Reviews: 2014

  1. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James
  2. Lockstep by Karl Schroeder
  3. Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art by Harry W. Greene
  4. Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn
  5. The Map Thief by Michael Blanding
  6. Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
  7. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (AE)

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James

snake-charmerHerpetologist Joe Slowinski died on September 12, 2001, in the forests of northern Burma, approximately thirty hours after he had been bitten by a many-banded krait. He was only 38. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is both a biography of Slowinski and an account of the expedition that cost him his life.

The biography, drawing on family interviews and personal papers, takes up the first two thirds of the book. It reveals a type of character rather familiar to those of us who muck about with snakes: fearless, reckless (he was bitten numerous times) and just a little feral, absolutely fixated on the subject matter, and dripping, perhaps, with a wee bit too much testosterone. A difficult personality who nonetheless engendered fierce loyalty. But Slowinski was more than just Steve Irwin with a Ph.D.: he was stone-cold brilliant, a major contributor to the field of phylogenetics, and in particular to the systematics of elapid snakes — a point that James makes clear, if not at length. (Can’t say I blame him.) The final third reads like a feature article in Outside (and one was written about the incident, by another author), cataloguing the mishaps and bureaucratic nightmares involved in going deep into a restricted area of a country run by a deeply corrupt and paranoid regime, and the heroic attempts to keep him alive once the krait envenomated him while his support networks stateside were dealing with 9/11.

Where The Snake Charmer shines is in its portrayal of Slowinski himself; for all his reckless behaviour, he was not necessarily much for introspection. James has had to do his homework. I would very much have liked to see a bibliography, though, as in several James mentions publications that I wanted to look up for myself. In terms of the herpetology, for someone who is not necessarily well-versed in it James does a creditable job, though it’s clear he’s drawing on secondary sources for his material on snakes, and he makes a couple of minor errors that a herp-aware copyeditor (hi there) would have caught. But I’ve seen much worse. All in all an interesting read.

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March 15, 2014

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder

In science fiction, faster-than-light travel is a narrative convention that allows you to move standard human beings over interstellar distances cheaply. But if you want to do science fiction rigorously — with the net up, as Gregory Benford calls it — you have to go without FTL (it’s not an engineering problem; it breaks known physics). They’re mutually exclusive. The problem is, you can’t have an interstellar civilization without FTL, can you?

My father and I have been debating this back and forth for years. On the face of it it’s intrinsically impossible: if you can’t have FTL, the distances and costs involved in travel make trade and communication prohibitive. To accelerate goods and people to relativistic velocities would be insanely expensive, and it would still take decades to get there. Hardly anything would be worth the shipping costs: it would be easier and cheaper to synthesize what you need rather than import it. Transmutation is less expensive than interstellar trade. (No doubt this is why sf focuses on rare goods, from melange to unobtanium.)

Absent that trade, there’s no rationale for having an interstellar civilization. Even if you were able or willing to colonize other planets (though again, the cost of sending a colony ship is of a magnitude that many in science fiction fail to grasp), the colonies would be on their own. With no reason to trade, how would the investment in a colony ship be recouped? And what purpose would there be for an interstellar government — Empire, Federation, whatever — if there was no trade for it to regulate?

One exception, dealt with in some depth at a panel at the Chicago Worldcon in 2012, is trade in information: planets could beam intellectual property at one another. Inventions and works of art. An interstellar government’s role would be to regulate copyright and patent law. (Enforcement would be trickier: at said panel, Charlie Stross suggested the use of a Nicoll-Dyson laser.) But there would be no travel, and no spaceships; everything from trade to diplomacy to war would be conducted remotely. (So much for space opera.)

Thing is, FTL isn’t a solution to the problem of interstellar civilization; it’s a solution to the limitations of human biology. Both interstellar travel and a galactic civilization become a lot easier to contemplate if you take our limited lifespan, and the need to keep us alive (fed, watered, breathing and sheltered from cosmic rays) for the duration of the voyage, off the table in some fashion. Time dilation takes care of the lifespan of the voyagers (at least if they’re travelling at relativistic velocities), but it means that origin, destination and traveller get out of sync.

Fortunately, human immortality is an easier problem to solve than Einsteinian physics. Sf writers have had some luck moving that lever instead. Take, for example, Scott Westerfeld’s Succession series — The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds — which posits a galactic empire where the ruling elite possesses a life-after-death form of immortality: those who are not immortal must deal with relativistic sublight travel. And Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood not only features posthuman protagonists, it builds an entire economic system on the limitations of interstellar travel: Stross’s solution for the problem of interstellar trade is banking.

lockstepWith Lockstep, Karl Schroeder has come up with something quite different. And also quite extraordinary. He’s managed to square the circle of space opera and known physics, and arrived at a scenario that is both startingly original but makes use of what is known and what is possible.

