Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Didactic Panels Are the Best

Now here's an excellent project for every travel office: Get an intern or someone to assemble and transcribe the text from every single didactic panel, information sign, etc. in your jurisdiction. At least it looks like that's what UltimateWyoming.com has done. And UltimateWyoming.com isn't even the official Wyoming travel office website — it's run by Ultimate Press, a little guidebook publishing company out of Bozeman, Montana.

I had a photo of a couple large pieces of equipment from the Buffalo Bill Dam near Cody, Wyoming:

Buffalo Bill Dam Components

That's a Balanced Plunger Hydraulic Valve on the right, and a "Big Wooden Ball" on the left. I had taken a photo of the didactic panel for the Valve, which is why I know exactly what it was called. But for some reason I didn't take a picture of the didactic panel for the Big Wooden Ball, which is why I had to call it a Big Wooden Ball.

One quick Google search later, and I had the Big Wooden Ball text from the didactic panel. It's not a Big Wooden Ball, it's a Ball Plug, and it was used to stop up the water flow through a pipe so the dam could be worked on. Well sure!

Great job, Ultimate Wyoming!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Lucky Thirteen

For those of you who have not been keeping detailed track, I've posted reviews for 74 major science fiction award winners, which means I have 13 left to read and review. This small number (including eleven Hugos, one Nebula, and one Hugo-and-Nebula) would make you think that the end is reasonably in sight.

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed, however, that the average elapsed time between book reviews has been growing. I assure you, dear reader, that this is through no waning of my interest in the subject matter.

It is certainly due in part to an increase in the chaos and busyness of both my life and my day job (destroying worlds, of course). But it is also due to the intrinsic nature of the remaining books themselves. I have managed to whittle myself down to thirteen books that are, for one reason or another, particularly difficult to get through. To wit:
  • The book is enormous (Blackout/All Clear, Jonathon Strange
  • I am 8th in line for a hold on two library copies (Among Others)
  • The book has been checked out or missing from my library for a long, long time (Hyperion, Spin, The Snow Queen
  • The lone copy at my library is in-library use only (Double Star, Cyteen, Uplift War)
  • The book is part of a series that I dread reading another installment of (The Vor Game
  • The book is by an author that I dread reading again (Rainbow’s End, The Graveyard Book
  • I dread reading the book for other reasons (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I trust the reader will understand if my productivity slows still further as a result of these circumstances. But have faith: the thirteen will be completed. And then... who knows what. Perhaps it will be on to the nominees!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
1951
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ – – – –

SPOILER ALERT

A Demolished Man is tolerable until about two-thirds of the way through, and then it falls apart in a frustrating mass of pretentiousness and 1950s-era pop psychology.

The book takes place in the late 21st century, after humans have colonized the moon and several nearby planets. Evolution and training have brought about a new small but powerful minority: people with ESP, or “Espers,” who can read the thoughts of others.

There is no crime anymore, since Espers can tell when one is about to be committed and prevent it from happening (Similar to the premise of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which came out five years later).

There are three classes of Esper, from the rudimentary and common class 3 up to the powerful and rare class 1. All Espers of all classes belong to a self-regulating Guild which prevents them from “peeping” people without their permission and otherwise using their abilities for evil.

In this world lives Ben Reich, president of the behemoth Monarch Utilities & Resources corporation. Reich is engaged in a heated battle for world capital domination with Craye D’Courtney of the D’Courtney Cartel. He is also haunted by nightmares of a mysterious Man With No Face which cause him to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.

At the beginning of the book, Reich sends a coded message to D’Courtney proposing a merger. D’Courtney accepts, but Reich mis-decodes his answer as a refusal, and determines that the only thing he can do to preserve Monarch is to kill D’Courtney (which seems like a bit of a leap, but I guess Reich’s nightmare-addled sleep may be impeding his logic).

Reich constructs an elaborate plan involving bribery, deceit, and an inane tune he can use to distract his brain while it’s being “peeped,” to get in a position to murder D’Courtney. Once the murder is done, Reich then engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with Police Prefect (and class 1 Esper) Lincoln Powell, who knows that Reich did it but can’t prove it without solid physical evidence.

I give Bester credit for being a seminal SF writer. His ideas inspired legions of other authors; I can see his influence both on his contemporaries (like Philip K. Dick) and also on later writers (like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson).

The Espers and the way they influence societal structure are big examples of this. A smaller, more specific one is his use of language. Esper mental-talk is creative and flowing; it takes an almost physical form that other Espers can see. At parties, Espers weave patterns with their conversation to make it both witty and beautiful, which Bester shows by using different fonts for different people and spacing the words artfully on the page. He also uses shorthand and symbols like the ones we use in texting today; there are characters named Wyg& and @kins, for example, and people write notes using “thot” for “thought” and “2” for “too.”

This book suffers, however, from sloppiness, pretentiousness, and dicey amateur psychology. Not to mention a touch of misogyny for good measure.

In the sloppiness and pretentiousness department, Bester has a tendency to bring in new ideas throughout the book, flesh them out only cursorily, and, when they are not needed any more, make them disappear as conveniently and abruptly as they were brought in. And these distracting new plot points, locations, or characters often appear to be included solely as opportunities for Bester to show off his cleverness.

For example, in one late chapter Reich hides from the police in the “Reservation,” a jungle preserve we have never heard of before and which is explained to us in a clunky back-filling speech by a minor sergeant’s deputy given a speaking role only for that purpose. Prefect Powell brings in a group of class 1 Espers—pillars of society such as diplomats, politicians, and judges—to serve as a human radar screen to flush Reich out of the Reservation. This creates a convoluted situation in which these high-powered men are out in the jungle running into bears and wildcats and stuff and still referring to each other politely as “Senator” and “Your Honor.” I think their mental conversation is supposed to be hilariously clever but it comes off as contrived and unfunny. And the chapter itself sticks out like a sore thumb because nowhere else do we hear about the Reservation, and nowhere else do we see the class 1 Espers as a light-hearted, cooperative group.

The questionable psychological theories in the book are even more bothersome and crop up everywhere, from the ridiculous free-associative dream interpretation done by Reich’s analyst to the unhelpful and hyper-academic explanation of what is happening to a character who has a mental breakdown:
“It’s quite simple. Every man is a balance of two opposed drives…The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct. Both drives have the identical purpose…to win Nirvana. The Life Instinct fights for Nirvana by smashing all opposition. The Death Instinct attempts to win Nirvana by destroying itself. Usually both instincts fuse in the adapted individual. Under strain they defuse.”
This also includes the demolition referred to by the book’s title. Since Reich seems able to elude Powell at every turn, Powell eventually has to call for a “Mass Cathexis,” a process in which every Esper simultaneously “opens his psyche and contributes his latent energy to a pool” to be controlled by one single Esper. If the focal Esper is not destroyed in the process, he serves as a conduit for all the mental energy and can use it to control almost anything he chooses.

