Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

Rod Walker, high school student, has been taking a higher-level class in advanced survival.  His ambition is to someday see the other worlds humanity is colonizing, and survival skills are of the first importance.  The final exam is a field test; Rod and his classmates will be dropped on an unknown planet for anywhere from two to ten days.  They can take whatever equipment they wish.  Rod is surprised to find himself alone on the other end of the gate -- they've dropped the students far apart instead of in a group -- and he does all right for the first couple of days.  But the exit gate never opens, and Rod and his classmates have to build a surviving society of their own, without knowing if anyone will ever come to get them.

This was a great read!  My 16-year-old daughter loved it too, and says it was what she hoped Lord of the Flies would be, before she read it and was disappointed.  (She really likes survival stories, and as a kid informed me that Robinson Crusoe was a big cheater, taking all that stuff off the wrecked ship.)   It's a great story, with strong characters -- including a good few women.  The first half is focused on the survival stuff, and the second half on building a working society from scratch. 

Now, the setup is a very Malthusian future, so there is a massive population of humans but no more food than before.  Thus, thanks to a handy gate technology, people are constantly emigrating to new, empty planets, and Earth people live mostly underground, leaving the topsoil for wilderness and farming.  It's kind of funny to see Heinlein insisting that everybody in an overcrowded future will still have six children each (when now, world fertility rates have plummeted, so that we will have a future full of old people and relatively few youngsters) and that you can't grow more food on the same amount of land (in fact, we now grow more food on less land, allowing for reforestation in some places).

Anyway, it was all very fun; this is a good pick if you're looking to read a Heinlein title.  I read it in a three-pack called Infinite Possibilities, but it's available on its own too.

German edition, featuring a wagon train to the stars!


Shakuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala), by Kālidāsa

Some time ago I read The Cloud Messenger, a longish poem by the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, who lived about 1500 years ago apparently.  I thought I would like to read his play, too.  The introduction of this book says that ancient Sanskrit drama was considered divine, a fifth Veda that was supposed to instruct through pleasure.  All could understand it (unlike the four Vedas), and it should represent the world, give good advice, and "bring peace of mind to those afflicted with the ills of the world" (such as kings).  Drama is not particular and individual, but shows a generalized picture and should produce "the aesthetic emotion" called rasa by building impressions through the words, music, and art.  The story therefore reads like a legend or fairy tale.

Shakuntala is a lovely, sheltered girl living in a holy enclave with her adopted father, the sage Kanva.  Other holy disciples and girls live there as well; it's a small community in the wilderness.  The king, Duhsanta, happens upon the hermitage during a hunt and stops to pay his respects to the sage.  There he meets Shakuntala, and they immediately fall in love, but Sage Kanva is temporarily absent, unable to give his consent.  Duhsanta determines that Shakuntala is an appropriate bride for him and talks her into an immediate marriage by declaration.  He then takes his leave, promising to send for her, but, naturally, there is a barrier to their love that must be conquered.

It's a lovely, poetic story that must have enchanted the court that saw it.  I'm sure the English version doesn't measure up to the original, so I can't appreciate it properly, but it was neat to read and it would be fun to see it performed.  It's not at all difficult to read, except that a glossary and cultural footnotes come in pretty handy, so the Penguin edition is a good one for those not familiar with ancient Indian literature and culture.  The Loom of Time collects two poems and this play.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Star Trek 7

Star Trek 7, by James Blish

Somebody besides me must remember these fun paperbacks.  When I was a kid, my library had a whole bunch of these and I remember reading a lot of them -- although I don't actually remember the stories, unless they're really famous episodes.  What they really are is short story versions of old Star Trek episodes.  As far as I can tell, they are nearly the same, but Blish filled them out a little.

Volume seven starts off with its strongest pieces, putting "Who Mourns for Adonais?" first (that's the one where they run into Apollo), and then the Nomad story, "The Changeling."  After reading that, I had to watch it, so we all saw it together.  The other four stories are less memorable, but there's the one where they find a planet of Native Americans (and Kirk marries a girl!), the one where they all get old, the one with Zefram Cochrane and the electric cloud that loves him, and the one with a barbarian princess who enslaves men with her tears.

Some of the moments in these stories make me do a double take when I think about them.  I've seen Star Trek so many times that it doesn't surprise me when a beautiful ex-girlfriend shows up and allures Kirk, but it gets a little egregious in the getting-old one.  It turns out that they had a relationship 6 years ago but had to break up for the sake of their careers, so she married a man in her own field, and now she's a widow, so when she shows up she promptly announces that while she respected her husband, she always loved Kirk and throws herself at him almost as soon as they say hello.  Really?  I mean, good golly.

