Tags: books

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Writing the semi-near future looks hard

My most recent book club book got me thinking about the difficulties of writing science fiction set only about twenty years in the future. If it's set "five minutes from now, with one wild card invention," you can write the world pretty much as it is. If it's set fifty or more years in the future, it's far enough out that any number of changes in society are possible, and most readers won't be around long enough to see whether the book is at all close to the reality anyway and so can treat it as a thought experiment or fantasy.

But about twenty years out is long enough that society ought to have changed, but soon enough that many readers will be around to see them, or will live in that projected "future" year with relatively easy access to the book to compare to reality. And that's tricky.
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Cookies with Frog and Toad

I haven't read any Frog and Toad since I was about six year old. Based on this short (under four minutes) claymation adaptation of one of their stories, I've been missing out. Look how perfectly they capture the eternal struggle not to binge on cookies in just three lines:

FROG: *puts cookies in box* There. Now we will not eat any more cookies.
TOAD: But we can open the box.
FROG: That is true.

What was that willpower thing you mentioned again, Frog?

Seriously, though, it does an amazing job of introducing a relatable character dilemma, showing the struggle, and resolving it (for a certain value of resolving, anyway) in a way which is very concise but also clear and puts you right in the moment with them. It probably helps that we've all been there, whether it's with cookies or some other food or activity which will have negative effects if we over-indulge, but still. I feel like I should be taking notes on writing technique.

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Appreciating the battles in The Lord of the Rings on a new level

I stumbled upon a blog by a military historian who analyzes pop culture, and his series on the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Siege of Gondor are fascinating. He analyzes both the book and movie versions of the battles (which have some crucial differences). And is fair enough to note that while the movie versions usually make far less sense and have everyone being worse at their jobs, there were often (not always) practical reasons for doing it that way.

The analyses of Saruman's leadership is especially interesting, because he makes some major mistakes in both the books and movies--in exactly the ways you would expect him to, given his character and lack of military command experience. For example, it makes sense for Saruman to see his Uruk-hai as basically fighting machines and plug them into his plan accordingly, without accounting for things like, "Do they have the training to react effectively when something doesn't go according to plan, or when a bunch of guys with spears charge at them on big scary horses?" and "Do they have any reason whatsoever not to break and run when that happens?" Seeing exactly how flawed Saruman's plan and execution were and comparing it to the Witch King's much better performance in the next book makes it clear just how arrogant it was for Saruman to think he could challenge Team Sauron as an equal.

Anyway, these are very long reads, but worth the time!

Refusing-to-feel-guilty pleasures: the Sister Fidelma series

There is a lot to like about Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series, but also plenty that is... well, bad. Every time I read one, I am annoyed and wonder if I should just quit reading. Yet I have read about thirty of the damned things, and am almost certainly going to read that new one my library just got an ebook copy of.

And you know, I'm going to try to stop feeling guilty about "wasting" my time like that. Okay, so parts of the books really, really irritate me. But obviously not enough to stop me from liking the good parts, so maybe I can just let myself be at peace with feeling conflicted and read on.

Anyway, in case anyone's curious, this is a historical mystery series set in 7th-century Ireland. Fidelma was born into the royal family of the kingdom of Muman, studied Irish law and qualified to practice (which women were legally allowed to do in Ireland at the time, turns out), and joined a religious house basically because it was a good career move. She teams up with Brother Eadulf the Angle (to his eternal annoyance, everyone keeps calling him a Saxon) at the Synod of Whitby, and they fight crime!

I will skip all of the possible complaints about characterization and such (I could make a few). And the historical arguments, because questions like how many Britons the Saxons and Angles killed vs. assimilated are races I don't have horses in. Tremayne definitely has opinions about things like that, and about whether ancient Ireland and the Celtic Church were way better than their neighbors, but he's so obviously in love with his subject that it's kind of charming. (I might feel differently if I had a stake in the answers.) Besides, given a choice between "society which at least doesn't legally bar you from any professions even if there are still social barriers" vs. "society which absolutely legally bars you from a whole lot," well, the first might not be paradise but I'd probably pick that one.

No, let me warn you about the writing. Characters have way, way too many conversations like this:

"As you know, Bocc, I am the rechtaire, or steward, of this abbey, which means that I am in charge of a lot of stuff."

"Why, yes, I did know that, since I also live here and have known you for years. Also we are speaking ancient Irish, which is my native language, so you didn't need to translate 'rechtaire.' That sure sounded peculiar, randomly repeating yourself like that. Or were you actually giving me the Latin title? I couldn't tell."

"Let's say it's the Latin, for that at least makes more sense than telling you what the word might be in the language of the Saxons as it is spoken fourteen centuries from now. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the tech-screpta, which is the library. I also feel a sudden urge to explain that in our society, children are usually sent to be fostered by another family at the age of seven."

"I know that also, having grown up here and been fostered myself. Why don't you let the narrative voice explain these things? You really are overtaxing yourself, and the readers' suspension of disbelief."

I am only slightly exaggerating.

But on the plus side, the author has an amazing knack for making ancient law sound really compelling. He catches your attention with the more obviously murder-related laws, like how you get compensated with cows (in a set number depending on your status) if your relative is murdered. Ooh, motive to kill a relative and frame someone whose family can pay! Then you get into how a foreign husband's social status depending entirely on his Irish wife puts serious strain on their relationship, because legal inequality is awful even if both parties love each other and don't take advantage of that inequality. And eventually you realize you're going, "Wait, each jurisdiction is required to maintain a hospital where even the poorest can receive care, and there are regulations to make sure is has good ventilation and fresh water? Tell me more!" That's pretty impressive.

