-dimensional proton into two dimensions than in showing Trisolarian society. We learn that its civilization is astoundingly stable for a world in which its entire society is destroyed periodically by approaching too close to one of its three suns (or being too far from all three). The Trisolarians can dehydrate to enter suspended animation and can be later be rehydrated; they are more technologically advanced than humanity; and they are looking for a stable world to conquer and colonize. But that’s astronomical and biological information; the readers meet two Trisolarians — one who has compassion for humanity and is unsure whether Trisolarians should survive, and the Princeps, who is willing to destroy humanity for his people. Not exactly a great range, although it could be worse.

Three-Body Problem is an intellectual book, or at least it seems it is. It has little action outside the Three Body game. The book turns on one decision, told in flashback. Liu constructs one moment of suspense; it turns on a clever use of nanomaterials, but it lacks much excitement. The entire book is a fait accompli, with very few choices and a low-key tone that drains what little suspense the book has from the pages.

Three-Body Problem is translated by American author Ken Liu. Liu fills the book with helpful footnotes. The best thing a reader can say about a translation is that it’s unnoticeable that it’s translated, but Liu makes the deliberate choice to keep some of the features of the Chinese text — the dialogue, for instance, sounds stilted in English rather than fluid. I understand and respect that choice, but combined with the lack of action, the unimpressive video game, and colorless characters, it makes the book feel stiffer and duller than it perhaps is.

I don’t think Three-Body Problem is the best of the Nebula or Hugo nominees this year, but none of them are so overpowering that I can eliminate Problem as a possible victor. If voters are looking for a different perspective and voice, they might turn to this book. I just don’t see it as compellingly different, though.

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2014 Nebula nominee #2: Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

4th Jun. 2015 | 04:14 am

Coming Home coverI don’t understand why Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series keeps getting nominated for Nebula Best Novel awards. Not that I don’t understand why readers enjoy the series; each of the books I’ve read in the series has been enjoyable. But McDevitt is not an incomparable prose stylist; after so many books, McDevitt is certainly not a fresh new voice; there is little in these books to suggest McDevitt’s viewpoint is unique.

Despite being set millennia in the future on a far-distant planet, McDevitt’s series is firmly anchored in the present. Women take their husband’s names. The nuclear family is still strong. Religion and talk shows are an omnipresent facet of daily life. Except for better ground transportation and spaceships, Coming Home, the ninth book in the Benedict series, could almost have been set in the present day.

In Coming Home, Benedict and his assistant / narrator, Chase Kolpath, are searching for the lost artifacts of Earth’s space exploration days. A former client brings a genuine artifact from that era to Benedict, the result of her grandfather’s archaeological efforts. Where are the other artifacts? If her grandfather found no more, why did he just give up, despondent, almost a decade before his death?

While Benedict and Kolpath are trying to figure that out, unraveling the chaos of Earth’s mid to late third millennium, they also are waiting for the cruise ship carrying Benedict’s uncle, which disappeared in warp space more than two decades before. It will re-emerge for ten or so hours, but the evacuation is chancy — not everyone can be unloaded from the ship this time, and stopping the ship’s engines could doom everyone. Although Kolpath and Benedict have a close-up view and a personal stake in this operation, they don’t actually do much during it.

Benedict and Kolpath are likeable protagonists, with a detective / assistant dynamic that fits their mission: to find antiquities. The story has little derring-do or moments of real emotional impact for readers who have not had a long-term investment in the series. Most of the protagonists’ time is spent waiting or doing research; Benedict and Kolpath realistically have to pore through old sources to search for the artifacts’ location and conduct unfruitful interviews to get leads. (Still, Kolpath manages to fit in a personal life, one not out of line with what we might expect for a professional woman in 2015.) Neither is a core part of the rescue efforts for the cruise ship. McDevitt does try to spice up the rescue mission with a few peripheral moments of peril, but it’s not enough to inject the excitement the book too often needs. To be fair, McDevitt does include an effectively creepy scene in which Kolpath explores a cold, dead ship — one she’d seen disappear with a couple of friends only hours before — but she leaves the ship before stumbling across anything horrible or getting any answers. Those answers are delivered to her later.

