January 25, 2006

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

Between 1968 and 1972, Le Guin published the Earthsea trilogy: "A Wizard of Earthsea", "The Tombs of Atuan" and "The Farthest Shore". The Earthsea trilogy is a widely read and well received fantasy series. In 1990 Le Guin added a fourth book to this trilogy: a novel named "Tehanu".

Now Le Guin has added a fifth full-length novel to the Earthsea setting (there have also been several short stories, also published in books). Ged and Tenar, protagonists from the earlier four novels, both appear and play key roles. In addition, Tehanu and her relationship with the dragon Kalessin forms a crucial part of this novel (which means you should probably read "Tehanu" before you read this novel).

A new character is introduced, Alder, a man who has unwittingly initiated a dangerous transformation that threatens all of Earthsea. Alder is a small-time sorceror, fixing broken pots with his magical skills. As the novel opens, he has lost his wife, Lily, and his grief seems to retain a link between them that should have been broken at death. He begins to dream of a field with a low stone wall that seems to separate the living from the dead. These dreams seem to be undoing not just his sanity but also seem to herald a transformation in the real world, in Earthsea. As the novel begins, he travels to meet the man who had been Archmage of Earthsea, Ged, to decode what is happening and why.

Rather than tell a story, this novel aims to introduce a new myth, with its own philosophy on the relationship between life and death. With each book in the Earthsea saga, Le Guin has managed to expand, almost casually it seems, the boundaries of what a work of fantasy can address, without corrupting the genre (that is, without any contemptible attempts at fusion of genres).

It is a pity that this novel has been saddled with a title that will inevitably provoke a few jokes about flatulence (perhaps an unlikely comparison with the movie "A Mighty Wind"). On the other hand, it is perhaps better not to take anything too seriously.

%T The Other Wind %A Ursula K. Le Guin %I Ace Books %P 273 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 044100993X (pb) %K science-fiction

Posted by anoop at 01:42 AM

Four For Tomorrow by Roger Zelazny

A collection of some of Zelazny's more famous short stories. It includes 'The Furies' from 1965, 'The Graveyard Heart' from 1964, 'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' from 1965, 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes' from 1963. It includes an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon who points out how fantasy and science-fiction interweave in the stories in this collection.

'The Furies' is probably the best story here, with an exceptional krewe of flawed geniuses in search of the anti-hero fugitive. Sandor Sandor is the most interesting of the detectives, with a PhD from the University of Brill on the planet Dombeck, a genius in the geography of all the worlds in the inhabited galaxy and missing his legs and his right arm.

'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' is one of Zelazny's most famous short stories about human bait for a strange leviathan in the seas of Venus.

%T Four For Tomorrow %A Roger Zelazny %I Ace Books: New York %P 216 %D 1967 %G ISBN: -- (pb) %K science-fiction

Review written: 2003/01/02

Posted by anoop at 01:38 AM

Permanence by Karl Schroeder

Permanence refers to the idea of building a civilization that could essentially support itself over vast periods of time, billions of years. A concept some have referred to as `deep time'. In this novel, it gives rise to a cult, whose efforts are directed towards this goal.

The universe in which the plot unfolds is the main attraction. Karl Schroeder has clearly put in a lot of effort to make a plausible and consistent future history in the great traditions of early sf authors such as Arthur C. Clarke. The basic idea is embellished with many scientific details on the author's website (which is what induced me to read the novel in the first place). The discovery of multitudes of brown dwarf stars littered throughout the universe finally made the promise of the expansion of humanity into the void. While previously the distances between stars without the possibility of faster than light travel meant that there could not be any coherent contact between them to maintain any kind of society, the existence of previously unseen and substantial numbers of brown dwarf stars with their own planets orbiting them meant that such a society was now possible. "Permanence" begins with such a society already extant and threatened with extinction after the new discovery of faster than light travel possible only between large masses such as the lit stars.

The plot is not particularly original, the now classic sf tale, the coming of age `young-adult' storyline made famous by Heinlein. Published not soon after his debut novel, "Ventus", Karl Schroeder has produced yet another impressive sf novel, although clearly not as accomplished as his previous effort. There are some great inventive ideas throughout the book, but the characters are not treated with the same care and many aspects seem rushed to completion.

