Neal Stephenson

Clang

So this is old and indeed, the Kickstarter for Clang has already ended (funding successful!), but there’s some interesting stuff going on here beyond the typical Kickstarter stories. This was a campaign to raise money for an accurate sword fighting video game, one that would rely on motion controls. This seems soooo 5 years ago at this point, but on the other hand, if someone actually made this game 5 years ago, motion controls might not be the joke they are right now. That’s interesting, right? Alright, fine, you caught me. My interest in this originates more from Neal Stephenson’s involvement than anything else. Here, check out this funny, detailed pitch:

There’s actually a bunch of other interesting videos explaining some of the detailed thought behind why they want to make this game. I particularly enjoyed the one talking about how comprehensive our selection of guns are in games and how people argue over the minutia of gun combat, but sword based games have a depressing lack of options.

It might seem odd that a science fiction novelist is making a video game based on swordplay, but then again, this is a guy who wrote a book about a sword-wielding pizza delivery ninja. It also seems to be an outgrowth from one of his other interesting projects: a collaborative, interactive publishing system optimized for digital devices. I still haven’t gotten around to reading The Mongoliad, but it’s making its way up the queue.

Anyways, there’s been some interesting interviews about the project and he even did a Q&A on Reddit recently which was pretty fun. It’s all well and good, but I’m glad his involvement in this stuff seems to be winding down. I’m sure I’ll keep tabs on Clang and the Mongoliad, but in the end, I’m really a fan of Stephenson’s writing, so I’m looking forward to a new book… at some point.

Link Dump

I’m gonna be taking a trip to The Cabin in The Woods tonight, so time is sparse, thus some linkys for you:

  • In Defense of Microsoft Word – Aziz makes a nice argument in response to incessant whinging on the internets:

    It’s certainly true that using Word for simple text like email or blog posts is overkill, in much the same way that using a jet engine to drive your lawnmower is overkill. What’s peculiar is that rather than using simpler tools for their simpler tasks, these people have declared that the more complex and capable tool is “obsolete” and “must die”. This attitude betrays a type of phobia towards technology that I suspect has grown more prevalent as our technology interfaces have become increasingly more “dumbed down”.

    I mostly agree with Aziz. While I haven’t used Word (or a Word processor in general) in my personal life in years, I use it every day at work, and the notion that you can’t use Word to collaborate is bonkers. It may not be the best tool for that, but it’s certainly not something that needs to die. An interesting post…

  • Books: Bits vs. Atoms – Those who have enjoyed my recent bloviating about ebooks will probably get a kick out of this… better organized… take on the subject (that being said, we cover a lot of the same ground).
  • What Amazon’s ebook strategy means – Speaking of ebooks, Charlie Stross clearly lays out why Amazon is dominating the ebook market, how the publishers shot themselves in the foot by practically insisting that Amazon dominate the market, why it’s a bad situation to be in, and how publishers can take some steps in the right direction. Hint: get rid of DRM, you dummies! There’s a lot of lawsuits and wanking in the book and ebook industry right now, and it’s tempting to take sides with Amazon or the publishers or Apple or whoever, but the more I read about it, the more I think that everyone is to blame. So far, this hasn’t really impacted us consumers that much, but it certainly could. Here’s to hoping these folks get their heads bolted on straight in the near future.
  • Neal Stephenson has a hard time talking about swordplay – Normally I find “trailers” for books to be mildly embarrassing (the trailer for Stephenson’s Anathem is a particularly bad example), but this one is pretty funny. No idea how much of it will be represented in the forthcoming paperback release of The Mongoliad, but still.
  • Gabe’s PAX Post – Gabe from Penny Arcade helps run huge video game conventions that are explicitely targeted towards players (most conventions are about general technology or development, and are targeted towards journalists or developers). As one of the creators and organizers, Gabe has to deal with all sorts of crap, and he covers a few of these, including a little prank he played on a troll, and a vexing problem concerning boobies (aka the perennial Booth Babe issue). Read the whole thing, but the key graph is this:

    How about all of you that hate me get together and have your own conference. I need you to decide if half naked girls are empowered or exploited because I’m doing my fucking best here and it’s apparently always wrong. I swear to God I don’t understand how I’m supposed to know if I’m promoting the patriarchy or criminalizing the female body.

