Arts & Letters

Revisiting Snow Crash

I bought the paperback edition of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash sometime around 1993-1994. Near as I can tell, this was the first edition of the mass market paperback (Bantam paperback edition / May 1993). Obviously, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time, and it’s become one of the few books I’ve reread multiple times. As a book of dense ideas, it’s natural that new things strike me with each subsequent reread. People like to dismiss rereading/rewatching because the book hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t take into account that you’ve changed (and the world has changed… not to mention that the book actually might have been changed without notice for dubious reasons).

My first read of Snow Crash struck me as a fun Science Fiction action story about a samurai sword-wielding pizza delivery boy saving the world from a computer virus that originated in Sumerian myth. Lots of interesting ideas and weird tonal stuff went over my head. Subsequent rereadings happened after I’d sampled more of the cyberpunk canon (thus better recognizing the more parodic elements of Snow Crash for what they were) and learned more about linquistics and so on, all of which gave the book enough new context that it felt fresh. Such is the power of a dense book of ideas.

Anyway, 2022 was the 30th anniversary of Snow Crash, and seeing as though my paperback was basically falling apart, I splurged on a new anniversary edition of the book, complete with new, “never-seen-before material” and pages that aren’t falling out of the book. It’s been approximately a decade since I’d last reread it, and a few things struck me about it.

It’s always been hailed as a sorta prescient book, for obvious reasons. Stephenson was clearly ahead of the curve when it came to the internet, computers, and hacking, not to mention popularizing the notion of “avatars” and other stuff like VR and AR and so on. But the thing that struck me this time around was that the Metaverse, as portrayed in the book, is essentially a social network, and Stephenson clearly saw the potential drawbacks. Early in the book, our Hiro Protagonist meets up with an old friend named Juanita. In the world of the novel, they both worked on the early Metaverse infrastructure, but Juanita had pulled back somewhat of late, because:

… she has also decided that the whole thing is bogus. That no matter how good it is, the Metaverse is distorting the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships.

Snow Crash, Page 74

It’s a perfectly concise and trenchant critique of social networks (that is implicitly elaborated on throughout the book). I mean, it’s not like we haven’t all been drowning in this realization for the past decade, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that we saw it coming a few decades ago… and yet, still fall into the trap all the time.

It’s also worth noting that people have been trying (and failing) to implement the virtual reality Metaverse since the book came out. Right now, Mark Zuckerberg is literally dumping billions into his conception of the Metaverse… and no one is biting. It’s funny to read, though, that even Stephenson recognized the limitations of the VR approach:

And when hackers are hacking, they don’t mess around with the superficial world of Metaverses and avatars. They descend below this surface layer and into the netherworld of code and tangled nam-shubs that supports it, where everything that you see in the metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three-dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic page.

Snow Crash, Page 401

I have not really played around with VR much, but the notion of bulky goggles is enough to make me think it won’t find much of a mass audience until we get less obtrusive methods of connecting and viewing a VR space. And, like, they have their own drawbacks. The notion of plugging something directly into your eyeballs or jacking the eye’s connection to the brain somehow seems… inadvisable. I dunno, maybe contact lenses might work?

So not everything has aged quite as well (there’s a whole subplot about an infection that is spread through vaccines, which is a conspiracy theory that is obviously a more touchy subject these days). Anywho, it’s still a great book, and worth revisiting if you haven’t read it in a while. The “never-seen-before material” at the end of the book comes in screenplay form, and provides a bit of background for the character of Lagos, who people mostly just talk about in the rest of the novel. It’s a nice treat for Stephenson obsessives like myself, but mostly unnecessary.

Tasting Notes

Just a series of quick hits and tasting notes on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:

Television

Poker Face – This Rian Johnson led Natasha Lyonne starring mystery of the week TV series is great. Really enjoyable stuff, and while there’s some sort of overarching storyline, the episodes are mostly standalone mysteries. The Columbo-esque formula is also quite effective, with the first 10-20 minutes of each episode being about the crime, then flashing back to how Lyonne gets involved and investigates.

Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face

The “bullshit” conceit is a bit silly, but they don’t overdo it, and the mysteries are all well thought out and twisty in the best way (the one with the stage play was great, and when you find out about the cool old folks’ misdeeds, I laughed out loud). Since Lyonne is not playing a cop, the comeuppance is not always perfect (the race car one, in particular), but you still get the thrill of the solve (more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit, but still). Worth seeking out!

Andor – I don’t get it. Everyone says this is the best Star Wars stuff since the originals, but after slogging through 3 episodes that should have been about one single hour of story, I don’t get it. The third episode was markedly better than the first two, and everyone is telling me that it continues to get better as the series progresses, but I’m still annoyed at the first three episodes.

The Last of Us – The fungal zombie apocalypse gets a prestige TV treatment, to mostly good effect. It still feels a little like “prestige Walking Dead” and I was never a big fan of that show, but boiling it down to a mostly two character odd-couple buddy travelogue works reasonably well. It occasionally veers into the typical, bog standard zombie notes of “well, the fungus zombie just murdered my girlfriend, but the real monster is other human beings!” and it doesn’t have the gore quotient of Walking Dead, but it works well enough for what it is. I can see maybe one more season of this before it gets really grating. For now it’s enjoyable enough.

Movies

Knock at the Cabin – M. Night Shyamalan provides sturdy, tense craft behind a somewhat unsatisfying story that nonetheless has some thematic heft around the nature of sacrifice that’s worth exploring. Dave Bautista does exceptional work, and the rest of the cast is pretty good too.

