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November 2004 Archives

November 27, 2004

Weber & Flint - Crown of Slaves

David Weber & Eric Flint
Crown of Slaves
Riverdale, NY : Baen ; New York :
Distributed by Simon & Schuster, c2003.

I read this a few weeks ago, but forgot to blog it at the time. This is space opera in the Honorverse, Weber's multi-volume space opera saga with homage to Horatio Hornblower. Flint has co-author credit, created several of the main characters in earlier short stories set in Weber's Honorverse, and gives his usual left-socialist spin to a genre dominated by military-libertarians. It helps.

I am not sure which of the two came up with the name for the escaped genetic slave, political scientist, and pocket genius who serves crucial plot roles at the beginning and end of the novel, but it is one of the best names in all of fiction. I actually re-read the book because I wanted to re-read his sections. What is this name? Our fugitive slave, when faced with immigration authorities and facing the need to replace his original 14-character alphanumeric with a real name combined his two favorite fighters for freedom to come up with WEB du Havel. The WEB quickly became Web, for it only indirectly signifies William Edward Burghardt. Still, I was greatly amused by the notion that, 800 years into the future, Du Bois and Havel would be the great resounding names.

For the rest, this is a pretty good thriller, with a plot that reminded me of the 1970s Bond movies where James Bond and the Russians combine to fight random evil meanies. Still, Weber and Flint make it work, at least to the extent that, at any given point in the plot, all of the characters have a reasonable reason to act as they do. As a result the plot holes are minimal - something that readers of both authors' fiction have come to expect. The plot ends with (and this is not a spoiler for it is heavily foreshadowed, including in the title) a perfectly reasonable explanation for that plot absurdity so beloved by fantasy authors and George Lucas, a freely chosen teenage queen ruling over an entire planet.

I think this is one of the best of the books in the Honorverse, if only because it moves away from Honor Harrington herself - superwoman can get boring. I certainly liked it much better than War of Honor, the book immediately before it, but then War of Honor is a book devoted to taking the resolved problems of the previous series and re-starting the eternal war so that the readers can get more books and more spaceship battles. War of Honor left me mad at the characters for making bad decisions, and mad at the author for refusing to resolve the old crisis - like a play with an extraneous fourth act, or a D&D campaign where the MaGuffin gets plucked away after months of gaming, or ASOIF when someone who you thought was a main character gets killed, War of Honor left me feeling manipulated and frustrated. So, it was a good book for it induced emotion, but it was not a book I will care to re-read. Crown of Slaves despite having its own complexities is, while not feel-good fiction, still something where you turn the last page and put down the book feeling hopeful about the human condition.

The human condition is perilous yet promising. We should feel cautions but hopeful, for any other route is the road to despair. War of Honor heads on that road, while Crown of Slaves suggests several side-paths that lead to far more promising destinations.

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Red Ted
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November 22, 2004

Heinlein - Door Into Summer

Robert A. Heinlein
"The Door Into Summer"
A Heinlein trio
Garden City, N.Y. : Nelson Doubleday, Inc., c1957.

I actually grabbed this Heinlein collection from the library shelves because I wanted to re-read "Door Into Summer." I last read it many many moons ago, when I was a teenager, and all I remembered was the cat who during bad weather went around to every door or window in the house asking to be let out into summer. Our old orange tabby did the same thing, for surely one of the various doors in the house must let him out where he can do his business without risking local frostbite.

When I re-read the story last week I was surprised, twice over. I had forgotten just how dated the story was - the hero is a 1950s uber-engineer who designs clever things and re-makes the world with a drafting board and a machine shop. The other surprise was that his world-changing inventions are household cleaning robots, mechanizing housework so as to free women from bondage and toil.

Heinlein has been praised as a feminist and condemned for being a sexist, both for the same reason. His female characters are all strong-willed and articulate; they know what they want and they go for it. His female characters, and his male characters in response, define themselves by their sexuality, often doing so to the point where the mind and the will are eclipsed by the body. (Not that that ever happens to us.)

Thus Door's core premise is that women do housework, and that the male engineer will save them from their fate and free them to do more productive things. In addition our hero is betrayed by his fiancee and then devotes himself through a complex plot involving cryogenic storage, time travel, and a willing-ness to help himself out of a jam so that he can finally marry the girl of his dreams -- a woman who is both strong willed and who puts her will to the purpose of supporting our hero. The engineers are all male; Heinlein imagines a world with a gendered division of labor as strong as anything in the 1920s, but the energy and drive that make the inventions into components of social change comes from men and women alike.

