Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Heris Serrano, Elizabeth Moon

Title: Heris Serrano
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Rating: Good

Malabar reviewed this book some time back. As I mentioned in a follow up to her review, it's really a combined reprint of three other novels:
  • Hunting Party
  • Winning Colors
  • Sporting Chance
That said, these novels follow right on each other's heels, and make no allowances for those who've not read the former books. You need to read them in order to have them make total sense. Calling them a single novel isn't really out of the question as a result.

They all feature Captain Heris Serrano, who's been drummed out of the space service and has taken up employment as a captain of Lady Cecilia de Marktos's yacht. There are other major characters as well - relatives of Cecilia and friends of the same. We follow their adventures over 1041 pages.

The cover of my copy calls these books space opera. At times that title fits, but at times I wondered. Moon gets lost in the intricacies of horses and horse people a lot in these pages, and that aspect just wasn't all that interesting to me. I have a few other quibbles with these books as well.

They contain a lot of jargon relating to FTL space travel & communication, but after a while it seemed it had all been made up for convenience in telling the story, rather than trying to create a believable technological background. That got a bit annoying.

Also, there are too many coincidences here. Too many people that just happen to be present when needed, and events that are very unlikely happening at exactly the right time. It interfered with the willing suspension of disbelief in places.

However, against those issues, there are some positives. Moon does cover some interesting ground in the area of what impact extended life times (via that old SF staple, rejuvenation) would have on society. She also manages to inject the right amount of humor into the book, and the story can be very engaging at points.

In the end, I'm happy I read them, though at times in the process I wondered if I should bother. They won't be on my reread list, but they were a nice diversion. A bit fluffy, perhaps, but a diversion.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The End, Lemony Snicket

Title: The End
Author: Lemony Snicket
Rating: OK

Here I sit, trying to analyze what I think of The End by Lemony Snicket. I guess, to use a phrase that appears regularly in the book itself, it depends on how you look at it.

On one hand, the story does end, and he (Daniel Handler, the author) does resolve - to some degree - the lives of the Baudelaire orphans. That's good, and it's handled reasonably well. On the other hand, and against that initial somewhat positive note, I have to set two things:

First, there is the constant background of mystery and the general feeling that if you read between the lines closely enough you'll learn something others will miss. That may not be true, but the whole series - particularly the supplemental books - have played things up to make it appear that way. I am lousy at puzzles of almost any kind, and I find the expectation (possibly self-inflicted) that I should be reading The End and all the others with a manic intensity, trying to figure out just how Beatrice fits into everything (for example) more than a bit annoying.

Second, it must be said that many of the things behind the events in the Baudelaire orphan's lives aren't explained. I won't give specific examples - that would be spoiling things - but there are all kinds of questions that could have been answered that simply aren't. Perhaps my expectations were created by the US movie making industry that wants to create a clean, concise story with a clear ending - wrapping up all the loose ends - in about 90 minutes. I don't know. What I do know is that The End would have been more satisfying if it contained a few of the answers that I'd come to expect. That it doesn't is a bit of a problem for me. In fact, in a review I wrote of the first 11 books in the series I said: "I hope the author resolves all the various loose ends well by book 13." I guess Handler didn't do that to my satisfaction, whatever the reason.

In addition to all of that, this book suffered because it has been too long since I read the previous book and the many books before it. Not enough of the story is fresh in my head to let me recall it easily. The author does remind the reader about past events where needed, but he's sparing in that area, and I needed more than I got.

That means that I really need to read the entire thing again, top to bottom, with all the books present so I can be fresh on things as I go into each volume. It will be interesting to do so and compare first opinions with later opinions when I get around to that exercise.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Beatrice Letters, Lemony Snicket

Title: The Beatrice Letters
Author: Lemony Snicket
Rating: Neutral

I wish I knew what to make of this "book". It's a small collection of letters between Beatrice Beaudelair and Lemony Snicket, billed as "supplemental material" to the 13 books of the Lemony Snicket series.

It's mildly amusing, but I wish I'd taken my own advice. Back in my review of Lemony Snicket, The Unauthorized Autobiography I said that people should steer clear and read only the actual series. I should have remembered that.

The other things I said there are also true here. If you like puzzles and have the time to try and put it all together, it may be amusing. For me, alas, it was mostly a waste of time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Born Of Nifty, Pete Abrams

Title: Born Of Nifty
Author: Pete Abrams
Rating: Great!

Do you read Sluggy Freelance? No? You mean you read my review of Dangerous Days and didn't follow my instructions then? Really?

Well, let me repeat myself:

Go, now! Drop everything for the next few hours, go here:

and get reading! Do it now. Don't wait. You're only falling farther behind with each passing day, and you don't want to do that.

Born Of Nifty is a reprint of the first three Sluggy books in one, hard bound volume, with a few add-ons thrown in. It's wonderful. Color strips are presented in color, the format is large, and the quality of the book is excellent. Add to that the ongoing, serialized adventures of Torg, Riff, Zoe (with an umlaut), Gwen, Kiki, Bun-bun, and a host of others, and you've got a great time.

Consider this a graphic novel. It's not quite that since the original presentation was in daily comic strip format, but the story lines arc over long periods of time, and the overall presentation is similar. (Abrams work gets even more like a graphic novel in more recent years, with many daily strips approaching the length of one or two full pages in a book.)

The humor here is twisted, and the characters are silly, but it all works, and works well. Reading this book - and thus rereading the first two years or so of Sluggy - was great fun. Lots of plot elements and foreshadowing that I didn't remember are here, and still affecting the story line years later. The parodies are hilarious, and the characters are wonderful.

By the time you read this it may not be possible to buy Born Of Nifty any more. It's a limited printing and available only from But you can always read the strip archives on the web site, and you should. If you like what you see there and can afford it, please buy a copy of Born Of Nifty - if you can - to help support Pete and give you a copy you can snuggle up with in a comfy chair.

Spend some time with Sluggy Freelance. You'll really enjoy it!

Broken Angels, Richard Morgan

Title: Broken Angels
Author: Richard Morgan
Rating: Great!

I've been so busy I've been unable to get this review written and posted, but it's finally time to do it.

Broken Angels is Richard Morgan's follow-on to Altered Carbon. I enjoyed that first book, and with this one, Morgan has improved both his writing and his story telling.

Once again we follow Takeshi Kovacs's exploits, but this time he's not acting in the role of a detective. Instead, the plot is more like pure science fiction. Kovacs is on a planet at war and gets diverted to go after an artifact left behind by the long, long dead (or gone) Martian race. Others are going after it as well, of course, and there is always the possibility that one of his fellow team members is betraying his team.

The story is deep and complex enough to hold your attention. The writing is clear and concise, and the action keeps the entire thing moving crisply. As with the first book, there's a fair amount of violence here, and some explicit sexual content, but those are both toned down a bit from their levels in the first volume.

If I have a gripe, it's that despite the fact that we're following Kovacs through the book, there are times when he does important things off stage. That writing technique can work, but it's best to camouflage it in some way, perhaps by shifting the POV around so we're following someone else when the hero does his important work out of our sight.

In the end, though, that is a minor quibble. Broken Angels is a well written science fiction. It's fast paced, set in an interesting universe, and populated with believable, complex characters. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Man Who Fought Alone, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Fought Alone
Stephen R. Donaldson

Life has taken some complex turns of late - in various directions - and it's been a challenge to read much of anything for nearly a month now. At last I've finished reading another novel - The Man Who Fought Alone by Stephen R. Donaldson - and it's time to write a review.

I should mention - for those who don't already know it - that I have a prejudice in this case. I almost always enjoy Donaldson's writing. I've read various things he's written - nearly all of it in fact - with the exception of his mystery series, of which this novel is a part. "Mystery series?" I hear you ask. "Isn't this the guy that wrote about Thomas Covenant?" Yes, that's him.

Back in about 1980 Donaldson began writing detective novels. He's written four so far. The first three were initially published under the pseudonym "Reed Stephens". This novel - The Man Who Fought Alone - is the fourth in the series.

"Fourth," I now hear you say. "Why did you start with number four?"

