Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Dune

Frank Herbert
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Dune is a complex book (and a complex world) and it is impossible to say everything I want to say about it in just a few paragraphs.

In it, Herbert creates a rich universe of worlds bound together by layer upon layer of intricate political intrigue and manipulation. It is easy to believe that their technology, religion, and governmental systems are results of thousands of years of evolution since our own time; they are all mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic. The interstellar space travel and the laser weaponry seem to come from far in our future, but the backward gender roles and hybrid combo-religions seem to come from deep in our past.

The story takes place almost entirely on Dune, one of the planets in Herbert’s universe. Dune is inhospitable, being almost completely covered by desert and populated by enormous man-eating worms. But it is also the only source of “the spice,” the universe’s most important natural resource, which is not only physically addictive but is also the source of energy for all inter-world space transportation. Noble off-world families are constantly jostling and scheming to control Dune and thereby control the supply of spice. The nobles also are cruelly repressive to the Fremen, the native desert people of Dune, who do the scut work in the spice mining operations, wear long robes, are deeply religious, and are somewhat repressive, in turn, to their women.

(Stop me if you see an allegory for anything in our own world here.)

To try to make a very long story short, the book begins with the good guys (Duke Leto Atreides, his wife Jessica, and his son Paul) taking over the management of Dune from the bad guys (their cousins, the evil Duke Harkonnen and his two nephews) following a lukewarm edict from the emperor. The Harkonnens don’t want to leave so they sabotage the Atreides’s takeover, planting booby traps all over their house. Duke Leto is killed and his wife and son flee into the desert.

All appears to be lost… except that Paul & his mother are taken in by the Fremen. It turns out that the Fremen have been living underground, concealing their numbers, training themselves in battle, and patiently preparing for hundreds of years to receive a prophesied messiah who will lead them in a great jihad against the imperium and help them to reclaim the planet. It takes a while for them to warm up to Paul and, especially, his mother, who is a powerful practitioner of the Bene Gesserit religion which they think of as witchcraft, but eventually the Fremen start to accept that Paul might just be the savior they have been waiting for.

I saw David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune before I read the book for the first time. I don’t normally like to do that because it means I’m thinking about the movie’s actors and sets the whole time I’m reading, but in this case, it worked. Partly because the book is rich enough not to be boxed in by a single move. And partly because the movie is great. Sure, it is a bit goofy, and doesn’t stick exactly to the book, but the worms are awesome and it has excellent actors in it (Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Linda Hunt, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, and Brad Dourif, to name just my favorites) who I enjoyed mentally plugging into their roles as I was reading.

The book also explores certain plot points more deeply than a two-plus-hour movie has any hope of doing. For one thing, the book talks more about the CHOAM spice corporation and its influence over the royalty of the universe of Dune. It makes even more obvious a statement about the danger of becoming dependent on a single limited resource and how this is a situation ripe for corruption.

The book also goes deeper into the role of Jessica’s Bene Gesserit religion. If you just saw the movie, you’d think the BGs were only religious priestesses and that everything that Paul and Jessica did to prove themselves to the Fremen really was entirely supernatural. But what you learn from the book is that generations of BGs have been following a specific plan. They’ve been going around to different planets, using their roles as Reverend Mothers to deliberately plant legends and prophesies, and then attempting through selective breeding and strict training to create people to make those prophesies come true.

This is not to say that there isn’t still a very strong element of magic in Paul’s powers. He does have abilities that the Bene Gesserits didn’t plan for, which eventually makes events on Dune spiral out of their control.

This is an impressive, impressive book. There were just a couple things about Herbert’s writing that were downers for me and that separated this book from being an epic on the level of Lord of the Rings.

The main one is that all the good guys have a mystical instinct for always knowing the right thing to do in a given situation. None of the chosen people have to puzzle it out or make mistakes. Paul and his mother always get out of tight spots just by mysteriously – bing! – knowing what they have to do or exactly the right words to say. The line “Then Paul knew what he had to do” came up about two hundred times and by the one hundredth, I was pretty sick of it. Whether it was because he really was the prophesied savior or because of the BG implantation and pre-seeding of legend, it didn’t matter to me.

And then every time Paul does or says something preordained by prophesy, the Fremen around him gasp and breathlessly nod to themselves saying, “Yes, he is the one.” It gets kind of annoying with all the wonder and awe of him – especially because he can be, on occasion, a bit of a jerk.

Actually, everybody is always in awe of or enchanted by something. Paul himself is even enchanted by the simplicity of Fremen dew collectors. Really?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Distribution of Star Ratings

To give the reader some context for individual reviews.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

Arthur C. Clarke
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This novel is not one of Clarke’s best, but I basically enjoyed it.

The book follows several intertwining, somewhat-related plot lines which seem a little bit artificially mashed together. As usual with Clarke, though, the science in it is realistic and impeccable. And the last half of the book, which focuses almost completely on only one of the plots, is pretty exciting.

The main story takes place in 2069. Humans have established colonies on the moon and several other planets in our solar system. Vannevar Morgan, an engineer who has become world-famous for building a bridge across the Straights of Gibraltar, now wants to build a space elevator. This would essentially be an incredibly tall tower extending from a point on Earth’s equator all the way up through the ionosphere to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. Goods could be brought up and down the elevator using relatively cheap electricity, and ships could shuttle those goods between the space station and other planets without having to waste energy getting in and out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Morgan needs to build the earth-bound terminal station of the elevator (a) in the area of greatest gravitational stability and (b) at an elevation high enough to avoid hurricanes. The best place is one particular mountain on the fictional island of Taprobane (which Clarke has modeled after Sri Lanka) in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the location is already occupied by a 2,000-year-old Buddhist monastery and the monks are reluctant to leave, to say the least.

Interwoven with this modern story is the story of the corrupt and ruthless king Kalidasa who ruled Taprobane 2,000 years ago. He built an enormous pleasure palace, including elaborate fountains kept filled by water-carrying slaves, next to the same Buddhist monastery, and his disruptive presence and decadent lifestyle led to similar quarrels with the monks.

Another parallel story is that of Starglider, an interstellar probe built by aliens on a planet 52 light years away, which passes through our solar system in the early 21st century. Starglider is definitive proof that we are not alone and forever changes our understanding of our place in the universe.

Debates about God and religion come up throughout the book. There is constant tension between those who feel that you should not challenge the gods (usually represented by the monks) and those who appear to challenge them (represented primarily by Morgan, Kalidasa, and Starglider).

The God debate holds promise and the separate plots are interesting in themselves. The space elevator is particularly tantalizing because it could, in fact, be built today, if we put our minds to it (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s exploration of the idea in his Mars trilogy). Unfortunately, together, the different story lines make for a little bit of a disconcerting jumble. And the messages Clarke seems to want to send us about challenging God (if, in fact, that is what we are doing) are muddled; there are sympathetic and unsympathetic characters on both sides.

I did, of course, appreciate Clarke’s reference to R. Gabor’s Pharmacological Basis of Religion, published in 2069 by Miskatonic University Press.

One technical note: If you’re getting this book used or from the library, avoid the 1979 hardcover edition as it has a few erroneously transposed paragraphs in key places towards the end.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Camouflage

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Camouflage is not a deep or complex book, but it is a real treat to read. It’s a fast-paced, excellently-written story with an interesting central character, and it’s funny.

The plot is this: millions of years ago, two aliens landed on earth. They don’t know about each other, having come from different planets and having landed at different times and different places. One came in a spaceship that crashed on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. We’re not sure where or how the other one arrived.

Both aliens are shape-shifters and can take the shape of any one or any thing they want. The body chemistry that allows them to do this also makes them invulnerable to any germ or weapon or predator so they could, theoretically, live forever.

The alien that arrived in the spaceship, “the changeling,” is primarily interested in gaining knowledge of the world around it. The other alien, “the chameleon,” is primarily interested in eliminating competition and staying at the top of the food chain.

