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28 August 2002

I'm a bit more than halfway through Herodotus - not the furthest I have ever gotten, but further than last time (late 1998?). Herodotus devotes more than half of his book to the rise of the Persian empire under Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius and their various conquests - as he comes to each country that the Persians conquered or tried to conquer, he digresses for some while on its history and ethnology, frequently (as in Egypt) commenting on what he saw when his travels took him there. Only in the last third or so does he get to the invasion of Greece by Xerxes' army. In the geographical digressions he's usually pretty clear about what he saw and what is hearsay. For instance,

...Eastern Libya is low-lying and sandy as far as the river Triton, wheras the agricultural region to the west is very hilly, and abounds with forest and animal life. It is here that the huge snakes are found - and lions, elephants, bears, asps, and horned asses, not to mention dog-headed men, headless men with eyes in their breasts (I don't vouch for this, but merely repeat what the Libyans say), wild men and wild women, and a great many other creatures by no means of a fabulous kind.

(Aubrey de Selincourt's translation, Penguin 1972 edition, p. 334; emphasis mine)

In other places he explicitly says that he disbelieves what he has been told - for instance, that the Nile's flooding comes from snowmelt - but merely repeats it for his readers to make up their own minds. Here, he seems to think the Libyans' stories not improbable, but doesn't want to deceive his readers into thinking he has seen these headless men with eyes in their breasts in person.

Not surprisingly, several modern fantasy writers have recycled material from Herodotus - Avram Davidson, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lord Dunsany all spring immediately to mind, and I am sure there are others. Imitations of his style are rarer; Jack Vance is the only writer who comes to my mind in this connection, and the stylistic resemblance of (for instance) his Lyonnesse epic to Herodotus is not so close I can definitely say it is imitation.

This will be my last blog entry until after Worldcon. For now, here are some Herodotus links:

Sean Roberts wrote on his weblog recently about the impending difficulty of telling his parents that he is fixing to join the Catholic Church. Please pray for him and his parents. I posted a long comment about my own experience breaking the news to my parents, but the comment service he was using seems to have broken. I think I saved a copy on disk somewhere; if so, it will show up here when I find it.

23 August 2002

Gene Wolfe's collection Strange Travelers (which I started reviewing on 21 August) also contains two Christmas stories; quite good ones. "No Planets Strike" uses genetically enhanced animals (not quite Cordwainer Smith's Underpeople) to play with the legend that animals can talk on Christmas Eve. In "And When They Appear", a household management AI uses a Christmas party with holographic guests (are they all holographic, though?) to prepare its young charge for the strange and terrible events going on outside. "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless" is a spiffy retelling of the story of the same title from The Red Fairy Book. Most of the other stories are worth rereading too. The only ones I would hesitate to recommend so strongly are "Queen of the Night" - above average for vampire stories, but not up to Wolfe's usual standard - and "To the Seventh", a good but not excellent chess story.

The February 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is notable mainly for "Hothouse" by Brian W. Aldiss. I had read a few of Aldiss's other stories in anthologies, but this is the first one that really made me realize why some people like his stuff so well - and also why some people can't stand his sloppy use of science. "Hothouse" is set in a far future in which Earth is tidelocked to the Sun, keeping one face always toward it. The dayside is dominated by plants; animal life, including humans, is marginal and always seems in danger of extinction. In the first few pages several members of the small tribe of humans are killed or nearly killed by various carnivorous plants. Their cluster of treehouses is no longer safe. The leader of the tribe, Lily-yo, decides it is time for the group to split, the children to be left on their own and the adults to Go Up into the highest level of the forest. There they expect to find death; but a new phase of the story opens when they discover that their traditional mode of suicide does not kill them. To say more in detail would involve spoilers; it's enough to say that the story is rich in invention, especially in the culture and characters of the humans, and it moves fast. Other good stories include "The Ubiquitous Wife" by Marcel Aymé (translated by Whit Burnett), about a woman who discovers she has the gift of being in several places at once. At first she uses it only to do errands and chores for her family more efficiently, rarely multiplying more than five or six bodies at a time, but when she falls into adultery, she soon multiplies into the thousands. Ultimately the story is about repentance and penance. There are also good stories by Ron Goulart, Theodore L. Thomas, and C. Brian Kelly; a Ferdinand Feghoot story by Grendel Briarton, a science essay on entropy and the laws of thermodynamics by Isaac Asimov, and a rant by Alfred Bester on how awful the books sent for review this month were.

