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10. Temeraire by Naomi Novik (2006) 340 p.

oh, to have a beautiful dragon to love and cuddle and FLY INTO A VIOLENT BATTLE AND MURDER OTHER PEOPLE'S BELOVED DRAGONS

I should have known better than to buy this book, which I did on a whim in a second-hand bookstore because I really felt like blowing some money. And blow I did! Dragons, on the whole, have been exhausted as a source of fantasy, and I have very little tolerance for an author who continues to wring every last drop out of them instead of coming up with something more original (see: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines or Emily Rodda’s children’s fantasy novels).

In Novik’s credit, she does at least come up with a slightly fresh (or at least “less stale”) idea; Temeraire is set in an alternate Napoleonic era in which dragons exist. My tolerance is cut short here, because that’s the limit of her idea: dragons exist, and are used in combat. That’s it. History has played out exactly the same, from the Roman Empire to Trafalgar, despite the presence of a secondary intelligent species on the planet. Society does not treat them as such; despite their handlers having strong bonds with them and considering them equals, they are referred to as “beasts,” and considered useful breeding stock. The handlers have no objection to this, which is one of many contradictions throughout.

This book is basically chick lit that just happens to feature dragons. It follows the tale of former Navy captain William Laurence and his raising of the titular Temeraire, as they progress through training and eventually have a couple of skirmishes over the English Channel. Although their relationship is one between a hardened military veteran and an enormous monster capable of slaughtering hundreds of men, it struck me as similar to that of an unmarried, middle-aged woman and her sweater-wearing poodle. Laurence bathes him, lavishes him with gifts and jewellery, reads to him, grooms him, talks about his feelings and generally mollycoddles him throughout all tedious three hundred and forty pages. When Novik tires of this, she takes us through the fascinating and exciting intrigue of 19th century British ettiquette:

The admiral was clearly oppressed by thoughts of his work, and there were long periods between his remarks. The table would have been a silent and heavy one, save that Chenery was in his usual form, high-spirited and quick to make conversation, and he spoke freely in complete disregard of the naval convention that reserved the right of starting conversation to Lord Gardner.

When addressed directly, the naval officers would pause very pointedly before responding to him, as briefly as possible, before dropping the subject. Laurence was at first agonized on his behalf, and then began to grow angry. It must have been clear to even the most sensitive temper that Chenery was speaking in ignorance, his chosen subjects were innocuous, and to sit in sullen and reproachful silence seemed to Laurence a far greater piece of rudeness.

Chenery could not help but notice the cold response; as yet he was only beginning to look puzzled, not offended, but that would hardly last. When he gamely tried once more, this time Laurence deliberately volunteered a reply. The two of them carried the discussion along between them for several minutes, and then Gardner, his attention drawn from his brown study, glanced up and contributed a remark. The conversation was thus blessed, and the other officers joined in at last; Laurence made a great effort, and kept the topic running throughout the rest of the meal.

WHOOP DE FUCKING DOO

Overall: wooden characters, a boring plot, and an unoriginal theme to begin with. #4: Time Enough For Love can step aside as the worst book I have read this year so far.

Books: 10/50
Pages: 3314

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1:45 AM – Arrive at my sister’s friend’s house to drive her drunken posse of oestrogen to their afterball.
1:55 AM – Pull over on side of freeway so one of her friends can vomit on self, back seat, and emergency stopping lane.
2:10 AM – Arrive at afterball venue, watch drunken high school students (some of whom are two feet taller than me) milling around, stumbling, throwing up.
2:30 AM – Leave afterball venue after meagre amusement of shitfaced teenagers has exhausted itself.
2:50 AM – Arrive home.
3:00 AM – Spend some time with rubber gloves, bucket and sponge cleaning up unexpectedly red vomit from back seat of my dad’s car while Chris holds the torch and laughs.
3:20 AM – Crawl into bed.
7:15 AM – Alarm goes off, get out of bed.
7:50 AM – Leave house to drive Rach to a high school on the rural-urban fringe for her film shoot.
8:40 AM – Arrive at high school at the other end of the hellish Tonkin Highway, which I have had previous early morning adventures on. Wait around in car for rest of film crew to show up.
9:20 AM – Film crew arrives; say goodbye to Rach, drive down steep hills back towards city.
9:30 AM – Mobile phone rings; wobble into other lane at 80 k’s an hour while attempting to dig it out of my pocket.
9:31 AM – Caller is Rach. Film crew’s only camera has shat the bed, shoot is cancelled. Turn around, pick her up, drive home.
10:40 AM – Arrive home, where my sister and her alcohol-soaked friends are sprawled out on living room floor looking like bedraggled harpies.
10:45 AM – Coffee.

