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Sat, 29 Jun 2013

The Most Important Word in Publishing

Dustin Kurtz works for a publisher, and writes on their blog. His thesis is that authors do themselves a dis-service if they link to Amazon, and that they should instead link to some random small independent bookshop if they want to visitors to their websites to buy their wares.

In this piece, he omits the single most important word in the whole of the publishing industry. That word is "readers". He does mention customers twice, but only in the context of making sure that a bookshop is willing to post stuff to them and when he says "even if not a single customer finds them through you, [the bookshop] will be happy" - which is wrong. A bookshop to whom you direct no custom at all won't be happy. They won't be sad either, they just plain won't care, or even notice. Well, I suppose they might be pissed off if they made a special effort to stock your wares when you told them you'd be linking to them, and then didn't sell any. At no point does he consider even for a moment what readers, the people who are ultimately paying his salary, want.

Actually, the whole piece is confused. For example, he says that most people will go straight to Amazon in the first place and not visit author websites at all (which is probably true) but then thinks that that is a good reason for authors to not link to Amazon. Errm? The links to Amazon are for people who have visited the author's website and have not gone straight to Amazon. What people do who go straight to Amazon is irrelevant. Once someone has come to your website, they are, provided your site doesn't suck, yours, and they will keep coming back. Just like I keep going back to Charlie Stross and Hugh Howey's websites, via their RSS feeds.

But anyway, back to readers. What readers want is a combination of convenience and reliability. Amazon does both of those brilliantly, and with excellent customer service for the very few times that they screw up.

So, authors - please don't link to small local bookshops. It's far less convenient for your readers, who end up with a bazillion separate accounts with a bazillion separate online shops, and have to type all their details in a bazillion times, often fighting against idiotic web forms that simply won't accept their address* or phone number** or email address*** or whatever. Once the reader has fought through all that, he has to hope that your order fulfillment process works, that you know how to get stuff reliably to his door, and that if anything goes wrong you have heard of customer service.

Nah. Far better to just use Amazon.

In addition, I hear anecdotally that some authors make more money in Amazon Affiliates kickbacks than they do in royalties. If you don't link to 'em, I'll go there myself anyway if I want to buy your stuff.

* too many insist that all addresses have a state or a county, or don't have enough lines

** many won't accept phone numbers from other countries

*** many won't accept addresses with a + sign in them

Posted at 13:26 by David Cantrell
keywords: amazon | books | culture
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Sun, 2 Sep 2012

Kindle in India

Electronic books have been around for ages - I was paying for them back in 1999 and classics have been available electronically for at least 40 years, thanks to Project Gutenberg. But it's only recently that they've become a mass market, and this is largely down to Amazon's Kindle. Oh sure, there are lots of other "e-readers", but the Kindle is the market leader.

The last couple of years have, not coincidentally, seen an explosion of independent authors. Now that you don't need to print books, many authors who don't already have publication contracts are cutting out that particular middleman and self-publishing, using Amazon for distribution.

The Kindle and Amazon ecosystem does, of course, have drawbacks. But by getting e-books out into the mainstream, something that normal people read and not just weird geeks, Amazon have enabled other sources of e-books to exist. Remember how cider used to be marginalised until Magners came along with their bloody awful pap and their enormous advertising budget? They made cider mainstream, and created a market for smaller producers of better-quality products. Amazon's mainstreaming of e-books has enabled sites like Smashwords to also take off. Most indie authors who self-publish on the Kindle also use sites like Smashwords to sell to users of non-Kindle devices.

And now, the Kindle has launched in India. India is, as well as being the world's greatest democracy, the largest English-speaking country. I'm confident that the Kindle in India will precipitate a boom in electronic self-publishing there just as it has in the US and UK. And, of course, they'll want to sell world wide and won't have any idiot publishers to stop them. I'm looking forward to it!

Posted at 22:01 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture | electronics | language
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Tue, 3 Jan 2012

December 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In December 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Centauri Device, by M. John Harrison

Adventures are an entertaining series of unpleasantnesses that happen to other people. Those having adventure thrust upon them are, in real life, unaware at the time of the entertainment and have far more important things to worry about. That adventures are actually enjoyable for the participants is a significant difference between the worlds of fiction and reality, and to read something that breaks that mould is refreshing.

John Truck, the nominatively determined protagonist (I dare not call him a hero, for he spends an awful lot of time running away) is the future's equivalent of a white van man, just scraping a living from his battered and barely legal ship, one of society's losers. A self-confessed loser too. For reasons completely outside his control he is bullied, cajoled and threatened by governments and cults who want the eponymous Centauri Device under their control. Of course, in reality it would all go horribly wrong and one of the antagonists would get their way, but Narrative demands that Truck win through - although unlike the traditional hero he does so entirely by accident and would really like to just be left alone to continue as a loser orbiting around the fringes of society. I suppose that in a way he's like General Flashman - he ends up appearing to be heroic despite spending most of the time wetting his pants with terror - although unlike Flashman he's not himself a bully and makes no effort to hide his cowardice.

So we have a splendid, refreshing story, in which at least some characters are rounded, detailed and sympathetic even if some of the antagonists are a bit less well developed. It's already excellent and verging upon getting five stars.

We also have the most superb writing. It's clear and direct, but peppered with biting commentary. For example, "he leered at a receptionist ... as long-legged and unapproachable - by losers - as any ice-princess. She smiled back politely, because that year it was polite to be polite to the underpriveleged", "for a narcotics offence ... no one could reasonably expect a lawyer, but the twenty-fourth century admits - indeed insists upon - your right to religious representation". It's also - and I was initially somewhat annoyed at this - full of surreal imagery. But that annoyance soon evaporated, when the surrealist anarchist "Pater" (is it a coincidence that his name is Latin for "father"?) is introduced. He gives the text-book definition of surrealism as his manifesto - "here we begin to guess at the nature of space ... We infer reality". Surrealism is not all about melting clocks and elephants with too many joints in their legs, it's the exploration of the underlying functioning of thought and morals, the prefix sur- meaning "the basis of". Surprise and odd juxtaposition of images are only tools for finding that basis through challenging conventional ideas.

So, it's enjoyable, which is of course the most important thing about fiction. It's populated, it's relevant to today despite being written in 1975, and it's literate. It's not just literate in terms of language, it's also historically and artistically literate. This is a superb book, and you should read it. Five stars isn't enough.

2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, by Maurice Leblanc

In the beginning was the Sherlock Holmes, and many authors saw that he was good and made his author oodles of cash. And lo, the imitators did appear.

One such imitator was Maurice Leblanc, a French chap, who created Arsène Lupin, a kind of anti-Holmes. Lupin is a very clever thief and the stories are clearly intended to baffle the reader as to how he pulls off his heists, before a Holmesian "big reveal" in which all is explained. Unfortunately it's just not done anywhere near as well as in the Holmes stories. It's possible that I might think more highly of Lupin if only I hadn't read Holmes already, but I have, and so Lupin can only come off second (or actually third) best. Why third? Because there is also A. J. Raffles, created by E. W. Hornung as another anti-Holmes. Raffles is perhaps not as clever as Holmes, but the stories are better written by far than these Lupin tales.

It's possible that I'm being inappropriately harsh about Lupin. I did, after all, read his exploits in translation. But then, so will most of you, so I think that's OK.

Anyway, this collection of loosely-linked short stories is not one to read in one sitting, but it's good for dipping into occasionally. It's certainly not worth paying for but Project Gutenberg have it so you don't have to.

3. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

This is supposedly a science fiction novel, part of the essential canon that all science fiction fans should read. What rot! There's nothing science fictional about it all. It's a mixture of fantasy and western, and unlike just about all of the fantasy written these days - that is, everything post-Tolkien - it's not rubbish.

There's little depth here, but it doesn't really matter. Things like that are optional when you have an immediately engaging story which rolls along at a cracking pace, building up to a nail-biting climax. And best of all, because it was originally intended for publication in a monthly serial, it breaks down well into small chunks ideal for reading on the journey to work.

4. The Gods of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Continuing broadly speaking where the previous book left off - there's a ten year gap where nothing of interest happens apart from some kidnaps - this is, like its predecessor, a rollocking good yarn, with all the same flaws, and all the same reasons for ignoring them. Like "A Princess of Mars" before it, it was serialised and so breaks down into conveniently short chunks.

Burroughs is sometimes accused of being sexist (his female characters are often subservient and lean heavily on men to protect them) which is probably true, if no more so than anyone else of his era. He is also sometimes accused of being racist, especially because of this book where for much of the story the antagonists are black. This is unfortunate. However, it is in keeping with the conflicts in the previous book which are also between groups of different colour, but in that case they are red and green. Burroughs's blacks are indeed evil - they are egotistical cannibals who hold sway over other races by falsely claiming to be gods (but note that the evil whites in this story are also egotistical cannibals, who hold sway over others by claiming to serve the gods; both black and white are evil, red and green are good). However, it is clear that these races are really substitutes for having different species similar to how modern fantasy has its many species of intelligent humanoid - humans, elves, dwarves, orcs etc - and I don't believe that we can accuse him of racism. It simply didn't occur to many people of his era that there could be other intelligent species.

Recommended.

5. House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

I was dubious about the very idea of this book - a modern author writing a new Sherlock Holmes tale, even though he wrote it at the instigation of Conan Doyle's heirs. And to make things even worse, it's a novel, not a short story. The short-form Conan Doyle stories are superior to the novels.

And I'm very pleased to have been proven wrong. It is excellent. Horowitz captures Conan Doyle's - or rather, Doctor Watson's - "voice" almost perfectly, and has clearly done his research into the era and is a great fan of the original tales. What's more, he manages to get a couple of sharp criticisms of the original stories in without breaking the flow - instead they are presented as being the opinions of an older, more mature Watson, as he reflects on his career as Holmes's biographer.

The only real criticisms I have are that in the Kindle edition I read there is some poor type-setting in a couple of places, and that according to the text the book shouldn't have been published yet: the manuscript was supposedly written during the "terrible and senseless war ... on the continent" and left with instructions that it not be opened for one hundred years for reasons made clear in the text, so the earliest it could be published in accordance with Watson's instructions is 2014.

But these are insignificant little matters. This is a superb book which I recommend to all without hesitation.

6, 7 and 8. Translight, Chroniech, and Honor Thy Enemy, by Doug Farren

I am reviewing these three short novels together as one, because they tell one story in three parts. If the author were more well-known and published by a big company (I think they're self-published) then it is likely that they would all be bound together in one volume.

The problems with these books are legion. Much of the dialogue is lacking, some being downright awful; there's some easily avoidable technobabble; there are some fairly awful stereotypes, such as the Hero Engineer; some minor characters appear to have been built by a random number generator, such as "Kyle Norland" the improbably-named Icelander; but worst of all is the spelling which is just terrible. Many many homophones, such as ore and oar, and roll and role, are confused throughout. There are also a couple of apostropherrors, and confusions of military ranks (captains are promoted to commodores, not to commanders!). An editor would have picked up most, if not all, of those.

However, despite all that, I enjoyed reading them. The story is well-paced, is consistent, and has some over-arching themes which are well-developed. The theme of the first two volumes is that "we must hang together lest we be hanged separately" and that of the last two is of a hero who can't live up to society's and his own expectations, his fall from grace, and his recovery. It would be nice if the author had stuck with one theme throughout, but that would have necessarily led to a very different story. Overall I enjoyed reading these books very much, and given how cheap they are (cheap self-published books are proving to be one of the big benefits of the Kindle in my opinion) I recommend them to all sci-fi fans. Doug Farren's is a name to look out for in the future especially if he gets picked up by a major publisher and gets the editorial support he needs. But even without that, he has the makings of a fine story-teller.

9. The Blackhouse, by Peter May

Unremittingly grim throughout, from the first to the last page, this is a tale of a man coming to terms with the past that he escaped, and those that he left behind in the most dreadful poverty. It isn't the normal poverty of lack of money - that is far easier to escape - but the poverty of lack of opportunity, no intellectual life, and a repressive society. I don't know how close to reality May's portrayal of life on Lewis is, but he's done a good job of preventing me from going there - anywhere that you can't buy Sunday papers on a Sunday because of other peoples' stupid religion is not a place fit for human habitation.

It is framed as a detective story, but the meat of the book doesn't really have much to do with the investigation, and is far more to do with what that investigation throws up about the protagonist's own past and that of the friends he left behind when he escaped from Ruralistan.

The writing is top-notch, the plot clear and easy to follow, characters fully-realised and complex. The only real criticism I have is that (and I suppose I should say "spoiler alert" at this point, but it's not really much of one) having things hinge on repressed memories of child abuse seems to be intellectually lazy. It is too much the modern bogey-man. Hence only four stars for an engaging and thoroughly worthwhile book that I recommend to you all.

10. Rollback, by Robert Sawyer

Sawyer's stories are usually good fun to read. This is no exception. This time around there are two issues looked at. The first, the bones on which the story hangs, is about how SETI might work and its philosophical underpinnings. There is perhaps a bit too much earnest explanation from the characters in some occasionally ropey dialogue.

Far more interesting, however, is that it is also a meditation on the consequences of medical technology: in brief summary, after 60 years of happy marriage, a couple undergo a new medical procedure to rejuvenate them, supposed to return them to how they were when aged 25, but it only works on one of them.

The book approximately alternates chapters between exploring SETI and exploring rejuvenation, and of the two interwoven streams, that of rejuvenation is by far the most interesting, but it could not stand without the other without losing its immediate accessibility.

Highly recommended.

11. The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

Some reviewers have criticised this for being "insulting". It is anything but. It is a tender, gentle portrayal of the Queen. Yes, it shows her as being initially a damned illiterate Philistine, but in that she is hardly unique - almost all of her fellow British citizens are in real life, and all of her staff and government are in this fiction. But it also shows her as being able to cure herself of that terrible condition, of having the gumption to outwit those who would rather she remain so, and of being socially liberal. That isn't insulting, it's downright respectful to portray someone as being resourceful and intelligent!

Like much of Bennett's work, there is a gentle humour throughout, much of which comes from the conflict between our ignorant assumptions of the real Queen's habits and beliefs and those of the very different character Bennett has created. But most importantly, far more important than it being entertaining (which it is), or it being beautifully written (it's that too), it is a paean to the joy of reading, and that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you enjoy it.

I bought this on my Kindle on Christmas Eve at my father's recommendation, read it all the way through in one sitting, and loved it so much that I promptly ordered the hardback edition as well. I know that you'll love it too.

12. Red Star Rising, by Anne McCaffrey

This is the next (in chronological order, as opposed to publishing order) volume in McCaffrey's long and commercially successful "Pern" series, after "First Fall" and covers events leading up to the predicted second fall of "thread", her world's mindless and unstoppable bogeyman. Society has regressed to a semi-feudal state, with rich lords and subordinate peasants, and the beginnings of a guild system. Most technology has been lost and that which remains is poorly understood and decaying. Finally, literacy is being lost as most people have more important things to do working the land than sending their children to school. With all of this in mind, a surprising amount of space is given in the book to an overhaul of the education system, in which song is to now be used as the medium of education. There is precedent for this in history, but it didn't teach critical thinking or the sciences - it taught mythology, propaganda, and simple techniques by rote such as crop rotation and weather lore. This is education, in the sense of the imparting of knowledge, but it is such limited knowledge and it fails to address any of the more important aspects of education, that many modern readers will rightly scoff at the ridiculous notion. Supposedly this is terribly important for developments in Pern's society over the next umpty hundred years, but if it is, then the way it's handled is a bit clumsy and unconvincing.

That is, however, a side issue. The meat of the story is a tale of political and legalistic maneuvring between lords with confusing names (many of them suffering from Stupid Alien Name Syndrome which only serves to make it harder to remember who is who). From this seemingly infertile and stony soil, a decent tale-crop is harvested. This book is an enjoyable read, but I have to deduct points for the seemingly pointless digression into educational policy and for the stupid names.

13. House of Reeds, by Thomas Harlan

Most that I have to say about this book I've already said before about its prequel, "Wasteland of Flint": it's entertaining, imaginative, well-written, slightly spoiled by silly mysticism and by utterly improbable sensitivity of some characters to the minutest details, rather like some of the more absurd superpowers that Frank Herbert's "Bene Gesserit" cult have in the "Dune" book. I don't think, however, that it could stand on its own, so I only recommend it for those of you who have already read the prequel.

14 and 15. Flash Gold and Hunted, by Lindsay Buroker

These two very short stories are set in the same milieu and follow directly one after the other, so I'm reviewing them together.

They are both delightfully silly, set in an alternate version of the Yukon during the gold rush of the 1890s. Alchemy and a small amount of magic work in this reality, and are used by the protagonist to power machines - and are very much desired by her enemies. At the time of writing, you can buy both for under a pound, and given how cheap they are (the first being not just cheap but free!) and how enjoyable, we can completely ignore what weaknesses they have. Buroker is another of those very promising authors who I wouldn't have discovered without the Kindle.

Posted at 16:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Fri, 2 Dec 2011

November 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In November 2011 I read the following books:

1. On The Beach, by Nevil Shute

I've got myself a Kindle, which I shall be reviewing later, and so most of my reading this month was on that. This book is also available on paper.

Shute wrote this towards the end of his life, in 1957, and despite his having emigrated by then to Australia his writing is still very much that of an Englishman. His Australia, in which this book is set, is very much a middle-class Englishman's idyll, if only with slightly different plants and seasons. The plotting is also reminiscent of English science fiction of the time, being yet another example of the "cosy catastrophe" so beloved of John Wyndham, and Samuel Youd (aka John Christopher) in books such as The Death Of Grass, A Wrinkle In The Skin, and The World In Winter. In all of these stories, nice middle-class English men and their pretty wives are faced with an unstoppable disaster that utterly destroys their civilisation, which they face with admirable stoicism, often while all those about them fall into barbarism.

My first impressions were not good. Shute's writing is detached from his characters, who consequently appear to have almost entirely suppressed all their emotions - the odd exception here and there being "womanly hysteria". Sentences are short and simple, and for a while I thought I was going to absolutely slate the book for simply being a sequence of "this happened. And then that happened. And then that happened." But over time it grew on me, and the very simplicity of the writing and the objective view in the end produced a rather touching tale. A wholly unrealistic tale, of course, in which people have no drive for self-preservation, but touching and enjoyable nevertheless.

Dealing as it does with nuclear war, we can't really expect scientific accuracy - to start with, while we can model and theorise as much as we like, we have no actual experience of even a limited nuclear exchange. However, Shute, like most other people of his age and, indeed, although with less excuse, like most people of our age, thought that Ray Dee Ay Shun was an absolute evil and a terrible killer. For example, at one point a submarine captain about to lead a voyage to see what is happening outside of southern Australia is instructed in the "obvious necessity that neither you or any member of your crew should be exposed to a radioactive person" - by which they mean a person who has been exposed to fallout. It's almost as if they think of it as being a communicable disease. Other errors include that plant life appears to be wholly immune to the effects of ionising radiation and of metabolising unstable isotopes, that some mammals have significantly greater immunity than others, and that consumption of large quantities of alcohol delays the onset of radiation sickness. All nonsense. And even if Shute just made them up to suit the story - it's fiction after all, not a scholarly paper, so doesn't have to be true - I'm afraid I have to ding him some points for this. Writing like this, by people who damned well should have known better is at least partially responsible for the ridiculous and unfounded modern fear of nuclear power and all forms of radiation, and the holding back of research and industry on a massive scale. Shute was an engineer by training, and should have known better.

So, three stars, and my recommendation that you read it.

2, 3 and 4. Quarter Share, Half Share, and Full Share, by Nathan Lowell

I'm reviewing these three together because they are really just three sections of a single work, seemlessly going from one to the next. They are also available on paper, and as free audio-books from podiobooks.com.

The conceit of a "solar clipper" - a space vessel which uses the solar wind to travel - is a handy way to bring tales of sailors and their shenanigans up to date. Certainly the "golden age of sail", with its sharp merchants, long voyages, running away to sea, and slow communications, has all kinds of dramatic possibilities, but a modern audience may find it hard to understand, and would certainly have no notion of the importance of all the various jobs that have to be done on a sailing ship. Sailing through space is far more understandable. Instead of scampering around the rigging to splice the mainthwart abaft (or whatever it is that sailors do) Lowell's sailors perform more comprehensible tasks such as cleaning air intakes so that the crew don't suffocate in their own exhaled CO2.

At their heart, these three fairly short books document the "coming of age" of a young man, from his signing on as unskilled labour, as he gains skills and knowledge, becomes an accepted and valued member of the crew, and after a suspiciously short time leaves the ship to begin a new phase of his life as an officer cadet.

From a literary point of view, there's nothing special about the books, and there's little here that hasn't been done before, but regardless of that, they're entertaining and cheap, so I recommend them.

5. User Friendly, by Spider Robinson

As I've come to expect from Robinson, this collection of short stories, which also contains a couple of non-fiction essays on the craft and business of writing, and the text of a speech he gave which was more of an impassioned rant, is fine stuff. Letting it down a bit is the presence of a couple of "raps", which are, as expected, dreadful. The stories are immediately accessible, inventive, human, humane, comic, dark and hopeful. Often all at the same time. Recommended.

6. Dominant Species, by Michael Marks

This is only available as an e-book, and for good reason. It's awful. Even the publishers - a rather amateurish outfit, judging by their ungrammatical website - seem embarrassed by this book, so embarrassed that they make no mention of it at all that I can see on their website. No sane publisher would commit actual money to printing this drivel.

So, can I back all that up? Well, the story is one-dimensional: Hero Space Marines (oh god) in powered armour (oh god) have an adventure in which they shoot lots of stuff (oh god), get lost (oh god) and have to defeat unknown foes to return home (oh god). I make that five clichés. These gentlemen are very much modelled after the image of themselves that US Marines like to project. They are gung-ho loudmouths, completely different from the quiet professionalism of the Royal Marines, and consequently we kinda hope that they'll just get shot so that they'll shut the hell up. Of course, there is some God Tech to make sure that even when they are put out of our misery they come back anyway for a happy ending.

They don't have personalities, they have stereotypes, and even those are not executed well. In particular the Australian marine who is obviously there merely to be funny is atrocious. It seems that Marks has read a coupla words of Australian dialect and so every second word is "crikey" or "dinkum".

And I'm not at all sure what the title has to do with the story.

I can say one good thing about it though. At a few points I got a feeling that there was some Giger or Lovecraft trying to break through, and the bio-mechanical antagonists are clearly inspired by him, but they are a poor shadow of Giger's art. Being inspired by Giger is good. At least it shows that the author has some awareness of culture. Or maybe he just watched Aliens a few too many times.

I'm not going to say that you shouldn't read this. It's dirt cheap, and mildly entertaining. If you're stuck in a motorway service station with nothing to do, why not wash your junk food down with some more mindless junk. Otherwise steer clear.

Posted at 18:39 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sun, 30 Oct 2011

October 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In October 2011 I read the following books:

1. Out of the Dark, by David Weber

There's an awful lot wrong with this book. To start with, the setup of an alien survey of Earth done several hundred years ago, and then the invasion in the present having the crap kicked out of it because human technology evolved "unnaturally fast" has been done before, by Harry Turtledove - and as surprising as this may be, Turtledove did it better: Turtledove's aliens have far more of a back-story and they behave more like rational beings. Then all too often the book devolves into spec sheets for various weapons. There's at least a hint of Jerry Ahern's so-awful-you-have-to-keep-reading "The Survivalist" series in some of the characters. And the ending, where Vlad The Impaler and his army of vampires kills all the aliens in a couple of nights is not only stupid, it's badly executed too. Weber's vampires are so ludicrously powerful as to make what little we get of Dracula's back-story implausible.

The idea of having the undead rise up in defence of Earth - in defence of their hunting preserve - is not a bad one, but the execution is awful.

On the plus side, Weber knows how to keep you turning the pages, and it is at least entertaining. But one to get second-hand for pennies and read once, I think, no more.

2. Armageddon Crazy, by Mick Farren

After the first couple of pages I was sure I'd read this before. And I had, sort of. The setup is remarkably similar to that of Heinlein's "Revolt in 2100", and also bears resemblances to that of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale": modern America has tipped over the edge into a theocratic basket-case dictatorship. In order of publication, Heinlein was first, then Atwood, then Farren, and I'd not be at all surprised to learn that Farren had read both of the others. But that's OK. He has taken those same ideas and gone in a radically different direction, his story being far grimier and more accessible than Atwood and, unlike Heinlein, lacking a happy ending. Farren's revolution eats its children and according to the epilogue actually ends up as an even worse police state than it started.

I whole-heartedly recommend it. It's very accessible and will easily transcend the boundaries of genre. I recommend it to everyone.

3. Triplanetary, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

This is a dreadful book, and yet it is supposedly part of an "essential" space opera series. Rubbish like this in the genre's early days is what gave science fiction the bad reputation that it still has amongst some parts of the literary establishment. And that it is still praised these days doesn't help - the literati and, indeed, many ordinary readers, will take one look at it, see that it is utter rubbish, and from that deduce quite reasonably that science fiction readers are idiots and the genre is worthy only of derision.

All of the characters are utterly flat and lifeless. All of them. The reason for this is clear. Near the end Smith writes "Woman-like, she wished to dip again lightly into the waters of pure emotion". He obviously sees emotion as being something fit only for women and other lower life forms. It's no surprise then that the characters are nothing but cardboard cutouts.

His characters' actions are also absurd. In particular the "super ship" that is the heroes' ultimate weapon is trivially upgraded in flight to "the limit of theoretical and mechanical possibility". No rational person would leave that until you are in a stern chase against your ultimate enemy! And let's just ignore the ridiculous science (science ridiculous even by the primitive standards of the day) and absurd engineering (in which vast machines are completely redesigned and rebuilt in a matter of hours or days - even with wartime corner-cutting that just ain't possible).

And finally, the action is tediously repetetive. Over and over again, screens flare in various colours (which are supposed to be meaningful to the characters but certainly aren't to the readers) and "rods" and beams of "Titanic force" slash back and forth mostly to no effect. I don't mind action sequences, but I object really strongly to them being so bloody pointless and devoid of either tactics or strategy.

Don't read this book. Don't even read it if you are utterly bored and have nothing else to do. You'd be better off watching paint dry or pulling out and counting the hairs in your nostrils one by painful one.

4. A Case Of Conscience, by James Blish

Wonderfully written, with a particularly strong character as the protagonist even if the supporting cast are a bit flat, this book is let down by poor choice of plot devices.

It is also scientifically hilarious, but we will forgive the author for his paddle-wheel ship across the lunar dust seas, as he started writing it in the 1950s.

The poor plotting falls broadly into two parts. First of all, human society - or at least urbanised Western society - is supposed to have moved into fortified underground shelters because of fear of thermonuclear war. Fair enough. Unfortunately, even though the threat of that war went away a long time ago, it was still compulsory to live underground for ninety days out of a hundred until quite recently, because the Shelters were so expensive to build and so should damned well be used, and even in the time the story is set expensive permits are needed to live above ground - and much of the population feels oppressed by this even if they don't know why and low-level mental illness is rife. Oh boy is that ridiculous! The cost of building the Shelters is a sunk cost, and no amount of using them will recover that money - but using them is very likely to be more expensive than not using them. Tunnels a mile deep in the earth require significant cooling, ventilation, lighting, water pumps and so on. This silly background is unnecessary. Sure, some kind of social malaise is needed for some parts of the story to work, but there are plenty of more plausible malaises to pick from!

