Thursday, October 20, 2016

Read It, Mid-October 2016

My wife and I like to play a little game of chicken in October. We agree to tolerate the dropping temperatures without turning on the heat until November 1st. Then we see if anyone’s willpower cracks. (I should add that the kids don’t seem to care or notice; they run around so much that they generate their own heat, and don’t get cold, and won’t keep warm clothes on, until it is really cold. But for me, especially as I get older, October in Saginaw starts to get pretty uncomfortable; not just cold, but damp. Since my work keeps my largely sedentary, I have trouble keeping my body temperature up, even with wool socks and layers.

Anyway, I was the one to chicken out this year. Today is only the fourteenth, but I have a virus. I’ve got a sore throat and my lungs aren’t feeling like they should. The kids passed something to me. I feel awful. So I am giving up, and turning on the heat.

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been packing books for an upcoming move. We now have 51 boxes of books in a storage unit. I think we haven’t quite reached the halfway point in book packing, as far as volumes go. I’m not entirely sure. I have to make more progress if we have any hope of moving by the end of the year.

My computer is barely working. It is giving me occasional kernel panics, which are, I think, due to memory problems. Sometimes when I boot up I find that it is not recognizing all the installed memory. This is probably just be a case of oxidized contacts, because it is eight years old. In the past I have fixed the problem by pulling out the memory riser cards, taking out all the memory modules, dusting them off, polishing the edge connectors, swapping them, and putting the whole thing back together. That might work again. Let’s hope it does.

The computer holds my Delicious Library database. The database is backed up multiple times (and all the rest of my files are, too), so I won’t lose any data if the computer goes completely belly-up, but it would be hugely inconvenient, because I’m using it, updating the database as I pack. The idea is that the database has a “shelf” for each box, showing exactly which books are in each box. I’ve included an estimate on the shelf-feet needed to shelve the contents of each box, so that we can choose to unpack only what we can shelve.

When I get through packing everything, I should have a freshly updated inventory of every book we own. I should also be able to purge the database of everything that isn’t on one of the virtual shelves, meaning in a box. That should eliminate duplicates and books that are in the database but which I no longer own, having given them away or lost them.

In the midst of all this, I’ve been failing to get much writing done. My eyes have been bothering me. I suffer from and my lifestyle of the past sixteen months or so, where I’m not doing much with my eyes other than looking at screens, has made it considerably worse. On many evenings I just want to close my eyes, and the thought of spending one more minute staring at a screen makes me shudder. Often times I don’t even want to read.

Anyway, on to the books, and some music.

Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe

I have an unpleasant duty to perform. I am a big fan of Gene Wolfe. I have read his stories and novels and especially the Solar Cycle novels. I’ve come back to the the New Sun books over and over again. Each time I get more out of them. They are a deep, moving, fascinating, humane, and even profound work.

I have finally finished Return to the Whorl. I have finally finished the twelfth and last volume of the Solar Cycle, finally, almost thirty years after my first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer.

Dear reader, it is a disappointing book. I’ve come at it every way I can, up, down, and sideways. I wanted to give Wolfe every benefit of the doubt that I possibly, because he has been such a source of inspiration. But ultimately I have to say that it isn’t due to a lack of attention and effort on my part. I have worked hard to read these books. Return does not live up to the other two volumes of the Short Sun trilogy, and it does not live up to the very high standards Wolfe set over the course of the whole Solar Cycle.

One might say that I just need to read it a few more times, and then everything will fall into place, and I’ll understand it and it will work for me.

I don’t think that’s the case. My frustrating with the final book isn’t that it doesn’t make sense. I feel like I have the basics figured out, although some things remain puzzling. And I would also like to point out that the puzzling nature of the earlier parts of the Solar Cycle, the New Sun and Long Sun books, did not ruin my enjoyment of the storytelling, even on my first uncertain and slightly baffled initial reading. In fact, it was my deep enjoyment of both previous series that motivated me to come back to the books again and again.

I’m not sure I want to try reading the Short Sun books again at all, especially not Return to the Whorl. I might, but I have a pretty strong sense at the present time that Return is not going to magically improve so much on re-reading that I will want to recant this critical review.

I don’t think it was inevitably this way. The first two books of the Short Sun trilogy get progressively more challenging, and fragmented, but Wolfe could have, I believe, toned this down in the third volume and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Instead he continued and even intensified the fragmentation and elliptical storytelling of In Green’s Jungles, and the result is a story that does, eventually, make sense — but it is not satisfying, emotionally.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I want to talk about my current feelings about the whole 12-volume Solar Cycle.

The Solar Cycle in Retrospect

A few weeks ago, while I was still trying to finish Return to the Whorl, I left a comment on Reddit, giving a reader some unsolicited advice on how to read the Solar Cycle. Those comments, slightly, edited, follow:

The first series can be read the first time as, basically, a fantasy adventure story. If you don’t get all the details, or have a nagging feeling that you haven’t understood everything that is going on, or that Severian doesn’t quite understand what is going on, that’s totally normal, but you can get through the books the first time just understanding the surface plot.

You might then be motivated to go back and read them all again later, and understand all the events of the story in more depth, and then maybe read Urth of the New Sun, and maybe read some books about The Book of the New Sun, etc. You come to realize that even the genre of the book is in question — that the work is really science fiction, not fantasy; and that there is no “magic” except technology indistinguishable from magic.

The Long Sun books are harder to read, in a way, because they do a few things differently. In the New Sun books there are a number of digressions and “side quests” — for example, the stories told in the camp of the Pelerines. You get more texture of the world in these digressions. If you skim some of these digressive parts of the story on your first reading, you will still understand the basic arc of Severian’s story.

The Long Sun books move much, much faster. There aren’t as many mysteries, but the time scale of the story is extremely compressed — days go by over the course of the for books, not years. And there’s just a huge amount of detail to keep up with. So reading them can be a bit challenging, with the large number of names and places and events to keep track of, and the way the plot-lines intersect. But it doesn’t have quite the sense of “what is really going on here?” as the New Sun books. The events unfold in pretty much a strict chronological order, and in limited set of places, and so there generally isn’t a lot of confusion over who is doing what, although a lot of the rich texture and detail and back-story of the world is revealed gradually — for example, there are hints about what Blood and Musk are actually up to with the birds of prey, but you won’t necessarily understand these hints until later.

The Short Sun books are, to me, much more challenging than the New Sun and Long Sun books. I have read the New Sun books at least five times. I’ve almost finished a third reading of the Long Sun books. But it took me three tries just to get through In Green’s Jungles without giving up, and I still have not made it through Return to the Whorl. In the Short Sun books the unities of time and space are shattered. The actual chronology becomes very broken. The books raise a lot of philosophical questions and they are fascinating, but the storyline itself is so broken up and fractured across time and space that it can be immensely frustrating just to figure out who is doing what and when.

I think they are definitely worth reading, but I just want to caution you not to expect a similar experience. In the New Sun books you can enjoy them without figuring everything out. In the Long Sun books pretty much everything is eventually explained and it doesn’t take five re-readings to feel like you understand everything, although you really do have to concentrate to keep up. In the Short Sun books, just trying to figure out what is happening can be very challenging. But I would encourage you not to give up on them.

If you feel the need to set them aside, well, I think that is a common reaction. You have to decide for yourself each time you try to read a book if the effort you put into it is worth the reward you get out of it. I think the Short Sun books are deliberately much harder and so will naturally weed out a lot of readers who don’t want to work that hard. Honestly, I’m still not 100% sure that Return will be worth the effort, and I’m a reader who reads Dostoevsky and Melville and Joyce for fun. Yes, I’m saying the Short Sun books are harder to understand and enjoy than Moby Dick and Ulysses… and certainly harder than other “difficult” science fiction books like Dhalgren… really.

Returning to Return to the Whorl

In Return to the Whorl we learn many startling things, and un-learn some things we thought we knew after getting through In Green’s Jungles.

The first two Short Sun books gave me the impression that Horn’s adventures, since leaving his home on Lizard, were taking decades. I thought we might learn, eventually, that he had been gone from his wife, Nettle for as long as twenty years.

But in the third book, we find that he has been away for less than two years. This is an echo of Severian’s journey; as changed as he was, his journey from the Citadel as exile, back to the Citadel as Autarch, takes only two years.

In the New Sun books, this is startling but seems convincing; Severian has been swept along by events outside his control, but his restlessness, and the fact that he has to repeatedly flee from his accusers for his various transgressions, makes it convincing. But it seems impossible that the protagonist of the Short Sun books accumulates as much experience as he has, winning two wars and traveling across three worlds, in only two years.

In Return, the events in Dorp take place in fragmentary flashback; we actually read only a few very brief scenes covering what happened. The most interesting parts of the text cover what happened in the Whorl, when our protagonist returned there. In some beautiful scenes, he encounters Olivine, daughter of Maytera Marble (who is partly Maytera Rose). He conducts a sacrifice, and as they have no animal, he sacrifices bread and wine. In this scene it seems that he is inventing, or perhaps rediscovering, the Eucharist, and the familiar is made strange again by its strange context. It’s a startling and beautiful scene and, to me, the emotional high point and best part of the novel.

Meanwhile, the entire arc with Pig is concluded abruptly, with a single scene at the far end of the Whorl. It’s a moving scene, but so brief; it sets up parallel sacrifices, of Olivine and our protagonist. We also get a scene where our protagonist’s mission for Maytera Marble is concluded. Unlike the long visit in On Blue’s Waters, this one is told very quickly. We learn what happened, but because of the brevity of the scene, it doesn’t carry a whole lot of emotional weight.

Is it possible that Wolfe wanted to conclude the Short Sun arc in four books, not three, but was forced to cut the ending down into one volume? It almost feels as if that sort of forced amputation cauterization of the plot lines has taken place.

Wolfe actually leaves our protagonist, behind and the final chapters are written by other characters: by Hide, and Daisy. It seems that he is emphasizing that life goes on; our protagonist will move beyond our knowledge, back to the Whorl, and his family on Blue will also go on without him. It seems that the broken pieces of his identity have finally come together and he accepts what has happened. But we don’t hear about this from him, a finally-unified “him.” That also feels unsatisfying. For three volumes I’ve hoped that the protagonist and narrator himself would say something clear about his whole arc, not just what it occurs to him to tell us about at any given moment, often jumping wildly back and forth through time and space. We don’t ever get the satisfaction of reading the words written by a healed and whole protagonist.