The September 2002 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction contains several very good stories, and some pleasant silliness - with some overlap. The best is probably "Mr. Gaunt", by John Langan, in which Henry Farange listens to a cassette tape his late father left for him and learns horrific things about his family history. By the time I finished reading the transcript of the elder Farange's monologue, I was in great suspense to learn how Henry was going to act on what he had learned. The conclusion is ... I will not say, satisfying, but: fitting. "The Majesty of Angels" by Robert Reed (a double cover story, with front and back covers by pro David Hardy and student Jenny Kerr) deals with advanced aliens that "rescue" human souls at death and resurrect them in a virtual realm. The narrator is one of the guides who orients the newly resurrected humans to this more or less Tiplerian afterlife. She and her co-workers have a huge problem: the extinction of the entire human race by an unexpected nearby high-radiation event is straining their processing system to its limits. But the problem is about to get even worse... This may well end up on my Hugo nomination ballot. There's also a new Kedrigern mystery by John Morressy ("The Game is a Foot"), Hispanic-American/Iranian culture shock from Bruce Sterling ("In Paradise"), silly use of Japanese mythology by Esther Freisner ("Why I Want to Come to Brewster College"), three other good stories, and the usual book and film reviews.

Child of an Ancient City by Tad Williams and Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1992) is an Arabian fantasy set during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. A caravan of travellers bound for the court of an Armenian prince meets disaster at the hands of bandits. As they struggle back towards civilization (Baghdad), they are stalked by a vampyr - of the Armenian variety, not the Rumanian variety most popular in post-Dracula vampire fiction. This kind of vampyr can be kept at bay by telling sufficiently interesting stories, apparently. As the travellers run out of remembered stories, the vampyr approaches their camp and proposes a final contest of stories to decide their fate... I enjoyed this short novel, largely because of the excellence of some of the embedded stories, but I doubt I will read it again. This isn't as good as Nina Kiriki Hoffman's other novels; I can't compare it to Tad Williams' others, which I haven't read. It's probably not worth buying at new price unless you're a completist for Williams or Hoffman or both.

All the editions I'm aware of (Byron Preiss; Tor; Atheneum) have nice illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt.

Emphyrio by Jack Vance (1969) is a fine short sf adventure novel; also a story of growing up. Ghyl Tarvoke is the son of a woodcarver in the city of Fortinone on the planet Halma, an ancient colony of Earth. He learns woodcarving, reading and writing - more literacy than the welfare agents think proper for one of his station - from his father, who is also a collector of rare books and printed matter - which are little valued by the lords, or they would be priced beyond his reach. Halma's lords live by the sale of exported hand-crafted articles. To maintain their artisan class's high standards of quality, they forbid all use of mass production, even for printing. As Ghyl grows up, he becomes more aware of the injustice and arbitrariness of the lords' rule. He is inspired by the fragmentary legend of Emphyrio, who is supposed to have made peace with aliens who invaded Halma thousands of years ago. It would spoil the plot to speak in any detail of how Ghyl comes to rebel against the lords, but it is plain from the start that he will - the opening chapter has him being interrogated by them, then the second chapter returns to his childhood, afters which the story is fairly sequential. The ending is very satisfying, as it forces the reader to reevaluate much of what has happened in the novel. This is probably one of Vance's best stand-alone novels, though it's not as good as his epics.

