November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #46 June - August, 1999

Short Recommmendations
by Don Blyly

        When Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash ($6.99) came out in 1992, it led to some controversy at Uncle Hugo's. This was Stephenson's third novel, but his first science fiction novel. (One of his earlier novels, Zodiac ($6.50), has since been put back into print, but his other earlier novel, The Big U, is almost impossible to find. I was one of the few people who had found, bought, read and enjoyed The Big U before Snow Crash came along.) The controversy: I thought that Snow Crash was the best science fiction novel of the year; Scott Imes thought that it was the second best novel of the year after Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge ($5.99), which was my choice for second best novel of the year. Due to this controversy, many Uncle Hugo's customers discovered Snow Crash, and I believe that slightly more of them agreed with me than agreed with Scott, but it was a close call. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the voters for the Hugo Award (voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention) suffer from the disadvantage of not buying their books from Uncle Hugo's and were thus unaware of this controversy, and were thus unaware of Snow Crash. Fire Upon the Deep went on to win the Hugo Award ( in a tie with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis ($6.50)), while Snow Crash wasn't even on the ballot (despite Scott's promoting it twice on NPR and at science fiction conventions).
        When Stephenson's next book under his own name came out three years later, the voters had become familiar with his name and Diamond Age ($6.99) did win the Hugo for best novel. (Stephenson is also co-author of two very good novels under the Stephen Bury pseudonym, Interface ($5.99) and Cobweb ($6.50)).
        Now Stephenson has presented us with Cryptonomicon ($27.50), a book that will present an entirely different controversy to customers of Uncle Hugo's. It's wonderful, whatever it is, but is it really science fiction?
        The story jumps back and forth between two plots, which evetually converge. One plot starts just before the U.S. gets into World War II, and basicly follows the efforts of the Allies to (1) break the secret codes of the Axis and (2) try to keep the Axis from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Mathematician Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is primarily involved in (1), while U.S. Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe is busy following orders that don't make any sense to him as he plays a role in (2).
        In the other plot line, in the present or very near future, hacker Randy Waterhouse (grandson of Lawrence) is involved in a high-tech start-up company that wants to create a "data haven" in Southeast Asia--a place where data can be kept as secret and as safe as cash can be kept in banks in Switzerland. He eventually hooks up with Bobby Shaftoe's tough-as-nails son and granddaughter (who run a marine salvage operation in the Philippines).
        This book is chocked full of strange and delightful stuff: interesting trivia from both WW II and the present, quirky characters, lots of different writing styles that would be tedious at great length but are delightful for just a few pages, fast-paced action, bizarre humor, and more mathematical equations than you're likely to find outside of a text book. (Fear not, reader. You don't have to solve the equations; you just have to have faith that the mathematicians in the book can handle it.)
         How about some examples? How about a few pages on the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch for breakfast? (Hint: you drink your breakfast beer from the can rather than pouring it over the bowl of cereal.) Or, an ancient church organist (Mr. Drkh) goes on a tirade about many strange things, but he's no match for Lawrence Waterhouse: "Clearly, Mr. Drkh has had a long career of being the weirdest person in any given room, but he's about to go down in flames." Somehow, all of these strange little bits manage to add to the plot and move things along, rather than being a distraction from the plot.
        Don't let the $27.50 price keep you from buying the book. It's over 900 pages long. When you realize how many mediocre 250-page paperbacks are on the new release shelves at $5.99 or more, you'll realize that you're only paying slight more per page for this excellent hardcover than you would for a mediocre paperback.
        I enjoyed Cryptonomicon more than any other book I've read yet this year, but I'm still not sure if it is science fiction.

        I went on a binge of reading alternate histories, starting with Stars & Stripes Forever by Harry Harrison ($24.95), about an alternate course for the American Civil War. In 1861, Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, and the Confederacy had dispatched a couple of representatives to Britain to advance the cause. The representatives had gotten past the Union blockade of the South to get into the Caribbean, and Union spies reported that they had boarded the British commercial ship Trent to get from Cuba to Britain. On November 8, 1861 the Union warship USS San Jacinto, acting contrary to orders, stopped the Trent on the high seas, boarded her with marines, and took away the two Confederate diplomats. Britain was outraged, massed troops and weapons on the Canadian border, and prepared to send a stinging dispatch to President Lincoln. In our actual history, Prince Albert, already terminally ill, intercepted the dispatch and rewrote it to give President Lincoln a face-saving way out of the confrontation, and then with Queen Victoria's approval sent the rewritten dispatch instead of the more inflammatory original dispatch.
        In Stars & Stripes Forever, Prince Albert was too ill to intervene, and the Union and Britain are bound to go to war. But when some of the Brits decide that if the British Empire is going to reconquer some of those troublesome former colonies, they might as well do the job right and reconquer all of those former colonies, things get interesting.
        Harrison seemed to try to use actual words of the historical figures when possible, although the words might have been uttered in different circumstances in our own history. Perhaps it's because of this that the historical figures seemed wooden, moved about by the author into situations where they could utter the words he wanted to quote from real life. While the big events of the book seem well thought-out, we never get the feel for the everyday life of the common people of the period, as we often do with the alternate histories of Harry Turtledove.

