Monday, December 27, 2004

 

About to fly to England

My wife's parents have set off through the (melting) snow back to Philadelphia, after spending a few days with us. One of the few days, yesterday, was our daughter's first birthday.

This evening, we fly to spend a week or so with my family in England. I will try not to be deterred by Cheryl Morgan's recent post about values in the UK. My wife is at work, leaving me in charge of Maddie, and of getting started on the packing.

While looking after Maddie and getting ready for the trip, I've been enjoying one of my birthday presents: the Talking Heads' DVD, Stop Making Sense. We've been enjoying it. "Hey, Maddie, see that funny-looking guy? He's going to sing us a song called 'Psycho Killer.' We'll get to 'Burning Down the House' a little later. Isn't this age-appropriate?" (No, I didn't actually say that out loud to her.)

Priorities for books to try and get hold of while in England: Pashazade, by Grimwood (not yet out in paperback in the US); Veniss Underground, by Vandermeer (UK mass market paperback edition includes a story not in the US edition, although said story is in the Secret Life collection, which I'll probably get at some point); The Physiognomy, by Ford (looks to be easier to track down in the UK than in the US).

This will be the last post befeore we fly. I'll try to report from England once or twice. In closing, more about Maddie. If you are reading this at my page, rather than at an aggregator, you can find a link to her profile in the sidebar. And she is the only person in the world who thinks I can dance.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

 

Christmas haul

Today I opened presents, two of which were books: the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges; and Cities. The latter is a collection of four novellas. I bought it mainly for the one by Paul Di Filippo and and for the one by China Miéville. I've read shorter stuff by the former, liked it, and wanted to see how he'd do on a bigger canvas. I've read Perdido Street Station by the latter, didn't much like it, and wanted to see how he'd do on a smaller canvas. Have so far read the first story in each book. Am currently too lazy to comment...


 

Ian MacLeod & Richard Thompson

Of the authors I've "discovered" in my recent re-entry into sf, Ian MacLeod is one of my favorites. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician. There's a lot in common between the work of these two.

I illustrate this here with reference to a specific IM novella, "New Light on the Drake Equation" (first published at online SciFiction in 2001, in the collection Breathmoss, and in at least one best sf of the year anthology) and a specific RT song, "Beeswing" (orginally on 1994's Mirror Blue, also on the Action Packed compilation; the Amazon links enable you to listen to a sample, or you could go to iTunes or similar. If you'd like a description of RT before going to check him out, I think that the best I can do is "folk-rock singer-songwriter-guitarist").

Both "Drake Equation" and "Beeswing" have a male protagonist, who is a less vivid character than the female lead, his former lover. "Drake Equation" is about Tom Kelly, a scientist who is engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) after the rest of the world has withdrawn interest and funding. The woman is Terr, who was a restless graduate student when Tom first met her.

Terr had already worked her way through half a dozen courses, and had grown bored with all of them... she fluttered from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, flower to flower, sipping its nectar, then once again spreading her wings and wafting off to some other faculty.
At first, "spreading her wings" is a metaphor. But it becomes literally true, because the future in which IM sets his story is a "new world of extreme sports, where, if you wanted to do something that your body wasn't up to, you simply had your body changed." Terr does indeed have her body augmented with wings.

The woman in "Beeswing" is just as restless. When the narrator suggested they settle down, she reacted with horror, telling him that "you shan't own me." The couple split up and lose touch. This is how the song ends:

And they say her flower is faded now
Hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay
For the chains you refuse
She was a rare thing
Fine as a Beeswing
And I miss her more than ever words could say
If I could just taste
All of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today
Then I wouldn't want her any other way.
Self-destruction and drinking are prominent in that quote, and in the song in general. They are also important in the story, which opens with Tom finishing off last night's wine and chasing it with absinthe before driving from his home - a wooden hut on a French mountain - to town.

