The 2002 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2002.

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

Books Read


Rudy Rucker
Used hardcover
1 January

Since this is the third book of Rucker's *ware series, its review is included with reviews of the first two books.

Vacuum Diagrams

Stephen Baxter
Used paperback
1-8 January

There might be no greater challenge for a SF writer than to plot the ultimate fate of humanity and the universe. Stapledon did it, as did James Blish. With Vacuum Diagrams, Baxter joins that august company.

The book is a collection of stories that range from the near future to millions of years from now. They develop a future history of humanity, through periods of expansion, retraction, conquest, and occupation. Overarching all of this is the enigmatic Xeelee, who are remaking the universe for their own inscrutable ends. Are they a threat to humanity? If so, will humanity develop into a species capable of challenging those whose engineering projects involve entire galaxies?

The result is a collection that's enjoyable from a hard SF perspective, but lacking in other ways. There are techie treats aplenty, from sentient convection patterns to superstrings. Beyond those, though, there's not a whole lot. The earliest stories held some emotional connection ("The Sun-People ", "Gossamer"), but that leached away as the moral dilemmas disappeared and tech took over. Characterization would have helped, but that's not one of Baxter's strengths. Some evidence of change in the nature of humanity would have helped, also. I can accept humans four million years from now speaking as we do now -- I consider the author as having translated dialog into current idiom -- but find it hard to believe that their values and behavior would remain constant. In Baxter's future universe they do.

It doesn't help that the stories are part of a larger future history which includes four novels (Timelike Infinity, Raft, Flux, and Ring). References to events in the novels, as well as a somewhat convoluted framing device, distracted from the flow of the stories. The book felt disjoint and incomplete. The ideas were kind of fun, but that was about it.

The Trouble With You Earth People

Katherine MacLean
Library book
8-10 January

This is a decent collection of SF stories, mostly from the 1950s. The approach is anthropologic, with a number of first contact stories that focus on the effects of cultural contamination. MacLean's other theme is the moment when a person realizes that species-wide change is inevitable. The tone of the stories ranges from lighthearted ("Trouble with Treaties") to brutally shocking ("The Origin of the Species"). Well-written, and at least one will stick with me.

A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway
Library book
11-15 January

As tempting as it is to write this review as a Hemingway pastiche, I'll resist. After all, doesn't everyone do that when first exposed to his style? It's also too easy. Shooting fish in a barrel just isn't much fun.

I'd begun reading this in high school, but couldn't get past the first sixty pages. I can't blame my younger self for not persevering, but I'm a little sorry that he didn't see it through. Once accustomed to Hemingway's style -- and it takes a while for that to occur -- it becomes easier to perceive other aspects of Hemingway's writing. The scene in the Locarno police station is quite funny in a vaudeville way, while the umbrella-as-sail scene reveals a sense of the absurd that I was not expecting.

I enjoyed A Farewell to Arms more than I expected, and expect to remember scenes from it beyond the next book I read. This was my first serious exposure to Hemingway, and I begin to understand why he is considered one of the most important American authors of the past century.

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair
Library book
15-17 January

Over the last decade I've been reading all the books I was assigned in high school but did not read. (Hemingway was on the list.) The Jungle is the last1, and I feel obligated to write a real book report on it.

The plot is straightforward. Around the turn of the 20th century, an extended Lithuanian family immigrates to the United States to seek their fortune. They fall victim to immigration scams, usurious landlords, horrific working conditions, graft, vote-rigging, union-busting, and all the other ills of the Chicago meat-packing machine. The story details their degradation in the urban capitalist jungle.

Sinclair's intent was to expose the Chicago machine. The Jungle succeeds admirably in this respect, and led to the passage of laws to resolve some of the most egregious problems. However, the novel has problems in other areas. While the characterization is believable and the writing good, such nuances as symbolism are practically ignored. It should be left to the reader to draw a parallel between the workers and the cattle they process, but the point is made explicitly. The book is a polemic, and subtleties are not its suit.

The major problem with the book is that the author's intent was to expose every ill of the Chicago system. The result of this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach is that after a while, the reader realizes that each failure will lead not to an end, but to a scene change that allows the exposure of another rotten aspect of the system. This refusal to take matters to their conclusion undermines the realistic horror of the book's first half. One can take only so many changes before the novel takes on a morbidly picaresque quality.

I also found the novel's ending to be very unsatisfying. Sinclair was a convert to socialism, and it shows. The socialist speeches of the last few chapters are stultifying. Finally, after all the plot turnabouts required to expose every problem, the ultimate conversion of the protagonist to socialism would be touching in its naïveté if it felt any different from his earlier changes. It doesn't, and as a plot device it rings false. In the end, the narrative succumbs to polemic, and our interest dwindles with it.


1 Well, it might not be the absolute last, depending on how strictly the list is defined. I never did get more than a third of the way through Celine's Death on the Installment Plan. Maybe I'll read that too someday.

A Cure for Gravity

Joe Jackson
New trade paperback
18-19 January

After the heaviness of the last two books, it was a pleasure to read something written in a simple, conversational style. A Cure for Gravity is the musician Joe Jackson's reminiscences of his childhood, adolescence, and early years as a working musician. The story of his youth is evenly salted with humorous anecdotes and searching reflections. Mr. Jackson is a man whose interests cross genres, which can be an uncomfortable position in a world that is interested in nothing but which market you target. This eclectic view has left a fair part of the world scratching its collective head over him, and he can't help but wonder aloud why we can't just forget all the labels and listen to the music with unbiased ears.

A tip for the reader: read this book in a quiet room. When you're done, pull out your copy of his first album (Look Sharp!) and give it another listen. You'll hear it anew.

Call me weird and laugh at me
I tell you it's true
I've found a cure for Gravity

-- Joe Jackson, "Fugue 2 / Song of Daedalus"

Imaginary Magnitude

Stanislaw Lem
Used trade paperback
20-24 January

Stanislaw Lem is one of the most original SF authors. His works range from fables to mysteries, with a healthy dose of experimentation. Imaginary Magnitude falls into the latter category; it consists of nothing more than introductions to nonexistent books. One of these imaginary works is a collection of pornographic X-ray images, another the labors of an iconoclastic researcher bent on teaching bacteria to write. The most amusing of the lot is a pitch for Vestrand's Extelopedia, a subscription-based book that updates itself before your eyes as new information becomes available. The fact that the subscription terms can also update themselves seems remarkably prescient in terms of the sneakwrap terms of many current EULAs (end-user license agreements). Lem, with his tongue in cheek, can claim to having foreseen them in 1981.

The other two works don't reach the same level as the others. The introduction to A History of Bitic Literature comes off as little more than a survey of a trivial academic cul de sac. Lem's take on the matter fails compared to Borges' "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote".

Descending further, we reach "Golem XIV", which fills the second half of the book. It consists of two lectures from the superhuman artificial intelligence Golem XIV, along with supplementary material and an afterword. However, Lem fell into his own trap here; by giving us Golem XIV's lectures, we are handed what we should have imagined. The lectures themselves are dull, synthesizing theories of biology, evolution (which Golem XIV insists on personifying with a capital 'E'), and cognitive science. Unfortunately, Golem XIV's insights aren't particularly brilliant. Gratuitous use of Latin shouldn't be mistaken for intelligence. The mask that is the voice of Golem XIV has holes that reveal the author underneath.

It's rather sad to end a book with a failed experiment, but that's the case. Imaginary Magnitude allowed Lem to indulge himself, and his bad qualities as a writer (pontificating, dry writing) are on display in the longer works. Perhaps reading Microworlds has spoiled Lem for me; after Imaginary Magnitude, I'm questioning my plan to reread his A Perfect Vacuum and His Master's Voice. Perhaps it is better to remember them vaguely and with fondness than with clarity and distaste.

Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities

Geoffrey A. Landis
Library book
25-27 January

This is rather a difficult review to write. This collection of (mostly) hard SF stories left me rather unmoved. This is odd, since there weren't any stories in the collection that I disliked, and the ideas were clever. The science plays by the rules. The characterizations aren't neglected, either; for example, despite its hard SF premise, "A Walk in the Sun" was memorable precisely for its characterization.

In his afterword, Mr. Landis notes that several of the stories are background for novels that he hasn't written. Perhaps that explains what the book has left me with: a sense of incompleteness. I'd be pleased to see some of these stories expanded into a story cycles or novels.


Gregory Maguire
Library book
27-29 January

Finding Lost in the new book section of the public library seemed a stroke of luck. I'd enjoyed his earlier novel Wicked, and friends were reading that and his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. We had unintentionally formed a little Maguire klatsch.

I wasn't as impressed by Lost. It's a contemporary story of a blocked writer fleeing to a family flat in England. However, when she arrives, the flat's owner is mysteriously unreachable, and workmen are demolishing part of the kitchen. However, they can't seem to get past one section. Therein hangs the tale.

Parts of the novel were effective, but I suspect this isn't a novel I will return to. The problem is the main character. I didn't sympathize with her mercurial moods. One moment, she's simply trying to be understand what's happening; the next, she's wielding an acid tongue. She is, quite simply, a mess. Lost, yes, but it wasn't until the end of the book that I began to feel sympathy for her.

Cosmonaut Keep

Ken MacLeod
New hardcover
29 January-5 February

Cosmonaut Keep begins Ken MacLeod's new cycle, The Engines of Light. Like his earlier novel The Stone Canal, the chapters of Cosmonaut Keep alternate between two stories. The first is set in the near future, and follows a systems integrator who becomes involved in a situation that will take him farther than he ever imagined. The other story is set on a distant planet which several varieties of humans share with other Earth-derived races, including krakens, Neolithics, and the intelligent and long-lived descendants of dinosaurs. Both of these worlds, present and distant, are about to undergo change, and one man is at the eye of both storms.

Cosmonaut Keep continues MacLeod's tendency to create interesting worlds. The inclusion of dinosaurs gives me the impression that he's taking the creation of fictional worlds a little less seriously, yet I can't find support for this notion throughout the rest of the novel. The saurs are serious and have a distinct culture. There's another quirk which I'll just hint at: religion is something taken seriously, and with good reason.

As one might expect from his past works, neither politics nor relationships are neglected. Characters fall in love, or infatuation; some make the big romantic gesture, while others are willing to make do in the absence of their loved ones. Characters argue about socialism, and the name Trotsky makes more than a token appearance. Readers of his Fall Revolution cycle probably won't be surprised.

There were several unexpected pleasures. One rare one was a sense of disorientation in the story set on the distant planet. It wasn't immediately obvious where it was in relation to Earth, nor even what the name of the planet was. The novel assumed much, which is a rarity. Also nice to see was the depiction of an interstellar civilization that hadn't conquered the problems of special relativity.

Dark Light

Ken MacLeod
New hardcover
5-6 February

The second book in The Engines of Light cycle, Dark Light begins immediately after the end of Cosmonaut Keep, and follows the same characters as they pursue their goals.

This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it's intriguing to follow the changes wrought in Cosmonaut Keep as they affect the worlds of the Second Sphere. On the other, some of the characters suffer from sequelosis: a chronic condition in which they have little to do, but the author won't write them out of the story. Sadly, this affects two characters from the previous novel.

However, new elements more than make up for this loss. With the introduction of a new society, MacLeod turns his attention to gender roles. In this culture, whether a biological male is identified as a man or woman depends upon his or her success at a rite of passage. This leads to interesting speculations on the nature of gender.

One of the most impressive things about this series is the richness of its setting. Despite the conspiratorial joke of one of its premises, there are deeper elements to consider. I was surprised to find Aeschylus' The Oresteia coming to mind -- notably, challenges to the gods, and a resulting fundamental change in the social order. I won't say whether these actually were plot elements, but it's a rare book that even raises them as a possibility.

