Monday, December 31, 2012

Ups and Downs

It's a little after 7 p.m. on December 31 as I type this. The bubbly is still chilling, but won't be for very much longer.

The year past has had its ups and downs, as most years do. Your mileage may vary, but at least in my corner of the universe  there have been no close friends or relatives passing away - though everyone is a year older and, as Pink Floyd reminds us, "another year closer to death," we are all still here. Health issues for various people come and go, though as the cliche says it beats the alternative.

On a larger scale, the country still hasn't decided on a direction. The spenders think we're not taxed enough and the (nominally) thrifty think we're spending too much. This creates an unholy compromise in which we continue to increase spending while continuing to avoid increasing taxes, something that is the most irresponsible outcome of all. Still, one tries to be an optimist and not obsess over these problems unduly.

Back in the Steamlands, different problems arose, but the core of the Steamlands seems strong. People continue to live their lives and have adventures, many of which even end well. I look forward to the upcoming Tales of New Babbage, Vol. 2, in which some of these adventures are committed to print. Perhaps some tales will find their way onto these pages as well.

Is that the sound of a cork popping? Perhaps it is. If so, I raise my glass and wish everyone a healthy and wonderful new year.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Home for the Holidays

They say there is no place like home for the holidays, and I suppose that, technically, the saying is correct. All crazy families are different in their own ways, and who among us has an entirely sane set of relatives?

My brief jaunt home involved a mercifully quick trip up I-95 to Newark, Delaware, home of the Fightin' Blue Hens and, more importantly in this context, my father and stepmother. My sister, her two kids, and her boyfriend joined us, as did my uncle. Most years, the whole family thing devolves into anger at some point, with either my stepmother or politics lighting the fuse. Regarding the latter, it's tough being the only conservative in the group, but tougher when others refuse to let facts or logic get in the way. I'm also not a big fan of arguments at Christmas, so I've tried to avoid the whole subject of politics. Usually I'm not all that successful.

This year, the only time we really veered into the political arena was when my uncle - a staunch liberal from the Vietnam era - noted with some regret the downward spiral of the Washington Post and wondered out loud whether the paper would die a dignified death or go the way of Fox News. I have my own problems with the Post, but I asked what he meant. He said that the paper focused too much on political coverage - fair enough, though that seems like a hazard that comes from being the local paper in the cesspool that is the seat of government - and has become increasingly breathless and hysterical over time. He said that the paper's coverage of Obamacare, something he supports, mind you, told him almost nothing of use. Instead of, say, explaining what a health care exchange was, or even why financial penalties for not having insurance coverage were necessary, the paper spent column after column following the ping-pong of who was supporting the bill, who was mad about it, and what deals were being made. This year, he went on, the coverage of the fiscal cliff made it sound as though disaster would occur on January 2 should no fix be in place by then. A Christmas miracle! We found ourselves in agreement! He took a swipe at those politicians - generally conservative types - who opine that the defense cuts in the sequestration bill would be crippling. A second Christmas miracle, as I agreed with him twice in one discussion! (I had to go ruin it by suggesting he stop reading Paul Krugman, except for amusement.)

It's hard to avoid the stepmotherly craziness, though. One year, during the second President Bush's term in office, she objected to the man's opposition to federal funding of abortions by saying, "I hope someone rapes his daughters and they become pregnant." There was a hasty change of subject at that point by the first person to find her voice again, but ever since then I've wondered if that's the kind of thinking that goes on in the woman's brain on a regular basis. This year, her contribution was not quite as memorable, but still a good 8 or 9 on the offensiveness scale. My father mentioned to my sister that our grandfather had played varsity baseball for Penn State in the early 1930s, to which my stepmother said nastily, "Did he know Sandusky?" Another hasty subject change before I could ask whether she was implying that Penn State harbored a child molester for 80 years or that my grandfather was himself a child molester. I could only conclude that she has some form of Tourette's in which horrible things come out instead of a stream of curse words, but that in either case the words are involuntary.

My sister, bless her heart, once again seemed to have started in on the Christmas cheer before she arrived and didn't slow down once she got there. Fortunately, she's an amiable drunk. (Even more fortunately, she wasn't driving. Her boyfriend was the designated driver, as he, probably wisely, didn't trust the 16-year-old to drive an unfamiliar truck at night.)

Gifts were exchanged, though if I had a say in things I might have suggested keeping the 16- and 14-year-old boys around after they had opened their loot was a recipe for teenage hijinks. At my advanced age, I control boredom by yawning a lot; at that age, the boys just got silly.

Lest this become merely a lengthy whine, I'll note that the adults had a nice conversation, with topics ranging from the propriety of a school fund-raiser attending a funeral of a long-time donor to places not to miss in St. Petersburg, with a side trip to the unhealthy conditions in British Honduras during business trips in the 1960s. Perhaps not your cup of tea, but they're my family, not yours.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Magic and Monsters

Last Wednesday saw the inaugural meeting of the latest discussion series, "Magic, Monsters and Other Worlds: The Fantastic in Victorian Literature."

