Saturday, August 27, 2016

2016 read #66: The Games of Neith by Margaret St. Clair.

The Games of Neith by Margaret St. Clair
149 pages
First book publication 1960; original publication date unknown
Read from August 26 to August 27
Rating: out of 5

I realize I'm far too lenient when I rate these old Ace Doubles, but so help me, this one was actually kind of... interesting? There are intriguingly precocious elements to the worldbuilding that hint at unrealized potential, even as the mores and expectations of midcentury science fiction undercut them. Gwethym is a multi-ethnic colony world, settled by an interbred mix of Chinese, Swedish, and French, with no apparent ethnic hierarchy, all startlingly progressive for 1960 -- at least until a lone "cunning Chinese" stereotype shows up. The main protagonist is a woman with considerable political authority who makes decisions, has responsibilities, follows her curiosity, and plays an active role in the story -- yet also laughs merrily at casual rape jokes and automatically assumes the subservient, "helpmeet" role in her relationship.

That doesn't seem like much, but for a midcentury Ace pulp, it's almost startlingly progressive. The rest of the book, however, is a mess. The characters are flimsy. The dialogue consists of "As you know..." info dumps and ludicrous technobabble, which leaps from the heat death of the universe and energy leaking between parallel universes to mirror chemistry and giant viruses to "space-time tracing machines" and energy beings, all presented as boldly as if it made sense in some fashion. The plot likewise lurches from one disconnected incident to the next, as often as not strung together by the machinations of a psychic alien dog.

The Games of Neith is not a good book. In places it is eye-rollingly bad. It is certainly not the equal of Memory by Linda Nagata, a book I read a long ass time ago and also rated two stars. (If I were to read the latter fresh today, I'd probably bump it up to at least two and a half; I think I had higher expectations for mainstream sci-fi back then.) Yet Games is also not as bad as, say, The Wind Whales of Ishmael or Master of the World. Once again I must wave my hands and plea that my ratings are arbitrary and don't mean all that much in the end.

Friday, August 26, 2016

2016 read #65: Mountains of the Heart by Scott Weidensaul.

Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians by Scott Weidensaul
266 pages
Published 1994
Read from August 24 to August 26
Rating: ½ out of 5

At heart I've always considered myself a Rocky Mountains boy. Born in Ohio, a mere two generations removed from the Appalachian plateau country of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, by happenstance my consecutive, autobiographical memories began when I lived in Colorado Springs, and much of my peripatetic minor years were spent in Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana. Just the other day I was reminded of how deep this connection runs, when I heard "Rocky Mountain High" for the first time in years and felt a visceral music-memory association with being 5 or 6 years old and feeling proprietary and proud that such a classic song would be sung about my home. 

I've lived in New York a dozen years now, and have resisted any sense of feeling at home here. (I live in the dreadful suburbs of Long Island, not the city -- a crucial distinction often lost on people from outside New York.) Yet all the same, since I began hiking the mainland hills about five years back, I've developed a creeping sort of fondness for the Hudson Highlands, the Catskills, the Kittatinny Ridge of New Jersey, a sort of pride in my orographic province, a pride I've become aware of only recently. The first time I realized this pride was while watching a hiking vlogger named Red Beard enjoy the Appalachian Trail through New Jersey and New York, and in recent months, planning and sometimes even hiking my own AT adventures, I've become positively fixated on the charms of "my" modest mid-Atlantic ranges.

Scott Weidensaul is an author I've enjoyed, from the hills I've grown fond of, and once I learned he'd written a natural history of the Appalachians, it climbed to near the top of my to-read list. His Return to Wild America was a minor disappointment, but here, writing about the high country he's known his whole life, Weidensaul avoids the tedious journalistic format that dulled Return and permits his unabashed delight for the trees, the birds, and the wild spaces of his native range to warm his prose. This book makes an excellent companion to Weidensaul's The First Frontier, a speculative history of culture contact along the Eastern seaboard, and reminded me at times of Steve Nicholls' exquisite, mournful Paradise Found. They form a loose, obviously unofficial trilogy of sorts, sketching in an archaeological and biological memory-picture of the lost, pre-Columbian magnificence of the Eastern half of the continent.

Weidensaul's science is of course dated (the last two decades have seen explosive progress in the biological sciences), and also not nearly as pessimistic as more recent natural histories (the last two decades have also seen an explosion in invasive pests and diseases, exurban sprawl, climate change, and other cataclysmic alterations of the natural world). In that sense reading it now is a bit like reading Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters -- it's hard to tell just how reliable some of its assertions may be. And as with almost all other popular science books, I personally found myself bored with the inevitable beginner's level explanations of everything from plate tectonics and ice ages to Paleoindian settlement of the New World (which chapter is, as one might expect, particularly out of date). In fact the geology chapter made me wish for an entirely separate book altogether, a thorough and readable geological history of eastern North America. Geology seems even sparser on popular science shelves than the other natural sciences, which is to say almost nonexistent, so I'm probably out of luck -- but a nerd can dream.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 read #64: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
379 pages
Published 2006
Read from August 9 to August 24
Rating: ½ out of 5

I'd really hoped for a better reading pace this month. It hasn't just been the Minecraft (though there's been plenty of that); it's been difficult to find any time to read whatsoever the last couple weeks, and what little free time I have has been spent planning hypothetical future hikes and vacations and travels (or just sitting with the laptop mired in the internet, like in the old days, before I got back into reading again). And to be frank, this book didn't do its utmost to keep me turning pages.

