by Arkady Martine

Winner of the 2020 Hugo and Nebula Awards, and perhaps the best space opera, ever. Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel (an independent mining station) to the Empire of Teixcalaan. She has dedicated herself to studying the Imperial language, its poetry, its manners and rituals, but of course she arrives as a Barbarian, and things that come naturally to her liaison (asekreta Three Seagrass, patrician second class) are alien to Mahit. Three Seagrass herself (“Reed” to her friends) is superbly, unforgettably drawn, and in fact most of the minor characters are superb.

At one point, the two diplomats try to escape inside a restaurant. Mahit, who grew up in a space station even if she has on several occasions visited the surfaces of (uninhabited) planets, is fascinated and appalled when Three Seagrass orders a steak that looks like it was recently part of an actual animal. Caught staring, she asks her minder, who answers “Of course! This is a nice restaurant, Mahit! Do you want some?”


by Stephen H. Lekson

(Previous notes here)

I needed Stephen Lekson’s email because I wanted to ask a favor. That led me to emails in which I’d asked a previous favor, and his generous (and patient) answers led, in turn, to a holiday weekend rereading of this fine book. It’s a study of a discipline: Southwestern Archaeology as an enterprise or a vocation, rather than the pre-history of the people who lived in the region that would someday become the American Southwest. That’s a different book (into which I also enjoyed a pleasant Memorial Day plunge.)

I turned to Lekson in part because I’ve been reading a biography of Kurt Gödel in order to get a better understanding of a foundational question: what did the founders of computer science think they were doing? One thing they were not doing was metaphysics: one of the coffeehouse seminars had a fellow who would bang the table whenever someone said anything metaphysical. Lekson’s fight for History against Théorie is, I think, an echo of the dilemma in which serious thinking about computation and the mind has caught itself: we cannot do what we do without a belief in structure, but we can also problematize that belief until paralysis sets in.

Lekson is, I think, the great stylist of his generation. He crafted an approach to academic writing that is precise but accessible, allusive yet open, rigorous but light on its feet. An important facet in this achievement is his embrace of footnotes, which he uses to great effect. At one point in A Study Of Southwestern Archaeology, he reports that some students read two copies of his earlier A History Of The Ancient Southwest at once: one copy open to the text and a second copy open to the footnotes. That’s an excellent idea. (Beware: the Kindle edition assumes that footnotes consist of a single paragraph, and that’s not necessarily the case; insist on visiting all the footnotes.)