Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell

I grew up with a set of Greek and Roman mythological compilations and I love them to this day; I have occasionally tried to branch out into other myths and legends throughout the world and I’m at least passing familiar with most mythological traditions.  I’ve never really liked Sumerian myths that much, though.  They’re pretty weird.  Neal Stephenson once described them as the writings of a febrile toddler, and even from an era where gods weren't necessarily expected to have superior moral standing to humans the Sumerian pantheon is a pretty psychotic bunch, especially Inanna, goddess of screwing and ultra-violence.

I think a lot of this has to do with the passage of time between then and now.  The Greek mythological heroes are not “heroic” in the modern sense of that word; they aren’t do-gooders so much as they are strong and/or cunning enough to take what they want and tough enough that they can prevent other people from stopping them from doing it, and of course Sumeria is far more removed from us even than that.  I think the lack of material also hurts.  The mythological canon from Greece is one thing, but we also have a bunch of contemporary stuff by playwrights like Euripides that shows that even the ancient Greeks thought the gods and heroes were a bunch of huge jerks.  If we had a huge bunch of surviving work from ancient Sumeria we’d probably find that the average person on the street wasn’t really all that much different than us.  However, we don’t.

Anyway, Gilgamesh.  Oldest known story in the world, drawn from a couple of clay tablets dug up in the middle of nowhere, so it’s a little fragmentary and contradictory; probably it was a popular tale which came in different versions and variations.  It’s also pretty dry and a literal translation (which I’ve read in the past) contains a bunch of those repetitions and redundancies that would allow some poet to keep his place or recover from forgetting his place like you’d see in other oral works of antiquity.  They’re actually pretty tough going and I don’t think I’d ever managed to read one through before.  For these reasons I really admire Mitchell’s “version” (as opposed to “translation”) in which he cheerfully admits that he can’t read the work in the original language; he simply takes other translations, cleans up all the repetitions, and tries to set the whole thing in some sort of readable modern English prose.  It’s still kind of an odd story, but I found myself pretty into it this time.

This version is split up into 11 chapters or “books”, which doesn’t really correspond to the original story but narratively works pretty well.  In the beginning we’re introduced to Gilgamesh himself, the king of Uruk, being one-third human and two-thirds divine (however that’s supposed to work).  At the moment he’s oppressing his subjects, forcing all the young women to sleep with him and working all the young men to exhaustion somehow (possibly with military training, possibly with building defensive walls around Uruk).  He’s definitely a huge jerk but at the same time it’s also a case of him just being too awesome for his own good; his divine nature means he doesn’t ever sleep, so it’s not just a question of him simply terrorizing everybody, they can’t keep up with him.  Nonetheless the people of Uruk petition the gods to give Gilgamesh something better to do – this being an ancient historical epic written by noblemen who hadn’t considered the notion of maybe just not having a jerkass king.  Nonetheless.

The gods decide to create a friend for Gilgamesh and make the wild man Enkidu, who scares the trappers and peasants out in the boondocks of the kingdom until those people petition Gilgamesh to take care of this problem for them.  You might think that he’d raise an army and go out there, but instead he sends one of the sacred prostitutes from the temple of Ishtar, Shamhat, to sort things out and then promptly forgets about the whole thing.  Gilgamesh figures that this will tame the wild man, and after seven days of consecutive lovemaking he is proven correct.  What he doesn’t figure is that Enkidu will subsequently hear about how awesome Gilgamesh is, come to Uruk to challenge him, followed by a knock-down brawl in the street that results in them becoming friends.

I guess Gilgamesh was used to subjects and hadn’t ever really had a friend before.  At that point he decides that what they need is an adventure, so they decide to go kill the monster Humbaba, which is guarding a cedar forest at the behest of the gods.  Humbaba is terrifying, I guess, but his job description is to stay in the forest and he doesn’t come out and harass the countryside or anything.  Enkidu doesn’t really want to do this since he saw Humbaba once and thinks he’s not to be trifled with, but Gilgamesh is the king and so they do it anyway.  Calling this a fight would be highly misleading, since basically once they get there Gilgamesh wants to give up, but then the gods magically grant them victory and Humbaba surrenders.  Enkidu says they should kill him anyway and eventually persuades Gilgamesh to do it, although at this point Humbaba is no longer a threat to them and curses them with his dying breath.  Then the impish duo manage to piss off the goddess Inanna by killing another supernatural monster, so the gods decree that Enkidu must die.  Which he does.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that Sumerian mythology was sort of a bummer about the afterlife.  Everyone went down to the underworld, ruled over by Erishkigal, and had to wear a suit of feathers and eat dust for eternity.  I’ve also seen references that they weren’t able to talk.  This was similar to the initial Greco/Roman conception of Hades, although by late antiquity they’d come up with the notion that especially good souls got rewards and especially bad ones got torments, but for a long time the afterlife was a very dreary and one-size-fits-all conception.  Having been busy enjoying life, Gilgamesh hadn’t really given too much thought to this before, but losing his friend drives him sort of over the bend and he decides to seek the secret of eternal life.  After a long series of quests which take up the actual majority of the saga, he fails.  Nonetheless, the quests have taught him that he should just keep enjoying his life as long as he has it, and he then personally narrates the end of the tale, telling everyone how awesome Uruk is.

So, like I said, oldest story in the world.  I can’t say that it’s enthralling exactly, but it’s a unique experience to know that anything contained in this story is almost as old as human civilization.  Also interesting is the progression of the good life throughout mythology and how much it revolved around regular mealtimes.  Forget money and possessions – they were doing all right with sufficient bread and beer, and regular visits to cult prostitutes of course.  And although a lot of the motivations are sort of impenetrable to the modern reader, there are still some pretty funny scenes to be found here, particularly those involving the immortal Utnapishtim.  He’s pretty cranky for an immortal guy and he thinks that Gilgamesh is full of crap for not wanting to die.  In one sense he’s right, this is a stupid quest, but on the other hand it’s pretty easy for him to say that seeing as how the gods have exempted him from having to.

Having finished this I’m pretty much done with my desire to explore the Epic of Gilgamesh any further, so curiosity satisfied.  Something a little more contemporary next time, I think.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

This isn’t the first time I’ve had Reynolds up here (I actually think it’s the third, but I don’t really feel like trawling the archives to look at the moment).  I generally like his work, although as I believe I’ve said before, sometimes he writes some flat dialogue and occasionally his characters are simply horrible for the sake of being horrible.  I’m happy to say that neither of those are especially the case in Century Rain, although as of yet I don’t know if he’s written a truly great novel, except possibly House of Suns.

This one is from 2004, so I’m a little late to the party here.  As far as I’m aware, this work doesn’t tie in to any of the universes from his other novels, such as Revelation Space or House of Suns.  In fact, I found large parts very refreshing, and something out of the ordinary for what I would have expected from a Reynolds work.  A large portion of the novel takes place in 1960s-ish Europe, although it’s a different world than ours.  In this particular universe, the German offensive through the Ardennes got blunted and thrown back in 1939, so World War II was over almost before it really began.  As a result, the Nazis got overthrown in a military coup and many lives that ended in our world were saved.  It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though.  Without the ultimate discrediting of the war, there’s still rather a lot of virulent anti-Jewish and nationalist yahoos throughout Europe and they’re beginning to make their bids for power again.  And whatever else the war destroyed, it also served as the impetus for a lot of technological change.  This world doesn’t have electronic computers, a space program, or the atomic bomb.  You might say that sounds all right if you don’t have to worry about ducking and covering, but as it happens it’s sort of a shadowy conspiracy to retard technological development so that it’s easier for a bunch of other humans to conquer it.

The other half of the book takes place in the ruins of the actual Earth we’re familiar with, where the humans that remain are split up into two spacegoing factions due to the accidental destruction of the Earth’s biosphere with rogue nanotechnology and subsequent corruption of most of the data archives of humanity’s history (whether that was also accidental or a deliberate attack is not clear).  The Threshers live in near Earth orbit primarily and control access to what’s left of it; they’re more hidebound and avoid the use of nanotechnology.  The Slashers live in the outer system and are more hedonistic and somewhat more advanced than the Threshers, made up for by the fact that they’re also more factional.  The Slashers control access to the galaxy at large through a mysterious warp gate which was discovered out there, which was apparently made by alien(s) unknown at some point in the distant past.  You’d be hard pressed to say that either side is the good guys or the bad guys, since they’ve got something of a nasty history of both hot and cold wars, often resorting to various sorts of doomsday weapons.

This is something of a departure for Reynolds, who often eschews the implausible or the impossible in his work.  In this one you’ve got these alien artifacts that do stuff like allow FTL travel or contain entire planets, and although he does try to explain a little bit he mostly just lets them be.  So this one is much softer than some of his other works right off the bat.  Nonetheless, he does retain the concept that space is big, so the fact that the Slashers can get out into the universe doesn’t really help all that much since there’s not really much out there to do.  At least not until they discover that the same mysterious aliens who created the warpgate networks also took a “snapshot” of Earth circa 1936 and put it somewhere out in the universe in a box.

And that’s how the two stories come together.  Some of the Slashers think it would be a good idea to wipe out the existing humans on the copied world and then talk real estate with the Threshers.  Of course there are a couple of problems with this plan, namely that the Threshers won’t approve of this, secondly that they can’t bring anything sophisticated through the warp gate that leads inside the box, and thirdly that they aren’t sure where exactly the box is.  Nonetheless they think there may be ways around these obstacles.

I generally liked this, it was entertaining enough.  There are a couple of chase scenes of course, that being something that Reynolds either really likes or just feels like he does well, possibly both, so I figured that would turn up at some point throughout the work.  Even though these characters were reasonably well defined and not really at all horrible, I still found myself not quite able to connect with them.  The villainous plot is pretty cool but, I don’t know, it didn’t entirely gel for me that a whole planet was really going to be scoured of human life.  It seemed like there were much easier ways to do what they wanted to do aside from the mass genocide.

