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25 April 2009

(Fewer Wikipedia, Amazon, and Gutenberg links this time than usual because Windows' copy/paste subsystem is screwed up on this machine somehow. Thank God for Emacs, which has its own internal copy/paste code, or the machine would be totally unusable...)

Invented Languages: First Edition, Summer 2008, edited by Richard K. Harrison, is the first issue of a new zine, but could also be considered a revival of Harrison's Journal of Planned Languages. In the years since the last issue of JPL appeared, the term "constructed language" and its abbreviation "conlang" have become more widely used than "planned language", but those terms scarcely appear in the text of this issue's articles, though the even newer term "artlang" does occur several times. The term "invented languages" isn't widely used as far as I can tell, but it has the merit of being immediately clear to someone who's not familiar with the conlang community and its terminology. (Forgive the terminological digression; I've been doing research on when various conlang-related terms are first attested and how their meanings have changed. On with the review.)

The most substantial article in the issue is "The Martial Language of Percy Greg" by Frederik Ekman, a 20-page profile (including a full lexicon) of an artlang used in Percy Greg's 1880 science fiction novel Across the Zodiac. The language is surprisingly well-developed, perhaps more completely attested and interesting in itself than any fictional artlang prior to Tolkien's Quenya and Sindarin, and Ekman's analysis of it seems pretty thorough, though I haven't yet read the novel and so can't say for sure.

There's also a good article on onomatapoeia and ideophones by Kenneth Frisco, a profile of the auxlang Lingua Franca Nova and several short book reviews by the editor, and a silly tutorial on Zikamu, a language even simpler than Toki Pona, by Jacques Guy. (Comments inflect for excitement or contentment; "excitement is expressed by loudness optionally accompanied by flailing of limbs.")

This issue is 48 pages, very readably formatted and typeset, with a fascinating asemic-writing front cover, and a back cover photo presumably illustrating the editor's Environmental Policy ("Prior to publishing each edition, the Editor plants five trees to offset the environmental impact of this magazine"). The only defect I find with the zine as a whole is the lack of a true table of contents; the first page blurbs the articles in a general way, but without actual titles, authors' names or page numbers. I'll certainly be reading future issues. The first issue is available from Lulu.com; the editor has said he'll probably publish future issues in another way. Last I heard from him, he had most or all of the content for the second issue and was looking to find enough free time for editing and layout.

(Disclaimer: I've had a book review accepted for publication in the second issue of Invented Languages. But everything I said above is what I was planning to say about this issue anyway, before said review was finished and submitted, if I'd gotten around to writing this weblog post right after I finished reading the issue.)

Update, 2009/6/19: Unfortunately Rick Harrison has announced that he's ceasing publication of Invented Languages due to health problems. I'm praying for him and wishing him better health. {fĭm jâ-o mwe ƥ-la ʝâr-i.}

 

I recently re-read Lawrence Watt-Evans' Nightside City (Del Rey, 1989) after hearing that he is starting a web-based serial that's a sequel to it, Realms of Light. It's a noir mystery set on a planet which, when first settled, was thought to be tide-locked to its sun, with one hemisphere always day and one always night; but in the two hundred years since, the settlers have discovered that the planet is still slowly rotating, and that Nightside City, the gambling metropolis just inside the habitable part of the night hemisphere, is going to swing into the unlivable dayside in a few more years. The western districts of the city have been abandoned except by a few squatters — but then Carlisle Hsing, a private detective, is hired by some of those squatters to shut down an apparent rental scam, and learns that someone has been buying foreclosed and abandoned property in the West End from the banks. Why?

The noir mystery and planetological-sf elements are well done and well integrated, making a satisfying story with several strong, interesting characters, especially the interaction of Hsing with her competitor detective, Big Jim Mishima. The cyberpunk elements, and especially the language (pervasive figures of speech based on computing), are more dated than the rest of the book, but didn't mar my enjoyment of it much. I'd say it's one of Watt-Evans' two or three best books. I'm reading Realms of Light, which is intriguing so far. Its opening has spoilers for the ending of Nightside City.

