The 2004 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2004.

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

This page also contains my reading queue.

Books Read

The Phenomenon of Life

Christopher Alexander
Library book
? 2003-11 January 2004

Alexander et al’s A Pattern Language caused controversy when it was published. The Phenomenon of Life, the first volume of his magnum opus The Nature of Order, will engender even more. In it, Alexander finally gives a name to what he used to call "the quality without a name": wholeness. This wholeness arises from the cooperation of spatial configurations that Alexander calls centers. He lists fifteen different kinds of centers (e.g., alternating repetition, gradients, and positive space), then shows that these centers exist in artifacts and in nature.

So far, so good, but this is just the beginning. Alexander claims that there is a universal response to wholeness, verifiable by a simple experiment. Furthermore, Alexander says, centers and wholeness are not an artifact of our cognition, they exist objectively.

This is such a radical claim that I’m loathe to accept or repudiate it before reading the other three volumes of The Nature of Order, which are still being prepared. Presenting Alexander’s insights, the product of decades of research and experimentation, is difficult. They’re so far out on a limb that I suspect one has to adapt to them in small steps—indeed, Alexander admits that at times even he has doubts about his unique vision. As a presentation of his ideas, it’s better to start with Alexander’s earlier works (The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language) and then proceed to The Phenomenon of Life.

[Note: I only skimmed the appendices, in which Alexander attempts to put wholeness on a mathematical footing. Putting ideas in mathematical notation is all well and good, but for it to have any meaning, you have to do something with it (for example, offering a function that computes the combined wholeness of two or more centers). The appendices offer little more than embarrassing hand-waving. Appendix 5’s attempt to explain an aspect of quantum physics in terms of wholeness reads like a classic case of a visionary immersed so deep in his vision that to him it explains everything. (Whenever a visionary mentions quantum theory, my skeptic alarm always rings loudly.)]

There is a lot of unique and thought-provoking material here, but you’ll have to make up your own mind about how much to accept.

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask

Jim Munroe
Library book
13-14 January

The titular "Flyboy" isn’t a pilot, he’s an aimless college student who has the secret ability to turn into a fly. It’s not a useful power, and he’s spent his life not doing anything with it. Things change when he meets the dynamic waitress Cassandra. Not only does she really like him, she has a secret power of her own. What else can they do but fall in love and fight crime?

After Alexander’s tome, it was a pleasure to read a lighthearted, lightweight novel. It’s easy to imagine the life of a real-world superhero going horribly wrong, but Ryan’s just a young guy trying to get along. Not a great novel, but a welcome antidote to the blues. I really liked the ending, too.


Larry Niven
15 January

A friend was going to sell some old Niven Known Space books, and I hadn’t read any in a decade or two, so...

It’s held up surprisingly well, considering it was first published thirty-seven years ago. The ideas are still fresh, and they’re laid on thick. I’d forgotten how the novel ended; after all this time, it’s still both amusing and scary.

World of Ptavvs

Larry Niven
16 January

Well, it was just sitting there... this Known Space novel is a cross-Solar System maguffin chase. Competing for the prize are a handful who know what it can do, more who fear what it can do, and some who want it because others want it (so it must be valuable). Add to this representatives of three societies, two different races, and one being who isn’t quite sure of its identity, and you’ve got a fast-moving tale.

The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton

Larry Niven
17-18 January

Gil is a member of the ARM, a future organization whose job is to keep the world stable. In a world of eighteen billion people, this is an indispensable job. The ARM does this by suppressing radical technology, fighting organleggers, and hunting parents who’ve had children without a permit. The three tales in this book focus on the organlegging part. Gil’s got an ace in the hole in that respect; when he lost an arm in accident, he discovered that it was still present in telekinetic form.

It’s early Niven work, and it shows. Gil’s an interesting character, but not much is actually done with him. In particular, his relationship with Taffy was an opportunity to explore Gil’s emotional makeup, but that was dropped. Likewise, there was a situation in which Niven could have used to show how Gil would deal with the loss of his phantom arm, but that didn’t happen. These stories brim with could-have-beens.

The one thing that keeps these stories relevant is Niven’s explorations of the ethics of organ transplants. Three decades after the book’s publication, we still don’t have widespread organ banks, but the conclusions Niven reaches about transplantation are just as chilling. Let’s hope that we learn to regenerate or clone organs before we learn perfect transplant techniques.


Robert Reed
21-23 January

An empty, world-sized spaceship is found hurtling through interstellar space. The first to reach it (humans, not surprisingly) redirect its course into a circumnavigation of the galaxy, and turn it into a pleasure ship with billions of inhabitants. Ah, but secrets lurk within the great ship’s heart, and a number of the great ship’s Captains are about to discover some.

This is an expanded version of a novella, and I didn’t care for it. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but the characterization wasn’t always believable, and the writing was devoid of style or grace (unlike, say, Cordwainer Smith’s works). The one exception was the short chapter 40, which gives a glimpse into the culture of the Remoras, an insular clan that tends the ship’s surface. It was the only chapter that felt, how do I put it, honest? Real? But for the most part, I couldn’t believe how often characters didn’t use available technology to solve problems, or how language, technology, and society remained frozen for millennia. In that sense, it was rather like Cities in Flight, and felt just as dated. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, but I suspect not.

Oh, wait. I liked the !eech habitat, too. That was an inventive touch.

A sequel has been announced. I’m not holding my breath.

The Light Ages

Ian R. MacLeod
Library book
25-28 January

The Light Ages follows the Englishman Robert Borrows from his childhood in a working-class factory town to socialist rabble-rousing in London, and finally the heights of gilded age society. All the while, Robert pursues his beautiful and enigmatic acquaintance/friend Anna. Yet this book isn’t quite like other coming-into-manhood stories, as the world Robert lives in runs not on steam and gas, but on the strange substance aether. It can make an engine run smoothly, give fantastic dreams, or induce horrific transformations in those overexposed to it. In this world, control of aether is power, and Robert will taste that power in many ways.

The result is a novel that partakes of many styles. MacLeod’s style is a strong contrast with Reed’s; while not self-indulgent, MacLeod’s sentences are rich, while Reed’s are merely functional. As for the tone of the book, I was reminded at different times of different authors: the biographic beginnings of Robertson Davies’ works (esp. What’s Bred in the Bone), the elusiveness of John Crowley, and the Jazz Age soirées of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yet The Light Ages is no pastiche. It’s a fine and complex novel which left me with contradictory desires: on the one hand, I want more, yet on the other I don’t want to see it diminished by being relegated to a part of something larger.


Craig Thompson
Borrowed trade paperback
2 February

Do you remember how you felt the first time you fell in love? Do you remember how beautiful that person was, and how being in love made the whole world a different place? Craig Thompson does, and he captured that feeling wonderfully in his graphic novel Blankets. It’s almost too well done; when I hit page 179, where Craig, Raina, and her father are on their way to her home, part of me wanted to stop reading. His evocation of the moment was perfect, and where could the story go from there but down?

I did stick with it, of course, and was well rewarded. You will be, too.

It isn’t clear whether Blankets is autobiography. If it isn’t, Mr. Thompson is one heck of a storyteller. (Well, he already is, but you get my point.)

Neutron Star

Larry Niven
30 January-2 February

Tales of Known Space

Larry Niven
28 January-2 February

Niven’s Known Space stories are collected in these two volumes, which I read simultaneously to preserve the stories’ sequentiality. They’re straightforward tales of scientific puzzles and associated adventure, most with a sting at the end. I imagine Niven was the hot writer when they were coming out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, due to the stories’ inventiveness, but now they come across as simplistic when compared with the emotional depth of the stories of John Varley, Greg Egan, and others who’ve inherited the "hot writer" mantle. Good stuff, indeed, but the bar has been raised.

Myxomycetes: a Handbook of Slime Molds

Steven L. Stephenson and Henry Stempsen
Library book
31 January-2 February

The annual reappearance of the slime mold leocarpus fragilis outside my window again sparked my curiosity about these strange creatures. Myxomycetes satisfied it, providing information about their life cycle and structure, ecology and habitat, collection and cultivation, and more. The body of research surrounding this class is relatively small; if I were going into field biology, this is one area I’d consider exploring.

Convergent Series

Larry Niven
4-6 February

More of Niven’s stories: a few almost-Known-Space tales, some of the early shaggy dog stories from Draco’s Tavern (which he’s writing again), even a tale of two of the mundane variety. As usual, I felt some were clever, but they seemed to be lacking something. They feel like jokes told at parties, or sketches of works-to-be.

A Gift from Earth

Larry Niven
Used paperback
6 February

The small colony on Plateau is ruled with an iron hand by the crew of the ship that brought humans to this singular planet. That situation is about to change, due to the technologies brought by an unmanned ship from Earth. Matthew Keller, a young man who’s part of the oppressed group, is about to be thrust into the middle of the change, where he will discover in himself a surprising talent.

A Gift from Earth is a short, action-driven novel, motivated by the same theme as Niven’s classic story "The Jigsaw Man". It doesn’t pack the short story’s punch, preferring to concentrate on the revolution instead of the reason for the revolution. Unlike most other early Niven works, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. The rigid stratification of Plateau society seemed forced, particularly considering the ease with which knowledge and rumor disseminates (were none of the colonists able to receive the ramrobot’s transmission?). Also, the existence of psi abilities just seems out of place in a fictional "hard science" universe.

