segunda-feira, julho 31, 2000

Lobstered Steel: "A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin


(My own copy)


In the time that's elapsed since the first book was released Shakespeare managed:

Henry VI, Part 2 (1590–1591)

Henry VI, Part 3 (1590–1591)

Henry VI, Part 1 (1591–1592)

Richard III (1592–1593)

The Comedy of Errors (1592–1593)

Titus Andronicus (1593–1594)

The Taming of the Shrew (1593–1594)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594–1595)

Love's Labour's Lost (1594–1595)

Romeo and Juliet (1594–1595)

Richard II (1595–1596)

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–1596)

King John (1596–1597)

The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597)

Henry IV, Part 1 (1597–1598)

Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–1598)

Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)

Henry V (1598–1599)

Julius Caesar (1599–1600)

As You Like It (1599–1600)

Twelfth Night (1599–1600)

Hamlet (1600–1601)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600–1601)

Troilus and Cressida (1601–1602)

All's Well That Ends Well (1602–1603)

Measure for Measure (1604–1605)

Othello (1604–1605)

King Lear (1605–1606)

Macbeth (1605–1606)

Antony and Cleopatra (1606–1607)

Coriolanus (1607–1608)

Timon of Athens (1607–1608)

Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608–1609)

Cymbeline (1609–1610)

The Winter's Tale (1610–1611)

PS. There was no Netflix in those days. Or even an EU which people worked out their inadequacies with, by pretending to hate while not understanding it.

(Bought in 1997)


Three things that have niggled me about these novels.

One: A league equates to three miles (though there are many variations on the definition of the term). GRRM seems to be under the impression that it signifies a measure of distance much shorter than a mile, which presumably is why he frequently writes of characters or locations being a thousand leagues away which in the real world would equate to the distance between the North Pole and Malaga, when he clearly intends a distance of some hundreds of miles;

Two: Keeps. GRRM frequently, vaguely, refers to castles as having multiple towers and keeps, apparently blithely unaware that the keep was the largest structure and the highest point in a castle, and that therefore in any castle (well, apart from one prominent example in France) there was only ever one keep in any one castle, not lots of them;

Three: Lobstered steel. He frequently uses this adjective - which he seems to have invented - to refer to the finely segmented overlapping armour plates used in expensive suits of armour to protect the lesser, smaller areas such as the joints, where a lot of small plates would have been needed to ensure protection as well as flexibility.

George The word is 'loricated'. You could have googled it. Really.

Alright . Rant over. Those are trivial quibbles I concede.

terça-feira, julho 25, 2000

Painting on a Small Canvas: "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen

(My own copy)


"Here's harmony!" said she; "here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here's what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene."

In “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen



Many eons ago I was reading Austen's "Mansfield Park" in high school when the leader of a group of teenagers commented on the "puff with the specs reading girlie books." I paid him no mind at that particular moment. I waited till I could catch him alone in the playground without his bunch of cronies around him. I asked him then if he'd care to repeat what he'd said before. He said he didn't. The old adage you can't judge a book by its cover surely applies to the title as well. What's next? Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" should only appeal to paedophiles? "Animal Farm" to sheep-shaggers (or more accurately pig-shaggers). Such immature, hating comments belong in the 1970s.

My favourite books? "Jane Eyre", "Madame Bovary" and "Sister Wendy's Book of Saints" are in my top 100. And, yes, I am male. And yes, I would happily walk into a crowded bookshop and order the aforementioned books without feeling emasculated. Personally I am not sure the supposed "girly" title of a book has ever made me sneak up to the counter ashamedly to buy the book, nor has an overtly "mannish" title made be puff out my chest and slam in down on the counter. It seems a long time ago now since such base gender divisions have mattered. With the rise of the metro-sexual,  moisturising cream and Russell Brand dictating what half of London wears, I just can't think that a lot of modern men would be concerned by a title such as "Persuasion", or "Emma". Not enough to not consider reading past the title and at least having a glance at the back cover anyhow. If I think back, I was never embarrassed to read a "girly" title on the tube and they were the formative years of my teens. However, at the time, I also had long hair, Doc Martens and listened to Queensrÿche.   

I am man. I eat meat, sleep and breed. I don't like pink and I don't like art galleries. I like football. - We don't all think like this, just a few men but don't worry these men don't read books, they read glossy magazines at the dentist. So next time someone grunts when you offer him two titles, don't entertain his masculinity - he'll only like that. Instead point him to the magazine rack. There'll he can read Zoo to his hearts content.

