Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Order of the Stick books, Rich Burlew

Title: Order of the Stick (see below)
Author: Rich Burlew
Rating: Great!

If you play D&D, you need to read Order of the Stick.  If you don't play D&D, but like character driven graphic novels, then Order of the Stick is for you too.  And finally, what the author is doing is telling a good - and funny - story.  If that appeals, then you'll enjoy it as well.  You'll miss a bit of D&D related humor, particularly early on in the story, but the rest holds together well and will appeal.

Here's a link.  Get started:

That may keep you occupied for days.  There are years of the story to read out there, for free.  Knock yourself out.

In fact, in book form, there are now 7 volumes.  They are named and numbered thusly:

  • D: OOTS: Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tails
  • -1: OOTS: Start of Darkness
  • 0: OOTS: On The Origin of PCs
  • 1: OOTS: Dungeon Crawlin' Fools
  • 2: OOTS: No Cure For The Paladin Blues
  • 3: OOTS: War And XPs
  • 4: OOTS: Don't Split The Party

Burlew published these books one at a time, and the older ones gradually went out of print, but he got a lot of funding via a famous Kickstarter, and now they are all back in print and available from his distributor.

There is a lot of fun wrapped up in these books, and some very good story telling.  Six main characters drive the plot, with numerous supporting characters and quite a few villains as well.  The story arc is large and complicated, involving dragons and magic and quests and, well... it's a D&D campaign told in pictures featuring stick figures.  That might sound lame, but it really isn't.  (The Kickstarter campaign was supposed to raise about $58K.  Instead it raised $1.2 million.  Yes, really.  It's not lame at all, and the proof is in over 14,000 backers of that campaign who love with Burlew does.)

As I write this, Burlew is recovering from a hand injury, so he isn't updating the web site with new content right now.  I am guessing he will start back up again sometime after the beginning of the year, and I will be thrilled to see how the story continues.  I'll also be buying new books as they come out.  This is great stuff.

Give it a shot on the website, from the link above.  If you like it, the books are definitely worth owning, and now you can.

Thirteen, Richard K. Morgan

Title: Thirteen
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Rating: Great!

If you like your science fiction hard nosed and edgy, then Thirteen is for you.  In fact, so far, everything I've read by Morgan is grade A goodness of the same sort.

Set in the not too distant future, Thirteen tells part of the story of an... well... it's complicated.  The hero - Carl Marsalis - is an outcast working for the man.  He's kind of a cop, but his relationship with authority is challenging, and his assignments...  suffice it to say he hunts down escaped people like him.

And what is he?  Well, a thirteen is a member of the last (thirteenth) generation of genetically modified super soldiers.  They're faster and stronger than regular humans, and the programs were all shelved and the survivors are outcasts, relegated to a few fringe communities and the Martian colonies.  Some don't like that, however, and get loose with the rest of us.  When that happens, Carl is called in to find them and bring them back, or kill them if they won't come along.

But Carl gets brought into this story in a sideways way, involving a crashed ship from mars and a series of murders.

We get to watch Carl interact with humans - and other thirteens - and in the process see all kinds of interesting things about the dystopian society they live in.  This is a deeply uncomfortable world, and humanity is not doing well.

But Morgan's science fiction has that sort of edge about it.  Everything is dirty, and the real motivations for things are hard to find.

In short, this is good stuff, and I highly recommend it.

Oh, and it was published under the name Black Man outside the US, so if you're looking for it elsewhere, that's the name.

Lord Of Light, Roger Zelazny

Title: Lord Of Light
Author: Roger Zelazny
Rating: Great!

Roger Zelazny is one of my favorite authors.  His writing is light and quick, with am occasional turn of phrase that leaves me laughing uproariously.   He tackled big and small stories, along with big and small themes.  Not everything he wrote is perfect - like all of us, he had his up and down projects - but I find a lot more hits than misses with his works, at least until near the end of his life.

Lord Of Light is an earlier work, and one I really enjoy.  The story follows a group of colonial humans on a distant planet in the far future.  Some are gods - via technology and/or mutation - who oppress the rest of society.  Among the gods, though, there is one who opposes their rule, and who will fight to free humanity from the tyranny of the few.  He is Sam, and quite a character he is.

It turns out that those in power have taken on the roles of ancient, Hindu deities, and their associated aspects (or powers).  Sam, however, has taken a different path, and is considered a Buddha, among other things, and the conflict between him and his fellow gods is something to see.

In this work we see Zelazny writing when he was young.  I love this book, and reread it every few years just because I can.

The Devil's Eye, Jack McDevitt

Title: The Devil's Eye
Author: Jack McDevitt
Rating: Good

Another Alex Benedict novel, like A Talent For War, Polaris, and Seeker.  Once again we have the usual assortment (in hardish SF) of space ships, aliens, and a threat of some sort that might or might not come from the aliens.

And as with the other books in this series, the actual narrator is Chase Kolpath, Benedict's assistant and pilot.

This time we have a mystery involving a famous writer asking for help and then having her mind wiped - entirely - for no obvious reason.  Benedict and Kolpath start looking and, well aliens and threats ensue.

If this sounds a bit vague, it is.  I read the book a while back and the details have slipped away from me.  I had to open it up and scan a few pages to refresh my memory even that much.

I enjoyed it, but I think my tolerance for this sort of work is dwindling.  There's another book in the series, I see via a quick glance at Amazon, but for now I think I will pass.  Those who've loved these books will, no doubt, want to read Echo, but I am off onto other things.