%T Permanence %A Karl Schroeder %I Tor Books %P 447 %D 2002 %G ISBN: 076530371X %K science-fiction

Review written: 2003/01/06

Posted by anoop at 01:35 AM

A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain

For a chef at a fairly well known Parisian brasserie style restaurant in New York, Anthony Bourdain sure does write a lot of books. His first novels were fiction, mostly humorous crime dramas from what I can gather (without reading them). Then came a look at Typhoid Mary from an intentionally biased point of view.

Then came the success of "Kitchen Confidential" spurred on by an earlier New Yorker article which grew to become the book. This success meant that he could suggest to his publisher that he would travel the world for this next project in search of the `perfect' meal. In a Faustian bargain, the book was linked to a Food Network show of the same name, guaranteeing for him a new and larger captive audience and providing him with adequate guilt and angst to fuel his venting on the show against other easily ridiculed Food Network stars such as Emeril and Martha Stewart. Tony has no less than five installments of `Why you don't want to be on Television' distributed throughout his book bitching about filming the show.

The first thing about this book is that while Tony's plan was to scour the world for his meals, he spends most of his time writing about Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia with no less than six out of the sixteen chapters in his book about these two countries (Cambodia gets one chapter out of the six).

Being the modern day equivalent of the travelling journalist (like a modern Peter Fleming, for example) can only work if the personality of the author is upto the challenge of eliciting a grand experience in the travels. To some extent, Tony tries to do this by pursuing the exotic meal: still beating heart of a snake and numerous types of offal, poisonous fish and bugs. But these are mostly visual and are more readily enjoyed on the TV show. The book provides a much more tangible sense of the no-bullshit personality of the author and the contexts into which he chooses to put himself. For example, discussing Iron Chef with a group of drunk salarymen in a Tokyo bar is something that cannot be planned out (for the record, Tony's favorite is Morimoto, while the popular favorite seems to be Sakai, and Tony ends up providing the American reaction to the disgraceful Bobby Flay cutting board incident during the first Flay/Morimoto face-off).

Of course, you don't need to travel very far to get the same kind of food that Tony talks about in his visits to South-East Asia: a good bowl of Pho, even durian fruit are readily available in any big city in North America. Tony knows this, of course, but does not actually express it in his book, but what he is after is the right context for a meal: perhaps in the middle of Khmer Rouge bandit territory, which makes the meal perfect. In the end, it's eating some beach resort ribs on vacation in the French West Indies with his wife after the tour is over is what seems to be as perfect as anything else to be found in a world tour.

%T A Cook's Tour %T :in Search of the Perfect Meal %A Anthony Bourdain %I Raincoast Books, Vancouver %P 274 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 1551924293 %K non-fiction

Review written: 2002/12/20

Posted by anoop at 01:33 AM

January 03, 2006

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything ... Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. ... We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange ... We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need for other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.

"Solaris" seems to be a harsh meditation on the notion of first contact. In the various movie adaptations of this novel, the notion of humanism in this story is often hailed. `Science-fiction with a heart' the maudlin reviewers often cry out. It is this anthropomorphic viewpoint that Stanislaw Lem assails most directly in this novel. Many works of science-fiction often assume as given that humans have unlimited potential, and that given a chance we will be able to understand everything in the universe. Thinking otherwise is often treated as an affront to the often unstated assumption of humanity's limitless potential. "Solaris" offers a rarely presented point of view: even if the scientific viewpoint is accurate, it might not be enough. We might be too hard wired to a particular view to comprehend certain truths. It may be that we are selfish in a way that is so central to our makeup that science might have boundaries that we cannot truly accept as true.

This novel starts with Kris Kelvin getting a chance to visit the planet Solaris. Earth scientists have been studying this planet for over a 100 years, and even though there is clear evidence that the ocean on this planet is what we would term as sentient (in some unspecified manner), nobody has managed to come close to a theory of how humans can interact with this consciousness. Kris is also sent to the orbiting station to decide whether humanity should finally give up on contacting Solaris and shut down the station. He arrives to find his friend Gibarian dead, and the remainder of the crew Snouth and Sartorius to be at the limits of their sanity. They each seem to be undergoing a mysterious challenge that they can barely withstand.

