Friday, May 31, 2013

The Manhattan Projects: They Rule

The Manhattan Projects: They Rule (The Manhattan Projects, #2)The Manhattan Projects: They Rule by Jonathan Hickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far, my favorite comic of all time. Yes, it might get eclipsed at some future date, but for now, wow, you can't get any better. This volume puts the focus on Helmutt Grottrup, German rocket scientist and general whipping boy for whatever regime happens to be in power. I'm waiting for the day he finally cracks and punches his bullies on the jaw. We are also introduced to the cabal that rules the world (I'm not kidding) and the Manhattan Projects members struggles with them. Yuri Gagarin plays a more direct role in events and proves himself a hero. The space dog, Laika, also plays a significant role in keeping Nebehu, master of magics and one of the ruling cabal, at bay. Finally, we are re-introduced to Joseph Oppenheimer's increasingly-fragmented reality, which has arisen because of his (view spoiler)[murder and subsequent cannibalistic consumption of his brother, Robert (hide spoiler)].

I'm wondering where Hickman goes from here? I can see a few possibilities, such as the potential for Grottrup to get fed up and not take any crap anymore, as I've mentioned above. JFK is now in the picture and the space race is heating up (though the real space race has already been run). And then there's the question of how to keep FDR: AI dead? I think he might be coming back for a second round. But let's hope not.

The fun established in volume 1 just keeps on going. If you're in for some extra-dimensional insanity involving the smartest men who ever lived, this is your cup of tea. Sip it, if you can. I couldn't help but gulp it down and make a slob of myself.

Glug, glug.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Wiscon 2013

Here's the honest truth: I'm no celebrity at Wiscon. There are authors who, when they attend Wiscon, are followed around by a line of giddy fans. I'm not that guy.

However, I do have a fair amount of friends who I'm glad to be with for the Memorial Day weekend. I've developed some great friendships over the years, for which I'm very grateful, and each year, it seems that there is always someone new to connect with in meaningful ways, not as mere business connections, but as friends with shared interests and mutual respect. This year was no exception.

The past two years, I have purposefully avoided being on or moderating any panels. I've done my fair share of participating on panels in the past and have decided that, for the last couple of years, at least, I would concentrate on attending and learning from panels in order to improve my writing craft. This has become especially important as my kids get older and I have less time to spend on writing.

I was particularly impressed, this year, by the panel on microbes, which included several microbiologists and science writers, including Ada Milenkovic Brown, Jacquieline Houtman, Carl F. Marrs, Greg Press, and Joan Slonczewski. Biology was never my strong point, though I've made it a point to study a bit about the biopunk movement in order to lend some veracity and depth to some plot points in the novel I'm currently working on, Solistalgia. In all honesty, I had not touched this novel for several months. As of tonight, I've picked up where I left off and finished half a chapter in the last couple of hours. I'm feeling it again! Once more into the breech!

I also attended the Journeyman Writer's meeting for the third year in a row. What a fantastic resource - attendees are required to have at least one SFWA sale (sorry, no newbies), and we have a round-table discussion about . . . whatever we want to. Last year, agents were the hot topic. This year, we talked a lot about slushpiles and editing. I find these discussions both very encouraging and very helpful, and judging from the number of returning writers, it seems that others do, as well.

Our discussions lent themselves to the next panel I attended on "Editing for Writers". While I knew much of what was discussed (I've done a bit of editing myself), it was good to sit back and examine things from the writer's perspective. Tor's Jim Frenkel led the discussion, with my agent Kris O'Higgins participating, along with Alex Bledsoe, Deb Taber, and F.J. Bergmann (who is a member of my writer's group). Jim's words were encouraging. Of course, I have a couple of novels in his to-read pile, so I'm hoping for the best!

I also attended a reading by Shira Lipkin, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Lisa Bradley, and Patty Templeton. Lisa's poem (with helpful glossary and recipes!) was fantastic. And this is the second year I've gone to hear Patty read from her upcoming ghost novel. I am very much looking forward to reading the completed work, which shares something of Nick Cave's ouvre from And the Ass Saw the Angel with a touch of Beetlejuice (I do the work injustice with inadequate comparisons). I can't wait for the novel to be published, something to really look forward to!

And, of course, there's the party. The Party. Yes, I'm talking about the notorious Scribe Agency party, which I help host every year. Kris, as well as being an agent, is a capable home-brewer. Now, I don't drink alcohol, so Kris is so good as to brew up a potent ginger beer for me and my non-alcohol-drinking kin (or those who are sick of being inebriated - it's kind of a drinking marathon for some people, I understand, and not everyone can or wants to keep pace). This year our party had a Halloween theme, so a few of us brave folk masked up and had a great time. Sorry, I don't have any pictures, though I'm including a photo of our agent-client dinner below.

