Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Plague Books: Time Travel, By the Rules

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Ace Books, 1983

Provenance: I only read this about 10 years ago. I didn't read it when it came out in part because it released in one of those sections of my life where I didn't read a lot of new fiction. I had graduated, got a "real job" as civil engineer, was laid off from that "new job" and had found another job in Wisconsin, moved, got married, and eventually was hip-deep in Dragonlance and Marvel Super Heroes. So I was, like, BUSY at the time. So lay off, OK?

Anyway, I missed the boat and the book, though friends recommended it strongly over the years. And I finally came across a copy in 2009. I know this because I have the receipt as a book mark, from the Barnes & Nobles Booksellers at the University Village (now no longer there). Also in the book was a take-out menu from the Delfino's (really good Chicago Deep Dish), and a flyer for a Butoh performance at the Richard Hugo House that I never attended. So I have a good idea of the time and place for this one.

Review: I'm sorry I missed it the first time around, but happy I caught up with it later. I've gone on about playing fair with the reader, and Powers does this in spades. But first, let me give you the back story:

A group of Egyptian cultists back at the start of the 1800s try to summon their god to drive the English out of Egypt. They don't succeed, but do manage to punch a number of discrete holes in the timestream. In the present day, a dying millionaire discovers those holes and sees them as a way of time travel. He hires Brendan Doyle, English professor and expert on an obscure author named Ashbless to lead a group back in time to a lecture by Samuel Coleridge. Of course the millionaire has a secret agenda, as almost every does - well, everyone except Doyle.

Things go casters up  in the past, and Doyle is kidnapped and stuck there, with multiple factions all with different aims hunting for him. Now, the book does two things I like - one is how Powers handles the man from the future in the past, and the other is writing a book in which time travel is inelastic while still maintaining suspense.

For the first part, there is a classic bit of SF from L Sprague DeCamp called Lest Darkness Fall, about a modern archaeologist who finds himself trapped in Late-Roman Empire Times. Using his 20th Century knowledge of the past, he proceeds to turn things around, rally the Ostrogoths, and stave off the Dark Ages. DeCamp's protagonist is the capable, competent, professional that inhabits such stories. 

Doyle? Not so much. His knowledge of the future doesn't help, and his ineptness with his current present results in him being reduced to starvation and begging almost immediately. Far from being the competent nigh-omniscient, Doyle is overwhelmed by his new situation. Things he knows from the future turn out to be untrue, and things get worse as the other factions move in.

The other thing I liked about the plot is that it works off the fact that time travel is inelastic - you can't change the past. No bumping off the Emperor, because your history will not allow it. Now, writing a book with the protagonist having agency in a deterministic universe is a bit of a challenge, but Powers pulls it off neatly, because a lot of specific knowledge gets lost over time, and the escapes lay in the details. Doyle knows his "death date", which cannot be changed, but if and how he avoids it is part of the charm of the book.

Yeah, I can see how this hit a lot of people hard when its first came out. It is tightly written, and plays by the rules while opening the doors to some truly strange occurrences (which we don't know about tucked away safely uptime). We have werewolves, we have ancient gods, we have wizards so evil that they cannot walk on the earth (one has stilts). We have body swapping and simulacra. We have history and secret history.

There feels to be long standing effects on gaming Shadowfist/Feng Shui (card game and RPG set in the same universe) uses the idea of multiple fixed time portals. World of Darkness embraces the entire secret history (though there are other volumes of this ilk). And the entire vibe of Egyptian Cult and 19th centruy England has a very Masks of Nyarlathetop feel to it. And while it does not make the list of various Appendix N's, it feels like a D&D adventure in many ways. So I'm going to hazard a guess that this has book, combining fantasy with strict adherence to history, had a definite impact on gaming.

It is worth digging out all these years later, so go take a look.

More later,


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Plague Books: Baker Street Blues

The Baker Street Jurors
by Michael Robertson

Provenance: Here's a secret - Amazon has a free bookstore available in one of its buildings.

OK, it isn't much of a secret, since it was mentioned in an article in the Seattle Times a few years back. And I don't know if it is still there, particularly in these Pandemic times. And what it is is a room with a lot of publishers copies that have been sent in for review for, like the Amazon Book Review that no one else claimed. So it is more of a "free giveway table" situated on one floor of a building that I will not divulge. And it is for Amazon employees, since you have to use your keycard to get in. Many of the books available are bound galleries (Here's the text, but we don't have a final cover or front matter") or Uncorrected Proof ("Here's the text and what we THINK is the cover, but we need to go through it one more time"), so they may not be the finished production you see at the B&N. 

