Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fantastic Fall Flavors at Chick-fil-A

Review: Harvest Kale-and-Grain Bowl at Chick-fil-A


The grains are farro, plus red and white quinoa. They are assembled over a bed of fresh chopped kale, then topped with thin slices of grilled chicken, dried cherries and chunks of butternut squash and apple to make an astonishingly succulent salad. 

I said yes to the blend of goat and feta cheese, and asked for my favorite dressing (apple cider vinaigrette) in case I didn't like the recommended light balsamic vinaigrette dressing. 

Then I was glad I had tried the balsamic option first—its tangy sweetness perfectly balanced the kale and apples, and added a extra savory note to the chicken slices. 

The blended chevre/feta crumbles had a creamy texture you sometimes miss in classic feta cheese, but still had the perfect salty tang to complement the kale and apples. There was also a small packet of mixed nuts to sprinkle on top, but in truth, the dish didn't need it, and I didn't add it. As it sat, it was refreshing and satisfying: seasonal perfection. 

Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll hit the restaurant before 10:30 am, and try the breakfast offering, a bowl with the same grain blend, plus scrambled egg whites, grilled chicken and a Monterey jack and cheddar cheese blend. I'm glad our Santa Rosa restaurant is in the test market—I predict these will soon be on the Chick-fil-A menus across the country.

Some Like It Drag

What is the appeal of a guy in a dress? Comic and pathetic by turns, movie transvestites (as opposed to your everyday TV) possess some magic that can turn a drab story around, or sink a poorly-conceived flick into B-movie oblivion. Donning a dress can gain an actor kudos, or haunt his life ever after with innuendo and rumor.

Director Ed Wood (Glen or Glenda, Plan Nine from Outer Space) was a real TV in the most classic sense. To borrow the campy tagline from his transvestite mystery Glen or Glenda, Wood “...Loved Women So Much, He Dared To Dress Like One!” Johnny Depp was able to portray the disturbed director, complete with cashmere cardigans, without significant harm to his acting career. (Although Depp seems Teflon-coated in this regard, having also survived the raised eyebrows from wearing beaucoup mascara in several outings of the  Pirates of the Caribbean.)


The thoroughly-camp Rocky Horror Picture Show makes a dark hero out of the gender-confused alien Doctor played by Tim Curry. Thousands of otherwise-straight men around the world have put on his gartered-stockings-and-bustier-corset costume, and sung—in public—his paean to muscle love. Some of them have even returned their costumes to the shop afterward.

In one of its darker themes, Rocky Horror first makes the TV an alien, then reveals the allure of transvestitism to even the squarest among us. Cross-dressing, we learn, is about “absolute pleasure.”

In a far more traditional men-in-dresses theme, it’s actually about disguise. For Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, going drag in Some Like It Hot, a girl’s band was the one place their pursuers would never look for them. Comically-gentile antics of guys in dresses are predicated on these men's simon-pure-straight sexuality; it isn’t funny unless Curtis's drag-disguise conflicts with his desire to woo Marilyn Monroe, or if Lemmon is not trying to stave off the advances of Joe E. Brown.


Dustin Hoffman? Or Jane Fonda?
In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman took the disguise theme in a different direction. It’s not gangsters he’s trying to escape, but his own reputation. Here, again, is the conflict with the outward face and the inner desires, as Hoffman’s Dorothy character melds both the would-be-lover of a woman (Jessica Lang) with the object of a man’s affection (Charles Durning).

Some movies showcase the abilities of their actors by having them play both masculine and feminine roles. Diedrich Bader is genially goofy as Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies, but truly hilarious as his cousin, Jethrine. And without the exquisite gay drag of three of George Hamilton’s five roles in Zorro, the Gay Blade, that movie would have been fatally overwhelmed by the all-caps dialog of Brenda Vacarro and Ron Liebman.


Like Jethrine Bodine, sometimes the guy-in-a-dress role is meant to be all female. The classic case is Divine as the coarsely-obese mother in Hairspray (1988). (Divine also had a male cameo as the high-school principal.) In 2007's remake, the musical Hairspray gave us John Travolta in the role as a rotund, yet surprisingly nuanced and nimble, Edna Turnblad. Travolta got the role after it was offered to Robin Williams, who turned it down. Perhaps Williams thought that his three gay/transvestite roles in three years (1993, 1995 and 19962) were enough.

Nathan Lane used his dress-up performance to poke some fun at the stereotypes of masculine and feminine in The Birdcage. Interestingly, Robin Williams’ gig as the “masculine” partner of this gay couple was equally powerful and ambiguously-gendered. Where La cage aux folles, the film’s French progenitor, was focused on the conflict between family values and gay partnerships, The Birdcage moved this debate to the battle between image (especially political image) and substance.


The best (and worst) drag-queen performances portray these men as what they are. To see what I mean, watch the amazing performances that give us the lonely but coping-with-life Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Then contrast them with the scuzzy, sleazy, conflicted, lost men1 of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the movie that spawned To Wong Fu.

Hugo Weaving's outing as a desperately lonely drag queen didn't stall his career at all. After Priscilla, he was the scary-stern Mr. Smith of The Matrix, and the scary-stern half-elven Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve commented before on the fact that neither Snipes nor Leguizamo appear to have been hurt by their roles in To Wong Fu, but that Patrick Swayze’s star seemed tarnished by his stint as Vida Boheme. This is despite the fact that, even in a dress, Swayze managed to get in some bare-knuckle fighting and rescue a woman—perhaps the problem is that, as in Pretty Woman, “she rescues him right back.”



