Tag Archives: Politics

My Best of 2010, Part Two

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

A short novel about a First World War veteran who recovers from PTSD and a broken marriage as he restores a fresco by an unknown medieval artist in a village church. If you have much experience with a certain determinedly whimsical subgenre of story, you may think you know what kind of story this is: over several small, gentle adventures, a menagerie of eccentric locals bond with our hero and bring him out of his shell (shock). There is some of this, yes. But the narrator’s closest relationship is with the anonymous medieval artist: we never learn the man’s name, but by the end of the book the narrator has deduced the outline of his life from his art. A Month in the Country is about the healing power of professionalism and love of a craft, and about how we connect to long-vanished people through the work they leave behind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

We live in a society where the cream of Wall Street can crash the economy and be rewarded with six-figure bonuses, and the idea of looking into possible crimes in high places is dismissed as looking backwards. So Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a student who kills a pawnbroker because he thinks he’s too extraordinary to be held to the same rules as us peons, is as relevant as it’s ever been. Russian novels have a reputation as bleak and heavy stuff, so it might surprise you to learn that Crime and Punishment is also as unbearably suspenseful as any good Hitchcock movie, and at times very funny.

Dry high school English classes (which often expose us to books before we’re ready to enjoy them) train us to think of The Classics as medicinal: dreary, bitter, but good for you. In fact, more often than you’d expect, classics become classics by entertaining the hell out of people.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

The alphabet arbitrarily put The True Deceiver next to Crime and Punishment, but seeing them together made a new connection in my head: both novels attack an Ayn Randish philosophy which has way too much influence in 21st-century America. Crime and Punishment argues against the impulse to divide the human race into a mass of commoners and a special super-creative producer class. The True Deceiver ridicules the mindset that thinks the world is a Social Darwinist tooth-and-claw struggle, selfishness is a virtue, and other people are marks to be exploited for one’s own gain; and that believes thinking this way means one is clear-eyed, realistic, and tough-minded.

The True Deceiver is about two women, Katri Kling and Anna Amelin, whose characters are expressed by their names. Katri is a struggling shop assistant who lives with a huge wolfish dog; Anna a wealthy but financially naive artist who seems as mild as the rabbits she paints for her children’s books. Katri intends to insinuate herself into Anna’s confidence and take over the older woman’s affairs, house, and money. It doesn’t go as she expects. This is a little two-paragraph review, not an analytical essay, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but I’ll say that Anna unknowingly derails Katri with a kind of moral judo throw, and that real strength isn’t what or where Katri believed it was. Everyone comes out ahead in a way that utterly dismantles Katri’s worldview.

(More to come in part three”¦)

Alternate Histories

Cover Art

I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.) Continue reading Alternate Histories

Good Guys, Bad Guys

Every time I think modern American craziness has peaked, and will now degrade into mere oddness and maybe eventually into normalcy, it stops and turns around and zigzags to new heights. Since the health care bill passed I’ve read about a blogger who made a name for himself calling on “modern Sons of Liberty” to go on a massive window-breaking binge, and about one of the guys who went to a rally, got fired up and angry, and worked off their energy by mocking a man with Parkinson’s disease. I’m too depressed to get angry right now. I just felt a little sad. And then I read they’d both received threats. And that made me a little sad, too.

In the last decade, Americans have openly advocated torture. Americans have openly advocated holding prisoners forever, with no charges or possibility of redress. That’s just what Americans have advocated as official government policy; poll the hoi polloi and you’ll find people willing to indiscriminately bomb entire populations into the Precambrian era if you tell them it will kill a couple terrorists. Pick any crazy idea that violates the principles the United States of America are supposed to hold, and, somewhere out there, herds of Americans are in favor of it.

People into atrocity-endorsement often justify it with the observation that, hey, the people we’re wishing this on, or even actually doing it to, are Bad Guys. Actually, a lot of the people swept up in the War on Terror were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but never mind–for the sake of argument, we’ll assume they’re all genuine terrorists. And here the pro-torture crowd is right: terrorists are monsters.

The thing is, monsters are not born monsters, the way they’re born with brown hair or third nipples. Bad Guys put themselves into the Bad Guys category by doing bad things. What the torture advocates consistently do not get is that a bad thing is a bad thing no matter who you do it to.