Lockstep’s 17-year-old protagonist, Toby McGonigal, emerges from a cryogenic sleep 14,000 years long to discover that a civilization has sprung up among the rogue planets between the Sun and Alpha Centauri. Resources are scarce on these planets, so the human inhabitants survive by use of the locksteps: for every month they spend awake, they all spend thirty years in cold sleep, which allows those resources to replenish themselves. But more importantly, space travel is done during cold sleep: ships use the thirty year gap to move from one world to the other; the passengers awaken as though it was an overnight trip. When they return, a month later, the same amount of time has elapsed back home: by spending only 1/360th of the time awake, Schroeder’s civilization has shrunk the virtual distances between the worlds.

The result, Schroeder says,

is a classic space opera universe, with private starships, explorers and despots and rogues, and more accessible worlds than can be explored in one lifetime. There are locksteppers, realtimers preying on them while they sleep, and countermeasures against those, and on and on. In short, it’s the kind of setting for a space adventure that we’ve always dreamt of, and yet, it might all be possible.

Whereas a space opera universe that requires FTL isn’t.

Schroeder wraps his cutting-edge setting around what is from all appearances a fairly traditional adventure story, replete with a missing heir and family drama, that would not be out of place in, dare I say it, a Heinlein juvenile. Toby discovers not only that it was his family who created, and controls, the lockstep, but that a cult in his name had arisen in the millenia since his disappearance. I recoil to some extent from stories about young people who discover they’re the Most Important Person in the Universe — oh look, another Chosen One — but Karl does a reasonable job with it. Lockstep is fast-paced and clever, and makes full use of the implications of the universe he’s built.

I mentioned Heinlein juveniles, and Lockstep is being referred to as a young-adult novel (what with its teenage protagonist), but Paul Di Filippo, in his review of Lockstep for Locus Online, argues that it’s reductionist to call it that. Rather, he says, it’s an example of what others have called “entry-level sf”: more accessible to readers who haven’t spent the last few decades absorbing sf’s advanced reading protocols. In that I think it succeeds admirably. It’s certainly an easier read than, say, Neptune’s Brood, but the clarity and accessibility of its prose should not mask the importance or significance of what is clearly a major work of science fiction.

Full disclosure: I received an ARC of this book via Goodreads First Reads. The author and I are also socially acquainted.

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March 31, 2014

Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art by Harry W. Greene

tracks-and-shadowsField biologists’ memoirs can often be a hit-or-miss affair, but Harry W. Greene’s Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art is definitely more hit than miss, precisely because it is much more than a memoir.

Greene, who writes far too well for a biologist, is the author of the highly lauded Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature (1997). That book combined science, photography and personal experience in a lyrical and literate fashion, and may well have been the only snake book to win a literary award.

In Tracks and Shadows, the mix is more personal. In tracing the origins of his own career, parallelling it with that of Henry S. Fitch (1909-2009), a major figure in herpetology, Greene ably sketches out the why of fieldwork. Too many stories deal with the travel and the chase but elide the purpose of going out into the field to collect snakes; Greene shows us the science.

It’s a personal viewpoint, but this is not an autobiography; little of Greene’s personal life is mentioned past graduate school. There is plenty to indicate why a former mortician’s assistant and army medic became a herpetologist, less that reveals how he writes as well as he does. The scholar fades into the background of his own work: present as a field biologist in the context of a discourse on field biology.

As for that work, Greene is a snake ethologist: his research focuses on snake behaviour — why snakes behave the way they do, from hunting to defence to reproduction. The best parts of the books are the discoveries: his dissertation showing that primitive snakes all constrict in the same fashion, implying that constriction as a tactic is ancient; the discovery that night snakes predate on diurnal prey during the day; the evidence of parental and social behaviour in black-tailed rattlesnakes. The idea that there is more going on in those little serpentine heads than we expected is frankly quite exciting. Greene’s elegant writing cannot help but make that excitement infectious.

