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How do I Find the Time?

Phoenixine One-Hundred and Five, May 1998

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare is an enormous book -- partly because Shakespeare was quite prolific and partly because Asimov finds an awful lot to write about every individual play and a couple of poems. I was also quite surprised to find him discussing several plays which simply did not appear in the Complete Shakespeare that I inherited from my Grandmother and which is now starting to look slightly less than complete to my eyes. Admittedly these extras are sometimes of dubious authorship and there are a couple of acknowledged collaborations where Shakespeare's own input appears to have been minimal. But all is grist to Asimov's mill and he examines each and every item in the canon.

The book does not pretend to be a literary analysis -- rather it attempts (very successfully) to place the plays in a contemporary and historical context. Macbeth, for example, was written partly as a gift for King James I of England (the VI of Scotland) on the occasion of his accession to the English throne. A deal of political sensibility was required as James had strong opinions and, being a new King and perhaps uncertain in his powers, needed a degree of buttering up. The play is also based around historical fact, though Shakespeare played a little fast and loose with the time scale and twisted the truth a bit for political ends in order to humour his new monarch. Asimov analyses both these threads with masterful skill, placing each very carefully in context.

I won't claim to have read the whole book. I have read the discussions of the plays with which I am familiar and I skimmed many of the others. I found all the essays interesting and erudite and utterly fascinating. What a polymath Asimov was. This book demonstrates as few others do the enormous breadth and depth of his range of interest and knowledge. It is an absolute gem.

The new Jack Vance novel is obviously the first of an open ended series, given that it doesn't come to a satisfactory end. It simply stops when the page count is long enough. God grant that he lives long enough to finish the series for it is wonderful and witty and quintessentially Vance.

As a boy, Myron Tany dreamed of space exploration, of leading expeditions among the myriad planets of the Gaen Reach. But his family insisted that he set himself a course of sober study, the better to prepare himself for gainful employment and so he studied economics. Then his Great Aunt Hester, a woman of flamboyant manner and great wealth comes into possession of a space yacht and Myron starts to hope his dreams may come true. Aunt Hester is frightened of growing old and departs in her yacht to search for a fabled rejuvenation clinic. To begin with all is sweetness and light. But soon Hester is bored by the sameness of every day of her journey and she and her paramour deviate from the course to explore some of the planets along the way. Soon there is a quarrel and Myron is marooned on one of these planets and left alone to make his way as best he might across the vast expanses of the Gaen Reach. He signs on with a cargo ship that meanders from planet to planet. Several are visited and then the book stops.

There are no plot resolutions. We never learn how Aunt Hester fares and Myron's journey is scarcely yet begun. There is obviously so much more to come and I for one anticipate the remaining books with great eagerness. This wandering odyssey of a plot is the perfect vehicle for Vance to indulge in that which he does best -- the creation of quirky, bizarre and sometimes downright twisted societies, the description of exotic (and sometimes revolting) foods, the long, languorous conversations, all profoundly polite and circumlocutory but nevertheless managing to convey all manner of insult and innuendo. Who cares what plot vehicle Vance hitches his prose to? The prose itself is so lush and grandiloquent that you can simply wrap yourself up in it and luxuriate in the fecundity of his imagination and the richness of his tone.

My only complaint is that the book has no footnotes! What use is a Jack Vance novel without footnotes, I ask you?

Harry Harrison too has begun a new series. Stars and Stripes Forever is the first book of yet another trilogy. It is a novel of alternate history. Britain is dragged into the American Civil war and (in almost a reprise of the war of 1812) invades from Canada. America finds itself fighting a war on two fronts. This is unsustainable and the warring states patch up their differences and unite against the common enemy. History takes a dramatically different turn from that which we lived through!

This first book, while full of dramatic events and much thud and blunder, is really only a scene setter. The meat of the story is still to come as this vastly new historical reality is explored. I suspect it will be hard to judge the worth of the project until the project is complete. But in the interim, let it be said that I enjoyed the book and will most certainly continue to follow the series as it progresses.

