Arts & Letters

SF Book Review – Part 38: The Long Winter and Moar

I’m still catching up with recent SF reading and I figure it’s best to get this out before the Six Weeks of Halloween revs up. This post covers stuff I read from June right up until last week, so we’re pretty much caught up. Naturally, we’ll cover some horror books during the 6WH, so it may be a while before returning to SF proper. Anywho, let’s get to it:

First up is the Long Winter Trilogy:

Winter World, by A.G. Riddle – A new, inexplicable ice age has descended upon earth. Desperate for answers, scientists send probes out into the solar system and discover mysterious objects disrupting solar energy. James Sinclair is a disgraced roboticist serving time in prison, but is nonetheless tapped to be on the team that will confront the forces disrupting earth. Will this team be able to figure out what’s happening and find a countermeasure? A sorta light space opera/first contact tale in the vein of Blake Crouch or Peter Clines (to name two folks I’ve read recently that operate in a similar way).

Winter World book cover

Old SF hands might not find a ton of new ideas here, but it’s well executed and entertaining. Some of the twists and turns are foreshadowed hard, so hard that maybe they’re not supposed to be twists? I mean, some things that are blindingly obvious to readers somehow surprise some characters in strange ways. As an opening shot in a trilogy, it’s just fine. Won’t blow your mind, but it’s a well told story and it’s achieving what it sets out to do…

I’ve avoided spoilers thus far, but talking about the next two books will necessarily mean a little bit of spoilers (overall, an entertaining light SF trilogy that manages to hint at some actually fascinating stuff towards the end). Alright, Spoilers aho:

The Solar War, by A.G. Riddle – This picks up where the first book led off, with earth and humanity enjoying a brief respite from the winter. They’re using this time to prepare for the return of the Grid, who will no doubt be focusing more energy on getting rid of humanity this time around. That’s not just meant as a metaphorical turn of phrase: the Grid is almost entirely motivated by the collection and conservation of energy. Their original plan was to harvest our Sun’s energy in such a way that humanity would be quickly destroyed in the process. In the first book, humanity managed a small victory, but now the Grid has returned. They’ve flung asteroids at earth, but will humanity’s defenses hold up? Eh, sorta.

Like a lot of middle stories in a trilogy, there’s a lot of water treading here, and setup for the next book. I’m of two minds as to how this all goes down. On the one hand, humanity did seem awfully outmatched and only managed success in the first book because the invaders weren’t really trying that hard. On the other, it’s not especially entertaining seeing the humans get nearly obliterated, and Riddle spends an awful lot of time on the nuts and bolts survival aspects of the story. All well and good, but the overarching narrative isn’t advanced much. Also, the deal that the Grid offers doesn’t make a ton of sense, even if the humans in the story are appropriately suspicious. In any case, the tone and pacing are pretty much par for the course here, and this is a similar experience to the first book. Nothing really new here, but well executed and entertaining enough that I wanted to see what would happen next.

The Lost Colony, by A.G. Riddle – The remnants of humanity now number in the thousands, and have settled on an eyeball planet around a low power star that the Grid doesn’t find interesting enough to harvest. This plays out like two novellas smushed into a novel. The first story is all about survival in the new wilderness, which contains deadly predators (along the lines of a T-Rex), vicious storms caused by celestial mechanics, and smaller scorpion-like threats. Like in the second book, this feels a lot like water-treading… but the second phase of this novel recontextualizes in an interesting way.

In fact, the entire series thus far is recontextualized. Riddle really swings for the fences in the second act of this book, devising an origin for the Grid that is novel and fascinating. I’ve described the previous two books as a sorta light SF that you’ve seen before (if well executed), but this second half of the third book does offer something new. Does it entirely work? Did we really need to march through two and a half books to get here? Do the physics actually work out? Does the Grid’s plan hinge on too much chance? Are the ethical implications of what’s really going on justified? Maybe not? But I can appreciate the ambition and effort. Perhaps it’s just the notion of being lulled into that feeling of a familiar, derivative story being shattered by something kinda out-there that did the trick, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the series and I liked how bonkers the ending got, but I wish there was less water-treading throughout the series and more of that sense of wonder stuff interspersed throughout.

The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt – Humans have expanded beyond their solar system and they’ve begun to find mysterious alien artifacts. They’ve dubbed the aliens Monument-Makers, but have been unable to discern anything about them. Each artifact is different and beautiful, but they defy explanation. Then a team of scientists discover an artifact that appears to have played a role in a lost civilization. Previously discovered artifacts can also be tied to lost civilizations, making them somewhat more ominous. Earth itself is facing ecological disaster – do the Monument-Makers have something in mind for us?

It’s an interesting spin on the big dumb object sub-genre. Instead of a giant unknowable artifact, we get lots of smaller ones. McDevitt does a good job setting all this up, perhaps somewhat less so of establishing characters and plot mechanics. Like the Long Winter books above, there’s a significant portion of this book that’s focused on episodic tales of survival or races against the clock. All well and good, but spending a bunch of time fending off throngs of crab-like monsters doesn’t really advance the narrative much. Progress is made in the end though, and the explanation makes sense. I’ll cut this a little more slack because it’s all completed in a single novel, though there are apparently additional stories set in this universe. I will probably make my way to those sequels at some point, which says something, I think. Not exactly top tier stuff, but well executed and interesting enough.

