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

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.”

May 23, 2006

Epic: Prophet

The guards regarded Daian with no particular interest when she rode through the gate they were supposedly guarding.  The towers were ugly, slapped together from some unwholesome mixture of mud, straw, and bricks that appeared on the verge of total dissolution.  Daian’s eyes swept over murder holes in the walls as she passed under a rusting portcullis.  Older, sturdier stone construction was visible through the holes, propping up the layers of rotten clay that covered it.

The buildings within the walls were newer construction and thus in better repair, but they were flimsy, ramshackle things.  They almost appeared as though they would provide better shelter after they were torn down.  The city folk were apparently aware of this fact, clogging the narrow, dusty streets with their ragged bodies.  They paid Daian no more overt attention than the guards had, but she pressed through the crowd at the head of a wake of silence, feeling their eyes on her back.

It was a bad idea to ride blindly through unknown neighborhoods, but it was a worse one to reveal her confusion by asking random strangers for help, so she pointed the horse’s nose towards the center of the city.  Gradually the crowds diminished and the dust gave way to a paved boulevard.  Somewhat relieved by the change, Daian nudged her horse towards the side of the road and hailed a passer-by.

“Pardon me, sir.”  The man watched her for some time before speaking.

“What do you want?”

“I am in need of magical assistance, where can I find a magician?”

He choked on laughter and smirked at her.


The man pointed in the direction she was already riding.  “There, barbarian.  There you will find your magician!”

Daian eyed him as he continued on his interrupted journey, still laughing.  Other pedestrians were watching her, expressions unreadable.  Unnerved, she tapped the horse lightly and continued her ride.  The boulevard widened into a plaza lined with drooping palm trees, overshadowed by the massive bulk of the Old Palace.  Daian smiled at the old structure, pleased to see that it survived and even appeared in good repair.

Alert guards accosted her at the gate this time, and she smiled at them benevolently.

“Are you here for an audience, outlander?”

“Yes, I require some assistance.”

The man smiled darkly.  “Well, then you’ve come to the right place.”  He waved to a servant.  “I am afraid you will have to leave your horse behind; they are not permitted within the walls.”

Daian dismounted without quibble.

“Take her to the audience at once,” the guard ordered the servant.  The boy placed the palms of his hands together and bowed, gesturing for Daian to follow.  It was a long walk, across more pavements lined with yet more palm trees, and up an imposing staircase clearly designed to test the stamina and determination of potential supplicants.  Daian trotted up the stairs without real strain and approached the marble throne at the crest.  The seated man jumped noticeably and one of a dozen bodyguards grasped the hilt of his sword significantly.  Daian decided it was prudent to halt.

“An outlander?” the seated man asked, glancing to an advisor that stood nearby.  The advisor shrugged.

“It is customary to make obeisance to His Lordship, outlander,” the advisor rebuked Daian mildly.  She bowed politely.

“Is it a man or a woman, do you think?” the lord continued in an undertone to his flunky.  Not waiting for an answer, he turned to address Daian himself.  “Welcome to Beserrib, outlander.  What news have you of the rest of the world?”

“Precious little, I fear, and what I do know is not good.  I must ask a favor from you.”

“A favor?”

“I need the assistance of your magician.”

The lord’s eyes widened.  “I-I beg your pardon?”

Daian blinked.  “If your magician isn’t available, I’m sure any one would do, as long as they’re reasonably competent . . . is something wrong?”  Everyone in the audience chamber stared at Daian, white-faced with shock.

“You . . . you . . . who has allowed this filth into my presence?!” the lord bellowed.  His advisor made a preemptory gesture and the mass of bodyguards charged.  Daian scowled and drew her sword, dodging the first warrior and regarding him with some disgust as he lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs.  Shaking her head, she batted another sword aside and decapitated its owner.  Turning slightly, she claimed an arm and ripped open another’s guts.  A sword hit her armor and rebounded wildly.  These bodyguards weren’t bad, but fighting Daian they had one crucial disadvantage.

They were human.

Daian was not, or at least, not completely.  She was a great deal closer than Nimerone, closer than most magic-changed folk, in fact.  Not a hint of her warped nature was readily identifiable to any of the senses.  At least, until someone decided to attack.

Her lip curled slightly as she continued fighting the bodyguards, paying more attention to her own thoughts than to the frenzied activity surrounding her.  Fighting them disgusted her; they were too stupid to change tactics and too suicidal to surrender.  At least they didn’t try to run.  Daian kicked the last bodyguard’s corpse aside and glared at the lord, who was fleeing for a side passage with the remains of his retinue.  Without thinking, she shifted her grip on the hilt and threw.  The lord dropped like a stone.

“I’d stop, now, if I were you,” she spat.  Courtiers shrank away from her advance.  “An unprovoked attack was bad enough.  I most strongly advise you not to try to escape.”

“What do you want from us, demon?!” the advisor wailed.  Daian reclaimed her sword casually from the lord’s corpse.

“I need the assistance of a magician!”

The courtiers cringed.  “Oh demon, there are no magicians in the city!  They are cursed, cursed, executed for their crimes!”

“Well, where can I find one, then?”

“There!” the advisor pointed towards the throne.  Daian glanced at it and returned her glare to him, tempted to kill him out of sheer frustration.  He shrank further away from her, still pointing, and she climbed up to the throne for a better look.  Then she stopped, instantly dizzy.  Behind the throne, the platform simply ended.  Beyond it, there was nothing.  The ground dropped away in a sheer wall, all else was sky and drifting mist.

