Search Results: "tchet"

31 January 2024

Bits from Debian: New Debian Developers and Maintainers (November and December 2023)

The following contributors got their Debian Developer accounts in the last two months: The following contributor was added as Debian Maintainer in the last two months: Congratulations!

16 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Making Money

Review: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #36
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2007
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233499-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 473
Making Money is the 36th Discworld novel, the second Moist von Lipwig book, and a direct sequel to Going Postal. You could start the series with Going Postal, but I would not start here. The post office is running like a well-oiled machine, Adora Belle is out of town, and Moist von Lipwig is getting bored. It's the sort of boredom that has him picking his own locks, taking up Extreme Sneezing, and climbing buildings at night. He may not realize it, but he needs something more dangerous to do. Vetinari has just the thing. The Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, unlike the post office before Moist got to it, is still working. It is a stolid, boring institution doing stolid, boring things for rich people. It is also the battleground for the Lavish family past-time: suing each other and fighting over money. The Lavishes are old money, the kind of money carefully entangled in trusts and investments designed to ensure the family will always have money regardless of how stupid their children are. Control of the bank is temporarily in the grasp of Joshua Lavish's widow Topsy, who is not a true Lavish, but the vultures are circling. Meanwhile, Vetinari has grand city infrastructure plans, and to carry them out he needs financing. That means he needs a functional bank, and preferably one that is much less conservative. Moist is dubious about running a bank, and even more reluctant when Topsy Lavish sees him for exactly the con artist he is. His hand is forced when she dies, and Moist discovers he has inherited her dog, Mr. Fusspot. A dog that now owns 51% of the Royal Bank and therefore is the chairman of the bank's board of directors. A dog whose safety is tied to Moist's own by way of an expensive assassination contract. Pratchett knew he had a good story with Going Postal, so here he runs the same formula again. And yes, I was happy to read it again. Moist knows very little about banking but quite a lot about pretending something will work until it does, which has more to do with banking than it does with running a post office. The bank employs an expert, Mr. Bent, who is fanatically devoted to the gold standard and the correctness of the books and has very little patience for Moist. There are golem-related hijinks. The best part of this book is Vetinari, who is masterfully manipulating everyone in the story and who gets in some great lines about politics.
"We are not going to have another wretched empire while I am Patrician. We've only just got over the last one."
Also, Vetinari processing dead letters in the post office was an absolute delight. Making Money does have the recurring Pratchett problem of having a fairly thin plot surrounded by random... stuff. Moist's attempts to reform the city currency while staying ahead of the Lavishes is only vaguely related to Mr. Bent's plot arc. The golems are unrelated to the rest of the plot other than providing a convenient deus ex machina. There is an economist making water models in the bank basement with an Igor, which is a great gag but has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the book. One of the golems has been subjected to well-meaning older ladies and 1950s etiquette manuals, which I thought was considerably less funny (and somewhat creepier) than Pratchett did. There are (sigh) clowns, which continue to be my least favorite Ankh-Morpork world-building element. At least the dog was considerably less annoying than I was afraid it was going to be. This grab-bag randomness is a shame, since I think there was room here for a more substantial plot that engaged fully with the high weirdness of finance. Unfortunately, this was a bit like the post office in Going Postal: Pratchett dives into the subject just enough to make a few wry observations and a few funny quips, and then resolves the deeper issues off-camera. Moist tries to invent fiat currency, because of course he does, and Pratchett almost takes on the gold standard, only to veer away at the last minute into vigorous hand-waving. I suspect part of the problem is that I know a little bit too much about finance, so I kept expecting Pratchett to take the humorous social commentary a couple of levels deeper. On a similar note, the villains have great potential that Pratchett undermines by adding too much over-the-top weirdness. I wish Cosmo Lavish had been closer to what he appears to be at the start of the book: a very wealthy and vindictive man (and a reference to Cosimo de Medici) who doesn't have Moist's ability to come up with wildly risky gambits but who knows considerably more than he does about how banking works. Instead, Pratchett gives him a weird obsession that slowly makes him less sinister and more pathetic, which robs the book of a competent antagonist for Moist. The net result is still a fun book, and a solid Discworld entry, but it lacks the core of the best series entries. It felt more like a skit comedy show than a novel, but it's an excellent skit comedy show with the normal assortment of memorable Pratchettisms. Certainly if you've read this far, or even if you've only read Going Postal, you'll want to read Making Money as well. Followed by Unseen Academicals. The next Moist von Lipwig book is Raising Steam. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 January 2024

Russ Allbery: 2023 Book Reading in Review

In 2023, I finished and reviewed 53 books, continuing a trend of year-over-year increases and of reading the most books since 2012 (the last year I averaged five books a month). Reviewing continued to be uneven, with a significant slump in the summer and smaller slumps in February and November, and a big clump of reviews finished in October in addition to my normal year-end reading and reviewing vacation. The unevenness this year was mostly due to finishing books and not writing reviews immediately. Reviews are much harder to write when the finished books are piling up, so one goal for 2024 is to not let that happen again. I enter the new year with one book finished and not yet reviewed, after reading a book about every day and a half during my December vacation. I read two all-time favorite books this year. The first was Emily Tesh's debut novel Some Desperate Glory, which is one of the best space opera novels I have ever read. I cannot improve on Shelley Parker-Chan's blurb for this book: "Fierce and heartbreakingly humane, this book is for everyone who loved Ender's Game, but Ender's Game didn't love them back." This is not hard science fiction but it is fantastic character fiction. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of a year in which I was fighting a "burn everything down" mood. The second was Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, the 29th Discworld and 6th Watch novel. Throughout my Discworld read-through, Pratchett felt like he was on the cusp of a truly stand-out novel, one where all the pieces fit and the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. This was that book. It's a book about ethics and revolutions and governance, but also about how your perception of yourself changes as you get older. It does all of the normal Pratchett things, just... better. While I would love to point new Discworld readers at it, I think you do have to read at least the Watch novels that came before it for it to carry its proper emotional heft. This was overall a solid year for fiction reading. I read another 15 novels I rated 8 out of 10, and 12 that I rated 7 out of 10. The largest contributor to that was my Discworld read-through, which was reliably entertaining throughout the year. The run of Discworld books between The Fifth Elephant (read late last year) and Wintersmith (my last of this year) was the best run of Discworld novels so far. One additional book I'll call out as particularly worth reading is Thud!, the Watch novel after Night Watch and another excellent entry. I read two stand-out non-fiction books this year. The first was Oliver Darkshire's delightful memoir about life as a rare book seller, Once Upon a Tome. One of the things I will miss about Twitter is the regularity with which I stumbled across fascinating people and then got to read their books. I'm off Twitter permanently now because the platform is designed to make me incoherently angry and I need less of that in my life, but it was very good at finding delightfully quirky books like this one. My other favorite non-fiction book of the year was Michael Lewis's Going Infinite, a profile of Sam Bankman-Fried. I'm still bemused at the negative reviews that this got from people who were upset that Lewis didn't turn the story into a black-and-white morality play. Bankman-Fried's actions were clearly criminal; that's not in dispute. Human motivations can be complex in ways that are irrelevant to the law, and I thought this attempt to understand that complexity by a top-notch storyteller was worthy of attention. Also worth a mention is Tony Judt's Postwar, the first book I reviewed in 2023. A sprawling history of post-World-War-II Europe will never have the sheer readability of shorter, punchier books, but this was the most informative book that I read in 2023. 2024 should see the conclusion of my Discworld read-through, after which I may return to re-reading Mercedes Lackey or David Eddings, both of which I paused to make time for Terry Pratchett. I also have another re-read similar to my Chronicles of Narnia reviews that I've been thinking about for a while. Perhaps I will start that next year; perhaps it will wait for 2025. Apart from that, my intention as always is to read steadily, write reviews as close to when I finished the book as possible, and make reading time for my huge existing backlog despite the constant allure of new releases. Here's to a new year full of more new-to-me books and occasional old favorites. The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

22 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Wintersmith

Review: Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #35
Publisher: Clarion Books
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-06-089033-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 450
Wintersmith is the 35th Discworld novel and the 3rd Tiffany Aching novel. You could probably start here, since understanding the backstory isn't vital for following the plot, but I'm not sure why you would. Tiffany is now training with Miss Treason, a 113-year-old witch who is quite different in her approach from Miss Level, Tiffany's mentor in A Hat Full of Sky. Miss Level was the unassuming and constantly helpful glue that held the neighborhood together. Miss Treason is the judge; her neighbors are scared of her and proud of being scared of her, since that means they have a proper witch who can see into their heads and sort out their problems. On the surface, they're quite different; part of the story of this book is Tiffany learning to see the similarities. First, though, Miss Treason rushes Tiffany to a strange midnight Morris Dance, without any explanation. The Morris Dance usually celebrates the coming of spring and is at the center of a village party, so Tiffany is quite confused by seeing it danced on a dark and windy night in late autumn. But there is a hole in the dance where the Fool normally is, and Tiffany can't keep herself from joining it. This proves to be a mistake. That space was left for someone very different from Tiffany, and now she's entangled herself in deep magic that she doesn't understand. This is another Pratchett novel where the main storyline didn't do much for me. All the trouble stems from Miss Treason being maddeningly opaque, and while she did warn Tiffany, she did so in that way that guarantees a protagonist of a middle-grade novel will ignore. The Wintersmith is a boring, one-note quasi-villain, and the plot mainly revolves around elemental powers being dumber than a sack of hammers. The one thing I will say about the main plot is that the magic Tiffany danced into is entangled with courtship and romance, Tiffany turns thirteen over the course of this book, and yet this is not weird and uncomfortable reading the way it would be in the hands of many other authors. Pratchett has a keen eye for the age range that he's targeting. The first awareness that there is such a thing as romance that might be relevant to oneself pairs nicely with the Wintersmith's utter confusion at how Tiffany's intrusion unbalanced his dance. This is a very specific age and experience that I think a lot of authors would shy away from, particularly with a female protagonist, and I thought Pratchett handled it adroitly. I personally found the Wintersmith's awkward courting tedious and annoying, but that's more about me than about the book. As with A Hat Full of Sky, though, everything other than the main plot was great. It is becoming obvious how much Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax have in common, and that Granny Weatherwax recognizes this and is training Tiffany herself. This is high-quality coming-of-age material, not in the traditional fantasy sense of chosen ones and map explorations, but in the sense of slowly-developing empathy and understanding of people who think differently than you do. Tiffany, like Granny Weatherwax, has very little patience with nonsense, and her irritation with stupidity is one of her best characteristics. But she's learning how to blunt it long enough to pay attention, and to understand how people she doesn't like can still be the right people for specific situations. I particularly loved how Granny carries on with a feud at the same time that Tiffany is learning to let go of one. It's not a contradiction or hypocrisy; it's a sign that Tiffany is entitled to her judgments and feelings, but has to learn how to keep them in their place and not let them take over. One of the great things about the Tiffany Aching books is that the villages are also characters. We don't see that much of the individual people, but one of the things Tiffany is learning is how to see the interpersonal dynamics and patterns of village life. Somehow the feelings of irritation and exasperation fade once you understand people's motives and see more sides to their character. There is a lot more Nanny Ogg in this book than there has been in the last few, and that reminded me of how much I love her character. She has a completely different approach than Granny Weatherwax, but it's just as effective in different ways. She's also the perfect witch to have around when you've stumbled into a stylized love story that you don't want to be a part of, and yet find oddly fascinating. It says something about the skill of Pratchett's characterization that I could enjoy a book this much while having no interest in the main plot. The Witches have always been great characters, but somehow they're even better when seen through Tiffany's perspective. Good stuff; if you liked any of the other Tiffany Aching books, you will like this as well. Followed by Making Money in publication order. The next Tiffany Aching novel is I Shall Wear Midnight. Rating: 8 out of 10

