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17 May 2003

The Scar by China Miéville (2002) is not exactly a sequel to his earlier novel Perdido Street Station, though it's set in the same world. This story begins at the coastal town of Tarmuth, ten miles downriver from New Crobuzon (the setting of Perdido Street Station), and moves out to sea from there. Bellis Coldwine is fleeing from the New Crobuzon militia after the events of Perdido Street Station; she's taken passage on a ship bound for the colony of Nova Esperium, and is paying her way by working as a translator. The Terpsichoria is transporting explorers, voluntary colonists, and criminals under sentence of transportation and forced labor - most of them Remade (steam-age cyborgs, more or less). When the ship stops at the mostly underwater Salkrikaltor City, and Bellis is first put to work translating for the captain and the leaders of the cray (half human, half crustacean), she begins to learn of mysterious happenings; and when the Terpsichoria is attacked and captured by pirates a few days later, the mysterious happenings affect her personally.

The crew, passengers and prisoners from the Terpsichoria are taken to Armada, a floating pirate city made up of a great number of vessels of all kinds, roped and chained together in various ways, and most of the remainder of the novel takes place in Armada. This floating city is perhaps an even greater achievement in worldbuilding than New Crobuzon. There are a number of "ridings" or districts, each with its own system of government and rulers, and a senate (consisting of one representative from each riding), which only meets at rare intervals to discuss major questions. A system of tugboats sometimes steers the city, but most of the time it drifts around the Swollen Ocean with the currents. As Bellis Coldwine and the others from the Terpsichoria are naturalized and given jobs in Armada, some of them learn of the ambitious plans the Lovers, the dyarchs of Garwater riding, have for the city. There are a number of other characters introduced, but all of the viewpoint characters are, like Bellis, outsiders from New Crobuzon; so Miéville has a plausible reason to explain some things to us as we go along - though there's much the unintentional immigrants, and we readers, have to figure out for ourselves.

I think The Scar is probably even better than Perdido Street Station. Not only Armada, but life in Tarmuth, beneath the sea, and on the Terpsichoria, are mesmerisingly well described; the characters are interesting, convincing, and easy to care about and sympathize with; and the plot is an amazing series of logical surprises. But it will probably rank below The Years of Rice and Salt on my Hugo ballot. I haven't read the other nominees yet.


Old Thunder: A life of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius, 2002) is accurate as far as I can tell, certainly thoroughly footnoted, and an engrossing read. It fills in much detail about Belloc's life and writings, and corrected some false impressions I had gotten from terse about-the-author blurbs in some reprints of Belloc's books. This makes me want to read more of Belloc's books, especially his novels and poetry (I've read about a dozen of his histories and biographies so far), more of Pearce's biographies, and some biographies of Belloc's friends such as Maurice Baring and Wyndham Lewis, about whom I had not heard much previously.

The index seems to be pretty thorough for persons and book titles, but few if any place names are indexed. The bibliography begins: "I: Books and Pamphlets by Hilaire Belloc"; but there is no corresponding section II, which presumably would have listed books about Belloc's life and works. Possibly this got left out by some error, or was not ready by press time. A list could be compiled from the notes section of earlier biographies and memoirs about Belloc; hopefully this will be corrected in a future edition.

284 pp. of main text + notes, bibliography, and index = 318 pp.


10 May 2003

Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2003


The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (2000) is another Discworld novel; part of the City Watch sub-series, which began with Guards! Guards!. Commander Vimes is appointed as ambassador by the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and sent to Überwald to represent the city at the crowning of the new Low King of the dwarfs. The situation in Überwald is complicated by intrigues among the dwarfs, vampires, and werewolves, and between traditionalist and progressive factions among the dwarfs. Also contentious are the trading concessions in the fat deposits of the Shmaltzberg region, the fabled burial place of the Fifth Elephant of the title. This is one of the better of the later Discworld novels; still as funny as the earlier ones, but with more depth.


Rogue in Space by Fredric Brown (1957) is a fairly good sf adventure novel. Crag, a small-time criminal, has been framed by an enemy for a more serious crime than he's actually committed lately, and is in prison awaiting trial when the story opens. The trial is quick, all the evidence solidly against him. The judge, however, secretly offers him an opportunity to escape in return for his help with a secret project. The escape is suspenseful and interesting; unfortunately it's probably the best part of the book. The later parts are fun but not terribly plausible. The sentient asteroid we met in the cryptic first chapter gets involved in a pleasantly surprising way, which redeems the story after some annoyingly bad physics has almost ruined it. Crag and the asteroid are interesting and well-developed, but most of the supporting characters are fairly shallow. The best parts of this story remind me of Double Star by Robert Heinlein or Wasp by Eric Frank Russell.

