The 1998 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 1998

[ - Mark's Pick - ] indicates a notable book

Books Read

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis
New hardcover
4 January

Ahh, what a tonic for these hurry-hurry-hurry times. Connie Willis' new novel is a refreshing tale of time travel, missed meetings, dogs and cats, and love in bloom. Set in the same fictional world as her stunning novel Doomsday Book, this has a very different tone. Taking us back to the Victorian era, this is a time travel / romance with echoes of Lord Peter Wimsey and Three Men in a Boat.

To escape from these modern times, there's no book I'd rather get lost in. A delight. You might be able to guess upcoming plot twists, but with such fun dialogue and development, what does it matter?

The Selfish Gene, revised edition

Richard Dawkins
Used trade paperback
11 January

Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, this book will change the way you think about biology. Arguing that the fundamental unit of reproduction is not the organism but the gene, the revised edition provides more evidence for this position. From cuckoos to bacteria to the trenches of World War I, Dawkins gives examples that support his theory from many spheres.

The drawback is that opposing points of view are rarely mentioned. If you're at all interested in modern biology, you need to read this book. Then go look for other discussions of Dawkin's works.

Penn & Teller's How To Play In Traffic

Penn Jillette and Teller
New trade paperback
14 January

Perhaps the less said about this book the better. Oh, what the heck. Learn how to use three wishes well. Astound some friends. Read about the U.S. Constitution (it just snuck in, honest). Find out how to fall asleep. Practice a zen koan in airports. There's a few fun things to do with laptop computers, as well. I deny that I ever read this book.

The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat, Volume 1: 1935-1936

George Herriman
Gift hardcover
14 January

Krazy Kat's unique speech, Offisa Pup's persistence, Ignatz Mouse's penchant for throwing bricks, the sparse, mutable landscape; it's all here in Herriman's Krazy Kat Sunday strips. Simple dramas, played well. Skip the gushing introduction and enjoy a comic that is right up there with Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Peace On Earth

Stanislaw Lem
Library book
24 January

The latest adventure of space traveler Ijon Tichy finds him with his brain split into its separate hemispheres after returning from a secret mission to the Moon. Everyone wants to know what his non-communicative right hemisphere knows about the mission and the war machines on the Moon, yet no-one knows how to make contact. The book combines physical farce and scientific speculation about cybernetic evolution. This book really doesn't have anything new for Lem to say, instead repackaging characters (Tichy, Prof. Tarantoga) and themes (see One Human Minute). If you've never read Lem, look for his more creative works His Master's Voice, Solaris, The Star Diaries, The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. This was a disappointment.

A Road to Stonewall

Byrne R.S. Fone
Gift trade paperback
8 February

The subtitle, "Male Homosexuality and Homophobia in English and American Literature, 1750-1969", says it all. This is a relatively dry academic history. The author seems to be infected with critspeak, but not incurably. [The word "site" is used as a verb - quick, find an editor!] The most interesting fact in the entire book is that the idea of a homosexual person didn't come into being until a century and a half ago. Before that, there were people who committed specific acts, but that didn't define their identity. How odd - the idea that homosexuals can be people first.

The book doesn't discuss women at all. This is by design, but makes the book glaringly lopsided.

Black Alice

Thomas M. Disch and John Sladek
Used paperback
10 February

The best pastiche of Alice's Adventures Under Ground I've read, in a style that is quite surprising. Disch and Sladek take a simple idea (an updated Alice) and frame it in a kidnapping thriller. As Alice undergoes odd metamorphoses, the book too changes into a page-turning story of suspense. It's a great summer vacation book that will bear re-reading. For Alice and science fiction fans, this will be a special delight.

The Truth Machine

James L. Halperin
Library book
13 February

What would the world be like if there were an infallible way to tell if someone is lying?

Unfortunately, this novel doesn't answer the question. It takes a fascinating idea (unfoolable truth machines) and manages to produce a surprisingly uninteresting novel. Rather than focus on the effects this would have on society, the focus is the truth machines' inventor and his circle of friends. Instead of an examination of the value of deception and the social niceties we espouse, this novel becomes the story of a small group of stock types: the driven, tormented genius, the schemer, the ethical politician, etc. None is fleshed out enough to make us care about them. The impact of truth machines on politics alone could be a fascinating story. But instead the politician has anticipated the existence of truth machines and always been truthful. Where's the interest in that?

Framing these is a sixty-year projection of the future reported as news headlines. It's amazing that pollution, resource exhaustion and overpopulation are resolved off-camera. It just doesn't ring true that even the presence of truth machines could solve these problems.

To tell a story like this, an author must focus on a conflict caused by the existence of truth machines. Yet the conflict he chooses is contrived, and it just doesn't work. [You know that if I'm giving authors advice, that's not a good sign.] It's a pity. I really wanted to be challenged by this book, but it didn't happen. Give this one a miss and spend a few hours discussing the idea of a truth machine with your friends. You'll definitely have a more enlightening experience.

Early Barefootz

Howard Cruse
New trade paperback
16 February

Take the comic strip Nancy, add psychedelia, philosophy, and cockroaches, then stir well. That doesn't really describe Howard Cruse's Barefootz, though it's a start. This book collects the early strips and stories, with commentary by its creator. It's a quick journey through the genesis of an offbeat comic.

Cruse doesn't shirk detailing the influence of psychedelics on the creation of Barefootz. The afterword is a reasoned argument for responsible use of mind-altering drugs. In these drug-paranoid times, it's refreshing to hear someone stand up and point out that the emperor (or, in this case, drug czar) doesn't have any clothes.

Chelo's Burden

Los Bros Hernandez
New trade paperback
16 February

This is volume 2 of the collected Love & Rockets, the Hernandez brothers' award-winning comic. Presented here are stories by all three brothers, with perhaps the greatest mix of styles in any of the fifteen collections. From "Heartbreak Soup" to "Locas" to Mario's "Somewhere in California" to "Twitch City", the artistic and storytelling styles run the gamut. A fine introduction to one of the top comics of the past three decades. These guys are the Dickens of our time.

House of Raging Women

Los Bros Hernandez
New trade paperback
27 February

Another volume (#5) of the collected Love & Rockets. Stories of wrestling, self deception, those wild locas, and of course Palomar. There's much less introduction; new readers would probably do better starting with Chelo's Burden. The characterization is top-notch. Don't ask Izzy about marriage; she plays hardball.

The Rediscovery of Man

Cordwainer Smith
New hardcover
1 March

There is no author in the SF world quite like Cordwainer Smith (a pseudonym of Paul Linebarger). He's one of the few who has a unique voice. Even if you didn't know he was the author of a particular story when you started reading it, within a few paragraphs it would be obvious.

This collection contains all of Smith's short fiction, including every story in his Instrumentality of Man cycle. From the classics ("Scanners Live in Vain", "Under Old Earth") to lesser known gems like "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", most of the stories sparkle with rare originality and style.

It's not perfect. There are a few unremarkable stories ("On the Sand Planet"). Smith's portrayal of women leaves a lot to be desired; they are definitely the second sex. Also, the later intrusion of Christian imagery is a jarring, discordant note.

Be prepared to take some time reading this almost 700 page collection. It's easy to overdose.

Blood Music

Greg Bear
Used trade paperback
2 March

[I don't know whether to count this as a reading or re-reading of this book. The first time was in a library, without my glasses on. It was hard to, shall we say, focus on the novel.]

An expansion of the novella of the same name, this is a book that really didn't need to be written. It joins Clarke's Childhood's End and Robert Charles Wilson's The Harvest (and possibly Stapledon's Last and First Men) on the small shelf of books that posit a cataclysmic evolution of humanity into something else. With the exception of Clarke, none of these books really succeeds because the next evolutionary step is something that by its very nature we can't identify with. Like the director's cut of Close Encounters, Bear ends up spending time on what is best left to the imagination. Skip the novel and read the novella. It's a trip.

Infernal Devices

K.W. Jeter
Used paperback
3 March

Subtitled "A Mad Victorian Fantasy", that's exactly what this is. With secret societies, Lovecraftian survivals, villainous rogues, clockwork automata, a faithful servant, and a maguffin, this novel has almost all the pieces in place. There's no virtuous daughter, but her absence is only felt in contrast to Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. The oddest part is that there's something slightly flat, and that's the narrator. While integral to the novel, he's a bit of a wet blanket. An amusing romp through Victorian London, full of alarums, excursions, and mysteries.

Martian Time-Slip

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
8 March

Another re-read book. The subject is mental illness. Amid Dick's familiar landscape of manipulative women, pathetic authority figures, the Tomb World, schizophrenic breakdowns, and hebephrenic individuals, we have Manfred Steiner, an autistic child. He can see the future. But what good is seeing the future when all you can see is death?

