Saturday, July 30, 2016

Nanomachines vs. Broadswords

Review: There Will Be Dragons by John Ringo

This is that unfortunately-rare entry in the sword-and-sorcery genre, a rational tale that begins with a realistic world, and then explains (in a believable way) the reason people might opt for rule by the mightiest swordsman.

As the story begins, Earth is a paradise founded on three things: virtually unlimited power, widespread use of powerful nanomachinery (nanos), and a ruling council of dilettantes whose use of that power is monitored by Mother, a world-sized computer network. Mother decides which uses of power to allow, and manages the multitude of sub-microscopic nanos. Mother watches everything. 

Mother, however, is not human.

Worse, several of the Council members are all too human, and have figured out how to get what they want despite Mother’s watchfulness. In a coldly calculated move, they lock up all the power sources in a battle between the pro-nano Council and themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s population is instantly reduced from effective immortality to reliance on the few hobbyists who have kept farming, herbal medicine and defense by the sword alive in the world.

Across the world, millions die as power is withdrawn and their protections fail. Explorers on the Sun and deep in the mantle die instantly. People who have Transferred their personality to a cloud of nanos fall into a pile of dead machine-mites. Those who are flying, or swimming far offshore, or living in remote places with no supply of food and water and no roads out, are just as doomed, though it will take them a bit longer to die.

In the region we think of as the USA, refugees begin to flock to the renaissance-faire community of Raven’s Mill. The smith at Raven’s Mill, Edmund Talbot, finds himself the unwilling Mayor of an inviting source of food and slaves, following the inevitable rise of banditry and looting. Fortunately for the town, Talbot knows what is needed to protect civilization from tyranny in such times, and it is more than a stronger sword-arm.

With the help of his wife and daughter, a young man named Herzer Herrick who chose the wrong side first, several wonderful military characters (Gunny, for example, is the spit-and-image of ex-Marine Agent Gibbs on NCIS), a sympathetic though embattled Council member, plus a truly ingenious feel for mixing high-tech and medieval arts, Talbot fights his war on several fronts. 

The result is a great action thriller, with the excellent combat scenes we’ve come to expect from Ringo, intriguing characters and an expandable plot that leads us easily into a multi-book series of equal quality.

Fickle Kitties and Chameleon DJs

Review: The Art of Getting Bent by Mark Sahm

This is not a book for a grammar-Nazi or frustrated proof-reader. If you can't read e.e. cummings without wincing and pulling out a mental blue pencil, leave this book on the shelf. 

With frequently-awkward phrasing (verging on the comical), sometimes-dicey word choices (weary for wary, poignant instead of pertinent), the novel reveals an author who struggles with the tense of verbs and number-agreement of pronouns. The result provides an unpleasant jar against your sense of ...

...Are they all gone?

Okay, now that the blue-haired librarians have left the room, I'll let you in on a little secret: This is a great story! Mark Sahm started out to create The Art of Getting Bent as a graphic novel. It shows. The action is kick-ass and relevant, the pacing is perfect, and the narrative style is reminiscent of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, or perhaps John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer.

Yes, on nearly every page there is a grammar-wince lying in wait for your inner school-marm. Sure, some of the name choices (Taco Hell, StarPhücks coffee, an antagonist named Tagonist, for phücks' sake!) make it hard to stay immersed in the text. But the story! The story carries you along.

The main character of Sahm's story is a demi-lizard named Serico, living in a post-apocalyptic city. The world has been devastated by a disease called CXD, a horror of fatal infection against which man has found only two defenses. If one is wealthy enough, one can become a Cypure, living inside a powered suit of brilliant color that prevents contact with the contagion. Cypures have thus become an identifiable elite in this Manhattan-like place, Vitellius City, the Big Egg.

Far more numerous are those whose resources were more limited. These people chose instead to have their DNA inextricably spliced with that of an animal, because that makes their bodies immune to CXD. The Tag-B drug that accomplishes this merging also gives each Splice some of the characteristics of the animal—hence, Serico, whose chameleon eyes and skin reveal the lizard DNA he received.

Serico, we learn early, has a demon riding him. He works as a DJ in a Splice club, but he can only perform well when he's half-way along on a bender. For Serico, the art of his music requires that he master the art of getting bent just enough to let his brilliance loose. Amy, an owl-child martial arts master, has her own demons, born when her father died of CXD. She uses her anger to keep her survival skills honed. It doesn't pay to get bent out of shape—but Amy's found a way to make the martial art of getting bent just far enough pay off for her.

They're innocently heading for a confrontation with two entities who could lay waste to all their art: a jug of jungle rum with the label "Jugo del Diablo," and the convicted creator of the CXD plague, Tiberius Tagonist. Then there's Dr. Def Mechlin, a shadowy character whose presence spans the story from 1979 to 2020, the present day.

In the cold streets of Vitellius City in 2020, Cypures are being murdered. Their lifeless bodies are mangled and torn, and from each one, the power-pack is stolen (a Federal offense in itself). Is Tagonist killing the Cypures, trying to complete the job he started in 2005? Or is Mechlin the source of the Big Egg's current troubles? Without planning it, Serico and Amy will become embroiled in this struggle, as a result of practicing their art.

The story is supported and guided by street-signs along its path. Each chapter is headed by a graphic title, named like a station on a commuter train: Euston, Fuencarral, Gran Via, Opernplatz, Pacific, Vine. Each has an official-looking ID number, plus an "alternate designation" and "condition." These read poetically together like a traditional chapter sub-head from a Victorian novel: 

At Fuencarral: "Never tickle a fickle kitty / burned by the winds of change" 
At Vine: "I eat the inevitable ounce of honesty / fresh out of the foil wrapper"

Other graphics are scattered sparsely through the book, markers left over from the novel's earlier incarnation. Serico's chameleon eye looks out from several pages—Sahm's book has been through its own Splice.

