Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Camber the Heretic (1981)

Reading Camber the Heretic (1981) by Katherine Kurtz, you know what you're getting. We have our same old cast of characters dealing powerlessly and ineffectively with the anti-Deryni backlash that was predicted in book 1. This ain't no feel-good fantasy.

Objectively, the primary characters have done a terrible job preparing over two books. Once the king dies, the nutcases get all the power and start running with it, pushing the genocide button with glee. Other than that, we get a one sided Shakespearean tragedy where the evil tyrant takes over nobody really wins. One is not left with any charm or glee.

If you've loved the series so far, you'll love this. If the series doesn't work for you, this book won't work for you.

Because the book covers so much territory, Kurtz wades through event, relating important events via second hand accounts rather than writing through them. On one hand, this is annoying as you are always hearing about some event, but on the other, if she had written all these event out, she would have produced a Russian epic without the interesting parts. (Are there any interesting parts in a Russian epic? I'll leave that as a question to the class.)

Myself, I didn't love the book and I skimmed the whole thing. The plot isn't complicated. Good guys are ineffective. Bad things happen to good guys, but not too many bad things. Everything winds up awful. If you want to see what happens next, pop off and read her earlier series where good stuff happens again.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saint Camber (1978)

Saint Camber (1978) follows up Camber of Culdi, exploring the early reign of the new king. Fearing a backlash against the Deryni, because the king rightfully resents all his horrible treatment at the hands of Camber, Camber fakes his down death, and from there, thing spiral slow, very slowly, quite slowly, out of control.

If've you've gotten this far, you already know Kurtz's wordy style, which you either like or don't like. If you like her wordy style, you'll add on stars to this review, but if you don't love a wordy style, then the book is better skimmed. Overall, the plot arc is a little bit more complex than the first book in the series, but not by much. Much of the world building can be flat-out ignored as most of it is sufficiently well covered in the dialog, and you can pick up the rest by context.

The plot rattles around like shaking a spray can. At first, the plot didn't rattle, but as the book shook along, the rattles increased into a manic ratta-tat-tat. It's a good enough plot, but not one designed to grab and hold your attention. It doesn't so much have plot twists as plot gentle curves, well graded, and easily driven through.

For me, the work wasn't compelling, so I skimmed it in a few hours.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Camber of Culdi (1976)

Camber of Culdi (1976) by Katherine Kurtz demonstrates that one can go beyond a feast of words into a bulk purchase of words delivered on a pallet.

The books has a very simple plot. Via false information, the corrupt king fears that Camber and his family are plotting insurrection by searching for a rival heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Camber and his kin are plotting insurrection by searching for a rival heir to the throne. That's it. At time, the histrionics felt a bit Shakespearean, but the plot never approached anything near the Bard. Even so, the book is noteworthy for being a political historical fantasy at a time when sword and sorcery and combat finales dominated the fantasy market. The book lies directly on the lineage leading to A Game of Thrones.

I had my trouble with the good guys. The "good guys" kidnap a monk, alter his mind through forced magic hypnosis, force him to break his vows, marry him to a fifteen year old young-woman just to produce an heir, then overthrown the government.

I found this novel quite skimmable. Most of the world details just didn't matter. The dialogue more than covered the events. By skipping all the detailed world building, I greatly improved the readability of the work. In my opinion, most of the words felt like filler.

The novel was rare for having a clear and well justified prologue. It did what a prologue out to do, which is to frame the story so that the reader can understand events in context and generally know what to expect. In this case, the novel plays out more like a history than an adventure tale. The prologue wasn't needed, but it was well executed.

Don't take any of this as being against Katherine's writing. I found it all quite competent, just not to my taste. If you like detailed character interactions and extraordinary detail, you ought to love this book, but if you don't, you'll find it a slog. So, pick what's best for you and have a good read.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Eye of the Heron (1978)

The Eye of the Heron (1978) by Ursula LeGuin is an SF style novel of … wait for it … Ursula LeGuin. If you're holding this book in your hand, you already know what you're in for. Go slow, think about what you're reading, and don't expect Hollywood anything. LeGuin writes exactly the sort of story that she wants to write.

