krpalmer: (Default)
The Digital Antiquarian led off an eight-part series on Tetris with an introduction describing the first computers in the Soviet Union (which helps show how plenty of things could be said about that game) and their initial application to cybernetic economic planning. That did sort of surprise me by itself. Aware of how mainframe computers in the West could be viewed with suspicion ("Big Blue," after all, has the same initials as "Big Brother"), it had been easy enough to suppose that had some bearing on things over in the "Mirror World." (As it turned out, though, a later entry in the series did touch on attempts to apply computers to surveillance...)

The discussion that followed that first part made several references to a book by Francis Spufford called Red Plenty, described as a historical novel footnoted with hard research about the Khruschev thaw and the years when it had seemed the Soviet Union was growing faster than capitalism could manage. Looking up more information on the book, I became interested enough to order a copy through the nearest bookstore.
Thoughts on the book and thoughts inspired by it )
krpalmer: (Default)
Having managed to read a bit more fiction in the past little while than I've thought with mixed emotions to have got through for some time now, I found myself going a little deeper down a pile I'd bought from a library book sale to begin a science fiction novel that had managed to catch my eye there. The back-cover blurb for Christopher Priest's Inverted World had described a city being winched along tracks laid down in front of it and taken up from behind, struggling to pursue a moving "optimum" with fatal consequences should it keep falling back. I could think of other works of science fiction where humans struggled to survive in inexplicably altered worlds, and wondered how this one would turn out.
At the age of six hundred and fifty miles... )
krpalmer: (anime)
The fourth volume of Legend of the Galactic Heroes was one whose translation hadn't been promised back when the first appeared, so it was as welcome as any of them so far to me. I hadn't seen the part of the anime adapting it back at my university's anime club, so while I do have to admit to having managed to see it since then, as I read the book I did have a slight feeling of greater unfamiliarity. At the same time, I did have a sense the story was moving into an ominous endgame as the military genius Reinhard von Lohengramm exploits idealistic exiles and self-centred politicians while colluding with interstellar oligarchs to set up a full-scale invasion of his tottering opponent. I do keep thinking the focus of the series on "the appearance of an epoch-opening genius" can be balanced against "is it also possible a good many 'ordinary' people might only be convinced of that?", but just because a work of fiction raises a question it doesn't have to answer it itself.

Something about the translation did start feeling a bit odd to me as I worked through this volume, and I wound up going back to the earlier books to see they'd been translated by a different person. Whether this amounted to "an unfortunate cost-saving measure" or was just an inescapable necessity, I don't know. I had wondered on the way through if the entire book would amount to "preparations for battle," only for diversionary warfare to break out in the final chapters. This included a hand-to-hand battle between two high-placed subordinates, if one without quite as much significance as some might have anticipated. On getting to the end of the book without a preview page, though, I got to worrying again about this amounting to "everything hinges on how this volume sells if it hasn't already..." Looking a little further, however, did turn up some preorder listings for two further volumes. As I understand it this still won't complete the translation of the series, but there does seem to be a bit more to look forward to at the moment.
krpalmer: (anime)
In getting to read the Legend of the Galactic Heroes novels in translation at last, I am always sort of conscious of having managed to see their anime adaptation first. (At times, too, buying the novels does sort of seem a no doubt inadequate effort to try and "make up" for just how I saw the anime...) At the end of the second novel, I was as inclined as anything to keep seeing the story as pausing at a moment of great impact, but remembering a change in the anime's opening and closing credits (after a good number of episodes spun out of two novels) was one more sign of that. As the third novel picked up, I could see the Galactic Empire's protagonist Reinhard von Lohengramm as having been isolated by that, with his not nearly as totipotent counterpart on the other side of the interstellar space opera war, Free Planets Alliance Admiral Yang Wen-li, isolated in turn by being hauled before a kangaroo board of inquiry. I can understand this steady emphasis on the degradation of the Alliance (with an enigmatic third party meddling all the while) troubling people who might read the novel now; at the same time, I'm conscious of having become more dubious about invocations of "front-line military leaders who possess inbuilt dignity and reasonableness" since I first read the Robotech novelizations long years ago. The one point that might be made in favour of Legend of the Galactic Heroes could be that by this point in the story, the aggressive Alliance commanders have been killed off.
Space opera in the meantime )
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Happening on the Wikipedia article for a book I'd heard of a fair while ago as one of the first serious critical looks at science fiction, I was reading almost idly through its information on Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder when all of a sudden I noticed it mention there was now an ebook edition. With dawning interest I made a quick search of the iBooks catalogue and discovered the ebook was available there as well. Eventually, I suppose, I could get around to "buying a first book for another e-reader application," but not having to do that in this case was fine for me.