The result is wonderful.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Catching the Invisible Criminal

Review: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey

In 1995, authorities uncovered the longest-running art-theft spree in history. Florida antiquities dealer Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., had finally been arrested, charged with the theft of over 250 medieval mappae mundi. Harvey's account, like an international thriller, tracks the astounding career of Bland, who is alleged to have single-handedly slashed the value of the world's antique map holdings by millions of dollars.

It was definitely an art theft. Antique maps, Harvey points out, are works of art as well as antiquities, and thus are quite valuable. Usually the maps are bound into a folio or atlas whose value is greater than any single map it includes.
In addition to being a noted architect, [Robert] Mills was an important mapmaker. His 1825 masterpiece was not only a beautiful piece of art in its own right but a work of real historical importance—the first state atlas ever produced in the United States... We can be sure that if the [Baltimore Washington] monument [which Mills designed] were defaced, there would be a public outcry. But few people would complain if someone desecrated a copy of the Atlas of the State of South Carolina. It's a pretty fair bet, in fact, that no one would even notice the crime had taken place.

The author's exploration of this crime no one notices charts a fascinating journey of discovery that also illuminates the making, use and sale of maps. It takes thousands of years to make a map, Harvey explains, because maps are compilations of knowledge gleaned by those who have gone before.
...a copy of the [Mills] atlas in excellent condition might sell for upwards of $30,000. A single map of Charleston County from the atlas might fetch $2000 or more. And, unfortunately, what collectors and dealers are willing to pay for, thieves are willing to steal.

Harvey begins with the admission that his approach to Bland's activities is not objective, and neither is his reaction to other central figures in his story. He introduces a dealer who has built a multi-million-dollar business on his connections in the art antiquities field.
I knew that, in the antique maps business, no one is more central than a charismatic figure named W. Graham Arader III—although perhaps calling him the navel of the world would be taking the metaphor too far. Some of his more cynical contemporaries might pick a different body part.

Bland and Arader are both fascinated by maps, entranced by their value in the right market, but their differences are more revealing. Arader is colorful and forceful, while Bland suits his name. Arader may have bumped the prices for antique maps to higher levels, but he is repulsed by the thefts, and incensed when stolen items are offered to him for sale. He seems especially offended at the idea of destroying an atlas by cutting out single maps.

Bland is another person entirely; in fact he is several people, none especially notable—he becomes whoever he needs to be to gain entry to rare book collections. Harvey likens Bland to the "imaginary creatures" medieval cartographers used to adorn the margins of maps. In all of his personae Bland is such a polite nonentity that even the police who finally arrest him seem unable to believe he is truly a criminal. After all, what has he stolen? A few sheets of paper?
The ghost of Lloyd A. Brown was not pleased... Since his death in 1966, [he] had led a happy spectral existence among his books... Lloyd Brown had gone to heaven, and it was called the Grand Stack Room.

And so things might have remained, if not for the intruder... who crept into the library one day, seated himself at one of Brown's favorite old tables, and... began to slice up books.

As a lover of books, I have no difficulty siding with Brown's ghost. I could hate a man who calmly planned and callously executed such defacement. But Bland is not the only such criminal. 

Harvey introduces us to an entire crew of such thieves. For example, there is a Tulane University English professor who supplemented his income by stealing five maps (then valued at $20,000) from Yale University. We meet another thief who went to prison for stealing maps, was released on parole, and went right back again to take $100,000 to $300,000 worth of maps from the University of Minnesota. A Sunday school teacher and librarian turns out to be a rare books curator for one library who stole $500,000 worth of maps from another library. Two Greek Orthodox priests are trusted users of the Yale library who make off with an entire atlas. When police track them down it is discovered that they have stolen rare books from half a dozen other university libraries, some 200 volumes in all.

How do such valuable items come to be available for thieves to steal? The book explores this thoroughly, starting with the curator who is lambasted by the library community when she sends a warning eMail that exposes her library's vulnerability to theft. Far more interesting, however, are the frequent side-trips to visit topics that seem unrelated. Harvey's own family history is grist for his mill, and so is his fear when he finally gets to speak to Bland—by phone—after the trial. 

We visit the "peculiar islands" and search for the "waters of Paradise" that are found on antique maps, and also in the cobwebbed corners of collectors' souls. When the author takes us down those odd back roads, up the mis-marked streams, and on many a "detour off of Interstate Bland," he is building a map of his own. 

Harvey's map delineates equally the well-lit pages of library acquisitions and the shadowy stacks containing broken volumes, desecrated tomes, and so-far-undiscovered thieves.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Limerick—Folk-Art or Poetry?

Review: The New Limerick compiled by G. Legman

Here are neatly turned odes of small span,
Much concerned with our bodily plan.
   And the intercorporeal
   Highly sensorial
Lovelife of woman and man.

The New Limerick, edited by G. Legman, is a delightful compendium of thousands of limericks, many of which had never been widely published. (I keep my copy in a bathroom, for those odd moments when a reading diversion is required.) Even the limericks everyone knows (There once was a girl from Nantucket…) are freshly enjoyable in this context.
A delighted, incredulous bride
Remarked to her groom at her side:
   I never could quite
   Believe til tonight
Our anatomies would coincide.

Legman's Introduction is a scholarly treatise that discusses the art and artistry of the limerick, and wonders why this is usually (though not exclusively) an English form. Although an Italian canto treating the lewder aspects of the lives of the saints is cited, it seems obvious to the editor that the terse character and abundant homonyms of English lend themselves to the limerick form.
There was a young lady from Byer
Whose hemlines got higher and higher.
   But the size of her thighs
   Provoked merely surprise,
And extinguished the flames of desire.

