Review 211: The Diamond Age

LL 211 - Diamond AgeThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:

Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?

He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.

First, tiny guitars - then the WORLD!!

First, tiny guitars – then the WORLD!!

The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.

Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.

You'd think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

You’d think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.

The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.

All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.

I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.

I'm not saying it IS a train wreck, but still...

I’m not saying it IS a train wreck, but still…

For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.

——–
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

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Filed under coming of age, culture, nanotechnology, Neal Stephenson, science fiction, society

Review 210: Interesting Times

LL 210 - Interesting TimesInteresting Times by Terry Pratchett

There is a saying, often attributed to the Chinese – “May you live in interesting times.” Usually when this is invoked, it’s done so as a curse, the idea being that interesting times are more likely to cause you trouble than nice boring times, and perhaps that’s true. The folks in Mali, for example, are certainly living in interesting times right now. The trouble is that not everybody is able to stay alive to enjoy them.

Pictured: An interesting time

Pictured: An interesting time

That’s one of the problems with life as we know it – we long for things to be interesting, exciting and thrilling, like what happens to Bruce Willis every time he’s on the screen. When those times come, however, we realize that it’s the boring, predictable times we really want. In other words, we want whatever we don’t have at the moment, which just goes to prove that we, as a species, are messed up in the head. If we had been assembled by any rational Supreme Being, it would have made us a little more accepting of the lives we lead. This mind-set may not lead us to the advanced society we have now, but it certainly would lead us to something approaching world peace.

This book is about wanting what you don’t have, and what happens when you get it.

The central character is the wizard – or Wizzard – Rincewind, one of the oldest of the Discworld characters. He’s been with the series since the first book, The Colour of Magic, and he’s grown to be a favorite for many readers. What Rincewind wants, really wants, is to be left alone. No quests, no challenges, no one trying to kill him or otherwise ruin his day. If the world forgot that Rincewind existed, he’d be the happiest man alive.

Unfortunately for Rincewind, the world hasn’t forgotten him. He has to be sent to the far-off Agatean Empire, a place so remote that few, if any, people know anything about it. A message came, asking for the Great Wizzard, and Rincewind is the only one who fits the bill. The fact that he can’t do magic is not important, really.

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with...

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with…

When he gets there, he meets Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde – seven incredibly old barbarian heroes. Seven men who don’t know the meaning of the word “defeat,” though you’d probably have to repeat it very loudly before they heard what you’d said. Together, the Horde are headed to the capital city of the Empire, looking to make the biggest heist in their long, long, long barbarian careers.

Together, Rincewind, Cohen and the Horde find the Empire in the throes of a people’s revolution, borne of righteous peasant rage and the skillful manipulations of the Grand Vizier, Lord Hong.

Like so many Discworld books, this is a lot of fun to read. The Agatean Empire is a blend of ancient China and Japan, giving us ninja and samurai alongside blue and white Ming ceramics and an exam-based bureaucracy. And like most of the other Discworld books, this one gives you something to think about – what do you want to be?

Rincewind wants to be left alone, because he thinks he’ll be safer that way. Cohen wants to settle down, because he worries that his life as a barbarian hero might be catching up to him. Lord Hong wants to be a gentleman of Ankh-Morpork, or at least the ruler of such men. And the people of the Empire, who call themselves the Red Army, want to be free, even though they have no idea what being free means.

They're... they're TERRIFYING!!

They’re… they’re TERRIFYING!!

The only character who seems to change his life for the better is Mister Saveloy, the youngest member of the Silver Horde and the one they call “Teach.” He realized that what he thought he wanted – a life of educating young people – wasn’t what he really wanted after all. What he wanted was the certainty and simplicity of Cohen’s barbarian lifestyle, and found it rather agreed with him.

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps this: Be happy with what you have, but don’t be afraid to change. Just remember that not all change is for the better.

