Friday, October 15, 2021

cushlebrity woofylikey of the day

Come with me, if you will, as we continue our magical journey into the ever more esoteric realms of Things That Sort Of Look A Bit Like Each Other. We've done people, obviously, but also trees, religious buildings, cuddly toys, large Arctic islands, cartoon rabbits and tubes of tablets. In that vein, here's a cushion my wife bought the other day. It's fun and funky as an ornament but not actually very comfortable to lean on as it's rather tickly. Furthermore I was immediately struck by its resemblance to one of those dreadlocked Hungarian Puli dogs that look like some sort of high-maintenance grooming nightmare. I suspect if you took one of those, ripped its head and legs off (you might want to put an old sheet or some newspaper down first), disembowelled it and then stuffed it you would arrive at something that was a) more comfortable to lean on, b) cheaper to feed and c) quieter. 
On the other hand the RSPCA might be popping round for a word.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

the last book I read

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Hardest game in the world, the old art restoration game. I mean, you want to avoid the obvious atrocities like this, but there are more subtle and tricky considerations to grapple with. Can we get the layer of dirty and darkened varnish off, and maybe replace it with a new protective layer, without damaging the paint? If the artist himself made repairs at a later date, are they to be preserved, or removed in search of the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean? Does anybody really love anybody anyway

Fortunately experienced and competent art restorers exist, like for instance Julia, who, as we meet her here in Madrid, has just acquired an interesting work to spruce up: The Game of Chess, a 15th-century work by Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. Not just interesting in its subject matter - two Flemish gentlemen playing chess, based on real people, one of whom, intriguingly, had been dead for two years at the time the painting was done - but also because of what Julia finds when she gets the painting X-rayed (presumably part of the standard pre-restoration assessment process) and receives the results. Those results show that near the bottom of the painting, concealed by a subsequent layer of paint, are some words. Those words are "Quis necavit equitem?", or "Who killed the knight?".

You'll be ahead of me here, so: obviously a knight is a chess piece, and indeed one of the players has a white knight in his hand which he has evidently just taken from the board. But there is more, as there always is, in books longer than about half-a-dozen pages anyway: the player using the black pieces, Roger de Arras, is also "a knight" (the other guy is a nobleman of some sort) and, as we already know, had died a couple of years before the painting was created, after a brief but unpleasant argument with a crossbow bolt on a castle battlement. So does the inscription provide a clue to finding Roger's killer?

Julia and her old friend and art collector César engage the services of a local chess prodigy, Muñoz, to try and retrace the course of the chess game up to the climactic point captured in the painting, and of art historian (and, just to complicate things slightly, her ex-lover) Álvaro to dig into the painting's history and that of the people portrayed within it (the two men already mentioned plus the nobleman's wife, sitting demurely at a window watching the progress of the chess match). No sooner have they done this than Álvaro turns up dead in his shower, apparently having slipped and accidentally viciously bashed the back of his head in on the edge of the bath. Shortly afterwards Julia receives a small card, left by the entrance to her apartment, which contains some possible chess moves for extending the game portrayed in the painting. Is this some sort of coded warning to Julia? Is Álvaro's death connected? Is some chess-obsessed serial killer about to go on a rampage? But who? And why?

One possible motive might be to establish some public notoriety around the painting and thereby push up its value, in which case there are a few possible suspects: the painting's owner, Don Manuel Belmonte, his daughter Lola, Julia's friend and art dealer Menchu, her toy-boy lover Max, and oily auctioneer Paco Montegrifo. Menchu takes herself out of the running early doors by being murdered, and further cards containing further chess moves continue to arrive, with Muñoz keeping track of the current game position and developing a healthy respect for his adversary's chess skills (though not so much his penchant for actual murder). Hardest game in the world, the old chess game

Eventually Muñoz manages to work out the identity of the serial-killing chess enthusiast, and it turns out to be someone we already know, who unexpectedly turns out to have a chess-playing past, ended by the chastening experience of losing to a lesser player. Lying dormant for many years, the chess-playing bug (and associated killing frenzy) was rekindled by exposure to The Game of Chess

