Monday, January 31, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 35, No. 2 (February 2011) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Choice by Paul J. McAuley
Out of the Dream Closet by David Ira Cleary
Waster Mercy by Sara Genge
Planet of the Sealies by Jeff Carlson
Shipbirth by Aliette de Bodard
Brother Sleep by Tim McDaniel
Eye of the Beyond by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

Poems included:
Entanglement, Valentines, and Einstein by W. Gregory Stewart
Flicker by Uncle River
Tower by Jane Yolen

Full review: With three post-apocalyptic stories, a story about a death resulting from childbirth, a story about a father's seeming callous indifference to his child, and a story about the dangers posed by giant evil corporations, the February 2011 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction seems to have, as its overarching theme "the future is going to suck but humanity will soldier on". Even the remaining story in the issue Brother Sleep, despite not being overtly dark, has a depressing overtone. Oddly, the two stories featured on the cover are also two of the weaker stories in the issue, which makes one wonder why they were featured so prominently. I suppose that the Paul McAuley story is featured because he has name recognition, but that doesn't seem to justify putting the cluttered mess that is The Choice on the cover.

The first of the two post-global warming stories is also the aforementioned story featured on the cover - The Choice by Paul McAuley - in which McAuley pretty much throws a bunch of popular science fiction tropes into a blender and pours the story over the pages. A young man with a possibly insane and definitely dying mother living on an artificial island amidst the risen ocean waters, takes his best friend to see a stranded alien artifact whereupon his friend runs afoul of criminals looking to gain the advantages of alien technology and eventually the protagonist's best friend's abusive father seeks revenge for the death of his son. Our hero winds up in jail, and when he gets out he is faced with the titular "choice" to try to claim some profitable technology for his own or set out to seek his fortune wandering the world. The story is kind of anticlimactic because McAuley doesn't give his main character many reasons to choose the option he rejects, and provides him with a whole bunch of reasons not to. Other than the minor let down at the ending, the story is interesting although there is so much going on that it seems a bit cluttered. Either the story should have been lengthened to allow for more background development, or some elements should have been left out to allow for a more focused telling. The other (and in my opinion superior) post-global warming story is Planet of the Sealies by Jeff Carlson, which starts off seeming like a story about the exploration of a dangerously hostile alien planet. It becomes clear, however, that the alien plant being explored is Earth with a destroyed environment. The characters are hunting for valuable relics from the past in a massive landfill, although what they are hunting for is not what one might expect. Carlson mixes a fairly hard science story with the tension between the need to huddle together to survive and the urge to strike out and explore and delivers the best story in this issue.

The second story featured on the cover is Out of the Dream Closet by David Ira Cleary, a very surreal feeling tale that I think I was supposed to get more out of than I actually did. The story is set in a strange reality with only four real characters, the central one being a precocious woman whose father/creator has frozen her physical development at the age of ten, a situation she considers intolerable. Her father forbids only one thing, and of course, that is exactly what she does in rebellion. The problem is the reason why this act is forbidden is not really adequately explained, and as a result her father appears to be little more than a capricious jerk. The story clearly means to be deep and meaningful with lots of symbolism with a capital "S", but I found it mostly slow and pretentious.

One quirky element of this issue is that it features two stories that are follow-up stories in which an author returns to the setting of a previously published story. The first of these two, Waster Mercy by Sara Genge, is set in the same post-apocalyptic Children of the Waste landscape as Genge's previous stories Shoes-to-Run, from the July 2009 issue of Asimov's, and Malick Pan, from the April/May 2010 issue. While the previous stories featured protagonists from the wastelands, this story has as its central character a missionary from the "civilized" part of the world seeking anything but martyrdom in the desolate world. The story reminded me a little bit of A Canticle for Liebowitz, although the theology and goals of the central character are quite different from any of the Catholic holdovers in Canticle. The protagonist meets a denizen of the wastes, and things go about as one might expect when a fish out of water has to deal with one completely in his own element. As all of Genge's other Children of the Waste stories, this one is quite good, and one of the best stories in the issue. The other story set in a previously visited imagined reality is Aliette de Bodard's Shipbirth, set in the same alternate reality as the July 2010 story The Jaguar House, in Shadow, and which continues the story of a world in which the Americas were discovered by the Chinese and are dominated by a technologically advanced Aztec Empire. The story focuses on Aztec mythology concerning childbirth, which like many things for the Aztecs, is intimately connected with danger and death. The story gives a glimpse into the creepy form of space travel of the reality, and the terrible sacrifices that must be made to make it work. Told from the perspective of a doctor attempting to assist the birth of a "ship mind", the story continues to highlight the alien perspective and casual brutality of the Aztec culture that dominates de Bodard's posited reality.

Covering similar ground as Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain, Brother Sleep by Tim McDaniel imagines a future Thailand in which most people are relieved of the need to sleep, and the rare unfortunates who are unable to successfully undergo "the treatment" that makes this possible find themselves at a marked disadvantage. The story shows the social stratification along the lines of sleepers and non-sleepers, and places Horse, its main character, right in the middle as a non-sleeping college student with both a brother and a roommate who are still sleepers. Though he has a pile of advantages, Horse discovers that being one of the "elite" comes with a cost and doesn't solve all problems, eventually finding himself envious of those around him, and longing to escape reality just for a little while and sleep. The shortest and weakest story in the issue is Eye of the Beyond by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. The story is fairly simple: businessman who owns a company that sells cheap clothes for deceased people to wear is pressured to sell his business to a giant evil corporation. He resists, is given a collection of dire warnings by those around him that such resistance will be futile and self-destructive, and then the big evil corporation takes over his business and arranges to have him killed. The problem with the story is that is basically all there is to it. That the giant evil corporation is EEEEVIL is simply taken for a given through most of the story, with very little being given to support this point other than the fact that they want to buy the hero's business and some vague background noise. Exactly how the giant evil corporation convinces the main character's family, friends, and associates to sell his business out from under him is never explained – they just do. The efforts the main character goes through to save his business are never detailed – he just says he tries. While the story is clearly supposed to be scary polemic about the dangers of giant evil corporations, because everything the corporation does that is evil takes place in the shadowy background, it just doesn't have much impact. In short, if you want to write a cautionary tale, you have to say more than "the giant evil corporation wins because it is a giant evil corporation" if you want to have much of a story.

I have said before that Asimov's Science Fiction is just not quite as good a publication as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and this issue isn't going to make me change my mind. While most of the stories are decent, and a few are above average, Out of the Dream Closet and Eye of the Beyond both serve the drag the issue down again. Although this is an okay issue of Asimov's, it is nothing special and fairly grim to boot.

Previous issue reviewed: January 2011

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Follow Friday - Again, Again

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow our Featured Bloggers - Mission to Read.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now to answer this week's Follow Friday question: What is/was your favorite subject in school?

This is tough for me to narrow down. I know for certain what my least favorite subject was - foreign languages. I struggled through French classes so much I even tried a semester of German once to see if it was just the language that I couldn't wrap my head around. That didn't work so well. French class (and German class) were, for me, giant time sinks that served to drag my GPA down.

I suppose I should say economics or history were my favorite subjects, because those are what I majored in as an undergraduate. Or maybe law, which is more or less (in my estimation) just applied history and economics. I'm working my way back into the academic world to pursue further study of economics, so I suppose that would have to be the subject that speaks to me the most. I guess this is a roundabout way of backing in to saying that the answer to the question is economics.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Again
Go to subsequent Follow friday: For the Fourth Time

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review - Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Short review: Laurence and Tremeraire are transported to serve Laurence's sentence in Australia to find the colony in rebellion. Exploring the continent uncovers some unexpected surprises, and more rebellion. Serving British officers are almost uniformly stupid.