It seems there must be another book to follow; will it be set on Nova Babylonia, with Cairns and Volkov waging an ideological struggle against each other? Or will it be something completely different, revealing yet another part of this complex universe?

(Side note: the novels that comprised The Fall Revolution cycle echoed the structure of classical Greek play cycles: a trilogy on one subject, followed by an associated satyr play. Will The Engines of Light have a similar structure?)

Postmodern Pooh

Frederick Crews
Library book
6-7 February

The author of the celebrated The Pooh Perplex revisits his old stomping ground to lambaste a new generation of academic posers. Postmodern Pooh consists of ten lectures, ostensibly delivered at a professional litcrit conference, along with an afterword by the conference's organizer. The lectures dissect -- vivisect might be a more appropriate term -- that good-hearted bear. He and his companions are subjected to radical feminist theory, deconstruction, historical dialecticism (whatever that means), postcolonial theory, and other brutal misinterpretations. A.A. Milne isn't spared, either; he's revealed as a sexual predator (thanks to the "recovered memory" misinterpretation put forth in Dolores Malatesta's lecture "The Courage to Squeal") and misanthrope. Nor is the radical left wing of criticism singled out for criticism; traditionalists and career academics are savaged alongside their adversaries.

It's fun that leaves me squirming. Part of this is the instinctive feeling I get seeing someone shoot fish in a barrel. On the other hand, I recognized just enough references (e.g., to Luce Irigaray) to know that although Professor Crews invented the lectures, he quoted real academics, no matter how ridiculous the references seem. Postmodern Pooh treads a fine line between satire and horror. Is this what university education has come to?

The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Used paperback
10-24 February

I remember skimming this when I was young, mostly reading what little dialogue there is. I'm pretty sure I had no idea what was really going on. And I had thought I'd read this later, but must have been mistaken; aside from the accused wizard Matthew Maule's curse on the Pyncheon line, nothing was familiar.

What I did find was a tale of family skeletons, both living and dead. The story, while interesting, is slow-paced; that gives Hawthorne an opportunity to practice his strengths, namely characterization and exposition. He's not frugal with words, but his prose is well-written enough that it should be savored, rather than hurried through. Indeed, the chapter "Governor Pyncheon" contains little other than the observation of the day passing in an empty room, but it achieves an uncanny effect.

If you plan to read this, consider keeping a pen and paper handy. There are numerous passages that beg to be quoted.


Mitchell Smith
Library book
27 February-2 March

The Earth of several centuries hence has suffered the advance of the polar ice caps, creating a new Ice Age. In what was once Colorado, the Trapper clan lives at the base of the ice wall and lives a meager existence, preserving what little knowledge they retain in their many-times-hand-copied books. It's a hard existence, but a contented one, with close family & kin ties. Unfortunately, cultures at the edge of survival are susceptible to the smallest of changes. When a new tribe invades from the East, the Trappers must fight for their existence, or vanish into the long night.

In Snowfall, Mitchell Smith has created a unique blend of the adventure and SF genres. The book reads like a mainstream novel of a people trying to survive and adapt in a brutal and unforgiving world, yet a few aspects of that world are straight out of SF. What's surprising is that the fictional world holds together as well as it does. Smith seems to have a talent for world-building; after finishing the book, I wonder whether he will follow the trailheads he laid, exploring this rich & frighteningly possible world.

The characterizations were also surprisingly good. When a character dies, you feel it. When our heroine encounters money for the first time, I wanted to warn her not to make the bad bargain she was contemplating. That visceral response was a far cry from the sheer disbelief generated by a multi-page soliloquy on the semiotics of money given by a character in a similar position in one of Samuel R. Delany's Neverÿon books. Smith writes with his heart, not his head.

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

Lawrence Lessig
Library book
4-14 March

To paraphrase a cliché, "Code is what happens when you're making other plans.". This saying illustrates a key point of an argument Lawrence Lessig makes in Code: much of the nature of the Internet is not inherent, but is instead regulated -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not -- by the nature of the code that runs the Internet.

Code proposes that four forces regulate Internet behavior: software, the market, law, and social norms. Lessig compares code to the other forces, mixing constitutional theory with real-world examples. At the risk of oversimplifying, code is fundamentally different from the other forces; unlike law or social norms, it can make certain actions impossible. (Market forces are a different matter.) The real problem, according to the author, is that there has been little consideration of the values that the code that runs the Internet embody. Without such awareness, he argues, we stand little chance in future of maintaining the values of the current Internet.

Code is a sober reflection. It's a pessimistic book, but shouldn't be dismissed for that reason. More important, Code's analysis of the problem in terms of constitutional law is not restricted to the book's subject matter; the approach can be used to analyze other legal problems not envisioned by the framers of the U.S. constitution.

I'm really not doing justice to the book. There's a lot to the author's argument, and it's difficult to summarize. If you're interested in the Internet, read it. If you're interested in technology's effect on society, read it.

Motherless Brooklyn

Jonathan Lethem
Library book
14-16 March

Lionel Essrog is one of Minna's Men, a quartet of orphans-turned-dogsbodies revolving around the minor Brooklyn hood Frank Minna. After years of working together, Minna is killed following a mysterious meeting. As the quartet loses its coherence, Lionel undertakes a mission: to find out who killed the boss, and why. Lionel is not a detective, but he does have one quality that will help: an ability to focus that is an effect of his Tourette's syndrome. Lionel Essrog a.k.a. The Free Human Freakshow, master (or slave?) of a thousand tics, is about to plunge into deeper and more dangerous business than he's ever known, and for the first time he's doing it alone.

It makes for an entertaining tale. The elements of the mystery itself aren't that involving, but Lionel is an interesting enough character to move the story along at a brisk pace. Lethem's writing is involving; florid at times, but he managed to nail a simple scene with a rare clarity. That alone was enough to make me like the book.

Starlight 3

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor
Library book
18-21 March

It's good that original SF anthologies are published, but the catch is that their quality tends to vary, even within a series. While Starlight 2 had two first-rate stories (Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation"), Starlight 3 offers only one standout story, Susan Palwick's "Gestella". Like her earlier "Going After Bobo", this is a story that, while superficially simple, can be argued about for hours. Ms. Palwick is now on my list of writers to watch.

There is good work here (notably, Susanna Clarke's inventive fantasy "Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" and D.G. Compton's "In Which Avu Giddy Tries to Stop Dancing", a melancholy parable of the bonds of society), but each is balanced by disappointment: Andy Duncan's "Senator Bilbo", a tale of a post-Ring Middle Earth gone worldly; Cory Doctorow's "Power Punctuation!", concerning the unexpected rise of a simpleton; and Terry Bisson's "The Old Rugged Cross", a satire with no bite at all.

The Hacker and the Ants

Rudy Rucker
Library book
21-22 March

As an author, Rudy Rucker presents the world of SF with several puzzles: how does he manage to get his novels published? Do they bypass editors completely? Is "gonzo" a synonym for amateurish?

Yes, I come not to praise the author, but to bury him. Where do I begin: the intrusive and inconsistent exposition? The almost complete lack of ethics of almost every character? The characterizations that did not convince? The coincidences? The main character's astounding lack of foresight? There are so many things that were wrong that I could write a very long essay, but I'll refrain.

Oh, the plot? It's something about a professional hacker who runs afoul of some artificial ants that infest first his machine, then every television in the world. However, before he's framed for treason, he does his best (in his own fscked-up way) to figure out what's going on.

I am left with questions. Why did I read this book? Did Chris' recommendation cloud my judgment, or was it simply because not only have I been spending a lot of time at my computer recently, but that my apartment has experienced an infestation of ants? Finally, there's the most important question of all: have I, like the main character, finally got this out of my system? The difference between us is that for him "this" means ants, while for me it means interest in Rucker's books.


Damien Broderick
Library book
23-25 March

Amanda is a rebellious adolescent looking for a thrill in a buttoned-down future society. Her friend Vik is a good-hearted guy along for the ride. Mathewmark is an earnest young man who lives in the Valley, an isolated enclave of religious people who have spurned technology. Their lives are about to collide, and the result is not going to be pretty. And just what is the AI called the Aleph?

Damien Broderick put together a good tale of the Singularity. It's nicely readable and doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. I'm a little confused about his message, though; is Amanda's transition to adulthood supposed to parallel the Aleph's? Frankly, I didn't see the connection between the stories, and that weakened the book's ending. What's the point of having the world transcend when the result isn't half as imaginative as, say, the opening of Greg Egan's Diaspora?

Hypertext & Hypermedia

Jakob Nielsen
Library book
27-29 March

At first it might seem pointless to read a book on hypertext that was written in 1990, before the birth of HTML and the World Wide Web. However, that wasn't the case at all. Nielsen's survey of the state of hypertext systems at the time—and there were more than you might think—was fascinating.

Consider the design of the Web. Over the past few years, I've had a few ideas for features I wish the Web possessed. To my surprise, every one of those features had been implemented in at least one pre-1990 hypertext system:

  • Multiple link destinations—available in Brown University's Intermedia.
  • Links to any text in any document—fundamental to Ted Nelson's Xanadu.
  • A browser with an outline mode—identical to the "stretchtext" feature of Peter Brown's Guide.

I've been reinventing wheels that have been forgotten due to the success of HTML and the Web. Santayana was right.

Hypertext & Hypermedia was one of the few books I've read during which I kept pen and paper handy to jot down notes. It was worth it; I've gained an insight or two into different approaches to hypertext design.

It was amusing to keep an eye out for predictions. The author got several right, such as the graffiti problem inherent in public annotation systems such as Third Voice (p. 188). Other predictions now seem absurd, such as the rise of a market for hypertext documents (p. 187). However, one can forgive the author, as he didn't anticipate the invention and exponential growth of the Web throughout the 1990s:

It is not even remotely likely that we will see Ted Nelson's original Xanadu vision of having all the world's literature online in a single unified system fulfilled in the medium term future. -- p. 186

Actually, to give him credit, he is right; most of the world's literature isn't online today. He's even given us the reason:

The copyright problem is exactly one of the worst socioeconomic barriers to realizing the full potential of hypertext. -- p. 23

If you're interested in hypertext, as an author or Web designer, then this short book is worth perusing. If nothing else, you might get a sense for what the Web could have been, rather than what it is. Question: did HTML and the Web succeed because they were rudimentary, or because of their open nature?

Pat: the Death of an Adult

Wayne Deshay
Library book
1 April

This is the story of Patrick Wold, who grew up with cystic fibrosis and died from it. It's the oddest of the few disease books I've read (e.g., God Said Ha!, Nobody Nowhere). What's surprising is how refreshing it is, because Pat didn't fit any of the stereotypes of the ill. He wasn't a child wise beyond his years. He wasn't a Buddhist or seeker. He didn't desperately try every quack (syn. alternative) therapy. He neither raged against his disease nor accepted it peacefully. When his health was spiraling down, and his approaching death was becoming apparent, he didn't go through the Kubler-Ross' four stages of dying. He just lived until he died.

Pat was just your typical middle American white guy. He wasn't great with other people and didn't have a huge circle of supportive friends. He had no big revelation about the importance of life. I think that's what made this book so different: it has no moral or emotional message. The most you can conclude from this is that things happen, to people of all stripes, and there's no grand scheme of life.

Would that all such stories were so honest.