Knock at the Cabin

The twist is that there is no twist, and the ending tries to split the difference between the book’s rather bleak ending (probably a no go for any actual filmic adaptation) and a truly happy ending, leaving us with a sorta bittersweet thing that works ok, but isn’t super satisfying. Again, lots of thematic stuff to chew on and Shyamalan provides the visually compelling craft, so this isn’t just a rote thriller, but it’s not exactly perfect either.

Infinity Pool – Brandon Cronenberg continues to follow in his father’s footsteps, adding a little more stylistic artifice to the body horror and weirdly new arenas of science that seem to populate these movies. I think this is perhaps a little more successful and approachable than Possessor, but they’re both of a piece.

Infinity Pool

There’s again some thematic heft here around doubles and existential crises and so on, but if you can get past some of the weird hedonistic parties and violence, it’s hard not to appreciate Mia Goth’s unhinged performance. Interesting stuff and Cronenberg is one to keep an eye on, but he hasn’t hit anything out of the park just yet.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022 and 1930) – I watched both of these because the latter one was nominated for Best Picture. Short story is that the original covers more ground and makes better anti-war points than the remake, which is a technical marvel, to be sure, but somehow covers much less ground in around the same runtime. Some of the really effective points in the original are contained off the battlefield, which the remake tends to downplay (while playing up the diplomatic stuff). It’s all still effective and it’s the sort of thing that the Academy Awards loves, so it’s not surprising or completely unwarranted, but I prefer the original. For some reason, the musical score in the remake seems to be getting a lot of buzz, which confounds me – the whole electronic nah nuh nuh thing took me out of the movie every damn time, it felt anachronistic and too slight. If you’re going to do that sort of thing, lean into it. Anyway, interesting movie, but certainly not the best of the year.

My Dinner with Andre – Literally two people sitting at a table in a restaurant having a conversation for two-ish hours. More interesting than that sounds, but some of the conversation also goes a bit too far up its own arse. But the saving grace is that towards the end, Wallace Shawn gets to push back on Andre Gregory’s wanking, and basically says something to the effect of “I don’t know what the hell you’re even talking about anymore!?” Both the characters contradict themselves throughout the conversation, which I think is part of the point. Anyway, more interesting than I feared, but not exactly a barn burner either. Glad I finally caught up with it.

The Wind and the Lion – John Milius wrote and directed this historical… adventure? It’s hard to peg this thing down. Sean Connery plays a Berber chieftain, which is a bit of a stretch, but then his starpower might carry the day. Brian Keith does interesting work as Theodore Roosevelt. Candice Bergen has good chemistry with Connery. The whole thing has a bit of an exaggerated air, a little hammy at times, but Milius’ trademark tough guy dialogue shows up here and there. An interesting, weird little movie.

Books

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie – Between last year’s spate of murder mystery movies and Poker Face, I’ve been getting into the mystery genre a bit and decided to start at the beginning of Christie’s Poirot series. This first Poirot book comports itself well enough, though obviously some of the twists and turns are not as surprising as they perhaps once were. That said, it holds up remarkably well for a 100 year old mystery novel. I also read The Murder on the Links (the second novel in the series) and Poirot Investigates (a short story collection with a bunch of great, simpler stories). A few themes have emerged, Poirot’s catchphrases of “little grey cells”, “a man of method”, and his habit of referring to himself as “Papa Poirot” are all pretty funny. Also, Captain Hastings is such a moron, it’s hilarious how often Poirot (or Christie) takes to humiliating him in an absolutely merciless fashion. Anyway, these are fun, I will be reading more of them (and probably branch out to Miss Marple or whatever)

Tales of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov – When Asimov took a break from Science Fiction for a few decades, he did still write fiction, and this collection of short stories is actually pretty fun. These are also mysteries, but they distinguish themselves by being mostly about trivialities, rather than murder (though there was one involving a death). Asimov’s mysteries tend to revolve more around wordplay than anything else, but that’s an interesting contrast to Agatha Christie. So far, these short stories are all pretty fun, though I suspect things might get a bit repetitive over time. Still, as a short collection, it’s great stuff.

Earthblood and Other Stories, by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown – Started this in January as part of Vintage SF Month, but it turned out to be something of a slog. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff buried here about a long-lost Earth and legends of humans, but it’s caught up in an episodic narrative with poorly drawn action. Normally a galactic travelogue with carnies, pirates, and military intrigue would sound like a lot of fun, but none of it really panned out here. Every episode seemed simultaneously boring and slow but also truncated and the shifts happen suddenly. I just was not able to get on its wavelength, I guess. The “other stories” are marginally better, but despite some of them ostensibly happening in the same universe involving the same aliens, they are all completely disconnected and even conflicting in nature. Not especially recommended.

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, by Sarah Parcak – A look into the young field of satellite archaeology, this unfortunately doesn’t spend that much time on the space-bound nature of the exploration, and most of the book is about how satellites guide traditional, boots-on-the-ground archaeology. Which, when you think about it, makes a whole lot of sense, but the premise feels like it promised more than what we get. Interesting enough for what it is, but not exactly a must-read.

The Finer Things

Over at the Beer Blog, we’ve covered Revolution’s line of Very Special Old Jacket barleywines (exceptional!), an unlikely Geuze Cuvée from Lindemans, and a sampling of fine Oktoberfest biers.

We’re also about to embark on the annual beer slowdown, so I’ve got a few non-beer things lined up, including a local distillery’s 6 year old Rye. I was thinking of dipping my toes into the brandy world this year as well. Time will tell. Recommendations welcome!

That about does it for this round of tasting notes, stay tuned for moar!

