Friday, March 28, 2008

Temporal Relocating...

I have to say using time travel is wonderful when you're moving. You can make blog posts before you make excuses. Of course it is hard to fit all of those boxes in the Delorean. I know I should have gotten a TARDIS to handle my move but jumping around to a dozen different adventures before you finally get back home is exhausting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

That's a lot of books...

In the two years I've lived in my current place I've acquired fifteen banker's boxes full of books. That's 10"x12"x15" each. I use banker's boxes for moving books since they're sturdy and prevent me from overstuffing them.

Look for the review of American Gods tomorrow because I spent today filling those boxes. I don't even have time at the moment to grab a camera and take a picture of my boxed up library which is now filling my garage awaiting people to pick them up and move them a few miles tomorrow morning. The DVD and games collection is currently boxed and filling my office.

I leave you with this small piece of advice: don't move and have a disaster that requires your attention at work on the same day. It wears you out.

Review - American Gods

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

If there's three things that Neil Gaiman likes in his stories it's reworking old myths and legends, divine beings dealing with modern times, and the nature of stories. He keeps coming back to them over and over again and for his first original full length novel he hit all of them.

Shadow is released from prison just in time to attend his wife's funeral. On the trip home he meets a mysterious Mr. Wednesday who wishes to hire him to accompany Wednesday on a trip around America. On this trip Wednesday attempts to recruit various gods of old pantheons for a final showdown against the embodiments of what modern Americans revere (technology, the media, and so on). Conspiracies abound as Shadow works with Wednesday to locate these old gods and convince them to join the battle.

Gaiman attempts to build to some mystery and suspense around the characters though if you've read any of his major writings in the past or have a general knowledge of mythology then the plot becomes pretty transparent. One character is even given a name that is phonetically identical to his mythological name but is printed differently as part of this deception; an annoying intrusion of prose into the novel's reality.

On that prose I do enjoy Gaiman's style quite a bit. He portrays the mythical in a matter-of-fact way that is being imitated quite a bit with less success by other authors of the magical realist style. Gaiman's unexplained little touches are typically well rooted in real-world lore and at the same time fit smoothly into the narrative so when he throws out a passing mention of a minor detail of a religious practice it feels natural in the text rather than just the author showing off.

The novel falls into a pattern of Shadow goes somewhere and meets a mythological being dealing with modern life. They chat for a bit about their history and then Shadow goes on to the next one. Occasionally it is broken up with Shadow running into a quirky character in a small town. If you've ever seen a road trip movie all of it will seem very familiar to you except this time there's mythology thrown in.

And that's the biggest problem with American Gods: it's been done. Strip the mythology and it's a not very special road trip book. With the mythological themes, Gaiman's already done it in his first major work Sandman. It makes the whole thing rather predictable.

However, if you're not really familiar with those themes then American Gods can seem to be an impressive book. It is the only Hugo winner that my mother has read and she didn't even hear about the book from me. My mother approves of the book, and really do you need a better endorsement than that?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Oddest Place to Find an Autographed Book

I've had books autographed, I've bought signed books, I've even bought books on a steep discount to discover that they had been signed. However I have found signed book in a very odd place: Wal-Mart.

Around a year ago I was at a store for something inexpensive and poked my nose through a pile of clearance books. In it I found this:

When I was younger I got a kick of Donaldson's more... depressing take on a fantasy protagonist but this is the seventh book in a series from an author who was trying to recapture the popular series that got him attention so I wasn't expecting much. On the cover was a sticker that said "Signed Copy" though and sure enough:

It doesn't appear to be a stamp. So I got a signed copy of the book for a dollar from Wal-Mart.

I still haven't read it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J. K. Rowling
2001 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Here it is, the single most controversial Hugo winner. Every other award left some people happy and others disappointed; this time it left a lot of people angry. I've seen it cited as why the Hugos aren't relevant and why the voting procedure needs to change. Many people seem upset because "It's not science fiction!" (the Hugos never were just for science fiction but this is the first novel winner with no science fiction elements) and "Rowling doesn't care about the award!" (another requirement I was unaware of). I've read some seriously told conspiracy theories for how it managed to wind up on top. In short, a lot of people didn't like that the most popular book of that year overall was also selected as the most popular science fiction or fantasy book by the Worldcon voters.