9. The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer (1971) 252 p.

CRAPPY ILLUSTRATION AHOY

This is the second book in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, the first of which, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I read in December. I bought it from eBay after being intrigued by the synopsis on Wikipedia. Essentially, the entirety of the human race – from prehistoric cavemen to futuristic space-dwelling societies – is simultaneously resurrected along the banks of an enormously long river-valley, averaging only a few miles across and surrounded by impenetrable mountains on both sides. Everyone is in the body of their 25-year old self, minus any facial hair, foreskins and chemical addictions. Anyone who died before the age of 25 is resurrected at the age they died, and they then grow naturally until they reach 25, when they stop. No children under the age of 5 have been resurrected. It is found impossible to conceive children on the Riverworld.

Every person is provided with a “grail,” a canister of metal which provides food, drink, cloth and luxury items like alcohol and marijuana. To be used, the grail must be placed at a “grailstone:” large mushroom-shaped rocks spaced at mile-long intervals along the river, which are powered three times daily (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Agriculture is impossible, since the only plants are grass, bamboo, and various types of tree, and the only animals are earthworms and fish. Therefore a grail is nearly essential to survival – though if a person dies, they are simply resurrected again elsewhere along the river, with a new grail.

Each area of the river initially contains three groups of people: a large group of people from one time and place (say, Meiji era Japanese), a smaller group of people from another time and place (say, 7th century Franks) and a tiny group of people from random times and places. Most people from the 20th century are part of the third group. There is nobody from a time later than 2008, apparently because the human race was wiped out in this year, which I of course find highly appropriate for my reading experience. Humanity – bewildered, frightened, and with all its religions disproved by the existence of this world – sets about recreating its earthly societies, with nation-states growing over time, war and trade both flourishing, and every form of government that ever existed set in place in various new nations lining the riverbank on both sides.

“We’ve passed a hundred new Prussias in the last ten thousand miles,” Clemens said. “All so small you couldn’t stand in the middle of one and heave a brick without it landing in the middle of the next.”

Most people are content to spend their unexpected afterlife indulging in all of the race’s old vices of drugs, sex and violence. Very few seek answers to the mysteries behind Riverworld – who created it? For what purpose? Where are they? How long has it been since 2008? One of these curious few is Richard Francis Burton, who travels up the river as far as he can with a motley crew of other resurrectees. When they are killed passing through territory controlled by Hermann Goring, he utilises the “Suicide Express” to travel randomly across the planet, hoping to eventually arrive at the source or mouth of the river, uncertain whether it has either. He is eventually commended by a mysterious stranger, who identifies himself as one of the “Ethicals” – the presumably alien faction responsible for the creation of Riverworld and the resurrection of humanity. He is attempting to subvert its purpose, and urges Burton to continue trying to reach his goal.

Rather than continuing Burton’s story, The Fabulous Riverboat follows Samuel Clemens, who shares the same goal of finding the crafters of Riverworld and forcing them to explain their purpose. Like Burton, he also plans to reach the river’s headwaters, though he intends to do so by building a great steam-powered riverboat, well-armed and invulnerable, to prevent the inevitable problem of being killed by somebody upriver and finding himself thousands of miles downstream again. Unfortunately, Riverworld was deliberately constructed bare of mineral resources – until a meteorite lands just upriver of Clemens and his band of Vikings, wiping out life in that area and allowing him to quickly set up a nation-state and mine the meteorite for iron. But others soon arrive, lured by the same lust for metal that Clemens’ followers have, and he faces a long struggle before he can ever build his riverboat and set off on the greatest voyage of all time.

