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Sunday, January 26, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 15
I've fallen a bit behind in reviewing recent SF reading, though a few individual reviews have made their way to the site recently. So before I start my 2013 movie recap (a month late, I know), I figured I'd catch up:
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - This book follows a teenager named Wade, though everyone knows him as Parzival, a low level warrior in OASIS. OASIS is kinda like Snow Crash's Metaverse mixed with World of Warcraft. The real world is dystopic and lame, so everyone increasingly escapes into the OASIS. Just about everything is in the OASIS at this point: school, jobs, just about every piece of culture ever created. Its part game, part alternate reality. When the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS (think Publius Enigma, except that this actually works). To win this contest, Wade/Parzival will have to find a series of Easter Eggs (hidden messages in video games) and complete a series of challenges, all of which will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday's passions - 80s culture and old school video games. I don't normally like dystopias, but this was recommended to me and it turns out that the real focus here is on Wade/Parzival. It's a coming of age tale, of sorts. When we meet him, he's a poor, out-of-shape, loser, though his reputation online is slightly higher. As the story progresses, we see him make friends, gain confidence, take hold of his real life (even outside the OASIS) and battle a corporation intent on winning the prize for themselves. It's written in first person, and so it's easy to become wrapped up in the story. As a child of the 80s, the referential nature of the story (constant references to 80s television, movies, music, and video games) hit me right in the sweet spot, though I have to wonder how transferable all of this would be to someone outside of that age group. It certainly doesn't bode well for long-term relevance, but it's a fun enough story (and Cline is always careful to explain the reference) that I'm sure it'll hang around for a while.
  • Warhorse by Timothy Zahn - I always find myself coming back to Zahn whenever I want to read something fun, and Warhorse did the trick. It's not Zahn's best, but it's a well crafted story. A future human society is expanding into interstellar space, and they've run across the Tamplissta, a race of humanoid pacifists with a big environmentalist streak. Their technology isn't anywhere near the human level, except in one key area: space horses. They are huge space-dwelling creatures who eat asteroids and can teleport across interstellar distances. The Tampies and humans are wary of each other, and space horses don't seem to interact well with humans (they do, however, respond to the Tampies soft, eco-friendly touch). As tensions mount between Tampies and humans, a mixed-crew exploration ship is launched to prove that the two races can cooperate. Hijinks ensue. There's plenty of interesting ideas that help drive the story along, and the Tampies are an interesting species, depending on how you interpret their presence (are they a comment on real world environmentalists?). The characters are pretty straightforward (if you've read Zahn before, you know what you're in for) and so is the prose. Still, it's a decent novel and Zahn continues to be a workhorse in my SF reading.
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl - Investigative journalist Scott McGrath has fallen on hard times ever since he accused acclaimed and reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova (think Kubrick, but with a lot more secrecy and evil) of heinous crimes on television. Years later, when Cordova's daughter Ashley turns up dead in mysterious circumstances, McGrath picks up the trail again. With the help of a few oddball assistants, he sets about unraveling the mystery of Ashley and her father. This is a book that takes its time getting to the meat of the story, but once it gets there, it gets really good. It's never really boring or anything, and it doesn't succumb to indulgent style exercises or anything pretentious like that, it just takes its time letting the story unfurl. I don't know that it quite needed to be this long, but it works nonetheless, and I really enjoyed it.
  • Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales - The third in Sales' Apollo Quartet, where each story is some sort of alternate history stemming from the Apollo-era space race. The first two have brilliant premises (though the second's premise is only revealed at the end), while this one is a little more tame. It does shed light on an unheralded episode in actual space program history. The Mercury 13 were 13 American women who went through a lot of the same training and physiological tests as NASA astronauts that would eventually man the Mercury program. Sales' novella postulates that the Korean war was still raging, so NASA couldn't pull the best and brightest from the Air Force. Instead, they relied on the Mercury 13, who are also moving on to the Apollo program. It's an interesting work, and Sales' prose continues to shine, but I was expecting a little more in the way of ideas (like the first two Apollo Quartet novellas). Regardless, I am greatly looking forward to the fourth and final novella, due sometime this year.
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold - This is the second book in Bujold's Chalion series of fantasy novels, and it takes an interesting approach. It follows a minor character from the first book, and gives her the Hero's Journey (Heroine's Journey?) treatment. It's kinda like a coming-of-age tale too, though it's unlike most others of that type in that the protagonist here is Ista, a middle-aged retired queen who suffered under a maddening curse for most of her life. In the first book of the series, the curse is broken and Ista (well, the whole royal family) is freed. She's still royalty, though, and no one wants to let her go out into the world a live the life she's always wanted to find. The first book had a large scope and ranged across the whole kingdom. This book is a bit tighter, and more focused on Ista. Along the way, there are kidnappings, sorcery, invasions, and sieges, but it's all pretty well contained, and it works remarkably well. This is a rather exposition heavy novel, but Bujold excels at these sorts of things, and it never drags or feels boring, even if some mysteries seem more obvious to the reader than to the characters in the story (but then, we know more than them, eh?) The other unusual thing about this book (and the series so far) is how much of it is focused around religion. Not any sort of religion that we're familiar with, and it seems that in Chalion, these gods are real. I'm particularly interested in how well balanced the magic in these Chalion books is, as I find that magic can often be a crutch for a writer. Not so here, though this book has much more magic than the first book. As usual, Bujold excels at creating characters and feinting relationships, etc... I'm actually pretty excited to check out the last book in the series at this point. Unfortunately, that means I'm quickly running out of Bujold books, so I may need to start rereading some Vorkosigan novels...
So there you have it, a pretty good run. Stay tuned next week for the Kaedrin Movie Award nominations!
Posted by Mark on January 26, 2014 at 01:33 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ancillary Justice
Anne Leckie's debut novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering much critical praise and awards hype (I suspect it will be a Hugo nominee). It's a space opera tale of betrayal and revenge, though that description doesn't really do it justice. While it does contain typical pot-boilery elements like that, it's also got a lot of ambitious but subtle social explorations embedded in its worldbuilding, as does most of the best science fiction.

The story alternates between past and present threads, weaving the timeframes together in such a way that each informs the other. In the beginning, we are introduced to Breq, a former soldier on a quest for revenge. She's come to an isolated, icy planet in search of the means for her revenge. Through the alternating timelines of each chapter, we learn that Breq used to be a segment in an artificial intelligence that ran a ship called Justice of Toren. There are layers of hierarchy and organization, but basically these ships are comprised of networked groups of Ancillaries, dead human bodies with the AI embedded into them. This is not a conceit or an idea for the sake of ideas; the exploration of this sorta post-human existence is the primary driving force behind the book. In Breq, a single body separated from her whole, we get a unique perspective on this sort of existence.

For her part, Leckie is able to establish all of this without resorting to excessive info-dumps. This is initially disorienting (though not as much as, say, The Quantum Thief), as the thread set in the past sometimes reads like a Pynchon novel, with the one AI's perspective shifting from Ancillary to Ancillary with each new sentence. It's disorienting because they're the same person, but they're thousands or even millions of miles away from each other, but once you get the hang of it, it works (in particular, the naming conventions of the various levels of hierarchy can be confusing at first). Interestingly, the more info-dumpy segments come later in the book, but by that point, you're wrapped up in the story enough that this information is happily received.

So the way the AI ships work is one aspect of the worldbuilding that works very well, but the other aspect is the social one. Being a space opera, we're of course talking about galactic empires and wars and such, but the empire that Leckie has established here is truly a fascinating one. The Radch are the dominant human society in the galaxy, having steadily annexed planet after planet over a 2000 year period. Of course, annexation in this context is a just a pretty word for conquered. The humans on an annexed planet that resist are killed and turned into ancillaries, which are then turned against the people. Comprehensive surveillance at the hands of Ancillaries makes it difficult to resist, but that's just the Radchaai way. Even the soldiers who are doing the annexing, the Radch citizens, do not receive any privacy. This goes on until a planet is pacified, and the Radch sink their hooks into the planets economy, leveraging gains (in both wealth and ancillaries) to annex other worlds. So basically, the Radch are not very pleasant folks. The Radchaii are lead by someone named Anaander Mianaai, who is very much like the artificial consciousness that run Radch ships in that she is comprised of many networked bodies. She's also near immortal and has basically been the Radchaai dictator for 2000 years.

The Radch identify each other mostly through Houses, tribal affiliations that are complicated and corporation-like. One corollary to this is that the Radch do not distinguish between genders, referring to everyone using only female pronouns like "she" and "her" (it is not explained why the female form is chosen over gender neutral ones, like some other authors have used). Breq, our protagonist, is implied to have a female body, but being an artificial intelligence of the Radch, she makes no distinction between male and female for herself or for others. Breq constantly has difficulties identifying gender when she is outside of the Radch empire (as she is in the present-day segments of the story). This aspect of the novel has garnered much praise for its progressive tendencies, though I'm not entirely sure the book means it to be read as a good thing. It certainly does generate some interesting discussion for us readers, but in the context of the book, it's a conceit imposed by a tyrant. Anaander Mianaai is many things, but one thing she will be to the reader is "evil". And the reason for this gender-blindness is simply her will. Just as it's her will to impose comprehensive surveillance on all citizens, or as we discover in the book, to slaughter innocent citizens by the thousands. And this is supposed to be progressive?

It's an interesting perspective, for sure, and while the constant use of female pronouns is initially jarring, it quickly fades away, partially because you get used to it, and partially because the Radch simply don't care and this story doesn't really need it (though it's implied that reproduction happens in a generally traditional manner, with perhaps some SF technological help (which, in itself, implies that the distinction must be made at some point, simply for reproductive purposes)). Still, the more important social structures seem to be the Houses and how they interact. Put simply, there's lots to chew on, and Leckie does seem to be aware of what came before her, as io9 notes:
For people who love science fiction, there are also many little tips of the hat that are pleasing without being intrusive or fan servicey. Breq's division on Justice of Toren are fond of singing, which brings to mind Anne McCaffery's incredible novel of ship consciousness, The Ship Who Sang. And of course the Radch civilization's lack of gender roles is reminiscent of the civilization that Ursula Le Guin describes in The Left Hand of Darkness. But as I was reading, the one comparison I kept making in my mind was to Iain M. Banks, who always reminded us that politics (and people) are far more complicated than most space operas will allow.
Incidentally, I'd say this novel blows The Ship Who Sang away when it comes to exploring ship consciousness, but on the other hand, I found Le Guin's novel much more mind-blowing in terms of its gender bending (but then, that's a tough act to follow and not really a fair comparison for this book). And as mentioned recently, I really do need to get up to speed on Ian M. Banks.

So yes, this book has an impressive bit of worldbuilding going on, but it's all revealed slowly through the story, which has plenty of narrative hooks to keep you interested. Mystery, action, typical space opera tropes, an alien race that seems to be truly Alien (capital A, though we've not learned much about them just yet), that ambitious exploration of hive minds, and other ideas that help build and maintain the sensawunda feeling that comes out in the best SF. I really enjoyed the novel, and it's something I'd consider nominating for a Hugo award, if I end up submitting a ballot. As debut novels go, this is an assured effort, and I'm greatly looking forward to the next installment (due in October 2014).
Posted by Mark on January 22, 2014 at 10:57 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

A 10 Question Book Meme
SF Signal posted these questions yesterday, and I'm amazingly on the ball here, giving my answers just one day later. Go me.

The last sf/f/h book I read and liked was:

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't read a lot of Fantasy, but since I've already exhausted all of Bujold's SF, I figured I'd try out some of her Fantasy books rather than suffer through withdrawal pains. It turns out that these Chalion books are really good, too. This is the second in the series, but it's only loosely connected to the first, and the main character here was a bit player in the first book (but she's an excellent protagonist). It's an interesting book, because it's mostly talking and religion, with light action interspersed throughout. Anywho, I really loved it, and will probably be reading the third book in the near future...

The last sf/f/h book I read and wasn't crazy about was:

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. A book about a sentient spaceship that wasn't all that bad, but which never really connected with me. Something about the episodic nature of the plot bothered me as well.

The sf/f/h book I am reading now is:

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu. I only just started this one this morning, one of a few 2013 books I planned on reading in support of my Hugo run this year... So far, so good!

The sf/f/h book(s) I most want to read next is/are:

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. I've put off reading Banks' Culture series long enough, I think.

An underrated sf/f/h book is:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I have no real sense of what is underrated or overrated out there, but this is a book that seems to consistently be left out of "best of" lists and such (for example: the NPR list)

An overrated sf/f/h book is:

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a fine book, to be sure, and I get why everyone loves it, but I never really got into it.

The last sf/f/h book that was recommended to me was:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I'm usually turned off by dystopian futures, but a friend recommended this and yes, she was right. It's a fun book.

A sf/f/h book I recommended to someone else was:

Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy came up in a discussion about the new movies (incidentally, wouldn't it be awesome if they made movies out of Zahn's books? Alas, I think the most we could expect would be a Thrawn cameo or somesuch.)

A sf/f/h book I have re-read is:

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I've probably only reread about 4 or 5 books in my life, but I've read Cryptonomicon three times, which is impressive since it's a 900 page face melter. Or something.

A sf/f/h book I want to re-read is:

Almost anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (I'm curious to reread the beginning of the Vorkosigan series again) and Neal Stephenson (in particular, I'd like to dip into The Baroque Cycle again, though that's obviously a daunting task considering the 2700 page length!)
Posted by Mark on January 19, 2014 at 05:28 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Hugo Award Season 2014
So we've already begun the general award season, with top 10 lists galore peppering social media and publications, and the more formal awards shows are also getting underway (the Golden Globes are tonight, the Oscar nominations will be announced this week, and so on). For science fiction nerds, the Hugo award is generally considered to be the most prestigious, though the Nebula and Clarke awards also garner a lot of attention in certain circles.

Hugo voters must be involved in some way with the Worldcon SF convention that is held every year in a different location (this year is in London). It's a populist award in that anyone can become a voter, they just need to pay for some level of membership. This strikes me as an interesting balance, as the cost of entry should ensure at least some measure of seriousness in the voters. The Nebulas are given by members of the SFWA, which is its own unique perspective, and the Clarke awards are given by a jury (there are other awards, but these seem to be the most respected, and they represent an interesting range of voting rules).

As I mentioned in my 2013 recap, one thing I was thinking of doing this year was to actually join and vote on the Hugos (at the very least, read all the fiction nominees and vote on them, though I'm sure I'll be able to vote on TV and movie awards too). The nomination period has only just recently opened up, but in all honesty, I don't believe I've read enough to give quality nominations. Excuding non-fiction, I've read 6 things that would qualify as a 2013 release, 2 being novellas (or novelettes?) and 1 being The Human Division, which is basically a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas slapped together into one book. Of the remaining three, two have a pretty good chance of being nominated anyway and the other is arguably not SF/Fantasy (I'd probably put it in horror/thriller/mystery territory). Of those, I'd consider nominating: The rules say you're allowed to nominate up to 5 works in each category, but you're permitted (and encouraged) to make fewer nominations (or no nominations) if you're not familiar with that particular category. So I certainly could submit my nominations (provided I buy my supporting membership soon), but I'm not sure how I feel about doing so given my lack of depth in 2013. Of course, nominations are only due at the end of March, so I have some time to catch up.

In any case, I'm looking forward to participating in the process this year, and it appears that the annual awards grousing has already started, with Adam Roberts taking a two-pronged approach with his usual style and wit:
SF Awards have, as a rule, much to recommend them; but they have two big flaws. One is the loyalty implied in the descriptor 'fan', in which a shitty work by an author of whom (or a shitty episode of a show of which) one is a fan gets your vote because that's what being a fan means -- it means sticking with your team. Ditto: voting for an author rather than voting for a text. Here the niceness or popularity of a given author may overshadow the merits of the books said author has actually produced. ...

The second flaw is the way people often vote for what is shiny and directly in front of their faces, not necessarily because they are idiots, but perhaps because their time is short, they want to be involved in the process but don't want to bother researching the full gamut of possibles, because they don't care all that much, or a hundred other explanations. It means that works can get onto shortlists not because they are necessarily very good, but merely because that have been dangled directly in front of people, by (a) expensive marketing campaigns, hype, or being on the gogglebox, or (b) the aggressive self-promotion of energetic authors strenuously seeking to maximize their online profile.
I think these are both fair points (and they demonstrate why I'm a bit hesitant to submit my nominations), though perhaps Roberts overstates their importance. Of the four nominations I would make, two are by authors I'd never even heard of, one is a relatively obscure piece of self-published short fiction, and the other is, well, John Scalzi (a frequent nominee that I suspect Roberts would point to as someone who gets works nominated because of who he is regardless of the quality of that particular work). But you'll note that I absolutely won't nominate The Human Division for best novel because it doesn't work very well as a novel (nor, I think, is it really supposed to just yet). Scalzi has definitely been nominated a bunch of times where I don't think the work warranted the inclusion (though Redshirts may not have been one of those times (as a winner, I'm not so sure...)). I'm as big a fan of Neal Stephenson as seems possible, but I doubt I'd have nominated Reamde a couple years ago, as it's not really science fiction (debatable, I guess, but that's definitely not the thrust). So yes, I'm a fan, but of the genre as a whole. I have certain preferences and blind spots, just like anyone else, but that's fine when it comes to populist awards, as my votes get smeared across all the other votes.

As for marketing campaigns and self-promotion by savvy authors on the internets, I'm sure there is an element of that in play, but again, I think Roberts overestimates some aspects of this. Scalzi is a pretty interesting example, as he has a huge following online and engages in exactly what Roberts is decrying here. His books seem to sell well and I'm sure the publishers do a fair amount of publicity for them too. Fortunately, Scalzi has responded to Roberts (in a friendly, amicable way) and I find that I have little to add to that. I will note that I would never in a million years have found The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if Ian Sales had not built up some form of online audience. It's a self-published work with no expensive marketing campaigns or hype, and I think it kind of odd to begrudge him the notion of letting his blog audience know what is eligible (and in what category - I don't even know if The Eye is a novella, novelette, or short story?)

These are, of course, not new complaints. Last year's dustup made some pretty similar points, and the big issue here is that there's not really a way around it. The Hugos are a populist award, so great but obscure stuff might not make the cut. It seems odd to criticize a populist award for nominating popular works, though I guess the Hugo's position as the most respected SF award does warrant more scrutiny. But that's just the way populist awards work, and that's why awards like the Nebula and Clarke exist (each of which, by the way, are far from perfect in themselves). Anytime anyone puts together a best of anything list, there are bound to be dissenters and rules wonks who complain. In some ways, that's part of the fun! I guess we'll revisit this subject after this year's nominees are announced (which should be sometime in early April). I hope to check in before then with what I've been reading (and I'm already behind on that, actually), so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on January 12, 2014 at 08:30 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Year in Books
Another orbital period has passed, which means it's time to recap the year or some such thing. I'm still catching up on movies, and I'll be posting a recap of the year in beer in the next few days too, but let's take a look at my reading for 2013 and see where I'm at. I keep track of my book reading at Goodreads, and they have some fancy statistic generator things (that isn't anywhere near as detailed as I'd like, but hey, I'll take what I can get). Since I've been using the site for a while now, I've got several years worth of stats to compare too.

Let's start with overall books read:
Number of books I read from 2010-2013
So I've read 31 books in 2013, which looks like a significant decrease when compared to 2012, but that is a bit misleading too. I was reading solely for quantity in 2012, and I cheated a bit in that I read a bunch of short novellas and comic book collections. My original idea for 2013 was to only read super long epics, but that was perhaps too ambitious, so I just sorta read what I wanted, length be damned. Of course, book length is tricky to measure, but by any standard, the average length of books I read in 2013 was much higher than 2013. On the other hand, it appears I did read more overall in 2012:
Number of pages I read from 2010-2012
Proportionally, it's not as big a disparity, but it is still significant. It appears that reading super long epics does sorta take longer than reading three smaller books with an equivalent number of pages. That's perhaps not strictly true, but longer books tend to meander, which means I tend to get bored and fall asleep earlier and thus not cover as much ground.
Longest Book and Shelves
The perfect example of this is Pandora's Star, the longest book I read in 2013 and the first in a bloated duo of books that are supremely longwinded. I don't normally mind this, but those books tested even my patience (though I did enjoy them quite a bit in the end). All told, those two books alone account for almost 20% of my reading this year. Another epic of note that I read was Douglas R. Hofstadter's monumental Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It clocks in at 832 pages, but it is some very dense, heady stuff, and it had been sitting on my shelf unread for about 5 years or so.

You can also see that I read a small portion of comic book collections and novellas in 2013 as well, but not as many as in 2012. Other stats of note:
  • 3 Comic Books (one Morning Glories and two Locke & Key)
  • 2 Novellas (both from Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet)
  • 8 Non-Fiction books, which is less than last year, but proportionally more
  • 10 of the 31 books were written by women, which is again less than last year, but proportionally much higher. It's still not equitable, but 2012 was the year of Lois McMaster Bujold, while 2013 was much broader (9 different female authors).
  • 23 Fiction books, mostly in the science fiction or fantasy realm, though a couple of oddballs popped here or there.
Goodreads also provides a neat little gizmo that graphs publication dates, as such:
Graph of publication dates
If you click the image above, you should be able to get a more interactive version of the graph, though I do find it annoying that it only states the publication date, not what book it is! The oldest book of the year was Leigh Brackett's 1949 tale of Martian adventure, The Sword of Rhiannon (for those who don't recognize the name, she was one of the screenwriters on for The Empire Strikes Back).

So it's been a pretty good year for reading. I certainly didn't get through as much as planned, and I definitely didn't spend as much time reading in 2013, but I think I did pretty well. As for next year, I think I'm going to take a similar approach: read what I want, length be damned. I may also get off my arse and read all the Hugo nominated books this year, something I've always wanted to do. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that I've just read a book that will be nominated in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but I'd also like to take a shot at the other (shorter) fiction categories. I'll probably set my sights at a similar 30 books/11,000 pages rate for 2014, but who knows how things will go?
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2014 at 07:21 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

SF Book Review, Part 14: WoGF Edition
I recently ran across the 2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and thought it sounded like fun. The rules are simple: "read 12 books - 1 each by 12 different women authors that you have not read before including 1 random author selection - in 12 months". I've started this a bit later in the year than I'd like, and I'm beding the "that you have not read before" rule a bit on at least one or two selections, but still, I've actually made pretty good progress. Halfway there, actually. Alas, I've found my selections to be a mixed bag.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton - Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for best novel, this one was already in the reading queue, and I was quite looking forward to it. Unfortunately, this is a book that struck all the wrong chords with me. It's about a young girl named Morwenna, who was badly injured, and her twin sister killed, when they foiled their mother's nefarious and abusive use of magic. Sound exciting? Well, that's all happened before the story begins and is only referred to obtusely (details are generally unclear). As the book opens, Morwenna (having successfully escaped her abusive mother) is being sent to a boarding school by her father. Cool, so this is going to be one of those magical boarding school stories, right? Well, no, nothing really happens at the boarding school except that Morwenna is unpopular. On the one hand, I can respect what Walton was going for here, and she has turned many genre conventions on their head. Indeed, I love the way magic is portrayed in this book. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, only with magic, there doesn't appear to be any connection between the two events. Want to shut down a Phurnocite factory? Drop some flowers into a lake. In a month, the factory shuts down, citing unprofitable margins. Did the magic work? Or was it simple economics here? In Walton's world, there is little distinction. Magic works, but at weird angles. It's great! Unfortunately, there's not really a story to hang all of this on, and the boarding school stuff is just a rote high school story. It may not be common in SF/F, but it's common enough in general culture.

    It's more of a character sketch than anything else, as we follow Morwenna through her first school year. She's friendless at first, and takes solace in reading SF/F books, eventually making friends with librarians and a local SF Book Club. This book is absolutely filled with SF/F book references, and I suspect that anyone who grew up in the late 70s or early 80s (when this story is set) will delight in the nostalgia of those references (personally, I found the discovery of new books and authors interesting, as it's very different in the age of the internet than it was back then (or even in the early 90s, when I was dipping into SF/F). I liked the book club scenes, but little comes of it. There's a confrontation of sorts at the end of the book, and there is some personal catharsis for the protagonist, but in the end, what I got out of this book is basically this lesson: people who read SF/F are, like, totally awesome. Which is true, I guess, but I already knew that!
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - Now this is more like it. It's a serial killer story with a little science fictional twist of time travel. There's a house that exists outside of time, and when a twisted guy named Harper stumbles upon it in the depression era, he is compelled to use it as a base to launch his serial killing campaign across time against girls who "shine". In the present day, we're following Kirby, a damaged but spunky survivor of Harper's shenanigans who is attempting to use her newspaper internship to research serial killings. Along with her reluctant partner, old-hand crime reporter Dan, Kirby eventually stumbles upon details of killings that don't make sense. Harper likes to leave impossible mementos when he kills his shining girls, like a baseball card from the future. This is not a perfect novel, and is actually a bit disorienting at times (you are often introduced to a shining girl, only to see her die quickly, which leads to a lot of character introductions, even relatively late in the book), but I was taken enough with the style and cleverness of the plot. As time-travel thrillers go, there's a lot to like, and everything is internally consistent, but it doesn't really have quite as revelatory a structure as I was expecting. Still, this book is well worth reading if the premise interests you.
  • The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett - Recognize the author? Yep, she was one of the screenwriters for The Empire Strikes Back, but she actually had a long history of SF/F writing behind her at that point. This seems to be her most famous work, a tale of aliens and humans on Mars. At this point, these stories are pretty well defined, but this seems to be a particularly well constructed version, and Brackett's prose seems to be a step above her contemporaries. The story follows an Indy Jones prototype named Matt Carse, a gun-slinging archaeologist who stumbles onto the long lost tomb of the Martian god Rhiannon and is subsequently plunged into the distant past... for adventure! It's a fun little adventure tale, short and sweet, definitely of its time (published in 1953), but again, the style seems to be a step ahead of her contemporaries. Definitely worth checking out for genre completists.
  • vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby - This is a generally well done science fiction story... that didn't really strike a chord with me. The premise, following a few von Neumann robots that go on the run from various enemies, is all well and good, and the characters are fine for what they are. There's an excessive focus on family and especially parentage here, to the point where I wonder if people who have kids would get more out of this book than I did. As it was, there seemed to be weird tonal differences from page to page, and I sometimes found myself confused as to what was actually going on. I should mention that I actually listened to this on audiobook rather than reading it, and to be honest, I was not impressed with the voice work here, though it wasn't particularly awful or anything (I'm not sure if it's the book or the reader or some combination of both, or perhaps a weird negative feedback loop of some kind). Some interesting ideas here, but this book was just not for me.
  • The Ship Who Sang Anne McCaffrey - McCaffrey is probably better known for her fantasy novels, but I thought this one, about a human brain implanted into a spaceship, sounded interesting. And that premise is indeed pretty good, though the book essentially amounts to a series of mostly disconnected stories. This episodic nature means it doesn't quite hold together as a whole as much as I'd like, but each story was relatively well done and interesting on its own, and there are some repeat characters, etc... Again, I didn't feel like this was really ringing my bells, but it was certainly an enjoyable short read as well (I enjoyed it much more than Among Others or vN). This is apparently the first among many books, but while I enjoyed this one well enough, I don't see myself reading any of its sequels, which I guess says something as well.
So yeah, I really enjoyed two books, was a little meh on one, and didn't particularly care for another. I actually didn't mention Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion, which I loved (significantly more than any book in this post), because I thought I had written about it before, but it turns out that I didn't. That one also bends that rule about not having read the author before, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to really finish off this reading challenge by year's end (especially if I keep choosing books that don't particularly inspire me, like some of the above). That being said, I'll be giving it a shot. If you have any suggestions that seem more my speed, feel free to leave a comment...
Posted by Mark on August 18, 2013 at 07:34 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Commonwealth Duo
I have no problems with long books. Even long books that meander down tangents aren't an inherent issue for me. Heck, I can get pretty longwinded myself. My favorite book is Cryptonomicon, a novel filled with so many digressions that I find it hard to even say what it's about. On the other hand, the only reason I can put up with such excess is if I'm engaged. Good characters, good story, interesting ideas, heck, even well written prose can keep me going.

So when I picked up Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton I wasn't immediately turned off by the length or the leisurely pace. On the other hand, clocking in at around a thousand pages, Hamilton had plenty of time to test my patience. It's a bloated book, to say the least. Plus, it's really just the first half of the story and the "sequel", Judas Unchained, is another thousand-plus page novel. In essence, what we have here is a 2000+ page story, split into two books. Again, I have no inherent bias against this sort of length, but in this case, I'm seriously doubting that it needed to be that long. The funny thing is that, over the course of these two books, the story falls together rather nicely. Things mentioned early that may have seemed extraneous generally do play a role later in the story. I ultimately found myself enjoying the series (I certainly would not have completed it otherwise), and there are lots of things I really like about it, but the excessive length was unnecessary.

By way of explanation, let me tell you about how I almost abandoned Pandora's Star. It was only about 100 pages in, and it was our introduction to a character named Justine Burnelli. She's a member of an interstellar dynasty and as we meet her, she's on a "safari" on some planet. She's taking a hyperglider trip across the countryside... and Hamilton lingers on every single detail of the trip, from the tethers on the glider to the flowers on the mountainside, to the tune of about 30 or so pages. Nothing of import actually happens during this trip - she flies over the landscape, that's it. Now, I suppose it does illustrate something about Justine's personality and as a matter of fact, this "hyperglider" thing comes into play later in the story (um, about 2000 pages later). But it's also something that could have been done in about 5 pages.

Now, take that situation and repeat about 100 times (this is no exaggeration, and you could probably jack that number up to 200 or 300), and you'll have an idea of why these two books are so long, and why their length is something of an issue for me. It's not the story that's a problem, it's that Hamilton thinks we need to see every component of every sub-plot. For instance, one of the characters is named Paula Myo. She's basically a galactic detective, and we see her take on a seemingly unrelated case at one point. This is fine in concept - it's an introduction to how formidable she is - but it drags on and on and on for far too long. It turns out that the characters in that case become important later in the story, but the original investigation still didn't warrant as much time as Hamilton spent on them.