What makes this catalog of limericks even more impressive is that it is the second such volume. The first, The Limerick, included “only” 1,700 examples of the verse form, but generated such a stream of new examples that the editor was compelled to create this larger sequel.
There was a young girl with a bust
Which roused a French cavalier’s lust
   She was since heard to say,
   About midnight: “Touché!—
I didn’t quite parry that thrust.”

Isaac Asimov introduced his own book A Grossery of Limericks (one of several limerick collections written with John Ciardi) by saying, “Limericks come in many forms, dirty, lewd, obscene and otherwise. None of the limericks in this collection are otherwise.” Like the pun, the limerick relies on the surprise of the wry twist in the terminal line. And for many limericks, as for puns, the sincerest applause is a resounding groan from the audience.
A libidinous peasant named Jack
One time with a spider did shack.
   You may get oddball kids
   Sleeping with arachnids
But oh! those eight legs round your back!

There may also be a charm to the limerick beyond the rhythm and the rhyme. So many limericks build from a personal or geographical name, cleverly rhymed but never used again, that the editor contends this may be one of the draws of the craft. However, this does not explain my own personal favorite:
To barbarity man says adieu
As brilliant inventions accrue.
   To create wheel and lever
   Was really quite clever,
But divinely inspired was the screw.

And while a large majority of limericks insist on the youth of the main character, a substantial percentage rely equally on venerable age and experience:
A learnèd old justice of Trent
Defined what obscenity meant:
   He said, “Duck is not clean,
   But three-quarters obscene;
And fudge is foul forty percent.

Limericks in the U.S. became as common as filk songs for the science fiction aficionado (hence Asimov’s entry into the field). An entire category of science-fiction limericks refers to space opera topics, and widens even further the list of person- and place-names available to lampoon.
Flash Gordon, when looking for fun,
Poked Dale with his little space gun.
   Murmured she, “I’m not shy,
   But, quick, button your fly—
In comics, that just isn’t done!

There are 2750 limericks in this book, including the execrable (in the “Chamber of Horrors”), the unquotable (in “Buggery” and “Abuses of the Clergy"), and the simply over-the-top (in “Virginity”). I have had to work hard to select those that do not contain one of Carlin’s infamous Seven Words.

To read all the others, I highly recommend this book.

Murder and Mystery in 18th-Century London

Review: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

This novel—David Liss’ first—won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, a Barry Award for Best First crime novel, and the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery, all in 2001. Its protagonist, ex-boxer detective Benjamin Weaver, is a Jew in London in the early 1700s, estranged from his family and unwilling to re-enter that world. He has found a comfortable niche in London’s newly-developing (and somewhat seamy) stock trade, serving as a liaison between lower-class thugs and thieves and their upper-class counterparts.

Weaver begins his memoir with the day a gentleman comes to him with a tale of murder to investigate—the victim, his own father. Despite his cool feelings for his late sire, Weaver is intrigued enough, and sufficiently in need of the money, to follow the clues. Slowly the ex-pugilist is drawn back into the shadowy corners of the stock trade, as he pursues the conspiracy that ended his father’s life.

Weaver’s dearth of feeling toward his father, and a growing fear that he may be inviting to himself the murderer’s attention, provide some motivation to cease his inquiries. There is also a certain Mr. Adelman who offers to pay him to abandon the case.
… and what objection could I offer to abandoning an inquiry into the death of a father for whom I could recall no fondness?
... before I reached the top of the staircase, I had dismissed Mr. Adelman’s offer forever. I could not say if it was because I did not relish the idea of dealing perpetually with men like Adelman, men who believed their wealth gave them not only influence and power, but also a kind of innate superiority to men such as myself. I could not say if it was because there was something compelling in the unexpected ease I had known in the presence of my uncle and aunt, or the displeasure I felt at the notion of severing a connection with a household wherein lived my cousin’s lovely widow…

Weaver’s investigation takes him to the heights of London society and to its dregs; to coffee houses and brothels, drawing rooms and gaming clubs, synagogues and bookstores. The trail he follows illuminates the early days of stock trading and publication, and eventually reveals the truth: men are willing to do many things in the pursuit of wealth, but truly ruthless men will do anything to protect their conspiracy.

The first book is followed by other tales of Benjamin Weaver: The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Devil’s Company. All are excellent—readers with a taste for history, mystery and the early days of stock trading will enjoy them as much as I did.

A Cuban Diversion In Northern California

This Huge Cubano Sandwich Made 2 Meals!

Restaurant Review: Rumba Cuban Kitchen in Windsor, CA

I last had a "real" Cubano sandwich, with its layers of pork meat and ham, pickle, swiss cheese, and toasted, flattened bread, at the touristy Cuban Pete's Caribbean Grill restaurant outside Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. I hadn't realized how much I missed those flavors until one weekend on Old Redwood Highway, hunting for a new Sunday alternative to our regular hangout, I spotted the Rumba Cuban Kitchen sign as we drove past.

Alas, like Chick-fil-A, Rumba is not open on Sunday. But we persisted, and finally caught it open when we were in Windsor, and hungry. 

The outside of the building is unprepossessing—in fact, it looks like it may have begun life as a realtor's office or a florist's shop. The thermometer stood at 89 in the bare, half-empty parking lot, and I worried the inside might not be air-conditioned.

Savory Picadillo in a "Cuban Sloppy Joe"
We stepped inside to find a cool, breezy, welcoming space with a dozen or so tables and a high lunch counter. A chalk specials board immediately caught my eye with a promise of oxtail. Wow! I haven't had oxtail since we were in South Africa... 

But today, I am here for the Cubano sandwich, and although I flirt with the menu, I order the Cubano in the end. My spouse opts for the "Cuban Sloppy Joe," a meaty picadillo in a small loaf of bread. Both meals come with a side of tosturos, salty fried plantain chips, and a dip of Cuban-style mojo sauce, probably made with bitter orange juice, garlic, oregano, and salt.

