Thursday, February 23, 2006

Books (Science): Rats

After our little Christmas rat adventure, a very striking book cover caught my eye. The cover depicted a map of Manhattan, with the island modified to the shape of a rat, with the title Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan.

The title and subtitle suggest the book is about rats -- which it is -- but, as the cover illustration suggests, it's very much about Manhattan as well. Sullivan for some not-entirely-explained reason, had become fascinated with rats, and spent much of 2001 observing rats nightly in Edens Alley in southern Manhattan. These observations lead him not only to a greater understanding of rats and rats' relationships with humans, but also to a lot of Manhattan history. He relates the stories of such fascinating locals as Jesse Gray, who started the tenants Rights movement in New York City; John DeLury, the man behind the great garbage strike of 1968, and Isaac Sears, who led one of the very first battles of the American Revolution not far from Edens Alley. He also tells of the difficulties facing New York's pest control people after the September 11th attacks, which occurred during his year of rat-watching -- Edens Alley is not that far from the World Trade Center site.

There wasn't that much new rat-related information in the book (though we will be using one exterminator's suggestion of mixing steel wool with cement for blocking up rat-holes when we repair our garage). The novel stuff was mostly the material concerning how humans relate to rats, directly and indirectly, and the historical material concerning New York.

Manhattan has always been a fascinating structure. It's hard to really think of it as a city -- it often seems more like a single gigantic building, packing onto its island. Sullivan both reinforces that notion, when discussing the many layers of subways and sewers in the city, and helps dispel it, with his reflections on Golden Hill (now unrecognizable, it used to be a major landmark in Edens Alley's area in Isaac Sears's time).

Early in the book, Sullivan describes Edens Alley (actually two alleys, Edens and Ryders, which form an L shape between Gold & Fulton streets). One thing he mentions is that the alleys contain a single ailanthus tree. Curious about just where in Manhattan the alleys are, I looked them up on Goggle Maps, and discovered that you can not only see the alleys, you can see the tree. Read more!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance [Spoilers]

I'm falling 'way behind -- I'm now on my fourth book since the last one I posted about. So I'm going to try again to catch up, this time by doing two at once.

Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance are two more in the Miles Vorkosigan series that I've been re-plowing through. They go together well for a double-post because they both center around a new character in the Miles universe: Miles's heretofore unknown "evil" clone, Mark.

Of course, evil twins/evil clones are a bit of a cliche (well, a lot of a cliche) in science fiction, but Bujold does some interesting things with Mark.

In Brothers in Arms, Miles is forced to take the Dendarii fleet to Earth for repairs after the Dagoola IV incident recounted in Borders of Infinity. While there he's assigned -- as lieutenant Vorkosigan of Barrayar -- to the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth, but he also finds himself having to deal with -- as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries -- with problems with his fleet. As a result, for the first time, he ends up having to deal with someone who has met both of his personas. With his rather distinctive appearance, he has to come up with some sort of story to explain the two characters. He whips up a story that Naismith is a renegade clone created by the Cetagandans as part of a plot against Barrayar -- all unaware that the leftover Komarran resistance (Komarr being a world conquered by Barrayar many years before) had had a clone created on Jackson's Whole as part of a similar plot.

The clone, fortunately, is not just an evil puppet type plot device. He had been created in Jackson's Whole by the same House that creates clones for brain transplant -- only, while those clones are treated delicately and groomed to physical perfection, Miles's clone was put through horrible medical ordeals to duplicate Miles's deformities. Every time Miles broke a bone or had one replaced, the clone would have to go through surgery to do the same thing to him. Naturally, this has left him less than well adjusted!

The official plot using the clone was that he would take Miles's place on Barrayar. Miles is third in line for the Emperor's throne after his father, so a few assassinations would make the clone Emperor.

In actual fact, there's no chance for this to succeed. The Komarrans running the plot don't really care -- they just want to sow chaos on Barrayar so they can stage a revolt on Komarr. The clone has realized that he's expendable, though he has enough of Miles's "I'll show them what I can do" personality that he's convinced himself that he can really pull the plot off.

