The 2001 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2001

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

Books Read


James Stevens-Arce
Library book
1-2 January

In 2099, Juan Bautista Lorca is a novice soulsaver. Unlike most of the masses of people on this overcrowded island, he has an elite job: freezing suicides for later revival and trial. For in this zealously religious future, suicide is a sin not just against God but against the government.

What follows is a combination of religious satire and coming-of-age story. The satire is blatant: radio station WGOD broadcasts that new-fashioned combination of old-fashioned religion and secular entertainment, Hallelujah Wrestling is a TV hit, and the stuttering Digital Jesus can show up on your confessional's monitor. Juan's maturation is a bit subtler, which isn't saying much.

Actually, that's why I was dissatisfied with the book. It wasn't bad, but it had almost no sense of subtlety. The only elements of the book that were really intriguing were Juan's romantic interest, and his partner. Both seemed to have greater depths than any of the other characters, but they were never explored.

All in all, a book that shows promise. The authors needs to learn restraint, but he keeps the action zipping along. I'll keep an eye out for his next book.

The Perseids and Other Stories

Robert Charles Wilson
Library book
4-5 January

This collection of stories weaves together tales of Finders, a small Toronto second-hand bookstore where the edge of reality blurs. I sought out this collection on the basis of its story "Divided by Infinity", which was memorably imaginative. The Perseids did not disappoint.

Wilson's stories are interesting. They combination interesting leaps of the imagination with mundane human concerns. Speculations on the evolution of intelligence are framed in stories of love. It's an unusual mix in SF. I wouldn't be surprised if the author also wrote non-SF stories. His concern with the human sets his stories apart from the body of SF.

Worth looking for.

Origins of Architectural Pleasure

Grant Hildebrand
Library book
5-11 January

Why do we like some buildings, and dislike others? What qualities do they possess that kindle our sense of pleasure, and delight?

These are the questions Grant Hildebrand considers in Origins of Architectural Pleasure. To my surprise, he actually provides answers. First, he makes the claim that the buildings we like satisfy a set of qualities that we instinctively respond to because it has been in our species' best interest to do so. For example, we prefer places that border enclosed and open spaces because they offer both safety (a defendable, concealing enclosure) and opportunity (a concealed view into an open space). A location which offers both refuge and prospect is an ideal place to live; hence we respond well to it, and to buildings designed with those qualities. Hildebrand goes on to identify more characteristics (enticement, peril, and complex order) that we instinctively find pleasurable.

While this does provide a new way of looking at architecture, the attribution of pleasure to the whims of evolution is a proposition that I am unwilling to accept without stronger evidence than is given in the book. Indeed, Hildebrand isn't concerned with making the argument; he refers to the work of others (e.g., Stephen Kaplan, Carl Sagan, and E.O. Wilson) for those interested in the topic. His main concern was how the five characteristics he listed were embodied in buildings as diverse as those of the Piazza San Marco, Machu Picchu, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, cathedrals, and Japanese castles. The book is an investigation of their properties in light of his thesis.

In the end, there is some value to Hildebrand's formulation, but I'm not sure how much credence to give it. For one, I'm not familiar with any of the architecture he describes. Second, and more important, attributing to a human characteristic an evolutionary origin is something that I would be very cautious doing. As Richard Dawkins has discussed at length, what are and what are not hereditary traits is quite a complex question. The jury, as they say, is still out. In the meantime, I'll use Hildebrand's formulation without concern for its theoretical underpinnings.

Vermillion Sands

J.G. Ballard
Used paperback
11-13 January

In the past, I'd read and been intrigued by some of Ballard's tales of the decadent and decaying resort Vermillion Sands. It's a place of martinis by the pool, dilettante artists, stars past their prime, and buried scandal. Lying in some undefined psychic landscape between Palm Springs and the northern Mediterranean coast, Vermillion Sands is also home to bejeweled scorpions, psychotropic houses, poetry machines, and quasi-organic sonic sculpture. Yet all this is window dressing for a seaside resort that does not border water, but rather sand dunes -- and insanity.

Reading this collection of nine tales, I was struck by the fact that all tell the same story, varying only the particulars. A male artist, drawn to the indolent leisure of this aging resort as to a mirror, meets a woman whose acting out of a psychic trauma upsets his stability. His medium might be cloud sculpting or bio-fabric fashion, and her past might include a murder or an unresolved fixation, but the tales are the same. What personal myth is Ballard exorcising?

On the whole, this is a well-written collection. However, I don't recommend reading its stories consecutively, or even close together. Read one, then put the book aside until you've forgotten it. Then you will be ready to rediscover Vermillion Sands, that place of sand yachts, dark sunglasses, and photosensitive paintings that reveal more than one might expect.

The Coming

Joe Haldeman
Library book
21 January

The aliens are coming. The astrophysicist Aurora "Rory" Bell knows, as she's just received a message that they've sent from a tenth of a light year away: the English words "We're coming", repeated sixty times. The date of their arrival? New Year's Day, three months hence. The restless world of the mid-21st century is going to be under a lot more stress in the next quarter year.

The arrival of aliens is a perennial theme in science fiction, as has bled into popular culture. The situation asks us how we would behave if we knew aliens were on the way. Would people fall apart? Would the world come together in face of its greatest challenge?

The problem with tackling a question like this is to find some way to narrow the scope. It's impossible to show the entire world's reaction in one book, so an author has to focus on a small group of characters and describe their reactions. In The Coming, Haldeman chooses what could be called the hopping narrative style; each chapter follows a different character than the previous. Theodore Sturgeon used a similar device in his novel The Cosmic Rape, but he took it to its extreme, with each chapter following a different person. Haldeman details about twenty characters, from Rory & her husband to a bag lady. Each chapter begins with someone in the last scene of the previous one, providing an almost cinematic fluidity. As a technical device, it works better than the rather flat narrative of Forever Peace.

As for the story, well, it got quite off track. The murder, blackmail, personal intrigue, and political infighting were entertaining, but as SF left something to be desired. Perhaps Haldeman was writing a SF book for non-SF readers. It was a decent fast read, but light on the Big SF Ideas.


John Crowley
New hardcover
17-28 January

Once the world was not as it has since become.

What if, as some suppose, the world is leaving one age to enter another? Perhaps the world is on the verge of experiencing one of those brief moments when an old order departs, making way for a new understanding of our realm of existence. This is a thing many wish; yet why should we suppose that this anticipated era will be free of fears, injustices, and horrors?

The tale of this secret change of the world began in Crowley's 1987 novel Ægypt and continued in Love & Sleep. In Dæmonomonia Pierce Moffett, Rose Ryder, and Rosie Rasmussen are all affected by this strange passage. Rosie's daughter Sam is having seizures without a known cause; Rose Ryder is drawn into a Christian splinter group; and Pierce watches in agony as the world that seemed so pregnant with hidden knowledge becomes a realm of terrible trials, with damnation no longer a theoretical consideration but an all too real possibility.

Or is it? Is any of it? Is this all a figment of Pierce's imagination, suggested by his studies of the work of the late writer Fellowes Kraft, or scholar/alchemist John Dee? Is spirit at long last taking flesh, or is the world being remade one person at a time?

These are the questions Pierce ponders as the world spins. Crowley is at the top of his form; what could be insubstantial is instead a story with deep and strong resonance. He manages to convey the horror that Inquisitors might have felt, but in no ham-handed way. A description cannot do these books justice; only the opening can give a taste of their strange and terrible savor:

When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn't come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse's skin. The coming of the end might at first lift and shake just one county, one neighborhood, and not the others around it; might feelably ripple beneath the feet of the churchgoers and not of these taverngoers down the street, shatter only the peace of this street, this family, this child of the family who at that moment lifts her eyes from the Sunday comics and knows for certain that nothing will ever be the same again.


But though the world ends sooner for some than for others, each one who passes through it--or through whom it passes--will be able to look back and know that he has moved from the old world to the new, where willy-nilly he will die; will know it though all around him his neighbors are still living in the old world, amidst its comforts and fears. And that will be the proof, that in his fellows' faces he can see that they have been left behind, can see in the way they look at him that he has crossed over alive.

Now Wait for Last Year

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
29 January - 2 February

Over the past few months a friend and I have debated whether science fiction should try to be about anything except Big Ideas. Is it enough to describe something new, such as Gibson's invention of cyberspace, or can SF also concern itself with characterization, morality, and everything else that is considered the purview of literature?

My side of the debate has been hampered by not being to demonstrate enough examples which show that well-written SF can indeed be about more than gee-whiz ideas. Sturgeon was cited for themes, and Smith for style; but something was missing. What author brought style and subject together, unifying SF ideas with themes relevant to everyone?

The answer has been under my nose for the longest time. Whose work have I read most of? Whose books have I bought, read, and given away, only to later buy again and reread? Whose novels has it become a habit to read every few months?

Philip K. Dick.

Now Wait for Last Year contains classic Dick elements*; by now they're almost as familiar as the elements of a Hardy Boys book. It's what Dick does with them that makes the story interesting. The hero of this novel, Dr. Eric Sweetscent, is chosen to minister to the U.N. Secretary General, who is negotiating with aliens. Humanity has allied itself on one side of a bitter interstellar war. As it's becoming clear, though, our choice of allies might not have been the wisest. Could a race of four-armed, chitinous bugs be more human than a species that is physically practically indistinguishable from Homo sapiens?

In the midst of this, the good Doctor's wife has become addicted to a drug that whips its users across time. Since her job is to furnish replica cities of the past with authentic props, this doesn't seem like such a bad idea -- but the drug is permanently addicting, and quickly fatal.

Looking at this book's 1964 publication date, I expected it to be one of Dick's lesser novels. Yet I was surprised to find the themes of responsibility and empathy threading through it, presaging later novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Even though it's not his best novel, its exploration of what it means to be human is exactly the kind of intelligent, feeling SF I desire. By all means, if you seek SF that engages both the brain and heart, seek it out.

* A passive lead character; a domineering, vindictive woman; temporal dislocation; intelligent robots & cabs; drugs; wisdom imparted from non-humans; et cetera.

The Gardens of Delight

Ian Watson
Used paperback
3-6 February

This short novel follows the crew of the spaceship Schiaparelli, which is seeking the lost colony ship Copernicus. On landing, the crew discovers that they're in a riotous garden, full of strange and wondrous visions. Giant berries feed unicorns; fish flap their way across fields, trying to evolve legs. It is a completely unexpected, yet hauntingly familiar world. What is the key to this garden of delights?

Answering that question is the quest our hero, the psychologist Sean Athlone, undertakes. It will involve a journey through both heaven and a most literal hell. In the end, however, the answer really doesn't prove very satisfying. All told, this would have made a better novella than a novel; its ideas don't support its length, unlike other tales of phantasmagoric transformation such as David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus.

First Contract

Greg Costikyan
Library book
8-9 February

When aliens arrive with new technology, the first casualty will be the world's economy.

That's the premise of Greg Costikyan's entertaining novel First Contract. Johnson Mukerjii, head of a company about to introduce a holographic display, finds his economic feet pulled from under him by the arrival of extraterrestrial technology. Within days he is reduced to abject poverty. Most of the world soon follows in his footsteps. Yet this fall provides him with the opportunity to rise again, and this time in a market far larger than one backwater planet.

What follows is a light-hearted mixture of business farce and SF. The aliens are entertaining, as are the big business games. I was particularly amused by the inclusion of Leander Huff, a Hemingway-esque right-wing SF author cum computing pundit. (Sound familiar?) He's not taken seriously, but neither is much in the entire Horatio Alger story. It's a fun day's diversion.

Costikyan's style needs some seasoning. The prose does little more than serve the action. With the exception of Mukerjii, the characters are little more than enigmatic but interesting ciphers. If the author is interested in a sequel, he has provided himself with a considerable amount of material to expand upon. I'd certainly like to read more.

The Extremes

Christopher Priest
Library book
19 February

Teresa Simon is an FBI agent and recent widow. Her husband, also an FBI agent, was killed by a gunman on a killing spree in the Texas panhandle. In an attempt to ease her grief over her husband's death, Teresa travels to a small English town that was also the site of a mass killing -- which occurred on the same day as her husband's death. Were these events connected? And how do they relate to extreme experience, the programmable virtual reality that has left the FBI training grounds and is now catching on as a popular entertainment? Is the sudden appearance on the scene of the GunHo Corporation, a multinational ExEx creator, more than just cashing in on the town's tragedy?

