Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of Among Others by Jo Walton

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's such a lot wrong with this novel it's hard to know where to start. On the one hand, it's easy to read, even though I got to a point where I was thinking, enough with the shopping excursions and book purchases, have something happen already! Morwenna's sad situation, her out-of-place feeling at school and her struggles with her handicap (something the author herself obviously has an intimate knowledge of) are all movingly detailed. And I like the idea of a daughter having to face an evil magical mother. Usually in fantasy fiction, it's a son contending with an evil father. As well, there is an attempt to imagine how magic might work in the real world that we're all familiar with, through coincidence and such, and that gives the story a verisimilitude that's appealing.

Now that I've got the positive aspects out of the way, let's look at the shortcomings. There is so much talk of science fiction in this novel, including specific authors and books, that it can feel at times more like a recommended reading list than a novel. I found myself thinking of a statement in Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want to Write: "You cannot move people by a second-hand infection" (p. 119, Graywolf Press paperback edition). In other words, when Heinlein, Zelazny, Le Guin et al wrote the books that Jo Walton loved so, that was art, but when she wrote a book that was eighty percent, "Squee! SF is so great! I love Heinlein and Zelazny and Le Guin! Squee!" that was not art.

Another problem is that the most climatic event in the heroine's life happened before the novel begins. That put me off balance. I kept wondering, are we ever going to get a detailed description of what happened? (The answer is no.) I also wondered, why didn't she just write a novel about that event? Maybe it would have been more interesting.

Since novels need climaxes, another climax has to happen, and compared to what has gone before, it feels anticlimactic. The worst part of this anticlimactic climax, maybe the worst part of the book, is that it violates the laws of magic that Walton took such pains to establish beforehand! All through the novel she's telling us, "Magic is always deniable," and then at the very apex of the plot, gives us a thoroughly undeniable piece of magic, with no explanation. What happened there? Was the ending rushed? I don't know, but it's a boner of major proportions. (Hey, Morwenna's a horny teenage girl. Why not throw in a double entendre?)

In summary, it's another one of the most wildly overrated books around. There appear to be a lot of those. Why is that?

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dumb Things People Say: the Mangling of Popular Expressions

Language is for communication. Isn't that obvious? It shouldn't even need to be said. But in fact, it is popular these days to use language for something other than communication. Marketingspeak is meant to lull the reader's brain to sleep with babble that means little, yet is somehow comforting. Meetingspeak and Scholarspeak are meant to make the speaker sound intelligent through the use of polysyllabic, imprecise words that do not make their meaning anywhere near as clear as shorter, simpler words would have done. It appears that as a society, we have largely abandoned the idea that our sentences should make sense. So when common expressions get mangled over time and become nonsense, who's to remark upon it? Other than me, that is.

The language is always changing, of course, and these changes do not always result in nonsense. The word "foundering" has largely been abandoned for the similar-sounding "floundering." Foundering made more sense, but floundering is not altogether nonsensical. One pictures a flounder, out of water, desperately flopping around. On the other hand, when people talk about "flaunting the rules," that's ridiculous, as if rules were a party dress a girl wanted to show off. (The correct word is "flout.")

I, for one, think that language should be used for communication, and hope to turn people back to the path of correct speech through the use of judicious mockery, and, where desirable, cartoons. Here we go.

I could care less

People used to say, "I couldn't care less." It meant they cared very little indeed, or not at all. Now they often say, "I could care less." This should mean that they care somewhat, since it would be possible for them to care less. It could even mean that they do care a fair bit. Yet it is meant to imply a lack of caring, just like the original expression, despite the fact that that's not what the words are saying. This is why people who use this expression tend to sound like idiots.

Party hardy

I am pretty sure that this expression started out as "party hearty," with a t. But in North America, t's tend to be pronounced as d's, so that "party hearty" and "party hardy" sound the same. And in a society where sense is not expected, it doesn't matter that "party hearty" means "to party with gusto" and "party hardy" means, one can only suppose, "to party in difficult, inclement conditions." So when the expression got written down, "party hardy," whimsically nonsensical and having one letter fewer, won the day.

One could argue that, strictly speaking, the expression should not even be "party hearty" but "party heartily." But that wouldn't rhyme. Mangling grammar a little in order to achieve a rhyme may be an acceptable exercise of poetic license, especially where common expressions are concerned.

Saying "literally" when you really mean "figuratively"

Global News did this. "The eyes of the world are literally on Iran," the broadcaster said. No, the eyes of the world are figuratively on Iran.

If worst comes to worst

If worst comes to worst, then nothing's changed, right? You started out with worst, and you ended with worst. Nothing's happened, so while things might be at their absolute worst, at least they haven't gotten any worse. Not that they could, when they started out at their very worst to begin with. You can't get worse than worst.

If worse comes to worst. That's the expression, OK people? Really, a better expression would be, "if bad comes to worse." Maybe that's what the expression used to be, and people didn't think that was strong enough. But at least, "if worse comes to worst" makes some kind of sense. Things got worse, and then they got as bad as they possibly could—the worst. "Worst comes to worst," on the other hand, makes no sense at all.

If you think [fill in blank], you've got another thing coming

Another thing! You've got a thing coming. I love that. It's so idiotic, it's good. And no less an intellectual than Susie Bright used this expression (in her article about Camille Paglia: "If you think Pat Buchanan calls up Hurricane Camille for strategy sessions, you've got another thing coming"*). Et tu, Susie! What is this thing, exactly, why is it coming, and where is it coming from? Is it not a mystery?

Think. You've got another think coming. Doesn't that make more sense? Of course it does. So do, please. Think before you speak. Ask yourself if what you are about to say makes sense. Think. We'll all be better off for it.

* "Camille Anonymous," San Francisco Review of Books (January/February 1993).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review of Rut by Scott Phillips

RutRut by Scott Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is set in a near-future dystopian United States. Climate change, pollution and peak oil have all taken their toll on a small town in Colorado. Once a popular tourist destination but now dying, its only visitor is a young biologist, come to study the local frogs. Although frog populations are declining worldwide, frogs are flourishing near this town. However, effluent from a mining operation is having an odd effect on some frogs, leaving them stuck in the tadpole stage; they'll grow up to a foot long, but remain legless, a fate that parallels that of many of the town men, who are missing legs from all the wars they've served in, and a boy named Cole, who's seventeen years old but looks eleven. Like the frogs, his development has been stunted by his environment.

Although this is definitely science fiction, it's not a fast-paced novel with emphasis on action and thrills. Rather, it focuses on the everyday lives of the townspeople and how they react to the arrival of the newcomer. One might classify this as literary fiction, but that doesn't mean it doesn't go anywhere; this ain't The Shipping News. To the contrary, the ending is explosive... and I don't just mean that figuratively. While it's not a page-turner, if you stick with it until the end, it will stick with you.

In fact, I was a little sad to have to give away my copy. This is a Concord Free Press book, which means you get a copy for free but you have to give a donation to a charity of your choice, then pass the book on so that someone else can do the same. So if you want to read it, you can either ask Concord for a free copy (they have a form for that purpose on their web site), wait until somebody gives you their copy, or wait until the novel becomes available from a traditional publisher and buy it. Take your pick.

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