Monday, October 18, 2010

I Shall Where Midnight by Terry Pratchett

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett. There’s no secret to that if you’ve spent even a little bit of time browsing my blog; he writes some of the best fantasy books out there, and has one of the keenest minds and greatest storytelling abilities I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

Not surprisingly then, Sir Pratchett has done it once again with his latest Discworld novel, ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’, the fourth in his Tiffany Aching series, following the trials and tribulations of a girl becoming a witch in a land that doesn’t want a witch.

I wonder whether someone who hasn’t read the previous three Tiffany books would enjoy this as much as someone who has. I don't recommend testing it; if you haven't read them, do so. Much of the Tiffany story, comes from having seen her grow up and fill into her role as the first witch of the Chalk. From nine years old Tiffany finds herself time and again having to deal with problems that no ordinary witch need deal with. And each time she does so with such skill and poise that it is no surprise she is being heralded as a very special witch.

Midnight takes place when Tiffany is not yet sixteen, and having to deal with problems nobody else is willing to deal with. That’s the job of a witch. You do the thing in front of you, and then you do the next thing.

Once again Pratchett writes the mind of a teenage girl perfectly, or so I think, never having been one myself. But considering that Pratchett was never a teenage girl either, you can’t help but assume that he has it right on the money. The lack of knowledge she has about some topics (pink inflatable wossnames) mixes wonderfully with a mass of understanding that even her father fails to grasp. She’s na├»ve and wise, ignorant and informed, all in one pretty little bundle.

And let’s be honest here. I’ve been in love with Tiffany since the first moment I met her. She is the perfect fantasy character, not stupid but not all knowing. She learns. She understands her limits. She thinks things through and then let’s her second and third thoughts think on the things that she has thought.

Midnight happens quickly. Maybe five days takes place, at best, and Pratchett seems to write ensuring that he gets everything in there in as fast as possible. This makes for some head spinning action and narrative, leaving you wondering where the extra pages went or whether Pratchett’s desk has a larger draft somewhere.

Surprisingly the early third of this book is a little rough, leaving you feeling as if you’ve missed something, or are missing something. I’m not sure that I did, but I will reserve judgment until I’ve read it again.

And I will be reading it again. The book had me in tears by the end, tears of joy at having read such a wonderful story. It was both heart-warming and cheer-worthy, and I couldn’t help but notice my heart beat faster as the story reached its climax and then it’s ending. This is definitely a book – much like many of Pratchett’s books – which will have re-readability for years to come. And I look forward to rereading it as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

It was almost 50 years ago that historian and political journalist Theodore H. White was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his in depth account of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, "The Making of the President 1960." Coupled with his success covering subsequent campaigns helped establish topical nonfiction as a distinct genre, situated somewhere between journalism and history, that later practitioners such as David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Bob Woodward have used to make substantial contributions to our civic conversation.

"Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime" may be the logical extension of White's project. And yet, this book by two extraordinary political journalists, New York magazine's John Heilemann and Time magazine's Mark Halperin, nonetheless achieves a kind of decadence.

This is a volume that might best be characterized as poli-porn.

That's not to say it isn't deeply and knowledgeably reported and presented with all the cool sophistication one would expect from two accomplished political reporters. But the question that begs to be answered is: To what end is all this effort and ability expended? Had we known many of the things Heilemann and Halperin disclose before the last general election, people would have had a chance to weigh the implications and vote accordingly. A year into Barack Obama's presidency, a great deal of this sensational material, while in all likelihood true, seems prurient.

Is there really any living American beyond the age of reason who doesn't know that there's a disparity between the lives our political leaders actually live and the ones they attempt to project in public? Is there any serious student of politics who doesn't know that most national political campaigns are snake pits filled with dysfunction and back-biting? If they weren't, who would be around to tell reporters like Heilemann and Halperin all these juicy inside stories?