I'm standing apart from that; my feeling is that the voters select what the voters want. 2001 had the real boom in Potter-mania and the other nominees that year were not very strong. So the fact that an extremely popular children's fantasy book won the award doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that it is a terrible extremely popular children's fantasy book.

If I had encountered the Harry Potter series when I was ten I'm sure I would have loved it. Rowling has built the kind of sense of wonder that always catches the eye. I suspect that if I had read it as a child I would have similarly grown out of it as my tastes changed as they have with Star Wars. Even considering that my tastes in mind candy lean toward the pulpish. I'm not ten so I found Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire to be a poorly conceived, misshapen, overgrown tumor of a novel.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire our titular young wizard returns to the Hogwarts School of Wizardry for a fourth year of learning and mayhem. This time around his plot which coincidently has events falling neatly into the school year involve him being entered into a deadly wizardry tournament.

Let me step back a bit to Harry Potter and the (Your Edition Title Here) Stone. When I read it I thought it was a fine juvenile novel with some flaws but nothing that really got under my skin. Chamber of Secrets had those flaws again but a bit larger, and Prisoner of Azkaban has them even larger still. By that point it was clear that Rowling had some problems with her writing that needed to be addressed or the series would keep slumping downhill until the end. Needless to say they were not addressed in Goblet of Fire. Instead they were magnified by the scale of book.

The first major problem is that Rowling is terrible at world building. "There's a society of magic users hiding among us," is a good place to start but all the details that support that premise are half-constructed messes that leave more questions than answers. Hogwarts teaches young wizards magic but not basic skills like English or math. Even though the real reason why is that those subjects are too mundane to include in Rowling's fantasy it still leaves a big hole in the world.

Magic has completely arbitrary limits and uses in Rowling's world; it appears to run mainly on author fiat. This would be annoying enough but it builds with a bloated mass of excuses as Rowling feels it necessary to justify why every random thing she's ever thrown onto the page won't work to overcome the new obstacle.

On top of that Harry Potter appears to be incredibly dense about the workings of the world. During the first year he could be bewildered and lost, during the second he might still be stumbling, but at this point after living three full years plus the time in the novel he still has to ask questions about basic things that he should have encountered at least some mention of off page such as when he was reading the wizard newspapers. Instead he has to ask his exposition spouting friend about everything for the benefit of the readers.

That's just a quick sampling of the problems, really taking them apart would require digging into the details but it comes down to that nothing fits together quite right leaving a critical reader bewildered.

Beyond that there are my problems with Rowling's writing. The most common problem in the series is with Harry himself. He quite literally has everything handed to him in this novel. Every single challenge he faces is fixed by deus ex machina, someone comes along and hands Harry the answer to his problem. Rowling attempts to explain some of this away at the end of the Goblet of Fire but fails to notice that this still left Harry as completely and totally ineffective in the book and doesn't handle any of the other deus ex machinas she regularly throws in.

And then there is the bloat.

Here's a fun experiment for you. Locate all the works of a very popular author. This works better if its an author who isn't particularly good but is still popular. Now set them so the spines face outward like they're on a bookshelf (if you have them on a shelf already even better) and arrange the books in the order of their publication. Note how the books get fatter and fatter and if you were to read them you would find those fat books didn't really contain a lot more story than the thins ones, they were just bloated up with pointless rambling. I call this "Too Big For an Editor" syndrome, a disease that strikes popular writers and the symptoms include believing that every word they put down on the page is priceless and must be included. Attempting have the author streamline things for the sake of improving the storytelling would cause more problems for the editor than the author. J. K. Rowling is not the first sufferer of this disease which attacks dozens of writers and millions of readers annually but she could be its poster child.

Goblet of Fire starts with a hundred and fifty pages of a pointless trip that could have been completely cut with barely anything lost. The few plot elements that actually matter (as opposed to the ones that get hit on over and over again as the book continues) could have been worked into the story another way with hardly any effort. It's poor story telling that is especially noticeable in Goblet of Fire because this inflamed appendix of writing is so large and appears immediately.

I know this review is looking bloated but I'm still not done with my problems with Harry Potter because I haven't even touched on the simplistic morality and characters Rowling has populated the novel with. Anything that Harry does and is not immediately admonished for is "right" and "justified", if you belong to the wrong group of people (somewhat arbitrarily selected by a talking hat) then you are evil and always wrong. While kind of narrow morality is acceptable in a children's book I have to judge it as an adult reader.

