A book reviews weblog by Jim Henry

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Next: June 10 - July 4

8 June 2002

In The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2001), monuments start appearing in Thailand, then in other parts of southeast Asia, apparently sent back from the future of twenty years hence. The inscriptions on them commemorate victories in a war that hasn't started yet by a military leader as yet unknown, hight Kuin. In the background of the story we see the destruction wrought by the Chronoliths' arrival, the economic depression that starts when many southeast Asian cities are destroyed by arriving Chronoliths, and the sense of doom in the face of impending conquest by an unknown enemy; but the foreground, during most of the book, is the destruction the Chronoliths cause in the life of the narrator, Scott Warden, who is one of the first to see the first Chronolith soon after its arrival.

What is most impressive about The Chronoliths is the sense of doom; not just the inevitable world war that gets closer and closer as the story progresses, but the way personal disasters in Scott Warden's life are foreshadowed.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court isn't Mark Twain's best book; the story has several serious flaws. But second-rate Mark Twain is still better than most of the other books ever published. When I was younger, this was my favorite of Mark Twain's books - up until I got around to reading Life on the Mississippi. I read it again recently for the first time in many years in an audiobook version from Books On Tape.

Hank Morgan, a foreman in a Colt firearms factory near Hartford, Connecticut, gets into a fistfight with one of his subordinates one day, and gets the worst of it. When he comes to, he's not in the factory, or in Connecticut, anymore. He meets a fellow in iron armor, of a belligerent disposition, and being taken captive by him, he's taken to Camelot.

It's enough to say that he gets a reputation for sorcery, and displaces Merlin as King Arthur's right-hand man. Over the next several years he educates a group of young people up to his nineteenth-century standard, and with them manning his factories, introduces more and more nineteenth-century technology - and, more cautiously, nineteenth-century political ideas - to the general public. The collision of cultures is the main source of humor, and the main motivator of the plot, too, until near the end of the book.

Mark Twain was apparently a big fan of Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur; his love for the Arthurian legends shows here in spite of his poking fun at their absurdity, especially in the passages about Arthur, Guenever, and Launcelot. The sixth century A.D. Britain that Hank Morgan finds himself in is a curious mix of the Arthurian legends and actual history. Twain jams together historical incidents and institutions from various historical epochs: chivalry from the thirteenth century, slavery from the late Roman empire, hermits of the early Middle Ages; whatever he wants to satirize he antedates or postdates as necessary to fit it in. The people seem to speak with fifteenth-century grammar and word stock and nineteenth-century pronunciation. In spite of all this, the story and characters are convincing and compelling. Twain manages to poke fun at the nineteenth century, and at Hank Morgan's easy assumption that because he knows more of physical science he is superior to the natives in every respect.

I don't see Mark Twain and the Connecticut Yankee mentioned often in discussions of the origins of sf; but it seems to me that this book was probably more influential than H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and not just on time travel stories like L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. Hank Morgan is a prototype of the super-competent technician heroes of Gernsback's Amazing and Cambell's Astounding, and some of the technical conversations between him and Clarence are reminiscent of science education stories from those magazines and later Analog. His story also prefigures many time-travel stories about futilely trying to change the past; everything he does has already happened, and all the short-term good (and harm) he's done are finally forgotten, among the many unknown events of an undocumented period. Echoes of the Yankee can also be heard in many other stories, not all of them involving time travel, where people from a high-tech society have to rebuild their technology from scratch. Of course this theme goes back at least to Robinson Crusoe and maybe earlier, but it seems to me Twain's work was more definitive for this sub-genre than Defoe's.

30 May 2002

I read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880) in a translation by Constance Garnett. The prose is clunky (I don't know whether the author or translator is mainly at fault there), but the characters were interesting enough to keep me reading. The story is slow to develop. It mostly consists of conversations, but the few action scenes are intense and well done. It's something of a murder mystery, though not of the conventional structure; the murder doesn't take place till halfway through, and the detective characters are very minor. I enjoyed it, but if I ever read it again, it will probably be in a different translation (if only for comparison).

I read The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell (1962) again in a single sitting (it's only 160pp) Sunday night. It's a fix-up of three novella-length stories (at least one was previously published separately, as "And Then There Were None") about a starship from Earth making contact with three long-lost colonies. There's a lot of fun satire of the relations between the army, space-navy and diplomats among the recontact ship's personnel, and the briefly sketched cultures of the three colony planets are interesting. There is a spiffy contrast between two anarchic planets, one formerly a penal colony, where there are now hundreds of clans constantly at war with each other; another colonized by quasi-libertarians, populated in hundreds of small towns where everyone knows his neighbors and knows how far he can trust each of them, so money and police are unnecessary. (The third, or rather middle, planet was colonized by naturists who have a fairly conventional republican government.)