—————————————————
“…I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But… well… surely… the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mister Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
– Rincewind and “Teach”, Interesting Times
—————————————————

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Filed under adventure, China, Discworld, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett

Review 209: Killer on the Road

LL 209 - Killer on the RoadKiller on the Road by James Ellroy

My brother gave this book to me for Christmas, and to be honest, I was a little bit hesitant to start reading it. Not because I thought it would be bad. On the contrary, all of my siblings are creative, intelligent and insightful people, and I would trust any of their reading recommendations without a moment’s hesitation. I just can’t always promise that I’ll like what they recommend.

The book my brother gave me before that was Narcissus and Goldemund by Hermann Hesse. It wasn’t a bad book, really…. it’s just that I hated the main character Goldemund with a white hot passion and wished grave misfortune on him for the entire book. In fact, the main thing that kept me reading the book was the hope that he’d eventually fall down a dry well and break his legs, or perhaps get hit in the head by a two-by-four and live the rest of his life as a drooling moron. That the book aroused such great passion in me is a testament to the author’s skills, although I don’t think that was quite his goal. Let’s just say that there were a few unpleasantly familiar themes that made it hard for me to be an objective judge of his actions.

Anyway, I figure my brother couldn’t have known that, so I don’t blame him. This book, however, more than makes up.

Serial killers who can't be bothered to kill people personally...

Serial killers who can’t be bothered to kill people personally…

Killer on the Road is a book about a serial killer. Now I know what you’re thinking – the serial killer angle has been done to death (HAR!). There are serial killers in all kinds of airport novels, comic books, movies, and TV shows. It would seem like there’s really no new way that you can do a serial killer, other than to have him use more and more horrifying means to kill people, and that’s all just flash. But trust me, even if you’re feeling a bit worn-out on serial killer fiction, I think you’ll want to read this one.

The standard portrayal of a serial killer in most modern literature is that of a cipher – we don’t know why he does what he does, and we don’t really care. The TV drama “Dexter” is an interesting exception, of course, although if I were a gambling man, I would suppose that show owes something of its origin to this book.

The traditional serial killer is a monster to be hunted down and destroyed. Even when serial killer characters are handled well, they’re still just foils against which we can play the police characters. Where the killer is a hyper-intellectual, the cop’s street knowledge and common sense will prevail. The twisted perversity of the murderer helps play up the straight morality of the cop – and society as a whole, by extension. Ultimately, of course, we just enjoy the chase in the sure and certain knowledge that we’ll see the Bad Guy in jail by the end of it.

In this book, the Bad Guy is in jail from the first page. Already, the author has taken away that carrot, and so we have to readjust our expectations a bit.

Martin Plunkett is a serial killer. Over the course of a decade, he murders nearly 70 people across America until he is finally caught in New York. This book is his story, and his explanation of why he did what he did.

Pictured: Research

Pictured: Research

Ellroy obviously did a whole lot of research for this book, probably both from the law enforcement side of serial killing and the psychological side. There would be no way to write the character of Plunkett as thoroughly, convincingly and – to a point – sympathetically as he did.

Make no mistake, Martin Plunkett is a monster. He kills without hesitation or remorse, and he does it to satisfy urges that normal people shouldn’t have. But at the same time, he is a human being. For all that his moral scale has been skewed waaaaaay off to the bad side, he still has worries, hopes and dreams. We get to see him grow up from childhood. He meets the circumstances and makes the choices that all eventually lead him to his vocation as serial killer. He didn’t just wake up one day and start killing, any more than I woke up one morning and started teaching English. There is a chain there, a somewhat logical series of events that he follows willingly. Once he gets going, the murders become defining moments of his life, rather than simply the horrible acts of a madman. The story isn’t about the dead. It’s about the killer.

In the end, what made Plunkett what he was? That is, after all, what the book is ostensibly trying to figure out, and it’s the question we always ask when we see something on the news that horrifies us. We want there to be a reason for such terrible things, because if there’s a reason for a problem, then the problem can be fixed. If we know that violence arises from factors X, Y, and Z, then all we have to do is correct for those things and it’ll be done. Right?