The picadillo sandwich vanished rapidly, but my Cubano was so rich and meatyand so largethat I eventually caved, and asked for a to-go box. The half-sandwich barely fit on the diagonal. It would later make a savory supper for both of us, with an extra layer of yellow mustard to perk up the moisture.

While we enjoyed our sandwiches and tasted the Iron Beer, a Havana-local root beer with a pleasant notes of cinnamon and island spices, the restaurant filled up with others looking for a cool haven from the heat, and a meaty meal. We toyed for several minutes with the prospect of dessert: arroz con leche (rice pudding), or perhaps a cafe cubano with a coconut pastry on the side—but the half-Cubano stored in its to-go box argued that our appetites were fully stated.

Next time, I will order dessert first!

Rumba Cuban Kitchen

Address: 8750 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor, CA 95492
Phone: (707) 687-5632
Open: Mon—Thur, 10:30 AM—9 PM; Fri & Sat, 10:30 AM—9:30 PM (Closed Sunday)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Sideways Look at God

Review: Raising the Stones by Sheri S. Tepper

A recurring theme in Sheri Tepper’s work is the urge toward God, and the ways in which that urge motivates personal and cultural choice. This theme is blatantly obvious in Raising the Stones, Tepper’s 1990 novel in the Arbai Gates sequence.
Beside the ruined temple north of Settlement One, shallow in the soil lay Birrabat Shum. Shallow he lay, with fragments of roots and crumbs of leaves on his eyes…

Like Grass, which preceded it, and which I reviewed in December 2014, this novel is set on a human-settled world which already hosts a native life-form. The Owlbrit are already declining when humans arrive, and they soon die out, leaving behind their curiously shaped temples, one of which still boasts a sparkling, stony Owlbrit “god”. Some time after this, after the human settlements are already well-established, this remnant of Owlbrit life mysteriously dies.
Shallow under the soil, near the temple at Settlement One, straight fibers ramified into feathers, and the feather into lace, which reached beneath the houses and the storage yards, beneath the settlement buildings, beneath the old temples, out toward open country in a tenuous cottony web which enclosed in its fibrous reticulation all the land from the temples north of the community to the fields in the south…

Sam Girat, the Topman of Settlement One, is a genially efficient manager, capable and brave, but he’s not prepared for what happens next. The children of Settlement One set out to restore an older temple in the Owlbrit style, not as a religious practice, but “as a way, a convenience, a kindness.” Mysteriously, they acquire a new god to raise in the restored temple. Like his predecessor, the god Birrabat is a hard fibrous mass with evanescent sparkles running along just under the surface. Perhaps this god-stone is blasphemous, but Settlement One is suddenly running very well indeed, so the adults decide to let it go.

And the children prove to be very apt missionaries for their fibrous god. Elderly settlers, near death, are recruited to “lie shallow under the soil,” to be resurrected as helpful, intrusive Hobb’s Land gods. Gradually, this beneficently quiet infection spreads to fill the world. Everywhere the god-stones are raised, people are kinder to each other, readier to help, more attuned to each other’s needs.

But the infection has been noticed—unfortunately, by the Baidee, a culture that is obsessively opposed to “letting anyone mess with their heads.” This ukase from the mysterious Prophetess1 Morgori Oestrydingh, who arrived on their world through the long-inactive Arbai Gate, has been variously interpreted to mean “don’t cut your hair,” "never accept psychiatric help," and “don’t allow anyone to change your mind.”

Sam Girat, meanwhile, has himself begun to obsess about fatherhood, a concept that is not much honored in Hobb’s Land. In seeking his own father, he has raised a stone that hides a poisonous insect. Sam becomes ensnared by the life-negating Voorstoders2, a slave-owning group on another world, Ahabar, who assert their control over the pagan Gharm. Soon it is the Gharm, one or two at a time, who lie buried “shallow beneath the soil,” ready to provide a source on Ahabar for these very helpful gods. We encounter the slimy Porsa of Ninfadel (who scarcely qualify as sapient), bubbling and offensive, like physical manifestations of the Voorstoders’ hatred.

Tepper weaves these disparate cultures together to create an astounding tapestry of choice. The Baidee speak of preserving choice, but only for themselves; they act to quarantine the infected worlds, with disastrous unintended consequences. The Voorstoders preach choice, but only once; they believe their ancient contract with the Gharm has sway on a new world, and the Gharm may not chose again. The settlers on Hobb’s Land did not chose their gods, but would not chose to let them go now. Sam Girat chose his own myths and heroes in his father’s people, and now must make a better choice.
“What will you do without your books?” she asked again, worried about him… “Write new ones, China Wilm,” he told her… “Listen to the God and write new ones.”

Whenever I read this novel, I am reminded of a quote (I believe it is Spider Robinson’s, but I apologize if I am mistaken) to the effect that “cultural imperialism means you have a tasty culture in which others would like to partake.” When politics become contentious, when people get nasty, and progress is obstructed by the Baidee and Voorstoders of our own world, I wonder if, given the choice, we would accept the Hobb’s Land gods.

I must admit, the prospect entices. When my time comes, I would volunteer to lie shallow under the soil. It would be a way, a convenience, a kindness.

Liner Notes:

  1. It took me a long while after my first reading to translate the name of the mysterious Prophetess: Marjorie Westriding, the protagonist of Grass. Many characters in the Arbai Gate novels appear in wide-spread times and places due to the transportative powers of the Gates, which play a central part in this novel. 
  2. The Voorstoders are obviously meant (in name and culture) to invoke the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. 

Patrick Henry's Choice: Liberty or Death

Quick Review of a Short Story: House of Refuge by Michael DiBaggio, Illustrated by Shell DiBaggio

The action and suspense of this tale of maritime rescue do not require the science-fiction details of the Plata Raft, seasteads, clades and states, or indeed the houses of refuge.You do not need to be familiar with the world of Ascension Epoch novels in which the house of refuge is placed.

