Archive for February, 2009

The Chinese Language

Posted in books, Chinese language with tags , , on February 22, 2009 by Matt

One of the things I meant to make this blog about is learning languages, particularly Chinese, though I also have studied German and dabbled in Dutch and Japanese. I’ve spent about eight years sporadically studying Chinese, entirely through self-study methods, and probably achieved the level of an average 2nd-year student in an instructed program. Although what I’ve done is slow, I was able to work it around my day job, and following my interest as it ebbed and flowed. One month I might study intently for an hour or so each night, and then in another month do no studying at all. Again, not the quickest way to learn, but hopefully what I have managed to learn over the years will stick even if I slow down even more.

The Chinese Language, Its History and Current Usage, by Daniel Kane, is a book that won’t teach you Chinese, but it will orient you to the language and give you a sense of why its 5000 year history makes it so fascinating to study. This might be necessary as you spend the first few weeks or months just learning to contort your mouth into the sounds of Chinese without learning much in the way of actual words. And you’ll need to do that because Chinese distinguishes several sounds (such as pinyin “j” and “zh” or “q” and “ch”) that will sound exactly alike at first if you previously spoke only English or other western European languages.

Kane leaves the difficulties of pronouncing Chinese for a late chapter, starting instead with the nature of Chinese characters. Since most language-teaching books start with the spoken language and only introduce the characters slowly, this is a nice balance. The characters are inherently fascinating, with a kind of grammar or algebra of their own in their construction. When studying them you’ll continually find new connections between them, such as the construction of 红, “red”, from an ancient character for silk (on the left) with 工, “gong”, indicating the sound (which has actually morphed to “hong” since the character was developed.

There are also chapters on the history and dialects of Chinese, so you’ll be able to explain to your friends why you’re studying Mandarin rather than Cantonese; and on the basics of Chinese grammar.

Then comes the chapter on pronunciation, including the difficult consonants mentioned above, and of course the dreaded tones, another critical stumbling block for westerners learning the language. This chapter is not as helpful as finding an audio source to learn from (for example, try Chinesepod, but I’ll come back to that in a later post), but still worthwhile for returning to after you’ve been struggling with the language for a while.

The final chapter is “Beyond the Basics”, which is a nice glimpse at what you might learn in future study, and the way language can help to develop cultural connections.

I’m not sure whether to recommend this book to be read before beginning Chinese study, because while there’s no knowledge pre-supposed, there are long lists of examples that won’t be helpful until after you begin studying. A better use for the book might be to read it a chapter at a time in parallel with other study. This book will then help to flesh out the story behind what you learn from other sources that seek purely to teach the language as a means of communication. In self-study I like to continually move backward and forward in the material, first reading through some new material, then going back to it several times interspersed with starting on further topics. The structure of this book, the reverse of most beginning Chinese textbooks, will inherently lead you into this back-and-forth method if read in parallel.

If you’re trying self-study this book will be especially useful to fill a need that a classroom teacher would otherwise satisfy. But even if you have a classroom teacher, I recommend this book for bringing together a lot of knowledge that is otherwise spread around between various resources, but handy to be reminded of all in one place, and helpful to have as an alternative perspective and explanation of a lot of difficult material you’ll need to learn.

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags , on February 21, 2009 by Matt

Published as a retrospective in 1976, this volume collects 19 of C. M. Kornbluth’s short stories written between 1941 and 1958. These stories show Kornbluth as a golden age writer whose themes predicted later trends in sf.

C. M. Kornbluth wrote from 1940 until his untimely death in 1958, attributed to lingering effects of his service in World War II. Kornbluth frequently collaborated with Frederik Pohl, who edited this collection, and others, however all of these stories are Korbluth’s alone.

