23 June 2017

Chasing the Phoenix

A review of Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick (Tor Books, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone

Chasing the Phoenix is set in a post-apocalyptic future, which is littered with the detritus of its high-tech past. China, the geographical location of the events in the novel, has degenerated into a network of warring states.

Enter the central characters – a pair of con men (or more accurately one con man and a con dog). The man is Aubrey Darger, every inch the English gentleman, lover of Victoriana, and admirer of Churchill. His sidekick is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus to his friends), a bipedal genetically engineered dog possessed of human intelligence and canine senses. In spite of being thoroughly amoral, Darger and Surplus are a pair of likeable rogues on a par with Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen or Michael Chabon’s Zelikman and Amram.

The story begins with Surplus arriving in the city of Brocade, dressed as a Mongolian shaman, and carrying the corpse of his companion Darger on the back of a yak (later passed off as the sacred yak of Shiliin Bogd Mountain). He is seeking the Infallible Physician who alone can restore Darger to life. In Brocade, he falls in with Capable Servant who leads him to the home of Bright Pearl, granddaughter of the Infallible Physician. She, it seems, has inherited his library and much of his skill. After some persuasion, Darger is duly restored.

A few days later, Darger and Surplus are summoned to attend the Hidden King, monarch of the Abundant Kingdom and would-be emperor of a reunited China. Seeing the prospect of great wealth, they allow themselves to be pressed into service to aid the Hidden King reunite the warring states.

Darger renames himself the Perfect Strategist. In that guise, he masterminds a series of outrageous and increasingly improbable victories against superior forces. However, in order to placate hostile courtiers, he must attempt to satisfy their increasingly contradictory demands, mostly of a matchmaking nature.

Meanwhile Surplus takes on the persona of the Noble Dog Warrior and engages the services of a band of outlaws as a mercenary company under his command. With his Dog Pack and their varied nefarious skills, Surplus aids and abets Darger in his triumphs both on and off the battlefield.

As victory becomes more and more likely, it becomes apparent to our heroes that the Hidden King is quite mad. In fact, he is a pyromaniac intent upon destroying himself and the city of North (formerly Beijing) in a thermonuclear explosion. He apparently believes that his alchemical marriage to the weapon (his Phoenix Bride) in this fashion will result in his deification.

Determined not to be vaporized alongside their employer, Darger and Surplus hatch a plot to assassinate the Hidden King and replace him with Capable Servant. As they put their plan into action, the plot begins to twist in a dramatic way. But Swanwick has not simply introduced a deus ex machina, nor is it merely a last-minute plot device to cut the Gordian knot created by Darger’s increasingly complicated and desperate machinations. Rather, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that from the outset our heroes have been manipulated by forces that have long worked behind the scenes for the reunification of China.

The warring states are successfully reunited. Darger and Surplus are lavishly thanked for their contribution to this outcome. They are then less than lavishly rewarded and unceremoniously deported. And the novel ends with them wondering about their destination (and presumably their next scam).

I was intrigued by Swanwick’s use of language in the novel, particularly his dialogue. In sharp contrast to a lot of recent science fiction and fantasy, at times there is a studied formality about it. Elevated is the only word to describe the language of a mechanic who speaks of ‘chastising’ an apprentice. And yet, the characters can at times slip into much less formal mode as if they are briefly setting aside a public role.

The impression that most of the characters in the novel are playing a public role is reinforced by the naming convention used in this post-apocalyptic China. Everyone apart from Darger and Surplus uses a ‘descriptive’ name sometimes describing a person’s function or character, sometimes seemingly more aspirational, sometimes even contradicting or subverting what the story seems to tell us about them. So, for example, we have Capable Servant, Powerful Locomotive, Terrible Nuisance, and Vicious Brute.