“Out there?!” Daian demanded.

“Yes, yes!”  

Daian wiped her sword on the throne hangings and sheathed it.  Then, she stepped to the edge and spread her arms.

“Wait!” the advisor wailed one last time.

“What is it?”

“You’ve killed the prophet!  Who will rule us now?”

“No one, if you’re lucky,” she told him, and leapt out, into space.

May 21, 2006

Vanity Report

I continue to remain surprised at how many people regularly drop by this blog, even during the recent slump in posting frequency. Here's my most recent numbers:

-- Site Summary ---

Total ........................ 5,538
Average per Day ................. 34
Average Visit Length .......... 2:42
This Week ...................... 235

Page Views

Total ....................... 11,202
Average per Day ................. 69
Average per Visit .............. 2.1
This Week ...................... 483

May 19, 2006

They Made America

Businessmen are the symbol of a free society—the symbol of America. If and when they perish, civilization will perish. But if you wish to fight for freedom, you must begin by fighting for its unrewarded, unrecognized, yet best representatives—the American businessmen. –Ayn Rand

This quote is truly appropriate for Harold Evans’ new book, a fantastic journey through the history of American innovation over the past two hundred years. (Evans is also the author of The American Century.) Ayn Rand is actually mentioned in Evans’ introduction, albeit briefly, so I thought I would start out this review with one of her insights.

In great dramatic style, Evans tells the stories of dozens of people that have truly turned America into what she is today. They are not all inventors, although some, like Edison, are renowned for their inventions, but they are all innovators: people that had a new idea and through courage, canniness, and sheer unadulterated drive, used their idea to rattle the nation.

The heavy, high-quality work is just about the right size for a history textbook. It’s divided into three sections: Pathfinders of a New Civilization, America Takes Off, and The Digital Age, dealing respectively with three types of innovators.

Evans first details the people who set the stage for America’s emergence into manufacturing and industrialization when the Founding Fathers foresaw a society of landowners and gentleman farmers. His coverage includes everything from the opening of America’s waterways for shipping to the quiet political revolution that turned semi-coherent ideas of economic freedom into a reality.

One of the things that stood out to me most in the first section is the absolute need for good legislation of intellectual property. Government rulings on the matter seemed to segue wildly between refusing to protect a particular inventor’s idea at all and handing a canny manipulator a government-enforced monopoly on anything even similar to his invention, choking off people that came up with their own approaches to the same problem. In the swamp of arbitrary and contradictory rulings, inventors could spend most of their time and most of their money just trying to get legal recognition for their work.

He then tackles the businessmen of the newly formed culture of economic freedom and industrial progress, subdividing into three secondary sections: Inventors, Democratizers, and Empire Builders.

Inventors is self-explanatory, including such greats as the aforementioned Edison and the Wright Brothers, but also less-famous individuals like Leo Hendrik Baekeland (plastic) and Garrett Augustus Morgan (the gas mask). Their technical achievements through trial and error make for terrific reading, Evans’ descriptive style making each story exciting and uplifting. He has a talent for pulling the really essential points from a wealth of complexity.

Democratizers are those who, while not necessarily being first on the mark with originating a product, came up with the idea of bringing that product to everyone, so that the man on the street could enjoy the benefits of his own car (Henry Ford), camera (George Eastman, Kodak), and bank account (Amadeo Peter Giannini, Bank of America). Some of their innovations have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a day when it was almost impossible for the man on the street with some modest savings simply to get a bank account.

Empire Builders includes the likes of Walt Disney, Estee Lauder, and Malcolm McLean (container shipping); individuals that leveraged a simple concept into a sprawling industry. In some cases their contributions may seem small, but they are responsible for turning America into more than just a country—into a culture. Some aspects of that culture aren’t beloved by everyone, but welding a culture is still quite an accomplishment.

The Digital Age isn’t all computers: it covers the really cutting-edge advances and changes like biotech, and, weirdly, hip-hop culture. As I said, you may not like all of it, but you have to admit that it’s had an effect on you, and even the maestro of hip-hop turns out to be a serious, dedicated businessman.

The book does have some flaws; Evans is semi-liberal in his personal views. He spends a fair amount of time enumerating the charitable contributions of the various businessmen and talking about their altruistic goals, meaning that they weren’t just in it for money: they loved their work and what they could provide for their customers. He makes some conclusions that I would consider off the mark, such as his enchantment with the mixed-economy “marriage” between government and business. Still, he does justice to every single one of the businessmen (and women!) that he profiles. So I have to say that despite some small flaws this book gets my complete approval.

On a sad note, though, my copy of this book has fade-marks from sitting on a shelf in the sun for too long. I can't help but think it's an ominous warning.

Rating: 5.0

Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog

May 18, 2006

Once A Hero

Elizabeth Moon has written some really enjoyable military fantasy (The Deed of Paksenarrion comes to mind) but this book didn't impress me very much. The military space opera reminds me a great deal of David Weber, but I think Moon doesn't quite measure up to the standard. I think this book is a "side" book about a minor character in another series Moon has written, which may explain some of the items of dubious providence.

It begins well, with Esmay, the main character, on trial before a military tribunal for treason and mutiny when she inadvertantly became the commanding officer of an attack ship during an unexpected battle. Her actions saved many lives, but it's the military, after all, so there has to be a trial.

There is then a lengthy pause in the action when Esmay returns home to face her provincial and restrictive family, along with some personal trauma that is preventing her from realizing her full potential. The series of events seemed very contrived to me, because the overall indication was that it's the past that determines who you are and what you can do, not your choices. Too much psychologizing. Let's get back to the plot, please.

