Archive for Books

The Company

I just read the conclusion of Kage Baker’s Company series, The Sons of Heaven, which just came out in paperback. I was lucky enough to pick up her first book, In the Garden of Iden, on a whim back when it came out. That was good enough for me to buy her second book, Sky Coyote, and that book was truly excellent. Since then I’ve bought everything she has written.

The Company series, which is11 books long (and there may be some more short stories not yet collected), is a complicated mix of time travel adventure and social satire. Baker is an excellent writer, and is a pleasure to read even when she is just unfolding plot points–and boy are there a lot of plot points. Her characters are well crafted, and her satire is amusing and more plausible than it really should be.

An aspect of Baker’s writing that I really appreciate is her ability to build up a character who appears to be a stereotype, and then flip the character into something completely different and unique, without in any way changing anything she already described. Bad writers often do this badly, but Baker does it superbly. That what was most impressed me about Sky Coyote, as Joseph, and the reader, keep coming to a deeper and better understanding of the Chumash.

The Company series is so complicated that I was not at all sure that she would be able to actually write a conclusion, but The Sons of Heaven pulls it off, wrapping everything up very satisfactorily while staying true to the series. She even makes parts of the story more plausible as she does so, and looks in on just about every single character–at least, I couldn’t remember any which she left out.

I’m really surprised that Baker has not won more awards in the SF field. At least all her books seem to be back in print now–for a while they were hard to find. I think she is one of the top tier SF writers, but she doesn’t seem to have quite the recognition she deserves.

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Canadian Book Prices

When I was young, U.S. books sold in Canada for the U.S. price, paid in Canadian dollars, and stores in tourist spots in Maine would take Canadian dollars as equivalent to U.S. dollars. Then the Canadian dollar started to sink against the U.S. dollar. Stores started putting up signs saying that they took the Canadian dollar at, say, 90%, and books started to get two prices. After a while U.S. stores stopped taking Canadian money at all, but books still had two prices.

Now the Canadian dollar has again reached parity with the U.S. dollar. This has happened mainly because the U.S. dollar has dropped in relative value, because the U.S. has become a huge importer of goods and because U.S. interest rates are fairly low. But book prices have not adapted. This means that when I’m in a Canadian book store, I could buy a U.S. book for 11 Canadian/U.S. dollars, or I could wait until I go home and buy the same book for 8 U.S. dollars.

There is obviously a big arbitrage opportunity here–I could buy books in the U.S. and resell them in Canada for a significant discount. I don’t know the arrangements that bookstores have with publishers, but clearly somebody is making a great deal more in Canadian money here. Book aren’t easy to transport or sell, so it would be hard for me personally to take advantage of the arbitrage. The company which presumably is taking advantage is Amazon. Amazon can sell books at U.S. prices, so it is now in the economic interest of Canadian consumers to buy their books from Amazon rather than from a local bookstore.

Amazon already puts huge pressure on local bookstores, so if the currencies remain similar in value, and if book publishers take a couple of years to adjust their pricing, then it’s hard to see how local Canadian bookstores can survive. At least, that’s the theory. In practice, I saw more and better bookstores in Canada then I see at home in the U.S. In the U.S. all the bookstores other than specialty stores or mass chain stores are dying. Their credit with the publishers is drying up, their shelves are getting emptier, and that is a downward spiral with only one ending. I didn’t see this in Canada, but that may also just be because I’m not familiar with the bookstore landscape.

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Insane Architecture

It is generally believed that anybody who sees the lost city of R’lyeh goes insane. My personal observation is that the towns of Silicon Valley make me feel insane. It seems therefore plausible that Silicon Valley is in some way associated with Cthulhu.

Of course there are many people who live in Silicon Valley, but then R’lyeh must have inhabitants as well. Perhaps they have managed to adapt, or they were somehow immune. Or perhaps R’lyeh is only a state of mind–perhaps there is a R’lyeh for everybody out there somewhere. And perhaps a Cthulhu, too.

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Banks

I’m happy to see that there is a nice new edition of one of my favorite books, The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks. For some reason the book drags me in every time I read it. Much of it amounts to a critique of an exaggerated version of our own society, but the most interesting part for me is just the protrayal of Gurgeh (the protagonist) and his very plausible fascination with games. It’s also interesting to consider whether our society would be as unable to cope with the Culture as the society that Banks describes.

It seems that Orbit is planning to rerelease all of Banks’s SF books. Of course Banks should need no introduction to anybody who follows science fiction, but it’s nice to see some high quality editions sold in the U.S. My copies of his early books were all printed in the UK.

I recently read his latest novel, Matter, also published by Orbit. I was mildly surprised to see that he wrote another Culture novel–it seems to me that he pretty much said everything he had to say about it in Look to Windward. As it turned out Matter doesn’t have much to do with the Culture at all; it amounts to a background element in a reasonably typical Banks space opera. In other words, an interesting book well worth reading, but not the fascinating experience of, say, The Player of Games.

Of course Banks has also written a number of non-SF novels, also well worth reading. My personal favorite of those is The Crow Road.

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Lukyanenko Watch

I recently read the trilogy of books by Sergei Lukyanenko: Night Watch, Day Watch, Twilight Watch. I’m surprised they aren’t better known–my local science fiction bookstore doesn’t carry them at all. On the surface they seem rather derivative: they involve a struggle between the forces of light (the Night Watch) and the force of darkness (the Day Watch), and include vampires, werewolves, and magicians. In execution, though, they are quite interesting.

Lukyanenko shows the light and dark forces as parallel, but unlike most such efforts he does it 1) convincingly given the background; 2) in a way which makes the forces of light seem like the good guys while also showing why the forces of darkness oppose them. The books primarily trace byzantine plot maneuvers run by the head magicians which the ordinary characters do not fully understand.

Also the books are originally in Russian and set in Moscow, giving them a different perspective than most books I read. The translation is not very idiomatic English–it’s hard to tell how much of that is the original Russian and how much is the translator. There are a few side comments on the Americans which are interesting.

I understand that there is a movie of Night Watch which was very popular in Russia, but I haven’t seen it. Anyhow, I think these books are definitely a cut above the standard fantasy fare.

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