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Voyage of the Space Beagle

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s continuing mission: to explore intergalactic space, encounter new life forms, new civilizations, and survive their deadly advances. Yes, A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty clear precursor to Star Trek, right down to the episodic nature of the narrative. Of course, that’s mostly because this is a prime example of what was called a “fix-up” novel, a book comprised of a compilation of four previously published stories. The title of the book is also a pretty clear reference to Charles Darwin’s book about his five-year mission (another Trek connection) of scientific exploration on the HMS Beagle.

The first story details an encounter with Coeurl, a starving, intelligent cat-like creature that plays dumb in order to trick the crew of the Space Beagle into allowing access to the ship. Several members of the crew are killed before they wise up and manage to trick the beast into an escape capsule and strand it in space.

The second story follows the chaos resulting from telepathic contact with a race of bird-like aliens. One member of the crew recognizes that the signals are meant to be a benign, friendly message, but the form of the message is incompatible with the human mind, and only quick actions by the aforementioned crew member saves the ship.

The third story has the Space Beagle picking up a red creature called Ixtl, which seeks to reproduce by kidnapping members of the crew and implanting eggs in them. Some details of this story are close enough to the film Alien that van Vogt actually sued for plagiarism (the case settled out of court, and for the record, the filmmakers deny any influence).

Finally, the fourth story shows an encounter with a galaxy-spanning consciousness that has, more or less, consumed its entire galaxy. The crew must devise some sort of strategy to deal with this situation, especially given that they don’t want to lead this entity back to our home galaxy.

In fixing these stories up for the novel, van Vogt would establish a new central character, Elliot Grosvenor, the lone “Nexialist” onboard the Space Beagle. Nexialism is van Vogt’s name for a sorta holistic approach to knowledge. As he describes:

Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields. It provides techniques for speeding up the processes of absorbing knowledge and of using effectively what has been learned.

The problems which Nexialism confronts are whole problems. Man has divided life and matter into separate compartments of knowledge and being. And, even though he sometimes uses words which indicate his awareness of the wholeness of nature, he continues to behave as if the one, changing universe had many separately functioning parts.

In essence, Grossvenor is van Vogt’s equivalent of Heinlein’s competent man. As Heinlein famously quipped, “Specialization is for insects.” At times, you can feel the “fix-up” nature of the novel, as it seems Grossvenor fades too much into the background of the narrative. Also, though the stories have satisfactory conclusions, they do feel a bit repetitive, and while the holistic approach of Nexialism is certainly admirable, the solutions aren’t quite clever enough to really justify the idea. Still, there’s something fundamentally optimistic about van Vogt’s vision that is refreshing in this cynical age. It’s telling that the alien creatures are all undone by their own egotism and selfishness, while the crew of the Space Beagle prevail through decency, self-sacrifice, and cooperation. Of course, there’s plenty of infighting amongst various specialized factions of the crew, but that’s the point of Grossvenor’s holistic approach.

This is almost certainly one of those books that suffers due to it’s influence. So much of what has followed in its footsteps have improved on the ideas that going back to read this now makes it feel quaint. It is certainly an interesting exercise to see such ideas in their embryonic form, even if the terminology used can be a bit stiff or even laughable (the crew repeatedly brandish a weapon that van Vogt calls a “vibrator” – it’s not his fault that the term has taken on other meanings since then, but still), but at this point, it’s probably more suitable for students of the genre than anyone else.

None of which is to say that the novel is bad, per say, just that it doesn’t quite hang together as well as you would generally want from a novel. Not entirely unexpected, given the “fix-up” nature of the novel, but it’s ironic that a novel with the theme that holistic thought is critical would be so episodic and disjointed. From what I can tell, van Vogt’s concept of Nexialism lead him to start thinking about how humankind would need to transcend its limitations, and thus followed Space Beagle up with the novel Slan, which represents a more cohesive vision from van Vogt. Still, if you want to see how early Space Opera stories influenced much of the current Science Fiction landscape, Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty good place to start (if perhaps not the earliest).

Vintage Science Fiction Month: SF Stories About Christmas

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

When you think of Christmas stories, the first genre that comes to mind is probably not Science Fiction. But decades of initially flippant but increasingly earnest proclamations that “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” indicate that perhaps the notion of what constitutes a “Christmas Story” is somewhat malleable. Naturally, none of this is new. Witness To Follow a Star, a collection of nine science fiction Christmas stories published in 1977, featuring stories from Golden Age stars dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. One of the great things about reading vintage SF is the continual discovery that everything old becomes new again at some point (in this case, debates about what makes something a “Christmas Story”).

To Follow a Star book cover

On its surface, the notions of Science Fiction and Christmas represent something of a contrast, but such conflicts can be useful in storytelling. As is typical of collections like these, the stories are a bit uneven, but it’s always nice to read something along these lines during the holiday season. Quick thoughts on each story:

