Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Dec 29, 2006

Happy Holidays etc.

It seems kind of silly to make a big deal about coming back and then not blog for two weeks, but I've been kind of distracted.

The first thing that happened was the Saga of Car Repair, which is kind of a funny story in and of itself. Events ran as follows:

1. Dad calls me asking what he and Mom can get me for Christmas. After positing several suggestions, he mentions helping me out with getting some regular maintenance for my car, which is in dire need of same. This sounds like a fantabulous idea to yours truly, so we conclude the discussion with the decision that we will look around for a good place to get said repairs.

2. The VERY NEXT DAY my car develops an ominously flat tire while I am at work. So, I wind up sitting around for two hours while I wait for Sandy's Towing (good service, btw . . . the wait was NOT their fault) to come get me. In theory, this could have been resolved more easily by me a.) having a spare and b.) changing it myself, however I'm not especially mechanically inclined and trying to change a tire in the freezing cold parking lot when I have only the most rudimentary idea what I am doing and I have forgotten to bring a coat is not my idea of a brilliant . . . idea. I'd rather pay the hundred bucks to have a professional move my car than worry about frostbite and/or potential serious injury. This is the same reason why I don't offer to jump start other people's cars.

3. I tell Firestone (my car repair persons of choice) that I need new tires (second flat in three months and they are bald) and while they're doing that I could use an oil change, inspection, etc. etc. etc. just open the thing up and see what needs to be replaced.

4. Firestone calls me back the next morning (elapsed time car in their posession: 14 hrs) and informs me that, well, basically the entire car needs to be replaced. Okay, it wasn't quite that bad, but it was still pretty bad. The catalytic converter was in two pieces (so THAT'S what was causing all the noise), the rest of the exhaust system needed replacement, I needed new brake shoes on the front wheels and two new brake CYLINDERS on the back wheels (they were busted and leaking), and, oh, by the by, the sway pins (I think that's what they said) are also broken so the car could just spontaneously roll over at some point.

5. I hang up on them and whine and complain (internally) about how fiendishly expensive transportation is for a while. Then I start trying to figure out where I can scare up some money to pay for all of this. After ritually cleaning out my pants pockets and seat cushions, I email my parents to let them know the damage and encourage them to contribute whatever amount seems best to them.

6. Mom calls me back and explains that they'll just pick up the tab.

7. Brief hiatus while I figure out how I wound up on the floor with the phone on my face.

8. Car is re-obtained from Firestone in actual working condition (total elapsed time car in their possession: 25 hours). There is much rejoicing.

So, that is my Holiday Story for the year. Hope everyone has a great New Year!

Dec 11, 2006

Neverwinter Nights 2

One of the two games that I've been waiting, literally, all year to buy, NwN2 has really turned out to be a worthwhile experience for me. The funny part is that most of the value actually comes from some of the philsophical (specifically, ethical) issues that arise within the official campaign.

For those of you unfamiliar with NwN, the general idea is to bring the 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons rules to computer gaming in a form that enables individuals to write and publish their own stories. While both games and their various expansions contain their own "Official" campaign that you can easily play as a stand-alone game (and they are reasonably fun just to play), by far the heftiest part of the package is the DM Toolset. This is an extremely nice feature, because once you've finished the Official campaign, you can still download new playing material, usually for free or very cheap. (Or write your own, of course.)

Anyway, on with the review. The graphics are, as one might expect, much improved in this newer game, although this does mean that they require correspondingly better computer hardware to run. They've lost most of the cartoony aspects from the previous game, that's for sure. It runs reasonably well on my low-end machine, or at least it does now that I've turned down all the graphic options.

The thing that tickles me, though, is that a lot of the conflict in the game plot can basically be described as a result of bad philosophical principles. As an Objectivist, this made it fun for me to play because as the plot thickened I was sitting back thinking: "I could have predicted that," or "I knew something like that would happen." The ethical positions in the game are portrayed very consistently and quite well.

UNfortunately, there's basically no Objectivist "side" at all if you want to be consistent, so if you have limited patience you may experience a desire to smack some of the characters before you've finished. If you like CRPG's and D&D in particular, I say this game is well worth the money.

However, DO NOT BUY THE OFFICIAL STRATEGY GUIDE. This is a friendly warning, free of charge: it is totally worthless. It doesn't tell you anything you can't figure out for yourself by playing the game, and much of the information is actually incorrect since there have already been multiple 50+ meg updates that changed large portions of the game in significant ways. If you are planning on writing your own mods, it might be worth it to buy the World-Builder's Guide, but other than that don't touch it.

The Return of the Jenni

I've actually been feeling somewhat my old self (and, yes, I realize that term may be subject to debate!) again lately, perhaps because I finally gave up and spent several days sleeping or perhaps because I've returned from Computer Game Purgatory and actually started paying attention to real life again. Either way, I figured that this was a good time to start back on blogging. Plus some of my friends like Toiler and Myrhaf have been posting occasionally.

So, with their good example before me, I present a return to our Regularly Scheduled Programming.

Oct 31, 2006

Voting With My Feet

Objectivist bloggers are getting ready for the mid-term elections, and, once again, there's a great deal of debate and dispute. I am greatly saddened by Dr. Peikoff's comment that anyone choosing to vote Republican or--my choice--not vote is not an Objectivist and does not understand Objectivism.

Let me tell you what I understand. I understand that I have to use my own judgment, and an attempt to substitute anyone's thinking for my own is no more and no less than a total abdication of rationality. I have heard arguments for both sides and I have come to the conclusion that I simply don't have enough information to make a decision that shows any signs of being well-planned in this particular area.

I also have a very good reason for not devoting my entire life to this issue: it's not that important. We are not talking about a vital or even indicative clash between ideological opposites, here, we are talking about trying to make a short-term, concrete decision about the shortest-term-thinking, most concrete people in the world today: politicians. It is not these people, ultimately, that will be responsible for determining my fate and the course of the great drama that is my life, but the people that think long-term and in abstract principles. Those are the people with whom I share my ideas and utilize my small powers of persuasion, in a forum where my voice may actually, possibly, be heard.

It is not possible to realize a gain by strenuously supporting the least objectionable of an unpalatable alternative. At best, you will simply slow the descent into destruction while making it appear that you are still in favor of that eventual destruction. I'm rejecting this false alternative outright.

Sep 11, 2006

That Day

I don't have any sage words to add on the anniversary that every American should be observing today. Everything I have felt or thought has been said--and said better--by someone else. Yet, I would be delinquent in my responsibilities nonetheless if I failed to speak.

What really strikes me at this moment is the scale of the devestation: not that it was so large, but that it was so small. What's three thousand people more or less? Many more people than that die every year in car accidents. It's no more damage than we do to ourselves in casual murders over drugs, sex, and fashionable tennis shoes.

Yet it is this attack that is a disgrace to any creature that has ever laid claim to the title of human being. It is the essence of horror--delivery, unarmed, into a fate that you can forsee but not act to escape. Every facet of your life comes with its attendant risk, but you do not sit paralyzed with fear because you know that you have the power to act, even up to the last second, and that is the only power you need.

You can act, and act correctly, because you can reason; you can put facts together and solve the daily and deadly dangers that face you. If you work with your reason instead of fighting it you come to enjoy this exercise; mere security bores you and you seek out greater challenges to overcome. Even in moments of extremity you can seek out a solution. You can disarm a mugger. You can drive defensively. You can solve it.

But what can you do when your reason cannot serve you? You cannot reason with a madman. There is no solution for fireballs, clouds of smoke, and thousands of tons of collapsing steel. The one thing you have that preserves you from danger cannot save you. You become this man, waiting for an unknown fate.

I may not like what my fellow country-men choose to do with their lives. But I hate with all the fire that is in me those that would deny them the choice.

Sep 10, 2006

Book Meme

John Baker was kind enough to inform me that I've been tagged for a book meme. Normally I'd let the tag pass by, but since he's such a nice fellow I thought I might as well go along with it. I've posted something similar to this before, but what the hey.

1. Name one book that changed your life.
I could go the easy route with this and say Atlas Shrugged, which would be true, but it should also be fairly obvious to anyone that reads this blog. So, instead, I'm giving credit to The Little Engine that Could, my favorite book when I was a very small child. It contains an instructive and important lesson that all children could benefit from internalizing.

2. Name one book that you've read more than once.
Atlas Shr . . . no, no, I'll think of something else. I've read almost every book that I've ever owned more than once, so I'll pick one at random: Cryptonomicon, by Neil Stephenson.

3. One book you would want on a desert island.
Probably the New York City yellow and white pages. If my presentiments about conditions on desert islands are correct I wouldn't have much time or energy for reading but I might get unexpected use out of a large book with thin pages.

4. One book that made you cry.
Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

5. One book that made you laugh.
The Wanderings of Wuntvor by Craig Shaw Gardner.

6. One book you wish had been written.
How to Become a Super-Hero in Thirty Seconds, Guaranteed

7. One book you wish had never been written.
I'll answer this even though I don't think there's much purpose to it: tie between The Communist Manifesto and the Bible. The removal of one book from the amazing pile of ridiculous slush out there isn't going to have much of an effect. Some crank will eventually come along and write something even worse.

8. One book you are currently reading.
Weirdly enough, I'm not, however I just finished The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

9. One book you've been meaning to read.
There's a few of these on my shelf at the moment, so I'll go with The Anubis Gates.

10. Tag five people.
Not a chance.

Sep 5, 2006

On the Shelf

In case you hadn't noticed, my blogging has been extremely erratic for the past couple of months. This is a result of several factors conspiring to temporarily kill my enthusiasm for matters literary. I will be back, and with several fiction projects to boot, but right at the moment I'm shelving the responsibility while I take care of other matters. Thanks to everyone that's visited.

Sep 2, 2006

World War II Army Quiz

Amusingly enough, this fits my personality pretty well. I find it amusing as well that the allies (except France) are all definitely at the top and the axis are all definitely at the BOTTOM. HT: Gus Van Horn

You scored as Finland. Your army is the army of Finland. You prefer to win your enemy by your wit rather than superior weapons. Enemy will have a hard time against your small but effective force.





United States


British and the Commonwealth




France, Free French and the Resistance




Soviet Union




In which World War 2 army you should have fought?
created with

Aug 23, 2006

Night Watch

I'm aware that I've already reviewed a book with this same title: just so that there is no confusion, this is not the same book. It is, instead, an oddity that came to my attention because of a thread on a fiction novel out of Russia. Not only that, a bestselling fiction novel out of Russia. I don't exactly keep tabs on everything that moves through the bookstore, but I haven't seen such a thing before.