I could go on for a bit longer but there's no need to. The Harry Potter series were never great works but Goblet of Fire is the point where the series completely breaks down in my view. The weight of Rowling's flaws crush the book like an elephant and an ant. I wouldn't recommend it, but then you've probably read it already.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review - "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", "By Any Other Name", "The Bicentennial Man", and "Tricentennial"

Rick Sternbach
1977 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

by James Tiptree Jr.

Tied 1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Three astronauts on the first trip around the sun emerge from behind it only to find they cannot contact Earth. They do pick up a strange transmission from a nearby source that claims to be a human space craft and that they have traveled through time. Eventually the astronauts meet the people on that craft and find that they have some vast differences.

The story is very deeply mired in the sexual politics of the 1970's but it has a real gut punch of an ending. Initially Tiptree plays up the astronauts being macho men who can't believe that women would be allowed into space but instead of going to the obvious and well worn place with those interactions (i.e. the women wind up being better than the men) things become more complicated. It's not a standard feminist screed though it might appear that way at first glance.

I did have some trouble suspending disbelief in the society Tiptree presents since I'm dubious that a culture of dilettantes could even maintain what they have. Still I think the whole effect of the story worked in the end.

"By Any Other Name"
by Spider Robinson
Tied 1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

It starts with a great concept: what if civilization was not destroyed by nuclear war, environmental disaster, or even a deadly plague but instead was irreparably damaged by greatly enhancing humanity's sense of smell. Unfortunately the concept isn't really explored well.

Everyone's sense of smell is enhanced to the point that it is ten times greater than a canine's and because people can't stand the smell of the world hysteria ensues. Decades later a small group of survivors in the wilderness are trying to rebuild while fighting a war with psychic gaseous beings who we could only detect once our sense of smell got better. Their leader wants revenge on the person who caused the problem and he sends his son into New York City to kill him.

I love the hook but Robinson only used it for color in a handful of scenes. It seems as though he didn't realize the implications of such a greatly enhanced sense, the complications with the wind, the fact that smells would carry for miles with that level of sensitivity.

It also doesn't help that he seems to confuse "natural" with "good". The "unnatural" smells are what drive humans crazy though it doesn't stop the new group from making paper or using a mimeograph, both processes that would make things stink for miles around them. If it was sensory overload that was the problem then this might have been more understandable since the typical city or even household would contain a bewildering array of smells but Robinson makes it explicitly "natural".

There's a lot that could have been done with characters who have such a distinct viewpoint and so perhaps some of my problem is that I see so much wasted potential. The story is reasonably crafted, my problem is just that the poor depiction of scents, something that every human being already deals with every day, snapped my suspension of disbelief badly.

"The Bicentennial Man"
by Isaac Asimov

1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Isaac Asimov's best known story is also, in my opinion, his best. It's sappy and maudlin but it also cuts to the core of his robot stories and defines one of the common themes of science fiction perfectly. Simply put it is the story of a robot that wants to be human and in generations of observing people he gradually works toward his goal.

It's telling that Asimov's robot starts with sentience, one of the main points of being human, and works backward to smaller and smaller steps. His journey begins when it is found that he can create unique art, then he attempts to take on the social conventions of man before moving on to biological functions.

The human characters are simple but they're typically only on stage for just long enough to react to the robot before shuffling off again to allow the narrative to advance a few more years. So though they're all one note there is only one character really important to the tale and and by his nature he has to start as an innocent.

I don't think I would be able to take this kind of story in large doses but the sentimental tone got to me. "The Bicentennial Man" is story worthy of the attention it has received over the years (though the movie isn't).

by Joe Haldeman

1977 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

There isn't a deep story here but I think Haldeman's atmosphere makes up for it. In it a space colony plans to send a vessel to a nearby star where a signal was detected. For political reasons it's disguised as a trip to a small, dark, dwarf companion star to the sun which is composed of antimatter. Naturally complications ensue.

Haldeman tells the story in tiny vignettes. It's a style I have found annoying sometimes in the past but I think it was effective here because he uses it to gloss over some big events. The reader is told that they occurred and can infer some reasons why they occurred. "Tricentennial" is a common story wonderfully told.