The 1999 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 1999

* denotes a book reviewed on another page

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

Books Read

Murther and Walking Spirits

Robertson Davies
Used hardcover
1 January

Connor Gilmartin, journalist, is dead. Murder. Yet his spirit isn't at peace. Instead, he is drawn to a fantastic film show, wherein he sees and experiences the lives of his ancestors.

If only they hadn't been such a dull lot. Only one really triumphs over her circumstances, and finds the courage to become more than she is. All the others are bound by an obstinate loyalty that prevents their ever being happy. Even to the end, fortunes made become fortunes unmade. Our dead protagonist might find love for his ancestors, but frankly, I couldn't summon up a dram. It's hard to have sympathy for characters when their entire story goes by in fifty or sixty pages. Stretched out to a full book, like Davies' What's Bred in the Bone, they might have a chance. Not here.

All in all, a flat, minor work from a talented writer. Not a great way to begin the new year. Let's hope it's all upwards from here.

The Big Book of Bad

Jonathan Vankin
Borrowed trade paperback
3 January

The Big Book of Scandal

Jonathan Vankin
Borrowed trade paperback
4 January

The Big Book of the Unexplained

Doug Moench
Borrowed trade paperback
4 January

Randi loaned me three recent Big Books, and, being sick, they made a day in bed pass quickly. Of the three, Bad is the best, followed by Scandal, with Unexplained running a far distant third. At least Bad gives us some important historical information (such as the Armenian genocide). Unexplained, on the other hand, is almost completely credulous. For example, it mentions the infamous Hanger 18 when discussing UFOs, but omits how Project Mogul (a real, terrestrial, non-mysterious yet secret project) led to the UFO rumors. Thumbs down for that.

It was amusing to find my current town, Corvallis Oregon, mentioned in Bad as the site of the Church of the Bride of the New Prophet, a scandalous cult in the early years of the 20th century. Believe as you will.

Science Fiction from China

Dingbo Wu and Patrick D. Murphy, ed.
New hardcover
6 January

Ummm, what can I say? Of the eight stories in this collection, none grabbed me. Clones, robot wives, hermit inventors... it all reads like second-rate US/British SF from the forties or fifties. The best part is the introductory essay on the history of Chinese SF.

Signal to Noise

Eric S. Nylund
Library book
7 January

Billed as a "hyperpunk" novel, it's not. It contains many of the standard tools of cyberpunk: tailored viruses, neural implants, virtual reality, et cetera. Our hero's supposed to be a master cryptanalyst who's started pulling signals from streams of random data. Maybe. But when the few mentions of actual cryptanalysis are wrong [see below], it ends up as so much handwaving. That's a minor quibble, and most of the rest was better. The book had some interesting ideas, and the writing was okay, but somehow it feels loose compared to Greg Egan's works. I felt like I was reading a combination of Egan's science (Quarantine), Sterling's corporate hugger-mugger (Islands in the Net), and any off-the-shelf cyberpunk action adventure. Cut 40% of this book out and it would have been better.

The ending did surprise me, which was a nice touch.

Wrong crypto nit-picking:

  • "Twentieth-century keys used in DES and RSA-type encryption usually used power-of-two length keys." p. 78. RSA, yes. DES key length is 56 bits, which is not a power of 2.

  • "It's 256 bits long. That's two to the power 256 steps for a brute force calculation." p. 78. Not exactly. There are 2 to the power 256 possible keys to try. Testing each key is independent of the others; considering each a "step" is misleading at best, or ignorant at worst. Also, 256 is the exponent for the worst case; on average a cracker would need to try half the keys before finding the right key, which is 2^255 keys, not 2^256.

The Visible Man

Gardner Dozois
Used paperback
9 January

Dozois certainly has a unique storytelling style: tightly focused on one character, with very little dialogue. It can be hard to get into, but some of the stories here are rewarding: "A Special Kind of Morning", "The Storm". Some of his thematic territory overlaps J.G. Ballard's, particularly the breakdown of social norms ("Flash Point"). The anthology closes with "Chains of the Sea", an effective portrait of a child who might be on the edge of mental illness. Definitely not your usual SF.

What Mad Universe

Fredric Brown
Used paperback
11 January

A bit of japery from the classic days of SF. Keith Winton, successful pulp editor, is felled by the explosion of an experimental rocket. When he comes to, he finds himself in a town that seems almost the same as before... except the drug store clerk offers to buy his coins for a handsome amount of credits... and eight foot purple beings walk down the street without raising an eyebrow. What mad universe has Keith found himself in?

Classic SF can be an interesting thing. The introduction reveals exactly how much of the author's preoccupations come through in the novel. It seems to make sense; from drinking, writing, and editing to the SF clichés of bug-eyed monsters and electronic brains, it's a self-contained world of reading and writing. Written in 1949, there is the presentiment of the 1950s' Commie menace, but it isn't the book's theme. It doesn't maintain the frantic pace of Robert Sheckley's lunatic Mindswap, which is needed for light SF, yet it isn't serious. An odd duckling.

The Dragons of Eden

Carl Sagan
Used paperback
14 January

Speculations, indeed! Maybe the problem is that this book is now twenty years out of date. But Sagan is in full-on wide-bore speculation mode here, and it didn't convince for me. Take these two examples.

  • The human brain's data processing rate
    Sagan comes up with a value of 100 bits per second (p. 46). He arrives at this value by analyzing how much data is in a mental image, then dividing by the time it takes to bring up the image. Well, maybe that's how visual recollection works for him, but I don't remember things that way. When I remember something (say, my parents' house), I bring up an abstraction, rather than a flat image. I can visualize a small part, but cannot bring up the entire image. So how do I measure how much processing my brain is doing?

  • Evolution is directed to produce more intelligent species (p. 240)
    Stephen Jay Gould took care of this fallacy in his book Full House. If intelligence really is the logical progression of evolution, why were single-celled organisms the only life on earth for three billion years? Why did we appear only in the last few hours of Sagan's planetary calendar (p. 16)?

There's some interesting material in the book, particularly the observation that cultural evolution has superseded biological evolution in the evolution of homo sapiens. Yet one has to be careful and read with a very critical eye. For in-depth, plausible and current ideas of how the brain works, read Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error.

Last Orders

Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
17 January

I started this collection of stories over a year ago, and put it aside. When I opened it again, there was a bookmark halfway through it. Strangely enough, though, I could only clearly remember the first story. So I finished it, then started from the front and read to the bookmarked place.

And I am very glad I did. What a complex set of interlocking stories! This must be what reading James Joyce is like; a person could spend weeks, months, or years determining the relationships between these stories. Some share locations, some themes. Characters and settings appear and re-appear in similar yet distinct roles. Dreamlike transformations occur; the future is at once familiar and wholly foreign. It's like examining a rich palimpsest; the closer it is studied, the more detail appears, and the more connections between previously unrelated things are discerned

Many of the stories deal with some kind of ending, be it social, psychic, economic, or apocalyptic. From the relatively straightforward end-of-the-world opening tale, "Last Orders", one might think they were in for another collection of speculative tales. Yet by the time "Journey to the Heartland" is reached, one's brain has been pulled out, immersed in an ever-changing bath of neuropeptides, and finally wrapped around itself. The disorientation of returning to reality is immense. A splendid accomplishment.

Last year I wrote that Robert Silverberg writes SF for adults. Add Brian Aldiss to that short list. Definitely recommended.

This is a book that I will have to read again in a few years.

J.G. Ballard

Re/Search No. 8/9
New trade paperback
21 January

This volume of the unusual Re/Search series focuses on the novelist J.G. Ballard. It contains interviews, essays about and by Ballard, a bibliography, and pieces of his idiosyncratic fiction. It's not exhaustive, but reading it quickly is exhausting.

The fundamental question is: will this make people want to go out and read Ballard's works? The answer is yes, for several reasons. David Pringle's analysis of Ballard's symbolism is tantalizing. Even more so, the fiction included is dynamite. From the infamous "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" to the successful experiments of "Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown", "The Index", and "The 60 Minute Zoom", the selections are unlike anything written by others.

The drawback to the book is that it was published in 1984. Since then, Ballard's novels Empire of the Sun and Crash have been filmed (with wildly different results), and he has continued to write. So it is out of date. But for anyone who's interested in alternative fiction, or particularly Ballard's '60s and '70s works, this book is recommended. When you read it, though, keep a notebook handy to jot down quotes and notations!

Re/Search has also reprinted Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, which is worth looking for.

[As an interesting aside, in an interview Ballard quoted Villiers de l'Isle Adam: "As for living, our servants can do that for us.". One of the stories in Aldiss' collection Last Orders is "Live? Our Computers Will Do That For Us". It's nice to know the title's origin.]

Insanely Great

Steven Levy
Used trade paperback
22 January

A bit of techno-fluff on the history of the Macintosh from the start to the PowerMac. Three hundred pages of big type and big margins don't do justice to the intellectual excitement of creating the Mac interface. Some fun, and some history - the influence of Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart were quite interesting - but just not enough.

The book is also frustrating in another way. Much if it is about the evolution of Mac's graphic interface, yet there are no images in the entire book! It was even produced on a Mac, the machine that was the first to integrate text, images and other media. Surely there could have been some screen captures at least. So here's one, just to make up for the lack of them in the book.

[Mac screen shot]

The Macintosh OS 8 menu
Courtesy Mike Byrne

In a strange coda, the book's final sentence contains a glaring typo. Did the author forget to run a spelling checker? Somehow a simple typo suddenly seems... ominous.

The Cruise of the Snark

Jack London
Used trade paperback
23 January

What's it like to sail the Pacific in a 43' sailing vessel? Now imagine doing it in the first decade of the twentieth century. This is the story of the Snark's voyage to Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, and other islands in the south Pacific.

Some parts are indeed charming and impressive. Others seem like a bad dream. After the tale of the construction of the ship, long overdue and over budget, the beauty of Hawai'i and Polynesia are a balm. The chapters on the leper colony of Molokai and the volcano Haleakala are highlights, as was that on the Nature Man of Papeete. He reminded me of several people I know.

The journey to the western islands, however, did not inspire. Tales of mistrust and disease seem to predominate at the end of the voyage. All in all, it's not a journey I'd like to make.

A for Anything

Damon Knight
Used paperback
25 January

The Gismo is a device which can duplicate anything, doesn't require raw materials, and runs off a battery. It can duplicate itself, and is small enough to be mailed. What happens when it spreads throughout society?

Knight's answer: an immediate collapse into a slave state, with the best slaves being duplicated. Most of the book follows the intrigues of one of the gentry as he is introduced to high society. It's not what I expected; I was hoping for some considered treatment of the impact of the new-found freedom the Gismo provides to everyone.

Surprisingly, there were some things to think about. The most important is about overpopulation. A character claims that the only checks on population are limits on space or food. He's wrong. One of the most effective checks on population is education. Now, imagine that people were self-sufficient (a la Nancy Kress' Beggars and Choosers). Would they have any need for education? Would the population explode? Interesting question.

The Transparent Society

David Brin
Library copy
3 February

Brin argues that the future will be full of surveillance, so the best way to preserve society is to be able to watch the watchers. The idea is transparency: they can see us, but we can see them as well. When everyone knows everyone else's business, we will have less to fear both from governments and dangerous individuals.

Perhaps. He's a pragmatist, so doesn't espouse a particular party line. The questions he raises are good ones, and they will make you think (and argue). Yet I'm not comfortable with the idea of a return to a small village mentality. I remember growing up in the closet, and not knowing anyone who was gay. I would have loved to have communicated anonymously with someone who had come out. Yet in a small village, anonymous or encrypted communication automatically sends up a red flag for nosey people. That fear would have kept me isolated. (You might argue that openness would lessen the stigma attached to being openly gay. That's probably true, but irrelevant to my concern, which is self-acceptance.)