Still, if you're a political junkie -- as this reader is -- their book, while a guilty pleasure, also is compulsively readable. Once begun, you can't put it down. Poli-porn.

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Given the nonstop publicity that's attended this book's rollout, you're probably already familiar with many of "Game Change's" more sensational revelations. Some of the politicians embarrassed on these pages already are into their second round of apologies; others are having their remarks debated on Larry King, which is the contemporary equivalent of being sentenced to the stocks.

One thing that gives "Game Change" its tabloid tang is the authors' decision to build so much of their account around the candidates' marriages. It's interesting but odd, given that political journalists of this experience are bound to know that we've had as least as many successful presidents who were miserably or indifferently married as we've had those who were happily attached.

Based on Heilemann's and Halperin's reporting, by the way, the best couple won. By their account, Barack Obama is deeply devoted to our current first lady and she to him. They enjoy each other's company and counsel more than that of any other person and both dote on their daughters.

By contrast, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, come across as the couple from hell. As reported in these pages, he is delusional, megalomaniacal, self-absorbed and breathtakingly irresponsible; she is condescending, viciously insulting and shrewish -- Lady Macbeth with magnolias. It's hard to imagine two people whose public personas have been more at odds with the private reality than apparently has been the case with these people.

Similarly, Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, are reported here to quarrel incessantly, when they're not ignoring each other. At one point during the campaign, McCain's top aides became so concerned about reports that she was carrying on a long-term affair with a man in Arizona that they forced the candidate to confront her over it.

Hillary and Bill Clinton inevitably come in for their share of scrutiny, particularly surrounding the now well-rehearsed revelation that her campaign had to set up a secret three-person war room to handle what they expected to be a scandal over the former president's "serious" romantic infatuation with another woman . . . as opposed to his garden-variety messing around.

Dealing with the implications of her husband's muscular libido is reported here as just one source of the now-secretary of state's habitual paranoia and grudge-nourishing. Resentment and self-pity are reportedly her default emotions, and her fondness for conspiracy theories apparently was abetted in this campaign by writer Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime aide nicknamed "Grassy Knoll" by other campaign workers.

Hillary Clinton and Blumenthal were convinced that Michelle Obama had used the epithet "whitey" in an address to college students and spent an inordinate amount of time beating the bushes for a nonexistent tape. The candidate's paranoia extended to the press, whose coverage she labeled "a total hit job, day in and day out."

For sheer corrosive power, however, nothing in the book quite matches the portrait of Sarah Palin, whom McCain dragged into the race less than a week before the convention, after it became clear the party never would accept his pal Joe Lieberman, the Democratic defector, as his running mate.

(There's an unconsciously funny anecdote in which GOP strategist Karl Rove calls Lieberman and asks him not to accept the nomination for the sake of his good friend McCain, since it would split the party and doom his candidacy. Wow, did Rove ever misjudge his man on that one.)

McCain's aides were taken aback by Palin's lack of knowledge (they couldn't, for example, get her to understand why there were two Koreas), her childish petulance and her sullenly uncommunicative behavior. Some came to wonder if she was mentally unstable or perhaps suffering from post-partum depression.

Even so, it's hard to come away from this account without feeling a stir of sympathy for an unprepared woman, plucked from obscurity and thrown into the shark-filled deep end of the pool, when she didn't even know she couldn't swim.

Now, of course, she's a Fox News commentator, and one can only look forward to the upcoming segment in which she teaches Bill O'Reilly to field-dress a moose.

Heilemann and Halperin have said elsewhere that they wrote "Game Change" because "what was missing" from the 2008 political coverage and what "might be of enduring value" was "an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgment) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House."

