Posts for November 2004

2004-11-03: Vacation haul

I'm back from an excellent two week vacation at the Oregon coast, and am slowly digging my way out from under everything that happened while I was gone. I expect I'll be rather behind for a while.

I spent a fair bit of my vacation used book shopping, particular at the excellent Robert's Books in Lincoln City. One box of purchases has arrived so far, and I'm expecting the second next week sometime, but I took note of what I picked up as I got it. Here's the complete list of new acquisitions:

Brian W. Aldiss -- Supertoys Last All Summer Long (sff)
Poul Anderson -- Genesis (sff)
Poul Anderson -- Operation Luna (sff)
James Blish -- A Case of Conscience (sff)
John Brunner -- The Jagged Orbit (sff)
Orson Scott Card -- Alvin Journeyman (sff)
Orson Scott Card -- Heartfire (sff)
Suzy McKee Charnas -- Motherlines (sff)
Suzy McKee Charnas -- Walk to the End of the World (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Forty Thousand in Gehenna (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Rimrunners (sff)
Charles de Lint -- Memory and Dream (sff)
Charles de Lint -- Yarrow (sff)
Bradley Denton -- Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede (sff)
Sara Douglass -- The Wayfarer Redemption (sff)
Dorothy Dunnett -- The Game of Kings (historical)
Umberto Eco -- The Name of the Rose (sff)
Philip José Farmer -- To Your Scattered Bodies Go (sff)
Patricia Geary -- Strange Toys (sff)
Nicola Griffith -- Ammonite (sff)
Ken Grimwood -- Replay (sff)
M. John Harrison -- The Pastel City (sff)
M. John Harrison -- A Storm of Wings (sff)
Nina Kiriki Hoffman -- A Fistfull of Sky (sff)
William Kotzwinkle -- Doctor Rat (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin -- The Lathe of Heaven (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin -- The Other Wind (sff)
Fritz Leiber -- Conjure Wife (sff)
Fritz Leiber -- Our Lady of Darkness (sff)
Anne McCaffrey & Mercedes Lackey -- The Ship Who Searched (sff)
Ian McDonald -- King of Morning, Queen of Day (sff)
Maureen F. McHugh -- China Mountain Zhang (sff)
Ken MacLeod -- Dark Light (sff)
Julian May -- The Many-Colored Land (sff)
Michael Moorcock -- The Swords Trilogy (sff)
Rebecca Ore -- Becoming Alien (sff)
Kenneth Oppel -- Airborn (sff)
Mervyn Peake -- Titus Groan (sff)
Frederik Pohl -- Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (sff)
Frederik Pohl -- The Years of the City (sff)
Tim Powers -- Dinner at Deviant's Palace (sff)
Kim Stanley Robinson -- Red Mars (sff)
Mary Doria Russell -- Children of God (sff)
Richard Paul Russo -- Subterranean Gallery (sff)
Fred Saberhagen -- Thorn (sff)
Bob Shaw -- Orbitsville (sff)
Bob Shaw -- The Ragged Astronauts (sff)
Michael Shea -- The Incompleat Nifft (sff)
Charles Sheffield -- Brother to Dragons (sff)
Charles Sheffield -- Tomorrow and Tomorrow (sff)
Clifford D. Simak -- Way Station (sff)
Joan Slonczewski -- A Door Into Ocean (sff)
Sean Stewart -- Clouds End (sff)
Tricia Sullivan -- Dreaming in Smoke (sff)
Sheri S. Tepper -- Beauty (sff)
Ian Watson -- The Jonah Kit (sff)
James White -- Double Contact (sff)
Liz Williams -- Empire of Bones (sff)
Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice -- Light Raid (sff)
Gene Wolfe -- Soldier of the Mist (sff)
Roger Zelazny -- The Last Defender of Camelot (sff)

I also read ten books on vacation and therefore have reviews waiting to be posted. Those I'll probably space out over a few days.

2004-11-04: filter-syslog 1.18

Turns out that include directives didn't work correctly after the last change. Any lines in the original including file after the include directive would be ignored, since the recursive call to the configuration parser was stomping on open file handles. This has now been fixed.

You can get the latest version from the filter-syslog distribution page.

2004-11-05: Flowers for Algernon

Review: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: March 1966
ISBN: 0-553-27450-3
Pages: 216

This is the novel expansion of Flowers for Algernon, which won the Nebula Award in 1966. I'd read the original short story by the same name, some time ago. I actually like the expansion better, I think; it feels like there's more room to explore the characters, although it's been a long time since I've read the original.