[search at abebooks.com]

23 May 2002

Everybody has Somebody in Heaven by Avram Davidson (Pitsopany Press, 2000) is a collection of his specifically Jewish works; mostly early stories, essays and poems. Some of the stories have appeared in one or more of his sf and fantasy collections, but most of them appear here for the first time, or for the first time in book form. There are also several reminiscences by writers who knew him (Peter Beagle, Richard Lupoff, Lisa Goldstein, Carol Carr, and Barry Malzberg), and a biographical essay by Eileen Gunn. If you've enjoyed his stories before, you'll want to read the stories in this collection as well; but this may not be the best place to start reading him, rather start with The Avram Davidson Treasury or The Other Nineteenth Century (both from Tor).

Transfigurations by Michael Bishop (Berkley/Putnam, 1979) is a deep contact story; so I would name that class of sf stories about humans learning new things about aliens they made contact with awhile ago. Here the story is set on a frontier planet, BoskVeld, where humans are colonizing the veldt regions while leaving the Asadi, native sentients (or near-sentients), alone in their jungle habitat. A long prologue (nearly a third of the book) takes the form of a monograph on the Asadi by Egan Chaney, a xenologist who lived with them for several months, compiled by his colleague Thomas Benedict after Chaney's mysterious disappearance. Chaney's daughter, who has just completed a degree in primate ethology, is now arriving on BoskVeld to study the Asadi as the main part of the story opens. This is a well-written story with several interesting characters. It's better than average for this type of novel. Bishop avoids the facile pseudo-transcendence that some such stories end with; there is good closure, but also a reminder that we can't learn everything from a single expedition, and some things may be inherently unlearnable.

[search at abebooks.com]

In the first part of Marrow by Robert Reed (Tor, 2000), humans discover a humongous abandoned starship drifting toward the Milky Way, and are the first to reach it and explore it. They figure out how to operate it, at least on a basic level, and turn it into a cruise ship, taking billions of human and alien passengers on a grand tour of the galaxy. (Humans and most starfaring aliens have found ways to prolong life indefinitely.) The second part begins about 100,000 years later; it's been discovered that the core of the ship, long thought to be a solid mass of iron, is actually hollow, with a small planet (about the size of Mars) inside. A number of the top-ranking crew are sent on a secret mission to explore this planet, named Marrow. I can say no more without spoiling major surprises. It's enough to say that at that point (if not sooner) it becomes hard to put the book down.

I'm not sure Reed's treatment of extremely long-lived humans is fully convincing psychologically, but it's interesting and at least not so unbelievable as to spoil the book. He supposes that human neurology has been redesigned with "bioceramic" brains that can store far more memories than our current brains, but limit possibilities for long-term personality change.

[search at abebooks.com]

17 May 2002

Between Heaven and Hell by Peter Kreeft (InterVarsity Press, 1982) is a Socratic dialogue; a conversation about whether Christ is God. The conceit is that John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis (who all died on 22 November 1963) meet shortly after death and get to talking. The conversation mainly centers around two questions: 1. Whether the Gospels are reliable accounts of what Jesus did and said? How can we tell? 2. If they are, what can we infer about Jesus? The treatment of the second question is pretty thorough; of the first, not quite so thorough, from the shortness. As a dialogue it is very entertaining as well as thought-provoking; the characters' speech is fairly convincing, thought I admit I'm not much of a judge as to how accurate is Dr. Kreeft's presentation of Kennedy and Huxley.

[search for Between Heaven and Hell on abebooks.com]

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker is a supernatural fantasy set in London in about 1902. A wealthy Egyptologist is mysteriously attacked and injured during the night, and his daughter sends for a barrister friend to help her out. He becomes involved with the Scotland Yard detectives in investigating. Trelawney (the Egyptologist) is kept in his own bedroom during several days' period of unconsciousness, by his own mysterious instructions, and the attacks are repeated in spite of a round-the-clock watch. The mystery gets stranger when Trelawney's friend and associate Corbeck arrives, just returned from another trip to Egypt... This isn't as good as Dracula, but it's well written and eerie.

An interesting aspect is the use of physiognomy in character descriptions. It's not clear whether Stoker believes in it, but his narrator apparently does.

She had a snub nose - there was no possible doubt about it; but like such noses in general it showed a nature generous, untiring, and full of good nature. Her broad white forehead, which even the freckles had spared, was full of forceful thought and purpose.

There were several good stories in the June 2002 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, but only "She Sees My Monsters Now" by Robert Reed stands out as one I'll want to read again.

13 May 2002

Passage by Connie Willis (Bantam, 2001) tells the story of two scientists who are researching the nature of near-death experiences. Dr. Joanna Lander, a psychologist, has been interviewing various patients at Mercy General Hospital who were resuscitated after their hearts had stopped. Dr. Richard Wright, a neurologist who is starting a study on a psychoactive drug whose effects seem similar to the typical near-death experience, asks her to work with him in interviewing his subjects after each experiment, while he studies their brain scans to see what brain areas are active during the experience. I won't say more of the plot for fear of spoilers. Besides these two there are many other interesting, well-fleshed-out characters. The geography and social atmosphere of Mercy General Hospital is very effectively presented. Passage reminds me most of Lincoln's Dreams and Doomsday Book; it may be Connie Willis's best novel yet.

