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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Recommended: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air contains guns, magic, card-punch computers, monsters, hot air balloons, and more. If you haven't seen anything like this before, then you've never seen Steam Punk. However, Hunt takes the already-flavorful magical-old-world-meets-old-tech blend of Steam Punk and cranks it up about three notches by adding in an intense political landscape and a religious movement that plays off the bloody rituals of the Aztecs. Hunt lays it all out, and stashes a crazy surprise for the reader around every corner. And it all works nicely, blending interesting ideas that might otherwise be found in Sci-Fi into an action-packed story.

The majority of The Court of the Air takes place in a kingdom called Jackals. Like England of our world, it's ruled by a parliament. However, sessions of parliament regularly devolve into brawls, and challenges of leadership are settled with duels using "debating sticks." The kingdom is protected by its legendary aerostatical navy, which is a fleet of airships that outclass the simpler hot air balloons used by rival countries. As if that wasn't protection enough, the navy is backed up by the King's Special Guard, a squad of soldiers with fantastical superhero-like powers. And Jackals is just the beginning of Hunt's world. Next door lies the Steamman Free State, a state populated by intelligent steam-powered robots. On another border lies the Caliphate, where womb-magery, a nasty (shudder-worthy in fact) form of magically-enhanced genetic engineering, is openly practiced. Underneath Jackals runs a vast underground populated by criminals, refugees, revolutionaries, and an ancient entity or two.

The Court of the Air features two protagonists. The first is Molly Templar, a poor-house girl with a knack for the mechanical. Her life changes abruptly when hired killers slaughter the poor house in search of her. The second is Oliver Brooks, a young man with a mysterious past. Through his uncle's friend, the disreputable Harry Stave, he becomes entangled in the intrigues of the secret society known as the Court of the Air. From here, the two protagonists travel their own unique paths to discover a threat that endangers not only Jackals, but the world as well.

I really enjoyed this book. Like most Steam Punk, fantastical contraptions and equally fantastical descriptions fill the book. For any fan of the genre, these are fun and expected. However, there's plenty that make this book stand on its own. Three things in particular hit me. The first was the world, which is dirty and grimy, and comes complete with a veritable Pandora's toolbox of problems. These problematic, mismatched tools of technology, magic, religion, and politics work together to make the world distraught and conflicted, and thus very interesting. The excellent world building has an added bonus of creating characters with a lot of depth. Many of the minor characters benefit from the complexities and contradictions of their world, including one of my favorites, the villainous yet genteel Count Vauxtion.

The inclusion of the Aztec-like religion was the second hit. Although the names of the insectoid god-things feels a little like Nahuatl syllable soup (take an Aztec name, mix up some syllables), the combination of the fearsome religion known best for its rituals of human sacrifice with the alien insect mind works very well. I have a strong interest in Mexican-American history and culture, so this was a bonus for me. However, I think that these potent villains should provide a menacing thrill for even the casual reader.

The final hit was the steammen. With their curious and stoic religion (religious robots!) and wide variety of design and personality, they steal the show. From the disgraced, gruff warrior Steamswipe, to the philosophical "slipthinker" (think: multiprocessor brain able to remotely control multiple bodies in parallel) Aliquot Coppertracks, to the abomination Silver Onestack, cobbled together from multiple dead steammen by meddling human wizards, to King Steam himself: I loved them all. Every time I read about a "soul board" or a mystical ritual such as "throwing the cogs" for a prophetic reading, or watched as Coppertracks controlled one of his many "mu bodies," I grinned. Really, it's just fun, enchanting stuff. If and when I reread this book, it will because Coppertracks and his buddies called me back.

In conclusion, if you want a ripping good read, grab this book. If you like Steam Punk, you're in for an added bonus. Stephen Hunt isn't one of the bigger names in the industry yet, but his talent deserves many more eyes. I'm eagerly anticipating Court's sequels, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon.

Some Extra Notes

I found a couple of traits of this book to be of particular interest, although perhaps not to people who don't share my hobbies. The first was the vocabulary. I'm a Gene Wolfe enthusiast, perhaps almost a Gene Wolfe scholar, and as such, I've read most of his works, as well as some works that are said to have inspired him. This includes Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. I don't know if it's just my mind picking up on details and making connections that were not intended by the author, but I found Hunt's vocabulary in some circumstances to be reminiscent of Wolfe's and Vance's. In particular, the words "lictor" (Wolfe) and "animalcule" (Vance) bonked me on the head, and seemed almost homage-like. I also found the "womb-magery" to be similar in flavor to some of the practices of the colonists in Wolfe's Long Sun books. However, I realize that these are not new ideas, and any connection is probably coincidental.

Stephen Hunt runs SF Crow's Nest as well as the Hive Mind social network.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Some quick thoughts on science

Pop quiz! Let's test your science IQ.

Question 1: Scientists discover a correlation between rain (environmental factor) and autism in a few specific geographic locations. Should we conclude rain causes autism?

The first news article served up by The Google: "The public shouldn't jump to conclusions because these studies are valuable only after being repeatedly confirmed". Full credit to Mr. Paul Nyhan. Disturbingly, Scientific American offered no such disclaimer.

This kind of result is what I call hypothesis generation. We should not draw conclusions from this study, but the result is at best intriguing enough to suggest that perhaps we should now test the hypothesis that increased rainfall causes autism. For bonus credit: how would you test this hypothesis?

By the way, it's well known that autism is linked to genetics. Environmental triggers may also play a role, but scientists don't yet know what those triggers are (if they exist). Many environmental triggers have been suggested in the past. As far as rain goes, the news reports that I read mostly speculated about sunlight exposure. (I immediately questioned whether mold could be implicated, but this is pure speculation.)

Note that it is very important to read the original study to judge the scientific merits of any claims, as I've grumbled about elsewhere. In today's post, I refer solely to secondary literature (news on the interwebs).

Question 2: Health officials recommend pregnant women and children avoid eating game killed with lead bullets. Spot the logical errors in this news report.

The article as given on CNN has at least two leaps of logic that I see. (The original CDC report might include data that support the assertions made here, but unfortunately I can't seem to track it down to check.)

Final thoughts on vaccines, autism, and toxicity (or, blatantly trolling for the anti-vaccine crowd): I've read some internet rumors that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. might be asked to serve in the Obama administration. Great Humperdinck, no! Anyone who fails basic scientific literacy regarding vaccines and autism (try this or this for critiques) should not be serving in any high-level government role.

What's next, banning aluminum because it's "toxic"? Ooh, ooh -- iodine! Vitamin A! Iron! All poisons promoted by government conspiracies! We're poisoning the children!

Scientific literacy: It's Important.