Friday, June 29, 2007

Rant: Scrolls

Who decided that books are the culmination of reading technology? Scrolls have some real advantages. You can spread out a scroll and see large parts of the text all at once. You can't do that with a book.

I'd like to see more novels for sale in scroll form. I'd buy them. I checked into publishing my own scrolls. You can get novelty scrolls. Wedding or party invitations, for example. Graduation announcements. But nothing substantial.

That's a shame.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Traveler in Black, by John Brunner

Pages: 222

The universe hangs in balance between chaos and order. Magic is chaos; rationality and logic are order. One man's task is to bring order and eliminate chaos. He is the traveler in black.

The traveler brings order by giving people what they wish for. But he gives in a poetic sense. Those who are blessed by the traveler get exactly what they ask for, but not what they want. For example:
"By your favor, sir," said a boy of ten or twelve years, hunting a hedgerow near the village Wyve, "are such plants poisonous or wholesome?"
Offering for inspection a glabrous brownish fungus.
"Wholesome," said the traveler. "They may be fried."
With a moue, the boy tossed the toadstool aside.
"Are you not glad to have found that it's edible?" asked the traveler. "I took it you were gathering food."
"No, sir," said the boy. His voice and eyes were older than his years. "I seek poisons to give to my mother; she rules me unkindly and will not let me do whatever I like."
He sighed enormously. "Ah, that I might recognize instanter what may be relied upon to entrain death!"
"As you wish, so be it," said the traveler, and went on, leaving the boy weeping because he realized: no matter what diet is chosen, sooner or later death ensues.

The book consists of four separate stories. The prose is unlike any other Brunner book I've encountered. It sounds like Jack Vance. The stories are not compelling. The prose is interesting, but not sufficiently so. Give this a pass.

  • Imprint of Chaos: The once-rational people of Ryovora demand a god, so the traveler gives them one: a man named Bernard Brown. When Ryovora is attacked by the overgrown Quadruple God of Acromel, Bernard Brown uses logic to see what the Ryovora's sorcerers cannot: Acromel's god is but an overgrown child.

  • Break the Door of Hell: The people of Ys remember the golden age of their city, and lament its present condition. Rather than clean their rivers and rebuild their city, they use magic to reanimate their ancestors, expecting their ancestors to fix everything.

  • The Wager Lost By Winning: Villagers in Wantwich are taken as slaves by Lord Fellian, upon whom Lady Luck smiles. Fellian intends to use them as stakes in gambling games, which are his pastime.

  • Dread Empire: An unnatural night descends upon the world. Sorcerers conjure demons to fight the darkness, but fail. The traveler helps defeat chaos, and exits into nonexistence.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Eyes of the Overworld, by Jack Vance

Rating: 3
Pages: 158

The second book in Jack Vance's Dying Earth is better than the first. The Eyes of the Overworld follows a single main character, Cugel the Clever. Cugel foolishly tries to burgle the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Iucounu catches Cugel in the act. As punishment, Iucounu sends Cugel on a quest for a violet cusp, an eye of the Overworld. To ensure that Cugel conducts himself "with unremitting loyalty, zeal and singleness of purpose," Iucounu attaches a maleficent creature to Cugel's liver.

Cugel's adventures do not make compelling reading. But the story is engrossing. Cugel is a sociopath with no regard for others. Cugel lies, steals, tricks, and kills without regret. He does whatever he can to get ahead. He sells a princess into slavery to save himself. He tricks a group of pilgrims into crossing a desert, so that he will have protection from bandits. Dozens of the pilgrims die. He kills a defenseless sea creature that plays a harmless practical joke on him.

Cugel the anti-hero is interesting enough to carry the story. The Eyes of the Overworld rates a strong three.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rant: Stupid cover art

Designing an effective book cover is an art. You have only a scant few seconds to interest a potential buyer. The cover should entice one to read the book while also communicating vital information such as author and title. There are myriad ways to poorly design a book cover, but here are some of the more common ones.

Forget artwork, we don't need artwork! This author's name alone sells books, so slap that name on in big bold letters and watch the books jump off the shelves. Meanwhile the public hopes against hope that the book is not as dull and uninspired as the cover art.