It’s the “No, Wait, I’m the Hero” principle. Anyone with any exposure to movies or comics or TV knows this bit. Captain Kirk and Superman and the Doctor have the villain in their clutches, at their mercy… and they pull back, because killing the bad guy would make them just as bad as he is. And the audience groans, because it’s such a cliche. But just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it.

Good isn’t something you are. Good is something you do.

Or, sometimes, what you refrain from doing. Let’s say you’ve witnessed a horrible injustice. Let’s say you’re face to face with some people who’ve done some bad thing–like maybe intimidating supporters of the health care bill. You want to respond… so you argue rationally. You take to the streets and protest. You apply ridicule. You take the Bad Guys to court. You start a group or a nonprofit to repair the damage done by the Bad Guys, or just donate money. You vote the right people into office or run for office yourself. Sometimes, when the Bad Guys have backed you into a corner and are coming at you with bricks–I mean literally coming at you, no metaphors here–you might, in self-defense, respond with violence.

But death threats? There are no extenuating circumstances for them. Twist logic all you want, but you’ll never make a logic pretzel non-euclidean enough to serve as a justification. Threaten someone–or torture them, or throw them into a hole and forget about them–and you’ve joined the Bad Guys, and it’s time for the remnants of civilization to take a stand against you. It’s no use arguing that the guy you’re threatening is himself a bad guy. The fact that you’re fighting a Bad Guy does not automatically make you Good.

(Does this mean it’s harder to be one of the good guys than it is to be one of the bad guys? Yes, it does. Life is unfair that way.)

Understand, I’m not setting up a false equivalence here. I’m not saying “Why, you’re both as bad as each other!” I hate that crap. It’s not Democrats who have maps marked with rifle sights on their Facebook pages, and it’s not the health care supporters who brandish guns at town hall meetings and fax pictures of nooses to members of Congress. (Republicans, meanwhile, complain that by just talking openly about the threats they’ve received, Democrats are “ratcheting up the rhetoric.” Or in other words, “Stop telling people I hit you, or I’ll have to hit you harder!”) But it’s because I don’t think both sides are equivalent that I expect my side to be better.

There’s one piece of good news, one little bit of hope we can pull from this mess. If bad is something people do, not something they are… well, they can stop doing it. And, as far as I’m concerned, they can join the Good Guys again. I don’t think they even need to apologize, usually; just understand what it is they’ve done, and decide to stop.

Remember the guys who mocked the man with Parkinson’s? At least one of them really has apologized. I think he means it. I think it’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt, anyway. I want to believe that guy’s come back to civilization. I want the people writing the online threats to come back, too.

Cory Doctorow, Makers

The cover art for the British edition, which looks so much better than the American cover.

One complaint I hear from people who don’t like science fiction is that it’s about ideas and not people. Given the amount of SF I read I obviously don’t agree, but even I think they sometimes have a point–about Cory Doctorow’s Makers, for example.

For me, Doctorow is a love-it-or-hate-it writer. His best book is Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Unlike his other novels, Someone is a surrealist fantasy. Maybe that helped. Writing about a guy whose parents were a mountain and a washing machine, Doctorow has fewer occasions for awkwardly wedged-in futurist polemics about technology, copyright, and geek culture.

In Makers Doctorow writes about lots of things–solutions to the obesity epidemic (which lead to new and worse problems), clever uses for RFID tags, amusement parks–but mostly about a new economy where 3-D printers and cheap computers let small startups compete with bigger companies, and how to transition from here to there. And Makers’s characters pontificate endlessly on these subjects, and as they do so they sound just like Doctorow’s nonfiction.

Makers doesn’t have characters so much as mouthpieces. Everything its characters say is a speech. Everything they do is a demonstration. Some characters are good examples who embody Doctorow’s ideas. Some are bad examples. None feel like people. I never was able to keep Lester and Perry, Doctorow’s two geek heroes, straight.

Makers is weirdly Ayn Randian in its style of argument if not its worldview. (Doctorow is similarly keen on the kind of economics currently and not always accurately characterized as “free market,” but while Rand dreamed of a world ruled by captains of industry Doctorow sympathizes with ordinary people and believes the best ideas come up from below.) One of the villains is a journalist the heroes call “Rat-Toothed Freddy.” Not only does he question Makers’s worldview, but like Rand’s villains he’s ugly and petty and makes his case as offensively as possible, with gratuitous personal attacks.