Sentence commuted
And sent to Australia
Stupid officers

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Tongues of Serpents, the sixth book in the Tremeraire series, finds Laurence and Tremeraire transported with a shipload of convicts to Australia to serve out Laurence's commuted sentence for treason. It is perhaps a mark of the high quality of this series that this is the first book in the sequence in which the world and the events in it seem contrived. Unfortunately, this still means that this is the weakest and least convincing book in the series thus far.

The first crack in the verisimilitude in the setting appears almost immediately. Once Laurence and Tremeraire arrive in Australia, they discover that Captain Bligh, the Royal Governor of the colony, has been deposed by a band of mutineers (as happened in real history in what is now called the Rum Rebellion). However, Bligh returns to the New South Wales colony with the intention of convincing Laurence and Ganby to use Tremeraire and Iskierka to place him back in power. In New South Wales, Laurence is subjected to insults and attacks due to his notoriety as a traitor. This seems quite strange given two things: first the colony is almost entirely made up of transported convicts and mutineers, which would seem to be a strange group to be overly concerned with Laurence's treachery. Second, while it is somewhat plausible that Laurence would be subject to murderous attempts in England, where there were numerous dragons to prevent Tremeraire from running amuck, it seems absurd that the denizens of New South Wales would risk Tremeraire's wrath, which would almost certainly mean the death of every inhabitant of the colony, by attempting to kill Laurence.

Bligh's constant attempts to get Laurence and Granby to reinstall him in power raises another issue that has been lurking in the background of the setting, but now jumps to the fore. While aviators, tied to their dragons, are considered to be outside normal society, one has to question why. Even if one assumes that the introduction of muskets, tall masted ships, and cannon allow dragonless humans to at least have a fighting chance against dragons, this would not have applied in the preceding centuries. Given that dragons and dragon companioned humans are not a new phenomenon in the setting, one would think that political power in the pre-gunpowder age would correlate closely with having a dragon at your beck and call. Rather than the knight with a large horse being able to install himself as ruler over those around him, it would have been the knight with a dragon at his side. This political sensibility seems to be reflected in the Tremeraire reality's Chinese and Tswana cultures (indicating that Novik at least thought about it a little), but seems to be completely absent from European culture, which seems almost inexplicable. Bligh's constant wheedling attempts to get Laurence to help him regain his position only serves to illustrate how dependent someone like Bligh would be upon the good graces of those with dragons, and how much better off he would be to have his own dragon to depend upon.

Throughout the Tremeraire series, Novik has done an excellent job at showing how the introduction of dragons as military assets into the world shifts the balance of global power. As I have noted before, the fact that the Chinese and Mesoamerican Empires are now forces to be reckoned with, coupled with the introduction of the Africa-spanning Tswana Kingdom in Empire of Ivory (read review) makes it clear that the universe is no longer a Eurocentric one. In Tongues of Serpents we also glean a little bit more knowledge concerning the nascent United States, and it appears that the former British colonies in North America are well-integrated with the Native American tribes, once again, demonstrating a lack of Eurocentrism. The only problem with the series is that despite the fact that they live in a non-Eurocentric world, the British characters in the Tremeraire books obstinately persist in behaving like they do. Despite the fact that they live in a reality in which the fundamental base of power has been radically altered, most of the British characters all persist in behaving as if the sentiments reflected in Rudyard Kipling's poem White Man's Burden were still applicable. Put bluntly, this makes all of these characters seem like complete idiots.

One would think after the pasting the slave traders took from the Tswana in Empire of Ivory and the extreme caution the British took in dealing with China in Throne of Jade (read review) that the British would be more cautious when dealing with alien powers. However, in the climatic scene in Tongues of Serpents we have a collection of bull-headed British commanders (save for the heroic Laurence and Granby) ignoring all the warning signs to launch an ill-considered attack upon a power that they had treated with kid gloves in previous books. This, of course, has predictably bad immediate consequences, but more to the point, even if the attack had gone exactly according to plan, it would have sparked a war with a nation that the British know has dozens of dragons for every one they can field - all while England is already fighting for its life against Napoleon and his new found allies. It seems ludicrous that a nation that had so recently been ravaged by an occupying army and still engaged in an arduous conflict would willingly take on a second major power for any reason. And then, to cap off the stupidity, after it is clearly demonstrated that the immediate consequence of belligerence is defeat, the British regroup, and a further set of authority figures sets about planning a foolishly conceived second attack. The only conclusion one can draw from this behaviour is that the British officers portrayed in Tongues of Serpents are not from the Tremeraire universe at all, but are rather British officers from our universe who have somehow been transferred over into the alternate reality with no briefings on the differences between the worlds, a fact made all the more glaring by the fact that the members of most other nations, such as the Portuguese and American traders who show up, seem to understand the changed nature of the world quite well.

This does not mean that Tongues of Serpents is simply wasted pages. Although there is fairly limited character development for Laurence and Tremeraire, the book introduces some new dragons who almost immediately set about demonstrating their own independence. Tremeraire is confronted with the idea that a dragon who can make his own choices may not simply make choices that Tremeraire would not make, but which make a certain amount of sense (as Iskierka often does), but may make choices that Tremeraire believes to be entirely wrong. This sequence of events also results in the return of Rankin, and his development into a formidable enemy for both Laurence and Tremeraire. Rankin is unlike the implacable Lien who merely wishes to kill Tremeraire, and who they could simply kill in return if they got the chance, but is instead a political enemy who will undoubtedly cause substantial trouble for Laurence via his family connections.

While Tremeraire spends much of the book dealing with the ramifications of dragon independence, Laurence spends his time grappling with the question of who he should give his loyalty to. Unfortunately, all of the various power groups that Laurence could align himself with are quite objectionable. It seems as though Novik intended to create doubt in the reader's mind as to which side of the conflict surrounding New South Wales Laurence would pick. But the real effect is to make one wonder how the British Empire survives at all with such a collection of complete idiots running it, and makes Laurence's final decision in the book an almost foregone conclusion. The only bright bit of character development is the somewhat comic nature of Laurence's clumsy handling of how to deal with Emily Roland's budding sexuality, and the earnest seriousness of the development of the African refugee Demane into a more fully fleshed out character.

In the end, the false internal conflict requiring Laurence to choose sides in the colony's petty political struggles, plus the complete and inexplicable idiocy of almost every British officer drag the book down from the excellent standard set by the previous entries in the series. That said, even with the slight downturn in quality this book displays, the series starts from such a superior starting point that this book remains quite good. It may be that the real problem with this book is that the story feels so small after Victory of Eagles (read review) in which the fate of England as an independent nation hung in the balance. Even the more interesting elements, such as the bunyips that infest the Australian Outback who could have been quite interesting given all the questions posed by their apparent society, seem to be little more than filler material to present an obstacle to the heroes and nothing more. As a result, the limited character development has to carry much of the book, and it simply isn't fully up to the task. I am concerned by the cracking verisimilitude of the setting - whereas the alternate reality seemed to fray a little bit at the edges here and there in previous stories, in this one at times it seems in danger of coming unraveled. The way seems clear for the series to return to the excellent path is took in previous books, but these inconsistencies must be sewn up or the entire series runs the risk of falling apart. I still recommend this book, but for what should be obvious reasons, not as highly as the previous ones in the series.

Previous book in the series: Victory of Eagles
Subsequent book in the series: Crucible of Gold

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review - Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Short review: Napoleon invades England, Laurence is a traitor, and Tremeraire gets some of what he wanted.

