Posts for September 2004

2004-09-03: Return to normalcy

Well, after three wonderful, exciting, and different weeks, it's time to get back to the regular run of things. The great part is that I'm feeling very rested and enthused and ready to do tackle that head-on.

I had a wonderful time with company for the last nearly three weeks, both going out and doing things and just hanging out together, watching the Olympics, watching Buffy, going over to a friend's house for table tennis, wandering about Fry's, and listening to music. We didn't get done everything that we'd planned, but then we never do, and there are always things for next time.

This weekend will be cleaning, straightening, and putting things in order weekend, sprinkled with large amounts of reading. The casualty of company, the Olympics, and fairly busy work has been reading. After having not read at all for three weeks, spending three and a half hours last night in Perdido Street Station was a great feeling. I expect I'll be doing quite a bit of that this weekend.

The new WebAuth v3 weblogin servers are now set up and running on Debian, and we're going to be doing general testing next week for an upgrade a week from Monday. This will be my first time doing a major service build on Debian, and the first time we've been aggressive about getting everything into Debian packages. We're going to be using these builds as a model for other servers going forward. I've also been dealing with the Kerberos vulnerabilities; the KDCs were patched the same day, and I now finally have the new software builds done and can announce the availability of new kits on Tuesday for the rest of campus.

These three weeks have also been good for developing more of a sense of perspective about some things. I'm likely to be watching much less TV than normal and listening to far more music than I have been for at least the next few weeks. I took a break from looking at any news sites while the Olympics were on to avoid spoilers, and now I find myself not wanting to return to my regular readings of the headlines. I'm also getting even more aggressive about avoiding anything related to the crappy US election, which I don't even want to hear about any more. Nothing like a break and some distance to help one refocus on what are the really interesting and worthwhile things in life.

Oh, and ttf-freefont has been fixed in Debian. This makes me very happy. It looks so much better than any other browser font I've used.

2004-09-06: Perdido Street Station

Review: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

Publisher: Del Ray
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 0-345-45940-7
Pages: 623

At its roots, I'm convinced that this is a horror novel. All the ingredients are there: terrifying creatures released by man's ignorance to prey on unsuspecting innocents, heart-stopping moments face to face with nightmarish evil, collisions of powers hovering just at the edge of human comprehension, vicious and unfair moments of near-random violence that leaves wounds that cannot ever be healed, and no clean answers, easy escapes, or actions without cost. Perdido Street Station is, in fact, unremittingly dark, enough that it made me somewhat nervous to read it just before falling asleep.

How China Miéville manages to build upon that foundation a beautifully constructed science fiction novel while still approaching the "feel" of the genre from entirely unexpected directions I could not tell you, but it is a truly beautiful thing to watch happen.

That is, perhaps, the only thing in this book that could be called beautiful. Fetid, polluted, slime-covered, and putrid, New Crobuzon, the setting and best supporting character of the book, is thoroughly dystopian. Every surface seems covered in an unremitting layer of grime so evocative and well-described that one can almost smell it.

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt to the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us, but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchures, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargos from the water.

I could see the city unfold with the story, as if I were reading a graphic novel. The construction of a sense of place is astonishing, particularly since the narrative almost never lapses into extended description. The surroundings permeate the story, growing through the cobblestones of the plot.

While the world-building shines through the horror trappings, the plot demonstrates what one gets when one takes a science fiction approach to a horror novel without blunting the horror, namely an exquisite blending of the terror of the unknown and unthinkable with a growing sense of wonder at the edges of the known. Miéville's characters are not afraid to ask what and why, and Miéville, more impressively, is not afraid to give them answers. They plumb intuitive depths of half-magical steampunk science, tackle horrific problems with stubborn engineering, and achieve a growing understanding of exactly what it is that they're facing, how it came about, and what they can do about it. This, a trademark of the science in science fiction, is exactly what horror often cannot afford to do, relying on the fear produced by the incomprehensible. Somehow, Miéville pulls it off, never cheapening either the terror or the quest for understanding.

Perdido Street Station is not a fast read. It starts slow, the writing is rich and layered and demands attention, and I found I was reading it about half as fast as I would normally read a novel. This is a book for which you have to put aside some time to immerse yourself; there are so many things going on at once that I can only touch on a small percentage of them. No less than eight non-human races are lovingly or horrifically described. A political structure is built with depths that are only hinted at. Everywhere through the fabric of the city the story winds, there are inhabitants going about their very different lives, history buried in the mud, marvels of architecture half-forgotten or remade, and individuals who seem on the verge of suddenly revealing stories of their own. It can be chaotic at times, with the background nearly overwhelming the plot, but at the end I felt like I had an understanding of how New Crobuzon felt that went deeper than words.

I will warn that there are no pat conclusions here and no simple triumphs. This is one of the darkest novels that I've ever read, so beware if you want your endings happy and your resolutions clean. If you have the stomach for this style of writing, though, you will be hard-pressed to find a better book.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2004-09-17: WebAuth 3.2.4

Phew. Finally, the weblogin upgrade is done. We're now running our weblogin servers on Debian, using the WebAuth packages that I put together, with all of the software managed properly as Debian packages. This has been a very successful experiment, for which I still need to write a fair bit of new documentation.

