Feb 25 2017

Wallenstein II by Friedrich Schiller

“Schiller’s Wallenstein is so great that there is nothing else like it.” — Goethe

How’s that for a blurb? Goethe didn’t just offer praise, he directed the premiere of all three parts of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy. The third, Wallenstein’s Death (published as Wallenstein II, as the two previous plays comprise the first volume), comes from an era that didn’t believe in spoiler warnings; besides, the general’s death today in 1634 was a well-known historic fact. The art, of course, is what Schiller does with the situation.

Wallenstein’s Death is a classic five-act verse drama that combines history and tragedy, leavened with a very few scenes of comedy. It is set in the Bohemian cities of Pilsen and Eger (now generally known in English as Cheb) amidst the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein has been a great general for the Imperial party in the war, but he no longer believes that the Emperor desires peace, nor does he think that the Swedes can be completely defeated. As the play opens, he is considering taking Europe’s fate into his own hands by bringing the army he commands over to the Swedish side and compelling the Emperor in Vienna to sue for peace. Vienna suspects such a maneuver — or perhaps the Emperor is simply jealous of Wallenstein’s victories — and has sent orders that the general is to be brought to heel, to give over his command in favor of the Emperor’s son. Those still-secret orders are in the hands of one of Wallenstein’s most trusted lieutenants, Octavio Piccolomini (one of the titular characters of the trilogy’s second part). Octavio’s only son, Max, is a young officer in Wallenstein’s household and cannot believe that his idolized general would see himself as anything other than the Emperor’s truest servant. Further, Max has fallen in love with Wallenstein’s only daughter Thekla, who loves him in return. With those main characters and a sufficient supporting cast, Schiller addresses some of the great questions of history and politics, and of the human heart.

The play zips along. Each act has no fewer than seven scenes, and the third act counts 23. In part, that is because Schiller breaks scenes more frequently than an English verse dramatist would (almost every entry or exit gets counted as a new scene) but partly because he writes briskly and keeps his characters in motion right up until they meet their appointed fates. Part of the business of the play is also keeping track of who is betraying whom, and who is trying not to have to take a side until they see which way the wind is blowing.

Wallenstein begins by contemplating taking his army over to the Swedes, convincing himself that the Emperor is already intriguing against him, so that he has nothing to lose and that Europe has much to gain. Some of Wallenstein’s lieutenants, having made preparations in the previous play, push him in this direction as well. But when the Swedish representative arrives, Wallenstein is less than fully committed. When is quick action required, when should something be carefully considered? Who is really free to choose their course of action, especially if they are responsible for others’ lives, for an army, for an empire? What does that freedom mean, and how can the right course of action be discerned? Are fates written in the stars? Or, for more modern audiences, are they determined by structural conditions?

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/25/wallenstein-ii-by-friedrich-schiller/

Feb 23 2017

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Going back to books that I read and enjoyed ages ago can be a hazardous thing. What if the Suck Fairy has paid a visit in the meantime? Should I just let those happy memories lie undisturbed?

I, Robot certainly offered the opportunity. The book that collects nine Asimov stories was first published in 1950. The stories themselves appeared in science fiction magazines as early as 1940. Three quarters of a century have passed; the present day is as far from when Asimov wrote these stories as he was from the end of the American Civil War. The robot stories shaped the field of science fiction, but it has also moved on considerably since then. I don’t know precisely when I first read this book, though it is likely to have been around seventh grade, maybe earlier. I was tearing through everything that the school library and the Baton Rouge public library had to offer in the way of science fiction and fantasy. I remembered the three laws of robotics, but not much else.

Turns out it holds up pretty well for what is now essentially a period piece, a foundational (pardon the word) work. Asimov handwaves artificial intelligence into existence for the purposes of his stories, tames his robots with three laws that are hardwired into their positronic brains, and explores the interesting corner cases. The stories are mostly puzzles. Something has happened with the robots, and they are doing things their manufacturers did not intend. Engineers are called in to figure out why, usually with some kind of deadline looming. In one story, the engineers are marooned on Mercury (interplanetary travel is common in Asimov’s early 21st century) and will die if they cannot get the robot to do something that it ordinarily should not.