But, hey, free books.

I hit the library few times and, to be honest, found it pretty picked over. I don't know if they restocked every Monday or what, but is had a scattering of SF, a lot of memoirs, some popular fiction, and a good selection of mysteries. Mysteries were well represented, and on a whim I picked up a copy of The Baker Street Jurors there.

And, spoilers, I didn't care much for it at all.

Review: I've nattered on about genre more than a few times to different degrees in this blog. How it is ultimately a marketing term - "If you liked X, you'll like THIS!", How it accumulates its own ancestors (Verne, Wells, or Shelly may have "invented" SF, but none of it was WRITING it when they composed their well-known works). How it changes over time ("Horror becomes Paranormal Romance", or most recently, we've see the mitosis of Fantasy and Science Fiction into two separate sections of the book store.). I don't HATE genre - I'm a big practitioner of it myself - but I do recognize it for what it it.

Well here's another rule about genre - when a genre gets big enough, it starts spawning off sub-genres. Mysteries is a great example. There are cat mysteries, dog mysteries, medieval monk mysteries, feminist mysteries, food mysteries, cozies, police procedurals, ancient Egyptian mysteries, dark Scandinavian mysteries, urban mysteries, and supernatural mysteries. Each of these subgenres may attract general "mysteries" crowd, but they are spot-targeted on appealing to a particular sort of buyer looking for a particular kind of story.

So. Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It it is a successful subgenre in its own right. stepping outside of books, look at the amount of TV shows and movies that have spawned off Holmes over the years, but that's a subject for a different rant. Heck, we have secret Holmes stories, young Holmes stories, lost Holmes stories (like the year he spent after Reichenbach) and even here in this blog, retired Holmes stories.

Baker Street Jurors, and the other books of the series (and yes, it is a series, another hallmark of genre), has an initially tangential connection to the Holmes oeuvre. Its protagonists are lawyers whose offices are at 221B Baker Street. And that's the initial connection. Within this fictional universe, like ours, Holmes is a created character, but that doesn't stop them from getting into Holmes-related mysteries.

In this case, one of the lawyers is summoned to jury duty (Yes, it is a conceit. Would YOU want a lawyer in a jury you were presenting to? But, this is Britain). He ALSO gets a jury summons for Sherlock Holmes at the same address. He bins the second one as a joke, but then, a long, hawk-nosed lanky violinist shows up for the jury duty, looking very Basil Rathbonish. And they are both assigned to the same case, which is a high-profile murder of a famous cricket-player's wife by a famous cricket-player with his famous cricket-playing bat. The game is afoot!

OK, there are conceits in this game. But then, in the midst of the proceedings, they decamp the jurors to the quote-scene-of-the-crime-end-quote. And then jurors start, um, dropping off, in shades of Agatha Christie and her Ten Little Indians (which would be Twelve in this case, plus spares).

Not great, but not criminal, in a writing sense. And the protagonist, Nigel Health (Brother Rory is off on a honeymoon) is fairly likable and a positive character. No, what irritated me about this book, and so irritated me that I kept it on my desk until I could properly dispose of it, was this: Robertson is not playing fair by the reader. If, in a mystery, you say something like "It couldn't possibly be an evil twin", then no matter who says it, you are reassuring the reader that the solution does not involve an evil twin. If the resolution of the crime then proceeds to be, "Ahah! It was an evil twin!" well, yeah, people are going to come after you with cricket bats.

And that's what happens in BSJ. No, not evil twins, but something similar, which left me a little put out. I can put up with the matters of coincidence (like how the guy that looks and acts like Sherlock Holmes ended up on the jury), but this is an outright fib to reader. And that's pretty much a violation of a core concept of mysteries. 

*Deep Breath*, and I've had this volume tucked away behind my monitor for several years waiting for me to get around to dunning it. And now that I have done so, I can safely put it into a box and inflict it on someone at a library sale. 

And feel, somehow, liberated.

More later, 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Life In the Time of the Virus - The Abyss Yawns

Automat by Edward Hopper 1927
Month Eight. 

Things are getting worse in the outside world. You knew it was coming, those of you were that were paying attention to how these things work. As we move from summer into fall, people move indoors, so spreading the virus is easier among groups. As a result, we are spiking, both here in King County and across the nation. A spike happened during the winter months in the Great Influenza a century ago and is happening here.