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson – One night when they were ten years old, Tyler Dupree and his neighbors Jason and Diane Lawton were playing in the yard when the stars went out. There was a brief, bright flash, then the sky just went black. Scientists eventually discover that earth has been placed within some sort of “spin membrane”. Outside the membrane time is moving at a hugely accelerated pace – about 3 years outside per second inside, or 100 million years on the outside per year inside. How will this development affect humanity? How will we respond? What about the Hypotheticals – the aliens who put the membrane in place? What’s their endgame?

It’s a great setup, and to be sure, Wilson puts the premise to good use and develops some great, extra-crunchy SF ideas throughout. For example, the time passing outside the spin membrane is terrifying, but it also opens up some avenues that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Because time is moving so fast, the notion of terraforming Mars becomes much more feasible. That’s a neat extrapolation from the base idea, and there are others throughout the book. However, the bulk of the story is comprised of character-based drama surrounding the three kids as they group up during the spin. Jason becomes a scientist working to understand the spin and develop various strategies to work around it, but he’s also struggling under the grip of an overbearing father not to mention his own medical problems. Diane retreats from society, basically joining a cult. Tyler just sorta meanders about, eventually coming to work for Jason but still struggling to find a way to reach Diane (who he’s clearly in love with). They’re all well drawn and fleshed out, even if I sometimes had a difficult time connecting.

This is a book for those folks who like to define SF as “all about the human condition” or some such. Those of us who are in it more for the sense of wonder and idea content will have plenty to chew on, but the proportion is far more focused on character than it is on ideas. So I’m a bit torn here. I really love the SF ideas , but I didn’t quite connect with the characters enough to love all the time spent on their foibles. Your mileage may vary…

Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi – The second novella in this series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, to be sure, but both novellas are fun mystery thriller type stories suffused with Scalzi’s usual tight plotting, snappy dialog, and light humor. For whatever reason, these were conceived as Audible originals and initially released only on audiobook. It’s read by Zachary Quinto, who does an admirable job. This particular installment involves shady business deals, a dispatching gone wrong, and a frame job on our hero. All quite entertaining and fun. I know Scalzi can rub some folks the wrong way outside of his books, but the stories themselves are almost always fun and worth checking out.

And we’re all caught up. Stay tuned for Week 1 of the Six Weeks of Halloween!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel

While novelizations of popular movies have long existed (especially before the advent of home video), Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first example I can find of a filmmaker adapting their own movie for the page. Alright, let’s not get too far into Auteur theory here; filmmaking is an inherently collaborative medium, but few would dispute that Tarantino was the true guiding force of the film. So this adaptation has an inherent hook that the usual, perhaps unfairly maligned, novelizations don’t. Given Tarantino’s infamous obsession with all things movie, it’s not surprising that he has an appreciation for the genre: “In the seventies movie novelizations were the first adult books I grew up reading … And to this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino - book cover

I’ve grown to appreciate the movie more with each rewatch. What initially seems like a disjointed mélange of episodic story elements is actually tied together pretty well, if not in an immediately obvious way. The book puts the movie’s plotting in stark relief. There are digressions galore here, and not all of them are strictly necessary. Authors often claim that they have backstories and other context that guides their work without ever being explicitly laid out anywhere. Your mileage may vary as to whether you like seeing that or not.

Regardless, Tarantino is able to indulge in numerous backstories here, from Cliff Booth’s war record, to his postwar years, to a few times he got away with murder, to how he came to own his exceedingly well behaved pit bull Brandy, to his film buff tendencies and how he fell in love with Kurosawa but didn’t love Truffaut. We get full chapters and backstory about Charles Manson (who is only tangentially in the film), a description of the hallowed Manson girl tradition of the “creepy crawl,” and lots more about Sharon Tate and even future fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski. There’s even a sorta novelization-within-a-novelization, as Tarantino retells the entire Lancer pilot (interspersed with the actors talking about the pilot).

There’s the copious (and I mean copious) discussions about mid-century cinema and television. At times, the novel feels a little like a sorta profane non-fiction book as Tarantino recounts the various histories and anecdotes of actors, directors, movies, and television shows. Do you want to read ten pages about Aldo Ray’s alcoholism, or the general alcoholism that pervaded throughout Hollywood during that era? You got it. Do you want to know the lineage of western TV shows in the 60s? You got it. And on and on (and on!) While he mixes his fictional characters into history here, you will find out a lot more about the era than you ever wanted to know. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel, even if it sometimes takes the punch out of the pacing or plot, but some might find it a little too indulgent and distracting.