Not elfin at all, Mr. Smith in drag: Hugo Weaving (R)
To Wong Fu gives us the beauty and fun of life in drag, but reveals its secret heart of alienation, and yearning for something that can never be. In a more-brutal way, Priscilla does the same thing, minus the glamour and a (somewhat) happy ending. 

And if one is Hollywood and trite, and the other Australian and bitter, these are the usual two faces of transvestitism in the movies.

Now, I know I’ve left some out. Y’all jump in here and tell me about them!

Liner Notes:

  1. Terrence Stamp in a dress has to be seen to be believed.
  2. Robin Williams has escaped entirely any stigma from three roles where he plays gays, and one—Mrs. Doubtfire—where he appears, not just in drag, but in frumpy drag. His greeting to the three drag queens in To Wong Fu is perfectly gay: “Oh, my God! I’m like a compass near north.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

Defence of Innocence

Review: Primal Fear with Gere, Norton

I ignored this movie for nearly two decades because of the trite hyperdrama of its title, but once I watched it, 1996’s Primal Fear made my “buy it on DVD” list.

Richard Gere is astounding in his role as a traumatized one-time prosecutor who has become a cynical defense attorney. He’s slick and naive by turns, in an utterly believable way. 
Gere’s a veteran, with a lot of experience in playing exactly this kind of likable cad—and yet newcomer Edward Norton blows him away with his performance as a shy altar boy, caught up in the political and judicial grindstone of a media-circus trial.

Norton’s Aaron Stempler is a stuttering, quiet nonentity until he is found unconscious at the scene of a brutal murder. The victim, beloved local celebrity Archbishop Richard Russman (played by Stanley Anderson, who also appears with Norton in Red Dragon), has been repeatedly stabbed and mutilated, with a cryptic message carved into his chest. Stempler’s bloody footprints lead police from his unconscious body directly to the crime scene, and his clothing is drenched with Russman’s blood.

Yet his attorney, Martin Vail (Gere), is ready to believe him when he says he doesn’t remember the crime, but that a third party was in the room the night Russman was murdered. Stempler’s painfully shy mannerisms, sweet appearance and general air of innocence contribute to Vail’s conclusion that this young man is being railroaded. And it doesn’t take long for supporting information to emerge.

For one thing, the Archbishop was directly responsible for a loss of millions of dollars to a development project in which District Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) was heavily invested. The DA has assigned Vail’s ex-wife, Janet Venable (Laura Linney), to prosecute—perhaps believing that she, of all people, will be able to see through his razzle-dazzle—and there are hints of potential defense witnesses being sequestered or removed from the city.

Other altar boys, residents of a charity shelter, and Stempler’s girlfriend have vanished, all at the same time. Each person Vail considers as a possible source of information or testimony—or the mysterious third party who was present that night—seems to have disappeared. As Vail’s frustration builds, he lashes out at everyone. Reporters, assistants, and especially his icy-calm ex-wife opponent bear the brunt of his rage as Vail struggles to find a way out for his victim-client.

If the story seems to lag a bit whenever the action moves from the holding cell or courtroom, I believe this is due less to plot weakness than it is to the strength of Norton’s and Gere’s performances. Certainly, Linney’s “raging calm” would be considered a stellar performance without the overwhelming brilliance of the two men. Instead, her controlled tension serves to support their strength. Likewise, Frances McDormand uses an understated precision to portray the psychologist who examines Norton, revealing with carefully nuanced expression and body language her evolving assessment of this jailed altar boy.

Despite the riveting performances, though, one thing nagged at me throughout the film. Why Primal Fear? The title (which is appropriate once you’ve seen the film, if not before) does a great disservice to all involved. Perhaps it refers to the terror that the producers felt when they had to cast a relative unknown in such a pivotal role as Aaron Stempler. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Wil Wheaton both turned down the chance to play Aaron.)

Primal Fear is a crime-drama feast. Don’t make the mistake I did—ignore the lame title, this movie is miles better than its name.

Jumping to Conclusions

Review: Portal Jumpers by Chloe Garner


Where would you go, if you could go anywhere? Portal jumpers are elite folks—young, fit, well-trained, and guided by the best principles of humanity. If you don't believe that, just ask them. The transit technology, the portals, could take them anywhere, but somehow they go to only a selected few places.

Jumpers are few, supported by dozens or hundreds of scientists, analysts and officers in a quasi-military structure. Many of them are like Cassie, aged out, forever barred from the step through a portal to the far side of the universe. Cassie's ability to find the pattern in a stream of events is all that has kept her in the portal program.

She may be too old for jumping, but with her pattern-tracing abilities, she manages to track down the alien Jesse, who has been running the portal police ragged. When Jesse meets the analyst who caught him, he argues her into a contract that binds them both. While on Earth, he will be be subordinate to her, and assist analysts in the various labs with his advanced knowledge of the portal technology. Her commander nearly orders her to take the deal; the scientists are eager to get access to Jesse's expertise. 

Cassie isn't sure she wants to be saddled with the laid-back alien escape artist while on Earth. By the terms of the contract, though, Cassie must accompany Jesse when he transits through the portals, and she will not be required to report on where they go or what she observes. From aged-out and bored, Cassie just landed the plum job of all time: she can jump again!

