Bradbury

Though I haven’t been doing much reading lately, I have been toting The Illustrated Man around on my commutes. I always forget what a good writer Bradbury was. But damn, his stuff can be bleak.

It’s weird, I could have sworn Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles were the only of his books I’d read. But then as I’ve been chipping (back) away at Illustrated Man, I know I’ve read these before. Or maybe the End is near and I have had eerily similar visions.

At any rate, there’s that one story with the astronauts in space. It reminded me of this Perry Bible Fellowship comic. I wonder if that was his inspiration for the strip.

I’ve really got to read that Brackett/Bradbury collaboration, Lorelei of the Red Mist. I’ve already got it and everything.

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I’ve got to update the Grand List.

-Bushi

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Jack Vance’s Waterworld

Remember that movie Waterworld? Of course you do. It gets blasted for being kinda crappy, but it’s got a lot of stuff I like – post-apocalyptic setting, Dennis Hopper getting an eye blown out, Kevin Costner playing Kevin Costner. It’s kinda like Mad Max on water instead of in Australia. Ok, it’s not a great film, but it’s entertaining scifi.

Well, imagine if instead of floating junk platforms and rusty barges, people lived on giant lily pads and harvested sea life for sustenance. And everyone was descended from criminals (kinda like Mad Max, being set in Australia). Oh and there was a giant sea monster named King Kragen that would roll up and eat all your home-grown sponges and if you made a fuss he’d wreck your shit. This is Jack Vance’s Blue World.

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I wasn’t originally quite sure what to expect from this one, but it kept me engaged and wanting to pick it up whenever I could find the time (and often it was a choice between sleeping while the baby let me or else reading and heaping maledictions upon King Kragen – curse his name!).

There’s a lot going on here and it’s got a lot of Vance’s signature moves – a competent protagonist who is intelligent and brave yet no action hero (pay no attention to the cover-Fabio above), witty, dry dialogue, big words, science, and oh so much imagination.

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One thing about the science of Jack Vance’s writing – it always feels “real” to me without getting too crunchy and boring. That is, it seems sufficiently detailed and plausible. Could you really burn off gallons of blood to gather iron for weapons and armor? I don’t know, but it’s a cool idea and sounds like it could be possible! Can you burn off plant matter to gather copper for crafting electrical conduits? Sure, why not? There’s something about stories like this that make me think of survival or colony-building video games and tech trees.

It’s also worth noting that Vance, though a noted proponent of tradition, is the ultimate shitlord, always willing to lampoon if it serves the story. I say this because my esteemed colleague Cirsova once pointed out to me that Vance has skewered tradition before. In the Blue World, Vance lays out a society that pays homage to a predatory monster that’s basically an overgrown octopus-crab (maybe? I kind of had trouble picturing it). The hero is the guy who finally gets sick of having his sponge-trees picked clean by the brute and decides to rouse some rabble.

The rabble itself is satisfying. Like in all of Vance’s other stories, many of the characters sound the same, speaking with honorifics and wield big fancy words and small difficult words. But the world is populated with both fools and those of superior intellect; the courageous and the cowardly; villains and heroes and those in between. In other words, I found the characters interesting sufficiently varied.

Potentially noteworthy – the hero gets the girl in the end, which isn’t always the case with Vance.

In conclusion, I’m a Vance fanboi and reading the Blue World has done nothing to shake my faith in his superior skill and unjust obscurity. 5/5.

-Bushi

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Culdcept and more Dune sciency stuff

Life flows onward. Care for the larva takes precedence.

I recently picked up a cheap 3DS game that looked interesting. It’s called Culdcept Revolt. Apparently the Culdcept series has been around for a while, though I’d never heard of it.

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Gameplay-wise, it’s something of an ill-begotten spawn. Think Monopoly meets Yugioh meets Magic: The Gathering. In effect it sometimes feels like Mario Party – skill and strategy matter, but the result of a 30-minute match can ultimately depend upon the favor or curse of the Random Number God. But I guess Magic was always subject to that. “Whoops, you drew 10 lands in a row? Learn to shuffle better, scrub.”

But it’s got card collecting and deck building, so it scratches an itch. Don’t get me started on the writing, though. It’s seriously bad.

Ah well, at least it’s turn-based. When you need to be able to respond to the wail of your progeny at a moment’s notice, turns are required. Or at least pausing. Maybe both.

Meanwhile Dune continues to stimulate as I read in bits and squeaks. Back in college, I took a class in sociology and our professor had us read Dune. Herbert is more often recognized for the ecological hardness of his seminal work, but there’s a lot of soft science going on, too. Man, that was a cool class.

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I’m told Herbert really knew ecology. I think it shows. But honestly, I’m not the kind of guy who’s incredibly difficult to convince with this stuff. Throw in the names of some scientific processes, maybe a plausibly-named theory…hey man, sounds sciency to me. “Hard” and “soft” scifi are relative terms, I guess.

