I applied for a new US passport this morning. I’ve wanted to get one for a while, mainly to use as another form of photo ID (for instance, in case my driver’s license was ever lost or stolen), but I dragged my feet on it for years. Bruce Schneier’s article on passports and RFID chips motivated me to do the deed this month. It might be too late for me to get a passport without a chip, but at least I tried.
I actually found my old passport, which was issued in 1984 and expired in 1989. The photo of me on it looks like another person, especially next to the photo I got for my new passport (which cost me a whopping $4.99 + tax at Costco). As you can tell, I don’t leave the country much. The visas stamped in that passport featured two trips to England (in 1985 and 1986), and one to Ontario, Canada (in 1988). I have no trips planned in the foreseeable future, although I would like to do a couple of weeks in England: Maybe a week in London, and a week driving around the country looking for stone circles, which have always fascinated me. (Plus, maybe I could do things like visit MKS or meet Iamza.)
A whole world of possibilities… but probably none of them will be exercised anytime soon!
I got a new toy this weekend, a Canon PowerShot SD800 IS camera, replacing my venerable Nikon, which was nice enough but pretty low-tech by comparison. So far, I like it a lot, although I think the cost of memory cards is quite a racket!
Here’s one of the first pictures I’ve taken with it:
Aren’t they adorable?
The new camera takes surprisingly good pictures of Blackjack, who usually just looks like a black blob with yellow eyes.
Review of the first 5-book story of the Amber series by Roger Zelazny.
The Chronicles of Amber: The First Series
- by Roger Zelazny
Nine Princes in Amber
- PB, © 1970, 175 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-01430-0
The Guns of Avalon
- PB, © 1972, 223 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-00083-0
Sign of the Unicorn
- PB, © 1975, 192 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-00831-9
The Hand of Oberon
- PB, © 1976, 188 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-01664-8
The Courts of Chaos
- PB, © 1978, 142 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-47175-2
Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels have become classics of the fantasy genre. The series consists of two cycles of five novels each, plus some short stories. I first read the series back in the 80s, and last read them before the second cycle was complete. Recently I decided I was really in the mood to read them again, not only to complete the series for the first time, but to see how well they held up after all this time.
The answer is, “pretty well”. I was pleased to find that they’re a quick read, a fun read, and still contain some surprises of the “I should have seen that coming” variety.
It’s impossible to even begin to describe the series without giving away some of the first book: Our hero, Corwin, is a Prince of Amber. Amber is the first among all alternate realities, the other all being shadows cast off from the prime world. Amber has been ruled from time immemorial by Oberon. Oberon had over a dozen offspring, who have engaged in internecine competition for thousands of years, and Corwin is one of these. Amber is embodied by the Pattern, a magical design which can be walked and if one is a true child of Amber will confer on that person the ability to shift through all the various Shadows simply by travelling and willing it so. Such children also are immortal and immensely strong, with superhuman constitutions.
Corwin has been out of the game for many centuries, living on our own world as an amnesiac. Nine Princes in Amber opens with Corwin’s memory being jogged, and him going on a quest to recover it. Along the way he meets several of his relatives, some he likes and some he doesn’t. He finds that his father has gone missing, and his brother Eric – whom he likes least of all – plans to crown himself King of Amber, an ambition Corwin holds for himself.
Narrated by Corwin himself, the series features our hero confronting his past and his present, making mistakes and suffering the consequences thereof. Ultimately it’s about this extraordinary man evolving from a man of ambition and vengeance to one of duty and compassion. In this it resembles any number of “prince earning his throne” parables, but Zelazny never loses sight that it’s not really about the throne: It’s about Corwin and his relationship with his family. Corwin learns what he’s not, rather than what he is and by discharging his responsibilities to Amber he frees himself to live his own life.
The royal family of Amber are a capricious lot, often acting like little gods who use the mortals of shadow purely for their own ends. Backstabbing and calculating, their paranoia fuels the story’s writing style, in which Corwin is deeply analytical and even his emotions are carefully scrutinized by himself in the narrative. He regrets and loves and yearns, but his words are typically clinical and rarely heartfelt. In this regard Zelazny’s prose feels artificial. Corwin’s hatred of Eric and his mixed feelings about his father feel the most genuine.
Despite that, Corwin is a likeable protagonist and that makes the story, because you root for him. Though a flawed figure, you can see him growing as a person and coming around to where he’s trying to do the right thing when circumstances allow.
I’ve heard that Nine Princes was originally written as a standalone book, so it’s not too surprising that the story expands considerably as it goes on.
I think The Guns of Avalon is my favorite book in the series. In it, Corwin surveys the results of one of his acts in the first book, meets up with an old ally, Ganelon, with whom he has a checkered history, and meets another brother, who’s had an unfortunate encounter with some adversaries. It feels almost as fully-textured as Nine Princes, and is full of portentiousness. Corwin’s relationship with Ganelon is one of the best elements of the series, and is crucial – in more ways than one – to Corwin’s story arc. The book even ends on a dramatic note (although later books drop the ball when it comes to following through on it).