Napoleon invades
But the English still resist
With guerrilla war

Full review: Unlike the previous two books, which more or less picked up immediately after the preceding one left off, Victory of Eagles skips over intervening events and kicks off with Laurence having already been convicted of treason for his actions in Empire of Ivory (read review) and Tremeraire having been sent to the breeding grounds, his good behaviour the price of postponing Laurence's death sentence. Against this personal drama, Napoleon's long dreaded invasion of the British Isles finally arrives and throws the entire nation into disarray.

Of course, this marks a major departure from history, in which Napoleon did not actually invade Britain at all. As has become a mark of the high quality of the Tremeraire series, the military strategies employed by the various combatants are in constant flux as each side copies the other, and then leaps ahead to exploit weaknesses in the operations of the other, and Napoleon's invasion force is no exception. Having already introduced Nelson into the storyline in His Majesty's Dragon (read review), the battles for control of Britain itself now bring Wellesley to the fore, and he proves to be a heroic character, but only from a particular point of view. To a certain extent, Laurence's part in the war to liberate England seems to draw upon the Boer War as presented in Breaker Morant, with Laurence taking the place of the title character of that movie, handed vague unwritten orders to engage in actions to disrupt French operations behind their lines. This gives the war a brutal character that had been lacking before, drawing the populace directly into the conflict in a way that they had not before and ramping up the tension.

But the invasion and subsequent battles are really only the background for the real stories of the novel: Laurence coming to terms with his new status as a traitor, Tremeraire emerging into his own as an independent minded free individual, and both Laurence and Tremeraire finally fully understanding what the actions taken in Empire of Ivory have cost Laurence. To tell these stories, Novik begins to shift viewpoint regularly between Laurence and Tremeraire, which both makes Tremraire's viewpoint much more real to the reader, and interferes with the story in several places. In more than one instance, the same events are told from one viewpoint, and then told again from the other. This method can work, but more often than not it ends up being slightly tedious, especially if the characters are well-drawn enough that the reader can accurately tell ahead of time how a particular character will view a situation. Laurence, having been the primary focal character of the previous four books, is pretty predictable in most of the double recounted situations, and as a result his side of these particular scenes feels a little redundant.

On the other hand, it is critical to the story to get inside Laurence's head for much of it. Being a man of honor, Laurence is, of course, resigned to being condemned as a traitor and Tremeraire, though he does not understand why Laurence would accept being hanged, understands that his captain thinks this is an important point to stand upon. But Laurence does not, for much of the novel, fully grasp that being a traitor and being allowed to live means a life of almost total ostracism. Laurence also was seemingly unprepared for the responsibility he would feel for every death resulting from Napoleon's invasion. And when he does realize these things, he falls into despair and accepts an assignment from Wellesley (who demonstrates both his cunning and his ruthlessness by making the offer) that Laurence considers to be truly reprehensible. Laurence rationalizes this by telling himself that he, as a condemned man, has nothing to lose. Interestingly, it is Tharkay, who places little value on refinements like personal honor, who pushes Laurence into realizing that he is only honorless if he allows himself to be. Once again, Novik's deft touch allows her to make a sharp comment upon the social structure of Napoleonic era Britain.

Tremeraire, for his part, slowly comes to understand that having saved Laurence from death, he is unable to save him from the other baleful consequences heaped upon him, including the loss of his rank, social standing, and fortune. The fall in Laurence's personal fortunes is mirrored by the rise in Tremeraire's as the dragon puts his belief in draconic independence into action by rallying aid to the British cause from a wholly unexpected source. As a result of his new found initiative, Tremeraire finds himself handed authority, and finds his demands for pay for dragons taken seriously, by Wellesley at least. Tremerarie also finds that things don't turn out quite as he expected. Facing difficulties dealing with Iskierka, his most ardent convert, as well as his other dragon followers, Tremeraire soon discovers that freedom, while much preferable to servitude, is not quite as fun or easy as he had thought it would be. Iskierka's almost piratical attitude towards obtaining prizes to increase her plunder, and resulting greater wealth and independence, irks Tremeraire. By focusing heavily on Tremeraire as a central viewpoint character, and introducing a collection of mostly independent dragons to the story, Novik is able to more fully flesh out the dragons as independent characters in their own right, which adds even more depth to the story. The only weakness on this score is that the French dragons in general remain colorless beasts, while Tremeraire's nemesis Lien, though menacing, never seems to be more than a comic book style villain. By developing the individual character of the British dragons, Novik makes the underdeveloped French dragons in the book seem less real.

The developed characters of Laurence and Tremeraire, both noble and honorable in their own right, but regarded with suspicious or scorn by British society, are contrasted with Nelson and Wellesley, exalted by those around them. Nelson, especially, makes an interesting counterpoint to Laurence. In His Majesty's Dragon, while Nelson was lauded for his victory at Trafalgar, Laurence was regaled as almost his equal in heroism for his actions at Dover. However, by the time Victory of Eagles rolls around, Nelson is still a national hero, while Laurence is a despised traitor. The contrast in their fortunes is especially interesting when one evaluates the personal character of the men: Nelson is in favor of slavery, Laurence is an abolitionist. Nelson cheats on his wife and brings her into disrepute, Laurence is sensitive to the reputation of the woman who spurned him to marry another. Nelson was in favor of infecting the dragons of the world with an incurable disease, seeing them as nothing more than beasts of war, Laurence threw away everything to prevent this. And so on. Wellesley, for his part, though able and willing to make compromises necessary to victory, is presented as something of a scoundrel, willing to engage in pious hypocrisy to keep his own hands clean while ordering others to engage in what all around him to be dishonorable acts. One has to wonder if Novik is making something of a comment upon the nature of men who are needed to win wars.

As I have noted before, the Tremeraire series is remarkably thoughtful for a series that is usually described in flippant terms like "Hornblower meets Dungeons & Dragons", focusing on the issue of freedom, how humans treat one another, and how humans treat another sapient species. Interweaving large scale battles with some skullduggery, coupled with a healthy dose of character development and deftly added social commentary, Novik has managed to make "Napoleonic Wars with Dragons" into a series that is both exciting and thought provoking at the same time. The only real question at this point is having seemingly backed herself into a corner, can she figure out a way to keep the series on the superior trajectory it has thus far been upon, and follow up this superb novel with still more to come.

Previous book in the series: Empire of Ivory
Subsequent book in the series: Tongues of Serpents

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review - Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

Short review: All of England's dragons are sick, and the slave trade blows up in the faces of the British.

British arrogance
Seems to be unjustified
And they pay the price

Full review: The first book in the series to diverge almost completely from the events of the actual Napoleonic Wars, Empire of Ivory begins with Laurence and Tremeraire entering England laden with Prussian refugees only to find that the mystery of the missing British dragons in Black Powder War (read review) is due to circumstances more dire than anyone could have imagined. It turns out that the promised British dragons never arrived to assist the Prussians in their struggle against Napoleon because almost every dragon on the Isles has fallen sick with a debilitating illness that appears to have no cure, and seems to lead inevitably to death.

Given the heavy reliance that the military organizations in the Tremeraire universe place upon the use of dragons as weapons of war, this widespread illness is both a cause for great alarm, and a heavily guarded state secret. Laurence's return to the country with Tremeraire, the crew of feral dragons led by Arkady, and the hatchling fire breather Iskierka, is regarded by his superiors as a minor miracle. After impressing on the reader the dire circumstances England is in with her shores patrolled by a mere handful of dragons, Novik has serendipity strike when it is discovered that Tremeraire, quite by accident had been infected with the disease and somehow cured on his journey to China in Throne of Jade (read review). This sets into motion the main plot of the book: a journey to the Cape colony with a wing of sick dragons to hunt for the cure.