This is one of the classics of science fiction, and has even sparked a fair amount of mainstream attention, so many people are already familiar with the basic plot. A mentally retarded man is the subject of a scientific experiment to increase his mental capacity and becomes a genius. Flowers for Algernon is written as his personal journal entries, starting before the experiment and leading the reader through it and what happens afterwards.

The journal technique is quite effective in bringing the reader into the story and conveying Charlie's intelligence level, using spelling and grammar as superficial clues and the sophistication of Charlie's observations as a deeper clue to his current intelligence level. Over the course of the book, the writing slowly becomes more sophisticated, in tune with the underlying thoughts. I liked the balance between first-person immediacy and thoughtful retrospective that the format of a journal entry at the end of each day or two provides.

While this is clearly speculative fiction, the point of Flowers for Algernon isn't the technology that lets Charlie become more intelligent but rather how people react to him, both before and afterwards, as his perceptions of the world change. This is, in part, a sharp rebuke of the way that the mentally retarded are treated, but there are also interesting explorations of identity, friendship, and the results of revisiting one's past. There are several wonderfully memorable characters, particularly the free-living artist living next door.

Parts of this book are a bit painful to read, particularly Charlie's attempts to come to terms with his sex life, and the pacing does suffer from the expansion from a short story in a few places. The story also isn't easy; human cruelty and failings are sharply portrayed. But this is a classic of science fiction for well-deserved reasons, even though there isn't much here in the way of science. The reader's growing ability to understand Charlie and Charlie's attempts to understand himself touch on the exploration of alienness and human reactions to it that underpin so many great science fiction stories. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2004-11-10: The Sorcerer's Stone

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Copyright: October 1998
ISBN: 0-590-35340-3
Pages: 309

I should warn up front that when Harry Potter first became popular, I was deluged with so much talk about the books that I got thoroughly sick of the very mention of them. I might, therefore, have a bit of a negative bias, although one of the reasons for waiting this long to read them was to let that die down.

That being said, no matter what sort of expectations I went into this book with, I don't think anything would have prepared me for the sheer hideousness of the beginning.

Let me set the context for you, with information that's all covered in the first few chapters of the book. Harry Potter is the only son of a famous wizard family who survives the attack of an evil wizard who kills his parents when he's only a baby. Initially in the custody of some of the staff of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he is sent to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who hate him and abuse him.

Let's make no bones about this. Harry Potter is an abused child. His guardians routinely lock him in a closet. They punish him if he ever asks questions. They treat him as a domestic slave. He has no friends because his cousin makes sure no one is ever seen with him. He is routinely physically abused by his cousin, and at least verbally abused by his aunt and uncle. All of this is described quite clearly in the book, and yet not only does Harry show no signs whatsoever of the sort of psychological damage that this sort of abuse causes, but this is treated as an annoyance to Harry, something to be born and not really all that bad once he has some friends.

There are some themes that if raised, must be dealt with in an honest fashion. Child abuse is one of them. I have no problems with having an abused kid as the hero, but you simply cannot then treat abuse as something that doesn't really matter. I don't care what age you're targetting a book at -- this sort of fatuous, slapdash treatment is simply wrong. I cannot express how deeply offensive I found the setup of this book. What's the message for children who are starved, imprisoned, and physically abused here? Just bear through it with a smile since it won't actually hurt you and eventually you'll be rescued by magic wizards?

The wizards, as far as I'm concerned, should be locked up with Harry's aunt and uncle as accessories to child abuse. I suppose they're a great analogy for the horror stories about child protective services; despite professing concern for his well-being, they never even bother to check on how he's doing. And when they finally do come to get him, on his birthday, to deliver his invitation to attend Hogwarts, do they see this abuse and do anything about it? Express at least some degree of remorse? No, not at all; the only thing they're upset about is that Harry wasn't taught about magic. And then leave him, in the abusive family, for a month afterwards. And then send him back there after the term in school!

This is beyond disgusting. This is absolutely vile.

But this is how things work in Rowlingverse -- actions do not have consequences. This goes far deeper than just the horrific beginning, which the author doesn't seem to even understand is horrific. Ideas, plot elements, and settings exist only to drive Rowling's superficial rescue fantasy plot, and need make no sense whatsoever outside of that role. The world of wizards is a hodge-podge of cute ideas that have nothing to do with each other and have no unifying theme. Common-sense implications are ignored or shoved under the rug unless Rowling finds them interesting. There is no unifying set of natural laws here, no concept of cause and effect beyond the superficial, and no underlying honesty to the world. In short, there is no world-building here at all, just self-indulgent spewing of pet images. This is children's fiction for people who believe in neither science nor the logic underlying science.

