Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2021-04-04: Book haul

Haven't done one of these posts in a while. We're well into award season now, plus the early pre-orders for 2021 have come in. A few in here I've already read and reviewed.

C.L. Clark — The Unbroken (sff)
Louis Hyman — Temp (non-fiction)
T. Kingfisher — Paladin's Strength (sff)
Mary Robinette Kowal — The Relentless Moon (sff)
Arkady Martine — A Desolation Called Peace (sff)
Cal Newport — A World Without Email (non-fiction)
Cal Newport — How to Become a Straight-A Student (non-fiction)
Karen Osborne — Architects of Memory (sff)
David R. Palmer — Tracking (sff)
Chandra Prescod-Weinstein — The Disordered Cosmos (non-fiction)
C.L. Polk — The Midnight Bargain (sff)
C.L. Polk — Witchmark (sff)
Rebecca Roanhorse — Black Sun (sff)
Elizabeth Sandifer — Neoreaction a Basilisk (non-fiction)
Tasha Suri — Empire of Sand (sff)
John Kennedy Toole — A Confederacy of Dunces (mainstream)
Tor.com (ed.) — Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016 (sff anthology)
Tor.com (ed.) — Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2020 (sff anthology)
Nghi Vo — The Empress of Salt and Fortune (sff)

March was not as good of a month for reading as January and February were, but there are so many good things awaiting my attention that hopefully April will provide more time and attention.

2021-04-03: Review: Prince Caspian

Review: Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #2
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1951
Printing 1979
ISBN 0-02-044240-8
Format Mass market
Pages 216

Prince Caspian is the second book of the Chronicles of Narnia in the original publication order (the fourth in the new publication order) and a direct sequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As much as I would like to say you could start here if you wanted less of Lewis's exploration of secondary-world Christianity and more children's adventure, I'm not sure it would be a good reading experience. Prince Caspian rests heavily on the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

If you haven't already, you may also want to read my review of that book for some introductory material about my past relationship with the series and why I follow the original publication order.

Prince Caspian always feels like the real beginning of a re-read. Re-reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is okay but a bit of a chore: it's very random, the business with Edmund drags on, and it's very concerned with hitting the mandatory theological notes. Prince Caspian is more similar to the following books and feels like Narnia proper. That said, I have always found the ending of Prince Caspian oddly forgettable. This re-read helped me see why: one of the worst bits of the series is in the middle of this book, and then the dramatic shape of the ending is very strange.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW for both this book and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Prince Caspian opens with the Pevensie kids heading to school by rail at the end of the summer holidays. They're saying their goodbyes to each other at a train station when they are first pulled and then dumped into the middle of a wood. After a bit of exploration and the discovery of a seashore, they find an overgrown and partly ruined castle.

They have, of course, been pulled back into Narnia, and the castle is Cair Paravel, their great capital when they ruled as kings and queens. The twist is that it's over a thousand years later, long enough that Cair Paravel is now on an island and has been abandoned to the forest. They discover parts of how that happened when they rescue a dwarf named Trumpkin from two soldiers who are trying to drown him near the supposedly haunted woods.

Most of the books in this series have good hooks, but Prince Caspian has one of the best. I adored everything about the start of this book as a kid: the initial delight at being by the sea when they were on their way to boarding school, the realization that getting food was not going to be easy, the abandoned castle, the dawning understanding of where they are, the treasure room, and the extended story about Prince Caspian, his discovery of the Old Narnia, and his flight from his usurper uncle. It becomes clear from Trumpkin's story that the children were pulled back into Narnia by Susan's horn (the best artifact in these books), but Caspian's forces were expecting the great kings and queens of legend from Narnia's Golden Age. Trumpkin is delightfully nonplussed at four school-age kids who are determined to join up with Prince Caspian and help.

That's the first half of Prince Caspian, and it's a solid magical adventure story with lots of potential. The ending, alas, doesn't entirely work. And between that, we get the business with Aslan and Lucy in the woods, or as I thought of it even as a kid, the bit where Aslan is awful to everyone for no reason.

For those who have forgotten, or who don't care about spoilers, the kids plus Trumpkin are trying to make their way to Aslan's How (formerly the Stone Table) where Prince Caspian and his forces were gathered, when they hit an unexpected deep gorge. Lucy sees Aslan and thinks he's calling for them to go up the gorge, but none of the other kids or Trumpkin can see him and only Edmund believes her. They go down instead, which almost gets them killed by archers. Then, that night, Lucy wakes up and finds Aslan again, who tells her to wake the others and follow him, but warns she may have to follow him alone if she can't convince the others to go along. She wakes them up (which does not go over well), Aslan continues to be invisible to everyone else despite being right there, Susan is particularly upset at Lucy, and everything is awful. But this time they do follow her (with lots of grumbling and over Susan's objections). This, of course, is the right decision: Aslan leads them to a hidden path that takes them over the river they're trying to cross, and becomes visible to everyone when they reach the other side.

This is a mess. It made me angry as a kid, and it still makes me angry now. No one has ever had trouble seeing Aslan before, so the kids are rightfully skeptical. By intentionally deceiving them, Aslan puts the other kids in an awful position: they either have to believe Lucy is telling the truth and Aslan is being weirdly malicious, or Lucy is mistaken even though she's certain. It not only leads directly to conflict among the kids, it makes Lucy (the one who does all the right things all along) utterly miserable. It's just cruel and mean, for no purpose.

It seems clear to me that this is C.S. Lewis trying to make a theological point about faith, and in a way that makes it even worse because I think he's making a different point than he intended to make. Why is religious faith necessary; why doesn't God simply make himself apparent to everyone and remove the doubt? This is one of the major problems in Christian apologetics, Lewis chooses to raise it here, and the answer he gives is that God only shows himself to his special favorites and hides from everyone else as a test. It's clearly not even a question of intention to have faith; Edmund has way more faith here than Lucy does (since Lucy doesn't need it) and still doesn't get to see Aslan properly until everyone else does. Pah.

The worst part of this is that it's effectively the last we see of Susan.

Prince Caspian is otherwise the book in which Susan comes into her own. The sibling relationship between the kids is great here in general, but Susan is particularly good. She is the one who takes bold action to rescue Trumpkin, risking herself by firing an arrow into the helmet of one of the soldiers despite being the most cautious of the kids. (And then gets a little defensive about her shot because she doesn't want anyone to think she would miss that badly at short range, a detail I just love.) I identified so much with her not wanting to beat Trumpkin at an archery contest because she felt bad for him (but then doing it anyway). She is, in short, awesome.

I was fine with her being the most grumpy and frustrated with the argument over picking a direction. They're all kids, and sometimes one gets grumpy and frustrated and awful to the people around you. Once everyone sees Aslan again, Susan offers a truly excellent apology to Lucy, so it seemed like Lewis was setting up a redemption arc for her the way that he did for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (although I maintain that nearly all of this mess was Aslan's fault). But then we never see Susan's conversation with Aslan, Peter later says he and Susan are now too old to return to Narnia, and that's it for Susan. Argh.