The first story, “Robbie,” held the most emotional punch, because it showed a robot through the eyes of a young child, someone not yet able to make the basic distinction that animates most of the rest of the stories, that between robot and human. Later in the sequence, Asimov turns to a fundamental question that would become a staple for other writers, notably Philip K. Dick: What happens when people can no longer distinguish between humans and robots? He doesn’t address the question in depth, but then depth is not the book’s strong suit. It’s nine mid-century short stories, held together by a framework device. The characters are mostly stand-ins for the readers, who get to see how the various puzzles are solved. What you see is very much what you get.

On the other hand, what you see is one of the first concentrated attempts at working through artificial intelligence, and robots in general — what they would be like on an individual level, how society would likely react to them, what some of the second-order effect might be. The field is no longer directly in dialogue with I, Robot, but that’s mainly because it set so much of the framework for how science fiction considers robots and artificial intelligences. This is one of the places science fiction began.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/23/i-robot-by-isaac-asimov/

Feb 22 2017

An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle

An Acceptable Time strikes me as unusually autumnal for a young adult novel. Meg, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time has moved off-stage in this, the fifth novel of the Time quintet. Her daughter Polly shares the spotlight with her parents (Polly’s grandparents), the Alex and Kate Murray, doctors of physics and chemistry, respectively. The story begins in a New England autumn, and Polly is the only young person around. When Zachary, another character her age shows up, he turns out to be gravely ill, possibly closer to the end of his life than any of the elderly characters with whom he shares the page.

Polly, like Meg, enjoys the outdoors, and spends a great deal of her time — she has left high school for further, pre-university, instruction from her scientific grandparents — exploring the woods surrounding the family home. L’Engle sketches the environs vividly, and the return to a setting from the quintet’s beginning adds to the autumnal feel of the tale. Everything is old, nearing its end. Or perhaps, from a different point of view, about to enter a quiet period of renewal.

This wouldn’t be a L’Engle Time book if tempus weren’t some sort of a fugitive in its pages, and so it is that Polly first sees some unknown people near the house and soon after slips several thousand years into the area’s distant past. Most of the rest of the story turns on her figuring out what is going on in that time, what the connections might be between then and Polly’s present (the book was published in 1989) and whether there is a purpose to Polly’s ability to navigate among two circles of time.

Because of course the region is inhabited in the time that Polly slips into: two tribes are close to war over food and water. One occupies fertile lands, watered from snow runoff arising from the Ice Age’s retreating glaciers, and usually blessed with regular rainfall. The other tribe lives across the lake in land that is less fertile. Rain for both has been scarce lately, and the people across the lake have stepped up their raids for food. Some in both tribes say that a sacrifice will appease the divine forces that send or withhold rain. In that volatile atmosphere, Polly appears, joined a short time later by Zachary.

The circles of time move closer together, and more people make their way across the millennia; are divine forces at work in shifting time as well? One of Polly’s grandparents’ friends is a retired Episcopalian bishop; he, too, has occasionally moved into the time of the lake peoples. As the story plays out, L’Engle raises questions of sacrifice and belief, of science and religion, and of history and legend.

It’s very interesting, this book for young adults that was written by a woman in her seventieth year of life. There’s a certain amount of teen angst, and of romance. L’Engle was too keen an observer of the human condition for too long to have left out such salient characteristics of teenagers. But she places her young people amidst older folks who are not just relics, but lively people in their own right, by no means finished with growing and learning. Polly is the central character, but the world would go on without her. The drama of teenagerdom feels reduced, autumnal. It’s a good story, well told, that runs against its genre’s tendency to heighten events; an acceptable contrast.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/22/an-acceptable-time-by-madeleine-lengle/

Feb 20 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

The sci-fi in this book was complex and thought-provoking but holy shit, everything else about this book was, at best, only marginally irritating, and at worst, deeply disturbing in its casually condescending, constantly self-pitying worldview.

So one night the stars go out, and three adolescents who essentially grew up together and never really grow apart after are forever changed. Jason, the eldest, decides to devote his life to science and to pleasing his demanding asshole of a father, E. D. His twin sister, Diane, finds solace in religion, particularly an offshoot of fundamental Christianity. The son of their housekeeper, Tyler, is two years younger than them and serves as the narrator. He looks up to Jason and is in love with Diane, and so spends the rest of his life trailing after one or the other in an incredibly tiresome display of spinelessness.

To which, whatever, but he transforms that spinelessness into this weird inability to view or treat other people as fully realized human beings (with the possible exception of Jason, who is, for lack of a better term, his bro.) He claims that the Spin, as the phenomenon that blacked out the night sky becomes known as, has trapped his generation in a panic and helplessness which he uses to excuse all sorts of absurd behavior. The whole episode with Molly, for example, could have been easily avoided if he’d just confronted her like a grown-up. Everyone’s just so selfish and/or single-minded and/or simple. The most complex person in the book is the twins’ alcoholic mother, and her a-ha moment at the end was so obvious it lacked any dramatic impact.

