Monday, June 30, 2008

Darwin's Radio - A review

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Darwin's Radio is a good read, though, a solid hard science fiction novel. From the cover and marketing campaign, I thought this would be a dyed in the wool thriller. Although it starts out with thriller elements (opening on eccentric characters in exotic locations looking at the bizarre pieces of a scientific puzzle), it doesn't maintain the pace of a thriller.

Not that this is a bad thing. The science is clearly explained and sounds plausible. The characters are complexly drawn, if a little uniformly cold for my tastes. The social events that arise from the crises our protagonists are dealing with (a mysterious disease affecting fertility) seem likely, given how hysterical people can get over reproductive issues.

The book is fun more because it is smart than because it is scary. Mr. Bear makes you curious and keeps you curious: first, about what's happening to the people, and then about what will happen to the world.

Though there is tension, this novel isn't so much about the tension. It's more about the science: how the author puts together a bunch of scientific fact into a very clever scientific possibility. There is no pulse pounding finish, but the main characters react to the "disease" catching up to them in a very human fashion: with curiosity and compassion.

For all the fun, Bear just leads you to a scientific possibility. No matter how convoluted, he doesn't take you past that... doesn't show you what a new "technology" really means to human beings or the nature of the universe. It's a sign of subtlety that he leaves you to speculate on your own, I guess... and a sequel definitely isn't required. I just think that a few ruminations of what this new kind of evolution means to the future of mankind would have been welcome.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Since I wrote this review, a sequel, Darwin's Children, has been published.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our daughter's very first fanfic is about her mother's Warcraft character.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Excellent. James Dobson says it's okay to be teh gay.

"In the comments to be aired Tuesday, Dobson said Obama should not be referencing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer relevant to the teachings of the New Testament."

I was just thinking the other day that I seemed to remember somebody saying somewhere that the New Testament repealed the Old Testament. (Here: "Of course, these people may or may not realize that the ban on eating of shellfish was part of the Mosaic dietary law which was set aside by God when Jesus Christ instituted a new covenant through His shed blood.)

I would assume that that includes Leviticus' famous condemnation of homosexuality. Both of the examples I quoted above don't say anything of the sort, of course.

Looking up "homosexuality New Testament", it looks like Paul gets pissy about teh gay stuff. This site says Romans 1:26-27 specifically references female homosexuality. But, uh. It seems pretty slack to me.

Like I give a damn, anyhow. I freely admit I am no biblical scholar. I just like hearing James Dobson say it: "Leviticus is whack, y'all. Leviticus is bullshit."

Edit (6/26/2008): As usual, Jon Stewart says it funnier.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"The more devout they are, the more they see murder as being negotiable." George Carlin.

So, I had a great time this weekend. Shot little girls with water pistols, and got blasted in return. They made great use of their tactical environment, drawing water while they were underwater so that they were never unarmed on the surface.

I hung out with my inlaws and actuals at a graduation party. All great people.

I talked to my brother in law about his fascinating career in preparation to begin writing a thriller later in the year.

I wonder how hard it would be to make a career change into journalism?

Anyways, I had a good time.

One of the best times I remember in my life was coming across George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television. In college? That routine broke me up. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes. And there were bunches of others. But George had his last good time sometime during the time I was having my good times this weekend. I'm sorry about that. There will be better obituaries. I will miss George Carlin being in the world.

Bringing Out the Dead - A review

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly.

For reference, The Nicholas Cage movie of the same title was based on this novel. I don't know how they compare, because I never saw the movie.

Bringing Out The Dead is an exciting, if flawed, novel: A series of semi-hallucinatory, caffeine and booze fueled slice-of-life vignettes about a burnt out ambulance driver suffering agonies of guilt because he wasn't able to save a young girl's life. As a result of his failure, he sees her ghost everywhere.

