The 2000 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2000

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

Books Read

Jack Faust

Michael Swanwick
Library book
2 January

Johannes Faust, a scholar who does not suffer fools gladly, is burning his books in frustration and contempt. In none can he find an ironclad catalog of truth. His despair with the human race draws to him a strange being, one that will whisper secrets in his ear, secrets that only he can hear: secrets of science and technology yet to be invented, visions of a future world.

Ah, but this is no beneficent spirit. You or I might call it an alien; to Johannes Faust, it is a demon, but one that he can bargain with. And strike a bargain he does.

Michael Swanwick updates the tale of Faust by painting technology as Faust's corrupting influence. Even more, it beguiles not only the damned scholar himself but also the object of his love, the virginal Margarete. In the process, Europe transforms from a feudal society to clashing industrial and military behemoths, with the common folk being worked to death in foul factories. Will any good come of it? Will mankind prove wise enough to accept this gift, or will it be destroyed?

Throughout the novel, Swanwick maintains a light touch. Alternating between Faust and Margarete, he returns to the moral issues while simultaneously maintaining the heartbeat of his characters. He deftly avoids falling into polemic, while offering a novel that flies by too quickly. It's a good sign that even though I finished the novel hours ago, I still want to pick it up again and continue reading. Would that there had been more to it.

Radio On

Sarah Vowell
Library book
14-15 January

Sarah Vowell spent the year 1995 listening to radio. AM, FM, talk shows, rock shows, the inane chatter of disk jockeys, NPR, "Stairway to Heaven" for the ten billionth time: it's all here. Was the experience worth a book?

The answer is no. Amidst thoughts about the influence of radio on American life, there are only a few important moments. We have to read a half dozen complaints about Rush Limbaugh before we get to the most interesting event: San Francisco's governement crackdown on the charity organization Food Not Bombs' distribution of free food to the poor. It's a scene that is so absurd that we wonder if we're not living in someone's nightmare. Yet what moves us isn't the account of radio's reporting the event, it is of course the event itself. And that's the problem with Radio On: A Listener's Diary: the best of it doesn't have that much to do with radio.

Like Brian Eno's diary, a reader has to endure a fair amount of dross before finding the worthwhile nuggets. In Eno's case it was worth it; in this case it wasn't.

Warning: if you hate Nirvana or Kurt Cobain, this book might be hard to get through. But if you do make it, you might gain an understanding of why they were so important to some people.

[For the record, while reading Radio On, I listened to David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and a friend's John S. Hall/King Missile compilation. Stan Ridgway's Anatomy was cued, but didn't start playing until I began writing this review.]

Factoring Humanity

Robert J. Sawyer
Library book
15-16 January

It's rare to find a book that not only does not succeed in its goals, but could not. Factoring Humanity is one such book.

It begins with two plot threads. For years the Earth has been receiving messages from an extraterrestrial source, but they have not yet been deciphered. The end of the transmissions adds new urgency to Professor Heather Davis' efforts to interpret their meaning. In the world of academia, coming in second doesn't count when a career is at stake. What are the aliens trying to tell us?

Simultaneously, Ms. Davis' family is being torn apart. After the suicide of the oldest daughter and the ensuing parental separation, the surviving daughter claims that her father molested her as a child. Are her allegations true or, as Heather suspects, are these recovered memories false? Little does Heather realize that the solution to one problem will lead to the other.

And that, unfortunately, is the problem with this novel: the mismatch between the personal story and the Big SF Idea. Allegations of childhood abuse can tear a family apart, and cause a huge amount of pain. It's such an enormous, monstrous occurrence that it dominates everything around it. It requires a lot from an author just to create believable characters with complex interactions; adding to that another major plot with global implications would strain any author's capability beyond reason. In writing Factoring Humanity, Robert J. Sawyer bit off a lot more than he or anyone else could chew. While I admire the attempt, I didn't find a bit of it believable. The abuse storyline served as nothing more than a goad to the main character. Any author who would treat his characters so callously needs to take some time to think about why he writes.

There are a few things left to comment on. Parts of the novel were derivative; at times I was variously reminded of at least five other works of SF, some of them classics. On the other hand, it was nice to see an author who managed to get the technical details of cryptography right (unlike Eric S. Nylund's Signal to Noise). The portrayal of academia was very flat; see Gregory Benford's Cosm for a more insightful view. See also Greg Bear's Queen of Angels for a better portrayal of an AI near self-consciousness. Sawyer's Cheetah was facile.

Overall, the book felt like a Tinkertoy construction. The ideas are there, but they are neither connected well nor expressed in a manner that shows any subtlety. It made for an okay quick read, but I don't expect to ever re-read it. I won't give up on the author yet; he writes SF novels with interesting premises, science that is accurate enough for my taste, and (praise be!) are not parts of series. I just wish that he (and a lot of authors) had greater skill at characterization, dialogue, and diction.

In my dreams, I know.

Eye in the Sky

Philip K. Dick
Library book
18 January

I reread this book as a lark. When I originally read it a decade or so ago, I was more intrigued by its ending than anything else. While the ending is still amusing, I was more interested to see the novel's references to the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Dick makes his outrage at the suspicious nature of the era quite clear.

It's not one of Dick's best, but that's still better than most.

Twice-Told Tales

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Used paperback
3-18 January

For once I'm stumped when it comes to writing a book review. I don't have a strong opinion about Twice-Told Tales. None of the stories strongly grabbed my interest, though they were well-written. Some convey morals ("Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", "The Wedding Knell"), some are town portraits ("The Village Uncle"), while I can't make a few others out at all. "The Maypole of Merry Mount" falls into the latter category. I'd read it in high school and wasn't sure of its point. Even though it ends with an explicit moral, the story's meaning remains somehow elusive, even years later.

One thing I did enjoy about reading a paperback 1969 edition was its wonderful old book smell. It brings back many happy memories of browsing in used book stores.


Gregory Benford
New hardcover
4-6 February

Re-reading a novel can pay off. I wasn't keen on Cosm at first, but I like it more on a second reading. It's refreshing to read a novel about scientists being scientists: writing papers, teaching, dealing with administrative details, and getting in some research.

Originally, I was surprised by how slow the various agencies react to Alicia Butterworth's questionable acquisition of the Cosm. Now, the glacial pace of bureaucracy -- even in the face of something which the world has never seen -- seems to be right. In books and movies, lawsuits and administrative hearings happen in the next scene; in the real world, they take weeks and months. In the meantime people live, go on bad dates, and do research.

Like Jack Faust, when I finished this novel I wanted more.

A recommendation: for more fiction about scientists being scientists, try Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice.

The Timeless Way of Building

Christopher Alexander
Library book
31 January-11 February

It's an odd quirk of fate that Christopher Alexander et al's book A Pattern Language is more familiar than The Timeless Way of Building. The former is in reality a very long appendix to the latter; The Timeless Way contains the theory behind pattern languages and their use, while A Pattern Language is just that: one specific pattern language.

Just what is a pattern language? It's a set of solutions to ubiquitous problems in one particular field. The solutions are not isolated; each relates to the others in the language in a complex set of relations. The ultimate goal is to create something that is usable, flexible, and has the grace of simplicity. To do that, one starts with a goal, chooses a set of patterns from a particular language (and creates new patterns as needed), then applies patterns to bring about a result which will not be envisioned until it exists. Improvisation and adaptation are essential to the timeless way Alexander describes.

Enough theory; what does this mean in real life?

Say I wanted to do something with the space on the west side of my house. It's a small grass-covered area between the house and the sidewalk, completely open. It's dead space, a place that doesn't have any life to it. It has no character or charm, and is unused. It detracts from the experience of living there.

I want to change this. To use Alexander's method, I'd read through A Pattern Language and choose some patterns that might be relevant. I might look at other houses around that have solved the same problem, and try to describe a pattern in their solutions. Perhaps my list will contain POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE, SHELTERING ROOF, STAIR SEATS, and FILTERED LIGHT. Each addresses the problem of space in a different way. For example, consideration of the pattern POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE leads to the question "Can I change what surrounds this space to make this unused area a place people want to be?". If I don't have the power to change the surroundings, perhaps I can apply another pattern such as VEGETABLE GARDEN, combined with FILTERED LIGHT (e.g., beans running up strings to the top of the windows). Or perhaps building a good-sized raised porch (also using, say, SHELTERING ROOF and STAIR SEATS) would make the area useful.

Okay, a porch it is. Now what do I do about the tree on the north side? It gets in the way. Perhaps I can incorporate it into the porch itself (adaptation), creating an OUTDOOR ROOM. This makes me think again about raising the porch at all; perhaps a ground-level open space with low SITTING WALLS would be better.

I'll omit more description of the method, as you get the general idea: an iterative, on-site process of designing and building that is free to quickly adapt to unforeseen challenges. The essence of this way is a reliance not on an over-planned, centralized scheme, but instead on a set of patterns common to the local region coupled with a sense of observation, adaptation, and improvisation. As disciplines go, it is more like Zen than the current planned-down-to-the-centimeter style of architecture.

Alexander's field is architecture, but people have created pattern languages to several disciplines. In the mid-1990s they were all the rage in object-oriented computer programming, where the book Design Patterns is fundamental reading. I've also seen a pattern language for Web design, though my own language differs from it.

I found The Timeless Way of Building both inspirational and depressing. Its vision of a world full of places not just to live and work in, but that are inviting and alive in themselves, is the best kind of Utopian thinking: a world that celebrates life and living. To bring this vision into existence will require a change in the way we live and think, and in our values. That is what depressed me slightly: seeing a wonderful vision of a world full of joy, a world we could create, yet almost certainly won't. Fighting the planet's inertia is a job for a titan. Yet I can still hope, and change my little corner of the world.

Oaths and Miracles

Nancy Kress
Used paperback
25-28 February

A biotech thriller, this novel did not demonstrate Kress' strengths. It was a purely adequate book; I expected nothing more, and was not disappointed. I only wish that the character of the FBI agent had been explored in more depth. His habit of sending notes made him interesting. With a few other exceptions, the characters ranged from flat to stereotypic.

Maximum Light

Nancy Kress
Used paperback
13-14 March

Some authors drive me crazy, and Nancy Kress is one of them. They drive me crazy because they can turn out mediocre-to-bad books, then follow them with something that shines. The two-dimensionality of Maximum Light's characters is woefully apparent when you read her story "Feigenbaum Number"; the moral choices that drive the Beggars trilogy appear nowhere in Oaths and Miracles; "Out of All Them Bright Stars" is incandescent, whereas Maximum Light barely manages twenty watts. Ms. Kress can write well, but not consistently. One never knows if her next work will be great or awful. That unpredictability -- and the feeling that a good author is not writing as well as she has proven she can -- always drives me round the bend.

Like Oaths and Miracles, Maximum Light is a book that could charitably be described as adequate. In the near future, world-wide fertility levels have fallen to the point where children are considered a precious commodity. Young Shana Walders sees something she shouldn't, starting a chain of events that lead to mayhem and government-shattering revelations. Ho hum.