Things are a great deal more interesting after Esmay returns to the Navy and is reassigned, but of course nothing ever quite goes as planned when there are enemies about. Sabotage and infiltration by enemy troops worked together to make Esmay's new assignment anything but dull. Still, I found the events somewhat contrived. Here is a ship full of admirals, people that don't reach their position by accident, and they wind up relying on a green lieutenant to help them decide what to do.

It was an okay book, but I've read many that are much better.

Rating: 2.5

Now, Here's Something I Can Use

Via Gus Van Horn I learned about this new blog of tidbits on modern English usage. I like to speak and write correctly and I really dislike reading anything that is full of banal errors and corrupted words. (The occasional typo is okay; that happens to everyone sooner or later.)

One of my personal pet peeves is anyone that uses "alright" when they really mean "all right". Unlike "all ready" which has a compressed version: "already" (it's not used identically, mind you), "all right" doesn't compress. So type the other l already.

May 17, 2006

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

It's unusual to encounter a children's movie that exhibits plotlessness, but the new Ice Age movie has managed it. Little more than a string of barely-connected jokes, the "story" is a trial of patience for even an adult audience.

The most enjoyable moments are the various Wile E. Coyote-esque escapades of Skrat, which take up a large part of the movie yet serve no purpose. Perhaps this is the reason why the other characters seem lackluster and unimportant. Then again, thinking back to the first Ice Age movie, the best character was the human baby. Replacing the emotional quality of that character with a highly argumentative Queen Latifah (providing the voice for a mammoth that believes she's a possum) sank the entire movie.

Which, in its way, makes the title somewhat appropriate.

May 16, 2006

Epic: Sideways

Jemith rode his horse with reckless abandon across the desert flats from Peridai, knowing he would have little use for the beast by the middle of the afternoon.  The western horizon was near and growing nearer by the minute, sky like blue enamel meeting a low-lying bank of dirty clouds that seemed to boil up from under the horizon.  It was not really surprising; Jemith rode straight for the edge of the world.  The land simply ended without explanation or apology, turning into a sheer face that disappeared into misty distance in three directions: north, south, and down.

It was not entirely a clean end; the line of demarcation was visibly concave.  Massive boulders, more resilient or better anchored than the rock and earth around them, projected jaggedly over the precipice, suggesting a monstrous grin on a gaping maw, open to someday swallow what remained.

Supposedly, there had once been land beyond the edge of the world, but no one was really certain where—or even when—it had vanished.  The hot wind that blew during the daylight hours carried plumes of dust from the desert over the cliff and hit cooler, moister air below; dust and vapor formed a haze that confused distances and never completely dissipated.

The horse’s sides began to heave and the breath roared in its chest, so Jemith dismounted and left the beast to its own devices, freeing it from the harness that he casually discarded.  The walk was hot and uncomfortable and he rested gratefully in the shaded vee between two massive stone fangs, staring over the edge only a few feet away.  He checked the straps on his backpack, settled his gear into place, and gripped the boulder next to him as best he could.  Cautiously, he probed the empty air with an extended boot, bending his other knee and lowering himself an inch at a time until he succeeded in thumping his toes on something solid.  Sighing in relief, he transferred his weight forward, lost his balance, stumbled, and fell into the illusion, catching the chain that served as a guardrail with his stomach.

He cursed and wheezed painfully for a minute or two, glaring down the length of the now-visible path down the cliff.  It was well hidden even without magical protection and he hated not being able to see where he was putting his feet, especially with that endless fall if he misjudged.  The board pathway descended along the cliff, decking suspended from chains attached to the wall.  It was sturdy and stable construction, but Jemith could never manage to stop himself from clinging to the chains as he walked.  It was ridiculous to be afraid of heights, but being ridiculous didn’t reduce the fear.

The clouds were shading into evening colors when the suspension road swerved into a dizzying switchback to pass under a fall of white water.  Jemith wiped spray from his face and looked down at the improbable construction of the Side.

Enterprising magicians had contrived a way to make enormous blocks of stone hover in mid-air.  It was an impressive feat, and, secure in their power and capability, they’d gone ahead and built their homes on top of floating rocks.  It increased the difficulty of visiting the neighbors somewhat, so they threw up delicate bridges to accommodate traffic.  Then, they’d quietly vanished from the world, choosing to locate their city where no one would ever think to look for it: beyond the edge of the world.

That was centuries ago.  Now, the population of the Side had outgrown the platforms and spread, fungus-like, over the nearby rock face.  Thick pilings driven deep into stone supported buildings of rope, wood, and canvas; in the twilight they looked like a colony of birds nesting on a bluff, as though at any moment they might tear loose from their perches and fling themselves into the void.

Ehmammin, important elder magician that he was, had located his home in an eccentric location that required Jemith to navigate almost the full width of the city before he arrived at the drawbridge.  Predictably, it was up.  Fortunately, the caller was sitting in its box, otherwise Jemith might have been reduced to throwing things to get his master’s attention.

“Master?” he shouted into the device.  Faint scrabbling noises ensued, as though rats inhabited the caller.

“What?!  Who’s there?”

“It is I, Jemith, returning!”

The drawbridge descended with a thump, nearly claiming Jemith’s toes.  With a resigned sigh he walked into the home of the master magician.

“Finally!” the old man declared, grabbing his apprentice’s backpack so aggressively that he almost jerked the younger man off his feet.  Jemith ducked his head and pulled his arms out of the straps, then slid into a cushioned niche with another sigh.