Nonetheless, not bad, some good action scenes and also contemplation.  I can’t say that this is my favorite Reynolds work but it’s probably better than some and it didn’t put me off his work either, so definitely worth a look if you like his other stuff.

Friday, October 26, 2012

John Dies at The End & This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong

I’ve been meaning to read John Dies at the End for a while but finally got inspired when I found out that it had been optioned and made into a movie directed by Don Coscarelli.  Now I’m not going to say that Coscarelli is a great director or anything, but he did direct The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, so let’s give him high marks for material at least.  (Actually I think Bubba Ho-Tep is a fantastic movie and if you don’t think so then there’s probably something wrong with you.  At any rate I think anyone would concede it’s the best movie ever made about Elvis Presley fighting a mummy in an East Texas nursing home.)  Also the movie has Paul Giamatti in it, which is pretty cool.  I like Giamatti, since he’s in all these solid, award winning films and then he’ll take some role as a crazed gunman or hammy villain or something, it’s clear he just loves to do that stuff.

I guess that’s just tangential to the book itself, which is by David Wong and features David Wong as protagonist, or at least the fictional Wong, since that’s really the pen name of Jason Pargin.  He chose the pen name to keep his online writing and personal life separate, but it says so right on the back cover, no breach of trust required.  I was familiar with Wong’s writing from, and generally consider him one of the stronger (and funnier) writers in the stable over there, one of the others being John Cheese, which isn’t his real name either but is the basis for the fictional John of this book.  Anyhow, David Wong.

I had no idea he could write like this.

This is a fantastic debut novel and an excellent seasonal choice, being both silly and scary as hell.  Again, I’m not going to say that this is great in every sense of that word, there are some pacing issues and spots where it’s maybe not as tight as it should be – but this is pretty solid.  Well done, Wong.

Despite the fact that it is almost entirely unlike Illuminatus! in plot, theme, or structure, that was the comparison my mind kept throwing up while I was reading it.  There’s some of the same neo-Lovecraft pastiche, and a lot of similar mind screws, plus stupid puns and low humor.  Reading it also gives you the same impression that you’re reading something by some poor guy who has completely lost his mind.  It’s immersive in the same way that Illuminatus! is; you’ve got the (perhaps) unreliable narrator who’s telling the story, and they keep going back and maybe what happened is just a little different than what he said the time before, and even though Wong keeps pulling that trick you think you’re on more solid ground than you are.  No matter how many rugs he pulls, you figure you’re on the last one.  And you never are.  Even after I just said that.

There’s also extremely effective use of alternating comedy and horror.  You’ve got this poor teenage kid who gets covered in demonic hell worms or something, and he’s shrieking and screaming as they burrow through his skin, and the description could be right out of Steven King.  Then it’s over, he’s fine.  Okay, he’s possessed by these demons or whatever, but he generally manifests this by going around punching people in the balls for a while, making him pretty low on the threat level and playing for laughs.  And then when you’re used to the dick-punching he goes and does something really bad.  That’s pretty good storytelling right there.

There’s also just some really effective horror elements throughout, and Wong puts you right in the middle of it.  There’s a great part where the fictional Wong comes to in his room after work, but it looks like it’s been ransacked and someone stole his gun, but then it turns out he’s actually holding the gun and the barrel is a little warm and there aren’t as many bullets as there should be in there and if he just came in from the garage he shouldn’t feel like he’s been walking around in the snow outside for half an hour and he’s pretty sure that if he goes out in his tool shed there’s going to be a dead body there.  Or when he’s with a guy and told not to look in the mirror, but he does anyway and there’s nobody there, and then the guy starts smiling and comes to choke him to death.

Stuff like that.

The frame story itself is not so great, I guess.  Wong is meeting a journalist at a restaurant to tell him about all the crazy stuff he’s gotten mixed up in, which means that we end up hearing the origin story maybe a few more times than strictly necessary.  Suffice to say that David and his friend John got the ability to see things Man Wasn’t Meant to See as the result of taking some drugs, or rather a drug, by a wacked-out Rastafarian who probably wasn’t really a Rastafarian, and maybe not even a person.  They call the drug “soy sauce”.  It isn’t soy sauce.  Instead, it unlocks the secrets of the universe.  Or kills you.  Sometimes both, not necessarily in that order.

In short, I liked it.  Funny, scary, well paced and surprisingly literate, it’s a great tale of the supernatural as narrated by a guy who sits around his house eating cheap burritos and playing video games.

I also got the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, and that one is head and shoulders better.  Wong’s writing is more assured, the plot is tighter without as much screwing around, and it’s both more funny and much scarier.  I don’t scare easy, but I actually found myself clenching up a couple of times.

Instead of the more freewheeling narrative of John Dies, this one is more of a coherent narrative about how the town gets infested by invisible, possibly extradimensional spiders that attack people, turn them into zombies and, you know, eat their soft parts and whatnot.  I’ve mentioned before that everyone feels compelled to do a zombie story these days and that I’m pretty much sick of it, but this very well may be the best take on the genre that I’ve seen yet.  For one thing, the scariest sequence isn’t actually about the zombies, but rather the one where Wong wakes up in a quarantine facility after losing a week of his memories, and then finds that the other inhabitants have been making use of his supernatural abilities to detect which other inmates are infected with the spiders.  The prisoners also come into the quarantine in either a red or green jumpsuit and have segregated themselves accordingly, for very little good reason.  One of the Reds has the only gun but the Greens have the best territory.  Eventually you find out there's more going on than you might have initially imagined, but even then the issues are not necessarily cut and dried.  As one of the characters points out, at any point past toddlerhood it's usually not that easy to know who to shoot at.

Like any good zombie story, the zombies aren’t really the issue.  Wong wrote a very good article about the  monkeysphere at one point; that’s what is going on here.  And while the extradimensional parasitic infestation is certainly a problem, it’s really the forces demanding its eradication that get out of hand.  It’s actually got a lot of seriously weighty stuff going on regarding social dynamics and the human condition, while still being laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely creepy.

I guess it’s a sequel in the sense that John and Dave are still in it and still basically assholes, but if you’d never read John Dies you’d simply pick the story right up.  It’s less of a continuing adventure and more of a stand alone, with a better novel structure to boot.  Also back is Dr. Marconi, who I’d say is something of Dave and John’s rival in the supernatural biz, except that he’s educated, poised, wealthy and somehow always wearing a tailored suit, even during the apocalypse.  I bet Dave and John would hate him if he wasn’t so awesome.  (In the movie I see they cast Clancy Brown in this part, which seems about right; or that guy from the Dos Equis commercials.)

These aren’t perfect, and they’re not for everyone, but I like this blend of low humor and research, so there you go.  There aren’t many books that I’ve read that have both explanations for video game logic as well as velvet paintings of Jesus Christ, but here I’ve found one.  If you just read one, read This Book is Full of Spiders, but both are worthwhile in their own way.  Or if you have a kid that is sleeping excessively, you could try using either as a bedtime story.  I guarantee that they won’t be sleeping much after that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy

Robert Carter III played in a band with Thomas Jefferson (and sent bill collectors after him a few times too), was active as a patriot during the American Revolution and may very well have been the richest man in Virginia, which would have made him one of the wealthiest men in the newly-fledged United States.  He corresponded with a bunch of folks you’ve heard of from history class and would have been widely known by his contemporaries.  He also decided to free his nearly five hundred slaves during his lifetime, an event which was the single largest act of manumission in the United States until the Civil War ended slavery in the United States altogether.

So why hasn’t anyone ever heard of him?

Andrew Levy’s analysis of Carter and his times is a fairly masterful work that tries to figure out why he’s a forgotten figure.  Levy’s conclusion is that he simply doesn’t fit anyone’s narrative and therefore everyone just sort of nervously shies away from talking about him.

At the risk of painting with a broad brush, let me . . . actually, let’s just get out the broad brush here.  You’ve basically got two different pictures of antebellum slavery.  One side (the apologetic) portrays it as bad but not too bad; slaves were valuable property after all and the owners had incentive to look after them, slaveholders would have really liked to let their slaves go but just economically couldn’t manage to, and the social mores of the day were different.  On the other side (the abolitional) you’ve got a wicked institution that separated families, embraced authoritarianism and cruelty, and was overseen by moral monsters who were perfectly capable of telling right from wrong.  Personally, I’d lean more towards the second viewpoint, but the fact is very little that humans do is perfectly crystal clear.  (I would also state that given the lack of volunteers to become slaves, this particular area is clearer than most.)

Carter actually wasn’t too likeable, being insulated by his immense wealth from practical concerns and thereby not especially being able to relate to other people, even his peers.  This paradoxically helped him out in his later endeavors when he basically didn’t care what his neighbors thought of him, although he did try to space out the manumissions to not cause undue concern.  He really loved his wife and they had seventeen children, although many of them didn’t survive.  He had a series of religious epiphanies throughout his life, including at least one near-death experience, which caused him to join up with non-established churches like the Baptists at a time where there was an established church in Virginia and such things were Not Done.
In fact, some of the best things in this book simply deal with the sort of everyday life in colonial and immediately post-colonial Virginia that tend to get elided from the history books.  Baptist preachers got thrown in jail and beat up but kept on drawing crowds anyway; men and women spent their nights drinking hard and partying harder every single day until the scandals couldn’t be contained.  Everyone was suing each other and taking offense at everything all the time.

Anyway, Carter himself was a pretty paradoxical figure.  His religious leanings may have made him believe that he was theoretically equal to his slaves, but he never really acted like anyone at all was his equal.  Carter may have allowed his slaves to have more autonomy than most other slaveholders did, but he also didn’t really discipline his sons too much for sleeping with the house slaves (although he apparently never did so himself).  At some point he did send some of his sons out of Virginia so they wouldn’t be exposed to all the immorality around, and toward the end of his life he ended up leaving himself, eventually being buried in an unmarked grave.

