The 2003 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2003.

[ - Mark's Pick - ] indicates a notable book. Also, this year I adopted the Sid & Nancy scale for rating books.

This page also contains my reading queue.

Books Read

Kiln People

David Brin
30 December 2002-5 January 2003

I'm not sure why I reread this now, having read it just seven months ago. One reason is the sheer weirdness of a world with dittotech. Another reason is that I admired Frankie's persistence. Finally, it's a fun and engaging read.

The narratives of Albert's dittoes reminded me of a memory from a few years ago, the first time I felt the discontinuity between the me that awoke this morning and all the other previous and future mes. By the time I'd finished the book, I was doing little chores I'd been putting off, thinking "it would be nice for me-of-tomorrow to find yesterday's dishes done". It's an unusual viewpoint, and hard to maintain for long, but very productive while it lasts.

The one thing that's frustrating about the book is that it almost has a quality I enjoy in certain novels (Tolkien's The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, Perec's A Void, Shepard's Life During Wartime), a quality of expanding scope. By the end of the book, the beginning seems so far away. Kiln People had that potential, but didn't fulfill it. Ah, well. It was still fun.

Now I want to start forgetting the book so it will be fresh the next time I read it.

A sporty car and a well-stocked picnic basket on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The World Jones Made

Philip K. Dick
6-8 January

Yet another in my endless rereading of all things PKD. This is one of his first novels; you can tell because it's a straightforward narrative, with no attempts to disorient the reader. The plot is driven by Floyd F. Jones, who experiences the world one year ahead of everyone else. This ability strikes to the heart of the predominant philosophy of Relativism, which has brought about world peace. Into this unstable mix appear the drifters, mindless bits of protoplasm that drift through space and land on Earth. They're harmless, but Jones exploits the fear they engender to ride to power.

There are touches of later Dick, but there's not much here. The first depiction of Cussick's wife Nina made her appear to be that rarest of things, a well-rounded and mentally healthy female PKD character, but that was not to be. Dick's problems with women -- or at least his inability to depict a decent woman -- must have been caused by something preceding his writing career.

Most intriguing of all is a scene in the beginning of chapter 10, in which the protagonist confronts a hermaphrodite who can change gender in moments. It's practically a case study in gender and violence:

Cussick reached out, grabbed hold of the creature's shirt, and lifted him to his feet. The hermaphrodite was amazingly light; he struggled and twisted, and in an instant had slid out of Cussick's hands. Stepping back, the hermaphrodite flowed into a female. Her eyes mocking, she danced lithely away from him.

"Go ahead," she gasped. "Hit me."

Nina had turned and started off down the corridor. The hermaphrodite, noticing, quickly hurried after her, an eager expression on her face. As the creature followed Nina down the hall to a side door, Tyler slipped up close and caught hold of her. With an expert motion, Tyler twisted the creature around and yanked her arm back in a paralyzing lock. The hermaphrodite instantly flowed into the figure of a man. Cussick stepped forward and socked him on the jaw. Without a sound, the hermaphrodite sank down, totally unconscious, and Tyler released him.

This passage raises many questions. Would Cussick have hit the hermaphrodite if it had remained female? How much of his anger came from his situation, and how much because his opponent was a hermaphrodite? Was the hermaphrodite's "amazingly light" weight a way to present it in a non-threatening way? This scene, which could have led to an exploration of gender à la Ursula Le Guin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness, is one of the few occasions Dick ever touched on the topic. He let it pass unquestioned. Thirteen years later Le Guin's book rocked the SF world, forcing it to consider topics Dick and other writers had passed over.

This nonexamination of gender, and the depiction of casual heroin use, really make you aware that this was published in 1956. While other PKD works have dated elements, they're overshadowed in later books by the increased power of Dick's writing. In The World Jones Made, they stand naked.

A flat soda on the Sid & Nancy scale.

King Henry VIII

William Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare
11-13 January

Is Lord Buckingham really a traitor? Will anything stop Cardinal Wolsey's nefarious drive to power? Will King Henry finally sire an heir? Is Katherine destined to be cast aside in favor of Anne, or perhaps Wolsey's favorite?

In this intricately plotted, action-packed... oh, who am I fooling? The events of this play come straight from history, leaving little surprise. There's pageantry, certainly, but with the exception of a few good speeches, this play contains little drama and less suspense. Plots resolve too soon, leaving one reading the play for the language and metaphor, rather than the action.

An uneventful town planning meeting on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Blue Monday: The Kids Are Alright

Chynna Clugston-Major
Borrowed trade paperback
20 January

Teen hijinx with screwball outcast Bleu, foul-mouthed Irish friend Clover, boy-pests Alan & Victor, dreamboat substitute teacher Mr. Bishop. Panty raids, petty vandalism, an I've-got-to-get-tickets-to-Adam-Ant-or-I'll-die plot... wait a minute. Adam Ant? When was this thing written? It's recent, but all of the pop culture references are two decades old (e.g., both title and subtitle). A word to the author: research. When all your music references are twenty years or more out of date, it's time to hit the streets and find out what people are listening to, especially if you're trying to sell your book to anyone beside forty-year-olds.

The artwork wasn't to my taste. It's manga-influenced, but I don't know enough about manga to judge whether it's good or bad by those standards. The page layouts were always very busy, as if the artist were afraid of blank space. As commentary, the characters were sometimes drawn in a deliberately childlike style, which got old quickly.

Most disappointing was a sequence which sought laughs at the expense of an ugly girl. Hey, life's tough enough when you're rail-thin, have big eyes, and are either stacked or at least moderately endowed. Imagine how bad life would be if you were ugly, too.

Accidentally ordering a hamburger you don't like on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Blue Monday: Absolute Beginners

Chynna Clugston-Major
Borrowed trade paperback
20 January

More with the cast of The Kids Are Alright. This time the subtitle's from a twenty-year movie, not an album, but not much else has changed except for the artistically questionable addition of a pooka. The kind of thing you might like if you like that kind of thing.

Astute readers are asking themselves why I read this if I didn't like the preceding volume. Here's why: they didn't take long to read, they weren't atrocious, and I have this compulsion to read comics people lend me (unless they're atrocious).

Hint to main character: the next time someone clandestinely videotapes you taking a bath, just say the magic words "possession of child pornography". That should solve the problem rather quickly.

Ordering the wrong hamburger again on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Engine City

Ken MacLeod
New hardcover
20-22 January

Engine City is the conclusion of MacLeod's Engines of Light cycle, following Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light. You'll want to read the preceding books before starting this volume.

In this volume, the Second Sphere becomes an even more complicated place to live as changes sweep across it. It's fascinating to see a writer actually working (almost) within the constraints of special relativity; a journey of a hundred light years takes no time to the travellers, but time passes in the rest of the universe. In one chapter a world begins fortifying, and not much later we see the results, although they took a century to complete. The disorientation gives the account a strange verisimilitude.

There's more than just setting. While there aren't any stunning set pieces, there's a liberal amount of humor, as well as audacious changes. A few characters are introduced, but most of the book is devoted to following the fates of continuing characters. There's a faint air of inevitability about them, but there's still room for choice in the character's fates.

I was particularly taken with a sentence that's repeated in the book, first as dialogue and later in another character's thoughts. It read as if a chance statement later became received wisdom, like history occurring before your eyes. Hat's off to the author for that effect: so simple, yet so effective.

A promise fulfilled (with a groaner foul thrown in) on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Crack In Space

Philip K. Dick
25-27 January

It's 2080 and Jim Briskin is running for U.S. President. He's facing a tough battle; not only are the nation's resources being drained maintaining the millions of people who've frozen themselves to await a better day, he's also colored. That still makes a difference in a nation that hasn't solved its race problem. He's also clinically depressive. On top of all this, someone's discovered a rip in spacetime which leads to another world. Will it be an empty new place to colonize? Will we overwhelm its inhabitants? Will we be invaded?

Dick eschews his trademark derangement of reality for linear storytelling. There are a few surprises and imaginative touches, but not much else. The question of race is a running theme, but aside from one rather clunky speech, not much is done with it.

Bologna on white on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Child Garden

Geoff Ryman
27 January-4 February

Milena, poor lamb, has Bad Grammar. In future London, where buildings are grown from coral, learning transmitted by viruses, and few people live past thirty, Milena's heightened immune response keeps her from participation in the omnipresent net of humanity called the Consensus. She lives the lonely life of an outsider, tolerated but considered eccentric and perhaps dangerous. Then one day she opens a forgotten underground door and hears someone singing in the dark, and her life blossoms with a hope which will ripen to purpose.

The Child Garden is one of the few novels of the near future that creates a lived-in world. Every inventive page bursts with life, as if the rest of London were bustling in the margins even as we focus on the action in the paragraphs. It's a trick of the author's rich style, certainly, but very much an effective one. The world-building is so good that I wanted to just wander away from the main character between paragraphs and explore this world on my own. It's not beautiful, but there is beauty to be found, as well as sweat.

I came very close to giving this novel a [ - Mark's Pick - ], and may yet do so. What restrained me was a palpable tension about what the book wants to be: the story of a person, or allegory. By the end, Milena is so well developed a character that I could have been quite happy without allegoric elements. Still, when Dante's Divine Comedy is fundamental to the plot, keeping allegory at bay is a waste of effort. So give in, and dive in! You'll be well rewarded.

A knockout performance of a great play with a huge cast (and you're a member!) on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Oresteia

Translated by Philip Vellacott
4-12 February

There's something disturbingly fascinating about the Furies. They've been on my mind since reading Absolute Beginners; my imagined alternate ending has more than a touch of calling the Kindly Ones about it. That in turn got me thinking about the Sandman story arc of the same title; I might have to reread that too.

For the nature of the Furies, there's no better source than Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy. The troubled house of Atreus is nearly destroyed by a cycle of familial murders, until Orestes finds himself hounded by the Furies to the temple of Pallas Athene. Only there will the house of Atreus find peace, and in the process re-align the heavenly order.

People might find the speech and action of this play overly formal, but I find it very refreshing. This isn't a realistic; instead, Aeschylus pares everything down to its pure essence. The result is a dramatic tour de force unmatched in Western literature.

A once-in-a-millennia realignment of the spheres on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Game-Players of Titan

Philip K. Dick
12-14 February

Earth's war with Titan's vugs ended with massive human depopulation coupled with infertility, along with semi-occupation by the amoeboid aliens. The sole hope for the species' continued existence lies in the vugs' complex Game, which allows people to swap partners in hopes of a fertile pairing. After more than dozen barren pairings, Pete Garden, owner of Berkeley, makes a mistake and loses his deed to the town, setting into motion events that will raise the Game's stakes from the personal to the global.

This is a transitional Dick novel. Finally, his plots have transcended the straightforwardness of his earlier novels (e.g., The Crack in Space). His characters are still stock types; indeed, after recently reading several of Dick's early novels, their instant familiarity made them dull. What's new here is the sense of shifting reality, the inability to distinguish the real from the hallucinatory. It's a welcome change; with better characters, this could have been a real breakthrough.

Moving out of your parents' house on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Philip K. Dick
20-22 February

Chuck Rittersdorf is having a bad week. His vicious and manipulative wife has divorced him, garnishing most of his wages. He's moved into a downscale apartment where his interfering telepathic slime mold neighbor, Lord Running Clam, reads his thoughts as a matter of course. He's being forced into moonlighting for a comedian suspected of treason in the Earth-Alpha war. He doesn't suspect that he will soon end up on a moon of Alpha, abandoned by both sides during the war, where over the past twenty-five years the insane human inhabitants have formed a clan society based on their respective mental illnesses. However, he will find one thing he's seeking: his ex-wife.