Sleight of Hand
Let's use another author's name to sell our book. This is confusing at best, and deceptive fraud at worst. It should be illegal to put another writer's name in larger type than the author's name.

Look, I won an award!
Novels that win awards often tout that success on the covers. But sometimes one can go overboard. Such as, for example, claiming to have won an award which the book didn't actually win. The Robert Silverberg story Sailing to Byzantium (see the above link) did win the Nebula Award in 1985 as the cover states, but did not win the Hugo, which the cover art claims it did. Shame on whoever designed that cover.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ensign Flandry, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 3
Pages: 224

The Terran Empire is a galactic superpower. So is the Merseian Empire. An uneasy truce has held for years. Now, events on the planet Starkad may change everything. Both the Terrans and the Merseians have established bases on Starkad, and are arming the two local races against each other The Terrans support the Tigeries, the Merseians support the seatrolls.

The conflict is low-grade, as neither side dares escalate the conflict into a full-scale war. The Merseians keep pushing the limits, though, refusing to back down even though Starkad is of no conceivable strategic purpose. Young Ensign Flandry, fresh out of the academy, goes with a diplomatic delegation to Merseia to discuss the Starkad conflict and hopefully reach a settlement.

But there is no settlement. The Merseians are stalling for time. There is something they want on Starkad, and Flandry must find out what it is. Flandry finally discovers the secret, but he is caught in the act. Now he must escape from Merseia and make his way back to a Terran planet to carry the vital news that could mean the survival of the entire Terran Empire.

Problems with this book

  • The first 120 pages are dull as dirt.

  • The pages are falling out.

  • My 1967 Lancer paperback edition is riddled with typos. A typo or two is understandable; they didn't have computers in 1967. But there is no excuse for shoddy work.

  • Anderson uses unnatural word order. Combined with the numerous typos, this made parts of the text incomprehensible.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Nitrogen Fix, by Hal Clement

Rating: 3
Pages: 289

It is the far future, and Earth's atmosphere has changed. There is no free oxygen. The only living creatures left breathe nitrogen, except for a few small communities of people and their jealously-guarded oxygen producing plants. People live in enclosed greenhouses with their plants, and only venture outside with breathing masks and oxygen tanks.

Two wandering gatherers, Kahvi and Earrin, live at sea on a raft. They are friends with Bones, one of the large nitrogen-breathing natives of Earth. This friendship creates friction whenever Kahvi and Earrin visit cities to sell the glass and copper they've gathered; the city folk dislike the natives.

When making one large delivery of scavenged glass, Kahvi and Earrin are attacked by a radical group who wish to experiment on Bones. They think that Earth once had an atmosphere with free oxygen, and believe that Bones and his species are extraterrestrials who are responsible for changing the atmosphere.

Clement paints a nice picture of people surviving in a nitrogen atmosphere. Their existence is tenuous and fragile. A cracked dome, a fire, a plant disease, are all that stand between life and death. There is no doubt that mankind will soon be extinct.

Then there is the mystery of Bones. He is not a native of Earth, and is indeed an extraterrestrial. But what is he doing on Earth? He considers himself an Observer, charged with gathering as much information as possible about Earth. He is most interested in Earth's changed atmosphere. But his purpose on Earth is unknown.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rant: Too long

I hate reading long books. A good story can and should be told without an excessesive word count. A reasonable length for a novel is between 160 pages and 300 pages. Very occasionally a story will take longer to tell. Most long novels that I've read would be better if an editor had insisted on cutting a hundred pages.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Flight of the Horse, by Larry Niven

Pages: 212

I despise time travel, but these whimsical stories by Larry Niven are an exception. They're funny, not serious. And they're fantasy, not science fiction. The only science fiction story in this collection is Flash Crowd, which I remember reading years ago. It was good then, and only slightly less so now.