Wolfe’s technique, in the third series of the Solar Cycle, is experimental. It seems a bit like a relic of the New Wave science fiction experiments of the Dangerous Visions era. I find a lot of that stuff is still interesting to read, but often doesn’t really work. In this case the experiment is not a failure, but in In Green’s Jungles it starts to impede the storytelling, and in Return to the Whorl it raises the impedance to such a degree that I could not really feel the satisfaction I hoped from reading the conclusion of a vast, moving, profound, and well-told story.

Who is Wolfe serving, by sticking with this fragmentary style? In this volume, it starts to feel like sadism towards me, the reader; not a prodding towards a deeper reading, but a torment. When the story takes another crazy jump through time and space I want to yell, like Oreb, “No cut!”

Mysteries remain. There was another trip to the Red Sun Whorl, apparently traumatic, which is mentioned only briefly, but not detailed. What happened on that trip? There is something mysterious about Nettle. When Nettle helps Horn’s “daughter” Jahlee, Jahlee refers to Nettle as “Rani.” This is a clue of some kind. What the hell does it mean?

Maybe I will figure it all out someday. But I am not too pleased that, in the final pages of this epic, Wolfe is still teasing me, still turning the kaleidoscope, introducing more puzzles, when he ought to be tying up loose ends.

In many ways I feel that Wolfe is “criticism-proof,” as far as evaluating how good a book such as Return is; it’s hard enough just to understand it, much less to judge it. But here I am, criticizing; the third book is disappointing, to the extent that it taints my enjoyment of the whole Short Sun trilogy. It’s a shame. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day after taking another crack at it, but I doubt it.


Completed since last time:

  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Calde of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe

In progress:

  • Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (in print form)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo(bedtime reading for the kids)

Saginaw, Michigan
October 14th and 20th, 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

Read It, Late September 2016

Well, the second half of August went fast. And so did most of September. This one has been sitting on my computer, unfinished, for some time. I’ll try to be more regular, although I am now spending my free time packing my books for a move, which is taking up a great deal of time. The library takes up a lot of boxes, and a lot of storage space! On the positive side, I am attempting to bring the database of every book, video, and compact disc my family owns completely up to date.

On to the books.

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

In reviewing Authority a short while ago, I wrote:

I have started reading the third part with low expectations. I haven’t finished it yet. Already, it is more engaging than the second one. But I think my final verdict will likely be that readers should read the first book, which I reviewed highly in May, and stop there.

And in short, this is exactly what happened. I finished Acceptance this morning and found it unsatisfying. Like Authority, it suffers in comparison to the first book, Annihilation. It sets up the sensation that there will be revelations and climaxes. We learn a little more and speculate a little more about what is going on in Area X, and there are some interesting and disturbing scenes and moments, but overall the latter two books in the trilogy both lack the sense of sustained build-up, forward movement, and storytelling that keep me happily turning pages.

So I’m going to do what I said I would do, keeping the first volume in my library and giving away the other two, and accept that VanderMeer tried, but somehow wasn’t able to make this work really work as a trilogy; it was a great novel. I think the setting might still be a fertile setting for other stories, but the stories VanderMeer actually managed to tell in Authority and Acceptance just didn’t live up to the uncanny weirdness, beauty, and intensity he achieved in the first volume. Which is a shame, but not exactly a startling revelation, since many, many trilogies follow in those same well-worn tracks.

The Stainless Steel Rat Books

Some time ago I read Harry Harrison’s original novel The Stainless Steel Rat released all the way back in 1961.

In the last couple of weeks I picked up an omnibus paperback containing the first three books and so completed The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World.

Revenge features a storyline about an alien civilization that has expansionist aspirations, and is invading other planets. Harrison’s world is not deep or complex but it is entertaining and fast-moving. His plot points often seem a little bit clichéd and feel like TV dramas, but I think one could make the case that this is, in part, because his novels have influenced several generations of screenwriters.

In Word there is an elaborate time-travel narrative. Time-travel stories were not new in 1972, but some of the tropes weren’t quite as tired. Slippery Jim travels back in time to 1975, and has highly amusing adventures trying to figure out the culture of old Earth.

I’m currently working on The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You. In this volume, Slippery Jim’s twin sons are full-grown and ready to embark on a dubious adventure with Jim and Angelina.

Let’s face it; the Stainless Steel Rat stories are not heavy, or deep. At least, the ones I’ve read so far are not, although amid Slippery Jim’s constant boozing, an admirable personal philosophy does emerge, a philosophy about personal freedom, coercion, and the role of the state and the military.

Harrison is apparently still writing Stainless Steel Rat stories over fifty years later, so maybe the new ones get heavier or deeper. I don’t yet know. But the volumes I’ve read so far are slightly satirical but mostly just amusing adventures in the mold of old-fashioned adventure tales. They do this admirably. Each one consists of about 21 short chapters. There are lots of narrow escapes and cliffhangers. They are, in fact, a nice antidote to some of the much heavier works that I’m reading. Works like…

The Book of the Short Sun

Having finished the New Sun books in audiobook format, I continued right on to the Short Sun books. In the past I have tried to read this series a couple of times. Each time I got hung up, if I recall correctly, about halfway through In Green’s Jungles.

I’ve had another chance to tackle this, the challenging third series of Wolfe’s “solar cycle” books, but by listening to the first two parts as audiobooks. The third part, Return to the Whorl, does not seem to be available on YouTube.

Even with the long hours in the car, available for listening, and large volumes of coffee, to focus my mind, In Green’s Jungles remains a difficult work. The first volume is, for the most part, told as a relatively straightforward story, but out of order, and with some deeply strange elements, some whose significance only becomes clear upon a second or even third reading.

Horn, a character from the Long Sun books, is the narrator. He tells us about accepting a mission to travel across the planet Blue to claim a seat on a “lander,” a spacecraft, which will return to the Whorl, the generation starship that brought humans to this solar system. His mission is to find Silk, the hero of the Long Sun books. He wants to bring Silk to Blue, because civilization on Blue is suffering from a distinct lack of coherent, moral leadership.

Horn has several adventures and misadventures, all told in a complex, interleaved retrospect. He meets a young woman who seems to be human, but who has gills, and she seems to have been transformed by a goddess into a literal siren. He is granted a vision of this goddess, who can take the form of a gigantic woman. She seems much like the Undine in the New Sun books.

Taking the young woman as his companion and lover, Horn violates his marriage. In a disturbing scene, he convinces the young woman, Seawrack, to sing for him. This singing arouses him so much that he brutally rapes her. It seems that both his violent and procreative instincts have been aroused, and he seems to try to hurt her as much as possible in the assault. This is a disturbing and baffling scene. How are we to identify with the narrator afterwards? Was he really unable to control himself because of Seawrack’s magical singing?

Wolfe here is clearly trying to challenge the reader by giving us a narrator who is difficult to empathize with, just as the New Sun books featured a young man who was literally a torturer, and whose job was to execute people by beheading, or perform other acts of punishment; after exile, Severian was appointed the administrator of a horrifying, wretched prison. I’m still disturbed by the way this Horn doesn’t seem to fit with the Horn of the remainder of the trilogy; at the very least, Wolfe is warning the reader that “this isn’t going to be easy.” At worst, it seems almost a George R. R. Martinesque act of sadism.

Horn meets one of the inhumi, a vampire-like alien being who takes on the appearance of a young boy. His difficult relationship with this inhumi, Krait, is set up in relation to his relationship with Seawrack. The cast of characters is rounded out with a hus, an eight-legged creature a bit like a boar, named Babbie. Babbie is not human, but seems to develop greater intelligence and empathy as he spends time with Horn. So does Krait. Seawrack seems to have been human once, but only constant contact with Horn keeps her so. So in addition to the actual storyline of In Blue’s Jungles, Wolfe has set up some complex philosophical questions about personhood, especially how our conception of someone’s personhood can change. But as soon as you have a feeling that you pretty well understand these issues, Horn casually mentions how all these things happened back before he died. And the issue of just who Horn actually is starts to loom large in the reader’s mind.

In the second volume, In Green’s Jungles, we are again learning more of the story out of order. The lander was a trap, and operated by the inhumu, to take humans not to the Whorl but to their planet, Green, to serve as slaves and/or food. Although the title mentions Green, almost none of the story actually takes place on Green, except in recollection of Horn’s earlier sojourn there. Well, sort of. As In Green’s Jungles is opening, Horn, years older than the Horn in the previous book, recounts staying with a man named Inclito. He tells us the story of how he winds up leading Inclito’s troops in an inter-city-state war on Blue. There are other inhumu characters to understand and contend with, some disguised and some not. And then, as Incanto, who is Horn, who may also be in some sense Silk, is left to sleep in the snow with a dying inhumu, he takes a whole contingent of fighting mercenaries to Green, via some kind of astral travel. And then things get so strange and difficult that, I think, this is the point at which I gave up in my previous attempts to complete it, and set the book aside.

I’ve done better this time, but I have to admit that after finishing In Green’s Jungles in audio form, I immediately had to go back and listen to most of it a second time before I felt like I understood it to my own satisfaction, and I don’t feel like listening to it a third time would be out of the question.

In Green’s Jungles is an immensely complex work. It bounces around in time and space such that it really would not be easy to put the chronology of events into a completely rational order. One would have to make a detailed outline and then cut it apart and reorder everything. In fact I get the sense that Wolfe constructed these three books, at least in part, by doing the opposite — tearing a detailed chronology of events to shreds and reassembled it as told by a narrator who is himself deeply damaged and confused, although (I think) not actually deluded or misled as to the true nature of events, as Severian seems often to be.

I wish I had Return to the Whorl in audio form. That book is also complex. I’d like to be able to listen to it in the car as well. Instead, I’ve been reading the printed version again. I have not gotten very far yet. In Return to the Whorl we finally start to learn what happens in between Horn’s “death” and how he fails — sort of — to complete his mission. Because I am not that far into it, I am not really sure whether In Green’s Jungles represents the peak of narrative confusion and complexity in the trilogy, and things start to become more linear in the third book, or whether Wolfe will be twisting things up even more. I’m betting that he is, at least for a while, going to ratchet the degree of difficulty up even higher.