4 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Cumulative haul

I haven't done one of these in quite a while, long enough that I've already read and reviewed many of these books. John Joseph Adams (ed.) The Far Reaches (sff anthology)
Poul Anderson The Shield of Time (sff)
Catherine Asaro The Phoenix Code (sff)
Catherine Asaro The Veiled Web (sff)
Travis Baldree Bookshops & Bonedust (sff)
Sue Burke Semiosis (sff)
Jacqueline Carey Cassiel's Servant (sff)
Rob Copeland The Fund (nonfiction)
Mar Delaney Wolf Country (sff)
J.S. Dewes The Last Watch (sff)
J.S. Dewes The Exiled Fleet (sff)
Mike Duncan Hero of Two Worlds (nonfiction)
Mike Duncan The Storm Before the Storm (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott King's Dragon (sff)
Zeke Faux Number Go Up (nonfiction)
Nicola Griffith Menewood (sff)
S.L. Huang The Water Outlaws (sff)
Alaya Dawn Johnson The Library of Broken Worlds (sff)
T. Kingfisher Thornhedge (sff)
Naomi Kritzer Liberty's Daughter (sff)
Ann Leckie Translation State (sff)
Michael Lewis Going Infinite (nonfiction)
Jenna Moran Magical Bears in the Context of Contemporary Political Theory (sff collection)
Ari North Love and Gravity (graphic novel)
Ciel Pierlot Bluebird (sff)
Terry Pratchett A Hat Full of Sky (sff)
Terry Pratchett Going Postal (sff)
Terry Pratchett Thud! (sff)
Terry Pratchett Wintersmith (sff)
Terry Pratchett Making Money (sff)
Terry Pratchett Unseen Academicals (sff)
Terry Pratchett I Shall Wear Midnight (sff)
Terry Pratchett Snuff (sff)
Terry Pratchett Raising Steam (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Shepherd's Crown (sff)
Aaron A. Reed 50 Years of Text Games (nonfiction)
Dashka Slater Accountable (nonfiction)
Rory Stewart The Marches (nonfiction)
Emily Tesh Silver in the Wood (sff)
Emily Tesh Drowned Country (sff)
Valerie Vales Chilling Effect (sff)
Martha Wells System Collapse (sff)
Martha Wells Witch King (sff)

21 November 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thud!

Review: Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #34
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2005
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233498-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 434
Thud! is the 34th Discworld novel and the seventh Watch novel. It is partly a sequel to The Fifth Elephant, partly a sequel to Night Watch, and references many of the previous Watch novels. This is not a good place to start. Dwarfs and trolls have a long history of conflict, as one might expect between a race of creatures who specialize in mining and a race of creatures whose vital organs are sometimes the targets of that mining. The first battle of Koom Valley was the place where that enmity was made concrete and given a symbol. Now that there are large dwarf and troll populations in Ankh-Morpork, the upcoming anniversary of that battle is the excuse for rising tensions. Worse, Grag Hamcrusher, a revered deep-down dwarf and a dwarf supremacist, is giving incendiary speeches about killing all trolls and appears to be tunneling under the city. Then whispers run through the city's dwarfs that Hamcrusher has been murdered by a troll. Vimes has no patience for racial tensions, or for the inspection of the Watch by one of Vetinari's excessively competent clerks, or the political pressure to add a vampire to the Watch over his prejudiced objections. He was already grumpy before the murder and is in absolutely no mood to be told by deep-down dwarfs who barely believe that humans exist that the murder of a dwarf underground is no affair of his. Meanwhile, The Battle of Koom Valley by Methodia Rascal has been stolen from the Ankh-Morpork Royal Art Museum, an impressive feat given that the painting is ten feet high and fifty feet long. It was painted in impressive detail by a madman who thought he was a chicken, and has been the spark for endless theories about clues to some great treasure or hidden knowledge, culminating in the conspiratorial book Koom Valley Codex. But the museum prides itself on allowing people to inspect and photograph the painting to their heart's content and was working on a new room to display it. It's not clear why someone would want to steal it, but Colon and Nobby are on the case. This was a good time to read this novel. Sadly, the same could be said of pretty much every year since it was written. "Thud" in the title is a reference to Hamcrusher's murder, which was supposedly done by a troll club that was found nearby, but it's also a reference to a board game that we first saw in passing in Going Postal. We find out a lot more about Thud in this book. It's an asymmetric two-player board game that simulates a stylized battle between dwarf and troll forces, with one player playing the trolls and the other playing the dwarfs. The obvious comparison is to chess, but a better comparison would be to the old Steve Jackson Games board game Ogre, which also featured asymmetric combat mechanics. (I'm sure there are many others.) This board game will become quite central to the plot of Thud! in ways that I thought were ingenious. I thought this was one of Pratchett's best-plotted books to date. There are a lot of things happening, involving essentially every member of the Watch that we've met in previous books, and they all matter and I was never confused by how they fit together. This book is full of little callbacks and apparently small things that become important later in a way that I found delightful to read, down to the children's book that Vimes reads to his son and that turns into the best scene of the book. At this point in my Discworld read-through, I can see why the Watch books are considered the best sub-series. It feels like Pratchett kicks the quality of writing up a notch when he has Vimes as a protagonist. In several books now, Pratchett has created a villain by taking some human characteristic and turning it into an external force that acts on humans. (See, for instance the Gonne in Men at Arms, or the hiver in A Hat Full of Sky.) I normally do not like this plot technique, both because I think it lets humans off the hook in a way that cheapens the story and because this type of belief has a long and bad reputation in religions where it is used to dodge personal responsibility and dehumanize one's enemies. When another of those villains turned up in this book, I was dubious. But I think Pratchett pulls off this type of villain as well here as I've seen it done. He lifts up a facet of humanity to let the reader get a better view, but somehow makes it explicit that this is concretized metaphor. This force is something people create and feed and choose and therefore are responsible for. The one sour note that I do have to complain about is that Pratchett resorts to some cheap and annoying "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" nonsense, mostly around Nobby's subplot but in a few other places (Sybil, some of Angua's internal monologue) as well. It's relatively minor, and I might let it pass without grumbling in other books, but usually Pratchett is better on gender than this. I expected better and it got under my skin. Otherwise, though, this was a quietly excellent book. It doesn't have the emotional gut punch of Night Watch, but the plotting is superb and the pacing is a significant improvement over The Fifth Elephant. The parody is of The Da Vinci Code, which is both more interesting than Pratchett's typical movie parodies and delightfully subtle. We get more of Sybil being a bad-ass, which I am always here for. There's even some lovely world-building in the form of dwarven Devices. I love how Pratchett has built Vimes up into one of the most deceptively heroic figures on Discworld, but also shows all of the support infrastructure that ensures Vimes maintain his principles. On the surface, Thud! has a lot in common with Vimes's insistently moral stance in Jingo, but here it is more obvious how Vimes's morality happens in part because his wife, his friends, and his boss create the conditions for it to thrive. Highly recommended to anyone who has gotten this far. Rating: 9 out of 10