The novel suffered from the same faults as some of Kress' work. There was only one well-drawn character; the rest were stereotypes. (Particularly grating was Shana's occasional diction problems. Why didn't they occur consistently?) The prose was flat, and the action felt like it took place in a vacuum. As in some other works by the same author ("Trinity", "Margin of Error"), most of the characters were ruled by envy. They are not happy people.

Doorways in the Sand

Roger Zelazny
Used paperback
17 March

Ahhh, the joy of re-reading an old favorite. Doorways is that rarest of creatures, a humorous SF novel that does not stoop to burlesque. The writing is witty, the characters fun, the action fast, and I actually learned a thing or two along the way. Its scenes and dialogue return to my conscious every now and again, unlike most novels. It fulfilled almost every criteria of a good summer book*.

If you're looking for an amusing afternoon's diversion, this will do admirably. If it tickles your fancy, look for Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers trilogy. You won't be sorry.

* As related to a bookstore clerk on behalf of a friend, those qualities are: "fast-paced, well-plotted, interesting characters, sparkling dialogue, and preferably with sex in it.".

Beaker's Dozen

Nancy Kress
Library book
17-18 March

I'm an optimist, you see. Even after reading two bad novels, I still hope that Ms. Kress has something up her sleeve. Beaker's Dozen, a collection of thirteen stories, is a showcase for her talents, rather than her weaknesses.

It wasn't necessary to read the entire collection. Five of the stories were familiar from Gardner Dozois' annual The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. In these, she mixes characterization with a concern for moral issues, usually surrounding biologic enhancement, into a heady brew. At her best ("The Flowers of Aulit Prison", "Beggars in Spain"), she might make you re-evaluate your morality. That's a tall order, but Ms. Kress delivers.

The problem with this anthology is its imbalance. The stellar stories highlight the inconsequentiality of the others ("Ars Longa", "Grant Us This Day"). The reading public would have been better served by the inclusion of some older but better stories such as "Out of All Them Bright Stars" and "Trinity". That would have given this collection a serious shot at the short list of must-read single-author story collections.

Greenhouse Summer

Norman Spinrad
Library book
23-25 March

After single-handedly pulling off a major business coup, Monique Calhoun, VIP handler for the Bread & Circuses syndic, is assigned to the latest United Nations' Annual Conference on Climate Stabilization. Normally a snooze of an assignment, something is different with the conference this year. Why is it being held in a world-class city like Paris, rather than the usual backwater town? And why would the penurious U.N. hire an expensive PR heavyweight for what is billed as an academic conference? Could it be that someone actually has a working climate model that can predict whether the world is headed toward Condition Venus, in which all life would become extinct?

Spinrad's novel is an enjoyable and sometimes wicked chess game between players who are unsure of the extent of the other's knowledge. Its heart is closer to espionage thrillers than SF, but it presents enough of a scientific edge to satisfy SF readers. It is not afraid to ask questions (and even provide answers) about ethics and morality.

Its language is also a cut above the pack. When I found myself re-reading three turns of phrase within two pages, I was reminded once again that SF can be a form of literature.


The Sandman: Season of Mists

The Sandman: A Game of You

Neil Gaiman
Borrowed trade paperbacks
26 March

Elsewhere on this site I observed that the comic The Sandman is one of the most highly rated comics only because most other comics are so bad. That's being a little hard on it, but after re-reading these two collections, I still don't find the comic to contain the spark of genius that is necessary for greatness. It's very good, but Gaiman's a somewhat puzzling creator.

Consider Season of Mists, the tale of Lucifer's abdication from ruling Hell and the subsequent struggle for that realm. Inevitably, the story becomes a meditation on the purpose of Hell. This theological ground is millennia old, and Gaiman's approach is doomed to be too familiar. The question I am left with is why he chose this setting and story in the first place.

A Game of You is a tale of a dreamland fallen prey to an outside invader. The writing is good, and the characters are strongly defined. The enigmatic Thessaly, the naïve Hazel, and the strong Wanda are memorable. Yet the ending, while moving, borders precariously on cliché. When you're aware of the emotional strings the author is pulling, that's a problem.

Another puzzle about these comics is their overt violence. Characters are murdered, and sometimes bloodily resurrected; bodily and mental abuse is a constant theme. I found myself wondering whether this was necessary (I think not) or whether Gaiman was playing to his audience (I suspect so). Though the writing is better than most comics, the constant blood pushed me away from the comic.

There's one last thing I don't understand about The Sandman: why is it drawn the way it is? Characters aren't rendered consistently, and the whole thing has an edge of slapdash to it. For the Endless (the personifications of Dream, Death, Desire, etc.) this makes sense, as the reader isn't allowed to fix a visual image of the character and must instead rely on their words and deeds. Yet this is also true for other characters. Perhaps this resulted from deadline pressure. Whatever the reason, I found the technique a distraction from the story.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed trade paperbacks
30 March

A friend handed this to me, thinking I'd like it. I was lukewarm to the idea, since I've got an ingrained distrust of things that are pop culture sensations. My friend was right, though: it was a fun book.

I'm not sure what more to tell you. The characters are interesting, and the plot managed to surprise me. Knowing that this is the first of projected series of seven books made looking for clues to the futures of the characters an extra pleasure. Well done; I'm looking forward to the next volumes.

The Odyssey

Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
User paperback
February - 31 March

I've spent the past fifteen months reading classic Greek plays. The tragedies really struck a chord in me, and led me to read The Odyssey.

My reaction to Homer's work is mixed. On the one hand, I appreciate the story and language. Yet on the other, it was hard to read a story in which I expected to sympathize with the main character yet didn't.

It's true; I admit it. I didn't particularly like Odysseus. Granted, he had learned caution in his travels, but it's hard to sympathize with someone whose initial reaction on meeting his father for the first time in twenty years is to lie to him. He did the same with his wife, servants, and son. Perhaps this was the will of the goddess Athena, but it was not a course of action that commended him to me.

The structure of this epic poem was a pleasant surprise. Rather than being primitive, it employed a wide range of narrative devices. For example, rather than following Odysseus throughout his epic journey, it begins with the problems faced by his now-grown son Telémakhos, who leaves his troubled home to seek word of his father's fate. This device builds tension, provides an opportunity for exposition, and sets the stage for the introduction of Odysseus.

All in all, worth reading. I plan to read the Iliad some day as well, but not now. And my expectation will not be as high as they were. I'll reserve those for Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The Origin of Totalitarianism in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Dr. Jack Stidams
Library book
1 April

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover; sometimes even by its title. This is one of those books. It's a mind-numbing mishmash of suppositions, unsubstantiated arguments, etc. As best I could follow its reasoning, its thesis is that the drive to dominate others is a recent evolutionary invention, rather than a trait conserved over eons.

This hypothesis could have been interesting if the author hadn't made a complete botch of it. Although he claims to be a paleontologist with training in evolutionary biology, a quick Web search turns up many associations between him and what passes in academic circles as "critical theory": in other words, postmodernist twaddle. He's turned the tap open wide, creating a gush of nonsense so strong that I did a simple statistical analysis comparing passages from this book and the works of Racter. Racter lost, but with a margin close enough to make Dr. Stidams uncomfortable (~15%). It confirmed a suspicion I've long held: postmodernists are quick to jump aboard any hot bandwagon (in this case, the evolutionary puzzle of the origin of self-awareness), yet have nothing coherent to say. Academic fashion has turned their minds to mush.

Still, a few passages make fun challenge readings. They're almost as good as "The Eye of Argon".

Count Geiger's Blues

Michael Bishop
Library book
4 April

What's an aesthete and fine arts critic to do when he's accidentally dosed with radiation and subsequently finds it necessary to his health to seek out lowbrow entertainment such as soap operas and monster truck competitions?

That's the beginning of Michael Bishop's peculiar novel. It mixes a surprising number of elements: meditations on culture, love story, journalism, and superheroes. Throw in a warning about the dangers of improper radioactive waste disposal, and you have what might be the most unusual novel of his career.

Even though the novel wasn't the comic romp its opening promised, I read it with few breaks. Part of the fascination was simply wondering where the story was going to go next. Just when I thought I'd pegged it, it headed in another direction.

All in all, an interesting experiment. Not great, but interesting.

Kaleidoscope Century

John Barnes
Library book
17-20 April


John Barnes
Library book
20-22 April

These two novels are set in a world just over a hundred years from the present. The global ecology has collapsed, the Moon has been colonized, and a terraforming project has begun on Mars. Yet all of these are overshadowed by the future of humanity. In this future, the War of Memes was fought and won -- by a meme. It now resides in the mind of every person on Earth, welding them into a single consciousness.

The two novels are independent of each other. The first, Kaleidoscope Century, begins in a room on Mars. A man wakes up, disoriented and alone. With help from his computerized log, he explores the fragmented, sometimes contradictory pieces of his past. With most of his memory gone, he seeks the answers to a number of questions: why is he on Mars? Why is he old? Who are the people he remembers? What has happened to him?

As the novel progresses, some answers are provided. He learns that he was a mercenary in one of the most violent groups to survive the War of Memes. Names and stories slowly come back to him, but with multiple, differing memories of the same event, truth is never a certainty. That's both a curse and a blessing; this man has done vile things throughout is long career. Or has he? His memory is built on sand; discovering why is the hook that drives the novel.

Candle takes place on an Earth transformed by the meme One True. The protagonist is a man who used to hunt "cowboys", the few people who had managed to live unmemed. As the action begins, the time is ten years after the last of the cowboys fell to his death in a chase. His hunter is called out of retirement by the cowboy's sudden reappearance. A game of cat and mouse ensues throughout the wilderness of the American Rockies. When the hunter and hunted finally meet, we learn their pasts, as well as some revelations about how the memed world really works.

Of the two, I preferred Candle. It delved deeper into the most interesting questions that the existence of dominant memes raises: exactly how much freedom is a person willing to give up for security? And, in a world where individuals are parts of one whole, how much can be sacrificed for the greater good? Wisely, Barnes does not portray the questions as simple black-and-white choices.

Inherit the Earth

Brian Stableford
Library book
23-27 April

Architects of Emortality

Brian Stableford
Library book
27 April-3 May

Slowly, over more than a decade, Brian Stableford has been working on a future history. As far as I know, the cycle began with the story "The Growth of the House of Usher", and has continued in one novella ("Mortimer Gray's History of Death") and two novels: Inherit the Earth and Architects of Emortality. All consider the uses and effects of nanotechnology and genetic engineering to extend human lifespan. The question of exactly who should gain immortality, and the trade-offs inherent in accepting this gift, are the subjects Stableford is concerned with.

Inherit the Earth tells of Damon Helier, prodigal son of one of the most famous men in the world. Damon has forged a new life for himself, independent of his father's shadow. Yet he is never truly free of its power. The kidnapping of one of his foster fathers plunges him into a world of virtual reality, detective work, and deceptive factions. Damon must both discover what has happened and come to terms with his heritage. It's a journey of self-discovery.

Architects of Emortality is a novel-length version of Stableford's 1994 novella "Les Fleurs de Mal". It is set after the previous novel, in an era when the Zaman transformation, a procedure which can extend lifespan by centuries, is becoming widespread. There is a catch; the transformation must be engineered in utero. The novel is set in the transition of humanity from the merely long-lived to the potentially immortal.