None of this really makes any sense, of course, but the same can be said for most detective novels. And while the unravelling of the mystery here is a lot of fun (even if, as usual with these things, the revelation doesn't really live up to the build-up), the main enjoyment comes from the associated detail about art and the analysis of the chess moves, both leading up to and following the capture of the white knight portrayed in the painting. It's the second book in this series to feature chess as a major plot point, The Queen's Gambit being the other. Art and painting also feature prominently, and I'd have had to look up some of the technical terms like craquelure if I hadn't already encountered them in What's Bred In The Bone

The Flanders Panel was made into a film called Uncovered in 1994, starring the lovely Kate Beckinsale as Julia. The linked trailer provides just the suggestion of some sexy sexy times that were absent from the book (it also seems to have relocated it to Barcelona). Despite the disappointingly low sexy sexy times quotient in the book I enjoyed it greatly; like The Queen's Gambit it's perhaps debatable how enjoyable you would find it if you had no chess background whatsoever. I'm trying to imagine how enjoyable I would find a book whose plot revolved around, I dunno, go or halma or something. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

the last book I read

Eternity by Greg Bear.

Strap yourselves into your ergonomically-moulded space-chair-o-pod, take a slurp of your rehydrated Soylent Green and let's recap at near-relativistic speed the events of Eon, to which Eternity is a sequel: at some point in the early 21st century, Russia and the USA are on the brink of nuclear war. As if to distract everyone's attention, a huge asteroid suddenly materialises in orbit around Earth and everyone falls over each other to get an expedition out to it. When they arrive they discover that it is hollow, clearly previously inhabited but now empty, and that the last of its seven internal chambers contains a gateway to a long, tubular mini-universe that appears to be of infinite length. Eventually it becomes clear that this object is from the future of our universe, or maybe just one of many possible futures. But where has everyone gone?

Down the tube, it turns out, via some conveniently hand-wavey science that allows large city-sized craft to travel at enormous speed down it with minimal energy expenditure, while the laws of thermodynamics light up a cigar and look the other way. Gateways can also be opened along what people come to call the Way, leading to other parts of the universe, or maybe other universes, or maybe just varied possible future versions of the same universe. But gateways are two-way things and a ruthless alien force, the Jarts, gain entry to the Way and really go to town fucking everyone's shit up, including opening a gateway into the heart of a star. To avoid everyone being incinerated by a nasty miasma of incandescent plasma, one party of current and future humans fires off down the tube at gargantuan speed to who knows where while the rest retreat back to the asteroid and sever the connection with the Way. 

And so here we are. As Eternity starts several plot strands featuring major characters from the previous book are picked up, including maverick physics whiz-kid Patricia Vasquez, escaping from the Way through a gateway to what she hoped was Earth but turned out to be a diverged future Earth where Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and his Macedonian culture continued to dominate. With no way (or indeed Way) back to her own world she lives to a ripely irascible old age, passing on some previously-unknown technology to the inhabitants and in particular a love of science and general feistiness to her granddaughter Rhita.

Meanwhile administrator and general voice of reason Garry Lanier is down on the real Earth overseeing aspects of its recovery after the continent-scouring nuclear war that occurred in the first book. Lots of this takes place in New Zealand, presumably because this escaped being a fiery radioactive hellscape, unlike the northern hemisphere continents. On taking a break from the old administering and going for a nature hike one day Lanier is somewhat startled to meet Pavel Mirsky, a former colleague who had been in the party that scooted off down the Way in the opposite direction at the end of the first book and whose presence here is therefore Literally Impossible. So, Pavel, where have you been? Well, Garry, I'm glad you asked - I've been to the End Of Time Itself and I have now returned to tell you about it. I may have to summarise some sections.

Meanwhile Olmy, agent of the Hexamon (the future-human civilisation that the current humans encountered down the Way) is on the asteroid (generally known as Thistledown) doing some strictly unauthorised research into a captured Jart whose body and backed-up mental state are stored in a top-secret vault in one of the chambers (backing up mental states to external storage for reconstitution into other bodies being a totally commonplace thing). Since everyone who had plugged themselves into the downloaded Jart mind-state so far has died, Olmy constructs an elaborate series of failsafes before downloading it into an implant in his own brain. But, you know, we can all see what's going to happen there.