(It didn’t help that I know a Matthew Keller, and kept trying to imagine him as the protagonist.)

Eastern Standard Tribe

Cory Doctorow
6-7 February

Doctorow’s new novel opens with a question: "is it better to be happy or smart?". The guy asking the question is on the roof of a sanatorium, with a pencil in hand. His smarts put him there; should he shove the pencil up a nostril and just be done with it?

It’s a good opening, but rather a tease. Partway through, this novel about the overclocked sub-digerati ducks the question, opting for a more conventional resolution to our hero’s dilemma. Kind of a pity, that.

As I read this tale of hyperkinetic jumpjetters whose constant inconstancy has thrown their circadian rhythms permanently out of whack, I remembered a passage from Bruce Sterling’s "Green Days in Brunei", spoken by a character old enough to have seen the wheel turn and turn again:

"Fast cars and future shock and that hot Western trip... that’s another century. We like slow days in the sun. We like a place to belong and gentle things around us."

It makes books like this, allegedly on the cutting edge, seem simultaneously both blatantly about right now and also a recollection of the past. Sterling’s got your number, kid.

All the Myriad Ways

Larry Niven
Used paperback
7 February

Another smattering of Niven’s fiction, mixed with a few essays as well. The highlights are the Hugo-winning "Inconstant Moon", a reprise of the Dangerous Vision "The Jigsaw Man", and the humorous speculation about Superman’s love life "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex". Note: three of the stories also appeared in his Known Space collections.

A Hole in Space

Larry Niven
8-9 February

Hey hey, even more Larry Niven stories. Sure, a few are recycled, and by this point we never need to hear the phrase "searing black calm" again, and maybe the stories are all blurring together. Still, it’s not bad work.

Lord of Light

Roger Zelazy
Library book
10-11 February

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god." So begins this SF romp through eastern mythology. On a nameless planet, the first colonists set themselves up as deities of the Hindu pantheon, and guard their power jealously. Yet Sam (as he prefers to be called), Binder of Demons, Siddharta, Buddha, has decided to bring progress to this static world. But to do that, he’ll must first storm Heaven and overthrow the gods.

It was fun to reread this after two and half decades. With a much wider knowledge of the field under my belt, I was able to see both connections to Zelazny’s own work (e.g., the outcast-returned theme he also used in Nine Princes in Amber), and his influence on later authors (particularly John Varley’s Gaia trilogy). In a time when the smallest fantasy books run eight hundred pages, it’s a pleasure to read a fast-moving and rich tale that isn’t overblown, and raises a few interesting questions to boot.

A World Out of Time

Larry Niven
12-16 February

This expansion of the story "Rammer" suffers from lack of a conflict. Its hero Corbell steals a starship, visits the galactic core, and returns to a solar system in which three million has passed. The sun is a red giant, and the moonless, baking Earth is now in orbit around a too-hot Jupiter. Corbell tries to discover how these changes came to pass. There’s a minor plot thread about a search for immortality, but it adds no tension to the book. Corbell ends up visiting a few cultures, but it’s all very staid. You’d think that in three million years, the descendants of humanity would have at least come up with a handful of concepts or practices that are simply inexplicable to a contemporary human, but not so here. If you want to tour a more imaginative future, read Dougal Dixon’s excellent After Man.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin
18 February

In recent years I’ve grown to dislike fantasy as a genre, due in part to its ubiquity, and in part to a lack of interest in swords & sorcery. Despite this, I do have a place in my heart for the first few fantasies I read: Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the latter, is a fine tale of a boy coming into manhood. Its tone is surprisingly mature; the author found her voice earlier than I had thought. I look forward to the remaining books.

The Tombs of Atuan

Ursula K. Le Guin
18-19 February

The Farthest Shore

Ursula K. Le Guin
19-22 February


Ursula K. Le Guin
22-23 February

Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin
New paperback
23-24 February

The Other Wind

Ursula K. Le Guin
Library book
24-25 February

I read the rest of the Earthsea books too quickly to stop to review them individually, so here goes. The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore complete the original trilogy, and it holds together quite well. The one thing that confused me was the abrupt (re)appearance of Cob in The Farthest Shore; the first mention of him was so fleeting that I’d forgotten about it, making it seem as if the character were created on the spur of the moment. (Even now it’s hard to find the earlier passage.) It was something of an authorial misstep. Yet I was intrigued by Le Guin’s description of the listless Hort Town as "There was no center left to the city." (p. 50). This fits surprisingly well with Christopher Alexander’s theory of wholeness.

As for the new books... I liked Tehanu when I first read it, but don’t particularly care for it now. In her attempt to correct a perceived flaw in the earlier works, she drags the book’s female characters through the mud so often that by the end I felt like I was reading the Earthsea version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Tales from Earthsea, a collection, was a better book in that the tales were short enough that they didn’t meander from their purpose. That was a flaw The Other Wind suffered from; Lebannen’s struggle against a diplomatic marriage, for example, detracted from the rest of the story. (Although I suppose you could interpret it as symbolic of the long-awaited union between the male and female elements of Earthsea’s magic.)

If you read these, I suggest that you read them without breaks. Minor characters weave in and out drawing the stories together. I missed that continuity when last I read the final three books.

The Sandman: Season of Mists

Neil Gaiman
26 February

The Sandman: A Game of You

Neil Gaiman
26 February

Yet more Sandman reread. I’m still not particularly fond of the plot of either; I was more interested in seeing the author plant seeds that would fruit in later volumes. The artwork didn’t help, as it is pedestrian at best, occasionally lapsing into bad (e.g., Nuala’s reaction panel on p. 13 of the last chapter of Season of Mists. By the way, if anyone can explain the three-panel reaction of Morpheus to Lucifer’s abdication announcement, I’d appreciate it.) A Game of You is most notable for the introduction of Thessaly, who will play an important role in Dream’s downfall. Did she later protect Hippolyta Hall in The Kindly Ones to mitigate the reckoning promised her in chapter three of Game?

American Gods

Neil Gaiman
Library book
25-28 February

To steal from Gaiman’s own Season of Mists, a king will forsake his kingdom, life and death will clash and fray, and the oldest battle begins once more. In other words, if you’re familiar with Gaiman’s work, this won’t surprise you too much. Its subject is how gods are sustained by belief. The plot follows America’s old gods (which immigrants brought with them) in their clash with the country’s new gods: Media, Technology, and others you’ll find along the local miracle mile. While some events are telegraphed miles away, Gaiman does occasionally come up with a nice twist. On the whole, though, it felt like a bit more of the same.


Larry Niven
Used hardcover
28 February-1 March

...And so my rereading of Known Space ends with a bit more of a whimper than I expected. Ringworld was good when I first read it two decades ago, but now it seems pretty thin. It suffers from the Niven’s faults as an author (poor characterization, graceless prose, etc); I felt like I was reading a comic book that used only primary colors, without a single variation in saturation or brightness. Don’t expect shades of gray.

Three decades worth of scientific progress has undermined many of the assumptions on which the Ringworld’s ecology is based. As Niven notes in his 1977 introduction, readers pointed out that without geologic upheaval eventually all the soil would end up at the bottom of oceans. But that’s just the beginning of the problems. How could Ringworld farmers avoid depleting soil of its nutrients? Doesn’t the existence of the rim transportation system guarantee rapid spread of invasive species? Imagine the toughest organisms in a million Petri dishes slugging it out, then scale this up by another factor of a million. Consider how dangerous the Slaver sunflowers are, and they’re just the strongest competitors locally. A superpest would take over the entire Ringworld, turning it into a monoculture.

And let’s not overlook the biggest question of all; how could the Ringworld’s creators be so blind as to overlook the possibility that their civilization could fail? Considering who they were (which is revealed in a sequel), the answers to these questions just don’t add up.

One other element has also begun to bother me in Niven’s allegedly hard SF works: his penchant for throwing non-SF elements into the mix (e.g., psychic powers, Teela Brown’s luck). Psychic powers such as telepathy I can almost accept, but Teela’s luck is right out. Its existence implies a teleology that literally directs the entire universe from its birth to its end (if there is one). It’s a neat concept, agreed, but that’s the problem: Niven plays around with concepts because they’re neat, ignoring their implausibility. Because of this, I’d call his Known Space works as a whole science fantasy, rather than science fiction. They just don’t measure up to the more rigorous standards of Greg Egan, who’s written works about ideas like Teela’s luck, but with a crucial difference: Egan is able to justify his maguffins. (Of course, I might be able to level this charge against Egan in three decades. Won’t it be nice if the field has progressed enough for me to be able to?)