The novel begins with a particularly grotesque murder: a man whose body is absorbed by a flowering plant. Charlotte Holmes, police detective, enlists the help of Oscar Wilde, an eccentric plant designer who favors his namesake. The pair, along with a representative of the shadowy powers-that-be, are led step by step through murder, diversions, and revelations, to a climax.

I preferred the novella. The novel doesn't work as a police procedural, as most of the actual detective work is data mining that occurs off-scene. It spends too much time waiting for the next calamity to happen for it to succeed as a detective puzzle. As a character study, it was unsatisfying. Charlotte has little personality; she spends most of her time fuming. Wilde is the only character to come alive, but he's in drab company. Our sympathies are with him, not Charlotte. The tale was long enough as a novella, but its expansion to novel-length added little.

Both of these novels were hard to grasp. Neither fit neatly into a genre. Instead of synthesizing their different elements, though, it felt more like their dramatic power was split between them. The result was novels that feel as if they were actually story collections. They kept me at a distance, when they should have engaged. They're not bad, but they were not compelling reading.

The Sandman: Dream Country

The Sandman: Fables & Reflections

The Sandman: Brief Lives

The Sandman: World's End

Neil Gaiman
Borrowed trade paperbacks
7-8 May

Reading Sandman is an unusual experience. I'm not much concerned with the stories told in individual issues, or even in individual collections. The larger story is more interesting. However, you have to read the whole thing to get the complete story. The signal to noise ratio is rather low.

Dream Country is a collections of short stories. The standout is a version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed for a faerie audience. It's literate amusement. The collection ends with Gaiman's script for one of the other stories, which provides an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of the creation of a comic.

The standout story in Fables & Reflections is "Ramadan", the tale of what a king who has everything does with it. Even though it does not advance the larger story, it is my favorite single story in the comic. The layout, coloring, and lettering are distinct and impressive.

Brief Lives, on the other hand, takes the larger tale along very quickly. Delirium, Dream's younger sister, decides to seek their departed brother. For reasons of his own, Dream joins her in the search. It leads to painful confrontations and changes within the family of the Endless. Mortality and the inevitability of change are the strong themes here, and they're well played.

After the strengths of the previous volume, World's End seems little more than a coda. It is another collection of unrelated stories that end up being less interesting than the framing device. It moves the overarching story along, but it takes a lot to get there.

There are just two more volumes left to read. I'm looking forward to them, in hope that they resolve the series' unanswered questions.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed hardcover
11 May

Harry Potter begins his second year at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry with a bang. After making a rather impressive entrance, though, he finds that the year is not going to be simple. Questions about his place in the school have arisen, in parallel with a drive to rid the school of all people not of magical heritage. Who is behind this insidious campaign? Will Harry survive the attention of an annoying first-year, as well as the advice of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher? And has the Chamber of Secrets, if it even exists, truly been opened?

The answers make for another fun tale. It's not that different from the first, but good enough in the telling. We'll soon see how he fares in the third book.

The Sandman: The Kindly Ones

The Sandman: The Wake

Neil Gaiman
Borrowed trade paperbacks
18 May

And thus ends the series The Sandman. In The Kindly Ones, the Lord of Dreams must face the consequences of his actions, embodied in the Erinyes. This is followed by The Wake, in which the tale of Morpheus is concluded.

Frankly, the ending was anticlimactic. It was hard to share Morpheus' sense of duty, which drove the story. Also, The Kindly Ones' artwork, predominantly by Marc Hempel, was too different from the rest of the series for it to fit well. It was too abstract, and awakened distractng memories of Hempel's Gregory books.

The Wake faired better. For one, Michael Zulli's art was more realistic, yet had some of the elusive quality of dissipating dreams. Jon J. Muth's art in the chapter "Exiles" was radically different from the rest of the series, and excellent. All in all, a fitting end.

Now it's time to read the entire series again, to discover more of its complexity.

From Hell

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
Borrowed trade paperback
20 May

Jack the Ripper, the notorious killer of 1888 London, signed one of his notes "From Hell". This illustrated book is Alan Moore's take on the gruesome Whitechapel killings, with illustrations by Eddie Campbell.

It's a hard trip, one I'm not sure why I undertook. Moore's writing is interesting structurally, and has a number of imaginative touches. Yet the story itself is a sordid mess, full of poverty and insanity. The truth of that fateful autumn, whatever it was, has been buried under dozens of conflicting versions. Moore acknowledges this truth in the book's two long appendices.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

G.K. Chesterton
Library trade paperback
10-26 May

This might appear to be a slim novel, but oh what richness arrives in small packages!

Written in 1904, the setting is a then-future 1984 London. But instead of a technological wonderland, the city has balkanized into separate fiefdoms, with a king chosen randomly from the populace. After a chance dinner with the former leader of the Nicaragua, last free sovereign state on Earth, the whimsical Auberon Quin suddenly finds himself King. His encounter with the deposed ruler engenders in Quin's mind a queer notion: a return to the pageantry and patriotism of the Middle Ages. With power literally given to him, he sets about making his fancy a reality.

One thing Quin does not plan on, however, is the discovery of a true patriot. Yet that is exactly what he meets during a simple right-of-way meeting. Adrian Wayne, Provost of Notting Hill, refuses to cede right-of-way to a clique of progress- and profit-minded businessmen. This imbroglio, combined with the return to feudal ways, leads to the return of pitched battle with swords and halberds in the streets of London. And the good folk of Notting Hill, though woefully outnumbered, are fighting on turf they know intimately.

It makes for a comic delight. Yet there's much more to the novel. It considers a surprising number of topics: the importance of aspirations, love of one's home and country, living a fulfilling life, progress vs. conservatism, and the double-edged sword of "the public interest". As I read, laughing and wondering, I found myself jotting occasional notes. One passage strongly echoed thoughts I'd recently had about my own city. It's rather an odd occurrence to find your words in the mouth of a character of questionable sanity!

The theme of the novel is living a life in which every single thing is important. Is your neighborhood, or city, important to you? Would you be willing to die defending it? That is the choice that the characters of The Napoleon of Notting Hill must make. In facing this fundamental question, even the stodgy businessmen are forced to re-evaluate what makes their lives worth living. Bravo.

This is the kind of work that engenders questions after it's done (not unlike, say, the films Thelma and Louise or Aliens). One observation is that there is not a single woman in the novel, not even mentioned in passing. Another thing to note is that the note of patriotism -- cityism? -- that the characters display might be reflective of the nationalism felt by pre-World War I Europe. One wonders how the book was regarded after the Great War.

I could go on, but will forbear. A comic novel, well written, that will make you think; what more do I need to tell you?


Terry England
Library book
30-31 May

It's a few years from now, and an alien ship is on Earth. They've communicated with humanity, but never had direct contact with humans. They leave unexpectedly. But before they do, seventeen children leave the ship. Yet these are not ordinary kids: each claims to be someone much older. Are these innocent people who have had their biological clocks rewound, or something else? Do they present a danger to humanity? What are they?

That's the gripping opening to Terry England's Rewind. From there it's a little downhill as we meet some stock types -- the concerned scientist, some heart-of-gold homeless folk, a raving fundamentalist -- but the ride was enjoyable enough to read in one sitting. I kept asking myself the question that everyone in the book seemed to forget: why should these children be taken at face value? Even though the book was an argument for recognizing the humanity of others, let's face it: they've been put through a treatment which is completely novel and unknown, for unknown purpose. If that doesn't make one doubt oneself, I don't know what would. Yet the rewound people quickly lose their doubts.

A few other questions lurk beneath the surface of the novel. Should children that are capable have the same rights as adults? This seems an inevitable consequence of the novel's legal ruling that the rewound are adults, yet it isn't explored. Also, more generally, does one have to even be human to look after oneself, so long as one is capable? Is passing the legal equivalent of a Turing test enough for one to be declared an adult, either human, child, or other?

Now that would have made for some interesting reading.

The Cassini Division

Ken MacLeod
Library book
31 May-3 June

"Ask and ye shall receive" goes the adage. After finishing Rewind I asked for a book that considers what are useful criteria for membership in society. That is the exact subject of Ken MacLeod's fascinating The Cassini Division.

It's set in a diverse future. The inner planets have a form of communist-socialist social structure so casual it's hard to call it a government. There's one human colony, 10,000 light years away and 10,000 years in the future. Jupiter has been colonized by the descendants of humanity, a group of beings who have transcended human limitations. Their transcendence was not an easy transition, and has left the remaining humans scarred and wary. Computer and molecular viruses continually emanate from Jupiter, disrupting interplanetary communication and necessitating the existence of a defensive perimeter. This is the Cassini Division. Their goal is to not only contain the Jovian threat, but to resolve the problem for once and all.

That's the setting. The story is about Ellen May Ngwethu, Cassini Division member, ship captain, and complex character. Her task is to persuade a brilliant but retired physicist to lend his expertise to the Division's bold initiative to end the Jovian threat. Yet things do not go as planned, forcing her to face some ghosts from her past, to re-evaluate some of her most strongly held beliefs, and to make some very difficult decisions. MacLeod's writing keeps Ngwethu interesting and sympathetic, even if some of her beliefs are disagreeable. She's one of the strongest and most interesting characters in recent science fiction.

MacLeod does not stint when considering hard ideas. What does it take to be considered human? Can humans live alongside another intelligent species? Will a successor species inevitably outcompete humanity? Is genocide of an intelligent species to preserve humanity an ethical act? These are the questions MacLeod will have you considering.

Add it up: an interesting plot, good writing, a fascinating setting, a complex main character, interesting tech, and consideration of hard ethical questions. This is very good science fiction. I look forward to reading more works by the same author.

This book just missed getting a [ - Mark's Pick - ] recommendation; over a month later, I'm still considering giving it one. When are his other two novels going to be published in the U.S.A.? I'll read them as soon as possible.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed hardcover
6 June

Harry Potter's beginning to grow up. Now thirteen and entering his third year at Hogwarts (the famous school for wizards and witches), Harry must face a new challenge. For the first time, a prisoner has escaped from the notorious Azkaban, a prison guarded by the soul-chilling wraiths called dementors. To Harry's dismay, everyone seems to think that Harry is the prisoner's target. And worse, events seem to be predicting Harry's death.

This book begins to depart from the formula established in the first two, which is a wise choice on the author's part. Slowly we're learning more about the mysterious circumstances of Harry's origin, which has become the running subplot. For the first time, not all the plot threads are neatly wrapped up at the end. It's a good step toward building suspense.

The Novels of Philip K. Dick

Kim Stanley Robinson
Library book
5-7 June

The enigma of Philip K. Dick's writing keeps his novels in print. In this book, Kim Stanley Robinson analyzes each novel, and surveys the evolution of Dick's long works. The fundamental question that any Dick scholar has to answer is "What exactly was Dick trying to accomplish?". Robinson posits that Dick's work maintained its strong social criticism, and evolved in its solutions to the criticism made.

