Friday, December 1, 2023

sf novel review

The Kuiper Belt Job by David D. Levine (Caesik, 2023)

Let me admit my bias from the start: the author is an old friend, since before he'd ever published any fiction. But it didn't take that for me to admire his short stories, and what made me particularly eager for this novel was his post in Scalzi's Big Idea series, in which he describes his intent of writing a caper novel featuring a group of charming rogues who form a "found family," along the lines of - among other examples - the Serenity gang from Firefly.

As a fan of Firefly, and also of caper stories, my interest was immediately caught. What I especially liked about Firefly, as I mentioned in comments, was that it didn't have one protagonist with the other characters as satellites. Though it had a main character, the whole cast was important, and the relationships were many-to-many. Each had a relationship of some sort with each of the others, and each of these was distinct.

I looked forward to the same thing from David's book, and pretty much found it there. I picked up a copy on my next visit to the local independent bookstore, and read it in about three gulps. It's set in an interplanetary future, with well-developed human settlements on moons, asteroids, and artificial satellites, with spaceships zipping around between them. As the title reveals, the gang are gearing up to pull a heist out in the Kuiper belt, which is a pretty fair clip away even in this environment, so there's a lot of prep work, as well as gathering together the gang to pull it.

But it begins with a flashback to an earlier caper when they're all together, along with some others who don't show up in the later story. One of the trickiest tasks in written fiction is introducing a large cast of characters all at once while not confusing or overwhelming the reader or causing them to think, "Now which one was that again?" You don't have the faces and voices of actors to give an assist as in tv shows or movies. In that aspect, this book is a masterpiece, the craft of fiction writing performed at its highest level. The author carefully hands the people out at the beginning, and even after chapters of gap, I never felt any confusion. The plot is a series of capers, and as one succeeded another, I felt absolutely no sense of weariness, of "here we go again" that's so common in stories so structured. Everything was exciting and interesting. The gang are crooks, yes, but they have honor among themselves and I felt no sense of guilt in identifying with them.

The cast all have obvious Firefly analogues (and if they aren't obvious, the Big Idea post will clue you in), but as individual characters they're very different from the Firefly equivalents (except for Damien the pilot, who is Wash to a tee). I found it easier, in fact, not to imagine the actors from Firefly playing the parts in my head: it only interfered with the individuality of these characters.

There were only a couple of problems. First, though the characters were highly distinct, their voices weren't. Each major character gets a chapter in the first person, and they don't sound different. But such disparate people really should. If this story were told in intercutting first person, this sameness would be disastrous. Separated out, however, it's no more than distracting. By the time we got to person D's chapter, I had to keep reminding myself that we were no longer in the head of person C.

The other problem is that, near the end, the plot takes a sudden and disconcerting left turn. This surprises the characters as much as it does the reader, but that doesn't help. It introduces a major and uncharacteristic moral failing, which isn't ignored but is kind of brushed aside. That and the attendant restructuring of the basis of the story leave a sour taste, and make me less eager for sequels than I would be.

But don't let those stop you. This is overall a delightfully readable sf adventure tale that in large part is a really excellent novel.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

"Dudamel conducts Brahms" read the slugline on the Symphony's publicity for this concert. But the Brahms was the least significant, or interesting, thing in it. As is usually the case with a Dudamel guest appearance, he brought along something new from Latin America: something good, too - two somethings, and I spent most of my review on those.

Both Gabriela Ortiz, whom I've heard before, and Gonzalo Grau, whom I hadn't, have got the knack for Latin color, and Dudamel conducted them both with his customary Latin verve.

Then there was the Brahms, which approached the soporific, and which Lisa Irontongue, who was at the same performance, found even more annoying than I did. But Lisa seemed puzzled that the finale came out rather well. It seemed to me that this was attendant on Dudamel's generally slow and cautious approach being entirely deliberate, for whatever mysterious reason. Whenever the music sped up, got louder, approached a climax, Dudamel responded by exhibiting some of that energy he'd expended so generously on Ortiz and Grau, though here in a rather dutiful, mechanical manner. The finale is simply by far the fastest and loudest movement of the Brahms Second, and so it got the most of this. Therefore the least uninteresting. And that's it, that's the whole story.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Tolkien Studies 20: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 20 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE in a few months.