The two aliens take the form of various animate or inanimate objects as necessary to best pursue their respective goals. Over the centuries, the memory of who they are and where they came from becomes hazier and hazier, but they both know they are not like the rest of life on earth and both are constantly searching for others like themselves (for different reasons, in keeping with their different aims).

Being drawn to intra-species violence, the chameleon makes the transition to human form quite early, several millennia B.C. The changeling, on the other hand, finds itself drawn to the Pacific Ocean so it spends a lot of time as sharks and whales and only takes human form for the first time in 1931.

Eventually, in 2020, the changeling’s crashed spaceship is discovered and hauled up on land to be analyzed. This gets a lot of press which immediately attracts the attention of both aliens, who wangle their respective ways into the closely-guarded project where they inevitably meet other.

Over the course of the book, the changeling gradually learns what it is to be human. At first it, like the chameleon, is only concerned with survival; it has no concept of human emotions and makes several terrible mistakes which hurt people around it. But little by little it gains understanding and sympathy. The chameleon gains no such understanding.

Both the changeling and the chameleon experience war but have opposite reactions to it. The chameleon feeds off of the violence and joins in as often as possible. The changeling, who in one incarnation does a stint as an American prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March, is confused by atrocities and our inconsistent behavior and eventually becomes repulsed by the killing.

The only real gripes I had with the book were that (a) the chameleon’s pre-Earth background was so undefined, (b) the suspense about the inevitable confrontation between the two aliens builds through the entire book and then at the end everything is wrapped up in a nice bow in just a couple pages, and (c) I didn't really like the human characters all that much.

But that’s okay. It is all made up for by Haldeman’s terrific writing, which, to me, is the best thing about the whole book. He is succinct, matter-of-fact, and funny. He writes the way I’d hope I could write if I wrote a novel.

I know that individual paragraphs will not do him justice, because, out of context, they lose much of the book’s overall flavor. Nevertheless, here are a couple examples from Camouflage.

Describing the changeling’s experiences as a Marine at boot camp in 1941:
“For the first week they did little other than run, march, and suffer through calisthenics, from five in the morning until chow call at night – and sometimes a few more miles’ run after dinner, just to settle their stomachs. The changeling found it all fairly restful, but observed other people’s responses to the stress and did an exactly average amount of sweating and groaning. At the rifle range, it aimed to miss the bull’s eye most of the time, without being conspicuously bad.”
On how the changeling spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s:
“It was an exotic dancer and part-time prostitute in Baltimore for a while, then a short-order cook back in Iowa City. As an old lady, it read palms on the county-fair circuit in the Midwest, and returned to California in its old Jimmy body to be a surf bum for a couple of seasons.

Sacrificing half its mass, it became a juggling dwarf with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, making contacts in the freak world. It met some interesting people, but they all seemed to be from Earth, no matter what they claimed.

It married the Bearded Lady, an even-tempered and sardonic hermaphrodite, and they lived together until 1996. The changeling left behind a hundred ounces of gold and no explanation, and became a student again.”
When the scientists studying the alien spaceship realize that there is likely at least one alien on earth, and that the alien will likely have taken human form and could be anyone, and that the way to identify the alien is that it will not have human DNA:
“In fact, by the time Jack said this, every employee at the CIA had donated a few cheek cells to the agency, as had employees of NSA and Homeland Security. A ‘suggestion’ had come down from the White House that all of the country’s leaders be tested. …

The tests proved that every member of the American intelligence community was human, at least in a nominal sense, and so were all prominent politicians, including the president, which surprised a few people.”

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Red Sox Add Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford

We arrived in Boston in 1995 and immediately became Sox fans. A scant nine years and a dues-paying 2003 ALCS later, we had delivered a World Championship to the Old Towne Team after an 86-year drought. Then, three years later, in 2007, another. In other words, a lifetime's worth of World Series victories in just 12 years.

Since then, I have been sort of hoping for a few years of Red Sox mediocrity to, you know, shake out the "pink hats" and the luxury-box types and let us real fans get in to see a game once in a while.

In the service of this yearning, we canceled our cable TV, and with it, 162-game Sox coverage, just before the lackluster and injury-plagued 2010 season began. This was a development which I was allowed to chalk up to my own shrewd forecasting skills.

But if they're going to go for it, they might as well go all the way:

Pedroia 2B
Crawford LF
Youkilis 3B
Gonzalez 1B
Ortiz DH
Drew RF
Scutaro/Lowrie SS
Saltalamacchia/Varitek C
Ellsbury CF

This will be a fearsome lineup indeed. So say we all, bring on the pink hats and another World Championship!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study (Revised and Expanded 12/3/10)

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge. You may need to click twice to expand it to its full size.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


Flowers for Algernon is a seminal work, not only of science fiction but of fiction in general. It is written in the form of the diary of a mentally retarded man, Charlie Gordon, who starts out with an IQ of 70 and then goes through an experimental procedure which temporarily raises his IQ to a genius level of over 180.

This is a great premise and Keyes tells the story well. The book allows you to look into the mind of someone you wouldn’t normally understand and see him as an equal.

Charlie originally works as a janitor in a bakery and thinks everyone there is his friend. As he grows more intelligent, he realizes that his co-workers have actually been ridiculing him and making him the butt of their jokes the whole time.

And he realizes that the scientists experimenting with him see him only as an object, as something they’ve created. “It’s frightening to realize,” he says, “that my fate is in the hands of men who are not the giants I once thought them to be, men who don’t know all the answers.”

Not only is this extremely upsetting to him, but it is also threatening to the people around him. His relationship with his experimenters becomes increasingly hostile. His co-workers turn against him and petition to have him fired. He realizes that:
“It had been alright as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. I had betrayed them, and they hated me for it.”
He has had to grow up and learn, as we all do, that our revered authority figures are only human. And he’s had to compress that whole process into just a few months.

I quite appreciate the pain of this disillusionment. Unfortunately, however, there were two major things that turned me off about this book.

The first was that I didn’t like the characters very much. Not Charlie Gordon, or the scientists experimenting on him, or his sympathetic teacher Miss Kinnian, or his co-workers in the bakery. They seemed (respectively) cold and arrogant, self-centered, dippy, and mean.

The second was the omnipresent, kitschy 1950s-era psychology. Charlie’s post-experimental monitoring is full of Rorschach tests, dream therapy, and the use of free association to “remove mental barriers.” During key moments of change, instead of explaining what is happening to him in any accessible way, Charlie tends to go into trippy meditative trances complete with shimmering flowers and balls of light and mental voyages into the universe.

The Speed of Dark, which came out in 2003, was consciously modeled after Flowers for Algernon but I liked it much more. The autistic man who was The Speed of Dark’s main character had compatriots, autistic co-workers coping with their own challenges in their own ways. The key non-autistic people in his life were more interesting. The interactions he had with minor characters – a policeman, his landlady, his mechanic, people in his fencing class – were human and subtle. And his inner thoughts were always comprehensible, even as panicky as they sometimes were.

Algernon was originally published as a short story in 1959 and I actually think that the shorter version is better. Perhaps because it necessarily has to focus on the central plot and doesn’t have as much time to expose the characters or to get into wacky psycho-pop.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Review: Doritos

For my birthday I picked out five 99-cent bags of Doritos brand tortilla chips, each one a different variety. I paired each selection with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. 

Doritos Late Night Cheeseburger
I was amazed. These chips really do taste exactly like a cheeseburger. I would like to know more about the source of the "Natural Beef Flavor." In the future, all foods will be delivered in chip form.

Doritos Collisions: Pizza Cravers + Ranch
The Collisions concept is simple: Just sweep up whatever chips happen to be on the floor of the factory at the end of the day and jumble them together in a single bag. Back to the brooms guys, this combo didn't really do it for me.

Doritos Spicy Nacho
Just a Doritos Nacho Cheese with more Nacho. I say, if you're going to add Nacho, then you should really add quite a lot of Nacho. This chip did not live up to the hype re: quantity of Nacho.

Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili
The best part about this chip is the package design. The word "Spicy" is rendered in a heavy-metal "devil" font while "Sweet" is done in an informal feminine script to indicate that it was written by an angel. Perhaps a good "date chip" but I do not like to encounter sweetness when consuming salty snacks.

Doritos Blazin' Buffalo and Ranch
Again with the Ranch. What is Ranch? What is the origin of the Ranch flavor? How is this flavor related to the herding of livestock? I don't know. It just appeared at some point during the 1970s. As for "Blazin' Buffalo," again we have a case of overselling. There is nothing blazing about this buffalo. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: The Healer's War

Elizabeth Anne Scarborough
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The Healer’s War is a moving real-life account of one woman’s service in the Vietnam war in the guise of a good science fiction story.

The main character, Lieutenant Kitty McCulley, is a nurse at a U.S. Army hospital near China Beach. Her hospital treats wounded American GIs as well as South Vietnamese civilians. McCulley isn’t always great about keeping her cool or doing things exactly by the book but she genuinely cares about her patients and tries her best for all of them, whatever color they are.

The American soldiers usually stay for only a short time and then are shipped to better-equipped hospitals back home. The Vietnamese civilians, having nowhere else to go, tend to stay longer, and McCulley develops something of a bond with several of them.

One of her Vietnamese patients is a holy man, a healer, who had both legs blown off by a bomb. She cannot save him but before he dies, he gives her his magical amulet. The amulet reveals auras – clouds of color around people and animals that show how they are really feeling and where their pain is – and it also focuses her energy to give her tremendous powers of healing.

Both of these powers come in very handy when she is transporting one of her patients to another hospital and their helicopter is shot down, leaving her and her one-legged, ten-year-old patient to slog their way through miles of Vietnamese jungle until they are eventually captured by the Viet Cong.

While the jungle section contains most of the adventure in the book, my favorite parts were the first section, in the hospital, and the last little section, after McCulley gets back home to the States, because they are both so clearly based on the author’s own experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam and as a returning vet.

In the first section, Scarborough paints vivid pictures with details. Everyday life at the hospital is largely miserable for McCulley, with the smells (disinfectant, pot, latrines), the heat, the rain, and the bugs. Her nylons fuse to her legs with sweat and the plastic earpiece on the telephone has been melted by the bug spray everyone wears. She deals with so many angry, aggressive, and/or flirtatious soldiers that the nice ones can actually be the most unsettling. But, at the same time, Vietnam can be beautiful to her, with misty mountains covered in hundreds of shades of green.

The last section of the book is equally powerful. It doesn’t give away anything about the book’s central plot to say that when McCulley comes home from Vietnam, she is suffering from shock and trauma and is isolated from those around her. She has real trouble adjusting to life with relatives and friends who have no concept of what the war was like. It is very hard to watch her go sluggishly through the motions of trying to repair herself until she finally realizes she can’t do it all on her own.

I also very much liked McCulley’s personality. She’s a realist and she makes it easy to put yourself in her shoes. She’s exhausted and depressed by the war but she doesn’t make too many excuses for herself. She thinks of herself as an inept, incompetent nurse who isn’t doing a terrific job, and sometimes she does screw up, but her compassion and care for her patients come through loud and clear.

The only major knock I have on this book is that the power of the amulet goes a little too far; in particular, it eventually allows her to understand Vietnamese perfectly. This makes communication with her VC captors conveniently easy but it seems inconsistent with the amulet’s other attributes, which are more vague and impressionistic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tax Expenditures

There's plenty to criticize in the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici deficit reduction proposals that have been offered in the last week. Our number-one problem right now is punishingly high unemployment, not the projected deficit in 2030. Also, our long-term fiscal problem is almost entirely a health-care story, and neither plan really addresses that.

But punishingly high unemployment is a really hard problem to solve, and health care is even tougher, so instead I'm going to talk – muse, really – about how much I like the fact that both fiscal proposals adopt the technique of "zeroing out" all the various tax deductions and credits that tend to accumulate in the tax code over time, thereby forcing would-be deficit cutters to justify their full cost if they want to add them back in.

The home mortgage-interest deduction is an obvious one. At the margin, it might turn a few renters into homeowners, but the vast bulk of the expenditure goes toward subsidizing larger, costlier homes than people would otherwise purchase. And, like all tax deductions, it is worth more to high-income families, who have bigger interest bills and higher tax rates, than it is to low-income families. Many if not most of those marginal home-buyers pay too little in interest to itemize anyway; they take the standard deduction and derive no benefit from this subsidy.

Then there are the various tax credits for children, for postsecondary education, for storm windows, for electric cars. If we want to subsidize children and education and storm windows and electric cars, we ought to appropriate the funds and send folks a check so they can pay for these items. That's harder to do politically, but it's more honest.

Businesses get special tax breaks on research and development expenditures, and from time to time they also manage to get Congress to pass accelerated depreciation rules, supposedly to encourage the purchase of capital equipment. Both subsidies may well be worthy goals; if so, let's just cut them a check for R&D and for capital equipment. I imagine this sort of thing would be distasteful to rugged-individualist business owners, but we all have to do our part.

In addition to distorting our economic decision-making and letting economic policy-makers off the hook, these tax breaks, deductions, credits, and so on all cost money. That's why analysts call them "tax expenditures." To offset the expenditure, we have to raise the statutory tax rate. It's like when a furniture store raises the retail price of a sofa before announcing a 50% off sale.

The 1986 tax reform, which abolished many tax breaks, including the preferential rate on capital gains, offers a partial guide, and I'm surprised I haven't heard more people citing it. The broader tax base made lower rates possible, though we may have overshot on the rate-cutting. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both had to raise taxes in the early 1990s to deal with burgeoning deficits. Still, "broaden the base and lower the rates" is the right starting point for any reform.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Ingenious Arrangement of Lights and Mirrors

No, it's not the latest deficit-reduction plan from Washington, it's an article from Modern Mechanics and Inventions, May 1932!

Via Modern Mechanix. Perhaps of special interest to Whorfin.

Ten 1000-watt lamps, "concentrated light-rays," sound-proofed rooms. Sounds like a flash-fire waiting to happen. Luckily, the theater is loaded with asbestos!

Text in full here.

I guess it's noteworthy that the inventor chose bridge as the best application of his invention, as opposed to chess, say, or mah-jongg or skittles.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Death and the Joyful Woman

Ellis Peters
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This is yet another well-put-together British mystery.

It starts with the violent murder of a businessman hated by many people for a variety of reasons. Someone is arrested for the crime but the detectives (and the reader) are convinced the accused person is innocent. The book follows the entire business of investigating the crime and finding the true killer.

There are negatives to this book, indeed, but they are outweighed by the positives.

The Positives

The two sleuths are likeable – both the official professional (the police detective, George Felse) and the unofficial amateur (George’s inquisitive teenage son Dominic).

The story is very well constructed. Peters does a nice job of ramping up the tension toward the end so that the climactic scene really is very exciting.

Peters exhibits hardly any of that annoying habit some mystery writers have where they too obviously keep things from the reader that would let the reader put together the clues themselves. Or the habit of trying to string the reader along and make the book more suspenseful by hinting clumsily at what the reader has already figured out, to the point where the reader wants to scream, "I know it was the butler already!" In this book, as you figure things out, the story is right there with you, acknowledging what you've figured out and then taking you to the next step.

There are some great quirky phrases in this book. I don’t know whether they’re more a result of Peters’ creativity, nationality, or era but they’re excellent:
"A sprat to catch a mackerel was fair enough"

"he was laughing like a drain"

"speak of the devil and his bat wings rustle behind you"

"working as packer and porter and general dog's body at Malden's"

"I never said anything to the fellows, naturally, but it leaked in around dawn, with the milk"
The Negatives

Some of the non-detective characters are ridiculous.