She'll discover that traveling with an intersteller B-Type personality has its own issues; the worlds to which Jesse takes her seem distressed, even damaged. By the time Cassie identifies the pattern, it may be too late—for the worlds, for Jesse, for the Earth portal base, and even for Cassie herself.

Liner Note:

This was a Kindle Scout nomination that was not selected for publication. I'm glad I took the chance, and bought and read it anyway!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Pulled Under with Obduction (no spoilers, just mood)

Initial Review: OBDUCTION from Cyan


After a bit of frustration, I finally found settings that would let me play this new game from Cyan. The clue was opening the Task Manager to see why I kept "marching in place" as I went through the game intro: at the general, graphics and control settings I began with, CPU performance was hitting a wall.

So I dropped resolution, cranked down mouse sensitivity, turned off player shadow, cursor lock and V-sync, and set the game up to run in a window rather than full screen. It still took some adjustments to the size of the window, but eventually I found a combination that let me get past the intro and into the game proper.

Once there—oh, yes! This was the excellent mood-setting with graphics, music, and sense of drama that pulled me into the worlds of Myst so many years ago. You are exploring a broken world, one that seems composed of pieces dropped into a barren landscape. Each step brings questions: Why are there trees in a cavern, whose trunks end against a rocky roof? Why are there chunks of rock floating in the sky? What is the huge globe that hangs overhead—a moon? If so, it is too close. And why do some rocks seem to flicker with red energy, while others are dead stone?

You wander, gathering clues from the landscape, interacting where possible with the items you encounter, following the blue will-o'-wisps through sun-drenched sand and rocky canyons. Here's a path to follow; there's a train track that may lead somewhere. In the distance you see a neat house, a water tank, a metal tower. 

That looks like a mine; yes, here is an adit choked with fallen rock. There is an open mine entrance, but it looks too dark to explore just yet. Doom-laden music sounds at some places; in others, you hear footsteps or clanks and thuds that seem human-caused. Yet these places are empty, except for you yourself.

And everywhere, rocks, strange arching upthrusts of blue and red against the sky, with the ominous floating islands above them. Doors that are locked. Mechanisms that don't respond. Perspectives that show paths and walkways you cannot reach—yet.

Play on, because exploration and the thrill of discovery are your reward. Take chances. Step where the wisp guides you, however frail the road appears, because there is a way to solve the puzzle.

Of course, if my memory of Myst is any guide, solving one puzzle will only confront you with the next.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Alchemy, Backing Soda, and Viagra

Review: 1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz (Ring of Fire Book 20) by Kerryn Offord and Rick Boatwright


First, the disclaimer: I thought the initial books in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire (R0F) series were brilliant, genius, wonderful. Then, like many alternate history series (which it rapidly became), it just gradually got too complex for me to recall which "down-time" 1630s-native character was who, and which "up-time" character from the future had done what.

I mostly stopped buying the novels, but I made an exception for the RoF Chronicles books, which are collections of short stories. 

Usually these are anthologies of tales written by authors playing in the RoF universe. A couple of them included stories featuring the Aspergerian Dr. Gribbleflotz, a 1630s alchemist dabbling in the fringes of science, that stood out as particularly enjoyable, so when I spotted this book, I grabbed it.

I was not disappointed. 1636/Gribbleflotz begins with the back-story of the sometimes-arrogant, peacockish "iatrochemist" with the social deaf ear. It isn't until we're a third of the way through that Gribbleflotz has his first encounter with the Grantville up-timers. (It's the most enjoyable part of a really delicious story, too!)

Much of the fun, as always, comes from the unexpected way down-timers react to the "modern" Grantville up-timers and their attitudes. And vice versa; his up-timer partners refer to "Herr Dr. Phillip Theophrastus Bombast Gribbleflotz" as "Doctor Phil," especially after his little blue aspirin tablets are such a success. The Doctor calls them "Gribbleflotz' Sal Vin Betula"; the up-timers market them as "Dr. Gribbleflotz' Little Blue Pills of Happiness." 

One of the most delightful observations in the various Chronicles is the eager and ingenious way the down-timer natives seize on up-timer knowledge as a source of business innovation, making scads of money from the things they learn from the Grantville newcomers. In 1636/Gribbleflotz, I was even more excited to see the ways the good Doctor's experimentation trumped the book-data of the up-timers to make him wealthy.

Couple that with multiple romances that weave through the book, and the sense of the complex background and history of even the most widespread "modern technologies" (like baking powder), and it's a superb book to while away a pleasant afternoon reading.



Liner Notes:

  • I enjoyed chasing down the dog-Latin names the Doctor gave his creations. For example, Sal Vin Betula is Latin for "salt of wine of birch." Aspirin was developed by steeping and precipitating the salicylic acid salts from willow-bark tea, even though at the time, birch-bark tea was also used as a folk medicine. This may have been deliberate misdirection by Dr. Gribbleflotz to prevent his enemies from making and selling their own aspirin tablets.
  • The Doctor's ongoing obsession with the "human Quinta Essentia" may be a slight mockery of homeopathy. Read the initial discussion of Quinta Essentia in the novel or in Quinta-essentia - The Five Elements first before you disagree.
  • One of my spouse's favorite "up-time" reads is the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. We have several editions, including an inherited version from 1936 that includes a number of "cheat-sheets" for productive reactions like those that feature in the story. Alas, most of this instructive material has been eliminated from the later editions.