Bringing Out The Dead is a sort of hymn to the ongoing chaos and organic mess of the world. The ambulance drivers do furious battle with accidents and biological malfunction, but ultimately seem to have little effect. The protagonist cruises through the novel looking for a good day, a day when he saves somebody's life, because there are too many days when he doesn't. The novel starts spectacularly, with the protagonist and his partner furiously trying to resuscitate a heart attack victim.

The wicked humor of the ambulance-vignettes is both painful and exhilarating, and descriptions of the chaos of an ambulance trip, street crazies, and the effects of life saving drugs on the body are stellar. This novel is frightening because it has the handi-cam patina of reality television. There's a staccato texture to the prose that makes you think of war reporting. You imagine your own body lying unconscious on the concrete or in your bedroom. You want the person who comes to save you to be fired up, hopeful, an ambulance saint. Not overworked, disillusioned, seeing ghosts and grasping at superstitions.

That said, I though Bringing Out the Dead ended on a wishy washy note. The narrator is chronically drifty and manic depressive. He makes a lot of his own problems. Descriptions of his personal history do not arouse sympathy or create a connection with the reader, and the book is just sort of clumsy overall when it comes to personal events. The descriptions of ambulance workers trying to save lives, and the late night activity in the hospital emergency rooms of the hospital, ultimately have more character than the character describing them, and because of this I failed to care much about the rest of the novel.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My birthday weekend continued into the week, with a gift of a battery operated personal fan and a $20 bill. Everybody has been very nice. Both made me feel young. I wanted to sneak up behind people with the fan and blow their hair around. And I haven't gotten a $20 bill in a card since I was ten.

I am excavating some personal issues of late. Birthdays do that, sometimes. Something grabbed my attention the other night, though. I was looking at the blog of Caitlen Kiernan, a horror fiction and comic book writer. She was writing about paganism:
Spooky's looking at local Pagan gatherings associated with the Solstice. Part of me wants to become involved with a nearby coven or circle — I've never liked the solitary practitioner thing — and part of me knows it would just be asking for trouble. All this foolish nattering about "dispelling negative energy." Whatever happened to paganism as a road to balance? Never mind that the word "energy" should be forever stricken from the pagan lexicon, for the perpetual abuse and complete lack of definition it endures. One reason I came to Providence was to find like-minded pagans, hopefully Wiccans, but I fear they'll all think I'm some spooky left-pather, a bĂȘte noire to be avoided lest my "negative energies" taint their rituals "of light and purification." Pfft. Sometimes, it seems to me so many American Wiccans are devolving into happy-crappy, pseudo-Xtianity, afraid of their own shadows, struggling to recreate the religion that drove them to paganism to start with. But I rant. Don't fear the darkness, kiddos. It's one half of the equation. Without it, there can be no balance. And balance, I believe, is the key, here.

Now, I'm an atheist, but I sympathize a great deal with the sentiment that I read there. I have joked with people that I was goth before goth was goth. I'm a social introvert. I present a pretty tame face to the world, but my morbidity is legend. It's tough to find company, sometimes. Who wants to hang around with the pensive, terminally ironic, gloomy bastard?

I understand why people cherish images and philosophies that enshrine the optimistic drives, but I'm pretty sure some people just aren't tuned in that direction. Most of us manage to contribute anyways. I think we should form a "spooky people" minority identity block.

Anyways, while chasing ideas around in my head, I came across a reference to Cybele. Who seems like exactly the kind of goddess I would worship: "fertile Earth, a goddess of caverns and mountains, walls and fortresses, nature, wild animals (especially lions and bees)." Lately I've been running across religions that I wish I had grown up in, like the form of Thai Buddhism that sets up casinos at funerals to keep the ghosts of the dead company.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I had a lovely birthday weekend, running from approximately Thursday to yesterday. I met my friends Scott and Jessie for dinner in Lansing, played some Warcraft with my daughter, finished overhauling the start of my novel, got calls from my friend Cathy and my sister, was gifted with mix tapes of very cool tribal and anti-folk music by my friend Eric, and given Minis by Chris and Kim. Toys! Today I brought pie to my co-workers, as is our habit here.

Thanks, everybody!

