Sourcery

sourcerySourcery, Terry Pratchett

After a detour to learn about witches and spend some time with Death, Terry Pratchett returns to Rincewind and the wizards in Sourcery. A very distinct field from wizardry, mind you. It is part of the lore that that wizards must be celibate, but it has never been explained. And now we learn why—while the eighth son of an eighth son will be a powerful wizard, the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son will be something even more powerful, a sorcerer. A power that creates magic, rather than just learning of it and casting spells, and a power that will be tempted to take over the world and, according to prophecy, just might kick off the aprocaplypse. (An apocryphal apocalypse).

An eighth son of an eighth son has left he world of wizarding to go off and get married and have eight sons. As his last son is born, he cheats Death by putting himself into his son, Coin’s, staff, there to grow his son’s power, train him, and whisper into his ear about using that power to take over wizardry and the Disc.

In this, the fifth Discworld novel, Pratchett decides to listen to my earlier complaints, leave off some of the explaining and scene setting, and dive right in. Gone are the descriptions of how dawn doesn’t break but rolls leisurely around on Discworld, due to the odd effects of Magic on the Disc. The description of the Great A’Tuin is there, naturally, but without the musings about how with infinite possibilities such a world was bound to develop sometime. And, while I don’t mind some of Pratchett’s more preferred phrases being gone, I do miss some of the stories of the stranger religions and myths that are always provided as side bar in the novels.

When you’re as prolific as Pratchett, you’re bound to have a miss or two, and unfortunately, that was Sourcery. The book isn’t as fleshed out as the others, and not just in terms of the missing call-backs to how Discworld works. I didn’t quite understand why the wizards were all fighting each other, and I’m still not clear on how sorcery becomes such a problem. Or why Coin’s father became so malevolent. Or how the whole thing resolved in the end? The book flowed on quickly, and never seemed to explain itself, and I’m left rather unsatisfied with the plot itself. When I was almost to the end, I was still waiting to see when the book was going to really get started and explain itself.

Which isn’t to say it’s not a fun read. It is Pratchett, after all, who has barbarian maidens who dream of being hairdressers but are constantly compelled by their genetic calling to conduct feats of heroics instead. And the wonderful orangutan librarian, one of the great heroes of the books. The creative descriptions of the Disc and the characters keep the book moving. And Pratchett’s humorous, light writing, and delightful descriptions are always fun. Each paragraph is great to read on its own. They just never seemed to come together to make one story for this one.

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The Big Over-Easy

the+big+over+easyThe Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde

Humpty Dumpty was pushed.

Or maybe not. But the mystery of how, exactly, Humpty Dumpty came to be splattered on the bottom of that wall, and who, if anyone is responsible, is at the heart of this whodunnit from Jasper Fforde.

The Big Over Easy takes place in the same universe as the Thursday Next books, a connection which becomes clear in The Well of Lost Plots, but rather than involving tales of classic literature, this case, in the Nursery Crimes division, takes place in the world of public domain poems. Jack Spratt—whose first wife died of health complications after only eating fat—is called in to investigate the Humpty Dumpty case, with his new assistant, Mary Mary. William Winkie, whose usually up at night, is the main witness. And Humpty Dumpty lives in a crowded boarding house run by Mrs. Hubbard.

I’ve mentioned before that Fforde’s books are the type of crazy, crowded, books, with almost too many conceits going on, that they could easily become terrible, too wrapped up in their idea to be any good. But he is such a talented writer that that never happens. The world of Nursery Crimes is convoluted, to be sure, and I had to be on my toes to keep track of what was happening here. But even while fully committed to its premise, and the character we should expect of the nursery characters, The Big Over Easy also works as a proper whodunnit, a suspenseful mystery in its own right, with twists and turns that might make you need to read the book twice, but make perfect sense within the world.

The Big Over Easy is somewhat easier to follow than the Thursday Next series, even though it’s in the same world. Being fully in the Nursery Crimes city, without having to jump around to different stories, or different times, the book makes far more sense immediately upon reading, without having to keep notes like one does when first introduced to Thursday’s world.  Personally, I prefer the Thursday Next novels, with their craziness, a momentum that feels it’s always rushing forward, and the fun of trying to keep track of all the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. But these are still a blast to read, and probably a good option for anyone who enjoyed the cleverness of Thursday Next but got lost and wants to ease their way in.