When Miles finally encounters the clone, he immediately considers him to be his younger brother -- as he would be under the laws of Miles's mother's homeworld of Beta Colony. And, under the the Vor aristocrat traditions of Barrayar, the clone, as a second son, would be named for the second names of his grandparents, making him Mark Pierre Vorkosigan.

The clone, of course, is rather paranoid at this point, and doesn't believe Miles's assurances that he could actually be accepted as a Vorkosigan in his own right. Miles does eventually manage to rescue himself and the clone (and sundry others) from the clutches of the Komarrans, but Mark is unwilling to trust him to the end, and heads off on his own path at the end of the book.

Mirror Dance picks things up a couple of years later, when Mark returns, posing as Admiral Naismith, and manages to make off with a ship and some commandos from the Dendarii Mercenaries to stage a rescue of the current batch of clones on Jackson's Whole.

Much of the book is told from Mark's point of view. Miles himself doesn't show up until a few chapters in, and soon he's off to Jackson's Whole to rescue Mark, who has discovered that book study doesn't make up for field experience.

In the course of rescuing Marc, though, Miles is killed by a grenade. Fortunately, it's long been established in this SF universe that quick freezing of a body can permit revival (though with a less-than-ideal success rate), and Miles is quickly stuffed in a cryo-chamber -- which is promptly lost in the confusion of battle.

The middle section of the book deals with Mark's being taken to Barrayar, to meet Miles's parents -- his parents, too, though he has trouble coming to terms with that concept -- and provides a good chance to see Cordellia and Aral Vorkosigan, as well as Barrayar, from a new perspective.

In the end, of course, Miles is recovered, though not without complications, naturally! Some of the complications set things up for the next book, Memory, in which an even bigger spanner than Mark is thrown into the works.

As I said before, the evil clone has been a cliche for ages, but Bujold turns him into an interesting (if even more neurotic than Miles) character in his own right. Fortunately, she doesn't insist on dragging Mark through everything from this point on, though -- he's around, but in the background, in the subsequent books, though the after-effects of his ill-conceived trip to Jackson's Whole reverberate through the rest of the series. Read more!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): Borders of Infinity [SPOILERS]

Since my last post on the Miles Vorkosigan books, I've finished three more -- I'm way behind in my writeups. So I'm going to try to catch up over the weekend.

The first book I read after Ethan of Athos was Borders of Infinity. Normally, I follow Ethan with Brothers in Arms, but I decided to change things around this time.

Borders is sold as a novel, but it's actually three short stories wrapped in a very thin excuse for flashbacks -- Miles has to explain his expense report to Simon Illyan, his commanding officer, while hospitalized after the events in Brothers in Arms. All of the flashbacks take place before Brothers, but since the framework is set after, I usually read Brothers first. However, the events in the third story in Borders lead directly tothe opening of Brothers, so I decided to read them chronologically this time.

The first story, The Mountains of Mourning, is not part of Miles's report. Rather he thinks back to his investigation of an infanticide in his district shortly before The Vor Game took place. Miles's world, Barrayar, was cut off from galactic civilization for centuries, resulting in the development of a feudal, largely aggrarian society with (among other things) a pathological fear of mutations. Physical deformities in infants usually result in infanticide, though Miles's father, the Prime Minister of Barrayar, has been working hard to change that. Miles, with his (non-genetic) deformities, is often on the receiving end of the anti-mutant prejudice that plagues his homeworld, and The Mountains of Mourning gives Bujold a chance to dig a little deeper into the backwoods of Barrayaran society.

Mountains was reprinted between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game in the omnibus Young Miles collection, which includes an essay by Bujold about the creation of Miles as a character and the beginning of the series.

The next two stories, Labyrinth and Borders of Infinity, start a chain of events which tie the next several Miles books together. The first few novels are fairly independent -- while each depends on the previous for context, there are few specific incidents in any that directly cause any events in the subsequent ones the way things start snowballing with Borders of Infinity.