The answers are for you to provide. As Teresa explores the connections between the killings, she is drawn to the local ExEx parlor, where her repeated sessions in virtual worlds lead to a dangerous blurring between reality and the manifold scenarios ExEx offers. Without giving too much away, Teresa does come to a resolution of sorts; yet the novel retains its ambiguities to the end.

As a novel, I wasn't thrilled by it, but you can judge for yourself. I'm not quite sure what Priest's intention was. The story combines several different major elements, some of which are dropped with a resounding thud. The ExEx-Internet metaphor held some interest, but it was kept out of the spotlight. On the whole, the novel left me unsatisfied and a bit confused.

Barefoot in the Head

Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
10-24 February

Colin Charteris is a man with a mission. He's left his native Serbia to provide aid to a Europe which has fallen victim to psychoactive bombs. A large percentage of the populace has come in contact with psychoactive agents, leaving them permanently tripping. Through this ravaged region Charteris makes his way to England, ostensibly to assist its bomb victims. What he's really seeking, however, is something within.

This was published in 1969, when public exposure to acidheads was in its fullest flower. The book hasn't become dated, however. While it can be read as a period piece, it's actually closer to the psychological works of J.G. Ballard. Charteris' goal mirrors those of Ballard's enigmatic protagonists: by journeying into a transformed world, they seek their own freedom.

As a novel, I have to say I found this a challenge to read. The plot was extremely simple, but the language was chockablockful runon runin linguicities. Often, the only clues as to what happened in a particular situation were given through context. It made for difficult but interesting reading, which required one's full concentration. Imagine Ballard mixed with Joyce.

One aspect I enjoyed was the poetry. Each section ended with not one, but several poems. Some were song lyrics, some haiku, others free verse. They form a Greek chorus, illuminating the prose sections. It's a surprisingly effective device.

Uncle Petros & Goldbach's Conjecture

Apostolos Doxiadis
Library book
26-7 February

As he grows up in Greece, a boy becomes fascinated by his reclusive uncle's enigmatic history. This solitary man's brothers consider him a failure. Through patience and persistence, our hero begins to learn the old man's story. It's a tale of passion, but not romance. This is the passion of genius, applied to one of the hardest mathematical problems: Goldbach's Conjecture. This is the proposition that every even whole number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. Yet for its apparent simplicity, it remains unproved.

The story made for a mildly interesting novel. In a number of ways it reads as a fictional counterpart to Morris Kline's Mathematics: the Loss of Certainty. Yet in other ways, it was strange. I found it hard to believe that a good mathematician could have been as ignorant about pivotal discoveries in his own field as Uncle Petros. Perhaps he was wrapped up in his own research, but it didn't ring true enough for me to suspend disbelief. Also, the nephew himself was little more than a device to illuminate Uncle Petros' character and history. The characters weren't enough to interest me, and the math revealed nothing new. It certainly didn't strike me as a realistic portrait of a mathematical genius, but neither was it as archetypic enough to be allegory. It was mildly interesting, but not a success.

What I'll probably remember the book for wasn't the writing, but the fact that this edition had a cloth ribbon sewn into the spine, as is often found in dictionaries and the complete works of Shakespeare. This book doesn't come close to matching the latter, but I was amused by the pretension. The ribbon was certainly a handy bookmark. It would be nice if more publishers put this much care into the books they print.

Report on Probability A

Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
24 February-5 March

In the outbuildings behind a house, three people watch and wait. There is G, the estate's former gardener, now residing in the bungalow; S, the former secretary, in the low second story of a brick building; and C, the former chauffeur, who now spends his days in the unused garage. Each watches the house, and waits. The rain falls. A cat in the garden stalks a pigeon, known as X. S peers through a small round window, divided by two sets of lines so that it is made of nine panes, the center one square. A vague movement is seen inside the house. S puts down his telescope, reducing the number of pieces of glass he was peering through from five to one. Four of these were the lenses of the telescope. The fifth was the window, which is round, and has a square central pane. It is through this that he looks into the garden. The rain is turning the soft earth of the walkway into mud. The cat has tired of its pursuit, and disappeared. S pinches the bridge of his nose, then returns to looking through the window, which is circular.

Now imagine 144 pages of that, and you have Report on Probability A. It's enough to make one run screaming into the street.

There's a little more to the book than that. G, S, and C, though watchers themselves of the barely seen Mr. and Mrs. Mary, are themselves being watched. And their watchers...

I'm was unsure what Mr. Aldiss was trying to convey in this book. Are we all merely watchers? Is life nothing more than the banality of surveillance? Is reality, closely examined and thoroughly described, a boring thing? This book was surely an experiment; I find it hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying either this book's prose, characterization, or setting. Perhaps it was an attempt at proving some literary theory. In that sense, it might have interest as a meta-fictional puzzle. As a novel, though, it was audacious in its outright refusal to be anything but completely, intentionally, frustratingly boring.

The Wind from Nowhere

J.G. Ballard
Used paperback
9-10 March

There's a quality particular to some English SF authors. Olaf Stapledon had it, and H.G. Wells demonstrated it in works such as The War of the Worlds. It's a certain quality of plotting, in which the characters are essentially powerless by-standers in the face of a change sweeping the world. Ballard, in The Wind from Nowhere, exhibits this quality as well. In fact, the novel's tone was strongly reminiscent of The War of the Worlds.

The plot concerns the experiences of several characters in a world gone mad. A wind has arisen that sweeps constantly around globe, increasing by 5 mph per day with no sign of abating. What begins as an inconvenience quickly turns lethal, as buildings begin to collapse in the hurricane-force wind. Humanity is reduced to cowering in tunnels and caves while the ever-increasing wind reduces the artifacts of civilization to matchsticks and rubble.

The Wind from Nowhere is one of Ballard's "planetary disaster" novels; the others are The Drought, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World. I haven't read the former, but I do remember The Drowned World as being a quite psychological novel, like his later series of Travis stories. Wouldn't it be interesting to re-read the whole series, only to discover that Ballard had written each in a different style?

King John

William Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare
13-15 March

This was one of Shakespeare's early histories. I found it quite enjoyable, and suspenseful. The action -- war between England and France -- wasn't what held my interest; rather, the characters' potential was riveting. Would King John recognize young Arthur as the legitimate ruler of Britain, or hold the crown at all costs? Would the bastard Faulconbridge serve John, or his own interests? Who is the stronger? Would Arthur's harping mother Constance inflame war at the cost of all? The play provided a surfeit of potential, and for the most part delivered.

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Richard Bloom writes that Faulconbridge is the first truly Shakespearean character: one that is larger than the play's action. His analysis is dead on. Faulconbridge is the only character to come across as having a burning vitality. His speech on commodity is a wonderful commentary, and a bitter denunciation of the follies of both the French and the English. Even as he serves the king, I did not know whether he would remain faithful or arise to seize John's precariously held crown.

The small criticism I have of the play was the precipitous removal of some of that potential. Some of the most interesting characters meet rather untimely ends, changing the play's tone rather quickly. The play wasn't lessened, but I can't help but wonder what the play would have been like if they'd continued in the action.

Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau

Elizabeth Burns Gamard
Library book
11-19 March

Quick summary: the worst book I've read since 1998.

This book attempts to explain the German artist Kurt Schwitters' personal and enigmatic work called Merzbau, or the Cathedral of Erotic Misery. It fails on every level.

First, the scholarship is questionable. Schwitters apparently wrote and said very little about the Merzbau, but that's not the cause of this book's problems. Rather, the author tries to explain Schwitters' work in terms of alchemy, but doesn't cite enough specific correspondences between it and his work to do so convincingly. She writes at length about how the alchemical process is reflected in Schwitters' work, but does not mention how the Merzbau in particular could be interpreted as a manifestation of the two laws of magic (the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion). Even I could see that she hadn't considered all possible explanations. Nor does she once mention the connection between Eros and creativity.

Second, the book assumes the reader is already familiar not only with Schwitters' works, but with the different critical interpretations of them. I've had some exposure to Schwitters' works before, so I wasn't completely lost, but wasn't able to figure out what "Merzbau" meant until two-thirds of the way through the book. I'd suggest starting investigation of Schwitters' work (which is actually quite interesting) with Hans Richter's Dada: Art and Anti-art.

Third, the writing was poor. Here's an example, from page 120:

The construction of a building and the experimentation with form are equally subject to the same parameters as living systems and are therefore both resistant to and accepting of governance by mechanical means. [Italics added]

This is nonsense, plain and simple. Either something resists, or it accepts. It cannot do both at once.

The author's arguments aren't helped by her lapses into the jargon of postmodernists. Her use of the word "reading" instead of "interpretation" makes me wonder if anyone actually read her manuscript before it went to the printer. Ditto "performative", "normative", and "facticity". (As you might guess if you've had any exposure to postmodernism, Schwitters' work was in fact transgressive.)

Actually, I'm pretty sure that no one read this book in manuscript, possibly including the author. There were numerous cases of run-on sentences, sentences without verbs, and sentences with problems such as "...he was self-consciously develop his own..." (p. 131). Would the author care to buy a gerund? They're cheap!

Fourth, the editor did not do her job. When completely meaningless passages such as

Embedded in any geometric configuration is a reciprocity, an energy exchange made explicit by the juxtaposition of one element to another. Over time, the exchange accelerates in intensity, producing an increase in energy and turbulence that results in a flow or flows characteristic of ongoing change. [p. 143]

can slip by an editor without question -- not to mention the numerous errors of grammar and phrasing -- one has to wonder whether anyone was paying attention to this manuscript. That extends all the way to the typesetters; there were obvious misspellings which should have been caught ("romantiic" twice on p. 178!), as well as dropped spaces and passages where words had obviously been omitted, rendering what might have been nonsense into non-sense.

This book was bad enough that two-thirds of the way through I started taking notes on its errors, and even idly considered buying a copy, editing it, and sending it to the author. Now that's bad.

Everyone associated with this book should be ashamed of themselves. The only people I'll make an exception for are the bookbinders.

In her acknowledgements, the author states that this book took more than six years to write. How sad. If she didn't care to make her point coherently, her editor didn't bother to correct egregious errors, and even the typesetters didn't care, then it's obvious that she wasted more than six years of her life.


Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Library book
21-22 March

When a shady ex-archaeology student brings back some rather preposterous-looking artifacts she claims to have found in the ice of Jupiter's moon Callisto, she's laughed off the 'net. After all, what kind of alien would make what looks like a badly-constructed child's toy? Yet soon no one is laughing, after Jupiter's moons shift position unnaturally quickly. And unfortunately for humanity, the change will put the moons in the perfect position to divert an inbound comet into the Earth...

Thus begins the novel Wheelers. It's a good quick read, with a few wry touches ("Valerie Clementine"? Arghhh...) and an interesting idea or two tucked away here and there. It won't change your life, but is an amusing diversion -- if rather talky.


Alan Moore
Borrowed trade paperback
25-26 March

For the past few months I've been hankering to re-read Alan Moore's Watchmen. What can I say? I like thorny moral problems.

It didn't disappoint. Yes, there are heroes and superheroes, but they're not what I read it for. The use of larger-than-life characters allows Moore to consider problems that do not normally affect the average person. Or rather, they do, but in more subtle ways. The result is a story that, while a structural tour de force, interests me more for how a few characters react to their self-made destinies.

On the subject of technical wizardry, let me make the rather obvious point that Watchmen is a story that wouldn't work half as well as simple prose. While I didn't find the artwork particularly memorable, the repetition of many visual elements created an interconnected whole that just isn't possible in plain text. Now if only more movies were this well constructed!

Fashionable Nonsense

Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont
Library book
23-27 March

In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal published an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in an issue of the academic journal Social Text devoted to the "science wars". Several days later, the journal Lingua Franca published Sokal's admission that the article -- a pseudoscientific mishmash of truth, falsehood, and outright nonsense culled from the works of some of the most prominent postmodern theorists -- was a parody. A firestorm of debate erupted.

Fashionable Nonsense is not a recounting of the debate. Its purpose is instead to illustrate unclear and just plain wrong uses of specific scientific theories in other academic fields. Consider the following quote:

...human life could be defined as a calculus in which zero was irrational. This formula is just an image, a mathematical metaphor. When I say "irrational", I'm referring not to some unfathomable emotional state but precisely to what is called an imaginary number.

-- Jacques Lacan, 1959

Lacan, who claims to have put psychoanalysis on a firm mathematical footing, is unable to distinguish two completely different mathematical concepts (irrational and imaginary numbers). Need I point out that zero is both rational and not imaginary?

