Monthly Archives: August 2007

Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

I was alerted (thanks Kate!) to Scott Lynch’s just-released novel Red Seas Under Red Skies, which looks like more swashbuckling piratey fun in the vein of some of my other recent reading. But it’s the second in a series, so I first picked up its predecessor. This post is a spoiler-free review.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora
At first I didn’t think much of the fact that the main character’s name is Locke; it’s an actual name with an old-timey sound, evoking Enlightenment philosophers and spurious silent e’s, and so it’s not too surprising to see it used in fantasy. But when it turned out that Locke Lamora is a gentleman thief with a heart of gold who pines over his lost love, I started to wonder if this weren’t a deliberate reference to another character of that name. Nevertheless, I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt… until I read the chapter where he steals the clothes off a merchant.
This is not to say that the character is lifted directly from his video game counterpart; Locke Lamora has his own style, perpetrating elaborate and lucrative scams on the nobility of his home city Camorr. The first chapter opens in the middle of one such plot, and depicts the unfolding con with a Tarantino-esque nonlinearity, in which the game only becomes clear when the pieces are assembled at the end of the chapter. It’s a nice trick for keeping up the readers in the dark when the protagonists have all the information, and is used fairly often early in the book.
However, Locke gets caught up in much more serious business in the course of executing his latest scheme, and about halfway through the book the story becomes correspondingly darker. The narrative structure likewise becomes more linear as Locke loses control of the situation. The pace becomes faster and faster until all the various plot threads come together in a frantic finale.
It’s not a deep book, but it’s a very well plotted and gripping thriller, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured in three days. The book shares many aspects of its protagonist: clever and witty, a flair for the dramatic, full of surprises. And, well, the stealing: aside from the familiarity of Locke himself, the city of Camorr is a fantasy version of Venice, complete with near-Italian names and phrases (and some appropriate geographical neighbors); several of the characters hew to well-known archetypes (e.g. the mob boss Capa Brasavi); the fantasy elements need little explanation as they are for the most part standard tropes. But I think this is just a way for Lynch to avoid spending too much time on world-building and get right to the action. For presumably the same reason, the backstory gets chopped up and presented in short interludes between chapters. All this could be cause for complaint, except that it’s assembled in a very compelling and effective manner. The interludes are usually relevant to whatever’s happening in the main story at the moment, but I really liked one in particular, placed just after a cliffhanger ending to a chapter, that ended up paralleling the action very nicely.
What Lynch is really going for is not a grand, sweeping epic, but the fantasy equivalent of a heist movie or gangster film. (The reviewers quoted in the front of the book liked to cite Ocean’s Eleven, but that comparison seems to be more suited to the second novel where the characters reportedly rob a casino.) The novel succeeds admirably, both at achieving a cinematic feel and at maintaining the requisite pace and suspense. Highly recommended.

Buffy Night at the Speakeasy

The Speakeasy is a theater in Oakland (there’s also one in El Cerrito) that recently started doing monthly Joss Whedon nights, alternating between Buffy and Firefly on the big screen. Last night was a Buffy night with a decent selection of episodes, so I went to check it out. Some observations:

  • The musical episode “Once More With Feeling” is shown at every Buffy night. The audience is encouraged to sing along, and the subtitles are turned on to facilitate this.

  • However, people don’t seem to be really comfortable singing along: at the start of each song some people would be singing enthusiastically, but this would fade away to a murmur after a few verses.
  • Someone brought stuffed bunnies to throw in the air at the appropriate moment.
  • The other two episodes are usually selected according to a theme; last night’s was a “double feature” double feature: “Dopplegangland” (twin Willows) and “The Replacement” (twin Xanders). The former is one of my favorites, but I’m not a huge fan of the latter and would have preferred (in the spirit of the theme) the late-season-5 episode “Intervention”.
  • Character preferences were clear and fairly uniform: there was widespread cheering at the first appearance of Spike, while Dawn drew boos and hisses, and Riley’s extended bout of lameness at the end of “The Replacement” was drowned out by jeers.
  • Next Buffy night is Halloween; the El Cerrito theater is showing “Fear, Itself” and “All the Way”, although I would prefer to see the second-season “Halloween” (Ethan Rayne!) in place of “All the Way”. The Parkway hasn’t announced its lineup yet (they’ve said it won’t necessarily be Halloween-themed). Anyway, I might be doing something else on Halloween but Buffy night at the Speakeasy was a lot of fun, and definitely worth doing again.