The book isn't Dick's worst, but it's not his best. Its themes were better stated in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

The Glass Hammer

K.W. Jeter
Used paperback
10 March

This is what I get for spending time at second-hand bookstores: yet another re-read book. A novel of a man's life, his televised biography, him watching the biography, and him watching himself watching the replay. It all makes some kind of sense. It's hard to identify with the characters, though, because they're so involved with watching that their actions aren't live, they're on video. Not incandescent like Jeter's great Dr. Adder, this is still a good novel. Look for the Bluejay edition with illustrations by Matt Howarth.

Descartes' Error

Antonio R. Damasio
New trade paperback
20 March

This book, subtitled "Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain", details a neurobiologist's theory of the relationship between emotion and reason. He starts with the disquieting case of Phineas Gage, a man who, without apparent mental impairment, survived a steel rod being blown through his skull. While his reason was intact, Gage's behavior changed radically, and that change is the crux of Damasio's hypothesis of the interdependency of reason, emotion, and the body and mind.

Damasio's aim isn't the same as Oliver Sacks, although he does present several interesting case histories. Rather, the impairments chronicled are support for the vital role emotion has to play in effective decision-making. Not being a neurophysiologist, I can't comment on the accuracy of the biology, but Damasio makes one point that in retrospect seems self-evident: the late-evolved capacity for reason isn't an isolated set of structures in the brain. Rather, it builds on and uses existing structures, such as systems that control body regulation and emotion. If this is correct, we really are tightly connected beings with body, emotion, and reason all part of one package.

A little technical, this was actually my second attempt at reading this book. Definitely thought-provoking, and it makes me want to learn more neural physiology to keep up with current developments in the field.

Warm Worlds and Otherwise

James Tiptree, Jr.
Used paperback
31 March

The names James Tiptree Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon were pseudonyms of the author Alice Sheldon. This is one of at least five collections of her short stories. These were written in the early 1970s, when she won both the Hugo and Nebula award. While most is unmemorable, there are two classics here: "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and "The Women Men Don't See". The first has to be read aloud for the sheer pleasure of its snake-track wordplay. The latter is a story that works through understatement. So much is left out that what is present takes on that much greater meaning, leading to a chilling conclusion. It's a striking portrayal of an alien species.

There's also the Nebula winner "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death", though it didn't strike me as Nebula quality.

The introduction to the collection is interesting in a different way. Written when the actual author was unknown, Robert Silverberg speculates that only a man could have written these "muscular" works. In a postscript dated three years later, Silverberg not only acknowledges that he was wrong but mentions that his mistake has caused him to rethink gender roles. Bully for him.

The author was indeed a puzzle. So many pedestrian stories, but every once in a while she pulled a nova bomb out her blue-ribboned typewriter. Ah, if they all could have been so brilliant! She would have been acknowledged as the master of the SF short story.

The Best Little Bear in the World

Evan McClaren
Library book
1 April

This book was inevitable, wasn't it? I should have foreseen it years ago, as soon as what became the "bear movement" among hirsute/bearded gay men got a name. It was only a matter of time before someone wrote an autobiographical account of how he discovered that having a beard was no longer an automatic kiss of death in the gay world.

If you've ever read a coming out story, you'll find most of this book predictable. There's an overprotected childhood, agonized adolescence, fumbled attempts at trying to live a heterosexual life, despair, therapy, and dawning self-acceptance. However, there's a twist that makes this different from the typical coming out story; this guy can't blend in with the gay mainstream. He's overweight, furry, and has a beard. Take a look at The Advocate or Out, and you'll find that his physical type is nearly invisible in the media. That problem is sometimes mirrored in gay society. So not only did the author have to deal with not being part of the heterosexual mainstream, he also didn't fit with the majority of the minority. That's a nasty double whammy.

What saved him from complete despair was finding a minority inside a minority, that is, bears. His discovery of a peer group that accepts and values him for both his mind and, let's face it, his looks too, was a transforming event. He began to come out of his shell, and feel attractive and loved for the first time in his whole life. His journey continued through self-acceptance and into him becoming a pillar of his local bear community. Cliché? Yes, but sometimes life is a cliché.

There's a downbeat ending to the book. In the last chapters, the author is diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes. He's able to control the symptoms with treatment, but just the fact that he has the ailment points to one of the underlying self-contradictions within the bear community: resistance to acknowledging that obesity isn't healthy. It's a sad trap; after growing up with constant criticism for their size, these men have finally found acceptance in a peer group. Yet the fundamental characteristic of the group is one that leads to health problems. So these men are faced with Hobson's choice: remain unhealthy and be accepted & loved, or change and risk alienation from the community due to the implicit condemnation of the unhealthy behavior of the group. What an awful choice to make.

The prose is adequate, which is good enough. Nobody reads this kind of book for literary merit.

Crown of Stars

James Tiptree, Jr.
Used paperback
2 April

A collection of the last of Tiptree Jr./Sheldon's work. Sadly, there's nothing here with the fire or strength of her mid-1970s work. Interesting to completists only.

Beyond Rejection

Justin Leiber
Used paperback
5 April

An odd little novel. More properly, it's a long short story; the structural elements that make up a novel just aren't there. Ismael Forth wakes up to find himself now in the body of a female spacer with a tail. Dealing with psychological rejection is the driving force of the novel, as is finding out what happened to his original body.

Leiber explores the psychological implications of gender only superficially, which is unsatisfying. It's light-years better than Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil, but it doesn't approach Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See" or Joanna Russ' The Female Man. All in all, I'm left wondering just what the author was trying to accomplish. Fun, but it really didn't go deep.

Cynicalman ...The Paperback!

Matt Feazell
New trade paperback
12 April

Well, it's not a novel. It's the first collection of Matt Feazell's minicomics. The primary star is Cynicalman, America's Laid-Off Superhero. Ahh, why am I talking about this? You'll either like it or not. It's not as polished as his later work ("The Death of Antisocialman", or his backup stories in the comic book Zot!), but it is fun. Go take a look at Matt's work.

Le Ton beau de Marot

Douglas R. Hofstadter
New hardcover
27 April

Is this book cursed? Just as I finished reading it, I came down with the worst cold I've had in a while. This fits rather too well with the poem that motivated the book: it's addressed to someone who is sick and in bed.

Whoo-eee, where to begin to review this? The book starts with a short 15th century French poem, and blossoms into an extended meditation on translation, analogy-making, form versus content, and intelligence. These are some of Hofstadter's favorite topics, and he considers this his next "big book" after Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.

Reading the many translations of Clément Marot's poem "A une Damoyselle malade" is a delight in itself. Some of them are so far out that they're obviously not really translations, more poems inspired by the original. One of the challenging puzzles is to decide where the line between translation and "inspired by" lies. If a translation ignores the original's rhyme scheme, meter, and line count, is it really a translation? What if the gender/age/species of the poem's subjects change? What about a translation of a five hundred year old French poem into contemporary rap, or American country twang? How does one translate slang and jargon? Are some poems and books even translatable at all? These are the kinds of questions the book considers. It's fascinating, thoughtful, playful stuff.

Faults? Yes, there are some. The treatment of Nabokov and Eugene Onegin does seem to go on rather too long, although this is offset to some extent by a later section. Hofstadter's personal diatribe on modern music throws a rather jarring note into the book. Finally, redundancy begins to creep into the last few chapters.

If you read and enjoyed Gödel, Escher, Bach, or have any interest in language, I'd recommend this. Savor it in small doses, but do dip in. Definitely one of this year's most memorable books. It might well inspire you to make your own translation.

This book was written after the unexpected death of Hofstadter's wife. It's his most personal book, and quite a tribute to his love for her.


Greg Egan
New hardcover
28 April

In some ways, this is an expansion of the novella "Wang's Carpets". It's the future of humanity on the Grand Scale (a la Stapledon, and Bear's Blood Music). The author's challenge with this type of novel is keeping the empathy of the reader. It's very hard to do this when characters can modify themselves in practically any manner instantaneously, and travel through n-dimensional space. It's an agreeable read that will have your head spinning occasionally, but it doesn't explore the biggest moral question it raises: is it okay to force unwanted help on someone in danger? If so, what obligations are created?

One thing that made this book memorable for me was the metaphor of mining as searching for mathematical truth. I'd written an essay on this back in college, so it was kind of near and dear to my heart.


Gregory Benford
New hardcover
29 April

An even weirder novel. Alicia Butterworth, physicist and bad dater, accidentally creates a pocket universe. What follows is political, social and scientific chaos, while Alicia tries to devote all her time to studying the rapidly evolving Cosm. It's not without flaws; Benford hits us over the head with the physics, and way too much time is spent in restaurants and bars in California. That might be realism, but it distracts from the scientific discovery. Maybe that was the point he was trying to make.


