Friday, September 30, 2016

Home Among the Ruins

Review: Quantum Law: Resettlement by Eduardo Suastegui

The second installment of Suastegui's new series dealing with artificially-intelligent quantum law computers and the society man has surrendered to their rule opens with the human/synthetic-hybrid law partners Jerry Simmons and Ace defending yet another low-life criminal who makes his living in the crevices between government and governed.

This miscreant will be difficult for them to defend; like present-day vandals who post video records of their hooliganism, he made a quantum recording of his break-and-enter burglary. The case offers a quick decision for the ever-efficient computer court.

But even as they search for grounds for leniency in this case, the quantum-law partners find themselves buried in the task of validating claims on land in Los Angeles. Prime real estate in the dressier parts of the city has been rebuilt at last, and people who owned it at the time of the Crisis—the same one that left their government in the digital hands of the Quantum Law computers—want to come home. They want to reclaim the property they were forced to abandon.

It'll take more than a claim of residence, though, and the partners have to balance grey areas of human motivation and political maneuvering against the black-and-white, cut-and-dried judgement of the machines. And the hybrids. And the Hive in Big Bear.

Following close on the legal and moral chicanery of Quantum Law: Containment (which I reviewed in August 2016), this novel takes Jerry to an even darker place. Can he trust his partner? Can he trust his ex? Can he even trust himself?

Once again, Suastegui has woven a tricky trap from the moral questions that rise from trusting our governance to a machine. Quantum or political.

Woman's Work, Circa 1915

Review: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

Constance Kopp was an unusual woman for her time. Faced with harassment from a local factory owner, she did not wait for men to come to her defense; she armed herself to defend her rural New Jersey farm and her sisters from the man and his criminal associates.

Amy Stewart excels at presenting true tales in an enjoyable way. Wicked Plants and The Drunken Botanist are examples drawn from her gardens. The novels—yes, there's a second out already, and eventually "maybe as many as 10 novels...," according to the author—rise from learning about the Kopp sisters while she was researching The Drunken Botanist.

Stewart's path to discovery would mean searching reels of microfilm and boxes of old newsprint, photos and documents to find the bare bones of the tale. Fleshing out the skeletal truth to create the fictionalized novel was a job peculiarly suited to her, considering the whimsical and fantastic The Last Bookstore in America. In that all-fictional account, Stewart took real-life experience in her bookstore and local knowledge of stoner culture in Humboldt County, and parlayed it into an entertaining tale of battling diminishing book sales in the age of the Kindle. (Ironically, the novel is still only available as an eBook, making it the only book of Stewart's that I do not possess in a signed version.)

In Girl Waits With Gun, we learn Constance Kopp's back-story. How did she become a woman capable of hunting through the seedier sides of the city, in an age when respectable women even entered a hotel by a separate door to avoid the appearance of impropriety? What gave her the courage to stand up against a man whom many men feared?

Her story is fascinating, not least because of the ways our lives have changed in such a brief time. Women in this time did not votewere not even citizens in a legal senseand were restricted to a tiny range of jobs outside the home. And yet here was a woman who ignored the mores and conventions of the day and found a way to do what she needed.

Brava, Constance! And brava, Amy Stewart! I can't wait to begin Lady Kopp Makes Trouble, the next episode in the lives of the daring Kopp sisters.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mood, Music, and Perfect Puzzles: Obduction

Image from Flinti Game Walkthrough: Scrapyard Cash Register Puzzle

Third Review, No Spoilers: Obduction by Cyan

Four worlds—well, five, if you count Earth. Three alien species. Dozens of mental puzzles, hundreds of physical conundrums, and several numeric problems to solve. 

You've got help. Sort of. There's a curmudgeon named Cecil who has some clues to offer, but mostly wants you to connect a cable to his battery. Little blue wisps of light guide you through the maze of possible paths. Notes, ledgers and journals provide hints. But it is up to you to explore, try things, and figure out what's really important here—and what is dangerous!

Four trees, and lots of powerful seeds. These seeds swap things; they grab people (and machines) from one world and move them to another, swap chunks of landscape around, collect specimens from one universe and dump them somewhere else. We need to keep the trees healthy, and control those seeds.

