Sinister Barrier

The introduction to The Complete Compleat Enchanter mentioned Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, so I read it. It’s good for what it is: pulp.

It’s extremely good pulp but still extremely pulp.

The main character is a detective of some kind, and he starts out investigating some scientists dying. Cosmic mysteries ensue, and things get rolling. I was a little annoyed at how long it took to disclose what was going on. Nothing really happened for a while, but when the big reveal happened, matters moved on pretty quickly. Global catastrophe and the end of human life hung in the balance by book’s end.

Everyone’s flat. The two main leads don’t really play off each other; one’s the boss and good at everything, and he bosses the other around. This is the hyper-competent man that gets referred to so much. It fits the story, but that’s the story you’re getting. Just know what you’re getting into.

What you’re going after in pulp is moving events. Things can’t stagnate. They need to get bigger and worse with every chapter until things hit the ceiling. All along, there must be endless certain doom the hero constantly barely survives, and it’s got to be gripping. If the reader buys the plot, the story should have a lot of tension. This one worked for me, but I got over a few things. If those stop you, you won’t enjoy it at all.

It’s just one of those books that is what it is. Don’t read Anne Rice if you aren’t into bad romance and vampires. There’s SCIENCE! in the Sinister Barrier, and if we were all manly enough man-scientists, the world would be a utopia.

I liked it, though. It rolled right along. 4/5


Do you think Achilles would have been in the wrong if Odysseus, Pheonix, and Ajax hadn’t made their embassy? They did, so he was. He wasn’t really in the wrong before then, so it stands reasonable that he wouldn’t have been in the wrong if they’d never gone to carry Agamemnon’s apology.

But that also feels like a moment-in-time thing. Taking the Iliad for the time period that it was gives the morality that the story follows. Now, in these modern times with modern moralities, I’m not sure Achilles wasn’t wrong all along. Maybe his error didn’t come to the fore until the embassy, and for dramatic purposes it wasn’t visible. But perhaps he was still wrong to abstain from the combat.

I don’t know. That has a lot of laudable warfare in it, something I find questionable in a circumstance like the Achaeans’s. Wondering about questions like that strikes me as being similar to arguments about the Heisenberg Compensator from Star Trek.


Long story short, I’m reading another long story, The Sword of Shannara, and I had Zelazny’s Roadmarks from the library on top of the stack. I’m a graduate student, so I have long due dates. However this was an interlibrary loan with a short due date. I got an email saying it was due in two days, so I sat down and tore through it.

I’m still reading The Sword of Shannara. It’s good, but long and slow.

I gave Roadmarks 3 stars on Goodreads, and if I find a $2 used copy, I’ll buy it.

This is my spoilertastic review.

The Road is sort-of like the Pattern. It’s an avenue between worlds and times, and much like shadow, there are an elect few who can travel it. What’s better about the Road than the Pattern is that you can take others. Randy, one of two protagonists though uninteresting, is guided onto the Road by a Clark-tech book. That’s amazing. That’s pure wonder. In so much fantasy, the magic realm is locked behind bloodlines or destiny, and the simple uniqueness of being able to take others is amazing. And you can still do it with bloodlines or destiny!

I cannot tell you how excited I was by this. There’s so much stuff in that! Some people are born with the gift, and great. Good on them. But with the gift, you can bring others. They don’t have to be chosen by a lesser fate; they have the power. They just need a guide, or instructions, or a foolhardly sense of adventure. Risk death! It’s a story. But it’s possible, and I love that.

In HP, the wizarding world can’t teach the muggles. Wizards are special, and there’s something deterministic and horrible to the lack of possibilities for those born without.

In Lovecraft, you’re…well, you’re going to get eaten by something or driven mad, so that’s just bad.

In Tolkien, there are only five wizards. Other magic is beyond all men, unless found in artifice. But the days of artifice are long gone, and even thought peace will reign, greatness won’t.