  • Christmas on Ganymede by Isaac Asimov – Cute little short story written in Asimov’s traditional non-style, with a button of an ending that you might see coming, but which brought a smile to my face.
  • Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus by Frederik Pohl – Naturally Pohl takes on the commercialization of Christmas and imagines a far flung satirical future in which “department stores begin celebrating the Christmas sales rush in September”, imagine that absurdity! (I don’t talk much about my day job here, but I work for a digital retailer that starts their Christmas sales rush in July, so I had a nice chuckle at this part of the story.) Amusing predictions aside, this is perhaps not your typical romantic Christmas story, but that’s ultimately where its heart lies.
  • Santa Claus Planet by Frank M. Robinson – A man crash lands on an alien planet, and finds that the natives have rather odd and perhaps gift-giving traditions. An interesting, if exaggerated and fatalistic, exploration of the power dynamics inherent in gift giving. Not terribly Christmassy, to be sure, but interesting.
  • Christmas Tree by John Christopher – Short tale of a space traveler who plays with fire and ends up getting grounded (i.e. stranded) on the moon because his body can no longer the trip back to earth. Spoilers, I guess, but while the character will miss Christmases back home, this is not especially Christmassy either.
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke – One of Clarke’s most famous short stories, this won’t exactly put you in the Christmas mood, but pitting the cold hard science against the faith of believers (in this case Christians) will certainly make you think. This is not the first time I’ve read this story, and even knowing where it’s going – an excellent rug-pull at the end of the story where everything clicks in a devastating way – does not diminish its power.
  • The Christmas Present by Gordon R. Dickson – I guess they wanted to put all the bummer stories in the middle of the collection, which makes sense. This is another story about how aliens learn about Christmas, this time with tragic results. It stands in stark contrast to Asimov’s earlier story in this collection (which also deals with aliens trying to figure out Christmas), which is a nice touch.
  • Christmas Treason by James White – Much is made of the “lies” we tell kids about Santa and Christmas, and as you might expect, science fiction authors (and fans, for that matter) are the type who will not accept traditional explanations of the logistics of Santa’s delivery service. In the case of this story, kids with teleportation and psychokinesis powers assume that Santa must have a series of underground bunkers secreted throughout the world to support his Christmas Eve shenanigans. The only thing is: these bunkers are actually nuclear missile silos. While certainly a recipe for disaster, James White takes a decidedly more fun view of the situation and does a reasonable job balancing the tone of the story (which does need to walk a rather tight line).
  • The New Father Christmas by Brian W. Aldiss – In an increasingly automated world, will the machines and AIs adopt Christmas traditions in strange ways with unforeseen consequences? I suspect the writers of Futurama might have been inspired by this story in their conception of Robot Santa…
  • La Befana by Gene Wolfe – Christmas is about the birth of Earth’s savior, but what about other planets? Neat idea, and Wolfe uses one of my favorite Santa precursor legends in this short story.

As already mentioned, it might seem odd to see mixtures of Science Fiction and Christmas, but as it turns out, I’ve read several collections of Christmas Science Fiction stories, and there are probably a bunch of others. There are other collections from various authors, like Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (which is a collection of stories from Asimov’s magazine, rather than the author himself), but also some specific authors who seemingly specialize in the holiday, like Connie Willis’ A Lot Like Christmas and John Scalzi’s A Very Scalzi Christmas. All of these collections have their charms, in part because I like the contrast inherent in this micro-genre, and To Follow a Star is no exception (though I think I would probably recommend Willis and Scalzi books ahead of this one, for whatever that’s worth).

Next up for Vintage Science Fiction Month: Space Beagles!

2022 in Book Reading

Another somewhat arbitrary orbital cycle has concluded, which means it’s time to take a step back, contemplate our tragic mistakes the year that was and resume work on the time travel device that will allow us to go back and make things right. Given the tumultuous nature of the last few years, this sort of thing could get… dark. But one thing that is more mundane and thus not as existentially terrifying to examine is to review the year in book reading.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade. So let’s get to it…

Graphing Books and Pages Over Time

I read 52 books in 2022, pretty much right on target for the goal I set for myself (averaging a book a week), but this pace signals a return to pre-pandemic levels of reading.

You can see the full list of books I read in 2022 on Goodreads. Obviously Covid is still around and things aren’t exactly “normal” these days, but after a couple of years spent mostly cooped up in my house reading books and watching movies, I’ve been spending more time socializing and engaging in other activities, a welcome change of pace. As much as I love reading (and watching), the pandemic fueled excess of 2020 and 2021 was probably not healthy.

Average page length was 343, a significant improvement over last year’s 312 and precisely on par with 2020 (if still a bit below the record of 356, set way back in 2013). This does provide a bit of a clue about why 2021’s book count remained pretty high though – I read a significant amount of shorter fiction, serialized novellas, and so on. Which is not to say that there was none of that in 2022 book reading, just much less of that. Short fiction often serves to inflate the overall number of books, but this year was mostly full novels (or longer form non-fiction). Otherwise, overall page count is almost exactly on par with 2019 pre-pandemic numbers.

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, and I read at least one book this year that Goodreads doesn’t have a page count for (no idea why). Are such outliers part of every year’s page count? Or is this truly a one-off? Whatever the case, the peak at the heart of the pandemic and decline as restrictions eased makes intuitive sense.

The Extremes

Not much to mention here, other than that the shortest book being 111 pages also speaks to the reason my average page number count went back up to a higher number (last year’s shortest book was 47 pages). It’s also the highest page count for shortest book of the year since 2011, so there is that. Shortest is often as low as 10-20 pages, so 2022 was pretty solidly in novella/novel realm. In terms of longest books, Rian Hughes’ XX was the longest thing I’ve read since the pandemic started (though it’s worth noting that Hughes’ extensive use of large typeography and graphic design probably inflate the page count a bit – it’s an excellent book, by the way). We’ll be covering the “Least Shelved” book in detail soon enough, it’s basically a short story collection of classic SF themed around Christmas. The Most Shelved was a non-fiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who hid amongst the bustle of the city (very good, and not surprising that it’s so popular).

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

At this point, I’d normally show the graph of books read by publication date, but ever since I read Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, the chart’s Y axis got so large that the graph is essentially useless now. That being said, while there’s certainly a bit of a bias towards recent releases (exacerbated just a bit by following along with the Hugo awards this year), there was a pretty good spread ranging from 1952 up to present day.

