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Journal of No. 118


August 13th, 2009

Bookjam: Rice&Salt, NorseCode, Rabengott & Leiber @ 02:16 pm

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You thought you were spared, but no! Now I'm caught up with the cruise, I have to catch up on books. I took a couple dense puppies along to keep me from bringing eleventy books, so it's not as bad as it might be.


I picked The Years of Rice and Salt up at the Westchester Book sale for $0.50. At 800 pages, that's a lot of words per penny. It's an alternate history novel where something like the Black Plague kills off 99% of Europe, wiping 'the West' out of the running in the great game of life. The book traces the evolution of history from that point on, with Islam and China being the main global powers through most of the book. Add to this a more 'Eastern' view of reincarnation, so that we see little slices of time with the 'same' characters interacting. The pace of the book is leisurely, almost meditative; some of the individual vignettes are closer to world-building exercises than strongly plot driven; other sections show how, say, calculus gets developed in the alternate universe (I'm a sucker for that kind of thing, but I can see how it's close to nerd fan-service). Nevertheless, the whole novel was satisfying. I had a slight ulterior motive in picking this up, wondering if it might be a good book for dark_of_night or doctorray in their history classes, since I know doctorray is particularly interested in the 'collision' of cultures. Obviously, an 800 page book is not really practical, but possibly the last chapter could stand alone as a strange message in a bottle from an alternate universe - that chapter in particular includes theories of history as developed by the historians of that universe - unfortunately, it may include too much new lingo developed in the previous 700 pages to be intelligible. Anyway, not a must-read, but should you be faced with being at sea for a week without access to your library, it's a good choice.
Oh yeah, and in a strange synchronicity, the book also mentions the Emerald Tablet, which featured prominently in the last book I read, The Geographer's Library.


Where Rice & Salt was more meditation-theory, less plot-action, NorseCode flips the equation around. The book is a modern fantasy where it turns out that Ragnarök is indeed how the world is going to end, and darn soon. Fears of global warming are somewhat contradicted by the current Fimbulwinter. Our protagonist is a Valkyrie gathering heroes for the ultimate war. Entertaining, but (dare I say it?) light entertainment.


Another good way to slow down my reading is to up the difficulty. I bought Rabengott by Bernhard Hennen in the airport when I was in Frankfurt in May. I didn't notice it at the time, but the black eye on the hilt of the sword in the cover marks this as a novel tie-in to Das Schwarze Auge, a German fantasy RPG that I actually own - I bought it on my first trip to Germany in 1984, just after the game came out. So, it's kinda like I bought a Dragonlance novel or something. On the plus side, once I got up to speed, the German (and the plot) is not too difficult. An enjoyable yarn, but calling it light entertainment may be attributing too much profundity to it.


When stevenkaye was in town, he gave me The Black Gondolier from Midnight House to pass along to aaronjv (as the title story features Venice, CA). I took advantage of my custody to read through this set of Fritz Leiber short stories. On the whole... meh. I love Leiber, so I'm glad Pelan and Savile resurrected these stories, but I can see why they have not been reprinted recently. I think the stand-out is "Black Has Its Charms", a searing monologue from wife to husband in a really bad marriage.
 
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From:marlo
Date:August 13th, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC)
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The pace of the book is leisurely, almost meditative

Robinson seems to excel at this sort of pace. The Mars Trilogy could have easily been cut down by about 50%. So much of it just felt pointless. I think it totally works for this book, though, because it's got a what-if sort of premise. Anyway I, too, liked it quite a lot.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:August 14th, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)
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I confess I didn't finish the Mars trilogy. I agree the pace seems much more appropriate for Rice & Salt.
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From:ajax
Date:August 14th, 2009 11:31 am (UTC)
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I need to give Rice and Salt another try. I picked it up several years ago, expecting something similar in style and aims to the ~30 Harry Turtledove novels I've read, and although I wouldn't consider it time wasted, it wasn't very satisfying either. Generally I expect alt-history to be plot-driven, at least for the purposes of showing you around the Whole New World, rather than (IMO) character-driven for the purpose of metaphysical and philosophical badinage.

The fault is in my narrow view, I'm sure, but there we have it.

--- Ajax.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:August 14th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
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If you didn't dig it the first time through, I'm not sure I advise a second go-round. I wasn't wildly enthusiastic myself. But, if you find yourself backpacking in the Amazon for a month, bring it along.

Journal of No. 118