29 December 2011

Book review: No god but God

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. updated edition, 2011.

Reza Aslan was born in Iran, and his parents fled to America with him and his younger sister in 1979, during the revolution. He's a scholar of Islam and its history. When Aslan originally published this book in 2005, it was in response to the growing Islamophobia in the United States and the western world. He wanted to show that Muslims are no different than any other residents on this planet, and that, in the US and other (theoretically) secular western democracies, they are as deserving of religious freedom as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, atheists, and everyone else.

The book that resulted does this very well. He begins with the Arab tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed lived, and he describes Arab polytheism and their tribal traditions. The origin of Islam that he describes, when Mohammed moved to Medina (then called Yathrib), is one of equality for all.

Aslan spends a good half of the book on Mohammed, his life, and the internecine, often literal, warfare that occurred after his death. He also describes the two main minority sects, Shi'ism and Sufism, each in their own chapter. Then he skips forward to the mid-1800s, when Muslims yearned to throw off the yoke of colonialism in India and Egypt, touching on the effects colonialism had on Islam and its evolution, including the beginnings of the Taliban.

There's a chapter set in the Islamic Republic of Iran, beginning with a description of his trip back to Tehran as an adult after the travel ban was lifted, which leads into a reminiscence of his family's run, hand gripped firmly in hand, through the airport to catch a plane out.

This same chapter ends in India, with the British partitioning of it into Pakistan and India. He says that pluralism and secularization, not secularism, are the key to democracy in the Muslim world, declaring
Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause, meaning that any democratic society--Islamic or otherwise--dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights must dedicate itself to following the unavoidable path toward political secularization.

Because, in Islam, only the Prophet held both secular and religious authority, and he is no longer here, so the leaders in an Islamic democracy can only be in charge of civil things (like, for example, traffic laws, business regulations, etc).

The final chapter is dedicated to the Islamic reformation. Aslan compares the internet age to Gutenberg's printing press and Luther's translation of the Bible from Latin into German. (In an echo of this concept, The Economist wrote how Martin Luther went viral.) He discusses the various movements in Islam right now and what some of them could result in.

He glosses over the Crusades, unfortunately, and any chapter could easily be twice as long. He gives an extensive bibliography and very detailed end notes, which someone who wants more detail can turn to.

It's very well-written, not dry or tedious, but still with a turn toward the academic at times. It's a very accessible history of Islam, and I highly recommend it.

18 December 2011

Long time, no update

I keep meaning to not get so far behind in writing here, but I keep getting distracted.

I bought myself a Kobo Touch for Christmas. I like it so far, though it has trouble with rtfs over a certain size, so I had to do some workarounds to be able to use it to beta read a friend's novel. I've also read two more books on it, one of which I'm reviewing for Bull Spec, and the other I'm probably writing up here, though I'll ask Sam if he wants it. I'm also on the list for an ARC of Exogene, the sequel to Germline. Pretty excited about that!

You should read Pilgrim of the Sky by my friend Natania Barron. This is the one I'm reviewing for Bull Spec, so I'll just say here that it's a compelling whirlwind adventure with lovely, poetic descriptions that are still accessible to people who weren't English Lit majors or MFA students. I'm not just saying that because I know her, either. I couldn't put it down, especially once it took the left turn at Albuquerque.

I just finished a book I bought back in October, and I intend to review it here in the next few days.

In personal-life stuff, I've applied for jobs and been rejected every time. I got to the interview for one of them, but no farther. I got advice from the HR person on what I need to either work on or find better examples of, and I can apply for similar positions again in May. Assuming there are any. I'm not holding my breath.

12 November 2011

Nervous anticipation

Lois McMaster Bujold recently posted that she's finished the near-final draft of her next book, which focuses on Ivan. Since Ivan is my favorite character in the Vorkosiverse (though Cordelia rocks, and Elena Bothari is awesome, and Laisa's pretty darn cool, too, and... yeah, it's hard to pick just one), you'd think I'd be jumping for joy at a book finally focusing on him.

I'm awaiting the release with trepidation. As much as I love Bujold's books (especially Memory), the constant backbeat of "happiness = man + woman + babies" is really frustrating to me. It's so darn heterocentric.

Not all relationships are man + woman. Not all man + woman relationships result in babies. (I have none, and no plans to do so!) Not every person who is single is desirous of and pining for a marriage/other long-term relationship.

Yeah, the Vor have the excuse of needing to carry on the family line because they're basically inherited nobility, but there's precedent in the text (and, you know, actual Earth history...) for nephews or cousins, etc, to inherit.

I'm sure I'll read it, and I'll enjoy it, but I'll be saddened by Ivan, who has spent the last 14 books avoiding marriage but having plenty of girlfriends and otherwise enjoying the bachelor lifestyle, succumbing to marriage fever. The explanation that he's "grown up" or "matured" and finally realized he needs to settle down and get married isn't all that great. It assumes that the only way to be a real grown-up is to get married (and, of course, have babies), which bothers me on a visceral level.

People say that you should write the book you want to read. That's why my characters reflect my experience. There are happily married people with children, happily married people without children, happily unmarried (single or partnered) people with or without children, unhappily married people (with or without children), and unhappily single people. That's a fairly reflective cross-section of people I know in real life (though I don't think I know any people who are currently unhappily married; I know some who were, but divorced and are in happier relationships now).

Fiction reflects (or should reflect) reality. Reality is pretty diverse and awesome.

06 November 2011

So you like male writers. So what?

A writing pal of mine recently wrote that he figured he ought to read more books/short fiction by men, because he realized his shelves were mostly full of books by women. Cool, whatever.

My shelves are mostly full of books by women. They're mostly full of books by two authors: Lois McMaster Bujold's entire bibliography (including The Spirit Ring) and a sizable fraction of CJ Cherryh's bibliography. My shelves are a good 4' wide, and her books take up two of them. The only other author whose books come close to the same amount of space? Terry Pratchett. Lynn Flewelling comes in fourth place, with seven books.

That doesn't count the random selection of Literatyoor from high school or college and assorted non-fiction, nor the extensive manga collection (mostly by women, except the large Naoki Urasawa section).

Apparently, it's brave for people to say they like male authors, or that they plan to read more male authors. I disagree with another writing pal that the drive to promote women in fiction has evolved into open season on men, as if a predominately male field of writers in the past means that men writing now must all be assholes.

I didn't talk up male writer TC McCarthy's debut novel Germline, because I hate male writers and think no one should talk about them. Oh wait, I blogged about it and wrote a really positive review of it for a magazine, and I've talked it up to everybody I know who enjoys military SF.

I didn't review books by Mark Van Name, David Drake, Eric Flint, Tom Standage, or Patrick O'Brian in the last three months, either. The feminist anti-male-writer conspiracy has me silenced!

But, apparently,
This is what we’ve done, readers. We’ve allowed ourselves – as a community of writers and readers – to think that talking about women (in a positive way, of course) is right and good, but liking men leads to shady behavior.

As they say on wikipedia, [citation needed].

It is good to expand one's reading horizons. It is good to find books written by people who come from different backgrounds than you, because they often have different perspectives than you do. If you are reading books by only one type of person, you are limiting yourself. If you say that only men can write SF, and women don't belong in the SF clubhouse, you may be sexist.

No one is saying that reading books by male writers makes you a bad person prone to "shady behavior." What people are saying, and this comes up more often than it should, frankly, is that readers should expand their horizons.

Isn't expanding horizons and exploring different perspectives what science fiction's supposed to be about? Why's there such a push-back, then?

03 November 2011

Book review: A History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage, 2005.

I often enjoy reading pop histories, especially if they have a sort of gimmick to them. In this book, Standage looks at how beverages shaped world history.

He starts out with beer, which was invented/discovered by the Mesopotamians around the same time humanity was working out agriculture. The Hymn to Ninkasi was a recipe for beer, and a brewery in California made some based on it. I'd be interested to try it! (The Mesopotamians made a bread of sorts with the malted barley and used that as their beer starter. No hops, at that point.)

Then the Greeks started making wine, which the Mesopotamians called "beer of the mountains," and that became fuel for Greek philosophy. The Romans and early Christians adopted the drink, and wine became important for ritual.

The Age of Sail and colonization brought sugar plantations, which brought molasses, which brought rum. Rum bought slaves in Africa, slaves produced sugar, and the byproduct of sugar refinement--molasses--was turned into rum. The colonists in the inland US, where buying molasses was too expensive, turned to corn and rye to make whiskey (bourbon and rye, respectively).

Coffee was very popular in the Muslim world, where alcohol was forbidden, but with the advent of rationalism in the 17th century, people wanted a drink that increased their mental acuity rather than make them drunk. Coffeehouses became clearinghouses for news (the internet of its time), and people held discussions in them. The London Stock Exchange grew out of a coffeehouse!

The Chinese kingdoms and empires of the tenth century had spread tea throughout Asia, but the British Empire popularized it through the world. Tea became the drink for the masses in England.

The sixth glass is Coca-Cola, which, for better or for worse, parallels the rise of American power. (Standage entitles one chapter "Globalization in a bottle.") Unsurprisingly, Coke became popular in the US during Prohibition. It went to Europe and North Africa with the troops in World War II, and after that, there was no stopping it.