23 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Going Postal

Review: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #33
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2004
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233497-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 471
Going Postal is the 33rd Discworld novel. You could probably start here if you wanted to; there are relatively few references to previous books, and the primary connection (to Feet of Clay) is fully re-explained. I suspect that's why Going Postal garnered another round of award nominations. There are arguable spoilers for Feet of Clay, however. Moist von Lipwig is a con artist. Under a wide variety of names, he's swindled and forged his way around the Disc, always confident that he can run away from or talk his way out of any trouble. As Going Postal begins, however, it appears his luck has run out. He's about to be hanged. Much to his surprise, he wakes up after his carefully performed hanging in Lord Vetinari's office, where he's offered a choice. He can either take over the Ankh-Morpork post office, or he can die. Moist, of course, immediately agrees to run the post office, and then leaves town at the earliest opportunity, only to be carried back into Vetinari's office by a relentlessly persistent golem named Mr. Pump. He apparently has a parole officer. The clacks, Discworld's telegraph system first seen in The Fifth Elephant, has taken over most communications. The city is now dotted with towers, and the Grand Trunk can take them at unprecedented speed to even far-distant cities like Genua. The post office, meanwhile, is essentially defunct, as Moist quickly discovers. There are two remaining employees, the highly eccentric Junior Postman Groat who is still Junior because no postmaster has lasted long enough to promote him, and the disturbingly intense Apprentice Postman Stanley, who collects pins. Other than them, the contents of the massive post office headquarters are a disturbing mail sorting machine designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson that is not picky about which dimension or timeline the sorted mail comes from, and undelivered mail. A lot of undelivered mail. Enough undelivered mail that there may be magical consequences. All Moist has to do is get the postal system running again. Somehow. And not die in mysterious accidents like the previous five postmasters. Going Postal is a con artist story, but it's also a startup and capitalism story. Vetinari is, as always, solving a specific problem in his inimitable indirect way. The clacks were created by engineers obsessed with machinery and encodings and maintenance, but it's been acquired by... well, let's say private equity, because that's who they are, although Discworld doesn't have that term. They immediately did what private equity always did: cut out everything that didn't extract profit, without regard for either the service or the employees. Since the clacks are an effective monopoly and the new owners are ruthless about eliminating any possible competition, there isn't much to stop them. Vetinari's chosen tool is Moist. There are some parts of this setup that I love and one part that I'm grumbly about. A lot of the fun of this book is seeing Moist pulled into the mission of resurrecting the post office despite himself. He starts out trying to wriggle out of his assigned task, but, after a few early successes and a supernatural encounter with the mail, he can't help but start to care. Reformed con men often make good protagonists because one can enjoy the charisma without disliking the ethics. Pratchett adds the delightfully sharp-witted and cynical Adora Belle Dearheart as a partial reader stand-in, which makes the process of Moist becoming worthy of his protagonist role even more fun. I think that a properly functioning postal service is one of the truly monumental achievements of human society and doesn't get nearly enough celebration (or support, or pay, or good working conditions). Give me a story about reviving a postal service by someone who appreciates the tradition and social role as much as Pratchett clearly does and I'm there. The only frustration is that Going Postal is focused more on an immediate plot, so we don't get to see the larger infrastructure recovery that is clearly needed. (Maybe in later books?) That leads to my grumble, though. Going Postal and specifically the takeover of the clacks is obviously inspired by corporate structures in the later Industrial Revolution, but this book was written in 2004, so it's also a book about private equity and startups. When Vetinari puts a con man in charge of the post office, he runs it like a startup: do lots of splashy things to draw attention, promise big and then promise even bigger, stumble across a revenue source that may or may not be sustainable, hire like mad, and hope it all works out. This makes for a great story in the same way that watching trapeze artists or tightrope walkers is entertaining. You know it's going to work because that's the sort of book you're reading, so you can enjoy the audacity and wonder how Moist will manage to stay ahead of his promises. But it is still a con game applied to a public service, and the part of me that loves the concept of the postal service couldn't stop feeling like this is part of the problem. The dilemma that Vetinari is solving is a bit too realistic, down to the requirement that the post office be self-funding and not depend on city funds and, well, this is repugnant to me. Public services aren't businesses. Societies spend money to build things that they need to maintain society, and postal service is just as much one of those things as roads are. The ability of anyone to send a letter to anyone else, no matter how rural the address is, provides infrastructure on which a lot of important societal structure is built. Pratchett made me care a great deal about Ankh-Morpork's post office (not hard to do), and now I want to see it rebuilt properly, on firm foundations, without splashy promises and without a requirement that it pay for itself. Which I realize is not the point of Discworld at all, but the concept of running a postal service like a startup hits maybe a bit too close to home. Apart from that grumble, this is a great book if you're in the mood for a reformed con man story. I thought the gold suit was a bit over the top, but I otherwise thought Moist's slow conversion to truly caring about his job was deeply satisfying. The descriptions of the clacks are full of askew Discworld parodies of computer networking and encoding that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. This is also the book that introduced the now-famous (among Pratchett fans at least) GNU instruction for the clacks, and I think that scene is the most emotionally moving bit of Pratchett outside of Night Watch. Going Postal is one of the better books in the Discworld series to this point (and I'm sadly getting near the end). If you have less strongly held opinions about management and funding models for public services, or at least are better at putting them aside when reading fantasy novels, you're likely to like it even more than I did. Recommended. Followed by Thud!. The thematic sequel is Making Money. Rating: 8 out of 10

17 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Hat Full of Sky

Review: A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #32
Publisher: HarperTrophy
Copyright: 2004
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 0-06-058662-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 407
A Hat Full of Sky is the 32nd Discworld novel and the second Tiffany Aching young adult novel. You should not start here, but you could start with The Wee Free Men. As with that book, some parts of the story carry more weight if you are already familiar with Granny Weatherwax. Tiffany is a witch, but she needs to be trained. This is normally done by apprenticeship, and in Tiffany's case it seemed wise to give her exposure to more types of witching. Thus, Tiffany, complete with new boots and a going-away present from the still-somewhat-annoying Roland, is off on an apprenticeship to the sensible Miss Level. (The new boots feel wrong and get swapped out for her concealed old boots at the first opportunity.) Unbeknownst to Tiffany, her precocious experiments with leaving her body as a convenient substitute for a mirror have attracted something very bad, something none of the witches are expecting. The Nac Mac Feegle know a hiver as soon as they feel it, but they have a new kelda now, and she's not sure she wants them racing off after their old kelda. Terry Pratchett is very good at a lot of things, but I don't think villains are one of his strengths. He manages an occasional memorable one (the Auditors, for example, at least before the whole chocolate thing), but I find most of them a bit boring. The hiver is one of the boring ones. It serves mostly as a concretized metaphor about the temptations of magical power, but those temptations felt so unlike the tendencies of Tiffany's personality that I didn't think the metaphor worked in the story. The interesting heart of this book to me is the conflict between Tiffany's impatience with nonsense and Miss Level's arguably excessive willingness to help everyone regardless of how demanding they get. There's something deeper in here about female socialization and how that interacts with Pratchett's conception of witches that got me thinking, although I don't think Pratchett landed the point with full force. Miss Level is clearly a good witch to her village and seems comfortable with how she lives her life, so perhaps they're not taking advantage of her, but she thoroughly slots herself into the helper role. If Tiffany attempted the same role, people would be taking advantage of her, because the role doesn't fit her. And yet, there's a lesson here she needs to learn about seeing other people as people, even if it wouldn't be healthy for her to move all the way to Miss Level's mindset. Tiffany is a precocious kid who is used to being underestimated, and who has reacted by becoming independent and somewhat judgmental. She's also had a taste of real magical power, which creates a risk of her getting too far into her own head. Miss Level is a fount of empathy and understanding for the normal people around her, which Tiffany resists and needed to learn. I think Granny Weatherwax is too much like Tiffany to teach her that. She also has no patience for fools, but she's older and wiser and knows Tiffany needs a push in that direction. Miss Level isn't a destination, but more of a counterbalance. That emotional journey, a conclusion that again focuses on the role of witches in questions of life and death, and Tiffany's fascinatingly spiky mutual respect with Granny Weatherwax were the best parts of this book for me. The middle section with the hiver was rather tedious and forgettable, and the Nac Mac Feegle were entertaining but not more than that. It felt like the story went in a few different directions and only some of them worked, in part because the villain intended to tie those pieces together was more of a force of nature than a piece of Tiffany's emotional puzzle. If the hiver had resonated with the darker parts of Tiffany's natural personality, the plot would have worked better. Pratchett was gesturing in that direction, but he never convinced me it was consistent with what we'd already seen of her. Like a lot of the Discworld novels, the good moments in A Hat Full of Sky are astonishing, but the plot is somewhat forgettable. It's still solidly entertaining, though, and if you enjoyed The Wee Free Men, I think this is slightly better. Followed by Going Postal in publication order. The next Tiffany Aching novel is Wintersmith. Rating: 8 out of 10

4 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Last Watch

Review: The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes
Series: Divide #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-23634-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 476
The Last Watch is the first book of a far-future science fiction duology. It was J.S. Dewes's first novel. The station of the SCS Argus is the literal edge of the universe: the Divide, beyond which there is nothing. Not simply an absence of stars, but a nothing from a deeper level of physics. The Argus is there to guard against a return of the Viators, the technologically superior alien race that nearly conquered humanity hundreds of years prior and has already returned once, apparently traveling along the Divide. Humanity believes the Viators have been wiped out, but they're not taking chances. It is not a sought-after assignment. The Sentinels are the dregs of the military: convicts, troublemakers, and misfits, banished to the literal edge of nowhere. Joining them at the start of this book is the merchant prince, cocky asshole, and exiled sabateur Cavalon Mercer. He doesn't know what to expect from either military service or service on the edge of the universe. He certainly did not expect the Argus to be commanded by Adequin Rake, a literal war hero and a far more effective leader than this post would seem to warrant. There are reasons why Rake is out on the edge of the universe, ones that she's not eager to talk about. They quickly become an afterthought when the Argus discovers that the Divide is approaching their position. The universe is collapsing, and the only people who know about it are people the System Collective would prefer to forget exist. Yes, the edge of the universe, not the edge of the galaxy. Yes, despite having two FTL mechanisms, this book has a scale problem that it never reconciles. And yes, the physics do not really make sense, although this is not the sort of book that tries to explain the science. The characters are too busy trying to survive to develop new foundational theories of physics. I was looking for more good military SF after enjoying Artifact Space so much (and still eagerly awaiting the sequel), so I picked this up. It has some of the same elements: the military as a place where you can make a fresh start with found family elements, the equalizing effects of military assignments, and the merits of good leadership. They're a bit disguised here, since this is a crew of often-hostile misfits under a lot of stress with a partly checked-out captain, but they do surface towards the end of the book. The strength of this book is the mystery of the contracting universe, which poses both an immediate threat to the ship and a longer-term potential threat to, well, everything. The first part of the book builds tension with the immediate threat, but the story comes into its own when the crew starts piecing together the connections between the Viators and the Divide while jury-rigging technology and making risky choices between a lot of bad options. This is the first half of a duology, so the mysteries are not resolved here, but they do reach a satisfying and tantalizing intermediate conclusion. The writing is servicable and adequate, but it's a bit clunky in places. Dewes doesn't quite have the balance right between setting the emotional stakes and not letting the characters indulge in rumination. Rake is a good captain who is worn down and partly checked out, Mercer is scared and hiding it with arrogance and will do well when given the right sort of attention, and all of this is reasonably obvious early on and didn't need as many of the book's pages as it gets. I could have done without the romantic subplot, which I thought was an unnecessary distraction from the plot and turned into a lot of tedious angst, but I suspect I was not the target audience. (Writers, please remember that people can still care about each other and be highly motivated by fear for each other without being romantic partners.) I would not call this a great book. The characters are not going to surprise you that much, and it's a bit long for the amount of plot that it delivers. If you are the sort of person who nit-picks the physics of SF novels and gets annoyed at writers who don't understand how big the universe is, you will have to take a deep breath and hold on to your suspension of disbelief. But Dewes does a good job with ratcheting up the tension and conveying an atmosphere of mysterious things happening at the edge of nowhere, while still keeping it in the genre of mysterious technology and mind-boggingly huge physical phenomena rather than space horror. If you've been looking for that sort of book, this will do. I was hooked and will definitely read the sequel. Followed by The Exiled Fleet. Rating: 7 out of 10