It's the correct answer, up to a point. Robinson does not give enough importance to the metaphysical struggle depicted in the later novels. For example, he interprets Ubik as in part a deliberate attempt to frustrate reader's expectations of a rational plot structure. However, this structural dissonance is explicable if the novel is considered as a personal experience of a Manichean struggle between numinous good and evil powers. The epigraph of the final chapter is a key to this understanding, and Robinson misses its importance. Ubik in particular foreshadows the reality break-ins in the VALIS trilogy, yet this connection is not made.

There's one other disagreement I must make with Robinson's opinion. In a chapter on the SF tropes commonly used by Dick, Robinson expresses this opinion:

...the artificial human or the alien are good examples of this function, which is chiefly metaphorical. Psychic powers, on the other hand, have little metaphorical power of that sort [...]. They do little to help represent human existence in a technological society.

As a counter-example to this, consider Robert Silverberg's classic Dying Inside. It is based on the author's use of telepathy as a metaphor for the connection between people. Silverberg managed to create an insightful character study, and a powerful novel, of alienation in contemporary society.

As an interesting side note, Robinson cites the book Metaphors We Live By, which I happened to be reading at the time. Synchronicity, anyone?

Calculating God

Robert J. Sawyer
Library book
10-11 June

Aliens have arrived on Earth. One lands just outside the Royal Ontario Museum and utters words that will shake the world: "Take me to your paleontologist.".

So begins Robert J. Sawyer's remarkably talkative new novel Calculating God. As with his previous novel, he juxtaposes a story concerning all humanity with another that is intensely personal. This time around he fairs better, but the novel is not without flaws of its own.

The premise is interesting, and one rarely treated in science fiction: what if aliens arrive who believe in God? And what would happen if they claim to have proof that God not only exists, but performs tangible acts on a human time scale?

It's a notion that could be taken in many different directions. Wisely, the author focuses on its affects on one man. The narrator is not only the second person the aliens have contact with, but is also facing a spiritual crisis due to a recent diagnosis of metastasized lung cancer. The intersection of his personal turmoil and the aliens' revelations force him to evaluate his beliefs. The scope of the book is narrow enough to have a chance at success.

The result is mixed. Long stretches of the book consist of debates about paleontology, theology, and theodicy. The action only begins to pick up halfway through, with the introduction of two violent fundamentalist stock characters. (Is it a law that all religious fundamentalists must be violent, gun-loving, men from the southern U.S. with poor diction and names like "Cooter"?) In the end, the main character is faced with a difficult moral choice; I give points to the author for depicting it.

In the end, though, the book is still vaguely unsatisfying. I found the story of the protagonist's cancer more interesting than the long-winded expository debates, but it kept getting pushed offstage. The characterization was better than Factoring Humanity, which was a good sign. It was an interesting read, but it didn't teach me anything new or force me to consider my beliefs.

All in all, I still prefer Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life".

The Light of Other Days

Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter
Library book
11-12 June

What's to say about this book? It's a near-future story of the invention of the WormCam, a means of clandestinely observing anything occurring anywhere. Further refinement lets viewers see back in time.

Science fiction has a tradition of considering the effects of new inventions on society. Yet The Light of Other Days isn't a good example of this heritage. The inevitable changes that such an invention would cause are muted; governments, religion, journalism and industry are barely mentioned, although the WormCam could destroy these institutions. Similarly, most of the personal effects are neglected. "History shock" is mentioned, but we're told about it rather than shown its effects.

A quote illuminates the novel's failing:

Now, what matters most is my story -- or my lover's, or my parent's, or my ancestor's, who died the most mundane, meaningless deaths in the mud of Stalingrad or Passchendaele or Gettysburg, or simply in some unforgiven field, broken by a life of drudgery.

If this is the case, why is the dramatic focus on the rich, powerful, and sometimes manipulative dynasty-to-be that creates the WormCam? The story is not that of one normal person whose life is changed by the invention. Instead, like James L. Halperin's unsatisfying The Truth Machine, we're shown people who are larger than life. Clarke & Baxter's decision to yoke the portrayal of the WormCam's effects to a conventional dynastic struggle is unfortunate, as it distracts the reader from identifying with the characters. Even worse, it subverts the book's own message that what matters are the stories of people. Even Robert J. Sawyer, for all Calculating God's faults, understands that. This novel doesn't know what it wants to be, and ends up being a muddled mess.

There are several other flaws in the novel that bear mention. First, I don't believe that the world would quite so gracefully accept the loss of privacy that such an invention would entail. T.L. Sherred's classic 1947 novella "E for Effort", while dated, is a more plausible exploration of reactions to an almost identical invention (and, interestingly enough, is not mentioned in the novel's bibliographic afterword). Anyone who reads this novel should seek out Sherred's novella, which is available in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIB, edited by Ben Bova.

Next, the injection into the novel of an extinction-level asteroid subplot was completely unnecessary. The creation of a team to watch for this kind of threat is one of Clarke's pet projects, and it's a good idea; however, shoehorning it into this story was not only completely gratuitous but also obviously so. If the authors don't care enough about the story they're telling to tell it properly, then why should they expect me to care enough to read it?

The novel's WormCam/Internet analogy had a lot of potential, most of which was not explored. Like the WormCam, one of the major effects of the Internet is an erosion of privacy. The authors do not take the analogy further than this, forcing the reader to do some serious reading between the lines.

Antepenultimate caveat: it was while reading this book that I finally got fed up with exposition. Please, authors, most SF readers (and many others) not only are intelligent, but also have some technical background. Stop explaining what's generally known! If we can't find it in your book, we'll look it up on the Web, okay? Put your efforts into better plotting and characterization. Do we have a deal? Just, please, stop the exposition.

Finally, for the sake of humanity and sanity, let's hope that this book is wrong, and "win-win" isn't still part of the English lexicon in 2050. Otherwise, it's going to be a really long century.

And if I read the phrase "pert breasts" one more time, I might swear off reading fiction for the rest of the millennium.


Philip K. Dick
Library trade paperback
12-13 June

I'm at rather a loss for words. How does one describe VALIS? It's a hard task, especially considering I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the novel is.

In March of 1974, Philip K. Dick had a life-altering experience. It was his belief that for several hours a pink light was fired into his head, filling his mind with knowledge he could not have known otherwise. This experience, and his search for an explanation for it, form the basis of VALIS. It's not standard science fiction; with the exception of the pink light, it's not really SF at all. Rather, it's a contemporary tale of a man's obsessive quest for an explanation of something that is beyond human experience. And it's a doozy.

One of the strengths of VALIS is Dick's writing. He's at the peak of his career here. Consider the novel's opening paragraph:

Horselover Fat's nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if she had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.

It's dynamite stuff. He follows this with some of the best characterization. The writing is filled with his insights into nature and the universe. For example, not long after the call from Gloria, the narrator observes that "it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.". For all its wacked-out approach (Horselover Fat is also the narrator, though the two have conversations), it has a concern for the human that is rare in fiction.

In the end, we're left with the events of March 1974. What actually happened? Did Philip K. Dick receive knowledge from a source beyond humanity, or did he suffer a temporal lobe seizure? We might never know. But he left behind a document that contains, paradoxically, his most human story.

Excerpts from the Ring Cycle in Royal Albert Hall

Tim Barela
Trade paperback
14 June

This is the third collection of Tim Barela's ongoing comic Leonard & Larry, about everyone's favorite furfaced West Hollywood gay couple and their large circle of family & friends. In this episode (and make no mistake, "episode" is the right word), Frank's stalker returns; two new members join the family, providing another cameo for Nurse Mike; Jim meets a long-lost relative; and Larry finds out just how vicious Barbie can be. Leonard and Larry fare about as well as they did in last collection, with just about fifty percent of the pages about them. At least their percentage has stabilized. Maybe it's in their contract.

It's good stuff. As usual, only fundamentalist types, children, and women are barefaced. It can be a little hard at times to distinguish the twenty or so furfaced minor characters running around (and I've had lots of training at it!). Larry's still a horse's rear end. And Tim's spelling hasn't improved. But it still brings a wry smile and a chuckle.

Metaphors We Live By

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
Library trade paperback
27 May-15 June

This short academic text begins with an examination of common metaphors in our culture such as TIME IS MONEY and ARGUMENT IS WAR. The first ten chapters categorize different classes of metaphors. This section will make you more aware of the use and effects of metaphor in everyday speech. It makes one think that a true dictionary would include not only definitions of words, but also common idioms and metaphors. This section is definitely worth reading for anyone who's interested in language.

Unfortunately, it's downhill from there. From observation and classification, the authors move on to questions of meaning and truth. They believe that truth is neither subjective nor objective; instead, the authors try to create a synthesis based on understanding the effects of metaphors. This is the subject of the next twenty chapters.

I didn't find their synthesis believable, or particularly useful. When the authors answered the question "Is there an absolute truth?" with "No", they lost my attention. I appreciate that they're trying to stress the importance of metaphor in our interpretation of the world, but when a consequence of a theory is that tautologic statements of number theory such as "1+1=2" aren't absolutely true, then that theory has little appeal. The next thing you know, you're reading Social Text.

Eppur si muove.

Ants At Work

Deborah M. Gordon
Library book
15-16 June

A colony of red harvester ants Pogonomyrmex barbatus has a complex society of up to 12,000 members. There are several different tasks that are necessary for the colony's survival; these include patrolling, nest maintenance, and foraging. The organization of this society is the subject of this short book.

The first six chapters of Ants At Work: How an Insect Society is Organized examine the structure and behavior of an ant colony. There are several surprises. For example, contrary to popular conception, most ants in the colony have no fixed task. The queen and fertile males have fixed roles, but in P. barbatus worker ants can quickly switch tasks. Nest maintenance workers can become foragers or patrollers as needed.

Actually, "need" is rather a misleading expression. There is no single entity in the colony that determines whether there is a need for anything. Instead, each ant's behavior emerges from its contact with other ants and elements of its environment. There is no central planning; all decisions happen on the level of a single ant.

However, the picture isn't quite as simple as that. The behavior of the colony as a whole changes over time. For instance, a young, still-growing colony is more apt to have conflicts with neighboring colonies, while older colonies avoid conflict. Dr. Gordon hypothesizes that this change of behavior is linked to the greater size of the mature colony. The answer is still unknown.

Unfortunately, that's the answer to many of the questions the book raises. Ants aren't easy to study, which means that the hypotheses about their behavior are still multiplying. The answer to the question "how is ant society organized?" is that no one yet knows. Ant societies make for interesting reading, though, and this is a good primer on one species.

(What I still want to know is what Pogonomyrmex barbatus translates to in English. Both "pogono" and "barb" are combinative forms meaning bearded. Bearded ants?)

Somewhere East of Life

Brian Aldiss
Library book
17-21 June

This is the last volume of Aldiss' loosely-connected Life tetralogy. It follows Roy Burnell, a divorced, middle-aged architectural expert who works for a pan-European governmental agency. Mr. Burnell has a problem: during a recent visit to Budapest, someone stole the last ten years of his memory. Those experiences, professional, mundane, and salacious, are now scattered throughout Eastern Europe's black market in memories. And Roy Burnell, now a stranger to practically everyone in his life, is determined to recover what was taken from him.

