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Subject:Why I am disowning my undergraduate university
Time:07:38 pm
I greatly enjoyed, and benefited from, the time I spent as an undergraduate. I went to a small university which was focussed on undergraduate (B.A., B.Sc.) studies in the humane letters and core sciences. Its main distinction was not its specific programmes (although it had a few interdisciplinary areas: Environmental Studies, Native Studies, Canadian Studies) but its overall undergraduate focus, with small tutorials, a liberal arts orientation, and faculty who (in the absence of graduate studies) could focus on the more junior students.

The disciplines I took - English, Classics (Greek), Mathematics, French - had decently structured curricula and requirements which not only ensured that one would, if a major, get an even grounding in the discipline, but would also he able to plan fairly clearly what one wanted to take (for example, second year Greek offered a prose course (Attic 5th century) and a poetry course on Epic and Tragedy (a book of the Odyssey, a book of the Iliad, a tragedy by Sophocles, a tragedy by Euripides); as a Minor student I took the latter). The English curriculum had a few holes in its requirements - if one wanted to, one could graduate with an honours major without ever taking one of Milton or Pope (but not both) - but otherwise provided the necessary courses for a solid grounding. The French department required all majors to take Corneille and Racine, which made sense, given their preeminence. (I dabbled, having a lycée background in French Literature, and studied French poetry instead: I had already has my exposure to Polyeucte and Phèdre and wanted to cover some topics I hadn't already been as thoroughly exposed to.)

I received (yet another) appeal via e-mail for donations as an alumnus. I had been hearing things about the current state of the place - my father is a Professor Emeritus - and noting that advertisements I saw on the subway were increasingly vocation-oriented; so I downloaded a copy of the current academic calendar.

They've trashed the place. Why I say that will take a bit of explaining.

Why do we consider humane letters - literature, classics, history - to be worth supporting with public money for study at a university level?

The strictly utilitarian answer, represented recently by the Federal CPC's higher education policy, is that the study improves critical thinking to prepare students for the business world. However, this is at best an argument for some form of post-secondary education, and not for specific forms which are, honestly, as far away from the requirements of business as you can reasonably get before crossing over into the fine arts. This is the basis of innumerable jokes regarding arts majors ("Do you want fries with that?").

In fact, the use of first degrees as credentialism is well-embedded in HR departments mainly as a shortcut, weeding out people whose capacity was insufficient to get through a degree rather than preferencing those whose skills were enhanced by four years of studying Aelfric, Baudelaire, Greek particles, or the Raj. (It also has a less upfront goal of weeding out working class or poor students whose access to the system was less easy, and whose ability to succeed in university was conditioned, even once they got access, to mimic their middle-class co-students.)

And it certainly does not answer the question of why public money supports research into, say, Alcuin's letters.

(At the other extreme, the idea of pure "ivory tower" research, if taken seriously, may be a justification for funding, but it doesn't provide a model for what to fund; nor does it provide a reason why students who are not focussed on being dedicated scholars should be pressed into such an environment for three or four years.)

Note that I'm using funding as a shorthand for "social support": in some systems there is no public funding as such - just about any system until the mid 19th Century, to begin with - but there's a social/philosophical reason why such institutions have a (usually high-status) place made for them.

It's a much rehashed area, beginning (arbitrarily) with Newman and proceeding forward through modern educational arguments, and with roots going hack through the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes to the curricula of the ancient and mediaeval worlds. Anything I have to say about it will be profoundly unoriginal.

Two lines of thought seem to me to be fruitful, though.

First, as a culture and a society, we define our commonalities and values by reference to a bundle of core givens including art, literature, certain historical narratives. For literature and the arts, these form canons.

We can't really get away from this. We can drop and add works to a canon, ignore or rediscover or add in historical sub-narratives, and even allow for simultaneous but differing sets to coexist together as long as they share some common values (see, for example, Wieselter's Kaddish for a sense of what western history looks like from inside a Jewish perspective). A curriculum which officially rejects "the Canon" in favour of including works from marginalized voices is not escaping from the canonical but merely expanding the Canon at the behest of certain fundamental values.

Much of the 19th Century enterprise in American literature was about trying to define a Canon for that part of the New World. Like all such efforts, it built on what had come before - Shakespeare was wildly popular, Longfellow translated Dante, Bunyan was important, Milton influential - but added in new themes and authors: Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Melville. The American Revolution and Civil War provided historical narratives used to define USAn identity.

The same can be said of the mid 20th Century and Canada: Davies, Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Munro, and so on have become (partly for quality and partly for other reasons) a substantial part of a high school curriculum and Canadian Literature has a secure place in any Canadian English Department. (Note that it's open at a tertiary education level to ignore parts of a broad canon in favour of getting a groundwork in foundations: an argument can be made that the serious study of literature in English can be best grounded in a study of the generally best and most influential works, which would tend to emphasize more heavily older works and those with an international impact.)

For the past several centuries, a normative mix would have been (still is, in many ways): material from the classical world (my daughter's grade 9 English course has a Greek mythology component, and she is able to take Latin; at large, classical literary themes, philosophy, and history still play a significant role in public discourse and thought); from the English Renaissance (mainly Shakespeare in the schools, but the Tudors and Stuarts still occupy a niche in our collective memory palace); from the early 19th Century and the Napoleonic Wars, although the Romantics and Scott have faded out somewhat. The Victorians maintain a foothold in both popular and scholarly culture. World War II now occupies a large block of the collective history remembered generally (look at the history section in any bookstore), and more recent, local histories and narratives supplement the core, as do some reflecting minority viewpoints.

Secondly, although the old belief in the extensive benefits of an education in humane letters has been somewhat constrained by the experience of the 20th Century - see Steiner's Language and Silence - there is still an argument to be made that such an education produces benefits in the recipients which make them better and more informed citizens, possibly more discerning moral agents, and better equipped to improve their own quality of life.

This argument leans on both arms of the old defenses of literature as pleasant and utile, and on the perception that not learning history condemns one to repeat it. (Of course, one could repeat it in any case, like the Bourbons, forgetting nothing and learning nothing. You can lead a horse to water...) As such, it relies on the choice of topic, preferring the better over the worse as topics of study.