Secondly, the story is based on the moral struggle of a priest based around his theology. Theology is always obscure, and his theological conundrum particularly so. It hinges on "recapitulation", the observation that a human embryo has at certain stages in its development some similarities to "lower lifeforms" - such as the pharyngeal arches looking like the gills of fish - which in recapitulation theory is extended to the belief that "advanced" life forms (such as humans) "go through" more primitive forms as they develop. Recapitulation has been debunked by modern science, but the superficial similarities do exist. Anyway, according to this theology, recapitulation in utero is Just Fine, but a species which undergoes recapitulation outside the womb is obviously Satanic. This assertion is never explained, and it needs to be if the reader is to sympathise with the protagonist instead of writing him off as being a bit of a weirdo.

Theology is a fascinating subject, but at its heart it boils down to this: theology is an intellectual game in which people attempt to argue coherently from axioms which, outside the theology lecture theatre, they know to be not universally accepted and indeed which appear to conflict with observed reality. To listen to theological arguments is like listening to historians arguing seriously about King Harold's victory at Hastings. Historians do occasionally write about such things, but they do it as fiction. Theologians do it as if their "what-if" scenario were fact, and it demonstrates remarkable mental flexibility and agility to manage to do it consistently. Theologians are to be commended for this, and it's a game I'd like to play some time. I'm sure it would be one hell of a challenge. The trouble for this story is that the central character actually takes theology seriously. Really seriously. For him it isn't a game, it's real. For him, if the pope said that Harold won at Hastings, then Harold won at Hastings. People like him are about as rare as those who now take astrology or Ptolemaic astronomy seriously, and readers are likely to just find him and his problem baffling rather than be sympathetic and interested: his quandary makes about as much sense to a normal person as would a moral crisis caused by epicycles.

And the author could have avoided all of that too. Instead of a baffling argument about some weird and unexplained concern of a tiny number of priests, he could have chosen any of hundreds of other dilemmas to cause the protagonist's inner turmoil.

I desperately wanted to like this book. It's very well written, and if you can get past those two egregious errors is even well-plotted, but I just don't think many people will be able to get past them. Personally, I could ignore the economically illiterate world-building, but the theology - and hence the struggle that is the heart of the story - left me cold and I found myself rooting for the "creation of Satan".

5. Dragonsdawn, by Anne McCaffrey

McCaffrey has written a great many books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series. The author and the publishers have always asserted that they are science fiction but I'm not entirely convinced. Stories about people riding dragons in a quasi-Mediaeval society with mainly Mediaeval technology are, to me, fantasy, not sci-fi - but then, I've not actually read any of the others and am merely summarising what I've read about them. In any case, this book seems to be a bit of a retcon, as the people are thoroughly grounded as a somewhat Luddite group of colonists from Earth, and the dragons are genetically engineered from a much smaller draconic species.

I enjoyed reading it. McCaffrey has created a mostly-believable world (the dragons excepted, of course) populated by real people subject to all the usual human frailties, and she stresses them in interesting ways so that we can watch them variously break and triumph for our amusement (with apologies to Tacitus). The only real niggle I have plot-wise is that while everyone starts in a post-scarcity society where they can just requisition what they need from the colony's stores (although being Luddites they know that scarcity will re-appear) and we see the glimmerings of the beginning of a normal scarcity-based economy, mostly based around barter, there are also tantalising mentions of credit for work done, but only the odd mention here and there. This is largely a story of how a society develops under the unexpected stress of a hitherto-unknown extreme environmental hazard, and to give only the barest of hints about such an important factor in interpersonal relationships is unsatisfying.

If you have fundamental objections to dragons (and you should - the power to weight ratio and energy budgets are Just Wrong, never mind how they manage to metabolise and exhale hypergolic fuel without blowing themselves apart) and have difficulty suspending your disbelief, then never fear, they are actually only a fairly minor irritant in this story. I recommend this for everybody.

6. Wasteland of Flint, by Thomas Harlan

This is a fine book. It has no pretensions to affecting literary grandeur, for entertainment is its raison d'être, but if you wish to entertain you must have believable, sympathetic characters, imagination, and a worthy antagonist. Here we have 'em all in spades, with great economy of writing - there is almost no wasted verbiage - and I recommend this book. The only thing preventing it from getting the full five stars is that the last third is a little spoiled by some silly mysticism. It fits well into the story and does move things along, but I would have prefered a more rational methodology from the characters.

7. Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, by Anne McCaffrey

This is a collection of four novellas and one short story. The four novellas cover a period of about 40 years starting roughly at the moment that Dragonsdawn leaves off, and the short story is set several decades before that.

It's a bit of a mixed bag.

The short story which comes first is capable of standing alone, but is the least satisfying of the lot, both in terms of plot (not much happens) and quality (the writing style seems rather less mature than the rest - it's rather more "this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. The end"). The first and last shorts fit very neatly with Dragonsdawn, the first (The Dolphins' Bell) being a filling in of some details and being contemporaneous with part of Dragonsdawn; the last (Rescue Run) covering what happens several years later to some of the colonists, and also what happened to their potentially-ruinously-expensive call for help. Neither of them are capable of standing alone. The middle two shorts, "The Ford of Red Hanrahan" and "The Second Weyr" are, from the point of view of someone reading the stories in chronological order, not particularly significant. They do a good job of showing a society changing to meet the demands of its surroundings, but the trouble is that nothing that appears to be particularly important happens. Perhaps they'd be more significant if I'd read the books in publication order instead of chronological order.

Posted at 15:32 by David Cantrell
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Sun, 2 Oct 2011

September 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In September 2011 I read the following books:

1. A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

Predictably, the quality is still dropping. Yet again, the number of people and factions is confusing, but this time the confusion is compounded by confusion over what they're all doing. Some key characters' personalities have changed drastically - for, perhaps, understandable reasons, but it's still a bit jarring when a previously amoral character "finds god", so to speak, or goes batshit-insane. Actions and events are confused too, as the war in the previous volumes has mostly fizzled out and the victors are mopping up the few remaining hold-outs and the land is crawling with displaced bands of soldiers from both sides, who have taken up a life of banditry. It's still worth reading if you've stuck with the series so far, but there's no way that you can read this without having read the previous three volumes.

I don't mind long series of books, but I am somewhat surprised by the number of authors who write them without leaving any way for new readers to jump in half way through and to actually understand what's going on. It seems that in modern sci-fi and fantasy it is almost required that authors make their second and subsequent volumes in a series completely unapproachable for new readers! This isn't the case elsewhere. Consider, for example, the Poirot or Flashman stories, or for a series with more concrete links between them instead of merely sharing a character or two, Wilbur Smith's sequence of books set in ancient Egypt, or older sci-fi such as Asimov's Foundation series.

2. Glory Lane, by Alan Dean Foster

First impressions of this book - from the cover art and the blurb on the back cover - are not good. The cover art by Jim Gurney is similar to that of Josh Kirby on Pratchett's covers, only not as good, and the blurb makes it sound like just a bad comedy of one-dimensional automatons. So it's a good thing that the book was free froma fellow Bookmooch and user I didn't see it before requesting it.

Right from the start, there are at least two Real Characters, plus a couple who are, if a bit stereotyped, are at least three dimensional. Incidental characters who pop up later are also reasonably well-drawn. The plot is, of course, absurd. We knew that from the cover art, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that doesn't really matter. The comedy is primarily in observing the characters, and I recommend it as a bit of light reading. Don't expect actual quality, but it is at least a quick and entertaining read.

3. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

According to the front cover, this is "one of the great books of the [20th] century". Seeing that it was published in 1997, that means that it is supposedly up there with Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking Peoples", Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Kafka's "Metamorphosis", Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", and, because I have to get a great French book into the list, Camus' "L'Etranger". No, this is not one of the great books of the 20th century. Nor is it "now a major motion picture", as is also claimed on the cover. The French make some excellent films, but the only ones which come close to being "major" are "Les Visiteurs" and "Léon". On the other hand, it is, perhaps, as some of the back-cover blurb says, "the most remarkable memoir of our time", because of the method in which it was written. The author, who was completely paralysed apart from his head, dictated it by blinking. I'm kinda surprised that he did it by having his secretary go through the entire alphabet (in letter-frequency order) for each letter and he would blink at the appropriate place, instead of using Morse code.

You won't be surprised to learn, given the method of writing, that it's very short - just 140 widely-spaced semi-large-print pages, with a blank page before each of the three or four-page chapters. There's very little here. But what there is is beautiful. I read an English translation, and it's clear that the beautiful language is at least in part the work of Jeremy Leggatt, the translator. The beautiful content, however, is all Bauby. There's no connecting narrative, certainly no story - just a few of his thoughts, reminiscences from before the accident which crippled him, and observations of his life in hospital, but despite that, I recommend it.

4. The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne

This book unfortunately exists in many different editions, with various cuts and abridgements from the French original. The edition I read is the Project Gutenberg edition, originally published as a serial in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph in 1876. You should be careful which edition you choose to read, as many editions are abridged from the French original, and British editions in particular were often quite heavily cut because of anti-Imperial sentiment in the book.

It is the tale of a handful of men (all square-jawed and highly competent, of course) who escape from a besieged city by balloon during the American civil war, and are blown by a storm to an unknown island in the south Pacific. There they set to building and acquiring all the necessities of civilised Victorian life, having occasional adventures with bad weather and pirates. At a few moments, there are helpful interventions by a mysterious outside force - and hence the name of the book.

But three things are far more mysterious. First of all, how they got there. Even in Verne's time, it was known that hurricanes and other storms cycle around the northern and southern oceans, never crossing the equator and never crossing significant land-masses. How, then, does a balloon get blown in a single storm from Virginia to somewhere roughly a quarter of the way from New Zealand to Chile, across land and across the doldrums? Second, the geology of the island. Again, it was well-known in Verne's time that you don't find sedimentary and igneous rock together in the way that he shows. It is ridiculous to find a seam of coal in the side of an active volcano! Finally, the island has some very odd flora and fauna, seemingly picked from lots of different places all over the world. Particularly odd are the species of rabbits which can be trapped by baiting snares with flesh. I'm quite sure that Verne knew that rabbits are vegetarians!

Those aside, which will offend modern readers but perhaps are allowable because Verne's original readers were barely literate nineteenth century savages and so they let him hang a story off them, if you can suspend your disbelief, there's a half-decent story here. It's very much in the "Boys' Own Paper" mould, with little thought for the consequences of projects such as re-directing rivers or exterminating species. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either of these things, but it must be done carefully - which our Victorian heroes do not. Never mind, they don't suffer for it.

After many adventures, a climax is reached where the island's volcano comes back to life, their protector is found and then dies, and the island is finally destroyed in a cataclysmic eruption. The dénouement is I'm afraid rather disappointing and positively reeks of Deus Ex Machina. They all survive the massive explosion, just happening to end up on the only bit of rock left above water; there's no food or fresh water but a ship arrives just in the nick of time; and despite losing everything else, including the ship that they were building, the colonists manage to keep hold of the vast hoard of diamonds that the Protector had given them.

Overall, I liked this story a lot. Because this translation was done for serialisation in a newspaper, it breaks down conveniently into small chunks, ideal for dipping in and out of. I would probably have awarded it four stars, but I knocked one off for the hurried ending.

Posted at 11:30 by David Cantrell
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Thu, 8 Sep 2011

The Tudors

I know, it's TV. And is therefore crap by default. But I started watching it, under the misapprehension that Henry VIII was played by The Blessèd Brian. I was wrong, he instead appears in Henry 8.0, which, incidentally, is jolly good and you should watch it.

But The Tudors is pretty good too. So far I've only watched the first series, and I do expect it to go downhill in subsequent ones, but overall it was enjoyable, and I recommend it. While there are some "departures from history", it is overall reasonably accurate, in particular in its portrayal of the King and his confidantes Wolsey, Cromwell, and the clever, erudite but nasty "saint" Thomas More. How you can declare someone to be saintly when he imprisoned people merely for their beliefs or who approved of burning people to death is beyond me. I suppose it requires the same sort of perverted mindset that thinks it's OK to hide rapists.

It was only spoilt a teensy bit for me by some glaring anachronisms, all of which could have been avoided without changing the story one iota:

  • there's a shot of St Peter's church in Rome, complete with dome, in episode 2, but it's clearly of the new St Peters. The dome wasn't completed until 80 years later. They've used CGI for lots of views of Whitehall Palace, so there's no reason they couldn't have done the same for St Peters;
  • episode 3 contains some large sheets of flawless glass, made using a process not invented until the 1950s;
  • in episode 9, the King is playing "Greensleeves" on a lute. It is not thought to have been written until the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, and especially not the version he was playing, which was a melody from Vaughan Williams's 1934 "Fantasia on Greensleeves";
  • all church interiors date from, at the earliest, the reign of Henry's son Edward. We know this because they have plain white walls devoid of the colourful murals, decorations, painted statues etc that festooned mediaeval English Catholic churches.

Do I win a gold star for pedantry?

Posted at 21:15 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | geeky | tv
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Sat, 3 Sep 2011

August 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In August 2011 I read the following books:

1. A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

So, on to book three in the series, and as expected the quality is just a little bit less than the book before. It's still good, still enjoyable, but it's beginning to look a bit worn around the edges. Like the previous volume, the sheer number of people and factions gets confusing, and the amount of magic in the story is slowly increasing. Magic is a crutch for bad fantasy writers and for good writers who've run out of ideas, it's just Treknobabble dressed in bearskins. The first book didn't really have any of it at all, but in this one there's quite a bit. It's still stuck lurking on the edges, and not having any significant impact, but more importantly, it's not having any impact at all that couldn't have been achieved without. Therefore it only detracts from the book.

2. Stone Spring, by Stephen Baxter

I expected to hate this book. It's set in the Mesolithic, in an age when the North Sea was still mostly land, and tells an alternate history of how a tribe of primitives kept the sea back by building dykes. This is, of course, absurd. They lacked the productive surplus to support the workforce this would have needed. Baxter tries to address this by having them trade with other tribes for labour, but still fails to address the question of how to feed the work force. No matter where or when your story is, you can't ignore basic logistics and still have a world sufficiently realistic that a reader can immerse himself in the story.

And that's not the only utterly absurd piece of Baxter's world. The tribe of tree-top dwellers are also ridiculous.

But never mind that. Baxter salvages from his irreparably flawed world a decent story of inter-personal conflicts, intrigue and jealousy. Why only three stars? It's daft, and I don't think he can sustain it over the two sequels that are supposedly on the way.

Posted at 10:52 by David Cantrell
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Mon, 1 Aug 2011

July 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2011 I read the following books:

1. Grunts, by Mary Gentle

Sword n' Sorcery fantasy is a bit tedious. It's pretty much all derived directly from Tolkien with little originality, and you always know that the good guys are going to win. "Grunts" is occasionally touted as being an antidote to that.

It's not a very good antidote though. It's still derived entirely from Tolkien - admittedly as a deliberate pastiche - and still not particularly imaginative. I could put up with that, if only it was funny. It isn't. Oh sure, there's a few jokes, but a few jokes don't make good comedy. I could even put up with that, but there's one more terrible problem. I don't know whether it's bad writing, bad editing, or bad printing, but a few times the action would leap completely unexpectedly and with no reason from one place and time to another, leaving stuff incomplete and seemingly dropping us into the middle of a scene.

That took something that could have been a perfectly decent piece of mindless entertainment and made it just too annoying.

Now, on the off-chance that it was just a load of printing errors, you should note that the book I'm linking to is a different printing of the one I read. Same edition, same ISBN, but with a different cover and, if it really was a printing error, maybe that's fixed. Caveat emptor!

2. Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, by Sir Mortimer Wheeler

Sir Mortimer, or, to give him his full name and titles, Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler CH, CIE, MC, FBA, FSA, was clearly a splendid chap. He wore a handlebar moustache and smoked a pipe and was, back in the 1950s when this book was published, something of an archaeological celebrity, much like that hairy bloke with the funny accent off of Time Team. He published this through Penguin's Pelican imprint in 1954.

It is, unfortunately, very much a product of its time, when communication of scientific knowledge to the masses was at best in its infancy, and not seen as being particularly important by much of academia. The very fact that he even wrote this book makes Wheeler stand out from his contemporaries, but sadly while he may have had the desire to write for a mass audience, the literary tools that are so well used these days by the likes of Simon Singh had not yet been invented.

The subtitle is "a new and concise survey of Roman adventuring beyond the political frontiers of the Roman world". Well, that's partly true. It is (or rather, at the time of publication, it was) new, including work done just two or three years earlier. And it's concise, at 214 small pages. Unfortunately we learn precious little about Roman adventuring. It consists in large part of dull and dry detailed descriptions of a few scraps found in northern Europe, much of it terribly repetitive, and the author himself tells us that the provenance of much of it is unclear, and so there's virtually nothing to be learned of Roman adventuring from it. In fact, in the whole book there are only two "adventures" even mentioned, both from classical written sources and not from archaeology: one being a "knight" (ie an eques) who travelled to the Baltic to trade for amber, and the other being a servant of one Annius Plocamus, a Red Sea tax collector, whose ship was blown off-course by a gale and eventually wrecked in modern Sri Lanka. Both are briefly mentioned by the elder Pliny - but only briefly, so again, no adventuring.

Outside Europe, we learn more in 20 pages about Roman dalliances in the Sahara than we did about anything in the hundred plus dedicated to Europe, but the existence of a mausoleum or two doesn't really tell us much about adventuring, and the best Wheeler can do is to hypothesise that a few Romans may have lived with local Tuaregs either as traders or diplomats - and hypothesise only, nothing more. East Africa gets even shorter shrift, just three pages, despite Axum being well-known to the Romans. Finally, there are about 60 pages on India and its environs. This is by far the best part of the book, as it is at least more coherent, embedded as it was in a milieu of organised states and literature, and also where Wheeler himself did much of his own work. It still tells us nothing of Roman adventuring though, only that substantial trade existed between southern India and Rome - but again, we know this from Pliny, who bewailed the haemmorrhaging of gold from Rome to the east (one hundred million sesterces a year - equivalent in modern British terms to between 8 and 14 billion pounds) to pay for luxuries like pepper and silk, and from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

I can't recommend this book. Even though, being published by Penguin, it is intended for a lay audience, it is manifestly unsuitable.

3. Fury, by Henry Kuttner

Originally published in 1947, this slim volume thinks it's more important than it really is - the foreword claims that is "has its own important message for our time" - and it could never be published these days, as the hero is a terrorist and what's more, a successful terrorist whose actions end up benefiting all.

It does of course show its age in numerous ways. Every single scrap of science is ridiculous (including that which sets up the environment in which the story is set), and all the women in the story are either play-things for men or act as tools for men. There are also a few niggling inconsistencies in the world Kuttner has created - ones that he should have been aware of even allowing for the fact that he was a barely-scientific savage. But despite these flaws, which are mostly flaws in what the author knew as opposed to flaws in the writing, there is a fine character-driven story here, which can be dipped in and out of easily. I recommend it.

4. A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

The first volume in this series, A Game Of Thrones, was always going to be a tough act to follow, and as is just about always the way with sequels, this doesn't quite get there. The problem is mostly because there are just so many factions that it's hard to keep track of who's in which and who's betraying who. Most confusion is cleared up fairly quickly though, and I can still recommend this book whole-heartedly, with the proviso that it won't make much sense unless you've already read the previous volume.

Posted at 23:22 by David Cantrell
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Fri, 1 Jul 2011

June 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In June 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Last British Bullfighter, by Frank "El Inglés" Evans

The unmentionable Ryan Giggs, coward, idiot, philanderer and footballist, thinks that this book is "as mad and funny as Frank himself", which is not a particularly good recomendation to put on the cover. The deranged scribblings of mad men aren't particularly enjoyable and in any case a footballist can hardly be expected to be in a position to make an informed recommendation.

Thankfully, I didn't know about the publisher's execrable lack of taste when I purchased this book online - I bought it on the strength of an interview with Mr. Evans on the ever-tasteful, erudite and educational Radio 4.

Giggs is either a liar, has trouble with the English language, or didn't bother to read the book. There's nothing mad about Evans, nor is it at all a funny book. Evans is passionate, perhaps. Eccentric maybe. Driven, certainly. Evans is also not a very good writer. Most biographies flow smoothly from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and chapter to chapter. This one doesn't. It judders and jumps and pauses, but in doing so it mirrors real life. Real life is not a smooth progression, it is long periods in which nothing of note happens, just long slow change, punctuated by occasional shocks and memorable events. You get the distinct impression that Evans is telling the truth, because he clearly hasn't tried to construct a coherent easy-flowing tale. Bravo!

I really liked this book, and I recommend it. It gets dinged a couple of stars for the naïve writing style, for the publisher thinking that we're idiots who will go "Ooooooh, Ryan Giggs", and for a coupla minor points where Evans assumes that we know more about him than he's actually included in the book, and which an editor should have caught.

2. The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Rajaniemi is a foreign chap, for whom English is a second language. You couldn't tell from reading this. The cover blurb from Charlie Stross says "hard to admit, but I think he's better at this stuff than I am". I don't think that Charlie is right, but it's certainly damned good.

I don't agree with him because The Quantum Thief is nowhere near as accessible as Charlie's work. It may be a better example of the art of writing, but it is not better as an enjoyable work of fiction, because it's just too damned literate for that. It requires rather more work from the reader - it's definitely not something to dip in and out of for a few pages at a time, and demands concentration. The story is generally told in the first person and the viewpoint changes without warning from character to character as various strands come slowly together, and it's this that makes it less amenable for casual reading. Add to that a predictable sprinkling of Quantum (the book's title is 100% accurate) and game theory, so it requires both a literate and a well-educated reader.

Literary excellence aside, it also scores highly on all the other axes of good science fiction: it is imaginative, has real sympathetic characters, and a believable consistent universe. Provided, of course, that you give it sufficient attention.

A splendid book that you should buy without delay, provided that you think that I would think you are well-educated.

3. A Mighty Fortress, by David Weber

There are a great many things wrong with this book, starting with the cover art: it has a flying saucer zapping a sailing ship with a death ray, something that - thankfully - doesn't happen in the book. Then there's the length: over a thousand pages, making it thicker and heavier than my copy of the bible, although admittedly the typeface is larger. And it is at least a better story than the bible, making use of such advanced techniques as causes preceding effects, characters having believable motivations etc. Trouble is, it's still not that good. Much of that length is taken up by lengthy internal monologues which serve to set the scene but which digress to such an extent that, when they occur in the middle of a conversation (as they almost invariably do) it's hard to keep track and is terribly jarring when a character finally decides to say something. And there's nothing exciting and new at all when compared to the earlier books in the series. It's merely a small development of themes that we're already very familiar with from the first three volumes. Add to that a cast of so many characters that the appendix listing them all covers 32 pages, and that they all have idiotic names which are based on normal names but with all the vowels hideously butchered, and it's too easy to lose track of what's going on.

I quite enjoyed reading it, but it's dreadfully flawed.

4. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

This novel was originally published in 1996, but if I heard about it between then and now it didn't make much of an impression, possibly because I tend to shy away from fantasy, most of which is crap. It was only when someone spoke approvingly of the HBO TV adaptation that I paid it any attention. A couple of episodes into the ten part series, I was hooked, and decided to read the book. After all, TV adaptations are always inferior to books, right?

Sort of right. Off the back of its TV success, the book's publishers are advertising it left right and centre, with the tag-line "You haven't seen half of it". The book is better than the TV series, but not twice as good! The TV series really is excellent, though, so being twice as good would be nothing less than a miracle, and HBO have commissioned a second series, which will presumably be an adaptation of this book's sequel and which I'm very much looking forward to watching. I'm also looking forward to reading the next book, and I don't have to wait a year for that. Hurrah!

Buy this book. If you don't enjoy it you are broken and your parents should demand a refund.

Posted at 19:35 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 28 May 2011

May 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In May 2011 I read the following books:

1. Earth Strike, by Ian Douglas

"Military science fiction" has a bad reputation, because of books like this. The story is simple, characters are barely developed at all, and their actions are predictable. We know from the first few pages that the admiral will disobey his orders and save the day. We know that the fighter pilot that no-one likes will be a hero. It's all very depressing that so many peoples' opinions of science fiction are formed from reading crap like this.

On the other hand, it is at least exciting. I had to keep turning the page, so polished it off in a coupla days. I doubt very much that I'll read it again, but I might read the sequel if I can find it cheap.

2. The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

This collection of short stories has been sitting half-read next to my sofa for months, but I've finally finished it. That it sat around for so long without being finished made me think that I'd write a fairly critical review, and I do indeed have some criticisms. However, the last few stories were excellent and so the collection as a whole gets 4 stars.

There's no real stinkers in this volume at all. However, quite a few, especially earlier in the book, left me frustrated - frustrated that there wasn't more, frustrated at the wonderful ideas not fully developed. Wanting more is a clear sign of good writing, but when we're given so little in a short story that I am frustrated instead of just wanting to buy the author's other books, that takes away from the enjoyment, and when I review books, enjoyment is the most important aspect.

But the next most important aspect in my reviews is "literary merit". Something supremely enjoyable will get high marks from me even if of dubious quality, but something of high quality but not particularly enjoyable will only rarely get my praise. But excellent writing will sway me even if I don't enjoy reading it. Combine excellent writing with excellent entertainment and I will praise it to the stars. The last few stories in this book were of such high quality as well as being enjoyable that what I thought would be just another middle-ranking book gets within sniffing distance of the top rank. They combine fine enjoyable story telling with bold ideas, and excellent writing and structure.

The standout story is The Emperor and the Maula by the ancient Robert Silverberg, which steals its framing device from the Thousand Nights and a Night to tell a fine story in bite-size chunks perfect for reading on the bus. Also worth mentioning are Nancy Kress's Art of War and Dan Simmons's Muse of Fire which brilliantly combines space opera with Gnosticism and Shakespeare.

3. Corrupting Dr Nice, by John Kessel

I don't normally like time-travel stories. Authors rarely address well the issue of paradox, which has to be dealt with if you are to have a consistent story universe. Well, Kessel does deal with it. It's hard to know whether he's addressed it well - when thinking about complex things we use language, and languages which have evolved to deal with the concerns of a species that only travels through time at the rate of one second per second lack the tools for dealing simply with it - but he has at least addressed it well enough for it to not bring the story crashing down in a pile of smoking logic and twisted causality.

At its heart is an attempted rip-off and a romance. Genevieve and August are con artists who attempt to steal a dinosaur from Dr. Nice while he stops over in the Middle East around 30 AD on his way home from the Cretaceous. It's a decent set-up for a decent comedy in which con artist and mark fall for each other, are driven apart, and eventually looks like they're getting back together. There's a side story about the obscure biblical character Simon the Zealot fomenting revolution after Jesus went off to the 21st century to present a TV talk show, which could have been cut out entirely and still left a decent novella behind, but which serves well to build the fictional world in our minds.