And, really, anyone who likes books and nerdy sci-fi and Douglass Adams or Terry Pratchett is going to enjoy Jasper Fforde. He’s a great writer, his books are clever, and they’re littered with enough allusions, call-backs, in-jokes, and obscure references to make anyone in the know feel very smug.  He should be the first choice of nerdy English lit hipsters everywhere.

Artemis

ArtemisArtemis, Andy Weir

Artemis, Andy Weir’s second novel, takes place a little closer to home than The Martian, but not very.  The novel takes place in the first (and so far only) city on the Moon, the titular Artemis, a necessarily small society that subsists primarily on tourists. Our protagonist, Jazz, is a brilliant, stubborn 20-something woman who lives at the edge of society and dabbles in illegality, who gets pulled into one big score. It turns out to be more than she bargained for, and she’s between forces in a massive and terrifying conspiracy, and needs a band of plucky friends to save the day—you know the drill.

Artemis was an entertaining enough read, but the book doesn’t play to Weir’s strengths. The Martian didn’t have the most creative of plots—someone is trapped, others must save him—it was told in a creative way.  Weir did a massive amount of research to make (most) of the science work in The Martian and managed to make it interesting. The book was basically describing how someone else solved a massive Odyssey of the Mind puzzle, and it takes skill to make that as readable, entertaining, and fun as The Martian was. Hard science fiction is still Weir’s strong suit, and when he veers into that, discussing the mechanics of how Artemis exists, or even the combination of scientific reality and economics that made Kenya rich by building Artemis and are driving the conspiracy, are incredibly compelling.

The problem is that Weir then decides to try to make this more of a story, with a complicated plot and characters interacting with one another and all that and, well, to be generous he could use a bit more practice. The plot was sort of a standard in-over-your-head criminal type thing, which is fine, but not revelatory. And the story clearly owed a debt to several places. The plot, as mentioned, was a standard one. Much of it could have been tracked down a path on TV Tropes.*  As could the characters. And the main character, for me, got to be a bit grating. I think Mark Watney would get to be a bit much after a while, but at least we had a break from him every now and again. Jazz is the only narrator. Her voice is all we get. And it was exhausting.

And now is the point where I defend Andy Weir, even while agreeing with some of the criticism. Weir has gotten a lot of flak for the way he wrote Jazz, with people complaining that he couldn’t write a female character. Firstly, I appreciate that Weir tries to make his worlds diverse, plenty of men and women in both, and he includes multiple races and ethnicities. It might not always work, but it does feel that he is trying authentically. And I give him much credit for writing a female protagonist, something that would never even occur to a large number of male authors, especially in the sci-fi space. So major credit for that.

Then there is this. Everyone being critical of the way Weir wrote Jazz needs to recognize that Jazz is basically Mark Watney, but with a few changes. Weir is not bad at writing female characters. Weir is not great at writing characters. Period. There is no shame in this for a sci-fi writer! Asimov was one of the greats, but read anything beyond a short story and its clear his strength was science and stories, not individuals. Heinlein married a chemical engineer and was famously supportive of women’s equality and liberation, yet if you read his books you’d swear he never actually interacted with a woman. In fact, go read the classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (to which Weir clearly owes a debt, even though his moon society is quite different) and tell me any of those characters are more realistic.

Artemis isn’t as amazing as The Martian, but it was still an entertaining read and I breezed through it in the afternoon. It’s as worth your time as whatever standard action movie you were going to pick up to watch. But Weir’s talents lie in the hard science and problem solving and big picture sci-fi stuff. Here’s hoping he figures that out for book three.

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown

astoundingamazingunknownThe Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, Paul Malmont

The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown starts with what is actually a rather fascinating presence, based on a glimmer of reality. During World War II, three of the most famous authors of Golden Age science fiction—Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov—worked together at the Naval Aviation Experimental Station at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. It’s tempting to imagine what these sci-fi wonders could have accomplished, with their limitless imaginations, and what secrets may have taken place there. And that is the thread that Paul Malmont runs with.