Ultimately, after about 500 pages or so, the book does settle into a groove where things actually start happening. And when stuff actually feels important, Hamilton's obsessive focus on detail is much more welcome, if sometimes still a bit overbearing. So there was clearly enough here to keep me going, but I maintain that this could have been at least 25% (if not a full 50% or even more) shorter.

The story begins when an astronomer notices two starts disappeared from the sky in an instant. The speculation is that some advanced society has implemented a Dyson sphere, but why so suddenly? An expedition is put together to answer the myriad questions. Meanwhile, a sorta cult/terrorist group is trying to hunt down an alien called the Starflyer, whom they believe is able to brainwash human beings and thus has been infiltrating the Commonwealth political and economic structures.

As previously mentioned, things start slowly, but eventually pick up. At some point, a war with an alien species (called Primes) breaks out, and that's when things start to get really interesting. The Primes very well realized... and terrifying. Hamilton's detailed style is at its best when he's writing from the Primes' perspective (particularly a Prime known as MorningLightMountain) and when he's detailing battles in this war (and they are epic battles taking place across 20-50 worlds at a time). The Primes are a scary enemy, but their motivations and methods are, well, alien, and Hamilton does a good job exploiting the differences between the Primes and Humans during the battle sequences, as well as overall strategy. The balance of power tips both ways at different times, and it's a war I could see either side (or both sides) losing.

There are far too many characters to summarize right now, even if I focus only on main viewpoint characters. This is definitely a challenge of the book, as you will sometimes go several hundred pages before returning to a given character. Some characters are visited frequently, of course, but others may only have 20-30 pages in the entire two books. Many of them feel rather similar, though I'm not sure if that was intentional or not. There's a weird focus on sex and superficial looks, though again, that might be a reasonable speculation in a universe where comprehensive rejuvenation is available. There were a few characters I actively disliked (notably including a guy named Mark!), but most were approachable enough and easy to spend time with. Sometimes I felt like characters were nothing more than plot delivery devices, but occasionally we get a glimpse into something that humanizes them. I wouldn't call the characters a failing or anything that bad, but they definitely seem to take a back seat to the story and technology.

For the most part, Hamilton touches on every SF trope he can. A galactic civilization called the Commonwealth, with plenty of unique planetary governments. Longevity treatments mean that humans can live indefinitely. Memory inserts and cloning mean that you can be "re-lifed" if you suffer "body-loss". Varying degrees of computer/human interfaces and cyberware. Genetic modifications. All sorts of fancy energy weapons and force fields. FTL travel comes in the form of wormholes. Inside the Commonwealth, these wormholes are set up along with a train system, though once the war starts, spaceships are built. Time travel is even sorta touched on at one point (traveling to the future, so no paradox). He touches on the singularity with a character called the Sentient Intelligence (SI). We run into all sorts of cosmic structures and big pieces of technology like the Dyson spheres. I already mentioned the Primes, but there are several other alien species... In particular, the Silfen are an interesting bunch. They're kinda elf-like and they eschew most technology (and politics/economics, for that matter), choosing instead to wander along their Paths (which are sorta like wormholes, but much less distinct and much more hand-wavey). Other aliens include the High Angel, an alien spaceship that invites anyone who is interested to live in its pods. And there's probably a ton of other stuff I'm leaving out.

Despite Hamilton's tendency to be longwinded, all of this stuff is there for a reason. It all fits together in the end, and each of these technologies plays a role in the story. Even if it didn't need to be this long or include quite so many viewpoint characters, that Hamilton has managed to string all of this together in a way that fits is actually very impressive.

Hamilton's views on technology and its resulting consequences is generally well thought out and logical. While he does touch on a lot of hand-wavey stuff (see list of SF tropes above!), he never takes that too far, and most of it seems to be an approachable extension of current trends. For instance, while he does mention beam weapons and force fields and the like, nuclear bombs are still pretty effective. He speculates about some advancements in that area, but nothing that feels unreasonable. He's set up a truly terrifying alien threat, but he doesn't rely on a deus ex machina to resolve the conflict.

So this is a difficult series for me. On the one hand, it's longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, it's a highly imaginative, epic space opera, and ultimately every engaging to read. In the end, it's something I can recommend for fans of SF who don't mind excessive detail or extremely long books. And if you go into it knowing that the two books are meant to be read as one story, that might make things a little more approachable (I was unaware that the first book would just sorta end without resolving anything, which left a bad taste in my mouth).
Posted by Mark on August 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday SF Meme
Well, not this Sunday. That would be silly. SF Signal posted these questions two weeks ago, and I'm posting my responses now, because that's how we do things here at Kaedrin.

My favorite alien invasion book or series is...?

All the examples that are coming to mind seem like borderline cases. Is Ender's Game an alien invasion book? The story is set into motion by an invasion, but you don't actually see it (Ender reviews recordings of it). How about Anathem? That one seems even more borderline (Are they aliens? Are they actually "invading"?), though if it does qualify, it'd probably be my favorite. What can I say, I'm a Neal Stephenson junkie. This... may come up again.

My favorite alternate history book or series is...?

While I can't say as though I've really delved into the alternate history sub-genre, the two books that come to mind immediately are Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The latter of which has the more clever premise (indeed, it's got an almost recursive structure) and is clearly more influential (it's among the early examples of a "what if the Axis won WWII?" story), but the former is a much more enjoyable read (basically a neo-noir style detective story).

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is...?

Here comes Stephenson again: Snow Crash. Of course, he was sorta taking the piss out of the sub-genre and even kinda killed it, but that's sorta why I like it, as I'm not a huge fan of cyberpunk. William Gibson's Neuromancer is a worthy runner-up here, though it's still not really a novel that I love.

My favorite Dystopian book or series is...?

Another sub-genre I'm not a huge fan of, yet the answer is blindingly obvious: Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell.

My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is...?

The start of the Golden-Age is pretty easy to pinpoint - when John W. Campbell became the editor for Astounding Science Fiction magazine in the late 1930s. When the Golden-Age ends is more vague. I'll place the line of demarcation at 1960. It's an arbitrary choice, but it seems to work. However, given that constraint, the first book that came to mind (a Heinlein) is no longer eligible! So what I'm left with is a bunch of Asimov, which I do love despite the distinctly wooden nature of his prose, and a bunch of other one-offs. The two that seem to be winning the battle are Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) and Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human (1953).

My favorite hard sf book or series is...?

My answer here is going to be an author, because I can't think of anyone who writes hard SF at the level of Greg Egan (I'm sure they exist, I just haven't read them). Egan's books make me question whether or not I've ever read hard SF before. So to narrow it down a bit, I'll go with Diaspora. The hardest of SF, with an ambitious and truly astounding scope. (For something a little more approachable, Permutation City works pretty well, while still being "hard").

My favorite military sf book or series is...?

In terms of straight up military SF, I'll go with Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. Though Starship Troopers and The Forever War are clearly more influential and "important", they both have pretty heavy flaws (Heinlein's incessant lecturing, Haldeman's treatment of sexuality). I suppose you could say that Old Man's War is a little on the light and fluffy side, but I think it works pretty well.

My favorite near-future book or series is...?

I want to put Cryptonomicon here because it's Stephenson and my favorite book, but it's only debatably a near-future book (it's unspecified, but the implications are present-day or very-near-future), and even the near-future stuff is only half the book (with the other half being set in WWII). That being said, I'm keeping it here, because why not?

My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is...?

The two that come immediately to mind are Stephen King's The Stand and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Both books suffer from poor adaptations into film/TV, but are excellent in their own right and well worth reading.

My favorite robot/android book or series is...?

Asimov's Robot Series pretty much takes the cake here. I can think of lots of other books that feature robots, but they're usually just window dressing. Asimov's robots aren't truly about robots either, I guess, but I love the way he starts from basic principles (the three laws of robotics) and sets about subverting them at every turn.

My favorite space opera book or series is...?

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. I was tempted to put this for the military SF question, because there is a fair amount of that going on in the series, but it's really much more of a space opera than a military series (even if there are a lot of military SF elements).

My favorite steampunk book or series is...?

I don't really do steampunk, so I don't really have anything to pull from here. Mulligan!

My favorite superhero book or series is...?

My love of Batman is probably more due to The Animated Series and the movies, but I've read some of the comics too, which is more than can be said for most superheroes.

My favorite time travel book or series is...?

Yikes, a suprising amount of choices here. Asimov's The End of Eternity and Dean Koontz' Lightning (the book that got me into reading when I was a youngin) both spring to mind. Downtiming the Night Side by Jack Chalker takes things in extremely weird directions, but I enjoyed it. There's probably a dozen others I could list (or want to read), as this is a favorite sub-genre.

My favorite young adult sf book or series is...?

My first thought here was Heinlein's juveniles, stuff like Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky. Then I remembered Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which is clearly the best choice.

My favorite zombie book or series is...?

I kinda hate zombie stories, so they're not something I really seek out in book form. The closest thing I've read to this would be the aforementioned I Am Legend (which are vampires, but the story contains many tropes that would become common in zombie stories).

The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are...?

Well, it's a long list, but three upcoming books: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, and Warhorse by Timothy Zahn.

So that just about covers it. Lessons learned: I have a hard time choosing a favorite novel (most answers above list 2 books, if not more), and I'm not super well read in every sub-genre. Heh.

Update: scepticsmiscellanea gives answers. Warning: We've got another Stephenson/Bujold junkie here, so yeah, some overlap with my answers.
Posted by Mark on August 04, 2013 at 10:51 AM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Book Queue, 2013 Update
It's only been about 4 months since the last book queue post, but I've already knocked off about half that list (out of 10 posted, 5 books completed, one other started) and while that might not sound like a lot, keep in mind that at least a couple books were behemoths like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a long, dense, philosophical, mathematical text that has been sitting on my shelf unread for about 5 years. And naturally, I've read plenty of things that weren't in the queue, because I'm fickle like that. So sue me.

The notion of only reading long epics is certainly not going to fly all year long, but I still plan on tackling a few massive tomes just to keep frosty. My Goodreads Reading Challenge is currently set at a reasonable 30 books for the year, but according to my stats, I should be just about equaling the number of pages I read last year (when I hit a 50 book goal). So anyways, here are the holdovers from the last list, and some new ones I'll be tackling in this second half of the year.

The four remaining books from my last queue (note: I began Theodore Rex, but have not yet finished)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (992 pages) - I have to admit, I probably won't get to this one this year, unless I put on a lot of mileage in Theodore Rex (which I'm intentionally reading rather slowly), but I swears, this will be the next forbiddingly long history book I read.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (800 pages) - I'll definitely be starting this one in the next couple months sometime (probably after some vacations in August), and I am very much looking forward to it.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (783 pages) - Go big or go home. This is one of those towering literary novels that's supposed to be great but impossible to read. And long! Not sure if I'll have the fortitude to pick this one up this year, but I do want to give it a shot at some point.
  • Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh (528 pages) - I was not a huge fan of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner, but this one seems to be more my speed. I was thinking about doing this as an audio-book during an upcoming long drive, but the reviews of the reader are awful, so I guess that's out. Definitely something I plan on reading this year though.
New Stuff
  • Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton - Hamilton's book Pandora's Star was on the last queue, but I didn't realize that it was really just the first half of a longer story. It doesn't even really end on a cliffhanger so much as it just sorta stops (that's perhaps not too fair, but I was still disappointed), so now that I'm about a thousand pages in, I figure I should finish off the story (and this one is another thousand or so pages, jeeze).
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold - Another book whose predecessor was in the last queue, but in this series, Bujold at least writes self-contained stories, so I can take my time getting to this one (which I will probably read in the near future).
  • The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey - A short book I added to the list because I'm trying Worlds Without End's 2013 Readers Challenge, which is to read 12 books - 1 each by 12 different female authors. I'm 5 books into that challenge, and am looking forward to expanding my horizons a bit more. McCaffrey is probably more famous for her fantasy novels, but this one is SF and sounds interesting enough.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain - Whenever I take those Myers Briggs tests, I always score off the charts as an Introvert (I've taken the test formally two times, scoring a 95 and 100 on the Introvert side respectively), and I'm always fascinated by that and what it means. I picked this up based on Jay's review a while back, and am looking forward to digging in at some point.
  • Warhorse by Timothy Zahn - A little while back, Amazon put up Kindle versions of a bunch of Zahn's back catalog, much of which is out of print. Zahn has always been a favorite of mine, a workhorse I could always fall back on, so I'm happy to have more books available, and this one will probably make great vacation reading.
  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks - The first in the Banks' Culture series, which seems to be pretty well respected and beloved. Banks recently passed away, but seems to have made a big impact (apparently one of the folks that brought Space Opera back into vogue in the 80s and 90s).
Well, that should keep me busy for a while. I do want to make sure I work in some horror novels when we get to the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, but I'll need to look into that a bit. I'm a bit out of practice when it comes to horror literature (any suggestions?)
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2013 at 05:39 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

SF Book Review, Part 13
I've fallen a bit behind in chronicling my science fiction reading of late, though a few individual reviews have slipped through. Still reading lots of books, though, so it'll be a while before I'm fully caught up. So let's get this party started:
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick - I'm not all that familiar with Dick's work, but he's famous for stories involving drugs and paranoia... things that don't particularly excite me. And yet this book, which squarely hits both targets, was really enjoyable. Perhaps because it also has some semblance of a plot, which I gather isn't always the case with Dick. The story is about a group of anti-psychics who get ambushed on the job. Some manage to escape, but find themselves embroiled in some sort of weird phenomena, with their boss appearing in weird ways (such as the face on a coin) or time moving backwards. A mysterious product/drug called Ubik seems to hold the key to solving it all. It's a little more coherent than I'm making it out to be, but still plenty of mind-fuckery to keep a Dick fan engaged. I really enjoyed this.
  • Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold - Slowly but surely exhausting the supply of Bujold books that I have not read, this one is actually a far-flung prequel to the Vorkosigan series focusing on the Quaddies - genetically engineered humans with an additional pair of arms where their legs would be. They were created specifically for work in free fall, but when someone figures out how to create artificial gravity, they become obsolete overnight. The story is mostly told from a regular human engineer named Leo Graf, who sees how the corporation is going to exploit the quaddies and helps them escape their fate. As per usual, Bujold's storytelling is fantastic and her characters warm and engaging. Some clever ideas here too, and a nice sorta heist climax that works really well. Perhaps not her finest work, but a worthwhile read for sure!
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester - A retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo... in space! The story follows Gulliver Foyle, who is marooned in space and manages to survive on his own in the wreckage. When an apparent rescue ship ignores his signals, Foyle is enraged and embarks on a maniacal quest for revenge. He's not very bright and half mad from the isolation, but he picks up many skills, escapes from jail, foils corporations, and generally acts like a jerk. It's a very interesting book, and you can see it's influence, particularly in Cyberpunk (big corporations, cybernetic body enhancement, etc...) If I'd read this earlier in life, I think it would have been more formative, but I enjoyed myself well enough reading it now...
  • Permutation City by Greg Egan - Egan is famous for very hard SF, complete with equations and lengthy discussions of complicated physics, mathematics, and biology. This book is no exception, though it is perhaps a little more accessible than other Egan books that I've read. The story covers a transition period where humans have learned how to copy themselves into a digital environment. It's not perfect, and there's lots of nagging issues with the process. The devil is in the details, and Egan has enough knowledge to flesh those details out while still making the book entertaining and fun. Along the way, you get existential theories (is a digital copy of you still you?), a lot of science, some capitalism and politics (What are the rights of digital people? If you're a digital person, how do you prevent people from destroying your hardware?) The main plot element concerns a man who thinks he can embed a whole universe into, well, I'm not really sure. He's basically embedding a digital universe in the physical world. Like, not in a computer, but just in the general world around us. It's an intriguing concept and I'm doing a really poor job describing it. Within this universe is a digital environment as well as a sorta simulation of space, complete with alien life forms that digital people can go out an meet. It's a really weird book, but intensely interesting, with tons of great ideas. Egan's characters can come off a little cold though, and the digital characters even moreso. He manages to paint a convincing picture of what digital life would be like, but it's not an entirely pretty picture. I'm betting we'll see something like this in our lifetimes... let's just hope it's a little more fun than Egan portrays it! It's a good book and a must read for any hard SF fan.
And that's all for now. I should probably review each book separately, as writing about them months later can be difficult at times. I suppose there's only one way to find out...
Posted by Mark on June 30, 2013 at 06:18 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Human Division
Every once in a while, a publisher has the bright idea to bring back serialized publishing. If it was good enough for Dickens, it's gotta be good enough for Stephen King, amiright? Indeed, King dabbled with the serial novel form a few times in the mid-90s and early 21st century (remember those skimpy The Green Mile installments popping up in book stores?) Others have too, and there's always been stories published in parts via magazines (often expanded when translated to book form, but still). I don't think it's ever truly caught on, but now that we've reached the internet age and digital publishing has established itself, it's just a lot easier and at the end of the day, you don't have 13 tiny books cluttering up your shelves (as I understand it, they generally come grouped together on your ereader).

With all due respect, I don't care for this approach, which is why I waited until John Scalzi's latest novel, The Human Division, had completed its serial run and made it's appearance as a final novel. I don't begrudge Scalzi the whole grand experiment, but I just don't have the temperament to wait a week between chapters (even if the chapters are self-contained, more on this in a bit). I'm the same way with TV shows, though in some cases I catch up with the series and start watching serially from that point on because I'm really enjoying it. So I may have to put up with it sometimes (and in the case of television, I understand the various forces that conspire to keep a serialized structure), but I don't generally like it. But enough kvetching about the method of publishing, let's get to the good stuff.

I really enjoyed the book. It's not perfect, and there is one thing I'm really annoyed by, but it's still a really fun page-turner. By way of introduction, this one is the fifth book that has been set in Scalzi's Old Man's War universe... and by my reckoning, it's the best since the first. Each book in the series has taken a different perspective on the universe. The first book focuses on the military grunts. The second book focuses on The Ghost Brigades, basically the special forces of this particular universe. It was a solid read and exciting and all that, but in my mind it was plagued by a galactic sized plot hole at the center of the story. The Last Colony is the third book, and it examines the colonists (through the eyes of characters from the first two books). It had some loose ends, but I liked it a lot. And the fourth book is Zoe's Tale, basically a retelling of the third book, but from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the colony leaders. That's a tricky approach, but I think Scalzi cleared the bar, even if it suffers from similar loose ends to the third book.

Being a serialized book, The Human Division is a bit more disjointed, but the main narrative thrust of the story is told from the perspective of the Diplomatic Corps. It picks up after the events of The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale, and without giving too much away from those earlier stories, the human factions of the story are taking a decidedly more diplomatic approach than they used to. Most of the stories surround the crew of the Clarke, a small diplomatic vessel manned by what is generally considered to be the "B" Team. They tend to bumble along most of the time, but during periods of extreme stress, they do manage to get things done.

The chapters of the book tend to alternate between tales of the Clarke, and other various one-off stories. The Clarke stories are the best of the lot, at least partly because we get to know those characters the best. Lieutenant Harry Wilson tends to be the one causing the most problems, or rather, discovering most of the problems and devising ingenious solutions. He gets into lots of shenanigans, and it's all great fun. Wilson is actually a character from the first book, and it's always great to return to him. The one-off chapters are a little more hit-or-miss. Some are great, some are just fine. Those "fine" ones (I'm looking at you, "A Voice in the Wilderness") are sometimes almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Most of them seem to center around a sorta shadowy conspiracy that hasn't quite been defined just yet. They're self contained and I liked all of them, but Scalzi doesn't always come back to their characters. Given the episodic nature of the book, it's not really a complaint, and I like it when the author lets the universe breath a little.

Each story is mostly self contained, yielding a feeling very similar to that of a television series (indeed, this seems to be what Scalzi was going for, calling each chapter an "Episode"). There is an overarching plot, mostly centering around that conspiracy, but the focus is more on each individual story and resolving those conflicts. There is some refresher courses on the events of the earlier books in the series (totally understandable), but also a little repetition amongst the episodes themselves, almost as if Scalzi was expecting people to skip around. That's ultimately a very minor flaw though, and each story works pretty well in its own right. They're all filled with Scalzi's trademark witty banter and humor, but also with clever little mysteries or conundrums that spark that sensawunda feeling every now and again. Some of them are bit predictable (Checkov's gun abounds here - if Scalzi mentions a long lost artifact in passing, you can bet that Wilson will probably stumble onto it by accident and almost spark a diplomatic disaster...), but that didn't actually diminish the stories at all (for me, at least).

Also like a TV series, the ending of the book is something of a cliffhanger. The immediate conflict is resolved, but it feels like we've only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ultimate driving forces behind this book. It feels like the end of a season of TV, but that's not necessarily that satisfying either. It's not the worst offender in that respect (more on that in a later post, as I just finished a different book that basically just ran out of pages - apparently I have another 1000 page brick to get through to get any sense of closure at all). Anyways, Scalzi has announced that The Human Division has been renewed for a "Second Season". Again I don't begrudge him his cute experimental serial book as TV series metaphorical setup, but I really hope this second season finishes what has been started here. Scalzi is mildy prolific, so I'm hoping for a quick turnaround on this next season, but even then, we've probably got at least a year before the next book hits (I'm guessing it will be serialized as well).

Ultimately, I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Even though it's probably good as a standalone, it would be worth reading at least the original Old Man's War (or all the other books in the series) first. Despite the cliffhanger, which was a little disappointing, I still like this book overall much better than the other sequels. This is mostly because I'm banking on an actual conclusion in the next installment and I trust that Scalzi can deliver something satisfying. I'd rather not have to wait for it, but such is life!
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2013 at 08:54 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

SF/F/H Book Meme
Via SF Signal and Ian Sales, one of them fancy book memes "for a lazy Saturday" which means that here at Kaedrin, we're doing it on Wednesday, because we're cool like that. 12 questions about science fiction, fantasy, and horror books:

1. The last sf/f/h book I read and enjoyed was:

The last Fantasy I read that I really enjoyed was The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't know that it's as enjoyable as her Vorkosigan books, but I found it very approachable and unlike a lot of fantasy. It's not filled with epic battles or action, instead focusing on the kingdom's court politics and the like. There's magic, but it's limited and relatively consistent. This description might make it sound boring, but it's quite exciting. Will certainly look to read the other two in the series, but Fantasy hasn't been a big focus of mine, so I'll also mention the last SF book I read and really enjoyed: Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts, which I found clever and inventive, but still very approachable. I did a full review a couple weeks ago if you want to read more.

2. The last sf/f/h book I read and did not enjoy was:

I didn't hate Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, but I never really got into it and I wasn't aware that it was the first in a planned series, nor that it would end without any real closure (it's also something I probably wouldn't have read on my own, but it was a book club selection). While I don't have any particular desire to read the next book when it comes out (which does say something, I guess), I didn't really hate the book either... For that, I'd probably go with Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. I actually like the concept and universe of the Dresden Files series (including the first book, which was solid and fun), but I pretty emphatically disliked this one. I may revisit the series again someday, but this one turned me off of it for a while, at least.

3. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to new sf/f/h readers is:

The two books that immediately come to mind are Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card and Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. Both focused on military, kinda mirror images of each other, actually, with one focused on training young children to face a threat, and the other focusing on recruiting old people to fight wars. Both have good ideas (the hallmark of good SF), but are also page-turners and relatively short, addictive reads. I know Orson Scott Card has engendered quite a bit of scorn for his unpopular political views, but there's no diatribes against gay marriage in Ender's Game, and it's probably worth catching up with the book before seeing the movie, which will probably be terrible (though who knows, maybe it'll be ok).

4. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to seasoned sf/f/h readers is:

This is a tough one for me. I'd say that I read a fair amount, but compared to many, I guess you'd say that I'm more lightly seasoned than fully seasoned. I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm still working my way through the best-of lists and classics of the genre, so I'll just throw the first thing that comes to mind out there, which is Diaspora, by Greg Egan. It's a big, sprawling hard science fiction novel, lots of big, challenging ideas, and Egan's famous focus on really hard SF. Egan is probably more famous for Permutation City (also a very worthy read that I only recently caught up with), but I'm guessing most seasoned SF readers have already tackled that one (which is somewhat more approachable than Diaspora).

5. The sf/f/h book I most want to read next is:

Well, the next book I'll probably read is John Scalzi's just released (well, sorta) The Human Division (which is actually the latest in the aforementioned Old Man's War series). After that, I have several books in the queue, though I'm not sure what I'd hit up.

6. My favorite sf/f/h book series includes:

This is actually a really easy one, seeing as though I just read through Lois McMaster Bujold's entire Vorkosigan Saga (16 books in total, with a few short stories thrown in for good measure) and loved most of them, particularly the 4 book stretch starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign (check out my post on the series for more).

7. I will read anything by this sf/f/h author:

This is an easy one: Neal Stephenson. I think that I've read every single thing he's ever published at this point, from the lowliest short story or editorial, to his sprawling masterpieces like Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem. Definitely my favorite author, though Bujold has come on strong lately, and I do find myself reading most of what Scalzi publishes these days.

8. The first sf/f/h book I read was:

I'm honestly not positive about this, but I'm going to go with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, both of which I think read while I was in the sixth grade. I even remember writing a Prydain-inspired story for school called The Land of Analak (or something like that, I'll have to see if I can dig up my copy of that sucker sometime).

9. The sf/f/h book I'm most surprised that more people don't like is:

These questions are getting harder, but one book I find consistently underrepresented in best-of lists is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a superb and harrowing entry in the tired first contact subgenre. I don't know why it doesn't get more love.

10. The sf/f/h book I'm surprised so many people do like is:

The problem with this question is that I can think of plenty of books that I don't love that are revered by many, but I can see why they would be so popular too - so it's not exactly surprising that, say, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin or Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein have big followings. I don't mean to say that I hate those books or that I found nothing of value there, but I didn't really enjoy them. However, I can see their influence all over SF, so it's hard to be surprised that people love them. That being said, I'm going to have to leave them as my answer, because I'm drawing a blank otherwise.

11. The most expensive sf/f/h book I own is:

I have no idea here. I don't have anything notably collectible, maybe a few first edition Hardcovers purchased in the course of regular reading. I suppose the thing that comes closest is Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th, by Peter Bracke. It's a big, full color book filled with imagery, and I bought it when it was out of print. It's back in print now, but even a new copy is relatively expensive (approx $35). I think I paid somewhere on the order of $50 for a first or second edition copy at some point, so there's that.

12. The number of sf/f/h books I own and have yet to read is:

Surprisingly few, at this point. I'm pretty good about not building up a pile of shame, but a couple years ago, I probably had 10-15 unread books laying around. I knocked most of them out last year and I'm left with a couple Philip K. Dick books I bought during a sale a few months ago. The Kindle has been a great enabler in this respect, as it allows for instant gratification...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2013 at 08:39 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Star Trek: TNG Tidbits
The Star Trek: The Next Generation Third Season BD came out recently, replete with bonus materials. Of course, it's obscenely expensive (Star Trek releases have always been so) and probably only purchased by obsessives. Us normal fans just fire up episodes on Netflix pretty easily, but then we miss out on remastered HD visuals and bonus features. Fortunately for us, Hercules from AICN has done a seemingly comprehensive recap of all those special features, and there's lots of behind the scenes gems to be had. The general consensus is that season 3 is where TNG turned the corner from a decent show into a great show, and a lot of these features apparently focus on that. Some interesting tidbits:
* A "technobabble generator" created as a joke by a friend of Shankar became a frequently utilized not-joke writers' room tool.
Always funny to hear about the teching the tech tendencies of the writers...
* Moore and Braga lament that "Star Trek: Generations," which they labored on for a year, didn't turn out as well as "All Good Things," which took two weeks to write.

* Piller argued against the other writers who wanted Wesley to stay true to his fellow cadets in the season-five episode "The First Duty." Piller prevailed and Wesley did end up throwing his friends under the bus to put Starfleet Academy honor first. The episode, relates Shankar, is now used at the U.S. Air Force Academy to teach cadets about the honor code.

* The writers reveal Brent Spiner grew weary of stories involving Data's cat Spot. As a practical joke, they inserted into one script a scene in which Data invents a collar that translates Spot's meows into English.

* One storyline that was much fought for before Piller shot it down was to kill Will Riker and replace him permanently with his transporter-mishap doppleganger Tom Riker. "It was a chance to reinvent the character," explains Moore.

* Patrick Stewart, perhaps envious of William Shatner, apparently told every TNG writer he met that Picard wasn't "shooting and screwing" enough.

* Behr had a great episode idea about Picard getting promoted to admiral and Riker given the captaincy of the Enterprise -- and how Picard dealt with the promotions. But Roddenberry insisted Picard's insecurities regarding his new life were out of character, and the script was scrapped. That concept evolved into the episode in which Picard gets boned on the pleasure planet.

* Frakes was always annoyed when the writers made Riker turn down offers of commanding his own ship. He (and many fans) felt his willingness to decline a captaincy was out of character.
Frakes hits the nail on the head with that last one. I mean, I get why it was done (the show must go on, and having Riker off on some other ship would be either contrived or lame), and it made for some good episodes (The Best of Both worlds 2 parter with the Borg being the most obvious), but the character of Riker was such an experience hound, always game for just about anything, that it's hard to believe he would turn down a captaincy.
* Ironically given the subject matter of his first script, Moore was not a fan of children living aboard the Enterprise. He also never understood why a psychotherapist was always sitting on the bridge next to the captain. Moore was also no fan of the replicator, which he believed an enemy of drama.

* Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Moore all once lamented that they should have saved "Yesterday's Enterprise" for the plot of the "Generations" movie, with the Kirk-Spock Enterprise swapped for the Garrett-Castillo one.

