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The author's name is not (to pick an example from today's solstice shopping) Tarr, Judith. That's how you sort the author's name, but, you see, there actually is (honest!) a separate field for determining how you sort the author's name. No, really, it exists and everything. So there is no need to sell me a book which thinks it is by "Tarr, Judith" or "Delany, Samuel R."

Oh, and, as an extra free tip, may I remind you that typically the first letter of the author's names are capitalized, but not any other letters in their names? So it should be (again, real example from today's shopping) Gayle Rubin, not "GayLe Rubin."

Get your act together guys. This sort of BS would be unacceptable on the cover of a print book, so why do you keep doing it on the (electronic metadata) covers of your ebooks? Ebooks have been a thing for over half a decade now. It doesn't do you any favours when your merchandise has as many typos and errors in the bibliographic data as the dodgy crap available on pirate sites.
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Writing this so I can point to it in the future.

After reading for the nth time someone saying they once tried reading (insert title of mid-late Heinlein novel here) and ran away screaming, I thought I'd write up a little primer on how to discover if Heinlein wrote anything you might want to read.

Because if you pick up a highly recommended and easy to find Heinlein novel, chances are you're going to find yourself reading something written by a half-senile right-wingnut elitist libertarian nudist with an incest fetish who regularly interrupts his story to lecture you at length on his really quite peculiar ideas about sex and the virtues of polyamorous marriages. Chances are you're going put the book down and make a mental note that one should avoid Heinlein at all costs.

Which is just fine, except that not all Heinlein is like that. Early in his career, he was a left-wing socialist. Later on, he wrote a lot of books for boys that attempted to preach racial equality and tolerance. Then around 1959, he suddenly turned into an angry old man who wrote books full of ranting and lectures to the reader about politics and sex. Even then, he still managed to write some good books that weren't too annoyingly in-your-face with his politics and fetishes.

So, the question for Heinlein is not so much "what should I read first" as "what should I avoid as my first exposure to this person?" The problem is that as he got older, he got less and less able to keep his fetishes and quirks under control, and tended to let it all hang out. Which, given that he was a devoted nudist, is definitely not what you want to be exposed to when trying to get to know someone.

The last place to start with Heinlein are the brick sized novels he wrote in his dotage (after 1970). Not only are they long rambling books full of lectures about sex and group marriage and how people on welfare are parasites, but they tend not to work all that well as novels either. Some of them are fun if flawed, but you don't want to read one to find out if you're going to enjoy "books by Heinlein" or not.

The novels he wrote between 1959 and 1970 tend to be much better plotted, but they're just as full of angry lectures about sex and politics, so, likewise, not for a first go. Which means just about all of the award-winning and famous novels Heinlein wrote are not good places to start.

The place to start is with his early work. Not only are the books much shorter (so you'll be wasting less of your time if they're not for you) but they're also less angry and politically seem to come from an entirely different galaxy than the later works.

There are a few exceptions -- "Sixth Column" is a nasty example of "yellow peril" racism which he wrote on spec based on an outline by John W Campbell. The racist views in it are Campbell's, and it's best avoided. "The Puppet Masters" is a horror novel and a specimen of Cold War paranoia, kind of dated. The love interest for the hero in "The Door into Summer" is a young girl to whom he is a father figure of sorts (time travel lets him still be young when she finally gets old enough to marry), so, squick.

But in general, if you want to find out why it is that Heinlein became famous in SF before he was adopted as a patron saint of libertarians, if you want to find out why he remains so influential in the field of SF that numerous left-wing, non-libertarian authors, from Varley to Stross and Doctorow write homages and pastiches of his work, then the place to start is, first, with the short stories and novels that he wrote for magazine publication in the 30's and 40's, and second, with the novels that he wrote in the 50's (most but not all of which were written for teenage boys). Then, and only then, if you like what you've read so far, would I recommend picking up some of his famous work from the 60's (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, and Glory Road, but not Podykane of Mars or Farnham's Freehold). His later brick-sized novels are best left till last (Time Enough For Love and Friday are the stand-outs there).
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Inspired by Marissa's rant about the removal of women warriors from documentaries about World War II over on her "This is Hysteria" blog, I recently re-read "A Girl Called Judith Strick" by Judith Strick Dribben (originally published in 1970 and now out of print, although Amazon currently has used inexpensive used copies available).

