Ocean travel without a boat

Journal of Peter Greenwell

Month: Feb 2016

Jack Williamson – Darker Than You Think

Darker Than You ThinkDarker Than You Think by Jack Williamson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got the nagging feeling while reading this that it should’ve been better than what it was. It started off so well, with its mysterious woman and promise of some great mystery – but that mystery largely evaporated a third of the way into the book. While it never turned into a stock monster/vampire tale, I felt it was lacking, and most of that lacking lay in the character of Will Barbee, who spent the entire book in denial.

There’s a certain misogyny about the whole thing too, even accounting for its 1948 vintage. Williamson refers to April Bell throughout as a “white bitch”, and while he means it as a matter-of-fact descriptor for her lycanthrope state, the term and its 21st century connotations can’t be easily put aside. He plays April as the great evil seducer, an amoral Whore of Babylon leering into the face of poor Will Barbee and teasing him.

But as I said, most of this novel’s problem is Barbee himself, drifting about in complete and abject denial of the reality that’s brutally in his face. His abnegation of reality becomes annoying quickly, and as a result the novel suffers.

Withal, I can see why this work is regarded as a classic of dark fantasy, but it’s difficult to read it without allowing 21st century sensibilities and mores to intrude.

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Matthew Hughes – The Other

The OtherThe Other by Matthew Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah, judging books by their covers, what folly. You know, from the sly and self-serving smirk on Luff Imbry’s face, I expected this to be a tale about deception, intrigue, derring-do, skulduggery and the like. No, what we have here is an adventure tale cum quest fantasy where Mr Imbry is not really in much of a position to play scoundrel, rogue or rascal. In fact, he spends much of his time figuring out how to escape from the world of inbred religious loonies he’s been stranded upon.

In fact, I feel a little cheated, though I shouldn’t be. The novel’s blurb states quite unequivocally that Imbry is a rascal and a crook and I guess in the other stories he features in, he may well be precisely those things. In this book, his implied talent for cleverness and deception is put aside by a need for self-preservation and some mystery solving.

All that aside, the novel could be best described as pleasantly serviceable. From what little I know of this author, I believe he writes in the Jack Vance vein, which is something I’ve always thought to be fraught with deceptive danger. Vance had a style that is seductive to an author – you want to imbue your every sentence with whimsical poesy and colourful verbiage. He’s easy to imitate – I’ve done it too, but he’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to master. Underneath the “big words” and the dash and the colour lies a scintillating internal logic that only Vance understood. I don’t think anyone will master his voice, only approximate it.

While there are echoes of Vance’s work in the beginning and end sections of this book, it’s too matter of factly constructed to be Vance. It’s also decidedly nastier than anything Vance ever wrote. Vance liked to throw the odd barb at religion and those who adhered to it like glue, but this book all but names religions the playground of the weak-minded and pliable. Doesn’t disguise itself in any way.

Also, I felt like I was reading one novel and portions of another. The beginning and the ending seem to come from outside the central narrative – there’s things going on before and after this story that are alluded to, but I’m not seeing anywhere in the book that this is part of a series. Goodreads isn’t listing it as one. And only about two thirds through the novel does Imbry actually list who may have led him to the forsaken planet he ended up on. Almost an afterthought.

A couple of quibbles that other reviewers have pointed out. Hughes overuses the word “ineffable” a lot. And why call Imbry a fat man throughout? Does Imbry being fat have any significance above and beyond the fact he likes his dinners? Is it part of some characteristic or notoriety he gained in another story? Without knowing this, I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was.

Anyhow, I like enough of what I saw in this book to seek out more of Hughes’ work.

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Jack Vance – Lurulu

LuruluLurulu by Jack Vance
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m not mean enough to give Vance’s last published book one star though there are plenty of reasons to do so. As with Ports of Call, this book dispenses with any kind of plot and character development and instead we get a colourful travelogue, with a cohort of nameless ciphers who go traipsing about one planet after the other and not a whole lot happens, apart from an early episode of vengeance.

My pet peeve with Vance is all over this book too – everything and everyone is a miser. It’s all about the freaking money. One half of the universe is trying to rip off the other half who are trying to haggle their way out of paying retail. Seriously, Vance has been at this unwelcome shenanigan for much of his fantasy and SF writing career and it overstayed its welcome about thirty books ago.

Yes, I’m being captious. Vance was ninety or thereabouts when this book was released. Few people will live as long as he did let alone write legible fiction then. On its own merits, that aspect is to be commended. But also on its own aspects, this book is an ipso facto stinker. Not the most ideal way to bow out, Jack, but the sheer fact you even got this book out is something I’ll raise a glass to. Vale Jack.