3 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Monstrous Regiment

Review: Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #31
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2003
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230741-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 457
Monstrous Regiment is the 31st Discworld novel, but it mostly stands by itself. You arguably could start here, although you would miss the significance of Vimes's presence and the references to The Truth. The graphical reading order guide puts it loosely after The Truth and roughly in the Industrial Revolution sequence, but the connections are rather faint.
There was always a war. Usually they were border disputes, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbor was letting their hedge row grow too long. Sometimes they were bigger. Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the middle of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious, and warlike; otherwise, we wouldn't be fighting them, eh? There was always a war.
Polly's brother, who wanted nothing more than to paint (something that the god Nuggan and the ever-present Duchess certainly did not consider appropriate for a strapping young man), was recruited to fight in the war and never came back. Polly is worried about him and tired of waiting for news. Exit Polly, innkeeper's daughter, and enter the young lad Oliver Perks, who finds the army recruiters in a tavern the next town over. One kiss of the Duchess's portrait later, and Polly is a private in the Borogravian army. I suspect this is some people's favorite Discworld novel. If so, I understand why. It was not mine, for reasons that I'll get into, but which are largely not Pratchett's fault and fall more into the category of pet peeves. Pratchett has dealt with both war and gender in the same book before. Jingo is also about a war pushed by a ruling class for stupid reasons, and featured a substantial subplot about Nobby cross-dressing that turns into a deeper character re-evaluation. I thought the war part of Monstrous Regiment was weaker (this is part of my complaint below), but gender gets a considerably deeper treatment. Monstrous Regiment is partly about how arbitrary and nonsensical gender roles are, and largely about how arbitrary and abusive social structures can become weirdly enduring because they build up their own internally reinforcing momentum. No one knows how to stop them, and a lot of people find familiar misery less frightening than unknown change, so the structure continues despite serving no defensible purpose. Recently, there was a brief attempt in some circles to claim Pratchett posthumously for the anti-transgender cause in the UK. Pratchett's daughter was having none of it, and any Pratchett reader should have been able to reject that out of hand, but Monstrous Regiment is a comprehensive refutation written by Pratchett himself some twenty years earlier. Polly is herself is not transgender. She thinks of herself as a woman throughout the book; she's just pretending to be a boy. But she also rejects binary gender roles with the scathing dismissal of someone who knows first-hand how superficial they are, and there is at least one transgender character in this novel (although to say who would be a spoiler). By the end of the book, you will have no doubt that Pratchett's opinion about people imposing gender roles on others is the same as his opinion about every other attempt to treat people as things. That said, by 2023 standards the treatment of gender here seems... naive? I think 2003 may sadly have been a more innocent time. We're now deep into a vicious backlash against any attempt to question binary gender assignment, but very little of that nastiness and malice is present here. In one way, this is a feature; there's more than enough of that in real life. However, it also makes the undermining of gender roles feel a bit too easy. There are good in-story reasons for why it's relatively simple for Polly to pass as a boy, but I still spent a lot of the book thinking that passing as a private in the army would be a lot harder and riskier than this. Pratchett can't resist a lot of cross-dressing and gender befuddlement jokes, all of which are kindly and wry but (at least for me) hit a bit differently in 2023 than they would have in 2003. The climax of the story is also a reference to a classic UK novel that to even name would be to spoil one or both of the books, but which I thought pulled the punch of the story and dissipated a lot of the built-up emotional energy. My larger complaints, though, are more idiosyncratic. This is a war novel about the enlisted ranks, including the hazing rituals involved in joining the military. There are things I love about military fiction, but apparently that reaction requires I have some sympathy for the fight or the goals of the institution. Monstrous Regiment falls into the class of war stories where the war is pointless and the system is abusive but the camaraderie in the ranks makes service oddly worthwhile, if not entirely justifiable. This is a real feeling that many veterans do have about military service, and I don't mean to question it, but apparently reading about it makes me grumbly. There's only so much of the apparently gruff sergeant with a heart of gold that I can take before I start wondering why we glorify hazing rituals as a type of tough love, or why the person with some authority doesn't put a direct stop to nastiness instead of providing moral support so subtle you could easily blink and miss it. Let alone the more basic problems like none of these people should have to be here doing this, or lots of people are being mangled and killed to make possible this heart-warming friendship. Like I said earlier, this is a me problem, not a Pratchett problem. He's writing a perfectly reasonable story in a genre I just happen to dislike. He's even undermining the genre in the process, just not quite fast enough or thoroughly enough for my taste. A related grumble is that Monstrous Regiment is very invested in the military trope of naive and somewhat incompetent officers who have to be led by the nose by experienced sergeants into making the right decision. I have never been in the military, but I work in an industry in which it is common to treat management as useless incompetents at best and actively malicious forces at worst. This is, to me, one of the most persistently obnoxious attitudes in my profession, and apparently my dislike of it carries over as a low tolerance for this very common attitude towards military hierarchy. A full expansion of this point would mostly be about the purpose of management, division of labor, and people's persistent dismissal of skills they don't personally have and may perceive as gendered, and while some of that is tangentially related to this book, it's not closely-related enough for me to bore you with it in a review. Maybe I'll write a stand-alone blog post someday. Suffice it to say that Pratchett deployed a common trope that most people would laugh at and read past without a second thought, but that for my own reasons started getting under my skin by the end of the novel. All of that grumbling aside, I did like this book. It is a very solid Discworld novel that does all the typical things a Discworld novel does: likable protagonists you can root for, odd and fascinating side characters, sharp and witty observations of human nature, and a mostly enjoyable ending where most of the right things happen. Polly is great; I was very happy to read a book from her perspective and would happily read more. Vimes makes a few appearances being Vimes, and while I found his approach in this book less satisfying than in Jingo, I'll still take it. And the examination of gender roles, even if a bit less fraught than current politics, is solid Pratchett morality. The best part of this book for me, by far, is Wazzer. I think that subplot was the most Discworld part of this book: a deeply devout belief in a pseudo-godlike figure that is part of the abusive social structure that creates many of the problems of the book becomes something considerably stranger and more wonderful. There is a type of belief that is so powerful that it transforms the target of that belief, at least in worlds like Discworld that have a lot of ambient magic. Not many people have that type of belief, and having it is not a comfortable experience, but it makes for a truly excellent story. Monstrous Regiment is a solid Discworld novel. It was not one of my favorites, but it probably will be someone else's favorite for a host of good reasons. Good stuff; if you've read this far, you will enjoy it. Followed by A Hat Full of Sky in publication order, and thematically (but very loosely) by Going Postal. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 August 2023

Jonathan Dowland: Interzone's new home

IZ #294, the latest issue IZ #294, the latest issue
The long running British1 SF Magazine Interzone has a new home and new editor, Gareth Jelley, starting with issue 294. It's also got a swanky new format ("JB6"): a perfect-bound, paperback novel size, perfect for fitting into an oversize coat or jeans pocket for reading on the train. I started reading Interzone in around 2003, having picked up an issue (#176) from Feb 2002 that was languishing on the shelves in Forbidden Planet. Once I discovered it I wondered why it had taken me so long. That issue introduced me to Greg Egan. I bought a number of back issues on eBay, to grab issues with stories by people including Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and others.
IZ #194: The first by TTA press IZ #194: The first by TTA press
A short while later in early 2004, after 22 years, Interzone's owner and editorship changed from David Pringle to Andy Cox and TTA Press. I can remember the initial transition was very jarring: the cover emphasised expanding into coverage of Manga, Graphic Novels and Video Games (which ultimately didn't happen) but after a short period of experimentation it quickly settled down into a similarly fantastic read. I particularly liked the move to a smaller, perfect-bound form-factor in 2012. I had to double-check this but I'd been reading IZ throughout the TTA era and it lasted 18 years! Throughout that time I have discovered countless fantastic authors that I would otherwise never have experienced. Some (but by no means all) are Dominic Green, Daniel Kaysen, Chris Beckett, C cile Cristofari, Aliya Whiteley, Tim Major, Fran oise Harvey, Will McIntosh. Cox has now retired (after 100 issues and a tenure almost as long as Pringle) and handed the reins to Gareth Jelley/MYY Press, who have published their first issue, #294. Jelley is clearly putting a huge amount of effort into revitalizing the magazine. There's a new homepage at interzone.press but also companion internet presences: a plethora of digital content at interzone.digital, Interzone Socials (a novel idea), a Discord server, a podcast, and no doubt more. Having said that, the economics of small magazines have been perilous for a long time, and that hasn't changed, so I think the future of IZ (in physical format at least) is in peril. If you enjoy short fiction, fresh ideas, SF/F/Fantastika; why not try a subscription to Interzone, whilst you still can!

  1. Interzone has always been "British", in some sense, but never exclusively so. I recall fondly a long-term project under Pringle to publish a lot of Serbian writer Zoran ivkovi , for example, and the very first story I read was by Australian Greg Egan. Under Jelley, the magazine is being printed in Poland and priced in Euros. I expect it to continue to attract and publish writers from all over the place.