        Harry Turtledove wrote the Worldwar tetralogy (In the Balance, Tilting the Balance, Upsetting the Balance, and Striking the Balance, $6.99 each) where aliens come to invade Earth in the midst of World War II, having prepared to fight a war against humans with a technological level of the Roman Empire. After four books, the invasion fleet has to settle for a peace that leaves them in control of about half the Earth. But there was a colonization fleet following the invasion fleet by 20 years, bringing millions of colonists to an Earth that is supposed to be completely pacified. Colonization: Second Contact ($25.95) is the first book of the series that tells what happens when the colonization fleet reaches Earth in the early 1960s. Molotov has replaced Stalin as head of the USSR, Himmler has replaced Hitler as the head of the German Reich, and Earl Warren has replaced FDR as President of the United States, but most of the other characters from the first four books are still around.
        This book needed to be written to continue the story begun in the Worldwar tetralogy, and it is well thought-out, well written, and entertaining. But it never becomes compelling reading. It reads like a middle book of a series, which is what it really is. The characters we met in the first four books are 20 years older, and a few of them are a 20 years wiser. Some of them have kids who become characters in the latest book. Many of the new characters are from the colonization fleet, who don't yet understand humans and strongly resent the fact that the invasion fleet didn't completely conquer Earth, as the plan clearly called for them to do. Many, but not all, of the humans would love to kick all of the invaders off the Earth, and they realize that millions more invaders (including the first females) will make that goal much more difficult to achieve. Various plot elements move forward in an interesting way, but there is no major climax at the end of this book--stay tuned for the next book (or the next three books) to reach resolution of the assorted plot threads.

        I next turned to Harry Turtledove's The Great War: American Front ($7.99), which follows the alternate history timeline of How Few Remain ($7.99). The premise of How Few Remain was that in 1862 England and France forced the Union to recognize the independence of the Confederacy. In How Few Remain there was a second war in the 1880s between the Union and the Confederacy, at which time most of the military minds that were in place in 1862 in both the North and the South were still in place, and England again stepped in militarily to help the Confederacy to win again. In The Great War: American Front, the Union is tied by treaty to Germany and the Confederacy is tied by treaty to England and France in 1914. Both are forced (somewhat eagerly on both sides) by their treaty commitments into The Great War, just as the same thing was happening in Europe. But the military leadership on both sides is new (except for General Custer, who is physically in the present, though his mind is mainly on the past), the weapons and tactics are new, and the Union has been growing much faster while the Confederacy has been concentrating on maintaining an image of former glories.
        In addition to the military events, there are political events to move the plot along. In the North, the Socialists have been a strong minority party for some time, leading many disgruntled workers to view political action and the ballot box as the means to bring about change. In the South, hard-core "come the Revolution" Marxism is ruthless fought by those in power, but holds enormous appeal to much of the Black population--who have lots of reasons to desire an overthrow of the existing power structure and a redistribution of wealth.
        As he usually does in his alternate histories, Turtledove shows us the action through the eyes of many characters from different economic and ethnic backgrounds, making us feel what is happening from the viewpoints of ordinary people of the period. But he seems to do it even better in this book than he has in his other books.
        This is a very interesting, gritty, compelling book. It is also the first of four books, but I'd rather see the story told right than see it told too condensed. It could be read and enjoyed without reading How Few Remain first, but How Few Remain is so good that I don't see any reason you'd want to skip over it.