As an epilogue, Standage asks what the next beverage to shape human history will be. Water, he says. He's probably right; much conflict today is about water use and water rights, and that's not going to go away.

I enjoyed the book, and if you like pop histories, you may, too. It's not extremely in depth (at just over 300 pages, including endnotes, index, and references), but there are always the sources he drew from.

24 October 2011

On eating vegetarian in Germany

John Scalzi is back from Germany, and he says he's happy that I was not a vegetarian. In comments, someone agrees.

There's a pervasive myth that German food consists entirely of meat, notably in the form of sausage. I can assure you it doesn't. It's true that a lot of the traditional recipes are based on meat, and there are a lot of sausages, but there are a lot of other options. Yes, even in traditional restaurants.

I've been vegetarian since 1993. I spent my junior year of college (1996-97) living in Germany. I had, frankly, a much easier time eating vegetarian there than I did in my college's dining hall in Pennsylvania, or than I do eating here in North Carolina -- where even the vegetables have meat in them (often in the form of a hambone thrown in, or bits of bacon), at least in traditional Southern restaurants. Germans caught on to the organic food thing much earlier than Americans. I had probably the best soy sausage in my life while I was living in Marburg, picked up at a Bioladen (organic food shop) and grilled for Canada Day (one of my neighbors was Canadian).

When in Germany, if I'm staying in a pension (akin to a B&B), I eat the traditional breakfast: rolls, cheese, butter, jam, Nutella, quark, muesli, soft-boiled eggs. Everything except the cold cuts. If I'm in a hotel, I'll pop over to a bakery or cafe and get a pastry or two: nut-nougat croissant, pretzel roll, cheese roll. Left to my own devices (with a kitchen and grocery store), I eat the same thing I do here: cereal and milk.

For lunch, there's always falafel or vegetarian döner, pizza, sandwiches from the bakery (or your own kitchen), or whatever sounds interesting. For dinner, you can sit down anywhere. I've had really good Indian food in Munich, a nice Mission-style burrito in Berlin, vegetarian Maultaschen (also in Berlin), spinach strudel, baked pasta casserole, South Asian fusion (also in Berlin), amazing brown butter tortellini (in Berlin), delicious cheese spaetzle in Vienna...

I think you get the point by now, and I'm not the only one who's had a relatively easy time eating as a vegetarian in Germany. The folks at Happy Cow have a section for Germany to help you out, and I've found that Lonely Planet guides are good at pointing out places that have veg*n options as well as listing some straight-up veg*n places. (They're my favorite guide books, and they've never steered me wrong.)

17 October 2011

Book review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian. 1970.

Since I enjoy space opera, I've been told many times I need to read this series, since, really, space opera is a riff on the Age of Sail (in space!). After giving David Drake's futuristic take on this source a go, I thought I'd give this a try.

Captain Jack Aubrey, British Navy, meets Stephen Maturin, a doctor and naturalist, and persuades him to join his ship as its surgeon. They sail through the Mediterranean a lot and fight the French (and maybe also the Spanish? I was never very clear on that, and the whole Napoleonic Era is largely skipped in US high school curricula). There's also a subplot about the Irish Catholic rebellion.

I'd been warned about the quantity of ship-talk, but, man, that was more than I expected. There were entire pages I had no idea what was going on, except they were talking about topsails, mainsails, gallants, topgallants, royals, studdingsails, staysails, masts, yards, xebecs, snows, sloops, frigates, and cannons. "Oh, they're doing something with the ship again," was basically my take-away from it. That was fine when all they were doing was setting the rigging, but when it was important to what was going on, like during the naval battles, the result is just confusion. The only time I understood what was going on was when Jack was explaining in normal-people language to Stephen.

It's meticulously researched and written in meticulous 1810-era British navy slang and jargon. If you can handle that sort of thing, have at it. I find that it's too hard to wade through, honestly. Needs more spaceships.

10 October 2011

World Beer Festival, Durham, 2011

These are my notes from this year. I didn't take very detailed notes, because I, in a fit of talent and rushing out the door, forgot both my pen and my carefully-planned list of booths I wanted to hit. I managed to recreate it on my phone, at least. A bit of a pain in the ass, but what can you do?

Unibroue, Quebec, Canada: Don de Dieu (tripel) I tried this toward the end of the night, and I remember it being good. Fruity and sweet, like most tripels.

Legend Brewing, Richmond, VA: Tripel: nice, drinkable. Quad: fucking amazing. I passed this one around, and everyone liked it (even Ben, who isn't into quads), then I had to get more, because I didn't have any left.

Kind Beers, Charlotte, NC: Belgian Style red ale: Mo got this, and I had a sip. It was awful. Very bitter and unpleasant.

North Coast Brewing Co, Fort Bragg, CA: La Merle (Belgian specialty ale): It was fruity and pleasant, and it had a thick mouthfeel. I had a sip of Enne's Brother Thelonious (Belgian dark strong ale), and it was as good as I remembered it.

Kuhnhenn Brewing Co, Warren, MI: I wanted to try their White Devil (imperial white), but they didn't have it. The imperial creme brulee java stout was really good, though it had a strong coffee bitterness (unlike the Southern Tier creme brulee stout). So I tried the Simcoe Silly (Belgian/American hybrid) and strongly disliked it.

Timmermans Brouwerij, Dilbeer-Itterbeek, Belgium: Bourgougne des Flanders (Flanders brown ale). When I got the sample, the pourer said, "It's sour, just warning you." I told him I drink straight Berliner Weisse, which is really damn sour, so bring it on. This was easily my favorite beer of the night, with Legend's quad in a very close second. It wasn't very sour; I'd argue that it's not sour at all, but someone who doesn't enjoy sour beers might disagree. [Interestingly, Belgian whites/wit beers are also technically sour beers, though I don't find them sour at all. I can kind of taste it if I think about it while drinking one. Lambics are another popular sour style.] It had a fruity note to it, and a heavy, thick mouthfeel. Very, very nice.

Mystery Brewing, Hillsborough, NC. I sponsored their Kickstarter project last year or the year before, so I had to go try their beer. I tried the Langhorne (rye wit), and it was odd. It tasted like a wit, but it had an unfamiliar note to it, which was the rye. I'd try it again to see if I liked it. Sadly, the beer we all wanted to try, the Six Impossible Things chocolate breakfast stout, had fallen victim to a catastrophic beersplosion. Ben got the Queen Anne's Revenge (black IPA), and I think he said he hated it less than other black IPAs he'd tried. (Neither of us is a fan of IPAs in general; they're victim to the American craft brewers' belief that MOAR HOPS is better. Yuck.)

Bull City Burger and Brewery, Durham, NC. Pro Bono Publico (porter): All I have written down is "bitter."

Aviator Brewing Company, Fuquay Varina, NC. Devil's Tramping Ground (tripel). I don't know if the batch was off or if it had gotten skunked (or if they gave me the wrong one), but this was very unpleasant. It wasn't like a tripel at all.

Roth Brewing, Raleigh, NC. Forgotten Hollow cinnamon porter: I still love this beer. I first tried it when I went to the Flying Saucer one time when my dad was in town and they had it on draft. It's kind of like drinking autumn. Their Dark Construct stout was nice, though it's not going to be my new favorite stout. Ben really enjoyed it.

Palm Brouwerij, Steenhuffel, Belgium. Palm (Belgian amber ale). Dear readers, I poured this one out.

Boulevard Brewing Co, Kansas City, MO. The Sixth Glass (quadrupel): Not as nice as the Legend quad, but it still had a good flavor and modest sweetness to it.

Holy Mackerel Beers, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Panic Attack (Belgian Strong): very sweet, thick mouthfeel. Special Golden Ale: good, but not as sweet.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, CA. Winter Solstice (seasonal ale): tasted like Christmas spiced cider. It was really good. This would probably be my third favorite new beer.

Number of beers sampled: 18 (plus refills on two of them, one of them twice...)
Top three samples: Timmerman's Bourgogne des Flanders; Legend's quad; Anderson Valley's Winter Solstice.

20 September 2011

Movie review: Space Battleship Yamato (2010 live action)

I imprinted on Leiji Matsumoto's works at a very early age. I was about 5 (we only had HBO for a year), and I was watching the cartoons they showed one day. There was a kid, a space train, and this woman with long blonde hair, which was all I could remember about it until I found a VHS (remember those?) of Galaxy Express 999 at Suncoast (remember them?) when I was in college. Those were the days when you had to pay extra for the "collector's edition," which was Japanese audio with subtitles, because those letters were really expensive.

Back in the 80s, Matsumoto's other main work, Space Battleship Yamato, was dubbed into English and shown on American TV as Star Blazers, renaming ace pilot Kodai Susumu to Derek Wildstar. (I almost put Rick Hunter there, but that's what Ichijou Hikaru ended up as in Robotech, the US adaptation of Macross.) This fan site has plot summaries.

Last December, the live action movie was released in theaters, starring quite a few famous Japanese actors like Kimura Takuya (from the J-drama and movie Hero, about a lawyer, among other things). They made a few changes, notably making Dr Sado, of the bottle of sake and large orange cat, a woman, making it a little less of a sausage-fest. Still, there are only three named women on the Yamato: Sado, Mori Yuki, and the one whose name I forget but who's one of the Black Tigers.

