Monday, April 30, 2012

My Library: The Barsoom Project

By Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Larry Niven really never lit my pilot. I read a few Ringworld books in addition to this one and I only ever found them to be okay.

I haven't read this one in a while and I have only the faintest desire to reread it. I probably haven't cracked it since I first got it a decade ago. I know when I got it because it still has the sticker from the used book store I found it at. I probably picked it up because I recognized "Barsoom" in the title from Tad Williams's Otherland series. I'll be getting to that when I reach the W's.

So, The Barsoom Project is about LARPing back before LARPing was a thing. Only instead of being something geeks do in the woods, it's big business theme park stuff (it turns out this is the second book in a trilogy). In this case, the LARPers are pretending to be on the Mars of pulp novels of the forties (hence Barsoom) and they're doing so to help raise awareness/funding for a project to colonize Mars. And the daughter of the Ambassador from Space (a space colonist) is there and she's in danger. From, like, terrorists who are seriously anti-space. Oh, and one lady went totally crazy and thought it was real. And had sex.

The book flips back and forth between the LARPers and the folks maintaining the illusion at the park. This makes it a little amusing because it was written in 1989 and, as often happens to speculative fiction, Science Marches On. We have developed way beyond what Niven and Barnes thought would be possible by 2051, and in very different ways.

One of the few things I remember with clarity is that the guy the crazy lady has sex with was a professional wrestler. Not a real wrestler like Neil deGrasse Tyson, a fake one. And he fought with the baculum of an extinct walrus. That's a penis bone.

The Ringworld series was interesting. It's a compromise Dyson sphere. Take the mass of Jupiter and construct a ring of one AU radius and one million miles wide, rotating for artificial gravity. This gives it a surface area three million times that of earth. And, with the addition of a few rockets to keep it from drifting, is metastable. Large blocks orbited closer to the sun to provide shade and divide day into night.

The series is considered a classic of sci-fi and I can see the appeal. With three million earths, you have an unlimited supply of stuff to explore, especially if you limit your people to foot travel. Hell, even if you limit them to 20th century technology any single protagonist will only ever be able to explore a small fraction of the surface and communication would be fairly limited. Niven limited the natives to 18th or 19th century tech and gave his explorers 22nd century tech (hence they whip out the God Guise as soon as they encounter some natives). Still, it's basically a travelogue of strange foreign peoples. After all, with three million earths, you can't expect the native human population to remain one species, can you?

Now that I think back on it, Ringworld actually does sound more interesting than I recall; perhaps I should give Niven another chance. It has been a decade, after all.

Next up: The Constants of Nature by John D Barrow.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Library: Robert Asprin

So Robert Aspirin's an author I was introduced to by my older brother. I don't know where he learned of him. Still, Caleb bought a few of his books in preparation for a long car trip, and I quite enjoyed them; never looked back.

The only problem with Asprin is that he had some trouble with the IRS and he stopped writing for about seven years. When he came back, his first books weren't exactly the same. I still haven't caught up with his work, but his first one back didn't have the same spark; the characters weren't quite right, particularly not since he was writing an interquel to try and get back into the groove. Some of the books that continued some of his series simply are not of a caliber with his earlier work, and some have speculated that a number were almost entirely written by his co-authors (apparently part of his deal with the IRS, or part of his way out from under them, meant that all of his works post-1997 are co-authored), to their detriment.

The Myth Adventure Series
See the pun there? The wordplay? Myth-adventures. Chuckle. Most of the titles of the series (roughly twenty-strong) play on that in some way. "Another Fine Myth" (playing on Laurel and Hardy's "Another Fine Mess"), "Myth Conceptions", "Myth Directions", "Hit or Myth".

The series is fairly standard fantasy fare in its conception; an erstwhile thief training to become a magician gets caught up in a plot to stop another magician from taking over all the dimensions. By the by, Covers Always Lie; the picture above makes a lot of mistakes. The woman should have dusky greenish skin, the demon should be shorter and wider than the blond, and he should also be wearing clothes. However, interesting note, Asprin colluded with one of my favorite artists, Phil Foglio, on a number of occasions, producing comics and the like. Foglio also made several of Asprin's covers, which were much better. Adoration!

The series stays fairly true to its fantasy roots, but rapidly becomes more parodic. Asprin had no qualms about mixing science and magic(k) or modern economics, even. He kept the science low-key, preferring to keep it magickal, but modern soft sciences and crime elements and all that, in a fantasy setting? Fun! And funny. Did I mention the books are funny? Because they are. At one point Skeeve (the main character) is tasked to stop an invading army. The army was hired by the mob. Full on, movies style Cosa Nostra. The mob itself doesn't show up until later books, when they play all the stereotypes to the hilt, including bringing in two ginormous bodyguards named Guido and Nunzio. In exquisitely tailored suits.

