Simple fiction can be thought of as a story that attempts to entertain only along one dimension. Its appeal will be a product of how well it does thatSimple fiction can be thought of as a story that attempts to entertain only along one dimension. Its appeal will be a product of how well it does that, and how much that factor appeals to various people. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction is far from simple. It has many facets, each of which could potentially be teased apart and analyzed separately. Different readers will have a complex reaction, some tremendously enjoying aspects that others don’t even notice.
For me, The Lions of al-Rassan hits a five-star sweet spot. It certainly has flaws — actually, it has many flaws, some of which I was very disappointed by — but the combination of strengths is enough to put it over the top.
What are the strengths?
Well, first, there is the very nature of being complicated. What is being told here is not a simple story, but the collision of historical with the passions and demands of a sizable cast of characters. The interplay itself is wondrous. GGK got his start when he was tapped by a friend to help compile and edit The Silmarillion, the posthumous capstone of J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre. He obviously learned from the master’s work. As with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the world Kay has created is a place of poetry, with a beautiful mystery lying just under the surface. But in some ways Kay surpassed Tolkien. For example, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, we follow a single group whose motivations are not significantly divergent, so their interpersonal conflicts are relatively simple. Not so in Kay’s fiction. The lessons of another master storyteller are more evident: Kay met author Dorothy Dunnett in as a bonus side-effect of his work with the Tolkien family, and echoes of her Lymond Chronicles are pervasive here. Both works start from a historical base, and deal follow the twists of fate buffeting strong characters in conflict with each other and their changing times.
It strikes me that everyone should enjoy the foregoing, but the evidence is against that: some folks really want more explosions and gunshots and sex. (There are even some characters like that in the book: men who think someone who talks too much should have their tongues cut out.) But this is just the foundation for what, I think, makes this an exceptional book.
Another asset would be the author’s dismissal of evil as a motivating force. This will probably be more controversial: many people enjoy the black-and-white clarity of a battle between good and evil. But my preferences are pretty extreme in the opposite direction: I think depictions of the myth of pure evil are hazardous to civilization inasmuch as they leave people prone to grossly oversimplified reactions to phenomena they don’t understand — or choose not to understand.
In other ways, Kay’s fiction exhibits more sociological verisimilitude than most fantastic fiction; when combined with a similar truthiness in psychology, we get that rare marvel of another world filled with people that react as we might, with all our flaws and limitations.
The Lions of al-Rassan certainly has weaknesses, though. The worst of them, in my estimation, implies a contradiction to the book’s plausibility. And that is that several of the characters have super-powers — three do, although two more come close. Okay, not super-powers in the sense of being able to fly like Superman. But to portray a character as having such extraordinary skill that others can only gaze in awe is tantamount to portraying all those others as “mere mortals”, implying divine prowess to the outlier. A more specific allegation would require spoiling parts of the story, but anyone who has finished the book should be able to name three or four. Oddly, this seems to be something Kay may have learned from Dorothy Dunnett. Her character Francis Crawford of Lymond has twin doppelgängers in this story. Their presence certainly amps up the action and adventure, but only at the cost of an overall loss of credibility.
But even though I consider this a serious flaw, it isn’t enough to suppress my enthusiasm for what is an incredible work of fiction.
Just after last year’s autumnal equinox I started an 80-or-so-mile backpacking trip down in King Canyon National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevadas.Just after last year’s autumnal equinox I started an 80-or-so-mile backpacking trip down in King Canyon National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevadas.
I’m sure people that don’t hike or backpack wonder what one does on such a trip besides strain and sweat and get tired and dirty. Well, one of the things I do is study the world around me. The high Sierras exposes a lot of geology that becomes quite fascinating once one starts looking closely, asking questions, and learning a bit. For example, the famous domes of Yosemite aren’t replicated in too many places — why? Well, it has to do with the kind of rock they’re made of, which depends on where and how that rock was formed, how quickly it cooled, etc.
I’ve spent plenty of time in Yosemite, but that last trip was a few hundred miles south, and I soon realized the geology was different in some intriguing ways. The rock around me had a lot more variation in color than I usually see in Yosemite, with green and beige as well as a wide range of grays. And quite a bit of pure quartz. I started wondering if King Canyon’s granite had a less pure chemical mix than Yosemite’s, which might also explain why it spalls and exfoliates differently, creating needle-shaped peaks instead of domes.