What follows is an novel that is both usual and unusual. It's unusual because, though it is nominally science fiction due to the presence of memory recording, it is not concerned with how the technology works, nor how it affects society in general. Rather, it's a story of a man adrift in the early 21st century, seeking meaning in his life (a common concern of realistic novels). Aldiss sets most of the action in the countries that had once been part of the U.S.S.R, but are now small states that are themselves seeking identity. Throughout the novel one question is unavoidable, in arenas as large as nations and as small as one person: is forgetting a curse, or a blessing?

The Children Star

Joan Slonczewski
Used paperback
23-26 June

Setting: far future, a strange world called Prokaryon, full of life poisonous to humans. Character: Brother Rod, a member of a religious sect that biologically modifies orphans to live on this world. Conflict: Industrial magnate wants to sterilize planet, destroying mysterious and possibly intelligent biosphere. Subplot: Against his vows, Brother Rod is attracted to a newly arrived researcher.

Do you need to know any more? Not really. Does it all come out all right? Perhaps. Is this 346 page novel way too long for the story it tries to tell? You bet.

Some reviewers of Ken Macleod's fascinating The Cassini Division observed that they couldn't suspend their disbelief concerning the author's world-building. Their arguments aren't without merit. But the world he created was rich and interesting, which made me forgive it. The Children Star, on the other hand, created a universe so simplistic that the first unbelievable aspect destroyed my suspension of disbelief. It was a good thing that by that point the novel's long and aimless opening was finally being replaced by a plot. If it hadn't, I might just have given up on it.

Finally, this book has a closing line that's almost as bad as the opening line of John Varley's Steel Beach was good. Why didn't someone warn me that I was about to read "A Christmas Carol"?

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Philip K. Dick
Trade paperback
30 June-1 July

Jason Taverner, popular singer and television star, is known to millions. As he's wont to tell anyone he meets, The Jason Taverner Show is on Tuesdays at 9 PM, with an audience of thirty million. And as he's not wont to tell people, he's a six: one of the select sixth generation of enhanced people. So what happens to a man with looks, fame, and ability when he wakes up one morning in a world in which The Jason Taverner Show isn't on television -- because there is no record, anywhere in the world, that Jason Taverner exists?

Flow My Tears is one of Dick's later novels, and is one whose theme is evident in the title: grief. How characters respond to the loss of something important, be it a lover or a past, is the novel's concern. Jason Taverner lost his world; Kathy Nelson lost her husband; Ruth Rae lost a rabbit. The scale of the lost object doesn't matter; like Mercerism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick seeks connection with others through shared experience. The subject is handled well, particularly in the eloquent final scene. It's rare for a SF book to be so concerned with the human condition.

Now that I think about it, Robinson's analysis of Dick's novels only goes so far. The most important theme of Dick's mature novels are the connection between humans. In Flow My Tears, the universal experience of grief is considered as a way of making the connection; in Do Androids Dream, the shared experience is the participatory self-sacrifice of Mercerism. Breaking class boundaries isn't done for its own sake; rather, it is a metaphor for making an intimate connection with another person. Dick's ultimate concern is agape, the love for another as kin. Social revolution might be a necessary condition to bring it into being, but it is not sufficient. In focusing on social criticism in Dick's later novels, Robinson misses their fundamental aim.

Darwin's Radio

Greg Bear
Library book
1-2 July

Darwin's Radio is a good scientific thriller based on an the existence of a novel mechanism for evolution. Changes in the genome over thousands of years are conserved but not expressed until necessary, creating a radical version of punctured equilibrium. This tale of researchers just beginning to see the vast scope of coming changes is a page-turning story, though the pace slows a bit in the novel's second half, when the focus shifts from research to national policy. For those unfamiliar with modern biology, a short primer and glossary are included as appendices. (Note to publisher: make sure readers know these appendices exist! The book has no table of contents, so I only discovered the appendices after finishing the story.) It was refreshing to read a book that assumed the reader understood current science and didn't waste its story on tedious exposition.

Methuselah's Children

Robert A. Heinlein
Used paperback
11-12 July

I've wanted to reread this ever since I last read Greg Egan's Diaspora. Egan's novel highlighted some differences between current and Golden Age SF. One in particular struck me strongly: the change from xenophobia to xenophilia in regard to variants of humanity.

Take the characters in Egan's book, for example. The only people who are recognizably human are an atavistic cult living on a reserve. The rest of novel is populated by gleisner robots and computational constructs. Literal humans play only a small role. Xenophilia runs rampant; characters change their physical and virtual selves at whim. Flesher, gleisner, or citizen: except for the atavists, the form does not matter.

Contrast this with the attitude of the characters in Methuselah's Children. Humanity is rigidly defined; evolution or change is tantamount to the destruction of one's humanity. Consider Lazarus Long's reaction when confronted with a genetically modified infant:

"'Improvements!' That thing's an obscenity."

"Yes and no. My stomach turns whenever I have to look at it... but actually -- well, it's a sort of superman. Its body architecture has been redesigned for greater efficiency, our useless simian hangovers have been left out, and its organs have been rearranged in a more sensible fashion. You can't say it's not human, for it is... an improved model. Take that extra appendage at the wrist. That's another hand, a miniature one... backed up by a microscopic eye. You can see how useful that would be, once you get used to the idea." Barstow stared at it. "But it looks horrid, to me."

"It'd look horrible to anybody," Lazarus stated. "It may be an improvement, but damn it, I say it ain't human."

Later, when a character joins a communal mind, Long bewails the loss. More interestingly, Heinlein refers to the body the person formerly occupied as "the creature who had been" that person. He doesn't refer to the body as now part of the group mind; instead, it is something that had once been human. The switch from present to past tense indicates its loss of humanity. In Heinlein's work, the form is as important, if not more so, than the personality.

Long's attitude is ironically parallel to those who would persecute the Howard Families for their supposed secret of long life. Each side seems eager to use any distinction to draw a line between human and alien. Taken to an extreme by either side, the result would be the same: pogroms and genocide. Yet Long, and perhaps Heinlein, seems to miss this similarity. Long and the Families flee one pogrom only to sow the seeds of a new one.

There is one other interesting aspect to Lazarus Long's character. What makes him tick? How does he, unlike Mary Sperling, avoid the dark night of the soul? Why does he never lose his enthusiasm for life?

It's a tough question that becomes harder to answer the more it's investigated. Throughout the novel Long alternates between action and inaction. Early on, he advocates as little activity as possible, with a primary goal to simply survive dangerous situations. Later events allow him to demonstrate his ability to act when necessary, but he then slides back into inactivity. He mourns when a friend chooses to join a group mind (an act) rather than wait for eventual death (passivity). Yet the novel ends with him declaiming on humanity's heritage of curiosity -- a thing he exercises but never uses. Maybe that's why Long was never a very appealing character to me; he takes action to preserve himself, and occasionally others, but most of the time he observes and does not participate. He never creates. To him a life span of a thousand years might be enough to figure out some of the questions of existence, but I wouldn't hold out much hope for someone who does so little with what he learns over the years. Long is fundamentally conservative.

Is that the message Heinlein is subtly trying to impart in this novel -- that only the conservative will survive in the long run?

We Can Build You

Philip K. Dick
New paperback
2-15 July

In VALIS, Philip K. Dick refers to the myth of the wound of Anfortas, which causes spiritual impotence. In We Can Build You, he's written his own version of this myth. The main character is part owner of a firm that builds and sells organs (the musical kind). They're losing business to firms that produce organs more in vogue, but refuse to admit it. Hope for escaping their slow decline seems to come from the success of a side project: the creation of an android that is in almost all respects human. Yet even this singular achievement is a two-edged sword.

This scenario opens many possibilities for an author. One could tell a tale of a business redeemed, or argue exactly what the definition of humanity is. Dick isn't particularly concerned with either, though he initially flirts with them. Most of the novel, however, focuses on the main character's involvement with Pris, the mentally unstable daughter of his partner. Her mercurial temperament and analytic detachment fascinate him, and finally draw him into a vortex of self-destructive behavior.

Not being overly familiar with the timeline of Dick's life, I'd guess that this is based on his own life. The novel seems to be a kind of self-therapy; by writing, was Dick hoping to cure his own Anfortas wound? It might have worked, but the result is a weak, not very interesting novel of a character unable to make the connection to others necessary for true mental health.


Bruce Sterling
New hardcover
19-22 July

While awaiting the arrival of Dozois' annual Year's Best Science Fiction anthology, I decided to take some time to reread Bruce Sterling's Distraction. Like a number of books I've reread in the past twelve months (Benford's Cosm, Dick's VALIS, Egan's Diaspora), a second reading was rewarding, and deepened my appreciation of it.

For one, the element of farce was more apparent the second time around. Oscar Valparaiso, the protagonist with a very unusual personal background, is more of a comic figure. His almost unwavering optimistic faith in his ability to find an advantage in the situation at hand, be it a turning point in a romance or a national crisis, in time comes to seem just slightly inhuman. Even his krewe are infected with his mantra, "This is doable.". As the stage of events enlarges from an isolated science lab to a national and finally international crisis, Oscar rises to the challenge with the same unflinching can-do attitude. All of which makes his inevitable crises of self-confidence even more amusing, and a very good touch on Sterling's part. It is indeed farce, but it's subtle enough to slip in just at the radar floor, which is where good farce should be.

There are a lot of interesting touches in the book: reputation servers, wandering net-based nomads, war with a surprising enemy, self-assembling architecture, and so on. As in a number of Sterling's works, krewes play a big role. His recent novels (including Heavy Weather and Holy Fire) are united by the ubiquitous presence of interest-based krewes; other social connections just don't seem to matter that much. Perhaps this is a consequence of living on the 'net too much. Somebody's probably already writing a thesis on this theme in his works.

The one thing that would have elevated this book to where I would have considered a [ - Mark's Pick - ] rating would have been better individual scenes. Distraction just isn't the kind of book which I'd go back to later to reread specific scenes (unlike, for example, Stephen Fry's The Liar). There are some that are pretty good -- Oscar's sly manipulation of his political patron was one -- but none that really stand out on their own merits. It's a little frustrating, since in his wonderful story "Green Days in Brunei" he demonstrated that he can write them. Perhaps he can unite both parts of his writer's brain and pull out the novel I know he can write. Mr. Sterling, I'm looking forward to that day. C'mon, this is doable!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed hardcover
1-2 August

Harry's back for another year at Hogwarts. However, this year isn't going to be like the ones before; instead of Quidditch being the main extra-curricular event, something different is happening. And the forces are the Dark Lord are stirring, as well...

Twice the length of the other books, this one covers a lot of ground. Rowling continues to build the ongoing story. The maturing of the characters is coming along nicely, and even the instructors are showing more sides to themselves. Another good read.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
28 July-7 August

Dozois' yearly anthology begins quite strongly with David Marusek's chilling tale of disposable artificial intelligence "The Wedding Album". Unfortunately, the rest of the stories never quite regain that level. That's not to say the material isn't interesting; there are no bad stories here, with especially good work here by Karl Schroeder, Charles Sheffield, Walter Jon Williams, and Robert Grossbach. What disappointed me was that only the Marusek piece was in the same league as Ted Chiang's story in last year's collection. I'm sure more of the stories will grow on me, as last year's story "Divided By Infinity" by Robert Charles Wilson has. Yet, on first reading, only a handful stick in my mind.