Designing Web Usability

Jakob Nielsen
Library book
20 March-2 April

Designing Web Usability, like the author himself, is a paradox. Its purpose is to convince all Web site creators to focus on creating usable Web sites. However, it takes a rather strange approach: its high cost ($45 in the USA) limits its appeal to all but professional site creators. Perhaps the book would have been better titled Designing Usable Commercial Web Sites. I suspect most site creators learn design by experimenting at home. Wouldn't it be better to lower the price and get them while they're just beginning to learn, rather than after bad habits have become entrenched?

Despite this problem, there is a lot of useful information in the book. Some of it takes digging to uncover; rather than offering lists of specific recommendations, the author often takes more of a theoretical approach to Web usability, discussing concepts rather than specifics. (I suppose that information is available for a nice hefty price from the author's Web site.) I've been reading Nielsen's AlertBox column for the last few years, so I probably got less from this book than from someone who isn't familiar with the subject.

On the other hand, there are some real gems. The sidebar about contact tokens (p. 369) posits a future that I hope will arrive soon. There's enough other intriguing material that I've had to reconsider my idea of what the Web is, and what it could be.

I do wish the book had been a little more stringently edited. While there are no glaringly poor passages (with the exception of the perplexing sentence "There are really, really many countries in the world." p. 344), the material on conducting usability testing really deserves a book of its own. It distracts from the book's focus.

A warning: the book is printed in full color on glossy, heavy paper. Rather ironically, this made reading rather difficult, as the paper tended to strongly reflect glare. Perhaps someone should have tested the book's usability.

Stand On Zanzibar

John Brunner
Used paperback
2-10 April


Cook for a year or two over low boil, occasionally adding to the mixture current headlines and projections of the future. Keep an eye on the clock at all times. This recipe should be prepared when social norms are changing faster than ever before.

Yield: Stand on Zanzibar.

It's hard to summarize this novel. Unlike most novels, it doesn't offer a single narrative, but interleaves four distinct types of chapters. "Context" sets the scene through news headlines and other expository material, slowly fleshing out a vision of a world of seven billion people, the lucky ones being crushed under the weight of keeping up the Joneses, the unlucky dying unnoticed as they always have. In the fifty-two states of America, eugenics laws have made children an envied rarity. "Tracking with Closeups" explores this world by observing its effect on a handful of diverse minor characters. "The Happening World" is the novel's chorus, commenting on the action in the "Continuity" sections, which follow the flatmates Norman House, rising executive in a multinational corporation, and Donald Hogan, dilettante and secret government employee. Norman is about to take on the greatest challenge of his life, the twenty-year industrialization of an endangered yet anomalously peaceful African backwater. Donald's life is about to change unexpectedly as well; his expertise in the language of the island nation of Yatakang suddenly acquires strategic value when that country announces a crash eugenics program. With fertility an overriding concern in a world of seven billion people, Yatakang's claims must be investigated, and Donald is chosen. But before he goes, he's going to be eptified: hypertrained in a particular discipline. And Donald Hogan is going to be eptified to kill.

The result is a roller coaster ride through a dangerous future. Commenting on it is Chad Mulligan, famed author, sociologist, and drop-out, whose caustic observations are deadly accurate revelations about our world. Be prepared to devote several days, and a lot of thought, to this book.

As with any projection of the near future, Brunner is partially right. We don't have televisions that insert ourselves into the picture, or rely on a central computer for social & political analysis. His neologisms don't ring particularly true. On the other hand, some elements ring true. The central computer is under corporate ownership, not government. In 2002, people really do run amok and kill others. And this is a truism in the industrialized world:

"...only nowadays practically every American home is full of luxury gadgetry. You know Chad's definition of the New Poor? People who are too far behind with time-payments on next year's model to make the down-payment on the one the year after?"

This belongs on the bookshelf of every reader of SF, along with Brunner's other depiction of grim futures The Shockwave Rider (which treats future shock) and The Sheep Look Up (pollution).

The Witches

Roald Dahl
Library book
11 April

An orphaned boy and his cigar-smoking grandmother take a vacation on the south coast of England. There they discover that their hotel is the unknowing host of a convention of witches. As we all know, witches hate children, and are horribly put out when they don't make at least one child disappear per week. However, these witches have been falling behind in their duties, and there are more and more children every day. What they need is a plan to get rid of all of the country's children (those nasty, smelly things!) at once. When our hero just happens to overhear their plans, it's up to him and his grandmother to stop them. That might be easier, however, if he hadn't just been turned into a mouse...

The Witches is a short and fun book, with wit and adventure. Dahl's dialog snaps, and he keeps the simple plot boiling almost from the beginning. It doesn't quite match his best work, but doesn't stoop to offering morals as so many books (and movies) for children do.

The Squares of the City

John Brunner
Used paperback
12-20 April

After being so impressed by Stand on Zanzibar, I thought I'd try another John Brunner novel from the same period. This predates Zanzibar by three years, but the same concern with social problems is present, if in less developed form.

The plot concerns a traffic consultant who is hired by a Latin American country to correct the traffic problems in their new, showpiece city, Ciudad de Vados. Soon after his arrival, however, it begins to become apparent that there's more to the problem than just traffic. Political forces are at work throughout the city, fracturing its façade of progressiveness. Over the course of weeks, rising tension leads to arson and murder. Yet at no time does one side hold clear power over the other. It's almost as if a game of chess, the national obsession, were being played on a board the size of a city.

While this isn't as thought-provoking a novel as others from the same period, it does have some interesting elements. Methods of control -- subliminal messages, the overt and indirect use of authority -- are a major subtext of the novel. Also, surprisingly, I found it to be something of an existential novel as well; as the true situation became more apparent to the protagonist, the question became not whether he would survive, but whether he would act. To his credit, the author didn't make the choice an easy one; how does one keep to his ideals when acting upon them could plunge a nation into civil war?

Note to readers: it might help to take notes on the different characters as they're introduced. I was able to handle The Brothers Karamazov without a problem, but the profusion of characters in this novel sometimes left me wondering exactly who a particular character was.

Permutation City

Greg Egan
Used hardcover
20-21 April

Until two nights ago, I didn't know that a hardcover edition of Permutation City had ever been printed. It seems to be taken straight from the Harper mass-market paperback, with no changes to the text; even the typos are intact. The oddest thing is that, despite the fact that it has different cover art, the front credits refer to the paperback's artwork. This definitely looks like a rush job.

This is my third (at least) rereading of Greg Egan's second novel. It holds up well. I'm still dazzled by the novel's ideas, from the sheer sophistry of dust theory, to the freedom of transhumanity espoused by Solipsist Nation. Sure, the infodumps can be a bit much to wade through if you're not already familiar with cellular automata, but it's worth it.

I think I caught two more in-jokes this time, too.


Eric Frank Russell
Used paperback
22-23 April

Terra's war with the Sirians is at a stalemate. Terrans have the edge in technology, but the Sirians outnumber Terrans 12 to 1. Into this conflict is dragged Terran James Mowry. Dropped alone on an enemy world, his assignment is to use disguise, rumors, forged currency, and whatever else it takes to convince the Sirians that an active anti-war underground exists. Mowry has become a wasp, doing his best to sting an entire planet.

Russell's concise style keeps the action moving along. Exposition and reflection are kept to a minimum, although they don't quite attain the brevity of Hemingway. This maintains the focus on the Mowry's sabotage techniques. While one might admire them from a theoretical perspective, the great similarity between Sirians and Terrans made me squirm in my seat. In a post-Cold War world, both sides look alike. One can't help imagine a wasp or three among us. Wasp remains relevant.

The Future of Ideas

Lawrence Lessig
Library book
25-29 April

The Internet was born an open medium, one that did not discriminate between what passed over it. It was a commons, usable by all. In The Future of Ideas, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig argues that this neutrality is under assault on three levels:

  • Physical. The most open medium imaginable does no one any good if access to it is restricted. As more people move to DSL and cable modems, the specter of a monopoly or cartel that controls Internet access looms. Even more, they might stifle other technologies, such as spread-spectrum wireless.

  • Code. Cable broadband providers are already infamous for their control mindset: setting arbitrary limits on bandwidth, filtering traffic, prohibiting customers from running servers or attaching to virtual private networks, etc.

  • Content. Copyright protection has expanded from its original 14 year term to up to a century and a half. Patents are being granted that benefit few except the patent-holder. At the same time, copyright holders have used stronger laws like the DMCA to strong-arm into silence those who seek to retain fair use.

The result, Lessig argues, is the eventual destruction of the most innovative new medium since radio. Each new decision by companies and the courts (e.g., Eldred, 2600) erases the freedom of another chunk of the Internet, and destroys another piece of the USA's social & intellectual commons. It's a depressing, pessimistic, but unflinchingly realistic evaluation.

Lessig does provide some guidelines for action in the last two chapters, but we need more. What we as citizens need to protect us from the complete triumph of oligarchy is a new Bill of Rights, one that enshrines the importance of the social & intellectual commons in fundamental law. Where is the Jefferson who will take on this task?

Taking a step back from the content of the book itself, there's a vicious irony that it's a book at all. Lessig's arguments address an current cultural discussion; in a few years, as he acknowledges, the book will be no more than a historical document. You'd think that someone with the passion he has for the subject would want to disseminate his ideas as widely and quickly as possible. To some extent he's done just that by giving interviews and publishing essays, but it's fundamentally ironic that access to his most detailed arguments are restricted to those who can shell out $30 dollars for a hardcover book or $24 for an electronic book. $24 for bits? This ridiculously inflated price does nothing except to confirm Lessig's arguments. I can't imagine a better way to ensure that his arguments aren't widely disseminated. How's that for ironic?


David Rakoff
Library book
28-29 April

This is a collection of essays, most previously published or performed elsewhere. They showcase the author's almost arch voice. I add the qualifier "almost" because Rakoff never quite achieves the imperious distance archness requires. Though he can at times be wickedly superior, just as often his own insecurities, or his identification with the subject of his observation, unexpectedly find him offering a sympathetic portrait. He may play Christmas Freud in a department store window (as told on the 1996-12-20 edition of This American Life), but this offspring of psychiatry knows that rather than Freud, he is more akin to a fraud.

The humor is laugh-out-loud funny; the situations range from working in an ice cream shop run by expatriate Greek aristocrats to spending a week learning wilderness survival. Yet Rakoff doesn't always go for the laugh; the last two essays document his return to places from his past, and are insightful observations. There was more here to think about than I expected.

Fraud is available on CD, read by the author. The book certainly pleases, but I recommend the audio (with certain reservations).

Weaving the Web

Tim Berners-Lee & Mark Fischetti
Library book
29-30 April

After finishing The Future of Ideas, I was curious about the creator of the Web's original conception of it, hence Weaving the Web went on my book queue. My expectations weren't very high; primarily, I was interested in whether the Web had been conceived as it currently exists, with many readers and few writers, or whether its original goal was the creation of a medium to which everyone contributed.

The answer is the latter. Throughout the first section of the book, detailing the creation of the Web, Berners-Lee pushes for the creation of a combined browser/editor. Even in the later sections, which detail the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium and the first work on the Semantic Web, collaboration is a fundamental principle that Berners-Lee promotes. With a few exceptions (e.g., Ward Cunningham's Wiki Wiki Web), the read-only nature of the Web fulfills only part of Berners-Lee's original vision.

As a history of the Web, the book's lack of depth is frustrating. I wanted more detail; for example, if Berners-Lee understood from the beginning the value of separating presentation from semantic markup, why were presentation-only tags like <I> included in HTML? As it is, ten years of creative ferment are covered in just over 200 pages, and half of that seems to be philosophy (and, to some extent, self-defense). This is not the definitive history of the creation of the World Wide Web.