Stylistically, Tarantino isn’t going for anything highfalutin. He’s shooting for pulpy and profane, and for the most part he succeeds. Some have compared it to Elmore Leonard, but that doesn’t really do Tarantino any favors – few can stand up to that comparison and while there are times that Tarantino approaches Leonard, he doesn’t quite have that cadence down. Leonard certainly doesn’t descend into digressions and plots things much tighter, and his command of language is perhaps better suited for the medium. Tarantino is famous for his amazing scripts, but that’s a different medium. As a debut, this is fantastic stuff, but to say he got to Leonard’s level right out of the gate is perhaps too charitable. That said, I’m looking forward to more Tarantino novels. I think he could grow into the form quite well…

There’s some interesting structural twists to the plotting as well. He does this thing where he’ll suddenly flash backwards or forwards for long swaths of time. Indeed, the bombastic ending of the film is a just sorta tossed off flash-forward reference about 1/4 of the way into the book. The other big set-piece from the movie, Cliff Booth’s tension-filled visit to Spahn ranch is retained partially in-tact, and Taratino nails the atmosphere, but the sequence in the film is certainly more harrowing. The book’s end actually works surprisingly well for what it is, though I don’t know that it’s better than the film.

All in all, it’s a fascinating little book and worth a look if you liked the movie. There’s lots to chew on and plenty of differences, big and small, that make this a distinct enough experience to be worthwhile. Personally, the book made me appreciate the movie even more. The book retains the movie’s ultimate hangout vibe, so while the book perhaps isn’t for everyone, there’s still lots there to enjoy.

SF Book Review – Part 37: Heaven’s River and Moar

I’m woefully behind on my science fiction book reviews, so let’s catch up, shall we? I read some of these in the February/March timeframe, so bear with me. Also of note, I did do full reviews for a couple important release, including Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and Nicole Galland’s Master of the Revels, so it hasn’t just been 1978 movies for 6 months. Anyway, let’s take a look at a few of these books.

Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor – The fourth book set in Taylor’s “Bobiverse”, where a man named Bob was turned into a Von Neumann Machine and duked it out with competing Von Neumann programs. The original trilogy was very enjoyable and came to a satisfying conclusion, but of course there were some dangling threads that could be pursued in sequels, so here we are.

Heaven's River book cover

At the start of Heaven’s River, original Bob and his closest descendants want to seek out their old friend Bender (one of Bob’s replicants that had gone off exploring in the previous books), but the issue of replicative drift means that future generations of Bob are becoming less and less Bob-like, so internal strife is on the rise. Especially with an internal faction that refers to itself as Starfleet. Things get so bad that a civil war is brewing, and meanwhile, other external threats are emerging.

It’s all par for the Bobiverse course. Which is to say, it’s quite entertaining and involving and Taylor continues to put these ideas through their paces. It’s episodic but not completely disjointed, and I generally enjoy spending time with the various incarnations of Bob. This is certainly not a place to jump into the series (start with the first book), but it’s a solid way to continue the series. Looking forward to the next installment.

Colonyside, by Michael Mammay – The third book in Mammay’s series about Colonel Carl Butler and the various mysteries and conspiracies he gets embroiled in, usually from some military angle. This time Butler is brought on to find the missing daughter of a CEO, and naturally there’s more here than meets the eye. I’ve generally enjoyed this series, but it’s never quite delivered on the potential of the premise. A sorta mixture of Military SF and Hard Boiled Detective fiction should be more fun than this… which is not to say that this is bad, per say. As I mentioned, it’s enjoyable, but the mysteries never quite give you the rush that great detective fiction manages, and while the action is solid, it’s not quite Military SF grade action. I’m on the fence about reading the next installment (assuming there is one), but if Mammay can wrangle the two genres better, it could be really something.

Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells – The sixth Murderbot story is actually a pretty good example of what Mammay is trying for. Murderbot gets embroiled in a mystery involving human trafficking in a space station around her friends’ planet. Good characters, a well drawn mystery, great action, propulsive pacing, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real complaint is that it’s perhaps a bit too short, but that’s one of those “leave them wanting more” good things. I actually didn’t realize that this would be a novella-sized story when I got it. I just assumed that because the last entry in the series was a novel, this one would be too. Anyway, that’s not really a complaint. If you’re not on board the Muderbot train, it’s worth purchasing a ticket (or, uh, the first novella in the series, you know what I mean).

Year Zero, by Rob Reid – Hey look, it’s a book that isn’t part of a series! Low level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter (not that Nick Carter) is visited by aliens desperate to license music. The problem? The entire universe, teeming with life, is terrible at music… except Earth. When our music is discovered, aliens enjoy decades of pure joy… and also wind up committing the biggest copyright violation in the history of the universe. The resulting fines and penalties would bankrupt the entire universe several times over.

It’s a great premise, and in case you can’t already tell, this is a SF Comedy owing much to the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Big shoes to fill and for sure, Reid isn’t operating on that level. It’s not terrible or anything, and I quite enjoyed the novel, but the beginning is the best part and as the novel progresses and the silliness of various characters and concepts start to compound, it gets to be a bit much in the middle. The ending works well enough, though, and if you can stomach the constant Pop Culture references, you’ll have a good time with this. Personally, I’m not really a music expert, so I’m sure some of the music references went over my head, but I enjoyed it all well enough. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but it’s a fun time.