With the Road, if you can get there, you can explore. Now it’s naturally restricted, and that’s a good thing. Too many people would be going back in time to play murder, bang, kill with their grandparents. But the door has a key, and I love that.

The book is rather mediocre otherwise with an unresolved plot and unexplained characters. Red’s odd metamorphosis is left unexplained, and it’s vaguely hinted that he turns into a dragon. But then at the end, he doesn’t turn into a dragon, and the first scene is Red driving around not-a-dragon. Very frustrating. The antagonist is vague and unexplained. He’s never much introduced, and I’m left apathetic toward his big reveal. The plot, the characters, and the schemes don’t get solved, resolved, or even well explored.

The character interactions are fine.

Anyway, if the idea of the Road and more specifically its access wasn’t so interesting, the book wouldn’t be very good. But the Road was, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Other Character’s Thoughts

There’s a tricky balance between revealing a character’s thoughts, pointing out the character is having thoughts but not revealing them, and not saying anything, hoping the readers know that characters have thoughts.

I spend a lot of time in FP POV, and other characters are the issue. With first person, you can usually talk about the narrator’s thoughts. It gets bogged down sometimes, but important thoughts are almost always fair game, and the lesser stuff can usually be glossed over. “I don’t know what I thought about that.” “My feelings on the matter were mixed.” “I tried to keep an open mind.” Those are all paraphrases for ‘the narrator was thinking but the author doesn’t want to go too far into it now.’

With other people it’s tricky, and it’s especially tricky for other people in a FP POV. If Alice, narrator, is talking to Bob, Alice is going to have a lot of problems figuring out what Bob is thinking. That’s real life, but it’s also really frustrating to read. Picking the right balance takes some finesse, and the author can’t get too bogged down in writing about Alice trying to figure out what Bob is thinking.

I’m rereading the first book of Shannara, the Sword of Shannara. It’s good, but not as good as I remember. The problem is that Terry Brooks goes way too deep into some people’s thoughts, and they don’t have anything interesting to say, and avoids others. He avoids Allanon’s thoughts to build drama, and that’s all well and good. But the fourth or fifth time Menion thinks something impatient and stupid, albeit with a little depth, I’m getting bored. It reads like early RA Salvatore. They were/are contemporaries, and they write like players going through a campaign.

Misplaced Outrage

I’m reading a bunch of Lovecraft, and that guy was just neurotically scared of everything. He died in his forties of basically anxiety. He was scared of immigrants, true, and had a hell of a way of naming cats. But he was also scared of people who lived in England, people who lived in New England, people who lived in New York, the south, the west, and the southwest, to say nothing of Asia, South America, Oceana, and over yonder.

He wrote a story about a hyper-intelligent color. The alien was a color. I forget if it killed people.

I have a hard time attributing his efforts to anything more generalized than nutbaggery. Had he killed people or something, that would have been different. But he didn’t. He sat in his little flat and wrote weird stories.

Sidethought LotR

You know something invisible about LotR? You always knew what people were trying to accomplish and why.

Broadly: What was the overarching goal? Throw the ring into Mt Doom.

Specifically: What was Boromir trying to do? Save the Minas Tirith and Gondor.

Niche: What were the three hunters trying to do in Rohan? Save the hobbits, followed by save Rohan, followed by save Gondor.

What was Treebeard trying to do? Nothing when he wasn’t that important a character, and defeat Saruman when he was an important character.

What was Shelob trying to do? Eat people.

And so on and so on. It’s so simple it’s invisible, but you always knew what the characters were trying to do if they mattered.

What was Gimli trying to do? Show up the elf.

And it’s invisible. That’s mastery.

CS Lewis’s Desires

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis gives the oft quoted, manipulated, and paraphrased statement, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” It’s in the context of desires which cannot be satisfied.