You never know...

You never know…

The answer is…. we don’t know. Was he a frustrated misanthrope, trying to get revenge on the world? Kind of. Was he an abused child who had no other way of expressing his childhood traumas? Sort of. Was he an avatar of true Evil, spawned by our corrupt and decaying culture? Maybe. It doesn’t matter to Plunkett, and therefore it doesn’t matter to us. He is what he is, and there’s no getting around that.

Ellroy could be warning us against trying to find such simple explanations for terrifying things. That in our search for order, there will always be the anomalies that simply cannot be fixed. There will always be people like Plunkett out there, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. In that way, he’s defying the expectations of serial killer fiction – the killer will never truly be understood and will never truly be caught. He’s always out there somewhere, even if the Plunketts of the world are in jail. There will always be a killer on the road somewhere…

—–
“I will not let you pity me. Charles Manson, babbling in his cell, deserves pity; Ted Bundy, protesting his innocence in order to attract correspondence from lonely women, deserves contempt. I deserve awe for standing inviolate at the end of the journey I am about to describe, and since the force of my nightmare prohibits surcease, you will give it to me.”

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Filed under fiction, James Ellroy, serial killer, thriller

Review 208: A Canticle for Liebowitz

LL 208 - A Canticle for LiebowitzA Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This has probably been noted by many better thinkers than I, but the way I see it is this: history takes a long time to happen.

I know, I know. Mind: blown.

We are lucky in this day and age that we have so much information available to us about history. Go to any of your better museums and you’ll see artifacts of a bygone age, books and clothes and various objects carefully displayed under glass. Through the meticulous work of historians and scholars throughout the ages, we have created an unbroken chain of knowledge through the centuries that is so thorough and so strong that we feel like the days of Shakespeare, of Charlemagne, of Pericles all happened just the other day.

But what if that chain were broken? What if something so big, so terrible were to happen that we had to rebuild history from scratch, using oral tradition and whatever pathetic scraps of memorabilia we could find? Whom could we trust to keep it and put it all together, and then what should we do with it in the end?

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

These are the questions that humanity is forced to confront after the Flame Deluge – a nuclear inferno that claimed the great nations of the world near the end of the twentieth century. All would have been lost if not for the work of Isaac Liebowitz, an engineer-turned-monk who dedicated his life and the lives of his brothers to the preservation of knowledge. Over the centuries, his part of the Albertan order would become the caretakers of a bygone age, guardians of history itself, and would play a key role in the future of humanity, for good or for ill.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a novel in three parts, spanning over a thousand years of future history. It begins in the 26th century, where the inhabitants of what was once the United States are bound into roving tribes and insular city-states. There, the young monk Francis makes a startling discovery from the life of his patron, the soon-to-be-sainted Liebowitz, a discovery which changes his life and the lives of everyone in his order. Through chance, or perhaps divine intervention, Francis finds an underground bunker, a shelter from the Fallout demons of old. He rummages around the cluttered remains of whomever had sealed themselves inside, and happens upon a strongbox, within which are handwritten pieces of paper, including a blueprint for an electrical circuit designed by Leibowitz himself. Suddenly, Francis’ vocation was clear. Or at least clearer than it had been before.

Then the story jumps forward to the 29th century, an age of discovery and renaissance. The learned both inside and outside the Church are beginning to rediscover science, and apply it to rebuilding some of the technology that was thought to be lost so long ago. At the same time, local leaders are vying for power, and trying to ensnare the monks of St. Liebowitz in their plots. The world is changing, progressing, and not everyone is comfortable with this change.