Maybe if I pretend I'm just studying the books to see what techniques can make millions of readers interested in obscure points of ancient law, I can finally make the part of my brain that feels guilty for reading them shut up.
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Shards of Honor: Let's just leave those guns hanging over the mantelpiece unfired

Reading a review of Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor (here) made me realize I don't think I've ever written up my own reactions to the book.

I first read Shards of Honor about 10 years ago, after reading The Curse of Chalion and The Paladin of Souls and hearing that the Vorkosigan Saga was also great. Out of what I'm sure is a natural instinct for many readers, I started at the internal-chronology beginning, with Shards.

I hated it. And I didn't believe it, which I think is part of what made my reaction so strong--probably irrationally strong, because I'm sure some of the books I love are just as flawed in different ways, but they don't snap suspension of disbelief and stomp it into the ground the way this one does for whatever reasons.Collapse )
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More Ancillary musings

I've been thinking again about the Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), and how differently the trilogy progresses from what I'm used to: instead of Breq acting on a wider and wider scale with each book and leading an increasingly huge revolution, the action stays relatively personal and local, and the revolution involves very few explosions and relatively little shooting. I think this difference is one of the things I love about it.

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You don't have to be the best or the most powerful or the center of attention to matter, or to make a difference: that's what these books say to me. And I love them for it.
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Ansible stories?

Over at a recap/deconstruction of Speaker for the Dead, it's mentioned in passing how utterly weird ansible communication plus relativistic travel could make things. Like so:

I mean, imagine that back in 1900 CE we were all in contact by magic instant radio with England, and they're all "Oi, Germany seems like it could be the centre of some big trouble, want to pop over and help keep an eye on things" and we're all "Hell yeah, let me get in my relativistic boat", and then we arrive a century later and now they're all "No worries, nothing a couple of world wars and the devastation of Russia couldn't solve, too bad you missed the Beatles, but have you heard of One Direction" and in a panic we radio home and Canada is like "We're still super-racist to First Nations and Inuit but check out this marriage equality" and then the USA busts in with "Check out mah nukes I'VE BEEN TO THE MOON" and this is happening all over the galaxy all the time. You might as well have Leifr Eiríksson trying to make conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson. The idea of 'history' becomes a complete mess. God, I hope that's what this book is about.

Spoiler: it isn't what the book is about.

But what about the books that are about that? Does anyone have any recs? (Besides The Forever War, which doesn't quite cover the grand scope envisioned here--that's more of a fish-out-of-water protagonist deal.)

I am now really curious to see someone actually handle this concept well.
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In which The Lives of Tao kills any remaining scraps of my sympathy

Fuck this book.

You know what ruins a fluffy alien spy adventure? This:

"I've always viewed God as very fair. Girls in their twenties--the world's their oyster. They're beautiful. Older men want to date them. Guys pay for everything, and everyone desires them. Men on the other hand, when we're in our twenties, we're dumb, we're poor, and women our age want nothing to do with us. [...]

"How things even out is that women might shine bright, but they burn out fast. Their lives are over by thirty. What do you geeks call it? Half-life? Shelf life? Whatever. It's shorter than for us men. They have to find the right guy right away or it becomes a game of settling. [...] Guys are like wine. We get finer with time. We start earning money. We become more confident. We become more distinguished with age, and younger girls will still date us."


And what is the wise immortal alien's response to this?

I like this guy. He is quite the philosopher. [...] In another time with the right Qasing, he could have been a Nietszche or a Voltaire!


Randomly telling huge swathes of readers that they're worthless by the advanced age of fucking thirty: great marketing idea!

Even if Tao is supposed to be understood as sarcastic there--and I have no evidence that he is--the entire passage has no relevance whatsoever to the rest of the book. Roen's girlfriend's dad could have been intimidating and protective without comparing women to perishable goods or radioactive material. Knowing that Jill grew up hearing such insulting opinions from her dad doesn't give us any insight into her personality or actions, because we barely see any to speak of. We barely see her, period. The book is not interested in deconstructing or even depicting sexist narratives, so this isn't part of that kind of project. Literally nothing ever comes of this passage. It's just there, like a giant turd in the middle of the book.

So basically I was just reading and nodding about the secret alien brain parasite civil war and then suddenly GUESS WHAT, SUNNY, YOUR LIFE IS OVER NOW THAT YOU'RE THIRTY.

Yes, I'm expired like bad milk. Also, I have not started making more money than I did in my twenties, nor have I become more confident. These things only happen to men. Clearly, I am delusional. I should just shuffle off and resign myself to a life of spinsterhood, or perhaps settle for a douchebag if I'm lucky. Because my life is over.

Thanks a fucking bunch, Wesley Chu. That really brightened my day.

Also, guess what: I HATE WINE.
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Not a review: The Lives of Tao

Bored. So bored.

I'm a third of the way through this book, and... I don't know, I feel like it's probably a fun, light read for a lot of people, but for me it's like slogging through knee-deep mud. I'd have given up chapters ago if it weren't for book club. The prose is extremely bland and clunky, not much happens for dozens of pages except the protagonist learning to exercise, and I feel like I'm seeing too much of someone else's id and it's awkward for both of us.

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Book titles and implicit promises

This won't be a review, exactly, but rather a note on books' titles and openings and how those affect expectations.

I just finished the Star Trek (TOS) novel Uhura's Song. The first chapter throws us right into a tense situation: a horrible plague is decimating a planet, and Uhura is especially affected because one of her friends is among those suffering the "Long Death" (the disease takes a painfully long time to kill its victims). However she soon realizes that some ancient, taboo songs her friend taught her may hold the key to finding a cure, and the Enterprise is soon off on a desperate mission, using clues in the ancient songs to try to locate a planet they're not even sure exists for a cure they're not sure exists either--but it's the best chance they have.Collapse )