I also found it really insulting that every person of faith in this book is depicted as either a moron or an asshole. It’s like Robert Charles Wilson wanted to write an allegory of science and reason defeating, or at least confronting, religion and faith. And I’m not against that. I enjoyed Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Octavia Butler’s Parable Of The Talents, two books which challenge faith in the face of extraterrestrial influence, but Spin comes nowhere close to exploring this conflict, instead setting up paper targets to knock down while patting itself on the back at how clever it’s being, when really it’s just being facile and condescending.

And speaking of condescending, the book’s attitude towards a) women, and b) non-Westerners was thoroughly insulting. Diane spends her life constantly apologizing for the men around her (it’s like, yo girl, you don’t have to mean harm to be a total fucking asshole,) Molly’s a fucking viper, and Ina, the Indonesian doctor who helps Tyler, puts up with his casual insults because of her faith, not in religion but in an extraterrestrial (so score another one for “science”, I guess.) While I thought Mr Wilson’s use of the Minang culture was refreshingly unique, I did think it odd that his attention to detail was glaringly subjective. Indonesians don’t speak Malay. And Ina’s assertiveness wasn’t a product of a matrilineal heritage (with its problematic implication that the women of other Asian cultures are, by default, submissive): her intelligence and resourcefulness are hallmarks of most of the Southeast Asian women I know, Minang or otherwise, who were brought up to believe in education and to be wary of relying on a man/husband for survival. It reads like Mr Wilson gained a superficial understanding of a complex environment and decided to use it for his own narrative ends, on the assumption that his (white? male?) readers wouldn’t know better or care.

Honestly, if this book had been written/published in the mid to late 1900s, the very intriguing scientific concepts would have been enough, with the relatively unenlightened zeitgeist, to forgive this book the shallowness of its characters (and even then, plenty of old school sci-fi still reads as authentically humane.) But I expect better of sci-fi written and placed in the 21st century. This book attempts to excuse its contempt for women and brown people and the religious by claiming a Spin-induced existential void, but in this day and age, it just feels like privileged whining (especially with how most of the authority figures are also made out to be unrelenting asshats.) There are too many awesome books out there for me to waste my time reading stuff like this. The preview of Vortex that was included in my Tor.com copy of Spin further solidified my understanding that these books are essentially a continuation of the Great White Hunter/Savior story, because who fucking needs Big Salvation (which is a thing, I swear to God, that Tyler rails against) when you can choose to see yourself as the Chosen One instead (insert copious eye-rolling here.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/20/spin-by-robert-charles-wilson/

Feb 11 2017

Gilded Cage (Dark Gifts #1) by Vic James

So I was trying to explain to a friend why I think this book is important for the generation of YA readers who may encounter it, thinking, much like Gilded Cage’s Abi does (and I did, tbh, when I first picked it up,) that it’ll be a romantic Upstairs/Downstairs sort of novel with magical powers, with dystopian overtones to give it all a frisson of Seriousness. And maybe I haven’t read enough dystopian YA, maybe I’m underestimating the average reader, maybe they’re smarter and more aware than I am. But reading that very first chapter where the reality of slavery comes crashing down on the very white, very middle class, very Anglo Hadley family, where all their hopeful expectations get violently trampled upon: my body reacted even more than my mind did, upset to my stomach at the horrific violation of their humanity, no matter how voluntarily they surrendered their rights. Because, despite being brown and politically aware (and oh my God, irrevocably middle-aged now with this last birthday,) the framework of my mind and life experiences are traditionally British schoolgirl, a vestige of my upbringing, and while I always knew and felt and believed that slavery was evil, it’s not often that the reminder of it acts like a punch to the gut. And that’s just in Chapter One!

In this alternate reality, the British monarchy was overthrown not by Roundheads but by people with magical abilities called Skill, who set themselves up as a ruling gentry called Equals. Everyone not an Equal must serve a ten-year term of slavery in order to keep the apparatus of economy going. Abi and Luke Hadley are teenagers who go into their slavedays with the rest of their family, thinking they’ve figured out a way to ride out their terms in relative comfort. Boy, are they in for a surprise! And so are we readers, as the book twists and turns both in plot and in emotion, presenting the complex realities of not only abolition but what it means to be an ally. I can’t overstate the importance of that last enough or, unfortunately, say much more without going into spoilers, but it was extremely refreshing to read, particularly in the current political climate.

