What is that? It's a duck pond. Why aren't there any ducks? I don't know. There's never any ducks. Then how do you know it's a duck pond?
Saturday, July 22
So, what we have here is a space opera kind of thing set in a universe where dialectical materialism is true. That is, the laws of physics are (to some extent) what you can convince other people to believe them to be.
As a science-fictional premise this is fine, and the author follows through on his premise pretty robustly. Most of the characters are idiots, and the society they live in is awful. But this is because being a charismatic sociopath is the only reliable path to power, so all the leaders - all of them - are of that nature. They treat their soldiers and citizens as pawns, or less than pawns, because that actually works.
Our heroine, Kel Cheris, is an up-and-coming infantry captain with a flair for mathematics unusual in the army. She is co-opted into a plot by some of the central political figures in the Hexarchate to do... Something. I've finished the first book, and it's still not entirely clear who is trying to do what to whom.
The Cinder Spires, volume one: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher
Not-Spain invades not-England with their flying armada and a band of assassins and arsonists, not to mention lots and lots of spiders. Our heroes are little miss rich girl joined the Marines, not so little miss not rich girl also joined the Marines, cousin in the Marines, dashing privateer captain done wrong by the Navy brass, crazy old wizard, and crazy young witch. Oh, and cats.
Which sounds formulaic except that Jim Butcher is a good enough writer to make formula work, not-Spain and not-England are for some reason enormous smokestacks crammed full of people (hence the "cinder spires"), and there is an actual legitimate reason why the wizards are all crazy.*
Pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. The characters and setting were better than the plot, so bodes well for the next volume.
The Laundry Files, volume, what, six?: The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross
The previous volume, the last so far starring Bob - a computer programmer working for a faceless bureaucracy charged with protecting the Universe from things that make Cthulhu look like a beagle puppy - was dull and largely pointless, though at least everyone died at the end.**
This volume almost dies at the beginning as our heroine, Dominique - Mo, Bob's wife - spends the first third of the book complaining about, well, everything. But that settles down eventually and is at least partly a head-fake for later events so I've mostly forgiven it. Not as good as the brilliant first three, but better than the last one, so I'll give the series another go.
The Craft Sequence, volume four: Last First Snow by Max Gladstone
The Craft Sequence is a series of books about what I've called necromantic conveyancing - courtroom and boardroom thrillers set in a world of undying sorcerers and dead gods, where contracts are living and possibly sentient. The first three books are terrific.
Last First Snow is just... Meh. Not awful, but meh.
The first problem is that it's an idiot plot. There are, if we are generous, three characters in the book who don't act like idiots throughout. Just one more person not acting like an idiot - anyone, Kopil, Temoc, the Major, Tay, Tan Batac, Mina, Zoh, Temoc's scheming former associate, the parents who thought a riot would make an educational day trip for their children, anyone - and the story would be: Things were tense there for a moment, but we worked it out. The end.
The second problem is that it's supposed to be balanced, sympathetic towards both sides. But the underdogs are a cult of human sacrifice seeking to subjugate humanity in an endless reign of slavery and terror - again - and the "man", so to speak, holding them down, is the leader of the plucky rebels who freed mankind from captivity within living memory.
Gladstone can and has done a lot better; I think the decision to write a prequel was unwise. Even here, parts of the story are captivating; I've certainly read worse. Still hoping for a return to form with the next book.
Also, the first two books involve magic that eats holes in your brain, and the latter two books are about the King in Yellow and the King in Red, respectively.
The pseudo-user ("magic" above is one example) has an account here and is using it to post spam. I've gotten about 8 spams from him this evening, and he's attacking Wonderduck, too. Could you obliterate him, please? All that's needed is to find and close his account.
Two new additions to existing fantasy series by two of my favourite writers. Not the best time for my Nexus 7 to suddenly die.
Full Fathom Five is the third in Max Gladstone's Craft sequence (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise) which merges Vancean fantasy with the corporate thriller, so the key plot element shared by the three works is a sort of necromantic forensic conveyancing. In this world, gods and souls are not just real, they are public utilities and currencies.
Our main characters on this outing are Kai, who constructs bespoke demigods for a fantasy-Hawaii-based spiritual mutual fund, and Izza, a street urchin with an unexplained hotline to Heaven. When one of the idols managed by Kai's employer is endangered by the failure of a risky investment, Kai dives in (literally) with a last-minute leveraged buyout offer, and her life starts to unravel.
