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28 January 2003

I don't usually write here about political matters, but this is a matter of some practical import. Athanasius of Summa Contra Mundum wrote recently about Bishop of Sacramento William Weigand's courageous opposition to California governor Gray Davis' support of legal abortion. He suggests we write Bishop Weigand to thank and encourage him, & donate something for the work of the diocese. I think it's a good idea and I'm doing so. Non-Catholics might not want to donate generally to the diocese; but consider specifying a gift for the crisis pregnancy centers or some similar ministry.

Most Reverend William K. Weigand
Diocese of Sacramento
2110 Broadway
Sacramento, CA 95818-2541

I finished reading Xenophon's Hellenica today. In the last years of the period his history covers (411 to 362 B.C.), Athens and Sparta are allied again against Thebes and its Boeotian subject cities, which are invading the Peloponnese. This period following the Peloponnesian War seems to have been one of almost constant war between some subset or another of the cities in Greece. Toward the end (364 B.C.), even the Olympic Games are interrupted by war between the Arcadians, who are occupying Olympia and supporting the Pisatans in their claim to stewardship of the holy places, and the Eleans, who have been caretakers of Olympia and hosts of the Games for many years.

(I had not realized, until I started reading these Greek historians a few months ago, that there were several periodic game festivals, partly or wholly religious, besides the Olympics that we hear much about because of their revival in modern times. For instance, in book IV chapter 5, Xenophon tells us about the Isthmian games, which were held near Corinth:)

[Agesilaus, the Spartan commander] went first to the Isthmus, because this was the month when the Isthmian games are held, and on this occasion the Argives were there and were offering the sacrifice to Poseidon, just as though Argos were Corinth. However, as soon as they heard that Agesilaus was coming they got very alarmed indeed and went back to the city by the road leading to Cenchreae, leaving behind the animals that had been sacrificed and all the preparations for the feast that were being made. But Agesilaus, though he saw what they were doing, did not pursue them. Instead, he encamped in the sacred precinct and sacrificed to the god himself, and stayed there until the Corinthian exiles had made the sacrifice and held the games in honour of Poseidon. But when Agesilaus had left the Isthmus the Argives held the Isthmian games all over again. So in that year in some of the events various competitors were beaten twice and the same people were twice proclaimed winners.

(Rex Warner's translation)

Xenophon is generally thought not as good a historian as Thucydides, for want of his predecessor's objectivity and depth of analysis. He might be a better historian than Herodotus, but it's hard for me to say for sure. His history of this period is worth reading if you have any interest in ancient Greece, but you should probably read Herodotus and Thucydides first.

25 January 2003

Making Book (NESFA Press, 1994) is a collection of 15 essays (mostly) by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Most of the pieces originally appeared in early-1980s fanzines or in various online fora. Some of them are merely silly, but several have real depth. (Most of the deep ones are pretty funny in spots, too.) Some are very cryptic, accessible (I expect) only to those more deeply immersed in sf fanzine or convention culture than I am; but these are few - maybe three or four.

Probably the best are "God and I", in which the author tells how she was excommunicated by the Mormon church, in which she grew up, and "On Copyediting", which, though primarily written as advice to inexperienced copyeditors (or those just inexperienced with sf), gives others a fascinating look at what copyeditors have to put up with, and what it's like to work with them.

Xenophon's Hellenica begins where Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian war left off. He describes the last years of the war, the destruction of the Athenian navy at Aegospotami (in the Hellespont), and the siege and final surrender of Athens. He then goes on to tell of the years of Spartan dominance in Greece, the fighting in Asia Minor against the Persian territorial governors in which Athens and Sparta were allied again for a little while, and the later breakdown of relations leading to renewed war between Athens and Sparta (though not on the same scale as before). (I'm about five-sevenths through so far.)

Xenophon's writing is at its most vigorous when he is indignant against impiety and injustice. For instance, Theramenes' speech when he is arrested by the Thirty (the tyrannous government set up in Athens by the Spartans after their conquest):

When he heard this [his condemnation] Theramenes sprang to the altar. "And I," he said, " ask for nothing but justice - that it should not be in the power of Critias to strike my name from the list ..... By heaven," he added, "I am indeed aware that this altar is not going to help me, but I want to make this point clear too - that these people respect the gods no more than they do men. Nevertheless, you gentlemen of Athens, I must own to surprise at your conduct in not being willing to defend yourselves....."

...Satyrus and the rest dragged Theramenes forcibly away from the altar. Theramenes, as was natural, kept calling on gods and men to be the witnesses of what was happening.

I've posted to my site the last three articles I've written for The Connection, an amateur press association I'm a member of.