The villains are … are not that effective. Physics is the most implacable antagonist, but it’s not a compelling one. (It is effectively defeated, off the page, by a character mentioned a few times but never met by the readers.) The human villains are literally blocking figures, able only to slow the protagonists because they are unwilling to stop them. These antagonists aren’t trying to be lethal, but the extent of their villainy is still underwhelming: lies, deception, (implied) insurance fraud … They are very sorry about what they have done, when they are caught. They merely wanted to protect an old colleague’s reputation. Is that so wrong? No. But they draw out the experience to fill out their half of a 350-page book.

There is almost nothing new in Coming Home. (As perhaps a sop to those who think the future might not be so much like the present, McDevitt does add a household of three lesbians living on an asteroid. That’s out of character for this series.) There is little excitement, little innovation, little unexpected insight. Again, I can understand the appeal of the series. I still can’t understand the Nebula nominations, though. Is it the understated nature? Is because the books fill the untapped niche of the sci-fi mystery? I just don’t get it. Somebody please help me.

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2015 Hugo and 2014 Nebula nominee #1: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

4th Jun. 2015 | 04:00 am

Ancillary Sword coverAncillary Sword has a hugely different tone than its predecessor, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Ancillary Justice. The latter book was concerned with huge emotion and actions: revenge, assassination of an emperor, personhood, and a hidden civil war. Even when the protagonist, Breq, was wandering around an ice planet, preparing for her vengeance, everything felt portentous. In Sword, author Ann Leckie feels like she’s moving pieces around in preparation for the trilogy’s third book while attempting to give readers a story that will distract them from the low stakes.

The emperor — one of the emperors, that is — sends Breq, a former ship AI in a human body, as a fleet admiral to an out-of-the-way planetary system. Breq doesn’t mind the obscure posting; she’s not keen on fighting for the emperor (or any emperor), and the posting will allow Breq to meet and make supportive overtures to the sister of Lt. Awn, one of Breq’s favorite (and last) lieutenants from her ship days. Awn’s sister, Basnaaid, isn’t keen on taking funds or being granted vassalage by Breq, both because of the obligations (even though Breq insists Basnaaid wouldn’t owe her anything) and because of the appearance of subservience, both societal and sexual, those create.

So Breq spends her time righting wrongs. She cleans up the abandoned parts of the space station orbiting the planet, helping the squatters there — for are they not citizens as well? She tries to shield people from the abusive and overprivileged daughter of a powerful merchant and attempts to restore dignity to some of the planet’s common laborers and political dissidents. She keeps an eye on the small fleet she is nominally in command of.

If you think that’s a big comedown from the character who swaggered through Justice with an undetectable, unstoppable alien gun on a mission of killing the most powerful person in the empire, you’re not wrong.

Many of the facets that made Justice so fresh and appealing are still present in Sword: the genderless society; the ideas of personhood, both for a sentient ship and for the human shells it inhabits; the emperor’s ruthless attempts to cheat mortality, and the problems that causes. Sword hits personhood hardest, with Breq longing for the senses and information being a ship gave her and lamenting the limitations of her current body. Her concern for another ship’s ancillary — the human bodies ships can inhabit — is as touching to readers as it is bewildering to other characters.

But Leckie doesn’t add anything to replace or reframe those novel facets. Leckie hints that the villains in Sword — the feckless tea merchant and her class, the nearly cooperative captain who is Breq’s highest-ranking underling, the Presger (an immensely powerful alien race), the other faction of clone emperors — are involved in something more corrupt and intricate than a smoldering, secret civil war. But what that is will have to wait for the third book, Ancillary Mercy. They don’t pose much of a threat to Breq personally or to her ship, though, which makes them less than satisfying adversaries.

Breq’s campaign against local evils is satisfying, as far as it goes. We root for Breq in part because those who oppose her are so obviously wrong, unlikeable and venial and usually racist (or classist). But despite her power — her rank makes her the most powerful person in the planetary system — her victories are small and gradual. She effects no sweeping change, partially because she would have to invest too much to do that; she doesn’t risk too much of herself, spending only the excess power that she skims off the top of her duties. She’s focused on her own concerns, which mostly center around Basnaaid and Tisarwat, Breq’s lieutenant who is enamored of Basnaaid.

Sword continues the story of Breq and her world, and that gives readers a kind of enjoyment all its own. However, readers’ overall satisfaction with Sword — apart from any anticipation it builds for the conclusion of the trilogy — will most likely be wrapped up in how much pleasure they get from Breq redressing the ills of the planet she oversees.