The story, for the most part, merely serves as a vehicle to advance the themes of equality that run through the books. Almost immediately upon embarking on their voyage, Laurence and the transport's captain Riley begin a bitter feud over the question of slavery. Despite the fact that Riley had been one of Laurence's proteges when he was serving in the navy, their political differences on the issue now tear them apart. As usual in the Tremeraire books, whenever the issue of human slavery crops up, the shabby European treatment of dragons also rears its head. And, of course, where you have dragons, you have female officers, which creates yet more tension between the aviators and the seamen exacerbating the conflict between Laurence and Riley. The only real problem with the book in these areas is that it is quite heavy handed in its treatment of the issues, hammering the reader over the head more or less needlessly to demonstrate that, for example, slavery and racism are wrong.

Once the expedition arrives at the Cape, the treatment of Africans by the British, already an issue in the story, becomes an even bigger issue, as the racist attitudes of the British are exceeded by the even more racist attitudes of the Dutch colonists they conquered. Eventually, the action moves to the interior of the unexplored African continent, where Laurence and his compatriots make some rather unsettling discoveries about the inhabitants and their relationship to their dragons and find the promised Empire of Ivory. This part of the story seemed to a certain degree reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan books, or possibly H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. The action turns, and we are treated to the Tremeraire universe equivalent to the Battle of Isandlwana, although in this case it turns out to not merely be a tactical victory for the natives, but a strategic one too, shattering the European sense of superiority.

And this raises the crucial problem I have with the book, namely where would Europeans get this sense of racial or cultural superiority. This sensibility was part and parcel of the British make-up in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the motto "make the world England" carried to all corners of the globe. But this attitude was rooted in the fact that the British (and Europeans in general) could impose their will on non-Europeans throughout the world. But in the Tremeraire universe, we know for a fact that China is a force to be reckoned with, and we are told that the Aztecs and presumably the Incas have also proved to be impenetrable nuts. Unable to do more than establish a handful of trading colonies on the coast of Africa, and with the British Empire reduced to, apparently, the colonies in India and the former colonies in North America, one is left to wonder how Europeans come by this apparent attitude. Given that Novik seems to have given a fair amount of thought to how the existence of dragons would shift the geopolitical balance of power in her fictional world, it is quite disappointing that she seems to have neglected to consider how these changes would alter the cultural attitudes of those who live in that universe.

The last part of the story brings the question of European treatment of dragons to the forefront. Having more or less resolved the human slavery question, Novik is free to bring the dragon issue out of its shadow. Threatened by invasion by Napoleon, the British elect to try a solution that seems parallel to Churchill's proposed plan to use chemical weapons to defend the United Kingdom against Nazi invasion. And by means of this plan, the British prove themselves to be utterly callous in their attitudes towards dragon welfare, prompting Tremeraire to drive Laurence to examine his own conscience on this issue. It is both unsurprising and depressing that the British, having been jolted out of their complacent superiority regarding African slavery, still regard dragons as merely large beasts of burden to be dealt with as cattle, an attitude in stark contrast to the attitudes held by Chinese and the Africans. The course Laurence and Tremeraire set upon in response to this seems to be the element that sets up the storyline for the remaining books in the series, which increasingly appears not to merely be "the Napoleonic Wars with dragons", but a fully realized alternate reality dealing with how humans will share their world with another, coequal intelligent species.

This book marks an important turning point in Novik's series. In the first three books events more or less paralleled the actual Napoleonic Wars: His Majesty's Dragon (read review) had Trafalgar, Throne of Jade had Austerlitz, and Black Powder War had Jena and Friedland. In Empire of Ivory events move entirely outside of anything that would relate to actual history, and in fact, are directly counter to actual history. At this point, Novik is moving into uncharted territory, and it appears that there may be no going back. This is the point where alternate history novels prove their mettle, either turning very bad very quickly, or emerging into the limelight to shine. In Empire of Ivory Novik seems to have made a good, although somewhat heavy handed, start on her own version of events. In the end, this is yet another excellent installment in the series that seems now determined to ply an independent course further away from history into new and potentially much more interesting areas.

Previous book in the series: Black Powder War.
Subsequent book in the series: Victory of Eagles.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Musical Monday - The Big Beginning by Symphony of Science

YouTube user melodysheep has put together another music video in his ongoing Symphony of Science series. This one is titled The Big Beginning and deals with the Big Bang, one of the fundamental questions of science. As with all these videos, melodysheep has used a collection of quotes from scientists plus autotune software to transform interview snippets into a musical piece. As with all of the other Symphony of Science songs, this one is brilliant and sets the poetry of the universe to song. For me, the best section is where Neil deGrasse Tyson explains that if you tune a television to a dead channel, about one percent of the static you see is caused by background radiation left over from the Big Bang. The birth of the Universe visible to us in the common everyday technology we use.

The music video features clips from Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Tara Shears, and Neil deGrasse Tyson drawn from Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, God, the Universe, and Everything Else, The Universe, NOVA ScienceNOW, Cosmos, and interviews with Richard Dawkins and Tara Shears.

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Previous Musical Monday: We Are All Connected by Symphony of Science
Subsequent Musical Monday: She Don't Like Firefly by Mikey Mason

Symphony of Science Playlist     Musical Monday Playlists

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Review - Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Short review: Tremeraire must fly from China to Turkey to pick up valuables for Britain, and then gets caught up in the conflict on the continent as tensions between France and Prussia erupt into open war. Tremeraire doesn't just bring his crew back from China, but also a cunning and deadly new enemy.

Fly across Asia
Into a war in Prussia
With Lien at their heels

Full review: The third book in the Tremeraire series, Black Powder War picks up immediately where Throne of Jade (read review) left off. Having resolved the diplomatic crisis of having a British officer in possession of an extraordinarily valuable Celestial dragon and averted a Chinese civil war, Laurence and Tremeraire are cooling their heels waiting for favorable winds to allow their massive dragon transport ship to sail them back home to England. Because an uneventful voyage home after a successful mission wouldn't make for a very good story, one can guess that they don't get the opportunity to wait for the winds to change. Instead, a mysterious courier named Tharkay arrives with an urgent set of orders directing Laurence to proceed to Turkey with all possible speed to collect some valuable dragon eggs the Turks have agreed to sell to Britain.

Why such orders would be sent to Laurence, halfway around the world, and certainly further away from Turkey than for example, British forces in Gibraltar, is a mystery. But orders must be obeyed, and Laurence makes arrangements to travel via the arduous overland route. Lacking other options, Laurence must hire Tharkay as his guide despite his misgivings. Tharkay makes an interesting contrast to Laurence as a character. Whereas Laurence is a member of a respectable family, an officer and a gentleman, who feels a strong sense of duty towards his country, Tharkay is the child of a mixed-union of a British father and Nepalese mother, who has a decidedly mercenary mindset, and who is less than enamoured of his treatment by British society which regards him (as a mixed-race child) with disdain. The introduction of Tharkay allows Novik to call into question the organization of British human society, just as Tremeraire's exposure to the Chinese called into question the European treatment of dragons.

The journey across Asia manages to add still more substance to Tremeraire's growing ire over the prevailing attitudes towards dragons, triggered both by Tremeraire's continuing contact with Tharkay and an encounter with a band of wild dragons. It turns out that feral dragons are not quite so uncivilized as humans had assumed, although the band of mountain dragons proves to be quite difficult to deal with despite their amiable nature. The journey also causes Laurence to question Tharkay's reliability, and Novik skillfully manages to ensure that Tharkay's actions are just cryptic enough that one is never sure whether Laurence's suspicions about him are reasonable and well-founded, or are merely born out of his ingrained prejudices.

