Wednesday, March 18, 2020

DOW Breaks 20,000!

I stopped doing this a while back. I had a couple reasons. One was that it was pretty much the same report every time - the market would zoom up or notch back on the what seemed to be the weakest of reasons, and had little enough connections with the functioning of main street, much less Wall Street. We would hit another milestone, the confetti and balloons would drop from the ceiling, some supposed sage heads would tut-tut about a coming "correction" and thing would just go on.

Another reason was the swings have become much more dramatic over time. When I started this, a market surge or drop of 500 points was worth noting. In the past few years, it has become common, and the market extremely volatile, even though it has continued to maintain the upward trend of the past twelve years.

In the past two weeks, that has changed dramatically, and with the arrival of COVID-19, we have gone into a tailspin. Part of it is that at the federal level, we have had a horrible response to the disease, engendering panic in a market that sustains itself on continual growth and good news. But also, at the federal level, we have a pretty empty quiver when it comes to how to handle such an economic situation. We have already given out huge tax cuts (which a lot of firms used to buy back their own stock, a tactic that will someday be taught as being as stupid as buying on margin in 1929). We have already bailed out parts of the economy affected by our bone-headed trade wars. And reducing the lending rate to practically zero only bought us a one-day reprieve before panic has taken hold again and sent us to the present state. For an administration that has used the success of the stock market to offset its own nepotism, incompetency, maliciousness, and authoritarianism, to suddenly have that single aspect of slightly-warped good economic news tank puts them behind the proverbial eight-ball.

The good news (such as it is) is that in the face of the abrogation of federal responsibility, the states and the very corporations that make up the DOW have been stepping up. Washington State has been working to cushion the medical and economic effects of this virus, and has pushed hard for preventive measures to avoid overloading our health care system. Its leaders have been leading, not denying. The state government has put aside funds in a "rainy day" account, and now we are looking a deluge. 

Large corporations have sent their people home to work where they can, and in addition many have seen to help out those small businesses that rely on them and their workers to make their own rent. Small ones have been struggling to keep its workforce paid as their industries are idled.Yes, this is in part enlightened self-interest, in that if everyone gets sick, no one will show up for work, but also in reacting to a this developing threat with positive answers. And lesy you think I have a soft spot for corporations now, there are more than enough mutton-heads in the business community to balance this out.

I have no idea where this goes next. Do we continue the plunge that has wiped out all of the gains since the last inauguration?  Do we suddenly see a rally as the ever-spooked market sees actual improvements in fighting the disease? Will the COVID-19 novel corona virus fizzle out, like SARS did? Will it return in waves, like the Spanish Influenza did a hundred years ago? Is this the newest normal? Regardless, look to the markets as reactive as opposed to determinate, as permanent as a spring breeze, and as reliable as a Facebook meme.

I don't know if I will return to tracking the market. Maybe if it hits 30k again.

More later,

Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Political Desk: Prez Prime Pop-up

Wait a minute, didn't I just VOTE a couple weeks ago?

Yes, yes, I did. And for those keeping score, the Levy for the Kent schools passed, and Chris Porter, beekeeper, got the seat. About ten years ago, only about 4000 people voted in the election, which was generally regarded as dismal and a failure. This time, with the addition of phone tech, they had 6000 people, which was ... still dismal, but improving. Here are some details (Nothing on the KCCD's own site, mind you).

Anyway, no sooner has the dust settled on these minor (minor) elections, then we launch into the March 10th presidential election. And the election book has arrived, with a host of Democrats and one short-fingered vulgarian (one of my favorite ancient insults) running for the GOP. Lemme make some notes here.

All the people running for president on the Democratic party side would make damned fine vice-presidents, including the one that was PREVIOUSLY a Vice President.

Because there is only one candidate on the GOP side of ballot, will there be mischief in Reps voting for Democrats? OF COURSE there will be. The Republicans will want the most beatable Democrat to face off with. The only problem is that every Republican has a different idea of who the most beatable Democrat would be. So it will pretty much spread out.

Will the shooting be over by then? Unlikely. Super Tuesday gets lodged in this week, and that may decide it, but that's unlikely as various candidates get a chunk of the proceedings to render the entire proceedings moot. Similarly, the Washington Primary will not likely get a winner.

This is a real presidential primary, and everyone talks about how this year is a real presidential primary that counts. Previously it had been a toothless beauty contest, the delegates the conventions really selected by caucus, a elbow-throwing political affair for those with the time to engage in it. Democracy, red in tooth and claw. This is an real election, but it comes with an added cost. To vote as a Democrat, you have to declare you're a Democrat, at least for this election. That becomes a part of the public record, and can be accessed by others, including the Democratic party. So if you're a Republican, making trouble in the Democratic primary comes with it a price that you will suddenly get Democrat mailers and phone solicitations. Just warning.

That cuts the other direction, too. The Republican Secretary of State is actually NOT VOTING in the primary, because she would have to publicly declare she was a Republican, and the only Rep on the ballot is Trump. And as the highest-ranking member of the GOP in this state, she really, really, doesn't want to tie herself to that particular anchor.

Now, I'm voting Democratic (quelle surprise!), and have to say from the get-go that I quickly came to conclusion (when there were 20+candidates) that any of them would make a damned fine veep. Yes, including the one with the crystals. Yes, including the one that was a Republican a few years back (The Democratic party is so big-tent they will let Republicans in!). And from there it was a simple realization that, despite all the mud that will be churned up, any one of them would be an improvement over the current squatter the Oval Office right now.  So here's a quick run-down for me.

Michael Bennet - Dropped out. Better than Trump.

Joseph R Biden - Still has the keys from the White House he forgot to return four years ago. Played rascally Uncle Joe to Obama. Current administration really, really wants to gin up a case against him. Better than Trump.

Michael Bloomberg - Billionaire. I mean, real billionaire, as opposed to the multiple bankruptcy guy we have. Has the benefit of representing the class that Trump REALLY wants to like him, but will never like him. Better than Trump.

Cory Booker - Dropped out. Better than Trump.

Pete Buttigieg - Conservative in the way Democrats can be conservative. Young, has more governing experience than the current guy. Better than Trump. [Annnndd ... dropped out].

John Delany - Dropped out. Better than Trump.

Tulsi Gabbard - Dropped out. Better than Trump.

Amy Klobuchar - The Seattle Times likes her. That may or may not make up your mind on her. Still better than Trump.

Deval Patrick - Dropped out. Better than Trump.