The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold – The latest Penric & Desdemona story is longer than usual (technically it’s novel-length, though it’s short by today’s novel standards), but that doesn’t matter because this series is great. Penric’s brother-in-law (General Arisaydia) has been enduring various assassination attempts as a result of political turmoil in his homeland (I’m simplifying a little here – events in previous Pen & Des novels flesh this out a bit), so Penric and General Arisaydia attempt various hijinks to deal with the issue. The usual sorcery and intrigue abound, and Bujold’s ability to introduce new side characters that you can immediately connect with is on full display (plus, the series has been going on long enough to have a regular stable of well-established side characters to draw upon). As usual, the series as a whole is highly recommended.

Still have a few books to go, but this is a start at least…

The Two Kinds of Movie

I was listening a Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast episode in which three movie writers talk about their favorite film books, and I couldn’t help but think of what I’d put on such a list. In the spirit of arranging my interests in parallel, I’ve been reading a lot of books about movies over the last few years, and the one that immediately leaps to mind is Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman.

Which Lie Did I Tell book cover

As an example of the book’s insights, here’s Goldman on the two kinds of movies:

There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.

Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called “art” films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don’t want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

A little reductive, to be sure, and we could quibble about the details all day if we want, but it’s at least an interesting dichotomy he’s suggesting, and the way he spins it out contains one of the better explanations for why Independent Films tend to do poorly with audiences:

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death of a Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here’s what he says: “I’ll get you for this!”

The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don’t much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words.

We do not want to watch Willy Loman’s suicide.

What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.

… Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.

Again, plenty to quibble with here. I’d argue that there are lots of crossover flicks, whether it be what Goldman calls a “Hollywood” flick that manages to tell us something we don’t want to know or an “Independent” movie that tells us something we want to believe in, that somehow manage to find a huge audience. Goldman would later touch on this topic again in a famous essay called “Who killed Hollywood?”

I’m not talking here about the difference between entertainment and art. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. And many, if not most, independent films are boring.

I suspect many would like to upgrade their “quibbles” to something stronger at this point, but I can appreciate this point of view. Goldman’s books are highly recommended and would be number one on my list of great books about movies. I can save the full list for another post, but I should probably get to finishing off the 1978 Project, shouldn’t I?

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir first rose to prominence with his self-published novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian. It caught on with readers, eventually got picked up by a big publisher and even adapted into a pretty great Ridley Scott movie. He followed that book up with the moon-based Artemis, a novel that clearly didn’t hang together as well as The Martian, but had its moments I guess. Still, the Sophomore Slump felt real. Now we come to Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third book and I’m happy to report that it represents something of a return to form.

Earth’s sun is dimming and the cause is traced back to a microscopic life form (dubbed the Astrophage) that lives on the sun and uses its energy to migrate to Venus. The dimming effect is accelerating and will eventually cause catastrophic changes on earth and potentially wipe out humanity. What’s more, most of our neighboring stars are also dimming… except for Tau Ceti, a star that’s twelve light-years from earth. Project Hail Mary is quickly assembled to visit Tau Ceti, devise a solution to the Astrophage, and save all humankind. We learn all of this in flashback, as Ryland Grace, a middle-school science teacher wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia. He quickly deduces that he’s on a spaceship and his memories start to come back. Will Grace be able to find a solution in time to save Earth?

Some minor spoilers up there, I guess, but there’s lots more to this story that I will try not to spoil too much. As with The Martian this is a novel about a lone astronaut sciencing the shit out of things to save himself and in this case, humanity. The science is handled well and in detail. It’s not diamond hard science fiction that’s difficult to understand, it’s actually quite accessible and while sometimes tedious for the characters, mostly not for us readers. I suppose it could wear you down though, especially when you get towards the end of the story and you know where it’s going, but Weir puts Grace through the paces as he attempts to find a needle in a haystack. Still, it’s well drawn and clearly explained. All of which serves to keep the story grounded, even when Grace does some crazy stuff to, for example, snag a sample of a potential Astrophage solution.

The technology is mostly present-day stuff. Since Project Hail Mary is humanity’s last hope, the plan relies on old, well-established technology that’s pretty much guaranteed not to fail. Except, of course, for the new spin drive propulsion system that can help the ship traverse interstellar distances. But here Weir finds a clever solution.

Indeed, one of the impressive things about the book is that Weir takes one counterfactual, the Astrophage, and once established, he puts it through a whole battery of extrapolations that have far and wide implications. There’s lots of things in this book that are surprising, but at their core, they are explained by a relatively simple microorganism. It speaks to one of Science Fiction’s broad strengths. Establish something simple and relatively innocuous, then tease out the implications until things start to get weird. Weir also manages to weave this sort of thing into the plot too, which shows some storytelling chops.

