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The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lloyd Biggle Jr. is best known for bringing the arts to science fiction (just as Mack Reynolds brought sociology and economics to SF). He had a gentle, thoughtful style that made his books a pleasure to read; in that, his work resembles that of James White.

The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets is classic Biggle. The premise may perhaps seem a bit naive in these harsh days of realpolitik; a Galactic Federation which cannot expand unless a planet at its borders becomes a planetary democracy, without overt interference by Galactic agents. The natives of the planet, Gurnil, have a relatively low level of technology; they are not aware that aliens walk among them. If they discover that, the planet will be considered "blown", and the Galactic agents will have to withdraw in failure.

Those agents are also hampered by a web of regulations, rules, and maxims.

When Forzon, an officer of the Cultural Survey, is mysteriously reassigned to Gurnil he must not only find out why he was reassigned, but how to apply his speciality, the arts, to turning a brutal monarchy into a peaceful democracy. The natives have a magnificent appreciation of beauty and art, but seem to have virtually no political awareness. Forzon is allowed to introduce one technological innovation to the planet, but how can a single change literally revolutionize an entire world?

Biggle's answer is memorable and believable.

It must be noted that the book was first published in 1968, and that Biggle was not one of the "New Wave" authors who were in ascendence at that time. To some, his style may seem a little old-fashioned, though it's eminently readable. The romantic relationship between Forzon and Ann Curry, one of his agents, may also seem rather a bit dated - although accusations of sexism are not credible, since Forzon never treats Ann with less than respect, and her mistakes are not the stereotypical "stupid helpless female" behavior that was a staple of the poorer sort of science fiction a generation earlier.

The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets is a short, elegant, and thoughtful example of a type of science fiction which is still all too rare. It's well worth reading, and re-reading. Although it's quite a short book, Biggle wrote other memorable books on the same general theme, and most of them are back in print.

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Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 03: 1941 Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 03: 1941 by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A cynic once said something like "The Golden Age of science fiction is about sixteen."

But they're wrong. 1941 was the heart of the Golden Age of science fiction. And this book is the proof.

If you've read a fair selection of classic SF, some of these stories will doubtless be familiar to you. Others probably won't be. In any case, these are some of the all-time classics of the genre.

Each story is introduced by Isaac Asimov, and he provides some interesting (and tantalizing) commentary. I can't help but wonder, for example, why he included Fredric Brown (one of my favorite writers) as an author whose personality was different from his stories (as opposed to authors who resembled their stories, some of whom he also lists). I was surprised and pleased to see that Asimov was, like me, a fan of Robert Arthur as well - although I have to admit that Arthur's story may be the weakest one in the book (though still worth reading!).

There are no stories by Robert Heinlein in this collection, apparently because he (or his wife) wouldn't allow it. Since this book was published in 1980 and Heinlein lived until 1988, Heinlein must have been aware of this. Nonetheless Asimov listed the titles of the Heinlein stories that he would have included in the book, and commented on them. I've often wondered about the relationship between Asimov and Heinlein, and this book only adds to the mystery.

There's a tendency to think of old science fiction as being corny and simplistic. In fact, the best authors of the Golden Age had a sophistication and brilliance which is rarely seen in modern genre authors. If you're not familiar with Golden Age SF, I recommend The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume I, which is the definitive collection. But if you get a chance to buy any of The Great SF Stories, grab them! I know I will.

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The Cat Who Walks Through Walls The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of Heinlein's last books, and not one of his best. It represents yet another installment in the "World As Myth" theme that he used so often later in life, and therefore includes many characters from his older, better works - including, inevitably, Lazarus Long, who continues his long (pun intended) degeneration from the original interesting protagonist of "Methuselah's Children" into an annoying incest-freak, Heinlein surrogate, self-parody (I suspect), and all-around jerk-who-must-be-worshiped-due-to-his-natural-moral-superiority.
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Heinlein only wrote one more book after this; I've read it, but don't remember much of it (which is not very high praise, I must say). Unfortunately, that means that I don't remember if there was any mention of the outcome in that book. I suppose I'll have to re-read it to find out.

