Read Recently — September 2004

Into the Alternate Universe and Contraband from Otherspace by A. Bertram Chandler

I can’t remember how I got into this series, but it’s a collection of Omnibus editions collecting a series of early 60s space operas telling the career of one John Grimes as he moves from the space service of the Federation (no relation) to that of the Rim Worlds Government, on the edge of the Galaxy. Grimes goes from junior officer to captain to commodore, and that’s pretty much the end of his career as far as climbing goes. When the first story of this volume begins he’s desk-bound, widowered, and bored. But then an old friend drops in, and adventure beckons . . .

In this universe, being on the edge of the galaxy also means being on the edge of reality. Space-time is thin here and often gets torn; our heroes have encountered parallel versions of themselves before. This time, Grimes is recruited by Commander Sonya Verrill of the Federation Survey Service to take a controlled trip into a parallel universe . . . on what is, for Sonya, a very personal mission.

In the next story, a strange ship full of dead, primitively-dressed humans drops out of nowhere into Grimes’ metaphorical backyard. To solve the mystery of what the dead people were fleeing from, Grimes and Verrill lead a crew into another universe, to perhaps change history . . .

This is old-fashioned space opera. The ships have no artificial gravity, and once the journey starts the commodore invites the crew back to his wardroom for a drink and a smoke–yes, they smoke in a spaceship and nobody sees anything wrong with that. Aliens include giant, communistic bees and wise reptiles, not to mention the rats . . .

Fun if you like that sort of thing.

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Neither the sequel to Jurassic Park nor the TV series, this is, by some degrees, the inspiration for both. You ought to know the plot, even if you haven’t read it; maverick (and possibly maniac) Professor Challenger leads a small expedition into South America to find an isolated plateau where he says dinosaurs still exist. Of course, he’s right. Our heroes get stranded in the lost world and have to fight to escape . . .

What can you say about a classic? Scientifically, of course, it’s nonsense. But then, so was Sherlock Holmes and those were still great stories. So is this.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Late one evening, Polly cuts her hair, changes into a boy’s clothing, and slips out the window of her father’s inn to enlist in the army of Borogravia, possibly the most warlike nation on the Discworld, under the name of Oliver. The army is desperate enough to take her, even though someone in the new squad knows very well what she is–and helps her. Oliver’s fellow recruits include a vampire, a troll, and an Igor, as well as a few other fine young fellows who might not be exactly what they seem. The only thing they’re missing is a werewolf . . . or are they? And what is going on with Sergeant Jackrum, who seems to know everyone in the Borogravian army?

Meanwhile, the other side of the war is winning, at least as far as Duke Sir Samuel Vimes of Ankh-Morpork can tell. Borogravia keeps interfering with business, and Ankh-Morpork, whose interests are those of all moneyfreedom-loving peoples, has sent her second most powerful man over to solve the crisis. Vimes soon finds himself in the not unusual (for him) position of loathing his so-called allies and greatly respecting his so-called enemies.

But really, the story is about Polly/Oliver and her quest for her now missing brother, and her fellow men(?) in her regiment. And Sergeant Jackrum, of course, who can turn anyone into a fighting man . . .

Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): a fair and balanced look at the right by Al Franken

American politics is a mystery to me. What I do understand about it looks really, really phenomenally stupid. And I come from a country that has a Queen for head of state, so I know from stupid.

Thus it makes perfect sense to me that America’s best political commentators are stand-up comedians.

Disclaimer: Politically speaking, using the old-fashioned left-right dichotomy, I am so far to the left that I think Emma Goldman was too right-wing.

This is a mostly very funny book.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I don’t know if I can sum up this book for you. Oh, I can tell you what it’s about; (it’s about 700 pages long–sorry, I’m getting sleepy), but I don’t know if I can tell you why it’s so cool that it just grabs my imagination. For those of you who read comics, it might suffice to say that it reminds me of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol; that kind of weirdness and creativity. For those of you who don’t read comics that description is worse than useless. Ummm. Grant Morrison writes like Michael Moorcock on crack. Mieville writes like that too.

New Crobuzon is a massive citystate in a steampunk/fantasy world of many races; humanity, as it so often seems to, tops the political heap but not by much. New Crobuzon is sort of the Ankh-Morpork of its world; everything and everyone comes there sooner or later. All roads lead away from it, but some people walk them the wrong way.

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a scientist living in New Crobuzon. He’s a liberal; he has for a lover a Khepri, an alien race half human, half insect–that is, their women have the bodies of women and the heads of scarab beetles. No, that’s not right: they have scarab beetles for heads. Heads, wings, legs, everything, just sitting at the top of their necks. Naturally, they can’t speak in words. Lin, Isaac’s lover, is an artist.

Isaac is hired by a Garuda, a winged being who has been mutilated by his people for an unnamed crime: they have cut his wings off. He wants Isaac to make him fly again. Isaac takes the commission and begins investigating flight mechanisms; in the process he accidentally encounters/creates something so dangerous that the entire city is threatened. Something so dangerous that even the cities great powers and the Ambassador of Hell won’t touch it.

See, the summary doesn’t do justice to the wild imagination in this book. It’s not for everyone, but I’m certainly glad I found it.

Mind you, if I’d waited a few more weeks I could have bought the mass-market paperback rather than the stinking trade edition . . .


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