Saturday, May 26, 2018

Books: Striking Twice

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, 2016, TOR books
Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer, 2017, TOR books

Provenance: Purchased at the Elliot Bay Bookstore back in January. The Elliot Bay Bookstore is no longer near Elliot Bay, and as such is no longer a destination bookstore (lacking free parking in its new, Cap Hill location). But if I am up there for other reasons, I will drop in, as it is well-appointed and has a great variety of recent books. I had heard good things about the author (who won the John W Campbell award for the Best New Writer, sort of Rookie of the Year for the science fiction), and specifically went after it. The first two volumes were there in trade, so I picked both up, and was pleased, since they are effectively one story, and that reviewing one without the other would be akin to only reviewing Fellowship of the Ring, or treating Avengers: Infinity War as a complete story, ignoring that the resolution of that film is a year away at this writing.

Oh yeah, there will be spoilers. I'll try to make the intermittent and relevant, but they will be there nonetheless, in part because the cover matter does not play entirely fair with the reader..

The Review: Both volumes are very upfront on the cover, with a review from NPR comparing the books with the works of Gene Wolfe and Neal Stephenson. And that should send some flares up for the more timid reader, in that Neal Stephenson's works are lyrical and rambling and cover a huge amount of ground, and Gene Wolfe's works show but rarely tell, at least tell clearly, leaving the reader the reader to fend for themselves as to meaning.

Me, I will compare the two volumes to Dune, by Frank Herbert, in which is has a massive amount of politics weaved through an adventure story, with factions piled one upon another in alliances and secrets and betrayals.

Let me start with the world. It is 450 years in our future, in a post-scarcity world that has survived regionalism by breaking up into seven large borderless Hives. These Hives span the globe, each having their own views, methodologies, and agendas. The Mitsubishi, dominant ins Asia but extending everywhere, is very corporate and land-based, while the celebrity-driven meritocracy of the Humanists have the greatest population. The Cousins deal with charity and provide non-religious spiritual advisors, The Masons (yes, those Masons) resurrect the trappings of Rome, Europe has grown to a global EU with member nations, the Gordions are cyber-behavioral scientists, and the Utopians wear image-projecting cloaks and are working to terraform Mars.These Hives have worked together in uneasy alliances, keeping the peace on Earth since the Church Wars of 400 years back.

Our guide to this carefully-crafted equilibrium is Mycroft Canner, who at the outset declares himself a horrible and unworthy individual. He's right, ultimately. He is also our old friend from classic SF, the absolutely necessary man. Louis Wu. Hari Seldon. The smartest (relative) guy in the room, who knows (or finds out) what is really going on. Mycroft committed a horrible set of crimes by even 20th Century standards (you find out the nature of which towards the end of TLTL and his reasons towards the beginning of TSS), and for these crimes has been made a Servicer, a member of the underclass who pay penance for their sins by performing tasks for others without pay - usually of the mucking out the sewers department. But in addition to mucking, Mycroft is also regularly recruited by the powerful forces of the Hives since he is too brilliant and necessary to be just shoved into some corner and forgotten.

This includes working with a rather curious bash'. A bash' is an artificial family with a common interest, can be hereditary or not. This particular 'bash, the Saneer-Weekbooths, are in charge of the global transportation network - every air-car on the planet, put into the hands of this one small group of individuals.. Their small numbers include Mentats who juggle transportation computations with ease, the most popular media star on the planet, a mad scientist, and a witch. Oh, and there's a small boy living in the garden trench with the ability to bring toy soldiers to live and manifest anything he thinks of, including raising the dead. The members of the bash' are keeping the unearthly child a secret from the hives for the moment.

From the body copy you get the boy (mutant? divine? alien?) is the thrust of the books, but actually the child disappears for long patches of the week that the action of the two volumes cover. Instead, or rather in addition, we get a scandal involving the ranking of the most powerful people on the planet, the theft of the "Canner device" (with which Mycroft supposedly committed his crimes), various rebellious sub-factions within the Hives, and two (at least) major conspiracies. One involves gathering the most powerful members of the Hives at a brothel in Paris, and the other involves that quirky 'bash in charge of the air-cars, which has another, more deadly charge with keeping World Peace.