This is the WebAuth release corresponding to the code that we just deployed. The only difference from 3.2.3 is in the weblogin and WebKDC servers, so most people won't need to upgrade. The main changes are in the S/Ident support, but people at other sites may still be interested in the cleanup I did of the weblogin scripts.

You can get the latest version from the WebAuth v3 site.

2004-09-18: Borrowed haul

I'm being very, very good about not buying more books right now until I've made more of a dent in the sheer quantity I've already purchased. I've only picked up a couple new books in the past month (and that was in part to support someone I used to write with who now has a regular published book). Of course, now a friend loans me a bunch of books I've had on my want list.

The backlog will never actually get shorter. I am content with this, although at some point I'm going to have to buy a house.

Anyway, here are the two new purchases:

Anne Bishop -- The Black Jewels Trilogy (sff)
Matthew Rossi -- Things That Never Were (sff)

Matt Rossi used to write for rec.arts.comics.creative and I've done some universe-building with him in the past. He was always one of my favorite RACC writers. This is apparently more a collection of speculative essays, making it hard to classify genre-wise (or even on the fiction vs. non-fiction axis). I'm very curious what it will be like.

The books on loan:

John Barnes -- Finity (sff)
Greg Bear -- The Infinity Concerto (sff)
Pat Cadigan -- Synners (sff)
Julie E. Czerneda -- Beholder's Eye (sff)
Diane Duane -- So You Want to Be a Wizard (sff)
George Alec Effinger -- The Zork Chronicles (sff)
Cynthia Felice & Connie Willis -- Water Witch (sff)
John M. Ford -- The Dragon Waiting (sff)
James Alan Gardner -- Ascending (sff)
Zenna Henderson -- Pilgrimage (sff)
Zenna Henderson -- The People: No Different Flesh (sff)
Paul J. McAuley -- Fairyland (sff)
Richard Morgan -- Altered Carbon (sff)
Tim Powers -- Declare (sff)
Sharon Shinn -- Jenna Starborn (sff)
Walter Jon Williams -- Metropolitan (sff)

A lovely, varied selection of things. I've also finished two more books and need to write reviews; one of those coming up shortly.

2004-09-21: A Thousand Words for Stranger

Review: A Thousand Words for Stranger, by Julie E. Czerneda

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: October 1997
ISBN: 0-88677-769-0
Pages: 366

Okay, I'll admit it. I bought this book for the cover. Well, I picked it up because of Susan Stepney's review, then put it down again, then came back and bought it because of the cover. Waifish woman crouching in a loose robe, wind blowing her hair across her face, in a beautifully detailed background with her wrists bound.... Mm.

Remarkably, against the norm with SF, completely against the norm for first novels, and entirely unexpectedly, the book very much fits the cover. In fact, the cover is a detailed and almost-faithful representation of a scene in the book. That's practically unheard of. I wish publishers would let that happen more often.

Waif is an excellent description of the heroine of this book, who starts off amnesiac, lost, and alone, with a strange compulsion to seek out a particular starship pilot and get off the planet she's on. While there are interludes told in the third person to fill in background details, most of the book is told in the first person from her perspective, as she slowly rediscovers her psychic abilities, learns that she is not actually human, and figures out what happened to her and why. Oh, and falls in love.

This is SF with romance tinges, more on the fluffy side, but there's still far more than the average number of plot twists here. The tangle of background story and character motivations end up being quite a bit more complex than is apparent at the beginning, and I really like how the amnesia is handled, including the resolution. I'm rather fond of the world, too, although Cheryl Morgan nailed it in Emerald City #96 in a review of one of the later books in this series: this universe is elves in space. The Clan are the elves, and the other aliens fit into the roles of the boggles, goblins, and pixies. (I did like the avian alien who pants when he's nervous, though.)

There were a few things that bugged me. For one, and this is probably in part because this is a first novel, the melodrama occasionally gets laid on rather thick. I kept half-expecting Barac to sneer in disgust and cry out "Puny Humans, your technology is no match for my MENTAL POWERS!" I had a bit of a hard time buying the culture of the Clan, too, and even worse the gender roles here can be painful. The attempted inversion of some gender power roles didn't really work and instead came off as a play on the woman as seducer stereotype, and why, oh why, does there have to be such an emphasis on curvy bodies and long, flowing hair? And it may just be me, but I think someone secretly gave Rael a personality transplant halfway through the book.

Still, this was an enjoyable read. I loved the attitude of the heroine, I greatly enjoyed how she fit into the waif mold while still proving quite competent in a pinch, I liked the M'hir concept of telepathy and mental powers (points off for the "we put in an apostrophe so that you know it's a non-human word" method of naming, though), and the plot kept twisting in directions I wasn't expecting. Recommended for lighter reading, and I'll read the rest of the series.

It's really a great cover.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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