Bernie Sanders - He has put in the years, walked the walk, stated out the left of the left wing. Has supporters almost as crazy as Trump's. They're better than Trump. So is he. I like him, but he's not my first choice.

Tom Steyer - The forgotten billionaire. He's also been buying ads during football games. Supports progressive causes. I like him, and am kind of disappointed that he didn't get more traction. What is it, you have be a bozo, a billionaire, AND a New Yorker? Needless to say, much better than Trump. {while writing this, he has dropped out. Still better than Trump.)

Elizabeth Warren - This is my blog, so I have to call it for Ms. Warren. I like here message, I like her background,. I like the way she fights. I will be honest, I am at heart an eat-you-vegetables kind of Democrat. I grumble but I recycle. I complain about taxes but want to make things better for everyone,. I honestly like smart people. So that's what I'm doing - you can do as you see fit, and I'll still like you. And she is so, so, so much better than Trump.

Andrew Yang - Liked him as well. Dropped out. Of course, better than Trump.

So, All of these are capable people. They have experience. They have smarts. Whoever gets the nod will come under fire by the vilest parts of the Trump Party (the Republicans have pretty much ceased to exist except as a venue for graft and corruption). So let's pick the fighters. I'm going with Elizabeth Warren.

More later,

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Theatre: A Very British Meltdown

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Tim Bond, Seattle Rep through 15 March.

OK, this is more like it.

 After the wallowing in Toxic Masculinity portrayed in True West, I will admit to being chary about the current season, and what little I knew of The Children gave me pause. I usually go into plays with a bare minimum of prep and preconceptions, but the poster (shown here) of a nasty looking gas mask prepared me for a painful confrontation with our ongoing climate catastrophe.

And it is, but is also an excellent play of relationships and intelligence and responsibility. Well-written, well-produced, and well-acted, it was a tonic to True West and its ilk, and while not something I would insist you go out and see (Hey, Kids! Want to hear about a nuclear meltdown?), it was a rewarding afternoon at the theater.

Here's the skinny - a Fukushima-level nuclear accident occurs on the coast of Britain, with similar results of an exclusion zone hugging deadly levels of  radiation. Still life goes on (Hello, jackpot!).
Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (the stalwart R. Hamilton Wright) have retreated to a cottage outside the zone, where no-nonsense Hazel keeps the household running while adventurous Robin goes back into the zone to tend to the cows they left behind during the evacuation.  Then Rose (Carmen Roman), an old colleague, shows up unannounced for a visit. And Hazel punches her in the nose. Accidentally.

And, what is not made clear at the get-go, but soon becomes clear, is that all three are former engineers at that plant, retired before the entire meltdown. Hazel thinks they earned their retirement, even given the discomfort of a glowing nuclear core a few miles away. Robin is a bit more adventurous. And Rose? Well, the play does take its time in explaining why Rose is back and what she wants, but she gets there in the end and kicks off the finale.

And the thing that impressed me in all this is that Kirkwood wrote these three characters as both smart people and as friends. That's tough. Making them smart without chipping off and likability or humanity, making them friends without shying away from their own secrets and indiscretions. They mock and entertain each other throughout. Hazel and Robin are Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe if Martha and George actually liked each other and weren't such utter a-holes. (And yeah, WAoVW seems to haunt every play these days, either by similarity or difference). They can be nasty to each other in that very British way that radiates affection. And in their banter, Kirkwood gives her characters a sense of reality and reliability I haven't seen elsewhere.

The acting is top-notch as well. Wright is the Rep Veteran who has been in more than 50 productions, and who I've mentioned before. Paulsen takes the tough road of being the stable, sane center, to the point of being pedantic and unbending, and still makes her accessible. And Roman is cat-like Rose with her secrets and strength, and yes, sinister in places (Hazel makes the comment), And still they are friends at the end of it, and yeah, transformed in the process.

A good play, a solid piece of theater, and while realistic in its threats, redeeming in its characters. Touchy subject matter, but that's the sort of thing that theater needs to do sometimes. Nicely done.

More later,

[Oh, a program note - there will be no review of Jitney, the next one up on the Rep's list. I will be otherwise engaged and the Lovely Bride and I have seen a Rep production of it earlier - We have been in Seattle long enough that we are now doubling up on our August Wilson plays. Gave the tickets away to a friend, but there will be no review here.]

Monday, February 17, 2020

Books: God Mode

Agency by William Gibson, Berkley Books, 2020

Provenance: This is a book I was looking forward to, and when I found myself in New York City for a recording session, took the A train down to the Strand in the Village to pick up a copy. And they had none (though they would be happy to order on, their initial shipment having sold out). I picked up a couple Nero Wolfe books I had been missing (so it wasn't a total loss), and the next day picked up the sole copy left on the shelf at a local Barnes and Nobel, confidant that I had the last copy available south of 37th Street. Now, I don't expect bookstores to warehouse EVERYTHING, but it a good clue that they under-ordered this particular book, sending people to the on-line versions.

Review: This is a Bill Gibson novel, and has the hallmarks of previous Bill Gibson novels. Powerful AI? Check. Criminal mob operating in the background? Check. A lot of running around by the protagonist? Check. Cool use of tech? Cool use of tech assumed as normal and therefore not explained? Check. So put this one down as comfort food - you know what you are getting.

But what this book does well is in the "William Gibson Phone Call", which is a phrase I conjured for that last chapter, where someone, somewhere, calls in and explains what was going on while your protagonists, with their limited viewpoints, were busy in the novel itself. It is here, but slightly subverted, in that it literally happens with a phone call under a table, but you are actually well-prepared for it. It becomes a summing up as opposed to a surprise. That worked.

But let me give you a quick summary. Verity James (an "app-listener" - it IS explained) is given a new product to playtest. Said project is Eunice, an AI that attains consciousness frightening fast, creates packets (like in the internet) that are going around doing things, allowing her to multitask. The company that gave Eunice to Verity realizes they have uncorked a genie and try to stuff it back in the bottle. Verity goes on the run, helped by an ad hoc team of makers, millionaires, and agents from an alternate Earth.

Right. Alternate Earth. This is the sequel to Periphery, set in the same meta-universe with some of the same characters. Verity's Earth is, well, not quite an alternate timeline, but a "stub" created of the main timeline from about 150 years after the setting in 2018. The main stub sounds like our timeline, but because of earlier meddling, Verity's has some differences - Clinton won in 2016, the Brexit vote failed, and Notre Dame did not catch fire. Probably Harambe the Gorilla is still alive. But everyone there is tense and freaked out anyway, because Verity's Earth is also heading for nuclear war. The gang from the first novel (both from the "future" stub and from a previous stub) help Verity and Eunice in their world.