    As Steven notes, this is a cry for help. I wish I had answers, but fortunately, I’m not in Gabe’s position. I can just treat people equally and be happy with that.

That’s all for now. Also, go Flyers.

Reamde

Neal Stephenson wasn’t particularly successful early in his career. I imagine having trouble for a few years is rather common amongst successful authors, and obviously Stephenson has gone on to establish himself as a big name, especially in the nerdy science fiction community. But, as he snarkily wrote in his author bio on my copy of Snow Crash:

His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists.

While writing Snow Crash, Stephenson started looking into other options. Because who would want to read a book where a hacker/pizza delivery boy/cyber-ninja researches Sumerian mythology and linguistics theory? In an old interview, he comments on his career thusly:

I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, ‘Let’s give this a try.’ The whole idea was that ‘Stephen Bury’ would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I’ve written them. It just goes to show there’s no point in trying to plan your career.

Indeed! I actually rather enjoyed the Stephen Bury books, and they actually presage Reamde in their thriller genre roots. But Stephenson has gone on to write impenetrable books that have become quite popular amongst a certain type of geek (i.e. me). Unfortunately, this presents something of a problem. Long time readers of this blog know that I’m a huge fan of Stephenson, but in reality, I’ve never actually met a person that really loves his books (the online world is another story). This makes it quite difficult to recommend my favorite novels to other people, because I generally know they’re not going to like it (I generally settle on Snow Crash as a recommendation, but there are things about that book that often don’t go over well with normal folks). In particular, Cryptonomicon (which is my favorite novel) seems to polarize readers. Shamus describes the phenomenon best:

In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.

Similarly, The Baroque Cycle (basically a 2700 page prequel to Cryptonomicon) is not a series for normal people. The subjects are similar, but weighted differently. Much less programming, and much more history and monetary theory. Anathem probably appeals to folks who love Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, with some linguistics thrown in for fun. The common factor with all of this is that Stephenson’s books aren’t particularly accessible to mainstream audiences. Thus it’s hard to find a way to introduce people to his work.

Enter Reamde, Stephenson’s latest and most accessible novel. Well, accessible for folks who don’t mind reading 1000+ page novels. Ironically, this accessibility seems to have garnered the only real complaints about the book. Which isn’t to say that people don’t like the book. Reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive, but the one thing that comes up again and again is that it’s “just a thriller.” It is not a novel that plumbs the depths of technology or philosophy, nor does it wrestle with big questions the way a lot of Stephenson’s other works do. For my part, I finished it a few weeks ago and find myself thinking about it often. This isn’t to say that I think there’s something profound going on beneath the surface, but who knows? Maybe a second reading will unearth something more. But then, I don’t really need it to be a profound life-changing book. It’s a page-turning thriller written with wit and humor, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Stephenson’s fans will certainly not be bored. Despite the fact that many seem to enjoy the inaccessibility of his earlier novels, I do think there are plenty of Stephensonian digressions that will keep fans interested. Take, for instance, “The Apostropocalypse”, wherein one of our main characters explains how two writers he hired to provide background material for his video game argued over the semiotics of fantasy naming conventions. The video game itself is rather cleverly designed, and Stephenson spends a lot of time describing its mechanics, allowing him to delve into geography, monetary theory and the practice of gold farming in MMORPGs. Stephenson even addresses how this game came to compete with World of Warcraft by catering to the Chinese market. Later in the novel, there’s an interesting digression into how great circle routes work. These are things that Stephenson excels at, and there’s certainly a lot to chew on here. He’s taken standard genre tropes and overlaid his own style, ultimately elevating this book from much of its competition.