Overall, it's an enjoyable romantic comedy of the sort that, as the book cover notes, is a staple of Hollywood. Just don't expect much Corruption. Dr. Nice is not corrupted in the book. There's not even any attempt to corrupt him.

4. Center of Gravity, by Ian Douglas

This book is Bad. Really bad. Where the prequel had a simple story this one has virtually none, and certainly none beyond what we already knew was going to happen before even picking up the book, it having been telegraphed in advance in the previous book. So why two stars and not just one like Moby Dick would get, or even none? Well, it does manage to be somewhat exciting, and Douglas does a fairly good job of imagining something that very few space opera authors bother with: truly alien intelligences. In fact, I recommend this book specifically to sci-fi authors. No-one else need bother reading it though.

5. Vacuum Diagrams, by Stephen Baxter

A year ago I reviewed First and Last Men, by Olaf Stapledon and was not particularly complimentary about it. This book is similar in concept. Baxter himself calls Stapledon's dreadful book "science fiction's greatest ascent", so it's not particularly surprising that he decided to emulate it and write something similarly epic. However, he does a rather better job. Baxter has written a few novels in his "Xeelee Sequence" series, and this is a collection of short stories in the same universe. They are framed by an overarching short meta-story, and are presented in a sequence spanning several million years, during which we see humanity in many different forms, some evolved, some engineered, but all still mentally and emotionally human. Stapledon's book barely has individual characters at all, but just about all of Baxter's stories concentrate on an individual or a handful of people. As a result, we don't learn so much about the history of his universe, but we can at least connect with those living in it. However, although the characters are clearly people (unlike Stapledon's which are mere shadows projected onto a screen) we don't feel for them, and they could do with more development, even within the confines of short stories.

My other criticism is that there's perhaps just a little bit too much time spent "explaining" the various technologies. This will be offputting for those unfamiliar with modern science, who won't understand, and I'm sure it will date very badly.

On the whole, I think I recommend this book, at least for those who are into "hard science fiction".

6. Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I had high hopes for this book. Not only is it edited by Jonathan Strahan, whose The New Space Opera I enjoyed earlier in the month, it also has a new short story by the splendid Charlie Stross, which is always a good start for an anthology of short stories. And I wasn't disappointed. There are perhaps not as many stand-out works of genius as in The New Space Opera, but there are also fewer disappointments too. There's still a couple of stories that left me scratching my head and wondering why the hell the editors didn't reject them for being a load of incoherent nonsense - I can only assume that they build upon ideas in the authors' other stories that I've not read, and so they make sense to people who've read 'em - but the majority are clear, original and entertaining. Worth buying.

Posted at 20:01 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 14 May 2011

April 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In April 2011 I read the following books:

1. In the Heart of Darkness, by Eric Flint and David Drake

This has all the flaws and all the strengths of its prequel, with one rather glaring addition. In the first book, there were a few hints, but they could be ignored, that there was some ridiculous time-travelling technological intervention going on. But now that has been made very clear, and I don't like it. It seems cheap and tacky. The fictional world actually made more sense when it could be seen as the good guys being guided by God against a Satanic foe.

It's still a good read, mind, and I still recommend it.

2. Destiny's Shield, by Eric Flint and David Drake

It's a law of nature that any book called "X of Y" or "X's Y" is crap. Yup, that law is still true. This book is crap. That's not to say that I didn't like it though. It's fine entertainment, easily digestible in bite-size chunks suitable for reading for a few minutes on the bus. What little substance the story had in the previous two volumes in the series has gone, but there's still plenty of action and humour. The authors are clearly capable of laughing at their own work.

3. Fortune's Stroke, by Eric Flint and David Drake

This is getting a bit silly now. Still fun to read though.

Posted at 18:35 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 2 Apr 2011

March 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In March 2011 I read the following books:

1. An Oblique Approach, by David Drake and Eric Flint

This is one of those books, common in the sub-genre of "alternate history", and also common amongst those published by Baen Books, which despite having all kinds of horrible flaws is great fun to read. It tells a captivating story of good vs evil, has a few well-realised (if somewhat cartoonish) characters, lots of action and exotica, and is a page-turner.

Who cares, then, that it horribly simplifies the history it's meant to diverge from, does nothing to explain the motivations of the bad guys, painting them as being entirely one-dimensional? Who cares that the hero and his gang are oh-so-heroic and over the top, and that for no good reason and without communication good guys thousands of miles apart seem to conveniently come up with broadly similar ideas at the same time?

It's a great read, and probably, like so many others by Baen's authors, is one that I'll return to despite all of that and despite now having the story seared into my brain. And, of course, being a Baen book, it's part of a long series. On to the next ...

Posted at 22:03 by David Cantrell
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Wed, 9 Mar 2011

February 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In February 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang

The last time I reviewed one of Chiang's short stories I loved it, and I loved this much longer (but still short-form - I'm not sure whether it's a "novella" or a "novelette", or whether there's a difference between the two, and I don't really care) story for much the same reasons. It is grounded somewhat more in a feasible extrapolation from current technology and pastimes than Exhalation is, and is perhaps more immediately accessible for that. Where Exhalation is broadly speaking an exploration of himself by the only character, The Lifecycle of Software Objects looks primarily at two main characters (one of them an entertainment AI the other a human) and how their relationship grows and changes over an extended time. It's even better than Exhalation, but the quality is just as high - I can't think of anyone living or dead who writes better than Chiang, and precious few who match him. It's better only because that top quality writing, evocative as well as entertaining, is sustained for so much longer.

I recommend that you buy it, because the author deserves his royalties, but it's also available online for free which is how I read it. But I have now bought it too.

Posted at 00:00 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 1 Feb 2011

January 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In January 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Time Patrol, by Poul Anderson

This collection of short stories has a major problem. All stories which feature travel into the past have this problem, and these, which have it to a very large degree, it being the core of the fictional world Anderson has built, have it in spades. That is, it doesn't deal very well with paradox. Sure, paradox is something that the characters worry a lot about, but in the end they mostly ignore it, and go ahead and create the "causal loops" that they worry so much about, and apparently get away with it every time, which is Quite Irritating.

Other than that, they're mostly "OK", but only "OK". There's only one story that particularly stands out as being very good ("The Sorrow of Odin the Goth"), and none that stand out as being very bad. At their best, these stories contain sympathetic, believable characters who struggle with internal conflicts between what they must do, what they want to do, and what is right; at their worst they are entirely predictable and would only serve as a brief diversion to read once and then forget, with all of the characters' casual breaking of the fundamental rules of their organisation forgiven. To his credit, Anderson generally portrays the cultures of the past sympathetically, with even Evil Conquistadores being shown to be people with motivations and not just thoughtless automatons that merely hack and slash and burn - they do evil because they think it's for a greater good, not just for kicks and greed.

Anderson wrote eleven stories set in this world, of which nine are collected here. A later edition with a slightly different name apparently includes one more story, so you may prefer to buy that instead. And there is one other book-length story published seperately. However, on the strength of this book, I have no particular desire to buy either of 'em.

2. Scratch Monkey, by Charles Stross

Long before Charlie Stross became a household name - or at least a household name amongst sci-fi readers anyway - he wrote this novel-length story. It's never been published apart from on his own website, although there will be a very limited edition later this year.

It's not really surprising that it's not been published either. It definitely counts as "juvenilia", and, like great composers' juvenilia, there are definite signs of greatness, but it ain't quite there yet. There are also shared themes with some of Stross's other early work - namely the Singularity and how mere fleshy creatures become, at best, toys of their AI progeny. It is undeniably imaginative, with an engaging story. One of the characters (but only one, the leading lady) has a well-developed background and motivations. However, while the story was engaging, at no point did I ever engage with her. Stross fixes that in his later books, which have sympathetic characters, as opposed to merely believable ones. I can't unreservedly recommend this, and I certainly couldn't recommend that you buy it, were it available in a mass-market edition, but given that it's available online for free - go! Have at it!

3. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora was a wonderful book, the author's first, and by all accounts a good seller. I was therefore somewhat perturbed when my copy of this sequel arrived. Same type face, same size pages, same size margins, 80-odd more pages. "Oh dear", thought I, "did he do well enough to have been let loose without an editor"?

But I need not have worried. It's a rollicking good story that keeps up a good pace all the way through, with lots of little twists and turns. It is perhaps not quite as dense with drama as the prior installment, but this allows more time for the development of a larger cast of characters. I did think for a while that the story was getting just too complicated, too multi-layered, with too much deception going on and that the delicate structure would collapse - not just collapse in the world of the story, but also collapse into an untidy mess of a story - but it didn't. There are a few tricky moments, but overall Lynch carries it off.

While it does not quite attain the heights of perfection achieved by the first book, I still give it five stars and my recommendation.

Posted at 23:15 by David Cantrell
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Sat, 15 Jan 2011

CD review: Peter and the Wolf

There are eleventy million recordings of Peter and the Wolf, some of which are listed on Wikipedia. This one is from a disc called "Menuhin conducts Prokofiev", with the English String Orchestra, and narrated by Christopher Lee. I bought the disk solely for Peter and the Wolf, and already have other recordings of the rest of the stuff on it.

Christopher Lee can do no wrong. He is perfect. Everything he does is divine. I wish I could buy a tiny jar of his sweat, so that I could add just a drop of it to everything I cook, thereby making my cooking even more awesome. If he sweats, of course. I wouldn't be surprised if he is beyond such weak fleshy exudations.

He has a wonderful voice for narration - he speaks clearly but still with passion, conveying the excitement of the wolf chasing the duck, or snapping at the bird. This is the best recording I've heard of this work. Musically, others are better, but the narration is so important that I can easily forgive those decisions of the conductor with which I disagree.

So why only four stars? Simple. It should be paired with Britten's "A Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra", which should also be narrated by Lee, but instead shares the disk with a symphony and a violin concerto of Prokofiev.

Posted at 21:20 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music
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Fri, 31 Dec 2010

December 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In December 2010 I read the following books:

1. Incandescence, by Greg Egan

This is a book in at least two parts, maybe three, all of which work well on their own, but never really gel together.

The first two parts, the two fictional ones, concern two parallel journeys. The first, and the most accessible, is by a post-human from a decadent galaxy-spanning multi-species civilisation of the far future. While he is on a journey and quest for knowledge he is ultimately rather a shallow creature - both shallow as a person but also rather shallowly drawn by the author. This is unfortunate, because I get the impression that a lot of readers will be completely lost by the second (and third) parts, find this one accessible but unfulfilling, and so rate both the book and its author poorly. I can't really blame them for this, but they are most definitely wrong.

The second is by a thoroughly alien scientist from a much more primitive culture - one that is pre-technological even. She is something of a Leonardo, who, along with those colleagues that she recruits to the cause of Science!, discover Newtonian mechanics, calculus and even general relativity. Given the circumstances in which Egan has placed her race, I find this to be only a little far-fetched. This second journey is by far the more interesting, at least for someone with the requisite educational background. Unfortunately if you lack that background then it will be impenetrable and dull. It requires a thorough grounding in Newton's theories of motion and gravitation, and at least some in general relativity. Good luck finding that in yer average reader, Mr. Author! Good luck even finding the latter in yer average sci-fi reader!

The third part that I identified is entirely contained within the second, but as well as being fine (if technically demanding) fiction, it would, with only a little editorial tweaking (mostly the translating of the names of the directions from cutesy sci-fi alien lingo and chopping out some text about our aliens' society that serves to make them into people) make an excellent tutorial for A-level physics students.

I recommend this book, but with the caveat that I only recommend it for those who understand general relativity.

2. The Space Eater, by David Langford

Almost all of Langford's ouevre is parody, but this is a straight science fiction novel. It tries really hard to have everything that good sci-fi should have: an interesting and different world (yup) that is self-consistent (got that too) and believable characters. Oh dear, the characters just didn't work for me. The gung-ho soldier and his sidekick's particular character-building idiosyncrasies were taken just a little bit too far for me. The "bad guys" are I'm afraid rather flat where the good guys stand too far out of their relief, and dialogue when we get it just doesn't flow. Good story, not put together very well.

3. Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer

The premise of this story - a blind girl gets a Device to make her see, and ends up being able to see the structure of the world wide web - was a real turn-off for me. It's ludicrous, is one of the worst-explained parts of the story, and given my profession it's a great big flashing warning that we have here an author who's going to write wrongly about something I am an expert in. However, I already know from several of his previous works that Sawyer writes good stories, so I decided to risk it and buy the book second-hand for a pittance.

I'm glad that I did. Thankfully, while he does get the technology wrong on so many levels, the story is indeed a good one, and we also have believable characters and sound dialogue. That papers over the technological cracks that would otherwise have spoilt it for me. There is another weakness though - the ending leaves far too much dangling. Of course, there's a sequel, so no doubt things will get tidied up there, but I so much prefer series where each individual episode at least tries to work on its own.

Recommended, apart from to sad sacks who insist on rigourous hyper-correctness in their fiction.

4. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

This is a fabulous book. While it's a fantasy, set in a Venice-a-like mediaeval city but with added "alchemy" serving for basic science, a very small amount of very powerful magic, and a Mysterious Elder Race, it is consistent and believable. In this it is helped by there being lots of squalor, filth and fear - mediaeval life was thoroughly squalid and life was awful for almost everyone. The one place where the scene-setting falls down is a very minor one that most people won't notice, that a city of 88,000 can support 3,000 full-time professional criminals. While 3.5% of the population being criminals is believable, having them at it full time is not. But never mind, it's a tiny point, and it is necessary for the drama. This is fiction, not economics, so I'll let it be.

Most of the city's background is filled in in flashbacks, a device that can be intensely irritating, but in this case it works well, because most of the flashbacks are strictly relevant to the part of the main line of the story that immediately precedes them, and they are well-told little stories in themselves. I'd not be surprised if some of them had earlier been published as stand-alone short stories. Almost all of the main characters' development as people happens in these flashbacks too, and they really are people.

The main story has two strands, starting with the eponymous hero plotting and carrying out an outrageous advance fee fraud. Over time, another strand comes in, of the city's capo di capi having a rival, of the tussle between them, and Lamora's involvement in their fight. Both are portrayed realistically and are skilfully woven together to meet at the climax. And while this is the first in a series of planned books, it stands up very well on its own.

I very strongly recommend this book. It is a masterpiece of construction and story-telling, of balance between light and dark and between humour and deadly-seriousness. And most importantly, it's great fun.

5. The Nagasaki Vector, by L. Neil Smith

Smith is a Libertarian kook who wants to abolish taxes and therefore abolish government and condemn people to living in a brutal anarchy ruled by the whims of warlords like in Somalia. Of course, he doesn't think that's what the end result will be, he thinks that the end of government will lead to a flowering of human creativity, vast wealth for all, and that this happy state of affairs will be self-perpetuating instead of falling over with a crash just as soon as some nasty piece of work acquires more resources and hence more power than his fellows. He's written novels about it. One of them, The Probability Broach (which I haven't read) is also available in a comic book version, which I have read and enjoyed. On the strength of that, I bought some other of Smith's works, including this one.

In many ways this story is similar to that of The Probability Broach: someone accidentally travels between universes, leaving behind an authoritarian parody and ending up in Smith's Libertopia; once there, there is a mystery to solve; most of the citizens of Libertopia are friendly, generous, and excellent shots; some however are the sort of parody of Smith's enemies that Goebbels would have been proud of - and are just as ridiculous and unbelievable to their modern targets.

The book is slim, only 240-odd small pages, like the classic pulp-era sci-fi novels. The story is paper-thin, the politicking obvious and silly, the occasional philosophy trite, the jokes corny, the dialogue and character-building poor. As a piece of mindless entertainment it's still not too bad, but I only give it two stars, because the circumstances of the alternate reality and the backgrounds of some characters are not given the space they need to be adequately developed if you were to read this as it seems to have been intended, as a stand-alone story. If you've already read The Probability Broach, then give it another gold star.

6. Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer

This sequel to Wake starts at pretty much the exact moment that the previous book leaves off. It has mostly the same virtues and failures, and I draw the same conclusions.

7. Rubicon, by Tom Holland

This very good "narrative history" tells the story of the last hundred years or so of the Roman Republic, from the rabble-rousing of the Gracchi in the 120s BC to the return of Octavian from the East after crushing Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 29 BC, at which point the Republic, while still existing in name, had been effectively destroyed and replaced with Augustus's new empire. In just under 400 pages it covers all the major convulsions that shook the Republic in that time, and paints a clear picture of the ultimate causes of its fall - vanity, decadence, pride, ambition, and greed: the vanity of those who couldn't stand to be anything other than the centre of attention and so made corruption and bribery, which were already bubbling along at a low level in Roman elections and justice, acceptable, or if not acceptable then at least expected, to a much higher degree; the decadence of vast slave-worked estates supporting a tiny aristocracy in splendour while depriving hard-working commoners and retired soldiers of the opportunity to work their own land, thus driving them to the cities and ultimately to The City where their favour could be bought and sold by powerful mob leaders; the pride of powerful men who bore grudges unto the death, making politics ever more factional as family feuds took precedence over good governance, and who looked down on honest toil and commerce; the unchecked ambition that rose from that vanity and pride; and the greed that it fuelled and that was required so that the lavish bribes needed to win elections could be paid.

It has clearly been thoroughly researched, with a substantial number of quotations from and references to contemporary or near-contemporary authors, although I make my usual complaint that these would be better provided as footnotes at the bottom of the page in which they appear, rather than directing the reader to a ghetto of references at the back of the book. This weakness is made more obvious by those few places where there are footnotes - there's not many of them, but they generally serve to point out either an authorial opinion acknowledged to be not fully supported by classical sources or where, in one particular case, the author makes it clear where he's making stuff up to fill in a trivial gap in the sources. It is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of being so thorough that it can sometimes be hard to keep track of which magistrates and senators hated each other and who was plotting and scheming and back-stabbing and double-crossing whom. There are so many of them, some of them household names to us but many not, and the alliances shift so often, that you almost feel that you need a diagram. I leave implementing such a complex diagram in print to others :-) but animation would be the ideal tool for this job. I do hope that the electronic edition has just such a beastie embedded in it!

By concentrating on politics to the exclusion of just about everything else - whenever any other aspects of peoples' lives are touched upon, it's always in the context of their political aims and positions - there is a danger that the reader will get a dangerously one-sided view of some of the players. Cicero in particular falls victim to this. His political vaccilation and flip-flopping makes him seem weak. I suppose that if you were to only consider his political life (which Cicero himself would probably have thought to be the most important part of his career) then this is true. However, in other matters he truly was a great man. His philosophical works, in particular On The Nature Of The Gods, are important, playing a significant role in the Enlightenment of the 18th century - Voltaire was a particular fan. However, I can't fairly fault a book about the fall of a form of government for concentrating on politics!

One final niggle is that so much of the story relies on peoples' shifting and conflicting emotions and loyalties, yet in the introduction the author tells us of the grave difficulty in accurately pinning those down and rendering them in English. In particular he talks about the difficulty in translating honestas - it means both "moral excellence" and "reputation", and that confusion, perhaps, is an excellent summary of why the Republic crumbled.

I strongly recommend reading this book. It's not only good for those with an interest in the classics per se, but like so many of the best writings of antiquity will be useful for any student of our own society, literature and history, which is very much built on Greek and Roman foundations.

8. Toast, by Charles Stross

This collection of short stories has been available for some years now, being originally published in 2002, and containing stories written between the late 80s and 2000. This limited edition is supposedly the last one there will be, but it is still available in a mass-market paperback edition and online, although the online edition doesn't include one of the best stories, "A Boy And His God". The limited edition is worth buying though, simply because it's a far higher quality physical artifact.

As you would expect of a book containing some of the author's very earliest work, the quality is patchy. Some of the stories have dated badly, and others are poorly plotted or poorly written. However, there are four really good stories here that are well worth reading and which between them make the book worth buying.

The best two are "A Colder War" and "A Boy And His God", both of which use H.P.Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and use it far better than Lovecraft himself ever did. "A Boy And His God" is particularly interesting, as it twists the mythos to be funny and even cute. Both are well-observed and eminently enjoyable. Also worth mentioning are "Big Brother Iron", which brings Orwell's "1984" up to date by exploring what might happen when Big Brother computerises his records, and "Lobsters", which was later turned into the first section of Accelerando.

All of the other stories have fairly serious flaws, but are at least worth reading as most of them do at least contain interesting ideas.

Posted at 18:05 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sun, 19 Dec 2010

National Museum of Scotland

Over the long weekend of the 3rd to the 6th of December, I went to Edinburgh. This trip was originally meant to be for the Edinburgh Christmas Open Go tournament, and I was also going to visit my little sister and do some important Drinking. As it happened, the Go tournament was cancelled because of SNOWMAGEDDON, but I decided to go anyway - I'd already got the time off work, I'd booked a hotel etc and anyway, the Go tournament was only part of the reason for travelling.

Of course, no Go means I did some touristing instead, and in between drinking delicious boozes we went to the National Museum of Scotland.

The museum has, I'm afraid, suffered from an Architect. I'm sure there's lots of interesting stuff there, and fascinating things to learn about the history of this little backwater of Europe. But unfortunately, the building is utterly unsuitable. All the galleries are small and cramped with completely unnecessary bulky internal walls breaking it up far too much. There's also no coherent themes. It seems that each individual corner of the museum - and it has lots of corners, the pointless walls see to that - is dedicated to something different and I couldn't discern any particular patterns where one theme led to another. Often there's just enough on a theme to whet your appetite, then you walk a few paces to find something completely different.

To a certain extent this is understandable - Scotland is a small country with not much history (after all, which archaeologists would spend their time knee-deep in a peat bog, half frozen and being eaten by midges, when they could instead go to somewhere nicer, like Greece or Mexico? the bad ones who can't get good gigs, that's who) so can't have huge rooms all full of closely related stuff like what the British Museum has in, for instance, its Egyptian galleries. But there are small museums which manage it well. A particularly good example is the Neanderthal Museum, a few miles outside Dusseldorf. There, visitors are guided through a sequence of galleries each of which flows into the next. Each is self-contained, but they also blend thematically from one to the next, so that overall you get a coherent story. Now, obviously the National Museum of Scotland does have rather more to say than the Neanderthal Museum does. And it has a wider variety of stuff to say too. However, there's no reason why it couldn't be presented as several such linked collections of themes with visitors guided through their chosen theme by, for example, coloured lines on the floors.

You still have the problem of the piss-poor architecture to deal with - the pointless interior walls simply shouldn't be there. We know that they're not needed because just about every room in the much older British Museum is bigger than just about every room in the Scottish museum. I'm not normally one to extol the virtues of neo-Classical architecture, but in this case the architects really should have paid attention to what their Georgian and Victorian betters did down in London. The British Museum is a far superior museum building - you can see more, you can find things more easily, it's better lit. If you want a modern building then that's fine, but good architecture should, first, be functional. The British Museum's architects, despite not having an original and creative bone in their bodies, got that right. The Scottish museum's architects did not. The relative merits of everything after that are of no consequence if one building is functional and the other is not. To demonstrate that a thoroughly modern building can indeed be functional, you can, again, look at the Neanderthal Museum.

My recommendation for the trustees of the National Museum of Scotland is that they sue the architects for every penny they paid 'em, tear the place down, and start again. My recommendation for visitors is that until they've done that you find other things to do in Edinburgh. It gets 1 star out of 5.

Posted at 17:29 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | museum
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Sun, 5 Dec 2010

November 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In November 2010 I read the following books:

1. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, by Francis Spufford

Unashamedly biased, this paean to engineers is written in much the same vein as popular science books are. In other words, it's light on detail and it focuses to a far greater degree than is strictly accurate on a few individuals, painting them as heroes battling against an enemy. This makes it good light reading. It tells a few short stories, and tells them well, aiming to give an overview of the purported renaissance of engineering. Unfortunately I don't think it does a particularly good job of telling what engineering is really like these days, seeming to concentrate primarily on a few small project teams and juxtaposing them with The Other of nasty large foreign concerns. But real engineering throughout the world - especially the best of it - consists mostly of small teams and small companies, the giants that we've all heard of such as Tata, Shell, and Boeing being very much the exception to the general rule.

Aside from that there are two other glaring errors, both in the chapter which waxes lyrical about the justifiably famous early video game "Elite". Throughout the rest of the book Spufford does a very good job of explaining technical concepts in ways that are accessible to a well-educated layman. Unfortunately he fails, in my opinion, in explaining some of the concepts necessary here.

Furthermore, this is the one place in the book where he makes a prediction, and he gets it wrong. In lamenting the passing of the "bedroom coder" in the video games industry, and opining that the future belongs to large studios, he missed one of the biggest events in recent video game history, namely the advent of the iPhone, which has many excellent video games developed by individuals or by very small companies. Some of them even work in their bedrooms. The fast pace of hardware innovation, the rapid development cycle of pure software products with no pesky manufacturing, and the low cost of software development means that software engineering is almost uniquely suited among engineering disciplines to individual endeavour.

But even with those errors, it's a damned fine read. Recommended.

2. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

There are at least two editions of this book: the shorter one originall published in the early 60s, with significant cuts imposed by the publishers, and a much longer one published by Heinlein's widow after his death. I read the latter.

Because it's Heinlein, there's politics here: just as with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Starship troopers there's emphasis on personal responsibility; and like in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, there's lots on freedom from interference by the state and sexual freedom with lots of polygamy. Heinlein clearly doesn't trust politicians, saying in this book that they're all primarily interested in power over their fellow man for its own sake, as opposed to using their positions and power for good. He is, perhaps, somewhat naïve in saying that one politician in particular can be trusted with money because he's only interested in power - because money is a great tool for getting, maintaining, and abusing power. It's no coincidence that modern politicos get more generous with their budgets as elections approach!

The book also has a lot to say about religion. It's not entirely negative, treating it as being a useful tool for some to "achieve enlightenment" but not a necessary tool. It certainly doesn't have much good to say about our contemporary religions.

Finally, as a stylistic note, the vast bulk of the story is presented as dialogues between characters, including that which I sometimes slate other books for - expository dialogue. Here though, I didn't even notice that that's what was going on, thus proving that in the hands of a competent writer, this method can work just fine.

You should read this book.

Posted at 00:53 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Thu, 4 Nov 2010

BREMF: Victoria Requiem

The Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) runs for two weeks in October and November. Most of the programme is at least interesting, if not a must-see worth travelling from Civilisation to the south coast for. The one stand-out event for me in the programme was a performance of Tomás Luis de Victoria's Requiem Mass, written for the empress Maria of Spain, who died in 1603.

This is a beautiful work, to have been performed along with other works by Victoria and Cristóbal Morales.

And it was a let-down.

The choir appeared to be rather under-rehearsed. This manifested in at least three ways: first, the basses seemed rather hesitant on a few occasions when they were supposed to come in and start; second, they weren't quite singing in time with each other - many times when a syllable started or ended with a hard consonant you would hear t-t-t-t-t-t-t as people started at different times; and third the conductor stopped them twice in the "other works" section of the concert to start again. The first of those was particularly problematic - it was because they started far too fast, so they're not following the conductor's directions.