Of all the similarities between the novella and the song, the most important to me is the tone of melancholy, and how beautifully it is expressed. I think that this comes across in the quote from the song, as much song lyrics can work separated from their music. I won't quote the story to illustrate this, in part because the tone comes from the whole novella rather than from any one passage, and in part because I'm writing a lot more than I thought I would when I started.

I don't want to overstate the similarities between IM's story and RT's song. I won't try to make anything of the title "New Light on the Drake Equation," and how the word light appears in the title of two of Thompson's most important albums, and how Richard played on some of Nick Drake's songs (e.g., electric guitar on "Time Has Told Me").

No, the Drake and the Bee are different creatures. The former is told in the third person, the latter in the first person. Drake is mainly about the male lead, Bee mainly about the female. IM doesn't play lovely acoustic guitar (well, he may do for all I know, but I can't hear it when I read Drake), while RT certainly does. Bee doesn't have, and doesn't strive for, the very strong sense of place that Drake has. While each of Drake and Bee gives a very clear picture of the time in which it's set, they are set in the future and the past respectively. But I hope I've shown that, despite these differences, the similarities are striking.

Since this is an sf blog making one of its occasional links to music, the "typical reader" is more likely to be familiar with Ian MacLeod than with Richard Thompson. Said reader might be interested in some Richard Thompson recommendations. The 3-cd boxed set, Watching the Dark, is excellent. If you're put off by its price, then you could wander across to iTunes and buy in much smaller quantities.

To be specific, how about a song using metaphor to comment on precarious relationships? That's how I'd describe at least two RT songs, and these two happen to be among my favorites. Both are from the days of Richard and Linda Thompson. (They were formerly partners in music and in marriage.) One is Wall of Death, with Richard singing lead and playing electric guitar. The other is The Great Valerio, with Linda singing lead and Richard playing acoustic. If you want more recent RT, then I'd recommend a live track or two (from iTunes or from RT's web site).

In closing, though, I'll mention Watching the Dark again. It's not only a fine selection of RT's work; it's what Tom Kelly is doing when we leave him, SETI-obsessed in his hut, at the end of "New Light on the Drake Equation."

ps No I didn't spend Christmas day writing this. I made a minor edit, and changed the date in order to push it to the top, above my MetaBlog ramblings of yesterday pm.

Friday, December 24, 2004

 

MetaBlog

I keep on wondering what blogging is, or should be, all about. In particular, is a blog meant to be read on the day of publication or shortly thereafter, and then ignored because there's so much new content coming on to the web all the time? Or is a blog meant to be a web site that can be linked to and referred back to indefinitely?

A couple of thoughts follow from this. One concerns the site I (rather hastily) chose for this blog. For how long will Blogger/Blogspot keep these blogs around? Will it preserve the URLs? Another thought is that I don't need to arrive at any conclusions about blogging in general, just about this blog.

What will probably work best for this blog is to be a mixture of the ephemeral and the more lasting. For the more lasting stuff, I've added a heading, Selected Posts, to the sidebar, and have set up a list underneath it to link to those posts that I... select. I'll try to maintain such posts against linkrot, and to edit out any writing bad enough to embarras me. That'll leave most of this blog vulnerable to linkrot and other ravages of time.

Talking of linkrot, will this and other blogs at BlogSpot be vulnerable to it? That seems to depend on Google, which now owns Blogger/BlogSpot. And, given what Google does, it seems to be in its interests to maintain content and URLs.

Oh yes, and I guess I should add a site feed. I started reading some of the RSS/Atom debate, decided that it's the kind of thing one needs to treat as either a very small deal or a very big deal, went for the former, and followed the simple instructions in Blogger Help to add an Atom feed.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

 

2005: looking forward to reading

Actually, my list of books I'm looking forward to reading in 2005 would have a lot in common with some "best of 2003" lists: The Light Ages, Veniss Underground,... Others are looking almost as far ahead as I am behind. One such is Niall Harrison, who has blogged his a book for every month of next year list. If I had such a list, it would probably overlap with Niall's.