Greg Bear
New hardcover
30 April

We return to the world of Bear's fantastic Queen of Angels to find things going desperately wrong. Therapied people are reverting to antisocial behaviors at a catastrophic rate. The artificial intelligence Jill is being probed by an unknown, possibly illegal thinker. Terrorists are in Green Idaho, with enough military grade nano to take over a city.

It's a good ride, but not in the same league as its predecessor. That novel made me think seriously about deep issues like the role of punishment and the nature of intelligence. This just kept rolling along, engendering no insightful revelations about what it means to be human. It was a pleasure to see some of the previous characters, but sadly they didn't have much to do. Read Queen of Angels instead.

In case you were wondering: I was sick during this week, which is why I read a novel a day.

Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg
Used paperback
3 May

I like this book because it's what so many people think SF isn't: introspective, poetic, lacking gadgetry and slam-bang action. David Selig is a quiet man who appreciates the classics and quotes Eliot. He makes his living writing term papers. He's single, middle-aged, and terrified that his telepathic power - the curse that's isolated him from everyone else - is fading. It's the story of a man facing mortality, a theme that Silverberg returned to in Valentine Pontifex. Nobody writes SF for adults like Silverberg. A classic.

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler
Used paperback
10 May

Detective Philip Marlowe is on a tough case involving murder, pornography, blackmail, and two dangerous sisters. Maybe this isn't my genre, but I found myself paying more attention to Chandler's diction than to the actual plot. There's plenty of symbolism, as well as tough-guy encounters with snappy dialogue. It's enough for me for quite a while, though I want to see the film, if only to see who was cast in which role.

George Herriman's Krazy & Ignatz, Volume Six: 1921 - Sure as Moons is Cheeses

George Herriman
New trade paperback
10 May

Sure as moons is cheeses, pernicious Ignatz Mouse persistently pursues his perennial plan of creasing Krazy Kat's noggin with a nodulous nugget. Offisa Pup, hot chili peppers, porcupines, and the biggest brick you've ever seen round out this volume. If you're not a Krazy Kat fan, you only need to read one collection, but for true fans this is a must.

The Best Science Fiction of the Year #7

Terry Carr, editor
Used paperback
15 May (sort of)

I've decided that I really did read this anthology. Most of it was new, but the stories I didn't read this time around I've already read.

There's almost a surplus of good stories in this volume of 1977's SF: Spider and Jeanne Robinson's "Stardance", Michael Bishop's "The House of Compassionate Sharers", Fritz Leiber's rollicking "A Rite of Spring". One odd thing is that there are two stories on the exact same theme (John Varley's "Lollipop and the Tar Baby" and Lee Killough's "Tropic of Eden"). Sometimes Terry Carr is a weird editor.

The reason I bought this book, though, was for one story: Raccoona Sheldon's "The Screwfly Solution". It's a tour de force, and one of the best stories of its decade. [It's a sad irony that this stunning story was published the same year Star Wars came out, a movie which really stunted the field of SF.]

The Best Science Fiction of the Year #9

Terry Carr, editor
Used paperback
15 May

Like #7, I bought this for one story in particular. That was John Varley's "Options", a tale of one person exploring human nature. It was memorable because it was sensitive, daring, and honest. It reminds me of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

The rest is something of a mixed bag. Philip K. Dick and George R. R. Martin turn in the best of it ("The Exit Door Leads In" and "Sandkings", respectively). Surprisingly enough, the last two stories are the least appealing. They left me with a bad taste in my mouth, which is unusual for an anthology. They usually end on a high point.

At least both anthologies have that great old book smell.

If the River Was Whiskey

T. Coraghessan Boyle
Library book
20 May

Last week the radio program Selected Shorts featured Alan Rachin's wonderful reading of T.C. Boyle's story "Sorry Fugu". It was witty and built a surprising amount of suspense quickly. I didn't get to hear the ending, so I tracked the story down at the local public library.

I'm glad I did. Boyle's got a style that just begs to be read aloud. None of the stories in this collection are longer than twenty pages, which is just about the right length for a story reading. The stories range over a variety of styles, from the farce of "Modern Love" and "Hard Sell" to the wistfulness of "Thawing Out".

The only problem is that the stories sometimes don't connect emotionally. For example, "The Little Chill", about a baby boomer reunion, says nothing to me. "The Devil and Irv Cherniske", a tale of devilish temptation, doesn't have any twist that makes it memorable. When I read "The Ape Lady in Retirement", all I could think of how it didn't affect me the way Judith Moffett's "Surviving" did. He comes closest with "The Human Fly", about a nobody who does incredible stunts in search of fame. It's told by his agent, who actually seems to care about his client - and not because he's a source of income.

One of the reasons I still haven't given up on science fiction is the hope that there will be new ideas. If the ideas are good, I can forgive mediocre writing. When I'm reading someone like Boyle, I'm not looking for ideas; I read for style. Boyle's work is technically very good, but there's something missing for me. Still, it's refreshing to read a writer who really knows his craft.

The Web of Life

Fritjof Capra
Gift, trade paperback
26 May

My friends who gave me this book wrote that they'd heard good things about Capra's most famous book, The Tao of Physics. After reading The Web of Life, I can with clear conscience tell them to avoid the book at all costs.

This book has a lot of problems.

  • It's incredibly repetitive. It also has some mistakes the editor should have caught ("alternatively" used instead of "alternately", etc.).

  • The author contributes nothing to the book. On every other page, it seems, we're introduced to the work of someone else. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Capra's writing makes it obvious and tedious.

  • Capra plays really loose with science. There were many times that I questioned whether he understood basic physics and chemistry at all. Later he seemed to, but it looked like he was purposefully misunderstanding so that he could knock down straw men.

The book could be summed up in a few sentences: Life affects its environment and vice versa, and they should be considered one entity. Life maintains a balance between equilibrium (no growth) and chaos. Is this what passes for radical thinking?

He describes the Gaia model. It doesn't seem like a major restructuring of scientific thought to me. What bothers me is that he (and, it appears, the creators of this "new" paradigm) play so freely with concepts that they lose their meaning. For example, "cognition" is now a process that bacteria enjoy. The less said about the word "languaging" the better.

Here's an example of how Capra can go wrong. According to him, efforts to create intelligence in machines are doomed to failure because, unlike biological nervous systems, "during the information processing there is no change in the structure of the machine" (p. 274). But he's confusing levels here; a computer modifies its behavior by changing its software, not its hardware. As someone pointed out, you wouldn't expect the RAM of a computer modeling a thunderstorm to get wet. Capra does. It's exactly this kind of "I've made up my mind, don't confuse me with argument" attitude that makes this book bad.

The sad thing is that there is some interesting information in the book, but it's buried in such dreck that it's almost not worth looking for. By the last fifty pages I was skimming only the first lines of paragraphs, looking for things that might be new - a practice I almost never use.

On the basis of this book, I'd strongly recommend steering clear of anything this man has written. Instead, read Damasio's book, or Hofstadter's, or anything by Carl Sagan - they'll make you think. This one often made me want to throw it across the room. It's the worst book I've read in a long time.

Pogo Volume 1

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
26 May

That last book was such a stinker that I had to come up with something better for you to read. What could be better than Pogo?

This is the first of a multiple volume series that intends to reprint the complete newspaper run of the Walt Kelly's strip Pogo. Starting in 1948, the characters haven't quite settled down to their mature proportions yet. Political satire is almost completely absent. It's just the residents of the Okeefenokee doing what comes nachural.

I wish I'd read this before the previous book. Orville the scrooch owl, book reviewer, gave some wonderful advice on January 21, 1949:

Tear out every second page

Wish I'd known that a few days ago. It would have saved some frustration.

Go, read Pogo. You'll thank yourself.

Female Problems: An Unhelpful Guide

Nicole Hollander
New trade paperback
28 May

So what if it's unhelpful? A dose of Hollander's characters is always welcome. From Fashion Cop to signing cats to The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You, they're all here. From glass ceilings to glass slippers ("Do they come in another color?"), life's annoyances and injustices are skewered by Hollander's insights. Surprise, surprise! NPR reported this morning that there's a musical based on the book. Anyone want to take a trip to Chicago?

A Cambodian Odyssey

Haing Ngor with Roger Warner
Library book
29 May

Haing Ngor survived the horrors of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge's genocidal reign from 1975 to 1979. In this biography, he recounts these events in graphic detail, as well as his life before and after. It is not easy reading, but it is powerful.