Night Watch follows the career of a mystical secret agent working for the "good guys". In basic essence it is very similar to the TV shows Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The main character, Anton, is not entirely happy with his work or with the nature of the world and the working"arrangement" between the light side and the dark side. His difficulties develop through several separate but connected story arcs as he learns that there isn't much difference between the "good" ends divorced from means and the "evil" means divorced from ends. Both sides are engaged in all manner of deviousness that adds up, eventually, to nothing.

I found the agonizing a bit dense and over-done, but Anton's realization at the end of the book made me smile. It was only a small piece of a large puzzle and did not alleviate the gray doubt of his surroundings very much, but I have to say that the novel is worth reading.

Rating: 3.0

Aug 21, 2006

Ramalama (Bang Bang)

I heard Ramalama (Bang Bang) on "So You Think You Can Dance?" some weeks ago and, after some digging, managed to find both the song title and the name of the artist. It's such a genuinely weird piece of music that I liked it immediately (especially the dull, gong-like beat overlaying the entire song). Check out Ms. Murphy for yourself.

Aug 14, 2006

Cool Video Clip

If you're at all curious about what I do for a living, click on the link above and watch the video from Fox News 19; about halfway through the clip there will be some footage from a "Lab in Dayton" . . . the girl sitting on the window in the blue scrubs is Jackie, she works in my room. (The lady in the back in the green scrubs and white jacket is my team leader, Nan, but she's only visible for a second or two.) I wasn't in the video because I was at lunch. We had a package left to do that day and the video crew showing up delayed us. Still, it's kind of nifty.

Personally, I'm in favor of offering money for tissue and organ (and blood) donations, but since that's currently illegal and not likely to change any time soon, I'm registered as an organ and tissue donor. When there's really no rational reason to go one way or another on an issue (and I don't consider refusing to donate on principle because you're not allowed to get paid for it a rational reason) I figure generosity can't hurt. After all, I'll be dead, so what do I care about what they do with my, well, meat? Heck, I spend my working hours taking apart other people's earthy remains, it's sort of like poetic justice if I insist that they get a crack at me as well.

Okay, so it's kind of a tasteless joke, but there just aren't any other kind in this business, and you have to laugh about it at least a little, otherwise you'll go mad.

Aug 12, 2006

Raising the Roof

I spent this morning at work, however my housemate invited his buddies over and spent the day crawling all over the roof, ripping off shingles and plywood and applying more shingles and plywood. The roof turned out to be a mess: mis-applied shingles, rotting wood, poorly-attached joists. It's about typical for this house, which appears to have been the abode of do-it-yourselfers whose aggressiveness in the face of home projects was matched only by their incompetence in the face of the selfsame projects. (Don't ask me about wiring.)

I share the incompetence trait, but my response in the face of a lack of knowledge is: get someone else to do it. I mean, that's the whole point of dividing up labor, right? I get on with the writing and cutting up bodies, and other people shingle roofs, wire houses, and fix my car, right? Well, assuming I can pay them for it, that is.

So, why is it that you find so many jobs that were done by people that clearly didn't know what the heck they were doing? You don't save money or time in the long run by doing a crappy job on your own. I know how it happens--I work, after all--but I still don't understand why, and I never have. Why, when I know my professor is spouting absolute B.S., do I have to sit through the inane lecture, biting my tongue? Why, when I know my supervisor has no plan and is just randomly firing off things in the hope that one of them will work, do I have to be patient?

It's the elitist's credo: why do I have to live with the mistakes of people that are stupider than I am? I don't even have patience with my own stupid mistakes, so where do they get off expecting me to have patience with theirs?! Sometimes I think that if I'd spent more time telling people where to get off and less apologizing to them for their own mistakes, my life would have been better. So why don't I? I've always been afraid of what might happen, which is probably the worst stupid mistake I've ever made. I was afraid of having to stand alone.

Well, I have to do that, anyway. At least, if you stand up, you can be proud of being brave. It's not worth it to be "nice", especially since you never get anything out of it.

Aug 5, 2006


Before I began this blog, I reviewed Brandon Sanderson's first book, Elantris, on Frankly, it was campy; a 2.0 at best. When I spotted Mistborn on the shelf at the bookstore, I didn't know what to think. It sounded interesting, but Sanderson's first book was such a let-down. Still, some of my favorite authors write bad books occasionally, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm glad I did, because Mistborn, by contrast, is good.

The story follows the work of Kelsier, a legend of the underworld, as he undertakes his greatest heist ever: stealing the government. In the dreary, ash-smothered Final Empire, he assembles a crew and uses his magical abilities to further his cause, adopting a young protege to go where he cannot.

As a caveat, though, there are a great many traditional fantasy staples in this book, the first of a projected trilogy. The "magic system", dubbed Allomancy for its reliance on ingested metals, which is explained in great detail. The strangely distorted landscape. The hideous and frightening monsters. The made-up slang. I've reached the point where I find the development of an imaginative and detailed setting to be of very little importance in a novel, and that is a point that Sanderson seems to enjoy dwelling upon. I think my changed preference reflects the fact that there's nothing to think or draw conclusions about in such flights of world-building; you can only passively absorb because it bears no connection to reality, kind of like mathematicians trying to imagine a four-dimensional "cube". I don't find much of value in absorbing things in order to say "that's neat" and move on.

It's still very much Sanderson's writing style, which is fine because style wasn't the problem with the original so much as tone and some awkwardness with the plot. In Mistborn, the goofy, bouncy characters are completely fitting--it's a gang of thieves, after all! The awkward politics make perfect sense as well, since the involved parties are supposed to be politically naive in the first place. There's excellent foreshadowing of future books, but the important points are wrapped up neatly in the climax.

I look forward to the next book eagerly.

Rating: 3.5

Sixth Day

I did it.

For seven months I've been slaving away at my new job, struggling to force my ever-more-sluggish and reluctant body to accomplish my job functions. For seven months I've been told every day, multiple times a day, that I just wasn't quite getting it, that maybe I was coming along but I just had to be patient, that everything they trained me to do yesterday wasn't correct today, that if I was sitting still I should be moving, and if I was moving, I should be sitting still. That when I was proud of my progress, I was never good enough, and when I was mad, that I had no right to be.

Well, I've claimed my reward, and no one can take it away from me. What is it? Now I can work on Saturdays.

Sounds like a weird sort of "reward", more work, doesn't it? But the thing is, if you volunteer to come in and work on Saturdays, the company pays you, for four hours, almost as much as you make in thirteen during a normal week. So, more work IS a reward, because at the end of the month you take home half again as much as you would have otherwise.

The thing is, in order to work Saturdays you have to be ready. You have to be competent, and the supervisor has to vouch for you. Frankly, I think he was dubious about the idea, he was just tired of my whining. If so, he was wrong.

I am so doing this again next Saturday.

Aug 3, 2006

Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen

Have you ever been browsing at a bookstore when a book just leapt off the shelf, tackled you to the ground, and dragged you over to the checkout counter, all the while shouting: "Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!"?

Yeah, me neither. Anyway, when I go browse for books, I normally head straight for the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. Occasionally I will make brief, furtive sorties into other parts of the store, and sometimes I will even try something I find there. Well, last week I got a little turned around carrying my fantasy novel to the checkout line and ended up in the Drama section. I didn't even know there was a Drama section. I'm not your Intrepid Bookstore Explorer, here.

Just as I was about to bolt, I espied the name "Ibsen" on this collection of plays, and I thought, "Wasn't he in The Fountainhead?" Until that moment, I truly didn't know that there was an actual playwright named Ibsen. I had never encountered one of his plays before. Some cultural education I have!

If you, like me, have never encountered Ibsen's plays in your own cultural explorations, then read them immediately! They are fantastic. I usually find even good plays to be dull reading at best; they aren't really meant for the format, after all. Even reading Ibsen, however, I gained a sharp sense of his keen observational powers and dazzling ability to put together a complex, many-layered plot. I understand why he is given credit for revolutionizing the drama and reinventing the tragedy.

The six plays in this particular collection spanned his career: "Peer Gynt", "A Doll's House", "Ghosts", "The Wild Duck", "Hedda Gabler", and "The Master Builder".

Edvard Grieg created a musical accompanyment (now very famous) for "Peer Gynt" that I have listened to many times and enjoyed, but this was the first time I'd ever heard of the play that inspired it. The story follows the adventures of the title character through his long life, travels, and existential conflicts as he looks everywhere to find himself and never succeeds. All this is told in excellent epic verse, a pleasure to read.

"A Doll's House", "Ghosts", and "The Wild Duck", are all family dramas of apparently small scope that probe deep issues underlying the artificial constructs the families build out of their lives. The book is annotated by Martin Puchner, who describes these constructs as the "bourgeoise lies" that Ibsen always seeks to expose--it made his plays shocking and controversial in the 1890's, and also renders them enduring works of art despite the narrowness of their events.

"Hedda Gabler" is another play, like Peer Gynt, about a single woman who, finding her life to be empty, shallow, and without meaning, seeks always to inject some sort of conflict or excitement into her surroundings; she reminds me of Dominique Francon from The Fountainhead, to be honest.

"The Master Builder" is yet another tragedy, this one about the demands of conscience on a man whose ultimate success stems from a terrible disaster. In seeking to rationalize and hide from the disaster, he only seeks in wrecking his wife's happiness, which in its turn only adds to the burden of unearned guilt he visits upon himself. The two forces lead him unerringly to final destruction.

Puchner describes Ibsen as both a realist and a naturalist; I don't know enough about drama to really categorize him, but he doesn't seem like much of a naturalist to me; he illustrates only too sharply the consequences of poorly-considered choices upon his characters, even as they blame their fates on powers outside their control.

Rating: 4.5

Fishing Rights: A Challenge to All

In the above post on, I came up with what I think is an elegant solution to the "problem" of fishing rights, so now I'm looking for input on my solution. Basically, it is:

Would-be commercial fishermen bid yearly for a license to sell a specific type of fish (in a specified country, since governments can't exactly guarantee anything about other countries). This license is known as the "primary" license. The holder of the primary license can also issue "secondary" licenses whereby others can acquire the right to sell fish of the specified type. Each type of fish will be bid individually.
Note: The government is not the default "owner" of this license; in the absence of anyone that wishes to bid for a license (such as on fish that have little or no commercial value) then the license remains "open", and no one can contest anyone else's use of that type of fish.