36th Century - so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

36th Century – so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

The third part of the story propels us into the 36th century, an age undreamed-of by even those who lived before the world was cleansed by fire. Humanity is traveling between the stars and giving life to their machines, making full use of knowledge both new and old. Unfortunately, mankind may succumb to the same pride, the same flaws that nearly destroyed it a thousand years before. On the eve of self-annihilation, a desperate group of pilgrims is sent out to the stars to try and keep some spark of humanity alive in the cosmos, despite humanity’s nearly unstoppable urge to destroy itself. And at the center of all of this is the Order of Leibowitz, holding on to old works and memorabilia, waiting for either the right hands or the wrong ones.

The book sounds depressing in its nature, but it isn’t. Yes, mankind makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again, not remembering the horror that befell them the last time. But despite that, there are still good people and there is still hope. You turn the last page knowing that the world, and humanity, will go on in one form or another. Even with our propensity for self-destruction, we are equally capable of brilliance and discovery.

In a larger sense, too, this book is one long journey into philosophy, bringing up some questions that are truly fundamental to who we are as a species. For example, the book addresses the topic of euthanasia in one section, with the Abbot of the order violently opposed to the Mercy Camps that the government is building. Is it better to make the sick and injured live in their sickness, or should we give them a way out? Is suicide – assisted or otherwise – ever permissible? The characters that debate this topic each have a clear and rational reason for thinking the way they do, and yet they come to no agreement. The characters, for the short time we get to see them, are fascinating. You feel sorry for them, hopeful for them, and afraid for them, because Miller has written them as human beings. We don’t have Interchangeable Scientist A and Interchangeable Scientist B arguing opposite points. We instead have scholars and religious, each desperately trying to protect his point of view.

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Or what about the nature of technology itself? The monks are charged with being the memory of mankind, yet when people start trying to recover the lost sciences, the abbot feels uncomfortable with the whole idea. After all, their predecessors in civilization followed the path of science, and look where it got them. Might it not be better to just let things stay as they are? Hard, yes, and certainly not a perfect world, but when you don’t even have electricity, blowing up the world is hard to do.

What I also found interesting was how Miller placed the Catholic Church at the center of this story. In the world after the Deluge, the Church is the only organization left, and it fills the power vacuum nicely. Through its system of priesthoods and orders, it remains the last island of civilization in a world that’s turned to chaos. I’m not a big fan of the Catholic Church for many reasons, but he really made it into an establishment that I could appreciate. It represented continuity and caution, as well as taking up the guardianship of human history. For all its faults, if the Church could keep humanity from failing utterly, I would be grateful for it.

It’s intellectual science fiction at its best, really, exploring the kind of big ideas that science fiction is meant to do. Miller has sung a song – a canticle – not just for the fictional Liebowitz, but for humanity as a whole, and asks his readers to sing along with him.

——————-
“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”
– Thon Taddeo, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz at Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, history, religion, science fiction, technology, war

Review 207: Crossroads of Twilight (Wheel of Time 10)

LL 207 - WoT 10 - Crossroads of TwilightWheel of Time 10: Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Once again – certain things may be spoiled here. Consider yourself warned.

This is where the series finally starts to get its legs back under it, and I think I figured out why: Jordan went about writing it the wrong way.

Let me explain: Following book six, Lord of Chaos, the series separated into five major storylines, which have thus far stayed pretty independent of each other. They’ve progressed at different rates, with different narrative structures, and have occupied different amounts of page space, and overall they synced up pretty poorly. The five major stories that I’ve spotted are these:

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

Leading the rebel Aes Sedai, Ewene al’Vere, the Amyrlin-in-Exile, has deftly manipulated her people into a war against the White Tower and Elaida, the woman who usurped the office of Amyrlin and drove a wedge between the sisters. Originally intended to be a puppet Amyrlin, Egwene has proven herself very good at managing people who are highly resistant to being managed. Her goal is nothing less than the deposing of Elaida and the reunification of the White Tower, no matter what the cost. It’s a story of politics, scheming and manipulation, all leading up to what must be terrible war.