Well, now we have that and -- though many will be entertained -- it's a bit harder to see how we're better off.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett


What happens when the auditors decide that Death has grown inefficient at his job? It seems that the powers-that-be began to grow concerned when Death first adopts a daughter, then takes on an apprentice (* See Mort *). They feel that his developing personality may be a danger to the whole of reality, and may be due for replacement. But you can't simply give him a cheap watch and a retirement party and send him on his way. Well, I suppose you can, but instead they give him the one thing he can't get for himself: a life. Death is sent to live on the Discworld as a human, if a rather vague and confused one. And where else would you expect to find him but on a farm, swinging a scythe, with a solid human name, Bill Door. Well, give him a break, would you have wanted a creative death?

While Death/Door is laboring on the farm of the elderly Miss Flitworth, there has been a glitch in the system. There is no one out collecting souls, and it takes time for human belief to build up enough to fill the void. In the mean time the dead are restless, and the wizard Windle Poons can't die. Wizards have a gift, they know when their going to die, allowing for proper planning and partying beforehand. And there's a rule: when a wizard dies, his soul is personally collected by death. So here's poor Poons, knowing he should be dead, buried and everything, and yet still waiting for death to come. Of course you can only wait in the ground so long, and Poons digs himself back up and rejoins humanity, much to the dismay of every one else.
Finally though, it comes down to a showdown. The nameless stranger going up against the newly crowned king of the afterlife. For the new death has no desire to be gentle, but before he can really get things going, he has to take care of one last detail, Bil Door.

Some Thoughts

Mort gave us a great intro to the character of Death. We saw a creature that tried to care about those who were under his care, Ysabell and Mort. In Reaper Man, we see him expanding that desire, to care for the whole of the Disc. When he stands before Azrael and demands that humans deserve a caring death, rather than just the mass-production the new death had sought, it shows a love that is at odds with the mission of this being. Understanding that Mr. Pratchett has been an atheist for many years, it interests me that he would portray Death in such a light. It doesn't feel like sarcasm or caricature. It feels as if he expects that, if death could in fact be personified as a character, it would be one that would eventually take an interest in the beings he deals with, maybe even grow to love them. I always wondered if this is how Mr. Pratchett perceived god, that if there were a god, wouldn't he eventually take an interest in what we do and try to save us from ourselves?

I love the Death novels. They delve into philosophy far more than the others groups. There's the simple surface read, where you get to enjoy a fun story, with some great jokes and puns. But there's also the deeper examination of life and death, and the contemplation of it all. Certainly a great book, one I read again and again, and recommend to all my friends.  The idea of the auditors of reality, of bland, generic figures with no life or personality, no individuality at all, are overlooking everything to make sure form matches function. It sends chills to think that they might be out there, trying their best to get us to conform to the laws of reality. Nice to know that somewhere out there is an author that can interject a little chaos into it all. Thanks Mr. Pratchett.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Colonists from Earth, using a mix of mental powers and high technology, have long ago subjugated the native inhabitants — and are now making themselves into gods, ruling over their descendants within a framework set up in imitation of Hinduism and ancient India. But even as the "Deicrat" consensus firms, there is dissent: Sam, one of the First, the crew of the original spaceship, remains an "Accelerationist", wanting to spread scientific knowledge to everyone. He starts a one-man crusade to bring down Heaven, a crusade that will lead him to the depths of Hellwell and to Nirvana and back.