The basics of the plot itself are rather straightforward. Richard Forthrast is one of our primary characters. He was a draft-dodger who figured out a way to cross the Canadian border undetected, parlayed that knowledge into marijuana smuggling, then turned legit serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is a fantasy MMORPG video game called T’Rain, and it’s become quite successful. He’s hired his niece, Zula Forthrast, to work for his company. As circumstances would have it, Zula ends up getting kidnapped by Russian mobsters who are afflicted with a virus from the game (this virus has locked up the mobsters’ monetary livelyhood). Pissed off to no ends, these Russian mobsters want Zula to help find the virus writers (no doubt Chinese kids) so that revenge can be exacted. Along the way, we run into a lively cast of characters, including a group of Jihadis (who eventually become the main villains of the novel), a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese mountain-girl, the Chinese kid who wrote the virus, an MI6 agent, and, of course, a badass Russian security consultant. The terrorists want to kill lots of people, and most of the other folks want to stop them. Typical thriller stuff, I guess, but done with more nuance than you’d normally expect.

As characters go, the Forthrast clan, Iowa natives, will strike most Stephenson fans as being familiar. Not quite Waterhouses (from Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle), but Richard certainly leans in that direction. The Forthrasts also bear a resemblance to the family clan in The Cobweb. Sokolov, the Russian security consultant, is more of a Shaftoe kinda guy. This isn’t to say that the novel is completely derivative of Stephenson’s earlier novels – there are plenty of wholly new characters, and I generally enjoyed most of them. Depth seems to be reserved more for the Forthrasts, Richard and Zula, while the others are more surface-level affairs, but they’re generally a likable bunch. And they’re all pretty damn competent too. Indeed, most of the time, they’re downright Sherlockian. Take this quick sequence, in which Sokolov deduces what’s happening from very little information:

Sokolov retrieved his spare clip and other goods from the wreckage now strewn around the conference table, but paused on his way out of the suite to shine his flashlight over the dead man’s face. He was ethnic Chinese.

Why had they taken his clothes?

Because something about them made them useful.

A uniform. The guy was a cop, or a security guard.

Thought processes like these are peppered throughout the book, and our intrepid heros and nefarious villains are all pretty damn good at this form of deduction.

The book does start off a bit on the slower side, and you’re not really sure where it’s going until about 50 pages in, when things kick into high gear and don’t really let up for about 600 or so pages, and even then, there is only a brief respite as various characters are maneuvered to the ultimate showdown. And there are a lot of concurrent storylines being maintained here, much moreso than Stephenson’s recent work. He may not have been shooting for profundity when writing this novel, but he sure amped up the complexity, to the point where calling it “just a thriller” doesn’t do it much justice. I’m not a particularly accomplished thriller reader, but I from what I have read, this is far more complex and adroit than I would have expected. And it’s funny too.

She picked up her phone, navigated to the “Recent Calls” list, and punched in Richard Forthrast’s number.

It rang a few times. But then finally his voice came on the line. “British spy chick,” he said.

“Is that how you think of me?”

“Can you think of a better description?”

“You didn’t like my fake name?”

“Already forgot it. You’re in my phone directory as British Spy Chick.”

And then there’s this bit, from perhaps the funniest chapter in the book:

How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?

After which we get to witness a hysterical chain of emails with two spys basically berating one another while getting actual espionage work done. Great stuff.

There were perhaps a couple of times where the MMORPG side of the story seemed a bit incongruous, like maybe Stephenson was writing about it for its own sake rather than advancing the story, but he manages to tie it all together by the end. Stephenson sometimes gets dinged by folks for his digressions and his endings, but this is a tight novel, and the ending is an epic gunfight ranging over a hundred pages (or maybe even more). There’s even a chapter of wrapping things up. Another minor complaint is that Stephenson seemed to go to extreme lengths to get his characters romantically paired up. Actually, I didn’t really mind it, but at the same time, I did find it a bit odd in at least a couple of cases (Alex mentioned that it may be a preemptive strike against fan fiction authors who would pair the characters up, but if that’s the case, then I actually kinda hate it. I think it’s really just that Stephenson likes his characters and wants to see them together…)

Ultimately, it’s a fantastic novel and I loved it. This should not surprise you, as I tend to love all of his novels, but as a longtime fan of Stephenson, it is really nice to be able to point to a book that anyone could read and enjoy without being scared away by weird SF tropes, mathematics, obscure history, detailed monetary theory, existential philosophy, the creation of a new vocabulary that is similar, but not quite the same as ours, etc… There’s enough Stephensonian digressions into obscure topics that it will give a new reader a nice introduction to Stephenson without drowning them, and I appreciate that because while I love Snow Crash (the book I used to recommend as a place to start with Stephenson), it’s got a few things that seem to turn off “normal” people. As for the accessibility issue, I don’t really get that as a complaint. No, the book hasn’t changed my life, but few do, and I don’t think all art needs to be like that. Indeed, artists often overreach when they try to shoehorn “profound” into a story that doesn’t need it. And this story doesn’t. What it needs is action and thrills and laughs, which are present in abundance. It’s an excellent book, and a good introduction to Stephenson. For those who aren’t scared of long books, that is…

Update: Otakun comments with some interesting MMORPG perspectives.