The 1950s were an odd time for gender roles, and Heinlein was doing one of the things that science fiction does best - take an aspect of contemporary society out of context and explore the implications of our assumptions. Thus in an era which was both seeing more women re-enter the workforce and seeing housework and parenting extolled as the only acceptable role for women to play, it is not surprising that Heinlein dug into the assumptions about what women should do and how they should do it.

It is a little surprising that he imagines a future 30 years in advance where women are freed from drudgery but women are not professionals, designers, or inventers, but there too we see the paradox of science fiction. When we take a part of our society out, turn it around and dig into its assumptions, we often stop and mount our dissected social segment in a display case that is made up of the rest of the elements of the author's original society. The future is an alien world, more alien than the past, and if we are looking at one or two ideas and telling a pulp story, then that is enough for any one work of speculative fiction.

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Red Ted
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November 18, 2004

Heinlein - Double Star

Robert A. Heinlein
"Double Star"
A Heinlein trio
Garden City, N.Y. : Nelson Doubleday, Inc., c1957.

Double Star is my favorite RAH novella. I grabbed this trilogy because I wanted to re-read it, and because I wanted to re-read "Door Into Summer." As expected, I liked this one better.

The premise is simple, the characters are all capable, and the prose is good by pulp standards. Our hero, the Great Lorenzo, is an incredibly talented actor who is flat broke and out of work. Once we accept that premise, the rest follows. Lorenzo is approached by some spacemen who want him to do a job, he accepts and then discovers that he is to impersonate a politician who MUST be at a certain place at a certain time but who has been abducted to keep him from being there. Lorenzo accepts, and things progress from there. Eventually, Lorenzo ends up taking over for the politician, in the process transforming himself from a purely selfish nebbish to an altruistic and highly effective statesman.

It is an interesting story because it draws on Franklin's notions of self-creation and self-re-invention, a powerful American legend. Lorenzo copies his man so well, studies him so closely, that he begins to write speeches in the man's voice - as he gets better (with the man's edits after he is retrieved but the impersonation goes on) he gets closer and closer to the man's voice.

I was reminded of Sheila O'Malley as I read this - here is the imagined love child of Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplin, a highly skilled practitioner of the art of acting and stagecraft who works through, effectively, becoming his character. He did that on the stage, he does it to disguise himself in the second scene, and he does it in spades while becoming the statesman.

This is a story of becoming, a bildungsroman about an adult going through a second chrysalis.

Oh, and it is set in a solar system with Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and an interstellar Constitutional Monarchy where government is through an elected parliament while the head of state for the solar system is the head of the House of Orange. You gotta like fiction where Holland rules the solar system.

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Red Ted
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November 13, 2004

Leonard - Tishomingo Blues

Elmore Leonard
Tishomingo blues [sound recording]
Performed by Frank Muller.

Elmore Leonard reminds me of Dick Francis. Both write compelling middlebrow thrillers. Both create interesting characters. Both have a knack for displaying characters and their personalities by dialogue. And both make very good audiobooks.

Tishomingo blues is a nice little story, moving along and with some interesting if slightly thin and slightly grotesque characters. By this last I mean that some trait or personality is drawn out, magnified, and used to stand for the whole. So we have Charley Hoke, who ALWAYS talks about his "18 years in organized baseball" or Newton Hoon, who ALWAYS has tobacco juice staining his beard, and so on. Still, that approach to characters works so long as the words are entertaining and the plot moves along, and this is an entertaining little book.

I liked it. I will look for more Leonard audiobooks.

Oh, and as always the narrator makes or breaks an audiobook. Muller does a wonderful job with his characters, capturing the varieties of Southern accent, putting the cool in the cool character's voice, and creating a world of sound in which the characters go about their appointed rounds, all of them grotesque, but all of them true to their genre.

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Red Ted
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Delderfield - A Horseman Riding By

R. F. (Ronald Frederick)Delderfield
A horseman riding by
New York : Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Delderfield writes great long books about England. In his best work he celebrates the quiet heroism of daily life - as for example in The Avenue where a batch of suburban families get by during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He wrote a lot of stuff, mostly during the middle of the 20th century, and it is all pretty good middlebrow fiction, with dashes of sentimentalism.

A Horseman Rides By takes this approach to the Devon countryside between the Boer War and 1940, with our hero a man with a highly convenient source of outside money who buys a valley and sets him self up as a squire. We meet Paul as he is invalided after being shot in the knee in the Boer War. We leave him watching the coasts in 1940, and in between are almost a thousand pages of conversation, love of the land, and the benevolent squire trying to bring rural agriculture into a meaningful modern era. Delderfield is a conservative in the true Burkean sense - his characters may have radical or even socialist sympathies, but Delderfield himself celebrates tradition and continuity and argues that any meaningful future must respect the past.