As previously announced, Verlyn Flieger is retiring as co-editor of Tolkien Studies as of the publication of volume 20. Yvette Kisor is joining the editorial team with volume 21. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 20 (2023)
  • David Bratman, "Charles E. Noad, 1949-2023"
  • John M. Bowers, "Durin's Stone, the Ruthwell Cross, and the Dream of the Rood"
  • Verlyn Flieger, "Tolkien's Great Tales"
  • Thomas P. Hillman, "The Great Tales, Tragedy, and Fairy-story in 'The Choices of Master Samwise'"
  • John F. Whitmire, Jr., "An Archaeology of Hope and Despair in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen"
  • Kenton L. Sena, "Ecological Memory in Middle-earth: Environmental Legacies of Abuse and Care in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien"
  • Steven Keilich, "The Many Eyes of Middle-earth: Looking at the Gaze in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings"
  • Ben Reinhard, "The Pillars of Atlantis: Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Shadow of World War II"
  • Patrick Lyon, "Though You Travel Every Road: Heraclitean Paths in Middle-earth"
  • Seth Kreeger, "Metaphysical Considerations of Eä: Creation and Providence in Tolkien and Aquinas"
Notes and Documents
  • Peter Gilliver, "Caught in the Philological Net: Tolkien's Lexicographers"
  • Samuel Cardwell, "A Second Source for Samwise?"
Book Reviews
  • The Battle of Maldon: Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son and 'The Tradition of Versification in Old English,' by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Peter Grybauskas, reviewed by Michael D.C. Drout
  • The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, edited by Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine, reviewed by Grace Khuri
  • The Fall of Númenor and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Brian Sibley, reviewed by Dan'l Danehy-Oakes
  • Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth, by Austin M. Freeman, reviewed by The Rev. Tom Emanuel
  • Tolkien's Library: An Annotated Checklist, 2nd edition, by Oronzo Cilli, reviewed by David Bratman
  • Cami D. Agan, David Bratman, Kate Neville, Jennifer Rogers, Jonathan Evans, John Wm. Houghton, and John Magoun, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2020"
  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (in English) for 2021"
  • "Errata: Chronology of The Lord of the Rings, TS 19 Supp."

Sunday, November 26, 2023

planning ahead

Three weeks ago, I reserved the back room in a restaurant for our book discussion group's annual Reading and Eating Meeting, having lunch there in the process. The meeting date was four weeks in the future, one week now.

Having had occasional experience in the past of initiating and finalizing definite plans for a future date, only to find that the other party assumes that you've canceled the plans because you don't repeatedly ping them in the interim, I decided that I'd better ping before I e-mailed our members the last reminder for the meeting and the details of how to get there.

That meant driving up there again and having lunch again, far from an objectionable prospect. It was quiet there again, and I found the same two staff members on duty as had been there that earlier Saturday. We're meeting next Saturday, so I sense stability here. What's more, they remembered me, apparently for my distinctive habit of reading a book at the table, and they also confirmed the reservation.

So that's done. I went home and wrote the e-mail.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

while the cats waited to be fed

We were kind of late getting home from Thanksgiving at our niece's house, due to the game in which B. got heavily involved - something in which each player draws a picture and the others guess what it's of. (I declined: I'm not a game-playing animal and I can't draw.) So the cats weren't fed until late.

Human food where we went was good. Nephew (niece's husband) took charge of cooking and carving the turkey, despite the limitation of having his favored arm in a sling (recovering from rotator cuff surgery), and successfully achieved tender breast meat. I made an asparagus quiche, the only veggie (not counting the carb dishes) on the table, but not much of it got eaten. That's OK, the rest will be our dinner the next day.

Guests were a combination of family and friends. Hosts' son, now a university sophomore with a beard (he's in advance of me: I didn't grow my beard till I was a rising junior, and at the time it was a lot scragglier than his), made it in from the distant East. His best friends' parents were there. So were the matron of honor at the now 8-year-ago wedding of our other nephew and niece (who were also there) and her daughter, the one who screeched "Hi Mommy!" during the ceremony but is now much older and more sedate.

Much conversation over the cats which our hosts were fostering, and it looks like some adoptions are in the works. (Not from us. We have two, and that's enough.) Also the water which one guest was drinking to clear her palate between glasses of wine. She noted the incongruity of drinking it from a wine glass. I suggested she think of it as an extremely attenuated, possibly homeopathic, white wine: no alcohol, no grape juice, no flavor notes. Nothing about politics, or hardly even sports.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tolkien's letters, take II

It's been a week now since the revised and expanded edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters was published in the US. I wandered down to my local independent bookstore that morning and there it was on the shelf.

