April 24, 2011
The book in the bubble
Fascinating analysis of how automated pricing and a positive feedback loop led a pair of Amazon vendors to price an out-of-print book about flies at two million dollars – rising over just ten days to more than twenty three million dollars.
Plus, as the author notes, $3.99 shipping.
August 23, 2009
Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages
“Sir, I hope you are not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!” “I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for…”
-- Blackadder the Third, Ink and Incapability
What do you do when you come up against an artificial language of the 17th century that purports to map the very structure of reality itself? If you are Jorge Luis Borges, you use it as the jumping-off point for a fable and a witty critique. If you are Umberto Eco, you write a scholarly book about the quest to cast off the sin of Babel and rejoin the Godhead. And if you are Arika Okrent, you start looking up the word for “shit.”
That pretty much sums up Okrent’s approach to the world of artificial and constructed languages: pragmatic, irreverent and hands-on. Sure, she’s interested in the philosophical issues of Wilkins’ scheme, but she gets her head around them not by theorising, but by rolling up her sleeves and trying to translate something. She sniggers at Volapuk words that look like they involve puking or plopping, but she knocks herself out trying to break down sentences the way Lojban wants her to. She passes on Esperanto jokes, and goes all out to get her certification in Klingon. And, when the real world starts getting crazier than the artificial languages circuit, she yells at the television: “what kind of world do we live in that has room for dog yoga but not for Esperanto?”
In the Land of Invented Languages is aptly titled. If you’re interested in the theory or philology of artificial languages, you probably won’t find anything new here. Although the book is structured around a series of movements in language construction, its heart is with the people: the eccentrics, visionaries, idealists, megalomaniacs and hobbyists who create, sustain and enjoy the invented languages. It’s about the languages, sure, but it’s even more so about the cultures that have grown up around them and the people whose lives they have touched.
Here’s a characteristic section. In the late 1960s, staff at a Canadian clinic for disabled children introduced the children to a combinatoric language of symbols invented by Charles Bliss:
Kids whose communicative worlds had been defined by the options of pointing to a toilet, or waiting for someone to ask the right question, started talking about a car trip with a father, a brother’s new bicycle, a pet cat’s habit of hiding under the bed. Kids who were assumed to be severely retarded showed remarkable ingenuity in getting their messages across. When one little boy was asked what he wanted to be for Halloween, he pointed to the symbols “creature,” “drink,” “blood,” “night” – he wanted to be Dracula. One particularly bright little girl named Kari took to this new means of expression with so much gusto that she could barely stand to be away from her symbols. When her father picked her up from school, she would cry through the whole of the car ride home, and could not be consoled until she was on the living room floor with her symbols, telling her family about the exciting events of the day.
Okrent relates how Bliss, ‘delirious with joy’ at seeing his language put into use, mortgaged his house to visit the clinic, and quickly became a firm favourite with children and staff alike – only to become disillusioned and litigious when they failed to use it exactly as he intended – and yet still able to be a source of inspiration and pleasure to those he had helped so much. It’s an alternately joyous and agonising tale, and a very human one, a thousand miles from Borges and Eco’s allegorical and academic concerns.
Not that In the Land of Invented Languages is lacking in linguistic detail. Okrent’s hands-on attitude to artificial languages gives her an insight that’s missing from more theoretical commentators. Early in the book, she spends the best part of a week translating a sentence into Wilkins’ philosophical language, and emerges exhausted by the effort of analysing every word or concept to determine its placement in the grand scheme of things. Later, she tackles Loglan and Lojban, but, “frankly, the thought of trying to capture Lojban in a nutshell… fills me with despair. There is just so much… The reference grammar comes to over six hundred pages… I read the whole thing – I swear I did. And I’ll tell you, not only did I still not speak Lojban, but I started to lose my ability to comprehend English.” The earthy practicality of language as used versus the idealism of language as invented is a familiar theme, but Okrent finds it vividly brought to life in the land of invented languages: in her efforts to use Wilkins’ language, in the remorseless precision of Lojban, in Charles Bliss’ battles with his own supporters, in the idiomatic evolution of Esperanto.
And if the linguistic detail in the book isn’t enough for you, the Web site for In the Land of Invented Languages has samples and historical tidbits for many of the 500 artificial languages that Okrent lists. Hardly a scholarly analysis, but a lot of fun.
Which pretty much sums up the book. If you want a dispassionate study of artificial languages in a historical, philosophical or philological perspective, go elsewhere. Otherwise, well worth a read.
June 28, 2008
Another sf prediction lets us down
BBC News: "Martian soil appears to contain sufficient nutrients to support life - or, at least, asparagus."