I'll have more to say about this later (and it's not an original opinion), but the way Lewis treats Susan is the worst part of this series, and it adds insult to injury that it happens immediately after she has a chance to shine.

The rest of the book suffers from the same problem that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did, namely that Aslan fixes everything in a somewhat surreal wild party and it's unclear why the kids needed to be there. (This is the book where Bacchus and Silenus show up, there is a staggering quantity of wine for a children's book, and Aslan turns a bunch of obnoxious school kids into pigs.) The kids do have more of a role to play this time: Peter and Edmund help save Caspian, and there's a (somewhat poorly motivated) duel that sends up the ending. But other than the brief battle in the How, the battle is won by Aslan waking the trees, and it's not clear why he didn't do that earlier. The ending is, at best, rushed and not worthy of its excellent setup. I was also disappointed that the "wait, why are you all kids?" moment was hand-waved away by Narnia giving the kids magical gravitas.

Lewis never felt in control of either The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Prince Caspian. In both cases, he had a great hook and some ideas of what he wanted to hit along the way, but the endings are more sense of wonder and random Aslan set pieces than anything that follows naturally from the setup. This is part of why I'm not commenting too much on the sour notes, such as the red dwarves being the good and loyal ones but the black dwarves being suspicious and only out for themselves. If I thought bits like that were deliberate, I'd complain more, but instead it feels like Lewis threw random things he liked about children's books and animal stories into the book and gave it a good stir, and some of his subconscious prejudices fell into the story along the way.

That said, resolving your civil war children's book by gathering all the people who hate talking animals (but who have lived in Narnia for generations) and exiling them through a magical gateway to a conveniently uninhabited country is certainly a choice, particularly when you wrote the book only two years after the Partition of India. Good lord.

Prince Caspian is a much better book than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first half, and then it mostly falls apart. The first half is so good, though. I want to read the book that this could have become, but I'm not sure anyone else writes quite like Lewis at his best.

Followed by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is my absolute favorite of the series.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-03-30: Review: Paladin's Strength

Review: Paladin's Strength, by T. Kingfisher

Series The Saint of Steel #2
Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright 2021
ASIN B08WWKXXVY
Format Kindle
Pages 474

Paladin's Strength is a sequel of sorts to Paladin's Grace, but it has different protagonists. It picks up a subplot from that novel with another former follower of the Saint of Steel. You can safely read the books in any order; there are some minor spoilers for the Paladin's Grace subplot in this book, but nothing that would matter for the enjoyment of the story.

Istvhan and his fellow brother Galen are acting as the head of a mercenary band, which has hired on to escort Master Distiller Brant and his collection of Emperor Oak barrels. In truth, they have another mission from the Temple of the White Rat: to track down a disturbing monster that leaves a trail of beheaded bodies.

Clara is a lay sister of St. Ursa, a convent that was raided by slavers who hauled away the nuns. She was left for dead in Arral territory when she fell sick, and was taken as a house slave after they nursed her back to life. The story opens with her holding a sword in front of Istvhan's tent, part of the fallout of Istvhan killing a young Arral in self-defense. The politics of that fallout are not at all what Istvhan expects. They end with Clara traveling with Istvhan's company, at least for a while.

Both Istvhan and Clara are telling the truth: Istvhan is escorting a merchant, and Clara is hoping to rescue her sisters. Both of them are also hiding a great deal. Istvhan's quiet investigation of the trail of a monster is easy enough to reveal once he knows Clara well enough. That he's a berserker who no longer has a god in control of his battle rage is another matter; the reader knows that, and of course so does Galen, but Istvhan has no intention of telling anyone else. Clara has her own secrets about herself and the sisters of St. Ursa, ones that neither the reader nor Istvhan knows.

This is a T. Kingfisher novel about paladins, so of course it's also a romance. If you've read Kingfisher's other books, you know she writes slow burn romances, but Paladin's Strength is next level. Istvhan and Clara have good reasons to not want to get involved and to doubt the other person's attraction or willingness, but this goes far beyond the obvious to become faintly absurd. If you like the sort of romance where both leads generate endless reasons to not pursue the relationship (some legitimate, some not) while steadfastly refusing to talk to each other about them and endlessly rehashing hints and interpretations, you're in for a treat. For me, it was too much and crossed over into irritation. By the two-thirds point, Kingfisher was gleefully throwing obstacles in their way to drag out the suspense, and I just wanted everyone to shut up about having sex and get on with the rest of the story.

That's unfortunate because I really liked Clara. She isn't the same type as Grace, Halla from Swordheart, or even Slate from Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine, the other novels set in this universe. She's self-contained, physically intimidating, cautious, deliberate, and very good at keeping her own counsel. I won't spoil her secret, since it's fun to work it out at the start of the book, but it's a lovely bit of characterization and world-building that Kingfisher handles with a thoughtful eye for its ramifications and effect on Clara's psychology. I would happily read more books about Clara.

I liked Istvhan well enough when he was doing anything other than mooning over Clara. As with all of Kingfisher's paladins, he's not a very subtle person, but he's a good straight man for Clara's quiet bemusement. He fills the paladin slot in this story, which is all he needs to do. There's enough else going on with Clara and with the plot — two separate major plotlines, plus a few subplots — that Paladin's Strength can use a protagonist who heads straight forward and hits things until they fall down.

The mooning, though... this is going to be a matter of personal taste. I think the intent was to contrast Istvhan's rather straightforward lustful appreciation with Clara's nuanced and trauma-laced reservations, and to play Istvhan's reactions in part for humor. I'm sure it works for some people, but I found Istvhan juvenile and puerile (albeit, to be clear, in a respectful and entirely consensual way), which didn't help me invest in a romance plot that I already thought dragged on too long. Thankfully the characters finally get past this in time for a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to the plot.

The joy of Paladin's Grace (and Swordheart for that matter) was the character dynamics and quirky female lead, which made the romance work even when Stephen was being dense. The joy of Paladin's Strength for me was primarily Clara's matter-of-fact calm bemusement and secondarily the plot and the world-building. (Kingfisher's gnoles continue to be the best thing about this setting.) None of that helps the romance as much, and the slow burn was far, far too slow for me, which lowers this one a notch. Still, this was fun, and I'll keep reading books about the Temple of the White Rat and their various friends and encounters for as long as Kingfisher keeps writing them.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-03-28: Review: JavaScript: The Definitive Guide

Review: JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, by David Flanagan

Publisher O'Reilly
Copyright May 2020
ISBN 1-4919-5202-4
Format Trade paperback
Pages 665

JavaScript: The Definitive Guide has been frequently revised for new versions of JavaScript and therefore has multiple editions. This review is of the seventh edition, first published in May of 2020.