Idle machinery, some of it totally alien, and scarcely a clue how to get it working. You know you need it running, because you're stuck in a dead-end without the elevators, trolleys, and other motor-driven equipment that sits there, waiting for power. Or the right code to turn it on. Or another machine running first.

Mysterious noises and music help set the mood, like Farley's Theme, or the Mayor's pompous ceremonial march. Thrums and clinks of machinery, rumbles of thunder—maybe—or perhaps it's a bird. Or a frog. Or an alien bug. You can't tell until you get there, and most of the doors are locked.

Everything twists and turns; everything is connected, or it isn't. You don't know until you try, and then go away and think about what worked, what didn't, and what you know so far. These are the moody mental puzzles we loved from Myst and Riven, multi-sensory like the real world, requiring intellectual dexterity, memory, and persistence to solve them. You can't shoot your way through (with one or two exceptions!), and you can't muscle your way past them. You can only think, and ponder, and keep trying.

Get carried away. Obduction will do it to you.

Liner Notes:

  1. I've noted in a previous review of this game that you may need to drop resolution and features in return for speed of game play. There are many YouTube videos of Obduction game play that will allow you to view those high-res images you've traded for quicker play. One of the best is from Flinti, who tells you in the title image for each video which puzzle he's solving. Yes, you can peek ahead if you get totally frustrated, but I use them to watch a hi-res play-through for the ones I've already solved. Flinti shares his thought processes as he solves them, too, which is an additional value to the player.
  2. My second review noted crashes or halts in the game, as well as super-long loads for transition screens. Much of this has been amended by game updates. Initial load time is still far too long.
  3. Proportional sizing of windows, I now find, is automatic when you select the window frame size (if you also have the Appear in Window Frame option selected.) Some images, text in particular, still black out at the bottom, even when the proportions are handled automatically. This may be a memory/loading problem.
  4. Screen grabs are a feature, but appear to only be viewable from inside the game.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Stardom in the Blood and Bone

Review: The Golden Globe by John Varley

The life of an itinerant actor stumping from village to town, dreaming of his own theatre in the big city translates well to space travel when John Varley writes it. His brilliant poly-named polymorphic main character is sometimes star and sometimes hobo, sometimes leading man (or leading lady) but more often bit player or street performer. 

"Sparky," "Dodger," and formally, "K.C.Valentine," is how he refers to himself in his reminiscences. This tale is told almost entirely in first person, so we learn from those around him that he doesn't share his real name—or face—with anyone except his two constant sidekicks, Toby and Elwood.

Since Toby is a dog, and Elwood stays out of sight of everyone except Valentine, they aren't giving away his secrets.

So Valentine stays one step ahead of whatever bête noire chases him, equally ready to ride the twenty-second century equivalent of the rails as to travel in splendor on a luxury cruise line. He must adapt, chameleon-like, to each new community's standards, and adroit with a bribe as he moves from world to world, for:
...the more bureaucrats there are, the more laws are needed to keep them fed.

By contrast, when he sleeps we hear from the troubled soul of this mountebank. We learn of his courage in the face of an abusive father and troubled childhood. And we begin to see why Valentine is determined to "play Lear," to build a grand Shakespearean theater in the asteroid belt.
...we didn’t have to play Shakespeare in free fall, as we’d done at Boondocks and several previous engagements. Friends, Romans, countrymen, throw me a tie-down! Talk about your theater in the round.

This novel has a daunting physical and emotional scope, yet even so, the story does not feel heavy-handed. Valentine copes with the great talent and low support life has given him, and with the assistance of Toby and Elwood, stays as close to sane and happy as most men come. The tale ranges from high drama to low humor1; it was never more clear that Shakespeare was right:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts... —As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII 

Liner Notes:

  1. An example: Toby is quite the ladies’ man. I’d seen him, with more optimism than common sense, mooning over a Great Dane bitch he’d need a stepladder just to sniff. Sure, you can write that off to high hopes. But the amazing thing was, the bitch was looking really interested.
  2. The creator of Valentine's nightmare, DAEWOO, is a real, currently-existing company. I can't say more (it would be a spoiler), but this was just another element that seasoned the novel with real spice.  

Living Under the Knife

Review: Los Angeles Against the Mountains (from The Control of Nature) by John McPhee

Pulitzer Prize winning author John McPhee writes with a style informed by the journalist he was and the sciences he has explored for decades. When you read a piece by McPhee, you hear honest echoes of the people and places and concepts he explores.