Yeah, its a lot. Now let add two more things that are deeply wound into the fabric of this future world. First off is a deep engagement with philosophers, in particular those of the Enlightenment - the works of Voltaire are here, and Diderot, and DeSade. Philosophy is not my strong suit (I believe I hold a singleton trey in it), but Palmer makes it all pretty much digestible, and one can follow along nicely whether one agrees with it or not. The other is the the conceit that, after these religious wars that ended the nation-states, the world moved to a genderless future, where identify gender at all is considered a social faux pas (at the least).

And Palmer pulls this off neatly as well, being the first text I've hit where "Singular They" actually works with a minimum of confusion (Not to say that it in universal - I had to back up and take another run at some sentences to figure out whom they were talking about). Also, our narrator Mycroft eschews this (often to the disgust of an imagined future reader), but he in turn spins it on its head by tying gender to presented roles and appearance as opposed to the contents of one's underwear. As a result gender is more fluid, and one character changes apparent gender over the course of the books. Palmer not only pulls this off, but makes this question of gender one of the central drivers of action in the books (That brothel in Paris that the high-mucketies are meeting at? Among the sins available to customers are the chances to act like old-fashioned Lords and Ladies of pre-revolutionary France).

This is extremely dense and engaging book, and in reading it, you're often flipping back to check out who this character and what their faction represents (bookmark the list of "most important people" in volume 1, as this will get a lot of work). Worse yet, the same character may be referred to by different names by different factions, such that one most-venerated character goes by a half-dozen different names.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The author apparently hated typesetters, since this global book is replete with all manner of accents, umlauts, italics, brackets, and  non-english pronunciation marks. It captures its globalisms in that conversations move from one format to another effortlessly, while still declaring the world has individuals, factions, and subfactions.

This is two volumes out of four, but it tells one story - of a seven-day span when everything in this peaceful world suddenly goes to hell through revelations of long-kept secrets. The boy in the trench, the Parisian brothel, the most important people list, the origin of this most-venerated individual, various conspiracies, and plots aplenty. By the end of the first book, Mycroft's identity is exposed to the world, the Saneer-Weeksbooth's confessor has entered the Parisian brothel, and the secret of the S-W's has been uncovered. By the end of the second, the boy in the trench is apparently resolved, the word spreads on various uncovered conspiracies, characters you have come to like turn of each other, and there is at least one heel-turn that has a strong whiff of "where the heck did THAT come from".

A point I will take issue of within all this wonderful world-building is the role of the vast bulk of the population. I know that they have 20-hour work weeks and that people who really love what they're doing ('Vokers, for it being their advocation) are tolerated with only a slight social stigma. But we cruise almost entirely among the elites or this particular bash' of 'Vokers, so we don't see much of the 99%. For the most part the general population is reduced to the Parisian or Roman Mob - docile until whipped up into righteous fury. But that feels like picking nits against this larger tapestry.

One last point. With this work, Ms Palmer definitely rates the John W Campbell award, but this was given in the teeth of the Sad/Rabid Puppies huggamugga in the Hugos. The short form of the conflict is that a group of mostly conservative, Caucasian, male writers took umbrage at all these people who were not conservative, Caucasian, and male kept getting Hugos (more detailed versions here if you really care). What is weird is that a lot of what Palmer is saying in these books dovetails pretty neatly into conservative thought - ideas like Man is as a create effectively violent and the best you can do is protect yourself, that large organizations, regardless of methodology or ideology, are vulnerable to corruption, that struggle is necessary part of the human condition, and that merely denying gender differences does not remove them. These would fit snugly into the SF of yesteryear (In addition to the "necessary man" I mentioned earlier), yet I have seen no one identify and embrace those facets and putting this book into that particular area. Perhaps it is that the ball is still in play, and there is no ultimate resolution as yet.

It will come in time, I suppose, in much the same way as the first three Dune books have spawned their own literary criticism and analysis. This text is an uphill fight(oh yeah, lot of sex here, in case you're timid in that department), but a very rewarding and engaging one. I think, however, I will wait for the final book to come out before finishing the entire series.