This series is among my favorites, and I've read the books I have many times. As I said, I haven't picked up the later ones. A decade-long hiatus followed by a sharp turn in quality turned me off a bit. Still, the guy worked with Phil Foglio, who I adore.

Phule's Company
The incredibly wealthy (as in, he buys corporations on whims) Willard Phule joined the Space Legion (like the foreign legion, but mercenary and basically doing security work), better known for being a place for criminals to run from their past. The first book opens with his court-martial. To be specific, with his first court-martial. He talked a hot shot pilot into strafing a ceremony of peace (their shields were down! And we were under orders to maintain radio silence!), destroying the flagship (the Legion's flagship), all in the time it took the captain to go to the john. The legion, unwilling to punish a man whose father was their chief weapons supplier (Phuleproof Munitions), decided instead to promote him and give him the worst possible command, hoping he'd quit.

Instead, he turns the lowest of the low into the best of the best, and we get a lot of laughs along the way. The first two books, "Phule's Company" and "Phule's Paradise" are really, really good. Unfortunately, this series really got hit hard by Asprin's hiatus and the later books were probably written entirely by Peter Heck. They're not so good.

Time Scout
This series was written entirely after the hiatus. The quality doesn't change sharply, but that mostly means it doesn't start out stellar. Still, it doesn't swerve into the gutter, either. I'm rather fond of it; I put together its TVTropes page. In fact, the description can be lifted whole cloth from the page:

At some time in the recent past, there was The Accident. It caused massive destruction along all the world's coastlines, killing millions. Now it's a World Half Empty, as The Mafia's connections with construction means that they've gotten incredibly rich and powerful during reconstruction of the world's coastal cities. Also, there's the time strings. Shortly after The Accident, mysterious portals began to open, allowing people to step into the past. Only the Time Scouts are crazy enough to step through an unexplored gate, into an unknown and dangerous history. Also, you can't exist in two times at once, adding the risk of Shadowing yourself and dying instantly...

Known as gates and strings, the time portals are now part of a tourism industry. Some gates are owned by private companies, some by the government. There are a number of laws related to the use of the gates and profits thereby.

Set Twenty Minutes into the Future, the Time Scout books by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans follow the lives of the residents of Time Terminal 86, Shangri La Station, La La Land. Much of it involves time travel.

One of the unfortunate things about the series also makes it a guilty pleasure. The authors felt free to indulge their own hotbuttons. Aikido is clearly the favorite martial art of one of them, with others being disparaged to some degree. Gun control isn't exactly praised (the only advocate we meet is a murderous villain who sponsors terrorism). But in a crapsack world, and in the violence of time travel, these criticisms fall by the wayside and its difficult not to enjoy people travelling through time, kicking names.

Another unfortunate thing is less forgivable. It's set in historical settings half the time and clearly tries to get the details right, but a lot of them are just really damn wrong. When you're talking about Jack the Ripper and you put half of two books in Victorian London during the summer of the Ripper terror, it's more than okay to include genuine historical figures. William Butler Yeats would indeed have been in London at the time and would have been active as a poet! Good show (and he's clearly a favorite poet of one of the authors)! Aleister Crowley was also alive and you can include him... but he was a fourteen year old boy, not a thirty- or forty-something priest of Satan and a viable candidate for Jack the Ripper. He wasn't a worshipper of evil in any guise, but an occultist. He was the Victorian equivalent of a hippy, for pity's sake.

Still, I quite enjoy the books. Here's another sample from the page that might help indicate why.

Look at that list! Just look at it! How can you not love it? The occasional historical error (and occasional truthful nugget) and author appeal aside, it's an enjoyable little series.

Asprin wrote a few other book that, like all others, allow him to wax a little bit about his personal philosophies (love in "Sweet Myth-tery of Life", corporate politics in "The Cold Cash War", etc), still, even when he wasn't writing the books, at least it was another author writing them, and not his fans. He's not the most phenomenal author out there, but definitely pick up anything written before 1995. Then go to the library for the rest.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Library: Piers Anthony

Some of you may recall that Piers Anthony used to be an author. Nowadays he uses excuse plots to string together a few thousand puns and softcore porn that wouldn't raise eyebrows on daytime television. Once upon a time, though, he was a decent writer, creating creating interesting worlds and then running them right into the ground. That he's also a heteronormative, gender normative, mildly misogynistic dirty old man never really helped things. Still, you can rest assured that the first three books in any series he wrote will be decent, and then the rest will be more of the same.

