Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides

Review of the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

I’m a big fan of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. On Stranger Tides is the book he wrote immediately following that one, and it has all the classic hallmarks of a Powers book: A protagonist who walks through hell to emerge a changed man on the other side; a fantastic setting made real through a depth and breadth of research; a tightly-constructed plot; deftly-handled magical elements; and the degree of brutality one expects when fairly normal people are thrown into such nasty life-and-death situations. For all that, it’s not a great book, but it is solidly entertaining.

The operative theme here is “pirates”, as our hero – John Chandagnac – is on a ship in the Caribbean that’s captured by pirates. These being the early days of the 18th century (that’s three hundred years ago, for those keeping score at home), he’s pressed into their service, “service” in this case being to help the famous pirate Blackbeard assist a mad professor, Benjamin Hurwood, and his even madder doctor, Leo Friend, travel to Florida in search of a focus of magic energy. Chandagnac is rechristened Jack Shandy by the pirates, and he learns about sea travel and survival among this clutch of fairly amoral men.

Powers’ characters always have unique backgrounds, but that doesn’t always make them fully-realized characters. Shandy was a puppeteer, and is travelling to Jamaica to try to wrest his father’s inheritance from his uncle, but he’s really a pretty flat character. Okay, he does have a certain sense of nobility and honor which is both sorely tested and which gets him into profound trouble, but isn’t that true for many heroes? He falls in love with Hurwood’s daughter, Beth, but Beth is almost a nonentity as a character. Their attraction to each other never feels very plausible, either, as they don’t really know each other, and it feels like just a too-blatant instance of love at first sight. So it’s hard to take too seriously Shandy’s ongoing quest to save Beth.

It’s the villains who really make the story: Hurwood is obsessed with trying to bring his wife back from the dead, and has a gruesome plan to accomplish this. Friend is a despicable figure who’s just looking to gain personal power. And Blackbeard, well, is a notorious pirate with a clever plan for effecting his retirement as the age of pirates is driving to a close. Blackbeard is the most fun of these, as he’s more self-confident and even humorous at times. All three are deeply threatening, though, and Beth is caught in the middle of all of their designs, so, by extension, Shandy is too.

Powers’ drawing of pirate culture is arresting, and it seems he did plenty of research on pirates of the age and of Blackbeard’s exploits (confirmed and rumored) in particular, although I imagine that aspect of the book would be more rewarding to someone who’s also a pirate aficionado (unlike myself). There are some cool references to better-known people and places, too.

The story’s biggest weaknesses are the bits that aren’t fully explained, or that don’t seem truly plausible. Aside from the what I’ve already mentioned: Hurwood suffers flashbacks to his youth, for no apparent reason. Magic is thrown around a little too lightly, with even some of the also-ran pirates being proficient in it for some reason. Sometimes Powers substitutes his characters being unable to fully control their magic in place of a proper framework within which the magic seems believable.

But there’s plenty of action and adventure, and that’s what carries the book. Despite it’s flaws, it’s better than a “nice try”, and is a solidly entertaining read.

Scalzi: Star Wars Not Entertainment

Not that he needs any referrals from me, but John Scalzi’s post “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment” is both funny and insightful.

(Scalzi, for the both of my readers who don’t know, is a prince of a man and also one of the world’s elite kitten-jugglers, er, I mean, one of the most popular bloggers on the Web.)

I think he goes a little over the top in criticizing the original trilogy (Star Wars, Empire and Jedi), though he does allow that people other than George Lucas worked to make it entertaining. But my understanding is that Lucas didn’t get on his myth-making kick until after the original Star Wars came out. (I thought the original trilogy was solidly entertaining until they rescued Han Solo in Jedi, at which point it took a bizarre left turn into la-la land.)

Another point to spin out of Scalzi’s post is…

…those of you who know me can see this coming, right?…

…you can level almost identical charges against Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was primarily concerned with stroking the asinine Trek mythology about a bright, shiny, happy future for humanity, and which shoved aside (with great force) all of the conflict and character drama which made the original Star Trek good entertainment. Like Star Wars Eps 1-3, NextGen is largely bland and tedious, because it’s fundamentally unconcerned with entertaining the viewer.

The Vision Thing

One thing a lot of people don’t know about me is that I badly nearsighted, and wear contact lenses. The reason a lot of people don’t know this is that I wear lenses nearly every day, and so they almost never see me in glasses.

My right eye takes a -5.25 lens, and my left eye is worse, at -8.50. One time I asked my eye doctor whether I was in danger of no longer being able to wear contacts and she said, “Oh, no, they go up to 20.” Ye gods! Fortunately, my prescription has remained stable for about 15 years, so I’m not in danger of getting anywhere near that.