I just re-read a favorite McPhee essay, Los Angeles Against the Mountains from The Control of Nature. Perhaps because when I first read it I was living near the "over-steepened slopes" of the San Gabriel Mountains, I remember a distinct frisson upon learning about their tendency to spawn killer debris flows, a little-advertised regional problem.
The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city.

The source material for such a multi-ton flow builds up over decades, but needs a specific set of triggering conditions to mobilize it. It might take additional years for such conditions to be met—which makes this a genuine problem in a place where even last week is ancient history. Without realizing the danger, developers, realtors, home buyers, and other newcomers to the area are often led to occupy hazardous properties. 
People have been buried alive in their beds. But such cases are infrequent. Debris flows generally are much less destructive of life than of property. People get out of the way.

The good news, as they say, is that 30, even 50, years may go by without a killer debris flow. 

The bad news is that when it does come, you can't outrun it. And everything it sweeps past (or over) is plucked up and added to the tonnage of the flow: cars, refrigerators, garden sheds, iron gates. Los Angeles has tried to control these flows by trenching debris basins above the built-up areas. Emptying them periodically—theoretically, anywayserves to trap future flows before they can sweep through residential areas and businesses. 
A private operator has set up a sand-and-gravel quarry in the reservoir. Almost exactly, he takes out what the mountains put in.

And it would work, too, except that people keep building new houses above the elevation of the basins, along picturesque creeks below the mountain skyline. 

Right in the path of the next debris flow.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Surfing the Ozone

Quick Review: Fluke (Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings) by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore has tapped into the weird and wonderful in every book, and this is no exception. From middle-aged "action nerd" Nate Quinn with his angst over and attraction to nubile research assistant Amy, the joyously strange blond Rasta stoner Kona (né Preston Applebaum), and marine photographer Clay and his "pirate booty" girlfriend Claire, Moore has woven another sleigh-ride through the land of odd. 

Nate is in Maui researching whale behavior, specifically, why humpback whales sing. (Hence the subtitle.)

[M]uch about the humpback song is still unknown. Although scientists do know it tends to be in the New Age music section, as well as in tropical waters. There is no reasonable explanation for this, but as of yet no tagged humpbacks have been tracked to the New Age section at Sam Goody's. Author's Notes

So what is Nate supposed to think when he spots a humpback male whose flukes sport the legend "Bite Me"? Someone is so threatened by his research that they trash his office, format his hard drives, sink Clay's boat and cause his only photo of the fluke graffiti to vanish. And why does the Old Broad who provides his funding insist he needs to take a pastrami sandwich with hot mustard along on his next dive?  Kona's profound reasoning channels Arthur C. Clarke:
The science you don't know looks like magic.

If you haven't run into Moore before, be warned! Nothing is sacred, everything is fair game for his humor. I guarantee you'll howl over the tale of why Nate's ex-wife became a lesbian. It's not what you expect; in fact, it's nothing you can expect. Just strap in for the ride.

Liner Note:

  • The last time I was taken over the edge so uncontrollably was when I read the turkey-bowling scene in Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tyranny and Intolerance

Review: The Obsession by Kim Chermin

This is a profoundly disturbing treatise, superficially about the fashion of women’s bodies—but at its base, the obsession about which Chernin writes is for power over the minds of women and men.
…I recalled the faces of women who had recently lost weight. The haggard look, the lines of strain around the mouth, the neck too lean, the tendons visible, the head too large for the emaciated body. I began to reason… There must be, I said, for every woman a correct weight, which cannot be discovered with reference to a chart or to any statistical norm…

Chernin’s approach to this obsession is feminist, to be sure, because she is discussing the seizure of power underlying the focus on size. On the way, however, she uncovers some truths that are equally applicable to diet-obsessed modern men.
  • 90% to 98% of dieters eventually gain back all the weight they lost—and more
  • This recidivism leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing over loss of control—both of which are emotional states conducive to weight gain, creating a feedback loop
  • Samoan women, accepted by their society as beautiful at heavy weights and large sizes, rarely exhibit the hypertension “caused” by lower levels of obesity in women whose societies reject them for being fat

Wonder Womannot Wonder Girl-Child!
Along the way, Chernin speculates about a number of things that may be related to the current obsession over weight. Chinese foot-binding, for instance, is reeled into the discussion, along with 19th-century corsetry and modern-day plastic surgery. And if there is a vast conspiracy to make women unhappy with their natural bodies, it is one willingly entered into by women themselves: if hundreds of thousands of women have their breasts enlarged, more will have their breasts reduced, their thighs sucked slimmer and tummies tucked in the endless battle with fat.