Powell directs all the energy in his Cathexis towards the “Demolition” of Reich. Demolition is the ultimate punishment and the last resort of law enforcement: your entire psyche is destroyed, all your reality is taken away, your memories are gone, but your consciousness remains. You then have the potential to be reborn as a different person.

Powell’s justification for doing this to Reich is difficult to follow. Powell explains that he had to “make [Reich] believe that all the universe was a puzzle for him to solve, that he was the only reality and all the rest was make-believe. This would lead him to inevitably confront his subconscious.” And Reich in particular had to be forced to confront his subconscious because he was a “galactic focal point,” a “crucial link between the positive past and the probable future.” “These men appear every so often,” Powell says, “…links between the past and the future. If they are permitted to mature…if the link is permitted to weld…the world finds itself chained to a dreadful tomorrow.”

Sorry, I don’t understand that at all, and what I think I do understand, I don’t buy, or there wasn’t enough setup for it in the book to make me buy it. It just comes across to me as sloppy.

And, last but not least of my criticisms, is the lovely way women are treated in the novel. Of course the main male characters don’t like the mature women who are in love with them; of course they like the ingénues and basket cases instead. And among the primary female characters in the book are:
  • Maria Beaumont, society dame. Behind her back she is called the “Gilt Corpse” because she is gaudy but unattractive. She is flighty and superficial and likes to play silly party games. At one point when she is unhappy her voice is described as “screeching.”
  • Duffy Wyg&, Reich’s girlfriend. She is arguably the most “positively” described woman in the book: “ the epitome of the modern career girl—the virgin seductress.” (i.e. madonna/whore.) At one point she thinks she’s being too silly and tells Reich: “punch me around a little.” 
  • Barbara D’Courtney, Craye’s daughter. She is an innocent young woman who has a breakdown after witnessing the murder of her father and has to be re-educated as if she was being raised from infancy. This re-education is done, for some reason, by Powell, who, for a good long time, has to pretend to be her “daddy.” This leads, naturally, to him falling head over heels in love with her; he says he loves her “mischievousness” and “urchin look.” Ick, anyone? 
Bester winds up the book with a self-righteous coda about how, no matter how important the individual people in it may think they are, this entire story is “minute and trivial to the infinite Eye of God.” Why, then, sir, I ask, are we bothering to read the darn book?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Caffeine Content of Selected Foods & Beverages

Caffeine content expressed in milligrams (mg). Look out for that Ben & Jerry's.

Coffee (8oz): 133mg
Tea (8oz): 53mg
Hot Cocoa (8oz): 9mg
Decaf Coffee (8oz): 5mg

Diet Coke (12oz): 47mg
Diet Pepsi (12oz): 36mg
Coke Zero (12oz): 35mg

Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch (8oz): 84mg

Hershey's Chocolate Bar (1.55oz): 9mg
Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar (1.45oz): 31mg

-- Seriously summarized from CSPI

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: A Case of Conscience

James Blish
1958
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

A Case of Conscience begins with biologist and Jesuit priest Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez at the very end of a stint on the planet Lithia. He is there as part of a team of four scientists whose assignment is to evaluate the planet and give it a rating as to its usefulness and hospitability to Earth.

Lithia has a hot, muggy, tropical climate over its entire surface. It has abundant plant and animal life, including one intelligent species: twelve-foot tall reptiles who stand on their hind legs like a tyrannosaurus rex.

The Lithians’ most remarkable characteristic is that they rely completely on logic and reason. They have no faith or belief system of any kind. This, of course, bothers Father Ruiz-Sanchez quite a bit. But what really throws him for a loop is that they don’t seem to need it. The Lithians have a stable, technologically advanced, cooperative, crime-free culture, more disciplined and peaceful than ours on Earth, with no reliance whatsoever on religion.

This leads Ruiz-Sanchez to the conclusion, naturally, that Lithia and all its life forms are creations of the devil. “Only the children of God,” he says, “had been given free will, and hence were often doubtful.” Since the Lithians are not beset by doubt – they aren’t bothered by “night thoughts” such as: Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence? – they must not be children of God, and are therefore children of the devil.

In fact, he posits, Lithia may be a new devilish garden of Eden, with the Lithians as the snakes in the garden, testing us, exposing our weaknesses, using pure logic to make us question our faith.

This makes it easy for Ruiz-Sanchez to decide how to vote on Lithia: total quarantine. But, unfortunately, it also puts him in really bad stead with his church. To Catholics, only God has the power to create life, so if Ruiz-Sanchez believes that Lithia was created by the devil and therefore that the devil has “creative” power, he is therefore a heretic, and will have to be tried in Rome and probably excommunicated.

Ruiz-Sanchez’s life gets even more complicated when one of the Lithians gives him a hatchling as a farewell present, and he is honor-bound to take it back to Earth with him. His co-workers take care of while he goes to Rome; it grows rapidly into a twelve-foot-high lizard without the ethical code of its parents, gets itself a national TV show, and begins fomenting unrest among the ever-present third or so of humanity that feels cut off from society’s dominant cultural traditions.

A Case of Conscience is a short little book that raises big issues. On the back cover of my library's 2000 paperback edition, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says that it was “one of the first serious attempts to deal with religion in SF, and remains one of the most sophisticated.”

I think that is probably true. My problem was that I just wasn’t that thrilled with the story. The plot felt aimless and unresolved. It neither answered the questions it brought up nor left me with a conscious ambivalence out of which I could draw my own conclusions. It seemed like it was trying to do both, and did neither satisfactorily.

I also didn’t really like the main character or his friends. And I didn’t wholeheartedly buy the motivations of the hatchling, the priest’s enemies, and the society at large.

Older, seminal pieces of SF often have strong plot elements that appear in later pieces of fiction; it always makes me wonder, in each case, if it is a coincidence or if the more recent authors either consciously or unconsciously adapted them from the earlier books.

A minor one in this book was a scene in which mutant bees protect the main character from marauding foes, which also happened in a key scene in The Hunger Games.