The Island of the Colorblind

Oliver Sacks
Library book
5-9 August

This natural history is divided into three parts. All concern Islands in the south Pacific, in Micronesia and the Caroline Islands. The first section recounts the author's journey to the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei in his search for "an island of the colorblind", that is, a place where achromatopsia (complete colorblindness and sensitivity to bright light) is common. For the inhabitants of these islands, it is, afflicting up to 10% of the natives. However, this condition, while well known throughout the community, is much less familiar to its neighbors. This is partly due to the sensitivity of those with the condition; they usually spend most of the day indoors, coming outside only in the evening and night, when they can employ their above average night vision. The author doesn't speculate on the disease much; it's known to be a simple recessive gene that spread throughout the group after their population received a major blow generations ago. A fair amount of this section (and the book as a whole) is travelogue.

The second part of the book is about a more interesting disease found on the island of Guam. It's called lytico-bodig, and manifests itself in many different forms. Some are akin to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, another akin to parkinsonism, while yet another is similar to post-encephalitic disorders. Two things make this section fascinating. The first is that there is to date (as I am writing this in 2000) no known cause for the disease. There have been many speculations, including diet (a particular cycadic flour), genetic predisposition, parasitic infection, and prions. Making investigation much harder is the fact that there are no animal models, and (fascinating point #2) there have been no new cases in people born after the mid-1950s. What was it that changed? Was the occurrence of the disease diminished by a new presence, or an absence? We may never know.

The book closes with a section on cycads, the family of trees that preceded conifers and flowering trees. They are one of the author's favorite botanic families, and he describes their variety with real enthusiasm. I'm interested in seeing some now.

Running throughout the entire book is the slow, sad theme of extinction and geological time. The cycads are survivors, still finding niches to fill throughout the world, but no longer the dominant plant species. The small Pacific islands, however, are hothouses in which evolution occurs at a greatly accelerated rate. Lytico-bodig will probably disappear before its cause can be discovered; this is good news for the islanders, but bad in that it might hold the key to advancements in treating and curing similar diseases. And it's not just the biological world that is rushing into the future; throughout the book we get glimpses of islands poisoned by the military in the name of peace, unique forests and ecosystems being destroyed to make way for golf courses for tourists, and cultures that are crumbling under the influx of the outside world. If the islands are indeed our own world on a microscale, then this book should serve as a caution to all of us of how fragile our world really is.

Perhaps, in our way, the majority of humans are not colorblind, but rather timeblind.

The Ascent of Wonder

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
Library book
2-19 August

The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF is a mammoth 990 page anthology that purports to illuminate the evolution of the genre of science fiction known as "hard SF". Three introductions (by the authors and Gregory Benford) attempt to define what hard SF actually is. Accuracy in scientific detail seems be important, but from there, no one's definition seems to agree with any one else's. In a way, it's like the classic description of pornography: I can't define hard SF, but I know it when I see it. Any fan of SF will surely differ with something in these introductions. It's not quite flamebait, but I'm sure this book caused controversy when it was published.

The subtitle of the book, The Evolution of Hard SF, is something of a misnomer. The book isn't arranged chronologically, nor by subject; actually, your guess is as good as anyone's as to how the editors chose the placement of stories. Stories over a century old are juxtaposed with others written in the 1960s or 70s. Thematically, the stories aren't tied together (although the editors seem to like water stories; 11% of the 66 stories take place in marine environments). In the end, the reader has to draw her own conclusions about how hard SF evolved.

My conclusion is this: the entire evolution of hard SF can be summed up in just four stories. Begin with H.G. Well's "The Land Ironclads", which is a story of a future invention (in this case, armored tanks used in warfare). There's no dramatic conflict or characterization, so the story reads as a rather dry newspaper story: this happened, then this.

The next major step was the Campbell age. Writing as Don A. Stuart, he gave us "Atomic Power", a tale of a scientist overcoming universal doom with nothing but his intellect and a well-stocked laboratory. The obvious moral is the primacy of mankind's intellect; yet, as hard SF, it's a step backward from the Wells story. The conclusion (a local event with almost instantaneous universal effect) not only contradicts the physics of the time, but isn't even self-consistent. The story is nothing more than adolescent wish-fulfillment. As hard SF, it stinks.

Fortunately, the genre was rescued with Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations". It caused controversy when it was published in 1954 because it played strictly by the rules of known physics, flying in the face of naïve Campbellian optimism. Also, its characterization and structure were a significant improvement on what had come before; compare with the Loonies in Heinlein's "It's Great to be Back". Heinlein was ostensibly writing about how lunar colonists would not enjoy a return to Earth, but instead unconsciously wrote a story about two neurotic people who would not be happy anywhere. Godwin's characterization, on the other hand, is deliberate and good.

After the thesis (Campbell) and antithesis (Godwin), hard SF achieved a synthesis in Edward Bryant's "giANTS". Taking its cue from the giant monster movies of the 1950s, it updates the story to the present. Bryant does not just play by the rules of science; rather, scientific accuracy is integral to the story. Yet the story is not so much about the science itself as it is about people, and their relation to each other in a world governed by immutable rules. It succeeds both as a scientific story and as a story about people. Can hard SF aspire to more?

Apparently, in the editors' opinions, the answer is yes. Their definitions of hard SF are broad, perhaps overly so. I was particularly surprised to find Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search" included in this volume. The introduction describes it as an example of detailed SF world-building (à la Frank Herbert's Dune or Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity), but this is a perfect illustration of the fact that calling a story hard SF doesn't make it so. McCaffrey might have intended her creation as hard SF, but telepathic, teleporting dragons would be a hard sell if I were her editor. Internal consistency and plausibility in world-building is a necessary but not sufficient condition for classifying a story as hard SF. Otherwise, Tolkien's Middle Earth and Le Guin's Earthsea would be hard SF as well.

It's actually rather unfortunate that this book was published in 1994. The editors missed the recent renaissance in hard SF, which has produced some fine authors and stories. The early 1990s seemed to be the beginning; G. David Nordley's exciting and by-the-rules hard SF adventure "Into the Miranda Rift" was published in 1993, and the previous year brought us Greg Egan's first SF novel, the groundbreaking and harder-than-you-could-imagine Quarantine. There's a lot of good hard SF out there these days; just take a look around. The evolution may be slow, but it continues.

It's rather surprising that the editors didn't include a list of recommended hard SF reading. Perhaps I've gotten spoiled by Gardner Dozois' yearly anthologies.


The editors didn't miss the renaissance of hard SF after all. In 2002, they published an excellent (and mammoth) collection called -- you guessed it -- The Hard SF Renaissance.


Holidays on Ice

David Sedaris
Library book
19-20 August

This very short book (123 small pages) collects six of Sedaris' archly twisted Christmas stories. If Christmas is to you a sanctified celebration of family and giving, and "The Gift of the Magi" or "A Christmas Carol" is your idea of ideal holiday fare, you might want to look elsewhere. But if in your family the perfect gift is a promise to appear in court as a character witness, then by all means, dive right in. It had me laughing aloud.

If you want a taste, go to the This American Life Web site and find the David Sedaris Christmas show. Once you hear Mr. Sedaris' delivery, you'll never read his stories the same way again.

Wonderful Life

Stephen Jay Gould
Library book
27-31 August

Was the evolution of homo sapiens inevitable? Perhaps more important a question, was the evolution of intelligence on this planet inevitable?

These are the questions Dr. Gould considers in Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. He does so by imagining a situation akin to that of the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It's a Wonderful Life: if we could rewind the "tape of life" and begin playing it again from a previous point, would humanity (or even intelligence) necessarily have arisen?

Dr. Gould's answer is an almost certain "no". He supports this answer with a detailed look at one of the most fascinating and enigmatic periods of life on Earth, the Cambrian explosion. Fossils from this period have been wonderfully preserved in a geological formation called the Burgess Shale, located in western Canada. When first excavated and examined in the beginning of the 20th century, all of the fossilized remains were placed inside existing classifications, reinforcing the existing taxonomic system and its accompanying interpretation of life as always becoming more complex.

However, when the Burgess Shale fossils were reexamined by three researchers beginning in the late 1960s, problems arose. First one, then another, then more animals common to that period seemed to fit no existing classification. The body of Opabinia, for example, doesn't look too unfamiliar, but what is one to make of the clawed central nozzle projecting from its head, or its five eyes? How does one classify the aptly named Hallucigenia, with seven pairs of conical walking struts, seven dorsal tentacles? Not only does it not fit into existing classification schemes, paleontologists don't even know whether the large structure on one end is a head. And then there's Santacaris, and Anomalocaris, and literally a dozen more creatures that do not fit into the nineteenth century's conception of the tree of life.

So what is one to make of these oddball organisms? The answer is a revision of how we consider life to have evolved. Today we live in a world where all arthropods have one of four basic body designs. Yet 570 million years ago, in supposedly more primitive evolutionary time, there were at least twenty-four basic body types. If the trend in evolution is to more diversity, what caused such a drastic reduction in basic arthropod forms -- and why hasn't the number of forms increased since the Cambrian Explosion? Instead of representing the evolution of life on this planet as a tree that becomes progressively wider and fuller as time proceeds, we should acknowledge that we live on just the tip of one tiny branch -- as do the rest of the species that exist today.

[replacing thick, branching tree with one that has both sparse and thick branches]

After Gould, Fig. 1.17 (p. 46)

Gould's thesis is not that some body types out-competed the others; instead, he takes the position that extinctions and the disappearance of whole subphyla happened without rhyme or reason. Some were lucky, and others were not. So, if we rewound the tape of life and started it running again from a previous time, there's no guarantee (and in fact almost a certainty) that life on earth today would look nothing like it currently does. And as for intelligence, the chances are slim indeed.

If this makes you balk, consider some simple facts. Recognizable human ancestors appeared around five million years ago. While that might seem like a long time, single-celled organisms were the only life on Earth for 2.1 billion years. That's 420 times longer. Well, you might object, once mammals evolved, the trend toward larger brains would inevitably have led to the appearance of sapience. Yet if that were the case, why did mammalian ancestors of humanity retain the same (small) brain size and body mass for over 100 million years? It might be that the extinction of the dinosaurs as the result of an extraterrestrial impact -- a chance event -- is the only reason mammals flourished.

There's more in the book, of course, including descriptions of the Burgess Shale, its discoverer and first interpreter Dr. Charles D. Walcott, and more on evolution. It's certainly a worthy and interesting read, and reinforces Dr. Gould's later work Full House.


Gregory Benford
Library book
8 September

When a young astronomer brings her finding of an irregular gamma-ray burster to her boss, he believes she's being overly hopeful of discovering a new cosmic phenomenon. When the burster soon repeats, he begins to wonder if she might not be right. As more of humanity's astronomic resources are devoted to investigating this object, it gradually becomes clear that this is something completely new -- for how many cosmic phenomena are known to swerve in their course, heading for an imminent visit to the solar system? Two more surprises soon arrive: the strange visitor is a black hole... and it's signaling us in many languages.

