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StormRaven's Seventy-Five (and Beyond) for 2010

75 Books Challenge for 2010

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Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 2:58pm Top

Between the last book of 2009, and this book, I read:

The Economist (January 2nd-8th 2010)
The Economist (January 9th-15th 2010)
The Economist (January 16th-22nd 2010)
Woodbberry Forest School Annual Report (2008-2009)
Virginia Lawyer (December 2009)
Poets & Writers (January/February 2010)
National Geographic (January 2010)
Science News (November 21, 2009)
Science News (December 5, 2009)
Science News (December 19, 2009)
Science News (January 2, 2009)

Realms of Fantasy (February 2010)
Stories included:
How Interesting: A Tiny Man by Harlan Ellison
Mister Oak by Leah Bobet
The Demon of Hochgarten by Euan Harvey
Melanie by Aliette de Bodard
The Unknown God by Ann Leckie

Book One: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, No. 5 (December 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Dragon's Teeth by Alex Irvine
Hell of a Fix by Matthew Hughes
Inside Time by Tim Sullivan
I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes
Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan
Farewell Atlantis by Terry Bisson
Illusions of Tranquility by Brendan DuBois
The Blight Family Singers by Kit Reed
The Economy of Vacuum by Sarah Thomas
Iris by Nancy Springer
The Man Who Did Something About It by Harvey Jacobs

Long review: The December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a collection of mostly ordinary stories that tantalizingly seem to hint that they could have been better, with a few highlights that seem to mostly take the form of writers attempting to imitate more prominent, better writers. Overall, this issue probably would have been considered quite good twenty years ago, but now a lot of the ideas just seem a bit worn and tired.

Dragon's Teeth by Alex Irvine is a somewhat interesting fantasy about a soldier sent to kill a dragon marred by its aimless nature and the fact that all of the seemingly interesting things about the story take place entirely off-stage. The story starts and ends in media res and the background of the main character (in which he was transformed into a dog for his own protection by his brother) seems to be more interesting than the story itself. The story seems somewhat influenced by Gene Wolfe's style, but just misses the mark. Dragon's Teeth was frustrating, because it seems like it could have been a more interesting story if it had included more of the stuff that poked in around the edges. Another story that shared this somewhat aimless and pointless nature was Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan as a woman uncovers her father's legacy, which turns out to be potentially interesting, but the finish is so vague that the story turns out to be fairly bland. I know lots of writers want to make their stories deep and philosophical by building ambiguity into their writing, but there has to be some sort of point. Just starting and then stopping in a slice of life without there being some reason why this part of the person's life might be important or interesting turns out to be pretty dull.

Another story in which the author seemed to be attempting to emulate another's style is I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes, which seems to aspire to be a Philip K. Dick story. The protagonist is an elderly surgical patient plagued by what appear to be supernatural visitors who have an agenda that is both confusing and somewhat frightening. The story is told in a disjointed style, which seems to me to be effective at catching the disorientation and confusion of a patient alternatively in shock from serious illness and then subjected to anesthesia and a variety of hallucinogenic medications during their treatment. Through the story (in the best Philip K. Dick tradition) the reader isn't sure whether the information being passed on by the narrator is real or a delusion caused by his illness and the drugs he has been administered.

Inside Time by Tim Sullivan is a sort of twisted morality play in which time travelers (both intentional and accidental) get caught in an inter-temporal way station for unknown and unexplained reasons. The characters deal with moral choices which they must later face up to. The story is quite confining, taking place in a constrained space in the middle of a vast expanse, which gives the story both a claustrophobic and agoraphobic feel at the same time. It is interesting, but the morality of the story seems fairly basic, and the arbiters of that morality are so vague that the story is somewhat undermined.

Interestingly, this issue contains two stories about lunar colonization. In the first, Illusions of Tranquility by Brendan DuBois, a second generation lunar dweller undertakes an assignment to bring needed money into the impoverished colony. The story paint a fairly grim picture of lunar colonization, with a sort of Potemkin village feel to the story. It seems to me that there is something of Heinlein or Campbell in the story, as brave humans battle the harsh environment using all the means at their disposal. The story ends on a hopeful note, which makes it markedly different from the other lunar colonization story The Economy of Vacuum by Sarah Thomas which details the sad story of the first lunar colonist who ends up abandoned by humanity as it descends into chaos, and then later betrayed by her would-be rescuers based upon the repugnant application of religious dogma.

The best story in the issue was probably Hell of a Fix, in which an inadvertent demon summoning results in an infernal crisis that affects everyone, and ends up revealing an unexpected aspect of God. The story is lighthearted and funny, and has the added bonus of having a comic book fan as the protagonist. Farewell Atlantis by Terry Bisson is also a fun story, with an interesting twist on the shaggy god subgenre (which was refreshing given the vast disappointment that the ending of the new Battlestar Galactica series, which was a bad version of the shaggy god story). The Man Who Did Something About It by Harvey Jacobs humorously puts an auto mechanic in the position to potentially save the Earth from destruction, although I found the ending confusing and not particularly satisfying. Less well executed, but amusing in a different way is The Blight Family Singers, which is a sort of science-fictional cross between the story of the von Trapps (famous from The Sound of Music) and the religious fundamentalism of polygamous splinter sects of Mormonism.

It seems that just about every issue of a genre magazine these days has at least one story that seems entirely out of place. Iris by Nancy Springer fills that role in this issue. Though the story is a somewhat interesting story about being old and alone, there is no real fantasy or science fiction aspect to the story. I was left wondering why this story was included. While the story was told well, I kept waiting for something interesting to actually happen and get the ball rolling on a plot. Overall, this issue as a whole seems to be a lot like Iris as it is fairly uninspiring with mostly pedestrian stories punctuated by a few tepid highlights.

Jan 20, 2010, 3:53am Top

Glad to have you back with us again!

Jan 20, 2010, 8:50am Top

Welcome back! I was wondering where you wandered off to...

Jan 20, 2010, 12:20pm Top

3: I was buried under a pile of backlogged periodicals. Once I dug out, I could start on books again.

Edited: Sep 16, 2012, 11:56am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (January 16, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (January 2010)
National Geographic (February 2010)

Book Two: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXX, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Neptune's Treasure by Richard A. Lovett
Thus Spake the Aliens by H. G. Stratmann
The Possession of Paavo Deshin by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Simple Gifts by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Shame by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn
On Rickety Thistlewaite by Michael F. Flynn
Rejiggering the Thingamajig by Eric James Stone
A War of Stars by David L. Clements

Science fact articles included:
Twins: Never Identical by Victor Raggio, M. D.
Take Off Your Hat: You're in the Presence of Culture by Stephen R. Balzac

Special features included:
Making Reality Ring Untrue: Writer's Tricks for Bringing Stories to Life by Richard A. Lovett
Across My Life . . . by Ben Bova

Poems included:
Undocumented Alien by Robert T. Lundy

Long review: As usual in a double issue, this edition of Analog has more than the usual ups and downs, which is to be expected as it has more content. Unusual for a double issue, there are more ups than downs, resulting in a pretty good issue.

Brittney and Floyd return in Richard A. Lovett's Neptune's Treasures, a hard science story about finding evidence of aliens in the outer solar system. Having previously appeared in Brittney's Labyrinth the two companions, a taciturn outer system engineer and his hyper intelligent juvenile self aware AI continue their adventures in the even more dangerous territory of Neptune's moons (having left the relative safety of Saturn's moons). As usual, the story is well-executed and interesting. Lovett also contributes an article on effective fiction writing, focusing on making a story seem real by using indiosyncratic background details.

Also returning are H.G. Stratmann's Katerina Savistskaya and Martin Slayton in the story Thus Spake the Aliens, who had previously appeared in Wilderness Were Paradise Enow. This story picks up where that one left off, as Katerina, having apparently failed the aliens test in the previous story and doomed mankind to extinction, attempts to figure out a way to reverse this mistake. As usual, dealing with aliens of Godlike power is difficult at best, and Katerina and Martin muddle through to an ambiguous and somewhat hopeful ending.

Another story in the hard science fiction genre is A War of Stars by David L. Clements, which takes interstellar war to an extreme future without breaking any known laws of physics on the way. The future he describes is bleak and harsh, and in the end you aren't even sure who to root for.

Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn contribute the story Shame, which seems to be a Western redressed as a science fiction story about a covert operation gone wrong, and the awful consequences of jumping to the wrong conclusions. The story is okay, but a little predictable. On Rickety Thistlewaite by Michael F. Flynn is also somewhat predictable, although its more exotic setting and strange court politics makes it more interesting.

Rejiggering the Thingamajig by Eric James Stone, featuring a sapient tyrannosaurus Buddhist, a buggy interstellar travel network, a sentient (and enthusiastic) gun and a less than honest help line is my favorite story of the issue. It is funny and serious, and accomlishes the difficult feat of merging these two elements without it seeming forced while telling an interesting story. Also humorous is the Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff story Simple Gifts, although the humor mostly emerges as it turns out that the seemingly simple minded aliens are not quite as simple minded as some of the humans seeking to trade with them believe.

My least favorite story was Kristine Kathryn Rusch's The Possession of Paavo Deshin in which terrible birth parents and terrible adoptive parents engage in a legal battle over a young boy. An opportunistic lawyer seeks to use the case to right a clear injustice in the structure of the laws humanity has bound itself too, but loses her will because she decides that an arrogant father is worse than a mobster father. Almost everyone in the story drips indifference for the boy at the center of it (which I think was kind of the point), but even those who supposedly care for his welfare are shockingly indifferent, and set up a situation where it is inevitable that more children will be subject to this sort of legal shuffle. Despite the fact that the story was well written I found myself just wanting every character in the story to die and get the misery over with.

Victor Raggio contributes the science fact article Twins: Never Identical, which discusses the genetic differences being found even in identical twins. The article doesn't offer much more than that, which is a pity, as drawing some conclusions or even engaging in some speculation based on this data would have been interesting. Stephen R. Balzac's fact article Take Off Your Hat: You're in the Presence of Culture is, in my opinion, a better article. It focuses on how culture is created and transmitted, and how this could be applied to science fiction stories. Ben Bova contribues a retrospective about his life as a science fiction editor and author in Across My Life..., which I found quite interesting.

Overall, with only one poor story (and it was only poor because I hated all the characters) and several good ones, this is an above average issue of Analog. Anyone who enjoys the straightforward mostly hard science fiction bent of Analog will not be disappointed by this issue.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 16, 2012, 11:57am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (January 23rd-29th, 2010)

Book Three: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXX, No. 3 (March 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Of One Mind by Shane Tourtellotte
The Hub of the Matter by Christopher L. Bennett
Narrow World by Carl Frederick
Encounter in a Yellow Wood by Bud Sparhawk
Locked In by Brad Aiken
Dr. Skenner's Special Animals by David A. Simons
Probability Zero: Ten Thousand Monkeys by Tocho Ligon

Science fact articles included:
Isotopy by Stephen L. Gillett, Ph.D.

Long review: I've said before that some issues of Analog seem to have unannounced themes. This issue is another example of this. The theme here appears to be "near future" science fiction, as just about all of the stories in the issue are ones that deal with technology that seem to be plausible within the next fifty years.

The first, best, and most thought provoking story in the issue is Shane Tourtelotte's Of One Mind, a tale about modifying people's personalities to extract information out of them. The story seems to cover some of the same ground that Heinlein covered decades ago in Revolt in 2100, namely, is the ability to modify a person's personality compatible with the idea of democracy? Whereas Heinlein somewhat optimistically concluded that it could be controlled and kept from being misused, Tourtelotte's tale expresses less confidence in the virtues of humanity. The story is made even more compelling by the near future setting: it seems almost as if the horrors that take place in the story could very well happen next year.

To a lesser extent, Locked In by Brad Aiken deals with advances in brain interface technology, as the protagonist is fitted with prosthetics to compensate for the failure of his body. This story is far less serious than Of One Mind, but it does have a minor caution concerning the secuirty of such systems that makes the story much more interesting than it might have been.

Also set in the near future is Encounter in a Yellow Wood by Bud Sparhawk, which takes a standard environmental trope and turns it on its head. I'm not sure if everyone will agree with the choices made by the protagonist, but I think that is more or less the point: even if everyone involved is in favor of the same "green" goals, the hard choices people must make will still divide us. Dr. Skenner's Special Animals by David A. Simons tackles the question of designer genetically engineered fairy tale creatures, and exactly what sort of legal limbo they might find themselves in. Once again, the story seems to be close enough to reality to have a sharp edge that hits close to home. Another story with an environmental angle is Carl Frederick's Narrow World, an interesting tale about the unique ecosystem that develops on the isolated median strip of a superhighway, and the perils of changing that ecosystem without understanding it to begin with. Of all the "green" stories in the issue, this one is probably the best overall.

The one story that departs from the "near future" theme of the issue is The Hub of the Matter by Christopher L. Bennett in which humanity is am impoverished junior member of a galactic culture tied together by a seemingly inexplicable interstellar transport system. The protagonist, a plucky young man named David sets out to make humanity's mark on the universe by unraveling the mysterious "Hub" that interstellar transport relies upon. The story is mostly humorous, but it has enough serious material that when the characters get into trouble it isn't a laughing matter.

Stephen L. Gillett's science fact article Isotopy covers, predictably enough, the science of elemental isotopes, giving an overview of the history of the science that discovered them and how modern science uses them. There isn't anything in the article that will come as a surprise to anyone who has more than the most basic science education (although as one might deduce from my review of Requiem for the Human Soul, this level of science education cannot be taken for granted, even among authors who write science fiction stories), but the article still serves as a good refresher and update on a fairly mundane topic that turns out to be quite interesting. John Cramer's regular Alternate View column titled The Nice Way to Make a Solar System tackles some of the questions raised by the fact that the extrasolar planetary systems that have been found bear limtied relation to ours, and a model that seems to explain how the current state of our solar system might have come into being. Though short, space geeks like me will find it a great read.

Overall, with strong stories throughout and well done science fact articles, this is one of the stronger issues of Analog that I can remember.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 2, 2012, 7:16pm Top

Book Four: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXX, No. 4 (April 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Swords and Saddles by John G. Hemry
Snowflake Kisses by Holly Hight and Richard A. Lovett
The Robots' Girl by Brenda Cooper
A Sound Basis for Misunderstanding by Carl Frederick
Nothin' but Blue Skies by Stephen L. Burns
When We Were Fab by Jerry Oltion
The Planet Hunters by S. L. Nickerson

Science fact articles included:
What's in a Kiss? The Wild, Wonderful World of Philematology by Richard A. Lovett

Long review: The April 2010 issue of Analog isn't quite as good as the previous month's but is hardly a disppointment as a result. With several strong stories, with a few merely decent ones mixed in, the issue is overall above average.