It's the year 2199, and about five years ago, meteor bombs started hitting the Earth, making the surface too irradiated to live on and sending people underground to try to eke out a living. Humanity is fighting off Gamilas attacks, and everything they do, the Gamilas adapt to counter them. Captain Okita is leading an assault/defense force at Mars, and the Gamilan fleet is too strong for their weaponry. Kodai Mamoru, captain of the Yukikaze, uses his ship as a shield to allow Okita to escape and take the news to Earth.

Kodai Susumu is a scavenger. He goes out looking for metal to take to the military. While he's out scavenging, a strange object falls from the sky and knocks off his protective gear. He picks it up and mysteriously survives the deadly radiation levels. At the same time, Okita's ship returns. He takes the object to the military, and they examine it and find coordinates for planet Iscandar, where the Gamilas come from, and blueprints for a warp engine and a powerful weapon, the wave motion gun.

The leader of the military decides to send the Yamato out to Iscandar to find a decontamination device, which would allow people to move back to the surface, and Kodai joins up again. He'd been an ace pilot at the time of the initial Gamilan attacks, but he left after a personal tragedy. He is angry at Okita, because he believes Okita sacrificed his brother in order to escape. He meets up with his old buddies, the Black Tigers.

The name for the ship wasn't chosen at random. The Yamato was a WW2 battleship that was sent on a mission to defend Okinawa until it was destroyed, to give the Japanese people a last hope (as Kodai explains in a speech at the end). Pasting from wikipedia, Yamato's symbolic might was such that some Japanese citizens held the belief that their country could never fall as long as the ship was able to fight. The word Yamato also carries significance in Japan as a poetic name for the country and remains as a metaphor for the end of the empire.

While they're in transit, they're repeatedly attacked by Gamilan forces, and when they eventually make it to Iscandar, they find something unexpected. I won't spoil the ending, but I saw it coming, because I've seen the old anime movies.

At times, it's goofy. I couldn't help but laugh at the Star Trek-like "the bridge is shaking, everybody lean to the right and look like you're hanging on" effects, but the CG was really nice. I couldn't figure out why they made a land assault at Iscandar rather than stay in their nice ships, other than to allow for heroism and sacrifice. The zero-g-love scene made me giggle (mainly because it put this song in my head). But it's based on one of the classics of science fiction anime, and even as it changes and updates a few things (like the Gamilans being energy beings (they're still blue, though) and the Cosmo Zero having something like a Valkyrie's Gerwalk mode, probably just because it looks cool), it's still the story Matsumoto wrote at its core.

It's worth seeing, if you know how to get hold of it. There's no word yet of an English release.

08 September 2011

Back from Dragon*Con

I've actually been back since Monday evening, but Tuesday my lack of sleep caught up with me in the form of a low-grade migraine (sinus pressure, headache, no appetite, mild sensitivity to light), and yesterday I had to get back into my normal routine.

I had a lot of fun, as usual, though there weren't as many panels or people I wanted to see this year. Yeah, they had Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), but he wasn't my favorite, and I don't think he could top Matthew Lewis' panel from a few years ago. I really enjoyed Eric Flint's panel in the alternate history track about Marxism. It was a guided discussion (by a moderator, who asked questions like "How does your Marxism influence your writing?" and "How do you portray class in your works?") between him and SM Stirling (who is very much not a Marxist), which was incredibly interesting. It gave me a few things to think about for my writing.

This year I watched the parade, which I hadn't done in any of the previous five years I've gone. It's a great way to see a lot of cool costumes without much effort. Also, the whole lot of Stormtroopers bringing up the rear (yay, 501st) is a really impressive sight.

I also got my copy of Shades of Milk and Honey signed.

There weren't a whole lot of shiny things for me in the dealers halls, though I bought a t-shirt from an artist's table (it was tan! with a cute kitsune on it!) and two model kits from Gundam 00. And a statue of Ozma Lee's Valkyrie from Macross Frontier. Not much else really jumped out at me.

I really enjoy going to Dragon*Con; it's a 4-day nerd party, where you don't get judged for wanting to dress up like Superman or Batman or Zatanna or Captain Harlock or a space Marine or an alien or a zombie, vampire, werewolf, or Macho Man Randy Savage or ... you get the point. It's getting ridiculous to get hotel rooms; rumor has it the Hilton is already sold out for next year (though I'm skeptical of that). The Marriott and Hyatt sell out within hours of the block opening.

I want to attend a World Con sometime soon, but, annoyingly, the next two are Labor Day weekend. Not that I could afford to go to both even if they were different weekends, mind. 2012 is going to be in Chicago, 2013 in San Antonio. 2014 hasn't been voted on yet, but London's bid is unopposed. I can't afford to go to London, and being in London is extremely expensive (especially since it's usually 2 pounds to the dollar, and a sit-down meal will cost you 20 pounds or so). I'm not super excited about San Antonio; it's Labor Day weekend. Atlanta is hot enough, and I don't want to go someplace hotter. Which means Chicago next year is the likeliest option in the near future. I've never really visited Chicago, and depending on how things work out with the hotel and travel days, we could have a short vacation there.

Which leads to an additional problem. My oldest cat, Isis, is an evil tortie, and she has diabetes. The cat sitter we hired for last weekend had so much trouble with Her Evilness that she had to bring a second person to help hold her to get her shot, for which we owe her additional monies. It stressed Isis out badly enough that she must have had a sugar spike, because she was sick when we got home and is on two different antibiotics right now. She doesn't hate our usual cat sitter, but she's got a second job now, which gives her crazy hours, so she's not always available. Maybe by next year, she'll have enough seniority not to get the shit hours.

We need to decide fairly quickly, though. Memberships are $175 each right now, and the price goes up October 1. Blech. (I understand why they're so expensive: each World Con committee has only one chance to recoup their costs for guest transport, hotel rental, etc. I can still think it's too damned expensive.)

04 September 2011

Book review: When the Tide Rises

When the Tide Rises, David Drake. 2008, Baen Books.

This is the sixth novel in Drake's RCN series. I haven't read any of the previous books, but that didn't make much difference, as far as I can tell. Perhaps I missed some of the in-jokes or references, but that's not a big deal. It stands well on its own.

In the introduction, Drake cites the memoirs of Lord Cochrane as his source/inspiration for these books. This is the same memoir that Patrick O'Brian used for his Aubrey/Maturin books, so they bear a lot of similarity.

Commander Daniel Leary is in the employ of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy, and he's assigned to a planet that's declared independence from the Alliance, Cinnabar's enemy. He makes a stop at Diamondia, a planet under siege by Alliance forces, to check in with the man in charge there and see what the most recent intel is.

Adele Mundy, Leary's signals officer and librarian-hacker-spy, meets a young man who's the grandson of her mentor. His parents have just been killed by the head of the Alliance, and he wants her help. She brings him along on the trip, even though her sociopathic servant and bodyguard Tovera thinks it's a bad idea.

Once they arrive at Bagaria, Leary is enjoined to the Bagarian fleet, and he commands them in a few raids in Alliance space. There are crosses and double-crosses, and politicking, and hardcore librarian spying.

There are a lot of details about the ships and sailing, and I will admit I skimmed them. I found it odd that starships had literal sailing masts and rigging, but it fit the book itself. I'm not sure what the sails were made of (probably described in more detail in earlier books in the series), though I remember mention of it being very thin. (Nanomaterial?) I will say that it's disheartening to read about a ship with the name of your football club (which itself is named for a ship) being sunk a few hours before they're set to take the pitch. (Sports fans are a superstitious lot. We won, btb, for the first time this season.)

There's a lot of adventure, and I really liked the hardcore traumapast librarian. If you read the Aubrey/Maturin books (Master and Commander, etc) and thought, "You know what these books need? Spaceships," the RCN series is for you. If you like Bujold's Vorkosigan books and don't mind fine attention to sailing detail, you might enjoy them, too.

The first three books are available at the Baen Free Library, beginning with With the Lightnings.

02 September 2011

Book review: 1632

1632, by Eric Flint. 2000, Baen. Available in print and at the Baen Free Library

The premise behind 1632 and its sequels is that a mining town in West Virginia from the year 2000 is magically swapped with an equal-sized piece of land in Thuringia in 1632. The Americans are dropped in the middle of the Thirty Years' War, during which the Catholic Holy Roman Empire was doing its level best to wipe out the Protestants.

Mike Stearns, a union organizer and UMWA member, organizes a militia to defend their town and the neighboring towns. Their personal gun collections are vastly superior to the arquebuses of the 17th century, so they have quick, decisive victories, until they get embroiled in the greater conflict surrounding them.

Flint goes into a good bit of detail about how the town residents can scale their existing level of technology--electricity, internal combustion engines, etc--down to something more sustainable with the resources available to them in the mid-17th century. He also goes into a good bit of detail about the military history and manouevres.

There's a very strong "Wooo! USA!" jingoism to the book, but it's a leftish sort of jingoism, focused on equality, freedom of religion, and worker's rights. From someone of Flint's background (former labor organizer and member of the Socialist Workers' Party), that's not too surprising.