This differs from other Dick novels primarily in the complex political struggle surrounding the Alphane moon. Earth wants to reclaim it and reinstitutionalize its inhabitants. Alpha wants to reclaim it and promises to let the isolated human society remain unmolested. The inhabitants just want to be left alone. Into this is plunged Chuck & Mary Rittersdorf, who are playing their own dominance game. It culminates in a battle, unusual for SF, in which it's not clear who the good guys are, or even if there are any.

"Smarter than your average SF novel" on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Penultimate Truth

Philip K. Dick
28 February-3 March

The premise is a SF cliché: people survive a nuclear war by living underground for years. Unbeknownst to the populace, the war ended years ago, and the political elite inhabit the now park-like surface, surrounded by their android retinues. When his underground neighborhood needs an artificial pancreas for their master mechanic, Joseph Adams undertakes a doomed gamble and tunnels to the surface, expecting to find devastation and horrible danger. The danger he finds is of a more subtle form, for he becomes a pawn in a power game between politicians.

The novel shows Dick's strengths and weaknesses. The pieces of this novel, which were pieced together from two stories, don't fit together well. For example, the subplots involving the time scoop and David Lantano's nature are never explained. On the other hand, chapter 18 is an well-written account of how a fiendishly clever robotic assassin performs its task and then escapes detection disguised as that most innocuous of devices, a portable television set. It's a perfectly Dickian moment. And even better, there's almost no rancor against women in the entire novel.

An average stone with noteworthy inclusions on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Greg Bear
4-7 March

We return to the world of Queen of Angels to find all heck breaking loose. The AI Jill is being probed by an unrecognized, possibly dangerous thinker; the therapied are reverting at a rate which will soon be catastrophic; rogues are planning an assault on the Omphalos in Green Idaho; and once again, Martin Burke is about to fausted. Over the course of three days, events will move quickly to a conclusion.

While it still doesn't reach its predecessor's lofty height, I enjoy / more with each rereading. This time around I found myself paying the most attention to Jonathan, an upper-class manager offered a chance at aristocracy for a high price. He isn't the most sympathetic character in the world, but it was interesting to follow his fall and redemption. Would that there were more about the enigmatic Seefa Schnee, too.

I do have one little bone to pick. On p. 196, we read:

...and beneath the beard, there's still that broad, pleasant face, not handsome but strong and good-looking...

What's the point of adding "beneath the beard"?

A challenging, sharp conversation with an intelligent stranger on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Ghosts and More Ghosts

Robert Arthur
Borrowed hardcover
17-18 March

This was one of those Scholastic Book Club books I read over and over as a kid. I think it was my brother's, but I read it many times. Recently, while a friend and I were discussing our respective reading histories, we discovered that we shared this volume. She found a copy and lent it to me after she was through with it. I read it yesterday, for the first time in at least twenty years.

The stories are neat little fantasies, often with a comic twist. There's actually only one ghost story in the book, and it's anything but scary. Some of the stories I'd forgotten about, but others (such as the wish-fulfillment fantasy "The Wonderful Day" and the "Monkey's Paw"-like "The Rose-Crystal Bell") were still fresh in my mind. The stories are shorter than I remember, and feel hurried for that reason. "Do You Believe in Ghosts?", for example, is a suspense story that would have profited by being twice as long; it's hard to build suspense in a story that can be read in ten minutes. "The Wonderful Day" is reminiscent of Stephen King's Needful Things, which used its length well. While "Day" has some memorable images -- it would have made a good episode of The Twilight Zone -- it was over too soon.

Arthur's diction is a little odd. While the stories are short, he tends to overdo the vocabulary, not always correctly. For example, "distinctively" is used for "distinctly", and he later uses the word "lingual" as a synonym for "linguistic". While that is one of its meanings, it's usually used to refer to the tongue, and its use distracted me from the story it was in. Also, the author tends to use the same florid adjectives often enough to be noticeable (e.g., a rival is described twice in the same passage as "bellicose"; in a later story "sardonic" appears twice on the same page).

A first-timer's afghan on the Sid & Nancy scale; warm, but some of the mistakes show.

Galactic Pot-Healer

Philip K. Dick
17-20 March

Written about the same time as Ubik, this novel doesn't share its theme of reality derangement. Rather, the theme is of the importance of action in the face of an indifferent universe. The setting is Gnostic: a planet dominated by the not-quite-omnipotent Glimmung, which has undertaken to raise the sunken cathedral Heldscalla. Add to this the local natives' Book of the Kalends, printed afresh daily, which purports to describe all that has and will happen. Into this mix is drawn Joe Fernwright, master mender of ceramic pots, who has no work on a totalitarian Earth pervaded by useless employment. When his life goes sour -- or is made sour? -- he undertakes the journey to Plowman's Planet, to help the Glimmung's restoration project.

The result is a capsule summary of Dick's theology. This isn't one of the critics' choices of PKD novels, but it weaves together many of his most important themes: a protagonist facing an existential challenge, debates on the importance of caritas and agape, and a deeply religious and Gnostic view of the world. There's humor aplenty and goofy speculations (guess who foresaw Viagra in 1969?). The writing isn't his finest -- the wildly uneven diction of Miss Yojez is an example -- but as a whole, Galactic Pot-Healer is an underappreciated gem.

Many years after first reading it, I still find it hard to believe the ending.

The stone next to the one the builders overlooked on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Greg Bear
Library book
21-22 March

Hmm. It's been years since I've read any Stephen King novels, so is this what I now turn to to scratch that particular itch -- SF thrillers?

It's SF, it's a thriller, it's got a researcher on the run from a shadowy conspiracy that appears to be able to take control of random citizens. There's some bacterial biology mixed in, but it just didn't gel for me. The main character is supposed to be a scientist on the edge of biological research, yet there's almost no actual science depicted. It's a sharp contrast with Gregory Benford's Cosm, where the science itself was the puzzle.

I didn't expect much going in, and got about what I delivered. SF thrillers just don't work, guys.

This does make somewhat interesting reading in conjunction with Blood Music, as they're thematically similar.

A room-temperature frozen dinner on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Stanislaw Lem
Library book
23 March

Kris Kelvin travels to the isolated research station on the planet Solaris, and finds mystery. Is Solaris' planet-wide ocean sentient? It appears to qualify as alive, producing a wide range of apparently designed phenomena, but communication cannot be established. Perhaps most important, what is the meaning of the new phenomenon of visitors, troubling reincarnations of emotionally important people from each researcher's past?

Though an early novel, Lem revels in his favorite interests in Solaris: an apparently intelligent yet incomprehensible world, and mythologies of science. Don't expect action, but if you enjoy teleologic discussions, you might appreciate this book. If you want a cut-and-dried solution, you'd best seek it elsewhere.

A lab full of dense fog on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Vulcan's Hammer

Philip K. Dick
23-27 March

Future world, global government called Unity run by the self-modifying computer Vulcan 3, rebellion movement called the Healers, early PKD novel with little of what made his work unique. Probably an expanded short story. Characters flat and uninteresting. Nothing to recommend it.

While reading this I realized that Dick's early, bad novels usually focus on heads of government, while his later, better ones follow a small group of average citizens. He narrowed his scope to good effect.

Approximately 150 pages of words on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Once and Future Thesmothete

Blake Nowotny
Draft thesis
1 April

I consider Phil Foglio a comic genius. That's "comic" in both senses of the word: he writes and draws comics, and funny ones at that. He's illustrated Robin Asprin's Myth Adventures series, and he's written and drawn the gaming strip "What's New?", along with the comics Buck Godot (Zap Gun for Hire) and he & his wife Kaja's more recent gaslamp fantasy series, Girl Genius. Each has a delightful lunacy, helped along in no small part by a perfect understanding of the essence of vaudeville humor. Consider this exchange between Buck and the local superbeing, the Prime Mover:

[Godot: 'You're pouring an ocean out of a *bucket*?' Prime Mover: 'The Secret is to use a Really *Big* Bucket.']

If you start analyzing Mr. Foglio's comics, however, you'll find that they're not all laughs. The worlds of Buck Godot and Agatha Heterodyne (girl genius) have their own dark sides, especially their social and political orders. In most of Buck's universe, lawbreakers are arrested by mysterious machines and literally never heard from again; in Agatha's home town, crime is punished by starving criminals inside giant bell jars in the town square. The mad scientists of Girl Genius's Europe have no compunctions about using the rabble as they see fit, even if it means their disfigurement or death. In these worlds, most characters have a moral compass, but it can be overwhelmed by power. In a Foglian universe, the heroes strive to use their Might for Right, yet that same Might makes the path they walk ethically perilous.

For several years now I've been fascinated by this disparity between humor and power, but had no one to share observations with. Imagine my surprise when, through some university connections, I got a copy of Blake Nowotny's draft thesis The Once and Future Thesmothete: Might and Law in the Works of Phil Foglio. Somebody else was actually thinking about the same concerns and considered them important enough to analyze!

The thesis focuses primarily on those who wield power in Mr. Foglio's universes. In separate chapters he treats Baron Wulfenbach, The Law, and Gallimaufry Security Chief Parahexavoctal. He raises the interesting question of whether power blinds its wielder to its consequences. He quotes a passage from Buck Godot: The Gallimaufry, in which Buck chats with the enigmatic and powerful Uligb about the galaxy's most important thing, the Winslow:

Buck: What do the Uligb know that the others don't?
Uligb 1: Hard to explain. If you carry something too big, you die, savvy?
Buck: Yes... so?
Uligb 1: The thread that is the Winslow has no beginning!
Uligb 2: It has no end!
Uligb 1: It is too big for any race to carry. You cannot savvy how big.
Uligb 2: Those who try are... bent...
Uligb 1: Strained...
Uligb 2: Unbalanced...
Uligb 1: They cannot see.

It's a telling point that Mr. Foglio puts this observation in the mouth of minor characters; the major player Parahexavoctal isn't conscious of the effects power has had on him, while Baron Wulfenbach is—and he's not happy about it.

Could you burn down people -- women and children -- even if you knew they had become monsters? The Baron can. The Baron has.

Then there's the question of who should wield power. In both Buck Godot and Girl Genius we see strong characters who have assumed control during power vacuums. They do not desire power for its own sake, but see an unfulfilled need for a strong leader, so have assumed its mantle for society's sake. This point is made explicitly in Girl Genius #7, in which a distracted Baron Wulfenbach mutters his ethos: "We do what we must.". He was the only one able to unite warring Europe, and assumed the responsibility to do so because the circumstances dictated it. Likewise, the overriding concern of Buck Godot's Parahexavoctal is the stability of Gallimaufry station, and he is willing to use questionable means to do so. Neither wished for power, but once obtained, each has been bent, strained, unbalanced.

Nowotny also raises some points that hadn't occurred to me. For instance, he considers Mr. Foglio's preference for setting his stories in what is effectively anarchy to be one of story-telling expediency. The free nature of these societies allows characters to develop their own morality, rather than forcing them to react in one way or another to the social order. In addition, it allows the characters greater freedom in their actions, which helps move stories along. (It's easier to build a giant intelligent carrot-human hybrid if you don't have the Genetic Purity Licensing Board monitoring your every move.)

There's more, but I don't want to spoil it for those who are interested. You'll have to wade through some lumpy academic prose, but we can be thankful that Mr. Nowotny hasn't fallen under the sway of porridge-brained post-modern academic fashion. His thesis is actually readable. These days, that's no small accomplishment.

I can't wait to read the final version, although there's no word when it will be completed and published.

The Sid & Nancy scale fails me for this one.

The Other Side of Tomorrow

Roger Elwood, editor
Library book
5-6 April

I haven't read this book since I was a young adolescent, yet it made a deep enough impression that it didn't seem unfamiliar decades later. This anthology of nine original stories attempt to answer the introduction's question, "What will life be like for the young people of the future?".

