Monday, June 15, 2020

Plague Books: Requiem for a Dying Earth

Song of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, by a LOT of people you've heard about, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, with Art by Paul Kidd. TOR Books, 2009

Provenance: Christmas present, probably 2009 as well. I came to Jack Vance late in life, which is a bit of a surprise given that D&D is hip-deep in Vancian notions, tropes, and outright, um, borrowings. But once I struck his Dying Earth series, in the form of a massive compendium, I was delightfully hooked by his mannered approach to far-future fantasy, and of course, when a massive tome by a cluster of big-name authors came out in his honor, I had to get it and consume it.

And I did, eventually. I remember burrowing into it at full steam, enjoying the stories a great deal. But that steam dissipated over time, and the book became a denizen of my Shelf of Abandoned Books. And only with the recent seclusion, where I have suddenly two more hours in my day that I had when I had to commute, did I finally return to it.

Review: So let me tell you what all the shouting is about. Jack Vance was an author who wrote from the 80's up to his passing in 2013. As a writer, he wrote a LOT of stuff, but the stories that have kept his memory warm in SF&F fans' hearts were his Dying Earth Stories. These were set in the far, far future, where our world is not only reduced to dust but totally forgotten about. It is a world where magic rules, other supposedly vat-created creatures roam the land, and the sun is on its last legs. The stories are stylistically marvelous, and present a Wodehousian future of manners, where wizards are so powerful that they are effectively useless (because there is always a counter-spell and a counter-counter-spell, and so on), and conman get by with the skin of their teeth. Irony abounds and no good deed goes unpunished. If you haven't read Vance, or Dying Earth, go dig it up.

Songs of the Dying Earth is a collection by later-day fans who have made good in the SF bidness, gathered under one roof. A lot of those are names to conjure with - Howard Waldrop, Bob Silverberg, GRR Martin, Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons. A veritable pantheon of SF literati gathered between two covers to sing the praises of a talent who, if not forgotten, does not get remembered as much as he should.

So how do they do, these later-day student of Vance? They did really well. Some writers take characters from Vance's stories and weave new tales about them. Some take the flavor of the world and give us new tales. Some are paeans that closely follow Vance's voice and tropes. Some tell their own stories that are factually part of Vance's world, but are told with their own voices.  Matt Hughes, who wrote the Vance-evoking Majestrum, acquits himself nicely in Vance's sandbox. The longest piece, from Dan Simmons, is pure Vancian. GRR Martin's contribution is very GRR Martin, in that it is sufficiently creepy, but still belongs in the house of Vance. And the Tannath Lee piece, which is where I abandoned the book years ago, is on re-reading has that sense of irony that makes Vance to worthwhile as a writer.

The art, by Paul Kidd, is also pretty cool, particularly considering that in his stories, Vance never gave a great description of what deodand or a pelgrane looked like.

So why did I bail? Well, to be honest, it is a much of muchness. There is so much stuff in this book (670-some pages) that even the sparkling nature and wry humor of the Dying Earth starts to run thin. This is one of those books which should not be read cover-to-cover, but rather in sprints. Read three stories, then take a breather. Cogitate on them, maybe bake some Kaiser rolls. Then come back. That way it doesn't feel like one long vista of writing. But you should really consider checking it out.

More later,

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Life in the Time of the Virus, Still Continued

I close out our third month of seclusion, and we are fine. A little tired of it all. A little worn out. A little grumpy. But fine.

In this period I helped ship a computer game. Call it my COVID project. Our entire team was working from home, and that in itself is amazing. But with shipping, even though there are about a bajillion things that still need to be done to support/evolve/fix the game, I feel that one of the great pressures on me has passed, and feel a little exhausted as a result.

Part of the recent tasks as we moved to release involved recording voices for future content. So I and my writers were all in our homes, my producer in HIS home in Southern California, our actors in THEIR homes, and our poor audio engineer in the studio in Burbank by himself pulling it all together. My audio guy says the result sounds pretty good. Yeah, I remain amazed that we managed it all.

In the larger medical world the curve is flattening, but our part of the state is not at Phase 2 yet (we are at a modified Phase 1.5, which is what happens when nerds do planning - we break things down into smaller and smaller components). We are getting there - new cases have dropped, death toll is down (but still with us). The whole point of flattening the curve has been not to avoid all risk of infection, but to not overload the medical system with everyone getting sick at once. We have succeeded, yet there remains more to do.

I hear reports that there is herd immunity. I'm not sure about that. COVID-19 is a corona virus, like the common cold. I haven't seen much in the way of herd immunity to that over the years. I am dubious.

I hear reports that the there are mutations that are making the disease weaker, primarily reports from Italy. While that appeals to me in a conclusion to The Andromeda Strain sort of way, I don't see enough movement to support the concept. I remain dubious.

And I have a nervousness that stems from the tendency to admit COVID-19 deaths only when they are absolutely sure that it was COVID-19. So a lot of deaths are now recorded as from pneumonia, with the result that we now have a PNEUMONIA epidemic as the yearly totals are now 3 and 4 times what they normally are. This echoes the AIDS epidemic of my youth, where a lot of deaths of young men were hidden under the guise of "pneumonia".

But we are finally getting the point of wide-spread testing, which is a good thing. We've been guessing for a while now, but of this I am not dubious about.

My plague beard has graduated from "scraggly" to "grizzled".

The robocalls are returning to their natural habitat. One woman keeps calling to tell me there is nothing wrong with my credit. That's nice.

The Lovely Bride and I have succumbed to baking. She has been trying to refine a Kaiser roll recipe that has been kinda of weird on her.  We are making pizza dough, the type that rises overnight, using a recipe from the newspaper. This recipe is clearly meant to just be read, but not implemented. The LB disagrees with about every step of the recipe, so discussion result. Fortunately, after it is all said and done, we get to eat the evidence (and, after all the prep, it really wasn't bad at all).

But people are tired of all this. I get it. I'm not particularly happy myself, and I've got it really easy. I still have my work and talk to my co-workers continually over the 'net. Shortages have been spotty (the latest - shower cleaner and mushroom soup). People have been distancing. Masks are more common than not, particularly at the farmers' markets that are slowly coming back. Less so at the Fred Meyers.

And yet I feel this low-level irritation and agitation. I have less patience on the road, going out for sundries, even though there is less traffic. I have less patience behind the inevitable person at the grocery store paying in loose change. And while I am sure no one has turned the traffic lights to red longer just to peeve me off, but peeve me off they do.

I feel a little bad feeling this way - as I say, I got it easy. No, I've got it REALLY easy. While I was in the basement recording voices long distance, workmen peeled off my back balcony and replaced it with a larger, wider, sturdier, non-rotting version (our other COVID project). Two weeks to get it to the present state, where a base coat is drying. We are delayed because the flooring guy disagrees with what the engineer had put down on his drawing for flashing, while the local municipality agrees but will only authorize doing it the contractor's way if the engineer buys off on it. So we are stalled for the moment. But seriously, this is the worst thing happening? We have it as dead easy.

We endure and we continue and we thrive.We row on.

More later,

Monday, June 08, 2020

Plague Books: Not-Quite-Dead-Yet Earth

Majestrum, A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes, Night Shade Books, 2007

Provenance: NorWesCon, more than a few years ago, This was a rebellion purchase.