At the same time you really want to commend Carter for what he was doing in deciding to free all his slaves, he never really gave a good explanation for it, treating it more like some task he had to complete rather than a moral crusade.  And he was still really, truly rich.  It’s not like he gave away everything he owned to end up in penury and he seemed to be personally offended when slaves he freed decided that they would really rather not work for him as freemen any more.  This strikes at the heart of why no one really likes to talk about him.  To the apologists, he’s a living counterexample to the notion that slaveholders didn’t know better and/or simply couldn’t make it without slavery.  To the abolitionists, he never gave any good justifications for his behavior and it didn’t exact a huge personal toll on him, plus he still seemed to have pretty reactionary attitudes.

Shortly after his death, the rules were changed so that manumissions of this sort wouldn’t have been possible any longer.  It doesn’t seem that it was a response to him as such, although his contemporaries would have certainly known about it and didn’t exactly approve.  There was just a general retrenchment in the slaveholding societies that eventually culminated in the Civil War.  It may seem strange to describe a system of slavery as a more gentle time, but Carter hit a particular window where he was able to do some good in an unusual way.

For students of colonial history, this is an engaging story that really humanizes some figures that could use some of that treatment.  It raises some bigger questions about modern society that I don’t think it necessarily addresses that well, and some parts do drag a little, but this is one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

T.C. Vilabier’s 26-th String Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalog number MW1211 (a.k.a. "The Hydrogen Sonata"), is best played on an instrument informally called the antagonistic elevenstring, which ideally requires the player to have four arms and sit inside the cavity of the instrument itself.  One of the protagonists of this novel has had the extra arms fitted so that she can try to get through the piece, which is notorious for its complexity and also for being thoroughly unpleasant to actually listen to.  Incidentially, the elevenstring has more than eleven strings.  So that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with here.

If you’re not familiar with the Culture series by Banks, then this being the tenth volume in said series may not be the best place to start.  If you are familiar with it, then this one will probably be pleasant enough, but somewhat more insubstantial than some of his other works.

The Culture novels have always been somewhat unique in their actual epic scale.  A lot of ostensible galaxy-spanning empires in fiction seem to have a relatively small cast of characters which actually accomplish everything which needs doing.  In contrast, the Culture is so vast that even if events are referenced from earlier novels, there tends not to be any overlap in personnel.  In fact the galaxy is so big that not even the alien species show up more than once or twice, so it’s not a Federation vs. Klingons kind of thing – each book can introduce whole new problems that you’ve never even heard of before since there’s just so much there.  In terms of continuity, this one takes place sometime after Excession and probably sometime before Surface Detail (they mention needing a Contact section which is actually in existence in Surface Detail).

The focus of this novel is on Sublimation, the ultimate end state of most advanced civilizations in Banks’ work, wherein they withdraw from the physical universe we’re familiar with and hang out in higher order dimensions.  For all intents and purposes it’s a one way trip.  The very, very few entities that do come back find themselves somewhat limited in what they are able to convey about it, but apparently no one ever suggests that it’s a bad idea to go.  The Culture is highly suspicious about the whole thing, and it’s not them talking about taking this trip; in this case it is the Gzilt, a humanoid civilization that was actually one of the founding members of the Culture but didn’t join in at the last minute.  The reason that the Culture has been down on the idea is that it smacks of coercion; as we discover in this one when a species decides to Sublime it's all over in about an hour after the process begins.  The Gzilt have set a time to departure, and they're wrapping up what matters they have left to tend to in the span they have remaining (about three weeks).

In terms of plot structure, this one reminded me a lot of Excession.  There’s the cabal of Minds that comes together as an ad-hoc committee to try and solve a potentially high-profile problem (although this cabal is not quite as aggressive or murderous).  And let me say that the reason I can’t entirely get behind this book is because of the fact that I considered this story, somewhat like Excession, to be kind of a shaggy dog tale.

I won’t spoil the secret, because that would be unfair.  Suffice to say that there is a bit of information out there related to the Gzilt that some of their high-ranking members don’t want known, and will go to pretty extreme lengths to conceal, especially just before the Sublimation.  Nonetheless, both the reader and most of the Culture characters have a pretty good idea what the secret is right from the very beginning.  When the wild goose chase gets especially frustrating about halfway through, the Minds that are working on the problem actually have a vote as to whether it’s actually worth even trying to figure out the mystery anymore, or if they should just assume they know the score and go back to what they were doing beforehand.  The vote comes pretty close to passing.  Towards the very end they have another vote regarding whether they should actually make use of what they’d learned or not, and that one sort of sums up what they actually accomplished here.  When even the characters are openly questioning whether what they’re doing is actually worth their time, you’ve got to wonder if the story is really going anywhere.

There’s also a fair bit of plot digression, as in Banks’ last couple of Culture novels.  You get characters set up, asked to help out in doing something or other, and then their participation abruptly ceases or just sort of peters out without resolution.  This can be somewhere between irritating and soul-crushing, depending.

I also have to say that there’s a little bit of a missed opportunity in the subject matter.  One of the plot threads centers around an individual who claims that he was actually there at the negotiations which resulted in the formation of the Culture about ten thousand years prior to the events of the novel, a claim which, if true, would make him older than any other Culture citizen (even drones or Minds).  I thought we might get some insight around how the Culture actually came together.  There have been hints here and there throughout the series about the heartless steel behind the Culture’s space-hippie veneer - even over and beyond the obvious retaliations that they make against those who interfere with them.  I've always felt that there was more skullduggery and outright violence behind the Culture’s founding than anyone lets on, and possibly even quite a bit more unpleasantness going behind the scenes in the current Culture era than even Special Circumstances wants to acknowledge.  That’s still maybe true, but if so, we don’t find out here.  It’s not the Culture’s secret that is at stake, at least this time.

Reviewing the previous paragraphs, I realize that this is all pretty negative stuff, and that’s maybe unfair.  I tore right through the book, and generally enjoyed it anyway.  Banks is on form here, and there’s a lot of outright humor.  This is possibly the outright funniest Culture novel to date, at least in parts.  In addition, while there is some occasional grimness, on the whole the work doesn’t dip into the darkness of some of his Culture works where everyone is suffering from ennui and existential despair.  Sure, nothing of much consequence happens, but at the same time it’s a pretty entertaining romp.  And aside from a cranky old drone and a couple of humans, most of the Culture characters are Minds, who are always more interesting to hear about.  There aren’t any characters quite as memorable as the Falling Outside the Usual Moral Constraints from the last one, though the Mistake Not . . . has its moments.

So, summing up, my frustrations with this one are mostly based around the fact that this could have been a great book, but ended up being just okay.  Banks is such a good writer that he can get away with a mess of a plot and still have something worth reading.  But although I’m happy to see him writing Culture novels again in fairly rapid succession, I do have to wonder if he’s ever going to give his universe a proper challenge.  I know it’s hard to surprise the Minds, but still.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Double Cross by Ben Macintyre

I’ve been doing some non-fiction World War II related reading lately; first up is Double Cross by Ben Macintyre, who has apparently written several other books on WWII deception, but none read by me.  I heard him discussing this book on NPR about a year ago and noted that it sounded interesting, so when I came across it I picked it up.

It’s generally known that during the war the UK and US had broken the major Axis encryption systems, and most people also know that Britain captured, turned, or invented all the German agents on British soil.  So in that respect, writing a new book on the subject seems a little unnecessary.  What Macintyre attempts to do here, however, is to tell the personal stories of some of these double agents as well as to try to connect them to the eventual success of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.  In general he succeeds, as this is a well-written, fast paced read with a lot of human interest.

However, while this is a pretty vast subject and I wouldn’t expect a volume of this size to do it justice, I also felt like there was a lot of complexity here that got basically rolled over in the attempt to make the impressive achievements of British intelligence sound even more amazing than they already were.

Through reading several other books on the subject, I’ve come to understand that the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, could charitably be described as “dysfunctional”.  What would be a really interesting book would be the post-war memoirs written by Wilhelm Canaris (the Abwehr chief) about what he knew or suspected, but seeing as how he was executed for complicity in plots to kill Hitler, that book doesn’t exist.  Actually, a lot of high-up people in the Abwehr met similar fates, and the organization was actually wiped out entirely by the end of the war.  Macintyre does mention a memoir written by a mid-level German intelligence officer and is casually dismissive of his claim to have suspected the loyalty of one of his agents; honestly, I think this may be unfair.

One of the most fascinating stories in Double Cross deals with Johnny Jebsen, an Abwehr officer who came over to the British side and spilled the beans on the German agents operating in England.  This was both good and bad from the British perspective; it was good because Jebsen was a potential intelligence gold mine, but if Jebsen was a double agent or if he was subsequently arrested, the fact that he’d told British Intelligence who the agents were and they were still operating (since the British already knew who they were and didn’t actually need Jebsen to tell them), then the Germans would be able to determine that their agents were double agents or simply fictitious.  So it could be a trap from the get go.

Jebsen did eventually get into trouble, but almost less for his treasonous activities than because of optics.  There’d been a high-level Abwehr defection that made the agency look bad and seriously eroded their influence.  When Jebsen’s superiors caught wind that he might be defecting too, they took steps against him because if they Abwehr was dissolved it would derail their own plot to kill Hitler.  Of course they couldn’t just invite Jebsen into the conspiracy, although he probably would have gone for it.  Talk about your wheels within wheels.  Nonetheless, for a sort of unreliable and rakish fellow Jebsen ended up being quite the badass, telling his Gestapo torturers that he expected them to provide him a new shirt.