Reviews of programming language books are challenging since people learn languages in different ways. A short calibration for my preferences may therefore be useful.

I'm both an experienced programmer in multiple languages (C, Perl, Python, and some Java and Ruby professionally; Rust, some PHP, and a few minor languages as a hobby) and I specialized in software theory in college. I therefore like to learn languages comparatively and am comfortable with a lot of up-front syntax and discussion of the unique properties of the language. Introductory programs and practical exercises doesn't matter as much to me; I'm happy to hold the syntax in my head until enough of the language has been introduced to write simple programs.

For me, this book is excellent. It's one of the best language manuals that I've read, and that requires some work because JavaScript is a sprawling mess with odd corners, deprecated features, and alternate implementations of core constructs. Flanagan takes the syntax-first, comprehensive approach that I prefer, working methodically through the language (defining your own functions aren't introduced until chapter eight) and discussing all of the quirks as he goes. I felt like I thoroughly understood each portion of the language before moving on.

And this book is tight. Some comprehensive language introductions sprawl, but the benefit of seven editions of iteration is a book that has been honed to the most direct and effective explanation of each concept. The section on type conversions with operators, for example, was so good that I was able to immediately understand the unintuitive result of [1] + 2 (the string '12'), despite this being one of the most confusing parts of the language. The sections on JavaScript's prototype-based object type system and its three concurrency models (callbacks, promises, and async/await) were equally good. I came away feeling like I not only understood promises and callback chains but had a feel for how the same code would look when written in the different systems.

The drawback in this approach is that if you instead want a language reference that only tells you the parts of the language that you should use and leaves out the legacy weirdness and obscure corners for later (or never), this may not be the book for you. Flanagan labels the obsolete constructs, but he's meticulous about explaining the entire language, including such things as new Boolean or var variables that no one should use. This is what I wanted; I prefer to have a thorough grounding in language primitives so that it doesn't surprise me. But it can be a lot to juggle and prune in your head.

JavaScript is a language used in some very different domains. The approach Flanagan takes to that is to spend as long as possible on the core language that's usable both in the browser and on the server (while marking the pieces, such as the module system, that are markedly different between Node and browsers). He then puts two monster chapters at the back of the book that cover JavaScript in web browsers and JavaScript as implemented by Node. Both are more of overviews than orientations, since a comprehensive manual for either is probably as long again as this book, but they were more than adequate for my purposes. (I bogged down a bit in the web browser chapter, in part because I didn't have an immediate use for most of the material.) Flanagan wisely defers to MDN as the reference manual for the JavaScript APIs available in web browsers.

I thought Flanagan also hit the right balance of explanation to examples, and did a good job controlling the length of the examples. Most of the code excerpts are short and to the point. The longer ones have a high level of explanatory power per line, since Flanagan uses them to pull together multiple concepts and show how they interact. I was particularly impressed with the example that closes the chapter on web browsers, which uses <canvas>, ImageData, generators, promises, web workers, and other areas of the language Flanagan previously explained to implement a Mandelbrot set explorer in eleven pages of code. I think that's the longest example in the book, and it's well worth it.

This sort of introduction will always have limitations. Flanagan provides a brief orientation to the ecosystem surrounding JavaScript in the last chapter, but most JavaScript programmers will be working with packaging tools and frameworks that could themselves be the topic of another book and that he doesn't have room to cover. JavaScript, even more than most languages, is commonly used via a heavy layer of supporting libraries and abstractions, so you will probably not be able to tackle a practical JavaScript project using solely the material in this book. But if you're the sort of programmer who wants to start with a solid syntactical and conceptual understanding of the language core before starting on more applied topics, I've rarely seen it done better than this book.

If you want a quick-start guide that will get you writing code quickly and is opinionated about what parts of the language you should learn, this may not be the book for you. But if you're comfortable with comprehensive detail in your language guides, this was exactly what I was looking for. Recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2021-03-28: Pod::Thread 2.00

I am slowly working towards collecting twenty years of static web site generation and release management tools into DocKnot. Pod::Thread is the component that turns POD documentation into HTML by converting it to thread, the macro language that is the backbone of my static site generator, and then letting spin turn the results into HTML.

I wrote this module years ago and have had it around as a private Perl module, but since the version of DocKnot that incorporates spin will have it as a dependency, it seemed time to publicly release it.

Compared to the last released version in 2013, it also has a few bug fixes and improvements. The module now internally handles the navbar and table of contents generation (by deferring output) rather than using a pre-scanning pass in the driver script, and fixes the title casing of DB_CONFIG in the output from one INN manual page. I also did a lot of modernization and improvements to the test suite.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or the Pod::Thread distribution page.

2021-03-27: faq2html 1.36

faq2html is the program I use to turn various text files into web pages.

I've started adopting CPAN::Changes::Spec for my Perl modules, and changes files in that format look best if shown in a dense bullet list similar to:

 - Remove single spaces at the start of lines in wrapped paragraphs.
 - Encode output in UTF-8 if necessary.
 - Strip formatting codes from headings that will go into the table of
   contents or navbar, and fix the algorithm for adding anchors to account
   for this transformation.
 - Use Module::Build as the build system.

faq2html could deal with these if every line was its own bullet, but couldn't handle line continuations, so the output looked poor. This new release fixes that problem (in a somewhat overly complex way, but I'll wait to fix that until I start refactoring it, which is on the menu for a future project).

Note that there is a remaining ambiguity. When there is a blank line between bullet items, I prefer to wrap the text of each bullet in <p> to preserve that spacing (even though that makes the output look awful in the Dreamwidth style that I use and in the original style, due to a bug on their end I think). But if that's the entirety of the list, which can happen with Changes files, I'd prefer to omit the <p>. That requires defering output of the bullet point until either more paragraphs that are part of the same list are seen, or some other text is seen. That's a larger refactoring that I'll put off until later.

I also released cvs2xhtml version 1.15 and cl2xhtml version 1.12. There are no changes in the output of either of those programs; I just ported them to Python 3, since I've uninstalled Python 2 from my systems.

You can get all of these tools from my web tools distribution page.

2021-03-20: pam-krb5 4.10

pam-krb5 is a relatively simple Kerberos PAM module with no dependencies on larger infrastructure such as sssd.

This is a small bug-fix release that fixes a possible double-free if krb5_cc_get_principal fails on the newly-acquired ticket cache during authentication. I am dubious this is exploitable because this temporary ticket cache should not be under the control of an attacker, but I'm putting out a release just in case. Thanks to Michael Muehle for the report.

You can get the latest release from the pam-krb5 distribution page.