I attend NorWesCon, the great Pacific Northwest SF conventions, every few years, when they invite me (when they don't I have no hard feelings, but instead enjoy sleeping in on Easter morning). And whenever I attend, I hit the Dealer's Room, which usually has a couple friends who are repping for their respected game companies. But I also look for books when I am there, and this is what bothers me. There are usually more vendors selling Ren Faire hats than there are booksellers. No slam against those selling leather trilbies, but I feel my nose pushed slightly out of joint by a lack of booksellers at a convention that had its foundation in books. So I picked up both this volume, and its sequel - The Spiral Labyrinth, from the publisher out of sheer spite.

So there.

Review: Henghis Hapthorn is a discriminator, a form of far-far-future private detective., making his residence in the trendier sections of Old Earth but having the hundreds of worlds mankind has spread made available at his beck and call, accessible much like we would take a plane to another city. The human presence in the galaxy is old, the moon is gone, the sun is starting to fade. It is not quite Jack Vance's Dying Earth, but it evokes it strongly and intentionally, maybe an aeon or three before where Vance's writings are set.

Henghis comes with baggage in this book, in the form of a collection of short stories that were published by ANOTHER publisher, So, much like Chili Palmer, I have to do some accommodating for stories told before I arrived on the scene. But worse, we keep calling back to those stories all the way through, so that I feel a little pummeled for the crime of not paying sufficient attention back in the '80s when these tales first showed up in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

For example, Henghis's AI assistant has been transformed into a cat-monkey. And Henghis now has an unwelcome boarder in his mind in the form of his intuition, which has manifested as a separate personality in the back of his brain. Both of these come from the fact that magic is slowly taking over the universe, which will replace his logic and rationality with sympathetic association. This bothers Henghis a lot, and he bemoans his fate to them.

That's one of the frustrations in the book - Henghis bemoans his fate a lot.  As he pursues his assignments, he argues with his transformed cat-monkey. He also argues with his intuition as his internal monologue becomes an internal dialogue. The problem is, that it is always the same arguments, drilling down onto the fact that Henghis' rational universe will soon be ending, and he cannot trust his intuition as it literally has a mind of its own.

I look at this one and think about Be Cool, which I slammed for not giving me any reason to support, or even identify, with the protagonist (a protagonist can be unlikable if that is point - even bad examples are examples, after all). Hughes avoids it with Henghis; he is hired almost immediately by an upper-cruster to whom Henghis feels he is morally and intellectually superior, to break up the upper-cruster's daughter's relationship. The fact he does so gets you on his side, a position he keeps throughout the book. However, his continual whinging about the end of his rational age, his upcoming loss to his intuitive self, and his fruit-eating cat-monkey is a bit repetitive.

The book also oversells itself, invoking Jack Vance and Sherlock Holmes.. Hughes' voice is Vancian but not overblown about it. As a Holmesian deductive mastermind, Henghis falls more than a bit short, but he has his moments. It is hardly rollicking and funny, but it is humorous enough to stand on its own merits.

All in all, its OK.  It gets down to cases quickly, and the writing is bright and touches Vance's style and tropes - a formal set of prose and mannered conversations against a fantastic environment. I don't regret reading it, but by the same token, I can go a while before getting the sequel. But it does make me want to read more Jack Vance.

More later,

Monday, May 25, 2020

Plague Books: Plague Book

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, Vintage Books, 2006

Provenance: This is a re-read: I read it many years ago and thought well enough of it to hold onto as opposed to pass on to others, intending to write something about it. Now is the time.

I think this was one of the last books we got from the Quality Paperback Book Club. The QPB was (and maybe is, for all I know) one of those monthly book clubs where they mailed you the selection and gave you a catalog with other options. And we were pretty happy with it when we lived in Lake Geneva, but once we moved out here, we were less and less interested in their offerings and finally opted out.

Apparently, QPB is an extremely shadowy group, and no one knows who is really running the works (the Book of the Month club is handling fulfillment, and a query to the Wikipedia dumps us there). It is sort of a book club Illuminati, an interesting piece of the publishing industry, a vector for moving print like a virus, but that is only tangential to the book itself.

Review:  To all outward appearances this is a traditional work of fiction - simple, raised, embossed silvered title, "National Bestseller" running along the top margin,  pull quote from the Washington Post Book World, artistic photographic cover design that would put it at home next to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on the shelves. A little digging even reveals that its first chapter was displayed in The New Yorker.  A confluence of traditional New York publishing tropes that declare " This is a modern novel."

But it is a science fiction tale that hangs on a fantasy assumption When one dies, one's spirit/
identity/soul/existence transposed into a limbo, a City, where it continues on in the much the same way as in life, until the last person who remembers the once-living dies as well. Only at that point does the spirit move on to an unknowable future. So what happens to The City when a world-wide plague destroys humanity?

The tale is told on two fronts - The City itself, and Antarctica, where the last survivor of the plague - "The Blinks" - struggles to survive.  Those within the city are swept up with a huge tide of the newly dead, then are confronted with people disappearing as quickly as they arrive, the only ones who remember them are themselves brought down by the disease. The City itself is shrinking as well, as no one still living remembers it.

The survivor is Laura Byrd, employee of the Coca-Cola company, stranded in a former research stations at the bottom of the world. The world of the (now-near) future is as expected - the large mammals are all dead, the sea levels are rising, there is continual warfare, and bio-engineered plagues are common. Laura is there because of marketing - Coca-Cola pushing the idea that their sweetened soft drink is made with the last pure water on earth (yes, similar to the various bottled-watered claims). Ultimately, the soft drink is the vector to kill the world. Her companions die and she is left alone to try to get off the continent while the rest of the world succumbs.

The writing is first-rate, and the story carries through both from Laura's viewpoint and the community of the dead, who come to realize that their continued existence hinges solely on Laura's survival. They vary from long-time friends and colleagues and family to individuals she saw once and remembered afterwards - Laura's gaze is all-encompassing. While the plague burns the world, those who live on in her memory congregate in The City. But Laura is herself dying.

Back when I first read this, I was talking to a friend who worked in the New York publishing. "Why is is marketed with the monotone photos of New York's version of literature?", I ask. "Set in the then-future, talking about bio-warfare, discussing the afterlife. How is this not an SF novel?"

"Vintage does not publish science fiction," he responded simply.

Indeed. Yet even shorn of its physical similarities, the book holds forth with the vibe of  Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and other end-of-the-worlders. In bringing it tightly into the orbit of Laura and the citizens of the City, it has an attraction that makes it worth reading, and then re-reading years afterwards.

More later,

Friday, May 15, 2020

Plague Books: Magic City

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, TOR Books, 2017

Provenance: This was in the big box of books I got from someone at TOR. I told that story here, when I reviewed Network Effect, so I won't go into the who rigamarole on that. But I still had a pile of books, and I picked this one off the top. It is the sort of book I might pick on recommendation or based on a review, but in all honesty it was on the top of the pile, and had an odd title and it was short.

Review: Wow, this is a gem.

This is one of those books totally make it worth the risk of reading an author you've never read before. Magical, mystical, and sweet.

The novel opens with an elderly Asian woman diagnosed with a terminal condition, putting her affairs in order. On the final days of her life, she rescues original piece of pulp art from its hiding place in the basement of a building she owns. It is the last piece of a legendary pulp artist, and she sells it to a rather repellent dealer for a great deal of money. Then she goes home and takes an overdose.