I've been reading it, intermittently. It's 708 pages long. The previous edition was 502 pages long. Not only does it have newly-published letters, easily identifiable as they've been given interstitial serial numbers, but, especially in the earlier part of the chronologically-ordered book, additional material has been added to existing letters. That is not marked, but you can find it using this remarkable guide, though I fear that every time they update it (fixing typos, tweaking summaries), they give it a new URL. What I did was go through it with both editions open before me, and draw marginal lines down past the new material in the old letters. It's my copy and I can annotate it in whatever way seems useful.

If I did this for the whole book, it'd be insanely long, but here's a few gems from the new material in the earlier section of the book. This should tempt you into reading this book.
My daughter, aged 8, has long distinguished between literary and actual terrors. She can take any amount of dragon, and a reasonable dose of goblin; but we recently had to change all the handles on the chest-of-drawers in her room, because the former handles 'grinned at her', even in the dark.

[to a son contemplating marriage at an early age] I was less old than you when I met your mother, and I have remained faithful ever since. But that was not the first time I had felt 'in love'. [Really? Considering his living circumstances at the time, where would he have met his previous amour, and who could she have been?]

Last war, I often did not see my sweetheart (and later wife) for weeks and months. I only saw my brother about twice in 3 or 4 years.

Very few men, but practically all women set great store by dates and anniversaries. It does not follow that the men are wholly in the right about it! Anyway as a practical lesson in the way to live and conduct one's social affairs smoothly, this difference between the sexes is well worth remembering. A man can avoid a lot of trouble for himself, and avoid giving much pain to others, by noting it.

I said, outside Lichfield Cathedral, to a friend of my youth - long since dead of gas-gangrene (God rest his soul: I grieve still) [so it was most likely G.B. Smith] - 'Why is that cloud so beautiful?' He said: 'Because you have begun to write poetry, John Ronald.' He was wrong. It was because Death was near, and all was intolerably fair, lost ere grasped. That was why I began to write poetry.

I have no advice to give except to practice your religion as well as you can: taking every opportunity of the sacraments (esp. Confession) and pray: Pray on your feet, in cars, in blank moments of boredom. Not only petitionary prayer.

Open air preacher being heckled, particularly by one ill-favoured and rather dirty little man on the outskirts. He kept on shouting, whenever the preacher paused for breath: 'Gah! Christianity's been in the world 2000 years, and what good's it done?' waving towards the unsavoury surrounding slum. The preacher at last lost his temper and shouted back: 'Water's been in the world more than 2000 years, and look at your neck!'

On Sat. we go into that infernal, abominable, never to be sufficiently execrated Double S[ummer] Time (which has contributed as much as any other single factor to my weariness). God deliver us from it soon. I shd. like to put 'Freedom of the Clock' or 'Hands of the Hour Hand' into the Atlantic Charter. (Not that that would do much good.) [A fellow hater of DST! God bless you, Professor!]

I would not really like to endure my teens again, but I fancy (idly, for the thought is really meaningless) I could at least make better use of the time since 25 (espec. 25-45) if 'I had it again.' But 'I've had it' as they say now. There is of course always some best use we can make of our time, even in the most abominable exterior circumstances, and only one time (with no return) in which to make it.

Monday, November 20, 2023

camera obscura

I have finally reached success, sort of, in my quest for a camera for my computer.

When the pandemic began and meetings on Zoom entered my consciousness, I searched online for a simple camera to plug into a USB port in my computer. I bought one, and it works, but the cable is only 4 feet long, too short to put it in an agreeable spot.

So I went back on line and ordered an extension cable - 3 feet long, which was barely long enough. It worked: for about six months. Then when I plugged it in, Zoom would fail to recognize that a camera was there. The camera alone worked fine; it was the cable.

So I bought another one. It too worked fine for about six months and then failed.

I left a bad review and bought a longer cable. It didn't work at all.

Figuring the problem was that the cable might not be camera-enabled, I tried to find another cable that was camera-enabled and was also - which was mostly incompatible with being camera-enabled - a USB-A male to female port cable. Eventually I found one. But, though it said it was camera enabled, it didn't work at all either.