For me, the most appealing story here was “Gomez”, about the discovery of a genius physicist working as a busboy and dishwasher in his immigrant family’s restaurant in inner-city New York. With breezy, linear narration, and characters developed through dialog (showing a variety of stock character types that ’50s authors relied on to populate their stories), the story makes its points clearly: that the search for genius should not be restricted to stereotypes, and scientists can’t be expected to work like equation-solving machines. The story ends with a satisfying trick ending that gives a poke in the eye to overbearing authority.

A more famous story is “The Marching Morons” in which a medical mishap puts real estate dealer John Barlow into suspended animation for hundreds of years. In the future, most of the population have degenerated into idiocy, but a small intellectual elite secretly run the world from a base in Antartica. The elite convince the masses that they are benefiting from advanced technology by various ruses, such as adding noise-makers to cars to make them seem to be running at 200 mph when in fact they top out at 30 or so. Barlow is no intellectual match for the future elites, but his deceitful salesmanship is something that neither the elite or the masses are capable of, so the elite use him to solve a pending crisis in overpopulation of the masses. Although there is some progressive nods, such as showing the multi-racial mix of the elite society, the way mass extermination of the population is treated as the obvious solution to the over-population problem is creepy and disturbing.

Another fine story, and perhaps the most forward-looking in structure, is “Mindworm”. This is an updated version of old legends, and except for the contemporary setting of the 1950’s, the kind of story that we are still reading today.

These and the others are character-driven stories, of the kind that only a few of the golden age writers seem to have produced. Rather than dryly expound the latest predictions on rocket-motor technology or nuclear power, Kornbluth’s characters at least complete their “as you know, Bob” moments with natural and unpedantic language, and indeed these expositions are found only in a few of the stories. In most of the stories, the technological underpinnings are only that, substructure supporting a plot revolving around characters.

Kornbluth’s work is sure to entertain, particularly if you’re looking into the development of current sf from its golden age roots.

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

Posted in alternate history, books, sf with tags , on February 20, 2009 by Matt

I found Jo Walton‘s Ha’penny at the library and picked it up without realizing it was the sequel to an earlier book, Farthing. The first thing to get out of the way then, is that this book stands up excellently for itself; I don’t feel I lost much by missing the previous one.

Ha’penny is a police thriller (not a mystery, since we see both sides of the story at all times) set in an alternate late 1940’s where World War 2 in Europe ended not with the defeat of Nazi Germany but with a chummy truce between Hitler-dominated Europe and nationalist governments in Britain and the U.S.A. The fate of Asia and the Pacific is not mentioned or else skipped over lightly. This results in an increasingly security-mad and controlling government in the U.K., which is the setting for the story.

The story is engaged when a Scotland Yard inspector stumbles onto a plot to kill the British PM and Hitler together during a theater performance. The p.o.v. alternates chapter-by-chapter between Inspector Carmichael, on the trail of the plot, and Viola Larkin, a society girl turned working actress who is drawn in to the plot by her communist sister.

The characters drive the story here, with numerous secondary characters illustrating the kind of types that make the nationalist police state possible, such as the xenophobic lower-middle-class assistant inspector working with Carmichael; and Viola’s five sisters, each a fanatic for a different faction of the “Peace with Honor” society.

Viola, the apolitical hard-working actress, more concerned with the fate of the theater in the face of the film industry, and covertly homosexual Carmichael, fearing that exposure will end his career, are both trapped in their roles. Both will suffer for their actions, but nonetheless they go ahead out of loyalty, in one case to family, and in the other to justice. Thus, for the characters, the story is a tragedy, though the question of whether history will be changed is open until the end. This tragic inevitability seems particularly appropriate connected to the unsettling reflection between the rising police state of the story and events in the modern western world (In case you thought the election of Barack Obama ended these trends, remember that just this week it became illegal to photograph policemen in the U.K.)

To summarize, Ha’penny is clearly written, engaging, dramatic, and…recommended.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Posted in books, sf with tags , on February 17, 2009 by Matt

This is the book built from the story that began Gene Wolfe’s tenure as one of the greatest stylists of SF for the last 37 years. It might also be one of the most widely critically examined works in all of SF, so probably this won’t add much new to what’s already been said about it.