It’s hard to get into the rest of the story without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of The Martian will certainly enjoy this, though it may come off a bit samey. Weir is great at presenting complicated science in an accessible manner, but he’s not exactly a prose stylist. Characterization isn’t a strong suit either. Ryland Grace is your typical competent man SF hero (much like Mark Watney from The Martian). Weir does attempt to flesh him out a bit, especially with a late revelation that didn’t quite sit right with me, but he’s still a pretty familiar SF archetype. As with a lot of older SF, the ideas at the core of the story are the real hero. It does a great job evoking that vaunted sense of wonder that’s at the core of SF. That’s what makes a book like this work, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missing from a lot of modern SF.

Modern SF has a tendency towards extreme cynicism, dysfunction, angst, and oppression, and fans of that will likely see this book, with its optimism in the face of disaster, competence, and happy ending, as jejune and unsophisticated. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and ultimately loved the book, flaws and all. It’s a throwback SF vision that we could probably use more of these days.

Hugo Awards Season 2021

The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!

Best Novel

The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.

This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.

I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…

Short Fiction

Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.

Best Series

This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).

Best Dramatic Presentation

This award is always very strange, and it features this year’s weirdest finalist: what the hell is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doing on this list? The list is otherwise pretty decent, though there’s obviously lots of smaller fare that the voters never seem to go for. Pour one out for the likes of: Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (as usual, some of these may have eligibility issues due to weird distribution dates, but still). Also, how did The Invisible Man not garner a nom? It’s so squarely within the voter’s usual wheelhouse…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.

Master of the Revels

In the English royal household, the Master of the Revels was responsible for overseeing royal festivities (aka revels) and stage censorship. An important role in the time of William Shakespeare, which turns out to be a key DTAP (Destination Time And Place) in Nicole Galland’s follow-up to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., aptly titled Master of the Revels. Galland had collaborated with Neal Stephenson on the first book, but took this sequel on by herself. I’m always curious about how authors collaborate on books with shared authorship, but it seems like in the case of D.O.D.O., Galland had done the bulk of the writing, with Stephenson adding some technical flavor and overarching story bits. As such, this sequel retains the feel of the first book, while progressing the story forward.

Master of the Revels

The story picks up right where D.O.D.O. left off. Our small group of intrepid heros have set up a small operation to counter the nefarious Irish witch Gráinne, who intends to utilize D.O.D.O. time-travel resources to reverse the evolution of all modern technology (and thus allow magic to be more freely practiced in modern times). Her travels take us to Renaissance Italy, feudal Japan, and of course, Jacobean England. It’s kinda hard to talk about the plot here without giving some stuff away or explaining what was covered in the previous book, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The story is told in an epistolary format, with everything being after-action reports, chat transcripts, bureaucratic documentation with acronyms galore, and so on. Much of the sense of administrative humor is retained, and it’s basically just a lot of fun to be hanging out with these characters again. We also get a few new characters, including Robin Lyons, Tristan’s sister and noted Shakespeare nerd, who is naturally recruited to infiltrate the office of the Master of Revels. She fits right in, and makes good friends with the Shakespeare brothers (in particular Bill’s younger and less famous brother Ned, who is another great addition to the cast). Alas, some of the original characters, notably Tristan himself, are sidelined for the majority of the book, but it all works well enough.

As the title of the book indicates, this English bits comprises the bulk of the story, so any Shakespeare nerds would really enjoy this. Actually, history nerds in general will get a kick out of this series. Lots of historical figures are mentioned, including the actual Master of the Revels during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, amongst other actors in the troupe. The other DTAPs are a little less detailed, though Leonardo Da Vinci is a key to one of them…

Gráinne makes for a fun villain, though I must admit that I don’t really get how her plan will work. The limitations of magic that have been set in the D.O.D.O. universe are such that her task seems impossible or at least, inadvisable. To be sure, the stakes are clear and our heroes’ actions to counter Gráinne make sense, it’s just the overarching strategy here that I’m not following. Such is the way with a lot of time-travel stories though, and this has the added complexity of quantum physics and multiverses too, which help make the hand-waving plot machinations successful (and which I maintain is a clever sort of explanation for the way magic works in this universe). To be sure, I’m still having a lot of fun with these books, even if they are a little too focused on more narrow episodes rather than any sorta grand plan.

As such, this story is resolved satisfactorily, but I don’t know that the series has progressed very much… and yet, I’m pretty excited to see where we go next, which is a good sign. As yet, I’m not sure if there actually will be a third book, but it seems likely and from interviews, the notion of a trilogy has been thrown out there, so I’m hoping we’ll get a third book at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoyed D.O.D.O., this will scratch that itch (and even though Stephenson’s involvement is minimal, it might tide you over until Termination Shock comes out).

Stephenson’s Termination Shock

This week saw the announcement of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock. It’s an Easter miracle! We’re big fans of Stephenson here at Kaedrin and any new books are treated as events. So what’s it about?

Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.