Another funny moment is when Zefram Cochrane realizes his electric cloud is in love with him, and reacts with utter horror to this inter-species romance while the more cosmopolitan Enterprise crew think it's no big deal.  Cochrane changes his mind when the cloud takes up residence in the dying diplomat lady's body, which I think is the weird part, but nobody seems to mind since she was dying anyway, and now she gets to have a romance.  That's kinda odd, I think.

Anybody else remember these, with their psychedelic covers and giant stylized numbers?  My kid actually didn't recognize the seven as a number; she thought it was a blob.  I guess she hasn't been exposed much to that 70s font.

Awesome old covers for the series -- there were 13

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men, by Clifford D. Simak (1962)

I always love Vintage Sci-Fi January, and I jumped right in with a nice Simak title that has been on the shelf for years.  It turned out to be a really fun read!  This is a great one.  (Then I took about a week off blogging for no reason except that I was finishing a quilt and cleaning a lot! I'm now on my fourth vintage SF read.)

Parker Graves, a newspaper reporter, comes home one night a bit tipsy, but that saves his life when he spots a strange trap in front of his door.  Then the trap melts and rolls away.  When more odd things happen around town -- most especially, there's a sudden massive housing shortage -- he realizes that an alien invasion is under way.  Who will believe him?  And why do the aliens look like....bowling balls?

It's just a funny, well written story that perpetrates an impossible situation, so I was really wondering how it could be solved.  And the aliens believe that they are doing their takeover in a perfectly legal and businesslike manner, which is a fun take on the alien invasion theme.  I recommend this one. 

Monday, January 2, 2017


Eneas: a Twelfth-Century Romance, translated by John Yunck

Storytime: way back in college when I was taking literature classes, one of my favorite classes was on medieval literature, and it was taught by one of my favorite professors, who had a newly-minted Oxford PhD and probably not much familiarity (yet) with Berkeley students.  She threw a mass of really weird stuff at us, which in retrospect was probably not the usual kind of fare for an average introduction to medieval literature -- though of course I had no idea at the time.  We started with the Aeneid, because it was so admired and emulated, and then at some point we read Eneas, a medieval re-telling of the Aeneid that is also really the first of the French romances.  The author took the old-fashioned chansons de geste about heroes (like The Song of Roland) and combined them with the new fashion for romantic love and psychological evaluation.  So this story features Sir Eneas, the prince and knight, and his great romances with Dido and then with Lavine.  The author also had a great love of wonders, especially architectural wonders, which furnishes the modern reader with a lot of entertainment.

Sir Eneas sails the ocean
 I still have my photocopied reader from the course, but I went looking to see if there was a new edition or anything.  No dice.  Eneas is an Old French poem, and the only English translation is this one from 1974 by John Yunck.  I think it's high time somebody published it in a nice paperback!

The story is just the same as in the Aeneid, just with different emphases.  Sir Eneas, the prince of Troy, leads his people on a quest for the land the gods have chosen for him.  He ends up in Carthage, where he and Dido fall in love, but he's ordered to move on and Dido kills herself.  He visits the underworld.  Eventually he gets to Italy, where the king recognizes his claim and promises him the kingship and his daughter Lavine, but the previous claimant is angry and there's a war.  Eneas has the victory and he marries Lavine, founding Alba and a dynasty that will lead to Rome.  But Dido spends all her time fainting and turning white and red by turns, and there are long discourses about the nature of love.  Lavine has no intention of falling in love with anyone, but when she spies Eneas from her window, she falls prey to the malady of love too; and so does Eneas, so they spend the week before the wedding pining for each other.

Dido casts herself into the flames
The Eneas author does not, however, make much of the Roman gods except for Cupid/Love in the medieval fashion.  The gods' constant interventions are really downplayed; the author is quite embarrassed by all this pagan superstition stuff and tries as hard as he can to edit it out whenever possible.