On starting to read through In Search of Wonder, though, I did realise it wasn't quite the book I'd imagined it to be. As with some of the first science fiction novels linked to the tradition that grew out of American pulp magazines (which is of course a different thing altogether from "the first science fiction novels ever"), it was put together from small pieces from magazines. Knight's critical reviews of SF novels of the 1950s are incisive, often entertaining, and do seem written in such a way they perhaps didn't goad me to an uncomfortably familiar recoiling feeling when they were more negative than my own old reactions, but perhaps I'd imagined something constructed more as a unit. The book was revised a few times, and happening on a chapter about a single nonfiction book dwelling worryingly on irrigation projects spreading disease was one of the oddest touches for all that I could suppose Knight saw that point as needing to be made no matter what. At the very end of the book, after sorting out that a caustic take on "mainstream success" had been written in the 1950s rather than, say, the early 1980s, all of a sudden Knight was mentioning William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson; there'd at least been enough of a break to tell this was one of the revisions.

In any case, it did become interesting to see period opinions of books that, by the time I'd got around to them, were presented as "enduring classics" (as much as I've had to face how those "classics" have had some of their patina wear thin since then). I began to contemplate a two-volume boxed set of "classic novels" I'd bought not that long ago (although I never quite got around to writing a post about its second volume) and Knight wrote reviews of most of them, only for most of those reviews to include a fair bit of criticism. Two of the novels seemed to draw ire for invoking "striking images" that were nevertheless scientifically implausible; I have to admit this did provoke a thought or two about "gatekeeping" in general for all that I could see the specific point. Perhaps, though, it was the thoroughly negative takes on books I'd never heard of (for what I could see as perfectly good reasons) that were the most entertaining parts of the book, even if that might hint at quixotic quests ahead.
krpalmer: (Default)
Looking through the bookstore, I was passing by the remaindered shelves when one particular title broke through the unfortunate sense of disconnection I just might all but wallow in when it comes to science fiction these days. I couldn't quite remember where the impression I'd heard of John Scalzi's Lock In before to have it catch my attention had come from, but in picking up a copy and reading the blurb inside the cover I thought I could take a chance on it, remembering I had liked his book Redshirts; it was cheap enough anyway.
A slang-driven digression )
krpalmer: (Default)
Always looking for my next book to read, I dug into a somewhat older pile and pulled out a library discard I'd managed to buy at a book sale a while ago. Thinking back, I don't suppose I'd have hesitated much at the chance to get an old copy of Gerard K. O'Neill's The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, but I'm pretty sure that once I had the book I only skimmed through it and then left it to sit. You may not have to fear the ominous future "if these immense space colonies aren't built for the good of everyone" sketched out early in the book is now inescapable, or even springboard off to heap blame on familiar agencies for not having your ticket up to "L5" already (as I recall the foreword by someone else to a more modern reprint did), to still dwell on the whole "I resent this gee-whiz technology from popular works in decades past not being available yet" attitude. At the same time, though, I was quite aware there are people other than embittered space buffs who would recognize O'Neill's designs; they were pulled into the setting of the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, adding a distinguishing factor other than "just" "giant piloted robots of a particular design."
Selling a concept versus building a story )
krpalmer: (anime)
When the "A Certain Magical Index" "light novels" started being officially translated and sold over here, I went ahead and bought them where I hadn't started into too many of the other franchises Yen Press was beginning to turn out. There might have been the hope, though, that this would pull me a bit further into the franchise, and say a bit more about the interest of others that had caught my attention years ago, than their anime adaptation had. (For that matter too, the "A Certain Scientific Railgun" manga does seem to throw in references to the larger franchise every so often.) The only problem seemed the feeling that working through the translated prose was as much of a slog as the handful of other light novel series from Yen Press I have read. (To be as fair as I can, I have read a few novels translated from the Japanese that, while probably not considered "great literature" by those who had arranged the translation, were published long enough ago their translations might not have been "quick, cheap, and dirty," and there could be a resemblance between how I reacted to their prose structure and those of the light novels.)