Actually, I didn't mean to. I grabbed this one out of my TBR pile and glanced at its list of other books written by Donaldson, which includes everything except any of the other "Man Who..." novels and one other (very recent) book. Based on that I assumed it was the first in the series and started in on it. Only just now - as I scan's database for info - did I learn that it was the latest in the series. Oh well. I guess I hold the publisher who didn't list everything he should have on that page responsible for my getting things out of order. From the looks of it the series goes like this:
  1. The Man Killed His Brother (1980)
  2. The Man Who Risked His Partner (1986)
  3. The Man Who Tried To Get Away (1990)
  4. The Man Who Fought Alone (2001)
Some may wonder why Donaldson started writing mysteries when his fantasy writing was so successful. He gives you his own answer (in general terms) here:

To summarize, though, he was stretching his wings - to see how far they'd go - before tackling the really big story floating around in his head. (That really big story is The Last Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by the way.)

So, what can I say about The Man Who Fought Alone? Well, it's a mystery novel. A murder mystery, in fact. The hero - a rough and beat up private investigator, possibly deserving of the term "hard boiled" - is Mick Axebrewder, known as "Brew" to his few friends. Like just about all of Donaldson's heroes, Brew suffers a lot through this book - both physically and psychologically - but it's not as bad as it could be. In fact, it's almost uplifting by the end. To say more - or why - would be a spoiler. Since I haven't read the first three novels in the series yet I lack all kinds of background information, but I suspect that Brew suffers much more in those earlier novels than he does here. I could be wrong, but it seems likely knowing Donaldson and seeing how Brew is treated here.

The plot is harder for me to evaluate. I've never been a big reader of mysteries - by any author - so I am not the best qualified to judge such things. I found it enjoyable and it kept me wondering who the guilty party was all along. Some of the reviews I checked on say Donaldson gives it away about halfway through. I didn't see that, but that could easily be explained by my lack of mystery reading experience.

What I can criticize - to some extent - is the setting. Brew starts out needing a job and winds up doing security work at a martial arts tournament. Donaldson then uses that setting to expound on the martial arts in depth throughout the book. A few times I thought it hung on the very edge of bogging the story down but then recovered. Let's say I was too aware of it in some way, and that perhaps it could have been limited somewhat without losing the story. Of course, Donaldson is a second degree black belt himself, so he's writing about something he knows. I actually appreciated the background in many cases, and I'm willing to cut him some slack for discussing in detail something he clearly loves.

The only other criticism I can lay out relates to Donaldson's writing style. I love the way he writes, but for certain characters it may be a liability. Brew is used to working in squalid conditions and hanging out in places most would never go. Every so often Donaldson has him think (and less often speak) in words that I really doubt he'd know or use. Here is an example. Brew is talking to his new love interest and says: "Me neither. Heaven forfend."

The context really doesn't matter much there, but the words "heaven forfend" just don't sound plausible coming out of Brew's mouth. He's a tough SOB and I just don't think he'd actually speak that way. More likely he'd say "Me neither. Hell no."

Of course, I could be mistaken. There are those previously mentioned three volumes of "introductory" material that I haven't read yet. They might explain why Brew occasionally has a vocabulary more appropriate for an English professor than a PI. I guess I'll figure that out when I read those books.

And read them I will. This book was good enough to make me want to learn more about Brew and his partner, Ginny Fistoulari. Their history sounds interesting, and even if Donaldson's writing isn't quite right for the characters in all cases, it's still a pleasure to read.

In short, a recommended work by one of my favorite authors. Not his best effort, but easily good enough to merit your time.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution
George Washington et al.

The U. S. Constitution hardly qualifies as a novel - or even a short story - but I am reviewing it here because I read it in full, and because I have a couple of things to say about it. Nothing here is profound - or even particularly important - but I get credit for the effort none-the-less.

First, though, I should address why I decided to read it. There are two reasons:
  1. I heard or read somewhere in the last several months that there is a way for a sitting President to avoid elections in a time of war, thus remaining in power. This was clearly promulgated by some conspiracy theorist as part of some paranoid tract about Bush and the ongoing "war against terror". I wanted to try to find out if (or how) a President could stay in office (bypassing elections) during wartime.
  2. Since becoming a fire fighter I have twice had to sign documents stating that I would uphold and defend the constitution of the United States. That was a surprise (I figured that sort of oath would fall on the military and police, but not on fire fighter) so I thought I should refresh myself on exactly what that document says as a result.
So now I've reread it. It's not that long - about 9 pages of tiny print in my almanac, including annotations. What it lacks in length, though, it makes up for in content.

I found it fascinating that the document is so short. That the major principles governing this country can be set down so simply is quite impressive, but it also leaves the infamous gaps & gray areas that have been the realm of law and court decision for well over 200 years now. Never-the-less, the document is very tightly written, and so long as a few terms are understood - some of which I did have to look up because they are no longer in common use - it does a great job of defining the high points of how the national government should function.

As to the answer to whether or not the President can avoid elections in a time of war, I didn't see that in the document. There are multiple places that deal with the election of the President and how power is handed down in the event he cannot discharge his duties, but I see nothing about avoiding an election in time of war. I did a few Google searches to try and track that down as well, but my queries ran up against the huge volume of political content on the 'net and I couldn't find anything relevant in a few minutes of trying.

In any event, I have now read the U. S. Constitution - something I haven't done since social studies class in high school, a long time ago. It was interesting and enlightening in some ways. I wish I could have definitively answered my question, but perhaps someone with more political knowledge than I have can point me in the proper direction.

As to why I rated this document only "Good" (as opposed to "Great"), it has only to do with the language. As the years go by the language gets more and more removed from current usage, making it harder to understand the original text in context. In another few hundred years it will be much harder for school kids to "get it". The concepts are amazing - particularly as the amendments come in to correct the obvious nasty issues in the original document dealing with slavery and limiting certain major rights, like voting - but the language can obscure that wonder a bit.

Breakfast Of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions is the third book I've read by Vonnegut, and it is much more like Timequake than it's like Cat's Cradle. In that regard it is disappointing, but the disappointment goes beyond just that similarity. Breakfast Of Champions just doesn't hold together all that well, and though it appears to be a commentary on American society at the time it was published (1973) it looks pretty lame (in my opinion) viewed from 2006.

Without including spoilers, I can say that the author is a character in this tome. That's an odd writing device but it leads to certain situations and events that are at least somewhat funny. But it is also a way of presenting a story that completely violates the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. It's hard enough to follow any fanciful story - and become engrossed in it - in general, but it's really hard when the author himself makes several appearances as a character. Even the author "speaking out of the frame" (to borrow and probably butcher some movie terminology) is distracting, and that happens all over in this book.

Those looking for more about Kilgore Trout - Vonnegut's alter ego of a sort - will find plenty about him here. Trout is an amusing character, but still a cardboard cutout, like just about everyone else.

Of the actual plot, it's basically nothing. In fact, I delayed writing this review for about ten days while I did several other things and tried to figure out what I wanted to say. During that time, the few actual events of the plot all blurred together to the point where I cannot really tell you what the story is about anymore. Oh, I could name the major characters and hit a couple of highlights, but that wouldn't be important.

As a way of trying to explain that, let's envision a story about a couple of guys that go out for dinner, get into an argument about nothing in particular, then go home. That's it. No significant content (plot-wise) is present. It's mundane stuff that could (and probably should) be ignored. That's the kind of thing (but not specifically the actual plot of) Breakfast Of Champions is about. It just doesn't matter.

I guess what was supposed to matter was the social commentary, and this novel is loaded with social commentary. Just about every other paragraph is a comment about something. The problem is that all of those paragraphs are comments about different things. There is nothing that binds the paragraphs (or chapters) together, except the regular use of the n-word (for reasons that I still don't understand) and the occasional return to the nearly non-existent plot.

If Vonnegut had put together a social commentary on one or two (or even a handful of) themes, discussing them in depth and playing out what the implications of things are, it would be interesting. Here, however, he basically says: "X is bad. Blather. Y doesn't work. Yadda yadda yadda. Z is amusing but pointless. Ho hum." And so on. We learn nothing in depth about what he thinks or what points he is trying to make.

I found all of this very surprising. Breakfast Of Champions has been on my list of books to read for years. It's relatively well known and was a best seller at some point in its past. Now that I have read it, though, all I can do is wonder why it got the level of attention it did.