2021-03-20: rra-c-util 9.0

rra-c-util is my collection of support functions, Autoconf macros, test programs, and other infrastructure that I use to build other packages.

This release includes lots of portability work to support the INN 2.6.4 release, much of it by Julien ÉLIE. There are some incompatibilities in the Autoconf macros compared to previous versions, hence the version bump.

There are also some fixes for portability of the test suite and other minor portability improvements.

You can get the latest release from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2021-03-14: New experimental Big Eight Usenet signing key

I have finally done the work to create a new modern GnuPG signing key for control messages for the Big Eight hierarchies and wired it into the machinery that sends those control messages. I have sent one experimental checkgroups message signed with that key:

    <cmsg-20210314174844$1888@isc.org>

To test the automation, tomorrow the normal monthly checkgroups will be issued, which should result in two control messages, one signed with the new key and one with the old key.

I've used the same key ID for the new key as the old key so that updating will be as simple as importing the new key.

This key is currently EXPERIMENTAL and I reserve the right to reissue the key if anyone uncovers any problems. If you are in a position to do so, please try verifying the control messages with the new key and verify that the work properly. I plan on making this new key official some time next month and will post a more general announcement to news.announce.newgroups and news.admin.announce at that time.

The new key, signed with my personal key and the old hierarchy control signing key, is available on my web site. (The Big Eight hierarchies need a more official information page for news administrators, I know, but one thing at a time.)

2021-03-01: Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #1
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1950
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044220-3
Format Mass market
Pages 186

Although it's been more than 20 years since I last read it, I believe I have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more times than any other book. The count is certainly in double digits. As you might guess, I also have strong opinions about it, some of which are unorthodox, and I've been threatening to write this review for years. It seemed a fitting choice for my 1000th review.

There is quite a lot that can and has been said about this book and this series, and this review is already going to be much too long, so I'm only going to say a fraction of it. I'm going to focus on my personal reactions as someone raised a white evangelical Christian but no longer part of that faith, and the role this book played in my religion. I'm not going to talk much about some of its flaws, particularly Lewis's treatment of race and gender. This is not because I don't agree they're there, but only that I don't have much to say that isn't covered far better in other places.

Unlike my other reviews, this one will contain major spoilers. If you have managed to remain unspoiled for a 70-year-old novel that spawned multiple movies and became part of the shared culture of evangelical Christianity, and want to stay that way, I'll warn you in ALL CAPS when it's time to go. But first, a few non-spoiler notes.

First, reading order. Most modern publications of The Chronicles of Narnia will list The Magician's Nephew as the first book. This follows internal chronological order and is at C.S. Lewis's request. However, I think Lewis was wrong. You should read this series in original publication order, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which I'm going to abbreviate as TLtWatW like everyone else who writes about it).

I will caveat this by saying that I have a bias towards reading books in the order an author wrote them because I like seeing the development of the author's view of their work, and I love books that jump back in time and fill in background, so your experience may vary. But the problem I see with the revised publication order is that The Magician's Nephew explains the origins of Narnia and, thus, many of the odd mysteries of TLtWatW that Lewis intended to be mysterious. Reading it first damages both books, like watching a slow-motion how-to video for a magic trick before ever seeing it performed. The reader is not primed to care about the things The Magician's Nephew is explaining, which makes it less interesting. And the bits of unexpected magic and mystery in TLtWatW that give it so much charm (and which it needs, given the thinness of the plot) are already explained away and lose appeal because of it.

I have read this series repeatedly in both internal chronological order and in original publication order. I have even read it in strict chronological order, wherein one pauses halfway through the last chapter of TLtWatW to read The Horse and His Boy before returning. I think original publication order is the best. (The Horse and His Boy is a side story and it doesn't matter that much where you read it as long as you read it after TLtWatW. For this re-read, I will follow original publication order and read it fifth.)

Second, allegory.

The common understanding of TLtWatW is that it's a Christian allegory for children, often provoking irritated reactions from readers who enjoyed the story on its own terms and later discovered all of the religion beneath it. I think this view partly misunderstands how Lewis thought about the world and there is a more interesting way of looking at the book. I'm not as dogmatic about this as I used to be; if you want to read it as an allegory, there are plenty of carefully crafted parallels to the gospels to support that reading. But here's my pitch for a different reading.

To C.S. Lewis, the redemption of the world through the death of Jesus Christ is as foundational a part of reality as gravity. He spent much of his life writing about religion and Christianity in both fiction and non-fiction, and this was the sort of thing he constantly thought about. If somewhere there is another group of sentient creatures, Lewis's theology says that they must fit into that narrative in some way. Either they would have to be unfallen and thus not need redemption (roughly the position taken by The Space Trilogy), or they would need their own version of redemption. So yes, there are close parallels in Narnia to events of the Christian Bible, but I think they can be read as speculating how Christian salvation would play out in a separate creation with talking animals, rather than an attempt to disguise Christianity in an allegory for children. It's a subtle difference, but I think Narnia more an answer to "how would Christ appear in this fantasy world?" than to "how do I get children interested in the themes of Christianity?", although certainly both are in play.

Put more bluntly, where other people see allegory, I see the further adventures of Jesus Christ as an anthropomorphic lion, which in my opinion is an altogether more delightful way to read the books.

So much for the preamble; on to the book.

The Pevensie kids, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, have been evacuated to a huge old house in the country due to the air raids (setting this book during World War II, something that is passed over with barely a mention and not a hint of trauma in a way that a modern book would never do). While exploring this house, which despite the scant description is still stuck in my mind as the canonical huge country home, Lucy steps into a wardrobe because she wants to feel the fur of the coats. Much to her surprise, the wardrobe appears not to have a back, and she finds herself eventually stepping into a snow-covered pine forest where she meets a Fawn named Mr. Tumnus by an unlikely lamp-post.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW, so if you don't want to see those, here's your cue to stop reading.

Two things surprised me when re-reading TLtWatW. The first, which I remember surprising me every time I read it, is how far into this (very short) book one has to go before the plot kicks into gear. It's not until "What Happened After Dinner" more than a third in that we learn much of substance about Narnia, and not until "The Spell Begins to Break" halfway through the book that things start to happen. The early chapters are concerned primarily with the unreliability of the wardrobe portal, with a couple of early and brief excursions by Edmund and Lucy, and with Edmund being absolutely awful to Lucy.

The second thing that surprised me is how little of what happens is driven by the kids. The second half of TLtWatW is about the fight between Aslan and the White Witch, but this fight was not set off by the children and their decisions don't shape it in any significant way. They're primarily bystanders; the few times they take action, it's either off-camera or they're told explicitly what to do. The arguable exception is Edmund, who provides the justification for the final conflict, but he functions more as plot device than as a character with much agency. When that is combined with how much of the story is also on rails via its need to recapitulate part of the gospels (more on that in a moment), it makes the plot feel astonishingly thin and simple.