There are a few little things wrong here and there, but they don't really affect the questions Brin raises. I just wish there was more to the book than questions! It's thought-provoking, but left me hanging.

For example, Brin returned several times to the us-vs-big government attitude of the cypherpunk/libertarian crowds. He pointed out that we might have just as much, if not more, to fear from corporations. Good point. Yet it isn't followed up. How can individuals demand transparency from business? It's a question left unanswered.

At the end, Brin makes the point that he's just asking questions. I wish he'd said that earlier. Then I wouldn't have wasted time looking in the text for recommendations for the future.

One last thing. Sentence fragments. Throughout the book. Distracting.

Even as paragraphs.

And Weapons For All

William D. Hartung
New paperback
18 February

This book's subtitle, "How America's Multibillion-Dollar Arms Trade Warps Our Foreign Policy and Subverts Democracy at Home", sums up the book's contents exactly. Starting with Nixon's 1969 decision to reverse U.S. policy and start selling arms, Mr. Hartung follows the policy decisions, arms sales, and their effects through the early Clinton administration. It's an enlightening, one-sided, and infuriating account.

Even though it's 300 pages long, the book barely scratches the surface of the arms trade. George Bush's complicity in the Iran/contra scandal is almost a footnote to the sordid history of the executive branch's long and incestuous involvement with the arms industry: Carter's forgotten arms control initiative, Reagan's military buildup, Bush's acceleration of arms sales, and now Clinton's arms control doubletalk. After years, the chief executive's policy remains the same: I never met an arms sale I didn't like.

Aside from damning the moral corruption behind these multibillion-dollar deals, Hartung goes further. He examines the effects it has on the U.S. job market, and who benefits financially. Surprise - the U.S. ends up practically giving arms away, and in the process jobs move overseas. A side effect is that advanced weaponry spreads to other nations with no oversight. Meanwhile, U.S. embassies receive orders to help U.S. arms dealers in any way they can. And today we skirmish with Iraq, a nation we armed for years and years.

Infuriated yet? If you're not, you will be after you read the book.

Don't expect balanced reporting in this book. It's biased, certainly; nonetheless, it's a damning indictment of the politics of massive greed.


Ursula K. Le Guin
Used paperback
19 February

It's hard to review the concluding volume of a series when you barely remember the rest of the series. Tehanu, the conclusion to Le Guin's classic fantasy Earthsea series, seems to be quite different from the other volumes. It's more like her striking later work Always Coming Home than the original series. The difference is due in part to the almost twenty year interval between them. Moreso, though, the difference is in how Le Guin has changed as a storyteller. As I recall, the original trilogy was much more concerned with action, both internal and external. In this volume, the characters and how they live drive the story. The fire of their youth has been banked, and their concerns are those of daily living. This can almost be considered a character study.

In plot terms, the story strikes me as a novella, not a novel. Yet Le Guin's writing is captivating enough for me to wish the story were longer. The characters tend toward introspection; much of the novel is concerned with the nature of women and men. At times I would almost swear that the main character is reactionary, yet she's still someone I'd like to know.

If you're expecting heroic fantasy along the lines of the earlier books, you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for a book about good, interesting people who do what is needed in a time of change, you'll be well satisfied.

Who Owns Information?

Anne Wells Branscomb
New trade paperback
22 February

I've got to learn to read books on current affairs when they're published, not a few years later. Who Owns Information? suffers from being out of date. It's not a major problem; while there have been more news-making debates about privacy since the book's 1994 publication, the issues remain the same.

The areas covered are personal information, medical history, images, email, video, religious information, software, and government information. Each chapter surveys one or several major cases that highlight the issues surrounding that particular medium or set of information.

Surprisingly, one subject that seemed a natural (Westlaw's proprietary interest in indexing U.S. court cases) wasn't even mentioned. And since publication, fascinating cases (such as the Scientologists' claim that their religious material is a trade secret) have evolved. Their absence gives the book a dated feel. Yet the main issues are brought up, along with questions to consider.

Perhaps more surprising is the glossing over of the contentious debate surrounding patients' privacy in the AIDS crisis. Improper withholding or disclosure of information could literally kill. While the subject is covered, the issues it raises aren't explored in the depth they merit.

What is a problem is that there isn't much more to the book than the expository information. The author raises important questions, but advocates no position. Each chapter closes with a concluding section; after a while, it's pretty easy to predict what they will say (society will figure it out; we should get involved). I already know what the issues are; I was hoping to find a reasoned, consistent policy on privacy and access to information. It's not here.

But I did find out what "eleemosynary" means. And the book does have an extensive set of references.

Freak Show

Carl Hammer & Gideon Bosker
New trade paperback
22 February

Subtitled "Sideshow Banner Art", This book combines the art of circus sideshow banners with stories of the artists. It's a short, interesting look at a classic example of American folk art. You might be surprised at just how formalized the art is.

Dark Sun

Richard Rhodes
New hardcover
7 March

This is a book without heroes. How can there be? The subject is the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Starting with the Soviet espionage program and its success in stealing the secrets of WWII's Los Alamos nuclear program, the book continues on to the US efforts to build the "Super". The last section covers the history of nuclear escalation and brinkmanship, with coverage of the Berlin airlift, the Korean war, and the Cuban missile crisis.

Quick question: during the crisis, how many grams of TNT-equivalent* were in the air on US bombers? The answer is surprising: 6,300,000,000,000,000. That's 6.3 quadrillion grams. Assuming there were 4.5 billion people alive then, that's 1400 kilograms apiece. Say a ton and a half of TNT per person. And that was just what was in the air. Don't forget the bombs on missiles, on the ground, and in submarines.

Did I forget to mention that by that time the US Air Force wasn't informing anyone who it had planned to bomb? That the US conducted a missile test in the middle of the crisis? And that US bombers deliberately flew beyond their turn-around points, violating Soviet airspace?

As you might expect, there are many passages in this book that will scare you. That's good; they should. But there's more here than just dry recitations of comparative megatonnage. The author gives insight into why people gave secrets to the Soviet Union, and why scientists were willing to work on something so horrendous. Without that, the book would have been intolerable. Instead, the feeling that I get is an overwhelming relief that we made it through that era without destroying each other and our planet.

The nuclear club has expanded to include Britain, China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and other nations. Though the US is finally off alert (after decades), the danger is not past. Let us not forget.

[As a personal note, I came away from this book with a greater appreciation of J. Robert Oppenheimer's comment about the atomic bomb being "technically sweet". He was talking about the atomic bomb, but I could understand the appeal of Ulam & Teller's fission-fusion-fission design of the first hydrogen bomb. In a sick way, it's ingenious, and it stuns me to think about the complex interactions inside the bomb occurring with microseconds of its detonation. Technically sweet, indeed; but only as concepts, as diagrams on paper. How seductive it must have been to turn this elegant design into a horrifying reality.]

*A measure of the explosive force of bombs by converting the capacity into the equivalent amount of TNT.


Bruce Sterling
New hardcover
10 March

Once again, Sterling's work leaves me a little less than enthusiastic. I think it's his prose. It seems rather flat; Distraction isn't the kind of book I'll open to re-read scenes from.

As in Heavy Weather, there are touches of brilliance. I loved the self-constructing buildings, and the rep servers were amusing. (The protagonist's "background problem" was hilariously ironic - he is a media hack, after all!) I just wish the whole novel had that kind of vision. It's not a bad read at all, but it doesn't sparkle like his Shaper/Mechanist stories or "Green Days in Brunei".

Dying of the Light

George R. R. Martin
Used paperback
16 March

George R. R. Martin won a Hugo award for his novella "A Song for Lya", which I really enjoyed. On its strength I decided to give this novel a chance, even though the subject didn't look that interesting to me. Surprise me, Mr. Martin, I thought.

He didn't. Set on a dying planet, it's a tale of love, honor and transcending codes of conduct. This could be the basis for a good novel, but I never warmed to any of the characters nor found the warlike code of most of the characters unique enough to capture a good sense of moral crisis. All in all, it's a novella's worth of ideas expanded to 350 pages. Pass.

Alien Embassy

Ian Watson
Used paperback
17 March

In the peaceful, agrarian world of the twenty-second century, the only way to escape from normal life is to be picked by Bardo, the interstellar contact agency. Initiates learn the mental disciplines to contact alien races. Or do they?

Not so much a novel as a travelogue of a culture, Alien Embassy doesn't raise its fundamental issues until the book is mostly done. Is it better to be happy and ignorant, or wise and troubled? Is the ultimate expression of existence the state of nirvana, of nothingness? Amid many speculations on directed evolution and Eastern mysticism, these are the questions considered. It's not a great book, nor half as good as first novel The Embedding, but it does at least ask a question that is raised surprisingly rarely in SF.

The Man Who Japed

Philip K. Dick
Used paperback
29 March

One of Dick's earlier novels, The Man Who Japed is definitely one of his lesser works. The story follows Allen Purcell, head of a propaganda agency, as he simultaneously rises in power and rebels against the regimented future society in which he lives.

Purcell is a classic Dick character: bright enough to rise to the top of his field, yet alternating between action and passivity. His knowledge of history and art is incongruous in a society that calls the past the "Age of Waste". His morality is at odds with his times. In short, he is a puzzle piece that doesn't fit.

In terms of plot, this novel isn't richly developed like his later works. It is almost completely devoted to Purcell, with only one brief chapter devoted to a minor character. Familiar devices abound - a dark-haired, tempting woman, a morally ambiguous lesson, autofacs, and sparsely settled colonies on distant planets. Yet Dick's plotting skills weren't mature enough to deliver a more complex novel like Martian Time-Slip.

This book hasn't been reprinted recently, to my knowledge. I wouldn't bother to track it down unless you're a completist.

One final observation: a few details are rather antiquated. Consider this paragraph, set in an office:

Sue Frost was silent for a moment, and he sat smoking uneasily, crossing and uncrossing his legs, feeling his tension grow, not diminish. Nearby, in another office, the switchboard buzzed. Doris' typewriter clacked.

Change just a few words and the paragraph would be completely up to date, except perhaps for the smoking. But it is a bit jarring to read about clacking typewriters in future offices.

[An odd thing: inside the second-hand copy I bought was a little anti-theft mag strip with the words "Please Rewind" written on it... in Spanish. How do you rewind a book?]

SourceSafe at Any Speed

Kim Price
Library book
1 April

Okay, so I was in a bored and voyeuristic mood. Why else would I read someone's history of her experience at Microsoft? It wasn't particularly interesting; we find out much more about the personalities in Ms. Price's group than Microsoft culture. While the recounting of practical jokes were amusing -- I bet few have independently stumbled across that particular use of Nerf toys and WD-40 -- they didn't deserve an entire chapter. The author is so vague about what she actually did at Microsoft that the title isn't explained. (SourceSafe is MS's version control product, which I doubt she ever used.) Instead we get pages of exposition about "rush" culture, yawn. Maybe she was one of those corporate drones we hear so much about.

The book's obdurate refusal to speculate about the big picture relegates it to the bottom of the dot-com-experiences heap.

Fancies and Goodnights

John Collier
Used hardcover
5 April

This is a collection of fifty short stories, each with a twist. In Collier's world, it is not unusual for the Devil to appear to young men in love, gorillas to become novelists, and an afternoon meeting turn to murder. I'd read this book years ago, and bought it just to have a copy of it to dip into. I ended up re-reading it entirely, a story at a time. It's not to be taken in large doses like a pudding, but rather as a slice of lemon. Its tartness is refreshing.

