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29 February 2004

Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance (1976) is chiefly a story of political intrigue. Maske, the world of the title, has been settled by two waves of human colonization; the later wave has subjugated the descendants of the first wave, which situation the reader is led by the expository prologue to suppose will form a major motive of the plot. It doesn't. The last group of colonists came of three different sects all fleeing persecution on their home world; arriving on Maske, they fought, and settled in different regions. The story involves intrigue among high-ranking nobles of two of these groups, and particularly the attempts of Jubal Droad, a younger son of minor nobility in Glentlin, to make his fortune in Thaery by making clever use of information he's learned about the efforts of a certain Thariot nobleman to evade the Alien Influences Act, which forbids trade with other planets. Though a bit slow to get started, the novel moves fast once the stage is set in the prologue and first chapter. The characters and their world are interesting, and the political intrigue plot works well. Not Vance's best work, but quite enjoyable nonetheless; his beautiful writing makes the load of up-front exposition, which would be a fatal turn-off if not so well written, at least bearable (though still a minor flaw), and the rest of the story a joy to read.

19 February 2004

I finished Virgil's Aeneid last Saturday. Virgil imitates the Odyssey fairly closely in the first part, about Aeneas and his Trojan followers looking for a new place to live after they escape the Achaean sack of Troy. Indeed, this story is happening simultaneously with Odysseus's adventures. (Not a sequel, then, but a paraquel.) Aeneas visits some of the same places as Odysseus, a bit later than he (e.g. the island of the Cyclops). Others seem parallel, like Aeneas's long visit in Carthage with Queen Dido, which is similar in some ways to Odysseus's stay with Calypso. But a big differences is that Aeneas is travelling the whole way with many Trojan families; while Odysseus's men were all killed off one way or another early on, and his later adventures are solitary. The other major difference is that Odysseus is going to Ithaca, his home from before the war and from childhood; while the Trojans are looking for a new home, according to a cryptic prophecy.

When they find their new home in Italy (they know they're in the right place by recognizing such omens as eating their tables and spotting an albino sow and thirty piglets suckling), it is of course already inhabited. The King of the country, Latinus, has also heard a cryptic prophecy, this one saying that his much-desired daughter Lavinia must marry a foreigner. When Aeneas and his Trojan would-be colonists arrive, King Latinus decides he is the man intended by the oracle, and betrothes Lavinia to him. It would be short for an epic poem, though, if it ended there. As Aeneas is negotiating with King Latinus for land his people can settle on, Turnus, a prince of a neighboring kingdom, starts a war over this betrothal - it seems he had regarded Lavinia as implicitly promised to him. Now Virgil has occasion to bring in his favorite tropes from the Iliad as well: great warriors throwing huge rocks (which none of these weaklings nowadays could lift) at each other, etc. There's some good stuff in this latter part, and it isn't as monotonously bloody as the Iliad (it helps that it's not so long), but nothing in it is as good as the best scenes in the first part, about the Trojans' wandering.

Throughout, Virgil foreshadows episodes of Roman history - his conceit is that Aeneas and Lavinia are going to be the ancestors of Romulus and Remus, the former of whom founded Rome; and through his son Ascanius by his first wife Creusa, Aeneas will also be the ancestor of the Caesars. You can probably enjoy the Aeneid with only the average literate person's knowledge of Roman history, but would enjoy it more if you've read more Roman history and legendry recently than I have - e.g., Titus Livy.


The Power and the Glory (1940) by Graham Greene is set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the late 1930s, when the state government was persecuting Catholics. All the priests who haven't been executed have apostatized or fled to neighboring states -- except one. The police have tried to catch him several times and failed. A certain police lieutenant (not named) gets permission from the Governor to do anything necessary to catch this priest. He posts a large reward for information leading to his capture, and begins taking hostages from various villages to ensure that the rural people will turn the priest in if he shows up.

The sad irony is that the only priest remaining to these persecuted Catholics (we never learn his name) is a pathetic ruin of a man; alcoholic, he's had at least one affair and has a bastard child. It seems that his courage in sticking around and going into hiding instead of fleeing with the other priests is his only good quality. But the people, though many of them dislike him personally, refuse to turn him in; several of them die rather than say where he is. There is no one else around who can grant absolution from sin or consecrate the body and blood of Christ. (Greene makes a point of this priest also baptizing several years' backlog of babies when he comes to each village; this part doesn't quite make sense, as laypeople can baptize, and should, when there is no priest or deacon available to do so. But maybe he is making a (very subtle) point about the poorly-catechized peasants not knowing this.)

