Birthday Loot 2017.

My birthday isn’t over, and I expect to be adding at least one more item to the list later today, but I wanted to get the post up so those who wish to congratulate me can do so (and those who are going to envy the books can get their envy on). So far generous souls have added the following books to my collection:

Time and Narrative, Volume 1 by Paul Ricoeur
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
The Ghosts of Birds by Eliot Weinberger
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America by Bernard Bailyn
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia by Alison K. Smith
A History of Russian Thought by William Leatherbarrow (ed.)
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The last three have no indication of the giver (except for an indecipherable squiggle on the “Sender’s signature” line on the customs declaration for the Smith book); don’t worry, you’ll get your karma upgrade even if I don’t know your identity. And I got myself Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson; the reviews suggest that it will enable me to finally start understanding Bakhtin.

Update: My wife gave me Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia by Valerie Kivelson; I very much enjoyed her Autocracy in the Provinces: The Muscovite Gentry and Political Culture in the Seventeenth Century, and I’m looking forward to this. (Maps! It’s got maps!)


  1. The Barbarous Years is an excellent, excellent book. Very eye-opening about just how brutal early Colonial history was.

  2. Yes, as I told bulbul (the giver): “You know how I love a good bloody, brutal history, and this should be very satisfying. I like to sit here in my comfy Massachusetts house and think back a few hundred years to when the air resounded with the shrieks and whoops of cruel war…”

  3. Happy birthday! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Dark Forest as I seem to recall you were fairly meh about the first book in the series (The Three-Body Problem).

  4. Happy birthday!

  5. I seem to recall you were fairly meh about the first book in the series (The Three-Body Problem).

    No, I found it quite gripping; it has the usual flaws of hard sf, but I don’t mind them if the sf part is good, and I’m looking forward to the sequel (which somebody on MetaFilter said was very good).

  6. @languagehat: What do you find to be the flaws of hard SF? The issue I usually see is that a writer doesn’t really understand the science, or the scientific ideas become dated and clearly unrealistic too quickly. The other tendency I see is for books or series to start out very hard and then soften as they go on.

    I’m curious what others think about the role of hard SF right now, because I just read some fairly hard SF over the last few days, and I found some aspects of it rather puzzling. What I read was Ben Bova’s Exiles Trilogy, of which I read the first book, Exiled From Earth when I was a kid. The first two books are pretty hard, but the third gets much softer. It also changes tone in other ways. Exiled From Earth and Flight of Exiles do not seem to have been aimed at the young adult market, although the edition of Exiled From Earth that I read in the 1980s was clearly for the young adult market. However, the last book, End of Exile, got much softer (with a laser teleporter unit) and also had a much more young adult feel to it (with almost exclusively teenage characters, and a simpler story).

    Bova himself opined, in the introduction to his book As On a Darkling Plain that there really wasn’t a different between hard and soft SF, essentially making an argument from ignorance, that we can’t really know that some things are impossible. This was in the context of justifying a multiple-scale fix-up. As On a Darkling Plain was assembled from some of his earlier hard stories, plus some additional material for the novel; and he also decided to fit the novel into a much softer series that he was assembling from other books. (To add to the complexity, he also expanded one of the short stories that went into As On a Darkling Plain into another full-length novel in a different continuity.)

    I may have mentioned in another comment here that I find that I can write fantasy or hard SF but not soft SF. Of course, what counts as hard versus soft depends somewhat on the field. The physics of my own SF has to be rock hard; I find it too distracting to write anything that does not conform to our understanding of the physical world. I know less about other scientific fields, so I can afford to be a bit more speculative when writing about neuroscience, for example.

  7. SFReader says:

    Jules Verne wrote hard SF and H.G. Wells wrote soft SF.

    But do we care?

  8. What do you find to be the flaws of hard SF?

    The lack of the standard literary virtues: good writing (on the sentence/paragraph level), characterization, that sort of thing. I mean, that isn’t what hard SF’s about, and I can do without it, but I prefer it when it’s there (as in Ann Leckie’s trilogy). For me, the distinction between hard SF and soft SF is not about possibility or closeness to currently accepted science but has to do with how seriously people are treated as people rather than (as is traditional in hard SF) as convenient vehicles for ideas and plot points. As a youth I enjoyed Astounding/Analog, but loved F&SF and Galaxy, because the latter were far more welcoming to traditional literary values. But hey, spaceships and distant planets will always get my pulse racing!

  9. Oh, a belated “Happy Birthday”!

  10. Thanks!

  11. The same from me, and of course happy birthday to myself (born 1958-07-02).

  12. And a happy birthday to you, then!

  13. Michael Eochaidh says:

    Cartographies of Tsardom looks interesting. I hope she got you the paperback; Amazon US lists the current price of a used hardcover at $2850.99.

    On another note, the other thing that drives me crazy about hard SF is clumsy exposition (i.e., infodumps). I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves last year and he would go on for pages describing orbital mechanics. Despite the thinly-veiled characters largely taken from today’s world (Neil deGrasse Tyson and a younger version of Hilary Clinton are in there) it was just compelling enough that I was able to finish. (Although it was pretty close in the last third, where his genetics were questionable.)

  14. I hope she got you the paperback

    Yes indeed!

    the other thing that drives me crazy about hard SF is clumsy exposition (i.e., infodumps)

    Yup, me too.

  15. Well, of course, if you define “hard SF” as bad writing, of course you’ll only find bad examples of it. Pick up a current copy of Analog some day and you might be surprised.

  16. I’m not defining “hard SF” as bad writing, I’m saying its focus is generally on things other than literary virtues. I didn’t say it was incompatible with them, and in fact I explicitly mentioned Ann Leckie as an example of successfully combining them.

  17. Happy birthday! Did you post a wish list somewhere that I missed? I’d be delighted to send you a book, but only if it’s something you really want.

  18. My wish list is linked in the right column, under the e-mail and ID info: “If you’re feeling generous: my Amazon wish list.” But nobody should feel obliged to make use of it!

  19. Sarah Pinsker’s “And Then There Were (N-One)” is a very enjoyable example of what I would call soft sf, not because of the alternate-universe theme (who knows whether that’s impossible or not?) but because (to quote my earlier formulation) people are treated as people rather than as convenient vehicles for ideas and plot points. It’s not literary fiction, but it’s damn good sf.

  20. It’s not literary fiction, but it’s damn good sf.

    Bah. As Le Guin says, why doesn’t Dick belong on the shelf between Dibdin and Dickens, who wasn’t “literary fiction” when he was being published either?

  21. Well, he does, and that’s why the Library of America published a three-volume hardback edition of his most important work in 2007. If it took a few decades after Dickens’s death for his work to be reassessed as “literary” rather than “popular” (I’m not familiar with that history but that’s what I assume you/Le Guin mean), it actually sounds like Dick is right on schedule. The mills of canonization grind slow etc.

    Edited to add: Speaking of Le Guin and the LOA, I see that the Hainish novels and stories are coming out in two volumes this September! (I never did get around to reading the Complete Orsinia, shameful to relate.)

  22. Well, fair enough, though I rather stacked the deck by mentioning Dibdin (Charles Dibdin, not Michael Dibdin, still less Michael Dibdin Heseltine), who went from popularity to obscurity without ever becoming a classic. He is best known today for a few of his songs, says WP.

    But then what among new work is “literary fiction”? Is it anything more than marketing-speak for “probably won’t sell very many copies”?

  23. Like pornography, I know it when I see it.

  24. Paging jamessal….

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