21 January 2003

Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2003


Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, January 1984


18 January 2003

Jack Vance's Tschai tetralogy (City of the Chasch, 1968; Servants of the Wankh, 1969; The Dirdir, 1969; The Pnume, 1970) is great fun. The story begins with Adam Reith and Paul Waunder approaching an unknown planet, from which radio signals were received recently (sent 212 years earlier). Their ship is hit by a missile from somewhere on the planet; they manage to eject shortly before crashing, but Waunder is murdered by one of a group of local humans who show up to investigate the crash site of their ship. Adam Reith is spared on orders of the chief of this human tribe. He gradually learns their language, and is told that Tschai is inhabited by four other sentient races besides humans (who were apparently brought here from Earth as servants by one of the groups of spacefaring aliens some millenia ago). The four novels tell the story of how Reith attempts in several ways to acquire a working spaceship so he can return to Earth and report on Tschai, and how he tries to find out who signaled Earth, and who shot down his ship. They can't be said to stand alone, but the first three do not end in cliffhangers, either. I read them all one after another, but you could spread them out over a few weeks without getting excessively confused.

The Chasch, the Wankh, the Dirdir, the Pnume and the Phung, though all are more or less humanoid, are convincingly alien in their psychology. Vance also shows us a wide variety of interesting human cultures, some subordinate to alien masters, others free and independent. The geography of Tschai isn't so exotic, but the landscape descriptions are evocative without slowing down the story. On the whole I would regard this as probably Vance's best job of worldbuilding, though he's done better characterization in (for instance) the Cadwal Chronicles (Araminta Station and sequels).

These books are out of print; but there have been a number of editions over the years, including DAW, St. Martin's Press, and Underwood-Miller, so they aren't too hard to find on abebooks.com.


In thinking about what to nominate for the Hugo awards, I'm putting together a long list of the best new stories I've read in 2002. I'll think about them for a few days and narrow the list down to 5 (or fewer) in each length category to fill out the nomination ballot.



Short stories

12 January 2003

The Pickwick Papers was Charles Dickens first novel, serialized in 1836-37. It's great fun throughout, though the overall plot (such as it is) doesn't develop until over a hundred pages in. Mr. Samuel Pickwick, a retired businessman, founder of the Pickwick Club, sets out with three young friends to travel around England and observe varied scenes of life. Dickens has his characters meet odd people and get into absurd situations in various parts of England. Frequently they hear stories told by chance acquaintances; mostly these form a tragic contrast to the comic frame story, but some of them, such as the Bagman's Story in chapter XIV, are extremely silly.

As good as the first hundred pages are, the story improves by an order of magnitude when Sam Weller is introduced. He's easily the most interesting character in the book, and his interactions with the other characters, his way of speaking, and his attitude toward life are probably the main factors that makes the book worth re-reading again and again.

During Christmas I read The Pickwick Papers for the third (or fourth?) time; I'm sure I will read it again thrice three times, if I live long enough.


Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2003

6 January 2003

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War describes the period from 433 to 411 B.C. - the first twenty-two years of the great war between Athens and Sparta - in some detail. He apparently intended to tell the whole history of the war (up to 404 B.C.), but died before his book was finished. He's much less digressive than Herodotus; he usually sticks to the war and closely relevant matters. Consequently, I found his narration easier to follow than that of Herodotus (comparing the passages where Herodotus is talking about the war with Persia). Parts of Thucydides' History are tedious reading, but most of it is exciting and engrossing enough; especially the parts about the sieges of Plataea, of Pylos, Potidaea, Syracuse, and Athens. (I wonder why it is mainly the besiegings, rather than the pitched battles, that stick out in my memory a month after I finished the book?)

Xenophon's Hellenica takes up where Thucydides' unfinished history breaks off; I will write about it when I finish reading it.


Down the Bright Way by Robert Reed (Bantam Spectra, 1991) is a fine sf novel of parallel worlds. It opens in Lincoln, Nebraska on our own Earth (more or less), shortly after the arrival of a large group of interdimensional travellers, called the Wanderers. The oldest of them were among the original discoverers of a kind of railway system connecting an uncounted number of parallel Earths, presumably created by some advanced pre-human sentients millions or billions of years ago. Others were recruited from the various Earths the Wanderers have visited along the way.

The opening section introduces six viewpoint characters, some Wanderers and some native to our Earth. It soon becomes obvious (to the reader) that there is a conspiracy at work; some Wanderers are plotting against their leader Jy, one of the founders of the project - but what they are conspiring do to and why, does not become apparent until over halfway through the book, so I'll say no more.

Mr. Reed sticks with one viewpoint character for 10-20 pages at a time, and heads each chapter with the viewpoint character's name, so the multiple viewpoints don't make the story hard to follow. The story and characters are interesting throughout, and toward the end it becomes hard to put down. I would rank Down the Bright Way as better than Black Milk but not as good as Marrow (the only other novels of his that I've read).

I took about three months off from weblogging from October to December. In the coming year I plan to review, not every book I read, as before, but most of the more interesting ones. I'll probably post at least once a month.

I'm currently re-reading The Pickwick Papers, and reading Xenophon's Hellenica.

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