You wouldn't know it to look at any of books four through thirty, but Xanth started dark. Pretty much everyone agrees that it went off the rails somewhere, but it's hard to judge where exactly that is. Still, Anthony's been churning them out at the rate of one a year for longer than I've been alive.

  • The Premise: In a magical land (roughly the size and shape of Florida), every person is born with one magical talent, ranging from "spot on the wall" inconsequential talents to literally earth-shaking talents of epic proportions.
  • Where It Started: A story centered on Bink, a young man with no talent who is exiled for it. He has to walk across Xanth to leave it, and along the way he meets the living embodiment of Anthony's misogyny, an exiled king returning at the head of a barbarian army, and many of the dangers of Xanth that will become standard to later books. It's a dark, fairly epic fantasy and a pretty good read.
  • Where It Went Wrong: Later books started throwing in puns. That's not really a problem. The landscape became more magical and, indeed, cartoonish. Still not really a problem. Anthony started taking recommendations from readers for talents, puns, and plots. Problem. He tried rehabilitating the books somewhere in the mid-teens (the mid nineties, say), which worked well, but then gave up and went back to milking the cash cow. It's very popular with teens, with good reason, and the list of attributions at the end of each book takes several pages.

Bio of a Space Tyrant
What can one man do in a large solar system? If that solar system is basically the 80s in space (The US is Jupiter, with South/Central America as its moons and the USSR is Neptune. And Mars is the middle east.), not much. Unless, of course, that man is a Mary Sue. A kid escapes with his family from Space Cuba on a raft (actually a space bubble made of phlebotinum). After trials and tribulations, he makes it to Space USA and freedom! Then he takes over the solar system.

It takes a while, because first, of course, he has to escape Cuba (and have sex). Then he joins the military (and has sex). He becomes a ludicrously successful general (while having sex), and even pacifies the pirates of the asteroid belt (by having sex). Then he runs for President (while having sex) and wins, but the incumbent refuses to step down, so he stages a military coup and rules as a tyrant (while having sex). After he steps down from tyranny, he becomes an elder statesman and secures the future of the human race (while having sex).

Have you noticed a theme? There's nothing you can't do while having sex, and you can probably solve your problem by having sex with it. What's the hero's name? I don't remember. I just remember that he's Space Napoleon (only tall, Latino, and handsome). Women want him, men want to be him, and he has a supernatural talent for reading people, telling them what they want to hear, and making them fall madly in love with him. Oh, and he's smart and capable at everything.

The surprising thing is that it's not a terrible series. Mary Sue and (still/again) rampant misogyny aside, Anthony actually tried with these books and they're pretty good. Or so I recall. It's been a few years.

Apprentice Adept
Of all his books I've read, these are the ones I still have on my shelf (I could probably dig the rest up from somewhere). At least, I still have the first three. The second three weren't as good. Nor were the last three. Like I said. Right into the fucking ground.

So you have a rigid caste system on a fabulously wealthy planet (space Dubai, more or less) where a few thousand fabulously wealthy people keep naked slaves who, when their terms of indenture are up, are thrown off the planet to be fairly wealthy elsewhere. And on this planet you have Stile, a naked slave. He's smart, and handsome, and incredibly good at sports and games of skill, and luck, and talent, and smarts, and athleticism, oh, and he's the best jockey on the planet. But fore stay your accusation of Mary Suism! He's not perfect! He has a flaw! He's short.

Seriously, that's it.

Then Stile, when someone starts trying to kill him, accidentally discovers that this fabulously wealthy space utopia has a mysterious other half, a beautiful land of magic with unicorns and demons and stuff. But the two halves are rigidly separated, and what works in one won't work in the other. Good premise: sci-fi and magic get to mix in limited amounts and you can create problems endemic to each that only work in one but which inform the other.

Turns out Stile's the most powerful magician in the other world.

So the Mary Suedom is firmly entrenched. It's still a pretty good story. Sword, sorcery, and author appeal.

One interesting bit is that Anthony definitely shows his age. He was born in '34, so for him a really wildly weird thing would be a woman who hates men! (Yes, he wrote this after feminism. Why do you ask?) She shows up early and is a prominent villain for the first two books. Thing is, she got Anthony lambasted for a pitiful understanding of lesbians, so he decided to include a lesbian in some of the later books in the series. Turns out she was turned into a lesbian when she was raped as a young woman. Yeah, Anthony doesn't really get it.

Anthony's an incredibly prolific writer, publishing several books every year. Although you might have serious issues with the themes and assumptions in his works, and he's not really a top tier author, a lot of his stuff is solid, B-grade material. Especially his older stuff.