But that's not the story. Actually we go back to 1940 in San Francisco, and into queer subculture of the era and tell the story of the artwork. The artist is question, Haskel, has been midgendered by time - she is a woman drawing sensational pulp covers. She has a collection of friends, about half-a-coven, that include a scientist and her girlfriend, who has a bit of mystical ability in folding maps. The Asian woman in question, Helen, is there, who is both a lawyer and a dancer at a local tourist restaurant that caters to racial stereotypes near Chinatown. Into their orbit falls Emily, a young woman, newly arrived from back East with a wonderful voice and a talent for cross-dressing as a man named Spike. The artist, Haskel, falls hard for Emily. It is a love story cast against the background of San Francisco in the shadow of the war.

And the writing is wonderful. Klages makes San Francisco come alive. David Dodge gave us a collection of street names and called it San Francisco, but, Klages brings entire neighborhoods alive. You get a sense of wonder and delight, and yes, magic, that only belongs to certain places in certain times with certain people. It lifts you up and carries you forward and makes you really care about the characters.

Her writing about San Francisco sparked whole sequence of pleasant memories for me.. I am on the record of being neutral about LA, but San Francisco is one of those cities that I visited and said "yeah, I could live here." I remember visits and conventions and just wandering through this city and visiting friends and relatives in the Bay Area. San Francisco has always been magical and chimerical. It is Nova Albion and Emperor Norton and Sam Spade and Vertigo and the Cliff House and Tony Bennett. I have gone on record as being LA-Neutral, but San Francisco holds a particular charm for me, its own magic.

But there is darkness in the magic as well, as shown in the book. The local lesbian club, Mona's, solely exists by being a tourist stop for moralizing mid westerners, on the barest fringe of acceptability. The cops are crooked and the law is stacked against them.. Both the artist Haskel and the dancer Helen cater to public trafficking in racial stereotypes to make their living. Women in general, and lesbians in particular, are either invisible to the greater world or targeted by it. They are both integral to the world and outsiders to it.

The heart is the romance between Haskel and Emily. It is not just a slow burn. It smolders like exotic spice in a brazier. The fantastic elements of the tale are hinted at early, but actually arrive only towards the end of the book. In the meantime, we get a sweet, sweeping romance in the shadows, mature in a positive sense in that we are dealing with grown-ups and real feelings and all the messiness that that involves.

Passing Strange is one of those books that I want to press into the hands of others, because I think they will enjoy it. It has been out for a while, so it can be probably found easily. Treat yourself to it.

More later,

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Classics Illustrated

So, in my wanderings, I found a site that allowed you to make a cover that looked like one from Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, which have very distinctive looks. So I made one, and the result is over on the right. And I thought it was pretty good for five minutes work.

And the universe being what it is, I posted it to my Facebook, and got a lot of response. Some of it was from people who really loved the original book (which is greatly appreciated) and those who played the computer game based on the book (which is also nice) and those wanting to know if it was a real book, and was Penguin about to release on the world the old FR books from decades back.

Which is, alas, untrue (so far as I know it). It is a little amusing, in that, back in the day, Penguin WAS the British publisher/distributor of the books (I don't know when/if they stopped, but I had a number of British editions in the basement at one time). But it would be interesting if some small press picked up all of these old volumes and put them back into print (and, you know, paid the authors).

But as for me, I have taken a solemn vow not to speak untruths, even in jest, nor to taunt people with such tomfoolery. For more about this solemn vow, please click here. 

More later,

Friday, May 08, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus, Continued

And so we close out the second month of seclusion. We're doing OK.

I am still working from home. My company sent its programmers and designers and other office workers home about two months ago, and, according to my great-great-great-great-grandboss, we may be continuing the process into October. I have ensconced myself in the basement library, on an oak table that we usually use for gaming evenings. I've done a lot of work at kitchen tables and in other improvised conditions over the years, so I am used to this. Plus, we are shipping a game this month, so we've all been a bit busy.

The Lovely Bride is still preparing taxes, the deadline for which has been extended because of the  virus. She has been going in only a few days a week at this point, as the weather turns and she lusts to be out in the garden. The latest hassle in tax-world is that deceased citizens are receiving stimulus checks, which is balling up future tax preparation. We relieved a small amount (we did not expect anything) in direct deposit, then got a few days later a self-congratulatory letter from the president taking credit for it. He should have sent masks instead.

Speaking of masks, one of the Lovely Bride's clients made one for her, and I got two from a colleague who is a maker (for you old-timers, that's a hip word for someone who makes stuff). With her hours reduced, the LB is picking up grocery shopping again. There is confusion in the stores, with aisles being turned one-way, and half the shoppers correcting the other half that are going the wrong way on one-way aisles. We can't find orzo or mascarpone.  Hardly the end of the world.

I am not missing things I thought I would miss. Theatre. Comic books. I do miss browsing in used bookstores still, and predict that, once this is over, they will swell in content from everyone who has been Marie Kondoing their libraries for the past two months. Ditto resale shops.

I am still growing a beard. It is still scraggly.

I thought I would be binge-watching a lot more stuff on the net, but that's not happening either. I got most of the way through "The Thick of It", but it is still waiting for completion. I've dabbled with the Masterclass series, mostly Penn and Teller. I watched only one of the National Theatre's free productions on the net. It is hard to watch theatre on the iPad. There is a sense of commitment in real theatre, that holds you attention because, well, you're not going anywhere while the play is in motion. In the case of streaming, you have stuff that is always tempting you away. Probably why I don't read a lot of books on the Kindle App (the LB, on the other hand, burns through Kindle books at a high rate of speed).

I am reading more physical books, which is nice. Harlan Ellison once said, "Who wants a library full of books you've already read?" So I am doing a little pruning, revisiting old tomes, and finally getting around to finishing some of the larger volumes in the late evening. It has been the high point of my day.

Still reading newspapers in the morning, over an omelette (the Lovely Bride, allergic, sleeps in). Newspapers, reliant on advertising, have taken a hit as not one wants to advertise to people not leaving the house. The Stranger is online only, most of its people stepped away for the moment. The Seattle Times has shrunk with its lack of advertising, and the white space between lines and at the margins has grown. The news itself is only starting to report things that are happening outside America that doesn't involve coronavirus.The latest was two American mercenaries trying to Bay-of-Pigs Venezuela. Might have worked if they we're social media posting during it. 

Seattle is doing OK, generally. The current death toll is actually on par with this time of year, even given coronovirus casualties, and the concurrent rise of general deaths from people are not bringing it to the hospital because that's where the sick people are. The New Yorker came up with a very article praising Washington State's science-based approach, though mostly to compare it to the mess in New York City at the moment.

Still no universal testing, so the actual numbers may be low.

And we are slowly, slowly ramping back. Stages and measurements. Dials. Yes, it is a pain and I'd like to get a haircut but its not worth someone else's life. The problem with flattening the curve is that, even flattened, it is still a curve. People are still risks and at risk. And so our lives will change for a while longer. 

The good news is that phone marketing calls have dropped almost to zero.

But all in all, I am pretty sure I can handle retirement from a "Don't leave the house for weeks" standpoint.

More later,

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Plague Book: Two-Fisted Accountants

Death and Taxes a Whit Whitney Mystery by David Dodge,  Bruin Books, 1941, reprint 2010

Provenance: Sometimes you just buy the wrong gift. The Lovely Bride is a professional tax professional, an Enrolled Agent, and we have talked over the years about doing a "tax mystery" novel. So I went searching to see if someone else had done this. And I was pointed to David Dodge, who would later write It Takes a Thief.