More later,

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Eating Sewickley (and elsewhere)

The Lovely Bride and I have just returned from a week in Pittsburgh, a short visit for family and friends. We were camped out west of the city, on the formerly industrial district of Neville Island, near the town (sorry, village) of Sewickley, which has always been a bit upscale but recently has seen a boom in restaurants. And this time we've eaten a bunch in Sewickley. Here's our report:

Vivo Kitchen- On the main drag (Beaver Road) in Sewickley, has a patio that a few years back was probably an adjacent building that has since been removed. Upscale American cuisine. Seasonal menu. Fresh ingredients. Gates to keep most of the street noise out. Human skulls in the firepit (what's the story on THAT?). I had the bison, the LB soft shell crabs (which she rarely gets outside of sushi places) Really good stuff. Recommended.

Cafe Des Amis - Took my parents (who don't do this sort of thing) to this for lunch. The LB chose it off the web site. Turned out to be a bakery on a back alley, with counter service. The food was excellent (my dad liked the BLT, the LB thought the french onion soup was worth it). The bread was baked in-house.We caught the tail end of the lunch rush, so it was noisy at first, but tapered off.

Mambo Italia - Set up in what looked like a renovated car dealership with a great roll-top garage door, which was open, allowing dining on the sidewalk, which is what we did. Food was good (penne with sausage for me and a Cesare salad) but the service was extremely hit and miss (I'm looking at YOU, Chad). Missed my salad and a wedding soup to the table next door on the first bounce. Still has to work some of the bugs out.

Paradise Island Bowl - You're serious? A BOWLING Alley? You're recommending a BOWLING ALLEY? Yep. Located at the far western end of Neville Island in the Ohio River, right next to the Robert Morris College sports center (miniature golf!) it has a great parking lot patio (a strong point in May, when it is not thunderstorming) with a view of the river. Excellent cheese steak on a flatbread, very good po'boy. It is a good summer evening place.

Vocielli's Pizza - This one is a chain, and there was one down the street when my mom-in-law lived in Upper St. Clair. This one is in Sewickley. Good sandwiches, mighty fine pizza, very fast. We use it on the days when we're too tired to experiment.

Bea's Taco Town - OK, not in Sewickly, but rather on Banksville Road in the South Hills, in one of the low buildings along the side of the road. Did lunch with an old friend there - his suggestion, since his favorite Thai place had just been shut down by the health inspectors. However, Taco Town was great - double-wrapped street tacos. Great fish, shrimp, and chorizo. Will go back to try some of the others.

Ichiban Hibachi and Sushi Bar - Decent sushi in Pittsburgh? You betcha. Situated in a strip mall in Robinson Town Center, went there with Kate's sister and her family (usually my brother-in-law makes a mean backyard grill, but that evening there were threats of heavy rain). Really good and affordable. My only complaint is actually the rolls are TOO large, making it hard to take them in one bite.

Eleven - Our sole downtown entry this time, where the Strip District abuts the downtown area at the convention center, near the History Museum (trust me, any 'Burgher will tell you those directions make perfect sense). This is the high-class joint that we've been to before. Took my nephew for lunch, since he wanted to scope it out for his wife. High-end and good, even for a lunch menu. Had the finest lobster roll in many years there - right temperature (many are tooth-deadeningly cold), right texture (too many are too creamy), and stuffed deep within the roll (some are an open-faced sandwich with a lobster topping). Pricey. Bring a tie.

Bellevue Dairy Queen - My grandparents lived in Bellevue, and as a child I may have been taken here for a treat. Still here, still a tiny, tiny building, located just between Sewickley and Pittsburgh to make it a good stopping point for a reward for dealing with Pgh traffic. Good cones. But you know, it's a Dairy Queen.

More later,

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Play: Family Matters

Familiar by Danai Gurira, Directed by Taibi Magar, Seattle Rep through May 27.

Where is your home? Is it where you rest your head? Where your family is? Where your heritage is? Is it what makes you YOU?

Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking about in the wake of Familiar, by Danai Gurira. Ms. Gurira is a now-well-known actor from things like The Walking Dead (Michonne) and Black Panther (Okoye). But I'm going to concentrate here on her writing, despite the fact that the curtain call included the Wakandan salute. Because her writing is really, really good.