In all the mass of science fiction dealing with the terraforming and colonisation of Mars, I don't think anyone has ever depicted a market garden economy based on asparagus. Reality-shaping drugs? Sure. Angels? Absolutely. Elvis? Everywhere. Paul McAuley even placed a side bet on yaks. But nobody ever anticipated this, did they?
February 24, 2008
China Mieville, Iron Council
Iron Council is the third book set in the world of New Crobuzon, an ancient, bloated, fantasy-industrial city with more than a hint of the Gothic and the grotesque. It tells the convergent stories of a democratic revolution within the city and a band of striking railway workers turned legends and nomads outside it.
The law of diminishing returns has hit the New Crobuzon series faster and harder than almost any other recent fantasy. The first book, Perdido Street Station, was a fine romp. The second, The Scar, tried to extend the franchise outside the gloriously mad setting of the city, but somehow the magic didn't travel. Iron Council revisits territory from both of the previous books; but the ground is barren, mined out, and the book's attempts to deflect attention from the lack of substance with heavy-handed style and shocking imagery actually have the opposite effect. With Iron Council, the series has reached the point of self-parody.
Mieville has a Clive Barker-like aptitude for gross, biological horror, with a sense of whimsy that makes it more horrible still. Ideas like the Remade, the magics and weapons of war, and so on were dramatic and imaginative when he first used them. Lacking new ideas, however, Iron Council tries to renew the old ones by making them even more extreme and unexpected. The effect, unfortunately, is alternately tedious and ludicrous. For an example of the latter, we encounter one war victim, "his skin erupted and splitting from beneath with dental wedges" because he was hit by a "toothbomb." A toothbomb? Sure, it's memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.
For an example of the former, whereas Perdido Street Station used character death to create emotion and sympathy, Iron Council uses death the way most books use semicolons. The book is a cavalcade of mutilation and slaughter, a procession of meaningless, grotesque deaths. One feels that the author is trying hard to shock, but the cumulative effect is just boredom. Consider the description of the "cacotopic zone." This is trailed as a hideous inruption of unreality whose mere name is enough to strike fear into the heart, and when our heroes cross its periphery they do indeed get horribly killed by grotesque monsters, turned into strange biological horrors and sucked into alien dimensions. Admittedly that may sound bad, but in Mieville's world there's a fair chance of getting horribly killed, turned into a horror or sucked into alien dimensions just opening your breakfast marmalade. Mieville's world has become so routinely full of grotesquerie and violence that, when he needs to pull out something special, he has nowhere left to go.
The writing style has also moved on to the point of self-parody. Always grandiose and dramatic, Mieville now drowns almost every sentence in a rich, eggy ambergris of minatory descriptiveness. "[The sun]'s vividness seemed to green slowly as it sank, as if it were verdigrising." (Verdigris is a verb now?) "The snow on its top was a colour snow should not be and was not snow but something alive and tenebrotropic." "Mussed by that ineffable bad energy, the explosion of shaping, a terrible fecundity. Vistas." (Even sentence structure is not immune from the "mussing" effects of Torque.) A landscape is "liminal... merciless... insinuatory, and fervent, and full of presences, animalised rock that hunted as granite must of course hunt." (All of the above taken from just one two-page spread, chosen at random, and by no means the best: I can't resist mentioning the despondent chap who "could not map the alterity he felt." Cheer up mate, at least you haven't had your nadgers Remade into a decorative fountain of the Emperor Napoleon.) At least this clears up the mystery of who got Stephen Donaldson's dictionary when he decided to go straight.
Finally, the plot. As with the previous books in the series, the plot is pretty much desultory. (In fact, there are several plots, all of them desultory.) This didn't matter in Perdido Street Station because the verve of the telling and the novelty of the setting made up for it, but Iron Council lacks those fig-leaves and at over 600+ pages the story drags. Even the author seems uninterested: when the main plot looks about to reach a conclusion, he just... stops. Some authors -- M John Harrison springs to mind -- excel at these "refusal of closure" endings, but Mieville's writing is too in-your-face, lacking Harrison's distancing style and fractured substance, for such an ending to feel appropriate or satisfying.
Fortunately, it looks like Mieville is taking a break from New Crobuzon after Iron Council. His latest book is a children's book which looks rather jolly and whose market will presumably force him to temper his Barker-Donaldson tendencies. Perhaps when he comes back to New Crobuzon he will feel reinvigorated; certainly there's a lot of potential left in the setting. This, on the other hand, is a weary flogging of a dead horse.
February 23, 2008
Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel
Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is one of the classics of recent fantasy, combining a compelling storyline with a rich, imaginative, genre-redefining setting. Given that, it's understandable that Swanwick has written a sequel, and it's laudable that he held out for 14 years before doing so. It's also inevitable that the sequel falls short of the original.