In addition to political machinations, some of the Abwehr officers were skimming payments intended for their agents and had no intention of giving up their gravy train.  And for that matter, some intelligence was simply politically impossible in a totalitarian regime and failure was most certainly not looked upon well – might as well simply tell your boss what he wants to hear anyway.

Meeting that sort of perfect storm of corruption and perverse incentives, the British really rose to the occasion and did all kinds of wild stuff.  Like many things that occurred in the war, a lot of stuff here would be considered too outlandish for fiction.  For instance, Joan Pujol, a man with training in chicken farming, who decided to become a double agent for very little discernible reason and possibly was the most successful of all the World War II spies.  Or the Frenchwoman who nearly spilled the Allied invasion plans because she was upset about something which happened to her lap dog.

On the whole I found this to be a very entertaining tale, which I only wish went a little more in depth in some areas.  Still, in dealing with unsung heroes of the war, it’s certainly a unique perspective.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey

This is the fourth book in the Sandman Slim series; I’ve previously looked at Aloha from Hell, the third book, sometime last year, and I said that it was compulsively readable but perhaps not all that great.  I also said that I’d be open to the further adventures of Sandman Slim, so here we are.  As it happens my opinion is mostly unchanged since the last one, with all the good and bad that this entails.

As something of an aside, I got the Kindle edition of this book and I was fully prepared to condemn it as being practically incomprehensible.  It started off pretty good and then went wildly off the rails, with new characters and plotlines appearing out of nowhere, apparently at random.  But then I realized that this was a publishing error, where the last third of the book was printed twice and the middle third was completely absent.  An e-mail to Amazon support, a patch and a hard reset later and everything was all right.  It still sorta messed up my impression of the book though, knowing where we were going to end up throughout the middle section.  Sorry Kadrey, I realize that’s not your fault.  Still, I ended up wanting to take a mulligan on this one.

Now all that said, as the novel opens our hero Stark is in residence in Hell, where he is (somewhat to his displeasure) in charge.  Samael, the previous head honcho, has reconciled with his Creator, and Stark’s angelic other half absconded with the magical doohickey that Stark needs in order to leave.  Now it may or may not be better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, I don’t know, but it’s definitely better to reign in Hell than be forced into arena pit fighting in hell for a bunch of psychopathic fallen angels, so there you go.  Now in the previous paragraph I said that I felt like stepping back and starting over with this book, and the vibe that I got throughout this one is that Kadrey maybe felt the same way.  Over the last three books, Stark managed to accomplish pretty much everything he had in mind, and while he is definitely a strong character he doesn’t exactly scream growth or anything.  Making him the Lord of Hell has kind of painted him into a corner, since he’s not a political type.

Therefore, a lot of the Hell sections are pretty slow, where he’s trying to figure out who he can trust, which considering we’re talking about the demons of Hell here is pretty much nobody.  About the best that he can do is have a job that no one else particularly wants to do, and the psychology of the denizens of Hell is pretty interesting.  (They basically do a bunch of rituals all the time to avoid going stark raving mad.)  But Stark’s not really into it, so after a while he finally manages to leave and go back to Earth.  Once there he gets involved in a typical (for him) plot involving some magical conspirators, a nigh-invulnerable ghost assassin, and the tantalizing story of how the universe actually got made.

While Stark manages to more or less save the day, a lot of questions are left unanswered here and the end basically puts him back at the status quo of the second novel, rather than progressing.  I got the sense that the whole thing was basically a bridge novel to put him back in a position to have “normal” adventures in future volumes, and therefore reacted accordingly.  There are some great setpieces here, like when he’s quoting Epicurus on his souped-up Hellion motorcycle, but really this seems like a way to get from the third book to a future sequel and not really all that special in itself.  That said, I thought the second book was the best so far so if they’re all going to be like that it’s worth it.  Guess I’ll wait and see.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Spatterjay Trilogy by Neal Asher

I’ve got a complicated relationship with Neal Asher, which basically boils down to the fact that I keep reading his books although I don’t necessarily like them all that much.  (So this is one of those reading relationships, not a personal relationship or anything.  I don’t know the man or even that much about him, but after perusing his website at one point I doubt that we’d have all that much in common.)  Asher’s got a lot of talent and he’s ridiculously prolific, but sometimes I wish he’d maybe slow it down and do a little more editing.  Nonetheless, I remembered liking The Skinner, recently discovered that there were a couple of sequels, and decided to pick up The Voyage of the Sable Keech.

Having done so, I almost immediately put it back down and got a copy of The Skinner to refresh my memory, since it literally picks up as soon as The Skinner ends and it’s been a few years since I read it, and I’ve slept a few times and have a toddler now and don’t necessarily remember absolutely everything I’ve read in the past half decade.  You know how it is.

Perhaps I should lead off by noting that Asher’s works are sort of a throwback to an earlier SF era, and are really in the pulp tradition (in the best sense of that word), where men were real men, women were exactly like the men, and horrible alien critters were hostile, befanged, and inexplicably immune to puny human weapons.  Many of his novels and short stories are set place in the universe of the Polity, which is a group of human worlds run by mostly-benevolent AIs.  The planet Spatterjay, where most of the action of the first two volumes of this trilogy occurs, is not a member of the Polity as such, but there’s a Polity presence and the strong hand of Earth Central is felt even this far out.

Asher likes to write about horrific ecosystems, and the planet Spatterjay is somewhere that you probably wouldn’t want to take the kids for a vacation unless you didn’t like them all that much.  The oceans are filled with a series of increasingly large predators so if you fall in then the most positive thing that will happen is that you get eaten whole.  If you just get attacked by the smaller carnivorous leeches then you’ll get infected with a virus too, which will make you gradually stronger and basically immortal, but will also have the side effect of transmogrifying you into a grotesque monster if you go too long without eating good old fashioned Earth food.

This of course is basically impossible, that a “virus” could not only infect all these different species on one world, but on completely alien species such as humans, and also on a completely other alien species altogether, the nightmarish Prador.  So scientific plausibility is taking a hit here.  Also, you've got to take some pretty large grains of salt with everything.  The humans infected with the Spatterjay virus call themselves Hoopers, after Jay Hoop, the original human discoverer/colonizer of the place.  They also hate Hoop, who was a genocidal pirate who presided over tens of millions of deaths at the behest of evil aliens.  Since all the humans who survived his extermination camps hate him and all his associates, it's unclear why they've chosen to honor his name in this way.  There are a lot of "huh"? moments like this if you apply three or four brain cells to the narrative.

Nonetheless, The Skinner was pretty much as good as I remembered it.  There are a couple of outsiders, Janer and Erlin, each on the planet for different reasons, so they get to have a lot of things explained to them.  There’s also a police officer, Sable Keech, who is relentless running down the last of a series of human war criminals from the interstellar conflict with the Prador.  He’s single minded in this determination, in fact so single minded that he didn’t let the fact that he got killed seven hundred years before the main events of the novel slow him down much – he’s got a zombie body and keeps what’s left of his brain on a memory crystal.  And Janer is actually working as the agent for an intelligent hornet nest.  There’s a bunch of Old Captains, humans who have been virally infected for centuries and practically unkillable as a result, a black marketeering war drone, and a prissy artificial intelligence monitoring the planet.  And then there’s a Prador who may be losing his mind and has returned to Spatterjay to clean up some loose ends.  Chaos ensues.

With all that stuff going on, there’s minimal time for people to talk to each other, which I’m sorry, but is generally a good thing.  In The Voyage of the Sable Keech, there’s a lot more conversation going on and it is painful in parts.  Asher is very strong when writing action scenes, but all of his characters tend to have very flat affect and talk very strangely.  At one point in this book a demagogue is telling a bunch of rowdy people on a boat to go to their quarters because “this is a vessel upon which a crew has to work”, which may look good on paper – although I’d dispute that – but imagining it as something a native English speaker would say in conversation is a little questionable.  Also, the various characters rarely “say” anything, although they do leer, sneer, interject, speak ironically, and so forth.

Most of the characters who didn’t die in the first book are back for the second, doing very similar stuff, but mostly spinning their wheels and not accomplishing very much.  The main actor is actually a Prador, Vrell, who was given up for dead toward the end of the first novel but actually makes it in this one.  In fact, he spends most of the book trying to fix his dead father’s spaceship and there are quite long passages of him doing mechanical repairs and wiring work on fictional spaceship systems.  I’m not going to say that this couldn’t be exciting, but here it’s not exciting.  And the dialogue is just truly bad.

There were many similar textual issues I had with that second book in the trilogy, almost to the point where I didn’t even bother to read the third one, Orbus, at all.  Nonetheless, it was probably a good idea to finish it because the series actually ends up pretty strong, assuming you aren’t looking for thermodynamic plausibility.  Pretty much all the characters from the first two novels stay on Spatterjay, and the ones that do come are some of the more distinctive ones (such as the snarky, homicidal war drone).  Asher ventures into the present tense for what I believe may be the first time as well, and abandons the clunky conversations of the second novel for what he is best at, a knock down, drag out space battle between a force of giant monsters and some other, smaller monsters.  I think that the events somewhat contradict his other Polity novels, but they were fun and that’s what I was looking for by that point anyway.

In short, I’m not 100% sure I’d recommend the entire trilogy, mostly because I didn’t like the second one very much at all, but the first one is actually okay as a stand-alone and it’s some good rollicking pulp SF if you’re into that sort of thing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanislaw Lem, edited by Ra Page and Magda Raczynska

I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this, but took the plunge anyway because it at least promised to be interesting, and the completist in me was hoping for an awesome short story collection. 