Given the choices I've had from Vonnegut I'd suggest skipping Breakfast Of Champions and reading Cat's Cradle instead.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Clash Of Kings, George R. R. Martin

A Clash Of Kings
George R. R. Martin

A Clash Of Kings is the second in the ongoing series by George R. R. Martin. It's better than the first, in my opinion, but still suffers from a nit or two.

The first thing you should know about this tome is that it is huge. My paperback copy is 969 pages long, and that doesn't include the appendices. The story revolves around the struggle for the throne between many (and I mean many) competing groups of people. At one point there are at least five men calling themselves kings of some or all of the continent.

The story is complex enough to require a thousand pages, with a lot of political intrigue and double dealing. Keeping track of who is in whose pay is nearly impossible without a score card. Just remembering the names of all the minor characters was impossible period. In the end, I simply had to trust the author to remind me of who someone was when it mattered.

Lastly, magic exists here, though its form(s) and potency are still unclear. Thus far I have found the magical element to be interesting and well designed.

As to why it is better than the first volume, I can say that my biggest issue with A Game Of Thrones was the unexpected death of a major character, one I'd come to like over hundreds of pages. That doesn't happen here, though the threat looms over all the major characters nearly all the time. Some reasonably well developed characters do die, even some we met in the first book, but they'd always been wearing red shirts, so their deaths didn't cause me to swear at the author.

It is also the case that this time around I wasn't as bothered by the changes in point of view. It didn't seem as though they were as obviously designed to conceal things from the reader, with the obvious exception of one case - a cliff hanger drawing you into the next volume. That said, some interesting action does happen off stage and we only hear about it later from someone not directly involved. That happens even when the character doing the deed - whatever it may have been in a specific case - is one that we're following directly at times.

On the downside, we still have two parallel but related stories going on that have yet to intersect in any major way, and that's after something like 1600 pages of writing. It is clear they will cross paths eventually, but how many thousands of pages we'll read before then I cannot tell.

I also still have an issue with the writing style, though I may be growing less sensitive to it. As before, I was capable of putting this book down at almost any time. Not quite mid sentence, but certainly mid paragraph. I'm not sure why that was the case, but I am starting to suspect that the huge cast of characters and the fact that any of them could die at any time is keeping me from getting wrapped up in any of them too deeply.

In addition, no one is given a the clear role of hero, victim or bad guy. Everyone is painted gray to varying degrees. While that makes it more realistic in some ways, it also makes me less willing to bond to someone. Martin doesn't pick favorites either. As far as I can tell, every side in the conflict presented thinks all other sides have it wrong, and therefore they would be right if they win out in the end. Put more succinctly, they all think "we're good, they're evil." With that presentation and the continual change in perspective, we have no idea as readers who (if anyone) we're supposed to be pulling for in this conflict. That may also be keeping me from getting lost in this book the way I have in other cases.

One final nit: why does the world here contain some things that so familiar to us, and yet is clearly fictional? Why can a ship sail far away and bring back giraffes, for example? Just how is this place related to the real world? No answers are given, but I feel like they should be. It's a small point, but it's been in the back of my head since the first volume.

Despite those issues A Clash Of Kings kept me reading. The events are interesting and the world is deeply thought out. The story is complex enough to keep me guessing what is going on, and the writing is good enough to keep me entertained.

It's still not the best fantasy I've read, but it's pretty good.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: Good

This book came highly recommended, and while I'm glad I read it, I've read better fantasy. A Game Of Thrones is good, and the story is interesting, but it didn't quite rise to the "great" category for me.

The story itself follows several main characters - all of royal blood in one way or another - as they struggle through events in a kingdom in which the king's power is on the wane. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of these characters, and the point of view jumps around between them. The plot is very complex, the cast of supporting characters is huge, the action is quick and the writing well paced.

It sounds like a perfect book, right? Alas, for me, there were a few flaws.

That huge cast of supporting characters is actually too large. It was impossible for me to keep them all straight, and even the appendix at the back didn't help much. (I tried looking up a couple of characters and couldn't find them there at all.) I toyed with the idea of taking notes to keep track of people, but this was supposed to be pleasure reading, and that seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

Martin is quite happy to kill off characters that he's spent time making you think are going to stick around. It was frustrating to watch someone you thought was important - and that you were going to get to know for a while - die. A corollary to that is that it is entirely unclear idea which characters - if any - the author thinks actually are important, and will stick around. He has little or no empathy for anyone in this story, and that comes through in the writing.

I never bought (or understood) the king's decline. None of the story is told from his point of view, and his actions seem to have no basis in reason that I can find. Something seemed off there.

I have seen the "each chapter told from a different point of view" approach work very successfully elsewhere. Here, however, it seemed to be a vehicle for obscuring important information, rather than something that assisted the telling of the story. Just when you thought you might learn something interesting the narrator's point of view would change, and some unknown amount of time would pass - possibly going back in time to tell another piece of the story that was happening in parallel.

There are actually two stories going on in this book, held together by only the most tenuous of threads. It is likely that the later volumes bring these stories together in a more direct fashion - you can sort of see it coming - but in this volume they were so disparate that it was distracting.

Finally, there was something about the writing that let me drop the book just about anywhere without hesitation. I could literally put it down mid-paragraph without thinking about it. Usually when I read, I get so wrapped up in the book that I don't stop before the end of a chapter at a minimum, and I have been known to sit up for hours reading to get to a good stopping point. That never happened here, and I don't know why.

I know others have raved about this book, but given that list of reservations, I cannot claim A Game Of Thrones is one of my favorites.

There was one other oddity here, but I cannot hold it against the author. Years ago I subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction and I read a novella in there that I still remember. I found that novella in here, in it's entirety. Martin had extracted the story of Dany and published it separately in the magazine. I don't think he even did much editing - just took all the chapters from Dany's perspective, put them together, and voila - a novella. In truth, I found that story more interesting in novella form, since it had no interruptions and thus better pacing. Rereading it here - split into pieces - was an interesting experience, and highlighted some of the other issues called out above.

Overall, I'd say this was a good book, and clearly the author put a lot of time and effort into its creation. I'll continue reading the series and hope for some subtle changes that might make the later volumes more appealing.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

3001, Arthur C. Clarke

Title: 3001
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Rating: OK

In my last review I complained that the short SF in the volume I was reviewing wasn't impressive. The next book I picked up - 3001 by Arthur C. Clarke - wasn't that good either. It was better, but not by a lot.

In 3001 we follow the story of Frank Poole. For those who saw the movie 2001, you may remember your last vision of Frank: he was released into space by the pod commanded by Dave Bowman, clearly dead. This story picks up the tale about one thousand years later. Poole's body is found in deep space and he is returned to life. Don't ask how - Clarke doesn't say - but he's back. Of course, it's not really a surprise that Clarke doesn't expound on Poole's recovery. Clarke is a noted visionary on things related to space and space travel, but not on medicine. So the fact that he glosses over Poole's restoration is expected, but it did leave me a bit cold.

In the first third of the book - in addition to seeing Poole return - we are introduced to the world of 3001. Clarke spends a fair bit of time (and a number of pages) describing the homes and lives of those living 1000 years from now. It's mildly amusing, though not really related to the plot. Sadly, it gets substantially less interesting when he heads off into more social, political or moralistic grounds, where I'm afraid it's just not that well thought out.

As to character development, Poole gets very little, despite being a fish out of water. Oh, he says a few things to imply that he's having some trouble adjusting to all the differences between 2001 and 3001, but we never really believe it. The rest of the characters are one dimensional, almost hackneyed, and thus not particularly believable.

Finally we get to the actual plot involving the monolith. While this was more interesting than the first third of the book's exposition, it was pretty thin overall. And the resolution was disappointing to this computer programmer.

The last 15% of the novel is actually a set of end notes, mostly about the research Clarke based his predictions on. It's all about 10 years old now (in 2006) and some of it hasn't gone anywhere since it was first published. But those end notes were actually more interesting (to me) than the novel itself. Clarke's style gets more folksy, and you can tell he's writing to convey information, rather than to tell a story. It works better for him, and what he says is both interesting and touching at times.