Unicorn and Oberon unravel the plot by the villains, and along the way reveal some more surprising characteristics of Amber and its universe. The most compelling thing is the depth of the machinations of the characters, which is especially impressive since I’m pretty sure Zelazny was making it up as he went along, so he had to retrofit events into what he’d already written in the first volume. Not everything works – one revelation about the Pattern seems rather superfluous, for instance – but it never detracts from it being a fun ride. Oberon finishes with a terrific and clever confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, and ends with a surprising revelation (well, it surprised me, anyway).
The epic’s biggest drawback is that Courts is a slim volume in both page count and content. It’s really a denouement to the end of Oberon – which is the emotional climax of the whole series – and it includes a lengthy trip by Corwin, a lengthy war between two armies (one of whom we barely know), and a couple more revelations that feel like too much too late. There’s some decent material in the final volume, but unfortunately it means the story ends with less than a bang.
I feel I should make some observation about the influence of Amber on the fantasy genre, but in fact I know little about it. Some say that Charles Stross’ series starting with The Family Trade is influenced by Amber, but other than featuring parallel worlds I think it bears no resemblance at all. It’s really more akin to “modern person thrown into a medieval society” stories such as H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, and – of course – Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve also heard Zelazny’s writing was a significant influence on Stephen Brust. But the Amber series doesn’t otherwise significantly resemble any other fantasy of the modern era that I’m familiar with.
The first Amber series is a big box ‘o fun, fast-moving and inventive. It’s not very deep, but it’s more than mere fluff. As escapist fantasy goes, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.
And, perversely, they’re not in my department.
Recently we’ve started gathering for coffee every 2 or 3 weeks on Friday afternoon. It gets me out of the office – it’s about a 7-minute walk to their building – and I think gets them out of their offices as well. 🙂 We natter about programming and science fiction and gaming, all that good stuff. We got together today and it was fun as always.
Although I’m friendly with many of my immediate cow-orkers, I don’t gab with them about stuff as near and dear to my heart (or at least my pocketbook) as I do with these three.
I went for a 13-mile ride this morning, and took my camera so I could snap some shots of my route in the fall:
Creek at high tide. I once stopped on the bridge I took this picture from, looked down and saw a ray swimming up the creek. I don’t know where it was going, but I hope it got there.
Lovely red tree amidst all the greenery.
This trail is more scenic than it looks in this picture. I often see dogs and cats patrolling the space around it. The area to the right beyond the fence used to be a commercial nursery, but they left earlier this year. I think they’re going to build housing on the site.
Beautiful sunset tonight:
The picture doesn’t really do it justice. The view from the bridge over the freeway on my drive home was spectacular. But that’s the best I could do since they don’t last long.
I thought I’d write some entries about comics I buy each week, since I thought a few of my readers might be curious what I’m buying. This was a light week:
- Fables #54 (DC)
- 52 #23 (DC)
- Scarlet Traces: The Great Game #4 (Dark Horse)
- Umbra #3 (Image)
- Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 67 HC (Marvel)
Fables is one of my favorite comics currently being published. It’s about a community of fairy tale characters whose homelands have been conquered, and who have been exiled to our world and are living in New York city and state. It features Snow White, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, and many others. It’s being collected in trade paperback, starting with this volume, and is a series that both my girlfriend and my Dad are reading. This issue introduces a well-known fable into the story and is part of the ongoing relationship between Fabletown and the Adversary.
52 is a weekly series about the year following the event comic Infinite Crisis, during which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have disappeared. Some of its mysteries are just interesting enough to keep me reading, and the art varies from very good to weak, depending on this week’s artist. It’s fluff, not essential reading. This issue is about Black Adam and Intergang and all that stuff, and is about par for the course.
Scarlet Traces wraps up its 4-issue mini-series this week. I reviewed the first graphic novel over at Four Color Comics a while back, and the mini-series is a fun follow-up. The series is somewhat grim, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Especially recommended for fans of the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.
Umbra also wraps up its 3-issue run this week. It was a black and white mini-series about the discovery of the skeleton of a neanderthal woman in Scandanavia, who had been killed by a gun. It was kind of interesting, but I was disappointed in the explanation for the peculiar happenings. Maybe my tolerance for X-Files type covert ops just isn’t very high anymore.
Finally, the latest hardcover collection of 1960s Amazing Spider-Man is out. The early Spider-Man stories hold up very well, even 40 years later, and I’ve been enjoying them thoroughly. I probably won’t get to this one for a bit since I still have the most recent Iron Man Masterworks to read, too.
Well, this was a little longer than intended. Assuming I keep writing these, I’ll probably get to the point where I’ll assume y’all know the premise of each title (or don’t care) and I can just do a quick review of the specific issue.
Or, I’ll run out of gas on these entirely. 🙂
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.
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.