Biological Exhuberance - a review

Biological Exuberance by Dr. Bruce Bagemihl

Biological Exuberance
has it's faults. In addition to being long winded, it's more of a polemic than a purely scientific work. I personally am a little uncomfortable with the almost New-Agey gushiness the author lavishes on aboriginal "wisdom" and some edge science (particularly Gaia theory).

That said, this is a very sensitive reading, and an impressive (even exciting) articulation, of a very real body of marginalized scientific data.

One of the criticisms that cultural conservatives level against homosexuality is that it is Unnatural (tm). I think Dr. Bagemihl will single handedly put that old chestnut to rest with this very thorough catalog of homosexuality in the natural world.

More than half of Biological Exuberance's 665 pages consist of case studies of homosexual, polygamous, or non-reproductive behavior in creatures ranging from great apes to parrots.

Sounds dry, you say? Sometimes. Dr. Bagemihl makes exhaustive lists of sexual activity in animal species, and repeats them a bit too often.

The wealth of detail can hardly be faulted, though, because this is information that rarely appears in this kind of concentrated form. And it's just fascinating to read about the variety of sexual activity in various animals. It's also a little eerie to realize that identity is probably variable for animals as well as humans.

Bagemihl can be downright entertaining when he describes examples of ascientific prudery among naturalists. One scientific (?) article is titled: "A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera (Butterflies)." Do butterflies even have morals?

Even funnier is his description of how direct genital contact in same-sex animals is described as "food exchange, social bonding, or greeting" behavior... not SEXUAL behavior! Talk about missing the forest for the trees!

Does this book explain the biological roots of homosexuality? Not really. But it does enlighten us as to the variety of its expression, and make said information available in a way that I think is stunningly new.

Bagemihl isn't a shoddy philosopher, either. Though much of the last chapter reads a lot like "I Sing The Body Electric" on a cosmological scale, it also outlines an empirically based ideology for valuing diversity in many forms. Bagemihl combines an abundance of rigorously gathered fact and elegantly progressive theory to highlight the effervescent abundance of existence. "Each life," He states, "Whether procreative or just creative, is fueled by the generosity of existence." Pre-industrial societies recognized the ambiguity of gender in nature and incorporated it into their magical worldview. Maybe modern society should take off the blinders and recognize the fact of homosexuality in nature - and incorporate it into our rational worldview.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials Book 3) - a review

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

The Amber Spyglass is the third and last book in Philip Pullman's His Dark materials series.

Lyra, our spunky pseudo-Victorian girl heroine from the first two novels, and Will, her traveling companion from modern London, who has mastered a knife that cuts through the walls which separate dimensions, have been separated. They are being hunted by the heavenly host and representatives of "the church" from dozens of universes. It seems Lyra, by any other name, is Eve, and the church wants to stop her from falling by any means necessary.

This is the basic premise of The Amber Spyglass. It unfolds from there, and makes full use of themes developed in the earlier novels. I'm not going to divulge any other plot details, mostly because they are so delicious in the uncovering, and I would never deny a reader the pleasure of finding them on his or her own.

I will tell you how I felt about the book, however, which I think is important because the His Dark Materials series is so rich and varied in emotional texture.

As I noted in a review of the second book in the series, each of the books has a distinctly different feel, mostly because, I think, Mr. Pullman is trying to do different things with each book. The first book introduced and connected readers to the main character. The second book was a bridge, introducing a range of supporting characters and laying out a framework to hang the conclusions of the second novel on.

Pullman moves from a very exciting adventure in Golden Compass, through a more thoughtful novel hung more on ideas than action in Subtle Knife, to a final novel that starts out looking like a Fellini war novel and ends up being a rather quiet pronunciation of faith. Which is a trick, for a novel and novelist so pointedly skeptical.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By switching gears in the middle of stories like he does, the author also gives you opportunities to be surprised. I was, on several occasions, pleasantly surprised by narrative elements which felt new to me. I have to admit, that sometimes I felt like the slam bang Gotterdammerung conclusion promised was denied me. But The Amber Spyglass was ultimately very thought provoking in the way it dismissed as legerdemain antagonists who had been developed over the run of the series. The author seems to be saying "Forget all the lurid pyrotechnics. Here's the real issue, and it's much closer to home."