Malmont imagines an alternative world where Tesla was able to make his death ray, hidden within Wardenclyffe Tower. The three authors, increasingly desperate to prove their worth to the navy, set off in search of the secrets of Wardenclyffe, and in a race against the Nazis, of course, with additional bumbling assistance/interference by L. Ron Hubbard. The book also practically serves as a tutorial on golden age sci-fi, and full of in-jokes and allusions for those who know. The title itself is a reference to the three main pulp magazines at the time, and it’s full of cameo appearances by other authors. At one point Heinlein mutters “So it goes,” while reading, then hands a stack of articles to a young recruit named Kurt for reading material on the train. Hubbard spends time in a boat with “Herbie” (Herbert) who has been at sea for too long and dreams of an endless dry desert.

The Astounding has what should be a clever set up, at Malmont has, obviously, a great love for the era of science fiction and an encyclopedic knowledge of the authors. Despite all of that, though, the book just doesn’t work. For one thing, the plot is slow-moving and meandering. It didn’t really hold my interest, and there so many separate threads it was hard to keep track of what was supposed to be happening at any one time. For another, the characters are impossible to identify with. Malmont clearly wants to humanize these authors, pulling is many separate threads from their lives, and introducing us to their homes and families. (There’s even one almost painful scene of a young Isaac Asimov having sex with his new wife on the roof of her parents’ apartment building. Particularly awkward because I cannot imagine a young Isaac Asimov. Did he still have his bolo tie?) Despite that, though, they all come off as caricatures of themselves, and we are reminded far too often of their work, past and future. Oddly enough the only one who seemed ‘real’ in the story was L. Ron Hubbard, probably because in life he was a caricature already.

It’s always sad to me when a book with promise never comes together, and this one in particularly felt like a lost opportunity. It did, however, remind me of some of the completely insane stories that are hidden in the world of World War II. The short story that predicted the atomic bomb. The complete insanity of Jack Parsons weird sex-and-black-magic cult. And, in general, the amazing research and seemingly limitless potential of science that existed at this time, with anything seeming to be possible now that we’d conquered the atom. Not to mention it helped me recall some authors I haven’t read in quite a while. So while I wouldn’t recommend the book itself, you might want to check out the appendix. You’re bound to find something good there.

 

Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, in establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McAphee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know exactly what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As the Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need. 

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Browers Time. 

Brower during his time. He pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)

 

In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower

Legend of Sleepy Hollow

legend of sleepy hollowLegend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Washington Irving

There is a part in the Sketch Book, at the end of a short story, “A Christmas Dinner”, where Irving reflects that these small reflections may not have enough to offer, and may not be serious enough.  They are not, after all, full of deep philosophy or new knowledge or serious thoughts and prescriptions for the way we live. He answers his imagined critics, “[I]n writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil can be in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow beings and himself sure, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.” And, all I could think was, “God bless you, Washington Irving.” Friends, after reading Gulliver’s Travels and reports on climate change, after listening to current event podcasts and attending lobby events for immigrants and refugees, this book was exactly what I needed.

Despite the titular story, probably the most famous of Irving’s, this is much more Sketch Book than Sleepy Hollow. There are a handful of tall tales, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Specter Bridegroom”, but the others portions of the book are almost entirely Irving’s thoughts on regular events, slices of life he’s seen, personal stories he heard in the country, thoughts on the tourist sites of England, and other sketches as they’ve come to him. They are, by and large, enjoyable, and it would be difficult to find an author with an outlook more opposed to that of Swift. Irving relays syrupy tales of filial piety and parental love he hears in the country with barely a question of veracity. In his report of touring Stratford on Avon, as well as other parts of London, he responds to a difficult-to-believe tale by saying, “I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics, legends and local anecdotes…and would advise all travelers who travel for their gratification to be the same.” It is obvious that Irving did not have even a whiff of cynicism about him, and would not have known what to do with such a feeling if he encountered it. Probably feel only pity for the person and then go on his merry way.

While much of Sketch Book is only tall tales Irving has written, or his enjoyable thoughts as he travels, there are a few points of seriousness, despite Irving’s protestations to the contrary. He has two essays on Native Americans, one talking about some of the heroes among the Native tribes, another reflecting on the plight of the Native Americans and the wrongs that have been done them. In discussing some of the heroes, heroes who fought the white colonists, Irving specifically mentions that many would prefer to think that these heroics, that bravery, family, and other such characteristics don’t exist among the tribe to better justify our mistreatment, but can any of us really say that this is the truth? Or that any of the settlers wouldn’t react the same say if someone came to their home? These, too, are not cynical, but rather lovingly written essays and entreaties to one’s better nature. And they serve as a reminder that in times of social sin, those who can accept the status quo—or even engage in the evil around us—would have everyone believe that ‘everyone’ feels the same, that respecting the rights of others or the existence of other races was never even an option, never discussed. But that is not the case. There are always those calling for the right thing to be done, in any age, and here is a record that even in the 1800s there were people, people who were hardly radicals, calling for respect for the Native American tribes.