Up until now, I've avoided spoilers, but at this point I'm so deep in the series that I can't talk about it coherently without giving away some details of what went before. So here's a recap:

The first Miles book, Warrior's Apprentice, sets the context for everything that follows. By the end of the novel, Miles, who has not yet completed his military training on Barrayar, has (rather accidentally) conned his way into the command of a mercenary fleet under the name "Admiral Miles Naismith" (Naismith is his mother's maiden name). Driven by a desperate need to prove his worth in spite of his deformities -- and a rather bipolar personality -- he convinces Imperial Security and the Emperor to turn his Dendarii Mercenaries into a covert force, secretly operating in Barrayar's interest while appearing as an independent mercenary fleet to everyone else -- and most of the people in the fleet. Only a handful of people anywhere know that Admiral Naismith is Miles Vorkosigan. Most of the members of the Dendarii wouldn't even know that Miles Vorkosigan exists, as Barrayar's a bit of a backwater. Naismith becomes a safety valve for Miles, to keep Barrayar, with its rather oppressive society and prejudices, from driving him mad. Or madder -- he's not exactly the most stable fellow.

Labyrinth gives us our first detailed look at the planet of Jackson's Whole, a former space-pirate base that has evolved into a free-market capitalist's fantasy world. The only law is what you can buy, and you can buy just about anything. The planet is run by "Houses", each specializing in various products -- House Fell sells weapons of any sort, House Ryoval specializes in prostitution and genetics, and House Bharaputra in cloning -- especially growing clones for brain transplants, a practice condemned everywhere outside Jackson's Whole It involves growing the clone as an awake and aware human to the age of ten years (though accellerating the body's development to twice that), then killing the ten-year-old child's brain to replace it with the clone's progenitor's brain. Jackson's Whole plays a major role in the next few books.

In Labyrinth, the Dendarii are commissioned to help a geneticist escape employment from Jackson's Whole (contracts are pretty tough there). Naturally, complications set in, and by the end ofthe story they're leaving Jacksonian space with the geneticist, a quaddie musician, and a 16-year-old genetically engineered super-soldier experiment whom Miles has convinced to join the Dendarii. In the process Miles managed to infuriate Baron Ryoval to the point that the Baron puts a significant price on his head.

Borders of Infinity relates another Dendarii mission, but a very different one from Labyrinth. The Cetagandans are trying to annex the planet Merilac, and Miles has been comissioned to rescue a rebel commander from the Cetagandan war prison on Dagoola IV. Though the Cetagandans are strictly follownig the letter of interstellar law, the prison is a nightmare. It consists of a circular area several hundred meters across encased in a force-field, containing ten thousand prisoners. The law requires a certain amount of space per prisoner -- no problem, the dome is made larger by exactly the right amount every time someone new is added. Prisoners must get 8 hours of light a day -- so the dome glows day-bright all the time. Each prisoner must have so many calories of food a day, so the Cetagandans dump ten thousand nutrition bars through the force field every feeding time, and let the prisoners fight it out.

The story starts with Miles's arrival in the dome as a prisoner. Within moments he's assaulted and stripped. The officer he was to rescue went catatonic long before Miles arrived, so he works out a nwe plan -- rescue everyone, starting with nothing (though we know that the Dendarii must be out there somewhere, figuring into things). The scenario gives Bujold a good chance to play with Miles's manic charisma as he tries to convince the prisoners, some of whom have been in this nightmare for years, to follow him.

By the end of the story, Miles successfully rescues the prisoners, but not without some losses both among the prisoners and his Dendarii.

As I mentioned before, the events in Borders of Infinity lead directly to the opening of the next novel, Brothers in Arms. You don't need to know the story of the Dagoola IV raid to follow Brothers, though -- enough is covered in the opening of the novel to set the scene.

I don't have much to complain about concerning the cover art this time -- it actually does depict a scene from the book (near the end of the Borders of Infinity short story) with reasonable accuracy. Though Miles's hand was quite specifically described as being broken, numb, and bandaged in the story and looks quite healthy on the cover.