Edmund is the one protagonist who gets to make some decisions, all of them bad. As a kid, I hated reading these parts because Edmund is an ass, the White Witch is obviously evil, and everyone knows not to eat the food. Re-reading now, I have more appreciation for how Lewis shows Edmund's slide into treachery. He starts teasing Lucy because he thinks it's funny (even though it's not), has a moment when he realizes he was wrong and almost apologizes, but then decides to blame his discomfort on the victim. From that point, he is caught, with some help from the White Witch's magic, in a spiral of doubling down on his previous cruelty and then feeling unfairly attacked. Breaking the cycle is beyond him because it would require admitting just how badly he behaved and, worse, that he was wrong and his little sister was right. He instead tries to justify himself by spreading poisonous bits of doubt, and looks for reasons to believe the friends of the other children are untrustworthy. It's simplistic, to be sure, but it's such a good model of how people slide into believing conspiracy theories and joining hate groups. The Republican Party is currently drowning in Edmunds.

That said, Lewis does one disturbing thing with Edmund that leaped out on re-reading. Everyone in this book has a reaction when Aslan's name is mentioned. For the other three kids, that reaction is awe or delight. For Edmund, it's mysterious horror.

I know where Lewis is getting this from, but this is a nasty theological trap. One of the problems that religion should confront directly is criticism that questions the moral foundations of that religion. If one postulates that those who have thrown in with some version of the Devil have an instinctual revulsion for God, it's a free intellectual dodge. Valid moral criticism can be hand-waved away as Edmund's horrified reaction to Aslan: a sign of Edmund's guilt, rather than a possible flaw to consider seriously. It's also, needless to say, not the effect you would expect from a god who wants universal salvation! But this is only an odd side note, and once Edmund is rescued it's never mentioned again.

This brings us to Aslan himself, the Great Lion, and to the heart of why I think this book and series are so popular. In reinterpreting Christianity for the world of Narnia, Lewis created a far more satisfying and relatable god than Jesus Christ, particularly for kids.

I'm not sure I can describe, for someone who didn't grow up in that faith, how central the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is to evangelical Christianity. It's more than a theological principle; it's the standard by which one's faith is judged. And it is very difficult for a kid to mentally bootstrap themselves into a feeling of a personal relationship with a radical preacher from 2000 years ago who spoke in gnomic parables about subtle points of adult theology. It's hard enough for adults with theological training to understand what that phrase is intended to mean. For kids, you may as well tell them they have a personal relationship with Aristotle.

But a giant, awe-inspiring lion with understanding eyes, a roar like thunder, and a warm mane that you can bury your fingers into? A lion who sacrifices himself for your brother, who can be comforted and who comforts you in turn, and who makes a glorious surprise return? That's the kind of god with which one can imagine having a personal relationship. Aslan felt physical and embodied and present in the imagination in a way that Jesus never did.

I am certain I was not the only Christian kid for whom Aslan was much more viscerally real than Jesus, and who had a tendency to mentally substitute Aslan for Jesus in most thoughts about religion.

I am getting ahead of myself a bit because this is a review of TLtWatW and not of the whole series, and Aslan in this book is still a partly unformed idea. He's much more mundanely present here than he is later, more of a field general than a god, and there are some bits that are just wrong (like him clapping his paws together). But the scenes with Susan and Lucy, the night at the Stone Table and the rescue of the statues afterwards, remain my absolute favorite parts of this book and some of the best bits of the whole series. They strike just the right balance of sadness, awe, despair, and delight.

The image of a lion also lets Lewis show joy in a relatable way. Aslan plays, he runs, he wrestles with the kids, he thrills in the victory over evil just as much as Susan and Lucy do, and he is clearly having the time of his life turning people back to flesh from stone. The combination of translation, different conventions, and historical distance means the Bible has none of this for the modern reader, and while people have tried to layer it on with Bible stories for kids, none of them (and I read a lot of them) capture anything close to the sheer joy of this story.

The trade-off Lewis makes for that immediacy is that Aslan is a wonderful god, but TLtWatW has very little religion. Lewis can have his characters interact with Aslan directly, which reduces the need for abstract theology and difficult questions of how to know God's will. But even when theology is unavoidable, this book doesn't ask for the type of belief that Christianity demands.

For example, there is a crucifixion parallel, because in Lewis's world view there would have to be. That means Lewis has to deal with substitutionary atonement (the belief that Christ died for the sins of the world), which is one of the hardest parts of Christianity to justify. How he does this is fascinating.

The Narnian equivalent is the Deep Magic, which says that the lives of all traitors belong to the White Witch. If she is ever denied a life, Narnia will be destroyed by fire and water. The Witch demands Edmund's life, which sets up Aslan to volunteer to be sacrificed in Edmund's place. This triggers the Deeper Magic that she did not know about, freeing Narnia from her power.

You may have noticed the card that Lewis is palming, and to give him credit, so do the kids, leading to this exchange when the White Witch is still demanding Edmund:

"Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we — I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?"

"Work against the Emperor's magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

The problem with substitutionary atonement is why would a supposedly benevolent god create such a morally abhorrent rule in the first place? And Lewis totally punts. Susan is simply not allowed to ask the question. Lewis does try to tackle this problem elsewhere in his apologetics for adults (without, in my opinion, much success). But here it's just a part of the laws of this universe, which all of the characters, including Aslan, have to work within.

That leads to another interesting point of theology, which is that if you didn't already know about the Christian doctrine of the trinity, you would never guess it from this book. The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea and Aslan are clearly separate characters, with Aslan below the Emperor in the pantheon. This makes rules like the above work out more smoothly than they do in Christianity because Aslan is bound by the Emperor's rules and the Emperor is inscrutable and not present in the story. (The Holy Spirit is Deity Not-appearing-in-this-book, but to be fair to Lewis, that's largely true of the Bible as well.)

What all this means is that Aslan's death is presented straightforwardly as a magic spell. It works because Aslan has the deepest understanding of the fixed laws of the Emperor's magic, and it looks nothing like what we normally think of as religion. Faith is not that important in this book because Aslan is physically present, so it doesn't require any faith for the children to believe he exists. (The Beavers, who believed in him from prophecy without having seen him, are another matter, but this book never talks about that.) The structure of religion is therefore remarkably absent despite the story's Christian parallels. All that's expected of the kids is the normal moral virtues of loyalty and courage and opposition to cruelty.

I have read this book so many times that I've scrutinized every word, so I have to resist the temptation to dig into every nook and cranny: the beautiful description of spring, the weird insertion of Lilith as Adam's first wife, how the controversial appearance of Santa Claus in this book reveals Lewis's love of Platonic ideals... the list is endless, and the review is already much longer than normal. But I never get to talk about book endings in reviews, so one more indulgence.