Naturally, given my other reading materials, this is the sort of essay I tended to zero in on and meditate on, that most stuck with me for later. But while these essays were welcome and moving additions, by far the greater part of the book are the simpler sketches, the celebrations of ordinary life, of small acts of kindness and generosity, of the minor joys one can receive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, and even in its more serious sections radiated a benevolent view of human nature, a hope to appeal to our better natures, and a desire to “penetrate through the gathering film of nature.” I think we could all do with reading this book right now.

The Sixth Extinction

the-sixth-extinctionThe Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Based on all that we’ve been able to determine, the universe likes things to be fairly stable. There’s the occasional dramatic explosion from a supernova or galactic collision, but the are exceedingly rare, with galaxies and stars and solar systems and comets drifting around for billions or years more or less unchanged. While on a much faster time scale, life on Earth is also predicated on stability and predictability. Each organism on Earth more or less knows that challenges they’ll face from day to day—how they need to eat, what will be trying to eat them, what the air they breathe is like, etc. Every now and then a random genetic mutation turns up a better way to do things, or an earthquake separates two sides of a pond, and we eventually get a new species out of it. Even more rarely, a struggling species can’t compete with the new one, or their smaller pond, and a species winks out of existence. But this is rare, and mostly, there is a balance. But every now and then, something happens. A wobble brings us further from the sun or the main continent drifts too far south and the temperature change wipes out much of nascent life. A new group of organisms changes the chemical composition of the air and makes it toxic. A miles-wide asteroid hits the planet. And in that moment, everything changes. Thousands of species, genera, and whole families disappear, and with them entire ecosystems that seemed they would be there forever.

There have been five such major extinctions in the past. Under normal circumstances, the background extinction rate is roughly one extinction per million species years. So, for every million species, around 1 would go extinct each year. Families go extinct even more rarely. But under a major extinction event, over a period of thousands of years we’ll lose 70% or more of species, and up to 30% of families. By many measures, we are in another major extinction event right now, one that we ourselves are causing.

The reasons for the sixth extinction, which Elizabeth Kolbert outlines in painstaking, highly readable, and incredibly despairing detail, are many. Part of it is how easily we transport new fungus and bacteria from one place to the next. The fungus killing off bats through white-nose syndrome was most likely imported to the US from Europe. It’s wiped out up to 90% of the bat colonies in some areas and is threatening more than one previously common species with extinction.  Part of it is what we do on purpose—there is debate, but it seems likely we at the least contributed to the megafauna extinction thousands of years ago. Part of the extinction is habitat destruction. And some is the massive amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Climate change is a threat—and the likely cause of at least two previous major extinctions, when the climate changed more slowly than it is today—as is simply the increase in carbon and ocean acidification. It seems likely that at the rate the carbon is increasing in the ocean, coral simply won’t be able to form, well, coral. Even if the temperature doesn’t go up at all from where it is now.

This book wonderfully lays out a history of taxonomy, of the study of extinctions and evolution, changing views and knowledge of mass extinctions, and what we are seeing today. Each day we see evidence of the sixth extinction all around us, in animals and plants we no longer see out our window or find when fishing or hunting, and in the endless headlines of threats to different plants and animals. And yet seeing it all laid out so clearly is harrowing. Kolbert ends with a call to action, the last chapter is titled “The Thing with Feathers.” She clearly has to write this; this book is meant to be more than a witness and a eulogy to the world around us. And yet, even as an activist, it is increasingly difficult not to see how much climate change and species loss has already happened, and how much is still baked into the cake, so to see. It is frightening for me to contemplate what the future looks like for my children. And so difficult not to go through my days crying when I realize it is highlight likely that the coral reefs will be gone within my life time.

And yet I would still say to read this book. Kolbert has done a service to the world in writing it and creating a document that even a lay person can understand. Read the book and take action. Let us limit the destruction as much as we can. The sticker on my laptop says, “We need everyone everywhere doing everything all the time as quickly as possible.” Take it to heart; it’s the only way to save a recognizable world for our children.