Perhaps it is the season for alternate history books. Jake Page's Apacheria has the Apaches fighting the United States government to a truce and negotiating a new homeland for themselves. Apacheria (the territories of New Mexico and Arizona) becomes a completely separate country within the American continent and the bulk of the book explores the sometimes uneasy relationship between this country and its larger neighbours.

The plot is only superficially convincing. Everything falls into places for the Apaches a little too easily and too much is left unexplained. The long arm of coincidence is invoked a little too frequently. It is a mildly entertaining book, but ultimately an unconvincing one. I simply couldn't get lost in the story.

Helm, the new Stephen Gould novel, is a huge disappointment. I loved his previous novels so much that I fell on this with glad cries of glee, but it turned out to be a routine and rather dull skiffy book with far too many detailed and long drawn out descriptions of Aikido contests.

Faced with global devastation, Earth sends colonies out to the stars in an attempt to perpetuate the race. The colonists are supplied with imprinting devices -- glass-like helmets that contain all of Earth's scientific knowledge. The colonists barely survive their landing on the new world. Much of the Earth technology is lost, destroyed in the crash. But one imprinting device remains. Once a generation, the heir undergoes rigorous training to prepare himself to absorb knowledge from the Helm and use it to successfully continue to lead the colony. As the book opens, the younger son of the current leader has, against all instructions, donned the helm -- the shock to his brain is almost overwhelming. He barely survives and it becomes imperative to fast track him through the training procedures. During his training, he falls in love with the daughter of his father's political rival.

You can probably write the rest of it yourself.

Mike Resnick's stories of Kirinyaga have been published piecemeal for almost ten years. Each separate story won many of science fiction's most prestigious awards. Now they have been put together into a fix-up novel and seeing them all together in one place, reading them as a coherent whole, makes me realise just what a wonderful tour-de-force of writing they are. Each story is like a facet of a diamond, sharp and polished and shiny, a lovely thing in its own right. But put all the facets together, create the diamond out of its constituent parts (as it were) and the jewel becomes infinitely richer for it. The sum of all the Kirinyaga stories is like that -- a jewel of incomparable beauty.

By the 22nd century the African nation of Kenya is a polluted sprawl of cities. The great animal herds of history are extinct, European crops grow on the savannahs, the nation is losing its identity. Koriba is a distinguished and educated man, a Kikuyu by birth, fiercely proud of his heritage and disturbed to see it dying. He wants to preserve the old ways and the true culture of his people, the thing that makes them Kikuyu, that separates them from the other people of the Earth.

So he founds a colony on a terraformed planetoid which he names Kirinyaga (after the Kikuyu holy mountain). Here there is only the traditional Kikuyu lifestyle and modern influences are not allowed to intrude. The colony is run strictly according to historical and cultural practices; no exceptions are allowed. It is paradise, it is utopia.

But it isn't of course. And the examination of why it isn't and the ways in which the noble experiment fails are the reasons why this book is such a seminal work. It demonstrates the ephemeral nature of too rigorous an interpretation of cultural history. Rules that allow no exceptions (because our ancestors didn't do it that way) are far too rigid. This inflexibility becomes the colonists worst enemy, for their society (like all societies) attempts to evolve and change to meet the challenges of life. But change is not permitted and the conflict between the two requirements ends up destroying the very thing that the rigidity of the rules was designed to protect.

There are universal messages here for all cultural conservatives -- the comatose intellectual savants from the academie francaise, or religious fundamentalists of any persuasion at all, or Irish nationalists still seeking revenge for the ancient excesses of Oliver Cromwell, or Maori traditionalists trapped in a time warp a hundred and fifty or more years old. This book isn't really about the Kikuyu at all. It talks in universal symbols and that is the reason for its greatness.

Resnick has no answer for this paradox, of course for there is no answer; it is the way of the world. Instead he asks questions and gives warnings, as every great artist should. And along the way he tells a story that will wrench your heart strings.