Moab is My Washpot

Stephen Fry
Library book
30 April-1 May

Over the course of his life, Stephen Fry has been an actor, liar, comedian, author, and thief. He's been besotted with love, and in the pokey. Moab is My Washpot recounts the beginning of his life; Stephen Fry's School Days would have been a fitting subtitle.

Let's consider for a moment the subject of lies, which is a thread that runs throughout the book. Elsewhere on this site, I've maintained that there are three ways to lie: to contradict the truth, to tell part of the truth, and to tell the truth unconvincingly. I still hold this true, but Fry's escapades make me feel like a rank amateur. He's lied in ways I've never imagined: creating a big lie to hide a bigger lie, diverting attention from his own lie onto someone else's, and so on. It's as if he's a magician whose one great skill isn't physical misdirection, it's misdirection of veracity:

It was the finest achievement of my life so far, arrived at with bluff, deceit, hypocrisy, manipulation, abuse of trust and a few exploitative elements of gimcrack wisdom and genuinely good advice. -- p. 264

...and the object of this achievement was someone he was passionately in love with. Me, an appreciator of the lie? Hah! By comparison, I'm a piker.

In other words, we have a clever boy's recounting of a trail that led from the bosom of home through the British school system and finally to prison. With many sparkling moments and amusing parenthetic asides, it resembles his novel The Liar more than a little. (That's a good thing.) Some of references will be lost on non-British readers, but one can muddle along well enough without them. A cracking good read. (See? He's got me using all sorts of odd phrases that aren't normally part of my vocabulary. Shows how much the book impressed me.)

Before the review ends, I should point out the similarities to another book I've recently read: David Rakoff's Fraud. Both are autobiographic accounts written by funny gay men with vocabularies bigger than the norm. While I appreciate both, in some ways I remain thankful that that was not my lot in life. Otherwise I might start using "louche" in everyday conversation.

Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder

William Hope Hodgson
Library book
1-3 May

When I was but a lad, I ran across William Hope Hodgson's tale "The Whistling Room" in Henry Mazzeo's outstanding anthology Hauntings. I was fascinated; it read like a supernatural Sherlock Holmes story, with Carnacki taking the main role of spectral investigator. The tale (which certainly stuck in my mind) made reference to other cases ("as you will remember, it was just such a warning that saved me in the 'Grey Dog' Case and in the 'Yellow Finger' Experiments"), which gave it the appearance of being part of a cycle of stories. Yet at the time, I thought the implied continuity was a merry jest.

I was wrong. More stories do exist, and some (although perhaps not all) are collected in Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder. To my amazement, the local university library had a copy of the 1947 Mycroft & Moran edition. So of course I had to read it.

The collection was almost exactly what I expected: nine tales, all following the same formula. Though the eldritch phenomena that Carnacki is called to investigate differ, the procedure is the same. There are amusing touches, particularly Carnacki's employment of his key invention, the "Electric Pentacle". In fact, the stories are hard to take seriously, though that might just be from a twenty-first century perspective.

The one question I'm left with is this: if Carnacki is so intelligent, why does he so often appeal to his listeners, wondering if they understand what he's trying to convey? ("And the feeling of mystery! Can you picture it?") Perhaps the great Carnacki should take a class in expository writing.

If you'd like to sample some yourself, a number of Carnacki stories are online. Fans of classic weird fantasy might also enjoy the online archives of the works of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.


J.G. Ballard
Library book
8-10 May

Paul and Jane Sinclair have just moved to Eden-Olympia, the office park of the future, built above Cannes. Paul is recovering from a minor airplane accident; Jane has accepted a job with the park's medical team. In this sterile new world of multinational headquarters and sixteen-hour workdays, Paul is left with one thing to occupy his mind: the killing spree that took Eden-Olympia by surprise, resulting in the shootings of seven high-placed executives, along with three hostages and the madman. It doesn't help that he and his young wife have been given the assassin's house, and that evidence contradicts the official story. Is his role to understand what drove a dedicated and selfless young doctor to mass murder?

Super-Cannes continues the theme of Running Wild, the exploration of a horrific crime. He brings in his common themes of psychological control, exploration of one's darker impulses, and the outburst in the most repressive environments of man's animal nature. Ballard tips his hand to the rich & powerful; while acknowledging their similarity to the rank & file, he keeps a sharp eye on what money and influence can hide. It's a disquieting read.

Revelation Space

Alastair Reynolds
Library book
11-16 May

The first novel by Alastair Reynolds is a big mixed bag of a SF novel. It attempts to combine the technical imagination of hard SF with the 'tactical dance' school of writing; much of the action takes place in an almost deserted super-high-tech spaceship replete with shifting alliances and subterfuge. The plot follows three characters: Sylveste, a Man with a Notorious Past, who seeks the cause of an alien race's extinction; Khouri, an ex-soldier blackmailed into an assassination; and Volyova, spacer and weapons master, looking for a cure for her Captain's strange affliction. These three collide in a place they never imagined.

As a book, it's interesting but flawed. At almost five hundred pages, it felt quite overwritten; working through the beginning felt like slogging through a viscous substance. The pace picked up midway through, but I never made the connection with the characters that is necessary for full involvement with a novel. Indeed, even near the end I hoped that events would take their predicable course and the cast would snuff it. I didn't hate them, but there was no reason for me to feel anything for them.

For the most part, I was disappointed in the author's imagination. I know that I shouldn't hold everyone to Greg Egan's standard, but when I find myself making a mental list of authors that come to mind (e.g., Brin, Egan, Herbert, McDevitt, Nylund, Reed, Varley), I have to wonder where the originality comes in. On the other hand, one scene did invoke in me a sense of wonder, which is rare these days.

So my reaction is mixed. If the sequel (Chasm City) comes into the library, I might read it, or I might not. Do I want to slog through hundreds of pages for the few worthwhile nuggets the book might offer?

Errata: on p, 382, substitute "entomology" for "etymology".


Comte de Lautrémont, translated by Guy Wernham
Library book
6-21 May

It was in high school that I first read of the pre-Surrealist work Les Chants de Maldoror, in Anna Balakian's interesting survey of Surrealist literature, Surrealism: the Road to the Absolute. However, in the early 1980s in southern New York state, translations of obscure 19th century French works were in short supply. I put my curiosity away, with the hope of someday encountering a translation.

In many ways, it's pleasant to live near a university. Recently, while searching its library for a Sartre quote (Nausea, p. 39-40), I found Guy Wertham's translation of Lautréamont's work. Finally my curiosity would be satisfied!

The work is opaque, strange, and dreamlike. There's no plot, just a series of fantastic and gruesome episodes that follow on one another's heels. The narrator, who is the protagonist, alternates between being infernally proud (repeatedly challenging God) and abject. He assaults children, lies with a female shark, is tormented nightly by a vampiric spider that is two men he betrayed; he vanquishes the archangel sent for his salvation, revels in apostrophe, and offers a paean to mathematics. His metaphors are baroque, and wrap themselves in flesh. The narrative twists like a snake, having the logic of a dream. It is this work which gave the Surrealists one of their favorite quotes:

... as handsome as ... the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella -- p. 263

If you're looking for something strange, challenging, poetic, and ultimately pointless, look no further.

Errata: on p. 185, substitute "lumbar" for "lumber".

Time Out of Joint

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
22 May

Have I really read no Philip K. Dick novels yet this year? I must be slipping. The next few months should correct the situation.

Ragle Gumm is a middle-aged ex-military bachelor who lives with his sister's family, making a good living and earning minor fame by consistently winning the newspaper's daily "Where Will the Little Green Man Appear Next?" game. They live in an almost storybook 1950s, where the neighbors come over to visit every night and play cards. The only fly in the ointment are a few little things that don't quite make sense: a staircase with one fewer steps than expected, a light switch that isn't there. Add to that a tattered and coverless phone book found in a vacant lot, all of whose numbers are out of order. Slowly Gumm and the people around him begin to wonder: is the world just a little, well, off? If the answer's no, then where do these odd pieces fit? And even worse, what if the answer isn't no?

This early Dick novel reads like a roadmap to later novels. The theme of the illusory nature of reality predominates; it will return again in stronger form in Ubik, VALIS, and other novels. Other common minor PKD elements appear as well: the dangerous and mercurial small dark-haired woman, the manifestations and discussion of insanity. (The latter is particularly surprising, coming from characters who live the most ordinary of 1950s suburban existences.) Unlike later Dick novels, disorientation is the domain of the characters; for the most part, the narrative is exceedingly straightforward, and reader disorientation is kept to a minimum. Consider this an introductory novel, quickly read. Then go on to the harder stuff. It's worth it.

Making History

Stephen Fry
Library book
24-26 May

Ho-hum, another alternative history fantasy. Every writer of speculative fiction, published or not, seems to come up with some variation. There are hundreds out there, from Harry Turtledove's cottage industry to polemic turkeys like L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach. Does the world need any more?

Well, yes. Making History is precisely the kind of book the world needs a few more of. For one thing, it's not marketed or even written as a fantasy, although it is. That lets it slip into reading queues without being labeled as lowbrow trash. (Yes, it's still a prejudice that SF labors against, despite a history of including such allegedly mainstream works as Frankenstein, Super-Cannes, and Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.) For another, it's refreshingly free of attempts to justify itself scientifically; the world-changing plot device is practically labelled as such. Finally, and this is what makes it important to the world of SF, it's about people. Mr. Fry writes almost convincingly of the protagonist's disorientation on finding himself in a world that is in some ways radically different from the one he's known. Some SF authors could learn from his example.

Making History isn't perfect; as an author, he tends to overwrite his soliloquies to an extreme. (To paraphrase Fry's own The Liar, "He doesn't half rabbit, does he?".) This is mostly a problem in the book's slow beginning. As the novel picks up steam, the prose excursions fade into the background.

So: will history be forever changed? If Hitler had never been born, would the Holocaust never have happened? Will our hero be picked up as a spy? Will his girl return? Is a world without the Beatles and Oasis better or worse than ours? For answers, you'll have to turn to the book.

As a side note, Making History taught me a little bit of German (e.g., ulkiger Vogel). I'll never again be able to keep a straight face around my childhood friend Franz, though.

Errata: on p. 193, substitute "two hundred hours" for "fourteen hundred hours". The latter is 2 PM, not 2 AM. This was noted by an anonymous reader who penciled the erratum into the page's margin.

Schild's Ladder

Greg Egan
New hardcover
28-31 May

With Schild's Ladder, Greg Egan continues his synthesis of hard science fiction with an exploration of the values in a world of radical freedom. Given potential immortality, freedom from want, and the ability to live in practically any imaginable way, how would we choose to live? Why would we choose to live that way? What values influence our decision?

The plot, set thousands of years in the future, concerns the result of a physics experiment gone disastrously wrong. An attempt to verify the most elegant theory of everything results in a sphere of twisted space that grows at half light speed, engulfing everything in its path. On the research station Rindler, which maintains a precariously close distance to the ever-expanding sphere, the traveler Tchicaya meets his childhood friend and "dark lady" Mariama. They find themselves in different factions, one of which seeks to destroy the sphere, the other to stop its advance. In the crowded Rindler, with worlds at stake, the tensions mount as each faction seeks its goal.

As this drama plays out, Egan finds time to examine his themes. Radical freedom gets a workout, but it's a minor theme. The predominant theme is how people grow and change over time. In a universe where an entire world can choose to slow down its existence so that one offworld traveler does not experience culture shock after returning hundreds of years later, what leads a person to change? When memory becomes manipulable at will, how will people choose to use this power? These are the questions Egan considers, using the mathematical construct of Schild's Ladder as a metaphor.

