Sunday, May 29, 2011

The game

What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother's smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.

Well, I'm hooked. A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin) was completely compelling, I'd read it while cooking, while walking, it had me cursing J-F for (unusually) taking the metro with me in the morning and cutting into my reading time.

It's a soap opera of epic proportions. The story lines are somewhat predictable, never straying far from those trusted themes, typical of fantasy novels, of love, duty, honor, and I can't say they're treated with any peculiar nuance, but the characters are interesting and complicated, and sometimes they have wise things to say.

Mostly, though, I just want to know what happens next! I'm mildly pissed off that so many threads are left unresolved at the end of this first book of a five-part trilogy — in particular, a potentially paranormal, zombie-like plot line! — as this means I'll probably be reading another 2000 pages of stuff. Which isn't a bad thing exactly; I just hadn't planned on it, and it's getting in the way of other reading plans.

I have seen an episode and a half of the television series. It's well cast and seems to be true to the book, but doesn't have the same escapist thrill as reading does. I'll watch a bit more, for J-F's sake. I'm kind of hoping it picks up and saves me from reading the rest of the series.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A mind needs books

"Why do you read so much?"

Tyrion looked up at the sound of the voice. Jon Snow was standing a few feet away, regarding him curiously. He closed the book on a finger and said, "Look at me and tell me what you see."

The boy looked at him suspiciously. "Is this some kind of trick? I see you. Tyrion Lannister."

Tyrion sighted. "You rare remarkably polite for a bastard, Snow. What you see is a dwarf. You are what, twelve?"

"Fourteen," the boy said.

"Fourteen, and you're taller than I will ever be. My legs are short and twisted, and I walk with difficulty. I require a special saddle to keep from falling off my horse. A saddle of my own design, you may be interested to know. It was either that or ride a pony. My arms are strong enough, but again, too short. I will never make a swordsman. Had I been born a peasant, they might have left me out to die, or sold me to some slaver's grotesquerie. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock, and the grotesqueries are all the poorer. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for twenty years. My brother later killed that very same king, as it turns out, but life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new king and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my House, wouldn't you agree? Yet how? Well, my legs may be too small for my body, but my head is too large, although I prefer to think it is just large enough for my mind. I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind . . . and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge." Tyrion tapped the leather cover of the book. "That's why I read so much, Jon Snow."

— from A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin.

I'd never heard of this book till a few weeks ago, when the televisionization of the novel premiered. I never did get around to watching it, but I noticed that a coworker was reading it, and she was kind enough to lend me her copy when she was done with it, recommending it as fast and light.

I had some trouble finding my way into the novel — it felt like too many characters to keep track of and I worried over how I could manage 800 pages (but I'm chalking up this hesitation to the anxiety, the general distractedness I've been feeling all week long — I've been unable to make even simple hairstyling decisions, and I managed to get off at the wrong metro stop the other day).

But it's all intrigue, mostly political but some sexual in nature. And at this point (about a third through), I can't stop reading. It is indeed a lovely, light break from Martin Chuzzlewitt, and completely undemanding of me in the way that a couple other books I've been grappling with exactly aren't.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


I have tickets to see a play this week! A friend of mine is acting in it, so I thought I'd find out a little bit more about it, and it turns out to be a very compelling story.

The Dybbuk was written by S. Ansky in 1914, in Yiddish. And the story's a bit creepy.

It's about a pair of lovers, Leah and Hannan. Leah's father opposes their marriage and when he calls it off, Hannan drops dead. Leah is resigned to marrying a man of her father's choosing, but on the way to the wedding, she is possessed by Hannan's spirit. The rest of the story deals with the challenge of exorcising the spirit, which can only be achieved finally through the trial and judgment of Leah's father.

In an interesting twist, the production I'm to see is performed by a small, all-women cast. I'm told the roles were cast without regard for gender, on the basis of talent alone, but I suspect it'll be difficult to view this show without a feminist lens.

(I would be remiss not to mention that The Dybbuk was famously brought to the screen in 1937 by Michał Waszyński.)

The Dybbuk plays at La Salla Rossa (Montreal), May 22 – 25.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The girl who ate what was given her

"A simile," he said, "is true because you say so. It's a persuasion: this is like that. That's not enough for it anymore. Similes aren't enough." He stared. "It wants to make you a kind of lie. To change everything.

