Friday, March 13, 2009

Yesterday I finished Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick.

The fact that the name is an obvious play on the Christian "Stations of the Cross" gives you a hint about the books contents.

Set in some unspecified future, the novel involves the efforts of a bureaucrat to track down a native who may have stolen forbidden technology on a planet that is about to go through a periodic cataclysmic shift that will drown half the planet. The native has become a leader with mystic pretensions and most of the book consists of a long distance duel between the native and the bureaucrat where the native tries to lead the bureaucrat into various traps and the bureaucrat just tries to find the native.

Along the way are various pseudo mystical experiences and side stories.

Overall, it was an interesting read but with some problems. The background and world that the story takes place in is never made clear. Swanwick choses to follow a style that just throws the reader into the deep end of a different world and expect them to learn to swim without explicit instruction. That can work well, see Stephenson's Anathem for example, but in this case the description is too scanty and the result is a lack of clarity and, at times, a difficulty in following exactly what is happening or why.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

I just finished Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock.

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a study of epic fantasy Moorcock wrote back in the 70s and then revised in the 80s. As such, it obviously missed the Harry Potter phenomenon and the resurgence of Tolkien that followed the Lord of the Rings movies, but I think that he wouldn't have liked either of them. From this book, he is fairly dismissive of Tolkien (referring to it as "epic Pooh") and my guess is that he also wouldn't like Rowling's writing. His main criteria seems to be the lyricism of the writing. He brings up a number of other points, but they are all illustrated by samples of writing that are either praised or dismissed based on the writing alone. This is not surprising since he was a leader of the British "New Wave" SF movement, a movement towards more "literary" writing in genre fiction.

I was hoping for more history of the form, and relations between various authors. Instead, this is mainly a critique, and a flawed one, since he does not provide compelling evidence why he considers some authors better than others, just snippets of their work.

Today we went to see the movie version of Watchmen. I liked it but my companion, who hadn't read the graphic novel, didn't.

It is remarkably faithful to the story, even though there is one major change to the ending done for fairly obvious reasons. It also captures the look of the comic very well, as well as the spirit. There are a few problems - in particular, the musical choices are either weak or obvious uses of classic rock, the non-super powered Watchmen seem to have near superhuman strength, speed and resilience that is lacking in the book and the cramming of almost all of the material into the movie give it a somewhat frantic, hard to grasp feel.

But the movies biggest problem is something well beyond the filmmakers control - the fading of the threat of nuclear war in the popular consciousness. Back when the book was written, and set, the fact that nuclear war was a possibility, and the possible resulting horrors was a part of popular culture and strongly felt in the psyche of most intelligent people. Today, that feeling is not only not present, but it is almost totally forgotten as part of popular culture. This makes the central issue of the film, the threat of nuclear war and what some characters do about it, feel strange and unfamiliar to the watcher and undermine the emotional center of the story, making the extreme actions taken seem more grotesque than they appeared at the time.

Continuing my recent run of legal thrillers, I finished The Runaway Jury by John Grisham yesterday.

Basically an excuse for listing all the reasons one should hate tobacco companies, The Runaway Jury is a legal thriller without action and with very little law of any interest. The plot is about a couple who find a way to manipulate the jury of a major tobacco case. They contact both the plaintiff and the defense to try to sell the verdict. Large sections of the book are reports of what the various witnesses had to say about the "evil" tobacco companies. The characters are as wooden and generic as can be and the twist ending, where the couple turn out to be very anti-tobacco and come up with a way to deliver the verdict for the plaintiff and make a small fortune for themselves at the same time, is both obvious and unbelievable. Even a legal laymen like myself could see the legal mistakes and oversights of the characters.

Overall, a very weak book.