Published in 1973, the turmoil of the late '60s shows through clearly. There are tales of a commune starting life afresh on a different planet, and another with a cult of "Flippies" that take hallucinogens as a sacrament. Many of the tales are of outcasts or are cautionary anti-authority tales of the "if this goes on" variety.

There were a few that weren't nightmares. Leigh Brackett's "Come Sing the Moons of Moravenn" ends on a mixed note; Edward D. Hoch's "Night of the Millennium", while having a rather unbelievable ending, is at least hopeful and slightly comic. Thomas N. Scortia's "Final Exam" is definitely hopeful, although it seemed out of place. It would have made a good Twilight Zone episode. Finally, J. Hunter Holly's "The Others" shows an unusual man making a difficult and highly moral choice out of love for his people.

On balance, though, the darkness engulfs the candle flame. I'd forgotten Gordon Eklund's "Examination Day", in which a young man, trained from birth in the ways of a new society, has literally no choice to avoid a fate which will destroy his integrity and all he values. It's an unrelentingly grim view of the world. As a time capsule of a moment in America's history poised between the freedom of the Youth Movement and Orwell's boot, this story and the book do an admirable job. It's rather a Dangerous Visions for the adolescent, complete with disturbing illustrations for each story.

A tangent about typographic history: the story titles are set in a typeface that treats capital T specially. If it has a neighboring H, the crossbar is split across the two glyphs. I knew I'd seen this before, and soon recalled where: the 1972 edition of Robert C. Wrede's Introduction to Vector and Tensor Analysis, which splits the crossbar of the first T with the previous N. Crossbar splitting must have been la mode in early 1970s typography.

Waking up sweating from a nightmare on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Divine Invasion

Philip K. Dick
12-16 April

The Divine Invasion is the second part of Dick's VALIS tetralogy, one of his attempts to explain the mystic experience that happened to him in 1974. The plot follows the attempt to smuggle God (in the form of a child) from a distant colony world back to an Earth in the grip of the Adversary. Along the way, the child Emmanuel suffers brain damage. The novel concerns his struggle to regain his memory. There's also a subplot with God's legal father, Herb Asher, and his fascination with the singer Linda Fox (a thinly disguised Linda Ronstadt, who fascinated Dick).

The result is a mess. The passages about Emmanuel have no suspense -- this is God we're talking about, after all -- and he and his friend/guide/mentor Zina spend time quoting Scripture at each other. The Linda Fox subplot shows signs of Dick at his best (e.g. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), but it's not given enough attention. Setting almost the entire book in a parallel/fantasy universe didn't help, either.

Near the climax, Herb Asher is arrested. To the cop, he tries to explain his situation regarding God, Emmanuel, and Linda Fox.

The cop said, "I don't mean to compound your troubles, but you are the most fucked-up human being I have ever met."

Herb is obviously standing in for Dick. I can't decide whether it's funny or sad that he makes fun of himself this way.

Getting lost in the woods midway through life on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Greg Egan
18-21 April

Once again, I wasn't planning to reread Diaspora, but it happened. Once I'd started rereading the chapter "Wang's Carpets", I was hooked and had to start at the beginning. Diaspora is becoming an old friend.

The science remains so interesting that it almost overwhelms the (trans)human story, but this time around the characters took precedence in my attention. In particular, Orlando's quest for safety in an uncaring universe took on a particularly poignant tone. I was impressed by his dedication to the bridger philosophy, which sought to create people to bridge between different post-human cultures. His compassion was admirable.

It's still an exciting story, though in retrospect it doesn't push Egan's concept of "subjective cosmology" as far as it probably should. I kept hearing the voice of Maria from Permutation City saying "Do I know how it feels? However you want it to feel ... You have the power to choose exactly who you are.". A number of the characters, particularly Orlando, never seemed to grasp the implications of transhuman freedom, the ability to consciously choose how to exist. Perhaps the author didn't want to overload the reader with too many novel concepts.

A brain lit afire by science on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Deus Irae

Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny
22-24 April

I can't figure this book out. It's a late Phil Dick (& Zelazny) novel, and has a lot of theologic speculation, but in tone it's closer to his earlier works (e.g., Dr. Bloodmoney). It has the feeling of a heap of old notes that were turned into a novel, with a lot of over-the-top symbolism. There are flashes of Zelazny's contribution, but it's much more PKD than Zelazny. Exactly which was responsible for the rain of pogo sticks?

A comic book with disquisitions on Thomas Aquinas on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald
3-26 April

The plot was interesting, and Gatsby was a fascinating character. Fitzgerald walked a fine line between deft prose and overwriting, usually falling just inside the line of taste. His use of metaphor and simile are particularly noteworthy. As for the characters, I'm glad I don't know anyone like them. The Long Island yacht set might have been a fun crowd if you were there, but their casual cruelty could be astonishing.

On the Sid & Nancy scale, a masterful symphony, alternately vigorous, delicate, and melancholy, played in the gloaming of an end-of-summer eve.

Note: this great American novel is still locked up by copyright, even though the author's been dead for sixty-three years. It should have been freed to the public domain decades ago.

Dr. Bloodmoney

Philip K. Dick
26-27 April

As I always say, why read just one PKD after-the-bomb novel when you can read three? After all, he did write The Penultimate Truth, Deus Irae, Dr. Bloodmoney, and several short stories all on that subject.

Set in the SF, East Bay, and West Marin, Dick's is a particularly bloodless holocaust. He's essentially using nuclear war the way Samuel Delany used Bellona in Dhalgren: a plot device that frees characters from the shackles of convention. In Dick's case, the armless, legless, and telekinetic Hoppy changes from a person on the margin of society to an indispensable member of the community. Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld, who imagines that he is the cause of the unexplained holocaust, completes his descent from noted atomic scientist to a delusional paranoid wracked by guilt. Some gain, some lose, and it all feels wrong. I understand Dick's use of the plot device, but it simply doesn't ring true. With the exception of Bluthgeld, nobody is traumatized by the massive number of deaths. They seem to inhabit a bubble.

Perhaps it's me. I just can't read after-the-bomb stories anymore. I've read two true ones. One was by Poul Anderson, I think; the few survivors were learning that they could not produce intact offspring that lived. It was grim. The other was John Varley's anti-war "The Manhattan Telephone Book, Abridged", which lives up to its billing of the only true after-the-bomb story. (Let me put it this way; it's a really short story.) After reading those two, any post-bomb story reads like nothing more than wish fulfillment.

Back to the novel. As a story, it's closer than most of Dick's work to realistic fiction, with characters spending evenings at school board meetings (yes, the PTA exists post-bomb) and thinking about extra-marital affairs. The Dickian tendency to weirdness for weirdness' sake is toned way down. It makes the Hoppy's powers seem out of place, and leaves me wondering whether Dick couldn't have told the same story without fantastic powers. That would have been hard to sell as SF, though.

A junior high school play acted by the students' parents on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Hard SF Renaissance

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
Library book
30 April-1 May

This is the first time I've ever plowed through a 960-page anthology in under a day. It was easy to do, for one reason: much of the book was familiar. Of its forty-one stories, only seven aren't collected in either the annual Dozois or Hartwell & Cramer anthologies of the year's best science fiction. It made for a very fast read.

Make no mistake about it, though: this is a collection to read and savor. All of the authors are either big names or Big Names in SF, and the stories show them at the peak of their talent. I'm not well-read enough to know if this is an accurate summary of the state of hard SF, but this anthology certainly demonstrates what it can achieve.

The introductions to the individual stories wove an interesting mosaic about the many divisions, particularly political and social, that split the field. I made sure not to skip those, even for stories I was familiar with. They provided a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of the genre.

Highly recommended; buy it in hardcover.

After you've finished this, read the same editors' The Ascent of Wonder to learn how much the genre has improved in the last decade, compared to its previous history. (Hint: there are no flying, telepathic dragons in this volume.)

One of those books you wish you could send a hundred copies of back in time on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Philip K. Dick
1-2 May

In the beginning of VALIS, Dick describes a woman burned out on drugs as reduced to nothing but a reflex arc. This novel, the third of the VALIS tetralogy, is populated by nothing but reflex-arcs. It's a surprising twist that given the novel's absence of Dick's imaginative science fiction trappings, the characters are given so little humanity. Take the title character, based on the real Bishop James Pike. Despite the narrator's repeated insistence that Archer would always remain loyal to a friend, we're never shown this trait, only told about it. The Archer portrayed does little more than quote, at tiresome length, scripture and the classics. He comes across as a reflex arc. His addicted mistress and dope-smoking daughter-in-law fare no better. Transmigration is the fulfillment of the nightmarish vision of addiction shown in Dick's A Scanner Darkly; the reason this novel is more effective is precisely because Transmigration dispenses with the SF trappings.

The novel's action centers on Archer's quest for the truth behind the historic figure of Jesus. To paraphrase Peter Schickele, Archer sought new understanding, and got totally lost.

Sadly, the novel's writing displays none of the power of VALIS. The spark that illuminated that novel has departed.

A small, rainy, and dismal parade of idiots, each dressed as The Fool, on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Red Thunder

John Varley
Library book
2-3 May

Every other SF author has written a Mars book or three in the past decade, so why not John Varley?

The result is a straightforward adventure of the "Hey, gang! Let's go to Mars!" variety. The writing is fine, with little in-jokes tucked in here and there (for example, one character's name is Jubal, echoing Heinlein). The plot keeps turning over briskly [although I still think Varley needs a more ruthless editor. Does he really need three pages to demonstrate how hospitable some minor characters are?]. The physics is complete wish-fulfillment, but nobody's going to read this for the science.

One of the pleasure of reading Varley's works are the passages that make me think "Wow!", either from novel ideas or excellent writing. I didn't find either here, although there are one or two things that stick in my mind. On the other hand, there was a distinct lack of foresight on the characters' part. If one of their reasons for going to Mars was to rescue a possibly doomed American crew in transit, why did they waste days on the Martian surface? Also, nobody seemed to consider the impact of their unexpected arrival on the competing Chinese crew. These unanswered questions left a slightly sour taste.

Also, it would have been nice if the jacket illustrator had read the book a little more closely. The author's description of Red Thunder was explicit enough to reveal the errors in the illustration (e.g., relative size of tanks, number of landing struts).

Tasty but unfilling pastry on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Radio Free Albemuth

Philip K. Dick
3-4 May

Yet more fiction based on Dick's post-1974 experiences. Like in VALIS, he splits himself into two characters, himself and Nicholas Brady. The correspondences between PKD in the novel and in reality are explicit, including mention of his works-in-progress. His derangement of reality trick has become subtle enough to make us wonder how much of this novel's action is based on truth.

Most of the novel is a fictionalized version of Dick's Exegesis, his copious notes on the strange happenings of 1974. The plot is a paranoid excursion in an alternate U.S.A. dominated by the fascist President Ferris F. Fremont and his quest to destroy the imaginary subversive organization ARAMCHECK. In this world, based in part of Dick's own experiences with police and the FBI, a vast network of domestic spies encourage people to report their neighbors. When I read this in the 1980s, it didn't seem as plausible as it does today, now that the Bush II administration is hell-bent on nullifying civil and political rights.

As a novel, it's mixed. Brady's relationship with the entity he calls Valisystem A is strangely touching. In terms of plot, it's a mix of A Scanner Darkly's paranoia and the religious mania of the other VALIS books, crossed with Berkeleyian antiauthoritariansism.

People talk about Dick's bad prose, but I wonder whether in future his style won't be considered as distinctive as Hemingway's.

Sadness tinged with hope on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Wasp Factory

Iain Banks
Library book
4 May

Frank is an odd boy. He lives on an island with his eccentric ex-hippie father, who has managed to keep the government from learning of Frank's existence. Frank uses has ample free time to roam around the island, warring on the local fauna, visiting the dump, and maintaining the many talismanic guards and wards he has installed around the island's perimeter. Frank really is an odd child, you see; aside from being a triple murderer, he has something big to worry about: his insane elder half-brother has escaped from the asylum, and is making his way home.

