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

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.