25 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Wee Free Men

Review: The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #30
Publisher: HarperTempest
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-06-001238-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 375
The Wee Free Men is the 30th Discworld novel but the first Tiffany Aching book and doesn't rely on prior knowledge of Discworld, although the witches from previous books do appear. You could start here, although I think the tail end of the book has more impact if you already know who Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was the first Discworld novel written to be young adult, and although I could see that if I squinted, it didn't feel that obviously YA to me. The Wee Free Men is clearly young adult (or perhaps middle grade), right down to the quintessential protagonist: a nine-year-old girl who is practical and determined and a bit of a misfit and does a lot of growing up over the course of the story. Tiffany Aching is the youngest daughter in a large Aching family that comes from a long history of Aching families living in the Chalk. She has a pile of older relatives and one younger brother named Wentworth who is an annoying toddler obsessed with sweets. Her family work a farm that is theoretically the property of the local baron but has been in their family for years. There is always lots to do and Tiffany is an excellent dairymaid, so people mostly leave her alone with her thoughts and her tiny collection of books from her grandmother. Her now-deceased Grandma Aching was a witch. Tiffany, as it turns out, is also a witch, not that she knows that. As the book opens, certain... things are trying to get into her world from elsewhere. The first is a green monster that pops up out of the river and attempts to snatch Wentworth, much to Tiffany's annoyance. She identifies it as Jenny Green-Teeth via a book of fairy tales and dispatches it with a frying pan, somewhat to her surprise, but worse are coming. Even more surprised by her frying pan offensive are the Nac Mac Feegle, last seen in Carpe Jugulum, who know something about where this intrusion is coming from. In short order, the Aching farm has a Nac Mac Feegle infestation. This is, unfortunately, another book about Discworld's version of fairy (or elves, as they were called in Lords and Ladies). I find stories about the fae somewhat hit and miss, and Pratchett's version is one of my least favorites. The Discworld Queen of Fairy is mostly a one-dimensional evil monster and not a very interesting one. A big chunk of the plot is an extended sequence of dreams that annoyed me and went on for about twice as long as it needed to. That's the downside of this book. The upside is that Tiffany Aching is exactly the type of protagonist I loved reading about as a kid, and still love reading about as an adult. She's thoughtful, curious, observant, determined, and uninterested in taking any nonsense from anyone. She has a lot to learn, both about the world and about herself, but she doesn't have to be taught lessons twice and she has a powerful innate sense of justice. She also has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor.
"Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it." "No, actually it isn't," said Tiffany. "Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short."
One of the best things that Pratchett does with this book is let Tiffany dislike her little brother. Wentworth eventually ends up in trouble and Tiffany has to go rescue him, which of course she does because he's her baby brother. But she doesn't like him; he's annoying and sticky and constantly going on about sweets and never says anything interesting. Tiffany is aware that she's supposed to love him because he's her little brother, but of course this is not how love actually works, and she doesn't. But she goes and rescues him anyway, because that's the right thing to do, and because he's hers. There are a lot of adult novels that show the nuanced and sometimes uncomfortable emotions we have about family members, but this sort of thing is a bit rarer in novels pitched at pre-teens, and I loved it. One valid way to read it is that Tiffany is neurodivergent, but I think she simply has a reasonable reaction to a brother who is endlessly annoying and too young to have many redeeming qualities in her eyes, and no one forces her to have a more socially expected one. It doesn't matter what you feel about things; it matters what you do, and as long as you do the right thing, you can have whatever feelings about it you want. This is a great lesson for this type of book. The other part of this book that I adored was the stories of Grandma Aching. Tiffany is fairly matter-of-fact about her dead grandmother at the start of the book, but it becomes clear over the course of the story that she's grieving in her own way. Grandma Aching was a taciturn shepherd who rarely put more than two words together and was much better with sheep than people, but she was the local witch in the way that Granny Weatherwax was a witch, and Tiffany was paying close attention. They never managed to communicate as much as either of them wanted, but the love shines through Tiffany's memories. Grandma Aching was teaching her how to be a witch: not the magical parts, but the far more important parts about justice and fairness and respect for other people. This was a great introduction of a new character and a solid middle-grade or young YA novel. I was not a fan of the villain and I can take or leave the Nac Mac Feegle (who are basically Scottish Smurfs crossed with ants and are a little too obviously the comic relief, for all that they're also effective warriors). But Tiffany is great and the stories of Grandma Aching are even better. This was not as good as Night Watch (very few things are), but it was well worth reading. Followed in publication order by Monstrous Regiment. The next Tiffany Aching novel is A Hat Full of Sky. Rating: 8 out of 10

31 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Night Watch

Review: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #29
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: November 2002
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230740-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 451
Night Watch is the 29th Discworld novel and the sixth Watch novel. I would really like to tell people they could start here if they wanted to, for reasons that I will get into in a moment, but I think I would be doing you a disservice. The emotional heft added by having read the previous Watch novels and followed Vimes's character evolution is significant. It's the 25th of May. Vimes is about to become a father. He and several of the other members of the Watch are wearing sprigs of lilac for reasons that Sergeant Colon is quite vehemently uninterested in explaining. A serial killer named Carcer the Watch has been after for weeks has just murdered an off-duty sergeant. It's a tense and awkward sort of day and Vimes is feeling weird and wistful, remembering the days when he was a copper and not a manager who has to dress up in ceremonial armor and meet with committees. That may be part of why, when the message comes over the clacks that the Watch have Carcer cornered on the roof of the New Hall of the Unseen University, Vimes responds in person. He's grappling with Carcer on the roof of the University Library in the middle of a magical storm when lightning strikes. When he wakes up, he's in the past, shortly after he joined the Watch and shortly before the events of the 25th of May that the older Watch members so vividly remember and don't talk about. I have been saying recently in Discworld reviews that it felt like Pratchett was on the verge of a breakout book that's head and shoulders above Discworld prior to that point. This is it. This is that book. The setup here is masterful: the sprigs of lilac that slowly tell the reader something is going on, the refusal of any of the older Watch members to talk about it, the scene in the graveyard to establish the stakes, the disconcerting fact that Vetinari is wearing a sprig of lilac as well, and the feeling of building tension that matches the growing electrical storm. And Pratchett never gives into the temptation to explain everything and tip his hand prematurely. We know the 25th is coming and something is going to happen, and the reader can put together hints from Vimes's thoughts, but Pratchett lets us guess and sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. Vimes is trying to change history, which adds another layer of uncertainty and enjoyment as the reader tries to piece together both the true history and the changes. This is a masterful job at a "what if?" story. And, beneath that, the commentary on policing and government and ethics is astonishingly good. In a review of an earlier Watch novel, I compared Pratchett to Dickens in the way that he focuses on a sort of common-sense morality rather than political theory. That is true here too, but oh that moral analysis is sharp enough to slide into you like a knife. This is not the Vimes that we first met in Guards! Guards!. He has has turned his cynical stubbornness into a working theory of policing, and it's subtle and complicated and full of nuance that he only barely knows how to explain. But he knows how to show it to people.
Keep the peace. That was the thing. People often failed to understand what that meant. You'd go to some life-threatening disturbance like a couple of neighbors scrapping in the street over who owned the hedge between their properties, and they'd both be bursting with aggrieved self-righteousness, both yelling, their wives would either be having a private scrap on the side or would have adjourned to a kitchen for a shared pot of tea and a chat, and they all expected you to sort it out. And they could never understand that it wasn't your job. Sorting it out was a job for a good surveyor and a couple of lawyers, maybe. Your job was to quell the impulse to bang their stupid fat heads together, to ignore the affronted speeches of dodgy self-justification, to get them to stop shouting and to get them off the street. Once that had been achieved, your job was over. You weren't some walking god, dispensing finely tuned natural justice. Your job was simply to bring back peace.
When Vimes is thrown back in time, he has to pick up the role of his own mentor, the person who taught him what policing should be like. His younger self is right there, watching everything he does, and he's desperately afraid he'll screw it up and set a worse example. Make history worse when he's trying to make it better. It's a beautifully well-done bit of tension that uses time travel as the hook to show both how difficult mentorship is and also how irritating one's earlier naive self would be.
He wondered if it was at all possible to give this idiot some lessons in basic politics. That was always the dream, wasn't it? "I wish I'd known then what I know now"? But when you got older you found out that you now wasn't you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.
The backdrop of this story, as advertised by the map at the front of the book, is a revolution of sorts. And the revolution does matter, but not in the obvious way. It creates space and circumstance for some other things to happen that are all about the abuse of policing as a tool of politics rather than Vimes's principle of keeping the peace. I mentioned when reviewing Men at Arms that it was an awkward book to read in the United States in 2020. This book tackles the ethics of policing head-on, in exactly the way that book didn't. It's also a marvelous bit of competence porn. Somehow over the years, Vimes has become extremely good at what he does, and not just in the obvious cop-walking-a-beat sort of ways. He's become a leader. It's not something he thinks about, even when thrown back in time, but it's something Pratchett can show the reader directly, and have the other characters in the book comment on. There is so much more that I'd like to say, but so much would be spoilers, and I think Night Watch is more effective when you have the suspense of slowly puzzling out what's going to happen. Pratchett's pacing is exquisite. It's also one of the rare Discworld novels where Pratchett fully commits to a point of view and lets Vimes tell the story. There are a few interludes with other people, but the only other significant protagonist is, quite fittingly, Vetinari. I won't say anything more about that except to note that the relationship between Vimes and Vetinari is one of the best bits of fascinating subtlety in all of Discworld. I think it's also telling that nothing about Night Watch reads as parody. Sure, there is a nod to Back to the Future in the lightning storm, and it's impossible to write a book about police and street revolutions without making the reader think about Les Miserables, but nothing about this plot matches either of those stories. This is Pratchett telling his own story in his own world, unapologetically, and without trying to wedge it into parody shape, and it is so much the better book for it. The one quibble I have with the book is that the bits with the Time Monks don't really work. Lu-Tze is annoying and flippant given the emotional stakes of this story, the interludes with him are frustrating and out of step with the rest of the book, and the time travel hand-waving doesn't add much. I see structurally why Pratchett put this in: it gives Vimes (and the reader) a time frame and a deadline, it establishes some of the ground rules and stakes, and it provides a couple of important opportunities for exposition so that the reader doesn't get lost. But it's not good story. The rest of the book is so amazingly good, though, that it doesn't matter (and the framing stories for "what if?" explorations almost never make much sense). The other thing I have a bit of a quibble with is outside the book. Night Watch, as you may have guessed by now, is the origin of the May 25th Pratchett memes that you will be familiar with if you've spent much time around SFF fandom. But this book is dramatically different from what I was expecting based on the memes. You will, for example see a lot of people posting "Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, And a Hard-Boiled Egg!", and before reading the book it sounds like a Pratchett-style humorous revolutionary slogan. And I guess it is, sort of, but, well... I have to quote the scene:
"You'd like Freedom, Truth, and Justice, wouldn't you, Comrade Sergeant?" said Reg encouragingly. "I'd like a hard-boiled egg," said Vimes, shaking the match out. There was some nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended. "In the circumstances, Sergeant, I think we should set our sights a little higher " "Well, yes, we could," said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced at the sheets of papers in front of Reg. The man cared. He really did. And he was serious. He really was. "But...well, Reg, tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I'm pretty sure that whatever happens we won't have found Freedom, and there won't be a whole lot of Justice, and I'm damn sure we won't have found Truth. But it's just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg."
I think I'm feeling defensive of the heart of this book because it's such an emotional gut punch and says such complicated and nuanced things about politics and ethics (and such deeply cynical things about revolution). But I think if I were to try to represent this story in a meme, it would be the "angels rise up" song, with all the layers of meaning that it gains in this story. I'm still at the point where the lilac sprigs remind me of Sergeant Colon becoming quietly furious at the overstep of someone who wasn't there. There's one other thing I want to say about that scene: I'm not naturally on Vimes's side of this argument. I think it's important to note that Vimes's attitude throughout this book is profoundly, deeply conservative. The hard-boiled egg captures that perfectly: it's a bit of physical comfort, something you can buy or make, something that's part of the day-to-day wheels of the city that Vimes talks about elsewhere in Night Watch. It's a rejection of revolution, something that Vimes does elsewhere far more explicitly. Vimes is a cop. He is in some profound sense a defender of the status quo. He doesn't believe things are going to fundamentally change, and it's not clear he would want them to if they did. And yet. And yet, this is where Pratchett's Dickensian morality comes out. Vimes is a conservative at heart. He's grumpy and cynical and jaded and he doesn't like change. But if you put him in a situation where people are being hurt, he will break every rule and twist every principle to stop it.
He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night, if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting with every trick he knew... then it was too high. It wasn't a decision that he was making, he knew. It was happening far below the areas of the brain that made decisions. It was something built in. There was no universe, anywhere, where a Sam Vimes would give in on this, because if he did then he wouldn't be Sam Vimes any more.
This is truly exceptional stuff. It is the best Discworld novel I have read, by far. I feel like this was the Watch novel that Pratchett was always trying to write, and he had to write five other novels first to figure out how to write it. And maybe to prepare Discworld readers to read it. There are a lot of Discworld novels that are great on their own merits, but also it is 100% worth reading all the Watch novels just so that you can read this book. Followed in publication order by The Wee Free Men and later, thematically, by Thud!. Rating: 10 out of 10