There were several not-so-subtle digs at Americans, including remarks from 1632-era characters like "Americans don't know how to cook without a ton of meat," and "Why do they think walking everywhere is such a horrible thing?" which I found rather apt. He also takes a few digs at institutionalized sexism.

The best marksman in town is a high school senior named Julie. Before they got bamfed back to the 17th century, she was training for the Olympic biathlon qualification. She takes her shiny rifle and joins a party to act as a sniper. Mike tells her it's OK if she can't bring herself to shoot people, and that even in the military, they let you drop out of sniping without prejudice. She ignores him and sets up her targets.
Finally, an expression came to her young, almost angelic face. But Mike couldn't quite interpret it. Sarcasm? No, it was more like whimsy; or maybe, wry amusement.

"Did Uncle Frank ever tell you the story," she asked, "about the first time I went deer hunting? How I cried like a baby after I shot my first buck?"

Mike nodded. Julie's expression grew very wry.

"You know why? The deer was so pretty. And it had never done me any harm." Julie cocked her head toward her observer, a girl no older than she. Another recent high-school graduate. Slender, where Julie was not, but otherwise—peas from a pod.

"Hey, Karen! Those guys look pretty to you?"

Karen shifted her gum into a corner of her mouth. "Nope. Ugly bastards. Mean looking, too. Look more like wild dogs than cute little deer."

Julie bared her teeth. The smile was far more savage than anything belonging on the face of an eighteen-year-old, male or female. "That's what I thought. Hey, Karen! Watcha think they'll do—to you and me, I mean—if they get their hands on us?"

Karen was back to chewing her gum. Her words came out in a semimumble. "Don't want to think about it, girl. But I'll tell you one thing. Won't be trying to sweet-talk us into the backseat of a car. Not likely."

The smile left Julie's face; but, if anything, the sense of whimsy was even stronger in her eyes. She gave Mike a level gaze.
"That's the whole problem with allowing men into combat," she said solemnly. "You guys are just too emotional about the whole thing."

Overall, I enjoyed the book, even though I had some quibbles with the German. ("Thank God" is three words in German, not two, and it's not "Danke Gott," but "Gott sei Dank." Threw me out of the story both times it came up. This is not likely to be a problem for most readers, however.) There were some stylistic quirks that bothered me, but not enough to make me stop reading. If you like alternate history and military fiction, with some focus on the characters, you might like this. (And it's available free online, so giving the first few chapters a go won't cost you anything beyond your usual internet fee.)

31 August 2011

Off to Dragon*Con!

In the morning, anyway. I've got my stuff together, clothes and food and a book to get signed, and we're driving off in the morning.

I'll be reading with Broad Universe at 10 pm Friday in Greenbriar (Hyatt). Come say hi!

15 August 2011

Book review: Jump Gate Twist

Jump Gate Twist, Mark L. Van Name. Baen Books, 2010.

This omnibus collects the first two Jon & Lobo books, One Jump Ahead and Slanted Jack, and two short stories, "My Sister, My Self," and "Lobo, Actually." The author has written intros and afterwords for each section of the book, which reveal some insight into the writing of each tale.

One Jump Ahead starts with Jon attempting to take a vacation, but, thanks to a careless indiscretion, he's hired to rescue a man's daughter from her kidnappers. One of the local heads of a vast, interplanetary conglomerate is trying to get sole usage rights to the planet Jon's vacationing on, and the other major vast, interplanetary conglomerate is angling for the same thing, so the daughter is kidnapped. Except Jon ends up entangled in a plot that is a lot more complicated than that, and he seeks the aid of his former employer, the Saw, a mercenary outfit.

In "My Sister, My Self," Jon loses the person who means the most to him: his sister, Jennie. But not before she "fixes" him. The events in this story are referenced throughout the rest of Jon's stories, and this gives us some insight into his life on Pinkelponker before he's taken to Dump Island (see Children No More).

Slanted Jack is a con artist who used to be Jon's partner in crime, and he waltzes into Jon's life with a request to help this boy who's a descendent of people from Pinkelponker. Of course it doesn't turn out to be so easy, and Jon ends up tangling with arms smugglers, the colonial governing bodies, and the followers of a religion based on Pinkelponker, as well as Jack.

"Lobo, Actually," is a Christmas story told by the AI of a Predator-Class Armored Vehicle: Jon's ship, Lobo, but before he's Jon's ship. A young boy's father is dying of an illness that's going around their planet, because the hospitals don't have the cure. Lobo feels something like pity for him, though it's partly also boredom from being stuck in the town square as their pet scarecrow.

All together, the stories that comprise Jump Gate Twist are enjoyable. They're full of action and adventure, with politics creeping up the side. Jon himself isn't political, but the structural politics of the universe he inhabits are visible as he maneuvers through them. If you like adventure stories (in space!), pick up this book.

08 August 2011

My Online Life

There has been much discussion about pseudonymity and real-name policies in the wake of Google+ (I'm on it! Come say hello!), and what expectations different groups have for online interactions.

I didn't meet the internet until I started college. I didn't get email until I started college. I'd guess about half my peer group (Gen X) was about the same, though among my friends (geeks with a high fraction of CS/math/physics types), I was late to the party. They had 512 baud dialup to BBSes and whatever. I couldn't figure out how to play Oregon Trail on the high school computers. I'm sort of the generation that had a lot of formative experiences in meat-space before the internet really took off. (I know people who are a decade younger than me who say they're "from the internet.")

Yet I have many friends online, some of whom I've never met in person, but I see pictures of their kids or pets on facebook or twitter. I received a box full of Turkish media (books and DVDs) in English from an almost-complete stranger who offered to send me some things to help me understand Turkish culture better. (I was expecting, like a book or 2. I got 5 plus 3 DVDs.) I commented that I love German Christmas foods, and an acquaintance sent me a care package full of marzipan and Lebkuchen and hazelnut chocolate. I hope someday to return the favor, or pay it forward to someone else.

I have friends who I met online and have become close friends, with whom I share trials and joys, to whom I offer support and congratulations. Some of them I've since met in person, but many, possibly even most, I haven't.

I met my husband via the internet, through some people I met in person who had an IRC channel they hung out on and a mailing list.

Thanks to twitter and the German football league, I have casual friends who live in Norway, Pakistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh, as well as Germany and various places in the US and Canada. I talk with fans of my club team on twitter, and the next time I make it to Berlin, I'll see about meeting some of them in person. (To catch a match at the stadium or in a bar, whatever.)

I've been online for seventeen years now, close to half my life. I became more involved in the internet about thirteen years ago, when I met the people with the IRC channel. I've had a dozen online identities since then, on mailing lists, general forums, topic-oriented forums, blogs, communities. I currently have seven different handles online, some more public than others. I don't make it a secret that @exaggerated and @strafraum are both me, but @exaggerated is where I put pictures of my cats and links to my blog, and @strafraum is where I talk about (FIFA) football.

Where was I going with this? Right. I think online is where a lot of people have formative experiences, develop deep friendships, and generally interact with other like-minded individuals. It's so much easier now than it was twenty years ago to find other people who like reading/writing the same kind of stories you do. I've wondered so many times how my high school life would have been different if I'd had access to the internet, or even known that there were other people out there who liked SF/F. (A much less trivial aspect is that LGBTQ teens in small towns can find support online through various communities and know that they're not alone.)

Oftentimes, these experiences take place under a pseudonym, a handle. The handle, once used long enough, becomes as real as the name on the driver's license or birth certificate. It's a name we choose, not the name we are given, and that's as real to us as the name our parents chose for us at birth -- and sometimes more real. People legally change their names for a variety of reasons, and whether it's because they hate their birth name or because they're transgender and their birth name is wrong, those are equally valid reasons.

The first link in this post discusses who is harmed by real-name policies. The answer is anyone who is outside the societally-accepted norm.

24 July 2011

ReaderCon 22 writeup: No Childhood Left Behind

I haven't seen any other writeups on this panel yet, and, of course, this is one I didn't take ~excellent~ notes on. (I was always a poor note-taker in school, preferring to rely on vague suggestions to jog my memory.) I have just over 2 pages, mostly attributed. The discussion wandered some, and I had a hard time keeping up with it at times.