If it weren't for Heinlein's great skill as a storyteller, I'd have given this two stars at best. It's certainly among his weakest novels.

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Day of the Giants Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a mere 128 pages, Lester Del Rey tells a better story than most modern writers can in 500. Day of the Giants feels astonishingly slim next to the mammoth tomes which are de rigueur these days, but that slimness just points up the fact that most of those gargantuan books are simply padded.

The book is very strongly reminiscent of the Compleat Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Both feature modern twentieth-century men who are unexpectedly faced with the world of Norse mythology. But while the situation was expertly played for laughs by de Camp and Pratt (the Compleat Enchanter series is rightfully considered a classic of the genre), in Day of the Giants del Rey plays it straight. Fimbulwinter has descended on the Earth, Ragnarok approaches, and two twin brothers - one a war hero, the other a farmer - have been taken up to Asgard by Loki and Thor to play a role in the final battle.

The interaction of modern science with magic and mythology is always interesting. I consider one of the failures of the Harry Potter series to be J.K. Rowling's relative neglect of that topic. For example, didn't witches care about the threat of nuclear war, or or ecological collapse? Surely witches who grew up as Muggles, as Harry did, must have been aware of those dangers - so why weren't they addressed? The idea of two societies existing side by side, with one unknown to the other, has all sorts of interesting possibilities...none of which were addressed by Rowling.

It's true that the issue of science vs. magic has become a cliche in modern genre fiction. But it certainly wasn't a cliche in 1959, when DotG was published.

In Day of the Giants, the interaction of science and mythology is handled in a much more satisfying way (I am tempted to compare the relative page counts of DotG with the Harry Potter series, just for laughs). del Rey's handling of the characters is never awkward or clumsy. By the end of the book, I found myself more satisfied than I've been at the end of many a weightier tome.

I suppose that there's no way that a 128-page novel is ever going to be reissued by a modern publisher, so Day of the Giants will remain a curiosity, only to be found in libraries and used book stores. That's a pity, because it deserves a wider readership. It's not a classic that will last for the ages, but it's a very well-written, entertaining book that many modern genre writers would do well to emulate.

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Heaven's Reach (Uplift Trilogy, Book 3) Heaven's Reach by David Brin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I consider David Brin one of the three best genre writers among those who started writing after 1970 (the other two are Lawrence Watt-Evans and Steven Brust; Barry Longyear might be on that list except I think he started writing before 1970, and I haven't seen anything new from him in quite a while. Barry Hughart would be on that list if he hadn't had to give up writing due to his idiotic publishers).

I'm a huge fan of a lot of his work. His original Uplift trilogy is a favorite of mine. But I was disappointed by the first two books in his second Uplift trilogy. Heaven's Reach represents a significant improvement on those books.

It might get a bit too cosmic (in the same way that his Kiln People did, towards the end), but it's a solid, intelligent, imaginative, and well-written book. Perhaps I like it more because the action takes place out on the space lanes, rather than being cooped up on the sooner planet of Jijo.

Many mysteries are explained, and the resolution, while by no means tying up all the threads of the Uplift series, is quite satisfying. I plan to go back to the first two books in the trilogy to see if I like them better in the light of this book.

And I'll be re-reading the entire first trilogy before too long, of course.

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Someone over on Askville asked "What can be done to stop cyber-attacks?". He's concerned about the recent news of internet attacks. My very reasurring response:

Cyber-attacks are easily stopped with a handful of gold dust thrown into the Cybermen's respiratory intake grids. It's best to have the help of a Doctor in that process, though.
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Tales From the White Hart Tales From the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely outstanding. I hadn't re-read this book for at least twenty years. Somehow it had gotten pigeonholed in my memory as a bit boring and dull.