Assorted entertainment

Since I haven’t posted in forever, here’s some of the stuff I’ve been doing instead:

  • Today I saw Stardust, a very enjoyable fairy-tale movie adapted from a Neil Gaiman book. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are both terrific in it. It’s in the vein of the classic The Princess Bride, and almost as good.

  • A week or so ago I finished off the second Robin Hobb fantasy trilogy, The Liveship Traders; I actually really liked this one despite my initial misgivings about the characters. (Indeed, few of the characters are likable at the beginning, but Hobb gives them interesting character arcs in which they become better people through suffering. Lots of suffering.) It’s piratey as hell, with peglegs and hidden treasure and wonderful epic battle scenes on the high seas.
  • So naturally I started the next trilogy, which begins with Fool’s Errand. By now I’ve learned that Robin Hobb takes her time to get the story going, but here she aims to break all the records, with so little happening that it takes until page 224 until the main character even leaves his house. (I’m being a little unfair here since there’s a bunch of backstory that’s related through flashback, but still. Get on with it!)
  • Guitar Hero Rocks the ’80s has been fun, but always leaves me with some stupid hair-metal song stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
  • Via Mortaine I learn of DM of the Rings, a webcomic that retells Lord of the Rings as if it is being played out in a D&D game. This may sound like the nerdiest thing ever, and it is, which probably means many of you have seen it already. Still, it’s brilliant. I especially like it when events make more sense told this way, such as in this strip (probably my favorite).

Academics and sex, or the lack thereof

Via Shellock, there’s a fascinating post at Gene Expression on various findings that show that intelligence is correlated with delayed sexual activity. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the post and I encourage reading the whole thing, but I want to point out the results I found surprising. Not because they go against stereotype—they actually confirm “science nerd” stereotypes, but I had convinced myself that these were just stereotypes without much basis in fact. These numbers indicate otherwise: (emphasis in original)

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

I was quite shocked that the numbers were this low; I obviously know a lot of grad students, and though I haven’t polled them on this subject, I would have guessed a much higher percentage. (I’m not chauvinistic enough to suggest that MIT grad students are less sociable than those at Berkeley—I expect the populations are pretty comparable, at least in departments like physics.)
However, I may be thinking too narrowly in terms of the stereotype of scientists who are virgins because they are socially maladjusted. (There are people like this in the community, but it’s a small fraction.) The Gene Expression post lists a number of other possible reasons this could appear as an aggregate effect, and argues for a few of them as contributing factors. (At an individual level, of course, it will be strongly path-dependent.)
One factor that wasn’t mentioned there is culture. This could manifest in at least two ways. The first is that a substantial fraction of grad students in technical fields are immigrants from cultures that are much more sexually conservative. Thus, even if these students themselves don’t hold conservative views, they may be less likely to have had sex. The second is that the culture in academia seems to me to be less sexually charged than in other spheres. This is not to say that it’s sexually restrictive—as the Gene Expression post points out, most academics hold liberal views about sex—but it’s less focused on going out and getting laid than, say, the Late Night Shots crowd. Our lab’s monthly board game nights aren’t terribly conducive to hook-ups (although surprisingly conducive to drunkenness).
Anyway, this might explain the results of the academic polls, but the original post is concerned with correlations with IQ rather than academic achievement. A logical extension would be to look at people in other intellectually-demanding disciplines, like law or medicine. Would the numbers be similar? My guess is no, but I may be stereotyping again.