Then, one day I saw the sixth volume of the series on the bookstore shelf, told myself I'd be buying enough manga that week without it, and left it. I did the same thing when I saw the seventh volume and then the eighth, aware by then a frayed thread was coming very close to snapping even with "Railgun" characters on the eigth cover.

On one more regular visit to the bookstore, though, I realised I wouldn't be buying very much new manga that week, and there was still a copy of the sixth Certain Magical Index novel on the shelves. I picked it up, perhaps even with the thought this was a final toss of fate, but also remaining aware it was the last volume to have been adapted into the anime I did see. When I started reading it, though, all of a sudden I was getting through it much more easily than I could remember with the last several volumes. The translation didn't seem to have changed much, but perhaps the story was quicker to get to the action. I even got to remembering an old impression the anime had managed to pick up a bit near its end from "episodes of standing around and talking per plot arc, and then one burst of concluding action." It had also concluded with allusions to events yet to come; there are two more volumes already out over here, of course.
krpalmer: (anime)
The second Legend of the Galactic Heroes novel has now been translated. At the back of this volume, there's the promise of at least one more instalment to be released, although I still don't know if the gloomy anticipations of other fans that "of course these books won't sell well enough to be fully released" will be realised. In any case, this volume gets a fair way into the story as I've experienced it in its anime adaptation, if still seeming to be a self-contained instalment in the story by itself. Both galactic factions turn to deal with internal dissent, which might only seem to feed into the air of reinforced genius of a still-rising star if not, perhaps, for a very significant loss at the close of the book.

I don't know if the translation has improved to any extent from the first volume, although I did seem able to cruise through it where I've found myself slogging through some of Yen Press's translated "light novels"; whether it's just a matter of this particular subject matter appealing more to me is a reasonable question. I did get to thinking again about the visual reality provided by the anime adaption. In the first volume, the uniforms of the opposing fleets are described well enough that I could envision what was ultimately drawn in my mind; however, there didn't seem anything said about the civilians in the corrupt democracy on one side (comments about the war eating away at its general vitality seem something I don't remember from the anime) dressing in late-twentieth-century fashion or the civilians in the aristocratic empire on the other side wearing late-eighteenth-century European fashions. There are also descriptions of the ultimate space fortress Iserlohn that seem different from the "liquid metal" surface it got in the anime as if to distinguish it from the most familiar visions of spherical space fortresses. However, the novel did get to setting up the "space-ax" combat that's long provided a more striking alternative to just zapping opponents. I can wonder how much more will provoke reflections back to the anime, but I've kept finding interest in what we've managed to get.
krpalmer: (Default)
Rarely one to pass up a book sale, I stopped in at one at the library in my home town. Racks and tables of small paperbacks had been set up outside, but as I mulled over some of the old science fiction novels there (and in the end didn't get many of them, although some of them I already had in other editions), a biography of King Edward VII of England caught my eye. When I went inside and saw a second biography of him on the crowded tables there, that made my mind up to get both of them. I knew the general story of the turn-of-the-twentieth century king (including his long wait through the nineteenth century to become king), but thought a bit more detail and some different perspectives would be interesting.
One things leads to another, and then another )
krpalmer: (Default)
After seeing The Martian at the movies last year, I did contemplate reading the novel it had been adapted from. Whenever I saw it at the bookstore, though, I never quite got around to buying a copy. It took seeing it at the library before I resolved to sign it out.