  • Judgement Night by C.L. Moore was the oldest book I read in 2022. Published in 1952 as part of Vintage Science Fiction Month, which is often a driving force behind the oldest books of the year. That being said, I did read several things from the 1950s and 60s throughout the year.
  • 16 non-fiction books in 2022, a decrease from last year in absolute terms (20 last year), but only a tiny decrease in terms of proportion.
  • 20 Science Fiction books in 2022, a moderate increase in absolute terms, but a larger increase in terms of proportion.
  • 22 books written by women in 2022, a significant increase from last year, but still not quite parity for the year. As per usual, this isn’t something I intentionally try to control throughout the year, but it’s interesting to look at…
  • My average rating on Goodreads was a 3.8 (out of 5 stars), but I will note that I tend to round up to 4 stars for the grand majority of books. A lot of those 4 ratings would be 3.5 if that option was available.

So there you have it, 2022 was a pretty solid year in book reading. I don’t see any significant changes coming this year. My goal will remain 52 books a year and I don’t see any reason to expect major differences from 2022. I’m pretty sure I won’t be participating much in the Hugos this year, and indeed, things seem like they’re running pretty far behind (usually by this time, the Nominations phase is open – that being said, I don’t think I have much that I’m prepared to nominate this year). Anywho, stay tuned for the year in movie watching, some Vintage Science Fiction Month reviews, and the kickoff of the Kaedrin Movie Awards, starting in mid-January and culminating in the traditional top 10 in February sometime (yep, two months after most people post theirs, I know, I know).

SF Book Review – Part 39: Reunion and Moar!

Hard to believe it’s been over a year since the last one of these, though there’ve been plenty of other posts covering the Hugo Awards or Halloween Reading, and so on. Still, I’ve built up a backlog of SF books that need reviewing, so here goes nothing:


Reunion by Christopher Farnsworth – Four teenagers save the world in a small town during an event that became known as “New Year’s Evil.” Twenty years later, and the cyclical evil has returned. The four heroes, now cynical adults, must return home to go to their high school reunion and face the evil again. Or do they?

Reunion by Christopher Farnsworth

It’s a premise that recalls Stephen King’s It in more than a few ways, though Farnsworth obviously puts his own spin on it and clocking in at just 332 pages, it’s clearly not going for the epic sensibility King was working through in his novel. Farnsworth does make ample use of archetypes though, and it’s almost like he’s using It as a structural archetype. Each of our heroes follows a well established model. Eric is a magician, a la Merlin. Carrie is the girl detective, as in Nancy Drew. Alana is the Warrior Princess, like Xena. And Danny is the boy genius who goes on super science adventures in the manner of Jonny Quest. Each character is introduced in a sorta where are they now chapter, then they come together to confront evil (again), and each also gets flashbacks extolling their teenaged adventures. It all culminates in dueling climaxes, where we get the true story of “New Year’s Evil” cross cut with a redux in the present.

I was a little hesitant at first, but the book quickly won me over, and by the end I was wishing it was an It sized doorstop. It’s a story that does play to Farnsworth’s strengths, as in his President’s Vampire novels, where he gets to mix and match various bits of classic folklore and modern urban legends to craft a page turning adventure. There are some twists and turns and unexpected character revelations, which all worked well enough for me, even if some of them are a tad predictable. It’s still fun seeing each character leverage their talents, then team up to defeat a seemingly unstoppable evil by using clever combinations of said talents. It’s clearly drafting on its archetypes, right down to the structure, but hey: they’re archetypes for a reason. It all resonates quite well in the end. Solid page-turning beach-read type stuff, and a lot of fun.


Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells – NASA discovered an alien ship hidden in the asteroid belt in the 1960s and the entire space program has been a covert attempt to develop the technology to reach it. Dr. Jane Holloway is a linguist recruited to help decipher any alien language they stumble upon. When they reach the ship, Holloway discovers it’s not completely uninhabited. A disembodied voice guides and helps the astronauts as they make their way through the ship. But is the voice on their side? Or is it manipulating them for some nefarious purpose?

Straightforward space opera comfort food, this turns the pages and presents a few interesting conflicts that drive tension throughout, but it’s also not going to blow your mind with anything especially new. Plenty of SF tropes and info-dumps, but nothing too unusual for the genre. Alas, the biggest issue here is that it’s all in service of a larger series of books, and while the ending is a natural conclusion for some of the characters, there are still lots of open questions that will presumably be explored in later books. That being said, I might be amenable to reading at least one more of these, which is usually a good sign…


Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi – This is the third novella in a series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur uninterrupted, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, but Scalzi has set up internally consistent rules and used them to tell tightly plotted murder/mystery stories that rely on the vagaries of the dispatching process in some way. As per usual, lots of snappy dialogue and light humor keep the tone playful and the pace moving sprightly. For some reason, this entire series was conceived as an audio book exclusive (though I think the first two eventually got a print edition), but they’re solid listens and Zachary Quinto does a good job reading the stories. This has been a fun series and I look forward to more installments (for the record: each story is a self-contained mystery, so it’s not the kind of series that leaves you with lots of loose threads and open questions.)


Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez – The sequel to and conclusion of the story started in Suarez’s Daemon, about a quasi-AI system that attempts to take over the world after its inventor dies. I found that first book to be enjoyable enough in a surface-level pulpy fiction way, but was not inclined to immediately seek out the sequel. But I did seek out more Suarez, and he’s grown on me as an author, so I have finally circled back to this sequel. The first novel primarily saw the Daemon as a villain, but in this book Suarez attempts to soften the image a bit. It’s still a situation where the Daemon has to break some eggs to make the omelet, but maybe that omelet is worth it?