And the repercussions of this set-up is still in the works. First off, no one we've met knows exactly the science behind the stubs - they may be Chinese, but maybe not. One character seems offers that it is a colonization effort to some degree (though physical objects don't move between stubs, information and telepresence does). And the more advanced main universe (defining itself as being the group that creates stubs, and no one else can, because reasons) is meddling with other universes - benevolently in the case of this particular bunch, less-so in other cases. I am still waiting for the payoff of this last one.

 What I do get is a better handle of some of the other things going on. Gibson is very light on the expository dialogue ("Well, Bob, as you know..."), so you get everything in bits. The Mainline is set after "the jackpot", an extinction-level event that kills 80% of humanity and most of the other vertebrate life forms. Now, earlier SF was big on the sudden nuclear attack/killer snowstorm/pandemic that suddenly changes everything. The jackpot is just a series of catastrophes that wipes out large chunks of the population, but nothing delivering the killer blow. Given that we've had a pandemic, wildfires in Australia, the final Brexit the impeachment of a president and a cyclone hitting Iceland just since the beginning of the year, I tend to feel this jackpot is about right for the end of the world as we know it.

Because it is a slow apocalypse, unevenly distributed, the mainline universe gets a chance to develop tech to, if not fix everything (There is a big garbage patch in the Pacific, big cleaning airstacks dominate London), but to mitigate the damage somewhat. They have assembler and nanotech and AIs and a lot of bots (we wipe out 80% of the population, the lower working classes are filled with imitation humans of various degrees - because we get lonely). The true 1% (mostly criminal, mostly corrupt, often Russian) is still there as the klepts, sorta the secret masters of the surviving world, who are kept in general check to keep them from screwing everything up again.

As noted above, I was reading this book in NYC and on the plane ride home, alternating it with an Ellis Peters mystery set in the Middle Ages. The difference between the styles was a bit of a whipsaw - Gibson's sparse writing style (I finished many short chapters wondering "what have I learned here?") against Peters more opaque language of the assumed middle ages (going to the dictionary to look up psalter and brychan).  Yet both have their own rewards, and Gibson's very shortness telegraphs home his events.

Ultimately, I want some answers, and, these being Gibson books, I don't know if I'm ultimately going to get them. That's OK - we are along for the ride, and it's a pretty good ride.

More later.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Political Desk - Tale of Two Ballots

So this Tuesday (the 11th of February), I am voting in two different elections with different methodologies. One of them has gotten a little more attention.

The first is a financial issue for Kent School Districts, To be exact, it is the Kent School District No. 415, Proposition No. 1 - Replacement of Expiring Educational Programs and Operations Levy. It is a levy, put on your property taxes and based on how much your property is valued at. It is a levy, and by law it required a simple majority to pass. A BOND, on the other hand, would require a supermajority of 60% (just in case that comes up in conversation).

As noted, this is a replacement of existing levy that has run its course, and now the schools have to go back and double check if paying for your kid's education is cool with you. And yes, having seen a lot of the kids (and adults) in Seattle, I am all in favor of making them as smart as possible. So I went with YES on this, and mailed it in a few weeks back.

And yeah, I mailed it in. We have paper ballots as a thing here in Washington State. When we first moved out here, we had polling stations where you would go and ... fill out a paper ballot, that would then be shot through a counting device, the physical ballot put aside in case of a recount, and you go on your way. But it would mean you'd have to get to the polling station in a timely fashion (ours was at a local elementary school, staffed by volunteers) to vote, but it wasn't bad at all (I was usually Voter 9 on the list).

Now, you vote in the comfort of your own home, you get to check out the issues for bigger stuff, and you mail it in. And THEN it gets shot through the counting device and kept aside for later. And because I am old and remember stories of bags of votes suddenly going missing before they are counter, I always go down to one of the handy drop-off locations as opposed to mailing it (even though you no longer have to use a stamp to mail it).

And to be honest, it feels pretty secure. I am sure that someone can mess with the counters, or steal a drop-off box, but in general it feels right.

Then there is the other election, which has gotten a lot more attention because it is voting on-line. This is for the King County Conservation District, a state-authorized nonprofit which provides information and technical assistance to landowners in managing natural resources, including water, wetlands, and land use. It doesn't have any authority as far as I can tell, but does sponsor a lot of volunteer clean-ups, water testing, and awareness. Good works, in other words. But perhaps because it is not part of the government (other than being authorized by it), it is not part of the ballot process, so has had to fend for itself.

It is NOT part of usual election process run under our Secretary of State, so if you hate all this, don't yell at her. Not her idea. It is using the drop-off booths and apparently the format and counters, so there is similarity, but as an election for a nonprofit, it is not her department.

I did vote in this election about ten years ago, and my experiences are here. It was interesting, but, yeah, I can see the problem similar to one back when we had voting stations on election day - only those people who could show up got to vote. But the cost of putting stuff on the regular ballot would stress out the nonprofit, so they could not upgrade to the standard format. So, they are experimenting with on-line

But it is on-line, so I took ten minutes to read my way through it, checked out the candidate statements (which is about all I know of them) and made my choice. Both candidates looked good, but I went with Stephen Carl ("Dutch") Deutschman over Chris Porter, though I really liked what Mr. Porter was saying about bees.

And it felt - weird. I mean, I'm doing the same thing at home as I'm doing with a paper ballot, but it still felt a little disjointed. I am feeding information into a counter, but suddenly I don't quite trust that counter. But as I'm doing so, I'm thinking about how to game the system. The Lovely Bride won't vote in this (probably), so what's to keep me from just using her name, birthdate, and email address to get an extra vote (I mean, besides my scrupulous morals)? And yet, if it were a paper ballot, I could do the same thing, but it doesn't really occur to me (both paper and website used electronic signatures, which means you had to move your mouse around like it was a pen, which it does not do). So suddenly I'm concerned about security.

Maybe I'm just really getting old, but I don't particularly trust it. Mind you, I COULD still go down to the King Conservation District's Office, at 800 SW 39th St, Suite 150 (or as locals would say "Just up the street from the IKEA") if you want the old-school vibe of actually voting as an event. So ion-line voting has the advantage of ease of use (it has taken longer to check my facts and write all this up than it took to vote). But the main result of all this will be to check out how many people actually voted here. It has been around 4000/year for all the time I've been checking, so this is something to look at.