I don’t feel like I’m even at a point yet where I can adequately review this trilogy. I’m a good reader. I once audited a seminar class on James Joyce’s Ulysses and I had a lot to say about that book, and felt as though I got a great deal out of it. I still have my notes. I was an English major and studied big and difficult books, classic works of literature like Moby Dick. Wolfe can, when he wants to, really make things hard, formally, by playing with the fundamentals of storytelling, in a way that Joyce didn’t and Melville didn’t.

The Book of the New Sun is so fascinating in part because it can be read in a very satisfactory way as a fantasy/adventure novel set in the milieu of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It is perfectly respectable to read and enjoy Severian’s adventure as a big travelogue, exploring his world and winding his way to his ascent of the throne. But the story is not quite what it appears. The fantasy world turns out to be a science fiction world. Many things that initially seem magical have a technological explanation. The lacunae and oddities and inconsistencies in Severian’s story reveal that he is not what he seems.

The second series, The Book of the Long Sun, seems right off the bat to give us an unreliable narrator — a young priest who has, in the first book’s first scene, a vision, or perhaps a mild stroke. He sets off on a great mission, believing that he has been granted enlightenment by the mysterious God, the Outsider. The story is actually quite straightforward, although through various details we come to understand that this story is connected to the Long Sun books because the gods of the Whorl, the generation starship, are the uploaded children of Pas, who is himself the uploaded Typhon, the two-headed ruler of Urth who Severian meets in both the four-volume novel and the “coda” The Urth of the New Sun. And Silk, it turns out, is not unreliable at all, although he may be divinely inspired, by a real God, not one of the fradulent technologically-enhanced human “gods” of the Whorl.

The Book of the Long Sun is not complex in the sense that The Book of the New Sun is complex. The plot is relatively straightforward. The challenge to the reader stems from the way the storytelling across the four volumes is so intense, complex, and focused. Events take place in an extremely compressed time scale. Dialogue is packed with meaning. There are dozens of characters to meet. Small details mentioned in passing become significant later, and there is a lot of detail to absorb.

The Book of the Short Sun takes yet another approach to narrative, in that we don’t necessarily have an unreliable narrator, but a scrambled narrative. In reading Severian’s account, at least for a second or third time, Severian’s identity becomes somewhat complex as we realize that his timeline has been manipulated and his whole existence across timelines interfered with. Horn has not, I think, had any such external manipulation done to him. But he has been badly damaged, his identity itself altered, and the narrative that he unspools reflects this chronological confusion; it’s a tangled ball of yarn.

The Book of the Short Sun is definitely the more difficult of the three Solar Cycle series. I think that The Book of the New Sun endures because of the way the reader can enjoy it on multiple levels, and it richly rewards re-reading. Too, I’ve started listening to The Book of the Long Sun, which I’ve read twice already. Unlike The Book of the New Sun, the story of Silk does not become more confusing on re-reading, but richer and more beautiful. I am listening with admiration as I see just how brilliantly Wolfe sets up the story from the very first sentence, making the onrushing events that overtake Silk seem inevitable. It’s a bit like an incredibly detailed short story.

Unlike these other two series, though, The Book of the Short Sun seems to require re-reading in order to understand the most fundamental aspects of the book, such as:

  • “Who is telling the story?”
  • “What happens in the story?”
  • “Who are the other characters in the story?”
  • “Which of these characters are people and should be accorded the rights of people?”

And as I have not even completed all three Short Sun books once, I still feel like I’m not quite ready to answer these questions. And I’m not really prepared to advocate for this trilogy like I have advocated for the other two, because I really have come to believe that this trilogy just isn’t written for everyone. It’s really written for a reader who wants at the outset to take on a multi-dimensional chess game with Gene Wolfe. And I’m not entirely sure, yet, whether it’s even for me.

There isn’t a lot of analysis out there on the Short Sun books, probably because they are so complex. Even though the trilogy is fifteen years old, I suspect that not very many readers have actually completed it, and of those readers, even fewer came away feeling that they understood it. I did find one interesting and, I think, correct interpretive note in the form of some incomplete notes on the Wolfe Wiki, which today seems to be off-line; I don’t even know who to credit these thoughts to, but they start off like so:

I believe we can take the old pen case as a metaphor for the old body Horn has brought back from the whorl. “At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by Oreb not so long ago.” To push the analogy, the three pens are three spirits: Silk, Pas, and Horn. The third, with which he begins to write this book, will be “dropped” before the end.

See (although as it exists in the form of a Wiki, that page may well have changed by the time you go to look at it).

I’d like to be able to sum up and render some useful final judgement on The Book of the Short Sun, but I simply can’t — at least not yet. Maybe I’ll be able to do so soon. For now, it’s just too big. For the moment let’s just say that if The Book of the New Sun is Wolfe’s Ulysses, I hope that The Book of the Short Sun is not his Finnegan’s Wake.

Next time I will to include some notes about Robert Borski’s book Solary Labyrinth. This is a book of short essays about The Book of the New Sun and the mysteries in that text, particularly the mysteries surrounding the identities and relationships of some of the characters. I re-read this work while re-reading The Book of the New Sun, to refresh my memory. Borski’s book is interesting, but in some ways, to me at least, not fully convincing. More on that next time!


Completed since last time:

  • Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  • On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading for the kids)

In progress:

  • Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading)
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading)

Saginaw, Michigan
August 15, 2016

Two Interesting Games: Little Inferno and Human Resource Machine

As a guy who remembers a world before Pac-Man, I admit to having gone through phases in which I played a lot of video games. As a child my family had a game console for a time; not an Atari, but a Sears “Tele-Games Electronic Games Motocross Sports Center IV,” which had Pong-style games out the wazoo, and a deeply dumb motorcycle jump game. Back then you had to use a lot of imagination to translate the low-resolution, barely-animated game representation into something more vivid, but I had fun with it. It wasn’t like there were a lot of great video game alternatives. During the home computer years I was a big fan of Infocom text adventures, completing many of them and dabbling in programming my own text adventures (fortunately all lost). Graphics games were in their infancy by I played them. Graphics games on the TRS–80, in black and white with a resolution of 48 pixels by 128 pixels, were notably crude; remember that bit about having to use a lot of imagination?

Over the years I mostly was not a big gamer, although I went through some phases when I played a lot of games. In the early nineties, I played Doom. I had a brief infatuation with the PC-based Ultima games and played the hell out of several of them, including the two Ultima Underworld games. A few years later, I was a fan of some Nintendo 64 titles and I’ll never forget conquering the tough boss “Mad Jack,” an evil jack-in-the box, in Donkey Kong 64. I gradually migrated away from first-person shooter games towards racing and puzzle games, enjoying Mario Kart and beating Paper Mario and the sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door as well as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

When I moved to Saginaw and was living alone for a while I bought a few games from Steam, including Half-Life 2. It was Half-Life 2, particularly the “We Don’t Go to Ravenholm” episode, that put me off first-person shooter games, probably forever, but I enjoyed (and completed) World of Goo.

I’m sure I’m glossing over many games that were significant to me over the years, but the point of this introduction is to show that I’ve gravitated more towards puzzle games and physics games. I have never gotten into MMPORGs and modern, realistic first-person shooter games leave me cold. That makes me what hard-core gamers might call a “casual gamer.” I welcome the idea that the term is vaguely insulting — because to me the alternative is “someone who wastes far too much time playing games.” I don’t believe time spent playing games is entirely wasted — for example, I think the second game I’ll discuss below actually can hone some useful skills — but the returns diminish pretty quickly.

Since purchasing an iPad I never really found iPad games I thought were worth playing; adaptations of other games didn’t always work well on the iPad touch-screen hardware. But recently I was browsing the App Store out of boredom and found two games that I really like.

Little Inferno

The first is an oddball game called Little Inferno. The setting and plot is bizarrely simple (and simply bizarre). You’ve just received a brick fireplace, called a “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace,” made by the Tomorrow Corporation (which is the name of the actual company that made the game, by the way). You don’t have anything to burn in it, but you can order things from the company. They include a starter catalog. Everything is delivered right to you. The catalog is a mishmash of weird parody objects: broken toys, expired and discontinued food items, weird junk-shop finds, and the occasional amusingly explosive, infested, or toxic item. It’s first-person, and for most of the game you sit in front of the fireplace and burn stuff up, and order new stuff. Stuff is delivered in just a few seconds, with bigger-ticket items taking tens of seconds or minutes, but the game allows you to spend your bonus points on rush delivery. So you can indulge your impatience, and you quickly find that indulging your impatience makes you even less patient. That’s about it for the basic gameplay.

There’s a story arc that starts to emerge; you get mail, and you get weather reports. Apparently your community is suffering from terrible winter storms and they’ve been going on for some time. In fact, you never seem to actually leave your home, or eat or drink anything. To me, it’s a wonderfully weird satire of Amazon Prime. You earn money by burning things in your fireplace, which you can use to buy more things. When you burn “combos,” weird groupings of items with some symbolic or metaphorical relationship, you get bonus points. You can use the bonus points to order more and more things, and they arrive ever-faster. As you level up you get more catalogs, with more and more expensive items in them. The items burn in entertaining, and sometimes horrible, ways. For example, there’s a stuffed cat called Kitty Kitty Poo Poo. When you ignite it, it poops. A lot. It seems to be filled entirely with poop, which burns.

However demented and gross the game’s sense of humor, it was never quite as dark as I expected. For example, one of the required combos is called “Sorority Party.” I thought it involved the “Low Self-Esteem Action Doll” and the chainsaw, but that may be a remnant of watching one too many low-budget horror movies back in the eighties. It actually involves balloons, not chainsaws.

Eventually you level up enough to bring the game to a satisfying and surreal conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you. This game isn’t for everyone but it doesn’t take all that long to complete it, and I had fun.

Human Resource Machine

I discovered that the same developers have released another game, Human Resource Machine. Human Resource Machine is a bit difficult to describe if you aren’t already familiar with very low-level computer programming. If you’ve ever taken a data structure class, or an algorithms class, or especially an assembly language programming class, it will be familiar. You are an office drone, starting out in the mail room. You work your way through a series of rooms. In each room, your supervisor gives you an assigment involving sorting or filing or rearranging boxes, moving them from an incoming conveyer belt to an outgoing conveyor belt. But you don’t move the boxes yourself in real time; you don’t have direct control of your avatar. You can’t drag him around or make him pick up a box. Instead, you write a program, in a very simple assembly language, to control your avatar. Then you run the program. When you run it your avatar zooms around, executing the instructions. You can make your avatar run the program step-by-step, even stepping backwards, and change the speed.