(As an aside, yes, there really are such absolute distinctions, unless one is genuinely ready to consider Milton the peer of Heavysedge).

The new curricula have thrown all that overboard. There are no longer, for example, any firm requirements regarding what one has to take to get a major in English. The department recommends some groupings, and a dedicated serious student could more or less approximate the courses I took, but the majority of courses are thematic in nature, some restricted to a given period, some diachronic. The better courses would in fact - at least as titles - make good graduate courses for students who already had a solid grounding; as undergraduate courses they amont to dabbling.

The modern language department website does not talk about literature at all; it's all about the uses of language in government or business. There are some courses in the standard canonical French texts in the syllabus, but none are required for a major in French (some small amount of study of Québécois literature is mandatory).

There is no set content for courses in Greek; they are of the form "Continuation of ancient Greek syntax and grammar, followed by readings from ancient authors". No specific texts are listed; conceivably the same course could be Homer in one year (it's at the level I took Homer at), Xenophon in another, and Procopius in a third, based on the inclinations of the teacher.

Cross-disciplinary programmes abound. I love good cross-disciplinary work, but the good work I see is produced by authors who have spent their years in the trenches of slog.

There's a frequent vocational tone to the material addressed to students: "Students of philosophy develop advanced skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication – valuable foundations in any number of career choices"; "You will develop exceptional research and communication skills [in History] that can be applied across many career options". We have let our community colleges become universities, but we our universities, at the undergraduate level, are promoting themselves as glorified community colleges.

(As far as skills in the workplace go, I'm not sure I use any skills which I did not develop in high school or, alternatively, on my own and not in my university years (like computer programming). I did start out for about six or seven years using knowledge I acquired in Law School, which is a very different kettle of fish from an undergraduate programme.)

Put bluntly, the appeal is a combination of the superficially glitzy and the unabashedly mercantile.

This "small university" is now four times the size it was in my day; they have sold their birthright for growth (and considerably upped the size of the graduate programme as well: the government funds graduate students much better than undergraduates.

The characteristics which I consider the important ones from my day are gone. I can no longer in good faith recommend it to someone looking for advice on university choice.
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Subject:Local weather
Time:08:11 am
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns

-T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"
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Subject:Martinmas, remembrance
Time:08:05 pm

Retrospective, and, I fear, prospective:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

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Subject:Aftermath
Time:03:33 pm
I have seen at least three fundamentally different analyses of what "happened" with Trump's win on Tuesday night. Each of them has some element of truth to it, but they give rise to very different models for response.

1) The first is well-represented by this Crooked Timber discussion around Ta-Nehisi-Coates argument that American democracy is fundamentally based on structural racism.

In the context of Trump's campaign and the things he said regarding Latinx and Black Americans (and probably other PoC groups as well, but those were the most prominent), to say nothing of the anti-Semitic undertones of some of the campaign advertising and the makeup of his alt-right supporters, it's obviously an important part of any analysis.

However, if one puts Trumpism and Trump into the broader context of Brexit, of France's Front National and other European nativist parties, it's clear that although race as a marker of in-group/out-group membership is a factor in almost all of these cases, it's hardly the specific historically conditioned form of American racism. In many cases the commonality would seem to be anti-immigrant sentiment (more on that below).

Note the significant support for Trump among Latinx and woman voters: although both explicit and structural racism and sexism are clearly factors in Clinton's defeat (and major factors, especially given the degree to which Hillary Clinton's entire career has been marked by fundamentally sexist evaluations which would have been different had a man been in the same position) this was not simply a revolt by white men against the other.

2) A second, divergent analysis is represented by Naomi Klein's Guardian article arguing that the fundamental problem is the underclasses who are losing out to globalism and neoliberalism. A milder form of the argument identifies the discontent driving Brexit, Trumpism, etc. with those who have lost work as a result of economic changes in the past two decades or so.

This argument at least takes the requirement of finding a generalizable course seriously. And it also has an obvious element of truth to it: the left is failing to mount much of a systematic alternative to the current system, and there certainly were Trump voters who had supported Sanders in the primaries. To the degree that anger at the elites is driven by income inequality and similar outcomes of the current system, it's certainly one underlying cause.

The problem is that the analyses of the makeup of Trump's vote and the Brexit vote (at least) suggest that the real losers are not driving the rejection of elite politics; instead the key demographics are those who are not at the sharp end of the stick, but rather those somewhat up the social and economic scale. They have certainly seen wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of rural life (they are, as a majority, rural), but they aren't dominated by the unemployed factory workers whose jobs have moved elsewhere. (This is not to say that such workers did not make up part of Trump's support; they were only part of it, however.)

In this context it's worth looking at the solution suggested by this analysis (and pushed quite heavily in Klein's article): that what is needed is a new firmly left-wing populist platform to provide an alternative to right-wing nativism. Developing a new progressive model which goes beyond tinkering at the edges of the system (the approach taken by the Clinton campaign) is a good thing in itself, but I see no evidence that as a way of confronting the current wave of events it would have been, or would be, successful. Corbyn has the firm support of the majority of Labourites, and Labour is not exactly succeeding at capturing the UK. In an election between Sanders and Trump, although there are certainly some ex-Sanders supporters who moved to support Trump, it's hard to believe that they outnumbered the centrists and less conservative Republicans who were willing to vote for Clinton but would have balked at an explicitly socialist candidate. Klein puffs the Leap Manifesto (while skimming over the fact that it's basically a family project) without noting that it's a manifesto for a party which has never come within any reasonable distance of national power (and the closest it came was under a relative centrist, Jack Layton, against a very unpopular Liberal leader as the alternative opposition choice) and which has been decried by the branches of that party that are actually in power provincially.

In the absence of this sort of economic dislocation, the anger fuelling Trump's win would have been less powerful, less widespread, and he would probably have failed. So in that sense it's a "cause"; but it's hard to imagine a progressive agenda to fix it which would have won in the context of the US. (The case of Brexit is special: an intelligent progressive would never have called the referendum in the first place. Ok, you can replace "progressive" with "human" in that last sentence.)