But most strongly, this book kept reminding me of Orson Scott Card’s far more satisfying Speaker for the Dead. That book, too, had a quasi-religious figure as the main character who was trying to make sense of an alien world. And in both cases, the indigenous intelligent species native had a unique biology, in which they took very different physical forms as they progressed through different life stages. If Card did borrow consciously from Blish, he certainly did it in a way that not only honored the original ideas but also greatly improved on them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The City and The City

China Miéville
2009
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The City & the City is, on one level, a decent but not outstanding detective novel. At the beginning of the book, a young woman is found dead in the fictional Balkan city of Besźel, and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel policzai has to solve her murder.

What makes the book unique and interesting is the setting. The victim is discovered in Besźel, a down-at-heel, primarily Slavic city. But there is evidence that she was actually killed in Besźel’s prosperous, primarily Islamic sister city of Ul Qoma, and then later dumped in Besźel. This is a serious matter, as relations between Besźel and Ul Qoma are extremely tense.

To make matters even more complicated, Besźel and Ul Qoma are co-located. That is, the two cities are physically intermingled with each other. Some sections are total Besźel; some are total Ul Qoma; and some are “crosshatched,” meaning that streets and buildings in one city alternate with those in the other—sometimes block to block and sometimes house to house.

And if you are in one city, it is a tremendous offense not only to physically step into the other city, but also even to sense or acknowledge the people, buildings, traffic, or sounds of the other city in any way. If you do, and you are caught doing it, you can be arrested for breach, and spirited away by a sort of black ops breach enforcement unit, never to be heard from again.

Children in both cities are taught from birth to “unsee” what they aren’t supposed to see. Tourists to either city are given an intensive multi-week training program in the practice of unseeing. But even adult natives can have a hard time with it, since sometimes the only way to tell which city a thing or person is in is by the subtlest of cues—architecture, colors of clothing, or how hedges are trimmed.

Needless to say, this makes it extraordinarily difficult to conduct everyday life in either city, much less solve a murder where the person was murdered in one city and then dumped in the other. In the course of his investigation, Inspector Borlú has to use all his skills navigating the divisions and still runs afoul of breach enforcement units, militant unificationists who want to combine the two cities, and nationalist extremists on both sides who want their city to take over the other.

Reading this book, I found myself comparing the detective story (favorably) to Resurrection Men. As in Resurrection Men, the main character was an experienced, middle-aged male detective with an able younger female constable assisting him; the police hierarchy had a British flavor; and the story took place in the present day, complete with cell phones and modern attitudes and style. But The City & The City was a more interesting story, with a far more likeable detective, and it was, thank goodness, told in the past tense. The ending was a little bit deflating, but that may have just been a natural result of the mystery being explained, the unknown finally becoming known.

It was Miéville’s conception and implementation of the dual city-city, though, that made this book a real standout.

Some reviewers have called this book a “post-9/11” novel, meaning that it explores the split between Islam and Christianity. But I think the metaphor is more general than that. Besźel and Ul Qoma are like many different divided societies, past and present—Berlin, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Budapest, the Balkans, Northern Ireland. Their people live close to each other and sometimes seem alike to outsiders, but are sharply and violently divided by thought and history. Separation is perpetuated by entrenched political institutions. Prejudices strengthen with time and lack of familiarity.

What makes The City & The City a great thought experiment is that in Besźel and Ul Qoma, the separation is entirely mental. I couldn’t help but think that the inhabitants of Besźel must be aware of the Ul Qomans around them, and vice versa. I thought about how it would be so easy to commit breach by walking from a house in Besźel into an Ul Qoman one next door. And yet it hardly ever happens. For the citizens of these two cities, the mental divisions are so ingrained that they have become physically real. The inhabitants of one city really can’t see the inhabitants of the other, even in the case of danger or panic.

And, at the risk of being high-faluting, I don't think this is so far-fetched from reality. I know that there are all kinds of things—and people—in front of my face in my everyday life that might seem ridiculously obvious to others but that, for one reason or another, I don't see at all.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Budding Willow Tree

Near Canal Park, Cambridge, MA.


Monday, March 12, 2012

From Rock to Bluegrass to Country: "Fox on the Run"

In 1968 Manfred Mann recorded a new song called “Fox on the Run:”

It’s a fairly straightforward Manfred Mann late-1960s rock song. Okay, but pretty ho-hum as far as I am concerned.

Soon after though, the song caught the attention of bluegrass artists just as bluegrass music was enjoying a renaissance in the early 1970s. Bill Emerson was the pioneering bluegrass artist who popularized “Fox on the Run” to his audience. To me, the song sounds so much better as a bluegrass number. Here are the Country Gentlemen with their rendition:


The song quickly became a bluegrass standard right alongside “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Mountain Dew.” A few years later, country artist Tom T. Hall did this arrangement, which is how I first heard the song. It’s quickly become one of my favorites:


I would love to hear Wilco’s take on this one.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Perspective

"If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it."

Russell Hoban
Riddley Walker

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban
1980
Awards: John W. Campbell Memorial
Nominations: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

When I set myself the project of reading all the Nebula and Hugo award-winning novels, I told myself I would get through all the winners before reviewing those that were “just” nominees.

But, frankly, I have enjoyed some of the nominees I read in the past far more than I have enjoyed some of the winners. And when this book came across my transom, I could not resist breaking my own rules for it. I’m so very glad I did.

This book is set in England thousands of years after a 20th-century nuclear war destroyed most life on earth. Almost all literacy and technical knowledge was lost with the war, and humanity—what’s left of it—has reverted to Iron-Age-level hunting and gathering and some agriculture. The history-turned-mythology of the war is passed on through a sort of confused puppet show put on by traveling actors.

In general, the populace has a natural hostility towards education and what they call the “clevverness,” or scientific knowledge, which led to the war in the first place. But there are nevertheless people here and there who are surreptitiously working to regain that lost knowledge.

The narrator of the book, Riddley Walker, is a somewhat slow but sympathetic character who isn’t actively pursuing knowledge, but whose natural curiosity makes him want to make sense of the myths he’s being fed. This is one of the reasons he is our narrator—he is one of the few who had the desire to learn how to read and write. At the age of twelve, Riddley sees his father killed on a foraging job and has to take over his father’s role of “connexion man,” a sort of seer or interpreter of events. This special status separates him subtly from his peers and further encourages him to analyze and question what he sees around him.

Eventually, through a series of misadventures partially brought on by his inquisitiveness, Riddley discovers key pieces of information and material that could help to restore bomb-making knowledge and he has to go on the lam to escape from those who would kill him for it and/or use it for their own nefarious purposes.