The Wasp Factory is a taut little novel, with some inventive touches. One can imagine the author laughing with dark glee as he wrote it. It falters at the end; Frank's self-analysis is much too pat to be believable. Sometimes it's best to let readers draw their own conclusions.

Oh, and don't worry too much, parents; the kite scene, while vivid, lacks verisimilitude. Stunt kites just don't behave like that.

A close-up examination of road kill on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Mike McQuay
3-6 May

What would you do if you could skim through the lives of your ancestors, feeling everything, with complete choice of what moments to experience? Think about that for a moment. Now imagine that you could interact with your hosts, and even take them over. Would you use this power? Finally, what if you discovered that no matter what you did in the past, history wasn't affected?

That's the intriguing premise of Memories. It follows three characters through the timestream: the repressed far-future researcher Silv, her bred-for-war soldier guinea pig Hersh, and David, an emotionally troubled psychiatrist from the present day. David enters the picture when Silv enlists his help to rehabilitate Hersh, who has escaped from the claustrophobic future by jumping into a host offering power he has never known: Napoleon Bonaparte.

The result is a mix of analysis and a quest for meaning. McQuay's solid writing kept me reading for hours at a time; he managed to transform David from a jerk into someone who cares for others, and McQuay managed this feat believably.

It's a pity the author died in 1995. Considering this and The Nexus, I would definitely have read what he might have written next.

A good, filling meal on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Morning, Noon and Night

Spalding Gray
Library book
7 May

By the end of his monologue It's a Slippery Slope, I wondered whether Spalding Gray had anything left to say. He'd had a kid and settled down. To paraphrase Rick Reynolds from his one-man show All Grown Up ...and no place to go, "We got Spalding!".

Come to think of it, most of Morning, Noon and Night is paraphrased Reynolds. Let's compare: obsessive, morbid, commitment-phobic guy who doesn't want to be a father becomes one, moves to the 'burbs, falls in love with his children and neighborhood, and writes/talks about it at length. Reynolds is funnier, Gray goopier. I wondered whether I was reading the Doonesbury strip which mocked the Baby-Boomer television show thirtysomething, listening to Trudeau's characters say "Babies are such miracles, aren't they?" "I think we're the first generation to really appreciate that!". Those voices sure sound a lot like Gray's. Ho hum.

Go with Rick Reynolds. He covered the same ground earlier and funnier than this book, which could be subtitled "Spalding Cuts the Grass".

One question: what happened to Renée Shafransky? I don't mean what she's doing now, but why is Spalding suddenly referring to his ex-wife as "Ramona"? After putting her in monologues for years, changing her name seems a slightly Orwellian redaction of history.

Quilted toilet paper on the Sid & Nancy scale; soft and ephemeral.

Confessions of a Crap Artist

Philip K. Dick
7-9 May

Jack Isidore is a middle-aged nobody, obsessed with science fiction and unable to relate to the real world. His sister Fay is a coldly manipulative wife and mother. Through them, and others close to them, we observe Fay's destruction of her marriage, as Jack waits for the prophesied and soon-to-arrive end of the world.

This was the first of Dick's realistic novels to be published. Fay comes straight out of Dr. Bloodmoney, but the lack of fantastic elements forces us to confront a domestic tragedy face-on. It's ugly. Compared to Fay and those around her, Jack's naïve and passive good nature is the apex of virtue. From the start, the characters are drowning. It's unpleasant to watch.

One of the scariest things in the book -- as if adultery and sociopathy isn't enough -- is how the children are non-entities. For a book that's allegedly about a family, the fact that the two daughters have only a handful of lines is almost creepy. They're nothing more than set dressing. If Dick fictionalized his own life, then I wouldn't want to have been one of his children.

The edition of the book I read was the Pocket Books paperback from 1982, with a cover painting by Carl Lundgren. It's a good cover, although it has some anachronisms. Although the novel is set in 1959, Jack is wearing a Star Trek pin on his beanie, there's a model of a Viking Mars lander, and a painting in the background of a dragon. I suspect the latter is one of Lundgren's other paintings, which makes it an amusing in-joke, but where in the world would you find a painting of a dragon in 1959?

Something ugly found under a rock on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Schild's Ladder

Greg Egan
9-12 May

This is the future: nothing is scarce, people routinely take snapshots of their personalities, and entire worlds slow their perception of time to match that of one of their own traveling off-world. In this almost idyllic world, an advanced subleptonic physics experiment produces an unexpected result: a featureless sphere expanding at half light speed, annihilating all before it. As entire planetary populations flee the ever-growing front, on the research station Rindler two factions strive to crack the mystery: the Yielders, who seek to stop the bubble's expansion, and the Preservationists, who wish to destroy it. Into this divided and tense atmosphere steps Tchicaya, a traveler come to study and understand this anomaly.

The novel's focus is about the choices we make and how we define ourselves. The central metaphor of Schild's Ladder illustrates the paradox that we retain our sense of self despite the influence of a lifetime's worth of experiences. The book is itself a paradox: its message is relevant today, but to focus on it requires a distractingly different future world. Still, while it's not always a successful mix of wildly speculative science and reflections on human experience, I applaud the attempt, and encourage more along these lines.

I was amused to find that tomorrow is the one year anniversary of this novel's publication.

A shade of green very close to envy on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Samuel R. Delany
20-23 May

This was Samuel Delany's only SF novel of the 1980s. Despite its big size, the plot could be summarized well in a paragraph. Rat Korga, slave, is the only survivor of a planet-wide conflagration. A representative of the Web, a galaxy-wide power structure/information service, entrusts his care to Industrial Diplomat Marq Dyeth. One reason for this choice is that the Web has matched their psychological profiles and discovered that, to several decimal places, they are each other's ideal object of desire.

That's pretty much it for the main plot. Most of the book is either Rat's background, or Marq's musings about the problems of cultural translation between worlds, species, and individuals. This is Delany's big theme, of course, and he gives it free reign here. It's not as bluntly inserted into the text as in his Neveryon series, but if you're looking for a book that isn't at least 50% introspection, you'll want to look elsewhere.

Caution to readers: this was supposed to be the first of a diptych. Nineteen years after its publication, the second volume still isn't finished. Make of that what you will.

(And if I read one more Delany paragraph describing the hands of a guy who bites his nails... c'mon, Chip, use your imagination and try a different fetish for once!)

Frustration at a smart, underperforming student on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow
4 June

One thing I like about books released on the Internet: they tend to be short.

Julius is having a bad time. After being killed by an unidentified assassin, his restoration isn't going too well, his 'net connection's offline most of the time, and he fears that a hotshot ad-hoc is muscling in on his ad-hoc's turf. What to do? Well, if you're Julius, the answer is to become a paranoid danger to everyone.

Cory Doctorow's novel is much more interesting for its setting than its characters. Only two of the latter are fleshed out to any degree, and the main character is in such bad shape that I couldn't empathize with him. So instead focus on the setting, which is a hundred-years-off world in which death and want have been conquered. Universal connectivity allowed the formation of an ad-hoc meritocracy, mediated by a measure of reputation called "Whuffie". Everything's fast, spontaneous, challenging. It's an interesting world.

...Except that most of the book is set in a Disney theme park. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm allergic to them. The plot of Down and Out centered around one ad-hoc group trying to take over the attractions another group maintained, and I had a hard time caring about any of it. It baffled me even more that the other members of Julius' ad-hoc continued to listen to him, after he'd demonstrated that his interests outweighed theirs. The suspension of disbelief failed.

The book reminded me of two other works, John Varley's early story "The Phantom of Kansas" (about a killing in a future theme park), and Bruce Sterling's Distraction (which features krewes and a reputation-based economy). There wasn't any single part to this novel that was new, which was disappointing. Also, Doctorow left unanswered the most interesting question, which is how Whuffie works. Is it assigned manually, or is there some algorithm for calculating it? What safeguards it from manipulation? Is there a finite amount of it? I'd rather he'd spent more time on those questions.

To his credit, the author released this book under a Creative Commons license. He gets major Whuffie for that.

Well-presented leftovers of a meal you're not crazy about in the first place on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Little, Big

John Crowley
24 May-6 June

Smoky Barnable is on a journey to Edgewood, where he is to meet his wife-to-be Daily Alice. Only dimly does he perceive how deep he is stepping into the middle of a Tale...

Little, Big is a gentle fantasy surrounding the extended Drinkwater family and the remarkable house known as Edgewood. The characters are well-drawn, and Crowley's prose is subtle and exquisite; he deftly walks the fine line between revealing too little and hiding too much. The result is a timeless story.

Don't let the brevity of this review fool you; it's just that the Tale is something you should discover on your own.

On the Sid & Nancy scale, a refreshing dream, dreamed over many consecutive nights, that leaves a lingering smell of oak forests upon waking.


Steven Johnson
Library book
15-16 June

Rather than being a book on emergent phenomena, Emergence reads like a slapdash hodgepodge of notes on the subject. There's mention of ant colonies, Teilhard de Chardin, a gratuitous reference to Alan Turing's homosexuality, SimCity, Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, pattern recognition and perceptrons (but not their failings), etc. What it lacks is a clear definition of precisely what emergent phenomena are. Are they high-level behaviors resulting from the actions of many simple agents (e.g., slime molds, ant colonies), or something else (genetic algorithms, adaptive monsters in computer games)? Johnson's perspective seems to be that any phenomenon not explicitly coded for is emergent. It's a vacuous definition, as all human behavior can fit that description. He would have done better to focus on systems of simple components that clearly exhibit emergent behavior. He missed a perfect example in John Horton Conway's game Life. As William Poundstone explained in The Recursive Universe, from its trivially simple set of rules, one can theoretically construct a universal computer. Instead, Johnson spends pages discussing how the advent of personal video recorders will change the media industry. Uh, yeah.

There are other disappointments. The book mentions that Florence's silk-sellers have occupied the same location for a thousand years. According to Johnson, it's just the result of another emergent system (in this case, a city). In academia, there's a word for this practice: "handwaving". Don't leave us hanging with an intriguing fact that like that; back up your statement! What emergent system? What are its components? How did this particular system become established? Why was it unique to Florence? Why is it so stable?

In some places Johnson is simply wrong. P. 108: "We need visual interfaces on our desktop computers because the sheer quantity of information stored on our hard drives ... greatly exceeds the carrying capacity of the human mind." Nope; the desktop metaphor was developed in the days before personal computers and hard disks, with a goal of making computers easier to comprehend. However, as Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen argued in "The Anti-Mac Interface", this metaphor works well with a small amount of data, but becomes a hindrance when storage is measured in gigabytes.

In the acknowledgements, the author mentions that parts of the book came from articles he'd previously written. It certainly feels that way. It's yet another case of an author who desperately needed and failed to find a stern editor, one who wasn't afraid to say "This is crap; start over, and this time write an outline first.".

I should have known I was in trouble when, upon perusing the bibliography, I discovered that I'd read (or tried to read) at least one work on almost every page.

A sophomore's folder stuffed with scrawled class notes on the Sid & Nancy scale.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee
Library book
16-17 June

A classic novel of race, integrity, and growing up in the southern USA in the early 20th century. The characters are memorable and sharply delineated, the action flows smoothly, and the plot makes the book hard to put down. There's a confident balance between the small (Scout's story) and the large (racism). Would that we all had an Atticus in our lives.

One thing that was particularly impressive was how the author made it clear that the book was Scout's reminiscence without explicitly stating that fact. The narrator's diction and maturity gave it away, but it was handled very well.