Friday, August 19, 2016

When Home Is Prison (Double YA Review)

Review: Meritropolis by Joel Orman and The Home by Eric Tripp


Home and imprisonment are recurring themes in YA novels, and so are the concepts of feeling loved and valued. By chance, I purchased two books together that explore these ideas, and since I read them together. I decided to review them in the same post.


Meritropolis

This novel is post-apocalyptic dystopian, set in a world with bizarre and hostile mutations that merge animals in obviously deliberate ways. The bion is a bison-lion combination, for example, a vicious meat-eating, bull-stubborn giant with a devil-red pelt and eyes. The snick is a winged bloodsucker formed from the genes of a snipe and a tick; it flies in flocks and can drain its victims dry. Chimpzelles, merging chimps with gazelles, hunt in tribal groups with primitive hand-weapons, and will devour humans as happily as any other prey.

Holding these hostile hordes at bay, Meritropolis itself is a walled city in which citizens have carefully-defined roles that rise from their measured merit: each citizen receives a periodically-reassessed Score that determines whether they will be permitted to stay in the city. Since it is accepted that being outside the wall at night is fatal, getting a low Score is a death sentence. 

That's what happened to Charley's brother. Charley is stunned by the verdict, especially when his own Score turns out to be high. It has left him burning with anger against the city management, motivated to do well in warrior tests, and questioning the fairness of the whole Score assessment system. In short, he is messed up.

The way Charley fits himself into the system to discover its problems and its value to him is the only way his high Score is obvious; in every other way, his behavior and choices only reveal him as a disturbed adolescent. The flow of the story is not helped by the many other voices sharing its narration, none of which are clearly distinguishable from Charley's. 

Nevertheless, the novel's unrelenting physical and philosphical action, and its high concept and creative world-building, serve to offset these minor issues of technique. It is a very enjoyable read.

Liner Note: The book's title was a tongue-twister until I recalled the Fritz Lang classic film, Metropolis. Suddenly it began to fall more naturally on my reading ear.


The Home

The concept for The Home was promising enough that I nominated it for publishing on Kindle Scout: hundreds of children are tended in a single building by their "Father," who either kidnapped them or coaxed them off the streets as runaways. 

These children don't work like Fagin's crew, nor do they go to school. They seem to spend their time playing video games and earning tokens by doing chores or gambling. The carny atmosphere doesn't disguise the fact that none of them are allowed to leave. Think of boys-becoming-donkeys on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, and you've got the vibe.

The tale is told by two voices: Bom and Mystic are older children in the Home. Bom is a natural leader, a young man in age, who is being groomed as a sort of deputy-Father. Mystic is a new addition to the ranks—who incidentally, also fills the author's need of a foil for explanations. (In '50s pulp science fiction, for example, this role was filled by a buxom blonde lab assistant.)

In the only subtle concept of the novel, the Home itself becomes a representation of many inner-city societies, with a "welfare class" trapped in sterile leisure by a benign but strict provider, and an upwardly-mobile (or "outwardly-mobile") group seeking a way to live on their own terms. 

By contrast to Meritropolis, this novel was dismayingly simplistic and badly proof-read, with an annoying number of grammatical and typographical errors. The most distressing "typo" left me looking for an escape with the same fervor as Bom and Mystic. The word is in quotes because its near-universal occurrence indicates it was a writer's or proofer's error of knowledge rather than a mistake in typesetting: the omission of commas before every name used as a directed address in dialog. It was never "I was looking for that, Bom..." but Watch out! Duck!:
"I was looking for that Bom..."

About halfway through, I stopped noting error corrections in my Kindle, especially as a frequent use of the wrong homophones made me suspect this was a novel written using speech software. Mispronounced words or sloppy pronunciations might have yielded some of the more amusing choices: "crown" for "crayon" for example.

Since I understand such systems ask the speaker to select among homophones like "you're" and "your" or "rain" and "reign," there was an opportunity to correct it. It is more likely someone simply accepted the most-frequent default without looking at the options. Either way, in writing The Home using speech software, the author made another wrong choice.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The System Is Rigged

Review: Quantum Law: Containment by Eduardo Suastegui

The complex interaction between computer technology—especially computer-based intelligence and personality—and human identity and culture is a niche Eduardo Suastegui has made his own. In QL:C, he pushes the envelope a little further to explore how courts might be reconfigured to use unbiased, always-logical computer reasoning to make justice more equitable.

Set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic USA, the novel focuses on the Los Angeles area, with action that sweeps west to the Port of LA, east to the Mohave Desert, and north into San Bernadino County

It isn't our Los Angeles, though; this city is a dreary place from which natural humans are mostly excluded in favor of hybrids and synthetic humans. Jerry Simmons has a rare opportunity to practice law before the Quantum Law court. It's even rarer than for most lawyers, because Jerry had one chance to do this before, and he blew it. But the client requested him specifically, and all Jerry has to do is accept.

No, actually that's not all; remember, this is a dystopian vision. Just to get to the court from his trailer in Temecula, Jerry has to pass through the armored checkpoints that keep unwanted humans from returning to homes from which they were evicted when Quantum Law was imposed. Before he can meet with his client, he has to pass a test designed to assess his loyalty to the system. And he must work with with a synth attorney, Advocate 359, despite the insistence of his client that the Quantum Law system is rigged against humans.

Jerry will need the help of this synth he calls "Ace", as well as all his skill and human ideals to deal with what's coming at him: motorcycle gangs, drone copters filled with hybrid agents, IEDs in the desert and suited sharks in the city. And always, the threat or promise of the Quantum Law court itself, from which any misstep could send Jerry into the same prison system from which he's trying to free his client. Or worse.