The most striking thing about this book is not the story, however, but how it is written. The book is written by Riddley in his own native post-apocalyptic language, which is a semi-literate jumble of phonetic spelling, altered grammar, and long words broken down into shorter one- or two-syllable words. Some examples of the language used by Riddley and his peers:

"Down it come that girt big thing it made a jynt splosh and black muck going up slow and hy in to the air. That girt old black machine fel back in to the muck with my dad unner neath of it."

"'If you cud jus suck your thumb qwyet for a wyl and stop giving me inner fearents I cud tune in better.'"

"'To have them boats in the air which they callit them space craf and them picters on the wind which that wer viddyo and going out beyont the sarvering gallack seas.'"

It is pretty darned hard to read, especially at first. When I try to imagine why this book didn’t win the Nebula in 1981, all I can think is that the voters that year didn’t have the patience to make it through the first twenty pages or so to get used to Riddley’s speech, so they gave up and gave the award to a lesser book that was easier to read (Gene Wolfe’s Claw of the Conciliator). Fortunately, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award committee had a little more perseverance.

Hoban said that he wanted to write the book this way to slow the reader down to Riddley’s level of comprehension. And it does give you time to think about what is going on at the same pace Riddley does; it brings you into his mindset—and his world—in a way you wouldn’t necessarily get if he used contemporary English.

I found myself, naturally, comparing this book to other pieces of post-apocalyptic literature. It reminded me a tiny bit of The Road, in its desolation and occasional cannibalism, but (unlike The Road) it wasn’t so nightmarish as to be unreadable.

No, happily, the book it reminded me of the most was the great Canticle for Leibowitz. Like Leibowitz, it takes place on Earth after a devastating nuclear war has set society back several thousand years. As in Leibowitz, the story of the war and resulting devastation had been turned into barely-remembered, largely misinterpreted, and often pretty funny legend and myth. And both books suggest that humanity has a scary homing instinct; that even after such an awful war, the survivors will eventually try to regain the scientific knowledge that caused the war in the first place. You get the gnawing feeling that we will keep destroying ourselves over and over in a dreadful cycle.

Post Script: I didn’t realize until after I had read Riddley that I had already read one of Hoban’s other books long ago: The Mouse and His Child. That book was pretty dark and disturbing, too, especially for a children’s story, and I loved it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

Just got home from the critically-acclaimed movie “The Artist.” So critically-acclaimed that the ticket taker congratulated me on my selection. There was self-congratulatory applause from a few people after the movie was over as well. The well-known “standing ovation at the opera” phenomenon, whereby one signals to himself and others that he appreciates fine art.

I thought the movie was O.K. but nothing special. It is about a silent film star who loses everything when the talkies come along. Also it has the tri-gimmick of being itself silent, black and white, and in a 4:3 aspect ratio. See, just like silent movies of old. It is a movie lover's movie I guess — that always clouds the minds of film critics.

Iceland Travel Guide

Take the Flybus from the airport at Keflavik to Reykjavik and stay in the downtown hostel.

Next day, look for the smallest bicycle shop in the world. If you are not sure whether the shop you are in is small enough, keep looking. There is a smaller one. This is the one you want. 

Announce to the owner that you wish to purchase a used bike to get around Western Iceland, with the idea being that you would sell it to another traveler at the end of your journey. He will tell you this is not possible. Thank him, and leave. It is very important that you do not dispute the bike shop owner on this point. Thank him, and leave. Crucial. 

Return to the shop the next day. He will have somehow “procured” a used bike that is barely suitable for riding on a bike path, much less cross-country.

Go to Thingvellir, Geysir, and Snaefellnesness. Take dips in hot pools wherever possible. Use the cycle to cross the Kjolur Route through the Central Highlands. On the way, a lanky Pole with a runny nose will point the way on your map. This is Polski. He has been helping travelers on the Kjolur Route since the Early Age, roughly 980 - 1140 AD. 

At Hrerravellir, enjoy the hot pool. Meet young magi from CERN as you reposition the hot water hose. 

Upon your return to Reykjavik, set up your bike opposite a jewel shop on the main commercial street. Place a sign on the bike offering it for sale for kr175,000. Within five minutes, the jeweler will emerge and purchase your bike for that exact amount. 

Thus you will have re-enacted the Saga of Vilaf, of the Hill People. You may return to your home lands triumphant. A large feast will be assembled in your honor, and you will be invited to blow the horn of an ox 19 times. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Toys of the 1970s: Nerfoop

Fig. 1 – Modern-day Nerf Hoop
I have a Nerf Hoop home basketball game (Fig. 1) in my home office. I must say that the Nerf Corporation made a mistake when they went to a denser, heavier foam ball with latex coating. This new ball, which is constructed similarly to the Nerf football, is too heavy for the relatively flimsy hoop and bouncing it around can get pretty loud.

As a fifth-grader I had a Nerfoop™ basketball game (Fig. 2) which came with a less-dense foam ball. It was more like a facial sponge, and had no latex coating. This Nerf™ ball was perfectly calibrated to the strength of the hoop and allowed hours of by-myself playtime in my bedroom. (Another inexplicable corporate decision: Retiring the Nerfoop™ name.)

Fig. 2 – Nerfoop™ listing in 1977 Parker Brothers wholesale catalog
Image © Jason Liebig
My solitaire game was to stand at the opposite end of my room and try to make a long distance shot. After releasing the ball, I ran forward to grab the rebound. If my long shot missed, I had to jump in the air, catch the ball and try to put it back in the hoop, dunking if possible, before landing on the floor again.

This was in Amarillo, Texas, where our ranch-style basement-less house sat on a concrete slab, so there was minimal house-rattling from all of this jumping around. For my Nerfoop™ soundtrack I would usually play my Abba greatest hits 8-track or my K-Tel disco compilation LPs. Or my various 45s, including “Head Games” by Foreigner, “Last Train to London” by ELO, and “Rock with You” by Michael Jackson:

     

     

Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep stars as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her devoted if much less ambitious daughter Carol (I was really happy that this role went to Colman, who is great as Sophie Chapman in the existential British sitcom “Peep Show,” and she also appeared in an episode of “The Office (U.K.)” as a reporter who interviews and photographs a just-fired David Brent.) The film is structured as a day in the life of the present-day Thatcher as she battles the onset of a dementia that features hallucinations of her now-dead husband that lead into flashbacks into her own life story. By the end of the movie she finally breaks through to reality again and packs up all of his clothes for donation to Oxfam.