Particularly Kitty, a young woman with a complex relationship to the murdered man. Kitty is beautiful, innocent, and dippy. She does a lot of gasping and looking astonished and pleading with her big violet eyes. Naturally, guys feel rewarded just helping her out. She is like many young females in 1950s-1960s novels who are supposedly wild and rebellious, but never actually so rebellious as to be socially unacceptable.

Also, the police detective's wife, Bunty. She is completely understanding and helps her husband talk things out when he needs to even though he has a major crush on Kitty and she knows it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Prisoner

We're enjoying "The Prisoner," a 17-episode sci-fi/spy series from 1967-68, now out on Blu-Ray and available on Netflix. This unusually long opening sequence, which includes a commercial break, plays at the beginning of each episode in order to give even the casual viewer a complete understanding of the premise of the series.

The exteriors of "The Village"/prison were shot in a fanciful resort in Wales.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Book Review: Seeker

Jack McDevitt
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is great in many ways. It is an exciting detective story with appealing central characters, plenty of outer-space travel, and a satisfying ending.

The story takes place many centuries in the future, after humans have developed faster-than-light travel and colonized several worlds. It is narrated by Chase Kolpath, an interstellar pilot. Kolpath and her boss, Alex Benedict, make up the staff of Rainbow Enterprises, a company that explores remote sections of space, finds ancient artifacts from abandoned space stations and failed colonies, and sells the artifacts to collectors.

It is lucrative. But Kolpath and Benedict are always running afoul of archaeologists and historians who view their business as theft, and this tension pervades the entire book.

The book’s adventure begins when a woman asks Rainbow Enterprises to appraise an antique cup with the seal of the starship Seeker on it. The cup turns out to be 9,000 years old and to be, just possibly, a relic of an ancient lost colony.

In researching it, Kolpath and Benedict find out that back in the 25th century, Earth was overpopulated, poor, plague-stricken, and ruled by a series of harsh authoritarian regimes. A small group of idealists, the Margolians, fled Earth in two rickety starships, including one named Seeker. Whether they successfully established a new Eden for themselves or died in the attempt, hey were never heard from again. Their fate at first became the subject of novels and films but gradually their memory faded to the point where most people in Kolpath & Benedict’s time now think it is merely a legend.

If the cup can be proven to be from this lost colony, and if it can be used to trace the colony’s location, it could be Rainbow’s greatest find ever.

Together, Benedict and Kolpath unravel the secrets of the ancient emigrants. They do library research; they talk to avatars of the long-lost Margolians; they explore remote sections of outer space; they have daring adventures and evade several attempts on their life.

This was the first time I had read anything by Jack McDevitt. I liked it so much I immediately read the prequel, Polaris, which was just as good and which suffered not at all from being read out of order.

Stephen King has called McDevitt “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” That is a pretty high bar, but King might be right. McDevitt’s writing is straightforward and the process of putting together the pieces of the puzzle keeps your attention the whole time.

One of the things I liked best about this book (and about Polaris, too) was Chase Kolpath. She is matter-of-fact and thrives under pressure. People naturally call her by her last name. She is a great pilot and her boss respects her as such. Benedict is a better sleuth, but when his investigations put their lives in immediate physical danger, she’s always the one who keeps her head clear and gets them out of it. She has a private life and keeps it private, from both her boss and largely from the reader, too. She likes a party and goes out with guys but doesn’t get attached to any one of them.

I also liked the ways that McDevitt layers fiction within fiction. He puts a quote at the beginning of each of his chapters, for example; sometimes it is from a real (19th-20th century) author, but more often it is from fake fiction or fake philosophy, written sometime during the 21st-26th centuries. The quotes don’t feel like the rest of McDevitt’s writing so it really does feel like he is borrowing from other authors.

Also, as a side project, Kolpath decides to watch all the films based on the Margolian legend. Her summaries of the plots of the movies she watches are really funny.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Key to Getting Your Team to the World Series

Is to hire Edgar Renteria to be your shortstop. The San Francisco Giants are the third different World Series team he's been on since 2003.

Renteria won the Series with the Marlins in 2003, and then went to the St. Louis Cardinals. He grounded sharply back to the pitcher—"Stabbed by Foulke!"—to make the last out of the 2004 World Series against the Red Sox.

He never found his footing here in Boston in 2005. Too bad, because I like him a lot. That summer of 2005, we got a mailing from a local storage locker company promoting a grand opening where he would be signing autographs. Impatient Red Sox fans were already heaping scorn upon him, and the low-rent nature of the event was heartbreakingly pathetic.

I guess he's more of a National League type player.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Startide Rising

David Brin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Startide Rising takes place in the future. The now regularly space-faring humans have made contact with the Galactics, an inter-galactic federation of alien species.

The Galactics are governed by the laws of “uplift.” Uplift is a process in which a “patron” race of advanced, sentient beings takes on the responsibility for educating, mentoring, and, on occasion, physically modifying “client” races of less advanced, pre-sentient beings. The goal is for the clients to become sentient and space-faring and, in turn, to become patrons for client races of their own.

Uplift is the polar opposite of the Prime Directive. What it means is that as soon as you find a promising pre-sentient race, you need to swoop in and declare them to be your clients before anyone else does.

Every single sentient Galactic species alive was uplifted by another, more advanced species. The chain of patrons and clients extends back millions of years to the revered, semi-mythical “Progenitors,” the first race and the only race to have ever uplifted themselves.

The only race to have uplifted themselves, that is, besides humans.

The apparently “orphan” humans are almost universally hated. They are seen as impudent upstarts. And, just by existing, they call the whole system of uplift into question; how could humans have uplifted themselves when no species more intelligent and sophisticated was able to?

Anyway, once exposed to the idea of uplift, the humans quickly took on two client races of their own – chimpanzees and dolphins.

The plot of Startide centers on the maiden voyage of the Earth spaceship Streaker, which is captained and primarily crewed by dolphins with a small contingent of humans and one chimpanzee.

Streaker’s original mission is to test the fitness of dolphins as a space-faring race. But that quickly changes when they stumble across a derelict ghost fleet abandoned in a remote corner of the universe – a fleet that may actually be related to the Progenitors. And they are able to retrieve a corpse from the wreckage.

As soon as the rest of the universe hears about the ghost fleet, they all rush in to fight the Earthlings and each other over what the Earthlings have found. Streaker is damaged in the conflict but is temporarily able to escape, limping away and crash-landing on a semi-hospitable planet nearby.

The rest of the book takes place on this planet, with the Earthlings trying to repair their ship and get back home with their discoveries before the Galactics finish fighting each other and catch up to them.

The story is basically okay, but it does feel a bit like a contrived vehicle for illustrating the uplift concept rather than a story that arose on its own because it was inherently riveting.

Uplift is an interesting idea, and Brin creates a coherent set of laws supporting it. The other client and patron races in the book are varied and show how different patron species treat their clients very differently; some see clients as servants while others genuinely do try to make them self-sufficient.

But uplift also makes me uncomfortable. For one thing, the genetic manipulation that patron races use to speed the process – altering a dolphin’s blowhole to make human language sounds, for example, or gradually turning fins into hands – seems wrong. It leaves a lot of room for error and evil (as is borne out in the story).

For another thing, I was skeptical of the overpowering awe in which clients hold their patrons. The dolphins and chimps are capable pilots, scientists, and doctors but they humble themselves to even the lowliest human. They drop everything to aid a human in distress, even over another chimp or dolphin or their own safety. If I was a member of a client species, I don’t know if I would be so universally deferential.

This is the second novel of six that Brin set in his Uplift universe. I generally enjoyed this one and the third, The Uplift War (which I read because it was also a Hugo winner), but feel no need to read the other four.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Are the Centuries

To celebrate having written reviews of exactly half of the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel winners to date, Cthulhu is taking a vacation today.