I must add, also, that I love Wiscon because the programming is a bit more . . . rigorous, I guess is the right word, than some other cons I've been to. There's a slight academic bent to it all (witness the microbe panel I mentioned above), but none of that ivory tower aloofness. It's a fun time, but it's a fun time with some really, really smart people. Yes, there is the occasional fan squeeing about, but they tend to behave a little better than I've seen at a couple of other cons. Of course, everyone is welcome, squeeing or not. That's one of the things I love best about Wiscon - it's a safe place for us geeks to get together and just be ourselves for a weekend. It feels like family.

Here we are having dinner outside of Kabul. Kabul Restaurant, that is. That's me in the denim jacket with the USCSS Nostromo patch on the sleeve. To my left is Agent Kris, then Jenn Brissette, Marguerite Reed, and Andrea Hairston. I can't vouch for the other people, though they agreed it was okay to put their picture up online. Not that you can see any of their faces anyway. Oh, and it was frickin' freezing out there, Mister Bigglesworth. Hence the hot and spicy dish in front of me. Nothing like ginger and garlic chicken to warm you up on a Wisconsin spring evening!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and Epistemology

Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and EpistemologyHierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and Epistemology by Valerie Ahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ahl and Allen's work is a monumental work that tackles the issue of observing and interpreting complex patterns not by focusing on the acquisition of data itself, but by focusing on how the observer gathers data and, in the process, affects the data itself. A system has "complexity" when its several sub-systems can be examined on different levels of granularity, some of which do not correlate well with others within the same system because of problems of physical or temporal scale.

For example, whale migration might be viewed at the level of the pod, the individual whale, or even the individual cells of a whale. Tornadoes might be viewed at the climatological level, the meteorological level, or as a series of millions of molecular vectors in space. The questions asked, data gathered, and conclusions one gathers from the data might all be valid, but might not agree with each other in a meaningful way. This is not because of any naturally-occurring essence of the observed itself, but because of the way in which it is observed. Hierarchy theory attempts to at least alert the practitioner (of whatever observational school - biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, mathematics) to the fact that their observations must affect what is being observed. To quote the authors:

Since complexity comes from the relationships between levels, it is to be expected that complexity is not a feature of the external world. Complexity does not exist independently of an observer's questions. Instead, complexity is the product of asking questions in a certain way.

In essence, then, an observer-free observation is meaningless.

Beyond this mere proposition, Hierarchy Theory goes on to provide insights into how the observer might order observations by ordering hierarchical levels, considering necessary changes to observation levels in a nested hierarchy, filtering information, and defining the whole with surfaces.

It's been some time since I've applied these principles, in practice, but when I studied African History as a graduate student, I found these guidelines extremely helpful in determining scope and the appropriate level of temporal and/or geographical granularity for the examination of historical processes and events. This was particularly true for my Master's Thesis, which was a study of the colonial response to the Mau Mau rebellion in British East Africa. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that whenever I started to experience scope-creep, the principles I learned from Hierarchy Theory kicked in and brought me back to square one. I had to examine my examinations and "reset" to an appropriate scale.

While many of the ideas in Hierarchy Theory seem obvious to anyone who has undertaken serious academic research, Ahl and Allen's presentation collates many of the methods on which one might have accidentally stumbled in the course of observation and presents to the reader a step-by-step approach to assessing the observer's assumptions vis-a-vis observed data.

Fun for the whole family! Recommended for those who love to observe observation and observing the observation of observation.

My most sincere hope is that someone much more intelligent than I am will "diff" this book against the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. It seems to me that the dovetailing of hierarchy theory and the Copenhagen interpretation would provide some interesting grist for scaling quantum observations "up" into the classical realm or even further up into the cosmological realm. I have a hunch that such an exercise might provide great insight into the workings of the universe at the borders between the quantum, classical, and cosmological scales. Again, this would require the brains and time of someone much better endowed with both than I am. Any takers?