The best thing that can be said about the ending of TLtWatW is that it is partly redeemed by the start of Prince Caspian. Other than that, the last chapter of this book has always been one of my least favorite parts of The Chronicles of Narnia.

For those who haven't read it (and who by this point clearly don't mind spoilers), the four kids are immediately and improbably crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia. Apparently, to answer the Professor from earlier in the book, ruling magical kingdoms is what they were teaching in those schools? They then spend years in Narnia, never apparently giving a second thought to their parents (you know, the ones who are caught up in World War II, which prompted the evacuation of the kids to the country in the first place). This, for some reason, leaves them talking like medieval literature, which may be moderately funny if you read their dialogue in silly voices to a five-year-old and is otherwise kind of tedious. Finally, in a hunt for the white stag, they stumble across the wardrobe and tumble back into their own world, where they are children again and not a moment has passed.

I will give Lewis credit for not doing a full reset and having the kids not remember anything, which is possibly my least favorite trope in fiction. But this is almost as bad. If the kids returned immediately, that would make sense. If they stayed in Narnia until they died, that arguably would also make sense (their poor parents!). But growing up in Narnia and then returning as if nothing happened doesn't work. Do they remember all of their skills? How do you readjust to going to school after you've lived a life as a medieval Queen? Do they remember any of their friends after fifteen years in Narnia? Argh. It's a very "adventures are over, now time for bed" sort of ending, although the next book does try to patch some of this up.

As a single book taken on its own terms, TLtWatW is weirdly slight, disjointed, and hits almost none of the beats that one would expect from a children's novel. What saves it is a sense of delight and joy that suffuses the descriptions of Narnia, even when locked in endless winter, and Aslan. The plot is full of holes, the role of the children in that plot makes no sense, and Santa Claus literally shows up in the middle of the story to hand out plot devices and make an incredibly sexist statement about war. And yet, I memorized every gift the children received as a kid, I can still feel the coziness of the Beaver's home while Mr. Beaver is explaining prophecy, and the night at the Stone Table remains ten times more emotionally effective for me than the description of the analogous event in the Bible.

And, of course, there's Aslan.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you."

Aslan is not a tame lion, to use the phrase that echos through this series. That, I think, is the key to the god that I find the most memorable in all of fantasy literature, even in this awkward, flawed, and decidedly strange introduction.

Followed by Prince Caspian, in which the children return to a much-changed Narnia. Lewis has gotten most of the obligatory cosmological beats out of the way in this book, so subsequent books can tell more conventional stories.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-02-28: Review: Architects of Memory

Review: Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne

Series Memory War #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-250-21546-3
Format Kindle
Pages 350

Ash is an Aurora Company indenture working as a salvage pilot in the wreckage of the Battle of Tribulation. She's been on the crew of the Twenty-Five and indentured to Aurora for about a year. Before that, she was an indenture in the mines of Bittersweet, where her fiancé died in an attack from the alien Vai and where she contracted the celestium poisoning that's slowly killing her. Her only hope for treatment is to work off her indenture and become a corporate citizen, a hope that is doomed if Aurora discovers her illness. Oh, and she's in love with the citizen captain of the Twenty-Five, a relationship that's a bad idea for multiple reasons and which the captain has already cut off.

This is the hopeful, optimistic part of the book, before things start getting grim.

The setting of Architects of Memory is a horrifying future of corporate slavery and caste systems that has run head-long into aliens. The Vai released mysterious and beautiful weapons that kill humans horribly and were wreaking havoc on the corporate ships, but then the Vai retreated in the midst of their victory. The Twenty-Five is salvaging useful equipment and undetonated Vai ordnance off the dead hulk of the Aurora ship London when corporate tells them that the London may be hiding a more potent secret: a captured Vai weapon that may be the reason the Vai fled.

I was tempted into reading this because the plot is full of elements I usually like: a tight-knit spaceship crew, alien first contact full of mysterious discoveries, corporate skulduggery, and anti-corporate protagonists. However, I like those plot elements when they support a story about overthrowing oppression and improving the universe. This book, instead, is one escalating nightmare after another.

Ash starts the book sick but functional and spends much of the book developing multiple forms of brain damage. She's not alone; the same fate awaits several other likable characters. The secret weapon has horrible effects while also being something more terrible than a weapon. The corporations have an iron and apparently inescapable grip on humanity, with no sign of even the possibility of rebellion, and force indentures to cooperate with their slavery in ways that even the protagonists can't shake. And I haven't even mentioned the organ harvesting and medical experiments. The plot is a spiral between humans doing awful things to aliens and then doing even more awful things to other humans.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it was far less emotionally satisfying than I needed. I'm not sure this was intentional; there are some indications that Osborne meant for it to be partly cathartic for the characters. But not only didn't it work for me at all, it emphasized my feelings about the hopelessness and futility of the setting. If a book is going to put me through that amount of character pain and fear, I need a correspondingly significant triumph at the end.

If that doesn't bother you as much as it does me, this book does have merits. The descriptions of salvage on a disabled starship are vivid and memorable and a nice change of pace from the normal military or scientific space stories. Salvage involves being careful, methodical, and precise in the face of tense situations; combined with the eerie feeling of battlefield remnants, it's an evocative scene. The Vai devices are satisfyingly alien, hitting a good balance between sinister and exotically beautiful. The Vai themselves, once we finally learn something about them, are even better: a truly alien form of life at the very edge of mutual understanding. There was the right amount of inter-corporate skulduggery, with enough factions for some tense complexity and double-crossing, but not so many that I lost track. And there is some enjoyably tense drama near the climax.

Unfortunately, the unremitting horrors were too much for me. They're also too much for the characters, who oscillate between desperate action and psychological meltdowns that become more frequent and more urgently described as one gets farther into the book. Osborne starts the book with the characters already so miserable that this constant raising of the stakes became overwrought and exhausting for me. By the end of the book, the descriptions of the mental state of the characters felt like an endless, incoherent scream of pain. Combine that with a lot of body horror, physical and mental illness, carefully-described war crimes, and gruesome death, and I hit mental overload.

This is not the type of science fiction novel (thankfully getting rarer) in which the author thinks any of these things are okay. Osborne is clearly on the side of her characters and considers the events of this story as horrible as I do. I think her goal was to tell a story about ethics and courage in the face of atrocities and overwhelming odds, and maybe another reader would find that. For me, it was lost in the darkness.

Architects of Memory reaches a definite conclusion but doesn't resolve some major plot elements. It's followed by Engines of Oblivion, which might, based on the back-cover text, be more optimistic? I don't think I have it in me to find out, though.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2021-02-27: DocKnot 4.01

DocKnot is my software documentation and release management tool. This release adds support for a global user configuration file separate from the metadata for any given project and adds support for signing generated distribution tarballs with GnuPG. Currently, the only configuration options for the global configuration file are to set the destination location of generated distributions and the PGP key to use when signing them.