A long-awaited homecoming on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined

David Weinberger
Library book
18-20 June

Another pundit tries to write about the Internet. I'd hoped this to be about the end-to-end nature of the Internet, but it is instead an attempt to understand the social impact of this new medium. While the author doesn't miss everything that's relevant (e.g., Reed's Law gets a mention), there are big blind spots. The book claims to be a unified theory of the Web, but the connection between its chapters is tenuous. Most examples are anecdotal and biased; in a discussion of how the Web makes us more authentic people, there is only a minor nod given to how easy the medium makes it to present a false image. The book is also weakened by jarring and irrelevant intrusions (e.g., theology on pp. 77-8, a weak anti-AI stance on pp. 133-136). In places it's simply deceitful. For example, Edward Tufte's quote on p. 81 ("Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.") is taken out of context. Weinberger implies the quote is about management, yet Tufte's field is graphic information design.

Aside from proposing one intriguing innovation for moderation systems, the book consists of discussions of the late-night-had-a-few-beers variety. Does the Web alienate us, or bring us together in new ways? Is there a good real-world analogy for the Web? How many bits can dance on the head of an RJ45 connector?

Pfagh. If you want good writing about the Internet, try Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace or David Reed's Web site.

Random thoughts poorly structured on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Smart Mobs

Howard Rheingold
Library book
20-27 June

This is the book that Emergence and Small Pieces Loosely Joined should have been. Smart Mobs examines the gamut of current decentralized networking technologies: texting, SMS, mesh networks, distributed computing, reputation management, ad hoc networks, etc. Along the way he quotes many of those who create and study these technologies. He understands the importance of different ways of thinking about these matters (e.g., Sarnoff's Law vs. Reed's Law, Lawrence Lessig's take on innovation and end-to-end, and Robert Axelrod's contribution to cooperation theory). It's dense, provides plenty of references, and intelligent. Rheingold is a cautious optimist about the potential of smart mobs, but does not neglect their potential to create a society dominated by ubiquitous surveillance and mob rule.

Smart Mobs covers lots of territory, perhaps too much. The inclusion of material on virtual & augmented reality was a bit of a tangent, particularly when you consider what he left out. Two surprising omissions were instant messaging and the Web annotation software Third Voice. Instant messaging seemed natural for inclusion, as it was many people's introduction to the always-connected-to-friends world of modern technology. Third Voice would have made an interesting case study in centralized versus decentralized peer networks. (I remember thinking when it was introduced that it would have greater appeal if anyone could run a Third Voice server and invite their friends to use it, rather than being forced to use Third Voice's central servers -- in other words, if Third Voice encouraged the creation of communities, rather than having a one-grafitti-wall-fits-all model.)

One unavoidable consequence of writing about current technology is that what's written is obsolete before it can reach print. The sheer number of researchers Rheingold consulted made the book feel at times like a catalog of current research projects. It would be interesting to reread the book in several years' time and check which commercial ventures and lines of research proved successful. This points out a minor aspect of the book: it will date very quickly. Smart Mobs was published in 2002; I suspect that within five years, the technological landscape it surveyed will have changed significantly. Social change will be slower, but will happen.

Short notes:

  1. Rheingold uses the oxymoron "intellectual property". Ick.

  2. An unanswered question: if the future is going to run on billions of mobile devices, what are we going to do with all the used batteries?

  3. Rheingold uses the term Schelling point without defining it. Roughly speaking, it's the outcome that all players in a zero-sum game can agree on. Not only is it jargon, it's sometimes misused as "a place that spontaneously becomes a gathering point". For these reasons, it's best to avoid the term completely.

  4. A point of grammar: in sentences whose clauses are joined by a colon, the first word after the colon is not capitalized (unless the word is normally capitalized). Smart Mobs breaks this rule repeatedly.

  5. This book provided us with The So Very Wrong Sentence, about which I say more elsewhere.

A museum full of fascinating and important exhibits, half of which are already closing, on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Chuck Palahniuk
Library book
30 June-1 July

Our narrator, an alienated reporter doing a series on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, has noticed that the same book of children's poems keeps appearing at the scenes of death, always open to page 27. One poem in particular seems to be the culprit; in the wrong person's hands, it can kill. Thus begins a cross-country quest to destroy all copies of the poem. Along the way there's plenty of room for arguments about consumerism, anomie, power, and media, as well providing space for some lurid moments.

Lullaby hews closely to the territory of Fight Club. I wish I could say that was a compliment, but, well, let's just say there was too much pink lipstick in the book and leave it at that.

Morning mouth on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Castle Waiting: The Lucky Road

Linda Medley
Library book
1 July

In those old fairy tales, after the princess is rescued, what happens next? Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, that's what. This, her first collection of tales of Castle Waiting, serves as a fun and fine introduction to the castle that turns no one away. The stories are straightforward, but the characters are engaging and the writing makes is dandy. Lady Medley obviously enjoys her creation, and her pleasure shines through her work.

A velocipede ride with good friends on a sunny, beautiful day on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Kim Deitch with Simon Deitch
Library book
1 July

Just as I was set to start writing this review, "Purple Haze" came on the stereo. It's definitely appropriate, considering Kim Deitch's psychedelic-meets-Tin Pan Alley cartooning style. Imagine watching a Fleischer cartoon while you're on acid, and that's about what you'd get visually. I considered including a small excerpt here, but it really wouldn't do justice to his style; every page is a single interconnected whole. Even his simple pages reward scrutiny; his complex pages take minutes of study to discover everything that's going on.

The story, which the author claims in the forward is a roman a clef, tells the story of the troubled animator Ted Mishkin, the people around him, and Waldo the Cat. The latter is both the star of the Fontaine studios cartoons and also Ted's personal demon. Waldo is the Greek chorus, able to comment on the story's action while pushing it along. The story itself is an old one, of creativity sacrificed on the altar of commerce. It's a downer, but the artwork makes it worth investigating.

Janus with a cartoon face on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Regulators

(Stephen King writing as) Richard Bachman
Library book
2-3 July

It's been about six years since I read a Stephen King novel. Either his writing's gone downhill, or I've lost my taste for his work. The Regulators wasn't scary or tense; the characters were introduced so quickly that it was hard to identify with them when the Sam Peckinpah-style violence erupted. Frankly, if you want to read this story done well, look up Jerome Bixby's classic SF/horror story "It's a Good Life". It's much better than this novel, and doesn't weigh in at almost five hundred pages.

A question for the book's typesetter: why bother to typeset Allen Symes' narrative in an irregular typewriter font, only to then justify the text? Try ragged right. And isn't it odd that Mr. Symes managed to type twenty-eight pages by hand without a single typo? See the entry under "verisimilitude, lack of".

Deciding not to help someone treading water on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Louisiana Breakdown

Lucius Shepard
Library book
4-5 July

Jack's fancy car has broken down in the bayou town of Grail, and he's about to run smack into the local mythology. In the course of one fevered day, a woman named Vida is going to turn him right around and reach into his depths. Shepard delivers this regional (oh, so regional!) adequately, but I never got particularly involved with the characters. Maybe it has something to do with that regional thing (although I did enjoy his first novel, Green Eyes, set in a similar locale).

Sweat on a hot, humid, still day on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Albert-László Barabási
Library book
9-12 July

In the past few years, a number of researchers have independently discovered that many real-world networks exhibit what is called scale-free structure. Roughly speaking, this means that a few nodes have a lot of connections, while most have just a few. Linked covers the recent discovery of scale-free networks in many fields, and discusses how they differ from the classic model of random networks. Along the way, we learn why we should be playing Six Degrees of Rod Steiger, who to talk to when job-hunting, and the real reason your Web site isn't important.

While the subject is interesting, the book's approach to the topic was a bit muddled. Chapters are organized by topic, yet each is salted with historical details that detract from the subject at hand. (Do readers really need to know that a spilled soda ruined the author's laptop, which contained a paper in progress?) The book would have been improved by making it either straightforward scientific exposition or a story of scientific discovery.

The greatest curiosity of the book was how mired it was in the history of network theory. The classic model of networks only considered randomly connected networks. The new models of "small world" networks aren't randomly connected. I understood that the first time the author mentioned it. By the time we get to the fifth or sixth "we tested and found to our surprise that it wasn't a random network", all sense of astonishment had long since departed. I'd prefer that the random network model had been briefly described early in the book, then referred to only when necessary. Tell us about real-world networks; don't keep repeating how they differ from theory.

There's interesting stuff, but the book could be cut by 25%. The end notes are worth reading; they provide pointers to further research. Also, the author's Web site offers a wealth of information, including the original research papers and fascinating network graphs.

Nit-picky stuff:

  • From p. 56: "...makes the Web the ultimate form of democracy; everybody's voice can be heard with equal opportunity.". Democracy is a form of government, not a platform for expression. Perhaps he was thinking of egalitarianism.

  • From p. 194: "We all have different eye and hair colors and facial features, after all, so it is not surprising that we metabolize drugs differently as well.". The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. It's just as accurate to say we all have one heart and digest fats and sugars, so it is not surprising that we metabolize drugs identically.

  • Why were the chapters' sections numbered rather than titled? The numbers served no purpose.

Some interesting small things found in an oversize box of packing peanuts on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed book
12-13 July

Harry's a year older, Voldemort has returned, and J.K. Rowling has produced another big fat book. Our hero is in the throes of adolescence, wondering about girls, and getting buried under mountains of homework. What comes out of all this is a book that's surprisingly conservative. After the monumental events of the previous book, the action here seems low-key by comparison. The previous book raised the specter of a much darker book, but the author managed to move the action forward without getting too dark. The promise is still there for the next book, but I won't hold my breath; that's what I thought about this book before I began it.

Possibly the greatest flaw of the book is that the wonder of the first books is gone. That's inevitable in an ongoing series, but I still miss it.

Later thought: if the next book has the same structure as this, the series will be a disappointment. It needs to be building more.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Twentieth Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
14-21 July

Hmm, nothing here that set my interest afire. Some good work, especially the opening and closing novellas by Ian MacLeod and Alistair Reynolds. Eleanor Arnason's "The Potter of Bones", set in the same world as her earlier "Dapple: a Hwarhath Romance", works well as a Le Guinian pastoral. Still, the anthology as a whole didn't break much ground, with a number of notable authors (Greg Egan, Michael Swanwick, Nancy Kress) revisiting old themes but adding little to them. There's nothing bad here, but nothing as stellar as, say, David Marusek's "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy" or Charles Stross's "Antibodies".

A day spent with a dependable friend on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson
Project Gutenberg
25 July

The classic tale of a man whose dark side is freed. It's been seen as an allegory of drug abuse or homosexuality; I prefer the former, as Edward Hyde isn't a a great role model. However, in a repressed society, such a depiction wouldn't be surprising. Perhaps its primary allegory is one of temptation in general. No matter; it was an enjoyable short read, though held no great surprises for this jaded audience.

A skillfully crafted museum exhibit on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Bill McKibben
Library book
24-29 July

As someone with a genetic disease, I've thought about gene therapy a lot. What would it be like if this condition were curable? Would the cure only be available to the rich? What if it were preventable by fixing one's genes before having offspring?

Bill McKibben has been thinking about these questions too, although his answers are quite different from mine. The question that worries him is whether we as a species should refrain from making permanent changes to our genes. Well, at least I think that's the subject; even after reading it, I'm unsure whether he's really arguing against germline changes (which are hereditable), or somatic changes (which aren't). I admit to not paying too much attention; the book's a screed, and it's hard to take completely seriously.

Let me offer two quotes that illustrate McKibben's views:

From a certain vantage point, meaning has been in decline for a very long time, almost since the start of civilization. (p. 44)

Ah, a variant of the hoary "everything was better back then" myth. Makes you wonder where all that meaning came from, doesn't it?