The central thrust of the play is similar to that of The Humans, from the start of this season. A family gets together and argues. In this case the family is from Zimbabwe (shortened to Zim throughout), and living in Minneapolis. Tendi (Sha Cage), the eldest daughter, a successful lawyer, is getting married. Her betrothed is Chris (Quinn Franzen), who is white, but that's a not big thing here. Or rather, there are bigger things going on. Chris and Tendi are both evangelicals, though she was raised Lutheran, though that's not the big thing here. Tendi's mother (Dr. Marvelous Chinyaramwira) is sort of cheesed off by this, since none of the family is in the wedding party. Father Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) bears up under his determined wife. Sister Nyasha (Aishe Keita), a struggling singer/songwriter and Aunt Margaret (Austene Van), who does direct sales and drinks (a lot of drinking in this play), descend on the household. 

And then someone invites Aunt Anne (Wandachristine) from Zimbabwe, Marvelous' defiant oldest sister who convinces the couple to undergo the roora, a Zimbabwe tradition where a bride price is set which the groom pays (sort of a reverse dowry in the western sense). Protip to all young couples considering marriage - when someone says you should engage in a family tradition, check out that tradition fully before saying yes.

So, we have a powderkeg here - Mother Marvelous wants nothing to do with old country tradition. Worse, Aunt Anne threatens Marvelous's own position as domineering matriarch. Nyasha wants to know more about her heritage, Tendi wants to know when Nyasha is going to get a real job. Both Donald and Margaret drink and try to stay out of the way. Chris is clueless but trying, and in performing the roora, is called upon to produce a negotiator, who ends up being his even more hapless brother Brad (a completely comic Michael Wieser).

And it all works, in a way that The Humans fails to. Each of these characters have their own agency, their own arcs, their own identity. Everybody gets a moment, every actor gets the chance to show that their character owns (or deserves to own) their own life. Families squabble and celebrate, schism are between generations and heritages, secrets are revealed, and the action ricochets from slapstick to pathos.The end result it to produce not an easy, simple picture but a collage of different experiences the builds to form a cohesive unit. The family bends but does not ultimately buckle.

The set is one of those mini-mansions common to successful professionals, and the Rep continues its run this season with double-stages, upper and lower, but has it make sense within the universe of the play itself. It looks like one of the upper-middle-class house beautiful abodes. Oddly, some of the sight lines are blocked from characters stacked in front of each other, which is s rarity for a Rep productions. Another challenge: the actors argue and walk on each others lines, and often dive fully into their ancestral Shona language, so sometimes you get a bit lost if you missed something important. 

But these are quibbles. The strength of the actors matches the strength of the text. It is worth seeing.

More later, 

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Car Theft

So, I just had a brief encounter with a car prowler in my front driveway.

This happened maybe an hour ago. I was sitting in the living room, and someone drove into our horseshoe driveway and parked. A guy got out and ran towards the side of the house, where we park the cars. People sometimes use our driveway as a turnaround, and the Lovely Bride sometimes has clients dropping off stuff, so I wasn't panicked. When he didn't come directly to the door, I walked out.

And found him sitting in the driver's seat of the Lovely B's car. When he saw me approach, he got out.

I said "Can I help you?" (sorry, not a tough guy).

He said something like "Don't worry about it," and ran back to his car, got in, and drove off, heading east. I got the license plate number, wrote it down, then went looking for my L Bride, who was in the side yard (away from the vehicles). She had seen nothing, but after a quick consult, we decided to call 911.

And I did and gave them the details. Very polite, asked all the right questions. They asked if I had taken a picture of the other vehicle, WHICH I HAD NOT EVEN CONSIDERED but was a good protip for the future. Took down all the data, and told me an officer would be in contact with me.

Which happened about, say, twenty minutes later. A Kent police officer called, confirmed the information I had given before, and asked for some personal information. Apparently a number of other calls came in on this guy, who was driving around, getting into cars and houses, and taking stuff.

Which makes a bit of sense, because if he was STEALING the car, he would be leaving HIS car behind, which was, frankly, a newer car. Unless he stole THAT car, but the officer didn't say anything about it.