My Name is Legion

Roger Zelazny
User paperback
1-2 March

Three SF puzzle-stories featuring a nameless character who’s opted out of his near-future world’s planet-wide databank. They don’t really hang together. For example, the protagonist’s moral and ethical pondering strikes a false note after the first story, in which he commits a very calculated atrocity. The exposition is often clumsy, too. Feh.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Roger Zelazny
User paperback
3-8 March

This is certainly the most peculiar of Zelazny’s novels. It is similar in concept to Lord of Light: beings with the power of gods battle. However, Creatures departs from it in almost every other way. It eschews almost all exposition, leaving readers to piece together the settings from dialogue and action. The novel’s language’s nature seems geared to make the story timeless, yet anachronisms and references to our world appear. (I don’t know whether to laugh or groan at the "green saurian" reference in the chapter "Intermezzo".) Sometimes while reading it, I wondered whether the novel was a joke on Zelazny’s part, as if he were daring himself to slip the book past his editor. All in all, it’s rather like Zelazny refracted through Delany on acid: interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon
Library book
8-12 March

In 1939 New York, Josef Kavalier, artist and refugee from German depredations, joins his idea-spinning cousin Sammy Klayman. With the team-up of Kavalier & Clay, the comic world will never be the same... well, sort of. This novel isn’t about their effect on the industry; it’s about two men, what drives them, and how the past influences the choices they make in their lives. It’s well-written, although it sometimes dawdles. The characters are involving.

Assorted thoughts:

  • On p. 31-3, 22.2°C water is cold enough to make a thermometer dipped in it "an icicle". Huh? 22.2°C is 72°F, which is better described as "tepid". Why wasn’t this caught and fixed in the galleys?

  • Later in the book, a minor character grows a foot-long beard over the course of an Antarctic winter. At that rate, the guy would probably have a five o’clock shadow at about ten AM. All men should be so lucky!

  • I got at least one of the comic trade in-jokes.

  • Is this novel revisionist? Some elements (e.g. worries about creator’s rights) seemed anachronistic. I was kept wondering how much of Joe & Sammy’s concerns are the product of 20-20 hindsight.

I enjoyed the novel, but partway through I started feeling like it missed some opportunities. The biggest was part 2, chapter 13: the origin of Luna Moth, Joe & Sammy’s most popular female character. The entire chapter is recitation of what occurs in the comic book story. The obvious question is "Why wasn’t the chapter the comic itself?". The novel takes pains to appear authentic; showing a sample of Sammy & Joe’s work would have completed the illusion. It could have been a fascinating project for the author, too; imagine how many comic book artists would jump at the chance to illustrate a best-selling novelist’s work.

Come to think of it, why weren’t there any illustrations in the book? I can understand it for Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, as that didn’t concern comic books per se. Yet for a novel that tries to bridge the gap between the word and the image, Kavalier and Clay seems to have missed a fundamental point.

And somehow, I suspect Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude won’t be any better.


Leonard Koren
New paperback
15 March

Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers is a hard book to review. The author has undertaken a true challenge: to explicate to alien aesthetic that even those familiar with it find is hard to talk about. In those terms, I have no idea whether this book succeeds in its goal. It does however offer a glimpse into some kind of aesthetic, one which finds beauty in the impermanent, the imperfect, and the incomplete. These days, I’m increasingly appreciating this philosophy. It’s a view that is complementary to the works of Christopher Alexander, and finds embodiment in the Wiki Wiki Web.

Timon of Athens

William Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare
19-20 March

Take King Lear, remove the daughters, make Lear’s transformation less believable, and you’ll get something like Timon of Athens. Timon starts as a rich spendthrift, changing into a misanthrope when he finds that his friends were false. Despite later entreaties, some earnest and some not, he seeks nothing more than the doom of all.

Timon feels like a series of missed opportunities. Timon has no emotionally rich ties to others, unlike Lear’s to Cordelia, which makes his conversion to misanthropy less a tragedy than a particularly bad snit. All in all, the simple moral about ingratitude doesn’t sustain a five-act play.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Sarah Vowell
Library book
21-22 March

I wasn’t particularly taken with Radio On, but liked The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I sympathize with Ms. Vowell’s attitude toward about her country, as I share those mixed feelings: I too want a country where someone unapologetically smart can be President. As usual with essay collections, some are better than others; for example, the collage "State of the Union" doesn’t work. She’s at her best when writing about what’s dear to her—namely, civics. If you’ve got a few minutes in a bookstore, read "Democracy and Things Like That", "Dear Dead Congressman", and "The Nerd Voice".

Random notes: "The New German Cinema" had one of the funniest lines I’ve heard in a while; the book’s illustrations are ugly and pointless.

Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey

Karen Wilkin, editor
New hardcover
25-26 March

Edward Gorey was certainly an odd duck. This book, a collection of interviews he gave during his last twenty-five years, attests to that fact. As they were culled from different sources, there’s quite a bit of repetition. Yet after reading all of them, I get the suspicion that I know little more about Edward Gorey than I did before. This is a taste of his life; it’s quite far from being a thorough biography.

Induced Labor

Matt Howarth
Electronically published
28-29 March

When the comic book creator Matt Howarth suspended his series Those Annoying Post Bros several years ago, he promised that "it may stop, but it never ends". His return to the twisted world of Bugtown is appropriately surprising: rather than restarting the comic, or creating a new one, he revisits his old haunts in prose. Induced Labor is one of several stories and novels he’s published in that setting.

As a longtime fan, I wanted to like Induced Labor. The plot is quintessentially Bugtown, with Carolines maintaining their senses while everything falls apart around them (including a divinely pregnant Russell Post). There are amusing touches throughout the novel; for a fan, it’s a welcome return.

Alas, I wish I could recommend it. However, one thing that this novel’s gestation sorely lacked was a stern editor. The plot has a number of problems: it takes a long time to get underway, only to resolve too quickly; Boche’s scheme is underdeveloped, as is the bidding war over the infant deity; the overlong Gwendolyne subplot probably could have been excised or radically shortened with little loss. The diction is florid to the point of being purple (e.g., "Unbelievable tremors shook the ground...", p. 40), sometimes subtly incorrect (e.g., "imbibed" used where "imbued" would have been more appropriate, p. 78), and spelling and grammar errors abound. Finally, I’m left scratching my head over the purpose of the many expository passages: there weren’t enough to introduce new readers to the characters and setting, but they were unneeded for Bugtown fans. They would have been better extracted into a separate prologue. The imagination is still there, but his writing skills just aren’t up to the task.

Sigh. I hate writing reviews of books I want to like, but don’t.

A Field Guide to North American Drug Addicts

Charles H. Atkinson
Library book
1 April

Can you tell a crackhead from a tweaker? If you can’t, this short, handy guide will help. It classifies drug addicts by habitat, appearance, and behavior. It gets bonus points for including nicotine, alcohol, and other legal drugs in its taxonomy. While this may sounds tongue-in-cheek, it isn’t. The inclusion of such valuable information as charts showing drug usage rates puts in squarely in the realm of the serious and the useful.

How Real Men Do It

Tim Barela
New trade paperback
8 April

The cast of Barela’s long-running comic Leonard & Larry return for what may be their final outing (no pun intended). There’s still plenty of humor to be found—Nat & Wendy’s bedtime antics come to mind—but something’s a little different. Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I find it harder to identify with the characters—a mixed bag, certainly, but all further up on the economic ladder than me. Perhaps Larry’s persistent whining about aging has finally driven me to the point where I want to slap him for not being grateful that he’s still alive. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the character Jim, a longhair and one of my favorites, getting a haircut. Perhaps it’s because Leonard & Larry’s lives, which used to have some overlap with mine, no longer do.

Ah, well. There’s still the humor. And the author’s spelling has markedly improved. And let’s not forget the third panel on p. 71—it’s great. (As are Larry’s fantasy moments—but we don’t need to go into those.)

The Amazing Cynicalman

Matt Feazell
New paperback
10 April

Answering the oft-asked question "what is French techno/pop worse than?", it’s the newest collection of Matt Feazell’s always-amusing Cynicalman comic strips. As expected, there’s wry humor, deceptively masterful stick figure drawings, and innovative sound effects (e.g. "pleb pleb pleb" as the sound of driving on flat tires). Don’t bother protesting, just go to Matt’s Web site right now. It’s your destiny.

The Fortress of Solitude

Jonathan Lethem
Library book
1-11 April

Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude are friends growing up in ’70s Brooklyn. One is white, the other black. The racial and social divides of the city make their friendship complicated from the beginning; over the next twenty years, it will become more so.

I read this as part of my "novels about comics" project (see The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask), but comics are only a small part of this sprawling meditation on friendship and the strictures of society. I feel rather out of my depth writing about it, as I have no way to know whether Lethem was trying to recreate the past or just tell a story. For example, I didn’t go to Stuyvesant high school as Dylan did. From what I know about it, though, I find it hard to believe that Dylan made it through four years of the place without being influenced in the slightest by its focus on science and math. Maybe some people weren’t affected by it; I’ll never know. But the discrepancy left me dissatisfied.

In the end, my reaction to the novel was a small sigh of relief that I don’t know anyone who’s as messed up as Dylan & Mingus, and that I didn’t grow up someplace like their Brooklyn.

A warning for those expecting lots of action: the plot of this novel, such as it is, takes over two hundred pages to start. If you’re looking from high drama, look elsewhere.

Lies, Inc.