There are profound questions being addressed here, interwoven with the action sequences. Does true justice require absolute lack of bias? How can humans achieve it, short of handing over the courts to non-human decision-makers?

And deeper than that: how does the average man know—let alone find a solutionwhen the system is rigged against him?

I will be waiting impatiently for the next novel in this series. The Quantum Law concept, and Jerry and Ace, are winners.



Liner Notes:

  • There is a real sense of the real terrain in Southern California in these novels, but a map of the LA Basin, the arid counties north and west of it, and the greener spaces south into Orange County might be helpful for visualizing—especially with a future time when the terrain has changed.
  • Suastegui made it into my How-To Examples notebook with the elegantly terse way he encapsulated an internal question into a statement:
He held her gaze for a second or two, wondering: how much did she know about his trip to Mohave?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

State, Smoke, and Survival

Review: Larry Niven's State/Smoke Ring Series: The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring, and World Out of Time


It puzzled me for a while; when you look at the listing for the audiobook of Larry Niven's wonderful 1984 novel The Integral Trees on Amazon, it has a parenthetical comment, (The State series, Book 2). The Kindle and print listings note this same novel as (The Smoke Ring series Book 1).  I began to get paranoid. Was there a pre-IT novel written about a powerful State for that ominous year?

Yes, there was. It turns out that reading the first novel last is a good thing. And thereby hangs a review or three...



The Integral Trees


A team of misfits on an adventure makes a good basis for a story, and tribal cultures are always tasty. Let Larry Niven loose on them, though, and you get a novel that is nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel in 1984, and a Hugo ditto the following year.


Niven's tales often hang on a structure—Ringworld is an excellent example. In The Integral Trees, a central star ("Voy") is too close to its gas-giant planet ("Gold"), and the atmosphere of Gold has been sucked off into a gas torus, a vast ring around the star. The thicker part of the torus is breathablethis is the Smoke Ring where humans can survive.


The humans that do live here have adapted to the conditions in the torus, where gravity is nonexistent, but tidal forces may be felt. Mostly, the tides affect dwellers at the "out" and "in" ends of any of the millions of integral trees.  The length of these massive growths can almost span the smoke ring, and they were dubbed "integral" because the opposing winds at either end bend the tufts outward into an ∫ shape. These tufts collect smoke, dirt, animal life and insects from the wind; tufts and trunks impact free-floating water globules—"ponds"—and this provides moisture for the life on the tree.

When Quinn tribe's tree sinks too far in the smoke ring toward Voy, the tribe's leader—the "Chairman"—sends the tribe's least useful citizens to climb the tree to its free-fall zone at the trunk and farther "out" on a hunting trip, to find a way for the tribe to survive. Unfortunately, the tree has its own plans, and those plans don't take into account the humans living on the "in tuft."

The State is hinted at in flashbacks and founding documents, and in the opinions of Discipline, the AI personality of the ship that brought humans to the smoke ring. Discipline has carefully forgotten the mutiny that separated it from the humans, so it cannot be biased against the descendants of the mutineers, and it stays out of the gas torus to preserve the ship's physical integrity. 

When the disaster at the Quinn tree brings Discipline back into contact with the survivors, that contact brings humans under the eye of the State for the first time in hundreds of years. The Quinn survivors worry about being made corpsiks (slaves) by another tribe or captured by the longer-limbed free-falling fluff-jungle dwellers; they should be more worried about Discipline's intentions.

If you haven't encountered The Integral Trees yet, it's time. The people of the Smoke Ring may be strangely shaped by their gravity-less environment, but their cultural adaptations prove they are all too human.



The Smoke Ring


The group that began as Quinn tribe misfits in IT has settled the Citizen Tree, begun having children (some of whose parentage is in question), and cultivated native smoke-ring and integral-tree life in their gardens. They've made a comfortable clone of the Quinn culture, with elements from home-cultures of their other members, and their own Scientist and Chairman. 

Stolen star-technology, a Cargo and Rescue Module (CARM), plus the armored silver suit brought from Quinn Tree, give the Citizen Tree a way to stay in touch with Discipline, if they choose to do so.

When the Citizen Tree tribe rescues a family from a burning tree, they unwittingly expose their existence to the State-like Cluster, a growth-structure in the Smoke Ring at one of the Lagrange Points. The Cluster differs from the Integral Trees; it includes outer green growth areas like fluff jungles and an inner core of material dense enough to be called Dark. It's the closest thing in the smoke ring to a solid planet.

The problem with the Cluster is its non-tribal economy and its Navy. The Navy believes all star technology belongs to the Navy. This even includes the occasional chunk of metal collected by an integral tree, perhaps following the breakup or explosion of metal brought from Earth by Discipline's crew. However, the Navy will pay the finder for metal. The Citizen's Tree folk are not sure they will pay for the CARM or the silver suit.

Discipline wants to contact the Cluster, though; its State-like culture appeals to the AI personality. The persuasive ship musters all its arguments to maneuver the choice. Will the Citizen Tree save itself from the State, staying hidden from the Cluster Navy? Or will they let Discipline argue them into trying for the records held by the Navy, and wind up being absorbed into the nearest equivalent of the State their forebears supposedly committed mutiny to escape, hundreds of years ago? 

I recommend reading the two SR novels back-to-back for best enjoyment, then follow with the "first" novel in the State series. That way, A World Out of Time doesn't serve any spoilers, and yet still makes sense.