I am at a loss for words. There is so much evil described in this book. It is amazing to me that the author does not place blame solely on the Khmer Rouge; he looks at those who backed it, those who set the stage for its ascent (including the U.S.), and the mentality of the Cambodian people themselves. All of these together brought about killing, torture and dehumanization.

With the evil there is good: his love for his wife and soul-mate Chang My Huoy. Her patience and love helped him survive. She died in premature labor brought on by malnutrition.

Had it not been for Haing Ngor's Academy Award-winning performance in the film The Killing Fields, I might never have known what happened in Cambodia. That record of Dith Pran's survival changed my thinking on moral issues.

[Barry Goldwater died yesterday. He once said "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.". The Khmer Rouge would have agreed with him completely. They were both completely wrong.]

Read this book.

After seeing the film I came away knowing that there are things that are never acceptable. What happened in Cambodia, Auschwitz, and too many other places around the world, was evil. It must not happen again.

I have never cried so much while reading a book.

Haing Ngor was killed on February 25, 1996, in a robbery outside his home.

Pogo Volume 4

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
1 June

Did you ever need to get away from it all, but weren't able to travel? Pogo can be quite good for that.

In the year or so since volume 1, Kelly's drawing style matured. Pogo and Porky Pine now look much like the mature versions of later years. In addition, Kelly begins to tackle political humor, with Albert's trial for eating Pup Dog. It's the HUAC/Red Queen all over again. Another solid entry in this series from Fantagraphics.

George Herriman's Krazy & Ignatz, Volume Seven: 1922 - A Katnip Kantata in the Key of K

George Herriman
New trade paperback
2 June

More Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse & Offisa Pup. This volume has a color section with strips from 1922; the strip went back to black and white until 1935. There's also the closest thing to a definitive strip about Krazy's gender.

Star Songs of an Old Primate

James Tiptree, Jr.
Used paperback
3 June

This story collection reprints stories from 1969 to 1976. There's only one strong story here - "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" - but it's fantastic. If there's a collection of the best of Tiptree's stories, read it!

Ten Thousand Light Years from Home

James Tiptree, Jr.
Used paperback
6 June

This book collects Tiptree's earliest short fiction. The memorable stories here are "And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side" and "The Man Doors Said Hello To". I've read both of them in other anthologies long ago, and they stuck in my mind.

This book - a 1973 Ace printing - is notable for the appallingly shoddy effort that went into printing it: there's no table of contents, the copyright page gets titles wrong, there are dozens of typos throughout, and there's only one blank line between stories. It's as if the book were produced with an order to cut all corners. But then why is there an introduction by a respected SF author? It is a puzzle.

George Herriman's Krazy & Ignatz, Volume Eight: 1923 - Inna Yott on the Muddy Geranium

George Herriman
New trade paperback
10 June

Oddly enough, this volume seems to hold more stylistic innovation than the others I've read. Starting with the oversize first panel of the January 7 comic, things feel a bit different here. In some strips he numbers the panels in Krazy Kat style - Woon, Too, Throo, Foor, Foove, et cetera. Props play a bigger role than minor characters, who appear sparingly. His experiments in panel layout are bolder. It's a good change. It still took me a few minutes to understand the title, though.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Fifteenth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
18 June

This volume starts strongly with Robert Silverberg's "Beauty in the Night" and ends well with Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre's "A Cold, Dry Cradle", but the rest of the stories just didn't grip me. Maybe it was a dull year for SF. Even the two stories by Greg Egan just didn't seem as mind-blowingly original and fresh as others have. There wasn't a single standout story, unlike some in last year's collection.

It might just be taking a while for the stories to settle. Gwyneth Jones' "Balinese Dancer" will probably be the one that sticks in my mind. Others by Bill Johnson, Peter F. Hamilton and Walter Jon Williams were also above the average. I just wish there were one story that really fired me.

R.E.M.: From "Chronic Town" to "Monster"

Dave Bowler & Bryan Dray
Used trade paperback
25 June

This was just some light reading for passing time in waiting rooms. It satisfied my curiosity about R.E.M.'s origins, and provided a little insight into their songs. It wasn't a critical analysis though, which is more of what I was looking for. The authors weren't uniform in their praise, but they turned a blind eye to the weaknesses of the releases from Document through Out of Time. The book relied extensively on secondary sources.

Pogo Volume 2

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
27 June

The more of these I read, the more I appreciate R. C. Harvey's wonderful introductions. He not only gives biographical information on Walt Kelly, he covers the history of the comic and puts it into its political and social background. This introduction focuses on Kelly's work in the Disney animation studio prior to his beginning Pogo.

A favorite strip is Porky Pine cheering up Pogo on 5 November 1949.

Pogo Volume 3

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
28 June

What can I say? I just got a whole heap of Pogo books. The introduction continues Kelly's education and experiences in the Disney animation studios. He worked on the crow sequence of Dumbo. Favorite sequence in this book: the 17-25 December 1949 Christmas story.

Pogo Volume 5

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
28 June

The introduction continues Kelly's cartooning history, delving into his work on Animal Comics and other comic books prior to starting Pogo. There's also a thoroughly outlandish story, not Kelly's own, of the origins of the famed carol "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie". Among the usual balderdash is Pogo fighting a duel, a cow that meows, and the introduction of the Bats Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

[Howland Owl] [Professor Garbanzo]

The thing I can't help wondering is how much of an influence Kelly's Howland Owl was on the genesis of Professor Garbanzo in Larry Marder's Beanworld. They're both scientists (or, in Howland's case, pretending); they're short-tempered; and their headgear is strikingly similar. It's interesting that both creators drew so strong an analogy between the practices of science and magic. In the hands of some, they can both be arcane arts!

Pogo Volume 6

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
29 June

At the rate Fantagraphics is reprinting the daily strips, it's going to take twenty years to complete the run! At least we'll have fun along the way. Churchy La Femme gets his head stuck in his shell, Albert enters a poetry contest with a worm, and P. T. Bridgeport, the circus promoter, makes his first appearance. Don't forget the tiger hunt!

When I read my father's Pogo books as a kid, Churchy was my favorite character. Times and tastes change. He and Owl seem sort of dangerous, now; they've got good hearts, but they're too easily swayed by whatever comes along. My favorites characters these days are Pogo and Porky. No matter what happens, they never lose their common sense (a commodity that remains in short supply, even these days).

Pogo Volume 7

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
30 June

Okay, no more Pogo for a while - or at least until the next volume comes out.

Early 1952 brought more election nonsense, with Albert and Howland Owl building not only mechanical voters but a clockwork candidate. That might be a little frightening, but it's not half as scary as the end of the "turtle soup" sequence begun in the previous volume. Kelly is perfectly ready to take on politics, and the witch hunts of the McCarthyites are fought with courage. The sequences with the Ladies of the Vigilante Auxiliary really plumb the depths of the mob mentality. I don't know which is worse: the wholly uncritical face of a rabbit in the 20 November 1951 strip, or the anticipatory delight in Miz Beaver's face in the strip of the 30th. Madame DeFarge, anyone? Shudder.

The Hippopotamus

Stephen Fry
New hardcover
15 July

How does one top a novel like Stephen Fry's first, The Liar? It's tough, and unfortunately The Hippopotamus doesn't. There's a certain joie de vivre that's missing. The choice for protagonist of an alcoholic, misogynistic former poet makes identification a bit difficult. The action takes quite a while to get underway, and it isn't until the end that the various people at the estate begin to really interact. All in all, a mostly pleasurable read, but nothing to go out of your way for. Damned by faint praise, indeed, but Fry has shown us what he can do, and this isn't of the same quality.

A Ghost in the Closet

Mabel Maney
Library book
19 July

This is the third of Mabel Maney's Nancy Clue and the Hardly Boys mysteries. They're fun camp parodies of teen mystery series. In this case, the junior detectives deal with an attempted poodle theft, an indecisive nurse, the kidnapping of Mr. and Mrs. Hardly, some surprising family secrets, hidden caves, Russian agents, and Uncle Nelly. All the while, Ms. Maney's prose drips innuendo. Here's part of the exchange that ensues after apprehending a ruffian:

"I'd better check his pockets and make sure we've relieved him of all his weapons," a cautious Frank declared. The eagle-eyed lad had spotted a suspicious bulge in the surly man's trousers! Joe's pulse quickened as he watched Frank frisk the fellow. Soon a satisfied smile spread over Frank's fair face, and he uttered a low exclamation.

"What is it?" Joe cried eagerly.

"It's long and hard and - why, it's a tube containing architectural plans of our charming cottage," Frank gasped, open-mouthed.

Ms. Maney's tongue is quite firmly held in her cheek throughout. Fortunately, this type of mystery is such quick reading that she just manages to avoid overdoing it. A bit of fun for a summer afternoon.