This is an unusual Holocaust memoir, in that only a fraction of it is concerned with the author's ordeal in the Nazi extermination machine. The book has 4 parts of roughly equal length. Part 1 ("Hardening Steel") follows Judith's career in the Polish/Ukrainian partisan resistance following the German invasion of Eastern Poland. Part 2 ("The Big Joke") covers her arrest and time as a prisoner of the Gestapo; in part 3 ("In the Shadow of the Chimneys"), she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then eventually to a munitions factory as a slave. Part 4 ("The Homecoming") deals with her post-war career, first in the Soviet army, and then in Palestine, first as a member of the Negev (guerrilla fighters against the British colonial regime), then as a soldier in the Israeli army, and finally as a member of a kibbutz. And she did all of that in a space of only about 12 years. she had an eventful life, to say the least )

Once Israel became a state, she joined the Israeli army. At this point, the last 60 pages of the book, I found myself reading with a deeply divided mind, because I know that the war against the Arabs that she talks about was a war of conquest and an exercise in ethnic cleansing. Her racism, her inability to see how she was applying a double standard, and so forth were quite frustrating.

On the other hand, it was very interesting to read about her career in the Israeli army, how she constantly had to push back against attempts to assign her to gender-appropriate non-combat roles. Because her brother had been in the artillery, she demanded admission to artillery training, becoming the first woman to do so. Then, when she passed the course successfully and joined an artillery unit, they assigned her to administrative duties, and so she enrolled in intelligence training, because that would ensure that she would be assigned to combat duties.

The final chapters deals with her life after the army, on the kibbutz, where she met her future husband. All in all, it's a fascinating read, and very much recommended if you are interested in biographies of woman warriors or of Holocaust survivors.
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Robert Heinlein is one of those authors who is sadly not being allowed to die - his estate keeps digging up old manuscripts out of the extensive archives he donated to UC Santa Cruz and publishing them. Some of the results have been interesting (pieces that had never been reprinted since their original magazine publication, like "A Tenderfoot in Space"), and some have been, well, unfortunate.

The most recent revivified Heinlein is Spider Robinson's 2006 novel, Variable Star, which was based on a story outline by Heinlein.

Be warned: despite the claims on the cover, which gives Heinlein top billing, Variable Star is a Spider Robinson novel through and through. Robinson, for those who haven't read him before, is a very distinct writer with a limited range -- all of his work is more or less similar in style and tone, so if you like what he does in one book, you will enjoy his other books; if you don't, you won't. And if you're like me, you'll start out enjoying his stories and then, after a while, start to find his writerly tics (which don't really vary) grating and irritating.

Rather than review Variable Star, I want to talk about the original story outline (working title "The Star Clock") by Heinlein which Robinson used. The outline is available in PDF from the Heinlein Archives for $2. It is bundled with a bunch of other stuff in the collection called "Story Ideas, part 1", file number WRTG201a-01.*

While Heinlein never turned the outline into a novel himself, he did did not abandon it as the marketing for Variable Star would imply. Rather, he took one core idea (near-light speed travel as a form of time travel into the future) and used it as the basis for Time For the Stars. Then he took the other core idea (poor boy suddenly finds himself dealing with a family more wealthy and powerful than most governments) and incorporated it into Citizen of the Galaxy. Finally he took the last idea from the outline (boy and girl seemingly separated by one-way time travel into the future discover that their ages are not incompatible after all because they've both traveled forward), and used it in The Door Into Summer.

Robinson talks in the afterword to Variable Star that the outline he had to work with was only seven pages long, with page 8 missing. The version in the archive is complete, so the last page must have gone astray somewhere between UCSC and Robinson's desk.

Extensive Googling has not turned up anyone else talking about this outline in specific terms, so here goes. Cut for length and boringness to those who don't care about Heinlein )

For those curious, Robinson's novel is extremely faithful to the first five pages of the outline (up to the point where Joel leaves on the starship). He used few of the brainstorming ideas Heinlein put in page 6 (the trip), and ignored page 7 (Joel's return to Earth) completely (and he didn't have page 8, as explained in his afterword).

Sadly, by staying so faithful to the initial outline, then diverging so widely from it, Robinson ended up with a book that egregiously violates the Chekov's Gun rule - the ending of Variable Star comes from nowhere, with no buildup or foreshadowing, while the beginning of it puts a good many plot threads in motion that are discarded abruptly without resolution to make way for the ending.

* If you buy this collection, you get the following in addition to the Star Clock outline: Numerous newspaper and magazine clippings that Heinlein evidently found evocative; two articles by Jerry Pournelle (one MS, one journal reprint); some handwritten pages that I did not try to decipher; 19 pages of worldbuilding notes for "A Martian named Smith" aka Stranger in a Strange Land from 1949; two typed letters, one to "Sarge" (dec 1963), and one (missing the first page, probably mid 60's also) to "Buz," both talking about race relations.
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Being a review of William Patterson's "Robert A. Heinlein In dialogue with his century: Vol 1, Learning curve."