I’ve always thought this attitude was flawed, much like Ivan Karamazov’s attitude that just because he wants something, he is entitled to have it. There is no particular reason a desire must have an attainable object. Lewis mentions swimming, food, and sex all as attainable objects of desire, and from them extrapolates all such desires must have objects. But this is flawed logic. First of all, one can desire something that is a negative: misery on others. One can desire things that are clearly impossible: spending 12 hours a day on fun projects, spending 12 hours a day on different projects, and getting enough sleep, food, and personal required time.

If you take the counter premise as valid, there is no afterlife to desire, then the counter argument becomes consistent.

0) There is no god or afterlife.
1) Mankind desires things.
2) Some of those desires are impossible/unachievable.
3) Some of mankind’s desires imply an afterlife or divinity.
4) Those specific desires are impossible/unachievable.

Likewise, one could easily see a fourth case in Lewis’s analysis. His are the fool’s proposition, if I desire a woman and this woman doesn’t satisfy me, I need a new woman; the bitter proposition, yearning for things is foolish; and the Christian proposition, my desires aim at something beyond this world, so I must be intended for things beyond this world. But one could easily say that the desire for more, improvement, greater perfection is a useful, worthwhile desire. It keeps things moving. And by seeking improvement, one improves things for the self, others, and culture.

A couple days ago I quoted the oldest joke in the English language. It’s a dick joke. As of this writing, the oldest known humorous statement is a fart joke. People haven’t really changed in the last few thousand years. Yet society certainly has, and I attribute much of that to institutional growth. Institutional growth certainly isn’t perfect, but it is a net good. Medicine is a good example: far from perfect, but I’d rather not die of dysentery even if they can’t cure rabies. Things have changed, and the abstract desire for change, specifically change for the better, is something that could support that. It would be a desire that is passed along positively, even if it could easily become negative for the bearer.

Takeaway? I don’t know. I like Lewis’s writings a great deal, but I don’t find his apologia convincing.

The Gurgeh Perpetual Motion Machine

In honor of the Culture series, I present the Gurgeh, a true perpetual motion machine.

Originally the Gurgeh was a 1% efficient power supply. It was useful in a peculiar way but not too efficient (that 1%). So after a year of work, I improved the efficiency to 2%.

Which was better, but still not hot.

After another year of labor, I improved the efficiency to 3%, an improvement of another 1%. That’s 1% a year for two years running. Good, but it still needed improvement.

Another year of toil and research passed, and I got it to 4%! That’s 1% a year again.

Perpetual motion! At 1% a year, in 96 years it will be 100% efficient! In 97 years, it will be 101% efficient! Free energy forever! Post scarcity world!

The Gurgeh, our ticket to a real, plausible, totally not space-wizard fantasy, hard scifi, post scarcity world. You can always extrapolate from any dataset forever.


The Advancement of Grammar

We forget at times that the technological revolution is being mirrored and matched in things like grammar.

Two hundred years ago, most dialogue was in huge blocks. Individual speakers were stuffed together, one after another, in single paragraphs. Dickens, admittedly writing for the paycheck, put each speaker in their own paragraph, and now this is so common that doing it any other way strikes us as odd. It’s much, much, much easier to read.

But it’s new!

Lines between paragraphs are new!

Long paragraphs are fine when called for. If Adam enters the scene wearing something peculiar, and we need a two-page paragraph of description, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But if the writer prefers to frontload a little scene setting so that later the scene can go unbothered, that frontload can usually be broken up into a bunch of little chunks. Give me a paragraph on the room layout, a paragraph on the furniture, one on where the people are sitting, and one on the view out the window. If the author thinks they need all that, go right ahead. But the breaking-up of huge text-walls into smaller features is an improvement.

I’ve been reading Mallory, and the story is better than I recall. The general flow of the writing consists of text boulders filled with heterogeneous dialogue intrusions. You would never confuse it with a modern retelling. Manutius’s invention of the comma has been mirrored by improvements in things like indentations and spacing, and these are real, significant improvements.