DiBaggio has given us all we need in the opening paragraphs: a lifeboat beached on the deck of an armed and armored raft manned by a single rescue worker, Justin Agnarsson. This is South Atlantic House of Refuge #49.

Agnarsson's sole task is to be ready to signal his employers when refugees arrive from the nearby mainland of Argentina, or to assist nearby seasteads when they are damaged by storms or battles with other seasteaders. The Plata Raft of local boats housing people who live at sea is presented, but not explained. It doesn't need to be, because this story concerns Agnarsson and the two refugees from the lifeboat, father and daughter, who may not be victims, but combatants in the war on the mainland.
To violate a house of refuge was a grave crime under both treaties and customary law. It was an act of piracy, rendering one a hostis humani generis—an enemy of humanity—and inviting the most severe retribution that no flag or writ would shield one from.

The Argentine gunboat FuribundoFurious, or quite literally, "rage-filled"—that approaches with a demand for the surrender of these two "war criminals" poses a challenge Agnarsson thus did not expect, and he must decide how to respond. His choice is valiant and deeply principled:
This isn't just about the here and now! It's about every man, woman, and child who will ever set foot on a refuge, every innocent huddled in a camp or hiding in their home! This is about civilization itself. I won't give that away, not in the face of all the bombs and guns on the planet!

At 66 pages, the illustrated version is an easy purchase at 99¢. It's a wonderful story that made me hungry to read more of the Ascension Epoch novels.

Full Disclosure: 

I read this short story in an anthology titled Imagining Liberty, after I learned the Kindle book was free on Amazon. House of Refuge was the second-place winner in this contest collection from the 2014 Libertarian Fiction Authors/Students for Liberty Short Fiction Contest. While it doesn't have the illustrations Shell did for the stand-alone version, Imagining Liberty does include nine other stories of liberty and free choice.

Of Cults, Koolaid, and Post-Apocalypse Communities

Review: New Charity Blues by Camille Griep

This novel opens on a post-apocalyptic City where SpaghettiOs and canned tuna are eaten cold in the dark—or by the light of a candle—and where books are just easy fuel for a fireplace. A world where 90% of the city's populace has perished from a plague. One in which people routinely die from simpler infections that might have been cured had the medicines survived the death of refrigeration.

But this is also a world in which a nearby rural community, New Charity, has most of the region's water impounded behind their dam. They have plenty of electric power and a suspicious immunity to the plague.

Griep has added a potpourri of extrasensory talents to her tale of two communities dealing with the plague. Dwellers in New Charity routinely call music from the air, push plows and build dams with earth magic, cast fire from nothing, or boost the speed of racehorses by lending them air magic. At least they once did, before Cressyda left for the city to attend ballet school. Now, she would be barred from returning to the power-rich New Charity, except that she does have immunity, and she inherits a ranch from her late father, who had remained behind.

Cressyda (Syd) takes her late mother's Cressida (Toyota) back to the town above the dam, determined to release the water and power for the benefit of the city. But when she arrives, she finds a community that has surrendered power to its religious leader, and a dam and power station that is carefully guarded against seizure or diversion. She is drawn into the community like a Trojan Horse, holding the seeds of its destruction within her.

Speaking of which, if you're not prepared for it, the growing resemblances to the tale of the siege of Troy can be disturbing. Names that are given as nicknames early in the story are revealed as short versions of the Greek and Trojan names we are familiar with. By the time you get to a famous sculpture being dragged within the gates of the besieged community, well... 

I almost put the book down when I reached that point. I'm glad now that I didn't. There is a less-distant echo from history in this tale, one that tastes slightly of grape Koolaid, and smells of a Guyanese jungle—and ever so faintly, of cyanide.

Liner Notes:

Another novel that drew, obviously and openly, from the tale of the Greek siege of Troy in Homer's Iliad, is Sherri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country. This was one of the first books I bought in Kindle format, because I re-read it at least once a year. Where Griep's novel is focused on the actions of the soldiers in this war between communities, Tepper's concentrates on the women who raise such soldiers, and their reluctance (mild word!) to surrender their son's lives to be wasted on the battlefield.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Gender-Fight at the OK Corral

Review: Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams

I recently watched again the Kevin Costner depiction of the young Wyatt Earp, backed up by Randy Quaid as the alcoholic Doc Holliday. 

There's Kurt Russell's offering of the remorselessly-ethical lawman in Tombstonealthough I thought he and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday were miscast in each other's roles. 

I also think of Burt Lancaster's seminal portrayal of Earp and Kirk Douglas' nuanced Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral. (For the younger viewers, that's the version with Star Trek's "Bones," DeForrest Kelly, as Wyatt's brother Morgan.)

But all those popular outings of the Earp-versus-Clanton shoot-out that famously left Wyatt Earp "the last man standing" are focused on the men. Josephine Marcus, the mail-order bride of Sheriff John Behan who wound up as the mistress, and then the wife, of Wyatt Earp instead, barely appears in Tombstone, the single film of the three that includes her.

Thelma Adams sets the record to rights with this wonderful novelization of the famous gunfight from the point of view of Wyatt Earp's second wife. 

She begins with Josephine Sarah Marcus as the wild-child daughter of a Jewish baker in San Francisco, waiting impatiently for the summons to join her fiance John Behan in Arizona. She had met the handsome fellow while touring with the Florodora-like Pinafore dance troupe the previous year. The teenage runaway fell in love with the face and charm of Behan, hired to escort the ladies and protect them from their unruly audiences.

Behan persuaded her to return home until he sent for her, promising her that he would do so as soon as he secured the position of Sheriff in Tombstone. Josephine was thrilled by her fantasy Western lawman, and eager to escape from the fate of a good Jewish daughter, to marry as her parents direct. Her mother was, if not resigned to the match, at least reassured by the bride-groom's prestigious position in a Western city.