Children's literature doesn't have to be this way. Children can grasp subtleties of right and wrong without having all the characters neatly labelled as good guys and bad guys like they are here. Children can understand underlying basic principles, and can use them to figure out the world and make guesses about what's going on. C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia presented serious moral questions to readers the same age as the age target for this book. The children's novels of Diane Duane or Diana Wynn Jones have coherent world-building to put Rowling to shame. Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series has far more complete and believable characters. If you're looking for random silliness, I highly recommend Helen Cresswell's wonderful Bagthorpe series, which manages the same without insulting the intelligence of its readers. There are hundreds of other children's books, fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream, that are far, far better.

I can see the appeal of this book to people who don't care about world building, universe consistency, or the ethics of thumbing one's nose at the issue of child abuse. Rowling clearly does have talent at the mechanics of writing. The story moves right along, the prose is clear, expressive, and gets out of the way of the story, there's a plot twist at the end, and the book never drags. I was never bored reading it -- angry, disgusted, revolted, and contemptuous, but never bored. I think she does have the capability to write a better book, judging from her grasp of the skill of storytelling. I hope she writes it in one of the later books of this series, since I'm wading through the first four to get to the one that won a Hugo.

This book, though, is simply crap.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2004-11-12: No more Potter

That's it for the Harry Potter reviews, so those of you who are tired of me ranting about the series can rest easy. I'll be back to posting reviews of other things tomorrow.

That's also the last of the books that I read while on vacation, so I'm almost up to my current reading again with reviews. I have one more that I've already read and have not posted yet, which I'll be posting tomorrow, and one more book that I've finished and not yet written a review of. So by the end of the weekend, I should be completely caught up in posting reviews of my current reading.

I've been pretty busy with a lot of things lately, particularly NNTP standardization and work, but will hopefully have more time this weekend to do some reading and maybe fiddle around with some web page projects.

2004-11-14: SFF awards reorganized

I've reorganized the presentation of the lists of SFF award winning books in my review pages, and in the process have put together some statistics on the average rating I gave books winning various awards. This is all to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, particularly for those awards where I've only read a handful of winning books. It's also somewhat skewed by the fact that there are a bunch of books I rated from memory and those ratings may revise when I get a chance to read them again.

That being said, the Nebula has a clear advantage in average rating (7.61) over the Hugo (7.10) for me, and even the Locus poll (7.45) has a noticable edge on the Hugo even though one of the Harry Potter books won a Locus fantasy award (a better book than the one that won a Hugo, though).

The best award currently, as a predictor of books that I would like, is the Arthur C. Clarke award, with an average rating of 8.5, but that's based on only two books (Perdido Street Station and The Sparrow) and I'm sure will will drop down as I read more Clarke winners.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's the new award index page.

2004-11-16: lbcd 3.2.2

I finally got around to putting the daemon that we use to drive software load balancing up on a web page somewhere, since some folks at other institutions were asking after it. An older version had been available from Rob Riepel's web pages, but I've since fixed a few things and cleaned it up a bit.

This is a little daemon that answers UDP requests with system uptime, load averages, number of logged-in users, whether there's a user on console, and percentage free in /tmp (and /var/tmp), and we use it to drive a simple DNS-based load balancing system.

You can get it from the lbcd distribution page.

2004-11-16: newsyslog 1.6

I finally got around to adding the correct Autoconf code for checking for large files and building with large file support. I also rolled the cron job that we've been using locally to run newsyslog fragments into the main Debian package so that I don't have to keep installing it with each individual service template.

You can get the new version from the newsyslog distribution page.

2004-11-18: NNTP status

Just a quick note about this, for those who are curious. We are still working on the next draft of the NNTP standard. We almost were ready to publish, including a specification for STARTTLS and SASL, but some good issues came up at the last minute, and we're currently working on revising how the new extension mechanism will work to deal with those issues. But most of the text is done, and the remaining changes should be minimal.

I hate to predict any timeframe given what's happened so far, but I have hope that a few more months will do it. (Of course, that means I have to find time to read and comment on all of the messages and direct traffic on the mailing list....)

2004-11-22: spin 1.55

A couple of bug fixes in this release. First, spin now detects the case of a thread file having DOS line endings on a Unix system (although it still doesn't work correctly with such files, since DOS line endings break Perl's ability to process things in paragraph mode). Second, I fixed a bug if one put block elements inside a list marked packed; this is an invalid construct that will result in HTML that doesn't validate regardless, but at least now it won't break quite as bad as it was.