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
12-14 April

So there’s this planet, see, and the only (practical) way to get there is through teleportation portals. Unfortunately, they only work in one direction: nothing comes back. Earth does get messages from the distant planet, but they’re oddly devoid of details. What’s going on? Rachmael ben Applebaum, the only person with an interstellar ship, is willing to make the eighteen-year realspace journey to uncover the truth.

Lies, Inc. first saw life as a novella called The Unteleported Man, and which Dick expanded into a novel. Along the way, pages were lost, and after Dick’s death another writer added bridging material. This new edition (the fourth?) from Vantage claims to be definitive, restoring pages thought lost. It’s kind of a pity, since even this version of the novel doesn’t make sense. The "paraworld" subplot is left unresolved, and there are internal plot contradictions that leave the reader disoriented—did ben Applebaum travel to Fomalhaut IX, or not? In other Dick novels, that could be the focus of a reality breakdown, but here it’s as if partway through the writing Dick himself became confused about the plot.

Very low on the ranking of PKD novels.

The Midnight Disease

Alice W. Flaherty
New hardover
14 April-4 May

As I write this in mid-2004, this Web site is nine years old and has about 335 pages. I’ve written on the order of six hundred book reviews. What’s kept me at it so long? Why have I written so much?

The Midnight Disease examines the psychological and neurological basis of writing. It’s a personal journey; the author relies on both case studies and her own experience as a neurologist who’s coped with writer’s block and hypergraphia. The first chapters examine the neurochemical basis for the comprehension and production of speech and text. The last three chapters examine broader questions such as what motivates people to write, and what it means to be touched by one’s Muse.

While I’m not well versed enough to assess the medical information, seeing a reference to Antonio Damasio’s intriguing Descartes’ Error was welcome. That book made me look at the brain in a new perspective. On the other hand, she does consider the theory Julian Jaynes expounded in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. What little I know of the theory posits that humans just a few thousand years ago were radically different from us. To that, I’ll ask you to show me proof of recent genetic change. I’d be much more inclined to believe in a cultural difference than a neurological one. Of course, I haven’t read the book, so don’t pay attention to a word I write about it.

As an aside, my reaction to the sentence "The willingness of religious organizations over the ages to extend charity to the mad is both admirable and evocative" (p. 255) was the unvoiced comment "Perhaps they recognize fellow sufferers". Of course, saying that out loud would be cynical and gauche.

The Midnight Disease should appeal to anyone who writes often, cares about their writing, has suffered writer’s block, or is simply interested in the neurological basis of creativity. It would be an especially good choice for the monthly book club of an author’s guild.

(I’m happy to report that my prognosis is good. For once, after reading a description of a syndrome that I could have, I can confidently say I don’t. I do tend to write a fair amount, but the compulsion isn’t overwhelming. I can quit whenever I want.)

Galactic Pot-Healer

Philip K. Dick
New trade paperback
5-6 May

My thirty-year-old mass market copy was falling apart, so I had to buy the reprinted trade paperback. And that meant that I had to read it again, of course.

This is still one of my favorite Dick novels. The main character isn’t quite as indecisive as many of PKD’s protagonists; the main female character isn’t completely disdainful (although she has her moments); many of Dick’s themes are woven together, some subtly. I particularly like that Joe Fernwright isn’t completely passive. He does act, even though he cannot predict the outcome. In this sense, it’s one of Dick’s most existential novels.

(Note to self: research Faust legend before next rereading.)

Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig
Library book / PDF
8-12 May

Each of Lessig’s books has a Big Idea that is obvious in retrospect; Free Culture’s big idea is that the rise of online distribution, and the ease with which copies are made and distributed, have resulted in a restriction of the rights to use works in all media, not just online. The reaction of media industries to channels not under their control has been a campaign to lobby for stronger and longer copyright protection, with greatly increased penalties for violators. The campaign has succeeded to the point that derivative works are too costly to make (due to the fear of lawsuits), no material will enter the public domain for at least twenty years, and old material that isn’t profitable is lost forever. Quote:

For in a world that threatens $150,000 for a single willful infringement of a copyright, and which demands tens of thousands of dollars to even defend against a copyright infringement claim, and which would never return to the wrongfully accused defendant anything of the costs she suffered to defend her right to speak—in that world, the astonishingly broad regulations that pass under the name "copyright" silence speech and creativity.And in that world, it takes a studied blindness for people to continue to believe they live in a culture that is free. (p. 187)

Lessig addresses the issue well, eschewing heavy theory for a common sense argument about the nature and use of copyright. His points are bolstered by numerous real-world examples of creativity stifled by copyright and disproportionate penalties for infringement.

I was surprised that Lessig gave short shrift to the idea of copyright as a service sold by the government. In essence, copyright is a contract with the government wherein a private party is granted a monopoly on control (which costs the government nothing to grant), along with the promise of being able to use the power of the executive and judicial branches to seek damages from violators (which costs the government real money). The price of such protection—a service—has been that after a specific amount of time, protected material was freed into the public domain. This bargain has been abolished: with the free and automatic grant of copyright, and its perpetual-in-all-but-name term, copyright holders have become free riders on the taxpayer’s dime, and fair use and the public domain be damned.

The other major point (which Lessig learned to his great pain) is that to free our culture, we’ll have to make people care about the issue. This book is a perfect place to start, providing an overview of the issue, examples of copyright owners’ abuse of the system, and offering things we can do to restore freedom to our culture. Read and act.

(It’s nice to see that Lessig addressed the closing point of my review of his previous book. Free Culture has been released as both as a hardcover book and as a free online text (PDF format, sadly) under a Creative Commons license. Although it is a bit weird to see in the online version the warning "The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law."—a claim which directly contradicts the book’s Creative Commons license. Looks like someone forgot to strip out the print disclaimer.)

King John

William Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare
15-16 May

The analyses I’ve read of King John paint John as weak, while the bastard Faulconbridge is a much more fully realized and forceful character. I’ll grant that, but wonder whether some opportunities weren’t missed. Shakespeare cleaved to the historical record (except for the Faulconbridge part), but it seemed there was another play buried inside King John, one in which John faced the realization that he was damned no matter what his course. Instead, he played tactician, changing strategies moment by moment. That is a responsibility of a leader, of course, but it would have been fascinating to see John recognize and face his downfall.

And in these times of wars that aren’t wars and atrocities committed in the name of freedom and security, it’s important to remember Faulconbridge’s closing words:

This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.

The Lovers

Philip José Farmer
Library book
18-19 May

Hal Yarrow, jack-of-all-linguist-trades and fed-up member of a repressive future theocracy, gets a chance to escape his unhappy wife and life by joining an expedition to a faraway planet. His Moral Rating is in the toilet, so he really doesn’t have much choice, but that’s fine with him. Escape is just what he needs. He finds it on the planet Ozagen, where the two continents have completely different biologies. Aside from the pesky presence of his lifelong confessor, Hal’s doing well. And then he meets the eyes of a woman—a mostly unclothed human woman—and his life will never be the same again.

That’s the setup for The Lovers, a book that was controversial when it was published as a story in the 1950s for its depiction (more like mention) of sexuality. Things have changed since then, which leaves us to focus on the story. The plot is a combination of familiar elements (e.g., Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion), and some aspects that stretch credibility (such as the ease with which humans and the unintentionally human-like Ozagenians learn each others’ languages), but on balance it’s reasonably well-done. Don’t expect great characterization, but don’t let that disqualify it from your reading list.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

William Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare
17-22 May

Have you ever wanted to slap one of Shakespeare’s characters? That’s how I felt about the unfaithful "gentleman" Proteus, who spurns a woman who loves him for his banished best friend’s paramour. I didn’t understand Julia, the spurned lover, who still pines for Proteus even after he disavows her right in front of her. (Okay, she was in disguise as a boy at the time, but still! Doesn’t she have any self-respect?) I wasn’t particularly thrilled with Valentine, the other gentleman, who practically walks into a trap set for him by the Duke. And the ending? Hoo boy. Could the hurried tying up of every plot thread in the last moments be any worse than a deus ex machina?

Throughout the play I had this feeling that there should be an older, long-married couple (say, the Duke and a duchess to match) observing Proteus’ and Valentine’s actions. They would have provided some much-needed balance and possibly ironic commentary. As it was, no one in the play came off as three-dimensional, with the possible except of the fool Launce (and his dog).

The Golden Age

John C. Wright
Library book
14-30 May

The Phoenix Exultant

John C. Wright
Library book
30-31 May

The Golden Transcendence

John C. Wright
Library book
1-2 June

Thousands of years in the future, the varied human, machine, and composite minds of the Nine Worlds are about to celebrate the coming Transcendence, which will set society’s tone and goals for the next millennium. The story begins during the Masquerade, where we find the aristo Phaeton (properly, Phaeton Prime Rhadamanthus Humodified (augment) Uncomposed, Indepconsciousness, Base Neuroformed, Silver-Gray Manorial Schola, Era 10191) engaged in a strange encounter with an old man. Phaeton learns a disturbing truth: portions of his memory have been removed, apparently with his agreement. He will now face a choice: live without knowing what was lost (or why), or recover the memories and face exile from a golden age.

