Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Scientific American Boy

Via BoingBoing, Project Gutenberg has several versions of this book available. It's a pretty hefty download, until you realize it is 345 pages long (a kid's book?) and the files include beautiful scans of the original maps and illustrations. Looks like fun! Also of interest: It takes place in the "wilds" of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. I've actually camped in some of these locations.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Draco's Tavern

The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven: In terms of the setting, I've always liked "bar stories" in SF. Heck, the format has done well outside of SF (how many seasons of Cheers were there)? Arthur C. Clarke with the White Hart. Mos Eisley's cantina sequence in Star Wars. The Jorkens tales of Lord Dunsany. You have a fairly constant frame, a set group of characters to hang on the frame, but then an ever-changing group of narratives. Good stuff.

Larry Niven entered this arena with a story called The Fourth Profession (various collections). Earth has been contacted by an alien race. One goes wandering to see the sights and ends up spending a couple of evenings in a bar. He gives the bartender some education pills. It was a good story.

It seemed that Niven liked the idea, and eventually started writing tales set in Draco Tavern. Earth is contacted by an alien race and a tavern grows up around their landing site on our planet. A wide variety of aliens visit, giving us a continually changing tapestry of narratives against the background of the tavern and the major character (the owner, Rick Schumann. Niven says (in his introduction) that he wanted to deal with Big Questions and also practice writing vignettes. The format has strengths and weaknesses. Being vignettes, you are supposed to be short. That means that you (in general) can't really get too far into character. But the author has to be very disciplined to get the point across in that format. So sometimes Niven gets us thinking about the Big Question, other times we're left scratching our heads.

I found that I liked the older stories better than the newer ones. For example, not only did I figure out what was needed in Table Manners, but I thought the story suffered for taking place mostly outside of Draco's Tavern. Two stories that also suffered for being too long (!) to really work for the format were the above-mentioned Table Manners and also The Heights (also a newer story). Both of those were among the newer stories (stories that I had not read in other collections). On the other hand, one new story that stuck to the format (Losing Mars) worked quite well and was a lot of fun. There was also the occasional bit of strangeness in terms of branding. The first contact takes place around 2030. The stories are set over thirty-odd years after the first contact. But, in one tale a character pulls out a Palm Pilot. How long has it been since Palm used the word Pilot to describe one of their products? CNN is still around, as is Fox. The Iraq situation and terrorism is still discussed as if it were a current event (maybe they will be!). Another charcter uses a Macintosh. Sure, there are near future (relatively) stories, but a little more originality on Niven's part would have been appreciated.

There were more tales I liked than disliked. The book held my interest enough so that I finished it in two evenings. I appreciated having them all in one collection. But, given the disappointments so far with the newer tales, I might have waited for the paperback.

As for Tor (the publisher): Is it just my imagination, or are all their books lately the same thickness? Singularlity Sky and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross. Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod. This one by Niven. And then look at Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld as well as The Wizard and The Knight by Gene Wolfe. All of these books are about the same physical size. Font sizes and spacing between lines is manipulated. Heck, to fit the format the Wolfe duo and the Westerfeld duo were single books that were split. Conspiracy? Coincidence? Or have I been drinking too many espressos again?

Made up of: Introduction; The Subject is Closed; Grammar Lesson; Assimilating Our Culture, That's What They're Doing!; The Schumann Computer; The Green Marauder; The Real Thing; War Movie; Limits; Table Manners; One Night at the Draco Tavern; The Heights; The Wisdom of Demons; Smut Talk; Ssoroghod's People; The Missing Mass; The Convergence of the Old Mind; Chrysalis; The Death Addict; Storm Front; The Slow Ones; Cruel and Unusual; The Ones Who Stayed Home; Breeding Maze; Playhouse; Lost; Losing Mars; Playground Earth.

Counts as twenty-eight entries in the 2006 Short Story Project.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Astounding Days

Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography; Sir Arthur C. Clarke (Bantam-Spectra, March 1990)

Take this book, along with Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! and Ascent to Orbit (which I am currently reading), and you're probably as close as we're going to get for an autobiography from Clarke.

Try to seek this book out, as it is a lot of fun. Clarke takes us on a tour of the stories that affected him the most in Astounding (the magazine of science fiction during the "Golden Age"). On the way we not only learn about life in England before and during WWII, but about the origins of the British Interplanetary Society, British fandom and even Meccano:

In an article by Lord Taylor published in the Christmas 1978 edition of the British Medical Journal, the author describes a medical complaint known as the "Presenile Meccano Syndrome." The "victims" of this obsession apparently fall into the affluent middle-age category, people who are able to buy huge Meccano outfits and indulge themselves after possibly many years of not being able to afford to do this.

In two out of three cases, the gentlemen concerned are content to gaze at their outfits through the cellophane wrappings, while the third, who has probably never constructed a Meccano model in his life, delights in dismantling the models of others and very carefully replacing the parts in the appropriate compartments of the carton.

Well, I have some good news for the eminent medic. There's a complete cure for the Meccano Syndrome: it's called a Personal Computer...Unfortunately, the cure is much deadlier than the disease.

It's a very chatty tour and one full of fun and amusement. I got much more out of this brief volume than from all of Neil McAleer's authorized biography. And, as with Clarke's other books, I can feel my wallet groaning as scores of stories, articles and books get enthusiastically mentioned by Clarke.

There's also a beautiful cover by Chris Consani depicting Clarke in a "period" costume surrounded by the denizens of a typical pulp SF magazine cover in a pulp SF magazine city. Great stuff! (The artwork above is not the cover of the book...I can't find it online...but it has the same "feel".)

My complaints? Well, it's a pretty short book. I would have loved to had something a bit longer (maybe not as long as Asimov's autobiographical work!), covering some of the other magazines that influenced Clarke (for example, Amazing Stories).

My biggest complaint? I need to find another copy of the book, maybe the Gollancz edition. I bought this book when it first came out, and read it then. It has been kept on a bookshelf, out of the sun, no smokers allowed, etc. The paper is in horrible condition! Yellowed, crinkly, feels like it is of the same pulp as, well, the magazines Clarke writes about. Obviously not "acid-free"! I've got books published in the 1940's that are in better shape than this one!