Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: Downbelow Station

C.J. Cherryh
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This is a pretty complicated book about the economic and military conflicts surrounding the colonization of Pell’s World – the first habitable planet to be discovered outside our solar system.

In this story, space exploration is financed by The Company, an Earth-based corporation with Earth-centric views of how the natural resources of other planets should be used. The Company maintains their own military Fleet to protect those interests.

For years, missions to other solar systems have been limited because they could only travel so far from Earth, the only resupply center. But when Pell’s World is discovered, everything changes.

The Company builds a space station orbiting Pell and then a station on the surface of the world itself (which becomes known as Downbelow Station). Once they do this, spacefarers no longer have to rely solely on Earth for resupply, and can explore farther and farther out into the galaxy, which allows them to discover even more habitable worlds. And once there is a critical mass of humans living on planets other than Earth, they begin to question whether space exploration should still be entirely about exploiting other planets for Earth’s benefit or whether these other planets deserve to be self-supporting worlds of their own.

The Company doesn’t like this kind of thinking, of course, and it inevitably leads to tension between the Company, its Fleet, the union of non-Earth planets, and the independent merchant ships that fly between them, all of which culminates in a huge battle at Pell.

I have to admit that I didn’t really get into all the clashing ambitions of the various interest groups. The story was okay, but not always exciting enough to keep my attention through 500+ pages.

I also didn’t find many of the characters all that likeable. My favorite character, Emilio, was in Downbelow Station on the surface of Pell and most of the action took place in the space station orbiting the planet, so unfortunately I didn't see too much of him. There were also the Hisa, an intelligent species of animal indigenous to Pell, who are a little like chimpanzees and who are hired and/or exploited as workers by the humans. The Hisa were very nice and gentle but maybe just a little too annoyingly naive.

Cherryh does, however, do a great job constructing a realistic universe on a large scale and vivid settings on a small scale.

The station orbiting Pell was well thought-out and well described; I could practically draw a map of it. The environment on the just-barely-habitable planet of Pell was also believable; it’s not a ridiculous Eden. Humans have to wear special breathers and the weather is chilly and dank.

And I think the greatest strength of this book is that it paints a believable picture of humans in the first stages of space colonization. It made total sense to me how the discovery of one habitable planet (and then another, and another) would fundamentally change both commerce and psychology. I could see how people would naturally start to split into those still attached to Earth and those who want to look beyond it.

It was what I imagine the early conditions would be that would lead up to Asimov's Foundation universe. It makes it seem entirely possible that over thousands and thousands of years of exploration, Earth could get left farther and farther behind until it is eventually forgotten.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Valdi's CD Store



Graffiti possibly related to the 2008 economic crisis. 

Knit Graffiti

Knitted sleeve on a street sign in Reykjavik. As part of the Loops Knitart 2010 exhibition at the Nordic House, travelers are invited to kit small swatches to be fashioned into "knit graffiti." 


Some type of candy sold in Iceland. Groovy package design.

Viking Monument



National soft drink of Iceland. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Review: A Time of Changes

Robert Silverberg
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ – – – –

It seems as if Silverberg read The Lord of the Rings and said, “This book is great but what it needs is a lot of sloppy sex and more obvious drug references!”

This book is written in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy style, with strange fell beasts, semi-medieval customs and dress and archaic sentence structures. Many of the names of people and places could be lifted straight from Tolkien (Glin, Loimel, The Burnt Lowlands). Even the map at the front of my 2009 edition uses the same font and brushwork as the maps of Middle Earth.

Unfortunately, this book is most definitely not The Lord of the Rings.

The story is about Kinnall Darival, the second son of one of the rulers of Salla, one of the lands on a planet colonized by space-faring humans centuries ago. The strongest legacy the original colonists left their descendants is a puritanical Covenant, or code of conduct, that says that the most wicked sin is to be a “selfbarer” – a person who shows any kind of reverence to themselves or to their own private thoughts. The words “I” and “me” are banished – you can only refer to yourself obliquely as “one,” as in, “there is love in one for you.”

Kinnall falls into bad company and learns about a drug that allows you to share your inner self with anyone else taking the drug at the same time as you. After taking the drug, Kinnall realizes that it is no sin to bare one's self to other people, and in fact that it can lead to good things like being able to overtly declare one's love for someone else, so he sets out to give as many other people the drug as possible. Of course the establishment doesn’t like this and he becomes a fugitive.