The story moves slowly, but interest never wholly flags. There are two deep, well-developed characters and several interesting minor ones. The diction is evocative but not flowery. Very good on the whole. (I'm trying to think of whom else Greene reminds me of; the only one that comes to mind, stylistically, is Lu Hsün, the Chinese short story writer.)


From the End of the Twentieth Century (NESFA Press, 1997) is a collection of John M. Ford's short stories, essays and poems. The longer stories seem to be largely dark and tragic, while most of the very short stories and poems are comic. The essays mostly deal with his novels: "Rules of Engagement" with How Much for Just the Planet? and why many Trek fans didn't get it, "To the Tsiolkovsky Station" with the reasoning behind the Lunar colony's railroads in Growing Up Weightless. Perhaps the best of the stories (it's been a year or more since I read the earliest of them) are "Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail", a modern retelling of the Orpheus story, and "Walkaway Clause", in which a space pilot, long missing and thought dead, suddenly returns, strangely altered, to his home base and his lover. Most of the others are worth reading, too.

8-9 February 2004

Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2004

I'm not sure why short story collections (and maybe anthologies as well?) don't sell anywhere near as well as novels, but publishers and editors tell us it is so - that it's often hard for an editor to convince marketing to take a short story collection. It would seem as though the much-lamented shortening of attention spans in the last century, commonly attributed to the influence of radio and television, would favor short stories at the expense of novels. There seems to have been a shift in the character and quality of short stories over the past fifty-odd years - getting better, or anyway more ambitious, but also taking more effort to read. But is that effect or cause? Are only the best (which sometimes means the most complex and difficult) stories getting published because there are fewer fiction magazines because fewer people want to read short stories - or do fewer people read short stories because they are getting more difficult to read because the magazine editors' literary standards are getting higher? My guess is that is is a vicious, or maybe virtuous, cycle - anyway a positive feedback loop where the shrinking market drives short story writers and editors to go for more literarily complex, idea-rich stories, which further shrinks the proportion of the literate population who are able or inclined to make the effort these stories require.

A fairly large proportion of my own new book purchases recently have been short story collections rather than novels - I'm far more likely to pay new hardback prices for short story collections than novels, but that's partly because I know the collections may never have a paperback edition and will be hard to find used if I don't buy them while they're in print.

One collection I've just bought, but can already recommend because I've read most of the stories in their magazine or anthology appearances, is ¡Limekiller! by Avram Davidson. This is a series of six magic realist stories about Jack Limekiller, a Canadian resident in British Hidalgo, a fictional South American country modeled mainly on Belize (which was known as British Honduras when Davidson lived there in the 1960s). They (at least the four I've already read) are some of Davidson's best work, and that's saying something. There are many mysterious and magical things in the back country of British Hidalgo, which the old-time residents know about but are disinclined to talk about openly. Limekiller gradually learns something (not all) of what's going on from his uncanny experiences and the fragments of traditional knowledge that fall from the lips of the old-timers around him. All Davidson's strengths - introspective characterization, dialectic dialogue, worldbuilding by a thousand hints, storytelling by indirection - come together in these stories in a magical way.

This Old Earth Books collection also has an afterword Davidson wrote for the Limekiller collection he was planning before his death, plus essays on Davidson and Belize by Lucius Shepard, Peter S. Beagle, Grania Davis (Avram's ex-wife), and Ethan Davidson (his son).

A better introduction to Davidson, if you haven't already read much by him, is The Avram Davidson Treasury (Tor, 1998). The title The Best of Avram Davidson was pre-empted by a 1979 Doubleday collection, but this 447-page volume deserves it better. (Though the earlier collection is worth seeking out too - it includes neat stories like "The Trefoil Company" that haven't been reprinted in the recent spate of new Davidson collections, and essays by Davidson himself, Peter S. Beagle, and Michael Kurland).

Another good collection I finished recently, after spreading the stories out over a year or more, is The Devil is Not Mocked and Other Warnings, volume 2 of the Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman (Night Shade Books, 2001). These stories (mostly supernatural horror) vary widely in quality - a few, like the title story, have a very pulpy feel, and some are finely-crafted gems of characterization and suspense, equal to the best of the Silver John stories. Overall I would say these stories average better than the John Thunstone stories in The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations. They range almost the whole length of Wellman's career, from 1934 to 1983, and are arranged by the editor John Pelan for contrast rather than in chronological order.

