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One Device to Do It All?

So, my new phone arrived today. It’s a Sony-Ericsson M600i smartphone. Most excitingly, with T-Mobile’s Web ‘n’ Walk service, I get unlimited (though capped) mobile internet.

All that remains (apart from ugrading the firmware, sorting out backups and synchronisation, and generally finding my way around the thing) is to get Orange to send my PAC code (actually I suspect the ‘C’ stands for ‘code’, but never mind), so that I can get my number transferred. Which they’ve said they’ll do, but I’ve heard it can be difficult.

Anyway, I’m typing this on it, and will try posting from it next.

Book Notes 23: Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

So I finally start The Baroque Cycle; or you might say, I finally finish the first volume. I started reading this at a campsite in France while on holiday: that was back at the end of August. I finished it on the 9th of November. As I said not so long ago, I don’t read that quickly these days (compared, say, to back when I was a student); but this has taken me ages. Which is not surprising, since it’s 900 pages long.

While I’ve been reading it I’ve also read 19, 20, 21 and 22, but they are all graphic novels, and quite short. As well as that I generally read parts of the Saturday Guardian; a few magazines (London Cyclist, Matrix and Vector, occasionally The New Statesman, or one of the Linux magazines); and of course, a rake of blogs. But apart from those, it’s just been this one steadily for about two and a half months. And there are two more volumes to go: each, I believe, of a similar length.

None of which tells us anything about the content of the book, of course. It is an interesting exercise, apart from anything else: Stephenson cleverly educates us science geeks about history, by linking the doings of kings and lords with those of Isaac Newton and other luminaries of the Royal Society. Or so I first thought. But then I realised that simultaneously, or alternatively, it does the opposite: it teaches humanities geeks (who presumably can be expected to know about the history) something about the science of the time.

More importantly, though, it’s a damn good story. The first third tells the first part of the story of Daniel Waterhouse, who is the son of a Puritan family that is expecting the apocalypse to come in 1666. Of course, with the Plague and the Great Fire, it seems like it is.

Waterhouse is a Natural Philosopher, though (or scientist, as we would say). He goes to Cambridge, where he becomes the room-mate and friend of a hick from the country, one Isaac Newton.

I was reading it at a roaring pace all through the first part, but for me it lagged suddenly when the second part started, and we are introduced to a new set of characters, principally a vagabond called Jack Shaftoe (he has a brother called Bob, but I don’t know whether he is meant to be anything to do with the song) and a young woman called Eliza who was a harem slave to the Turks, and whom Jack frees.

The pace picks up again as we get to know these characters, and their peregrinations round the courts and battlefields of Europe mean that their paths eventually cross with Daniel and the other Royal Society members from part one. Which takes us to part three.

Far too much happens to give even a summary here. There are the births of princes and the deaths of kings, war, conquest and betrayal. Almost most importantly of all, the early scientists are probing and extending their understanding of the workings of the universe (of ‘creation’ as they would term it).

Most importantly of all, there are the lives of ordinary people going on against this backdrop

It’s a fantastic work, and as the first part of a trilogy, it isn’t marred by Stephenson’s noted difficulty with endings. I look forward eagerly to reading the second and third volumes.

I don’t know why it won SF awards, though: just being written by an SF author really isn’t enough to make a book SF.

Dead Zen Master

Robert Anton Wilson has died. I read the Illuminatus! trilogy while I was in university, and have re-read it several times since then, as well as reading a lot of his other books. No-one could spin a conspiracy theory like RAW, or debunk one so convincingly. Plus he told a great tale, and unravelled seven levels of meaning in a single sentence of Joyce.

The last post on his blog has many comments saying goodbye, and mainly wishing him well on his onward journey. I don’t believe there is any onward journey, but it would be nice to think there was. My favourite of the comments I read was from an anonymous commenter, and reads:

Goodbye, you magnificent bastard. You join the ranks of Bill Hicks, Frank Zappa, and Hunter S. Thompson: for decades frustrated malcontents like me will be saying, “You know who we really need now?” and thinking of you.

Can’t argue with that.

Hail Eris! And 23 skidoo.

1. The title of his post, by the way, is from another of RAW’s blog posts.

Book Notes 22: The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman and Yoshika Amano

A retelling of a Japanese folk tale, this. A monk lives alone in a very minor and secluded temple. He falls in love with a fox, who has taken the form of a woman at the time. and who tries to get him to leave the temple with her. When he is attacked via his dreams, she tries to protect him.

Although presented in the physical form of a modern graphic novel, this is actually a prose short story with full-page (and two-page) illustrations.

It’s very fine, but at the same time, a long way from essential, in my humble opinion.

[tags]book notes 2006, books, Gaiman, sandman, comics, graphic novels[/tags]

Book Notes 21: The Sandman Midnight Theatre, by Neil Gaiman and others

A collection of some of Neil’s shorter comics work. All fine and dandy, but far from essential. The most interesting one for me was a Swamp Thing story for which they had reunited the old art team (‘old’ in the sense of, from the days when Alan Moore was writing it) of Steve Bissette and John Totleben. So that it looked ‘right’, even for me, who has always paid much more attention to story than artwork. I’ve never bought a comic because of its artists, but often have because of its writer. That’s why it was mainly Alan Moore who brought me back to comics as an adult: he’s a great storyteller.