Now, just a few days ago, I finished a novel in which several of the characters spent a short time backpacking just a dozen or so miles north of where I had been, and one of their party was a geology geek, explaining that they were hiking to one of the purer portions of the Sierras, granite-wise. Specifically, he explained they were going up the Cartridge Pluton, which was one of the many plutons the Sierra Nevada batholith was composed of.
Well, we geeks love our technobabble, and I resolved to learn how to use this new terminology better — especially since I hope to hike the JMT in the next year or two.
So I figured there might be a book on the geology of the Sierra Nevada, and lo-and-behold, what I found was this book, Geology of the Sierra Nevada. That wasn’t so tough, it seems. It’s by the University of California Press’ California Natural History Guides, which is really nice: I’ve got half a dozen of their other guides, and they’re good stuff.
Well, there’s a lot of information in here, and I very much enjoyed devouring it, but it was too much to gulp down in one read. Much of the information is still in a jumble in my brain, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell a coherent version of very many of these stories of my favorite mountains.
It covers the elemental side of the geology, of course, without getting into any deep detail regarding chemistry. Oh, sure it is mentioned that one kind of lava is higher in silica and another in iron, but I’m embarrassed to say that stuff just dribbles out of my brain. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy chemistry, I just have no pre-assigned place in my brain for the chemistry of rocks, so it isn’t staying put.
But then there’s the history of the geology. When did those tectonic plates do their thing, and how were volcanoes involved, and how did all those huge chunks of granite — er, “granitic rock” get there? And that tale is a good one, and helps explain the relationship between igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock. I’m still a bit unclear on where “granite” fits into that triad — sometimes it seems to be described as metamorphic, other times igneous. I think the answer might be that there are wide gray zones at the boundaries of igneous and metamorphic, and then again between metamorphic and sedimentary. But I’d have to get a real geology textbook to clarify that.
Oh, yeah, it turns out “granite” isn’t a word geologists use much, because it isn’t precise enough. The Sierras seem to contain at least half-a-dozen different kinds of different “granitic rock” in different locales, and they are what cause the different behavior.
The tales of John Muir and the other men (yeah, at that point and in this scope, pretty much all men) were also fun. We tend to think of John Muir as the old guy with the long gray beard, so it was a bit startling to discover he was the sheep-herding non-expert underdog in the Sierra’s geological debates (which were a rip-roaring topic of conversation back then).
Other folks interested in hiking or backpacking (or skiing, river rafting, rock climbing, etc.) should consider reading this. Hey, get too copies. One for the glovebox and one for the bathroom.
The rest of you who don’t know what you’re missing in the Sierras, well, you probably don’t need to bother. ...more
In my recollection, this is one of the best science fiction stories written. I've read many since then, so maybe I'd change my mind —but then I'd readIn my recollection, this is one of the best science fiction stories written. I've read many since then, so maybe I'd change my mind — but then I'd read many before this, too.
Not much of a review, but the only reason I'm really writing this is because I've now seen two different posts that recommend boycotting this book (and, presumably, everything else by the author) because of the author's extreme homophobic views.
Not a new dilemma, and one that doesn't have a simple answer. I realized long ago that I could listen to Frank Sinatra's music despite all the evidence indicating he was a jerk; I could enjoy classic Charlton Heston flicks despite his later presidency of the NRA; and my lack of enjoyment of Todd Rundgren's music really was about the music, not his political leanings.
So enjoy the novel, and if you enjoy it, marvel that such wondrous efforts can be produced by people who are as deeply flawed as the rest of us. If you don't want to support the author financially, read a library copy.
As far as I remember, the book does nothing that advances (or evinces) his homophobic world view, so reading it (or watching the movie late next year) will not affect the gay rights movement one way or the other....more
A Song For Arbonne is a lyrical portrayal of one tumultuous year in Arbonne, as its peace-loving people — aristocracy, mercenaries, troubadours, priesA Song For Arbonne is a lyrical portrayal of one tumultuous year in Arbonne, as its peace-loving people — aristocracy, mercenaries, troubadours, priests and priestesses — deal with the threat of invasion from their war-hungry neighbors to the north.
Much to my astonishment, some folks don’t enjoy the works of Guy Kay as much as I do. That said, the overall ratings for A Song For Arbonne is well above four, which puts it in pretty rarified territory. Even the negative reviews of Kay usually agree that the characters are well developed, that the world is richly and lovingly detailed, and that the prose is lyrical. The negative consensus seems to be that not enough action drives the story, though.