"Simile spells an argument out: it's ongoing, explicit, truth-making. You don't need . . . logos, they used to call it. Judgement. You don't need to . . . to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: 'This is that.' When it patently is not. That's what we do. That's what we call 'reason,' that exchange, metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That's what Surl Tesh-echer wants. To bring in a lie." He spoke very calmly. "It wants to usher in evil."

As of this writing, Embassytown is my favourite China Miéville novel, but then, I once studied linguistics and philosophy, and being that I work as an editor, it should go without saying that I'm a bit of a language geek, and I would happily discuss with you why a given metaphor is more effective and/or appropriate than a simple simile, or vice versa, so, these factors taken together, it's no wonder Embassytown rocks my world.

Embassytown is about Avice Benner Cho, who returns to her hometown, on a planet that humans (which she is one) colonized. The humans coexist with the Ariekei, though communication is difficult given the complex Ariekei language (more on this later) (and it seems that the humans benefit more from their trade relationship than vice versa).

Avice grew up wanting to leave, and then she did. She trained as an immernaut and travelled subspace as crew on ships delivering passengers (usually in sopor) and cargo.

The steersperson took us close to Wreck. It was hard to see. It looked at first like lines drawn across space, then was briefly, shabbily corporeal. It ebbed and flowed in solidity. It was many hundreds of metres across. It rotated, all its extrusions moving, each on its own schedule, its coagulated-teardrops-and-girder-filigree shape spinning complexly.

Wreck's architecture was roughly similar to Wasp's, but it was antiquated, and it seemed many times our dimensions. It was like an original of which we were a scale model, until abruptly it altered its planes and became small or far off. Occasionally it wasn't there, and sometimes only just.

All this backstory to demonstrate that Embassytown is far, far away, the last outpost, a final frontier. As a colony under Bremen's control in geopolitical terms, it functioned according to its own rules, much like the New World operated a little differently than its European masters might've known or liked.

So Avice goes back to Embassytown, with her husband, a linguist who is fascinated by the Language of the Ariekei. The Ariekei are insect-like, winged and hoofed, with eyestalks. They speak with two simultaneous voices.

Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word, can be seen.

In this linguistic system, thoughts cannot precede words, indeed they cannot be thought without having the words for them. The Ariekei need similes to express their reality. They need to be able to say what something is like. If they can express it, it is a truth. They are unable to lie.

And then the new Ambassador shows up, and says something in Language, causing what can only be called a diplomatic incident. But, oh, just wait and see.

(I've read several reviews of Embassytown that are critical of it taking so long before the story gets started. For me, these first 100+ pages of world-building are the richest, and would be worth reading even if nothing followed. But maybe you have to have sat, and appreciated, a class on the philosophy of language to totally get that.)

I like to think of this novel as being all about linguistics.

"Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?"

It takes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to the extreme. It's about linguistic relativity and Wittgenstein. And about Lakoff:

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought.

So, if an alien (Arieke) speaks a language (Language) and there's no one there to hear it, does it still think? What if the alien can't hear itself speak, can't hear itself think? Then there are no words, no thoughts, and reality collapses.

Avice when she was young herself was made a simile and incorporated into the language. Her assimileation (ooh, I just made that up!) was scripted or planned or faintly conceived, and then recounted. There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time. Avice was the girl who ate what was given her. It's never entirely clear what the Ariekei meant by her, by the simile of her, and Avice comes to wonder: if she changes her experiential truth, can she change the Ariekei's reality?

There's this wonderful Doctor Who–type moment toward the end that's a life-affirming vindication of what it is to be alien (cognitively, politically) and joy that, yes, good sense has prevailed, see, if only people would (could) just talk to each other, communication is brilliant, words are more powerful than any weapons, and more menacing: You get to live. It's a reward, but also a sentence.

Ten things about China. (Are you paying attention, Steven Moffat? Really, Neil Gaiman's Doctor Who episode was almost as disappointing as Gaiman himself is overrated. But China Miéville, his monsters — big scary, political monsters — would make the Doctor run.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Atomic secrets

The Atomic Weight of Secrets, or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, by Eden Unger Bowditch, is the first book in The Young Inventors Guild trilogy.

Jasper and Lucy ran up to their rooms and dropped off their bags. Looking around for a place to put their satchels, they opted to shove the lot under their beds.

"That's as good a place as any," said Jasper, pulling the edge of his quilt down so the satchel was completely hidden.

"I really think it's just awful keeping all these things from Rosie," said Lucy, "and from Miss Brett and. . . It make me feel like a naughty girl."