John C. Wright has written a good trilogy that poses interesting questions: how do machine, human, and composite mentalities reconcile their goals? If memories and personalities can be redacted, how can one be sure of anything? If everyone were given prodigious resources, what would they do with them? These questions underpin a story of an indominatable man’s fall and rise. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that I was pleasantly surprised by the ending, and enjoyed Wright’s imagination throughout. He covers some of the same ground as Greg Egan, but doesn’t delve quite so deeply into the ontological & ethical problems and hardcore science. The Golden Age trilogy is an engaging work I should have read sooner. (When you read it, keep an eye out for the numerous subtle SF references!)

Emotional Design

Donald A. Norman
Library book
2-6 June

Summary: Norman’s changed his mind; there’s more to design than usability. Good design also appeals to the emotions.

That’s pretty much it. Norman goes into a few more details, breaking down successful design into three components (visceral, how a design makes you feel in the gut; behavioral, how well it succeeds at its task; and reflective, what you think about it) and concluding that a good design satisfies all three criteria. Like all other books on design, though, it gives few suggestions on how to actually create a good design. So Emotional Design is essentially a book-length essay on a one-line thesis. There’s just not that much there.

Then there’s the chapters about robots. They’re wildly optimistic, don’t fit with the rest of the book, and aren’t as amusing as Bob’s takes on the subject.

Errata: it’s Stewart Brand, not "Stuart".

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland

George Gamow
Library book
9 June

In this amusing little book nebbishy bank clerk Mr. Tompkins is introduced to relativity and quantum theory through a series of dream visitations to worlds in which the constants of nature differ enough for their effects to be perceived by the naked eye. Fortunately, he keeps running into a pipe-smoking white-bearded professor who’s there to explain why people are foreshortened, a granddaughter can become older than her grandfather, and billiard balls behave oddly. The science is gently introduced, and the illustrations are delightful (especially the tiger attack). You won’t be erudite about the subject after completing the book, but your interest may be piqued.

(Note: the professor’s statement at the end of the first dream about the fate of our universe is wrong, or at least unproven.)

Year’s Best SF 9

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
New paperback
6-13 June

While there’s no shortage of good fiction here, there’s nothing that immediately struck me as a classic. Of them, the best are Octavia Butler’s "Amnesty", a strong tale of choice and necessity when dealing with the alien; Tony Ballantyne’s "The Waters of Meribah", which reads like a nightmare; and Nigel Brown’s "Annuity Clinic", which is sentimental and chilling in equal mixture. If I had to pick one author to keep an eye on, it would be the latter.

The editors made a surprising choice for sequencing the stories in the book: the final three are each related to current events in the USA: M. Rickert’s "Bread and Bombs" deals with immigrants and xenophobia; Stephen Baxter’s "The Great Game" demonstrates the hysteria that leads to war; and Rick Moody’s "The Albertine Notes" is set in a post-Bomb New York City. This one-two-three punch, which ends with the strangest and most striking story in the book, overwhelms the previous material. That’s a pity, since the Butler story would fit very well with them.

San Francisco’s Castro

Strange de Jim
New paperback
21 June

This short book, part of the Images of America series, follows the history of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood from the 1880s to the present in photographs. It’s fascinating to see how the landscape changed as farmland became a neighborhood, and a neighborhood was subsumed by a city. The book changes when it reaches the 1970s; rather than buildings and infrastructure, people dominate the photos, and it’s obvious that the author is focusing on people and events important to him. Indeed, three times as many pages are devoted to the last three decades than to nine decades preceding them. Harvey Milk and the Most Holy Redeemer church get the spotlight, along with other Castro fixtures such the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. While they’re interesting (and in Harvey Milk’s case, inspiring), the book’s lack of balance makes it feel like a love letter not so much to the neighborhood as a place, but to the author’s social circle.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-First Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
6-24 July

Isn’t it funny how your mind can play tricks on you? Partway through this collection I thought "2003 was a good year for SF stories". Yet as I read the appendix, a long list of stories meriting honorable mention, I kept running across stories that were (a) in Hartwell & Cramer’s anthology, and (b) were better than some of the stories in this collection: for example, Octavia Butler’s "Amnesty", which was a better story than, say, Paul Di Filippo’s flashier "And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon".

But on taking a second look at this volume, I’ve come back to my original assessment: 2003 was a good year for SF stories. Take William Barton’s "Off On a Starship", or Judith Moffett’s "The Bear’s Baby", or Walter Jon Williams’ "The Green Leopard Plague": all different, all good. Sure, there were the usual retreaded-celeb stories (with four, count ’em, four of them in this volume—enough slipstream, already!), but distinctive stories like John C. Wright’s "Awake in the Night" made up for them. As usual, you can’t go wrong with The Year’s Best Science Fiction series.


Roald Dahl
Borrowed trade paperback
14-31 July

A short, enjoyable novel for children, liberally salted with Dahl’s trademark ripscuttling, snozzwhanging diction. The plot follows the orphan Sophie, who’s captured by a giant. But not just any giant! He’s the Big Friendly Giant of the title. Together, they devise a plan to rid the world of the nine evil giants that prey nightly on human beans.

A friend read the first few chapters of this aloud to me to keep us awake during a long drive. He really made the BFG come alive, with a voice to match Dahl’s preposterisms.

The Ideal Gay Man: The Story of Der Kreis

Hubert Kennedy, Ph.D.
New trade paperback
25 June-6 August

I’d never heard of the European publication Der Kreis (The Circle) before encountering this book. Der Kreis was a trilingual gay periodical which evolved in the 1930s from a lesbian-founded periodical, and continued publication until 1967. In separate chapters this book examines its origin, contributors, editor, ideals, and end.

Not having read Der Kreis, I can’t judge the author’s scholarship. However, I can say that after reading this book, I don’t feel like I learned much about the magazine. The chapters on the various contributors were dry history; I didn’t get a sense of who they were. That’s the main problem with this work; it doesn’t give a sense of the magazine in context. There are no interviews with people who read or were influenced by Der Kreis, and no indication of how the magazine influenced the gay movement in either Europe or America. The author asserts "Der Kreis has enriched us all culturally, intellectually, and spiritually", but I see no evidence to support that claim.

As a magazine, Der Kreis had less to offer me than I’d hoped. While I sympathize with some extent to the editor’s focus on the comradely aspects of "man-love", as he put it, his insistence on the existence of one ideal behavior is jarring to modern ears. Granted, he was a product of his times, walking a tightrope of private and public scorn, but I can’t help thinking of those that he censured because they didn’t fit his ideal mold. It wasn’t lawyers and politicians who gave birth to the modern gay movement at Stonewall, it was drag queens and others who didn’t fit the editor’s mold. Over all the decades of Der Kreis’s existence, what social progress was made by the editor’s "ideal" men?

I was also put off by the magazine’s focus on young men. The illustrations from the magazine invariably emphasize youth, including photographs and drawings of subjects not long out of puberty. Where are the men? The magazine also spends a fair amount of time on the question of "boy-love"; the editor held up the Greek ideal of pedagogical love, but cautioned against physical involvement until the age of majority. Prudent advice, of course, but wasted in my case; I can’t understand why anyone would be interested in a guy until he was in his mid-20s at least. If I’d lived in the 1950s and this were the only gay magazine available to me, I would have felt alienated not only from my neighbors, but from the rest of the homosexual world!

Considering the magazine’s subtle (at best) influence on the gay movement, and the author’s failure to put the magazine in a larger historical context, this book felt like reading a long historical footnote. Granted, it’s difficult to encapsulate the better part of four decades of a periodical, but there just wasn’t much here to interest me.

In the Blink of an Eye

Andrew Parker
Library book
7-15 August

Stephen Jay Gould’s intriguing Wonderful Life was my introduction to the Burgess fossil beds and the amazing changes in life known as the Cambrian Explosion. The question of what caused this upheaval was left unresolved. Andrew Parker’s In the Blink of an Eye presents a surprising hypothesis: life changed universally because of the evolution of the first eyed animal, the trilobite. Once sight became a factor in survival, the pace of evolution briefly went into overdrive. In so doing, it created the forms found in the Burgess fossils.

Parker approaches the subject obliquely, discussing the elements separately before uniting them. For example, a fair amount of space is devoted to diffraction gratings in ancient and modern animals, the discovery of which led the author to investigate other forms of color. The concluding hypothesis comes as no surprise, but the supporting chapters are for the most part interesting enough that I (usually) wasn’t thinking "get on with it, already!".

It’s certainly an interesting hypothesis, but I’d like to read some critical reviews before forming an opinion. Right now I’m a little leery of the focus on sight; there’s a bit of an "if all you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails" feel to the arguments—unintentional, surely, but the suspicion arose. I’m just not qualified to judge the science. Still, if you enjoyed Wonderful Life, this is a thought-provoking successor worth your attention.

Forty Signs of Rain

Kim Stanley Robinson
Library book
16-17 August

Just before I began to write this review, I turned on the radio to provide some background noise. Just starting was "Climate of Uncertainty", an American RadioWorks documentary climate change caused by global warming. The coincidence was striking, because that’s the subject of Robinson’s new novel.