Indeed, I fairly often find myself annoyed or frustrated with sections of comics where the story is told entirely or mainly visually, and for reasons of poor reproduction, or just the artist(s) not being as good as they think they are, it’s hard to work out what’s supposed to be going on.

That happened to a small extent in one of the stories here, in which Gaiman uses the ‘old’ Sandman character, who was published by DC long ago, and was in abeyance when he reimagined the character as the Lord of Dreams that we know today. The old Sandman is a masked adventurer in the intra-war years. His mask is a gas mask, and his weapon is a gun that fires sleeping gas.

This story is a kind of crossover between the two versions of The Sandman. The old one has cause to visit the house in England where an old wizard has the Lord of Dreams captured - as at the very start of Gaiman’s Sandman, in other words.

All in all, reading this was not time wasted, but it wasn’t that great.

… And a Happy New Year to All My Reader

Well, clearly no blogging happens over the Christmas and New Year period in the Devilgate household. In fact I didn’t even switch the computer on.

So we start the year without having done a review of the last one, and without even having posted all of last year’s Book Notes. I have nine (nine!) written or partially written, but unposted, mini book reviews, that I’ll try to put up over the next few days. Perhaps I should slap them all together into one, but that would really be too big, and would make it harder to find things in future. So Book Notes 2006 entries will keep on appearing for a while yet.

And since I’ve made myself a New Year’s resolution to write every day, I hope to be making considerably more posts in general than last year. We’ll see.

I hope everyone had a fine Christmas or other winter festival, and an equally good start to the New Year.

Book Notes 20: The Complete Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson

Another old Moore from the 2000 AD days. I’ve read it before, as three separate volumes, but I totally didn’t remember anything about Book 3, in which Halo joins the army. Well, the Space Marines, or whatever you want to call them.

It’s a great story about an ordinary young woman in a very un-ordinary world. Much better than the last one, and very much more than a curiosity: highly recommended.

Book Notes 19: Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales, by Alan Moore, Steve Moore, and others

This is a strange one. Moore (Alan) has,as I understand it, started up his own line of comics, called ‘America’s Best Comics’. A strange name, too, for a guy living in Northampton, but hey, maybe it helps them to sell in Peoria (wherever that is).

Tom Strong is a kind of Doc Savage/Tom Swift figure. The stories are kind of fifties/sixties futurist styled. They’re not that good, unfortunately. In, of course, my humble opinion. Even the ones written by Moore (there are several other writers) aren’t up to his usual high standards.

A curiosity. Though I notice that there is a range of other Tom Strong books, so maybe there’s more to it all than would seem from this.

[tags]book notes 2006, books, comics, Alan Moore, Tom Strong, America’s Best Comics[/tags]

Book Notes 18: Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K Dick

Ah, how we love the paranoid fantasies of our Phil. As does Hollywood, considering how many of his works have been made into films.

Not much chance of that ever happening to this one, mind you (though they’ve done A Scanner Darkly now, so you never can tell).

This is kind of a prequel or counterpart to Valis, which I read a good number of years ago. In a similar way, Dick himself is one of the central characters, though it is not him who believes that an alien intelligence — the Vast Active Living Intelligence System — is communicating with him.

We are in an alternative America: instead of Nixon becoming President in 1968, an even more authoritarian, fascist figure called Ferris F Freemont does. His regime quickly takes on an extreme McCarthyite nature.

Valis sends a message of hope from beyond the stars. Or is it from another dimension? Or is it God? Nicholas Brady does not know, and neither do we. A significant portion of the book consists of him and his writer friend, Phil, discussing possibilities for what it could be that contacts him in dreams, and sometimes lends him lifesaving information and even healing powers. But no real conclusion is reached.

It’s an OK read, but is largely unresolved by the end: though not without hope.

Book Notes 17: Vellum, by Hal Duncan

I finally get to read Vellum, then. I’d been waiting for the paperback for a while, as I said back in Book Notes 7. I’ve pre-ordered the sequel, Ink, in hardback, though, which should be recommendation enough.

We are, once again, in the territory of myths walking the Earth. This time they are angels and demons, gods and devils, and their powers extend far beyond Earth, and into the Vellum. This is a kind of multiverse, a visual metaphor for the many-worlds theory, you might say (though the book walks the fantasy line, more than science fiction, the use of nanotech notwithstanding).

It starts really well, and I loved the whole first half, but the second half loses focus somewhat. The pace slows, and it seems a tad repetitive. Though I may have picked up this last criticism from John Clute’s review of it, which I glanced at while I was reading the book.

Reading the whole of Clute’s review now, I agree with much of it, though I’m left feeling considerably more positive about the book as a whole than Clute obviously was.

In a way it feels unfinished: not just that it leaves you wanting more, which is a good thing, but I found myself thinking, on more than one occasion after it ended, that I hadn’t actually finished reading it. However, Hal himself points us at a review which captures the meaning of the ending perfectly, and makes me think I need to read things more closely and think about them more carefully. Though sometimes you just need to have something pointed out to you, to make you realise that you understood it all along.

It is a great, sparkling debut (though whether it is possible for work to be simultaneously a debut and a ‘masterpiece’, as the blurb has it, is something that caused some discussion in my house), and highly recommended.