But it's anything but dull or boring! Classic and funny science fiction stories using the classic bar-story format. Over and over I found myself coming across phrases and ideas which I'd incorporated into my personal lexicon, only to forget where they'd come from. "Oh, so this is where I first read that!" I kept saying.

It's a pity that Clarke wrote so few of these stories. They're wonderful.

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The Magician's Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 1) The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

First, about the numbering: This book should NOT be read first in the Narnia series. It was actually the sixth of the seven Narnia books that Lewis wrote. The remarkably clueless publishers renumbered the series recently, placing The Magician's Nephew first, but that simply ruins what is otherwise a lovely surprise: the origin of the Wardrobe from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And from the internal text, it's clear that TL,TW,&TW should be read first. It's in that book that Lewis introduces Aslan, after all.

However, rather than read the series in strict publication order, I chose to read The Magician's Nephew to my son, Sebastian, as the second book in the series. That enhances the surprise at the end, and answered some questions that he'd been asking as we read TL,TW,&TW while they were still fresh in his mind.

The connection of this book to the Pevensies, the four children from TL,TW,&TW, is comparatively tenuous compared to all the other books in the series (except for The Horse and His Boy, which is the only book in the series to have no connection with them at all). However, the link to the Wardrobe that is revealed at the end was more than enough to interest and delight my son.

We follow two English children, Digory and Polly, through some very memorable world-crossing adventures that end up bringing them into the origin of Narnia. Lewis had a gift for imagery, and his Wood Between the Worlds is particularly strong and memorable - as is dead, accursed Charn.

This turned out to be one of Sebastian's favorite books in the series so far, in large part due to the comical but frightening character of Uncle Andrew, the Magician of the book. Sebastian connected with the characters and the story right away, more easily than he did with TL,TW,&TW.

The one drawback is that the illustrations in this particular edition are rather dull and literal. I much preferred the simpler and more imaginative illustrations from the editions that I read when I was young. They had an almost art deco style that reminded me of Tolkien's illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

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I found this rather amusing, particularly what with all the hype about Terminator: Salvation (which sounds like a real piece of crap):
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Sometimes I find surprising things on the web. Such as this.

It's a copy of Alfred Bester's 5,271,009, which happens to be my favorite story of his. What makes it interesting (or intereeesting, as my fingers originally told me) is that 1) it includes a few preliminary paragraphs apparently by Bester himself about how he happened to write the story, and 2) it's a dead link - the only way to reach it is to view Google's HTML version of what was originally a PDF document. The cache is a little screwed up, however, if you want to read the last page, you have to do a print preview or print it.

The missing tagline is, as I recall, "There was a blinding flash, and Jeffrey Halyson was ready for his 2,635,505th decision."
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Rule Golden and Other Stories Rule Golden and Other Stories by Damon Knight

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good, solid collection of novelettes by SF great Damon Knight. They don't write 'em like this any more.

The Introduction by Knight is better than most, with interesting and amusing insights into the inspiration for the stories; in many cases, they were at least partially reactions against the SF tropes of the day.
Spoilers, click to read more )Rule Golden and Other Stories is something of a mixed bag; the oldest stories are the weakest and most superficial ones, so the book gives an interesting overview of Knight's maturation as a writer. But even the weaker stories are well done, and the book as a whole is well worth picking up. Of course, it's not in print and is unlikely to ever be published again, I suspect. But if you happen to see it in a used book store somewhere, you could certainly do worse than to pick it up.

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This is so incredibly weird...George Takei narrates a documentary about the astonishing animatronic Chris Elliot.

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I just wrote this as a comment over on my friend Steve's blog. He was writing about Monsters Vs. Aliens.

I saw it a couple of days ago with Teri and Sebastian. Then I saw "Bolt" with them on DVD tonight.

I won't say the two merged in my mind. But in both cases, there wasn't anything really new there; nothing that will last in my memories for long. The scripts didn't suck, but they also didn't have anything to say that hadn't been said a thousand times before, often better. Hell, they didn't even have one strong laugh-out-out-loud moment.