A World Out of Time


In 1976, well ahead of building the world of The Smoke Ring, Niven published a far-future novel that included many of the cultural building-blocks of the SR series: AI personalities super-loyal to the State, slave corpsicles, and evolutionary, adaptive changes to the human body and mind. 

A World Out of Time begins long before Discipline arrives at the gas-torus smoke ring. Jaybee Corbell had legally died long ago from the cancer that led him to be cryogenically preserved, but RNA from his frozen cells retained enough of his personal memories to be harvested and implanted in an empty body. The predecessor in Corbell's new corpus had been a brain-wiped criminal.

Corbell is not a citizen. As a corpsicle, he owes the State his life. He can pay his debt with thirty or forty years of slave labor, and become a citizen in the end. But the only job he's suited for is ramjet driver, and that's a life sentence alone in space. The State has strict plans for his tasks and journey aboard the starship he will command, and they program his loyalty with suitable additional RNA doses. 

Unfortunately for the State, Corbell has his own plan, to travel to the galactic core, and he manages to overcome his programmed State loyalty to steal the ramjet on its way out of the Solar System. In a last-ditch effort to bring him back, a minion of the State remote-programs his ship's computer with his own personality, but to no avail. Eventually, Corbell's 200+ years of ship-time bring him back to an Earth nearly 3 million years advanced. Changed. Moved to orbit Jupiter after something made Sol run hotter.

It is not only the planet that has changed. Humanity has split again; once corpsicles and citizens, now it is immortal—but sexless—Boys and Girls, and normally aging and dying—but reproductively active—adults. There is even at least one survivor (via a "zero-time" prison) from the time of Corbell's State. 

Then there's the AI ship, Perssa, who might yet, at last, have something to say about Corbell's fate.

Wide-ranging, epic even when the world-building is restricted to the Solar System, this novel deserved to be resurrected and included with the SR novels. I'm glad the cryptic Amazon label on an audiobook sent me looking for it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sunday Pizza Cravings

Review: Mombo's Pizza, Santa Rosa


It has been argued that there are really only two kinds of pizza places: by-the-slice and whole-pie. Usually a by-the-slice place sells pizza and maybe salads, and a whole-pie restaurant will have a wide variety of offerings. Maybe even beer.

Then there's Mombo's Pizza, a cultishly small restaurant near the Santa Rosa Junior College on Mendocino Avenue. The menu board here offers beer and sodas, pizza of several varieties by the slice, whole pies, sandwiches and piadinis, "amazing" salads, and a host of finger foods. 

It has a college atmosphere to it: four large wooden tables grouped closely, ideal for hosting the crowd after a game. Several smaller tables sit in corners for the solitary diner or student hitting the books at lunch. The restaurant even gives a nod to NYC-rush lunches with a high counter for stand-up diners in a hurry.


The pizza is delicious, perfectly made—and by-the-slice servings are huge. Two slices covered a 15" pizza pan. Since just after Mombo's opened in Santa Rosa in 2002, it has consistently won the Bohemian's Best of the North Bay award, year after year after year. The second restaurant in Sebastopol that opened in 2005 has slightly different hours, but the same marvelous pizza.

In case you're not in a pizza mood, I can recommend the incredibly yummy spinach/pine nut salad. Fresh spinach, feta cheese, pine nuts and dried cranberries make the base, and I topped it with Mombo's raspberry vinaigrette and some grilled chicken. 

I got my lunch in a to-go box, because I usually need to take away half of any restaurant salad. This salad was large, but so succulent it vanished in the same amount of time my dining companion polished off his three pepperoni slices! (This never happens; I'm a slow eater. But it did at Mombo's.)


Santa Rosa

Address1880 Mendocino Avenue #B 
Phone707-528-3278 
Hours: Sun-Thur 10 AM – 11 PM; Fri-Sat 10 AM – midnight 


Sebastopol

Address560 Gravenstein Hwy N 
Phone707-823-7492 
Hours: 11 AM – 9 PM

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Past Perfect Paradox-Fest

Review: Sea of Time by Will Hubbell


WARNING: If you want to read the first book of this series (Cretaceous Sea) without a spoiler, skip this review.


After its light treatment in his first novel, Cretaceous Sea (which I reviewed earlier this month), Will Hubbell has followed with a sequel that really digs into the philosophy and paradox of time travel. Sea of Time looks at the present-day and future of an age engendered by the incidents detailed in the first novel.

... In a fine and suitably ironic way, Sea of Time is the mature child of its juvenile parent.

(spoilers to first novel in series may follow)


Alteration of the present by the past is an important concept in this novel. At the end of the first story, Constance “Con” Greighton and Rick Clements are rescued by people from the future, and taken to their own past, to gold-rush California, where Rick and Con are married. (Con thus not only founds the family fortune in a California gold mine, but also becomes her own great-great-grandmother.)

What should have been a “happily ever after” ending to the first novel instead becomes a launching point for multi-dimensional murder. The evolved homo perfectus society that created the time machine is worried about awareness of the possibility of time travel in unevolved people in their past. Con is approached by one of them who warns her.
“They may alter your reality instead… If they were to change your past,” replied Sam, “from that point onward, the resulting reality would be the only one you knew. They might erase all who stand in their way, all who are precious to you.”

Minutes later, Con learns that Rick has been shot to death. In the ensuing weeks, her only son also dies of cold and starvation. Having lost all she holds dear, she agrees to come to the future with the “Kynden” Sam, to work against those who supposedly arranged her husband’s murder, in order to “undo” his and her son’s death.