The assembly language you are learning starts out very simply. Initially you have only two commands, one to take an item from the inbox, and one to put the item in the outbox. As the challenges get more difficult you get addition and subtraction, and jump operations, and conditional jump operations, and then load and store operations, and then indexed load and store operations, and then indirect indexed load and store operations. If you make it through the whole game you will have mastered the basics of assembly language programming. The Human Resource Machine instruction set is not a real instruction set architecture, but at their heart, instruction set architectures are very similar. So once you’ve mastered this one, you could presumably learn any real instruction set architecture, just as after I mastered the Z–80 (the microprocessor inside the Radio Shack TRS–80), it was relatively easy to master the 6502 (the microprocessor inside the Apple II). In fact the Human Resource Machine architecture is a bit like that of the 6502. It is a little more irregular than I think it should be. Some instructions leave objects in your hands, and some don’t (your “hands” represent a sort of accumulator, or common register used to do most operations including math operations). But real instruction set architectures all have their quirks.

If this game had existed when I was teaching the System Software course I taught at Saginaw Valley State University, and I could have arranged for the students to have access to it, I would have assigned it. It is pretty much the best attempt at “gamification” of programming I’ve ever seen. I especially like the way it teaches a very low-level language. Most programming environments you see online teach Python, or Lua, or JavaScript, or other high-level languages. It’s refreshing to see one that really gets to the bottom of how computer programs do their work.

Most of the basic problems are simple, but they get progressively harder. You have to invent some techniques to map high-level concepts to low-level instructions. For example, you don’t have an instruction to determine if two numbers are equal. But you have a subtraction instruction, and you can compare a value to zero. So you have to come up with the idea that you can check to see if two numbers are equal by subtracting one from the other. If the result is zero, they were equal. This is just one of many such techniques you have to work out.

To get to the end, you have to implement a sorting algorithm in assembly language. This would be a trivial library call in Java but in assembly language it is a fairly challenging program. I chose a maximally-inefficient version of a sorting algorithm known as “bubble sort.” It contains a lot of redundant operations, which made my little avatar go berserk for five minutes when I ran it. Some easy optimizations are possible, but the first challenge is just to get a program working.

When I completed all the required challenges, I started doing the side challenges, a parallel series of graded exercises. You can also try to maximize your points for each challenge. To get the maximum possible points, you must not only solve the problem correctly, but meet two optimization challenges: you must meet or beat a target for the minimum program length, and a target for the fastest execution. In some simple cases one solution will meet both objectives. But in many of them, the size-optimized program looks very different than the speed-optimized program. Perhaps not surprisingly, an enterprising person has set up a Github repository with optimized solutions. See

I’ve been programming computers since 1977 and although I met the requirements to complete the game, I still have not managed to beat all these assembly language optimization challenges. As the game says, some of them are quite difficult. But I did start make my own little implementation of the virtual machine and instruction set, written in C, which runs on an ATtiny 441 microcontroller. If you want to play with it, the code is here:

I had the idea, originally, that you might communicate with the tiny microcontroller running the code via the serial port, uploading the program and letting it run. But I’m not sure I will ever get around to that, since I am getting paid to write other programs, but at least I had some fun with it.

The game has cut scenes, and a concluding scene. Again, I won’t spoil it for you, but as a programmer about to celebrate my 49th birthday, I found the concluding scene slightly unnerving. It’s a great game and I highly recommend it, and I am looking forward to more releases from Tomorrow Corporation.

Saginaw, Michigan
September 26, 2016

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Read It, Early August 2016

We're in the "unpleasantly hot" phase of summer here in Michigan, those few days (in most years, just a handful of days; this year, a few more days than usual) in which I avoid spending any unnecessary time outside at all. It's been a long work week and the rest of my family is out of town today. In fact I will only see them Sunday evening, and then Monday morning I will head back down to Ann Arbor for another work week. So I have some quiet time to work on writing, and I'd like to take full advantage of it.

In reality I'm not always able to turn my concentration from one thing to another on a dime, and I find myself spending some of this valuable time in "decompression." I don't always sleep well when I'm away from home, and do my best to eat well but rarely can eat as well as I'd like to. My software development work can be a grind at time, when a supposedly simple development task turns into a minefield of bugs and tool problems. I don't always realize that I've been stressed out and sleep-deprived until the stress goes away and suddenly all I want to do is nap. And while it is nice to get a break from the noise of a whole gaggle of kids once in a while, I've been spending far too little time with my family, and that is stressful in its own way.

I was feeling exhausted and like a cold or allergy attack was coming on. I got back onto my regular diet -- bulletproof coffee for breakfast, and low-carb meals. I got some extra sleep in my own bed. I'm de-stressing just a bit -- just in time to handle the transition as everyone comes home tomorrow!

The Book of the New Sun

I came across audiobook versions of Gene Wolfe's masterpiece. They are odd recordings -- originally made as recordings from the blind, they seem to have been transcribed from 4-track mono cassette at low speed 15/16 inches-per-second. There are instructions to "set the side selector switch" and "turn the cassette over." There is tape hiss and there are moments when the audio drops out, or fades, as old cassette audio sometimes drops out and fades. But in addition to these audible problems, periodically the audio skips and repeats, as if a needle had reached the "locked groove" at the end of a vinyl record. This suggests that the cassette audio, complete with instructions on when to turn the cassette over, may have been transferred to vinyl records.

At this point I simply have to stop and scratch my head in confusion. Were there really unabridged audiobooks of Gene Wolfe's novels, recorded for the vision-impaired, and made available on vinyl records, not just cassette? Each book would have required dozens of records. And if an organization went to all the trouble of pressing records, would they really have produced these LPs from a low-quality cassette, complete with instructions to "set the side selector switch" and "turn the cassette over," rather than from a master tape, without the cassette-specific instructions? The mind boggles, but I suppose stranger things have happened. (If you know, please leave a comment).

Anyway, someone has apparently digitized these audiobooks, and put them on YouTube. The audio quality is, as you'd expect after all these format changes and transfers, including conversion to a low-bit-rate compressed digital audio track, pretty poor. There are a few moments when the audio becomes muffled or even, briefly, drops out completely. Putting these up on YouTube is almost certainly not a legal use of the original recordings made for the blind. But I have enjoyed them a lot anyway, because Roy Avers does a very good job reading them.

His pronunciation of certain unusual words of Wolfe's seems sometimes off to me, and sometimes inconsistent from book to book (for example, he pronounces the word "fuligin" in The Urth of the New Sun as "full-eye-jin," stressing the second syllable, but as "full-ih-jin," stressing the first syllable, in The Shadow of the Torturer. He occasionally picks out a particular voice for a character, then forgets how he voiced that character later and gives that character a different voice.

But these are minor nitpicks. Avers really shines in Citadel, when he takes on the challenging task of portraying the wounded Ascian prisoner, called Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, who speaks only in stock phrases, as he tells a story that is translated from these stock phrases by the character Foila. These passages are a treat to listen to. He even does a good job keeping his energy up when reading some of Severian's long, philosophical digressions, those times when despite claiming that he is a stupid man, he tries to fit all the strange things and events around him into his eclectic world-view.

I have read the whole four-volume novel and the fifth companion book at least three or four times on paper, and so I know it pretty well. It has been a treat to hear it read, and it has helped me to feel less isolated and more alive and engaged these past few weeks. I found that some of the parts of the books I had long considered to be less important, and even boring at times, come alive this way, even Severian's interior monologues -- no, especially Severian's interior monologues, which reveal more clues and connections; it really is a mistake, in terms of understanding the books, to skim these.

There are, I think, a few small flaws and inconsistencies in voice and detail here and there, but for the most part, listening to them has really hammered home to me what an amazingly unified structure work this has. My impression of the books just go up each time I read them. I think there are three true masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy world-building to come out of the last century. There are lots of other significant, interesting, and excellent novels, but in terms of works that really build a complete, convincing world, or universe, there are these three. They are The Lord of the Rings, Dune, and The Book of the New Sun. There are many, many other world-building books that might reach, or almost reach, this level, and that are certainly worth reading -- for example, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, or E. R. Eddison's Zimiamvian Trilogy, or William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, but they will most likely always come in second place, in my estimation.

I'd like to be able to tell you where you can buy a legitimate, legal copy of these audiobooks, but I can't, because you can't. You'll have to go to YouTube and see if you can find them; search for "gene wolfe audiobook." I can't guarantee you'll find them. It's a shame, because it would be great if the Avers reading could be out there for you to legally obtain, transcribed from the original recording in as high-quality a presentation as possible. They should be the standard by which other readings of this work are compared. But I doubt that the licensing arrangements made for his original recordings will ever allow that.

Which reminds me that I really need to dust off my long essay on The Book of the New Sun and try to get it into a state I'm finally happy with; my intention is to include it in one of the book-length essay collections that I'm working on.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

I read Authority, the second book of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. While the first book follows an expedition into "Area X," this book takes place almost entirely in and around the Southern Reach offices. The book follows one character, "Control," John Rodriguez, a man appointed as director of the Southern Reach. We learn about his back-story, his history as a secret operative, and his family history (he comes from a line of secret operatives). We read about his difficult interactions with members of his staff, and his attempts to nail down facts about the expeditions. I wanted to enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed the first one, but unfortunately could not. It has the "middle episode problem" present in many trilogies, in that the plot really can't do very much except take us from the end of the first part to the beginning of the third part. It is evocative here and there, but it really feels like very little happens until the final dozen pages or so.

I have started reading the third part with low expectations. I haven't finished it yet. Already, it is more engaging than the second one. But I think my final verdict will likely be that readers should read the first book, which I reviewed highly in May, and stop there. If that's the case, I'll probably keep Annihilation in my permanent collection and send the other two off to the Goodwill. It isn't actually the case that Authority is a bad book per se, but it certainly suffers in comparison to Annihilation.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

I have been picking at this book for a while. The author's personal story of domestic violence is compelling. He is "our Nation’s best-known expert on the prediction and management of violence," according to his web site. His book seems dated, in that he talks about stalking and assassination incidents from the nineties, but the basic messages are not dated. It contains a lot of recommendations that seem, after reading them, like common sense -- but a lot of good work is like that, because "common sense" isn't.