At that point I figured the only solution was to get a new camera. But few of the likely cameras had info in their description saying how long the cable was, and those which did the cable was too short. The photos that you can close-up on didn't show the cables at all.

But eventually I found one, and today was my first opportunity to see if it works. It does, and the cable is long enough. Only problem is that, although I'm placing it in the same spot as the previous camera, its viewshot is much more close-up. If there's a way to modify that, I don't know what it is.

But at least for the moment it works.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

concert review: Symphony Parnassus

I'd long known of this group, but I'd never been to one of its concerts before.

It started out as a faculty ensemble at the local medical school, and it still has a lot of doctors and other professionals in its ranks, though the only name I was familiar with was the principal violist, who is also a locally noted solo pianist. I also know the conductor, Stephen Paulson, as he is also the principal bassoon for the San Francisco Symphony (and who looks like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Santa Claus).

They split their concerts between two venues in San Francisco, both tiny auditoriums with extremely bright acoustics. This concert was at the main hall of the San Francisco Conservatory. The place was absolutely packed. Other community orchestras would be so jealous.

As a volunteer group, Parnassus's technical level of playing is outstanding, just about good enough to be professional. Stylistically, they play as you would expect doctors to: brisk, clear-cut, devoid of excess emotion.

This turns out to be the right attitude to approach Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with (Parker Van Ostrand, a Conservatory student, was soloist): no fat, no longeurs, just a little raw Tchaikovsky. Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, though, came out a bit oddly, with unnervingly soft climaxes in the slow movements, plus an ending so abrupt nobody knew when to clap.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

concert cohesion

I had a busy day last Sunday. I was reviewing two concerts for my two outlets. The first concert was at 4 pm in Palo Alto; that meant it should be over about 6. It's about a half hour drive from there to Willow Glen, where the second concert began at 7. So if I packed a bag lunch in my car, I figured, and ate it on the way, I should make it without too much squeezing.

The 4 PM concert was the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra, and it was an interesting combination of 18th century music from different periods of the century plus two 21st century works by American women, both of whom I'd heard works by before.

But it wasn't over until 6:10, and after a pit stop - for I knew the facilities were even more hazardous where I was going than where I came from - I wasn't on my way until 6:15. I pulled into a parking place - some distance away, because there's only street parking there and I was late - at 6:52. Fortunately I didn't have to rush, and the concert didn't begin until 7:05 anyway. This was the San Jose Chamber Orchestra again - I'd just done them - in a bizarre meeting of two disparate contemporary composers, Stacy Garrop and John Tavener.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

concert review: Other Minds Festival

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and experimental music. I've been to a few of its concerts before when they were playing something I really wanted to hear: Henry Cowell retrospectives, Lou Harrison retrospectives, Michael Nyman. On Wednesday, perforce I found myself attending an Other Minds concert of stuff I didn't know anything about for no more reason than it was what was on. I don't think I'll do this again.

The concert consisted of sets running about 3/4 of an hour each by two composers/performers.

First was Ellen Arkbro, who has studied with LaMonte Young and taken up his ideas of sustained tones with minimal motion but without, it seems, his ideas of expansive universal embrace. She began by turning on a computer emitting a painfully loud electronic buzzing, which changed pitch occasionally, on top of which she softly added held trumpet notes. Then she turned that off, replacing the buzzing with equally painful dissonant chords from three guys on tubas. (Irrelevant thoughts of the three guys on bass at the bottom of the Ninth.)

Second was Craig Taborn, who improvises at the piano. He's reputedly classed as a jazz pianist, but only a little of what he played sounded like jazz. A little more sounded like wildly cascading atonalism. But most of it sounded like children's finger exercises.

Some music finds profundity within surface simplicity, and I cherish such music. But other work just captures the surface.


I will admit it was impressive to discover, during the introductions preceding the concert, that the old white-haired man sitting right in front of me was Morton Subotnick. I heard his Silver Apples of the Moon half a century ago, my first exposure to purpose-written electronic music, and though I didn't like it very much my mind was expanded thereby.


It remains to be noted that this concert took place in San Francisco during the APEC conference and, therefore, also during the protests against the APEC conference. I ensured beforehand that I wouldn't have to pass through those parts of the city and that didn't cause me any problems. I had a little less luck regarding the meeting of Biden and Xi at a country estate located just off the freeway on my route up. The local road closures for this didn't cause any backups on the freeway, but the protests outside those closures did.