While I was in there making changes, I fixed something I should have fixed a long time ago. There is now a separate \strong command that does <strong> and \bold actually does <b> like it should have in the first place.

You can get the latest version from my web tools distribution page.

2004-11-24: Revised Potter

After a lot of discussions and some excellent comments from a large number of people, I've gone back and significantly revised my Harry Potter reviews to make it clearer where I'm coming from in reviewing them and to tone down some of the vitriol while providing more actual information.

This is one of the nice things about maintaining reviews as web pages; if I happen to read one and see something that bothers me, I can fix it, and I can also improve reviews with insights that I get from discussion following their original posting. Normally, the changes are pretty minor and I won't bother to note them here, but in this case I did some significant rewriting, particularly of the first review.

If you're interested, you can read the new versions in their regular location (the review section of my home page), starting with The Sorcerer's Stone.

2004-11-25: The King's Name

Review: The King's Name, by Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: December 2001
ISBN: 0-765-34340-1
Pages: 320

This is the third part of a three-part story, the first two parts of which are combined in The King's Peace. While there is a summary of the previous book in the introduction, cunningly well-handled by mixing it into a summary of how the first-person narrative of the book is viewed in the future of this alternate world, I wouldn't recommend reading it without reading the prior book first.

It may be that I just missed the degree to which The King's Peace was an Arthurian by just not knowing the details well enough, since The King's Name quite clearly followed the Arthurian story. Even the annoying love triangle turns up here to a degree, although thankfully in a modified form that strikes me as both more realistic and involving far less stupidity on the part of those involved. It is far from a straight retelling, though, and The King's Name goes on to an ending with a much different tone.

This story is about preserving central government in the face of treachery and squabbling self-interest, but it is also about religion, and here is where I think it shines. Sulien's attempts to understand both the nature of the magic and gods of her own belief and the religious future of the land under the White God reach a satisfying conclusion, without falling into the trap of writing an ending to a question about belief. It's clear that one is meant to sympathize with Sulien's view and prefer the native gods, but it's still both clear and reasonable why so many follow the White God and the story avoids the trap of vilifying either. And the portrayal of the gods themselves, with a sense of awe and a feeling of powers beyond human scope, compares well with such accomplished fantasy authors as Guy Gavriel Kay.

While there is still a feel of a medieval war novel here, including some strategy and several detailed battles, I found The King's Name much better paced and less liable to bog down than The King's Peace. It focuses on politics and religion more than on the details of the combat, and is a better book for the change. The trouble, of course, is that this is a story of civil war and tragedy, and so I spent about half the book extremely angry and frustrated (and Walton writes a truly nasty villain), but even with tragedy I came away with a feeling of closure.

I also liked how the great events of war and treachery are brought firmly down to earth, with bickering and negotiation over peace treaties, personal rivalries, incompetent kings, complicated meshes of relations and races, worries of who to put on the thrones of various regions, and a refreshing lack of idolization of the Arthur equivalent. The edges haven't been all rounded off to focus on the drama; there's still gritty dirt in the cracks to give the reader a glimpse of what living through the wars might be like.

This story never blew me away, but it's a solid, competent, well-researched pair of novels, featuring strong characters with believable reactions and a nicely thought-out fantasy twist. Magic and the gods remain a constant part of the plot without ever taking it over and claiming center stage, which is an impressive balancing act. I wish the first book had been as engaging as the second, since as-is you have to do some wading to get through the story, but I think it's worth the trouble.

Oh, and compliments to Julie Bell, the cover artist, for two covers that fit events in the books and feature a female character who, like the hero, is tall, wears armor that might actually protect something, and is no great beauty. I wish all cover art were this faithful to the books it illustrates.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2004-11-25: Latest haul

The main point of this Powells order was to get as many of the remaining Bagthorpes books as I could, but of course I had to pick up a few other things while I was placing an order. A couple of books here from Emerald City recommendations.

Storm Constantine -- Sea Dragon Heir (sff)
Helen Cresswell -- Ordinary Jack (children)
Helen Cresswell -- Absolute Zero (children)
Helen Cresswell -- Bagthorpes Unlimited (children)
Helen Cresswell -- Bagthorpes Haunted (children)
Laurie J. Marks -- Fire Logic (sff)
Fred Saberhagen -- The Face of Apollo (sff)
Neal Stephenson -- The System of the World (sff)
David Wingrove -- The Middle Kingdom (sff)

Huh, I didn't realize that Wingrove had co-written the Myst novels.