It is reassuring, in the sense that the author tells us that our human instincts and intuition are actually very good at warning us about actual threats from other people. So part of the book's message is "trust your instincts." He describes many incidents in which otherwise smart people literally talked themselves out of listening to their intuition, which in many cases is just another name for our ability to pay attention to clues in voice, body language, and behavior. So he makes it seem that much of what he does, when consulting with clients about potential threats, is just to repeat back to them the clues that they have convinced themselves aren't significant.

He also describes many incidents in which institutions were unable to correctly assess threats, which is also troubling. He comes up with some checklists and guidelines for this sort of thing, and I felt that these were less valuable, perhaps, than the anecdotes.

I strongly agree with his recommendation to trust our intuition about threats, and I think his advice about assessing threats in the workplace is excellent, especially when he talks about not knocking down a troubled person's "dignity domino." I also really appreciate his attitude towards guns in the homes, which is fact-based, not propaganda-based.

There's another recommendation he makes, and I've followed it often. He points out the ways in which the television news cycle confuse and mislead us about threats because "if it bleeds, it leads." I find that this is very true, and I feel like I've developed for more insight about news, and politics, and all sorts of current events, by no longer obtaining any information from television coverage, and little from radio. You can get a taste of his writing on the subject here:

I recommend this book, but not strongly. I think some people probably don't need to read it, as they already trust their instincts about threats and they don't indulge in television news. It didn't "change my life," as they say. It's a little disjointed, with chapters that jump around in time and style and which don't do a great job forming a single coherent book.

However, despite these flaws, I think there are a lot of people out there whose life it could change. Many of them are women, who, I think, are generally taught to fear more than men are, and who may have been taught bad strategies -- that is, not fact-based -- for assessing risks and deciding what to fear. If you are living in fear of domestic violence, stalking, street crime, or incidents like that, you should read it. It may help you rearrange your priorities, in a positive, helpful way. I think his stories about what we should actually fear might, as he hopes, help many people live with considerably less fear.

A Few Non-Books

The Dark Knight Trilogy

I've seen a few movies. I watched Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, made up of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. Now, I've got a long-standing beef about watching big movies on a small screen; the small screen (and small speakers) can rob them of all their potency. In particular it has a tendency, at least in me, of turning very exciting action sequences into boring sequences in which toy vehicles chase each other or blow up and produce toy explosions. So my preference is always to see movies like this in theaters if I can.

But I can't often do that these days, and so we watched them at home on a completely unremarkable, very beat-up LG Flatron E2350V computer monitor, and a pair of Roland MA-8BK powered "micro-monitors" that have also seen better days. In fact, one of them has been dropped so many times, by our kids, that the 10cm "woofer" (a speaker hardly worthy of that name) is rattling around loose inside the enclosure (and they are only twenty years old!) We have been taught repeatedly that we can't really have better audio-visual gear until the kids get older, so that situation isn't likely to change, at least for a few years.

Anyway, the movies. I felt that the first was overly long, and I didn't really appreciate the "League of Shadows" back-story, Ra's al Ghul in Bhutan and all that "mysterious wisdom of the ancients" orientalist nonsense. And so while it had its moments, the first film bored me, and not just because I saw it on a small screen.

The second one was more promising; I finally saw Heath Ledger as the Joker, a portrayal that may very well give you nightmares. But it also felt as it if ran too long, and in fact I couldn't bring myself to stay up the last fifteen minutes or so. (I really should go back and watch it again just to watch all of Ledger's work as the Joker. It's amazing).

The third one, surprisingly, I liked much better, and my wife Grace liked it better too. Although it reprises some of the orientalist back-story, and it is also too long, and the whole fusion reactor core thing is more than a little risible, I appreciated Bane and the story twists a lot more than I thought I would. So in fact the whole trilogy ends in a satisfying way.

The Star Trek Fan Collective DVD Collections

I'm going to write about Star Trek a bit now, so wander off and read something else if that topic bores you.

I should explain that I watched Star Trek (the original series) a lot in re-runs as a kid. I saw all the original cast movies in the theater. I watched the premiere of The Next Generation, which launched while I was in college, but as a busy student without a television of my own, I saw episodes of the show only sporadically over the years. I saw the premiere of Voyager, at a premiere party, but missed large chunks of Voyager. I saw the premiere of Deep Space Nine, but again, missed large chunks of the show. In fact there are probably whole seasons of Voyager and Deep Space Nine that I missed in their entirety. Of __Enterprise_, I've seen only a handful of episodes on DVD.

So I think it would be fair to say that I'm not truly a hard-core Star Trek fan.

Of the shows I've seen, I thought (at least at one time) that Deep Space Nine was the most consistent in presentation and screenwriting quality. Specifically, it seemed to have the most well-developed story arc, across multiple seasons, which I appreciated (and still appreciate) in any TV show.

I picked up some of the "Star Trek Fan Collective" boxed sets, for just a few dollars per set. These are sets of episodes taken from the whole history of the series, organized by theme. The collections I brought home are called Borg, Klingon, Q, and Captain's Log.

I've learned a few things, watching these old Star Trek episodes (or, in a few cases, re-watching them).

The first thing should be obvious, but it is this: most Star Trek is not very good, and does not hold up very well as the viewer gets older and (at least hopefully) develops more refined tastes. Sturgeon's law applies:

90% of everything is crud.


The second is that about ten percent of Star Trek is good. Sometimes, quite good. A few episodes hold up very well. Often, they are stand-alone episodes that are not part of a larger story arc. See for example "Darmok" (The Next Generation, season 2).

The third is that it really is not that much fun to watch "story arc" episodes out of order, unless perhaps you are such a hardcore fan that you've repeatedly watched all of the episodes of all of the shows, and so you can jump back in and remember what is going on. I'm not one of those fans.

Anyway, we watched part of the Q collection, which starts out with "Encounter at Farpoint" from Star Trek: The Next Generation.


...tastes can refine or limit as one ages; what may have seemed brilliant to a child or teen would seem crude or laughable to most adults, but the memories of how great something from one's youth seemed linger long afterward, making the familiar examples seem better than more or less equivalent modern ones in comparison.

Wow, was that first episode ever bad. Bad lighting, weird set-dressing, badly edited, dragging dialogue, poor pacing, dumb sets, and too many info-dumps.

I remember watching it when it came out, and thinking even back then that it wasn't as good as I hoped -- but I don't remember it as this bad.

We watched a few Q episodes from The Next Generation and those were a little better, but we decided to skip ahead and watch some of the Q episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

Wow, was Voyager ever bad.

So we decided to watch some of the Borg collection's episodes. That started out with an episode from Enterprise called "Regeneration."

Wow, Enterprise was... pretty bad. Maybe a little less bad, in terms of acting and production and set dressing and techno-babble and info-dumps and other bugaboos of screenwriting but still pretty bad.

But we pressed on, and watched some of the Borg episodes from The Next Generation and... well... some of them were, maybe, still bad, but had moments that were a little less bad. They have at least some good things to offer. In particular "I Borg" is, if you squint, even slightly moving at times. This is often true in episodes that have guest stars, who can bring in fresh acting chops.

We also watched a few episodes from the Captain's Log collective, including a few episodes of Deep Space Nine. That was a bit of a mistake for reason three. "Far Beyond the Stars" (see is one of those 10%-or-better good episodes, a standalone story that is quite moving. But the next two "fan picks" on the Captain's Log collection are the two parts of the show finale, "What You Leave Behind." Because I have not recently watched (or indeed ever watched) the whole story arc, the finale was pretty incoherent to me. I don't remember very much about the plot lines they were wrapping up. So don't watch them like I did.

Can I recommend these? Not strongly. I think they have a built-in problem, which is that it isn't at all clear exactly what audience they are intended for. The people who might enjoy these "story arc" the most have probably seen everything on them, and those who have not seen everything on them may not be able to enjoy them all that much, because of Sturgeon's Law.

If you are a hardcore Star Trek fan, you probably have these episodes already, in the form of per-season or complete show DVD collections (Deep Space Nine and Voyager seem to be out of print, but you can find used boxed sets for sale).

If you aren't a hard-core fan, you probably want to watch the best standalone episodes of each show, that aren't part of an important story arc and which don't require a lot of context to understand.

The Fan Collective sets are not quite this, because a set like the Borg set is not "the best of the Borg" episodes, but all of them. Those episodes aren't inherently better than other episodes.

But some of the themed sets do contain mostly standalone episodes, I think. There are a couple of the Fan Collective DVD sets that I didn't find for sale. These are the Alternate Realities collection and the Time Travel collection. Maybe these two sets are more fun for a casual fan, because they represent "best-of" collections of standalone episodes.

Or not; I can't really rate them since I haven't seen them. To a casual fan some of those episodes may not be truly standalone; they might present the same "I have no idea what's going on!" problem as some of the episodes on the Captain's Log collection. But I suspect they are better than these sets for a casual viewer.

Which may explain, now that I think about it, why these collections were heavily discounted at my local FYE store, and those two collections weren't there...

And finally,

Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead

In my hopeless quest to re-live my childhood, or at least destroy my own illusions about my childhood, I have long wanted to watch some of the earliest few seasons of Saturday Night Live and Fridays. I've been able to satisfy some of that longing by watching clips on YouTube, but there is a lot of material that is not on YouTube.

I was eight years old when the first season of Saturday Night Live started, in 1975. I don't remember seeing much of it live on the original air dates; I may have seen some bits and pieces, but probably was in bed for most of those shows. But I know that by 1978 (when I was eleven to twelve), I was watching some of it live. There are clips and short films I remember very vividly and I haven't been able to track them down. So I have decided I'm going to try to watch the first three seasons or so, to find some of those moments I so vividly remember, including The Mr. Bill Show.

I came across seasons 1 and 3 for sale at my local music store, for not a lot of money; I think they were $8.00 each or so. I have ordered season 2 from an eBay seller.