The Dragons of Babel follows a half-mortal village boy who becomes caught up in a war, escapes into the underworld of a great city, bluffs his way into high society and eventually achieves -- and escapes -- his birthright. The story is conventional enough and its primary purpose is to join together the episodes in which Swanwick shows off his weird and wonderful world.
And those episodes are pretty good. Sometimes they're industrial-era vignettes translated into the vocabulary of Swanwick's Faerie, but even these work pretty well. The segment in the prison camp, for example, is well told, and garnished with just enough eeriness to give it an aura of the fantastic without destroying its impact. Other times they are heroic fantasy tales transposed into a decadent, modernistic context. The segment with the rebels in the underground, riding to battle on horses and motorbikes, provides not only a fun image but ultimately also a telling insight into Swanwick's world.
The problem with The Dragons of Babel is that it is content to live within that world, to take it as a fact and explore it as one would any other fantasy world, from Middle-Earth to New Crobuzon. The Iron Dragon's Daughter, in contrast, teetered constantly on the brink of doubt: its echoes of and references to the real world created a vertiginous sense of ambiguity. Much of the thrill of the earlier novel came from the tension between the fantastic and the real. In The Dragons of Babel that tension is fatally missing. There are some desultory references -- Swanwick reuses the trick of turning quotes that are well-known to the reader into gnomic prophecies -- but ultimately Swanwick's world has become just another fantasyland.
Admittedly, Swanwick had to do something different this time around: he couldn't just trot out the same threads that drove The Iron Dragon's Daughter and change the name of the hero. But instead of trying to find some other way to create the sense of wonder that the earlier novel did, to add another level to the setting, The Dragons of Babel settles for revisiting the surface fantasyland without worrying about what might or might not lie beneath.
Still, as fantasylands go, Swanwick's merits this modest tour far more than most of those that get a three-volume epic. There's no lack of fun to be had here, with clever vixens, ribald centaurs, ennui-stricken lords, clerks by day who are sexy thieves by night, confidence tricksters who are more than they seem, and so on and so on. It's a pleasant enough read, but one which sadly misses the point of what made The Iron Dragon's Daughter so extraordinary.
September 19, 2007
Have we learned nothing from bad sf?
BBC News: "Hundreds of people in Peru have needed treatment after an object from space - said to be a meteorite - plummeted to Earth in a remote area... 'It [the object] is buried in the earth,' local resident Heber Mamani told the BBC... 'Our people [are] afraid. A bull is dead and some other animals are already sick.'"
People, people, people. When a fiery object falls to earth in a remote area late at night, leaving a crater which spews mysterious noxious gases, and especially when local animals start dying, it can mean only one thing. We can only wonder how many other invasion capsules lie undetected and waiting to disgorge their cargo of alien warriors.
August 10, 2007
Design patterns books
There was some discussion of design patterns at the last Wellington geek lunch and a number of books were mentioned. Ivan was going to post a list but until his comes along, here are the ones I remember talking about:
- Gamma et al., Design Patterns. Somebody was asking what was meant by "the Gang of Four." This is it.
- Buschmann et al., Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture. Larger-scale patterns: where Gamma et al. focus on the design of components, Buschmann et al. focus on ways of putting those components together.
- Martin Fowler, Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture. Tending to deal with how to implement a conceptual model; for example, the specifics of how to transmit data between the domain model and the database.
- Joshua Kerievsky, Refactoring to Patterns. Bevan mentioned that he liked to use patterns as "targets" to help him refactor poorly structured code. Kerievsky describes how to identify and approach appropriate "targets."
Others that didn't come up but are also well worth a look are Fowler's Analysis Patterns, Hohpe et al.'s Enterprise Integration Patterns and Tidwell's Designing Interfaces.
March 11, 2007
Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan
BBC News: "How Green Were the Nazis? and The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America are just two of the titles competing for an unusual book prize."
November 25, 2006
SF Book Club 50
Via Ian McDonald: "This is the Science Fiction Book Club's list of the fifty most significant science fiction/fantasy novels published between 1953 and 2002. Bold the ones you've read, strike-out the ones you hated, italicise those you started but never finished and put an asterisk beside the ones you loved." And per Ian's suggestion, <bracketing out> the ones I have no intention ever of reading.
1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick*
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe*
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey 22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson*
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
<29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice>
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley*
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith*
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
<48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks>
<49. Timescape, Gregory Benford>
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer
I'm not sure if some of the "loves" would still be there if I were to have reread the book since adolescence. I'm looking at you, Stephen R Donaldson.
October 23, 2006
John Crowley: "I think of it [Aegypt] basically as comic."