Elayne Trakand is fighting her own political war as she attempts to become the Queen of Andor. Under normal circumstances, this would be no problem. Her mother, the former Queen, is presumed dead, which would pretty much make Elayne a shoo-in. Unfortunately, Morgase ended her reign rather badly (she was under the control of one of the Forsaken at the time, but no one in Andor knows that), so half the Great Houses in Andor who should be supporting Elayne are very reluctant to do so. She’s in a political battle which will not only decide the throne of Andor, but will also affect the world.

In another part of the world, Perrin Aybara is hunting for the people who kidnapped his wife. The Shaido, a renegade clan of Aiel who refuse to acknowledge Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, are spread out across the land, and they bring terror, blood and death with them. Faile Aybara has been taken prisoner by them, and only quick thinking and some unexpected allies are keeping her alive. Perrin is determined to find her, whatever the cost to his body or soul.

Outside of Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon has single-handedly committed enough crimes against the Seanchan Empire to earn himself a painful death many times over. He has not only allowed three Aes Sedai to escape their clutches, not only spirited out three sul’dam, who know a secret that could break the Empire, but he has kidnapped the Daughter of the Nine Moons, High Lady Tuon – the daughter of the Seanchan Empress. His ragtag group of refugees have only one goal in mind – to get away from the Seanchan. But Mat knows there are stranger fates in store for him, not the least of which is his fated marriage to Tuon.

Finally, we have the central character in this whole saga – Rand al’Thor. When last we saw him, he was cleansing saidin – the half of the One Power that is used by men – of the poisonous taint laid upon it by the Dark One thousands of years ago. This was yet another step in preparing for the Last Battle that he, as the Dragon Reborn, must one day fight. He has armies at his command, Aes Sedai sworn to serve him, three women who love him, and a madman inside his own head. His only goal is to stay sane and live long enough to save the world. Even that is looking like it might not happen….

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that...

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that…

Now any one of those storylines might make for a really good book by itself, and therein lies the solution to the sagginess of this part of the series. They’re all interesting stories, but they all move at different paces, climax at different points, and have vastly different themes and atmospheres. In order to jam them all together into the Wheel of Time books, Jordan had to play fast and loose with chronologies, often backtracking in one story so that he could catch up in another. What’s more, moving from one storyline to another was jarring and unpleasant, making it a chore to actually read the books.

What he could have done was to create five mini-series following Lord of Chaos, perhaps of two or three books each. Each series could flow at its own pace, and stay focused on one of the five major characters, with no break or interruption in the story’s flow. Each story would have been allowed to develop freely, and then they would all come back together to re-integrate into the main series, which would once again present a more unified narrative that brings us to the end.

Or even – and this is something I’m pretty sure has never been done – let the five storylines play out without ever re-integrating them. That would mean the Wheel of Time series becoming more of a Shared World group of books, rather than finishing as the series that started way back in Eye of the World. This would never work, though – it’s only in real life that people start off together, drift apart and never reconnect again, and if there’s anything I’m reading this series for, it is not its resemblance to the real world.

Temporarily splitting into five sub-series might have solved a whole lot of problems though. The reader would have been able to decide which stories interested him the most. Devoted followers, of course, would have bought them all and read them all, but if you’re not interested in watching Perrin anguish over Faile, or you rightly think that Mat’s storyline is pretty rudderless and won’t mean anything until he reconnects with Rand, you’d be able to skip that mini-series. Some clever writing would be necessary once they all integrate, but it would be possible to enjoy the Wheel of Time without necessarily jumping around five storylines every ten chapters or so.

"Don't let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!"

“Don’t let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!”

My point is that the middle of this series has turned out to be muddled and clunky, and if there’s any point where readers might just give up, it would be here. The good news is that in this book, the five storylines finally catch up to each other; the first 357 pages are describing what’s happening in the other storylines while Rand and Nynaeve were cleansing saidin back in Winter’s Heart. Once that event has passed in all five stories, the narrative flow seems to smooth out a lot, and the reading gets easier. I can’t say how long that will last, or how long it’ll take before they all re-integrate, but I know they will sooner or later.