So I picked it up for the LB for Christmas (purchased from Amazon since I could not find it locally). She read a chapter and set it aside (her bookmark, a Christmas postcard from Japan, is still in place). So I picked it up and read it through. Yeah, this was the wrong gift. Let me tell you why.

Review: Before I get to the author's text, I have three pages of glowing reviews for the book. Then a glowing original ad for the book. Then a practically incandescent bio of the author. Then period maps of the Bay Area. So its gets a big build-up.

And what I got ultimately was OK. Not what I wanted. The protagonist, tax accountant Whit Whitney, is hard-boiled to the point of being overcooked. He is a man of action. Women want him, men want to be him. The plot is two parts Maltese Falcon (partner gets bumped off, partner's wife and protagonist have feelings for each other) and two parts Thin Man (without Myrna Loy, which is one of the probs).  But I get ahead of myself.

Here's the tax part of the mystery: Before Whitney and MacLeod were partners in accounting, MacLeod handled the tax case of a former bootlegger. His bootlegging was past statute of limitations, but the bootlegger still owed taxes on the moneys he received. The bootlegger gets the ruling from the IRS, feels he has grounds to appeal, but dies before he gets a chance (Or tell MacLeod what those grounds were). Years pass. Now they are five days away from the deadline for appealing the fine. MacLeod discovers that yes, the bootlegger did have a case for an appeal, to the tune of half a million dollars, which would go his (beautiful) daughter, with a hefty percentage for the accountants who discovered this. And now MacLeod is murdered.

So, this is like the Thin Man in that we stay with the victim for a while, and MacLeod is a complete a-hole. He is mean to his employees. He is cheating on his wife. He bullies his partner. He is a jerk. There are therefore a lot of suspects who want dead, including, after a couple chapters, the author and the reader. And I can see why the Lovely B left this book to rot after one chapter. I was rolling my eyes after the second, but pressed on.

And it is OK. No, it is not the great first appearance of an author and character. I have no burning desire to know about Whit Whitney's further adventures or even to read It Takes a Thief. If you read it like watching an old black and white film you can manage it. There are a couple places where you say "Hey, wait a minute" for something that is just glossed over in the text. I guessed the initial murderer, and ultimately think I had a better idea of who was responsible for the later shootings (oh yes, there is a lot of gunplay in this book) than the author had. His handling of female characters is ham-handed at best, but the exist to support/tempt Whit Whitney, all-American accountant.

One of the stories told in the introduction is that Dodge was reading slushpile mysteries for his wife and said, "Hey, I can do that." And the fact that his wife worked for a publisher kinda gave him a leg up on the opportunity so publish said book. Similarly, reading encourages me to think that the LB and I could write a better tax mystery. So if that happens, this book is partially to blame.

More later,

Friday, May 01, 2020

Plague Books: Philosopher King

Prosper's Demon - KJ Parker 2019, TOR Books

Provenance: This was in the box of books sent from TOR that I mentioned here. I promised I would read a couple other books in the box, and this was one. Some day I will explain why I feel a responsibility to read books sent to me, but that's not for today.

Review: Out in the virtual world of the Greater Web, the Orc Discussion is back. This is a frequent argument that explodes across the Internet every so often (and did so before there was an Internet). It quickly spirals out into numerous sub-discussions, digressions, and tangents. It allows people to complain bitterly about people that don't agree with them. It has applied to a number of different fantasy and science fiction projects and to a number of species. Right now, it applies to orcs and D&D.

The short version of this argument is:  Are orcs (or whoever), being portrayed as being universally horrible, evil creatures, racist? Or spreading it out to its ultimate extension, is "All X are Y" a racist statement?

Yes, it is. What matters is what you do with it. As far as fiction is concerned, we have some options. Some writers subvert the idea, some reject it utterly, some invert it, and some accept it as a base-line rule for their universe and sees where it takes them. KJ Parker does the last one, and tells a good and disturbing story.

In Prosper's Demons, the "other" are demons. Yes, it is easier to say "All DEMONS are EVIL" than orcs, since that is pretty much a core concept with demons. Parker's demons are immortal, intangible, and  very, very evil. Possessing people, inflicting great pain, and making them do unspeakable things-kinda evil. Our narrator is a exorcist, who has been fighting demons since literally before he was born. He's definitely dedicated to the proposition that All DEMONS are EVIL, and admits he is a horrible person from where that dedication takes him.

And the demons he fights are, well, evil. At the book's start, an old demonic combatant has taken control of the narrator (when he wasn't looking) and framed him for murder. But when the exorcist tracks down the old foe (demons are immortal - they can be driven out (usually at high cost to the host) but not killed) the foe sounds like an abused partner - hurt, wounded, and bullied. And yeah, our narrator is a cruel bully. No common ground possible here, and he LIKES hurting demons.

So the old foe finds another lodging. In a baby. Actually in the newborn heir of the local Emperor. Pulling the demon out will kill the kid, which would be a bad thing for our narrator's continued survival. As a bonus, the kid is going to be raised by the wisest man in the kingdom, who will turn the child into a perfect Philosopher King. And this wise man, Prosper, is ALSO possessed, by a different demon, one our exorcist has never met before.

But this new demon has been helping Prosper, keeping him focused, and helping him in his creativity. Doing things that are good for the kingdom and humanity in general. It is all part of a long-term plan that will come to fruition centuries after our exorcist is dust. Prosper is effectively DaVinci, right down to building a huge bronze horse, but enhanced and more effective. An effective Prosper is a good thing. What it boils down to is: will you deal with demons if it promises good things?

Prosper's Demons is a slender book, little more than the novella at the back end of an issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story is nicely packed and neatly presented. The writing is dagger-sharp and the characters (including the demons) are well-limned. It is worth hunting down.

More later,

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Plague Books: Mellow Yellow

The King in Yellow, stories by Robert W. Chambers, Third Place Press, 1895, Reprint edition 2015

Provenance: I picked this one up at Third Place Books in Ravenna, along with China Mieville's October (reviewed here). The text is a "rediscovery edition", which means it was in public domain, then dusted off, repackaged, and republished because it might see a sales spike. In this case, said spike was due to HBO's True Detective, which refers to the King in Yellow.

The book itself has been reformatted for its current size and has a new cover treatment. It has one of those covers that is slightly tacky to the touch which seems to be popular with publications these days. I don't care for it, but that may just indicate my advancing age.

The publisher, Third Place Press, by the way, has spun off from Third Place Books in 2018 and is now VerVolta Design + Press.

Review: Robert W. Chambers was a popular and now-forgotten author from the early part of the last century. In his day he was a well-known fixture in magazines and books, such that his old-school writing involving "shopgirl romances" was mocked by both H P Lovecraft and F Scott Fitzgerald. He was big in his day, but not critically acclaimed, similarly to Jacqueline Suzanne's potboilers or Tom Clancy's thrillers of later ages. His very name invoked a particular style of writing - old-fashioned, archaic, moralistic and fusty, but still more popular than some of the new stuff being cranked out.

Which is kinda sad, because he's a pretty good writer, but more about that in a moment. 