However, Sokal & Bricmont are not out to demolish all postmodern writing. They are scrupulously careful to stay within the fields of knowledge they are familiar with, mathematics and physics. Thus, the book is essentially an author-by-author analysis of scientific mistakes made by some of the most prominent postmodern thinkers (Lacan, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Latour, et cetera). It's rather dry reading, but moves along surprisingly quickly. The authors make their point, although it's pretty much made for them by the woefully inaccurate writing they analyze.

Is E = mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is.

-- Luce Irigaray, 1987

Perhaps it isn't. Rather than "privileg[ing] the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us", as Irigaray continues, what Einstein discovered is a simple equation which has been verified to a high degree of precision. She is free to find an equation that describes the relationship of mass and energy -- the real subject of the equation, a fact she seems to miss -- but that doesn't change the fact that E = mc2 works only if c is the speed of light. Likewise, she may theorize about the relationship between the history of science and feminism all she wants. However, when she starts attributing gender to specific equations, somebody should point out that her clothes are of the same fabric as the proverbial emperor.

A Nanotechnology Primer

Jocelyn Nagata
Library book
1 April

After the spate of new how-to books with titles like X For Dummies and X for the Complete Idiot, it was refreshing to find an introductory series that doesn't denigrate its readers: Harmony-Felber's Primer series. Out of curiosity, I read their book on nanotech, A Nanotechnology Primer.

The book laid out the foundations of nanotech nicely in the first few chapters. This was followed by a section on current research. The concluding section speculated on nanotech applications, and the impact of nanotech on society. I was amused by the sidebar on p. 162 titled "What Color is Your Goo?", about the nomenclature associated with different uses of nanotech (blue goo, grey goo, etc).

The bibliography was well done, referring first to Drexler's Engines of Creation. Interestingly, the author chose to include some SF works that depict working nanotech. I'm glad to see she included Greg Bear's Queen of Angels.

Infinity Beach

Jack McDevitt
Library book
27 March-2 April

There's a particular kind of SF novel that I call plotboilers. They're novels, not part of a series, which start with a puzzle to be solved. The novel Wheelers is a member of this genre; exactly how did those artifacts come to exist on Callisto? The discovery of the answer is what drives the story.

Infinity Beach is a classic plotboiler. The puzzle revolves around what happened to the crew of a small starship that went searching for alien species. After the mission returned prematurely, why did two crew members disappear soon after? Is there a connection between the mission and a mysterious explosion that occurred two years afterward, killing another crew member? What's behind the reports that the area surrounding the explosion is now haunted? Was the mission not the failure that the crew reported?

Another characteristic of plotboilers is the simplicity of the writing. There's little introspection. Our heroine, a sister/clone of one of the crew members who disappeared, is driven to extreme actions, yet becoming a criminal hardly bothers her even though she lives in what appears to be a highly moral society. It's in areas such as this that one glimpses the novel this could have been: one about the cost of following one's ethics, or a meditation on loss, or a consideration of risk-taking versus becoming conservative. There were some interesting paths this book could have been taken, but they were never explored.

Finally, even though I'm not sure this is a characteristic of all plotboilers, size might also be a factor. This novel could have told its story in probably half its size.

The Production of Houses

Christopher Alexander with Howard Davis, Julio Martinez, & Don Corner
New hardcover
4-5 April

After reading Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building, The Production of Houses contains few surprises. It's a report of the application of a pattern language to a low-cost housing project in Mexicali, Mexico. Everything was done from scratch; for example, the team of builders experimented with different materials and methods of construction. As a suitable set of materials and processes were accepted, work began on designing and building houses for five families.

One of the first decisions was a choice of patterns for the design of the common area and the individual dwellings. The families were involved from the beginning to the end, from laying out lots to making design decisions and construction. In the end, all five families were very happy with the houses that they helped to design and build. They were also proud of the fact that they hadn't built just five isolated houses; they'd created a living place, where the location and layout of the houses created common areas that were shared by all. By using good design principles, and participating, they'd created a community to be proud of.

The book is not solely a report of progress. Like Alexander's previous books, it makes a forceful case for designing with more goals than just economy. Joy is a goal, too. How is it possible for a family to find joy in a place designed by an architect who had never even met them, much less understood their needs and desires? Even though the houses in Mexicali were inexpensive ($3,500 in 1976 dollars), all the families in them had a pride that is absent in this land, where few houses have more individuality of design than dishwashers.

One of the most fascinating observations is that what makes houses so expensive to produce isn't the cost of labor, nor the cost of materials. It's the cost of administration. When a house builder has to contend with numerous government agencies, hundreds of building codes, worker unions, and contractors, the only way to economize is to build the same house over and over. However, if freed from this administrative overhead, a home can be conceived in imagination, gestate quickly, and soon be born into reality -- for a lower price than a cookie-cutter house. Yet the freedom required is the antithesis of the current method of house production.

Alexander's vision is utopian. As such, to implement it requires a massive change in thinking. The Production of Houses describes some of the frustrations that arose from those who did not understand the nature of the project. (For example, a bank inspector, unfamiliar with one element of the design, caused needless fear by suggesting it was unsafe.) The book's final section, "The Shift of Paradigm", is its most important part. The other sections make good arguments, both economic and humane, for a new method of the production of houses. It is the last part, which deals with the problem of bringing this new method into the real world, which extends the previous books in this series. If only it were longer! Utopias are born painfully; would that we could learn ways to lessen the pain.

Year's Best SF

David G. Hartwell, editor
Used paperback
16-19 April

David G. Hartwell serves up 14 stories and novels that are his choices for the best SF of 1995. Almost half of the stories were already familiar; they either came from the anthology Full Spectrum 5 or from Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction for that year. Of the new-to-me works, Robert Silverberg's "Hot Times in Magma City" was the most interesting, combining recovery from addiction with the vivid imagery of people fighting an outbreak of volcanic activity in eastern Los Angeles. The familiar stories included James Patrick Kelly's unforgettable "Think Like a Dinosaur" (which should make every critic's best-of-the-decade list), and Gene Wolfe's novella "The Ziggurat". The latter makes an interesting contrast to Robert J. Sawyer's Factoring Humanity; whereas Sawyer failed to blend cosmic and personal crises, Wolfe has the skill to present a believable portrait of a marriage in distress, and to mix it with a SF idea in a way that didn't have me laughing in disbelief.

All in all, a decent anthology with one dud (Joan Slonczewski's "Microbes", a prequel to her awful The Children Star), one classic, and a handful of strong stories.

Year's Best SF 2

David G. Hartwell, editor
Used paperback
20-22 April

This is a disappointing entry in Hartwell's series of yearly SF anthologies. The most memorable stories are James Patrick Kelly's "Breakaway, Backdown", which brings us face to face with the hard reality of life in space, and Bruce Sterling's "Bicycle Repairman", a hip tale of the post-everything world. None of the stories were bad, but only a handful were first-rate, and none were must-reads.

The reason I call this a disappointing anthology is that 1995 wasn't a bad year for short science fiction. A quick look at Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, Fourteenth Annual Collection reveals quite a few first-rate stories: Michael Swanwick's chilling "The Dead", Jim Cowan's "The Spade of Reason", Nancy Kress' "The Flowers of Aulit Prison", and Steven Utley's stunning "The Wind Over the World". With riches like this, I was surprised at the lower quality of Hartwell's choices.

A Pattern Language

Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, & Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobsen, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, & Shlomo Angel
New hardcover
9 April-5 May

There are books, and there are good books. Then there are the books that take you on journeys: those special, rare books which, when you finish them, suddenly make you realize just how far you've come from the beginning. Georges Perec's playful yet surprisingly convoluted novel A Void has this prized quality. Few books achieve it. A Pattern Language is in that select group.

A Pattern Language: Towns · Buildings · Construction is the second half of Christopher Alexander's revolutionary book on architecture The Timeless Way of Building. In The Timeless Way, Alexander lays out a way of building that melds design and construction in one smooth process. Part of that process is the use of what he calls "patterns": flexible guidelines that describe a universal solution to a common problem. For example, the pattern Half-Hidden Garden provides a way to locate a garden on a site in such a way that it will be used, rather than neglected because it is too public or too isolated. A Pattern Language is a compendium of 253 related patterns that govern aspects of construction from the highest levels (the layout of cities) to the lowest (the size of window panes). As you read the patterns in order, their gradual transition of scope from countries down to the smallest housing details slowly immerses one in Alexander's philosophy. Three-quarters of the way through the book, I'd become so immersed in it that the earliest patterns seemed far away, as if the book were a beautiful landscape I'd been journeying through for so long that I'd forgotten my first sight of it.

Yet while the book appears to be a list of patterns, it is much more. The relations between the patterns create a hierarchy that extends the philosophy of The Timeless Way of Building from a window to an entire country. While many of the patterns are common sense, some of them are quite surprising and uncommon. There's a utopian vision barely submerged within this book. Whether you agree with it or not, after reading this book you will not be able to look at architecture the same way as before.

One pleasure of the book was that the patterns aren't presented ex cathedra. Many, particularly those for buildings and construction, cite specific studies as support. It's a welcome change from other architectural theories, which often involve handwaving.

Although I'm quite enthusiastic about this method, and heartily recommend Alexander's works to anyone interested in architecture (or object-oriented programming, or Web site design), I have a one major question and a few minor caveats about this work. The question concerns the patterns used to construct a building. After reading Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, I can't help but wonder whether the methods of construction put forward lend themselves to later modification. If a building isn't amenable to change, it won't last. To my uneducated eye, some of the construction patterns create buildings that appear to be tricky, if not impossible, to modify. It's entirely possible that this concern is completely off base; if so, please let me know.

A few caveats follow. One, there are a few editing errors that should have been fixed during one of its many reprintings (my copy, bought in 2001, is from the 30th printing!). Two, the book is hemisphere-centric; patterns such as South Facing Outdoors are fine in the northern hemisphere, but need to be reversed below the equator. Finally, the book was written in 1977, and most of the studies cited are dated from the 1940s to the early 1970s. It would be interesting to see how well the support has held up over the last twenty-four years.

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
7-8 May

The Man in the High Castle is ostensibly an alternate history of a world in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. Control of the USA was divided between the Japan, who have the West coast, and Germany, who have the East. The eastern Rockies is a semiautonomous region. Slavery has been reinstated in the South. Africa does not exist. German explorers have landed on Mars. All Jews have either gone underground or been killed.

The plot weaves together the stories of several people: a Japanese bureaucrat in San Francisco mediates an meeting between people who are not what they seem, two craftsmen strike out on their own to create a new business, an antique dealer learns a hard lesson about his profession, and a woman seeks the legendary author of a banned science fiction book that considers what the world would be like if the Allied powers had won the war.

The reason I call this ostensibly an alternate history is that all fiction is at root about our world. If this is true, then what does the correspondence between our world and this sometimes horrifying, sometimes prosaic fictional world imply? Are we all bound in an iron prison, waiting for some element of the true reality to break through and free the world? Do we live in a gnostic world?

The Man in the High Castle was the only novel of his to win a major award (the 1963 Hugo), and it came early in his writing career. Why? It is similar in theme to his final works, such as The Divine Invasion and Radio Free Albemuth. He's written better prose (for example, VALIS). What does this novel possess that his others do not? (Or was 1963 a weak year for Hugo nominees, which seemed to be the case?)

What favors this novel over his others is two characteristics. The first is simplicity. Rather than directly expound on the gnostic interpretation of the world, Dick shows it to us and lets us notice it. This allows him to focus more on action, and keeps the novel from slowing. Indeed, I was up several hours past my normal bed time last night finishing it.

The second quality -- and the one that will bring me back to this book in future -- is its hope. Even though the characters live in a prison of a world, hope for change shines through the chinks in the wall. Hope can come as an unforeseen side effect of political intrigues, or may be contained in something as a piece of jewelry. Yet hope suffuses the world, if one is willing to look for it.

There's more to this novel than I have discussed here. It's one of Dick's best; that should be reason enough to read it.

Concurrent Programming in Java, Second Edition

Doug Lea
New trade paperback
19 April-14 May

I'm not really sure why I read this, after having read the first edition less than three years ago. It was probably because I was working on adapting a Java program to use multiple threads.

This is a rather strange book. It doesn't take the cookbook approach to writing concurrent Java programs; there's little "if you want this, do this". Some of the fundamentals of Java's multithreading model aren't even mentioned until halfway through the book. Instead, Lea explores various concurrent programming techniques from a more theoretical standpoint, using Java to illustrate them. It's an odd emphasis. However, if you are interested in learning about concurrent programming, particularly in Java, this is a book to read. It's a subject with many subtleties, and Lea thoroughly covers them.