We are better prepared, the disease is more survivable, and vaccines and treatments, while still unproven, are promising. But hospital beds are filling up again and patients are being airlifted into Seattle from overloaded states like Utah and Idaho. The Federal Response remains abysmal, and the states are once more left to shift for themselves. It is the sort of thing that everyone was aware was in the works, but nothing much was done, so we confront another potential seasons of lockdowns, self-quarantines and shifting away from voluntary semi-isolation to a more hard-edged version once more.

[And over the course of writing this, news comes that we are shutting down further. No small gatherings. No meals in restaurants. No museums. Not a complete lock-down, but still extremely severe and stronger than any time since March. If I knew of a better way forward, I would definitely suggest it, but I don't.]

Of course, in the midst of this there was an election. Look elsewhere on this page for all the commentary therein. On election day, I turned down the media, social and otherwise, and retreated into a book. Unfortunately, the book was a Mary Beard volume on Rome, detailing its slide from sort-of-a-Republic into full-fledged authoritarianism, so probably it was not the most relaxing choice. I shifted over to a collection of Nero Wolfe stories about halfway through the evening.

I think that the sense of quarantine and isolation may be more pronounced as we move to the winter months, which in the Puget Sound means grey, rain, cold, the rare snowstorm and the occasional high winds. We had been eating out (or sending out) for food more of late, and that may get cut back if the restaurants have to reduce again. 

All work in on-line and with video chat, and while that keeps me going, the lack of in-person relationship and general haranguing is felt. Meetings in conference calls are usually for a purpose, and less for just messing about - talking about the latest professional sports game, the latest computer game everyone is playing, the latest movie. We do an on-line happy hour once a week, which is very good, but still does not match the sudden digressions into medieval trade practices that once marked the middle of my work day.

Pro sports teams are playing to empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noises. The newspaper is a slender thing, lacking a lot of its advertising. Catalogs, however, have made a comeback, and the Post Office has been loading the mailbox with the pre-holiday crush. And I am getting spam robocalls (Currently Kate from the Warranty department wants to get in touch with me. A lot.), so they have returned to their natural habitat, at least.

But I miss live theatre. I miss museums. I miss bookstores. I miss going to new restaurants. I miss sudden decisions to go shopping. I miss sushi. As it grows chiller, I miss sitting on the beneath the new deck, watching the daylight linger..I miss sunlight late into the evening, and soft rains that clear by morning. Now comes the winter of our discontent, lacking a glorious summer in the immediate future.

More later,

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Plague Books: A Pirate's Life For Me

Fast Ships, Black Sails, Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Night Shade Books, 2008

Provenance: NorthWestCon. Gotta be NorthWestCon. Night Shade had a table in the Dealer's Room that year, one of the few publishers that did. It has been a source of trade-paperback-sized volumes in my library over the years.

Review: I have a soft spot for the Age of Fighting Sail. It shows in Spelljammer. It shows in the world I pitched that never was. And It shows in a short story I wrote for Oceans of Magic. I've read/listened to the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian, but never really got any traction with Hornblower or the Bolitho series. So Pirates? An easy sale for me. 

And this collection of pirates definitely scratches the itch. I have space pirates. I have fantasy pirates. I have alt-world pirates. I have cyber-pirates. I have poetic pirates. I have a surprising amount of cannibals. And most of them are pretty darn good.

One of the challenges in a pirate story, or any story in the Age of Fighting Sail, is that the sailing ship is the most complex machine of its age. Naval architecture was precise and unforgiving, and the the operating system consisted of the living crew who had to operate in co-ordination to keep things from going hull-sided up. Even operating a ship was a challenge and a craft, much less fighting to the death with another of these complex battle-wagons.

And there is the romance of the sea, of foreign lands, and of the promise of treasure and riches for those who who can bear up, and are fortunate. The 18 stories here range from pure fantasy to alternate histories to horror in tone, and most of them are pretty good. The best from my opinion was "Araminta, Or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake" by Naomi Novik, but a lot of the tales take on a distaff view of the historically (though not exclusively) male-dominated profession of piracy. A couple of the tales, did feel like the background music was "Brandi, you're a fine girl". Kate Sparrow's "Pirate Solutions" features hackers with historical and mystical piratical connections, with nods to Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Howard Waldrop and Michael Moorcock are here with name recognition, though Waldrop's is a mashup of Gilbert and Sullivan with Peter Pan, while Moorcock's contribution is a vignette, at best. Elizabeth Bear/Sarah Monette roll out a Cthuloid space tale with "Boojum", and Paul Batteiger does a nifty bit of worldbuilding with an ice-bound world in "Cold Day in Hell" which smacks of a Patrick O'Brien tale (on skates). 