And that's their second problem. The conductor was very energetic, bouncing up and down from her knees, and lots of biiiiig movements. However, from where I was sitting it all looked rather vague and even a bit inconsistent - she had at least six different ways of making the choir shut up at the right time at the end of a piece! Now, of course, I didn't have the same view as the singers did, but it certainly appeared as if the conductor wasn't really directing them as well as she could have done, and bearing in mind that the Brighton Consort are an amateur choir who rehearse just once a week (neither of which is a bad thing in itself, of course), they need direction.

Finally, there was very little dynamic range. You could tell in several places where there was supposed to be a sudden change in volume, both from the music and from the conductor's weird gestures. But at best they went from f to ff when it should have been p to ff.

Nice venue though. St Barts may be an ugly great barn, with a hopelessly muddled interior, but the acoustic was perfect for this sort of music, and it's nice and easy to get to, being just five minutes walk from Brighton station. The church also has a very good programme of music at services, some of which make it actually worthwhile going along on a Sunday, and a programme of secular concerts.

Posted at 00:14 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music
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Sun, 31 Oct 2010

October 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In October 2010 I read the following books:

1. Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, by A. E. Moorat

There has been something of a fad recently for mixing up "period drama" and zombies, the most well-known of which is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Moorat has done a pretty good job with his highly derivative - it's history meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer - story, and while the book has no discernible literary value whatsoever, it's still jolly good fun.

Posted at 15:35 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 12 Oct 2010

-ise vs -ize

Outraged of Edinburgh writes:

Dear Mr Free Press

Check out the Oxford English Dictionary online.

It's AMERICAN!

I wanted to check my use of "utilise" ('scuse the pun) but it wasn't there, only "utilize". Organize is but not organise.

Think I'd better give up the writing and go back to colouring in pictures(or is that coloring?)

Outraged is quite wrong. To start with, in almost all cases you can use "use" instead of "utilize". Shorter words are generally better than longer words with the same meaning, longer ones only serving to obfuscate or to show off.

Getting to the meat of Outraged's question, -ize is better, as it corresponds better to the Greek ending -ιζειν. -ise corresponds to Latin -itia. In general, one should use -ize for verbs and -ise (or -ice) for nouns, but, English being irritatingly inconsistent, there is no hard-and-fast rule, and in all but a very few cases, -ise and -ize are both acceptable in verbs.

In the OED, see -ise(2) and -ize.

-ize is sometimes thought of as being an American novelty because the spelling diverged after the foundation of the Colonies. However, as in so many cases, it is English that has diverged while the ever-conservative Damnyankees have remained true to the mother tongue. In this case, the switch from -ize to -ise was part of a wider Frenchification of the written language in the 18th century, by writers who thought that so doing made them appear to be more kulchural. This arrant nonsense also brought us "theatre" instead of "theater".

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture | language
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Sat, 2 Oct 2010

September 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In September 2010 I read the following books:

1. The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

I was expecting this to be good. Not just because it's Stross, although he does generally deliver the goods (some of my recent reviews notwithstanding), but also because I had it recommended to me by so many people. And they were all right. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that this is one of the best things I've read this year.

It's a good mixture of action, investigation, plain old Lovecraftian weirdness and intrigue, with just enough humour to prevent it from being an all-out horror or spy novel. Well-paced throughout, there's always something to make you want to turn the page.

From digging around in the archives of Charlie's blog, it seems that there may be a fourth installment in this series. It has got steadily better over time, without suffering from seriesitis, and I'm looking forward to it.

2. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

You may be surprised that I'd not read this before, but I have been put off reading Heinlein by reports that his books were really just extended childish political rants. Those reports are, at least in the case of this book, wrong. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress does indeed contain something of a political manifesto, but it's not childish (I disagree with it, but it's not childish), and is only part of a well-told, gripping tale, with engaging characters: you could ignore the politics entirely and still have a good read, although it would, obviously, somewhat damage the characters if you were to remove some of their motivation!

Talking of which, the four primary characters are fully-realised and believable, even if some of the lesser ones are a bit samey or a bit stereotyped and hence easy to confuse, but that doesn't detract from the story. They're background. They're not meant to require your attention, so the story works fine with that confusion. Something that many authors fail at, especially science fiction authors of Heinlein's vintage, is giving characters their own voice. All too often characters sound like the autho and like each otherr. Not here. Heinlein has a great way with voice and dialogue. I'll be reading more of his stuff, and I can whole-heartedly recommend that you, if you're not already familiar with him, start right here.

3. Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

The film of Starship Troopers was a cheesy bit of brainless fun, and while it's by no means a great film, it's certainly a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. It's also, unlike what many Heinlein fanboys will tell you, a fairly faithful adaptation. Oh sure there are lots of little changes, mostly those which are necessary for a Hollywood blockbuster (by far the biggest of which are the substantial cuts in character development, and the adding of some love interest), but the biggest thing that the fanboys talk about - the quasi-Fascist military dictatorship portrayed in the film - is an accurate rendition of that in the book, no matter how they might protest that it isn't. And yes, it is a military dictatorship. Any society that only grants the franchise and the right to hold public office to those from the military is a military dictatorship, pretty much by definition.

Having got that out of the way, on to the story. It's cheesy too. The viewpoint character's journey from being a schoolboy sceptical of the value of the role of the military through his basic training, early actions, and eventually to his becoming a junior officer, is mostly predictable, spiced up with just enough surprises to stop it being entirely a cliché and to give a modicum of suspense and enough interest to keep you turning the pages.

The political claptrap that had put me off reading Heinlein for so long is present here to a much greater degree than in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but is mostly limited to a couple of expository scenes. Some of it is admirable - the emphasis on being held responsible for your own actions, for example - but some of the rest of it, in particular the deification of those who have done military service, which somehow makes them more fit for government, is not even internally consistent. One of Heinlein's alter egos in one of those expository segments actually points out that ex-military chaps are as likely to be criminals (and thus unfit for public service) as the non-military, when he momentarily plays Devil's Advocate to his class. And just about all of the arguments put forward by Heinlein's alter egos are simplistic and one-sided, even though they are also claimed to be mathematically proven moral truths. What rot!

But never mind all that, the expository segments do at least fit well with the rest of the story. All of it is well-written (which is of course distinct from being well-argued) and the political drivel is sufficiently confined as to not spoil the rest of what is an enjoyable, well told story. Recommended.

Posted at 20:02 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Thu, 2 Sep 2010

August 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In August 2010 I read the following books:

1. The Burning Land, by Bernard Cornwell

There's not much to distinguish this from the previous four volumes in this series. In fact, apart from the geographic location there's nothing to distinguish it. Bleh.

2. Flash Forward, by Robert J. Sawyer

There's some interesting ideas here, and the makings of a great story - actually, of more than one great story - if only the author could settle on one of them. Unfortunately he doesn't, instead writing a lot about not very much happening. And then to make matters worse, as well as ignoring the particularly interesting sub-plots, the ending feels terribly rushed and really rather derivative. Not a very good book at all.

3. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

I couldn't finish this book, it's that bad. I gave up about a fifth of the way through. It's at least five times longer than it needs to be, littered with overly wordy internal monologues. The characters are entirely one-dimensional and all are caricatures - even Rand's heroes who are supposed to demonstrate the rightness of her philosophy are laughable one-dimensional cartoon villains. In fact, the book reads rather like I would expect it to if it were written by a friendless nerd who was watched rather too much Star Trek and wishes people were a bit more like Spock. Rand clearly doesn't understand humanity, or if she does, it is utterly hidden by her incompetence as a writer.

4. New Model Army, by Adam Roberts

When this book is good, it's very very good, and when it's bad it's awful. Which is unfortunate, because there's a great premise here, even if a little silly. It takes the idea of the "wisdom of crowds" that is so fashionable these days amongst wiki-fiddlers and takes it to the extreme, and actually tells an entertaining and engaging tale. Unfortunately, the tale is interrupted a few times by rather dull philosophising on the nature of love. And then, at the end, it just turns into nonsensical babble instead of, well, instead of ending the damned story. Sure, we're meant to understand from it that Pantegral has somehow taken over and democratised the whole of Europe, but there's that nagging "somehow". It's a shame, because this could have been really good. I really liked this a lot, but was terribly let down by the end, and because of that I can't recommend it.

Posted at 22:53 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Mon, 30 Aug 2010

Film review: Star Wars prequels

As promised, I've now watched the hateful new Star Wars films so I can compare them to the originals while they're still fresh in my memory.

The Phantom Menace isn't as bad as I remember, but it's still pretty goddamned awful. There is no acting in it whatsoever, there's irritating expository dialogue (delivered woodenly, of course), there's whole sections that could be cut out or at least severely curtailed. And all the CGI just makes me cross. There is a good film in there, wanting to get out, and it might have been able to get out if the actors had had a chance to act and if there had been a good dialogue editor. But then, having weird and wonderful beasties and lots of stunt flying makes it easier to sell toys and video games.

The second prequel, Attack of the Clones is just as ineptly directed and shot. There are a few moments of acting - Hayden Christensen momentarily portrays a wonderfully spoilt and sulky teenager, for instance - but otherwise all the same criticisms apply to this film as to its predecessor. And you can then add a whole load of tired cliches, in particular during the oh-so-derivative rolling-in-a-meadow scene. And as for selling toys and video games - Lucas couldn't even be bothered to shoot the video game footage seperately, it seems. Much of the CGI is of such poor quality that it only belongs in a video game and not in a film. When it comes to special effects, the rule is "Do, or do not. There is no try". Again, there's the potential for a reasonable film in there, shamefully spoilt by how the damned thing was made.

And finally Revenge Of The Sith - by far the strongest of the three prequels. The special effects are still short-bus special: many are spectacular, but the rendering especially of the clone troopers is inept. It surely can't have been beyond Lucas's budget to have a few costumes made and use them at least for those in the foreground and interacting with the other characters! Again, it smacks of being a video game in some of the long action sequences. The script and much of the delivery is still terribly wooden, in particular Palpatine's speech in which he takes dictatorial power just isn't written very well. There are, again, moments of acting. Ian McDiarmid really stands out, and Christensen manages to act for a few brief moments. Even so, much of the dialogue is still delivered woodenly, because of over-use of green-screen techniques.

To summarise, none of these films are as awful as I had first thought when I saw them a few years back. They're still badly made, but if you can look beyond that you can feel that there is good in them. The common failing is over-use of technology. Lucas supposedly held off from making these films for twenty years to wait for technology to catch up and let him "realise his vision". Trouble is, much of his "vision" could have been done back when the original trilogy was made. Not all of it, sure, but almost all of it could have been, and many of the bits that would have been tricky are peripheral to the plot. The character of General Grievous, for example, in Revenge of the Sith, was clearly designed with CGI in mind, but could have been re-written as a more conventially shaped character and portrayed by a bloke in prosthetics and costume - or could have been written out and replaced with more of Anakin being turned to the Dark side, which in the film did happen rather suddenly and all at once.

Posted at 15:15 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | film
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Fri, 27 Aug 2010

Film review: Star Wars

Star Wars

The Empire Strikes Back

Return of the Jedi

I've just re-watched all three Star Wars films. The original versions, not the "Special Editions". These were the Laserdisc releases, transferred to DVD by a nice man.

Now, Mr. Juan Lemon says that I hate the three modern imposters because I'm watching childrens' films with jaded cynical adult eyes, whereas the originals, while also being childrens' films, are part of my childhood and so I forgive them. Having watched them again, I don't think he's right. The originals are much better films than the imposters full stop.

The scripts are better (even the slightly ropey second one); while lots of the dialogue is cheesy, true, it's well-delivered and is actually funny; the editing is first class; the acting is - well, it's acting, instead of people woodenly delivering their lines. I'm sure that the fact that there were people in the monkey-suits and actual sets instead of nothing but a green screen and the aliens would be CGIed in later has a lot to do with that. The models used for the space combat sequences remind us all how far CGI still has to go: the battle between the two fleets near the end of Return Of The Jedi has yet to be bettered by spotty oiks with expensive PCs. Most of all, the films all tell a reasonably coherent story and there is real character development.

That's not to say that the films are perfect, of course. All have their flaws. Star Wars is perhaps a little "bitty", The Empire Strikes Back, the weakest of the three, doesn't have a particularly satisfactory conclusion, and Return Of The Jedi has Ewoks (which were apparently going to be Wookies originally but were changed to make a somewhat dark film dealing with issues of good vs evil and redemption more kiddy-friendly). But they're still better than the later abominations, which seem to exist solely to show off Industrial Light and Magic's clever computer tech and to milk the toy market.

But now, I suppose, to be fair to the Abominations, I do have to watch them again. I'm not looking forward to that.

Posted at 22:58 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | film
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Tue, 3 Aug 2010

July 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2010 I read the following books:

1. War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb

The part played by the Fleet Air Arm in the second World War is little known, and this very accessible, clearly written autobiography by one of its pilots who served in some of the FAA's most important theatres does a very good job of bringing the FAA to greater attention.

It breaks down broadly into two sections: first, Lamb's time as a Swordfish pilot, predominantly in the Mediterranean theatre; and second, after a clandestine mission to land a spy in Vichy-controlled French North Africa went wrong, his year as an internee of the supposedly-neutral Vichy French regime, during which he and his fellow prisoners were treated badly. In both he shows courage and significant independent thinking. This is then followed by a very short summary of everything that happened between his repatriation and retirement, including his role in the Pacific theatre and in the Royal Navy in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

This is definitely a better biography than Wings on my Sleeve by his fellow FAA flyer, Eric Brown, as it actually contains a narrative story (well, two of them, one after the other, as noted above) whereas Brown's work (which is also worth reading, incidentally) reads more as simply a series of disconnected episodes: it comes close to being just a "shopping list" of planes that he'd flown.

2. Churchill's Cigar, by Stephen McGinty

This fairly short book - only 200 pages, with large margins and not-quite double-spaced - consists mostly of rather charming stories of people fawning over Churchill and giving him extravagant gifts. There's little about the man here, or about the war he led us through, and not even all that much about his cigars aside from the fact that he smoked an awful lot of them. Overall, there's little to recommend in this book, although it does make for a short pleasant diversion.

3. The Philosophical Strangler, by Eric Flint

I read this because someone compared it to Pratchett - and, at that, to Pratchett's work 15 or more years ago, when he was still writing new stuff and not just recycling his earlier work. To me, Pratchett really went off the boil after Small Gods and I've not bought much of his stuff since. Of course, I'd take most comparisons to Pratchett-at-his-prime with a hefty pinch of salt, but this was someone whose opinions I trust.

That said, I've read some other Flint, and while some of it was fun (1632 in particular is fun rubbish), shallow writing with little believable development is his trademark. How lucky for me, then, that The Philosophical Strangler, like 1632, is part of the Baen Free Library.

The Philosophical Strangler is supposed to be a single story, and in a sense it is - each page leads to the next, throughout the entire book. But it feels more like a series of humourous fantasy shorts, all revolving around the same two main characters, with the links between them only tenuous at best. A handful of those shorts are pretty good, with one or two being laugh-out-loud funny. But most are no more than average, with a fair number being pretty bad and one being almost unreadable dreck.

If it really were presented as a collection of shorts, with the tweaking of intro and ending that each would then get and the tightening that would come from it, I could just about recommend this, but as it is, I can't. Not even when you can read it online for free.

4. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

This is another collection of short stories connected by a tenuous theme - they're the stories told by someone's tattoos - but this time it's intended to be a bunch of shorts, and most of them are good, a few are outstanding, only a couple are bad, and none are awful. And three are utterly brilliant. Originally published a couple of zears before Fahrenheit 451, the connections are obvious in two of the stories - two of the best stories at that.

The theme of the man of the title's tattoos provides a nice lead-in to the first story, and the epilogue provides a satisfactory end, but in all honesty those two sections could have been dropped entirely. I'd not be at all surprised to find that the individual stories have also been published independently of them.

The stories are a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, almost all of them character-based, most concentrating on human weaknesses and relationships. The successful ones, however, do have at least some action in them too: it's only the two stinkers in which nothing happens except blathering.

Note that the UK and US editions differ: I read the UK edition, which omits four stories from the US version and adds two others. As it happens, I feel that the two added are amongst the best in the book. The link above is to this edition.

5. Ragamuffin, by Tobias Buckell

After reading Buckell's Crystal Rain a coupla years ago when Tor gave it away as a promo for the newly-released-in-paperback Ragamuffin and just-published Sly Mongoose, and liking it a lot, I finally got round to buying both Ragamuffin and Crystal Rain recently. While Ragamuffin is a sequel, it would also work very well as a stand-alone book. Someone reading it without having also read Crystal Rain won't get quite as much out of it and may miss some details, but would still enjoy it.

Where Crystal Rain was steampunk, Ragamuffin is space opera, chock full of splendidly heroic human freedom-fighterss, dastardly evil aliens (and their human minions), and lots of action. But it also has, like its predecessor, well-rounded people, and a consistent well-thought-out universe for them to inhabit. Definitely worth buying.

6. The Trials of Arthur, by Arthur Pendragon and C. J. Stone

As I've written before, "yes, that's really the author's name". Arthur is a neo-druid and a campaigner for the sort of things that unwashed hippies campaign for, and so would normally deserve (and get) my scorn. But throughout this book you get a great sense of honesty and passion, and most importantly that he is an honourable man. I think that I'd like him, that I'd buy him a drink if we ever meet, and that we'd then have a flaming row while we drank our beer.

The book is obviously mostly written by Mr. Stone, who also writes for numerous newspapers and magazines. Thankfully, there's none of that newspapery rubbish here. The writing is unashamedly hagiographical, without (unlike newspapers) trying to pretend to be otherwise. You feel that he is writing from the heart. The style takes a few pages to get used to, but it's an easy, clear read, with a clear sequence of events: just what you want from a biography.

I loved The Wizard of New Zealand's autobiography, and this book will now take pride of place alongside it. It's not great, but it's worth reading, especially if you can pick it up cheap.

7. The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

Oh god, it's a popular pseudo-historical novel. And it's just as bad as I expected. As is required by law in this genre, Our Hero loses everything while still young, grows to adulthood, meets many important people, and becomes a great hero. By the end, he's saved the day, with a revenge sub-plot left dangling for the no-doubt uncountable sequels. Sorry if I just gave away the entire plot. The history and culture has been, umm, pepped up (OK, it's a load of balls to tell the truth) for dramatic purposes, of course, and as a result we are left with dramatic action, one or two people, and a load of cardboard cutout caricatures.

So this is not a very good book. I wouldn't bother buying it if I were you, but it's good entertainment to get from the library or second-hand, read once, and never think about again.

8. The Pale Horseman, by Bernard Cornwell

Carrying on where the previous book left off, this sequel is just as bad as its predecessor, for all the same reasons. And like its predecessor, it's a good once-off entertainment, not worth paying full price for.

9. Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell

Again, this follows straight on the heels of its predecessor, but with a key difference: the vast majority of the story is set amongst people and in a land which is not very well known these days and which is very poorly documented in comparison to its prequels. And the story is much improved by it. Now that he's no longer tied to working with real people and doesn't have to force the story down particular paths all the time, Cornwell can give reign to his imagination. A much better book all round. However, it still only gets three stars. If I thought it could stand alone then it might just squeak four, but I don't think it can quite stand up well enough on its own.

10. Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell

The story now moves back to places and people that are more well-known, although much of the tale has been constructed entirely by Cornwell, with nods here and there to real history. The story isn't much constrained by reality, and so has the potential to be, like the third installment in the series, better than the earlier volumes. Unfortunately, what's made up is rather ridiculous, and has some inconsistencies with what has gone before, by which the book is dragged back down to mediocrity.

11. The Trade of Queens, by Charles Stross

This, the sixth and last installment in the series, suffers from the same problems as the fifth book, and suffers from them in spades. It's very disappointing that such a good series should deteriorate like this. The politicking is still there (although perhaps not as much as the previous volume) but the silliness, culminating in nuclear carpet-bombing, is just so ridiculously over the top as to offend my sensibilities, even allowing for the fact that it's fiction and for dramatic suspension of disbelief.

I almost gave this just one star but it's just about pulled up to two by the fact that it's pretty much required reading if you've already got this far - just be prepared to be disappointed, even if you weren't disappointed (and you should have been) by the previous installment.

The end is somewhat intriguing and sets up more potential sequels, which may be improved by having had the obnoxious feudalism killed off along with all its incomprehensible politicking. There's a few interesting directions in which it could go, depending on which of the loose ends Stross decides to follow up on, if at all - on his blog he says "I'm not ruling out writing more books in that universe — but I'm taking a couple of years of time out first, and if and when go back to there, it'll be with a new story and mostly new characters". Good, it could do with a partial reboot.

Posted at 20:43 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 3 Jul 2010

June 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In June 2010 I read the following books:

1. The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod

While this is the first installment in a trilogy, it still works well as a stand-alone novel, and, unlike many other first installments, it actually has a proper end to match its beginning and middle. The world of the story is not entirely explained, which leads to some of the politics that forms a major part of it being rather perplexing, which troubled me the first time I read it (and stopped half-way through as Real Life intruded and ate all my time) but this time, I worked through it, and came away satisfied despite that. Normally I slate books which spend as much time as this does on the characters' politics. But in this case, it's leavened with a constant stream of stuff happening and the politics of micro-states and collectives is intimately tied with the characters' backgrounds and personalities, so it serves not to obfuscate but to shed light - notwithstanding the sometimes perplexing ideologies.

The only significant nit I can pick is that the end, the last thirty or so pages, feel somewhat rushed, while still tieing up most (but not all) of the loose ends. Where the vast bulk of the book covers only a handful of days, those pages cover several months. I can only assume that that will turn out to have been necessary in one of the sequels.

Worth buying.

2. Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

While the setting is really rather implausible, having two species with such similar social structures, this does make it easier for the author to create sympathetic, believable characters on both sides - and he does this well. Both refer to themselves as human, and both are human. The slow build-up to the final climactic meeting, told largely from the point of view of unimportant people, makes the book a compulsive page-turner, and highly recommended.

3. Replay, by Ken Grimwood

I suppose it's very naughty of me to immediately think of Groundhog Day when reading this story of a man repeating part of his life over and over again. Naughty because Groundhog Day was really not very good. "Replay" has so much more depth, the characters are given enough time to experience and grow and change. It's marketed (wrongly in my opinion) as fantasy, and some reviewers instead think (also wrongly) that it's science fiction. I suppose that they think that because the main characters' repeating lives are beyond the realms of modern experience and aren't explained, but the mechanism that lets them repeat their lives is utterly unimportant. Other writers, over a period of hundreds of years dating back to the early mediaeval period have used dreams for similar purposes: to impart knowledge and wisdom to their characters so that at the end of the dream they are changed and improved. We don't call The Dream Of The Rood science fiction, or Pearl fantasy*, so why attempt to shoe-horn "Replay" into one of those litle boxes?

This is that rare beast - both splendid literature, beautifully written and constructed; and a great story, accessible and entertaining. You should read it.

* it's a fantasy, as are all fictions, but it does not fit in the modern genre of that name

4. Comrade Rockstar, by Reggie Nadelson

Dean Reed was a late fifties / early sixties rock n' roll singer and guitarist who, after a very brief career in the US became wildly popular in Chile. Always something of a leftie, he became involved in political activism in Chile around the time of the Pinochet coup, and ended up emigrating to East Germany where he spent most of the rest of his life. In the GDR and the rest of the Soviet bloc, he was wildly popular, both as a musician (the people loved rock n' roll, the party loved him for his genuine support of the great Marxist experiment) and as an actor. He also appeared in some Spaghetti Westerns.

In 1986 he died in rather suspicious circumstances near his home in Berlin. This book, while being to a certain extent a biography, is subtitled "the search for Dean Reed" and is really the tale of the author's attempt between roughly 1986 and 1988 (a very small amount of material was added after the wall came down) to figure out who the hell was this American rock n' roller who was so big in the East and how he died. Unfortunately, the author has really just collected lots of facts (some of dubious veracity, which she is quite open about), spun some stories around them about how she learned them (some of which are interesting in themselves), but has not done a particularly good job of integrating them into a coherent whole. It is, no doubt, a fairly accurate retelling of the search for information about Reed, but suffers from that - the end product of research should not just be a detailed account of how you did the research, where, and when. It should also be a synthesis of what was found during the research. In this, it comes soooo close, but isn't quite there.

I do recommend this book, despite it really needing an editor. The subject matter is fascinating and does eventually paint a believable and somewhat sympathetic picture of its subject. Yes, sympathetic, despite the author obviously disagreeing with Reed's politics, despite his loyalty to the East German state. Reed comes across as being naive, lonely, and somewhat self-obsessed. He is a flawed individual, not just a cardboard-cutout Evil Commie.

5. Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell

Last month I reviewed The Things by Peter Watts, which riffs off the excellent John Carpenter film "The Thing". Carpenter's film is in turn based on this short story. And, I'm afraid to say, this is one of those few cases where the film is better than the book. The suspense, the lurking horror, is well done. But Campbell's descriptions are stupid and overblown - one of the main characters, for example, is always described as being "bronze". And worse by far is that the end is far too clean. All the monsters are found and killed, job done, the crew then expect to just carry on as normal. Carpenter's film version has a much more convincing finale where you can't be sure everything's fine and there's certainly no happy ending. Not worth reading.

6. The Execution Channel, by ken MacLeod

Set in a near-future near-totalitarian dystopia, this spy caper is nasty, grimy, grim, almost plausible, and most enjoyable. It does have a flaw that I also noticed in The Star Fraction earlier this month - namely that people are rather too predictably manipulable, as if MacLeod has read rather too much Asimov and thinks psychohistory should apply to individuals. In the earlier book, this was taken to the extreme, with individuals' actions and reactions to stimuli predicted a long way in advance, which is obviously laughable. Of course, MacLeod is something of a Marxist, and the parallels between Asimov's psychohistory and Marx's "historical materialism" are striking.

But this flaw really doesn't detract from the story at all, and I unreservedly recommend this book.

7. Angels and Spaceships, by Fredric Brown

This short collection of short stories (some of them very short, only 400-ish words) includes one of my favourites by any author, "Answer". All of them fizz with humour and inventiveness, most have a devious twist at the end. The only thing keeping this from getting top marks is that some stories main plot elements and closure are rather dated. That doesn't detract much from the story though, so I recommend this book. I also recommend (without having read it) Best Short Stories, another collection of Brown's.

8. Eve, by Aurelio O'Brien

In the far future of this novel, mankind has engineered biological "perfection", but, of course, this perfection isn't really that perfect. With every whim catered for by engineered bio-mass - everything from their homes to their sex toys - humanity is bored, and is desperate for something better, but most are too hide-bound and they outwardly conform to the norm that everyone else (did they but know it) loathes. Our hero breaks the rules, and eventually (due to the scheming of the narrator) gets caught. But all live happily ever after anyway when, in a rather unbelievable and weak court scene, it is made clear that the norm is, well, far from being the norm.