Shawn Wolfe
Library book
14 May

Reading design showcase books always makes me wonder why I bother. Opening Uncanny: The Art & Design of Shawn Wolfe revealed a page of text on the inner cover: white letters on a bold repeated design in green and chartreuse. "Uh-oh", I thought. "Unreadable text, a classic symptom of design for design's sake. This does not bode well."

I continued. There were some witty ideas, and some incomprehensible. There was a fair amount of retro-'70s design, which was cute when not taken too far. Wolfe's anti-brand work left me wondering if there's a single graphic designer out there who doesn't play on the fundamental lack of meaning in graphic design. The most effective image was a sketchbook drawing; it conveyed an emotion, rather than being pure design. Is that the difference between art and design: the power to convey emotion?

Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks
Used paperback
14-15 May

This is a book I was quite looking forward to, after having read at least one glowing review of Banks' works. After spending most of today reading it, though, I have to say that my reaction is mixed.

The plot is classic space opera. In the midst of an intragalactic war, a newly created artificial intelligence with surprising abilities and a hastily outfitted warp drive crashes on a closed planet. Our protagonist, one of the last of a genetically engineered race of shape-changers, is given the task of retrieving it for the opposing side. Through adventure and misadventure, he closes in on his target, while simultaneously keeping at arms length an enemy who is stalking him. Intrigue, adventure, aliens, A.I., war -- all the elements of space opera are present.

Now, I like well-written space opera (e.g., David Brin's Uplift trilogy). Consider Phlebas certainly has enough interesting elements to keep my interest. The factions at war, the Idirans and the Culture, are complex; neither has entered into conflict for simple reasons such as territorial expansion or xenophobia. The treatment of artificial intelligences, and their status in the Culture, is thoughtful. Some of the settings are mind-boggling.

However, the pacing of this book is uneven. It opens with a bang, but then gets lost in a few irrelevant byways that do little more than showcase some rather uninteresting backwaters. About halfway through, the book once again finds its way, and the action starts to build, reaching a crescendo in the last chapters.

Also frustrating is Banks' shifts in style. In some parts, we're treated to the rich story of the Culture/Idir conflict, with its lack of moral absolutes and Banks' observations on the effect of war on its participants. In other chapters, the focus is nothing but action and tactical hugger-mugger, to the point where it seemed like a novelization of a film. The deus ex machina is hauled onstage more than once, but Mr. Banks also isn't afraid to let a character die. The alternation between these extremes set my head spinning, and put me off to some degree.

To be specific, one thing that I definitely did not like about Consider Phlebas was the chapter "The Eaters". It was completely unnecessary, and did not advance the story in any way. Its inclusion was reminiscent of the ranch horror scene which ruined Dan Simmon's The Hollow Man, and also of the two stunningly gratuitous fantasy sequences in Piers Anthony's Bearing an Hourglass. The difference is that Banks writes much better than Anthony. Hence, finding a chapter like "The Eaters" in the midst of an intelligent novel was particularly painful.

Mr. Banks has created something unusual: a conflict in which neither side is morally superior to the other. This should provide him with many opportunities to tell complex and intelligent stories. I hope his other tales of the Culture live up to that promise. I'll probably seek out another, but if his stylistic inconsistency doesn't improve, it might be the last one.

Fixer Chao

Han Ong
Library book
16-18 May

After reading a review labeling this book a satire, I was surprised to find that the reviewer missed the mark. Granted, the book has a set-up that any classic farce requires: a person infiltrates the upper class, putting him in a position to wreak havoc on the people who would in other circumstances dismiss him without a nod. Add to this the fact that he's pretending to be a master of feng shui, out to subtly skew the contents of his victims' homes in order to bring misfortune, and you should have the elements of a rollicking satire à la Christopher Buckley's romp Thank You for Smoking. Yet that's not what this novel delivers. What Han Ong depicts is, underneath, a sadder view of life. With a few exceptions, his characters, though believable, are hollow at their core. Almost everyone seems to be treading water, consciously or unconsciously waiting for the wave that will sweep over their heads, pushing them under.

Reading Fixer Chao was rather a sad experience. This says more about me than the book, but I kept waiting for any of the characters to do something constructive, something selfless, something good. I waited for a ray of hope to pierce the clouds. And that moment did come, but in the end it didn't matter. For all its witticisms and keen observations about the life of immigrants, what I'll remember about this book is that the one truly good thing that happened in it made so little difference.

Oulipo Compendium

Harry Matthews & Alastair Brotchie, eds.
New trade paperback
18-24 May

The Oulipo is a group of people, primarily French writers, who for the past forty years have explored the use of constraints in writing. Two examples of constraints are the lipogram and the technique N + 7. A lipogram is writing omitting a particular consonant or non-consonant. (The previous sentence, for example, is a lipogram in 'e'.) N + 7 is a procedure in which every noun in a text is replaced by the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. These and dozens of other constraints have been invented and investigated by the Oulipo. The name Oulipo is a shortening of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or "Workshop for Potential Literature".

The Oulipo Compendium is a collection of the Oulipo's methods, discoveries, meetings, writings, members, and other information. It is organized alphabetically, with each section full of stimulating and frustrating entries. Numerous short works are included. It's a treasure-trove for anyone who enjoys playing with language.

The question that invariably arises on reading a survey such as this is "how well has this group realized its goals?". For the Oulipo, the answer is definitely mixed. A number of the examples given border perilously on complete nonsense (e.g., Ian Monk's "A Threnodialist's Dozen"). Yet among these are a few dazzling examples: Richard Curtis' "The Skinhead Hamlet" is a wonderful example of translexical translation, and Dallas Wiebe's left-handed lipogram (only the left side of the keyboard is used) "Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe" begs to be read aloud -- it is verbal jazz. And let us not forget the work of the Oulipian master Georges Perec, whose wonderful novel A Void proved once and for all that the Oulipo's program is not in vain.

As a bonus, the book also includes sections on similar projects in other fields, the Ou-x-po. There's the Oulipopo, concerning detective fiction; the Oupeinpo, dealing with painting; and several others, dealing with music, comic strips, history, and cooking. I was almost surprised to not find a mention of what would seem to be a natural fit, the Ouviepo: the Workshop for Potential Living. Perhaps it's time to create it.

There is much more in this book; this review has merely scratched the surface.

Errata: Bhaskara's riddle of the bees on p. 261 is incorrectly stated. It should begin "the square root of half of a swarm of bees". The misstated problem has no integer solution.

Only Forward

Michael Marshall Smith
New paperback
25-26 May

Stark is a fixer. What he does is rather hard to define; suffice it to say that he has a unique talent for resolving situations. Yet even though he can cope with psychopathic gang lords, explosive appointment bracelets, and malfunctioning gravity generators, Stark is about to plunge into a situation that will stretch even his capabilities.

Like Stark, Only Forward is hard to describe. Though it's billed as a genre SF novel, it's not. As Stark would say, there's more than there appears to be. Frankly, the genre doesn't matter much when a story is written well, and this is. Adventure, interesting throwaway ideas, and much more. Not necessarily everyone's cup of tea, but one must first taste it to know, eh? And the taste is good.

Trust Us, We're Experts!

Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber
New hardcover
26-29 May

Like their first collaboration, Toxic Sludge is Good for You!, this book is an exposé of industry-funded manipulation of media, government, and public opinion. The focus this time is how science is often abused by experts-for-hire (scientists with ties to industries linked with subjects they are researching, supposedly objectively). Industries covered include global warming, pesticides, genetically engineered foods, and of course tobacco.

If you're cynical, not much in Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future will surprise you. Among the facts that stand out is a demonstration of exactly how the names of Nobel prize-winning scientists ended up on several documents championed by industry (p. 276-8); how the PR industry enthusiastically supported one of its own when she was pro-industry, but reviled her when not (p. 244-7); and how a research biologist was silenced by his superior when he revealed research that raised questions about the safety of genetically engineered food (p. 152-60). Follow the funding; it leads to industry.

I have to say that reading this corrected one misapprehension of my own. I had always thought the term "junk science" -- an oxymoron; if it's not science, it doesn't deserve the name -- which has been bandied about so much recently applies to slanted articles prepared to justify an industry's position. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that it's a term invented by industry, applied to research that challenges industrial interests!

Even if you don't have time to read the entire book, read the final chapter by itself. It's a short primer on how to detect biased research, ghostwritten op-ed essays, and lies in general. (For example, in writing this review, I ran across an organization that was created by "a group of concerned Americans" -- which Trust Us, We're Experts! points out are code words for "we don't want you to know who".) This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

While reading the book, it is important to keep in mind that the authors have an agenda. For example, I noted that while the verbs "to state" and "to say" are used often, only the bad guys "complain". It's a subtle linguistic bias, and should have been avoided. More important, although the authors acknowledge the fact that lawyers act out of self-interest in pursuing class action suits against industry, they underplay this fact. While they might have less motivation to commission slanted research, the possibility shouldn't be swept under the rug in the zeal to brand their opponents.

Pedro and Me

Judd Winick
Borrowed trade paperback
29 May

This graphic novel tells of the friendship that developed between two people during the taping of the MTV program The Real World. One was an aspiring cartoonist from New York, the other an HIV-positive AIDS educator who had immigrated from Cuba as a child. The book recounts their meeting, the development of the friendship, and the pain of Pedro's death. But tragedy isn't the focus; the book also shows the impact that Pedro Zamora had on the world.

The art wasn't my cup of tea, but the writing was good enough to make me cry -- during both my initial reading, and a quick re-read in preparation for this review. Winick's doing something right.


Bruce Sterling
Used paperback
11-13 June

This is a collection of Sterling's short stories, circa 1985-1991. The stories range from hard SF ("Our Neural Chernobyl") to varieties of alternate history (playful: "Storming the Cosmos"; wistful: "Dori Bangs"). Most tales focus on characters who are trying to get along in a world where the advent of decentralized technology has ushered in a future where national borders are often little more than annoyances (prefiguring his later novels such as Holy Fire). It was a pleasure to read two stories featuring Leggy Starlitz, who later assumed the central role in Sterling's recent novel Zeitgeist.

Not hard SF, certainly; there are elements of magical realism here. However, don't let that scare you; this is definitely worth reading.

Year's Best SF 6

David G. Hartwell, editor
New paperback
15-17 June

This was a minor disappointment. There's no bad work here, but nothing stands out. It seems to have been a year in which the Oort Cloud and bacterial intelligence, and sometimes both, were on the minds of several SF authors.

Like almost every big SF anthology these days, there are stories in which real historical figures (Alan Turing, Pablo Picasso, et cetera) play major roles. Normally I dislike this subgenre of storytelling; using famous people as characters is usually a way for an author to avoid characterization. It also has the potential for failure; what if the reader is unfamiliar with the character's history? All in all, it's a cheat. But what am I to do when two excellent authors (Greg Egan & Robert Silverberg) use this technique? It makes one wonder where SF is headed.

Possible erratum: the editor's introduction to Brian Aldiss' story "Steppenpferd" refers to the work Steppenwolf, citing Thomas Mann as its author. I have been unable to find this work in any Mann bibliography, and suspect the editor meant Herman Hesse, author of a famous novel with that title.

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, vol. 1

Philip K. Dick
Used trade paperback
17-20 June

This is the first of five books collecting all of Dick's stories, including his previously published commentary on selected ones. This volume reprints his earliest stories, from 1947-1954. The stories themselves are clearly early work; there's a fair amount of bafflegab and plainly incorrect science (e.g., "The Variable Man"). Compared to his later work, time travel and fantasy figure more prominently. Standard Dick themes do appear (predestination, paranoia, sentient objects), but they're in a more classical SF treatment. The most memorable story was his first published, "Roog", concerning a paranoid dog. I definitely prefer his novels, but this wasn't bad.

The Night Listener

Armistead Maupin
Library book
20 June

It seems foolish to check a book out from the library only to return it four hours later, but that's what I did. The ridiculousness of this act is compounded by the fact that the book never made it off the library grounds. But this can happen when one sits down to read a mere chapter or two and finishes the novel not long after.

The Night Listener is the tale of a writer undergoing several crises: his lover has moved out, his relation with his father is strained, and he hasn't been able to write. Into this unpleasant stew falls a galley copy of a book. Against his initial judgment, the writer begins to read it, and finds himself mesmerized by the autobiographical tale of a horrifically abused thirteen year old boy. He contacts the young author and his adopted mother by telephone, and quickly falls into a long-distance friendship. However, questions arise about the manuscript, and the writer soon begins to wonder just what the truth of the situation is.