I guess I should probably say a few words about Stanislaw Lem.  His best known works are probably Solaris and The Cyberiad, which put him in the SF category in the United States, something he disapproved of.  He didn’t think much of American SF, considering it gimmicky as opposed to the serious literary work that he believed himself to be writing.  The only American SF author he had much use for was allegedly Philip K. Dick, even going so far as to write an essay calling him the only visionary among a bunch of charlatans.  In a bit of irony, or something anyway, Dick actually didn’t believe that Lem existed.  Dick accused various Communist governments of creating a committee to write SF work under the Lem name, although why they would want to do that, or for what purpose they would single out Dick himself for praise, was never satisfactorily explained.

I first became acquainted with Lem through Douglas Hofstader, who used some selections from Lem’s short stories to illustrate points in his own works, and subsequently I’ve read most of what has been translated into English.  This leaves quite a bit of stuff out, though, since not all of his works have been translated from Polish.

Lem excelled in shorter works; one of my favorite collections of his is A Perfect Vacuum, which is a set of short critiques he wrote of non-existent fictional works, each one making some sort of barbed point about literary culture or some other area he felt needed attention.  I understand that he actually wrote several sets of these, but none of the others have been translated from Polish.  I guess in any foreign language work you’ve also got to give some love to the translators, who have generally seemed to do a good job, but I think probably can’t get all of the wordplay perfectly across.

Originally I gathered that this would be a collection of previously unreleased works by Lem himself, but that proved to not be the case.  There are three stories here by Lem which have never previously been presented in English, and these kick off the collection – and run the gamut of his literary forms, as there is a mind-bending one, a serious one, and then the comedic "Invaders from Aldeberan" wherein a bunch of Iron Curtain peasants foil an alien invasion with a combination of stupidity and grain alcohol.

The remainder is a set of works by various British and Polish authors.  The majority are short stories which are inspired by and/or influenced by Lem’s other works.  One even features Lem’s famous constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, and although I’d probably recognize it as not belonging in The Cyberiad it was pretty good and I admire the brass balls it takes to write a story featuring those two.  Some of the other stories were also pretty good, including one that was very Inception-esque, involving a mercenary who is trying to enter a virtual world, get some money out of it, and confirm he's back in the real world once he does.  I wasn’t really that familiar with any of the authors contained here, and may run down a few of the especially interesting ones.

The book concludes with a couple of non-fiction essays that were probably the weakest part of the collection, but which at least theoretically had something to do with Lem, so I guess the editors thought they should throw that in too.

So, if you’re looking for Lem stories, this is probably not the place to find ‘em, but it’s a pretty interesting idea and some of the stories are funny, twisted, and/or touching in their own rights.  It’s worth a look if nothing else.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Time was, when there was a new book by Neal Stephenson sitting on my shelf it wouldn’t have taken nine months to get around to reading it.  I still consider Stephenson both an astounding and infuriating author, especially lately, but like most people I know who read Stephenson (which comprises quite a large percentage of the people I know, actually) I sort of feel like he’s lost something lately.  Strangely, there seems to be a pretty big divergence of opinion as to when that happened.  There are some who disregard everything he’s written since Snow Crash as overwritten self-indulgence.  Others draw the line elsewhere.  If you asked my opinion, I’d say that Cryptonomicon is the best thing he wrote, that The Baroque Cycle came very close to being unreadable in spots, and that Anathem was somewhat disappointing overall but in smaller significant ways a hopeful return to form.  So, that’s essentially where I’m coming from.  But even among the ones I didn’t like that much, there’s always been enough good stuff among the dross to generally justify the time spent reading them.

But enough about these other books.  Why not just dive right into this one?  In a word – typography.  Right there on the cover, his name is so big it takes up three damn lines.  Really, go to Amazon and look at it.


Isn’t that ominous?  Did he insist in his contract that he get that font size?  Is that what the publisher wanted?  I’m pretty sure he’s not a huge asshole like this lettering suggests, or at least I’d like to hope that.  He’s proven somewhat resistant to editing lately, is this a bad sign?  This is what I was thinking of, and also how I didn’t really think Anathem was that great, and so I’ve been reading all sorts of other stuff first before finally deciding to suck it up and just get it over with already.  Perhaps not the best frame of mind to approach anything, but hey, these 1,042 pages won’t read themselves.

In general, I enjoyed it.  It’s got some actually quite thrilling setpieces, a good number of enjoyable character moments, exotic locales, and a few of the classic Stephenson digressions.  That said, it’s much less of an idea book than some of his other works, being more along the lines of a standard techno-thriller that anyone could write.  And during the long process of reading, you’ll have a lot of time to think about all the incredibly stupid crap that the characters are doing and so you’ll have to not just suspend your disbelief but construct an elaborate truss system just to keep it from collapsing in on itself.

Why do I say this?  Well, the first indication of how it’s going to go is the very first chapter at the Forthrast family reunion, where we’re introduced to Richard Forthrast and Zula Forthrast, his adoptive niece (originally from Eritrea).  At first, Richard doesn’t recognize Zula, which seems odd, since you’d think that the only person of African descent at this Iowa farm would be noticeable anyway, but Richard justifies this in his mind by thinking that he hasn’t seen her in quite some time.  But then he somehow knows her personality quirks and skills very well, and then later on you find out that he did some pretty dramatic stuff in the past for her benefit, and will proceed to do some really dramatic stuff over the course of the novel.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  Richard is the black sheep of the family – sort of – since he was a draft dodger who turned his familiarity with Canada into an early career smuggling drugs alongside California motorcycle gangs, and from there turned to increasingly gray-market businesses until he found himself the head of a Fortune 500 game company which makes a competitor to World of Warcraft called T’Rain.  He’s worth about $600 million.  You’d think a guy like that would probably be welcomed by the rest of his extended family, but they’re not 100% sold on his past.  Well, that’s reasonably sensible.  Unlike many of Stephenson’s other protagonists and despite owning a game company, Richard’s not a hacker or even really any sort of geek.  He’s more of a big picture guy; when he needs something done he finds someone who is good at it and pays them to do it.  His skill is really in figuring out what needs to be done, or at least recognizing what will be profitable to do, and then arranging things.  He’s the backbone of the story and probably the most consistent character.

When I say “consistent”, what I mean is that what we’re told about the characters and what the characters actually do doesn’t always match up, occasionally spectacularly.  For instance, the aforementioned Zula has a boyfriend named Peter, who basically kicks off the story by wanting to clear some debts so that he can ask Zula to move in with or marry him.  The way he does this is by stealing a bunch of credit card information by using a security hole he finds through his work as a computer security consultant and selling it to a Russian organized crime syndicate.  Unfortunately his contact’s computer becomes infected with the REAMDE virus, which is a form of ransomware – i.e. it encrypts your files until you pay the virus writer.  Before you know it Zula and Peter have been kidnapped by the Russian mafia and illegally taken to China, where the mob boss hopes to find and kill the virus writer for revenge (or something).  Unfortunately the virus writer lives right under a terrorist cell and Zula ends up kidnapped by the terrorists instead.

What are the odds, right?

Zula herself is actually pretty cool and interesting, but suffers from a little bit of that character inconsistency.  She’s often said (especially at the beginning) to have crying fits, which given her situation is pretty reasonable, but she’s also sort of a badass and doesn’t really seem to let it get her down too much.  She’s also got kind of a bizarre magnetic appeal that’s even made note of within the story, but doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense as to why people she’s just met would be willing to risk their lives and whatnot for her.  Or why the Russians and then the terrorists don’t just kill her.  Sorry Zula, but it would have made more sense for them to do that.

It’s not just that, you end up asking yourself, “why would [character x] do that” quite a lot.  Like the mob boss at the beginning, there were a lot of easier ways for him to try to go about getting his files back than the kidnapping/illegal border crossing which he doesn’t even try.  The other characters openly speculate that he’s lost his mind, which I guess is supposed to be the in-story justification, but he appears to be functioning at a high enough level otherwise that it doesn’t make sense.  His enforcer Sokolov is a traditional Stephenson badass who gets a lot of great lines and is generally awesome, but at the same time I was pretty sure the narrative wants me to think he is cool and admirable, which I don’t, seeing as how he kills people for a crime syndicate.  This, in my view, is a pretty contemptible way to make a living.  (In fairness, he does state that this was an unusual job and he doesn’t plan to take another like it again, but still.)

There’s actually another bit of fundamental problem with REAMDE (the virus, not the novel), which in true Stephenson digression fashion I’ll just go into here.  There are a couple of issues with ransomware, the first one notably being that you’re already coming from a position of distrust since you’re an asshole who has hijacked someone’s computers, and you are now wanting to get them to send you money.  Obviously you can’t just ask for it to be sent to your house, since there’s a pretty large spectrum of things that can happen to you.  At a minimum, the cops can come there and bust you.  As a maximum I guess a team of hit men can come try to kill you, and in that case they may also ask you some questions with a lead pipe first.  The virus writer here (let’s call him Marlon, since that is his name) has come up with a plan to try to avoid this, by requesting that the ransom be paid in untraceable virtual currency within the game of T’Rain.  You’re just supposed to go there and drop the money in a certain part of the virtual world, and then Marlon or one of his associates will come along and pick it up.  Since anyone can theoretically do this, he figures he specifically won’t get caught, and since he’s only asking for about $75 he also figures that it won’t attract that much high-level attention.  But since anyone can pick up the ransom, how exactly is Marlon going to give people the encryption keys to give their stuff back?  Are we on the honor system here if someone says they paid the money and then somebody else got it, which actually is going on at the time?  As far as I can tell there isn’t any mechanism for him to actually honor the ransom.  That in itself isn’t terribly awful, since Marlon has already proven himself to be kind of a dick by doing this anyway, but if there’s no way for him to give people their files back, then why is anyone actually paying the ransom money?  I think word would get around pretty fast that it’s a lost cause.