Oh, yes, the link if you want to vote, is here. If you're a registered voter in the district, go check it out.

More later,

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Book: Four of the Three Musketeers

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas, Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2019

Provenance: Christmas present from the Lovely Bride. I had read the predecessor book, The Red Sphinx (written later, but inserted into its proper place in the timeline canon - Hey, if you can sort out all the Star Wars films, you can handle that). It is part of taking The Three Musketeers and turning it into its own Expanded Universe.

Review: Let me give you the bad news first - this is not the complete novel of Twenty Years Later. It is about half of it, setting up all the pieces and sending its characters all over the place and setting up (hopefully) threads that will resolve themselves later. The publisher does not do a very good job indicating this, other than a mention in the Editor/Translator's intro and the sudden announcement at the last chapter that "The Story Continues in Book Four - The Son of Milady").

And you know what, that's OK. Dumas originally serialized these stories in Parisian Newspaper, Le Siecle - The Age), So the initial assemblage was of a thing of pieces. And, given its serialized origin, the final work is sprawling and over-sized - this first half of the story runs about 450 pages, including front and back matter, and a complete version might be larger than the doorstop that was the Red Sphinx.

The original Three Musketeers was a smash hit, yet when the sequel showed up, it was a bit puzzling. Instead of picking up with our heroes immediately, Dumas went, well ... 20 years after. That's a easy thing to do when you're doing historical fiction, since you have the general gist of things, though Dumas played fast and loose with the timing of historical events and the ages of the characters through-out (His audience did not have a Wikipedia to check things, and an Internet upon which to complain about them).

So. twenty years after the events in the first book.The band of Inseparables has separated. D'Artagnan is still with the King's Musketeers, but Aramis has become a priest, Porthos married into the landed gentry, and Athos is a Count as well. King Louis XIII is dead, and the Prince, to be Louis XIV (The Sun King) has not yet attained his majority. Cardinal Richelieu is no more, and his replacement is Cardinal Mazarin, more of a greedy bumbler who makes the previous Cardinal look more godlike (as noted elsewhere, Dumas really liked Richelieu, though most American versions present him as a bad guy).

Mazarin summons D'Artagnan to put the band back together to deal with a would-be rebellion from the nobles and bourgeois. This rebellion, known as the Fronde because of the slings used by the rebels, was centered on the bourgeois and bureaucracy, but supported by the more powerful nobles and the usual suspects of other potential heirs to the throne. D'Artagnan accepts, but discovers that not all is well with his former comrades. Aramis, now a priest, is on the side of the Frondeurs, and is sleeping with one of the ring-leaders. Porthos has land but no respect from the other gentry, and wishes to become a Baron. Athos, previously known as a drinker and a cynic, has cleaned up his act and dotes on his young protege, who is not-so-secretly (because everyone except the young man realizes it) is Athos' illegitimate son (through a turn of events which is pretty damned wacky).

And that son, Raoul, quickly takes over the book. D'Artagnan disappears for about 100 pages towards the end of this installment, and his absence is not noticed, as the pages are filled with other characters. The former servants are back, now in different ranks and lives since 20 years ago. Raoul gets a traveling companion of similar status in the Comte de Guiche. And the son of Milady, Mordaunt, comes into play as the chief bad guy, in the service of Oliver Cromwell (England is having a Civil War as well at this time, though bloodier). This half of the book ends with Athos and Aramis heading for England with Lord Winter (brother of Milady's second husband) to help Charles II while Mordaunt taunts them from the jetty.

What I find interesting is that, with age, the Inseparables are plagued by their doubts. They have been on the wrong side of history before, aiding the Queen and opposed to the King in the matter of the Queen's Necklace, and now they must admit that Richelieu was a great man (even if they opposed him years before). And their trial and execution of Milady at the end of The Three Musketeers is coming back to haunt them in the form of her child, who is evil, but evil-with-a-justification.

The text is lively and engaging and captures the swashbuckling nature.  Ellsworth de-bowdlerizes earlier translations of the Dumas text, and restores a "lost chapter", which features none of the main characters, but rather a member of the Frondeurs that is almost ridden down in the streets by D'Artagnan. Said mild-mannered revolutionary goes home, but the result of his encounter brings a mob of supporters and more and more powerful visitors (with their attendent doctors) to his house, resulting in an aristo version of the stateroom scene from A Night A The Opera. And it is the little bits like this - the dinners and the conversations and the small scenes, that really move the plot along nicely.

So, yeah, half an oeuvre is better than none, and I look forward to the resolution of this translation. Yeah, I can get it in more complete(ish) form elsewhere, but I will wait for this one.

More later,

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Theatre: Who's Afraid of the Toxic Male?

True West by Sam Shepard, Directed by Braden Abraham, through Feb 16

Well, that was cringeworthy.

I really want to just leave it there with a Twitter-friendly put-down, but I can't. True West is one of those plays that makes me question if I am capable of understanding theater, or at rather theatre. You've seen me tilt at this particular windmill before - plays that are Pulitzer-nominated (like this one) or Pulitzer-awarded that just leave me scratching my head and asking "Why this one?" What makes this a brilliant play? Why do people like this?

Because I'm not getting it.

Here's the shuffle and deal - Austin, a screenwriter (yes, it's another damned play involving a writer), is house-sitting for his Mom while he's in LA to do a deal on his new project. His older brother Lee, a drifter and petty thief, arrives. They don't like each other. Lee gets the movie deal with a horrible but earnest idea and a lot of BS. Austin is broken by this turn of events. By the time Mom gets home, they have trashed the place with their arguing, which turns violent. Toast is involved.

It IS billed as a comedy. which means it has funny moments. But a lot of them are that "uncomfortable funny" of personal humiliation.

Lee is a bully and a thief. Austin is a milksop. The first act is pretty much Lee abusing Austin verbally and Austin just taking it. Then in the second act, after Austin breaks, he gets to turn on Lee, who, while he can hustle a deal, can't really write. The play consists of looping arguments that don't seem to go anywhere, except to provide ammo for future arguments.

And the set is a well-appointed Southern Cali bungalow with a too-big kitchen. Which gets trashed.

It is a play that uses a lot of blank space. Conversations are cut off or just trail off. Lots of pregnant pauses. Blackouts to show there has been time passed. At intermission, the lights came up, and no one in the audience moved. There was nothing to build to that moment to cue them. No cliffhanger. No rising tension. No indication that now is the time you should go urinate.