This volume, meanwhile, has some great character moments in it – Egwene cementing herself as the true Amyrlin Seat and doing what must be done to secure her victory; Perrin discovering just how hard he can be and what lengths he will go to to find his wife; Mat’s intricate dance with Tuon, in which neither of them really knows the steps. And on the dark side, Alviarin discovers that even the great and powerful Chosen are not guaranteed victory, and Black Ajah sisters everywhere lay in wait to serve their dark master. And there’s an interesting essay to be written on the psychological position that Jordan takes in these books – Behavior molds personality, and punishment molds behavior. Something I have to mull over as I read, but when I have it set in my head, I’ll let you know.

The story progresses. Fitfully, and in five different directions, but it progresses. Stay with me, folks, and we’ll get there…..

—————————————————–
Sometimes, there were lessons in stories, if you looked for them.
– Elayne Trakand, Crossroads of Twilight
—————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Crossroads of Twilight at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Crossroads of Twilight at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 206: Cold Days

LL 206 - Dresden 14 - Cold DaysCold Days by Jim Butcher

Hells Bells count: 35

Be Warned: This is a new volume, so if you’re not up to date then you might want to save this one for later!

Sometimes I wonder how much Jim Butcher had planned in advance. I mean, this is book number fourteen of a series that’s been going for twelve years. Whether he’s got a giant, intricate plot map pinned up along the walls of his writing office or he’s making things up as they go along, I’m impressed. As we get further into the exciting life and times of Harry Dresden, one thing that is clear is that the series has always been moving in a very clear direction, and that the things that came before are what inform the things that come later. Jim Butcher is not a wasteful author, and that gives him the ability to do a lot of really impressive things.

As we open this story, Harry Dresden is no longer dead. He was, sort of, and had all kinds of grand fun as a ghost, but now he’s alive and it’s time for him to start paying off the debts that he incurred in the process of dying. The first of these debts is to Mab, the great and terrible queen of the Winter Faerie.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it'll do.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it’ll do.

Many, many books ago, Mab offered Harry the position of the Winter Knight – a mortal who would be the strong arm of the queen. He would be her sword, to strike where she pointed. Harry refused until he could refuse no longer, taking on that mantle in exchange for the power that would allow him to rid the world of the Red Court of vampires. And as much fun as vampire genocide is, that’s not really his job anymore. Now that he’s alive again and under no other obligations, Mab has a purpose for him. At its face, it is a terrible purpose, one that makes no sense and yet which Harry is obligated to fulfill.

On the other hand, there is Demonreach. Mab’s partner in keeping Harry Dresden’s body… let’s say viable while he was away as a ghost, Demonreach is the spirit of an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. This island isn’t on any maps, and it’s devilishly hard to find, but it represents a huge well of magical and spiritual power. This island needs Harry Dresden in order to do its duty. Demonreach is not just an obscure Brigadoon that enjoys hiding from the eyes of the unworthy – it is a guardian against powers that would ravage the world. If it is going to maintain its control and keep the peace, it needs Harry Dresden.

While all this is going on, we learn of a new force that is at play in the world. This is rather in keeping with the way the Dresden Files books have worked thus far. Every so often, our point of view is changed, and our field of vision is expanded. Way back in Storm Front, Harry Dresden was a small-time wizard investigator, not well-loved in the wizarding community but good at what he did, and that was pretty much all we saw. As the series progressed, we discovered more about the White Council of Wizards, the three Courts of Vampires, about the ever-feuding faerie realms of Winter and Summer. We went on to discover angels and demons and things that walked between them, ghosts and goblins and creatures that were just barely understandable by our mortal minds.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

“KNOCK KNOCK”

Now we take another step back, out beyond the borders of our reality as we know it. Outside our universe, there are… things. And those things want in. Why they want in is not really understood. Maybe this universe is more hospitable, maybe they’re just bored. All we know is that to let them in is to let reality as we know it die. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is the knowledge that some of them are already here. They’ve snuck under the walls, so to speak, and are carefully and busily undermining our defenses. In a game that is so intricate and dangerous, these things use great powers as pawns – including Harry Dresden – and look forward to their inevitable victory.