All good SFF novels should have shiny things in them, and Chasing the Phoenix is well supplied from the riches of Swanwick’s imagination. We have surreal ancient technologies (crushing wheels, war spiders) and bizarre GM animals (e.g. the ‘mountain horses’ of Surplus’s Dog Pack). I particularly liked the idea of tutelary cheroots: You want to learn something? Just smoke the appropriate fag! And then there are the sinister ghostly AIs, which populate a substory within the novel. Implacable enemies of humankind, they live a ghostly existence in the remains of the Internet. They appear to bear a personal animosity against Darger and are possibly responsible for the Hidden King’s madness.

I also enjoyed the way Swanwick peppered the story with a variety of well-hidden cultural references including a paraphrase of a famous line from The Mikado and a passage in which Heraclitus meets Benjamin Franklin.

To sum up, Chasing the Phoenix is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the far future, which should appeal to lovers of both fantasy and science fiction.

03 March 2017

A new (old) laptop

I recently decided it was time to upgrade my laptop, so I am now the proud owner of a refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad X230. This is a slightly newer model than my old machine (an X220, also refurbished, which I’ve had for four years), but it is sufficiently similar that the transition process was more or less painless.

The most noticeable differences are the chiclet keyboard, which replaces the wonderful mechanical keyboard that used to set Lenovo laptops apart. I miss the embedded numeric keyboard, but this is still a very good keyboard. The screen is, I think, marginally better, and this model has a fingerprint reader. Importantly, it seems as solidly built as its predecessors (which is why I have been using Thinkpads since the days of the IBM Thinkpad X40).

This laptop came with Windows 10 Professional already installed (its predecessor was gradually upgraded from XP to Win7 to Win10), but without the usual Lenovo add-ons. As a result, it seems to boot up much more smoothly than the old machine. This also gave me the opportunity to think about what I really needed to instal. So one or two legacy programs which have been with me since the days of XP have bitten the dust,  in particular Launchy and Ultramon (both seem to be adequately replaced by commands using the Win key).

Of course there were one or two ancient programs that I absolutely needed to have, specifically Quicken 2004 (a handy personal accounts program; I would upgrade it but for some reason Intuit don’t sell its more recent versions in the UK) and Idealist 3 (which I have mentioned more than once).

Installing Quicken 2004 on Windows 10

You will need the installation disk and a copy of the Quicken directory from your old computer.

(1) Run the installation disk in the usual way. This will instal Quicken, but it won’t work because of missing dlls.

(2) Copy the old (working) Quicken directory to the location of Quicken on your new laptop.

And that should be that.

Installing Blackwell/Bekon Idealist 3 on Windows 10

The installation program won’t work on 64-bit systems. But installing it is very simple:

Copy the Idealist directory from your old system and paste it into an appropriate place on the new system. Create a shortcut and (importantly) set compatibility in the Properties folder to something like Win95 or Win98.

19 December 2016

The O Antiphons

Just a few days to Christmas and in some Christian traditions it is time for the O Antiphons to be used in conjunction with the Magnificat at vespers/evensong.

Some years ago, I posted a blog series on the O Antiphons based on a quiet day I ran at St Aidan’s Clarkston. Here, for convenience, are the links to that series:

The quiet day and the posts derived from it made use of a series of sonnets written by the Cambridge-based priest and poet Malcolm Guite. As it happens, Malcolm has recently been posting those sonnets together with reflections on the O antiphons on his blog.

And for even more on the O antiphons, Daniel Horan’s reflections on them on his Dating God blog are well worth reading.

09 November 2016

The characteristics of fascism

Umberto Eco’s 1995 article ‘Ur-Fascism’ is worth reading. In it he identifies fourteen common characteristics of fascism. The following list is loosely based on his points (with a bit of help from Hannah Arendt and one or two others):
  • Harking back to a past golden age
  • Rejection of modernity (which one might extend to include contempt for ‘experts’)
  • Action for action’s sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Appeal to a frustrated middle class
  • Nationalism
  • Paranoia with respect to groups of sinister others (and a willingness to accept conspiracy theories relating to those others)
  • Contempt for weakness
  • Militarism
  • Machismo
  • Cynicism with respect to mainstream democratic politics
  • Use of an impoverished vocabulary and syntax
Does any of this sound familiar?