In all I'd guess this book was better than 2061 (which I read years ago and barely remember) but not by much. 2010 was much better than either of those later books, and a much better follow on to the original movie.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Year's Best SF 9, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer editors

Year's Best SF 9
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

There have been a lot of distractions lately, and they have kept me from reading as much as I usually do. As a result I picked up a collection of short science fiction stories to fill the few gaps I've had in my schedule. I wish it had been worth it.

Maybe my tastes are changing. Maybe I'm just getting older now, and I see things that I didn't previously see. Regardless, if this collection is the best short SF that 2003 produced, I really wonder about the state of that genre.

Most of the so called "hard" SF in here still had elements of the mystical in my opinion, and character development was nonexistent. The plots were uniformly uninteresting as well. In fact, having finished a 500 page paperback, I can only really remember bits from the first and last stories. The first because there was a unique concept presented, though not that well executed. The last because it was an novella - much longer than anything else here - and because it was the one I finished today.

In all, this was a disappointment, but perhaps that is my fault rather than the work itself. Maybe I am expecting too much from short fiction. Or maybe I have changed. Several years ago we let our subscriptions to both Asimov's and F&SF lapse because they just weren't all that interesting anymore. It seems nothing has changed in the years since, at least based on the contents of this volume.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Title: Timequake
Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Rating: Good

I wish I knew what to call Timequake. I definitely enjoyed it, and there is a preface that documents (accurately, I assume) the mechanism by which it came into existence. But how to categorize the writing style and content is beyond me.

Several places I've checked say the plot revolves around the life of the fictional SF author (and alter ego of Vonnegut himself) Kilgore Trout and a "timequake" - an event in which the universe does something odd, causing 10 years of history to repeat itself. That may be true, but if so it is an unusual definition of "plot" by my standards. I guess I consider this to be a semi-autobiographical novel, something like a memoir. It's not really that, though, nor is it a biography, as there are many fictional elements to it.

But it's a fun read. Vonnegut takes a lot of unexpected turns - left, right, U, and other - in the process of telling this... er... tale.

Recommended. If you read it, please tell me what you think it is.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard Morgan
Rating: Good

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan was reviewed by someone on Doug's web site earlier and sounded interesting. I've long had a fondness for cyber punk, and while I don't generally read detective novels, it's not for disinterest. It's just that I read other things and rarely get around to reading detective novels as a result.

The capsule review of Altered Carbon is "good". There are a few places where the violence and sex head toward the gratuitous, but they do serve the story line even then. The writing is rapidly paced and the descriptions are nearly always vivid enough to let me picture things clearly in my head. There were one or two places where I thought an editor should have cleaned up the prose a bit as I got lost, had to reread a paragraph or two, and still didn't grok a sentence or an event. But those were rare, and the plot is the important thing in a novel like this.

The story is essentially a murder mystery set a few hundred years into the future. One of the most interesting projections (in terms of technology) in this book is a digital interface to the human brain that is implanted at birth. When you die (and at other times in certain cases) the data from that interface (called a stack) can be uploaded into a computer and downloaded into another stack in another body. This allows you to live for prolonged periods, if you have the money to keep buying bodies in which to live. In addition, virtual environments can be run (and maintained) for those not currently "sleeved" in a body, again provided you have the money to make that happen. There are all kinds of interesting societal implications to these technologies that Morgan explores in some depth.

The hero - Takeshi Kovacs - is an interesting, if violent, individual. There is a lot of back story behind him, and it basically holds together, though his training seems a bit over the top on occasion. If I have a gripe about the hero, though, it is that his motives can be unclear and shift around from time to time in ways that I don't quite get. He can be violent in the extreme, and yet has a soft heart at other times that seems out of sync with the violent side. This isn't a huge distraction, but it is something I noted once or twice.

I don't want to give away the plot, so I'll end here. Read if it you find cyber punk an interesting genre. It's fun, fast, and generally furious. I'll be acquiring the second Takeshi Kovacs novel - Broken Angels when I can.

Friday, June 30, 2006

What We Believe But Cannot Prove, John Brockman

Title: What We Believe But Cannot Prove
Author: John Brockman
Rating: OK

What We Believe But Cannot Prove came to my attention via a mention in the back of a copy of Science News. In each issue of that weekly magazine they recommend a set of science related books. This book was in such a list and it sounded interesting, so I got ahold of a copy via

Capsule review: it was OK, but it could have been better.

The book consists of a series of very short (1 sentence to 4 page) essays by leading thinkers - mostly in scientific fields - about exactly what the title says: what they believe but cannot prove. There exists a web site - - that provides these people a place to publish articles on "third culture" topics. (Don't ask me to explain what "third culture" means. I don't know, but a quick look a the web site suggests that I need to spend some time there.) Each year they also ask a question - the "Edge Question" - of their contributors and publish their responses. This book is the collected responses to the 2005 question, which is (again) the title.

A lot of people contributed to this little book. I just wish there was more to it. My wife - always one with a good quote - scanned it one evening and called it the mental equivalent of potato chips.

For me, the reaction is a bit more complicated. A few of the contributions were genuinely interesting, and those I wanted see fleshed out in more detail so I could learn more about the issues presented. A few more of the essays were just plain stupid or wrong to my mind. (Yes, I know, I am not on the same intellectual plane as these people. Tough. Anyone who says that there is no physical world "out there" lives in an entirely different universe from me. I'll be judgmental in such a case if I want to be, and I do.) Most of the contents, though, were pretty much what I would expect. Not at all surprising to me - someone reasonably well read on science related issues. But even those items needed better fleshing out to help people less familiar with the concepts understand what is being discussed.

So there's part of the problem for me: perhaps 10% of the book was interesting enough to hold my attention in depth. The rest was ho-hum or caused me to wonder what the authors were smoking. Not a very fulfilling reading experience.

And there is another issue with this book: I don't know who the target audience is. If it is intended for the scientifically literate it needs to be deeper on each topic, or provide references to relevant literature, or something. If it is intended for the layperson it fails for lack of enough detail to even start to draw someone into the concepts presented.

So while I give this book an "OK" review, I'm not sure I recommend it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Neal Stephenson

Title: The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Author: Neal Stephenson
Rating: Good

This is the second Stephenson book I've read this year, and I enjoyed it. My thanks to the people who recommended it to me when I asked about other Stephenson I should read.

The book takes place in the future, when nanotechnology has come to full fruition, and the ability to create just about anything from individual atoms (via a program and a device called a "matter compiler") is commonplace. The story revolves around several major characters, their actions, and their interactions. It has elements of hard science fiction, politics, and fantasy within it, and it's a pretty good mix.

We meet Nell - probably the most major of all the characters - as a child, when she is given an electronic book. This book wasn't made or intended for her, but it works for her just as well as it would have in it's intended recipient's hands, and she begins to learn from it. More specifically she learns all kinds of things about how to take care of herself on all levels, which is the book's designed in purpose. Other characters include the designer of Nell's book, the person providing the voice acting as she's reading the book, and several political figures who are pulling strings in various places.

The story changes point of view to these various characters, and includes passages from the primer, which mirror Nell's reality in more ways than she knows.

Most of the book is hard SF, and I found it well written. I hit one blunder in the science that I think Stephenson should have avoided, but it wasn't related to the plot in any way. (Stephenson's books are detail rich and thus he can get something wrong on a side track and it doesn't matter in the end.)

The largest problems with this book are the ambiguous ending, and the descent into fantasy. The ending is probably fine, but thanks to other complications in my life I read this book over a much longer time period than I usually would have, and possibly as a result the ending didn't hold up well. There are many threads to keep track of but they aren't all wound up nicely by the time the last page is turned. Many questions I would like to have seen answered weren't, and the various political implications are still opaque to me. But the descent into fantasy is where I had the most trouble, and I think it's not the only time Stephenson has done this sort of thing.

A few years back I read Snow Crash and had a similar complaint. In both books Stephenson creates complex, believable worlds full of interesting things and characters, and then adds in an element of the supernatural that I find distracting. In The Diamond Age it's more subtle, but it is present. It amounts to a mystical way to bypass the security measures protecting network data by use of the combined intellect of a large group of people. I am deliberately leaving that description vague so as not to ruin the book for others. In any event, I would have been been happier if he'd stayed in the hard SF genre and resolved the issues in less spiritual ways.