Most people that DO know about Chambers in the modern day know about him because of his contribution to the Cthulhu mythos with the King in Yellow.  Chambers pulled some phrases and concepts from Ambrose Bierce in creating his King in Yellow stories and were in turn pulled by Lovecraft as namechecks for his own weird fiction, in particular "The Whisperer in Darkness". From there it moved out to become a major supporting pillar of the genre, with the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, Hastur, and Hali all getting their moment in the moonlight, analyzed and reconfigured repeatedly.

The King in Yellow, as presented by Chambers, is a play that drives people mad. There are a couple couplets presented throughout the text, but the exact nature of what it says (particularly in the 2nd act, where things go horribly bad and drives the reader insane). In Chambers, the play is "things best left unknown" incarnate. Someone reads the play and goes mad. When referred to in the text, it gets its own font. That's how alien it is.

And most fans will only read the first four stories, which is are the most mythos-y of the collection in that they name-check the King in Yellow. "The Repairer of Reputations" is the most weird of these weird tales, in that it portrays a futuristic New York (of thirty years after the story is written) with a heavily militarized America, a recent invasion of New Jersey by Germany, and suicide chambers in Washington Square. Yet all that is world-building background, in that the narrator is a sociopathic madman who believes himself to be heir of the Imperial Dynasty of America. It is actually a wonderfully strange story, and in a long section name-drops a lot of material used by later writers.

The remaining three, "The Mask", "The Court of the Dragon", and "The Yellow Sign" have similar arcs, filled with growing dread and strange happening resolving in someone encountering the accursed play with horrible results. "The Demoiselle D'Ys" is a fantasy that evokes the later Clark Ashton Smith. "The Prophet's Paradise" is a series of one-pagers. And the remaining four, his "Street" stories - "The Street of the Four Winds", "The Street of the First Shell", "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields", and "Rue Barree" are about art students and demimondes on the Left Bank of Paris (Chambers was an art student in Paris before he became a writer).

And in these stories, there is a bit of really fine writing, and you see why Chambers is an unappreciated genius. "First Shell", set during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, captures the entire fog of war better than many modern novels. "Our Lady of the Fields" concludes with a practically orgasmic train trip, and "Rue Barree" has a section of the drunk protagonist that is amusing. Even up in "The Repairer of Reputations", with its long paragraph  of Mythos-friendly terms, is impressive. You can see where Chambers earned his reputation.

This collection, Chambers' first, did a lot to establish himself. He later settled into a more traditional, commercial success thereafter, and you can see the talent here. Yes, you should read past the first four stories.

More later,

Monday, April 27, 2020

Plague Books: La La Land

Be Cool by Elmore Leonard, William Morrow 1994

Provenance: I dunno. The book itself showed up on the bookshelf I reserve for paperbacks.  It has as a bookmark a receipt from the Tacoma Book Center, a mecca of used books in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome. It has a sticker on the back saying it was from Port Book & News in Port Angeles, but even that may be a remainder. In any event, it has been on my paperback shelf, which I have been looking at in my downstairs home office every day. And the trade paperback size and blue steel cover kept taunting me as I was working.

Yes, I judged a book by the cover. That's the point. That's why they have covers.

Review: Look. I'm going to be careful taking on Elmore Leonard. The guy was writing since the 50s, passed on only seven years ago, and a LOT of his books have been turned into movies. New York Times bestseller. So, successful. Lemme walk carefully because, spoilers, I didn't care much for the book.

Mind you, I didn't read the previous book, Get Shorty, nor have I seen either of the movies based on the books. So I walk in without knowing much about our protagonist, Chili Palmer, former sorta-mobster and loan shark who has gotten into movie production. His first movie was a success. His second was a bomb. So he's looking for a new idea. And he's doing lunch with another former sorta-mobster who is now in the record business, and the former sorta-mobster is shot down right before his eyes. And Chili's first thought is - hey, this is a great idea for a movie.

Like I said, I don't know Chili. This is the first time I've encountered him. But I don't particularly like him. This is one of the thing which impresses me about Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories (oh, wow, here he goes again about Nero Wolfe). Regardless of the story, you get an idea right up front of who Nero and Archie are, and what their relationship is. And you have a reason to root for Archie, our narrator. In other words, any Nero Wolfe story could be your first Nero Wolfe story. I don't get that break here, so Chili and I get off to a rough start.

To use an Hollywood reference, there's a book out called Save the Cat. It is a short book that for a while was (and maybe still is) gospel in screenwriting. One of the things that it stresses as a "must" is that, in the first few minutes of the movie, you have to give the reader some reason to root for your protagonist. He is kind to a little old lady, fixes someone's tire, or, yes, saves the cat. So Chili meets a former sorta-mobster turned record producer, heads for the men's room, and on his return sees the former sorta-mobster gunned down. And his first thought is how he can turn this into a movie.

As I said: Rough start.

Another bit in the book is the idea that everyone in LA wants to be in a movie about their lives. I am not a LA native. I go down every so often for recording sessions for computer games, which keeps me in the general vicinity of Burbank and the old Bob Hope airport. I don't hate LA or love it. I am more LA-Adjacent. But I haven't met anyone yet who does the whole "you should do a movie about my life" thing. But I like Leonard's LA. It feels relatively comfortable. So that's a good thing.

So Chili gets into the record business, and stuff just starts happening. He discovers a hot new talent. He becomes her manager. He gets her to put her old band from Texas back together. He comes home one night and finds a dead body sitting at his desk. He makes friends with a homicide detective who, surprise, wants to see a movie about his life. Homicide detective is now Chili's new best friend, despite the fact Chili is a witness/suspect in two murders. Chili encounters a gay Samoan bodyguard that sounds suspiciously like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and who is (surprise) played by Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson in the movie version. And then Aerosmith shows up.

You know, it sounds sillier than Leonard lays it out to be, but no sillier than most things that end up in LA's fictional universe. At the end of it all, Chili Palmer is a hustler, flying by the seat of his pants, making up lies on the spur of the moment and not getting called on it. He's got some tight situations but he never pays for his crimes, or realizes fully what he's done. He's not amazingly likeable, and remains an external force in LA, not really part of the entertainment world, but just an opportunist who sees it as he most recent grift.

Leonard is famous for saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." And while I agree with the idea that language should sound realistic and natural, clarity has to ultimately rule. There are chunks here that feel like they were written during the Great Punctuation Shortage of 1993, and I had to take a couple runs at a few sentences to determine who is talking about what.

Be Cool is OK fiction. Not great, just OK. Like Chili Palmer, the book is not likeable enough to really pull me onto its side, but entertaining and engaging enough to work. Leonard's writing ethos is akin to some other authors I know - "If you do something wrong long enough, it becomes a personal style". Like LA itself, I can't muster up the emotion to hate it or love it. So I guess I'm Be Cool adjacent.

And now I can take that book off my shelf, so its blue steel cover doesn't distract me anymore.

More later,

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Plague Books: The Zimmermanns

The Zimmermann Telegram by Thomas Boghardt, Naval Institute Press, 2012
The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman, Macmillan Publishing, 1958, 1966 Edition

As I've mentioned, I have been taking advantage of my sequestered lifestyle to catch up on my reading. I have accumulated a large number of books that I've eventually intended to consume, and now, without a commute and with them at easy hand, I find the time to do so. Have some reviews.