There are some interesting ideas floating around here about better ways to organize a society and its various supply chains given a high tech base to start from, though it all still feels like we’re only really scratching the surface, and a lot of plot elements are far-fetched to say the least. That being said, that sort of thing can be a lot of fun if you can get on its wavelength and don’t ask too many questions. I’m glad I read it and enjoyed it well enough, but my complaints from the first book remain and this would not be the first Suarez I’d recommend (if you’re interested, go for Influx or Delta-V first…)


Still a few more books to catch up with, and we’ve got Vintage Science Fiction Month coming soon too, so stay tuned…

Halloween Reading Roundup 2022

Yes, we watch a lot of movies during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but that’s not the only way to celebrate the season. I don’t talk much about the hayrides or haunted houses (or haunted… dining establishments?) or pumpkin mutilation carving ceremonies that I partake in during this most hallowed of seasons, but there’s not really a ton to say about those experiences other than the fact that the pandemic has eased a bit, such that social interaction is actually possible these days, which is nice. Anywho, I also like to tailor my reading towards the season though, and while we’re a far cry from the pandemic fueled record of 9 books, we’re still averaging about a book a week (which is generally my target for the whole year). Let’s see what kinds of spooky literature we could scare up this year:

Halloween Reading Roundup 2022

Dark Entries by Robert Aikman – While most of his stories are pretty firmly categorized as horror, Aikman was an ornery sort who seemed to look down on the genre, instead referring to his stories as “strange tales.” Which isn’t entirely wrong, because these stories are unlike anything I’ve read. Even stories that hew to some semblance of conventional tropes end up in a flummoxing place. Like you get to the end of the story and ok, the woman’s house is haunted by the ghost of her father, but… is her father’s ghost also her baby’s father? Aikman, of course, would never answer that question directly and the story itself barely hints in that direction. Maybe I’m the weird one? That’s the sort of feeling an Aikman story gives you. Indeed, it’s difficult to capture what makes these stories work because almost anything I tell you about them will sound deeply unsatisfying. But they’re not, which is a neat trick that I don’t think many writers can pull off. The prose is not baroque or otherwise filled with hooptedoodle; Aikman certainly knows how to let things breath without making a story feel like an empty stylistic exercise. These aren’t propulsive action-packed stories, but neither are they dull literary experiments. Again, difficult to encapsulate.

Dark Entries by Robert Aikman book cover

Dark Entries was his second collection of stories, originally published in 1964, and it seems like a pretty good place to start. Six stories, most of them memorable and disconcerting in their own way. The highlight, to my mind, was “Ringing the Changes”, a sorta horror story about marriage, but as previously mentioned, it’s hard to really capture the essence of the story. It invokes a wonderful atmosphere of creeping dread that grows more and more surreal as the story progresses (while always remaining grounded). At one point, a crowd of townfolk parade through the town chanting:

‘The living and the dead dance together.
Now’s the time. Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.

Page 76, Dark Entries by Robert Aikman

Something about the whole thing just struck me as wonderfully macabre, and it’s almost the perfect slogan for The Six Weeks of Halloween as a concept. You better believe Aikman will be revisited in future 6WH reading (I’ve already secured a copy of The Wine Dark Sea for just that purpose).


A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson – My favorite discovery of last year’s 6WH reading was Brian Evenson, so I took a flier on another short story collection of his. While I do think that the collection I read last year, Song for the Unraveling of the World, is superior, this one ended pretty strong. Unfortunately, it’s a little more uneven and it starts slow. About halfway through, things pick up, and Evenson’s stripped down, simple, but still evocative prose always keeps things moving. His stories tend to be on the shorter side as well, so even if you find yourself not like a story, it won’t be long until you get to the next one.

A Collapse of Horses, by Brian Evenson book cover

Highlights include the story “The Dust” (which is actually one of the longer stories), “The Window”, and the eponymous “A Collapse of Horses.” A couple of the stories contain Aikman-like strangeness, albeit in a more obviously horror story framework, like “Click” or “The Moans.” Altogether a solid, if more uneven, collection (which, to be fair, is generally what collections tend to be like.)


Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly – Alright, I think we’ve covered the highfalutin literary stuff I’ve read this year, let’s get to something a little more pulpy. And to be clear, I love pulpy, and this is a great example of that sort of thing. A retired British spy named James Asher is recruited to hunt down a vampire killer that’s been plaguing London’s vampire community. His handler is one Don Simon Ysidro, a 400 year old vampire that does not trust humans, but needs a human ally, as Ysidro cannot investigate during the daylight hours (which is when the vampire hunter strikes). Naturally, there is a deep lack of trust between Ysidro and Asher, both worried about the sudden but inevitable betrayal this situation seemingly demands of them.

There’s some nice bits of tradecraft as befits Asher’s history as a spy, and his background in linguistics comes in handy as well. There’s plenty of vampire lore which is slowly doled out as Asher investigates. This dynamic, where someone is trying to investigate an insular group who won’t share information, is normally something that might get on my nerves, but everyone’s motivations are well established and the consequences of sharing too much are also high enough that it all works without feeling like lazy storytelling.

Hambly is an established writer of fantasy and historical fiction, but her style here does appeal to the science fiction nerd’s attention to detail. Lots of speculation and exploration of unintended consequences, historical context, and so on, that I found quite engaging (though I suspect fans of more schlocky horror might be bored by this level of detail). Thematically, she’s exploring the ideas of predation and trust in a careful way (i.e. What are the ethics of hunting humans for survival’s sake?), and just in case you were concerned: the vampires here are basically portrayed as sympathetic but asexual monsters, only touching on attraction and desire as a tool for hunting (i.e. there’s no Twilight or Anne Rice-style fetishization of vampires to be found here).

This is apparently a long-running series, and yes, I will most definitely be revisiting this in future 6WH. Recommended!


October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween – An anthology featuring stories from a wide variety of authors. The stories themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, which is par for the course when it comes to this sort of thing, but one thing I will say about them: They really take the theme of the anthology seriously. When they say this is a “celebration of Halloween”, they mean it, and nearly every story takes place on Halloween night and prominently features the holiday in some way. As such, it’s kinda perfect reading for the season.