These books are certainly imaginative. The concept is grandiose and Farmer deserves praise for coming up with it in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s not quite the greatest writer of either his generation or even his genre, lacking any particular flair or style (especially after just reading Michael Chabon). While the Riverworld series gets five stars for concept, it can only manage two or three for execution. But it’s still worth reading, and I’ll certainly be buying the next few books.

As an aside, I found it a little unbelievable that so many recognisable historical figures would be rubbing shoulders. The Fabulous Riverboat alone features Mark Twain, John Lackland, Eric Bloodaxe, Lothar von Richtofen, Hermann Goring, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mozart, Odysseus, Frederick Rolfe, Pedro Ansurez, Liver-Eating Johnson, Tokugawa Iyeyasu, Joseph von Radowitz, and Cleomenes. And I don’t think that’s all of them. Obviously that’s part of the appeal of a series like this, especially for someone with any basic knowledge of history, but c’mon. Seriously.

Books: 9/50
Pages: 2974

Today is a historic day. It’s a new page in our nation’s history. It’s a chance to move forward after apologising for one of the most atrocious acts we ever committed. It’s a day that makes me feel hopeful and excited about Australia’s future, another happy reminder that we have ended eleven years of right-wing government and are making changes that are long overdue. It’s a good day.

And yet I am still infuriated at the number of ignorant, racist Hansonites that feel the need to whinge and moan. The comments for the article news.com.au ran quickly began to overflow with idiots from all corners of the nation; rich idiots and poor idiots; racist idiots and miserly idiots; stupid idiots and naive idiots. A glorious rainbow of idiots.

There are the idiots who completely fail to understand that the Prime Minister is apologising on the behalf of the nation, not on the behalf of its people.

By the way- Mr Rudd is not speaking on behalf of me. I’m not sorry!
Posted by: sarah of sydney 8:09am today

Kevin Rudd does not apologise for me.
Posted by: Peter N of Melbourne 8:12am today

IM NOT SORRY
Posted by: daniel of brizzy 9:02am today

There are the idiots who moan about how Aboriginals will now be demanding compensation, despite the fact that the PM was careful to omit this from the apology.

We will never hear the end of this. The compensation claims are going to be coming in thick and fast!!!
Posted by: steve of brisbane 8:34am today

I’m NOT sorry. What an absolute JOKE & pathetic waste of everyones time. I’m sure by tomorrow we’ll start seeing the first compo claims.
Posted by: Melinda of Sydney 9:36am today

There are the idiots who side with the hilariously torn Brendan Nelson and try to justify attempted genocide by claiming that we were removing Aboriginals from abusive homes.

I am truly sorry that I have to listen to all this bull****. I am not sorry that most were resued from poverty and given a real chance in life. I am also not sorry about questioning the motives of the money grubbing do-gooders. If some people feel a need to pay compensation, make it optional. Those who wish to donate good luck to you – but not from my taxes!!!!!!
Posted by: Bill of Brisbane 12:52pm today

There was an idiot who tried to sound scholarly and distinguished and reassure his fellow idiots that compensation would be impossible, but instead made a further idiot out of himself (Australia does not have a bill of rights).

Just remember, the Bill of Rights proclaims “‘That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.” This means that the apology, made in parliament, cannot hold up as an admission of guilt in any court.
Posted by: Joe of Perth 10:38am today

There are idiots who complain that there are more important issues for the government to deal with – as though this apolgoy wasn’t already forty years overdue.

For the love of God, are there not more pressing issues for Rudderless and his government to dealt with!
Posted by: carter of NSW 10:43am today

And – as I expected – there are the idiots, those classic Australians, who really only care about how much interest rates go up and absolutely nothing else. Dear God, don’t these people have souls?

The apology is all about Rudd going after the “low hanging fruit”. He did the same with signing Kyoto too, not that it means anything real. He’s going after the low hanging fruit because Rudd can’t reach the higher fruit, like bringing down interest rates, so he goes after the low hanging fruit like saying sorry and signing Kyoto. He’s after his place in the history books and will pick as much low hanging fruit as possible to get it.
Posted by: Bob of Toowoomba 11:20am today

And it goes on and on and on until I feel like headbutting my monitor. Half the people in this country make me ashamed to be Australian.