Provenance: Two different books with the same name. Both these books come from the local Half-Price Books down in the valley (I think). The Tuchman version was purchased and consumed years ago, and is truly a used book - it lacks any marking of previous ownership, but the spine opens easily and the flyleaf cover is slightly ripped at the corners. Someone read this book and sold it, with a bundle of others, to the store. The Boghardt version is an overprint - they ran a larger print-run than they sold, so it went in a box with eleven of its others to a warehouse, then another warehouse, and lastly to the local HPB. This volume was the most recent purchase of mine before everything shut down, along with a copy of The Lost City of Z, which I am currently abandoning (30 pages in and I have no less than THREE different expeditions lost in the Amazon jungle. I fear if I continue the entire state of Rhode Island will be lost there.).

Review: When I was in high school, I always thought that the sinking of the Lusitania was why US entered into WWI. Years later I realized that the timeline didn't match up, the Lusitania, a British passenger ship (now admitted to be carrying munitions) was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May of 1915, but the US didn't enter into the war properly until early 1917. Later I learned that it was the resumption of unrestricted naval warfare in the Atlantic (which meant attacking neutral ships, including US ones). And then I found out about the Zimmermann Telegram, where the German government contacted Mexico with an offer of support if they would attack the US in the event that the US entered the war on the British side, offering them the lost territories in the American Southwest.

Americans love their inciting moments. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Maine in Havana harbor. It is the rallying point that we can get behind to take on enemies. We don't do so well when we have to creep up on a war, make a rational decision to commit. Was the War of 1812 really about American seamen being impressed onto British ships? Or was it about expansion in the Northwest Territories as the western War Hawks wanted? Or just opportunism because England was dealing with Napoleon? The Gulf of Tonkin turns out to be suspiciously wonky as a casus belli. So it makes sense that we fixate on the earlier sinking of the Lusitania or the Zimmerman telegram as the spark that unleashes the flames of war.

Maybe, maybe not. And I found Tuchman's book to be very strong in making that argument when I first read it. Hers is a popular history, a well-organized tale well-told. She tracks the writing and the intercept of the telegram through spies in foreign lands, Swedish back-channels, and recovered codebooks. The telegram drops on America like a bombshell and rallies us to take on the Hun.

Boghardt disagrees, and has the benefit of forty years of additional research in the area. He had access to the files in the German Foreign Office in Willhelmstrassen that Tuchman did not, and the ability to dig down beneath the mildly disingenuous interviews with the British spymasters to produce a more nuanced version of the events.

Boghardt's description of the German Foreign Office at Wilhelmstrasse is like a Teutonic version of The Office. Everyone has their own pet projects, their own fears, their own promotional goals. The Zimmermann telegram doesn't belong so much to Zimmermann as to his assistant, von Kemnitz, who Tuchman excludes from her 1966 edition as a shadowy figure lurking at the margins. From internal documents, the whole alliance with Mexico was von Kemnitz's favorite. Boghardt shows that the plan was swept up in other matters as an afterthought, since Zimmermann and the rest were more concerned about the upcoming announcement that Germany was going to return to unrestricted submarine warfare. THAT was what the Foreign Office was sure to bring the US in on the English side, and offering to support Mexico in case of war was just a side offer.

How the Brits got the telegram is another point of discrepancy. Tuchman relied on the stories of Captain William Reginald Hall, the director of British naval intelligence, and passed along the official line of Swedish roundabouts and captured code books. On review of the play, however, the Germans sent the infamous coded telegram through (then-neutral) American channels, and asked the American to just pass the word along to the German Embassy there (without looking at it, or breaking the code). Hall and the Brits were intercepting and reading the US diplomatic posts and had already broken the German code. British Naval Intelligence then had to figure out how to tell the Americans about the plot without revealing that they had been spying on their hopeful allies. And after the war, they reinforced the cover story in order to not reveal that they were STILL reading the American's diplomatic mail.

The announcement of the Telegram (leaked to the American Press) was not an immediate hammerblow to neutrality but was a major jolt to the system. The US was not blase about the telegram (and the examples Boghardt uses to show that it was no big deal were not effective), but it did not immediately turn the US to a war footing. Isolationist, rpo-neutral and pro-German factions in the government (there were more Germans in Milwaukee than in Berlin at the time) concentrated not on the news of the plot, but rather on where it came from. Many suspected it was a British scheme to pull the US into the war (and it was, but like the best plots, had its roots in reality). Congress argued for days on the matter, until Wilson stepped in and asked for the declaration of war before Congress adjourned.

Ultimately, the Zimmermann telegram was the final straw for Wilson. Portrayed by Boghardt as the last proponent of peaceful resolution in his own administration, the effrontery and outrageousness of the German offer was enough to move him off the fence. While unrestricted naval warfare was the cause on-paper, the Zimmermann Telegram, and how it was spun, ultimately moved him to action sooner as opposed to later.

And Mexico as a German ally? I think it more possible than either Boghardt or Tuchman consider. We had grabbed those huge chunks of Mexican land in 1848. In 1916, we physically invaded Mexico with Pershing's Punitive Expedition, not to mention grabbing Vera Cruz, their major port for a while in 1914. So yeah, regardless of the Mexican government's attitude (they were in the midst of a three-way civil war at the time), it was worth considering.

And while the plan of the Zimmermann telegram seems far-fetched, it matched up with successes from the German Foreign Office. They encouraged subjugated populations for form second, third, and fifth fronts to stretch their opponents' resources thin. Yes, the Zimmermann telegram backfired. But the Easter Rising in Belfast was a success (from the German  side, who capitalized on the resistance being crushed by the Brits. For the Irish themselves, not so much),. And after the telegram, Zimmermann pulled off one of the coups of the war in organizing Lenin's sealed train, sending the Communist leader back into Russia at a critical point. Neither Tuchman nor Boghardt mention this, as both narratives create the impression that after the telegram, Zimmermann entered into twilight.

Ultimately, both books have value. Tuchman's gives the once standard view, supported by traditional sources, while Borhardt's deals with a lot more detail into the whys and wherefores. Neither comes right out and claims the Telegram was the primary reason we went into war, but make good cases for it to be a strong influence on America's decision.

More later,

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Plague Books: Lovecraft and Leiber

The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich by Fritz Leiber, TOR Books, 1997

So with the ongoing situation, I've been reading a lot. I have a sizable library in the basement, which includes a lot of books I have not read/ have been meaning to read, and this is the perfect opportunity. So these are my Plague Books, and what I have to say about them.

Provenance: This particular hardback volume was purchased at the Barnes & Noble in Rockford Illinois Saturday, April 19, 1997. It was read immediately and finished on April 20th (It is a short book). Then it had a second reading in 2015, and a third in 2017. I know all this because I got the book from John D. Rateliff, who has not only kept a log of every book he has ever read, but also notes in these books the dates he purchased and read them, and pertinent facts about where he purchased them and if his wife was there at the time. So the book has now been read a fourth time, in 2020 (and will be so noted for the next reader).

Review.This book has an history as roundabout as for this individual volume. Fritz Leiber was a master fantasist, and was creator of, among other things, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories. This is an early work, written in the 1930's, when the young man was in communication with H P Lovecraft, then in his twilight years. I don't have any reference for what Lovecraft thought of the story, or even if he saw it, but the manuscript itself was lost in the 50's, and resurfaced only in the 90's following Leiber's death. It is a slender tale, less of a novella than a short story, and for this edition was illustrated nicely by Jason Van Hollander.