That's a lot of typing for first thing in the morning, and it's cold in my office (my fingers are stiff), so I'm going to put off Brothers in Arms for a bit. Read more!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

TV (Comedy): The Frantics

I have always been a fan of radio comedy. My all-time favourite comedy group is The Goon Show, edging out even Monty Python. I grew up listening to the Royal Canadian Air Farce on CBC Radio (before they moved to TV) and, of course, The Frantics.

The Frantics are Peter Wildman, Dan Redican, Rick Green, and Paul Chato. Rick Green's probably the best known outside Canada, given his recurring role as Bill on the Red Green Show. Their radio sketches were in the best absurdist tradition -- things like Theatre of the Ideas That Come To You in the Middle of the Night So You Get Up and Write Them Down But Can't Make Heads Nor Tails Of Them in the Morning (this week's episode: "Little Fuzzy Bits of Junk"). They had a few recurring characters, such as Canadian superhero Mr. Canoehead -- a man who took up a life of crime fighting after an aluminum canoe was welded to his head by lightning -- and Todd Booster, a spoof of kids' adventure heros like Tom Swift.

The Frantics were obviously heavily influenced by Monty Python (you can really hear it in, for example, the host character in the Architecture Today sketch), and used a similar mix of bizarreness, idiocy, and writing for a knowledgable audience. One of my favourite examples of this is their sketch "The Human Race", which presents evolution as a horse race announced by Chuck Darwin: "Into turn one, arthropoda is showing surprisingly solid form, and even the long-shot chordata is displaying real backbone!"

In 1985 they moved to TV with the show Four on the Floor, which reworked many of their radio sketches, then went their separate ways. Recently, they've teamed back up for a TV special that was aired a couple of weeks ago and an up-coming two-week stage show, "The Frantics: Still A Disappointment To Their Parents".

I caught the TV special, of course. It had a number of good sketches, but it got me thinking of why I'm so fond of radio comedy. TV is hampered by the need to show stuff. Mr. Canoehead is much less convincing on screen. In fact, in the Mr. Canoehead number that they did on the special, Canoehead spent the entire sketch sitting in a chair behind a desk (with a few flashbacks to villains being whacked with his canoe). Their classic sketch about a guy who tunnels to the centre of the world to become king of the mole people would have been prohibitively expensive to do on TV.

This isn't a problem unique to the Frantics... The Goons tried a couple of TV versions (Telegoons, which retold Goon Show stories with puppets, and The Idiot Weekly, Price 2p, a live sketch show) without much success; the Air Farce lost a lot of its energy when it moved to TV as well. It took a completely fresh group, Monty Python, to successfully move Goonish humour to a visual medium (though Goon Supreme, Spike Milligan, did anticipate them with his Q series). Likewise, the Canadian sketch comedy group who most successfully turned Frantics-style humour into a TV series was not The Frantics, but The Kids in the Hall.

The special also suffered a little from the group leaning on a few past successes for material. Their most famous sketches are the two "Boot to the Head" sketches from the radio show: Last Will and Tempraments and Ti Kwan Leep -- the first concerns the reading of a will in which all beneficiaries are left a boot to the head (or several), the second tells what happens when Ed "I Wanna Beat People Up Right Now" Gruberman crosses his sensei (Ti Kwan Leep is often played on the Dr. Demento Show. The reunion special featured a new "Boot to the Head" sketch about an Australian motivational speaker. Unfortunately, the sketch was rather limp overall, with no real resolution or laughs beyond the slapstick. Ed Gruberman also made a reappearance in the "Army Recruiting Office" sketch, which was a good sketch -- but the applicant character didn't really need to be Ed Gruberman, except for the recognition laugh he got.

What I'm really looking forward to from The Frantics are the upcoming re-release of the original Frantic Times album (which has been out of print for decades, even while the Boot to the Head album has been available continously) and the 3 MP3 CD set collection of the original Frantic Times radio series. Read more!

Stuff: Catching Up

I've fallen rather behind in posting over the past few weeks... Work and other distractions have been preventing me. Time to see if I can catch up some. Read more!