The centerpiece story of the issue is the John G. Hemry alternate history story Swords and Saddles in which Ulysses Benton's lost cavalry patrol in the 1870s turns out to have accidentally slipped into an alternate reality in which the land bridge between North America and Asia never went away, allowing for colonization of the continent from the West. The troopers find themselves in a world of warring medieval era principalities with differing social mores from the ones they are used to. While this could have descended into a facile morality play in which the enlightened Americans lecture the savages on the evils of slavery, but the story is substantially more nuanced than that, which makes it a much better tale.

The Planet Hunters by S. L. Nickerson, while not alternate history, loops loosely into the time travel genre as a collection of astronomers fighting for telescope time on the new big eye stumble upon a little bit more than they expected. Though the story is told with a humorous tone, the subject matter isn't really funny per se, but rather the humor is used by the narrator to cover up the intensity of professional infighting, and the difficult nature of his work. Overall, because the story ended before exploring any of the serious implications of the discovery made by the astronomers, this was the weakest story of the issue, although still adequate.

Richard A. Lovett adds a science fact article about the effect of body chemistry on emotion in What's in a Kiss: The Wild, Wonderful World of Philematology, and follows it up with a fiction collaboration on the same subject with Holly Hight titled Snowflake Kisses that sort of meandered and came to no real conclusion. I found the story surprisingly weak for a Lovett story, which was disappointing. Brenda Cooper's The Robot's Girl is another sotyr that also focuses on the nature of love and human interactions, in this case what happens when a child is denied human interaction. Sad and frustrating, I think the story evokes exactly the emotions it intended to, and while it wasn't fun to read, it was certainly engaging.

On the lighter side Carl Frederick's A Sound Basis for Misunderstanding adds yet another story to the science fiction subgenre of comical alien trade negotiations. Cultural misunderstandings make for some slapstick comedy in the story, and the end is appropriately humorous. There isn't anything deeply insightful about the story, it is just diverting fun. Nothin' but Blue Skies by Stephen L. Burns also falls into the comical alien trade negotation subgenre, but it has some slightly more ominous tones that inject a hint of darkness to the humor. Still, the story if mostly funny and well-written.

Finally, When We Were Fab by Jerry Oltion deals with the commercial implications of nanofabrication technology from the perspective of a small business owner struggling to survive. It injects current in vogue freemium model into the story, as well as touching upon the "long tail" idea of marketing. While there is little particularly exciting about the story, it is well-thought out and well-presented.

With only two less than good stories, and a bunch of strong ones, this issue makes for a good example of the flagship science fiction oriented periodical. While not a great issue, this one remains well worth reading for any genre fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 24, 2013, 9:02pm Top

Book Five: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 2 (February 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
The Ice Line by Stephen Baxter
Stone Wall Truth by Caroline M. Yoachim
The Woman Who Waited Forever by Bruce McAllister
The Wind-Blown Man by Aliette de Bodard
Dead Air by Damien Broderick
The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond by David Erik Nelson

Poems included:
Reincarnation by Peter Swanson
Subatomic Redemption by Michael Meyerhofer

Long review: The February 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction sees a return to form of the magazine after a disappointing January issue. With three "punk" stories, the magazine seems to have a mini-theme, although this is probably not a strength as two of the "punk" stories are the weakest two in the issue. On the other hand, Baxter's The Ice Line is the best story Asimov's has had in a few months, so that more than balances out the duds.

Stephen Baxter's The Ice Line is another installment in his "Anti-Ice" alternate history series in which England is caught fighting off the invasions of both Napoleon and the alien Phoebans. It is a strange combination of hard science fiction and steampunk (two genres that one might not expect to work well together) and brings a collection of secondary historical characters to the forefront of its narrative. Baxter weaves the historical characters together with the alien element with great skill to come up with a bizarre but believeable alien invasion story that is my favorite offering of this issue. Also in the steampunk genre is David Erik Nelson's The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond concerning a drunken relating of a water dweller's foray on to dry land to explore, the troubles he encounters, and the help he receives that doesn't turn out quite like what he expected. Unfortunately, as it is in the same issue as Baxter's story, this one suffers by comparison, as it just isn't as good.

Moving away from steampunk to cyberpunk we find Damien Broderick's Dead Air, a truly strange story about life in the New York of the future in which the dead apparently have begun to commandeer television sets so they can look out on the living. The story is told using a quirky writing style clearly intended to convey a cyberpunk feel to the telling, but I thought it sometimes got in the way of narrative. The "twist" ending was somewhat predictable, and in the end this wasn't really a great story, merely an adequate one.

Caroline M. Yoachim's Stone Wall Truth is a surprisingly gory story revolving around the misuse of lost technology as a device for horrific torture and punishment by those who had forgotten the original purpose of the device in question. The story meanders along in its bloodiness until the protagonist has an epihany and the story simply stops with little resolution. Also surprisingly violent is Aliette de Bodard's The Wind-Blown Man, an alternate history story that posits the dominance of Chinese culture on the world stage, and the resulting apparent stagnantion. An unexpected element returns to possibly shake things up, and the establishment reacts badly and viciously. I found these two stories to be stronger stuff than is normal for the magazine, but not notably over the top.

Less violent, but still somewhat bloody is Bruce McAllister's The Woman Who Waited Forever, a ghost story that details the brutality of adults towards one another in wartime, and children towards one another when at play. I'm not usually a big fan of ghost stories, but this one is well-done and the ghost element is so generally limited and the believable relationships between the boys hold center stage in the story.

This turned out to be an up and down issue, with some less than good stories, but these are balanced out in my opinion by Baxter's contribution. When one adds in the sundry good stories the overall quality of this issue is standard for Asimov's. After the modest disappointment that the January 2010 issue turned out to be, this one is a definite step up in quality.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 17, 2013, 9:59pm Top

Book Six: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 3 (March 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Helping them Take the Old Man Down by William Preston
Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov
The Tower by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Centaurs by Benjamin Crowell
Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising by Derek Zumsteg
The Speed of Dreams by Will Ludwigsen

Poems included:
Marble People by Bruce Boston
Crazy Man by Mark Rich
Our Canine Defense Team by Vincent Miskell

Long review: While this issue contains a decent selection of science fiction stories, it continues a worrying trend of tossing in a few non-genre stories, eating up issue pages with material that simply does not match the name Asimov's Science Fiction.

Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov is probably the most ambitious story in the issue, positing a future world in which humans have figured out how to aterwildlife so that it simply does not notice humans or their artifacts. The side effect of this is that humans then have to make sure that they shepherd the animals live among them. The whole story is told on the corners of the doings of a set of socialites most of whom don't understand the careful planning that goes into the wildlife pagent that surrounds them.

The Tower by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a time travel story, but focuses mostly on the competing interests of the time travelers themselves, with the denizens of the past being of secondary concern at best. A scientific expedition to determine a trivial issue is overtaken by an effort to pull off a temporal heist with somewhat less than satisfactory results for both sides. I liked it, but there isn't anything truly memorable or noteworthy about it.

Centaurs by Benjamin Crowell is a hard science fiction story about teenage puppy love in the outer solar system. The story revolves around a date gone wrong (and many things can go wrong in the orbit of Neptune) both physically and emotionally. Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising by Derek Zumsteg is a darkly funny story about human-alien contact, as aliens are brought in to investigate humanity's mass transit systems and improve them, and their ideas about efficiency clash with human sensibilities. The title gives away the ending, but that doesn't matter, as the ending is the least important part of the story. Since moving away from baseball writing into the science fiction field, Zumsteg has put out several good solid stories, and this one is no exception.

As with most poetry in Asimov's, Marble People by Bruce Boston and Crazy Man by Mark Rich are merely average. Our Canine Defense Team by Vincent Miskell, on the other hand, was an incredibly funny take on putting humanity on trial for its offenses against the rest of the biosphere.

I've commented several times before that there seems to be an annoying tendency in many genre magazines to include non-genre stuff, and in this issue this happens twice. The first story, Helping them Take the Old Man Down by William Preston, is basically a conspiracy story involving a shadowy organization headed up by a mysterious "old man" who bears something of a resemblance to a good guy version of the Smoking Man of X-Files fame. Although the X-Files could loosely be described as science fiction, the story presented here contains none of the science fictional elements, unless one counts having an arctic base of operations as science fiction. The story is a decent spy-thriller, but simply isn't science fiction. Also not science fiction is The Speed of Dreams by Will Ludwigsen, which is an extended suicide note written in the form of a high school science experiment. If the strange ramblings of the adolescent protagonist were actually true, then there might be a fantasy element to the story, but there's no reason given to believe them to be. Neither story is particularly bad, they are just out of place.

While all of the science fiction stories in this volume are at least pretty good, the presence of the two non-genre stories pulls the average rating of the issue down. There's nothing specifically wrong with them other than not belonging, but one can find that sort of material anywhere. When I pick up a copy of Asimov's Science Fiction, on the other hand, I'm looking for 112 pages of science fiction (or at least science fantasy). Consequently, non-genre material in an issue is a disappointment, and as a result, the overall rating of this issue suffers.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 3, 2013, 4:00pm Top

Belated Review: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 1 (January 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Marya and the Pirate by Geoffrey A. Landis
The Good Hand by Robert Reed
The Jekyll Island Horror by Allen M. Steele
Conditional Love by Felicity Shoulders
A Letter from the Emperor by Steve Rasnic Tem
Wonder House by Chris Roberson
Wilds by Carol Emshwiller

Poems included:
DoT Acolytes by Ruth Berman
Louisa Drifting by Mark Rich

Long review: 2010 starts off with a lacklustre issue for Asimov's Science Fiction, with a collection of decent but not great stories, plus a couple limp and listless ones. Further exacerbating the tepid nature of the issue, the editors once again elected to include a non-genre story in the issue. This editorial decision is made all the more mystifying when one considers that the non-genre story in question seems to be merely ordinary at best. When Asimov's hits on all cylinders, it is great. This issue, unfortunately, seems to be marred by misfires.

Marya and the Pirate by Geoffrey A. Landis is a decent hard science space travel story somewhat reminiscient of the classic The Cold Equations. Instead of a stowaway, the ship is boarded by a charismatic pirate and he and the ship's lone crewmember find themselves struggling to survive against the harsh physics of space travel. On the other end of the space travel genre is Steve Rasnic Tem's A Letter from the Emperor centered on the doings of the inhabitants on the fringe of an interstellar empire so vast that they have to have ships in the void hunting endlessly for wisps of transmissions from their superiors. Anders, the central character learns the value of fiction, and how it can be used to stave off the terrible isolation he and the others on the fringe feel at their apparent abandonment by their nation.

Felicity Shoulders' Conditional Love was my favorite story of the issue, a near future science fiction story that is equal parts sad and terrifying, as a woman working at a clinic with a child genetically programmed to imprint his affection on the last person he sees decides to make a terrible choice out of love. Another near future story (actually, there is nothing in the story that requires it to be set in the future at all) is Robert Reed's The Good Hand that posts an alternate reality in which the United States enforces a nuclear ban on the entire world, enforcing its will with its own threat of nuclear judgment. Set in a resentful France, the story follows the travails of a despised American nuclear inspector as he deals with a seething population.

Wonder House by Chris Roberson is a humorous quasi-alternate history in which "Ysraeli" publishing agents desperate for a new gimmick invent an alternate version of superman. It is a silly, somewhat lighthearted tale, which serves to leaven the seriousness of most of the rest of the issue. The Jekyll Island Horror by Allen M. Steele is also an alternate history story, though much more serious in tone. The story is told from the perspective of a manservant to a member of the wealthy class that avoided losing everything in the 1930s and takes place on (approrpiately enough) Jekyll Island, the isolated retreat for the rich of the era. The story's "surprise" ending isn't very well-disguised, and the 1930s setting makes the narrative seem somewhat stilted. Although there wasn't anything really obviously wrong with the story, I found myself having to push my way through it. But for the completely out of place non-genre story, I would tag this one as the least enjoyable of the issue.

In many issues of Asimov there is one story that just doesn't seem to fit. In this issue that story is Wilds by Carol Emswhiller. The story focuses on an individual who has abandoned civilization to live like a wild animal and his interactions with an unexpected and unwelcome interloper. Though the story is decent, there isn't any kind of science fiction or even fantasy element that would make me think it belongs in a genre magazine. These sorts of stories always make me wonder what actual science fiction story was left in the submission pile to make room for such a clearly out of place one.

Overall, even though this issue contained its share of good stories, the weaknesses of The Jekyll Island Horror and Wilds drag this issue down to just below average. With nothing truly outstanding about the issue, this one gets only the most lukewarm of recommendations.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:18pm Top

Belated Review: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, No. 3 (March 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Act One by Nancy Kress
The Long, Cold Goodbye by Holly Phillips
Getting Real by Harry Turtledove
Intelligence by R, Neube
Slow Stampede by Sara Genge
Whatness by Benjamin Crowell

Poems included:
First Beer on Mars by David Lunde
Nightlife by Sandra Lindow
Cabaret by J. E. Stanley

Long review: The March 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is one of the better issues of the magazine. It contains a collection of strong stories, with only one noticeable weak one. Even the two-page story Whatness is an excellent story, packing more into its few pages than many much longer stories can in many more pages.

Act One by Nancy Kress returns to some familiar stomping grounds for the author in a tale concerning genetic engineering. In this story, a well meaning but somewhat empty headed actress finds herself in over her head dealing with genetically modified children and the "Group", and organization that has been illegally enhancing children. The story is told from the perspective of her attorney, who has his own troubles to deal with and somewhat ambiguous relationship with genetic modification. In the end, they all must deal with the Group's plans and the public blowback from those plans. It is a good story, as most of Kress' output, but sometimes I wish she'd write more stories that don't have genetic modification of children as the central theme.

The Long, Cold Goodbye by Holly Phillips has a kind of dream-like quality as the protagonist moves about a strangely empty alien city in search of her friend. The story tries to be deep and emotional, but I found it to just be maudlin and mostly pointless. The icy atmosphere of the setting seemed to extend to the entire story, and made it simply dull. Slow Stampede by Sara Genge is more or less the exact opposite kind of story despite its name. Set in a swamp in which a bandit tries to steal from passing caravans of giant, slow moving alien beasts of burden and finds himself negotiating for his life with an alien water dweller, this story seems to be pulp action updated to reflect modern sensibilities and science. While Phillips' story was turgid, this one flows well and was fun to read.