I want this book to sell millions of copies because, much like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, it tells a very important story (tho, tbh, I did prefer that Vic James got to the point faster instead of waiting till a third book to explicitly state her central message, as Ms Collins did.) The only thing that stopped me from giving this book 5 stars on Goodreads was the writing itself, which could use a bit more polish. It serves to get the (very important) point across and tell an entertaining story, but it feels very often bare bones. I’m hoping Ms James builds on this terrific debut and am looking forward to reading more, of this series and of her writing in general, as she’s definitely got terrific narrative and ethical instincts, and only needs to work at the wordsmithing to be truly exceptional.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/11/gilded-cage-dark-gifts-1-by-vic-james/

Feb 04 2017

Wallenstein I by Friedrich Schiller

The best thing about zipping through Wikipedia’s entry on these two plays by Friedrich Schiller — the first volume of Schiller’s Wallenstein plays comprises Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp) and Die Piccolomini (The Piccolomini) — was learning that Goethe directed both premieres. (He also directed the premiere of the trilogy’s third part, but I am still reading that one.) I probably should have known that already, but one of the quirks of earning a degree in German from a small university is that Goethe and Schiller are not taught every semester, and the one time it was offered when my reading had advanced to where I could have benefited from the course was when I was in Germany. That was the spring and summer that Communism began to fall in Central and Eastern Europe, so I can hardly say I regret missing the course. A visit to Weimar in the spring of 2016 prompted me to fill in some of the gaps in what I know of German classics, and so I picked up copies of several of Schiller’s plays.

The worst thing about reading them was putting the small book down for about two months in the middle of The Piccolomini. Stepping out for intermission is ok, but I really should have returned after a shorter interval.

The trilogy follows the final stages of the life and career of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a military leader during the Thirty Years War. (Schiller was 50 years closer in time to the war than the present is to Schiller.) At the time the plays open, Wallenstein belonged to the Imperial party in the war, had won significant victories, and had amassed the largest army at that stage of the war. That army is making its winter quarters in and around the Bohemian city of Pilsen.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/04/wallenstein-i-by-friedrich-schiller/

Jan 31 2017

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Ugh, I’m so fucking tired of “literary” writers slumming it in genre fiction. Authors, if you’re going to attempt dystopian fiction or science fiction or fantasy, understand: the most important thing is the world-building. You HAVE to build a convincing setting that makes sense and works according to a) rules of internal logic, and b) a general understanding of the real world and human nature (important in “literary” fiction too!) This latter is especially important for dystopian fiction. The fact that your fiction is speculative does not mean you get to conveniently handwave plot points: when your shit doesn’t make sense, the reading experience is tedious at best, maddening at worst. Be like Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid’s Tale. Don’t, sadly, be like Emily St John Mandel with Station Eleven.

Golly, I don’t even know where to start to tear into this absurd vision of a dystopian future. From the highly unlikely and unchecked contagion rate of an illness with such a rapid incubation time to the utter ridiculousness of twenty years without anything but bicycle-powered electricity (I mean, really, did the dying/looting people burn down all the libraries out of spite? Before the internet, we had books that contained useful survival information, you know,) the sheer lack of basic logic was extremely off-putting. And I felt a lot of “what’s the point of you?” I didn’t care about any of these people. Okay, maybe Clark, but for most of the book, I felt I was coasting on the surface of everyone’s emotions, as much a voyeur as Jeevan in his life as a paparazzo. I did finally feel something in Kirsten’s last confrontation with the prophet, but what happened with the kid was just way too fucking convenient. This book felt less lived than displayed. And of course it ended before having to display any scientific rigor, just as things were about to get interesting.

The parallels to King Lear were interesting but really only of note to people who love the play/Shakespeare. And the layering of the narrative was only impressive if you’ve never read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or other good science-fiction. Ms Mandel writes fluidly, thank goodness, else I wouldn’t have finished this book in two days, but ugh, it was not worth my time at this point in my life.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/01/31/station-eleven-by-emily-st-john-mandel/

Jan 27 2017

Fairest: In All The Land (Fairest Vol 6) by Bill Willingham

Cinderella is easily my favorite character in the Fables universe, so I’m always thrilled to read the stories that place her front and center in the action. In this stand-alone story, someone is going around killing the women who’ve been proclaimed The Fairest In All The Land, and it’s up to Cindy to prevent more murders. The disconnected business office is also somehow involved, and it would probably help the new reader to have read the first volume of the Fairest series to find out more about Hadeon (so I guess it’s not really as stand-alone as it might be.)

