Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Combination Plate 8

Kim Stanley Robinson
Vinland the Dream and Other Stories

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF writers, a result of discovering his The Memory of Whiteness and the "California Triad" (aka the "Orange County Triad"). I call it a triad because it's not really a trilogy, at least not in the commonly accepted sense, anyway. His short stories are also very good--some SF, some fantasy, some neither.

The quality of the tales in this collection is very high, as it should be, for this is sort of a "best of" collection. It's actually the best of two other anthologies, and that's the problem. All but one of the stories here have already appeared in The Planet on the Table (PotT) and Remaking History (RM). Only "Discovering Life" is not included in either of the two. In addition, there is an omnibus edition, Remaking History and Other Stories, which already includes all of the stories from PotT and RM.

The fourteen stories in Vinland the Dream range from future predictions to recreating the past, or in some cases rewriting the past, as in the title story "Vinland the Dream." In this story we see an archaeologist conduct an excavation to disprove a long accepted tenet, that of the discovery of Vinland by the Vikings.

In "A History of the Twentieth Century: with Illustrations," a historian is commissioned to do a coffee table work with this title. After researching the horrors of the twentieth century he comes up with a rather surprising conclusion.

"Venice Drowned" is the story of a future in which the sea level has risen sufficiently to cover Venice to the point that the shorter buildings are now underwater and the remaining residents have moved either to the upper stories of taller buildings or have build a shack on the roof. One such resident survives by taking sightseers on tours. He also guides and provides diving equipment for souvenir hunters who are busy looting the drowned city.

In the far future, some miners on far flung planets, all but slaves to the mining company, find release and relief in digging in the musical past in "Coming Back to Dixieland." This ragtag group of miner-musicians enter a contest, competing with professionals, with the grand prize an expenses paid series of gigs in the Solar System, one slim chance to escape the trap of the company owned mines.

The last part of the story tells of the concert the group played in the competition, and Robinson's word picture of that concert far surpasses any previous attempt I have ever read. At the end, I felt as though I had been there, immersed in the sounds of classic Dixieland. It reminded me of The Memory of Whiteness for that work also focused on a musician and his music. Robinson must be a musician for he writes so convincingly of music and musicians.

I believe Robinson is also a rock climber for this has played an important role in a number of his novels and short stories. In this collection is "Ridge Running," a story about three men who get together once again to go climbing. It is the first time out for one of them who has had a very serious accident and has suffered brain damage.

"The Disguise" is a neat little thriller, set on the stage in the future. Someone is killing actors on stage and no one knows who it is. Consequently, all involved in the production nervously watch everybody else, wondering if the killer is a part of this cast and crew.

"Mercurial" is a farce. It's a homage to "Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson"' and set on Mercury, in a city that reminds me very much of the city in Christopher Priest's strange little novel, The Inverted World. The city in both stories is set on railroad tracks and slowly inches its way across the landscape. Robinson has also dabbled in gender switching as the detective, Freya Grindavik, is a very tall (over 7 ft tall) lean woman whose arrogance approaches that of Holmes himself. Nathaniel Sebastian accompanies her somewhat reluctantly, which is understandable when he explains the life-threatening situations he found himself in as he reels off a number of her past cases. Sebastian also explains that the life of a "watson" (his term) isn't all that glamorous either.

Overall Rating: I would recommend anything with Kim Stanley Robinson's name on it.


Michael Chabon
Gentlemen on the Road
Adventure tale, mostly

I had heard much about Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, so when this title was suggested for a discussion in the SF group I belong to, I was looking forward to it. From what little I had heard, it appeared to be a "sword-and-sorcery" novel, much like Fritz Leiber's Fahrd and the Grey Mouser tales.
Leiber's "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is, for me, still the classic tale of this sort. The heroes can best be described as gentlemen adventurers; "rogues' or 'thieves" or 'con men' sounds so harsh. They do get involved in a number of capers which would be unacceptable to law-abiding citizens, but they do it more for the excitement and the thrill of a well-plotted campaign than for any thoughts of pecuniary gain. They, of course, wouldn't reject any cash or jewels or plate that came their way.