 

Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday, but I was too busy to blog. Some cool gifts, including a DVD that been on my list for a long time: Stop Making Sense. No books for the birthday, but some of the Christmas-wrapped parcels seem to contain booky goodness.

Monday, December 20, 2004

 

Merry Miéville

I just read and enjoyed 'Tis the Season, a Christmas story by China Miéville. It's a satire about intellectual property, published in Socialist Review. I found my way to it by following the link from The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney's fine blog. I'm not a particular fan of Miéville - I'll post here soon about why Perdido Street Station didn't work well for me - but this story is a lot of fun, and it's probably good for a blog to be topical, or at least seasonal.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My book of the year for 2004 is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It is set in the early 1800s, mainly in England. But this is not the England of history, although the Duke of Wellington appears, along with other historical characters. Neither is it the England of Jane Austen, although the language in which it is described is certainly Austenesque. Rather, this is an England, and a world, in which magic exists, is studied and, by a few, practiced.

The novel works wonderfully, to a large extent because of the way Clarke's prose captures the country, the period, and the magic. Here is a sample:
Imagine... the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.
Another sample is available online here.

This second sample illustrates one of ways in which Clarke shows us the world she has constructed; she tells us stories from it, often in footnotes.

I haven't said much about plot or character, because neither of them is driving this novel. The plot is a big story about the world, and the characters are pieces of the world. Clarke has more stories to tell about the world, and more pieces of it to show. She reveals this in an interview at her web site. The site also quotes some of the many favorable reviews the book has received. Most of these are from mainstream, rather than from genre-specific, sources.

But the best account of this book I've read is the review by the sf critic John Clute. As well as copious praise, he has a couple of criticisms, each concerning a way in which the book might have been trimmed. I disagree with his assertion that almost every scene in the first 300 pages should have been trimmed. I agree with his assertion that some trimming would have been in order later on in the novel, and that the Greysteel family, who we and Jonathan Strange don't meet until we are more than 500 pages into the novel, should have been cut out. Clarke's novel doesn't need every one of its 800 pages.

Having said that, I loved my 800-page visit to the England, and to the magical world, that Clarke has created. It is rare that I am so thoroughly engrossed by a novel.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

 

Linkup

One of the things that makes this a good time to get into sf, or to get back into it, is the amount of sf and sf-related stuff online. So there are many worthy sites to which I could link. But to link to too many sites may dilute the recommendation of any particular site. So I'll start off with just a handful of links for this blog, including one or two links each from a few types of site.
We start off with a couple of indexes to sf available online, each organized by author. Free Speculative Fiction Online, as the name suggests, links to sf available at no charge. Best SF Gateway covers much of the same ground, but includes links to sf for which there is a charge. I prefer the organization of the former. I include the latter because I don't want to exclude pay-to-read stuff from my own surfing or from anyone else's.
Of the sites that publish sf online, my favorite is SciFiction. This site publishes an original story most weeks, and republishes a classic about half that frequently. This site is as professional as any sf print magazine in terms of the writing itself and the editing. But access requires neither payment nor registration.
Many sf authors have web sites. My favorite author site is that of Jeff Vandermeer. Jeff's site includes or links to some of his fantastic fiction, his message board, and his blog, which is one of the few I regularly read.
Finally, there are a lot of reviews of sf on the net. Emerald City is my favorite source of such reviews, and includes some other good stuff as well.


 

Kickoff

To get this started... I live in Boston, MA, USA, with my wife, our daughter, who will soon be one year old, and our dog. I am an academic. I read a lot, and not just for my job. My recreational reading at the moment includes a lot of speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction and some of its close relatives). That sounds like a lot of very different stuff, to the extent that it's unlikely that more a few people will be interested in all, or even in most of the family, the job, the fiction reading, and whatever else would end up in a general-purpose pan-Andrew weblog.
So this blog will focus on the fiction I read, with occasional comments on other aspects of my life as they intersect with that reading.