In fact I've been watching the first season this weekend. I've found that it isn't really necessary to watch, as such; I can put it on and listen, while I do other things. Most of the humor, to me, is in the dialogue, rather than the visuals. There are a few exceptions. In the December 20, 1975 episode, with Candice Bergen as guest host, there's a very funny and touching wordless sketch featuring Gilda Radner and John Belushi. It's set in a laundromat, where the two of them share a washer, since all the others are in use. It's absolutely hilarious, and even romantic, but not a word is spoken.

Sadly, Gilda Radner and John Belushi... are both... still dead. When I was just a young kid, watching the show, I don't think I ever appreciated Radner, but watching her work now, I think her work on the show is wonderful.

Good Night, and Have a Pleasant Tomorrow

So, as best as I can remember, here are the books I've completed since I last wrote:

  • Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Authority
  • Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear

I'll soon be finishing these:

  • Gene Wolfe, The Urth of the New Sun (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance


Saginaw, Michigan
August 6, 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Read It, Mid-July 2016

The Nightmare Stacks (with Spoilers)

OK, so it's not quite mid-July anymore, but at least it's still July. This one has been waiting for me to finish it. I held off on posting it until I finished reading Eifelheim, the novella, and didn't get that done because I had to put in some long work days... but here I am.

The inimitable Charles Stross interfered with my reading plans by releasing his latest Laundry Files novel, The Nightmare Stacks. When a new Laundry Files novel comes out, I am pretty much helpless to do anything else until I have finished reading it. The series is a little uneven, with deliberate changes in style as Stross experiments with different kinds of pastiche. I think the second book, The Jennifer Morgue, is still my favorite, but not by a wide margin. Anyway, this one is a little slow to get going, but once all the chess pieces are on the board, a lot starts happening very quickly, and it becomes a page-turner.

In this one, the narrator (of some chapters) and point-of-view character (of others) is Alex Schwartz, one of the group of PHANGs from the two-books-ago novel The Rhesus Chart. Alex is a fun character, nerdy and terrified of women, but unexpectedly resourceful. Then there's Cassie. Cassie's an elf. Her people are invading Earth and plan to slaughter or enslave all of humanity. Wait, what?

Stross's version of elves is, I think, at least partly an homage to the late Terry Pratchett's elves, from the Discworld novel Lords and Ladies. They're not cute, although they are attractive, the way a cobra is attractive. Yeah, this book is pretty dark -- they've been getting darker. But it's also quite funny. There is a terrific "bringing the significant other home to meet the parents" scene. There are quite a few callbacks to people and things introduced earlier in the series.

Interestingly, the whole world of the Laundry Files series, unlike the worlds in a lot of other urban fantasy, and soap-opera-ish TV fantasy and science fiction, is going somewhere. Although the Laundry works in secret and is charged with keeping the truth and the general public far apart, enough shit is hitting enough fans that a few cover stories and Men in Black-style memory wipes aren't going to cut it anymore.

We already have an outbreak of superhero powers among the populace. And with this book, we've got the aftermath of a foiled invasion. There was some significant collateral damage. So I am really looking forward to seeing how the Laundry lives up to its name and attempts to clean up this mess. I hear that Bob will feature in the next novel. I have enjoyed the other characters while Bob is on hiatus, but I am looking forward to hearing from Bob again, although because he is now a Very Scary Sorcerer, he can't ever be the same old Bob again!

Eifelheim, the Novella (with Spoilers)

In the last couple of posts, I wrote at some length last time about the novel Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. I mentioned that Eifelheim started out as a novella of the same name, originally published in Analog magazine, in the November 1986 issue.

Back issues of Asimov's and Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the eighties, when a lot of people like me subscribed to them, are not scarce and not very expensive -- you can readily find copies on eBay. So I bought a copy and it arrived in just a few days, and I've now read the original novella. It's pretty short -- about 35 printed pages in the magazine. I didn't count words, but I don't think it could be more than about 20-25,000 words. That puts it pretty squarely into "novella-length," although the exact limits are vague. Wikipedia cites a definition of novella by Warren Cariou:

The novella is generally not as formally experimental as the long story and the novel can be, and it usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view, and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.

That pretty accurately describes the way in which Eifelheim, the novella, differs from Eifelheim, the novel. In the novella, the somewhat mysterious narrator character from the "framework" story of the novel has the stage, and he introduces himself earlier, and we are aware of him as a character. The two main "present-day" characters are there, and the third librarian character, but the point of view never actually shifts to medieval times. We learn about Dietrich and the past events only in scenes that take place in the present.

Flynn is good at writing dialogue that gets across a lot of information while only occasionally seeming like a contrived storytelling info-dump, and that's nice. He does not insult the reader's intelligence and the details fly by relatively quickly, but all the critical plot points are there. There are a few minor differences that I noticed:

  • In addition to the "copper wire" MacGuffin, the novella mentions some metal brackets that the aliens needed humans to make for them. I don't think these are mentioned in the novel at all.
  • In the novel, the alien ship manages to depart, leaving a few aliens behind. We don't learn whether they make it back to their own world (and it is strongly suggested that they likely won't). In the novella, either the ship never manages to leave, or the characters in the present day don't know that it managed to leave, and so they anticipate finding the remains of the ship.

But overall I find it impressive how the novel mostly just deepened and expanded the original, without making any annoying or somehow "incompatible" changes to the overall story.

It is clear that Flynn's ability to write dialogue evolved a bit since 1986, so there are some slightly clunky, slightly cheesy bits of monologue by our narrator character -- although these are less annoying and distracting, to me, than the way in which the narrator character is not fully integrated into the later novel.

Overall this is a well-written science fiction novella, and the ideas are good. I think it's great that Flynn was able to expand the novella into a good, if not quite great, novel as well. If I were teaching a seminar class in how to write science fiction and fantasy, I think it would be a very interesting exercise to take apart these two works, and learn from them. I recommend both of them to anyone who would like to study just how this sort of thing is properly done.


Since last time I finished:

  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Still in Progress

  • Viriconium by M. John Harrison
  • The Story of Earth and Sky by Carleton Washburne, Heluiz Washburne, and Frederick Reed, illustrated by Margery Stocking
  • Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White

Just Started

  • Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 2) by Jeff VanderMeer

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
July 18 and 23, 2016

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Read It, Late June 2016

I’m a little late getting this one posted — I wound up updating it a few times, and then it sat for a while, and I’m posing it on July 6. I’m trying to post at least twice a month, but I’ve fallen short of that recently because most of my spare time has gone into my book project. I’ll try to do better in July.

I’ve finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. The comments that follow contain spoilers.

Eifelheim, Continued (Comments Written on June 20, 2016)

In my last post, I described what I saw as an annoying flaw in the narration of Eifelheim, in which the narrator would drop in direct commentary on the events of the story. It turns out that a little later on in the text, the narrator actually outs himself as a character, in the book’s present, around page 195 in the mass-market paperback edition:

And so I came into the affair, although at first only in a peripheral way. I was teaching still at the Albert-Louis, and Tom sent me an e-mail asking me to find the manorial records for Oberhochwald.

So things are getting curiouser and curiouser. With this, existence of the narrative intrusions that occasionally peppered the narrative make a little bit more sense. And now the question “who is this narrator?” is something left hanging for the reader to ponder. I’m reminded more than ever of Wolfe, and hoping that this puzzle actually has a satisfying answer.

Eifelheim, Concluded (Comments Written on June 24, 2016)

Having finished Eifelheim I can put my previous comments in perspective. I must regretfully rate it only a good book, but not a great book.

To review: Eifelheim is a first-contact story, but an odd one; the contact takes place in the years 1348–1349. The alien vessel crashed in Medieval times. But the book is partly set in our own time, or a time near to it, as two scientists uncover clues about the deep past and cosmology, both of which help to explain those past events.

In my previous comments I mentioned the intrusive, overly “knowing” narrator. Flynn does eventually bring the narrator into the story, but only in the last few pages. The narrator’s identity is not actually very important, except that he is sympathetic to Tom, the character researching the lost town of Eifelheim and uncovering the weird mystery of what happened, and ready and willing to assist him.

Because he has such a brief role in the story, I don’t feel that the narrator character’s earlier intrusive comments, where he offers judgments, opinions, and predictions about the main characters, are justified in any sort of storytelling sense. They distract the reader from the “now” of the story, without offering any kind of interesting or surprising reason for the interruption.

If I could edit the book freely, I might remove this narrator character completely, or expand him so that he has more of a presence in the “now” storyline throughout the text, or merge him with Tom. The handful of characters in the “now” storyline of the book are quite thin. In fact, the “now” storyline itself is quite thin, and so fine-tuning it would not even touch the bulk of the book.

Come to think of it, the fact that the “now” interacts so weakly with the main storyline, set in the medieval past, is a weakness of the book.

Eifelheim started out as a novella published in 1986. I have not read that novella, although I am going to track down the magazines it was published in and read it. My impression is that it consisted entirely, or almost entirely, of the “present” storyline. In adapting it into a novel, Flynn wrote a second, much bigger and deeper narrative, and created a narrator to tell it, but that “weak interaction” between the “now” storyline and “then” storyline makes it feel like they don’t really need each other all that much. In fact, I think Flynn could have left the “now” narrative in 1986 and written a very good book about Eifelheim set entirely in 1348–1349.

And while I really like much of the Name of the Rose-like details about medieval life, and the way the author uses languages, there are definitely parts of the text that drag. We come across passages like this:

“So.” Einhardt counted off on his fingers. “Karl holds the Bohemian vote himself, and his brother Baldwin is also bishop of Trier. That’s two. And when House Luxemburg says, ‘frog,’ Archbishop Waldrich asks how high he should jump. Except he thinks he is King of Frogs. Ha-hah! So Köln’s vote makes three. As for the Wittelsbachs… Well, little Ludwig holds Brandenburg, as I’ve said; and his brother Rudolf is Count Palatine, which makes two votes. With Mainz uncertain, both families play court to the other Rudolf, the Duke of Saxe-Wittenberg. Hah! House Welfen holds the balance!”

All I can think of when reading this sort of passage is that, aside from the author, and perhaps one or two readers who happen to be academics specializing in the history of the Middle Ages, no one cares about any of this—not even the character listening to Einhardt.

Nor should they. Some context is necessary to understand the basic events of the story. That required context does not include all the political intrigues of the time and place. This isn’t Game of Thrones. If it were, we might care more, because the Game of Thrones saga is about the various kings, queens, heirs, and bastards. Our story is not about those sorts of characters, and so this kind of digression is superfluous.