Another of Egan's minor themes makes an appearance, which is how to treat people seeking asylum. When entire planetary populations are in flight, where do they go? Is it ethical to refuse them landing, dooming them to travel indefinitely? I'm curious whether this theme, which surface in some of his other works, is motivated by the current controversy about refugees in Egan's native Australia.

As a novel, it's less than his best. The beginning is slow, and it took me a while to really become involved in the plot. There are interesting elements (e.g., the anachronauts and the novo-vacuum), but large chunks of the novel are devoted to Socratic discussion. Schild's Ladder isn't as concerned with people as Egan's earlier Distress, but it isn't as straightforward a hard SF adventure as Diaspora. Recommended, but not the best starting novel for those interested in Greg Egan.

The Linz Café

Christopher Alexander
Library book
3 June

This very short book describes Alexander's application of his group's pattern language to a new building, a café on the bank of the Danube in Liz, Austria. Given a very short time to design and build, Alexander spends more time discussing problems and details than explaining how each pattern affected the café's design. The book's brevity and consequent lack of depth explain why it is out of print, unlike the other books in the series.

The Linz Café reminded me of an important lesson: making a house into a home requires the participation of its inhabitants in its design and construction. This was better illustrated in The Production of Houses, but it's worth restating.

Kiln People

David Brin
New hardcover
3-11 June

Albert Morris, detective, is about to have a bad day. Actually, he's about to have four of them, all at the same time. That's because Albert Morris lives in a future world in which one can create duplicates of oneself. These clay-based duplicates last for about a day, then obey a homing response that brings them back to their creator. There, the experiences from these golems are uploaded to the original, giving a kind of existential continuity to these clayflies. (Please pardon the pun.) So a day can be very good when your dittoed selves have a good brief existence, or they can be bad. Albert -- both the original and his golems -- are going to have a few very bad days, all at once.

Brin's created an interesting little world, which he obviously is having fun with. Clay- and ditto puns abound (high-quality Albert Morris golems are "ditectives"). The plot involves the murder of one of the inventors of dittoing, and includes high-rollers, an elusive criminal mastermind, double-crosses, and other trappings of a noir detective story. Throw in prion bombs, dinosaur-shaped golems used for public transport, and war spectator sports, and you get a quirky vision of a future that isn't to be. But we can have fun as we follow Albert's wise-cracking, self-deprecating dittos as they undertake a task that's much much more than they (and realAlbert) bargained for.

Throw into this a few deep concepts: the nature of self, and an ethical question or two, for example. Occasionally these ideas will pop up, making one stop to think. I was quite amused to see that the society was built on the foundation of open access that Brin pondered in his nonfiction The Transparent Society. The world of Kiln People isn't perfect, and it's to Brin's credit that he doesn't romanticize it (unlike, say, L. Neil Smith). All in all, an amusing outing. It won't revolutionize the field, but since when is every book required to do that?

(Is it significant that reversing the protagonist's name gives Morris Albert, the name of the man who perpetrated the sap classic "Feelings" on the world in 1975?)

Out of Tune

John Frohnmayer
New trade paperback
1-15 June

John Frohnmayer was the head of the National Endowment for the Arts when the Mapplethorpe brouhaha exploded. The furor changed him from a supporter of the First Amendment to, in his own words, a First Amendment radical. This short book is a result of that dedication. Out of Tune: Listening to the First Amendment is an 80-page exploration of the principles on which the U.S. government is founded, and the value of free expression. The author cites numerous examples from history to support his arguments. Despite its brevity, this book packs a singular punch. The questions Frohnmayer asks are good for a lifetime's worth of debates.

The balance of the book is its appendices, which include the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham jail. It was worth the price of the book alone to have another copy of them.

A slight oddity of the book is that each chapter is followed by a list of discussion questions. Was the book intended for students? If so, bravo. I would have taken his class.

Errata: on p. 25, in the Clash lyrics, substitute "unless" for "lest" and "rehabilitation" for "hospitalization". Add "of course" after "Provided".

Year's Best SF 7

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
New paperback
20-25 April

I don't have a lot to say about this year's Year's Best SF anthology. It opens weakly with Nancy Kress' "Computer Virus", which has too many coincidental plot elements to be believable, but continues with a set of good but not great stories. I most appreciated those by Richard Chwedyk and Edward M. Lerner. The least appealing of the bunch was Lisa Goldstein's "The Go-Between", due to the implausible naïveté of its protagonist. Her abdication of responsibility revealed her immaturity, making me wonder why she was given an ambassadorship in the first place.

China Mountain Zhang

Maureen F. McHugh
Library book
30 June-1 July

Maureen F. McHugh's first novel is a rarity: a mosaic SF novel. In the absence of a dramatic conflict, the novel is carried by the characters. They're a small cross-section of society: colonists, voluntary and not, on a lonely Mars; fliers in human-powered kite races; and a political and naïve young woman with a malformed face. All connect in one way or another with Zhang, a young man with feet in both the old world (China) and the new (New York City).

The setting is interesting, and reminiscent of Philip K. Dick (lonely Martian colonists, a west fallen to the east). I found myself most intrigued by Zhang's experience learning the discipline of organic engineering, a mental discipline in some ways similar to the architectural ideas of Christopher Alexander. However, there's a lot more to the book than this. It's about life, and the living of it. It's not hard to imagine this becoming someone's favorite book.

(Evil thought: while reading p. 216, I suddenly imagined Zhang's narrative being read aloud by David Rakoff. That's just too plausible a match.)

Errata. There are a number of typos throughout the book; "peal" is often used for "peel", "loose" for "lose", and "pour over" for "pore over".

The Simulacra

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
5-6 July

Built around his 1963 short story "Novelty Act", The Simulacra is near-classic Philip K. Dick. The interweaving plots revolve around a power struggle between industrial cartels and the head of the U.S. government. The cartels are at the mercy of the fickle First Lady, the long-lived but inexplicably youthful Nicole Thibodeaux. She in turn shares a secret with the cartels: her democratically elected husbands are actually android figureheads. The precariously balanced truce that these two parties have evolved is about to be pulled apart by a combination of time travel, a revolutionary leader, and a clinically insane pianist who plays his instrument with not his hands but his mind.

Compared to the rest of Dick's novels, The Simulacra was a little frustrating. The elements of his best novels are present, but they don't quite come to flower. It's rather like a stew that's kept just below the temperature it needs to achieve its full savor. The result is a good stew, which in PKD's terms means that it's bursting with ideas, but it isn't a great stew. Call it a very near miss.

The Wiki Way

Bo Leuf & Ward Cunningham
New trade paperback
13 June-10 July

In 1994, Ward Cunningham created a new kind of Web site which he called a wiki (from the Hawai'ian wiki wiki, meaning quick). It was revolutionary in several ways: every page was editable by anyone, using a standard Web browser; text formatting was done through simple, non-HTML markup; linking between pages was automatic. The wiki software was made available for anyone to use and modify.

Mr. Cunningham's experiment was a success. The original wiki is still going strong, with over 20,000 pages and a dedicated community of contributors and caretakers. Wikis have entered academia, business, and many other niches. Hundreds of wiki clones have been created in a variety of languages, with a wide range of features and extensions. It was inevitable that a book would appear on the subject.

The good news is that The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web is the best book written about wikis. The bad news is that it's the only book on the subject. The Wiki Way is a portmanteau book, cramming in wiki style, a long analysis of the source code to one wiki, different uses of wikis, wiki philosophy, and more. Covering a wide variety of material isn't a bad thing, but requires a talented editor. This book doesn't hang together particularly well, and should have been rewritten to improve clarity. For example, I would have moved the section on academic and business uses of wikis before the source code analysis. The authors acknowledge that The Wiki Way is a book to skip around in, which sounds to me like an admission of failure to give the book a coherent structure. Perhaps I should wait for Wikis in a Nutshell.

My judgment might be biased by the fact that I've used wikis daily for the past few months. Reading about them really doesn't do them justice; it's hard to communicate the serendipitous delight of creating a link, only to find that the target already exists. Imagine trying to describe the World Wide Web to someone who's never used it.

Speaking of the Web, wikis are closer to Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of the Web as a collaborative medium in which anyone can participate. It's ironic that many people, when faced with the open nature of wikis, respond with “this can't possibly work”—but it does. Such thinking strikingly illuminates the gulf between what the Web was envisioned as, and the set of museum exhibits that it now is.

There's an online errata. This is useful, as there are a surprising number of errors in the book, both of fact and format.

The Sheep Look Up

John Brunner
Used paperback
10-13 July

This is the third of Brunner's major dystopian novels. Each focuses on a different near future: The Shockwave Rider considers runaway technological change, Stand on Zanzibar deals with overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up depicts a world rendered nightmarish due to pollution. Of the three, all of which are worth reading, the world of The Sheep Look Up corresponds most closely to our own. Ours is not (yet) as bad as the one depicted, but we do have some of its hallmarks: antibiotic-resistant staph, pesticide-ridden food, water unsafe to drink or bathe in, and devastation caused by accidentally imported animals (e.g., the zebra mussel). It's sobering reading of the "if this goes on" genre.

After finishing it, I couldn't help but be amazed that, thirty years after the novel's publication, our world is in as good a shape as it is, comparatively.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Nineteenth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
14-20 July

Another year, another six hundred and fifty pages of SF. The stories in this collection range in quality. The one that sticks in my mind is Jim Grimsley's "Into Greenwood", a subtle and dark counterpart to Ursula K. Le Guin's "Vaster Than Empires, And More Slow". On the other end of the spectrum, Paul J. McAuley's "The Two Dicks" is an absolutely routine slipstream story of the famous-people-with-switched-lives variety. Isn't that genre dead yet?

Perhaps I'm a bit better read this year, but it seems to me that Dozois missed some obvious entries, such as Susan Palwick's "Gestella". Maybe he couldn't get reprint rights. There are some good stories, but nothing that knocked my socks off (like last year's "Antibodies"). It must have been a so-so year for SF.

Fight Club

Chuck Palahniuk
Library book
23 July

Question: if you're so numbed by society that the only way to feel alive is to get beaten or beat someone else, what good are you to anyone?

There's a lot to argue about with Fight Club. It's a quick read. The writing's choppy and somewhat affected, but the ideas stay with you longer. It's full of pithy quotes that reflect the nihilism the main character espouses. It's worth discussing, if you like arguments about self-discovery through extreme behavior. I'd rather talk about ways to make the world better.

What I'm afraid of, of course, is that someone might think that any part of the book is serious.

Titus Andronicus

William Shakespeare
New hardcover
23-24 July

For once, I broke my rule of not reading reviews of a work before writing my own. The Shakespeare scholars Bloom and Wells both agree that Titus Andronicus is, to put it charitably, not Shakespeare's best play. In fact, it's one of the worst. It is so filled with horrible things (murder, rape, mutilation, cannibalism), that it becomes hard to take seriously. I won't give the ending away, but the banquet scene struck me as both out of character and just plain ridiculous. Read another of Shakespeare's plays instead.

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang
New hardcover
3-5 August

Must I praise Ted Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life" again? This is the fourth book I've bought which includes it. (It's still excellent.) I'd also read most of the other stories, including "Understand", "Hell is the Absence of God", "Tower of Babylon", and "Seventy-Two Letters". The story that left me thinking was "Liking What You See: a Documentary", about the ramifications of a reversible induced agnosia that leaves one unaffected by beauty in others. It's an intriguing concept, but the story didn't have the kick-to-head impact of Raphael Carter's similar "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation". That's damning it with faint praise, though.

Do yourself a favor: buy this in hardcover. It's worth it. Encourage the author to write more.

Silent Theft

David Bollier
New hardcover
20 July-11 August

I must be a choir that likes to be preached to. How else can I explain reading this book, when almost all of its contents are familiar to me?