Freddy doesn’t learn anything because he’s the bad guy, and Lester and Perry don’t learn anything because as the book begins they already embody Doctorow’s ideals. The last we see of them it’s years later and they’re back to their old tricks. The only character who ends the story as a better person is the second villain, Sammy, a midlevel Disney executive. At one point Makers states “Lester came to understand what it meant to be responsible for people’s lives.” But that’s something we’re told, not shown. We don’t feel what Lester is feeling, and after his moment of revelation he acts pretty much the same. At the climax of the novel the “good guys” do the right thing, the thing that solves everyone’s problems, only because it gives them a chance to humiliate Freddy.

There’s a moment, somewhere around then, when Lester (or was it Perry?) has a brief flash of insight and wonders whether Freddy has a point. Then it’s gone, and he worries no more. Which is too bad. Sometimes, Freddy does have a point. He’s the only character willing to question Makers’s worldview, and there are questions Makers ought to ask of itself, and doesn’t.

How easy is it for people who’ve dedicated their lives to a company to pick up the pieces after their jobs blow away in a hurricane of “creative destruction?” Lester and Perry’s associates skip from job to job with songs in their hearts, but for some people the stress of having their cheese moved on them all the damn time takes years off their lives. How many little startups can the market support? (Maybe not so many, given how quickly the New Work implodes.) What happens to the people whose companies fail? What about health insurance? (There’s not much sign that Makers’s America has solved its health care problems.) In practice, much of the New Work produces tchotchkes, bric-a-brac and dime-store kipple–to borrow William Morris’s rubric, things neither useful nor beautiful. How liberating is the New Work if people are still just selling each other junk they don’t need and don’t really want?

On the other hand, I do admire Makers for making kipple look fun. Makers succeeds at one thing: celebrating making. Makers respects people who do things, and do them well, regardless of who they are.

Sammy’s salvation lies in coming up with an idea he cares about, and although the Disney corporation in general serves as a villain Makers allows its good-guy journalist, Suzanne Church, to be impressed by the pride and attention to detail of the people who build and rebuild Disney World.

Of course, the Disney workers have something the Makers don’t: stability. There’s an idea floating around, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, that to really master a craft you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. (Which may be why I’m great at my job, but less great at the things I love to do when I’m not at work. I need to work on my attention span for my hobbies.) 10,000 hours is a glibly arbitrary number, but it’s true (even with simpler tasks like selling electronics, as Circuit City discovered, to their cost, after they laid off their most experienced employees) that you’re more likely to find expertise in places where people have the job security to concentrate on mastering their trade.

In Makers‘s New New Economy of laissez-faire, layoffs, and dizzyingly rapid boom-and-bust cycles, just surviving takes half of everybody’s energy. Energy they could be using to, y’know, make things.

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Cover Art

I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

Continue reading Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Comics for Health Care!

I’ve linked to these in blog comments elsewhere, but haven’t yet done so on my own blog.

First, Kevin Huizenga discovered Superman plugging universal health care in a 1952 issue of The Adventures of Bob Hope. (Isn’t it amazing that there was once a comic called The Adventures of Bob Hope? Today, Bob Hope would be a gritty, morally questionable comedian whose kid sidekick died violently at the hands of Dorothy Lamour, and he’d get killed off by an evil Bob Hope from an alternate universe and be replaced by Bing Crosby and then come back to life as a zombie.)

Second, here’s a pro-health-care Steve Canyon strip from… I can’t quite read the copyright… it looks like 1949. Steve Canyon was cold war propaganda and Milton Caniff wasn’t exactly a hippie. So it’s interesting that, in extolling the virtues of the Free World, Caniff is proudest of exactly the things modern conservatives decry as “socialism.”

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

In retrospect, the most significant thing about Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is what it did for Gallifrey. Which is interesting, because it’s also the smallest part of the book.

For years, Gallifrey was a mysterious, rarely seen planet of space gods who, in their first appearance, casually sent the Doctor spinning into a big black void with his head missing. Subsequently they did crazy crap like unexpectedly appearing in midair outside of radio telescopes, or pulling transmat beams halfway across the galaxy and thousands of years into the past, all the time wearing relaxed, bemused expressions that suggested this kind of thing was just part of the morning routine, and after they’d had their coffee they’d really get going.