Thus begins Gregory Benford's new novel Eater. Its focus is on the team that puts together the pieces of this astronomical puzzle. There are several lesser plot threads involving the team members, including rivalry and love. The notable one is of the protagonist's wife fighting a battle against terminal cancer as the black hole, dubbed the "Eater", approaches. Even as her body fails, she is in a unique position to help when the Eater delivers a stark ultimatum to the people of Earth.

Eater was a fair but not great novel. The characters never really engaged me, and the Eater was left (appropriately but frustratingly) alien. However, the cancer/Eater metaphor was nicely understated, which was a plus. If you've read Benford, be prepared to find much of Eater familiar; it has echoes of Cosm and the first two books of the Galactic Center series. It's still a decent read, though.

The Verificationist

Donald Antrim
Library book
8-12 September

"Try something completely different", a friend suggested when I complained about how I couldn't find anything to read. So I did. At the public library, I chose a novel I'd never heard of by an author I was unfamiliar with. It sounded interesting, so I gave it a try.

Donald Antrim's The Verificationist is an odd story. It concerns Tom, an impulsive clinical psychologist who organizes at the local pancake house an informal meeting for his colleagues. As the evening gets underway, events take a bizarre turn: caught in the act of throwing cinnamon raisin toast at a colleague, Tom is hoisted aloft by another psychotherapist. This symbolic act frees him to leave his body and begin flying around the room, observing the dynamics of the group. At the same time, he reflects on his own precarious situation, his life, his marriage, and pancakes.

I'm not sure what to make of it. If it was a satire on psychotherapy, it was too subtle for me. The action is seen only through Tom's viewpoint, leading the reader into his world. However, I never really understood Tom, nor what seemed to be his breakdown. The best passage was one in which the narrator waxed rhapsodic about pancakes. What can I say? I've been eating a lot of them recently. Maybe that's why I chose the book. It makes as much sense as anything in the novel.

Year's Best SF 3

David G. Hartwell, editor
Used paperback
4-5 October

This is a purely subjective comment, but it seems to me that Mr. Hartwell has more of a fondness for humorous SF than Gardner Dozois. Six of the twenty-two stories in this volume fit the category, and the humor ranges from dry to broad. (The same holds true for last year's collection, from Norman Spinrad's farcical "Year of the Mouse" to Bruce Sterling's quietly screwball "Maneki Neko".)

As for the rest of the stories, there's not a clunker in the bunch, though some tread well-worn territory (Gregory Benford's "The Voice", for one). The standouts include John C. Wright's imaginative "Guest Law", William Gibson's stylistic experiment "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City", and Michael Moorcock's strong and mature "London Bone".

Wendel on the Rebound

Howard Cruse
Used trade paperback
6 October

This is Mr. Cruse's second collection of Wendel strips from The Advocate. Wendel is a rarity in the world of comics: he's an idealist who is sometimes completely oblivious to the world around him, but his naive optimism is balanced by a sensitivity and conscience that make him one of the most well-rounded comic characters. Also, the strips are just plain funny. I was really pleased to see the multi-strip arc featuring Wendel's uncle Luke and Luke's lover Clark, who were featured in another strip, "Dirty Old Lovers" (which can be found in Cruse's 1987 collection Dancin' Nekkid with the Angels, also recommended). It's a pleasure that also hits your heart.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt
Used trade paperback
? - 23 October

The dates for this book begin with a question mark, since I began it before I began noting the date for starting a new book. I'd heard about this book years ago, and finally found a copy four and a half years ago in a local used book store. In the intervening years, I started it several times, but never made it through the prefaces. It was the last book in my pre-2000 queue of books to read, so I decided to buckle down and read it straight through, a few pages every night. The strategy worked.

It's a dense book. It's divided into three sections: antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. Ms. Arendt documents in detail the elements that lead to the evolution of a totalitarian state, and how and why totalitarianism is a phenomenon that did not appear until the twentieth century.

Some of her conclusions were surprising. In the section on imperialism, she concludes that the disappearance (on a global scale) of a frontier, that is, a place to ship undesirable persons to, was a key factor contributing to the complete disenfranchisement of entire social, racial, and political groups of people. Later, the implication is inescapable that the Third Reich would eventually have destroyed itself from within, even if it had won in the European theater of World War II. As soon a totalitarian movement ceases to grow, it must turn its dread destructive gaze inward. The Nazi's defeat only hastened a process that was inevitable.

The lessons from the book are mixed. The horrifying truth that was learned in the twentieth century is that humans can create and perpetuate a movement dedicated to the destruction of all free will and spontaneity. The consolation is the clear insight that no totalitarian movement can survive indefinitely; the longer it lasts, the more it feeds on itself. The world might see totalitarianism again, but we now know that all such movements are inevitably doomed to eventual failure. It is our challenge as defenders of freedom to ensure that failure is swift.

Year's Best SF 5

David G. Hartwell, editor
New paperback
25-30 October

At one point while reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, I was struck by the out-of-the-blue conviction that it would be the last book I reviewed on these pages. That hasn't happened, but I feel less of a compulsion to continue reviewing books for the sake of reviewing books.

All things considered, David G. Hartwell's anthology The Year's Best SF is a very good test of whether that conviction was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since I'm writing this review, the answer is no. Yet you'll note that I haven't actually gotten around to reviewing the book yet.

So what is it about this book that makes it a good test? Simply, the fact that I have very little to say about it. Very few of the stories made any real impression on me. Those by Kim Stanley Robinson, Sarah Zettel, and Chris Beckett were the most memorable. The rest were certainly competent or better, but none rose to the heights. There was no humor in this volume, unlike his previous Year's Best anthologies.

The Unsleeping Eye

D.G. Compton
Used paperback
31 October-4 November

In this year 2000, in a country where the most talked about television series of the year is "Survivor", it is sobering to read a novel that puts the phenomenon of so-called reality programming in its place -- and did so twenty-one years ago.

Katherine Mortenhoe is forty-four years old, not beautiful, married, and has just learned that she has four weeks to live. Rod is a reporter with the latest in journalistic technology: his eyes have been replaced by cameras. His first assignment with this innovation is to record Katherine Mortenhoe's last weeks of life -- and her death -- for the top-rated show "Human Destinies".

This tale could be treated in many ways: an indictment of media or corporate power, a dystopian tale of a world without privacy, or a tale of personal acceptance and redemption. Compton manages to treat all of these reasonably well, weaving a tale that simultaneously outrages and touches. While certain aspects of the plot may be familiar, Compton's originality more than compensates. For example, the action offers little surprises, but the complex characterization of Katherine Mortenhoe kept me reading.

It's well done, and the best work I've read by this author.

The Stone Canal

Ken MacLeod
Library book
5-8 November

Wheee! Another intelligent, exciting novel from Ken MacLeod. Wheee!

The setting is the same universe as The Cassini Division, but the narrative is split between near-future Earth and the distant New Mars. It follows the life of Jonathan Wilde, a man born in our time on Earth. He's a political thinker whose life becomes something -- several somethings, actually -- that he never would have imagined. Along the way, we meet his friend/rival David Reid, who will also rise to a position of surprising importance.

Chapters telling Wilde's story alternate with the New Mars tale of Dee, a computer-controlled human clone who has awoken to self-awareness and left her former servitude as a sexual toy. Her owner will stop at nothing to retrieve her. Fortunately, she falls in with some folks who can help, including a surprising and familiar face.

Well, I shouldn't give away any more of the plot. If you enjoy intelligent SF by an author who's not only interested in ideas, but plainly excited by his fictional worlds, look no further. MacLeod's writing is also a treat; he has more sophisticated characterization than 98% of other SF authors. For example, though Wilde spends most of his life involved in basement political movements, he's not an unbending idealist. Even the black hats get the same treatment; their actions are due to a variety of motives, some good, some bad. It is this that separates MacLeod's works from the vast majority of SF, which are children's morality tales in comparison.

SF readers, it's time to grow up, and Ken MacLeod is showing you the way.

(More good news: his novel The Sky Road has recently been published in the U.S.A.!)

An Obedient Father

Akhil Sharma
Library book
23-4 November

After reading so much science fiction this year, what a change it is to read a mainstream novel. Since there's no need for exposition, an author can concentrate on characterization. Akhil Sharma does just that in An Obedient Father, the story of a petty and corrupt Indian man. Ram Karan starts the novel as a bribe-taker for his boss, a minor bureaucrat in Delhi's education establishment. As Karan's patron rises in power following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, so does Karan. However, his sudden good political fortune is a counterpoint to his crumbling home life, as his widowed daughter brings to light a long-suppressed family secret.

The characterization of this novel really shines. Objectively, Karan is a despicable man, yet the author manages to make him so rich a character that at times we find ourselves rooting for him as he attempted to change -- knowing full well that his previous attempts were little more than well-intentioned promises made with the self-knowledge that they would not last. Karan's daughter, Anita, is no noble survivor; she alternates between martyrdom, parental overprotectiveness, and vindictive rage. While we sympathize with her plight, it is hard to feel warmth toward her personally. Asha, the grand-daughter, is also affected by the conflict, first subtly, then profoundly. The web of violation and recrimination ultimately ensnares all:

But one day I notice Pitaji's ankles are dirty. Then I understand that patches of his skin have turned black from the absence of blood. I start to cry. When unhappiness is so great, how can one separate mine and yours?

As I read this, I couldn't help but think of how the book's treatment of family trauma compared with that found in a recently published SF book. An Obedient Father is a book in which the emotions could be true, whereas the SF treatment of the same theme never came close to emotional verisimilitude. Is this a deficiency of SF as a genre, or do I seek a chimera: a SF novel in which the human story is paramount, thus making it a non-SF story with SF trappings? Or is it possible to really blend these almost completely separate worlds?

The Extended Phenotype

Richard Dawkins
New trade paperback
4-27 November

With the publication of his ground-breaking book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced a new way of understanding biology. His thesis was that the basic unit of reproduction was not the organism, but the gene. Rather than viewing a gene as a part contributing to the success of an organism, he proposed interpreting an organism as a mechanism to ensure the survival of its genes.

This topsy-turvy idea drew widespread praise and criticism. The latter inspired The Extended Phenotype, in which the author spends about two thirds of the book refuting his critics. It's an interesting if dry read; once done, you'll understand just how diverse scientific opinion can be. Plus you'll learn some biology along the way.

What's more interesting is the final few chapters, which take the notion of the selfish gene to a logical (but unexpected) conclusion: genes not only find expression in the form and behavior of the organism in which they reside, but can also be expressed in other organisms. One of Dawkins' examples is the barnacle Sacculina, a crab parasite that effectively causes the chemical castration of its host. The genes in the barnacle that control this behavior manifest themselves not in the barnacle, but in its host. Since the host is not devoting resources to reproduction, it has more to spare on its own survival, thus making itself a better host for its parasite. The genes in the parasite that create this behavior express themselves not only in the parasite itself, but in the host as well. The parasite's phenotype extends beyond its own body, to its environment.