In the future, however, Con finds things not quite as Sam presented them to her. There are three groups of people in this “perfected” future world: homo perfectus or “fecs”, homo sapiens or “sapes”, and the Kynden, who sit between the two, and want to eliminate both species from 27th-century Earth. Sapes occupy something of a plantation-slavery role in this society, due to a virus-imposed addiction to kana, a drug that is only available from the fecs.

Con has an advantage in the sape camp; because she doesn’t need kana, she can use her daily supply to barter for information. She learns that Rick Clements has also been snatched from 21st-century Earth, and decides to connect with him. Unfortunately, the Rick she finds is from the future determined by the death of Con’s son in 1851. This Rick has never met Con.

Before Con and Rick can resolve their different pasts, they are confronted with yet another evolution of humankind, homo gaia, whose own future had been eliminated while they were harvesting food in Earth’s Jurassic past. These remnants of a larger civilization have been trying to eliminate Con as the root cause of their extinction, a tool created by the Kynden Sam to redirect the powerful flow of history. The Gaians tell Con why they killed Rick in 1851, and have been trying to kill her.
”…to change the shape of a river, a hand or a boulder won’t do… You need a dam, Something totally unnatural… [Sam] created an entity that is largely unaffected by the forces that keep the timestream on its natural course…”
   ”And I have this ability because I’m my own ancestor?”
…”You are able to change history,” said Oak, “because you are your own ancestor and you are your own ancestor because you changed history.”

How Rick, Con and the Gaians unravel this twisted thread of altered history to save the past and their future is fascinating reading. Hubbell has done a masterful job of presenting these confusing lines of cause and effect in a way that explores the innate paradox of travel through time. I recommend reading Cretaceous Sea first (it’s not too demanding, remember), to fully enjoy the contrast and the story of the second novel.

In a fine and suitably ironic way, Sea of Time is the mature child of its juvenile parent.

Monday, August 8, 2016

GMO Slavery

Review: Black Rain by Matthew B.J. Delaney 


This novel was my Kindle First choice for August, after a "dry month" in which none of the six choices were worth the memory space on my Kindle. (This is my opinion only, of course, as with all my reviews.)

For Jack Saxton, life is good; his step-father is head of Genico, the largest provider of "samps" (gen-engineered medicines to cure diseases and genetic disorders), and the gen-engineered artificial-human Synthates who perform all the distasteful or tedious tasks that keep his world running smoothly. Like his step-brother Phillip, Jack's only job is to enjoy life.

For Phillip Saxton, the world would be better without his step-brother Jack. He lives a hard-partying life reminiscent of Gordon Gecko's Wall Street. What Phillip buys and sells is not stocks and businesses, but manufactured people—Synthates—and modified biological samples. His immediate goal is to score enough cocaine to make it through the night; long-term, he wants to supplant Jack as the favored son in his father's eyes. 

Phillip's envy seems to have poisoned him, to the point where he reports Jack as a Synthate "passing as human," condemning his brother to die in the Games. Jack's life is about to spin out of control, his wife murdered, his status changed in an instant from presumptive heir of Genico to slave.

Then there's the Black Rain of the title, a hideous plague that killed or disabled "naturals," but to which the Synthates were immune. The Games that slay so many Synthates seem justified by the need to punish the slaves for their release of Black Rain.
For humans to exist, we must live within a society. And a society cannot function with the presence of extreme violence. “In my opinion our human moral code has less to do with a fear of punishment and more to do with our inherent need to maintain a stable society..."

Delaney has done an excellent job of presenting a future society based on genetically-modified humans and medicine, with a hard look at the social problems that holding humans as slaves always entails. There are twists galore—this is not a formulaic tale of injustice, with blackly evil villains and morally-pure heroes. It is much more interestingmore humanthan that. 

I guarantee you will not be able to predict the ending from the first chapters. Jack must stay alive through the experience to uncover to truth. You, at least, can simply follow and enjoy the eventual unveiling.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Pilgrims Progressive

Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson


Remember Randy Waterhouse, the protagonist of Stephenson's Cryptonomicon
Book One of this trilogy introduces his 17th-century ancestor Daniel, a complex character intimately enmeshed with the major controversies of his day. 

Quicksilver


As a child, Daniel Waterhouse witnessed the death of the King of England with the coming of Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads. As a youth, he attends the re-emergently Catholic Cambridge, rooming with a young Isaac Newton and studying “natural philosophy” instead of preparing for the Apocalyse his father expects in the year 1666. But instead of the end of days, Daniel meets the Black Plague in that year, and watches his father die in the Great London Fire.

And we know that in later years, this pilgrim does finally go to the New World, where he starts the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technological Arts, and intrigues a young boy named Ben (Franklin) into scientific inquiries. (Actually, the book opens on the seventy-plus year old Waterhouse in Massachusetts, and the rest of the story is told as flashbacks interspersed with “current day” journeys. This is the same Innis-mode technique Stephenson used in Cryptonomicon.)

Quicksilver is shot through with references to mercury—I counted twenty-three overt occurrences in the first few chapters. The quicksilver theme brings together communications (Mercury was the messenger of the gods), natural philosophy, alchemy and chemistry (mercury is an important element to all three), medicine (Mercury’s symbol was used by physicians, and elemental mercury was often prescribed), and war (Hg was an essential ingredient in explosives of the day).