Even with those flaws, though, I found The Diamond Age to be a good read, with an interesting view of the future, good characters, and a plot that keeps moving. As with Zodiac, Stephenson's writing is light and easy, though his vocabulary is larger here and every so often I wanted a dictionary handy. If you like SF - and particularly if cyberpunk has a place in your heart - you will probably enjoy it.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

In The Days Of The Comet, H. G. Wells

Title: In The Days Of The Comet
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Lousy

In The Days Of The Comet is the last H. G. Wells I am going to read, and I am glad this exercise is over. An approximate rating (on a scale from worst to best of: Terrible, Lousy, Poor, Neutral, OK, Good, Great) of the various Wells novels I have read in this collection looks like this:

Rating Title
OK OK The Time Machine
Poor Poor The Island Of Dr. Moreau
Good Good The Invisible Man
Good Good The War Of The Worlds
Lousy Lousy The First Men In The Moon
Terrible! Terrible The Food Of The Gods
Lousy Lousy In The Days Of The Comet

As I started reading this last book I had The Food Of The Gods on my brain, and it wasn't pleasant. I expected In The Days Of The Comet to be just as bad, as Wells was spiraling down into social commentary in these later works and (I suspected) getting less and less connected to reality. As it happens, In The Days Of The Comet isn't quite as bad as I thought it would be, but it still wasn't good.

As a work of science fiction it is undeniably weak. Actually it is a love story of sorts with a socialist twist. The fact that it is science fiction is only peripheral to the story. Most of what is here is boring exposition about the life of the hero just before a comet impacts the earth. He's completely uninteresting (like the rest of Wells's heroes), his actions are unbelievable, and the story doesn't really go anywhere. I kept thinking I should put the book down and read something more interesting, but there was a comet hanging over everything (literally) and I kept wondering just how he would get it back into the story and make it do something interesting. So I stupidly kept reading; a tactical error on my part.

The other thing present in the story is the hero's view of society. He's a vociferous but uninformed socialist, and Wells goes on at great length describing how unfair society is through his character's speech. The problem is that his presentation of things is so one-sided that I cannot assess how accurate it is, nor how seriously I should take it. The information is old (having been published in 1906) and my connection to that time in history is weak at best. Maybe people at the time could assess it better than I can.

Anyway, we slog through a lot of pages of this. It goes on forever. And then - finally - the comet hits earth. Given today's knowledge of comets we'd expect all kinds of bad things to happen: earthquakes, tidal waves, nasty weather for months, and possibly a mass extinction event. Wells didn't have the benefit of our deeper understanding of comets, so perhaps he can be forgiven for thinking that a comet could hit the earth and do no real damage.

What this comet does on impact, though, is change the nitrogen in the atmosphere in some mystical way so that every human on the planet is suddenly enlightened, or something like that. I will spare you the details, and that isn't hard because Wells isn't particularly clear on them either. The comet hits, the atmosphere changes, everyone falls asleep for a minimum of three hours, and when they wake up everyone thinks much more clearly. If you're thinking "Huh?", you're asking a very good question. In fact, though, if Wells had tried to include some complex explanation for what happens to make people "better", I'd have really hated this book, as I did with The Food Of The Gods, since the science would be entirely wrong. This is more like a fantasy, and you just have to let it slide.

But you can't let it slide entirely, and when Wells goes off to start talking (at great, dry and boring length again) about how the world is so much better after the comet, he again gives us a socialist rant of epic proportions, complete with multiple statements about how the entire idea of owning something (like land) has been abandoned to everyone's betterment. But as with the science, the specifics about how society will be so much better are not spelled out with the exception of the lack of property and one or two other nits. It's a bit like that old TV commercial. I kept thinking: "Where's the beef?"

Finally there is a mystery character here that is never adequately explained. The story is being written down by the hero, but there is someone else reading what he's written. Who he is, where he comes from, and why he matters is never dealt with. It's odd, and it feels entirely out of place, though it does give Wells the chance to suggest that his hero finally "settled down" in a family arrangement of sorts with two wives, and one of those wives had another husband too. Four adults sharing their lives (and loves, we're to read between the lines) together. The horror! But perhaps in 1906 that was a really racy idea.

In the end I have to pronounce this book a failure. It's not as bad a failure as The Food Of The Gods, but it is a failure none the less. If you're thinking of reading it, I suggest you go find yourself some other, more modern and well thought out political polemic and read it instead. You might learn something, which won't happen with In The Days Of The Comet.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth, H. G. Wells

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth
H. G. Wells

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth is the second to last novel by H. G. Wells in the collected works that I am reading.

It is awful. In addition it is trite, bad, a waste of paper and ink, poorly thought out, poorly written, lacking in original thought, and dreary. Did I mention it was awful?

During the first portion I was amused solely because it was so bad it it came across as a caricature of what a novel about scientists - bad scientists in this case - would be like. Then it goes off into all kinds of pointless and poorly thought out social speculations.

As if I had to tell you, the "science" here is terrible too, with so many holes it could be mistaken for swiss cheese at close range. And none of his characters has the slightest bit of common sense at all. None. They are all total morons, every last one.

Don't bother with this one. Please don't waste your time on it. It was published in 1904 and it seems impossible to think it was taken seriously even then.

I am going to grit my teeth and try the last novel in this collection - In The Days Of The Comet - but I hold out little hope for it being any good.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Emergency Response Workbook, American Red Cross

Title: Emergency Response Workbook
Author: American Red Cross
Rating: Neutral

This is the companion workbook to the first aid textbook I have been reading for my first aid class. Alas it is just as full of errors and goofs as the textbook is.

In addition, however, here you are exposed to the astoundingly stupid kinds of test questions that the Red Cross expects you to answer about first aid. The questions break down into three categories as I see things:
  • Stupid questions. As a first responder, do I need to know what the most common cause of injuries to people in some age range is? No, I don't. I need to know how to help keep them alive if they are injured. I hate to say it, but I'd guess that a third or so of the questions in this book (and on the tests that I have and will be taking) are of this nature. It's fine as background material, and it might aid in comprehension and retention, but when the rubber meets the road and I hop off the fire engine on Highway 17 to pull someone out of a burning car, it is pointless. In my mind, testing me on it is pointless too.
  • Questions with no good answer. There are various reasons this happens. Sometimes the question doesn't give you enough information, and all the answers make assumptions. Sometimes they are assuming a particular kind of first responder, and various answers might be right depending on the point of view you're taking as the responder. Sometimes they just make no sense at all. This is perhaps 5% of the questions here.
  • Reasonable questions. These are actually relevant questions that test your retention of specific facts you need to know to perform first aid at the minimum level to get the certificate. They make up the rest of the content.
If it seems like I might be clutching at straws here, let me demonstrate with an example. To do so, you need to know that the first and foremost thing stressed with first responders is not to become another victim. If you have any doubt about what is going on, your job is to keep back, keep others away, and call for more advanced help. Simple, eh? And it makes a LOT of sense in cases like (say) hazardous materials spills, fires, etc. If you lack the training and the gear, staying safe and keeping others safe is a great thing to do.

OK, with that in mind, there was a question on my midterm that said something like: you've come upon an accident at a busy intersection just below a hill. There are 4 victims. 3 of them are in X, Y, and Z condition. The 4th victim was thrown from the car and is lying in the middle of a lane of oncoming traffic. What do you do about that 4th victim? Your answer choices are things like "ignore him and care for others", "move him", "park a vehicle to block traffic so he won't get hit", and so on.

Note the total lack of detail. What sort of first responder am I? A fire fighter with a truck full of equipment and help, or am I entirely on my own? How busy is it? Is the victim lying in the road visible to oncoming traffic, or is he below the rise so he's going to get hit any second now? What risk would I be in if I went into that lane of traffic to look him over? Also note that having been thrown from a car means a high likelihood of neck or back injuries, among other things, and you don't move those folks without cervical collars, head restraints, and backboards unless you absolutely have to.