This changed with “The Deadly Assassin.” Robert Holmes gave Gallifrey layers of down-to-earth corruption and politics which added interesting story possibilities but were not immediately accepted by fans. A now-legendary review from a fan club newsletter, written by one Jan Vincent Rudzki, was reprinted 20 years later in Paul Cornell’s book License Denied. It’s worth tracking down, if only as a reminder that the style of writing that dominates many internet forums–a sort of breathless, half-literate nitpicking –did not originate there. As with a lot of this stuff, Rudzki’s criticisms are mostly based on unwarranted assumptions and personal hobby-horses, like his innocent faith in the notion that all Time Lords have easy access to “time scanners.” Most awesomely, he ends his review with “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” in big capital letters, which should end every post on rec.arts.drwho. Even so, he does get something right: “This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference.”

Robert Holmes’s Time Lords are mundane. They’re very, very human–almost indistinguishable from a herd of aging Oxford dons. Later writers took the wrong lesson from Holmes, making the Time Lords more and more prosaic until by “Arc of Infinity” they were pretty much a bunch of nice middle-class office workers hanging out in the food court at the mall.

Until Time’s Crucible. Marc Platt made Gallifrey weird again. Ancient Gallifrey is a world of telepaths dominated by those few with the will to make their thoughts entirely their own, ruled by a mad old seer whose office is a cage suspended above a fissure. The nice office workers don’t speak the language, and will probably lose their travelers checks within a couple of days.

What’s less immediately obvious is the skill with which Platt drew this society. Time’s Crucible displays an easy mastery of the technique that fantasy writer Jo Walton calls “incluing,” conveying more background through implication than infodumps. He trusts the readers enough to know that, from phrases like “strange-featured people who thought in strange accents” and the stress placed on words like “Individuals,” they can infer a great deal about this world, orienting the readers so that, by the time he states outright that everybody’s telepathic, they already have some idea of what this means.

I’m not blathering on about this because I think the art of suggesting more background than is shown was new to Doctor Who. Robert Holmes had mastered of the technique, as is obvious from something like “The Ribos Operation.” What’s important about this is that Time’s Crucible–to a greater extent than the more mythic Revelation–signals the point when Doctor Who seriously began learning from the themes and techniques of mainstream literary SF. This was a break with the TV series, which naturally was more influenced by other visual media, especially Hammer films and Nigel Kneale. Its literary sources tended to be writers old or famous enough to have works adapted to film, so that, when books like The Left Hand of Darkness and Stand on Zanzibar were winning SF awards, Doctor Who was broadcasting “The Dominators” and “The Space Pirates.” The New Adventures brought Doctor Who to the point where it was only about five or ten years behind the times, rather than twenty or thirty–which sounds snide, but it really was a major accomplishment. Their literary influences were a huge shift in tone for Doctor Who, and a sign of the writers’ recognition that this was a series of novels and not novelizations. The new direction alienated those few fans who wouldn’t accept anything but a TV episode frozen in print, but gained a stable audience and led to an artistically successful line of books. (I’ll repeat that, just so you realize how amazing it is: an artistically successful line of TV tie-in novels. That’s huge.) This success is only more obvious in comparison with the BBC Books, so many of which looked away from literary influences towards Hollywood blockbusters and modern media properties–and suffered as a consequence.

There are a couple of things you realize about Time’s Crucible on a second reading. First, that there’s a lot less Gallifrey in it than you remember. Second, that the issues the rest of the book deals with, which you didn’t remember at all, are a bit… well, abstract.

Judging from online reviews I’ve skimmed through, this is thought to be a difficult book. At first it’s hard to understand what the Process is trying to do, or what the hell it’s even talking about most of the time. But Time’s Crucible is less complex than it seems. There’s a reason why the Process’s goals are hard to understand: it doesn’t understand them itself–it doesn’t even know it doesn’t understand them. The Process’s plans, its blather about the “stolen future” and the conflict between its older and younger incarnations are all, in themselves, meaningless. The Process is an unwitting character in a psychodrama, acting out the conflict between Rassilon and the Pythia on ancient Gallifrey, absorbed through the Pythia’s mental link to Vael. The barren city where the biggest chunk of the action takes place is an empty stage for a few actors to play a stripped-down burlesque of the Pythia’s fall, a planetwide political revolution boiled down to its essence.