For those of you who think this means you will get away without your weekly science fiction exposure, think again! I give you this brilliantly depressing passage from A Canticle for Leibowitz.

We are the centuries; the unstoppable advance churning and using up people.

We are the centuries.

We are the chin-choppers and the golly-woppers, and soon we shall discuss the amputation of your head.

We are your singing garbage-men, Sir and Madam, and we march in cadence behind you, chanting rhymes that some think odd.

Hut two threep foa!









Wir, as they say in the old country, marschieren weiter wenn allese in Scherben fällt.

We have your eoliths and your mesothils and your neoliths. We have your Babylons and your Pompeiis, your Caesars and your chromium-plated (vital-ingrediant-impregnated) artifacts.

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas. We march in spite of Hell, we do –

Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,

Telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve

And a traveling salesman called Lucifer.

We bury your dead and their reputations. We bury you. We are the centuries.

Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon’s slap, seek manhood, taste a little of godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb:

(Dying, leave quietly by the rear exit, please.)

Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading List from the 8th Dimension

Cthulhu's excellent book reviews have lately caused me to consider my own reading habits. There are lots and lots of books that someone has mentioned to me or I've seen in an article or review, and mentally put on my list to read someday.

On reflection, it turns out that I have a fairly consistent pattern. I seem to alternate between two types -- "great books" that I both want to read and feel I should read at some point in my life before I kick the bucket, and books that I have a somewhat guilty pleasure about but simply want to read anyway.

Here are some recent favorites from the first bucket:

Don Quixote (Edith Grossman's newish translation, which I loved)
Will Durant's Story of Philosophy
Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain
Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall
Richard Feynman's autobiography
Twain's Life on the Mississippi
Somerset Maugham's collection of stories about the South Seas

The second bucket consists mostly of the sorts of sci-fi books Cthulhu reviews -- though I'm usually kicking it more old school with space opera types.

I still have a bunch more to go on my "great books" list -- I have my great-grandparents' Hawthorne and Tolstoy collections in our living room library and hope to make it through them (or at least a couple of volumes) at some point. But I'm currently taking recommendations -- what should I tackle when I'm done with Balzac's Cousin Bette?

Also, I'm awarding a special prize for anyone who can guess which "great book" I just couldn't make it through. It's only happened once. Here's a hint -- it was written in 1759.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This book is a great example of one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres: post-nuclear-war Earth.

The book’s back story is that sometime towards the end of the 20th century, a global nuclear war nearly destroyed all life on Earth. Afterward, bands of survivors turned in fury against anyone who they felt was responsible. At first this included mainly scientists and engineers and physicists but eventually came to include anyone who was merely literate.

The few learned people who escaped being killed by angry mobs fled to the one institution that would protect them – the Catholic Church. There, a former electrician named Leibowitz organized them into “memorizers,” who memorized as many of the old texts as possible (like in Fahrenheit 451), and “bookleggers,” who scavenged for any books that may have survived and brought them to the abbeys to be hidden.

The story is told in three parts, each separated by hundreds of years from the next. All three parts center on the brothers of the Order of Leibowitz, who live in a remote abbey in the desert that used to be the southwestern United States.

The first part of Canticle opens several hundred years into this new Dark Ages. There is no electricity, no industry; the country is divided into loose territories ruled by warlords; people dress in homespun and grow all their own food; travelers are terrorized by bandits. So much time has passed since the war ended that the technical “Memorabilia” that the priests have painstakingly saved, stored, and recopied is inscrutable even to them. They have a vague sense of their own history only through religious stories and parables that they have memorized by rote.

As the years pass, however, priests and scholars study the abbey’s library and gradually piece together the technology of the old world.

One of the best aspects of this book is the writing itself. I’m far from a softie in this area; I usually like what I’m reading to be straightforward and plain. But the religious imagery and the thoughts and conversations that his characters have are beautifully, archaically written and, at the same time, funny, ironic, and interwoven with modern content. It’s like Lord of Light, but Christian. There are entire sections of the narrative that read like poetry.

Our introduction to this world is through the eyes of Brother Francis, an earnest but somewhat addled young novice in the Leibowitzian Order. To Francis, the nuclear war was “the Flame Deluge;” the period where the survivors murdered anyone literate was “the Age of Simplification.” All the remnants of the war around him – the crumbled buildings, the mutant people – are all part of a divine plan. The most basic accomplishments of “the ancients” (us) in the “twilight of the age of enlightenment” (the end of the 20th century) seem like magic.

In the beginning of the book, Brother Francis is out in the desert suffering through his 30-day Lenten vigil when he stumbles across a tremendous find: a long-buried fallout shelter containing technological relics that may well be connected to the Beatus Leibowitz himself. When Francis reads the ancient sign that says it is a Fallout Shelter, however, he is horrified and won’t open the door. After all, the Fallout Shelter may very well contain a Fallout – “a terrifying beast, a fiend of Hell” – and if he opens it, the Fallout could escape and eat him.

To steel his courage, Francis says some of the vesicles from the litany of the Saints:
From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.

From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
What makes this book great, though, is that not only is it well-written and funny, but it is also depressing and sad.

Throughout the entire book runs a feeling of dread: that humanity may be doomed to an endless cycle of self-destruction. We grow, we learn, we invent, we come to think that we can create Utopia. And then, when we realize that we cannot, we become hopeless and frustrated and angry and crush what we have made.

On the one hand, you feel sorry for the war survivors, fumbling blindly through the world with no electricity or labor-saving devices. You want them to benefit from knowledge, to emerge from the dark. But at the same time you dread the inevitable destruction that knowledge appears to lead to. You know that if they do not recover the science, there will be no danger of another nuclear war. As Miller says:
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America – burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?
All of this takes on even more weight when you find out that Miller shot himself in 1996 at the age of 74.

At the back of my 2006 paperback edition of Canticle, there is a description of the author. It says that Miller was a tail-gunner in a bomber in World War II, “participating in more than fifty-five combat sorties, among them the controversial destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino, the oldest monastery in the Western world.”

Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Review: Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


I really like Joe Haldeman’s writing. And I like the way his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War strongly influence his stories. Forever War, one of his first novels, is a great example of his talents.

Forever Peace (not a sequel) isn’t quite as good as Forever War. But it is similar in that it also deals with the theme of man’s apparently inherent violence towards other men.

I think my main problem with Forever Peace is that it seems like two completely different stories mashed together with hardly any believable link.

The first half of the book – the best half – illustrates Haldeman’s vision of a war fought by remote control. The U.S. and its allies are at war against the Ngumi, a hazy alliance of various Asian, African, and South American countries. The Ngumi, who generally come from poorer nations, use human beings to do their fighting. For us, the war is primarily fought remotely by “soldierboys,” which are giant heavily-armored humanoid robot-type machines. Each soldierboy is controlled by an individual human soldier who is safely reclining on a chair on a U.S. military base and is “jacked in” to his or her soldierboy’s command matrix through a plug at the base of his or her skull.

The soldierboys are used in platoons of ten for rotations of ten days. While platoon members are all jacked in at the same time together, they can see, feel, and think what the others are seeing, feeling, and thinking. This makes for extremely rapid and effective communication but also means there is basically no privacy. It also means a lot of deep trauma when one of them is killed in the line of duty.

The main character, Julian Chase, is a sergeant leading one of these soldierboy platoons in the jungles of Costa Rica. He sees so much carnage and has to do things that affect him so horribly that he has a breakdown and becomes suicidal and therefore useless to his unit.

This is where the first story stops and the second (weaker) story takes over. In addition to being a soldier, Julian also happens to be a physics post-doc at a university in Houston. He’s dating one of his professors, Dr. Amelia Harding, who is working on the Jupiter Project - a project to create the universe’s largest particle accelerator around the planet Jupiter, using that planet’s materials and energy to build it.