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Lucifer, Vol. 1: Devil in the Gateway

Lucifer, Vol. 1: Devil in the GatewayLucifer, Vol. 1: Devil in the Gateway by Mike Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucifer, Vol. 1 is not the best graphic novel I've read in the last year or so and not the worst. The artwork and production are, as one would expect from Vertigo, top notch. The stories included are good, but nothing like the other stuff I've been lucky enough to encounter in the last few months. Lucifer as a character - well, it's complicated, but not complicated enough to compel me to read the whole series. Still, there's a lot of potential for the retired prince of Hell. At times, I found him arbitrarily nasty, then not nearly nasty enough. I suppose that Carey is trying to add complexity to Lucifer's character, but the lightbringer becomes, in the process . . . well, muddled. Dark, even, but not in an interesting way. More foggy, I suppose. Maybe I'll pick up a copy of the later volumes and give Carey a chance to grow the character. But maybe not. I can't recommend this nearly as strongly as I can other graphic novels I've recently read, but I can't firmly say "you shouldn't read this," either. From me, it gets an underwhelming: "Meh. It's okay. Better than reading cheap romance novels, I suppose." Prepare to not be blown away.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 17, 2013

Codex Seraphinianus

Codex SeraphinianusCodex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine that Stepan Chapman, M.C. Escher, Albrecht Durer, and Salvador Dali were locked in an underground dungeon with an infinite amount of art supplies and only LSD to eat. Suddenly, a wayward creator-god shows up with a genetic splicer set to randomize the mixing of species and common objects, creating before the artists a set of real-life models from which they might take inspiration.

Codex Seraphinianus is a natural history of the surreal, a book that truly defies categorization. It is reminiscent of the old Harper's Magazine Travelers Companion, a 19th-century anthropological survey, a modern biology and environmental science textbook, and a series of travel brochures. The asemic script that runs throughout merely heightens the strangeness of the volume. The language seems familiar, but is utterly alien. There's obviously something being explained, though one is never quite sure what.

Sections in the work display flora, fauna, environmental or biological cycles, mechanical systems, modes of transportation, modifications to human anatomy, different forms of dress and dwelling places of what one must assume are more primitive peoples, a taxonomy of human heads, maps, pictures of notable places and historically-significant events, and costumes of whatever culture is being represented.

The wonder of this book is that it doesn't constrain the reader with any kind of imposed narrative. You are free to interpret the drawings and text in any way you like. Here, there are no wrong answers and the representations merely serve as stepping off points for the imagination. Getting to the end of the book, one finds that it is just a beginning. And isn't that one of the finest compliments that can be given to a book?

Addendum: Codex Seraphinianus is back in print! It's 'spensive, but probably worth it.

View all my reviews

The Yellow Birds

The Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My dad was a cold warrior, serving in the Air Force from before my birth to well into my adult years. Part of that time was spent serving in Vietnam and Thailand (and, yes, there was combat in Thailand at the time) where he was a radio operator who also served on base defense whenever his base was attacked. Apparently, this happened a few times in his stay in Southeast Asia. As a boy, being a boy, I asked my Dad "Dad, did you ever get a purple heart?". He responded "No way! I kept my ass down! That's what the Army's for." When I (insensitively) broached the question: "Did you ever kill anyone?" He responded "I don't know. I shot at a few people, but I was too busy keeping my head down to see whether or not I hit them. The Security Police and Army detachments did most of the dirty work. We just laid down fire to keep the enemy pinned."

Still, Dad felt the after-effects of combat. When we lived in the Philippines, there was a collision at an intersection where we were waiting at a four-way stop. Dad, more scared than I've ever seen him before or since, opened the car door and hid under the steering column. Even at that young age, I knew that this wasn't normal.

Dad's fine now. Has been for years. But I've often wondered what he would be like had he been in heavy combat for longer periods of time. Now, there are plenty of people who have seen combat and come out unscathed, perfectly healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I'm not an alarmist about what combat may or may not do to a person's psyche. No one is doomed to an unhappy life for having been on the front lines. On the other hand, I've personally seen some bad cases of PTSD, some stretching out for many, many years. Some of my earliest memories are those of seeing wounded soldiers, incoming from Vietnam, getting off the medivac helicopters at the base where we lived in the Philippines. It took years before I realized why they were all bandaged up, some on stretchers, some with gauze completely covering their eyes. Now I realize that red and white are not colors you want to see on a soldier. Thankfully, these guys were already stabilized on the hospital ships out in Cam Ranh Bay and were going home, now, or at least back to the States, where they would try to pick up their lives again with what was left of their bodies and souls.

So when my son's best friend stated that he was joining the Marines, I was concerned. It's probably the right decision for him, and he's going to be a helicopter munitions crewman, not the most dangerous job, to say the least. Still, I worry about him.

The Yellow Birds didn't help.

This is as disturbing a novel as you'll read about war. The horrors of the Iraq war were bad enough to see from news reports flashed into my living room, but to see it from the inside out, as it were, from the perspective of a soldier in the thick of it, was difficult to digest.