I can understand that. There’s a lot of talking, and a lot of introspection. The characters are trying to understand the motivations of others, so it is pretty psychological. That makes this book (and all of Kay’s that I’ve read so far) quite unusual in the universe of speculative fiction.
There’s also a subset that dislike Kay’s portrayal of sex. It is definitely present here, although not too much in my opinion. Some of what is portrayed is somewhat kinky, too. Well, I guess to most of y’all it would be very kinky, but I’m a San Franciscan. But we’re talking maybe two or three scenes out of the five hundred pages. Trivial compared to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example.
In this standalone book, Kay actually has quite a bit in common with Martin’s mega opus. Both deal with dynastic wars, and the suspicious and manipulative psychology that entails. Magic plays a relatively minor background role — this is actually historical fantasy, and far from swords-and-sorcery stuff (more on that below). The “evil” characters aren’t Sauron/Voldemort analogs, imbued with the myth of pure evil, but mere humans with the same banal incentives and passions we all share.
It is worthwhile to recall Kay’s pedigree as an author, since that also illuminates important aspects of his work. While studying philosophy in college, he was asked to help family friends — the Tolkiens — compile and edit The Silmarillion. After moving to Oxford for that project, he met Dorothy Dunnett, author of epic historical fiction set in the sixteenth century.
Kay’s trajectory as an author bridges those two influences, starting with a fairly ahistorical fantasy (The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which nevertheless draws on myths and legends), but soon, with Tigana, shifting to historical fantasy. Tigana is set in an other-world analog of medieval Italy. A Song For Arbonne is set in an other-world analog of medieval Languedoc and Provence. His later “analogs” have moved closer to our world’s history.
Knowing that there is some real history behind A Song For Arbonne might be of interest. The Languedoc/Provence portion of France was, in the middle ages, independent of Rome, and developed a distinctive culture. One important aspect was the evolution of courtly love, which led to notions of chivalry that are now deeply embedded in western culture, history and mythology, as well as the troubadours that propagated and memorialized this. This is transferred into A Song For Arbonne without significant modification.
The other important development in Languedoc/Provence was a divergent theology. The Cathar Heresy isn’t replicated directly. Cathar beliefs invoked a dual god — a good God of the spiritual realm, and an evil God (Satan) who created and ruled the material world. But Kay did create an analogous heretical dualism, which is central to the action. The bellicose north worships only the masculine god Corannos, whereas Arbonne elevates the feminine Rian to be his peer. The predictable result is a misogynistic religious crusade to cleanse the south of this heresy — what in our history was the Albigensian Crusade. Even if you don’t want to remember any of the foregoing, it is interesting to note that this is possibly the first invocation of the bumpersticker “Kill them all and let God sort them out”: Arnaud Amalric, the papal legate and inquisitor was asked how to tell the good Catholics from the evil Cathars, and he responded “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt emus” (“Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.”)
But, honestly, these parallels aren’t really brought up in the book. That Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably the role model for Signe de Barbentain might mean something to aficionados of medieval history, but not most of us. (Trying to decode the parallels of other characters, events, and locales might be a distraction or a further pleasure, of course.)
Perhaps A Song For Arbonne is too lyrical and meandering for some, but that is their loss. For most of us, this is a gorgeous tale....more
Warning: this book contains adult subject matter, as if that weren't obvious...
Mary Roach brings her unabashed goofiness to the history of the scientific study of sex. She'll inform you of both the important and the trivial, and entertain you with yet more trivia, absurd footnotes, and her own charming albeit somewhat warped perspective — as well as a few inadvertent adventures she had while writing....more
I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficulI’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficult author, so it is easier to enjoy his works in the adaptations of others. I have read some though and, based on that, The Man in the High Castle is the best I’ve read yet.
Dick has several problems as an author. His drug use and chaotic lifestyle are widely accepted explanations for the slap-dash quality of some of his output. It does seem sometimes as if he just tossed ingredients together to bring in cash after a major party, perhaps, or to replenish his drug inventory.
But High Castle is certainly not one of those poorly put-together works. He claims it was laboriously assembled by asking the i ching question after question, thousands of them. I discount that: even if true, the artistry comes from the author, since he must have asked his oracle some incredibly creative questions.
The primary difficulty that remains here is that Dick has trouble creating coherently emotional people. His characters are strangely affectless; when life is dealing them astonishingly odd or tragic outcomes, they blandly bemoan their fates without much passion, as if they were spectators in their own lives. If you’ve only seen the adaptations, you’ll have missed that. Only Keanu Reeves (in A Scanner Darkly) seemed to have that PDK stamp of bloodless authenticity, but I suspect that’s just Keanu.