After Julian has his breakdown, he joins Amelia in her work and they discover that when it is finally finished and turned on, the Jupiter Project will replicate the Big Bang and thereby destroy the entire universe. The rest of the book becomes a ramped-up race against time in which Julian and Amelia and a small group of their friends battle to get the project stopped in the face of overwhelming sinister and lethal forces who want it to continue.

What happens is that Julian’s friends discover that if you leave people jacked in to each other for two weeks or longer, they become completely empathic and can no longer bring themselves to harm any other human. So the plan is to install jacks in everyone on earth’s head and turn them all into involuntary pacifists, starting with the army, before the Jupiter Project can go live.

The soldierboys do reappear in the second half of the book, as a key part of the plan to stop the Jupiter Project, but, maybe because Julian was dropped quite suddenly into civilian life, they start to seem like big toys rather than terrifying implements of war. Also the plan seems very contrived, and everyone seems a little too eager to jump right in and implement it. I’m not sure I actually would want a world in which everyone on earth was forcibly made into a pacifist.

One thing I particularly liked about Forever Peace was that it presumed the existence of “nanoforges.” Nanoforges are machines that can create anything out of raw materials. You just feed in some ore and minerals and some instructions and it grinds around and returns penicillin or a diamond or a nuclear bomb or whatever you want.

These machines could conceivably bring about a peaceful egalitarian society where all basic needs are taken care of essentially for free and everyone can pursue dreams of education, exploration, and so forth (à la Star Trek). But, instead, Haldeman sets up a world of nanoforge haves and have-nots. This creates a circular situation, like our real world only more so: lack of access to nanoforges means poorer countries are short on food, fuel and medicine; lack of food, fuel, and medicine creates unrest; unrest makes rich countries less likely to want to give the poor countries access to nanoforge technology.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Book Review: Whip Hand

Dick Francis
Awards: Edgar, Gold Dagger
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Yeah! This is exactly what a fast-action, summer-reading kind of mystery novel should be.

As usual with Dick Francis, the story revolves around horse racing. The detective in this book, Sid Halley, is a former jockey who had to quit riding because he lost his left hand (his whip hand) in a racing accident. Sid’s missing hand is a perfect device for making him unique and giving him both physical and mental challenges to overcome.

Sid ends up solving three tricky and somewhat interrelated cases over the course of the book in spite of being threatened and severely beaten and - what turns out to be most difficult of all - having a severe crisis of confidence. I have to admit I don't remember the twists and turns of all of the cases because I was so wrapped up in the plot I just wanted to keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, but the most interesting of the three story lines was a bookmaking scandal in which promising young horses kept developing unexplained heart conditions.

I loved looking into Francis’s hoity-toity and yet also seedy world of English horse racing. I also loved how Francis gave me enough information as the book went along to make me feel like I was solving the case along with Sid; what surprised me surprised him too.

But, at the same time, Francis also held just enough information back to do a very effective call-all-the-characters-into-the-room grand reveal at the end. (Actually, in this book, you get a bonus mini-reveal in addition to the grand reveal, and it comes at just at the right time to make you feel like things just might turn out okay after all the struggle Sid has been through.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Darwin's Radio

Greg Bear
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


I really enjoy Greg Bear’s books. His writing is straightforward and his ideas are original and satisfyingly weird. He’s like the Stephen King of sci-fi. This particular book isn’t overwhelming, but it does have a Bear-ishly unique plot and is fun to read.

Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there has been a debate over the extent to which evolution happens gradually and the extent to which it is punctuated by relatively sudden leaps. In Darwin’s Radio, not only does evolution occur in sudden leaps, but the leaps can be very dramatic, with an entire species reaching a new stage of biological development within a generation or two.

This includes humans.

The book begins with the discovery of the frozen, mummified remains of a prehistoric family – a man, a woman, and a baby – in the Alps. At first, the paleontologist who discovers them thinks they are Neanderthals. But it turns out, upon further investigation, that the baby is Homo sapiens and that the adults were Neanderthals who appear to have physically changed into Homo sapiens shortly around the time their baby was born. It looks as if the parents literally shed their skin to reveal the new evolutionary form. It also looks like these three early humans were murdered.

(Note: I’m assuming that at the time this book was written the scientific consensus still was that Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals. In order to get into the story, you just have to go along with that.)

At the same time that all this prehistorical investigation is going on, something strange is happening to contemporary humans. A new flu-like retrovirus is spreading around the world. Men can be carriers but only women get infected. When a pregnant woman contracts the virus, it makes her abort the fetus. This is very upsetting, of course, and people start panicking. What it takes people a while to realize is that before the fetus aborts, it itself ovulates and leaves behind a new viable fetus… with six extra chromosomes than normal... that continues to develop.

And then, even weirder, when a man and a woman are about to have a baby from one of these new extra-chromosome fetuses, they both start to change physically. Their vocal chords and sense of smell get more sensitive and their facial skin starts peeling off, revealing new patches that change color with emotion.

A biological researcher investigating the retrovirus eventually hooks up with the paleontologist who found the mummies and they put two and two together. They develop the theory that a Homo sapiens gene existed all along in early hominids, in the form of a dormant retrovirus. At some point some kind of species-wide biological clock determined that it was time for the next evolutionary step and activated the virus in the Neanderthals. It caused them to have Homo sapiens babies and caused the parents to change form too, to match their children. Because they were different, these new-form humans were likely feared and persecuted and sometimes even murdered by their earlier-form relatives.

And this is also, of course, what is happening to modern humans. The biological master clock has activated another dormant part of our genetic code. When the first few extra-chromosome babies are born they, too, have sensory patches of color on their faces and they can communicate with their parents in an almost empathic or telepathic way. They are a new stage of human. And they, too, are feared and persecuted by regular old-style humans, and are forced to go into hiding from their families and neighbors and the government. (Setting us up nicely for a sequel, Darwin’s Children.)

My main problem with Darwin’s Radio was that I didn't really like the main characters very much - either the paleontologist or the biologist working on the retrovirus or the modern evolutionarily advanced families. They seemed more like tools for telling the story rather than real rounded personalities. Fortunately, however, the basic ideas were cool and well-developed enough to carry me through the book in spite of the people not being very appealing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Resurrection Men

Ian Rankin
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ – – – –

This might have been one consecutive British mystery too many. Or maybe I’m just missing my sci-fi. But I was extremely, extremely impatient with this book.

I have identified five primary irritants.

First: the plot. It didn’t hold my attention. In the semi-complex story, the main detective/hero, D.I. John Rebus, is sent to remedial detective school undercover, on a thin pretext of insubordination, to investigate other detectives also attending the school who are suspected of corruption. While there, Rebus manages to solve three cases simultaneously – he ferrets out the truth about the officers’ corruption; he and the corrupt cops solve a real-life cold case as part of their class work; and, through phone calls and quick off-campus visits back to his station, Rebus helps a protégé investigator solve the murder of a local art dealer. I didn’t care about any of these three cases enough to really want to keep reading.

Second: the main character. A blurb on the back of the hardcover first edition of this book describes detective Rebus as one of the most "rounded, warts-and-all characters in modern crime fiction." Maybe by “rounded” they meant “ill-defined.” I never got a consistent sense of his personality. Sometimes he was taciturn, gruff, and rebellious against authority, like Mike Hammer. Sometimes he was pained and wrestling with inner demons, like Matt Scudder. And other times he was light-hearted and sarcastic, readily volunteering advice, like Adela Bradley.

Third: ridiculous, gratuitous, contrived nicknaming of secondary characters and even some of the darned buildings. A sampling:

James "Jazz" McCullough
Morris Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty
"Dicky" Diamond, a.k.a. "the Diamond Dog"
Eric "Rico" Lomax
Eric "Brains" Bain
John "Perry" Mason
George "Hi-Ho" Silvers

Fourth: jarringly unnecessary explanations of un-witty banter. For example:

"They got a picture of me? Was it my good side?"
"I wasn't aware that you had a good side."
A low blow, but he let her get away with it.

Thank you for helping us out by telling us that was a low blow.