I invite everyone and anyone to try and poke holes in my solution or demonstrate how it would not work. You may need to read the entire thread to understand the question under debate, however, and it's a bit long.

If you're not an Objectivist and/or you don't understand or care to understand how Capitalism actually works, I will inform you that your ideas are "not even wrong". This doesn't mean that I hate you, it just means that I don't want to write a ten-page paper explaining the foundation of the discussion before I get around to the actual discussion. So, this is actually a fairly narrow question.

You won't get anything out of this other than (possibly) bragging rights. I'll go ahead and offer a few scenarios that occured to me and my rebuttals as a starting point:

Q: Jennifer, wouldn't this constitute at least the potential establishment of a coercive monopoly?
A: In a word, no. A coercive monopoly depends not only on the non-existence of competitors, but the impossibility of competitors, and all anyone has to do in order to defeat your monopoly would be to out-bid you for the license next year. The government would only be ensuring that you had the right that you'd paid for, just like registering a patent.

Q: What's preventing the highest bidder from issuing more licenses than the market or fish population can support?
A: What prevents a manufacturer from making more shoes than he can sell? The fact that he'll lose money if he does. If there are already a great many entrants into a specific field, the wise capitalist invests elsewhere. If he doesn't, he loses his shirt and the problem quickly vanishes.

Q: What happens if some political group raises a bunch of money and buys all the fish licenses so that no one can fish?
Hey, if that's how they want to spend their money, so be it. It's no different from someone buying a strip mall and turning it back into wilderness.

Q: What's preventing everyone from refraining from bidding and getting "free" licenses?
Self-interest. The problem of fishing rights really only arises in the case of industrial-scale fishing, at which point it becomes profitable to acquire this sort of license so that you can exclude or (somewhat) manage your competitors from a specific field. Besides, could you ever be completely certain that you'd managed to secure the agreement of every potential competitor? Trying to enact a deal of this kind would leave the door open for a very small venture-capital firm to acquire the primary license at a very low price, then charge everyone for secondary licenses!

Q: What happens with foreign countries that don't have fish licenses?
Nothing. In any situation other than anarchy, the government will have to do something about fishing rights. Currently, the tendency is towards telling you where you can fish, and when, and how much, and how, and so on and so forth. Entry into a market where all you have to do is buy a license would be much more profitable.

Anyone else have good ideas? I realize that this scenario is terribly concrete, but I think it's beneficial to your overall thought processes if you occasionally attack concretes from an abstract standpoint. In addition, by showing that the same principle can be applied to even this concrete makes your entire case all that more sound.

Jul 27, 2006

The Force of Reason

The title of this book was frankly, intriguing, although I've heard Oriana Fallaci described as a "Leftist" correspondant in the past. (She denies belonging to either the Left or the Right politically, which in today's world roughly means that she's SANE.) The Force of Reason is a follow-up to The Rage and the Pride and is terribly referential, a flaw even in works of fiction. It is a tirade against the Muslim takeover of Europe, a phenomenon that Oriana refers to as "Eurabia" (a term she did not invent). I'm sorry to say that there really wasn't much to the book; it very much left me asking "what reason?"

This is because Ms. Fallaci's writing is extremely emotionalistic and overwrought, precisely what you would not expect in a book purporting to be about reason. She dwells lengthily on issues such as the method of preparing halal meat; I appreciate that draining the blood of an animal may seem gruesome to some people, but since I cut up humans for a living I'm not terribly concerned by it, myself. I'm also not terribly in favor of catering to people with weak stomachs and fine sensibilities; if you can't stand the sight of blood, have the grace to faint in private. Don't pretend that it adds weight to your argument.

Her self-translation to English from Italian is awkward at best, making the book difficult and sometimes unpleasant to read. It's nice that she tried to put her words into English on her own, certainly it's difficult for a translator, no matter how skilled, to convey the essence of someone else's words. However, she could have at least given the manuscript to a native English-speaker for polishing after she'd translated the essence. The errors of usage make her seem hurried, unprofessional, and too hysterical to be taken seriously.

While she does make some interesting points about such issues as the collusion of the Catholic Church with the Muslim invasion, her points are detached from any underlying principles. Why is Islam bad? They kill people! They castrate women! They defame Oriana in the press! They don't allow free speech! They bomb stuff!

And why are those things bad? No answer. This is sad, because that is precisely the question that must be addressed if one is to make a consistent, compelling, reasoned case against Islam. Anything else is just flailing around in the dark--blind screaming in an uncaring universe.

Rating: 2.0

Jul 24, 2006

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest

My literary blog appears to have been taken over by movies for the past few days. I hope no one minds, we'll get back to books soon, I promise. I actually have a backlog still to review before I read anything new.

Anyway, I went to see Disney's new Pirates of the Carribean movie, and I have to say that it was very enjoyable. It wasn't profound, mind you . . . in fact, it swung violently between melodrama and slapstick to the point where I developed this vision of Charlie Chaplin twirling his mustache evilly as he drops a pie onto the face of the heroine he's just tied to the railroad tracks.

Needless to say, that's a little . . . weird, a term that more than adequately describes this movie. You have your dastardly plot. You have poor honor-bound Orlando Bloom (I can't remember his character's name, but is it important? It's Orlando Bloom! Just call him Legolas) searching the seven seas to redeem his imprisoned love. You have the female lead (what's her name?) proving to be much more practical and effective than her absent lover (Orlando Bloom, just in case you forgot, anyway it bears repeating), except on the one occasion when she tries to use her "feminine wiles". You have the wise-cracking sidekicks (although it's not readily apparent whose side they are on), and you have the Giant Squid/Octopus Thingy with Incredibly Bad Breath.

And you have Johnny Depp, as the perpetually less than masculine Captain Jack Sparrow in a (possibly) final showdown with . . . The Terminator.

No, no, wait, that would be David Jones of the David Jones' Locker fame, although having Ahnold show up in this movie would probably not have been completely beyond the pale. It was a fun way to start off a weekend.

Jul 22, 2006

Superman Returns

Although I've heard several reviews of this movie, none of them better than mediocre, I decided to go see it for myself because I (generally) like superhero movies and I also like to form my own opinion. Well, I have.

It was dull.

Brandon Routh is a very handsome young man, and would make a fantastic Superman in a movie with some sort of conflict. As it was, he portrayed the worst characteristics of the Man of Steel: with his powers, he's invincible. Without them, he's nothing. His activities reminded me of Ayn Rand's discussion on the invincible, immortal robot: such a thing could have no values, because nothing could make any difference to it whatsoever. Nothing could be either for or against it. Everything Superman does is strangely purposeless. It's possible that it makes a difference to the people he saves, or even to the curiously zombie-like hordes that watch his activities, but it can't make any difference to him whatsoever.

Why does Superman fly around saving people? The question is not addressed in the movie, but it seemed very much that he'd picked up the idea that he ought to: from his father, with his noble speechmaking that was nevertheless detached from reality, and from his human family, that encouraged the deathless demi-god to think that human things somehow applied to him. This was especially apparent in his relationship with Lois, which he could not even approach in any sensible manner, much less sort out. He couldn't decide whether it really applied to him or not; whether he could be human or not.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor was even worse: he couldn't even manage to be really evil in any horrifying sense, instead he projected an aura of pathetic degeneracy, like a prison-yard thug. (In fact, his one confrontation with Superman was about as titanic as a prison-yard knifing.)

In addition, he was stupid. There is something mortally indecent about hearing a stupid villian utter the words "mind over muscle" in a tone of righteous self-satisfaction. What mind? Are you talking about the alien technology that you stole (and could never have come up with on your own), the kryptonite rock (also stolen) that fell out of the sky, or the boat that you schmoozed out of some befuddled old lady? What a fountain of cognitive superiority. I'm awed. *sarcasm* Carmen and Vivaldi playing in the background do not turn a man into an intellectual; they make him a ridiculous second-hander who has latched onto the supposed trappings of the intellect as a showpiece.

Between Luthor's sham intellect and Superman's sham humanity, there wasn't much left of this movie to make it at all interesting. Oo, special effects. Yay.

Jul 18, 2006

What Would the Founders Do?

I noticed some time ago that Alexander Marriott had reviewed this book, so when I saw it at the bookstore I decided to pick up a copy for my own interest. Brookhiser does a fair job of covering his subject matter, which is a list of questions modern Americans would ask the Founders, if that were possible, of course. The book is not great, but it is interesting in a vague sort of way.

The title, however, is somewhat misleading; Brookhiser doesn't attempt to project what the Founders would do about modern situations in modern context (an impossibility that would only make him look foolish). Instead, he draws parallels between modern situations and theoretically similar ones that occured during the Founders' time. A more accurate title, then, would be: "What Did the Founders Do?" As a side note, Brookhiser deserves significant credit for being able to think in terms of essentials: his identification of the principles at work behind different questions (and thus what historical situations corresponded to them) is uniformly accurate.

Marriott accurately notes, however, that even this skillful reduction to essential problems doesn't help us much: the Founders were far from philosophically uniform and many of them were inconsistent, meaning that the answer often becomes a matter of: which founder? Not to mention that it's not always clear why they did what they did, so you never do know whether to emulate their example.

Rating: 3.0

Jul 17, 2006

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall is the sequel to The Longest Journey, an adventure game that followed the travels of April Ryan, a young girl who discovered she could travel between the real world and a magical fantasy realm. She had some very fun, quirky, enjoyable adventures, and the game wound up fairly well at the end with a solid victory for the good guys.

I'm not normally a fan of adventure games because I have limited patience for the "Use Toothpaste on Frog" phenomenon: that is, some extremely non-intuitive, non-logical step you have to take in order to solve a puzzle so you can progress. However, The Longest Journey had only one instance of this problem that I noticed, so I liked it.

In Dreamfall, you return to the magic/science dual worlds of Stark and Arcadia (with the addition of another unexplained realm called Winter) as Zoe, and again, strange events unfold.

The game was a series of somewhat unpleasant shocks from the moment I bought it, starting with the amount of hard drive space it required just to install it on my computer: 7 GB. It also ran right up against the Number of Disks rule, having six CD's in the box. (The Number of Disks Rule is a computer-game standard I made up: once you have more disks than you have fingers, it's time to convert to a new medium with more storage space. Sadly, this rule only applies to computer games.)