There follows a great deal of running around, getting hit on the head (literally, figuratively, or spiritually), unexpected betrayals, unexpected fidelities, and in the end triumph pulled from the jaws of a thing with lots and lots of teeth, which is pretty much the same formula as the previous two books.
Which works just fine for me.
Full Fathom Five expands on the scope of the first two books, showing us that the events of the three stories are not just happening in a shared world, but follow closely on one another, and are perhaps directly related. That leaves me looking eagerly forward to Gladstone's next entry in the series. I'd be ready and willing to buy more standalone novels as long as he keeps writing, but if he can take the series to the next level, so much the better.
If you liked the first two books you won't want to miss this. If you haven't read any of them, start with Three Parts Dead; while the books work in any order (so far) it's the easiest to get into.
The Rhesus Chart is the fifth in Charles Stross' Laundry Files (The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex) that follows the trials of British civil servant Bob Howard, a former computer scientist corralled into working for a super-secret division of MI-6 tasked with defending the Universe. The series is a cross between the classic Cold War spy thriller and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. (Indeed, the recent Laundry Files novella Equoid involves Lovecraft himself.)
This time out.... Frankly, this time out is disappointing. The previous novels involved adventure, danger, action and excitement, even if Bob didn't want any part of it. This novel never leaves London, much less Earth; it never really gets beyond second gear. Though the story is told in first person, a good half of the action takes place when Bob is not present, and is told by reconstruction or after-action report.
This applies even to the climactic scenes of the novel, which turns a Pyrrhic victory into merely a damp squib. It's still a decent read, but given how well the series started out, this latest outing is so much less than it might have been. I would not really recommend it either to a new or an established reader of the series; instead, pick up Equoid and the other short works.
I'm reading Kage Baker'sCompany series at the moment. I thought I'd stopped mid-way through Mendoza in Hollywood (book 3) long ago, just before the story arc that connects all the books together kicks in. But I just finished The Graveyard Game (book 4) and as I was getting to the end, I was overwhelmed with deja vu. I definitely got that far before.
The series is about Dr. Zeus Inc., a.k.a The Company, a business that controls the secrets of time travel and immortality and is naturally immensely rich and run by idiots. (Because if a corporation controls the secrets of time travel and immortality and isn't run by idiots, there's not going to be much of a story.)
The reason I bring this up is firstly because the stories are quite good and readily available on Kindle (back in the days of paper the middle volumes seemed perpetually out of print, and when I first got my Nexus 7 last year the middle volumes were virtually out of print as well), and second, because of pajama boy.
The background of Baker's books posits a decline in human moral fibre from the 21st century onwards (the books cover events in eras from around 150,000 BC through to at least the 24th century) to the point that everything remotely worth doing has been banned. Which seemed a bit far fetched to me until pb* popped into the public consciousness. He's the poster child for the achordate 24th century society of The Company.
Except for the fact that their list of banned substances includes chocolate. For now, I suspect even our insufferable man-children of left-wing propaganda would consider that a step too far.
It was a beautiful clear winter’s day. The sky was the aching pale blue of a flawless topaz, with a ring of pearlescent clouds at the horizon framing the dome of the heavens like those plaster molding things that hide the gap between the walls and the ceiling.
Sorry. If I couldn’t steal it, I never paid much attention. A character flaw I’m paying for to this day.
My name’s Lyra, thief turned thieftaker, disgraced child of a distant soil, student of magic, scribe and amanuensis to Joshua the Magnificent. This morning I was engaged with drawing pictures with my finger in the frost on the window panes.
A thump from behind me indicated that another book had failed to yield up answers. I stared out at the snow-covered rooves, the snow-covered trees, the snow-covered everything else.
"I thought you told me that weather magic was impossible.” I tilted my head to admire my handiwork.
"And what else did I tell you?”
"You told me that a single example outweighs a thousand dusty treatises.”
"Did I?” I turned around. Joshua was beaming at me. "That’s rather fine, don’t you think? Have you -”
I patted the thick journal on the bench beside me. "All safe.”
"Good, good.” He paused for a moment, uncertain again. "You must admit that we do have rather a striking example here.”
We did indeed.
I said I studied magic, and so I do, but the truth is that magic is drawn to me in rather the same way that large rocks are drawn to the moons. In other words, in no perceptible way whatsoever. What I could do, what I could do apparently rather well even by magician standards, was seemagic.
This is something of a trick, a skill young magicians need to learn and master over the course of years. They say that if you stare out to the horizon, and then extend your gaze again, out to the horizon beyond the merely physical borders of the world, there, faint and flickering, are the living threads of magic.