Once we start down the path of turning ourselves into machines, of writing ineradicable programs for our proteins, there will be no way, and no reason, to turn back. We'll do what our programming indicates, never knowing how much choice we have. We'll be like obsessive-compulsives, for whom some accident of wiring or chemistry has overridden the ability to choose. (p. 210)

Oh, where to begin? How about by pointing out that he already does exactly what his genetic programming, his accidents of wiring and chemistry, compel him to? He seems to think that genetic modification will destroy free will, his power to choose, his ability to find meaning in the simple pleasures of life. He doesn't consider the notion that his actions, moods, and thoughts are already rigidly circumscribed by nature. He is not just like an obsessive-compulsive person; he, like everyone else, is one. The difference is that his life is good enough that he's fallen in love with his chains.

(Did you like his subtle slur of obsessive-compulsives, implying that they're less than human?)

I'll give the author credit for trying to answer most of the objections that occurred to me, but the author's low opinion of humanity was a disappointment. Despite extolling the simple virtues of being able to appreciate his child or the feeling he gets from running a marathon, it's obvious the author thinks humans are unimaginative and lacking in creativity. With increased abilities, he argues, we'll lose all sense of their meaning. This is an odd argument, as anyone from the past could have made it about their descendants -- yet we seem to have no problem finding meaning in life. The primary difference between the Extropians and the author is that the former think that humanity, or post-humanity, will have no problem finding meaning in life. McKibben thinks meaning is a guttering candle. Which of these has faith in humanity?

I recommend heavy doses of Greg Egan: start with his stories "Chaff" & "Reasons to Be Cheerful", and his novel Permutation City. McKibben calls the latter "a story of epic desolation"; I find its statement of radical freedom exhilarating. Read it and decide for yourself.

Nit-picky stuff:

  • p. 34: "The very first athlete to use twice as much oxygen as the next guy will be unbeatable in the Tour de France". Try "use oxygen twice as efficiently".

  • p. 116, 122: incorrect use of "quantum". A quantum leap is the smallest possible that one can take.

Reading Usenet trolls on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Samuel R. Delany
30 July

Take scions of two old and powerful families, each representing a planet-spanning political and economic faction, embody the larger and inevitable conflict in personal disagreement, shatter the story through the prism of science fiction, and view the result through a linguistic kaleidoscope. That approximates Nova, a short book full of rich language and social ideas. In retrospect, it once again demonstrates an author trying to work out his ideas on paper, a trait common to all of Delany's work. The difference is that in Nova it doesn't completely overwhelm the story.

A jeweled bracelet just on the edge of gaudiness on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Samuel R. Delany
6-7 August

Has some graduate student done a statistical analysis of the frequency of words relating to metallic colors and jewels in Samuel Delany's work? They abound in his early work: "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-precious Stones", The Jewels of Aptor, characters named Brass (Babel-17), or with hair of copper (Dhalgren)... it seems to be a preoccupation.

Language and its effect on thought is the subject of Babel-17. The renowned poet and spaceship captain Rydra Wong is asked to analyze an unknown language heard only in radio transmissions that precede acts of sabotage. Enlisting a crew, she follows her intuition, seeking the source of the strange tongue. Along the way she meets bureaucrats, pirates, and a strange and brutal amnesiac unable to use the words "I" and "you".

Written during a time Delany later chronicled in The Motion of Light in Water, the genesis of Rydra and the novel's ideas is clear. The writing is sometimes elliptic, particularly during scene-setting and action passages, but that's a Delany trademark. My only regret about the novel is that it drops the initial thread concerning tripling, the evolution of love between three individuals. This mirrored an event in Delany's own life; not exploring it was an opportunity lost. There's also some ridiculous pseudoscience, but Delany's never tried to write hard SF.

Wanting to know more about what's going on behind the scenes on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell
Library book
8-10 August

Subtitled "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference", this book synthesizes ideas from epidemiology, biology, and social science to present a theory of why social and behavioral epidemics occur. The author concludes that these epidemics have three components, which he calls the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. The first states that three types of people, which he calls connectors, mavens, and salesmen, are responsible for the spread of new ideas and behaviors. The Stickiness Factor states that an idea or behavior must be "sticky"; it must be important enough to the receiver to stay in his or her mind. Finally, the Power of Context proposes that environment influences people more profoundly than is commonly thought.

The Tipping Point's synthesis is novel. The examples, which range from the research behind and long-term influence of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues to the midnight rides of William Dawes and Paul Revere to the seasonal cycle of venereal disease in Baltimore, are fascinating, and make for engaging reading. Gladwell's prose is clear and to the point. It was a pleasure to read a book that found the right balance of length and ideas.

I have two caveats. The first is a small matter of form: why invent a new term (tipping point) when a perfectly good word for the concept ("threshold") already exists? The second is that a fair amount of research cited in the book contradicts popular preconceptions, which means it should be subjected to closer scrutiny than a book like Linked. I don't have the background to judge the research, so I'm giving it more skepticism than usual.

Nice book design, too.

Invigorating exercise on the Sid & Nancy scale.

One Thousand Beards

Allan Peterkin
Library book
11-13 August

This book is a non-scholarly survey of all things bearded: history, social attitudes, grooming hints, psychology, etc. The main lesson is that attitudes about beards are arbitrary, and research about them is either contradictory or anecdotal. At first I thought the book had offered a few interesting tidbits, but then discovered that in three different chapters, three different values are given for average beard growth rate (pgs. 62, 76, and 202), with more than an order of magnitude of difference between the fastest and slowest rates. I suspect that most of the book's other alleged facts weren't checked. Some interesting eye candy, but that's about it (although I did get a chuckle out of the correct, factual, yet unfortunate caption of the figure on p. 93. It's all in the inflection.)

A dull, muddled lecture on the Sid & Nancy scale.

A Short, Sharp Shock

Kim Stanley Robinson
Library book
14 August

If you fell asleep and dreamed every night for a month, and all those dreams continued one story, you would be lucky to have a dream as rich as A Short, Sharp Shock. It follows the wanderings of an amnesiac man, washed onto an unknown shore as the book begins. As he journeys along the world-spanning spine of land that splits the world's seas, he meets different peoples, undergoes transformations, escapes perils, and wonders about the quiet woman who accompanies him. It's all rather as if Robinson removed David Lindsay's weird fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus from its fog-shrouded resting place and placed it under the blazing sun of an equatorial island.

A dream with crystalline clarity on the Sid & Nancy scale.


Al Sarrantonio, editor
Library book
14-16 August

Redshift aspired to be the twenty-first century's answer to Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking anthology Dangerous Visions, but doesn't come close. While there are some good stories (e.g., those by Dan Simmons and Elizabeth Hand), some of them feel like they're still being workshopped (Laura Whitton's "Froggies" comes to mind). None of them live up to the "extreme" adjective on the cover, or the author's own requirement that the stories be "cutting edge". (How can one of Larry Niven's Draco's Tavern stories be cutting edge? He's been publishing them for decades.) There isn't anything here that extends the SF story genre in the way Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", Bruce Sterling's "Twenty Evocations" or Frederick Pohl's "Day Million" did. Dangerous Visions aroused controversy; I can't imagine this book doing so.

Redshift was doomed by its own marketing. The publication of any decent, thick anthology of original SF stories is an event rare enough to be celebrated, so why burden such a book with grandiose labels?

Watching a friend finish in third place on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Mefisto in Onyx

Harlan Ellison
Library book
17 August

You can often tell which writers cut their teeth on short stories; their prose tends to be overwritten. That point came to mind once again as I read Ellison's long story Mefisto in Onyx. It's a tale of Rudy, a telepath who's never met another. His best friend Ally has just made the greatest demand possible: to enter the mind of a serial killer. It's an interesting idea (see Greg Bear's Queen of Angels), but in Ellison's case I found the author's love with his own voice so overwhelming that it drowned the story. Most of the story is internal monologue, which makes it diametrically opposed to, say, Hemingway's works. Who was it that enjoined authors to show, not tell?

(An idle question: am I the only person who has a fantasy of earning Ellison's undying enmity by returning a story to him with the comment "Good idea, but it needs tightening. Cut it in half."?)

Sitting in a movie theater listening to someone narrating what's on the screen to a friend on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Uncharted Territory

Connie Willis
Library book
18 August

Another short SF romance comedy from Connie Willis. It doesn't rely as heavily on farce as her others, but there's not much to replace the missing farce. It leaves the story flat and predictable. This one didn't work for me in the way that Bellwether did.

A supermarket donut on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Five Children and It

E. Nesbit
Library book
18-19 August

The "It" of the title is a Psammead, a wish-granting Sand Fairy. The children's discovery of It sets off a series of misadventures, during which they learn that actions often have unforeseen consequences.

As for the book, it's rather too much to read at one sitting. Nesbit's voice is, well, "precious" is too strong, but it's in the right neighborhood. This works in small short doses (e.g., her short stories), but a little goes a long way.

One thing I did learn from the book is that the author was an interesting woman, a founder of the Fabian Society, and a contemporary of Shaw and Wells. Perhaps I should look for her biography.

A half dozen teaspoons of honey on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Pattern Recognition

William Gibson
Library book
20-22 August

Cayce Pollard, cultural barometer, is hired to find the creator of a series of enigmatic videos anonymously posted to the 'net. Along the way she'll confront jet lag, otaku fan-boys, ex-NSA types, industrial espionage, and a personal demon or two.

This novel left me feeling mixed. I liked it more than I expected, but only by a small amount. The mystery of the video creator's identity was interesting (although reminiscent of the search for the boxmaker in Count Zero), but Gibson kept throwing in pomo nonwords like "reconceptualize". Particularly striking was Cayce's analysis of the destruction of the World Trade Center; to her, it was "[s]ome vast and deeply personal insult to any notion of interiority". I don't know whether this level of self-absorption merits pity or laughter. On the other hand, I did continue reading. (And knowing the author, there'll be more to come, as he seems to write either short stories or trilogies.)

Gibson at times strains for verbal description, to the point of leaving us scratching our heads. Consider "...a silvery thing the color of oven mitts..." (p. 1). In my childhood home, silvery is apparently two shades of green and blue, then.

Historical note: it's amusing that despite having no SF trappings, Pattern Recognition is marketed as SF, while Margaret Atwood's recent novel Oryx and Crake (which tells of the near-future end of humanity) isn't. The answer to this riddle is of course the word "marketing".

A glass of water with a brushed-steel aftertaste on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Darwin's Children

Greg Bear
Library book
27-28 August

The children of Darwin's Radio are growing up in a world that distrusts them. The government's extreme actions in quarantining the children, and the attendant undermining of the legal basis for U.S. government, is an eerie parallel to what's happened in this country since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Would that we wise up sooner than later.

It's not all downbeat, fortunately. Watching Stella learn about the society of the new children is interesting. Bear successfully walks the fine line between depicting them as the descendants of humans and as a group trying to discover who they are. A chapter depicting their inability to understand the purpose of competitive team sports makes them seem more alien than most aliens in science fiction. Bear's facility with neologisms helps here; the words they invent flow naturally. Yet Stella's contradictory emotions about her parents reveal the pain of those who don't fit in old society, but haven't been able to establish their own.

All in all, a solid work that goes by too quickly. It made me hope there will be another sequel. (Interested readers should also take a look at his other novels Blood Music and Vitals.)

The publisher didn't take my advice in the last review, so I must note that the book contains a glossary and other appendices that provide a scientific primer many readers will need.

Catching the sound of good live music in the distance on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
Library book
28-30 August

Atwood insists that this near-future tale of the catastrophic end of humanity is speculative fiction, not science fiction. That raises the question, "what is speculative fiction?". If this novel is an exemplar, then Robert J. Sawyer and John Clute are right: speculative fiction is unimaginative science fiction written by people who don't know science fiction.