5 May 2023

Valhalla's Things: Hiking Slippers

Posted on May 5, 2023
image When I travel for a few days I don t usually1 bring any other shoe than the ones I m wearing, plus some kind of slippers for use inside hotel / B&B rooms. It s good for not carrying useless weight, but it always leave me with a vague feeling of what if my only shoes break , followed by on a Sunday, when the shops are closed . So I started to think in the general direction of hiking sandals, shoes that are designed to be worn when resting, and lightweight to carry, but are a passable substitute for regular shoes in case of an accident to the main ones, maybe with the help of an extra pair of socks2 (or when crossing fords, but that s not really a usecase I have). My requirements are easier than the ones for real hiking sandals, since I m only going to be walking on paved streets (or at most easy unpaved ones), and the weight considerations are a thing, but not as strict as if I had to carry these on my back while hiking many hours in a day. My first attempt was a pair of hiking sandals from things I already had in my stash, with vibram soles, neoprene padding and polyester webbing. After a couple fixes they sort of worked, but they had a few big issues.
  • While comfortable when worn, the neoprene made the sandals hard to make, as it tended to deform while being assembled.
  • Polyester webbing is slippery. Some strips of hot glue in strategical places helped, but they weren t perfect and in time they are peeling off.
  • Most importantly, to make the sandals stable enough to wear while walking I had to add a strap around the ankle that needs closing: this makes it a bit of a hassle to use the sandals, say, when waking up in the middle of the night for metabolic reasons.
And then, one day I made my linen slippers, and that lead me to think again about the problem: what if I made a pair of slippers with a rubber sole, technical materials and maybe uppers made of net, so that they would be lightweight, breathable and possibly even still suitable in case I ever need to cross a ford. This was also readily attainable from the stash: some polycotton for the sole lining, elastic mesh for the uppers, EVA foam for padding and vibram soles. I decided to assemble most of them by machine, and it was quick and painless (possibly also thanks to the elasticity of the mesh) image For the soles I may have gone a bit overboard with the vibram claw, but:
  • I already had it in the stash;
  • if I need to wear them on an unpaved road, they are going to be suitable;
  • why not?
The soles were glued to the slippers rather than being sewn, as I don t think there is a reasonable way to sew these soles; I hope it won t cause durability issues later on (if it does, there will be an update) the slippers on a kitchen scale As for the finished weight, at 235 g for the pair I thought I could do better, but apparently shoes are considered ultralight if they are around 500 g? Using just one layer of mesh rather than two would probably help, but it would have required a few changes to the pattern, and anyway I don t really to carry them around all day. image I ve also added a loop of fabric (polycotton) to the centre back to be able to hang the slippers to the backpack when wet or dirty; a bit of narrow webbing may have been better, but I didn t have any in my stash. The pattern is the same as that used for the linen slippers, and of course it s released as #FreeSoftWear. I ve worn these for a few days around the home and they worked just fine, except for the fact that I had to re-glue the sole in a few places (but I suspect it was glued badly in the first place, since the other sole had no issues). Right now I have no plans to travel, so I don t know how much I will be able to test these in the next few months, but sooner or later I will (or I ll keep wearing them at home after I ve thoroughly tested the linen ones), and if there are issues I will post them here on the blog (and add a link to this post).

  1. the exception would be when I m also bringing some kind of costume, and even there it s not always true.
  2. and one should always carry an extra pair of clean socks, as they are useful for so many things, as Pratchett reminds us.

4 May 2023

Matthew Garrett: Twitter's e2ee DMs are better than nothing

(Edit 2023-05-10: This has now launched for a subset of Twitter users. The code that existed to notify users that device identities had changed does not appear to have been enabled - as a result, in its current form, Twitter can absolutely MITM conversations and read your messages)

Elon Musk appeared on an interview with Tucker Carlson last month, with one of the topics being the fact that Twitter could be legally compelled to hand over users' direct messages to government agencies since they're held on Twitter's servers and aren't encrypted. Elon talked about how they were in the process of implementing proper encryption for DMs that would prevent this - "You could put a gun to my head and I couldn't tell you. That's how it should be."

tl;dr - in the current implementation, while Twitter could subvert the end-to-end nature of the encryption, it could not do so without users being notified. If any user involved in a conversation were to ignore that notification, all messages in that conversation (including ones sent in the past) could then be decrypted. This isn't ideal, but it still seems like an improvement over having no encryption at all. More technical discussion follows.

For context: all information about Twitter's implementation here has been derived from reverse engineering version 9.86.0 of the Android client and 9.56.1 of the iOS client (the current versions at time of writing), and the feature hasn't yet launched. While it's certainly possible that there could be major changes in the protocol between now launch, Elon has asserted that they plan to launch the feature this week so it's plausible that this reflects what'll ship.

For it to be impossible for Twitter to read DMs, they need to not only be encrypted, they need to be encrypted with a key that's not available to Twitter. This is what's referred to as "end-to-end encryption", or e2ee - it means that the only components in the communication chain that have access to the unencrypted data are the endpoints. Even if the message passes through other systems (and even if it's stored on other systems), those systems do not have access to the keys that would be needed to decrypt the data.

End-to-end encrypted messengers were initially popularised by Signal, but the Signal protocol has since been incorporated into WhatsApp and is probably much more widely used there. Millions of people per day are sending messages to each other that pass through servers controlled by third parties, but those third parties are completely unable to read the contents of those messages. This is the scenario that Elon described, where there's no degree of compulsion that could cause the people relaying messages to and from people to decrypt those messages afterwards.

But for this to be possible, both ends of the communication need to be able to encrypt messages in a way the other end can decrypt. This is usually performed using AES, a well-studied encryption algorithm with no known significant weaknesses. AES is a form of what's referred to as a symmetric encryption, one where encryption and decryption are performed with the same key. This means that both ends need access to that key, which presents us with a bootstrapping problem. Until a shared secret is obtained, there's no way to communicate securely, so how do we generate that shared secret? A common mechanism for this is something called Diffie Hellman key exchange, which makes use of asymmetric encryption. In asymmetric encryption, an encryption key can be split into two components - a public key and a private key. Both devices involved in the communication combine their private key and the other party's public key to generate a secret that can only be decoded with access to the private key. As long as you know the other party's public key, you can now securely generate a shared secret with them. Even a third party with access to all the public keys won't be able to identify this secret. Signal makes use of a variation of Diffie-Hellman called Extended Triple Diffie-Hellman that has some desirable properties, but it's not strictly necessary for the implementation of something that's end-to-end encrypted.

Although it was rumoured that Twitter would make use of the Signal protocol, and in fact there are vestiges of code in the Twitter client that still reference Signal, recent versions of the app have shipped with an entirely different approach that appears to have been written from scratch. It seems simple enough. Each device generates an asymmetric keypair using the NIST P-256 elliptic curve, along with a device identifier. The device identifier and the public half of the key are uploaded to Twitter using a new API endpoint called /1.1/keyregistry/register. When you want to send an encrypted DM to someone, the app calls /1.1/keyregistry/extract_public_keys with the IDs of the users you want to communicate with, and gets back a list of their public keys. It then looks up the conversation ID (a numeric identifier that corresponds to a given DM exchange - for a 1:1 conversation between two people it doesn't appear that this ever changes, so if you DMed an account 5 years ago and then DM them again now from the same account, the conversation ID will be the same) in a local database to retrieve a conversation key. If that key doesn't exist yet, the sender generates a random one. The message is then encrypted with the conversation key using AES in GCM mode, and the conversation key is then put through Diffie-Hellman with each of the recipients' public device keys. The encrypted message is then sent to Twitter along with the list of encrypted conversation keys. When each of the recipients' devices receives the message it checks whether it already has a copy of the conversation key, and if not performs its half of the Diffie-Hellman negotiation to decrypt the encrypted conversation key. One it has the conversation key it decrypts it and shows it to the user.