Okay, "Bolt" did manage to pull the heartstrings once or twice. But that's easy to do when you've got kids, dogs, and love to work with (even for a confirmed dog-hater like me).

MvA wasn't bad, and the 3D was okay. Since I had to wear me regular glasses under the 3D ones, the effect was probably not quite as impressive. Also, I couldn't help but think about a recent article that I read over on Slate claiming (in a fairly convincing way) that 3D caused headaches and had other inevitable problems ( Certainly I had a headache after the movie.

I don't seems to me that when you spend millions and millions of dollars to make a movie, it wouldn't be asking too much to have a script that really works...that shows real human emotion. Beyond greed and marketability, that is.

I'd given anything to see a few more movies as good as The Iron Giant.
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The Getaway Special The Getaway Special by Jerry Oltion

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Getaway Special never quite seems to settle on what it's going to be. A wacky interstellar comedy, Ron Goulart-style? An edge-of-the-seat novel of nuclear brinkmanship, a la Failsafe in a science fiction setting? A nuts-n-bolts quasi-realistic "here's how we built the spaceship" story, perhaps reminiscent of some of Heinlein's work?

It's neither fish nor fowl. That said, it's edible - I mean, readable.

It's the story of a self-proclaimed "mad scientist" (a cutesy designation which threatens to become actively annoying) and a space shuttle pilot as the venture across the galaxy. At first, there's an interesting semi-realistic tone; it's neat to imagine what would happen if FTL travel suddenly became cheap and easy. Of course, The Great Explosion already covered that ground (though how I wish there were sequels!).

Then the book takes a darker, more paranoiac turn, rather like Capricorn One (which is NOT what I meant by a wacky Goulart comedy, by the way). But it isn't long before it turns into what promises to be an interesting description of how to make a spaceship at home. Alas, this too gets a relatively sketchy treatment (although not before reminding me of Gilpin's Space by R. Bretnor).

Next, the story turns towards interstellar exploration. Once more, though, there's a relative lack of detail and focus.

Other threads follow. Strange aliens, be honest, it wasn't until I got to the roughly the middle of the aliens segment that I found myself no longer taking the book seriously. When aliens start making jokes and display virtually unbelievable abilities, the willing suspension of disbelief breaks - and mine did.

It wasn't an awful book. It was readable, and passed the time. But it wasn't particularly good, either. I'm not likely to make a particular effort to seek out future works by Mr. Oltion, although I'm not going to actively avoid him, either.

In a fractional system, I'd give this book a 2.6. And the .1 that takes it from "okay" to "liked it" is really because I came to the book with low expectations.

(Another book that I was reminded of while reading this one: The Venus Belt and Tom Paine Maru by L. Neil Smith. They, and all the other books I've mentioned above, are (I'm sorry to say) more interesting than The Getaway Special.)

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Circus World Circus World by Barry B. Longyear

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is what science fiction is supposed to be. Funny, clever, intelligent stories. They're all too rare these days!

Circus World is a collection of linked short stories in the classic SF style. They share the setting of City of Baraboo and Elephant Song, which were published after it but are set before. This is vintage Longyear, light, amusing, clever, and very enjoyable.

It's the story of a world settled by the survivors of a crashed traveling circus starship. As such, it's particularly recommended for science fiction fans and those who love circuses.

In general, Circus World is somewhat reminiscent of the Hoka stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson - the humor is nowhere near as broad, but the tone, theme, and styles are somewhat similar. If you like Circus World, you'll probably also like the Hoka books (which I'll review later).

The mystery and science fiction writer Fredric Brown also included old-time carny (carnival) themes in some of his stories in both genres (he worked as a carny for a while), so fans of Circus World are likely to enjoy his books as well.

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Dune (Dune Chronicles #1) Dune by Frank Herbert

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

There hardly seems to be a point in reviewing a book that's universally recognized as a classic, even outside of the science-fiction genre.


I first picked Dune up when I was ten. I was bright (what, you expected me to say I was stupid?) and in love with science fiction. I'd recently read Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and Dune had been highly praised.