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Standard Post

13th Mar. 2015 | 01:53 am

A muleSo, just a word of advice: if you are shipping anything in the U.S. mail, do not use standard post. Sure, it saves a buck or two when you get up to the window at the post office, but you could save almost as much by buying Priority Mail postage online, through PayPal, the USPS web site, or eBay (if you sold the item on eBay).

Standard post is awful. I've compared media mail to tying the package onto the back of a government mule, but the price really is unbeatable, especially as the packages get heavier. Standard post — which used to be called parcel post — is only a little bit cheaper than Priority Mail, and it is much slower than the three-day delivery time that Priority Mail promises. The delivery time for standard post is what you get when you tie the package onto the back of the speediest government mules. There's really no excuse for the mule abuse, especially with flat-rate shipping.

Plus Priority Mail gives you automatic $50 of insurance on the package, which will be useful when that quick government mule falls into a gully, breaks a leg, and is eaten by a coyote. If you're shipping me something I bought, you won't be out the entire purchase price when you have to give me a complete refund.

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2014 Hugo nominee #5: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

8th Sep. 2014 | 02:59 am

The fifth and final nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is the entire Wheel of Time series, by Brandon Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan.

The Wheel of Time is a fifteen-book fantasy series that has been published over the course of nearly a quarter century; The Eye of the World was published in 1990, and the final book, A Memory of Light, came out last year. The series stretched out so long it outlasted its creator: Robert Jordan died in 2007, and the last three books were a collaboration (to some degree) between Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

There is no damn way I am going to read all fifteen books. Actually, I’ve already read the first two books, but there’s no way I’m going to read the others. Technically, the books are on my reading list, but … No.

I have no idea what to do with this nomination. It’s not in any way comparable to the other nominees, for good or for ill. The Wheel of Time was allowed to be nominated because it was a serial work, published in parts, and finished in 2013. Also, none of its individual parts were nominated for a Hugo, which is both a requirement for nominating the entire series and a commentary on the parts, I think. This isn’t unprecedented: Connie Willis’s Blackout / All Clear was nominated a few years ago and won the Hugo, somehow, despite being stimulating in the sense that chewing aluminum foil with a mouth full of fillings is stimulating.

I have had the chance to read more of the series; volumes three through nine and twelve are sitting on my shelves downstairs. Based on The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, I felt no real rush to read them. That says enough about the series to me.

Even if I did finish the series, I have no idea how to compare it to the other nominees. Fifteen books vs. single novels? Apples and oranges doesn’t begin to describe it. The Wheel of Time has a greater breadth and scope, but I can’t imagine reading the series and not giving it major demerits for all the false starts, bloated plot lines, and other small elements that together add up to huge frustrations.

In short: It was a neat idea to nominate the series; hopefully, it will inspire the voters to eliminate this loophole. But since none of the individual volumes were seen as impressive enough to deserve a nomination, I don’t think reaching the end of the series — especially after needing two authors to complete it — is enough to qualify the series for victory.

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2014 Hugo nominee #4: Warbound by Larry Correia

8th Sep. 2014 | 02:55 am

The fourth nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Warbound by Larry Correia:

Warbound coverPlot: Superheroes touched with a tinge of magic and dropped into the ‘30s. In 1933, people with superpowers — called “Powers” by the public at large and the superpowered people as well — face threats from two fronts. One, leaders around the world are rounding them up, either under armed force or the guise of benevolence. Two, an alien creature is coming from space to destroy the Power, the extradimensional creature that gives Powers their abilities. Unfortunately for those with powers, not many people believe the creature, termed the Enemy, even exists.

So Jake Sullivan, a hero from the previous two books in the series, leads a group of Powers to find the bit of the Enemy that is on Earth and destroy it before it can send a message back to the rest of the creature. Unfortunately for Sullivan and his cohorts, the bit of the Enemy is housed in Japan, which, like in our world, is an expansionistic power. Unlike our world, the Japanese have created a superpowered unit called the Iron Guard, and they have created the infamous Unit 731 years ahead of time to experiment on Powers. Meanwhile, another Power, Faye Vierra, is battling a curse that makes her more powerful with every death in her vicinity while learning about what too much power does to Powers. And in America, we learn about what industrialist Francis Stuyvesant is doing to combat FDR’s potentially disastrous Powers policies: nothing.