It's a short novel examining a group of two people, following through the stages of what happens when a peace oriented movement conflicts with a power oriented culture in a far away colony of Earth. The story introduces characters, moving them along here and there as the story wishes. As I said, it's not a Hollywood story, so the beats falls in different places and different ways.

I generally enjoyed the story and enjoyed pacing, although LeGuin's tone always feels a little sterile to me. That's LeGuin.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Audophilia Considered Against Variations in Biology and Psychoaccoustic Sensory Processing

The human form is full of variations, both subtle and gross. These variations are well recognized and accepted. Hair color, eye color, temperament, size, and face shape are part and parcel of how we tell each other apart. Yet, we also know that these traits can vary too far, leading to such traits as albinism, dwarfism, and birth defects.

We know that our senses also very. Some people have good sight, while others do not. Some people have keener taste buds or sensitive skin. These variations in senses are familiar and well established.

Given that there is such pervasive variation, we would be fools to think that our auditory system is somehow immune from this phenomena. The exact shape of our ears, the thickness of our eardrums, the minute variations in our ear canals and cochlea must have some material impact on the sound that we perceive. Likewise, how our brains process those input is equally subject to variation, containing its own extreme cases and unusual states.

Given that hearing is subject to variation, we can predict that different listeners will prefer different speakers, liking ones that work with their ears better than ones that don't work with their ears, making the choosing of speakers rather a subjective measure. What sounds perfect to one person will not, in general, sound as perfect to another.

All that is to get us to a few statements that I've heard audiophiles make.

Mark Guttenberg tells the story of him being a salesman of hi-fi equipment and bringing ordinary people in. They would listen, say how nice an awesome stereo sounded, and then leave. They would not be blown away by the experience. How could that happen?

A number of other audiophiles tell a different interesting story. One of the goals of the audiophile is to create a stereo system where the speakers disappear and they are left with a sound stage. They want this experience. They want to be blown away. They don't want to hear the speakers.

How can we have two different populations with such different experiences from the same equipment? Are the audiophiles just crazy? Maybe, or maybe there is a physical or cognitive difference between the two groups, that audiophiles and non-audiophiles experience sound differently.

I'll use myself as an example. I wanted to get a better understanding of what it meant to hear a speaker, so I concentrated on a speaker only to discover that I could not concentrate on the speaker. No matter what I did, not matter how badly I disarranged my speakers or my warped my experience, the moment that I turned on the music, the speakers disappeared. I could not stop this phenomena. My brain just did it. Am I crazy or do I have some super-power? No, I don't think so. I think that I fit in with the majority of humanity and I have the subconscious ability to simply ignore the source of a sound, cognitively building a virtual sound field on the fly. So, if you sit me down with an awesome stereo system, I will hear a wonderful setup and say how nice it is because the experience proffered by that system it is my normal musical experience. Yeah, that's exactly how it usually sound.

Now, let's say that you have a brain that through normal variation, is absolutely fantastic at localizing sound. That's an advantage, because you can hear where animals are, or warning you of danger, which is pretty good. If people are playing in bands, you're really be good at picking instruments apart and knowing where everyone is. You'll be able to hear everything. However, once speakers are invented, those same people with their localizing super-powers will hear exactly where speakers are located instead of any simulated sound field. Their awesome hearing ability would now work against them, and ruin their spacial skills at the same time.

Given that power, how do you get around it? You would build a stereo system so incredibly well tuned that you ears can no longer localize it. Once you do that, wow, you get blown away because you can actually hear the sound field and localize instruments and performers exactly as you expect to. (For the rest of the article, when I say audiophiles, I mean this subset of them. I presume that audiphilia is actually more complex than this.)

In this theory, the difference between audiophiles and non-audiophiles is that non-audiophiles get the audiophile experience out of everything. Their real life experience isn't very precise. Because non-audiophiles are the majority, the consumer level stereo systems will be built for them, meaning that their entry into music listening is cheap and pervasive, with little attention paid to precision and detail. This also means that audio recordings are aimed towards them, so the engineering for those recordings can vary a great deal because the majority can adapt to this near capricious level of sound play.