Next up: Robert Lynn Aspirin

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Library: Four Plays by Aristophanes Part II

Once again, I'm not sure why I don't enjoy these very much. I can see the humor in it, but maybe it's like Cheers and Dick Van Dyke, just a little too dated. After all, if a joke is 2500 years old, it certainly can't be very fresh, can it? At the same time, some of this stuff gets used in modern media, and I'm certain I've laughed, so maybe it's just that reading it cold on the page doesn't do much for me. After all, it's a play, and the original didn't have stage directions and the translator felt disinclined to infer too many of his own. Then, perhaps it's just that it's a 50 year old translation! Perhaps a more modern translation with better idioms would have hit my funny bone a bit harder. Finally, there's a ton of pun-based humor in there. I really do enjoy puns, don't get me wrong, but they get a wry smile, perhaps a chuckle if they hit hard, but rarely a full-on guffaw.

Pronounced Lie-SIS-tre-ta, this is a raunchy sex comedy. It's the origin of the trope, The Lysistrata Gambit and you see it all the time on TV. Alice is mad at Bob, so she withholds sex until Bob mends his wicked ways. And buys her something. Once upon a time, those gender roles were set in stone, but as feminism has infiltrated society, so has our understanding of the fact that women aren't frigid shrews and men prurient hounds. These days, it's possible (if still rare), for Bob to turn the tables on Alice and withhold sex from her, because men and women are all sexual beings.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks believed the opposite of what Victorian Europeans believed. Where we still labor somewhat under the delusion that women don't much care for sex (lie back and think of England, dear), Greeks believed that women were mad for sex. Ancient Christians believed this as well; that's why/because they were the vessel for original sin and are still the vessels of sin today, walking around being all sexed up and whatnot. Whereas today women are told to be modest by prudish religiofanatards because they'll enflame the lusts of men, once women were told to be modest because they were seething cauldrons of lust themselves. This was why the men of the ancient church were told to abjure the company of women, lest they fall prey to the wicked desires of those vessels of iniquity.

Ever hear of Tiresias? He shows up from time to time in Greek literature and things that reference it. He's the blind seer who shows up from time to time and unleashes cryptic (or not so cryptic) prophecy. There are a number of myths stating how he got blinded. One is that he was walking through the woods and saw two snakes having sex, whereupon he was transformed into a woman*. He went to an oracle and was told he'd remain a woman until he saw those same two snakes having sex again. He remained a woman for some years, saw the snakes, and turned back into a man. His story then gets put on the back burner, and we turn, at some random later date, to Hera and Zeus, who are having an argument over who enjoys sex more, men or women, each arguing that the other gender is more lusty. They turn to Tiresias, being the only one with experience in both genders, who informs them that women enjoy sex seven times more than men. Hera, in a snit, blinds him. As the gods cannot undo what has been done, Zeus instead grants him the boon of prophecy.

Anyway, that's where the Greeks were at, idiomatically.

So Aristophanes is a comedian, right? And comedy is all about subverting expectations. He does so with Lysistrata. The women of Greece are upset that the wars are still going on (Aristophanes was very much against Athenian imperialism) and call for peace. They do so by bringing all the women together in the Acropolis (note: religion was one of the few places women had real power in the ancient world) and refusing to have sex. The Greeks would have seen the obvious humor right away: the women have trouble keeping it in their pants. They probably wouldn't have expected the men to also have started going nuts, and walk in with comical erections, desperate for sex. The bst part? This only takes a few hours on either side.

After that, it's all pretty much standard fare, with everyone almost but not quite getting laid and increasing the frustration. Then peace is declared and everyone has an orgy on stage. Seriously.

The Frogs
This is pretty much an excuse for Aristophanes to lay into a couple of poets of differing styles. One he mocks for his deliberate and overwrought style (think the purplest of Victorian prose) and the other for being too prosaic, too vernacular. And he also lays into each of them for being a might too predictable, using the same metaphors, or always writing in a certain meter.

Essentially, Dionysus (always good for comic fare; he's a drunken cross-dresser**) goes to the underworld to collect his favorite poet to write some stuff for a contest. Along the way, he and his slave get into some wacky hijinks (mostly involving the fact that D is disguising himself as Herakles so no one will mess with him).

Apparently "The Frogs" was very popular with Athens. It won first prize and got called back for repeat performances in later years.

Again, I see the humor, and I smiled a bit, but it didn't really kick me in the teeth.

Next up: The Apprentice Adept trilogy by Piers Anthony.

* It's a myth. It doesn't have to make sense.
** If everyone wore robes, how can a man dress like a woman? Easy. Women wore yellow.