Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Report: Pinion, by Jay Lake

Pinion, by Jay Lake

This is the finale in Lake's steampunk (Gearpunk? Clockpunk? Who can keep subgenres straight anymore?) trilogy. The earlier books were Mainspring and Escapement.

As with the previous books, Pinion presents a fully realized world that is as fascinating in its depth as it is bizarre in its construction. This book is a direct follow on from Escapement, continuing the adventures of Paolina Barthes, Boaz the Brass man, the Mask Childress as well as the clerk/assassin Kitchens, and the librarian Wang whose minor appearances in the earlier book evolve into central positions in this one

Each character has their own goal, the the book follows their progress by interleaving scenes from their point of view. Paolina is still searching for a way to control the power given her by the clockwork "gleam" she created. Her undisciplined use of it has brought England and China to war. Boaz is searching for her, although what he finds along the way would make him his people's savior if only he could be sure they ought to be saved. Childress wants to use her commandeered Chinese submarine and her stolen position among the Avebianco to bring an end to the war, but both sides would rather see her and her crew at the bottom of the sea. Kitchens seeks to discover the fate of the lost expedition to tunnel through the wall, and must find a way to carry out an assignment from his Queen which will cost him his life. Wang wants to bring the Mask to justice, but his own journey makes him wonder if she is the criminal his superiors have made her appear.

That's a lot for one paragraph, and it's a lot for a book. But it is a big, sprawling, complex epic that nonetheless manages an intimate tone as it follows each character's story. As before, the world building is lush and detailed, and I would kill for this man's ability with description that etches everything so indelibly in the reader's mind. Also as before, if I had to pick a weakness here, it would be plot. I thought many of the characters (Wang especially) seem to be along for the ride, acted on by other forces instead of acting on them. As a result, it felt to me as though their overall goals shifted and the eventual climaxes for each story struck me as weaker than they could have been.

Still, it says something that I found "plot issues" a minor quibble. This is a beautiful book.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Report: Coyote Destiny, by Allen Steele

Coyote Destiny, by Allen Steele

This is the fifth, and if the author is to be believed (and why wouldn't he?) last of the novels in the Coyote series.

A spaceship from Earth, the first in years, reaches Coyote with word that the messianic prophet called the Chaaz'maha survived the explosion that destroyed the first Coyote starbridge. The news sets off two story lines: the quest to bring the Chaaz'maha home, and the hunt for the person who created the explosives responsible.

This one struck me as more of a coda than a climax. Previous books have dealt with weighty threats to survival, liberty and faith. This one is more intimate, dealing with loss and hope on a personal level. The book also sees the passing of the last of the first generation of Coyote settlers, something that carries considerably emotional weight for those who have read the series since its beginning.

All in all, I found this less impressive than the earlier books... BUT! That doesn't make this any less an amazing novel. Steele draws characters which are familiar to us in a landscape which is unfamiliar and yet as detailed and consistent as any location we might visit here on Earth. Although this is the last book, the reader can still feel the future of Coyote stretching out beyond our ken, full of stories.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Junk Drawer Ramble

Current Reading: Pinion, by Jay Lake

Inspirational Quote: "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." -- Thomas A. Edison.

Yesterday, Virginia decided it didn't like it's current location, so it picked itself up and moved itself about a quarter of an inch. It then settled back down, either content with its new location or exhausted from the move. No one can be sure. There are no certainties when geography gets restless.

A few days ago, Jack Layton, a Canadian politician who lead the federal New Democratic Party to it's current position as official opposition, died of cancer. In a rare move, the Prime Minister of Canada decided to hold a state funeral to honor his fallen opponent. Mr. Layton was only beginning to exert his influence in federal politics, and I think the business of the Nation will suffer for his absence.

The 2011 WorldCon SFF convention was held this past weekend in Reno, Nevada. I was not there. My absence was, of course, noted by almost no-one except me. However, I've been watching the Hugo Awards, which is the next best thing to being there in exactly the same way that hearing someone talk about Matchbox cars is the next best thing to driving in the Grand Prix. Next year, WorldCon is in Chicago. I want to go. However, since it falls over the same weekend as my 23rd anniversary, the odds of my being able to convince Penelope to tolerate my going (or even... gasp... come with me) are about equivalent to the odds of an ice-cube surviving a thermonuclear detonation.


