Blind book dates at ABC

window dressing for the ABC blind book date

So yesterday I went to the Blind Book Date at the American Book Center. This was an idea that their sf book buyer Tiemen Zwaan had come up with, an extension of his own experiments in selling books wrapped in brown paper with only crypic clues to reveal their identity. Now it was our turn to both baffle our fellow readers and crack their own codes. It made me realise one thing: I’m woefully under read.

I’d expected only sf or fantasy books would be represented, but in fact there was a wide spread of books, both fiction and non-fiction being offered by the 17-18 or so participants. Some of the clues were obvious, some obvious with hindsight, some had me racking my brains trying to remember what book this had to be, while some were brilliant but impossible to guess, like the book shown above. The woman who brought the book on the left had actually hidden her clues in the wrapping paper itself. Clever but perhaps too clever and it was only because somebody else brought the same book with more conventional clues, that people were able to guess which book it was…

As for my book, the clues I brought were:

  • Secret History
  • Kim Philby
  • Cold War Magic
  • Mount Ararat

Can you tell what book it is?

Incidently, the smartypants at Making Light have been hosting their own blind book date party, not just writing cryptic clues, but writing them in the style of a different author, which is far too clever by half.

Better than Spider Robinson’s fanfic any day

The person who wrote this little The Rolling Stones vignette really has Heinlein’s writing patterns down pat:

“Chief Engineer Grandma?” Meade said sweetly, ducking her head into the room. “Would you please tell Buster to stay out of my garden? He may think he’s clever, but he’s killing my broccoli. I’d tell him myself, but he obviously doesn’t listen to me.”

Hazel looked across the chessboard at Lowell. “Best do as she says, Junior,” she commented.

“But she’s wrong about the salinity gradients-” he protested.

“Grandmother dearest,” Meade said, her hands on her hips. “Why does everyone aboard this ship assume I am incapable of doing math?”

“Beats me,” Hazel said. “I tutored you myself; you can handle a differential with the best of ‘em.”

Really. The voices, the way the characters speak, that mixture of banter and infodumping, it’s all prime Heinlein and Kalirush has done a great job capturing it. I wish they’d do more Heinlein stories.

Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch

Cover of Broken Homes


Broken Homes
Ben Aaronovitch
357 pages
published in 2013

Peter Grant was a normal copper until he noticed he could talk to dead people in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Now he’s part of the Folly, the Metropolitian Police’s special unit for magic, which apart from him consists of one elderly but backwards aging survivor of the glory days of British wizardry before the war, as well as his colleague Lesley May, Toby the dog and Molly, the folly’s housekeeper of indefinitive species, currently experimenting with cooking from one of Jamie Oliver’s recipe books, to mixed results.

Broken Homes is the fourth novel in the Rivers of London series. There has been a mini boom in London based fantasy these past few years and Aaronovitch isn’t the only one either who has his protagonist working for the Met. There’s a sort of inevitability about the idea. London with its long history and dominant presence in the psyche of not just Britain, but arguably the world, just fits as a nexus of magic in a way that say Amsterdam wouldn’t. Of course the Met would have its own magical police force, some hangover from Victorian times, staffed with aging public schoolboys, into which the thoroughly modern London figure of police constable Peter Grant fits awkwardly. That tension between the gentlemanly tradition of magic and modern policing is part of the charm of the series.

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Vuurwerk Vijftig!


Jingle Vara's Vuurwerk (by Vengeance) by Vara's Vuurwerk on Grooveshark

Whoa. Nostalgia. Back when I was a young metalhead, in the long ago days of the late eighties/early nineties, every Tuesday night I would listen to the one radio show that actually played metal, Vara’s Vuurwerk, presented by Dutch singer and media personality Henk Westbroek, with occasional guest presenting by the network’s big boss Marcel van Dam. Hearing that jingle for the first time in years brings back memories, especially of the programme’s annual Top Fifty Metal Songs, broadcast over Christmas and chosen by the listeners. The 1990 edition especially, extended to 65 songs because that was the network’s 65th anniversary year, molded a lot of my tastes in metal. Now, thanks to some enterprising soul, a selection of Vuurwerk programmes, mostly from 1987 but with excerpts from that 1990 list, are available on Grooveshark.