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Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels – David Pringle

This is in regards to a well-favoured book that came out in 1988, that listed the best 100 novels in the fantasy genre since 1946. The author’s idea of what fantasy is mightn’t coincide with the popular view and for sure, some of the included works would raise a few eyebrows. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Fowles’ The Magus wouldn’t ordinarily appear in your average list of great fantasy books. Neither of those two are what you’d classify as light, entertaining reading.

Sporadically over the years, I’ve tried to read all of these books and as of the writing of this post, I’m woefully short of even halfway. I’m at twenty-three, and of those, I couldn’t even finish a few of them – like The Third Policeman and Glory Road. I found them unreadable.

But a number of the author’s choices are among the best things I’ve ever read – Lord of the Rings, Lord Foul’s Bane, Titus Groan, Eyes of the Overworld, etc. The Lord of the Rings make most best-of lists, and Titus Groan and the other Gormenghast books occasionally do too. And, a little while ago, I was actually quite chuffed when Rupert Murdoch’s news.com.au included The Dying Earth as one of its 100 Must Read Books.
the dying earth

So, the point of this post? I suppose I’d better get to it. I will endeavour to read all of these in this list. I own a few of the unread ones, and most that I’ve seen can be had cheap off Ebay periodically. Failing that, there is the e-book route (Amazon, et al).

Stay tuned.

Measuring Trees and Forests. Practical exercise 1: Plane survey

A paper I did for uni back in 2013


On 2 April, 2013, a plane survey was conducted of a mixed species rainforest plantation on private property at Wollongbar, northern New South Wales. The plane survey was undertaken by walking around the perimeter of the plantation and taking measurements from one survey point tree to the next tree using a variety of instruments. The data was then taken back to a computer laboratory at Southern Cross University, entered and analysed. A conclusion was derived that it is an accurate and precise method to measure the perimeter of a forest stand, but is dependent upon observational acuity and familiarity with the instruments.


The aim of the plane survey was to accurately assess the external boundaries of the plantation and to familiarise students with the concepts of a plane survey, and in the usage of measuring instruments and recording and calculating methods. Previous surveys have been conducted at this location and the scientific environment is fairly well established. The plane survey is so named as the mapping is represented on a flat piece of paper, the plane (West, 2009).

The survey was performed on private property, “Pamplemousse Park”, located in a rural area in Wollongbar, a town approximately 13 kilometres east of the regional centre Lismore, in northern New South Wales .

The plantation was on sloped terrain, with the slope generally ascending toward the northwest. The soils appear to be of the Ferrosol variety, although no analysis was performed. Two separate tracks sub-divided the plantation into three unequal sections. A variety of sub-tropical rainforest species have been planted including Elaeocarpus grandis, Agathis robusta, Podocarpus elatus, Araucaria bidwilli, A. cunninghamii, Syzygium moorei and Argyrodendron trifoliolatum. There was a considerable amount of saprophytic fungi present amongst the ground litter, predominantly of the shelf fungi variety though there were some jelly fungi present on log and branch detritus.

The plantation has an irregular shape, and is surrounded by tracts of macadamia trees growing in orchards, with the species either Macadamia tetraphylla or M. integrifolia which are the two commercially raised for their nuts in Australia. These tracts are not a part of the plantation and do not figure any further in this report.


The students were divided into three groups. Each group, numbering from three to four members, were given a prismatic compass, a clinometer and a 100 metre measuring tape. Results were recorded on a printed pro forma. The boundary of the plantation was determined by choosing trees that were on the periphery and were clearly on the apex of a bend or at an equidistant point between two such apices. From tree to tree, the distance between was measured, and the bearing in degrees (from north) was recorded. The slope angle between the trees was measured and this was achieved by using the clinometer at the measuring tree and taking a reading of the foot of the target tree, with consideration given to the height of the measurement-taker. At each successive tree, a back bearing was recorded to the previous tree, which under ideal situations would be 180 degrees but this was not often the case in real conditions. Where the survey intersected the tracks, the points were taken from the corners of the tracks (Southern Cross University, 2013). The area within the tracks was not counted for statistical purposes .

Only live trees were considered when establishing the boundary. Dead trees on the periphery and other non-tree flora were not counted. These were surveyed around and only the actual planted area was counted (Southern Cross University, 2013). Once the initial perimeter was surveyed, the two tracks within the plantation were measured for length, width and slope angle.