"Well, you're not a naughty girl. None of us is naughty. And we're not telling lies either. Not really," he said. He stopped rushing for a moment and looked Lucy in the eyes. A sneaky smile spreading across his face, he said, "It is terribly exciting, isn't it, Lucy? I mean, it's exciting as well as dangerous, amazing, historic, and brilliant, and, of course, terrifying, and horridly worrying. Still, all said, it is frightfully thrilling, isn't it?"

Lucy smiled. "Yes," she said in earnest. "Frightfully."

It's a mysterious and charming story. Helena is a little young yet for the attention a book like this requires, but I will encourage her to read it someday. Reminds me a little of Lemony Snicket, but without so much snark, and maybe not quite so nefarious.

A group of kids — 2 girls, 3 boys — ranging in age from 6 to 13, specializing in different kinds of science and themselves the children of the world's most important scientists, are taken from their parents and thrown together into a private boarding school, for them alone.

There's not much the teacher can teach such clever children, but she does find a gap in their education that she is able to fill: nursery rhymes and other children's literature.

On weekends the children are taken to their respective parentless homes, where the nannies attend to their needs. The homes abut a shared meadow.

The children come from unique backgrounds but find they have quite a bit in common when they start to discuss the circumstances by which they came together, so they put their inventive, scientific minds to work toward a common goal. The mysterious men in black factor into their separation from their parents, but it's never clear whether they are their jailers or their protectors.

The review at Young Adult Books Central sums it all up more succinctly than I can.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Unholy verbs

ACL — Accelerated Contact Linguistics — was, Scile told me, a speciality crossbred from pedagogics, receptivity, programming, and cryptography. It was used by the scholar-explorers of Bremen's pioneer ships to effect very fast communication with indigenes they encountered or which encountered them.

In the logs of those early journeys, the excitement of the ACLers is moving. On continents, on worlds vivid and drab, they record first moments of understanding with menageries of exots. Tactile language, bioluminescent words, all varieties of sounds that organisms can make. Dialects comprehensible only as palimpsests of references to everything already said, or in which adjectives are rude and verbs unholy. I've seen the trid diary of an ACLer barricaded in his cabin, whose vessel has been boarded by what we didn't then know as Corscans — it was first contact. He's afraid, as he should be, of the huge things battering at his door, but he's recording his excitement at having just understood the tonal structures of their speech.

— from Embassytown, by China Miéville.

I'm not very far along yet, but this seems to be a novel about linguistics, and the linguistics major in me is somersaulting. A novel about an alien race with a language, Language, where thoughts cannot precede words, indeed they cannot be thought without having the words for them, where Language and Reality are one.

And some of the sentences are gorgeous.

Excerpt. (On sale May 17.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


I love that when I perched on Helena's bed this morning and she opened her eyes, the first thing she thought to say was, "Who won last night?"


I love democracy. Despite the overall result, I love that we did this, that for the first time since moving here, my vote in my riding really counts. It feels like the Quebec I fell in love with, my adopted home, a country within a country, may be returning to itself.


I'm still reading Martin Chuzzlewit. It's rather long. And enjoyable enough, if not deep. A third of the way through and I'm still wondering whether the title means to refer to Martin Jr or Sr. I'm just at the bit where Jr's recently arrived in America. Frankly, I'm more interested to see what comes of the Pecksniffs and Tom Pinch.


Has anybody been watching Doctor Who? That timey-wimey stuff is hurting my brain. And I've spent far too many hours lately searching the forums and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. [SPOILERS] Especially wrt Rory. I mean, when Rory came back as the android Roman centurion toward the end of last season, and then the Doctor reset the universe, I thought Rory'd be restored, or undone, or set right. But even when the Doctor first comes back he's all "How could we forget the Doctor?" — how could he even forget to remember? It's not quite like being at the eye of the storm — the whole universe poured out of Amy's head. So who did she remember — who's the Rory she brought back? Real Rory of flesh and blood, or Roman Rory who believed he was real, who stood guard over her for 2,000 years? Who would you bring back?

And I think, when Rory says he was there, when Rome fell, I think the Doctor's thinking, whoa, how could he remember being not real?, which is why he starts to probe with "personal" questions. So this is the problem behind Amy's quantum pregnancy. It's not a mystical timehead or genetic transfer pregnancy — it's quantum because Rory's not resolved. Poor Rory.


Every now and then, I realize that someone's missing from my blogroll. I follow most blogs through Google Reader, and with an adjustment here, an update there, sometimes my lists don't match up. Sorry. If you're missing from my sidebar, let me know.


I love that there's a flower stall outside the metro station near my work so I can buy flowers on my way home.