Meanwhile, audiophiles must build far more precise and sophisticated systems in order to approach the same experience as they get in real life. Capricious mixing messes with their sense of space, throwing off their enjoyment. They will prefer albums with exquisite and consistent 3D engineering, so that they can correctly orient on instrument, allowing them to orient on those specific locations. 

This theory explains why musicians aren't audiophiles. If the origin of an audiophile is in how one perceives sound, then musicians are no more or less likely to perceive sounds in a specific way than the population at large.

This theory explains audiophile recordings. Many modern recordings are stylized, bearing no relationship to reality. This sort of recording must sound very disconcerting to an audiophile because wold not localize correctly. However, recordings which do correctly reproduce a 3D audio arrangement would gain recognition by listening audience. So audiophile recordings require more than nice sound, they require a sane and consistent rendering of the musical stage.

This theory explains why audiophiles are so concerned about room setup. Non-audiophiles can adjust their listening on the fly, ignoring echoes and the like, but audiophiles can't, and so these elements detract from their listening, breaking immersion.

Is this theory right? It's interesting. It gives me a framework to help understand certain statements from audiophiles that don't match my personal experience. It gives me an understanding to how audiophiles can gather around similar requirements, and the origins of those requirements. It also helps me to understand why audiophiles can't understand the reactions of others. They have no framework to understand the equally interesting abilities of the hoi palloi.

What this theory does not address is the rise of headphone listening, nor its implications, the decline of the stand-alone stereo, the change in youth culture, the change in fashions, and the gender imbalance among audiophiles. There's far more going on in audiophile land than my little pet theory can stand up to.

Even if this theory is completely wrong, human variation must play a role in the audio reproduction because having no variation would be an extraordinary claim.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Daughter of the Bright Moon (1979)

Daughter of the Bright Moon (1979) by Lynn Abbey is the perfect example of a 70's style fantasy while also being an example of feminist fantasy. The feminist fantasy follows the usual story for this period, a woman working hard to get what she wants despite all the barriers thrown in her way due to her gender. The barriers are not because of her gender, but are because of what others think that her gender belongs. Meanwhile, it's a 70's fantasy, which means that the hero Rifkin kicks ass, does magic, and does this all at age 19. You could call her a Mary Sue, but by that definition, but all the heroes back then would be Mary Sue's.

This was Lynn's Abbey's first published work and it shows. The pacing has issues. One pushes through it more than one is drawn along. Her tale bogs down in the oddest places, leaving you to wonder where the novel is going, and when you get where you're going, the novel often chases its own tail.

The novel is not without its interesting charms or takes. Rifkin seems to be feminine embodiment of emotionless masculinity, giving her an overall dull sheen. Few readers will find her endearing, especially as she different from all the other girls, but by the same manner, different from all the other boys. Like so many characters from that decade, she was born a barbarian, so the acts and thinks like a combat happy barbarian in a civilized world, creating some comedy early on. At times, the tone leans a little too much towards farce, but then wrenches itself back.

The characters are all there, more or less, and reasonably consistent, but the motivations leave something to be desired. While the work offers itself as a sword and sorcery, it's too thick and slow to be one of those, and certainly lacks enough fight scenes. Meanwhile, its doesn't quite capture the comedy of manners or the conflicts of cultures as it could. This is why it's such a strange beast of a book. There's just no enough melodrama to carry it along.

Beyond Rifkin, most of the secondary characters don't amount to much. They do their part, but they're poorly realized. They're generally competent without being engaging.

I think that most people who try to read this will put it down. I don't blame them. However, if you do read it, there's some interesting world development and curious takes on magic. It's worth a look if you enjoy the era.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Making Speakers Disappear

The goal of every stereophile is to make the speaker disappear, to become transparent to the music.

In this regard, I am blessed, because for me, all speakers are transparent, even bad ones. That's just how my brain works. I don't have to chase the tail of transparency because my brain uses its incredible audio hardware to do that for me.

I doubt that I'm the only one, which makes me wonder if non-audiophiles are the folks that do this automatically, and audiophiles are the ones who have to do this manually, to do this thing which everyone else takes for granted. That would certainly account for them feeling "blown away" by an experience that everyone else takes for granted. That would explain why non-stereophiles hear a great system and say, "nice," but aren't blown away, because any system does that for them.

It's a theory.