And in the end, there is no resolution, just another blackout. The play could have ended five minutes earlier or five minutes later. It doesn't matter. It is a comedy in that funny things happen. Not a comedy is that it doesn't have a positive outcome. The Revolutionists was a curious play for me that redeemed itself in the last 15 minutes. This one, not so much. And it left me angry.

The Lovely Bride and I don't share our views usually right after the play, instead walking to the car and making small talk (we have voiced opinions publicly before, and had strangers join the conversation to argue with us). This time was particularly frosty because the play was just upsetting for no good reason. Two hours of toxic masculinity that makes you want to slap the protagonists with a golf club by the end and yell at poor drivers on the way home. No lessons learned, no larger point made.

The Lovely Bride and I came home and she made toast. So there's that.

More later,

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Theatre: Olden Girls

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Kelly Kitchens, Arts West, through 9 February

Olympe de Gouges is a playwright in Revolutionary Paris of 1793. She is visited by Marianne Anglie is a free black woman woman from the San Domingo. She wants Olympe to write pamphlets to help the revolution there. Charolette Corday arrives, an assassin in waiting. She wants Olympe to give her some final words to say after she kills the Jacobin revolutionary Murat. Then Marie-Antoinette shows up looking for a rewrite on her role in history. But Olympe has writer's block.

And there is a fifth woman here, and she is Madame Guillotine. The Terror is in full swing, reaching that tipping point to where anyone, anywhere, could feel her cold sharp kiss. And for women the danger is particularly high.

So, its a comedy. Kind of. The women argue. They joke. They try to help Olympe. They make demands. And for the bulk of the play, it all feels pretty off-balance. The characters feel like they are talking through each other as opposed to each other. the language is modern and so is the cursing. They talk like they know they are characters in a play. And I can't really pin down what this is - Historical? Alt-historical? Meta-theatre? Are these characters or ideals in conflict? Am I entirely inside someone's head? If so, who?

The actors are good. Sunam Ellis  is Olympe de Gouges, a bit too flighty and vain for my tastes, but that's how I feel about writers in plays. Jonelle Jordan is Charolette Corday, the emotional one, and her emotion is murder (She was in Bo-Nita, at the Rep, and can carry herself well on stage).. Hannah Mootz is Marie-Antoinette, the ditsy one that can come up with inadvertent truths. Dedra D. Woods is Marianne Anglie,. who of the four is the voice of reason. Yes, they could have stepped out of a mid-eighties sitcom, and the oddball relationship kinda work most of the time.

But joking about experimental theatre doesn't quite work, even ironically, when it feels like you're doing experimental theatre. Ditto complaining about plays about playwrights when you have a play about playwright. I had a hard time engaging, and as it all muddled in the middle, caught between gears. There were couples dodging out the back door at the intermission. Which was really a pity.

Because in the last 15 minutes, all became clear. All the chatter before is set-up, as they pay off all the odd quartet and characters and resolve everything in something that is really moving and aspiring. When you get it, you get it, and understand why everything feels so disjointed. And you feel sorry for those people who bailed early. Still, it is a bit of chug for a while.I found it ultimately OK, but the journey took a while.

Now, the Honesty In Relationships Act of 1962 demands that I note that this point that the Lovely Bride disagrees with me on this. She thought it was great. She liked the actors, the plot and how it all fit together. She laughed, she cried, she internalized. So this one comes with a healthy and hearty "Your mileage may vary". I gave it a good, solid B. She gave it an A. Go find out for yourself. Don't leave at intermission.

More later,

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Long Time Ago ....

With this entry I am at the end of big pile of books the end of my desk. In the process, however, in the process I've come across books that I've had lying around, meaning to talk about for some time, and books that I've meant to finish so they earn their place at the end of the desk. But those will be a different kettle of fish (or perhaps multiple kettles).

Defining a Galaxy: Celebrating 30 Years of Roleplaying in a Galaxy Far, Far, Away, by Bill Slavicsek, published by Owen K.C.Stephens/Rogue Genius Games, 2018

Provenance: Gift of the author. Bill Slavicsek was a co-worker at TSR, my boss at Wizards of the Coast, and he and his Lovely Bride, Michelle, come visit every Thanksgiving.

Review: A lot of the attention of  recent "gaming history" has been, naturally, about Dungeons & Dragons, and there are a number of good books out on that subject. This one is on an equally intriguing subject, in that it covers one of the great early licenses in our hobby - the Star Wars RPG from West End Games.

There have been three tabletop RPGs about Star Wars - the West End version in 1987, The Wizards of the Coast version in 2000, and Fantasy Flight version in 2012. I contributed to the WotC version. Bill worked on both the West End and WotC incarnations, and it is the West End version that is very important to how games are developed and how licensed properties are turned in to RPG. In particular, Bill goes into detail on the nature of lateral development.

By 1987, the original trilogy of movies was done. There was talk of more, but no definite plans. There had been a few original novels (a trilogy on Han Solo, A trilogy on Lando, Splinter of the Mind's Eye (since retconned out)), some animated cartoons, and a Christmas Special that had been shown once, then buried. The Marvel comics had a good run but were winding down. West End Games had a lot of stuff from the movies, but very little hard facts about the universe behind it. What was the Kessel Run? Who were all those aliens in the bar? How did the Force work?

This is where West End, and Bill in particular came in, creating the connective tissue and background for the universe. Using what was there to build the support scaffolding for it. In a movie, you can just show a bunch of driods - no one from the audience has the chance to question who they are. Not so in an RPG. The various aliens had names "Hammerhead" and "Squid Head", names used in the toys. Bill christened them Ithorians and Quarrens, and gave them home worlds and characters. In doing so, Bill developed the depth of the universe, not giving you new stuff, but developing the material that was there. Lateral development was a requirement for transitioning between film and the tabletop.

And it stuck. These creations became foundational for the expanding Expanded Universe (now called Legendary. Novels were based on the information presented. The backstories have been accepted as canon. And while changes occurred as new movies and television shows were created this material became core reference for the universe in a variety of media.

And it is kind of cool for Bill to see something that he had created 30 years ago get a name-check in a new project. It is also cool for us to see the process behind the scenes that helped create this expanded universe. Bill's style is open and conversational, a befits a memoir. He's telling stories about his time at West End, and the creative magic that they made there.

Interested? The book can be picked up on Amazon, or here.

More later,

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Oy, Robot

I have a big pile of books at the end of my desk, and in writing all these up, I realize that I've done this before. Not reviewing this particular pile of books, but of summarizing all my book reviews for a year in one series of posts. I did it in December of 2015, and it will likely be five more years before I try this again.