Maybe they’ll all stop bitching if we get a public holiday out of it.

8. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon (2007) 204 p.

A TALE OF ADVENTURE

I picked this up from Dymocks on a whim because I liked the style. It was clearly a tribute to the old kind of adventure books I read in my youth, right down to a contents page for the sub-titled illustrations. I was very surprised to find, when I looked up the author’s name before reading, that he was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But it shows. Gentlemen of the Road is a swashbuckling adventure following the plight of two comically mismatched Jews – Zelikman, a tall and pale Frenchman, and Amram, a burly African – as they travel across the Caucasus circa 950 A.D. and reluctantly aid a deposed heir in overthrowing his father’s usurper. There are war elephants, kidnappings, battles in crumbling ruins, assassinations, deceptions, prisonbreaks and countless other staples of the pulp adventure genre. All in all, it’s the kind of thing I write. But despite the lack of any apparent literary value in higher circles (which, ridiculously, Chabon seems compelled to apologise for in the afterword), this book is a masterpiece of language. Chabon’s eclectic vocabulary and skillful handling of words are truly something I admire. Take this sentence, for example:

On his return to Atil from the summer hordes, the usurper Vuljan ordered that his sukkah be erected on the donjon’s roof, with its strategic views of the kagan’s palace, the seafront, the Muslim quarter and the steppe, and above all with its relative nearness to the stars, among which his sky-worshiping and uncircumcised ancestors still hunted with infallible gyrfalcons for celestial game.

Or:

A shrill horseman’s whistle split the air, and the soldiers abandoned the violence of their grief and turned to listen to the words of a trooper who had stayed out of the fracas, a wiry, bow-legged veteran nearly as grizzled as Amram, one of those men of no great rank or bravery who by virtue of heartlessness, opportunism and a long streak of luck outlasted all their fellows and so ranked as secret commanders of their troop. When this old veteran had the ears of his comrades he explained, with patience and regret, that they must now consider their company disbanded and, each man taking a share of water and food and a horse, scatter to the winds and the mountains, like drops of mercury on a rumpled carpet.

Or:

Across a river frozen to the depth of a planted spear, along an avenue of blazing torches, drawn by reindeer in a royal sledge with fittings of mica and electrum, accompanied by ram’s-horn blasts and harness bells and the scrape of iron runners against the ice; tender contraband, hidden at her father’s side in the grandiose reek of a bearskin, with the heat and the weight of him against her and the full moon hanging minted against the sky like a bright dirham: that was the way she had last crossed over to the island of the kagan and the palace where he dwelt in friendless splendor.

This occasionally became annoying, but only due to my own faults; they’re the kind of sentences you want to savour with care, not skim over as I generally do while reading. This is the kind of writing I aspire to one day achieve.

Books: 8/50
Pages: 2722

I was re-reading parts of End Times and noticed this glaring problem with the entry on April 17:

I want to end this ordeal. So does Aaron, Geoff, Jonas Barclay, Paul Campbell and Scott Edwards (the guards who were on the roof last night when Len took off; apparently they’re brothers).

Really, Mitch? Brothers with different surnames? Do tell.

This entire mess just stinks of a cover-up.

7. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988) 167 p.

the glorious nation of spain

I like the story itself. It’s a simple, beautiful tale, related with the air of a grandfatherly figure sitting by a campfire.

The moral… not so much. While it’s dubbed “uplifting” and “inspiring,” the lessons it preaches give it the air of a self-help book masquerading as a novel. Capitalised buzz-words like “Personal Legend” and “Soul of the World” don’t help, and the book’s assertion that…

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

…was virtually identical to the load of crap that was peddled a couple of years ago by some very shrewd entrepreneurs to gullible Oprah-watching idiots (and, most likely, will continue to be peddled until the sun goes dead).

So I don’t buy Coelho’s moral, even though he obviously genuinely believes what he writes. And in his favour, he does stipulate that the universe will only grant your desires if you have the courage to pursue them. I don’t know. Maybe it has more meaning in the original Portugese. In any case, it’s quite easy to sort the wheat from the chaff and read the story itself without taking in any of the naive “life-changing” clap-trap, and even on that merit alone it’s still a great book.

