Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Books

Review: Wandering Stars

The list of Jewish science fiction writers is extensive and includes several big names. Picking up Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction was a no-brainer: it included stories by Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison. The editor is Jack Dann, whose name I erroneously thought I recognized (but it’s a fortuitous error, as it turns out). The idea of a collection of SF and fantasy stories on Jewish themes is interesting and (for WASPy goyim like me) refreshingly unusual.

After an introduction by Isaac Asimov, the first story is by William Tenn, an old-school science fiction writer who has not published much since the fifties and sixties, and is largely forgotten today. It’s a story about aliens who want to become Jews. Actually, it turns out that if you ask twelve authors to write SFF stories on Jewish themes, 25% of them will be about aliens who want to become Jews. Of the three (or possibly four, if you want to count Ellison’s contribution), Tenn’s is by far the best. It’s the funniest, and beneath the humour there is the angst and strained optimism we expect from Jewish fiction. By contrast, Robert Silverberg’s story seems disappointingly bland, and Carol Carr’s is just suicide-inducing. Read the rest of this entry »

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Recent reading

Troy and Homer by Joachim Latacz (translated from the German). An overview of research that has been done at the site of Troy in the latter half of the 20th century, bringing the average person’s knowledge up to date. Contains some tantalizing historical details, a broad and eclectic knowledge base, and ingenious speculation. Incidentally teaches a lot about how archaeology and historical reconstruction actually work in practice to those enthusiasts without much experience in the field. An easier read if you have at least a fuzzy knowledge of ancient Greek history.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell. A hilarious observant novel packed with well-drawn characters. A welcome break from Orwell’s gloomy political fare. Rather hard to find, but well worth it.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. My second Steinbeck novel, the first being The Grapes of Wrath. Contains many of the same Steinbeck fixations—long digressions describing California landscapes, overt Biblical references, characters with significant initials, synecdoche. Extraordinarily beautiful but perhaps a little too long, especially given that it spoils the ending less than halfway through so there’s a few hundred pages of waiting for the inevitable.

A Concise History of Avant-Garde Music from Debussy to Boulez by Paul Griffiths. Very informative, especially for those of us who are tempted to dismiss all avant-garde music after Schoenberg. Takes an inside view of this kind of music, describing it the way its proponents would like it described. The result is that people like me have a clearer picture of what we’re up against, but Griffiths comes off like a raving partisan because he never takes a moment to situate this music in a larger context or note how bizarre some of the theory behind it actually is.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. A very useful and easy read, as it promises. Contains advice that is practically vital for people like me whose instinct is to shun their fellow man as much as possible. Also occasionally gives you the feeling that you’re looking into the depraved inane mind of capitalism. A very good read if you are socially isolated and into Lovecraft.

Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais and Singing With Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice by Samuel H. Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller. I’ve been taking Feldenkrais classes for a while now to alleviate some postural problems and improve my clarinet playing. These two books contain exercises that you can do by yourself away from the group classes. They’re both excellent, but the Nelson-Blades-Zeller book has a few advantages over Feldenkrais’s own. Its theoretical discussions are written with a practical use in mind, which is especially helpful if you are a musician. Its explanations are generally clearer than Feldenkrais’s, and the instructions in the lessons are easier to read and understand. There are also more lessons, and each lesson has a substantial introduction explaining what it does and why. The lessons really do work amazingly well, but the way Nelson and Blades-Zeller present them is preferable. Much of what they say applies to wind players as much as it does to singers.

New books

Lately it seems that May through August is the only time I have to read science fiction. I’ve been making preparations in order to squeeze in as much as I can. One such preparation is knocking over Nerman’s Books, a nice little used book and antique store on south Osborne. The difficult thing about science fiction is that all the most important authors are out of print, so a used book store with a good science fiction section is a boon.

There are some miscellaneous short story collections—an anthology from New Worlds Quarterly, an anthology of fiction by Jewish authors, and an Avrahm Davidson collection. Orsinian Tales is a Le Guin book I know nothing about, but I enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness enough to feel safe blindly picking up something of hers. Gateway is a Frederik Pohl book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while now because its premise interested me.