Why would women conspire against their own natures? Chernin lays this issue firmly in the woman’s own desire to meet a shifting ideal, and in the urge to retain youth. Pre-pubescent lack of body fat and slender shape is the current fashion. In other words, women are trying to be girls at an age when they were non-sexual. (It is in reasoning about why men would want girlish women that Chernin is most feminist; she believes men are subtly jealous of the woman’s generative ability, her womb, and thus seek to keep women in a physical state that belies this power.)

Certainly a man is allowed a greater latitude of size by society than are women, as long as that mass is well distributed. Let his belly sag, though, or breasts form, and he will become an object of ridicule no less than the oversize woman. For men, the ideal also seems to be the adolescent formbut for the zenith of male sexuality, post-puberty, when hormones are at their peak. Men are meant to respond to their lustful impulses, says this cultural norm, while women are meant to show their purity by being physically unable to respond to them.

There are, in addition, puritanical impulses that support the fashion for slenderness. Lust and gluttony are both loss-of-control sins. Despite the fashion for prepubescence, the curvaceous, obviously-fertile woman is secretly an occasion of sin for the lusty; her even fatter sister is presumed to be a walking sign of her own gluttony. And even darker sins are concealed by this puritanical reaction:
I don’t think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women. [Emphasis mine.]

Again and again, Chernin asks us to look at the fat woman, with her “rounded cheeks, plump arms…, broad shoulders,… full thighs, rounded ass… of a woman made that way according to her nature, walking with head high in pride of her body, however it happened to be shaped.” We need, she insists, to see each woman as she is meant to be, ripe and full of promise, not cut her down to some Procrustean ideal.

I believe we also need to get rid of this last "tolerated intolerance." We would not condone discrimination on the basis of skin color or any of the other physical expressions of someone's life-style or innate characteristics. Why is it socially acceptable when based on size or body shape?

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Obsession That Is Obduction

Second Review: Obduction by Cyan: 5 Stars Despite Glitches and Slow Loads

After some years away, returning to your parents' home as an adult, you may find the home folks frustrating, sometimes infuriating, yet still endearing. For those of us who fell into the worlds of Myst and Riven—and never quite returned—Obduction's single-player theme of landing alone in a world filled with puzzles to solve before you can proceed feels like that.

I learned, playing Myst, to question everything, take notes, draw and revise maps, write down my questions—and any answers that I uncovered. That experience served me well in Obduction. The artwork for all these worlds is stunning, even dialed back to allow for speedier play, so it isn't hard to keep looking around as I proceed. New for this interface, though, is an optional clue that makes items I can interact with gleam slightly as I pass them. Otherwise, my only clue is an altered cursor (and that only appears if the cursor is unlocked.) 

Music and other sounds also supply sensory clues. The well-managed paths through the scenery twist and turn confusingly; you must pay attention to your shadow (if you have it turned on; this is also optional) and the shadows cast by other objects to keep yourself oriented in the landscape. Few straight lines exist, but plenty of outlooks and views provide a way to acquire a broader picture of the environment.

I started with a small window to reduce image load times, but had to abandon that for a full screen because many of the clues to solve the mystery arrive as notes or diagrams that were simply unreadable in my reduced window size. Hopping out of the game window by calling Task Manager to adjust the window size frequently left parts of the "text" images unrenderable, black. (Though this may have been due to proportion changes; the proportional sizing tool doesn't work1 to resize the window while the game is loading or running.)

And load times are ridiculously long. Several glittery "dissolve" effects take five to ten minutes to compete2 on my system. There are distracting "drops" as I move through the world of Hunrath, as bits of the "scenery" are not rendered at the same time. Riding the mine car makes these appear more frequently, even though the car's speed seems unrelated to the controls—it rather seems to be throttled down by the loading time for scenery you are passing. 