After one night on the station, Kris is challenged in similar manner when he awakes next to his wife, Rheya. Kris immediately proceeds to kill her in a gruesome manner, unable to believe that anything but horror could be associated with the reanimation of his wife who took her own life several years ago. When Rheya reappears, Kris can contemplate his situation further and his decisions and those of the false-Rheya are what form the key to the novel. First contact, indeed.

The ending of the novel is vague but at least does not commit the abominations that are perpetrated in the final scenes of the Tarkovsky film based on this novel, as well as the later Soderbergh remake.

Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.

On the face of it, this novel looks like another sterile suggestion about the limitations of science (we cannot explain consciousness, etc.) but it is substantially different: it is about the limitations of humanity and not of science. A hopeful rebuttal within science-fiction comes from ideas like Vernor Vinge's Singularity.

Other Stanislaw Lem books reviewed in Special Circumstances

%T Solaris %A Stanislaw Lem %I Harvest Book: Harcourt, Brace and Company %P 204 %D 1970 (original in Polish 1961) %G ISBN: 0156837501 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2002/12/07

Posted by anoop at 02:52 PM

A Peace To End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin

The Middle East became what it is today both because the European powers undertook to re-shape it and because Britain and France failed to ensure that the dynasties, the states, and the political system that they established would premanently endure. During and after the First World War, Britain and her Allies destroyed the old order in the region irrevocably; they smashed Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East beyond repair (Which is not to deny that the Turks also played a role in the destruction of their empire, and that, in any event, there were forces within the Middle East making for change). To take its place, they created countries, nominated rulers, delineated frontiers, and introduced a state system of the sort that exists everywhere else; but they did not quell all significant opposition to those decisions.

As a result the events of 1914-22, while bringing an end Europe's Middle Eastern Question, gave birth to a Middle Eastern Question in the Middle East itself. The settlement of 1922 (as it is called here, even though some of the arrangements were arrived at earlier or a bit later) resolved, as far as Europeans were concerned, the question of what -- as well as who -- should replace the Ottoman Empire; yet even today there are powerful local forces within the Middle East that remain unreconciled to these arrangements -- and may well overthrow them.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire is a large event in history that is largely ignored in favor of the more recent history of the so-called Middle East (a term whose invention is discussed in this book), when, in fact, it provides the most insight about the politics of the region today. In particular, this book provides an invaluable perspective of the events in terms of the Great Game between Britain, Russia and France. As is usual in Great Game politics, allies morph into enemies and back again within the timespan of a scant decade from 1914-1922. See "Tournament of Shadows" for a comprehensive look at Great Game politics between Britain and Russia in the Central Asian sphere.

Apart from the Great Game perspective, Fromkin makes Winston Churchill the main central character of the book, illustrating the events through a view of his chequered career at the time. Through most of the book, Fromkin maintains a strong narrative making many jostling events of the time fairly coherent and easy to grasp. The later part of the book flounders in this respect but this complaint applied only for a chapter or two.

For those seeking historical causes of the conflict between Israel and its neighbours, for those who wonder how Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria became the political entities they are now, this book is an excellent guide. In many cases, as can be seen in this book, the long shadow of colonial thinking is still cast on the events of the 21st century.

This book manages to provide a historical perspective without much philosophical pandering and not much `clash of the civilization' style of argumentation and the fact that this approach is rare among books about the region is another reason to recommend it. It does impugn politicians from short sighted colonial powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries for much of the mess, but this much seems uncontroversial.

%T A Peace To End All Peace %T :the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East %A David Fromkin %I An Owl Book: Henry Holt and Company %P 635 %D 1989 %G ISBN: 0805068848 %K history

Review written: 2002/12/07

Posted by anoop at 02:46 PM

Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang has built quite a reputation since winning two Nebula awards for his short stories and also the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1992. This is his first book collecting eight of his short stories.

"Tower of Babylon", Ted Chiang's first story and Nebula award winner is probably the story that built his reputation. Tom Disch called this story `Babylonian science fiction' and it clearly goes beyond what you would expect. It gives new life to the Tower of Babel parable.