* The staff, which at the time included future "Battlestar Galactica" mastermind Ronald D. Moore, would often refer to Data as "a toaster."
Lots of other interesting stuff in Herc's post...
Posted by Mark on May 12, 2013 at 01:37 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Jack Glass
Adam Roberts' novel Jack Glass presents us with a delicious mashup of pulpy SF and golden-age mystery. I am much more familiar with the former than the latter, but that simple description alone was enough to garner interest, and when this won the British Science Fiction Award for best novel, that just made the choice easier. Having read it, I find it mildy disappointing that this didn't make the Hugo shortlist, which is amusing to me, since my first exposure to Adam Roberts was his takedown of the 2009 Hugos... But I digress, back to the novel.
Jack Glass Cover Art
The story is broken up into three chunks, each a mystery that draws upon classic tropes like the locked-room mystery or country house murder. We're informed early on that the titular Jack Glass is the murderer in all instances, so these mysteries don't really take on the typical whodunit form... it's perhaps more accurate to see them as a howdunit. Each story contains elements of the other - all have some element of a locked-room mystery, for instance - and each story leads into the next smoothly enough. Again, I'm not particularly familiar with golden-age mystery stories, but these are archetypes we've seen many times before. Many have claimed it's also a pastiche of golden-age SF, and that's true to a point, though I find it to be towards the end of that hallowed era. I found it reminiscent of stories like The Space Merchants or The Stars My Destination, more like the output of the Futurians than, say, Campbell's stable.

The first section is a prison story, and a rather grim one at that. Roberts does an exceptional job establishing the characters and the setting, an impressive feat considering that there are 7 main characters in this story. The science fictional twist on your average prison story is that this prison is an asteroid. 7 prisoners are dropped off on the asteroid and given minimal supplies and a tiny habitable bubble. If they can survive for 11 years under those conditions, they can go free. Of course, in order to survive, they have to excavate the rock, find water, build out a whole tunnel system, etc... Theoretically, whether the prisoners survive the ordeal or not, the company that imprisoned them is left with an asteroid that can be sold as a dwelling to someone. Escape is impossible, as they're surrounded on all sides by millions of miles of the nothingness of space - like an Alcatraz in space. It's a clever spin on an old story, and Roberts does a great job setting the stakes. Roberts makes deft work of establishing the 7 main characters - 3 typical alpha males, 2 quasi-alphas, 1 doomed and whiny fat dude, and a cripple (which, actually, isn't as big a deal in zero-gravity). This isn't a pleasant story, and the ending is rather far-fetched, but it's a good way of establishing the world this book is set in...

The second section is the country house murder mystery, and this one is told mostly from the perspective of Diana and her sister Eva. They are the daughters of a clan of information gatherers, rather highly placed in the hierarchy of the solar system. One of their servants winds up dead, and Diana, who is a big mystery buff, seeks to find out who did it. When she is informed that it was, in fact, the notorious murderer Jack Glass, she is mightily confused about how he could possibly have achieved that. When rumors that someone has discovered Faster Than Light (FTL) travel appear, things start to get even more hairy for our protagonists.

I was not quite sure what to make of this section for a while. Diana and Eva aren't immediately the most likable characters, though they eventually grow on you. They're both genetically optimized to solve problems. Eva is more into hard sciences and physics, while Diana is more personable. They both seem to have been bred to leverage sleep and dreams to solve their problems, which makes perfect sense, but which I always find a bit annoying because I don't like the untethered nature of prose that describes dreams. This is more my failing than Roberts, though, so take that with a grain of salt.

The third story is a straight up whodunit murder, except that we know that Jack Glass did it. That being said, we have no idea how he did it, and despite there being multiple witnesses and a confined space (another locked room, it seems), no one saw him do it. Confused? Good!

Along the way we've got some interesting speculations on FTL, a clever (if distressing) explanation of the Fermi Paradox, and even some speculation on "Champagne Supernovae" (as Roberts notes in his acknowledgements "'Champagne Supernovae' are a real phenomenon, one that puzzles real astrophysicists, and which are, I'm sorry to say, really named after the Oasis song.") All of this science is covered in plain language and is easily understood while still being clever and intriguing. Roberts clearly gleans the notion that science fiction is a literature of "ideas" and manages to infuse a few surprises into those old hoary tropes like FTL.

All in all, it's a very enjoyable book. A little grim at times, it's nonetheless very well constructed, well written, and clever. And if you're the type to judge a book by its cover, you'll still be in for a treat, as the cover art is fantastic. If any of this sounds interesting, this is most certainly a worthwhile read...
Posted by Mark on May 05, 2013 at 06:52 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that Ian Sales' novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the Short Fiction award at the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Awards. I mentioned that I didn't particularly love it, though I did find it very well written. And of course Ian Sales stumbled onto my post (and my old review), but he just seemed happy that I cared enough to write a review and even offered to send me a review copy of the next novella in the series (called the Apollo Quartet). I declined, opting to simply buy the book, as I know that every sale counts for self-published authors, and this time around, I found that I enjoyed the story much more.

The Apollo Quartet stories are basically alternate history speculations centering around the Apollo program, with some bigger SF tropes added in for flavor. Adrift on the Sea of Rains featured the brilliant premise of a large moon base witnessing the nuclear destruction of Earth. While I wasn't ultimately satisfied with the story, that premise (which I've only really given half of) is fantastic. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes its time getting to the driving forces behind the story, but I ultimately found it a much more rewarding read.

The story follows Brigadier Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, as he is sent to investigate the possible disappearance of a human colony on an exoplanet. Twenty years earlier, Elliott was the first man to land on Mars. Something happened during that first trip to Mars that lead the higher ups to bring Elliott out of retirement and send him to investigate the exoplanet, but I won't ruin that excitement, and indeed, I may have already said too much.

I found the entire story much more enjoyable this time around. Elliott makes for a good protagonist, and there's much less angst here than there was in the previous story. Sales certainly knows his stuff, both from a technology standpoint and from a prose style standpoint. Even when he takes a scientific leap, such as the faster-than-light travel system used to travel to the exoplanet (which is 15 light years away), he seems to be able to ground it enough that it doesn't feel like a ridiculous affectation. I still find Sales lack of quotation marks around dialog to be a bit distracting, but it was also less notable here because there is less dialog (that, or I was just more engaged with the story and didn't notice as much).

I did get a little worried at one point when it seemed like the story had ended and a short little glossary came up, but when you get to the end of the glossary, there's an epilogue that contains the real kicker that was a real eye opener. That structure is a bit strange, but then, the glossary contains a lot of interesting info on the alternate history here (for instance, that's where we learn the details about how the Soviets landed on the moon first, thus inspiring the US to go to Mars), and the kicker in the conclusion does take on an added resonance when you've read some of the entries in the glossary. So where Adrift on the Sea of Rains started with a brilliant premise and trailed off (for me, at least), The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes a little time to get going, but ends with more satisfaction. I'd certainly recommend The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if this sounds at all interesting to you (it's not closely tied to Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so no worries starting with the second installment either). Next up in the reading queue, the BSFA Novel award winner, Jack Glass (which has been in the queue for a while, but only recently became available in the US).
Posted by Mark on April 17, 2013 at 09:56 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

2013 Hugos
The nominations for the 2013 Hugo Awards were announced last week. The Hugos, while probably the most recognizable and representative award for science fiction and fantasy fandom, are also still, you know, awards. Like all awards everywhere and for everything, there is an inevitable and usually entertaining backlash consisting of usually pretty high profile folks railing against what they perceive as mediocrity. For a superb example of this sort of thing, see Christopher Priest's takedown of last year's Clarke Award nominees (the Clarke is a British SF&F award, and Priest's polemic hit especially hard since, you know, he's an upstanding author who has won the award in the past). Filled with just the right amount of invective and hyperbole that it's entertaining and funny without seeming like he's just some old crank. Will this year's Hugo backlash fare as well? It's still early in Hugo season, but things have certainly started off with a bang, as Justin from Staffer's Book Reviews asserts that the Hugos are "utter twaddle":
...the Hugo voter has a certain style it looks for in its fiction. Hugo-style, if you will, is like Gangnam-style only without the distracting Korean guy riding a horse, replaced with Charles Stross and Connie Willis on a podium holding a... rocket ship. I admit Gangnam-style doesn't have nearly as much sex appeal. In other words, Hugo nominated books tend to be recognizable. On the one hand because they are mostly written by Stross, Willis, John Scalzi, China Mieville, Robert Charles Wilson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ian MacDonald, and active members of the Live Journal community, but also because they fit a certain motif that's difficult to pin down. I'll fall back on the old pornography argument, "I know it when I see it."

None of this accusation of style is a criticism of the award, quite the contrary. I believe the populist nature of an award like the Hugo is vitally important. It captures the kinds of novels that more elitist awards fail to - books people love to read. I've tried several times to read John Crowley's Little, Big (which was, ironically enough, nominated for a Hugo in 1982) and it just isn't any fun. Like Little, Big though, the best novel category almost always has a wild card - something that doesn't quite fit in to the Hugo mold - and sometimes they win. These winning standouts usually represent something that can't be ignored for societal (Windup Girl), cultural (Among Others), or inferiority inferiority complexacle (The Yiddish Policeman's Union) reasons.
So far, so good, and not too critical, though you can see the beginnings of his ultimate problem with the Hugos up there in that first paragraph. After giving two examples of worthy novels that weren't nominated (Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, and NK Jemisin's The Killing Moon), he starts to get to the heart of the matter.
Books like Bear's and Jemisin's are missing not because they aren't good enough or even because they aren't the kinds of books Hugo voters support, but because of an impenetrable culture of voting habits that precludes them from being part of the discussion. Those habits involve Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, and (of late) Seanan McGuire who are as likely to be nominated for a Hugo as Barrack Obama is to be heckled at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.
In essence, anyone who follows the Hugos, even just in the Best Novel category, is bound to notice the same 6-7 names popping up year after year. The aforementioned Stross, Willis, Scalzi, Mieville, Wilson, Bujold, MacDonald, etc... It looks like we can add Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to the list, as she's made the shortlist for the past three years due to her Newsflesh trilogy of zombie books. And there are plenty of others who don't publish often enough to achieve that sort of repetition. The question that is being raised is not whether or not these are good authors, but whether or not every single work each of these authors produce needs to be nominated. The argument becomes a little more pronounced in some of the other categories, like the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (i.e. TV shows):
....best dramatic short form can be summarized in one sentence: why does an award exist when 60% of the nominees year in and year out are from one creative enterprise?
He's talking about Doctor Who, which has garnered at least 2 and usually 3 nominations per year since it was rebooted in 2006 (and has won the award every year except for one, when the Hugo went to another frequent nominee, Joss Whedon, for his admittedly worthy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). In fairness, as someone pointed out in the comments, this could very well be due to the way in which television is distributed. The Hugos are, technically, a worldwide award, and Doctor Who is actually distributed pretty well around the world, often airing at the same time or only a week or two later. Other shows air seasons in different years, etc... which makes it hard for some of them to gain traction. Anyway, similar arguments can be made for some of the other categories, some of which don't really change at all from year to year (particularly the "fan" categories, though I get the impression that that is a bit too insular for even me to care about).

It's a fair point. I mean, I know that Neil Gaiman is a good author, do we need to nominate everything the dude does? The post takes a pretty critical eye on recent Kaedrin favorite Lois McMaster Bujold, perhaps unfairly comparing her to Heinlein, but on the other hand, Justin is dead on when he wondered why Cryoburn needed to be nominated. I like the book just fine, but it's pretty clear why it was nominated: it was the first entry in a beloved series in 10 years. People were just so happy to spend some more time with (the admittedly great character of) Miles Vorkosigan that they just went and nominated the book, almost automatically. Again, I enjoyed the book, but I'd put it somewhere towards the middle of the pack of Bujold's work, nowhere close to that amazing late 90s run starting with the Hugo winning Mirror Dance and finishing with the Hugo nominated A Civil Campaign (which had quite stiff competition that year). I think you could make the same argument against this year's nominee, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, though I think that one is a step above Cryoburn.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that there is no real solution. Sometimes an author legitimately goes on a tear of great writing. Justin seems to think highly of Heinlein, who went on his own tear of frequent nominations/wins in the late 50s and early/mid 60s. Will Bujold or Mieville prove to be as influential or long-lasting as Heinlein? Well, that's sorta missing the point, isn't it? I'm sure someone in the 60s was all "Heinlein is a good author, but what about all that weird polyamorous sex crap? Do we need to nominate him every year?"

To be perfectly honest, I don't read enough newly published SF/F to really say that this year's slate is good or bad. I've read two of the nominees: Redshirts and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. I liked both of these books, and managed to read through them really quickly, but I would not have been surprised at all if they weren't nominated. It's not that they're bad - they're both good - but it's hard not to take Justin's point to heart. Are people nominating these books because they're really the best books, or because Scalzi and Bujold are super popular? Of the other three nominees, the one I'm most likely to read is 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (incidentally, this is his 5th nomination), and from what I've seen, I'd probably be better off reading Robinson's Mars trilogy. I'm not going to read Blackout because I'm fucking sick of zombies and it's the third book in a series, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy, which is fine, but I'd rather spend my time catching up on other fantasy stuff.

So this post contains a lot of whinging and not a whole lot of real, genuine insight. I'm not really in a position to refute Justin's position, and I can certainly see that he's correct, but on the other hand, I don't know that it's the worst thing evar either. A lot of this seems like shouting at gravity to me. Yeah, you see a lot of the same authors from year to year. This is going to happen on a populist award list, and the authors do change over time. The grand majority of the frequent nominees mentioned in this post emerged in this century, with a few having started in the 1990s. Some (Seanan McGuire) have emerged in the past few years. I would certainly welcome fresh and interesting nominees, but it doesn't really bother me to see the likes of Scalzi and Bujold either. Ultimately, it's all a subjective enterprise, so while it's fun to read cranky responses to the ballot, we should probably keep in mind that just because something you don't like was nominated doesn't mean the whole enterprise is doomed.

And, just for fun, some miscellaneous thoughts on the Hugos:
  • There is a lot of angst around the dearth of short story nominees (two of which are available online for free), due to a Hugo rule that in order to be nominated, an entry must receive at least 5% of the vote (and there's a minimum of 3 nominees, so it's possible, though probably unlikely, that no short story received 5% of the vote this year). This is apparently not unheard of, especially in the short story category, which is more varied and less talked about than other categories. Cheryl Morgan has the details on the 5% rule and a cautionary tale too.
  • Morgan also notes that this year's Hugo ballot "has been submerged in a terrifying flood of girl cooties." Women took 11 of 18 nominations in the fiction categories, with the aforementioned Seanan McGuire nominated for 4 fiction awards (she's also nominated for the podcast award).
  • In other awards news, the 2012 BSFA Award Winners were recently announced, including Jack Glass for Best Novel (been in the queue a while, but only because it wasn't available in the states!) and the self-published Adrift on the Sea of Rains, by Ian Sales (which I did not particularly love, but which was well done for sure).
And that's all for now. I should probably get back to reading some SF instead of wanking about it on the internet.
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2013 at 10:27 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 12
I've fallen way behind on the SF Book Review train. I've done a few individual reviews, but I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. Perhaps part of the reason I haven't done a SF Book Review lately is that... I'm reading less science fiction. For various reasons, I've hit up a bunch of Fantasy, Horror, Crime, and Non-Fiction this year. SF remains my favorite genre, but others keep creeping in the queue, and even this roundup contains stuff that would likely be classified Fantasy. But whatever, here's some quick thoughts on some books I've read recently.
  • Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales - A short novella, the first in a series called the Apollo Quartet. The premise is fantastic. Nine Apollo-era astronauts establish a base on the Moon, only to see the Earth succumb to nuclear war. Stranded, they turn to their experimental "torsion field generator", a mysterious device stolen from the Nazis after WWII. Also referred to as the "Bell", it seems that it's able to transport the Moon base across alternate universes. They've got limited supplies, and so far, all attempts at ringing the Bell have only brought them to an alternate universe in which the Earth has still succumbed to nuclear war. Great setup, right? Unfortunately, while Sales does deliver on a lot of that potential, his characters aren't really too involving. Now, they've all been cooped up with each other on a tiny Moon base and their planet has just blown up, so you would expect some irritability from them... It makes sense that these characters would be annoying and short tempered and whatnot, but at the same time, that doesn't exactly do much to endear them to me either. I just didn't enjoy spending time with them. Stylistically, Sales knows what he's doing, though he makes some odd choices. For instance, his dialog does not use quotes or italics or anything that distinguishes dialog from prose. At first, I thought this was just a mistake, something got lost in the translation to ebook format or something, but it's apparently a deliberate choice on Sales' part. I'm also not quite sure what to make of the ending. It's got a bit of an ironic twist, one of those things where the character has no idea what he's done, but we the reader know things he doesn't... It's cleverly constructed, but I don't really like it. Strangely, I don't think I'm supposed to like it. So we've got some fantastic ideas here, but a narrative that isn't particularly satisfying. It is very short, so that makes it more palatable, and the ideas are interesting enough that I'm curious to see how the next novella in the series turns out, but I'm hoping for more approachable characters.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King - When all is said and done, I think my favorite of the Dark Tower novels might be the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, which is funny in that it's also the story that is the least connected to everything else. It's mostly a flashback to an episode in Roland's past, a story that informs his character, but which is also pretty much a standalone. This is probably why I like it so much - it's able to tell a story in an interesting universe without being dependent on the narrative thrust of the series.

    Recently, King has revisited this universe and put together this book, which takes place between the 4th and 5th books in the series. It's basically another flashback, again mostly independent of the rest of the series. Actually, it's a really strangely structured book. The bookends are from the series proper, as Roland and his band of Gunslingers make their way across the desert, but as they hunker down in preparation for a big storm that's been a brewing, Roland tells his crew another story from his youth. However, this story isn't all that complicated in itself. Basically young Roland and one of his compatriots are sent out to a small town to deal with a little werewolf problem (it's not referred to directly as such, but that's what it is), and while he's there, he tells the titular story, The Wind Through the Keyhole, to a young boy. So it's a story wrapped in a flashback, bookended by some narrative glue that fits this into the rest of the Dark Tower story. Are all these framing narratives necessary? Probably not, but once you get to the meat of the story, it's quite good (and the bookends/flashbacks aren't bad either, just weird that King felt the need to go through all of it). I won't go into too much detail about the story, but it's got that strange blend of SF and Fantasy, a mythic bedtime-story quality that has always served the series well. It concerns a young boy and his quest to help his mother. It's exactly the sort of thing that King excels at, and it's populated with interesting characters (I particularly liked the tax collector guy, who is played as a sorta villain, but who could probably have his own series where he visits towns to collect taxes while also solving mysteries, or more likely, playing the trickster like he does here). In the end, it's a welcome addition to the Dark Tower series, if not particularly necessary. It adds some background to the series without really changing much, which I actually rather liked. The Dark Tower universe is an interesting place, so stories like this still work well.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. - I read this pretty shortly after Fahrenheit 451, which made for an interesting experience in that both books seemingly fear for the destruction of books and knowledge in general. In this case, though, we've got a post-apocalyptic setting where most of the books were destroyed immediately after the war. The book is essentially divided up into three sections, each told from the perspective of Catholic priests in a particular Monastery in the desert. The story actually spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself after nuclear war, with the priests being the early guardians of scientific knowledge. This is generally considered to be a classic novel, popular with SF fans but also the general literary community (a rare crossover), and I can see why (even if it hasn't quite joined the ranks of my favorite SF novels). It has an interesting treatment of religion and one of the themes of the book is about how the Church interacts with the State (especially in the final segment), though in a more general sense, there's a notion of recurrence and history repeating itself that's also highlighted. It's a deliberately paced novel, tackling big themes from small stories, and I'm not entirely sure how happy I am about the ending, but I'm still glad I finally read this. As a Neal Stephenson fan, it's an interesting read because you can see a lot of this book's DNA in Stephenson's Anathem (though that book is much longer and more action packed than this one). In the end, I'm really glad I read this, its very well written, and it has a lot of meaty themes to chew on.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Another SF classic that has achieved crossover success with mainstream audiences, this is a story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon who submits to an experimental procedure intended to increase intelligence. The book is comprised entirely of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie, and you can see said progress very quickly as his intelligence improves. I suppose it's a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own risk, but the story also contains a downward swing in intelligence, and it's a real heartbreaker when you start to see his grammar deteriorate to earlier levels. It's a thematically rich story, with much to say about intelligence and relationships, and it's the most emotionally involving of the books in this post. There's a sadness to the story that somehow doesn't lead to despair, which is a neat trick. There's sadness, but it doesn't wallow in it, and it's a great book. This novel is apparently an expanded version of an earlier short story, both winners of Hugo awards and both experiencing crossover success with mainsteeam audiences. Really happy I finally caught up with this one...
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) - The Mongoliad began its life as a serialized story delivered via custom apps on various mobile phones and tablets. I downloaded the app on my phone and played around with it a bit, but I ultimately waited until they started publishing these books before I really read anything significant. It turns out that the story they're telling is a rather long one, though it's actually more involving and approachable than I expected from the initial descriptions. Written by a variety of authors, including Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, the story is set in 1241 as the Mongol Horde was sweeping across Europe. I was expecting this to be something akin to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels, but this wound up being more of an adventurous tale, with more focus on action and intrigue than historical minutiae. It's actually a lot of fun, though it's only the first book in the series and it ends at a rather arbitrary place. I was a little disappointed by that, but it seems like the other editions are coming quickly, so I'll probably pick them up next year. I was surprised at how cohesive the book was considering how many different authors worked on it. A couple of the storylines bog down a bit at times though, which I wonder about. Would a single author have made some of those choices? Probably not. Still, entertaining and fun. I'm curious to see what the next book will hold.
So there you have it. I've still got a few books to cover before I'm totally caught up, but this gets me pretty close. I've got some extra reading to do here in the last few weeks of the year if I want to hit my goal of 50 books, but if all goes well, I'll have a end-of-year wrapup coming...
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2012 at 03:25 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where do you get your ideas?
The answer to this most cliched of interview questions asked of SF authors is, of course, Robert Heinlein. At least for Theodore Sturgeon, it was. In a Guest of Honor speech at a SF convention, Sturgeon recounts an instance of writers block:
I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write-perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail-I don't know how he did it-I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'
And now Letters of Note has reproduced the entire Heinlein letter in question, complete with all 26 ideas and amusing banter ("To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it.") Also, funny how they refer to each other as Bob and Ted. Heh. Anyway, here's some of my favorite story ideas:
a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you.
Heinlein notes that this is more John Campbell-ish than Sturgeon-ish, but this idea is actually quite Heinleinian. The letter was written in 1955, but you can see a lot of these sorta proto-libertarian ideas, even this early in his life. Another idea:
The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?
That one is pure Phillip K. Dick (Heinlein and Sturgeon would probably call him Phil). More ideas:
We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.
Reading a letter like this, while appreciating the generosity, I can't help but think that it's not really the ideas that matter. These are all fantastic ideas and Heinlein is brilliant here, but we all have great ideas. Ideas are important, but perhaps not as important as we like to believe. You still have to deliver on that idea, which is harder than it looks and that's also where the likes of Heinlein and Sturgeon made a name for themselves. Conversely, there are folks who manage to take dumb ideas and make them into something profound. It's all in that process that the magic lies. Ideas are easy. Heck, I have my own SFnal idea about multiple personality syndrome. But do I have the stones to do anything about it? Well, it is NaNoWriMo... Only 2 days left, but who knows?
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2012 at 10:09 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
The latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga actually focuses on one of the colorful side characters of Bujold's Vor universe: Ivan Vorpatril. Variously referred to as "That idiot Ivan" (or directly addressed as "Ivan, you idiot!") among other variations, Ivan is often played as a foil for Miles (the central character for this 15 book or so series, though Miles takes a minimal role in this particular installment). In early novels, Ivan is generally portrayed as a lazy but handsome womanizer type, completely harmless and lacking in ambition. One wouldn't think that this would make for a particularly compelling or even sympathetic protagonist, but as the series progresses, you get a better feel for the character and his motivations (or rather, the environment which caused such). Indeed, his laziness is carefully constructed, and probably more work than it would be to actually apply himself.

You see, both Miles and Ivan are technically in line for succession to the Emperor's throne. This sounds fine and dandy, but on Barrayar (the planet these stories revolve around), being a serious contender for the throne makes one a target for assassination plots, conspiracy theorists, political muck-raking, and general misery. Miles, by virtue of his mutated appearance (among other qualities that would take way too long to go into here), is mostly exempted from this pressure, to the point where he has a sorta opposite problem. But Ivan is the tall, dark, and handsome type, the perfect vision of a leader. And in terms of succession, he's basically next in line. If he even hinted at applying himself, he'd probably be portrayed as a potential usurper to the throne by political enemies (of both Ivan's family and the Emperor, or whoever thought they could benefit from some additional instability in the ruling class). If this seems paranoid, well, sure, but we've seen such happenings throughout the series (whether that be actual military coups, or political enemies portraying someone as a potential revolutionary). To forestall such political wrangling (not to mention the aforementioned assassination attempts and whatnot), Ivan has carefully cultivated an air of lazy incompetence so that he could never be taken seriously by any political operatives or revolutionaries or what have you.

As the series progresses and Emperor Gregor ascends to the throne and actually manages to stabilize and grow Barrayar, not to mention take a wife and start popping out kids, the pressure on Ivan is released somewhat. As such, we start to see that he's not as dumb as he appears. I particularly enjoyed his role in A Civil Campaign. At the start of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Ivan is living as a comfortable Bachelor, but a certain restlessness has crept in. Enter a friend and Barrayaran intelligence operative with a strange request to look after an attractive young woman who may be in danger, appealing to Ivan's Barrayaran sense of chivalry.

I actually don't want to get into too much detail about the plot. The first act basically plays out like a spy thriller with a dash of romance, while the second act turns into more of a comedy of errors kinda thing (akin to A Civil Campaign), and the third act morphs into a sorta heist story. The first half of the book is great and funny and I found myself wearing a stupid grin and laughing a lot. Things slow down just a bit in the middle as Bujold maneuvers for the final act, which is also quite good. I'd put this somewhere towards the top of the Vor series in terms of enjoyability, certainly better than the last two installments (which were no slouches, to be sure), though not quite reaching the peaks of my favorite novels.

Again, I don't want to give too much away, but Ivan's romantic interest is Tej Arqua, and while their introduction may have been harried and rushed in convenience, they actually do match together rather well. Tej is from a house of Jackson's Hole, which is the Vor universe's sorta free-for-all capitalist planet, with no real rule of law. Her house has just been attacked and split up, with members of her family hiding in exile... which is when Ivan runs into her. Eventually she begins to get a feel for the man and his planet. In line with the above discussion, Tej has Ivan pegged as "...a middling Vor officer of middling responsibilities and middling rank. Just middling along." To which someone replies that such a sentiment is a "charming understatement," while explaining Ivan's family and potential of succession...

Bujold has mentioned that she intends the book to work as a stand-alone to first-time readers, but so much of what I enjoyed about the book came from the fact that I've read all the previous novels. I'm positive that it would work for new readers, but I don't know that you'd get that stupid grin and engage in laugh-out-loud moments like I was if you don't get the background. That being said, I do appreciate that Bujold tends to make her novels stand-alone stories, rather than relying on cliffhangers and multi-book stories (even if there are character arcs that go across multiple books, each book generally tells a self-contained story). I would still recommend that you start the series with Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice, but all things considered, this one is pretty darn good.
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2012 at 11:04 AM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

What is good?
Ian Sales thinks he knows:
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "good is subjective" or "best is subjective". Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.

If there is no such thing as good - because if it's entirely subjective and personal, then it's completely useless as a descriptive term - then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books?
The irony here is that I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that "good is objective". And yet, no one seems to be able to define what constitutes good. Even Ian, despite his adamant stance, describes what is good in entirely subjective terms.
It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction.
Having established that there are key indicators that can be used to determine quality, Sales proceeds to list... approximately none of them. Instead, he talks about "taste" and "changes in attitudes and sensibilities" (both of which are highly subjective). If it's not an "exact science", how is it objective? Isn't this an implicit admission that subjectivity plays a role? He does mention some criteria for bad writing though:
Perhaps it's easier to describe what is bad - if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research...
The problem with this is that most of his indicators are subjective. Some of them could contain a nugget of objectivity, notably the "bad research" piece, but others are wholly subjective. What exactly constitutes "tin-eared dialogue"? One person's cardboard cutout character is another person's fully realized and empathetic soul.

Perhaps it's my engineering background taking over, but I have a pretty high standard for objectivity. There are many objective measures of a book, but most of those aren't very useful in determining the book's quality. For instance, I can count the number of letters or words in the book. I can track the usage of punctuation or contractions. Those numbers really won't tell me much, though. I can look at word distribution and vocabulary, but then, there are a lot of classics that don't use flowery language. Simplicity sometimes trumps complexity. I can evaluate the grammar using the standards of our language, but by those measures, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon would probably be labeled "bad" writers. For that matter, so would Ian, who's recent novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains eschews the basic grammatical convention of using quotations for dialogue. But they're not bad writers, in large part because they stray from the standards. Context is important. So that's not really that useful either.

The point of objectivity is to remove personal biases and feelings from the equation. If you can objectively measure a book, then I should be able to do the same - and our results should be identical. If we count the words in a book, we will get the same answer (assuming we count correctly). Similarly, if we're able to objectively measure a book's quality, you and I should come to the same conclusion. Now, Ian Sales has read more books than me. The guy's a writer, and he knows his craft well, so perhaps the two of us won't see eye to eye on a lot of things. But even getting two equivalently experienced people to agree on everything is a fool's errand. Critical reading is important. Not everyone that subverts grammatical conventions is doing so well or for good reason. Sometimes simplicity can be elegant, sometimes it feels clumsy. Works of art need to be put into the cultural and historical context, and thus a work should stand up to some sort of critical examination. But critical is not equivalent to objective.