As with so many of the other Dresden Files books, this is a solid read, and you’ll fly right through it. Despite being vast in scope, encompassing the fate of the world as we know it, the book is still very personal, letting us follow Harry along the strange, winding path he has to walk whether he likes it or not. Harry has always been a dangerous guy to know, but now that he’s the Winter Knight, that danger is even greater. There are forces arrayed against him that he wouldn’t be able to understand even if he knew what they were, and simply being the Winter Knight is a challenge unto itself. Taking up that position doesn’t just come with awesome new powers and a direct line to some of the most powerful creatures in creation – not without a price. There are obligations as well. Rules and requirements. And, of course, dangers.

When he’s done, he’ll have more answers, and he’ll have more problems. Whatever comes next, we can be sure it will be even bigger and scarier than what has come before, and it’ll be a treat to see how he manages to beat it.

——
“I kept a straight face while my inner Neanderthal spluttered and then went on a mental rampage through a hypothetical produce section, knocking over shelves and spattering fruit everywhere in sheer frustration, screaming, ‘JUST TELL ME WHOSE SKULL TO CRACK WITH MY CLUB, DAMMIT!'”
– Harry Dresden

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, Jim Butcher, magical realism, murder, wizardry

Review 205: Year Zero

LL 205 - Year ZeroYear Zero by Rob Reid

I’ll bet you never thought you would see an intergalactic alien thriller that all centered on the intricacies of copyright law, did you? Well, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, then this is the book you want to read.

The universe, as it turns out, is well-populated with other civilizations. Some of them are nearly human in appearance, others are so radically unlike us that they’re hard to imagine, much less talk to. Giant snails, two-dimensional beings, foul-mouthed parrots and bio-machine intelligences – all of these and more make up the Refined League, the greatest political entity in the universe. In order to become part of the League, your civilization has to first prove that it can overcome the violent urges that lead so many intelligent cultures to self-extinction. Once it has done that, the League provides it with technology so advanced that it may as well be magic, allowing the new members to completely solve their technological problems and instead focus their energies on creative and cultural works.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

And that is where the League shines brightly. Their artistic sense is so far beyond ours that were we to see it in its full flower our brains would likely shut down from the beauty. Their art and architecture, cinema and drama, fashion, food – hell, their calligraphy and paper-making are works of art that make our great masters look like toddlers drawing stick figures in the mud. In nearly all respects, the Refined League outclasses humanity.

Except, as it turns out, for music.

Thanks to some twist in our evolution, we are the only civilization capable of creating truly great music. Indeed, the first music heard by an alien culture – the closing credits song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” – was so amazing and so powerful that countless individuals died from ecstasy overload. As the universe turned its ears towards Earth, they discovered what they had been missing all along, and were soon tapping into our radio and TV broadcasts to get copies of the greatest music ever made. The discovery of Earth’s music was so pivotal to the cultural history of the universe, that the League reset their calendars to reflect it, thus making October 13, 1977 the beginning of Year Zero.

For decades, Earth music was recorded and copied and passed along. And while it did still occasionally kill people with its beauty and glory, those who survived cherished the gift we were unknowingly giving to them. While we were not yet prepared to join the League, we were the center of the universe.

Until the law got involved.

The central governing principle of the League is that indigenous laws must be respected, no matter what. It wasn’t until our songs had been copied over hundreds of millions of times that the League discovered the incredibly draconian and torturous copyright laws that govern music on our planet, and the heavy fines that are imposed for piracy. Under U.S. copyright law alone, it turns out, the universe owes us money.

This doesn't even come close...

This doesn’t even come close…

All the money.