Panelists: Leah Bobet, Chris Moriarty, Sonya Taaffe, ? Wilber, JoSelle Vanderhooft

Taaffe introduced the panel and the topic, and there was a brief discussion about what each panelist thought the panel was about. Someone mentioned in their introduction that one aspect of the panel description involved the old standards, and I have two unattributed paraphrased comments.
- Problematic old standards are the books people keep reading
- socialization and the ossification of SF culture

Question: Is there a YA canon/classics?
Bobet: It's what people decided to read when they were kids; it doesn't reflect reality more than other canons do (eg high school/college Literary Canon)
Wilber: All post-WW2 SF was written for youth, specifically boys. It was full of American optimism, which changed in the 60s as the boys grew up and found women, and we learned that America isn't always right. It's gone in a new direction.
Taaffe: Are there books you'd consider canon (ie, that you and a lot of people read as a kid) but don't want to admit? Is Piers Anthony canon? (many groans and laughs from the audience and panel)
Moriarty: There's not really a canon, just a nebulous list of things that a critical mass of people admit they have read. There's a big wall between YA and SF (in bookstores & many libraries), leading to ossification. Are we losing the next generation because they aren't being shown the SF that exists?
audience: when I was young, we only had Asimov & Heinlein.
Wilber: pays attention to what his teenaged daughter reads. lately it's been Scott Westerfeld.
Bobet: Segregation is an SF cultural thing. SF readers are smarter, special (different), and we don't need YA SF because kids go straight to adult books. We did this to ourselves.
Moriarty agrees.
Wilber: read adult SF of the day, which could be classed as YA today because there was no strong language or sex
Bobet: The emotional age of the books matters. The Belgariad (not marketed as YA) is perfect for a childhood understanding of the world
Vanderhooft: Is this segregation a result of the (recent) American fear of science?
Taaffe: There was a brief period in the 40s where scientists were heroes. Eleanor Campbell's "Boy in the Mushroom Cloud" (?) had a mad scientist who wasn't evil or comic relief
Wilber: US and UK SF diverged in the 50s, and they haven't converged again.
audience: Is the older Asimov-Heinlein canon relevant to today's youth? How do we recommend books to kids?
Bobet: we have our heads up our asses on this.
[crosstalk]
audience: there's a difference between YA books kids like and ones adults like.
audience (librarian): once we stopped taking award winners (and started choosing based on recommendation?) circulation went up
audience: young people today have a lot of shared experiences, books they all talk about
Moriarty: adult canon - a bunch of old books approved by academics, but youth canon changes in waves with generations
audience: isn't canon what you need to have read to understand the rest of literature? (gave example about the bible and much western lit) Especially in a grenre like SF that often responds to its predecessors?
Moriarty: not as much a problem in fantasy as it is in hard SF, which is very referential
Wilber: it becomes exclusive
[rambling audience comment led into digression about definition of YA and the Library of Congress]
audience: interested in moving canon, read OZ but not many people recently have read them. They were the Harry Potter or Twilight of their day; there are problematic representations as well as things like dropped subplots
Taaffe: E Nesbitt is great, until you hit the anti-Semitism
Bobet: reread a book about an orphanage and realized it was about eugenics (missed title)
audience: moving canon as a gateway drug
audience: kids & YA totally separate, SF was restricted in the 60s, we've come full circle and it's exclusive again
audience: how much of this debate is because SFF sealed itself off from YA?
Bobet: all of it. It's an in-group/out-group marker, and it has become a mainstream thing (Harry Potter, manga, etc) w/kids, and it resulted in a different worldview. They don't worry about jocks stuffing them in a locker.


I thought this topic was interesting, because I wasn't raised by a fan. I wasn't exposed to much of what my peer group (SFF fans between about 27 and 40) read as kids/teens until I was out of college, sometimes WELL out of college. I read Narnia, the Hobbit, and LOTR by the time I was 10 (I read LOTR in 5th grade), and I read the Belgariad and its sequel series in middle school, and the first three Shannara books when my grandma bought them for me at the used book shop. I found Madeleine L'engel in the school library, then moved on to LeGuin (they were next to each other) and Earthsea, but after that, nothing. I didn't read Ender's Game until I was 23 or 24 (and wasn't impressed, really), and The Dark is Rising I read while I was on my residency -- at 30. I'd never heard of Diana Wynne Jones (RIP) until the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle came out.

In a way I feel cheated, I suppose, because I don't have that shared experience, and anybody who's spent ten minutes in SF fandom knows that shared experience is THE fannish shibboleth. But spending time on could have beens is futile. I guess it's a good thing that there isn't a true canon for YA, or I'd have a lot of catching up to do, and I can't even manage the current books I want to read.

Bull Spec issue 6 is available

It's got my review of Germline in it. You can get the pdf here (for free or a price you choose; suggested donation of $2).

I really liked the book, and I hope more people buy it and read it. If you like gritty military SF with a realistic set of politics in the background, you need to read Germline. It's seriously amazing. It's not pretty at times, but it feels true and honest, and the religion the genetically-engineered supersoldiers are fed -- based on a cross between Christianity and the modern combat manual -- is perfectly creepy.

If you want to know more of my thoughts on the matter, get the full issue. You can get it for free, if you like. (Though Sam's a nice guy and is funding the entire thing out of his own money, so throw a little scratch his way.)

22 July 2011

Back from ReaderCon

I took the train up to Boston and back, and I don't recommend this course of action. It was nice to see my sister (and her new tiny basement apartment in Capitol Hill), but 16 hours each way on a train means having to pack an entire second bag full of things to do in transit, which gets really heavy after a while. If only we had a real public transit infrastructure in this country...

I went to some very interesting panels, saw Don and Carrie and Eric and Julia and Ana and Kate and Camille and Bart & Kay and Shira and Joselle and lots of other people I know I'm forgetting.

I took notes on many of the panels I attended, and I hope to write them up in the near future. Panels marked with a * have notes. Some are more detailed (who said what quasi transcript) than others (summaries of concepts discussed).

Friday:
11: What writing workshops do and don't offer*
12: Classic fiction: Howl's Moving Castle
2: No Childhood Left Behind*
3: SF in Developing Countries*
5: De Gustibus Est Disputandum
9: Broad Universe group reading (I read!)

Saturday:
10: Book Inflation
1: Urban (fantasy) renewal
2: Location as Character*
3: Cities Real and imaginary*
8: I've fallen (behind) and I can't get (caught) up

Sunday:
10: Great War geeks unite pt 2*
12: Narrative treatment of permanent physical harm*
1: Social Darwinism in SFnal thought*

Seriously, ReaderCon is probably the most cerebral SFF convention I know of (with WisCon a close second, though I've not yet attended that). I can't wait to go again next year and feel woefully undereducated ;)

26 June 2011

Draft finished!

I finished the first draft of The Novel and sent it off to some friends who volunteered to read it and give me feedback. Which means for the next six weeks, or until I get all their replies, I don't have to write!

I'm going to
- start making a dent in my to-read pile (which is about three feet tall, seriously)
- organize the disaster that's my sewing room
- sew a dress I've been meaning to for a couple years
- make the chiton I'm supposed to for the Greek gods costuming group at DragonCon
- come up with panel suggestions for my guests in the literature track at ConTemporal
- figure out what I'd intended to do with a bag full of fabric I bought 3 years ago
- finish crocheting the fingerless gloves I'd wanted to have done for LAST winter
- play Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3
- rewatch Gundam Wing
- go to ReaderCon

I should probably also work on the synopsis, and I may think about outlining Novel Two. I'm going to be spending about 30 hours in trains in a couple weeks, and that'll give me a LOT of time to get through several of the things here.

20 June 2011

Writing, anime, travel.

It's been close to a month since I last posted. Time flies...

I finished my review of Germline and sent it off to BullSpec. I'll let you know when that issue's available. I really liked it, though it was a tough read at times. Like military science fiction? Pick it up.

What I've been focusing on the last few months is finishing this draft of my novel. I'm just a few scenes from the end, and I found something I have to add in to an earlier scene to make something make sense, but other than that, I'm close to the end. I have a few friends who've volunteered to read it for me and let me know where it falls down, and while they have it, I'm going to do other things. Like clean up the terror that's my sewing room, maybe actually SEW SOMETHING, and play Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 (which comes out 6/28).

I'm rewatching Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory and the 08th Mobile Suit Team (which Ben's never seen, somehow). I might move on to Gundam Wing afterward and see if it makes more sense now and if I like some of the characters better. I wish Bandai had better prices on their US DVD sets, because I don't want to spend tons of money for a 52-episode series on 10-12 DVDs at $20-30 each. They also take up a ton of space. More thin-packs, please!

I'm going up to ReaderCon in Boston again. This time, I'm not driving (that was a bad idea) but taking the train. I'm stopping in DC both ways and staying with my sister overnight. I wish it didn't take 6 hours plus delays to get to DC by train, then another 8 plus delays to get to Boston, because we don't have good public transit in this country.

The Economist (British newsmagazine, leans economically conservative with a dash of laissez-faire) ran an article about how terrible it is, and they said that Raleigh-Durham to DC is as far as Paris to London, which is a 2.5-hour trip on Eurostar. It takes over twice as long--plus inevitable delays-- to go the same distance, because we don't have high-speed rail, or even dedicated passenger rail for that matter, and bills to make HSR are being fought tooth and nail because, apparently, communism. (So says George Will, anyway.)

A woman wants to avoid the War on Liquids and the untested radiation/naked scanner or grope on airplanes, and her travel time is multiplied by six to eight (it's about 2 hours direct to Boston Logan from here) plus an overnight stop. Go us! USA number one! It's 700 miles as the car goes from Durham to Boston, which is about as far as Berlin to Vienna. I've done Berlin to Vienna by slow overnight train. It stopped in the Czech Republic for over an hour, and it still took less than 12 hours to get there (left around 7:30 pm, arrived at 6:30 am.)

Er, that got a little on a tangent. Oops. Now I have to make dinner. More later.

23 May 2011

Con, movie, book

I went to Gaylaxicon @ Outlantacon two weekends ago. A friend drove here from Boston, then we drove down to Atlanta together. The con is small, but it was fun, and I ate way too much in the consuite. Every other time I went up to get some food, there was cake or cookies or chocolate, and, well. I love those things. Saved me from spending much money, though. (The hotel's restaurant was good and delightfully inexpensive. A room service omelet was only $6.)