Riding the car is still simpler than progressing through the landscape using point-and-click. You can lock and unlock the cursor at will with a right-click, but every few moves, the unlocked cursor will suddenly convert from a straight-on cursor to a turn, or lock on its own to match mouse movements to the center of the screen. Lag times between command and response can make it hard to guide things with the mouse.3 When all movement is slowed by image loading, that adds to player frustration.

Yet discovering anything still is thrilling: Wow! I can throw a track switch without getting out of the cart! Hey—I can step through this opening even though I see no will-o-the-wisp guide! You feel it the first time you step through a membrane or figure out a cryptic clue and get access to a heretofore locked room.

Complex, rich in detail, frustrating and rewarding by turns, the obsession it invokes makes it deserve every one of my five stars. I'll keep playing Obduction until I unlock the final achievement, connect the final dots (or cables), and solve the last puzzle. After all, I've only worked my way through the simplest layer of the game so farand all it took was 72 hours of game play.

Liner Notes:

  1. I fell back on an old-school graphic-design trick to size my window proportionately: you lay a straight-edge diagonally from the lower-left to the upper-right corner of the window—on the monitor—then guide the resize tool from one of those corners along that "line."
  2. I learned to take my Kindle along to read while waiting for loads and dissolves to complete. I read 75% of one book just waiting for them to finish!
  3. Scenery and machinery are good matches to real-world equivalents, so some clues come from your own life experience with the world. (Priming a gas-fueled generator, for example, or maneuvering equipment with an industrial joystick.)
  4. My letter-sized notebook has 46 filled pages of notes and sketches so far. I may need two notebooks before I'm done.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Charming History, Dirty Politics

Review: Exit Lady Masham by Louis Auchincloss 

You know of John and Sarah Churchill, the Marlboroughs, although perhaps you know them primarily as the forbears of Sir Winston Churchill. You may even be aware of the stormy relationship between the Duchess of Marlborough and Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart line to reign in England. But have you heard of the Queen's chamber-woman, Abigail Hill?

Or maybe you know her better as Lady Masham, the reputed lesbian lover of the Queen.

Auchincloss wrote this novel, the first-person look at this tempestuous triangle, from the point of view of Abigail Hill, later Lady Masham. Abigail was a first cousin (cousin-german, in the parlance of the era) of Sarah Jennings Churchill. She was one of four children from a bankrupt family, and was working as a laundress when Sarah took her up to be nanny to the Churchill children.

At the time, Sarah was the intimate favorite of Princess Anne, the heir to William and Mary. Auchincloss uses Abigail's position to voice the complexities of succession in England at the time, and to foreshadow the future troubles between Sarah and Abigail. Although Abigail constantly refers to herself as "a red-nosed, brown-faced laundress," Sarah becomes jealous of her ability to talk with the Earl, John Churchill. To remove her from the house, but still take advantage of her abilities, Sarah recommends Abigail to Queen Anne as bedchamberwoman.
In a less exalted milieu I should have been considered a chambermaid, but royalty sheds dignity over the most menial tasks.

Once there, history tells us that Abigail supplanted Lady Churchill as the favorite. (Although the fact that Sarah was made Mistress of the Robes after Anne's coronation argues that she continued to be a favorite for years after the introduction of Abigail Hill.)

In the perfervid political climate of the Palace, Abigail falls into the pacifist camp of another cousin, Lord Harvey and his coterie of literary folk. She marries one of his friends, and works with Harvey and Irish activist and anti-Papist Jonathan Swift. They want Abigail to encourage the Queen to withdraw her support for the War of Spanish Succession, and for her Captain-General, the Duke of Marlborough. The first step in that campaign is the removal of Sarah from her post at court.

In Lady Masham's world, the equivalent of blogging is one's propensity to correspond. Writers collected letters (especially from the famous), and published them with their own letters, editing as they desired. Queen Anne's fear that Sarah will publish correspondence between them, edited to indicate the Queen's attraction for Sarah was "distasteful" (subtly helped along by Lady Masham), finally tips the balance.

This is a short novel, and a very charming tale of nasty political infighting and influence. That it is dedicated to Barbara Tuchman is not surprising; that it is reminiscent of much in politics today, surprisingly—is.

Potter She's Not

Review: Schooled In Magic by Christopher Nuttall

There was an explosion of magic-boarding-school (MBS) novels once J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter got going. I have a number of such series, Book 1 of, sitting on a well-stuffed fantasy bookshelf. Few of them were worth buying Book 2—if one was even produced. 