Don’t get me wrong—I do like this book quite a bit. I’ve mentioned Wolfe and Eco; it is also reminiscent of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I’m a big fan of complex novels, and I don’t mind a good digression. Moby-Dick consists almost entirely of digressions. I really enjoyed the philosophical aspects of the novel. The premise is intriguing, and the way the author works out the implications of that premise is top-notch. The book is in large part about not just the events, but the class of cultures and philosophies. I don’t even consider that material to be digression. The dialogue is really at the heart of the novel. I learned some new words from this book: enfoeffed and ferial. I gained a deeper understanding of the medieval mind. That is not a small gift, and so I don’t regret spending my time reading Eifelheim. But it also reminds me that it is high time I re-read The Name of the Rose.

Eifelheim, the Novella

I bought a copy of the November 1986 issue of Analog magazine that contains the original Eifelheim novella. (Some sources online claim that it appeared in the December 1986 issue, but the copy I’ve got in my hand says otherwise). I will read this novella and have some notes on it next time.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

I have re-read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the deeply strange Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the film Blade Runner. In fact, I actually re-read it completely through twice, making notes, and then went back through it a third time typing out additional notes and quotations comprising a chapter-by-chapter summary of the novel, about ten thousand words in length. I’m going to try to turn that into a more condensed summary, and add some analysis, and then that’s going to become part of a longish essay on Blade Runner.

The idea is that this long essay will finish out my collection of film reviews. It will serve as a sort of bridge between the collection of film-only reviews and later collections of book reviews.

Still Pending

I’m just about done reading the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to my children.

I’ve been reading the first few chapters of Viriconium by M. John Harrison, since the Reddit printSF community is reading it as part of their SF Book Club series. I read Light earlier and found it incoherent and distasteful.

The book is actually a collection of novels and stories; the first one is called The Pastel City. If it matters to anyone, I’m reading the 2005 Spectrum Books trade paperback omnibus edition, the one with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, and cover artwork showing gears and a metallic bird hatching from an egg. I haven’t gotten very far, as the prose is dense and worth slowing down for, but so far I can say that I am enjoying the first novel more than I enjoyed Light.

Harrison says that Viriconium is a “metafictional critique of” and “a deconstruction of” of “epic” fantasy and it is hard for me to tell yet how seriously to take that. I jumped around a bit, and read the final story “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.” That story reminded me a bit of the Hav by Jan Morris, which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog.

So far, I do appreciate the “Dying Earth” setting, as in the work of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. I also appreciate the anti-heroic hero. Harrison also says it is “a conscious disruption of the American ideological/narcissistic overmyth ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’” and again, it is hard to tell yet how seriously to take that, but I like what I’ve read so far.

I’m still reading several other books to the children, including The Story of Earth and Sky. I’ll write about that book at more length another time. I want to mention some other old books I’ve read from, including One Two Three… Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamow, and some other science books that were significant to me as a child and which may simply not have good modern counterparts.

I also started reading to my kids an old young adult novel that was also significant to me as a child. This is Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White. The main character is a teenage boy named Paul; the fictional Paul was born about the same year I was. The book itself has a very workmanlike style, with young characters that are a bit unconvincing, as they are too “knowing” for their age to be realistic, but I was startled to discover that the book’s writing style looks an awful lot like my writing style. I think that book may have heavily influenced the way I write, including the way I use hyphens and the specific rhythm and meter I tend to fall into when writing prose. It’s startling. Like Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet, this book also predicts climate change, so here is another book I read as a child which accurate predicted the straits we would be in, decades later.

Amazon reviewer R. Christenson describes it as “a reasonably successful attempt at emulating a Heinlein juvenile,” and I think that’s accurate, except that White’s teenage protagonist doesn’t seem to have quite a convincing voice as, say, Max Jones of Starman Jones, or Podkayne Fries of Podkayne of Mars. Although, to be honest, it has been decades since I have read a Heinlein juvenile, and it is possible those protagonists might not seem convincing to me now. I remember really enjoying Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I will finish Secret of the Marauder Satellite and if it still seems as good to me as it did when I was a kid, I’ll see if I can track down some of White’s other work.

Meanwhile, keep reading!

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 13-July 6, 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Read It, Early June 2016

Groundhog Year

June 15th was the one-year anniversary of my current work arrangement. Each Monday morning I drive from Saginaw south to Ann Arbor, work in Ann Arbor four days, then drive back to Saginaw Thursday evening. The plan has been that as soon as possible, I will relocate my family closer to work. That is still the plan, but "as soon as possible" has been pushed back a while as we figure out how to cope with the vast difference between the Saginaw and Washtenaw County real estate markets.

Fortunately, I have friends in Ann Arbor who have been kind enough to put me up in a spare bedroom all those nights, and on many nights feed me as well. This has made it much more bearable -- the cost of renting even a small one-bedroom apartment in Washtenaw County would have made this arrangement nearly unworkable without their help; we would have made far less progress on paying down debts and putting money into savings.

This has been a godsend in many ways, because it has allowed me to stay at employed at a good job that I enjoy a lot. I also like quiet time -- it's often scarce at home, what with five children at home -- and there is no doubt that I've had plenty of quiet evenings alone. I've been able to do a considerable amount of reading and a fair amount of writing too.

But in other ways it has been very hard, and has gotten harder the longer it goes on. I don't have an exact figure, but I haven't taken very much vacation time or sick time, and so I think that I've actually been away from my family for about 200 days out of the last calendar year.

That's nothing compared to the situations of, say, soldiers who deploy continuously for a year or more at a time. I do see my family every week, and my wife isn't actually afraid for my safety.

But on the other hand it isn't entirely unlike their situations. One weekend my daughter wouldn't talk to me. I asked her if we could spend some time catching up. She said "why should I bother? You're just going to go away again." That was a bit of a gut punch.

Each week the adjustment to the solitude and peace is a bit of a shock to my system, and then the adjustment to a noisy, chaotic gaggle of children is another shock to my system. So I'm constantly getting used to having left home, or having returned home, and I spend very little time feeling at home.

So, we need to do something about this. There is a plan in development that would allow me to work more days from home. We're considering a plan that would allow me to work just two days a week in the Ann Arbor office, and stay overnight one evening. I think that is much more sustainable and bearable for everyone. If we can do that for another year, I think we can be much better prepared to relocate, details to be determined, even if we have not sold our old house yet.

I don't know exactly when I'll be able to switch to that reduced schedule, but I am doing my best to make it happen soon. And so I might actually have less free time soon. So I might have less time to devote to this blog. But maybe I can be a much happier and better father and husband for a while.

The Book Project

I have made quite a bit of progress on the project of collecting up and editing my old articles. In fact, I have just about completed a manuscript. The tentative title is The Films that Formed Me, Book 1: Reviews 1992-2016.

The collection will be about 40,000 words. As a printed book, it would be about 100 pages, depending on the exact format. As an e-book, well, that varies depending on how many words your particular e-book reader can show on the page. Using the default layout of CoolReader for Windows, it comes to about 400 pages. Using the default layout for iBooks on my Mac, it's more like 250. So I don't think "pages" is a very valuable way to measure the book's length when talking about .epub.

The individual essays range greatly in style. Some are shorter than one page. Some go into considerable depth. Some are serious. Some are actually parodies. To whet your appetite, here are the names of the essays:

  • The Thief of Bagdad
  • Jurassic Park: The Marketing Extravaganza
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Oscar and Lucinda
  • The Sweet Hereafter
  • Strange Days Indeed
  • What is The Matrix?
  • Magnolia
  • Where’s Tom Bombadil?
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Internal Spotlight of the Shiny Camcorder: a Review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • To Be and To Have (&Eactue;tre et Avoir)
  • Grosser By the Dozen: a Review of Cheaper By the Dozen
  • The Triplets of Belleville
  • God, Nitrogen Sulfide, and Sweaty Vulcan Butt: Notes on Enterprise and Joan of Arcadia
  • Three Films for Grown-ups: Nine Songs, Y Tu Mamá Tambien, and The Dreamers
  • Star Wars: Through the Binoculars
  • Deleted Magic
  • Restoration versus Cartoonization: Thoughts on Star Wars Revisionism
  • “The Negatives of the Movie Were Permanently Altered”
  • House of Flying Daggers, Memento, and a Few More Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings
  • A New Unicorn
  • Two Noir Films: T-Men and He Walked by Night
  • Doctor Who, Old and New
  • "The Girl in the Fireplace"
  • Blood Tea and Red String
  • WALL·E
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • An Unexpected Journey in Fifty Words
  • Lexx is Wretched
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • If You’re Not Cop, You’re Little People: Blade Runner in Perspective

They are all pretty-much complete, except for the last one; I'm still working on that essay. Everything else, I've proofread and tweaked, both on screen and on paper, but they probably need another pass.

I have a usable workflow now. I start with Markdown-formatted, 7-bit ASCII text files. These are the source files. They are marked up with headers and underscores for indicating italic and bold sections. I have HTML entities in place for special accented characters: for example, the title of Y Tu Mama Támbien reads, in the raw source file, _Y Tu Mamá Tambien_. But anyway, the point is that in my source files, written in Pandoc's dialect of Markdown, the source code remains quite readable, because I only occasionally have to use HTML entities for accented characters. I don't use HTML entities for typographer's quotes, dashes, apostrophes, ellipses, or other special characters.

So the next step in my workflow is to use a script called SmartyPants to transform the source into source with HTML entities for those special characters. It does a great job, and I haven't yet found a case where it makes a mistake. The derived file is all marked up with HTML entities, and so is harder to edit and proofread, so I don't modify those files by hand.

I also have a step that does the SmartyPants conversion, and then converts all those HTML entities into characters. This is then no longer a 7-bit ASCII file, so I save it as UTF-8 with no BOM. This file is useful for proofreading, because all the accented characters and typographically correct quotation marks show up, but it is still basically a Markdown file. I use these to visually verify that the accented characters and SmartyPants conversion all looks correct.