Before very long, I found myself crying and threw the book across the room. It was the first time that it had happened to me: the book was simply too hard. I was angry at Frank Herbert for years, and refused to read any of his stuff.

But eventually I read a parody of Dune called National Lampoon's Doon. It wickedly skewered Herbert's complex writing style and dense plots. And yet somehow reading it gave me the urge to try Dune again.

It's indisputably a classic. Herbert wrote on a level that almost no one else had reached, or has reached since: most of his works required hard thinking on the part of the reader. This was incredibly layered, complex stuff. At the same time, it was gripping and hard to put down; Herbert's gift is undeniable.

The story of Paul Atreides, son of a Duke who has been betrayed by his Emperor, is extremely memorable. Arrakis, the Desert Planet, is a setting like no other - Herbert led the way in creating an alien planet that had a fully-realized ecology (Dune could be considered to be science fiction's answer to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring). The sociology is advanced and adult, alien as the far future should be and yet plausible. The metaphysics are uniquely challenging and thought-provoking.

The only criticisms that I could make of Dune are that it lacks a certain human warmth. The characters are, somehow, cold; they are sympathetic, but not entirely reachable, if that makes sense. They tend somewhat towards extremes, with a whiff of two-dimensionality. Baron Harkonnen and the rest of the Harkonnens are simply evil, without the slightest hint of other qualities. The Atreides are not necessarily their mirror image, but again, they seem almost idealized. For me, this lays a distancing effect on Dune; I enjoy it, I respect it, I re-read it often...but I do not love it.

Herbert's Whipping Star is much less well-known than Dune, but the protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, is far more accessible; he's funnier and more rounded, with an endearing set of flaws. The book, too, has considerably more humor than Dune. Even though it's not the classic that Dune is, for me Whipping Star is a more enjoyable book.

While I'm at it, I should note that Frank Herbert wrote five sequels to Dune; while the series varied slightly in quality, all the sequels are well worth reading. Not so the additional sequels and prequels by Frank's son, Brian Herbert. They are in every way the utter opposite of Frank Herbert's style: dull, flat, simplistic, and an outright insult to the intelligence of the reader. Brian Herbert was abetted in his cannibalization of his father's brilliant lifework by a hack named Kevin Anderson. I can only suppose that neither of them is capable of realizing just how contemptible their exploitation of one of science fiction's greatest authors is.

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National Lampoon's Doon National Lampoon's Doon by Ellis Weiner

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant parody of Frank Herbert's Dune. Weiner's mimicry of Herbert's style is dead-on accurate. How he managed to successfully parody a huge tome in such a relatively slender book is beyond me.

I'd tried to read Dune at the age of ten, and I simply wasn't ready; I cried and threw the book across the room (not something I had ever done before or since). I bore a grudge against Frank Herbert for years. When I read Doon, I was delighted at the skewering of Herbert's style and plotting.

And yet...somehow, it led me back to Dune again. I was much older by then, and now I was ready for it; the humor of Doon added a leaven of humor to Herbert's extremely complex and dense masterpiece.

Doon lampooned Dune, literally, but not by tearing it apart. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, but Doon actually enhanced Dune, at least for me.

I can't help but wonder if Herbert read it...and if so, what he thought of it. He's not considered one of science fiction's great humorists, but I've caught a few in-jokes in his works (read the appendices to Dune carefully and you'll catch one or two). I'd like to think he'd have enjoyed Doon.

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The Automatic Detective The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fredric Brown meets Terry Pratchett.

Or, 1940s detective pulp noir fiction meets a wacky science fiction universe.

Either way, The Automatic Detective is a light, funny, well-written novel. It never goes awry. Considering the sorry state of modern genre publishing, that's an achievement in itself.