Beyond the Veil of Stars

Robert Reed
Library book
21 July

Rather an average SF tale, this was a bit disappointing after Reed's interesting novellas in Dozois' Year's Best SF series. No one idea was new (interworld gates that transform the traveler to a local species, group minds, shadowy government agencies, et cetera), and it made for a familiar tale.

Black Milk

Robert Reed
Library book
22 July

What would it be like to grow up with designer genes? What if everyone you knew was also engineered? That's the story here, with the protagonist's ability being eidetic memory. The tale felt as if John Crowley tried to write a straight-ahead novel. It came out an okay afternoon's read, but that was about it. Reed has potential, so I'm going to keep looking for his books, even if I did lose track of how often the protagonist said he was "ever so" whatever.

Happy Policeman

Patricia Anthony
Used paperback
24 July

What is Patricia Anthony trying to say? We create our own realities? Men don't understand women? What? This novel left me in the dark. Ostensibly a member of the saved-from-holocaust-by-aliens-for-unknown-reason genre, this non-murder mystery can't decide what it is about. Relationships? Justice? Understanding? Duty? Happy Policeman left me Confused Reader.


Orson Scott Card
Library book
26 July

review removed


Paul Di Filippo
Used hardcover
28 July

A good novel has a hook. Sometimes, like John Varley's Steel Beach, it's a fantastic first sentence. Sometimes it's the situation, sometimes the characters. As I read Ribofunk, I was looking for the hook.

After the first few stories of this collection, I wasn't sure I was going to make it to the end. Where was the hook? Di Filippo's strained neologisms and expressions kept distracting me from the stories. But after a few more, it all began to work. It helped that they're set in the same universe of gene splicers, designer biologicals and AIs. The hook finally arrived with a scene that delighted me: a rogue automated teller machine tries to flee from its customers when they discover it's been stealing from them.

It's not Egan, it's not Gibson, but all in all, Ribofunk is a good collection that hangs together surprisingly well as a novel. The story "Brain Wars" would definitely make a Year's Best list.

Beneath the Gated Sky

Robert Reed
Library book
30 July

The sequel to Beyond the Veil of Stars picks up soon after the first novel ended. As our heroes work to expose the Cosmic Event Agency, they encounter more than they expected. The writing is more mature than the earlier work, though it still doesn't match his best novellas. The novel ends almost in mid-note, setting up a sequel. Any guesses for a title? Behind the Masks of Faces?


Greg Bear
Used paperback
2 August

This is a long novella of one man's coming of age in an era of cryogenic storage, quantum AIs, and lunar politics. An experiment with retrieval of memory from frozen heads goes disastrously wrong both scientifically and politically.

The novel is set in Bear's nebulous future solar system. Upon re-reading, I'm impressed. The novels Queen of Angels, Slant, Heads, and Moving Mars all fall into one timeline - from a recognizable tomorrow to an unfamiliar future.

The Unconquered Country

Geoff Ryman
Used paperback
4 August

A short novel of a woman's life in a foreign land. Based in part on the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge, it's a heart-breaking tale of a woman who never loses her spirit. It tells of her, and her nation's, triumph in a horrible situation.

After such different novels as The Unconquered Country, The Child Garden, Was, and the hypertext work 253, it leaves me wondering what could be next from this singular author.

The Ballad Of Beta-2

Samuel R. Delany
Used paperback
4 August

Not much to say here. The most interesting thing in this novel is the peek at how anthropology can reveal some surprising things, in this case the title ballad. It's a theme Kim Stanley Robinson treats more deeply in Icehenge, which I'd recommend over this book. Delany's work does have the virtue of brevity. Definitely a minor work.

The City on the Edge of Forever

Harlan Ellison
Borrowed trade paperback
9 August

Ellison finally gets to air his side of what happened to his script for arguably the best Star Trek episode. True to form, he doesn't leave sacred cows (or Birds) to rest - he rips into Gene Roddenberry. In the end, Ellison has the last word, due not to his caustic introductory essay but to the strength of his original script. He was right; it does surpass the televised version. Truth will out.

(I really like the fact that he's not afraid to name the ghost writers behind certain actors-turned-authors.)

An Anthropologist On Mars

Oliver Sacks
New hardcover
10 August

Sacks provides us with seven studies of people with neurological disorders. These include a surgeon with Tourette's syndrome, whose hands are perfectly in control in the operating room; an artist who is overtaken by memories of his childhood town in Italy; another artist, whose sense of color was lost in a stroke; a man who has no memories since the early 1970s; a man whose sight was restored late in life, after he lost it as a small child; and two autistic people with unusual talents. Throughout are Sacks' speculations on the nature of intelligence, creativity, and consciousness.

As always, it's a fascinating mix. How complex the brain is, that these people can manifest such unusual traits and adapt to such radical changes! Sacks conveys the wonder well, and the historical and scientific notes make these clinical tales accessible to the average reader. It's a particularly interesting read after Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error. Sometimes Sacks gets a bit carried away, but a small grain of salt is all that's needed to make this a very intellectually stimulating ride. (I wonder if Greg Egan uses Sacks' books for inspiration. They should be required reading for SF writers.)

David Brin's Jijo Trilogy

  1. Brightness Reef
    Used paperback
    19 August

  2. Infinity's Shore
    Used paperback
    23 August

  3. Heaven's Reach
    New hardcover
    1 September

Need a 1,700+ page SF story with decent characters, action, interesting aliens and societies, and epic scale? Look no further that Brin's new Uplift trilogy. It delivers all that and more.

The premise is that groups from six different races have illegally settled on the fallow world Jijo. They must keep their existence secret, and learn to live together - something that isn't done in the rest of the Five Galaxies. Into this semi-stable culture comes a space ship. This is what the Jijoans have been dreading for millennia. Will they be discovered? If so, how will they be judged by galactic society? The answers make a tale that I read surprisingly quickly - and had me searching several bookstores for the concluding volume (in hardcover!).

Brin weaves this story through many viewpoints. These include a circle of young friends who emulate the explorations of classic adventure stories; a girl determined to escape her circumstances, at any cost; the siblings Sara, Dwer and Lark, respectively a mathematician, hunter/tracker, and heretic; and a brain-damaged stranger, whose appearance presages the coming strife. And all this in the first volume!

There were some surprises. After finishing Brightness Reef, I wondered how he was going to maintain the action on Jijo. His answer wasn't what I was expecting, but made for a more compelling tale. It's hard to discuss without giving away portions of the novel, so let me just say that the action on Jijo is just part of the story.

The story had a few weaknesses. Shades of Brin's poor Glory Season were the character Rety, and the number of fortunate coincidences. We can forgive the latter, since it's (self-admittedly) classic space opera. But I really have no idea why Rety was there. She was a one-note character that didn't move the plot forward, and never learned. I kept hoping that her idiocy would lead to her demise, but no such luck. The only thing I can figure was that Brin has a daughter that he needs to write for.

One odd stylistic note: Brin likes exposition. He constantly paraphrases events that have already happened, even if they're in the same book. Maybe he has trouble keeping all the action straight, but it wasn't a problem for me.

All in all, great space opera. It doesn't delve too deeply into the sociology of its universe, but no one expects Brin to be Le Guin. If you need a good SF trilogy that renews your sense of wonder, this is it.

I particularly liked that the trilogy embodied a SF concept I'd been thinking about on my own. It wasn't quite how I would have done it, but it was interesting to see him integrate it into the Uplift universe.

Hi, this is Sylvia.

Nicole Hollander
New paperback
9 September

The rest of the title is "I can't come to the phone right now, so when you hear the beep, please hang up.". Found in a local used bookstore for $2.50. Worth it for the second cartoon on page 49 alone.

Full Spectrum 5

Edited by Jennifer Hershey, Tom Dupree & Janna Silverstein
New paperback
9 September

I picked this up in Murfreesboro, TN while searching for (and not finding) Heaven's Reach. This was the best book available at the only bookstore that was open. The place also sold knick-knacks - the book smells like potpourri. Weird.

It's an okay collection, though nothing reached out and grabbed me. Neal Stephenson offers a short story set in the same world as The Diamond Age... ho hum. Jonathan Lethem rewrites a Heinlein story for no apparent reason. (Is he the Emperor's New Clothes? The only other thing I've read of his was a familiar-sounding short story. His claim to fame seems to be Gun, with Occasional Music. From what I've heard it sounds a bit like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with a bit more attitude.) Michael Gust's "A Bellyful of Stars" is incomprehensible.