The beginning of the actual game, however, was extremely enjoyable, with the expected tutorial-like setting where you explore the various actions available to you. There are simple puzzles and tasks to complete along with exposition for the overall story. There is a new combat system, not present in the original game, which took some trial-and-error to learn. Quick and easy fun.

Unfortunately, as the game progressed the puzzles didn't get any harder. In fact, they required very little thinking of any kind; usually you were told exactly what you had to do and how to do it; the only exception was the lock-picking mini-game, which came with no instructions. It was very easy to figure out, though. I also had to sit through interminable conversations between characters that often made little sense, the conversations and cut scenes often lasting two or even three times as long as the independant action sequences. It's a very "in" game, too, in that you'd be very, very lost if you had not played the first one. The combat system is essentially pointless as well; it is not an RPG element, it is yet another mini-game.

That, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I can almost understand cliffhangers in books, but in a video game? What happened, the budget ran out and you shipped whatever you had? Come on.

Despite its many serious faults, however, the game was as distracting and attention-sucking as a good book, and it takes maybe 8 hours to play, so I'll definitely be getting the next one to find out what happens. However, I think I'll be waiting for it to hit the cheap shelves this time.

Jul 12, 2006

World Without End

I find, not infrequently, that the more I read, the more I enjoy what I read, and Sean Russell's book is a definite demonstration of this fact. I probably wouldn't have enjoyed reading it at all if I hadn't first read The Lunar Men; many of the circumstances illustrated in the book would have escaped me entirely.

World Without End follows the travels of Tristram Flattery, a somewhat naive young man with ambitions to be an Empiricist . . . in modern parlance, a natural philosopher, one step down from being a scientist. He is thrown into a world of adventure, politics, and ancient mysteries when he is tasked with reviving a plant vital to his king's health.

His world is not unlike our own; it's so similar, in fact, that I found myself occasionally playing the "what does this correspond to in the real world?" game more than once. The only striking difference is that, shortly before the rise of this new Empiricism, there were magicians. No one really knows anything about them, and when the last of them died he took pains to see that this should be so. Somehow, the king's illness, the plant, and the magicians are intertwined in ways that Flattery cannot comprehend; involving himself with one has seemingly involved him with them all.

The pace of the book is very slow and stately, almost British in its understatement; the relationships between characters are both reserved and complex. I very much enjoyed it, but it's no thriller.

Rating: 3.5

Jul 10, 2006

Hepps on Parade

Last Wednesday through Friday I went to the Hepp-Ewers family reunion at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, which turned out to be highly enjoyable. Events included:
  • Receipt by yours truly of nine (count them) mosquito bites on my left foot within thirty minutes of arriving at the park. These are all the bug bites I got during my stay. The park REALLY needs to get a new welcoming committee. It reminds me of this song by the Scared Weird Little Guys.
  • Breakfast Buffet that included: Fried Biscuits. No, seriously. I didn't know biscuits could get any less healthy. Apparently they can. Live and learn.
  • A hike through the park, where, assisted by some less-than-stellar navigational attempts on the part of my mother (hey, it wasn't my fault, I was just following her) we ended up taking a completely different trail than the one we intended to take. It was all right, because the trail was still cool, however it led into (don't ask me how, I don't know) a Very Rugged Trail. My mom decided to bail, however my dad and my brother Gareth showed up as I was attempting to estimate just how rugged, exactly, this Very Rugged was, and I wound up walking the ENTIRE TRAIL (after already doing another one!) and climbing more stairs than I EVER WANT TO SEE AGAIN FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. Why, you ask? Because I was NOT going to let my dad and my brother think that I couldn't climb some piddly stairs just because I happen to be fat and out of shape, thank you very much. My brother Gareth does Cross Country and he RAN up the stairs, leaving me at the bottom gasping for air and exclaiming: "I'll be along soon!" However, I got to see the chipmunks and he missed them, so I'm not miffed.
  • Philly Cheese Steak. Mm mm talk about your health food here!
  • Watching my male family members try to get the wireless internet working.
  • Swimming. Well, I say Swimming, but the pool never got deeper than three feet so it was more like Dunking My Brothers Repeatedly. They, of course, returned the favor. They're taller and more tenacious than I am, but I'm bigger and meaner so I think it was more or less a draw.
  • Smothered Grilled Chicken while I attempt to explain to Madeline and Lily what the difference between "second cousin" and "first cousin once removed" is. For those of you that, like myself, have enormous extended families and might want to have some method for keeping track of them, it's a fairly simple distinction: Your parents' brothers and sisters are your aunts and uncles. The children of your aunts and uncles are your first cousins. Your grandparents' brothers and sisters are your great aunts and uncles, their grandchildren are your second cousins. The children of your grandparents' brothers and sisters are one generation removed from you, hence they're your second cousins once removed. Got that?
  • Gathering with family to take photos and look at other photos.
  • Attempt by yours truly at teaching my dad, brothers, cousin-once-removed Ollie and his girlfriend, whose name I hope was actually Julie because that's what I remember, to play contract Bridge. Attempt was mostly successful, or at least fun.
  • Breakfast Buffet.
  • Canoeing down Sugar Creek. Ooo rocks! Trees! Tire! The creek was, how shall I put it, less than deep, and since I was in a canoe with my dad, we scraped the bottom several times and decided to go right OVER the submerged log instead of maybe AVOIDING it like some kind of sane people. We also almost swamped the canoe, although I didn't actually see this happening so my response, when my dad was trying to remedy the situation, was, and I quote, "Geez, Dad, don't panic." Neither of us is really bad at steering a canoe, the problem was that Dad has a tendency to steer very forcefully, which meant that I kept trying to correct his over-corrections, and he'd correct my corrections, with the predictable result that at any given time we had little or no idea where we were going. Communicate? And spoil the fun?
  • Hummingbirds. This was sort of a trip-addendum, as I happened upon six or seven of them when I stopped to get gas before leaving the park. The gas station attendants had put out feeders for them, and they were quite used to people. I don't think I've ever seen a hummingbird that closely before.

So, overall, a fun trip. We'll have to do it again some time.

Jul 4, 2006


It drizzled threateningly, but we had fireworks. The Fourth of July has always been a particularly remarkable celebration for me, simply because it changes so much from year to year. The venue is different, the circumstances are different, the fireworks and the people are different, marking stops on the steady progression of my life. I have so many memories.

Eating grapes and fried chicken on a grassy lawn dotted with trees in Chicago. Driving across a bridge in St. Louis and getting out of the car to watch the Arch over the river as they lit up the sky. Sitting on the deck at my grandparents' home and watching five or six different displays all over Seattle with binoculars. Leaning off the roof of the hospital to see around a building that was in exactly the wrong place. Sitting in a parking lot on the post in Bremerhaven less than forty-eight hours from the time I'd finally return to the U.S. Staring up at the Washington Monument as it slowly grew dark. Lying back on a hill at Virginia Tech, feeling like I might fall off into the sky. Even being importuned by some very persistant bugs in Hawaii.

I even remember the times I failed to see the fireworks, like three (was it really three?) years ago when I convinced all my friends to try and get onto Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (which is always really crowded), and we arrived almost exactly when the heavens blasted us with fireworks of their own and, lo, it did hail and rain like some sort of Biblical disaster. We decided it was probably best if we did not try to get out of the car.

Fond moments, all, bright and clear as fire, brief and definite as punctuation.

Happy Birthday, America!

It's a bit rainy here today, but I'm hoping for an opportunity to go see the fireworks, but if that doesn't work out, I'm going to have a black cow. (In case you aren't a Midwesterner, that's a root beer float. I'm not usually very fond of root beer, but it's a tradition in my family to have them on the Fourth of July, and frankly the day just wouldn't seem complete without one.)

Across the country, patriots of every description are celebrating in their own ways. Here's a few that I noticed:

Cox and Forkum have a great cartoon posted, along with links to the Declaration of Independance.

Gus Van Horn does a spiffy roundup, mentioning the Independant Women's Forum. I was intrigued by this link, so I stopped by and found their particularly interesting suggestion for a Fourth of July celebration: don't see Superman Returns.

I was a little surprised at that! Read the article, though, and you may find yourself nodding in agreement. I've added the IWF to my list of links, as I think they have some definite promise. It's nice to see a group for rational women around!

Jun 30, 2006

Old Man's War

Here we have another book with a blurb comparing the author's style to Robert Heinlein: "Heinlein without the lectures", to be specific. Unusually, this turns out to be a fairly accurate description!

The underlying premise of Old Man's War is that future Americans are only allowed to leave Earth to colonize other planets if they agree to join the Colonial Defense Forces . . . at the age of 75. The CDF won't take any recruits younger than that! The story explores the reasoning behind this peculiar requirement, its various effects, and the side-effects of the particular methodology used by the CDF to turn septuagenarians into functioning soldiers.

John Scalzi does make numerous observations during the course of the book, but he isn't as politically/ethically oriented as Heinlein so this book is a lot milder in tone. As such, it's quite enjoyable to read but it's likely to vanish from your consciousness almost immediately, leaving nothing definite or noteworthy behind.

Rating: 3.0

Jun 29, 2006

State of Disobedience

For the most part, the only redeeming factor of military science fiction is that it maintains a good sense of life and some halfway-decent ideology, neither of which are present in this book by Tom Kratman. It's not especially surprising, because he maintains that Republicans and Democrats are the essence of the ideological split in this country, and since neither really represent any kind of ideology, the result is a pointless argument between two sets of thugs over who has the right to enforce their will on the populace.

The instigating event of the rebellion of Texas is a massacre at a Catholic mission, brought on by the statist policies of Democrats that have seized power. However, the same offense could just as easily have been committed by power-hungry Republican theocrats; it's not exactly a telling issue.

In other respects, the book maintains about the quality level of the movie Armageddon: endless catalogues of military actions and violent deaths interspersed with attempts to appeal to the emotions so blatant and unskilled that they are ridiculous. Kratman even takes advantage of his authorial "bully pulpit" to attack abortion. What a way to lose all credibility as someone concerned with anyone's "rights".

Oh well.

Rating: 1.5

Jun 28, 2006

Gus vs. Rob on Soccer

Gus Van Horn has some interesting things to say about a recent TIA article that Robert Tracinski wrote about soccer. I'm ambivalent about the sport (apart from my observation that soccer players have great legs), and since TIA is news and OPINION, Rob's entitled to run his mouth as much as he likes, but I have to say that I also found his comments to be in poor taste.

I have extremely limited patience with other Objectivists telling me that I'm engaging in even mild immorality because of my choice of clothing, speech pattern, or (criminy) sport. I think there are enough things out there that are a lot more closely affiliated with irrationality than any game could ever manage to be.