I love Kushner's Riverside setting, its increasingly lived-in esthetic and the author's sure hand at using the mores of a fantasy fiction society to offer commentary upon our own. The narrator and the more well-developed central characters were a delight, well worth spending time around. Setting and character go a long way toward a compelling story; one might even say that the intersection of setting and character is the meat of more literary fiction, served with various saucy styles of prose. But like many of the more literary authors I've encountered, Kushner seems to have some trouble (if trouble's the word) with crafting and sustaining momentum. Much of the book is a prolonged training montage, as our hero is taken from her life as a society soon-to-be-debutante, on the whim of her uncle the Mad Duke, and at first resentfully, then increasingly delightedly, learns the art of the sword. There is not a stitch wrong with any of that -- it was all thoroughly enjoyable, a light fantasy Bildungsroman with a seemingly straightforward queer/feminist angle. The book does become more complicated, its cast exposing the tension of accepted gender norms, the various ways women and men alike are confined and embittered in Riverside society, as the plot itself takes darker turns and leads to horrible places, and that shift to multiple perspectives and multiple facets of power and identity (and the lack thereof) is when it becomes most compelling. But for its first half, Privilege is something of a lark, a swashbuckling daydream -- enjoyable, but also easy to set aside for a day or a week at a time.

Plotting is by no means an essential tool -- not all jobs are for hammers. Nonetheless, the political maneuvering and backroom treachery in all of Kushner's Riverside books (or at least the ones I've read to date) tend to feel like afterthoughts. In Swordspoint, St. Vier and Alec were the clear focus, so it is understandable that the background politicking made less of an impression. Politics were more central to The Fall of  the Kings, which made the continued interchangeability and lack of dimension of its power players more of an issue. Privilege does a better job of making its secondary characters distinctive -- I managed to keep track of almost everyone, despite taking over two weeks to finish the book -- but the plotting itself lacks a certain polish, the various threads coming together with a rather inelegant thud, so to speak.

Monday, August 8, 2016

2016 read #63: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
273 pages
Published 1982
Read from August 4 to August 8
Rating: out of 5

Another month, another exigency slowing down my reading pace. This time it's been my rediscovery of Minecraft, which I had thought I'd gotten out of my system last year. I've been playing so much Minecraft the past week or so that whenever I tried to picture this novel's generic desert scenery, I could only see square blocks of sand and pixelated brush. Prompting myself with memories of the Mojave or the Sonoran, or ransacking the cultural zeitgeist of "desert" for some Arabian or Saharan wallpaper, had no lasting effect -- the cubes could not be conquered.

The Blue Sword is another data point in my quixotic survey of fantasy fiction's transition from stale '70s sword and sorcery to the more naturalistic, somewhat less formulaic, occasionally pseudo-literary offerings of the '80s. In its opening chapters The Blue Sword shows promise; McKinley's voice hadn't yet mastered the charm and humor of Spindle's End (though glints of it brighten exchanges between Harry and Colonel Jack), or the unflinching compassion of Deerskin, but for almost the entire first half of the book, the narration is brisk and absorbing, delivering the story far more crisply than I would have expected from an early '80s YA novel (even one that netted a Newbery Honor). The early worldbuilding has a proto-steampunk feel, full of telegraphs and trains and British-y soldiers and bureaucrats and petty nobility stationed in a border outpost of a queen's expanding empire. The local culture is a less interesting affair, more of a generic "noble/magical desert tribe" extracted from Dune and any number of Lawrence-ian romances; McKinley sidesteps making them mere proxies of the mujahideen by avoiding religious trappings altogether, but doesn't provide them much cultural substance of their own. Harry is typically YA-bland, with little to distinguish or motivate her beyond an inborn craving for adventure and new horizons, ambitions quashed by her pseudo-Victorian upbringing until circumstances (and a magical kidnapping) embed her in the brotherhood of the totally-not-mujahideen (who will soon war with a behemoth army of not-quite-humans trundling in from the north). It all makes me want to read a history of the Great Game instead.