This weekend I went to a tai chi push hands workshop at one of my teachers' home. It's in a very rural area, and he's got this pavilion (looks like a carport for the roof with nice wood flooring and roll-down sides) set up. He's a former Marine, and one of his children is in the service, so his entire house is full of USMC and other military paraphernalia as well as Chinese and tai chi-related things. It's kind of surreal. Anyway, the workshop was cool, and there may be future Saturday seminars, but they tend to be in the morning, and Saturday mornings are bad for me, because that's when we go grocery shopping. (And from August-May, there's Bundesliga football...) So I may start going to the Monday night push hands class, since my Tuesday class is going on hiatus for summer.

I'm literary chair for a new convention here in Chapel Hill, and I have a guest of honor, which is exciting. Once she signs the contract (I'm not in charge of that end of things, just of figuring out whom to invite, panels, and the like) and it's on our website, I'll be sharing the heck out of it. I persuaded Ben to be on staff, too, and he's the comics/media chair. I'll promote more later :)

We went to see Thor Friday night. I enjoyed it! Lots of people have said they didn't like it, or were underwhelmed, or whatever, but I had a great time watching this piece of blond beefcake with a cheeky grin being hilarious alongside Natalie Portman and her cute assistant. Kenneth Branagh directed it, and he's known for his Shakespeare movies. If you view Thor as Shakespeare in modern English, the movie makes a lot more sense.

I've agreed to review a book for Bull Spec. It's Germline by TC McCarthy. It's dense and gritty, told by a protagonist who's not a very nice guy but you kind of like him anyway. If the cover shown there and the blurb on that blog post make it look like the kind of book you'd like, you probably will. I really like that cover. I'm looking forward to the second book, and I'm only halfway through the first!

I won't be able to post that review here, but I'll let you know when that issue of Bull Spec is available. Also, props to the author, because in the extras section at the back of the ARC, they ask who his favorite authors are, and he breaks it down by country, including Russia and Kazakhstan. I couldn't even name a Kazakh author if you asked, and my Russian knowledge is limited to the big 19th century guys, Nabokov, and Sergey Lukanyenko (Night Watch).

08 May 2011

Movie review: Hanna

After yesterday's review of something I didn't like, I'll talk about something I did like.

I'd heard a little bit about this movie about a girl (Saoirse Ronan) who was raised in remote Finland to be a super killer, because as soon as Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) finds out, she'll stop at nothing until Hanna's dead. It got some good reviews, but the thing that made me perk up was that the last act was set in Berlin, including a frantic chase through the Spreepark. (There's a set of photos here accompanying an article about punks in the GDR. It's an interesting article, but only in German.)

So. It could have been a gratuitously violent flick like Kick-ass (the one about the little potty-mouthed killer superhero(?) girl, which I never saw) or anything in Quentin Tarantino's repertoire. There was definitely violence, I won't lie. The fight scenes are interestingly choreographed and set to music by the Chemical Brothers. There's also some spinning, dizzying cinematography, and the first time it was OK, but the second time it kind of dragged on.

Hanna has lived in the forest with her father (Eric Bana) her whole life. She's never met another person than Erik Heller, or heard music, or used a computer, or seen a car. She encounters people for the first time, and she doesn't quite know how to react to them. The scenes where Hanna's trying to figure out how people work are a delight, because they're realistic.

It's a good movie, not for the squeamish, and worth catching before it leaves theaters.

07 May 2011

Overdue book review: Darkship Thieves

Darkship Thieves by Sarah A Hoyt. 2010, Baen Books

Back in March, I went to StellarCon and got some books for free at the Baen Roadshow. This was one of them.

The story opens with Athena Hera Sinistra, the daughter of a Patrician on a future Earth which has seen rule by not-so-benevolent genetically-engineered overlords, who were overthrown in a war and replaced by Patricians on quasi-seasteads. (Patri Friedman would be proud.) She's awakened from sleep by a thug who is intent on abducting her, and she escapes from him using "feminine wiles" (aka ripping her nightgown open down the front. I actually literally rolled my eyes there.)

She aims for the collectors, since she has friends among them. So, this future Earth has Magic Energy from these energy pods that grow around the planet, and people harvest them. Anyway, she has some friends there, and she aims the escape pod toward the vines. She runs into a darkship, piloted by a descendant of the escaped bio-lords. He is, of course, a fine specimen of the male figure.

This story is one part romance, one part mystery, one part political intrigue, and three parts paean to anarcho-individualism. When Athena and Kit return to Kit's home, she's shocked by the lack of traffic laws. Because OF COURSE everyone drives defensively, and they'll swerve out of the way of oncoming aircars at 50 mph. And never hit another aircar. I came very close to throwing the book across the room on more than one occasion because of the idiotically naive worldview set on Hoyt's pedestal.

Another thing that made me want to fling the book was a bit of full-blown Islamophobia. "By the mid-twenty-first century it was obvious that Europe was dying. There were other problems too. The last gasps of a religion that refused to integrate into modernity had caused a war..." (p 257).

Ironically enough, it's OK to be gay in Hoyt's future libertarian-idyllic world. Athena has a gay best friend (two, actually), and various people from Kit's colony are in same sex couples. It's not OK to be Muslim or to believe that there are no inherent intellectual gender differences, apparently. "In the twenty-first [century] people believed the zaniest things. That there are no gender differences in the human brain." (p 87) [Reality-based spoiler: there aren't. There are more differences between individual males or females than between the average male and female on the bell curve.]

The romance aspect wasn't believable for me. I know romance novels shove the heroine and hero together and suddenly magic happens, but I didn't really see Athena developing any feelings for Kit. I saw him making awkward romantic gestures to her (going on a picnic, for example), but her inner narration didn't give the impression that she liked him until all of a sudden.

The one positive I can pull from it is that Athena has no desire to have children, and this goes against romance tropes.

The book is written in first person, Athena's POV. I thought she was annoying, and there were things I figured out a hundred pages before they were revealed (the hinting from the doctor on Kit's colony, for example). Maybe not the exact specifics, but I twigged to the Big Secret WAY before Athena did. That's one of the drawbacks of first person POV. Some readers may be more intelligent than your MC.

The story is interesting, if rushed at times, and the ending isn't what I suspected it would be when I started reading it. However, I cannot recommend this book to other people without reservation for the right-wing agenda aspects listed above (that is, Islamophobia and anti-feminism).

01 April 2011

Beer blogging: the local edition

I'm lucky to live in an area with an abundance of small breweries.

I wrote about the Big Boss taproom last year. Since my birthday fell on one of their tour days, I got a group together and went out. The weather was gorgeous that day, 75 and sunny, and two food trucks had set up shop in their parking lot. When we got there about 15 minutes before the tour started at 2, there were at least 50 people in line already. The tour is free, but you can buy tickets for samples for $1 (up to 3 per person). When you hear sample, you think 4 ounces or so, right? Ha, this is a full glass of beer (12 or 16 ounces, I'm not sure). They had three brews on tap: D'Icer, their new dunkelweizen, Aces and Ates, their coffee stout, and possibly High Roller IPA, I'm not sure. I didn't have that one. Whichever it was, it was one of the hoppy ones. You can get one before the tour and the rest after. With the beautiful weather and the food trucks, their parking lot turned into a big party.

I had the D'Icer. It was good, though it wasn't Weihenstephaner. Probably not a fair comparison, that. I had 3, anyway, so I liked it pretty well. (Ben was driving.)

Lone Rider isn't having brewery tours at the moment due to space issues. But they had a cask night at my local bar (which seats about 35 people, if some stand at the bar) last week, where they had bourbon-barrel-aged DeadEye Jack porter with cacao nibs (and you got to keep the glass!) It was smooth and delicious. Porters, I've mentioned, are hit or miss for me, and last year's regular Jack was a little on the hoppy side for me, but still drinkable. Barrel-aged with the cacao nibs, it was amazing.

I tried their seasonal dubbel, Belle Starr, and that was also excellent. There are still a few bottles at the co-op. Maybe I'll pick another one up before they vanish.

Triangle Brewing had a tap take-over night at a restaurant in Durham, and we went there with a couple friends. I wanted to try their bourbon-aged dubbel, and they also had a habañero beer, which Ben tried. It wasn't overly spicy, unlike the one he tried in Vienna (at 7Stern), which tried to knock his teeth out.

The dubbel was excellent, fruity but not too sweet, and lightly carbonated. Ben liked it. We wanted to get a growler of it, but Ben could never get hold of them to see if they were open. There's always next year. For year-round beers, their white and golden ales are nice.

A decidedly not local brewery that I'm fond of is Colorado's New Belgium. Their 1554 black ale is easy to drink. It's got dark stouty notes, but it's a lot less dense.

Their Lips of Faith series includes a Berliner Weisse (straight, no shot), which I enjoy immensely and a dunkelweizen. The dunkel pours Coke-black with some carbonation and is vaguely sweet, which you'd expect from a dunkel. At $7 for a 22-ounce bottle, I'm not sure I'd buy it again, since Weihenstephaner is $3 for half a liter.