Two of the universe’s biggest stars break through the barrier that’s supposed to protect our planet and approach Nick Carter – not a Backstreet Boy, but a young attorney specializing in copyright law – to try and find a way to fix this little problem. But they’re not the only ones looking to find a way out of the mess the League has gotten itself into. Members of an entertainer’s union – now pretty much defunct since Earth music took everything over – would rather see us gone entirely, so they’re prepared to make sure we find a way to destroy ourselves before any kind of arrangement can be reached. Nick, along with the universally-admired celebrities Carly and Frampton, are in a race against a violent alien parrot and an angry vacuum cleaner to save the Earth and the Refined League both, along with keeping the music coming.

It’s a very fast read – I went through it in a day – and is built on a very entertaining premise, one which undermines a lot of what we’ve come to expect from first contact stories. The author’s experience in the online music industry no doubt gave him a lot of material to work from, and he made it into a fun race against the clock. Part of the reason I bought the book was its premise – we’re all so used to seeing stories about how wonderful aliens are compared to ourselves, and it’s nice to see it subverted in a clever and interesting way.

WHO'S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

WHO’S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

It was also a clear and repeated stab at the way we handle creative property rights in the United States – indeed in most countries around the world. The law firm for which Carter works is so entrenched in the business of protecting copyright that they practically wrote some of the most egregious laws against piracy. They even have their own pet Senator, a thinly-veiled version of Orrin Hatch who is nicknamed “Fido,” who does their bidding in Washington. They’re not concerned with making sure the artists are compensated, or that their music is treated fairly. They’re interested in getting as much money as possible from as many people as possible, and have no qualms about doing what’s necessary. What’s more, most of the legal plot points settle around real U.S. law – the Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, which mandates fines of up to $150,000 per song.

As a comparison, in the state of Connecticut, for example, the fine for a class A felony (murder) is up to $20,000. So if you were thinking of downloading that new Bieber single, you may as well just kill seven people and pocket the extra ten grand. Admittedly, the CDIA doesn’t allow for prison sentences (I think), but a person effectively bankrupted by legal action will probably end up in prison one way or another.

In its way, though, the book does suffer from a common problem that I’ve been seeing a lot recently: the cardboard villain. In this book, the pro-copyright forces are just plain Wrong, and will clearly not win the day. Now I have no problem vilifying law firms and giant corporations – hell, that’s practically a hobby of mine – but I would like to have seen a bit more humanity from them, rather than a giant monolithic force of legal evil. Even the main human avatar of that monolith, Carter’s boss, pretty much abandons her position as soon as she realizes the threat that the Earth is under. We know that these laws are wrong, but how they got so wrong is something that could have added to the story.

Of course, that itself could be a book of great and ponderous length, so I can understand why Reid might have glossed over it.

By Grabthar's Hammer...

By Grabthar’s Hammer…

The other criticism that I have of this book is that it will one day be horribly, terribly dated. There are pop culture references everywhere in the story. Some are subtle, some are not, and it was kind of fun being able to pick them out. Everything from GalaxyQuest to Monty Python to Breaking Bad – if you’ve been paying attention to popular culture for the last twenty years or so, you’ll find these little nuggets buried in the story. And they’re great, as long as you’re reading the book in proximity to those cultural references. I don’t know how well it will hold up for a reader twenty or thirty years down the road, but that may not have been Reid’s intention.

This is a book written for a specific time and reason, in an intellectual climate that the author understands far too well. Perhaps he just wanted to write a book for this moment, and never meant it to last much longer. Whatever his motivations, I hope he continues to explore this kind of writing, and gives us bigger and better in the future.

——————————–
“Our legal scholars have researched [the Copyright Damages Improvement Act] thoroughly. And they unanimously agree that it is the most cynical, predatory, lopsided, and shamelessly money-grubbing copyright law written by any society, anywhere in the universe since the dawn of time itself.”
– Carly

Rob Reid on Wikipedia
Year Zero on Amazon.com

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Filed under aliens, copyright, corporations, first contact, humor, Rob Reid, science fiction