This release also removes some now-unnecessary helper functions, fixes docknot --help, and cleans up some documentation bugs left over from the big changes in 4.00.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the DocKnot distribution page.

2021-02-21: Review: Finder

Review: Finder, by Suzanne Palmer

Series Finder Chronicles #1
Publisher DAW Books
Copyright 2019
ISBN 0-7564-1511-X
Format Kindle
Pages 391

Fergus Ferguson is a repo man, or professional finder as he'd prefer. He locates things taken by people who don't own them and returns them to their owners. In this case, the thing in question is a sentient starship, and the person who stole it is Arum Gilger, a warlord in a wired-together agglomeration of space habitats and mined-out asteroids named Cernekan. Cernee, as the locals call it, is in the backwaters of human space near the Gap between the spiral arms of the galaxy.

One of Fergus's first encounters in Cernee is with an old lichen farmer named Mattie Vahn who happens to take the same cable car between stations that he does. Bad luck for Fergus, since that's also why Gilger's men first disable and then blow up the cable car, leaving Mattie dead and Fergus using the auto-return feature of Mattie's crates to escape to the Vahns' home station. The Vahns are not a power in Cernee, not exactly, but they do have some important alliances and provide an inroads for Fergus to get the lay of the land and map out a plan to recover the Venetia's Sword.

This is a great hook. I would happily read a whole series about an interstellar repo man, particularly one like Fergus who only works for the good guys and recovers things from petty warlords. Fergus is a thoughtful, creative loner whose style is improvised plans, unexpected tactics, and thinking on his feet rather than either bluster or force (although there is a fair bit of death in this book, some of which is gruesome). About two-thirds of the book is in roughly that expected shape. Fergus makes some local contacts, maps out the political terrain, and maneuvers himself towards his target through a well-crafted slum of wired-together habitats and working-class miners. Also, full points for the creative security system on the starship that tries to solve a nearly impossible problem (a backdoor supplementing pre-shared keys with a cultural authentication scheme that can't be vulnerable to brute force or database searches).

Halfway through, though, Palmer throws a curve ball at the reader that involves the unexplained alien presence that's been lurking around the system. That part of the plot shifts focus somewhat abruptly from the local power struggle Fergus has been navigating to something far more intrusive and personal. Fergus has to both reckon with a drastic change in his life and deal with memories of his early life on an Earth drowning in climate change, his abusive childhood, and his time spent in the Martian resistance.

This is also a fine topic for an SF novel, but I think Finder suffered a bit from falling between two stools. The fun competence drama of the lone repossession agent striking back against petty tyrants by taking away their toys is derailed by the sudden burst of introspection and emotional processing, but the processing is not deep or complex enough to carry the story on its own. Fergus had an awful and emotionally alienated childhood followed by some nasty trauma, to which he has responded by carefully never getting close to anyone so that he never hurts anyone who relies on him. And yet, he's a fundamentally decent person and makes friends despite himself, and from there you can probably write the rest of the arc yourself. There's nothing wrong with this as the emotional substrate of a book that's primarily focused on an action plot, but the screeching change of focus threw me off.

The good news is that the end of the book returns to the bits that I liked about the first half. The mixed news is that I thought the political situation in Cernee resolved much too easily and much too straightforwardly. I would have preferred the twisty alliances to stay twisty, rather than collapse messily into a far simpler moral duality. I will also speak on behalf of all the sentient starship lovers out there and complain that the Venetia's Sword was woefully underused. It had better show up in a future volume!

This unsteadiness and a few missed opportunities make Finder a good book rather than a great one, but I was still happily entertained and willing to write that off as first-novel unevenness. There are a lot of background elements left unresolved for a future volume, but Finder comes to a satisfying conclusion. Recommended if you're looking for an undemanding space action story with a quick pace and decent, if not very deep, characters.

Followed by Driving the Deep.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-02-20: Review: The Fated Sky

Review: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Series Lady Astronaut #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright August 2018
ISBN 0-7653-9893-1
Format Kindle
Pages 380

The Fated Sky is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, but you could start with this book if you wanted to. It would be obvious you'd missed a previous book in the series, and some of the relationships would begin in medias res, but the story is sufficiently self-contained that one could puzzle through.

Mild spoilers follow for The Calculating Stars, although only to the extent of confirming that book didn't take an unexpected turn, and nothing that wouldn't already be spoiled if you had read the short story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" that kicked this series off. (The short story takes place well after all of the books.) Also some minor spoilers for the first section of the book, since I have to talk about its outcome in broad strokes in order to describe the primary shape of the novel.

In the aftermath of worsening weather conditions caused by the Meteor, humans have established a permanent base on the Moon and are preparing a mission to Mars. Elma is not involved in the latter at the start of the book; she's working as a shuttle pilot on the Moon, rotating periodically back to Earth. But the political situation on Earth is becoming more tense as the refugee crisis escalates and the weather worsens, and the Mars mission is in danger of having its funding pulled in favor of other priorities. Elma's success in public outreach for the space program as the Lady Astronaut, enhanced by her navigation of a hostage situation when an Earth re-entry goes off course and is met by armed terrorists, may be the political edge supporters of the mission need.

The first part of this book is the hostage situation and other ground-side politics, but the meat of this story is the tense drama of experimental, pre-computer space flight. For those who aren't familiar with the previous book, this series is an alternate history in which a huge meteorite hit the Atlantic seaboard in 1952, potentially setting off runaway global warming and accelerating the space program by more than a decade. The Calculating Stars was primarily about the politics surrounding the space program. In The Fated Sky, we see far more of the technical details: the triumphs, the planning, and the accidents and other emergencies that each could be fatal in an experimental spaceship headed towards Mars. If what you were missing from the first book was more technological challenge and realistic detail, The Fated Sky delivers. It's edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and almost impossible to put down.

I have more complicated feelings about the secondary plot. In The Calculating Stars, the heart of the book was an incredibly well-told story of Elma learning to deal with her social anxiety. That's still a theme here but a lesser one; Elma has better coping mechanisms now. What The Fated Sky tackles instead is pervasive sexism and racism, and how Elma navigates that (not always well) as a white Jewish woman.

The centrality of sexism is about the same in both books. Elma's public outreach is tied closely to her gender and starts as a sort of publicity stunt. The space program remains incredibly sexist in The Fated Stars, something that Elma has to cope with but can't truly fix. If you found the sexism in the first book irritating, you're likely to feel the same about this installment.