The subject of Silent Theft: the Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth is the privatization of public wealth, in the form of commons, natural resources, publicly funded research, et cetera. Examples of this abuse are legion. The U.S. government sells mineral rights for a pittance. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act ensures that no work will enter the public domain for twenty years. The plaintiff in Veeck vs. SBCCI asserted that laws can be copyrighted (and two lower courts upheld the claim!). Drug companies profit from federal research, while doing all they can to extend their exclusive rights to the fruits of that research. The takings movement sees private property as sacrosanct, ignoring the effects it has on the environment. The list goes on.

The problem is that there is little recognition that what is being plundered is the common wealth of the nation. Silent Theft documents that plunder in its many forms, and proposes action to restore the commons as part of civic life.

This isn't the definitive argument for the restoration of the commons. In truth, I purchased the book primarily as a catalog of the various current abuses of the commons, and it serves that purpose well. However, the book's (light) academic tone hinders its effect as a call to action for the masses. Honestly, though, with the exception of some software zealots and legal theoreticians, does anyone care? When the issue is whether the release of The Great Gatsby into the public domain is delayed by two decades, I find it hard to believe that most Americans would care.

Flying in Place

Susan Palwick
Library book
11-12 August

Here's a warning. If you are going to read Flying in Place, estimate how long it takes you to read a short novel in one sitting, then arrange to have that much time free. I started it about 10:30 PM last night, and finished it this morning at 12:45 AM. Reading it in one sitting wasn't my plan, but not long after starting it I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep until it was done. Consider yourself warned.

Honestly, though, what else should I have expected from a book by Susan Palwick? The few stories of her that I've run across ("Going After Bobo", "Gestella") revealed the sharp eye of the author, who asks hard questions about freedom and power.

Flying in Place is the story of Emma, a girl on the edge of adolescence in a troubled family. There's her brittle and disapproving mother, a father whose surgical skill wins the praise of all, and the memory of a dead sister she never knew. The dead girl's room is always locked, yet Emma wonders what's inside it. One early morning, during one of those horrible times when her father molests her, she leaves her body and meets her sister. Emma's journey of discovery has begun, and soon lives will be shattered and remade.

The writing is pared down. The arguments are raw, and words are whips. In a word, this book is sharp.


Hal Clement
Library book
12-16 August

Two aliens crash on Earth. One is a criminal, the other a police officer. Each is a 2kg lump of protean flesh, requiring an oxygen-breathing host for survival. The police officer enters an adolescent boy, and enlists his aid in catching the criminal. They face a daunting problem: how is one supposed to find a being that can hide in other people's bodies, and even transfer itself between them?

One could treat this in several ways. The paranoid "who's the alien?" aspect could have been played up à la John Campbell's "Who Goes There?". Alternatively, this could have been a first contact story, focusing on the interaction between human and alien. A third possibility would be to make this a story of adolescence, with the boy's encounter with the alien leading to his maturation.

Clement takes none of these approaches. Rather, this reads like a science fiction version of a Hardy Boys story. The protagonist spends most of his time with his childhood friends, bicycling around the small south Pacific island they call home, swimming in the sea, and exploring reefs. Adults are given little personality. This applies even to the alien; we learn almost nothing about his culture. In terms of character development, which I would have expected to be the heart of the story, Needle is a long short story. As a novel, it's on par with Heinlein's juveniles. That fine, but I expected more.

I should mention that I found the ending disturbing. How mores have changed with times.

One Market Under God

Thomas Frank
New trade paperback
23 July-25 August

If you worked in the United States in the last decade, you must have noticed what's been going on. Companies "became agile" (fired employees), government deregulated (capitulated to business), employees "became empowered" (to find other jobs, since it was obvious theirs weren't going to last), unions were killed, and people "voted with their dollars" (bought crap). Oh, and let's not forget that during this period of increasing productivity and low inflation, earnings for most workers stagnated or actually fell, while the wealth of the rich few increased by a huge factor. Good news for the stock market, indeed -- except that now you can't afford to send your kid to college. That's okay; she just needs to learn to be agile, too. Or maybe she likes the idea of never having health insurance, or a retirement plan, or a decent wage.

One Market Under God dissects how America reached this point. By examining the language of business and the influence of cultural studies, Thomas Frank documents how we were led to believe that the market is the most democratic of all institutions. (Never mind that pesky thing called democratic government.) The people, you see, "vote with their dollars". (Ignore the fact that voting requires accurate and full knowledge -- never business' strong suit -- to be effective, and also that "one dollar, one vote" is frowned upon in polling places.) Frank makes the case that the pro-business lobby has won an Orwellian war: people now believe that government has no authority to regulate -- in other words, govern -- a dangerously powerful bloc, business.

It's a disquieting read, full of doublespeak: corporate heads who call themselves revolutionaries; management theorists who claim the workers are in control, even as their benefits and job security are dismembered; people who think that because they might be the next dot-com millionaire, tax laws should be repealed. All the while the stock markets surge higher, fueling a classic bubble. Yet this isn't a bubble, the experts say; this is a permanent revolution in the way business is done, made possible by the Internet.

Written in 2000, the book now comes with an afterword written in 2001. By that time the stock market had crashed, fortunes disappeared overnight, and pro-market pundits rushed new columns into print to cover their asses. It was obvious that the greatest fortunes were made not by ma'n'pa investors in Peoria, but by brokers and CEOs. As with any bust, the little folk paid the rich. And the revelations of egregious corporate accounting fraud (leading to the multibillion-dollar bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom) hadn't even begun.

We lived through a bubble, certainly. But One Market Under God is still relevant, even in the post-pop era. The language that we use to think about populism and business has been twisted, and might never return to its former meaning. Frank's polemic is a warning, a call for clarity in speech, thought, and act. Without it, a return to economic and social balance will be longer and more damaging than it need be.


Robert Charles Wilson
Library book
25-26 August

Bios is a short novel, or a long novella, or an overlong short story. It's the story of a young woman, a product of a rigid clan society, gaining her first taste of freedom on a new planet. The world itself, however, is not only alien, but dangerously lethal. Zoe is there to pit her freshly-engineered defenses against a biosphere that to date has killed all interlopers.

On the whole, the book left me unmoved. I kept comparing it to other works, in particular Greg Bear's novella Heads and Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco. The characters didn't have much depth, and the ending was disappointing, cribbing an improbable concept from a popular science work. Suspension of disbelief became a willed act, and when that happens, an author's failed. The audience isn't supposed to see the strings.

Running After Antelope

Scott Carrier
New trade paperback
27 August

Several years ago I heard a radio program that stopped me cold. It was an episode of This American Life, and the story that held me spellbound was Scott Carrier's "Running After Antelope". In it, he related his brother's theory that human evolution was guided not by tool-making or speech, but by an ability to chase game until it is exhausted. To prove this theory, the Carrier brothers dedicated themselves to recover the lost (and perhaps mythic) ability to run down an antelope.

What fascinated me about this story was how Scott Carrier's brother devoted his whole life to the proof of his theory. That kind of dedication is something I have not encountered, and hearing about it revealed a way to live one's life that I'd never considered.

The book Running After Antelope uses this story as a framing device to present other tales from Scott Carrier's existence. Some are humorous, and some (like "The Test") are sad and disturbing. Carrier's quest is to find the essence under the appearance, the pure product of existence, and at his best he does.

A tip: listen to Mr. Carrier read one of his stories before reading this book. It helps to hear his voice in your head.

Swift Thoughts

George Zebrowski
Library book
1-3 September

Yes, the man has ideas. If only his prose style interested me. Instead, as I read the final stories in this SF anthology, my thoughts were on John Kessel's "Invaders", which covered the same topic (metafiction about SF), but did so brilliantly. By comparison, Zebrowski's prose felt congealed. He manages to rise above himself occasionally (e.g., the fine "In the Distance, and Ahead in Time"), most lack that certain subtlety demanded by the short story form.

Suggestion to the author: there's no need to pepper your afterwords with complimentary quotes from other professionals. If it's a good story, we'll know.

Whole Wide World

Paul J. McAuley
Library book
3-5 September

A disgraced policeman, half on his way to alcoholism and marking time in a dead-end department, is pulled into a case involving a young woman who was murdered in front of a Webcam. Despite official admonishment, he is unable to stay off the case, and finds himself between criminals and a department that wishes he would just go away. Yet dig he must.

Whole Wide World, though marketed as science fiction, is much more a detective novel in the classic Chandler mold. However, its surveillance-camera-dominated England is a chillingly near future, especially in these times when people are willing to sell their freedom to any charlatan who promises security.

The writing is quite good. The characterizations were engaging; the main character's actions are guided as much by his morality as by his desire for redemption. The minor characters also fare well.

It was refreshing to read a novel which demonstrates that the author understands the technology he's writing about. The only unconvincing part was Anthony Booth's explanation on page 336; a distributed system with tens of thousands of semiautonomous components absolutely requires that individual components can be added or replaced piecemeal. Otherwise the system will be both unmaintainable and vulnerable to sabotage.

Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin
Library book
5-6 September

So Tehanu wasn't the last book of Earthsea after all. Le Guin returns to her fantasy world of dragons, mages, and islands in Tales from Earthsea, which contains five stories and a descriptive essay. The stories are good, but several can be appreciated best only by those familiar with the earlier Earthsea stories. The final story, "Dragonfly", sets the stage for the next Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. I look forward to reading it.


Charles Stross
New trade paperback
12-13 September

It's unusual to read a SF story collection in which the author's comments are dead on. Toast and Other Rusted Futures manages this trick because most of the stories are set in the near future. Although none of the stories is more than a dozen years old, some show their age. However, when your subject is technological extrapolation, you're allowed to have some misses, like the still-entertaining Y2K story "Ship of Fools".

The stories have lots of snap and crackle, and it's refreshing to read technological fiction by someone who really understands the tech. However, despite the promise shown by stories such as "A Colder War" and especially "Antibodies" (which I'd have chosen for that year's best SF story), I can't help but wonder whether the title hits too close to home. The only major SF author who's been able to surf the wave of the near future recently has been Bruce Sterling; is Stross canny enough to join him? His next collection is going to be make-or-break.

Over half of the stories in this collection are available at the author's Web site. Read, buy, encourage.

Note that the Cosmos Books trade paperback edition contains a number of typographic errors (e.g., uncapitalized names of political parties on p. 91), and makes a complete hash of a sentence in the last paragraph of p. 83.


J.G. Ballard
New trade paperback
18 September

As I began J.G. Ballard's Crash, it struck me that reading about sex and car crash victims while lying in a hospital bed might not be a great idea. But it was Ballard, and what else was there to read? So read I did.

It was surprisingly undisturbing, compared to the movie. Cronenberg's proficiency at evoking visceral reactions served the movie well, but isn't played as strongly in the book. Whereas Cronenberg tended to focus on fetishization of the deformities of car crash victims, Ballard's concern is the psychological link between crashes and sexuality. The two approaches are complementary.

Ballard's prose, while dry and tight, does tend to repeat itself. Yet one can overlook this failing in a book that's an audacious demonstration of the freedom of imagination. I can't say it's a great book, but it's important because it is one of the few books that shows a different way of living.

The Jagged Orbit

John Brunner
New trade paperback
20-22 September

I thought I'd exhausted the fertile late-60s sociological SF novels of John Brunner, but then I found The Jagged Orbit. It explores yet another form of dystopia, this one defined by an endemic pathological fear of strangers. As an increasing percentage of the population ends up in asylums, those left are armed to the teeth by the brutal arms dealers/extortionists of the Gottschalk dynasty. Yet in the main asylum of New York, a psychiatrist discovers an anomalous patient who might hold the key to a new world.