It's a nice, rather uplifting story. However, there's little depth and some glaring inconsistencies. It would get four stars, just about, because it is fun, but the typesetting and the feel of the cover and the pages (it's a self-published novel) pulls it down to three. This seems like such a little thing, I know, but there it is. I'd say this is worth reading if you can find it cheap or in the library, but not worth paying the sort of prices it normally goes for. It's available fairly cheaply in electronic form, but unfortunately only in PDF format, which is really not suitable for e-books, as it doesn't re-format well to fit typical readers' small screens.

9. Last Orders at Harrods, by Michael Holman

By turns a farce, a satire, and a polemic, this book is bursting with lively, real-seeming people. The author is clearly angry about the foreign aid industry, and provides a scathing critique of how pointless most of it is and how naive so many of its champions and its employees are, while still managing to entertain and delight. Whole-heartedly recommended.

10. One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, by Clive Woodall

The cover blurb says that this is "an epic tale in the tradition of 'Watership Down' and 'Lord of the Rings'. That was clearly written by someone who has read neither book. Perhaps who hasn't read Woodall's story either. I remember that several years ago when this first came out, it got quite a lot of media attention (well done to the publisher's Hype department) much of which centred on the fact that the author worked in a supermarket. Well, Clive - don't give up the day job.

The book isn't awful - the writing is unimaginative but is clear and simple; the characters are rather flat but are easily distinguishable; the plot is nothing special but the setting is vaguely interesting. It would make quite a good book for children, I think.

What really lets it down is the structure. There's a clear beginning, middle and end. And then another middle and an inconclusive second ending. If I were the editor, I'd have truncated the book just before the end of the first ending, leaving out the few pages that set up the second middle section, and would also cut out one minor character who only exists to feature inconclusively in the second middle section. That would make it an even better book for children, and it might even be worth 4 stars out of five like that.

Posted at 13:40 by David Cantrell
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Fri, 25 Jun 2010

Theatre review: Comedy Of Errors

The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park is one of my favourite theatres EVAR, matched only, perhaps, by the Minack theatre in Cornwall. I go to Regents Park most years for one of their excellent productions of Mr. Shakespeare's work.

This year it was the Comedy of Errors. I'll not bother to review the play itself, because if you don't already know and appreciate it you are a barbarian and Philistine. The production is worth a few words though.

Set in French North Africa in the 1930s, it is faithful to the script but also with a few song n' dance numbers. I wonder if these were lifted from the 1977 musical version? Anyway, they are entirely in keeping with Shakespeare, whose comedies in particular were the mass-market entertainment of his day. The acting is mostly good - it was perhaps a bit stilted early on, but the main cast soon got going properly. The minor characters of Aegeon and the Duke didn't have the time to de-stilt themselves though, and Aegeon's opening speech was quite wearisome.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable performance, and I recommend it.

Posted at 11:08 by David Cantrell
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Theatre review: ENRON

Seeing that one of my Canuckistani visitors this week is an accountant, and also (mainly, to tell the truth) because someone at work recommended it, I took Mistress Beanie to see ENRON at the Noël Coward theatre a coupla days ago.

I can see why some of the critics didn't like it: the US critics wouldn't have liked the making obvious of the connections between political corruption, greed, and crass nationalism, and the making explicit of at least some of the bad guys being devoutly religious. It gets loud and in yer face about how this is the result of the "American Dream". Other critics would have hated the loud, modern music, the couple of musical numbers in what is otherwise a straight play, the use of video, and the decidedly modernist set design.

But they were all wrong. It's a great play - lively, flamboyant even, telling a great story (that it's a true story doesn't really matter much), and does a surprisingly good job of explaining what went on at Enron. I liked it a lot, and recommend it.

Posted at 10:40 by David Cantrell
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Fri, 11 Jun 2010

May 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In May 2010 I read the following books:

1. Last And First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

This is another of those supposedly great works ("science fiction's greatest ascent", according to Stephen Baxter) that is actually a load of pish. Sure, it's undeniably imaginative and even "epic". It's certainly a significant work - virtually none before and few stories since have been written on such a vast scale. But it is boring and repetitive, utterly lacking in humanity (even though it purports to be a history of humanity and concentrates, due to the author's background, on philosophical notions), and feels like it was written by a pedantic Victorian school-teacher.

I can say a few things in its defence though. Even though much of the science is laughably wrong, it is at least pretty good for its time. For example, Stapledon describes plate tectonics (proprosed by Wegener, a meterologist, in 1912, to explain the shapes of Africa and South America and the similar fossils either side of the south Atlantic; not generally accepted until the 1950s or 60s), genetic engineering (although he skips over the details, for obvious reasons), stellar evolution. He is also entirely correct about mankind's utter insignificance on the galactic scale.

But ultimately, it's the boring and repetitive nature of the book that stands out. Not worth reading.

2. The Things, by Peter Watts

One of my favourite films is The Thing, an adaptation of a novella by John W Campbell. Both the original novella and the film tell their story from the point of view of human protagonists. Why does no-one ever think about how the evil aliens feel? Well, that's what Watts has done with this short story. He's taken John Carpenter's film adaptation (yes, he's working from the film, not from the novella), and re-told it from the evil alien's perspective. And done a damned fine job of it. Highly recommended, and free to read (for now, at any rate) online.

3. The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross

The fifth installment in the series, and series-itis is rearing its head I'm afraid. It's getting a bit silly and over-the-top (you could tell that from the cover: a dude in plate armour, with a Maxim gun to one side and, errm, a nuke going off in the background) but that I can live with. It's fiction, it's entertainment, not serious literature. Unfortunately, there's rather too much politicking and I get the feeling that some fairly important background has been edited out in the process of turning the three huge books that were planned into six small books. That politicking is too opaque to the reader and takes away from the silly entertainment. And there's no chance at all that this would work in isolation - if you've not read the previous books, this will score nul points.

I still got some enjoyment from it, but there were too many points, especially in the last quarter, when I came close to just putting the book down and not finishing it. So I'm afraid that I can't recommend this.

Posted at 21:25 by David Cantrell
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Wed, 5 May 2010

April 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In April 2010 I read the following books:

1. Jill the Reckless, by P.G.Wodehouse

Like much of Wodehouse's work, this is a light-hearted, fairly short work, that you'll be able to knock off in a coupla days. It has such Wodehouse perennials as a domineering aunt, an uncle, and Bertie Wooster (although with a different name). I dare say little more without giving some of the essntials away, but you will enjoy this book. If you don't, you are broken.

2. Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

This sequel to Singularity Sky would work just as well as a stand-alone novel, while also maintaining continuity of character and setting with the first. The style, however, is rather different. Gone is the humour, replaced with a much darker over-all feel, and with far more action. While this does make the book more immediately accessible, I feel that there's something missing now.

It's still worth buying, mind. There is also room left for another book in the series, although Stross has no plans for one at the moment.

3. The Song of Phaid the Gambler, by Mick Farren

As Farren was so associated with the "counterculture" and "UK underground" you expect this to be an incoherent mess, but it's not. It still lacks overall structure, being more a sequence of events that just happen to involve the title character instead of an integrated whole, and relies on a few rather improbable coincidences and conspiracies. There's also a couple of plot-lines that are just left to fizzle out. Despite all that it's a mostly pleasant and diverting read, and worth buying second-hand. Which is good, because you can't get it new.

4. The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks

Narrated in the first person, this macabre tale hooks you early on and you jolly well stay hooked right up to the end. It's very short, but feels much longer than it really is because you don't expect such depth of character, or to sympathise so much with the narrator, in a mere novella, and the minor inconsistencies don't really matter much - it's not like the nutjob narrator can be expected to tell the truth all the time anyway. Utterly grotesque and horrible, beautifully written and composed, well worth reading.

5. Palimpsest, by Charles Stross

Time-travelling librarian history enforcers? Errm, well, OK, it's an idea that could be developed into something very interesting, certainly. But presented in short-story format like this, it's unfortunately rather confusing, and stops just when it should be getting started. This has an awful lot of potential if developed into a full novel, but in this format, it's not particularly good.

6. Overtime, by Charles Stross

This short Laundry story was going to get at least four stars, right until the end. Unfortunately, the ending is rather hurried. Stross gets everything else right though, so it's worth reading. And you can read it for free on Tor's website.

7. Down on the Farm, by Charles Stross

Another Laundry short, this is much better than Overtime. There's more human interest, and more explanation of what the hell's going on, so when we get to the end it's far more fulfilling. Very good, and free on Tor's website.

Posted at 23:36 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 20 Apr 2010

Film review: Assembly

Assembly, dir Feng Xiaogang

Set during and in the decade after the Chinese civil war, the film is based on the true story of a war hero fighting for the honour of his company, who despite fighting to the last man to cover the retreat of their regiment, were listed as Missing In Action instead of killed by the enemy. It is well-written (and well-translated and subtitled too - including, amusingly, a few lines in English spoken by a Yankee tank commander during a scene set in the Korean War), well shot, has an especially good musical score, but is perhaps a little let down by the acting - although I'm sure it doesn't help that I was having to read subtitles instead of just watching. The lead character Gu Zidi is particularly sympathetic, as is his company's political officer, but the rest are somewhat one-dimensional. Overall, the story is touching, and that it provokes an emotional response shows that it's Good Stuff. Recommended.

Posted at 22:48 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | film
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Sun, 18 Apr 2010

Film review: Seven Swords

Seven Swords, dir Tsui Hark

Another "homage" (mis-pronounced, no doubt, "omarj" in an attempt to sound all French and edumacated) to Seven Samurai, this is just as bad as the original. It was originally supposed to be 240 minutes long, but was cut to just 150, which may go part way to explain some of the jarring jumps and gaping plot-holes. These would make it an even worse film than Seven Samurai, if it wasn't for the fact that at least it's fairly well shot. There's also some ridiculous martial arts action, which always helps. The dude with the killer umbrella raises this up to getting three stars, just about.

Posted at 00:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | film
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Thu, 15 Apr 2010

Film reviews: The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai, dir Akira Kurosawa

This is, apparently, a great masterpice, and "unanimously hailed" as such according to one reviewer. Nonsense. While it does have its good points and has been undeniably influential, it's not actually a very good film by modern standards. It's not helped by being too long to support its story, and by too many cuts between pointless short shots when nothing is happening. I really wanted to like this, but I couldn't.

The Magnificent Seven, dir John Sturges

The story, modulo a few details and one extra sub-plot in this remake, is pretty much identical to that of Seven Samurai, even down to some of the dialogue being almost the same. Unlike the original, however, The Magnificent Seven is a film that everyone should watch, and which you will enjoy. It is much shorter, with many of the pointless slow bits left out, is better lit and shot, and is by far the better film. Highly recommended.

Posted at 22:05 by David Cantrell
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Tue, 30 Mar 2010

Music review: Robin Grey: Strangers With Shoes

OK, so this has turned into more a review of the record label than of the music. Deal with it :-)

I recently re-discovered Magnatune, the "we are not evil" record company. All their tracks are available online, and you can even download them for free, with a slightly annoying little speech at the end of each track saying where it came from - although Magnatune themselves say on their website that you can strip that off if you want. But for a trivial sum you can become a "download member", and so download as much music as you like, without the annoying speeches, and that's what I recommend.

But before you sign up, you should listen to this album by Robin Grey, as a sample of the sort of quality on offer. This is what Bob Dylan should have sounded like, if only Dylan could sing.

And while you're at Magnatune's website, also check out Beat Beat Beat, by Burning Babylon.

Posted at 23:22 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music
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Mon, 29 Mar 2010

March 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In March 2010 I read the following books:

What I Love About Cricket, by Sandy Balfour

I was given this by a friend who'd already read it and wasn't particularly impressed by it, on the condition that after finishing it, I pass it on. So I'll do that. Tomorrow I'll leave it on a train, and some random stranger can pick it up. And I'll do it regretfully, because I actually quite enjoyed it. Sure, it doesn't say much about anything - least of all what the author loves about cricket - and I can't remember a damned thing of any significance about it, but even so, it was an enjoyable read. I recommend that you buy it. Unless you find it on the train tomorrow. I'll be buying it too.

A Mathematician's Apology, by G. H. Hardy

This essay by one of the great pure mathematicians is rightly famous, but not for the right reasons. The author's central thesis - that real mathematics is, like the other forms of art, wholly useless - was shown to be wrong shortly after his death. The "wholly useless" theory of numbers, in which Hardy spent most of his professional life, is in fact of paramount importance these days. When you buy this book from Amazon the only reason you can be assured that naughty people won't steal your credit card number in transit is because of work done by pure mathematicians, and Hardy's own work has proven to be important in physics.

Hardy is writing for the non-mathematical layman here, so the book is very approachable, with only a minimum of elementary mathematics in it, which he provides as examples, and all of which should be accessible to anyone, including small children and Media Studies students. His intention is to provide a view into the mind of "real" mathematicians and explain the fascination that some people have with his "wholly useless" subject. And I suppose he does a decent job of that.

But in my opinion, the best bit is the foreword by C. P. Snow, which first appeared in the 1967 edition, 20 years after Hardy's death. That is a clear, touching - but critical in parts - portrait, and would be worth reading on its own. Hardy's essay is just a bonus.

Sword in the Storm, by David Gemmel

I don't normally read fantasy - too much of it is just a Tolkien pastiche, and most of the rest is badly written porn. But there are a few gems in the dunghill. This is one of them. You wouldn't think it from the awful cover art, and I don't remember why I bought it, but I'm glad I did. The broad sweep of the story is tediously conventional - a nobody Celt grows up, experiences hardships, shows exceptional bravery, becomes a great man. Yawn. What makes this stand out is the clarity of the writing, the great world-building and characters (even the incidental ones are well drawn), and that while the supernatural does exist in the story, it is mostly kept in the background and isn't used as a Deus Ex Machina - in other words, the supernatural is a small supporting element in the story, and isn't used as a Get Ouf Of Jail Free card when the author runs out of ideas.

This book is worth buying. I am at least sufficiently interested to buy the next in the series and read that too.

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

I don't know why, but when I first bought this and tried to read it a few years ago, it and I didn't get on at all well. I left it unfinished. Now that I've re-visited it though, I enjoyed every minute of it, with one small exception. It's great space opera, there's comedy mixed in, and if some of the characters are just a little one-dimensional - well that's what makes the comedy work. That small exception? The end. It just peters out with no real ending at all. Overall though, it's recommended.

Worlds of the Imperium, by Keith Laumer

According to the cover of this awful book, Laumer is "one of America's best-selling SF writers". If Dan Brown wasn't proof enough, this book is an excellent demonstration of how "best selling" correlates poorly with actually being any good. The writing is inept and childish, the plot paper-thin, the characters - well, there aren't any. About the only thing that's any good is that the pacing is fairly consistent and Laumer does at least manage to include a beginning, middle and end. Overall, a piss-poor effort.

Posted at 23:55 by David Cantrell
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Sun, 28 Feb 2010

February 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In February 2010 I read the following books:

1. Acts of Destruction, by Mat Coward

I bought this on the recommendation of Ken MacLeod, and wasn't disappointed. While the story is set in the future, it's not science fiction, it's a crime mystery. The futuristic setting acts merely to provide a whimsical - and frankly a bit silly - backdrop. That backdrop is somewhat similar to that of Morris's Dystopia, showing that a good novel can be built on such an improbable foundation. One of the ways this is far superior to Morris's book is that there's far less tedious speechifying. Sure, that means we don't learn all the details about how The Process transformed society, but we don't care anyway, The Process merely provides Coward with justification for the situations he puts his characters in and then, like in nearly all other good novels, it is their navigating their way through their troubles that entrances us. The predicaments don't bear up to scrutiny, just as the society that spawned them doesn't, but by the time you notice, you'll already be entranced by the characters and have suspended your disbelief for the duration - although the rice-free curry house was pushing it a bit.

I loved this book, and I'm sure you will too. If you're unsure despite my glowing review, you can read the first couple of chapters on the author's website.

2. Prime Number, by Harry Harrison

This collection of short stories is, I'm afraid, rather disappointing. Sure, the individual tales are entertaining, but nothing really stands out. And combined together as a single book, it all gets a bit samey. There are a couple of places where Harrison's usual genius peeks out from the clouds, but not enough to make it worth buying.

3. When It Changed, ed by Geoff Ryman

This is meant to be a short story collection that "puts authors and scientists back in touch with each other, to re-connect research ideas with literary concerns". In this it largely fails, despite the positive remarks made after each tale by a scientist working in a field tangentially related to the story.

Of the 16 stories, only one is by an author I recognise (Ken MacLeod), but 5 stories really stood out - Moss Witch, by Sara Maitland; In The Event Of, by Michael Arditti; White Skies, by Chaz Brenchley; Enigma, by Liz Williams; and Hair by Adam Roberts. That last one is the only one that does a good job of weaving actual science into the story.

That sounds like a bad review, doesn't it. Well, it's not. At least not entirely. In 276 pages there were five good short stories. Obviously I'd expect more if all the stories were by one author who I already knew was good at their craft. But five good shorts by random unknowns is unexpectedly good going. I recommend this book.

Posted at 11:20 by David Cantrell
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Sat, 13 Feb 2010

January 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In January 2010 I read the following books:

1. Marrow, by Robert Reed

There's definitely a fantastic story in here, and for the first three quarters of the book, that's exactly what you expect to get. It's certainly imaginative, and zips along at a fair old pace while still having time for those human moments that make the characters into people. But then we get to the last quarter of the book, and, like so many other sci-fi works that could be outstanding, that lets it down. It's confusing, both in terms of the sequence of events, but especially in terms of the characters' motivations, which seem to flip around seemingly at random.

I still liked it, but it's only a "good enough" book.

Posted at 21:52 by David Cantrell
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Sat, 2 Jan 2010

December 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In December 2009 I read the following books:

1. Gibraltar Sun, by Michael McCollum

This is the middle book in a trilogy, and is self-published. The author used to be published by a "proper" publisher but is no longer. That is of course, a terrible recipe, and his work must, of course, be rubbish. But it ain't. Sure, it's not high art. But it's engaging and entertaining. And that's what ultimately makes a novel a good one. I've actually read this book before, but it was a coupla years ago, and given that the third and final part in the series is finally out, I thought I'd better re-read it to refresh my memory before tackling the last installment. And I'm glad I did. I polished it off during a 4.5 hour train journey, without getting bored even once. Worth buying.

2. Gibraltar Stars, by Michael McCollum

I've been waiting for this for a long time, and the wait was worth it. The only real shortcoming (bearing in mind that I knew it was going to be modern pulp fiction) is that the resolution of the whole three book series is dealt with very quickly, almost skipped over. We see it beginning to take shape, but the reader is left to assume that events proceed exactly as predicted by a numerical simulation. I'm afraid that I lack the necessary faith in computers to fully accept that! The author's "Antares" series has the same simulation problem, although events are at least shown happening after the simulation in the finale of that series. Even so, good book, worth buying.

3. A Wrinkle In The Skin, by John Christopher

As was fashionable amongst British sci-fi authors of his generation (much of John Wyndham's work is fairly similar) this is a tale of a world-ending catastrophe, whose protagonist and other players are ordinary people to whom nasty things happen. There's no particularly happy ending and the author's explanation of events - and indeed the event itself that sets up the story - are laughable to a modern reader, but even so, it's a well-told, well-constructed, and well-written tale. Recommended.

4. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher

Like the previous book, the world ends and ordinary people struggle to survive. There's a nice couple of twists too which make what would otherwise be fairly predictable (especially if you've read any other of his books) into a gripping tale.

5. Evolution, by Stephen Baxter

In the afterword, the author tries to make excuses: "this is a novel. I have tried to dramatise the grand story of human evolution ... I hope my story is plausible". Well, no, it's not. That isn't a mortal sin in itself - plenty of really good stories are implausible, starting with one of the oldest stories that we have, the Iliad. But in dramatising, Baxter has made up a load of rubbish, including monkeys (and their far more primitive ancestors) giving each other names and all kinds of other silliness. I don't see why you can't tell the undeniably dramatic story of human origins factually, without introducing cuddly anthropomorphised Purgatorius, tool-using dinosaurs, and pterosaurs the size of whales.

Having laid into it like that, I do have to admit that it's a rollicking story whose silliness only made me want to scream a handful of times. I recommend it, although I aso recommend turning your brain off first, and not paying full price.

6. Matter, by Iain M. Banks

I've been waiting for a long time - it's eight years since the previous Culture novel! - for this, and thankfully it doesn't disappoint. It's rather more accessible than a couple of the previous books in the series have been, but without sacrificing Banks's usual inventiveness. It would make a good introduction to The Culture if you've not read any of the books before, and if you have it's a great continuation. Buy it.

Posted at 17:54 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Thu, 3 Dec 2009

Film review: Shark In Venice

The lovely Mr. Juan Lemmon reminded me that I need to review Shark In Venice.

This is Not A Good Film. It's vaguely enjoyable, once, while drunk, but it lacks quality, in pretty much all departments. This can sometimes be forgiven - I forgive the makers of Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, because their film is so delightfully over-the-top, cheesy and stupid. Trouble is, Shark In Venice doesn't hit any of those. It's not particularly OTT, at least no more so than an Indiana Jones film; it's not cheesy, taking itself quite seriously and it's obvious that quite a lot of money was spent on it; and it's not even stupid - it's ostensibly no more brainless than a thousand other, better films.

If only the film-makers hadn't taken their job so seriously they might have produced something that's actually fun. But no, by being so earnest, they merely emphasised their own incompetence.

Posted at 20:44 by David Cantrell
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November 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In November 2009 I read the following books:

1. Bridge of Ashes, by Roger Zelazny

I liked the Zelazny book that I reviewed previously a lot, despite it being confusing and not particularly well plotted - all down to the quality of the writing which was just beautiful. This is better. The writing is still as good, but the plot is clearer and the whole work is just so much less confusing and hangs together better. Mind you, the overall impression is, four days after finishing reading it, one of "wow that was good", but I'm buggered if I can remember what it was actually about!

2. Camelot 30K, by Robert L. Forward

Forward was first of all a physicist, and only secondly a writer of fiction. His fiction tends towards the scientifically plausible, without much in the way of "God Tech", and his better works are characterised by, errm, good characterisation. The people on his pages really are people, with lives, conflicts, desires and so on. That holds true for this work too, with a few minor exceptions. The characters are generally believable, even if those who stay "off screen" and are only talked about are somewhat one-dimensional - but that can easily be ascribed to the speakers' bias and limited knowledge. After all, plenty of us can't truly describe our bosses as fully-rounded people. The technology and science used is also believable. However, that's only that which is used. That which is inherent in the people (and I do hope you'll forgive me for being somewhat vague - being too specific would give away the "reveal" at the end of Forward's magic trick) is, at least in two respects, rather implausible. But this doesn't really take anything away from what is overall a good story, told well, by a skilled author.

I recommend it. If there were to be a sequel following the surviving character's new career at the end, I'd buy that too. And that, my friends, that wanting to read more, is the sign of a damned fine book.

Posted at 20:41 by David Cantrell
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Sun, 29 Nov 2009

Micro film reviews

2012: don't bother

Brighton Wok: not very good, but great fun and recommended if you appreciate amateur film-making.

The Warlords: great - Chinese cinema is really very good these days, even if it is still somewhat one-dimensional, with most of their films (at least of those that ever make it to the West) still being some species of martial arts or war movie.

House of Flying Daggers: good, but not great. The second half drags a bit and the plot goes through some rather silly contortions. Worth watching all the way through though.

Posted at 20:29 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | film
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Tue, 10 Nov 2009

October 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In October 2009 I read the following books:

1. 2 B R 0 2 B, by Kurt Vonnegut

This very short story is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. "Everything was perfectly swell. There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars. All diseases were conquered. So was old age." And yet the Utopia is utterly hideous. Once you read the two lines after those I quote, the ghastliness is obvious. And the line after that gives the rest away. Not worth reading.

2. Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

Yeah, I know, it's another short story. I'm cheating horribly in my attempt to get back on track and read four works every month. Anyway, it's great. This is what science fiction should be - an exploration both of the physical world but also of the meta-physical, mediated by technology. Technology is what every literate person in advanced societies these days is familiar with, so technology is a good substrate for great story-telling, much like in more primitive times the common substrate might have been country house parties and religion - which is why Jane Austen and her ilk's work and the Bible seem like utter crap now but were so popular back in the Dark Ages. Chiang brings out the explorer's humanity, painting him as a sympathetic being with troubles, dreams, desires, and most of all hopes. Hopeful stories are terribly rare in all of literature.

I'm pleased to see that it won the 2009 Hugo for Best Short Story. You can, at least for now, read it for free online here.

3. A Colder War, by Charles Stross

I'm still a dirty rotten cheat. This is another short story (which can also be downloaded) and is another Lovecraft crossover. And it's done superbly well. If anything, the horror of Lovecraft's Elder Ones comes across better here than in the original, perhaps because I can relate more to the setting. The utter madness of Lovecraft's mythos fits all too well into Mutually Assured Destruction.

4. Planet of the Damned, by Hary Harrison

First published in 1962, this is one of the better examples of the pulp sci-fi of its era, and is, unlike almost all its contemporaries, still in print. This is probably because, while it does have some of the stupid prejudices of its age - women can not possibly win chess tournaments; the only female character is a tiny, but sexy, wimp - they are nothing like as all-encompassing as in the lesser works of the age. And also the technologies and ecosystems are, again unlike most of its contemporaries, mostly plausible. In particular, I doubt that Harrison was aware of the "brain-washing" Cordyceps fungi, but the alien symbiote whose influence and discovery drives the plot seems to be remarkably similar. The writing and characterisation is somewhat weak - again, showing its age - but the plot is strong and inventive, making this worth reading.

5. The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers, by Gavin Smith

The subject of illegal whisky making, its history, the economic and social conditions surrounding it, and how it was combatted by the government, has the potential to make a great book for whisky afficionados, especially when you consider how many of today's large commercial distilleries have roots in illegal distilling. But this book isn't it. It starts well, with a survey of the economic conditions and circumstances of distilling. This makes an excellent text on how having different tax rates for the same goods in different places in a single jurisdiction is Just Plain Dumb, and how arbitrary and inconsistent law encourages crime.

But that's all that's good in the book. The rest is just an incoherent collection of uncited anecdotes and well-researched and cited facts, with obvious tall tales thrown in without comment (for instance the tale of how a cripple was able to jump from his boat into that of a customs crew and smash their boat apart while the excise officers and their crew were still on board). To add insult to injury, the publisher has obviously bulked out what is still a fairly slim volume by inserting a large space between each disjointed fact or anecdote, attempting to hide that with a small image. And finally, the scholarship (which would other wise be fairly good if only the editor had managed to bash it into a coherent shape) is terribly let down by an obviously biased treatment of the illegal distillers as folk-heroes and excisemen as The Enemy, while largely ignoring the violence between distilling gangs, the poor quality of the spirit (which wasn't aged like it is today) and the effects on health of an unregulated alcohol industry having little in the way of quality control.