The Illearth War is Donaldson’s sequel to Lord Foul’s Bane, which was the literary equivalent of getting the cherry-filled chocolate from a Pot of Gold box at Christmas. The series has the potential to be better (the first book by all rights should have been better), and I’m curious to see if it actually gets better. But not $10 curious, so I’m buying it used this time.

The last one is Lin Carter’s study of The Lord of the Rings. My memories of The Lord of the Rings are generally positive, but I haven’t read it since I was thirteen and my mind is a little fuzzy on the details. I’m mostly interested in this book because of Carter. From what I’ve heard, he was a good editor and instrumental in getting a lot of important stuff published and reprinted, but his own writing is subpar and his scholarship is laughable—indeed, it set the tone for countless barely coherent fanboy rants over the past thirty years or so, my own included. If I can gather enough material for an article on this, I might just do one.

Still on the “to-read” pile is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which I bought in August and didn’t get a chance to read before the school year got into full swing, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, his incomplete third novel (not SF, but also in the “bought ages ago and haven’t read yet” category).

Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Religion is a rare thing in SF. The genre grew up alongside the modern atheist movement, so God or gods almost never appear in any positive portrayal outside of inexplicably Nebula-winning short stories about Mormon space whale rape. This is a shame because it’s led to a very homogenized set of views on religion among SF authors and fans, roughly those dictated by people like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I disagree with these views, exactly, but they lack nuance and sophistication. If explicitly religious SF was a more common thing, I think everyone would benefit—religious folks from gaining a voice, and others from having their views challenged and clarified.

I read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s short story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a few months ago in an FSF anthology. Its quietly pious tone was refreshing, and it was funny as hell to boot. Miller expanded the short into a novel in 1960, incorporating another story from the same universe and a third incomplete work to create a post-apocalyptic epic spanning centuries.

In the beginning, the Earth has been made desolate by nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, roving mobs hunted down scientists and world leaders. They burn books and eventually turn their wrath on anyone who is literate, erasing gigantic swaths of knowledge from human memory. An obscure pre-Deluge technician named Isaac Edawrd Leibowitz founds a monastic order to preserve and copy the scraps of scientific knowledge that remain.

Centuries later, a novice of the Albertian Order of Blessed Leibowitz is visited in the desert by an apparition that may or may not be the Beatus himself. The old man leads the novice to a buried fallout shelter, where some of Leibowitz’s papers are preserved in an old toolbox. This incident prompts vigorous interest in the work of the Order and a renewal of the canonization process for Leibowitz.

The monk makes an illuminated copy of one of the blueprints he found. When the Vatican finally declares Leibowitz a saint, many years later, he brings the copy and the original relic with him on a pilgrimage to New Rome. On the way he is waylaid by bandits and the copy—but not the original—is stolen. So far this is all in keeping with the 1955 short story. Miller rejiggers the ending of this section and calls it part 1, “Fiat Homo”. The next two parts deal with the reinvention of electric lighting (“Fiat Lux”) and a second nuclear war between spacefaring civilizations (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”).

Miller manages to say his piece while avoiding the common pitfalls of this type of story, at least for a while. Part 2’s Thon Taddeo is no Hollywood-style Santa-slaying atheist, but neither is he an Ayn Rand hero. The various priests and abbots are dogmatists but not cruel ones, and they have some sense about morality and leadership that one can only wish was possessed by actual Catholic clergy. Miller presses his point without compromise but also without self-righteousness. He acquits himself well, at first. But toward the end it starts to come apart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks’s first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, opens on a forceful, mythic note. An intelligent warship flees its pursuers and, at great risk, jettisons its Mind, an unfathomable super-intelligent computer, to a protected planet. Across the galaxy, a shapeshifting Changer is being executed by the Gerontocracy of Sorpen in their unique way: they lock him in a septic tank and hold a massive banquet. This sounds funny, but it doesn’t read that way at all. The first thirty pages or so are some of the most intense science fiction I have ever read.