If the title were not overwhelming the text it supports already, the full title is The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich: a Study of the Mass-Insanity at Smithville. And it poses itself as a description of some strange events in the small Californian town of Smithville, with an addenda.

Here's the gist of it: Our narrator, George Kramer, comes to Smithville to visit three old friends from college. John Ellis and Mary are married, and Mary was a native of this town, so they moved here. Kesserich settled there soon thereafter. When Kramer arrives, Mary is dead, and Ellis and Kesserich, thought by the rest of the town to be the resident mad scientist, are missing. While he is there, the town itself starts to wake up to the fact that Mary's death was not what it seemed, and Kesserich (and/or Ellis) may be responsible. Memories start to shift, mobs gather demanding justice, and result in a dramatic confrontation. A year later, our narrator meets with one of the principles and figures out what really happened.

And the story is a good example of a journeyman effort, with some good ideas nestled into some less good prose and odd pacing. The characters react strangely to their surroundings - the narrator sees a small rock he had not noticed before and wonders if he going mad (MAD!), then witnesses his mad scientist's friend's house blow up and takes it in stride. And after the house blows up, even though the narrator is the only one present, the police don't immediately come to conclusion he was responsible (a mention of it is made later, quickly dispensed with, even though the townspeople are turning into a mob). And the first dozen chapters are pretty much  a wind-up for the final pitch where All Is Revealed.

And to be honest, the All that is Revealed is pretty good. It is a different take on time travel and how it feels to be within a timeline where the past changes beneath your feet. It could be the basis for an interesting Call of Cthulhu RPG adventure. It could be an excellent story with a revision or three. With its pastoral Californian setting, it feels more like Bradbury than Lovecraft. But the shows the foundational talent of Leiber that glows in later tales. I can see why he didn't come back to it, and why it lay fallow for so many years before it disappeared entirely. Still, if you are a completest for his work, it is a worthy entry.

More later,

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Life, the Universe, and Everything

This is a  post about John Conway and Enrico Fermi.

John Conway passed on recently, of COVID-19. He is one of those people, who if you know his work, you feel a little sad, and if you don't, you still feel a little sad but in more disconnected way. John Conway did many things, but he also created the Game of Life.

No, I'm not talking about the Milton Bradley/Hasbro game where you start with a car, you must get married and you load up on kids and you make life decisions that will end up in the wealthy retirement home (Much more the American Dream than Monopoly). No, this is a mathematical game about growth and death, which I first discovered in high school in an issue of Scientific America. It is played on graph paper (at the time) and later in computers, and is an interesting simulation. You draw a pattern on the graph paper, and you evolve it through some simple rules:
  1. Any filled-in space with fewer than adjacent two filled-in spaces becomes empty (dies).
  2. Any filled-in space with two or three adjacent filled-in spaces continues to exist.
  3. Any filled-in space with more than three adjacent filled-in spaces becomes empty (dies).
  4. Any empty space with exactly three adjacent filled-in spaces is filled in. 
 With these four rules, you can take any pattern and see how it evolves over time. Computers made this even easier (and engineering students, though wealthy in graph paper, quickly adapted it to computers).  So you can sketch any pattern, and follow their evolution until they stabilize, go extinct, or move off the board entirely.

Some patterns and parts of patterns go extinct - they don't have enough adjacent squares to survive. Some stabilize into a solid pattern that will no longer evolve - a two-by-two square is the simplest. Some stabilize into patterns that lose parts and gain other evenly - the most basic of these oscillators are "blinkers", a line of three vertical squares that, the next turn, become three horizontal squares, which then become three vertical squares until the end of time. And the last group moves out over time in a stabilizing pattern - the simplest version of these is the "glider", which moves slowly forever, until it rules into something else like a map edge or a stable pattern or glider.

OK, let's move on to Enrico Fermi, who is ALSO famous for many things, but the thing we want to talk about is Fermi's Paradox. The basics of this is the question - If the universe is ancient, and extraterrestrial life has had the chance to rise, evolve, and spread out, where are they? Even given the titanic distances of space, why haven't we encountered them?

This was formalized in the Drake Equation, which looks at the following factors:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
This is grist for many SF novels, with answers ranging from "they are already here" to "they are avoiding us" to "space is really, really big" to "something is out there eating civilizations" to "all these factors make N so small that we are effectively alone - did we mention that space is really, really big?".

We can argue the numbers, of which we really don't have a large enough sample size to even make a good guess, but, to quote the old joke - "Now we're just haggling." Another way of looking at this is through the lens of Conway's Life.

Some extraterrestrial life will not get to the point where it games sentience, or space travel, or communications, much the factors laid out in the Drake equation - they will die out. And some will reach a stable condition, either technologically or geographically, where they will enter a self-sustaining stasis - gaining a little, losing a little, but staying pretty much in the same location and tech level. And some will become gliders - leaving parts of their past behind them as they continue to evolve in a particular direction.

And these gliders would continue in a relatively stable state, until they hit something else - the edge of a map, another glider, or an existing stable system. And yet (if we are thinking in spacial terms), they are a straight line in a huge three-dimensional space - the chance of them hitting any particular point (like, say, our sun) is tiny. Yet in an infinite universe, or, just saying a extremely large sample size like our galaxy, it remains possible.

And I think that's where we are. I'm not sure if everything really connects here, or there are just similarities, and definitely don't have the maths to back any of this up (like I said "We're just haggling."). But it is an interesting thought experiment for the day, and unites Mr. Fermi and Mr. Conway.

More later,

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus

It has been a little more than a month since I've gone into seclusion here on Grubb Street. In early March, my employer (the Big A) sent all of my team to work from home. I have since brought both my large DTR and my laptop home, set up in the lowest floor of the house, and continued on the job as Senior Narrative Designer of a soon-to-be-released game.

The Lovely Bride and I, given our ages and medical history, really should stay away from people for a while. But I put ourselves down as very fortunate. We have a house with a modest amount of land around it, and our immediate neighbors are retirees or land that will eventually become a new development but is now empty. Our noisiest neighbors is a a Buddhist temple down the street, and even they have been quiet.

The first couple weeks were pretty miserable, mostly because of the weather - rain and more than occasional hail. But in the past week the clouds have broken into that wondrous Seattle Spring. As a result I have been going on more walks. And a lot of people are walking in this neighborhood, just to get out of the house. The other day there was a flotilla of SUVs with kids in the back, festooned with balloons and supportive signs for teachers. Much honking and waving.

The grocery situation hasn't been horrible, either. Yes, there were empty shelves for toilet paper and bottled water, but most of what we needed, they had. Flour disappeared for a while as everyone and their siblings decided that this would be a great time bake bread. Bread we could find, but nor flour. Among the shoppers, masks have shown up recently.

The Lovely Bride is still going into work. She's a tax preparer (an enrolled agent, to be exact), and in Washington State that is considered essential because people still need to make payrolls and plan out for the coming year. But her tax firm is attached to an investment group, and all the investors are working from home, so she pretty much has her office to herself.

All the writers I see on Facebook are saying "This is OUR moment!", and that is true as far as it goes. Writers tend to be pretty self-directed, and writing is by its nature a lonely profession. But working with others on a large project is more like movie-making, so I and my colleagues have a LOT of meetings over our propriety video apps (No, we don't use Zoom). So that often interrupts the day.