Michael Flynn first came to my attention with a superb novel called Firestar which I discussed in an earlier article. Now a sequel to that novel has appeared. It is called Rogue Star and it is as wonderful as its predecessor. The last book ended with an expedition being sent to investigate an asteroid. The new book opens in the ship, the crew well on their way. However the bulk of the book takes place on Earth as Mariesa Van Huyten continues the political manipulations that add up to project Prometheus -- her master plan to protect the Earth from a collision with a rogue asteroid, and almost as a side effect to aid greatly with the social and scientific progress of the world as a whole. Few know her secret agenda -- but she has made a lot of friends and not a few enemies.

Interspersed between the dramatic events on Earth are vignettes that take place aboard the space ship as the crew approach the asteroid, land on it, explore it (and make some startling discoveries) and return to Earth. The book ends as it began -- with the spaceship, though this time at the end of its journey rather than the beginning.

The microcosm of the exploration of the asteroid is skilfully echoed in the macrocosm of Mariesa van Huyten's manoeuvrings. The parallels are quite overt. One of the spaceship crew remarks at the end of the book that "We aren't the same men that left [the Earth]". Similarly, Mariesa at the end is not the Mariesa of the beginning. There have been huge upheavals in her life, her career and the direction of project Prometheus...

Like far too many second books in a series, this one is partly a scene setter for the prefigured denouement that will be the third book. Certainly it does not stand alone. If you haven't read Firestar it probably won't mean much to you.  But if you have read the earlier novel, this one will hold you enthralled.

On the strength of Flynn's two novels, I also indulged in a collection of his short stories. Like so many of these things they proved to be a mixed bunch. The title story (and by far the longest in the book) was a brilliant tale that gripped my imagination. It is set in an alternate world in which America is a balkanised continent -- a land mass of small warring countries. Pennsylvania remains German speaking and largely isolated from its neighbours, though bitterly at war with them. A Pennsylvanian scout, returning from an expedition comes across a stranger in the forest; a man carrying much odd looking scientific equipment. The man is a time traveller from a future (and very different) America. But not only has he travelled through time, he has also travelled across the stream of history to (it transpires) several parallel worlds, this one being only the latest of many. He is hopelessly lost. All he wants is to return home, but he will never be able to do so.

The story is a poignant one. The misery of the lost traveller on the one hand and the realisation of what might have been on the other. Both the traveller and the Pennsylvanians have room for regret over lost opportunities, some large and some small. It is a brilliant and most moving tale.

The remaining stories in the book are all quite competent but they never really caught fire for me.

For my sins, I work with computers and for much of my career I have been a programmer. Steve McConnell's book Code Complete proclaims itself to be "...a practical handbook of software construction". It proved to be an immensely readable compendium of wisdom about the art of programming (for it is an art, not a science). Every serious programmer should read this one. It concentrates on the procedural languages and the procedural approach to program design and construction, but even you object oriented people will benefit from reading it (your classes all have procedural interiors and their instantiations are controlled externally from within procedural structures. Yes they are -- don't argue!).

Over the years, through very many very painful lessons learned as my programs crumbled around me and exhibited some unsuspected flaw, I have started to grope my way towards my own philosophy of program design. I have approaches and techniques that I use because (pragmatically) I have found that they work. I was pleased to find that many of these painfully acquired ideas corresponded very closely with the ideas developed in this book (everyone likes to have their prejudices confirmed, don't they?). However I had never really formulated my half-thought-out ideas with the clarity that Steve McConnell has demonstrated in his book, and neither had I realised the implications of what I was doing. I read this book in a state of acute intellectual excitement. I learned something new, useful and wholly wonderful in virtually every chapter. The book has classic written all over it. I was a good programmer before I read it; I am a better one now.

Edward Yourdon's Death March is a discussion of the type of computer project with which many of us are all too familiar. The under-funded, under-staffed project with such ridiculous specifications and lunatic deadlines that it is doomed to fail before it even starts. Everyone is expected to work (it sometimes seems) twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and still there is no chance of bringing this behemoth in on time and/or on budget. And association with the failure will look bad on your CV.

Yourdon discusses just why these projects exist at all, why they are so common (they are almost the norm in the industry), how to avoid working on them and what to do if you ever find yourself on one.