Pullman continues his thematic distrust of higher powers, sketching them in with a bleak and uncomforting world of the dead straight out of the Greek mythology, and heavenly powers that are both as arrogant and sheltered as their great power would make an earthly counterpart.

This leads, I believe, to his asking epic questions about self-worth and purpose, and answering them without resorting to God's love. I think he creates a stable argument for living a fulfilled life without reliance on higher powers. My favorite part of the novel is where he reclaims joy from the obsessive compulsive Judeo Christian "hierarchy of acceptable bliss."

As well as being eloquent, The Amber Spyglass is lusciously lurid, so that fans of high fantasy won't be disappointed. In some ways, it's his richest helping of fantasy-pudding yet, expanding the steam punk venue of his first world into a multiverse inhabited by venomous bug people, armored bears, rebel angels, and a very deft reworking of Frank Baum's wheelers. He threads the story with a battle comparable to Milton, and love stories, both parental and romantic, worthy of Orpheus.

Amber Spyglass is a lot of things: an adventure, a romance, an allegory. It's a wonderful cap to an inventive series, and worth reading the series merely to get to the end result.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

If you count my writing group, I had nine meetings in three days last week, ranging from ten minutes to two plus hours. Woo-hoo. That's a pretty heavy load for an introvert. Then I got sick this weekend. I have been stuck indoors for 3 days. I am about to tear my hair out.

Ruby's been jonesing to play World of Warcraft as a sort of team sport. Last weekend, we upgraded her PC, bought two copies, and settled in to play a couple of times. We figure three or four hours once a week. I have Draeni Mage, she has a Draeni hunter. The Dreaeni are sort of new wave inflected space alien satyrs.

Ruby is having huge fun. I get a kick out of it. It's a little grindey in play style - kill, xp, kill, xp, kill, xp, bing! Level up! But it's nice to look at. It has a sort of a 3-D gonzo steampunk-manga look. With crashed spaceships. The blood elves look like psychotic hippie cheerleaders. A good milieu will go a long way towards making up for a lack of story I always say. I feel sorry for the writers on this game. The sheer amount of stuff they have to crank out to keep a bunch of players busy for a couple hours a week is nuts. I also get a kick out of mix-it-up style systems for crafting things, like from the Baldur's Gate games. Warcraft has that in spades.

Poppy is kind of taken with the game too. She picked up the controls pretty well, and lectures Ruby and I on keyboard shortcuts that she picks up from the other one.

She's had a conversation with the guy who came to give us a quote on our windows about their respective Warcraft characters.

She ran around in the coyote tail we found for her at last weekend's Ren Fest, with a Plastic sword jammed into the back of her halter top. It was a pure overload of geek cute for me. Very fierce.

She's even drawing Warcraft pictures. Her literalist interpretation includes the status badges in the upper left hand corner of the game screen, and drawing the top down maps of dungeons with the little dots representing monsters. Awwww!

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials Book 2) - a review

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

Spoilers be found ahead.

The Subtle Knife continues the journey of Lyra Belaqua, begun in The Golden Compass. Lyra is a little girl from a world where the place names are the same as our own, but the physics of magic make everything different, from the shape of your soul to the nature of the church.

Everybody in Lyra's world has a Daemon, a sort of animal familiar that is their soul-self. The Daemon's of children can change shape, but those of adults have frozen into a form that supposedly embodies the most basic nature of their person. Servants, for example, almost always have dog Daemons.

At the end of the first book, Lyra has followed her father to the Arctic. She thought she was rescuing him from the people who were keeping him prisoner, but in fact she brought him the one thing he needed to complete his escape on his own, which turned out to be too precious for her to give up.

So it was taken from her.