When the group finally reaches Turkey, they find that the Turks are (with some justification) less than happy to see them. They also discover that Lien, formerly paired with the deceased Chinese Prince Yongxing, has preceded them, and is plotting against them, seeking revenge against Tremeraire. After much intrigue, they escape first to Austria, and then to Prussia, where they land in the middle of the war referenced in the book's title. The Prussians, regarded as the military elite of the continent, have gone to war with Napoleon, and despite Tremeraire's precious (and secret) cargo, he and his crew are pressed into service to replace promised British aid that has not arrived. Anyone familiar with the history of the time period will be unsurprised to find that the Prussians are hidebound and tied to the military teachings of Frederick the Great, which now extend to rigid adherence to Frederick's drills and formations for dragons as well as men. In the alternate reality of the Tremeraire universe, just as in reality, this doctrinaire approach to warfare proves disastrous as Napoleon is able to use their predictability to his advantage.

One of the more interesting things Novik does in the Tremeraire books is to come up with ways for Napoleon's famous victories to be recreated in sensible ways despite the addition of dragons. In Black Powder War, Napoleon seizes upon Lien's assistance to reorganize his entire dragon corps, and the way his entire army operates. In many ways, it seems as though Napoleon in this book is behaving in a manner similar to the German high command in the beginning of World War II, seizing upon methods to increase the mobility of his troops, their ability to coordinate with one another, and to strike at heretofore unexploited weaknesses. For their part, the Prussian commanders play the part of Weygand perfectly, always one step behind the quickly moving French forces. Napoleon's campaign, as Novik describes it, is brilliant. I am, however, of two minds about the innovations that change the face of warfare in the book. On the one hand, it seems perfectly natural that Napoleon would be the one who would seize upon unorthodox ways of managing his army, especially given the assistance of Lien (it is an indication of how unorthodox Napoleon is that he openly elevates her to his officer corps and gives her command). On the other hand, dragons are not a "new" technology in the Tremeraire universe, so it seems almost implausible that no one in Europe would have thought of any of these ideas before, or that the French could have made such a radical transformation in their own military structure so rapidly with so few apparent miscues. I consider it an indicator of the strong nature of the series that neither Napoleon, nor his enemies remain static, as Laurence and the Prussians end up with some unexpected allies, and engaged in some desperate, unorthodox strategies of their own.

Throughout the book, Tremeraire grows as a character, calling into question many of the ways humans treat dragons which are taken for granted. He is especially concerned over the purpose of the Turkish trip, appalled, as one might expect, by the idea that dragon eggs (and therefore dragons) may be bought and sold like property. He also takes the opportunity to preach his new found belief in dragon rights to any dragons he happens to come across, which as one might expect, causes additional troubles for Laurence and his crew as they must not only try to explain matters to Tremeraire in a way that he will accept and understand, but must also smooth over the ruffled feathers of foreign dragon captains whose dragon have been exposed to the seemingly subversive idea that dragons should be treated as free creatures, and not as glorified beasts of burden. Tremeraire, for his part, is shocked by both the human hostility to his ideas, and the seeming indifference of many of the dragons he encounters. The afterward to this book, as in the previous ones, is a small snippet of a fictitious scholarly writing on the subject of dragons, but whereas the previous two books were by naturalists engaged in the study of dragons, this is by a somewhat less than informed member of the clergy, who, after making some clumsy attempts at a scientific analysis of draconic intelligence, ends up using scriptural arguments to discount the possibility that dragons are more than mere beasts. It seems to me to be something of a commentary on modern clergy sticking their nose into scientific matters and making pronouncements on matters about which they know next to nothing as well as those who used the Bible to support the repugnant practice of black slavery. This afterword suggests, quite strongly, that Tremeraire is headed for trouble in his effort to secure rights for his kind.

In the end, Black Powder War is as good as the preceding two books. In many series it is common for the quality of the books to tail off slowly as the series progresses, but Novik appears to have avoided that problem thus far. The only possible problem that may be looming on the horizon for Novik is that it seems as though she will soon have to leave behind the more or less strong parallel between the actual history of the period and her alternate history. In reality, by the time the events of Black Powder War took place, the British had destroyed the French fleet at Trafalgar, making invasion of the British Isles a practical impossibility. However, with his large (and growing) superiority in dragons, this is not true in the Tremeraire reality. It will be interesting to see how Novik handles the alternate history that, it seems, must diverge substantially further from actual events in the near future. No matter how she handles these potential difficulties, the fact remains that this is an excellent book, that somehow manages to retain strong verisimilitude despite the wild card element of intelligent dragons. For a series of books about dragons fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the series is remarkably thoughtful without sacrificing exciting action and drama.

Previous book in the series reviewed: Throne of Jade.
Subsequent book in the series reviewed: Empire of Ivory.

2006 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

2007 Locus Award Nominees

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review - Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Short review: Lawrence and Tremeraire must go to China and reconcile with an alien culture.

They go to China
And get taken down a peg
Earn an enemy

Full review: The conflict foreshadowed in His Majesty's Dragon (read review) between the British and Chinese over Lawrence's pairing with Tremeraire becomes the main plot in Throne of Jade. Apparently incensed that a common British officer could be matched with one of the exalted "celestial" breed of dragons (normally reserved for the members of the Chinese Emperor's immediate family), a delegation led by the Chinese prince Yongxing demands that Tremeraire be returned to China, characterizing Laurence's seizure of the egg from the French in His Majesty's Dragon as "piracy among barbarians".

It is a feature of Novik's alternate world that the introduction of dragons has altered the political balance of power among nations. While the central conflict of the books is the struggle between Britain and her allies against Napoleon's France, adding dragons has substantially increased the weight of nations such as China in world affairs. Consequently, the British cannot (as they probably would have in reality) brush off the Chinese delegation, and the threat of China entering the war on the side of the French is of grave concern to Britain. Interestingly, the influence of dragons does not seem to have saved the Americas or India from being subjected to European domination and colonization, which seems to be something of a contradiction in the structure of the alternate reality Novik presents us with. India, for example, is dominated by Britain and the East India Company in the Tremeraire universe, just as it was in our real history.

Given Laurence's affection for Tremeraire, and Tremeraire's own absolute refusal to consider leaving him, the British are on tenterhooks, unable to satisfy the Chinese. In order to avoid a charge of treason, Lawrence agrees to go to China with Tremeraire to meet with the Emperor, who will then decide what is to be done with them. The overland route being barred by Napoleon's forces, Tremeraire must be carried by sea aboard one of the massive dragon transport ships employed by the British, along with the entire Chinese delegation. Once on board ship, the story begins to pick up steam as a variety of cultural conflicts are exposed. Chinese disdain for those they consider barbarians creates friction, as does Yongxing's continuous (and unsubtle) attempts to pressure Tremeraire to part with Laurence. The interservice rivalry between the sailors and aviators adds still more tension to the mix. For the journey, Laurence is saddled with a China expert to assist him, and his advice often rankles at Laurence as well, adding still more delicious conflict to the mix.

It is during this lengthy sea voyage (which takes up the bulk of the book) and after the arrival in China that Novik truly sets her book apart from the typical fantasy by fleshing out both Tremeraire's character, but also by confounding the reader's expectations regarding dragons and their treatment. In His Majesty's Dragon, by means of describing their use, care, and crew, Novik cleverly established dragons in the mind of the reader as more or less intelligent sailing ships that happened to fly, or perhaps, really big smart flying horses. As such, housing them in the equivalent of stables, and treating them as animals to be fed, watered, and trained felt right to the reader. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the alternate reality would continue in this vein and focus on thrilling aerial battles between fire-breathing and acid-spitting behemoths. However, in Throne of Jade, Novik calls into question the entire European attitude towards dragons that was laid out in the previous book. One begins to wonder why a sapient species is held as beasts of burden, and housed and fed as animals. It begins to seem almost monstrous that dragons or dragon eggs would be traded among nations to improve breeding stock, or as diplomatic gifts. Novik draws some parallels with the slave trade in African slaves, but with a light enough touch as to be able to make her point without being offensive.