Now, Ian does have an interesting point here. If what's "good" is subjective, then how is that a valuable statement?
If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that's a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? There'd be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.
Carried to its logical extreme, the notion that what's "good" is wholly subjective does complicate matters. I don't think I'd go quite as far as Ian did in the above referenced paragraph, but maybe he's on to something.

So far, I have mentioned a bunch of questions that Ian asked, which I will now try to give an answer to:
  • How do editors choose which books to publish? This is a pretty simple one, though I don't think that Ian will like the answer: editors choose to publish the books that they think will sell the most. To be sure, editors will also take a chance on something that could bomb... why is that? Because I think even Ian would concede that most readers are not even attempting to be objective in their purchasing habits. They buy what feel like reading. The neat thing about this one is that there actually is an objective measurement involved: sales. Now, are sales an indication of quality? Not really. But neither are most objective measurements of a book. The neat thing about sales, though, is that it's an objective measurement of the subjective tastes of a given market. There are distorting factors, to be sure (advertising, the size and composition of the market, etc...), but if you want objectivity, sales can boil the subjective response to a book down to a single number. And if an editor is bad at picking good sellers, they won't be an editor for much longer...
  • How do judges choose which books to give prizes to? My guess is that it's their subjective taste. In most cases, there isn't a single judge handing out the award, though, so we've got another case of an objective measurement of a group of people's subjective assessments. In the case of, say, the Hugo Awards, there are thousands of judges, all voting independently. There's a lot of room for fudging there. There's no guarantee that every voter read every book before casting their ballot (all you need to do to vote is to pay to be a member of the current year's Worldcon), but since there are usually around 1000 voters, the assumption is that inexperience or malice among voters is smeared into a small distortion. Other awards are chosen by small juries, one example being the Pulitzer Prize. I don't really know the inner workings of these, and I assume each award is different. I've definitely heard of small juries getting together and having a grand debate amongst themselves as to who the winner should be. The assumption with juried prizes is that the members of the jury are "experts". So if I were to be on the jury for a Science Fiction award, I should probably have extensive knowledge of Science Fiction literature (and probably general literature as well). More on this in a bit. Ultimately, an award is meant to do the same thing as revenue or sales - provide an objective assessment of the subjective opinions of a group of people.
  • How do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books? I won't pretend to have any insight into what drives academia, but from what I've seen, the objective qualities they value in books seem to vary wildly. I assume we're talking about fiction here, as non-fiction probably has more objective measures than fiction.
  • How can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? I get what he's going for with this question, but there's a pretty simple answer here. An expert in a topic will have more experience and knowledge on that topic than a non-expert. Sales has read more books than me, both within and outside of SF, and he's a writer himself. I would think of him as more of an expert than me. I'm just some guy on the internet. Unfortunately, one's expertise is probably also subjective. For instance, you can measure how many books someone's read, but comprehension and contextualization might be a little more difficult to figure out. That being said, individual experts are rarely given a lot of power, and I imagine they would suffer setbacks if they're consistently "wrong" about things. At their most important, they'll be a reviewer for a large newspaper or perhaps a jury member. In both cases, their opinions are smeared across a bunch of other people's thoughts.
The common thread between all of these things is that there's a combination of objective and subjective measurements. At some point in his post, Sales sez that objective measurement of what is good is "why some books are still in print two hundred years after they were first published." That's something I think we'd all like to believe, but I don't know how true that is... I wonder what books from today will still be in print in 200 years (given the nature of current technology, that might get tricky, but let's say I wonder what books will be relevant and influential in 200 years)? There's a school of thought that thinks it will be the high literary stuff discussed by academics. Another school of thought thinks it will be best-selling populist stuff like Stephen King. I don't think it's that easy to figure out. There's an element of luck or serendipity (whatever you want to call it) that I think plays into this, and that I think we're unlikely to predict. Why? Because it's ultimately a subjective enterprise.

We can devise whatever measurements we want, we can come up with statistical sampling models that will take into account sales and votes and prizes and awards and academic praise and journal mentions, whatever. I actually find those to be interesting and fun exercises, but they're just that. They ultimately aren't that important to history. I'd bet that the things from our era that are commonly referenced 200 years from now would seem horribly idiosyncratic and disjointed to us...

Sales concludes with this:
If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That's your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That's the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.

Because that's subjective, that is.
He's not wrong about that. Enjoyment is subjective. But if we divorce the concept of "good" from the concept of "enjoyment", what are we left with? It's certainly a useful distinction to make at times. There are many things I "like" that I don't think are particularly "good" on any technical level. I'm not saying that a book has to be "enjoyable" to be "good", but I don't think they're entirely independent either. There are many ways to measure a book. For the most part, in my opinion, the objective ones aren't very useful or predictive by themselves. You could have an amazingly well written book (from a prose standpoint) put into service of a poorly plotted story, and then what? On the other hand, complete subjectivity isn't exactly useful either. You fall into the trap that Ian lays out: if everything is entirely subjective, then there is no value in any of it. That's why we have all these elaborate systems though. We have markets that lead to sales numbers, we have awards (with large or small juries, working together or sometimes independently), we have academics, we have critics, we have blogs, we have reviews, we have friends whose opinions we trust, we have a lot of things we can consider.

In chaos theory, even simple, orderly systems display chaotic elements. Similarly, even the most chaotic natural systems have some sort of order to them. This is, of course, a drastic simplification. One could argue that the universe is headed towards a state of absolute entropy; the heat death of the universe. Regardless of the merits of this metaphor, I feel like the push and pull of objectivity is similar. Objective assessments of novels that are useful will contain some element of subjectivity. Similarly, most subjective assessments will take into account objective measurements. In the end, we do our best with what we've got. That's my opinion, anyway.
Posted by Mark on July 15, 2012 at 07:05 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Fahrenheit 451
I recently finished Ray Bradbury's short novel Fahrenheit 451. The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites, and it tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in a world where books and reading are illegal. Ironically, in this book, firemen don't fight fires, they start them. Whenever a stash of books is found, the firemen are called in to burn them. In one memorable and vivid incident, a woman refuses to leave when the firemen show up, preferring to burn with her books. This seems to represent a crisis point for Montag, the point at which he begins to wonder why books must be burned.

There's nothing particularly special about the characters or the plotting of the story, but Bradbury's ideas and style seem to carry the book. Bradbury's delirious prose evokes a lot of emotion and imagery. There's the aforementioned woman burning with her books, but also the sensory overload of the "parlors" (basically a room rigged up with multiple televisions), the snake-like stomach pump, the mechanical hound, and the fire itself, burning through everything. It's not an easy read, perhaps even overly poetic, but in this case it works. The novel is short enough and the ideas behind it are crazy enough that Bradbury's style fits.

It's a dystopia, and like a lot of such stories, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Again, Bradbury's stylistic flourishes are what make it work here. There's a lot of talk about how the book is critical of state-sponsored censorship, and I suppose there's an element of that, but where Bradbury differs from his contemporaries is where the censorship began: as a populist movement. As Montag's (surprisingly well-read) boss Beatty explains:
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time...
It's an intriguing notion. Mass media and conformity extrapolated out to its logical extreme. The dystopia aspect is unrealistic, and yet, the steps it would take to get there are things we see all the time. For a later edition of the book, Bradbury wrote a Coda where he expanded upon some of these ideas:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.


The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
It's a weird blend that Bradbury conjures with this novel. It's the tyranny of the minority versus the tyranny of the majority, only they're somehow set together into a negative feedback loop until you end up with a book-burning society. Some see the book as a condemnation of communism; railing against conformity in favor of individuality. And that's certainly there, but what Bradbury wrote also condemns democracy and technology as a conduit towards conformity. I don't think he's entirely correct about it. 60 years later, we struggle with different problems... but that sorta misses the point.

Like Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a document of its era. I don't find it a realistic portrayal of the world, but that doesn't mean that Bradbury failed. Indeed, it means he succeeded. His tale portrays the nightmares of 1953, a time when radio and television and movies must have had the book on the run. Despite the frequent lament that people today don't read enough, I think we've avoided Bradbury's nightmare, and instead live with our own, perhaps stranger, problems.
Posted by Mark on July 08, 2012 at 06:44 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

55 Reading Questions
As memes go, this one is self-explanatory, but I read a lot so it's fun too:

1) Favourite childhood book?

I suppose this depends on where you draw the line of childhood, but the book that comes to mind is Dean Koontz's Lightning. It's the book that I credit with getting me to read for pleasure. I was 13 at the time, and reading was generally something I was forced to do for school, not something I did for fun. But my brother gave me this book once when I was bored and I couldn't put it down. I'd never had an experience like that before, and from that point on, I read as much as I could. If teen years don't count as childhood, another thing that came to mind is Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, but it's been a solid 20-25 years since I've even seen those things, and I remember very little about them except a character named Taran and the black riders that seem so similar to the Nazgul from LotR...

2) What are you reading right now?

I just finished Fahrenheit 451, part of an effort to familiarize myself with Bradbury's work (this originated back during the NPR SF/F list days when I acknowledged my shame of not having read any Bradbury - it's just a not-so-happy coincidence that I read this book in the wake of Bradbury's passing). I just started reading a collection of short stories by Sharma Shields called Favorite Monster, which, despite having only read a few of the stories, might be the weirdest thing I've read all year.

3) What books do you have on request at the library?

Sadly, I haven't been to the library in many years. I'm not even sure where the closest library is...

4) Bad book habit?

I'm not really sure I have any, save perhaps not reading enough...

5) What do you currently have checked out at the library?

Again, no library usage here.

6) Do you have an e-reader?

Yes, a Kindle Touch that I've used more than expected. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was the first paper book I've read in several months... Though it was sorta appropriate given the subject matter, it was really just because the physical book was cheaper than the Kindle version (I get that instituting ebooks at a big publishing house is non-trivial, but stuff like this is so non-intuitive and frustrating).

7) Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

For the most part, I'm reading one book at a time. I primarily read fiction, but will often have a non-fiction book started as well, and will switch back and forth as my mood dictates or given certain situations (this might be too much information, but I almost always have a book in the bathroom, often a book about homebrewing or beer). In general, though, I will get into one of the two books and burn through to the end.

8) Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

I started this blog about 12 years ago at this point, and my reading habits have changed several times in that interval. I will say that I do tend to blog more about what I read these days, that being a good way of arranging my interests in parallel.

9) Least favourite book you read this year (so far)?

A two-way tie between Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh (my thoughts) and Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. In both cases, I will probably revisit other works by the author, but I don't have anything planned in the short term...

10) Favourite book you’ve read this year?

Another two-way tie (but the books are deeply intertwined and part of the same series) between Memory and A Civil Campaign, both by Lois McMaster Bujold. Check out my thoughts on both, along with some other books in the series.

11) How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Occasionally. A lot of non-fiction is generally outside my comfort zone, and I've been vying away from my normal comfort zone more this year than last year...

12) What is your reading comfort zone?

Science fiction and pop-science non-fiction. Maybe horror and fantasy would also fit, though I don't read a lot of either...

13) Can you read on the bus?

I'm sure I can, but buses around here are generally to be avoided.

14) Favourite place to read?

If it's nice outside, I like to sit on my deck and read, but the grand majority of my reading is done in my living room, on my couch.

15) What is your policy on book lending?

I'm generally pretty open to lending, though it doesn't seem to come up much.

16) Do you ever dog-ear books?

I'm sure this is blasphemy to some folks, but yes, I'm a compulsive dog-earer, especially for non-fiction. However, I'm finding that one of the big advantages of an ereader is the ability to easily highlight passages (and even save some notes about why I'm highlighting the passage).

17) Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Very rarely did I do this with physical books, though perhaps I did for a few things in college, but I do so more often now that I read ebooks.

18) Not even with text books?

I don't have much occasion to read text books these days, but like I said, when I was in college, I probably did a little of this (but not a ton).

19) What is your favourite language to read in?

English is pretty much the only language I can read. Unless someone is writing novels in javascript now... I feel like an unworthy nerd. I can't even read stuff in Klingon or Dothraki!

20) What makes you love a book?

Interesting ideas, engaging characters, and good storytelling.

21) What will inspire you to recommend a book?

I find recommendations difficult. I rarely give unqualified recommendations, but if I really love a book, I will recommend it. If someone's asking for recommendations, I do my best to tailor my recommendations to their needs and desires, rather than just what I like...

22) Favourite genre?

Science fiction.

23) Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?

I wish I had a better handle on crime novels. I love crime movies, but have rarely read crime books. It's something I want to become better acquainted with. I'm reasonably familiar with horror literature, but I have not read much in the past few years, nor have I gone as deep as I have with something like SF.

24) Favourite biography?

I don't read many, but Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War was fantastic and would probably be my favorite.

25) Have you ever read a self-help book?

I can't say as though I have, unless you count stuff like Homebrewing books or pop-science books.

26) Favourite cookbook?

I have a couple cookbooks, but they're fairly unremarkable, to the point where naming them my favorite seems like a waste. If homebrewing counts, then How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John J. Palmer is a great introductory text.

27) Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Not sure if I really get inspired as this question intends, but pop-science non-fiction always seems to get me fired up. So far this year, I'd say that Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson was probably the one that hit me the best...

28) Favorite reading snack?

Pretzels, but for the most part I'm not eating whist reading. I usually drink tea or water whilst reading though. On rare occasions, I'll crack a sipping beer, like a barleywine or a bourbon-barrel aged stout or something (a good pairing in winter).

29) Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I don't really see much in the way of hype when it comes to books. Perhaps there are some classics that don't quite live up to their reputation though. A lot of golden-age SF is written in a bit of a flat style, but often the ideas are still well represented, so I'm having trouble thinking of specific examples...

30) How often do you agree with critics about a book?

I can't say as though I read a lot of critics, at least not in the way that I read a lot of film criticism. I suppose I tend to agree with most of what I read, or I can at least understand where someone's coming from when their opinions don't match mine.

31) How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

I don't relish giving bad/negative reviews in the way that some people in the internets do, but if I didn't like a book, I'm going to say so.

32) If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

An interesting question. The first thing that came to mind was Japanese, but I suppose Russian would be an interesting one too.

33) Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

34) Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

An interesting question. There are perhaps a few, but the one that springs immediately to mind is James Joyce's Ulysses.

35) Favourite poet?

Not much of a poetry guy, but who doesn't like Robert Frost? Or heck, Shakespeare...

36) How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Again, no real library usage here.

37) How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Again, no real library usage here.

38) Favourite fictional character?

This was a tougher question than I thought, but the obvious answer for the past couple years is Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's very long series of books mostly detailing his life and times. After thinking for a moment, I also thought of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe clans from Cryptonomicon, but that's sorta cheating, as there are multiple characters and I love them all...

39) Favourite fictional villain?

And this is even harder than the last question. The first thing that came to mind was Sauron, but that's a boring answer. Unfortunately, not that many other options are forthcoming. How about Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books? I suppose it's a bit hokey to reference Star Wars books, but Thrawn was a genuinely well thought out villain and a worthy successor to Vader and the Emperor...

40) Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Something that is breezy and easy to read in busy places with lots of distractions like beaches or airports. I once tried to read Umberto Eco on a trip and it was... not quite as rewarding as it would have been if I read it at home in a more controlled environment. On the other hand, Bujold's books were great companions last year, and I'm sure John Scalzi's books would fit the bill as well...

41) The longest I’ve gone without reading.

I really don't know how to measure this one. I presume we're talking about books here and not newspapers, magazines, websites, etc... but even then, I'm not really sure how to go about quantifying this. There are certainly periods in my life where I didn't read nearly as much as I do now, but I don't really know the longest period of time I've gone between reading books. Let's say a couple weeks?

42) Name a book that you could/would not finish.

It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book, but I never did finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's something I may go back to, but I got pretty well fed up with the book while reading it. I got almost halfway through it though, which is actually a lot of time and effort to throw away, but I was getting annoyed by the lack of any real point to what I was reading. Oh sure, lots of themes and interesting stuff, but it felt like reading a SNL show filled with disconnected skits, and even when they connected, it wasn't quite enough to make up for all the stuff about drugs and stuff that I didn't particularly care about.

43) What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

I was going to say the internet, but really that's my fault, so the real answer to this question is me. I let myself get distracted sometimes, but that's usually indicative of the fact that I'm not enjoying what I'm reading.

44) Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

That's a tough one, as there aren't a lot of situations in which I've both read the novel and seen the movie. The Lord of the Rings movies are certainly a candidate, as they managed something I wasn't sure was possible... Fight Club is a pretty great adaptation. I do love The Shining, despite the fact that it is so very different than the book. I think that's what really makes it work though, as I will often get bored by the book or movie if I've already read/seen the other version of the story.

45) Most disappointing film adaptation?

Another difficult one as there are so many bad adaptations. How the Grinch Stole Christmas comes to mind. David Lunch's Dune is more of an interesting failure than a disappointing one. I definitely want to call out Starship Troopers, as it's one of the least faithful adaptations ever put to film. Regardless of what you may think of Heinlein's right-wing novel (it's not one of my favorites), the film completely changes the direction while keeping the basic structure in place. It's a movie that has inexplicably enjoyed a sorta cult following since it bombed at the box office, and I will admit there is something compelling about the film, but in a bad way. Like watching a trainwreck.

46) The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

I can't say as though I've really kept track. I don't tend to buy a lot of books at once though, so I'm guessing it's pretty low. Then again, there's definitely been a holiday season or two when I've bought a lot of books as presents, probably going as high as $100...

47) How often do you skim a book before reading it?

It's pretty rare, though I do like to see how much reading is left before the end of the chapter/section I'm currently reading. This is one thing that does annoy about ereaders, as it's very difficult to do that sort of thing.

48) What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?

So the inverse of what I love is a good place to start: Dumb ideas, bad characters that I can't engage with, bad storytelling or plotting. As I mentioned before, it's pretty rare that I stop reading a book though. I can only think of a couple books I've not finished in the past few years.

49) Do you like to keep your books organized?

I have a loose system, but nothing particularly special. I know there are lots of folks who obsess over their bookshelves, but it's not something I've ever really worried about.

50) Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I generally keep books, but I wouldn't have a problem parting with a lot of them. I'm a bit of a packrat though, so I tend to keep stuff.

51) Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter has been on my shelf for a while now. I'm sure it's something I'd enjoy, but it's a really long book - 1000+ pages of very dense, complex prose - and I feel like it would kill the momentum I've built up this year in reading...

52) Name a book that made you angry.

I tend to avoid books I think will make me angry, but some non-fiction will make me angry, especially politics or detailing tragic situations in the real world, etc...

53) A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

Another tough question, as I don't read a lot of books I don't expect to like. I generally go into a book hoping to like it... That being said, I think I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

54) A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The aforementioned Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh was the most recent and egregious example of this...

55) Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

I can't say as though I've ever really felt guilty of reading something, though perhaps my recent reading of a couple of Christopher Farnsworth's trashy Vampire spy novels kinda fit.

Well, there you have it. It was a long one, but fun. Feel free to berate me for my answers in the comments and have a happy Independence Day!
Posted by Mark on July 04, 2012 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peak Performance
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How David Beats Goliath, and the internets rose up in nerdy fury. Like a lot of Gladwell's work, the article is filled with anecdotes (whatever you may think of Gladwell, he's a master of anecdotes), most of which surround the notion of a full-court press in basketball. I should note at this point that I absolutely loath the sport of basketball, so I don't really know enough about the mechanics of the game to comment on the merits of this strategy. That being said, the general complaint about the article is that Gladwell chose two examples that aren't really representative of the full-court press. The primary example seems to be a 12 year old girls basketball team, coached by an immigrant unfamiliar with the game:
Ranadive was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A's end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent's attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadive thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent's end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
The strategy apparently worked well, to the point where they made it to the national championship tournament:
The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn't playing fair - that it wasn't right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable - that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.
Most of the criticism of this missed the forest for the trees. A lot of people nitpicked some specifics, or argued as if Gladwell was advocating for all teams playing a press (when he was really just illustrating a broader point that underdogs don't always need to play by the stronger teams' conventions). One of the most common complaints was that "the press isn't always an advantage" which I'm sure is true, but again, it kinda misses the point that Gladwell was trying to make. Tellingly, most folks didn't argue about Gladwell's wargame anecdote, though you could probably make similar nitpicky arguments.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up three years after the fact is not to completely validate Gladwell's article or hate on his critics. As I've already mentioned, I don't care a whit about basketball, but I do think Gladwell has a more general point that's worth exploring. Oddly enough, after recently finishing the novel Redishirts, I got an itch to revisit some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and rediscovered one of my favorite episodes. Oh sure, it's not one of the celebrated episodes that make top 10 lists or anything, but I like it nonetheless. It's called Peak Performance, and it's got quite a few parallels to Gladwell's article.

The main plot of the episode has to do with a war simulation exercise in which the Enterprise engages in a mock battle with an inferior ship (with a skeleton crew lead by Commander Riker). There's an obvious parallel here between the episode and Gladwell's article (when asked how a hopelessly undermatched ship can compete with the Enterprise, Worf responds "Guile."), but it's the B plot of the episode that is even more relevant (the main plot goes in a bit of a different direction due to some meddling Ferengi).

The B plot concerns the military strategist named Kolrami. He's acting as an observer of the exercise and he's arrogant, smarmy, and condescending. He's also a master at Strategema, one of Star Trek's many fictional (and nonsensical) games. Riker challenges this guy to a match because he's a glutton for punishment (this really is totally consistent with his character) - he just wants to say that he played the master, even if he lost... which, of course, he does. Later, Dr. Pulaski volunteers Data to play a game, with the thought being that the android would easily dispatch Kolrami, thus knocking him down a peg. But even Data loses.

Data is shaken by the loss. He even removes himself from duty. He expected to do better. According to the rules, he "made no mistakes", and yet he still lost. After analyzing his failure and discussing the matter with the captain (who basically tells Data to shut up and get back to work), Data resumes his duty, eventually even challenging Kolrami to a rematch. But this time, Data alters his premise for playing the game. "Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that expected me to play for the same goal." But Data wasn't playing to win. He was playing for a stalemate. Whenever opportunities for advancement appeared, Data held back, attempting to maintain a balance. He estimated that he should be able to keep the game going indefinitely. Frustrated by Data's stalling, Kolrami forfeits in a huff.

There's an interesting parallel here. Many people took Gladwell's article to mean that he thought the press was a strategy that should be employed by all teams, but that's not really the point. The examples he gave were situations in which the press made sense. Similarly, Data's strategy of playing for stalemate was uniquely suited to him. The reason he managed to win was that he is an android without any feelings. He doesn't get frustrated or bored, and his patience is infinite. So while Kolrami may have technically been a better player, he was no match for Data once Data played to his own strengths.

Obviously, quoting fiction does nothing to bolster Gladwell's argument, but I was struck by the parallels. One of the complaints to Gladwell's article that rang at least a little true was that the article's overarching point was "so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all." I don't know that I fully buy that, as a lot of great writing can ultimately be boiled down to something "broad and obvious", but it's a fair point. On the other hand, even if you think that, I do find that there's value in highlighting examples of how it's done, whether it's a 12 year old girls basketball team, or a fictional android playing a nonsensical (but metaphorically apt) game on a TV show. It seems that human beings sometimes need to be reminded that thinking outside the box is an option.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In geek parlance, "red shirt" is a reference to red-uniformed Star Trek officers who frequently die during episodes1. They basically represent the writer's ploy to allow Kirk and McCoy to display grandstanding emotions (and Spock to show a lack thereof). I don't know who coined the notion or where (or if the the show intentionally employed this strategy), but 5 minutes of comprehensive research on the internets reveals a 1985 Star Trek novel called Killing Time, in which a character opines "you don't want to wear a red shirt on landing-party duty" (so sez Wikipedia2). That's the earliest reference I could find, but I'm sure this is something that the show's obsessive fanbase has been remarking on since the 1970s. It's a meme that has been frequently referenced and parodied throughout the years. The most obvious is in the movie Galaxy Quest, where the character of Guy Fleegman, "Crewman Number Six", fears for his life due to his character's expendable nature (fortunately, this parody inverts the meme, allowing him to survive). There is even a grand tradition amongst some SF authors to "reward" fans of their work by naming a character after them, then killing them (for example: David Weber).

All of which is to say that the concept behind John Scalzi's latest novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas isn't exactly a new one. It is, perhaps, the most thorough deconstruction of the trope - most others are mere references, homages, or simple skits on the matter - but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. Fortunately, Scalzi is a talented author who knows how to turn the page. Indeed, I finished the book in a mere two sittings. Not quite a record, but close. And it's a solid story, filled with typical Scalzian characters and their snappy dialogue, with a some clever ideas thrown in for good measure. It didn't take me long to become attached to the characters, at which point my over-analysis of the title faded away and I devoured the rest of the book.

The general premise of the novel is that a bunch of characters on a Star-Trek-like ship recognize that people who get roped into away-missions with high profile members of the crew tend to end up dead. Essentially, the redshirts recognize their role in the show, and try to fight back. This stuff manifests itself in a number of ways. One of my favorites being "the box", a magical device used whenever the characters run into an impossible problem. They simply feed the problem into the box, and then when it's dramatically appropriate, it spits out an answer. It's a pretty funny take on Star Trek writers' tendency to tech the tech.

It's a fun book, perhaps more comedy than SF, though fans of Star Trek will probably enjoy it. I'm not entirely sure how well executed some of the mechanics of this whole premise is... For instance, it's not entirely clear when the characters are "on screen" as it were. One of our redshirts speculates that there's a "narrative", you see, and that if you can avoid the narrative, you can avoid an untimely death. There's even a funny sequences meant to illustrate how ridiculous commercial breaks are, but again, the mechanics of this aren't entirely clear. Of course, in an exercise that is so self-aware and meta, that's sorta the point. The TV show these characters are stuck in is clearly pretty bad, so of course a lot of this stuff doesn't make sense... and that's part of the fun of it all... but you could also argue that it's a bit of a cop out. Personally, I feel like such things are worthwhile if they're done well, and for the most part, everything here works even if it doesn't precisely fit.

The story proper is quite entertaining and fun, but it should be noted that it pretty much ends about 2/3 of the way through the novel. The remaining 100 pages or so consist of the sub-titular Three Codas. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this at first. It wasn't really surprising to see the story end when it did, except insofar as I already knew there was still 100 pages or so left. Scalzi even manages to extend the self-referential meta elements beyond the simple redshirt notion, though it's exactly what you'd think when you think about the premise. Anyway, the three short stories are all related to the main narrative, touching on side characters or concepts here and there. The first coda comes off as a little slight, but it ends up being pretty effective. The second coda is actually pretty meaningful and interesting, adding a depth and seriousness the rest of the novel was missing. The third coda builds on that heft while still managing to end on a clever but positive note. There's something a little gimmicky about the codas - they're written in first, second, and third person, for instance - and I can see how some folks wouldn't appreciate them in general, but I thought they were well done and meaningful.

It's strange. I find that the things I don't like about this book, like the title and the structure, are superficial. These meta aspects (not to be confused with the meta nature of the story itself) trouble me more than the actual contents of the book. I don't quite know what to make of this. The title "Redshirts" does perfectly encapsulate what you're in for, but there's something corny about using a decades-old meme as the title for your book3. Fortunately, the actual contents of the book don't strike me that way, so I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily. I don't know that I would entirely agree with Justin's (very funny and entertaining in itself) review that this is "Spoof Trekkie Fiction: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There is" (an oblique reference to Scalzi's recent controversial and ill-fitting metaphor for life as a video game), but there is a distinct Saturday Night Live skit feeling to the premise of the book. But it's a really well done skit, if that's the case, and I'm generally of the mind that such exercises can be fun if executed well, which this is. In the end, I really enjoyed the book, despite any reservations I may have about the title and structure, and would recommend it to just about anyone.

1 - This appears to impact mostly the original Star Trek series and it should be noted that plenty of blue or gold shirted crewmen die on the series as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later shows) tried to invert the meme by placing its main characters mostly into red shirts themselves. Deaths seem less frequent as well, though there is still the occasional unfortunate mishap, and the poor character is sometimes wearing a red shirt. Star Trek is definitely a show in which The Main Characters Do Everything, so when you see some random dude on the away team, chances are that he's in trouble.

2 - Scalzi actually makes a pretty funny, but obvious, dig at Wikipedia in the book. I don't know why I needed to put this in a footnote, but I always find references to Wikipedia and the internet interesting in works of art.

3 - There appears to be a rash4 of this sort of title. Consider another example: Rule 34 by Charlie Stross (Rule 34 of the internet is: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. Its awesome, but kinda lame when you name your book after it).

4 - I have recently established that only two examples are needed in order to qualify as a "rash". Which, since I've identified two different rashes in the past week, means that I'm experiencing a rash of rashes. Gross.
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2012 at 03:39 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga
So I'm finished. I love the series and highly recommend checking it out. The problem is that there's a lot of churn in terms of how to read the series. It's a long series consisting of 13 novels, 3 novellas, and 1 short story (plus a few other outliers), and there's a lot of discussion on ye olde internets about the ideal order to read them. Like the recently discussed Star Wars, there are two obvious orders: internal chronology and in order of publication.

There are some complicating factors that can lead to different (or streamlined) sequences though. First, most of the books center around a character named Miles Vorkosigan, but the first two are told from the perspective of Miles' mother, Cordelia Naismith. Second, the initial installments of the series were written and published out of chronological order, so there are plenty of folks out there who've read the series that way. Third, Borders of freakin' Infinity (more on this below, but it's a collection of novellas that can confuse the order). Fourth, most of the books have been collected together in omnibus editions, which complicates things a bit, but if you want to read the series chronologically, they're actually pretty well organized. Fifth, and the reason I struggle with the whole reading order thing, is that the height of the series starts about 8 or 9 books in... This is not to say that those first 8 books aren't good, just that the series got better than I ever expected around that time with an amazing four book run starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign.