But let's talk about Murderbots:

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 2017, Tor Books
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books

Provenance: The first one of this five-book series (the last one comes out later this year) was highly regarded in a lot of SF sites that I cruise. I tracked it down IRL (a difficult thing, it turned out - everyone had the later books, but not the first one), and agreed it was worthwhile. I asked the Lovely Bride for them as Christmas present last year, and she ordered the other three from Amazon. Philistine.

Review: I have warmed up to novellas. My younger incarnation that devoured SF digest-sized magazines found them large and cumbersome in the face of short stories, while the middle-aged reader-self bought in on the "measuring fantasy by the pound" school, and found them slight. Yet time and again in my dotage I am comfortable with the mid-length form - enough detail to engage, but not too light, and don't mind them at all.

Such is the case of the Murderbot Diaries. If lumped together they may seem a bit repetitive, but as individual stories, they are really quite charming. The murderbot is our narrator, who makes Johannes Cabal look positively sunny in his outlook. Our murderbot is also more competent than Cabal in his job, which is to keep the fleshbags he has been entrusted to protect alive despite their best efforts at self-destruction.

The murderbot is a construct of flesh and metal. It is not a cyborg, in that it did not have a previous life. It is a made, sentient, thing, the flesh grown around the metal plates, its programming tightly bridled by an internal governor. Except the murderbot has bypassed it governor and has free will. Which it wants to use primarily to watch pirated VR shows and do the absolute least amount of work.

The murderbot is geared towards self-preservation, not in a "kill all the humans" sort of way, but in a "lay low and let them ignore me" kinda way. It works, sometimes. And when it doesn't, he is roused to action to protect his assigned humans. He doesn't think much of them. He doesn't think much of most of his universe - Lesser AIs are dullards. More powerful AIs are threats. Corporations, with their ruthless pursuit of the bottom line, he hates.

The humans working with him (who he goes back to help when they're in trouble) don't get it. He's not a pet. He's not an oppressed form of human. He's pretty much sure about what he wants, which is to be left alone. He is a positive, well-rounded, humane, sentient, alien creature who is absolutely NOT fascinated with the humans around him. And that makes him interesting, even appealing.

Four of the five parts of the Murderbot Diaries are out now, and the last one is due sometime this year.

More later,

Monday, January 06, 2020

Big Pile of Books: When in Rome

I have a large pile of books at the end of my desk, accumulated over the course of the year and now demanding reviews. But I'm surprised that I have only one historical non-fiction text among them. That can't be right.

Well, it is, in that much of my nonfiction has been taken up with a single volume: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, which I will not be talking about here because, well, I am not finished with it. But has been the long-haul book for lengthy trips away from the home base. Instead, let me talk about this one:

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, Europa Editions, 2009

Provenance: I thought I had gotten this text from a friend, but a sticker on the back identifies it clearly as a denizen of Half-Price books, where overstocks go to die. The local Half-Price has carried a lot of good general histories, and this is one. Its appearance feels to me like it more European that Amercian - softbound trade with folding end-flaps, and is pretty substantial.

Review: I started reading this in preparation of running a Cthulhu Invictus game, which is Call of Cthulhu set in the Roman Empire. In addition, I've been reading SPQR by Mary Beard, which gives me larger view of the entire setting (and is really good, but, again, will not review until I finish it, which may be some time).

As a side benefit, after finishing the book, the Lovely Bride and I were invited to Lucca Comics and Games as guests, and spent the week before in Naples/Napoli. So we got to tour Pompeii, Paestum, and Herculaneum with a extremely knowledgeable guide (highly recommended - she's really good) and this book was valuable as preparatory work.

Day in the Life gives me a lot of thought about how to fit in the small bits of life and times for the characters who I may be throwing around in the midst of Romanic Cthulhu adventures.

Here's an obvious one - night is dark but not empty. I know it is a shock, but in our modern times, unless we are way the hell away from everything, we still have some ambient light. Rome didn't/couldn't do that. So they were to a great degree hostages to daylight, and evolved their situations accordingly. Yet the darkness is also a time for deliveries of food and supplies to the city, when the streets are (relatively) empty of the rest of the citizenry.

Another important one - the vast majority of the population were camping. Yep, we know about the layouts of the Roman villas, (And can identify vomitoriums, impluviums, and shrines to house gods on sight), but most of the working class had small tight quarters in tall buildings, which got worse as you went up (the opposite of penthouses in the elevator-assisted modern age). Not a lot of amenities, not a lot of privacy. A lot of rent-paying squatters.

This is obvious stuff when you think about it. Rome had a strong civic and public life in part because of a lack of personal, private space. The did have food kiosks (open-sided restaurants to get a quick meal), and did have running water (the baths, which were social centers for business and schmoozing). Other parts do feel alien, and I need to think about them more when incorporating them into any type of campaign.

The conceit of the book is traveling through a single day, pressing through the city to the a gladiatorial contest and then to a banquet (the laying on couches thing). Angela puts together a nice, solid narrative which carried through the translation. If you want to get a nice general text on Roman life (or what we think Roman life was like), here you go.

More later,

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Lovecrafting

Have I mentioned I have a big pile of books on the end of my desk? Yeah, I have a big pile of books at the end of my desk. Here are some reviews;

Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard, Thomas Dunne Books, 2011

Provenance: A friend lent me the audio version of Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day, a collection of short stories featuring a particularly sardonic,erudite, and irritated necromancer who keeps having things get in the way of his quest for eternal life. They were fun, and when I was in New York last year I picked up a copy of The Fear Institute at the Strand (a highly-recommended bookstore, but I will give the edge to Powell's in Portland).

Review: What attracted me to this particular book (as opposed to others in the series) was the fact it was set in Lovecraft's Dreamlands. The Dreamlands were mostly part of Lovecraft's work in poetry, where he is influenced by Lord Dunsany, and is the more fantastic setting of his mythos. A lot of the same players and characters fit in, but it the Dreamlands are more aesthetic than horrific, which causes some interesting interplay between his view of this world and the land of Dreams.

Other authors have played in this space, so it is interesting to see how this other Howard takes it on.

And it's all right. The writing is solid and engaging, and has the proper level of bounce and snap. But I think I like the other authors' take on Lovecraft's fantasy world better. This adventure really doesn't need to be in the Dreamlands, and could be in Oz or the Forgotten Realms save for a couple solid name-checks. Cabal's sardonic commentary applies to fantasy worlds in general as opposed to prying up the underlying nature of Lovecraft's universe. There is a dualogy between Lovecraft's worlds - his Dreamlands tend to more romantic, awe-inspired, and positive, while his mythos works set in our world tend to be more horrific, nihilistic, and terrible. Both settings have living gods, but those gods are more active in the Dreamlands and the characters who toil in their shadows more empowered.