During this stretch, the principal factions are introduced. There are the Changers, a minor species of humans, all but extinct, with the ability to shapeshift and a host of weaponized body parts such as poisoned nails and acid sweat. The hero is the aforementioned drowning Changer, Bora Horza Gobuchul. The Changers are allied with the Idirans, which are a good approximation of what an actual race of warrior-aliens would look like. The Idirans are at war with the Culture, an advanced post-Singularity human society whose driving force is the need to feel useful. The series that grew from this novel focuses on the Culture, and with good reason. They are a fascinating creation, a society where humanity is largely superseded by super-intelligent machines and is now free to live in hedonism, but great feats are still accomplished out of simple boredom.

Horza is rescued by the Idirans and hired to go to the protected planet and retrieve the Mind, which would be a military and intelligence coup for the marginally less advanced species against the Culture. The book takes a strange turn shortly after all this, however. Horza gets into some shenanigans involving space mercenaries, and the story’s momentum never quite recovers. At first it is Foundation streamlined and blown up, but it develops into reheated Firefly. Read the rest of this entry »

A few notes on reviews

Reviews seem to have been a common theme of this summer. There were articles about book reviews being too nice, then an explosion of posts on the opposite phenomenon and the advent of Stop the Goodreads Bullies (who, lately, put humour next to literature, privacy, and racism on the list of things they don’t understand, and tried to take on James D. Macdonald, an endeavour in which they are hilariously out of their depth). Most recently, there has been concern about fake reviews on Amazon. I feel that this, like many other topics, would benefit from an injection of my opinion. So, in no particular order: Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

This book’s premise is contingent on something that I don’t fully accept as true. I have always found claims to the effect that men and women are inherently different in temperament to be somewhat dubious. It offends my sensibilities; it feels like giving in to the bad comedians. We are socialized differently, and there are some biological differences that affect how people interact. But surely at bottom, in the mind, who you really are isn’t male or female, right? Surely the differences are just superficial.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a thought experiment on this very subject. Suppose, it says, there was a world of people biologically very similar to humans as we know them (in a panspermic universe), with only one difference: most of the time, they are asexual. At the end of a 26-day cycle, they go into a phase called “kemmer”, during which they become sexually aroused. When they meet a partner, their sexual organs reconfigure and one of them becomes male, the other female. This happens at random; most of them have no tendency one way or the other and the ones who do are considered strange deviants. The same person can give birth to some children and father others.

Gethen, the world on which they live, has winters harsher than anywhere on Earth. Roads are often impassable, and the snow can get several metres high. The Gethenians are a slow-moving people who lack much in the way of large-scale coordination. They have nation-states, but there is no war as such, only skirmishes along the borders: frequent but extremely small-scale. The people are generous. There is an understanding that travellers will be taken in, fed, and sheltered no matter where they stop. Descent is reckoned matrilineally, because the parent who gave birth to the child is understood to have a deeper and more important connection to them.

The plot, where someone who might as well be an ordinary Earthling circa 1969 attempts to convince the planet’s people to join the interplanetry Ekumen, is an excuse for exploring the all-important experiment. Each new detail complicates things further, and there is a tremendous interplay of ideas between the Gethenians’ sexual characteristics, their political arrangements, and their response to their climate. The implication is that the lack of dualistic gender roles is in large part responsible for their extreme differences from other planets, but in the end you never can tell exactly what causes what; the nature of these variables is that they are not isolable. Left Hand is a gem of old-school sci-fi worldbuilding. It’s short, but it encompasses a whole lot.

The plot thickens…

So remember STGRB? Guess what the latest is on them: they’ve come out in defence of Victoria Foyt’s cartoonishly racist self-published book Revealing Eden, on the grounds that it is unfair to call the author racist, when she has clearly stated she is not. Seriously.

This is a book that includes, among other things, white women forced (forced, I tell you) to wear blackface, black men called “coals” and described as bestial, and a society that is dystopian largely because black people are in charge and white people are an oppressed minority.