Did I mention the wonders?  Oh, golly, the wonders are so much fun.  I can't possibly quote them all, since it would be boring and spoil the fun, but I do have to quote a couple.  If you read it, look for Camilla's horse, which tops them all. 
...they make black dyes in Carthage from the blood of a great water serpent, which is called the crocodile, of which there are a great many on an island.  These serpents are enormously large, and of a very unusual nature; when one of them has devoured his prey, then he falls asleep with gaping jaws.  He has no bowels whatever.  The birds enter inside his body and during his sleep feed on what he has previously eaten.  He does not purge himself otherwise, for he has no fundament.
...and a cloak which was very valuable.  Its fur was cut in squares, from an animal of a hundred colors; the whole mantle was hemmed with other furs richer and finer, in front and on the bottom border.  The lining was very costly, and the outside was worth much more; it was all embroidered outside with gold.  The fasteners and the buckles and the buttons and the tassels alone were worth more than three castles...
The deer was so well behaved that at night it served at dinner, and acted as a candelabrum before the father and daughter.  Its head was marvelously beautiful when a large candle burned on each of the points of its antlers.
My personal favorite marvel is Camille's tomb, which is far too lengthy a description to quote here, but starts with two intersecting arches and then each successive layer is taller and wider than the one below -- and made in a completely different style -- until it is surmounted with an adamant pointy roof topped with a magic mirror, at least 150 feet up in the air.  Within, Camille rests with an eternal flame and even more wonders.

Eneas is just a kick to read, and it's neat to find the first time that a poet melded knightly deeds and romantic love into one story.  I'm really glad I read it again, and if you're interested in medieval literature, it's well worth getting a copy of the book on ILL.

I enjoyed the medieval literature class so much that I audited the next semester too.  And that's where I got my abiding affection for weird medieval stories.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Postmortal

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary

In 2019, a cure for aging is developed.  It's a gene therapy that will prevent you from ever getting any older, although you can still get sick or die from plenty of other causes.  John Farrell gets the cure while it's still illegal, and he will be 29 forever.  His online journal entries over the next 60 years form this novel.

What happens when age can be cured?  According to Magary, first people party a lot (despite their lack of immunity from liver damage).  Pro-cure groups protest, demanding it be legalized, while pro-death groups insist the cure will be disastrous and are ready to commit a lot of terrorist acts in the name of getting rid of the cure.  People almost immediately stop getting married and start getting divorces, or inventing cycle marriages with expiration dates.  But within twenty years, things aren't looking so good.  The population of the US has exploded to 750 million and has become a third-world country, just like everywhere else on earth.  Drugs and crime are everywhere, while water and food is not.  (See, here we have a scenario where a massive water shortage makes perfect sense.)

Over the 60 years of the diary, Farrell records a society going down the tubes.  He has a son, who grows up to join the new Church of Man, but Farrell himself winds up as an end specialist working for the government's voluntary euthanasia program.  Well, it's voluntary at first....

This was not exactly a fun books to read, but it was gripping!  Magary has some great ideas and the whole thing is really pretty good.  I don't know why anybody would want to live forever anyway -- staying young for 40 years, I get that!  But who wants to live forever?   Not me.  And this novel explores some interesting stuff and makes a really good case for NOT trying to stop aging or kill off Death.

I bet it's already been optioned for a movie.  Probably starring Tom Hiddleston, with Scarlett Johansson as Solara.

Friday, December 30, 2016


Dawn, by Octavia Butler

When I looked through the library SF collection for older books to read in January, I came across this too, and I remembered that somebody in the book blogger universe had reviewed it very positively a little while ago, so I grabbed it too.   Dawn is the first book in the "Xenogenesis" series, and I'm really interested to see how it goes; this was a fascinating read.

Lilith is one of the few survivors of an all-Earth war that rendered the planet uninhabitable.  She wakes up alone, in the cell of a spaceship.  Aliens have taken her and some few hundred other survivors and kept them in hibernation for long years, until Earth is again ready for habitation.  Their species survives by trading DNA with other species every so often, and they plan to help humans re-establish life on earth -- but human children will no longer be quite human.  Lilith is expected to learn survival skills and become the leader of a group, but she's also expected to persuade everyone to go along with this plan.  She has no intention of doing so, but there don't seem to be any choices she can live with.

This is a great setup and a really good story that asks some really interesting questions.  I enjoyed it a lot, and I'll be reading more.

2016 Wrapup

Well, the world might not be going too well just now but my reading year was pretty good, so let's focus on that for a bit.

I read about 145 books, not counting fluffy mysteries and such.  I don't keep track of fiction vs. non-fiction or male vs. female authors or anything, so I haven't got any more statistics.  Literary highlights of the year included real-life events like a trip to the UK and meeting a favorite author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

I have a terrible time picking favorites, but a few great reads this year were:

Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Invisible Library
Gentian Hill
Our Town
The Big Green Tent
Before We Visit the Goddess
The Shepherd's Crown

Outwitting History
The Importance of Being Little
How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind
The History of the Franks 
The World Between Two Covers
The Lost Art of Dress
The Broken Road
Home Fires
Up From Slavery

With challenges, I am pretty happy with how I did:

Back to the Classics 2016: I aimed for, and read, all 12.