        I also read Harry Turtledove's Between the Rivers ($6.99). At the dawn of civilization, there are a number of cities in the area between two great rivers, and each of these cities is ruled by a god. Some of the gods rule their people directly, controlling all their thoughts and actions. Some of the gods rule their people through a priesthood, although they would have the power to rule their people directly if they wished to. And one city has found that their god is lazy enough that he's willing to let the people rule themselves as long as they give the god enough gifts to keep him occupied with things other than ruling them. The humans of the city of Gibil have been ruling themselves for three generations, and with each generation their skill at distracting their god has increased, their inventiveness has increased compared to their neighboring cities, and their attitudes towards gods has changed. But now all of the other gods have ordered that no more trading be done with Gibil to punish the humans for their relationship with their god, and to keep the Gibil attitudes towards gods from spreading to other humans.
        This book is not as action-packed as most Turtledove books, but it is interesting, thoughtful, and shows his normal high standard of historical research.

        Worlds of Honor edited by David Weber ($21.00) is a collection of five original stories set in the Honor Harrington universe by four different writers, with two of the stories written by David Weber. The first four stories involve treecats to varying degrees, all fill in useful gaps in the background of the Honor Harrington universe, and I enjoyed all four very much. The final story was ground-pounder military adventure where both Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven have sent in teams of covert advisers on a strife-ridden planet that each side would like to keep out of the other side's sphere of influence. The final story had no treecats, seemed very different in tone from the other stories in the collection, and I found less enjoyable than the other four stories.

        I've been hearing favorable comments about Christopher Moore for years, but had never gotten around to reading any of his books. When I learned that he would be doing a "drive-by signing" at Uncle Hugo's, I asked for advice from one of our customers who is a big fan of his books, and I was told that I should start with Practical Demonkeeping, after which I could then jump into any of his other books in any order and I would understand enough about his universe to understand most of the jokes.
        Catch the demon has been running around since Solomon got him on loan to help built his temple. Catch is somewhat unhappy about Travis, his current master (of the last 70 years), because he has scruples and doesn't like Catch's habit of eating people. All of his previous masters wanted Catch to use his powers to advance their nefarious plans, and Catch made a point of using his powers under circumstances where there were always plenty of inconvenient witnesses to be disposed of--thus feeding his habit. Travis and Catch drive into the small town of Pine Grove, California with vastly different plans. Travis thinks he has finally found a means to send Catch back to hell forever. Catch wants to shift to a new master, who won't interfere so much with Catch's desires. Pine Grove is full of quirky people with plans and problems of their own. Then, a wizen Arab-looking guy who claims to be a Djinn arrives in town and starts organizing a group of these quirky people to be demon hunters. One of the quirkier people is Howard Phillips, owner of H. P.'s Cafe, who thinks that the only thing keeping the Old Ones from taking over the Earth is serving things like Eggs-Sothoth with a side order of The Spuds of Madness at his restaurant. The book is a lot of fun, and I'll try to find time to read the rest of his books.
        We've sold out of the signed paperbacks of Practical Demonkeeping but still have signed hardcovers ($18.95) and unsigned paperbacks ($6.99). We've also sold out of signed paperbacks of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, but have unsigned paperbacks ($6.99). We still have signed trade paperbacks of Bloodsucking Fiends ($12.00) and Coyote Blues ($12.00) and signed hardcovers of his newest book, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove ($23.00).