The Court and the Constitution

Archibald Cox
Used hardcover
12 April

Mr. Cox presents the history of the U.S. Supreme Court's varying interpretations of the Constitution. For a layman like me, it gave me a greater appreciation of the complexity underlying judicial reasoning. The crux is finding the balance between holding to precedent and using the Court's power to in effect make law. It's a tougher balancing act than I'd imagined, and the author illustrates well the dangers of improper use of judicial power. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the subject.

Swimming to Cambodia

Spalding Gray
Used paperback
19 April

There's not much to say about this transcription of Gray's best monologue. It misses the off-the-cuff interjections of Jonathan Demme's filmed version, which I'd recommend over this. Also, compared to the movie, the ending trails off into a long tangent. It's entertaining reading, but Gray's monologues should at least be heard, if not seen.

Man In His Time

Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
22 April

This chronologic collection of Aldiss' best SF stories is a mixed bag. Covering thirty-one years' work, Aldiss' style changes from a reasonably straightforward SF style ("Who Can Replace Man?") to a sophisticated observer of the human condition ("My Country 'Tis Not Only Of Thee"). His subject matter does not change greatly; the earliest story, "Outside", bears comparison with one of the last, "Infestation". Yet the approach is very different. An interesting collection.

Elephants in the Volkswagen

Lindsey Grant
Used paperback
27 April

Quick quiz: which country has the greatest population problem?

  1. China
  2. Honduras
  3. India
  4. Indonesia

The answer is none of these. It's the U.S.A. The authors argue persuasively that America contributes more to the global population problem than any other nation. When measured in terms of population versus consumption, the US is far and away the worst offender. We might have a smaller population than some nations with higher fertility, but each resident of America consumes a much greater amount of resources. That is one reason for the book's focus on overpopulation in the U.S.A.

For me, Elephants in the Volkswagen: Facing the Tough Questions About Our Overcrowded Country was preaching to the choir. I agree with the various estimates throughout the book of a sustainable US population of from 65 to 170 million. We're already well over 250 million, however, so getting to the goal will be the greatest challenge the country has yet faced.

The authors (there are many, each contributing essays on different aspects of the population problem) do not pull many punches. They point out the US's dependence on imported oil, its net import of food and wood, and the fact that fertility has begun rising again, from 1.8 to 2.0. Combined with a liberal immigration policy, the long-term outlook is grim.

The best hope offered by the book is the recognition that Europe's population is approaching a stable (though not sustainable) amount. We would do well to study and learn from our neighbors.

The book has one or two drawbacks. The greatest is that it is now seven years old, and so without independent research, one must take the projections with a grain of salt. This is the kind of document which needs constant updating to remain relevant.

[Doubletalk alert! In chapter six we find following sentence:

Some of the immigrants do not have the human resource endowments that are quite congruent with the labor market conditions currently dictated by the economy's needs. - p. 81

"Human resource endowments"? "Skills" is a perfectly fine word. Come to think of it, we could rewrite the sentence completely: "Some immigrants don't have skills our economy needs." From 45 syllables to 13.]

I was put off by the authors' assumption that nuclear fusion would never be feasible. On p. 28, the probability of developing fusion within the next few decades is estimated at 1 in 1000. This seemed to me quite low. On further reflection, however, it made sense. Why hope for the development of a new fuel source when it might never come about? The key to population planning is to plan for the worst. Unfortunately, as a species, we've never learned to create long-term plans. The authors might just have well have been shouting in the desert. They're well aware of this: the last sentence is "I wonder if anyone is listening, out there in the kingdom of the deaf.".

James Blish's Cities in Flight

  1. They Shall Have Stars
    Used paperback
    3 May

    The first of Blish's Cities in Flight SF tetralogy, They Shall Have Stars is prologue to the series proper. It chronicles the discovery of the technologies that make the rest of the novels possible. As a novel it doesn't stand on its own merits, due to a lack of dramatic focus. There is sacrifice, love, and political and mental upheaval, but it takes a back seat to moving the plot along. It left me feeling that the real dramatic story had been missed.

  2. A Life for the Stars
    Used paperback
    3 May

    Surprisingly, this second Cities in Flight novel also reads like a prologue. In it, we're introduced to the flying cities through the character Chris, who is abducted by the city of Scranton just before it leaves the Earth. Chris's ignorance allows us to learn about the cities while he does. What little plot there is -- Chris's coming of age -- is relegated to the book's final chapters. Don't expect much, although the description of Scranton's take-off is well done. I dare say it's the novel's high point.

  3. Earthman, Come Home
    Used paperback
    5 May

    This series continues to disappoint. I do not identify with the characters, which doesn't surprise me now; Blish's characterization is minimal. The plot is driven by physical action, not character development. In the entire book there's only one dramatic conflict, which is almost forgotten by the end.

    Even as SF, I'm disappointed in the series. One definition of SF is fiction that examines the implication of technology. In Cities in Flight we have two fundamental changes: immortality drugs and antigravity. These are revolutionary innovations that will radically change society. Yet why could all the characters and situations easily be translated to a different period of history? There's no sense that the existence of these tools have changed society in any way. That's what I suspect, at least; the novel is a series of dramatic moments with no more than four people in a room at any given time. There is no sense that the population of the city -- the heart of the novel -- even exists unless needed for the plot.

    I first read this series back in high school, and enjoyed it then. My tastes have changed. Now I can't suspend my disbelief. Why, for example, in the middle of a series founded on heavy tech must the author make a casual, one-time reference to psychic phenomena? It detracts from the fictional universe by adding incredible possibilities, as did the Mule in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Also, doesn't a life span of over a thousand years have any mental effects other than the accumulation of wisdom? Imagine spending hundreds of years inside one environment. Wouldn't this affect a person? A story based on that premise, such as Kin Stanley Robinson's novella "Green Mars", would be much more interesting than this.

    Perhaps SF had to walk before it could run. These books feel like baby steps.

  4. The Triumph of Time
    Used paperback
    6 May

    What would you do if you knew the universe would end during your lifetime? That is the knowledge the characters of Earthman, Come Home must now confront. It makes for a more interesting book, less space opera than character study. Perhaps it's just that I've got a preference for end-of-humanity tales, but this is the one book of the series that I've re-read. It has a lot more humanity in it, with characters finally showing emotions. It's not as good as his story "We All Die Naked", but it's a fitting end to the series.


Greg Egan
New hardcover
9 May

I hadn't planned to re-read this, having read it just last year. But as I worked my way through Cities in Flight, the comparisons forced me to take another look at it, and I liked what I saw.

Perhaps I'm being myopic, but SF has changed in the 35 years between these works. Blish's setting was instantly familiar; in his fictional universe he changed the only the absolute minimum necessary to create the setting he wanted. As a consequence, there were characters who for a thousand years had done calculations on slide rules. Anti-death drugs prolonged their lives indefinitely, yet nobody ever seemed to grow bored or change professions. Technology itself barely progressed beyond what it took to create the Okie cities. It made for a very static fictional universe.

Egan's work is an incredible contrast. His imagination runs riot in Diaspora; indeed, although to appreciate this book requires a fair amount of knowledge of mathematics, computing, and particle physics, I almost suspect that he dumbed the book down so that it wouldn't be completely unapproachable! Characters traverse dimensions through pinhole wormholes, discover constructed planets of heavy isotopes, and redesign themselves instantaneously to deal with 6- or 16-dimensional universes. Yet amidst all this technological hoopla -- Blish's cities on steroids, as it were -- in one book Egan manages to convey more concern for his characters than I felt in all of Cities in Flight. Blish's focus on external action, to the exclusion of most other elements of a novel, ends up creating a good but empty shell. Egan combines action, speculation, and character to create a hard-science tour de force of the imagination that manages to retain its heart.

The Fun House

Lynda Barry
Used paperback
22 May

Come Over Come Over

Lynda Barry
Used paperback
24 May

It's So Magic

Lynda Barry
Used paperback
24 May

When I saw three Lynda Barry collections in the used book store on Friday, I knew I was fated to read them within the next few days. How could I not? How can anyone resist the incredible creations of Lynda Barry?

The books didn't disappoint. They follow the story of the teenaged Maybonne and her younger sister Marlys. From school to play to family life, they capture the joys and agonies of childhood and adolescence. I knew Marlys would be grooving on life, and that Maybonne will find those magic moments that make the tragedies of adolescence bearable, and sometimes beautiful.

I wish there were more Lynda Barry books in the world. I also wish that they contained all the strips she wrote. There's one she wrote about 1992 that I'd love to read again. It was one of the most powerful strips I've ever read.

Love & Sleep

John Crowley
New hardcover
25 May

A sequel to his 1987 novel Ægypt, Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffett's quest for the hidden history of the world. What if, he asks, there were times, critical junctures, when the whole world changes in ways that leave almost no evidence later? What if we are living in one of those times? How will we recognize it? If we manage to, is it possible to leave a message that will be understood in the new world that comes into being?

I can't think of a better writer to handle these dream-like questions. Indeed, Love & Sleep often seems like a dream. The writing manages to capture the elusive events of the hypnagogic state, which but minutes later cannot be made clear in one's mind. It is a perfect style for its subject.

Informed and enigmatic, Mr. Crowley's latest is a walk in another world. It's not for fans of mystic action; the events here are mundane: funerals, research, discussions over coffee. Yet the hidden nature of the world sometimes shines forth.

If the chapter titles are any indication, this is to be the second of four volumes. It's a massive undertaking, and I admire the author for taking such a chance on something hard to categorize. It's not a new age tale, nor a straight drama, nor a fantasy. It is the world seen through a glass.

My Perfect Life

Lynda Barry
Used paperback
25 May

What can I say? I'm on a Lynda Barry jag. This collection is by and about her teenaged protagonist Maybonne. She tries to navigate the difficult waters of love and adolescence at the same time. It makes me think of my sister and how hard that time must have been for her.

There's lots of memorable things here, which I won't spoil. Just read it.

Running Wild

J.G. Ballard
Used hardcover
25 May

Who would have thought that Mr. Ballard, known for his darkly psychological novels and stories, would write a page-turner? For that is exactly what Running Wild is.

This isn't a novel; it's just over 100 pages of large type. The story follows Deputy Psychiatric Advisor Dr. Richard Greville as he investigates a horrific case. Within a twenty minute time period, all thirty-two adults in the elite, planned community of Pangbourne Village were killed. Their children were abducted. The police have no leads.

What in another author's hands could have been a standard thriller is instead made into something more chilling. By dispensing with the conventions (e.g., the protagonist's domestic life, interoffice politics), Ballard focuses the reader on what happened. It might be somewhat predictable, yet the horror is not lessened.

The Freddie Stories

Lynda Barry
New paperback
28 May

After all that happened to the sisters Marlys and Maybonne in Lynda Barry's other collections (like My Perfect Life and It's So Magic), I wasn't sure I'd like The Freddie Stories as much. Blam! Once again Ms. Barry came out of left field and surprised the heck out of me.

Freddie isn't your average fourth grader. The book contains arson, betrayal, and mental illness. Yet through it all -- and some of it is truly horrifying, more so than Running Wild -- Freddie manages to stay himself, to keep his deep-down essence. It's a testament to a truly indomitable person.

Of all the wonders and horrors in this book, the saddest part is their divorced mother. She can't cope with Freddie, or even her other kids. Her failure leaves a gaping hole in their lives.

