Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005
5:01 pm - A Book Report on Peter Rabbit...  
Catching Up on What I've Been Reading. Not really all that spoilery for any of the books.

I suppose it would've helped if I'd ever seen Night Train to Munich, or even The Lady Vanishes, before starting in on Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn. It's human nature to try to map what you don't know onto what you do, so when in the first couple of paragraphs Frank Compton comes across a dead body with something addressed to him in its pocket, I decided I was reading a science fiction noir. For awhile that's how it seemed to play out, but I started getting antsy about it. There were too many different aliens involved in the mystery.

As I read, I was composing a whole thing in my mind about the problem with mixing genres. In a normal mystery, you're usually starting from a shared set of assumptions about the world, and the motives of the people in it. If the mystery strays into science fiction or fantasy, many of the starting assumptions may have to change. Take Glen Cook's Garrett books. Garrett is a hard-boiled detective in a world filled with wizards, elves, trolls, and other fantastic beings. Assumptions about what is and is not possible in such a world have to change, as do even some assumptions one might make about some of the creatures inhabiting the world. Cook's take on vampires turns out to be quite different from Joss Whedon's.

Anyway, a quarter of the way into the book Compton has been hired by one alien race to look into a mystery involving two other alien races, while two more groups of different aliens dog his trail, and he meets an old acquaintance from yet another alien race. Meanwhile Basil Exposition has yet to show up to tell us about any of them. How does one solve a mystery when one knows nothing about the basic assumptions and motivations of the folks involved? At least in the Garrett books, one still has a notion of what a vampire is and wants. What motivates a Halkan, or a Bellido?

Interesting questions, but they turn out not to be all that germane in this case. By the time I got about halfway through I realized I had mapped Compton to the wrong character. He's not Philip Marlowe or Garrett, he's the Roger Moore version of Simon Templar, a devil-may-care freelance operative. Not so much a mystery as a thriller, and a fun one. The central conceit is that interstellar travel is via the quadrail system, trains running on quadrupal tracks through a hyperspatial tube. Yeah, it really is a lot of disbelief to suspend. Still, it works for the story. Harder to believe is that Compton has seen The Lady Vanishes. There are lots of aliens, some who are merely humans in various types of fuzzy suits, and some who do at least seem alien, if somewhat unoriginal. There are lots of wheels within wheels, and the pace never lags. It's a fun ride.


After that, I read Gaiman's latest, Anansi Boys, and it's another book that wasn't at all what I was expected. Apart from starting with a character from American Gods, it's not really a sequel. There's still a bit of epic struggle, much like in the first book, but the tone is a lot closer Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy than AG. There's certainly enough coincidence to power an improbability drive. Another book that's a great deal of fun.


The other book I read recently was Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, the first book in the Tom Swift, Jr., books of my youth. I read it while waiting all the various reinstalls of WinXP to finish a couple of weekends ago. The book averages about a plane crash every other chapter, and none of them are fatal. There's also this bit of description:

Sun-bronzed Chow Winkler, the rotund, happy-go-lucky cook and steward on all Swift expeditions, stood grinning from the foot of the steps. He wore a flashy red-and-green checkered shirt and held a sombrero in one hand.

It certainly explains why so many of the geek boys of my generation dress so badly. The books have aged badly, since technology that was gee whiz in the fifties is awfully retro today, and the sociological attitudes are even more retro.

The back room got it's comeupance yesterday. I was going to do the office today, but I mostly slacked. One thing I did do was put the old shelves back up on the new brackets I installed last spring. They'd been leaning up against the wall waiting for me to fabricate newer, nicer shelves, which I don't seem to have ever got 'round to. They'll be fine until I do get motivated.
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