Monday, August 29, 2005

The Birthday of the World, by Ursula K. Le Guin

If this blog is about reminding me about books, then I have no buisiness writing here about Ursula Le Guin, because I will never forget anything of hers that I have ever read. Oh the details, sure; I forget the details of my breakfast while I'm still eating it, and my name can be a serious challenge anytime before noon, but the feel and the themes of her writing is not something that escapes you lightly. So duh - obviously - go and read this again, over and over, til you die Rob.

But just to help keep the titles with the stories, this is a collection of mostly Ekumen short stories. There are a couple of beauties about relationships on the planet O, where people are divided into moieties - Morning and Evening - which is passed to the children from the mother. A marriage involves 4 people; 2 male, 2 female, one of each from each moiety, and the opposite-sex couple with the same moiety aren't allowed to have sex. This seems like a somewhat unlikely form to evolve, but humans are notoriously clever at getting themselves into weird predicaments, and it gives rise to all sorts of interesting thought-provoking questions. If moiety is passed down from the mother and you cannot have sex with someone of the same moiety, then it takes the more usual restriction against inbreeding to an extra degree; not only can't you breed with any of your immediate ancestors, but you can never breed with anyone whose mitochondrial DNA was ever mixed with yours; it creates two completely separate streams, trading places down through time like dancers in a hay or strands of rope. I like the image, and I'm not entirely certain of the genetic effects - any mutation in that DNA, for instance, would have to be immediately dominant to survive, since it could never cross-breed with itself. And then there's the social implications of the fact that, depending on how restrictive society is about children out of wedlock, you essentially cannot breed in their society without being bisexual. Which brings you back round to the debate about how much of sexual orientation is nature, and how much culture.

Fun stuff to think about. And the others are just as good. This is the book that I was inspired to finally read by the decision that Ursula K. Le Guin is the person in the world I would most like to have dinner with (besides my lovely wife of course, but she'll forgive this minor infidelity I think.) And I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I actually sent her the invite to dinner, which letter I suspect I will be embarassedly amused by for the rest of my life. She is gold; read it all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Timeline, by Michael Chichton.

Not bad. A bit of a swashbuckling adventure romp, but so long as you don't take it as anything else its entertaining enough. Its maybe a bit too obviously written to be a movie; the pacing, the scene changes, the lack of a narrative voice (and consequently, the fact that otherwise extraneous characters suddenly drop into narrative explanation to fill the gap. What is it with Crichton and the ubiquitous child prodigy expaining technical details to the adults, anyways?) But the movie pacing keeps the action coming, so as an adventure it really works fine. Theres some sword fights, an explosion or two, a nifty visual effect for the time machine, plus a dramatic race to a deadline at the end.

As historical fiction it has its moments, but despite the fact that he goes out of his way in the afterword to describe the middle ages as not so dark and violent an age as everyone believes, pretty much every character in his medieval world is trecharous and violent. He gives us glimpses of some fairly extensive research into details, but the overall picture of the world gets overrun by the necessities of the Hollywood pacing.

As science fiction its pretty jokey. The frantic hand-waving where the science suddenly disappears out from under him is a little disconcerting (they're reconstituted on the other side by "someone else"?) Its also a little odd to have a story where the main conflict is a race against time... and they have a time machine. Its as if, once he gets to drop his modern characters into the past, he just forgets about all of the familiar and interesting questions that time travel normally brings up in order to get on with the swordfights. Some dude used your time machine to get lost in the past? Well, spend 3 months training a crack team to just hop back in your time machine and arrive seconds after he does, pick him up, and come back; whats the use of having a time machine if you don't use it? There are lots of ways you could explain around this (though some of the more obvious ones are invalidated by seemingly extraneous details of minor scenes) but Crichton never really does, leaving it feeling weak.

And then there's the whole corporate intrigue subplot. This is here why? Oh yeah; because its going to be a movie, and we need to pan away from the action occasionally to build suspense. Bugger that, I'm reading a book; add it back in for the movie if you need it there. The plot goes nowhere, does nothing except leave you with a strong dislike for a Gatesian bastard in charge who nonetheless does nothing particularly wrong; he's willing to, but he never has to. And then, lacking any way to bring this non-plot to a successful climax, the good guys just arbitrarily kill him at the end. What?!? I mean don't get me wrong - the guy's a jerk - but if morally we got to kill people for being a jerk then the world would have a lot less of a population problem...

No, leave it as a fun adventure. Cheer as our heroes miraculously survive medieval combat! Jeer as the baddies threaten hideous torture! Ooh at the pretty explosions! Gasp as our heroes struggle to get home before time runs out! And whatever you do, try not to think too much...

Monday, August 15, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling

I feel like I'm desperately looking between the mad Potter fans and the legion of Harry-haters for some niche in which to be trendily different but...


It wasn't bad; it wasn't great. It still sucks you through it somewhat compellingly, but part of that is that its just plain so easy to read. Felt like smacking sixteen-year-olds doing the teen angst thing - think I got my lifetime's supply from Buffy or something - but I'm sure thats all very realistic; real teenagers make me feel like that too sometimes. Just because its realistic doesn't necessarily make it interesting to read though. The big reveal is fairly obvious, so that you pretty much see it coming from halfway through the book; hmmm... who could the slightly evil expert potion-maker from Hogwarts past be? And Malfoy (gasp!) turns out to be up to no good... now /there's/ a surprise. Actually the whole series is starting to remind me of the X-files, with Harry playing the part of young Mulder in a dress. First, Harry/Mulder aquires a tiny scrap of inconclusive evidence and builds an incredibly complex conspiracy theory on it which ends up blaming his enemies. Everyone around him fails to believe him because his evidence is scanty and hes obviously biased, but in the end, he turns out to be right anyways. The moral of the story is apparently that you should persecute people you don't like mercilessly regardless of fact, because in the end they will turn out to be behind whatever might be going wrong in your life. And meanwhile, after the 5th or 6th time its happened, you want to scream at Ron/Hermione/Scully to just BELIEVE him instead of being reasonable because facts or no facts is he EVER wrong? Dumbledore dying was very sad, but Harry breaking up with Ginny to keep her safe had no emotional impact, since he does it in such a condescending way - never even asks her opinion - and we'd barely seen them together in any case.

The first ones were aimed at kids but appealed to all of us because we all, deep-down, still like to think we're a bit of a kid. These ones are aimed at teenagers. Who wants to be a teenager again?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Norstrilla, by Cordwainer Smith

It is one of the enduring tragedies of science fiction that the man who wrote as Cordwainer Smith died so young. His life was weird and fascinating - from living in China during the revolution to writing what is still considered to be one of the fundamental texts on psychological warfare - and his experiences with such a variety of people and cultures comes through in his stories. He takes perfectly believable aspects of people and twists them so far out of proportion that they are barely recognisable in order to show them in high relief - like the Norstrillans in this story, who are the wealthiest people in the known universe by orders of magnitude, but deliberately keep themselves in a simple lifestyle by imposing an import tax of 2 million percent on everything coming in to the planet. Or people whose lives are so perfect they have no challenge, so they deliberately re-introduce accidents and disease to their world to keep things interesting. He also tackles (in one of those strange coincidences of unknowingly reading two books about the same theme back-to-back, which seem to happen to me inordinately often) the same sticky question of how immortality would change human society that Elizabeth Moon was delving into in her Serrano books.

This is a story which describes a young man who buys the earth and goes to visit it, becomes a cat, meets some people, and goes home. Thats not what its about, but thats how the story goes; to remember what its about you'll just have to go back and read it again - I can't imagine summarising it in any way that wouldn't do it an injustice.