Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nine Black Doves, by Roger Zelazny (short works)

The full title of this book is The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 5: Nine Black Doves. It is volume five of the wonderful six-volume set that NESFA Press did a few years ago, collecting nearly all of Zelaznys short fiction, poetry, and short non-fiction writings. I picked up the entire set when it was released in 2009, skimmed through hitting my favorites, and have been returning to it occasionally to read one cover to cover.

Roger Zelazny was one of the best fantasy and science-fiction writers of the second half of the 20th century. A number of his novels remain in print, but his shorter works are getting harder and harder to find. Thats a damned shame, as his best short stories and novellas compare well the novels. I have been holding onto tattered paperbacks of them over the years, and have been very happy to replace and expand them as volumes were released.

The works in this volume are all from the last third of his career. They tend to be a bit longer than the earlier ones. A number of them were written as supplements and illustrations to other works or were later incorporated into novels. Theres nothing in this volume with the incredible impact of “Comes Now The Power” (volume 2) or A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (volume 1), but Permafrost and “24 Views of Mount Fuji by Hosaku belong in anyones list of best Zelazny works. Further, this book contains a number of pieces that Zelazny wrote for other writers series, including the Croyd Crenson stories for George R. R. MartinWild Cards series and Mana From Heaven for Larry Nivens The Magic May Return. In both cases, the Zelazny pieces were highlights of the original collections, and they read surprisingly well in isolation from the original series.

Each story is followed by comments from Zelazny when appropriate ones could be found, and some brief comments by the editors about things referenced in the story. The Zelazny comments are usually at least interesting, the editorial remarks less so and can usually be skipped without loss.

Each volume also has a number of Zelaznys poems, articles, scripts, novel and film proposals, and so forth. Zelazny was never one of my favorite poets, but the rest are almost always interesting and often give you additional insights into other works or things planned but never finished about his serials. Theyre worth reading, but on their own are not interesting enough to buy the book for.

Ultimately you want this and the other volumes for Zelaznys fiction. On that point, the only downside is that there is a lot of minor Zelazny in each volume. NESFA could have made an excellent ‘best of’ collection out of two volumes this size, but Im very pleased that they resisted the temptation. Even minor Zelazny shorts are better than most current writers, and merely good Zelazny suffers only by comparison to his best.

This and the other five collections are available only from NESFA Press in these high-quality hardbacks at $29.00 each. Theyre well worth the price for acid-free archive-quality editions, and the matched set with overlapping dust-jacket illustrations looks as good on the shelf as they read in the hand. Recommended.

An Anathem for Neal Stephenson's Anathem (novel)

I enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Anathem hugely the first time I read it. In some ways it was typical Stephenson, but the science-fictional setting and the more speculative ideas made for a more fanciful and more interesting story. On finishing the book, I mentally marked it for a re-read and put it away. Late last year I re-read his The Diamond Age, and that led to a re-reading of Anathem. Going into those re-reads my opinion was that those two are his best novels, and the re-reads did nothing to change that. If you’ve not read Stephenson and want something both enjoyable and representative of his work, Anathem and The Diamond Age are the places to start.

The second readings of both books were more leisurely and more attentive than the first ones. As such, they revealed more about the strengths and weaknesses of the story and of Stephenson in general. I’ll have more to say in a later essay about Stephenson in general; here I’m going to focus on Anathem.

Plot and background synopsis: On Arbre, mathematics and philosophy are the domain of the ‘avout’, the cloistered brothers and sisters of the Maths. There they preserve and extend knowledge of mathematics and philosophy, with few direct applications to the outside use of ‘praxis’ (technology). Fraa (brother) Erasmus is a young man in one the oldest ‘concents’, approaching adulthood and considering which specialty he will choose when the time arrives. He is a Tenner, one of a group that meets with the ‘extramuros’ (outside world) only a few days every ten years. Shortly after that ‘apert’, events occur which literally change the world, forcing the Avout and the the ‘Saecular Powers’ to work together to deal with the extraordinary circumstances that are arising. To say more would be spoilers, but this should give you a feel for where Stephenson is going both with the language and the background. The story itself hangs on both.