He talks about politics and about money, about personalities and about business realities. There are many amusing anecdotes about real death march projects that Yourdon and his friends have worked on.

And most unusually for an Edward Yourdon book, it doesn't turn half way through  into a diatribe about how wonderful CASE tools are (I sometimes get the impression that Yourdon thinks that CASE is the cure for world hunger, poverty, AIDS, athletes foot and halitosis as well as helping a little with mundane things like designing computer systems). Consequently the book remains consistently enjoyable, amusing and informative right to the very end. If you ever have been, are currently or are about to be involved in a death march project, this is the book for you.

I have never made any secret of my love for the novels of Sir Henry Rider Haggard and over the years I have managed to amass a fair few of them. Some, however have managed to elude me. Recently a friend filled one of the gaps on my bookshelf by finding me a copy of Cleopatra; a novel I last read at about age fourteen and which I haven't seen anywhere since. I devoured it luxuriously. Oh the high flown, heavily archaic language, the dire warnings, the dooms foretold and dooms withheld, the machinations of the gods and the love and the passion that seeks to defy death itself. All of this woven around the historically accurate (and very familiar) story of Cleopatra herself. Nobody could do this like Haggard; and his magic spell is as potent now as ever it was. I love it.

The late John Brunner had no illusions about his own writing. He knew what was good and what was merely make-work and he was never afraid to blow his own trumpet, usually (it must be admitted) with very good reason for many of his books were undeniably brilliant. Over a period of several years, at many British SF conventions I heard him talk about a massive work in progress of which he was inordinately proud. It was called (he told us) The Great Steamboat Race and it was a historical novel set in nineteenth century New Orleans. It was about the sprawling, brawling city itself, the times, the politics, the business, the haunting Mississippi river, the boats that sailed upon it and the people who crewed them. It was a huge novel, a definitive novel, his masterwork.

Well it finally appeared. Ballantine published it in 1983. It made no splash and it sank without trace. Few people ever knew it had been published and even fewer read it. It was (and it remains) Brunner's great, lost work.

It broke him. He had really loved that book, fought for that book, believed passionately in that book. The publishing failure left him a bitter and an angry man and he wrote nothing of significance for the rest of his life. Oh there were other novels, but they were light and frothy things written with half of his attention; just tossed of casually. They were never less than competent for Brunner was the consummate professional, but his heart wasn't in it any more. The great days were over and so were the great books.

I knew the book existed, but like most people I had never seen it (it went in and out of print frighteningly fast and there was no second edition as far as I know). And then, a couple of months ago I went to Sydney. We have recently moved to new offices in Sydney and I was looking forward to seeing them. I was quite impressed to discover that the offices were just across the road from a second hand book shop. And I was even more impressed to see, in pride of place, right in the centre of the window display, The Great Steamboat Race, by John Brunner.

Well it turned out to be a curate's egg. It is a vast novel with a huge cast of characters and a complex and convoluted story line. There are excellent vignettes within it, moments where the novel springs into vigorous life. But then it collapses again and the brief spark dies. I think Brunner was a victim of his own enthusiasm. He researched the novel in enormous depth (there is a long list of primary sources at the back of the book) and perhaps he researched it too much and became lost in the minutiae. The weight of its own significance and of its own huge detail overwhelms the book. Brunner let it run away with him. I think perhaps he was too close to it for too long. It was not the book that he thought it was. And that too is very sad. I so wanted this to be a great book, for the sake of a wonderful man who believed in it so passionately.

But it wasn't.

Isaac Asimov Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare Wings Books
Jack Vance Ports of Call Tor
Harry Harrison Stars and Stripes Forever Hodder and Stoughton
Jake Page Apacheria Del Rey
Stephen Gould Helm Tor
Mike Resnick Kirinyaga Del Rey
Michael Flynn Rogue Star Tor
Michael Flynn The Forest of Time and Other Stories Tor
Steve McConnell Code Complete  Microsoft Press
Edward Yourdon Death March Prentice Hall
Sir Henry Rider Haggard Cleopatra Harrap
John Brunner The Great Steamboat Race Ballantine
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