Every book in the series tells a discrete story. There are no cliff-hangers, but there are a bunch of character-centric multi-book arcs. Interestingly, the series could be read almost as a series of pairs, and the omnibus editions are mostly built around that notion, with the novellas from Borders of Infinity thrown in for good measure. Aside from attempting to read the second of a pair first, I suspect you could try to get into the series almost anywhere along the way. Before I go further, it might be useful to list out the series, publication dates, and omnibus editions:

Story Published Omnibus Notes
Falling Free 1988 N/A Independent novel set 200 years before main series.
Shards of Honor 1986 Cordelia's Honor Told from Cordelia's perspective.
Kaedrin Reviews: Shards of Honor, Barrayar
Barrayar 1991
The Warrior's Apprentice 1986 Young Miles Kaedrin Reviews: The Warrior's Apprentice, Mountains of Morning, and The Vor Game
"Mountains of Morning" from Borders of Infinity 1989
The Vor Game 1990
Cetaganda 1995 Miles, Mystery & Mayhem Ethan of Athos is an independent story.
Kaedrin Reviews
Ethan of Athos 1986
"Labyrinth" from Borders of Infinity 1989
"Borders of Infinity" from Borders of Infinity 1989 Miles Errant Kaedrin Reviews: Borders of Infinity, Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance
Brothers in Arms 1989
Mirror Dance 1994
Memory 1996 N/A Kaedrin Review
Komarr 1998 Miles in Love Kaedrin Reviews
A Civil Campaign 1999
"Winterfair Gifts" 2004
Diplomatic Immunity 2002 N/A Kaedrin Review
Cryoburn 2010 N/A Kaedrin Review
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance 2012 N/A Told from Ivan's perspective.
Kaedrin Review

So the first thing to note is that Falling Free, while technically part of the series, is an extreme prequel and doesn't really involve any of the characters (it's set 200 years before the rest of the series). As such, it's almost completely independent of the rest of the series. I say "almost" because I've heard it would be good to catch up with this one before Diplomatic Immunity. Also, I neglected to mention a short story called "Dreamweaver's Dilemma" which is apparently also an extreme prequel that's not closely coupled with the rest of the series. Of course, I haven't read either of these, so I can't say for sure (Update: I've since read both, and they are indeed not closely coupled with the rest of the series, I would skip them and come back later). I do plan to catch up with them at some point, but the real meat of the Vorkosigan Saga starts with Shards of Honor.

Shards of Honor is where I started the series, though it appears that many people bypass Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and start directly with The Warrior's Apprentice, which is when Miles first shows up (well, there is a short scene in Barrayar where you see him as a young child, but that's from his mother's perspective...) There are pros and cons to each approach. Starting with Shards of Honor and Barrayar gives you a lot of background on the universe and characters, while The Warrior's Apprentice will get you into the series quicker. Personally, I opted to start with the Cordelia books. I'm something of a completist, but it worked really well for me. The other option is to read the books in order of publication, which will have you ping-ponging from Cordelia stories to Miles stories and back again a few times, as well as being all over the internal chronology... but I'm sure it would work too.

The most confusing thing I encountered in the series, though, is Borders of Infinity. This is a collection of three novellas (including one called "Borders of Infinity", just for added confusion), which in a lot of other arenas, means that you can probably skip them... but I would strongly advise against that, actually. "Mountains of Mourning" is quite possibly the best story in the entire series. "Borders of Infinity" is a really clever prison story, and the events in that story - some of which rubbed me the wrong way at the time - pay off huge in Komarr (I have no idea if that was always Bujold's intention, or if she just thought of it later, but it was a fantastic revelation in any case). "Labyrinth" is the most unusual of the bunch, but it also introduces one of my favorite side characters from the series, Taura. Now, these stories were originally published as part of one collection, but the three stories all take place at varying points of the chronology. The omnibus editions do an admirable job mixing the novellas into the series though, which lessens the confusion quite a bit. The only thing lost, then, is the narrative glue between the stories, but that's only about 5 pages or so (even still, it takes place between Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, making it a difficult thing to fit in - you won't really miss it). Anyways, there are a bunch of options for Borders of Infinity... it might even make an interesting introduction to the series, though it's always hard for me to judge (I'd still recommend starting with Shards or Warrior's).

Ethan of Athos is another book that is noteworthy for its independence from the rest of the series. Indeed, Miles is barely even mentioned, though one of the series' recurring characters, Elli Quinn, plays a prominent role. It's an interesting story, probably one of the least mainstream of the entire series, but it's also very independent. There are some small references to it in later stories, but nothing big enough to say this needs to be read in order (though, completist as I am, I did). If you're looking to get to the amazing four book run starting at Mirror Dance, you can probably skip this one.

So I think that covers all of the exceptions and divisive parts of the series. There are a lot of books that pair together well, and I think the omnibus editions do an excellent job latching them together. Incidentally, just because something isn't part of an omnibus doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. I think my second favorite story in the series is Memory. Also, just because something is a novella or a short story doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. I've already mentioned that, but it bears repeating. Even "Winterfair Gifts" was a great story (which, I believe, is only really available as part of the omnibus).

This series has probably been my favorite recent discovery. It's a tricky thing, and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about series like this. I have to wonder how good something like Memory or A Civil Campaign would appear to an outsider who didn't have so much background on the characters or the universe. It certainly worked wonders for me, but it's hard to express that because in order for anyone else to get that feeling, they have to read several books into the series to get there... Tricky. But that's a discussion for another day.

Update: Added Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, some additional notes.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2012 at 09:02 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 11: The Vorkosigan Saga Ends
The last time I wrote about the Vorkosigan Saga books, a commenter noted that the best books were ahead of me, and indeed, I think they were. In fact, the run of books starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign is as good as any series I've ever read, and the series as a whole represents quite a feat. It is not so bogged down with continuity that you have to read all of them - most of the novels are complete stories in and of themselves. But on the other hand, when you read them in order (as I have done), a lot of value is added. This makes some of these later books in the series difficult to judge. Memory might be my favorite novel in the series, but is that because of what happens in the novel by itself, or is it reliant on previous installments for that heft? And is that a bad thing? Personally, I don't think so... but it may make an interesting topic for another post.

Below are short reviews of the last five novels of the series (with a bonus short story thrown in for good measure). I've tried to avoid any real talk about the plots of each, but there might be some minor spoilers on a macro level. That being said, I knew a lot of this stuff was coming before I read it, and it did not diminish anything. Half the fun is Bujold's style, which is not ornate or flowery, not showy, but perhaps deceptively effective and downright compelling. These are page turners, but ones of unusual sophistication. While I have finished the series, I don't think this will be the last I blog of it. Indeed, I already have a few ideas for other posts, but they will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, here's some mixed thoughts on the last five books of the series:
  • Memory - I think this may be my favorite novel of the series. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have nearly the same impact if you started here. This book is a culmination, a real turning point for both the character of Miles and the series as a whole. Up until now, Miles has led a dual life, and for the most part, he's gotten away with it. But the chickens come home to roost in this novel, and Miles has to make some hard choices. Like all the best Vorkosigan novels, seemingly nothing goes right in the first portion of the story. I keep thinking to myself: This is wrong! Or No, you idiot! Fortunately, Bujold knows what she's doing. Miles falters in the beginning, but starts to pick himself back up, and watching him grow, watching him finally accept and acknowledge his identity, his true identity, makes for a wonderful story (this is primarily why new readers might not wholly get it). Oh sure, there's lots of intrigue and conspiracy and of course Miles is in the center of it all, but that's the norm for him. What's new is that he doesn't retreat to his normal crutches (er, not after the beginning anyway), and instead forges a new path for himself.

    Also notable here is the setting of Barrayar, which becomes more complex and real to me every time I see it. Sometimes it seems like every science fiction planet has their own monoculture (or monoclimate), but Barrayar is fully realized, with distinct differences between rural and city areas, and multiple political factions, etc... It helps that the planet is populated with a veritable plethora of familiar and likeable side characters (another reason the book probably wouldn't resonate with new readers). In particular, it's fun to see a different side of Illyan, who up until now has been something of an inscrutable spymaster (though we do see him when he's much younger too). There's even a callback to my other favorite Vorkosigan story, The Mountains of Morning - Miles visits Silvy Vale again, to find that things have changed there, in no small part because of his previous efforts. It's a turning point for Miles in this story, and thus a turning point for the whole series.
  • Komarr - In this book, Miles and one of the Emperor's other Imperial Auditors visits one of the other two planets in the Barrayaran Imperium to investigate an engineering disaster. It looks pretty straightforward at first, but seeing as though Miles is involved, things get hairy pretty quickly. There are a few things that really set this book apart, and one is that half the book is written from Ekaterin Vorsoisson's perspective. She's the niece of Miles' Imperial Auditor colleague, and she's married to a minor Vor lord and administrator on the planet. This is a relatively new direction for the series, which has often relied on Miles as detective, but this time, it's his official role. I won't say much about the mystery in question, except that it's pretty well plotted and interesting. The real strength of this book is Ekaterin, who's in a pretty rough situation, and things get worse for her as time goes on. Miles and Ekaterin actually develop an interesting relationship here, and there's a moment about halfway through the book where they have a minor adventure when shopping, and it forces Miles to have flashback to his Dendarii days - it's actually a callback to one of the novellas from Borders of Infinity, and it totally explains something that I never quite got when I was reading that story. It's one of those moments when all the pieces unexpectedly come together... for something you never even realized was an issue. It makes me wonder about the degree to which Bujold had planned out the series. In any case, this is an interesting book. I wouldn't say that it's better than Memory, but it's solid in its own right, and it's an interesting direction for the series. Miles is still growing into his new role, and finding that his Impsec habits die hard (and that's a good thing, too, as his many varied experiences serve him well in his new job).
  • A Civil Campaign - You wouldn't think a book whose centerpiece is a (disastrous) dinner party would have very high stakes, but, well, here we are. Oh, and the conclusion of the story hinges off of... a democratic vote. Yeah, from the outside, this doesn't seem like much, especially in a series that has previously centered on military action and espionage, but it's actually quite involving because it's a big character piece. The points of view in this book expand from Miles and Ekaterin to also include Mark Vorkosigan, Kareen Koudelka, and even Ivan Vorpatril. Like Memory, we're on Barrayar here, so there's a huge cast of well established side characters making appearances, along with a bevy of new ones, including even some folk of the Vorrutyer clan who have been villains in previous books, but this time around, there are a couple that are, uh, maybe not good guys, but certainly better than the alternatives! It's another change of pace for the series, and the Romantic angle which has been building since Memory seems to have picked up a lot of steam. The books starts a bit on the slow side, but once you get to that ill-fated dinner party, which is hysterically funny by the way, things pick up considerably, making this among my favorite of the books in the series. Actually, the grand majority of the book is funny, probably making this more of a comedy than previous books in the series. Where Memory was all about Miles, this book seems more about Ekaterin. Her character underwent a lot of changes in Komarr too, but she's really the one that is driving everything this time around. This book really does a lot, but Bujold manages to juggle all the various storylines well, and make it all seem natural and balanced. Excellent book.
  • Winterfair Gifts - This is a short story that depicts Miles' wedding on Barrayar. The Dendarii mercenaries (sans Elli Quinn, for obvious reasons) have arrived for the wedding, but Lady Ekaterin has mysteriously fallen ill... The story is told entirely from Armsman Roic's POV, which is a neat touch. We've seen him a bit in the previous novel, but he really gets a chance to shine here. Indeed, there's even something of a romantic subplot with him and Taura, the 8 foot tall, genetically modified Dendarii mercenary with fierce, catlike features. Roic, being a Barrayaran, has a prejudice against women soldiers and "mutants", of which Taura certainly qualifies. But he quickly reverses position. It's not really the focus of the story, and it was pretty clear that nothing much would come of this because of Taura's unnaturally short lifespan, but it was a nice touch. The mystery the two of them solve is pretty neato too. All in all, it's a really pleasant story, and it was really nice to get updates on the Dendarii folk, who had been pretty absent from the recent books. If you're reading the series, don't skip this one because it's "just" a short story. It's a lot of fun.
  • Diplomatic Immunity - As I tweeted when I was reading this, I tried really hard to resist the "urge to constantly scream the title like the South African guy from Lethal Weapon 2". Of course, I failed miserably, and yes, I just kinda screamed it right now. Anywho, after the previous four books in the series, which were all superb, I think this one probably represents a bit of step backwards. Not bad at all, just not quite at the level of the previous few books. It does take a little while to get started, but once the nature of the conflict starts to become clear, it becomes incredibly tense and thrilling. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the conclusion happens "off screen" as it were, and we find out that Ekaterin saves the day in Miles' stead (I'd like to have seem more from Ekaterin's perspective in this one). On the other hand, we do get to hang out with Bel Thorne again, which is awesome, and Bujold's writing is still wonderful and absurdly funny at times. I don't want to talk much about the plot here, as it is interesting (you'll probably have to have read Cetaganda before this one for the ending to really have a good impact) and despite not being my favorite Vorkosigan book, it's still better than average SF mystery! It's one of those weird things. Miles manages to foil a galaxy-wide conspiracy plot that could have potentially lead to war... yet it seems like there is less at stake here than in A Civil Campaign!
  • Cryoburn - Like Diplomatic Immunity, this one suffers a bit from reduced stakes. Bujold manages to work around this by adding the POV of Jin, an 11 year old kid at the heart of the conspiracy that Miles is uncovering. But the book takes place on Kibou-daini, a planet that we've never heard of before (most of the other planets in Bujold's universe are mentioned and foreshadowed in other books before a story gets set there), and the only familiar face we run into is Armsman Roic (who is indeed awesome!) A few others show up later in the story, and we see some communiques from Ekaterin and Gregor and the like, and we hear a little about Miles' kids, but for the most part, it's all new characters. Fortunately, the new folks are pretty great in their own right, and the story here is also rather interesting, which I think elevates this above Diplomatic Immunity, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of some other installments. Ironically, despite being the latest novel published (and the latest in terms of the chronology), this might make a decent entry into the series, which is rather strange, and of course, everything you'd read after this would be prequel, so I wouldn't recommend it, but I suspect that's why this managed to garner a Hugo nomination... Anyway, I had a ton of fun with this, but there was something about it that felt strange. Not bad, but it's like Miles has become so powerful in his old age. He's done all the growth he's needed to do. It's like he's maxed out his levels in an RPG and so most enemies don't really represent a threat to him... so while I enjoyed the story, I never quite feared that he wouldn't manage to pull it all off in style, which, of course, he does. There's nothing really wrong with that, and again, I really had a lot of fun with the book, it's just another that isn't really top tier stuff (though Bujold's writing is tight as ever). The very end of Cryoburn, after the story proper has been resolved, seems a bit rushed for what it represents. There's a bit of a tragedy there, but not an unexpected one, and indeed, Bujold laid the hints on pretty thickly in the preceding chapters, though I didn't quite recognize that for what it was. It makes for a fitting end to the series, though I'm sure there are plenty other stories that could be told as well (and indeed, Bujold has written a tale centering around Ivan that will be out later this year).
Whew. There are only two books in the series that remain for me, one that takes place a couple hundred years in the past and is mostly unrelated (Falling Free) and one that is forthcoming (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which can't get here soon enough - I think withdrawal pains are starting to set in already).
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2012 at 04:28 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

When the whole Kickstarter thing started, I went through a number of phases. First, it's a neat idea and it leverages some of the stuff that makes the internet great. Second, as my systems analyst brain started chewing on it, I had some reservations... but that was shortlived as, third, some really interesting stuff started getting funded. Here are some of the ones I'm looking forward to:
  • Singularity & Co. - Save the SciFi! - Yeah, so you'll be seeing a lot of my nerdy pursuits represented here, and this one is particularly interesting. This is a project dedicated to saving SF books that are out of print, out of circulation, and, ironically, unavailable in any sort of digital format. The Kickstarter is funding the technical solution for scanning the books as well as tracking down and securing copyright. Judging from the response (over $50,000), this is a venture that has found a huge base of support, and I'm really looking forward to discovering some of these books (some of which are from well known authors, like Arthur C. Clarke).
  • A Show With Ze Frank - One of the craziest things I've seen on the internet is Ze Frank's The Show. Not just the content, which is indeed crazy, but the sheer magnitude of what he did - a video produced every weekday for an entire year. Ze Frank grew quite a following at the time, and in fact, half the fun was his interactions with the fans. Here's to hoping that Sniff, hook, rub, power makes another appearance. And at $146 thousand, I have no idea what we're in for. I always wondered how he kept himself going during the original show, but now at least he'll be funded.
  • Oast House Hop Farm - And now we come to my newest obsession: beer. This is a New Jersey farm that's seeking to convert a (very) small portion of their land into a Hop Farm. Hops in the US generally come from the west coast (Washington's Yakima valley, in particular). In the past, that wasn't the case, but some bad luck (blights and infestations) brought east coast hops down, then Prohibition put a nail in the coffin. The farm hopes to supply NJ brewers as well as homebrewers, so mayhaps I'll be using some of their stuff in the future! So far, they've planted Cascade and Nugget hops, with Centennial and Newport coming next. I'm really curious to see how this turns out. My understanding is that it takes a few years for a hop farm to mature, and that each crop varies. I wonder how the East Coast environs will impact the hops...
  • American Beer Blogger - Despite the apparent failure of Discovery's Brewmasters, there's got to be room for some sort of beer television show, and famous beer blogger and author Lew Bryson wants to give it a shot. The Kickstarter is just for the pilot episode, but assuming things go well, there may be follow up efforts. I can only hope it turns out well. I enjoyed Brewmasters for what it was, but being centered on Dogfish Head limited it severely. Sam Calagione is a great, charismatic guy, but the show never really captured the amazing stuff going on in the US right now (which is amazing because it is so broad and local and a million other things Brewmasters couldn't really highlight given its structure).
Well, there you have it. I... probably should have been linking to these before they were funded, but whatever, I'm really happy to see that all of these things will be coming. I'm still curious to see if this whole Kickstarter thing will remain sustainable, but I guess time will tell, and for now, I'm pretty happy with the stuff being funded. There are definitely a ton of other campaigns that I think are interesting, especially surrounding beer and video games, but I'm a little tight on time here, so I'll leave it at that...
Posted by Mark on April 15, 2012 at 08:28 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Upcoming Books
Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2012. Yay**. Here are the most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King (4/24/12)- I just found out about this one... Apparently Stephen King is returning to his Dark Tower series and doing another quasi-prequel... actually ,it's a sorta sequel to the oddly placed yet strangely compelling Wizard and Glass, a novel I now consider one of my favorites in the series. That book sorta told the origin story of Roland the Gunslinger, and this one sorta continues his early adventures. Stephen King has never been one of my favorite authors, but I'm on board for this one...
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others (4/24/12) - I've written about this experiment before, and to be sure, most of this content is already available, as it was serialized via custom apps on various mobile devices, but they're now collecting the first completed story in a paperback... I played around with the iPhone app, but never purchased a "subscription" as the concept of serialized books does not really appeal to me (heck, I'm the guy that doesn't catch up with TV series until the season is over), but I'd like to check out a completed story.
  • Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi (6/5/12) - I have to admit that I find the title of this sorta kitschy, but I always find myself entertained by Scalzi, and it's not like this is an actual Star Trek novel or anything. I'm holding out hope that he'll be able to bring something unique to the tired old red-shirt cliche.
  • Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson (8/7/12) - I have no idea what these "Remarks" are going to be, but I'm guessing this will end up being a collection of previously published writing (like his awesome, long, rambling essays in Wired). I'm hoping that it will contain at least some new stuff though. Of course, I'd love another epic essay like In the Beginning...was the Command Line, but I'm not actually expecting that...
  • Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (11/6/12) - I've only got one book left in Bujold's Vorkosigan saga and was prepping for withdrawal pains, so this book will be perfectly timed to keep me addicted... Still, I'm very much looking forward to this novel, a spin-off featuring Ivan Vorpatril, one of the long-running side-characters of the series. I'm actually pretty excited about this book and I'm hoping Bujold will continue to play in the SF space in the future...
And that covers the big books I'm most excited about this year. Of course, there's bound to be others that I'm missing, and the queue is constantly growing, but the above will probably keep me busy for a while.

* Sarcasm!

