Skip to main content

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson (Books 2022, 13)

Greece is probably the best place to read this novel, which is good, because that was where I was when I read it. It’s a work of fiction mostly set on the real island of Hydra during 1960-61. There was a famous community of anglophone expats there at the time, one of whom was Marianne Ihlen. They were notably joined by Leonard Cohen.

The first-person narrator is fictional, but nearly every other character is real. It’s an unusual approach for a contemporary novel, though perhaps not for historical fiction. Which, at sixty years distance, you could consider this. Some of the people are still alive, though, which is probably what makes it feel a bit odd.

Not Leonard or Marianne, though. The books starts with the narrator visiting Cohen’s old house on the morning after his death was announced. Which — and I had forgotten this — was just after Trump got elected. Everything else is flashback.

It’s very good. Captures the feeling of a Greek island summer, the listlessness of the young drifters, and the bitterness of the older writers who still struggle for success.

Software and Wetware by Rudy Rucker (Books 2022, 11 and 12)

Or the first two books in the Ware tetralogy, as they now are. I read Software many years ago, and enjoyed it, though not as much as some of Rucker’s others, notably White Light.

This time round it was fine, and so was the second one, but not really anything to write home about. I’ll read the other two, since I’ve got the combined edition on my Kindle, and they’re not very long. But there’s a spark that Rucker has when he writes about things like infinities, that just isn’t there when he writes about the themes here.

Which are artificial intelligence, machine sentience, and the possibility of transferring human consciousnesses into robot bodies and vice versa. Those are fascinating concepts, but the stories don’t quite jump off the page enough for me.

Ubik by Philip K Dick (Books 2022, 10)

I had associated this in my head with Dick’s VALIS, which is one of his latest works (written 1978, published 1981, according to Wikipedia). I think just because of the similarity of names.

Ubik is in fact more of a mid-period novel (written 1966, published 1969), and it shows. Though according to the Wikipedia entry, ‘it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.’ I find that a tad surprising, as it’s far from one of his better ones to my mind.

Certainly some of his tropes are there: strange warps to reality, confusion over who is and isn’t dead, that sort of thing. But it’s just not as compelling as, say, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, or A Scanner Darkly; nor as weird and fascinating as VALIS.

The characterisation is weak — which is probably true for most of Dick’s work, to be fair. But the story just doesn’t really get off the ground.

Firefox Rolls Out Total Cookie Protection

Starting today, Firefox is rolling out Total Cookie Protection by default to all Firefox users worldwide, making Firefox the most private and secure major browser available across Windows, Mac and Linux. Total Cookie Protection is Firefox’s strongest privacy protection to date, confining cookies to the site where they were created, thus preventing tracking companies from using these cookies to track your browsing from site to site.

Sites can only see their own cookies. This is the way the web should always have been.

I’m forgetting my protocols: I should have said, via Ben Werdmüller.

Bloody Ebooks!

Reading an ebook can make you miss bits.

I read Inverted World on the Kindle. It always annoys me that you’re put at the start of the text on opening. I like to go back to the cover and work forward. Sometimes I use the contents links for that, and I think I might have done so here, skipping the introduction, because they nearly always contain spoilers.

So I started with the famous opening sentence I wrote about. But because I linked to the book’s Wikipedia page, I skimmed the article. Which mentioned a prologue, that I had somehow missed.

As it happens, missing the prologue didn’t really matter, didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. But first, I don’t know how people can refer to the first sentence of Chapter 1 as the opening sentence, when there’s a prologue full of sentences before it.

And second, be careful how you read your ebooks. You might miss something.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 9)

With its fairly famous opening line — ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’ — I kind of thought I had read this before, long ago, maybe as a teenager. But no. It turned out definitely not.

A young man learns his place in a city — Earth City, as they call it — which is moving. Rails are placed before it and lifted up behind it so they can be laid in front again. The city is winced along on the rails by fits and starts. Why? Why is it in motion, and why do the inhabitants work desperately to keep it so? And why is the fact kept hidden from city dwellers who are not ‘guildsmen’?

The answers, or some of them, are within. Though there is no answer to why ‘guildsmen’ is the correct word. Women are second-class citizens in the city. And worse outside it, on the whole.

The people of the city are human, the speak English mostly. They know their ancestors were from Earth planet, as they refer to it. The people in the villages they pass also seem to be human, and they mostly speak Spanish. The sun appears not as a sphere, but as a kind of disk with spikes top and bottom. What can be going on? The title suggests some kind of inversion, but what is it?

Ultimately the mystery isn’t solved in a very interesting way, and the ending is sad, but maybe happy, but maybe sad.

Priest has written much better books, but it bears reading.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Books 2022, 8)

This was prompted by a Guardian article — listicle, you might say, since it’s basically a big list — of books for the summer (last summer): Summer reading: the 50 hottest new books everyone should read. I borrowed it from my local library. Kind of great that you can borrow ebooks from the library. Especially during lockdowns, when the buildings themselves were closed.

It is a magic realist novel set mostly in Britain and faerie; or the sidhe, as it’s called here. It starts with the story of the tragic death of the main character’s sister, when they were both in their late teens or early twenties. Was it murder? certainly the driver of the car that killed her was imprisoned.