Like Enough, this is supposed to be a warning against genetic manipulation. Unfortunately, it's a poor one. It's slow-moving and overlong by half. Atwood has a tin ear for neologisms; the book is populated by "pigoons", "wolvogs", and "rakunks", and every company has a name like "HelthWyzer". Compare these to the natural-sounding neologisms in Darwin's Children ("clouding", "fever-scenting").

Likewise, Atwood's idea of future video games is simply lame. More complex games than those she imagines already exist (e.g., the Civilization series, Black & White). Nor does her future contain much personal technology more advanced than a cell phone. The absolute division of society into "pleeblands" (ouch!) and "Compounds" doesn't make sense; there are more ways to tunnel through social and technological walls than ever.

These quibbles are minor. The book's worst failure is that it doesn't suggest any way to avoid the future it projects. Atwood's speculative powers desert her.

In the end, of course, calling this book speculative fiction is a marketing move (with a touch of snobbery). I suspect Oryx and Crake would have been rejected by any halfway decent science fiction editor. Avoiding the "science fiction" label helps it to sell more.

I admit that I read this book in a critical frame of mind. You might expect that a "literary" author would be able to clear this higher hurdle, yet Atwood's effort did not. Nothing in it was novel, convincing, or particularly well-written (e.g., it's not possible for a color to be reddish green; the two colors are complementary.) If you're looking for truly speculative fiction, try Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Greg Bear, or Gwyneth Jones. They're the real thing.

The drone of a boring and misinformed Health class teacher on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Look of Architecture

Witold Rybczynski
Library book
30 August

This short book collects a series of three lectures on the subject of style in architecture. I wholeheartedly agree with some of the author's points, particularly the ones about the importance of actually visiting buildings before judging them, and about magazine architecture versus lived-in buildings. The observation that paintings of homes are more useful than photographs or floor plans is acute. On the whole, though, the author's contention that style is a fundamental part of architecture will come as little surprise to anyone besides architects.

A perceptive fortune cookie on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Wreck of The River of Stars

Michael Flynn
Library book
31 August-2 September

The River of Stars is one of the last of the luxury ships that once sailed the Solar System's magnetic currents. Fallen on hard times with the advent of more efficient engines, it's now a retrofitted freighter, crewed by a ragtag crew of misfits brought together by Captain Evan Hand. The novel opens with the captain's death; deprived of their linchpin, the crew begins to fragment just as it needs more than ever to cohere. What follows -- equipment failure, accidents, misunderstandings, and betrayal -- will test the crew in ways they are not prepared for.

Flynn is the anti-Hemingway. Rather than leaving us to infer motivations from actions, each character is examined in minute expository detail. This focus on character gives the story a truly nautical air, conjuring images of the days when salt spray coated the rigging. The overall style is closer to Melville than most authors write. It's an unusual challenge for an author to take on, but Flynn hits the mark. If you require a good tragedy, look no further.

Note: on p. 315, read "Turing" instead of "touring".

The last notes of a melancholic symphony hanging in the air on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Blind Lake

Robert Charles Wilson
Library book
4 September

This SF plotboiler involves a broken marriage, a withdrawn daughter, and an observation facility that receives images from another world, although no one knows how. The action begins when two reporters and the author of a scientific/mystic book arrive for a tour of the town that's grown up around the facility. Within hours of their arrival, all contact with the rest of the world is cut off from the outside. As the townsfolk struggle to adjust to their new boundaries, the question on everyone's mind is "Why the quarantine?".

Wilson interweaves that story with the redemption of one of the journalists. The result is okay, but nothing challenging or novel. It isn't as complex or deep as Flynn's book, for example. If anything, the book is damned by the fact that we now expect more from an author who's won a Hugo Award and produced a good story collection.

A satisfying but unmemorable day trip on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Space Merchants

Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth
Library book
5 September

The classic SF satire of advertising. Mitchell Courtenay's problem: how do you sell people on the idea of colonizing Venus, when (1) it's a poisonous world with 500 MPH winds, (2) it's a one-way trip, (3) your underlings, associates, and rival firms are (sometimes literally) gunning for you, and (4) the underground anti-commercialization movement is doing all it can to thwart your efforts? Well, if you're an ambitious executive, you roll up your sleeves and keep your eyes open at every moment. Not that this helps poor Mitch...

Written more than half a century ago, some of the story is dated (e.g., the inexpertly handled romance), but much of it is still either spot on or prescient: precisely designed and marketed foods, brassieres exhibited as classic art in the Metropolitan, the rise of a radical conservation movement, etc. I'm sure the joke was hoary even at the time, but referring to "The Senator from Du Pont Chemicals" is at least as true today as it was then. This is speculative fiction, in precisely the way that Atwood's Oryx and Crake isn't.

Whistling in a very dark dark on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The World Inside

Robert Silverberg
Library book
5-6 September

Several centuries in the future, most of the world's land is farmed, and most of the world's 75+ billion people are housed in self-contained three-kilometer high skyscrapers. Be fruitful and multiply is their creed; can you imagine the glorious future day, they think to themselves, when the population will be five hundred billion?

The World Inside gives a kaleidoscopic view of this world, dispensing with an overall plot and instead offering the interweaving stories of several different characters: a social climber, a historian, a successful musician, and a man restless with a desire to see the world outside. Through their eyes we see under the skin of this mostly contented world. It's not a utopia, yet it is not a complete dystopia either.

The most surprising aspect of the book was its complete focus on adults. In a world where having only five children is shameful, and families of ten are the norm, wouldn't children merit more than a few mentions? Yet they are almost completely unseen and unheard. Everyone's so self-contained (/-consumed) that the existence of children receives little more than lip service. My guess for an answer to this conundrum is that the author was more concerned with depicting how different adult relate to their society than to provide a complete picture of that society.

Written during the zenith of the Population Bomb meme, the premise of the book hasn't aged well. Despite that, there's enough drama in the character's stories to ensure its relevance to the present day.

Relief upon returning home on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich

Fritz Leiber
Library book
8-9 September

This short tale, first published in 1997, dates back to the days of the author's correspondence with the horror write H.P. Lovecraft. It has more than a touch of HPL's weirdness, but without the supernatural overtones. It follows a man who visits a small town to catch up with two college friends. One has disappeared, the other is distracted, and there's something not quite right about the townsfolk, either. Why are they so skittish? What is at the heart of this matter? And what happened to the missing Daniel Kesserich?

The working-out of the mystery is reasonably straightforward, though not particularly convincing. From the occasional small lapses of grammar and diction, I surmise that the author never gave this story a final editing pass. Pleasant but minor.

A summer evening's walk around the block on the Sid & Nancy scale.

A Woman of Passion

Julia Briggs
Library book
3-14 September

The author and poet Edith Nesbit, whose popularity was at its zenith at the end of the nineteenth century, was a complex woman. She was a founding member of the socialist Fabian society; knew H.G. Wells, Noël Coward, and George Bernard Shaw; retained a life-long delight in games and play; was a prolific author and independent woman, attracting several lovers during the course of her long first marriage; managed to keep the household afloat financially; doted on friends, and threw numerous parties and dinners. At the same time, she was temperamental, excusing her lapses as part of her childish nature; enjoyed creating "scenes", some of them embarrassing for her companions; was perpetually unsatisfied with her publishers, changing them frequently; left much of the raising of her children to her husband's mistress; and demanded attention from those willing to pay court to her. Through it all, she managed to produce some enduring tales for children, including Five Children and It, The Railway Children, and The Treasure-Seekers.

This, her second biography, seeks to give a balanced view of a woman who lived a sometimes self-contradictory life. Published in 1987, the author had access to few primary sources other than the previous biographer's notes and interviews, and Nesbit's work itself. The final portrait is of a woman who never did fully grow up, with both the good and bad consequences that entails. She was regarding by her many longtime friends as a fun and always interesting companion, but we hear little from those who did not like her. (I suspect there were more of those than this biography documents.) To be fair, though, her detractors would only have been accessible to her first biographer, and they would have been hard to find even when the first biography was written. Their absence speaks between the lines of this book.

The real joy of this book is the author's analysis of Nesbit's works. She ably demonstrates how events, places, and people in Nesbit's life ended up in her stories and books, transformed through the lens of Nesbit's imagination. Briggs' take on Nesbit's love-hate relationship with imagination was a particular pleasure, as it was disarmingly straightforward and free of academic cant. Brava. Worthwhile reading for a fan of Nesbit's works.

Solid, comfortable furniture on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Four Colors Suffice

Robin Wilson
Library book
14-16 September

The four color theorem states that any planar map composed of contiguous regions (e.g., the continental United States minus the upper peninsula of Michigan) can be colored with four colors such that no two adjacent regions are the same color. The conjecture's simplicity is deceptive; it took over a hundred years to solve, and was the first major proof to require a computer. This short book recounts the problem's history, the many and famed mathematicians who worked on it, their approaches, and the controversy surrounding the proof.

The heart of the proof was a successful search for an unavoidable set of reducible configurations. An unavoidable set is a set of configurations of map regions such that at least one configuration must be present in a minimal counterexample to the four color conjecture. A reducible configuration is one which cannot be present in a minimal counterexample. (If it were, the counterexample would be four-colorable.) Each of these had been the basis for working on a proof, but it wasn't until the two approaches were unified that the proof came. The hard part was checking the number of potential reducible configurations, of which there were 1,482 in the original proof (since reduced to 633). These were checked by computer. The result is in no way simple or elegant, and some mathematicians refused to accept it as a proof for that reason. It's an intriguing question; how many more proofs will be messy and case-by-case, rather than based on a simple, clear argument?

As a popular exposition of a mathematical problem, it fulfills its goal. Readers aren't swamped with equations or technical jargon, but are given plenty to think about. The book does an able job of explaining the nontrivial concepts behind the proof. It's a bit dry; there's little passion and human drama, but that may just reflect the reality of the search for the proof.

I didn't like the book's design. You might think that with a topic like the four color theorem, the book's illustrations might be in, say... color? Nope. The diagrams are shades of gray. Instead of [color diagram] we are presented with [grayscale diagram]. Granted, not all of the diagrams require color, but (for example) the discussion of recoloring Kempe chains would have been clearer if color had been used. The increased printing expense would have been justified. It's four colors, not four shades of gray!

Another quibble is the book's choice of typefaces. The text and equations are set in a sans serif face, which is unusual. Quoted passages are set in an unindented serif face, which gave me the uncanny feeling that the quotes were the actual book text, and everything around it wasn't. Finally, p. 136-7 introduces nonstandard mathematical notation for the floor function; I suspect this is because the sans serif face didn't have the required glyphs. The change would be noticed by none but mathematicians, but to them this unnecessary change is a distraction. (The same can be said of the author's use of the clever phrase "minimal criminal" for "minimal counterexample".)

An interesting byway on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Kingdom River

Mitchell Smith
Library book
17-18 September

Surprise! Mitchell Smith's interesting book Snowfall is the first of a planned trilogy. It continues with Kingdom River, in which a war is fought. That's pretty much it for plot.

If you like military strategy and tactics, this book might be to your taste. It's not to mine. I was hoping for more exploration of this fictional world, but no such luck. It might have been saved by characterizations as vivid as those in Snowfall, but all the major characters face the same challenge: to bear up under the burden of great responsibility. That challenge is usually interesting, but not when every character faces it. Then it becomes one-dimensional. People are more diverse than that.

And what's with the overuse of granite? Is it really that prevalent along the Mississippi?

Watching wargamers on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Sandman: The Doll's House

Neil Gaiman
Library book
19 September

The Sandman: Brief Lives

Neil Gaiman
Library book
20 September

The Sandman: World's End

Neil Gaiman
Library book
20 September

The Sandman: The Wake

Neil Gaiman
Library book
20 September

Time for another Sandman jag. Why? Neil Gaiman's writing, of course. The story fascinates me, particularly because I understand the main character just well enough to empathize with some of his actions, yet am perplexed by others. The Sandman is a puzzle that I go over and over, trying to make sense of. I must be convinced that the reward is worth the effort.