Daniel Moloney's review of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which I started but didn't finish back in June) makes me think of picking it up again and finishing it. Maybe. Right now it's sitting in a sack of books that I'm probably going to trade in at the Book Nook in a month or two.

I'm reading Herodotus' Histories again. This is surely my favorite book I've never finished. I love his style of writing history, and his folkloric and anthropological digressions; but on two or three previous tries I've bogged down about halfway through, unable to keep the names straight anymore. Maybe I'll finish it this time. Whether I do or not, I'll probably be blogging about it more.

21 August 2002

Meet Me in the Moon Room (Small Beer Press, 2001) is Ray Vukcevich's first collection of short stories. I spread them out over the most part of a year; they're just too weird to read more than one or two at a time, and so wonderful I wanted to stretch out the delight of anticipating another one as long as possible. I had read a few of them in their magazine appearances (in F&SF), but most were new to me.

Many of these stories would probably be better described as surrealism than as science fiction or as belonging to any recognizable school of fantasy. In "Home Remedy", a man tries extreme measures to exterminate the cockroaches living in his sinuses. In "The Sweater", a man tries on a handmade sweater, a birthday gift from his wife, and finds it larger inside than outside. "Catch" describes a day in the life of a couple whose job it is to toss cats back and forth until they die, at which point another cat will drop on them. Some can be readily described as science fiction, however; for instance, "Mom's Little Friends", in which a brother and sister attempt to rescue their mother from the overprotective nanobots she has injected herself with.

There's hardly a one of these stories that isn't worth reading again.

Strange Travelers (Tor, 2000) is Gene Wolfe's latest collection, with fifteen stories first published from 1992 to 1997. Two of them tell of the same events from different perspectives, but it would be a minor spoiler to mention which they are. The other thirteen stories stand alone. Probably the best of them is "The Ziggurat", which tells of what looks at first like an alien invasion, but might turn out to be something else. It is also the story of a divorce; one of the best such stories I have ever read.

...I'm running out of time on this one, will blog more about these stories and other books later.

17 August 2002

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was apparently the first novel she wrote (1798), though it wasn't published till later (1818). Like Sense and Sensibility, it's not overtly very eventful - it tells the story of a meeting and courtship in minute detail. To my mind the best part is the satiric comments aimed at the clichés of earlier novels - Miss Austen is constantly apologizing for her heroine, Catherine Morland, not being up to the usual standard for heroines. Most of the characters are very well drawn. If the novel has a serious flaw, it is that it tells too much that it could do better by showing - especially at the end; we learn about several important concluding events not through direct narration of their happening, or through a conversation or letter in which Catherine learns about them, but through Miss Austen's summary of what Catherine learned from various letters and conversations. It almost seems as if she were running out of paper and had to finish her story by summarizing its ending.

The satire on clerical absenteeism - Anglican parish priests collecting a salary from the tithe-tax on their parishioners, but spending large parts of the year away on vacation in Bath and London - is almost too subtle. I am afraid that if one's conscience were not already alive to the evils of the system, one would miss it.

Rocannon's World by Ursula Le Guin (Ace, 1966) was her first sf novel (she had already written several fantasies). It's a fun adventure story, drawing several themes from mythology and fairy tales. Rocannon is an anthropologist who leads a survey expedition to an unnamed planet home to at least three sentient races; there are rumors of others living in isolated regions. While Rocannon is visiting the castle of a feudal lord, his survey team's ship is attacked and destroyed by hostile offworlders, who apparently want to make this planet a base for a rebellion against the League. He enlists the help of several natives, including his host and several of the latter's vassals, to discover and infiltrate the offworlders' base and hijack their ansible (faster-than-light radio) to tell his government about them. The rest of the story is an epic quest, well told. It's not as good as her later The Lathe of Heaven or The Dispossessed, but it's worth reading.

This short novel is reprinted in an omnibus: Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions.