Note that a more aggressively progressive left is less likely to get anywhere if a significant source of malaise if future shock or its equivalent. Which leads us to...

3) A third analysis points at anger at fundamentally cultural change: Brexit voters who are Little Englanders, Americans who are nostalgic for the 1950's, people who really don't want to face anthropogenic climate change and thereby have to change their habits, rural dwellers whose communities are being hollowed out by internal shifts towards the cities as farming becomes more agribusiness and countries as a whole become more urban, Evangelicals who resent increasing secularism and immigrants with other religions (whether different faiths such as Islam or just different variants such as Hispanic Catholicism).

Resentment of immigration may slot into this model better than into point (2). Importing Mexicans to pick crops (à la George Murphy) does not obviously displace US workers; likewise, the NHS nurse from Poland at a local English hospital has probably been hired in the absence of sufficient English applicants for nursing positions. Both, however, are markers of change.

This fits many aspects of the general situation relatively well.

First, there's basically nothing that can be done about it. It's all very well to declaim "Turn back the universe and give me yesterday", but it won't work. Even a "succesful" imposition of political reaction does not restore the social fabric of the past (the German states of 1825 were not very much like the German states of 1785, regardless of what Prince Metternich was able to do).

I'm willing to bet that one of Trump's promises which will not be fulfilled is the full mass deportation of "unlawful immigrants": too many economic interests would be impacted (fruit is already withering on the vine in some areas because of an insufficient workforce). There may be a few dramatic staged raids of some form or another, but there will be nothing systematic and long-term. (Ditto with the wall: Congress is not about to authorize that expense.)

Secondly, it's always been around, in one form or another. (There have been long periods when social change moved at a snail's pace, but not since at least the Sixteenth Century.) My grandfather, who died in 1978, was born on a farm in the Annapolis valley where horses were the primary source of power and where there was no such thing as plumbing or electricity; by the time he died (living in Toronto) the Apollo missions were over, he drove a car and lived in a multicultural apartment building, and had lived through all the changes of the Twentieth Century.

Thirdly, insofar as some of this sort of malaise is driven by loss of relative status, or the fear thereof, any attempt to address it will result in keeping some variant of "the lower orders" down. (Hence the close relation of this sort of concern with point (1), and its close relation to analyses of privilege.)

If this is the biggest driver of this sort of electoral shift - a permanently angry and emotionally deracinated electorate - then it's not going to go away. (Immediate champions will be up like a rocket and down like the stick, as they prove unable to address the change fuelling the anger.)

The one upside of this is that there is something that can be done, if the analyses are correct: there is a negative correlation between educational level - a proxy for "being better informed" - and support for this sort of politics. Increasing the number of educated members of the population as part of a general initiative shows some promise of blunting this type of political force.

Finally, it's worth noting that none of these factors is "the" explanation for a Trump win: it was fuelled by a combination of general factors as well as by contingent events (it is arguable that Comey's intervention might have cost Clinton the Presidency, and even more arguable that a Clinton identical in all other respects who had not had a private e-mail server would now be President-elect).
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Subject:I have a bone to pick with Dean's Tam Lin
Time:10:47 pm
Actually, two bones. One small one with the author and a much larger one with the current publisher's marketing department.

The smaller bone first: I was a faculty child for my undergraduate years, and an English major (along with a block of Classics). Janet's relative lack of knowledge of the university (specifically, the faculty) where her father teaches Romantics (mine taught Hegel) keeps breaking my WSOD.

Of my five professors in first year, I was acquainted with three, not because I chose courses based in whether I knew who taught them (though I did choose sections in two courses by what I knew of them: of the two professors, one I had known for eight years, and one I knew of only by name) but just because one becomes familiar with one's father's SCR and departmental colleagues, not to mention the number of faculty members whose children had gone to high school with one. And all my teachers, all the dons, my head of college, knew who I was.

Janet, by comparison, knows the campus, but not the people. I have a very hard time seeing her as a faculty child.

As for the bigger bone: this book was originally published as an adult fantasy book as part of Tor's Fairy Tale series. It has been republished, and marketed, as a YA/teen book.

This is a book whose full enjoyment depends on things like knowing who Robert Armin was, or what the actual sound of Shakespeare's English was like. It helps if one knows Le Roman de la Rose, The Lady's Not For Burning, Tourneur, Summer's Last Will and Testament, classical tragedy, and Stoppard, or at least about them. These are not things which any plausible typical teen is going to know. (I did, in fact, know these things by 19, by which time I was in second year university, but I'm pretty sure that's not the slot envisaged by "teen literature".) There is no reasonable sense in which this book can be considered as aimed at anything other than an adult audience, and a fairly well-educated adult audience at that.

Overall, though, it's a delightful book, and better (I think) than Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock, although Jones has a better structure, starting in medias res. The disparity in ages in Jones' version works against the story, whereas the undergraduate atmosphere of Dean's story actively helps the flow of the story.
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Subject:First Lensman and Trump
Time:01:39 pm
Trump's latest speech seems to me to read as though it were lifted from Senator Morgan's speeches in the campaign in First Lensman.
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Subject:Question regarding qualifications
Time:01:14 pm
I keep hearing the statement that Hillary Clinton is "the most qualified presidential nominee ever".

Now I grant that she is among the most qualified nominees. But I look at John Quincy Adams (Senator 1803-1808, Secretary of State 1817-1825, and Ambassador to the Netherlands (1794-1797), Russia (1809-1814), and the United Kingdom / Court of St. James (1814-1817). Is it reasonable, even counting Clinton's experience as First Lady, to consider her more qualified?
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Subject:Hell has officially frozen over
Time:12:22 pm
Glenn Beck has effectively endorsed Clinton.
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Subject:GGK and Children of Earth and Sky
Time:09:51 pm
I was in Law School at the University of Toronto when The Summer Tree came out; I remember being amused by one of the central characters who is persuaded to come along by a promise of notes for his Evidence class (with Schiff, though Kay leaves the teacher's name out; but Kay went to U of T and would have deliberately chosen that course because of that teacher).