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!

Link Dump

Doing a bit of belated Spring Cleaning and computer upkeep this weekend, so not a ton of time. Thus, links:

  • The clapper for Inglourious Basterds was very creative – Funny behind the scenes clip. Strangely, there appears to be a method to her madness…
  • The Magic On/Off Box – It starts off amusing, then things escalate. Excellent choice of music.
  • Pendulum Waves – Mesmerizing.
  • Radio Controlled Superhero – Looks surprisingly real.
  • China used prisoners in lucrative internet gaming work – Sadly intriguing:

    Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for “illegally petitioning” the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.

    The process of grinding out credits in online gaming is referred to as “Gold Farming” and there’s a surprisingly large black market for this sort of thing. Don’t want to actually work to get up to Level 70 in WoW? Just buy a character! Interestingly, the subject of Gold Farming looks to be a big part of Neal Stephenson’s forthcoming Reamde… (hat tip Haibane.info)

  • US & UK Covers Unveiled for Neal Stephenson’s Reamde – Speaking of which, the covers for Reamde have recently been released. A close look at the US cover and the way the letters in Reamde are colored indicates that it is indeed a play on the frequently used computer filename, readme (the icon on the US version also helps). I rather like the minimalist nature of the US version, but the UK version is… awful. I’m not entirely sure why the US version feels the need to triple-hyphenate the name “Stephenson”, but whatever.
  • Tips on Using the Toilet – I’ve created a special delicious tag for videos like this: “idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo” (In this case, it’s not disgusting or even really that weird. It’s just, like, too earnest. Or something.)

That’s all for now. Have a good holiday.

Reamde

Back in March, I posted about Neal Stephenson’s new novel:

Not long after the release of Anathem, it was announced that Neal Stephenson’s next novel was due in 2011 and would be titled “Reamde”. The computer geeks among Stephenson’s fans (which is to say, most of Stephenson’s fans) were quick to wonder if the title was really supposed to be “Readme”, a common name for help or pre-installation files on computers, but everyone insisted that it “wasn’t a typo”. Well, a couple of days ago, I see on Tombstone that HarperCollins has now listed the book on their site… as Readme. So was it a typo all along, or are the new listings (also on booksellers like Amazon) the actual typo?

Well, as it turns out, the new listings actually were a typo. I don’t know when it was corrected, but the book is now listed as Reamde everywhere. Also, on another Harper Collins site, there’s a plot synopsis:

Four decades ago, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa family, fled to a wild and lonely mountainous corner of British Columbia to avoid the draft. Smuggling backpack loads of high-grade marijuana across the border into Northern Idaho, he quickly amassed an enormous and illegal fortune. With plenty of time and money to burn, he became addicted to an online fantasy game in which opposing factions battle for power and treasure in a vast cyber realm. Like many serious gamers, he began routinely purchasing viral gold pieces and other desirables from Chinese gold farmers— young professional players in Asia who accumulated virtual weapons and armor to sell to busy American and European buyers.

For Richard, the game was the perfect opportunity to launder his aging hundred dollar bills and begin his own high-tech start up—a venture that has morphed into a Fortune 500 computer gaming group, Corporation 9592, with its own super successful online role-playing game, T’Rain. But the line between fantasy and reality becomes dangerously blurred when a young gold farmer accidently triggers a virtual war for dominance—and Richard is caught at the center.

Fans of Stephenson will notice tons of overlap with his previous work. Gold, virtual money, virtual worlds, etc… The blurb isn’t exactly a barn burner, but if Stephenson is writing it, I’m reading it. It seems to have also been pushed back to September 20. It can’t come soon enough.