Among the many problems I had with this book, there were two major ones.

1. This “I/me” thing. In the world of this book, saying “I” or “me” is the ultimate obscenity, because it emphasizes the self-ness of the speaker. Samuel Delany dealt with a similar concept in his (earlier) book Babel-17. For all that book’s faults, at least Delany took it to the next logical step – he realized that if you are not going to allow a person to think about themselves by not allowing them to say “me,” then you can’t allow them to say “you” either. If you say “you,” then you clearly have a sense of someone being other than yourself, and therefore by definition you have a sense of yourself. Not to mention that you’re calling the other person’s attention to the fact that they have a self apart from yours. This is Semiotics 101. All the people in this book saying “one” when referring to themselves and then saying “you” when referring to others made the whole premise break down into silliness.

2. Seedy hippie culture. In the preface to my edition, Silverberg says that this book reflects what was going on in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when he wrote it, but that he hopes it still stands up today, and that the themes revolving around the self-awareness drug aren’t taken too literally to make people think it's solely a drug novel. I’m afraid, however, that it definitely is a piece of its time and that it does not wear well. Taking the drug is the turning point for Kinnall; he immediately feels like his consciousness has been opened and he becomes an eager distributor. In addition, Silverberg finds some excuse for his main character to have sex about every five pages. Kinnall is a big hairy sweaty guy with a premature ejaculation problem, and the euphemisms that describe his lovemaking activities are trite, cheesy, and gross. “The rod of my sex”? Come on. He’d fit right on with Will Farrell and Rachel Dratch’s hot tub lovers.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

When Politics Was a Lark

In the comments responding to Lord John Whorfin's recent post on ancient political themes to resurrect for a new era, the election of 1884 leaps to the fore. Desmoinesdem recalls that the Democrats were branded as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," prompting Whorfin to recite the bouncy couplet "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine – Continental Liar from the State of Maine."*

Another catchphrase from that contest was "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" a taunt directed at Blaine's opponent Grover Cleveland, who may or may not have fathered a child out of wedlock. The taunt backfired when Cleveland refused to disavow the child, and he won anyway, prompting his supporters to gleefully answer,"Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

Also, too: Mugwumps.

My own crackpot theory is that the period between Reconstruction and World War I — when it was clear that the U.S. was going to survive as a nation, but before it had assumed the mantle of world leadership — was America's adolescence. The nation was industrializing, and prospering, more or less, but it had no international responsibilities. The Presidents were callow political hacks, big-man-on-campus types, known more today for their fanciful facial hair styles than for their policies. The Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Gettysburg Address gave way to sing-song rhymes and slogans born of a nascent culture of advertising.

But surely the frivolity and whimsy of Gilded Age politics is preferable to the grim cable-news political culture of today. If your go-to rhetoric once a new president is elected is to accuse him of being a fascist/communist/socialist who wants to destroy America, you don't leave yourself much room to maneuver. You're pretty much required to compare all his policies to Hitler's from here on out. Both sides engage in this apocalyptic stuff, but it's undeniable that the Tea Party, abetted by the media, has taken it to a whole new level.

Well, nothing much to do about it, I guess, but wait and hope for a relatively peaceful transition of the U.S. to "hegemon emeritus" status, like the U.K., so that we can hopefully emulate the more down-to-earth regard that the British have for their head of government.

*Issue for further study: Does the relative ease of rhyming "Maine" in campaign doggerel hinder the presidential aspirations of politicians from the Pine Tree State?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reaching into the Past

Whether you agree with some, all, or none of its points, there can be no doubt that the Tea Party movement has had an impact on American politics here in the 21st Century.

From my vantage point in the 8th Dimension, it strikes me that this is likely due in large part to the marketing genius of reaching into the past and resurrecting a once successful American idiom from the 18th Century -- the Boston "Tea Party." Perhaps there is a Jungian collective unconscious dynamic at work here.

Let us have some ideas for hijacking old themes for today's movements. I shall start by taking over/under bets on the following proposition --- Within 14 months, Chris Hartman will be advocating for monetary reform with the following slogan:

Free Silver!

Send all checks and money orders to me c/o John Big Booty, Planet 10.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review: Neuromancer

William Gibson
Awards: Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I am of two minds about this book.