Then there's Christopher Nuttall's Emily. Yes, Emily began in a shockingly-abusive family situation, was rescued, and learned she had magical abilities. Still not a Harry Potter knock-off, though, and here's the difference: her MBS is in a different universe. Because her mother was named Destiny, 16-year-old Emily was kidnapped to be a sacrifice by a sorcerous necromancer named Shadye. 

Well, he had asked the fairies to bring him a "Child of Destiny." Ouch! (And not the only allusion or pun warped into the narrative, either.)

Rescued by another sorcerer, Emily is discovered to have magical abilities, so she is sent off to Whitehall, the aforementioned MBS, where she encounters all the typical school bullies, grim-disciplinarian teachers and sports-mad students. And magic.

Emily's really good at it, too, except Alchemy, where she can't figure out why it matters how many times she stirs a recipe. Charms is her forte, perhaps because she regards them as something like a computer program. She would be perfectly happy at Whitehall, if it weren't for two things. One is a bully named Alassa, a princess with a bad attitude, who picks on Emily and her roommate Imaiqah.

The other is an elective course in Martial Magic, in which Emily is the youngest student. Think Marine Boot Camp, with hexes and Orcs in place of push-ups and mosquitos. While Emily tries to cope with these issues, she's also striving to remember things from Earth that would help her new world. Bras, Arabic numerals, and the like. An abacus. Maybe a word processor to save her fingers from writing long essays. 

And flush toilets, definitely! In fact, all kinds of plumbing, because having magic has side-tracked technology, and non-magic users in this world—even those with money—live in medieval squalor.

The first novel in a series can sometimes be a bit scattered, as the author builds a world and populates it with people and ideas. Nuttall has done a good job of restricting his world building for this novel to the MBS, with hints of the broader world around it to come into play in later books. Emily is not perfect, and that's just right. Her nemesis Alassa isn't either, and that, too, is just right.

This promises to be a series about magic and the world that has something new to say, and says it well. I'm off to read #2: Lessons in Etiquette.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Morlocks and Millennials

My friend Joe (not his real name, of course) recently complained that his adult children had both come home to live after graduating from college. Joe wasn't 100% sure how he felt about it for either child: Jane found employment and pays him rent, her brother is "still looking."

Jane and John (not their real names, either) are not unusual; millennials have even been dubbed "the boomerang generation," with an estimated 50% of them choosing to return to the nest. The last time this statistic applied may have been pre-World War I, in an age when more Americans were rural than urban and it was a standard living arrangement for several generations of the same family to share a single dwelling.

There are plenty of economic reasons for the phenomenon. But when Joe and I discussed this, I was in the middle of reading H.G. Wells' classic novel of time travel, The Time Machine. In case you are the one person in a hundred who hasn't either read it, or (more likely) seen the movie from 1960 or the one from 2002, the basic story concerns a scientist who invents a time machine, and travels to the far future of man. There he finds a gentle, beautiful race of people who "do not toil, neither do they spin." They play all day, and sit together in a ruined hall to eat fruit they have picked that day. 

At first, the time-traveler is charmed by them, but then he realizes these lovely children are as grasshoppers: they build nothing, plant nothing, preserve nothing; they have no plans for the future. He finds their handful of long-neglected books, crumbling to dust. They ignore a drowning girl, forcing the traveler to leap into the water himself to save her. He muses:
This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay... [For] Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless.

Eventually, he discovers that the decadent Eloi are not the last humans. There is a subterranean race, the Morlocks, who continue to work in their dark tunnels while the Eloi play in the sunshine. Wells portrays the Morlocks as cunning cannibals. They live off the sweat of their brows, but also off the Eloi. The scientist-traveler finds fellowship with the Morlocks and their curiosity: they are able to see the value of the traveler's machine, and capable of reverse-engineering it, were he to leave it in their hands.

What has this to do with boomerang millennials? 

I'm a Baby-Boomer myself, as is my spouse. But I observe this puzzling cohort, children of the Me Generation. In broad generalizations and likelihoods: Their parents were more likely to be "helicopter parents" than mine. As school-children they had braces, even plastic surgery; got contact lenses rather than glasses to correct their vision, wore $50 jeans and $80 sneakers. 