** Not sarcasm!
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 18, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 10: The One That Includes Fantasy
While I've done my fair share of Science Fiction reading over the past few years, Fantasy has been relatively absent... I don't really have much against Fantasy or anything, I just tend to prefer Science Fiction, which tends to be more grounded. That being said, I've recently mixed a few fantasy books into my schedule, including some longtime residents of the queue, and I think you can expect to see a little more fantasy appearing soon as well...
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - Hard to believe this is the first Bradbury I've ever read. I actually picked this up a while ago, reading it during Halloween season last year (after being reminded/shamed into it while posting about NPR's top 100 SF/F books). For the most part, I enjoyed this book, and there are some really tense sequences (I particularly loved the chase scene in the library), but I ultimately found the book a bit lacking. I can see why it's beloved, and there are certainly some great characters (the Illustrated Man is a wonderful villain) and eery overtones - carnivals are naturally scare places - but it didn't quite connect with me the way other classics of science fiction or fantasy have in the past. This is partly due to Bradbury's style, which I found a bit stilted, but it's probably more due to the fantastical nature of the plot. I wonder if I'd have liked this better if I read it when I was younger. I'm glad to have read it, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I was never blown away by it.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville - Ah, finally. This book has been on my book queue (and indeed, even on my shelf) for several years (I first mentioned it on the blog in 2009, but I'd already had it for at least a year at that point). So what's the deal with this thing? Miéville is one of the primary examples of The New Weird, a literary subgenre harkening back to the Weird fiction of yore, exemplified by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft. The notion of "Weird" being distinct from horror or fantasy is mostly due to the fact that a lot of that stuff was written before genre fiction achieved such a strict taxonomy. The "new" weird probably fits into that line too. There are elements of fantasy, horror, and even a little science fiction here, though I will say that the SF elements are little more than window dressing. Our main character, Isaac, is ostensibly a "scientist", but Miéville's conception of what a scientist does is... not very vigorous. For instance, Isaac's main breakthrough in the world of science? Crisis energy... a vague form of power derived by... placing things in danger? It's unclear, and it's ridiculous. Fortunately, Miéville's got a lot more going for him than against him. He's created a wonderfully detailed setting (though I will say he tends to go overboard in his verbose descriptions of such) and some evocative, fun characters. I was a particularly big fan of the Weaver, a sorta multi-dimensional being that takes the form of a spider, regards the universe as a work of art, and speaks in an unending stream of consciousness and free verse poetry. The villains of the piece, called slake-moths (which are huge, monstrous beasts with hypnotic powers and an appetite for consciousness), are also compelling. Lots of other interesting ideas populate the world, like the Construct Council and countless other races of beings. Again, I think Miéville gets a little carried away in his description of the world, and this wankery can get a bit tiresome at times, but it's a dense setting and I'd hope that future installments would perhaps be a little less exposition-heavy. Also, the main character of Isaac is a bit of a sad-sack, and while Miéville sets the stakes very high and manages to come up with a solid solution, there is a bit of an (intentional) downer ending. I'd call this a very good book, though it doesn't quite strike all of my chords. There are things I love about it, and things I don't particularly care for. Miéville has written a number of books set in this universe, and it may be something I return to at some point, but I can't say as though I'm rushing to do so at this point.
  • The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi - This debut novel from Finnish author (and string theorist) Hannu Rajaniemi has garnered a lot of praise, and it is indeed crammed with a lot of interesting ideas. I'm not entirely sure they all coalesce into a great narrative, but then, this is also apparently the first in a trilogy (*groan*). Unlike every other book in this post, and indeed, most of my SF book posts, this book is the hardest of hard SF. Not quite Greg Egan hard SF, but close. Rajaniemi thrusts you into this unfamiliar world with no real hand-holding, forcing you to infer a lot of the concepts and ideas from minimal exposure. Most of the characters are of the post-human sort, digital beings stuck in human body shaped shells, sometimes more machine than biological. Complex interrelationships and privacy controls, augmented reality, brain-machine interfaces and the like. If you've read other stories along these lines, you may be comfortable, but the casual reader of SF might be a bit overwhelmed. I came down somewhere in the middle of that mixture. I was never totally lost, but I wasn't particularly comfortable with everything either. The story itself is a little obtuse. Our main character is Jean le Flambeur (John the Gambler?), an infamous thief playing the traditional role of a trickster. He's reasonably likeable, though he isn't given a ton of space to shine. As the book opens, his mind is imprisoned in a weird state where it is forced to play endless variations of the prisoner's dilemma against copies of itself and millions of others. One copy of himself is freed by a woman named Mieli, who seeks his criminal expertise. Her motivations are vague, as is her plan. There is a bit of a heist involved here, but it is again rather obtuse and difficult to piece together exactly what Mieli (or rather, the person pulling her strings) is after. There's also a detective named Isidore Beautrelet, who is trying to piece it all together, and then there's the tzaddik, a sorta vigilante group that is nevertheless tolerated by the authorities. The story takes place on Mars, where society has attempted to limit the endless copying of minds by instituting radical control over your personal technology stack, including even your appearance. It's all very complicated and very interesting. Again, much of this is inferred during the course of events, and things can get a little dicey as you figure them out. Like I said, it never fully coalesced for me, but I still found it interesting enough, and I'd be curious how the sequels will read now that I'm familiar with the various concepts...
  • The Witch Watch, by Shamus Young - I've already mentioned this a few times on the blog, and I suppose it's impossible for me to be unbiased as I've been... internet friends?... with Shamus for a while now, but I had a ton of fun with this book. Oddly, it doesn't seem like it would be my kinda book. It's a fantasy set in the Victorian era of England, with a little steampunk thrown in for good measure. The main character of Gilbert is a sorta zombie who doesn't really remember how he died (though he still retains his wits). Most of these elements are not really in my wheelhouse, and yet Shamus is able to ground everything in enough reality that it all works much better than I would have expected (I will say that I bought the book without knowing anything about the plot or characters or anything). Shamus is a programmer, and so even the fantastical elements of his story operate with a certain logic and internal consistency. For instance, I often find the way magic is portrayed in fantasy as a major problem. It's often used and abused, with little or no limitations, leading to an improbable escalation of powers that quickly grates on me. But in this novel, magic is limited by both social and natural forces. First, magic is feared and abhorred by nearly everyone. It is controlled by two main forces: the "Church" and the titular "Witch Watch" (a sorta magic-specific British detective agency). The Church is absurdly ignorant in its treatment of the problem, simply killing those it suspects of magic, with no due process. The Witch Watch take a more balanced approach, preferring to actually study what makes magic work. These social limitations on magic make for a nice buffer, and they allow Shamus to avoid getting into too many details with how magic actually works. But when he does, it's still interesting and well considered. There are physical limitations on magic as well. There are some spells that can be cast without much preparation, but they take a great deal of energy out of the person casting the spell. So you can conjure up a big fireball, but after you do so, you'll be pretty tired (and unable to continue). Of course, limitations are a great literary tool, as there are always ways to get around them, and that sort of contortion is always entertaining. Now, the book isn't perfect. In particular, I found the flashbacks and epistolary sections a little distracting. Some of them serve a good purpose, though I'm not sure they required quite as prominent a placement as they received... But that is a minor problem in an otherwise entertaining and tight story. The characters are quite likeable and have a nice chemistry together. Shamus' dry wit is in evidence here, especially when Gilbert and Alice get to trading barbs, and the book is quite easy to read. Give it a shot, if it sounds like your thing...
  • The Tale of the Wicked, by John Scalzi - Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat, as this is a short story I read in a single (short) sitting, but it was a fun space opera tale and a nice precursor to Scalzi's forthcoming Redshirts novel. The story has to do with an AI unit stretching beyond it's normal capabilities and is a little reminiscent of those great, paranoid old SF movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project or Demon Seed (though things never quite run as amok in Scalzi's tale). Still, it's a fun little story. Only available online in kindle format, it's still just 99 cents, and was one of those impulse purchases Amazon makes so easy...
So there you have it. Next up on the reviewing front will probably be finishing off the Vorkosigan saga... I'm trying to delay that as long as possible (only 1.5 books left!), so it may be a bit, but I'm sure I won't be able to resist (also, apparently a new one is coming in November)...
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2012 at 07:23 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 9: Mistressworks Edition
So last year, someone noticed that the SF Masterworks, a series of books highlighting the classic science fiction novels, was somewhat lacking in female author representation. I'm not a big fan of identity politics and I don't want to take this post in that direction, but one of the good things that came out of the whole meme was a site highlighting people's favorite SF books by female authors called SF Mistressworks. I'm always on the lookout for interesting SF, so I picked a few books from their list and added a few of my own, and so here are the last five female-authored books I've read:
  • A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright - In the distant future, humans have spread out into space, establishing two major empires and a Guild of Webbers that run the spaceships and thus control travel and trade between the two empires. Rafe is a talented Webber (basically someone who can interface with the computers who run spaceships) who is suffering from amnesia... but this isn't just a cliche, it's actually an indication that Rafe is an "oath-breaker", basically someone who has betreayed his respective empire and had their memory wiped as punishment. But, as it turns out, Rafe is more important than anyone realizes, and the two empires fight to retain him. His new crew gets caught in the middle of the fight. Wright has crafted a surprisingly dense universe here and populated it with traditional SF competent men and women that are generally a likable bunch. The worldbuilding is done mostly in the background - you pick things up as you go, rather than wading through long chapters of exposition. Sure, there are some info-dumps, but you have to put a lot of things together for yourself as well, and Wright strikes a good balance. The story itself isn't really exceptional, but it's a well executed space opera and well worth reading (unless you're a homophobe, in which case you'll be freaked out by some of the relationships in the book). The ending does feature a deus ex machina, but it fits well enough with the story, and Wright manages to wring enough suspense out of the finale. It's not really in print anymore, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a penny (alas, no kindle version either). As far as I can tell, this was Wright's only fiction novel, which is a shame, as I'd certainly be interested in more from her...
  • Polar City Blues, by Katharine Kerr - Basically a traditional murder/mystery thriller story with a science fictional setting. Some of this setting doesn't really work for me. Kerr's characters all speak in a weirdly constructed version of English (for instance, a character will say something like "I no get it" instead of "I don't get it") that only really serves to be distracting without providing any real depth or flavor to the story. Fortunately, Kerr has crafted a complex, twisty little mystery for us, so I can give the linguistic stuff a pass. Polar City Police Chief Al Bates has a nasty problem brewing, with a psyionic killer on the loose and a trail of dead bodies in his wake. He teams up with connected smuggler Bobbie Lacey to investigate and quickly becomes enmeshed in a complicated tale of assassination, mysterious alien artifacts, and a new, unknown disease spreading throughout the city. Solidly constructed mystery with some added flavor from the science fictional elements and some neat role reversal in the book's romantic subplot. It took a bit to get going for me, but I ended up enjoying this enough to recommend it. Unfortunately, this is another book that's currently out of print, but again, Amazon has lots of cheap used copies. Kerr is probably more known for her Fantasy works, but this was an interesting effort.
  • Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh - My least favorite book in this post, I found this one a bit of a slog. It starts off promisingly enough. Twice, even. But the two thrilling prologues prove to be a tease. After those exciting false starts, the story proper almost immediately bogs down. Lots of repetitive whining and miscommunication for the sake of plot (which isn't very complicated, but it's played that way due to the fact that everyone only says cryptic things). A user on Goodreads hit the nail on the head with his "brief fantasia that illustrates" Cherryh's style in this book:
    Bren was extremely worried about the assassination attempt and was quite annoyed that his freedom of movement had been compromised. A worrisome Bren couldn't believe he had to suffer an escort everywhere! "I really am awfully worried that I can't phone home", said Bren, as he huffily realized that his ability to buy canned meat alone was no longer possible. "This really bothers me, I can't even leave my apartment without an escort!" notes Bren, as he paces his apartment in frustration. It was driving him crazy with annoyance and worry that not only had an assassin tried to kill him, now he couldn't travel alone anymore. He could not leave his apartment alone. After all, an assassin had just attempted to murder him. An actual assassin! Trying to murder him! It was all so worrisome. And as if the assassination attempt wasn't enough, now he couldn't even leave his apartment unaccompanied. "This is really very annoying and I feel awfully compromised, so much so that I am genuinely worried," reflected Bren.
    Which is all well and good, but the book goes on like this for a solid 200-300 pages of nothing but Bren's whining incompetence. Things pick up towards the end of the novel, and Cherryh can craft some exciting sequences when she wants to, but she seems more interested in detailing the confusion of alien communication or politics. Which, again, would be fine, except that it's astoundingly repetitive and boring. And I'm a guy that's normally fascinated by this sort of thing, but Cherryh seems determined to stamp out anything interesting in the premise. Perhaps if any of her characters were likable or interesting in any way? Maybe if they didn't spend all their time petulantly whining about their lot in life? Which is all rather weird, since Cherryh certainly has a way with words. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have directed them towards any real purpose. A most frustrating novel. This is apparently the first in a long series of popular novels, and from what I gather, they're better than this book, which does set up the setting which is actually rather well thought out. Unfortunately, Cherryh explores this by way of long sequences of exposition and info-dumps that don't ever really seem relevant and are always interspersed with whining. I guess I just hate books where people whine a lot. It's fine to whine for a while - Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan frequently gets depressed or whiny - but you can't make that the entire focus of the book. Miles always parlays his whining into action and usually success, which makes for a good story arc. The characters in Cherryh's book just whine and whine, interesting things happen to them, then the story ends. Most disappointing.
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins - I got a Kindle for Christmas and wanted to read something, and this book was free to download, so I figured I'd check out what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that the premise held little interest for me. Not only is it quite derivative (see Battle Royale, The Running Man, and a few other stories with similar premises), but it's also set in something of a dystopia, which never excites me (and for the record, that's my least favorite part of the other stories of this nature as well). Indeed, the worldbuilding here is distinctly lackluster. The whole purpose of "The Hunger Games" themselves makes no real sense to me, nor does the structure of the setting. On the other hand, the plot is reasonably well executed and rockets along at a fast pace. Once you get into the actual battle, the setting ceases to matter all that much, and you get a thrilling tale of survival and cat-and-mouse stalking. The action is well staged and executed, and I found myself reading at a rather fast pace. There's a sorta romantic subplot, though it's never really clear if it was just a ploy or not (I predict Katniss will develop a nasty case of trust issues in the sequels). It's ultimately a fun book, though I didn't find much depth here. I was kinda "meh" about this book in the end, and while I don't really have any desire to read the sequels, I'll probably watch the movies. I will say that I read it in 3 sittings, so it's certainly not a difficult book to get through, I just had a lot of nagging questions that bothered me about the book.
  • Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Of course, there has to be some Bujold on the list, and this one is the ninth book in the long running Vorkosigan Saga. This installment is notable in that it's the longest of the books I've read yet (clocking in at a solid 560 pages) and it's told mostly from the perspective of a character other than Miles Vorkosigan. I won't say who, as it's a bit of a spoiler for the series as a whole, but this new character starts off the book as a pretty unlikeable guy. He's even whiny. And he screws lots of things up towards the beginning of the book. But his heart's in the right place, and unlike the characters in Foreigner, our protagonist here actually has an arc in this book, eventually even redeeming himself (reading Mirror Dance and Foreigner back-to-back really puts the latter's issues in specific relief). I have to admit that I was surprised by a number of plot twists throughout the novel, and while the absence of Miles was a bit grating at first, I quickly became intrigued by the story as it progressed. Bujold seems to do this in a lot of her books. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? The story shouldn't be going this way!, only to be consumed by what follows. I don't know how she does it, but Bujold sure can craft a wonderful story. As the series progresses, she's managed to make excellent use of her universe and supporting cast, which is large and diverse. You're always happy to see certain characters pop up, and after 8 books, Bujold has a lot of background to draw from. The story of this book has to do with a botched rescue of clones, though things quickly escalate (into spoiler territory). It's a great book, maybe in the top tier of the series, though I'd worry about reading this without the background from the previous books. At the very least, you'd have to read Brothers in Arms before this one (a lot of the books in this series have a sorta companion book, making it a series of pairs - a subject for another post, perhaps). I've already read the next few books in the series and with only two or so books left, I'm dreading the hole it will leave in my reading schedule...
And there you have it. I'll probably need to do some non-SF book reviews coming up, but the SF always returns. I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan Saga in the near future anyway...
Posted by Mark on January 29, 2012 at 06:25 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Book Queue, 2012 Edition
The last list I posted, back in July 2011, had 15 books on it. I've made some excellent process, clearing out almost all of the "Holdovers" from previous lists, including some books that have been sitting on my shelf for literally years. The one remainder from that list is Godel, Escher, Bach, which I chose not to read due to its length (not sure if I'll tackle it this year either, but it will remain in the queue until I do!) I've actually read several books that weren't even in the queue, but I think it's time to regroup and look ahead to what I'll be reading in 2012. The first few books here are holdovers from the previous list, which I didn't read for various reasons.
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: Again, not sure I want to tackle this one right away, as it's quite the lengthy tome. And it's not super easy reading either - it's dense, complex stuff. I've actually read the first chapter or so before, and I'm virtually certain I'll enjoy the book a great deal, but I've got a ton of other stuff I'd like to get through first.
  • Komarr, A Civil Campaign, Diplomatic Immunity, and Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujuld - These are the last 4 books in Bujold's long running Vorkosigan Saga, a series I cracked open last year, plowing through the first 10 installments. I'm told that these next few books are some of the most fun in the series, so I'm already looking forward to them (and dreading that I won't be able to fall back on reading Vorkosigan novels)
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I still want to read this (a continuation of Vinge's loosely linked Zones of Thought books), but initial reviews of this book seem to indicate that it ends on a cliffhanger and that another novel is forthcoming. I thus won't be reading this until I know more about when the presumed conclusion to the story will be available...
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: I actually ordered this last year, but for some strange reason, Amazon could not fulfill the order (it had something to do with my ordering of the paperback version, which is apparently nonstandard or something). I do still want to read it though (it's appaently a SF heist story, which seems right up my alley), and now that I have a Kindle, I can probably get to this whenever I want...
  • Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I just never got to this last year, but I don't see myself delaying anytime soon.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson: I really enjoyed Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, but I've never read any of his other stuff... until now. Or until I read this one, which is already sitting on my shelf.
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris - I gave this biography of Theodore Roosevelt to my uncle as a gift a while ago, and he though I'd like it too, so now it's in the queue. The biography apparently begins with Roosevelt's taking office (i.e. no getting bogged down with his childhood and upraising, it just goes straight to the action). It is a long book with small type and everything, but it's probably something I'll get through this year.
  • Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh - I've actually started reading this one already, so you can see that this book queue works in mysterious ways and that I certainly won't be reading this stuff in order. In any case, this is apparently the first in another long-running series about humans first encounter with aliens. So far, it's quite good, though I'm a little discombobulated by how the narrative keeps jumping ahead. From what I can tell, the series gets much better as it goes...
So there's 11 books I want to read this year. My goal is to do just as good as the 30 I read last year, if not improve on that a little. I also got a Kindle for Christmas, which means I could maybe do more reading on the go. Or not. We'll see. I'm going to be keeping track of progress on GoodReads, so feel free to follow along or friend me or whatever.
Posted by Mark on January 11, 2012 at 06:26 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year in Reading
As of this moment (and depending on how you count omnibus editions), I have read 30 books in 2011. There's a pretty good chance that I'll finish my current book by the end of the year as well. If you'll permit some navel gazing, here are some stats about what I've read this year:
  • 30 books in 2011 is a big improvement over the 20 books I read in 2010 (which was itself a pretty big year for me). This might be the most I've read in a single year since high school... and it's worth noting that at least 4 of the books from 2010 were read in December of that year (i.e. this has been a pretty well sustained pace for the past year and half or so).
  • According to goodreads, these 30 books translate to 10,964 pages of reading in 2011 (and if you count my current progress, I'm over the 11,000 mark...) This number is perhaps a little suspect, as it depends on print size and spacing and book format and so on, but as an approximation it feels... well, actually, I have no real frame of reference for this. I'll have to enter in dates for my 2010 reading to see what Goodreads comes up with there.
  • 9 of the books were non-fiction, which might also be a record for me (unless you count textbooks or something).
  • Most of the 21 fiction books were science fiction or fantasy novels, and my progress this year was definitely fueled by shortish novels (i.e. around 300 page novels)
  • The longest novel I read this year was Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages. The second longest novel was Perdido Street Station, which ran 623 pages.
  • 13 of the 30 books were written by women, which is probably another record for me (for a point of comparison, in 2010, I only read 2 books written by women). I should note that this is mostly fueled by Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga - I've read 9 books in the series so far, and may finish the 10th by the end of the year.
  • Goodreads also provides a neato graph of when you read stuff and when that stuff was published (unfortunately, it's a little too big to feature here). As it turns out, I read only 2 books that were initially published before 1986, though one of those 2 was published in the late 19th century, so there's that.
All in all, a pretty great year of reading. For reference, my top 4 books of the year: Oh hell, can we just make the Vorkosigan Saga (as a whole) the honorary 5th best book of the year? Ok then.

Things have slowed down in the latter part of this year, though I think a large part of that is that I've been focusing on longer novels and non-fiction, which obviously take more time. Indeed, if I manage to tackle Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid next year, I expect that will drag down my numbers a bit. Of course, I could hold off on that and slot in 4 short novels in its place, but I should really read GEB, as it's been on my shelf for quite a while... Looking ahead to next year, I'll definitely be finishing off Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, and I was given a Kindle for Christmas, so I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to read there. Perhaps an updated book queue is in order!
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nerding Out on Star Trek
Star Trek has been in the news lately, as J.J. Abrams preps the new movie. It seems that Khan will be the villain again (originally thought to be played by Benicio Del Toro, but that has apparently not happened), though there is also apparently a secondary villain who plays an older mentor to Khan. Or something. It was the obvious choice and I'm interested in seeing what Abrams does with the new movie, but in a lot of ways, it's also a disappointing and lazy choice. Not just because Khan was the villain in the original second Star Trek film either. As Devin Faraci also notes, I think one of the things people forget about is that one of the reasons that film worked so well was that Khan wasn't the obvious choice:
Khan wasn't an obvious choice for the original Star Trek II. Basically Harve Bennett watched every single episode of the original series because he thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked a good villain, and took a shine to Space Seed; while it was always regarded as one of the better episodes of the series, Khan wasn't quite the iconic villain he is today.

What made Khan iconic was the fact that his quest for vengeance led to the death of Spock. It seems unlikely that Star Trek 2 will be a remake of Star Trek II, so it's probably a riff on Space Seed - except made more EXTREME for 3D movie purposes. I bet they get Chris Pine to yell 'KHAAAAAAAAN!,' though.
I think I would have rather seen Abrams go in a completely different direction. Either mining the original series for other obscure characters to update for the big screen, or maybe even - and I know this is crazy talk - creating a new character from scratch. The Star Trek reboot was extremely popular, so they've got a built in audience for this next installment. As long as you can make a trailer with a bunch of lens flares, swish pans, and explosions, people are going to go see the sequel. Why not take a chance? Khan is an iconic villain because of his context - none of which has been built up in this new reboot universe.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the existing movies and just for shits and giggles, I ranked them from favorite to least favorite below. Mostly because this post just wasn't nerdy enough. Here goes:
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - The obvious choice, and the film most frequently cited as the best of the Trek movies. I actually haven't seen it in a while, but there are lots of memorable things about it, and of course, Khan was probably the most memorable of the villains in the films...
  • Star Trek (2009 Reboot) - Oh sure, it's not a very rigorous movie and I would totally prefer more science in this film's fiction (and what's there is just breathtakingly stupid), but this film is just so much damn fun that it really does catapult up towards the top of the list. I'd actually say it ties with the next few films, but for now, this is where I have it.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Who among us hasn't picked up our mouse and talked to it, saying "Computer? Commmputerrr?" like Scottie does in this movie? It's an unusual movie in that it's a sorta fish out of water comedy rather than a sci-fi action film (and quite frankly, those who complain about the reboot's science should take a look at how time travel is portrayed in this film). Fortunately, it's still a boatload of fun.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Returning to the series more adventurous roots, this film also wound up being really well done. I feel like I'm saying this for all the movies so far, but it's a lot of fun.
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture - I know, it's slow and plodding and filled with lame glory shots of the Enterprise leaving stardock or something, but I actually enjoyed this one overall. It was a little nebulous and intellectual, but that's what I like about it.
  • Star Trek: First Contact - Certainly the best of The Next Generation movies, this one is pretty fun, but it's also much more of a lame action movie than the series or even the other movies. I think this movie also demonstrates that while the Borg were once awesome villains, their continual evolution into ineffectual dweebs was disappointing. They're better than this movie gives them credit for. This movie works, but there's lots of dumb things going on here.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - I'm actually surprised this one fell this far on the list. It's not a horrible movie and I don't hate it, but quite frankly, I don't remember much about it (which isn't a good sign).
  • Star Trek: Insurrection - Meh. It's an ok film, and Worf has a space bazooka and everything, but it plays out like a third rate TNG episode. I remember having an ok time with the movie when it came out, but it's ultimately a pretty forgettable experience...
  • Star Trek: Generations - And now we get to the part of the list where the movies are legitimately bad. This movie was just so unnecessary and got the TNG crew off to a horrible start. It's one thing to honor the old crew. It's another to try to cater to everyone, and thus make a movie that works for no one. A horrible movie.
  • Star Trek: Nemesis - Another terrible movie. Hard to believe that's the same Tom Hardy that was in Bronson and Inception, but yep, that's him. I've always thought that the Romulans would be a good villain for the movies, but it never seems to work out...
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - A total abomination, the less said about this the better.
I think my biggest problem with the Star Trek movies is that I consider a lot of The Next Generation episodes better than most of the movies, even including the ones at the top of the list. And even a lot of TNG episodes haven't aged that well, but many are still really well done and interesting. Much moreso than the movies, at least. Speaking of TNG, check out this twitter feed which is throwing out humorous plot summaries from a proposed 8th season of TNG. My favorite episode:
A sentient nebula chases the ship, which has nowhere to hide, because usually it would be in a nebula. Data adopts a dog, snake, and parrot.
Heh, great stuff. Speaking of great stuff, RedLetterMedia has reviews of all the Next Generation movies (in the same style as their brilliant Star Wars prequel reviews) that are certainly worth checking out. Well, I think that covers all the Star Trek nerdery I have right now, so there. I hope you enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on December 11, 2011 at 07:40 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, September 18, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).

Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it's a pretty decent list. Below, I'll bold the ones I've read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.
  1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien - An unsurprising choice for the top slot, and while it may not be my "favorite" series, it's hard to argue with it being the most influential of the books in this list (indeed, many of the fantasy novels below are deeply indebted to LotR).
  2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams - Another unsurprising pick, though my shocking nerd confession is that I don't seem to like this as much as most other nerds. Go figure.
  3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card - Given Card's reputation with the NPR crowd, I'm surprised this book made it this high. Of course, he doesn't espouse any despicable views in the book, and it is very good, so it's well worth reading.
  4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert - I've only read the first book, which is fantastic. I never got around to the sequels though, and from what I've heard, I'm not missing out on much.
  5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin - I've not read any, though I've seen the first season of the TV show, which is excellent. Probably more likely to keep following the show than read the books. I have to wonder, given some of the heavyweights that fell below this book, if the TV series gave this entry a bit of a boost in the voting...
  6. 1984, by George Orwell - A classic, probably deserves to be higher on the list, but it's hard to argue with a top 10 slot.
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury - Another shocking nerd confession - I haven't read any of Ray Bradbury's books. Consider this book on the list of shame.
  8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov - This one always seems to come out near the top of lists like this, but I've always preferred his robot books.
  9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley - I should read this someday, but I just can't muster the enthusiasm to read dystopic stuff these days.
  10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman - I like this book a lot, but 10th best SF/F book of all time? I don't think so. I wonder how this one got to be so high...
  11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman - I've never read this, but I get the impression that the movie is better than the book and that the book is getting a bump due to the sheer awesomeness of the movie (which is brilliant).
  12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan - Never read any of it. It may surprise you to learn that I don't actually read much in the way of fantasy novels (though obviously I've read some of the ones on this list).
  13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell - Another classic, and one that I now like despite being forced to read it in school (seriously, being able to climb out of that cellar is a big feat in itself).
  14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson - Probably the best of the Cyberpunk novels, which isn't say that much since it was really the first of the Cyberpunk novels. Still, it's a good one, deserving of a lot of the praise it gets. Wouldn't be as high on my list, but I can see why it's here.
  15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore - It is probably the best comic book series of all time, well worth the placement on this list.
  16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov - Well here's the weird thing. They grouped the Foundation novels together (along with lots of other series on the list), but not the Robot novels? I really like I, Robot, but I like the way the series goes as a whole (I guess people aren't as big a fan of Asimov's latter work where he tied Robots and Foundation together).
  17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein - Heinlein makes his first appearance with... one of my least favorites of his work. I suppose it does represent more of a cultural touchstone than his other work, and I know this novel was one of the driving forces behind the 60s counter-culture, so I guess it's not a surprise that the NPR folks like it, but still. Luckily, more Heinlein shows up on this list.
  18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss - I've not read this fantasy series, though lots of folks really seem to love the first novel. I've heard mixed reviews of the second book, and like a lot of fantasy series, who knows how long this will go (I believe it's planned at 3, but so were a few other long-running series, so again, who knows). I also can't think of this book without thinking of Scalzi's story of "hearty stew" fantasy.
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut - Another one that goes on the list of shame (at least I've read some Vonnegut before).
  20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley - Is this the first female author on the list? Damn. Well, it's a justified classic novel, probably belonging higher on the list.
  21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick - I've never read this, but I have to wonder if the fact that everyone knows Blade Runner was based on this story has anything to do with its performance.
  22. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood - Never read it and I'm not a big fan of dystopias either, but at least there's another female author in the top 25...
  23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King - A series filled with high highes and very low lows. Difficult to describe, but there was a time when I loved these books. But the series kinda finished with a wimper. I had kinda steeled myself against the ending, knowing that it could not possibly live up to what was being built up in the earlier novels, so I didn't hate the ending, but it was still an unsatisfying conclusion. I might, however, make a case for Wizard and Glass, it being an interesting and tragic tale that is, perhaps more importantly, mostly self-contained. (As an aside, both the Dark Tower series and the previous book on this list, The Handmaid's Tale, feature a city-state known as Gilead - a biblical reference, but interesting that these two were ranked next to each other.)
  24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke - An interesting choice for the first Clarke novel on the list. Once again, i wonder if it gets a bump from its incredible movie adaptation. Still, it is a very good book that I did enjoy (even having seen the movie).
  25. The Stand, by Stephen King - I do really love this book. There are some issues with the ending, but something like "the hand of God came down and saved them" works infinitely better on the page than it does on the screen (not that I'd hold up the TV mini-series as something particularly good). Well worth a read, probably my second-favorite Stephen King novel (with the first being The Shining, which probably doesn't qualify for this list).
  26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson - If the aforementioned Neuromancer popularized Cyberpunk, Stephenson put the final nail in the coffin with this satirical, action-packed romp through cyber-space. It's a surprisingly prescient novel, though it doesn't get everything quite right. Stephenson is my favorite author, but I would have ranked Cryptonomicon higher (more on that below).
  27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut - On the list of shame.
  29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman - I was always under the impression that Gaiman's Sandman stuff didn't hold up as well as some of his other work, but I guess people still love it. I've never read it, and probably won't...
  30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess - Never read it. If the rest of the list is any indication, there seems to be an inflation of rank for films with great movie adaptations...
  31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein - An interesting thought experiment from Heinlein, who basically originated the modern military SF genre with this novel, but there's not much of a story here. An important book, but one that would probably chafe a lot of readers with its ideas and the bald way Heinlein presents them.
  32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams - Saw the movie, probably won't read it, makes sense to be on the list though.
  33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey - Eh, fantasy. Only the third female author so far.
  34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein - My favorite of Heinlein's novels, its libertarian themes and strange sexual politics could probably turn off readers, but there's a well paced story that accompanies things this time, and I really enjoyed the novel.
  35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller - Never read it, but it's in the queue somewhere.
  36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells - On the list of shame, though of course I know the general idea of the story (which says something about its importance, I guess).
  37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne - See previous entry.
  38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys - I'd heard of this, but never knew what it was about until now, and I kinda want to read it now.
  39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells - See The Time Machine above.
  40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny - It's in the queue somewhere.
  41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings - Another fantasy series. Good to know if I want to read some fantasy, but I doubt I'll get to this anytime soon.
  42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley - The fourth female author.
  43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy I'm unlikely to ever read.
  44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven - In the queue somewhere, I think my brother might even have a copy somewhere, but I just haven't gotten to it yet.
  45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin - Wonderful SF novel probably deserving a higher spot on this list. And the fifth female author so far.
  46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien - A little bit of a cheat, as I haven't read the whole thing, but still. Why isn't this considered part of the LotR series?
  47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White - I think I read this for school? King Arthur and stuff? Must not have made much of an impression.
  48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman - In terms of pure enjoyment, I think this is Gaiman's best. Real page-turning stuff here, and a more satisfying narrative than American Gods or Stardust.
  49. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke - A solid choice and a good novel, but I've never been as in-love with it as everyone else. There are a couple other Clarke books I'd put ahead of this one.
  50. Contact, by Carl Sagan - Adaptation bump? Whatever the case, I've heard that the movie kinda stops short, while this one make a bolder statement. I've always really loved the movie, but if it really does betray the book, I'd find that disappointing.
  51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons - The first book is certainly on my list to read, but I've heard the rest of the series is kinda meh, and then there's the fact that I've never actually read a good book by Simmons (I read one of his weird vampire books a while back and hated it so much that I drilled a screw through the book so that no one else would read it).
  52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman - I know I read this, and I'm pretty sure I liked it, but I don't remember anything about it and it's been sorta overridden by the movie adaptation in my mind (rightly or wrongly, I did enjoy the movie, which I understand diverges pretty significantly from the book)
  53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson - My favorite book of all time? Perhaps! Would definitely be higher on my list.
  54. World War Z, by Max Brooks - I can only imagine that this is on the list because people love zombies right now. I hate zombie stories.
  55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle - Fantasy. Fleh.
  56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman - Considered by many to be Haldeman's response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, this is first rate SF and it actually features some semblance of a story. There are some flaws (in particular, the way he treats sexuality), but it's still a great book.
  57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett - The only Pratchett I've read is Good Omens (co-written with Neal Gaiman), but I was underwhelmed by it and have never really sought out more Pratchett. I should probably do so at some point, but I guess we'll see.
  58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson - Fantasy series. Fleh.
  59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Love that this made it on the list. I really enjoy these novels and am looking forward to reading more of the series. Would be higher on my list.
  60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett - See Small Gods above.
  61. The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - I keep hearing about this novel, but I've never read it. It's in the queue.
  62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind - More fantasy. Fleh.
  63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - More dystopia. Fleh.
  64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - I've wanted to read this for a while, I've just never gotten around to reading it.
  65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson - A study of isolation and grim irony. Does this get a bump from the movie adaptation? The movie kinda stinks. The book is far more disturbing, and it's definitely influential in many of the horror writers who followed.
  66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist - More fantasy. Fleh.
  67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks - More fantasy. Fleh.
  68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard - I enjoy the movies, but I doubt I'll ever get to the books...
  69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb - More fantasy. Fleh. But the blurb on NPR sounds nice, I guess. But then, zombies. Fleh.
  70. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger - Doesn't seem like it would be my thing, but I'd be open to reading it, I guess.
  71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne - Familiar with the story, but never actually read the book.
  73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore - More fantasy. Fleh.
  74. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi - Fantastic modern entry in the military SF canon. Scalzi's tightest novel, though he's got some other good ones.
  75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson - I'm surprised this made the list, as I'm convinced that Stephenson's reputation for bad/rushed endings comes from this book. Still, it is a really good book, and you can see the transition he was making between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. I would probably put Anathem higher than this, but I can't argue with putting it on the list.
  76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke - This might actually be my favorite of Clarke's novels.
  77. The Kushiel's Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey - More fantasy. Fleh.
  78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin - I was less impressed with this novel and it probably wouldn't make my list, but I can see why so many people love it.
  79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire - Eh, really?
  81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde - Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.
  83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks - In the queue somewhere.
  84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart - Yet another Arthurian tale (I think this is the third on the list so far). Not much interest here.
  85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson - Very nice to see this one on the list despite it's relatively recent release. A fantastic novel, his best since Cryptonomicon.
  86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher - More fantasy. Fleh.
  87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe - On my list of shame.
  88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn - I'm surprised this Star Wars series made the list. I loved this as a teenager, but when I revisited it a few years later, it wasn't quite as riveting. Still a thousand times better than the prequels! And Grand Admiral Thrawn was indeed quite a great villain for the series. I'm glad Zahn got a place on the list. He's a workhorse, but I tend to enjoy those authors.
  89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan - Not familiar with this, may have to add it to the queue!
  90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock - More fantasy. Fleh.
  91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury - *sigh* List of shame.
  92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley - More fantasy. Vampire fantasy. Fleh.
  93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge - One of the best portrayals of a truly alien species in all of SF. The ending is a bit... strange, but I really love the book (A Deepness in the Sky is pretty good as well and I'm really looking forward to The Children of the Sky, which comes out in October I think)
  94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov - As previously mentioned, I'm a big fan of the Robot series. Again, these are books I read as a teenager, and some of them don't hold up as well, but the ideas are great.
  95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson - On my list of shame.
  96. Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - In the queue somewhere.
  97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis - It's a really good book, but I'm not sure I'm as taken with it as some others.
  98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville - It's been sitting on my shelf for, like, 4 years at this point. I have promised myself that I'd read it by the end of this year!
  99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony - Fantasy, but Piers Anthony rings a bell for me. I may check something of his out, maybe not Xanth though.
  100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis - I didn't even know these existed!
I did some quick counting of the list:
  • I've read 38 of the books on the list
  • The breakdown between Fantasy and SF is arguable, but a quick count got me 37 fantasy, 63 SF.
  • Only 15 of the books on the list are written by women (and there's at least one woman who comes up twice)
  • Of those 15 books by women, 7 are fantasy (again, the line between SF and Fantasy can be blurry for some of these)
I should note that despite my frequent "fleh" comments above, I don't really have anything against fantasy, I just don't read much of it and thus don't have much to say about it. There are at least a couple series/books above that I'd probably check out at some point. I thought I'd have read more than 38 on the list, but when you consider that only 63 are SF, that does change things a bit, as my focus tends to be on SF.

I'm not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I'm pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I've read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.

And that about covers it. How many have you read?

Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2011 at 08:32 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, September 11, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition
I've read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I've really enjoyed them, and now I've read five more books in the series.

At this point, it's hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I'll try to keep at a minimum (if you're sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there's lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral's Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.

That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior's Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears "mutants" like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn't give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn't one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what's going on in his head, and he's always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior's Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar's secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)
  • The Vor Game - The novel opens with Miles Vorkosigan graduation, followed by his assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of an arctic outpost (i.e. not a very desirable position). It turns out that the commander there (General Metzov) is rather insane, and a confrontation leads to a career wrecking scandal for Miles. His only option at that point is to work for Barrayaran intelligence, but of course, his first mission there goes belly up as well, forcing him to take command of the Dendarii Mercenaries (again) in order to help save his Emperor. Oh, and there's a Cetagandan invasion fleet on its way to Barrayar too. Yes, it's difficult to describe this plot, but it's an excellent novel, and Bujold deftly maneuvers around various pitfalls and tropes.