To see Jane Austen's novel as romantic rubbish is pretty short-sighted. On the surface some readers may be right but what she really was writing about was the society she lived in and how it worked. It's a depiction of her reality and in many instances, and it's also critique of that world. Not in your face but most her novels have a strong ironic tone. She wrote novels of behaviour and about society in the early 1800s. People misunderstand her books because she paints on such a small canvas. It's like comparing a jewelled miniature by Nicholas Hilliard to a huge Titian canvas, full of life and swagger. The small scale makes it easy to overlook things or to misunderstand them, but in fact there's an awful lot more going on in an Austen book than meets the casual eye. I like Fanny Price, although she's not a character I'd like to have a cuppa with but a great one to read about. I always admired her for refusing Henry Crawford without spilling the beans. Fanny Price is not "prim". Repressed and dutiful certainly. There is a different word beginning with "p" that describes her to a tee: petrified. She knows she isn't a full member of the family, hence her repression and dutifulness, and at all times feels and is made to feel that she could be dismissed back to her parents' over full house at a moments notice. That is why I believe she opposes and is expected to oppose the staging of the play while her uncle is away. In a sense she has been trained to be the guardian, governess and companion but never the full complete member of the household. Emma, though is a prize cow, a big fish in a little pond and I always skip her in my annual Jane Austen re-read.

NB: I like football. But I'm a rugger at heart.

quinta-feira, julho 20, 2000

Good Back-in-the-Day-SF: "Telzey Amberdon" by James H. Schmitz

(My own copy)


A lot of very readable and entertaining SF is grounded in Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A character who pops what looks like an aspirin tablet into what looks like a microwave and then retrieves and eats a vindaloo is behaving as realistically as I am when I order a pizza. If the character then steps into a time machine, he or she needn't know any more about how it works than I need to know what really happens when I turn on the lights. In fact, I'd worry about the success of a book that said "Gwen's knowledge of farming and baking enabled her to eat a pizza, and since she understood the principles of electrical transmission, she was able to eat it with the lights on." If anything, I think that too many SF books try to explain made up science that their characters, if real, would probably just take for granted.

Some of the best Golden Age writers sometimes had little formal education; on the other hand, we fail to recognise that some of the best SF writing is not very technical at all (not exactly Vintage SF, but “Neuromancer” springs to mind.) I'm thinking here of the likes of Philip K. Dick, or Walter M. Miller, who tried to make philosophical points about humanity and our past and future without alienating readers with scientific mumbo jumbo. The technocratic side of SF is all well and good, but it isn't the whole story either. Remember the Telzey series anyone? I believe only SF geeks would have heard about Telzey and Trigger! I still have most of my collection of Analog Science Fact and Fiction (plus earlier Amazing Stories). Every so often I get a period when I re-read them - all. Analog’s stories were NOT all about Aliens. Lots of them postulated other "social" systems (usually that had gone or were going wrong; Poul Anderson, and Christopher Anvil spring to mind.) Or "studies" in human reactions under odd stresses (deep dive I think it was called), Or just a modernized version of "detective" type novels. Some were just funny. But thinking about it, it was all very morally prim and proper, apart from the cigarettes. After a bit the BEMs got a bit boring (bug-eyed monsters), and see one teleporter, transmogrifier or faster than even light, and you have seen them all. As it was the actual story that counted (don't seem to remember LEDs, but "cold light was mentioned several times though). Was it blasé even at the time? Not sure. Science HAS come up with most of the things mentioned on “Star Trek as I pointed out somewhere else. But maybe the difference is between the "written" versions and film, the latter being less imaginative at first (for the spectator). Modern Film SF has at least progressed from Flash Gordon to Avatar, with only small stops for the X-men and other "ordinary kids from the neighborhood".

(Bought in 2000)

Some of my reading buddies question me: should I read stuff like this? There’s so many Nabokovs out there to re-read they imply...this begs the question: "Should SF do more than entertain?" This headline conjures up for me some soberly dressed parson with a cane intent on making sure your art only Serves God - or an ideologue with an AK-47 ensuring it only Serves The Party. No. There is a place for candy (or fruits), and a place for meat and potatoes (or whatever your preferred protein source). We must trust readers to balance their diets with select servings from all the food groups, not stand over them demanding political correctness in their choices. This trust must be extended to writers as well. If I want to write a mindless sitcom I should have that right. If I want to read Telzey (“Telzey Amberdon”) or Trigger Argee (“T'nT: Telzey and Trigger”) rather then reading a Nabokov’s book I will. Schmitz was one of the first Golden Age writers to depict “strong female characters” in his novels, which was virtually unheard of for SF of the time; it's also great to have these stories back in print and in order; I remember well my confusion in the 80s as I tried to sort this out from the previous books. The truth of this hinges on “Better”. Not everyone agrees on what is “Better”. Some may focus on the style of a story, the paint strokes and chiaroscuro and such. Some may focus on the substance conveyed by the style, the "painted" seen THROUGH the window of the "painting". Others, sometimes, just want a mindless SF romp!

Telzey and Trigger rule! These two cut a swathe through the bad guys of the Hub worlds like no other. If you want badass female characters from Back-in-the-Day-SF, Telzey and Trigger deliver! (I love using exclamation points even when the purists say they’re a big no-no!)

Anyway, we are still screwed up when we have: on my right - the climate change and science deniers, Even further right - the arms industry, GM foods and TSA databases from body scanners, and right off the chart financial CDO's, Flash crashes and stuxnets. Most of that is REAL-fi.