It made a big splash, and over the next couple of years the series was completed. It was a big piece of heroic fantasy which pulled out every stop it could - dark lord, elves, dwarves, Arthur, demigods; it showcased Kay's strength for pivotal scenes and introduced his tendency to deploy them for a somewhat manipulative effect.

Of all of the neo-Tolkienian authors of the 1980s and 90s Kay seems to me the only one who really picks up on Tolkien's theme of gradual loss over deep time and of reconciliation after a long fall: perhaps not surprisingly, given his involvement in the publication of The Silmarillion. The Fionavar Tapestry put at the centre of the story the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness over a very long time.

It also got classic High Fantasy out of Kay's system. Tigana was an entirely new departure, as non-Tolkienian as, say, Mirrlees or Eddison: a calque on Renaissance Italy, and with themes of group identity, revenge, freedom, and the trade offs that may need to be made in asserting "freedom".

As with A Song For Arbonne, however, the calque on history is not close. The Peninsula of the Palm has the air of Renaissance Italy, but its history is nothing like Italy's; and the equivalent of the Cathar crusade in Arbonne fails, as a result of the personal arc of the central characters. (Nor did the male/female god/goddess warlike/peaceful split parallel our history: if any historical figure from medieval France resembles the northerners, it's Bertran de Born.)

With the exception of Ysabel, which is a pendant to the Fionavar story with some additional European deep background, his subsequent books have been about individual interactions in the shadow of great events. Sometimes the core characters are central (Alfred the Great, El Cid) and sometimes they are peripheral.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is Kay's first book in the Jaddite / Sarantine parallel world. (Although the calqued-onto-history method is similar to that of his prior two books, they take place in different worlds. References to Fionavar, which is the base of all parallel worlds including our own do get into every book. And it's interesting to note that, given the latter point, it's certain that none of the Jaddites, Asharites, or Kindath are correct, as the gods are known in Fionavar and match none of their beliefs.) And it is the first to hew closely to our history.

It parallels the story of El Cid and the Reconquista in Iberia, but uses the freedom of alternative history to provide minor divergences, and, as in all of his works along these lines, his real focus is on the personal lives of his central characters, and with the ways in which minor chance occurrences or decisions can shape later great events.

If Tigana is about identity and liberty, and the costs they incur, Lions is about the tensions between tolerance and allegiance, and how personal loves and friendships cut across them.

Lions' characters are central agents. By contrast, the Sarantine Mosaic gives us a picture of a slightly modified Justinian and Theodora through the eyes of a peripheral figure, the mosaicist Crispin (and a history which diverges more from our own). By the time of Children of Earth and Sky Crispin's name has been forgotten and his mosaics - those which survive at all - vary between having been destroyed (Sarantium), being in the process of falling apart (the chapel in Trakesia) and being still significant (that world's equivalent to Ravenna). It helps to have read the duology before the latter book.

With a significant degree of variation, Kay explores the interaction between individual lives and personal intent (at one pole) and large-scale events with an impact on society (at the other) and the elements of chance and unexpected consequences which connect the two together.

Kay has been criticized for the use of "manipulative" narrative tricks to engage the reader emotionally. I see the tricks, but I don't think of them as major flaws so much as shorthand, the activity of an occasionally intrusive narrator in a literary world where intrusive narration is less popular than it used to be. (Another aspect of this is the way in which the perspective of the narrator can briefly shift to an historical one, referring to the state of a place, or a person's reputation, centuries after the end of the story.)

Children of Earth and Sky is classically Kay: four characters (a spy, an artist, a pirate and a Janissary) pass through and in various ways influence events following the fall of Sarantium to the Asharites (that world's analogue of the fall of Constantinople). Like Crispin in The Sarantine Mosaic, they are peripheral: their various actions just miss having an immediate major impact until the one whom one would think least likely - the artist - changes the course of events for the next couple of generations decisively. (The El Cid and Albert the Great

One obvious parallel is Dunnet's The Year of the Ram, set mainly in Trebizond in a similar time frame. Kay is not in a position to provide as close-grained an image of the life of the time and place as Dunnet is: he has to deal with the limitations as well as the advantages of a made-up world. But Dunnet can't alter the succession of events, and Niccolo remains a onlooker to a course of events he (by definition) can't really affect.
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Subject:Necessity
Time:05:44 pm
Review with SpoilersCollapse )
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Subject:The Nightmare Stacks
Time:09:16 pm
The Nightmare Stacks is, I think, best approached as a generalization of the previous Laundry Files novels. Although the novel is about Alex, it's not about his reactions in the same way that the early novels were about Bob's reactions (usually for humorous effects). This is about the role of the Laundry as a whole in a world shifting towards Nightmare.

Cut for Spoilers...Collapse )
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Subject:In the category of "read the book before you summarize it"
Time:09:20 pm
The following is the CBC's capsule summary of Tigana from its list of 100 great Canadian novels from last July (they had a list of nonfiction this year, about which the less said the better):

Peninsula of the Palm is a cursed country. Warrior sorcerers have taken control of most of it, destroying as much culture and infrastructure as they can in the process. Nowhere is it worse than it is in in Tigana -- a place so dire that people can't even speak its name. But after years of living in darkness, citizens begin a movement to reclaim their beloved country. Guy Gavriel Kay's rich tale of fantasy and revenge is a reflection on what it means to lose one's culture and identity -- a theme sure to strike home with any reader.


Nearly every sentence of that paragraph is wrong in some way (beginning with omitting the "The" which ought to be the first word) - if not directly, then by implication.

ETA: Having glanced at the blurb on the back of the current paperback, it is clear from structural similarities that this results from the blurb being plagiarised^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H rewritten by someone who had not read the book. Bad, bad C.B.C.
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Subject:The Erasure and Recreation of Tradition
Time:11:12 am
In the mid-1970's while living in France I learned the words and music to a traditional song, "Les Filles des Forges" (which had been covered by the band Tri Yann). The lyrics were a mild joke at the expense of the priest in the song, but with no obvious connection to any deeper tradition.