But here in High Castle, that flaw is less in evidence because the nature of the story calls for many people to suppress their emotions. This comes from three factors. The story takes place twenty years after the United States has lost World War II, and most of the action is located in San Francisco, which is in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. Since the “white” people are second-class citizens, they kowtow to the Japanese and keep their behavior and words under tight control. Furthermore, several key characters are involved in diplomatic work, which also calls for careful self-control. Finally, the ruling Japanese culture is depicted as very emotionally restrained, in which the display of emotion is considered distasteful. That aspect of Japanese life is also taken as a pattern for the subject people of the PSA, so people tend to be like the Japanese in this to the extent they are acceptable and successful.
So Dick’s major storytelling flaw only really affects a few characters, and two of those have some serious emotional difficulties anyway.
Enough about why High Castle isn’t bad — how is it good?
What Dick is famous for is coming up with ideas that no one else does, and specifically ideas that are imbued with a philosophical conundrum. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the question is what it means to be human. If ever-more sophisticated androids can pass as humans, are they human? What precisely is required to be considered human? For a police detective who’s job is to hunt them down and “retire” them, this becomes a very personalized dilemma.
In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said the problem of identity is personalized: if everyone around you forgets who you are, then what is left? If so much of our identity is embedded in what others believe and know about us, then what resides inside ourselves?
The most obvious “puzzle” in High Castle is the counter-factual story — the Axis powers winning World War II — and the role of the i ching. To me, neither of these fits the pattern of a classic PDK philosophical dilemma. So where is it?
I think it is better hidden and more subtle here, and deals with the relationship of the individual to their social collective. Dick paints the Germans, Japanese and Americans with broad strokes, but then places those cultures in opposition to one another and explores how that societal conflict plays out in individual lives, in individual actions.
Fairly early in the book, one of the major actors tries to analyze the German racial character. Later, the various factions within the German political world are identified, but at this point he tears into the German “race”. And he, Lotze, is playing games with his identity — is he Swedish? Jewish? German? Some of that is left unresolved to the very end. When told that, as a Swede, he is just like the Germans, he ponders.
Am I racially kin to this man? Baynes wondered. So closely so that for all intents and purposes it is the same? Then it is in me, too, the psychotic streak. A psychotic world we live in. The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Faced this? And—how many of us do know it? Not Lotze. Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. But the broad masses . . . what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city, here. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth…? But, he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? I feel it, see it, but what is it? He thought, It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, intuit it. But—they are purposely cruel . . . is that it? No. God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans. The conquering of the planets. Something frenzied and demented, as was their conquering of Africa, and before that, Europe and Asia. Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor: the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only the dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel of life turns for all life. It is all temporary. And they—these madmen—respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur. And, he thought, I know why. They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off.
He was getting a bit mystical at the end there, but this was a key passage for me. I’ve spent many hours wondering in a similar manner about the modern world, about how people can be so ideologically passionate that they miss how destructive they are, or want to be. The internal narrative is just right: that struggle to swing one’s focus around to what rings true, virtually debating with oneself. Anyway, his insight immediately called to mind George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and his examination of how foundational ideological premises can broadly sway entire cultures. [This also reminded me how disappointed and annoyed I remain with Lakoff — instead of pursuing these deep questions across many cultures and many times, he decided to turn into a partisan hack.]
I’m sure many would laugh at Baynes’ characterization of the German rassischer Identität, and I won’t exactly defend it. But I felt the same way about Lakoff’s tremendous oversimplification of conservative and liberal ideology: even as he reduced these to an almost comical abstraction, he was zeroing on an approximation of some fundamental truth. Just as you might call someone as “basically pessimistic person”, I think it is justifiable to find similar “basic” traits about social groups.
Dick uses those basic cultural truths in High Castle as marionette strings, inexorably tugging his characters around. And, in one case, showing how dislocated someone’s psyche can become when they are forced to act outside the bounds of that culture.
And we must be similarly affected. What are the “truths” our culture has imposed on us? The United States is big enough that different subcultures seem to be in almost diametric opposition. When our ideologies become destructive, are we are insane as Baynes decided the Nazis were? It is easy to see the lies others tell themselves, but... well: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Knowing how difficult that is, are we as doomed as the Nazis were? As the Soviets were?