Thatcher is portrayed as someone who just never, ever gets discouraged and who has zero patience for those who do. No wonder: she is always the lone woman in a roomful of skeptical men and learns from an early age that she has to fight hard for their respect. She is shown adoring her grocer father, who was active in Conservative Party politics in their constituency of Grantham and who strongly encouraged his daughter’s political instincts. Her mother is portrayed as a frightened non-entity. The teenaged Margaret Roberts is laughed at by the other girls because she has to work in her dad’s shop and because she is so serious. When she meets husband-to-be Denis Thatcher at a gathering of local Conservative bigwigs he is attracted to her because she acts like it never occurs to her that she cannot or should not hold her own talking politics with the men. The film shows Denis getting frustrated with her ambition only once; otherwise he is a typical political spouse: supportive, encouraging, a confidant, and close adviser. (Whether he ever has a job of his own, and if so, what it is, is left out of the story completely.) Their relationship is shown to be one of mutual respect and tenderness.


Another important male booster in Thatcher’s life is a fellow Conservative MP in the party leadership who convinces her to run for party leader and gets her to change her style a bit in ways that are apparently successful. After launching Thatcher’s rise but before she becomes Prime Minister he is killed by an IRA car bomb, which provides some context for her no-compromise-with-terrorists-or-Argentinian-juntas resolve. (Nice detail: in a private meeting with her advisers about the Falklands she pronounces “junta” with a hard j; I’m not sure if that was a typical British lack of effort with foreign words, ignorance on Thatcher’s part (very unlikely), or simply her way of indicating disdain.)

Her political views are covered a bit, but not extensively. The Conservative program is portrayed in the best possible light: Hard work should pay off for the yeoman shopkeeper. Of course she can make that theme work because that was in fact her background, and she does chafe against the more high-born men of the Conservative Party. But the harsh austerity policies she enacted after she became Prime Minister in 1979 aren’t really covered in great depth. The Labour side of things is represented via chaotic documentary footage of the Brixton riots and the raging from the Opposition in the Commons, which of course just looks like a roomful of angry men yelling at a woman.

Thatcher is never shown to waver and is always the most forceful and in-command person in the room. The male courtiers surrounding her are often shown to be callow and weak, too ready to compromise. There is a key scene during the most intense part of the Falklands War where she has to decide whether or not to sink an Argentine cruiser. The military men say yes, the political men say no. She takes a moment, sets her jaw, and firmly says, “Sink it.”

I suppose the movie qualifies as a hagiography because Thatcher is really never shown to make a public misstep of any kind. In 1990 she is deposed by her own lieutenants. The film posits that this is because in a post-Cold-War world, her imperious management style has run its course and begins to border on the abusive.

“The Iron Lady” is by no means an historical document, but it is a compelling more-or-less true story of a woman who overcomes sexism to rise to perhaps the third most powerful office in the world, an office she uses to utterly transform the British welfare state and, along the way, authoritatively direct a relatively splendid little war. It is also an affecting love story and a sensitive portrayal of the toll that aging takes on even the most competent person. A good video rental; not at all necessary to see it on the big screen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Philip José Farmer
1971
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The main character of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is Richard Burton (the 19th century adventurer, swordsman, and spy, not the 20th century actor who married Elizabeth Taylor twice). The book begins with Burton waking up – which is odd, because he could have sworn that he had died or was just about to die – in an enormous chamber filled with thousands of inert, floating, sleeping bodies arranged in a grid pattern in every direction as far as he can see. All of the bodies, including his, are naked, hairless, and slowly spinning around a central head-to-toe axis.

As soon as Burton wakes up he starts flailing around, attracting the attention of two guys who are apparently monitoring the sleeping bodies. They zip over to him in a sort of floating canoe and zap him with a device that renders him unconscious again.

The next time he wakes up, he is still naked and hairless, but lying on a grassy plain next to a river, and there are a lot of other people lying on the plain near him. They all gradually wake up and realize that (a) they all appear to have been resurrected from the dead; (b) they are all in their own bodies as they were when they were about 25 years old; (c) they are from all different parts of the world and from all different times in history. The largest component of their group comes from 1890 Trieste, but there are also a few people from Victorian England and random scatterings of other humans, including an australopithecine.

Sir Richard Burton
Burton, a natural leader, becomes the de facto head of the troupe as they put the pieces of a new life together and try to figure out why and where they are there.

The first thing they learn is that they are not the only ones there. The world they are in, which they name Riverworld, contains thousands, if not millions of people, all living up and down the banks of the river, which itself may be thousands, if not millions of miles long.

The next thing Burton begins to suspect (aided by his memory of the chamber of sleeping people) is that they are all part of a big experiment being run by Other Beings. And that these Others have developed a technology to record a soul (or something equivalent), and have done so for all humans who have ever existed, and have then created this world into which to bring them back to life for some nefarious purpose.

Burton, in his resurrected state as in life, tends to get stir-crazy staying in one place too long. He also really wants to find the beings that put them in this situation and give them what for. So he heads off on a long voyage upriver to find its source. He travels for hundreds of days and sees thousands of resurrected humans of different types.

Along the way he acquires a new human nemesis: a plump egomaniac who turns out to be Hermann Göring, who has formed an alliance with former Roman emperor Tullius Hostilius and is running their little troupe of resurrectees with an iron hand. He also attracts the attention of the mysterious Others, who begin sending agents out after him, so he has to spend a considerable portion of the second half of the book on the run.

This book is actually the first installment in Farmer’s Riverworld series. I didn’t realize that when I read it, so I have to admit I found the story, and particularly the ending, dissatisfying. Burton has a series of smallish adventures, but there is no major climactic showdown which resolves anything. The big issues – who the Others are, how Burton may be able to subvert it, and whether he should – are all left unanswered. And there is also a tantalizing note at the end saying that I would get to meet Samuel Clemens if I read the next installment, which is frustrating since I have no intention of reading the next installment right now.

But Burton is an excellent central character. He is charismatic and opinionated. And the skills he picked up in a lifetime of worldly adventure (espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and a knowledge of many languages, to name a few) serve him well in Riverworld.

And the book certainly creates a fun thought experiment. Riverworld is a uniquely controlled environment with strict parameters (much like Ringworld, although Riverworld is not as rich or as well-architected). Within that setting, Farmer can create weird juxtapositions of famous people from any time in history and explore how they will interact.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study (Revised and Expanded 1/6/12)

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge. You may need to click twice to expand it to its full size.


Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Very First Employer


This is a composite of the several dozen phone calls I received, along with some other salient details, from my very first employer, my neighbor Mario, of Pommel Place in West Des Moines, Iowa:
"Cleeeese! What are you doing? This is Mario. My machine is broken! Can you come cut my grass? I will give you warm Dr. Pepper as a refreshment. Despite the fact that I am in my late fifties and have a quite large gut, I rarely if ever put on a shirt during the summer months. Please be careful when you use the weed-whacker around my abortive attempt to reproduce the Trevi Fountain in my backyard. I am Italian but I teach Spanish at Drake. My wife spends 23 hours a day on the couch. Cleeeeese!"

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Citizen Vince

Jess Walter
2005
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

This book started out with promise but ended up being a disappointment.

Part of my disappointment was in the ridiculously unrealistic naiveté of the gangsters. The other part was that I let myself get cool ideas about what might happen to the main character but the reality was not nearly as exciting as what I had imagined.

The main character, Marty Hagen, is a small-time hood from New York City. He had a successful racket going in credit-card theft until he got himself in debt to some bigger-time hoods. He then turned state’s evidence, was put into the witness protection program, took a new name (Vince Camden), and moved to Spokane, Washington, where he became a baker in a donut shop.

The story opens in Spokane when, unfortunately, Vince’s old life has caught up to him in the form of a hit man sent by his New York creditors to kill him after they discovered where he was living.

It’s a typical formula for a gangster book – an essentially well-meaning, nonviolent hood, in love with a golden-hearted hooker, trying to work towards a better, less felonious life.

What I liked about it was that it takes place in 1980, during the last few months leading up to the Carter/Reagan election. Vince, who had never cared for politics in the past, and who certainly has enough to deal with already with the hit man after him, gets more and more distracted by the race until it’s almost all he can think about. He gets his voter registration card, goes to hear politicians speak, and even befriends a guy running for local office. It gives him a new focus and new reasons for pursuing his dreams.

The politics give a colorful background and atmosphere to the otherwise run-of-the-mill plot. Vince hears Reagan’s now-legendary one-liners and reads headlines about the hostage negotiations with Iran and has to react and interpret them in real time, as we had to, without the benefit of hindsight. There are even a couple short entertaining sections written from Carter’s and Reagan’s points of view (judiciously informed by the twenty-five years that passed between then and when the book was written).

The problem is that the political background is just that – background. At first, I thought for sure that Vince was going to get more deeply involved in it and maybe even run for office himself. He shows a natural ability for it and makes contacts very quickly. I thought it would end up being a story about redemption through public service, or at the very least an ironic statement about the type of person it takes to succeed in politics. But it doesn’t. Vince never does anything besides vote, and even that, by the time he does it, seems a bit pointless and hollow. (Even for me, a rabid voter.)

The other problem with this book that I mentioned earlier is that the gangsters really do not act like gangsters. Get this: When Vince realizes that his creditors in New York have sent a hit man to kill him, he flies to New York, finagles his way into a poker game with them, reveals who he is, and tells them that he is in witness protection. He then tells them so convincingly that he bears them no ill will, that he will pay them back everything that he owes them, and that he has had an epiphany and that all he wants to do is to go back to Spokane and become a full-time donut baker, that they believe him, and they let him go back to Spokane, with only a relatively minor favor to do in return.

Come on. I watched The Sopranos. I know they had to kill Adriana once she got caught by the Feds, no matter what she promised or how much Christopher loved her. No way would these guys let a snitch leave New York alive.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: the book is written in present tense. I’m open to the idea that a book can be written in present tense and still be good, but I'm hard pressed to think of one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Favorite Pro-Sports Head Coach Ever

Mike Brown: Head Coach, Los Angeles Lakers. Dungeon Master. Inveterate shirt-ironer.

O Happy Day! I have a new favorite coach-type person to root for.

I looked all over for a link to an online version of the full Sports Illustrated profile to no avail. If you are into basketball, D&D, and/or shirt-ironing it would really behoove you to seek out this article (subscription required).  It's in the Dec. 19 issue, the one with Tim Tebow on the cover.

Friday, December 23, 2011

UPS Poem

For the last month I worked as a driver’s helper for UPS during their peak holiday season. The job involved running to and fro one of those familiar brown trucks, delivering holiday presents and everyday orders alike to residential doorsteps while my boss, the driver, worked in the back of the truck organizing and planning out the next few stops. Putting helpers on the routes during peak season is the only way that UPS drivers could complete their appointed rounds within the 13-hour-40-minute time limit imposed on commercial drivers by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Today was my last day as a UPS driver’s helper. Here’s a little remembrance of my final delivery.

Driver’s Helper

by Chris Hartman

I just delivered
The last package of 2011
To 117 Hammond Street
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
A white Land’s End bag
An insouciant toss from five yards
The pouch nestled perfectly
With a clappy thud
Against the gothic wooden door
Of this Tudor-style house
Tastefully adorned with pine boughs
And red bows
For Christmas, in two days

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: Tehanu

Ursula K. Le Guin
1990
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, a series of books set in a rural middle-ages-y fantasy land filled with mages and dragons.

With all due respect to Ms. Le Guin, who has written some complex and groundbreaking books, the Earthsea series is really not my bag. And Tehanu is no exception.

For one thing, there is not much of a plot. The main character, Goha, was tutored as a girl by a powerful mage (i.e. wizard) but left that life as a young woman to marry a farmer and raise a family. At the time of the book, Goha is somewhere in middle age. She has adopted a girl, Therru, who was so unwanted by her parents that she was permanently disfigured in a fire that they set to kill her.

At the start of the book, Goha and Therru travel far overland to see Goha’s old tutor, Ogion, who is dying. After he dies, Goha and Therru stay on in his house and are beset alternately by ruffians vaguely related to Therru’s parents and by Aspen, an evil, Wormtongue-esque rival mage, who has it in for Goha for some reason.

They while away the time at Ogion’s house amidst all of this until one day a dragon comes, bearing the half-dead body of Ogion’s other pupil, Ged, who was once a super-powerful arcmage but who lost his power defending his master in a terrible battle. Goha nurses Ged back to health and then they all make their way back to Goha’s farm, where they are beset by the same ruffians they were beset by at Ogion’s house.

Then, when Goha’s estranged son comes to claim the farm, they all decide to go back to Ogion’s place, where they again immediately run afoul of Aspen, who puts a spell on Goha and Ged and is about to drive them off a cliff, when Therru saves the day by calling the dragon to come back and rescue them.

I spent the whole book thinking something was about to actually happen but nothing ever really did. They mainly just travel back and forth between Ogion’s and Goha’s houses, and are only occasionally, and only briefly, in danger.