2004-11-26: Emerald City

I've mentioned here a few times (and much more prominantly on my review web pages) a particular fanzine named Emerald City. For those who don't know, a fanzine is writing about either SF or the SF fandom community, distributed for free or in exchange for another fanzine or letters or contributions. A lot of fanzines are focused on the fanzine community itself and on letter columns, but Emerald City, which just won a Hugo for the best fanzine, is primarily focused on book reviews.

It's really good stuff, and has been a source of a lot of really good book recommendations for me. I've not read a lot of what I've bought based on those recommendations yet, but I have quite a lot queued up.

Anyway, I just finished reading the entire set of them, back to #1, over the course of the last few months. As each one is pretty substantial, that's quite a lot of reading. Cheryl Morgan has become a much better writer over time, and I like the current issues much better than the earlier ones, but the book reviews are good throughout, as are the con reports.

If you like science fiction and like being kept abreast of what's happening, highly recommended. The issues are also very skimmable if you're only interested in the book reviews, or only in particular types of books, and Cheryl has been adding more regular features as time goes on (right now, she's doing interviews with different small press publishers every issue, which has often been fascinating).

(Now I'll have to find some other time-wasting activity to do between chatserver lines.)

2004-11-29: A Wizard of Earthsea

Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 1968
ISBN: 0-553-26250-5
Pages: 183

I had previously read the first three Earthsea books, but that was about ten years ago and I didn't remember them well enough to jump into the fourth book. There is also a miniseries upcoming on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US and the books are nice and short, so this seemed like a good time to re-read them.

The memory that stuck in my mind of A Wizard of Earthsea was one of boredom. I was expecting to be pleasantly surprised, given that I've since developed more of a taste for Le Guin's slow but sophisticated writing style. As it turns out, though, memory was pretty much spot on.

I'm not quite sure why I find this book so dull. Certainly, quite a bit happens in it. The plot moves right along, visiting quite a variety of locations in a mere 180 pages and painting each one with enough description that I at least get a basic feel for the area. The main character is interesting enough, the handling of magic is quite good for creating a mythic feel, the world is different and intriguing, and the ending is satisfying (if a little bit predictable). All in all, you'd think that one had the makings of a decent young adult novel, and it's not that it's a bad book, but....

I think most of the problem I had was the narrative tone. Le Guin wanders a bit too far to the side of description for me at the best of times, but A Wizard of Earthsea can be downright dry. The story is told with a very remote, detached voice, giving the impression of someone relating a legend of events long ago, a legend that they've heard so many times that it's lost emotional impact. Ged certainly goes through strong emotions in the course of the story, but they don't seem to ever really touch the narrator, and because of that I never felt emotionally involved in the story. There is also rather a lot of telling rather than showing, particularly with regard to how Ged is feeling, and while the telling is at times quietly lyrical, I still could have used more help with seeing Ged as a living and dynamic character.

To be fair, it's possible that this book has simply lost emotional impact for me personally, since this was my second reading and I found I remembered most of the highlights even after ten years (something of a recommendation itself). Not all books survive re-reading well.

One thing I do love about this book is that the characters are never stupid. Ged is impulsive, arrogant, and makes some bad choices when young, but I never felt like he's just being dim. The experienced senior wizards act their age and conduct themselves as appropriate to their expertise, characters know what I expect them to know, people don't show off their power blatantly when there's no need to do so, and the problems that the characters have trouble with actually feel difficult. This can be sadly rare in fantasy, particularly sustained through a whole book, and Le Guin deserves a lot of credit for it.

Overall, though, I don't particularly recommend this one unless you really love Le Guin's descriptions. It's worth reading just as a springboard into the later books (which, if I recall correctly, significantly improve), but I wouldn't read it again on its own right.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2004-11-30: Added Aurora awards

I've added the Prix Aurora Award for best long form in English to my SFF awards pages on my review site. This brings the total number of awards that I'm tracking to 12, and seems to pretty much exhaust the awards that I might personally be interested in except maybe the Australian awards.

The Prix Aurora is for the best work of the year written by a Canadian author and published in Canada. Since several of my favorite SFF authors are Canadian (particularly Guy Gavriel Kay and Charles de Lint), this turns out to be pretty good for finding good books. I'd already read four and reviewed two of the winners, which is quite a bit better than the World Fantasy or Mythopoetic awards.

Unlike the other awards except the British Fantasy award (which had rather too much Stephen King), I'm not planning on adding all the Aurora winners to my want list and tracking them all down. Among other reasons, I just don't like Robert Sawyer that much, based on what I've read of him so far. But I do already own three of the other winners, including Blind Lake which won this year, and will probably end up acquiring the Gibson books and the one Charles de Lint.

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