Like all Stephenson, Anathem is a novel of ideas. Unlike most other Stephenson, the ideas here are more speculative and more subversive. That subversion is improved and made more subtle by the vocabulary Stephenson uses. Aubre is not Earth, past or present. Its concepts and organizations have names that may lead you to think they are direct analogs to something in our world, but they are not. The title is a good example. On Aubre, the word is ‘anathem’ is a synonym both for ‘anathema’ and for ‘anthem.’ Stephenson doesn’t merge the two without reason, but saying more would push into the realm of spoilers. As such, the reader is never sure about the casual usage of a number of words which at first seem to be simple analogs for things we are familiar with, but underneath have distinct and often critical differences. The book comes with a glossary, but the meanings shouldn’t be taken any more literally than the rest of the book. Look for the context, listen to what Erasmus tells you, and bear in mind that he is very young and usually quite naive.

In Anathem the primary ideas presented are in mathematics, geometry, and philosophy. Stephenson present them in interesting but discursive discussions, and lectures. That makes Anathem a very talky book. There is scene after scene where two to many characters talk things over and argue about how the events may be related to the theories. Erasmus is a good viewpoint for this, as everyone seems to want to educate or persuade him in one way or another. If you find the topics interesting (and I did), you’ll enjoy these moments. If not, you might be tempted to skip over them looking for the plot. My advice - skim, but don’t skip. Anathem is typical Stephenson on this point. Some of the discursions are simply that, Stephenson teaching you a bit about geometry, mathematics and philosophy. He does that very well, and even the most discursive discussions are well-presented and interesting. But sometimes he actually laying groundwork for your understanding of critical points later in the book. If you skip them completely, you’ll find yourself completely lost about critical plot points. And boy, there are some big and fun plot points in there. The re-read made them clearer, and the novel hung together better the second time around.

But I won’t be reading it again, because the re-read also pointed up just how weak Stephenson is on some things. Erasmus is acted upon far more than he acts, and those actions often take place off-stage. In fact, many hugely important things take place off-stage, with Erasmus being told about them after the fact. Other things seem to have no purpose whatever except for Erasmus to wander around looking at interesting things. And yes, they are interesting things to look at, but could we get there in a less contrived fashion?

Finally, the characters are just flat. This is forgivable in that Anathem is a novel of ideas, but it’s downright painful at times. It’s a good thing that most characters have very distinctive names, because you’re not going to remember much about their personalities.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eight Pounds

The 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley's Little, Big is a labor of love. It's a subscription project, where early supporters paid up front but don't get a copy until the project completes. I subscribed long ago and have been waiting mostly patiently since then. It is finally approaching completion, with publication expected late spring or early summer. There are still copies available, if you're curious.

Today I was rummaging through the web site for any status updates and noticed this data point: the finished edition is estimated to weigh just under 8 pounds. That seemed like a large number for a book of 750 or so pages. So I took a copy of Anathem and weighed it. That 1000-page hardback with reasonably good paper came to three pounds, 14.5 ounces. Little, Big will be eight pounds.

Eight pounds for a book about 3/4 the page count of Anathem.

Eight pounds.

I'm almost frightened.

Eight pounds.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A brief parable on cloud computing.

Cloud computing. Was anything ever more attractively named? Nobody knows what it means, but it sure sounds modern. So vendors take their products, insert ‘cloud’ into the name, and make new sales materials. Look, we're up to date!

The customer execs think it's the wave of the future, because their fellow execs all read it in the trade press and the vendor materials. Hey, we should do that. Leave the details to the techies, what us leaders need to do is point the way. March into the clouds, folks!

The vendor salesmen love how undefined it is. Everybody sees what they want - fluffy bunnies, ponies, trees, and so fort. They're bright, and pretty, and out of reach. Don't see what you want? Wait a minute, it'll come along. Look, there it is! Quick, write a check.