Pogo's Double Sundae

Walt Kelly
Used paperback
31 May

This double helping of Sunday Pogo strips was a happy find at a used book store. (Why is most Pogo out of print?) It's two books (The Pogo Sunday Parade and The Pogo Sunday Brunch) in one volume. Liberally spiced with Kelly's alliterative nonsense songs, there is much merriment: digging to China, octopodial entanglements, the tale of Cinderola, and a patty-cake match. Fun.

The Jonah Kit

Ian Watson
Used paperback
1 June

Mr. Watson continues the fascination with mind, language and the universe that he first showed in The Embedding. Overlapping storylines follow a cosmic discovery, and a unique experiment with cetacean intelligence, from both the experimenters' and whale's viewpoint.

Like The Embedding, this is a distinctive mix of speculative science and psychological observation. Richard Kimble's relation to the domineering Paul Hammond and his enigmatic wife is strongly reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's '60s & '70s works (e.g., "The Voices of Time"). The concern with metaphysical implications brought an element of Philip K. Dick, but Watson isn't derivative. Indeed, the ending was surprisingly moving.

War Fever

J.G. Ballard
Used trade paperback
11 June

This is a good, albeit short, collection of Ballard's stories from the 1980s. Starting with the speculative "War Fever", it includes psychological tales such as "The Enormous Space". It ends with two experiments in story form; the latter is the index to a book that not only never existed, the disappearance of its purported author is indexed as well. A good collection, but I'm left with a feeling that it doesn't cover new ground.

A Little Knowledge

Michael Bishop
Used paperback
14 June

In a future, domed Atlanta, an insular world dominated by a fundamentalist government, a being that seems an amalgam of flesh and machine, a being from another star, starts down a church's aisle to be saved...

A sister to his intriguing novel-in-episodes Catacomb Years, Bishop presents a thoughtful examination of religion and personal relationships. Can an alien accept a human deity as its savior? Does that savior mean the same thing to an entity from a world that has never known christian religion? How does a human answer these questions? Bishop considers them, though he does not provide all the answers.

One word of caution. The background of this novel relies heavily on most but not all of the events in Catacomb Years, though A Little Knowledge does not fit into that novel's framework. This can make the novel a little hard to approach, since many references are made to previous action and relationships. It's worth diving into, though; it's one of the best SF treatments of religion since Blish's A Case of Conscience. It left me wanting more.

On a literary level, it's a pleasure to read an intelligent novel that not only expanded my vocabulary, but managed to sneak in references to such tales as Kafka's "The Metamorphosis".

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Sixteenth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
21 June

If this collection is any indication, 1998 will be remembered as the year in which hard SF captured most of the SF market. Starting with the hottest of hard SF authors, Greg Egan, this anthology continues with other science-oriented work by Geoffrey A. Landis, Stephen Baxter, and Ian McDonald. Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided By Zero" is practically an Egan pastiche. The lack of diversity in this volume makes it unlike its predecessors (e.g., the 13th). Their breadth is missed.

That aside, there are good stories here. William Barton's "Down in the Dark" follows the few off-world survivors of Earth's destruction as they cope with their bleak future, yet manages to be moving rather than depressing. Ian R. MacLeod turns in an understated alternate history of an England uncannily like 1930s Germany. Gwyneth Jones' "La Cenerentola" reminds us that getting what you want is not necessarily as good as desiring it.

The standout is Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", in which a linguist's growing comprehension of an alien language creates a new way of looking at her life. It's a wonderful, affecting piece of storytelling. Five stars.

American Bikers

Sandro Miller & Prosper Keating
Library book
22 June

It's kind of cheating to say I read this book... that took all of a three minutes. Rather, I've spent time looking at the pictures: big black and white portraits of bikers. Each is taken in front of a simple backdrop, making the viewer focus on the people. From the weather-beaten face of "Bones" to the tenderness of "GA Anne & Tuna Fish", there's a lot of variety in these faces. You can really get a feel for the lives they've led.

I liked it, and not just because there's a lot of beards in it. This is one coffee table book that I'd consider buying.

Days of Cain

J.R. Dunn
Used paperback
30 June

Is it possible to write about the Holocaust? Can any writing convey this atrocity? Days of Cain is one of the few SF works that attempts this impossible feat. Alma Lewin, an exceptional junior member of a group that keeps the continuum consistent, has disappeared into World War II Europe. Her mentor, Gaspar James, accepts the assignment of returning her. He knows that her plan is to change history, eliminating the German concentration camps.

Given the novel's compelling subject, I was a bit disappointed. Alma is never the narrator, and in the end is less than a full character. Gaspar alternates between action and agonizing. The other characters range from bare sketches to fully-fleshed portrayals (e.g., Horek). But I never understood any of them enough to really empathize.

As I read, I kept comparing the images conjured with memories of pictures of the camps. The pictures won. Even the best poet in the world couldn't convey the brutality of genocide. Every fiction set in this time must fail. Only the stories of those who were there can make us understand.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand

Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
3 July

This is an unsuccessful attempt to cram into 138 pages forty million years' worth of the future history of the mankind. Rather than following Stapledon's method in Last and First Men, this is a set of eight short stories with linking text. The failure comes not from the device, but from the lack of imagination. Would characters millions of years (or even thousands, or hundreds) be intelligible to us now? I don't think so. Yet everyone in these stories has motivations and reasoning that make perfect sense today. I don't buy it.

Aldiss returned to the same territory in Last Orders. The difference between the two is as night and day.

The Ganymede Takeover

Philip K. Dick & Ray Nelson
Used paperback
4 July

Earth's been conquered by the worm-like Ganymedeans. The only hope for resistance is Percy X and his band of "Neeg-parts" (Negro partisans) in the hills of Tennessee. Add to this some illusion-making weapons whose aftereffects are worse than their effects, sensory deprivation, and the pill-popping Chief of the Bureau of Psychedelic Research, and you have... less than the usual Philip K. Dick novel.

Sure, the common elements are there: homeostatic mechanisms, insecure men ruled by fear and greed, philosophy-spouting machines, synchronicity fields, and schizophrenia. Yet it never became engaging.

Even weirder was reading a battle scene. A battle scene, in a Philip K. Dick novel? I assume that part came from Mr. Nelson. I suppose the liberation of Earth from aliens is a good 4th of July theme -- it worked for Independence Day -- but it's just not Dick's strong suit.

You know a book isn't capturing your attention when you spend time parsing its strings of adjectives: "sagging imitation sea otter pelt seat" parses to (sagging (imitation ((sea otter) pelt)) seat). Oh no, it's Lisp!

A Void

Georges Perec, trans. Gilbert Adair
New trade paperback
18 July

This odd work is a hallucination, a lark, a romp. Through dint of hard labor -- of a sort calling for a hardy, almost inhuman constitution -- I finally shut and lay down A Void, its paragraphs now harboring no hint of unknown action. This book is practically a phantasm, a night's unwaking musings, though built of common words and acts: principals chat, a woman faints, and so on. But throughout all this virtual normalcy run actions most foul and dissonant: killings of a kind most loopy, sordid compulsions, startling oaths sworn, and a most unusual omission.

But just what is that singular quality this work has, or has not? What addition, what omission? What is this void, and what can fill it?

A Void is a lot of fun. It will confound your mind and satisfy your spirit. Go to it with a will.

The Steel Crocodile

D.G. Compton
Used paperback
22 July

In a near-future England where surveillance is the norm, Matthew Oliver has been asked to join a secret project known as the Colindale. Without knowing what he's getting into, he accepts, bringing his compliant wife Abigail with him into a new world of secrets, suspicion, and shadowy societies. Sounds like a thriller, doesn't it? It has all the elements: an outlaw society, suspicious deaths, and projects within projects.

Yet for all that, The Steel Crocodile is much more concerned with characters than plot twists. Abigail find herself taking a stand; Matthew becomes enmeshed, creating great strain in their marriage. Their conflict is the center of the novel, which is a rarity in SF.

While I'm interested in character-driven works, this novel didn't draw me in. Abigail just isn't an interesting character; her passivity and lack of interest in the external world leave her detached. Matthew's more interesting, but his change of attitude seems to occur off-stage. It made for rather dull reading.

The Man Who Tasted Shapes

Richard E. Cytowic, M. D.
New trade paperback
26 July

This book's supposed to be about synesthesia, a medical condition wherein the senses are mixed. A taste might be perceived as a shape, or a sound might evoke a color. It's a rare and little-known syndrome that's also fascinating, providing a peek into the way the brain works. Starting The Man Who Tasted Shapes, I was prepared for an involving tale of medical and psychological mystery.

I left disappointed. There's precious little hard medical information on the subject, with the exception of a few experiments done on several synesthetic people. The author's hypothesis about the level of neurological difference is interesting, yet so much of the book is weighed down with his personal philosophy and railings against a hidebound medical establishment that it alienated me. If you're interested in the synesthetic experience, I'd start somewhere else. If you're interested in the relationship to emotion to reason (which is a fair chunk of the book), read Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error. It has some meat to it, as opposed to the fat hanging from this book's bones.

(In an interesting coincidence, this book contains an excerpt from Rimbaud's "The Vowels", which I only recognized from its lipogrammatic translation as "Vocalisations" in A Void.)

Gene Wolfe's Long Sun tetralogy

  1. Nightside the Long Sun
    Used hardcover
    1 August

    Patera Silk, a young priest, has problems. His mentor is dead, his temple is going under financially, and his relations with the female sibyls of the temple ranges from good to pettily bad. It doesn't seem like the kind of situation in which a holy man would be enlightened by a nameless god... yet Silk is, starting a chain of events that will take him beyond his imaginings.

    The novel starts out quite slowly, yet manages to pick up pace after several long chapters. By the end, I was eager to read more about Silk, an upright young man who comes to understand that compromise isn't necessarily a sin. Along his journeys we're introduced to a range of interesting characters and settings; the world of the long sun isn't a fantasy, yet gods do rule. It's an interesting mix along the lines of Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series.

  2. Lake of the Long Sun
    Used hardcover
    3 August

    Within two days I'd read the next volume. Silk's life becomes one without cease, forced from one situation into the next without rest. Wolfe manages it ably, throwing in symbolism (the ankle wrap), action, philosophical speculation, and a good ear for dialogue. Each of the characters speaks in a distinct style, though some are exaggerated to the point of stereotype (Patera Incus, for example). It's a wonderful device for creating living characters, such as Chenille, Auk, Oreb, and Patera Remora.

  3. Caldé of the Long Sun
    Used paperback
    7 August

    At the end of this volume, I was amazed to consider how far the characters had come since the series opening. In scarcely a week, Silk had progressed from a good-hearted, pious nobody to a man commanding power and respect. Other characters change as well, including some that were quite surprising. I'm reading the fourth and final volume as I write; it's going to be good.

  4. Exodus from the Long Sun
    Used paperback
    11 August

    Once again, Wolfe proves himself a writer of intelligence. Throughout the final volume of the Long Sun series, I noted little things: an allusion here, a bit of dialog there. What I first considered a proofreading error led to a re-evaluation of the whole series. All in all, a good series that doesn't rely on overused conventions to tell an interesting story.

Why Americans Don't Vote

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward
Used trade paperback
29 August

Academic books that answer the question their titles ask are rare. Why Americans Don't Vote gives its answer early in the book, then seeks to explain why this is, and how it can be changed.

The authors' answer is that it is too hard to register to vote in the United States. Compared to other countries in which governments actually try to register voters, America's passive approach to voter registration, and the effective barriers to registration that have been enacted by political parties and history, combine to discourage many from registering. This leads to low turnout.