But there is good work here as well. Howard V. Hendrix's "The Music of What Happens" works like an underwater gut punch, weaving a cautionary tale of what can happen when we preserve the past perfectly. Pat York's "Cool Zone" is a quick zap of future scenesters. Bringing us back to earth, Karawynn Long's "Of Silence and Slow Time" raises serious questions about genetic engineering and the rights and responsibilities of parents. And Emily Devenport gives us a look at a theology that might be just around the corner in the bright "Goddoggit".

All in all, a mixed bag. If it only smelled better.

Concurrent Programming in Java

Doug Lea
New paperback
9 September

(Three books in one day? Actually, I just happened to finish them all on the same day.)

Lots to chew on here. It's not more than I wanted to know, but it is quite a bit. The focus is on general design principles and considerations, rather than a simple recipe guide. I'd say it's the best book on the subject, but as far as I know it's the only book on the subject, so that doesn't mean much. There's an online supplement available.


1998-11-09. I just took another look at a multi-threaded Java class I've been writing. With the insights from this book, I was able to quickly rewrite the class using a different signaling mechanism. It's simpler, and its problems are gone. Thumbs up!

Zot! Book Three

Scott McCloud
New trade paperback
14 September

Looking back, I just realized that I didn't review the previous Zot! collection. Could it be that I thought it was "just a comic book"? I hope not.

As the author notes, this is a collection of villain stories. Each focuses on a different bad guy, except for the last - which features all of them. But I don't read comic books for the fights. What I look for is good ideas and interesting, complex characters. Book Three excels at the latter. We see more of Woody, the other person in the Zot-Jenny triangle. Jenny's torn between the two, and we can sympathize with her.

And then there's Zot, who sometimes seems the perpetual naive optimist. In "The Ghost in the Machine" he is challenged with accepting something awful. His reaction shows a deeper side of him than we have seen so far. The three page sequence is one of the most memorable I've seen in comics. Scott McCloud communicates his agony in a manner that wouldn't work as words alone. Worth investigating.

The Alien Years

Robert Silverberg
New hardcover
15 September

Take H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, update it to the present (100 years from the publication of Wells' novel, to be precise), and change the aliens: they don't get sick, they don't communicate with us, and they are invincible. What happens to humanity under their rule? A novel that was a dozen years in the making, The Alien Years tells the story of a family that refuses to give up the idea of freedom.

Portions of this were previously published in somewhat different versions. Three of these ("Against Babylon", "The Pardoner's Tale", and "Beauty in the Night") made it into Gardner Dozois' annual Year Best SF anthologies. No argument here; it's a novel worth reading. Silverberg still writes SF for adults. It's not his best, but even his mediocre works are better than most other authors'. I for one liked the fact that the aliens were truly alien.


Steven Gould
Used paperback
16 September

Teleportation. What if it were possible? What would you do with it?

Following in the footsteps of such SF classics as Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Steven Gould tells the tale of a seventeen year old with this incredible ability. He wisely restricts himself to the story of the protagonist's experiments and use of this power, rather than trying to justify the existence of a marvelous maguffin.

The only caveat I have is one that the author drops a one-in-a-million coincidence into the book. It takes the plot to the next stage, and raises important thematic questions, but trying to ignore it is like trying to ignore the purple cow in front of the sofa.

With its themes of redemption, maturation, and the use and abuse of power, the novel recalls Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human and Mike McQuay's Memories. This is good company, though it doesn't go as far as either. Consider Jumper to be Story 101. Then go on to Sturgeon's & McQuay's books to see what it can be the start of.

The Golden Globe

John Varley
New hardcover
20 September

This review isn't going to be any fun to write.

But why should I worry? Sparky Valentine, hero of The Golden Globe, has faced pans from critics before. He'd come up with a devastatingly witty riposte that would destroy his accuser.

But oh, Sparky, how could you have latched yourself to this vehicle? It commits the deadly crime of meandering when it should be grabbing the gut. The story falls into long sections of useless narration. We knew you were a prodigy, Mr. Valentine; why must you belabor the point so?

Even worse, the script you follow is predictable. If the audience didn't suspect the ending a third of the way through, they weren't paying attention. You have more than enough skill to keep the audience's interest even so; why do you squander your talent?

Oh, let's end this. Steel Beach kept me reading because of the interesting setting and situation. Take that away and what do you get? I don't have to tell you.

I'm sorry, Mr. Varley. I really wanted to like this book, but you have to work with me by making it involving and unpredictable. Maybe you've spent too much time working with Hollywood.

King Pin

Bill Griffith
New trade paperback
21 September

If you don't appreciate Zippy, you're allowed to skip this. A decent collection that brought some laughs. It's so good to see someone who appreciates Bushmiller's Three Rocks.

The Brains of Rats

Michael Blumlein
Used paperback
26 September

How odd. This book is categorized as Horror, but isn't. Sure, there are some eerie stories, but the best doesn't come close to being horror. "The Thing Itself" is a moving story of love and imagination. (It's so good that by now I've bought it three times, and read the entire story aloud to myself.) "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report" is horrifying, but it's an allegory. Don't publishers understand satire? Finally, "The Wet Suit" is a quiet story of reconciliation and loss. There's more, but these stand out.

Down the Bright Way

Robert Reed
Used paperback
1 October

Reed fares better in this novel of what one can find in an infinite universe. It's still a little flat in characterization, but it works okay. The central question is: what does one do when one wants to reach a goal, but must violate one's ethics to do so? A cautionary tale with many reflections in the real world, from colonialism to the war in Viet Nam.

Full House

Stephen Jay Gould
New trade paperback
6 October

In this book, Mr. Gould defends one idea: evolution has no direction. Even though we, as humans, see ourselves at the pinnacle of an evolutionary ladder, that view is flawed. In Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, the author points out the flaws in this interpretation of the world by looking at bacteria, horses, and the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball.

The crux of the argument is this:

  • There is a minimum complexity below which it is impossible to go
  • Evolution has no greater tendency to create more complex organisms than to create simpler organisms
  • Over time, more complex organisms appear and less complex organisms appear as well

Since we only look at the most complex organisms in a geological period, we see apparent progress toward more complex organisms. If we looked at all the species (Gould's "full house"), we'd see that there are species at all levels of complexity. By looking at a tiny subset of the whole, is it surprising that we have a strong bias?

Gould uses several arguments to illustrate his point. For the statistical part, he looks at the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball. Nobody hits that well anymore - do they? The answer is that they do, but the general level of play of all players has increased to the point that it is extermely difficult for a hitter to break 0.400. Excellence is that much harder to achieve when everyone you're competing against is excellent as well.

The notion that evolution favors larger, more complex organisms takes a hit when Gould considers a surprising family: the horses. They are the canonic example of a slow trend toward largeness, from Hyracotherium to Equus. But looking at the fossil record proves it isn't so. Yes, larger species did arise over time - but some new species were smaller than their immediate ancestor. Evolution is neutral with respect to size and complexity.

Okay, so we might not have been inevitable, but at least we're still the most successful species on Earth. Or are we? The last section asks us to clarify our notion of what "success" means. By almost every measure, Gould argues, the winners are the single-celled organisms. By some estimates, their biomass outweighs that of any other living organism. Species can live in almost any environment we can imagine - and have been found in ones we never expected. The earth held nothing but single-celled organisms for approximately 2.1 billion years. Multicellular organisms have only been around for 580 million. If evolution has a built-in drive toward more complexity, why did it take so long?

(Let's not forget one more fact: 80% of multicellular creatures are arthropods. So even if bacteria aren't number one, perhaps we should hand the award to the insects.)

In the end, the idea of progress is an illusion. Evolution works by variation. Life is a fascinating study; why not examine the full house of species, rather than choosing just a few extreme species to prove a dubious point?

Starlight: The Best Short Fiction of Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester
Used paperback
20 October

As "Best Of" collections go, I wasn't really impressed. This contains the memorable story "5,271,009" and the knockout "Fondly Fahrenheit", but they're the exception rather than the rule. "The Pi Man" is amusing, but the rest tend to become repetitious. How many times can you write a story in which a man's unconscious takes over? How often can we escape into the past? There's something about the stories here that don't engage me the way Greg Egan's stories do, which is a surprise. Egan works in a very narrow storytelling range; Bester covers more ground, but somehow seems more typical.

Each story includes a forward by the author. These can be more interesting than the stories themselves. The collection ends with the essay "My Affair with Science Fiction", which documents how he started (and finally stopped) writing SF. Bester produced the classic novels The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man; go seek them out instead.

(Years after reading "5,271,009", I'm still trying to figure out why he thought it was a prime number. It's obviously divisible by 3.)

Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Used paperback
23 October

This won a Hugo award? Why?

Oh, it's not a bad novel. The ideas are somewhat interesting, even if they're familiar. The depiction of future combat in Central America harkens back to Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime; "jacking" is from Haldeman's own work, along with dozens of other SF authors. Even doomsday cultists aren't rare anymore (Greg Egan's Quarantine, etc.). There just didn't seem much new here.

