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Monday, February 14, 2005

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

Title: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

Author: Simon Winchester



Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 is a combination of history, geology,political science and memoir, all wrapped up into one package. The book focuses around the eruption (explosion, really) of the islandof Krakatoa, a volcanic island that used to exist in Southeast Asia. I say used to exist because, on the titular date, the island literally blew up in the largest explosion in recorded human history. (There have been four larger volcanic explosions,but no one was around to write anything about it). The explosion scattered ash throughout the atmosphere, caused massive pressure waves, tsunami, and other natural disaster type effects. All in all, it was a pretty catastrophic event.

The book itself is a bit rambling in it’s course. After a brief introduction, where we learn how and when Winchester became interested in Krakatoa, the book launches into a brief history of the nearby Indonesian islands, principally focusing on the Dutch colonization and establishment of the spice trade in that part of the world. It’s a very cursory overview, but Winchester is attempting to set the stage not write a definitive historical text. The overview also establishes a few key figures and objects that either observed Krakatoa, or somehow become important once the explosion itself occurs.

From there, Winchester launches into what may be the most off-tangent segment of the book, which is essentially a brief history of geology. Over the course of this segment, it comes out that Winchesteris, in fact, a trained geologist, and was part of an expedition that recovered from fairly important samples that lead to major discoveries in the field. The tangent is interesting in it’s own right, but I think it could have been cut a bit shorter. While there are parts directly related to the Krakatoa story, a lot of it is only connected by way of saying “this is stuff that helps explain what happened, but no one understood it until one hundred years after the explosion.” Still, Winchester has a good reading voice (he reads the text himself in the audio version), and the discussion isn’t awful either.And to be fair, I hit this part at about 11pm, when almost anything morecomplex than Dr. Seuss might start to hard to follow.

After the brief history of geology, we go back to Krakatoa,this time to discuss the actual events and their effects. As I said, tsunamis, ash,smoke, fire (cats & dogs, living together, mass hysteria!)…lots of bad things happen when a small island explodes, and Winchester gives good and interesting detail about the events, and how the inhabitants of nearby islands dealt with them. From there, he moves out to start discussing the ramifications of the explosion,which are actually fairly impressive. Aside from the obvious physical effects,Krakatoa does, at least in part, contribute to the beginnings of modern concepts about globalization and global weather systems. (The pressure wave from the explosion was so powerful that it reverberated around the world something like 7 or 14 times). It’s also connected with some of the earliest examples of anti-western Islamic violence in the Indonesian archipelago (some Muslims took the explosion as a sign of the end times), and has a variety of other useful scientific effects as well.

All in all, it’s a pretty interesting book. The amount of information varies a great deal – it seems like there’s much more on the science end than there is on the socio-political end, but I may be misinterpreting that (it’s hard to tell listening to a book, instead of reading it).

Definitely worth the listen, probably worth the read, if you’re interested in semi-obscure historical events.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Thieves’ World™: First Blood

Title: Thieves’ World™: First Blood

Ed: Robert Lynn Asprin & Lynn Abbey

Publisher: TOR

ISBN: 031287488X

Several years ago, some friends of mine from the Young Writers Workshop ( and I came up with the idea of writing a series of short science fiction stories that were all set in the same universe. Each story would tell a small part of a larger story, based in large part on our collective experience playing a game of lazer tag at an YWW reunion. The project never got that far, which is unfortunate, because if First Bloodis any indication, we probably could have made it work.

Thieves’ World: First Blood is a collection of the first two Thieves’ World anthologies, making it a sort of super-anthology. The premise behind the collections was simple – to get a number of prominent fantasy authors to work together in creating a shared fantasy setting. Each author could use the same set pieces, characters, and even events would overlap between the various stories. This would not only give the authors great deal of flexibility, but also help them to create a living, breathing world, were different signature characters could interact, or at least pass in the street.

The result of these collaborations is Sanctuary, a backwatercity in the Rankan Empire. As Old Ben Kenobi would have it, “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than you will within these walls.”Sanctuary is a bad place, full of thieves, murderers, slavers, prostitutes,grifters, and thousands of other ne’er-do-wells. In point of fact, being a criminal seems to be a requirement for residency in the city. As the first anthology opens, control of the city has recently been given to a young Rankan prince who, with the help of his loyal guardsmen (the Hell Hounds), seeks to restore some kind of order to the city.

It’s a fairly interesting premise – the results, however,are a bit mixed. The tone of the stories varies wildly, particularly between the first and second halves of the book (which originally were two separate books). The earlier stories give the reader the impression of a very Conan-like world – magic is rare, mysterious, and not to be trifled with, gods, if they exist, are aloof and beyond mortal ken. Life is hard, grim, and one cannot rely on much besides one’s own strength for aid.

As the stories go on, this tone starts to change, and the world of Sanctuary starts to develop into more of a high fantasy tone. By the end, we have gods directly meddling in mortal affairs, powerful mages who have conversations in bars, god-blessed/cursed warriors, parallel dimensions, and other assorted fantasy weirdness.

This isn’t BAD necessarily, but it is jarring. Despite the stories nominal interconnectedness, there comes a point where it really feels like we’ve moved into another setting all together. Personally, I preferred the darker, grimmer tones, but other people may enjoy the high fantasy stuff too.(Note – I do enjoy high fantasy, but I felt that dark and grim better suited the “Thieves’ World” concept.)

As you might expect, the quality of the stories varies greatly. The blessing and curse of any anthology is that you’re likely to find some things you really like, and some you just don’t. I particularly liked “The Face of Chaos” (Lynn Abbey), “The Price of Doing Business” (Robert Asprin),“Myrtis” (Christine Dewees), Spiders of the Purple Mage” (Philip Jose Farmer) and “The Fruit of Enlibar” (LynnAbbey, again. Yes, I really like Lynn Abbey’s writing.). Andrew Offutts stories I could give a pass on, as I could just about any story featuring Tempus, a warrior blessed/cursed by the god of war, rape, and slaughter. He feels a little too much like a character created by a thirteen-year old D&D player.

Overall, it’s a good collection, and worth the read. Skip authors that you don’t like, but beware – because these stores are interconnected, skipping a story may cause you to miss you on certain pieces of information. I personally found the first half of the book more enjoyable, but both halves have some gems in them.

Now, if I just get that starbase alpha crew back together…