The Magic Mirror narrates the, ahem, framing story, and there are a lot of interesting narrative and story choices made throughout. My favorite, by far, was the conversation between Snow and Cindy at the end, where they discuss Cindy’s choices and their after-effects. This definitely felt like one of the more thoughtful installments of the Fables universe in a while.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/01/27/fairest-in-all-the-land-fairest-vol-6-by-bill-willingham/

Jan 27 2017

Fairest Vols I and II by Various

Fairest Vol 1: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham and Phil Jimenez

I have loved Phil Jimenez since his work on Wonder Woman, so it was delightful to see him turning his pencil to the world of Fables. Interestingly, this volume is less an origin story of Sleeping Beauty than it is a redemption tale of the Snow Queen. Ali Baba and the bottle imp are great additions to the cast, but the story belongs wholly to the women.

AND THEN THE LAMIA SHORT STORY, ZOMG!!!

Good stuff.

Fairest Vol 2: The Hidden Kingdom by Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda

So on the one hand, I really enjoyed the various ways different parts of the Rapunzel mythology were woven together to create this. And I can see why having her in Japan makes a bunch of things make more sense thematically (what with the well etc.) but I couldn’t help but feel like it was somehow disrespectful of Japanese culture. I can’t even pinpoint the exact causes of my disquiet, but this volume, much like the bulk of its parent title, Fables, comes firmly from a conservative colonial European mindset, where other cultures as presented as weird and wacky and ultimately irrelevant. Idk, maybe it was just the general tone.

From a less socio-political perspective, the pacing of the comic was a bit off, particularly in the Rapunzel-Joel Crow interactions. Which, honestly, was prolly part of the former problem, as uneven pacing often makes it difficult to add depth to circumstances and relationships. So a worthy, entertaining effort, but not as good as the first volume.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/01/27/fairest-vols-i-and-ii-by-various/

Jan 03 2017

Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley places Landscapes of Communism at an intersection of several modes: serious but not academic architectural criticism; political and social history, as reflected in a region’s built environment; companion for both travellers and residents; and thoughts on living in cities shaped by different social systems. Hatherley writes early on that he uses the term “communist” largely as a matter of convenience. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe ruled by socialist party-states look different from their counterparts in Western Europe, their cities have different landmarks and features. Although “communist” is hardly satisfactory as a descriptor, alternative terms are even worse: “Stalinist,” “state socialist,” “state capitalist,” or even just “Soviet.” This initial choice could stand in for much of the rest of the book. Hatherley is trying to put his finger precisely on things that are difficult to put one’s finger on, and the terminology is slippery across both space and time.

“The paradoxical nature of architecture in the Soviet Bloc, with its sharp, sudden zigzags of official style — from Modernism to classicism to Baroque to a bizarre despotic Rococo to Modernism to Brutalism and back — has long puzzled historians.” (p. 30) Indeed. Hatherley’s careful text, informed by personal experience of almost all of the sites discussed, and copious photographs (three cheers for the digital photography and advances in printing technology that have made this possible and affordable) begins to make sense of the paradoxes involved. Because building in communist countries was always “an architecture parlante, a speaking architecture — one that constantly tells you about the state it represents,” (p. 30) speaking sensibly about what was built requires knowledge of both the history and the politics of the Bloc. Hatherley borrows a framework from Soviet architectural historian Vladimir Paperny, who proposed two cultures competing within the system across time, opposed to each other and supplanting each other in turn as personalities and doctrines in the communist parties fought for ascendancy. Paperny “called the Stalinist style ‘Culture Two,’ contrasting it with the future-oriented ‘Culture One’ of Modernism.” (p. 30) The changing dominance among the two over time, their dialectic as it were, explains much about cities under communism. “Culture one was obsessed with movement, wanting its cities to be fast, instant, disposable, dynamic; Culture Two was equally fixated with immobility, preferring its buildings to be monumental, solid, massive, immovable. Culture One built horizontal blocks of flats, long, low and linear; Culture Two opted for the vertical, creating skylines of spires and state offices which rose, step by step, like pyramids and ziggurats.” (p. 30)

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/01/03/landscapes-of-communism-by-owen-hatherley/

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