Some of the best stories, those that stand out many months (in most cases) after I read them, include:

7 February 2004

After this last long gap in posts, I'll start with brief notes about many of the books I've read in the last several months - not detailed reviews, as it's been some time since I read most of these.

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam, 1998) is an engrossing novel about a few months in the life of Antarctic scientists, explorers, and others as the international treaty governing the continent is expiring and may not be renewed. It's better than some of his other stand-alone novels, but not as good as the Mars trilogy or The Years of Rice and Salt.

Remake by Connie Willis (Bantam, 1995) is set in a near future where nearly all new movies are made with computer-generated actors based on abstractions from the film corpus of the past. An idealistic young woman comes to Hollywood, wanting to dance in the movies, and meets a cynical film student who has been making ends meet by working as a censor, deleting scenes of drug use from old movies. The future society, the characters and dialogue are well done, as usual for Connie Willis, but the computer and network technology is implausible - it might have allowed suspension of disbelief if its details had been left vague - and silly plot devices mar the ending. Probably her weakest novel, but still worth reading if you enjoy reading about the kinds of characters she creates.

A Scattering of Jades by Alexander C. Irvine (Tor, 2002) is a fine historical fantasy, set in the eastern United States (mainly New York City and Mammoth Cave, Kentucky) in the early 19th century. Not quite as good as Tim Powers's best historical fantasies, but nearly.

Where Time Winds Blow by Robert Holdstock is a short novel about the exploration of a planet where the "time winds" of the title randomly shuffle things from the planet's past and future. There is constant danger, in certain regions, of getting swept off into the far future or past. The world is interesting, but the characters are unconvincing.

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell is set in east middle Georgia during the Great Depression, and tells about an eventful few days in the life of a poor family. It's mostly very funny, and deeply affecting in spots.

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is a horrific, gripping epic about a near-future Earth suffering a crisis of industrial pollution. Much in the same style as his Stand on Zanzibar, and even better.

In Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick (1957), several visitors to a high-energy physics lab are caught in an accident, and gradually realize, after awaking in the hospital, that they're not in the same world they were born in. I won't go into details, but there are more than two worlds involved... This is probably the best of Dick's novels I've read yet. (I haven't read many.)

Dragon Weather by Lawrence Watt-Evans is the first of a trilogy (continuing in The Dragon Society and concluding in Dragon Venom), but has tolerably good closure and doesn't demand that one rush on to the next volume at once. Arlian, a boy of twelve, is the only survivor when his village is attacked for no apparent reason by three dragons. After being trapped for some little time in the cellar of his house, he is "rescued" by looters, who sell him into slavery in a silver mine. Years later, when he escapes the mine, he swears revenge on the looters who enslaved him and stole his inheritance - and on the dragons themselves... There's a lot more going on, but that gives you a pretty clear idea of where Watt-Evans is going with this trilogy. The first volume concludes Arlian's revenge on most of his human enemies, leaving the larger matter of the dragons for the later volumes. This is maybe the best of Watt-Evans' books I've read yet; about as good as Touched by the Gods and better than the Ethshar novels. The Dragon Society is also quite good; I haven't read Dragon Venom yet, but plan to read it sometime soon.

James the Second by Hilaire Belloc is "not a biography, still less a chronicle, but an appreciation". That is, Belloc assumes the reader knows the basic facts of James the Second's life and times, and sets out to correct the false impressions about him given in official English history. He goes to great pains to give a correct idea of the significance of James' conversion to Catholicism, and how this threatened the rich oligarchy which had, during the previous 150 years, taken almost all real power from the monarchy. He also expends much ink on James' foundational influence on the English Navy, first as Duke of York and Admiral, then as King.

I'm reading Virgil's Aeneid now, in John Dryden and C. Day Lewis' translations (alternating between them, the Lewis in the evenings, and the Dryden (etext) during breaks at work). So far I'd say it's better than the Iliad but not as good as the Odyssey. (Of course this is my judgment on the stories and their characterization; I have little Greek and less Latin, and can't comment on the style of the originals.) Dryden's rhymed iambic pentameter translation is much better English poetry; Lewis's free verse translation is a faster read, and a little clearer in some spots. I've also looked into J. W. MacKail's prose translation, which, though archaic and frequently unclear, is occasionally helpful when the Dryden and Lewis versions seem to disagree. I hope to post more about the Aeneid when I finish it.

I've fixed some typos in various of the documents on the Caligoi, and added a visited states map to my personal information page. Also, fixed some broken links in older reviews.

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