    Bujold does a particularly good job with the initial confrontation with the mad General Metzov. Miles has been ordered to participate in a massacre that is most probably illegal. However, disobeying orders isn't exactly a good option either. Miles isn't just a newly minted soldier. He's a Vor Lord, a member of the military caste, son of the Prime Minister (and former Regent) and cousin of the current Emperor. And he's faced with an impossible choice here. Participate in an atrocity, or potentially ruin his life, maybe even taking his father with him and soiling the family name. What do you do when all the available options are bad? It's a recurring theme in these books - and Miles can't just make decisions for himself, he has to constantly consider the political, social and cultural ramifications of his actions.

    Later in the book, he runs across the errant Emperor, where Bujold has steadfastly declined to give in to cliche. Emperor Gregor has been in the series since he was a little boy, protected by Miles' parents during an attempted coup. Miles and Gregor grew up as playmates (inasmuch as the Emperor-to-be could have playmates) and in the hands of a lesser writer, Gregor would have grown into a tyrant that would be the flip-side of Miles's honor. Or something. But Bujold avoids that temptation without going too far in the opposite direction. Gregor is, in himself, a most interesting character. He's got his flaws and some major problems, which we see in this novel, but he's not a tyrant either.

    In the end, it's easy to see why this got the Hugo award for best novel. I don't think it's Bujold's best, but it's definitely a great novel and well worth a read.
  • Cetaganda - One of the great things about this series of novels is that Bujuld doesn't stick to one type of story for all the books. The series is primarily comprised of Space Opera stories, but there are a number of books that stray from the path, and this is one of them. Miles and his cousin Ivan (who is Miles's cousin and something of a foil, usually referred to by Miles as "That idiot Ivan.") are sent to represent Barrayar at the Imperial funeral of the dowager Empress, mother of the current Cetagandan Emperor. The Cetagandans are generally the villains of the Vorkosigan universe, so you can imagine that when Miles gets into trouble (which happens almost immediately upon arrival), things get hairy pretty quickly. In essence, this novel takes the form of a murder mystery, with some espionage and political wrangling thrown in for effect. The Cetagandan empire has a multi-tiered aristocracy, along with numerous castes and an almost inconceivable list of customs, traditions, and ceremonies. Like the best SF, Bujold keeps the info-dumps to a minimum, letting us infer the details of all this from the context of the story. Of course, Miles is in-over-his-head almost immediately, yet he manages to pull it out (that's not really a spoiler, right?). Indeed, given his earlier career (as discussed above, along with the fact that his exploits with the Dendarii Mercenaries can't be trumpeted), his success on Cetaganda proves almost politically embarrassing! This is actually the most recently written book of the ones listed in this post, though it is placed rather early in the actual chronology. I guess this is getting a bit repetitive, but it's a good, fun read, handled with wit and care, like all of Bujold's work.
  • Ethan of Athos - Perhaps the most unusual of the novels in the series in that it does not feature Miles (or anyone from his family) at all, instead focusing on Dr. Ethan Urquhart, from the planet Athos - a planet entirely populated by men. It's an isolated and reclusive planet that does not seek any real outside contact. They reproduce using uterine replicators (something mentioned often in the series, actually), basically technological wombs where children can be grown. However, they do require certain genetic materials, which means that someone has to go out into the big bad galaxy and secure some new biological samples. Ethan is their man, but he's quickly embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. He is helped in his task by Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries (which is one of the ways in which this book connects with the rest of the series). When we last saw Quinn, she had her face blown off during a battle in The Warrior's Apprentice, but she has since had reconstructive surgery, and is now quite the beauty. Given that Ethan has never had contact with women, this makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic. The bulk of the action takes place on a space station and it takes the form of an espionage thriller. This was actually among the first books of the series to be published, and I think you can see that, but once again, it's a really good story, and provides you with some background information on an important character (Elli Quinn) and obliquely connects with a couple other books in the series. Another good read.
  • Borders of Infinity - Ah, this is the book that causes a great deal of confusion for those of us seeking to read the series in chronological order. It's basically a collection of three 100 page (or so) novellas, with some connective tissue provided in the form of an interview conducted by Simon Illyan, who is the head of the dreaded Barrayaran Imperial Security Service (basically an intelligence organization). However, the confusion comes in because each story takes place between other books in the series. I tried to read them in the appropriate order, but kinda messed up because the connective tissue takes place after Brothers in Arms (which is the next book below). No matter, because these are three of the best stories in the series.

    The first story, entitled "The Mountains of Mourning" is particularly effective, and it even earned Bujold a (well-earned) Hugo award for best novella. It's another of the murder/mysteries, but it takes place in the backwoods of Barrayar, allowing Bujold to explore certain Barrayaran prejudices - especially for their intolerance to birth defects or "mutants". This is particularly impactful because Miles is, himself, something of a mutant, and he has a lot of political considerations to make during this investigation.

    In "Labyrinth", Bujold tells a somewhat less plausible tale, but it is one which connects with Ethan of Athos and Cetaganda a bit, and it is quite an enjoyable read. I'm kinda curious as to whether or not the character Taura will make another appearance in the series (it would certainly be a welcome development!) The third and final story, "The Borders of Infinity" starts a little strangely, but it quickly escalates, and Bujold manages a few interesting twists in what basically amounts to a prison-break story. It ends on a bit of a tragic note, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Like a lot of short story collections, this one doesn't quite work as a whole as much as a single novel would, but that's to be expected, and each individual story is truly excellent. Indeed, I would put "The Mountains of Mourning" up as one of the best stories in the series, and the other two aren't too shabby either. If you're looking at reading the series and think it's ok to skip these because they're "only novellas", think again - these are really fantastic and should not be skipped. I believe they're better integrated into the omnibus editions that are now in print, but that's probably a topic for another post someday.
  • Brothers in Arms - One of the things I've always found somewhat improbably about this series was that Miles would be able to lead an entire fleet of mercenaries without anyone noticing that he was one of the most famous Barrayaran noblemen in the galaxy. In this book, Bujold solves that problem rather handily. If I tell you how she did so, well, it will sound ridiculous. And it kinda is. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have fallen flat, but Bujold does an excellent job executing her solution here. It's almost comedic, though she never quite goes that far (if you just accept the premise and go with it, you'll find yourself laughing). However, by the time of the time you reach this novel, she's laid all the groundwork, and it actually fits rather well. The story itself is more of a political espionage tale, and quite a good one at that. Elli Quinn makes another appearance here, and the story ends at a point that leads into the whole connective tissue parts of Borders of Infinity. I expect to see more of a few of these characters in later books as well.
Yes, I'm completely hooked by this series. The only reason I haven't devoured the 8 remaining books is that I'm deliberately trying to prolong the experience, as I will no doubt experience a bit of withdrawal when I finish the series. Of course, the most recent installment was just published last year, so more books are not out of the question.

I heartily recommend the series. If you're interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia's Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles's parents, or The Warrior's Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Mountains of Mourning" from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases... Well worth it, if you ask me.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2011 at 08:42 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

First Contact
As it turns out, Aliens from other planets do exist. On the other hand, whether intelligent life exists is apparently still open for debate:

It's not nearly as good as Terry Bisson's classic short story They're Made of Meat, but it shares some similarities.
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2011 at 06:06 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Book Queue
So the last book queue I posted at the beginning of this year had 12 books on it, and I've made great strides against that list. Only 4 remain, and I'm halfway through one of those. I've also read at least 7 other books that weren't on that list (mostly Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga books, of which only the first was on the original list). With only 3 books remaining, I'm looking to fill up the immediate queue again.

The four remaining books from my last queue...
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: It's been a bit of a slog. Two weeks of reading, and I'm still only about halfway through it. However, it's gotten better as I've read. It still hasn't quite overcome the bad first impression, but there is at least some interesting stuff going on now. I plan to nail it down this week.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: I admit, this is getting ridiculous. This has been in the queue, even sitting on my shelf, for years. I will definitely get to this one this year.
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: I'm making such good progress this year, but I have a feeling that if I start this, even if I'm reading every day, it will take me a long time to finish it off. It's a 900+ page book, with small type and dense material that I'm sure I'll really enjoy, but which will totally break the momentum I've built up this year. Definitely in 2012 though!
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon: Trashy noir novel by Pynchon? Sounds awesome (also apparently being adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson for the screen, so I want to read this before that movie comes out). This one hasn't even been on the list that long though, so it's not a big deal that it's a holdover. Will definitely get to it this year.
Vorkosigan Saga
I started Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running series of science fiction novels mostly (but not solely) chronicling the adventures of the physically diminutive but mentally gifted Miles Vorkosigan. So far this year, I've read 7 novels in the (loosely connected) series. I've got a whole stack of other books just waiting on my shelf now too... and Bujold just released a new one last year, so there's always the chance of more books in the future! I don't know if these are the nerdiest books I've ever read, but referring to them as the Vorkosigan Saga certainly makes it seem so... In any case, this is what I've got left in the series. I'm trying not to read too many of these in a row - I can already sense that I'll be a bit bummed when I finish the series because I very much enjoy spending time with these characters: New Stuff
Pretty self explanatory:
  • Readme by Neal Stephenson: I've already posted about this several times. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so of course a new novel will immediately jump to the top of the queue (even though it's a 900+ page behemoth). Comes out in September.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I've also posted about how much I'm looking forward to this one, another book in Vinge's Zones of Thought universe (not really a series, though maybe, kinda, sorta). This one comes out in October and will probably jump to the top of the queue after I finish Reamde.
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: A science fiction heist story. I am so there.
  • Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I'm not anticipating a book that's quite that crazy, but this series seems to get some good reviews, so I'll check it out...
So that's 15 books right there, which should keep me busy through the end of the year. Of course, new books will undoubtedly be added (especially since I've just noticed that there's no new non-fiction on the list) and so on, but that is the way of the book queue.
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2011 at 01:55 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tasting Notes - Part 4
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

  • Game of Thrones - The season finale aired last week, and I have to say, I'm impressed. My usual approach to stuff like this is to let it run for a couple of seasons to make sure it's both good and that it's actually heading somewhere. At this point, the book series isn't even finished, but friends who've read it think it's great and they say the books get better, so I gave the series a shot - and I'm really glad I did. It's a fantastic series, much more along the lines of swords-and-sandals (a la Spartacus or Gladiator) than outright fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings). People talk about magic and dragons and whatnot, but most of that seems to be in the distant past (though there are hints of a return to that sort of thing throughout the series and especially in the last minutes of the season). Most of the season consists of dialogue, politics, Machiavellian scheming, and action. Oh, and sex. And incest. Yeah, it's a fun show. The last episode of the season doesn't do much to resolve the various plotlines, and hints at an even more epic scale. Interestingly, though, I don't find this sort of open-endedness that frustrating. Unlike a show like Lost, the open threads don't seem like red-herrings or even mysteries at all. It's just good, old fashioned storytelling. The worst thing about it is that I'm all caught up and will have to wait for the next season! Prediction: Geoffrey will die horribly, and I will love it. But not too quickly. He's such a fantastic, sniveling little bastard. I want to keep hating him for a while before someone takes him down.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Doctor Who - Most of the semi-recently rebooted series is available on watch instantly, and I've only just begun to pick my way through the series again. I vaguely remember watching a few of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor episodes, but I never finished that first season. I'm not very far in right now - just saw the first appearance of the Daleks, which should be interesting.
  • 13 Assassins - Takashi Miike tends to be a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me. Fortunately for him, he is ridiculously prolific. His most recent effort is a pretty straightforward Samurai tale about a suicide mission to assassinate a cruel and ruthless evil lord. Seven Samurai, it is not, but it is still quite engaging and entertaining to watch. It starts a bit slow, but it finishes with an amazing 45 minute setpiece as our 13 heroes spring their trap on 200 enemies. Along the way, we get some insight into Japanese culture as the days of the Samurai and Shogunate faded, though I don't think I'd call this a rigorously accurate film or anything. Still, there's more going on here than just bloody action, of which there is a lot. An excellent film, among the top films I've seen so far this year.
  • HBO has a pretty great lineup right now. In the past couple weeks, I've revisited Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and How to Train Your Dragon. All of these films have improved upon rewatching them, a subject I've always found interesting. Scott Pilgrim, in particular, has improved it's standing in my mind. I still think it's got some problems in the final act, but I also think it's a dreadfully underappreciated film.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Transcendent Man - I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it's an interesting profile of Ray Kurtzweil, a futurist and singularity proponent. I don't really buy into his schtick, but he's an interesting guy and the documentary is worth a watch for that.
Video Games
  • I'm still playing Mass Effect 2, but I have not progressed all that far in the game. I've found this is common with RPGs lately - it takes a long time to get anything accomplished in an RPG, so I sometimes find it hard to get started. Still, I have liked what I've seen of this game so far. It's far from perfect, but it's got some interesting elements.
  • Since I had to hook up my Wii to get Netflix working during the great PSN outage of '11, I actually did start playing Goldeneye again. I even got a Wii classic controller, and that made the game approximately 10 times more fun (but I have to say, plugging the Wiimote into the classic controller to get it to work? That's just stupidly obtuse, though I guess it keeps the cost down). Since I could play it in short 30 minute chunks, I actually did manage to finish this one off in pretty short order. It's a pretty simple FPS game, which I always enjoy, but there's nothing particularly special about it, except for some muted nostalgia from the original.
  • The Black Keys - Brothers - This is a pretty great album. Lots of crunchy blues guitars and catchy rhythms. I'm greatly enjoying it.
  • Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil - Another hipster rock album, but I rather like it, especially the song Secret Mobilization. Good stuff.
  • I've been cranking my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga novels, of which there are many (and I'm actually quite glad, as they're all great fun). I've covered the first few novels in SF Book Reviews, and will probably have finished enough other books to do a Bujold-only edition in the near future. I'm currently reading Ethan of Athos, which seems to me to be a kinda spinoff/standalone novel, but an interesting one nonetheless (and we get to catch up with a character from one of the other books).
  • I also started Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but have found myself quickly bogging down (it doesn't help that I have, like, 10 Bujold novels sitting around, begging me to read them) almost from the start. It's not bad, per say, but there's something about the style and scope of the book that bothers me. There are some interesting ideas, and Diamond admits that his methods are, by necessity, not that rigorous, but it's still seems extremely speculative to me. I would normally be fine with that sorta approach, but I'm finding something about this grating and I haven't figured it out just yet...
  • If you count the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, I'm down to just 4 unread books from my last Book Queue, which is pretty good! And I've only really added the Bujold books and Fuzzy Nation since then. I'm actually at a point where I should start seeking out new stuff. Of course, it probably won't take long to fill the queue back up, but still. Progress!
The Finer Things...
  • I've managed to have some pretty exceptional beers of late. First up is Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40, an imperial porter aged in 40 year old Highland Park casks. It's an amazing beer, though also outrageously priced. Still, if you can get your hands on some and don't mind paying the premium, it's great.
  • Another exceptional beer, the legendary Pliny the Elder (currently ranked #3 on Beer Advocates Best Beers on Planet Earth list). It's a fantastic double IPA. Not sure if it's really #3 beer in the world fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless.
  • One more great beer, and a total surprise, was Sierra Nevada Boot Camp ExPortation. Basically, Sierra Nevada has this event every year where fans get to go to "Beer Camp" and collaborate on new beers with Sierra Nevada brewers and whatnot. My understanding is that the batches are extremely limited. Indeed, I never expected to see these, but apparently there were a few on tap at a local bar, sorta leftover from Philly Beer Week. The beer is basically a porter with Brettanomyces added and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. This is all beer-nerd-talk for a sour (in a good way) beer. I'm not normally big into the style or Brett, but I'll be damned if this isn't a fantastic beer. I loved it and unfortunately, I'll probably never see it again. If you see it, try it. At the very least, it will be an interesting experience!
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fuzzy Nation
In recent years, Hollywood has been remaking or rebooting nearly every property it could get its hands on - including franchises that are only a few years old. Some have speculated an unhealthy obsession with branding and marketing, others just call it a result of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. This sort of thing happens frequently in other forms of art as well. Indeed, it's a hallmark of Theater - every night, a new remake! You don't hear people complaining about yet another production of Macbeth, do you? And covering songs is quite common as well. In both of those realms, the remakes are outnumbered by original works (well, maybe not in theater), though, which is probably a good thing.

One area that doesn't seem to see too much in the way of remakes is literature. Enter John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. He calls this novel a "reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper." Not having read the original, I can't speak to the fidelity or necessity of the remake, but I am confident in calling it a fun, entertaining take on several common SF tropes.

Our tale begins with Jack Holloway, an independent contractor working for ZaraCorp, prospecting and surveying the planet Zara XXIII. ZaraCorp is apparently a company that basically strips down planets for all of their useful materials - metal ores, oil, and a rare mineral called sunstones. Not much time is spent mentioning how planets are discovered, but once they are, a team of specialists attempts to determine if there's any sentient life on those planets, and if there isn't, then ZaraCorp (and/or its competitors) are given a license to "exploit" the planet. Holloway, a former lawyer, has just found a huge cache of valuable sunstones. It will take years to exploit and even Holloway's measly 0.25% share will garner him millions, if not billions of credits.

Not long after that, Holloway goes home and discovers that a small, catlike creature has snuck into his house. These ridiculously cute creatures begin to act suspiciously intelligent (incidentally, while I like the cover art, I have to say that the Fuzzy pictured there does not seem as cute as they do in the book). And from here, I'm guessing you can figure out several of the central conflicts in the book.

I burned through the book in about two sittings, and probably could have read it in one big session if I timed it right. I'm not sure if that's simply to do with the length of the book (it's about 300 pages with relatively large type and spacing) or if it's Scalzi's knack for page-turning storytelling (something I've talked about before). As previously hinted at, there are several common SF tropes at work here (Big mean corporations! Planetary exploitation! Is it sentient?!), and while Scalzi isn't often breaking new ground or even exploring various ideas very deeply, I think there's something to be said for a very well executed trope. There are several times when you can easily predict what will happen next, though Scalzi does manage some genuine twists and turns later in the story. It's clear he's working in pure storytelling mode here, which is perhaps why the pages seemed to turn themselves so quickly.

I do want to single out one aspect of the story that I think is particularly well done, and that's the character of Jack Holloway. The story is told mostly from his perspective, and he's got a certain charisma that makes him a good protagonist, but he's also kind of a selfish prick. I don't want to give anything away, nor do I want to give the wrong impression - he's certainly not an anti-hero or anything, he's just a fully fleshed out character who makes mistakes with the best of us. Flawed characters can be difficult and often present stumbling blocks to otherwise good stories, but I think Scalzi manages to pull this one off well.

Again, I have not read the original Little Fuzzy novel, but I suspect that Scalzi has done it proud. I'm not particularly looking forward to other reimaginings of classic SF, but I think in this case, it worked well, and I actually think that Scalzi's choice, while not totally obscure, was old enough that he may be introducing lots of folks to Piper's original works (I believe there are a few other Fuzzy novels as well). Among Scalzi's novels that I've read, this one is towards the top of the list, though I don't think it's his best work. I do think that most of his novels would make good introductions to the SF genre though, and would recommend them. While Scalzi may be best known for taping bacon to his cat, I would argue that he should be better known for his novels! Fuzzy Nation would be a good place to start.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2011 at 06:03 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 7
Continuing to make some progress through my book queue... and, of course, adding new books to the queue as I go along. This time, it's Lois McMaster Bujold's fault, as I enjoyed Shards of Honor so much that I went out and read the next two books in the (apparently long running and loosely connected) series. I've now got about 10 more of her books in the queue. If the first three are any indication, I'll probably move through them pretty quickly... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm going to start with one from the actual queue though: Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy. I've been listing it as one book, but it's technically an omnibus edition of Zahn's first three Cobra novels, and I'll review each separately below. As a side note, Zahn is currently in the process of writing another trilogy set in the same universe (the second novel was published this year, with a third tentatively planned for January 2012) and plans a third trilogy at some point in the unspecified future.
  • Cobra by Timothy Zahn - Though this is not Zahn's first novel, it is among his first, and it shows. It is certainly not bad and you can see flashes of what he would grow into, but it is quite unusual. The pace of the novel, in particular, is rather strange. It starts off in rather standard military SF fashion, with a youth signing up for a war against an invading alien race. Of course, young Jonny Moreau gets assigned to a new, elite force of guerilla super-soldiers, packed to the gills with concealed weaponry. You get the standard training section, then you're off to war. But the war lasts approximately one chapter, and we're back in civilian life, but Jonny's powers (which cannot be removed) are causing problems. He's having trouble fitting back into civilian life, an interesting perspective, to be sure, though something that's been covered a lot, even in military SF. But then, even that section of the novel doesn't last, and Jonny is sent off on other adventures. The conflicts that arise are reasonably well done, but the solutions often leave a poor taste in your mouth... but then, that seems to be the point of a lot of it. This is an interesting approach, but Zahn hadn't quite reached the height of his storytelling powers just yet, so it reads a bit stilted. I think if Zahn had attempted something similar later in his career, it may have been a bigger success. It's a fine read, but nothing particularly special, except insofar as it gets you to the later books in the series.
  • Cobra Strike by Timothy Zahn - This book picks up about 20 years after the first, and follows the next generation of Moreaus (though Jonny also plays a big supporting role) as they attempt to cope with living in an isolated trio of worlds. A new threat appears, and the Cobras are sent to investigate. I won't go into too much detail here, as this book is a little more cohesive, telling one story from start to finish. I'm not entirely convinced about the conflict or the ultimate solution, but it's definitely an easier read, and you definitely see more commonality with Zahn's later works. A worthy sequel and indeed, an improvement on the original.
  • Cobra Bargain by Timothy Zahn - The last book in the series, and probably the book that most resembles Zahn's later success. It's not quite as accomplished as his later work, but it's up there, and it's the one book in the series that really had me turning the pages. This one jumps us forward another 20 years. Jonny has passed away, but his sons have established themselves in planetary politics and the third generation of Moreaus are becoming Cobras. This time around, we follow Jasmine "Jin" Moreau, the first female Cobra, and one of the more engaging protagonists in the series. Of course, things never go as planned and Jin is quickly caught alone in enemy territory. Things have changed there over the last 20 years, but it's still a dangerous place, and she finds herself in an uneasy alliance with certain members of the enemy. Quite entertaining, and the pages turned themselves more in this final novel than in either of the previous two. Indeed, I read the last 150-200 pages in one sitting. Is it worth reading the first two novels to get to this point? Maybe for fans of Zahn, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend folks start with. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't count it as one of my favorites, even amongst Zahn's other work.
  • Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold - This book picks up right after the end of Shards of Honor, with Cordelia Naismith marrying Lord Aral Vorkosigan. And as it turns out, Aral has taken up a rather important position in the Barrayaran government - one that involves lots of behind-the-scenes politics and intrigue, betrayals and conspiracies. The book starts out a bit on the slow side, establishing all the players in the coming civil war. Things come to a head in the second act, and our protagonists take the initiative in the final act. The mixture of high technology with old-school Machiavellian duplicity is an intriguing one, and Bujold masterfully weaves a web of cunning and deception throughout the plot. Cordelia is a wonderful protagonist, and her outsider's perspective provides the perfect lens through which the readers can get a look at Barrayar and it's odd mish-mash of traditions and ceremony. Near as I can tell, this is the last book in which Cordelia is the main character, and if you're interested in reading these, I recommend starting with the omnibus edition, called Cordelia's Honor (which contains Shards of Honor and Barrayar). Highly recommended.
  • The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold - With this novel, Bujold shifts the protagonist from Cordelia to her son, Miles Vorkosigan. Without getting into too much detail about the previous books, Miles was born with various physical impairments - in particular, his bones don't develop normally. So physically, he's somewhat frail (and very diminutive), but he more than makes up for that with his mental acuity and cunning. This book starts with Miles' failure to gain entrance into the Barrayaran military academy (he couldn't pass the obstacle course without breaking his leg), after which he must find something to do with himself. The rest of the novel plays out like an old "Adventure on the High Seas" type of story (but in space!) Indeed, Bujold has mentioned that her series is modeled after the Horatio Hornblower novels, which partially explains the mixture of past and future present in the books. Miles makes for a great protagonist, and I love the way his predicament escalates so quickly... and how he somehow manages to hold things together. I read most of this book on my way to (and returning from) Las Vegas, and very much enjoyed it. I was a little hesitant at first, and at first I was a little worried that Bujold was taking too obvious a path, but she manages several twists on the formula later in the novel that really turned things around for me. Indeed, the novel ends very much on a political bent along the lines of Barrayar. Very entertaining novel, and I can see why this is a popular starting place for the series (apparently most of the novels in the series are about Miles). I'm very much looking forward to exploring more of this series (and I have about 10 new books on my shelf now).
Well that just about covers it. I've got some non-fiction to catch up on right now, and while I'm at it, I might as well finish off a couple other non-SF novels that have been sitting around for a while as well, so it may be a while before the next SF book review. Unless I get hooked into the Vorkosigan saga again. Which is probably likely.
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2011 at 06:52 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tasting Notes - Part 3
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

  • Community is actually a pretty fun show. In a lot of ways, it's standard sitcom fodder, but the inclusion of the character of Abed redeems most of the potentially overused cliches. Abed is a pop-culture obsessed film student who appears to be aware that he's a part of a sitcom, and thus his self-referential observations are often quite prescient. The cast is actually pretty fantastic and there are lots of traditionally funny jokes along the way. Honestly, I think my favorite part of the episode are the post-credits sequences in which Abed and Troy are typically engaging in something silly in a hysterically funny way. I've only seen the first season, but I'm greatly looking forward to the second season (which is almost complete now, and probably available in some form, but I haven't looked into it too closely).
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The X-Files - It looks like the entire series is available. I watched the series frequently when it was on, but I never realized just how many episodes I missed. I was never a fan of the alien conspiracy episodes (in part because it was difficult to watch them in the right order and I never knew what was going on), but I've always loved the "freak of the week" style episode, and now that all of them are at my fingertips, I'm seeing a bunch that I never knew even existed. The show holds up reasonably well, though it's a little too on-the-nose at times (especially in the early seasons). In the context in which the shows were being produced, though, it's fantastic. From a production quality perspective, it's more cinematic than what was on TV at the time (and a lot of what's on today), and it was one of the early attempts at multi-season plot arcs and continuity (technology at the time wasn't quite right, so I don't think it flourished quite as much as it could have if it had started 10 years later).
Video Games
  • Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is a lot of fun, though you can sorta tell that it was a near launch game. I actually mentioned this a while back, and because it was my first Ratchet & Clank game, I didn't suffer from most of the repetitive and derivative elements (which I gather is what disappointed old fans). Some minor usability issues (constantly changing weapons/tools is a pain), but otherwise great fun. I particularly enjoyed the Pirate themed enemies, who were very funny. I enjoyed this enough that I'll probably check out the more recent A Crack in Time, which I hear is pretty good.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops - It's another CoD game, so I got pretty much exactly what I expected. The single player game actually has a semi-interesting story, though the animators fell in love with the overly-hyper cutting and shaky-cam style that is already overused in film, and which is mostly unnecessary in video games. Don't get me wrong, the story is kinda hokey, but it's entertaining in its own way. And, of course, the combat is very well balanced and fun (as every game I've played in the series is...) The game ends with one of the most gleefully manic sequences I've ever played (much better than, for example, the airline thing at the end of CoD4). The multi-player is not particularly noob-friendly, but I got a few hours out of it and even managed to win a round one time. The kills come so quickly that it's pretty rare that you'll escape anyone once they start shooting (the way you can in some other games). This is both good and bad though. All in all, it's a good FPS for console.
  • I've started playing Mass Effect 2 for the PS3. I have no idea what's going on with the story (I thought there was supposed to be some sort of PS3 intro thingy, but I didn't see it when I started the game), but I'm having fun so far. It's not something I've been playing a lot though, perhaps because I don't have a ton of time to dedicate to it...
  • Remember when i said I would play more Goldeneye for the Wii? Yeah, I still haven't unpacked the Wii from that trip, which is a pretty good expression of how I generally feel about the Wii these days. I guess it's a good thing Nintendo is announcing their next console soon (though I have to admit, the rumors I'm hearing aren't particularly encouraging).
  • James Gunn's comic book spoof Super continues the trend towards deconstruction of superheroes that's been going on recently in comic book cinema (though things look like they're about to revert a bit this summer). As such, it's semi-derivative at times, but it sticks to its guns (or should I say, Gunns!) and never flinches at its target. It's also not afraid to embrace the weird (such as, for instance, tentacle rape). It's extremely graphic and violent, and some of it is played for laughs, but there's at least one unforgivable moment in the film. One thing I have to note is that there's going to be a lot of teenage nerds falling in love with Ellen Page because of her enthusiastic performance in this movie. She's awesome. The critical reception seems mixed, but I think I enjoyed it more than most. I wouldn't call it one of the year's best, but it's worth watching for superhero fans who can stomach gore.
  • Hobo with a Shotgun does not fare quite as well as Super, though fans of Grindhouse and ultra-violence will probably get a kick out of it. If Super represents a bit of a depraved outlook on life, Hobo makes it look like the Muppets. A few years ago, when Grindhouse was coming out, there was a contest for folks to create fake grindhouse-style trailers, and one of the winners was this fantastically titled Hobo With a Shotgun. Unfortunately what works in the short form of a fake trailer doesn't really extend well to a full-length feature. There are some interesting things about the film. Rutger Hauer is great as the hobo (look for an awesome monologue about a bear), the atmosphere is genuinely retro, it actually feels like a grindhouse movie (as opposed to Tarantino and Rodriguez's efforts, which are great, but you can also kinda tell they have a decent budget, whereas Hobo clearly has a low budget), and the armored villains known as the Plague are entertaining, if a bit out of place. Ultimately the film doesn't really earn its bullshit. Like last year's Machete (another film built off of the popularity of a "fake" trailer), I'm not convinced that this film really should have been made. Again, devotees to the weird and disgusting might enjoy this, but it's a hard film to recommend.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Good, the Bad, the Weird - Kim Jee-woon's take on the spaghetti western is actually quite entertaining, if a bit too long and maybe even a bit too derivative. Still, there are some fantastic sequences in the film, and it's a lot of fun. Jee-woon is one of the more interesting filmmakers that's making a name for Korean cinema on an international scale. I'm greatly looking forward to his latest effort, I Saw the Devil.
  • In my last SF book post, I mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor. I really enjoyed that book, which was apparently the first in a long series of books, of which I've recently finished two: Barrayar and The Warrior's Apprentice. I'll save the details for the next SF book review post, but let's just say that I'm fully onboard the Bujold train to awesome. I put in an order for the next several books in the series, which seems to be quite long and varied.
  • Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy is what I'm reading right now. I'm enjoying them, but it's clear that Zahn was still growing as a storyteller when writing these. Interestingly, you can see a lot of ideas that he would feature in later works (and he would do so more seamlessly too). I'm about halfway through the trilogy, and should be finishing it off in the next couple weeks, after which, you can expect another SF book review post...
  • I've also started Fred Brooks' The Design of Design, though I haven't gotten very far just yet. I was traveling for a while, and I find that trashy SF like Zahn and Bujold makes for much better plane material than non-fiction. Still, I'm finding Brooks' latest work interesting, though perhaps not as much as his classic Mythical Man Month.
The Finer Things...
  • The best beer I've had in the past few months has been the BrewDog/Mikkeller collaboration Devine Rebel. It's pricey as hell, but if you can find a bottle of the 2009 version and if you like English Barleywines (i.e. really strong and sweet beer), it's worth every penny. I got a bottle of the 2010 version (which is apparently about 2% ABV stronger than the already strong 2009 batch) recently, but I haven't popped it open just yet.
  • My next homebrew kit, a Bavarian Hefeweizen from Northern Brewer, just came in the mail, so expect a brew-day post soon - probably next week, if all goes well. I was hoping to get that batch going a little earlier, but travel plans got in the way. Still, if this goes as planned, the beer should be hitting maturity right in the dead of summer, which is perfect for a wheat beer like this...
  • With the nice weather this weekend, I found myself craving a cigar. Not something I do very often and I really have no idea what makes for a good cigar, but I'll probably end up purchasing a few for Springtime consumption... Recommendations welcome!
That's all for now. Sorry about all the link dumps and general posting of late, but things have been busy around chez Kaedrin, so time has been pretty short. Hopefully some more substantial posting to come in the next few weeks...
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2011 at 06:36 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Upcoming SF
Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2011. Yay**. Here are the three most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:
  • Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi - It's actually been a few years since Scalzi wrote a full SF novel (and that book, Zoe's Tale, was a sorta rehash of an earlier book), so I'm greatly looking forward to this. I have not read any of the original Fuzzy series by H. Beam Piper, but apparently this novel is Scalzi's attempt at rebooting or reimagining the series. At some point, I considered going back to read the originals, but I'm confident that Scalzi's novel will be good as a standalone story, and I've really enjoyed all his SF novels. This one is set to be released on May 10, so I'll probably be picking it up soon...
  • Readme by Neal Stephenson - This should be unsurprising to readers of this blog, as this has long been an anticipated novel here at Kaedrin, even back when it was known as Reamde (still no explanation of that - I don't really buy that it was a typo...) Details about the novel are still scarce (not even a cover yet, and the publication date seems to have moved back a week), but seeing as though Stephenson is my favorite author and all, I don't really need much to get in line for this one. Currently set to be released on September 20th, I'm very much looking forward to this one.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge - The long-anticipated third novel in Vinge's loosely connected Zones of Thought series. I really loved the first two books in the series (A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky) and both of them have won major SF awards like the Hugo and Nebula. As such, expectations are high. Again, I've been avoiding details about the plot here, but my assumption is that it will only have a passing reference to the previous two novels (both of which only share one character and take place thousands of years apart). This one is set for October 11, so it looks like I'll have a busy fall, once again.
That covers the major releases that I'm looking forward to. There are, of course, some other books coming out that I might be interested in, but for now, I think the queue is full enough!