“You’re getting dust everywhere!  Go take a bath!”

“Yes, Master.”

“And I suppose you’re hungry as well, hmm?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Good, you can start my supper after you’re clean.”

May 15, 2006

Rain Check

There will be a slight delay of a day on the fiction this week, as I'm suffering from a terrible case of Book I Can't Put Down. It'll be up tomorrow.

May 14, 2006

Trivial Politics

Here's a link to an opinion piece about an odious political trend (and a book I might want to read). George F. Will makes some good points, but the thing that I really found interesting is that he inadvertantly indicates that it's theoretically only possible to be meaningfully involved with tragedy.

I've remarked before that it's a very American trait to be ferocious in assault on the bad whilst being unable to define or defend anything that is good. Why are politicians unable to say anything interesting or authentic about $3 gas? Because they don't care about the the issue. All they know is: people are angry because gas is $3 a gallon. What's their interest in this situation? They want said angry people to stop whining at them.

If your motivation is to stop the whining, you're not going to be very interested in the situation and thus you won't be able to generate any authentic emotional reaction to it--apart from irritation, which simple politeness dictates you shouldn't display. Heck, a middle-manager at the company I work for will display wooden-faced endurance when faced with the same old idiot complaints over and over again.

Seeing the government as your (or other peoples') nursemaid is a great way to generate fatigue in the people who are supposed to be protecting your rights instead of holding your hand.

May 11, 2006

The Novels of Tiger and Del

"He wants you to fight." Del had just discovered it. And very calm she was, too, considering the fight would be to the death.

"Looks like he might just get it, too. I mean--part of the deal we struck is to make sure you get to Julah, not into an old man's bed." I grinned. "Ever had two men fight over you before?"

"Yes," she said grimly, surprising me; but not surprising me at all, once I thought about it. "Tiger--tell him no."

"If I tell him I won't fight, it means I'm giving in to him," I pointed out. "It means I'm making a gift of you to him."

Del squared her shoulders and looked the shoka in the eye. Not a wise thing for a woman to do. And it got worse when she totally circumvented custom and spoke to him directly. "If the shoka wishes to fight over the Northern woman, he will have to fight the woman first."

Plainly put, the shoka was flabbergasted. So was I, to be honest. Not only had she ignored the rules of common Hanji courtesy, but she also challenged him personally.

His nose-ring quivered against his lip. Every sinew in his body stood up beneat his sun-darkened skin. "Warriors do not fight women."

"I'm not a woman," she said dryly. I'm a sword-dancer, as is the Sandtiger. And I will fight you to prove it."

"Del," I said.

"Be quiet." She'd given up on politeness altogether. "You're not stealing this fight from me."

"By all the gods of valhail," I hissed, "don't be such a fool!"

"Stop calling me a fool, you stupid sand-ape!"

The shoka grunted. "Perhaps it would be better if the woman fought the Sandtiger."

There are a number of things to be said about these two books, collected into one volume, but unfortunately most of them aren't good. There's no plot to speak of--there are events, wedged in between the interminable arguments between the two main characters--but they don't add up to any plot whatsoever. Events that might have been interesting tend to be resolved by some truly bizarre exercises of Deus ex Machina that rather leave you wondering what the point of all that activity was.

The characters groan under the weight of the stereotypes they're required to support, so much so that it's almost impossible to like any of them. That, and they're constantly psychologizing each other (and everyone else they meet), a fact that they actually admit! I'm sorry, but no character in a fantasy novel that includes magic swords and nomadic desert bandits should include the word psychological, ESPECIALLY when it's told from a first-person viewpoint. First person allows SOME editorial comments, but that's just ridiculous.

Del, the heroine, is frankly unlikeable: the fantasy self of every man-hating feminist to ever exist. She's a paragon of physical beauty and she makes a point of proving she's better than every man she meets. The chip on her shoulder is the size of the Empire State Building. It's not especially surprising, because she's a victim of every feminist's favorite disaster: rape, but it IS annoying.

That, and the second book ends in an unforgivable cliffhanger that actually made me NOT want to read any more in the series just from spite.

Rating: 1.5

May 8, 2006

Epic: Bones

Tired as she was—and half-drowned, thanks to Nimerone—Daian still almost decided to begin exploring the mystery campsite at the edge of the pool.  Then she remembered an important fact that gave her a moment’s pause.  

It was dark.  Whatever waited was either big enough to be dangerous or complex enough to require close examination: in either event Daian would need to be able to see in order to make anything of it.  It was tempting to approach the tents; the fish-woman’s strange actions had created a knot of confusion that Daian craved to unravel.  She pursed her lips tensely and swam for the far side of the water.  She would go see what Jemith was doing.  That was the sensible thing.

At least one of his activities was immediately obvious; he had started a fire.  It was even possible, she mused, that he had cooked some food and could be persuaded to share it.  She slithered out of the water, donned her shirt, and shouldered the heavy water bags.

Jemith started guiltily when she returned, twisting his body into an unnatural position to turn around and look at her, his eyes widening in alarm.  Daian watched as he heaved a bowl of water onto the fire, raising a cloud of smoke but not otherwise accomplishing anything.  She frowned, puzzled by his reaction.

“If you truly don’t wish to share whatever you are cooking I won’t be upset,” she offered, fishing for an explanation.

“I’m not cooking; there’s dry bread and meat in the bandits’ saddlebags and not a thing else worth eating, so why should I bother?”