The only story that left me cold was Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana", which seeks to take the terminology and jargon of the old salts and make it completely impregnable. I think it was humor, but the shot was wide and failed to take down any rigging. Rhys Hughes drops a shaggy dog story in "Castor on Troubled Waters", but that was forgivable. All in all, a good collection, nicely paced and well-put-together.

And it has just a hint of spray of sea salt on it.

More later, 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Political Desk: Last Call

 So, how did things turn out?

Not horribly at all. Not everything went the way I recommended, but that's the nature of having an election - they let all sorts of people have their say. There have been a number of interesting wrinkles, including the fact that the late ballots in the State of Washington have been more Republican, when normally the last-minute surge has been urban and Democrat. Other notes as we will go through.  

Referendum Measure No. 90 - Approved  by healthy amount.

     Right before the election I got a robo-call against the measure that was positively frothing at the mouth about how it was a horrible things because it would do all sorts of thing that the measure specifically said it was not going to do.

Advisory Vote No 32 - All REJECTED by healthy amounts. 

    Which goes to show you that 1) They still don't matter, 2) Their wording is pure scare-tactics, but 3) We really hate taxes, even if it does not affect us directly. But those of you who were running a multi-billion dollar aircraft assembly plant in your basement as a side gig, the voters of Washington State have your back.

Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution No. 8212  - Rejected    

  This one is a surprise. I thought this one, to help fund elder care, was a no brainer. THIS ONE, I believe, has teeth to it, so as a future old person, I'm interested in seeing what happens next. 

harter Amendment No 1 - Inquests - Yes
Charter Amendment No 2 - Disposition of Real Property for Affordable Housing- Yes
Charter Amendment No.3 - References to Citizens - Yes
Charter Amendment No. 4 - Office of Law Enforcement Oversight - Subpoena Authority - Yes
Charter Amendment No. 5 - Making the King County Sheriff an Appointed Position - Yes
Charter Amendment No. 6 - Structure and Duties of the Department of Public Safety - Yes
Charter Amendment No. 7 - Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Family Caregiver, Military, or Veteran Status - Yes

Proposition No. 1
Harborview Medical Center Health and Safety Improvement Bonds - Approved. 

President and Vice President of the United States: Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris.

    At 9 AM, our neighbor sounded an airhorn, which usually he uses for Seahawk touchdowns. That was the point that the AP declared that PA flipped and declared Mr. Biden the winner (it doesn't work EXACTLY like that, but its the way it has been done all the way along). My Facebook page is filled with co-workers and former colleagues dancing in the streets. Looking at the big picture, it doesn't look as much like a refutation of the GOP as a refutation of the horrible man who has squatted in the White House for the past four years. But that's enough, right now.
United States Representative Congressional District No. 9 - Adam Smith.

    I did get a couple robo-calls on this one, encouraging I vote for someone who stood for people, not party (which this year means being a Republican but not wanting to admit it). Problem was that it was for the 8th District, not the 9th (The Democrat won there as well). Way to spend your campaign bucks, folks. 

Governor: Jay Inslee
Lt. Governor: Danny Heck 

    This was a no-lose situation with two Democrats in the running, and the winner had the best yard sign of the season "Give Olympia HECK!". But what is interesting is that there was a 20% write-in, most of it for Joshua Freed, GOP, who ran for Governor in the Primary (and lost), and who is in trouble for funny-money business in his funding (so, you know, GOP). But it is phenomenally tough to run a write-in campaign, even when it is all mail-in. So that's worth noting.

Secretary of State: Kim Wyman. 

    Here's one I can't say I'm sad to be wrong about, even though Ms. Wyman is a Republican. She has done a very good job in a position that a lot of her party hates. The GOP tends to hide behind her pant-suit cuffs when they need to point to an "honest Republican", but she has proved herself capable and competent repeatedly over the years. 

State Treasurer: Mike Pellicciotti
State Auditor: Pat (Patrice) McCarthy
Attourney General : Bob Ferguson
Commissioner of Public Lands: Hilary Franz
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Chris Reykdal
Insurance Commissioner: Mike Kreidler

Legislative District No. 11 State Senator: Bob Hasegawa
Legislative District No. 11 Representative Position No. 1: David Hackney
Legislative District No. 11 Representative Position No. 2: Steve Berquist

State Supreme Court Justice Position No. 3 - Raquel Montoya-Lewis
State Supreme Court Justice Position No. 6 - G. Helen Whitener

Superior Court Judge Position No. 12 - Andrea Robertson
Superior Court Judge Position No. 30 - Doug North

And with that, we slap the Political Desk back into its cryogenic chamber and let it rest until the next set of ballots come out.

More later,