I can't recommend this, not even to whisky lovers.

Posted at 19:50 by David Cantrell
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Sat, 3 Oct 2009

September 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In September 2009 I read the following books:

1. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

It's hard to decide what I think of this - other than that it's great and everyone should read it. It is not, contrary to what many think, an anti-technological screed, nor an anti-communist or anti-capitalist one. If anything it is anti-conformity and pro-individualism. That the World Controllers enforce conformity through technology and consumption of consumer goods is neither here nor there - it is clear that conformity enforced through other means, such as hierarchical religion, was equally antithetical to Huxley.

2. A Journey in Other Worlds, by John Jacob Astor

This example of early science fiction is certainly interesting as a view into the mind of cultured well-educated Victorians. They are violently racist, revelling in genocide to cleanse the world of "inferior races" for its population by white men and their eventual conquest of the universe; they are sickeningly religious and dabble in spiritualism. But in their favour, they seek scientific explanations for everything (even the supposed ascension of Christ is explained (badly) in scientific terms) and don't shrink from engineering. Indeed, the opening section is all about the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company, which seeks to abolish the curse of seasonal change by pumping water back and forth between the Arctic and Antarctic thus redistributing the mass of the Earth. And if that's not an engineering project I don't know what is!

Of course, a moment with a pocket calculator - or a Victorian slide rule - would demonstrate how utterly absurd such a project is. Much of the other science in the book is similarly silly, including homeopathy, arguing from conclusions, and so on. But there are some fascinating ideas buried in the dross. It's the first popular description I'm aware of of gravitational slingshots, for example, the first description of a practical speed camera, and contains a working explanation of how to find extra-solar planets by occultation of their stars' light. There's also some intriguing speculation about pocket-sized portable stars, almost identical in function and outward form to Asimov's "Foundation" series's atomic lights.

The story itself breaks down broadly into three sections: the first is a rather tiresome introduction to the main characters via their work with the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Co. Second is their journey to and exploration of Jupiter - where their first actions are to test whether the air is breathable by, errm, breathing it, and to find something to shoot. Oh there's lots of things to shoot. Cue a description of parallel evolution, lots of amusing theories, and a good Boys' Own adventure in the wilderness.

And then there's the unfortunate third section. This would have been much better omitted, leaving us with an enjoyable (if not very good) novel. Unfortunately, they find the Christian heaven on Saturn, spend lots of time talking to spirits and wibbling sagely at each other, and generally waste lots of valuable paper in printing their tiresome speculations. There's potentially some interesting thoughts here on the human condition and morality, but they spoil what was up to this point a work of entertainment. And in any case, there's nothing original there, it's all been done better by other authors.

So, worth reading? The first two sections certainly are, provided that you like the sort of silliness that H. G. Wells vomited forth, and provided you can put up with the quite revolting creatures that were upper-class Victorians. But I'd not bother with the last section if I were you.

Posted at 23:38 by David Cantrell
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Wed, 23 Sep 2009

Review: Civilisation, by Kenneth Clark

[originally posted 13 Sept 2009]

I'm going back in time. I started off by watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", which was inspired partly by Bronowski's "Ascent of Man", which I then watched. In turn, Bronowski's series was made as a reaction and follow-up to Clark's "Civilisation".

Both Cosmos and Ascent of Man were enjoyable surveys of their subject, and while I have a few minor factual quibbles and found both presenters slightly irritating, they pale in comparison to Civilisation.

I've only watched the first episode of 13 so far, but it's just awful. Sure, Bronowski also had some rather quaint 1970s views, but Clark's aren't just quaint, they're also Dead Wrong. And not the kind of Wrong that comes from being from a less advanced time and where we now know better. To take one example, he presents Islam as being an utterly anti-artistic and anti-civilisation movement, ignoring what was well known at his time, that cities like Damascus and Baghdad were centres of art and learning, and even if we only look at Europe he's still ignoring the Alhambra.

He's also terribly inconsistent. One moment he's telling us that the Vikings were uncivilised because (amongst other things) they didn't have books, the next he's going on about how the Icelandic Sagas are some of the greatest works to ever be written. And after slagging off Islam for being anti-artistic, he then goes on to compare Celtic illuminated manuscripts to ... Islamic art. Wrongly. Apparently, Celtic art is better because the lines were closer together or something. It's odd that Bronowski's series was not about art, but did a better job of at least explaining the complexities, constraints, passion and feeling of Islamic art than this expert ever did. I wonder what other stupid errors and contradictions he's going to spout in his horribly annoying voice.

Clark was apparently "one of the best-known art historians of his generation". No wonder the arts are treated with such disdain by modernity if he's the best scholar and spokesman they can come up with.

Update: in episode 2 he calls science a religion. I shall now file him under "wilful idiots", along with creationists and Labour voters.

Update, episode 3: did you know that the Romans didn't know love? Clark thought so. Catullus would have disagreed, but what would he know, he was only a man from a fallen civilisation.

Update: in episode 6 when decrying Protestantism and the Reformation, he goes on at length about "the northern spirit" and compares Protestants to the nomadic barbarians he so incorrectly calumnied earlier. "One can't point to a single piece of specifically protestant architecture or sculpture, which shows just how much these expressions of civilisation depended on the catholic church". Just plain wrong. There's nothing inherently Catholic about, eg, Chartres cathedral, which he raves about so much, any more than there is anything inherently Protestant about the new Coventry cathedral. Likewise all Catholic sculpture (aside from perhaps some sculptures of popes) can be found a place in Protestant churches and societies. He also, in passing, says that Luther was the sort of leader figure that the Germans so love. What an appalling little man.

Update: Half way through watching episode 7 I had all kinds of rude things to write - about it being a paean to catholicism, that it sneered so at the arts and civilisation of the Reformation, and so on. But then Clark redeemed himself by also rubbishing catholic baroque, pointing out that it was mostly the product of personal greed and vanity, and that "no good ever came from thoughts in enormous rooms". He's still a bloody Philistine, of course, especially because of his ridiculous statements about film being an inferior medium, but even so - bravo!

Posted at 21:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | tv
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Sat, 5 Sep 2009

August 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In August 2009 I read the following books:

1. People of the Wolf, by Michael and Kathleen Gear

This book could have been so much better. It is apparently the beginning of a series of fictionalised accounts of the peopling of the Americas, this first volume covering the arrival of the first humans. There's even a kernel of a good story in here. Unfortunately, it's just hopelessly incompetently written. Let's start with the handy map right at the beginning. It bears so little resemblance to what actually happens in the story that it's just confusing. Then there's a brief modern-day chapter about some archaeologists finding an appropriately ancient burial - which bears no resemblance to anything that happens in the story. More confusion and wasted pages. But even ignoring those flaws, the main bulk of the story is let down by the characters having really fucking stupid names which make it hard to keep track of who's who. Opening it at a random page and picking the first name on it, you can't even tell whether "Moss Stalker" is a man or a woman, or which of the opposing tribes he (or she) is from! For fuck's sake, even that old hack Jean Auel does better than this! And worst of all, the whole damned book is full of pseudo-religious mystical crap. I paid a penny plus postage to get this book second-hand. Never mind the postage, even the penny alone would have been too much.

2. Cachalot, by Alan Dean Foster

On a well-fleshed-out world, we have reasonably strong characters - including most of the non-human ones - and an imaginative plot that gallops along at a nice pace. It's only really let down by two things, one at the very beginning and one right at the end. At the beginning the book is dedicated to, amongst others, "the men and women of Greenpeace". And the end wraps the story up rather too quickly and in an utterly ridiculous and implausible manner. "It's all down to alien mind control" just doesn't work, and gives the impression that the author didn't actually know how the story was going to finish when he started writing it. Normally that would put me off recommending it, but the rest is so good that I'm going to command you to read it anyway.

Posted at 15:15 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Mon, 3 Aug 2009

July 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2009 I read the following books:

1. The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

I was surprised when I realised that I hadn't actually read this. I wish I still hadn't. It is tediously repetitive - for example, at the beginning of chapter 10 he says " This book is mainly about evolution as the solution of the complex 'design' problem; evolution as the true explanation for the phenomena that [William] Paley thought proved the existence of a divine watchmaker. This is why I keep going on about eyes and echo-location. " We already knew from the first few pages what the book was about! But not only does each chapter repeat stuff from previous chapters, each chapter also repeats stuff from earlier in the chapter. The editor was obviously asleep when this manuscript came in. Thankfully, it's not a very important book so you don't have to read it. The same author's "Climbing Mount Improbable" is a much better-written exposition of the same subject matter.

2. Utopia, by Thomas More (trans from the Latin by Paul Turnet)

This short story is, depending on who you ask, an early Communist manifesto, or a Catholic apology, or a veiled criticism of domestic English politics, or ... well, just about anything really. Arguments for and against some of these are well-covered in the very accessible introduction, along with a brief portrait of the man himself - he looks like a jolly interesting (if occasionally barking mad) chap, so I shall have to look for a full biography.

The work itself was influential enough to give its name (which means "No [such] place") to a genre - utopian works these days are those that purport to describe a perfect happy society. They are sometimes self-contradictory, usually fanciful, often ridiculous, and always betray the author's prejudices. The grandfather of them all has all of these flaws in spades.

It's particularly interesting that while More was executed for opposing Henry VIII's split with Rome, and was even declared a martyr and saint by the Roman church, that quite early in the book there are some strident condemnations of Catholic practice - " most of [Christ's] teaching is far more at variance with modern conventions than anything I suggested, except in so far as his doctrines have been modified by ingenious teachers, doubtless on [the church hierarchy's] recommendation " for example. Or when analysing who actually does the work that keeps society running, he lists amongst the lazy " all the priests and members of religious orders ", who do nothing to produce what is needed for a comfortable life. And that last clause is Saint Thomas More speaking, not me.

In his description of the physical and political setup of Utopia, who does what work, the Utopians relations with their neighbours and so on, More's vision is, if admittedly ridiculous and putting (just like most socialist and christian writers) far too much faith in human nature, but it is at least fairly consistent.

But the Utopians' social structure and religious outlook are contradictory. Much is made of their placing high value on human life and that all people are equal. But on the other hand, women are subservient to men and must confess their sins to their husbands. And More makes the very surprising mistake (surprising in that such an obviously intelligent person would make it even though it was a common fallacy of his time and indeed still is among certain contemporary morons) of assuming that atheists have no incentive to behave like decent people. According to him, because they lack the fear of eternal damnation, atheists will look out solely for themselves and ruthlessly exploit everyone else for their own pleasure, and that this is a Bad Thing. This is obviously false. Being nice to people is pleasurable even when the recipient of your grace is a stranger. Additionally, being nice to people means that people will be kindly disposed to you and behave decently towards you in turn - being a nice person generates its own worldly reward.

Of course, in all that I'm sure I'm just as guilty as those I mentioned in the first paragraph, and have simply read my own prejudices into More's words. I invite you to do the same and commend this book to you.

Let me also commend this book as an instruction manual to the scoundrels who lurk in Parliament and the Inns of Court. More's ideal society believes that the entire set of laws and regulations of a society must be short and clear enough to be readable and comprehensible in toto to a normal person, and that normal people should represent themselves in court. In fact, there are no lawyers at all.

3. The Misplaced Legion, by Harry Turtledove

This is a delightfully silly romp, much as one would expect from Turtledove. The premise is absurd, but once that's over and done with the tale is enjoyable, if also lacking in any merit whatsoever. But who cares? I certainly don't.

4. An Emperor for the Legion, by Harry Turtledove

Not as well-formed as the previous work, this doesn't feel like a single novel, and while I am sure it makes a good bridge from the previous to the next volume in the series, it certainly doesn't work at all well on its own. And that's despite the short "What has gone before" at the beginning. That's something that more authors of series should write.

Posted at 08:22 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 30 Jun 2009

June 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In June 2009, I was blessed with unemployment so had lots of time. I read the following books:

1. The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross

Carrying on from where the first book in the series left off, this is really the second half of the story that the previous volume started. As such, it makes some things rather clearer which were just confusing in the first installment, although not all - but then, there are more sequels to come. Overall, this and its predecessor combine to make one satisfying story which I have no hesitation in recommending to you.

But that's a recommendation for the two books together. This one won't work well in isolation.

2. The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross

Number three in the series, this book really takes its time to get going, but after a hundred pages of meh it picks up and is back to the pace and quality of its pre-decessor. Again, like The Hidden Family this is the first half of a larger story that got split for some reason, but the split is handled better this time, ending on a nice cliff-hanger but without too many loose ends. As the third installment in a large series, there is of course the problem of how to bring a new reader up to speed who hasn't read the earlier volumes, but this is done without the repetition being too irritating for someone who has started at the beginning. My only niggle is that some exposition is handled somewhat maladroitly as "transcripts" of bugged conversations, but these transcripts (and the organisations and people making them) aren't obviously used. Perhaps they'll show up in a later volume. But I can forgive this, as to a large extent these solve the problem I noted in The Family Trade, that the plots and schemes within plots and schemes are too opaque to the reader. These serve to remove the veils somewhat. Again, I recommend it, but with the proviso that it will work a lot better if you've read the previous two books.

3. The Merchants' War, by Charles Stross

Starting at the moment the previous volume left off, there's not much to say about this volume other than that it's full of juicy goodness, and again ends on something of a cliff-hanger. It was great fun to read, suffering from the well-known problem good books have of keeping me awake until sunrise as I compulsively turned the pages. BAD AUTHOR, NO BIKKIT! But I don't think it'll work at all in isolation. Recommended if you've read the previous books, but not otherwise.

4. Eagle Rising, by David Devereux

This second book in what is so far a thoroughly enjoyable series is perhaps even better than the first. The protagonist is an utter bastard, who knows full well that what he does is morally questionable, but does it anyway for the greater good. His character is reinforced by the writing style - the story is told in the first person in a very matter-of-fact voice.

The story moves along well at a good pace, with with lots of action to back up "Jack"'s thorough investigation of his targets, and this should appeal both to lovers of scifi/fantasy and to fans of action heroes such as James Bond. Two thumbs up!

5. The Odyssey, by Homer

Having recently read The Iliad it's only sensible to move on to the Odyssey. The Odyssey is a much more approaching book for a modern reader. Of the flaws I noted in the Iliad, all are either absent or minimised in the Odyssey. There is still some waffle, although nowhere near as much, and characters are prone to speechifying when a simple "thankyou" would suffice.

The only real criticisms I have are that there is a ridiculous amount of gift-giving; that Odysseus is a pathological liar; and that the end is very abrupt.

On the first point: yes, I am aware that the story is set in a radically different society to that which we are now blessed with, and that people often demonstrate their wealth by ostentatious generosity. However, I think this goes too far. For example, while staying with the Phaeacian king, he is not only given gifts by the king, butthe king commands everyone else present to also give him equally generous gifts.

The second, while playing a legitimate part in the story, as it is through guile and deceit that Odysseus gains admittance to his own home as it is being despoiled by yahoos, is taken too far and shows the hero in a poor light. In particular, when he is finally reunited with his father, Odysseus tells outrageous lies, putting his father in some distress. I'm afraid I'm with the Romans on this, Odysseus was a really rather obnoxious and dishonorable fellow.

Even so, you should, obviously, read this.

6. Riotous Assembly, by Tom Sharpe

A very silly satire of apartheid-era South Africa, this is well worth reading.

7. By Schism Rent Asunder, by David Weber

The second installment in Weber's "Safehold" series is just as enjoyable as the first. As I expected, he has rather condensed real-world history, combining the Henrician reformation and the beginning of the industrial revolution into one movement. The story moves along at a surprisingly swift pace, given that there is little of the action that permeated the first volume.

There are also very obvious parallels with some of the author's "Honorverse" series. But this does not detract from the story - the concepts are re-worked to fit in with the different background, and the very well done world-building means that those parts still feel fresh.

The only real criticisms I had are that it finishes on a very annoying cliff-hanger, unlike the previous book, and so can't be read in isolation. And another barrier to reading it in isolation in that there is precious little background information on "Merlin" and the society's technological proscriptions, until quite a way in.

Definitely worth reading, but you should read the previous volume first.

8. Ruled Britannia, by Harry Turtledove

Predictably for Turtledove, this is an enjoyable "alternate history" of little literary merit. The premise is that the Spanish Armada succeeded, England has been ruled by Spanish puppets for a decade, and now plotters are scheming to put Elizabeth I back on the throne, using Shakespeare's plays to stir up the mob. The book is therefore replete with puns and lines lifted straight from Shakespeare's oeuvre - Turtledove has clearly done his research, and judging by his notes at the end I probably missed quite a bit that he lifted from lesser-known Elizabethan sources. Those borrowings will definitely raise a chuckle from the literate reader, at least to start with. However, that reader will end up irritated by the dialogue, which is almost entirely rendered in faux-Elizabethan stage-English. It doesn't detract much from the story though so if you can grit your teeth and carry on, this is worth a read. Once.

9. David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd

I bought this as a present for a friend's sprog, mostly on the recommendation of another author, David Weber, who raved about it in some notes at the end of one of his books. In the end, I didn't give it, as I thought, having read the first few pages, that the book was, at the time, a little advanced for the kiddy in question. But now a coupla years later I've finished reading it myself. As it's a childrens' book, it is of course a very simple tale. But it is charmingly told, in plain simple English, and was a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours even for cynical old me. Worth buying.

10. The Ethical Engineer, by Harry Harrison

Very much a product of its time (it was published in 1964), this is nevertheless a good read. That's despite the heroic spaceman being ever so heroic and resourceful, capable of arguing ethics, wielding a broadsword, fixing a steam engine and familiar with all branches of primitive science. There are continuity errors, and even obviously ridiculous points such as people speaking Esperanto, but at its core there is a story of human ingenuity and relationships being used to surmount technological difficulties. Which is what good sci-fi always boils down to.

11. News From Nowhere, by William Morris

Yes, that William Morris. This is his attempt at writing a Utopia. The world he describes is a rural "idyll" which doesn't look particularly idyllic to me, in which private property has been abolished. As a window into Morris's mind, it's really quite good - his naivety, scorn of science, worship of those who work the land, and his extreme Luddism come through loud and clear. But as a novel it's really not very good. It consists mostly of rather stilted expository dialogue, all the major characters speaking with the same voice and agreeing strongly with each other. Apart from lots of jawing, little happens. It is worth reading as a way of getting to know the man behind the artworks, but I'm really glad that it's so short.

12. Lammas Night, by Katherine Kurtz
If ever you needed proof that you can judge a book by its cover, this is it. Certainly if I'd seen the cover before buying it second-hand I'd not have wasted my money on this rubbish - the cover art is a map of Europe superimposed on a swastika, surrounded by candles, and impaled with a dagger. And it's all about how Hitler's invasion of the UK was thwarted by witches. Oh dear. So, the author starts with a stupid idea for a plot, and then it gets worse. Relationships between characters are not clear, the most ridiculous conspiracies are only found out when convenient, and the reader does not feel the slightest bit of sympathy for the characters no matter how hard they wail.
Posted at 20:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Mon, 1 Jun 2009

May 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In May 2009, I read the following books:

1. Lord of Misrule: the autobiography of Christopher Lee

There's not much to say about this, other than that it's a very accessible book, and a delight to read, unlike most autobiographies. Lee tells the tale of his life simply and with a gentle wit. Perhaps my only little complaint is that this is an expanded version of an earlier edition of his autobiography (previously sold as Tall, Dark and Gruesome) and the new material, largely concerning his roles as Count Dooku in Star Wars and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings lack warmth, appearing to be more like a third-party account of what happened, than a first-person view.

2. The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter

This is rightly hailed as a classic, being one of the clearest accounts of day-to-day Roman life for those outside the nobility and political and military elite during the Empire. And of course it is a fine example of political satire, with many subtle and not-so-subtle digs at public figures and writers of the era. All of this makes it a great academic read. And as such, I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, it's a lousy novel. That's not the author's fault, but is simply because large chunks of the text have been lost over the last 1900 years so there are jarring gaps. While we can, to a limited extent, reconstruct parts of it, all that tells us is what the broad arc of the story might have been. It does not restore the text. You could cut chunks out of any good story, and then largely rebuild the tale, but if you were to read it with those chunks missing (which is the case with my copy of the Satyricon, which lacks even the briefest of inline notes about the missing sections) it would still not be a good read. It's almost a pity that the practice of translators/editors filling in the blanks themselves, making them up out of whole cloth, hasn't taken off, at least for mass-market paperbacks. But then, I suppose, there isn't a mass-market because it's not about some ghastly footballer or pig-faced slag from Essex.

One only for those with an academic interest in the era.

3. The Family Trade, by Charles Stross

The cover of my copy says it's a fantasy, despite the crucial points all stemming from technological differences between worlds, demonstrating once again that there's no real difference between sci-fi and fantasy. Those differences, and restricted travel between worlds, lead to what I'm sure will be an excellent story in a well-developed universe with sympathetic fleshed-out characters. But it is let down by two things. First, the plots and schemes within plots and schemes are terribly opaque. Second, they're not made clearer by the book stopping so abruptly without a firm conclusion. This seems to be an editorial decision - apparently The Family Trade and its sequel "The Hidden Family" were originally written as one novel, but were published seperately. I hope that once I've read The Hidden Family things will be made much clearer.

Despite those reservations, I still enjoyed reading this, and recommend it.

Posted at 17:53 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 30 May 2009

Finchcocks

Last weekend I went to Finchcocks musical museum with my parents. It was dead good. They have all kinds of weird (and not so weird) keyboard instruments, which visitors are encouraged to play with. I perpetrated photography.

Posted at 00:21 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music | photography
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Fri, 1 May 2009

April 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In April 2009, I read the following books:

1. Alamein to Zem Zem, by Keith Douglas

This first-hand account of the battle of El Alamein by a tank commander who was also a well-regarded poet is well worth reading. While it is rather more gung-ho, the closest parallel I can think of is some of Wilfred Owen's poetry from the Western Front of the previous round of Unpleasantness. I was particularly struck by something that is very common in real military memoirs but almost entirely absent from fictional ones: that soldiers - even officers - rarely know what's going on, are frequently confused, spend far more time waiting around than they do fighting, and that their biggest enemy is often the environment as opposed to the other side's soldiers. Some of the confusion seeps through to the pages. In a very short book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is who in Douglas's squadron, but whereas in a work of fiction that would be terribly important, in this true account it really doesn't matter - the overall impression is what counts. In short, this is one of the few books that I can whole-heartedly recommend to absolutely everyone, no matter whether your normal diet is great literature or formulaic pot-boiler thrillers. Buy it. Now.

2. The Iliad, by Homer

This is the third time I've read this. Well, the third time I've started reading it, and the second time I've finished it. The first was when I was at school, when we had to translate the first book from Latin into English. I hated it because I resented "wasting my time" on Latin - something that I deeply regret now. The second was an English prose translation, and I hated it, for reasons that I shall enumerate later. This time was, again, an English prose translation (the Project Gutenberg edition, translated by Samuel Butler) and this time the things that I hated previously were merely irritating, although Butler introduces a new irritation.

That new irritation is that although he's translating a Greek tale from Greek into English - not going via an intermediate Latin rendering - he uses Roman names for the gods, whereas I'm more familiar and comfortable with Greek names. And worse, Jupiter is rendered in the English familiar form Jove. Grrr. But perhaps his late-Victorian audience preferred his way. 'Tis a very minor quibble.

But on to the work itself. It is a story of a small part of the final stages of a war in antiquity between the peoples of Greece (confusingly called by three different interchangeable names none of which is "Greeks" - irritation number one) and the Trojans, who are these days thought to be Hittites living in what is now Turkey. This took place (and there is some archaeological evidence for the war of the story being at least partially based on real history) in the late 1100s BC, when bronze was still the metal of choice with iron being rare and valuable - at one point a noble defeated in combat says "take me alive ... and you shall have a ransom ... of gold, bronze and wrought iron". There are no iron weapons. The story concentrates on relationships between people, interspersed with bloody combat, the most important relationship being between Agamemnom, leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, his mightiest warrior. Agamemnon dishonours Achilles, who then instead of fighting goes and sulks in his tent. His absence allows the Trojans, lead on the field by Hector, to almost drive the Greeks into the sea, while the Greek leaders spend at least as much time sulking, arguing, and trying in vain to patch up Agamemnon and Achilles' relationship. Eventually, Achilles permits his close friend Patroclus to fight wearing Achilles' armour. Hector kills Patroclus and so Achilles' desire for personal revenge overcomes his hatred of Agamemnon, so he rejoins the fight, which immediately swings back in the Greeks' favour, and kills Hector. The story ends not with the famous wooden horse and the sacking of Troy (that is covered in other Homeric-era works), but with the funeral of Patroclus and the ransoming and funeral of Hector's body, and the hitherto cold-hearted Achilles thawing somewhat. While the details are obviously archaic, the broad outline - a war serving as background for a study in human weaknesses and stupidity, punctuated by colourful battle scenes - wouldn't be out of place in the ouevre of many a modern writer.

Another strand throughout - less important, but it still adds depth to the tale - is the human players' petty jealousies and bickering being mirrored amongst the gods. They aren't the wise all-knowing beings that modern readers might expect, they are mirrors of humanity, subject to all their faults and while powerful they are still limited by Fate. While they do interfere in the affairs of men, they cannot, when someone is fated to die, do anything about it.

But on to the irritations. There are three major ones. First, characters are not referred to by consistent names. Sometimes Achilles is Achilles, but at others he is "the son of Peleus", for example. This makes it harder for the reader - or in Homer's time the listener - to keep track of who's doing what to who, at least at first. Perhaps this was done to maintain the poet's desired meter in the original, but no modern writer would do it.

The second is that some of the battle scenes degenerate into something similar to the Bible's Book of Begats. These are often of the form X slew Y son of Z, who [biographical note, sometimes quite lengthy], and his armour rang rattling around him. Then X slew P son of Q, who [another biographical note], and his armour rang rattling around him. Then X slew A son of B and C, who [oh god, another biographical note about a minor character whose only appearance is when he gets killed here], and his armour rang rattling around him. If some bard was to narrate that part of the tale at one of my feasts, I'd be shouting "Get on with it!". Again, no modern writer would expect to get away with this - if he tried it, his editor would slap him down.

And finally, there's so much waffle. As the poem was originally delivered orally, I presume that the bard was paid by the hour, and repetitive waffle served to fill his wallet without much work, while also serving to make the story seem comfortable and familiar to the audience. But even so, some of the waffle is really over the top. For example, at one point Hector is looking for his wife Andromache, so asks his women-servants "women, tell me, and tell me true, where did Andromache go when she left the house? Was it to my sisters, or to my brothers' wives? or is she at the temple of Minerva where the other women are propitiating the awful goddess?". Of course, if this episode ever happened, what Hector actually said was "do you know where my wife is?". At another point, Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, after pausing during the battle to take his freshly dead victim's armour (valuable booty! - remember, bronze, while being a useful substance for armour and weapons was also highly valued), he hangs around for even longer to make a great speech, wittering on for almost a page before rejoining the fray. In reality, he would have said "Hah!". But silliest of all, at a few points, someone will be going on and on and on about how he just killed someone, or how he's about to kill someone, and one of his colleagues will shout "Get on with it!" - only his version of "Get on with it" will be more like "Meriones, hero though you be, you should not speak thus; taunting speeches, my good friend, will not make the Trojans draw away [blah blah long speech blah]".