Well, after you digest all of that and guess at an answer (since none of the answers are really right) you find out they think the answer is to move the victim out of traffic. Now as a fire fighter in training I know that is the right answer, but as a fire fighter I am expected to take certain risks to help others. Without more detail, I have no idea if a citizen first responder should do that or not. And it certainly seems like it might violate the "don't become another victim" teaching. But fine. Whatever.

Later in the same exam, though, I hit a different question that says something like: a car accident has occurred. A car has left the road and hit a building. The victim is inside the vehicle and appears unconscious. You can see blood. Blah blah. The building is damaged but seems stable. (My emphasis.) What do you do about this victim? And the choices - among other things - are "wait for advanced help to stabilize the building" and "treat the victim now".

Here again, I have all kinds of problems. If it seems stable, as a fire fighter, I have news for you: I am going to go treat the victim. By the time an engineer shows up and says things really are safe the victim could have died of shock or any number of other things. But the answer they wanted was wait for advanced help. Now we're back to not becoming another victim. And while I respect that point of view, I hope it is obvious that the answer for the first question and the answer for the second question are in conflict in terms of what the first responder is expected to actually do.

That's the kind of thing a good editor would have found and avoided. If it was only one or two questions like this, I'd probably just ignore it, but it is endemic to the entire book, as well as the tests that I have to take. The Red Cross really needs to get some professional educators involved in their test material creation, along with that previously mentioned editor. This stuff could all be so much better than it is.

Emergency Response, American Red Cross

Emergency Response
American Red Cross

I have spent the past three months going through this book, page by page, as part of my training to become a volunteer fire fighter. As a result of that time and effort I should wind up with a first responder certificate in a few weeks, and that will be the last straw that lets me finally ride the fire trucks here and help people in need.

With that much time spent slogging through this book, you'd think I'd have a definite opinion about it. And I do, sort of.

On one level, the book is good. The material is important and the basics of first aid should probably be learned by almost everyone in an ideal world. Thus, learning what to do in various cases to save a life is important, and this book is good because it assists that process.

On the other hand, this book sucks. It desperately needed a serious editor to remove all the internal inconsistencies and errors, and to make the overly complex presentations of simple concepts easier to understand.

Here's what I hope for: new CPR protocols were announced late in 2005, and they are a significant departure from the current CPR protocols. In addition, some of the other first aid guidelines are changing as well. As a result, the Red Cross has to redo its books to match those new protocols. If they are on the ball this is a chance to clean up all the stupidities in this book and create something much, much better.

As you may have figured out somewhere along the line, I am a cynic about human nature, though, and I predict here that their new books will be just as bad as this one. Only time will tell, and I'd love to be wrong, but I would bet money on it from what I know.

If you're interested in First Aid and participating in your community, you'll see this book (or the new version) when you take an advanced first aid class via the Red Cross or any organization teaching this stuff. In that context you'll understand how important this stuff is, and yet how bad it can be. I encourage you to take such a class if you can. It might matter one day. And when you do, try to be patient with the poor training materials.

The First Men In The Moon, H. G. Wells

Title: The First Men In The Moon
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Lousy

This book went on forever, and it wasn't fun reading. Wells continues to bang his drum about evolution and politics, here setting it all on the moon.

The book is broken into two pieces, and for all I can tell they were written at different times. It's almost as if he wrote the first part, decided it was too short, or didn't cover something he wanted to discuss, or someone paid him to write more, so he did.

If you've ever heard the term "cavorite," it comes from this book. It is a material that is impervious to all forms of radiation, including gravity. As such, it is used in the construction of a space ship to take our heroes to the moon. Once there they meet a complicated society, fail utterly to understand it, and one of them leaves the other behind. Later he picks up radio broadcasts from the one left behind documenting more about the moon's inhabitants. (That's the second part of the two part story.)

Wells cannot seem to write about people I care about or for. I am willing to put up with a lot from my hero (or anti-hero) depending on the outcome and what sort of changes they go through. Wells writes about dull people who do not change and who are vaguely nauseating from today's perspective. Cavor and Bedford both fit that bill.

Beyond that, the science is just awful here. The book was written in 1901 so I should give it a break, but I simply cannot do it. There is just no way to rescue the science presented here.

So, combine poor characters with weak science and a long winded tale in which the author tries do drive home some (still unclear to me) point about society, evolution, and conflict, and you get a lot of wasted time. Of all the Wells I have read so far, this is the least interesting. Only time will tell if it continues to hold that position in my hierarchy.

Oh, I should mention that there are elements in the moon society here that strongly resemble things from Brave New World. If Aldous Huxley knowingly cribbed from The First Men In The Moon while creating his dystopian vision of the future, then (a) I am really sorry he spent the time reading it and (b) he did a much better job than Wells did.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

James Herriot's Dog Stories, James Herriot

Title: James Herriot's Dog Stories
Author: James Herriot
Rating: Great!

James Herriot's Dog Stories is a reread, but one that I honestly didn't remember I'd read before I started in on it. I got this copy via from Ren, another member of Doug's forum. Thanks much Ren!

I needed a break from H. G. Wells, and grabbed this book from the shelf without looking at the cover. (My TBR pile is stacked rather haphazardly at the moment, and I could only see the bottom of the top book on the pile as I picked it up.) I was pleased when I realized I'd grabbed a book of short stories because it allowed me to read a bit and then go do other things. Alas, I quickly got sucked in and devoured it despite many other commitments I should have been handling.

I'm a soft hearted person - particularly about dogs - and these stories are wonderful. Some are sad, others happy, but all show the author's love of dogs, a love that clearly matches my own. I had to wipe the tears away many times as I read.

For the curious, you can learn more about James Herriot (which is actually the pen name of James Alfred Wright) from the Wikipedia entry or from this tribute site, among others.

The stories in this book are all very close to home of late. For those who haven't heard, we had to have one of our dogs put down about a month ago. Nikki had started on the age related downhill slide some time back, but it had accelerated over several recent months. In the end we did what we had to do, but it was very, very tough. The following month with only one dog was hard on us, but necessary given our schedule. Integrating a new dog into the house had to wait until after a few things happened.

We finally got it all to come together a week ago, when we went to the pound and brought home a new Siberian Husky we've named Danno. He's a 2 year old boy with lots of personality and a need for some training. He has that classic wolf appearance; a very pretty boy. He's good with people, kids, and other dogs too, as far as we can tell. All in all, he's a great addition to the household after his first week here.

He and Leah seem to be getting along well so far. I'd say they were getting along perfectly except that Danno wants to play a bit more roughly than Leah is willing to handle just yet. They'll work it out given time, I am sure.

Reading this book while going through the tumult of adding a new dog to our pack only made it that much more poignant and pleasant.

If you're not familiar with James Herriot's work, you should be. Go get All Creatures Great And Small and prepare to read something uplifting. From there, other works await. Enjoy them all. I can tell from rereading this book that I have to go out and get the whole set again.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The War Of The Worlds, H. G. Wells

Title: The War Of The Worlds
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Good

The War Of The Worlds is the next book in my H. G. Wells SF collection. As you are no doubt aware, this story has penetrated modern culture to a degree that is hard to fathom. The Wikipedia entry on this story book lists at least 4 movie adaptations, and other related works.

The book, however, hasn't held up as well as I thought. I am coming to the conclusion that Wells didn't really know how to write about people, and that his understanding of science - at least in some areas - was pretty weak.

About people, Wells seems to have an aversion to letting us know who his characters actually are. Most have no names at all as far as we are told, and what passes for character development is not particularly believable. His characters are flat and their motivations are weak or missing entirely. My own expectations of behavior are different, of course, after over 100 years of cultural change. However, it should be possible to make me suspend my disbelief in what they are doing, and he has a tough time achieving that result.

On science, Wells does get some interesting things right. Yes, it is possible to send vehicles between the planets. But to do it with a huge gun is simply ludicrous. The acceleration needed to get a craft from Mars to Earth would turn any creatures inside the projectile into a very thin film instantly. And he describes in some detail how the "cylinders" crash into the countryside near London, which means, of course, that if the Martians weren't turned to jelly when they departed, they would be when they "landed". What really bothers me about this is that nothing in that was outside of his (possible) knowledge when he wrote the volume in 1898. The calculations for acceleration - needed to shoot artillery shells from cannons - hand been known for a long time. Even if Wells himself couldn't do the math, he could have found someone who could, and who could have told him that his Martians would be dead before their spacecraft exited the barrel of the muzzle of their gun.