In Getting Real Harry Turtledove sets forth a truly disturbing future (if you are in favor of U.S. hegemony) which is less disturbing if you are a Sinophile. Basically, the premise is that the U.S. becomes remarkably like the society portrayed in Idiocracy but still tries to throw its weight around, and finds itself foiled by the superior technology of the Chinese in their role as the new big dogs on the block. The story, like many Turtledove tales, has an edge of humor, but builds a mounting sense of hopelessness as the reader watches all of the efforts made by gallant American patriots turned aside easily by technology that they simply cannot comprehend. I was especially struck by the unremarked upon hypocrisy of the Chinese characters in one scene involving a flamethrower, which only served to underscore how far the wheel had turned. The story ends on what might be called a hopeful note as one sees the potential seeds of the victor's downfall, On the whole, this is a typically well-done story by Turtledove that is one of the high points of the issue.

Intelligence by R. Neube is a darkly funny story about an evolving AI and the human handler paid to keep it company. The story revolves around the fact that an AI may very well be incredibly intelligent and able to amass huge quantities of data, but it might not be able to actually understand what it is looking at well enough to evaluate it sanely. Though told in a silly manner as the computer tries to get around the security that surrounds it , the story does pose some serious questions about what an advanced computer system gone awry might be like. Also quite funny is Whatness by Benjamin Crowell, which is the shortest story in the issue and my favorite. It concerns an alien dealing with the vestiges of a human and his dog. The story is so short (taking up a mere page and a half) that to try to describe it would result in giving the whole story away. The most I can say without completely spoiling it is that humans talk too much, and dogs have simple, easy to fulfill desires.

As with most poems in Asimov's, First Beer on Mars by David Lunde and Nightlife by Sandra Lindow are serviceable, but unspectacular. Cabaret by J. E. Stanley, on the other hand, presents a deeply disturbing possibility in an almost offhand and casual manner.

On the whole, this issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is quite good. With only one story that didn't work, two excellent stories, and the rest clustered in the "good" range, March 2009 proves to be a good month for the magazine. This issue is well-worth picking up for any science fiction fan.

Feb 4, 2010, 4:09pm Top

S.R. - In a previous lifetime (Before Children) I worked on ships. I would collect my (then) boyfriend's issues of all of these magazines (except The Economist) and take them with me. Scifi short stories were the perfect things to read and these magazines always had the best assortment. I stopped reading them when the kinders were little. I think I may still have a stockpile of them somewhere in the house. I'm glad to know they are still around.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:19pm Top

Belated Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXIX, No. 4 (April 2009) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Gunfight on Farside by Adam-Troy Castro
Steak Tartare and the Cats of Gari Babakin by Mary Turzillo
Foe by Mark Rich
The Final Element by Eric James Stone
A Jug of Wine and Thou by Jerry Oltion
The Invasion by H. G. Stratmann
Armchair Scientist by David Bartell

Science fact articles included:
Ribbonland by Kevin Walsh.

Long review: This month brings another good isue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact full of several good stories and a couple of merely average ones. For the most part the stories are hard science style stories with only a limited spattering of fanciful elements, which seems quite in line with the usual fare for Analog

Gunfight on Farside by Adam-Troy Castro is a quasi-Western set on the Moon. It is hard science fiction and details the difficulties of a shootout in vacuum conditions. The story is told from the perspective of the surviving participant who is lionized for his actions like a neo-Seth Bullock, but he expresses deep regret and self-doubts. It is a decent hard science fiction story made better by the emotional tenor of the piece.

Steak Tartare and the Cats of Gari Babakin by Mary Turzillo is a strange little story about a martian colony that appears to have "gone wrong". The colony has a large population of cats that appear to be affecting the colonists in some way to make them behavine in a more "cat-like" manner. Outside help arrives with the intent of changing this situation, and the colonists and their erstwhile saviours decidedly do not see eye to eye on the issue. The story wants to be funnier than it is, but in the end I found it merely average. Foe by Mark Rich is also a Martian colonization story, focusing on the emotional pressures that those living on an alien world, even one in which all their creature comforts were taken care of, would face, and how to possibly combat them. This story tries to be funny as well, but unlike Steak Tartare succeeds to a much greater degree, resulting in a much better story.

The Final Element by Eric James Stone is a small near future story about investigating forgery using some plausible technology, but makes clear that the limits of such technology are bounded by the human minds that use it. Another story that deals with the limits of technology is A Jug of Wine and Thou by Jerry Oltion which covers an adolescent date in the future where everything goes wrong stranding a pair of teens in the wilderness. Unlike many stories in which inhabitants of a high technology world are forced to live off the land, these teens to reasonably well, albeit for only a short period of time, rediscovering techniques of survival that their ancestors took for granted. Neither story is particularly groundbreaking, but they are both well-writtten and enjoyable.

The Invasion by H. G. Stratmann is an imaginative variant on the classic alien invasion story, although the invasion (and the invaders themselves) are not exactly what one might expect. Especially humorous is the segment in which the aliens mimic a Nigerian Scam letter and the President of the United States and his advisors are taken in by the effort. In the end, earth's humans get assistance from an entirely unexpected (although certainly ominous) sector.

The Probability Zero: Armchair Scientist contributed by David Bartell pokes fun at the amatuer scientist who tries to pontificate from his living room without experimentation or following the basic methodology of science. I suppose it could also be applied to groups such as creationists or conspiracy theorists, who engage in much the same sort of thinking as that lampooned in this piece. It is funny and sad at the same time.

The science fact article Ribbonland by Kevin Walsh explores a staple of science fiction stories streching back to the Golden Age: tidally locked planets with a thin band of habitable area between burning hot wastes on the one side, and a frozen tundra on the other. The article explores how such a world might come about and what sort of star it might orbit. The article is quite detailed and gives some very plausible ways that such a world might come into being while remaining very readable and accessible. In his regular Alternate View column, Jerry Kooistra takes on cold fusion, explaining its failures and the possibilities that a viable form of this energy source might be found. As usual, the entire article is based upon a lot of speculation, but it is moderately grounded speculation and certainly gives food for though.

As a side note, I have noticed that I seem to give consistently higher ratings to issues of Analog than I give to Asimov's Science Fiction despite their being published by the same publisher (from the same office even). Consequently those who are looking at my reviews who care about this sort of thing should keep this in mind, as I have not determined if the pattern is merely that I am not as big a fan of the Asimov's style, or if Analog truly is a slightly superior magazine. This issue, however, gets a recommendation from me due to the generally good quality of the stories and lack of any subpar ones.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:21pm Top

Belated Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXIX, No. 6 (June 2009) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
But It Does Move by Harry Turtledove
Chain by Stephen L. Burns
Monuments of Unaging Intellect by Howard V. Hendrix
The Affair of the Phlegmish Master by Donald Moffitt
Solace by James van Pelt
The Cold Star Sky by Craig DeLancey
Attack of the Grub-Eaters by Richard A. Lovett

Science fact articles included:
Futuropolis: How NASA Plans to Create a Permanent Presence on the Moon by Michael Carroll

Long review: The June 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact contains uniformly good stories. Even my least favorite story in the issue, Turtledove's alternate history But Does It Move is a good one. Most of the stories in this issue are very good and both Chains and Monuments of the Unageing Intellect manage to combine excellent stories with serious food for thought.

The lead story in the the issue is Harry Turtledove's alternate history But It Does Move in which advances in one area of thought progress more quickly than they did in reality, and as a result seemingly retard the advance of humanity's scientific body of knowledge. I have some small quibble with Turtledove's characterization of the alternative thought system being dealt with in the story as a "non-hardware technology", as this seems to elevate something that I consider to be less than persuasively supported as fact to a level of certainty that I think is unwarranted. I also think that Turtledove makes too much of the conversion of a single individual's attitude towards scientific inquiry would necessarily derail the progress of science, especially given the political rivalries in Europe in the time period that the story is set. Despite these failings, Turtledove is, as usual, an incredibly adept weaver of alternate history, and the story is quite good.

Chain by Stephen L. Burns is a very good story about the implications of sentient artificial intelligence and the abuses that could result from humanity's efforts to keep it under control. The story posits a system of control that is almost religious in nature, and highlights the absolute abuse that this could allow. Given my general lack of belief, the story simply confirms my view that religion is an insidious and damaging method of thought that is highly conducive to enslaving those who believe in it. It is not usually applied to humans in a way quite in so systemically a harmful way as it is applied to sentient AI's in this story. This is probbably the best story in the issue.

Monuments of the Unageing Intellect by Howard V. Hendrix deals with the problems that might be faced by humanity if some form of clinical immortality were to be discovered. The blessing of incredibly extended lifespan comes at a price that few are even able to recognize. The story is told over the course of many years as Moira, an artist that has rejected the choice to partake of the technological fountain of youth, creates massive works of art that illustrate her concerns. Meanwhile, Hisao, a childhood friend of Moira's who had opted for immortality drifts into and out of her life while spending his time wasting the years in a manner that simply confirms her fears. The story raises the question as to whether the huge benefit of massively extended lifespan is worth the sorts of costs that are posited in the story. Solace by James van Pelt deals with another form of extended lifespan by means of two loosely intertwined stories linking a grizzled frontiersman fighting a bitter winter storm with the story of a woman on an extended space voyage. Her story is told in short punctuated periods of wakefulness in between extended periods of cryosleep, which are used to draw a parallel to the life of a man living through a harshly cold snowstorm. Both stories are connected by a candleholder and a Bible verse. Van Pelt does a good job an interweaving these two seemingly disparate stories in a way that makes sense, and in conveying the utter cold and hardship faced by both of the central characters.

The Cold Star Sky by Craig DeLancey is a physics problem of a story overlaid with the problem of the difficulties of negotiating with alien minds with the further added complication of a strange alien pet tagging along. The story makes the physics interesting, the aliens pretty alien, and the funny comic relief alien pet turns out to be more important to the plot than one would expect. Attack of the Grub-Eaters by Richard A. Lovett is a funny story about alien invasion told in the form of a bunch of internet posts on a gardening message board. The storytelling style is funny due to the limited information many of the participants in the fictional message board exchange have, requiring the reader to deduce the course of events. The Affair of the Phlegmish Master by Donald Moffit is a fairly standard time travel story as a member of the noveau-riche tries to force his entrance into high society by using time travel technology to journey back in time to commission a painting of himself and his wife by Vermeer. Vermeer does paint a new masterpiece, but the trip doesn't turn out as he expects, and in fact, things go quite badly.The story is diverting, but little more.

The science fact article in the issue titled Futureopolis: How NASA Plans to Create a Permanent Presence on the Moon by Michael Carroll appears to have been overtaken by events as lunar exploration seems to be once again on hold. Despite the current state of politics (and whether or not you agree with the idea of choosing not to return back to the moon) the article lays out a very well thought-out plan for both going to the moon and establishing a permanent presence there that would be much like humanity's presence in Antarctica to serve as a toe hold for exploration still further into space.

This issue is one of the better issues of Analog due to the overall strong set of stories it contains. Anyone who likes mostly hard science fiction that doesn't pull punches will find this issue an enjoyable read.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:25pm Top

Belated Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXIX, No. 5 (May 2009) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Among the Tchi by Adam-Troy Castro
Quickfeathers by Alexis Glynn Latner
Rendezvous at Angels Thirty by Tom Ligon
The Sleeping Beauties by Robert R. Chase
A Measure of Devotion by Shane Tourtellotte
A Story, with Beans by Steven Gould
The Brother on the Shelf by Philip Edward Kaldon

Science fact articles included:
Geology, Geohistory, and "Psychohistory": The (Continuing) Debate Between Uniformitarians and Catastrophists by Richard A. Lovett.

Long review: While this issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact has a few weak stories, even the poor ones are competently written and readable. The weak stories in this issue are simply uninspiring examples of genre fiction - sort of decently written placeholders to tide one over until something better comes along. None of them are truly bad, just bland and uninteresting. The good stories in this issue make up for the blandness of the other stories.

Among the Tchi by Adam-Troy Castro is another story that uses the long-standing science fiction trope of a clash between human and alien cultures. In this story, the Tchi seek to demonstrate their cultural superiority by luring unsuspecting writers with the promise of lucrative acdademic positions so they can eviscerate their works. Thus, they demonstrate how much more advanced and wonderful Tchi culture is. The protagonist of the story spends most of his time trying to figure out how to turn the tables on his hosts. He arrives at a solution that seems so facile that one wonders why none of the other characters (supposedly a selection of humanity's most brilliant writers) didn't figure it out before. In general, trying to make your protagonosit look smart by making everyone else act stupidly doesn't make a stort effective, and this story is no exception.

Quickfeathers by Alexis Glynn Latner is a colonization story in which human explorers try to understand the nature of a long vanished sentient race that once lived on their new home. The story is told using a shifting viewpoint flipping between the human explorers and a legendary figure of the vanished avian race. The reader gets to see the modern day explorers stumbling about trying to piece together the very alien story being told in parallel. I found the story to be very well done and interesting. A Measure of Devotion by Shane Tourtellotte also deals with the exploration of the unknown, although this time the story revolves around trying to prevent the space program from being halted. To this end, a spokesman for the group is brought out of retirement, which proves to be a mistake. Why this was a mistake turns out to be the most interesting part of the story, and is an illustration of just how much many people would be willing to risk in order to send explorers into the unknown.

Rendezvous at Angels Thirty by Tom Ligon is a story about a mostly harmless obsession and the use of technology to try to fulfill that obsession. "Gramps" Doyle wants to unravel the mystery of what happened to one of his ancestors who disappeared on a fighter mission during World War II, and has made himself into an expert virtual reality fighter pilot to do so. He has a simulation created based upon his ancestor's fighter wing and arranges to arrive just before they disappear from history. This is a sort of pseudo-time travel story, but I didn't find it convincing that someone would believe that inventing a computer recreation based upon almost no known facts at all would help unravel a historical mystery. As another story that revolves around war, The Brother on the Shelf by Philip Edward Kaldon is a macabre story about an interstellar conflict in which boys collect trading cards in the form of warships to be sent into battle. The cards change color when the ship is detsroyed, so a boy's collection can "lose value" as ships of the line become what are euphamistically terms "ships of heroes". The story is told over an extended period of time, and expresses the cost of war, and how technology of the future intended to soften the impact of these costs might actually serve to drag out the process endlessly. The story is very good, and very sad at the same time.

A Story, with Beans by Steven Gould is a little tale about an isolated religious sect holed up in a region where metal etaing bugs dwell, and the conflict that ended up destroying them as a cohesive group. The story is told (approrpiately enough) over a dinner of rabbit, corn tortillas and beans. The twist in the story is not entirely predictable, and the cautionary tone of the story seems to be increasingly relevant with the burgeoning prominence of groups like the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints that operate much like the fictional People of the Book in the story. The Sleeping Beauties by Robert R. Chase is another shifting viewpoint story in which two lovers are split by a long term space mission. The split ends up making both of their careers and strengthening their bond despite some not very convincing obstacles thrown in the way. The story is readable, but the fairy tale sensibilites with which it is told results in it not really being anything special.