Highlights include Peter Straub’s excellent “Pork Pie Hat” about a jazz musician’s memorable childhood Halloween, “The Black Pumpkin” by Dean Koontz (about a pumpkin monster, I guess?), “The Circle” by Lewis Shiner (about authors reading spooky stories to each other on Halloween night), and several others. I also have to laugh at “Buckets” by F. Paul Wilson, the sort of story that touches a political third rail, but really goes for it.

The stories are interspersed with nonfiction chapters where authors share “My Favorite Halloween Memory” that are probably more miss than hit. Some are decent and interesting, but most come off as pure filler. Similarly, there are a few chapters about Halloween movies and stories that are solid, but not exactly authoritative. Still, all in all, a pretty fantastic little collection, especially for the time of year.


On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony – Pulpy tale of a man who inadvertently kills Death, and therefore must take over the job himself. He thus travels the world, reaping the souls of those whose balance between good and evil are in question, determining if they belong in heaven or in hell. New to the job, he quickly stumbles into a trap set by the devil himself.

I heard of this book decades ago, but never really pulled the trigger until now. I thought about a normal guy learning to become the personification of Death would be spooky, and to some extent, I suppose there’s a little of that. But ultimately, this becomes a sorta episodic story as each victim of death pleads their case (or doesn’t, as it were). The nuts and bolts of the afterlife are not especially interesting (and I’m once again struck by how many stories people tell about how badly human beings do succession planning – is this really the best way to fill the office of Death?) and there’s a whole love story subplot that is pretty cringey. Ultimately, the book winds up being fine, I guess, but I wasn’t taken with it enough to want to explore the whole series, so this is one thing you won’t see me revisiting in future 6WH marathons…


The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson – The Keep was one of my favorite horror books when I read it as a teenager, but for some reason, I’ve never revisited that series (dubbed The Adversary) or Wilson in general, so I thought it was time. This book is supposed to be the second in the series, but it’s the first appearance of another character that Wilson has built a series around, one Repairman Jack. He’s basically a mercenary, living off the grid, fixing things for people who cannot find help elsewhere.

As this novel opens, Jack is hired by two people. One, to find a necklace stolen in a mugging, and the other a British heiress who had disappeared. Wanna bet that these two stories connect? Of course they do, and along the way we’re treated to Indian folklore and monsters and magic elixers, and so on. As a character, Jack isn’t quite as impressive as he’s made out to be (it’s one of those things where everyone has a lot of respect for him and talk about how great he is, but when you see his working methods, they don’t seem particularly impressive), but he’s still a solid character and Wilson is a decent enough storyteller such that even when you can see where the story is going or you’ve predicted a twist, it doesn’t really matter that much.

This doesn’t really connect with The Keep at all, at least, not directly, but from what I gather, future books in both series have some sort of connection. This is not a total homerun, but I’m still amenable to revisiting the series at some point…


So there you have it: Six Weeks of Halloween, six books read. This pretty much wraps up the 6WH for 2022, but as per usual, I’m already looking forward to next year’s festivities…

Heat 2

I don’t love sequels. This shouldn’t be a surprise for regular readers, but to quote the late great William Goldman, the impetus for a great movie “is always this: creative. The pulse for a sequel is always this: financial. So they are never of a similar quality.” Of course, attempts to boil storytelling down to a simple rule are probably doomed to failure, and there are always exceptions to this rule. Fortunately Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner’s Heat 2, a novelized sequel to Mann’s 1995 movie Heat, is one such exception.

Heat 2 book cover

Technically, this novel is both a sequel and a prequel. It picks up right where Heat left off, with Chris Shiherlis (played by Val Kilmer in the movie) on the run from the police, led by robbery-homicide detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). But the story also flashes back to 1988, with Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) leading his crew on a daring raid of a cartel stash house. There are naturally new characters abound, on both sides of the law, some seemingly familiar (such as a Waingro-esque villain that seemingly has 9 lives) and some completely new.

While it is telling that I felt the need to include the actors who portrayed the characters in the original movie, I do suspect that this novel could work pretty well even if you haven’t seen the movie. Still, having the actors and their memorable performances in mind certainly does add to the experience. Mann and Gardiner are able to reprise the characters in a consistent and meaningful manner. Everyone acts mostly like you’d expect them to act, though that doesn’t mean they’re completely static and unchanging either. Both Neil and Chris go through dramatic character arcs throughout the book.

I’m always curious about how collaboratively authored novels like this come about. In this case, I’m suspecting that Mann had the overall story beats mapped out (probably long before he even made Heat), but that Gardiner handled the nuts and bolts of the composition. I had read a few of Gardiner’s other thrillers before, and this certainly represents a step up in terms of procedural detail. I’m guessing more time was spent on research here than usual (or that Mann’s got a deep repository of contacts and anecdotes that Gardiner could explore.) This is all speculation though.

Whatever the case, the collaboration was a fruitful one. The novel captures the film’s aesthetic well. The cold, urban, professional atmosphere set in a visual form can’t be easy to capture in prose, so this is a genuine accomplishment. As a procedural process junkie, the detailed way each organization operates is much appreciated, and there are a variety of different organizations portrayed, on both sides of the law. These aren’t carbon copies of the heists or investigations in the movie, but they retain a similar flavor of professionalism and competence that always works for me. There are some interpersonal relationships that are also peppered throughout, which helps retain the human element. Think of Hanna’s question in the diner: “What are you, a monk?” Mann and Gardiner may be more focused on the mechanics of the plot, but they don’t forget that they’re portraying human beings here.