Also, is “chromoplastic” a thing? Maybe…? A related element that’s impressed me is the range of invention Herbert utilizes here. He may not have coined all or even most of these gizmos and scifi doodads, but he seems to have picked some good ones that either never reached wide-scale use or else hit critical mass after he threw them in the mix.

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This kind of thing is important, you know? Sure, you can have a good story with blasters and laser swords and plasteel armor and space marines. But that’s all been done. A lot. Don’t underestimate the power of novelty.

Oh, look – “cone of silence.” This thing was popularized by the old 60’s Get Smart TV show, of course, but it was apparently kicking around for at least a decade before that. Herbert himself used the term in a 1955 short story, so Wiki tells meDune was published in 1965, as a reference point.

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I love this stuff, but dang I’ll be glad when I can muster up the wherewithal to dive into something new. Witch World looms.

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-Bushi

bushi

Plasteel in Scifi

Dune is one of those  books – love it or hate it, you must respect its place in “the canon” and the major role it’s played in influencing succeeding SFF works and popular culture.

As I continue my most recent read-through, I continue to pick up on new threads. Read below and see if you spot any scifi tech that’s become somewhat ubiquitous.

Ah-ha – plasteel! I know I’ve seenthis onebefore.

Much like the hypospray, plasteel is apparently a real thing. Perhaps because of its evocative and cool-sounding name it’s been adopted in all sorts of media ever since appearing in…Dune? (Update: Note, see below).

I’ve been unable to find much information about plasteel online, but it was apparently patented by an auto manufacturer in 1973. Likely the material and name were established or in the works for years prior, but Dune‘s 1965 employ of the word predates the patent. Very cool.

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Update: Thanks to my esteemed readers, who in the comments section point out some earlier spottings of “plasteel.”

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It’s still possible that Dune played a part in the popularization of the word, but doesn’t appear to be the originator.

-Bushi

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PC Koshinbun: Beast Master, Conan, and Luke as Mary Sue

Another day, another roundup. Here’re some recent consumables for y’all:

  • Cirsova’s got a piece about Otto Skorzeny, a diabolical, brilliant, intriguing member of the SS upon whom some great villains could be based.

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  • Clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson recently engaged in a “debate” with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. Almost painful to watch in how one-sided this is.

 

 

 

 

-Bushi

bushi

Hard Vance: Dust of Far Suns

At our last (and first!) Bushi meetup, Gitabushi gifted me a number of old books, including a couple Vances. I also gifted him an old Vance book, but the trade was far from reciprocal, for JV is one of my favorites and Gita isn’t so impressed. C’est la vie.

Dust of Far Suns turned out to be another solid collection. Although one of the Demon Prince stories kind of dragged for me, I have yet to read a Vance story I didn’t appreciate as a work of superior quality. Dust is a pleasantly small little number with four quick and meaty short stories, unrelated so far as I could tell aside from all being set in the future.

Another notable fact is that they all seemed “hard” scifi to me. That is, Vance was never one to shy away from blending a little magic into his scientifiction if it suited a given story. These ones, though, all come across as scientifically plausible (to a layman like me, at any rate). There are parts, especially in the first and third stories, which go into some detail about futuristic technologies such as solar sails and image projection. Most of this was probably made-up science, but not being a scientist, I couldn’t tell.

The titular opening story is a cool little number about an old, hardened grump named Henry Belt, who is responsible for training space cadets. He’s bristly, he’s said to drink heavily, and everyone hates him, but he’s also responsible for turning out the best spacemen Earth has got. But he’s been informed by a prognosticator that he’s destined to die in space, and he’s getting on in years…so he tells his latest class that he doesn’t care much whether he makes it back this time. What will happen?

“Dodkin’s Job” tells the story of a Nonconformist living on a world run by the Organization, a global government run on red tape. Our hero is a man of no small intellect and ability, if he does say so himself, but he just can’t abide stupid, pointless rules and routines. But as a result, he’s been declassified (demoted in social rank and employment assignment) so many times that he’s only one strike away from becoming a “junior executive,” the lowest class comprised of the dregs of society. Still, his latest job is a drag and a new order has just come down that will cost him 3 hours of his personal time every day, just because some bureaucrat felt like flexing a little muscle. This will not stand!

“Ullward’s Retreat” is about a future in which space and privacy are at a premium. There are just so many people that a typical family lives in a domicile the size of a large closet. But not Ullward! This guy’s amassed nearly 3/4 of an acre – a veritable paradise, and he’s very fond of showing it off. But he’s about to set his eyes on something much larger…

“The Gift of Gab” was probably my favorite of this collection, and it reminded me in parts of The Gray Prince. The story starts off with the disappearance of a crewman from the raft upon which most of the tale is set. But where could he have gone?