Anyway, the plot. Cabal is hired by a trio of individuals who intend to go to the Dreamlands and defeat Fear, Fear being the worst bane of human civilization. Despite himself, Cabal goes along as the official guide. There are adventures with Zoogs and Men of Leng, and I think he really nails the Men of Leng for the first time that I've read. The amusingly selfish Cabal verges on being heroic because of the nature of the universe he is cast in. Elder gods are confronted. Time paradoxes are invoked. It wraps up with a strong lead into the NEXT volume.

It's OK. Cabal as reluctant hero gets him away from him from merely whining about his state, and reasons are given as things progress. But I don't get the feel of the Dreamlands from this tome in the same fashion as I did the other versions. Howard doesn't add to the mythos (again, with the exception of the Men of Leng), but instead it functions as a mostly-understood backdrop for Cabal's ongoing frustrations with reality, both his own and that of alternate planes.

Its worth a read, and in the proper hands, would be good series on NetFlix. But it remains OK.

More later,

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Big Pile of Books: This Means Woah!

I continue to have a lot of books on my desk. They are mostly fiction, and I am reviewing them in part to get my thoughts down and freeing myself to eventually passing on to others. This one will wait, only because it is part of a series that has yet to conclude:

The Will to Battle by Ada Palamer, TOR books, 2017

Provenance: Purchased at the Elliot Bay book company, which is no longer on Elliot Bay but has moved up to the Cap Hill area. I did not intend to purchase it or review it, this being book three of a four-book set, but I enjoyed the first two very much and took it home and devoured it as well. Spoilers, I should warn, abound.

Review: This is Terra Ignota Book III. Books I and II, which I talk about here, are pretty much one volume were this a trilogy. Book III in this case is the saddle booth. We laid out the world and chased the protagonists up a tree in Books I and II. Book IV we will/may see the resolution. Book III is keeping all the balls in the air and laying the groundwork for the finish (I hope).

The story so far: We are 450 years in the future and the future is falling apart. The utopia that has persisted for a long peace has been revealed to be the result of traffic control assassins who use massive data at their fingertips to identify targets and remove them through "accidents". The population of the earth, broken up into Hives of common interests and philosophies as opposed to nations, are jockeying for position. The young mutant (?) with the ability to modify reality is dead, his chosen toy soldier and heir transformed into Achilles, a warrior in a world that has not seen traditional war for ages. Oh, and God is here. Not our God, but a God supposedly from somewhere else, invited here and incarnated with connections to all the ruling hives. Said visiting God will break apart the world and remake it into something that would not rely on secret assassins to survive. Everyone just needs to surrender and let him do it. And the question of if that is a good thing or not drives the world to brink of war.

And in this we have Mycroft Canner, who I have previously called the Necessary Man, who has contacts with all the factions and the ability to be where he needs to be to record the major decisions. Except Mycroft himself, like the world, is coming apart. The unreliable narrator is even more unreliable, as we see him have conversations with dead comrades, dead philosophers, and oftimes the reader themselves. How trustworthy his observations are remain up in the air.

The book is dense is its style and every character packs a half-dozen other titles and names (thank the gods for Dramatis Persona listing at the front to give one some clues) and it works. Saddle books often are marking time before resolving the issues, but this one has the task of getting a supposedly rational, clear-eyed population geared up for war, with tools they have left rusting for generations. The players don't seem to have the optimisms that has accompanies so many of our "modern" conflicts - the confidence that this will be over by Christmas that evaporates under the thunder of the first artillery strike. But they do seem naive about what this means in a society that become borderless in many ways, where the factions are easily identified by self-chosen uniforms. It will be a war like no other.

And I'm looking forward to it. Having chased this future utopia up a tree, and thrown rocks at it, I am curious if Palmer (and her characters) can then get it down. Will humanity, and its leaders, and its gods and godly visitors, have to shed their cool, thoughtful approaches for the savagery of conflict, a savagery once embraced by Mycroft Canner as being the component of humanity that evaporated over the long enforced peace.

The last bit of the story won't be out until 2021, so it rests here for the moment. I look forward to coming back to the complex, often convoluted world, and see what happens.

More later,

Friday, January 03, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Mysteries

I have a lot of paperback mysteries on my desk. Their slender format (much less than your typical doorstop of a fantasy novel) makes them very portable for plane flights. Also, I've been laid up recently with minor surgery, as a result taking tub baths, and dropping a paperback in the tub is less damaging than submerging your iPad. There were two big categories for mysteries this year:

Gambit by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1962
The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1963
The Black Mountain by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1954
Before Midnight by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1955
Where There's A Will by Rex Stout - Avon Books, originally published in 1940
Please Pass The Guilt by Rex Stout - Viking Press (Hardback), originally published in 1975
Three At Wolfe's Door (collection) by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1960
Trouble in Triplicate (collection) by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1949
Death Times Three (collection) by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1985

Provenance: Various, including a number of used bookstores. Most of the Half-Price breed won't carry something this old and usually worn, but there is a store up in the Cap Hill area, Twice Told Tales, which is well-stocked with cats in abundance, mysteries in general and Nero Wolfe in particular.

Review: I've talked about the Nero Wolfe books before, and am now treating them as a limited resource, to be husbanded and read only when trapped on a plane or in a bathtub. As you can see, I've spent a good chunk of time on planes and in bathtubs this past year. There are only so many original stories lefgt, since the author passed on in 1975, and while they have found another writer to pick up the character, it is not the same (One later-day book I picked up had the first line "It all started at Lilly Rowan's Superbowl party." I can't tell you what the second line was because I put the book back down and called in the HazMat team).

Pretty much everything I said before still holds - the titular Wolfe is a fat (only 10 lbs heavier than I am nowadays), lazy, brilliant detective, kept from a complete state of inertia by his smart, wiseguy, well-grounded assistant, Archie Goodwin (who narrates, so he may be a bit prejudiced in this regard). Clients are usually dictated by the state of the bank balance for keeping their New York brownstone going, or by personal connections with the pair. Wolfe does not tolerate a large number of things - fools, leaving the brownstone, hugs, handshakes, violating his personal time raising orchids, letting a woman stay in the house - and inevitably one of more of those things must be tolerated in the course of the mystery. There are usually dead bodies involved, and there is often an increasing death count as the days progress in the course of a case.