This month's science fact article is Geology, Geohistory, and 'Psychohistory': The (Continuing) Debate Between Uniformitarians and Catastrophists by Richard A. Lovett and details the tension betweenthe gradualist view of geology and those catastrophists who emphasize the sudden changes in the geologic record. Lovett links the two opposiong views concerning the geologic development of our world with story telling, pointing out that a gradualist view of the world seems to lead to dull stories. As illustration, Lovett cites Asimov's classic Foundation trilogy, pointing out that it runs the risk of becoming predictable and boring until the introduction of the Mule as a catastrophic wild card. The presentation of the science is well done, and linking it thematically to fiction writing makes the article quite interesting.

While several of the stories left me feeling less than excited, the highlights of the issue (Quickfeathers, A Measure of Devotion, and The Brother on the Shelf) plus the interesting science fact article raise the over all quality of the issue to the acceptable range. Nothing in the issue is bad, but the remaining stories are simply not particularly noteworthy. As a result, this issue gets a modest recommendation.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:27pm Top

Belated Review: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
The Great Armada by Brian Stableford
The Spires of Denon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The Armies of Elfland by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick
This Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
True Fame by Robert Reed
An Ordinary Day with Jason by Kate Wilhelm
Atomic Truth by Chris Beckett
Human Day by Jack Skillingstead
Cowgirls in Space by Deborah Coates
Exegesis by Nancy Kress

Poems included:
Small Conquerors by Geoffrey A. Landis
We Ignore Him by PMF Johnson
Bridges by Peter Roberts

Long review: The April/May 2009 double issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is also the 400th issue of the magazine, and it is clear that the editors tried to get a collection of stories by somewhat notable names in the science fiction field. As a result, this issue features stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Reed, Nancy Kress, Brian Stableford, and Michael Swanwick. Unfortunately, this seems to have required some shortcuts in the editorial selection process, so several of the stories in the issue are simply not up to the usual standards of contributions by these authors.

The Great Armada by Brian Stableford is the latest in his "fleshcore" series of stories, all set in an alternate 16th century England in which Jane is Queen of England and the greatest threat faced by humanity comes from beyond the stars. Humans, with endoskeletons, are the rarity as invertebrates in the form of alien analogues of mollusks and arachnids dominate the galaxy. The stories all feature famous individuals from history: this one features Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Rabbi Low and Doctor Faust who deal with an etheral being they regard as an angel and a machine intelligence they regard as a golem as they fend off an invasion of entheral creatures and finally return to meet the "Great Fleshcore" which is the ruling intelligence of the invertebrate empire. I've never been a big fan of this series, as it wanders and meanders about in a confusing manner, but this installment was better than most of the others. This Wind Blowing, and this Tide by Damien Broderick also takes on an alternate history idea, but this time the alternate history is so far in our own past that it could plausibly be true. The story follows a scientist in the future who is a proponent of the idea that saurian life had evolved sentient intelligence tens of millions of years before the rise of humanity and set about exploring outer space. An unknown spacecraft is found that may support this idea, and the lost crewmembers of this ship bring back the scientists own memories of his lost child. It is interesting both for the speculative history and the personal connection that the author infuises into the story.

The Spires of Denon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the story of an archaeological expedition hunting through the ruins of an ancient alien city that has huge, beautiful crystal spires over it. Characters with competing interests try to drive the exploration in differing directions until an expedition into an unexplored area under the city triggers a crisis that reveals the answer to some key mysteries. The story highlights the danger that archaeologists exploring technologies that simply don't understand might have to confront. The story is decent, but I wasn't that impressed by it overall, simply becasue there wasn't much to the story except for the exploration of this self-contained fictitious city. The Armies of Elfland by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick is a bizarre fantasy told from the perspective of a child that has grown up after the invasion and conquest of the Earth by elves. The protagonist must learn to deal with the truly alien thought process of the elves and (with the aid of an eager suitor for her hand) figure out a way to exploit their weaknesses. The elves in the story operate by rules that make internal sense, but bear limited relation to human thoughts, which makes the story compelling in a horrible (but good) way.

True Fame by Robert Reed is a short but convoluted story about how the paparazzi might be replaced by direct action by fans, with a strange twist at the end. The story is an interesting commentary on fame and what people do to be near it, as well as how one betrayal might be foiled by an even bigger one. An Ordinary Day With Jason by Kate Wilhelm is a tale about a particular brand of heritable magic, told from the perspective of a woman who has married into such a family. Wilhelm's writing is always good, and this story is no exception, but there's no real deep meaning to this tale, it is just a glimpse into the world of a quirky family. Atomic Truth by Chris Beckett is also a story that takes currently emerging technology to a logical conclusion, as the lives of two individuals, one completely linked into modern society and the other, standing mostly outside it, interact accidentally. The story takes the modern proclivity towards replacing actual human contact with connections via technology to an extreme with somewhat disturbing results. Human Day by Jack Skillingstead also tackles the question of technology replacing human interaction, but in a rather more direct and disturbing manner. When a story causes one to question whether anyone in the story is human or not then I would consider that an eerily effective tale.

Cowgirls in Space by Deborah Coates revolves around a quasi-magical alien device and a group of female rodeo performers who found it as teenagers and discovered its power, and the price is exacted. years later a second device is found in China which reunites the girls, all of whom have differing attitudes concerning their own use of the device they found so many years before. The questions concenring what the device is and where it came from are never resolved, but that's not so important to the story, rather the critical theme is how the girls view using the device and that is really well-presented in the story. Exegesis by Nancy Kress is a brief story told via the evolving interpretations of Rhett Butler's famous last line from Gone With the Wind. Kress imagines how future generations of overly analytical scholars might deconstruct this simple phrase and how it gets distorted through the lens of time and successive overlays of academic cruft that has built up over the years. It is funny, and at the very end, briefly touching.

Although I consider it likely that my lukewarm response to Stableford's "fleshcore" series of stories is probably idosyncratic to me, coupling The Great Armada with the other somewhat weak stories in the issue (including the other novella in this issue The Spires of Denon) results in a less than impressive issue. This is all the more disappointing given the anniversary status of the issue, and the clear editorial decision to try to pack the issue with notable authors. While there are some less than impressive stories in this issue, there are still several good ones, so while this issue is not anything particularly special, it is at least average.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:29pm Top

Belated Review: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, No. 2 (February 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Shadow of the Valley by Fred Chappell
The Texas Bake Sale by Charles Coleman Finlay
Winding Broomcorn by Mario Milosevic
Catalog by Eugene Mirabelli
The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady

Long review: The theme for this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is apparently "weird stories". Each of the tales in this volume is bizarre in its own way, including the classic reprint The Night We Buried Road Dog, an ethereal ghost story revolving around an automobile graveyard. Not all of the stories are strange, and not all of the stories are good, but overall, this issue is one of the better ones, buoyed largely on the strength of the excellent classic reprint.

Shadow of the Valley by Fred Chappell is a strange fantasy about an expedition to a dangerous valley where plants consume shadows. The protagonist aligns himself with a collection of bandits, and there are numerous turns of events as rivals and obstacles crop up and have to be dealt with along the way. In the end, the protagonist finds more than he epxected, and uncovers a mystery where he didn't expect to find one. The Texas Bake Sale by Charles Coleman Finlay is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story involving a unit of Marines trying to make their way after the collapse of the government. The story is humorous in tone, but serious in nature. The story asks the serious question of what obligation soldiers have to their nation when that nation has disintegrated, and where exactly the line might be drawn between struggling military unit commandeering supplies and bandits.

Winding Broomcorn by Mario Milosevic is an odd little fantasy about a maker of handmade brooms. It has a little bit of a ghost story, and a little bit of a witch story. The story isn't all that interesting and doesn't really have a whole lot to recommend it. Catalog by Eugene Mirabelli is a bizarre alternate reality tale as a man tries to pursue a woman he loves from the pages of an L.L. Bean Catalogue across the realities of various pieces of reading material. It is wierd, but in a way that should appeal to people who have lots of books and magazines lying around their house, as the central character seems to drift between characters who seem to share only the potential connection of being from periodicals and books staked togatehr on a messy coffee table. The story isn't really deep or meaningful, but is a fun little piece of weirdness.

Continuing with the inclusion of classic reprints, this issue includes the magnificent The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady. A ghost story rooted in the love of cars and the open roads of the large empty expanses of the middle part of the United States. Cady captures in a manner that many "coastal-bound" readers may not understand, the combination of love and fear that the dwellers of the "big square states" feel for those long lonely journeys on the empty stretches of highway that criss cross the plains, deserts and mountains of the heartland. The story occupies the same dreamlike space as a driver on a long journey who is caught between being fully alert and asleep as the endless miles roll by. It is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and though it isn't really fair to compare the otherise decent stories in this issue to it, they simply come up wanting. This comparison highlights what, to me, has proven to be one of the problems with the idea of plucking great classic stories from the various editorial eras of the magazine and reprinting them: they are generally so good that the other stories in these issues simply pale in comparison. Unless you already have a copy of this story in another publication, this issue is worth recommending just based on the strength of this one story.

While the remaining stories in this issue are a more or less equal mix of average to good, The Night We Buried Road Dog raises the whole issue to being very good. As a result, although not all of the individual stories can get a high recommendation, the issue as a whole gets a strong recommendation.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:30pm Top

Belated Review: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, No. 3 (March 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham
The Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee
Quickstone by Marc Laidlaw
Shadow-Below by Robert Reed
The Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch

Long review: With a couple science fiction and fantasy crossover stories, and a couple southwestern folklore stories, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction seems to have a couple minor mini-themes. Unfortunately, another mini-theme that this issue seems to have is "stories that wander aimlessly before coming to an abrupt halt". As a result, with the exception of the classic reprint, most of the stories in this issue are readable, but not particularly memorable. As a side note, this is the last monthly issue of Fanasy & Science Fiction, as the lead editorial notes, the magazine market has shifted to an extent that it had become unfeasable to publish and mail eleven issues per year, and instead the future issues will be larger, bimonthly double issues. As with many things in the magazine industry, this change seems ominous, and I hope it doesn't herald even more substantial changes in the future.

The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham is a ghost story involving an angry native american spirit plaguing the swede (who is actually a black man) who seeks help from a mexican witch doctor. The story is told by an old southern relative relating the tale to the author trying to make a point about his northern-born fiancee. The swede in the story is hounded by his own past as well, and the story wanders and digresses through a couple other storie, just like a story told by an old cigar smoking southerner on the front porch at a family gathering might. The story is okay, and I'm not sure if the point it is trying to make flows from the elements of the story.

The Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee is an oriental influenced science fiction/fantasy crossover story in which the classic elements of Chinese folklore are used to create an interstellar empire controlled by the Phoenix General. The protagonist is an musician called in to educate captured assassins from planets being conquered by her empire who discovers that what she thought she knew about politics isn't quite what she expected. The story is decent, but neither the individual characters or the fantasy elements are incredibly well-defined so that everything seems to happen more or less by author fiat. Shadow-Below by Robert Reed is also a science fiction and fantasy mixture, this time melding native american folklore with a future involving bioengineered elk and bison and programmable house robots. The title character is a native american wilderness guide who straddles both the modern world and his native traditions. Like most of the other stories in this issue, it is decent, but has a tendency to wander aimlessly.

Quickstone by Marc Laidlaw is also a fantasy involving elemental magic, in this case the protagonist is a bard who, as a result of a cruse, has had his hand replaced with that of a gargoyle's. As the curse makes it impossible to ply his trade (his new hand being unsuitable for playing an instrument), he undertakes a risky pursuit to find the gargoyle who has his hand (and whose hand he now has) and tries to figure out a way to reverse the curse. Along the way he makes an unexpected friend as well as some pretty frightening enemies. The story is quite good.

This issue's installment in the classic reprint series is The Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch. It is a story involving making a deal with the devil in which the protagonist ends up negotiating for something that the devil didn't quite expect. The story is funny and (as usual with the classic repirnts) well-written. Once again, the classic reprint overshadows the "normal" stories in the issue.

Overall, this issue is barely adequate and is only truly saved by the very good classic reprint. Otherwise, most of the remaining stories are really only adequate at best. With a collection of decent but flawed stories, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction gets only a moderate recommendation.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:32pm Top

Belated Review: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen
"A Wild and Wicked Youth" by Ellen Kushner
The Price of Silence by Deborah J. Ross
One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright
The Avenger of Love by Jack Skillingstead
Andreanna by S. L. Gilbow
Stratosphere by Henry Garfield
The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch
Sea Wrack by Edward Jesby

Long review: The April/May 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction marks the end of one era in the magazine's history, and with luck, the beginning of another. From this issue forward, the magazine will be published six times per year with larger "double issues" instead of the previous eleven issues per year schedule. This makes for fatter individual issues, but means that they will have to incur mailing costs less often. Gordon van Gelder's editorial focuses on the feedback on the internet from the previous month's announcement of the format change, and includes some musings on the nature of the internet as a forum of discussions in general. As a double issue, this installment includes not one, but two classic reprints, one of which is really good, the other is merely good.

The lead story in the issue is The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen, a fantasy that takes on the medieval folklore about fairies and the fairyland they inhabited. In this story, a knight and an armorer, both having suffered injustices at the hands of capricious fairy dwellers, plot revenge through technology. The story is quite well done, and takes a couple twists and turns on its way to a fairly satisfying conclusion. One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright is a Narnia-style fantasy, but the protagonists are older people who had journeyed into a magical land as children, but lost touch with the magic as they grew older. They are called upon to take up the cause of goodness again, but the years have robbed them of their child-like bravery and innocence and they struggle to deal with problems that they would have easily overcome in their younger years. The story has definite Christian overtones, much like C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and seems to pull in some Arthurian mythology as well. Even though the story is about an older protagonist, it is still something of a coming of age story. I thought it was an okay story, but for this type of fantasy one would be better off simply pulling books by C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, or even Lloyd Alexander off the shelf.

'A Wild and Wicked Youth' by Ellen Kushner is a prequel to Swordspoint and the rest of Kusher's Riverside series in which Richard St. Vier's childhood is revealed. For a coming of age story detailing the life of a subordinate in a feudal society, the story is quite good. There's not much more to the story than that, but as a well-executed fantasy it is decent. The Avenger of Love by Jack Skillingstead is a dark fantasy about a man trying to deal with the anger stemming from the loss of his father under strange circumstances as a boy. This story walks the fine line between fantasy and simple delusion, in that you are never sure if the protagonist is actually experiencing the events described, or if he has merely gone insane, and it walks that fine line successfully.