Unnecessary Gadgets

So the NY Times has an article debating the necessity of the various gadgets. The argument here is that we’re seeing a lot of convergence in tech devices, and that many technologies that once warranted a dedicated device are now covered by something else. Let’s take a look at their devices, what they said, and what I think:

  • Desktop Computer – NYT says to chuck it in favor of laptops. I’m a little more skeptical. Laptops are certainly better now than they’ve ever been, but I’ve been hearing about desktop-killers for decades now and I’m not even that old (ditto for thin clients, though the newest hype around the “cloud” computing thing is slightly more appealing – but even that won’t supplant desktops entirely). I think desktops will be here to stay. I’ve got a fair amount of experience with both personal and work laptops, and I have to say that they’re both inferior to desktops. This is fine when I need to use the portability, but that’s not often enough to justify some of the pain of using laptops. For instance, I’m not sure what kinda graphics capabilities my work laptop has, but it really can’t handle my dual-monitor setup, and even on one monitor, the display is definitely crappier than my old desktop (and that thing was ancient). I do think we’re going to see some fundamental changes in the desktop/laptop/smartphone realm. The three form factors are all fundamentally useful in their own way, but I’d still expect some sort of convergence in the next decade or so. I’m expecting that smartphones will become ubiquitous, and perhaps become some sort of portable profile that you could use across your various devices. That’s a more long term thing though.
  • High Speed Internet at Home – NYT says to keep it, and I agree. Until we can get a real 4G network (i.e. not the slightly enhanced 3G stuff the current telecom companies are peddling), there’s no real question here.
  • Cable TV – NYT plays the “maybe” card on this one, but I think i can go along with that. It all depends on whether you watch TV or not (and/or if you enjoy live TV, like sporting events). I’m on the fence with this one myself. I have cable, and a DVR does make dealing with broadcast television much easier, and I like the opportunities afforded by OnDemand, etc… But it is quite expensive. If I ever get into a situation where I need to start pinching pennies, Cable is going to be among the first things to go.
  • Point and Shoot Camera – NYT says to lose it in favor of the smartphone, and I probably agree. Obviously there’s still a market for dedicated high-end cameras, but the small point-and-click ones are quickly being outclassed by their fledgling smartphone siblings. My current iPhone camera is kinda crappy (2 MP, no flash), but even that works ok for my purposes. There are definitely times when I wish I had a flash or better quality, but they’re relatively rare and I’ve had this phone for like 3 years now (probably upgrading this summer). My next camera will most likely meet all my photography needs.
  • Camcorder – NYT says to lose it, and that makes a sort of sense. As they say, camcorders are getting squeezed from both ends of the spectrum, with smartphones and cheap flip cameras on one end, and high end cameras on the other. I don’t really know much about this though. I’m betting that camcorders will still be around, just not quite as popular as before.
  • USB Thumb Drive – NYT says lose it, and I think I agree, though not necessarily for the same reasons. They think that the internet means you don’t need to use physical media to transfer data anymore. I suppose there’s something to that, but my guess is that Smartphones could easily pick up the slack and allow for portable data without a dedicated device. That being said, I’ve used a thumb drive, like, 3 times in my life.
  • Digital Music Player – NYT says ditch it in favor of smartphones, with the added caveat that people who exercise a lot might like a smaller, dedicated device. I can see that, but on a personal level, I have both and don’t mind it at all. I don’t like using up my phone battery playing music, and I honestly don’t really like the iPhone music player interface, so I actually have a regular old iPod nano for music and podcasts (also, I like to have manual control over what music/podcasts get on my device, and that’s weird on the iPhone – at least, it used to be). My setup works fine for me most times, and in an emergency, I do have music (and a couple movies) on my iPhone, so I could make due.
  • Alarm Clock – NYT says keep it, though I’m not entirely convinced. Then again, I have an alarm clock, so I can’t mount much of a offense against it. I’ve realized, though, that the grand majority of clocks that I use in my house are automatically updated (Cable box, computers, phone) and synced with some external source (no worrying about DST, etc…) My alarm clock isn’t, though. I still use my phone as a failsafe for when I know I need to get up early, but that’s more based on the possibility of snoozing myself into oblivion (I can easily snooze for well over an hour). I think I may actually end up replacing my clock, but I can see some young whipper-snappers relying on some other device for their wakeup calls…
  • GPS Unit – NYT says lose it, and I agree. With the number of smartphone apps (excluding the ones that come with your phone, which are usually functional but still kinda clunky as a full GPS system) that are good at this sort of thing (and a lot cheaper), I can’t see how anyone could really justify a dedicated device for this. On a recent trip, a friend used Navigon’s Mobile Navigator ($30, and usable on any of his portable devices) and it worked like a charm. Just as good as any GPS I’ve ever used. The only problem, again, is that it will drain the phone battery (unless you plug it in, which we did).
  • Books – NYT says to keep them, and I mostly agree. The only time I can see really wanting to use a dedicated eReader is when travelling, and even then, I’d want it to be a broad device, not dedicated to books. I have considered the Kindle (as it comes down in price), but for now, I’m holding out on a tablet device that will actually have a good enough screen for this sort of thing. Which, I understand, isn’t too far off on the horizon. There are a couple of other nice things about digital books though, namely, the ability to easily mark favorite passages, or to do a search (two things that would probably save me a lot of time). I can’t see books every going away, but I can see digital readers being a part of my life too.