Books: 7/50
Pages: 2518

There’s a new agreement drawn up by the unions for employees at Coles, including things like extended leave and a few extra cents of freezer pay per hour (woo-hoo). I flipped through it today on my lunch break, and was intrigued by one particular clause which stipulates that:

Team members involved in the responsibility of carrying moneys belonging to the Company, to or from a bank or other institution, shall be accompanied at such times by a responsible fellow team member. The Company shall not require a team member to have money chained, handcuffed or fastened to a team member’s person, unless such fastening is engaged to the team member with a quick-release mechanism.

Presumably the quick-release machanism is to provide for the circumstance of escaping a machete-wielding thief who forces the “team member” to make a quick choice between losing either several thousand dollars of company money, or their left hand. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about legal agreements, it’s that unusual clauses are usually a measure to prevent some crazy fuck-up from ever happening again…

6. Steel Beach by John Varley (1992) 481 p.

I. Ron Butterfly

After a decade-long hiatus, John Varley returned to his Eight Worlds series with Steel Beach, and the change is considerable. The original gist of the series is that humanity has been evicted from Earth by an unknown alien force dubbed “the Invaders,” forced to eke out a living on the other eight worlds of the solar system (Pluto’s recent demotion messes up the name a little, I guess). The only book from the original series I’ve read is The Ophiuchi Hotline, written in the 1970s, which revolved around an aspect of the Eight Worlds conspicuously absent from Steel Beach: a hotline of data streamed towards Earth from the star Ophiuchi, providing new technology which gives the human race a leg-up in surviving in exile.

This is the only major change from the original series, in storyline terms at least. Varley’s prose, on the other hand, has become far better. While The Ophiuchi Hotline was typical mid-century science fiction, with an occasional glimmer of humour and wit, Varley’s new style of prose is wonderfully funny, laced with dry observations and laconic philosophy.

The book revolves around Hildy Johnson, a newspaper reporter for Luna, now the most populous and important world since the Invasion. (Hildy describes it as “Refuge of Humanity as well as the Front-Line Planet and the Bulwark of the Race – not to mention the First To Get Our Asses Whipped if the Invaders ever decide to continue what they started.”) Despite being on the doorstep of Earth, Lunarians rarely think about the Invaders; it has been two hundred years since their arrival, and most have grown lazy and complacent in a society run by the all-powerful, benevolent Central Computer, where all their needs are provided and Earth is a distant memory. All is not well, however; after several failed suicide attempts, Hildy is choked with an inexplicable despair, and the Central Computer informs him a disturbing fact: suicide is fast becoming the primary cause of death in Lunar society. Even more troubling is the fact that the CC has been feeling rather depressed himself lately…

This sets the tone for most of the book – dissatisfaction and depression. There’s a lot of introspection, philosophy and hypothesising about the human condition, which sometimes leaves the plot aimless and confused. But the book still works. Luna itself is a fascinating society, with a hundred amusing little things over every page. People get sex changes every few years or so. The Apollo landing site has become a theme park. There are underground ranches filled with cloned brontosaurs. A modern religion canonizes long-dead celebrities like Elvis for worship. People who used to be kings and queens on Earth now scrape out a living as plumbers or stunt doubles along with the rest of society, and have to save up if they want to rent a party hall for a coronation.

There’s an aspect to Varley’s work, a Pratchett-esque understanding of how humans tick, that makes it so much more real than anything by Heinlein or Robinson. Of course people are more interested in celebrity marriages than the Invasion of Earth. Of course the lunar landing site is a replica, since the original one was trashed by drunken college students. Of course there are enormous, underground habitats made to look exactly like 19th century Texas or Oregon, so tourists from the cities can come and watch actors shoot it out with blank cartridges. Human beings were shallow, pedantic and trivial in the 20th century; why shouldn’t they be so in the 23rd? It’s a hell of a lot more realistic than most hard science fiction, and lot more fun, too.

Books: 6/50
Pages: 2351

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