The adventures of Mack Megaton, an erstwhile killing machine burdened with free will and a conscience, make for a good read. A. Lee Martinez hits the right notes and nods to the classic elements of the pulp noir detective story. I did note a few passages that seemed oddly repetitious - enough to make me wonder if the book had first been serialized in a magazine, and then imperfectly fixed up - but these are only the mildest of flaws. I hope to see a sequel, or several, and I'll keep an eye out for more by Mr. Martinez.

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Apparently it may take a while before videos of the panels that I was on are posted, but here's a link to an mp3 recording. You may find it interesting...or not, of course.

It's a recording of the "We Want It On DVD!" panel.

Home again

Jan. 19th, 2009 09:56 pm
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We're home from Arisia. The ride home was smooth; the roads had been cleared. Once we got home we had to park on the street, because the driveway had been totally blocked by snow. But the new snowblower was able to clear everything out in about ten minutes.

The con went really well, I'd say. Teri didn't have as much fun as I did, unfortunately. While I was doing some of my panels, she was stuck over in Fast Track, keeping an eye on Sebastian (he was a kid-in-tow). She was bored. Next year Sebastian will be a full Fast Track participant, and she'll be able to leave him there on his own; that should be better for her (and him, for that matter!).

The panels all went quite well, although I was worried about the next-to-last. For a while it looked as if it would die without a whimper, but we got enough people to make it worthwhile. The RuneQuest panel was the biggest disappointment. The audience was very small (although they did have a lot of interest in the subject). I'm afraid I won't be suggesting a RuneQuest panel ever again.

Two of my panels were actually videotaped by Malden Cable Access! They're going to be putting the videos up on their site as well as broadcasting them, and I'll certainly post links to them as soon as I can. I took copious notes at almost all my panels, and will look them over with an eye to posting them. I promised to make a post on the Arisia community for each of the panels I moderated, and made the same suggestion to the moderators of the panels that I didn't moderate.

I got several business cards and email addresses from people I need to write to. One person told me about a cohousing place out in Berlin (MA) that has a fair number of roleplayers and an actual gaming room as part of the facilities; I suppose we can't afford it. But I can dream, can't I?

We all did Kamikaze Kids Costuming again. Sebastian insisted on making a Spongebob Squarepants costume; I was dubious, but it came out looking pretty good. He got a very good reception at the Masquerade.

Some of the hall costumes were great. Here's a video I took in the main hotel lobby on Saturday afternoon:

The Masquerade entries were good, but there weren't any that really took my breath away.

Speaking of the Masquerade, I was stunned to see that only half of the ballroom was used for the show; we got seats because we were Kamikaze parents, but as far as I could tell virtually all of the seats were reserved (and used) by people who were involved with the Masquerade in one way or another. I heard that over 100 people were turned away at the doors, and inside the place people were desperate for seats. It was broadcast in-house, of course, but that's never the same. We tried to watch the rebroadcast of the Masquerade in our room, but there was no picture at all! Just sound.

The Green Room (not the Masquerade one) was once again a disappointment for me. They rarely had hot food when I came by, and when they did, it wasn't anything I was interested in. It was also...well, the old group that ran the Green Room until the year before last set it up as a lovely, relaxing oasis for program participants. It was a little isolated and quiet. Seats were spotted here and there; you could chat with other participants or not, as suited you. But the current team have the room set up as a vast dining hall, with a long table down the middle and everyone sitting face-to-face. It's like summer camp, or a cafeteria. They also printed the location in the pocket program, and then stationed people to make sure that no one without a program participant badge could come in. I didn't try to see if I could bring in Teri or Sebastian...but I do wonder if I could have.

We did get a shot at the swimming pool. It's over the parking garage, and some of the passageway there is unheated! It was horribly cold, in fact. But once we got in to the pool area it was warm enough. The floor of the pool was very strange, sort of rubbery. We swam for a while. In the locker room after, we couldn't resist trying the two steam rooms there: one was full of steam, so much so that you couldn't see, and the other was filled with dry heat. It had rocks under a metal mesh, though, I and think I could have poured water on the rocks to make steam - but I didn't.

Whew! What a great long weekend. more later, I think.


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