The thing is, the mystery isn't the core of the story. Stout generally plays fair in his mysteries, and gives the reader enough suspicion as to whodunnit and why, but since he traps us in Archie's brain, we often find out when Archie does, but know only that Wolfe is off dealing with other agents and opportunities as we follow Archie around. The mysteries usually wrap within two pages of the end of the books itself -"The Murderer was X. Then we had a perfectly adequate dinner. The end"). That feels a little rushed, but once the murder is solved, there is not much point hanging about.

Except the attraction of these books is the writing as opposed to the clever mechanism of the crime or the brilliant solution. In writing this entry up I had to leaf through them to remind myself WHO the guilty party actually was in many cases. In Archie, Stout has a perfect, engaging, heroic narrator, who manages to charm his way both through the book and with the reader. Wolfe is tolerable only because he comes to us through Archie's lens and with archie's approval. Stout did some additional books with another detective - Tecumseh Fox (yeah, there's a pattern in the names), but they don't land as solidly without Archie's presence.

The collections are akin to the novels, but more concentrated, and reflect the mechanism of delivery for these stories. They appeared in other media (once upon a time, there were weekly print magazines with names like Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post, that would print fiction on pulverized dead trees), but are collected together, usually three to a volume to make up word count. Given their shorter nature, you get a better idea from the start where the tip-off is that indicates the guilty party. But they are still solid.The most recent one on the list, Death Times Three, is posthumous, and contains earlier published drafts that were later changed, expanded, or sent elsewhere, and is a good study for those interested in seeing how stories evolved.

The exception the expected pattern of Nero Wolfe mysteries, the one that tests the rule,is The Black Mountain, which is recommended even if you are not a mystery fan. Here the pair leave New York City, and the United States entirely, to find the killer of the owner of Wolfe's favorite restaurant. The pair's journey takes them to Montenegro, Wolfe's home country, and lacks the cosmopolitan vibe, huge cast of suspects, familiar support characters, and unbreakable personal flaws of the other books. And it does it in a fashion that does not undercut the nature of the characters themselves.

I recommend all of them, but if you're digging up old Wolfe books, be sure to catch The Black Mountain.

But hang on, there's more:

Maigret on the Riviera by George Simenon, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, HBJ Books, originally published in 1940
Maigret Goes Home by George Simenon, translated by Robert Baldick, HBJ Books, originally published in 1931
Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by George Simenon, translated by Daphne Woodward HBJ Books, originally published in 1959

Provenance: Re-gifted from a friend. Will re-gift them in turn.

Review: And sometimes it just doesn't work. Blame the translation, both in culture and in physical text, or the nature of the original source, but the Maigret books did not hold me, and I will be honest, I pressed forward only to see if they took an upturn, but in these three they did not.

Chief Inspector Maigret is a Parisian police detective. His work is mostly procedural. He walks around, talks to people, gathers evidence, and the books end in a confession and usually additional bloodshed. His work takes him into the sordid parts of peoples' lives.  He is overly reflective and introspective, and much of his dialogue is internal and filled with self-doubt. In Riveria he is a fish out of water on the sunny beaches, In Home he returns to his hometown, where few people are left that remember him and he feels like a fish out of water. In Reluctant Witness he is confronted with the fact that he is getting old and police procedures are changing on him and he feels ... well, you know.. In each case he spends much of the books cogitating on how much he does not fit in with his particular case. In fact, in Home, there is the "collection of suspects to reveal the murderer", and Maigret is not even the instigator, but rather a passive witness to the entire proceedings.

It could be a merely a cultural gap - Maigret is a very existential character, trapped in his own thoughts. But the result was a trio of books that, once read, I can let pass out of my life without any further regrets, without even an internal monologue.

More later,

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Spooks

This past year, when I finished a book, I tended to put it on a pile on the end of my desk. Not always, but enough that now I have a lot of books piled up. And since I want to eventually clear off that side of the desk (for, um, more books), I have to either review it, shelve it, and/or give it away. For each book I mention the provenance - how it ended up in my hands.  Because even stories have stories. So here we go.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi, TOR books, 2018

Provenance: The Lovely Bride got me this book in hardback back in 2018, and it sat around for a few months until I got to it this year.  The author had gotten great reviews on The Quantum Thief (which I have not read), and the release of this book came in with that top-echelon push - reviews in the book section of the Seattle Times, mentions on NPR, the works.

Review: There's a lot going on in this book. The easiest way to describe the central conceit is to say that there is an afterlife, and it is British. Or rather the British Empire want to colonize it. When you die, and are properly prepared, you go to another plane made of semi-morphic, mutable material that responds to thought, akin some of the transitive planes in D&D or the the Mists in Guild Wars. The British set themselves up in the ruins of previous inhabitants of this zone and remodeled. In the afterlife, one is neither truly gone nor forgotten - they can communicate with the living, come visit through people willing to be possessed for the purpose, and provide insights, aura-reading, and rapid communications.

And it is all used for spycraft. It is 1938 and Germany is just ... gone, not just defeated in WWI but obliterated spiritually. The Great Powers are England and the Soviet Union, where Lenin never died but instead ascended into a godlike Presence that feeds off the spirits of his own dead. The Brits and Russians are playing their great game over the Spanish Civil War, with the English supporting Francos's Fascists. The British spies are split into rival agencies for the living and the dead. And the Brits have a mole leaking info to the Russians.

Rachel White is a low-level intelligence officer who suffers from the classism and sexism of the British system. She gets a lead on the mole, who is on the afterlife side - The Summer Court of the undead British Intelligence, who are literally spooks. We also get the mole's side of the story, and his actions as the two square off against each other, dealing with their own side's challenges and their personal tragedies in the process. There is a lot of cat-and-mouse as the two together reveal that there is something even nastier going on.

The plot moves swiftly and the characters are well-grounded. For all the things going on at once here, it hangs together. The world of Summerland is filled with familiar faces in different roles - Stalin's here. Lenin is a godlike present. Kim Philby and his comrades check in. The Prime Minister is a roman à clef version of H. G. Wells, which marries neatly the spiritualism and tech of his earlier eras.

There is a lot packed in on this relatively slender volume, and it has a lot of place I would want to back up and understand more about how things work and how we got to this point. Footnotes or annotations would be a plus, but undercut the entire point of the "blink and you'll miss it" writing style. It would be something that Stephen Moffat could turn into a decent series for the BBC. So pay attention, know some of your interwar history, and you will be rewarded.

More later,