As often happens in action-driven fantasy novels, the book's momentum hits a plateau after our hero's training montage, stalling (in the sense of an airplane engine) the narrative to position her in a not particularly interesting or creative (or consistent with desert nomad culture, for that matter) fantasy palace, which sprawls across a mountaintop in unlikely spires and ridgelines of stone, before promptly abandoning that scene as if it never mattered in the first place (because it didn't). Around this point Sword loses its more forward-looking vibe and becomes a classic sword-and-sorcery number, to its detriment. The final confrontation is as generic as they come, finding Harry and her devoted band of stragglers defending a mountain pass from a vast "black army" under a laughing sadist-sorcerer, and the day is saved by the chosen one listening to her destiny and unleashing a big ol' blast o' magic at the most convenient time. Yawn.

Nonetheless, I've developed a fondness for this book and its characters -- perhaps because it took me so damn long to read the thing, but also because McKinley's human touch, though lacking its later refinement, drew me in despite the story's more dated elements.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

2016 read #62: Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul.

Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Wild Soul by Scott Weidensaul
365 pages
Published 2005
Read from July 31 to August 4
Rating: out of 5

I first encountered Scott Weidensaul in The First Frontier, an overly speculative but winsome history of early culture contact along the Eastern Seaboard. So it was something of a surprise to discover that his main line is in natural history writing; when I first found Return to Wild America on my library's scrimpy science shelves, it took me days to place Weidensaul's name. This, of course, was a couple years ago -- I put the book back after checking the jacket flap, resolved to read the original Wild America that Weidensaul was returning to first, which I only got around to doing last month.

After that long wait, and after my disappointment at finding Peterson and Fisher's Wild America to be little more than a lengthy birding checklist mixed with a '50s travelogue, I'm not surprised that Return is merely adequate. Weidensaul is a competent but uninspired writer, someone I would have appreciated a lot more before I encountered the likes of Roger Deakin, Helen Macdonald, and Robert Macfarlane. Weidensaul's chapters tend to follow a formula, opening with him either in the thick of a wildlife refuge or approaching one by air or by car, segueing into background information and a broader topic in conservation that relates to the place in question, filled in with color quotes from naturalists and refuge biologists showing him around, before hitting with the heavy shit about how the given ecosystem has been stripped and altered and despoiled, and how perilous its future prospects are.

It's basic twenty-first century nature writing with few frills, reading like a series of National Geographic articles from back when they still published articles (so, maybe the mid-1990s?). And like magazine articles, Weidensaul's chapter-essays can't escape a tendency to reduce complex issues into a couple paragraphs, summarizing details and nuance and tricky perspectives into oblivion. A self-described rural Oregon hippie I know objected to the paragraph Weidensaul devoted to the problems of thinning stands of Western timber left packed with fuel after decades of fire-suppression and forest mismanagement -- I can only imagine he waxed glib about any number of convoluted issues in other chapters.

I'm entirely on the side of conservation, myself. Edward Abbey may have been something of a jerk, but I agree with his dictum that "compromise" between development and conservation should begin with half of all the land (and sea) set aside as wilderness. So here in our latter days of armed occupation of wildlife refuges and devious boondoggles to steal our public land for the benefit of some well-placed industry cronies, Weidensaul's doom-and-gloomsaying from the Dubya era seems almost quaint, his optimism about the future of the conservation movement sadly misplaced. All nature books seemingly have to end on that note of optimism, which gets more depressing the more time has passed since some author confidently predicted that "the tide has turned" in our (and our planet's) favor.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

2016 read #61: Farmer Giles of Ham by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Farmer Giles of Ham: Ægidii Ahenobarbi Julii Agricole de Hammo Domini de Domito Aule Draconarie Comitis Regni Minimi Regis et Basilei mira facinora et mirabilis exortus, or in the vulgar tongue, The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and King of the Little Kingdom by J. R. R. Tolkien
Embellished by Pauline Diana Baynes
80 pages
Published 1949
Read July 30
Rating: ½ out of 5

A pleasant fable of faux-medieval shenanigans, anticipating the comical fantasies (and, naturally, the wordplay) of Terry Pratchett and Peter S. Beagle. I'm not sure what to add that wouldn't be mere plagiarism of the Wikipedia page; it wasn't until I read that source that I even considered the satire of class relationships inherent in the interaction of Master Giles and Chrysophylax Dives, so if I began picking into subtext now, I'd just be recycling what I just read there. As it stands, merely transcribing Tolkien's original Latin and vulgar subtitles just about doubles the length of this review. I will say it's something of a treat to read a "fresh" (to me) Tolkien free of the ponderousness of tone and worldbuilding of Middle-earth -- though, honestly, Ham strays too far toward weightlessness to linger in the mind or have remotely equivalent impact.

Friday, July 29, 2016

2016 read #60: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb
184 pages
Published 2013
Read from July 28 to July 29
Rating: ½ out of 5

So soon after declaring how glad I was to have a break from the Farseer family line, here I am again, this time with a prequel that is equal parts inessential and inoffensive. At long last the truth is revealed about the Farseer pedigree, and how "beast-magic" entered the bloodline, and while it makes for a mildly diverting little fable, the faux-historical chronicle narration leaves the tale feeling somewhat bloodless, from an emotional standpoint.