I have to mention the bad news first, though, that there's a moment in the book where a minor character throws in the gratuitous comment that he only wants "Star Wars original trilogy" memorabilia in exchange for a feat of programming. That events have already cast an ever so slightly different light on that didn't help much, and it gets harder every time I see something like that to respect that other people may have been less willing to enforce positivity than I was and am, and easier to just suspect a lazy bundle of reactions to pop culture taking over; somehow, it even casts a shadow over the story-long joke that Mark Watney is stranded with nothing but 1970s TV shows and disco music to occupy himself in between having to stay alive.

However, the book didn't get around to editorializing how it was only possible to send people to Mars by rejecting the official plans from around the time it was being written, which might have been the larger part of what had kept me leery about reading it even after the movie hadn't concluded with genius private inventors rescuing incompetent government employees. As well, I'd already known the novel contained a number of crises to be overcome later on in the story that the movie hadn't included. At one point, Watney accidentally burns out the replacement radio he had re-established contact with Earth with; I got to remembering that part of the movie and wondering if it still ought to be interpreted that way. A somewhat later scene where he's driving his rover into a dust storm everyone but him knows about did set up an interesting and somehow different challenge. In all, though, it does have me remembering the movie is now available for streaming on Netflix and wondering if I'll be able to find or make the time to watch it again.
krpalmer: (anime)
When I joined my university's anime club, more than a few years ago now, members in the know were talking up a series called Legend of the Galactic Heroes. By the time I graduated, the club had started showing the series "fansubbed," and I did find its austere military-political space opera set to classical music interesting. In the years that followed I learned more about the series, but the sense did also build the time when it might have been licensed for an official release over here had passed; even its invocation as a way of showing just how refined your tastes were, or how much better anime had been once upon a time, seemed to fade away.

Then, all of a sudden it was announced the series had been licensed at last; what was more, another announcement declared the first of the novels the anime had been adapted from were to be translated. The conditional nature of "first" did lead to some dark suspicions that would be all we'd get, but as we keep waiting for the anime to show up the very first novel has been released. I did take longer than some to get around to reading it, but I have now read it.
Thinking back, looking ahead )
krpalmer: (Default)
Trilogies are as inevitable as ever, I suppose. When I did hear a third book in Lev Grossman's The Magicians series was now available, though, I didn't rush to find it. After that, it took hearing the novels had been adapted into a television series to get me thinking about that story again; I began recording episodes only to find I couldn't find the time to watch them, and when it was a choice between recording another one of them and recording another old movie I left the series behind. (I at least don't have to watch through films shown on Turner Classic Movies to edit out commercials before recording them to DVDs.) However, when I stopped into the local library for a few minutes I happened to see The Magician King on a display shelf, and that got me wondering, so I headed off to the "G" shelf to see a copy of The Magician's Land. Once I had it signed out, I got through it with the speed that can surprise me when reading novels these days.

If there was one thing I'd like to say helped there, it was the impression that by this point in the series the protagonist Quentin Coldwater had been forced to grow up somewhat. What I'd sometimes seemed compelled to see as a relentless, familiar assault of "geek culture references" seemed toned down in his case, anyway. Perhaps it really had always been his friends who were more likely to make those references, though; Quentin did wind up making some of them in some particularly stressful situations, to say nothing of cooking bacon to help get through one tough patch right after what had seemed a great feat accomplished wound up a little more ambiguous. I don't know quite why that grates on me the way it does, beyond the possibility it's about assuming a "correct opinion" that doesn't take some things seriously even as it refuses to find something else apparently worthy of attention. I did, in any case, get to wondering just how I would have reacted to a hypothetical student at the magical academy Brakebills being presented as "not having got over a teen interest in anime" and declaring herself a "magical girl"...