The downside to having two eyes that are so different is that I can barely do anything without lenses, since even if I’m just reading it means I have to close one eye, since the eyes are so different that one of them will be blurry unless I hold the book so close that I can’t actually focus on the same spot. The upside is that I can pretty easily tell if I put a lens in the wrong eye, because it feels different. Of course, if my eyes were the same, then I wouldn’t need that sensation in the first place.

I get new glasses about once every five years, basically when the old ones wear out. My most recent glasses came from Costco, and they’re also the first glasses to not be brown horn-rims since I got my first pair, way back around 1982. And boy do brown horn-rims look so 1980s these days.

I originally got contacts after I broke several pairs of frames playing basketball (back in the halcyon days of youth when I could almost play basketball). These days I have one pair of soft lenses which I wear every day and clean every night (and replace once a year), and I also buy soft dailies (from 1-800-CONTACTS) which I take when I travel, so I don’t need to carry the cleaning stuff. This is a pretty good balance between cost and convenience, I think.

I have thought of getting laser eye surgery, but I’m such a wuss when it comes to my eyes that I don’t really want someone zapping them with a laser. If my eyes were damaged, I’d truly be up shit creek, since almost everything I do and enjoy involves vision. (I’d rather go deaf than blind. I might even rather lose my hands than go blind.) A cow-orker recently said that she thinks a lot of people go into software engineering just so they can afford laser eye surgery. Heh.

The next stop on my ongoing vision odyssey will be farsightedness, I guess. But my eye doctor says there’s no sign of it kicking in yet. I figure if I make it to 45 without my ability to focus going, then I’ll be doing pretty good.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

Destroying Poker

Although I haven’t often written about it, I’ve been playing poker recreationally for the last 9 months. I’m not very good, and I stick to low-limit hold ’em poker games in the local casinos and in Vegas, but for the most part I have fun. (Losing $90 in 90 minutes at a $3-6 table would be the “not so much fun” part. On the other hand, I’ve won that much in 2 hours, too, so like I said, mostly fun.)

Anyway, I started playing poker because I wanted to have a game to play in Vegas in which I wasn’t playing against the house, with the odds de facto stacked against me.

One of my plans for this month was to investigate playing poker on-line. For instance, Poker On a Mac is a pretty nifty resource for those of us who own Macs and don’t want to install Windows on them. My plan was to play in some no limit hold ’em tournaments, since the casinos around here only seem to offer fixed limit and spread-limit games, which aren’t really the same.

It looks like I won’t get a chance, though, since the Republicans passed a bill making it illegal to transfer money to on-line gambling sites from most bank or credit card accounts. Actually, weasels that they are, they didn’t pass a separate bill but attached it as an amendment to the Port Security Bill at the 11th hour. The bill – which I think was regarded as one of those “must-pass” pieces of legislation, on to which some legislators love to try to tack unrelated amendments such as this – passed by a 98-0 vote in the Senate.

(The House passed its own bill regarding on-line poker. It passed 317-93.)

Many think that it’s likely that this bill will destroy the on-line poker industry in the United States – even the Motley Fool thinks so – and I’m inclined to agree. One blogger thinks that the on-line poker companies simply flubbed the ball when lobbying Congress.

Another blogger makes some grim predictions about the future of poker in the US. I can’t argue with his reasoning. One implication of his predictions is worth spelling out, since it affects the little casual players like me directly: It’s going to become a lot harder to play poker on-line. And that means that even if there are a few on-line sites which decide to risk the penalties of Federal law, the barriers for players to figure out how to get their money to those sites to play will be too high for most people (the casual or curious players), because they just won’t care enough to make the effort.

I wonder whether this will spill over into card rooms, too. With fewer members of the general public playing on-line, I could see card rooms lose popularity, and possibly increasing their rakes to make more money. The competition there would become stiffer, which in turn could dissuade new players from coming in to play, because the learning curve relative to the average player would become that much steeper.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Poker at the big casinos is (I’m told) just not as profitable as slot machines. So a general decline in the popularity of poker could cause many of those shiny new card rooms at big casinos to downsize or go away entirely. Which means more players forced to play in less savory joints, which further dissuades the casual player from showing up.

The end result of this legislation is that it’s going to effectively destroy an industry and ruin a fun experience for hundreds of thousands of Americans in the name of… what? Helping those few gambling addicts who aren’t so addicted that they wouldn’t care whether they’re violating the law when they gamble anyway? (The correlation between the on-line gambling bill and Prohibition seems obvious, and I’m not the only one to think of it.)

For myself personally, the law means I’m probably not going to play on-line poker. Even though the players aren’t being targeted by the law, do I really want to take that risk? Moreover, do I want to go through the hassle of trying to get money to and from whichever sites remain active in the US? Not so much. I’ll still play in card rooms from time to time, but I missed my opportunity to get in a bunch of relatively inexpensive practice at no-limit hold ’em.

It’s too bad.

On the other hand, I’m trying to console myself that I really ought to be working on my writing rather than playing poker.