This comes as a surprise to those who consider low voter turnout to be a symptom of voters' alienation from politics. Yet the authors demonstrate, through statistics, that the great majority of those who register to vote continue to do so after registered. Much of the book, therefore, is devoted not to the question of why Americans don't vote, but rather what can be done to register them. This includes an analysis of recent struggles to mobilize voter registration campaigns, and the hurdles and opposition which they face, often from political parties that do not wish the status quo upset.

The book is not without fault. It is dry reading, sometimes repetitive, and is liberally sprinkled with footnotes and citations. For most people, its depth is not necessary. For those interested in the subject, I recommend looking for shorter, more popular articles by the same authors (if there are any). For source material and references to academic papers, discussions, and disagreements, this is the book to read.

The statistics and conclusions in this book must be taken with some skepticism, since it is now a decade old.

Aside. It's a conundrum that some books frustrate by not having enough depth and citations. Yet others such as this, which is quite liberally annotated, are dry reading. Walking the tightrope between shallow and dry is indeed a challenge.


Bernard Wolfe
Used paperback
6 September

This book is a favorite of J.G. Ballard. The reason is obvious; it combines an introspective narrator, psychologic speculation, and medicine in a work of speculative, dystopian fiction. That's just up Ballard's alley.

Dr. Martine, neurosurgeon and lobotomist, narrowly escaped the ravages of World War III. For the past twenty years, he's been continuing his neurologic investigations by practicing on the natives of the uncharted island he's been residing on. His comfortable situation is quickly overturned with the arrival of an Olympic Team on a training voyage. How are they able to perform amazing feats of dexterity and strength? And is their goal more than simply training?

The answer to one of these questions is disturbing. The Olympians are vol-amps, voluntary amputees. Their missing limbs have been replaced by prosthetics with superhuman capabilities. Their amputations were but one step in their pacificist philosophy of Immob. A reaction to war, one of its slogans is MAKE DISARMAMENT LAST. This is taken to its logical conclusion; the means of action, the limbs, are removed.

What follows is a combination of novel and tract, not dissimilar to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. We follow the Dr. Martine's pondering of this radical philosophy, and how it relates to his own research on aggression and pleasure. As he learns, he is drawn closer to the heart of the movement, and closer to his own role in its genesis.

Limbo is a mix of stylistic devices. The novel's basis is a mishmash of Freudian psychology, Reich's orgone theory, Weiner's cybernetics, Korzybski's neuro-linguistic ideas, and misogyny. Much of the time this isn't more than annoying. Yet shining through these Big Ideas is the author's delight in wordplay; Dr. Martine drops some wonderful puns. Indeed, the title itself is perfect.

As dystopian mainstream fiction goes, this is is a gabfest along the lines of 1984. It's a good illustration of how far fanaticism can go. If you don't believe me, read the second part of chapter three. The annotated notebooks of Dr. Martine are hilarious.

Not Wanted on the Voyage

Thomas Findley
Used paperback
13 September

Another addition to the genre of retold Biblical stories is Thomas Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage. The story is Genesis chapters 6-8, Noah, the ark, and the flood. It's a tough story to dramatize, since there's no conflict aside from the flood itself. A dramatic crisis has to be created by the author. Take your pick: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. god, man vs. himself.

Mr. Findley wisely avoided man vs. god. In a story in which a deity actually appears, the conflict would devolve to one of being vs. being. Instead, he focuses on man vs. man. Noah embodies the harsh, strict religion of old testament judaism. His wife (referred to only as "Mrs. Noyes") embodies the humane, charitable aspects of religion. This couple's perpetual conflict is liberated from its state of simmer by the extremity of the flood and life aboard the ark. What follows goes from bad to worse as secrets are revealed, personalities are twisted, and acts of savagery and mercy flare throughout the tiny cosm of the tossing ark.

You can read all the symbolism into this you want; it's a simple task, though not particularly rewarding. As far as novels go, it was okay, but not particularly memorable. It makes me want to re-read James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, to recall Morrow's very different take on the meaning of religious tales.

The Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame
Library book
16 September

I think I'm going to follow Connie Willis' book recommendations from now on. She's the reason I read Three Men in a Boat, Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", and now The Wind in the Willows. The latter was a fun book that left me wistful. The story follows the adventures of Mole, Water Rat, Badger, and Toad through the seasons. Alarums and excursions are the rule, with the good-hearted crew handling every one. Being lost in the woods, the temptation of travel and exploration, and foes both outer and inner: this is what these friends face.

Ostensibly for children, there's a surprising amount of material for adults. Into this idyllic setting, Mr. Grahame sneaks some serious issues: the nature of addiction, the opposing pulls of security and adventure, and spiritual rapture. There's plenty to chew on, wrapped in a delightful story that's never preachy or didactic. I wish I'd met these wonderful friends earlier, but rejoice that I know them now.

The Clock of the Long Now

Stewart Brand
Library book
21 September

Here's the idea: creating something that is built to last for millennia. More than just a simple design project, this forces us to think not on our usual scales of hours, months, or (rarely) decades, but rather on a scale of hundreds and thousands of years. The project is a catalyst of a new way of thinking.

That's the goal of the Long Now Foundation. Their plan is to build a clock that ticks once a year and chimes the hour once per millennia. It is the most ambitious project humanity has ever undertaken, forcing a radical re-thinking of man's role in time.

This book is an introduction to the project and its companion, creating a companion library that will last as long as the clock. The book is twenty-five loosely connected essays that deal with such topics as the acceleration of technological progress, the qualities that make institutions which last, and how we think about ourselves. It's a short book, readable in one sitting. I'm not sure I'd recommend reading it that way, though; there are so many interesting ideas that it should be taken more slowly, with time given for reflection. Buy your own copy; you'll probably want to write notes in the margins. Even though I read a library copy, I might well purchase this if it appears in paperback.

This is one of the few books that might make you see the world in an entirely new way. It's an intellectually exciting work that is worth investigation.

I guess this means I have to read Deep Time now.

Holy Fire

Bruce Sterling
Library book
22 September

The Clock of the Long Now gave Bruce Sterling's 1996 novel Holy Fire a good mention, so I thought I'd check it out. The public library had a copy, which I read in an afternoon. Aren't libraries wonderful?

Mia Ziemann is ninety-six years old. At the end of the next century, that's not too surprising. The average life span is more than a century, though there is a price: conservatism. When a century stretches before you, risk becomes your enemy. Mia has spent her adult life avoiding risk.

Encounters with a dying ex-lover, then a brash young woman, change Mia's mind. She tries an experimental procedure that provides almost-total bodily renewal. Unbalanced from the sudden shock of losing eight decades, she flees to Europe. There she falls in with a mixed crowd of young artists who are faced with a decades of living in a world that offers them no chance for advancement.

Holy Fire works as a meditation on aging and how it affects one's outlook. It's got some of those great imaginative touches that Sterling sprinkles throughout his novels (including a surprisingly funny fashion show!), but this novel worked better than both Heavy Weather and Distraction because I cared more about the main character. She's interesting, and sympathetic.

Any book that creates a world in which advertising is long-banned definitely has something going for it.

Deep Time

Gregory Benford
New hardcover
24 September

Thus concludes my long-term reading trilogy. It ends not with a bang, but rather it doesn't end at all. The whole point isn't to think in terms of endings.

Deep Time is two books grafted together. Its subtitle is "How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia", but that describes only the first half. The subject of the remaining part is how we can preserve what currently exists, which is a different endeavor.

The first half is fascinating. Each of its two sections focuses on a different problem in long-term communication. The first is Benford's recounting of his work on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a proposed repository for radioactive waste. One of the site's design criteria is that the danger of its contents be comprehensible for 10,000 years.

What a challenge! How do you warn someone about something dangerous when they speak a language you've never heard? After all, no human has lasted even close to that long. And how do you convey the concept "radioactive", while not assuming that the reader has any idea of even rudimentary physics or chemistry? Their answer is to combine forbidding, inhospitable physical site design with multiple levels of explanation of the danger of the site's contents. In essence, they're creating a primer - in the author's memorable phrase, "See Dick Run from Radioactive Death".

The WIPP is still being designed. The second section, the tale of a deep time project from start to finish, is a sobering reminder of humanity's folly. The Cassini mission to Saturn was designed to carry with it a message to the future, etched on a 2.8 cm diamond wafer. Its message was discussed and debated, with several elements familiar from Pioneer's gold plaque: the solar system, clues to tell when the probe was created, and a portrait of humanity. A lot of love and work went into its design, which was completely lost in bureaucratic NASA infighting. In the end, instead of a message designed to be readable millions of years hence, Cassini took a disk of digitized signatures: cosmic graffiti. Cassini will probably be best known for the furor over the fact that it carried nuclear fuel.

In the last two sections, the author changes from designing deep time messages to preserving our current world. One project is to create a Library of Life consisting of samples of the world's diversity of life. Others focus on the prevention instead of preservation: for example, many methods are discussed to counteract global warming. Though some of the approaches are new, the discussion isn't, and is only tangentially related to the book's subtitle.

Year's Best SF 4

Edited by David G. Hartwell
New paperback
27 September

While this collection isn't quite as strong as Dozois' anthology, it's certainly worth its price. Hartwell's editorial instincts were sharp enough not only to choose Ted Chiang's stunning "Story of Your Life", but also Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko", which I thought was a better choice for a year's best anthology than Dozois' of "Taklamakan".

Among the notable stories in this anthology are Gregory Benford's "A Dance to Strange Musics", a tale of humanity facing its own limitations; Mark S. Geston's "The Allies", a surprisingly effective story of interspecies relations; and Alexander Jablokov's light-hearted "Market Report". Norman Spinrad delivers one of the year's best, "The Year of the Mouse", concerning a near-future China threatened by a surprising enemy.

None of the stories was a stinker, though Ron Goulart's screwball "My Pal Clunky" didn't live up to its potential. Nancy Kress' "State of Nature", a meditation on activism versus isolationism, came across as little more than a debate between stock characters. It was a disappointment from an author who's handled emotional conflict better in the past (e.g., "Trinity").

A theme that appears in several stories is the inevitability of events. Chiang's contribution, David Langford's "A Game of Consequences", and Michael Swanwick's "Radiant Doors" all consider this question, though from different and sometimes frightening perspectives. The Chiang is the most successful (I still think it beat the Hugo-winning "Taklamakan" hands down), while Swanwick's is least so.

[A typographic note: in the Benford story, several numbers are incorrectly typeset. On pages 54 and 55, read 1010 for "1,010" and 1015 for "1,015".]

The Kindness of Women

J.G. Ballard
Used hardcover
30 September

This semi-autobiographic novel begins with the events leading up its prequel, Empire of the Sun, then continues the story through the next three decades of the narrator's life. It's an interesting story for readers already familiar with Ballard's works; the ideas underlying many of his works are shown (or invented). These gives clues to the identities of his major recurring characters such as Coma, Travis, and Vaughan.

The unfamiliar will find a tale that's something of a shaggy dog. Without understanding the author's obsessions, there's no great dramatic moment. The most remarkable thing about the book is that the main character has sex with practically every major female character. Sometimes it brings him a kind of healing. Perhaps that explains the book's title.

The problem with semi-autobiography is that one is never sure how much is real. Like the narrator, the author married and was widowed, joined the RAF, raised three children, staged an exhibit of crashed cars (I think), and had a novel made into a Hollywood movie. Yet did other events, such as the obsessive automotive hunts of David and Sally, really occur, or are they an ex post facto invented myth? It's impossible to tell. It might make for a better novel, but he's already written that story (Crash). I'd prefer to hear the truth behind fiction.