"Understand" is a disappointing take on the now common `man becomes superman through techno babble' storyline. "Division by Zero" on the other hand, is quite wonderful, based on a very simple premise.

"Story of Your Life" takes on one of the hardest tasks in science fiction: that of inventing a new language without making obvious mistakes or making it too boring. While the story revolves around the decipherment of an alien language, the central idea is a novel interpretation of variational methods from statistical physics.

"Seventy-Two Letters" is a sf take on the golem and "The Evolution of Human Science" takes on the lost art of the 2 page sf story (reminds me of Asimov). Ted Chiang seems to take quite a bit of inspiration from biblical sources, as is evident from "Hell is the Absence of God", a take on angels inspired by "The Prophecy". "Liking what you see: A Documentary" is somewhat awkwardly written but carries a meditation on `look'-ism.

%T Stories of your life %T : and others %A Ted Chiang %I Tor Books %P 333 %D 2002 %G ISBN: 076530418X %K science-fiction

Review written: 2002/10/07

Posted by anoop at 02:37 PM

The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

Rapid-fire, staccato writing, each sentence barely a few words long. Possibly the most original, least pandering, crime-fiction novel I've ever read. You have to meet James Ellroy more than half-way on this one, it takes quite an effort to make it through the first 100 pages or so, after which you get somewhat used to the disorienting feeling of reading this kind of prose.

Oswald stepped out. Oswald wore handcuffs. Two cops flanked him. They walked through the basement. They faced some reporters. They cleared a path fast.

A man jumped out. Dark suit / fedora. Right arm outstretched. He stepped up. He shot near point-blank.

Wayne blinked. Wayne saw it -- oh fuck.

Oswald doubled up. Oswald went "Oooh."

The cops blinked. They saw it -- oh fuck.

Commotion. Dogpile. The gunman's down. He's prone. He's disarmed. He's pinned flat.

The story is one that James Ellroy has visited before in "American Tabloid" -- it begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The novel follows three men sent to Dallas to take care of the aftermath. Ward Littell is sent by J. Edgar Hoover to make sure that the lone gunman theory is the most plausible one remaining. Pete Bondurant is sent in from Las Vegas to take care of the cleanup of the operation. And Wayne Tedrow, Jr. from the Las Vegas PD is sent in to find a fugitive carrying with him the cold six thousand which turns out to be the catalyst that destroys his life. Wayne does not realize that his father (a prominent Klan sympathizer) has arranged for this to ensure that his son is there in Dallas for this historical moment.

The story follows these characters from the time of the JFK assassination and it's aftermath across the entire decade of the 60s. A decade portrayed unlike it's usual reputation of revolution and flower children. This story is sordid beyond belief and makes a good case that this was the endemic nature of the decade itself, at least at the level of the government of the United States. James Ellroy turns every imagined horrible fact about the various cataclysmic events in the 60s and makes it inevitable in this story. This novel is a conspiracy theory on steroids, and most of what it considers factual has been dismissed by journalists. However, it is not so difficult to slip into the despair of this novel. When it comes to politics, it is not hard to convince yourself of the most sordid theories, whether it was the 1960s or any other time in history including the present. In this novel, Ellroy makes this conviction of ubiquitous corruption come easily to your mind.

Ward Littell is assigned to infiltrate the civil rights movement while Pete and Wayne are sent to Vietnam to set up a gun-running operation into Cuba funded by drug sales in Las Vegas (only to the African Americans, of course). Their terrible fate follows them until the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are the only alternatives left. The arc ends there for this novel, but the same collusions have continued far past the time period of this novel. A book about Iran-Contra and Oliver North should be a natural sequel to this one.

From a computational linguistics perspective, this novel is interesting due to the predominantly mono-clausal sentences, the short average sentence length, and the heavy use of pronouns and other kinds of anaphora that are employed to keep the discourse coherent in this style of writing. Should be an interesting corpus of text for certain kinds of CL research.

Thanks to M. Osborne for lending me a book and for the kind warning not to read it which I ignored.

%T The Cold Six Thousand %A James Ellroy %I Vintage %P 672 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 037572740X (pb) %K crime-fiction

Review written: 2002/10/13

Posted by anoop at 02:30 PM