It was 700 pages of good reading and 200 pages of plugging along so I could finish.

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Red Ted
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November 10, 2004

Asaro - Quantum Rose

Catherine Asaro
The Quantum Rose

But it is such a GOOD formula.

Actually, I am being unfair to Asaro. Her books do not follow a plot formula, although they do follow a situation formula. But then, when you combine romance plots, high energy physics, and telepathy you don't really mind the repetitive situations.

Telepath meets telepath, they fall in love, they struggle against the bloody politics of an interstellar war, something good happens, something bad happens, the end. There is a LOT of room for variety in that, both in characters and in actions, and as a result Asaro's books all feel alike but are all distinctive and very readable.

I liked this one. I won't get into the details, other than to say that it moved along and it made me think. I was highly amused by her afterward, however, where she explains her plot and chapter titles in the quantum language of partical interaction, with free radicals disrupting bonded pairs, particles forming attractions for one another, and so on.

Smart chicks are sexy. But you knew that.

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Red Ted
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November 09, 2004

Warren - The Two-Income Trap

Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi.
The two-income trap : why middle-class mothers and fathers are going broke
New York : Basic Books, c2003

I skimmed this more than reading it, but it was enough to get the gist of it.

Warren is making a public policy argument based on the structural difficulties that she sees the middle class (defined by achievement, not wealth or income) facing.

As she points out, the best statistical indicator that a woman will file bankruptcy is that she has kids - about one in seven. Why? She argues that middle class families have been stuck trying to reproduce their class status for their children. They do this by looking for good schools, and in the U.S. schools are tied to location. As a result, middle class families bid up the price of housing in neighborhoods with good schools. And, over the last 20 years or so, more women have gone into the workforce and their paychecks, by and large, have gone not for savings, not for extra consumption, not for quality of life, not for building a safety net, but for raising the stakes in the educational bidding war.

How to get out of this trap? She suggests that public school vouchers, basically unbundling school attendance from residency, would make it impossible for families to get into bidding wars for houses in good districts.

I am not so sure. I know that on the collegiate level, when there was a strong demand for good colleges, colleges responded by going upscale. Duke used to be a nothing, now it is a very good school, largely because people demanded better schools. The same pattern continues all over the place - look at Temple University in Philadelphia, or Washington University in St. Louis, or the University of Cincinatti, all of which are engaged in a systematic attempt to upgrade their academics in order to appeal to students (and their families) who want a better education.

Will we see something similar on a local level? I know that we bought a house in a town with pretty good schools. They were not the best, we could not afford the best, but they were good schools with a tradition of college prep. The next town over has elementary schools that are about as good, but the high school only sends about half its students to college. If we had joined in the upscaling of the next town, and stayed there 16 years, then we would almost certainly have been sending our kids to a high school that DID send its graduates to college. Parental pressure leads to better schools. Parents bidding up home prices makes property taxes yield more, and that leads to better-funded schools (an aside, the biggest difference between Philadelphia's terrible schools and its suburbs wonderful schools is that the suburbs spend about twice as much per student as the city does - money does matter.)

However, Warren's piece does get me thinking about the nature of the housing bubble, especially when compared to those cartograms that have been floating around after the election. A LOT of people live on the coasts. Property values are going up along the coasts. The coasts tend to have better educated populations - Texas v. Massachusetts is a telling comparison - and by implication have parents who are trying to get their kids into better schools.

I wonder to what extent the housing bubble in the coastal markets is linked to the tradition of good public education in the coastal states, while the lack of a bubble in the South is linked to the post-Brown post-school prayer decision by the bulk of the Southern middle class to move their kids to private Christian schools.

I suspect that the data won't back that assumption, that the Southern tendency to underfund education was strong before Brown and the school prayer cases and remains strong today - Alabama recently voted to chase Mexico to the bottom - but Warren does get me thinking about the interlinked consequences of housing and education.

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Red Ted
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Alexie - Toughest Indian

Sherman Alexie
The toughest Indian in the world : stories
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.

This is a book of short stories.

I am not familiar with the conventions and expectations of the modern high fiction short story. I read a couple of these, and they were Lincoln good: if you are the sort of person who likes that sort of a thing, then that is exactly the sort of thing that you would like.

I did not finish it.

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Red Ted
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