Little did Josephine or her mother know; Tombstone at the time she met Behan was little more than tents and wild miners, a camp still divided between Blue and Grey five years after the close of Civil War hostilities in the civilized East. Josephine does not know for certain, but comes to suspect during the three-day trip from the city to Tombstone, that her chaperone from San Francisco, Kitty, may have once been her fiance's mistress. Further, her erstwhile groom is having second thoughts about marriage, and sees his Sheriff's position as a golden ticket to bribes and kickbacks. 

And as Josephine steps out of the stage in Tombstone just twelve months before the shoot-out, she will encounter the real deal: an upright straight-shooting fellow (in both senses of the phrase) who will capture her heart.

Adams' novel gives us a real sense of the West, and a concept of the hard lives of its women. Marcus herself is shown as a courageous and inventive person, willing to risk everything—twice—for the desire of her heart. She is also shown to be a worthy partner to the legendary Earp. In this, Wyatt Earp's own words might well serve for his wife of fifty years:
"We know the truth, but we believe in the legend." —Wyatt Earp, My Fight at O.K. Corral

Sometimes Cause Is More Important than Effect

Review: Why Things Break by Mark Eberhart

In this delightful treatise, materials theorist Eberhart explores the whys of the ways in which materials fail. This is not like the engineering question, "what cross-sectional area of substance x is required to sustain stresses of force y for a time period of z, under given environmental conditions." Eberhart explains:
...I usually say, "I am a quantum chemist"...  [T]o have fun, however, I say, "My research is concerned with the study of why things break." Usually a look of satisfaction appears on the questioner's eyes as he says, "Oh, so you are a mechanical engineer...." Now the fun begins, as I say, "No, I study why things break, not when."

Eberhart's decision to go into the field of quantum chemistry rose out of a childhood fascination with cracks and fractures in his marble collection. Why, he wondered, were the marbles that actually entered play so ugly and pitted? Why was the beautifully crazed baked marble (a fad when he was a child) so fragile? At college in Colorado, Eberhart lost his skis to a fracture and his Kevlar kayak to disastrous delamination in a single season, and this solidified his decision to change schools.
Did you know—
It took more than an iceberg to sink the Titanic.
The Challenger disaster was predicted.
Unbreakable glass dinnerware had its origin in railroad lanterns.
A football team cannot lose momentum.
Mercury thermometers are prohibited on airplanes for a crucial reason.
Kryptonite bicycle locks are easily broken.—from the publisher's product description.

At MIT, Eberhart would delve into the basic causes for fracture, working with Nobel-level luminaries in the new field of quantum chemistry—because we know more about what happens after materials break than we do about what happens just before they fracture. These studies would examine such disparate topics as why beating bronze and copper hardens them, why Japanese samurai swords could be hard on the edge and flexible in the shaft, what adding carbon to iron does that makes steel both harder and less brittle than wrought iron, and why the Titanic failed despite a design that should have made her able to stay afloat after the collision.
Graphite is made from carbon atoms tightly bound together into two-dimensional sheets; these sheets are then loosely bound together to form a two-dimensional crystal... graphite is said to be anisotropic, meaning it has very different properties depending on the direction in which it is "cut." When pulled in a direction that lies in the carbon sheets, graphite is very strong, making it an ideal substance from which to make tennis rackets, golf clubs and bicycles. At the other extreme, graphite is used as a lubricant because the weakly-bound sheets of atoms shear so easily.

Mark Eberhart also explores the toughness of materials, looking at where the energy of fracture goes when something breaks, at the historical quest for tougher, more-resilient materials, and the way entire scientific philosophies have grown around (and been broken by) discoveries of tougher substances. Along the way, he explains several puzzling catastrophes (the Challenger disaster and the in-flight fracture of an Aloha Airlines plane among them), and gives us some solid cause for worry whenever a man-made structure is used in a new or radically-extended way (as with hundreds-of-miles-long oil pipelines or bungee-jumping stunts.)

Eberhart makes this exploration almost painless, except the winces we share as we read of someone else's painful discovery. (The tale of a five-man bungee jump that drastically overloaded the tensile strength of the cable comes to mind.) Ranging from atomic-physics concepts to the studied attempt to break a Corelle dinner plate, this book is delightful, enlightening, and very intriguing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Fish that Changed the World

Review: Cod by Mark Kurlansky

Cod in Viking Greenland and Imperial Rome and Basque Nova Scotia. Fishing for cod and gutting cod and salting cod and cooking cod. Eggs and hatchlings and adult cod. Cod and slavery; cod and the Spanish Armada; cod and the decline of the Grand Banks fisheries. 

Once again, as with Salt, Mark Kurlansky has written a tightly-focused history of a single commodity, revealing the whole world through this fish-eye lens. He begins with the mysterious medieval source of the codfish, from fishing vessels of an equally mysterious people, the Basque. 

Cod was sometimes caught closer to the Continent, but never in such vast numbers as the Basque supplied.
Catholicism gave the Basques their great opportunity. The medieval church imposed fast days in which sexual intercourse and the eating of flesh were forbidden, but eating "cold foods" was permitted... In total, meat was forbidden for almost half the days of the year, and those lean days became salt cod days...The Basques were getting richer every Friday. But where was all this cod coming from? The Basques, who had never even said where they came from, kept their secret.

To follow the Basque to their secret source of cod became a goal of money-seeking adventurers. In 1475, following the successful attempt by the Hanseatic League to cut Bristol off from Icelandic cod, Thomas Croft went into partnership with John Jay to find the island in the Atlantic called Hy-Brasil, believed to be the source of Basque cod. They found enough (although they never revealed where) to leave them uninterested when the Hanseatics tried to negotiate to reopen the Iceland trade with Bristol in 1490. Interestingly, their cod
...arrived in Bristol dried, and drying cannot be done on a ship deck.... a letter has recently been discovered...sent to Christopher Columbus, a decade after the Croft affair in Bristol... [The letter] alleged that [Columbus] knew perfectly well they had been to America already... Fishermen were keeping their secrets, while explorers were telling the world.