But those are just irritations. Since the last time I read it, I have gained a greater appreciation for the era and the text, so they no longer really spoil it for me. I can ignore them, skipping over the most tedious bits. I commend this work to you.

3. Sky Coyote, by Kage Baker

In some ways this is an improvement on its predecessor - the minor quibbles I had are largely absent from this sequel and the scene is set solely by action and conversation, not by also adding irritating linguistic tricks. That's not to say that it's great literature though. Far from it in fact. But it's a thoroughly enjoyable light-hearted read.

4. Off Armageddon Reef, by David Weber

As you would expect from reading Weber's other books, the world that he constructs to host his tale is very large, and with few exceptions is consistent and logical. And also as you would expect there's plenty of naval action and people clewing in the top-gallants on the focs'l yards and whatnot. It's a fantasy, but being by Weber it has a sci-fi back-story - one that isn't particularly important to the story itself. The theme for the whole series is fairly obvious - it's going to follow its world through an *ever* so close analogue of our Reformation and Enlightenment, although I suspect that this world will go from galleons to exploring the galaxy in only a coupla hundred years at most. This, the first installment in the series (there's one other volume already published, and the third is due out later this year) was enjoyable. I do worry, however, that he's going to shadow real history rather too closely. The politics and theology we've already seen certainly does. If that's the case, then he's going to try to cram a hell of a lot of material into the books, and in this and in a couple of his Honorverse books he has shown something of a tendency for expository rambling and too much political intrigue. But hey, I enjoyed it anyway, and have already ordered the next book.

But I do have one request for Mr. Weber. Yes, I know you want to show that your story isn't really happening here on Earth and that there's been umpty-hundred years of linguistic drift. But really, changing "Eric" to "Erayk" and "Harold" to "Haarahld" just SUCKS. Please, drop it.

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Wed, 1 Apr 2009

March 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In March 2009, I read the following books:

1. King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard

After reading Haggard's other well-known work, She, a few months ago, I thought I ought to read this as well. It's better. There's less waffle (still, admittedly, some waffle, but not much) and its less jarring for modern sensibilities. Instead of the white men being obviously vastly superior to the evil black men, he paints both as being equally capable of greatness. Much of the language is of course not what we would use today (black characters are all kaffirs, for example) but this won't detract from the enjoyment unless you're one of those ultra-sensitive idiots who don't deserve to enjoy anything anyway. Strongly recommended, and available for free online.

2. My Life as a Miracle, by The Wizard of New Zealand

Yes, that's really the author's name, and also his title, having had it bestowed on him by Mike Moore, who was (very briefly) prime minister of New Zealand. The Wizard is a great example of the British Eccentric, and this autobiography is a refreshing, and all too brief, read.

Posted at 00:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sun, 1 Mar 2009

February 2009 in books

This review can also be found on Amazon.

In February 2009, I only completed reading one book. I have been terribly slack:

1. Flash!, by L.E.Modesitt

This is poorly structured and poorly written. Every single one of the characters is a flat cardboard cut-out, the world they inhabit isn't at all well-explained, and so the resulting story is mostly confusing and hard to follow.

Posted at 22:16 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 3 Feb 2009

The Root of All Evil?

I recently watched Richard Dawkins's two-part series from a couple of years ago "The Root Of All Evil?" about religion and its place in society.

I'm afraid that, while I think Dawkins was right about just about everything, it wasn't very satisfying. There was very much a feeling of "preaching to the choir". There's no way that it would convince a critical viewer who wasn't already an atheist. Dawkins made sure that except for one brief segment all (and I mean all) the religious people he interviewed were from the, umm, lunatic fringe of their faiths, and really obviously so. None of them tried (presumably because they couldn't) to justify why they reject various bits of the scriptures - eg, the ones who thought killing doctors and adulterers and shunning homosexuals was good obviously rejected "love your neighbour", but didn't say why. That one brief segment was mostly Dawkins agreeing with the bishop of Oxford, while still legitimately pointing out that the bishop was rejecting scripture selectively, and not giving the bishop much time to expand on his thoughts about why he rejected the bits of scripture about stoning unbelievers while keeping "love your neighbour".

Without fair interviews with main-stream thinkers in proper churches, the piece comes across as being in places smug, and in others a strident propagandist attack, and I'm afraid that people these days are far too cynical to simply swallow propaganda from a smug bastard. If Dawkins is so sure of himself, presumably he thinks he can out-argue the mainstream, so why didn't he? The obvious answer, of course, is that it wouldn't be as visceral as the loonies - it would be more Open University than Channel 4.

Of all the people in the programme, the one I'd most want to have a drink with is the bishop of Oxford. It's a toss-up which one I'd most want to punch in the face, whether it's Dawkins or Ted Haggard.

Update: on further reflection, it would be Haggard. Dawkins is an old man and it would be about as much of a challenge as mugging a five year old, whereas Haggard could fight back with those teeth.

Posted at 22:45 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | tv
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Sat, 31 Jan 2009

January 2009 in books

I've decided to post book reviews every month instead of every quarter this year. Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In January 2009, I read the following books:

1. Island in the Sea of Time, by S. M. Stirling

This is one of those books that is often said to define its sub-genre (modern people thrown back in time to live amongst savages - it's a surprisingly common theme in bad scifi/fantasy), by an author who is a giant in his genre (alternate history). And it was pretty much what I expected. It has no literary merit whatsoever. The people in it have such oh-so-conveniently chosen skills and attitudes, the heroes are suitably heroic, the good guys are ever-so-good, the bad guys are particularly nasty and traditionally one-dimensional, and the fools are especially foolish. The plot is broadly predictable. And it was thoroughly enjoyable. It could have done with a bit of trimming, perhaps - a few scenes are completely unnecessary - but I recommend this book.

However, it has Sequels. I'm going to read them, but I'm not expecting them to be anywhere near as much fun.

2. Snowbrother, by S. M. Stirling

Oh dear. There are so many things wrong with this post-Nuclear-Apocalypse fantasy. Let's start with the cover art, which features a buxom wench in armour waving a sword about. In the book, she's wearing a helmet in that scene, but she's drawn without one so we can see her long hair and tell that she's definitely a woman. Because the breasts on her cuirass aren't obvious enough. Then let's look at the two cultures that this fantasy throws together. The good guys are oh so very good, being basically mediaeval hippies in tune with nature; the bad guys are oh so very bad - they're descended from the survivors of the Apocalypse's "strategic high command", they live solely for glory and war, they rape their slaves, and their shamen are cannibals. Ugh. What utterly unimaginative stereotypes. Then there are all kinds of other little bits that niggle at me: the made-up languages and names abound with apostrophes, scattered at random to make them seem alien. Technologies are explained which can't possibly exist (the repeating crossbow described would break the first law of thermodynamics) or are utterly implausible (people with an early mediaeval level of technology also have fibreglass-reinforced plastic). And then there's magic, in a story set quite obviously in the future of our world.

About the only thing that's any good about this train-wreck is that the bad guys win at the end.

3. Against the Tide of Years, by S. M. Stirling

This first sequel to Island in the Sea of Time was pleasantly surprising. It's basically the same as the earlier work, suffering from all the same flaws, but instead of disappearing up its own arse as so many sequels do, it's still enjoyable and the author introduces new people, places and things to keep one's interest.

4. On the Oceans of Eternity, by S. M. Stirling

This second (and final - so far) sequel to Island in the Sea of Time was unfortunately rather what I was expecting. There was no invention here, and secondary characters brought in to this volume were two-dimensional and lacked motive. The end felt rather inconclusive too. I was also irritated by the way the story skipped about. It is broken into chapters, but they seem to be fairly arbitrary. Each chapter is preceded by a short list of the places in which the action happens, and then within the chapter those jumps happen with no warning whatsoever. I found it quite jarring - there should be a sub-heading at the jump. Stirling might have done this in the earlier books too, but if he did I don't remember, so he must have done it better than in this one. So I'm rather disappointed. Still worth reading if you enjoyed the previous two books, but only to tie up the loose ends.

5. The Magic Christian, by Terry Southern

This is supposed to be a novel. It's not. At best, it's a collection of very short stories, linked by the theme of an incredibly rich prankster's cruel practical jokes. Some attempt at continuity is made, generally in a few paragraphs at the beginning of each prank, but it doesn't work. A couple of the short stories are very good, and actually worth reading, but the rest aren't. They're just too cruel to be funny. Don't bother with this book.

Posted at 14:56 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Wed, 28 Jan 2009

More new words

Now that the OED have added one of the two words I informed them of to their colossal organ, I feel I should see if they'll pick up on some words I created.

  1. Bankocalypse: in Financial mythology, what happens to banks at the time of Lendnarok; a disaster resulting in drastic irreversible damage to their bottom line and share value.
  2. Econoclasm: the breaking or destroying of economies; the overthrow of institutions and cherished beliefs such as "my house will always go up in value", now regarded as fallacious or superstitious.

You are all encouraged to use these fine words, get them in print, and then tell the OED where they were published!

Posted at 20:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | language
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Tue, 27 Jan 2009

New words

[originally posted to my old livejournal on 2006-03-12]

I just found my second real word that's not in the OED 2nd edition. Yay!

The first one I found was some time ago - hardbody, which appears in print in "American Psycho". The second is prannet, which as well as being in Ian Dury's most excellent little ditty "Billericay Dickie" also appears in Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta".

[update: 2009-01-27]

Prannet is now listed in the online edition which is accessible with your library card number. Hurrah!

Posted at 12:58 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | language
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Mon, 26 Jan 2009

A Treat for the Lawyers

I know that some of my readers are cursed with being lawyers, so just for them, a biography of Lord Denning (link will expire in a few days) from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is accessible over the interwebs by most people with a UK library card.

As are the OED and Grove.

Posted at 22:38 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture
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Tue, 13 Jan 2009

Pub closures

CAMRA will tell you that 30-odd pubs close every week, and that this is a terrible thing. What they don't tell you is how many of those pubs are like this one, which the owners want to demolish. The Parchmore Tavern is at the top of my road, and has been a crappy pub for all the time I've lived here. The beer was bad, it was dirty, and it didn't attract a particularly pleasant crowd. I suppose it's a bit similar in that respect to the Fountain Head nearby which has also closed - indifferent beer (although better than at the Parchmore), could do with a clean, and not very welcoming.

I'm glad to see the back of pubs like that. They obviously closed because they couldn't compete with the other local boozers - of which one is excellent, two are good, and one is merely OK but does good business because of is location.

Your typical CAMRA member would at this point pipe up and say "the pubs were profitable and have only been closed so they can be turned into flats by an eeeeeevil developer!". He would be wrong, of course. Developers aren't building a damned thing these days :-)

Oh, and another thing CAMRA people don't say so much about is how many pubs are opening. Probably not as many as 30, and no doubt lots of them are the sort of pub that CAMRA disapprove of, but the situation is nowhere near as bad as they like to make out.

Posted at 20:56 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | drinking | london
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Wed, 31 Dec 2008

2008 in books, part the fourth

Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, I read the following books:

1. War For The Oaks, by Emma Bull

I knew this wasn't going to be good after reading the overblown similes in the first two sentences - "By day, the Nicollet Mall winds through Minneapolis like a paved canal. People flow between its banks, eddying at the doors of office towers and department stores". Thankfully, it's not all like that - much more and I'd have just had to stop like I did with Moby Dick. Even so, it's a pretty piss-poor effort. The story doesn't hang together very well, characters' motivations are poorly explained and they feel flat, and the world is just nowhere near convincing. And yes, I did remember to flick my suspension of disbelief switch for a story about fucking fairies, elves and a rock band, but even with that it was not well-realised. But the worst bit of all is the "duel" at the end is to an extent recycled from the story told much better in Walter Hill's film "Crossroads". Yawn. Watch Crossroads instead.

2. Dogland, by Will Shetterly

This fantasy is apparently semi-autobiographical. It's told from the point of view of a young boy - at the start of the book he's four, it ends when he's eight - albeit filtered through the adult writer's hindsight. He also admits early on that he's not sure whether he's writing what really happened or merely what he remembers. The author has woven in some "real fantasy" too which can't possibly have happened - the Norse world-tree Yggdrasil grows outside his home, the Christian Devil is a local businessman, and no doubt there are others I missed. But even if you're not versed in weird mythology, it doesn't matter. The child's wonder at what goes on around him and his odd (by adult standards) take on things is splendidly refreshing. There's enough magic in the mundane world as he sees it to satisfy the fluffiest of fantasists. My only niggle is with the last few pages where the delicate balance between what is clearly real and what might just be the child's imagination breaks down rather unpleasantly, which left me rather unsatisfied. But even so, I can strongly recommend this book.

3. The Last Battle, by C.S.Lewis

It was with some relief that I reached the last book in the Narnia series. Books five and six (chronologically) were very disappointing. This one is somewhat better than its two pre-decessors. It would even be worth reading, if only it wasn't so damned preachy. The overt christianity is just sickening. If I wanted to read that drivel, I'd read the bible.

4. Move Under Ground, by Nick Mamatas

Literary crossovers are almost invariably bad. They are the dregs of fan-fic. This being a cross-over involving H.P.Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos makes that only more likely. But in fact it's really very good. It's written much in the style of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" - indeed, there are a few references to that book having just been published - and is told in the first person by Kerouac himself. Kerouac sees R'lyeh rising from the sea and ends up travelling across the US in company with Neal Cassady and William "Naked Lunch" Burroughs to save the world. Much of what happens is, as you would expect with a Kerrouac/Cthulhu cross-over, inexplicable, but even so, it's an enjoyable read. Recommended reading, provided you have at least a passing familiarity with the Cthulhu Mythos; familiarity with Kerouac's work isn't so important.

5. A Shadow In Summer, by Daniel Abraham

There's a lot that I want to like about this book - the fantasy world it's set in is very well-described, and the people in it behave as, well, people and not ideals or caricatures, with all their weaknesses. And, despite it being the first part of a tetralogy, it stands reasonably well on its own. Unfortunately, the author has tried to weave too complex a story. There is too much plotting, scheming and indirection. I'm sure that it all makes perfect sense to someone reading it several times, but I'm afraid it lost me a few times. This is one to get from the library.

6. Plague Zone, by David Wellington

Wellington has published most of his books online in serial format, one chapter every few days, and got a publishing deal out of it (ha! take that Howard Hendrix). This background as a serial shows through, as the book is filled with cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger and resolution after resolution. This makes it ideal for reading on the journey to work, as it breaks down into conveniently sized chunks. He specialises in horror novels - at least he always seems to be writing about zombies and vampires and werewolves - but this is really an action thriller. The wheels fall off and things get a bit silly a couple of times, but that's OK, you expect that in both horror and action thrillers. I was left wanting a sequel. Wellington has done sequels before, so my wish might be granted. This ain't a great work of literature by any means, but it's an enjoyable read, would be so even for those who don't like horror, and I recommend it.

7. In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker

At its heart, this is a historical romance, wrapped in a sci-fi secret history layer of time-travelling cyborg conspirators - none of which is particularly promising. But it works. There are just enough tiny details to make the setting and characters come alive - only a couple of very minor bit-parts are the sort of lazy caricature that usually plagues these genres, and the players are observed with a healthy degree of cynicism. There are only two things that really grate - some (but not all) of the dialogue is in mock-Tudor, when that just isn't needed because the real-English descriptions are good enough to set the scene; and the last half-dozen pages don't fit well although they may well set the scene for the next book in the series. I won't know that until I read the next one. I've already ordered it.

8. In The Midnight Hour, by Patti O'Shea

I only read this because it was free. I certainly wouldn't have bothered if I'd seen it in a shop - it's another of those books where the cover artist is obviously pissed off with his employer and has decided to wreak terrible revenge. It starts off reading like bad Buffy fanfic - a fight against the undead! in a graveyard, no less! Thankfully, the unimaginative magical combat against stupid beasties stops quickly - although it rears its ugly head a couple more times later. There is a story in here. Potentially a good one. But it's terribly let down by the unnecessary and cringe-worthy sex scenes. And then let down further by some more unimaginative magical combat at the climax. Yuck. Avoid this book.

I see from her website that the author specialises in "paranormal action romance" stories. In this book, the action is scant and poorly executed, the paranormal is boring, and the romance ain't romance, it's soft-core pornography. Oh, and while you're on her website, have a laugh at all the other bad cover-art.

9. Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright

Oh dear, an "X of Y" book. Such titles are usually a sign of bad fantasy, and combined with the bad cover art, I'd put off reading this for quite some time after getting it as a free download from Tor. Turns out that it's actually quite good. The orphans in question are the children of Titans, held as hostages to prevent their people from going to war again and overthrowing the Olympian gods. They are kept in what is ostensibly a strict (and cruel) British residential home (the author tries hard to make the setting really British, and mostly succeeds, but his roots show through in a few places where he's left in some American idiom, and those are terribly jarring - I wish authors wouldn't try so hard to hide themselves like this. By all means write about somewhere you're not a native of, but don't try to pretend to be a native. Grrr) where the staff are all supernatural beings - drawn primarily from Classical mythology, but a handful of British myths are also touched on and I may have missed some others. The story centres around an attempt by the children to escape from their captivity and their exploration of their own suppressed supernatural powers.

The setting is imaginative and is a good compromise between the supernatural magic of mythology and a rational, mechanistic worldview, and is actually part of the story instead of just backdrop; characters have motivations and feelings. This is one I can recommend. Sci-fi fans will find it inventive and new, classicists will enjoy a different take on their chosen field.

Incidentally, the author attended St John's College in Maryland which teaches a "Great Books Program". From what I've read of this, it has some resemblances to that taught to the characters of this book. Wright says in the introduction "let it not be imagined by any reader that the ... institution depicted in this fantasy is meant to resemble the author's alma mater". Really, I don't think anyone would ever think that. St John's actually sounds like the sort of place I would love to study at.

10. Callahan's Cross-time Saloon, by Spider Robinson

This collection of short stories, connected by a theme of absolution and recovery, is just wonderful. It's not really science fiction, as technology plays only the most minuscule of parts; the stories are strongly character-driven, and should appeal to just about everyone.

11. Tales From the White Hart, by Arthur C. Clarke

Where the previous collection of shorts was all about redemption and people, these shorts almost all focus on some technological gizmo and how someone gets screwed over by it. They also feel so much like it's the same story being repeated over and over again, just changing a few details each time. Meh.

12. A Machynlleth Triad, by Jan and Tom Morris

This is my third collection of short stories in a row, this time the theme being descriptions of the Welsh town of Machynlleth in the past (a fictionalised account of events during the Glyndŵr rebellion), present, and future. There is a strong theme of Welsh nationalism throughout. And unfortunately, while the first story is entertaining and tells of momentous events, the second and third are rather more prosaic descriptions of the state of affairs, in which nothing of interest happens. The third is particularly poor, being a laughable description of a silly Welsh Utopia. This could have been so much more, but has been hijacked by the authors' politics. It's still worth reading, but only if you get it from the library or if you can find it really cheap second-hand.

Posted at 14:19 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 9 Dec 2008

Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater

My parents recently went to a performance of Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater and bought me a CD. I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand the music really is good, but ... and it's two really big buts ...

Jenkins mixes "ethnic" music into his compositions so often that it's beginning to get a bit hackneyed and cheap. These sections don't fit well with the rest, and give the impression of only being there to be "right on".

A far bigger "but" concerns his treatment of the text. For a meditation on the desolation of a mother at the brutal torture and execution of her son, the music is, at least in places, far too light and catchy. What is more, although the CD liner notes provide a translation, the setting doesn't seem to pay much attention to the actual meaning. For example, the verse:

Cuius animam gementem / contristatam et dolentem / pertransivit gladius.

ends with the last line repeated (fair enough, this is common and doesn't detract from the meaning) - but then the last word is repeated, and even worse is repeated in a major key in a way that makes it seem heroic and triumphant! So what's actually being sung is:

Through her weeping soul, / compassionate and grieving, / a sword passed.

a sword passed.

a sword! Hurrah!

The treatment of the very first verse ain't great either. It's as if he came up with a fantastic tune and only later tried to set the words to it instead of writing the music for the words. Because he runs out of syllables a bit early, the opening verse:

Stabat mater dolorosa / iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, / dum pendebat Filius

comes out as:

Stabat mater dolorosa / iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, / dum pendebat Filiuuu-uuuuu-uuu-uuu-uuuu-uuuus

Oh dear. 7 out of 10 for the music, but as my Latin masters used to say, "3 out of 10, must try harder". Overall, a mere 4 out of 10. The seeming ignorance of the text spoilt it terribly for me.

Posted at 23:08 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music
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Mon, 1 Dec 2008

Ill

I am ill. I've been ill since Thursday, with a cold. You're meant to be able to cure a cold with [insert old wives tale remedy here] in 5 days, or if you don't, it'll clear itself up in just under a week. So hopefully today is the last day.

So what have I done while ill?

On Friday I became old (see previous post), and went to the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was good. You should go.

Saturday was the London Perl Workshop. My talk on closures went down well, and people seemed to understand what I was talking about. Hurrah! I decided that rather than hang around nattering and going to a few talks, I'd rather hide under my duvet for the rest of the day.

I mostly hid on Sunday too, and spent most of the day asleep. In a brief moment of productivity, I got my laptop and my phone to talk to each other using magic interwebnet bluetooth stuff. I'd tried previously without success, but that was with the previous release of OS X. With version X.5 it seems to Just Work, so no Evil Hacks were necessary.

The cold means that I can't taste a damned thing, not even bacon. So now I know what it's like to be Jewish. Being Jewish sucks.

And today, I am still coughing up occasional lumps of lung and making odd bubbling noises in my chest, although my nasal demons seem to be Snotting less than they were, so hopefully I'll be back to normal tomorrow.

Posted at 10:26 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | hacking | meta | palm | perl | phone | religion
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Fri, 21 Nov 2008

Lotty's War

Last night, I went to see Lotty's War in Greenwich. Mostly because my cousin Suzie was involved in the production, but I'm glad I went as it was a really good performance of an excellent script. The reviewer for The Stage says most of what I wanted to say, but misses out a couple of minor things that I think are important. First, Michael Fenner's fake German accent is very good. It's not the parody that is more common in drama, and even better, it is consistent for the full nearly two hours. Second, he is portrayed as an honourable man, doing his duty even when it pains him - a very sympathetic character, who really stole the show.

It's such a shame that the audience was so small - the theatre wasn't even a quarter full. Now, admittedly this was a mid-week performance and things might be better at weekends, but I suppose it's an inevitable result of being a low-budget production in a small, out-of-the-way theatre, without the production having any ties to the area. The good thing about that, on the other hand, is that tickets are available, and now that you know it's worth going to, YOU WILL GO, LEST I HUNT YOU DOWN AND MAKE A BELT FROM YOUR ENTRAILS.

Here's the box office details and how to get there. It closes on the 7th of December, and you can probably just turn up on the night and get a ticket on the door.

Posted at 22:40 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | theatre
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Sun, 2 Nov 2008

Dead Set

I just finished watching Dead Set, the zombie version of Big Brother. I can't say much more than "it was FUCKING AWESOME".

If you didn't catch it on the telly, then you need to buy the DVD.

OK, so I lied. I can say more.

It's a modern take on the classic zombie film such as Dawn Of The Dead, in which a bunch of survivors of a zombie outbreak hole up in a make-shift fortified compound. In this case, the survivors are some of the contestantsmorons and crew of Big Brother, a voyeuristic TV series in which the contestants are locked away from the world for an extended period while perverts watch them through cameras hidden behind one-way glass. Normally, basing a high quality drama on such rubbish wouldn't work. But Big Brother deliberately provokes conflict by incarcerating people who, while they are all morons, are all different types of morons chosen specifically to piss each other off. The producers have played on that. They clearly have the right opinion of Big Brother and have accentuated the childish and irritating quirks of the inmates to make a really good zombie comedy, and one where you're glad at the end that the zombies win and kill everyone.

Posted at 22:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | tv
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Sun, 26 Oct 2008

Burial At Thebes

[originally posted on 25 Oct 2008]

How terribly remiss of me! A couple of weeks ago I went with three other Daves (Dave Hodgkinson, Dave Dorward and Dave Mannsåkker) to see Burial at Thebes - a new opera, libretto by Seamus Heaney, music by Dominique Le Gendre, a Carribean composer - at the Globe. It sets to music Heaney's well-regarded translation of Sophocles's Antigone. It's splendidly tragic.

I enjoyed it. The professional reviewers didn't. They didn't like the music. Probably because it didn't use a vast orchestra and a hundred wailing sopranos all wobbling frantically in a doomed effort to find the right note.

If you're an actual musician, with a broad mind and catholic tastes (hell, there's even a litle bit of rapping in here, when King Creon talks about the duties of the individual and the state - so it's the good kind of rapping, as opposed to illiterate shouty shit) then you should go and see this if you get the chance. It was planned to also play in Liverpool and Oxfnord after the two London shows, but because I've been so goddamned slack, those shows have probably already been and gone. Ah well, it's bound to surface again at some point. Perhaps in twenty or so years when the fuddy-duddies currently getting paid for writing reviews have had the good manners to Fuck Off And Die.

update: It seems that the Independent's reviewer hated it a bit less than the others. He still gets it wrong though - for example, he praises the singing of the Minister of the Admiralty (who was good) but doesn't praise the singing of Creon (who was better). But particularly of note is that he says "the orchestral score was deft and atmospheric", so at least we have one reviewer with a musical Clue. This guy's main criticism is of Derek Walcott's direction. I didn't think it was too shabby myself, but I can see why he would think like he does. So, maybe just another 15 years to wait for a re-run instead of 20.

Posted at 13:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music | opera | review-of-reviews | theatre
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Sat, 4 Oct 2008

2008 in books, part the third

Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In the third quarter of 2008, I read the following books:

1. Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
No, I haven't mis-typed the title. There's no apostrophe, and one of the characters in the book has a little grump about it. The background and the people are in many ways far more interesting than the story itself. The world that Vinge has built has a fair amount in common with some of his other work, in particular the ubiquitous networked computing that he elsewhere calls "localisers". The theme of surveillance is also something that readers of, eg, A Deepness In The Sky, will be familiar with. And what's more, a lot of the background is a reasonable extrapolation from the present day. Networked computing is becoming ubiquitous; augmented reality is in use in some industries and being played with by hackers the world over; and of course the Surveillance State is growing a-pace, all in the name of Stopping Terror - a justification that they use in this book too. Thankfully the Secure Hardware Environment that Vinge postulates doesn't yet exist, and something similar has proven to be a failure in the market so far, but I'd not be particularly surprised if something like it were to appear again soon. So the story is firmly rooted in the present.

The actors are believable too, if pushed just a little to extremes. But such is the nature of heroes and villains in all fiction. As is often the case with good fiction, I was left at the end of the story wondering what their lives would be like afterwards.