Mechanically, the book is outstanding. My only complaint was that the poetic framework of the book was sometimes exposed, as in the multiple, rapid fire use of the word "and" to try to push the narrative down into a stream of consciousness channel. ". . . and . . . and . . . and . . .". Powers seemed like he was trying too hard to be poetic. It was too clever. Too contrived. Thankfully this only happened a few times.

But there is some beautiful prose in this novel, prose that contradicts the ugliness of the situation. The very personal voice of the narrator is buried in the impersonal, unfeeling circumstances:

I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You're nothing, that's the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause and saw a special significance in the portraits of the dead, arranged neatly next to the number corresponding to their place on the growing list of casualties we read in the newspapers, as indications of an ordered war . . . Of course, we were wrong. Our biggest error was thinking it mattered what we thought. It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and that therefore that time was not ours. We didn't know the list was limitless.

It's this sense of being caught up in something bigger than oneself that informs the entire novel. There is a feeling of inevitability to the events that occur, an existentialist cosmic mockery of the individuals who think they are their own agents, that they control their own destiny; shades of Orwell's 1984 and the works of Lovecraft, though this fiction feels closer to a memoir than to the fantastical hyperbole of its more speculative cousins. This is grounded in the banal. This feels real:

I thought of my grandfather's war. how they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them. they'd shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now.

From the foregoing quotes, you might think that this book is short on hope. You'd be right. It's a downward spiral into meaninglessness and despair, a vortex of emotional numbness. This is not for the faint of heart. But I still recommend it. It's difficult to review this book without becoming a little pedantic, so please excuse me for a moment as I point out one of the reasons you should read the book. Read it, and the next time it's election day, ask yourself whether or not you should go vote. And think carefully on the consequences. Think on the blessing of freedom, including freedom from war and its effects. This book might just cause you to more carefully weigh the alternatives at your disposal and choose wisely. Who knows? With your marker hovering over a check-box in the voting booth or with your hand poised over the phone and the phone book open to your congressman's number, you might just be preventing the sequel to this book from ever having to be written. Though I have little faith that there will be a cessation to the series of war, one of these books is enough for a lifetime.

View all my reviews

ADDENDUM: The same day I reviewed The Yellow Birds, THIS came out on yahoo news. One of the creepiest coincidences of my life. Disturbing and not very reassuring. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Point of Honor: A Military Tale

The Point of Honor: A Military TaleThe Point of Honor: A Military Tale by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Traveller was kind enough to point me to this tale of a pair of French duelists who meet several times regarding their “point of honor". Though I felt the beginning was rather long and seemed to drag on a bit, the story itself elicited more emotion out of me than I had expected. I’ve often wondered what thoughts went through a man’s head when he knew he was going to die in a duel, and Conrad does a great job of portraying just how one might feel, given those circumstances. Like any work of its time, there is more than a little melodrama when we peek into the characters’ thoughts, but Conrad also shows surprising restraint, as well, in that his characters don’t seem like they’re overacting too much when presenting dialogue. There is a movie version of this story, directed by Ridley Scott (so it has to be pretty good, right?), that I will now have to see.

As some might know, I fence, when I have the time (very rare nowadays), so I take particular interest in works about swords and swordsmanship. I’ve written a story or two myself about the same. Most works are rather cursory in their accounts of the combat itself, and The Point of Honor is no exception. I suppose that Conrad might have learned how to wield a saber while in the Merchant Navy, though I’m not sure of this.

In any case, what stands out is not the descriptions of the fighting, but what the men are feeling (or not feeling) before, during, and after the fight. Of course, the duel itself is merely the reinforcement of cultural norms expressed through the use of arms. If I were smarter by half, I could go on about this, but suffice it to say that the duel, social expectations of French society at the time (read Balzac, if you want more on this), and the intensity of emotions felt by the characters throughout are all part of a self-perpetuating cycle. These two men are truly “caught up" in events that lay beyond their control. But this sword, as they say, has two edges. By participating in the forbidden duel itself, the men kick against authority (all discreetly, of course) while, at the same time, reinforcing the social walls that forced them into this long, slow game of cat and mouse in the first place.

Despite the seeming inevitability of the duelists’ ongoing encounters, the end is a bit of a surprise and is quite satisfactory. Though there are other books about dueling that are much more thorough, none of them delve so deeply into what it means to be a human duelist.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The American Review:

At times, I find beauty in dissonance. Take, for example, my eclectic music collection. I have my share of soothing music: new age, quiet electronica, and so forth. I have some popular mainstream music, mostly from the '80s. Some funk, some reggae, ska, a bit of trance and techno. Yes, there's the heavy metal, punk, classic rock from my youth, and even a little progressive death metal. And, amongst it all, a good dose of 20th century classical pieces by such composers as George Crumb, Arvo Part, and Krzyzstof Penderecki played by several performers, including my favorite, the renowned Kronos Quartet.