However, it turns out that the lyrics had been heavily reworked. A footnote in Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen led me to the original version, collected by Adolphe Orain in the late 19th Century:

Ce sont les filles des forges (bis)
Des forges de Paimpont,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Des forges de Paimpont,
Falaridain', falaridon.

Qui furent à confesse (bis)
Au curé de Beignon.
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Au curé de Beignon,
Falaridain', falaridon.

En entrant dans l'église (bis)
Ont demandé pardon,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Ont demandé pardon,
Falaridain', falaridon.

Qu'avez-vous fait, les filles (bis)
Pour demander pardon ?
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Pour demander pardon,
Falaridain', falaridon.

J'avons couru les danses (bis)
En habit de garçons,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
En habit de garçons,
Falaridain, falaridon.

Vous aviez des culottes (bis)
Dessous vos blancs jupons,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Dessous vos blancs jupons,
Falaridain, falaridon.

J'avions ben des culottes (bis)
Mais point de cotillons,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Mais point de cotillons,
Falaridain' falaridon.

Allez-vous-en, les filles (bis)
Pour vous point de pardon,
Falaridon, falaridaine,
Pour vous point de pardon,
Falaridain', falaridon.

Il faut aller à Rome (bis)
Chercher l'absolution,
Falaridon. falaridaine.
Chercher l'absolution,
Falaridain', falaridon.

Si je l'avons à Rome
Je l'aurons ben à Beignon,
Falaridon, Falaridaine,
J' l'aurons ben à Beignon,
Falaridain', falaridon.



There are two things to note about this completely different story: first, the lyrics distinguish between the correct French of the curé and the patois of the girls (which has been lost in the recent version); secondly, the topic is the festal custom (highly disapproved of by the church, though not to the point of requiring a papal indulgence for absolution) of dancing in the clothes of the opposite sex; in this specific case, according to Orain, on the Feast of St-Eloi, the first of December.

This and other similar feasts were in decline in rural France throughout the latter part of the 19th Century, and were largely extinct by the beginning of the 20th.
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Subject:Janet Kagan's Work
Time:10:34 pm
For a while, I've been keeping my eye out for Janet Kagan's Mirabile, out of print for some time.

I was surprised when, as a result of a pro-forma check of my wish list, I found that it was available and had just been reissued in e-book form only by Baen. It's not visible anywhere on the Baen upcoming releases page, but they have reissued Mirabile, Hellspark, and a collection of short stories as e-book only. I presume that they acquired the rights or were chosen by the estate to reissue them.
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Subject:World War II and SFnal Memory
Time:02:02 pm
When I was growing up in the 1960s, it was World War I that had all the literary heft: Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Jones, Remarque, Céline, Ford.[1] By contrast, the Second World War seemed to have generated much in the way of history but little in the way of literature, aside from F.T. Prince's "Soldiers Bathing": Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin was pre-war; Smith's Last Train From Berlin and Shirer's Berlin Diary are both more at the journalism end of the memoir scale than the literary one. If we half-discount Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (1947), at the popular novel end of its spectrum, the major exception was Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-1961); Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet was set during the war but was not principally concerned with it. During the 1960s this was joined by the third "season" of Dance to the Music of Time (1964-1968) and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969). Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, arguably the most important literary work dealing with WWII, came out in 1973, nearly thirty years after the war ended: by contrast, In Parenthesis, the last of the major literary works on the Great War, came out just under twenty years after its end.

There is a sense in which "Little Gidding" is a Second World War poem; the same can be said of The Pisan Cantos. In neither case, however, is the core subject matter the war, even though they incorporate experiences directly tied to the war. Auden grapples with facets of it, and its precursor and successor events, in short poems -- "In Memory of W. B. Yeats", "September 1, 1939", "The Shield of Achilles". The war as a whole may have seemed too large, too terrible, for a writer to attempt to deal with it, as such, until considerable time had passed.

Speaking from the present, though, the stream of written works on the war became a flood long ago. At the documentary level, it's become almost a joke: the typical history section in a bookstore is weighed down by WWII books. Novels set during the war -- military, spy, fictional memoirs -- are a dime a dozen, and this has spilled into speculative fiction as well.

There may be an argument to be made that speculative fiction, partly because its conterfactuals allowed it to get some sort of parallax on what was seen as a unique event, and partly becuase it could handle the absurd, was the natural choice for handling the war. The Pynchon and the Vonnegut are both, inarguably, speculative fiction.

These days, we have a good sheaf of speculative fiction regarding WWII to look at. If we use award-related examples (only) as an index, 1970 has a Hugo nomination for Slaughterhouse Five, Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for the Nebula in 1973, and then a gap of nearly thirty years passes, followed by Cryptonomicon (Hugo nomination) in 2000, Blackout / All Clear (Hugo winner) in 2011. Atkinson's Life After Life (2013: multiple awards) and A God in Ruins (2015, Locus long list) are focussed on the war.

Also, although there is ample evidence that The Lord of the Rings is not a product of WWII (but rather of the Great War), there is an argument to be made that the set of LOTR-successors with dark lords being defeated by the forces of good are refracting the experience of the fight against Nazism into a medium which could replicate the white (or at least light) against black narrative of that war in another context. (One has only to look at Eddison to see the earlier "standard" heroic model, derived from Homer, of two matched sets of heroes fighting each other.)

There's even a significant subgenre of purely alternate history WWIIs. The Man in the High Castle (1963) and The Iron Dream (1972) (neither of which deal directly with the war as such) are the obvious examples, followed by the beginning of Stirling's Draka series (Marching Through Georgia, 1988) and Turtledove's reworking (1994-1996): Life Beyond Life is merely the most recent of them. (For that matter, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August takes place largely over the span of WWII, though its primary focus is elsewhere.)

But Turtledove, Stirling, Stephenson, Willis, North, and Atkinson are all too young to remember the war. Has it gone from being too major a thing to encapsulate in writing to become a permanent constellation in the cultural firmament as it passes out of living memory?