Your Happening World (November 11th through November 18th)

  • Divinity Wiki
  • Kenneth Goldsmith – If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist – It is our obligation as educators and intellectuals to make sure that the bulk of our production ends up there, preferably with free and unfettered access to all. This means not making materials available only for those affiliated with our institution, our students, or our colleagues, but giving free and unfettered access for all. Doing so means posting our works on the world wide web so that anyone, anywhere, at any time can have access to them. In this way, we will ensure that our work exists
  • Free French sf
  • De post-betoging blues | Jan Blommaert (en z’n gedachten) – Meer nog: het is net het overweldigende succes van deze manifestatie dat moest worden verkleurd tot een antidemocratische ramp door media – wiens media, nietwaar? – die dit scenario al wekenlang in schetsen hadden gezet. De focus op de rellen is dan ook – paradoxaal – een signaal dat de betoging een gigantisch succes was. Zo’n succes dat zij die dit vervelend vinden erg bang geworden lijken te zijn en nu al, bij het begin van de hete herfst, tot extreem verdraaide beeldvorming moeten over gaan.
  • False Steps | The Space Race as it might have been – Hi there. My name is Paul Drye and False Steps is my project blog for a history book of the same name which looks at the Space Race as it might have been. Beginning with what I think to be the very prehistoric beginning of manned space travel (the so-called Magdeburg rocket of 1932) I aim to trace the ways in which people tried to travel to space and came close to accomplishing it, all the way through Nazi German rocketry, the post-WWII fallow period, the crazy times of Sputnik through Apollo, the second down time of the 1970s, and the gradual revival of human space travel from then into the present day.

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Cover of A History of the Vandals


A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012

Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.

This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.

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James Nicoll’s Great Heinlein Juveniles Plus The Other Two Reread

With Podkaybe of Mars, does not end well:

Unlike Elsie, Jackie, or Peewee, poor Podkayne is cut off at the knees before her adventure begins. Podkayne can dream of commanding a space ship but she can never see that dream realized because her narrative purpose is to serve as a doleful lesson to readers. This is where misplaced female ambition can lead! Well, if not Podkayne’s misplaced ambition, then her mother’s. Where the classic Heinlein juveniles are about boys reaching for the stars, Podkayne of Mars is a hectoring lecture, telling women to stay in their place.

To be fair, it’s not just Podkayne of Mars James has problems with, as shown by the list of the other reviews, below. It’s abundantly clear that many of the problematic opinions Heinlein had in his later books towards the proper role of women, sex, incest and consent were not a product of his medical troubles nor a new development, but present already in his juveniles. For somebody lauded for being so forward looking, he sure is wedded to gender models already becoming obsolete at time of writing. With rare exceptions, women are there to be mothers or wives and while his heroes may often be overshadowed by their female companions, they still need to be satisfied with these roles once the story is over.