Let’s also talk about the terrorist leader, Abdallah Jones.  He’s a suave and pretty scary villain, but he’s basically Jason Voorhees in this book.  Since he’s the main bad dude you’re pretty sure he can survive anything and everything until the thrilling action climax.  He also has this uncanny ability to pick up the phone and get more henchmen anywhere in the world, including the US and Canada.  This ability doesn’t make much sense either if you really think about it.  I’m not saying that there aren’t any sleeper jihadists in North America, because I’m sure that there are, but they’re also a fantastically valuable resource to any terror group.  It doesn’t really make any sense that they’d risk these guys to go drive around with Jones in some cars without a particular objective in mind, since at that point they don’t actually have a plan.  It’s just that there needs to be a big confrontation at the end and so Jones needs to have enough men to make it interesting.  If it’s just him then he gets pulled over by the RCMP at a gas station or something and then we stop at maybe page 600.  We also don’t really get a sense of what his grievances are or why he’s doing this stuff.  Some of the Chinese terrorists, you can kind of see where they are coming from in terms of economic oppression, but a lot of the North American sleepers are basically cartoons.  They may as well be shooting range targets.

Now I’ve been going along for some time and haven’t even really gotten that deeply into all the characters and action in this book.  I think there’s a fierce and hard 500 page thriller in here that would simply move so fast that you wouldn’t have time to think about all this stuff, but at the same time I’m not sure if I’d really want to read that book over this one.  There were stretches of The Baroque Cycle and Anathem where I was reading and I was thinking, man, do I have to keep doing this really?  In this one I was occasionally laughing at how ludicrous the scenarios were, but there’s some classic Stephenson going on here, and I was basically enjoying myself anyway.  The man’s got style when he wants to use it.  In short he’s done something completely unnecessary but in an entertaining way.  I don’t know if I’d read this again, but it is by no means a failure, and I shouldn’t have been afraid to start in the first place.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff

I’ve written before about Matt Ruff here; his Bad Monkeys is a genre-bending mind screw that tries to make a couple of points about the nature of good and evil while he’s at it, and I’m also a big fan of Sewer, Gas, & Electric, a somewhat goofy SF romp by way of a critique of Atlas Shrugs.  He’s a unique voice and although he’s certainly not prolific, each of his works so far has been at least interesting and memorable.  That said, I think he’s not for everyone.  For a while I was recommending Sewer, Gas, & Electric to anyone that I could catch and who would listen to me, but it had a pretty wide miss/hit ratio.  It’s unapologetically weird and bizarre, and Ruff isn’t above making a point through some borderline offensive material.  Some people liked it, other people whose opinions I respect thought it was just too silly.

Ruff takes that trend to a whole new level here.  I don’t even know where he can find pants with balls like that, frankly.  I liked this, actually more or less the whole way through, but it’s certainly not for everybody.

So here’s the general idea.  The world here isn’t the world that we know; most of the Middle Eastern and North African states formed the United Arab States long ago, while what we know as the United States ended up as a patchwork of feuding fundamentalist tribes and kingdoms.  It was the UAS that fought alongside the Russian Orthodox Empire to defeat Hitler, although the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel in parts of defeated Germany has led to decades of strife between Christians and Jews.  There was also a first Gulf War in the Gulf of Mexico after LBJ, dictator of America (comprised of some seventeen unspecified states) invaded the kingdom of Louisiana and threatened the oilfields of the Evangelical Republic of Texas.  So when Christian terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in Baghdad on November 9, 2001, the UAS end up invading America even though the crusaders were carrying Texas passports.

Parody?  Sort of.  It would be low-hanging fruit to just make these parallels and call it a day, and Ruff is more sophisticated than that.  A lot of this world is populated by fictional versions of real people; Saddam Hussein is a crime boss, Muammar Gaddafi helped create the Internet, James Baker still works for George H.W. Bush, still the President (of Texas) – even Natalie Portman is a famous actress (but didn’t find it necessary to take a stage name).  You have to think, in a world this different from ours, these people couldn’t possibly exist and have any of the same personality traits that they do in real life.  Also, a lot of the cultural touchstones of the UAS are Western conceptions of the Middle East, rather than what you’d expect would really develop; there’s a lot of Arabian Nights stuff going on here.  And so it becomes quickly apparent that there is something funny going on.

Some of the Christian terrorists have memorabilia of a world very different from theirs – a world where it was the United States that was the most powerful nation and ended up invading Iraq.  And more and more people are having dreaming fits of an entirely different world where they have different lives.  By the time the magic shows up, you’re pretty much ready.

Ruff is the son of a minister, and running through his work is a deep distrust of fundamentalism of all kinds.  There are certain types of people in the world who are not satisfied by living “right” themselves; these people insist that everyone else must also live “right”.  But as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, if you’re trying to make sure that someone else is bending to your will and not just doing what they want, the only way to be sure is if they’re suffering.  So this type of fundamentalist we’re talking about, they look askance at happiness (it could be unauthorized!) and smile at human misery, as long as it’s compelling whatever life choices the fundamentalist thinks are correct and proper.

I mention this because Osama bin Laden is a major character in this book.  I’d hesitate to describe him as the villain, although he is villainous.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s the mindset of bin Laden that’s the villain in this book, since it’s something that he carries around with him no matter what world he’s in.  As in our world, he’s the prodigal scion of a rich Saudi family, but unlike in our world he returned home and became a powerful Senator of the strongest nation on earth.  You’d think he’d be happy that the UAS is powerful, that its people are by and large contented and rich, that Islam is a de facto requirement for any advancement in the society that matters.  But no.  Too much backsliding, too much materialism, too much tolerance of infidels and blasphemy.  He’d be perfectly happy to increase the misery in the world so long as it leads people to do what he believes God wants.

There are lots of other people speaking for God in this novel, but the person who’s actually got the magic powers disclaims knowledge of what exactly God is up to or why.

In any event, it would have been really easy to take one of two opposing tracks in a novel like this.  You could show this world and have it be a total paradise, thereby showing how ignorant and terrible the Western world is, and how everyone would be better off without Western influence.  Or you could have this world be a total shithole, showing how backwards and barbaric the Islamic world is, and say, see, there’s no way these people could ever govern themselves, they should thank God every day for the civilizing influence of the West.  Ruff avoids both, for the most part, although he does take some kind of cheap shots at various real-life American political figures.  He also tends to throw in characters for what I believe is simply shock value at times.  Nonetheless, the UAS is good in some ways and bad in other ways, and in both circumstances entirely human.

The main protagonist, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, is an officer in the UAS’ War on Drugs (primarily imported whiskey), and surprisingly three-dimensional and complex, and he’s effectively used to throw some of our own moral lapses and successes into sharp relief.  This starts as something of a police procedural, wherein Mustafa is trying to figure out who's behind various plots and why Saddam Hussein wants a mysterious artifact.  He's got two officers along with him who have their own moral dilemmas and are, in many ways, as well-developed as he is.  One of the most moving parts of the novel for me came when Mustafa has to deal with the apparent betrayal of one of his officers, an old friend.

In many ways the crux of the novel comes when Mustafa is told – by someone who should probably know – that he’s a sinner, but not the only sinner and surely not the worst.  But of course guys like him are the ones who struggle with ethical dilemmas while the actual worst sinners either think they’re on the side of the angels or simply don’t care, and do what they want.  So is it possible for good to prevail in a world like this, or like ours?  Mustafa doesn’t know, and neither does Ruff, and neither do I for that matter, and in this novel as in real life you just have to keep going and do the best you can.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: 3

Not a book this time, but a game; one which by all rights shouldn’t even exist, but here it is anyway.  If you don’t know what Penny Arcade is, then I can’t even fathom why you’re on the Internet reading this, although you may or may not have heard of their foray into actual game design.  This was originally designed as a four-part episodic series, and the first two installments came out back in 2008, before developer Hothead Games decided to work on other projects and the series basically died the death.

I played those first two back when they first came out, and I found them to be entertainingly written and actually quite enjoyable.  The first was a little rough in spots but the second one was very good indeed, and so I had high hopes for the next games in the series.  But after four years it didn’t really seem like they would ever get made, so I can’t say I wasted a lot of psychic energy pining for it.
Anyhow, enter Zeboyd Games, indie developer of retro-RPGs Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World.  They have a knack for marrying pseudo classic plots and graphics with some much more modern game design and tactical gameplay, and when I heard that they’d signed on to finish up the series I thought it was an altogether grand idea.  Incidentally did I mention that Zeboyd also sells all their games dirt cheap?  They do.  That’s nice also.  So I grabbed this on Steam on day 1 and have now gotten through the whole thing, on normal difficulty, anyway.

This is unquestionably the best Zeboyd game made yet and if you liked either of their other two offerings or just are interested in this sort of gameplay, then you will not regret spending the $5 this game costs.  I can’t go quite so far as to say that this is the best Penny Arcade game ever made, though.  So let’s go through this.

If you played Episode I or Episode II, you probably remember that you had Gabe and Tycho as playable characters and also a third character who you could customize, so possibly an avatar of yourself or favorite rock star or whatever.  This one is more or less traditional JRPG style by giving you a more-or-less permanent four person party composed of Gabe, Tycho, Jim (their roommate, currently deceased) and Moira (whose connection to events is explained as soon as she appears, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.)  Each of the main characters has a base class, which grants class abilities.  (In case you’re wondering, the base classes are, respectively: Brute, Scholar, Necromaster, and Gumshoe.)

Unlike Zeboyd’s previous titles, you don’t get to choose your level up bonuses, rather you proceed through the traditional method of gaining set abilities at set levels.  You also, relatively quickly, gain the ability to equip “class pins” which grant each character up to two more classes.  If you want, you can swap these among the party, and in fact it’s a good idea to experiment with this a little bit.  In traditional Zeboyd fashion, the pins are given to you in two batches, so you don’t have to go through a bunch of tedious fetch-questing and rock-turning to find them.  The classes level up independently and offer different passive bonuses and abilities; they level up alongside your base class and conveniently level up even if you don’t have them equipped, albeit at a slightly lower speed.  Some of them are pretty useless, or at least, not as useful as others.