They had TVs (their own TVs, in their bedrooms); they had computers at home. We walked or rode bikes or the bus until we could afford a car and its insurance (often not until college); they were dropped at the door of grade- and middle-schools by parents until old enough for a driver's license. After that, they drove a car with insurance paid for by their parents, or car-pooled with similarly-endowed friends.

They borrowed money for college, either directly from the federal government, or via a federally-guaranteed private loan. Almost all carry smart phones; they use them to play games and music, watch videos, and trade images and messages about their lives and activities. They often delay employment until they can find a job that is "fun" or "rewarding," or a company-culture that matches their own philosophy and values. 

More than half thought Bernie Sanders was an excellent choice for President this year

From my crusty perspective—stay off my lawn!—many of the millennials are Eloi. Not all, of course, because some in every generation are born Morlocks. Some will always choose to be engaged despite the effort required—especially if the alternative is to be at the mercy of a system one can neither control nor persuade. 

I don't believe these boomerang Eloi will stay children, either; sooner or later each must step out of their comfort zone and move on to the stressand rewardsof true adulthood. But Wells' observation gave me food for thought. Can we make life too pleasant for our young offspring, thus guaranteeing for them a future of permanent, unproductive victimhood?
What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Decades of Atevi and Paidhi

Review: Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh

I set about originally with a sketch—I draw—of Banichi, which actually ended up in [cover artist] Michael Whelan’s hands. Novels start all sorts of ways, and this one had been a fragment that nagged me… it was just so interesting to write that I kept going… —C.J. Cherryh, Spokane 2004.

The 10th anniversary edition of C.J. Cherryh’s brilliant Foreigner came out in 
paperback a dozen years ago now. Although I already had the original paperback edition in my library, I had reread it so many times that a replacement was in order. I bought the Kindle edition just over two decades after the initial publication, but tucked it into my TBR(ead) Collection. 

Earlier this week I noticed it there, and realized it was time to read this perennial favorite again.

Cherryh writes truly alien characters. From the atevi of this series, with their instinctive grasp of mathematics, and their Japanese-style courtesy (and the bedroom fascination some ateva have with the human paidhi), to the bear-like Hani sapients of the Chanur ships, her aliens are only superficially the same as most science-fictional attempts to describe an alien. 

Many other writers' efforts seem more like B-movie monsters, best suited for portrayal by a human in an alien suit. Cherryh succeeds by revealing, through the interaction of her aliens with humans, just how unknowably other these intelligences can be. In this, her aliens resemble the Thranx of Alan Dean Foster’s Commonwealth novels. Like “two nations divided by a common language,” however, the differences in how they think supply a minefield of potential misunderstanding for the humans they encounter.

The humans in this story have gone disastrously off-route on their trip to a new colony. Where they actually wound up they find no familiar stars, and barely make it to the home world of the atevi. The colonists decide to abandon their ship in orbit, choosing a one-way trip to the surface. In the short prologue, Cherryh sets the scene for their first encounter with the native sapients, then flashes forward to “present-day” and continues the tale.

What happened when the two races made first contact—war, the quarantine of all but one of the humans on the island Mospheira, and the subsequent shaky treaty between the two races—is told through reminiscence by Bren Cameron, the single human paidhi or interpreter permitted off-island to mingle with the atevi. 

His job is much more complex than simply supplying definitions for words. Because of their past conflicts, the paidhi must walk a tightrope between human and atevi culture, and find the narrow path between limiting the human knowledge he passes on to the atevi and actively lying to them.

Bren has developed a relationship with the local ruler, the aiji Tabini, which his human heart insists on characterizing as friendship and mutual trust. The problem is, the atevi language has no word for trust—and fourteen words for betrayal. When Tabini abruptly sends Bren to a remote castle to stay with his mother, the dowager-aiji Ilisidi, he warns the paidhi that he will need all his diplomacy to survive.

Bren stumbles from one life-threatening incident to another, seeking a trust he cannot count on. Is his security chief Banichi trying to kill him? Is the major-domo of Ilisidi’s house, Cenedi, an assassin? Did Tabini send him to Ilisidi so that she could kill the paidhi without involving his court?

Can he even trust the human government he works for?

Even as a stand-alone novel, this would be a complex and fantastic read. As the opener for the series, it provides a solid foundation for the whole multi-novel set (16 in all). 

I recommend it highly.