Rogue in Space has been reprinted in an omnibus volume, Martians and Madness, edited by Ben Yalow (NESFA Press). It also includes Fredric Brown's much better near-future sf novel The Lights in the Sky are Stars, and some others which I haven't read but have heard good things about, such as Martians, Go Home.


Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, August 1984

(I started writing this stuff last weekend, but an electrical storm obliged me to shut down the box without finishing and posting what I had written. Thus the long gap between posts.)


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) is a good deal better than Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility. In particular, it doesn't suffer from the weak ending of her earlier novels. The Bennet family have five daughters; they have plenty of investment income to live on for the present, but, as the estate is entailed, they will have comparatively little when Mr. Bennet dies and a distant male relative inherits his house and investments. So much, with a great deal of the various family members' personalities, is shown us in a couple of opening chapters. During the remainder of the book several of the young Bennet ladies meet several men, love certain of them and cordially dislike others, misunderstand and are misinformed, learn better later on, and so forth — much the same apparently happening on the men's side as well, though we learn of these events only indirectly — and things end more or less well. So much, I think, I can say without spoiling any major surprises. The characters are interesting and convincing, and Miss Austen manages to make the story move along in a fascinating way without much overtly happening; an amazing feat. I would rank this only slightly below Mansfield Park.


The Professor by Charlotte Brontë was apparently her penultimate unpublished novel. She wrote the first draft just before Jane Eyre, and revised it further after she had had one or two novels published, but was still unable to find a publisher for it. It was published only after her death, in 1857. I'm not terribly surprised; it was good enough to keep me reading until the end, but not anywhere near as good as Jane Eyre. The narrator, William Crimsworth, is not so amiable and admirable as Jane Eyre, but not quite an anti-hero, either. He has had a classical education at the expense of his noble relations, but, learning more about his family history and how ill his uncles treated his mother on her marriage to a tradesman, his father, he cuts himself off from them and seeks out his brother Edward, whom he hasn't seen in some years. Edward has become a factory owner and manager; he despises William for various reasons, and, though he gives him a job (as a clerk, translating business letters to and from French and German), continues to treat him very ill. When William loses his job, he decides to go into another line of work entirely rather than seek another post of the same kind; he eventually gets a job teaching English to Belgian children in Brussels. I will say no more in detail, for there are a few surprising plot twists here, though not many. This novel does have the merit of continuing its romance story some years beyond the happy couple's marriage; unfortunately, it's a long, slow, anticlimax.

William Crimsworth is strongly anti-Catholic; he likes the landscape of Belgium, but has a low opinion of the Belgians, and especially the Flemish. He has a self-righteous air. I would like to think him an anti-hero; but, given the way the story ends, I have a horrible suspicion that Ms. Brontë wants us to like him. I would like to consider his disagreeable opinions as his own, not necessarily shared by the author; but as all the Catholic characters are either fools or scoundrels, and all the sympathetic characters in the Belgian scenes are Protestant travellers or immigrants from other countries, I suspect that he may be, at least in some passages, a mouthpiece for his author.

A minor interesting aspect is the use of physiognomic psychoanalysis. Here, Mr. Crimsworth describes one of his disagreeable pupils:

.....She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the Sixth; her organs of benevolence, veneration, conscientiousness, adhesiveness, were singularly small, those of self-esteem, firmness, destructiveness, combativeness, preposterously large; her head sloped up in the penthouse shape, was contracted about the forehead, and prominent behind; she had rather good, though large and marked features; her temperament was fibrous and bilious, her complexion pale and dark, hair and eyes black, form angular and rigid but proportionate, age fifteen.

The author's mixed use of French and English is also interesting. In some places, where characters are switching languages partway through the conversation, Ms. Brontë gives us the English parts in English (of course) and the French parts in French. In other places, where a conversation takes place entirely in French, she renders part of it in English, but much of it (not just a word here and there for flavor) in French. The dialogue in the Belgian scenes is probably the best part of the book, if you know enough French to appreciate it.


I'm reading The Scar by China Miéville. So far I would say it's about as good as his earlier Perdido Street Station in style, characterization, and astonishingness. It's set in the same world, and the main character of The Scar was a minor character in Perdido Street Station, but it stands alone well. More later, when I've finished it.

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