What I'm looking forward to this summer, and need to ask the beer orderer at the co-op to get for me, since I'm apparently the only person who buys it, is Dogfish Head's Festina Peche, a peach Berliner Weisse. It's kind of like drinking a beer made with peach sour gummies. If that sounds good to you, try it. If not, well, more for me.

I tried their Midas Touch on a friend's recommendation, and it's very strange and sweet and good. We picked up a bottle of Sah'Tea once, and it was like drinking black chai beer. Ben likes their pumpkin ale; I'm not fond of it. (I prefer Shipyard's, which is based on a hefeweizen, while Dogfish's is a brown ale.) I wasn't impressed by Theobroma, but a couple of my friends were. Raison d'Etre is a brown ale, so Ben likes it more than I do.

If I take up another hobby (homebrewing), I'm going to try my hand at a Berliner Weisse, I think. They're good, and nobody* makes them. Then I'll try to replicate Malheur 12, which I have a bottle of in my fridge that I've been saving for a special occasion. It tastes what I want red wine to taste like.

*Notice I said that after listing 2 Berliner Weisse. But they're both seasonals.

21 March 2011

Where to go in Germany part 11: Berlin-Brandenburg

We reach our final installment of this series. *tear* I've saved my favorite for last, but we have to get through Brandenburg first.

There's not much in Brandenburg. If you put "brandenburg" into Google, one of the top video hits is this song, Rainald Grebe's "Brandenburg." (Sample of the lyrics: "There are 3 N*zis standing on a hill, and they don't find anyone to beat up in Brandenburg.") Some of this emptiness is due to the exodus of young people to places where there are jobs, some of it is due to the wilderness preserves.

Once upon a time, about 75 years ago, Brandenburg was part of the Kingdom of Prussia and site of the state's two capitals: Potsdam and Berlin. Today, the tourism council is marketing it as "Berlin's beautiful backdrop."

Brandenburg an der Havel is a mid-sized large town (75,000 residents) with lovely architecture, as expected in thousand-year-old German cities.

Eastern/southeastern Brandenburg is Lusatia (Lausitz). It's one of the last places you can find Sorbs. Cottbus is the cultural center for this ethnic minority in Germany.

The Spreewald biosphere reserve is southeast of Berlin, in the Lusatian area.

Potsdam is an easy 30-minute trip from Berlin (on local public transportation, even. As far as the BVG is concerned, it's part of Berlin.) There you'll find a historic downtown, with a couple lovely churches/cathedrals, and a sign hung under a window indicating that Mozart lived here for 6 months. There's a much smaller Brandenburg gate than the one you'll find in Berlin, and some ruins that are in the process of restoration. The big draw in Potsdam, however, is the castle park at Sans Souci. Sadly, the day I went there it was about 40 degrees and raining, which made for a miserable trip and no wandering through the gardens.

The palace was built by Friedrich II (the Great), more on him in a bit, to get away from the city and his wife. (He was forced to marry her, and as soon as his father died, he separated from her.) It's a lovely palace, and inside is decorated in a very rococo fashion. Reportedly, the palace grounds (free to the public, I believe) are beautiful, but I couldn't see them (see above re rain and cold).




Berlin is the German capital. (During the time of division, Bonn was the capital of West Germany and East Berlin that of East Germany. Once the infrastructure was in place after reunification, the capital moved back to Berlin, not without controversy.) Visit Berlin is the official tourism website, with up to date information on museums, theater, opera, concerts, and exhibits, as well as hotel booking.

It's surprisingly difficult for me to condense my thoughts on Berlin. I love the city, and it's hard to find a place to start.

I can recommend a guided tour company: Insider Tours. Ben and I took a tour with them in 2007, and it was very well done. We saw the major tourist sights in 2-3 hours.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was downright progressive for his time. His grandfather wanted Berlin to be a city of religious tolerance and immigration. When Frederick heard that the Huguenots (protestant) were being persecuted in France, he offered them a home in Berlin and let them build a cathedral. It's right across from the nearly identical German Cathedral on the Gendarmenmarkt. The third major building at the Gendarmenmarkt is the Concert House.

One of the things I love about Berlin is that there's always something going on. You can decide to take a walk up Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and encounter a demonstration (for the legalization of marijuana on the particular day I decided to do that), buskers, tourists, and any assortment of buses that will take you on a tour through the city.

Friedrichstrasse near the train station is one of the major shopping districts (the other being the Kurfürstendamm). During the division, the Friedrichstrasse train station was an internal border station, and that was where people transiting between the sides had to go. The station is very modernized and beautiful. If you walk south a bit (or take the U6 2 stops south), you'll reach Checkpoint Charlie, where there's now a museum.

The Museum Island is a must-visit for anyone in Berlin, home to five museums built from 1830 to 1930. The Pergamon Museum is amazing: they have a Greek temple reconstructed inside, part of a Roman temple, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The Bode Museum is OK; early Christian art isn't quite my thing. Protip: Buy a multi-museum pass. It's only a few Euro more, and it will let you in to 2-3 museums on the same day.

The Berlin Cathedral is also on the Museum Island. It's a Lutheran church, believe it or not from the interior. Down in the basement is the Hohenzollern crypt, but Frederick William I (the Great Elector) and his wife Sophie are interred on the main floor. If you enjoy walking up several hundred steps, the view from the cupola is very nice.

When the GDR was expanding the wall along Niederkirchenerstr, they found the basement of a N*zi jail/torture house. It's now publicly visible as the Topography of Terror. It's free and open until dusk most days.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is haunting. Concrete slabs rise from half a foot to towering over you as you walk through this cemetery-like garden.

Parliament meets in the Reichstag/Bundestag. Due to the terror threats last year, individuals can no longer go in except as prearranged tours. It's a beautiful building, though, and the view from the top is remarkable.

Potsdamer Platz, once a barren wasteland on the internal Berlin border, then the largest construction site in Europe, now houses office plazas, shopping arcades, and the Sony Center (which has 2 movie theaters). There's a weekly flea market on one of the open spaces above the train station.

The Zoo and Aquarium are worth the combined ticket. Like with the Museum Island, buying both is cheaper than buying separately. RIP, Knut.

Alexanderplatz is mainly remarkable for the TV Tower (which in 2006 was made to look like a soccer ball during the World Cup). There are a few shopping plazas (Galerie Kaufhof and Alexa), and above the U-bahnhof, out front of Galeria, is a fountain. In short walking distance of Alex is the Red Town Hall (named for its color, not the lean of its politics, though Berlin is run by a red-red coalition) and the Neptune Fountain.

Hackescher Markt and the Hackescher Höfe are a somewhat trendy shopping district nearby.

Over on the west side of town, Kurfürstendamm houses a lot of trendy shopping. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, known locally as "lipstick and powder compact," is in easy walking distance. It's bombed-out remains of the church commemorating Wilhelm I and some modern glass buildings. In the same district is Palace Charlottenburg, another example of rococo architecture. The grounds are free to the public.

One of my favorite sights in Berlin is the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There's a fully-intact section of the wall, including the death strip, which you can view from a (free) overlook (when it's open). Between my first visit in December 2007 and my second in May 2010, they added more outside exhibits and looked to be expanding further. The ghost stations exhibit is fascinating.

The weekly flea market at the Mauerpark (Sundays morning until evening) is worth the trip to Prenzlauer Berg. You can find everything from Soviet-era tchotchkes to art prints to antique photo postcards, dishes, and furniture, to handcrafted purses or t-shirts to English language books. There's also food stands so you can fortify yourself for several hours of shopping.

If, like me, you're interested in Cold War-era things, a tour with Berliner Unterwelten is highly recommended. I took tour 3 (Cold War bunker in the subway) and regret that I didn't have time to take more.

Here's a Google map I made.


View Visit Berlin in a larger map

14 March 2011

Where to go in Germany part 10: Thüringen & Sachsen-Anhalt

In the interest of finishing this series this year, I've combined these two states into a single post. Sadly, eastern Germany has a lot of cities of historic interest, and lovely scenery, but not as dense as western. Much has been written about the exodus of east Germans to the west, as well as the reasons for it, and I won't get into it here. (A twitter friend of mine has this exploration of how reunification has affected football.)

Thuringia (Thüringen) is to the west of Sachsen, bordering Bavaria to its south and Hessen to the west. Its northern edge includes the Harz Mountains. The official tourism council has more information.

Erfurt is the largest city and state capital, and it's the approximate geographic center of Germany. (Fun facts!)

Weimar was home to Goethe and Schiller and various artists and composers, and birthplace of the Bauhaus art style. A day trip to Buchenwald, if you're so inclined, is possible.

Jena is home to a glass industry, including Carl Zeiss lenses, and a thriving university-research community. It's been home to philosophers and poets, from Goethe to Hölderlin to Hegel, over the centuries.

Eisenach was also home to people you may have heard of, including Martin Luther, whose half-timbered house still stands in the town, and Bach. The Wartburg has seen a lot of history in its almost-thousand years of existence.




Saxony-Anhalt lies to the northeast of Thüringen. Its southwest includes the Harz Mountains. The official tourism council has information on the state and its UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as suggestions for themed excursions, such as the Romanesque Road.

Magdeburg has also been home to famous people, but it's noted more for being the state capital and its architecture.