There is generally magic involved, with the usual assortment of wizards, spells, incantations, demons, and all the usual assorted paraphernalia. Occasionally they will, unwillingly of course, do a good deed or two, usually when there's an attractive damsel in distress involved. The time of the novel would probably be closest to late medieval or early Renaissance. They don't wear armor, but if they did, they would be described as knights in tarnished armor.

Unfortunately, Chabon decided that wasn't exactly the sort of book he wanted to write. His two gentlemen on the road are con men and we meet them pulling off their usual scam. The planet is obviously Earth, and various references to other peoples and countries are mostly historical. The task they get saddled with is the restoration of a spoiled young man to his throne that has been usurped by his uncle.

The sword part is there but no sorcery. It's basically an adventure tale--well written but still a disappointment. However, I am going to read other works by him because he does strike me as a skillful writer with some imagination.


Primer: A film
SF, Time travel

According to a comment on imdb.com, this film was nominated for a number of awards and won two at Sundance. I can't figure out why, unless it was because it was so low-key, but "hurry-hurry-hurry" most of the time. The actors kept stepping on each other's lines, so it was hard to tell who was saying what. Moreover, when the time machine finally became functional, I found it impossible to follow the story line and was completely surprised by the ending.

Four friends combine their financial resources and develop a lab in a garage owned by one of them. Two of them stumble on a time machine and decide to keep it a secret from the other two. The story moves rather quickly and lucidly the first half of the film, until as I mentioned above, they begin jumping back-and-forth in time and eventually lose me. Moreover, a third man, one who wasn't one of the original four, somehow gets involved and begins doing a bit of time-traveling on his own.

Overall Rating: I would give it 3/5 rating, primarily for the first part which focuses on the initial discovery. This part, the discovery of the strange, unexpected effects of the device they were developing, and their attempts to find out just what is happening and what the implications are, is very convincing and interesting.


John Dos Passos
The 42nd Parallel, a novel

This is the first novel in John Dos Passos' "USA Trilogy." The other two novels are Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money. The novel is set in the USA at beginning of the twentieth century.
It's structure is definitely experimental. Each section has three very distinct parts, distinct as to content and format.

The largest part tells of four or five individuals (three men and two women, in the first novel anyway)-- their lives, their accomplishments, and their fates. Or, at least we will learn this if we read all three volumes. All of the major characters leave home as soon as possible and strike out on their own, some to a large city to find work while others go on the road. Their fates are different, but Dos Passos manages at one point or another to bring most of them together, some briefly while for some it becomes a long-lasting relationship.

The second part is called "Newsreel," and it's just what the title suggests. It consists of headlines, which are presumably found in newspapers at the time: "Six Thousand Workmen at Smolensk Parade with Placards Saying Death to Czar Assassin" or "Riots and Streetblockades Mark Opening of Teamsters Strike" or "World's 'Greatest Sea Battle Near" or "Madrid Police Clash with Five Thousand Workmen Carrying Black Flag." This, of course, provides the context for the stories of the focus individuals mentioned above.

The third section is titled "The Camera Eye" and is the hardest part to follow. It appears to be semi-autobiographical fragments which are based on Dos Passo's life. What follows is the first part of a typical segment: "and we played the battle of Port Arthur in the bathtub and the water leaked down through the drawingroom ceiling and it was altogether too bad but in Kew Gardens old Mr. Garnet who was still hale and hearty although so very old came to tea and we saw him first through the window..."

My only complaint would be Dos Passos' style, which is somewhat flat, almost journalistic. However, he breaks the narrative up frequently with "The Newsreel" and "The Camera Eye" segments, so I wasn't faced with 400+ pages of flat prose. Perhaps that's why Dos Passos decided to break up the narrative portion as he did.