Hosted as usual by the inimitable Sir JJ Drinkwater and the indomitable Dame Kghia Gherardi, the series will explore a variety of fantastical works by a number of Victorian authors. The subject of Wednesday's discussion was Charles Dickens and "A Christmas Carol" and "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," from The Pickwick Papers.

The two stories share obvious similarities: an unpleasant man meets supernatural beings, is shown the error of his ways, and repents. The better-known "Christmas Carol" is a more fully-developed tale, with a richer set of characters and better-drawn depictions of place.

The discussion was lively, with a substantial panel of participants.

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Sir JJ

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Dame Kghia

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Discussion participants

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The Caledon Library Reading Room

The next meeting will be held Wednesday, January 16, at 4 p.m. SLT, in the Caledon Library Reading Room in Victoria City. The topic will be Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula. I am told by reliable sources that this involves vampires, and that such creatures are most assuredly not sparkly.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Melancholy in Winter

The snows cover the brick streets of New Babbage. The town is decorated for Christmas. For some, it's the happiest time of the year: a crispness in the air, surrounded by family, celebrating a solemn religious event, anticipating an exchange of gifts.

For others, though, winter is the most melancholy time of the year. We think of family departed, friends and lovers lost, mistakes made. Spring may be the time of rebirth, but winter is the time of endings, of death. A time of reflection.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Aether Salon - Who!

December's Aether Salon brought Mr. Vic Mornington to discuss Doctor Who roleplay in Second Life.

In a first for the Salon, Mr. Mornington said his piece in Voice, which worked very well to keep the narrative moving along - I hope some future speakers choose this option.

He noted that several thousand people are SL Doctor Who roleplayers, a startlingly high number, with a variety of TARDIS interiors and exteriors.

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Mr. Mornington displays a picture of a Steampunk TARDIS console.

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A low-prim TARDIS console.

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Some of the 40-plus Salonistas gathered.

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The traditional police box TARDIS.

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I bundle up against the cold.

 A fascinating and very different talk from one of the fixtures of New Babbage.

As always, the full talk will be available at the Aether Salon's aetheric site.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Time to Mourn

As the tragic and horrific events of Friday unfolded, and the magnitude of the toll became clear, most everyone understood that this was a time to mourn - as individuals, as a nation. The reaction of "oh no, not again" is a part of the process; as terrible as one event is, the fact that it is repeated far too often makes the tragedy even worse, as though we recognize the problem but can't find a solution.

Nonetheless, as my friend Mrs. Fogwoman Gray-Volare says, "a lot of folks [] are once again using a tragedy… to promote their own personal agendas." She concludes, "Save the soapbox for a respectful time after the funerals. Show some class."


Wait for facts. Deliberate and debate calmly. Show some respect.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review: Ganymede, by Cherie Priest

Ganymede is the fourth book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series, following Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and Clementine. While the first book took place in and around a ruined Seattle, filled with poisoned air and zombies, and the second book followed the journey of Civil War nurse Mercy Lynch as she travels across the country, avoiding attacks from both soldiers and zombies, Ganymede takes place primarily in New Orleans. Characters from earlier books make cameo appearances, including Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch, but Ganymede is very much a distinct novel set within Priest's Steampunk universe.

The interminable Civil War keeps dragging on, and the independent republic of Texas, while nominally neutral between South and North, has taken control of New Orleans. Josie Early, a black woman who runs a brothel in the Big Easy, contacts Andan Cly, an airship pilot in Seattle and former lover, for a lucrative but dangerous job: extracting a Confederate submersible from under Lake Pontchartrain and delivering the ship to a waiting Union warship in the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier efforts to steer the Ganymede have cost many lives; Josie hopes that an airship pilot would be better-skilled to operate the submersible than someone whose skills are on surface ships.

Providing a thorn in the side of the Texians are the pirates, whose base in Barataria dates from the time of Jean Lafitte. When two Texian officers go missing, the Texians take the opportunity to clear out the pirates' base of operation.

In addition to the danger from both the Texians and the Confederates, Josie must contend with the growing danger from the zombie population of New Orleans. She connects the zombies with sap, the drug that has become increasingly popular, though she is unaware that sap is made from the poisonous gas in Seattle.

Although this novel stands alone from the others in the Clockwork Century series, sap is clearly part of the connective tissue among the three books. I presume that this will be resolved in a future book in the series.

Priest knows how to draw interesting characters: Josie herself, operating a shadowy business despite the twin handicaps of being a black woman in the 19th century South; Ruthie, one of Josie's "girls," with a secret of her own; and Andan, a former sap runner who wants to go straight and fly legitimate cargo, but who is drawn back to New Orleans in large part because of Josie. New Orleans is almost a character in its own right, a place of intrigue, of voodoo, of oppressive humidity and uninhibited behavior. I found the story in Ganymede to be a more interesting one than that of Dreadnought (even though Mercy Lynch is another intriguing character), and look forward to the next book in the series, The Inexplicables (which just came out), which returns the series to Seattle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

First Snow in Mayfair

A light dusting of snow fell in Mayfair, barely enough to stay on the ground in the colder spots.

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Nevertheless, it is a sure sign that winter will be upon us. I need to unpack the Christmas decorations!