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