Well, except maybe Calvinball.

Small Update

I'm currently working on writing background for a character in a game of Exalted, so there will be a hiatus in fiction until I'm caught up on that (a week or so), although I will try to keep up with regular posts in the interim. I just can't work on two different fiction projects at the same time, they start to overlap too badly.

I know things have been a little slow around here lately, and I do apologize.

Manhattan Transfer

This novel by John Stith is a chronicle of the adventures that occur when the entire island of Manhattan is, well, abducted by aliens. The novel is intriguing, if a little unsophisticated in style and method of characterization. Oh, and it's a lot of fun.

The characters themselves are none too memorable; as with many novels of the "disaster" type, they represent viewpoints of the general population and don't give the impression of a great deal of individuality.

There's the Crazy Apocalyptic Priest, the Practical Military Guy, the Civil Servant, the Translator . . . you get the idea. However, the thing that really makes this book interesting is that the author doesn't seem to take the apocalyptic-freaking-out very seriously; he's quite obviously of the opinion that most Manhattanites are sensible and unwilling to surrender to disaster.

That's really the theme of this book. Although there's some talk about boldly sacrificing Manhattan and all its inhabitants when it's discovered that the Earth is in danger, in truth, the characters are simply unwilling to stop fighting as long as they have anything left to try. In the words of one character: they tried one idea, then another, and another, and another, until something worked. They possessed the one power you really need to face a disaster with equanimity; not any guarantee of success (who can ever have that?) but the power to act. It's the only power you have, and the only one you need.

Rating: 3.0

Jun 23, 2006

Corny but Intriguing

I periodically look through my SiteMeter to see where people are visiting from (mostly to find out if anyone has surrepititiously added me to their blogroll) and I found this site, where someone has actually purchased fantasy shares in my blog!

Unreal. But, hey, it's probably fun since I noticed David Veskler is a participant there! I should write more and make Alexandra some pretend money.

Cars: The Movie

I found Pixar's latest attempt to be slightly disappointing only because Pixar has produced such phenomenal work in the past. The production values for this latest G-rated film continue very high, but the storyline was somewhat unexceptional.

There are a number of potential explanations for this.

Firstly, the characters were a bit drab--somewhat like middle-class Americans, actually. Not a lot of high emotion or drama, and what did appear seemed somewhat stilted and forced, like the actors were apologizing for their forcefulness even while acting. Of course, this may make the movie a superior one to take very young children to see.

Second, and this may be the reason for the first, the material was somewhat bizarre. I found myself wondering throughout the movie, "cars but no humans? Where do more cars come from?" and questions of that nature. It may just be me, but I simply found it a little too far out to really get a grip on what they were trying to convey.

The story itself, however, is very good Pixar, with elements of paying attention to what's important in life, making friends, and standing up for what you believe. So, I'd say it's worth a matinee at least.

Jun 22, 2006

The Art of Spelling

I must confess to being disappointed with this book by Marilyn vos Savant; it really wasn't what I was expecting. Why? Because I have the perhaps-unreasonable expectation that someone with an IQ at least 60 points higher than mine ought to be able to formulate better reasons than the ones I already have for learning to spell well (or anything else, for that matter). It just goes to show that intelligence is no guarantee of creativity or even correctness.

I think the real problem with this book is that Ms. vos Savant doesn't come out strongly in favor of any particular idea; she presents a great deal of information that never quite adds up to anything. It's somewhat like the experience of a guided tour of spelling; every so often you'll be presented with a fact that will elicit a semi-interested "Huh", and then you return to your own thoughts and looking at the scenery.

Worse, vos Savant's advice for improving your spelling is extremely concrete and basically identical to what you would do to improve any skill. I don't really recommend the book, as I don't think it's going to present you with anything you didn't already know.

Rating: 1.5

More Personality Test Hijinks

HT: Gus Van Horn

Jun 20, 2006

Heart of Darkness

And here we have a first for my blog: a book so awful I have given up on trying to finish it. I'm not even going to provide a link to it, as I don't want to be responsible for any cases of awful-book-blindness. If you look it up on your own, it's out of my hands.

So what, precisely, is so awful about Heart of Darkness? Quite simply, it is the most openly, unrepentantly malevolent book I've ever read 75% of. It has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever; the theme simply seems to be an exploration of the seamy, foul, and corrupt depths that supposedly lurk beneath the facade of every man, just waiting for circumstances (in this case, the depths of Africa)to bring them out. The author almost seems to shriek: "You think you're so good! You're foul and disgusting, you've just never been put in a situation that forced people to see it!"

The author doesn't even have the excuse of particularly good technique.

Frankly, it reminds me of why I dislike horror movies; there never seems to be any point to them other than to make you feel helpless before evil, and that is something no one can ever afford to accept, not even for a minute.

Rating: 1.0, and it only gets that much because it's the lowest one.

Jumping Off the Planet

I usually find it worrisome when a blurb-writer defaults from trying to describe an entire book accurately in a few lines (a difficult task, to be sure) to comparing said book to the work of a reknowned Grandmaster in the genre. Frankly, I think this is how you know that you're a Grandmaster: everyone finds it necessary to compare their writing to yours!

The reason I find it so worrisome is that the comparison is usually even more inaccurate than normal blurb-writing, and this novel by David Gerrold certainly lives up to that expectation. His writing is compared to Heinlein, and there are, sadly, some superficial similiarities, but in essentials, Gerrold is as anti-Heinlein as they come.

The story, UNlike Heinlein, is about a dysfunctional family whose members are so abandoned to their various forms of irrationality that it's truly difficult to like any of them. The main character, Charles Dingillian, is only salvaged by his continuing desire for the freedom of self-determination. Gerrold's portrayel of a truly dysfunctional family and how it comes apart on all levels is pretty accurate, too, it's just not a lot of fun to read.

Also UNlike Heinlein, Gerrold is a raving subjectivist; at the climax of the novel Charles is told, in a tone of revealing a sacred truth, that there are no absolutes! The Old Man must be revolving in his pine box.

So how, exactly, IS this book like Heinlein? Well, Gerrold spends quite a length of time talking about the science behind interesting technological advances, a trait that Heinlein shares. However, I don't think it's enough to rescue this book.

Rating: 1.5

Jun 17, 2006

Epic: Reeds

Daian waved her sword from side to side nervously, trying to make out where their assailants had gone, but it was an impossible task; water and mist concealed anything and everything.  Jemith was regarding the reed houses, hands on hips, one bare foot tapping the surface of the water and sending out sluggish ripples.

“Hey!” he shouted, and Daian stiffened in terror.

“Are you mad?  We don’t know who . . .” she hissed.  Jemith made an abrupt, dismissive gesture in her direction.  Daian watched him, puzzled, for a moment, then shrugged and sheathed her sword.  “I thought I was the crazy one,” she remarked.  He favored her with a brief glare and returned to his shouting.

“Hey!  There are travelers here in need of shelter!  At least lower a rope!”

“Go away!” a muffled voice cried.

Jemith appeared somewhat taken aback; Daian chuckled slightly at his expression.  “No!  We’re lost and horrible slimy things attacked us!  We have no idea where we are and we’re not leaving until you tell us how to get out of this swamp!”

For a long moment, there was silence.

“There is no way out of the swamp!”

“Don’t be absurd!”

“Did you . . .” there was a pause, as though the speaker found the question unbelievable even to ask. “Did you come from Outside?”

“Yes!”  A few nervous faces appeared, looking down at them.  Jemith scowled ferociously and Daian attempted to make herself presentable.  The faces disappeared again.

“They do look like Outsiders,” someone remarked.

“You mean, they don’t look like they come from around here,” another voice corrected.  “You’ve never seen an Outsider and neither has anyone else.”

“All right, we’ll . . .we’ll lower a rope, but you have to leave your weapons down there!”

“Absolutely not!” Daian burst out.  “They’ll sink!”

“So much the better,” Jemith muttered unhelpfully.

“Oh, just lower the rope already, Blick, all this fuss and confusion is giving me a headache!” another person bellowed from a nearby platform.  Still hesitating somewhat, Blick obeyed, and the two travelers climbed laboriously into the house.  Their host eyed them nervously; he was a weedy man, small and very thin, with the exceedingly pale complexion of someone who has lived his entire life without ever seeing the sun.

Daian turned the simple act of putting her boots back on into a production, giving her time to survey the reed dwelling.  It was shocking in its poverty.  The reeds that made up the walls and roof were turning to compost where they stood, patched crudely and inefficiently by twigs, leaves, and draped vines.  A few sloppy clay pots spilling trickles of rice and other presumed edibles were clustered under the best part of the roof.  That was all.  Under the pressure of her scrutiny, them man began to tremble and finally fled, running over a rickety bridge to another nearby structure, mumbling something under his breath.

“Now what?” Jemith asked.

“I don’t know.  You got us this far.”

Jemith rose to his feet and followed their supposed host; Daian shrugged and joined him.  They stumbled over the bridge into a larger, if no better-maintained, reed house, where a extremely ancient and decrepit woman sat in a mound of blankets.  She watched them silently, her swollen, claw-like hands rubbing against each other nervously.

“Sit, why don’t you?” she said, her voice thin and reedy.  Daian crossed her legs elegantly and lowered herself to the matted floor.  Jemith frowned and sat with an abrupt plop.  “So you want to get out of the swamp?”

“Yes,” Jemith said immediately.  “We’re only here by accident.”

“Not a happy accident for you, then, I’m afraid.  There is no way out of the swamp.”

“Why not?” Daian asked, before Jemith could lose his temper again.

“The witches don’t let anyone leave.”

“Witches?”  Jemith asked, shooting a speculative look at Daian, who returned it.

“Yes, witches.  They live at the edge of the deep water and they control this place.  There is no escape for the likes of us.”

“Keb, maybe . . .” Blick began, and the old woman waved a silencing hand in his direction.

“Husha!  No use talking about that now!”

“What does he mean?”  Daian asked.  The old woman scowled and shifted her weight.

“Supposedly, if you go and speak to the witches at the deep, they’ll administer some sort of test to you.  If you pass, they’ll let you leave.  But it’s impossible.  No one can pass their test.”

“How do you know?”

“No one ever comes back.”

“So who is Keb?”