I didn't have high expectations for this book -- after reading Jo Walton's critique of its poor fact-checking (and saw the author arguing with the reviewer in the comments of that post, which did not leave me a good impression of him), I knew it wasn't going to be great. Sadly, it failed to even be good. TL:DR version: incredibly poor scholarship is incredibly poor )

These failings aren't academic esoterica, but very basic issues of scholarship that anyone trying to write a serious biography really needs to have mastered. And they wouldn't stand out so much if the biography was an interesting and insightful account of Heinlein's life... but it isn't. TL:DR version: it's somehow simultaneously boringly overlong and breezily superficial )

Right from the first page of the introduction, we learn that this book is going to be hagiographical to a fault, when Patterson, with a straight face, claims that the day Heinlein died was comparable to such events as the Challenger disaster, the Kennedy assassination, or September 11, 2001.

As best I can tell, the only reason it was not rejected by the publisher is that Heinlein has a massive following of rabid fans who do see him as a saint, if not a god, and that it is an "authorized" biography that benefited from extensive interviews with Mrs Heinlein before her death.

As a massive compilation of notes and source materials for a biography, this book is great. As a biography, it's piss poor. If you are a Heinlein fan and want to know the story of his life, do your wallet a favour and check it out from the library -- and then be prepared to do a lot of skimming.
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I enjoyed the first two-thirds of The Omnivore's Dilemma. The last third had some good bits in it, and some bits that I just skipped completely. Which was pretty much the case with the previous Pollan book I read, The Botany of Desire.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talked about four economic plants not in terms of what humans got out of them, but in terms of how the plants have evolved in order to cause humans to spread their seeds throughout the world. I enjoyed the book until I got to the part devoted to cannabis, in which Pollan ignored the 8,000+ year history of cannabis cultivation (for rope and fabric and food) and focused exclusively on the plant's use as a drug in the late 20th century, and how the plant was transforming in the US and Europe from a field weed into an indoor hydroponics plant adapted to be grown under artificial lights. All because of Pollan's conceit that he was not discussing four plants, but rather four human desires that the plants were exploiting (Cannabis being "intoxication" or some such).

At that point, I found myself wondering how Pollan might have truncated or distorted the history of the other plants he talked about to shoehorn them into his artificial schema of desires, and I put the book aside unfinished.

In Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan is once again creating an elaborate and rather artificial schema to compare U.S. factory farming to U.S. organic farming, and to contrast the mainstream way of food in the U.S. to the "slow food" movement. In each section, he traces a specific type of food from its origins as a crop to its final incarnation as a meal that he and his family/friends eat.

The section on factory farming ends with a meal at McDonald's; the section on organic farming has two meals, one made up of faux-organic food grown factory-style by the organic arms of big agribusiness companies and purchased at a chain health food store, the other made up of locally grown, pasture-raised meat and eggs and farmer's market veggies; and the final section of the book details Pollan's own hunting of pigs, gathering of mushrooms and gardening of veggies for a sort of "extreme slow-food" meal. I found the narcissism of the last part quite boring and skipped a lot, but there were some interesting bits in there about mushrooms and about the ethics of eating meat.

Along the way, I learned a great deal about modern factory farming and big agribusiness in the US today - the book filled in a lot of context, background, and missing pieces that other books I've read on the same subject (Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Cook's Diet for a Dead Planet, Nestle's Food Politics) left out due to their narrower focus.

Overall, I think Pollan is really just too full of himself for me to actually enjoy his books wholeheartedly. But this time, he picked topics that I was already seriously interested in (factory farming and processed foods, and how they are destroying the world and us), and provided a lot of interesting information, especially a global overview, that I had not encountered previously. So I'm glad I read the book, even if I didn't fully enjoy it. And while I may regret this later, I have added Pollan's In Defence of Food to my want list.Read more... )
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Susan Faludi's "The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America" is a brilliant book with an annoying flaw.

Faludi opens by noting that even as late as 2007 when she finished the book, "Virtually no film, television drama, play, or novel on 9/11 had begun to plumb what the trauma meant for our national psyche. Slavishly literal reenactments of the physical attack... or unrepresentative tales of triumphal rescue at ground zero seemed all the national imagination could handle." She talks a great deal about "we" in following pages of her preface: "Nothing like this had ever happened before, so we didn't know how to assimilate the experience. And yet, in the weeks and months to follow, we kept rummaging through the past to make sense of the disaster, as if the trauma of 9/11 had stirred some distant memory, reminded us of something disturbingly familiar." And further: "allusions to Pearl Harbour provided no traction, and we soon turned our attention to another chapter in U.S. history," the Cold War, where, in the fall of 2001, with pundits invoking John Wayne and TV airing re-runs of all of Wayne's western films, "we reacted to our trauma, in other words, not by interrogating it but by cocooning it in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom's childhood."