In this world where so many friendships are being struck up over the Internet, it's good to see confirmation of my rule of thumb "Until you meet in person, a friendship isn't real.". This book is about more than that, though; it discusses family ties and love. I was particularly pleased by the deft ending. It's not a classic, but it's a good book for a summer afternoon.

I was amused by the references to Pedro Zamora, Judd Winick, and Pam Ling. If it weren't for a friend shoving a book at me recently, I'd have had no idea who they were.

Lest Darkness Fall

L. Sprague de Camp
Used paperback
27 June

Martin Padway, archaeologist, is inexplicably thrust back in time to 6th century Rome. Facing barbarians without and rot within, the Roman Empire is on the verge of collapse. What's a modern scholar to do? Why, save the Western world from falling into darkness, of course.

The result is a lighthearted fantasy. Martin's inventions not only earn him a living, but gradually lead him to a position of power. Along the way, de Camp maintains the humorous tone that worked well in The Compleat Enchanter. The ethical questions that arise in similar tales of prematurely introduced technology (Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust, for example) aren't considered; it's just an amusing, if short, tale.

The Man Who Was Thursday

G.K. Chesterton
New trade paperback
27-28 June

I was a bit disappointed by The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. After reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill, my expectations were probably unrealistic; how many authors can pull two great novels out of a hat? I suspect Napoleon was Chesterton's apex.

The plot follows the poet Gabriel Syme, who unintentionally falls into a small group of bomb-throwing anarchists who plot the overthrow of all governments. Complications ensue, with Syme attempting to stop an assassination. Yet in a world where secrecy is everything, friend and foe are much harder to discern than one might expect!

In tone the novel is a light-hearted farce, although Chesterton drops some pronouncements into the narrative. He touches on such themes as honor, similarly to Napoleon; unlike that book, however, it really doesn't mean that much in the end. That's the reason this book is disappointing: by subtitling it "A Nightmare", he robbed it of its meaning. Also, its predictability makes it less than satisfying as a comic romp.


Connie Willis
Library book
30 June-1 July

Dr. Joanna Lander is a research psychologist whose field of study is near death experiences. By interviewing people who have recently had them, she hopes to understand what they are and why they exist at all. Of course, her work isn't without problems: hospital bureaucracy, her pager going off at the wrong time, garrulous and taciturn patients, and Mr. Mandrake, author of mystic after-death books, whose donations to the hospital have ensured his freedom to interview Joanna's patients -- and ruin their usefulness to her. Into this mix drop a young cardiac patient who is fascinated by disasters, and a neurologist who has not only come up with a way of simulating near death experiences, but of recording their effect on the brain.

The result is...okay. The plot leaps in surprising directions, but (and I really hate to say this, since I like her work) the novel is hampered by the fact that Ms. Willis wrote it. After reading her screwball comedies To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether, the characters and pacing were too familiar. I did enjoy the novel, but its combination of serious subject and almost-farce atmosphere wasn't a stable mixture, threatening to implode at any minute. Also, its depiction of science happening in a bureaucratic vacuum just didn't ring true. (Read Gregory Benford to see what it's really like in the trenches.)

On the other hand, I give the author credit for writing about a subject that many people are strongly opinionated about. Our beliefs about near death experiences reflect our beliefs about the nature of the world, and many, perhaps most, people become defensive when those beliefs are challenged. Ms. Willis is willing to do so. Bully for her.

In sum, I'd say the book came as close to succeeding as it probably could have. Writing about what happens after death is a no-win game, but this does pretty well. I wasn't completely happy with the ending, but then, that just shows my bias, doesn't it?


D.G. Compton
Used paperback
28 June-3 July

If it were possible to record and replay a mental experience, what would the implications be? Would it be used for research, education, entertainment, or a mix of all three? What would happen to crime and punishment if we could replay the feeling of guilt in someone accused of a crime?

These are the moral questions D.G. Compton raises in his short novel Synthajoy. The story is told in flashback from the point of view of the wife of inventor of the record/replay technique. She is confined to a mental hospital, charged with his murder. As she undergoes daily playbacks of the "recrimination" experience, we learn the story behind her arrest.

There's no real action here. Instead, the author has created a tale that is disturbing because of the questions it raises about a technology that would certainly be a mixed blessing. The touch of Kafka underlying the treatment sessions suits the subject.

And Chaos Died

Joanna Russ
Used paperback
3-4 July

Hmm. The blurbs on the back cover describe this as an exploration of what paranormal powers would feel like for a person with these abilities. If the author's intent was to portray a fundamentally different state of morality in which cause, effect, and motivation no longer have meaning, she succeeded. If you're looking for story, don't expect much. After a somewhat coherent beginning, it quickly breaks down. What narrative there is has to be gleaned from the text. It's akin to Aldiss' Barefoot in the Head in that respect, but doesn't have that novel's wordplay to keep the reader's interest.

I was also rather put out by the main character's initial assertion of his homosexuality, followed by his repeated copulation with a woman. What's going on here? Is the character gay, or is he bisexual? The entire matter is left hanging, which might be Russ' way of saying that sexuality transcends labels. On the other hand, making a character self-admittedly gay and then abruptly dropping that aspect of his character was both distracting and disappointing. If the man identifies himself as gay, then attraction to a woman would probably engender some soul-searching. There's none here, and it rings false.

This goes into the "historic interest only" pile.

A New Theory of Urban Design

Christopher Alexander, Hajo Neis, Artemis Anninou, & Ingrid King
New hardcover
5-7 July

In this, the sixth volume of Christopher Alexander's series of books on architecture that began with The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, he and his co-authors present the results of an experiment in urban design. Alexander's students were given a free hand with a section of San Francisco's waterline that was slated for development, and followed a set of rules derived from his pattern language to create an urban neighborhood. It was entirely a mental exercise; no actual buildings were built.

The experiment was a qualified success. By its end, the students really understood the spirit of the rules they were working within, and worked together with little supervision. However, the individual projects were heterogeneous enough to give the neighborhood a hodgepodge feel. One of the major conclusions that can be drawn was that a neighborhood can only come to life (in Alexander's sense) if it's being created by a group of people who (a) can generate and use a pattern language intuitively, and (b) are given a freer hand than urban planners have in reality. In a land where zoning codes matter more than whether a town square is elegant and beautiful, this free hand will be difficult to obtain. One must struggle to achieve Utopia.

This book left me with two questions. First, if Alexander's pattern languages are as universal and can produce such great cities as he believes, why are only a few specific places (e.g., the Piazza San Marco in Venice) cited repeatedly? Is it because we these sites are widely known, thus requiring no explanation, or because pattern languages, even when followed, don't always produce great results? Could it be that a pattern language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of beautiful places? The answer is unclear. However, it's a question that begs further study.

The second question has to do with the conditions under which pattern languages are used. The books in this series almost invariably cite works that were completed before the twentieth century. Wouldn't it be enlightening to make a study of the conditions under which pattern languages were used? Perhaps the best hope for restoring the use of pattern languages would be to recreate the conditions under which they flourished. Alexander's work isn't concerned with this historical approach. Has anyone researched this question?

The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Used paperback
8-21 July

Since a huge novel like this could engender any number of scholarly papers, it seems best to forego that kind of speculation here and focus instead on a simple review. The novel is concerned with deep issues (the ethical consequences of atheism and relativism, theodicy, et cetera). However, these concerns are wrapped in a tale which I did not find particularly compelling. This is due to my lack of identification with any of the major characters. None of them ever simply lived. For them, life was a constant series of instantaneous shifts between new heights of enthusiasm and new depths of despair. Almost nobody in this book says things; everything is muttered or screamed. Personal sacrifice seems to be everyone's desire. After a few hundred pages it became clear where stereotyped notions of the "Russian character" came from. Writing a Dostoevsky pastiche would be a trivial exercise.

As for the metaphysics, portions of it come across as dated. Arguments about ethics in the absence of God might have been new and important in 1880, but the non-existence of God hasn't been a shocking concept for a long time. Other parts fare better, particularly the consideration of compassion. But if you're reading the novel just for those arguments, a study guide or scholarly analysis might prove more fruitful than the novel itself.

One of the things I'll remember about this book was that its plot evolved as I expected, but not as I hoped. I really can't say much more without giving the plot away, but I can say this: I'd hoped for a more central role for Alexei. That could have made for a much more interesting novel.


K.W. Jeter
Library book
22-26 July

McNihil doesn't live in the same reality that we do. He has corneal implants linked to an implanted computer that translates the world around him into something out of film noir. It's a world of night and rain, where the sun never shines. Add to that a dead wife, a personal history of failure, and a corporation breathing down his neck to convince to undertake a dangerous job, and the setting is complete. This is Noir.

The result is uniquely Jeter. His use of language has evolved since his early classics Dr. Adder and The Glass Hammer, but his plotting still bruises. There are in-jokes so subtle that I'm surprised I caught them; a scene so gruesome it was hard to read; a rant on an unexpected subject; the animate dead, working off debt incurred during life; and a treatment of flesh reminiscent of Cronenberg. Interesting all around.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe
Library book
29 July-8 August

Written in a dry style, Defoe's account of the plague's descent on London in 1665 could easily be mistaken for an eyewitness account, although Defoe was only four at the time. It is instead a fictional account, though grounded firmly in fact. (There were more than enough statistics for me.) I found the book rather slow going, as it belonged to the tradition of fictional historical narrative that concerns itself little with character and dramatic conflict. (A more contemporary example is H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds.)

Despite its aridity, there were gems scattered among its sand. Consider the following observation, immediately following Defoe's recounting of a lurid tale:

But these stories had two marks of suspicion that always attended them, which caused me always to slight them and to look on them as mere stories that people continually frighted one another with. First, that wherever it was that we heard it, they always placed the scene at the farther end of the town, opposite or most remote from where you were to hear it. If you heard it in Whitechappel, it had happened at St Giles's, or at Westminster, or Holborn, or that end of the town. If you heard of it at that end of the town, then it was done in Whitechappel, or the Minories, or about Cripplegate parish. If you heard of it in the city, why, then it happened in Southwark; and if you heard of it in Southwark, then it was done in the city, and the like.

In the next place, of what part soever you heard the story, the particulars were always the same, especially that of laying a wet double clout on a dying man's face, and that of smothering a young gentlewoman; so that it was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things.

He's identified two of the basic criteria for what have come to be known as urban legends -- centuries before the term was invented. Such keen insights are scattered throughout the book. Worth reading.

One a side note, this book taught me something completely different: reading a book on a computer screen isn't enjoyable or practical. I'd tried reading an online version a few years ago, and didn't finish it. Having the book on paper made a difference.

If you can find it, I recommend the Everyman edition. It contains interesting additions: contemporary reviews of the book, excerpts from others' accounts of the plague's descent on London in 1665, and notes on archaic words. There's even a two-page summary of the work, although it won't help the busy student much since the best of the book is its observations, not its narrative.

The Chronoliths

Robert Charles Wilson
Library book
8-11 August

What distinguishes this novel from a plotboiler? That's a question that isn't easy to answer. There's a maguffin (the instantaneous appearances of towering, indestructible monoliths, commemorating battles twenty years in the future) to be explained, one perfect for a plotboiler. Perhaps the reason this book doesn't fall into that niche is that Wilson is more concerned with the characters than with the unraveling of the Chronoliths' appearance. It was a wise choice, and kept me turning pages and reading whenever I got the chance. Not a great novel, and not as good as The Perseids and Other Stories, but certainly a solid effort.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighteenth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
1-17 August

This year's collection starts well with John Kessel's "The Juniper Tree", a tale that shows how living in an alien society can reveal things you wish you'd never known about where you come from. The next story, Charles Stross' "Antibodies", grabbed my attention within the first few paragraphs and didn't let go, slamming into an involving hard science tale that was right in a way that's hard to explain. From there, the anthology wandered over a lot of ground, with an anthropological tale from Le Guin, an out-and-out fantasy by Michael Swanwick (what was that doing in this book?), and several tales of murder. The book closed on a strong note with Ian McDonald's novella "Tendeléo's Story", set in his fictional world in which an alien biosphere called the Chaga is consuming Africa and the other southern continents.

Two themes stand out in these stories. One is humanity's encounter with the fringes of alien life, rather than the classic man-meets-humanoid-alien motif of the twentieth century. Now we only see the edge of alienness, rather than confronting the alien and finding that, to paraphrase Pogo, he is us. McDonald's tale is a very good example; the Chaga is alien, but there's no single intelligent being that represents it. It is rather an engulfing wave, changing all it touches. Steven Baxter and Paul J. McAuley present this theme in other contexts. (A subtheme is alien societies sending representatives to save what they can of our world. This theme figures in more than one story.)