Clouds cast big shadows, and everybody is affected by them. Periodically they rain, snow, and strike you with lightning. On hot days they disappear, and when they come back your fluffy bunny has morphed into a castle. Well, not a real castle - it won't really defend you from anything. Besides, in a few minute it'll be something else. But hey, you wanted clouds so you could enable rapid change, didn't you? Well, there you are! Not the change you wanted? Quick, write another check.

Migrating your applications to the cloud? Cool! Are they resilient? Do they recover from component failure by going to the next device of the right type? Oh, you'll have to change that. Here, write a check for one of our consultants.

Just move your existing applications? Sorry, the cloud doesn't support COBOL. Or fortran. Or any of the other languages your applications are written in. Or those special non-standard Oracle features you use. Yeah, you'll pretty much have to rewrite everything from scratch to move into the cloud. Train all your people in Java. Oh, they immediately moved to other companies? Go hire some Java programmers. Sure, they can learn your legacy applications and your business in a few days. Quick, write another check.

Performance is slow? That's because your data is all local, you should move it into the cloud. There, now all your data is now up in the cloud with the application. Somewhere. Mostly. If you paid for enough replication. And backup. Quick, write another check.

What, you're out of money? Hey, where did the salesman go? And why did our development staff quit, don't they have any loyalty in hard times?

Then from over the horizon, the sales and marketing guys spot someone else looking for a panacea. “Hey, mister, ever heard of cloud computing?”

Image shamelessly borrowed from SmallBizTechnology which has a nice little article on the topic here.

Monday, February 04, 2013

I have coined a phrase

John Scalzi has recently been poking fun at a racist sexist homophobic dipshit. A group mostly not familiar with either Scalzi or the RSHD heard of it and asked about the root cause. My two-sentence summary concluded by describing RHSD's rants as “pitiful logorrheaic seizures.” “Pitiful logorrheaic seizures.” That phrase is a keeper.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

In praise of Suckerpunch Spicy Ketchup

I’ve been in mourning for the loss of Blanchard Brothers spicy ketchup for years. Unfortunately specialty ketchups have been eclipsed by salsas the last few years, so the candidates for replacing Blanchard Bros have been few and far between.

Suckerpunch Spicy Gourmet Ketchup isn’t Blanchard and Blanchard’s chunky, but it’s pretty darned good. Thus far it has been a fine ketchup on burgers, black bean patties, fried potatoes and onions, and the ultimate test, tater tots. I’ve had this jar for about 2 weeks, and it’s over half gone. One reason is that it’s good enough I keeping making excuses to cook things which would be good with ketchup on them. Yeah. It’s good.

Suckerpunch is quite spicy without being more than mildly hot. After tomatos and green peppers, the ingredients list includes brown sugar, cider vinegar, onion, garlic, jalapeno, and lime juice, and the ever-informative ‘spices.’ You can directly taste all of them in the mix, but the manufacturer has gotten them to sing together rather than be merely an accumulation.

The ketchup itself is anything but chunky, and in fact is downright thin. That makes putting it on a hamburger an invitation to drip, and dammit, I don’t want to miss eating any of this. That thin-ness also means anything dipped in it doesn’t come back with very much ketchup. We’re talking tater tots here (mmm...tater tots), but the same would apply to french fries, onion rings and so forth. (Onion rings. Man, this would be awesome on onion rings.) I spoon the stuff across what I’m eating, but if you do the entire meal’s worth at once the last few items get a bit soggy. Thickening it up for dipping would be nice.

If the Suckerpunch folks are looking for other products, a more Blanchard-like chunky variant would be nice. Blanchard Brothers got a lot of their tang from the vinegar, and they augmented that with an array of spices that had a lot of punch but weren’t in any way hot. The small chunks of tomato, green pepper and onion made for both a nice texture on the tongue and a variety of tastes as you hit one chunk or another.

But that’s all mild carping, downright bland carping when you compare it to the taste of this stuff. Now I need to go to the grocery store and see if they carry Suckerpunch pickles.