Obviously, of course, Faludi suffers from the typical American problem of forgetting that Americans are not the only "we" in the world. But that's not really the problem here. The problem, and the flaw, is that despite her preface, Faludi isn't really writing about "we Americans" but rather, and only, about "we journalists, pundits, politicians, and other members of the Establishment." Which is the typical, self-centred and arrogant stance of most journalists, of course, but is an astonishing lapse from a feminist left-wing writer who has shown in the past that she knows better (more about why I think Faludi falls into making this mistake later). The result is a fascinating and revealing book about the mythical fantasy that the U.S. media and the U.S. establishment tried to impose on the nation's social fabric in the aftermath of 9/11, but it isn't a book about what Americans thought of 9/11 or how they reacted to it. Nor, aside from a few early and brief mentions of statistics that refute the so-called trends being claimed by various journalists, is it even a book that tries to compare the establishment's response to the attacks to the responses of ordinary people.

Many's the time since September 2001 when I have read something in the news about the U.S. and said to [livejournal.com profile] morgan_dhu, "they've all gone barking mad down there." And I know many of my e-friends in the U.S., and many of the U.S.-based bloggers that I read, were having very similar responses to the parade of craziness that the establishment media and political leaders were putting on. Faludi would have written a much better book, I think, if she had gone beyond the mainstream and establishment media and looked at opinion surveys, at left-wing blogs, at all the various non-establishment voices out there, and what they had to say about 9/11 and about the establishment's campaign of myth-making.

Despite this flaw, I still found the book utterly fascinating. It's a damn good book, if you accept the limits of what it tries to do. Read more... )
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I've just finished "James Tiptree, Jr: the double life of Alice B Sheldon," by Julie Phillips. It's a terrific book, which tells a very sad story.

It's a biography, though, and aside from speculating the Alice suffered from a mild form of bipolar disorder (where the highs stop short of paranoid mania, but the lows as just as lethally low), the author avoids drawing conclusions about the social sources of Alli's emotional troubles and torments. So let's do that, shall we?

Alice Sheldon was an example of the tragic kind of person best described as an "intense artist": lots of "emo," lots of sturm und drang, plus setting impossibly high standards for oneself. She desperately wanted to paint, to write masterpieces... but every time she set brush to canvas or pen to paper, the result wasn't as good as the idea in her head, and fell far short of her exacting standards of accomplishment, so she gave up on painting, and gave up on writing, too, until late in life she found that she could write by pretending to herself that it was only SF, it wasn't serious, it wasn't Literature or Her Life's Work, and what's more, she wasn't writing it anyway, it was the work of her male alter ego, a mask she wore that enabled her to write without worrying about whether what she wrote was good enough.

She was also, by orientation, a stone butch lesbian, a woman who desired women but didn't feel comfortable being a woman herself. The sort of butch who, today, would at least consider taking testosterone and transitioning to male:

My god in so far as I am an artist I can wish for women beautiful women women women with soft asses (arses to you) and breasts goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy. [p. 85, from a note probably scribbled while drunk]


And here is the tragedy: she was born to wealthy parents who (when they weren't taking her with them on African safaris) brought her up as a high society girl in the 20's and 30's. High society, as in conspicuous consumption wedded to noblesse oblige; for a woman, it meant (and still means, for some) wearing silk gloves while handing out charity, total selflessness and self-sacrifice without ever dropping the mask of gentility and reserve.

And I think it was that total mismatch, between her reserved, genteel high society upbringing, and her "intense artist" personality, between the extremely restrictive role she had to play as a debutante and socialite, and her inner nature as a queer: this mismatch was, I think, what prevented her from ever claiming her writerly voice in her own person. Once she started writing as Tiptree, that same upbringing made it impossible for her to drop the facade and tell the truth. Tiptree could acknowlege his pain, his anger, and talk about them, at least a little, in correspondence; could access them, and incorporate them into stories. Alli Sheldon could not; she had to stay on her pedestal, keep her gloves on while giving herself to others until she had nothing left.

So I guess the tragedy of Alice Sheldon, from one side, is the tragedy of someone who imbibed the lessons of femininity too well. And from the other side, the tragedy of all women brought up in the culture of high society, of debutantes and evening gown charity balls.

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