Le Guin’s treatment of women in this book is also frustrating, given how good she can be at representing the misunderstood or the different.

In Tehanu, only men can be mages; women with magical powers can only be witches. Mages are involved with big-time projects and politics; witches concern themselves only with small-time magic like healing illnesses or finding lost objects. In the plot, the men are the active elements and the women are the ones who are passively acted upon; the men either put the women in danger or save them – up to and including the male dragon at the end.

Goha’s life has been split between her unusual magical life under Ogion’s tutelage and her more ordinary human life with her husband and children. She never really comes to grips with either one or reconciles the two. She seems drawn towards magic, but never really accepts the power it would give her, and tends to want to go running back to the farm.

And, finally, the dragons in Tehanu are just too dreamy for me. With the exception of the dragon in Shrek, I like my dragons to be mean and uncompromisingly tough, fought by knights with swords or by men and women with bows and arrows.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The B-52s Have Still Got It

Live at the House of Blues, Boston, 12/2/11.

Kate Pierson: 63 years old and deliciously eerie on "Planet Claire."

The audio isn't great in this video, but if you look carefully, at the very beginning you might be able to see Kate reach down and touch the hand of the guy standing right next to me.






Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Powers

Ursula K. Le Guin
2007
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

This book was only available in the Young Adult section of my library. And, after reading it, I can see why; this is definitely a book for teenagers.

As I’ve said before, I really enjoy some of Le Guin’s work, and then there are other books of hers that I don’t like so much. The books that I don’t like usually fall into one of two groups: those that are too dreamy and those that have too heavy-handed a Message. This book fell too far into both of these categories for me.

The Message in this book is that slavery is evil. (Which, of course, it is.) The story is about a young slave boy, Gavir, who has been brought up in a comparatively benevolent household. He is in denial, at first, about how bad it is to be a slave, because his life appears to be pretty good. His masters are not overtly cruel; he is able to live with his beloved sister, Sallo; and he gets to go to school with the master’s children because he’s being trained to be a teacher.

But eventually his little world starts falling apart and he begins questioning the system. He gets bullied by some of the less benevolent members of the household. His home gets invaded by another country. And the last straw is the awful murder of his sister, which finally makes him run away for good.

After he runs away, he lives in several different kinds of societies, including a city of freed men; a cave with a wild man of the hills; a camp of runaway slaves in the heart of the forest run by a megalomaniac misogynist; and the poor marshland settlements of his own people from whom he was stolen as a baby. From them all he is exposed to alternative governments and different attitudes towards women, work, war, and cooperation.

For those who track such things, Gavir’s story is the classic monomyth: he is born under mysterious circumstances, shows early evidence of supernatural abilities (he can see visions of the future), goes on a long journey or quest, encounters several father figures from whom he has to become independent, and has to have a showdown with an arch enemy to finally prove himself.

Anyway, the point, which, of course, Gavir eventually realizes after all of this, is that a cage is still a cage no matter how gilded it is. That slavery is an evil institution, however disguised it may be, and a limited freedom is no freedom at all.

This is all very well and good a message, but so obviously delivered.

And the characters are so black and white. Gavir and his sister are one hundred percent good, eager naïfs. They have unquestioning obedience to and reverence for their masters. They are hard-working and earnest. And the bad guys are uniformly awful bullies. And of course Gavir has to take their bullying without complaint and without retaliation because he’s just so earnest and good.

The story is also not all that exciting. Gavir's life really isn’t all that difficult most of the time. He is in physical danger maybe twice, and in an actual physical conflict a couple more times, but these situations are all generally over in about a minute. Even his escape from slavery is easy.

And all of the pivotal events in the book are instigated and resolved by external forces without any action on Gavir's part. He is swept along by events, not directing of them. Even his final showdown is won essentially passively, by natural forces, not by anything special he does.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Vintage Wallet Inserts

An unused but apparently vintage wallet I recently picked up included two wallet-sized pieces of extremely cheap paper printed extremely cheaply with various features, warranties, seals, and an ID “card.” I scanned in the four images:

Finest in Leather

The American Designer Award for Finest in Leather. Impressive! Something tells me that perhaps there was no such thing, nor was there an entity called the “Leather Industries of America,” but perhaps I am being too cynical.


Leather Wallet Warranty

I guess the warranty is as to the materials, not the workmanship or construction. If the wallet falls apart in a couple weeks, that's on you, buster.

(Two months in, the wallet seems to be holding together fine.)


Replaceable Windows

Now, where to find these “additional windows”...


Identification Card (Approved)

Good to know that this is an “Approved” identification card. Or is it the bearer of the card who has been approved? And “card” is a stretch. These inserts are printed on some of the flimsiest paper I've ever encountered, several notches below newsprint.

In the vital stats section: Blood type. Good thinking, I guess.

Notice how the “Zip” is in a slightly different typeface? Looks like Helvetica regular as opposed to the condensed sans-serif used for the address blanks. (Typographers: In the condensed font, I notice that the a, y, and r have distinctively curved elements. Is this maybe the special font that Bell developed for phone books, designed to be legible at extremely small sizes? ) The addition of the “Zip” later on indicates that the original design of the insert dates from the pre-zip-code era, that is, before the early 1960s, but that the wallet itself is newer than that.

Basic standards of tomfoolery would of course require one to write in “Federal Bureau of Investigation” in the “Employed by” blank.

Maybe not the best idea nowadays to just give out your SSN to the random stranger who finds your wallet.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tinariwen

I just saw these guys in concert recently. What a concept - a rotating collective of Tuareg-Berber musicians from the Sahara region of northern Mali, playing traditional Bedouin music with a bit of a Santana-and-Zeppelin-inspired rock style, on traditional instruments + electric guitars and basses.





Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

Lawrence Block
1991
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I am a huge, huge Lawrence Block fan. My love affair with his books started about twenty years ago when my dear great aunt lent me her copy of Eight Million Ways to Die. Since then I’ve read everything Block has written that I could get my hands on.

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is the ninth installment of the Matt Scudder series, which is Block’s best series by far. The Scudder books are not only extremely gritty murder mysteries but also a complex and realistic record of the main character coming to grips with his alcoholism.

Matt Scudder was a brilliant, if sometimes ethically questionable, detective in the NYPD who resigned from the force after a bullet he fired (while drunk and on duty) ricocheted and killed a little girl. Since then, he has been working as an unlicensed private detective and struggling to stay sober.