Her father built a gate into other worlds from the Aurora Borealis and the life-energy of her best friend. Lyra, mourning and vowing revenge, followed him into it.

The world she ends up in is empty, a beautiful Mediterranean paradise with cities inhabited only by children. The adults have fled a plague of specters that eat the souls of everyone past puberty.

Cittagazze, the world Lyra arrives in, is a bridge. The specters who haunt it are the result of an invention called the subtle knife, a knife so sharp and fine it can cut doors from one world to the next. The specters have been released from one of these doors, causing society to crumble as specters eat away at the adult population. The population of Cittagazze has ended up using the knife to steal from other worlds. It is the only way they can survive in the face of the constant erosion of the able bodied adult population.

Lyra teams up with Will, a boy who comes through another of the doors. He is also looking for his father. He comes from a world totally unlike hers, from a world just like our magic-less twentieth century in fact. They travel through Cittagazee and 20th century Britain together, hoping to find answers about where their fathers are and what the doors made by the subtle knife are.

They pick up other characters like burrs: a helpful physicist, allies from Lyra's home world who have followed the charismatic girl. In the background are stirrings of great things (TM). Both Lyra and Will seem to be the center of powerful prophecies, and there are hints of war. Angels tell other characters that Lyra's father is building an army to challenge God himself, to end the misery of the universe. People come running from all different worlds to help or hinder Lyra and Will. At the end, Lyra and Will are only turned towards that war. They have won no battles, and are running from many enemies.

This novel is more slender than the novels on either side of it in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It takes the loose threads of the first novel, such as Lyra's search for her father, and ideas about the relationship between childhood and innocence, and frays up a few more to keep the flow interesting. By the end of the novel you have journeyed far but answered few questions. The Subtle Knife feels like Count Zero or The Empire Strikes Back in that regard. Like Cittagazze is a bridge world, The Subtle Knife is a bridge novel. It expands issues that were laid out in the first novel, in order to let them be wrapped up in the last novel.

In The Subtle Knife, the innocence of children is a concrete fact, blinding them to the ever present specters and, in effect, to their own morality. This contrasts with the vulnerability of the adults, constantly running from the (literal) specter of their mortality, and leaving the world around them to suffer the consequences for it.

In The Golden Compass, the fact that childrens' Daemons change shape while adults' are static is a similar sort of thematic linchpin. In The Golden Compass, the adults of the Church long for the moral ignorance of their youth and try to achieve this by castrating their souls, by cutting off their Daemons. In The Subtle Knife, it is discovered that moral ignorance isn't enough to sustain a society. The entire world becomes a mishmash of the Lord of the Flies and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with children running rampant but directionless through a world stocked for them by adults too absent to build any kind of framework.

The Golden Compass dealt with faithlessness, which is the most obvious hurdle to clear in life. Subtle Knife deals with faithfulness. Once you understand how faithless and slippery all your beliefs can be, it's hard to get a grip on the world and find something to have faith in. Making that journey is what this middle ground is all about. Taking a stand seems to be what defines the nebulous area between adult life and childhood.
The Subtle Knife is as curious a novel as The Golden Compass, urging readers towards "Giving up Childish Things." This is an unusual stand to take in a fantasy novel, where the framework of the story is made up of childish things. The Subtle Knife is no different: it has monsters, Zeppelin battles, magic, doorways to other universes, angels, and gunfights. It is full of childish things.

Although the author is drawing definitional lines between the blissful ignorance of childhood and the sometimes hard responsibilities of adulthood, I don't think there is friction between the series' fantasy elements and its more thoughtful thematic elements. At the heart of the adventure are the characters, the people who forge through these wonders towards their goals.

Although the nature of Lyra and Will's goals are nebulous, their conviction and determination are not. Their hearts are concerned not with dragons and gold, like much of fantasy, or even of simpler topics like good versus evil, but with loyalty and freedom, loving and being loved, creativity and obedience to a god that sometimes runs the world a little shabbily. Oh, and always with taking the next step towards the answer to their eloquently childlike questions.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.