I guess I lied by omission. Bad reviewing practices won’t necessarily lead us to Lost Highway. They might just end up here.

The sad thing in all this is that I can actually see where the author is coming from. Reversing the roles so white people are oppressed, with the intention of showing white people what it feels like, is one of those ideas that seems really deep, man, when you’re a twelve-year-old white kid with no experience of the real world. But by the time you’re grown up enough to sustain the effort required to write a novel, you should be grown up enough to realize that you don’t write about important social issues you know nothing about. To quote from another review that’s been controversial lately (though for the life of me I can’t see why), the novelist has a “moral obligation to be intelligent”.

Another thing that everyone should probably keep in mind: you do not need to read something all the way through to review it. A detailed review benefits from a complete knowledge of the work at hand, but the simple question of “should I read it? yes/no” can be answered if you’ve only been through half of it. When I read Lord Foul’s Bane, I finished it out of some sense of masochism, but by the halfway point there was nothing the author could have done that would have redeemed the book. You don’t need to drink all the milk to know it’s rotten, you don’t need to listen to an entire Liszt piano concerto to know that it’s not worth the effort, and you certainly do not need anything more than the back cover blurb of Revealing Eden to know that it is inept racist trash.

ETA: When I wrote this I had heard about, but not seen, the promotional videos for the book (available on its Facebook page). I don’t recommend you watch them—they’re not funny, just faintly sad, like an episode of Seinfeld. But the idea that someone thought this was absolutely a good way to promote a novel is in itself worth a laugh. Maybe just look at the preview stills to get an idea of what you’re in for without actually watching the things.

Review: Lord Foul’s Bane

But look at this seventies cover:

This should have been one of the greatest works of fantasy fiction ever written. It has an original thought-provoking premise that should be hard to screw up, and it came out in 1977, when fantasy was in a bad place. In the aftermath of the success of The Lord of the Rings, “fantasy” had come to mean reselling Tolkien in watered-down form. The Sword of Shannara would come out the same year. Lord Foul’s Bane was in the perfect position to be a meaningful and important contribution to the genre. Unfortunately, Stephen R. Donaldson screwed it up, and we wouldn’t get the book he should have written until six years later, with The Colour of Magic.

The premise is simple: Thomas Covenant, a novelist and incidentally a leper (yes, there are still lepers), gets hit by a car and finds himself transported to a fantasy land called, conveniently enough, the Land. He questions the Land’s existence, and we are given good reasons to do the same: its history parallels his own, its conflicts mirror his psychic turmoil, and some things in the land—names, snatches of tunes, etc.—are obviously drawn from our world. Covenant appears to the people in the Land as a hero spoken of in prophecy, and quickly finds himself with a quest to carry out. Whether or not it is a dream, the Land obstinately refuses to go away, and he is forced into a kind of provisional acceptance of it so he can keep his sanity and complete the quest.

It plays with some interesting ideas and must have been novel at the time, when we had yet to see the worst that high fantasy had to offer. Donaldson’s fault wasn’t in the conception. It was in the execution, which is so flawed that the book is hardly worth talking about except as a cautionary tale. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit, part 4: The Video Guy II: Electric Boogaloo

Previously…

The video guy redeems himself very slightly by making an interesting point at the beginning of this video.[0:51] He argues that, in a speech about banning certain video games, Hillary Clinton implicitly denies their inherent value by pointing to superficial instrumental values: they can be educational, improve hand-eye coordination, &c. He then argues that Anita Sarkeesian does the same thing.[1:05]

The substance of his point deserves more discussion than I will give it here. I will tentatively allow that this might be what Clinton is up to, but it is unlikely that Sarkeesian—a pop culture critic, whose job it is to believe that pop culture has some inherent importance—is trying to diminish the importance of video games in this way. Indeed, Clinton is trying to ban certain games. Sarkeesian is trying to explore them critically. That difference in context counts for a lot. Read the rest of this entry »