Little Green Men

Christopher Buckley
Library book
1 October

John Banion is Washington's most-watched pundit, commanding thousand dollar an hour lecture fees. The President comes to his studio to appear on his Sunday morning show. His life is perfect. So what happens to a man of his stature when he's abducted by aliens on the fourth hole of the Burning Bush Country Club golf course?

He goes to pieces. Thus begins what should be a madcap comedy. Yet surprisingly, Buckley delivers a rather tepid brew. The minor characters are barely fleshed out, the action meanders when it should charge, and the pressure just doesn't build enough. It's fun, but doesn't match the wild farce of his previous Thank You for Smoking. Neither does it descend into the black humor of John Kessel's Good News from Outer Space, which it structurally resembles.

One amusing quirk of the novel is its liberal use of footnotes. It starts out early enough with simple explanations of acronyms like NIH and NORAD. I was wondering why Buckley would bother to explain things that are common knowledge. "Does he expect this book to be read long after NORAD is no longer a memory?" I wondered. Several footnotes later, they had descended into both outright truth and great lies. They were one of the novel's highlights.


Hugh Gallagher
Library book
2 October

I love my public library. Not only does it have a wonderful, well-stocked, sunny reading room, its fiction collection keeps yielding up books I want to read: Holy Fire, The Clock of the Long Now, Impossible Vacation... and Teeth.

Hugh Gallagher, known for his well-known college entrance essay and the spoken word CD Bomb the Womb, now offers us the tale of Neil. This hip young writer suffers from a disaffected attitude, a lack of prospects, and a mouthful of horrible teeth. The death of pop icon Nile Rivers hits him harder than he expected, leading to a transformative solo journey around the world. Along the way he deals with his illusions and a mouthful of shattered molars.

Okay, the symbolism's pretty obvious. But it's a quick journey, and has some catchy moments. Not a great novel, but promising.

City of Truth

James Morrow
Library book
3 October

In a city whose inhabitants can tell only the truth, what happens when a man discovers that a lie is more compassionate than the truth?

This illustrated novella could be a meditation on lying, but is more effective as a portrait of an anguished parent. It works well on those terms, not as moral treatise. It will make you think, though.

Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unforunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S.

Jeremy Leven
Library book
4 October

Way back when, sometime during the past decade, a friend needed a book for summer reading. We entered a bookstore and browsed around, but didn't find anything that appealed to her. I walked up to a handy clerk and asked if she could recommend a book with the following qualities: interesting characters, well plotted, intelligent dialogue, and preferably with sex in it. My friend was embarrassed. She didn't know I already knew the clerk.

I suspect my friend based her requirements for a summer read on Philip Roth and Satan: His Psychotherapy et cetera. This book does have some memorable scenes ("Il dolore!"), and it fits that neurotic-schlemiel mold. Dr. Kassler really is an unfortunate man, losing his parents, wife, kids, job, sanity, apartment, and just about everything else in the course of the novel. There's plenty of psychobabble, descents into an inferno or two, and a smattering of sex. Throw in the psychoanalysis of Satan (incarnated in a computer), and it should be a romp.

That's not what I got out of it, though. Perhaps I've read too much; the attempts at zaniness were wasted on me. The images I take away from the book aren't its absurdities. Instead, I'll remember a tour of a psychiatric dumping ground, characters who have nothing good in their lives, and a father who loses his children in a custody battle. These were for me the book's sad heart.

Particularly bad was the novel's only gay character. He fulfilled every 1950s stereotype of an unhappy, immature invert. It was a shock to find such a poorly drawn anachronism in a novel written in 1982. What rock had the author been living under?

Starlight 2

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor
Library book
5 October

Like every other SF anthology this year, the standout in this collection is Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life". I was also impressed by M. Shayne Bell's "Lock Down", about the dangers of seeing too many possibilities, and Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation". This unusual story is a faux scientific paper about the discovery of a brain locus that is used to distinguish gender, and its philosophical implications.

Other stories that I enjoyed were Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity" and David Langford's "A Game of Consequences". The biggest disappointment was Carter Scholz's "The Amount to Carry", yet another celebrities-in-an-alternate-past story. Charles Ives, Franz Kafka, and someone else (Wallace Stevens?) meet in a de stijl über-hotel. If only there had been a plot to make their meeting interesting.

Corrupting Dr. Nice

John Kessel
Library book
7 October

I can't quite put my finger on how I feel about this book. On the surface it reads like a screwball comedy, complete with a bumbling rich young man who'd rather study dinosaurs than meet the women his mother has chosen for him, con men, time travel, terrorist raids, and a trial featuring closing arguments by Abraham Lincoln and Yeshu (a.k.a. Jesus). Yet for all these elements, I'll be darned if there isn't a serious subtext beneath it all.

The author poses the question of whether strong cultures (like the 20th century U.S.) should be allowed to usurp the culture of societies that do not have the power to resist them. The parallel between exploitation of the past and exploitation of other cultures is clear.

The author extends this moral question into the personal realm of getting involved, rather than just observing. What is a person's moral duty to others?

It's rather an odd hybrid of a book: not quite comedy, not completely serious. I laughed out loud and thought.

A Year with Swollen Appendices

Brian Eno
Library trade paperback
8 October

This is Brian Eno's 1995 diary, along with a number of relevant essays (the "swollen appendices"). As with any diary, there are entries that have personal relevance but not wide appeal, such as his repeated references to daily swims or his children. Yet the balance contains some intelligent, creative thoughts and questions on a variety of subjects: the future, the definition of art and culture, generative music, creative methods, the war in Bosnia, and much more. Consider this, from the November 18 entry:

Sorting out CDs. I have so many, and no idea where most of them came from. It's so easy to make 'sonic landscapes' now -- and there are just millions of people at it. A whole technology exists for it, leading to the thought that by the time a whole technology exists for something it probably isn't the most interesting thing to be doing.

That thought rocked me back on my mental heels for a moment, then I realized that he's absolutely right. The fun comes when we imagine something we can't yet do, then make that vision real.

For Eno fans, this book is a must-read. For the rest of the world, it's not just food for thought, it's a feast for thought.

To those who are interested: buy a copy of this book, don't borrow it from a library. You'll want to take the time to read it slowly, making notes or adding bookmarks as you read.


Robert J. Sawyer
Library book
9 October

A record-breaking high-energy physics goes awry, and for two minutes everyone on the planet experiences the world as it will be twenty-one years in the future. Some people have good experiences, some bad, and some... nothing. Yet all the visions are consistent, creating a panorama of the future. Now the world has to deal with knowledge of what is to come -- or desperately try to prevent it from coming to pass. Is the future changeable or fixed? Does free will exist?

It's an interesting concept with a mediocre execution, not unlike James Halperin's The Truth Machine. The problem isn't so much a failure of imagination on the part of the author as a lack of a certain deftness in creating characters. They never rose too far above being stock characters, which made sympathizing with them difficult.

Impossible Vacation

Spalding Gray
Library book
10 October

Brewster North, a neurotic New England WASP, can't take a vacation because he can't get over his mother's suicide. That's pretty much it. As the narrative (I hesitate to call it a novel) wanders across the U.S. and Asia, Brewster tries to work out his problems. The lack of dramatic focus made reading the book like watching someone else's slide show of a journey they took years ago. There were a few interesting slides, but the rest fell flat.

Like Ballard's The Kindness of Women, this is a semi-autobiographic novel with all of the problems inherent in that genre. The difference is that Ballard knows his craft, whereas Gray just rambles.

Gun, with Occasional Music

Jonathan Lethem
Library book
10 October

Cross Philip Marlowe with biopunk, add a touch of Kafka, and you have this dystopian mystery. The SF trappings do not detract from the convoluted plot, making this novel a true genre crosser. It's better than the short stories of his I've read. Aside from getting away with giving no exposition at all (a trick in itself), Lethem pulled off another trick that's rarer: three quarters of the way though, I suddenly wanted to start the book again from the beginning. I won't tell you why, but I will say the reason isn't what you might think. I admire his ability.

The Doctors

Elbert Hubbard
Borrowed hardcover
11 October

This play, "A Satire in Four Seizures" is a heavy-handed take of the medical profession that mixes platitudes with complete farce. The plot, about a woman wrongly confined to an asylum, is almost an afterthought. It exists to give the characters a platform upon which to state their opinions. Doctors are almost uniformly venal; patients know more than their healers. It's a simplistic world that makes an easy target for attack. As a whole, the play is too didactic to be performed as a farce, but too farcical to have lasting impact. There are good moments, but unfortunately they end up buried.

What is memorable about the edition I read was its beauty as a physical object. The edition was printed in 1932 by the Roycrofters, and is really lovely. The cover is leather; the end-papers are decorative paper; it has a sewn-in cloth ribbon for a bookmark; and the entire book is done with two-color printing on paper that I suspect is acid-free. Throughout the text are a number of two-color plates on heavy paper, each with a drawing on the face and a saying on the obverse. As a book, it's a real beauty, made to last.


Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois, editors
Library book
12 October

This is one of Dann & Dozois' many theme SF anthologies. The works vary from great (David Marusek's incandescent "We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy", Nancy Kress' deadly serious "Margin of Error") to the mundane-to-bad (Michael F. Flynn's simplistically sentimental "Remember'd Kisses", Paul Di Filippo's you-call-this-SF "Any Major Dude"). A very mixed bag.

The Flies of Memory

Ian Watson
Library book
19 October

An expansion of his 1990 novella of the same title, this was a bit of a letdown. Aliens that look like five-foot black flies come to Earth, ostensibly to "remember" it. What does this mean? Are the Flies even comprehensible by humans?

This interesting premise, and some interesting characters, quickly veer off into a series of power struggles between the various groups trying to understand and exploit the Flies and their technology. The plot barrels along from crisis to crisis, switching viewpoint no less than five times. Each section's narrator faces some form of internal struggle, but the resolutions come almost as afterthoughts. Not very satisfying.

The Pure Product

John Kessel
Library book
20 October

This collection is a mixed bag. Some of the stories, such as the title story, are very good and quite memorable. Others are uninspired and frankly trite ("The Franchise", "Man"). The majority fall on the good side, so the collection's certainly worth reading.

One of Kessel's main themes is time travel. It figures prominently in four of the seventeen stories, and ties in with his novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. The effectiveness of the stories ranges from very good ("The Miracle of Ivar Avenue") to the unaffecting "Some Like it Cold".

Another theme that pervades the book is the Myth of the American Male. It appears in several guises: the father-son tale "Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!", the impotence allegories "Man" and "Animal".

Yet another thread that Kessel explores is alternate history. The effect of Gulliver's travels on his family are poignantly shown in "Gulliver at Home". Kessel's grandfather meets H. G. Wells in "Buffalo", and George Bush faces Fidel Castro in the baseball diamond in "The Franchise". The latter is a strong candidate for worst story in the book; if you're going to tell a story of a man struggling to define himself -- the American Male's struggle -- why burden the story with all the associations that come with historical figures? Or is using existing people an author's cheat to providing quick characterization?

On an up note, no one should miss "Faustfeathers: A Comedy", a short play in which Faust is played by Groucho Marx. It's hilarious. "Invaders" is a strong critical look at readers of SF, handled very well.

Mother of Storms

John Barnes
Library book
25 October

Look out, it's another Big Near Future Disaster novel with a huge cast facing the end of Life On Earth As We Know It!

Okay, this book isn't quite that melodramatic. It does follow the SF disaster novel format, though: an ensemble cast providing multiple viewpoints, a desperate plan to avert global catastrophe, governmental and personal chaos, and an unexpected twist or two. It's even got a spunky young reporter looking for the story that can save her struggling career.