Also, just a quick administrative note, I'll be traveling this week, so probably no entry on Wednesday. I shall return next Sunday. Have a good week!

* Sarcasm!

** Not sarcasm!
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2011 at 08:35 AM .: link :.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 6
It's been a while since I followed up on my book queues (and some of the books on here weren't even on the queue, they just jumped to the top of the queue - which is probably why the queue is so long).
  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - This is one of a notable few SF novels to have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (technically this book tied with another Kaedrin favorite, Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, for the Hugo). Indeed, Willis has apparently written a few other novels in the same universe, and they seem to have racked up the awards as well. This particular installment is about time-traveling historians. Young Kivrin is travelling back to the 14th century to observe daily life. Her mentor and father-figure, Dunworthy, is against the trip from the start, as it's a dangerous era and the further back in time you travel, the less precise the technology becomes. The novel proceeds on two main timelines - One at a futuristic Oxford University, the other at a small 14th century town. This is clearly not a predictive novel - the future Oxford is quite absurd at times (in particular, the lack of communication infrastructure is ridiculous - they don't even have much in the way of telephones, let alone cell phones or the internets). I don't know enough about history to say whether or not the 14th century bits are more realistic, but they seem more appropriate. Of course, it doesn't really matter. The story is effective on its own merits, and it operates according to its own internal logic, which is quite sound. One thing I found refreshing for a time-travel story is that there is no real consideration or recursive examination of paradoxes and the like. There are some off-hand references to the fact that the time travel mechanism won't let you change the past, but there isn't much in the way of circular causality events or anything resembling that sort of time-travel pyrotechnics that you see so frequently. Indeed, Kivrin might as well have been traveling to a dangerous alien planet. That being said, the historical section plays out in an interesting fashion. I won't get into too much detail here, but I will say that diseases are involved (in both timelines) and that Willis is brutally unforgiving. Her style is prosaic, more like classical hard SF, which kinda gave me a false sense of security. But Willis managed to pull the rug out from underneath me - several times. It might not seem like it at the beginning of the novel, but this isn't a book for the faint of heart. That being said, there is a hint of redemption and hope at the very end of the novel. I enjoyed this and may someday get around to the others in the series, but I'm not exactly in a hurry to do so.
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth - Widely considered to be the best SF novel produced by the Futurians - a group of SF fans who eventually turned into editors and authors themselves, often focusing less on hard science and more on sociology and politics. This book is basically a satirical look at advertising and consumerism, and as such, it's actually still pretty relevant today (even if the specifics of technology are a bit odd at this point). The story follows an advertising copywriter, Mitch Courtenay, who gets ahold of a big new account (Venus!), and all the inter-office intrigue that he has to deal with. It goes some cliched places, but this book probably helped shape some cliches in itself. Stylistically, there's nothing special going on here, though the pages seem to turn themselves pretty quickly. It's a short book and a very easy, fun read.
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold - Bujold is one of the authors that seemed to pick up the pieces after the whole Cyberpunk thing happened, returning SF to its Cambellian origins. This is a pretty straightforward space opera, though a very well executed one that I probably enjoyed more than any of the other books in this post. The story concerns a Betan scientist named Cordelia and her encounter with Lord Vorkosigan, of the Barrayarans. At first, they are enemies, but they quickly develop into more. And of course, they are surrounded by war and conflict between their two peoples, and during the course of the story, we're treated to all sorts of deceptions and treachery. This probably makes it sound trashy, and maybe it is, but it's still great fun. This book is apparently part of a large, wide-ranging series of books. Opinions differ as to which way to read them - in order of publication, or in order of internal chronology. Either way, Shards of Honor is the start of the series (i.e. it's the first published and the first in the chronology). I've already purchased the next two internal chronology books though, and am greatly looking forward to reading them.
  • Time's Eye - A Christmas gift from my brother, and apparently also the first in a series of novels, this particular book starts out with a premise similar to Clarke's 2001. One day, a bunch of Spherical objects (i.e. objects similar in concept to the Monolith) appear on the planet, and suddenly, the planet is a jumble of times. It seems that each region of the planet (the size of the regions appear to be small, though no definites are given) has been replaced with an earlier version of itself, sometimes stretching back millions of years. As such, most of the planet is now devoid of humanity. This story concerns itself with 5 main groups of people. Two are modern (a 3-person UN Peacekeeping team and a 3-person crew of Astronauts who were orbiting the planet at the time of the event), one relatively contemporary contingent (a British regiment, circa late 19th century, stationed in India), and two ancient powers (Alexander the Great's Macedonian army, and Ghengis Khan's Mongolian hoards). If you like the concept of modern folks mixing with historical folks (i.e. what would happen if modern astronauts met up with some Mongolians? And so on...), this would be a lot of fun, and I managed to have a pretty good time with it. Ultimately, there isn't much in the way of answers here, and I've read enough Arthur C. Clarke series to know that it probably won't be completely satisfying by the end of the series, but it was an enjoyable enough read, and there is an internal struggle between the Macedonians and the Mongols that is pretty compelling. It just doesn't seem that interested in resolving the various mysteries it set up. Perhaps the future books will delve into that a bit, but I have to admit that I'm unlikely to pursue this any further.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray - I've always known that Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, but I do believe this is the first thing of his that I've read (I suppose he's more notable as a playwright, and you can see that sort of talent in this novel), and I was surprised at the density of witty remarks within the book. It seems like you can't go a page without getting some wondrous monologue, usually spoken by Lord Henry (a quasi-villain? The book certainly doesn't have a traditional conflict). You also get a long series of fantastic one-liners, such as "Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing." and "Dorian is far to wise not to do foolish things now and then," and "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us." and "Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul." Much of this is oxymoronic or nonsensical in nature, but oddly compelling nonetheless. The story is a bit on the thin side, and is really just an excuse for Wilde to run, well, wild, with his witty imagination. I suppose you could say that this isn't science fiction - it's pretty firmly in the realm of fantasy - but I'll make an exception here. It's not a particularly heartwarming tale, but there's a lot of thematic depth and as I've already mentioned, lots of witty repartee that keeps the pages turning. I wouldn't call it a favorite, but I'm really glad I read it.
And there you have it! Coming up in the queue are some more Bujold novels, perhaps some Timothy Zahn, and even though it's probably not SF, some Thomas Pynchon for good measure. I may also need to do a Non-Fiction book review soon, as I've been reading a lot of that lately too...
Posted by Mark on March 20, 2011 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

More SF Pet Peeves
Sunday's post on the Unquestioned Assumptions of SF was a little strange as the post I was referencing was really more about pet peeves than unquestioned assumptions, so I figured that I should rename this post to add my own pet peeves to Matt Johnsons's list. So without further ado:
  • Aliens That Aren't Really Alien: Most alien species you see in SF are basically humans with weird ears or bumps on their forehead. In other words, they're just humans with superficial differences. Sure many of them will have strange customs or psychological ticks, but most of the time, such differences aren't even as severe as cultural differences here on earth. The most egregious violator of this is Star Trek. Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans... they're all just humans with various traits magnified (impatient aggression, steadfast logic, and passionate cunning, respectively). One notable exception in the world of film is Alien (though sequels tend to diminish the more alien qualities). In the world of literature, the big exception is Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books, A Fire Upon The Deep (reviewed on this blog a while back) and A Deepness in the Sky (which I also wrote about once). Fire's wolflike aliens, in particular, were great examples of what is possible, but rarely even attempted in SF. Regardless, examples of human-like alien races far outweigh the truly alien aliens in SF, and that's always bothered me. To be sure, this does present something of a challenge to authors, as it requires them to think in ways unaccustomed to humans.
  • Monolithic Planet Ecologies: Star Wars is particularly bad in this respect - the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc... The thought of an entire planet with only one type of climate almost boggles the mind. I'm sure there are some planets like this, but if Star Wars was any indication, every planet has one and only one dominant climate. Sometimes this sort of conceit can be used to good effect, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, but it's still a pet peeve of mine.
  • Language: Rarely is language used as anything more than simple flavor in a story with alien species. Most of the time there is some sort of unexplained technology, typically called the "Universal Translator" or something, that will automatically translate alien languages. Rarely does the translation aspect receive any scrutiny. At best, we get some sort of throwaway reference to the universal translator, then the story moves on to other things. If you think of the way all the various human languages interact with one another and the inadequacies of translations, it seems really unlikely that alien species would even come close to being easily understood. For instance, human translators working to convert a text from one human language to another aren't working in a vacuum - they bring their own cultural and historical context into the picture when translating that text. Take a Greek word like pathos; there isn't really a single English word that corresponds with what Pathos represents. You rarely get that sort of depth in SF. One notable exception to this is Mary Doria Russell's exceptional novel, The Sparrow. The novel has many themes, but the way it uses language to precipitate a tragic outcome is unsurpassed. Interestingly, Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash has a more thorough exploration of the nature of language than most stories with alien species (and Snow Crash doesn't even feature any aliens!)
  • Artificial Gravity: Another concept often relegated to a throwaway reference, there exists a lot of potential here that goes untapped. It's not so much that it's impossible to control gravity as that if we had that ability, the applications would extend far beyond being able to stand on the floor of a spaceship. Implications for weaponry are enormous, and energy manipulation in general seems ripe for this sort of technology. But no, we'll just use it to simulate earth level gravity, thanks. I guess tractor beams could be explained in such a way, and a lot of SF does at least attempt to account for this by explaining that the spaceship is spinning in such a way as to simulate earth gravity, but it's still a bothersome trope.
I think that's all for now. I was going to write one for manned interstellar travel, but that topic is just too large (for example, it encompasses FTL travel, which is, in itself, a rather large subject) for a quick paragraph (Nevertheless, the way interstellar travel is depicted in SF is often tiresome and thoroughly unrealistic - one notable exception, Greg Egan's Diaspora). One interesting thing about writing this post that I didn't really expect were the number of exceptions to each of the above pet peeves. It turns out that there are a lot of books that really do address these issues (perhaps another reason why the phrase "Unquestioned Assumptions" is not appropriate for this discussion).
Posted by Mark on September 01, 2010 at 09:27 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Unquestioned Assumptions
Matthew Johnson lists out several Unquestioned Assumptions of Science Fiction. It's an interesting list, though it suffers from the same problems all lists suffer from: I don't agree with some of them, and I think there are some rather notable omissions. So let's get started:
  • Bionics: Johnson is basically saying that we have seen no evidence that a superhuman bionic man/woman could be created. He mentions the increasingly sophisticated use of prosthetics, but is correct in noting that there are weak spots in that chain, and thus someone with a bionic arm won't really be guaranteed any advantage unless they become one of them full-replacement cyborgs from Ghost in the Shell. I'll admit that SF has probably gotten a lot of this wrong, but there's much more to bionics than just superhuman beings. In a more general sense, bionics is about applying natural biological systems and methods to the engineering of electronic or mechanical technology. And in general, this is something we've already done a lot of (for instance, velcro and lots of flight related innovations derived from birds). Even in terms of medicine, stuff like cochlear implants are rapidly approaching the point where the deaf can hear better than unmodified humans (there are, of course, other drawbacks to this). I know nanotechnology is used as a form of magic in some movies, but there is a ton of potential there. And something like a Respirocyte could theoretically result in "superhuman" powers simply by increasing the amount of oxygen stored in red blood cells. So no, I don't see the bionic man or woman anytime soon, but I don't think it's an unreasonable topic for SF.
  • Uploading, or cloning for that matter: Johnson notes that this isn't impossible, just that they're also not "any kind of ticket to immortality for the simple reason that neither an uploaded version of your mind nor a clone with all your memories is you: they are both copies of you". This is an excellent point, and I do believe he's very right. While I'm willing to go along with the ride in a book like John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I seriously doubt the subjective experience would be anything like what Scalzi describes (he handwaves the whole thing by explaining that consciousness is transferred, so it's like a cut-and-paste, as oposed to a copy-and-paste - there's nothing left in the old body. I can see how that sort of thing would be appealing to people though.) Interestingly, Scalzi proposes something completely different in The Android's Dream, where the artificial consciousness is most definitely a copy (and we're never entirely sure how good that copy really is). Anyway, Johnson does wonder why anyone would even want to do such a thing, and I do take a bit of an issue with that. I'll expand on this later in the post, but interstellar space travel seems much more hospitable to some sort of electronic being than it does to biological lifeforms (again, more on this later). Another reason, assuming that the artificial construct can sustain creative thought, it might be nice to keep some folks around after they are gone. Maybe that would be a disaster - maybe Einstein would be a tremendous douchebag if he were still alive in mechanical form today, but it's probably something worth trying. In the end, I certainly wouldn't call this an unquestioned assumption. There exist lots of counter-examples, including the recently reviewd Diaspora, where artificial consciousness seems to have lots of advantages over biology (more on this in a bit).
  • Sensors: I completely agree with Johnson here. The non-trivial challenges to sensors are numerous and I don't see them ever working the way they're portrayed on tv or in movies (books tend to be better, but still).
  • Space Combat: Another one I mostly agree with, especially given the way it's portrayed in most SF. This is a topic already covered on this blog (and others mentioned my post) years ago, so I'll leave it at that. I do think there's a fantastic movie to be made in the mold of The Enemy Below, but in space and with realistic physics (with some handwaving around the energy and motivational aspects of the whole thing - it could be entertaining, but it probably couldn't be wholly accurate).
  • Sol III: Quite frankly, I don't think I've ever seen this one before. The convention of naming the star, and then each planet around the star getting a number (i.e. the eighth planet orbiting the star Omicron Persei is referred to as Omicron Persei 8) does seem common, though I don't find it all that troubling. I can see how it would be a pet peeve of someone though.
So that covers Johnson's list. There are, of course, lots of omissions here. Perhaps I'll cover those in a later post.
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2010 at 07:56 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

SF Book Review, Part 5
Still working my way through the book queue, here are a few SF books I've read recently. [See also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: One way to divvy up the various scientific disciplines is to make a distinction between hard science (natural sciences like physics) and soft science (social sciences like psychology). Given this popular notion, it thus follows that science fiction is also divided in such a way, with hard science fiction focusing on the nuts-and-bolts details of technology and science (and stories that progress in a logical fashion), and soft science fiction focusing much less on science (if there's any science at all) and more human behavior. Of course, given a specific SF story, it will probably fall somewhere around inbetween these two arbitrary poles. However, Greg Egan's Diaspora veers strongly in the direction of hard SF and rarely looks back. This is most certainly not a book for beginners, but if you don't mind lengthy discussions of mathematics, geometry, particle physics, and even more complicated notions, then this is the book for you.

    The story begins about a thousand years from now. Humanity has fragmented considerably. Some, called statics, exist mostly in the same way we do today. Others are still made of flesh and bone, but have been genetically augmented, sometimes in quite thorough ways. There are Gleisner robots, which are individual AI beings that nevertheless choose to mostly operate in the physical world via mechanical bodies. And finally, there are polises, which are basically networks of distinct artificial consciousnesses. Most citizens of a polis were uploaded from a human, but there are occasionally "orphans", which are citizens that are created without any ancestor. The main character of the book is Yatima, an orphan, and most of the action is told from the point of view of polis citizens, which is interesting because said citizens can't quite be categorized as human. Indeed, Egan uses gender-neutral pronouns (Ve, Vis, Ver) to refer to most citizens (there are some recent converts that cling to their original gender).

    The setting alone provides a rich space for speculation and exploration, but once the basics of the universe are settled, Egan starts to throw various crises at our characters, and that's when things start to get really interesting. I won't go into detail here, but Egan has crafted an exceptionally ambitious tale here. The scope and scale of the story grows exponentially, with Egan casually skipping past hundreds or thousands of years at a time and by the end, time pretty much ceases to have much meaning. This is audacious stuff, and probably the "hardest" SF I've ever read (again, this is not "hard" in a sense of difficulty, just in the way science is treated). It's not all "hard" stuff, of course. It still exists on that continuum, it's just way more hard than it is soft. There's a lot of depth to this book, and a short blog post like this isn't even beginning to scratch the surface of the ideas and issues that arise out of the paradigm that Egan has set up (I've already written a bit of a deeper exploration of some ideas, but there are lots of other things that could be fleshed out). For the purposes of this post, I'll just say that this is among the most ambitious and audacious SF novels I've ever read, and if you're not scared away by a little (ok, a lot of) math, it is definitely worth a read.
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke: Since The Matrix came out in 1999, I've often found myself recognizing bits and pieces of other media as being part of the formula that created The Matrix. Indeed, one of the big reasons the movie is so great is that it pulls on a large number of diverse sources and mashes them together into something seemingly new and exciting. Of course, it's not, and that's why I keep seeing pieces of it, even in 60 year old novels like The City and the Stars. The story takes place about a billion years in the future, in an insular city named Diaspar. No one has left or come into the city for as long as anyone can remember, and most citizens have lived many lives within the city. It's a sort of utopia, and most of its residents are perfectly content. However, there is one man, a "unique" in that he has had no past lives, who doesn't fear the universe outside the city. He makes plans to exit the city to see what he can find, but it seems that no one even really knows how to leave. To accomplish his task, he enlists the help of "the Jester", and this is where the Matrix series really takes from.
    Long ago it had been discovered that without some crime or disorder, Utopia soon became unbearably dull. Crime, however, from the nature of things, could not be guaranteed to remain at the optimum level which the social equation demanded. If it was licensed and regulated, it ceased to be crime.

    The office of Jester was the solution - at first sight naive, yet actually profoundly subtle - which the city had evolved. ... On rare and unforeseeable occasions, the Jester would turn the city upside-down by some prank which might be no more than an elaborate practical joke, or which might be a calculated assault on some currently cherished belief or way of life. All things considered, the name "Jester" was a highly appropriate one. There had once been med with very similar duties, operating with the same license, in the days when there were courts and kings.
    (Sound familiar? On the other hand, Clarke himself was clearly drawing on longstanding traditions himself.) Then we find out that this "unique" is actually part of a long line of "uniques", only this time, things are different. He opts to go further and do more than any other unique, and he essentially breaks down the walls of the city (sorry, I guess that's a spoiler, but it's necessary to keep up the comparison to The Matrix, and in specific Neo). It's a really wonderful SF book and it's aged pretty well. There are some inconsistencies and Clarke's prose might strike some modern readers as being a bit sparse, but that's characteristic of the era in which he was writing. The ideas are great and thought provoking, and that's what a good SF book needs.
  • Conquerors' Pride by Timothy Zahn: Zahn has been the workhorse of my SF reading over the past few years. I can always count on Zahn to turn the pages and trot out some interesting ideas along the way, which is more than you can say for a lot of supposedly better written novels. I actually read this series about 15 years ago when they came out, but I wanted to re-read them, as I remember enjoying the books a lot, but some of the things I liked back then aren't as great as I remember. I'm happy to report that this series is about as good as I remember. This book is the first in the series, and it begins as a first contact story. Things don't go well, as the alien ships immediately attack, quickly obliterating an entire human fleet (in a ruthless move, they even attack escape pods). So now humans are at war with a new and deadly species, and the Cavanagh family is caught in the middle. When Commander Pheylan Cavanagh is captured by the aliens, his family leaps into action to mount a rescue mission. What follows is another compelling Space Opera from Zahn, whose storytelling skills have never been better. I have some minor complaints about some of the plot details, but it's otherwise an above average page-turner. Being the first in a series can sometimes be a challenge, but Zahn finds a way to end this one in a satisfying fashion.
  • Conquerors' Heritage by Timothy Zahn: The second book in the series is interesting in that it is told entirely from the perspective of the "Conquerors" (i.e. that aliens). This does tend to slow things down a bit, but that's common in the middle book of a series, and at least Zahn does keep things moving forward by continuing where we left off in the last book (i.e. he doesn't retell the first book from another perspective, he keeps progressing the story.) Switching perspectives makes for an interesting plot device, though I guess you could call it gimmicky, and like a lot of alien species in SF, it seems like these are just humans with slightly different faces and sharp tongues. There is one social component that is unique though, which is that Conquerors have something called a Fsss organ. After a Conqueror's body dies, they live on in an incorporeal form that is tied to the fsss organ. If you split the organ in two, the spirit can move between the two cuttings nearly instantaneously, which gives the Conquerors FTL communication capabilities. This is an interesting idea, and Zahn plays a bit with the social and psychological consequences of such a system. Since there's a whole book dedicated to their perspective, I guess it's not a spoiler to say that we're meant to have a sympathetic relationship with even the Conquerors (who, ironically, refer to the humans as Conquerors as well), though saying how Zahn pulls it off would most certainly be a spoiler. In the end, it's a solid middle entry and it moves the story forward, albeit not as quickly as the first book (I still managed to read it in only a couple of days, so it's still a page turner).
  • Conquerors' Legacy by Timothy Zahn: The final book in the series is told from mixture of perspectives, and now that Zahn has all the pieces in place, he drives the plot forward quickly and relentlessly. I don't want to give anything away here, but it's got a satisfying ending and most of what I said about the first two books apply to this one as well. It's a fast-paced, page-turning conclusing to a solid Space Opera series. This isn't deep or overly hard SF, but it's an above-average SF tale and well worth reading if you like this sort of thing.
I'm currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and have a few others to finish up from my current book queue. My next book post will probably be about non-fiction books though, as there are a few I've read and some others on the queue that I'd like to finish off.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2010 at 08:12 PM .: link :.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Clockwork Orange Fallacy
I've been reading a science fiction novel called Diaspora, by Greg Egan. The novel is initially set about a thousand years in the future, which is enough time to allow Egan to postulate all sorts of things without really having to explicitly delve into the morality of gene-splicing or consciousness transferral, etc... However, those sorts of questions emerge anyway because we, the readers, are still living our contemporary lives, where these issues are as relevant as ever.

The novel begins in a "Polis", which is basically a network of artificial consciousnesses. Some of these are humans who have uploaded themselves, others are entirely artificial. Alternatively, there were apparently a lot of people who transferred themselves into human-shaped robots called Gleisners. Regular human beings are still around, and they're referred to as "Fleshers" (for obvious reasons). At this point, there are tons of genetically altered humans, to the point where many of the variants can no longer communicate with one another (another class of humans, calling themselves "Bridgers" have been bred specifically to solve the problem of communication). Humans without any sort of genetic tampering are referred to as "Statics", and don't seem to be doing well.

In the story, the industrious but apparently suspicious gleisners have discovered an odd astrophysical event which could prove disasterous to Earth (at least, to its fleshers). Two of the characters go down to the planet to warn the fleshers, but they're met with paranoia and disbelief. One of the characters, Yatima, is a completely random mutation from a polis (he has no "parents", even artificial ones), and he (or, I should say "ve" as they seem to be quasi-asexual, though even the artificial pronouns sometimes seem to have a gender connotation, but that's a different discussion) is having some trouble understanding the objections to his suggestion that anyone who wants to can upload themselves to his Polis. In the scene below, he's speaking with a static human and Francesca, who is a human bridger.
He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’

Even with the language graft, Yatima could make little sense of this, and the translation into Modern Roman was equally opaque. Ve dredged the library for clarification; half the speech seemed to consist of references to a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators.

Ve whispered to Francesca, dismayed, ‘I thought religion was long gone, even among the statics.’

‘God is dead, but the platitudes linger.’ Yatima couldn’t bring verself to ask whether torture and slavery also lingered, but Francesca seemed to read vis face, and added, ‘Including a lot of confused rhetoric about free will. Most statics aren’t violent, but they view the possibility of atrocities as essential for virtue - what philosophers call “the Clockwork Orange fallacy”. So in their eyes, autonomy makes the polises a kind of amoral hell, masquerading as Eden.’ (page 119 in my edition)
The reference to A Clockwork Orange was interesting, as this isn't a novel that's been filled with pop culture references, but the concept itself is a common theme in SF (and, for that matter, philosophy). It's not hard to see why, especially when it comes to something like a Polis. What does morality mean in a Polis? A consciousness living in a Polis is essentially living in an entirely virtual environment - there are minimal physical limits, property doesn't really exist as a concept, and so on. The inhabitants of any given Polis are modeled after humans, in a fashion, and yet many of our limitations are not applicable. Some polises have a profound respect for the physical world around them. Others have retreated into their virtual reality, some going as far as abandoning the laws of physics altogether in an effort to better understand the elegance of mathematics. Would it be moral to upload yourself into a Polis? Or would that be the cowards way out and represent the evasion of responsibility that free will provides? Would one still have a free will if their consciousness was run by a computer? Once in a Polis, is it necessary to respect the external, natural world? Could anything be gained from retreating into pure mathematics? Egan doesn't quite address these issues directly, but this sort of indirect exploration of technological advancement is one of the things that the genre excels at.

Strangely, one of the things that seems to take on a more dangerous tone in the world of Diaspora is the concept of a meme (for more on this, check out this post by sd). The way ideas are transmitted and replicated among humans isn't especially well understood, but it can certainly be dangerous. Egan is pretty clearly coming down against the humans who don't want to escape to the Polis (to avoid disaster), and he seems to blame their attitude on "a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators". This sort of thing seems even more dangerous to an artificial consciousness though, and Egan even gives an example. These AI consciousnesses can run a non-sentient program called an "outlook" which will monitor the consciousness and adjust it to maintain a certain set of values (in essence, it's Clockwork Orange software). In the story, one character shows Yatima what's happened to their outlook:
It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it, you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.
I find this sort of thing terrifying. It's almost the AI equivalent to being a zombie. If you take on this outlook, why even bother existing in the first place? I guess ignorance is bliss...

In case you can't tell, I'm very much enjoying Diaspora. I'm still not finished, but I only have a little more than a hundred pages left. It's not much of a page turner, but that's more because I have to stop every now and again to consider various questions that have arisen than lack of quality (though I will note that Egan is probably not a gateway SF author - he certainly doesn't shy away from the technical, even in extremes). I'll probably be posting more when I finish the book...
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2010 at 07:52 PM .: link :.

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