Ah well. If you set aside the more spectacular scientific blunders - some of which Wells cannot be held responsible for anyway - and ignore the sometimes improbable behavior of the main character, the story is still a good adventure tale. It reads reasonably well on that level even now, 108 years after it was originally published. In that light it is a classic, and recommended reading.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Good

I've finally found a reasonable story in this collection of science fiction written by H. G. Wells. The Invisible Man manages to maintain the reader's interest and dodges the pitfalls I noted in The Island Of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine.

Wells manages to avoid atrociously bad science. That's quite a feat given the book was first published in 1897. In truth, of course, there is no way to do what Wells describes. That is, there is no way to make anyone or anything invisible given the processes presented. However, the willing suspension of disbelief is pretty easy here, despite 109 years of advances in science since this was written. I think Wells improved as a writer between The Island Of Dr. Moreau and this novel to pull that off.

That is not to say that all is perfect here. There are some issues of language and cultural expectation that still jump out at a modern reader, but that is to be expected. The worst, in my opinion, was a single use of "the n-word" - as I guess I have to phrase it these days. Coming out of nowhere, it was a slap in the face to me. But then, putting my brain into a different gear, it was probably common usage that far back. I can give Wells some slack here, though I am left wondering at his thoughts on race and equality.

Anyway, The Invisible Man is a reasonable read as old SF goes. You might enjoy it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Island Of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells (spoilers)

Title: The Island Of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Poor

Beware: there are spoilers in here. Sorry.

This is the second of the books in a collection of H. G. Wells's work, and - I hope - the most problematic. I've been sick with a flu for some time now, and that hasn't helped my attitude, but this book is not good. About it Wells writes in the preface: "... and The Island Of Dr. Moreau [is] rather painful." He's right, and for more reasons than he knew when he wrote those words. It hasn't held up over time.

Perhaps looked at as a sample of early science fiction it is an important work. Perhaps as a piece of writing it is significant, though I would argue against that suggestion. In any event, the science is so abominably bad I can't imagine how it could be worse. Taken as a morality play, and with substantial rewrites to get past the most horrific scientific blunders, it might be useful. But even there I wonder. The hero does some stupid things, and doesn't take rational actions when he should have.

Of course this book was first published back in 1896, and apparently the English were all aflutter over the "science" of vivisection at the time. Maybe those factors should cause me to give Moreau a break, but I won't. The language is stilted, the story is simplistic, and as stated above there isn't a single bit of science in here that is close to correct. It really is painful to read 110 years later.

A brief plot summary: the hero (Edward Prendick) is ship wrecked but gets to a life boat. He is picked up by a ship on the way to Dr. Moreau's island with a cargo of live animals. Once there, he is left behind by the ship, and so has to get on with Moreau, his assistant (Montgomery) and a set of servants who turn out to be created (by Moreau's art of vivisection) from various animals. These beast men live on the island after Moreau has decided they are failures. Moreau is eventually killed by one of the animals he is working on, Montgomery is killed by others, the beast men slowly revert back to their animalistic ways, and Prendick finally builds a raft and is rescued. He's writing the tale years later, though no one will believe him.

My biggest problem is that this story goes on forever. I could never believe what was happening, and so the pages dragged on and on and on and on and ... never mind. It was not a fun read.

As of this writing, the wikipedia entry says this book addresses:
  • Society and community. But there is really little here on that. True, the beast men form a society, and true the narrator isn't comfortable in English society when he returns a year later, but that's about all you get. There is no real exploration of what makes up society here. In fact, I would argue that it fails on this point entirely, and there could have been a lot more development of the society of the beast men in the book. That might actually have been interesting.
  • Human nature and identity. What's present on this is so sophomoric that it doesn't deserve the title. Through surgical procedures (vivisection) and hypnosis Moreau enhances animals to near human stature. I think not. But even if you buy it, Wells doesn't actually deal in human nature much here. What little you find is all simplistic stereotyping. Even the hero - who winds up disliking what Moreau does - can't empathize with the animals being tormented. I wonder what Wells's sense of human nature really was.
  • Religion. Other than the hero's occasional statements that he is a religious man, and his use of religious terms when Moreau dies - in an attempt to scare and control the beast men - there is no mention of religion here at all.
  • Darwinism. Yet again I disagree with Wikipedia. First off because the term "Darwinism" has been taken over by the religious right and is used in a negative light. The term that should be there is "evolution". Secondly because once again the term is mentioned a couple of times in passing, and then Moreau goes on to do all kinds of things that simply aren't possible within any evolutionary scheme. (Combining bits of rhinoceros and horse to create a single man-like organism, for example.) There is no exploration of evolution here. It's mentioned in passing to give a hint of science to the work. Nothing more.
  • Eugenics. Perhaps we've hit on something the book is actually about, but even here I am not certain I agree. Eugenics is generally about making the "race" better - for some definition of race, generally encompassing a much smaller set of people than than "all of humanity". In the book, though, Moreau is doing science for no reason at all, unconcerned about repeated failure despite hints that it will never work, and there is no real gain to be had in what he's doing. It doesn't really strike me as a small scale eugenics program going on here. More like a small scale program of torturing animals.
  • The dangers of unchecked and irresponsible scientific research. Yes, here I finally agree with wikipedia, but to my mind the larger problem is the idea that there is such a thing as "unchecked" scientific research. I admit there is a lot of research that leads in unexpected directions, or whose results can be misused, but I would argue that doing the research itself isn't wrong. In any event, Moreau is doing research to no point and purpose. That might be fine if it was mathematics, but he is injuring creatures and discarding them when they fail to meet his expectations. If that was acceptable - even to a minority of people - at the time the book was written, then I am ashamed of that portion of my heritage.
I wish the wikipedia article authors would support why they think The Island Of Dr. Moreau actually addresses - as opposed to "mentions" - these things. If mentioning something is addressing it, then just about everything I've ever read was much deeper than I thought.

My copy of this book is a 1978 reprint of a 1934 edition of this tome. Remember that the preface - written by Wells himself for that 1934 edition - called The Island Of Dr. Moreau "rather painful." He was right, way back then, and it has only gotten worse. Unless you're studying the history of science fiction, I'd give this one a pass.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Time Machine, H. G. Wells

Title: The Time Machine
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: OK

Some time back a friend gave us an anthology of science fiction by H. G. Wells. I am reviewing each of the novels within that anthology separately, as they were originally published that way. They appear in the order they were written, and this is the first, originally published in 1895. As I reread it in 2006 it is 111 years old. Wow.

This is a classic tale of science fiction. A man from the late 1800s creates a machine to let him travel through time, does so, and sees the distant future. In its time, it must have been an astounding thing to read. Alas, I wish that it held up better than it has.

My criticisms may be too harsh given it really has been 111 years since the book was published. If so, and if they offend, I apologize.

First, the language doesn't go over well to modern readers. Sentence structure and paragraphing are very different now, and on several occasions I had to stop and go back to find out where I had misunderstood something. Double negatives were more common then, and the flowery speech of the writer blocked my absorption of the story at times. I can imagine a current middle school student being very frustrated trying to read this book purely because of the language.

And then there is the science, gone very wrong by today's standards. Even side stepping the issue of how to travel in time, Wells's presentation of the end of the earth isn't right. He has the sun swelling up to something vaguely like a red giant in 30 million years, the planet no longer rotates, the moon is gone, and an eclipse by an inner planet darkens the sky. There are just too many things wrong in there for me to swallow them all now. Back in 1985, I am sure that wasn't the case, but to a reader with modern sensibilities, those issues grate a bit.

More problematically, though, Wells uses this book as a vehicle for discussing a possible result of capitalist society: the division of humanity into Eloi and Morlocks is an outcome of the separation of the classes taken to an extreme. Whether Wells believed such a thing was possible, I don't know, but the presentation is pretty simplistic by modern standards.

I know this is a classic work, and that it has a high place in the world of science fiction history, but much deeper and more believable work has been done since. Wells blazed a new trail, and I am sure it wasn't easy. Later writers of science fiction owe him a debt, but that doesn't mean we should shy away of stating a work's weaknesses.

