nickbarnes: (me)
[because I have long admired my old friend Nicholas Whyte's amazingly dedicated bookblogging habit, and because this year I find myself with more time on my hands, and because ghost towns are fun and interesting]

I bought a few Tor books on Friday, including Old Man's War by John Scalzi, which I should probably have read years ago. It was fun in parts, and a little thought-provoking, but ultimately disappointing. A few instant gripes:

- it's parochially American, to an absurd degree. Almost everyone in it is American and English-speaking. Here is a list of spaceships, "traditionally named after midsize cities": "the Little Rock, the Mobile, the Waco, the Muncie, the Burlington". I can recall a single non-American minor character, a Peruvian. It's mentioned in passing that people from some other countries get to be colonists (rather than soldiers): "India and Kazakhstan and Norway, where they can't support the population they have". I'm sorry, what? It's made clear in the recruitment office that the CDF deal applies to many Earth nations. So where are they?

- it's set over 200 years in the future, but Earth (the little we see of it) is basically unchanged, culturally, technologically, or socially. I get that the Colonial Union is probably suppressing some stuff [we will doubtless find out more in the sequels] - in particular scientific and technological progress, but this is too much, and in places it's borderline ridiculous. Will some company be trying to build a SubAtlantic Rail in 2250? Doubtful. Will that company be called General Electric? Pfft.

- In contrast the Colonial Union and the CDF have various sorts of magic technology, but they still use ground troops for most operations, including ones which are basically genocidal, or which are intended to degrade fighting or cultural capability. This is crazy. Where are the drones? Where are the nukes and other WMD? Where are the orbital kinetic munitions?

- The CDF use cloned super-soldiers. Why are they also using regular grunts?

- The old people are not convincingly old. They're just not.

- Ultimately "meet strange new people and cultures, and kill the sons of bitches" is not my kind of book.

- Some sloppy editing, enough for me to notice and care. "rooted for a towel in the wardrobe, flicking on the small light in the wardrobe to see. In the wardrobe hung my and Leon's recruit suits". Yeah, OK, we get it, you're in the wardrobe. I didn't bookmark it, but at one point "I, foo, and bar did something". This stuff grates.

As I say, I did have fun reading this book (and it's a great relief from the astonishingly poor stuff in the Hugo voter packet), but I doubt I will be picking up the sequels.

On my new and untested rating scale, I give this 6/10.
nickbarnes: (me)
I finished Deborah Moggach's "Tulip Fever" last night. This is a book which has been on my shelf for five or six years, and probably first arrived there because I have a passing interest in the Dutch tulip mania of 1636/1637, which provides the title, the backdrop, and a key plot mechanism for the book.

The Dutch at the time were the leading trading nation in the world, rich and becoming richer, and were busy inventing most of modern banking in order to manage that wealth. Tulip mania was a bubble market in tulip bulbs, fueled by the invention of futures and options contracts, and at its peak [a contract for future delivery of] a single rare bulb might cost as much as a house. It was made famous by the account in Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds", one of my favourite books, although Mackay sensationalized the story to a great extent.

Tulips take a decade or more to be grown from seed to flower - so breeding a new variety is a long process with uncertain outcomes - but grow in a single season from a bulb, and can be propagated from nodes which form on the bulbs, allowing an existing variety to be reproduced. They are also susceptible to viral infection which causes petals to grow in different patterns and shapes, yielding a huge variation in forms including extreme rarities. They were also quite novel at the time - they had only been cultivated in Europe for a few decades - and represented Dutch success, ingenuity, and care. The combination of these factors, with the wealth that was sloshing around at the time, made for a natural bubble. The bubble formed in mid-1636, after the bulbs for that season were lifted and could be readily traded. In September/October, the bulbs should be back in the ground in order to flower the following spring, and so the trade shifted from physical bulbs changing hands to futures contracts and then to newly-invented derivatives. That took the brakes off and prices shot up swiftly, until the crash in February.

Unfortunately Moggach ignores most of this splendid history for plot reasons (for instance, her bubble is already well-established at the start of 1636, and a late plot twist depends on a single bulb physically changing hands in mid-November). More seriously, the central romance in the novel is between two deeply unlikeable people - short-sighted, vain, selfish, deceptive, feckless - engaged in a vile scheme. When Jan neglects his student, I want the student's father - a butcher - to come around with the tools of his trade and exact bloody vengeance. When Sophia stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide, I long to push her in.

There's much to like about the book: rich descriptive prose, a vividly-realised and plausible society, a charming secondary romance between the two most likeable characters (which is almost fatally destroyed by the feckless central couple), some interesting reflections on the nature and pace of individual change. There's also quite a bit of art history - which may or may not be any more accurate than the economic history - together with a number of plates in my edition. But overall I'm disappointed.


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October 2015



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