On the one hand, I very much appreciate it. It is the very best in cyberpunk writing. It was groundbreaking and radical when it came out in 1984, but it still reads like a fresh, contemporary story.

Gibson is great at taking abstract technical concepts – computer viruses, hacking, ROM constructs, artificial intelligence – and describing them so that you can picture them; so that they seem physically real. He does this for many things that were brand-new at the time.

He also coined the term “cyberspace” and used the word “matrix” to describe the virtual environment of the internet, even though the internet didn’t really exist yet.

Neuromancer is fast-paced and slick. People go swinging around the matrix at the speed of light and also zip around physical space very quickly as well; it’s no big deal to go from one end of the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) to the other, even just for dinner.

Its characters have talents and body modifications adapted to this new environment. The protagonist, Case, is a cyber cowboy with an enhanced nervous system whose trade involves jacking into the matrix and hacking around stealing information. Case meets up with a number of colorful people, including Molly, a sort of mercenary who has retractable razor blades implanted under her fingernails (like Wolverine, although Wolverine actually came first) and high-tech mirrored lenses embedded over her eyes that give her access to all kinds of real-time information.

On the other hand, I don’t really like this world. It’s hostile. Everyone seems high on something most of the time. No one can trust anyone else and no one is sure if they’re on the right side. You can't ever be sure if what you’re looking at is real or a hologram. No one has a home; Case just rents various “coffins” (cheap tiny hotel spaces) to spend the night.

I don’t like Case or Molly or any of the people they run into (with the possible exception of Wintermute, who is actually an artificial intelligence and not a person).

I also don’t understand anyone’s motivation for doing what they’re doing (with, again, the exception of Wintermute).

The premise of the story is that Case used to be one of the best cyber cowboys out there, but he made the mistake of stealing a piece of information from an employer, who then fried his nervous system so he couldn’t jack into the matrix anymore. When a mysterious new employer needs someone to do the most dangerous, complex hacking job ever, they hire him to do it and are willing to pay for the extremely expensive operations required to fix him. Yet I didn’t think that Case ever really proved why he was so good (like, for example, Ender Wiggin proved over and over).

Case develops a relationship with Molly, who has been hired by the same mysterious employer to be the muscle on the hack job. But they seem to get together just because they’re in the same place at the same time, not because they really are interested in each other.

Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which came out in 1992, draws a lot from Neuromancer, both in its atmosphere and in its story line. But I liked the characters and the world of Snow Crash much more.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Book Review: Way Station

Clifford Simak
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This is a little gem of a book. Simak’s writing is calm and un-showy but it also keeps you very much engaged. His main character, Enoch Wallace, is unusually open-minded and tolerant.

As a young man, Wallace was a soldier in the Civil War. Very disturbed by the experience, he returned from the war to his small house in an isolated part of rural Wisconsin to basically become a hermit.

Wallace keeps very much to himself. As the years go by, his neighbors comment to each other that he doesn’t really seem to be aging very fast but otherwise they hardly give him a thought.

The decades come and go and eventually it is the 1960s. The government authorities have finally started to pay attention to the vague local folklore about this man who supposedly was a soldier in the Civil War and yet still looks like he’s thirty. So they start snooping around his innocuous-looking shack of a house.

What they don’t realize is that Wallace is the keeper of a way station for interstellar travelers. When he first came back from the war, an intergalactic travel consortium identified him as someone who would be receptive and open to them (and also as someone who could keep a secret). They use his house as a rest stop and a transfer point during their light-speed journeys across the universe. In return, they provide him with everything he needs to maintain his station and have made it so that he does not age at all when he’s inside his house. The only time he gets any older is when he goes outside to get the mail.

An added benefit to Wallace is that, as the keeper of the way station, he gets to meets many different kinds of extraterrestrials and learns about them and even makes friends with some of them. He is curious about everything and manages, with the aliens’ help, to keep up to date on technology and physics and current events so he knows what is going on in the world around him. He very much enjoys his job and you wish he could just go on and on this way.

But the whole situation threatens to blow wide open when an alien traveler dies at his house while waiting for a transfer and the government investigators discover the body respectfully buried outside in Wallace’s 19th-century family plot.

The only real problem I had with the book was a bit of deus ex machina used at the end to resolve everything, which was unfortunate. But overall this was a fun and unexpectedly touching story.
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