She considered pressing the issue but she’d already imposed upon their all-too-recent acquaintance by presuming that his activities were her business.

“You were an awfully long time getting that water,” Jemith probed, apparently not aware of any such considerations.

“I decided to take a bath.”

“Ah.”  He frowned sourly, apparently disappointed that he couldn’t dispute the value of a bath.

Daian rummaged through the saddlebags, but she only managed to eat a few bites of food before she slumped down and fell deeply asleep.  Jemith watched her warily for a while, then threw sand on the fire to quench it and followed her example.

The magician awoke with a jerk, a loud clattering sound translated by his drowsing mind into an imminent threat.  He whipped his head from side to side, heart pounding, while he tried to discern the source of the noise.  After a moment it was repeated and he realized that someone—namely, Daian—was throwing rocks.  He could not imagine a more stupefyingly pointless activity, not leastwise because she didn’t seem in any hurry to stop.

Finally, infuriated, he shot to his feet and stalked into the brush.  Idiot! He cursed himself.  You should have realized when she appeared out of the desert that she was insane.  Nothing good comes out of that oversized cat box.  The undergrowth caught at his clothing and snagged on loose threads, adding more wear to them than days of walking in the relatively unobstructed desert.  He flailed his way through the plants and with a final vile oath burst into another clear space; a wide plaza paved with large enough stones to hold back the growth for a couple of centuries, at least.  Some other travelers had taken advantage of the space to pitch tents.

And there was Daian, in the middle of their camp, heaping stones into a pile.  

“What are you doing?!” Jemith demanded angrily.  She paused, leaning over to put her hands on her knees, and turned her head to look at him.  Dark grime clung to the trickles of sweat on her face, making her repulsive.

“Building a cairn,” she explained.

“A what?”

She took a few more gasping breaths and nodded to the pile of stones, inviting him to look for himself.  He scowled, drawing himself up stiffly.  He wanted to look, but he hated to give her the satisfaction of ordering him around.  After waiting long enough to make it clear that he was only humoring her, he approached the irregular mound of stones and peered down at it.  He frowned, then, realizing what he was seeing he sprang backwards an awkward step, turning to look again at Daian.

“Skeletons?” he demanded, then flushed, irritated anew at his own reaction.  She nodded.

“While I realize this is not exactly the most pleasant discovery, why did it incite you to cover them in rocks?”

“I don’t have a shovel to bury them.”

Jemith snorted.  “They’ve been exposed to the elements this long, it won’t hurt them to stay that way.  Only the credulous fear the angry dead.”

Daian shook her head.  “Take a closer look at them.”

Jemith squelched his distaste and edged closer.  There were no obvious signs of what killed them, not a shred of meat or even a drop of blood.  In fact, it almost looked like they’d simply discarded their flesh of their own free will.

“Can you tell how long they’ve been dead?” Daian asked pleasantly.

“How?  They’re bones.”

“They’re still fresh.”

He gaped at her.  “Fresh?  You mean . . . ?”
“I mean I think they’ve been dead less than two days.”  She picked up an ulna casually and held it out to him; he waved it away.  Taking the slender, curved bone between her hands, she applied pressure.  It flexed slightly but didn’t break; it was springy, not brittle.

“That is vile.”

“In more ways than one,” she remarked, returning the bone to the pile.

Jemith frowned slightly, staring into the distance while he thought.  It was an odd thing, no doubt, but he wondered whether it Ehmammin would think it was an interesting one.  There could be any number of explanations for the condition of these corpses.  With relief, he decided it was not worth further delay to stay and investigate them.

“I’m off,” he informed Daian decisively.  “Be wise and do not attempt to follow me.”

“I wasn’t intending to follow you.”

“No?  Then where are you going?” he demanded.

“Beserrib.  I can get supplies there, yes?”

Jemith was taken aback.  “Well, yes, I suppose you could.”  It was a strange thought, but she wasn’t a magician, so theoretically she could indeed enter the city and conduct her business.

“Perhaps we’ll meet again,” she said diplomatically.

“Only if fortune has no particular love for me,” he replied, and walked away.

Daian finished building her cairn, more for the release of the physical effort than from any serious sentimental regret.  She couldn’t really say that she had grasped the puzzle yet, but she was beginning to believe she could see its shape and she didn’t like it at all.  Weak and sweaty, she climbed back to the fountain and called for the fish-woman again.

“Come on, Nimerone, I’ve seen your dead, now explain what happened.”

The water stirred.  “I’ve explained too much already!”

“You haven’t explained anything.  Hundreds of years have passed in the space between one breath and the next.  In the ruins of Farsis I encountered a made thing, a machine that seemed almost alive, wrapped in a shroud of lightning.  Now here, at the ruins of Peridai, I find you and your strange dead and your cry of demon.  No more games.  Tell me what happened.”

Nimerone bared shark teeth.  “What do you know of it?  I too am a ‘made’ thing and I have lived those hundreds of years!  Find your own answers.”

“We are all a little changed, Nimerone . . .”

“Spare me your condescension!  There is and always will be a gap between us that cannot be bridged.  You can choose what you will do with what you’ve been given.  I cannot.  You are human and I am vermin and that is the end of it!”

“You are not vermin.”

“I am!  They died and I could do nothing.  Nothing!  This has been my home for an age and I was powerless.”

Daian sighed heavily.  “Can’t you tell me anything useful?”

“CAN’T?!” The fish-woman shrieked.  “No, say won’t.  I won’t.  That I can still say!”

“All right, Nimerone.  I’m going to Beserrib.  So that I can find a magician to unravel this mess.”