The Price of Silence by Deborah J. Ross is a science fiction story following the crew of a supply ship that uncovers a terrible secret on a destroyed colony. A terrible sacrifice is made to keep a secret (hence, the title). The story is a little cliched in the "secrets that must not fall into the wrong hands" vein, but it is told well enough that it was at least adequate.

Andreanna by S. L. Gilbow is a little story about a damaged robot (and androbriefer) that had been uploaded with some after market enhancements that may have led to her damage while wandering about a lunar base. The story doesn't really resolve, it just unfolds long enough for the reader to figure out what might have led to the odd behavior and then ends. This isn't as unsatisfying an ending as one might think, and the end result is a decent little story. Also set on the moon is Stratosphere by Henry Garfield, a story about a legendary baseball hit in a lunar baseball league. On a side note, the author takes a swipe at the Apollo program, or rather the criminal abandonment of the moon by the U.S. at the end of that program. This little dig at the shortsightedness of the U.S. space program is told in passing, but I think it is well-deserved. On the other hand, the author clearly loves a style of baseball that is simply self-defeating, and sets up a lunar baseball league designed (against all rationality) to emphasize "little ball" in a low gravity environment. The story is a nice little physics problem other than that, and is mostly fun.

The "really good" classic reprint in this issue is The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch. I have not read a lot of Disch, but this is probably the best story of his that I have read. It is a cute fairy tale about what our creations do when we are not around, and what they might try to do if we abandon them. The story has been made into an animated children's movie (which I have not seen), which I think must have gutted much of the story as there are certainly elements that, to my mind, simply wouldn't fit into typical children's fare. The story is good, even if the idea of anthromorphized household appliances embarking on a quest to find their long-lost owner seems like an odd place to start.

The other classic reprint, Sea Wrack by Edward Jesby, is merely good. Originally published in 1964, it still reads well and is an example of what I call "ocean science fiction" which is a subgenre of science fiction that one does not see very much any more, so it seems like a novelty in a modern magazine. In the story humans in what is clearly an unequal society host a visitor from beneath the sea who reveals the vast civilization that has emerged among the modified humans living in the world's oceans. There is a hint of social conflict that marks this story as a creation of the 1960s, but other than that there is little that would mark this story as dated.

The issue also includes a science fact article titled A Lighter Look at Science by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty that goes into the possibilities of lighter than air flight in various atmospheric conditions (and undersea conditions). Though the article is well-written, and gives a clear and comprehensive overview of the subject, there isn't really anything in here that a science fiction fan who has read Arthur C. Clarke's 1971 novella A Meeting With Medusa wouldn't already know. I suppose for someone new to the science fiction genre (and who had no science background of any kind) it would be mildly useful, but the material simply isn't really interesting enough that I would think it worthy of inclusion.

Once again, the classic reprints save an otherwise mediocre issue and make it pretty good. Other than those two, the remainder of the issue is filled with a mixture of good stories and weak stories. While this even mix would have normally resulted in a completely average final rating that would have been dragged down to poor by the weak science article, the inclusion of the two reprints pulls the overall rating back up to the slightly above average range. This is certainly not an auspicious start to the new era of larger issues of the magazine, but it is at least worth a moderate recommendation.

Edited: Feb 9, 2010, 1:33am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (January 30th-February 5th, 2010)
Science News (January 30, 2010)
Phi Alpha Delta Reporter (Winter 2009-2010)

Book Seven: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park
The Long Retreat by Robert Reed
Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf
Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock
City of the Dog by John Langan
Bait by Robin Aurelian
Songwood by Marc Laidlaw
The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes
The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm

Long Review: The January/February 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is filled with mostly good stories with one glaring exception. Unfortunately, that glaring exception is the featured novella in the issue. Despite the generally good quality of the ramining stories, Paul Park's tedious Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is so awful that it drags down the whole issue, and has made me push A Princess of Roumania way down my "to read" list.

As the longest story in the issue, written by one of the more famous authors represented, one would expect that Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park would be a decent story. Instead, it is a self-indulgent waste of paper and ink. In the story the protagonist Paul Park (yes, the protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author as an old man) spends his time trying to unravel mysterious family mysteries that come down to him from both sides of his family. This is, of course, set in the future, where urban decay has emptied cities, and a militarized United States has apparently become something of a dysfunctional police state and rates of autism among children have climbed to 20%. The story meanders through the fictional Park's memories as he jumps from thread to thread (and some of the threads are even known to be fictional by the fictional Park) until Park apparently decided that he'd written enough to get paid a check large enough to cover this month's rent. And then the aimless, pointless, and useless excuse of a story ends. This story by itself drags down the entire issue like a lead weight.

The Long Retreat by Robert Reed is a somewhat funny tale about the imperial court of a losing nation that is wandering from place to place, always one step ahead of the invading armies. The paradox is that as long as they avoid being captured, their nation is supposedly big enough that the invaders can never conquer everything. This is a sort of "Tsar fighting Napoleon" story writ even larger, and set in a fantasy world. The end of the story contains a moderately predictable twist, but it is still a decent read.

Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf is the most interesting story in the issue. Set in a future in which massive AI's have taken control over most of Earth, the remaining humans while away their lives in more or less idle pursuits indulging in literature that looks backward to the past and rehashes old glories. The story is told through the lens of a writer's workshop, and introduces a new writer who wants to look forward rather than backward. While one might think that a story that extols the value of science fiction as a genre would be somewhat indulgent of a topic for a science fiction writer to address, the story still works well and was but fun and thought provoking.

With its mixture of condemnation of corporate greed and class warfare, Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock seems to be a product of the current "string up the wealthy" sentiment that is popular in American politics right now. Despite this, the story is not too bad, although the big twist at the end is pretty much telegraphed by the title of the story.

Bait by Robin Aurelian is a story about a family hunting trip in a world where fairy tale creatures are the quarry for such expeditions. The central character is the oddball in his family, as he is lousy at hunting and attracts bites and stings like he were made of candy. He gets infected and the tables are somewhat turned, at which point the story ends. I think there was some sort of oblique political statement about the evils of hunting in the story, but it wasn't very clear if it was there. Still, the story is silly and funny, and seems very much like an adult version of one of Bruce Coville's juvenile works. The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes is a funny take on several fairy tales - a sort of "behind the curtain" version of The Emperor's New Clothes, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumplestiltskin, and Cinderella in which the "true" story of the classic tales is revealed with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.

Songwood by Marc Laidlaw is a fantasy that sees the return of the gargoyle Spar (previously seen in Laidlaw's story Quickstone in ther March 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) stowing away on a ship and falling in love with the figurehead. What results is a kind of star-crossed love story that has a kind of touching ending. On the other hand, City of the Dog by John Langan is a dark and twisted love story involving betrayal, loss, and obsession. The story is somewhat disjointed, and much of the fantasy element is thrown at the reader in a giant info-dump, which is kind of an artless way to go about doing things, and there is no real reason given for the betrayal that takes place. To a certain extent the lack of explanation makes the story seem even darker and fouler, so maybe the mysterious motivations of the ultimate villain are better left unrevealed.

Finally, The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm is a kind of story that seems to me to be becoming more and more prevalent. That is, the suicide (or murder) by fantasy story. I'm not sure if this is the result of the aging baby boomers staring their own mortality in the face and trying to come up with a poetic alternative, or merely that I am noticing thsese stories more. In any event, I'm not a huge fan of the seemingly growing subgenre. In this case, the story if one of abuse and the toleration of that abuse which is a creepy backdrop for any story. The fantasy element is very slight, almost nonextant, but apparently real. In the end, any story that can make me angry at every character in the narrative has probably done its job well.

While every other story in this issue is at least good, Park's story is just a waste of space. Even the regular movie and book review columns are good, but none of it is enough to raise the issue as a whole above average. I give a cautious recommendation for this issue with the huge caveat that one would simply be better off skipping the roughly seventy pages that Park's story occupies.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 3:16pm Top

Book Eight: Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies by Scott Adams.


Short review: Dogbert gives advice on how to survive the modern office environment.

Long review: Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies is based upon the premise that Dogbert, Dilbert's evil sidekick and sometime management consultant, has written it as a guide to being successful at the workplace. To keep the illusion alive, Adams is merely listed as the "illustrator" rather than the author. Of course, Dogbert gives advice applicable to the classic Dilbert workplace, filled with clueless bosses, lazy or incompetent workers, and wildly out of touch consultants. Dogbert offers advice on how to navigate the jungle of office politics, clarifies why one's budget never makes any sense, why management really doesn't care about employees despite pretending to do so, and offers advice on a myriad of other topics. Although the scenarios in the strips are exaggerated somewhat for comic effect, the truly scary thing about the book is that the exaggeration is generally fairly minor. In typical Dilbert fashion, the humor in the strip stems from the bitter reality being satirized.

The only drawback to the book is that the panel size of the cartoon strips has been expanded, and as a result, the book contains fewer comic sequences than it could have. The truly cynical might think that was done so that Adams could squeeze an entire book out of half a book's worth of content. On the other hand, the guidance provided by Dogbert in this book is probably more valuable and useful than the guidance found in most serious books on management or MBA programs, so that seems like a fairly minor quibble. As usual, Adams' insights into the workings of the modern office come in the form of bitterly satirical humor, made all the more painfully funny as a result of the fact that they are, for the most part, so close to being true.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 3:33pm Top

Belated Review: World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven.


Short review: Larry Greenberg reads the mind of an alien. Larry Greenberg thinks he's an alien. Larry Greenberg and the alien threaten to destroy humanity.

Long review: Although this is not the first story set in his Known Space, this is one of the earliest (and as far as I can tell, is the first novel). As a result, the parameters of the fictional future that Niven has mapped out over most of his writing career were not particularly well-defined when World of Ptavvs was written. Through the novel one can see glimpses of the elements of Known Space in embryonic form, but the details are hazy and in some cases have been altered by subsequent books.

The basics of the story revolve around two individuals: Larry Greenberg, a human telepath who has spent a fair portion of his adult life trying to communicate with dolphins, and the thrint Kzanol, a a powerful alien telepath from the past whose race held sway over much of the galaxy when he went into suspended animation in a desperate attempt to save his own life. Their paths cross as a result of an experiment on an archaeological find with less than happy results. The conflict between these two individuals holds the fate of humanity in the balance, and Larry must use his hard won insight into the mind of the thrint to try to stave off humanity's eternal servitude. These events all play out against a backdrop of political tension between Earth and the Belters that the revelations caused by the Greenberg/Kzanol conflict threatens to push into open war.

(As an aside, one wonders what would have happened to humanity when the events of Angel's Pencil taken place had the events in this story taken a different turn, probably nothing good for us it seems).

As noted before, this is a fairly early example of the Known Space setting, and it shows. A lot of material that will be fleshed out later is merely hinted at in this story. In addition, Niven's storytelling style is fairly linear and direct. In the resolution of the story, Niven makes what I consider to be one misstep, in that he seems to argue that technology can be suppressed merely by throwing out an example of that technology, which I find implausible. On the other hand, a large chunk of the subsequent Known Space stories revolve around suppressing technology with military applications via the organization known as the ARM, so it isn't really unexpected.

Although not a good as many of his later works in the Known Space universe, World of Ptavvs is still a good action story with enough mystery and science to jump it abover the average. Though his writing career begins in the 1960s, Niven's material tends to be similar in tone to the writers of the 1940s and 50s, so fans of Heinlein and Asimov will probably be comfortable with his output. While not some of Niven's best work, Niven's average fare is better than the best many other science fiction writers turn out, so this book is worth reading.

Edited: Jun 7, 2011, 11:42am Top

Belated Review: The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card.


Short review: The United States has collapsed after a nuclear attack, and the Mormons get to run things. Naturally, they are insufferably pious when doing so.

Long review: The Folk of the Fringe is a collection of five shorter works mostly set in post-apocalyptic America and detailing the travails of Mormons struggling to survive in the face of some religious bigotry and the harsh new landscape. One thing that is interesting about the stories is that despite having suffered at the hands of intolerant non-Mormons, when they get into the majority, the Mormons in the stories are more than willing to engage in some religious bigotry of their own. Overall, four of the stories form a decent (although somewhat scary) narrative showing how a small religious group could survive the collapse of society, while the fifth seems to me to have been tacked on with little regard for continuity.

In the first story West, Mormon refugees from North Carolina head west to the promised land of Utah following the collapse of society after some sort of apocalyptic event. (It is never revealed exactly what the trigger for the collapse is, but it is hinted to be some sort of limited nuclear exchange triggered by a weak U.S. President confronted by a strong-handed Soviet dictator). This seems a little autobiographical, as Card had taken up residence in Greensboro, and makes the events the precipitate the story a little bit creepy. One wonders if Card imagines that his non-Mormon neighbors are just itching to round up the Mormon and slaughter them, although this kind of persecution paranoia seems to run through a lot of Mormon fiction. Granted, Mormons were persecuted . . . in the 19th century. I doubt anyone still cares nearly as much as Card imagines they do. Even so, this triggers the events of the story, without which there wouldn't be much in the way of a book, so it can be overlooked. Along the way, the Mormons, who demonstrate themselves to be pretty lousy at traveling in a post-apocalyptic world, meet up with a guide who helps them out, and inspired by their obvious goodness, duly converts and leads them west (hence the name of the story).

West leads more or less to Salvage, in which a minor character from the previous story becomes the central character. Even though he has been raised since early childhood in the Mormon promised land of Utah, Deaver Teague has somehow avoided becoming Mormon himself, which doesn't seem all that unusual until one begins to note just how oppressively religious the post-apocalyptic Mormon society has become - swearing has become a criminal offense, as has premarital sex and pretty much all of the other minor peccadilloes of modern society that Card usually rants about. Poor and with limited prospects (as a result of not being Mormon), Deaver cooks up a plan to make himself wealthy that, in the end, serves to demonstrate just how pious and wonderful the Mormons really are.

The Fringe is a story connected to the others in the book, but none of the characters from West, Salvage or Pageant Wagon appear in it. Card includes a central character with cerebral palsy, an affliction that is clearly of interest to Card due to his own son having it. In this story, the necessity and virtue of living under the thumb of the local Mormon clergy is explored, with the caveat that there need to be spies to make sure the clergy is honest in their heavy handed rule over the colonies on the fringe of farmable territory. The story includes some discussion about how the Mormon's have been systematically reclaiming arable land from the desert, which counts as science fiction, but the central thrust of the story is that a command economy run by pious Mormon leaders is necessary to make this system work.

Finally, Pageant Wagon sees the return of Deaver Teague, who runs into a traveling family of performers who make the rounds of the communities on the fringe providing more or less approved entertainment. While most of the stories about the Mormon enclave in post-apocalyptic America make Mormon rule seem quite heavy handed, and this story is no exception, Deaver finds the one more or less socially acceptable exception to this rule (although there are definite limits on what even the pageant wagon families are allowed to do). With respect to religion, this story seems almost thematically the opposite of West, as now that the Mormons are in charge, they are insufferable to non-Mormons. They don't treat outsiders as brutally as the non-Mormons in North Carolina treated Mormons, but when religious law and temporal law become one and the same, tyranny is not far behind, and it shows in the story.