  • Rocket Ship Galileo (1947):
    “Depraved indifference” and “the uncle who used his relatives as living meat shields” are going to be book-ends for this series of reviews.
  • Space Cadet (1948):
    It’s entirely possible that Matt is part of a terrible machine and too naïve to realize but at least, unlike my memory of Starship Troopers, the Patrol has ambitions of being lawful good.
  • Red Planet (1949):
    By this point in his career, Heinlein was still sticking with the “girls are ick and moms are a drag” model; there’s a genially patronizing treatment of the female inability to handle math in a discussion of the air plants that made me idly wonder what that character’s throat would sound like if his wife stuck a knife in it in mid-sneer.
  • Farmer in the Sky (1950):
    It’s pretty clear to me that George’s Plan A was to ditch Bill on Earth so George could secretly marry Molly and emigrate to Ganymede; given the difficulty of communicating with Earth, it’s possible Bill might not have found out about George’s new family for years, if ever.
  • Between Planets (1951):
    I’ve never particularly noticed it before but there are parallels between the plot of this and the plot of Lord of Rings; Don is stuck with a ring of great importance and what he needs to do to save the day is get rid of it under the right circumstances.
  • The Rolling Stones (1952):
    Heinlein paid lip service to the idea that women could be professionals but all that had to stop as soon as he married one of them, even if it meant poverty for the Heinlein family.
  • Starman Jones (1953):
    This book stands out as possibly the first young adult novel I ever encountered that featured pretty transparent references to johns being rolled by prostitutes.
  • The Star Beast: (1954)
    Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.
  • Tunnel in the Sky (1955):
    Since the majority of Americans didn’t come to see mixed race marriages as acceptable until the mid-1990s, forty years after this book was written, that minor bit of business was pretty daring on Heinlein’s part.
  • Time for the Stars (1956):
    Given that telepathy completely breaks relativity, I don’t know that it makes any sense to discuss whether the way he telepathic communication is affected by relativistic star-flight is realistic.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy (1957):
    Purchased on an apparent whim by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, Thorby is rescued from a life of exploitation and abuse for one as the acolyte and adopted son of a man who is far more than he appears.
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958):
    For me, the highlight of the book is young Peewee Reisfeld, twelve years old — almost — and willing to take on an alien invasion single-handed if she has to. Peewee might be the finest example of Heinlein’s girls in charge. Peewee is smarter than Kip, she is just as brave, she manages to escape (temporarily) from the wormfaces before she ever meets Kip, something she keeps up through the book, and she saves Kip on a number of occasions.
  • Starship Troopers (1959):
    The book opens as Juan Rico nerves himself to murder alien civilians, “Skinnies”, as he calls them. Heavily armed and armoured, Rico and his human confederates rampage through the Skinny city, destroying infrastructure and leaving a trail of bodies behind him (including what may be a substantial fraction of the congregation of a church).

Does this mean these books aren’t worth reading? Not entirely; certainly the best of the bunch like Citizen of the Galaxy have charms that make their flaws easier to overlook, but the overwhelming sexism does sour a lot of the fun in these.

If you like these reviews, you can commission your own review from James.

A Night in the Lonesome October — Roger Zelazny

Cover of A Night in the Lonesome October


A Night in the Lonesome October
Roger Zelazny
280 pages
published in 1993

A Night in the Lonesome October took me all of October to read, not because it was such a long or difficult book, but because I read each chapter on the day it took place. This has been an ancient tradition in online fandom, or at least it was when I was hanging around rec.arts.sf.written in the late nineties (and I see Andrew Wheeler at least remembers this tradition too). It’s an interesting way to read a novel you’d otherwise read in a day or so. It also constituted my (semi) annual allowed read of a new Zelazny novel; I ration my reading of a “new” Zelazny as he’s one of my favourite authors and the supply is after all limited.

A Night in the Lonesome October in fact is the last solo novel he completed before his death two years later. Sadly to say, it’s also one of his few late novels that’s any good, unlike say his collaborations with Robert Sheckley. Like so many other grandmasters Zelazny had declined somewhat in his later years, for a variety of reasons, but A Night in the Lonesome October was a return to form. Witty, well written and with the characteristic inventiveness of Zelazny’s best work; it’s no wonder it became a cult favourite.

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Ethan of Athos — Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover of Ethan of Athos


Ethan of Athos
Lois McMaster Bujold
237 pages
published in 1986

Ethan of Athos is the third published book in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and the third published in 1986. Whereas Shards of Honor told the story of how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met and The Warrior’s Apprentice showed his first adventure, this is a spinoff not featuring any of the main characters in the series. In fact, at first it barely seems to take place in the same universe.

It all starts on the all male planet of Athos (named after the all-male Greek monastry on mount Athos, natch) where Ethan’s greatest worry is how to take his relationship a stage further and get his boyfriend to be more responsible. His dayjob is as a obstetrician. On a planet full of men natural child birth is of course impossible so uterine replicators using female gene cultures taken along by the original colonists are used instead. Recently these cultures have started to deteriorate however, showing their age and new cultures have been ordered from Jackson’s Whole. Unfortunately, once they show up, these turn out to be unusable thrash. Despite their desire to remain cut off from the rest of the Galaxy, the people of Athos have no choice but to send somebody out into the darkness, somebody pure who can handle the temptations of women, somebody like, well, Ethan.

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