The structure is unusual, three related stories, revolving around the history of the neighboring planets Saint Croix and Saint Anne, and the fate of their natives (if there ever were natives) following colonization. The stories are presented as separate novellas, told from three points of view. In each case, we have an unreliable narrator to compound the mysteries of the story. In the final segment, its not even obvious whether the narrator is the off-planet scientist he claims to be, or whether it is a doppelgaenger who has replaced the scientist.

Like Wolfe’s later work, Fifth Head gives the impression of so much finely intertwined detail that mere mortals can’t hope to discover all of the interconnections; which hasn’t stopped the internet hive mind from trying. I don’t myself try to unthread all of the detail, but the fact that its there gives the book a satisfying feeling of completeness, and allows it to be mysterious without being simply mystifying.

This book also shows the characteristic Wolfe style of veiling SF elements behind archaic language and brutal social conditions; that is, presenting technology as his characters see it, just one more mysterious aspect of their world. In this, the book is probably even more reflective of today than of the time when it was written. Then, an average car nut, for example, could expect to understand how to rebuild his carburetor; today, a car nut has little chance of repairing a computerized fuel injection system, and millions of people use Facebook without having or needing much understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the internet.

All in all, a fantastic book, and one that hasn’t lost any of its presence or mystery with age.

New Worlds Science Fiction June 1960

Posted in magazines, sf, time warp with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by Matt

Another time warp post, for a flea market find. This isn’t, apparently, the New Worlds magazine that led the British new wave. This New Worlds was published in New York, and appears to have carried reprints from the British New Worlds. A fanzine listing including “Eustace #1” produced by a Mike Moorcock out of Surrey, England.

The first story is “Grapeliner”, a “short novel” by James White. The story is in the golden age style, with technology exploration taking center stage, and minimalist characters. The technological question here is how to build a space ship out of plastic, so as to avoid the medical effects on crew and passengers of cosmic radiation interacting with metals. The solution reached skirts the border between far-out thinking and silliness. There’s very little here that can still capture the imagination today.

Next is Robert Presslie‘s “Confession is Good”, a typical early artificial intelligence story, in which its assumed that AI will always draw perfect logical conclusions from muddled human inputs, in this case leading to the most horrible kind of error. Another story that doesn’t resonate today as it might have when written.

“Aberration” by Roy Robinson and J. A. Sones looks at a perfect computer-operated society that is threatened from within by a telepath. As in much SF (and political thought) from this time, the authors seem to assume that if government can just get more information and power, it could run the lives of its subjects to perfection. Telepathy, also seen in “Grapeliner” seems to have been in the air when this was written. In both stories, the protagonists make amazing conclusions about the abilities of telepathic opponents who in fact they know almost nothing about. Here its a flaw that’s harder to overlook, since the telepath is the central point of the story.

“Almost Obsolete” by Donald Malcolm is a short piece about a kind of epidemiological study that leads to the revelation of a coming radical trend in human evolution — women are beginning to reproduce without the help of men, and men will soon become extinct. The revelation would probably have seemed bold in 1960, and would indeed be a dramatic change for human society. This story is certainly interesting as a historical marker in the development of this sf-nal idea.

Finally comes the reason I bought the magazine, a story by J. G. Ballard; an author I’ve heard plenty about, but never read. “Waiting Grounds” appeared well before the new wave was recognized, but does show Ballard’s leadership in bringing literary themes and style to sf, especially by contrast to the other, entirely old-school, stories in the magazine. The story is about a technician sent out to monitor a radar station on a distant planet or moon. There he discovers an alien artifact that implies mankind will soon join an interplanetary society. The story presages Arthur Clarke’s 2001 in the nature of the artifact, even naming it a monollith, and somewhat in the revelatory end-sequence in which the protag is mentally transported by the object into a mind-bending dream sequence. It would be interesting to work out the relationship between this and Clarke’s work (including the even earlier “Encounter in the Dawn“, which I can’t remember reading, so I don’t know if it includes the monolith or dream sequence.) The writing is clearly a cut above the other stories here, and I’ll definitely be looking in to Ballard’s later work after reading this one.