[1] This was topped off and encapsulated by Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory in 1975.
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Subject:Safely You Deliver: "Salva me ex ore leonis: et a cornibus unicornium humilitatem meam."
Time:10:21 am
Safely You Deliver is Graydon Saunders' third book about the Commonweal. Unlike his previous two books, this is very much not an entry point: it follows, and has largely the same characters as A Succession of Bad Days. Comments below also assume familiarity with the prior book, although they contain no real spoilers.

Although we do encounter Reems again, briefly, this is no more a military book, or one about warfare, than its immediate predecessor. Formally, it has two main structural threads: the continuing education and, um, graduation, of the main characters in the sorcery school (which Halt continues to insist is not a school, thereby irritating at least one bureaucrat); and the adoption (on both sides) of a unicorn into their social group (Although not their working link). The unicorn, aside from being very much his own person (human-level sentient) stands in as well as a representative of life from outside the Commonweal which can nevertheless be, with work, accommodated within the Commonweal. As such, the thread of his growth intertwines with that of the students' growth.

One way to read this novel, the most obvious one, is the end of a bildungsroman, the passage from late youth to full adulthood, where the issues being dealt with are those of social incorporation into the broader adult society and the achievement of a degree of mastery sufficient to be self-supporting within society. Of course, "adulthood" and "self-supporting" have different shades of meaning when they involve making a metaphysical transition and becoming full Independents: this is a fantasy novel, not purely a novel of manners. "Social incorporation" also has a certain edge when the normal effects of becoming an Independent are to become less social -- and the progress of the central characters not only requires that they transform that model for themselves, but assist in providing a more general emerging social web for other Independents, a kind of extended family.

From another angle, thematically, it's about the maintenance of civilisation generally -- partly maintenance against threats but still more ensuring that sufficient resources are available to maintain it, and that those resources are used appropriately. What the students choose to do and what the emerging (to us) needs of the Second Commonweal are dance in counterpoint through the novels, with the risks associated with both recognized and skirted. The knife-edge on which the Second Commonweal stands becomes more apparent: it lacks the population base of the First Commonweal and is in a race against time to catch up to the productive capabilities required to maintain civilisation, while having to balance off the need to commit heavily in resources to basic survival at the agriculture and transport level. There are concrete external threats -- Reems -- as well as indicators that there may be more at work, not known or understood yet.

Conflict of the sort you would expect in a military fantasy is not only avoided but subverted: not only is such conflict as occurs more readily assimilable to weeding, but the in-work analysis after the event makes it clear that although it fixes an immediate threat it not only is unable to address the more general problems but may actually make them worse. (Oddly, Graydon is one of two Toronto authors whom I know who have recently expressed a concern to emphasize a "fighting-isn't-decisive in general" model in fantastic works: the other has made this a central theme in an under-contract-but-yet-to-be-published series which will not start coming out for a while.)

According to his progress reports, Graydon is moving more slowly on the next one (tentatively "Under One Banner") than he did on this, so it may be a while until the next installment.
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Subject:A Sleep of Prisoners
Time:01:54 pm
In 1966, the newly formed Peterborough Theatre Guild bought the ruins of St. Luke's Anglican Church, which had burned down in 1959. (The parish had decided to rebuild on a different site somewhat to the south.) As its first production it put on Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners, directed by Fern Rahmel ("Miss Rahmel" to those of us who went to PCVS), using the not-fully-reconstructed body of the church (it followed up by doing a full reconstruction: during my days in Peterborough, beginning in 1970, it was recognizably based in a building which had been a church, but it was by no means "a ruined church"). A connection who was at the first performance remembers that one could still smell the smokiness of the burned timbers.

Trent University's archives have a copy of a script for ASOP from Rahmel's papers with director's notes. I have a copy a the first edition from Rahmel's library with light notes which indicate that it was also a director's copy.

Flash forward fifty years. Last year a member of my parish (St. Mary Magdalene's, Toronto) who is also a professional actor and director (Alistair Martin Smith) floated the idea of directing a play there, with the inevitable Murder in the Cathedral as a suggestion. Now I like the Eliot play and consider it an important piece of work -- but it is regularly covered in parish dramas, so I suggested A Sleep of Prisoners instead.

He took this suggestion up. Feeling responsible, I got myself pulled in as one of the actors...

It is likely to be a mildly interesting production. My view of the play is that it shows different perspectives shed on an essentially static set of figures chosen by Fry as types -- a man of action but little reflection; a man of reflection with little aptitude for action or "normal" interactions (he's not obviously Autism spectrum but he could be played that way); a practical figure whose authority comes from his position (Corporal among Privates); and an older man who has inherent authority as a result of experience and temperament. Martin Smith's view is less static, and his presentation also departs from the model given in the script's stage directions.

Fry is an interesting figure. He never appears on "great writers" lists, but he has a substantial body of work with a consistently high level of accomplishment. He's visibly influenced by Eliot's later work (dramatic and non-dramatic) but is in no way a Modernist in approach.

Like Eliot, Sayers, and Williams he wrote "religious verse drama", if by that one means dramas with events in church history or biblical narratives as topics: The Boy with a Cart, A Sleep of Prisoners, The Firstborn, Thor, with Angels, arguably Curtmantle and One Thing More; The Tower is on the history of Tewkesbury Abbey and was commissioned by them but does not seem to be in print or accessible. However, his focus is on human rather than divine action (he was a Quaker by conversion, C. of E. by birth) and many of them seem to me to be in intention explorations of scenes in a common English history where religion is one thread. (One exception is Thor, With Angels, which was written for the Canterbury Festival on commission, in succession with Eliot Murder in the Cathedral, Williams (Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury), and Sayers (The Zeal of Thy House): its focus is on conversion: both individual and the group conversion of Kent by Augustine. It also manages to diverge from history by bringing Merlin onstage.) By contrast, Eliot, Sayers, and Williams all came from one part or another of the High Church spectrum and their works play off sacramental themes.

His most popular plays, like The Lady's Not For Burning, were comedies, not explicitly religious; Fry himself said that he saw little difference between the two sets of plays other than their settings.

He has no successors: the next generation of English dramatists were the Angry Young Men. When they came along he went on to screenwriting (partly big blockbusters like Ben-Hur).