“That man was a magician.”


“Jemith.  Why didn’t you ask him?
“He didn’t seem inclined to be helpful.”

The fish-woman chuckled, a harsh, threatening sound.  “Be careful, Titan-killer.  It is not the world that you knew any longer.  Things will not seem what they are to your eyes.”


(I apologize for the pop-ups on the link, consider yourself warned.)

It's not often that I find myself liking a song (especially a "pop" song) for the lyrics, but "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield is simply too personally appropriate to pass up. It may well be the anthem for anyone out there that has ever set pen to paper for any reason.

Marion Zimmer Bradley remarked that she had a hard time getting respect when she declared her occupation as "writer". Why? Because "every literate person writes". I have met few literate people--using the word to mean not that they can read, but that they DO read--that don't at the very least have a book idea that they'd like to write "someday".

A friend of mine summed up this phenomenon adroitly. You can't just have input. Healthy, sane people cannot tolerate living their lives as a sponge soaking up input: at some point they reach "critical mass" and they have to take what they've learned, thought, or realized and turn it into some sort of output. I read like an alcoholic drinks. I think if I didn't write I might very well explode from the unrelieved pressure.

My only problem is working on the quality of my writing so that I don't have to endure winces when I invariably inflict my efforts on other people.

May 6, 2006

Resenting the Hero

Ayn Rand once remarked (in her introduction to Atlas Shrugged, I believe) that there are three kinds of stories: presenting an old abstraction by the same old means (booooring), presenting an old abstraction through new means (most good literature), and presenting a brand-new abstraction.

She also commented (In The Romantic Manifesto) that there are some old abstractions that, while containing worthy stories, have been told and re-told so many times that there really remains no new way of approaching them. They are cliches, bromides, that no author worth their salt would bother with. (Her specific comment regarded the story of the prostitute with a heart of gold.)

The story of this novel is, I think, one of those cliches: A Man, a Woman, Forced to Work Together by Circumstances Beyond Their Control, They Develop an Instant Dislike, but Through Their Trials They Gain Respect and Even Affection for One Another . . .

Heard it before, haven't you? I personally was doubtful that anyone could turn this story into something interesting and original. Well, in her new book, Resenting the Hero, Moira J. Moore makes a darn good run at it. Good enough, in fact, that she actually succeeds.

I was literally stunned by the quality of this book, and I spent 2 hours taking up valuable space at Olive Garden because I just couldn't put it down. The opening seems a little ominous, but within 20 pages I was riveted by the characters, who are extremely complex and unexpected. Unusually, though, their motivations and reasons are stunningly comprehensible. You may not agree with everything they do, but you can understand why they do it. Even the villian is comprehensible, and without this making him in the least sympathetic.

It is also an unadulterated joy to read a fantasy novel where nothing is put in just for the heck of it, as flavor or to make the book more "authentic". Everything that happens has some purpose to it and is tied back into the novel. The plot is actually a logical sequence of events, driven by the choices of the characters.

It's not a tremendously deep or philosophical book in a lot of ways, but it accomplishes its aims with competence and self-assurance and is a lovely thing to see in the wasteland of stilted or downright bad new fantasy authors.

Rating: 4.0

May 4, 2006

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

I didn't want to write just another "I like it/I don't like it" review of this book because to all appearances I was the only person in North American that hadn't already read it. I thought, instead, that it would be nice to do a more in-depth analysis of the Seven Habits system from an Objectivist standpoint. I've noticed that a lot of new Objectivists seem to have difficulty benefitting from non-Objectivist works because they dislike some proximate characteristic of the author; in the case of Stephen Covey, that would be Christianity and thus a good-sized helping of intrinsicism.

In The Seven Habits Covey's religious views are most notable in two areas: when Covey discusses selfishness or self-centeredness and when he touches on the basis for his oft-cited "correct principles, which he believes are self evident. Sadly, this is not the case.

For an Objectivist to get the most out of the book (and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater) some mental translating is in order.

For instance, if you pay close attention to Covey's words about selfishness, you may notice that what he's really talking about is thinking of yourself, your wants, in a vacuum, divorced from context. In other words, he's talking about an irrational Nietzscheian egoist, not a rational Objectivist one, as though one can derive no selfish enjoyment from the happiness of those one loves. The wording he uses to describe a proper egoist is "principle-centered", which is, surprisingly, the type or personal "center" he recommends. It helps you become consistent and increases your personal security and power. This is an unusual insight, and it's only the beginning.

As for he "self-evident" principles, this can largely be ignored. Covey doesn't seek to prove or defend his principles(in fact, he doesn't really come out and state them), instead he seeks to demonstrate how reliance on correct principles can change and improve your live through various concrete, practical applications.

It really is fascinating to see how well Covey's ideas, built up through personal observation and experience, match up with Objectivist principles and ideas. His "Abundance Mentality" is none other than the Benevolent Universe Premise. Habit 2, "Begin with the End in Mind", is literally the Aristotolean principle of Final Causation that was later further explored by Ayn Rand. Habit 4, "Think Win/Win", is a fundamental look at the operation of the Trader Principle, the idea that you must seek mutual trade to mutual benefit. Life is not a zero-sum game where another's profit is my loss.

Approaching these ideas from a novel direction, however, Covey brings to light some aspects of these ideas that are not usually approached. One that I found particularly interesting is Covey's depiction of "interdependance". At first I found the term mildly worrisome, thinking he was about to turn mystical and start referring to people as some kind of collective organism, but he turned out to be headed in a different direction entirely. He explains that only truly independant people can decide to form relationships and become interdependant, namely relying on others that are reliable so that everyone can accomplish more with their limited time.