Now, I don't revel in atonal music all the time. But once in a while, I just have to “blow the tubes,” as they say, and crank up the stereo a bit. I'm careful to do this when the wife and kids aren't around. The kids can take everything but the modern classical stuff. And my wife, well, she's no metalhead, let's put it that way, but she is a fantastic piano player . . . of the more normal classical pieces and jazz.

So why? I often ask myself, do I glory, at times, in the inglorious? Well, I have no good answer, save for the need is there. To quote 15 year-old Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange, “what I do I do because I like to do”.

Of course, I’m not addicted to ultra-violence like young Alex. Sure, I had my share of dalliances as a 15 year old, but rape and brutal beatings of the elderly were not on my list of things to do, much less murder. I can count on one hand the number of actual fights I was in. Still, I can relate to the devil-may-care attitude, or at least I could have related, as a teenager. So, though I don’t condone any of the heinous acts that Alex and his “droogies” (friends) participate in, I can see where the attitude comes from. I probably shouldn't say this, but while I could never find myself doing the thinks he does, I could, as an American teenager living in England back in the '80s, find myself feeling the way he feels. I do remember.

But now I’m all grown up (ostensibly). I’m a responsible husband and father, I hold a day job, contribute to my church and community, I vote, clean up the yard, donate to public radio, all that stuff. And maybe that’s the reason I like some dissonance in my music once in a while or, in this case, in my literature. It reminds me of a younger age. Not that I want to go back and do it over again. I don't. But occasionally I've an urge to . . . indulge myself. Thankfully, all it takes is the right music or the right book and I'm set straight again.

Whatever the cause for my itch, Burgess has scratched it with A Clockwork Orange. Possibly the most brutal “coming of age” novel I’ve read, A Clockwork Orange sets up a society and a narrator full of conflict and chaos. Alex, along with many other teenagers, rule the night in what may or may not be a socialist police state. I’m reminded more of Mobutu’s Zaire than Stalin’s Russia, in this case. The government isn’t so much in total control as it’s allowing chaos to foment in a semi-contained manner (in Mobutu's case, geographically contained to Eastern Zaire, in Burgess' case, temporally contained to the night). Kids run the streets after sunset, but only because there aren’t as many police (or "millicents") out during the night as there are during the day (according to Alex). It’s all a sort of dysfunctional dystopia that can’t make up its mind how to administer power and leaves it up to a lackadaisical police force (some of whom are ex-gang members) to abuse those who are the most disruptive to society.

The language of the novel is also dissonant. "Nadsat" or teenager talk, is a sort of creole admixture of Russian terms, Gypsy words, and an immature bit of baby-talk. At first, I found myself flipping back and forth from the text to the glossary in the back. After a chapter, though, I fell into the rhythm and found myself rather enjoying the strangeness of it all. In fact, once you've "got the rhythm," it's a little hard to let go. The voice of the novel lingers in the reader's head long after the book is closed. I found myself dreaming, at times, in nadsat.

Then there’s the narrator himself. He’s a lover of classical music, but a thug to the utmost. His two-faced approach to life leaves the reader wondering “who is the *real* Alex and is he truly capable of reform?” In the end, the answer is “no”. You can take the man out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the man..

The British Review:

. . . Then there's the narrator himself. He's a lover of classical music, but a thug to the utmost. His two-faced approach to life leaves the reader wondering “who is the *real* Alex and is he truly capable of reform?” In the end, the answer is that in time, maturity, the mere plodding march of chronology, wears down the deadly inner-demons that even brainwashing cannot purge. There is a certain inevitability to the track of life, an inescapable softening that cannot be averted.

The Universal Review:

In the end, Burgess posits the existentialist notion that change will impose its will when it wills it. Life itself says “what I do I do because I like to do”. Fight against it, if you want, or give in. Life doesn't much care. But does that mean you shouldn't?


And here I come full-circle. Internal dissonance is a part of me. That doesn't mean I embrace it all of the time. But I don't entirely shut it out, either. One might say I flip-flop between the American and the British ending. So, for me, reading A Clockwork Orange was more than just a reading. It was an exploration of what it means to be me, both the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the sinister, the tame and the wild. I can't say whether I like the American ending or the British ending better, though I'm glad I read them both. They are two sides of the same coin, a coin that, for me, continually flips through my psyche, flashing through the years, never really landing: heads or tails?

View all my reviews