Fifth: the author constantly trying to impress us with detective Rebus's record collection. While sitting in Rebus’s car or apartment, the secondary characters always manage to find themselves going through his records or CDs. This allows them to make studiedly casual references to long lists of offbeat and/or obscure bands (Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack, R.E.M., Arab Strap, Jackie Leven, Bad Company). Okay, I get it, Rebus has an eclectic, educated, wide-ranging taste in music (and, therefore, so must the author). He’s practically as cool as Quentin Tarantino.

To be fair, there were two things I liked about this book. (1) It takes place in Scotland. (2) There is a preamble at the beginning of the book explaining the British police ranking system (D.S., D.I., D.C.I., etc.) which I'd always been confused by. That explanation has helped me a lot in understanding the relative positions of officers in great British TV mystery series like Foyle’s War and Cracker.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Couple of Points re Obama’s Tax Proposal

A couple things that I don't think have been covered sufficiently, either because they're too subtle for the day-to-day news cycle or because Obama has failed to communicate them; probably some of both.

1. The so-called “Bush Tax Cuts,” as enacted, are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2010. That was the law that President Bush pushed for and signed. He may have wanted and expected the tax cuts to be made permanent at some point, but that's really neither here nor there. You don't get credit for good intentions, or you shouldn't, anyway. If people (with incomes less than $250,000) are paying the same marginal tax rate in 2011 that they did in 2010, that's Obama's doing, not Bush’s. I suppose it's too much to request that such a policy be referred to as the “Obama tax cut;” anyway when even Democratic partisans fail to do so it’s probably not gonna happen.

2. The phrase “allow the tax cuts to expire for those making more than $250,000” makes it sound like people with income in that range are going to lose the entirety of their Bush-era tax cuts. Not so! It just means that they’ll no longer pay the lower Bush-era rates on the dollars above $250,000. Dollars 1 through 250,000 will still be taxed at the lower rates, which means that if Obama follows through on his campaign promise, this cohort will still get a substantial tax cut. Smaller than the tax cut that Bush gave them, sure, but larger than the zero tax cut they’d have if Obama does nothing.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Foundation's Edge

Isaac Asimov
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

…for all of Isaac Asimov’s other Foundation novels.

This is one of the last books in Asimov’s Foundation series (one of the most excellent and significant bodies of work in science fiction). It is hard to describe this book without giving away a lot about the previous books in the series.

This book also incorporates elements of Asimov’s Robot series (yet another excellent and seminal work).

And, because the Foundation series deals with thousands of years of galactic history, it is hard to describe this book without going into a ridiculous amount of back story, which I’m not going to do here.

Clearly, then, the only thing to do is to read all the Robot and Foundation books, in the correct order, and then to read this review, and then to read Foundation’s Edge. (To help you in this worthwhile pursuit, a complete chronology of Asimov’s books can be found here.)

In the 1950s, Asimov began writing a series of books telling the story of the development of humanoid robots in our near future (the Robot series). He simultaneously began a separate series of books about the rise and fall and rise again of a galaxy-wide empire ruling millions of inhabited worlds in our very far future (the Foundation series). He wrote Foundation’s Edge about thirty years after finishing the last of the original Foundation and Robot novels but he intertwines elements of both multi-ologies in this book in his same familiar, clear style as if there had been no break at all. This is a testament to the solidity of the characters, worlds, and concepts he created.

The Foundation novels are built around one main character, Hari Seldon, and the science of psychohistory that he developed. Psychohistory is sort of a combination of mass psychology, sociology, and complex mathematics. With it, Seldon is able to predict the future of society; and what he forecasts is the inevitable decline of the decadent galactic empire which rules at the time he is alive, followed by a painful, chaotic period of several thousand years of division and war, and then the rise of a second (more benevolent) empire bringing peace and stability back to the galaxy. The violent interregnum has the potential to last from one thousand years to thirty thousand years, depending on what people do. So Seldon sets up a foundation of scholars and directs them to guide humanity towards the choices that will shorten the period of chaos as much as possible. He also records a series of holographic animations of himself to be played at key times in the future so he can help guide humanity himself even after he is dead. The Foundation series follows the playing out of this “Seldon plan” across hundreds of years of ups and downs and dangers.

One strange thing about the Foundation series is that there is usually very little action. Often the major crisis in each book involves the characters working to prevent something from happening, rather than to make something happen. They usually center on a skeptic who challenges the assumptions of the majority and who has to use logic and persistence to turn the others around. But it is Asimov’s particular genius that he makes this kind of story interesting and keeps the pages turning.

It helps that the whole concept of psychohistory is awesome and the character of Hari Seldon is enduring and appealing*. And because Asimov covers thousands of years of history in his various novels, he has to invent a ton of other characters, not to mention worlds and governments and advances in technology, and he always does it with extraordinary clarity, believability, creativity, and humor.

Foundation’s Edge takes place 500 years into the chaotic interregnum. The original First Foundation (of regular people) and the Second Foundation (of telepaths) appear to have things well in hand. Things are going perfectly in accordance with the Seldon Plan. Maybe a little too perfectly. People in both foundations grow suspicious that someone is manipulating all of them to align with the Plan, depriving them of independent action. Eventually, their investigations center on a mysterious lost planet, Gaia, which may or may not be the original Earth, and which may or may not be able to control and/or destroy the entire universe.

This book was a mixed bag. It exhibits all the good characteristics of Asimov’s work. It also exhibits his tendency to give his characters silly names and to include a number of pert young women who are attracted to older, professorial-type men.

I liked the First and Second Foundationers, their slow realization that they are being manipulated, and their search for the source of that manipulation in the first half of the book. But the second half was unsatisfactory. I didn’t really like what Gaia turned out to be. And I didn’t buy the climax of the plot, where there was a multiple-choice decision that had to be made to determine the fate of the galaxy and only one guy in the universe could make it. It was a little thin.


* In fact, Nobel-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman admits here that part of the reason he went into economics is because it is the closest thing we have to psychohistory.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Google Instant Search

Is this a joke? What sort of Taylorist keypunch hell are we living in where we are supposed to leap at the chance to “save 2-5 seconds per search?”

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Platonic Ideal of Music Videos

There need not be any further attempts in this medium.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Book Review: No Enemy But Time

Michael Bishop
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I do so love a good time-travel story.

In this one, a top-secret 1980s U.S. Air Force experiment sends the main character, Joshua Kampa, back to Paleolithic East Africa – the time and place of his lifelong recurring dreams.

The book is told in two alternating streams. One stream is Joshua’s back story, which fills you in on his birth in Spain, abandonment by his birth mother, adoption by USAF personnel, and education in the United States, right up to the point where he gets chosen for his time-traveling mission. The other stream is the story of Joshua’s present, in which he is sent two million years back in time, meets up with a group of Homo habilis and lives with them for almost two years.

To get the negatives out of the way first: I did find the last part of the novel a little unsatisfying (from the time Joshua decides he wants to leave the Paleolithic on through to the end of the book). It suddenly picks up tremendous speed and then stops with a whump. I was expecting either more resolution of outstanding issues or fewer new outstanding issues raised so close to the end. But this end section is a very small portion of the book.

The ending also has a little bit of deus ex machina to it. But, to Bishop’s credit, he comes right out and admits as much to the reader.

I also had a little bit of a problem buying Bishop’s mechanism for time travel. The idea is that a tiny number of people in the world have the gift (or curse) of extremely visceral recurring dreams about a single particular place and time, like pre-Columbian South Dakota or Dachau in the 1940s. Often they have had this dream “attunement” since childhood. A scientist in the Air Force has developed a machine that will tap into the unconscious of these dreamers and allow them to physically appear in the place and time of their vision. I realize that time travelling is thin in and of itself, but having the vehicle be driven by the chrononaut's dreaming ability seemed a bit thinner than thin.