(As a side note, one scene in China would seem to indicate that there are vast untapped reservoirs of dragon power available. In a dragon starved Europe, one would think this would prove to be a substantial opportunity for a nation who figured out how to entice such potential to rally to their cause. Unfortunately, none of the characters in the novel seem to see this potential, and spend their time focused on wooing the humans, rather than the dragons).

I had a few minor difficulties with the book. One is that despite dragon transports being a regular feature of the world, apparently no one in the Tremeraire universe has thought to use them as floating platforms to launch dragon attacks. Essentially, despite having the ships that mirror them in characteristics, no one seems to consider the idea of using them as the draconic equivalent of aircraft carriers. Another is that in the resolution of the story, Laurence's status is altered so substantially that one would think he would be one of the most important British subjects alive, and that he would be accorded substantial status (and possibly virtual legal immunity) in his home country as a result. Although I had to cheat a little bit by looking at the cover blurbs of later books in the series, this does not appear to be the case. I would consider it a substantial plot hole if some of the events that take place later in the series do so without causing significant diplomatic complications for the British.

As good as His Majesty's Dragon was, Throne of Jade is better. Despite having very little in the way of action, most of the book being taken up with diplomatic intrigue, the story makes Tremeraire specifically, and dragons in general, much more fully realized characters, and in doing so, sets up the conflict that appears to be in line to become one of the central themes of the series: The social and legal status of dragons. While many series suffer a "sophomore slump" in the second book, Throne of Jade is a noteworthy exception, and highly recommended.

Previous book in the series: His Majesty's Dragon
Subsequent book in the series: Black Powder War

2006 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Locus Winners for Best First Novel

2007 Locus Award Nominees

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Review - His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

Short review: If C.S. Forester had imagined the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, this would have been the result.

Mix guns and dragons
Plus naval analogies
Get a fun story

Full review: His Majesty's Dragon is the first book in the Tremeraire series, now up to six books, and projected to be at least nine. The books are alternate history mixed with fantasy that could best be summed up as Horatio Hornblower if C.S. Forester had added dragons to the mix. The result is a version of the Napoleonic Wars that is imaginative and packed with exciting action.

The Hornblower stand-in is Captain Will Laurence, who starts out as the Captain of a frigate in the respectable Royal Navy. He and his crew seize a French ship carrying an unhatched dragon egg, and circumstance forces Laurence to take on the burden of "harnessing" the newborn dragon and assuming the responsibility to becoming its permanent companion. He named the dragon Tremeraire, his Navy career ends, and he becomes part of the much less reputable Dragon Corps.

Fully half of the book is basically worldbuilding, as Novik first describes a world in which dragons are real and are used as weapons of war, and then describes the unique branch of service that has grown up around their use, and Laurence's induction and training in the ways of that service. In the hands of a less skilled writer this portion of the book could have seriously dragged, and at times the pace does become just a bit too slow, but Novik spices things up with a variety of small conflicts ranging from interservice rivalries between the Navy and Aviator Corps, Lawrence's discomfort at adjusting to a wholly new and unfamiliar way of life, and Lawrence's conflicts with both his own family and other officers. The development of the relationship between Lawrence and Tremeraire also adds depth to this section of the story.

Eventually we get to see dragons in combat as a variety of missteps by the British high command thrust Tremeraire and a collection of other inexperienced dragons into desperate action to defend England against Napoleon's forces. Novik portrays the speed and drama of swooping dragons crewed by bomb-throwers and musketmen in such vivid detail that one almost feels to rush of wind in your face. During the battle, the true nature of Tremeraire (who, of course, is not just your usual run-of-the-mill dragon) is revealed, which clearly serves as grist for the rest of the book series.

Novik hints at a wider world in which political power has been shifted by the existence of dragons as weapons of war. China and Japan, with their powerful dragons are no longer backwaters subject to being pushed around by European powers. Instead, they are nations to be reckoned with and which even the British Empire must deal with kid gloves. While this does not directly impact the story in this book, it does cast the entire European conflict in a different light. The existence of dragons and their demands also force some social changes as well - certain kinds of dragons only accept female companions, requiring the hidebound British military to accept female officers, at least in the Aviator Corps. In addition, since the dragons can reject a proffered companion, the influence of family connections in securing a dragon is diminished to nothingness, making the Corps much more egalitarian than the society around it. One suspects that this will be a source of friction in later books.

While Novik's imagined alternate reality is generally quite well-realized, there are a few points that seem to be less than well-thought out. The Aviator Corps is a loose, informal organization, reflecting the nature of the Royal Air Force (and the U.S. Air Force as well), which was much more informal in its early days than the other services. But a large portion of that loosey-goosey nature was the result of aviation being a new technology that was both feeling its way towards military usefulness and attracted only those officers with something of a maverick personality to begin with. In the Tremeraire series, dragons are not a new element, having been around for as long as men can remember. It also seems as though the use of dragons in warfare is also not a new development. As a result, there seems to be no real reason why the Dragon Corps remains such an informal organization other than it makes for a nice parallel with the air forces of the first half of the Twentieth century. Further, it seems as though the British Navy has been generally unaffected by its sister service, for example it retains the system of prize shares being divided among the crew, a system that does not seem to extend to the Aviator Corps. It seems odd that the system would crop up in one service but not the other.

Finally, while Napoleon's invasion plans are quite interesting, and make for a dramatic scene placing the dragons front and center in the fight, upon reflection they don't seem to make much sense. Effectively, Napoleon's strategy seems to be akin to intentionally stranding thousands of men with little hope of resupply. I suppose that one could assume that Napoleon intended his men to forage for food, but it seems like they would have been hard pressed for ammunition. They also seem like they would have been desperately short of cavalry and artillery. Napoleon was famous for his attention to logistics and artillery support. It seems odd to posit a plan from him that seems to throw both out the window. In short, despite the desperate language surrounding the fight to keep Napoleon's troops out of England, it seems as though if they did succeed, it would have been the equivalent of throwing a beached whale on the shore.

However, in the end, these are relatively minor quibbles. Some concessions have to be made in these areas in order for the alternate reality being presented to be relatable to real history, and the "problems" I have noted are fairly minor (and probably idiosyncratic to my tastes), they are really not that important. What is important is that Novik has given us a well-realized, exciting adventure that is both fun to read, and gives more than enough foreshadowing of likely future conflicts to whet the reader's appetite. The most important task the first novel of a series has is to make the reader want to immediately pick up the next book, and in that regard, His Majesty's Dragon is a rousing success.

Subsequent book in the series: Throne of Jade.

2006 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

2007 Hugo Award Nominees
2007 Locus Award Nominees

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dystopia Challenge 2011

Dystopia Challenge

Since I'm not doing enough challenges (yeah, right) I figured I'd throw another one on my list of things to do for 2011. This is the Dystopia Challenge hosted by Bookish Ardour. There's a lot of dystopian fiction in science fiction, so I'll probably pick up most of the books needed for this challenge on my journey through the Hugo and International Fantasy winners this year.

How To Participate

  1. Decide which challenge level you'll be doing (I'm trying out Solider on this one) - post-apocalyptic is also allowed seeing as they cross over sometimes.
  2. Grab the code for the badge down below and post it on a side bar or in a signature (if you want to participate, but aren't blogging, don't have a social network profile or aren't on a forum - Submission For Non Bloggers).
  3. Create your own post to let all your readers know you’re taking part in the challenge and at what level (if you're really proficient you can list your books!). Make sure to link back to this page with either one of the buttons or a text link.
  4. Use the link form below to enter into the challenge by sharing your challenge post url and your name (either your name, blog name, or both). Please don't use the comment form to participate, only to comment on the challenge or something else.
  5. Submit your reviews (if you choose to review them, but that is optional) on the review page.
  6. When you’ve completed you’re challenge let us know on the completion post. If you're using a tag or category I recommend sharing the link back to that so everyone can find them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Follow Friday - Again

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow our Featured Bloggers - Logan E. Turner.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for this week's Follow Friday question: Who do you root for?