F&SF March 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on February 15, 2009 by Matt

Somehow, despite the rain, allergy season has begun, which is relevant here because I’m trying out Zirtec, and I’m afraid its side effects (“may cause drowsiness”) are a bit strong. The antihistimine fuzzy-headedness kept me from really getting in to this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

First up is “The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights” by Daniel Abraham. A young man brings his fiance home to meet the family, a little nervous that his family might not accept her, since she’s from a much different background. But, instead of passing judgement, an uncle chooses to tell a few stories. Abraham packs a lot of storytelling (at first and second-hand) into this relatively short piece, and then ties it all together with a moral that, even though it’s stated directly, manages not to seem trite. This is the story that I most regret reading under pharmaceutical influences.

Yoon Ha Lee‘s “The Unstrung Zither” is the most conventional story plotline in the magazine, revolving around a musician in a militaristic state, who’s asked to assist in the interrogation of five deadly young infiltrators from the enemy planets. The conventional story works, though, because of its well-developed and novel setting. Lee manages to develop what seems to be the flavor-of-the year, the Chinese-dominated future society, considerately, and without leaning on outdated cliche’s (though there are a few present-day stereotypes sprinkled throughout) as in Harry Turtledove’s work in the latest Asimov’s.

This month’s classic reprint is “That Hell-bound Train”, by Robert Bloch, first published in 1959, with an introduction by William Tenn, the F&SF editor who published it originally. The story ages amazingly well compared to near-contemporaries I’ve been reading lately, reading much like recent work from, for example, Jack Skillingstead, if I’m remembering a few of his stories accurately.

Next is “Quickstone” by Marc Laidlaw, a new installment in a series about a bard with a gargoyle’s right hand. Laidlaw makes an interesting style choice early in the story, mixing very contemporary language in an introductory dialog with archaic fantasy style in the narration; but this is soon left behind and the main characters settle down to addressing each other as golems and bards ought to. For a series story, this one holds up well on its own, with significant plot developments reached wholly within the story at hand. On the other hand, at some point I got lost in the details of a long underground cavern travel sequence; but that could have been the Zirtec leading me astray.

The final story is Robert Reed‘s “Shadow-Below”, again an installment in an ongoing series of stories about a Lakota who left a secret band who live as their ancestors did to join the modern (or near-future) world. This is the one story in the magazine I really got engaged with. The writing is professional and polished, and the characters are carefully painted and believable. Unfortunately what’s printed here reads as a mere episode in a longer story, with little development to the plot. Tensions develop, for example between the main character, Shadow-Below, and a woman in the survival class he’s teaching, who approaches him flirtatiously despite her husband being in the class as well, but then dissipate without effect. The real action seems to be in the relationship between Shadow-Below, his nephew Raven Dream, and the wealthy daughter of a mysterious businessman; but without the context of three earlier stories in the series (only one of which I’ve read, and that was two years ago) it’s hard to make sense of the story behind the story.

Update: 2009/02/18 Gordon van Gelder noticed this post, and linked it from the sfsite forums, resulting in the most readers I’ve ever seen on the blog. (Thanks!) John E. Rogers seemed to misunderstand my comments on Yun Ha Lee’s story, so I tried to clarify. I  think I’m trying to say roughly the same thing as he did in an earlier post at sfsite, the plot of the story is not unique — but the setting sure is.

Book reviewers linkup

Posted in blogging on February 14, 2009 by Matt

For more blogs like this, Mentatjack posted a long list of review blogs and websites here.