 

Briefer reviews of various books read since my last post here:

Harvest of Stars by Poul Anderson (1994) has a lot of good elements, but it's not up to the standard he established earlier in his career with classics like Brain Wave and Tau Zero. It's about twice as long as Tau Zero, with somewhat more interesting characters and a more complex plot, but still, somehow, less visceral impact; it felt slow-paced, and there's a libertarian preachiness to this novel absent from (or much less obstrusive in) his earlier novels that made it harder to care what happened to the characters. A tyrannical government in North America is trying to control the operations of Fireball, a transnational space-travel corporation headed by an AI-upload of its long-dead founder; Fireball has taken on feudal qualities and commands strong loyalty from its long-term, Nth-generation employees, treating them better than they're typically treated by their governments... Perhaps you see why, however interesting some of the characters are in themselves, their doings may be a little hard to sympathize with for non-libertarians.

I've been re-reading the parts of James Branch Cabell's "Biography of Manuel" (1902-1930) that I'd read before, and reading parts of it for the first time. It's one of the earliest mega-series I know of (Sherlock Holmes and Oz predate it, but not by much), and the first I know of where parts of it were retroactively fit into the continuity of the series (á la Isaac Asimov's more famous retrofitting of most of his sf works into one mega-continuity). It's also the series most varied in form and genre of any I know of, containing fantasy, mainstream and ambiguous-genre novels, short stories, a play, narrative and lyric poems, a genealogical treatise, and essays. The fictional parts form a family history, of Dom Manuel of Poictesme and his kinfolks and descendants; the nonfictional parts comment on Cabell's theories about writing and reading and life in general in connection with the fiction and poetry. It subsumes most if not all of Cabell's published work up to 1930. I'm not going to comment on every single part (I haven't quite finished (re)reading it yet), but:

Five of Cabell's fantasies were reprinted by Lin Carter as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the early 1970s, and reprinted by Lester Del Rey in the Del Rey imprint in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Jurgen has been reprinted by many publishers at various times. Most of the others have been out of print most of the time since Cabell's Collected Works were published. I've been fortunate to have access to the 18-volume Works at the Woodruff Library at Emory (not his complete lifetime works, but complete up until the time he edited this Storisende Edition in 1929-30). The Storisende Edition was intentionally a limited edition in its first appearance, but has since been made available on microfilm and as print-on-demand. Project Gutenberg has a fair number of Cabell's pre-1923 works available, but note that these are, if I'm not mistaken, the original editions rather than Cabell's revised editions (which latter seem to still be under copyright). The revisions seem to have had two or three goals: to tie all the works into one whole, to improve on the style of Cabell's younger self, and to fix things which Cabell would have done otherwise on first writing if his editors at the time would have allowed it. I believe the revised edition of Jurgen also involved adding passages satirical of the obscenity trial over the first edition.

As a stylist, and as a fantasy novelist, Cabell is one of the best American writers. For sheer wonder and mind-bogglingness, his best fantasies have few equals. But his worldview is, I must give fair warning, cynical, I might almost say nihilistic — certainly anti-organized religion though perhaps not materialist. His view of human nature is myopic — aside from his cynicism, see above re: his three-personality-types theory. It's for those reasons that, even when reading the whole Biography within a few months, I've tried not to read two or three Cabell works in a row, but to mix them up with other works by authors who have saner and healthier worldviews, if less brilliant styles.

If you like Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber, I reckon you'll probably like Cabell as well, and vice versa. I'd recommend starting with Figures of Earth, if you can easily find a paper copy or if you don't mind reading novel-length etexts, or with Jurgen (which almost any library is likely to have) if not.

 

The Moon of Much Gladness by Ernest Bramah is one of his "Chinese" novels — set not in actual historical China, but in early 20th-century England's distorted view of China. Some might view Bramah's fast and loose use of Chinese history and legend as racist or something similar; but it seems to me that he's primarily satirizing British society and parodying British fiction under a thin Chinese mask. Here he parodies the detective story genre. My favorite passage is one where the young Chinese detective (a girl disguised as a boy) describes the methods of various Occidental detectives she's read about; I could recognize Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and Lord Peter Wimsey easily enough, but there were several less famous ones I couldn't place. The humor is largely metafictional; the detective's investigations keep going awry because she is thoroughly mistaken about what genre of story she's living in. I enjoyed this better than The Wallet of Kai Lung but not as well as Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat. (The series is very loosely connected; you needn't read them in any particular order.)


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