What Good is a Glass Dagger? is the best story of the collection, about a young werewolf who attacks a warlock and is rewarded with an invisible glass dagger stabbed into his heart. If he ever leaves a mana-rich area, the magic dagger will materialize in his chest and kill him. Larry Niven's concept of mana as a limited resource require for magic is the basis for many role-playing games. So perhaps it may seem cliche now, but hey, Niven used it first.

  • The Flight of the Horse: Svetz goes back in time to capture an extinct animal--a horse. He captures one, but it nearly gores him to death with its horn.

  • Leviathan: Svetz travels back in time to collect a whale, and runs into the biblical leviathan.

  • Bird in the Hand: The Secretary-General desires a roc, so Svetz sees what he can do to turn an ostrich into a giant mythical bird.

  • There's a Wolf in My Time Machine: Svetz's time machine slips sideways into another universe where men evolved from wolves.

  • Death in a Cage: Svetz's time machine is hijacked by a man who wants to change the history of his time line to prevent nuclear apocalypse.

  • Flash Crowd: Matter displacement booths allow instant easy travel all over the world; roving mobs and floating riots abound.

  • What Good is a Glass Dagger?: Magic requires mana to work, but mana is a finite natural resource; when it is used up in one place, magic will never work there again.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Flandry of Terra, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 291

All three of the stories in Flandry of Terra showcase Anderson's trademark setting: a technologically primitive planet in a highly advanced interstellar empire. Dominic Flandry, agent of the Terran Empire, operates within the limits imposed by the local technology, relying on his ingenuity to survive. As always, the inhabitants of Anderson's backwater planets are neither barbaric nor uneducated; they are sophisticated and intelligent--they just happen to live in a "rural" part of the galaxy.

I also noticed that Anderson loves to throw Indonesian cultural references into his stories. Most of the people and places in The Plague of Masters have Indonesian names, because the planet (Unan Besar) was colonized by Indonesians from the planet of New Djawa. But besides Indonesian names and a few references to gamelan, batik, and other Indonesian art forms, didn't notice the culture being particularly Indonesian. It's a Western culture dressed up with Indonesian trappings. Still, I appreciate the effort. Most writers don't even try to write from anything other than an American perspective.

  • The Game of Glory: Flandry roots out a Merseian plot to arm a local rebellion on the water planet of Nyanza.

  • A Message in Secret: Stuck on a backwards planet and running from the local authorities, Flandry needs to find a way to get a message to the Emperium.

  • The Plague of Masters: Flandry foments revolution on a planet whose inhabitants need regular doses of medication to prevent the native microbes from killing them--medication which the ruling class sells at exorbitant rates.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Rant: Useless hardbacks

What good is a hardback novel? None. A paperback is better is every way.

Too big
It's bigger and bulkier than a paperback, making it harder to carry it around; a paperback will fit nicely into a pocket in my laptop bag. A hardback won't.

Too many sizes
Paperbacks are all roughly the same size. I have shelves and shelves full of paperbacks, all neatly sitting on the shelves. It's a beautiful thing. My few dozen hardbacks are eyesores. Each is a different size. Put them all together on one shelf and you don't get a nice neat row, you get a mish-mash of sizes, with no rhyme or reason. It's ugly. And don't even bother trying to pack them neatly if you have to move. Paperbacks, being of uniform size, can be easily and neatly boxed up. You might as well throw your hardbacks away as try to box them up; it's like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with no solution.

Dust jackets
Then there's the useless invention known as a dust jacket. They were invented because somebody noticed that books, being made in one piece, are too easy to read. "What can we do to make reading more difficult?" they asked. Dust jackets fall off, get torn, and generally get in the way of the reading experience. There are no such problems with paperbacks.

Shoddy quality
Hardback novels today are crummy pieces of junk that fall apart after a few readings. (The exceptions are books designed as collectors items, but those aren't really books, those are collectibles. Real books are designed for reading, not for setting on a collector's shelf as a trophy.) So if you're looking for a good quality book that will last a century, today's hardbacks will disappoint.

And why should a novel last a hundred years, anyway? If the novel has any merit, it will still be in print next century. If it's not any good, nobody is going to read it then anyway. Some books need to last a long time--dictionaries, almanacs, atlases, and other reference books--but there's not much use for a forgotten novel of last century.