Forty Signs of Rain follows the lives of several near-future Washington D.C. denizens: Charlie, houseparent and part-time environmental policy wonk for a prominent Senator; Charlie’s wife Anna, a crack statistician who works for the National Science Foundation; her colleague Frank, who’s often too rational for his own good; and a group of ambassadors from Khembalung, an island threatened by the rising sea level. Their stories intersect at points, and everybody (with the exception of Frank) revolving around the question of how to prod the world into acknowledging and acting on the increasingly-obvious signs of global warming.

In an interview, Robinson describes the book as comedy, and it is. Despite the hopes of his publisher’s blurb-writers, this isn’t an eco-thriller, nor is it especially provocative. Most of the book is people going about their jobs. Since they’re mostly desk jockeys, don’t expect thrilling last-minute rescues. Instead, enjoy the book for what it is; an enjoyable dip into a world of science, politics, and parenting. It goes down easily—almost too easily; it’s easy to forget that the book is yet another warning of the rain to come. And that metaphoric rain is gonna fall, without doubt. We just don’t know what form it will take. We’ll be lucky if we get off as lightly as these folks.

Perhaps it’s time to reread Greenhouse Summer.

Random notes:

  • The title apparently refers to a poem by Edward Jenner.

  • The American cover of the book features several Washington D.C. landmarks silhouetted against storm clouds. From what I know of the Mall, it’s an impossible skyline. I suppose reality isn’t as photogenic.

Designer Genes

Brian Stableford
Library book
18-19 August

Subtitled Tales of the Biotech Revolution, this book’s eleven stories are spiritual kin to Stableford’s six-volume future history of immortality. In Designer Genes, he narrows his scope to focus on how specific technological changes will affect people. The result is hit ("Another Branch of the Family Tree", "The Facts of Life") and miss ("The Invisible Worm"), but the book as a whole raises a vital question: if we can change our natures, should we?

More Tomorrow and Other Stories

Michael Marshall Smith
Library book
18-23 August

More Tomorrow is a large mixed bag. Some stories are slice-of-life, some wistful fantasy, some horror. Their tenor ranges from sadistic to playful. I’d pass on most of them, but one or two (especially "The Vaccinator") I quite enjoyed.

One thing I don’t understand about the book is how it goes back and forth between American and British idioms. That makes sense if the author is writing for a particular market, but how does one explain a British character in Britain thinking in miles per hour?

Iron Sunrise

Charles Stross
Library book
23-27 August

The sequel to Singularity Sky begins with a snap and continues at that pace. The elements were imaginative, the in-jokes amused, and the author kept pulling rabbits out of the hat. My only (minor) complaint was that it is very tightly connected to its predecessor, and (not remembering the first book well) I felt like I was missing a bit too much of what had gone before. Otherwise, it was a good read.

Singularity Sky

Charles Stross
27-30 August

Since I didn’t remember Singularity Sky well, I pulled it out to skim through it and ended up rereading it. The space scenes didn’t drag on quite as long as I remembered, but there’s still a feeling that the book’s narrative focus is a bit misplaced. It’s pleasurable, but there’s no real surprise. Strangely, I can’t decide whether my judgment about the tight connection between this book and Iron Sunrise is correct or not. Perhaps I should reread the latter, even though I just read it.

Newton’s Wake

Ken MacLeod
New hardcover
31 August-1 September

I didn’t warm up to the characters in this book, Ken MacLeod’s latest space opera (his subtitle, not mine). The more I think about this fact, the more interesting the book becomes. Rather than offering the cookie-cutter good and evil characters that pervade SF, MacLeod gives us neither angels nor devils. Instead, they’re just people. For example, the lead character, Lucinda Carlyle, has her good qualities, despite coming from a gang one cut above thugs, and (arguably) keeping someone in slavery. The others she meets in her travels have just as much a mixture of frailties. It’s refreshing to meet SF characters that are worth discussing not for what they’ve done, but for who they are.

The action zips along well, with some groaners thrown as per MacLeod’s wont. It’s not revolutionary, but it is fun. I bet Winter & Calder’s songs will be sung at SF cons.

(You might not want to read too much MacLeod and Stross in a short period, for fear of stylistic overdose.)


Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Borrowed paperback
3 September

This slender novel is an updated version of the first book of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Allen Carpenter, a stand-in for Niven, dies stupidly and finds himself in an unpleasant place. As a puzzling companion leads him through circle after circle of the tormented, he wrestles with whether he is in Hell, or just a remarkable simulation. Yet no matter the answer, the question that remains unavoidable is "why?". What possible purpose could Hell have?

The result is a pleasurable, fast read that has moments of humor. Hell has lost most of its power to shock, so the authors wisely focus on Allen’s inner turmoil and its consequent changes. In one sense, the entire book can be summed up with the aphorism "we each make our own hells", but that oversimplifies it somewhat.

(Still, I do wonder whether the entire book wasn’t a set-up for one absolute groaner of an in-joke.)

The Not So Big House

Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky
Used hardcover (gift)
4-6 September

There’s a kind of magazine that I think of as architecture porn, because it shares many of the qualities of traditional porn: it’s designed to be attractive, it provides material for unrealistic fantasies, and some people are addicted to it. What percentage of Architectural Digest’s readers never adopt a single idea found in the magazine, yet continue to subscribe?

For most people, The Not So Big House falls into this category. The author tips her hand at the beginning, when she retells the story of Paul and Laura, who, after spending $500,000 on a large new house and deciding they don’t like it, decide to start over. That pretty much says it all: the book isn’t for you and me, it’s for those who can afford to walk away from a half million dollar mistake. The houses in the book’s many photographs bear this out: pervasive wood trim, recessed lighting, floor-to-ceiling windows, variable ceiling heights, the whole showcase architecture hog. As the author notes, even though the square footage of the Not So Big house might be less than that of a normal house, the cost won’t be much less. "Quality, not quantity" is the mantra—but quality costs.

If you can look beyond the fact that the book is aimed at successful Boomers, you’ll find a mixed bag. On the one hand, the focus on quality of life is refreshing. There are also useful specific suggestions: analyze how much rooms are used in your existing house to determine relative room size/prominence in a new house; consider diagonal views; use sliding doors to decrease room space. Valuable nuggets like these are scattered throughout the book.

On the other hand, there are some elements that just seemed wrong. The first was the complete focus on the homeowners, and none at all on the surrounding community. The house pictured on p. 152 epitomizes this attitude: because it’s located on a busy street with a better view to the rear, the front is a blank slab broken only by the entryway and one small window, while the rear has a large deck and three stories of large windows. The result is a house that might be beautiful for its owners to live in, but actively destroys the neighborhood as a community. The author may have studied A Pattern Language, but she doesn’t seem to have gotten the message that it’s the language of patterns that makes a house and community whole, not a few patterns in isolation.

Despite sections titled "Simplify, Simplify, Simplify" and "Reducing Waste", I can’t help but think the author is missing a fundamental point about living simply. It’s rather like diets that promise "eat all you like and lose a pound a day without exercise!". How else could she miss the paradox inherent in her exhortation "More quality, less quantity"? How could she admonish us that "we cannot continue to squander the earth’s resources" only twenty-four pages after noting without comment that "[s]ome woods are nonrenewable, such as hardwoods from tropical forests"?

Perhaps I’m just disappointed that some useful ideas about building smaller, more human dwellings are loaded down with tinsel. I’d much prefer a style of architecture that, in the spirit of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, advocates a good, simple, affordable design that gains value over time through well-considered changes, rather than trying to build perfection in from the start. Because until you’ve lived in a house for a while, you won’t know how to make it better. Or maybe the contrast between the houses in The Not So Big House and the homes in The Production of Houses is too stark: one set is expensive, beautifully trimmed, and loved by their occupants, while the others are cheap, made as simply as possible, and loved by their occupants. Read both of these books and then ask yourself who’s really living simply.

[Realization while reading this book: for me, bookshelves & CD shelves that aren’t readily visible are useless. I find that when I want some music, I always look at the half-wall of CDs to my left, never to the shelves of CDs behind me. For all I listen to them, I might as well put the latter CDs in a box.]

Absolution Gap

Alastair Reynolds
Library book
18-23 September

Absolution Gap completes the trilogy/tetralogy Reynolds began with Revelation Space. Either he’s improved as a writer, or I’ve gotten used to him over the last three years; the pacing finally seemed right. As usual, there’s a problem with telegraphed events (c.f. Chekhov’s gun), but as a whole it was an enjoyable read, bringing the characters to their various resolutions.

The Collected Stories of Greg Bear

Greg Bear
Borrowed book
23-29 September

This collection isn’t comprehensive, but at more than six hundred pages there’s more than enough. The classics "Blood Music" and "Hardfought" are here, as well as stories that show a surprisingly diverse range of styles: Bradburyish fable, horror, fantasy, near-now hard SF, far-future speculation. He’s at his best when he concentrates on character. For example, "Sisters" works well because the main character captures our sympathy, whereas "The Way of All Ghosts" fails because it’s more an homage to a setting than a coherent story. There’s something here for everyone, something to make everybody think, but I suspect few will appreciate everything.