Lord of Light is a lively novel with plenty of action — duels, battles, confrontations, defiances, and repartee. Following the structure of Indian epics, elaborated sub-stories adorn a simple overall plot, with each chapter an episode in Sam's war against Heaven: his taking up arms against Heaven, his revival of Buddhism and the attempts to kill him, his loosing of the demons, his capture and imprisonment in the Celestial City, his escape and defeat in a climactic battle, his return from Nirvana, and his final victory. (The first chapter is chronologically the second-last, which is a little confusing at first.) While few of the characters have much depth, they manage to be both human and, when they take on their Aspects and wield their Attributes, embodiments of fundamental forces. Sam himself is a crotchety old-timer and a con-man and a trickster — but also an embodiment of military prowess and defiance against odds.
The scientific scaffolding always remains visible — Shiva's trident is a device, "reincarnation" is done through body farms and mind transfer machinery, the heretic Nirriti uses guided missiles — and Lord of Light is clearly science fiction rather than fantasy. This is affirmed explicitly within the story by Yama, engineer and god of Death, explaining that demons are "malefic, possessed of great powers, life span, and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape" — but not "supernatural".
"It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy - it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."
Which is a sentiment to warm the hearts of hard science fiction devotees, even without the "technology good, theocracy bad" plot elements.
Despite the underlying epistemology, the dominant "mode" of Lord of Light is mythic rather than scientific. Zelazny does more than raid Hinduism and Buddhism for props — he ends up touching on the genuinely numinous, evoking through language and mood something of the power of real religion and myth. Buddhism, for example, is introduced by Sam as a counter to Hinduism, but his own beliefs are ambiguous and when one of his disciples attains enlightenment, it is obvious that Buddhism has taken on a life of its own. Lord of Light sports quotations from Indian scriptures at the beginning of each chapter and uses themes and language and ideas taken from them throughout. At one point Sam delivers a three page sermon, for example, and the novel ends with
"Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty."
This could easily have been tedious or trite but in Zelazny's hands it works. Myth and religion never actually break free from the scientific scaffolding, but they manage to make it irrelevant — one could almost consider Lord of Light a demonstration that their symbolic power does not rest on their metaphysical claims. Despite its serious approach to religion and its success as epic, Lord of Light is at the same time rather light-hearted, sometimes verging on the flippant.
"It was early morning. Near the pool of the purple lotus, in the Garden of Joys, at the foot of the statue of the blue goddess with the veena, Brahma was located.
The girl who found him first thought him to be resting, for his eyes were still open. After a moment, though, she realized that he was not breathing; and his face, so contorted, underwent no changes of expression.
She trembled as she awaited the end of the universe. God being dead, she understood that this normally followed. But after a time she decided that the internal cohesiveness of things might serve to hold the universe together for another hour or so; and such being the case, she thought it advisable to bring the matter of the imminent Yuga to the attention of someone better suited to cope with it."
Zelazny also includes a few truly terrible puns.

Somehow all the disparate components of Lord of Light — humour and epic, science and religion, action and philosophy — come together in a successful novel. The result is my favourite Zelazny work and indeed one of my favourite science fiction novels of all time. Though it won the Hugo award in 1968, it has I think been relatively neglected; it can bear comparison with the much better known Dune (and there are parallels with Herbert's use of Sufism in that work).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dr. Asimov

Born: January 2, 1920
Petrovichi, Russia, Soviet Union
Died: April 6, 1992
New York, New York

The author of nearly five hundred books, Isaac Asimov was one of the finest writers of science fiction in the twentieth century. Many, however, believe Asimov's greatest talent was for, as he called it, "translating" science, making it understandable and interesting for the average reader.

Early life and influences
Isaac Asimov was born on January 2, 1920, in Petrovichi, Russia, then part of the Smolensk district in the Soviet Union. He was the first of three children of Juda and Anna Rachel Asimov. Although his father made a good living, changing political conditions led the family to leave for the United States in 1923. The Asimovs settled in Brooklyn, New York, where they owned and operated a candy store. Asimov was an excellent student who skipped several grades. In 1934 he published his first story in a high school newspaper. A year later he entered Seth Low Junior College, an undergraduate college of Columbia University. In 1936 he transferred to the main campus and changed his major from biology to chemistry. During the next two years Asimov's interest in history grew, and he read numerous books on the subject. He also read science fiction magazines and wrote stories. Asimov graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1939.

Asimov's interest in science fiction had begun as a boy when he noticed several of the early science fiction magazines for sale on the newsstand in his family's candy store. His father refused to let him read them. But when a new magazine appeared on the scene called Science Wonder Stories, Asimov convinced his father that it was a serious journal of science, and as a result he was allowed to read it. Asimov quickly became a devoted fan of science fiction. He wrote letters to the editors, commenting on stories that had appeared in the magazine, and tried writing stories of his own.