But the real problem with the book is its focus on straight action: this happens, that happens, something else happens, he does this, she does that. It's novel writing as a tactical exercise. The main character suffers major traumas, yet his mental state is never seriously examined. Characterization doesn't seem to have been much of a consideration. And what's the deal with shifting between third and first person viewpoints? It was distracting.


The Embedding

Ian Watson
Used paperback
26 October

Whoa. This is a first novel? I'm going to have to look for more of Watson's works.

How does one describe The Embedding? Psycholinguistic alien/cultural Ballardian suspense? It's definitely SF, but it's a unique brand that isn't concerned with tech. While a hard SF author such as Gregory Benford could spend pages describing the exploration of an alien spaceship, Watson would go right to what's important. He covers an amazing amount of ground in 217 pages: first contact, cultural anthropology, guerrilla politics, experimental linguistics, a personal crisis, and the nature of reality. Wow.

It's a rollercoaster journey. From the Amazon basin to near-Earth space, from ivory towers to a shamanic journey, Watson sparks with so many ideas that he's casually throwing away what other authors would use as the maguffin for entire novels. There's horror and wonder, and symbolism just waiting to be explored.

After all that praise, I still have to say that the novel is weird. The first half is a little slow to get going - this was actually my second attempt to read it. This part was reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's works. Then the pace picks up, and even to the last pages the plot struck out in directions I wasn't expecting. It's not perfect, but it's a darn sight more interesting than most of the stuff out there today, and it hasn't become dated in twenty-five years. Not bad at all.

The Zap Gun

Philip K. Dick
Used paperback
2 November

Lars Powderdry, head of Mr. Lars, Incorporated, has an unusual job. He goes into a trance and when he returns, he has drawn the design of a new weapon. To sustain the economy, these are immediately "plowshared" into consumer goods. It's a nice closed system. So what happens when he is required to build a real, working weapon?

After first reading this novel years ago, it was actually better than I remembered. Better than average Philip K. Dick. It shares elements with his other works: "official" reality as a lie (The Penultimate Truth), a sociopathic young woman (Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, We Can Build You), empathy devices (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and the question of exactly who is and who isn't an android (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, We Can Build You, "The Electric Ant"). Its themes are explored in much greater depth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but The Zap Gun works on its own terms.

Consciousness Explained

Daniel C. Dennett
Used hardcover
10 November

Oog, my brain hurts. I'm not cut out to read philosophy.

Dennett attempts to model consciousness. Along the way we find virtual machines, the Cartesian Theater, blindsight, Pandemonium and a host of other metaphors. He uses these to argue that there is no "Central Meaner" in the brain; instead, consciousness emerges as the product of non-conscious systems. There's no ghost in the machine; what we consider the ghost is the machine.

I'm not prepared to judge the quality of his arguments. All I know is that it's superficially plausible, but there's a whole lot of handwaving. Dennett explicitly addresses this point in the afterward, only then letting on that he considers this the third book in a set that explains consciousness.

It took me months to get through this book, reading a little here and little there. It was most interesting when he was discussing specific, measurable conditions (e.g., blindsight) that give some clue beneath the surface of the mind. At other times it was quite dry. The academic sniping wasn't welcome.

Postscript: I still haven't found any intentionality inside me.

The Quicksilver Screen

Don H. DeBrandt
Used paperback
14 November

I read this one on a recommendation from a friend. I can just imagine how this book came about. Author gives novella to agent. Agent returns it with the note "needs more cyberpunk edginess and action". Author complies, padding the character-driven novella into a rather ragged-edged mix. As my friend pointed out, there are some interesting ideas, but they're embedded in a story that doesn't use them to their fullest.

Oh, one more thing: if you can see someone and they can see you, you can communicate, even if only by holding up placards bearing messages. In other words, DeBrandt earns a demerit for not understanding his own novel's maguffin.


John Varley
Used paperback
15 November

This is an expanded version of his story "Air Raid". It was made (with a number of changes) into a stinky movie. To quote Scott Thompson (actor, singer, dancer, model, Canadian):

I'm in this new American picture called Millennium. It's a big budget science fiction starring Cherryl Ladd. You know, one day someone thought, "Hey. I want to make a terrible movie in Canada. Everybody else has..." I play the best friend of the timegate operator. He has one line. But he says it directly to me. The movie is full of Canadian actors with one line. It's great. It won't make a dime.

He was right, and it didn't. Read the story, don't bother with the novel or movie. I liked the mention of the reporter "Hildy Johnstown", though. Could it be / conceptual continuity?

Symptoms of Culture

Marjorie Garber
New hardcover
16 November

Postmodern criticism. Useful? Useless? How do we decide?

This is a collection of ten essays on subjects that range from the idea of greatness to Jell-O(r) to faking orgasm. They vary widely in quality; the first, on greatness, meanders through a truly ridiculous chain of vague associations that enlighten us not at all. That's followed by "Two-point Conversion", whose subject is the association of current religious revival movements with sports. It points out some revealing correspondences.

I guess that's the problem I have with this book. It's at its best when it sticks to reporting facts ("Cinema Scopes"). The essays that depend more on speculation are much less interesting, and sometimes just plain annoying ("Character Assassination"). Too often it devolves into postmodern drivel.

Take the neologism "overdetermined". Simply, it means having more than one meaning. The author seems to think it's significant that things can have different meanings in different contexts, and can even have different meanings in the same context. Hello? Santa Claus can mean Christmas, the idea of giving, the idea of judgment (naughty/nice), etc. Wake up! Anyone home? Even Freud - the revered Freud, who's often quoted (but never questioned) - is alleged to have said "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".

Here's another bit from Freud, quoted in "Cinema Scopes":

Dreams feel themselves at liberty, moreover, to represent any element by its wishful contrary; so that there is no way of deciding at a first glance whether any element that admits of a contrary is present in the dream-thoughts or as a negative.

If I read this correctly, she (and other postmodernists, who delight in the duality of concepts) could just as well be arguing for her antithesis rather than her thesis. Since it seems to make no difference to her argument, why should I bother to continue reading?

[See the short essay Shucking and Saving, and this page on the Sokal affair.]

Strength of Stones

Greg Bear
Used paperback
17 November

Not really much here. The inhabitants of the planet God-Does-Battle, religious settlers all, were kicked out of their intelligent cities centuries ago after being found impure by the cities themselves. After eleven centuries of a rough, hard-scrabble existence, the time has come to find the secrets the living cities hold. That's the setup; the plot's handled in three sections. You can read symbolism into it if you want (the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is an obvious example), but there's not much here to hang it on. On to the next book.

Against Infinity

Gregory Benford
Used paperback
20 November

It's not just my imagination. Benford really is a SF writer concerned with characterization as well as plot.

He proves this again with Against Infinity. It's a coming of age story set on Ganymede. Haunting the moon is the Aleph, a mobile alien artifact that is unpredictable, mute, and potentially dangerous. Manuel López grows up hunting this challenging enigma while around him the moon is slowly being terraformed.

While reading this I couldn't help but make comparisons to other works. At first I thought about Moby Dick, but revenge isn't a motivation here. The setting was reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars trilogy. By the end, however, my thoughts were much more focused on the symbolism within the story. In many ways, the story isn't SF at all; it's a conventional story in a SF setting. Just as the genre of space opera uses space as an updated frontier setting, this novel used Ganymede to tell a story of maturation.

There's afterword by Gary K. Wolfe which compares this story to William Faulkner's "The Bear". It also touches on the symbolism of the Aleph. Would that more books would treat their audiences with such respect for their intelligence.

You Are Here

Kyle Baker
New trade paperback
21 November

Kyle Baker's first graphic novel in eight years is a surprise. It's going to take a few more readings before I can form a full opinion, but initial reactions were these:

Boy, this looks like animation stills. Slow pan around a crowded room... wait, those are computer generated images of vases! And so's the tub - wait a minute, did that guy commit suicide? Oh boy, we're really off on another Baker venture again, aren't we?

The tale of a guy trying to go legit, the dialogue has that snappy edge Baker showed in Why I Hate Saturn. The artwork is impressive - I kept wondering how long it took him to learn to do all this stuff. It wasn't until a second pass through that I started picking up sly references to artists like Maxfield Parrish.

As for the story... maybe I'll warm up to it. It's just kind of hard to have sympathy for a guy who's spent the last year of his life lying to the woman he loves. Not just about the little things, either; he's lied about everything. But the characters are interesting, and Baker isn't the kind of person to sweeten them artificially. I suspect this will grow on me. There's quite a bit of graphic violence, though; be warned.