In the university laboratory, the results were collated and entered into Microsoft Excel. The data were tabulated into fields thusly: survey point, forward bearing, back bearing, slope angle, and slope distance. From these data a variety of means and distances were obtained using established mensuration formulae (West, 2009).


In the laboratory, the data were analysed using a variety of published formulae (West, 2009). Microsoft Excel was used to perform all calculations and analyses and a map was constructed using the in-built scatter plot function. Figure 1 shows the derived map.

plane survey

Figure 1. Map of the plantation derived from the plane survey

Each of the plotted points in the figure represent one surveyed tree. As can be seen, the beginning and end points do not intersect. There was an observational error for part of the walk around survey in which one of the students misread the compass readings. This was later amended both in situ and in the laboratory. Even with these corrections, there is still a reasonably sized error. The method used to survey the perimeter has an innate and variable lack of precision due to human error, greater than using more sophisticated methods such as laser rangefinders, global positioning systems and theodolites. However, it has been suggested that where a highly precise map is not required, the usage of handheld compasses and clinometers, etc, is acceptable (West, 2009).

The lack of precision was most obvious with the results found for the closing distance and close error. The end result for the plane survey was an error of 14 metres in 628.5 metres measured. This can be represented as being one metre away from the true figure for every 44.8 metres measured. This figure has been derived by using a formula that can be found on page 130 of Tree and Forest Measurement, 2nd Edition, by West. Future surveys would be expected to be undertaken with a greater deal of precision due to the increased familiarity with the techniques and the instruments used. Continual cross-checking for errors as the survey was being walked would also be useful.


The plane survey method to measure the perimeter of a forest stand generally gives a precise and true reckoning, however this is dependent upon observational skill and the instruments used. In the case with the plantation at Pamplemousse Park, there was a mostly accurate reading, and the fundamental principles of the plane survey were both understood in regards to utility and calculation. Further practice is required to achieve more accurate results.


Southern Cross University (2013). Practical exercise 1: Plane survey. (Lecture notes).

West, P.W. (2009). Tree and Forest Measurement (2nd ed.). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag

Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis – Dragons of Winter Night

Dragons of Winter Night (Dragonlance: Chronicles, #2)Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not as good as the first one. It lacked a certain something, and the way the narrative jumped around wasn’t ideal either. I found it a little harder in this instalment to care about the characters too – the authors obviously want you to care – but for mine, there wasn’t enough given reasons to care. They’re not as cardboard-y or as stock as in some other D&D novels out there, but because of the frequently discursive narrative, there’s not enough time to build up a rapport.

And dare I say it, but of all the D&D worlds, I have a preference for the Forgotten Realms. Ed Greenwood may have his faults as a writer of fiction, but the world he created is a compellingly deep place. Krynn? Not so much – not yet, I suppose. Over the length of two books, it hasn’t really taken on more lustre than you’d expect from imaginary places on a drawn map.

In Krynn’s defence, I’m only two books in. With a few more tomes under my belt, maybe this initial shallow impression will deepen. I just hope there aren’t too many more blah instalments like this one.

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Bud E Weyser – Tintin in Thailand

Tintin in ThailandTintin in Thailand by Bud E. Weyser
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Story-wise, it’s atrociously amateur and a jumbled mess. The artwork doesn’t hold a candle to Hergé’s excellent ligne-claire style either and in places it’s almost indecipherable. Some of the satire is heavy-handed but it does poke fun at not only the Tintin franchise but the sacrosanct attitude of Hergé’s literary executors and successors, and it just goes to show that nothing is sacred.

A definite curiosity, but be warned that many will find it offensive (and many have).

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Jack Vance – Vandals of the Void

Vandals of the VoidVandals of the Void by Jack Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first “new” Vance book I’ve read since Night Lamp about twenty years ago. So, I only need to get hold of Lurulu now and that will be soon. Then, I’d have read everything he’s published.

Ok, this isn’t a bad book, yet it’s a product of its time and the genre. Typical juvenile SF – young, resourceful lad uses tenacity, bravery and logic to overcome the nefarious schemes of adults. Vance’s imaginary future timeline at the beginning of the novel is off, and it’s actually rather odd seeing Vance write one of these and I wonder if an editor urged him into doing it (without researching the answer).

It’s an average work of fiction, tightly plotted and written in a straightforward, serviceable manner that’s largely unlike Vance’s usual way – outside of his mystery and police procedural novels. But his fondness for baroque language threatens to break through the simple and flowing text, hinting at where he’d been withThe Dying Earth, and where he would go with the remainder of his extensive SF and fantasy oeuvre.

Second order Vance for sure, but I’m glad I finally tracked this book down.

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