Vance’s experience as a seaman really shows here as he describes parts of the raft and its operation, as its crewmen carry out their job of mining the sea for metals to be sent back to Earth (I presume?).

I’ve said before that I really enjoy the imaginative depiction of alien beings and environments in my scifi, and “The Gift of Gab” really delivers with its mysterious sea world the the strange life found thereon.

Overall I’d give this book a 4.5/5. Really enjoyed it!

-Bushi

bushi

Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai!

My first exposure to Gordon R. Dickson came through his fantasy title The Dragon and the George – a quite exciting tale of a modern, mundane man thrust into a medieval fantasy world. It’s been done many times, but in this case our protagonist finds himself in the body of a dragon. Great book!

At the time of that post I was doing a bit of light research, as I am apt to do, and found that Dickson was more recognized and lauded as a scifi writer. Since then I’ve read Mission to Universe; it was okay.

His Childe Cycle is supposedly where it’s really at. Perhaps.

I just finished reading Dorsai!, and it was pretty good. I feel disgusting placing a comma next to an exclamation point, but here we are. Before getting into specifics, I think we’ve got another solid 3.5-4 out of 5 in this one. I got through it quicker than the last one (Lest Darkness Fall) and I daresay I enjoyed it more, but it didn’t blow me away.

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Dorsai! is the first book (in publication order) of Dickson’s uncompleted Childe Cycle – a story meant to span a millennium, from the 14th to 24th centuries. At the time of Dorsai!, humanity has expanded to the stars and begun to diverge. While there are not (yet) any branches of the species, planets have specialized. The titular planet of the Dorsai, for example, is a society of elite fighting men. Most of the worlds’ commanders and the best troops available hail from the warrior planet.

The story focuses on one Donal Graeme, a Dorsai who has just reached adulthood. Of course there is something “odd” about him; everyone says so. As the story progresses, we follow his career and meteoric rise through the ranks. Obviously the guy is a genius! His true motivation is somewhat obscured, though revealed to us and to himself in a vague, slow-drip kind of way, until the end of the tale.

Dickson does a nice job blending action and strategy (both military and political). I was reminded a little  of Ender’s Game and Foundation, in the satisfaction derived from following as Donal devises and executes an unlikely plan or figures out something no one else sees.

His world building was also quite well-done on a macro level, I thought. By the end of the novel I felt like I had a pretty decent picture of the worlds of Man and how they interacted with one another.

Bottom Line: If you see this one in a secondhand bookstore, pick it up. It’s good, inspirational, classic military scifi.

 

*Spoilers Ahoy*

 

All that said…I think Dickson wrote a decent-good book that could have been great. I think he wound up bogging himself down with Big Ideas and fantastical elements that got no follow-through. Character development was weakish. Anea, Lee, Galt, ArDell Montor, William, and even Donal himself fall all prey here. We get glimpses into personality and motivation, but that’s about it. Donal’s uncle Ian felt to me like perhaps the closest thing to a whole character, but he didn’t really get any kind of an arc.

There is a part where Donal is told that he is special in some way and that he can walk on air if he believes he can. He proceeds to do so, but then dismisses this unexplained power and never makes use of it again. This thread is just kind of lost. What was the point?

At the end of the story, Donal explains that he has a superhuman sense of insight – that he can see how events will unfold: sort of a quasi-Muad’dib prescience, I suppose. He is a sort of unforeseen evolution (as opposed to Dune‘s Paul, who was the result of carefully planned breeding come to fruition sooner than expected).

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This is all well and good, but the dialogue and explanations between Donal and Sayona felt excessive. To know that Anea was designed to gravitate to the most powerful man of humanity is enough. To know that Donal’s a superman who can predict the future is enough. Too much exposition!

There were several discussions throughout the story about the economy of the worlds. While I did find the idea intriguing – that because planets specialize they must trade and contract men and women of different specialties from other societies, this too became a little too dense for me to easily follow. The idea that some planets want to trade people as commodities, essentially, while others want to allow their workers some degree of freedom to choose their assignments – this would have a good place to end, for me.

One element I did appreciate was the bond between Dorsai men. Of course they were prepared to fight and kill one another when finding themselves on opposite sides. But in the abduction mission near the end of the story, Donal, El Man, and Ian wind up fighting and subduing a fellow Dorsai. He surrenders and they “hire him out” as a prisoner (an interesting if not immediately clear idea). He then takes them as far into the base as his honor will allow without directly betraying his commander.

Again, on the whole I found this an enjoyable read. But ultimately it felt like Dickson got too ambitious and got in his own way. He spent too much time on half-developed grand ideas that would have been better spent on further development of his characters.

-Bushi

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