Well, as a graduate of the University of Virginia, I am obligated to root for the Cavaliers. Yes, I know, this is a recipe for continual heartbreak, but I keep holding out hope.

Go Hoos! I want to sing the Good Old Song!
I'm also a former (and current) George Mason University student, so I root for my Patriots as well, although the only sport they have ever been really prominent in is basketball. As Woodberry Forest School, of which I am a graduate, has the longest unbroken high school football rivalry with Episcopal High School, I return fairly often to watch the rivalry game. Washington D.C. professional sports are mostly not worth watching, so I don't bother.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Virgin Friday
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Again, Again

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, Nos. 7 & 8 (July/August 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes by Rajnar Vajra
Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns
Project Hades by Stephen Baxter
Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson
The Android Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter
The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick
Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken
The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper

Science fact articles included:
Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett

Special features included:
The Seriousness of Writing Humor by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis

Full review: The July/August 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, like most double issues of the magazine, has a couple stories that below the typically high standard of the magazine, but on the whole, it is a very good issue. As with many issues, there is something of an unremarked upon theme to the issue, in this case there are two: there are several stories involving Lunar exploration, including some material paying tribute to the Apollo program, and there are several stories that portray dystopian futures (or in one case, a past that could have turned into a dystopia). As usual for Analog in recent months, the general quality of the stories is high, and the quality of the science fact articles and the special feature article is excellent.

Rajnar Vajra's Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes is set in the same fictional setting as Vajra's previous story Doctor Alien. In this universe, humanity has come into contact with an alien race known as the Traders, and Al, the Doctor Alien of the story, has earned an accidental reputation as a man who can treat alien mental problems. The Traders have set a clinic up for Al, and the governments of Earth find themselves so desperate for access to alien technology that they cannot refuse. The story involves several threads: Al dealing with an alien patient he cannot cure, his odd alien office staff, an attempt on his life, the resentment of his neighbors who don't want the alien center in their backyard, and an unexpected visit from a Trader bearing five boxes and a request for help. The story is somewhat silly, not quite as overtly comic as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett would be, but clearly meant to be taken as light-hearted fun. And following Al about as he tries to solve all of the various problems is fun, and in the end, the conclusion is quite satisfying. Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns also deals with unwanted alien artifacts on Earth planted by aliens to powerful to refuse. In this case, the protagonist takes the aliens up on an implied offer of sanctuary, choosing to leap into the unknown in preference to the known (and unpleasant) consequences of staying on Earth. He finds something of an anarchists fantasy, and as usual with such places, things aren't quite as idyllic as many ardent anarchists would have one believe such a place would be. It turns out to be not quite as anarchic as it seems at first, and the protagonist learns that the aliens have a job in mind for him that is not quite what he expected. Although not entirely lacking in humor, Bug Trap is not silly fun the way Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes, but is rather a fairly thought provoking look at the ways humans might organize themselves if they had minimal restraints on their behavior.

Project Hades by Stephen Baxter is another story with dystopian overtones in which an insane military commander commandeers a dangerous project to confront a poorly understood alien enemy. In a twist, the insane military commander in the Anglo-American operation is not an American, which is nice to see for once. The story is also set in an alternate 1960. However, the story follows a fairly standard script with courageous scientists aided by an implausibly well self-educated local boy desperately trying to convince the military not to misuse their technology or overlook a problem that could result in the extinction of humanity. Overall, Project Hades reads more or less like a Doctor Who episode, with Chapman Jones filling in for the Doctor, and Thelma Bennet filling in as the Doctor's companion. The story is a bit overlong - I think it would have been improved with fewer scenes concerning the plucky locals and the villain's diatribes - but on the whole the story does a good job of ratcheting the tension up from the calm opening scenes in a neighborhood pub to the high intensity ending.

Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson is one of three stories in the issue that deals with Lunar exploration and is the best of the bunch. In its future humanity has returned to the Moon and set down roots there. Unfortunately some of the denizens have a mishap that places them beyond the reach of rescue, but conveniently places them near a restored Lunar Exploration Module that serves as a monument to the Apollo program and sets the puzzle-solving element of the story into motion. The story is told from the perspective of a teenager who volunteers at a nursing home and who discovers that the elderly gentleman he spends much of his time with may be much more than he seems. The story is both a touching commentary on old age and an excellent tribute to the Apollo astronauts. As such, the story serves as a complement to the poem Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis, which I found made me both inspired by the men who blazed the trail and angry that we abandoned Lunar exploration so long ago. Unfortunately, the other puzzle-solving story set on the Moon is not nearly as good. The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick is an attempt to make a classic science fiction style story involving a life threatening problem that intrepid space explorers have to solve using unorthodox engineering. The trouble with the story is that the technological device that causes the trouble in the first place is so ludicrous in design that it just seems implausible that it would be used at all. One of the most critical elements in the puzzle-solving type of science fiction story is that the reader has to buy into the problem as one that could happen, and that is just impossible to do here.

The Android Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter is a noirish mystery story featuring a down on his luck detective, the beautiful and dangerous woman who did him wrong, and her wealthy husband who has gone mysteriously missing. This being a science fiction story, the woman has had multiple modifications made to herself (including the addition of a third breast, something that is supposed to make her sexier, but I just don't see how it would) and the missing wealthy husband is an android. Or rather, was an android before he had his consciousness moved to a human body, and then back to an android. The story is clearly intended to evoke a Dashiell Hammett-like sensibility, and it does, but as it is a science fiction story it raises questions about what rights one might accord to an artificial intelligence, and more broadly, who counts as human. An interesting subtext to the story is, if such sorts of standards are applied, would there be some humans who would fail them? The story is told with enough of a light touch that it doesn't get weighed down, and as a result, it is interesting while remaining fun to read.

The two explicitly dystopian stories in the issue both involve government interference in scientific endeavors, but they both seem to approach the issue from a different ideological bent. Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken is set in a future in which the government has assumed full responsibility for running the health care system, right down to dictating how doctors go about diagnosing their patient's maladies. Doctors are required to use a specific battery of questions, the "tree" of the title, which in the context of the story proves to be fairly obviously inadequate to the task. Doctors who do not are subjected to criminal liability for going against the "tree". The protagonist, a doctor, must wrestle with how to work with the system, and whether to cast it aside for the benefit of his patients despite the personal risk of doing so. The story has moderately strong libertarian leanings, and while told with a heavy dose of hyperbole, seems to be something of a caution against too much regulation in a field as full of judgment calls as medicine. The other dystopian story is The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper, featuring a scary future in which the "World Science Court" passes judgment on inquiry and upon which four of the seven justices do not believe in evolution. The "single larry ti" of the title is a reference to a singularity: the central conflict of the story is a hearing held before the World Science Court involving a project to run a particle accelerator on the Moon and the supposed dangers that this might create a mini black hole (or singularity) and destroy the Moon and the Earth. The sign, and the protestor holding it, is an indication of the dangers of allowing superstitious fear to hold sway over science education, as is the entire story. Of the dystopian stories in the issue, this one is the most frightening because it seems most plausible.