        Orson Scott Card's Enchantment ($25.00) begins in 1975 in the Soviet Union. Ten year old Ivan Petrovich Smetski is told by his parents that from now on his name will be Itzak Schlomo Smetski. It seems that the only way to get out of the Soviet Union is to be Jewish and apply to immigrate to Israel. So Ivan's father, a college professor of old Slavic languages, has decided that the family will become Jewish, apply to immigrate to Israel, and then he'll try to get a job teaching college somewhere else once the family is free of the Soviet Union. Having decided on this course of action, Ivan's father then finds that his wife actually is Jewish. But Ivan and his father have to work at becoming Jewish enough to get out.
        Just when it looks like Ivan's father's plan is going to work, the U.S. Congress decides to force the Soviet Union to let more Jews out by tying most-favored trading status to the number of visas issued, and the Soviet Union responds by stopping emigrations and harassing those who applied for visas. Ivan's father is out of a job, and the whole family is kicked out of their apartment. After a while, they end up staying with a second cousin who has a dairy farm near the Carpathian Mountains (in an area that had been part of Poland prior to World War II, thus missing out on Stalin's collectivization push of the 1930s). During the long stay at the dairy farm, Ivan explores the forest around the farm, and discovers something very strange in the forest--on the day before the visas finally arrive.
        Years later, Ivan is an American graduate student, and decides to return to the former Soviet Union to do research for his doctoral dissertation. After months of research are finished, he decides to visit his relatives on the dairy farm before flying back to America. While there, he again goes into the forest, and discovers Sleeping Beauty--the beautiful princess Katerina, under a spell from the evil witch Baga Yaga. Ivan saves her, and finds himself returning with her to the small Ukrainian kingdom of Taina in 890 AD, which Baga Yaga is trying to take over.
        While I don't expect Enchantment to be an award-contender (especially compared to Card's Ender's Shadow, coming around September 1, which will be an award-contender), it is a very enjoyable novel, showing humor, warmth, and research into Slavic history.
        Water Sleeps by Glen Cook ($24.95, signed copies available) is the latest in his Black Company series: Black Company ($5.99, The First Chronicle), Shadows Linger ($5.99, The Second Chronicle), The White Rose ($5.99, The Third Chronicle), The Silver Spike ($5.99, set in the Black Company universe, but doesn't feature the Black Company), Shadow Games ($5.99, The First Book of the South), Dreams of Steel ($5.99, The Second Book of the South), Bleak Seasons ($5.99, Book One of Glittering Stone), She Is the Darkness ($6.99, Book Two of Glittering Stone), Water Sleeps ($24.95, Book Three of Glittering Stone).
        This has been one of the more popular fantasy series for years. The Black Company is a mercenary company that has been roaming a world full of magic for centuries, taking employment where they can find it, often in situations where there is no "good" side--just the side of their employer and the other side. As the Black Company needs to replace men killed or retired, they bring in new men from the area they happen to be passing through. An important job is annalist, the one who keeps the annals of the Black Company and often reads appropriate sections of the annals to the rest of the Black Company, thereby teaching the newer men about the tactics and culture of the Black Company. This also provides a dandy device for telling the story to the real-world readers, like you and me. But, as senior members of the Black Company retire or get killed off, the annalist gets promoted and somebody new becomes the annalist, so the "voice" in which the story is told has shifted during the series.
        In the first three books, the Black Company is engaged in a really nasty sorcerous war far to the north, but things start to get seriously out of hand and by the end of the third book the Black Company decides that the only way to survive is to Run Away, Run Away as fast and far as possible. In The Silver Spike, other characters from the first three books also Run Away, Run Away on the trail of the Black Company. Since then, the Black Company has primarily been trying to (1) gain employment, (2) survive employment, and (3) figure out where the Black Company came from centuries ago.
        At the beginning of Water Sleeps, much of the Black Company has been left in suspended animation on the glittering plain for over a decade, and the remaining members are interested in (1) revenge against those who are responsible for this, and (2) finding a way to free their comrades. I found the first half of the book just a little disappointing, primarily because I didn't like the "voice" of the current annalist as much as earlier annalists, but the second half more than made up for it. We finally learn where the Black Company came from and why, the significance of the glittering plain, and much, much more about the universe in which the series is set. And, while the novel does a fine job of wrapping up the story it set out to tell, it also does a very interesting job of setting the stage for the next book.

        Lord Demon ($23.00, due early August) is the second of the novels started by Roger Zelazny before his death with the intent that it be finished by Jane Lindskold. (The first was Donnerjack ($6.99), recommended here about a year and a half ago.) Like Donnerjack, Lord Demon has much more of the feel of early Zelazny than did his later work. Lord of Light borrowed heavily from Hindu religion, Creatures of Light and Darkness borrowed heavily from ancient Egyptian religion, and Lord Demon borrows heavily from ancient Chinese religion.
        There are many plains of existence, and on one of these plains there developed beings who could work what humans would call magic. Wars broke out among these beings, and thousands of years ago the winners (now called gods) kicked the losers (now called demons) out of their home plain of existence. The demons settled on what was originally a desolate plain, but they've been using magic to improve it ever since. But they can also travel to other plains, including the one that holds the Earth. They've been coming to Earth for thousands of years, originally in China, but now some of them are scattered all over Earth. They usually shape themselves as humans when visiting Earth, since it's less trouble to get a pizza that way, but their true shapes are much like those described in ancient Chinese mythology.
        Kai Wren, the Lord Demon of the title, has spent most of the last 1400 years creating magical bottles, vases, and pots. Prior to that, he had fought in the last war with the gods, trying to regain the home plain of existence, but since the demons have lost all the wars with the gods, he has decided to concentrate on artistic pursuits. But while he's been concentrating on his artwork, some of the other demons as well as some of the gods have been plotting. When his human assistant is murdered, he tries to figure out what is going on, and soon he also becomes a target of the plotters.
        If you enjoyed early Zelazny, you'll also enjoy Lord Demon.
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