The Zenith Angle

Bruce Sterling
Library book
30 September

I normally like Sterling’s novels, but this one left me cold. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, serious coder Derek Vandeveer leaves his high-paying private sector job for a position in one of the many government security agencies that sprung up overnight like mushrooms on offal. Some successes, some failures, and he finds himself a changed person, innocence gone. Suddenly he not only accepts the use of violence to further his ends, he seems to prefer it. By the end of the book, he’s done monstrous things: beaten people up, killed, and simultaneously destroyed both a multimillion dollar advanced telescope and his wife’s career. He’s completely lost his moral compass. It’s a distasteful change, and the book leaves a sour taste in my mind.

I’d like to make a comment about Van’s flirtation with beardlessness as a metaphor for his corruption by the government mindset, but Sterling doesn’t follow through with it. Instead, we get another "Oh honey, you look so handsome this way. You look so clean." comment. Grumble.

Oh, that bit about the Grendel system being attacked after only twenty minutes online? Unrealistic and out of date. Try twenty seconds.

Florence of Arabia

Christopher Buckley
Library book
2 October

When a female, foreign friend of State Department employee Florence Farfaletti is killed after a failed bid for freedom, Florence decides to shakes things up. Her proposal, to start a pro-feminist television station in the tiny, decadent mideast country Matar, is met with disbelief by her superiors. Expecting the proposal to perish quietly, Florence is surprised when a mysterious backer offers full support. Hand-picking her team, Florence is soon the head of TVMatar. Then things start to get sticky...

The result is a comic novel that had me chuckling in a few places, but ultimately left me a little uncomfortable. The subject is just a little too raw right now for me to take humorously.

A Cure for Gravity

Joe Jackson
4-5 October

Two years later, it’s a pleasure to reread A Cure for Gravity. I can’t add anything to the previous review, other than that his album Blaze of Glory also makes a good soundtrack for the book.


Robertson Davies
6-8 October

It’s funny what sticks with you in a book. I first read this years ago, and remembered it as an amusing tale of the staging of a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by the various clashing social circles of Davies’ mythical small city of Salterton. This time round, the thing that struck me most was a scene in which one young lady helps another with her makeup before the season’s big ball. It was a minor scene, but my heart went out to both of the characters. Sometimes we are at our best in the small moments of life.

By the way, could someone explain the necessity of the book’s first scene? Yes, it sets up the action to come, but in so doing it also sets up Freddy as a main character, and seeds Freddy’s secret cider as a potential source of trouble. Then we hear practically nothing about them again. Clumsy writing.

Leaven of Malice

Robertson Davies
9-10 October

A hoax engagement notice sets in motion the social circles of Salterton. Discreet mayhem ensues, and in the process true natures are revealed.

Partway through, I found myself wanting to give a good shaking to most of the characters. With a handful of exceptions—particularly the eccentric and freethinking organist, Humphrey Cobbler, but otherwise all minor characters—I was fed up with their behavior. That got me thinking for some reason about science fiction, and now has me pondering a distinction I haven’t heard advanced between mainstream fiction and SF. In Salterton, almost all of the characters go on about their little lives, aspiring to the pettiest of goals. In SF, the focus is often on those who dare, and those who create. When I found myself fuming at Davies’ characters, my unspoken advice to them was along the lines of "forget all those nobnoddies and get out there and do something!". In a SF novel that could happen, but in mainstream fiction? Not likely. Perhaps that’s why mainstream fiction is less interesting: fewer of its characters have any kind of vision.

A Mixture of Frailties

Robertson Davies
10-11 October

The Salterton trilogy ends on a note that makes up somewhat for the small-mindedness of the characters of Leaven of Malice. The death of Solly Bridgewater’s manipulative mother reveals that she’s left most of her money to her son, but only when he produces a male heir. Until that time, the money is to be used to fund a trust that will educate a promising young woman in the arts. A search for a suitable candidate turns up Monica Gall, whose voice may some day transcend her dull working class upbringing. Off to London she is sent, there to learn about music and life.

Monica’s education, which occupies the bulk of the novel, gives Davies ample opportunity to insert speeches about the Nature of Art. He manages to refrain from making them tedious, but the realization soon arrives that each episode Teaches a Lesson to Monica. Unfortunately, she never seizes the opportunity to guide her own destiny, so the story is one of the slow accumulation of self-insight.

Davies later reworked much of this in the last two volumes of the Cornish Trilogy. While A Mixture of Frailties is pleasant enough, Monica hasn’t enough rudder to compare with the characters in What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus.

Fifth Business

Robertson Davies
13-14 October

Dunstable Ramsay is an oddity: a thorough academic in some respects, he’s also sure that he knew an uncanonized saint, and was witness to three miracles she performed. In Fifth Business, he tells the tale of his life, demonstrating that the most mundane of events—a misthrown snowball, for example—can drastically alter lives. It’s an absorbing tale which shows that the assumptions we make about others’ lives may be far off the mark.

The Manticore

Robertson Davies
14-15 October

David Staunton, son of recently deceased flamboyant millionaire Boy Staunton, finds himself in psychic straits. Recognizing his difficulties, he hies off to Switzerland for treatment from a Jungian analyst. The analysis occupies all of The Manticore, and that is the book’s failing. The David we meet during analysis isn’t an interesting character; he might become one after his analysis is complete, but he hasn’t gotten there yet. Lacking a strong and interesting main character, the novel becomes a case of analysis, but even that is rigged. For example, take David’s first dream; it’s not hard for the reader to interpret, precisely because it was designed to be so by the author. If you want analysis, read true case histories. The Manticore is a well-written cheat whose sole virtue is to advance the story of Deptford’s progeny by about one inch.

World of Wonders

Robertson Davies
15-16 October

In the conclusion of Davies’ Deptford trilogy, it is master illusionist Magnus Eisengrim’s turn to enter the confessional and recount the story of his life. Of course Dunstan Ramsay is present, and the important members of the cast of Fifth Business (save one). Davies continues his exploration of the numinous in everyday life; there’s a kind of Jungian cross with Equus here, but he makes the material his own. The idle fripperies of the Salterton trilogy have been left behind, but he’s still working on his craft. These books end up being quite talky, and not the sparkling fun of his later Cornish trilogy (e.g., The Rebel Angels), in which he finally struck the right balance.

An adroit touch on Davies’ part: he made a factual error in World of Wonders into a small but significant element of his later novel What’s Bred in the Bone. Now that’s clever.


Greg Egan
17-18 October

Reading Distress again has left me with a mixed impression. On the one hand, I’m really impressed by the imagination that created such radically weird beliefs as those held by the Anthrocosmologists. On the other, the novel has passages that are simply unbelievable (captors freely debating esoteric philosophy with their captives, for example). Maybe there’s no good way to present that large an infodump, and the author chose the least of several evils.

I’m also confused about a couple of loose ends. Perhaps I wasn’t reading closely enough, but why would the main character expect Sarah Knight to be dead (as he ponders on p. 274)? Also, if the bioengineered island Stateless is anchored to a guyot, how could the central region collapse?

These are minor quibbles. Distress is a not completely successful transition for Egan; his works are still heavy on science and philosophy, but he’s started to explore the relations between his characters. It doesn’t all gel yet, but it’s a promising beginning.

The Gateway Trip

Frederick Pohl
Library book
21-22 October

The Gateway Trip is an appendix to Pohl’s long-running Gateway stories. It’s a bit of an odd duck, as it combines one novella with other essays that are sheer exposition. If you’ve read the Gateway books you won’t learn much, but Pohl has enough skill as a storyteller to make raw exposition enjoyable.

Abraham Lincoln’s DNA

Philip R. Reilly
Library book
19-24 October

Did Abraham Lincoln suffer from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disease of the connective tissue? Should a sample of his DNA be tested to verify this hypothesis?

That’s the sort of question Abraham Lincoln’s DNA raises. Over the course of twenty-odd short chapters, the author not only covers most of the ethical issues surrounding modern genetics, but also imparts a short course in the science of genes. If you want to understand exactly how complex the topic is, this book will teach you.

The sole caveat I have is that the author falls slightly too much on the pro-government/business side for my taste in his answers to some of the ethical questions. For example, the notion of taking a DNA sample from everyone arrested for a felony—not convicted, merely arrested—disregards basic civil rights. If you think the connection between an arrestee and a crime is so strong, you should be able to convince a judge of that fact. In another realm, the idea of patenting genes/proteins/organisms leads to the topsy-turvy notion of a world in which the most cutting-edge biotech isn’t used because no one can afford it. How is this progress?

Of course, a book like this dates quickly. For example, since its publication the number of genes in the human genome has been cut by a factor of four. So take its data with a grain of salt.


Frederick Pohl
Used hardcover
29-30 October

Robinette Broadhead grabbed a chance to escape from the dreary life of a shale farmer on a full-to-bursting Earth. With his unexpected lottery winnings, he took ship for the Gateway asteroid, which was filled with long-abandoned Heechee starships. After fighting fear and falling in love, he and his partner took off to an unknown destination, with no guarantee of return. Three times he gambled on the Heechee ships, and the last voyage was his making and his undoing. Now Robin is back on Earth, rich, and coming apart at the seams.