Overall: very good. I have the second and the third books available, and I want to learn what happens to the focus characters, who have now reached a plateau in their lives and careers. They appear to be settled in for the duration, but there's those two other volumes waiting.


Karin Alvtegen
a novel
Mystery? the accidental detective type

The blurb on the back cover reads as follows: "The New Queen of Scandinavian Crime Writing."


Karin Fossum is a Norwegian writer, and Norway is considered part of Scandinavia. I think Fossum has a far better claim to being the Scandinavian Queen of Crime Writing than Alvtegen does.

begins in media res. Sibylla discovers that the man she had been chatting up and manipulating to rent her a room at the hotel is found murdered. Of course, the police suspect her. The novel then spends considerable time detailing her abused childhood (what other kind of childhood can there be?) with the mother from hell and the absent father. Alvtegen fills numerous pages on Sibylla's pregnancy, the loss of the child through forced adoption (the mother from hell again), her time spent in a mental institution (well, she got away from the mother from hell, didn't she?), and life on the street after she left the institution.

Occasionally we return to the present and discover that there are multiple killings. Sibylla is now suspected of being a serial killer, who also (only vaguely described in the novel) mutilates the body and removes unspecified organs.

SPOILER WARNING: I will discuss significant plot elements and the resolution of the novel from this point on.

Buried within all this is a detective story as Sibylla decides that the only way to demonstrate her innocence is to find the real killer herself. Therefore, this is in the subcategory of smart citizen and stupid police. They should have called in Inspector Kurt Wallandar who would have solved the crimes in a few days.

In one of her hiding places, Sibylla meets a fifteen-year-old boy whose mother just happens to be a police officer. She convinces him of her innocence, and he manages to get access to his mother's computer at the police station.

I said above this was an example of the stupid police story. What else can one say when the police are unable to find a link among the four victims even though it's there in front of them, just waiting to be discovered by this homeless woman and a fifteen-year-old boy. For example. the police ignore the facts that all four victims had recently received a transplant. Not only that, they saw no significance in that all four had their operations within a day or so of each other. And, coincidentally, all four received organs from the SAME donor. Obviously, this must be a coincidence; it couldn't be a link among them. Of course not.

At the end, after she has solved the case for the police, she also discovers that her father died several years ago. He had a considerable estate and had left half to his wife and half to his daughter. Now, Sibylla learns that the mother from hell is trying to get her declared legally dead so she could get the millions of kronors that the father had left Sibylla. She finds a sympathetic lawyer, and now she will live happily ever after in that small cottage on that beautiful lake.

Overall Rating: I finished it because it was the choice of the mystery group I belong to. Once burned, twice shy, or something like that.


  1. I'm already overwhelmed by a constantly growing of list of "must read" books, and--with the exception of Dos Passos (who I ought to get around to rereading someday again soon)--you've complicated my life by suggesting even more "must read" books. The titles are dutifully added to my list, and my life has become more complicated. Thanks, Fred.

  2. R. T.,

    I know whereof you speak. I have favorite authors that I want to get back to, and there are always new ones who look interesting. [sigh]

  3. I'm glad you wrote about the movie "Primer", because I wondered if it was just me who had a hard time following the story line. There is actually a plot synopsis - complete with diagram - on Wikipedia for this movie that I found helpful. I also watched it with English subtitles on ( someone suggested I do that) to better understand the overlapping dialogue. I'd have to agree with your rating, for the reason you stated. I liked the everyday, mundane aspect of the first half of the film - how they stumbled upon making a time machine in a garage by accident. Maybe this director, given backing by a big studio, could make an even better SF movie.

  4. Cheryl,

    I gave up after about ten minutes and started
    over again, this time with the subtitles on.

    Thanks for the information about the synopsis on Wikipedia. I shall check it out. Maybe it will clear up some of the confusion and explain who that third person was.

    I'm also not clear as to why they kept it secret from the other two. I'm surprised the other partners didn't suspect something.

  5. R. T.,

    If I'm not prying, which title(s) did you find interesting?