One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

As only Stephenson can, Termination Shock sounds a clarion alarm, ponders potential solutions and dire risks, and wraps it all together in an exhilarating, witty, mind-expanding speculative adventure.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation about Stephenson going down such a well tread path (the amount of recent science fiction addressing climate change explicitly or implicitly is high, and often quite didactic), but I’m confident that he has the tools to pull it off in a way that is entertaining and interesting. Stephenson’s tackled the environmental angle before, and managed to wrap it up in an entertaining thriller structure (in fact, it’s probably his most accessible novel).

In physics, the Termination Shock is one of the outer boundaries of the sun’s influence in the solar system, which perhaps indicates that we’re in for some space travel that the marketing blurb doesn’t mention. There is also the scare quotes around “elemental” that point to more potential scientific avenues that this will explore. As usual, hopes are high. The novel comes out on November 16, 2021.

In other Stephenson-adjacent news, I just finished the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and quite enjoyed it. Look for a review coming soon!

Notes on Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the more interesting books I’ve read during lockdown was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have always done a good job keeping up with reviews of fiction (particularly science fiction), but I’m awful at following up on non-fiction. This despite non-fiction often covering more interesting ideas in more relevant, concrete ways. We’ll try to do Da Vinci justice here.

First up is probably the most significant takeaway from the book:

While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge Drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.

Page 2

It’s worth noting that the notion of art has changed so dramatically since Da Vinci’s time that a lot of what he dealt with seems completely foreign today. His specific brand of naturalism is surely still a thing today, it’s just that it’s a much smaller proportion of art. This insight, that Da Vinci didn’t make a distinction between art and science, is one that recurs throughout the book. Take this:

…Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.”

Page 6

In these days of “out of context” journalism, going to the original source is as wise a piece of advice as ever. Over and over again, the need for immediate reporting and the bias of journalists lead us down false paths. Even once enough time has passed to figure out what really happened, the damage is done. No one reads the corrections.

Leonardo was human. The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That’s important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method – almost like a trick – for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at each detail. He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Page 179

Another lesson we’d do well to learn. These days, everyone wants to be an immediate expert. No one wants to put in the time to actually become the expert, they just jump to what is considered “the best” and avoid everything else. Something important is lost in the process. I’m reminded of the computer scientist Peter Norvig. Frustrated by the proliferation of books with titles like “Learn Java in 24 Hours”, he wrote a book called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. I think Da Vinci had a similar approach.

He was constantly peppering acquaintances with the type of questions we should all learn to pose more often. “Ask Benedetto Portinari how they walk on ice in Flanders,” reads one memorable and vivid entry on a to-do list. Over the years there were scores of others: “Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on the bastions by day or night… Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Ask Maestro Giovannino how the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes.”

Thus Leonardo became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom. More important, he came to see that the progress of science came from a dialogue between the two. That in turn helped him realize that knowledge also came from a related dialogue: that between experiment and theory.

Page 173

More lessons to learn from Leonardo, and the notion that experience and theory are both worth pursuing is an excellent one.

Leonardo… was interested in a part-by-part analysis of the transfer of motion. Rendering each of the moving parts-ratchets, springs, gears, levers, axles, and so on- was a method to help him understand their functions and engineering principles. He used drawing as a tool for thinking. He experimented on paper and evaluated concepts by visualizing them.

Page 190

His drawings served as visual thought experiments. By rendering the mechanisms in his notebooks rather than actually constructing them, he could envision how they would work and assess whether they would achieve perpetual motion. He eventually concluded, after looking at many different methods, that none of them would. In reasoning so, he showed that, as we go through life, there is a value in trying to do such tasks as designing a perpetual-motion machine: there are some problems that we will never be able to solve, and it’s useful to understand why.

Page 196

I like the concept of “drawing as a tool for thinking”, and I see this a lot in my day job. Not only does visualizing something help with understanding it, but it makes a huge difference in communicating it out to others. One example of this sort of thing, I’d been reporting on the benefits of an effort for a couple of months. I had stated one benefit in a text bullet point, but was able to get some actual data and changed it to a graph showing a before and after. I’d been reporting the exact same information for 2 months, but no one really noticed it until I made the graph.

It’s also interesting that Leonardo found value in unsolvable tasks like perpetual motion. Again, it speaks to the expertise problem mentioned above. People want to become immediate experts, but are unwilling to approach anything if it means they might fail. Many of the outlandish things that Leonardo speculated about did come to pass, eventually:

This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the rout of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway. Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality.

Page 354

Of course, not all of these speculations had as much of an impact as they should:

These laws of friction, and in particular the realization that friction is independent of the contact surface area, were an important discovery, but Leonardo never published them. They had to be rediscovered almost two hundred years later by the French scientific instrument maker Guillaume Amontons.  … He also devised ways to use ball bearings and roller bearings, techniques that were not commonly used until the 1800s.

Page 197

He was mainly motivated by his own curiosity. … He was more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings.

This is true for all of his studies, not just his work on anatomy. The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history. … As the Leonardo scholar Charles Hope has pointed out, “He had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.” Although he would occasionally let visitors glimpse his work, he did not seem to realize or care that the importance of research comes from its dissemination.