There are a few problems though. The "belief circles" - something that other reviewers have described as a blend of wikipedia, second life and augmented reality - don't make much sense to me, and while they only play a minor part in the story, serving as a distraction the bad guy manipulates to keep the "good" guys away, they could have done with more fleshing out, in particular explaining why individuals choose to put so much effort into them. But the biggest problem is that to understand all that goes on you need to understand public key encryption and authentication. And virtually no-one does. I do though, so it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story, and with the one caveat that you should be at least on speaking terms with public-key crypto, I recommend this book. The biggest disappointment was that it was all fiction - one of the "belief circles" that Vinge invents is based on the fiction of one "Jerzy Hacek" who unfortunately doesn't exist. Shame, cos the Librarians Militant sound wonderful.

2. Taciitus's "Germania" and "Agricola", translated from the Latin by Edward Brooks
The Germania is Tacitus's description of the tribes inhabiting Germania, the area to the north of the Roman empire including modern Germany but also several other areas. It is pretty unremarkable apart from his charming description of a battle between two of the tribes: "they even gratified us with the spectacle of a battle, in which above sixty thousand Germans were slain not by Roman arms, but, what was still grander, by mutual hostilities, as it were for our pleasure and entertainment". Lovely.

The Agricola is a far more civilised work, his biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Britannia and conqueror of Scotland. From a literary point of view it is remarkable for the stirring speech that Tacitus writes for Calgacus, one of the leaders of the northern tribes: "When I reflect on the causes of the war and the circumstances of our situation, I feel a strong persuasion that our united efforts on the present day will prove the beginning of universal liberty in Britain" - an opening that is often alluded to even in modern times. What is surprising is the frequent comparisons of life under the Roman empire to slavery, compared to the liberty of those not yet under Roman authority. Rome wasn't exactly reknowned for literary freedom and it's remarkable that he could get away with writing such sedition. Calgacus's speech also contains the even more commonly misquoted passage "To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert they call it peace". Sound like any modern imperial adventures? Agricola's own speech to his troops on the eve of battle is equally stirring, and no doubt equally fictitious. The brief biography ends with another stirring passage, Tacitus's own goodbye to the man whose funeral he could not himself attend - "If there be any habitation for the shades of the virtuous; if, as philosophers suppose, exalted souls do not perish with the body; may you repose in peace and call us, your household from vain regret and [feminine] lamentations, to the contemplation of your virtues, which allow no place for mourning or complaining. Let us rather adorn your memory by our short-lived praises and, as far as our natures permit, by an imitation of your example. This is truly to honour the dead; this is the piety of every near relation". Splendid stuff. Recommended for cutting and pasting at modern funerals.

The Germania is, despite its reputation, nothing special. That reputation is deserved more as a work of historical interest than enything else. The Agricola, however, is fine stuff, an excellent example of un-critical biography verging on hagiography, with some good old-fashioned haranguing thrown in. And it's free, even in translation. I read the Project Gutenberg edition.

3. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis
Book number two (chronologically speaking) in the Narnia series, is somewhat more patronising and irritating than The Magician's Nephew which I reviewed a few months ago. Perhaps that's understandable, given that this one was written first and was his first book written for children. While the christian crap is more evident in this one, it is still not particularly distinguishable from any other mythology. My verdict is the same as for The Magician's Nephew: you should own a copy. And your children should own copies.
4. The Horse and his Boy, by C.S.Lewis
Chronologically the third book in the Narnia series, set between the penultimate and last chapters of the previous book, but published fifth in the series, this story can stand alone, making only one passing reference to events in the previous books which might confuse young readers. It's a humourously written but fairly standard fairy tale of a journey, people growing up, and a lost prince. In this context, even ignoring the rest of the Narnia series, such fairy-tale staples as talking animals make perfect sense. And - mirabile dictu there's no preaching at all! I'm not quite so keen on this as on the previous two books in the series, but it's still worth owning.
5. Star Dragon, by Mike Brotherton
Mr. Brotherton is, I believe, another of those Real Scientists who has turned his hand to science fiction. And I'm pleased to say that he did a hell of a better job than Fred Hoyle, whose "The Black Cloud" I reviewed earlier in the year. This story is similar in concept to Blindsight, by Peter Watts - a bunch of disfunctional explorers are sent on a long, dangerous mission to investigate Something Strange, which they find to be far far more than they ever imagined. Unfortunately, none of the characters feel solid and real. And the technology is a mixture of the unbelievable (in the bad "yeah right" sense) and the superfluous (a gallery of living hunting trophies on a starship? I think not!). While I was left wanting to know more, it was more about their quarry that I wanted to know, not more about the characters and not about the changes in society during their journey or as a result of their discoveries. That said, the book is available to download for free from the author's web site, so at least I don't feel ripped off, but I am unsatisfied and glad I didn't pay for it.
6. Prince Caspian, by C.S.Lewis
Another thoroughly enjoyable tale in Lewis's Narnia series, this sees the protagonists from "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" returning to help a prince overthrow his usurping evil uncle. Predictably, good triumphs over evil. And again I wasn't offended by overt god-squadding - although there's quite a bit of Classical mythology thrown in. I can't recommend this as highly as the previous three books, partly because it's just a little too formulaic (even for a childrens' book) and because it wouldn't stand well on its own - reading The Lion the Witch and the wardrobe first is pretty much essential. Even so, worth having.
7. The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader", by C.S.Lewis
Lewis is, I'm afraid, going off the boil with this installment in the Narnia series. The story seems to be more of a selection of loosely connected episodes than a single story, it has no real beginning, nor a real end. And it's preachy, especially in the last episode. Not worth bothering with.
8. The Silver Chair, by C.S.Lewis
Despite not liking the previous book, I'm still soldiering on. This is just as poor. While the story is more of a coherent whole, it has nothing like the charm and inventiveness of the first three books in the series - which is odd, given that The Magician's Nephew and The Horse And His Boy, while being the first and third chronologically are the 5th and 6th in order of publication - and one of the key plot points is clumsily telegraphed very early on, when it should have been left as a "To Serve Man" twist in the tale. Even less worth bothering with than the previous book, although it's thankfully a little less preachy.
9. Hikaru No Go, volume 1, by Yumi Hota (in translation)
It's a Japanese comic book about a boy who is possessed by the spirit of a dead Go master. Sorry, a graphic novel. Sorry, a manga. The story is of course absurd. There's also not a lot of story - it appears to just set the scene for the remaining umpteen volumes. Even so, it was enjoyable. But probably only of interest to serious manga-heads or Go players.
10. The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross
This, the second of Stross's "Laundry" novels, about a fictional occult spying agency of the British government, is more light-hearted than its pre-decessor "The Atrocity Archives". Indeed, it is presented as somewhat of a pastiche of the Bond stories - in particular the film versions. I found it thoroughly enjoyables. One potential weak point is all the geeky in-jokes. A reader who doesn't get 'em may be a little confused in a couple of places. With that proviso, go out and buy this book.
11. She, by H. Rider Haggard
I thought I'd give Victoriana another go, despite my last excursion into this genre - Moby Dick - being unreadable shite. This does indeed suffer from the same fault - the author is unnecessarily wordy in places. But to nothing like the same extent as Melville. Where Melville would go on and on for page after page, Haggard comes to his senses after maybe half a page. This makes it much easier to just skip the waffle. Much of the waffle is in the form of expository monologues where a modern writer would provide the neccessary background info differently. It grates somewhat, but more because it's unusual than because it's just crap. The story itself is a competently told exploration adventure with reassuringly stiff-upper-lipped English heroes in Tweed and stereotypically dastardly primitive natives - you could learn a lot about Victorian attitudes to race and class from it - which is set in motion through wonderfully Gothic-absurd means. Overall, I like this book. It's available for free on Project Gutenberg, and I'd probably like it less if I'd had to pay for it. Worth downloading or getting from the library, but don't pay more than 50p for a modern printing.
12. Rocheworld, by Robert L. Forward
Like Forward's other two well-known books (Dragon's Egg and Starquake) this is both scientifically literate and imaginative. Where it falls down is on characterisation. Dialogue is stilted, some characters are entirely undeveloped and so are just barely noticed scenery, and one of them is thrown away in a rather pointless and irritating episode which is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story. This is somewhat surprising, as characterisation and dialogue work much better (as far as I remember!) in Dragon's Egg which was written after Rocheworld. I suppose I should re-read and review that soon. The work has appeared in at least four versions, of which I read the longest. I expect that the irritating sequence referred to above was one of the ones cut out in the shorter editions. I can still recommend reading Rocheworld, but only if you're a hard-core scifi nut.
Posted at 16:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sun, 21 Sep 2008

I survived Mass

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Mass. No, not the club. The other event where you get music, men wearing funny clothes, and odd substances being burned.

My mother has been making dresses for priests - and various other ecclesiastical embroideries - for forty years, and had a celebratory Mass done at St Bart's church in Brighton. So I went along. And I didn't catch fire!

This was the first church service I've been to in a long time, and the first Anglican Mass ever. It was very odd. St Bart's uses The English Missal instead of the Book of Common Prayer or the more recent ASB which I'm familiar with from having been made to take part in boring services while at school. There was lots of processing and bowing and scraping, and burning of incense. More so even than I remember at any of the two papist Masses I've been to.

Being so very High Church, the service sheet was printed in both English and Latin. This is the first time that I've seen the filioque in context (while I've obviously been aware of the controversy, I've never thought it important enough to bother looking up the text) and ... I can see why people grump about it. Of course, the reasons that I can see for grumping about it probably aren't the reasons that silly theologians grump about it, as they seem to delight in absurd readings of simple words to back up their preconceptions. And really, after nearly a thousand years ... GET OVER IT, there are more important things to worry about!

And I was mistaken for an Orthodox priest. Mum has, I think, made dresses for priests from a few different sects, so it wouldn't be surprising, I suppose, for an Orthodox to come along to the service, and that would also explain to an observer why I didn't go to the altar for communion - although the real reason is that the wine isn't very good so there's no point.

It makes a change from being mistaken for a rabbi.

Posted at 13:24 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | religion
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Sat, 28 Jun 2008

2008 in books, part the second

Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In the second quarter of 2008, I read the following books:

1. The Outstretched Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
This is high fantasy - magic, unicorns, knights, demons, the works. I don't normally buy such things as my experience is that the genre is overwhelmingly unimaginative and poorly written. This was yet another of my freebies from Tor though, so given that I didn't have to spend any of my hard-earned cash on it, I thought I'd give it a go. And I was mostly right, it is unimaginative. But it's well-written. The authors have made the protagonist a whiny little shit of a teenager, and he really does come across like that. Of course, the story is flimsy with far too many coincidences and superpowers that just happen to manifest themselves at the crucial time - but this is fantasy, and there's magic, so just suspend your disbelief, alright? If you like fantasy, buy this. If you don't, then it's at least worth looking for in the library. I was sufficiently impressed that I'll track down the sequel second-hand at some point.
2. Blindsight, by Peter Watts
Hard sci-fi with a dash of horror, where the tech is an integral part of the storyline instead of just being a backdrop. And there's also a wide range of characters, some likeable, some hateable, all feeling fleshy and real, and some interesting philosophical musings. The author backs it up with copiously referenced notes at the end about the science used, much of which has at least a grounding in current knowledge and research. The author has made the book available online under a creative-commons licence after not getting much distribution in physical form - why the publishers dropped the ball on this I have no idea. And by the way, since Watts put it online for free, demand has apparently soared, and it's been re-printed, so it shouldn't be too hard to track down a copy and pay money for it. Please do so.
3. Starfish, by Peter Watts
Wow, Watts has put a lot of stuff up on his website for free. Starfish explores a somewhat similar setting to Blindsight (see previous review). The characters are even more dysfunctional and hateable than in the later novel, and the first three quarters of the book are inventive. Unfortunately, the end falls into the rather tired cliché of an Evil Corporation oppressing the characters For The Good Of Humanity. A shame. Mind you, it does give him a hook on which to hang the next story in this trilogy.
4. Maelstrom, by Peter Watts
Maelstrom is the sequel to Starfish (see previous review) and carries on pretty much at the exact point that the previous book left off. I'm not entirely convinced by his technological extrapolations, but that's a hazard of reading fiction involving a subject that you're an expert in. No doubt my mother has the same problem with books whose crucial plot elements involve embroidery. Again, a good beginning and middle is let down by its ending. But again, the scene is set for the final installment in the trilogy.
5. βehemoth, by Peter Watts
The final part in the "Rifters" trilogy carries on where its predecessors left off, and in much the same style. The exception is that being the end of the trilogy there's nothing to hang off the end and so that redeeming feature that the others had is missing. The plot moves slowly and is confused. Conspiracies within conspiracies and some really quite tasteless scenes of torture only detract further from what is at best a mediocre book. And that's my conclusion about the whole series - some great ideas, but poorly executed. Not worth buying, so I'm glad I didn't.
6. Lord of the Isles, by David Drake
Extruded Fantasy Product, which very closely follows the formula of "[fantasy name 1], a young [peasant occupation] in the kingdom of [fantasy place name 1], has his world turned upside down when he discovers that he is the heir of [fantasy name 2], a legendary [heroic occupation]. This awakens incredible [powers / skills / magic] in him, which is immediately put to the test, as [fantasy name 2]'s ancient enemy [fantasy bad guy name] and his army of [fantasy monsters] converge on [fantasy place name 1] to destroy the heir and steal the throne. Can [fantasy name 1] survive a perilous journey to [fantasy place name 2] in order to find the [powerful item] that will save both him and his kingdom?" (thanks to this guy for ths summary). Worth reading? Well, the story progresses in small chunks, like it was written for serialisation in some pulp magazine. That makes it suitable for mindlessly filling a few minutes a day on a bus. So yes, worth reading. Not worth paying full price for though.
7. Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell
The background that Buckell uses for this story makes a refreshing change from the normal run of science fiction, most of which is derived quite clearly from western European (and by extension American, which is as near as damnit the same thing) societies. Buckell uses the Caribbean instead. The opposing societies - and the reasons that they are in opposition at all - are inventive, characters' motivations and actions make sense. All round it's a jolly well-written and well-told yarn. I suppose that the ending could be seen as being somewhat deus ex machina if you were to read a plot summary, but with all the little details scattered earlier in the book it isn't really like that. Worth paying for (although this was yet another Tor freebie), and I'll be ordering its follow-up "Ragamuffin".
8. Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder
A story of pirates and a desperate search for treasure, with a sub-plot of resistance by a conquered people (this isn't explored in much depth and only eally serves to make one of the main characters' backgrounds a bit more interesting). The setting is a world of a several thousand mile bubble of air floating in space, which contains several miniature suns, the control of which defines nations. There is negligible gravity and for reasons that are never made clear, electronics don't work. This leads to dramatic if somewhat silly action, with jet-powered wooden airships, sword-fights in 3D, and so on. If cut judiciously it would make a great feature-length film - probably best done as a cartoon though, as shooting a whole feature to appear to be in zero G would be very hard. There are some minor inconsistencies in the environment (another reason to film it as a cartoon - cartoon physics are somewhat more forgiving!), and minor plot threads left dangling, but over all it's great fun. Recommended, and added to my shopping list.
9. The Four Just Men, by Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace was a hack. This, the first of his very many crime novels, is at heart a reversed rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures were entertaining Strand readers at about the same time. Instead of a brilliant detective bringing justice to criminals, we have brilliant criminals bringing their own brand of justice to those who deserve it. The criminals themselves are likeable enough. However, their characters and motivations are barely sketched out. Indeed, it is two of their victims who are, so to speak, painted in colour when everyone else is merely sketched in pencil. And where in a Sherlock Holmes story you would, by the end, know exactly what happened and how, the reader of this story has very little idea how the Four Just Men knew, for example, how their target was guarded. Even so, the very short story is an enjoyable enough read, let down by the very last page, which is a terribly inept attempt at clearing up all the loose ends. As the author died a long time ago, the book is out of copyright and available from manybooks.net to download for free in several formats. I recommend grabbing a copy.
10. The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle
Hoyle is most well-known as an astronomer. However, he also dabbled in writing science fiction. And, I'm sorry to say, he wasn't very good at it, at least if this, his most well-known story, is anything to go by. The story itself is actually a fairly imaginative and well thought out example of the catastrophic fiction so popular with British authors of the time - doom, gloom, a new ice age. But it's the wooden characters, the wholly implausible actions of those "off-stage", poor dialogue and over-long expository sections that consign this to the dustbin of literature. As an example of its sub-genre it's interesting, but as a story it ain't. Only recommended for collectors.
11. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
It's unfortunate that this tale of emancipation and discovery in a dreary ultra-totalitarian state, one far beyond what Orwell or Huxley later wrote about, is so difficult to engage with, because I really want to like it. It's beautifully written and the protagonist's anguish feels real. But I just couldn't, and have, after carrying the book around in my pocket for a good few months reading a page here and there, eventually admitted defeat. I'm not going to finish it. Even so, although it's not for me the underlying quality is obvious. I hesitate to recommend buying it, but it's worth finding in your local library. It is also available online here in an English translation.
12. Spirit Gate, by Kate Elliott
Another electronic freebie from Tor - and if it was on paper I'd have never even considered picking it up. The cover art is just terrible, almost as if it's designed to make people not read it - it's a badly drawn (and I mean *really* badly drawn picture of someone strapped to an eagle with some shitty faux-tribal ... thing in the background. Frankly, I'd be embarrassed to be seen with it. The story itself, however, isn't too bad. There's rather too many loose ends and a few concepts and events that are merely mentioned in passing yet are apparently terribly important to the characters. Maybe they'll get cleared up in the sequel, but it seems to me that a good book should stand alone. Also the geography is somewhat confused, making it hard to keep track of how one place is related to another, and the broad sweep of the story is hardly original. On the other hand, it's easy to read in small chunks on the train. Don't buy it at full price, get it second hand and if you don't like it, leave it on a train for someone else to read.
13. Ventus, by Karl Schroeder
First impressions are rather disappointing - it looks like it's going to be a hum-drum fantasy with a sci-fi explanation, and takes a long time to get going, all the while interspersed with some expository sections that make one really worry about whether the plot will be allowed to naturally develop. Thankfully, things improve about a third of the way in, and while the story still doesn't feel fully developed (to be fair it is the author's first book) it does at least become entertaining. Unfortunately you never get a feel for the main characters. In fact, it's a very minor character, one who another editor could well have insisted was cut out, who is the most interesting. The "birth" of a conscious AI and its crisis of confidence is handled deftly, and I wish it had been introduced earlier and had a bigger role to play. Overall, I'm glad I read this, but also glad it was a free download from the author. If I'd bought it based on the strength of the author's other work, I'd have felt somewhat cheated.
14. The Magician's Nephew, by C.S.Lewis
There's a new Narnia film coming out soon, and seeing the ads on the sides of buses reminded me that I'd meant to re-read the series, because of all the fuss about it being supposedly christian propaganda dressed up as childrens' entertainment. This is the first (chronologically speaking) book in the series, and is apparently the one that Lewis wanted people to read first. I didn't spot any glaring propaganda. Sure, there's a creation myth, but christians hardly have a monopoly on that. Indeed, they stole theirs, so if Aslan's creation of Narnia counts of christian propaganda, then the bible must be babylonian propaganda. Anyway, the book itself is a very short, quick read. Recommended for children, and for adults who remember reading it when they were smaller. If the rest of the series is of the same quality (and my memory from umpty years ago is that it is) then Narnia is one of the classics of childrens' literature that everyone should own, and put it on their shelves next to Winnie The Pooh. You do own Winnie The Pooh, right?
15. Butcher Bird, by Richard Kadrey
A fantasy with refreshingly little magic at least to start with, and what there is is - again, at least at the beginning - fairly original. Unfortunately the story just doesn't hang together very well. It feels like the author had several good ideas (and many of them are indeed very good), wrote a scene around that, and then glued them all together with some cut n paste mythology. As a novel it just doesn't work. Sorry.
Posted at 18:11 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Tue, 1 Apr 2008

2008 in books, part the first

In the first quarter of 2008, I read the following books:

1. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
Hard to follow at first, but worth persevering with. The story itself is nothing special, and could do with the confusingly named characters and objects being explained better, but the sheer quality of the writing more than makes up for it. In places, it's more like poetry than anything else.
2. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
God that was depressing! The author does a good job of bringing her character to life and describing the bizarre circumstances, it's just a shame that the end is so rushed and that it's not really finished.
3. The World in Winter, by John Christopher
A good end-of-the-world story. It's very dated, both in the scenario and language, but remember, this is from before the worries about global warming and before calling black men Sambo and assuming they were inferior was thought to be perhaps not in the best of tastes. I refuse to judge a book badly simply because of when it was written. But unfortunately, it is let down by an unconvincing ending, in which the main character's motivations and the new life he has created for himself get turned on their head for completely incomprehensible reasons. Still worth reading though if you can find it for a few pennies second-hand.
4. Hunter's Moon, by David Devereux
I couldn't help but think of Charlie Stross's Laundry while reading this. That's a good thing. Hunter's Moon is faster-paced, and requires more suspension of disbelief. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.
5. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
The author seems to think it far more appropriate to let us all know what a well-educated fellow he is by the use of overblown pompous classical waffling, than to tell the story. Avoid this book.
6. Prison Planet, by William C. Dietz
Trash sci-fi. The ending is telegraphed right at the start, poorly executed when we get to it, and the last third of the journey is too contrived. The first two thirds makes for a good read though. This is one to buy second-hand for pennies.
7. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
I was expecting this to be a load of gung-ho crap that had been accidentally turned into a pretty decent film, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. There are far too many coincidences, but it's a spy thriller so they are to be expected. Worth reading.
8. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
I got this as a free e-book when Tor were running some promotion in February. Turns out it was good enough that I've also ordered it in paperback, and its sequel.
9. Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi
Another free download, this one from the author's website, and his first novel. In the introduction he talks about how hard it was to sell. I'm not surprised, because as sci-fi it doesn't really work very well - an awful lot of the story just isn't sci-fi, being far more of a comedy of Hollywood manners. But the sci-fi elements would alienate the sort who normally read such things. Even so, I liked it. Not great, but enjoyable, and certainly worth the price.
10. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson
My second free Tor download, this book has a very interesting premise, good characterisation and moves along at a good pace - not too slow, nor so fast as to seem occasionally forced. When what's been going on is finally made clear it is perhaps a little too magical for my tastes, but that doesn't detract from the book much. I see that there's a sequel. I've added that to my Amazon wishlist.
11. Farthing, by Jo Walton
Another freebie from the nice people at Tor. This is apparently a science fiction book. I mean, it must be, it's been nominated for the Nebula and all! And it's published by Tor! Of course it's sci-fi! Well, no, it's not. While it does use the common sci-fi trope of being set in an alternate history (and a rather pedestrian one at that - peace between Britain and Germany in 1941) the story itself is just a country-house detective mystery, with political meddling. A fairly competently executed one too. While it's obvious from the start whodunnit (or at least oneofwhodunnit) the whydunnit isn't clear at first, and it's fun to see the investigation flail around a bit. On the other hand, the characters are a bit two-dimensional and stereotyped. Stupid aristocrats. Nasty aristocrats. Good copper with a hidden past. Nasty Nazis. And the Jewish hero is, of course, a banker. In summary, worth reading, but wait for the paperback. The book is apparently the first in a trilogy, I'll give the second installment a try - the excerpt Tor appended was at least interesting.
Posted at 22:36 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Thu, 28 Feb 2008

Better than TV

The silly season must have started early this year, because the BBC are running a story about a dog that can do tricks that are "better than TV".

Of course, it's not surprising that a dog doing tricks is better than TV. Here's a list of other things that are not only better than TV, but better than stupid yappy rats doing tricks too:

  • Setting fire to your chest hair
  • Dropping a soldering iron on your foot
  • Slamming a door on your fingers
  • Having the liquishits
  • Plague
Posted at 23:41 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | media
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Thu, 24 Jan 2008

Moby Dick, or, The Tediousness

I've just had another go at reading Moby Dick. I've given up again. The following section, very near the beginning, in which the author describes an inn, is why:

It was a queer sort of place--a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul's tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. "In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon," says an old writer--of whose works I possess the only copy extant--"it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier." True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind--old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn't stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it's too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper--(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.

But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator; yea, ye gods! go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

This sort of tediously obscure waffling, done solely to show off what a wonderfully well-educated man the writer is, is why I avoid most Victorian writing like the plague.

Posted at 13:36 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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Sat, 21 Jul 2007

Whining northerners

Is it any surprise that southerners generally hold much of the north in disdain? The people who live there seem to delight in building their homes on flood plains, not bothering to buy insurance, and then relying on government hand-outs (ie, southerners' money) to bail them out.

The moment the floods started last month in the north, there they were whinging to the press about how they had no insurance and that I should foot the bill. Compare with this weekend's flooding in the south, where people seem to have put up, shut up, and got on with clearing up.

This clear difference in culture makes a persuasive argument for English regional devolution and not just the answering of the West Lothian Question but also of the Why Does The South Subsidise The North question.

Posted at 15:31 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | politics | rant
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Thu, 19 Jul 2007

To the opera!

The Vienna opera season doesn't start until the day after I leave the city. Bah. But on the other hand, Handel's Orlando is on in Zurich, and my hotel is just round the corner from the opera house. I win!

Posted at 22:28 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | holidays
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Sat, 14 Jul 2007

Cider duty exemption

Small cider producers are exempt from paying duty on their booze, something which is vital to the survival of many of our hundreds of small cider producers. Moves are afoot to re-examine this exemption, and possibly scrap it. If this happens, it will mean the end for many small-scale producers and the consequent loss of many unique brews. There is a petition on the PM's webshite, asking him to ensure that they can continue brewing. I strongly urge all of my UK readers to sign up.

Posted at 19:55 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | drinking | politics
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Mon, 2 Jul 2007

More BBC bitterness

I'm still bitter about what happened to BBC Internet Services while I was there.

And I'm not in the least surprised that evidence has come to light that at least some of the managers involved in moving it to the arse-end of nowhere and selling it to Siemens were a bunch of lieing bastards who misled the BBC's board of governors about how much it would cost. At the time some of us were sure there was some corrupt dealing, but we had no proof. And no, I didn't know about this at the time.

Posted at 23:03 by David Cantrell
keywords: bbc | culture
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Fri, 24 Nov 2006

Supernormal cultural happenings

Because you've been good boys and girls, have a couple of arty treats.

A prize for whoever figgers out what the hell the title of this post is about.

Posted at 21:50 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | music
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Tue, 17 Oct 2006

Spamalot!

Hoorah! I have tickets for Spamalot!

Posted at 13:03 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture
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Tue, 4 Jul 2006

Photographs at the Tate gallery

Two of my photographs have been selected by the Tate gallery as part of their "Capture a Constable" collection of contemporary Constable-style compositions. Never mind that they were looking for images taken with a crappy phone camera and that I, well, didn't :-)

images might rotate out of their gallery in a while

Posted at 07:56 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | photography
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