More real than real

I started Reamde the other day; it’s my official end-of-semester treat. After not too many pages, I started thinking “Gee, I have no interest in WoW, but I kinda wish T’Rain was real.” Then I recalled that it does exist, for all intents and purposes, and is called EVE, and I specifically eschewed EVE because it sounded suspiciously like work.

It is perhaps worth noting that The Baroque Cycle made me regret my lack of insight into and attention to calculus. I had taken it for two semesters my freshman year—with a professor I thought was pretty good, and who was in fact the reason some math folks picked that major—so this wasn’t a question of lack of exposure. I didn’t actually want to be a mathematician, any more than I want to be a hardcore gamer. But Stephenson hits a good balance of story and character. The stories are about ideas (that SF cliché); the characters archetypes (more importantly, personally familiar archetypes) with enough detail to seem individual and plausible, but not so much that they actually become the focus of the book. The line between character and narrator is thin; I’ve never worried about any of Stephenson’s characters, but I like going along for the ride.

The point? Fiction as content delivery device and/or social hack. It’s not an original idea—it is, in fact, getting talked about a fair bit of late, especially in the context of character diversity in YA*—but I’ve been thinking about it more of late. A while back I talked about the usefulness† of fiction, and this is another example.

* It’s sort of funny. My impression of random online discussions was that they used to be pretty firmly anti-“agenda” in writing, with a focus on art rather than craft and an assumption that a compromised origin (e.g. writing for pay or to advance a particular cause) would lead to an inferior product. Now authors are being more openly political. Maybe it’s the technology: it’s easier, and often expected, to be in touch with the (real and potential) fan base; authors who want to say something other than “wrote 500 words, fed the cat” will necessarily range farther afield into personal and political topics; social media has encouraged a sense of openness, and privacy has become a matter of performance.

† In my head “useful” and “worthwhile” are different animals. The latter is more of an art-for-art’s-sake sort of thing (but without troubling over distinctions between “art,” “Art,” “craft,” etc.) A book doesn’t have to justify its existence: somebody invested the effort to write it, somebody read it and took away something, and those things are worthwhile. (So yes, even “The Eye of Argon” is a worthwhile human endeavor.) Usefulness is more slippery and, therefore, a bit more interesting to gabble on about in this forum. (And come to think of it, one could make an argument for the usefulness of “The Eye of Argon,” too….)


Pick-your-own-class-reading: The Book of Ash

Originally I was planning to read and report on Archive Fever, because it just seems like I should. But the copy I requested through the library didn’t materialize, and I thought there was a reasonable chance that while reading I’d just want to stab somebody.

So instead I picked a book where a lot of people get stabbed.

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A case study in archival practice: The Algebraist

The Algebraist

This summer I read an excellent case study about archival practices: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks.

The case study centered upon the discovery of an appendix to the first volume of a work of poetry entitled The Algebraist. Said appendix detailed the existence of a Transform (included in a subsequent volume) providing the location of wormhole portals in relation to gas giants included in the Dweller List (a widely circulated work, popularly deemed apocryphal). Given the high informational value of the material in question, significant sections of the case study dealt with the political and military maneuvers of various stakeholders: Fassin Taak, who initially acquired material related to the Transform and was later tasked with follow up research; the catalogers who initially identified the significance of the appendix; the various Mercatoria officials who dispatched Fassin Taak; and Valseir, the Dweller who donated the information.

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“Huge and menacing aqua-dogs, ready to go fetch Madagascar”

Gog and Magog

Gog and Magog (Psalter Map detail)

I’m only a couple chapters into The Island of Lost Maps, and I find myself simply floating along from one well-timed diversion to the next, smiling at some delightful turns of phrase (like the post title, referring to the imaginary creatures illustrating maps; another favorite is “the hellish spawn of Big Bird’s one-night stand with Jaws”). Harvey makes a virtue out of necessity: lacking the cooperation of his purported subject, Gilbert Bland, Jr., he is not restricted to ferreting out the “truth” (psychological or methodological) of the crimes in question. His map of Bland is in the mold of the medieval mappae mundi, diagrams of legends and perceptions and morality rather than objective geographic information. The comparison unfolds with such a practiced inevitability that I wonder how doggedly Harvey pursued Bland as a source, and how disappointed he was to be rebuffed. After all, flesh-eating denizens of Gog and Magog are much more interesting than anything in the vicinity of the Caspian. How could the prosaic life of a habitual criminal compare to a story woven around tantalizing details and the author’s own obsession?

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Outsider literature

In Orca, Steven Brust suggests archival work as an employment alternative for those transitioning from the criminal management and murder-for-hire sectors:

In the course of my career, Kiera, I’ve done a few odd things here and there. I mean, there was the time I spent half a day under a pile of refuse because it was the only place to hide. There was the time I took a job selling fish in the market. Once I ended up impersonating a corporal in the Imperial Guard and had to arrest someone for creating a disturbance in a public place. But I hope I never have to spend another week going through a thousand or more years’ worth of an old lady’s private papers and letters, just to find the name of her landlord, so I could sweet-talk, threaten, or intimidate him into letting her stay on the land, so she’d be willing to cure—Oh, skip it. It was a long week, and it was odd finding bits of nine-hundred-year-old love letters, or scraps of advice on curing hypothermia, or how to tell if an ingrown toenail is the result of a curse.