A lot of these made me think of Neal Stephenson’s System of the World. In that book, one of the characters ponders how new systems supplant older systems:

“It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently … have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. … And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher’s Stone.” (page 639)

That sort of “surround and encapsulate” concept seems broadly applicable to a lot of technology, actually.

Link Dump

You know the drill:

  • Given our current technology and with the proper training, would it be possible for someone to become Batman?: Wow. This is pretty well thought out:

    The genius of Batman is that it pretends to be realistic, it lets us convince ourselves that with enough money and training, we could become Batman, too. But it’s still fantasy, it’s just a fantasy that is more compelling and convincing and thus more fun.

    Because I have an unhealthy obsession with Neal Stephenson novels, the above quote made me think of this passage from Snow Crash:

    Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

    So apparently, the “genius of Batman” only really applies to men under 25. Or something. Hey, speaking of realism and fantasy:

  • Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy: Us cool science fiction nerds like to occasionally take a dump all over fantasy. We’ll even use the term fantasy as an insult sometimes. But who are we kidding? John Scalzi actually makes a good point:

    …everything you can possibly label as “science fiction” is in fact just a subset of a larger genre, which is correctly called “fantasy.” This is because science fiction — along with supernatural horror, alternate history, superhero lit, and the elves-and-orcs swashbuckling typically labeled “fantasy” — is fundamentally fantastic. Which is to say, it involves imaginative conceptualizing, does not restrain itself according what is currently known, and speculates about the nature of worlds and conditions that do not exist in reality. It may gall science-fiction fans to think of their genre as a subset of fantasy, but it is, so calling a film “science fantasy” is in most ways redundant.

    Of course, by that definition, every fictional story ever written could potentially be considered fantasy, but still, it’s an interesting point. However, I think part of the reason science fiction nerds are so protective of their subgenre is that they generally appreciate things like plausibility, scientific rigor, and internal consistency. In my experience (which, I’ll grant, isn’t exhaustive), Fantasy doesn’t really do any of those things. “Magic” doesn’t work for me unless there are serious limitations.

  • A Superman Post: Since I’m totally geeking out on superheroes, fantasy, and SF, I might as well keep it going with as good an explanation of the appeal of Superman as any:

    Superman isn’t Superman because of some tragedy which informed his growth. Pa Kent does not die because of a failure on Clark’s part – indeed in most versions of the story, Pa dies when Clark is already Superman. Clark’s knowledge of Krypton doesn’t make him a superhero either; again, this is something he finds out later, too late to traumatize him. Clark is Superman because he decides to be Superman without being prompted. That’s more complex and nuanced a story than “somebody did something to me.” Superman’s story, which informs his entire character, is one of someone who chooses to be good of his own free will and agency, with no influence other than moral upbringing. That’s both more compelling than the “somebody did something to me” origin most superheroes have and more difficult to work with.

    Lots of great stuff in that post. It’s a shame that the movies almost never really capture this.