Scattered throughout the action are some thoughtful touches. One is self-directed machine evolution, though it's somewhat tangential to the book, and in the end not convincing. Another is the use of media as a force for both destruction and unification. Barnes' take on it is one of the more thoughtful I've read.

If you can overlook a few gaping plot holes, this is an okay read, and a fine example of its genre. Don't expect deep character development, or sparkling repartee; the cast is too big to allow it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that so many of its characters were female. Even better, that fact didn't hit me until I'd finished the book.

Oh, the disaster? This time around it's a hurricane an order of magnitude larger than any previously known. It's so large it spins off more, explaining the title.

The Unlimited Dream Company

J.G. Ballard
Library book
30 October

A turbulent young man, unable to fit into society, steals an airplane and crashes it in the quiet town of Shepperton. His unusual arrival is the start of a serious of fabulous transformations of this most normal of villages. Rare birds fill the air, the sick are healed, exotic plants sprout at a touch. Yet inside the wonders lie questions. Did the youthful aviator really survive his crash? Who pulled him to shore, violently restoring his life? Is this man there to fulfill the townsfolk's' wishes, or they his? To what strange apotheosis is he leading them?

Short of the semi-autobiographic Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, this is Ballard's most approachable work. It's also one of his freest, with Ballard's stock oppositional male, incarnated this time in the character Stark, reduced to an almost peripheral figure. (Contrast this with the pivotal role Strangman played in The Drowned World.) For once, Ballard's protagonist seems to find the answers within himself, dispensing with the cruel guide. This is indicative of the joy the author finds in Shepperton; it's a more than metaphoric prison for our narrator, yet he comes to love it, to see the possibilities inherent in its dreaming populace. With his newly found powers, he is able to manifest the anarchic heart of these people. Is it any wonder that the hero is named Blake?

Rushing to Paradise

J.G. Ballard
Library book
2 November

Ballard's most plausible novel to date, Rushing to Paradise is an examination of cult mentality. How is it that cult members can know what evil things are happening around them, yet make excuses for this behavior? Ballard probes this question through the character of Neil Dempsey, a sixteen year old who falls under the hypnotic sway of Dr. Barbara Rafferty, an obsessed ecowarrior. Her fanatical conviction to the cause (her cause) leads to initial success, but on the atoll of Saint-Esprit her dream changes. Liberated from the threat of imminent nuclear testing, and in the world's media spotlight, the island becomes the home to Dr. Rafferty's endangered species sanctuary. Yet the good Doctor seems to have a bit of trouble with anyone who might question her authority...

This book belongs in the Hobbesian Island section of a library, alongside Lord of the Flies and The Mosquito Coast. Dystopias are not new, and though Ballard weaves a good tale, his distance from the characters don't give me great insight into the mind of a cult participant, either victim or leader.

Permutation City

Greg Egan
New paperback
9 November

Paul Durham is a man with two pasts. One is flesh-and-blood, another his existence as an digital Copy... and both are equally real.

That's the start of this incredibly imaginative novel. An expansion of Egan's novella "Dust", it weaves several stories together: Durham's experiments with Copies, and the surprising project that they lead to; Maria Deluca's work, creating a completely artificial world that can never be realized, yet is; and the Copy Peer's exploration of the Solipsist Nation philosophy. These coalesce into a mind-blowing tour de force.

Permutation City isn't an easy book. There are long stretches of exposition, and those unfamiliar with cellular automata and computing theory might feel lost for large chunks of the book. There is a deliberate lack of dramatic focus. Also, the intercut narratives, while mirroring Durham's dust hypothesis, can be hard to follow.

Nonetheless, for those with the patience, enthusiasm, and intellectual curiosity, this is a book that expands the imaginative boundaries of science fiction.

Aside. I seem to re-read Egan novels when I'm sick. Does that mean I have to wait until I'm ill again before I re-read Distress? I hope not.

I just realized that Egan is one of the few authors (almost) all of whose works I've read at least once.

Nobody Nowhere

Donna Williams
Library book
10 November

This short book is an autobiography of an autistic woman. Ms. Williams details how difficult and threatening touching was, and how as a child she created defenses against it. These included withdrawal, aggressive behavior, and the creation of alternate personalities to deal with the stresses of life. Through persistence, the narrator finally begins to integrate her personality.

The strongest image that the book gives is of someone desperate for contact, but thwarted at almost every turn. While the prose doesn't rise above average, the insight into the experience of autism kept me reading.

The Rebel Angels

Robertson Davies
Library book
14 November

Every book is a meal. Some are tasty snacks, some meager flatbread, and a rare few are rich feasts. The Rebel Angels is one of the latter, an elaborate meal of many courses.

What goes into such a banquet? To start, a candidate must meet the basic requirements of healthy literary food: nourishing characters, a well-cooked plot, and a fine sauce of the author's turns of phrase. Davies delivers all of these. The characters are indeed hearty: the spicy and beautiful half-Gypsy student Maria Theotoky, the small-minded and vain professor Urquhart McVarish, the unexpectedly passionate medievalist Clement Hollier, and the fifth business embodied as the Reverend Simon Darcourt. Drop into this mixture the disreputable strong red wine of the Rabelaisian ex-monk John Parlabane, and the ingredients are complete.

Now to the cooking. Start with a low heat: the return of Parlabane to the halls of St. John's College. Watch carefully as the heat is turned up, bringing the mixture to a boil: Parlabane's presence setting into motion a chain of events that will lead to love, revelation, a curse, and ultimately murder.

Finally, the seasoning. It is well supplied in Davies' erudition and authorial voice. From the informed table-talk of fortnightly academic dinners, to the scholarship of Paracelsus, to the secrets of the Gypsies, the love of learning is liberally spread over this meal. It makes for a rich and filling repast.

Dinner is served; please be seated. Would anyone care to propose a toast?

Beyond Heaven's River

Greg Bear
Library book
16 November

Two intergalactic information prospectors arrive at a planet recently deserted by the enigmatic alien Perfidisians. In the only structure on the otherwise featureless planet is the sole inhabitant: a Japanese pilot who had been snatched from his sinking ship in World War II. Why is he here? What were the Perfidisians seeking?

That mystery propels Beyond Heaven's River. Or rather, it sets the plot in motion. The plot itself is rather hard to describe, since there is no strong dramatic focus to the novel. Kawashita Yushio adjusts surprisingly well to his new environment, though he keeps searching for the reasons for his kidnapping. Yet this is handled in a low-key way, with a red herring or two thrown in. In all, the book almost meandered. It's a minor work.

Almost exactly one year ago, I made the same judgment about Bear's Strength of Stones. To my surprise, both of these books are set in the same fictional universe. Knowing this, I find that both gain by the knowledge. Yushio's quest for meaning takes on a mythic aspect, and Strength ends up being almost elegiac. These novels become meditations on the many forms of relations between humanity and its gods.


Greg Egan
New hardcover
17 November

If Egan wrote a Ballard novel... wouldn't be Teranesia, since no one can write Ballard but Ballard. Yet the similarity of this novel's opening to Ballard's early work is uncanny. On a tropical island, a married pair of scientists investigate unusual mutations in the native butterflies. Their young son & infant daughter are alone to make a world of their own. Little do they know that changes in a butterfly species signal a radical remolding of the world around them.

As in his recent novel Distress, Egan reaches beyond hard SF to craft a novel that is also concerned with characters and their development. This is a rarity in SF; it's great to see one of the most science-savvy authors work to balance the science with the human.

This is not to say that Egan neglects the science. It's there, and it's on the edge of current scientific speculation. It excites the intellect.

There are delights thrown in along the way. Worth reading, as are all of Egan's works.

The Lyre of Orpheus

Robertson Davies
Library book
18 November

The Cornish Foundation has been established to finance artistic long shots, unlikely projects that are worth the not inconsiderable risk. Its inaugural project is commissioning the completion of E.T.A. Hoffman's unfinished opera Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold. The composer is the dirty, rude, and gifted doctoral candidate Hulda Schnakenburg. Can an opera be composed and staged within a year, without an existing libretto? Or will, as Hoffman warned, the lyre of Orpheus open the gates to the Underworld?

Of course it does. The wide cast of characters undergo surprising changes, each descending through their heritage into the stuff of myth. A marriage is tested, love blooms unexpectedly, and a priest contemplates a crime in pursuit of knowledge. Almost everyone is intelligent and learned enough to appreciate their circumstances, adding a healthy dose of knowing irony. It's a literate work.

The novel falters a bit at the end, with the staging of the opera. The author spent years in the theater, and spent rather too long on the mechanics of the opera itself. The real action of the novel ends prematurely in order to describe the opening night. That's rather unfortunate; I'd rather have spent the time reading more about the interesting characters.

This novel concludes Davies' Cornish trilogy, begun with The Rebel Angels and continued in What's Bred in the Bone. While the conclusion can be read independently, I strongly recommend reading it in sequence. After the feast of first part, and the introspective second, this was more of a dessert than a main course. But it is certainly filling.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Alan Cooper
New hardcover
20 November

This book, subtitled "Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity", is a bit of a disappointment. Cooper has had revolutionary ideas for how software should interact with people, and I was hoping to find more concrete ideas in Inmates. Instead, the bulk of the book is an argument for design- and goal-driven software development, rather than the current focus on features. While I cannot fault his argument, and will employ his ideas, I didn't desire to read a book aimed more at management than programmers. I'm more interested in how to design well than how to convince others to do so. While Inmates had some case studies in design, I would have preferred more detail about the design process itself.

Still, I'm intrigued enough to seek out Cooper's earlier work, About Face.


Zenna Henderson
Libary hardcover
24 November

This posthumous volume collects all of Zenna Henderson's stories of the People, an alien race indistinguishable from humanity except for their paranormal abilities. When their ship crash-landed around the turn of the century, they were scattered across the American southwest. After painfully learning the price of being different, they slowly begin to draw together, seeking a new Home.

Ms. Henderson's stories have always been unusual. She cares nothing for the standard trappings of traditional SF and fantasy. Instead, she concentrates on people and their sense of community. This is a major theme which runs through every one of the seventeen stories in this volume. Alienation also plays a major role, with many of the characters in search of community or themselves.

These stories, written over three decades, set no precedent and followed no leader. They are sentimental, but also full of hope. The details might be escapist, but the vital heart of these stories is not.

When is someone going to print a collection of her non-People stories?


Greg Bear
New hardcover
29 November

Slant is a novel I first read last year. At the time I wasn't impressed by it, for two reasons. The first was that I practically ran through the book, reading it in a day. That's too quickly to do it justice. Reading it again at a slower pace gave me more opportunity to reflect on the story's strengths.

The other reason for my lukewarm reaction was that I kept comparing it with its predecessor, Queen of Angels. This is my second-favorite novel; reaching its heights again is an unrealistic expectation for an author.

A more realistic reading of the novel made me appreciate it more. Its theme is similar to that of Nancy Kress' Beggars trilogy: how does society sustain itself when a large percentage of its people are not needed? Are government-provided bread and circuses enough, or even an appropriate response? And what would happen if the disaffected became restive?

Bear doesn't treat these themes directly. Instead, they're a subliminal text that runs throughout the novel. The chapter headings, taken from that time's dataflow, set the scene quite well. Bear does better than most at creating a possible future world.

The novel does have its flaws. The returning characters from Queen of Angels feel as though they were written in by necessity. Several minor characters are followed, then abruptly dropped as the final scenes begin. I kept hoping their problems would be explored in more depth.

Yet for its flaws, Slant is still a better, more intelligent read than most SF. I don't give it the highest rank, but it's definitely on that side of the curve.