Deserted Cities of the Heart by Lewis Shiner (Doubleday, 1988) takes place in Mexico in 1986. John Carmichael, a reporter for Rolling Stone, is trying to get an interview with the leader of a group of rebels. Thomas Yates, an anthropologist and archaeologist, is working on an interdisciplinary ecological project in Cuernavaca when the Mexican government suddenly raids and shuts it down. While Thomas and the other leaders of the project are being held for questioning (they're suspected of giving biological weapons to the rebels), his sister-in-law Lindsey shows up. She wants his help in finding her husband, his brother Eddie, who's been missing for years. She's discovered evidence that he may be living with an Indian tribe - coincidentally, or not, the same tribe that Thomas studied the last time he was in Mexico in the mid-1970s. Eddie is indeed living with the Lacondones, as the reader learns sooner than Thomas and Lindsey; and they are preparing for a pilgrimage to the ruins of a temple built by their Mayan ancestors.

Of course the rebels, Carmichael, the Lacondones, and the Yates all converge at the temple, and eerie things happen. It would be a spoiler (and difficult) for me to say definitely whether I consider this mainstream or fantasy; it's ambiguous early on, anyway. The plot is maybe a little too coincidence-driven, but very interesting. Most of the characters are complex and believable. I can readily recommend this.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare's shorter plays; it's great fun, with much humor arising from the plot twists, the characters abrading against each other, and the copious wordplay.

The Unconquered Country by Geoff Ryman (1986) is a techno-fantasy based on the 20th-century wars in southeast Asia, especially Cambodia. It's subtitled "A Life History", and it follows the life of Third Child, not purely in chronological order. She is born a few years before her nation is invaded and conquered by the Neighbors, who have been sold new weapons by people from the Big Country. She lives through the invasion and conquest, the resistance and rebellion. The story of how she is mistreated by foreigners and fellowcountrymen alike, and how she finds some happiness here and there, is deeply affecting.

4 August 2002

The Deep by John Crowley (Doubleday, 1975) has an exotic feel, as it immerses the reader immediately into a strange culture without explanations. The story becomes clear only gradually, though one element is clear from the start:

After the skirmish, two Endwives found him lying in the darkness next to the great silver egg. It took them only a moment to discover that he was neither male nor female; somewhat longer to decide whether he was alive or dead.

Evidently the 'he' in this passage is an android or cyborg from somewhere other than the low-tech civilization the Endwives and the skirmishers belong to. But he is damaged and can remember little of where he comes from or why he came. He becomes known as the Visitor, and gets indirectly involved in the civil war that's starting between the Red clan and the Black clan, with the subversive terrorists, the Just, the neutral healers, the Endwives, and the theoretically neutral scholars, the Grays, taking sides or attempting to avoid taking sides as the battle lines shift. There are a lot of interesting characters here, and the story is interesting though confusing at first. Gradually the Visitor remembers more of his mission and attempts to fulfil it; this mission will lead the Visitor and the reader, though maybe not the other characters, to an epiphanic moment of realizing the nature of the world the story is set in - a satisfying science-fictional eureka.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien (1971) is a fun animal story. Mrs. Frisby is a field mouse, a widow with four children, who has lived during the past winter in a partially buried cinderblock in Mr. Fitzgibbon's garden. Her son Timothy is sick with pneumonia and can't be safely moved, but the spring plowing is due to start in just a few days, and the family must evacuate to their summer home in the forest, or be killed by the plow or harrow. Seeking a way out of this dilemma, she eventually asks help of the mysterious, secretive tribe of rats that live under the rosebush. It turns out they are escapees from an intelligence-enhancing experiment at NIMH (probably the National Institutes of Mental Health); they have mastered enough human technology to help her out, if she can convince them to do so.

The author of such an animal story has a delicate balancing act to manage between excessively anthropomorphizing the animal characters, and being too realistic. Mr. O'Brien manages pretty well here most of the time, but there are a few points where non-genetically modified animals use jarringly human metaphors in their speech. Also, I don't feel he plausibly conveyed by the events of the story that the modified rats are vastly more intelligent than Mrs. Frisby. She (and the other non-modified animal characters, like Jeremy the crow) come across as smart but uneducated; the rats as clever, but not transcendent geniuses. Still, this is an enjoyable story; not as good as Watership Down, but better than average for books of this type.