The novel as a whole might have seemed less inclined to indulge in the shock value of louche young things in a "faux Harry Potter meets faux Narnia" setting (although the characters do still drink like fishes). Its structure flashed back and forth to begin with to set up the ambiguous situation in the very first chapter, but this didn't carry all the way through. I didn't think of this as a burden; the conclusion in fact seemed quite satisfying. That got me wondering about returning to the first novels and reading the whole thing over again.
krpalmer: (Default)
Not that long after wondering if there might be problems with tossing around the term "Dunning-Kruger effect," I ran into that effect being mentioned in a book I was already reading, Robert Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind. (That title did get me wondering if some would expect "just" a treatise on materialism, but the book seemed more subtle than that to me in that, while it in no way tried to suggest "any mystery demands mysticism," it discussed modern neuroscience while questioning whether we can yet go from what we can detect of brain function using scanning equipment to conclude "the mind can explain itself," much less that minds are predictable.) Burton commented that "there's no point in name-calling; after all, none of us can be certain that we are not one of the affected." Again, it's perhaps because I saw the effect twice invoked against people I'd be ready enough to suppose aren't questioning their own conclusions enough that I'm willing to be humble, even if it's only "making a show of it."
krpalmer: (Default)
There's a perpetual book sale table at my local bank branch. Most of the titles on it are mass-market paperbacks in genres I brush by, but I do keep looking. When I saw one book with the title "Bimbos of the Death Sun," it grabbed my attention just like I'm sure it was supposed to. Looking at the back cover explained it was actually a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention, looking inside the front cover explained its author Sharyn McCrumb's other novels were also mysteries, and that got my interest that much more. I bought the book, intrigued in a bit of "cross-pollination" I hadn't seen before, but as I read it I did get to wondering if it now was most interesting, or best viewed, as a historical artifact.
The goings-on at Rubicon )
krpalmer: (Default)
A few years ago, I found an article in a fifty-year-old issue of the arts, culture, and history magazine "Horizon" that intrigued and amused me with its thoughts about the then-hypothetical idea of "universal libraries" on that old stand-by of microfilm. In going back my collection, though, I happened on an editorial comment in the very next issue that seemed that much more up-to-date. In discussing an article by Gilbert Highet dwelling on the bottlenecks ancient texts had to pass through to reach the era of printing (along with the whole "decline and fall" business and ideological pruning, there were issues such as having to copy papyrus scrolls to parchment codices), it managed to make a suggestion of its own:
The quote at some length )
krpalmer: (Default)
A book at the library about "Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Rise of Fake News" caught my attention, and I decided to sign out "Broadcast Hysteria". While I might think of the radio program as a "secondary" development from H.G. Wells's original novel, I've heard the stories about the later work too, including watching a television documentary about it just a few years ago. It turned out the book's author A. Brad Schwartz had worked on that documentary as well, turning up letters people had written to Welles and the FCC right after the radio program to get a new perspective on the old tales of "mass panic" and the more recent suggestions those tales were in fact "tall."

Drawing on the contemporary records, the book squarely addresses the newspaper reports of panic (and the suggestions the whole problem had been people "changing stations"), but humanizes the people who were frightened from the object lessons they might have been made. In tracking beyond that to the later career of Orson Welles (also touching on in passing the conventional wisdom that the only thing that got in the way of Citizen Kane was the unwarranted hostility of William Randolph Hearst) and then the contemporary media landscape, I suppose the book just might invite a few loaded comments from some about it "overstepping itself." It got me thinking, though, and one thing it brought to mind was something it didn't touch on itself.

In describing the broadcast itself and the reactions recorded, the book suggested the people who panicked the most (if to "flee" only in rare cases) weren't thinking so much of "the Martians" as turning half-heard dialogue into more realistic contemporary threats. That had me thinking of how some of the first people to say the US Air Force was "covering up flying saucers," just as if to not believe "definitive proof" unidentified flying objects are alien spacecraft is hidden somewhere would be to face the possibility it doesn't exist, were thinking back to the newspaper reports of the the broadcast and concluding aliens were something people would uniquely "panic" about. Things shifted and twisted from there until the seemingly interesting idea of "life out there" was all but lost under accusations of the wickedness of authority, but I did get to wondering if they just might have been different had a subtler picture been known.
krpalmer: (anime)
I've said a few times already how I was impressed by the first Mardock Scramble anime movie, more or less because of the surprising impression it felt "just like" the science fiction movies and OVAs that often featured at my university's anime club showings two decades ago, only with the added polish of an age when certain people kept complaining how that kind of stuff wasn't being made any more with dark allusions to the current tastes of the paying audience in Japan. I waited for the two movies to follow to both be available over here so I wouldn't be leaving off on another cliffhanger, but in that wait I happened to buy the seven-volume manga adaptation, and then the translated novel both of those versions were based on. It didn't take too long after watching all the movies for me to get to the manga, but it did take me a while to start into the doorstop of the novel, wondering a bit about how I read plenty of non-fiction these days but not much prose fiction.