Anyway.  Like in the previous Zeboyd titles, the party regains maximum HP after every battle.  The magic system is altered so that each character starts out with no magic points and gains 1 MP per round, which means that you’re able to use your best skills and abilities more often.  Items are also reset at the beginning of each round; instead of collecting a bunch of (say) potions, once you get a potion you can use it a certain number of times per battle, with the ability to level up the effectiveness and number of uses of the item.  You can save anywhere, not just at save points.  There’s also no – or at least not many – random encounters.  The enemies you face are right there on the world map and they don’t respawn when you leave.  And there is a huge number of varied enemies for such a short game, including tough fights against sub-bosses, minibosses, and a number of rather impressive bosses (including, of course, the optional secret boss.)

With all those gameplay elements smoothed out, what is the point, you ask.  Well, that point is to whip your ass with tactical fighting and not wasting your time with level grinding and similar BS.  It may look like a traditional RPG but it’s really more of question of how to get through these fights within the combat system.  On tougher fights you’ll have to creatively use the timing system to disrupt the enemy’s attack, and as the fight continues the enemy will increase in its stats and speed, eventually overwhelming you.  If you’ve got the wrong class pins equipped or don’t use your abilities wisely, then you have to recognize that you have a reasonable chance of getting killed by any given encounter, even if it’s not a boss fight.  Since they don’t make you grind and they restore you to health every time, they have the freedom to treat every fight like a knock-down fight, and they do.  I like that.

Now if I have some criticisms of the gameplay, and I do, it would be that the stripped-down nature of the fighting does narrow your options somewhat.  Since long fights are much to your disadvantage, you basically need to inflict as many life-draining statuses on tough bosses as you can, of which only three are available (Hobo, Bleed, and Poison), and since those are only available with one class each, I believe you’re basically insane not to equip those classes before tough boss fights.  You’re also risking it not to equip Cordwainer (which can increase the entire party’s speed) and by that point you’ve only got two classes left to choose from.  In short it’s tactically interesting but not necessarily tactically deep, primarily with hard fights.  You have way more options with “ordinary” encounters.  My other issue is that the game is really short.  I know, most Zeboyd games are short, but Cthulhu Saves the World also had some collectibles, an alternate campaign mode, and other goodies that are sorely lacking here.  In fact there is an obvious bonus area that a character tells you isn’t finished yet.  Maybe they’ll release some DLC later.  If they charge for it, that will be a little disheartening.

With that said, let me also say that I found the story to be a little disappointing.  There was a text story outlining the supposed plot of the third game written at some point during the period it appeared that the series would never be finished, and the game follows it pretty slavishly.  There are a lot of funny parts to the game, but they tend to be the parts that weren’t in the story, and revolve around typical Penny Arcade style absurdist humor (e.g., the identity of a caller who leaves a ten-minute silent message before being cut off by more silence).  As I’ve found myself saying a lot lately, the issue is tone.  The base story tries to be a Neo-Lovecraftian pastiche, which basically worked coherently in the first two games but doesn’t really mesh well with all the other stuff they’re doing here.  A good 20-30% of the game actually takes place in parodies of other genres which are fun areas, but don’t have anything to do with the main plot and don’t thematically fit with the rest of the plot.  And while I’m pretty sure that I understood what Tycho was up to and what basically happened at the end, it was pretty poorly explained and could have used more visuals, less text walls.

I hope writing the fourth one from ground up as a game will cure my complaints for the last one, which I’m still anticipating.  But I’m pretty sure people aren’t playing this for the plot, and if you just ignore it and enjoy the tactical fighting then it’s absolutely worth the cost. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is one of my favorite short-story SF writers; he’s pretty prolific in that format, and Gardner Dozois likes his work, so I’ve tended to come across him in Dozois’ annual collections.  He’s also got several collections of his own work available as well.  He’s won the whole gamut of awards for his various works, and this collection itself was up for a Nebula.  Suffice to say he’s the real deal.
Since I’ve never reviewed any of his work before here I’ll also plug a few of his novels, which have also been generally well-received but aren’t as numerous as his short story offerings.  I can’t really say enough positive things about Stations of the Tide, Swanwick’s examination of a nameless bureaucrat sent to stop a murderous con-man magician on the eve of a natural disaster, and both The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel are very good indeed.

Swanwick excels both in the technical aspects of writing and also subverting genre expectations.  For instance, the fantasy world he creates for the latter two novels contains the usual assortment of elves and other staple fantasy critters, but the world is grungy and shabby and contains clear parallels to our own world without beating the reader up about it too much.  And in Stations of the Tide you’re pretty sure that the bureaucrat, while well intentioned and ostensibly in the right, is fighting somewhat out of his weight class in his flashy opponent (which turns out to be true, but not in the expected way.)  Someone with such precision in writing as well as a bit of a mean streak is likely to excel in short story form, and that is the case here.

There are a few standouts in this collection.  I really liked “Scherzo With Tyrannosaur”, where a paleontologist goes through all sorts of paradoxes in a world where time travel exists.  He’s dealing with promotion to management and personnel problems; there are actually so many plot twists here that even describing it too much would probably spoil it.  Suffice to say that several unexpected things occur, followed by a nice un-resolution.  So that was good.  I also was a great fan of “Radiant Doors”, which deals with (again) time-traveling, only this time it’s refugees coming from the future where they are fleeing some sort of oppressive totalitarian state.  It becomes apparent that some of the refugees might not be simply the victims that they appear to be, though, and this one really delves into the concept of becoming what we try to avoid, without going overboard on the message.

One of the stories that lays it on a little thick was “The Dead”, which deals with a future where most work is done by literally animated corpses, and although it was well written it was somewhat aggressive about the point it was making, almost to the point of distraction.

They’re not all message pieces, though.  “Mother Grasshopper” is just sort of fun, and “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” deals with a literal train trip to Hell from the eyes of one of the staff, a soul who was undeservedly assigned to Hell, and then can’t catch a break despite always doing the “right” action.  Although it may work out for him in the end.

All in all, a nice solid short story collection, and worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi

Dramatic tension comes from expectation of potential consequences, and the best way to show potential consequences is to demonstrate them on somebody.  Hence if you need to establish a deadly threat to, say, Captain Kirk, and the team consists of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and some random unnamed extra, you don’t need an episode guide to tell you who’s gonna die.  If you know what a “red shirt” is, you can probably guess what Redshirts is about, and be mostly right within an order of magnitude.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  This book is by John Scalzi, who probably doesn’t need any introduction, or at least if he does he doesn’t need one by me.  He’s got a very prominent web site, appears to be omnipresent in the SF community, and has been blogging since well before blogging was cool.  Furthermore he appears to be a guy who Gets It, whatever It happens to be (e.g., adapting to trends in publishing, getting his stuff accomplished on time, sympathetic toward gender issues, understanding that cats sometimes suffer lack of bacon, etc.)  I’m not sure that I’d like to hang out with him as such, since we don’t know each other or anything, but he does seem to be awfully similar to people I do like to hang out with, and we share similar cultural markers.  That said, while I certainly understand the love, I don’t always feel the love.  My favorite works of his are The Android’s Dream, which I adore, and The God Engines, which I really enjoyed.  I respect Old Man’s War, but didn’t really think that highly of the sequels, and I haven’t gotten around to Fuzzy Nation yet.  (I do also really enjoy Judge Sn Goes Golfing.)  However, even when I don’t personally enjoy something Scalzi writes, I can usually see the appeal.

The sample chapters of this one were intriguing so I took the plunge.  Did I like the book?  Yes.  Did I dislike the book?  Yes.  Can I say, on balance, that it was a positive experience?  Not sure.  Let me quote the old nursery rhyme:  “There was a little girl with a little curl on her forehead.  When she was good she was very good, but when she was bad she was indistinguishable from an all-night freshman year bullshit session”.  I will explain further below.  Mild spoilers ahoy!

Although Star Trek may be a particularly egregious offender, the red shirt phenomenon is older than any of us, and probably older than dirt, considering that it shows up in the epic of Gilgamesh, which as far as I’m aware is the oldest existing story – when the gods decree that one of the two of Enkidu and Gilgamesh have to die for killing Ishtar’s bull, well, you know it ain’t called the Epic of Enkidu.  Or all those Ithicans who didn’t make it back home with Odysseus.  So this character exists to die in order to demonstrate how badass the hero is by eliminating the threat that the red shirt couldn’t, or to provide an emotional scene for the hero, just to establish that the hero’s in deadly danger, or even to goad the hero into a new paroxysm of hero-ness.  I guess you could write a story where the hero dies 90% of the way through for no particular reason and someone unnamed solves the problem of the hour, but that probably would be deeply unsatisfying to read and probably hard as hell to write, and it would go against all narrative tradition while you were at it.

So when Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, he quickly discovers that life is nasty, brutish, and short if you don’t happen to be one of five or so major officers, and that one’s odds of death when being around these officers go up to an alarming degree.  As an aside, it’s also not that great to be astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, who somehow manages to survive flesh melting plagues, being repeatedly shot, buried under debris, and alien possession on a regular basis and come back for more.  Although he’s also had three rounds of sexually transmitted infections, so apparently it’s not all thorns for him.  Anyway if you’re on an away mission with Kerensky then the same horrible thing is going to happen to both of you except he’s going to survive and you are not.  The captain and the superintelligent, standoffish first officer are likely to emerge more or less unscathed.  (Quick shout out - I really liked how Scalzi didn't go for the low-hanging fruit here.  These officers actually aren't the terrible people that you might expect and seem as puzzled as anyone why they don't fix the consoles so they don't explode in the crew's faces all the time.)