The Markdown file with HTML entities then gets fed to Pandoc. Pandoc can spit out all kinds of formats. Really it's quite an amazing program. The primary formats I'm interested in are:

  • Simple HTML with headings, bold, and italics, with special characters encoded as HTML entities (usable for blogging)
  • .epub (e-book)
  • .docx (Microsoft Word)
  • .pdf

Right now the .epub looks pretty good; I think it is about as good as I can get it, except that at the moment it lacks a cover. There are some places where URLs look funny, or lines break funny, but in an .epub I don't think I have total control over that kind of thing; for example, the reader decides whether to fully justify the text, or hyphenate it:

Maybe I could supply a stylesheet that helps clean that up? I'm not really sure. In any case, I don't think I want to put hard breaks in the source file. If I put hard breaks in URLs or long titles or subheadings they might look OK in one derived format, but then they will be broken oddly for the other downstream formats. So my basic philosophy has to be, I think, to ignore the handful of spots where the limitations of the format cause some ugly formatting.

The .docx looks good, except it are not formatted exactly as I need it for publishing a paper book. For example, it isn't set up with page breaks at the start of each chapter, or left/right pages. This is something that I could set up to match the style sheet for a particular publisher, but I am hesitant to put time into it unless I need to -- for example, if I decide to offer paper copies through some publisher.

The .pdf format, which is generated using Latex, looks mostly very nice. But there are places where lines are too long and overflow their boxes. For example, in this case, at the top of a page, a chapter with a long title is rendered with the title running right off the edge of the page:

I don't actually want to change my titles to fit the LaTeX template, and I wouldn't even know where to begin to fix the template to better handle my file. I suppose I might be able to just reduce the text size, but it looks file everywhere else. LaTeX is a very deep rabbit hole. People put in years to gain deep expertise in TeX and LaTeX, and, honestly, I'd rather spend my time writing than typesetting.

I haven't decided exactly when and how I'm going to offer this book for sale. I've read a little bit about the services offered by Smashwords and Hulu and they both seem reasonable. I've also been operating under the assumption that a traditional publisher would have no interest in this material, but perhaps I shouldn't assume that.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I completed this book in June 2016, having read the last of it to my children. It is is perhaps the best of the Hitchhiker's Guide five-book trilogy (no, that isn't a typo). It gets very dark, but it forms a fairly continuous story arc. It's also the first one in the series that I read, back when I was in high school. I selected it as one of my choices from the Science Fiction Book Club, not realizing that I was supposed to read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Even coming into the story already in progress, I found parts of it laugh-out-loud hilarious, and still do.

When I was sixteen, I don't think I realized just how dark and existentialist a world view this book really expresses. It's actually quite thought-provoking. My recollection is that the third book is pretty readable, but the fourth and fifth become very uneven and episodic. I am not quite sure if I will be reading the rest to the kids, re-reading them on my own, or just putting the set back on the shelf for another day.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

This is a fascinating book, a mash-up of medieval life as described in Umberto Eco's masterpiece The Name of the Rose, and a crashed-spaceship first-contact story. I'm about 150 pages in and it opens a bit slowly, but it is speeding up. This is a philosophical work of science fiction and the clash of cultures between a medieval priest and a group of aliens, whose ideas of "the heavens" are very different, is very thought-provoking. We learn a great deal about the medieval world-view of a highly educated character. Here's a passage in which our priest protagonist, Dietrich, interacts with one of the insectoid aliens:

Krenkish heads were smaller and so the harness fit poorly. Nor ere the creature's ears properly positioned, so that when Dietrich had inserted the "hearing-mussel" in his ear -- as he saw the Krenk had done -- the other piece, the mikrofoneh, did not hang by his mouth. The Krenk vaulted the table and seized Dietrich.

Dietrich tried to pull away, but the Krenk's grip was too strong. It made rapid passes at Dietrich's head, but they were not blows and, when the creature stepped away, Dietrich discovered that the straps now fit more comfortably.

"Does now the harness sit well -- question," asked a voice in his ear.

Quite involuntarily, Dietrich turned his head. Then he realized that the earpiece must contain an even smaller Heinzelmännchen than the box in the Krenkish apartments. He turned to stare at his visitor. "You speak in your mikrofoneh, and I hear you through this mussel."

"Doch," said the creature.

Since there could be no action at a distance, there must be a medium through which the impetus flowed. But had the voice flowed through the air, he would have heard the sound directly, rather than through this engine. Hence, an aether must exist.

I love these characters' attempts to reconcile their world views. The author is clearly very well-versed in medieval history. The cast and locale is somewhat complex, and I'm happy to have a list of characters and a map. A glossary would be welcome, though, and even an introduction going over the terms and rituals and routines of both priestly and peasant life. I think some of this is mentioned in an afterword, but I shouldn't have to turn to an afterword first.

The Krenken are big bugs. I am not a big fan of the human-sized insectoid alien trope. I am immediately put off because the square-cube law tells us that true insects that large can't exist. We know these can't be just scaled-up Earth insects. I think it is a strength of the book, rather than a weakness, that the Krenken are not described clearly; this allows the reader to fill in some of those troublesome details. Flynn elevates the portrayal of insectoid aliens, in my eyes by making the real questions about the Krenken's culture, even pertaining to issues of class, and how it proceeds from their physiology and genetics. That's fascinating because when we start thinking along these lines, we can't help but consider what our mammalian physiology and genetics affect our culture and thought.

While the author is clearly very knowing, I have a gripe with his writing. At times the narrator becomes very knowing, too, in a way that takes me out of the story (the narrator is telling rather than showing, and in a way that, honestly, is more like showing off). For example:

Abruptly, she cleared the machine. Don't be silly, she told herself. But that made her think of something Tom had said. And that made her wonder, What if... ? And nothing was ever the same again.

Here the narrator is injecting a judgment which I think is best left to the reader. Elsewhere, we read:

"I have a smart phone," she told him, tugging on the string that bound the folder she held. "My phone is smarter than some people."

Tom laughed, not yet getting the joke.

Here the narrator is having a laugh of his own at the expense of his characters, and again, I'd rather come to my own conclusions about the characters.

Fortunately the dialogue is generally very good, even conversations which serve as info-dumps, and it really is an excellent book in most respects. I mentioned The Name of the Rose, which I think is a clear influence here, but I also think that Flynn may have been influenced by Gene Wolfe, with his general respectfulness of the reader's intelligence, presenting serious ideas without a lot of hand-holding. There is a lot to think about in the ideas the author has literally pitted against each other. I don't have a final verdict but I expect it to continue, as it begins, quite well.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

I have only completed the first chapter of this book, but I really enjoyed the first chapter. I have long been interested in the existentialists, but my attempts to read the actual works of existentialism, such as Being and Nothingness, have repeatedly left me baffled. Bakewell, author of How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, really starts well here, putting Sartre in context, where "in context" means in a café, with Simone de Beauvoir, and friends, and admirers, and also in context, at his funeral; Bakewell's description of that funeral is amazing.

I have read some Montaigne in translation, and read some of Bakewell's book about approaching Montaigne as a reader, but it is another book that I have not finished. It's time to finish it. It's also time to finish reading the essays in Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio -- challenging, often obscure, but fascinating.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

This is technically a re-reading, since I've read both Cosmicomics and t-zero before, but it has been some time, and these incredibly creative and beautiful short stories are worth re-reading many times; it is one of the few books that one might read at different life stages, and get different things out of it each time.

In Cosmicomics, Calvino tells stories inspired by contemporary cosmology, particularly our ideas about how the universe began, how dust clouds formed, how planets and stars condensed, and how life formed. The narrator is a character called Qfwfq (part of the fun of reading these out loud to my wife and children is figuring out how to pronounce the names). Qfwfq is ancient; he existed before the big bang, and has existed in different forms throughout the history of the cosmos, but he and his friends and relations also seem to share most of personality characteristics of middle-aged Italians.

Calvino cheerfully does not attempt to explain this; Qfwfq just is, because the stories need a narrator. The stories are almost always about much more than they are about. In one of my favorites, "A Sign in Space," Qfwfq has marked a point in space as he rides around the galactic disc, so that he can note when he has gotten back to his starting point. Calvino takes the modern idea that there is no privileged frame of reference and turns it into something about signs -- in semiotics -- in which our narrator no longer has the privilege of understanding what signs are intentional or whether it even matters:

...signs kept growing thicker in space; from all the worlds anybody who had an opportunity invariably left his mark in space somehow; and our world, too, every time I turned, I found more crowded, so that world and space seemed the mirror of each other, both minutely adorned with hieroglyphics and ideograms, each of which might be a sign and might not be: a calcereous concretion on basalt, a crest raised by the wind on the clotted sand of the desert, the arrangement of the eyes in a peacock's tail...

It's the English major's nightmare; if everything is a sign, or symbol, than nothing is. But I've done you a disservice if I've made these tales sound dry or abstract or academic. Although the settings are sometimes baffling, and the characters may barely exist in any sense that we understand, these stories are really about relationships, and love, and loss. That's Calvino's triumph, turning the dry equations of cosmology into stories set in a universe that is both stranger than we can imagine, but as familiar as the faces of our loved ones.

I started out reading my old Penguin paperback, but realized I had on the shelf the new 2015 Mariner edition of The Complete Cosmicomics, so I'm switching over to that book. The Mariner edition has all the stories from Cosmicomics and t-zero and I'll re-read those. it also has a number of other stories I haven't read, some never before published in English.

Just to be clear, since the dates on the title page are confusing, I'm talking about ISBN 978-0-544-57787-9, a white paperback with a simple gray and black line drawing of planets in their orbits. This book contains the text of both the original Cosmicomics collection and the t-zero collection, along with additional stories. I haven't read these new stories yet but I will be reading them soon and then I'll have a verdict on the rest of the Cosmicomics material.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I've been reading this one out loud to my kids. I do a pretty hilarious Dobby impression, or so I'm told. But really I'm just channeling the voice of Dobby in the films, Toby Jones. Because that performance is so very memorable, it's hard to imagine Dobby sounding any other way.

In this, the second book, things get a little darker and more perilous for our cast of characters. We have scary stuff going on like the petrification of animals and people.

Of particular interest, I think, is the way in which the students are starting to be able to come to their own judgments about characters who are authority figures. They learn to recognize that while they are expected to obey the forms, some adult authority figures really are frauds and not worthy of admiration or emulation, but at the same time are deserving of compassion. So we have the ridiculous celebrity fraud Gilderoy Lockhart, but also the miserable Argus Filch, surrounded by faculty and students who can practice magic, while he, as a "squib," cannot.

And so, back to work.

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 13-19, 2016