I worked my way through the novel all the same; the translation seemed more than competent. What I did find myself thinking, though, was that it didn't seem that different from the movies in particular (the manga invented and tweaked a few things along the way); I could definitely bring the animated visuals back to mind, and didn't get too much of a feeling that things were being "explained at last" after what had been established in the anime and manga. (I did notice, though, that one of the grotesques sent after the heroine Rune Balot and her talking, transforming mouse companion Oeufcoque to set up the action climax of the third part had just "modified his voice to sound like a woman's" rather than having started that way.) I did, in any case, seem to pick up on all the "egg"-related names just a bit more than before; maybe it would have been different when they were English words mixed in with Japanese. As written science fiction I did get to wondering if it might not be rated as highly as works that "work through their ideas" instead of just invoking what others have already developed, but as a character study it remained interesting.
krpalmer: (apple)
I went and bought Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs (produced with the cooperation of Jobs himself, as the promotional talk said) right when it was published; the national bookstore chain did seem to be pushing it, and it was that much easier to get it with the small bookstore in the shopping mall on my corner still open then. As I read through it, though, I did seem to wind up somehow dispirited that the Jobs presented in it, for all of his increased success as a businessman, never seemed to get past petty tantrums and casual, unfeeling cruelty to those in the wrong place at the wrong time: the closest he might have come in the biography to personal growth was a broken-down admission near the end of his life that he was who he was and couldn't change.
Maybe you can't discuss one book without discussing another )
krpalmer: (Default)
I happened to look in the right direction at the library to see the books on polar exploration, and one of the titles, "An Empire of Ice," caught my eye. Even though I might have imagined the book from that to bring up the usual arguments for "British polar incompetence," I took it off the shelf anyway to see the subtitle brought up "science" in the Antarctic, and remembered an article in Scientific American from a few years ago during the centennial of the first journeys to the South Pole. (After finishing the book, I hunted out the issue and saw the article had also been written by the book's author Edward J. Larson.) In the introduction, Larson mentioned how whenever someone learned just what he was writing about they would dwell on the contemporary conventional wisdom of Robert Falcon Scott as the compleat incompetent and Ernest Shackleton as the man who brought the men under his immediate command back alive. (Roald Amundsen, who closed out the era when polar explorers would only get "nearest" to their goals through repeated success, seems to have made it look so easy that efforts to make a big deal of him still don't seem to direct too much attention his way.) He promised that in focusing on the scientific efforts of the two British explorers he wouldn't dwell on the contemporary perceptions, which got my attention enough to make me sign the book out.

While there have certainly been efforts made to condemn Scott's scientific ambitions too by pointing out how Edward Wilson, "Birdie" Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard went through "The Worst Journey in the World" to collect emperor penguin eggs during the months-long Antarctic night on the hope the embryos in them would prove some theories soon disproven anyway or making a big deal of Scott's party pausing to collect some geological samples on their doomed journey back from the South Pole, the book puts them and the other efforts in perspective, connecting them to previous scientific expeditions and contemporary theories. Along with the collecting of biological and geological samples, the study of ice (although I wondered if the explorers suggesting the Antarctic ice had retreated when they reached it might attract undue attention from some) and plenty of meteorology (Larson brings up Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March," which argues Scott was caught by unexpectedly and unusually cold weather, but doesn't make as much of a point of that himself), there does happen to be some pointing out of the contemporary racism that sought "scientific" justification. In the end, though, the book suggests that the scientific side of the expeditions, in being downplayed in favour of mere "ordeals," left things open to be taken apart by a later and less easily impressed age. The question that gets asked in different contexts about whether "knowledge" is "worth losing lives for" may still lurk all the same, although I did get to thinking how Cherry-Garrard's own book tries to tackle it in closing. Given that my strange sympathy for "convenient targets" can extend to some historical figures, I was willing to accept this book in any case.

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