07 October 2016

Free VPN for lazy people, or another reason to love Opera

I think it is generally agreed (unless you are a government agency) that virtual private networks (VPNs) are ‘a good thing’. Essentially what they do is channel all your Internet communications via a proxy server, which can be on another continent. That makes it more difficult for websites you visit to identify you (unless of course you give them personal information). But more importantly, communication between your computer and the proxy server is encrypted so that the hacker at the table next to you in the internet cafĂ© can’t eavesdrop on you and steal personal information. It also means that the data your Internet Service Provider will be required to collect for HM Government will be useless to them.

Unfortunately, until now VPNs have come in one of two flavours: pay a monthly subscription and get decent service, or opt for a free VPN which may be slower and is often a pain to set up properly. As a result, it is something I’ve meaning to do for at least a couple of years.

Enter my favourite web browser, Opera. It now comes with free VPN capability built in. All you have to do is go to the Settings page and switch it on. I’ve had it running for a couple of weeks now and it doesn’t seem to have slowed my system down at all.

One caveat: it is not a complete VPN solution because it only works within the browser. If you decide to run another browser or a separate email program, you won’t be protected.

29 August 2016

Ninefox Gambit

A review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2016)

I’m not really a fan of military science fiction, but the blurb for this novel caught my fancy and I was vaguely aware of the author’s reputation as a short story writer, so I decided to give his first novel a try.

The first thing to be said is that it is not an easy read. Lee begins in media res with his main character, Captain Kel Cheris, fighting for her life on an alien battlefield with no explanation of what is going on. But the very alienness of the situation makes for a gripping tale and the reader is swept along as Cheris is pulled out of that conflict and promoted: she has been selected to lead the response to a calendrical heresy that is threatening the Hexarchate. The full resources of the Hexarchate are put her disposal and she opts for the help of a long-dead Shuos general, Jedao, who was condemned as a mass murderer. With Jedao and a powerful task force, Cheris tackles the heresy head-on at what appears to be the focal point of the problem.

As you might expect, they succeed in defeating the heretics. But what is really interesting is the larger story that Lee has constructed around this straightforward narrative. We learn that the Hexarchate is not the benign institution Cheris believed it to be. We discover something of Jedao’s history and begin to get an idea of what might have driven him to mass murder. And by the end of the story, we discover that we are really only at the end of the first act of a much larger story.

Little details distinguish and bring to life the various cultures and castes under the power of the Hexarchate. For example, for some unexplained reason the Kel, the military caste of the Hexarchate, have a particular fondness for cabbage. But what I enjoyed most about Lee’s world building was his creation of an esoteric calendrical mathematics that underpins the technology and culture of the Hexarchate. This mathematics is never explained but somehow pervades the whole to create the impression that one is indeed eavesdropping on an alien culture. I have rarely come across such a successful depiction of the alien. (Too often SFF authors think that they can lift elements from Chinese or Japanese culture and that counts as alien!)

Lee’s characterization is as gripping as his world building. It is not often that readers will find themselves sympathizing with a character who freely admits to being a mass murderer!

This is easily the best work of science fiction I have read in 2016. My one frustration with it is that the next volume of the trilogy isn’t yet available!

26 August 2016

Coming soon to Android…

…Windows programs!

I discovered Crossover a few years ago when I was experimenting with Linux. Developed by Codeweavers, Crossover does a similar job to Wine, allowing (some) Windows programs to run in a Linux environment. They also do a version that allows Windows programs to run on Macs.

Now they have announced a new version of Crossover that will allow Windows programs to run on some Android systems, specifically those on Intel-based computers. Chromebooks are the obvious target for the new program, but hopefully it will also work on Android tablets with Intel chips.

You can sign up to try out a preview version of it. I have done so and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I can get Idealist to run on my tablet. Very sensibly, Codeweavers are making no promises about what Windows programs will run satisfactorily in the new environment. But I’m hopeful about getting Idealist to work because it ran well on Linux using Crossover.