Lynda Barry
Libary hardcover
1 December

Roberta Rohbeson, a sixteen year old living in a cruddy house on a cruddy street in a cruddy town, takes pen in hand and begins to write the story of her cruddy life. But Roberta isn't like most disaffected adolescents. Her life is like a snake with a broken spine. How many children are forced by their mothers to hide in the car of their departing fathers? And how many children's fathers are ex-Navy slaughterhouse workers with a fondness for knives and alcohol, along with a burning and murderous desire to recover three suitcases assumed to be full of money?

This isn't a happy story. It contains death, violence, insanity, and emotional abuse. But Ms. Barry's writing skills, honed on her long-running comic, make Roberta's story involving. Her understanding of the emotional turmoil of adolescence is astonishing. She makes us feel for Roberta. Even when Roberta chooses badly, we can't help but hope that the choice will be the best thing for her.

The Oregon Experiment

Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, Shlomo Angel, Sara Ishikawa, & Denny Abrams
Libary hardcover
6 December

I've heard so much about Alexander et al's seminal book A Pattern Language that I was curious to read it. The public library's copy was out, but they did have this short book on the practical application of patterns to the development of the University of Oregon's campus. Perhaps it would answer the question of how well these theoretical ideas would work in real life.

The book, while introducing a number of interesting ideas, feels incomplete. This is because it describes only the beginning of the experiment. By now it's almost a quarter century old; the ideas it promotes have either fully taken root at the university or have withered. That is the real test of the fitness of an idea: whether it is adopted, even though it requires a new way of thinking.

Perhaps there is a new edition with the results of the experiment. If so, read it instead of this one.

Note. Stewart Brand's 1994 How Buildings Learn has an observation from Christopher Alexander that the University of Oregon didn't adopt one of the fundamental changes suggested.

The Invisible Computer

Donald A. Norman
Libary hardcover
12 December

Norman's proposition, explained in the book's subtitle "Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution", is that computer technology has matured to the point that soon useful computers won't be complex devices that require weeks or months of training to use. Instead, the computer will fission into a set of simpler "information appliances", machines dedicated to one use. The advent of these devices will revolutionize both the technology industry and the fabric of everyday life.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this would be a book written for an audience of managers. It introduces its own set of buzzwords ("human-centered development"), and spends a lot of time repeating the same points. A good editor would have cut this book's length by 40%.

But there are good ideas amid the fluff. The discussion of the transition of technology from introduction to maturity is interesting, even if it is repeated. The specific examples of technologies that failed, and Norman's speculations on the potential of information appliances, make interesting reading. Unfortunately, such specificity is missing throughout most of the book.

That's the problem I have with books written for managers: they're long on nebulous discussions and short on specifics. Even though they sometimes have interesting or even revolutionary ideas, my tolerance for the genre as a whole is dropping. Doesn't anyone remember that brevity is the soul of wit?


Mike Resnick
Libary hardcover
14 December

Is it possible to create a utopia, to freeze a culture at a single moment?

This question is the heart of Mike Resnick's story cycle Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. Koriba, a Kikuyu man educated in European schools, attempts to establish a Kikuyu utopia on a terraformed planetoid. In this homeland the Kikuyu live traditionally; there are no western medicines, machines, or education. The Kikuyu live as an agrarian society. Yet even though there are no predators larger than the hyena on Kirinyaga, utopia is by no means unthreatened.

Koriba, through his role as the mundumugu (witch doctor), attempts to guide the Kikuyu. He is aided by his knowledge of Kikuyu tradition, his wits, and his stories. These parables instruct the listeners even as they entertain. Yet what happens when Koriba discovers that he's not the only person who can create a parable? What happens when Koriba discovers that the enemy of utopia is not outside influence, but imagination?

The result is a powerful series of tales about those who strive to make their dreams into reality, and the price they and others pay. It is also a strong character study, which is, sadly, a rarity in science fiction. Though you might not agree with Koriba, or even like him, you will not forget him.

If you're ever at a party and hear someone deriding SF as nothing but empty action combined with technology, recommend Kirinyaga to them. Then mention that it won more awards & nominations than any other story cycle, even though the most advanced technology on Kirinyaga is a computer terminal. It is a book of stories and ideas, which is the best kind of SF.

Half Life

Hal Clement
Libary hardcover
17 December

Hal Clements' first novel in many years is a departure from his previous style. While retaining the focus on hard science, he's produced a novel that is Spartan in its simplicity. Yet the characterizations are the more memorable for it.

The plot is straightforward. A future earth is wracked by more pandemics than humanity can deal with. The average life expectancy has dropped by decades. From a world grasping at straws, a mission is sent to Saturn's moon Titan to discover if anything there might help humanity cope with its plight.

What could be a standard SF adventure novel is turned on its head. Almost all the crew of the unnamed ship have terminal diseases; no return to Earth is anticipated. Indeed, to prevent infection, none of the crew meet each other. Everything is done via waldo or environmental suit. Flying craft are usually piloted remotely, and automated factories and laboratories do the bulk of physical labor. The isolation is almost absolute.

Surprisingly, though, Clement does not focus on this psychological test. His characters are indeed living half a life, both physically and emotionally. Yet each remains focused on the task at hand, understanding the unexpected phenomena of the moon's surface. We learn nothing about their lives before the mission; it's not important. In this respect, and in the focus on reasoning, the novel is very reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's works. Another Lemian touch is the focus on the mission's General Order Six: one should not propose a hypothesis without suggesting an alternative. This subtle, intelligent dig at political correctness is deftly played throughout the novel.

Clements' skill as an author is such that even without all the usual space mission hugger-mugger (stereotypical characters, revealing motivations, et cetera), he manages to tell a page-turning story. Half Life is unusual in SF: it is a watercolor painting, rather than the usual garish oil.

About Face

Alan Cooper
Library book
27 December

Cooper is a man with Big Ideas about software interface design, and this book, subtitled "The Essentials of User Interface Design", presents a number of them. His ideas are a mixed bag; some are revolutionary, and some are almost reactionary. Let's take a look at a few of them.

In the Good Ideas category is a completely redesigned File menu, a strong emphasis on usability, and a crusade against dialog boxes. Yes, that's right: dialog boxes. We've all seen plenty of stupid ones such as the classic "Are you sure you want to ... ?". Cooper rightly classifies these as idiocy. If an action is dangerous, the program should be able to undo it. Period.

[document menu]

What I found most interesting was Cooper's redesigned File menu. I'd run across it several years ago in an article, and it was memorable enough to track down. The menu, illustrated to the right*, is based on a complete change in working with documents. Note that the "Save" menu item has disappeared. In its place is "Make Milestone". There's no need to explicitly save work, since the application saves it automatically. When you reach a state that you want to be able to go back to later, you make a milestone. Later you can revert to it with one menu command. Also, file commands (move/rename/copy) have been moved to this menu. Why should the user have to use another program just to change a document's name, when it could be done inside the program that manipulates the document?

Heady stuff; I've love to see it implemented. Yet I'm also cautious. The concept of milestones is a primitive form of version control. I've had enough experience with version control software to know that what seems simple initially can quickly become quite complex. Say a user wants to revert to a previous milestone. How is she to know which milestone is the correct one to revert to? When only one person works on a document it can be a tough problem; when a document goes through many hands and has dozens or hundreds of milestones, the task becomes gargantuan. Cooper doesn't mention this, and that lack of foresight diminshes his credibility. Version control isn't a simple concept, whether it's implemented by the file system or moved into an application. It's unrealistic to think this new design is a panacea. Some problems, such as version control and security, really are hard. Ignoring them does not make them go away.

This is not the only weakness to the book. Cooper has a distracting fondness for neologisms, even to the point of inventing new words for things that already have established names ("gizmos" for "widgets", for example). The book, like most other design books, is repetitious. I didn't read it straight through; some of it I skimmed, some I skipped.

While the subtitle is "the essentials of user interface design", that's not quite true. The book is almost completely Windows-specific, rarely mentioning the Macintosh, and almost never Unix. Also, strangely, Cooper rails against IBM's CUA interface standard. He seems to have forgotten that if IBM hadn't insisted on keyboard equivalents for everything, Windows would likely be less accessible to people with physical impairments. That accessibility is important, and shouldn't be given short shrift.

This book has some interesting ideas, some sections of interest only to designers, and some arguments you're sure to disagree with. They'll make you think, though.

* For those without graphic browsers, the menu items are: New, Open..., Close, Rename/Reposition..., Make Snapshot Copy, Make Milestone, Revert to Milestone..., Properties..., Abandon Changes, Exit.

How Buildings Learn

Stewart Brand
Library book
28 December

This is another book from a member of the Whole Earth/Well circle (Norman, Eno, Sterling, et cetera). In contrast to Norman's book (and Cooper's, as well), How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built is a pleasure to read. It combines fascinating anecdotes and new thoughts in a mix that for once isn't repetitious. This book succeeds where the others doesn't because, unlike them, it is grounded in real world examples. The subject is architecture, and what other human activity can be traced over millennia?

Brand's thesis is that the best way to design new buildings is not by fulfilling its prospective occupants' current needs, but rather building a structure that gracefully accepts change (which is inevitable). He culls many lessons from case studies, from the shortcomings of Paris' Pompidou Centre and London's Lloyd's Tower (both architecturally renowned and inflexible) to the successes of MIT's lowly Building 20 (a temporary building that is still in use decades after its scheduled demolition date). Much attention is given to the qualities inherent in a building that allow it to become long-lived and loved, flexibility being foremost among them. His conclusions are sometimes surprising.

Brand makes a very interesting distinction between Low Road, High Road, and No Road buildings. High Road buildings are those that mature slowly in a considered way, lovingly guided by a caretaker. Warehouses epitomize Low Road architecture: a sturdy shell over a space that can quickly be renovated to fit the occupants' needs. No Road is the antithesis of both: architecture that actively resists change. The ubiquity of No Road buildings is one factor that makes us treasure Low Road and High Road architecture. The historic preservation movement is one outgrowth of this; No Road buildings don't survive long enough to be candidates for preservation.

This amply illustrated book is a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, or thinking of building or buying a house. It's also a fascinating argument for the importance of long-term thinking. It's no surprise the Brand went on to write The Clock of the Long Now.

A Signal Shattered

Eric S. Nylund
Library book
29 December

One of the nice things about having low expectations is that it's hard to be disappointed. A Signal Shattered didn't disappoint, nor did it excite.

The action picks up just after the events of Signal to Noise leave off. What follows is round after round of the main character getting out of a tough situation, only to face one either slightly not as bad or worse. There isn't much of a direction; everything seems to be at loose ends. It all wraps up somehow.

I'm still not impressed by Nylund's writing. His characterization is sketchy, and he ignores the writer's dictum "show, don't tell". Details seem to be ignored; just when do the characters find time to sleep? As for plotting, much of this book falls into the Tactical Dance school of espionage novels; characters spend most of the time trying to gain an advantage over others. While this genre is rare in SF, it's not unprecedented (Philip José Farmer's later Riverworld novels suffer from this as well.) It made me wonder why I wasn't reading a spy novel instead.

Nylund's science hasn't improved. While I caught fewer outright lapses than in his previous novel, he still gives the impression of not really understanding his subject thoroughly. He misses a potential drawback to one maguffin (Brouwer's' fixed point theorem applied on p. 291), and like Neal Stephenson laughably underestimates the complexity of programming. I wonder if either have ever programmed.

The book tries to tread the same ground as Greg Egan's Diaspora, but fails. After a while, it becomes pretty easy to tell who really knows their stuff and who doesn't.

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