Hardback novels are more expensive than paperbacks. You can't get a hardback for much less then $25, whereas a paperback rarely costs more than $11. Why would I want to pay extra for a book that is bulkier, does not come in a standard size, has an annoying dust jacket, and is just a shoddily constructed as a paperback? I can't think of a single reason.

The Reader of Books says: Only a paperback novel is worth my money. Hardbacks are worthless.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Players at the Game of People, by John Brunner

Rating: 2
Pages: 219

Players at the Game of People is a distinctly British science fiction novel. By British, I mean:

* Dystopian
* Critical of the useless upper class
* High regard for a man's honor and reputation

If it were an American book, it would be about enterprise, liberty, and a man's right to his property. Americans don't understand class distinction and don't value a man's reputation.

Plot synopsis: Godwin Harpinshield is one of the secret elite. He has access to every material thing that the world provides--food, drink, property, women. He is not bound by the laws of space and time; he can go swimming in Hawaii in the morning and have brunch in Paris. He does not age. For all this he pays a price: several times a year, he cedes control of his mind and body.

Godwin believes himself satisfied with this arrangement. Sometimes he gets jaded, but he always invents some new pursuit to amuse himself. But one incident causes him to doubt whether his loss of liberty is worth it: an encounter with a young girl who he saves during the London Blitz. A few discrepancies in his experience lead him to doubt whether his memories are accurate, whether the incident actually happened, and whether he is really who he believes himself to be. He has sold ownership of his body and mind to an alien possessor, but now he realizes he may have sold his soul as well.

Players at the Game of People is a hard book to read, because Brunner takes so long to reveal the nature of Godwin's possession. That's deliberate, because Godwin hides that knowledge even from himself. The climax of the book occurs when Godwin is finally forced to confront the facts. But that doesn't make the book any less convoluted and confusing.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Winged Man, by A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull

Rating: 2
Pages: 159

The USS Sea Serpent, a nuclear-armed submarine, is forcibly brought through time to the year 24,999. Lt. William Kenlon and the rest of the crew find themselves pawns in a war between the world's two races. Earth is inhabited by two species of men: the winged men who live in a flying city, and the fishmen who live under the sea. All the continents and islands of Earth have turned into quicksand, and there is no dry land anywhere.

The winged men are responsible for abducting Sea Serpent and bringing her through time. They desire that Sea Serpent use nuclear missile to destroy the undersea fortress of the fishmen. At first, Kenlon and his crew refuse to get involved in the war. But it soon becomes clear that more is at stake than a dispute between Earthly nations.

A malevolent alien race is waiting for a chance to conquer and colonize Earth. Kenlon decides that he must eliminate the alien threat and make Earth safe for the winged men and the fishmen--who are bioengineered ancestors of humans. But if he allows winged men and fishmen to destroy themselves in a war, they will be unable to resist the alien invasion. Thus Kenlon is left with a choice: he must utterly destroy one race so that the other can flourish and resist the aliens.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Rant: Retitling

I don't know who decided books needed titles, but it's become a tradition. The problems start when books have more than one title. Sometimes this happens because publishers are retarded: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America because the US publisher was afraid the American public would confuse it with a philosophy textbook. David Brin's Kil'n People became Kiln People in America because, well, the publisher thought the American public was too stupid to understand the double meaning in the British title. (Do you see the pattern?)

And how shall we explain that Alfred Bester's Tyger, Tyger became The Stars My Destination, or how Fred Pohl's Demon in the Skull was renamed A Plague of Pythons? Can we stick with just one name, please? Is that too much to ask?

The most egregious renaming error may have been committed by the Vance Integral Project. When they republished his masterpiece The Dying Earth, they decided to call it Mazirian the Magician. Mazirian the Magician!? Are you kidding me? The Dying Earth is a perfect title. It perfectly evokes the sense of grand decay that permeates the book. But Mazirian the Magician sounds like a crummy second-rate piece of fantasy garbage.

The Reader of Books commands: No book shall have more than one title. Ever. Especially if the second title is stupid.