Most of the stuff in the first third of the book deals with the characters, Dahl and four of his red-shirt buddies, coming to grips with the increasing weirdness of their situation and possibly their impending demise.  Much of it is genius, especially to anyone familiar with SF television series.  For instance, there’s an explanation of how, given a six hour deadline, the science section can come up with a cure for anything, but not until the five and a half hour mark.  Also, the packed ship appears empty when a major officer comes around because the crew members sensibly hide, not being complete suckers.  The ones that can’t get away stride purposely around hoping to avoid eye contact or being asked to do anything or, God forbid, be asked on an away mission.

I really liked this section of the book.  I was really entertained and actually laughed out loud a few times, something I don’t often do while reading.  Where it began to go off the rails for me a little bit was when they realize that they’re probably characters on a really derivative television series and decide to confront their creators.  They decide to do this by commandeering a shuttlecraft and flying it into a black hole, an action which I approve of.  However, at this point, I was aware of a metatextual issue which Scalzi (to his credit) later addresses as well, namely this:  once you focus on a supporting character he’s no longer a supporting character, he’s a hero.  Tom Stoppard dealt with this in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but only by the expedient of having the “main characters” accomplish precisely zip throughout the show.  In the opposite vein, Terry Pratchett tried to write a book about the sort of guys who come out when the local tyrant yells for the guards and ended up creating Sam Vimes and Carrot and a large number of his best and most loved characters.  So, while some random people might get horribly killed by Borgovian land worms and ice sharks, once Dahl starts being proactive you’re pretty sure that whatever he has in mind is actually going to succeed and he probably won’t just up and die.  Especially after he manages to make it through a couple of “episodes” more or less intact.

I won’t say if Dahl actually makes it or not, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to think that he will by the midpoint.  Scalzi actually toys around with this a little, by suggesting that whether it’s true or not is up to him, which is of course both obviously true and a little unfair to explicitly point out.

It’s also not that uncommon for fictional characters to meet their makers.  Animal Man met Grant Morrison.  Job met God.  Many of the everyday details in this section were also funny and seemed very true to life in California circa 2012.  But it sort of drifted closer to the event horizon of navel-gazing and then crossed over it at some point for me.  Perhaps not everyone would have that same reaction, but as the story progressed I found myself guessing pretty accurately where we were going with the narrative (excuse me, Narrative) and at that point I found myself losing interest, although I will note that Scalzi did not himself appear as such, which was where I feared we might be headed with it.

Perhaps the source of some of my discontent was that the book itself (and the codas, especially) ended up being more of a manifesto on the proper treatment of fictional characters as opposed to a self-contained story in itself.  As an extra, Dahl doesn’t have a lot of personality, just a thin veneer of a background story.  The same is basically true for the other redshirts; they aren’t strong characters, although I do understand that they don’t want to die.  Nonetheless, while the scenes of them sitting around being sarcastic at each other stopped being funny for me at about the point I realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot more detail given about them, and when the highly structured scenario meant that literally anything could happen at any point.  The manifesto itself is sort of interesting, but coming from a man who once had his extra characters have to fight some advanced aliens in a death match, it’s probably more penance than anything else.  I guess I’d be in a more forgiving mood if these questions were presented in a more novel way, but I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me.

I guess it does seem a little unfair to blame a novel about people who are extras by definition for being weak characters, but hey, they’re supposed to carry their own story here.  And they don’t quite manage it.  I couldn’t help thinking that I would have unreservedly enjoyed this if this had been a novella and stopped before we learned whether their stolen shuttle plot had any effect or not.  So, take that as you will and make your own choice; happily, no Narrative is forcing you to read or avoid anything.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Runyon on Broadway by Damon Runyon

Before I begin talking about this book specifically, let me explain why I’m reading a vintage 1975 British edition of a quintessentially American author in the first place.  The reason is the stupid copyright system currently in place; Runyon died in 1946 and did most of his writing in the 1930s, and the copyrights on his short stories will not expire (under the current regime) until 95 years after their publication date.  Therefore the last of his short stories will enter the public domain in 2041.  I’m not sure if this is intended to encourage Runyon to write more or what, but its practical effect is to prevent me from reading what I really want to read by him, namely a huge anthology of his entire short story output.  Yes, I know that book would be about the size of an encyclopedia but I’d still shell out for it.  And since nothing like that exists, I have to pick up these anthologies where I can find them, because Runyon was nothing if not a frequently collected and anthologized author, and hope that they contain a story that I haven’t seen before (since each editor has a slightly different idea about what constitutes the best of his output.)

Anyway, the book of Ecclesiastes states that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.  Runyon agreed with this, but pointed out that you should bet that way anyway since “all life is six to five against”.  That tells you pretty much what you need to know about Runyon, who was a newspaperman and a short story writer and apparently excelled at writing about baseball and horse racing, but especially the short story writing.

Runyon’s not obscure, exactly, as everyone’s heard of “Guys and Dolls” and some of his stories still show up in collections, but I think it’s a shame that he isn’t more widely read (but some of it may be his own fault, as explained further below).  I’m fond of short story as an art form and, to my mind, Runyon did it better than just about anyone else and certainly had his own inimitable style.  If you’re not familiar with it, he wrote in a bizarre slangy argot which completely eschews contractions and all verb tenses except the present.  It’s not so much dated as affected, since no one ever in the entire history of the world has spoken this way.  It contains enough Americanisms that this British anthology contained a glossary, but the editor pointed out in the introduction that you’d have to be pretty dense to not understand what he’s talking about, except possibly if you don’t know that a G is a thousand dollars and a C is a hundred.

Ecclesiastes also states that there’s nothing new under the sun, and the na├»ve reader, not realizing that ironic detachment wasn't invented in the 1990s, may be a little surprised at how sociopathic these stories can be, although almost always to comedic effect.  They don’t have any swearing and no explicit content besides a little bit of offhand kissing now and again, but man can they be cold blooded.  Witness this exchange between the nameless narrator and a character by the name of Jack O’Hearts discussing why Jack gunned down a member of the narrator’s singing quartet in “The Lily of St. Pierre”:

'I suppose,' he says, 'I owe you guys an apology for busting up your quartet when I toss those slugs at Louie the Lug?'
'Well,' I say, 'some considers it a dirty trick at that, Jack, but I figure you have a good reason, although I am wondering what it is.'
'Louie the Lug is no good,' Jack says.
Well, of course I know this much already, and so does everybody else in town for that matter, but I cannot figure what it has to do with Jack shooting off ears in this town for such a reason, or by and by there will be very few people left with ears.
'Let me tell you about Louie the Lug,' Jack O'Hearts says. 'You will see at once that my only mistake is I do not get my shots an inch to the left. I do not know what is the matter with me lately.'
'Maybe you are letting go too quick,' I say, very sympathetic, because I know how it annoys him to blow easy shots.

In another case a problem gets resolved by a dude getting knifed in the neck, an unfaithful wife ends up in a sack, a group of citizens hires a scary Italian hit man to take out a local thug, and in general there’s quite a lot of mayhem going on, none of which surprises or unduly puts out anyone.  In one story the narrator and one of his friends come across a loan shark who has been stabbed, and are very taken aback to see him this way – they figured that someone would shoot him and are “very angry to think that there are guys around who will use such instruments as a knife on anybody”.

All the Broadway stories are told from the first person perspective of an unnamed man who alleges that he’s no one in particular and that everyone and sundry considers him to be “just around”.  He also claims to have a nervous disposition and hate the company of desperadoes, which must cause him much distress as apparently that comprises most of his associates.  Nonetheless, he gets invited to swank parties and people make confessions to him all the time of all sorts of felonies, he’ll show up in the company of strong-arm men and although he never commits any crime of violence he manages to show up at a couple of robberies and swindles.  But mostly what happens is he’ll relate a tale from some associate of his, of whom he has a large number.  Surprisingly, some of them are even related to real events – “Lonely Hearts” is based on the true-life story of Belle Gunness, and there are other contemporary references in there that I’m sure sail right over my head.

Anyway, these stories are seriously funny in that classic New York deadpan way.  The narrator never judges and only criticizes those that aren't around or can't fight back - maybe explaining why everyone wants to tell him their stories.

They aren’t perfect by any means, though.  Although the slang dates these stories, they are so stylized that it’s not even really a problem; what really dates these works are some truly backwards social views that were unfortunately all too typical of the time.  There are some bright spots – the author mentions that he speaks some Yiddish and there are some minority characters spoken of favorably (or at least are not any more unfavorable than all the other lowlifes), and in one story the author points out that you shouldn’t refer to Jews or Italians by various ethnic slurs since they are by and large as good as anyone else (and also because some are likely to take offense and beat you up).  Unfortunately while this sort of tolerance also extends to Puerto Ricans it doesn’t exists to blacks, who are conspicuous by their rarity and in cruel, insulting dismissals when they do turn up.

Also Runyon’s gender relations are summed up by the idea that pretty much every woman is referred to as a “doll” without any exceptions that I can think of, and once they’re married their individual stories are more or less complete.  Although at least one widow does get revenge for her dead husband by drowning three guys simultaneously in the ocean, and another waits for a cad to become a success and then shoots him in the head.  The narrator is still somewhat coldly dismissive toward “dolls” and frankly I could see how women might be pretty turned off by it.  As a straight white guy it’s pretty easy for me to just say to overlook it and enjoy the humor value in the writing, but I don’t know, maybe some people just can’t get past it.  If it’s any consolation I’m not sure we’re strictly intended to take anything the narrator says at face value, since he’s pretty unreliable.

In any event, the only story in this collection which I don’t think I’d previously read was “Tight Shoes”, which was okay.  If I ever do get my complete Runyon set I’d probably find that I’d read the best ones already, but that’s all right, it would be entertaining enough.  At that.