Another theme that encompassed several stories was that of dark futures dangerously close to our own. Brian Stableford's "Snowball in Hell" demonstrates chaos unlocked by just a little more knowledge than we already have. Susan Palwick's "Going After Bobo" is a coming of age story set in a disturbingly imminent tomorrow. The everyday tone of Palwick's story makes it the collection's oddball stylistically, but her tale of a boy on the edge of manhood chafing against society's restrictions is memorable precisely for its understatedness.

All in all it was a good year for short SF. There was no single incandescent story in the collection, but I'll be keeping my eye on Charles Stross.

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
New paperback
18-19 August

Why didn't someone give me a copy of this two decades ago? My writing would be better today had that happened.

The Elements of Style is a small book, just over 100 pages. It can be read in a few hours. It's rather expensive ($6.95 as of this writing), yet is worth every penny; word for word, you won't find a better short guide to grammar and phrasing in English. The examples are clear, the rules are pithy, and the writing is concise. White's chapter "An Approach to Style" exemplifies the book's goal: to increase reader's pleasure through the encouragement of good habits among writers. This is one of those rare books that encourage the creation of joy.

The Elements of Style deserves a place on every writer's desk.


Astro Teller
Library book
24 August

I'm a sucker for books in which software becomes conscious. It's a thankless micro-genre, though; writing a convincing account of such a breakthrough is a tough job. Robert J. Sawyer's Factoring Humanity and David Gerrold's When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One are among the majority of novels that don't convince; Greg Bear's Queen of Angels is one of the few that did. Exegesis did not.

The tale is presented as email between an overachieving bot and a graduate student who wrote most of its code. This approach to storytelling has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it reads very quickly (I read the book in a bit more than an hour). A disadvantage is that reading page after page of sophomoric ontology -- the creation of which seems to be a phase that every 'net citizen passes through, human or not -- just isn't that interesting. The human character wasn't appealing, either; she's alternately high-strung and pathetic. The bind in which she found herself had potential, but the character collapsed under it. Not even Alice in Wonderland references can save this one.

The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus
Used paperback
17-25 August

Reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year reminded me of Camus' The Plague, which I've read twice. That led to a renewed interest in Camus' philosophy, so I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus. This little collection of essays starts with a dynamite sentence: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.". In an absurd universe, one without morality, purpose, or deities, what makes life worth living? It's a fascinating question.

Alas, the book was not fascinating. Its coherent opening soon gave way to aphoristic handwaving, supported by references to other existential philosophers and classic literature. This might have been enlightening if I were familiar with those authors and works, but that was not the case. I finished the major essay knowing very little more about Camus' philosophy than when I began.

The shorter essays at the book's end are more interesting. They are for the most part memories of Camus' stays in Algiers and Oran. Paradoxically, they make me want to see these places, despite the description of Oran as a place "where the very ugliness is anonymous". Stick to describing the concrete, Mr. C; your philosophical prose is already leaden enough.

For those who are wondering: the cover image of the Vintage paperback edition is a cropped version of René Magritte's La Clef de Verre (The Glass Key). The painting is not credited.

The Star Fraction

Ken MacLeod
New hardcover
26-28 August

Intelligent, fast-paced, amusing, well-written, political, exciting, knowing, informed; all of these adjectives describe The Star Fraction. It's the first book of MacLeod's "Fall Revolution" tetralogy, the others being The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road. All are recommended; I'm giving a star to the tetralogy as a whole. If you're smart, you'll buy the books in hardcover while they're still available. MacLeod is the best author to appear on the SF scene since Egan, and one of the select few whose works sparkle.

I could write about the novel's plot, setting, characters, and writing, but the effort would be redundant. If you trust my reviews, stop reading this page now and go buy his works. They are that good.

The Martians

Kim Stanley Robinson
Library book
24 August-1 September

Note to self: never read jacket blurbs. This jacket of The Martians terms it a "masterpiece" and an "epic chronicle". Hogwash. They apply to Robinson's Mars trilogy, but not to this book. This book is the tailings of that trilogy: short stories, a novella, two-page ruminations, poems, even the Martian constitution. It's not epic, but moments of it are quite good. Anyone who appreciated the Mars trilogy would enjoy The Martians. It's also worthwhile for those who haven't read the proceeding works, although certain parts would leave one scratching one's head.

As a writer, Robinson's concern is with deep themes: conservation versus progress, memory, and ultimately the meaning of life. Unlike Ken MacLeod's characters, almost all of Robinson's often indulge in thinking about the Big Issues. Both Robinson and MacLeod are darn good writers, but Robinson's messages are much closer to the surface. He uses this to best effect in the novella "Green Mars" and in "A Martian Romance", set in an alternate future Mars in which the terraforming efforts are failing. It's a poignant piece, but is not without hope.

Read the Mars Trilogy first, but make sure to save a few days for The Martians afterward.

Ship of Fools

Richard Paul Russo
Library book
2-4 September

As modern science fiction goes, Ship of Fools is an oddity. The setting at least is straight out of classic SF: a spaceship that has been traveling the galaxy for so long that its last contact with human civilization is a dim memory. The crew has divided into upper and lower classes, with the upper class comprised by the executive crew and Church officials. The early history of the ship has been lost, and the power-hungry bishop preaches that the ship has always existed.

The plot, however, doesn't address standard SF concerns. The ship investigates a colonized planet whose inhabitants have been gruesomely killed. This leads to the discovery of a giant alien starship. Though seemingly deserted, crew members exploring it die or go mad. A typical SF story would answer the questions of whether the ship is connected to the genocide, where the aliens are, how a seemingly deserted ship is causing the accidents, etc. Instead, Ship of Fools is concerned with the politics of the ruling class, and what part faith plays in life. When two of the main characters seriously discuss theodicy, you know the author has a point to make.

More than anything else, this book reads as a parable. Keep that in mind if you plan to read it; if you expect a plotboiler, you'll be disappointed. If medieval political maneuvering wrapped in a SF exterior sounds interesting, give this a try.

The Collapsium

Wil McCarthy
Library book
5-7 September

The "collapsium" of the title is a stable, manipulable state of collapsed matter. It's not common for SF novels to be named after its technological maguffin, but in this case it's appropriate. The characters aren't particularly interesting or well-defined, and the plot seems to exist to demonstrate all of things that can be done with this wondrous material. Now, if collapsium were a metaphor for something else in the novel, that might be interesting; but McCarthy seems determined to keep the stuff center stage by refusing to add any thematic depth. There's nothing here aside from a tour of wonky physics. Sorry, I want more in a book.

Terraforming Earth

Jack Williamson
Library book
7-10 September

The premise: mere hours before an asteroid impacts Earth, seven people escape to refuge on the moon. The computer-run base, established years in advance, contains the biological samples needed to resettle the Earth. Over the ages, as the Earth heals, the seven are cloned again and again to guide its restoration.

This premise could be taken in many directions: the dynamics of the group could be explored, the nature of identity could be considered, or the focus could lie on the terraforming process. The novel could have been about a small group of people forging a new life for themselves on the moon, ignoring Earth completely. Or the pseudo-immortality offered by cloning could have been the basis for a Stapledon-like panoramic survey of the future evolution of Earth's biosphere. The options are myriad.

Williamson does none of these. His book is surprisingly unimaginative. The moon base's computers are nothing more than willing servitors, and never change over millennia. Permanent colonization of the moon is never considered, much less attempted. None of the clones ever rebels from their imposed destiny, or even questions it. Terraforming is limited to dropping biological packages onto the surface and occasionally checking their progress. Yes, some complications ensue, but they're not surprising in any way. In the meantime, important plot elements are completely ignored.

Though Williamson may be an acknowledged SF Grand Master, I'd venture to say that this book was published on the strength of his reputation alone. The impression I receive is that Williamson missed every bit of progress in the SF field since, oh, sometime before the New Wave began. With the exception of nanomachines, there's nothing in Terraforming Earth -- technology, technique, or theme -- that you couldn't find in a mediocre 1960s SF book. Compare this to Hal Clement's welcome change of pace Half Life, which showed that old guard SF authors can not only be interesting, but can contribute to the forefront of their field.

As I read Terraforming Earth, I kept thinking of how some of its elements have been done better recently (Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Brian Stableford's novella "Mortimer Gray's History of Death", Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns). When there are so many fine works available, why should anyone bother with novels such as Terraforming Earth?

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, vol. 3

Philip K. Dick
Used trade paperback
10-12 September

The twenty-four stories in this collection were written in a twenty-one month period between 1952 and 1954. During this time, Dick's storytelling abilities matured. Some of the stories still resemble Twilight Zone scripts ("The Hanging Stranger", "Exhibit Piece"), but others have more subtlety. "Tony and the Beetles", for example, is a memorable tale of war and enemy occupation, told from a child's point of view.

Any Dick reader is aware that he recycled material as aggressively as Laurie Anderson. The stories here are chock-a-block with the usual PKD settings and ideas: post-holocaust society, intelligent and deadly machines, secret alien invasions, psionic mutants, et cetera. What is particularly notable in this volume is that a number of the stories contain ideas that would play a role in later novels. In one particular case, a character was lifted so blatantly that the only thing he changed in a sentence describing her was her age.

Dick was not above skewering sacred cows. "The Turning Wheel" features a religion that is a blend of Buddhism and Dianetics, founded by one "Elron Hu". (Its characters say "clearness" as an obscenity. Ha!) "Null-O" is a gross and humorous exaggeration of van Vogt's Null-A books, but makes a serious point. On a totally serious note, Dick set himself in direct opposition to John W. Campbell's editorial dictums with "The Golden Man", in a which a mutant is the next step in human evolution -- but not down any road we want to take.

Interestingly, the stories in this collection are presented in the date they were written except for the last, "Second Variety". Chronologically, it precedes the others by several months. I guess the anthologist couldn't resist the impulse to save the best story for last.

One question: does any Philip K. Dick work have a female main character? I can't think of one.


William Gibson
Library book
13-14 September

I read Gibson's Virtual Light five years ago, and it made very little impression. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about Idoru, but gave it a try due to a lack of other reading material. It was a pleasant surprise. The chapters alternate between two fast-paced narratives, both concerning pop star Rez's stated desire to marry Rei Toei, a technological construct known as the Idoru.

Gibson pulls off a neat trick in Idoru. One of his characters has the ability to surf vast amounts of data and identify subtle patterns in the data that are invisible to others. Gibson parallels this property in his writing; reading Idoru, one gets the feeling that there's much more going on under the surface than is explicitly shown.

Now it's on to the conclusion of the trilogy, All Tomorrow's Parties.

All Tomorrow's Parties

William Gibson
Library book
14-15 September

Gibson's track record remains uneven. I thought he'd pulled himself back together with Idoru, but All Tomorrow's Parties leaves about as much impression as Virtual Light: extremely little. The trilogy wraps up, the big nodal point is met, we meet a lot of characters from the first two books, and it's all predictable. If you haven't read the first two books then don't start here, as there's little to make you care about the characters, or about the fact that the world (as they know it) is about to end. If you're absolutely desperate to find out how Gibson continued the story of the idoru, go ahead. But the trick Gibson managed so well in the last book -- implying, rather than showing -- is nowhere to be found here.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick
19 September

There is an asymmetry in Philip K. Dick's cosmology. In his novels, humanity occupies a middle kingdom between grace and despair (a.k.a. the Tomb World). While it's not uncommon for his characters to sink downward, elevation above the mundane is rare. It is more common for the divine to manifest in the quotidian world than for a character to perceive the level of the divine.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch exhibits just such a divine intervention. The plot concerns the return of Palmer Eldritch from his decade-long journey to a neighboring star. He brings with him a substance called Chew-Z, which competes directly with the popular illegal drug Can-D. The Martian colonists -- most involuntary conscripts -- take Can-D to recapture a semblance of their former lives on Earth. This involves a ritual centering on the ubiquitous and extravagantly accessorized Perky Pat doll. By taking Can-D, a group of colonists can project themselves into the doll, creating a shared experience of living Pat's life as if she were real. It's their one escape from a hell of boredom and despair.

Into this comes Eldritch, bringing the legal and effective Chew-Z. However, Leo Bulero, the artificially evolved head of Perky Pat Layouts (and unofficial supplier of Can-D), and his precognitive second-in-command Barney Mayerson, have questions. Is Eldritch who he says he is, or is he alien? What is Chew-Z, and how does it work? Most important, why does Mayerson foresee Bulero attempting to kill Eldritch?