For me, though, it’s just there. It’s not so much that I don’t have to make an effort, as that I can’t unsee it even if I try. It’s been that way as long as I can remember.
And three days ago, someone had doodled a lace doily on the sky.
I turned back to the window, tracing the lines and whirls again.
"My mother also told me that weather magic was impossible.”
"How is your mother, by the way?”
I’d recently received a letter, wrapped in oilcloth, stamped with the Ducal seal. It seems that being the disgraced sister of the Duke carries benefits that don’t extend further down the family tree.
"She’s well. She thinks she’s an elf.”
"Really? What kind?” I didn’t bother to answer, continued tracing the pattern in the sky onto the glass. Joshua coughed. "In any case - your mother may be something of an expert on the subject, but still…”
It was, as I said, a beautiful winter’s day. With its coating of snow, the city looked like a particularly fanciful wedding cake, and I knew that from the far end of the loft I could look out and see the ice shining in the harbour like a million tons of uncut diamonds.
It was the middle of summer.
Weather is something I thought I’d left behind with my old life. Here in the south they think they have weather, when what they really have is climate. This time of the year it rains, this time of the year it is sunny and warm, this time of the year it is sunny and a little less warm. (I’ve been to the far north. Southerners have no conception of cold.) The winds blow steadily from the north-east, then they shift about and blow from the south-east instead. (Handy to know, when your empire is built on trade.)
Where I came from, what I’d left behind, was a region with weather so obstreperous that they’d named the entire country after it.
My mother, disgraced sister to the Duke of the Stormcoast, was a weather witch. Which is not to say that she could shape the weather, rather that she could predict it, and with uncommon accuracy. That had lead to a certain amount of fame, and that had lead to her catching the eye of the old duke’s son, and that had lead to marriage and a certain amount of household tension revolving around my sudden appearance, for though I was too young to know it at the time, my conception must have preceded my mother and her husband’s first encounter by some months.
And that, somehow, had lead to my mother killing the old duke with a soup ladle. Neither my mother nor my uncle, who had survived the debacle, nor my step-father, who had not, had ever bothered to fill me in with the precise details.
That’s not how my mother disgraced herself, in case you were wondering. Indeed, the populace and surviving family alike rather thought the old monster had had it coming. That - but no, that story can wait for another time.
At twenty to eight I gave up waiting for the tram and started the long slog down towards the office. In the civil service, it is always better to be definitively late than uncertainly on time, and my spex showed three amber dots doing an impression of Brownian motion amid the maze of city streets. Which meant, with roughly equal likelihood, that the transponders were down, the feed was down, the trams were genuinely stuck in traffic, or all of the above.
My spex were up, at least, and I chirped in with a revised ETA.
It was Monday, one of those increasingly rare summer days when the temperature and the humidity dropped into double digits simultaneously, and I could use the exercise. My transfer last year from field work to an analyst’s desk had failed to induce any reduction in my pastry habit, and the unending overtime left me with no energy to stop at the gym on the way home of an evening. So I took my jacket off, slung it over my shoulder, and I walked.
The office is part of the sprawling sandstone edifice of Central Station. If you enter from Eddy Avenue through the colonnade, turn right into the first service corridor, go past the bathrooms and the authorised personnel only signs, enter the baggage elevator and take it down to P3 and then back up to P1, you will find yourself in a narrow pedestrian tunnel with an arched ceiling, pale green walls, and fitful fluorescent lighting installed around the time a young Marconi was first toying with spark-gap transmitters.
And if you follow that tunnel far enough, you will come to a closet door labelled DR JBB BELL.
I opened the door and went in, because that is me, and this is my story.
Don’t try to follow those instructions, by the way. Not only will you be surreptitiously fingerprinted and retina-scanned, and then very politely but very firmly arrested, but I lied about at least three critical details, and in any case, it’s not there any more.
My name is Jocelyn Barrett Beresford Bell, known as B.B. to my more irritating friends and Baby to people I refuse to talk to. My father is an astrophysicist, and my mother is a fruitcake. I have an MSc in statistics, a PhD in abnormal psychology, I turn thirty in June, and I work as a transit cop. Which partly explains why my office is a renovated broom closet in a service tunnel deep below Central Station.
But only partly.
Sydney’s Underground system is the most complex in the world, a last gift of King and Country in the decades before independence. Bored Scots engineers, run short of London silt to burrow through, had been shipped off en masse and run riot in the rich southern soil. Or so the story goes, and indeed the city had inherited an Edwardian knotwork masterpiece of brick and cast iron, weaving a spell of rapid transportation from the beaches to the mountains for over a century.