I've occasionally encountered the thought that independance means total self-sufficiency or having nothing to do with anyone else under any circumstances. Are you lonely? You're not independant. Do you prefer an active city to a desert island? You're not independant. Personally I find this both silly and undesirable. Truly independant people are secure enough to recognize that there are great benefits to be gained from working with other people--in a certain context--and act accordingly.

The book isn't perfect: Covey does pay some lip service to altruist ideals like "service" and "helping others", but fundamentally it really is only lip service. The Seven Habits is not about helping other people, but about helping yourself become a better, happier, more effective person. That's advice that anyone can use.

Rating: 4.5

May 3, 2006

Greg Perkins on Intellectual Property Rights

I stopped by NoodleFood today and read this great article that Mr. Perkins has written explaining, yet again, the fundamental defense of intellectual property rights and blasting the libertarian scholars that agitate against them. As a would-be author, intellectual property rights are of deep personal importance to me, because without them I can expect my dream of supporting myself through fiction writing to evaporate like mist in the sun.

A lack of respect for IP has led to some truly annoying things as creators try to protect their investment, like those 36-digit alphanumeric codes you see on video games and CD's with anti-copying technology on them, technology that makes the CD frightfully difficult to actually use. In business, many people are resorting to secrecy to protect their work instead of the using the immense government apparatus for which they have already shelled out an unbelievable amount of cash. Why? Because the government is just as likely to decide that one of your competitiors "needs" your patent and give it away; something that the government has no legitimate power to decide.

Not to mention the fact that it can be almost impossible to recoup your investment on patented drugs and other medical innovations: the length of time required for FDA approval can eat so far into the time when you still have exclusive rights to your product that you must charge ruinous prices in order to break even. But, hey, who cares, medicare pays for it, right? So it doesn't matter how expensive the drugs are. Is it any wonder that more and more people NEED Medicare to help them pay for their prescriptions? Or that Medicare costs are skyrocketing (for a number of reasons, all of which are automatic considering what it DOES), meaning that the people who support the program, namely the ones that don't receive any BENEFITS from it (unless having MORE parasites attached to you can be considered a benefit) have to pay more and more money into it.

Result: the people that are actually out there paying their own way may soon have no choice but to turn to the government to pay for their ridiculously expensive prescription drugs. Or, they could import them from Canada, putting even more strain on THAT country's over-strained socialized medical system. The Canadian government is already complaining about this and, if I understand correctly, legislation is in the works to make it illegal to import "cheaper" Canadian drugs. Technically that's only fair, considering that Americans have no right to demand that Canadians subsidize our health-care costs.

I think this situation is most accurately referred to as a Death Spiral.

As bad as that situation is, it cannot begin to approach the disgust I personally feel for another category of IP pirates: those who steal software in order to produce their own intellectual property. There is nothing uglier than a true hypocrit. If Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word are necessary for you to work, then for the love of reason have the moral decency to PAY for them.

Otherwise, you have no right to EVER expect ANYONE to pay for your work. I spit on you. Ptui.

May 1, 2006

Epic: Oasis

The sun sank redly behind the western mountains and the light peeled away from the desert floor, clinging stickily here and there to a towering dune or projecting rock.  The travelers made steadily for a great pool of honey-colored sandstone. In the fading light a fuzz of green at its base looked black and forbidding.

Daian dropped off her acquired mount with an unmusical shink, her linked-metal tunic twisting around to pinch her uncomfortably.  She blinked slowly and tried to remember which buckle would let her remove it.  Jemith paused in whatever he was doing and grabbed the strap across her chest; Daian yelped as sword, armor, cloak, several strands of her hair and possibly one of her ears was torn off and tossed aside.  She glanced forlornly at the snarled mess befoer turning to get her horse out of its trappings.  It snorted dubiously at her inexpert fumbling, sidling away until it stepped on Jemid.  He swore, making the exhausted animal twitch and shiver.

“If you can’t do anything useful, then get out of the way.”

Daian nodded and edged away through the underbrush.  Her body trembled with painful weariness but she couldn’t quite bring herself to lie down and sleep.  She brushed up against a low wall, the foundation of a ruined building, and leaned on it gratefully, peering into the dense foliage that crowded around them, gradually swallowing the remnants of civilization.

The neat lines of irrigation ditches had become avenues for the encroaching growth, carrying living verdigris where once they had carried water.  From there the plants had undermined the streets, sprouting in every crack and flaw until the old paving stones were almost invisible.  The buildings still retained the hint of their former shape, but they were fading into time even as they faded into the dusk.  Daian shook her head sadly.

“Men lived here, once,” she remarked to Jemith.

“Men lived everywhere once.  You can’t escape them.  Just be glad they’re gone now, otherwise we’d have a hard time finding a place to sleep for the night.”

She shook her head.  “Where did they go?  This is a good place.  There’s a subterranean river here, rain that fell long ago and sank beneath the layers of sand.  The men who lived here knew that river; they dug wells, laid pipes, dammed and channeled the water.  They forced it to the surface.  It made them rich.”

“It made them vulnerable.”  Jemith paused for a moment and looked around.  “This place is indefensible.  When war came, all their riches couldn’t save them.  It’s better to be secure than rich.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Many times.  The old fountain is the only water for miles.  You could go get some, if you wanted to be helpful,” he added with some asperity.