With the best of literature, we find reflections of ourselves and our own times. This is Dick’s strength: even though his stories are often poorly written, the bones of those stories pose questions that are timeless.
Where does the individual end, and the collective begin?
An incredibly entertaining history of Amercia's most successful covert war via proxy. When the Soviets went into Afghanistan, Congressman Charlie WilsAn incredibly entertaining history of Amercia's most successful covert war via proxy. When the Soviets went into Afghanistan, Congressman Charlie Wilson pushed to support the mujaheddin.
It's true that this eventually turned against us, providing the training that militarized those who would eventually become terrorists, but those dots wouldn't be connected until many years later. At the time, many thought it plausible that Afghanistan would be solidly a U.S. partisan. The U.S. State Department is tragically often blinded to reality (typically because real subject experts aren't considered trustworthy by the True Patriots or other ideologues among their appointed and elected taskmasters), so prior lessons of The Great Game weren't examined or considered.
Tom Hanks starred as Charlie Wilson in the movie of the same name, which also featured the wonderful (and recently deceased, c. 2014) Philip Seymour Hoffman as the maverick CIA agent.
Charlie Wilson died on 10 February 2010, prompting a small torrent of obits—
(Must re-read, and see the 1967 film version with Julie Christie (woo-hoo!) as Bathsheba Everdene , Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak, Terence Stamp as Sergea(Must re-read, and see the 1967 film version with Julie Christie (woo-hoo!) as Bathsheba Everdene , Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak, Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy, and Peter Finch as William Boldwood.
I was torn whether to give this five stars or four. What decided me, oddly, was checking and finding that I had given Salman Rushdie'sMidnight's ChiI was torn whether to give this five stars or four. What decided me, oddly, was checking and finding that I had given Salman Rushdie'sMidnight's Children five stars. The two books aren't really similar, but both struck me an a peculiar way as possessing a density and a magical realism that I found both attractive and alien.
Murakami's cadences feel staccato, somewhat as Japanese sometimes sounds to my English-attuned ears (although it is impossible for me to say whether that is part of the translation). The book wasn't a perfect five-star transcendent experience, but all the while I was reading it I was also quite conscious that this was a carefully and imaginatively constructed fabrication.
This was probably one of the first science fiction books I ever read, and so far the only book by Crichton. My rating is based on my reaction over thrThis was probably one of the first science fiction books I ever read, and so far the only book by Crichton. My rating is based on my reaction over three decades ago -- I seem to recall there were some parts that felt awkward, like they were written by someone trying to leap across the so-called "generation gap". But my teen self loved the book, so it gets the five stars. I have no idea whether I'd still feel as generous if I were to re-read it, but then I seldom re-read books anyway.
The cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs anThe cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs and conclusions on the subject are unlikely to be swayed, but there are undoubtedly plenty out there who aren't yet sure what to think, and this is their book.
The Kindle edition saves paper, and at about $10.50 is a pretty inexpensive way of getting this, but you can't pass it on to others after reading it. For a few bucks more, you can buy it and keep it in circulation. If you're annoyed with Amazon, Indiebound can point you to a local book merchant that sells it.
Then there's the even greener option. My library has six copies. You can check to see if any library in your area has one here....more
As I suspected, after my brain got a chance to overcome the infatuation of a powerful book, complaints started arising. (This contains some minor spoilers, but nothing that really detracts from the story.)
My primary complaint is how the desired and fought-over kingship was supposed to work. The book begins with Bugsy Siegel, and it's pretty clear that was a mob boss ruling a criminal empire, with obvious financial benefits and prestige in some circles. This, in itself, is a bit confusing: if being king grants him such power, why choose the wrong side of the law when the law should be amenable to the king's power?
But the following king is never shown in that light. He doesn't seem to live in monetary splendor, or to have much obvious recognition. At one point, he's stuck in an RV with little recourse to power at all. Is our protagonist expecting to not have to work, for example, if he succeeds in becoming king himself? Not understanding the final objective all these folks are fighting and killing over definitely hurts.
A secondary complaint is that the magic is unclear. The tarot cards are links to power, but aren't often physically used -- does being "king" provide some form of conscious control over natural phenomena, such as the roll of the dice, or the weather? There are certainly hints, and uses of power in small ways, but not clear theory of magical power was shown. Holding a hand of conflicting minor cards in front of oneself to become invisible to magical sight was a clever idea, however -- I suppose this would be an instance of invocation, whereas evocation -- summoning protective spirits -- was also shown, but how it was done wasn't clear.