Sunday, 28 January 2018


I struggle to read books nowadays without finding things I want to look up online. Miram says that's a good thing. The latest is "Kingsfoil", which occurs at the start of A wizard of Earthsea:

She took him into her hut where she lived alone. She let no child enter there usually, and the children feared the place. It was low and dusky, windowless, fragrant with herbs that hung drying from the crosspole of the roof, mint and moly and thyme, yarrow and rushwash and paramal, kingsfoil, clovenfoot, tansy and bay. There his aunt sat crosslegged by the firepit, and looking sidelong at the boy through the tangles of her black hair she asked him what he had said to the goats, and if he knew what the rhyme was. When she found that he knew nothing, and yet had spellbound the goats to come to him and follow him, then she saw that he must have in him the makings of power.

I didn't notice it before. I don't find it noticed much on the web; there's a brief mention here for example.

On walking down New College lane

27368623_10156031064582350_3242102643643418204_o New College lane is about my favourite part of Oxford; the most Oxfordy bit of it. You can, if you squint, pretend that nothing has changed in hundreds of years - as long as you ignore the tarmac and the double yellow lines. But certainly little has changed in the thirty years since I left.

Today I was fortunate enough to have some warmth and some sunshine, and few people. The frontage here is just gorgeous. Astonishingly the wiki article doesn't even have a pic of it; barbarians. Take careful note of the priest praying on the right and the angel adoring on the left.

You might complain that this isn't the best of photos and you would be correct to note this but not to complain; this is the photo I took today and that is the important bit. What you can't see here is the light on the arches of the bridge just out of sight on the right, where the road turns. Every time I pass here I remember a May Day morning many years ago when I was stumbling along here and happened to pass as some bloke was playing a hand drum and perhaps singing - it is so long ago I cannot recall the details. For the moment and the place it was perfect.

We were in Oxford for the Bebras finals. Sadly E didn't win, but enjoyed it and got a creditable 155, we're not exactly sure out of how many. I bunked off most of the events, since I know what a cellular automaton is. So I spent much of the day sitting in Blackwells (reading Words of Radiance) with an afternoon walk around Christchurch meadow. But I did go to Hertford for lunch (nice Hall; E filded me a Dragon Curve) and the tour - nice college - and the prizegiving - nice chapel.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Book review: Artemis

By the author of The Martian but IMO inferior. Partly because it is so much of the same genre: engineering puzzles, but on a moon city. Yes, it has a spunky female heroine and so on, but that only gets you so far. See-also Goodreads.

So what's wrong, apart from the rather derivative must-write-a-second-book feel? The setup is rather more contrived. The entire politics and economics of the situation feel unnatural. There's a city on the moon, but it is the only one, and it is dying - effectively - because... the author can't be bothered to imagine why it might not be dying. People went to all the effort of building it and then... stopped. I think about half way through the book the author realises this, but can't work out how to escape. This is because engineering is his thing; the politics in the Martian didn't really work either, but were much smaller; here they can't help be a largeish part, and they don't work.

Also the setup. In the Martian, the central plot is natural; here it is forced. It all feels so trivial. The engineering behind the plot might work, but who cares?

Reverting to general patterns, another flaw is "why did this happen now?". What happens is that in the largely un-law-protected (but for mysterious reasons rather law-abiding) city of Artemis, gangsters start showing up and killing people and the authorities, such as they are, are powerless. There's a mega-rich guy at the start of the story, and weirdly he has but one - apparently unarmed - [art-time bodyguard; he presumably relies on the safety of the city despite the total lack - as it emerges - of any mechanism for that protection. But if all of that were true, the gangsters would have shown up a year earlier. Or before then. And this then swings back to the-politics-is-not-well-thought-out. There are echoes of Heinlein's moon, but what could have been interesting in the hands of a "Plato" interested in constitution building just doesn't work here.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Theatre review: Warhorse

Warhorse was a children's book but now it is a play. We went to see it as our first Christmas not-a-panto this year; and that made sense. TL;DR: good.