In any event, they caught the guy, and that's where matters lay at the moment. At no time during the encounter did I feel threatened - the guy didn't have a weapon, or even address me other than a quick comment as he ran back to his vehicle. After the fact, realizing what went down and going through the list of what COULD have gone down, well, I'm a little rattled.

Glad they got the guy, though. Good job, Kent Police.

More later,

Friday, May 04, 2018

How I Came To Write Scourge

It has been, what, forever, since I've talking about Scourge, my Star Wars novel, right?

I mean, an entire universe has rebooted since then. But I'm still pretty happy with how things turned out.

So in honor of May the Fourth, here's the secret history of how Scourge came about:

In early 2008, some ten years ago, I was contacted by an editor at Del Rey, who said "I understand you can write quickly. Would you like to write a novel based on a Star-Wars licensed computer game?" I confirmed the first and asked to learn more about the second.

The game involved was Star Wars: Battlefield III, from a company in England. They sent me the overall plot, which involved force-using clonetroopers. It was interesting. But checking around, I couldn't find any reference to the game itself in the gaming press. Not even a "hey, we're working on this." So I was concerned that I would put a lot of effort into something that might not see the light of day.

Talking with my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), we hit upon putting a kill fee into the contract - if the whole project fell apart, I would be paid for the work done. The good people at Del Rey said sure thing, but there was no way this book would be cancelled. So I novelized the plot of the game, keeping all the main points, touching all the locations in the game, and adding a few grace notes here and there while justifying and deepening character behavior. And they liked it. We were good to go.

And then the game was cancelled. Others can go into the whys and wherefores, but Star Wars  Battlefront III game was never going to happen. And the book project was shelved as well.

Which was cool, because I got paid for the work I did. It was a win.

Then Del Rey came back and said, "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you be willing to roll that over into another book?" And I asked what book and they said "Something for the new Star Wars Old Republic MMO."

And I had to say no, because my day job was working on an MMO, and while the guys at ArenaNet were cool with me doing a Star Wars novel, even a Star Wars licensed computer game novel, they really drew the line at me doing work for a directly competitive product. That's cool, I had to agree with them, so I had to say no (but I kept the money already earned).

Then Del Rey came back AGAIN as said "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you like to roll that into another, original book set in the Star Wars universe? Oh, and we can pay a little more since we don't have to give a piece of the action to a game license." And I said yes, cleared it with my day job, and gave Del Rey about a dozen pitches.

And some were cool and some were interesting/silly - A Dexter Jettster mystery that started in his diner, a story involving that Giant Green Bunny named Jaxxon,  and The Autobiography of Jar Jar Binks (which I REALLY wanted to do, believe it or not, and do it straight.). They settled on a novelization of a game product I has written with Owen Stephens at WotC - the original was called Tempest Feud, and it dealt with Hutts and Corporate Space, which I had loved since the very early Han Solo books.

They sent me background information on Hutts, most of which is stuff that I myself wrote for the game product, making me my own source material. The name we settled on (after much batting about) was Scourge, and the cover was a surprise to me, showing up in my in-basket about the time it was released to the general populace (I would have given the cover Jedi rose-colored glasses as described in the book, but that's me).

Of course, over the entire course of events, with changes of both direction and editors and schedules (this was a done-in-one, so did not have to be part of a larger series), this quickly-written novel took longer to complete, finally being published in 2012. It took so long that I got my final payment on the contract before I turned in the manuscript (contractually, it had to be closed out with X months of signing, or upon delivery, and the contract timed out before I made official turnover.)

All this is not the worse example of how the sausage is made, and the folk at Del Rey were great to work it, and I'd jump at another chance, in this revised and rebooted universe (makes phone hand symbol and mouths "call me!"). But I am quite content to be one of the final entries in what would now be the "Legends" category, and Scourge can still be found some of your better used-bookstores (and some of the not-so-better ones as well).

Oh, and the original plot? I considered posting it, but the original plot the game was based on, after things fell apart for it, was moved over to ANOTHER game under development. So you can find the basics of the main character, X2, HERE. So I could have written that book after all. But it did finally see the light of day.

In the mean time, May the Fourth be with you. More later.