This book was a little disappointing, due to its juxtaposition of two wildly different elements. I thoroughly enjoyed the style, which came straight out of Stand on Zanzibar. However, this was combined with one plot point that was jarringly incongruous. It made for a strange mix. I recommend it, but before you begin it remind yourself that this is a different kind of novel than Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up.

Scratch Monkey

Charles Stross
Online novel
24 September

Oshi Adjani is a member of Distant Intervention, an organization that does the bidding of superhuman artificial intelligences. Oshi's job is to root out the occasional "Year Zero" ideology, which can infest an entire planet. These manias threaten the AI-maintained status quo. Unfortunately, her mission on New Salazar goes sour, and she learns more about the status quo than is good for her. She finds that she is expendable, and her one chance to redeem herself lies in a star system whose AI has, without explanation, gone silent. Is the AI dead, mad, or worse?

It's an interesting idea, but the novel is flawed. It's composed of episodes which don't hang together well, and it's overwritten (how many times do you run across "purulent" in daily conversation?). Those can be forgivable offenses, but Scratch Monkey suffers from a fatal flaw: one of the premises of its fictional universe is unbelievable. To wit, why would superhuman artificial intelligences require a steady stream of human experiences? They're beyond human; can't they simulate as much human experience as they require? This doesn't make sense, and the author doesn't justify it .

This is an unpublished first novel.If you're interested it, you'll have to ask the author for permission.

Double, Double

John Brunner
Used paperback
28-29 September

This short SF novel reads like an episode of The X-Files: a decomposing yet still animate body washes up on a beach. Shortly thereafter, a batty old woman nearby goes missing. Then she's seen in more than one place at the same time, although she doesn't seem quite the same. What exactly has she become, and why do there seem to be duplicates of her running around? It's a plot straight out of The Night Stalker.

The real mystery about this book is that its copyright is 1969, the middle of the period when Brunner was publishing the excellent books that include Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Jagged Orbit. This book is so unlike them that I wonder whether it was written quickly to pay the bills, or was older work that he had on the shelf. It's competent but minor.


Cordwainer Smith
Used paperback
5-9 October

Listen, unreconstructed man. You've heard of Rod McBan, the boy who became rich enough to buy Old Earth? How one night spent trading stroon futures, guided by his family's all-but-forgotten computer, brought him the dowers of a million Earth women, and the attention of the cat-girl C'mell? How the Instrumentality decided to deal with this young man, who sought nothing more than a postage stamp? Yes, it's true, and the tale began on Old North Australia, commonly called Norstrilia, where rugged farmers raise their giant mutated sheep and live hardy lives. It happened once, and things have been done to ensure that it can't happen again, but it was the making of Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan, the boy who lived four childhoods.

Cordwainer Smith (the pen name of Dr. Paul Linebarger) wrote this, his only novel, as part of his epic story cycle The Rediscovery of Man. It has its moments, but Smith's prose is so striking that it's best savored in small amounts. It's not really a coming-of-age novel, nor a picaresque. With its many references to other Instrumentality of Man stories, it almost feels like a cast party. Its use of poetry is an unusual touch. The Christian imagery that marred his later stories is present, but Smith wisely kept it to a minimum. What it is is quite imaginative, distinctive, and memorable.

The Other Wind

Ursula K. Le Guin
Library book
10-11 October

This return to Earthsea begins with the troubled dreams of Alder, a pot-mender. Night after night, he dreams of meeting his dead wife at a low wall at the base of a hill. When Alder seeks help for his troubled sleep, the importance of his dreams is recognized. They presage the failing balance between the world of life and death. Soon this disturbance will affect everyone on Earthsea. With an unimaginable future looming, a small company travels across Earthsea to restore the balance.

Le Guin's writing is a pleasure. She has learned, better than any fantasy writer I can think of, to let the story unfold in simple, clear prose. Her writing has a graceful economy. Her plotting also has this quality; there are no gratuitous battles or appearances by eldritch forces. Yet I am left with a question. Le Guin didn't explain why a situation which had been stable for several hundred years suddenly became a crisis. Perhaps asking why is beside the point, but it left me unsatisfied.

Note: you should read Tales from Earthsea before reading The Other Wind. One of the stories in Tales is a necessary prequel.

His Dark Materials

A trilogy by Philip Pullman

  1. The Golden Compass
    Library book
    15-16 October

  2. The Subtle Knife
    Library book
    16-17 October

  3. The Amber Spyglass
    Library book
    17-18 October

Lyra, an orphan adopted by Jordan College of Oxford, is a scamp. When her curiosity leads her to overhear a murderous plot, she begins a long and difficult journey that will eventually span other worlds. Along the way, she'll meet armored bears, a forbidding uncle, a woman of great beauty and deadly malice, witches, and a brave boy named Will, who also has a role to play in Lyra's destiny. Together they have the potential to change the world. Their first goal, though, must be to survive, because many others understand their importance, and will do anything to use them for their own ends.

It's a well done trilogy. Pullman has created a richly seasoned world, in which the quotidian is never separate from the extraordinary. Lyra's Oxford is not ours, and the influence of her world's Church bulks large. Lyra herself is a sharply defined character, turning on a dime from an accomplished liar to a child overwhelmed by the part she must play. Her evolution from a child to an adolescent (for growing up is very much the subject of this trilogy) is handled subtly.

The trilogy is not without a few flaws. The first two books are exciting and fast-paced, but the action slows in The Amber Spyglass. In the third book, a character is introduced to no purpose, and the ending leaves major questions unanswered. However, the trilogy's merits more than outweigh its blemishes.

I've heard that some people are upset by the trilogy's portrayal of religion. This amuses me, since the church in Lyra's world is closer to the ominous sponsor of the Inquisition than it is to religions today. If people see their own church in Pullman's trilogy, what does that say about how they view their own religious institution?

Mastering Regular Expressions, First Edition

Jeffrey E.F. Friedl
New trade paperback
? September-20 October

If you're interested in or use regular expressions often, this book is required reading. The author explores the differences between the many implementations of regular expressions, and demonstrates techniques for optimizing them. The difference between (.)* and (.*) is larger than you might think, and people using regular expressions need to understand the implications of each. This is the book to do it.

The information is practical, but the book's casual tone is distracting. For example, a footnote on p. 258 thanks someone for having a sense of humor. That's fine if you're writing for friends, but it doesn't belong in a technical work.

A second edition is now available, as is errata for the first edition.


Greg Egan
20-22 October

Teranesia, which I last read in 1999, continues Egan's drive to integrate speculation on radical freedom with human stories. I still haven't warmed up to the characters completely. For example, Prabir's treatment of Felix may be more realistic than most relationships in SF, but his habit of holding Felix at arm's length didn't endear Prabir to me. However, Egan's characterization is growing stronger, and it only helps his writing. At this point, the SF maguffin is sharing the spotlight with the characters, rather than overshadowing them as in his early novels.

I liked this more the second time around. This time, I found myself wondering about Prabir's sister. She gets few lines, but I feel an empathy for her childhood spent in the overprotective care of her older brother. Also, it was interesting to recognize that Egan's position on immigration came through in the novel; I'd missed that before.

Cards As Weapons

Ricky Jay
Borrowed trade paperback
30-31 October

When I was a teen, a fair amount of the time I spent in the local mall was spent in its major bookstore. The science fiction and science sections were my favorites, but the bookstore was small enough that I became familiar with a fair amount of its inventory. Time has erased most of the titles from my memory, but one book stood out from the rest. It baffled me; its subject was so absurd that it must be a joke, yet its delivery was so deadpan that I couldn't decide whether it actually was a joke. That book was Ricky Jay's Cards As Weapons.

In short, this is the book you need if you ever find yourself menaced by thugs in a dark alley, with naught by a Rider deck in your pocket. Jay demonstrates various ways of throwing cards, including the Thurston Grip, the Herrmann Grip, the eponymous Jay Grip, and ultimately the lethal Four-Card Fist. Warm-up exercises, card-based self-defense for the elderly, record-setting card throws, a gratuitously nude model, the obligatory Hemingway parody: it's all here, and deeply weird. Part of the book's fascination lies in discerning the true from the fanciful, which is sometimes harder than you might think. It's one of the strangest books I've read.

Thanks are due to my neighbor Elaine, who lent me her copy of this long out of print and by now justly legendary book.

The Star Fraction

Ken MacLeod
31 October-14 November

Read it again, enjoyed it again, and still can't help feeling that I'm missing at least half of what's going on because I don't know anything about the history of U.K. socialist and communist movements during the past century.

Someday I must reread the Fall Revolution tetralogy, making a chart of who's who and how everyone connects.

Errata. On p. 117, 1st paragraph, last sentence, the sense of signal-to-noise should be reversed. Change "high" to "low".

Nina's Adventures

Nina Paley
Used trade paperback
17 November

This brief book is a collection of Nina Paley's cartoon "Nina's Adventures" from 1992-3. She's got a fantastic line, bold and sure, remiscent of Howard Cruse at his cartooniest. The writing is topical and smart, taking on religion, health, sexism, dating, overpopulation, Camille Paglia, and other annoyances. The 6th from the last full-page comic is, well,... I want to see the movie that came from!

She also draws darn cute rats. Not that she's known for that, but it is true. If I ever need a cartoon logo done, she'll be on my list of artists to consider.

Counter-Clock World

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
17-20 November

Sebastian Hermes is the owner and manager of the Flask of Hermes Vitarium, a place where recently unearthed, newly oldborn people are kept until someone claims them. This seemingly odd business is normal to Mr. Hermes, whose world has recently entered a strange phenomenon known as the Hobart Phase, in which life is lived backwards: the dead are reborn and grow younger until they find a womb to disappear into, people privately egest their food, and the job of librarians is to eradicate knowledge. Despite the differences between this world and ours, people still try to live as best they can.

Sebastian's mundane existence is disrupted when he becomes aware that the Anarch Thomas Peak, founder of a religious order, is about to be reborn. This knowledge sets in motion events that bring the forces of both the religious order and its enemy, the seemingly impregnable Library, to bear on the lives of Hermes and those around him. Will the Anarch rejoin the order, or repudiate what it has become since his death? Will the Library succeed in its plan to eradicate the last traces of Peak's theology -- Peak himself?

The Hobart Phase is an obvious maguffin. It's so easy to shoot holes in that one can't take it as anything but a plot device or metaphor. For example, there's surprisingly little attention paid to predestination, or the literal problems of living existence in reverse. Rather, the Hobart Phase is present to allow an examination of death and the experience the oldborn undergo in their period of nonexistence. The experience bears a striking resemblance to Dick's preoccupation with the schizophrenia-induced Tomb World, which he examined in other books such as Martian Time-Slip. Interestingly, his description of the Library parallels both the Tomb World and the unfallen Roman Empire of VALIS and his later writings: a gray metaphysical prison whose existence we glimpse only in our most extreme moments. Did Dick see a connection between the two realms?

Harum Scarum

Lewis Trondheim
New trade paperback
25 November

McConey, his journalist friend, and a police inspector find themselves in the middle of a strange case in which people are turning into monsters. From the second scene, in which McConey and the inspector try to settle a bill, I was smiling. Then I was laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Ah, but it was perfectly ridiculous, right up until the end. Trondheim has as finely tuned a sense of farce as Phil Foglio's, and from me that's praise.

The artwork is worth mentioning. There are no straight lines in a Trondheim work; everything's freely drawn, resulting in a cartoony feel. Faces have the minimum expression necessary to convey emotion, but Harum Scarum is far from minimalist. Trondheim has an eye for framing a scene, with some viewed in a flat, comic-strip style, while others (e.g., the 10th panel on page 2) are quite cinematic. He's mastered his form as much as Herge, whose work this clearly has a debt to.