An animated movie, The Secret of NIMH, was made based on this novel. It's been too long since I've seen it to comment on it in detail, but I remember enjoying it when I was 9 or 10 years old.

2 August 2002

Five Hundred Years After by Steven Brust (Tor, 1994) is the sequel to The Phoenix Guards, which I reviewed last month. In spite of the tragic tone, there are a good many funny bits. If you enjoy The Phoenix Guards, you will probably enjoy its sequel. I enjoyed both enough to read them a second time.

A History of the Catholic Church, by Dom Charles Poulet, translated by the Rev. Sidney A. Raemers, volume 1 (B. Herder Book Company, 1934), treats pretty thoroughly of many aspects of Church history from New Testament times up to just before the Lutheran schism. I found its treatment of the development of monasticism and religious orders particularly helpful, as this topic (compared to the relations between church and state, which Poulet's history also treats thoroughly) had been given short shrift in other histories I had read. A good feature which more such general histories should emulate is the inclusion, at the end of each chapter, of a short exerpt from source documents - mostly original documents of the time the chapter treats of (e.g., conciliar decrees and papal bulls, but also poetry and the like), with some extracts from earlier histories. Other topics that this volume treats at some length include the early persecutions under the Roman Empire, the development of the Sacraments, and the Avignon exile of the popes and the Western Schism that followed it. The Eastern Schism does not get as much treatment as I would have expected in a book of this length (722 pages of main text; 773 with chronological tables and index). This appears to be out of print, but you can search for it on abebooks.com.

Volume 1 is the only one the St. Patrick's (Norcross, Georgia) parish library has. Apparently volume 2 takes up with the Reformation and continues from there, but I don't know up to what year it goes.

I read the Oedipus Plays of Sophocles (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) in a translation by Paul Roche (Mentor, 1958; Plume, 1996). A twisted story beatifully told in dialogue, with all the violent action taking place offstage and reported at secondhand, as typical in old Greek drama. The choruses are sometimes pretty cryptic, but the translator notes that they're cryptic in the Greek too, and he wanted to convey that in the English - which he certainly did.

The Catholic Church in the Modern World by E. E. Y. Hales (Doubleday, 1958), treats briefly of the early 'Enlightenment' period, then covers the period from 1789-1956 in some detail. The most detail is given to the French Revolution and the persecutions of the Church by the revolutionary government, to the various events of the pontificate of Pius IX (Hales also wrote a biography of him, titled Pio Nono, which I haven't read yet), and to the later persecution by the secularising governments of Prussia and Italy after 1870. The development of Catholicism in America, especially the United States, is also given considerable space - probably more than is given to England, which is a pleasant suprise as Hales appears to be British. The World Wars and the early Cold War period, especially the Hungarian Revolution, are also treated in some detail, though not as much as earlier periods. The missions in Africa and Asia are not entirely neglected, but probably don't get as much space as they deserve.

This also appears to be out of print, but you can search for it on abebooks.com.

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 1998) is better than the earliest Discworld novels, but probably not as good as most of the later ones. It continues the story of Rincewind and the Luggage (from The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Eric, and some others); probably it doesn't stand alone as well as other late Discworld books either. But it's fun. Rincewind, after his last adventure (in Eric, if I remember right, but I don't have it handy to check) ended up on the continent of XXXX, the Discworld's Australia analogue. Meanwhile (?), several wizards from Unseen University are trying to find him, and they end up thousands of years in the past, on a small island where every species consists of a single individual. The two plot threads join finally at the end, more or less satisfactorily.

Also, I recently enjoyed re-reading Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson (Ace, 1984; Tor, 1998). I reviewed it here.

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