Daian dug through the gear looking for water skins and climbed the steps of the crumbling avenue, winding her way through the ruins until she heard the liquid chuckle of water.  Turning towards it, she broke through the weeds so abruptly that she stumbled into the fountain with a noisy splash.  Across a broad, deep pool the worn statue of a beautiful woman looked down on her with an expression of bland acceptance.

“Nimerone, are you still here?” She called over the water.  Hearing no reply, she bent and began filling the waterskins.  Dust and grime washed from her hands and she began to itch as she remembered how filthy she was.  Suddenly she could no longer stand it and, putting the filled containers aside, she stripped out of her clothes and dove into the water.

It was pleasantly cool, carrying exhaustion away with the dirt, and she struck out towards the statue, climbing out on its warm stone base and lying back to look up at the stars.  They were far away and dim, but they did not change or die.  The thought brought her comfort.  It was a relief to rest; in the morning there was so much to do, and she had so little to do it with.

Slick hands lifted from the surface of the water and seized her leg, pulling her under.

Jemith watched the swordswoman set off into the brush warily.  He continued to walk around and jingle harness for a few seconds in case she turned back, then when he was certain she was gone he leaped for his backpack.  His belongings rolled over the stones as he dug out a shallow stone bowl and set it on the ground, dumping water into it from his canteen.  Slowly, the clear water turned murky and opaque, faintly mirroring his face when he bent over to check on its progress.

He grimaced wryly, as he always did, at the sight of his own reflection.  Ehmammin was fond of saying that Jemith was really too pretty to be a magician.  Sometimes the old man said it with a hint of smug satisfaction, pleased that his apprentice was so ornamental, but most often his voice carried cutting exasperation.  He believed that good looks stunted the brain.

It never failed to draw an angry denial from Jemith, at least, which Ehmammin considered to demonstrate a lack of discipline and thus as further proof of Jemith’s unsuitability for his chosen career.  It was probably the reason why the younger man remained an apprentice at twenty-eight.

The bowl of water rippled faintly and Jemith’s face was replaced with the wrinkled, squinty, bearded visage of his master Ehmammin.

“Where have you been?” the old man snapped without greeting.

“I met with some delays on the road.”

The old magician scowled; he didn’t like excuses.  “What about Aglar?”

Jemith shook his head grimly.  “It’s worse than you thought.”  He struggled to keep his voice calm and dispassionate, remembering the sight of wreckage and corpses.  “The prophet’s soldiers found them, and he decided to make a stand of it.  There’s nothing left of his operations.”

Ehmammin grunted.  “Damn!  He was the last source for those mineral salts!”

“I salvaged what I could, but it wasn’t much.  Oh . . . I used a cloud on the road.”

Ehmammin’s eyes narrowed.  “Your ‘delay?’”

“Yes, Master.”

“Where are you?  Were you injured?”

“No, Master.  I’m at the Peridai oasis.”

“How long until you get here?  This experiment won’t wait much longer.”

“Three days, if nothing else happens.”

“Good.  I can’t afford any more waste of time.  Do you need anything else?”

“No, Master.”  Ehmammin’s image vanished instantly.  Jemith turned the bowl on its side and the water slopped out, trying not to think about what Ehmammin had not considered interesting enough to ask.

Daian gasped and choked, trying to get her breath.  “You nearly drowned me, Nimerone.”

“Not my fault if you try to breathe underwater.  Now how do you know my name?”

“We’ve met before,” Daian said.  The Watcher hissed through her sharp teeth.  Although she was shaped roughly like a human woman, Nimerone was closer to being a fish, with her scaly skin, long webbed fingers, and round unblinking eyes.  Not to mention the teeth, which would have looked better on a shark.

“I would have remembered it.”

Daian hesitated.  “It may have been a long while,” she hedged.

“How long?”

“Well, there was a city here . . .”

Nimerone poked Daian roughly in her exposed ribs.  “You’re human.  Human’s don’t live so long.”

“I’m not entirely certain what’s happened.  I was relaxing at Farsis during my off time and then boom.”


“The lights went out and the fortress was transformed into a crumbling ruin.  Just like here.”  The fish-woman hissed again.

“What’s your name, human?”


“Aya!” Nimerone cried, thrusting her face forwards and considering Daian with her fish-eyes from only a few inches away.  “You do somewhat resemble her.  I remember . . . ayach!  It has been long.  Long and long.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d still be here.”

The fish-woman chuckled, a fierce rattling sound.  “I stay while there is water.  There is nowhere else I could go.”

“There has to be another city near here.  I ran into a traveler on foot in the desert.  He can’t have come far.”

“Ayach!  The humans here have grown strange in the long years.  They would not welcome me.  They are concerned with their wars and their gods and call me abomination now.”

Daian sighed.  “I’m not certain what to do, Nimerone.  When I arrived, there were tracks, and I found a strange mechanical demon that attacked me.  The tracks continued off over the desert in this direction, and I thought that anyone with any sense would come here looking for water . . .”

Nimerone snarled and Daian recoiled, although after a second she realized that the fish-woman was not snarling at her.  “Demon they call me!  Abomination!  What do they know of it?  I know the real demon, and they let the vermin walk among them!”


“Look!  See for yourself!”  Nimerone pointed over the water at something hidden in the gloom.  Without another word the fish-woman dove into the water and was gone.  Daian reached after her, but she knew it was useless.  The fish-woman did as she pleased and answered only what she wanted.  Sighing, Daian peered into the darkness.  She thought she could make out tents, pitched near the edge of the water.