Daniel Waterhouse explores his belief in religious free will against the background of revolutions in science, mathematics, cryptography, religion and politics. Like drops of mercury on a heated plate, he ranges far and wide, and reflects the brilliance of those around him.


King of the Vagabonds

Bobby Shaftoe went to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee.
He’ll come back to marry me.
Mother says so!

Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe is the eponymous King of the Vagabonds in Book Two, and easily the most likable character in the novel. Here is where Quicksilver swings into adventure-mode, as Jack gallivants across the Holy Roman Empire, liberating damsels in distress and rescuing the odd coin or two—or vice versa.

Like the other principals, his life is intertwined with Liebnitz’, and serves as well to illustrate the mathematician-philosopher’s other vocation: mining engineer. Like Isaac Newton (as well as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin), Liebnitz was a wildly productive genius whose efforts spanned nearly all of the industries and intellectual pursuits of his time.

Half-Cocked Jack is almost his antithesis, preoccupied with getting and spending his gains, ill-gotten and virtuous alike. As such, Jack is much closer to the Bobby Shaftoe of the nursery rhyme than is his g-great-grandson Bobby in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.


Odalisque


Book Three centers around the activities of the harem girl rescued in the relief of Vienna by Shaftoe in Book Two. Eliza has come a long way from the slave trudging across Europe at Jack’s heels. She is becoming a wealthy woman through her understanding of the Byzantine commodities market—and a chance meeting with Liebnitz that supplies her with the essential ingredient for wealth-building then (and today), a truly unbreakable cipher.

Historically, Liebnitz was known to have been fascinated by the I Ching, and to have used it as a cipher key to encode personal correspondence. Stephenson has incorporated the political backgrounds and historical battlefields, the customs and entertainments of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, to flesh out the first part of his tale of the (historical) scientific rivalry between Liebnitz and Newton, and the rise of the (fictional) Societas Eruditorum.

As with the first two books, Odalisque is shot through veins of mercury. This section adds numerous references to Minerva as the patron of Amsterdam, model for scientists, and goddess of wisdom and guile.



Together, these three books weave a wonderful trio of mercuric systems to presage the coming system of the world. But before we can arrive at his system, we must first work our way through The Confusion, the next in Stephenson's set of historical science-fiction trilogies.

Liner Notes:

  • Intrigued by the Baroque Cycle and where it intersects history and reality? Check out the Metaweb.
  • Jane Chords: Enoch wind. Mother died. Like Daniel.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tripping in Post-Jurassic Park

Review: Cretaceous Sea by Will Hubbell 


What would you do if you had access to a time-travel machine? H.G. Wells had his Time Machine traveler go far into the future, returning once to grab a few volumes from his library to help the growth of the society he found there. 


Leo Frankowski scattered generations of a world-wide time-police organization across 2000 years of history to make sure that one man, his Cross-Time Engineer, survived in medieval Poland. 

And L. Sprague de Camp assumed a historian traveling to Imperial Rome would want to prevent that empire's decline, Lest Darkness Fall.

But Peter Green and Ann Smyth, the lucky owners of the time-warp apparatus in Will Hubbell's novel, have a better idea. They'll sell—to multi-millionaires only—the chance to vacation in the "unspoiled, pristine wilderness" of the inland sea that existed in mid-America at the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods.

The millionaire backer they've chosen first, Greighton, has good reason to desire an escape from the crowds. His new—young—fianceé has a disturbing propensity for attracting young men and spending his money, and he wants a chance to solidify his relationship with her away from such distractions.

Greighton insists on bringing his spoiled teenage daughter along as well, and Smyth promises him there will be a "staff naturalist" along to keep her out of Daddy's hair. To geologist and fossil collector Rick Clements, it sounds like the perfect graduate-school job. Even though he's not sure he believes the machine can really take them back, he's eager for a chance to collect living specimens of the animals he's only seen immured in rock until now. And Constance Greighton, the "child" he expects to babysit, will not prevent him from making the most of this opportunity.

Perhaps Green and Smyth's skewed view of what to do with such a windfall comes from the source. They are not inventors of this technology. They stole it from the original owner, who (Green surmises) came from a future time when time-travel technology is fairly commonplace. Or maybe it is a result of the disturbing fact that only one time—the Cretaceous (K-T) boundary—and only one place can be reached with their ill-gotten transport. Fortunately for Green and Smyth, they find ready-made living quarters at their proposed resort.

Unfortunately for all of the vacationers, there's more at the destination than a convenient group of summer cottages. It's the usual problem of stolen technology—there's no manual, and an undocumented feature will sometimes crash the system. In their case, the malfunction leaves them stranded on the edge of the Cretaceous Sea, where they will have an excellent view of the meteor that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs.

Hubbell has written a thriller in time-travel guise that mingles just a little geologic and dinosaur fact with lots of adventure. Don't expect it to stretch your brain—this story is time-travel light. It's strictly for fun, and at that, it succeeds very well.


Liner Notes:

  • The sequel to this Cretaceous Sea, Sea of Time, is a much meatier novel. I'm re-reading it now, and will review it when I've finished. 
  • Neither Hubbell novel is available for Kindle, nor is the initial Conrad Stargard story by Frankowski (although many of the later novels in the Cross-Time Engineer series are available in ebook format). Well's Time Machine is free for Kindle, and de Camp's time-travel story is anthologized for that format with several tales by other authors who were influenced by Lest Darkness Fall.