The plots are straightforward, and you can see most of the twists coming well ahead of time. I was blindsided by one twist in Sullivan’s story, though, and I admit it was effective and emotional; it was, in fact, a bit difficult to read the horrible reversal suffered by the protagonists. Still, since most of the rest of the book was pretty predictable, the reader’s satisfaction depends on how satisfying the resolution of the plot threads are. I was not overly impressed.

On the other hand, Warbound put its characters through actual danger and subjected them to potentially mortal threats, and that’s more than either Parasite or Neptune’s Brood even thought about doing. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Warbound has three main point-of-view characters: Jake Sullivan, a density alterer; Faye Vierra, a teleporter who is growing with power with every death around her; and Francis Stuyvesant, a rich telekinetic. (The book has numerous other minor viewpoint characters as well.) Jake is a stand-up palooka, a guy who has a moral code and a compulsion to do the right thing. Faye is a mixed-up kid who has done awful things but doesn’t know whether she is morally capable of even worse. Francis … well, Francis is rich, but despite his wealth, he’s politically impotent, unable to do anything to stop FDR’s horrible decisions.

The character arcs promise moral quandaries that don’t pay off in any way. Jake is the most compelling character, although there is little surprising about him. He’s a bit of a cliché — a heroic bruiser with a heart of gold — but the cliché exists because people take to it. Jake’s talents lend themselves to smashing things, and that’s mainly what he does; he does have some intelligence and team-building skills, but everything comes down to his fists and guns. He augments his powers in a way that he fears will drive him mad, but nothing comes of that. Francis lacks any power despite his money, and his plot is hardly necessary; it may be a payoff for loose threads from the first two books, but he never shows any ability to combat the major challenges put in front of him, and the constructive action he does complete could have easily been edited out of the book.

Faye is obviously going to aid the other Powers fighting the Japanese, and although a few of the specific steps are not obvious, her final opponent and the outcome are predictable. She’s under the constant specter of her growing powers corrupting her morals, leading her to think expeditiously rather than ethically about the value of human life, but her internal struggle doesn’t come to much; she thinks she has a line she won’t cross, and she never gets a chance to cross it. It makes the time she spent with her mentor a waste of pages, a holding pattern designed to keep her in the book until the stage is set for her hero moment. 2 of 5

Villains: The book has a big bad — the Enemy, which is trying to eat the entity that gives the Powers of Earth their abilities — and all the Enemy’s tools, which includes many among the Iron Guard. The Iron Guard and its allied Japanese forces are powerful and played as a challenge for the heroes to defeat; they do manage to inflict some grievous wounds on the protagonists. Finally, villains I can take seriously! The Enemy also surprises the heroes by changing its tactics; it had ventured to Earth around 1900 and tried to conquer with force but failed. Rather than court defeat in the same way, the Enemy decided to be sneaky, catching the heroes completely by surprise.

You can make the usual complaints about the villains being built up as unbeatable, then being defeated by a few heroes, but if you’re going to make that complaint, you have a lot of books and movies you need to get to before complaining about Warbound. 4 of 5

Inventiveness: Warbound is a straightforward superhero book set in the ‘30s … the combination hasn’t been quite been done to death, but pulp heroes’ adventures and superhero pastiches / throwbacks are often set during that time period. The adventure isn’t dissimilar from superheroes in World War II, and that concept has plenty of miles on it.

The characters’ powers have a unifying cause, although so do the characters in the Wild Cards books, and I don’t see anyone nominating those books for awards. (Although maybe they would have been nominated if they were first published today, now that editor and co-creator George R.R. Martin is a big deal.) The Powers are out and open in the world, even fighting in special units during World War I, but none of this makes Warbound a cutting-edge story. 2 of 10

Fun: Superpowered combat is hard to translate to print, but Correia does a good job of it. Still, something is missing from Warbound, something that would make it more involving, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Possibly it’s because I’m entering the series in the third book, although Correia explains the back story as quickly and efficiently as necessary. Perhaps it’s because the shifting POV dilutes the focus on the individual characters. Probably it’s both: the lead characters would be much more interesting if I’d been reading about them for two books before I came to Warbound.

Still, although it dragged at times, it was more fun that I thought it would be. 3 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. Huh. Much better than I expected.

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