The science fact article in the issue is Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett. This article deals with the idea of offsetting rises in global temperatures by cooling the Earth by means of injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere to shade its surface. Geoengineering has become a much more widely discussed option recently - the lead article in the June 5, 2010 issue of Science News deals with the subject - so this article is very topical. In typical fashion, Lovett boils a complicated scientific issue down to its essential elements and makes it both understandable, and enjoyable to read. Lovett also contributes a special feature article to the issue titled The Seriousness of Writing Humor in which he discusses the difficulties of using humor in fiction, and the mistakes many writers make when the try to incorporate humor into their writing. As usual, Lovett is clear and effective even on a somewhat difficult subject like how to write humor.

Overall, with only one weak story and one mediocre story amidst a pile of good ones, this is one of the better issues in the past year. The unremarked theme of Lunar exploration, while unexpected, provided some quite good material that reminded me to be both happy that we had accomplished something so transcendent, and angry at the fact that we had thrown all that away so casually. Coupled with the often scary dystopian theme, this is an issue that could have been quite depressing. Fortunately, it is leavened with a healthy dash of humor that prevents the material from becoming to morose, although the humorous stories contain enough intellectual content to remain thought-provoking. Although the magazine as a whole seemed to suffer a bit of a dip with some mediocre issues last year (especially the double issues), the trend over the last couple months seems to be moving back to the high standard of quality that readers have come to expect from Analog. This is a trend that I hope continues, and it has resulted in an excellent issue that I can give a strong recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: June 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: September 2010

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Biased Opinion - Cyberpunk, Neuromancer, Brooke Taylor, and Facebook

The beautiful and completely
non-nude Brooke Taylor
There is a famous quote attributed to Sinclair Lewis that says "When fascism comes to America it will comes wrapped in the flag and waving a cross". Though many doubt whether Lewis actually said this, and several other possible sources have been touted for it, or something similar to it, the point of the quote is that if fascism were to come to the United States, it wouldn't take the form that most people assume, with jackbooted thugs and concentration camps, but rather as an attractive expression of patriotism and faith that droves of people would gladly voluntarily sign up for.

For years cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling have written of dystopian cyberpunk futures in books like like Neuromancer and Mirrorshades. And an oft-seen element of these dystopias is the domination of huge megacorporations, answerable to no government which use people and toss them aside like used tissues - an element so common in cyberpunk that it forms one of the core components of the GURPS: Cyberpunk campaign source book. One might wonder how such unfeeling and powerful corporations come about. I think I have found one way: They get people to willingly sign up for their service in droves and become so indispensable that they can do whatever the hell they want to. In other words, they act like Facebook.

Another non-nude photo of Brooke
Now, I'm not saying that Facebook is going to run out and hire Sally Shears to bump off the corporate leadership of Myspace, but Facebook is starting to act a little bit too much like a cyberpunk megacorporation. As recently as 2006 Myspace was the largest social media network in the world, now it is a tiny fraction of the size of Facebook. Quite frankly, Facebook deserved to win that battle, as Myspace's layout was really poorly organized and annoying to use. However, the decline (and in my estimation, probable demise) of Myspace leaves Facebook as really the only option for someone wanting to engage in social media. Although there is a vast internet out there that is not dependent upon Facebook (like the blogosphere, of which this blog is a part), for many people, Facebook, and the social network it provides, is the primary reason they use the internet. I'd suggest that for a small but growing percentage of internet users, Facebook effectively is the internet: They don't get on the web for any reason other than to access their Facebook page and see what their Facebook friends are doing. If this continues, having a Facebook profile is likely to be more or less the equivalent of having a telephone or an e-mail address. It will be that basic of a requirement for participating in modern society. I'd suggest that in the near future, being shut out of Facebook will more or less be the equivalent of social death.

So why is this relevant, and why are those pictures of the lovely Brooke Taylor stuck on this post? Well, because Brooke, and a couple of her coworkers have, in their dealings with Facebook, what I think is something of a cautionary tale for the rest of us. In the course of researching for my Cathouse reviews I have found and interacted with some of the women featured on the show via social media: specifically Facebook and Twitter. Many of the women who work at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch are on Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, or some other web service. Though they are not legally permitted to market their services over the internet, most want to be accessible to their fans, and several have more than enough admirers to max out the Facebook limit of five thousand friends. In my experience dealing with them, I have found them all to be friendly, engaging, and sweet women. They are all also pretty smart ladies, and generally know exactly what they can and cannot do under the terms of service of sites like Facebook, and adhere to those guidelines quite scrupulously.

But the problem is that even if you follow Facebook's rules to the letter, it may not matter, and if Facebook decides they don't like you, there isn't much you can do about their decisions. The reason that the pictures of Brooke Taylor are featured in this blog post is that those specific pictures were repeatedly reported by a user on Facebook for violating the Facebook terms of service because they allegedly included nudity. As I was a Facebook friend of Brooke's at the time, I watched the subsequent events play out first hand. In response to these reports, Facebook removed the pictures. Because they don't actually include any nudity (seriously, go back and look at them and try to find any nudity in those photos), Brooke reposted them, whereupon they were reported again and removed. Brooke attempted to locate contact information so she could speak with a Facebook representative and find out what about them supposedly violated the terms of service. However, Facebook has made it essentially impossible to locate any contact information by the simple expedient of not actually providing any other than a completely generic "contact technical support" e-mail system that requires the use of an extensive checklist that actually doesn't allow for asking questions about reported photos, or protesting the decision to remove photos that allegedly violate Facebook's terms of service. Facebook claims that a member of their staff reviews complaints about photos to determine if the complaints are valid before removing them, but this appears not to be the case, as one of Brooke's photos that was reported and removed for nudity was a picture of Bella, her dog. After her photos were repeatedly falsely reported for nudity, her Facebook profile was summarily deleted for violating the terms of service. The Facebook profiles of both Mika Tan and Bunny Love, two other women who have appeared on Cathouse, suffered similar fates.

So what is the point? Well, the immediate point is that Facebook treated these very nice women quite shabbily. But the larger point is that Facebook was able to do what it did, and shunt these women off of the social media center of the universe based upon false information, without giving them an opportunity to be heard or appeal the decisions that were made concerning their content. In fact, it seems that Facebook has made it impossible to contest or even get an explanation for the decisions made in matters like these. Making matters worse, Facebook's reporting system is completely anonymous, so anyone can submit a false report complaining about another user without revealing their identity, or without any fear of any possible negative consequence. In effect, we have willingly and cheerfully turned over control of our social address book, our photo albums, our home movies, and our ability to communicate with our friends, to an entity that reserves the right to snuff all of that out on, essentially, the whim of an angry anonymous jerk with an axe to grind. This is most obvious in the case of Brooke and the other bunnies, because they are polarizing figures to a certain extent, as many people have a prejudice against them because of their perfectly legal profession. But what should concern the rest of us is that everyone is susceptible to this sort of treatment. That jerk of a neighbor who is angry with you because he thinks your patio is ugly doesn't need to take any real effort now to get petty revenge. All he has to do is search for your Facebook profile and begin reporting you for posting nude photos, even if there isn't any nudity at all in them. And Facebook doesn't care that they are being used as a vehicle for personal vendettas, they just don't have to care. After all, who is going to make them care? And we have put Facebook in the position to be able to do this by flocking to them in droves. Just as fascism would come wrapped in a flag and waving a cross, the megacorporation seems set to take over our lives with a happy facade and the promise of an address book full of friends. If a cyberpunk dystopia comes about, it will be because we cheerfully made it come about by putting the megacorporations in control so we could play Farmville and Bejeweled Blitz with our friends.

Special thanks to the beautiful and gracious Brooke Taylor for agreeing to allow me to use the disputed pictures as examples for this blog post. As a side note, both Brooke Taylor and Mika Tan have new Facebook profiles, but both have decided to limit their Facebook involvement on the grounds that their new profiles might suffer the same fate as their previous ones. As of this date, Bunny Love has not created a new Facebook profile.

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