I've got The Hoodoodad as well, but I'm saving that for a rainy day (or perhaps this afternoon, whichever comes first). Why isn't more of his work available in English, like Slaloms or Blacktown?


Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
21-26 November

Algy Timberlane, a.k.a. Greybeard, and his wife Martha eke out a precarious existence in a mid-21st century England. Theirs is a dying world, literally; after an accident in the 1980s, few mammals were left fertile, and those that were birthed abnormal offspring. Greybeard is one of the youngest of the remnants of the human race, and he's in his fifties. Within a few decades, humanity will have passed from the globe. Yet one man's spirit... not enough to save the world. Aldiss was smart enough to avoid making this a triumphant restore-the-future paean to man's ability, yet in other ways he pulled his punch. This isn't On the Beach; if you want the definitive after-the-world-ended story, read John Varley's "The Manhattan Telephone Book, Abridged" (collected in his Blue Champagne). If your interests run more to characterization and a depiction of love in a quietly desperate time, this will be more to your taste.

Tip: bring a dictionary. Aldiss gratuitously tosses in a bunch of two-bit words such as lagomorph, katabatic, algolagnia, metoposcopy, and tenebrific.

The Hoodoodad

Lewis Trondheim
New trade paperback
27 November

Yet another in the spiffy adventures of McConey (a.k.a. Lapinot)! In this outing, McConey saves a distraught man from committing suicide by taking on an imaginary curse -- or is it imaginary? If so, why is his friend Richie suddenly convinced that he's cursed?

The Hoodoodad isn't the out-and-out farce that is Harum Scarum, but it has some wonderful moments. In one scene, five adults try to decide what to do after sharing an intimate dinner. Their decision? Making a marble racetrack out of books, furniture, and utensils. Their childish abandon is a joy to read. Trondheim's writing is full of unexpected twists like this. Seek it out.


Martin Fowler with Kent Beck, John Brant, William Opdyke, and Don Roberts
Borrowed hardcover
2-6 December

In programming circles, the term "refactoring" has three meanings. When used as a verb, it means the process of rewriting a program to make it easier to maintain and extend, without changing the program's behavior. When used as a noun, a refactoring denotes a specific way of refactoring, such as extracting a section of code into its own method. Another meaning of the noun is Martin Fowler et al's Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, which both explains refactoring (verb) and provides a catalog of refactorings (noun).

The opening chapters of are clear and quite readable, presenting refactoring and advocating its use. This is followed by the bulk of the book, which lists refactorings and presents detailed steps for accomplishing them without breaking anything. The book closes with a few more chapters on tools that assist refactoring, and some final words on using refactoring in the real world.

The book has several weaknesses, none major. The chapters on practicing refactoring tend to slip in extreme programming practices (e.g. write tests first, pair programming), though this is a weakness only if you don't care for XP. The book could have used a better editor; the styles of the different authors don't always mesh well, and the chapter "Refactoring, Reuse, and Reality" is repetitious. Like Mastering Regular Expressions, I found Refactoring to be at times too self-consciously folksy. (Perhaps this is a recent trend among computer books.) It would be helpful if each refactoring had an analysis of benefits, drawbacks, and a list of common mistakes associated with the refactoring. Finally, the book's high cost ($45 list) raises the question of whether the authors and publishers really want these practices to take hold among any but dedicated professionals. I'm awaiting the paperback.

Weaknesses aside, it's a fascinating book that belongs on the short shelf of innovative programming texts, alongside Design Patterns and Knuth.

More information on the book, including samples, errata, and a chapter cut from the printed edition, is available from Martin Fowler's refactoring Web site.


Brian Aldiss
Used paperback
11 December

In a near-future world of twenty-two billion people, the smallest infraction will get you sent to one of the Farms, where laborers are worked to death in service of the many. But even that isn't enough to feed everyone, as the soil is exhausted and malnutrition becomes endemic. Knowle Nowland, figurehead captain of an autonomous freighter, beaches his ship in Africa, the last hope for a tired world. There he becomes involved with the enigmatic Justine and Peter, who offer the key to a different future -- but at a terrible price.

Earthworks reads as if J.G. Ballard had rewritten Norman Spinrad's Greenhouse Summer. The narrator is probably certifiable, alternating between passivity, action, and hebephrenic destructiveness (à la Philip K. Dick). His changes were too mercurial for me to sympathize with him.

The novel suffers from two problems. The first is a stylistic flaw: the narrator is supposedly one of the few people who can read and write, but the book's writing is much too sophisticated for the character's background. The disparity announces itself on practically every page. The second problem is the presence of a credulity-straining coincidence. It would only make sense if the book were allegory, but that's not the feeling the novel conveyed. These problems made it impossible to suspend disbelief.

The Cosmic Puppets

Philip K. Dick
Used paperback
12 December

Ted Barton, a perfectly ordinary guy, returns on a whim to his isolated Virginia hometown. In the years since he left, the town has changed, really changed: every single thing is different, including the people. No one remembers him. And then he finds the newspaper that announced his own death from scarlet fever, many years ago. What has happened to this town? Or has something happened to him?

This is an early novel of Dick's, dating from 1957. It's really a long short story, a cross between his story "Expendable" and his theme of reality as illusion. There's little here that he didn't do better later.

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Philip K. Dick
Used paperback
13-15 December

In the future, humanity has divided into three races: the Old Men (us), the New Men (who think differently), and the Unusuals (who have psychic powers). A clique of New Men and the Unusuals rule the Old Men, who put their hope in Thors Povoni. Ten years before the novel begins, Povoni had stolen a spaceship and gone in search of help. Now he is returning, having found what he sought. But is the help he's bringing benevolent, or does it have an agenda of its own?

If I had to guess what was on Dick's mind as he wrote this, it would be a woman. Aside from some stock Dick types (e.g., a manic-depressive autarch), the most vivid character is the dark-haired woman that shows up in several of his novels. She's self-centered, mercurial, and dangerous, and the main character follows her like a moth circling a flame. She's the center of every scene she appears in.

It's B-grade Dick. On the other hand, how many writers will toss in, strictly as a bit of scene-setting, mention of finding in deep space the corpse of a being who might have been God?

American Homes

Lester Walker
New hardcover
1-18 December

For someone interested in American architecture, American Homes: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Domestic Architecture book would make a fine gift. It surveys American architecture from native American tipis, wigwams, and longhouses through the present day. Each style is given from two to six pages, with architectural drawings of representative homes. Distinguishing characteristics of each style are presented, and the style is placed in its historical context. It makes it easy to trace the evolution of the American house, which proves fascinating.

The book needs another proofreading; there's a duplicated paragraph on p. 252, along with some typos and grammar errors scattered throughout the book. Still, at $16, it's a bargain.

Now I finally know that the Kline House at 8th and Van Buren is Italianate.

Envisioning Information

Edward Tufte
Borrowed hardcover
18-22 December

Edward Tufte argues that many of our diagrams and charts can be improved by (a) removing whatever does not convey information, and (b) emphasizing the information through a variety of techniques. Envisioning Information offers examples of good design, as well as case studies of how charts and diagrams were improved.

I found the book a bit frustrating. It's obvious that great care was given to the book's design, but still I had problems reading it. The main problem was that the plethora of illustrations were not explicitly tied to specific passages in the text, leaving me wondering when to examine the illustrations versus following the text. Perhaps I'm stuck in old reading habits, but the lack of reference left me vaguely disturbed each time I turned the page and saw new illustrations.

There was other evidence of the difference between my reading habits and those that were better suited to the book. For example, some of the side notes contained irrelevant information: the first sidenote on p. 93 ends with a subnote describing how a particular color was printed. That's too much information, and is distracting -- precisely what Tufte deplores in charts and diagrams. Additionally, his penchant for unusual notations (e.g., for describing dance) make for poor analogies, since most of those reading the book will not understand precisely what example diagrams using them convey.

Make no mistake, important lessons lurk here. (The book inspired me to redesign one chart three four ways.) However, be aware that the simplicity and clarity exhibited in some of the book's diagrams is not always reflected in its text.

Visual Explanations

Edward Tufte
Borrowed hardcover
23-27 December

Visual Explanations continues the job of Envisioning Information, with a different focus: how to use images to explain. The importance of doing so is presented well in the second chapter, which analyzes both a success (finding a source of malaria in 19th century London) and a failure (the poor charts which led to the disastrous decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger in sub-zero Celsius weather). Tufte then liberally uses examples to present his principles for information presentation in real-world contexts.

Some of the information will be familiar if you've read his other works, but there is also some new material. Particularly interesting is his analysis of what he calls "confections", the elaborate frontpieces that graced books in the 17th and 18th centuries. (An example is the well-known frontpiece for Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.) These illustrations provide a visual outline and key to the text within. They can be quite charming and subtle.

The book also shares some of the problems of Envisioning Information. The author sometimes changes topics between pages, but there is no visible indicator in the text of the break (such as would be provided by a row of three widely-spaced asterisks or a small horizontal rule). This lacks leads to text that sometimes frustrates expectations.

One small point: despite the author's tendency to go into irrelevant detail about his sources, he misses the fact that the middle diagram on p. 61 is misleading. If an insect crawls along a ruler which is being uniformly rotated around one end, the path of the insect will be a spiral, not a straight line. Granted, the diagram is from Descartes, but it's odd that Tufte took pains to correct other historic diagrams but missed this one.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Edward Tufte
Used hardcover
28-30 December

"The task of the designer is to give visual access to the subtle and the difficult -- that is, the revelation of the complex."

This quote from the epilogue summarizes Tufte's intent. Through examples of both good and bad design, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information illustrates practical guidelines for eliminating what Tufte calls "chart junk": all the parts of a chart that either convey no information or obscure meaning. Guidelines include "above all else, show the data" and "erase non-data ink, within reason". The qualifier "within reason" is important; slavish adherence to the book's principles must be tempered with prudent æsthetic judgment.

Unfortunately, the book's message is sometimes drowned by its errors:

  • Tufte advocates use of some chart styles whose details are nearly impossible to perceive without perfect vision, specifically the preferred quartile plot design on page 124:

    [three designs]

    While all three styles convey exactly the same information, the style Tufte prefers is harder to read than the others. (There is such a thing as being too minimal.)

  • There is a confusing chart at bottom of page 133 which took prolonged examination to comprehend. Part of the problem was cognitive, and part was due to the incorrect surrounding text (the chart displays 18 outer terms, not 16). Error notwithstanding, how is a more complex and harder to understand chart better than a simpler, clearer one? (e.g., what's an "outer term"?)

  • Page 155 refers to a chart hidden on a following page, leading the reader to wondering where the chart is. On page 181 Tufte explicitly condemns this practice.

  • Placement of citations can be confusing. Adjacent charts are identified with the right chart's citation above that of the left, breaking with the English-speaking world's convention of reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

    Also, on page 82 an article in the margin displaces a chart's citation, breaking the cognitive link between the two.

I'd really like not to damn the book too much, for it does an admirable and necessary job. However, the presence of factual mistakes, poor design choices, and outright self-contradiction in a book intended to raise visual communication standards is disappointing.

I wonder what this book would have looked like if the author had consulted Robert Bringhurst.

Book queue

Emphasized titles are in progress.

Anticipated queue additions

  • Philip K. Dick, Dr. Futurity
  • Philip K. Dick, Solar Lottery
  • Philip K. Dick, The Unteleported Man
  • Ken MacLeod, Engine City

Last updated 25 January 2005
All contents ©2002 Mark L. Irons

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