Gateway alternates between Robin’s life on Gateway and his later psychoanalysis by Sigfrid von Shrink, a computer program. Pohl takes the classic "ride an alien starship" motif to a new level; instead of playing a simple game of "what happens next?", as many before him had done (e.g. Niven), he shows how such a singular experience could permanently affect a person. Some of the analysis sounds wrong today (e.g., the role of Dane), but you have to give credit for dealing with homosexuality in a science fiction novel.

(I wonder: do the best of each generation of SF authors create increasingly more complete and believable worlds? Gateway deals with more elements of society—sexuality, disability, working poverty, etc—than many previous SF books; Ken MacLeod’s novels add even more. Will the quality of worlds created by the best SF authors and the best non-SF authors someday converge?)

The Man Who Folded Himself

David Gerrold
Used paperback
30 October

It must be Analysis Month here at chez Irons: first The Manticore, then Gateway, and now David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. Unlike the other books’ protagonists, Daniel Eakins doesn’t spend most of the book in therapy, but he shares many of their concerns. For one thing, he wants to find love. It’s a little hard for him to search it as most people do, though, for many of the people that he meets are himself. Danny Eakins has a time machine, you see, and he’s able to visit both his past and his future. And yet it still doesn’t make him happy. What’s missing?

It’s funny that this book, which apparently has something of a reputation, turns out to be so conventional. Sure, Danny makes love with both female and male versions of himself, but the ultimate lesson isn’t that far removed from the propaganda drilled into the heads of anthropoids since before we first walked upright: reproduce! protect the children! Danny’s notion of iteratively reshaping his existence touches on Egan territory, but Gerrold steps back from the vision Egan embraces. I wonder how the latter would have handled this book.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Frederick Pohl
Used paperback
30-31 October

In this sequel to Gateway, we find out a bit more about the long-vanished Heechee, and explore a bit more of that universe. Overall, though, it’s a letdown. Stuff happens, but there’s no dramatic tension. Pohl also seems to have lost the ability to write pithy prose; this book is quite a bit longer than Gateway, but less happens.


Nick Sagan
Library book
31 October-3 November

The plague Black Ep killed almost everyone, but a score of people survived. Some are genetically engineered, others load up on medical therapy. Now it’s up to them to put aside their differences and work together to rebuild the world. A noble endeavor, indeed, but one that may not be able to survive the complexities of human relationships.

Edenborn is the novel Williamson’s Terraforming Earth could have been. The characters aren’t robots; they make mistakes, some serious, and the consequences are not trivial. I’m intrigued enough to seek the author’s earlier novel Idlewild.


Geoff Ryman
Library book
5-7 November

Chung Mae is the self-styled fashion expert in her small, remote mountain village. They’re so isolated that they haven’t heard of the upcoming test of Air, the new medium that will bring the future to everyone. So they are unprepared when they hear an unexpected voice in their heads, the voice of Air. Life will not be the same, Mae’s in particular.

Ryman’s pulled off a neat trick. On the one hand, he’s created in Mae a character that I respect, even though we would likely not be friends. On another, he’s written a human-centered story of the effects of technological change. Both are very well done. This is a book I recommended to a friend within twelve hours of finishing it, and I expect to recommend it to several more. It’s the best new book of this year, so far.

Heechee Rendezvous

Frederick Pohl
Used paperback
7-8 October

Another helping of Robinette Broadhead & pals, and it’s not giving away much to say that the Heechee are finally revealed. Heechee Rendezvous is overlong for what actually happens; Robin’s story takes precedence, leaving most of the minor characters (particularly Audee, Dolly, and Jane) as undeveloped as cardboard. Unbalancing the story even more, the Albert Einstein program upstages practically everyone. Pohl did make one prescient observation, which was that the larger the structure (either physical or institutional), the more vulnerable it is to terrorism.

Annals of the Heechee

Frederick Pohl
Library book
8-9 October

Repetitious. Turgid. Cutesy. Slow-moving.

Anything else you want to know about this novel? It continues the story begun in Gateway, but has none of the qualities that made that story interesting. The main character, Robinette Broadhead, is still unhappily neurotic (and now a major bore, to boot), his wife is still without personality, and the data-retrieval program Albert Einstein has passed beyond cute and gone straight into twee. Minor characters and plot elements are introduced and then gracelessly dropped, exposition is repeated over and over, and coincidences stretch credulity. In short, there’s nothing to recommend.

One thing that made this book so annoying was Robin droning on about the difference between physical and digital existence. Please, don’t make me laugh—my lips are chapped. We keep hearing about how he can be in any virtual environment he chooses, and how he lives thousands of times faster than "meat people". He’s done it all, twice, and is bored. My response: go read a Greg Egan book. You’re virtual; if you don’t like how you feel, change yourself! Pohl completely ignores this implication of the technology. Try Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division or Egan’s Diaspora to see competent treatments of the subject.

It’s as if Pohl wanted to write a Robert Silverberg novel, but had no idea of how to approach the topic of accepting age. Perhaps his muse died after he wrote the first book, and he continued on sheer inertia. What a sad end to a story that started out so well.

Outnumbering the Dead

Frederick Pohl
Library book
9 October

It took Pohl a few more years, but he did finally manage to write in the Silverberg mode. Outnumbering the Dead is practically a rewrite of Silverberg’s "Sailing to Byzantium", minus the latter’s decadent touches. Both novellas feature a mortal character struggling to accept his fate in a society of immortals. They’re both intelligent and well done.

A note to illustrators of SF stories: it’s okay to just illustrate a story’s action; there’s no need to remind us that we’re reading SF by throwing in gratuitous spaceships (e.g., the illustration on p. 75 of a spaceship flying above a restaging of "Oedipus Rex"). If you must add a spaceship, don’t use a model from a terrible old SF show as a photographic reference. Your audience will laugh at you.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris
Used trade paperback
19 October

The title says it all, really. Sedaris recounts, in his unmistakable style, stories of his family, growing up, his checkered employment history, and his experiences as an illiterate in France. There are a few essays that fall a bit flat—"Today’s Special" comes to mind— but once again he had me laughing aloud.

The Invisible Man

H.G. Wells
Project Gutenberg
7 December

The classic tale of a man who makes himself invisible, and his consequent misery and insanity. A good quick read, with some nice touches (such as Adye’s observation in Chapter XXVII). My only quibble is that it’s not made clear how much of Griffin’s madness is due to his transformation, versus how much was latent in his character as a student.

[I wasn’t aware that there already was an HTML version of the Project Gutenberg text, so I created my own. It has wider margins and improved typography.]

The Star Fraction

Ken MacLeod
8-10 December

The Stone Canal

Ken MacLeod
10-12 December

The Sky Road

Ken MacLeod
12-13 December

The Cassini Division

Ken MacLeod
13-14 December

What? You still haven’t read Ken MacLeod’s complex, intelligent, and intellectually challenging Fall Revolution tetralogy? Hie thee to a bookstore or library, o wretchèd soul!


Geoff Ryman
Library book and online text
16-20 December

253 (or Tubeway Theatre) is an Oulipian project which, like Perec’s brilliant A Void, transcends its technical conceit. It’s the story of the 252 passengers (plus driver) of a London Underground train, observed for seven minutes on a 1995 morning. The book is divided into 253 sections, each describing one person in exactly 253 words. In lesser hands this could be trite, but Ryman is skilled enough that I was soon drawn into this world, following the passenger’s interactions and drawing connections between them. It really is a book like no other, and well done.

253 started life as an online, densely hyperlinked project, and was later published as a paper book. I didn’t see then how the physical book could succeed without hyperlinks, but upon reading the “print remix”, I’ve changed my mind. The two versions are simply different. The biggest difference was in the connections between the passengers. In the online version, all the connections are immediately obvious in the links. In print, there is an index of links in the back, but otherwise the connections are much more obscure. While the obviousness of hyperlinks appealed to my impatient side, the print remix was actually more fun; it was a pleasure to discover connections that aren’t immediately apparent. Ultimately, the two forms worked together; I’d read something intriguing in the print version, then check online whether my suspicions were correct.

The Child Garden

Geoff Ryman
21-23 December

Why is it that I rarely remember awful puns when I first read a book? Anyway, The Child Garden is still bursting with life.

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken

Library book
21-23 December

This short (autobiographic?) graphic novel follows a man’s search for information about an obscure cartoonist. Along the way, it reveals much about the main character, who’s in the post-alienation phase that alternates between despairing self-deprecation and feelings of superiority. The creator keeps the story understated, focusing on the quiet moments of life. His artistic style is New Yorker-ish, with crisp two-color drawings. It’s an odd mix, but it works.

Book Queue


Emphasized titles are in progress.

  • Christopher Alexander, The Process of Creating Life
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, abridged by Edmund Fuller
  • Patrick T. Pringle, Roadside Geology of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Vicinity

Anticipated Additions to the Queue

  • David Brin, Kil’n Time
  • Philip K. Dick, Dr. Futurity
  • Ken MacLeod, New Intelligence
  • Susan Palwick, Shelter
  • Alastair Reynolds, Century Rain
  • Charles Stross, Accelerando
  • Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archive
  • John Varley, Irontown Blues
  • John Varley, The John Varley Reader
  • John Varley, Mammoth

Last updated 12 September 2005
All contents ©2004 Mark L. Irons.

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