Page 423

Here we find yet another lesson from Da Vinci. This time, though, it’s something he was bad at that can guide us. He was ahead of his time on many things and made important discoveries… but he never published them, so they had to be rediscovered later. Sometimes for hundreds of years. I suppose this could be seen as a consequence of his ravenous curiosity. He had so much on his mind at all times that he rarely finished any one thing. But he made tons of interesting observations. Some are seemingly trivial and weird, but when we dig deeper, we find something more:

Then comes my favorite item on any Leonardo list: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” This is not just a random entry. He mentioned the woodpecker’s tongue again on a later page, where he described and drew the human tongue. “Make the motions of the woodpecker,” he wrote. When I first saw his entry about the woodpecker, I regarded it, as most scholars have, as an entertaining oddity – an amuse-bouche, so to speak – evidence of the eccentric nature of Leonardo’s relentless curiosity. That it indeed is. But there is more, as I discovered after pushing myself to be more like Leonardo and drill down into random curiosities. Leonardo, I realized, had become fascinated by the muscles of the tongue. All the other muscles he studied acted by pulling rather than pushing a pody part, but the tongue seemed to be an exception. This was true in humans as in other animals. The most notable example is the tongue of the woodpecker. Nobody had drawn or fully written about it before, but Leonardo with his acute ability to observe objects in motion knew that there was something to be learned from it.

On the same list, Leonardo instructed himself to describe “the jaw of the crocodile.” Once again, if we follow his curiosity, rather than merely be amused by it, we can see that he was on to an important topic. A crocodile, unlike any mammal, has a second jaw joint, which spreads out force when it snaps shut its mouth. That gives the crocodile the most forceful bite of any animal.

Page 398

His notebooks feature tons of inventions and concepts that would not be rediscovered for centuries. Just conceiving the idea was often enough for him… but then, that’s a complicated process as well:

When Leonardo drew his Vitruvian Manhe had a lot of inter-related ideas dancing in his imagination. These included the mathematical challenge of squaring the circle, the analogy between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of earth, the human proportions to be found through anatomical studies, the geometry of squares and circles in church architecture, the transformation of geometric shapes, and a concept combining math and art that was known as “the golden ratio” or “divine proportion.”

He developed his thoughts about these topics not just from his own experience and reading; they were formulated also through conversations with friends and colleagues. Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it has been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor. Unlike Michaelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas.

This process of bouncing around thoughts and jointly formulating ideas was facilitated by hanging around a Renaissance court like the one in Milan.

… Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium and why the young Benjamin Franklin founded a club where the most interesting people of Philadelphia would gather every Friday. At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions.

Pages 158-159

The funny thing about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man? It also wasn’t really published formally, it’s just a sketch in his notebook. And yet it’s one of the most famous pieces of art ever conceived. And it was a sorta collaboration, or perhaps competition would be more accurate. These days, when someone says Vitruvian Man, we immediately attribute it to Leonardo, but it’s actually a general idea that many artists tackled.

Given Leonardo’s tendency towards collaboration, I have to wonder how many things resulted that we have no idea were inspired by him. As it turns out, attribution is a particularly thorny topic for artists of this time period. They didn’t sign their paintings, so things get very complicated:

There is enough evidence, I think, to support an attribution, in whole or in part, to Leonardo: the use of a walnut panel similar in grain to that of Lady with an Ermine , the existence of some court sonnets that seem to refer to his painting such a work, and the fact that some aspects of the painting have a beauty worthy of the master. Perhaps it was a collaborative work of his studio, produced to fulfill a ducal commission, with some involvement from Leonardo’s brush but not his heart and soul.

Page 248

What is most interesting about the portrait is Silverman’s quest to prove that it was by Leonardo. Like most artists of his time, Leonardo never signed his works nor kept a record of them. So the question of authentication – figuring out which truly deserve to be called autograph works by Leonardo – becomes yet another fascinating aspect of grappling with his genius. In the case of the portrait that Silverman bought, the saga involved a combination of detective work, technical wizardry, historical research, and connoisseurship. The interdisciplinary effort, which wove together art and science, was worthy of Leonardo, who would have appreciated  the interplay between those who love the humanities and those who love technology.

Page 250

One of the veils blurring our knowledge of Leonardo is the mystery surrounding the authenticity and dates of some of his paintings, including ones we think are lost and others we think are finds. Like most artist-craftsmen of his era, he did not sign his work. Although he copiously documented trivial items in his notebooks, including the amount he spent on food and on Salai’s clothes, he did not record what he was painting, what he had completed, and where his works went. For some paintings we have detailed contracts and disputes to inform us; for others we have to rely on a snippet from the sometimes reliable Vasari or other early chronicles.

Page 325

… we need to look at copies done by his followers to envision works now lost, such as the Battle of Anghiari, and to analyze what were thought to be works by his followers to see if they might actually be autograph Leonardos. These endeavors can be frustrating, but even when they do not produce certainty, they can lead to a better understanding of Leonardo, as we saw in the case of La Bella Principessa.