So: every house I know of has a junk drawer. I don't know why. I think it's traditional. The junk drawer's express purpose is to serve as a repository for all those bits and pieces and odds and ends that don't really have any other place. Shoe laces. Batteries. Mismatched screws. Extra scissors. Mine has nightlights and doorstops and baby-proofing hardware leftover from before Cassandra stopped crawling.

Junk drawers are notable for three things:

(1) They're always in the kitchen. If you're ever walking down the street and suddenly find yourself in need of a button, or elastic band, or a bit of string, just walk into any house. Find the kitchen and start opening drawers. You'll find what you need inside of five minutes. Guaranteed. I don't know why it's always in the kitchen. Probably because that's usually where you are when you realize you need something obscure. Possibly because it's one of the few non-bedroom rooms in the house that has lots of drawers.

(2) They have a tendency to swell. When you move in, you've got one junk drawer that's half-full of stuff you know you're going to need eventually. A few years later, the drawer's full. A few years after that, it's a drawer and a bin on the kitchen counter and you've got no idea what's in it. Once in a while, you open it up and go "Hey! That's where that went! I haven't seen that in months. I'll have to remember it's there!" Then you close the drawer and five minutes later you've forgotten all about whatever it was. Soon it becomes a closet... but only the first two shelves. Or four. Or, okay, the whole closet. We'll find somewhere else to keep the blankets.

My parents have a shed. It's basically a massive junk drawer outside the main house. It contains nothing anyone would ever possibly need, but it's all stuff they don't want to get rid of because... well, you might never need it but the moment you get rid of it you're going to wish you hadn't.

(3) They contain everything. The cure for cancer is sitting in someone's junk drawer right now. So is Jimmy Hoffa. The end of Schubert's unfinished symphony was stuck in a junk drawer and lost to the ages. Einstein postulated that the average junk drawer contains a sufficient mass of esoteric matter as to form wormholes. Every junk drawer is in fact merely a visible manifestation of a single universal drawer which contains the missing dark matter required to close the universe.

Of course, the mathematics proving this were lost when Albert stuck the proof in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ad Astra

Current Reading: Scientific American. I have a lot of issues to catch up on. I'm about 6 months behind.

Inspirational Quote: "Per ardua ad astra." -- Motto of the RCAF.

On July 21st, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center. It was the last flight of a program that began in 1981 with the maiden voyage of the Columbia. I remember watching the mission, although I can't recall details. I was 13, and it seemed like the stars were opening up to us. Within a few years, I thought, we'll have a space station as a jumping off point for Luna. Then, from Luna, in a few years more, we'll have the first manned expedition to Mars.

Of course, I was disappointed. But then, the aliens from Close Encounters never landed in real life either, and I'm STILL disappointed by that.

For the next 3 years, I watched every launch I could. After that, I was at University and spent more time reading and making things go bang than I did watching the news. The rest of the world grew more apathetic as well, as shuttle launches began their migration from front-page news to footnotes in the newspaper science section... if it had one. Of course, the disasters disrupted the program and made the shuttle news again, but on the whole, space travel became a regular part of life on earth: "Pauly Shore has made a movie that isn't funny, the space shuttle Discovery did something, and the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs..."

Now, the program is over. Outer space is once more a distant frontier, with the Americans depending on the Russians to act as taxi drivers if they need a trip to the ISS.

We were discussing the demise of the shuttle program a few days ago when a friend asked me what the program had contributed. What had it done? Why was it a big deal? I thought about it for some time before giving the wrong answer: something about the ceramics knowledge that was developed while they were trying to create the heat shield tiles.

The real answer is that science isn't a matter of breakthroughs. It's about expanding knowledge, and the shuttle was a tool that made possible a myriad of incremental expansions. I don't know of any major leaps forward in science or technology that the shuttle created, but I know hundreds of experiments, some by school kids, would never have yielded results without the shuttle's ability to carry them into orbit.

But more important, the shuttle was a dream given form (a quote from Babylon 5). A generation of kids grew up seeing the shuttle launches and landings. They saw space not as something distant and unachievable, but as a place next door that they could visit someday. Heck, they even let Canadians on the thing. We never got around to going back to the moon. Mars is just a place we throw big hunks of expensive metal at every few years. But for a little while, we regularly stepped outside our atmosphere and stood on the threshold of the infinite, looking out at the still-distant stars and in at the blue marble where we lived.

By the time the shuttles retired, they were 30 years old. Aeons in technology terms. They are museum pieces now, as they deserve to be. They are reminders of what we can achieve, and of what we have yet to achieve, and I'm going to miss them.

*Image courtesy of NASA.