The notion of the extended phenotype is strange and wondrous. The view of organisms as self-contained gene groups that compete against each other is replaced by an image of a complex web of influences that extends not only outward beyond an organism's exterior, but also inward from gene to gene. Dawkins has once again proposed a new way of understanding the complex mutual influences of genes and behavior.

[Note: this book was written primarily for biologists, though it can be understood by an educated layman familiar with The Selfish Gene. I do not presume to judge the merits of Dawkins' response to his critics.]

Towing Jehovah

James Morrow
Library book
29-30 November

Anthony Van Horne is the disgraced ex-captain of the Carpco Valparaíso, a supertanker that ran aground and caused the worst oil spill in history. He dreams nightly of befouled birds, and several showers a day do not relieve him of the oil he feels on his skin. He is estranged from his father, also a captain. It is into this unhappy life that an angel appears, with a shocking message: God has died, and his two mile long corpse has fallen into the Atlantic Ocean. It is to be Van Horne's duty to captain the restored Valparaíso once more, and tow the divine corpse to its final resting place. Only then will he find absolution.

That's the unusual opening of Towing Jehovah. What follows is a fast-paced story that borders on farce, but still retains some seriousness. Theological speculation about the effect on morality of the death of God is balanced by practical questions such as where one should anchor towing cables in a two mile long body. Rampant atheists plot the body's destruction, while the Vatican has plans of its own. Through it all, Van Horne tries his best to carry out his duty, dealing along the way with mutiny, an obstinate priest, World War II re-enactors, and love.

Morrow manages to balance the farce and serious elements well. I'm planning on starting the sequel, Blameless in Abaddon, tomorrow.

Blameless in Abaddon

James Morrow
Library book
1-4 December

Blameless in Abaddon begins several years after Towing Jehovah ends. The body of God has been disinterred by a natural disaster, and subsequently bought by American Baptists (who made it the centerpiece of a theme park in Orlando, Florida). The story follows Judge Martin Candle, a modern-day Job. After suffering some slings and arrows, he decides that it is his duty to seek justice on behalf of all humanity. To this end, he announces his decision to try God (who still shows some evidence of life) in the World Court in the Hague.

What follows is a combination of Morrow's brand of satire along with a fair helping of theodicy. And that, unfortunately, is its downfall. Towing Jehovah was a success because it didn't let theology take center stage; it was a tale of one man's redemption. In Blameless in Abaddon theodicy is the true main character, and it shows. Exposition is a fair amount of the book, though Morrow makes it surprisingly easy to read. However, the most affecting drama occurs in the first chapters of the book, and the rest is a man-versus-God fantasy that is rather too intellectual.

I suppose that the reason this didn't appeal to me as much as Towing Jehovah is that it's flogging a dead deity. I don't know what Nietzsche meant when he declared God dead, but to me his statement means not that we live in a universe that once held a God, but rather that we live in a world where the concept of God has no value. God died from indifference; consequently, arguing over the existence of evil is akin to arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And we know how much the answer to the latter question matters in our lives.

The Eternal Footman

James Morrow
Library book
5-7 December

God may be dead, but parts of His corpse are still around. In particular, His skull has taken up a geosynchronous orbit over Times Square. Simultaneous with its ascent, a new plague spreads across the Western hemisphere: people begin to be visited by avatars of their deaths. The Eternal Footman is abroad on Earth, converting the post-Deity world into a charnel house.

Sounds like a fun beginning, eh? If only it were so. The novel had its moments -- the discorporation of the divine corpse in particular -- but as a whole, it lacked focus. The problem was that there was no central dramatic conflict. While the characters were determined, there wasn't a sense of struggle to resolve a problem. It wasn't a bad novel, but it left me feeling that I'd completed a jigsaw puzzle only to find a whole section of pieces missing.

God Said "Ha!"

Julia Sweeney
Library book
10 December

After the breakup of her marriage ("a divorce made in Heaven"), the comedienne Julia Sweeney bought a bungalow in Hollywood with the intention of creating a place just for herself. There was no way she could foresee that her brother would get cancer, and that both he and their parents would move into her little one-person house for the next nine months.

God Said "Ha!" is the record of those months. The book is based on the performances she did at the Uncabaret, which were later turned into a one-woman show, a 2-CD recording, and a movie. The book complements the recording; it contains some affecting material not included in the audio version. And if you've heard her performance, it's difficult to not hear her voice in your head as you read this short book. I'd recommend it, but the audio recording conveys emotion better.

Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire

Phil Foglio
New trade paperback
15 December

Now here's a book that was out of print for too long. Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire is a collection of writer/artist Phil Foglio's thick-wristed detective Buck Godot. Equal part free man, "drunken space bum", canny gumshoe, and loyal friend, Buck is a guy with heart and, well, gut. He's a big guy whose hunches match his considerable girth. This collection of the first four Buck Godot stories combines an offbeat setting, fast-paced stories, and Foglio's wonderful vaudeville. Between your guffaws, look closely at the panels. A keen eye will reward you.

All hail Buck! Read its sequels, PSmIth and The Gallimaufry, as well. Zap Gun for Hire starts out a little rough around the edges, but the character and author have improved over twenty years. It's a fun ride.


Bruce Sterling
New hardcover
10-15 December

Bruce Sterling gets...

Wait, I was just about to reveal an important plot element, which is something I dislike. Try this instead.

Leggy Starlitz is a man with a plan. In the waning days of the century he's bopping through strife-torn southwestern Europe with his manufactured all-girl group G-7. It doesn't matter that none of them can sing; that's not part of the concept. Lipsynching is good enough for a going media darling. Leggy's got just two rules. One, none of the G-7 girls are going to get in serious trouble, and two, the whole traveling road show shuts down just before Y2K. As schemes go, it's brilliant: legit and moneymaking all at once. What could go wrong?

Well, there's the little matter of the rather uncomfortable amount of interest the G-7 scam is receiving from a local Turkish power baron. And there's his rather too talented girlfriend, the one who has real star power. And there's Leggy's father, who's not quite himself these days. And there's his daughter, who's been dumped on him after he split on the not-quite-a-family scene when she was born. She just happens to be G-7's biggest fan...

So while the last year of the nineteen-anythings winds down, Leggy's going to find himself in a rather tight juggling act, trying to keep more and more pins in the air.

While reading this novel, I couldn't help but wonder why Sterling published a book set in a world with Y2K still looming large. That time is gone, man, with nary a hiccup on the data horizon. That scene's strictly 1998, natch? As I got into it, though, what seemed like an odd move was revealed to be a canny choice. Leggy really does embody the spirit of his, and our times. As he stumbles through a landscape of rusting quonset huts, multimillionaire mansions, and razorwire-bordered no-man's-lands, Sterling departs from his recent edged SF to fashion a story that's a parable. I enjoyed it, but it's going to take a while to sink in. Like Distraction, this is a novel that will improve with rereading. Now if I could just forget it, so that I can start reading it afresh!

Pogo Volume 8

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
15-16 December

Yup, another whole batch of Pogo books came in. Volume 8 continues the 1952 election shenanigans, with an "I Go Pogo" campaign garnering support from almost everyone in the swamp (save the titular possum). Through Kelly's typical torturous twists, this leads to a proposed marriage between our hero and Mam'selle Hepzibah. When Pogo gets wind of it, he takes off, emulating the comical strip heroine Lulu Arfin' Nanny (eyes blunk out and everything). Yes, it is that silly, and fun too. It ends with a less than serious World Series. I particularly enjoyed the strip of 28 July; it's an old joke, but told very well.

Pogo Volume 9

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
16 December

Election madness continues, with a bull moose making an appearance for the first time since 19-ought-12. It all winds up somehow, and moves on to a new storyline involving Porky Pine's mysterious Uncle Baldwin. Mistaken identities proliferate, Porky gets lost and found, and Christmas finds three wise men entering the scene, led by a star. Uncle Baldwin is revealed as a masher, Seminole Sam has (another) scam going, and Howland Owl tries his hand at selling dirt on teevy. However, the clouds that began to gather on the horizon with the previous volume's introduction of the cowbirds grow a shade darker with the addition of Mole MacCarony.

Pogo Volume 10

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
16 December

For Walt Kelly, the clouds broke in the spring of 1953. As McCarthyism reigned unabated and for the most part unquestioned (at least aloud) throughout the USA, Kelly turned his deft satiric skills to that most ungentlemanly of junior U.S. Senators from Wisconsin. The introduction of the xenophobic Mole McCarony set the stage, but the players were not complete until Simple J. Malarkey makes his entrance. By this point the beloved swamp is no longer the simple home of innocent creatures, where laughter and good-natured argument rang out. Now there is trial by innuendo (which Kelly had brilliantly depicted in a previous year), rule by force (5/5), and fearful silence (4/28). Kelly is at the height of his creative powers. Howland Owl's expression in the 3/30 strip is as chilling, and effecting, as a photograph.

Kelly knew how such a period of national trial would end. It is to the nation's discredit that this resolution took so much time to enact Kelly's script.

Let me point out once again that R.C. Harvey provides excellent introductions to the volumes of this series.

Pogo Volume 11

Walt Kelly
New trade paperback
16-17 December

Things are back to normal in the swamp, and that's just fine with everybody. Howland Owl starts a college, though he's too busy signing diplomas to teach. That's okay, since everyone's at football practice anyway. We meet Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red football coach. The World Series (Okeefenokee style) ends on a threadbare note, and Seminole Sam is at it again. And, as is its wont, Christmas came but once that year, on December 25th that time 'round. God rest ye merrie, gentlemen.

The Sky Road

Ken MacLeod
Library book
17-24 December

Speculating about what the world would be like if an important event had happened differently than it did is an old game. A timely and popular example would be the classic Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life; others abound. Perhaps the southern states of the USA won that country's Civil War (Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee), or the Axis powers won World War II (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle). The tradition of counterfactual history is a long one in the SF field.

However, there aren't many authors who take their own fictional world and spin variations on it. Ken MacLeod takes precisely that approach in The Sky Road. The world shares the same history as his novels The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, but only to a point. A change as small as a different end to a three-person conversation is enough to set history moving in a different direction.

Like The Stone Canal, the novels of this chapter alternate between stories. In one set, we're introduced to a history student who, while working a summer welding job on what will be the first spaceship in centuries, falls in love. His object of attraction is Merrial, a tinker: one of a roving, clannish band who have kept some of the old technological knowledge alive in the post-wired world. It's not always wise to love, and our student learns that love can have an unexpected price.

The other story is set closer to our present, in the middle of the 21st century. Myra Godwin, diplomat and one of the participants in that fateful conversation, is trying to preserve the autonomy of her adopted Kazahkstan. With a collapsed UN, an ineffectual group of spacers, and a Sino-Soviet horde bearing down, she will have to use all her high cards just to let her country have a chance at survival. Politics is indeed a dirty game, and Myra is in a game she has to win.

Eventually, of course, the two stories converge. All told, though, it makes for a rather predictable and talky but enjoyable book that gives insight into a character we've never had a clear picture of before. Perhaps that's the author's strategy: he projects each participant in that fateful conversation into a world where we can best understand him or her. It's a tricky gamble; it requires concentration and flexibility from the reader. However, when the individual books are combined, it makes a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Book Queue


Last updated 15 July 2001
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons

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