What would happen if Twitter changed the registered public key associated with a device to one where they held the private key, or added an entirely new device to a user's account? If the app were to just happily send a message with the conversation key encrypted with that new key, Twitter would be able to decrypt that and obtain the conversation key. Since the conversation key is tied to the conversation, not any given pair of devices, obtaining the conversation key means you can then decrypt every message in that conversation, including ones sent before the key was obtained.

(An aside: Signal and WhatsApp make use of a protocol called Sesame which involves additional secret material that's shared between every device a user owns, hence why you have to do that QR code dance whenever you add a new device to your account. I'm grossly over-simplifying how clever the Signal approach is here, largely because I don't understand the details of it myself. The Signal protocol uses something called the Double Ratchet Algorithm to implement the actual message encryption keys in such a way that even if someone were able to successfully impersonate a device they'd only be able to decrypt messages sent after that point even if they had encrypted copies of every previous message in the conversation)

How's this avoided? Based on the UI that exists in the iOS version of the app, in a fairly straightforward way - each user can only have a single device that supports encrypted messages. If the user (or, in our hypothetical, a malicious Twitter) replaces the device key, the client will generate a notification. If the user pays attention to that notification and verifies with the recipient through some out of band mechanism that the device has actually been replaced, then everything is fine. But, if any participant in the conversation ignores this warning, the holder of the subverted key can obtain the conversation key and decrypt the entire history of the conversation. That's strictly worse than anything based on Signal, where such impersonation would simply not work, but even in the Twitter case it's not possible for someone to silently subvert the security.

So when Elon says Twitter wouldn't be able to decrypt these messages even if someone held a gun to his head, there's a condition applied to that - it's true as long as nobody fucks up. This is clearly better than the messages just not being encrypted at all in the first place, but overall it's a weaker solution than Signal. If you're currently using Twitter DMs, should you turn on encryption? As long as the limitations aren't too limiting, definitely! Should you use this in preference to Signal or WhatsApp? Almost certainly not. This seems like a genuine incremental improvement, but it'd be easy to interpret what Elon says as providing stronger guarantees than actually exist.

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1 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #28
Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2001
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 0-06-001235-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the 28th Discworld novel and the first marketed for younger readers. Although it has enough references to establish it as taking place on Discworld, it has no obvious connections with the other books and doesn't rely on any knowledge of the series so far. This would not be a bad place to start with Terry Pratchett and see if his writing style and sense of humor is for you. Despite being marketed as young adult, and despite Pratchett's comments in an afterward in the edition I own that writing YA novels is much harder, I didn't think this was that different than a typical Discworld novel. The two main human characters read as about twelve and there were some minor changes in tone, but I'm not sure I would have immediately labeled it as YA if I hadn't already known it was supposed to be. There are considerably fewer obvious pop culture references than average, though; if that's related, I think I'll prefer Pratchett's YA novels, since I think his writing is stronger when he's not playing reference bingo. Maurice (note to US readers: Maurice is pronounced "Morris" in the UK) is a talking cat and the mastermind of a wandering con job. He, a stupid-looking kid with a flute (Maurice's description), and a tribe of talking rats travel the small towns of Discworld. The rats go in first, making a show of breaking into the food, swimming in the cream, and widdling on things that humans don't want widdled on. Once the townspeople are convinced they have a plague of rats, the kid with the flute enters the town and offers to pipe the rats away for a very reasonable fee. He plays his flute, the rats swarm out of town, and they take their money and move on to the next town. It's a successful life that suits Maurice and his growing hoard of gold very well. If only the rats would stop asking pointed questions about the ethics of this scheme. The town of Bad Blintz is the next on their itinerary, and if the rats have their way, will be the last. Their hope is they've gathered enough money by now to find an island, away from humans, where they can live their own lives. But, as is always the case for one last job in fiction, there's something uncannily wrong about Bad Blintz. There are traps everywhere, more brutal and dangerous ones than they've found in any other town, and yet there is no sign of native, unintelligent rats. Meanwhile, Maurice and the boy find a town that looks wealthy but has food shortages, a bounty on rats that is absurdly high, and a pair of sinister-looking rat-catchers who are bringing in collections of rat tails that look suspiciously like bootlaces. The mayor's daughter discovers Maurice can talk and immediately decides she has to take them in hand. Malicia is very certain of her own opinions, not accustomed to taking no for an answer, and is certain that the world follows the logic of stories, even if she has to help it along. This is truly great stuff. I think this might be my favorite Discworld novel to date, although I do have some criticisms that I'll get to in a moment. The best part are the rats, and particularly the blind philosopher rat Dangerous Beans and his assistant Peaches. In the middle of daring infiltration of the trapped sewers in scenes reminiscent of Mission: Impossible, the rats are also having philosophical arguments. They've become something different than the unaltered rats that they call the keekees, but what those differences mean is harder to understand. The older rats are not happy about too many changes and think the rats should keep acting like rats. The younger ones are discovering that they're afraid of shadows because now they understand what the shadows hint at. Dangerous Beans is trying to work out a writing system so that they can keep important thoughts. One of their few guides is a children's book of talking animals, although they quickly discover that the portrayed clothing is annoyingly impractical. But as good as the rats are, Maurice is nearly as much fun in an entirely different way. He is unapologetically out for himself, streetwise and canny in a way that feels apt for a cat, gets bored and mentally wanders off in the middle of conversations, and pretends to agree with people when that's how he can get what he wants. But he also has a weird sense of loyalty and ethics that only shows up when something is truly important. It's a variation on the con man with a heart of gold, but it's a very well-done variation that weaves in a cat's impatience with and inattention to anything that doesn't directly concern them. I was laughing throughout the book. Malicia is an absolute delight, the sort of character who takes over scenes through sheer force of will, and the dumb-looking kid (whose name turns out to be Keith) is a perfect counterbalance: a laid-back, quiet boy who just wants to play his music and is almost entirely unflappable. It's such a great cast. The best part of the plot is the end. I won't spoil it, so I'll only say that Pratchett has the characters do the work on the aftermath that a lot of books skip over. He doesn't have any magical solutions for the world's problems, but he's so very good at restoring one's faith that maybe sometimes those solutions can be constructed. My one complaint with this book is that Pratchett introduces a second villain, and while there are good in-story justifications for it and it's entangled with the primary plot, he added elements of (mild) supernatural horror and evil that I thought were extraneous and unnecessary. He already had enough of a conflict set up without adding that additional element, and I think it undermined the moral complexity of the story. I would have much rather he kept the social dynamics of the town at the core of the story and used that to trigger the moments of sacrifice and philosophy that made the climax work. The Discworld books by this point have gotten very good, but each book seems to have one element like that where it felt like Pratchett took the easy way out of a plot corner or added some story element that didn't really work. I feel like the series is on the verge of having a truly great book that rises above the entire series to date, but never quite gets there. That caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this and had trouble putting it down. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this reminded me of it in some good ways (enough so that I think some of the references were intentional). Great stuff. If you were to read only one Discworld book and didn't want to be confused by all the entangled plot threads and established characters, I would seriously consider making it this one. Recommended. Followed by Night Watch in publication order. There doesn't appear to be a direct plot sequel, more's the pity. Rating: 8 out of 10

18 April 2023

Shirish Agarwal: Philips LCD Monitor 22 , 1984, Reaper Man, The Firm.

PHILIPS PHL 221S8L Those who have been reading this blog for a long time would perhaps know that I had bought a Viewsonic 19 almost 12 years ago. The Monitor was functioning well till last week. I had thought to change it to a 24 monitor almost 3-4 years ago when 24 LCD Monitors were going for around 4k/- or thereabouts. But the monitor kept on functioning and I didn t have space (nor do) to have a dual-monitor setup. It just didn t make sense. Apart from higher electricity charges it would have also have made more demands on my old system which somehow is still functioning even after all those years. Then last week, it started to dim and after couple of days completely conked out. I had wanted to buy a new monitor in front of mum so she could watch movies or whatever but this was not to be. Sp I had to buy an LCD Monitor as Government raised taxes enormously after pandemic. Same/similar monitor that used to cost INR 4k/- today costed me almost INR 7k/- almost double the price. Hooking it to Debian I got the following

$ sudo hwinfo --monitor grep Model Model: "PHILIPS PHL 221S8L" FWIW hwinfo is the latest version

~$ sudo hwinfo --version21.82
I did see couple of movies before starting to write this blog post. Not an exceptional monitor but better than before. I had option from three brands, Dell (most expensive), Philips (middle) and & LG (lowest in prices). Interestingly, Viewsonic disappeared from the market about 5 years back and made a comeback just couple of years ago. Even Philips which had exited the PC Monitor almost a decade back re-entered the market. Apart from the branding, it doesn t make much of a difference as almost all the products including the above monitors are produced in China. I did remember her a lot while buying the monitor as I m sure she would have enjoyed it far more than me but that was not to be

1984 During last week when I didn t have the monitor I re-read 1984. To be completely honest, I had read the above book when I was in the 20 s and I had no context. The protagonist seemed like a whiner and for the life of me I couldn t understand why he didn t try to escape. Re-reading after almost 2 decades and a bit more I shat a number of times because now the context is pretty near and pretty real. I can see why the Republicans in the U.S. banned it. I also realized why the protagnist didn t attempt to run away because wherever he would run away it would be the same thing. It probably is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. To willfully accept what is false after all that torture. What was also interesting to me is to find that George Orwell was also a soldier just like Tolkien was. Both took part and wrote such different stories. While Mr. Tolkien writes and shares the pendulum between hope and despair, Mr. Orwell is decidedly dark. Not grey but dark. I am not sure if I would like to read Animal Farm anytime soon.