Racism is more central this time, though. In The Calculating Stars, Elma was able to help make things somewhat better for Black colleagues. She has a much different experience in The Fated Stars: she ends up in a privileged position that hurts her non-white colleagues, including one of her best friends. The merits of taking a stand on principle are ambiguous, and she chooses not to. When she later tries to help Black astronauts, she does so in a way that's focused on her perceptions rather than theirs and is therefore more irritating than helpful. The opportunities she gets, in large part because she's seen as white, unfairly hurt other people, and she has to sit with that. It's a thoughtful and uncomfortable look at how difficult it is for a white person to live with discomfort they can't fix and to not make it worse by trying to wave it away or point out their own problems.

That was the positive side of this plot, although I'm still a bit wary and would like to read a review by a Black reviewer to see how well this plot works from their perspective. There are some other choices that I thought landed oddly. One is that the most racist crew member, the one who sparks the most direct conflict with the Black members of the international crew, is a white man from South Africa, which I thought let the United States off the hook too much and externalized the racism a bit too neatly. Another is that the three ships of the expedition are the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and no one in the book comments on this. Given the thoughtful racial themes of the book, I can't imagine this is an accident, and it is in character for United States of this novel to pick those names, but it was an odd intrusion of an unremarked colonial symbol. This may be part of Kowal's attempt to show that Elma is embedded in a racist and sexist world, has limited room to maneuver, and can't solve most of the problems, which is certainly a theme of the series. But it left me unsettled on whether this book was up to fully handling the fraught themes Kowal is invoking.

The other part of the book I found a bit frustrating is that it never seriously engaged with the political argument against Mars colonization, instead treating most of the opponents of space travel as either deluded conspiracy believers or cynical villains. Science fiction is still arguing with William Proxmire even though he's been dead for fifteen years and out of office for thirty. The strong argument against a Mars colony in Elma's world is not funding priorities; it's that even if it's successful, only a tiny fraction of well-connected elites will escape the planet to Mars. This argument is made in the book and Elma dismisses it as a risk she's trying to prevent, but it is correct. There is no conceivable technological future that leads to evacuating the Earth to Mars, but The Fated Sky declines to grapple with the implications of that fact.

There's more that I haven't remarked on, including an ongoing excellent portrayal of the complicated and loving relationship between Elma and her husband, and a surprising development in her antagonistic semi-friendship with the sexist test pilot who becomes the mission captain. I liked how Kowal balanced technical problems with social problems on the long Mars flight; both are serious concerns and they interact with each other in complicated ways.

The details of the perils and joys of manned space flight are excellent, at least so far as I can tell without having done the research that Kowal did. If you want a fictionalized Apollo 13 with higher stakes and less ground support, look no further; this is engrossing stuff. The interpersonal politics and sociology were also fascinating and gripping, but unsettling, in both good ways and bad. I like the challenge that Kowal presents to a white reader, although I'm not sure she was completely in control of it.

Cautiously recommended, although be aware that you'll need to grapple with a sexist and racist society while reading it. Also a content note for somewhat graphic gastrointestinal problems.

Followed by The Relentless Moon.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-02-17: Review: Solutions and Other Problems

Review: Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh

Publisher Gallery Books
Copyright September 2020
ISBN 1-9821-5694-5
Format Hardcover
Pages 519

Solutions and Other Problems is the long-awaited second volume of Allie Brosh's work, after the amazing Hyperbole and a Half. The first collection was a mix of original material and pieces that first appeared on her blog. This is all new work, although one of the chapters is now on her blog as a teaser.

As with all of Brosh's previous work, Solutions and Other Problems is mostly drawings (in her highly original, deceptively simple style) with a bit of prose in between. It's a similar mix of childhood stories, off-beat interpretations of day-to-day life, and deeper and more personal topics. But this is not the same type of book as Hyperbole and a Half, in a way that is hard to capture in a review.

When this book was postponed and then temporarily withdrawn, I suspected that something had happened to Brosh. I was hoping that it was just the chaos of her first book publication, but, sadly, no. We find out about some of what happened in Solutions and Other Problems, in varying amounts of detail, and it's heart-wrenching. That by itself gives the book a more somber tone.

But, beyond that, I think Solutions and Other Problems represents a shift in mood and intention. The closest I can come to it is to say that Hyperbole and a Half felt like Brosh using her own experiences as a way to tell funny stories, and this book feels like Brosh using funny stories to talk about her experiences. There are still childhood hijinks and animal stories mixed in, but even those felt more earnest, more sad, and less assured or conclusive. This is in no way a flaw, to be clear; just be aware that if you were expecting more work exactly like Hyperbole and a Half, this volume is more challenging and a bit more unsettling.

This does not mean Brosh's trademark humor is gone. Chapter seventeen, "Loving-Kindness Exercise," is one of the funniest things I've ever read. "Neighbor Kid" captures my typical experience of interacting with children remarkably well. And there are, of course, more stories about not-very-bright pets, including a memorable chapter ("The Kangaroo Pig Gets Drunk") on just how baffling our lives must be to the animals around us. But this book is more serious, even when there's humor and absurdity layered on top, and anxiety felt like a constant companion.

As with her previous book, many of the chapters are stories from Brosh's childhood. I have to admit this is not my favorite part of Brosh's work, and the stories in this book in particular felt a bit less funny and somewhat more uncomfortable and unsettling. This may be a very individual reaction; you can judge your own in advance by reading "Richard," the second chapter of the book, which Brosh posted to her blog. I think it's roughly typical of the childhood stories here.

The capstone of Hyperbole and a Half was Brosh's fantastic two-part piece on depression, which succeeded in being hilarious and deeply insightful at the same time. I think the capstone of Solutions and Other Problems is the last chapter, "Friend," which is about being friends with yourself. For me, it was a good encapsulation of both the merits of this book and the difference in tone. It's less able to find obvious humor in a psychological struggle, but it's just as empathetic and insightful. The ending is more ambiguous and more conditional; the tone is more wistful. It felt more personal and more raw, and therefore a bit less generalized. Her piece on depression made me want to share it with everyone I knew; this piece made me want to give Brosh a virtual hug and tell her I'm glad she's alive and exists in the world. That about sums up my reaction to this book.

I bought Solutions and Other Problems in hardcover because I think this sort of graphic work benefits from high-quality printing, and I was very happy with that decision. Gallery Books used heavy, glossy paper and very clear printing. More of the text is outside of the graphic panels than I remember from the previous book. I appreciated that; I thought it made the stories much easier to read. My one quibble is that Brosh does use fairly small lettering in some of the panels and the color choices and the scrawl she uses for stylistic reasons sometimes made that text difficult for me to read. In those few places, I would have appreciated the magnifying capabilities of reading on a tablet.

I don't think this is as good as Hyperbole and a Half, but it is still very good and very worth reading. It's harder reading, though, and you'll need to brace yourself more than you did before. If you're new to Brosh, start with Hyperbole and a Half, or with the blog, but if you liked those, read this too.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last spun 2021-04-05 from thread modified 2008-08-13