In 1937, at the age of seventeen, he began a story entitled "Cosmic Corkscrew." By the time Asimov finished the story in June 1938, Astounding Stories had become Astounding Science Fiction. Its editor was John W. Campbell, who would go on to influence the work of some of the most famous authors of modern science fiction, including Arthur C. Clarke (1917–), Poul Anderson (1926–2001), L. Sprague de Camp (1907–2000), and Theodore Sturgeon (1918–1985). Since Campbell was also one of the best-known science fiction writers of the time, Asimov was shocked by his father's suggestion that he submit his story to the editor in person. But mailing the story would have cost twelve cents while subway fare, round trip, was only ten cents. To save the two cents, he agreed to make the trip to the magazine's office, expecting to leave the story with a secretary.

Campbell, however, had invited many young writers to discuss their work with him. When Asimov arrived he was shown into the editor's office. Campbell talked with him for over an hour and agreed to read the story. Two days later Asimov received it back in the mail. It had been rejected, but Campbell offered suggestions for improvement and encouraged the young man to keep trying. This began a pattern that was to continue for several years, with Campbell guiding Asimov through his beginnings as a science fiction writer. His first professionally published story, "Marooned off Vesta," appeared in Amazing Stories in 1939.

During the 1940s Asimov earned a master's degree and a doctorate, served during World War II (1939–45) as a chemist at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and became an instructor at Boston University School of Medicine. He also came to be considered one of the three greatest writers of science fiction in the 1940s (along with Robert Heinlein and A. E. Van Vogt), and his popularity continued afterward. Stories such as "Nightfall" and "The Bicentennial Man," and novels such as The Gods Themselves and Foundation's Edge, received numerous honors and are recognized as among the best science fiction ever written.

Asimov's books about robots—most notably I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, and The Naked Sun —won respect for science fiction by using elements of style found in other types of books, such as mystery and detective stories. He introduced the "Three Laws of Robotics": "1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws." Asimov said that he used these ideas as the basis for "over two dozen short stories and three novels … about robots." The three laws became so popular, and seemed so sensible, that many people believed real robots would eventually be designed according to Asimov's basic principles.

Also notable among Asimov's science fiction works is the "Foundation" series. This group of short stories, published in magazines in the 1940s and then collected and reprinted in the early 1950s, was written as a "future history," a story being told in a society of the future which relates events of that society's history. Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation were enormously popular among science fiction fans. In 1966 the World Science Fiction Convention honored them with a special Hugo Award as the best all-time science fiction series. Even many years after the original publication, Asimov's future history series remained popular—in the 1980s, forty years after he began the series, Asimov added a new volume, Foundation's Edge.

Asimov's first works of fiction written mainly for a younger audience were his "Lucky Starr" novels. In 1951, at the suggestion of his editor, he began working on a series of science-fiction stories that could easily be adapted for television. "Television was here; that was clear," he said in his autobiography (the story of his life), In Memory Yet Green. "Why not take advantage of it, then?" David Starr: Space Ranger was the first of six volumes of stories involving David 'Lucky' Starr, agent of the outer space law enforcement agency called the Council of Science. The stories, however, were never made for television.

Asimov's first nonfiction book was a medical text entitled Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Begun in 1950 it was written with two of his coworkers at the Boston University School of Medicine. His many books on science, explaining everything from how nuclear weapons work to the theory of numbers, take complicated information and turn it into readable, interesting writing. Asimov also loved his work as a teacher and discovered that he was an entertaining public speaker. Before his death in 1992, Asimov commented, "I'm on fire to explain, and happiest when it's something reasonably intricate [complicated] which I can make clear step by step. It's the easiest way I can clarify [explain] things in my own mind."