The Reaper Man Terry Pratchett It is by sheer coincidence or perhaps I needed something to fill me up when I got The Reaper Man from Terry Pratchett. It was practically like a breath of fresh air. And I love Mr. Pratchett for the inclusivity he brings in. We think about skin color, and what not and here Mr. Pratchett writes about an undead gentleman who s extremely polite as he was a wizard. I won t talk more as I don t really want to spoil the surprise but rest assured everybody is gonna love it. I also read Long Utopia but this is for those who believe and think of multiverses long before it became a buzzword that it is today.

The Firm John Grisham Now I don t know what I should write about this book as there aren t many John Grisham books where a rookie wins against more than one party opposite him. I wouldn t go much into depth but simply say it was worth a read. I am currently reading Gray Mountain. It very much shows how the coal Industry is corrupt and what all it does. It also brings to mind the amount of mining that is done in which Iron is the mostly sought after and done. Now if we are mining 94% Iron then wouldn t it make sense to ask to have a circular economy around Iron but we don t even hear a word about it. Even with all the imagined projections of lithium mining, it would hardly be 10% . I could go on but will finish for now, till later.

12 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Last Hero

Review: The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett
Illustrator: Paul Kidby
Series: Discworld #27
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2001, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-050777-2
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 176
The Last Hero is the 27th Discworld novel and part of the Rincewind subseries. This is something of a sequel to Interesting Times and relies heavily on the cast that was built up in previous books. It's not a good place to start with the series. At last, the rare Rincewind novel that I enjoyed. It helps that Rincewind is mostly along for the ride. Cohen the Barbarian and his band of elderly heroes have decided they're tired of enjoying their spoils and are going on a final adventure. They're going to return fire to the gods, in the form of a giant bomb. The wizards in Ankh-Morpork get wind of this and realize that an explosion at the Hub where the gods live could disrupt the magical field of the entire Disc, effectively destroying it. The only hope seems to be to reach Cori Celesti before Cohen and head him off, but Cohen is already almost there. Enter Lord Vetinari, who has Leonard of Quirm design a machine that will get them there in time by slingshotting under the Disc itself. First off, let me say how much I love the idea of returning fire to the gods with interest. I kind of wish Pratchett had done more with their motivations, but I was laughing about that through the whole book. Second, this is the first of the illustrated Discworld books that I've read in the intended illustrated form (I read the paperback version of Eric), and this book is gorgeous. I enjoyed Paul Kidby's art far more than I had expected to. His style what I will call, for lack of better terminology due to my woeful art education, "highly detailed caricature." That's not normally a style that clicks with me, but it works incredibly well for Discworld. The Last Hero is richly illustrated, with some amount of art, if only subtle background behind the text, on nearly every page. There are several two-page spreads, but oddly I thought those (including the parody of The Scream on the cover) were the worst art of the book. None of them did much for me. The best art is in the figure studies and subtle details: Leonard of Quirm's beautiful calligraphy, his numerous sketches, the labeled illustration of the controls of the flying machine, and the portraits of Cohen's band and the people they encounter. The edition I got is printed on lovely, thick glossy paper, and the subtle art texture behind the writing makes this book a delight to read. I'm not sure if, like Eric, this book comes in other editions, but if so, I highly recommend getting or finding the high-quality illustrated edition for the best reading experience. The plot, like a lot of the Rincewind books, doesn't amount to much, but I enjoyed the mission to intercept Cohen. Leonard of Quirm is a great character, and the slow revelation of his flying machine design (which I will not spoil) is a delightful combination of Leonardo da Vinci parody, Discworld craziness, and NASA homage. Also, the Librarian is involved, which always improves a Discworld book. (The Luggage, sadly, is not; I would have liked to have seen a richly-illustrated story about it, but it looks like I'll have to find the illustrated version of Eric for that.) There is one of Pratchett's philosophical subtexts here, about heroes and stories and what it means for your story to live on. To be honest, it didn't grab me; it's mostly subtext, and this particular set of characters weren't quite introspective enough to make the philosophy central to the story. Also, I was perhaps too sympathetic to Cohen's goals, and thus not very interested in anyone successfully stopping him. But I had a lot more fun with this one than I usually do with Rincewind books, helped considerably by the illustrations. If you've been skipping Rincewind books in your Discworld read-through and have access to the illustrated edition of The Last Hero, consider making an exception for this one. Followed by The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in publication order and, thematically, by Unseen Academicals. Rating: 7 out of 10

25 March 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thief of Time

Review: Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #26
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: May 2001
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230739-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 420
Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the last Death novel, although he still appears in subsequent books. It's the third book starring Susan Sto Helit, so I don't recommend starting here. Mort is the best starting point for the Death subseries, and Reaper Man provides a useful introduction to the villains. Jeremy Clockson was an orphan raised by the Guild of Clockmakers. He is very good at making clocks. He's not very good at anything else, particularly people, but his clocks are the most accurate in Ankh-Morpork. He is therefore the logical choice to receive a commission by a mysterious noblewoman who wants him to make the most accurate possible clock: a clock that can measure the tick of the universe, one that a fairy tale says had been nearly made before. The commission is followed by a surprise delivery of an Igor, to help with the clock-making. People who live in places with lots of fields become farmers. People who live where there is lots of iron and coal become blacksmiths. And people who live in the mountains near the Hub, near the gods and full of magic, become monks. In the highest valley are the History Monks, founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised. Like most monks, they take apprentices with certain talents and train them in their discipline. But Lobsang Ludd, an orphan discovered in the Thieves Guild in Ankh-Morpork, is proving a challenge. The monks decide to apprentice him to Lu-Tze the sweeper; perhaps that will solve multiple problems at once. Since Hogfather, Susan has moved from being a governess to a schoolteacher. She brings to that job the same firm patience, total disregard for rules that apply to other people, and impressive talent for managing children. She is by far the most popular teacher among the kids, and not only because she transports her class all over the Disc so that they can see things in person. It is a job that she likes and understands, and one that she's quite irate to have interrupted by a summons from her grandfather. But the Auditors are up to something, and Susan may be able to act in ways that Death cannot. This was great. Susan has quickly become one of my favorite Discworld characters, and this time around there is no (or, well, not much) unbelievable romance or permanently queasy god to distract. The clock-making portions of the book quickly start to focus on Igor, who is a delightful perspective through whom to watch events unfold. And the History Monks! The metaphysics of what they are actually doing (which I won't spoil, since discovering it slowly is a delight) is perhaps my favorite bit of Discworld world building to date. I am a sucker for stories that focus on some process that everyone thinks happens automatically and investigate the hidden work behind it. I do want to add a caveat here that the monks are in part a parody of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, Lu-Tze is rather obviously a parody of Laozi and Daoism in general, and Pratchett's parodies of non-western cultures are rather ham-handed. This is not quite the insulting mess that the Chinese parody in Interesting Times was, but it's heavy on the stereotypes. It does not, thankfully, rely on the stereotypes; the characters are great fun on their own terms, with the perfect (for me) balance of irreverence and thoughtfulness. Lu-Tze refusing to be anything other than a sweeper and being irritatingly casual about all the rules of the order is a classic bit that Pratchett does very well. But I also have the luxury of ignoring stereotypes of a culture that isn't mine, and I think Pratchett is on somewhat thin ice. As one specific example, having Lu-Tze's treasured sayings be a collection of banal aphorisms from a random Ankh-Morpork woman is both hilarious and also arguably rather condescending, and I'm not sure where I landed. It's a spot-on bit of parody of how a lot of people who get very into "eastern religions" sound, but it's also equating the Dao De Jing with advice from the Discworld equivalent of a English housewife. I think the generous reading is that Lu-Tze made the homilies profound by looking at them in an entirely different way than the woman saying them, and that's not completely unlike Daoism and works surprisingly well. But that's reading somewhat against the grain; Pratchett is clearly making fun of philosophical koans, and while anything is fair game for some friendly poking, it still feels a bit weird. That isn't the part of the History Monks that I loved, though. Their actual role in the story doesn't come out of the parody. It's something entirely native to Discworld, and it's an absolute delight. The scene with Lobsang and the procrastinators is perhaps my favorite Discworld set piece to date. Everything about the technology of the History Monks, even the Bond parody, is so good. I grew up reading the Marvel Comics universe, and Thief of Time reminds me of a classic John Byrne or Jim Starlin story, where the heroes are dumped into the middle of vast interdimensional conflicts involving barely-anthropomorphized cosmic powers and the universe is revealed to work in ever more intricate ways at vastly expanding scales. The Auditors are villains in exactly that tradition, and just like the best of those stories, the fulcrum of the plot is questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the surprising alliances these non-human powers make with humans or semi-humans. I devoured this kind of story as a kid, and it turns out I still love it. The one complaint I have about the plot is that the best part of this book is the middle, and the end didn't entirely work for me. Ronnie Soak is at his best as a supporting character about three quarters of the way through the book, and I found the ending of his subplot much less interesting. The cosmic confrontation was oddly disappointing, and there's a whole extended sequence involving chocolate that I think was funnier in Pratchett's head than it was in mine. The ending isn't bad, but the middle of this book is my favorite bit of Discworld writing yet, and I wish the story had carried that momentum through to the end. I had so much fun with this book. The Discworld novels are clearly getting better. None of them have yet vaulted into the ranks of my all-time favorite books there's always some lingering quibble or sagging bit but it feels like they've gone from reliably good books to more reliably great books. The acid test is coming, though: the next book is a Rincewind book, which are usually the weak spots. Followed by The Last Hero in publication order. There is no direct thematic sequel. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 March 2023

Russ Allbery: Small book haul

I'm a bit behind on both free software maintenance and on writing reviews, what with one thing and another, but hopefully will have time to catch up next month. Meanwhile, publishing continues and books keep catching my eye. Blake Crouch (ed.) Forward (sff anthology)
Kate Elliott The Keeper's Six (sff)
Ruthanna Emrys A Half-Built Garden (sff)
R.F. Kuang Babel (sff)
Seanan McGuire The Unkindest Tide (sff)
Seanan McGuire A Killing Frost (sff)
Seanan McGuire When Sorrows Come (sff)
Seanan McGuire Be the Serpent (sff)
Terry Pratchett Thief of Time (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Last Hero (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (sff)
Terry Pratchett Night Watch (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Wee Free Men (sff)
Terry Pratchett Monstrous Regiment (sff) I keep hearing amazing things about Babel, so it's very high on the list.

Next.