The loss of her sister haunts Taryn’s life, predictably. But if there are hints that the death is somehow linked to the other mysteries that run through the book, then it is never satisfactorily resolved that there is or isn’t any connection.

That aside, we soon find ourselves — unexpectedly, for me at least — in another world. It seems that all the otherworlds exist: Munin and Huggin, Odin’s ravens, turn up. We hear that ‘The Great God of the Deserts’ went mad because his believers had too many different ideas of what he was like, so heaven is closed. A visit to purgatory is made.

Taryn finds out she is damned, because of an action she took — or didn’t take, a sin of omission — regarding her sister’s killer. And seems to accept this, and another evil at the heart of the Sidhe, without trying to understand it, without raging against it.

It’s good, but there are definite weaknesses. I found the action scenes very confusing. Some of the geographical descriptions, too. And it feels a bit… maybe unfocused is the word? Hard to say what exactly I mean by that, but I guess it’s that some things are hinted at when they should be explained. At least eventually.

There are a few oddities. It’s set mostly in Britain, but some Americanisms creep in where they wouldn’t. Can’t think of any specific examples, but it’s on the level of saying ‘highway’ instead of ‘motorway’. That kind of thing.

Well worth a look, though.

Musky Times

Musketeer musings

I wasn’t going to write anything about Elon Musk buying Twitter, because I mostly don’t care. But Robin Sloan, in his newsletter, which isn’t really a newsletter, because he just sends a link to a blog post (with a few added words), says this:

An industrialist intends to purchase Twitter, Inc. His substantial success launching reusable spaceships does nothing to prepare him for the challenge of building social spaces. The latter calls on every liberal art at once, while the former is just rocket science.

I wanted to quote that because I loved ‘just rocket science.’ The common expression, ‘It’s not rocket science’ has always mildly amused me, as a physics graduate. Because rocket science is relatively both simple and easy. It’s straightforward Newtonian physics. Mass. Acceleration. Forces. The physics is simple, the sums are easy.

You don’t have to go anywhere near even Special Relativity (still straightforward, if harder), General Relativity (much more complex), or of course anywhere close to quantum physics (frankly the most complex and confusing thing of all).

All of which is just to say that physics has more and less difficult areas. Rocket engineering, of course, is quite another matter. There you’ve got all sort of complex materials science, chemistry, end even — if crew are involved — biology, sociology, psychology. Those are much harder.

As far as common similes for the ease of something go, I’ve always preferred ‘It’s not brain surgery.’ If I think about it I’m amazed that operating successfully on a living human brain is even possible, and I bow my head to those who can do it. While hoping they’ll never have to go near said bowed object, of course.

Anyway, that would have been that for this post, except that I pasted the above quote from Sloan into a text editor. But it didn’t look like it does above. It looked like this:

An indus-tri-al-ist intends to pur-chase Twit-ter, Inc. His sub-stan-tial suc-cess launch-ing reusable space-ships does noth-ing to pre-pare him for the chal-lenge of build-ing social spaces. The lat-ter calls on every lib-eral art at once, while the for-mer is just rocket science.

Where did all those hyphens come from? They look like they’re non-printing characters. Ones that won’t show up when a web page is rendered, but are there in the source code. Why? I can only imagine two reasons:

  1. a deliberate ploy to make it harder to copy quotes, as I have done above. But Sloan is a pro-web kinda guy, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t seem like something he’d do.
  2. A glitch. An artifact of the software he used to create the post. It’s most likely that. Weird one, though.

Stranger still is that the character is not even a hyphen. As I discovered when I search-and-replaced it in BBEdit, it actually appears to be this: \x{AD}.

I don’t even know what that is. Some kind of hexadecimal representation of something. An invisible hyphen, presumably. Which I had to search-and-replace with actual hyphens to make them visible above. Looking at the source code, it’s written as the HTML entity ­, which the DuckDuck tells me is a ‘soft hyphen’.

All very odd.

I have positive feelings about Sloan, except for his closing image. I’ll risk another paste:

Yeah, but… of course you have to clap. Without wanting to get all metaphysical on you, if you don’t clap when Tinkerbell is dying, you’ve got no soul.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (Books 2022, 7)

This came to me by way of The Guardian‘s summer reading recommendations last year. I ended up reading it in the tail end of winter, or spring, but that doesn’t matter. In his review, M John Harrison describes it as ‘brilliantly strange’, and that’s about right.

It’s a tale told across times, and tied to place. That place is number 10 Luckenbooth Close, in Edinburgh. Just off The Royal Mile, in fact, which is a place I lived as a student. I was in an alley called James Court, though, not the fictional Luckenbooth Close.

The close may be fictional, but the idea is not: luckenbooths were a kind of market stall in the High Street (part of The Royal Mile). Presumably that’s where Fagan got the street name from.

Though I discover today that a luckenbooth is also a piece of jewellery: a kind of heart-shaped brooch , named after the market stalls in turn.

The book, though, is about none of those things. Instead it’s about a series of people who live in the titular tenement block across the centuries. We start with the Devil’s daughter, who — well, I won’t go into spoilery details. William Burroughs is one of the characters, strangely. Apparently he did visit Edinburgh.

It is an astonishing work, involving the saving of ghosts, murders, the Millennium celebrations, homelessness, and much more. Highly recommended.