After hearing of George Alec Effinger's death on 27 April, I decided to re-read his first novel What Entropy Means to Me. I reviewed it for rec.arts.sf.reviews when I first read it in 1996. It's as good as I remembered it on all aesthetic levels, but I find the parody of the Christological controversies (which I don't remember noticing the first time I read it) disturbing. The dozens of brothers and sisters who are the main characters have a tradition that their parents (who fled from Earth to escape creditors) are divine. Their eldest brother Dore (the only child born to his parents before they fled Earth) is missing, having gone downriver on a probably futile quest to find his missing father. Now, while Seyt is writing a fantasy about Dore's adventures, his elder brother Tere and sister Aétechal are leading two factions in defining the extent of Dore's participation in his parents' divinity. The terms they use echo to a large extent the terms used in the theological debates between the Catholics and the Gnostics, Arians, Nestorians and other heretics of the third to fifth centuries A.D. There are elements from other religions (their Father and Mother, or their mythologized characters, resemble a Greek god and godess), but this part of the story looks like a parody of dogmatic religion in general and Catholic theology in particular.

This time I also noticed more of the levels of narrative inversion. What looks like the frame story is actually the real story, or most of it, and the inner story is a series of digressions from it.

[search for What Entropy Means to Me on abebooks.com]

11 May 2002

I'm starting a weblog of brief reviews of books I've been reading lately.

I read Hard to be a god (Trudno byity bogom) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in an Esperanto translation (Malfacilas esti dio) by Aleksei Zhuravlyov. It tells the story of a young Terran secret agent on a planet inhabited by a human race with a medievalesque culture and level of technology. An anti-rationalist movement is gathering strength in the country he's stationed in, and he's working on getting scientists and artists out to more friendly countries before they can be killed. Most of the story dwells on his disgust for the primitive and barbaric culture he's living in, his frustration with the rules about limited contact and interference with its development, and so forth. I enjoyed it, but don't expect to read it again.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998) is set in and about my home town of Decatur, Georgia, largely in Atlanta but with some scenes also in Chamblee, south Georgia, and the San Francisco Bay area. It tells several interleaving stories: about Charlie Croker, a wealthy real estate developer on the verge of bankruptcy due to a foolishly expensive office complex he's built that he can't fully rent; about Conrad Hensley, a young man who gets laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near El Cerrito; about Roger White, a black lawyer hired to defend a black Georgia Tech football player accused of raping a white girl; about Martha Croker, Charlie Croker's discarded first wife, and about Raymond Peepgrass, a low-level official at the bank Charlie Croker owes half a billion dollars to. It's not clear for some while how the stories are going to intersect, and when they do, the result is very satisfying. I can recommend this novel for its ideas and characters as well as the fast-moving story.

[search for A Man in Full on abebooks.com]

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam, 2002) is an epic alternate history. It begins in the year 783 after the Hegira (about 1381 A.D.), when Temur the Lame's horde invades Europe to find nobody left alive; nearly everyone has died in the Black Death. It ends about 700 years later, with the world gradually rebuilding after a long, destructive war between the Islamic countries and the Chinese empire. The story is told in 10 novella-length sections. We follow three main characters and several minor ones through a series of incarnations; the conceit is that they are all members of a single jati, a Hindu notion of a quasi-family of people who will tend to reincarnate together and meet in most of their lives.

The last two sections remind me a lot of the Mars trilogy in style, but the early chapters are unlike anything else Robinson has written. One of the main themes of the middle and later chapters is how the scientific discovery process happens, and its social context; one of the longest sections tells of an alchemist in Samarqand who discovers much about gravity and orbital mechanics, but is forced by the khan to spend most of his time working on improved artillery. A later section involves a nuclear physicist's attempts to keep her work secret from the military government of Ferengistan (western Europe). Another main theme is a synthesis or anyway ecumenical dialogue between Islam and Buddhism. That might seem impossible - the simplest monotheistic religion is simply contradictory to a complex atheistic philosophy. But Robinson has them meeting at their fringes: Sufi mysticism, which apparently allows for reincarnation, and some forms of Mahayana Buddhism. I don't know how accurate his characterization of Islam and Buddhism is, but it's convincing to me, who have studied both to some degree but am not a believer or expert in either.

Other reviews of The Years of Rice and Salt:

The Weirwoods by Thomas Burnett Swann (Ace, 1967) is one of his Etruscan fantasies, set in northern Italy when Rome was a small town with few ambitions and no conquests yet. The story is about Lars Velcha, who kidnaps one of the amphibious Weir folk as a slave for his daughter Tanaquil, and Arnth, a travelling entertainer who meets Lars Velcha, Tanaquil and their resentful slave Vel when he stops in their home town of Sutrium. Arnth is involved by Vel in an attempt to rescue him; he takes word to Vel's friends in the Weirwoods north of Sutrium. The rescue does not go as planned. Well written, with several interesting characters.

[search for The Weirwoods on abebooks.com]

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