Page 325

In 2011 a newly rediscovered painting by Leonardo surprised the art world. Each decade, a dozen or so pieces are proposed or pushed as having a reasonable claim to be previously unknown Leonardos, but only twice before in modern times had such assertions ended up generally accepted

Page 329

One of the striking things about Da Vinci is just how little work is actually attributed to him. And yet, two of his paintings (The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) are arguably the most famous paintings ever made. There is, of course, lots more of interest in the book, but I’ll leave you with a concept that he invented, called Sfumato:

The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke,” or more precisely the dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air,” he wrote in a series of maxims for young painters. From the eyes of his angel in Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously.

Page 41

Sfumato is not merely a technique for modeling reality more accurately in a painting. It is an analogy for the blurry distinction between the known and the mysterious, one of the core themes of Leonardo’s life. Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience an mystery, between objects and their surroundings.

Page 270

SF Book Review – Part 36: The Puppet Masters and Moar

Now that we’ve gotten the Movie Awards and various year-end recaps out of the way, it’s time to catch up on some science fiction reading. I did cover a few things already during Vintage SF Month, but I’ve been sorta slacking on the SF front of late. Still, I’ve read some things lately that are interesting enough.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein – I read this towards the end of Vintage SF Month but never got around to doing a full writeup. Slug-like alien parasites have arrived on earth, attached themselves to people’s backs, taken control of their nervous systems in order to ride them like a puppet master. Two secret agents from a clandestine US intelligence agency have been sent to a small town to investigate a flying saucer sighting (and the disappearance of other government agents) and discover the plot.

The Puppet Masters book cover

If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s similar in content and theme to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was published a few years after Heinlein’s novel, yet it became far more famous thanks to a classic film adaptation (or two). Heinlein’s novel did finally get a schlocky film adaptation in the 90s, but I don’t remember thinking it was anything special (I do want to revisit it though) and really, it doesn’t get at some of the more out-there ideas in Heinlein’s novel.

Written in 1951, Heinlein was probing and echoing the paranoia and fear that drove the Red Scare, explicitly drawing comparisons between the mind-controlling parasites and Soviet communists. Still, much of this is really just an excuse for solidly paced storytelling and explorations of wacky ideas. Some of this has to do with the puppet masters themselves, but much of it is indirectly explored as part of the setting. You get the usual ray guns and flying car tropes, Heinlein reprises his infamous “the door dilated” line, and so on. There’s so more out-there notions too, like the notion of marriage being nothing more than a contract (and one that is frequently limited to short terms).

The fight against the puppet masters involves lots of common sense maneuvering between both sides, though even that gets a bit wacky because Heinlein posits that the best way to fight the parasites is to normalize nudity (if you’re nude, you can’t hide the parasite, you see – totally not a perverted idea at all). Still, the pacing is good and each step makes sense, even if a couple stray a bit far afield.

One conversation towards the end felt particularly fitting: someone speculates that all of the measures they’re taking to fight the Puppet Masters won’t go away overnight, or probably ever. Because we won’t be able to guarantee that every parasite has been eradicated, all of those protections will have to remain in place in one way or another. Fortunately, our battle with Covid 19 doesn’t involve some of these extreme measures, but it does appear to be here to stay.

All in all, it’s a solid little book, perhaps middle tier Heinlein. I can see why it wasn’t immediately jumped on for a film adaptation, but it’s a fun read for sure.

Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold – The 9th novella in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series, though in terms of the internal chronology of the series, it falls somewhere in the middle. This one finds Pen & Des trying to hunt down an ascendant demon and a shipwrecked madman with the help of various locals from the canal town of Lodi (think Venice). It’s got the usual twists and turns one can expect from this series, and I always enjoy spending time with Pen & Des (and the ever expanding cast of characters in their orbit). The series as a whole is consistently great and highly recommended.

Into the Black by Evan Currie – The story of the human spacecraft Odyssey and her crew as they embark on their maiden voyage… and almost immediately get caught up in an interstellar war. It’s a nice little military SF tale with some space opera elements, I found myself thinking it resembled Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet Series. This is only the first novel in Currie’s series, so it hasn’t quite built up the same level of enjoyment just yet, but I could see it getting there. It’s not doing anything new, to be sure, but it’s enjoyable and interesting in its own way. I will probably revisit the series at some point.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – The King’s chief scholar, called The Magus, has found the site of an ancient treasure. Said treasure is guarded by a series of locks and countermeasures that require the skills of a good thief. It just so happens that Gen has recently been imprisoned because of his excellent thieving skills. The Magus recruits Gen and they set off on a quest to find the secure the treasure for the king.

Short and sweet, this might bog down a tad in the middle, and while I wasn’t entirely sure I loved the characters at first, they grew on me. There’s a good setup and premise for sure, but some of the journey is a bit perfunctory. I wasn’t especially engaged by long segments explaining the mythology of this world, and much of it seemed extraneous. However, by the time it ended, I was fully onboard, and actually kinda excited for the next book in the series. I found this because Lois McMaster Bujold posted something about it on Goodreads, and she seemed to indicate that the series gets better as it goes.