“Keb’s the last person to go, and a lot of good that did us.  Waste of effort, feeding him up.  I was sure he’d make it, too.”  Daian and Jemith both frowned.  “There’s enough work to be done in the morning.  You can sleep here.”  The old woman hauled herself to her feet and left with surprising speed; Blick returned to his own house almost as quickly.

Daian smiled faintly and lay back against the floor; Jemith picked nervously at a scratch on his hand and continued to stare at his own feet.  “Well, now we know what to do,” she offered.

“Witches?  With an impossible test?  Doesn’t sound very hopeful to me.”

“We don’t know until we look.  If they’re witches, we may be able to buy magical supplies from them, and then you can help me.  It’s not a disaster.”

“Oh, it’s a disaster.”

“We’ll see.”

Jun 10, 2006

The Virginian

Some notable sight was drawing the passengers, both men and women, to the window; and therefore I rose and crossed the car to see what it was. I saw near the track an enclosure, and round it some laughing men, and inside it some whirling dust, and amid the dust some horses, plunging, huddling, and dodging. They were cow ponies in a corral, and one of them would not be caught, no matter who threw the rope. We had plenty of time to watch this sport, for our train had stopped that the engine might take water at the tank before it pulled us up beside the station platform of Medicine Bowl. We were also six hours late, and starving for entertainment. The pony in the corral was wise, and rapid of limb. Have you seen a skillful boxer watch his antagonist with a quiet, incessant eye? Such an eye as this did the pony keep upon whatever man took the rope. The man might pretend to look at the weather, which was fine, or he might affect earnest conversation with a bystander; it was bootless. The pony saw through it. No feint hoodwinked him. This animal was thoroughly a man of the world. His undistracted eye stayed fixed upon the dissembling foe, and the gravity of his horse expression made the matter one of high comedy. Then the rope would sail out at him, but he was already elsewhere; and if horses laugh, gayety must have abounded in that corral. Sometimes the pony took a turn alone; next he had slid in a flash among his brothers, and the whole of them like a school of playful fish whipped round the corral, kicking up the fine dust and (I take it) roaring with laughter. Through the window-glass of our Pullman the thud of their mischievous hoofs reached us, and the strong, humorous curses of the cow-boys. Then for the first time I noticed a man who sat on the high gate of the corral, looking on. For he now climbed down with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin. The others had all visibly whirled the rope, some of them even shoulder high. I did not see his arm lift or move. He appeared to hold the rope down low, by his leg. But like a sudden snake I saw the noose go out its length and fall true; and the thing was done. As the captured pony walked in with a sweet, church-door expression, our train moved slowly on to the station, and a passenger remarked, "That man knows his business."

And so we catch our first glimpse of the Virginian in Owen Wister's seminal novel, the novel that distilled and named the essence of a great American icon and gave shape to the genre that followed: the Western. No time in history has ever been such a subject of romance, idealism, and longing as the conquering of the American West. It was a fantastic time, its essence unknown in all the centuries previous, and it was never obvious whether the breathtaking savagery of the western wilderness created the astonishing heroes, or whether the heroes, taking the unprecedented opportunity now available to them, created the West.

The Virginian embodies them all. He is a man of consummate skill, steel nerve, good-natured playfulness, and deep passion. Whatever he attempts, conducted by Wister's pen, he is a wholly integrated and consistant character; you can guess almost before he acts what he will do, but through Wister's suspenseful telling, you remain surprised by the manner in which he carries it off. The novel is a progression of The Virginian's acts, each more startling and appropriate than the last.

The other characters, serving as foils to demonstrate the Virginian's attributes, nevertheless display the same kind of integration, each so driven by a central theme that a lesser author would have left them caricatures instead of characters. Wister, however, does not.

As a novel, though, the book does have a few flaws: it is told from a first-person viewpoint with the author as a character, so he occasionally takes advantage of this to make editorial asides. The asides are suitable to the theme of the book -- the heroic nature of the Man of the West -- but they detract somewhat from the progression of the story. Still, I couldn't help but enjoy the nature of Wister's philosophizing:

There can be now doubt of this:--

All America is divided into two classes,--the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.

It was through the Declaration of Idnependence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty fo find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.

If, in your investigation of the great classics of literature, you missed this novel by Owen Wister, repair the situation immediately!

Rating: 5.0

Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog

Jun 9, 2006

Bahr's House of Exuberance

Literatrix has been added to the blogroll of another site, this one of an (apparently) Objectivist law clerk. Interesting.

Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Bahr, and I hope you enjoy what I write.

Jun 8, 2006


I read the first book in Mercedes Lackey's Dragon Jousters trilogy over a year ago, and while Joust was an enjoyable entertainment, it didn't really motivate me to read the remainder of the series. Still, I picked up Alta at the bookstore not long ago and gave it a try.

In Joust, Lackey takes us on a tour of a very "Ancient Egyptian" fantasy realm that happens to include an unusual element: dragons. Men have captured these dragons for use in warfare, keeping them tame with a drug known as tala. In Joust, an abused serf is picked up by one of the dragon jousters and given a new, better life working in the stables, caring for the dragons. He decides that he wants a dragon of his own and promptly steals an egg.

In Alta, Vetch, now using his proper name of Kiron, escapes from the stables and becomes a free man, returning to Alta, the land of his birth. Using his skills and knowledge of dragons, he finds a place for himself among the military society there. Unfortunately, he discovers that Alta has its own share of corruption, and he is driven once more into rebellion.

Alta was also . . . enjoyable. Mercedes Lackey is usually fun to read; her books are, for the most part, imaginative and fast-paced. They However, they are also extremely primitive; Lackey is reknowned for the quantity of her writing, and it definitely shows in the quality; she re-uses the same character archetypes in different fantasy situations over and over again. Read one series, and you've read them all. So, her books aren't good for much other than killing a dull afternoon.

Rating: 2.0

Jun 7, 2006

X-Men 3: The Last Stand

This latest movie in the X-Men series initially seemed promising, but I was mortally disappointed when I went to see it. There wasn't much good to be salvaged from the flat acting, mutant cameos, and needlessly grandiose special effects.

Ian McKellan does a reasonably good job as the evil, overdramatic Magneto, and Patrick Stewart plays an intriguing Professor X (although I didn't personally like what the script did with the character), but there the decent acting ends. Halle Berry plays an utterly personality-less Storm, leaving me wondering whether I was seeing her face or a mask. Hugh Jackman, normally a fine actor, spends most of the movie scrambling desperately to keep up with events, squeezing in an emotion here and there when he can get away with it. Kelsey Grammar makes a surprisingly apt Beast, but unfortunately he doesn't get to do much of anything, either.

The reason for this rapidly becomes apparent when you look at the number of cast members involved in this movie. In addition, a great deal of time was devoted to levitating cars, houses, and Magneto relocating the Golden Gate Bridge (an impressive feat, to be sure, but it was never apparent why he bothered unless he just felt like showing off).

The best moment of the movie is completely ruined by a ten-second "sign off" at the end. If you're going to call a movie "The Last Stand", I think it behooves you to tie up the loose ends. I don't think this X-Men movie is worth going to see in the theater at all.

Jun 6, 2006

Everything Bad Is Good for You

This little book by Steven Johnson posts an interesting hypothesis: is it possible that modern popular culture is actually making us smarter? According to Johnson, there's a very good chance that it is.

In a world where prophetic warnings against the dumbing effects of popular culture are rampant, Johnson's view seems more than a little crazy. However, he points to a number of trends that seem to support his viewpoint, trends he refers to as the "sleeper curve". One of the most intriguing is his mention of the Flynn Effect: an unusual and unexplained rise in IQ scores over the past 30 years.

Across the board, irrespective of class or race or education, Americans were getting smarter. Flynn was able to quantify the shift: in forty-six years, the American people had gained 13.8 IQ points on average.

The trend had gone unnoticed for so long because th eIQ establishment routinely normalized the exams to ensure that a person of average intelligence scored 100 on the test. So, every few years, they'd review the numbers and tweak the test to ensure that the median score was 100. Without realizing it, they were slowly but reliably increasing the difficulty of the test, as though they were ramping up the speed of a treadmill. If you looked exclusively at the history of the scores themselves, IQ seemed to be running in place, unchanged over the past century. But if you factored in the mounting challenge presented by the tests themselves, the picture changed dramatically: the test-takers were getting smarter.

What in popular culture could possibly be responsible for this shift in intelligence? Why attribute it to popular culture at all?

The real problem is that the Flynn Effect doesn't correlate to anything else. After all, during the same period educational performance has been very obviously decreasing, as evidenced studies of SAT scores and other performance indicators too numerous to mention. If Americans are performing less well as students, (and, in my opinion, being taught increasingly poorly at the same time) how on earth are we getting smarter?

Johnson's answer: video games. Well, not just video games, but a number of forms of popular entertainment: television, movies, even Dungeons and Dragons. As a gamer, I found this section particularly amusing (bold emphasis mine):

Once you released your Dwarven fighter into the world, the calculations involved in determining the effects of his actions--attacking a specific creature with a specific weapon under specific circumstances with a specific squad of comrades fighting alongside you--would leave most kids weeping if you put the same charts on a math quiz.

Which gets to the ultimate question of why a ten-year-old found any of this fun. For me, the embarrassing truth of the matter is that I did ultimately grow frustrated with my baseball simulation, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn't that arcane language wore me down, or that I grew tired of switching columns on the Bases Empty chart, or that I decided that six hours was too long ot spend alone in my room on a Saturday afternoon in July.

No, I moved on from [the baseball simulation] because it wasn't realistic enough.

Does that seem bizarre? Most of the gamers I know have gone through precisely this experience, and decided to design their own system to fix what they perceived as the problems with the existing ones! Remember, also, that we're talking about ultra-complicated hobbies that once only ultra-geeks pursued at all . . . D&D is now huge!

The trend towards more complicated, and thus more intelligence-raising entertainment can be found everywhere. Yes, appalling junk still exists, but as he says, "even the crap is getting better."

The book is an interesting read, although Johnson doesn't prove that pop culture is making Americans smarter. He says that a lot more research needs to be done, a fact that only adds to his presentation. How often does some pseudo-scientist notice a correlation between two facts and immediately announce that this necessarily indicates causation as well? Here, at least, we have someone that is willing to say "I have two facts that run roughly parallel, maybe they're related?"

As for me, I'm hoping this means that, in the future, there will be some TV shows I might actually want to watch.