The final story in the volume is America, which doesn't really fit the rest of the collection. It is supposedly the first chronologically, and draws heavily upon Mormon theology. In the story, a young Mormon boy sent to live in South America with the father he despises for being a lying, cheating, non pious sinner spends his time in the company with an older Native-American woman. He, of course, ends up sleeping with her, but its okay, because it is more or less divinely ordained that he should and that she will have a child who is marked for greatness. It doesn't fit the rest of the collection because the explanation it gives for the fall of the Westernized nations in the Americas is at odds with the story that is given in those stories. This story really amounts to little more than Mormon wish-fulfillment, and as anything other than a view into the strange world of Mormon theology and prophecy, it isn't very good.

If one is interested in reading a Mormon fantasy, then this set of stories would certainly fit the bill. I am unsure whether Card was parodying his own faith to a certain extent, or if he truly thinks that marrying religious and civil law together in a kind of religious police state is a good idea. If his intent was the first, then he didn't make himself clear. If it was the second, then this story is even scarier than I had originally thought. Either way, it is worth reading if for nothing else than to get a look into how a Mormon thinks Mormons would behave if left unfettered by silly impediments like secular law.

This has been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 14, 2011, 5:04pm Top

Belated Review: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.


Short review: Lee blunders. Stuart joyrides. Longstreet broods. Meade does little. Chamberlain fights. Pickett charges. Hancock destroys Pickett's division. The South throws away any chance it had of hoping to win the war by trusting to the leadership of a cavalier who belongs to an earlier age.

Long review: The Killer Angels is probably one of the best historical novels about the U.S. Civil War. It is certainly the best historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which it details from Lee's initial decision to turn East and move his army towards Washington D.C. in his second invasion of the Union, to the aftermath immediately following the breaking of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge. In between, the largest land battle to ever take place on the North American continent took place, and the result sealed the fate of the Confederacy. The novel also spawned the Ted Turner movie Gettysburg, which is both quite good and remarkably faithful to the book, although as a result it is really long.

Although this book is listed as the middle book in a trilogy, the other two books (Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure) were written years after this one by Michael Shaara's son Jeff Shaara following the elder Shaara's death. Unfortunately, Jeff is not quite as good a novelist as his father, so there is a danger that someone reading them in "order" will read Gods and Generals and decide not to continue the series. That would be a mistake. This novel is masterfully executed and stands head and shoulders above the other two novels in the trilogy.

While some historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the pivotal moment in the U.S. Civil War, after reading Bruce Catton's excellent three volume history of the war (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat), I have come to the conclusion that it was instead the last desperate gasp of a defeated nation - a huge gamble against long odds that had little hope of success. This view seems to be borne out by the characterizations in The Killer Angels. The one dominant feeling one gets from most of the Confederate characters is a feeling of exhaustion. The soldiers are tired, Lee is tired, his minuscule staff is tired, and Shaara conveys this feeling perfectly. The lone exception to this is the exuberant General Pickett and the prodigal J.E.B. Stuart, but Pickett's exuberance against this background of overall malaise the rest of the Confederates seem to share makes his confidence seem even more misplaced and Stuart's energy seem juvenile. On the other hand, many on the Union side are exhausted by their travails during the unfolding events, but few of them have to deal with the relentless pace of the battle day after day.

The novel is told from a shifting limited third person viewpoint, jumping from person to person as the events of the battle move about. This storytelling style allows Shaara to give the reader a comprehensive view of the battle, while also giving insight into the decisions and difficulties each of the featured individuals would have faced. Reading the novel and knowing the history of the events of late June and early July 1863, one gets a sense of impending doom as a tired Lee lacking reliable intelligence about his enemy and relying on faulty assumptions and erroneous information works to convince himself that the incredibly stupid is actually the correct choice.

The novel makes clear two things. The first is that the Confederacy was already on its last legs, even though the war would drag on for almost two more years. As noted before, the Confederates portrayed in the novel seem almost universally exhausted, but they are also clearly also lacking in basic supplies and outmanned by their opponent. The second is that placing too much faith in a single leader can exalt a military organization, but only so long as that leader makes the correct choices. When such a leader is wrong, or places his trust in subordinates who are unequal to the tasks given them, placing him upon such a pedestal results in there being no checks against his poor judgment. The Confederacy was both blessed and cursed with Lee as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and this book drives this home with a series of hammerblows that highlight both his obvious strengths as a leader, and his not so obvious but still quite serious flaws.

In the end, this book is probably as close as anyone alive today will come to seeing inside the minds of Lee, Longstreet, Buford, Chamberlain, and Armistead. It covers much of the battle, and covers it quite clearly. Shaara's choice of selecting critical viewpoint characters gives an intensely personal perspective on the battle, but it does limit the book as history as it limits the range of events that can be covered. For example, choosing Buford as his Union viewpoint character for the events of the first day limits Shaara's ability to detail the events of the day that took place after Buford left the main engagement. Similarly, by focusing on Chamberlain on the second day, Shaara is unable to cover the attacks that took place on the right flank of the "fishhook", as well as the attacks even on Big Round Top and the front side of Little Round Top. As a result, the fierce fighting in the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil's Den get limited attention. Such compromises are probably necessary to make an account of a three day battle fit into a single novel length work, so these are probably minor quibbles. Despite this, this is an excellent book, and a must read for anyone who wants to understand the U.S. Civil War and the men who fought it.

This has been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 13, 2011, 10:26pm Top

Belated Review: Camp Haunted Hills: How I Survived My Summer Vacation by Bruce Coville.


Short review: Stuart Glassman goes to a movie summer camp, meets a ghost, and has trouble with the locals.

Long review: How I Survived My Summer Vacation is the first installment of Bruce Coville's Camp Haunted Hills series. Like the other Camp Haunted Hills books, this volume takes the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, throwing just about everything into the mix and shaking it up until some sort of silly, funny adventure falls out.

In this volume was are introduced both to Stuart Glassman, a kind of nerdy movie fanatic, and Camp Haunted Hills, a summer movie camp run by a man known for making scary special effects laden horror movies. This is, of course, heaven for Stuart, who immediately gravitates to Harry Housen, the special effects teacher and gets involved in making special effects for the Camp movie. Along the way, Stuart runs into the usual cast of characters that inhabit books aimed at younger readers: the pretty camp counselor that he has a case of puppy love for, the cool camp counselor, the jerky camper, his friend the nerdy but nice camper and so on. Stuart also makes friends with Robert, the Camp's resident ghost (and the reason why the camp is "Camp Haunted Hills), who only he can see or hear. This, of course, causes Stuart no end of trouble, which is amusing for the reader as Stuart tries to explain why he always seems to be talking to himself.

The book sort of wanders along with some typical summer camp hijinks until the final stage in which the campers set out to make a movie as their final summer camp project. Stuart is selected to play a bigfoot type character, which results in him getting into a rather hairy situation. It turns out that being friends with Robert has benefits after all, and the camp counselors have to mount a rescue effort to extract Stuart to safety. This being a humorous book aimed at younger readers, all is well that ends well, and everyone gets home safely.

While there isn't anything particularly deep about this book, it has the usual Coville message that being nice to others is a good thing, and good friends are the most valuable thing one can have. This being a Coville book, this message is also surrounded with an array of silly and supernatural elements. Unfortunately, like the other Camp Haunted Hills books, this book seems to try to pack just too many elements into one hundred and six pages, and the result is somewhat unfocused and disjointed.

This has been posted to my blog Dreaming Aboout Other Worlds.

Feb 10, 2010, 1:56am Top

#24: Killer Angels was the first book that I said to myself "I wish I had written that." A definite 5-star read for me.

Edited: Mar 28, 2011, 2:18pm Top

Belated Review: Search for the Flaming Chalice by Robert Shaw Kesler.


Short review: Three martens find a shiny purple stone and go searching for a place they know how to find in a slapstick adventure.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

In Search for the Flaming Chalice, three anthropomorphic martens named Carmen, Alger, and Gilbert uncover a mysterious purple stone, set off on a journey to a mysterious land, to search for a mysterious flaming chalice, in order to defeat a mysterious bad guy. Oddly, one of the three was born in the mysterious land, and they know exactly where to find the flaming chalice, and who the bad guy is. The only thing they don't know is what the purple stone is for, which turns out to be the one thing that was supposed to be a specific message to them. Needless to say, the story has some serious consistency problems.

The first question I wondered was, why martens? Those who ask this question will be disappointed as so far as I can tell, there is no real reason why the author chose to make the protagonists of his story a bunch of relatives of weasels and polecats. Unlike other stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down where all of the animals are anthropomorphized, or even Alice in Wonderland where the talking animals are more or less unique, the society of this book seems to be basically the same as if you took human society and simply replaced all the people with martens. There's no real problem engendered by this choice, it just seems pointless.

As noted before, there are some weird continuity problems in the story. Once the three friends uncover the mysterious purple gem, Carmen decides they must go to Toveria, which the other two immediately identify as a fictional fairy land. Carmen, however, is from Toveria, which struck me as strange given that no one in this small community she was supposedly living in ever seems to have inquired as to her background. If a land is so foreign as to be a considered a fairy tale, having someone from that land living among you seems to me to be something that would have come up once or twice. Also, strangely, though the story is titled Search for the Flaming Chalice, Carmen knows where the Flaming Chalice can be found from the get-go, which makes the title somewhat misleading.

The villain of the story is Attila, an evil sorcerer. He is aided by two somewhat incompetent goon sorcerers, who he quickly disposes of, demonstrating that Attila is a short tempered and somewhat stupid villain. The goons are not disposed of before they are able to engage in a little bit of slapstick Keystone Cops-like scenes with the three protagonists. These sort of "hot potato" scenes (with the purple gem filling in for the potato) crop up a couple times in the story, which turns out to be a problem. In a filmed version of this sort of scene, it is zany, quick, and funny. In a written version, the time it takes to read all of the passing the potato, running about, chasing each other and so on takes up a page or two of space, which really makes the scene drag. In the end, Attila's lack of support staff (save for a badly damaged mindless monster) serves to defeat him. Despite being the heavy of the novel, Attila is mostly unconvincing as a real threat because despite his ill intent and bluster, he is basically too stupid to take seriously. The mindless monster he assumes control of is too easily evaded in silly ways to make him seem dangerous either.

The story strangely seems to be both overly long and severely truncated. In story, the journey takes the better part of a year, but much of the traveling time the companions undergo is glossed over. This makes the events seem to come at the reader quick and furious, but then a reference will be made to the passing months, which creates an oddly confusing tone to the story.

The story includes some references to other literary works, but they are so oblique that a list has to be included at the end to let the reader know they are there. Granted, this is a book aimed at younger readers and this seems to be intended as a teaching tool, but I've read every work referenced, and I would have missed about half of them entirely had they not been footnoted.

Overall, this book has the kernel of a decent story for younger readers, but there are so many oddities that just jump out at the reader that one is constantly pulled out of the narrative to wonder why the author made that particular choice. This, coupled with a rather poorly defined villain results in a book that is simply not good enough to really recommend to the readers it is aimed at. It seems clear that the author really wants the book to be a modern day Wind in the Willows with a dash of silly humor and literary education thrown in, but it simply falls well short of the mark.

This has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Feb 12, 2010, 11:01pm Top

Hmmm, looks like one I can miss on the YA horizon.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 4:30pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (February 6th - 12th, 2010)
The Economist (February 13th - 19th, 2010)
Science News (February 13, 2010)

Book Nine: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.


Short review: Percy Jackson is a misfit, but not really. In fact, he's super special and takes a tour through the monsters of Greek mythology.

Long review: The Lightning Thief is the first book in Rick Riordan's young adult oriented five book Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. As one would expect, the central character of the story is Percy Jackson, who opens the book as a fairly typical twelve year old struggling through his classes, dealing with both ADHD and dyslexia and trying to fit in socially and avoid getting kicked out of yet another school. Everything is turned upside down for him when he discovers that he is pursued by mytholgical monsters, his favorite teacher is actually Chiron, and Grover, his only friend, is actually a satyr who spends his time combing the Earth for the children of the Gods. In what is surely the fantasy of every socially awkward kid struggling through middle-school, Percy learns that he is, in fact, one of those children, which makes him a demi-god.

Percy quickly finds out, however, that being a demi-god means that monsters will hunt you down and try to kill you, which is why Grover and the other satyrs seek them out, so they can take them to safety. Along with his mother, Percy and Grover flee in his stepfather's car to Camp Half-Blood. Along the way Percy's mother is killed by a minotaur, which Percy slays. Camp Half-Blood turns out to be not just a refuge, but a a training ground for would-be heroes, and Percy, his parentage undetermined, takes up residence in the Hermes house. Things go more or less well until a crisis forces Percy's divine parent to openly claim him, and then sends Percy, along with Grover and his newfound friend Annabeth (daughter of Athena) on a quest across the country to enter the Underworld and recover Zeus' stolen masterbolt. The heroes face several classic villains of Greek mythology along the way, make the acquaintance of Ares, the God of War, and finally confront Hades in his throne room. Of course, things aren't as simple as they appear to be on the surface, and various subtrefuges are revealed until finally the ultimate villain is uncovered and his plan foiled.

Through the book the story rolls forward at a pretty swift pace, moving Percy and his companions from point to point in fairly short order. The only somewhat slow portion of the book is between when Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood and when he sets out on his assigned quest, as most of the world building that develops Riordan's alternate reality takes place in this section, requiring a fair amount of information to be dumped on the reader while limited actual action is taking place. The other major weakness of the book crops up here too, which is that while everyone is wondering about who Jackson's actual divine parent is, the clues dropped are so heavy handed that any reader with any knowledge at all concerning Greek mythology will figure it out in pretty short order, and be left wondering why all these figures from actual Greek mythology like Chiron and Dionysus remain befuddled.

The one major criticism I have of the book is the idea that Mount Olympus, and thus the Greek Gods, follow the heart of Western culture and civlization about, which is why Mount Olympus is located above New York City in the book. Leaving aside the fact that it take a considerable amount of hubris to assert that the United States is the "heart of the West", the various cults of the Greek Gods were, by and large, impediments to the development of Western thought and culture. It was only when the Greek philosophers rejected the various divine explanations for things that science began to flourish - the birth of the idea of a natural universe probably began when Thales left Marduk out of his explanation for how the continents formed out of the sea. And the Greek Gods in Riordan's version live up to this - they are petty, vain, argumentative, short-sighted, and quite simply exemplars of why they aren't the source of Western culture, all the while remaining completely in line with their established character traits from actual Greek mythology.