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April 17, 2014

Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn

In his afterword to Eileen Gunn’s earlier (and sadly, only other) collection of short stories, Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon, 2004), Howard Waldrop calls her “about the only writer I know who turns out stories even more slowly than I do, which is a rare thing in this damn field.” Ain’t that the truth. In a field that holds up making your daily word count as a virtue, that often valorizes a pulplike prolificity, writing slowly is practically an act of rebellion. And yet slow writers can produce some of the most distinctive works of fiction we have: writers like Ted Chiang, Howard Waldrop, Peter Watts — and yes, Eileen Gunn.

Slow writers tend to get my attention. I have an affinity for slow writers, partly because I am one myself, partly because of what they produce. A quality vs. quantity argument can sometimes be made.

And I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t paid close enough attention to Eileen Gunn. Rectifying that now.

questionable-practicesQuestionable Practices (Small Beer, 2014) is Eileen Gunn’s second short story collection, her first in a decade. The stories it collects are motley and idiosyncratic, and toe an impossible line between the tragic and the screwball. They’re lively, funny stories with a bitter core, or maybe it’s the other way around.

The collection opens with “Up the Fire Road,” the tale of an encounter with a sasquatch who presents a different gender to each protagonist that ends in a surreal fashion (on Maury, with paternity tests). Some of the included stories riff on popular culture and science fiction culture in particular: “No Place to Raise Kids” evokes Kirk/Spock slashfic; the poem “To the Moon Alice” is an sfnal (and feminist) take on The Honeymooners; the four short pieces of The Steampunk Quartet have fun with four well-known classics of the field; there are funny pieces on writers and writing. These are very short pieces. More substantive are the longer pieces, but only the darkest lose the sense of fun and mischief. Those dark stories — “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” a golem story from the golem’s perspective, and “Phantom Pain,” which associates the persistence of phantom limb with that of memory — are original to this book, and possibly the strongest. Also included are one collaboration with Rudy Rucker (“Hive Mind Man,” a satire on marketing in the Internet age) and four with Michael Swanwick, three of which couple that dark/comedic duality with serious, funhouse-mirror worldbuilding.

Some of these stories were first published online, and can still be read there: “No Place to Raise Kids” is at Flurb; “Speak, Geek” is available at Nature; the four short-short stories that make up the Steampunk Quartet are on, as are two of her collaborations with Michael Swanwick, “Zeppelin City” and “The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree.”

I received an electronic review copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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May 21, 2014

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

E. Forbes Smiley III was a well-known and well-connected map dealer, an expert who helped build the Slaughter and Leventhal map collections. Then in 2005 he was caught — on videotape — stealing maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Libraries he had frequented scrambled to check their own holdings and found additional maps missing. Smiley, who cooperated with the authorities, would eventually be sentenced to 3½ years for stealing nearly 100 maps from the British, Boston Public, New York Public, Harvard and Yale libraries, among others. The libraries believed he stole many more.

the-map-thiefWith The Map Thief, Michael Blanding presents a book-length exploration of the Forbes Smiley affair, which stunned map collectors and map libraries alike in 2005. Its publication, coming nine years after Smiley’s arrest and four years after his release from prison, is something of an anticlimax, especially for those of us who followed the case so closely as it unfolded (I blogged about it more than 60 times, myself).

Map thieves fascinate us, even if they themselves are not that fascinating (see, for example, the essential blandness of Gilbert Bland, the subject of a previous book about map thefts, Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps), because of what they steal. As stolen goods, antique maps are a curiosity: like art, but more stealable, because there are few copies, not just one.

Unlike Bland, who was an interloper whose catalogues suddenly filled up with suspiciously good items, Smiley was very much an insider in the world of map collecting. With his posh name and pedigreed affect, he looked like old money, though his origins were a bit more modest. E. Forbes Smiley III had privileged access that Ed Smiley (the name he goes by now, incidentally) could never dream of. He filled the role of the “gentleman thief,” an epithet that has since been applied to two other book thieves, William Simon Jacques and Farhad Hakimzadeh — as though the Thomas Crowns of the world suddenly got a taste for old maps.

So I knew that there would be a book about Forbes Smiley some day. Though to be honest I always thought it would come from Kim Martineau, whose reporting for the Hartford Courant provided so much of the bedrock material of the news coverage of this case. But Michael Blanding, an investigative journalist based in Boston, has taken up the task, thanks in large part to Smiley’s temporary willingness to be interviewed. While Smiley changed his mind and backed away, those interviews were sufficient, along with a good deal of journalistic legwork, to transform Blanding’s project from the originally intended article to the book we have here, which provides a view, albeit partial and incomplete by necessity, of someone who has until now been rather inscrutable.