Rating: 3.5

Cross-posted to the Objectivism Metablog

Jun 5, 2006

Epic: Mire

An oppressive weight of water hung in the air, shrouding all but the immediate surround in grayish haze. Beads of moisture formed on any exposed surface and ran, forming a slick of revolting slime. A rain of spontaneously coalescing drops fell constantly with an ominous, irregular bubbling sound: the malign chuckle of a pain-crazed wreck, ripe with terror and pregnant with dread.

There was no solid ground to be seen anywhere. Two or three inches of dark, murky water floated on a seemingly bottomless depth of muddy ooze that bulged in gelatinous ripples at the slightest disturbance. Thick snarls of roots rose from the water, supporting trunks that were themselves simply supports for dark curtains of tangled moss. The trees seemed to droop wearily under the weight, aged heaps rotted by despair, nearing collapse.

Jemith perched somewhat uncomfortably on a protruding root and attempted to brush leaves, mold, and bits of bark from his clothing. The branches above shook as Daian descended the tree. A long streamer of moss broke free and landed with a soggy squelch on Jemith’s shoulders. He flung the moss aside with a hiss of disgust.

“My apologies,” Daian offered solemnly.

“What hell is this? I wonder whether I truly did survive that fall. Perhaps this is some grim ever-after and my punishment is simply to be stuck here with you.”

“I think I detect a note of resentment in your voice.”

“Only a note?” Jemith sighed noisily, his expression sour. “At least, before you appeared, my life had the advantage of being dull.”

“How is that an advantage?”

“I had the expectation that it would continue.”

Daian shrugged and began edging her way carefully down the mound of roots until she reached the water level. She shielded her eyes from the water and attempted to peer into the gloom, rewarded only with the sight of vague shadows looming in the mist. She frowned at the unpromising water, tightening her muscles against the ordeal she knew must follow. There was no sense in waiting for her imagination to make the traverse even worse than it already was.

“You cannot honestly be proposing to swim.”

“It’s that, or wait here and die.”

“You’ll be lucky to make half a mile!”

“If you have a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it.”

Jemith looked skyward, in the direction of his home, but he saw only wet clots of leaves. “I don’t think I know how to swim.”

“You do not belong here.”

“You’re certainly correct!”

“Be quiet!” Daian hissed sharply. Jemith turned to snap at her and realized they were not alone in the swamp any longer. A woman was watching them from the mist.

She stepped forward, her bare feet touching the surface of the water without sinking beneath it. Her skin was the color of mud-smeared bark, her hair hung stiff and heavy like a tangle of vines. Her gray, shapeless dress seemed a composition of patches and loose threads. Only her glittering black eyes made her seem alive, not simply a part of the general surroundings.

“You do not belong here,” she muttered vaguely.

“Which way out of this wretched swamp?” Jemith demanded.

“There is only one way out of the swamp. But it is not for you.” She turned, indifferent, and vanished into the mist. Behind her, lazy ripples spread from footprints left on top of the water.

“Unbelievable,” Jemith murmured. Daian was looking at the water. She cautiously extended a booted foot and sighed when her experiment yielded only a splash. Jemith chuckled slightly. “Were you expecting something else to happen?”

“She’s walking on the water somehow. If we can figure out how to do it, we won’t have to swim.”

“I can see why you aren’t a magician.”

Daian considered for a moment and then sat on the roots, pulling her boots off. Then she extended her foot a second time. “That feels really strange.” She took a few experimental steps, leaving wide, smeary footprints in the water.

“No,” Jemith said quietly.

“No what?”

“Magic doesn’t work that way. If there’s something in this water to enable you to walk on it, it should work regardless of whether you’re wearing shoes or not!”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so! Do you have any idea what this means?”

Daian squished her toes in the water thoughtfully. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“It means there is a chimera around here somewhere.”

“A what?”

“A chimera. A . . . changed one. How much do you know about history?” Daian treated him to a peculiar expression, both jaundiced and amused.

“Oh, a fair bit.”

“Well, it used to be that . . .”

She held up her hand, cutting him short. “I can tell you’re concerned, however, does it make any difference one way or the other? We’re still stuck”—she pointed to her feet—“and this is better than swimming.”

“We just need to be careful.”

“I’m always careful.” Jemith stripped off his shoes and tentatively extended one foot towards the water. The liquid gave slightly, and then supported his weight. He followed Daian silently as she wound through the trees, thinking too hard for conversation. He’d never encountered any phenomenon even approaching this scope, and he found himself unable to focus on anything else.

“Jemith!” Daian shouted suddenly, her voice confused and commingled with the deafening sound of an eruption. Jemith skidded sideways over the water, gasping in shock, as a mass of teeth, claws, and tangled waterweeds launched itself in his direction. Daian blurred into motion and the creature’s attenuated body suddenly developed a rent, top and bottom sliding away in opposite directions with a hideous, bubbling shriek. Jemith stared at it in horror. It looked almost human. And it was still moving.

“Jemith, what are you doing?!” Startled again, he looked up to see Daian hacking ruthlessly at a rapidly encroaching mass of monsters. Two more burst from the water as he watched, close enough that the twin plumes of water splashed him. “Cast a spell or something!”

“I don’t have anything useful!”

Daian wrenched herself through most of a circle to lop a reaching arm in half. “Then run!” Jemith took off at a sprint; in a musical jingle of armor, Daian followed him. Reaching hands rose from the water, sending Jemith sheering off in a new direction to leave them behind. His legs began to ache and the air burned in his chest. Then his feet hit something other than water and he stumbled, falling face-first into a patch of semi-solid mud. Daian stood over him, facing into the swamp, waiting for him to rise.

“They . . . they’ve stopped chasing us.”

“I think I see why.”

She glanced over her shoulder. A decaying village rose above them on endless ranks of narrow bamboo stilts.

Jun 1, 2006

The Purge

As a bibliophile I have a perennial problem that makes housework a greater challenge than it normally is: books all over the floor. Not just the floor, even, but on any and every flat surface available. So, today I decided to make a frontal assault on this problem. I'm getting rid of my books. I've increasingly lost the tendency to accumulate possessions over the years because I just move too often and have too little storage space. There's quite a few positive aspects to an unencumbered existence.

I'm not getting rid of all of them, of course (I've had books since before I could read!), just the ones that aren't worth the time and effort to re-read and thus are taking up space, collecting dust, and straining my back when I move. So, of course, the question became, which which of my books are actually worth keeping? The answer, I discovered, was: painfully few.

Some are just so battered that I'm going to replace them, but the truth is that a lot of the books I own just aren't that good. Either that, or I've outgrown them. I'm keeping a few for sentimental reasons (Where the Red Fern Grows, for instance) and those that I would rate a 4+, but the rest are getting shipped to the gulag. I wonder why so few of them are worth keeping. Is it just that my taste in books hasn't been that good? Do I keep walking past the good ones on the shelf?

Or is the truth that there really aren't that many really good books out there, regardless of the huge masses of them in print?

I don't think that I'll miss them (I didn't when I abandoned them for a year), although getting them out of the house is going to take some work. I wish Half-Price would pick them up like the Salvation Army will pick up donated furniture. Heck, I'd let Half-Price have them for FREE if they'd just come and GET them.

My housemate asked me a bizarre question, too: what will your kids read? My answer to this is: they can buy their own durn books and carry them around themselves.

All this makes me wonder why e-books haven't taken off more. I'm not going to suddenly stop reading mediocre books just because I've stopped keeping them. Actual books are nice in that they don't require batteries and they're portable (individually, anyway), but if that could be solved reasonably well I, at least, would love to be able to buy my mediocre books online and be able to read them right away. I know there are some devices for this out there. I'll have to look around at them.

May 31, 2006

The Big U

Neal Stephenson's first novel has returned to print, and unsurprisingly, it is crazy. While not as skillful as his later novels (possessing a somewhat peculiar first-person narrator) it is nonetheless a blistering expose on modern educational "factories".

Containing its full share of brainless females, frat boys, live-action role players, computer geeks, lesbians, and physicists that launch weights at high rates of speed, the book goes yet further, introducing college legends that turn out to be true: nuclear waste in the basement, rats the size of dobermans, and a previous administrator turned raving lunatic.

From there, it gets really weird. In fact, it reminds me of something Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) once said: no matter how surreal his comic strip becomes, with cats in the HR department and trolls in accounting, he STILL gets letters from people saying: "this is exactly like my office!"

Well, I went to college in an education factory (washed out), and I have to say that The Big U is exactly like it. If you've gone to college, don't miss this fabulous mixture of laughter, horror, and twisted nostalgia.

Rating: 3.5

May 30, 2006

Turn the Other Chick

At some point I acquired a taste for the "Chicks in Chainmail" series of goofy short stories collected by Esther Friesner. There's not a lot to any of them: exaggerated sexual characteristics, exaggerated sexual innuendo, implausible armor . . . pretty much what you'd expect from fluff fantasy except that this is actually intended to be a joke.

Unfortunately, in this latest compilation I only found one of the stories to be, well, funny. This could be attributed to the fact that I'm gradually losing my sense of humor, or at least my sense of what is meant to be funny. Something has to be fairly surprising and clever to elicit a real laugh from me any more.

That, and I think the topic of this particular humor (namely Women) has been Done to Death, so it's time to move on to a new and always-funny topic, namely: stupid people.

Just kidding.

Rating: 2.0

May 29, 2006

Epic: Meeting

“Apprentice!” Ehmammin screeched and Jemith snorted frigid water up his nose.  Blowing and coughing desperately, he managed a strangled, “Yeb, Mazter?” and turned to look in the direction of the elder magician’s voice, wincing as the water hit the top of his head and ran down his back.  His body stiffened, unprepared for the onslaught, and he convulsed with shivering.

Where is my fulminating shardstone?”

How should I know? was Jemith’s immediate thought; he was surprised enough that he almost said it, too, and thanked an erratic jet of water that caused him to splutter incoherently.


“Did you leave it by the condenser again?” he hazarded.  “Er, Master.”

“No!  I put . . . no, wait, here it is.  Not by the condenser, thank you so very much.  Hmph!”  

Jemith rested his forehead on the wall and gritted his teeth as Ehmammin stormed away again.  It’s so good to be home, Jemith thought with heavy sarcasm as he grabbed a handful of sandy soap and resumed his shower.  The water came straight out of the cliff; channeled into crude plumbing it took care of their sanitary needs fairly well, apart from being so blasted cold.  It also turned the stone into a warren of caves and deposited a number of minerals magicians found useful in their work.  