Ooh, page 116. Man. That's got to hurt.

The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain

William H. Calvin
Used trade paperback
24 November

This book isn't quite what I expected. I started it once before but didn't get into it, finding it rather dry. Strangely, this time it seemed rather wet. By that I mean it had a less than average helping of technical material, with the balance being travelogue and observations on the state of neurophysiological research. As you can guess, I was looking for more hard material.

This isn't to say that there aren't intriguing ideas in the book. For example, the standard model of interneuron signalling - the idea of an all-or-nothing firing that is communicated to all neurons it touches - might be an oversimple model of what actually happens. It's possible that a neuron might be participating in many different interactions simultaneously.

The thesis of the book is that the enlargement of the forebrain over evolutionary time scales, and the specialization of particular regions, might be due to the rise of stone-throwing. Calvin links this to phenomena today: the preference for right-handedness, the side on which a woman holds an infant, and even the development of language itself.

The argument isn't persuasive. It's a possibility, certainly, but it's basically impossible to prove. I'm not a evolutionary biologist, so I can't adequately judge whether the author is selecting phenomena that supports his thesis while ignoring others that don't. It's just frustrating not to see the whole picture.

One last thing: he mentions that in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, no cars run. People fill the streets, celebrating. A city filled with the noise of people - that must be something.

Beggars and Choosers

Nancy Kress
Used paperback
30 November

Beggars Ride

Nancy Kress
New paperback
1 December

Who controls technology? Who should decide what technology to create? Most important, what do we owe to other people?

Nancy Kress' Beggars Trilogy (the first being Beggars in Spain) considers these questions. It posits a future world with humanity divided into three distinct groups: unmodified humans; the Sleepless, who have enhanced intelligence, longevity, and no need to sleep; and the small group of Supers, with even greater intelligence. To whom does each group owe allegiance? What do we owe to each other, to the beggars who have nothing?

While Nancy Kress isn't a prose stylist, she keeps the story moving quickly. The books are rarely overly talky, something of an accomplishment when dealing with questions of morals and ethics. There is still the occasional coincidence, but that's forgivable in a morality play that isn't attempting to create a realistic world.

On balance, though, I'd have to say that this is a depressing series. Individuals show altruism, yet no institution (corporations, the Sleepless, et cetera) does. There is hope, but it seems like a candle in the night. Do not expect a deus ex machina.

The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception

Don Gifford
New trade paperback
14 December

An interesting book that defied my expectations. The subtitle made me think it was going to be about the scientific aspects of perception. Rather, it approached the topic from a literary viewpoint. Gifford treats 1798 and the natural histories of Gilbert White as that farther shore, and presents six essays on how our perception has changed in the intervening two hundred years.

He draws some interesting conclusions, namely that how we perceive influences what we perceive. Yet I found myself drawn to the glimpses he provided of what it was like to live in 1798. For example, there were those who felt that the ancient Greeks created the highest attainable civilization, and contemporary life was but a shadow. If you seriously espoused that doctrine today, people would think you crazy.

With special attention paid to White and Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond, Gifford weaves a set of essays that well records the tensions of a world entering a new era of transformation. Not what I expected, but worth the effort.

(As a side note, let me point out that this is a book which deals with issues of society yet doesn't lapse into critspeak. How refreshing!)


Stanislaw Lem
New trade paperback
16 December

"The task of the science-fiction author of today is as easy as that of the pornographer, and in the same way."

That quote, from the essay "Cosmology and Science Fiction", sums up Lem's assessment of the field of SF. After reading the ten dry essays in this book, one has to wonder why Lem even writes in the SF field at all. As far as he is concerned, there seem to be only two authors of "true" SF - himself and Philip K. Dick. Everyone else merely panders to the public.

As you might guess, these essays run from the pedantic to the downright infuriating. That can be a good thing; dissension among the ranks can lead to creative ferment. Yet Lem's commentary is so ferocious and sterile that it discourages reply.

What puzzles me is that he spends one essay criticizing a theory of literature as being too simple and confining, yet spends most of the others ranting that SF isn't the very specific literature he requires. Works of SF, according to Lem, should make one extranormal yet scientifically plausible hypothesis, then follow its conclusions to their logical limits. Anything else isn't SF. Even books that he likes (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, the subject of the last essay) inevitably fall apart under his intense scrutiny.

It's an impoverished view of the field. If Lem's definition of SF is so narrow that the works of only a few authors can be included, it makes SF a marginal and dull field. As for me, I'll take the storytelling of Benford's Against Infinity, the radiance of Bear's Queen of Angels, and the humanity of Sturgeon's More than Human.

Finally, here's one quote (p. 258): of the by-products of the world's industrialization is the leukemia that children are slowly dying from today. (We know this to be true, even though the causal connection cannot be palpably demonstrated.)

If anyone else wrote that, Lem would dismiss him or her as anti-science. He seems to be immune from self-criticism. Has he overlooked the possibility that an increase in the number of childhood leukemia cases could be due to the fact that these children might previously have succumbed to disease as infants, and they're now living long enough for leukemia to become a problem? A skeptic -- and scientist -- seeks alternative hypotheses to bold assertions of unprovable truth!

All in all, the choice of title is brilliant. Lem lives in, and seems unable to look beyond, his own microworld.

Roadside Picnic

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Library book
17 December

After reading Lem's essay in Microworlds on this book, I had to read it. And now I'm even more sure that Lem doesn't get it. The book isn't about the Visitors, or what they left behind. Its subject is the character Redrick and how he deals with the world.

The novel focuses on Redrick Schuhart, who lived in the town of Harmont. Years ago, something strange happened to Harmont, now called the Zone. There are strange occurences and objects, plagues of blindness caused by a loud sound, et cetera. Redrick makes his way in the world as a "stalker", risking death in the Zone to retrieve bizarre artifacts. The novel is structured as episodes over nine years of his life, and follows his relationship with the Zone.

Lem, on the other hand, spends page after page of the essay discussing the novel as an "experimental philosophy of history" - essentially, an alternate timeline with one singular occurence as the diverging point between reality and fiction. He begins by analyzing the Visitors, deciding that their non-appearance in the novel is the right way to handle them. Yet he then spends page after page arguing for his own interpretation of the artifacts and effects left in the Zone, to no point. It doesn't matter why these things exist, just that they do. That's why the novel isn't a scientific detective story. Lem's speculation about the placement of other Zones besides is similarly misguided. The reason the novel doesn't do more than mention them (and otherwise ignores the outside world completely) is that they're not important to Redrick.

The novel itself isn't bad, but it's amazing to me that Lem completely missed its point. I wonder; if he analyzed Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, would he realize that the novel proper ends with chapter 21, with the rest an extended epilogue?

Naming Names

Victor S. Navasky
Used trade paperback
25 December

Can I stop dreaming about the blacklist now?

Naming Names is a 400+ page examination of the morality of the 1950s Hollywood blacklist. I was expecting it to be a historical account of the rise and fall of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC), but instead the focus was how individual members of the Hollywood community dealt with the threat of blacklisting. Each person called before the HUAC had to decide whether or not to "name names", that is, identify others as Communist Party members or affiliated with the Communist Party. Even to this day, feelings about this shameful era of our history can be intense.

I didn't know much about what happened back in the 1950s. The most surprising fact is in chapter 10, "Degradation Ceremonies". Due to informers who had worked within the Communist Party and then given information to the government, the HUAC must have had the names of almost every member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1949. In other words, the HUAC had absolutely no need to have people inform on others, except to sow dissension and terror. As Mr. Navasky puts it,

The HUAC hearings were degradation ceremonies. Their job was not to legislate or even to discover subversives (that had already been done by the intelligence agencies and their informants) so much as it was to stigmatize. [p. 319]

The author definitely has an answer to the question of "should one inform?", but he does a very good job at conveying the reasons people did and didn't. He might not be dispassionate, but he handles the subject with compassion.

Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome
Used paperback
29 December

What better way to bracket a year's worth of reading that began with Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog than to end with one its inspirations, Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the Dog!)?

This short 1889 novel is the quintessential humorous vacation story. George, Harris, J., and Montmorency (the dog) take a two week boat trip up the Thames, contending along the way with rain, swans, musicianship, and of course each other. With historic and poetic asides, blunders and confusions, uncooperative weather, and mixups galore, it's a wonder they survived.

This is the book that gave us the classic phrase:

I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.

The book itself does strike something of a repetitive note, but it goes by quickly enough that it is only a small problem.

Last updated 30 August 2005
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons except Pogo image ©1992 Selby Kelly; Howland Owl image ©1996 Selby Kelly; Professor Garbanzo image © Larry Marder.

Next: Book List, 1999