I am set up in the lowest floor of our quad-level, on a hefty oak table we purchased years ago from Milt's Wood Shed back in Wisconsin (That Milt - he's a character). I have an office upstairs, but that is filled with distractions, and I am used to writing novels at a kitchen table. The company as been supportive of people buying monitors and chairs for the long haul, but I've salvaged enough from the other office to set up a nice, spartan setup. And being on the lowest floor, I can walk away from it at the end of the day without temptation to keep going (though I still keep going, sometimes, anyway). The downside is that this lowest floor is where I keep a lot of my games and books, and as a result, I am always tempted to pull something down from the shelf to read.

We have two adopted cats, who we are looking after while their owners are in Japan (Hi Anne! Hi Sig! (They are in Hokkaido and doing OK in all this)). Kevovar the Tank Cat has taken up a supervisory role, sitting on one of the other chairs and keeping an eye on me, just in case I decide to the suddenly and impulsively feed him. Kia the Ninja Kitty keeps to herself, mostly on the warmth of the waterbed, but has of late jumped into my lap and demanded petting. So they have adapted to the new regime.

I'm growing out my beard. It is still pretty scraggly. 

Have been reading a bit more (reviews to follow) and have been binge-watching some stuff (right now its been The Thick of It, one of those British comedies about horrible people that make you appreciate your co-workers). Haven't been writing as much, but oddly have not been playing too much in games either, as we are doing a lot of playtests on our way to release. I have been playing boardgame ports on the iPad with friends, with us talking over Facebook Messenger. And my Tai Chi classes have resumed on Zoom, though my upstairs office is smaller than I would like when Repulsing the Monkey.

So we're fortunate. I've got the house to myself most days. Work is actually rewarding. Supplies are good. I've been mowing the lawn in bits and pieces over the past week as the weather has been good. Everyone is staying home, and while people mock the "Seattle Freeze" - we are nice, but not demonstrative, it looks like we are succeeding in blunting the worst of the infections. Note that we can flatten the curve, but there is still an area under the curve, so we remain cautious.

I worry for others. I have colleagues who have to take care of kids, or share a small office in their apartments with their spouses, or have older relatives staying with them. My mother is in a retirement village, and while they have been very careful (they deliver dinners to the door, then flee), the isolation has been rough. I have one niece in NYC, and another who is expecting her first child. Yet everyone seemed to be bearing up so far, and for that I am appreciative as well.

Things have changed. The theatres are closed. My friendly neighborhood comics shop is on hiatus. Farmer's markets are currently shut down. The newspapers, lacking advertising, have become wan things, and I notice the margins and the typography is getting larger. So the effects of all this are ratcheting through the economy.

Long term remain concerned about the strength of the infrastructure - if the Internet takes a major hit that would be an end of this long-distance telecommuting. Without Animal Crossing I am sure that riots would follow. Supply pipelines are another concern - yeah, everyone lost their minds on toilet paper but as the virus ravages many farms and processing plants upstream, we may see further shortages.

How long this will go? I have no idea. I've gone hull down and have pretty much adapted, like the cats, to this new sense of normal.  Hope you and yours are making it through all this well, and we will see you on the far side of the pandemic.

More later,

Friday, April 10, 2020

Books: Robot Redux

Network Effect by Martha Wells, 2020, Tor Books

Provenance: A while back, I was cleaning up the big stack of books at the end of my desk and reviewed four of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells- nicely-sized novellas involving a particularly sarcastic  organic/mechanical construct called a Security Bot, or Secbot, but who refers to himself as Murderbot because he could murder all his human clients if he wanted. He can do this because the internal governor in him brain keeping him from killing his human clients has been uncoupled. But he doesn't want to kill at the humans so much as keep them from getting themselves killed because either situation would interfere with him watching soap operas that he's pirated onto his feed.

Anyway, in the wake of that review, I was contacted by someone at Tor, who asked if I was interested in getting an uncorrected proof (read, advance copy) of the book before its drop date in May. I said of course, and I got a box of about ten books, including Network Effect.

Anyway (again), the box arrived when I was in New York City for a recording session (before all the current craziness), and my lovely bride swooped in, opened the box, and had claimed the book before I got back (Fine. I was reading William Gibson's Agency, anyway, at the time). Once I had pried it from her fingers I had a chance to devour it.

 Oh. And I promised myself I would read at least one of the others in the package, just in case the person who sent me the box is reading this and want to send more. Like when Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series wraps up. Just mentioning it in passing.

Review: This book is a bit of a change-up, not in the least because the series graduates from its spritely novella category to a full-fledged, full-sized (and modestly hefty) novel. And this is an interesting change, in that the first four justified their size by moving quickly and firmly through from beginning to end. In these earlier volumes, our Murderbot is on stage for a perfect amount of time, lest his kvetching becomes whining (usually on the subjects of why humans are stupid, why humans should not be trusted with weapons, and why is he letting these humans be stupid and use weapons in the first place). Now the Murderbot must command a larger space, and the story and the stakes swell accordingly.

And Wells pulls it off, as our Murderbot has evolved into much more than just a variant on Marvin the Paranoid Android. We are used to his interior monologues but also have seen him grow from being the rather self-centered grumbler into being a deeper, more expressive figure (though still mostly self-centered and still a grumbler).
Our grumbler has an adoptive family at this point, who have an enlightened (though not perfect) perception of AI life and what the SecBot wants in the universe. For his part, the SecBot thinks of himself as a Race-Bannon sort of bodyguard (because corporate mercs are still trying to kill some of his people), but it is pretty obvious that he has a soft spot for them, though he teaches a masterclass at denying his feelings. He and few of his clients/family are kidnapped by ART (A-hole Research Transport), a sentient starship who the SecBot has dealt with before. The action travels to a colony world which may be influenced/corrupted by an ancient alien presence.

Wells' universe does not have aliens, except in the extinct variety, who have very alien tech that can destroy entire colonies if they are even touched and is the one thing the ruling corporations fear. So we (humans) have effectively created our own aliens - AIs, bots, enhanced humans, who think very differently than the rest of us.

SecBot is a Asimovian robot, if you replace the word "human" with the word "client" in the Three Laws. SecBot in the course of his duties will dispassionately maim and dispatch threats his clients, including human ones, but will never let his humans come to harm, especially from their own stupidity. Even with the governor circuit that controls him disabled, he still has an internal moral code that justifies helping others. However, the difference is the SecBot gets to decide who those others consist of. His own internal justifications and excuses aside, that's what makes him interesting.

In addition to no living aliens, this particular future galaxy lacks any strong centralizing force. There is no Federation or Empire here, just a collection of competing predatory corporations jostling each other for dominance and ruling over people with a brutal calculus that shames even the robot in its cold logic. All corporate stupidity is written large here, and seems to present the greatest dangers to humanity, and to the SecBot's humans. 

All in all, SecBot graduates to a larger space and more involved stories. Wells keeps a number of balls and factions and characters in the air, and advances not only SecBot's development, but the greater universe around him. He has quickly become a favorite alien of mine, in that he doesn't WANT to become human, and only grudgingly wants to understand humans so far as it would allow him to do his job easier. And this feels like the first of a new, larger series starring the Murderbot. I recommend you hunt this down in May (or whenever it arrives at your recently-reopened bookstore) and give it a read. It is well worth it.

More later,

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,