Dessau is the current home of the Bauhaus architectural college, after it was forced to move from Weimar, and played home to the composer Kurt Weill.

Halle (Saale) is the largest city in SA and neighbors Leipzig. There is a sizable research industry, as well as remnants of a chemical industry from the Soviet era.

If you want to visit the church to which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, a trip to Lutherstadt Wittenberg is worth your while.

Next up: the final installment: Berlin-Brandenburg

06 March 2011

StellarCon

The UNCG SF club runs a little con about 50 miles from here, called StellarCon. This was its 35th year. Ben and I went for the day yesterday.

It was very small, maybe 700 attendees, but it was a bit easier to interact with the guests than at Dragon*Con (which has about 40,000 attendees). There are up sides and down sides to the small con: easier interaction, as I mentioned, but if you're there on a day pass, and you don't have a room to retire to during down time, you can get kind of bored. There weren't a whole lot of panels I was interested in, so I spent a lot of time loitering and using my wireless data plan.

One of the fun panels I went to was the Baen Roadshow, wherein publisher Toni Weisskopf gives away free books to people who ask good questions. Toni throws them to the recipients. Ben got one early on, for being polite and slowing down one of the books before it hit the receiver in the head. He asked what i wanted him to get, so I said Darkship Thieves, which I've wanted to read for a bit and just plain has a cool title. At the end, she invited those of us without books to pick one up, so I got When the Tide Rises, one of David Drake's RCN novels. Sam of BullSpec had a promo where if you show your Baen swag (a little button), you got 10% off, so I picked up Jump Gate Twist, an omnibus of 2 novels and two shorts by Mark Van Name (whose novel Children No More I reviewed last year).

If we go again next year (which, I'm told, should have more of an SF orientation), we'll probably only go one day, but we should get a room so we can stay for the parties Saturday night.

03 March 2011

Samsung: on my anti-rec list.

As you may recall, I bought a Samsung Captivate last August. I went with this phone in part because I don't like the iPhone, and I wanted an Android phone. The Android selection on AT&T was fairly awful until the Captivate came out, and the non-Captivate selection is still pretty bad. (AT&T wants you to buy the iPhone, of course!)

I was pleased with the phone, even when it began exhibiting the random shutdown bug. I got it replaced for a second one, and when that one had an even worse variant of the shutdown bug (it wouldn't stay on while in idle for FIVE MINUTES), I swapped it for a third (which, to date, hasn't shut itself off).

It's still running Android 2.1 Eclair (while other phones are on 2.3, and 2.4 is already rumored). When the Froyo update was finally released last week, I was excited...until I found out you could only install it using their proprietary Windows-only software. Like this user, I'm a Mac user. Exclusively. There are no functional computers running a modern Windows operating system in the entire house. (My ca 2001 Sony Vaio laptop ran WinXP, except it quit working around 2007. The power supply seems to have disconnected from the hard disk. That's when I got the MacBook I'm writing this post on.)

I contacted @galaxyssupport on twitter and asked if there's any plans to stop excluding their customers who use Mac. The answer's no. Through them I got a way to send email to customer "support," and I detailed my complaint regarding the Kies software and my Mac, and stated that, because of this, I will never purchase another Samsung product again. Here's their response.
Dear Conni,
Thank you for your inquiry. We understand your distress concerning the Froyo update but unfortunately, the software of the captivate is intended for windows software.
We do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Thank you for your continued interest in Samsung products.
Sincerely,
Technical Support

I'm so thrilled that they actually read my email. I'm not "distressed;" I'm angry.

I would like to point out at this time that nowhere on the box my phone came in does it state that Windows software is required to update the phone's software. Nowhere does it state that Kies is Windows-only. (Kies is their backup-to-PC program.) I can mount my phone to my Mac as an external drive. I can use the bluetooth in the phone to talk to the bluetooth on my Mac. I can pop an SD card into the phone and manually copy things to it, pop it out, and pop it into my Mac.

Thanks to the wonderful people at AT&T, sideloading the update (by copying it to said SD card and installing it that way) is impossible. They blocked it when they added their proprietary bloatware.

Thanks to the amount of sheer nonsense and lack of Mac support, I can no longer recommend Samsung phones to anyone who asks my opinion on them, and I will in fact recommend them to get anything but a Samsung phone. I will also never purchase any other Samsung products, from TVs to DVD players to other consumer electronics.

24 February 2011

Where to go in Germany part 9: Saxony

Saxony is the southeasternmost state of Germany. It borders Poland to the east and the Czech Republic to the south. Along the Czech border are the Lausitz (Lusatian) mountains and the Erz (Ore) mountains. Saxon Switzerland is also a beautiful natural park on the Czech border.

Dresden is known to Americans mainly as "the place the Allies bombed the crap out of during WW2," but Dresden has a cultural history which earned it the nickname "Florence on the Elbe." Notable sights include the Frauenkirche, the Hofkirche, palaces, museums, and gardens.

Near Dresden is Meißen, known primarily for its porcelain industry. If you have 30,000 Euro to spend on a tea set, you'll be buying it from Meissen. It's beautiful porcelain, to be sure, but I don't have that sort of money.

The other city of note in Saxony is Leipzig. I took a day trip there from Berlin last year and wandered through the old city. Notable sights include the Thomaskirche, where Bach worked as cantor for a while, and city halls (old and new). The restaurant where Goethe ate as a student and is home to a scene from Faust, Auerbach's Keller, is in the basement of what's presently a shopping plaza. My friend and I didn't eat there, because it was too expensive, but the statues of Mephisto tempting Faust and Faust's friends holding him back are on the public level. Rubbing Faust's foot is considered good luck for students, so it's a very bright gold.

Next stop: Thüringen.

23 February 2011

Where to go in Germany part 8: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the first of the former GDR states I'll be discussing. It's the northernmost of them, bordering the Baltic Sea and Poland.

I asked a German acquaintance on Twitter if there's anything to see in MV, and he said no. The state tourism council is trying to fix that conception.

Schwerin is the state capital, and the castle where the state government meets is very impressive. It's a picturesque town surrounded by lakes.

Rostock is a former Hanseatic League city on the Baltic. The town seems to have shaken off its association with radical rightists and hate groups in recent years, which can be a good thing.

Stralsund is another former Hanseatic city on the Baltic. It's got a maritime museum with a giant squid (since 2005). It's one of the main gateways to the island of Rügen.

Rügen is one of the islands in the Baltic, which are very sunny and warm in summer (and temperate in winter). The Baltic coast is a fairly popular vacation spot. On Rügen you can find megaliths, a Slavic stone fort at Cape Arkona, castles, chalk cliffs, and various seaside resorts. This is a place I definitely want to go.

If you like nature parks, there are a variety of nature reserves, conservation areas, and parks throughout the state.

Next time: hopping over Brandenburg and going straight to Saxony.

07 February 2011

Book review: Broken

Broken, by Susan Jane Bigelow. 2011, Candlemark and Gleam.

In the interest of disclosure, I received a free review copy of this ebook.

About a hundred years from now, Earth has been invaded by two species of aliens, and, thanks to a world war, is united in a single government based out of Australia. One of the invasions gave humans the capability of interstellar flight, and now there are colony worlds around the galaxy. For reasons not explained in the text, a fraction of people have developed superpowers since the Rogarian invasion, and, for reasons that will be familiar to X-Men fans, the "extrahumans" are all brought to Union Tower, where they're kept together (and away from "normal" people).

Michael Forward, a young prescient, is looking for Silverwyng, a member of the Union who's been missing for about ten years, because he needs her help to get a baby to Valen, one of the colony worlds. This baby, whose mother hands him off to Michael in a train station, has the potential to be humanity's savior or its greatest dictator. He finds Broken, who used to be Silverwyng.

Michael, Broken, and the baby, whom they name Ian, have to escape from the Black Bands, the enforcement arm of the Reform Party, who have just taken control of the government and are in the process of enacting totalitarian rule. On the way, they meet some people who follow the Räton (the other set of aliens) lifestyle, anarchists, and neo-nationalists.

The overall setup is a fairly standard dystopia, wherein an ostensibly fairly elected government turns totalitarian and outlaws opposition parties. Bigelow puts a very relevant spin on this classic trope. The Reform Party was voted into office on a wave of anti-alien sentiment and a hearty dose of fear of Extrahumans. The newsmedia has become a mouthpiece for the Reform Party and serves mainly to feed the public the Party's spin on events and whip up their fear of the Other, in order to cement their radical right-wing policies.

One of the most poignant moments in the book occurs about halfway through. Michael and Monica, one of the Räton followers, are picked up by the American Liberation Army, who proudly display an American flag, now banned as a symbol of nationalism. Michael remembers something his mentor Joe had said before he died, about how he'd fought in the Last War, that the flag "used to stand for something a lot better than what it ended up standing for," and that Joe's father had "hated Greenleaf [the last President]. But he loved this....they were two separate things to him." (p 191-2)

Highly recommended.

This novel is available in e-format only. I read it on my laptop using Preview. The cover is nice, and the typeface is very clean. There's a minor formatting issue where occasional words mid-line are hyphenated, but it doesn't detract. I tried it out on my Android phone using Adobe Reader, and it looked nice there, as well. It's also available for Kindle, in addition to the pdf version linked above.