If you can get over these drawbacks, which really are minor, you’re in for a very good read. The way Bishop writes it, life in the African savannah two million years ago was scary and brutal but also beautiful. The details of early hominid group behavior were completely believable to me. I liked how Joshua changed as he learned more about the individual "habilines" in his group, was accepted by them, and grew to love them. As with the characters in The Doomsday Book, I grew to have a lot of respect for Joshua’s Paleolithic friends and the way they dealt with the world without 21st-century knowledge and technology. By the end I felt like his present-day family and co-workers were less sympathetic, less sensitive, and less interesting than the prehistoric ones (which I think Joshua would have agreed with).

And the aforementioned dreamer-as-pilot setup did provide an excellent way around the Grandfather Paradox – the chance that you could change something in the past that would royally screw up the present. Because the Earth moves around the sun, and our solar system moves within its galaxy, and our galaxy moves within the universe, the location of Earth as it was in the past is somewhere far, far away in space. With Bishop’s mode of time-travel, the chrononaut is sent back to the time and geographical location of his attunement, but not back to its spatial location. So Joshua is sent back in time to the paleolithic but remains in the same spatial location as his present Earth – making it technically a different past, a “simulacrum” of the actual Paleolithic. That way, there is no danger of him going back in time and stepping on a butterfly or killing his own grandfather or any of the other innumerable paradoxes one could imagine.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Wherein I Register my Exasperation with the Folksy Alan Simpson

I really don't care that Alan Simpson used the word "tits" in his description of Social Security as a "milk cow with 310 million tits." Yeah, I realize that he was being jerkily provocative. He knew that his rough language would result in a satisfying amount of pearl-clutching, while meanwhile he could hide behind an ersatz farm-boy "well out in the barnyard that's how we pronounce 'teats'" line.

The plain truth is that Sen. Simpson has made a tidy post-Senate career out of fronting as a sort of affable country dumbass. In the mid-1990s, while he was cooling his post-DC jets at a Kennedy School sinecure here in the People's Republic of Cambridge, he even had a local TV show on WGBH with Robert Reich called "The Long and Short of It." Ha ha, see, because Simpson is very tall while Reich is very short.

Anyway, the long-term (i.e. 75-year) shortfall in SS amounts to 0.7% of GDP. Not exactly a huge item, compared to other recent liabilities taken on by the US Govt, including a couple of wars and two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 and 2003. In fact, it turns out that the long-term cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the plus-$250K crowd is roughly equal to the long term shortfall in SS. So, allow tax rates to return to those ruinous Clinton-era levels for the top 3% or so, devote the resulting dough to SS, and bada-bing, SS "crisis" solved for another 75 YEARS.

Speaking of which... did you know that the US Defense budget is scheduled to "go bankrupt" in about one month? ONE MONTH! Geez, according to current polling I guess it's more likely that E.T. will be dispensing my Ham Squishee at the Quik-E-Mart than the Defense Dept. will be fully funded for FY2011.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Secret to Wall Street Riches Revealed

Closed-caption transcript of an investment banker describing how his firm's half-percent fee on the sale of $100 million worth of securities somehow results in the firm making $5 million, or 10 times that amount.

The interview with the banker is part of a video explaining the financial system. It plays on a continuous loop at the Museum of American Finance in New York.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: The Big Time

Fritz Leiber
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is really abstract and way out there. I think much of it was beyond me. But what I did get I really enjoyed.

The Big Time’s main premise is that the time in which we live is actually an enclosed environment, and that there is a zone surrounding us, a gray misty space outside of and separate from our time, where other beings live. These other beings can come and go into and out of our time at will, plopping onto our world at any time in our past or future that they choose.

Two groups of these beings, which we never actually see but which are called “Spiders” and “Snakes” by the main characters, are fighting a massive war against each other, using our time as their battlefield. This war involves them: (a) recruiting recently-dead people to be soldiers and support staff for their side, (b) resurrecting the ones who agree to sign up, and (c) sending the resurrected soldiers into different eras of our time to fight the forces of the other side.

Through this process, the Spider and Snake soldiers have managed to screw up history in all kinds of ways, like by changing the outcomes of important battles in ancient Rome and assassinating key people during World War II who had never been assassinated before.

The entire book takes place in the misty realm outside of our time, in a sort of behind-the-lines R&R spot for Spider soldiers. The spot is populated by resurrected formerly-dead people who serve as entertainers, prostitutes, counselors, and doctors for the troops. These “ghosts” are pretty satisfied with how things are going until one visiting soldier decides to mutiny against the Spiders, breaks the connection to real time so they’re floating lost in the timeless zone, and then starts the countdown on a portable atomic bomb.

The main character who narrates the story is one of the prostitute/counselor/entertainers. She is very appealing; she has a laid-back attitude and uses a lot of slang. She is the reader’s guide, but she doesn’t feel the need to explain a heck of a lot. I also really liked the variety of the other characters. Since the Spiders can recruit from any place and time they want to, their support staff and soldiers are necessarily from all different countries and all different eras, including the future.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Great Deal on Roasted Mealworms

BOGOs are always irresistible; sign me up. I do wonder if the birds prefer the roasted mealworms or the plain. I would have thought plain.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (For Red Mars and Green Mars)

This is the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about the colonization of Mars. It is, on the whole, not quite as awesome as the first two books in the set, but it has its own strengths.

After the more than one hundred years of construction, terraformation, feuds, sabotage, and war that were described in Red Mars and Green Mars, Blue Mars rewards the colonists’ perseverance (and yours) with a Mars that is now warm enough that its ice is melting and forming oceans. Plants and animals are rapidly adapting to the Martian environment. And, at sea level, humans can breathe the air without special equipment.

The people of Mars have turned the planet into a habitable world and have created a unique system of government with which to manage themselves. They actually are now doing much better than the people of Earth, who are dealing with environmental catastrophes and political chaos.

Robinson is an absolute master of the super-hard science fiction that makes up his Mars trilogy. He describes in minute, realistic detail what the colonization and terraforming of Mars could be like, and at the same time understands the emotional reactions the colonists might have to their situation. There are two themes in Blue Mars that particularly show how wise Robinson is about what people would feel at this point in their progress.

One is the colonists’ need to have some ritual way of looking back and celebrating what they have accomplished.

All three of Robinson’s Mars books explore the complicated tensions between “greens,” who want to change Mars to make it habitable for humans, and “reds,” who want to keep Mars as it originally was. Obviously, by the time of Blue Mars, the greens have won. But the reds get a victory of a sort when everyone agrees on a set altitude on Olympus Mons above which nothing will be grown or built and the atmosphere will be preserved in its original state. Greens and reds (and everyone in between) begin to use this zone as a remembrance space; once a Martian year, they hike up and build a city of temporary tents like those used by the first colonists and they spend a while there remembering what it was like in the beginning and thinking about the friends who have died along the way.

The other theme I really liked was the effect of super-long lifespans on the minds of the First Hundred colonists.

In Blue Mars, fewer than 35 members of the First Hundred survive; the rest have been killed in accidents, murder, and battle. Those remaining have all taken the life-extending treatments invented in Red Mars and are now over two hundred years old.

There are a number of side effects of living this long. For example, as time passes, the original colonists find they have more and more in common with each other and less and less in common with either the newer colonists or the native-born Martians. This makes them tend to draw together, even if they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum or if they originally hated each other.

Another side effect is that even though their brains are perfectly functional, so many things have happened to them that they start to forget or misremember the details of events from a hundred and fifty years ago when they first arrived. Sometimes they say they feel like their early experiences happened to someone else, not themselves. And some of them are unable to keep up with the constant changes that surround them and retreat emotionally, living only in the past.

In general, Blue Mars is a good conclusion to Robinson’s Mars trilogy. There are a couple down sides to it, however. For one thing, it is extremely long, even compared to the first two books. And also much of the last part of the book deals with the expansion of human space colonization into the rest of our solar system, which I found more abstract and less interesting than the original colonization of Mars.
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