Not to miss this point, Kurlansky cites two other explorers who "claimed" shores in the New World for various governments. John Cabot (nee Giovanni Caboto, of Genoa), claimed "New Found Land" for Henry VII, and reported as part of its wealth rocky coastlines suitable for drying the cod that teamed in its waters. When Jacques Cartier "discovered" the mouth of the St. Lawrence and claimed the Gaspé Peninsula for France, he found 1000 Basque fishing vessels already there.
But the Basques, wanting to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anyone.

In the second part of the book, Limits, Kurlansky explores how the population of this fish, once so teeming that its supply was thought to be inexhaustible, could have collapsed so drastically. In 1873, Alexandre Dumas could write: "It has been calculated that if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs and each egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so that you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod." Cod were known to be amazing prolific. A female codfish of "middling size" (which in the mid-1800s would be over two feet long) might contain 8 or 9 million eggs. How could such a numerous, prolific animal fail to sustain its numbers?

Interspersed throughout the text are recipes for cod, from Roman and Old English times to present-day. An entire section, The Cook's Tale, contains "Six Centuries of Cod Recipes". Kurlansky finishes well, with an extensive bibliography and index.

This is a fascinating look at a world history driven by cod. I recommend it for a cold winter evening by the fire, with a glass of port and a dish of Jamaican Stomp-and-Go close to hand.

Mix 1 pound flour with water until it is thin
Add 1/2 pound soaked, broiled and crumbled salt cod.
Beat in 2 eggs.
Add a little baking powder, sautéed onions, scallion, thyme.
Mix together
Drop spoonsful in hot oil.
—Alphonso MacLean, Terra Nova Hotel, Kingston

Religious Regimes, Repression, and Revolt (The Alteration)

Review: The Alteration by Kingsley Amis

Possibly the most disturbing in my recent trio of religious-tyranny-themed science-fiction novels, Amis' novel of an English choirboy faced with castration to preserve his soprano voice shows the expertise he developed writing earlier works like Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, The Anti-Death League, and The Green Man.

His alternate-history scenario has as its diversion-point the elevation of a certain German cleric to the See of Rome: Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I, and the Protestant Reformation never happened. Amis doesn't tell us, he slips it into a conversation between two agents of the English Inquisition's Holy Office: Monsignors Henricus and Laurentius.

Or, to give them their childhood names, Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria.

As in Keith Robert's Pavane, the result is a Catholic Church with a potent reach over almost the entire Western world, and a 1970s English culture that feels strangely medieval. A "heretical" reformation that happened in the American colonies 125 years before is a distant and taboo topic of whispers among the Chapel music students, shared after lights-out in the dormitory with the same guilty pleasure as rumors of "science" (another taboo), and their "Counterfeit World" and "Time Romance" (science fiction and alternate history) novels.

Hubert and his family struggle with the prospect of his "invitation" to join the ranks of castrati. Counseling him to decline are his school chums, his mother, his composing teacher, and an intriguing American family at that country's embassy in London. An altered man they meet in Rome tries to convince Hubert's father to withhold permission. But the appeal of the change is strong; as an altered singer, Hubert can expect to command great fortune and temporal power to replace his manhood.

The strongest voice against the change comes from within Hubert himself. A growing attraction to the American ambassador's unruly daughter, and a chance observation of a stable-hand's encounter with a serving girl give him a new perspective on the cost of future fame.

Gripping action, subtle humor and a keen eye for the persistence of human faults in any society give this tale extra strength. There's a reason it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel in 1977.

Liner Notes:

  1. I was pleased to find a couple of "TR" novels named in the schoolboys' illicit library: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and a Keith Roberts novel named Galliard. The Dick story is not the one we know about a Nazi victory in WWII (which conflict never happened in the world of The Alteration), but instead is a strangely-real account of an England in which "the Holy Victory never happened," and thus Henry VIII's reign eventually produced a culture with science, electrical devices and flying cars. "There are always flying cars," scoffs one of Hubert's school chums.
  2. My advice: skip the Introduction by William Gibson to avoid spoilers, but read it after you finish the novel. Gibson makes some excellent points about the more-disturbing elements of Amis' counter-factual world.
  3. Amis richly lards his novel with details: Mozart survived to write well into middle-age, as did Shelley and Blake. Shakespeare's works were suppressed, but some of the stories survived, notably Hamlet.(as "The Spanish Tragedy" by Kyd). Well-known politicians and philosophers of 1970s English life have cameos, often in wildly ironic roles.  
  4. Watch for the moment when Hubert's feelings about America change. It's shattering.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Religious Regimes, Repression, and Revolt (Pavane)

Review: Pavane by Keith Roberts

The title2 is a brilliant reflection of the diversion-point from reality for this alternate-history novel. This is the twentieth century of a world in which Queen Elizabeth—Good Queen Bess, the daughter of Harry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn—was assassinated before her reign could fairly begin. With the English Queen dead, Catholic Phillip brought his armada from Spain to conquer England in the wake of the chaos that followed. 

The Anglican church was suppressed; the Catholic Church is a major political power in the world, and industry is organized to serve the purposes of evangelism first.

The story is told from the point-of-view of several characters, one for each "measure," whose lives converge. Each of the measures can be read as a stand-alone story, but together they form a serious examination of the consequences of religious-ruled society in which internal combustion engines were until very recently banned as the work of the Devil, electricity is still under the Papal ban, and everyone tithes to the Vatican on pain of death.