Because Smiley cut the interviews short, we are missing much about the thefts themselves. The key events are largely narrated from the public record, as are the viewpoints of the libraries and other key figures, and the issues around library inventory and security. As someone who followed the case very closely, I found myself reminded, rather than enlightened: the story unfolded much as I remembered. (As I said, I did post an awful lot about the case; I am not exactly the typical reader.)

Had Blanding limited himself to recapitulating the known facts this would have made for a slight volume in every sense. The value Blanding adds to the reportage is the context he wraps around the Smiley case, context that helps us understand the how and why of the case. There are three aspects to that context:

One, by detailing Smiley’s work in map collecting and with map libraries, we get a detailed look at his history with the trade, his expertise, and his relationships with some very serious names in the field. There is a reason, in other words, why Smiley’s arrest sent shock waves throughout the map collecting community: he was known, he was respected, and moreover he had elite access. Stealing maps is all too easy, and it’s even easier with insider knowledge.

Two, by interspersing his narrative with segues into the history of cartography, so that we better understand the importance of the artifacts that Smiley stole, and why libraries complained so bitterly when Smiley’s sentence was, they thought, so light.

And three, by building a portrait of Smiley himself, the person beyond the map dealer: his tendency to act like a personable, benign dictator that came out in his social life and in his conflicts with the residents of Sebec, Maine, where he ran several businesses; his money troubles, exacerbated by financial mismanagement and the cost of keeping up appearances; his grievances against institutions and individuals in the map community.

In the end we get a sense of Smiley’s motives, but the hard question remains: are all the maps he stole accounted for? There are missing maps that the libraries believe Smiley stole, but cannot prove it. And there are still maps recovered from Smiley that as of last year still have not been claimed. There was always a sense during the proceedings that Smiley was holding something back; at this point we may never know whether he still is. Map thieves are usually enigmatic, and Smiley is no exception.

The Map Thief comes out today from Gotham Books.

I received electronic and hardcover review copies from the publisher.

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May 29, 2014

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

I support greater diversity in science fiction and fantasy, and I have to confess that one of my reasons for doing so is selfish: I want more interesting stories to read. The field is at its least interesting when it’s a monoculture (we can’t all be responding to Heinlein and Tolkien); it’s at its most interesting when it includes authors from diverse backgrounds and experiences, who use those backgrounds and experiences to inform their work. It’s a win-win situation: more people see themselves in the fiction they read; readers benefit from being exposed to other backgrounds; the field as a whole gets stronger.

long-hiddenBut Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History doesn’t just bring us diverse fiction, though it certainly does that; it brings us fiction from the margins. Let me explain: diverse fiction might include a story from Japan; fiction from the margins might include a story about a Japanese minority like the Ainu.

And that’s what Long Hidden does: give us stories — 27 in all — about people who have tended to be lost in the interstices of history. It’s not just a question of marginalized ethnic groups: protagonists include a Welsh pacifist during World War I (“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn), a young Irish transgender person (“Neither Witch Nor Fairy” by Nghi Vo), and lone homesteading women in Montana (“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle). It includes aboriginal and colonized populations, immigrant workers and slaves, but most of all it includes people whose presence in a given time or place you might not have been aware of. Of the 27 stories, 10 are set in the U.S.; add Canada and Europe and two-thirds of them are set in the so-called West, but it’s not the West of standard historical narratives. This is the sort of thing I like as a historian.

In addition, while these are stories whose protagonists belong to marginalized groups, the stories don’t simply fall into the easy default narrative of oppression and resistance: imperialism, colonialism and other means of power exist, but the protagonists’ lives aren’t determined solely by the structures of oppression. Because these aren’t political stories: they’re fantasy stories, and in Long Hidden what we see in story after story are protagonists struggling to deal with a fantastic situation, and whose struggle is complicated by their marginal status. Or vice versa.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating: none of it matters if the stories aren’t any good. Fortunately they are: I’m regularly impressed by how strong small-press anthologies can be nowadays, and Long Hidden is no exception to the rule.

Long Hidden was conceived with strict guidelines for its contributors: “Your story must be set between the years 1400 and 1920 C.E. (NO exceptions), and take place primarily in our world or an alternate historical version of our world.” The end result has been a collection of historical fantasy, with a heavy focus on myth and folklore, on fairies and werewolves hiding in the shadows (no small allegory, that). And most of the stories focus on more recent end of the guidelines: 20 out of 27 are set in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Which is to say that however diverse this collection might be, there’s still a lot of unexplored territory out there, waiting to be revealed.

I received an electronic review copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.


June 23, 2014