For those interested in learning more, the work is available in full text versions in several places on the Internet. And the wikipedia entry is also interesting reading, though I am not certain of its accuracy. (It claims that in the 30 million year future, two planets may have fallen into the sun. The text uses the word "eclipse", so I doubt that description, but then again, we are dealing with old prose, and I may have misread or misunderstood.)

If you're interested in Wells himself, or in old SF, this is a must read. If you're looking to read good SF as viewed from our current perspective, this one is more than a bit dated.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Dangerous Days, Sluggy Freelance Book 9, Pete Abrams

Title: Dangerous Days, Sluggy Freelance Book 9
Author: Pete Abrams
Rating: Great!

If you've never had the pleasure of reading Sluggy Freelance, now is the time to start. I mean now. Drop everything for the next few hours and go here:

What you will find there is something like eight years of comic strips in serial format. The characters vary all over the map, from Riff (inventor and weapon lover) and Torg (his web designer buddy), to Bun-Bun (a switchblade wielding mini-lop rabbit, in a long term feud with Santa Claus, and sometime Easter bunny; oh, and he ran Halloween for a while, and Ground Hog day too), and on and on. There are perhaps 10 or 12 regulars, and their story covers all kinds of ground. They're involved with a gymnast assassin, a huge evil company that no one understands yet, alternate universes, and, well, you name it.

Pete Abrams does parodies of movies, takes recent events into account in his strips, keeps an amazingly large number of plot threads together in his head, and amuses his readers consistently. And every so often he publishes a book covering some period of the online strips, and including a bonus story too. This is book nine in the series.

Trying to tell you the major plot threads covered in this book would just leave you confused. For example: Torg's alien secretary is running a web design business now, it gets out of control because Dr. Shlock wants to get close to the alien, and well... never mind. I'd have to give too much away, and you can read it all online for free anytime.

Go read it now. What more do I need to say? I read Sluggy every morning. It never fails to amuse and amaze.

The books are hard to get now. Limited printing runs of each one, alas. And I only recently found out I am missing one of the older books, so I have no idea what to do about that, yet. I will, however, get a copy somewhere.

Why are you still here? Go read Sluggy now!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer (spoilers)

Title: Calculating God
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Rating: Lousy

Warning: spoilers appear all over this review.

What an irritating book. Grrrrr.

Some time back this book was reviewed in Skeptical Inquirer - the magazine of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal) - and there was something of a furor over it. The reviewer didn't like it, and said so. A bunch of people jumped in on both sides of the issue as I recall (my issues are long gone now). Some defended the book as a work of fiction while others thought it was significant in some way - some bad way that I don't exactly recall. My wife bought the book to try to figure out first hand what the problem was. I'm only getting to it now, quite a while later.

I'm going to say that the book is bad, but probably not for the same reasons that the CSICOP reviewer did.

First off, let me state that I am open to many things in fiction. I have no problem with religion being an important part of a work, but what happens here is just plain silly.

First and foremost, the premise of the novel is completely unbelievable. Aliens come to earth (fine so far) and the first one to appear lands in Canada (again, fine so far). Said alien is a spider like thing (again, fine) and it comes to the Royal Ontario Museum to see a paleontologist. (We're still fine.) And the alien settles in with our hero from the museum to study earth's fossil record.

Now wait just a minute.

I'm willing to buy that the aliens can get here, that they aren't that much ahead of us technologically, etc. I'll even grant that they might be interested in our fossil record for one reason or another, but they cannot possibly be so stupid as to fail to take into account the political ramifications of their arrival. After all, they've been monitoring us for some time - long enough to speak various earth languages pretty well. Their arrival is going to throw our planet into chaos on umpteen different levels, but they - and the author - just pretend that issue doesn't exist.

But never mind that. They're here because they're looking for God. They're seeking the creator of the universe, and we're a step along that path. We're quickly told Earth is the third planet currently harboring intelligent life that they know of, that each planet had the same number of mass extinction events in its history, and they were all at the same points in time.

Ummm.... wait. We've just been told something patently absurd. But the author is using it as a major premise in his plot. OK. I'll do my best to open really wide and swallow that one. Continuing...

Then we're told that the aliens are all religious - that the presence of God is a fact in their eyes. And then a lot of mumbo-jumbo is thrown at us to support that. (It all amounts to the anthropic principle, for those who follow that sort of thing.) But our aliens have knowledge we don't have, and it proves that a creator must have had a hand in the mix. No argument allowed.

OK... I'm not done yet, but I have to stop here for a moment and say that there was something really aggravating about the way all of this was dumped on me as the reader. Our hero doesn't challenge things as he should (or would, given his training and background) and I don't buy it. I know that fiction assumes some things that aren't true to tell whatever tale is being told, and I can accept that. Science fiction has to go farther in that way than many other kinds of fiction for various reasons, and I can accept that too. But this particular telling just plain didn't work. Far too many impossible things in a row, with only the authority of the aliens telling us this to back it up. After a while, I just couldn't stomach it any more. But back to the content of the book.

Our hero spends the next N chapters - where N is far too large a number - in conversation with his alien friend. Unfortunately these chapters all read like creationist (and particularly Intelligent Design) apologist tracts. They're crap. But the author can (and does) resort regularly to the fact that the aliens know more than we do, and so they can simply assure our hero that they're right. Many times I set this book down wondering just what I was reading. It sounded like it came from some ID publishing house so often it was depressing.

Then we get a pointless sub-plot about some wacky creationists that bombed an abortion clinic and are now going to do other dastardly deeds that impact our hero and his alien friends. That sub-plot has no business here. It's entirely useless, but I digress, as did the author.

And then we get to the end of the book, where all kinds of things are revealed. "God" turns out to be some sort of organism (yes, a biological organism) that existed in a previous cycle of our closed universe and somehow adjusted the parameters for the next cycle so that there would be intelligent life here.

I'm going to digress here again. As best we know, the universe is not closed, and we knew that in 2000 when this book was published. The universe is expanding at an increasing rate. As best we can tell, it will not come back together in a "Big Crunch" so it's open. Sawyer tries to use science all over in here to back things up, but he gets it wrong, and this is just another example. Grrr. OK back to the book again...

This "God"/organism has plans for us too. Plans that help it get reborn. Huh? Wait. It's already here. It's been meddling in evolution on at least three planets for hundreds of millions - if not billions - of years. And it does something spectacular right under our nose too, so clearly it is already "here" and capable of doing big important things. But it needs us (specifically our DNA) to be reborn? Something makes no sense at all. (Anyone remember Kirk asking "Why does God need a starship?" in one of the Star Trek movies?)

I'll avoid telling you about the other intelligent life forms out there that are missing now. Just assume that the aliens tell you there are some, and that our hero has theories about where they went - theories based on no evidence. But our alien friends eventually believe them.

I guess in the end even the IDers will hate this book because "God" turns out to be something less than the omniscient, omnipotent, personal deity that Christianity predicts. That sort of conclusion - that life here was created by some other species "out there" in space somewhere - would be just fine with me, but the rest of the book was so irritating that when the conclusion finally arrived I was just pissed off about it.

As an exercise in writing craft, the book isn't that good either. Sometimes the hero is believable, particularly as he interacts with his family, but much of it is flat and fails to seem real, or even reasonable. And why is it told in first person from the point of view of someone who dies at the end? There is actually text at the end where the narrator talks about his last words, in the past tense, as in after he died. Excuse me? Nothing in this book explains that.

Finally, I have to state again that the author simply ignores the reality of what real contact with aliens would be like. Even if the aliens simply didn't talk to the authorities, everyone they interacted with would be grilled at huge length after each and every interaction. Our hero - a mucky-muck at the museum - would have no time to do or see anything other than the alien and the myriad people who want to know more about the alien, its society, technology, etc. He wouldn't even get to sleep given the demands on his time. The book was simply not believable in this area, and I found that really bothersome given the way he tried to keep it grounded in reality in other places.

As you can see, I didn't like this book. I did finish it, but looking back I really wonder why. There was nothing new raised by it as far as I can see, and the willing suspension of disbelief never happened.

Skip this one.