This 1964 novel is both a good novel for its time, and a harbinger of novels to come. There are familiar Dick plot elements, of course, but these are combined with themes that are central to his later novels. The divine invasions foreshadow Ubik, and the theological implications of Can-D and Chew-Z's "translation" experiences anticipate the metaphysics of the VALIS tetralogy. Barney Mayerson's realization of the importance of empathy in chapter 5 is Dick's most succinct expression of this theme, which he returns to in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

As with any Dick work, you'll be left with questions. It is to Dick's credit that the majority will concern his themes, rather than his plotting.

The Cassini Division

Ken MacLeod
23-24 September

I can't add much to last year's review except that a second reading confirms its excellence; it definitely deserves a star [star]. If you have any interest in SF at all -- or just intelligent novels, period -- read this.

The Stone Canal

Ken MacLeod
26 September-2 October

At risk of being trite: ditto. A second reading of The Stone Canal earns a review identical to the one just above for The Cassini Division.

I strongly suspect that I'll be rereading The Sky Road soon.

Wendel All Together

Howard Cruse
New trade paperback
7-8 September

Topical, touching, funny, artistic, flaming, righteous, humane, idealistic, petty, frustrated, nervous, wacky, political, maturing, insightful, wry. The characters in this collection of Howard Cruse's Wendel strips are all of these. Even more, though, they are human: the edgy Tina, the optimistic Wendel, the aspiring Ollie, the civic-minded Deb, the irrepressible Sterno -- all are well-rounded mixes of our best and worst. It's a measure of Cruse's skill that we come to know the characters as real people. It's a rare cartoonist whose humor flows naturally from his or her characters, rather than whose characters serve punchlines.

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, vol. 2

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
2-13 October

Reading a lot of Philip K. Dick in a short period leads to a paradox. On the one hand, the stories are rife with psionic mutants, paranoia, and autonomous appliances. Many of his short stories hang on a Twilight Zone-like twists; reality is never guaranteed. On the other hand, Dick's style is so distinctive that reading hundreds of pages of his work plunges the reader so deep into his distinctive milieu that the extraordinary becomes familiar. Hence the paradox: the uncanny is mundane. Perhaps Dick's work should be taken in smaller doses than I've been allowing myself.

Even though Philip K. Dick is known as a SF writer, he also aspired to be mainstream writer. I was reminded of this fact by the 1953 story "Small Town". With the exception of the last two pages, it could have come from one of the literary magazines of the time. At times he strays into Bradbury territory, particularly in the quiet "Of Withered Apples".

While there's a uniformity to Dick's stories, some stand out. "The Trouble with Bubbles" is set in a future society that's engendered a new and shocking perversion. "Breakfast at Twilight" is an anti-bomb polemic, but is saved by a memorable closing. The most important, though, is "Human Is", a breakthrough story for Dick, which extends the Turing Test by making compassion and empathy a condition for being considered human.

This edition merits mention in the Stupid Marketing column. The cover features a painting of a man who looks remarkably like Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with the movie title Total Recall in bold red type. I know the publisher is just trying to boost sales, but it's a bit much to see Dick's works being linked to a lousy movie that bastardized "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" beyond recognition.

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, vol. 4

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
13-16 October

This volume collects the stories Dick wrote as he switched his efforts into writing novels. The change is obvious: the stories written after 1954 tend to be longer, more intricately plotted, and have less of a sting at the end. Consider the long story "What the Dead Men Say", in which:

  • Dick works out half the setting of Ubik, down to the name of one of the characters.

  • Dick predicts the unification of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as "Richard Nixon's incredible comeback in 1968".

  • A small, pretty, psychotic young woman (a Dick archetype) makes an appearance.

  • Dick foreshadows modern-day cyberpunk politics. Compare this passage to the work of Sterling, say, or MacLeod:

    ...he wanted a job; he had some brilliant ideas that were for sale, ideas that would help untangle the knot of strikes, the spaceport violence growing out of jurisdictional overlapping by rival unions -- ideas that would, in essence, free Sarapis of having to rely on union labor at all. It was a dirty scheme, and he had known it then, but he had been right; it was worth money. The girl had sent him on to Mr. Pershing, the Personnel Manager, and Pershing had sent him to Louis Sarapis.

    "You mean," Sarapis had said, "I launch from the ocean? From the Atlantic, out past the three mile limit?"

    "A union is a national organization," Johnny had said. "Neither outfit has a jurisdiction on the high seas. But a business organization is international."

    "I'd need men out there; I'd need the same number, even more. Where'll I get them?"

    "Go to Burma or India or the Malay States," Johnny had said. "Get young unskilled laborers and bring them over. Train them yourself on an indentured servant basis. In other words, charge the cost of their passage against their earnings." It was peonage, he knew.

    That's not just peonage; it's an idea that David Reid would be pleased to come up with. The difference is that Dick's story was published three and a half decades before the world was introduced to the inimitable Mr. Reid.

The work isn't all visionary. Dick tries his hand at self-referential humor with "Waterspider", set in a future in which every science fiction tale has come true. A time-travel experiment to a 1950s SF convention allows Dick free reign to lampoon his colleagues (and himself), and lampoon he does. I wonder if Poul Anderson was amused to become a character in a story.

This book also collects "The Days of Perky Pat"; the fascinating end notes discuss its genesis, and how it became the basis of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Also collected here is "The Minority Report" which is soon to be a movie starring Tom Cruise. How bad will the butchery be? Will the next edition have a painting of a pseudo-Cruise on the cover? (Yuck!)

Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers trilogy

  1. Star Well
    Used paperback
    21-23 October

  2. The Thurb Revolution
    Used paperback
    23-25 October

  3. Masque World
    Used paperback
    25-27 October

Combining comedy and science fiction is a difficult goal which few authors have achieved. Connie Willis managed it in Bellwether and To Say Nothing of the Dog, as did Roger Zelazny with Doorways in the Sand. While they are enjoyable, I don't think Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide quite pulled it off. It's a bit too broad; SF comedy takes a very light touch.

Alexei Panshin had that light touch. I present as evidence his novels of Anthony Villiers and his enigmatic traveling companion Torve the Trog. The unfailingly polite Villiers deftly negotiates settings filled with eccentric characters, some shady rug merchants, girls bound for Miss McBurney's Justly Famous Seminary and Finishing School, a passel of yagoots, a game of Wonders and Marvels, thumb smugglers, and tantalizing hints of a universal pantograph. Along the way he fights a rigged duel, meets God, and deals appropriately with Mrs. Waldo Wintergood. Still, though, one can't help wondering why this man, the Viscount Charteris, has an assassin on his tail.

I was particularly impressed by Panshin's observations on life, which are used as transitions between introduce chapters and scenes. They are in the tradition of Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. My favorite is used as characterization: "...he knew his principles well enough to produce appropriate responses to the unfamiliar.". That figuratively rocked me back on my heels. In one phrase Panshin has captured the essence of mastery, a goal that to which all should aspire.

Ah, if only Panshin had written the promised fourth novel, The Universal Pantograph! But the books we have are satisfying enough to leave us content.


Reinventing Comics

Scott McCloud
New trade paperback
3-5 November

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud analyzed what comics are. Its sequel, Reinventing Comics, is a manifesto that offers a vision of what comics can become. After analyzing the social and economic forces that have shaped American comics, McCloud presents what he calls the "twelve revolutions": a dozen directions in which comics must expand if they are to reach their full potential as an art. Some of these directions are social (such as increasing the diversity of subjects, creators, and styles), and some are economic (e.g., the Internet as a revolutionary distribution medium).

There's plenty to argue with; for example, McCloud foresees a day when micropayment systems will be common, despite their inherently paradoxical nature. Rather than being a flaw of the book, though, it is one of its strengths. No one who cares about comics as an art and a business can read this book and remain disinterested. Mr. McCloud would be the first to join an earnest discussion of the methods for reaching the future he envisions.

If nothing else, his passion alone is inspirational!

Sock Monkey

Tony Millionaire
New trade paperback
9 November

I really can't figure Tony Millionaire out. The first of his works that I encountered were issues of his comic Sock Monkey. The first issues had charming illustrations, coupled with storytelling that had a dark side to it. This side became more pronounced as the series went on, to the point of becoming disturbing. Then I discovered his strip Maakies, which was much bleaker than the best of Sock Monkey. How could one person create both?

Now we have Sock Monkey: A Children's Book, and I still can't figure it out. The plot is simple: we learn the origin of Uncle Gabby, then follow to an adventure with him, Mr. Crow, and a fairy. It's light-hearted fare, and the drawings are a treat (although page 35 might inspire nightmares in those of a sensitive nature). But as a book, I'm a little puzzled. It is a decent children's book, but as a trade paperback it's just not durable enough to last. Also, I wonder how people introduced to Sock Monkey through this book will react when they read the later issues of the comic. Shock might not be an inappropriate word. Is this Mr. Millionaire's intent?


Iain M. Banks
Library book
5-11 November

Bank's Consider Phlebas was an interesting but very uneven novel. Excession, set in the same fictional universe, is the opposite; its writing and plotting are consistent, but it's just not very interesting. There are two major plot lines: one concerns a woman who has shunned all human contact for forty years, and the other follows the reaction to the appearance of a new and potentially destabilizing object, the Excession.

The plots interweave, minor and major characters are introduced, ships and Minds communicate and conspire, and it all goes on and on for going on four hundred pages while little happens. With judicious editing this book could have been cut in half, and should have been. If it must be as long as it is, I'd rather Banks followed up on the interesting aspects of Consider Phlebas. Instead, the Culture/Idiran war is an event that was resolved five hundred years before this novel's action. The moral questions that conflict created aren't to be found here.

This was a disappointment after the promise Banks showed in his earlier novel. This is serviceable space opera, but nothing more. It makes me wonder: why bother to be consistent if that consistency makes your writing dull?

The Telling

Ursula K. Le Guin
Borrowed advance copy
11-13 November

Ursula K. Le Guin doesn't write about people, she writes about cultures. This might not have been true for her early books like the Earthsea Trilogy, but it's been true ever since The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Always Coming Home almost completely abandoned narrative in favor of anthropologic detail.

The Telling continues this trend. It follows Sutty, a native of Earth, who becomes an Observer on the planet Aka. In the time between Sutty's education and arrival from Earth (several decades -- there's no FTL drive in this universe), Aka undergoes a cultural revolution. When Sutty arrives, she finds that all traces of the culture she studied have been ruthlessly obliterated. In its place is a planet-spanning, materialistic Corporation. She is left adrift, observing a culture that is distressingly similar to the patriarchic religion on Earth which collapsed shortly before she left.

Of course, traces of the old culture remain. Sutty's officially sanctioned journey to a far hill town leads her to people who secretly practice the old ways, known as the Telling. Away from the prying eyes of Corporation monitors, Sutty finally begins her research.

All of this is pretty much a prelude to the heart of the book, the description of the Telling. It's a Taoist way of living centering on the telling of stories and knowledge. The plot receives short shrift; there's a sparse description of Sutty's past, which plays a small part in her story, but on the whole there's little action. Structurally, this is more of an extended short story. However, it's a quiet and thoughtful story, with echoes of China's Cultural Revolution and Afghanistan's Taliban. It's worth reading, or telling.

Look to Windward

Iain M. Banks
Library book
14-24 November

How many chances must one give an author? I've tried Iain Banks' Consider Phlebas, Excession, and now Look to Windward, and come away disappointed each time. Yet most fans of Banks' Culture novels say Player of Games and Use of Weapons are the best. Have I just managed to pick the three worst Culture novels? Is it worth reading more?

Oh yes, the plot. Mahrai Ziller, a Chelgrian expatriate composer, has come to live on Masaq Orbital. The Chel find the defection of Ziller, one of their most famous (and quietly radical) citizens, a major embarrassment, so they send a suicidal ex-officer to convince Ziller to come back. There are some surprises, as well as an irrelevant subplot.

To continue this review, read the one for Excession, skipping its first paragraph. Keep in mind that this book's subject is death, though.

(A thought: would Look to Spinward have been a better title?)

The Fresco

Sheri S. Tepper
Library book
25 November-5 December

The Fresco is an engaging mix of science fiction and liberal wish fulfillment. Earth is visited by two envoys of an advanced culture, who choose Benita Alvarez, an unhappily married woman, wife, and mother, as their intermediary. Benita's duty is to convey the message of alien contact to a responsible government party. To her surprise, the job involves more than simply delivering a message; she is forced to reevaluate her marriage, motherhood, and life. As she begins to change, the situation around her accelerates as well. Then other aliens arrive...

As a novel, The Fresco is both engaging and frustrating. Benita is a great character; she's not perfect, but she's trying. I found myself on her side almost immediately, reading to see how she grew.