More importantly: we still don't really know what is at the bottom of the ocean.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, julho 10, 2000

Plot Twists Galore: "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown


(My own copy)


Poor old Dan Brown. He does get a bit of stick. They say he writes silly, brainless stories told in a way appropriate for telling silly, brainless stories. With three thousand or so plot twists. In fact, my friends say, one cannot even call Dan Brown's novels stories - they're just collections of plot twists. By the end it really gets (unintentionally) hilarious - one twist and then another and another AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER!!!, and you feel like a cat trapped in a washing machine. But fortunately unlike the cat you have the power to stop the ludicrous infantile spinning and just drop the book.

A lot of it's deserved. His writing, especially in The Da Vinci Code and - even more - The Lost Symbol, is atrocious. The second sentence of the latter is something like (this is from memory) "The 34-year-old cult initiate lifted the bowl of blood-red wine to his lips," which I'm not even going to start on because we'd be here all day. And, of course, he seems to research his books by spending ten minutes looking up conspiracy theories on Google. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code mainly by supposing it to be set in some kind of parallel universe where serious scholars of church history really do think that Jesus begat the Merovingian dynasty (or whatever it was). Brown mistakes conspiracy nonsense for genuine academic work, which is a pretty massive mistake to make. But - but! - all of the fashionable Dan Brown bashing, while undeniably deserved, overlooks what's great about his work. The fact is that the man knows how to tell a story. The Da Vinci Code became a phenomenon because, for all the dreadful wordsmithing and worse research, it's a brilliant story told brilliantly. It captivates from the first chapter and holds you all the way through. And a thriller of this kind is not easy to write. In fact, it's very, very hard to do it well. Dan Brown does it very, very well, and his success reflects that.

I read one of his earlier books, Deception Point, a little while ago - it was published to moderate success before he hit the real big time. And not only is it (again) a very well plotted thriller, but it's considerably better written than his later, better-known books - it ain't great literature but the prose is perfectly serviceable. Yes, Dan Brown can actually write, when he makes the effort.

So, yes, he's no Dante. Yes, he is in some ways dreadful. And, yes, you'd probably be better off reading Dante than Dan if you have to choose (and I say that as someone who, alas, has read Dante several times). But why choose? There's room in the world for both, and if you're one of those who don't enjoy Dan, lay off him a bit. There are worse people in the world.

sexta-feira, julho 07, 2000

The De-fanging of Menfolk: "The Woodlanders" by Thomas Hardy




Another Hardy character to rival Sue Bridehead in emotional complexity is, I feel, Grace Melbury in The Woodlanders. Grace is the young country girl sent away by her vain and ambitious father to be educated and refined and when she returns we see how the natural order of a small rural community is irrevocably turned upside down as a result. Hardy explores the impact of education and money on Grace and the way these influences affect those around her. Grace is forced by her control-freak of a father to marry the middle-class philanderer Edred Fitzpiers, and thus reject the young local man whom she had expected to marry - the taciturn woodlander, Giles Winterbourne, who 'looked and smelt like Autumn's very brother'. Grace's marriage to Fitzpiers is a disaster which leads to the normal order being drastically altered. Grace's development is handled with remarkable sensitivity and shrewdness by Hardy. Unable to secure a divorce from Fitzpiers, Grace reaches an accommodating agreement on her own terms. In her journey she has been alternately on the receiving end of a controlling parent, an abusive husband and the adoring Winterbourne who effectively sacrifices his life for her.

During her emotional development, Grace, I believe, finds physical and emotional comfort with her rival, Felice Charmond, in an unusual encounter which hints at a higher form of human affection than the 'conventional' heterosexual trysts elsewhere (notably Fitzpiers' seduction of the buxom Suke Damson). As they take shelter from the threatening forest, Grace is en-wrapped in the arms of one who needs her and trusts her implicitly. Does Hardy show Grace gaining more emotional fulfillment with those of her own sex? The possibilities are couched in the literary mores of the day but tantalisingly glimpsed all the same. This is a book which I believe challenges sexual conventions - where Hardy shows the hidden depths and complexities of human sexuality; where easy sexual labels are replaced by the 'sublimity...loftier quality of abstract humanism.'

I don't think Grace elicits the reader's sympathy in the way that Sue Bridehead does. The link between the two is the burgeoning conflict between their social status, their acquired education and the messy business of human sexuality. Grace certainly doesn't exude sex appeal and Giles, to his tragic cost, remains in love with the ideal of her girlhood. He cannot love this newly discovered flesh and blood although a forlorn encounter between the two sees him awaken to her sexually in a brief gesture that strikes against her recently gained superiority.

Grace, I feel, isn't even a very likable character but there is something tough and ineluctably modern in the woman she becomes - the de-fanging of her menfolk in different ways - the overbearing father cast adrift, the errant husband brought to heel and the romantic lover of her youth consigned to the grave. Underneath the coy exterior is a complex human being whom Hardy lets us glimpse but who cannot be boxed in any certainties.