I spent about fourteen hours a day grabbing a crate, going through the papers in it, arranging them neatly, then bringing the crate back up to the attic and setting it in the stack of those I’d finished while getting another. I discovered to my surprise that it was curiously satisfying work, and that I was going to be disappointed when I found what I was looking for and would have to leave the rest of the papers unsorted.

Tech, race, and gender: more thoughts on Fundraising the Dead

Fundraising the Dead was primarily assigned (I assume) for setting and plot: a Philadelphia cultural institution with the serial numbers filed off, and a series of thefts from the aforementioned institution. Plotwise, an inside job made easier by a backlog of materials and multiple cataloging systems rings true. Some details of Nell’s workplace remind me of my time at the APS. Scary elevator, check. Digitization project, check.

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Weekly readings: money, memory, mayhem

The Philadelphia and Detroit job postings serve as a reminder that public history positions in a competitive job market demand depth of expertise (an education, training, and experience trifecta) and also a willingness to shoulder (sometimes literally—up to 40 lbs.) a broad range of tasks. The less-than-stellar salaries and high staff turnover are often mentioned in Fundraising the Dead.1 One might think that a professor assigning these particular readings wishes to discourage students from pursuing public history careers…except for frequent references to the rewarding aspects of such work.2

The unfolding Landau/Savedoff case highlights the security issues fictionalized in Fundraising the Dead. Visitors walking off with documents is (one of) any institution’s nightmares, and the scope of the Maryland Historical Society’s loss (and the number of other institutions visited by, and potentially victims of, the accused) is significant. Connolly explores the dynamics of an inside job: ease of access, the legal and public relations issues that discourage information sharing and the informal networks that facilitate it, and a host of systemic and financial barriers to improving the security of cultural institutions.

In the real life and fictional scenarios, the human element both permitted the initial thefts and also identified the perpetrators.3 Security procedures may be stymied by a knowledgeable insider or an outsider skillfully wielding a clipboard or cupcakes.4 But individuals—a document dealer, an archivist, a fundraiser, a board member—are capable of detecting patterns and deploying their personal and professional networks to gather information. Mere dedication to one’s institution is not sufficient to protect it. But dedication is a strong motivation for vigilance, and that is where any effective security system begins.

1. See for example pages 30, 103.
2. See for example Connolly, 28, 272.
3. Confessed, in Connolly, 319, and charged in Gorenstein.
4. Varley, Steel Beach, 257 and The Atlantic Wire.

On the subject of socially accepted violence

Fiction is a great way to get into someone else’s head. If one is concerned with finding usefulness in all things, then that is surely a useful feature of fiction. As someone who is capable of critiquing usefulness, but also perfectly content in the knowledge that useless things may exist, I primarily consider this an entertaining feature of fiction.

While thinking about socially accepted (even approved) violence, I was reminded of a 1689 scene in The Confusion:

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Bad real estate deals

Stopping at Slowyear

Stopping at Slowyear a science fictional “bad real estate deal.”* The titular planet has years-long seasons; summer and winter are brutal. The population relocates to cramped underground quarters and must rebuild all surface structures every spring. Worse, there’s a native disease that leads to high child mortality rates and premature death.

Slowyear is not, at first glance, that much worse a deal than other options for the crew of the Nordvik. The planets visited by the tramp freighter grow progressively less appealing, even as shipboard life becomes more unbearable; physically and socially constrictive living conditions are standard on the ship. I rather like that setup, which draws parallels between the situation on the freighter and the planet. I like the assertions that it’s tough to live in environments—natural or artificial—where one’s species did not evolve, and that public health issues matter, even as they become transparent to the public in question. Before it takes a gothic turn at the end, the story deals, in part, with the nuts-and-bolts implications of the scenario. That’s one of the raison d’etres of science fiction, hard or soft, in various media.

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Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis


Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are (is) picking up awards, which is not particularly surprising. She is a (deservedly) big name in the field, and it’s been a while since she released a new book. This one is very definitely a two-volume book, with the two halves separated for purely physical reasons and released within the same calendar year. While some fat could have been trimmed, the fat is a large part of the appeal. Willis does dysfunctional office comedy well, and in order to do that sort of thing properly you need repetitive scenes that make the characters want to tear their hair out. A largely black-humor-free dysfunctional office comedy in the midst of the Blitz is challenging* but at least for great swaths of the books it works.

The schtick in these books (as in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and “Fire Watch”) is that time travel exists in the mid-twenty-first century, and it’s in the hands of the Oxford history department. Hilarity ensues.

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