On the other hand, parts of the book left me dissatisfied. Story threads begin, and are dropped. A profound question is raised -- is it better to revere a tradition based on a lie, or to expose the lie and overturn the culture based on it? -- but the answer is facile.

The depiction of alien influence on Earth engendered mixed feelings. The aliens use technology to right what they perceive as wrongs, without asking first. In some cases, few would object (killers find that their guns misfire), but in others the morality is far from clear. The question of how much paternalistic benevolence our species can stand is raised, but, like other aspects of this book, is left unexplored. Some of the actions seem like liberal wish fulfillment, but the conviction of the aliens that their actions are correct slowly grows to be as ominous as the evils they eliminate. This isn't the author's intent, but it's there.

Perhaps that's why the book should be read. Underneath the surface, there are plenty of ideas to ruminate upon.

Dog and Pony Show

Pam Bliss
Borrowed book
8 December

Dog and Pony Show: Cartoon Stories by Pam Bliss is a collection of Pam Bliss' small press comics. They're light, optimistic, and rated G. With Corgis, a Russian scientist, animate cornstalks, Radiation Man (he's swell!), Those Kids!, a singalong, sasquatch, jackalopes, the B-36 eggplane, and killer pigeons. Fun for all ages.

Box Office Poison

Alex Robinson
Borrowed book
8 December

A confession: if you leave me alone with a decent comic book or graphic novel, I'm compelled to read it as soon as possible. It was a good thing I started Alex Robinson's 602-page Box Office Poison in the morning, since it was hard enough to put down that I would probably have kept reading it into the wee hours of the morning rather than sleep.

The story follows a handful of friends in New York City whose lives intersect. Sherman is an aspiring writer, working at a bookstore that he makes into a hell; his girlfriend Dorothy is a writer and a mess; Jane & Stephen are a happy couple; Ed is an aspiring comic book creator. Each has a distinctive personality; for instance, even though Jane initially seems completely sensible, the mere mention of Dorothy is enough to send her blood pressure rocketing. How can you not like a character like that? I even grew fond of Ed's cousin, who appears only twice and speaks no English.

The writing is what makes this book so good. There are certain passages -- "Jane & Stephen's Christmas", "The Ballad of Jane & Stephen" -- that are just dynamite. Even the simple one-page Q&A panels, though they were probably filler, provide insight into the characters. Then there's the mystery of Stephen's childhood, in which lurks a horrible (and hilarious) line.

This must have been originally published as separate issues; some of the seams do show (two characters are introduced but never really followed up; the artwork improves). The book's episodic nature gives it verisimilitude, particularly in how characters come together and drift apart. My one nit is that over time the story came to focus more on the comics industry itself. Robinson didn't neglect the characters, which is a good thing, but that story line was rather a polemic. However, that's a minor quibble in a book that is well worth reading.

Tip: when you finish Box Office Poison, re-read the first page.

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
Library book
30 November-9 December

Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit priest who has returned, alone, from the first visit to an alien world and the first contact with another culture. His seven companions are dead, he is mutilated and weak, and stands accused of murder and prostitution. As he slowly recuperates, the Society of Jesuits attempt to discover what happened on Rakhat, though Sandoz refuses to discuss the matter. He warns them that it is better for them not to know.

That is the premise of The Sparrow. It is a tale of faith: the discovery of it, and the sacrifices it requires. On the short bookshelf that holds books mixing religion and science fiction, this belongs next to Blish's A Case of Conscience.

Or does it? The nagging feeling I'm left with is that the story isn't really concerned with the theological implications of the existence of an alien culture, but of the human story of Emilio Sandoz. There is room for both kinds of stories in the SF canon, but The Sparrow could have been recast in Earth's past without radical revision to the plot. So, I leave you with the warning not to expect this to be a standard SF novel. Read it anyway.

Children of God

Mary Doria Russell
Library book
9-12 December

Picking up just after The Sparrow ends, Children of God continues the story of Emilio Sandoz and that alien planet Rakhat. However, whereas the previous book flows smoothly, this one rather lurches along. Spoiler Warning: if you don't want to know plot points, don't continue with this review.

The problems lie in the plotting. Here are some of the most egregious examples:

  • A character that we were told was killed in The Sparrow -- no, really, she survived after all. This resurrection just plain felt engineered.

  • Emilio makes a return trip Rakhat, but has to be kidnapped to do so. This is simply unbelievable. The reason behind his kidnapping is that he has knowledge of Rakhat and its languages. While true, in The Sparrow Sofia Mendes' job was to create AIs that encapsulated a person's knowledge. Children of God begins sixty years later; has technology devolved in the meantime?

    My failed suspension of disbelief was vindicated by the author's acknowledgments, in which she admits in so many words that she needed the character on Rakhat but couldn't find any other way to get him there. This is called not playing fair with your characters and readers, and it's glaringly obvious.

  • The final stupid move came when Carlo Guiliani attempted to blackmail Sandoz. Threatening to space John Candotti, who was locked in the lander bay, wouldn't have worked in real life. John would have simply climbed into a lander, which was pressurized. As a matter of fact, doing so would have given John the upper hand; he could have threatened to destroy both landers, which would have obviated the entire mission. But instead he played the part of a badly maneuvered chess piece.

  • The music Isaac discovers is, frankly, silly. Finding chords in stretches of the DNA of three species? Do the math: 4 possible bases per base pair and 3 species yields 64 possible chords, assuming a disjoint mapping between the musical notes mapped to different species. Since by his own admission Isaac chooses only what sounds good, given a few million base pairs (=chords), anybody should be able to find whatever kind of music he or she likes in it. Bogus.

    (Actually, it might be worse than bogus. It seems very unlikely that such music would have the 1/f scaling that is universal in human music. Different the music might be, but not pleasing.)

The writing wasn't bad, but the whole book felt forced. Why don't authors quit while they're ahead?

(That's a rhetorical question. As a friend answered, they need to sell books. Later, he asked a more interesting question: why don't I quit while I'm ahead? Perhaps I'll heed his counsel, and only read the first book of any series.)


Greg Egan
New paperback
17 December

The stories in this volume, dating from 1993 to 1998, continue Egan's ruminations on the nature of radical freedom. The question most of these stories revolve around is this: given the power to overcome the vagaries of genetics and chance -- which shape our habits, preferences, and ultimately our personalities -- what we will choose to become? When ethics can be changed as easily as a thought, why should we prefer any one outlook over another?

This theme drives five of the ten stories, including the memorable "Chaff" and "Reasons to be Cheerful". None of the stories is a dud, though none reaches the synthesis of moral questions and emotion that Egan later achieved in "Yeyuka". The closest to it in this volume is "Cocoon", a chilling tale of a potential application of bioengineering. Egan reminds us that the technology isn't what imperils us -- it is our own nature. To quote William Carlos Williams, "Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.". Egan's response is that rather than changing just our wishes, we should consider changing human nature itself.

Luminous is well worth reading. It would also be a stimulating gift for armchair dabblers in epistemology and cognitive science.

Question: why hasn't this book been published in the U.S.? Are the author's North American publishers nincompoops? I had to get a copy from the U.K. two years after it was published! (Thanks, CP.)

The Geography of Nowhere

James Howard Kunstler
New paperback
12-23 December

A few years ago I visited a friend in Dallas, Texas. He lived in a gated community of apartments, with no shared space between dwellings. Outside the gate, the road fed immediately into a high-speed feeder road that led to a major highway. There were no sidewalks, greenways, or bike lanes. (How could there be sidewalks? There were no houses or businesses outside the gate, and no lawns.) There was no safe way for a human to leave that community in anything but a car or truck. It was the most inhumane place to live I had ever seen, and it made a strong impression.

Compare this to where I grew up: a bucolic town in southern New York, far enough from NYC that daily commuting was the exception rather than the rule. There were sidewalks downtown, stone walls, old churches, and green spaces. However, though this might sound better than the Texas neighborhood at first, consider this fact: some of the major roads in the town didn't have sidewalks either. There were only two roads to my parent's house, and the more direct one had cars hurtling at thirty miles an hour around a blind curve with no shoulder. Walking, which I did a lot of, was a dangerous game. Bicycling was confined to kids in housing developments; riding on the main roads was too much of a risk. Is that so much better than the community in Texas?

This kind of nowhere -- where simply walking is a risk -- is the America James Howard Kunstler surveys in The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. He begins with a historical recapitulation of the rise of suburbia, covering the rise of automobile, the death of mass transit (trolleys, trains, canals), and the evolution of sprawl. Writing about Schuylerville, NY, he manages to convey what potential we have squandered with a single sentence:

There was a time just before the First World War when a person could get around this part of the world by train, trolley, boat, automobile, horse, or on foot, and in fact each mode of transportation had its place.

Nowadays, we have: automobile, bus, motorcycle (both automobiles in disguise), foot, and maybe bicycle. In our brave new world, the only mode left with a place is the automobile. If freedom of choice is important, why did we choose to give it up?

The answer is economics, which is treated in detail. From the construction of the interstate highway system to the unprecedented real estate disaster of the Reagan-Bush years, Kunstler informs of us how our depleted circumstances arose. The rise of big-box stores and the death of local economies is covered as well.

The book is not focused solely on transportation. The other half of the picture is architecture and civic planning, humane endeavors which died from neglect during the Depression. Following a capsule history of American architecture, Kunstler moves on to case studies of three cities: Detroit, an obvious failure; Portland, Oregon, one of the best cities in the USA; and Los Angeles, which teeters on the edge of disaster. The lessons dispensed are painful.

The Geography of Nowhere ends with a chapter on the few people who are fighting to make places that are somewhere, via new methods of design (e.g., Christopher Alexander's pattern language) and the rewriting of zoning laws. I wish this section had been expanded; for example, it's good to know that changing zoning laws can help, but precisely how should they be changed? Examples and more depth would have been very helpful.

Speaking as the choir that Kunstler is preaching to, I wish the book had been about twice the size. There were so many byways that could have been explored, and so many topics that were given adequate but not thorough coverage. It's an enlightening read, and one that I recommend not to people who are aware of the problem of unregulated growth, but to those who have never considered the idea. Kunstler himself demonstrates how hard it is to make people see this; in a trenchantly ironic passage, he asks visitors to Greenfield Village, a model town Henry Ford built in later life, why they enjoy the place. To a one, they mention the peace, the quiet, the slow pace -- but not the lack of cars. We have been so conditioned to a landscape of cars and sprawl that it has become almost impossible to imagine a different world.

As for me, I'll celebrate freedom of choice when there are a variety of places around the USA -- not exclusively cities -- where I can live without an automobile. Freedom of choice, in its deepest sense, does not mean a splendid variety of cars; rather, it includes the possibility of living in a place where using a car is a choice, not a necessity.

Moldies & Meatbops

Three of Rudy Rucker's *ware novels, collected in one hardcover edition:

  1. Software
    29-30 December

  2. Wetware
    30-31 December

  3. Freeware
    1 January 2002

A local bookstore had a used copy of Moldies & Meatbops. I'd been idly curious about Rucker's *ware books for years, so it was time to give them a try. My expectations weren't high; I'd read some of his fiction before (White Light), and found it to be rather scattered. But the price was right, and my book queue was short. On it went.

It was about what I expected. If you're expecting a unique authorial voice, believable world-building, or nuanced characterization, these books aren't for you. If your primary interest is tossing a bunch of whacky ideas and scenes into a blender and seeing what comes out, then these might be to your taste. Rucker offers us a Florida quarantined from the rest of the US, populated by fried hippie anarchists; protean artificial intelligences made of mold, reeking of cheese; drugs that temporarily melt the taker into a puddle; and a body-stealing franchise of ice cream trucks. There's plot, but it primarily serves to introduce new ideas and inventions. Nobody reads these books for the characters. Even by the third book, I still hadn't warmed up to the one character who'd been in all of them.

One notable element of the books was the mindset of the characters. Perhaps the author was trying to model the hacker mentality, but he went overboard. Most of the characters were oblivious to the world around them, and to the potential consequences of their actions. From Software through Freeware, the plot was set in motion by characters who thought that if something was possible, it should be done. I was waiting for a character to think "Maybe this isn't such a good idea", but that never happened. They acted in a moral vacuum. If this is a case of an author revealing his personal biases through his characters, then I'd be a bit leery of meeting him.

(Oh, shoot. He's written a fourth book, Realware. I guess I'll have to read that, too. Feh. Maybe I'll order it through the public library.)

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Last updated 16 May 2004
All contents ©2001-2002 Mark L. Irons

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