  • Ken Jennings on Reddit: Read the comments. Jennings is way funnier than you’d expect. Aside from the fact that his username is WatsonsBitch, a good sample is this response:

    yamminonem: Will you be the leader of the Resistance against Watson once he starts to control Skynet? Please, and thank you.

    WatsonsBitch: Once we are all working in the slave-pits together, I will try to put in a good word for you all. I will be like the old Barnard Hughes character in Tron, who remembers the Master Control Program when it was just accounting software.

    Heh.

  • Predator: The Musical: There’s a whole series of these, but I think this might be the most brilliant of all.

That’s all for now…

Readme

Not long after the release of Anathem, it was announced that Neal Stephenson’s next novel was due in 2011 and would be titled “Reamde”. The computer geeks among Stephenson’s fans (which is to say, most of Stephenson’s fans) were quick to wonder if the title was really supposed to be “Readme”, a common name for help or pre-installation files on computers, but everyone insisted that it “wasn’t a typo”. Well, a couple of days ago, I see on Tombstone that HarperCollins has now listed the book on their site… as Readme. So was it a typo all along, or are the new listings (also on booksellers like Amazon) the actual typo?

There isn’t much information about the book available just yet. Just that it’s coming in at a svelte 960 pages (about par for Stephenson’s recent work) and that it will be released on September 13 (which happens to be my birthday). The original io9 article also noticed that it was classified as “thriller” rather than SF. They wonder if that means he’s abandoning the genre (as if the 2700 page historical epic featuring no science fiction that he wrote a few years ago didn’t happen), but they may have a point about the novel perhaps resembling the pair of pseudonymous techno-thrillers that Stephenson wrote in the early/mid-1990s with his uncle – The Cobweb and Interface. I actually really enjoy those novels for what they are, so I wouldn’t have any problem with the new book being like that. Given the aforementioned significance of the term “Readme” and how it relates to computers, I think that most SF fans would probably be fine with it too.

Unless the book actually is titled “Reamde”. Then we’re totally fucked.

Link Dump & Notes

Just some interesting links and some notes about upcoming posts and whatnot:

  • First, an announcement! The Oscars are this Sunday, and in accordance with tradition, I will be liveblogging the event, as I have for the past 7 years (!) Feel free to stop by and leave some comments! Previous installments here: [2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • An update on Game Dev Story! I’ve finally figured out how to hire a “Hardware Engineer” and thus was able to create my own console. Well, I found this DIY Gamer page, which explains it:

    Perhaps the biggest secret in Game Dev Story, bagging a hardware engineer is simple – if expensive – stuff. The idea is to level up one of your staff to the max in every type of role. This can be done with a combination of development points and Career Change Manuals (from the salesman). Level your chosen character up to level 5 in whatever role they’re in, then use the Career Change Manual to swap their job to something they aren’t already level 5 in.

    Level them up to level 5 in this role, then repeat until they are level 5 in every available role. Now use the Career Change Manual on them once more, and the Hardware Engineer role will now be available for selection. Choose this, and you’ll then be able to develop your own console.

    Sweet. Of course, I’m now paying this person almost $2 million a year in salary, but hey, I got to create a console. And according to my records, my company has over $1 billion in reserve, so I should be all right (this is what happens when you sell 30-40 million units of each game). I still think there’s a lot of room in this concept for a deeper dive into some of these details (for instance, shouldn’t I get licensing fees from other developers who want to release games on my console? How about competition with other consoles? And so on…) but for a game that cost $0.99, I’ve had a blast.

  • The Boy Who Stole Half-Life 2 – I never heard of this until now, but it’s an interesting story of some kid who stole the source code to Half-Life 2 before it was released. Very interesting stuff.
  • Black Widow Gone Wild – Heh.
  • Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future 10 – An interview with Neal Stephenson on an earlier panel he participated in and the article he wrote (that I posted) a while back on the history of rocket technology. Some interesting stuff here, but it really just makes me want to read his new book (still no word on when that will be coming out, short of “2011” which is, uh, now).

That’s all for now. Look for my Oscar picks early on Sunday. Updates after that will most likely begin when the show does (I really hate the damn red carpet crap, but sometimes I’m on a bit early anyway).