Kitties in the Window

A friend of mine tells me from time to time that my journal is seriously deficient in cat pictures. To help fix that problem (for the time being), here’s a shot of three of the cats from yesterday:

Kitties_in_the_Window.jpg

(L-R): Blackjack, Jefferson, and Roulette

Jefferson and Blackjack both like to lie in the same places – the basket, the papasan, under the dining table, at our feet in bed, etc. Although Roulette was the one with a big crush on Jeff when they were kittens, I think Blackjack is the one who ended up adopting many of Jefferson’s mannerisms.

Baseball Playoffs: Division Series

It’s been a good couple of days of playoff baseball: Yesterday the A’s broke with 6 years of frustration to advance to the American League Championship Series by sweeping the Twins. It was a convincing series, although as Laurel said, the Twins virtually handed the series to the A’s. The two teams were nearly identical in the regular season, being adjact to each other in the AL standings in runs scored, runs allowed, and defensive efficiency, and their raw stats in the three games were not far apart. But the A’s capitalized and the Twins didn’t, so the A’s are going to the ALCS.

Even better, today the Tigers knocked off the Hated Yankees to advance to the ALCS themselves. This was a rather different series, featuring the two best defenses in the AL, and the best offense (the Yankees) and perhaps the best pitching (the Tigers). The Yankees won the first one, narrowly lost the second one, and then got completely crush in the last two. Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman pitched outstanding games and the Yankees just folded.

Any season in which the Yankees lose – especially in humiliating fashion – is a good season for this Red Sox fan.

In the National League, the Mets finished a sweep of the Dodgers today, which should surprise no one, since the Mets were clearly the class of the NL. The Cardinals-Padres series is a little more interesting, though the Cards have the edge at this point. A Mets-Cards NLCS might be pretty exciting, since both teams are based more on hitting than pitching, but with the Cards featuring Chris Carpenter and the Mets missing Pedro Martinez, the Cards might actually have an edge there.

Looking at the numbers, my bet is that we’ll see a Tigers-Mets World Series, and possibly a Tigers championship. Although honestly I think the A’s are almost as likely to win as those other two teams. Right now, the Playoff Odds Report given the Mets a 31% chance of winning it all, Oakland a 28% chance, Detroit a 27% chance, and the other 14% divided between the Cards and Padres.

But with the Yankees out of it, it oughta be fun whichever way it goes.

Bad Company

A rant:

Some years ago I read the first three books in Kage Baker‘s “Company” series. I enjoyed them well enough, and was interested in continuing. But after the fourth book, The Graveyard Game had been published in hardcover, the publisher, Avon, stopped publishing the series.

Eventually the series was picked up by Tor Books, which published new novels in the series, and brought out the first four novels in trade paperback.

Only one problem: I had been reading the series in mass market (or “pocket”) paperback, and The Graveyard Game is the only volume in the series that neither publisher has brought out in mass market. So, I’m stalled on the series until Tor publishes it in mass market, because, y’see, I already own the first three volumes in mass market, and I just basically dislike the trade paperback format, which are take more space on my shelves than pocket books (and more expensive, of course), but are far less durable than hardcovers. Once upon a time I felt differently, but now I see that trades are the worst of both worlds.

I like Tor Books overall, but it frustrates me that they do many of their reissues in trade rather than mass market. I would probably buy a spiffy new copy of Vernor Vinge‘s Tatja Grimm’s World in mass market, but since the reissue is only in trade I’ll just keep hunting around until I find a nice-condition used copy of the old pocket edition.

I realize I’m just being a crusty old collector, but being a collector I’m picky about the versions I buy. So I wait. Eventually I figure someone will publish the edition I want, and then I’ll keep reading the Company series. No rush. I figure I’ll be around for another 50 years or so. In the meantime, I have plenty to read. Like those six months of SF magazines piled up under the end table…

Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s

Tonight Neil Gaiman came to Kepler’s. The moderator emeritus of our speculative fiction book group was able to score members of the group some great seats at the front of the room – a really nice gesture, as Gaiman is one of the bigger draws among touring authors, I think.

I’ve seen Gaiman twice before, once in 1998 at a small convention in Madison, and once in 2004 at Worldcon in Boston. He’s a terrific speaker, intelligent, funny and charming, and I certainly urge you to go see him if you have a chance.

Gaiman was up late last night at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, and he said tonight it’s because he read an astoundingly long story, and consequently he was apparently pretty worn down. He’s certainly a gamer, though, as you could hardly tell. He read a short story and a poem from his new collection, Fragile Things, took questions, and then (as he accidentally said) “hand[ed] until his sign [fell] off”.

I got him to sign my new copy of Fragile Things and my hardcover copy of the Sandman volume Dream Country. I now have four volumes of the series signed, so at this rate I should be done by about 2020!

A good time was had by all, including the various friends I saw there, not all of them from the book discussion group. I told you Gaiman was a big draw…