The performances will be on the 11th and 12th of March at 8:00 pm at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.
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Subject:Bheer
Time:01:08 pm
It is slightly over a year since I posted about the LCBO and Brewers Retail.

In that intervening time, the landscape has changed somewhat in a number of ways:

  • The Government of Ontario has started a limited programme of selling beer in grocery stores. This is is available mainly to larger chain retailers (no running down to the corner to the dépanneur in this province), but is planned to cover 450 stores eventually (equal to the number of BR stores). What was originally a bizarre hard cap on quantities sold has been replaced by profit-sharing above a certain limit.


  • Molson has bought out Mill Street Brewery in Toronto, one of Ontario's larger independent brewers. They claim that it will operate at arm's length and maintain quality, but at the very least they are likely to focus on growth with the line of beers they have rather than experimenting much or extending their range. (They weren't very edgy in the first place: their Tankhouse Ale is a reliable full-bodied ale, but their Organic Lager is tasteless; their most interesting beer is probably their coffee porter, which is not for everyone.)


  • The secret agreement between the LCBO and BR has been replaced by an explicit and public "master framework agreement" which puts far more control on Brewers Retail, and ensures greater representation of craft brewers in all venues.


  • On that front, some LCBO locations are being outfitted with in-store boutiques to highlight craft brewers. These include tasting areas which draw from casks. I've seen one of these, at the Summerhill LCBO, but it wasn't functional at the time.


  • Another really good brewpub has opened in downtown Toronto: the Folly, on College Street near Dovercourt. It tends towards farmhouse-style beers with a sour edge, and also has a large Scotch list and good food.


  • Two new good IPAs from local brewers are now available in cans: GLB's Lake Effect IPA (which is not entirely new, but used to be available only occasionally in large bottles) and Collective Arts' Ransack the Universe, available up to now mainly on tap.


Boycotting Brewers Retail is not as compelling as it used to be, although it's still true that buying there will send profits out of the country which would otherwise remain in Ontario (or at least Canada, if you buy at a grocery store).

Next up: the Government is now moving towards liberalizing wine sales...
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Subject:Two Novels
Time:09:03 am
Two books were released on the same day a couple of weeks ago, which I picked up and have now read: Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky and Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Blades.

This was a really good start to the year, in terms of book quality: these are as different as chalk and cheese, but both are in their own ways very good indeed.

The Anders is a more-or-less this-world mashup of SF and fantasy in the relatively near future, with climate change beginning to have a significant impact on the US and incorporating a secret history of magic users who have been among us secretly. It's also a bildungsroman dealing with a boy and a girl who both have dire childhoods, are friends in high school, and meet again as adults.

It's the sort of SF where all the science is handwaving: a two-second time machine, an interdimensional gateway, a way of cancelling gravity. This is deliberate: there is a meditated element of the absurd drifting around the edges of the story. It's not meant to suggest to the reader that the future might actually be like this (quite apart from the pure fantasy elements). It's a story driven by and deriving its appeal from the human motivations and reactions of the protagonists. It also feels quite "finished" and complete in itself, not the beginning of a series, even if the protagonists end in a "world was all before them" mode.

By contrast, the Bennett is a secondary world fantasy, following his excellent City of Stairs, with detailed political and historical backgrounds. For all that it's very much another world, the issues it makes the reader think about are very much our issues (or at least some of them) : colonialism (the "colonial" power in the books used to be colonized (and badly treated) by the now colonized), martial triumphalism, war crimes, civilian control of the military, and low-level (guerrilla) warfare, plus some interpersonal and family dynamics with real heft.

Bennett has been improving as he moves along. I found American Elsewhere well written, but felt that it had baked in structural problems. City of Stairs was brilliant, and I felt that it deserved a place among the Hugo nominations last year (at least): as it was, it placed 11th and would have missed the shortlist even without the Puppies. This book builds on its predecessor and displays Bennett's strengths to their fullest.

It concludes with the immediate arc having reached a full and final conclusion, but leaves other broader arcs open-ended (the ultimate Saypuri handling of their role as masters of the world being one: both books so far have ended with impending political changes in the capital). There will be, I understand, a third book, City of Miracles, with Sigrud as a central character (who is, for once, not a Saypuri).

I've seen it objected that working out who is responsible is too easy, that the reader is ahead of the narrator he/she is following. I think this is to misunderstand the specific type of this book: this is not a detective story with a brilliant sleuth whom the reader can, if so willing, try to second-guess, but a journey of discovery or a military mission with a very blunt, straight-ahead (regardless of torpedoes) viewpoint character. (If it has any parallels with the detective story, it is with the hard-boiled type where the guilty character is fairly obvious but where the proof of this is achieved through the P. I. getting beaten up several times along the way.)
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Subject:2015 SFF Novels Read
Time:10:36 am
These are SFF books from 2015 which I read in the past year (i.e. those which could be nominated for Hugos), unranked, but with a few comments on each.

Foxglove Summer (Ben Aaronovitch)- I wrote about this when it came out. It's a good installment in a solid urban fantasy series.

The Dread Wyrm (Christian Cameron) - I posted about the whole cycle of books earlier this year. This installment opens up the scope of the work considerably, while maintaining the high standards and the specific strengths of the first two volumes.

The Vorrh (Brian Catling) - Certainly the most beautifully written of the Hugo-eligible books I have read, and a fantasy which strikes out in a direction which is very much its own. (This was published in 2012 in the UK by Honest Publishing, but is eligible because its first US publication, by Vintage, was in 2015.)

The Clockwork Crown (Beth Cato) - The second volume of a well-received duology, right on the boundary between YA and adult in tone and content. A nice light read in a steampunk world which has limited depth but enough charm to carry the narrative.

Crooked (Austin Grossman) - A clever and enjoyable crossing of a Lovecraftian universe with a Secret History version of Richard Nixon's life (bits of it are reminiscent of Stross's "A Colder War", although it is not nearly so dark).

Veiled (Benedict Jacka) - Like, seemingly, all the other UF series I read this is developing a strong overarching plot arc as opposed to a model of full episodic closure in each volume. Verus is getting more squeezed and less able to back away and stand free of things. I found this enjoyable and will happily pick up Burned when it comes out (currently scheduled for April).

Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) - This wraps up the series quite nicely, and includes space battles plus really alien aliens. If you read the first two novels, it's probably enough to say that it maintains the level of quality and brings off a satisfying conclusion; if you haven't, this is certainly not the place to start.

If we go by popularity for all three of the parts of this trilogy on sites like LibraryThing (not to mention all those awards for Ancillary Justice), Leckie shows signs of being one of the really major new talents of the 2010s in terms of reception as well as quality.

A Red-Rose Chain (Seanan McGuire) - Another solid entry in this series. I enjoy reading them; they hover right on the edge of mind-candy. Characterization is good, plot twists are effective; though (as with several other writers in this general field) the plot device of solving the crime / problem by getting beaten up, venerable as it is, begins to get a bit old.

Uprooted (Naomi Novik) - This has received a ton of positive comment, and I thought it a good read, and excellent for its first two-thirds, but I was disappointed by the resolution, which felt a little too facile , bordering on ex machina. It is what it sets out to be, an effective telling of a fairy tale, but it pays the price for it by sticking to types for the main characters (every one of them with the possible exception of the narrator can be summed up in a couple of sentences) which is appropriate for a fairy tale but weakens it as a novel. Furthermore, the relationship between the main characters, taken as a realistic rather than a fairy-tale one, borders on abusive but this is (in a fairy-tale way) pushed to one side ... which leaves one with the choice between abandoning reading this as a novel rather than a fairy-tale, or treating the first-person narrator as deeply unreliable (which brings its own problems).

The Shepherd's Crown (Terry Pratchett) - Understandably weaker than most other Discworld books, given Pratchett's death before it could be finished, but it is still an effective and attractive story, closing off two important arcs in the Discworld narrative.

A Succession of Bad Days (Graydon Saunders) - Reviewed in full here.

A Darker Shade of Magic (Victoria Schwab) - I thought that this should have captured my attention much more than it did. I didn't get anywhere near the Eight Deadly Words, but I put it down to pick up something more appealing from my TBR list and have not yet picked it back up again.

Seveneves (Neal Stephenson) - This is basically a pair of very different stories connected by an intervening timeline. I liked it well enough while recognizing the considerable problems that existed with the genetics and related biological sciences handwaving. It seems to me that the core of the work is not "what would we do if the moon blew up?", but rather, "what would a world shared between variant human species look like"? (I say species because although they seem to be interfertile Stephenson has rigged his backstory so that the closest parallel to his seven-plus-two types of human is not modern "races", whose divergences are literally only skin deep -- other distinctions cut across "race" lines and there is more diversity within any modern "race" than between any two of them -- but rather the Africa of a million years ago where there seem to have been many variant hominin species.) To get there, he needs a very elaborate setup -- requiring not only heavy (and unrealistic) use of genetic engineering but the provision of a set of environments where subgroups could grow in relative isolation -- so that he can then examine cooperation and conflict between these radiating groups with the background of a common "epic". It is more a return to SF roots than anything else I've read recently: engineer's fiction.

The Annihilation Score (Charles Stross) - This book continues the movement (beginning with "Equoid" and The Rhesus Chart) away from a spy-pastiche towards an urban fantasy alignment for the Laundry stories. From unicorns and vampires we have now moved on to superheroes. Well, that and policing, as the flip side of the same coin. This also makes explicit the overall arc regarding CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN: general thaumaturgical power is rising in the population, with the superhero phenomenon an effect of that general increase. Stross throws into the mix a change of narrators -- this episode is seen through the eyes of Mo, Bob's wife -- and that allows us both to see things from an angle we haven't seen them from before and to check Bob's reliability as a narrator. I like the direction in which Stross is taking the series, although it is becoming more and more suited to an audience which is also wild about Peter Watts (Watts considers Stross a more depressing author than he is himself).

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings (Jo Walton) - Two-thirds of a trilogy (the third, Necessity is due out next June). Very definitely among the best works from last year in my reading list. I provided an extended review of the first here.

The second is at least as good as its predecessor. It is, however, very much a distinct work, not a continuation of the same one in another volume. There is a gap of about twenty years between them; the themes are related but not identical; the shape is different. Where The Just City was about the Republic, about matters of consent and free will, and about what it means to be human, The Philosopher Kings is about the difference between excellence and honour (aristocracy and timarchy), about personal discovery and growth (both physical -- the core of the book is a sea voyage -- and mental), and Justice as well as what may go beyond justice in judgement. Some old scores are paid off; some scores are very deliberately abandoned; and if the first book ended with an abortive debate and the misuse of power, this one ends in a considered and careful scene of judgement. Determining what it means to be human, though, remains a core theme, showing up in a very different way from the previous book.

The Sword of the South (David Weber) - Sort of what you might expect from a new series from Weber set in the Bahzellverse if you knew that he'd been sitting on the story for decades. The good news: it avoids much of the over-padding and infodumps which many of his books have shown. The bad news: in place of the infodumps there is a lot of foreshadowing coupled with Wencit's refusing to discuss things openly. (I have my suspicions that some of the foreshadowing is in fact misdirection; if it turns out to be, I'll think better of it.) Weber is not, in general, a subtle writer, but he does have enjoyable characters, good action, and some interesting worldbuilding. He has promised, cross his heart, that this series will not get away from him and will be confined to five volumes: we'll see.

The Affinities (Robert Charles Wilson) - This felt very typical of the author -- strengths from following people's lives at the everyday level, which is a constant through big-concept and smaller-concept books of his. The book posits a jump forward and a systematizing of the study of the psychology of social interactions, from a ground-level view: the narrator becomes a member of an Affinity, and the early history around the affinity model is told through his eyes. It has windows onto two main periods: the beginning, when the Affinites are new, fairly unknown, and the narrator is just joining, and a secondary point where they are not only generating pushback from society at large but are in conflict with one another. There's a twist at the end -- the book isn't going where you (probably) think it's going. This is nicely written -- good prose, engaging characters, interesting themes -- but it's not as big or shiny as, say Axis or even Darwinia: solid, enjoyable, but not at his best.
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