Jesse Strange would be an industrialist in real, Protestant England; in this alternate Catholic land, his haulage engines are strange locomotive/truck hybrids, and the non-Church focus of his business puts him on the fringe of society. "The Lady Margaret" is the name of his locomotive, the title of his measure, and a clue to his unrequited love for Margaret the barmaid. 

In "The Signaller," Rafe is a fortunate youngster whose obsession over the signal towers that form the single non-Church power network in England is rewarded when a childless officer in the Signaller Guild "adopts" him into the Guild. His luck vanishes when his first solo assignment runs afoul of the Church's ancient opponent in England. This measure is the most mystical and fantastical of the six.

In "The White Boat," a naive Poole Harbor girl named Becky makes an assumption about her options. She can stay in her southern coast village, which is already under suspicion because of an unexplained incident with a mad monk named John in her father's time, or she can swim out to the ship she sees off-shore, and escape her rural fate. Alas, the white boat is no innocent craft, but a smuggler's vessel from Bermuda. Its cargo is strange indeed.

"Brother John" is a relatively happy lithographer-artist, serving his city monastery print shop until his cheerful industrial service to God is overturned by a command session as illustrator for the Office of the Inquisition. Haunted by the memory, he rejects the Church and begins to preach the need for reform throughout Southern England. 

In "Lords and Ladies," Margaret Strange toys with a wealthy young man whose world is alien to hers. Her heritage as a hauler's child (daughter of Margaret the barmaid and Jesse Strange's brother) bars her from consideration as wife of the heir to Corfe Gate, the south-coast castle. But her confidence as heir to the Strange Haulage empire gives her an advantage the "ladies" of the castle do not have.

The final measure, "Corfe Gate," ties together the threads of reform that are woven through the first five stories, as the Church clashes with a revolt they themselves have fueled with punitive tithes and Inquisitorial torments. The spirits of Brother John, Jesse Strange, and Signaller Rafe are all evoked in the battle for religious freedom in England.

The world of Pavane is rich, strange and familiar by turns. If it feels medieval, this is perhaps a natural result of centuries of involvement by the Catholic Church in every facet of civil life, and the anti-science focus the Church's power has taken. 

Liner Notes:

  1. I found the "Coda" (actually an epilogue named in the same dance-piece theme as the "measures") a let-down after the growing power of the Pavane's measures. It is worth reading it to see the direction the author intended for his tale, but it comes off as an afterthought. 
  2. Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess was described by the composer as "a wistful daydream of something a sixteenth-century Spanish princess might have danced to," rather than a dirge or funeral piece. Ravel often complained that too many pianists played his pavane too slowly. The link connects to his own performance.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Religious Regimes, Repression, and Revolt (The Punishments)

Review: The Punishments by J.B. Winsor

When I got the opportunity to receive a free copy of The Punishments from J.B. Winsor in exchange for a fair and honest review, I told the author that "I read a lot of dystopian fiction, some YA and some aimed at adults, so I doubt if it's too dark for me. However, I may BE one of those single-minded wackos Tom [another reviewer] mentioned..."

I don't know if I'm the same type of wacko Tom meant, but it was difficult for me to enjoy the novel. It wasn't the dark nature of the story (although public beheadings and torture, star-chamber arrests and executions, and a unilateral revision of the U.S. Constitution are plenty dark), but shortcuts in the story action, and the simplistic good/evil nature of the main characters that kept breaking my involvement.

Not to mention multiple grammatical and punctuation errors. I'm sorry, when it's consistent, it cannot be labeled a "typo."

But let's set that aside, and talk about the theme, which took over my reading list in an unexpected way last month: Religious regimes in science fiction. In The Punishments, the opposed main characters are both Republican politicians. The villain is the head of a new cabinet-level department, Virtue, Reverend John. The hero is Senator William Thatcher, a Christian with a wife who had served as a lawyer for Planned Parenthood until the election of an ultra-right Christian President brought the rule of Religion to replace the Bill of Rights in America.

Within the first few pages of the novel, Thatcher sees another senator, one who had voted for his bill opposing the imposition of Biblical law, gassed in a "routine security test." He then watches as a new figure atop the Capitol is unveiled:
In 1863 former slaves hoisted the 15,000-pound, 19-foot-tall Statue of Freedom to the top of the Capitol Dome. Last week, in the secrecy of night, Virtue removed Freedom. ... [Its replacement, t]he neo-cross was fifteen feet higher than the cupola: the spiritual symbol taller than its temporal base. Its pointed base was a dagger about to thrust into the Capitol Building...

One of the tenets of science fiction is to take your "what-if" scenario, and begin describing it, then share as the story proceeds the way it began, or how it was permitted to happen. Winsor has avoided the dreaded narrative explanation by simply ignoring it. We are given one or two clues, but—and this is an important reason why the story could not engage me—Winsor assumes that the reader shares his interpretation of current real events as a causative path for the resultant future he envisions. I don't. 

Further, I can't accept the characters he describes as real. Most of the minor characters are outright stereotypes, and the "good" Republicans don't resemble anyone so much as Democrats. It also doesn't help that Bill-of-Rights abrogations in the present day are more commonly supported or urged by Democrats than by Republicans. (The Patriot Act of 2001 is the main exception, and a proposal to extend its powers failed last week in the majority-Republican House.)

On the other hand, the story as a horror novelexempt from science fiction's rules of creating an alternate realitywas engrossing and thrilling. For that reason, I gave it back one of the stars I had taken away for the reasons listed above. Read it for the fictional chills this tale has in abundance, but don't expect too much in the way of political prediction.

Liner Notes:

  1. A better bet for a chilling prediction of religion driving repression in a civil regime is Tom Kratman's Caliphate, which I reviewed in September 2015.
  2. The casual horror of everyday life in Winsor's America kept reminding me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. While not about a religious political regime per se, its vision of the future society shares a similar repression of alternate sexual mores and other faiths.