It is all rather well done. As everyone says, they horse puppets work well despite there being no attempt to hide the puppeteers; the bird puppets sort-of work too: well, the little flying-joyously ones do, and maybe the crows. I'm less sure about the comedy goose. Another bit that works well is the shooting, which is sudden and startling, rather than slow. The tank towards the end is odd; that didn't seem to make sense at the time. Looking now at the wiki page about the book, I think that's how Joey gets stuck on the wire, but that wasn't really clear in the play.

The only bit that sticks out as implausible - other than the inevitable co-incidences, which aren't too blatant - is Friedrich the German artillery officer practically doing a "lumberjack" and saying "I didn't want to be a soldier".

But what do we make of it on the moral or intellectual plane? It ticks all the obvious boxes: war is bad, hard work and perseverance is good, drunkenness is bad (errm, even if it has good consequences, never mind that), and so on. But we knew all that anyway, so that doesn't get you much. Does it provide any kind of insight? Does telling WWI from the viewpoint of a horse bring anything fresh and new? No.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book review: the Martian

The Martian (Goodreads) was recommended by D, and I enjoyed it. It is sci-fi but "hard"; the plot is closely based around near-term plans for how early exploration off Mars might happen. the genre is "engineering"; essentially the lone protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them not by heroism or exceptional intelligence but by being resourceful, thinking things through and ingenuity.

[This review written in early 2018 after I'd read the inferior Artemis as well, but backdated to mid-October which is about when I read TM.]

Plot (but you can get this from the wiki page or elsewhere): a dust storm means the explorers need to leave early but by accident one bloke is left behind, presumed dead. Can a rescue rocket get to him in time, and will it come to him or will he need to trog across half of Mars to get to it?

Most of all of this is well done and convincing. Details are plausible. So I'll point up a few that aren't. The sudden-evacuation-in-storm isn't quite; I can't think they would be so poorly prepared. The politics back on Earth is naive. The not-tell-the-departed-crew bit isn't believeable. Turning over the rover towards the end felt a bit too much like let's-throw-another-obstacle-at-him. But that contrasts with the rest, where the obstacles arise naturally and do not feel contrived, and the story mostly flows well.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book review: Divine Endurance

Divine Endurance is a weird book. It is well worth a read; if you haven't, do that first, because any explanation will tend to spoil it. If you don't like books in which much is unexplained, or in which things only become slowly clear, then find something else. Having said that, the flaws are more obvious on a second reading. And it isn't quite clear where Flowerdust fits in; just an episode, I think.

The attraction of the book is largely in it's tone; and to some extent it shares this with White Queen. Elegaic, unruffled, unhurried, tolerant of people and of disaster.

But ah the downsides: and here I shall wax philosophical; bear with me, it is worth it, I think. I've been reading Popper recently; The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx. And Popper is strongly critical of what he calls "historicism" or in Marx's case "historical prophecy": in essence, the idea that history has it's own meaning, it's own destiny; teleology, perhaps. And if you hear that, you begin to see the backbone of a lot of sci-fi novels; perhaps a lot of novels in general. And this one in particular: much of the beauty is in the characters learning to accept their "destiny"; the long slow downwards slope of their world into death. But it is all nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that; and (as I said before) all too common.

Update: reading GJ's article on the book at her website, it is clear that she thinks the book is about something else. But as the author she is in some ways blind to what it actually says, because of course she knows what she meant it to say. So take, for example, the way the dolls "know" that they shouldn't fixup various "surface" problems because the humans don't want those problems fixed. Like Derveet's fatal illness. Then stop and think: how does that make sense? It doesn't, except in the all-is-predestined manner that I've already pointed out is Bad.

But I should add something positive: which is that the view of society, and the bizarre sexuality in which essentially all important people are homosexual, just makes perfect sense and all fits together; is very well done.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.