Poking at a sore tooth on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Akiko: volume 1

Mark Crilley
Library book
20 September

This collection of the first few Akiko comics has me puzzled. I should like it; the artwork is well-done and distinctive, the characters are appealing, and it's one of the rare comics that can be appreciated by all ages. So why doesn't it stick in my mind? Is it that the stories are pitched a little too low? I can't figure it out.

Remembering a story you made up in childhood on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Ghost World

Daniel Clowes
Library book
21 September

On the other hand, I know why I don't like Daniel Clowes' work: his combination of accomplished-but-ugly artwork and his fascination with the grotesque. These meet in Ghost World, which follows two high-school girls on the edge of graduation. Their lives are about to change, and it's hard for them to lower their sour-grapes façades long enough to reveal just how scared they are. Clowes captures the pain of adolescence as well as Lynda Barry. What would it be like if she illustrated his stories?

Stomach cramps on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Sandman: The Kindly Ones

Neil Gaiman
New trade paperback
3 October

Rule of thumb: when you've already read a book once, and check every day to see whether it's been returned to the library, it's time to buy it. I've resisted in the past, because buying one volume of The Sandman means I'll end up buying all ten. So be it.

So why did I start with volume 9? Although I'm still not thrilled with the art, I appreciate the reason behind its abstraction; the Furies represent something within each of us, and bringing them into daylight is making the abstract real. Hence the art.

I'm much more interested in the characters and their motivations. Why does Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, choose to suffer the scourge of the Erinyes? After re-reading this and a few of the other volumes recently, I understand him a little better, but it's going to take several re-readings of the whole series to truly know his reasons. It's worth the price.

Watching an acquaintance whom you don't know well enough to call friend fall apart on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Postscript, 2003-10-16. After reading and browsing through several other Sandman collections, I appreciate the art in this volume much more. In fact, I wish this style had been used throughout most of the series, with the exception of the last volume, The Wake.

Redemption Ark

Alastair Reynolds
Library book
21 September-4 October

This, the third volume of Reynolds' Conjoiner/Demarchist tetralogy, continues the story begun in Revelation Space. Redemption Ark resolves some of the mysteries of the previous volume, while integrating stories and characters from other stories in the cycle (notably, 2000's "Great Wall of Mars"). Reynolds' writing still isn't quite my cup of tea; events are telegraphed way in advance, and the pacing of the stories is curious. Much of the five-hundred-plus page novel has characters worrying about one thing or another, while some epochal events take place in ellipses. It made for slow going. Still, it had enough interesting characters and ideas that I'll read the rest of the series, which includes Chasm City and the soon to be published Absolution Gap.

(Tiny objection: why does Reynolds repeatedly use "orientate" instead of "orient"?)

Over-barleyed beef barley soup on the Sid & Nancy scale.

A Specter is Haunting Texas

Fritz Leiber
Library book
7-9 October

Christopher Crockett La Cruz, null-gee native and thespian, pays a visit to Earth to claim his family's interest in a long-lost mine. The first offworlder to set foot on Earth in a century, he quickly learns that the situation is not what he has been led to believe. For one thing, he's not set down in Canada, but in Dallas, Texas, Texas, the heart of the post-WWIII country. And the Texans? They're a rip-snortin' bunch grown eight foot tall on hormones, while keeping their Mex servants workers under five feet. La Cruz, mistaken for el muerte in his battery-powered exo-skeleton, finds himself drawn into revolution and affairs of the heart. Will even his acting ability be enough to accomplish his mission? And however will he choose between two equally appealing women?

The satire is broad, and the action brisk. It's kin to John Varley's The Golden Globe in that both star an actor out of his depth, but Leiber doesn't belabor the point as Varley does. Not a deep book, but a bit of fun.

Rolling down a grassy hillside on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Neil Gaiman
Library book
9 October

This is how the The Sandman begins. As the author admits in the afterword, it's a shaky start. With the exception of the last chapter or two, the artwork is too mainstream to do the writing justice. Likewise, the writing itself is a bit muddled, with gratuitous cross-overs from other comics thrown in. What's most interesting here is the threads that Gaiman will pick up later in the series. And the last chapter, of course, which introduces Death; it's a fine story.

Bubble gum cards on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Six Degrees

Duncan J. Watts
Library book
9-16 October

My pointless project to read all of the recent books on network theory (or at least the ones offered by my public library) continues with Watt's Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. This is a reasonably good survey of existing work, although it doesn't go into as much technical depth as Linked. On the other hand, it does discuss networks from a social science perspective, which the other books have not.

The frustrating thing about this book, which perhaps points to a disquieting aspect of network theory in general, is how equivocal it is. Whether a trend ignites to become a fad is due in part to both the structure and the participants in the social network. In some cases, this leads to ignition; in others, fizzle. But rather than elucidating why one or the other happens, Six Degrees leaves us hanging. "It's the network", the book says. (Thanks, that helps oh so much.) In fact, once Watts gets away from discussing network structure (e.g., power laws of small-world networks, bipartite networks), the text becomes dissatisfyingly vague. Perhaps he's summarized away too many details of the network models he researches.


  • An enlightening discussion of the true results of Stanley Milgram's famous "six degrees" experiment (p. 132-4).

  • An obligatory post-September 11, 2001 reflection on terrorism and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Particularly interesting was the anecdote of a company who lost everyone who knew the company's computer passwords. The survivors quickly got together and managed to guess the passwords by recalling whatever they could about the deceased's lives (p. 295-6). Watts comments "This story seems hard to believe, but it's true.". Hard to believe? Please. Poor computer security is endemic, and it's no cause for celebration.

The good news is that I think the library has only one more book on network theory, though I may not bother to read it.

Sophomore slump on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Solar Lottery

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
16-17 October

Ted Bentley is sick of his job. Unfortunately for him, in the world he inhabits, changing jobs means breaking a fealty oath to his employer -- an infraction punishable by death. So when his employer suddenly releases him from his oath, he thinks it's a gift. His next action is to pledge fealty to the Quizmaster, the most powerful person in a world ruled by the luck of the planet-wide lottery. Instead of the fulfillment he seeks, Ted plunges into a maelstrom of oath-breaking, telepathic police, and robot assassins.

Dick's first published novel, this succeeds as a straightforward story. There are hints of Dick's later preoccupations, but with the possible exception of the ambiguous John Preston subplot, they don't detract from the story. Note Dick's examination of ethics in chapter 14; Ted has set himself in opposition to society (à la The Man Who Japed), a theme which regrettably disappeared in later works (despite Kim Stanley Robinson's contrary assertion).

Second base on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Chasm City

Alastair Reynolds
Used paperback
24-31 October

We return to the universe of Revelation Space and Redemption Ark for a look at that most unusual of places, Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone. Tanner Mirabel, security office extraordinaire, arrives here after crossing light-years in pursuit of his boss's wife's killer. Tanner's not a well man; he's got partial amnesia from his years in shipboard cryonic suspension. He's also been infected with a cult's indoctrination virus, causing him to dream repeatedly of the man the cult worships. It's not the best state of mind to be in when you're trying to track someone down. It's even worse when you're in a city where machines and people can meld together without warning.

Reynolds keeps the action moving ably throughout the (long) length of the book. There's less of the tactical hugger-mugger of the first book, but also less of the gosh-wow sense of wonder too. A decent read, despite the fact that you can see the ending coming from at least a light-year off.

A good morning's run on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Budayeen Nights

George Alec Effinger
New hardcover
4-5 November

George Alec Effinger's Marîd Audran cycle (When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, The Exile Kiss) was one of the most interesting SF series of the last two decades. Set in the Budayeen, a decadent section of an unnamed future North African city, the tales combined implantable personalities, Islamic culture, and rich characters. The series was one of the rare few in which the main character develops over time, and was Effinger's best achievement.

Unfortunately, Effinger died before completing the cycle. Budayeen Nights, a collection of Budayeen miscellany, is the coda to Effinger's work. There are some previously published stories, an excerpt from A Fire in the Sun, a story in progress when Effinger died, and the first two chapters of the next novel in the cycle, Word of Night. Most tantalizing is the story "The World as We Know It"; its introduction states that Effinger had planned not one but two more novels, and the story itself is set after those never-to-be-seen works. We learn what happens to Marîd, but we'll never know how he got there. If this book had included those plans, we'd finally be able to say goodbye to this world and the memorable characters who inhabited it.

Note to completists: Budayeen Nights doesn't mention the computer game Circuit's Edge, which was set in Marîd's world.

Attending a friend's wake on the Sid & Nancy scale.

A Short History of the Printed Word

Warren Chappell
Used hardcover
31 October-7 November

There's a point where "short" becomes "too short". Warren Chappell's history of printing crosses that line. He omits most of the meaning of the various revolutions in printing; what remains is a dry hodgepodge of names and dates. For example, in the last chapter he rails against those type designers who have revived art nouveau style, but he offers little context for judging why this style is bad. Likewise, his discussion of printing processes is written not for the novice, but as a refresher for those already familiar with the subject.

The problem is that the book tries to cover two different topics: the development of typefaces, and the development of printing technology. If the book had chosen to focus on one or the other, it might have achieved its goal.

Perhaps I should have sought a book on the evolution of newspaper design, which is what attracted me to this book. However, the book's illustrations of period newspapers were for me the highlight of an otherwise forgettable history.

The book is copyrighted 1970, so it does not cover the revolution brought about by desktop publishing.

Cardboard on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Year's Best SF 8

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
New paperback
7-11 November

Another year, another anthology. Nothing incandescent, but good work from Eleanor Arnason, Greg Egan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Chwedyk, and Gene Wolfe.

Meat and potatoes on the Sid & Nancy scale.

Singularity Sky

Charles Stross
New hardcover
11-13 November

"The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd."

So begins Charles Stross' second novel, Singularity Sky. It poses the question "what happens when a repressive, conservative society encounters a technological singularity?", and answers with a tale full of imaginative and amusing touches (e.g., sentient under/spy/wear/ware). There are in-jokes and references galore. The only fly in the ointment is that too much time is spent on an attacking starship; it's abundantly obvious that they're out of their depth, so wading through pages of battle-speak builds no tension. Aside from that, it was a fun story.

(Ooh ooh, there's going to be a sequel: Iron Sunrise. Yea!)

A circus on the Sid & Nancy scale.

A Maze of Death

Philip K. Dick
11-13 November

Thirteen colonists, previously unknown to each other, arrive on the unoccupied world Delmak-O. They don't know why they've been sent there, and soon it becomes apparent that they'll never know. Unable to leave, the situation worsens when a murder is committed. And what is the explanation for the menacing, unreachable Building that does not appear in the same place twice, and the other mysteries of Delmak-O?

A Maze of Death is one of Dick's minor works. With the exception of the God-in-three-or is it four?-persons theology, there's little here that wasn't handled better in Ubik.

A shadow on the cave wall on the Sid & Nancy scale.

The Crystal City

Orson Scott Card
Library book
20 December

review removed: darkness and dust on the Sid & Nancy scale

Book Queue


Emphasized titles are in progress.

  • Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, abridged by Edmund Fuller
  • Robert Reed, Marrow

Anticipated Additions to the Queue

  • Tim Barela, How Real Men Do It
  • David Brin, Kil'n Time
  • Philip K. Dick, Dr. Futurity
  • Philip K. Dick, The Unteleported Man
  • Ken MacLeod, Newton's Wake
  • Susan Palwick, Shelter
  • Alastair Reynolds, Absolution Gap
  • Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archive
  • Charles Stross, Iron Sunrise

Last updated 8 August 2005
All contents ©2003 Mark L. Irons except Buck Godot excerpt ©1995 Phil Foglio and Girl Genius excerpt ©2005 Phil and Kaja Foglio.

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