Being unique in scale brings with it unique problems, so unique – if you will forgive my phrasing – so unique that the sociological actuaries are required to carry backup weapons.
Long ago and far away I work briefly many levels underground in the bowels of Wynyard Station. My desk backed onto a cinder-block wall the other side of which was a train tunnel. Whenever a train passed through (which was frequently) the desk and all on it would rattle disconsonantly (or maybe that was just me).
Posted by: tombei the mist at Saturday, August 18 2012 07:44 PM (hGCqM)
Most people never even notice that Wynyard Station is missing two entire platforms...
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Sunday, August 19 2012 12:23 AM (PiXy!)
Book 5 of Charlie Stross's The Merchant Princes. The initial adventure story has, at this point, devolved into a seven-sided war spanning
four universes which is just the way I like it.
Update: One problem with this series is that Stross appears to have let his political views colour the story, and his political views are asinine. If those aren't his actual views, he's still badly mismanaged that part of the story.
I'm through three of those, and sort of taking a break before picking up #4. I like Stross well enough (just got into him midway through last year) but there's something just a bit off-kilter about his storytelling, I find I can only take him in one-or-two-book doses.
Posted by: GreyDuck at Friday, March 19 2010 11:51 PM (7lMXI)
There is in some of his books, yes. The more hard-SF ones like Iron Sunrise and the lighter ones seem to be free of this, Merchant Princes has a touch of it, but Accelerando I found unreadable.
I've also got a new Glen Cook SF novel and a new Alastair Reynolds after that, so I think a nice quiet weekend is called for.
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Saturday, March 20 2010 12:02 AM (PiXy!)
Book 6 recently appeared here, I'll get to it shortly, I think. IIRC, it would not be wrong to characterize Stross as socialist, economically speaking, is that what you thought was leaking?
Posted by: Kayle at Saturday, March 20 2010 08:26 PM (hphNU)
The basic economics seem reasonable to me (I'm no economist) - a big part of the plot is that the Merchant Princes are running a, what's the term, mercantilist economy, and Miriam is trying to introduce them to capitalism.
On the topic of political economy, particularly with regard to our own world-analogue (he slips in some facts to indicate that it's not precisely our world), he's talking nonsense. And since he appears to actually hold the views expressed by the plot in that respect... Yeah.
Bit of a shame, since he's a fine writer and (I've chatted with him briefly online) a genuinely nice guy. It's not enough to ruin the story, but it still detracts from it.
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Sunday, March 21 2010 12:02 AM (PiXy!)
IIRC, Stross is some sort of cognitively dissonant left-wing libertarian-anarchist, who's nominally in favor of the free market, but can't resist all sorts of altruistic rentseeking giveaways which necessitate governmental tyrannies, while always pining for pie in the Singularity, in a Marxist withering-away-of-the-state sense.
That, and he's got a simply monstrous case of revolutionary fetishism. It creeps into every one of his books I've read.
What are the facts which set his Earth Prime apart from the real world, Pixy? I didn't notice any in the first four volumes; I've not bothered reading the fifth one yet.
Posted by: Mitch H. at Sunday, March 21 2010 03:30 AM (jwKxK)
The Earth Prime-ness doesn't really pop up until the fifth book. I kind of get the impression he wasn't intending it to be that way, but then real world political events meandered away from his plot setup.
Posted by: Mark at Sunday, March 21 2010 05:30 AM (bBxKr)
I seem to recall there was something in book four, but can't remember exactly what it was.
But in book five - Chief Justice who?!
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Sunday, March 21 2010 10:58 AM (PiXy!)
It kind of reminds me of H. Beam Piper's Paratime Police stuff. Not bad at all.
You wrote this the same week you were trying to write your own SQL language? The Handicapper General's gonna come get you if you're not careful, Harrison.
Posted by: Mitch H. at Tuesday, February 16 2010 03:03 AM (jwKxK)
I haven't actually read any Piper in decades. I'm sure there's a germ of an idea or three borrowed from there, as well as the whirling SF cosmos in general. Mina Smith is the protagonist in the original (similarly fragmentary and unpublished) stories I've set in the same universe, but earlier in the timeline, and as I indicated, a customs agent tasked to stamp out paratemporal contraband. If she's not retired by this point, she's probably a very senior figure in the Agency.
There's an awful lot that our accountant friend doesn't know, for all his advanced tech.
It's not a SQL language, though, just a programmatic database with some nice query-by-example features. Intentionally not Turing-complete. Though of course every protocol evolves until it is...
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Tuesday, February 16 2010 03:37 AM (PiXy!)