Rhita Vaskayza (according to the spelling of Gaia, her alternative future Earth) has grown up into an inquisitive young woman to whom her now-deceased grandmother has bequeathed a lot of mysterious science-y artefacts. Rhita uses these to locate an active gateway into the Way at a distant location in "Nordic Rhus" (probably Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan) and gets permission to get an expedition together to try and find it. But, again, gateways allow entry and exit, and no sooner has Rhita located the gateway and opened it than a swarm of Jarts appears. Nice planet: we'll take it! Rhita and her expedition are taken through the gateway, extensively probed and hooked up to the Jart mind-grid for further observation.

Meanwhile, Pavel Mirsky has a message from [echoey voice] Beyond Time for the humans on Earth and on Thistledown: the Way must be destroyed. As magnificent a testament to human ingenuity as it is, it turns out to be like a tapeworm in the belly of the universe which will prevent some mysterious transcendent end-of-2001 shit from happening gazillions of years into the future. There are factions who have been campaigning for the re-opening of the Way anyway so this bit is agreed to, but once this is done and a hostile (presumably Jart) energy beam zaps out and kills a few people the second part (i.e. initiating the Way's destruction) is quickly agreed to as well.

Olmy's Jart, who has, wholly predictably, taken over all his key brain functions and is basically driving him around like a freakin' go-kart, proves an unexpected ally here, fashioning a hey-don't-shoot message for transmission down the Way to prevent further unpleasantness. Eventually the protagonists have to make the same sort of choices as at the end of the first book: retreat to Earth to live out their lives, take a gateway to another world, or try to outrun the wave of destruction down the Way to the end of time itself.

There are some books, including a few on this list (The Ionian Mission would be an obvious example, as I suppose would Tears Of The Giraffe and Mortal Causes), which are strictly part of a series but where it's not essential to have read all a particular book's predecessors before picking it up. Not so here, as I can't see how any of this would be comprehensible without having first read Eon. I did that in the late-1980s and bought this book immediately afterwards, before unexpectedly then leaving it over 30 years before reading it. To be honest a slightly shorter gap between the books might be better, just to have the events of Eon a bit fresher in the mind. 

One obvious advantage of a sequel to a gnarly hard sci-fi book is that you can skip some of the more substantial chunks of world-building exposition that bogged down some of Eon and just launch straight into the story in an already-built universe. In that sense Eternity is a more exciting, event-filled book than Eon, each of the several parallel strands having plenty to keep the reader interested.

One of the odd things about Eternity is how similar some aspects of it are to the work of Iain M Banks - there's the enthusiasm for planetary-scale engineering, but also some of the concepts around longevity-enhancement by constantly backing-up your mind-state and re-loading it into a series of youthful physical substrates. This also provides a means of ensuring your continued survival should you unexpectedly be killed falling off an asteroid or being cut in half by a space laser. The concept of "subliming" that features in some of the Culture novels sounds quite close to what Pavel Mirsky undergoes here as well. And the series of occasionally nightmarish simulations that Rhita's uploaded consciousness is subjected to by the Jarts is not dissimilar to the Hells from Surface Detail. The Jarts themselves are a bit like the Borg, existing only to joylessly assimilate other planets and secure their knowledge for some ill-defined perfected future version of themselves. Jart for Jart's sake, you might say.

The obvious other point of comparison is with Olaf Stapledon for attempting to encompass the entirety of space and time in a single book. Bear does at least slow down enough to feature some named characters and even make us care about them, a bit. On that subject, what purpose is served by having the Way's principal engineer, Konrad Korzenowski, carry the same name as Joseph Conrad I am not sure, but it can't be a coincidence. It's doubly hard to know whether the omission of the "i" from "Korzeniowski" was intentional, because my copy of Eternity is one of the most poorly-proofread books (from an actual non-vanity publisher, anyway) I've ever read. Subsequent editions may have ironed out some of the wrinkles but there are lot of mistakes and misspellings here (examples below). I recall mentioning the same thing with The Falls back in the early days of this blog; the situation here is, if anything, worse. 

Despite that, and despite lukewarm reviews in some quarters I really enjoyed this; my ongoing quest to read all the Culture novels aside, hard sci-fi is a genre I rarely dabble with so it's fun to dip a toe in occasionally. There is a third book in the series, Legacy, but this appears to be a loosely-linked prequel (to the extent that these terms have any meaning with all the looping time-travel going on) so I suspect this is where I'll leave it.