By the time of Slaughterhouse, Scudder is has been in AA for several years. He has a stable relationship with his girlfriend Elaine, resists drinking through the whole book, and pursues two cases at the same time: tracking down the producers of a snuff film and figuring out whether a wealthy lawyer did or did not kill his wife.

It’s a shame that this is the only Edgar that Block has won. Slaughterhouse is a perfectly good book, but my favorite Scudder stories are the ones earlier in the timeline (like Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes), when he is in the initial fits and starts of his recovery. They make you suffer right along with him as he goes through agonizing backslides which only make it that much harder for him to climb back up onto the wagon.

No matter how long he has been sober, Scudder is (and you are) always, always conscious of alcohol around him. He’s confronted with it all the time, like when he goes out to dinner and the dinner menu says, playfully, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine!” When his cases aren’t going well, or he’s under stress, it’s doubly hard; the first thing he always fantasizes about is a glass of bourbon. Or a bottle of bourbon.

At one point in Slaughterhouse, Scudder meets a contact, a young cop, in a bar. The cop is drunk, argumentative, and clearly on the same path Scudder himself was on. After making one attempt to get their meeting to happen somewhere else, Scudder eventually chooses to leave the cop there in the bar. He feels guilty about leaving without making more of an effort, but his sponsor reminds him that, as an alcoholic, your first responsibility is not to drink. You cannot always save others because it may take all you have just to do that.

Blurb writers are always comparing Block to Elmore Leonard. I don’t know why they think this is a compliment, given how great Block is and how annoying Leonard is. I wish that Hollywood would stop making movies out of Leonard’s books and make a good movie out of one of Block’s. Eight Million Ways to Die was made into a movie, and it does star Jeff Bridges, who of course is fantastic, but the adaptation is disappointing. Instead of New York, it takes place in Los Angeles, where Matt Scudder definitely doesn’t belong, and Scudder has resigned from the police force because he killed a drug dealer, rather than a little girl; not quite the same thing.

For those who like mysteries but for whom the Matt Scudder series is a little too dark and/or explicit, Block’s Burglar series is tamer but just as well-written. The central character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a used bookstore owner by day and a burglar by night. He always manages to stumble across corpses while on his night job and has to solve the murders himself to prevent them from convicting him of the murder.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nebula v. Hugo

I thought it was high time I used this space to address another excellent reader question: what is the difference between the Nebula and Hugo awards?

The short answer is that the Nebula is voted on by sci-fi writers, while the Hugo is voted on by sci-fi fans.

I suppose one could think of the Nebula as being more like the SAG Awards, and the Hugo as being more like the MTV Viewer’s Choice Awards.


The Nebula

The Nebula was started in 1965. It is mainly awarded for writing – novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories – although every year there are also a couple service awards and one for “best dramatic presentation,” which is usually a film.

It is awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which is a professional organization for science fiction and fantasy authors. There are several levels of membership, which are determined by how much you have published, and you can only vote on the Nebula if you meet the criteria for being in one of the top two levels. To be in the second-highest level you have to have sold at least one short story to a professional publication (the SFWA has a list of the ones they will accept) and you have to have been paid at least $50 for it. To get into the top level you have to have sold three short stories or one novel or one full-length professionally produced dramatic script.

The Hugo

To vote for the Hugo, on the other hand, all you have to be is a supporting member of that year’s WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention), which you can do by paying $50 to the World Science Fiction Society. That gets you voting rights for the current year’s nominees and the final ballot, and nomination rights for next year’s awards. You don’t even have to attend the convention. The only caveat is that you can’t nominate your own work, and you can only nominate up to five works each year.

The Hugo is older than the Nebula; it was first awarded in 1953, skipped in 1954, and then awarded every year from 1955 until now. It is awarded in a wide variety of categories which change from year to year and can include books, films, TV shows, fanzines, art, and people. My personal favorite is a special award given in 1969 to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins for Best Moon Landing Ever.

The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, the first major sci-fi magazine in the United States.

An Unexpected Finding

When I launched this whole book-review project, I predicted that I would like the Nebula winners more than the Hugo winners. Presumptuous as I am, I thought that since the Nebulas are awarded by the writers, they must be of higher quality.

But so far, lo and behold, I have given the Hugo winners slightly higher ratings than the Nebula winners. As of today, I have read 44 of each (of which 20 books have won both awards). The Nebula winners have an average rating of 2.95 and the Hugo winners have an average rating of 3.27.

Sources

Another Fan's Nebula-v-Hugo Analysis
Hugo Awards website
Nebula Awards website

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the Needle

Ken Follett
1978
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is a blockbuster page-turner with all the ingredients - war, sex, human drama, and international intrigue with the fate of the free world at stake. It also has several elements that I am a particular sucker for: spies, WWII-era Britain, remote Scottish islands, and violent storms at sea.

The main character is Henry Faber, a careful, ruthless, handsome German spy. Faber is known as Die Nadel (The Needle) because of the trademark stiletto he carries and with which he kills a fair number of people over the course of the book.

Traveling around the southeast coast of England in early 1944, Faber discovers that the forces the Germans have been observing building up in East Anglia, which they believe will be used to invade France at Calais, are a hoax. He even is able to take a roll of pictures of dummy cardboard planes to prove it. This leads him to the natural (and correct) conclusion that the Allies are planning to invade at Normandy instead. If he is able to let his bosses in Germany know this, it could change the entire course of the war.

Faber then tries to make his way up from London to his contact, a U-boat stationed off the coast of Scotland, before he is caught by the pesky MI5 agents on his tail. He runs into a number of frustrating delays and setbacks. Desperate, he eventually steals a fishing boat and sets out for sea in the middle of a huge storm, only to get shipwrecked on a barren, windswept island populated by only four people: an old shepherd, a young farmer who lost his legs in a car accident, the farmer’s sexy estranged wife, and their baby son.

The shepherd and farmer are immediately hostile and suspicious, but the wife, Lucy, is quite receptive to Faber... to say the least. The challenge for Die Nadel then is to elude the two men, find a way to contact the U-boat by radio or boat, and to avoid getting distracted by falling in love with Lucy.

Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan are pensive in the
1981 screen adaptation of this blockbuster.
Like The Day of the Jackal, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the bad guy. This can get emotionally confusing. On the one hand, Faber is the enemy and you want him to get caught, and you don’t like that he kills Home Guards and innocent rooming house landladies. But, on the other hand, almost up to the very end, you root for him to win his hand-to-hand fights and to get it on with Lucy.

The details of spycraft are not as gritty and realistic as in, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - but then again, Follett doesn’t have the advantage of a background in British intelligence like LeCarré does.
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