The sequel/prequel nature of the story is a little unclear at first, but the timelines are woven together well in the end, with some well crafted crossovers that keep you wired into the whole world that Mann created. There are some nits that could be picked, I suppose. Some of the dialogue can be over-the-top or cheesy at times, but that’s also right in line with the movie and it’s one of the things that becomes endearing after a while (is Pacino’s performance overly hammy in the movie? Yes, and also I love it and wouldn’t change it in a million years). There are a lot of descriptions about the adrenaline rush these folks experience when in the midst of their work that can get a bit repetitive, but again, this basically just became endearing to me.

There are rumors that this will be made into a movie, but I am a little more skeptical of that project than the novel. It turns out that this book was kinda the perfect way to do a prequel and/or sequel to Heat. I’d worry that recasting these parts would be too difficult given how iconic the original performances were. On the other hand, I would love to see the cartel stash house/hotel rat maze action set piece. It probably won’t be as great as the original Heat gunfight, but that’s an unbelievably high bar and this would be different enough that it could work.

Ultimately, this book is something of a miracle. A lot of this shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t completely wrapped up in the story almost immediately. I tried to ration it and didn’t want it to end, which is always a sign of a great read. If you’re a fan of Heat, this comes highly recommended. Fans of pulp fiction, crime, cops & robbers type stories would also get a kick out of this as well. I loved it, and am curious to see where Gardiner goes next (and Mann too, for that matter).

Hugo Awards 2022: The Results

The Results of the 2022 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I jumped back on the participation bandwagon this year, though I didn’t really end up reading much beyond the novels (which, in my mind, were something of a mixed bag). In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to really nerd out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2022 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine takes home the rocket, the second book in the series and the second Hugo win. Good for Arkady Martine, and I enjoyed this novel just fine (it was third in my ranking), but book series are difficult when it comes to awards. All things being equal, I tend to prefer standalone works (or maybe works that are starting a series, though I guess some series are comprised of basically standalone entries that are only loosely affiliated, like Becky Chambers Wayfarer’s books).

A Desolation Called Peace

Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki is the runner up, which actually fits my ranking, but Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, came in dead last (it was my #1). More indication that I’m not exactly in lockstep with the rest of the Hugo voter community… Then again, it did reasonably well in the first pass of voting (#3), so there is that.

Short Fiction

As mentioned above, I didn’t read much of this year’s short fiction (certainly not enough to vote), so I don’t have much to say here, other than that we do see a lot of familiar names. Typical for a populist award like the Hugo, but given that my tastes don’t run particularly close to other Hugo voters’, I think I’m entering a bit of a fallow period when it comes to participation.

Best Series

Wayward Children, by Seanan McGuire wins best series, which is interesting because I feel like Seanan McGuire is the most nominated author over the last 15 years or so, but this is only her second fiction win. Congratulations! I have not read anything from this series, but I’ve always enjoyed McGuire’s work. Still, the thought of being able to read enough of each series nominated in order to make an informed vote is daunting, which has always been my biggest complaint about this category…

Best Dramatic Presentation

Often a strange category, but this year the answer was pretty obvious and the voting went pretty much as expected: Dune takes home the rocket, as it should. Naturally, the two finalists that are the most off the beaten path, The Green Knight and Space Sweepers, come in at the bottom of the voting. I suppose it’s reward enough that they got nominated at all. Anywho, pour one out for Werewolves WithinI’m Your ManFinch, and Malignant, amongst others not nominated (even in the longlist of nominees, only I’m Your Man had any traction, and it was pretty low on that list).

Other Thoughts on the 2022 Hugo Awards

Cora Buhlert takes home the award for Best Fan Writer, which was nice (she was #1 on my ballot), and there’s a few other winners that I was pleased to see (Naomi Novik won the Lodestar YA award, and I’ve enjoyed several of her novels, so it’s nice to see some recognition for her). Congrats again to all the winners. Given the nature of the awards, I have access to nominate next year, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will not want to participate much next year. As usual, I’ll probably keep an eye on things, but as mentioned above, I feel like my preferred style is not in fashion much these days, but I guess we’ll see what the future brings.

2022 Hugo Awards: Final Ballot

The voting deadline for the 2022 Hugo Awards is this week, so this is about as final as my Ballot will get. The categories I’m voting in are a bit on the slim side this year, but you only have time and motivation to do so much. Let’s take a gander:

Best Novel

  1. Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir [My Review]
  2. Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki [My Review]
  3. A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine [My Review]
  4. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers [My Review]
  5. She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan [My Review]
  6. A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark [My Review]

Everything after #2 could shift around a bit depending on my mood, and a part of me thought about throwing a “No Award” at #3 and leaving it at that, but that’s unfair. These are all solid books, even if some are not especially my cup of tea. I have no idea what to expect when it comes to the winner. Project Hail Mary seems to be getting a lot of criticism because there’s too much science and math (in Science Fiction? No way!) and not enough character, but it’s always hard to tell how representative such sentiments are…

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Dune
  2. The Green Knight
  3. WandaVision
  4. Space Sweepers
  5. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  6. Encanto

Harder to complain about voters’ tendency to favor bland blockbusters over anything artistic or weird when you’ve got The Green Knight as a finalist. Even Wandavision takes some pretty bold chances (even if the ending rubs me the wrong way). Still, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others.

Additional Categories

  • I took a look at some short fiction categories, but didn’t get anywhere close to having read enough to actually vote.
  • I might catch up with the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form episodes I haven’t seen yet (but I doubt any would surpass For All Mankind: The Grey.
  • I might also catch up with some of the fan awards (Fan Writer and Fanzine both have folks I already follow, so might as well make it official).

And that about covers the 2022 Hugo Awards Final Ballot… stay tuned in a few weeks for the results!