Jemith escaped from the shower, tied a towel around his hips with fingers that were thoroughly numb, and trotted his way past the equipment towards the kitchens.  Once, he might have slowed to see what dripped through glass tubing or boiled sluggishly over a tiny blue fire.  Once, he’d loved these machines.  Now they only represented infinite unrewarded work.

Ehmammin wasn’t a picky eater; stew in a bowl satisfied the majority of his grumbling.  The magician shooed Jemith away from a precipitating mixture impatiently when the younger man tried to help.  

“Don’t touch that.  And go put on some clothes.  You’re a disgrace.”

“Will you be wanting me for anything else tonight?”

“No.”  License enough to find a corner and sleep for a few hours.  Jemith returned silently to the living quarters, unable to muster any interest in the work Ehmammin considered so urgent.

* * *

“Wake up!” the elder magician bellowed, his voice weirdly distorted by distance.  Jemith sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking at the dim candlelight.  

“What is it?  It’s not morning already?”

“Not yet, but some idiot is shouting into the caller.  Go see what he wants!  I can’t be disturbed right now!”

“Yes, Master,” Jemith muttered and heaved himself to his feet.  Dark figures were gathered across the gap left by the upright drawbridge.  They carried lanterns, but the light only served to cast them in more dramatic shadows.  Jemith waved to them and one lifted the caller and spoke.

“Ehmammin, it’s very important that you come out here immediately!”

“This is Jemith.”  There was a brief, uncomfortable pause.

“Oh,” the voice continued, flat with irritation.  “We didn’t know you were back.”

“Ehmammin can’t be disturbed.  Is there anything I do to assist you?”

“He won’t come out at all?”


Jemith could almost see the speaker’s expression of distaste and resignation.  “There’s an emergency council meeting, and since your master is senior magician . . .”

“What do you want me to do, knock him out?  He won’t budge.”

“I am aware of that, thank you.  If you had let me finish my sentence . . .”


The speaker huffed angrily.  “Are you quite finished?”

“Yes, sir.”

“As I was saying, we’ll escort you to the emergency council and you can keep Ehmammin informed.  Does that suit you, o great mage?”

“There’s no need to be rude,” Jemith snapped.  “Let me ask Ehmammin.”

“Obstructionist jackass,” the speaker muttered as Jemith climbed the ladder back into the cave.

“Master?”  Jemith asked tentatively.

“Did you get rid of them yet?”

“No, Master, they need someone to go to an emergency council meeting.”

“Tell them to have their emergency later. I’m busy.”

“Ah, yes, Master.  They thought it might be easier if I went to the meeting and reported back.  So that you don’t have to interrupt anything.”


“Yes, me.”

“And what am I supposed to do if I need my apprentice in the meantime?  No, don’t answer that, clearly they won’t be happy until they get something.  Go on, and keep your opinions to yourself, do you hear!”

“Yes, Master.”  Jemith scurried back down the ladder, threw on a robe over his clothing, and hit the release lever for the drawbridge.  The messengers on the other side jumped back as the wooden planks thudded into place inches away.  All three of them glared malevolently at Jemith.

“Let’s go,” the speaker announced.  “We’ve wasted enough time on this.”  The messengers turned in concert, their robes swirling around them dramatically, and marched towards the city.  Jemith followed, keeping a few paces behind them at all times.

The platforms and bridges covering the cliff were ominous in the dark, a looming tangle that their eyes could not penetrate.   Some signs of life should be visible, but the messengers carried the only lights and the only sound was the progress of their boots.  Jemith pulled his loose robe up over his shoulders and shivered, not certain whether his chill was imagined or real.

The tangle parted, revealing the wide arch of the main span.  Another robed man with a lantern waited.  His posture—arms crossed, leaning against the balustrade—and the noise of his impatient fidgeting broke Jemith’s sense of overwhelming dread.

“Finally!  Wait, where’s the magician?”  Then he noticed Jemith.  “Winds!  Why’d you bring him?!

“Ehmammin’s doing whatever he feels like doing,” Jemith explained.

“I wasn’t talking to you.  So he felt like sending you, huh?  Vanadragos isn’t going to be happy.  Why does he dislike you so much, anyway?”

“Because he can’t keep his mouth shut,” one of the messengers added pointedly.  “A flaw that others appear to share, Eber.”

“I didn’t have to wait for you.”

“Yes, I’m sure we would have had so much trouble getting to the other side of the bridge without your help.”  The other messengers chuckled appreciatively.  “I mean, it’s so big.  We might get lost.”

Eber threw up his hands and began climbing the curve of the bridge.  The talkative messenger snorted with satisfaction and followed, his men following him and Jemith following them.  The five of them were the last to arrive at the Pavilion; the platform was packed with uncertain men recently torn from their beds.  Unusually for a crowd this size, no one was speaking, everyone was too busy craning their necks to see the steps of the city building, where a small group was huddled in private discussion.

“What’s going on?”  Jemith asked Eber quietly.  Several people turned their heads to look at him.

“No one knows for certain.  One of the topside observers sent word that there was a sudden outbreak of fighting in Beserrib, lots of fires, looting, people fleeing into the desert with their household goods.  Some of the defenders caught one of the looters in the confusion, but he just kept raving about the end of the world.  Superstitious fools.  Van called this meeting to make some sort of announcement.”

“EVERYONE BE QUIET AND SETTLE DOWN!” a thick, gravelly voice shouted from the city building as the huddle broke up.  Jemith stood on his toes and saw Vanadragos throwing back the hood of his robe to address the crowd.  There was a sudden burst of indignant chatter at his command.  “I SAID QUIET!”

“Everyone was quiet!” Jemith snapped, his statement coming just after the babble died down and clearly audible to everyone in the crowd.

“Who said that?  Where is . . .”  Eber and several of the other men standing nearby helpfully pointed to Jemith.  “Oh.  It’s you.  I didn’t know you were back.”  Jemith’s face heated as the bystanders chuckled.  “What’s going on with Aglar?”

“Van!” snapped one of the legislators.  “This can wait!”

“Hah.  ALL RIGHT!” Van shouted, using his command voice again.  “We have news that the so-called Prophet of Beserrib is dead!  No one up there knows whose supposed to be in charge.  Things are pretty crazy up there, but at the moment there’s no sign of an organized assault, so we’ve decided to sit tight for now and see what happens.  Any questions?”

“How exactly does an immortal prophet get himself killed?” someone near the front of the crowd demanded.  Van’s face took on an apologetic expression and he turned to look at another man, Uzakha the Spymaster.

“Our prisoner was of the opinion that a demoness came out of the desert and cut his head off.”  There was scattered laughter.  Jemith felt his chest tighten sharply.  “We are not certain how much credence to give this report.  It is far-fetched at best, however it is the only explanation we have thus far.”

“This is ridiculous, we’ve been fighting the prophet’s men for who remembers how many years and then chop, he’s dead?  What do we do?  What’s going to happen?

Jemith’s hands began to shake and he cupped them over his face, trying to control his reaction.  “What’s wrong with you?” Eber asked urgently.

“Nothing.  Ex-excuse me,” he managed and fled the meeting altogether. Two people watched him go: Eber with a puzzled expression, and Vanadragos, with his bird’s-eye view of the proceedings.  The chief defender scowled and made a faint sign to Uzakha, who nodded and withdrew.  

Jemith lost himself in the silent city, climbing whenever he reached a stairway or ladder until he reached the highest platforms.  Finally, breathing too hard to continue, he sat down on the edge, dangling his legs over the fall and looking out over the Side.  Its hold on the cliff seemed more precarious than ever.  For the first time in his life he felt a twinge of vertigo and closed his eyes against the dizziness.  

“It’s quite a view,” Daian said quietly.  Jemith opened his eyes.

“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” he said.  She leaned on the railing and regarded him levelly.  Jemith considered a number of questions he could ask, then sighed and chose the simplest.  “What do you want?”

She chuckled slightly.  “I want to find a magician.”

“You’re not going to find any help around here.”

“There aren’t any magicians here?  That’s not what I was told.”

“No, there’s hundreds.  They simply won’t help you.”

“Why not?”

Jemith pointed towards the mist hanging overhead.  “You’re from up there.  They don’t allow outsiders here, and they don’t work for them.  In fact, you should probably go back whatever way you came before someone sees you.”

She punched the railing and stood silently for a long time.  Then, she looked down at him again.  “What about you?”

“I’m no use to you.  I’m still an apprentice, I don’t have any of my own equipment or . . .”
“But you’d help me, if you did?”

Jemith cursed himself.  “I don’t think . . .”

“You would.  Why?”

“Because they wouldn’t.  It doesn’t change anything.  There’s still nothing I can do.”

“What about . . .”

“If I may have your attention for a moment,” Uzakha interrupted, “I would like to request that you step away from the railing and make no sudden movements.”  Jemith was surprised when Daian turned slowly and patiently to face the Spymaster, hooking her hands on her belt.  “I do not know you, young woman.”

“I’m Daian.”

“You are not allowed to be here.”

“Then I’ll leave.”

“I’m afraid that is not an option.”  Uzakha nodded at the darkness and the platform was suddenly thick with robed figures.  The Spymaster rolled a glass vial between his long fingers.  Daian removed her hands from her belt.  The robed men shifted anxiously.

“She killed the prophet!”  Jemith yelled desperately.  Uzakha glanced at him and Daian took advantage of his inattention to draw her sword.  The Spymaster held up a hand, forestalling her.

“Is this so?”  Daian nodded, frowning slightly.  Uzakha matched her frown with one of his own.  “It does not change the fact that you should not be here.  However, I think that with the prophet removed we can make an . . . allowance.  You will leave peacefully?”

“If you insist, however the only reason I’m here is that I really need to speak with a magician.”

“I do not have the authority to make that sort of decision.”

“So take me to someone that does.”

“Put up your weapon.”  Daian slid the sword back into its sheath.  Uzakha gestured to several of his men.  “Escort her to Vanadragos.”  Daian stepped around Uzakha to follow them. “Now, Jemith, we deal with you.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“You brought this outsider here, a crime for which there is only one punishment.”  Rough hands grasped Jemith’s shoulders and hauled him to his feet.  “We will see whether you have learned to grow wings.”

“No!”  Uzakha planted a hand in Daian’s chest, preventing her from coming to Jemith’s aid as the men picked him up bodily and tossed him over the railing.  Furious, Daian punched the Spymaster in the face and flung herself over the side, catching a double handful of Jemith’s clothing as they both fell.

“How, exactly, did you get down here?”  Jemith shouted over the wind of their passage.

“I jumped.  What’s down there, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”