Mount TBR: I hit my goal of 24 books.

2016 Hard Core Re-Reading Challenge: I set a low goal of 10, and ended up reading 24.

Reading England Challenge: This was the second year of this challenge, and while I did read some books set in England, I pretty much completely failed to pay any attention to this challenge.  Sorry, o.  But I did actually VISIT so that was entirely awesome.

I tried to pay a lot of attention to my Classics Club list, with the happy result that I have just 8.5 books left to go before my March deadline.  I've been prepping a new list, but at the moment it is severely out of control and I think well over 150 books.  I pretty much just threw everything I'd ever like to read on it, so it's going to need some pruning.

I still have a bunch of actual books to post about and I suppose there's no hope of finishing clean and starting the new year with a blank slate, but who cares?  So I'm going to stop now and think about what book to tell you about next.  Here's hoping that 2017 will bring us all some good news, many happy days, and plenty of great books.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow

I really liked Erin Bow's first book, Plain Kate, so when I figured out that this book everyone was talking about was by Erin Bow, I finally went and got it.  It lived up to the hype, too!

Hundreds of years in the future, the world is kept mostly at peace by a hostage system: if you plan to rule a country, you must give up your child.  If you go to war (or are attacked), the child dies.  Talis, the super-computer that took over ruling the world when it decided that people were no good at it, is very strict about this.

Greta is the crown princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation (mostly Canada) and she has lived most of her life at the Precepture school with the other hostage children.  She is prepared to die if necessary, but hopes that with her 18th birthday only months away, she'll live to leave the school and become an adult.  When a new hostage, Elian, arrives, he is in no way accustomed to living according to the strict Precepture rules and the whole class is frequently punished for his rebellion.  Elian's grandmother runs a neighboring country and it looks very much as though neither Greta or Elian will live to see eighteen.

This is a really suspenseful story that keeps moving and has lots of great stuff in it to think about.  The politics are complex, the action rarely stops, and Bow does not do the expected with teen romance.  Even if you don't read a lot of YA, this is one worth getting, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, The Swan Riders.

I do have one beef with the world-building, though.  This is hundreds of years in the future, when the world's population is less than a billion (lots and lots of wars) and everyone lives, by necessity and force, in a frugal, eco-sensitive kind of way.  Food is grown locally, much of industry is given over to very high-tech methods of resource extraction from ruined areas, and so on.  Everyone is heavily focused on water; they use much less than we do per person, but it's scarce in most countries.  OK, so, if they're so much more technologically advanced than we are, why haven't they built way more water purification plants and desalinization plants?  We waste a lot of water and mostly don't bother to invest in cleaning it, but if we acted more responsibly, we could do a lot better.  If these future folks are so much better at it and need so much less, why haven't they figured out water?  It seems like the water problem is there to give them a reason to fight, not because it's a natural result of the conditions they live in.

Reading ALL Around the World: A Long-Term Club

*Deep breath*  OK, are you ready for a completely insane idea?  This is not a challenge; this is a long project.  Here we go....

There are nearly 200 countries on our planet; let's see if we can read books from all of them!  Or, since that's a large commitment, pick 50, 100, or whatever, as long as you have a minimum of 50.

I've been wishing for a while for some sort of project that involves reading something from every country, but this is a tricky prospect, since it is not always easy to find books from some countries.  Clearly this isn't something that will fit into a year-long challenge -- not for most of us!  So Esther of Chapter Adventures and I got together and thought a more long-term, open-ended project would be a good plan.  Esther designed this brilliant image!

The basic rules: 
    • Pick 50+ countries or go for the gold with all of them! The number depends on you.
    • Sign up at the project page here.
    • Read either fiction by a writer living in/from the country, OR a non-fiction book about it, such as memoir, history, culture, language.
    • There are no time constraints. You can decide on a timeline, but don't worry if you don't make it. If you're going for the full list, I'd recommend five years at least to complete it.
    • Keep track of your reading. Maybe fill in a list or build a Google map of all your books and countries. Maintain it at your blog and post about the books you read.
    • When you reach your goal, celebrate!
      The longer version of the rules, together with the signup widget, is here at the Reading All Around the World page.