Snake Oil Science, R. Barker Bausell

Title: Snake Oil Science
Author: R. Barker Bausell
Rating: Good

If you have any interest in alternative medicine, or any belief that it might be real, this is something you should read.

Bausell is a biostatistician - a specialist in looking at the math behind scientific studies of medical treatments - and he spent time doing that for CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) for the NIH, among other things.

In this book he spends a lot of time going over how science is (or should be) done, and documenting exactly what the placebo effect is and at least partly how it actually works.  Then he goes on a quest to find good science showing that any kind of CAM therapy works.

Not to give it away, but from the title you've probably guessed it: he finds essentially nothing.  The few positive studies have all kinds of issues - of the sort that Bausell is an expert in identifying - and the result is that they fall in the noise category.  If you use TCM, acupuncture, chiropractic, chelation, various herbal remedies, and so on, it turns out the evidence says all you're getting is the placebo effect, nothing more.

I would give this book a top mark review but I suspect it could have been edited down just a bit, to avoid it dragging in a couple of places.  The content is great, though.  No problems there.

I am sad to say, though, that most of those who need to read it won't.  Those who believe in CAM aren't usually open to the idea that it's a sham.

Oh... and for those who might not have heard it before, here's a related joke:

Q: What do you call and alternative medical therapy that actually works?
A: Medicine.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Lisbeth Salander Series, Stieg Larsson

Title: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
Author: Stieg Larsson
Rating: Good

I am very late to the party on these, but I did enjoy them when I finally got around to reading them.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is quite good.  It introduces new and complex characters well, and even manages to overcome my lack of knowledge about Sweden without coming across like a textbook.  Bloomkvist is an interesting person, and feels real, but Salander is the heart of the book as I read it, and the central mystery of her story is what the subsequent books follow.

Book two - The Girl Who Played With Fire - suffers from a very long and slow introduction.  150 pages in I almost gave up, but then it picked up.  Larsson was positioning his pieces and getting ready to tell his story.  I could wish he'd done so more quickly or in a way that didn't drag on so long, but the rest of the book is quite good, and we start understanding Salander's background and the reasons she is who she is.  It ends on a cliff hanger, though, so be prepared with the last book if you go down this route.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest picks up right where TGWPWF leaves off; no introduction, no summary.  It just jumps right into the middle of the action, which is where Larsson's writing shines.  We watch as Salander (with the aid of Bloomkvist) deals with the rest of the fallout from her childhood and the story comes to a close.

There are a few things I might quibble with in the overall plot, and Salander's software and hacker skills aren't as realistic as I - a programmer by trade - would have liked, but overall it isn't too bad.  With the exception of the intro to TGWPWF, Larsson wrote well, and I am sorry we won't see more works by him.  Good stuff.

The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov

Title: The Gods Themselves
Author: Isaac Asimov
Rating: OK

This was a recommendation from somewhere, but I honestly don't recall who it was that suggested it.

It was originally published in 1972 and it reads like it, which, alas, is a problem I have with a lot of science fiction of late.

In this one Asimov was playing with parallel universes, parallel people/beings in those universes, and the end of the world (or worse).  Alas he was also writing about the kinds of personal interactions and sex his various characters might have, and (IMO) not writing about those things all that well.

And for as bright as he was I don't feel like he did the science justice here.  The potential for ending the world could have been handled in a much more convincing way.

The end result isn't all that interesting, sad to say.

Still, there was a story here, and it held my interest to some degree.  Not awful, just not as good as I think it could have been.

And yet this won both a Hugo and a Nebula in 1973.  Really?  My standards must be really different.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Seeker, Jack McDevitt

Title: Seeker
Author: Jack McDevitt
Rating: Good

Seeker is another Alex Benedict novel by Jack McDevitt.  Set in the far future, Seeker tells the story of a group of people fed up with earth who make their exit and hope to establish a new society on another planet.  Well, actually, it tells that story from the perspective of Chase Kolpath, Alex Benedict's assistant, thousands of years after the actual event.  She and Alex follow some clues that lead in the direction of that ancient story and wind up, well, you should read it for yourself.

As with earlier Benedict novels, I have some mild reservations about telling the story from Chase's perspective rather than Alex's, but it holds together and is a pretty good read.

With the obvious exception of the Mutes and their unexplained telepathic communication, this is basic, hard SF.  There is faster than light travel with rules, a society spread among the stars, and a few complications and limits that keep things interesting.

So far I like McDevitt overall, and this holds up well compared with the other works of his that I have read.

Recommended if you like real SF.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Polaris: Jack McDevitt

Title: Polaris
Author: Jack McDevitt
Rating: Good
Polaris is the second novel in the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt. I briefly reviewed the first - A Talent For War - some time back.

Set in the far future, Polaris describes Alex Benedict's efforts to understand how and why the crew of the ship Polaris disappeared.  Benedict is a dealer in antiquities, not a detective, so his take on things can be different from that of someone "in the business".

The story is actually told from the perspective of his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath, and that is perhaps the weakest link in the novel.  Telling it from the perspective of someone other than Benedict lets important realizations (and some events) happen off stage, so we only find out about them later.  It may be a reasonable way to maintain the story and keep the reader guessing, but it feels a bit forced at times.  Not horribly bad, though... just a bit off.

I enjoyed the novel for what it is - a detective story in an unusual environment - and found it pretty good reading.  Enough to cause me to start the next in the series now.