(Time’s Crucible was originally a TV proposal, by the way, and here we see how some version of this story, rewritten to require fewer special effects, might have worked–about six or seven actors besides the regulars in a setting that could be cobbled together from whatever sets and locations were on hand. Keep the Gallifrey bits brief, and you could suggest an offstage political coup with just Rassilon and the Pythia arguing in a cave.)

Time’s Crucible is a political satire. It’s about what happens when the powerful become complacent; when political power is something to be held onto for its own sake, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Usually at that point a special kind of denial sets in. It’s a defense mechanism. Powerful people don’t like to admit, even to themselves, that they could stop being powerful. They see the future as a kind of eternal Now, which their heirs will rule forever. Often this extends even to the past, which they conceive of as a place of eternal “traditional values,” unchanging and unchallenged until the decadent present. Anything that suggests even the possibility of change is blasphemy.

U.S. politics provide an illustration. In a recent (at the time of writing) primary election in Connecticut, a longtime Democratic senator who had lost the trust of his constituents was thrown out in favor of a new candidate. This is the kind of thing that happens in a democracy, and always a disappointment to the loser… but the senator and his supporters reacted like a dog had walked into their dinner party on its hind legs, climbed on the table and recited dirty limericks. It was his right to run for reelection, damn it, and anything that challenged that was unnatural. Something of his attitude is demonstrated by the name of the third party he immediately formed in order to stay in the race. In the U.S. political parties usually take names that communicate their values: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green. Senator Lieberman named his new party “Connecticut for Lieberman.”

The Pythia can’t imagine a future she hasn’t chosen. As she becomes entrenched in power her denial grows stronger, until she literally can’t see the future that it’s her function to predict. Meanwhile, the city reduces the struggle to retain power and deny history to absurdity. Time has looped back on itself, creating three eternal presents. The Process, unable to admit any change, struggles not with successors but with other versions of itself to preserve not only its reign but a particular moment of its reign as the true reality.

Despite this, the Process talks a lot about the future. Just what it’s saying about the future is one of the less clear things about Time’s Crucible, mostly because none of its dialogue means very much. It’s convinced the future was “stolen” because the Pythia believes that Rassilon has stolen her future, but it has no real idea of what the future is, beyond something that ought to belong to it. In the mouths of the Process “the future” becomes political jargon–the kind of word that shows up in speeches because of its great emotional appeal and slight intellectual content. Every government has jargon words, and the more self-aggrandizing and inbred the government the more of them there are: just think of the piles of inane buzzwords associated with communism. Closer to home, “freedom” has been taking a beating lately from George W. Bush, and if you sat him down and asked him what the word meant to him I doubt he’d have a coherent answer.

Taken to its furthest extreme, the obsession with holding on to power leads to a totalitarian state, arranged to suppress anything that might threaten the rulers. We don’t see a lot of Gallifrey, but what we do see suggests that the Pythia’s reign approaches totalitarianism. (Who needs telescreens when everyone constantly hears everyone else’s thoughts? And the Pythia seems to have no qualms about probing Vael’s brain at whim.) The city again reduces the situation to its barest essentials: a tiny closed ecosystem where the State is all that exists. With all else stripped away, the ruler’s preoccupations are revealed as pointless, egocentric absurdities. The citizens are literally made to participate in their own oppression, as the brainwashed guards from the final phase police their own past selves.

But the city, though useful for satire, is also Time’s Crucible’s big weakness. It’s a high-concept world of big ideas and mind-blowing set pieces, but curiously lifeless in its chapter-to-chapter existence. The only inhabitants are the Process, a group of mostly indistinguishable early Time Lords, the Doctor and Ace–and the Doctor vanishes for most of the book, leaving Ace to carry whole chapters on her own. This book apparently bores a lot of readers, and I don’t blame them; I liked it, but even I wanted less Ace and more Gallifrey. It probably wouldn’t have hurt the book to be about 50 to 75 pages shorter. The biggest problem is that Time’s Crucible is so very sedate. It needs more wit of the dry, not quite laugh-out-loud kind found in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Eugen Ionescu’s play Rhinoceros. It needed, in other words, to be a true absurdist novel.

Even so, Time’s Crucible isn’t nearly as much of a slog as its reputation suggests. It didn’t equal Timewyrm: Revelation, but if you’ve never reread it–or never read it for the first time–it’s worth going back to.