Even so, Riordan has created a very believable fantasy reality, weaving in the mythological Gods and monsters of Greek myth into the fabric of modern life, giving the fantastic elements of the story a rooting in reality that serves as a reference point for young readers. Through their travels, Percy, Grover and Annabeth meet and overcome foes, but those foes are embedded in the world around them sufficiently well that famous figures of Greek mythology such as Medusa or Procrustes don't seem out of place (although a knowledgeable reader will probably spot the monsters long before the heroes in the story do). The strong background coupled with the well-paced action scenes and the fact that all of the youthful protagonists are quite well-written and likable characters makes The Lightning Thief a great young adult fantasy, and an excellent book for any young reader who loves Greek myth, or just one who would enjoy being introduced to it.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 24, 2011, 3:12pm Top

Book Ten: The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov.


Stories included:
The Martian Way
The Deep
Sucker Bait

Long review: The Martian Way and Other Stories consists of four short works by Isaac Asimov. There is no overarching theme to this book, although one could draw connections and describe this book as really consisting of two pairs of thematically similar stories. The first pair, consisting of The Martian Way and Sucker Bait are basically engineering science fiction in which intrepid explorers must think outside the box to ensure their survival and the survival of those around them. The other two stories - Youth and The Deep - are alien contact stories, both of which have a Twilight Zone style twist ending.

The Martian Way is the first story in the volume, and it is also the best. A substantial chunk of the high rating for this book is based solely on this story. I must confess that long ago this was the first science fiction story that made me really think it was plausible, which was a real eye-opener for me. Despite being nearly sixty years old now, the story still seems plausible. In fact, despite the clumsy and heavy handed addition of a McCarthyesque villain and some minor scientific flaws involving the make up of the rings of Saturn, the story seems to me to point out why sending humans out to Mars and beyond would be incredibly lucrative and open up the true wealth that is out there to humanity. Sadly, sixty years on, and despite the fact that there isn't any technology in the story that could not have been plausibly made in the 1950s, we are no closer to realizing the world depicted now than we were then.

Sucker Bait, the other "explorers think outside the box to save their skins" story, is competent and readable, but far less compelling. The story mostly amounts to a rant about how experts have walled themselves into their own limited fields of knowledge and how this is limited and potentially dangerous. The theme of this story positing the benefits of having generalists in a world of experts is touched on elsewhere in Asimov's fiction in stories like Profession and in the works of other authors, making up one of the themes in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. This story is an adequate example of a story built on that theme, but not much more.

Of the two alien contact stories, Youth is the weaker. The story follows a farmboy and his city friend who stumble across an unknown organism and try to keep it as a pet with the intention of using it as a way to gain employment with the circus. Over the course of the story it is revealed that the organism is actually an alien and that the "city friend" is visiting the country with his father specifically so his father can make contact with these aliens. The story rambles along as the boys try to hide their discovery from their parents, certain that they will disapprove of any pet, and the adults try to figure out why the aliens they expected to meet have apparently not shown up. The story ends with a "twist" ending that is pretty much telegraphed to the reader and should surprise nobody, although it seems obvious that Asimov thought that it was terribly clever. The twist ending alone downgrades the story to being marginal at best, but up to that point it is decent.

The second alien contact story is The Deep and is told from the perspective of a race of insect like telepathic subterranean dwelling aliens living on a dying planet. despite the fact that Asimov rarely wrote about aliens in his fiction, this work makes clear that he had no trouble creating truly alien beings. The story itself is something of a subversion of the typical alien invasion story, because despite the fact that the aliens want to move from their dying planet to Earth, they are shown to be so truly alien that it is possible that humanity would never know they had arrived. Although this story does not get much attention, it is one of Asimov's better works, and along with The Martian Way it makes this collection well worth reading.

With one stellar story, one above average story, and two mediocre ones, this collection is certainly worth reading. Despite the fact that all of the stories in this volume are now well over fifty years old, they have all aged reasonably well. Reasonably well in all but one aspect, and that relates to women: Asimov's lack of skill in handling female characters is compounded by conventional 1950s social mores resulting in very few female characters, and the ones who are presented are almost ridiculous caricatures. Despite this failing the stories remain quite forward-looking in all other respects, making this is a very good collection that most science fiction fans will still enjoy despite its age.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 10, 2011, 10:11am Top

Its been a periodical heavy time: Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (February 27, 2010)
The Economist (February 20th-26th, 2010)
The Economist (February 27th-March 5th, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field (February 2010)
National Geographic (March 2010)
Poets & Writers (March/April 2010)
The University of Virginia Magazine (Spring 2010)

Realms of Fantasy (April 2010)

Stories included:
Just Another Word by Carrie Vaughn
Hanuman's Bridge by Euan Harvey
The Hag Queen's Curse by M. K. Hobson
A Close Personal Relationship by Thomas Marchinko
The Fortutious Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara by Christopher Kastensmidt

As a side note, I have become concerned with the editorial direction of Realms of Fantasy since the change of ownership that happened recently. While the fiction that is included is still generally good, the other articles have started to give a lot more credulity to "woo woo" pseudoscience. Resa Nelson, in her article about paranormal material on television talks about how the various reality shows on the subject are good evidence that things like ghosts and talking to dead relatives is real, not fantasy. She even cites John Edwards as being good evidence for the reality of talking to the dead. Edwards is a charlatan who does an old magician's trick of "cold reading", and he isn't even very good at it, which makes me question Ms. Nelson's judgment, but it raises the question that if you are treating things like talking with the dead as convincingly real, are you even dealing with the arena of "fantasy" any more?

Book Eleven: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 5 (May 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Page Turner by Rajnar Vajra
Hanging by a Thread by Lee Goodloe
The Day the Music Died by H. G. Stratmann
Farallon Woman by Walter L. Kleine
A Talent for Vanessa by David W. Goldman
Fishing Hole by cookrick::Rick Cook
Teaching the Pig to Sing by David D. Levine

Science fact articles included:
Robots Don't Leave Scars: What's New in Medical Robotics? by Stella Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Probability Zero:
Quark Soup by Bond Elam

Poems included:
Skippy the Robot by David Livingstone Clink

Long review: This is an above average issue of Analog, with many very good stories, a couple of excellent ones, and only one that falls on its face. This sort of issue is the kind that keeps me subscribing, because even though some other issues are mediocre, every now and then you get one that is chock full of good stuff like this one is.

Page Turner by Rajnar Vajra is a wandery, disjointed, stream of consciousness tale told in first person perspective by a woman trapped in a building collapsed by an earthquake. To keep her mind occupied while she waits for death or rescue, she spins stories about the quirky denizens of the independent bookshop where she works, with each snippet of a story having its own bizarre elements. The story never really lets you know if the narrator is recounting actual events, or if she is making things up to entertain herself - there is even some ambiguity on this score in the eventual denouement to the story, but that makes the story in many ways even more interesting. The story is hard to follow, incoherent at times, and absolutely brilliant.

Hanging by a Thread by Lee Goodloe is a fairly standard engineering problem story. Like most such stories, the characters find themselves in an alien environment, confronted by some disaster that requires on the spot problem solving in which they apply basic scientific principles and good engineering to save themselves and others. The story, like the classic example of the genre, The Cold Equations, ends up requiring a substantial sacrifice from the protagonists, which should have injected a fair amount of pathos in the story. Unfortunately, the story isn't really long enough to become truly emotionally invested in the characters. If the story had been somewhat longer, with more fleshed out characters, I think it would have been more effective.

Farallon Woman by Walter L. Kleine is a story about a woman without a past has to figure out her place in the world. I figured out the identity of the woman in the story pretty early on, and spent much of the rest of the story wondering why her boyfriend was such a dope that he didn't figure it out despite living with her and also wondering why the government infrastructure that was supposedly hunting for her didn't find her. To a certain extent, this is a problem stemming from the format of the story - in such a short story pretty much everything introduced has to link together in some way so it is very difficult to have a "big reveal" moment that both works and is not merely their result of hiding the ball entirely from the reader. However, the "secret" in this story is framed so clumsily that everyone in the story simply comes off looking like idiots. The woman's story and her background makes the story modestly good, but she really only ends up seeming smart because those around her seem so dumb.

A Talent for Vanessa by David W. Goldman deals with the popular disorder of the day - autism - positing a future in which people with severe versions of the disorder who can serve as idiot savants have become fashionable as entertainers at parties and other venues. In a twist, some people elect to have brain surgery in an effort to become disabled in this way and join the entertainment community, much as people now have plastic surgery to improve their chances of making it in Hollywood. The story revolves around a talent agent who handles this particular type of entertainer and an apparently air-headed socialite who is contemplating making herself more popular by undergoing brain surgery. The story wants to be deeper and more meaningful than it is, but it is decent anyway.

Fishing Hole by Rick Cook is a darkly funny story about seafood. Specifically the story is about trilobites being served in Seattle sushi restaurants and the hunt for the source that this engenders. The story ends up in a fairly unusual place, which, while still funny, has something of a horror movie element to it. I liked it, but it isn't anything other than a funny little story. Also darkly humorous, The Day the Music Died by H. G. Stratmann deals with the issue of songs that simply get stuck in one's head and won't go away. In this case, it is a song that is so infectious that it causes huge worldwide troubles told with a comic bent. Probability Zero: Quark Soup by Bond Elam is, as usual for this series, humorous. In this case, the story covers the question of intelligent design, and provides a cautionary message for intelligent design advocates that they may not really want what they have been asking for.

Teaching the Pig to Sing by David D. Levine is the central story in the issue. It describes a dystopian future in which engineered royalty rule over all of humanity and the efforts of the resistance to try to change this. It is an interesting story because it makes that staple of space opera - a hereditary aristocracy - seem plausible in a technological society (something I consider to be a hard sell to make), and it takes the time to demonstrate that the political set up imagined for this future, distasteful as one may find it, is not wholly without merits which makes the inner conflict of the viewpoint character that much more interesting and believable. The story is somehow both predictable and unpredictable at the same time, and is quite good.

This month's science article, Robots Don't Leave Scars: What's New in Medical Robotocs? by Stella Fitzgibbons, M.D., is a fairly routine report on modern medical robotics. It seems that medical robotics is in more of an evolutionary stage rather than a period of radical transformation, so there is not much truly exciting in the article. It is somewhat timely, given the recent debate in the U.S. Congress over health care, and there do seem to be some indication that robotic technology could cut medical costs. On the other hand, there is also the danger that cutting medical spending could result in progress in this area coming to a grinding halt. John Cramer's Alternate View column, discussing the distribution of water and ice in the solar system and what this might mean for future terraforming efforts is more interesting, but is probably little more than speculative fantasy at this point.

As I said at the outset, this issue is full of good stories and only really has one that isn't as good as the rest. That story, Farallon Woman, despite its flaws, is still not too bad, so there really isn't anything to dislike in this issue, and quite a bit to like. Consequently, this issue gets a strong recommendation.

This review has also bee posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 17, 2011, 9:32am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (March 6th-12th, 2010)

Book Twelve: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert
Mindband by Pamela Sargent
Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes
Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear
Unforeseen by Molly Gloss
Adrift by Eugene Fischer
They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel
Malick Pan by Sara Genge
Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed

Poems included:
Kitchen Deities by Ruth Berman
Martian Opal by Ruth Berman

Long review: In general, the double issues of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact are often disappointing. It seems that the requirement of filling a double length issue with high quality science fiction stories strains the editorial staff to the limit, resulting in issues filled with mediocre stories leavened with a few good ones. Happily, the April/May 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction bucks this trend, with only a handful of lacklustre stories surrounded by a collection of very good ones.

The cover story in the issue is The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert, a fairly standard xenoarchaeology story featuring hardworking xenoarchaologists in a race to unearth traces of a lost civilization on a faraway planet (and thus save the heritage of the seemingly primitive inhabitants). They are, predictably, pitted against the commercial interests of a mining company that wants to exploit the mineral wealth of the planet. As one would expect in this type of story, the inhabitants are not as primitive as they seem, and the xenoarchaologists uncover some interesting things in their digging. The story is okay, but doesn't have anything that I would consider to be particularly noteworthy, treading well-worn ground again.

Unforeseen by Molly Gloss is one of the few fairly original stories in the volume, despite dealing with the pretty frequently covered topic of resurrection. In this case, the ability to return dead people to life merely serves as the backdrop to the story, which revolves around the question of what is exactly is a foreseeable risk and what is not. Told from the perspective of an insurance claims adjuster tasked with determining if a woman's freak death was or was not foreseeable (and thus whether she would or would not be covered by her resurrection insurance plan) the story is dark, depressing, and quite good. Mindband by Pamela Sargent is another dark story, this time dealing with the unintended consequences of a telepathy experiment. While secret research causing trouble and cautionary tales concerning telepathy are not new subjects in the genre, this story is well-written, and comes at the topic from a modestly unusual angle that keeps the reader guessing throughout. I thought it was good.

Adrift by Eugene Fischer is a refugee story dressed up in science fiction drag. Other than the modestly unusual nature of the method by which the refugees in the story set out to travel to their intended asylum, the story doesn't really have much to do with science fiction at all. The story itself could have been recast with wooden boats filling the central transportation role without changing anything of substance. The story itself is adequate, but seems to be the obligatory "not really science fiction" story in the issue.

They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel officially wins the prize for having the longest title of any short story that I have read. It is, as one might guess, a fairly humorous tale about a mad scientist who, despite the repeated failures of demonstrations of his discoveries keeps trying and, in the end, gets a modestly unexpected supporter. It is funny and sad at the same time and despite the silly premise it is my favorite story in the issue and amidst the dark stories that surround it, it is a breath of fresh air in an issue that could have been dragged down by the heavy subject matter of many of the stories.

Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear is yet another dark story, this time science fiction is left behind for a story set in the Fuhrer bunker in 1945 during the final days of the Third Reich. The story follows Kurt Wolff, a German Jew serving in the Wehrmacht and in a strange twist, an old army buddy of Hitler's. He is summoned to the dictator's personal service and events unfold leading to a not altogether unpredictable albeit satisfying ending. It is hard to classify this story without being too spoilerish, but it is definitely worth a read.

Malick Pan by Sara Genge is a post-apocalyptic science fiction take on the Peter Pan story. Like Unforeseen and Mindband the story is dark and sad, which seems to be a theme of this issue. Set in a wasteland at the fringes of a city, the characters subsist by hunting rats, and only children are small enough to hunt the rats. The central character is kept small by his "nanners", who also give him an edge when hunting. The story is about fear, child abuse, and sexual violence, but unlike the other dark stories in this issue it has a more upbeat (although not entirely happy) ending. Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes is also a post-apocalyptic story, set in the central United States after society has collapsed. The central character is taken off the streets in by an automated zoo and given a job and later strikes up a fairly unusual friendship. It is more or less a classic road buddy story, but the road buddies are not the usual, and the troubles they face are fairly unique. Overall, this is probably one of the two best stories in the issue.

Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed deals with what is one of the hot issues in current science fiction: dark matter. The story deals with a crisis engendered by experiments dealing with the unseen bulk of the Universe, and is mostly told from the perspective of a small boy who thinks that his family's desperate flight to avoid the danger is a trip to Disneyland. In terms of writing quality and originality, this is a superior story and shares the top spot in the issue with Jackie's Boy. (While I liked They Laughed at Me in Vienna, . . . the most, it is silly and not particularly noteworthy, hence Pretty to Think So and Jackie's Boy share the designation of "best story").

Though many of the stories in this issue are dark, most of them (with the exception, oddly, of the cover story The Union of Soil and Sky and the "not a science fiction story" Adrift) are quite good despite their often depressing subject matter. I had begun to worry that the double issue format was becoming a problem for the magazine, which I think would be serious trouble as I consider it reasonably likely that Asimov's and Analog will be forced to follow Fantasy & Science Fiction into a bimonthly publishing schedule. However, this very strong double issue gives me hope that this potential shift in format will not damage the quality of the magazine.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Mar 13, 2010, 12:57am Top

it raises the question that if you are treating things like talking with the dead as convincingly real, are you even dealing with the arena of "fantasy" any more?

Does not sound like it to me!

Edited: Mar 5, 2011, 3:49pm Top

Book Thirteen: Passion Play by W. Edward Blain.


Short review: One of my high school teachers writes a murder mystery about killing boys at a thinly disguised version of the high school I attended.

Long review: At the outset I must reveal that W. Edward Blain, who was, and at the time of this writing still is, an English teacher at Woodberry Forest School, taught me English in my 6th Form year there. Consequently it is quite possible that this novel, published just four years after I graduated and set at the fictional Montpelier School for Boys which is an incredibly thinly disguised version of Woodberry Forest, might hold more interest for me than it does for the average reader. Notwithstanding this, Passion Play is a very good mystery novel involving faculty intrigue, adolescent turmoil, and a series of murders.

One thing must be made clear: in addition to serving as the backdrop for most of the action, the Montpelier School for Boys is, in a certain sense, a character in the novel. The particular and somewhat unique way of life at the school dominates the action throughout the novel. And that way of life mirrors the real life of Woodberry students almost exactly. Montpelier students go to classes on a rolling schedule, with Tuesday and Friday afternoons off, with Saturday classes, just like Woodberry students. They have dorm inspection at 10:15 every day, are required (with limited exceptions) to participate in organized sports, have mandatory nightly two-hour study periods, all just like real Woodberry students. Even the "training meal" athletes who are going to an away event eat (roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas, and white bread, which everyone would just mix together to eat) is exactly the same. And, of course, the most important element common to both schools is the student run, single sanction honor code that prohibits lying, stealing, or cheating. To make the parallel even more obvious, the main building at the Montpelier Academy for Boys, housing administrative offices, the dining hall, and several dorms for the boys is Stringfellow Hall, while at Woodberry Forest the same function is filled by the Walker Building, named for the school's founder Robert Stringfellow Walker. In short, if an element of student life is introduced into the novel, it is almost certain that it is drawn from reality.

But other than providing a view into the world in which the students at Woodberry Forest live and work, does Passion Play deliver a story worth reading? The answer to that a resounding yes. The novel opens with a bang as an unnamed character picks up an adolescent male prostitute in New York and proceeds to murder him in a dingy movie theatre. The action then shifts to the Montpelier School in Virginia, where the murders continue as boy after boy is killed (for the record, as far as I know, no students attending Woodberry Forest have ever been murdered). The story is told from a shifting third person viewpoint, allowing Blain to move about from character to character, and relate his experiences in the unfolding grisly drama from each of their perspectives. This is a brilliant storytelling device, as it allows Blain to tell the story primarily from the perspective of Ben Warden, the head of the school's English department, Thomas Boatwright, a somewhat ordinary student at the school, and Cynthia Warden, Ben Warden's wife. Each has a unique perspective on both life at the school and the mystery. Finally, the unknown killer crops up from time to time as a viewpoint character, giving the reader insight into his motivations, and allowing Blain to cast suspicion on a number of characters in the process. Some chapters are told from the perspective of a handful of other minor characters, but the bulk of the story is told from the perspective of the four main characters.

From my perspective, as a former student, the character who I identified with most was Boatwright, whose life at the school rang true to me. His travails as he struggles to deal with the rigorous academic standards, the vagaries of the disciplinary system and its interaction with the honor code, and the usual adolescent difficulties understanding the new and alluring world of sex, are compounded by his difficulties dealing with Greg Lipscomb, his black roommate, and understanding (or even being aware of) the racism, both blatant and subtle, that Lipscomb must deal with. For one unfamiliar with the school, it should come as little surprise that as a private boarding school in the Southern United States, Woodberry has had few black students, and those that have attended have had to deal with some fairly nasty behavior by scions of wealth Southern families. Boatwright must deal with the overt racism displayed by several of the more obnoxious characters in the book, but also comes to realize his own prejudices and the pressures his roommate faces. Boatwright also has to figure out who, in the jungle that is the world of adolescent boys, who to turn to for advice concerning relationships with girls, and stumbles through making several foolish choices along the way.

The story of the two Wardens is more serious, but somewhat less compelling. Cynthia is mysteriously ill, and much of the action of both Ben and Cynthia in early part of the book is preoccupied with unraveling why this is so. Ben is a somewhat notable poet, and struggles to continue his output and his responsibilities to his students even while he struggles with his wife's unknown malady. The action of the story is told against the backdrop of the school's production of Othello, and although Ben is not the director of the play, as the head of the School's English department he (and Cynthia) are deeply involved. The use of Othello, with its themes of love, betrayal, and sex, is no accident, as those themes are mirrored in the action of the story ranging from Boatwright's fumbling adolescent romance with a girl from a nearby all girls boarding school (which seems to be roughly based upon the Madeira School for Girls, whose former headmistress Jean Harris famously killed her lover Herman Tarnower), to the rude sexual escapades of the bully boy Robert Staines, to the ill-disguised lust some of the other faculty members have for Cynthia, and finally, the sexual perversions of the unknown killer. Othello also serves to highlight the racial tensions that underlie the work, as Lipscomb assumes the title role in an effort to avoid the racial stereotyping that would accompany his participating in sports and prove himself intellectually. On that score, choosing to appear as Othello seems like something of an odd choice, given that the part is so identified with black actors, which seemed to me to run against the point of having Lipscomb's character in the book to begin with.

There are only a few minor miscues in the book. Some of the chapters don't work very well as they are told from the perspective of viewpoint characters with little to offer to the story. In one, for example, a vain faculty member who also happens to be a basketball coach spends much of the chapter trying to steer the conversation to his team's recent victory, and secure praise for himself. The chapter is mostly harmless, but it doesn't add much to the story, as the character doesn't really figure into any other part of the plot. The other weakness involves the resolution of the story. The mystery of who the killer is is not really solved. Instead, the killer reveals himself and ends the mystery on his own. In effect, the actions of all the other characters of the story become more or less irrelevant at the end, as the killer takes matters into his own hands. This is a rather unsatisfying end to the central element of the book.

Despite these minor flaws, the book remains quite good, primarily because the murder mystery mostly serves as a framing mechanism for exploring the relationships between the characters, and on that score, the book is excellent. As an aside, I must say that while none of the characters in the book were direct copies of faculty or students from my tenure at the school, there were definitely characters who, in the broad strokes, I recognized and have a feeling I know who they were loosely based upon. Being drawn from real people probably helps make the characters and their interplay so effective in the book, and make their interactions ring true. In the end, this book is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in a good mystery coupled with a detailed and well-crafted treatment of life in a boys boarding school.

This has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 2:41pm Top

Book Fourteen: Last Chapter and Worse: A Far Side Collection by Gary Larson.


Short review: A collection of the last Far Side strips published in the regular newspaper series, plus some bonus ones not published elsewhere.

Long review: As the title of Last Chapter and Worse implies, this volume contains the last Far Side cartoons published during the final six months of the strip's run in the newspapers. The volume also includes thirteen strips written after the conclusion of the strip's syndicated run that were written to fill out the pages of the book, and a brief funny story Larson attributes to his father.

The included strips include the usual assortment of talking cows, dogs, and chickens, devils trying to run Hell, cowboys sitting around campfires, cavemen, witches and all the other familiar motifs that reoccur in Larson's strips. It should go without saying that the strips all feature the bizarre, off-kilter perspective on the world that is the staple of the Far Side. Standout strips include God pouring jerks into creation, just to spice things up, an inmate in Hell explaining that the sandwiches sometimes have scorpions in them, because it is Hell after all, research scientists taking classes in maniacal laughter, and the mob putting people in glass boxes covered in mime makeup as a means of retribution. My favorite is probably the hunter who asks his assistant to take his elephant gun and hand him the mime rifle. However, picking the best Far Side strips is a little like picking out the best ice cream. No matter what flavor it is, it is still ice cream, and still pretty good.

All that said, one can see the cracks starting to form in the humor of the strip. Several of the strips included in the book aren't all that funny, but are merely bizarre. It seems as though Larson was probably getting burned out by the daily grind of putting out a strip on a daily basis. After all, by the time the strips in this volume were created Larson had been putting the strip out for fourteen years. This seems readily apparent when one looks through the thirteen bonus strips included towards the end of the volume, none of which are up to the usual standards of the strip in terms of humor. Though the volume is, as a result, sometimes disappointing, it serves as a suitable farewell from an artist who seems to have known just the right time to walk away from his easel.

Capping off the volume is a brief story of a joke Larson's father supposedly told him when he was a young boy, which Larson says serves as a window into his formative years and a possible explanation for the odd sense of humor he was able to bring to his strip. The story is simple, funny, and is perfect coda to one of the oddest and most enjoyable comic strips ever made.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 7, 2011, 2:46pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (March 13th-19th, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (March 2010)

Book Fifteen: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 3 & 4 (March/April 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Amor Fugit by Alexandra Duncan
Star-Crossed by Tim Sullivan
Waiting for the Phone to Ring by Richard Bowes
Class Trip by Rand B. Lee
Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History by Albert E. Cowdrey
Make-Believe by Michael Reaves
Epidapheles and the Insufficiently Affectionate Ocelot by Ramsey Shehadeh
The Frog Comrade by Benjamin Rosenbaum
The Fairy Princess by Dennis Danvers
Blue Fire by Bruce McAllister

Science fact articles included:
The Wild Blue Yonder by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty

Long review: The March/April 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is one of the better ones in that has been produced since the change to bimonthly issues. Unlike some other issues that have a mixed bag of stories with a few highlights, a body of mediocre ones, and a couple of anchors weighing down the issue, this issue has uniformly good quality fiction punctuated by a few superior stories. The only drag on the issue is the somewhat less than impressive science fact article that probably should have simply been left out of the issue.

Star-Crossed by Tim Sullivan is a sequel to the previously published Planetesimal Dawn, featuring the same characters. This time they go on a wild journey through space and time traveling between dimensions. Characters once thought lost return and multiply as they hop between realities to try to stave off the destruction of their comrades. The story is quite convoluted, but never so much so that one loses track of the plot. Class Trip by Rand B. Lee is also a convoluted story, made even odder due to the fact that it is told nonsequentially, detailing the budding relationship between a human child and a truly alien alien. The story ends up making sense, but doesn't really come together until the very last bits, requiring the reader to mentally juggle a lot of out of context material until the appropriate context becomes apparent. This somewhat difficult storytelling device is necessary for the story to work, and doesn't prevent this from being a very good one.

Albert E. Cowdrey's story Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History is featured on the front cover of the issue. It is more of a horror story than a fantasy, concerning the mysterious events that doomed a Union garrison occupying an isolated island fort near New Orleans. It is appropriately creepy, but somewhat predictable, with the only thing making it really noteworthy being the Civil War backdrop against which most of the story plays out. Make-Believe by Michael Reaves is also a horror story, but with its cast of child protagonists and child-like villains it is actually much more effectively scary than Cowdrey's effort. A story about four kids at play that takes a seemingly supernatural turn, the commonplace nature of the surroundings make the horror all the more chilling in this story. Though the story falls back on the old standby device of having it told by an author recounting an event from his childhood, I still found it to be quite good. Also something of a horror story, but of a somewhat different character is Blue Fire by Bruce McAllister in which a fictional Pope confronts a child vampire in the Renaissance. The story delves into some religious questions relating to vampires that most stories ignore. The horror of the story is the theological trap in which the child vampire is caught rather than any threat that he, as a "blood-drinker" might pose to others. With its unusual angle, it makes the vampire story seem almost fresh again, which is a fairly major accomplishment for a short story.

Waiting for the Phone to Ring by Richard Bowes also revolves around a writer as the central character, this time a down-on-his-luck author asked to revive and revise a story he wrote while he was much younger for an old friend. The story dances on the edge between fantasy and delusion, revolving around a small circle of friends tied together by their common association with a strangely compelling, but long since dead, musician who may, or may not, have had psychic powers and may, or may not, have killed his teacher who may or may not have been his lover. The story weaves together several lives, although sometimes it is difficult to follow the various threads as it tires to be more artsy than Bowes really has the skill to pull off. It is still a decent story, but probably needed more editing.

Amor Fugit by Alexandra Duncan is a modest fantasy about a girl who lives with her mother by day, her father by night, and who has a ill-fated infatuation with a boy she meets. The story has a fairy tale like air to it, seemingly told from the perspective of an unknowing denizen of the timeless fairy realm who confront the real world for the first time. It is a bittersweet, touching story. Epidapheles and the Insufficiently Affectionate Ocelot by Ramsey Shehadeh is a humorous fantasy about the incompetent wizard Epidapheles as told from the perspective of his long-suffering sentient, invisible, ambulatory chair named Door. The wizard sets out to solve the problem of an idiot King besotted with an ocelot and gets entangled in court politics in which supporters of the Queen seek to replace the King on the throne with her. Door and Epiphalides have a sort of Jeeves and Wooster relationship that infuses the entire story with humor. Door has something of a happy ending, as does the Queen, although not in a way that undermines the rest of the story. The Frog Comrade by Benjamin Rosenbaum is another story told with a fairy tale sensibility, but this time it is a subversion of the classic frog and princess story. It turns out that the frog is a socialist, and the princess lives through political upheaval that leads through a socialist state to a capitalist state and finally finds love. In the end, the princess does kiss the frog, but she ends up even more confused than ever. The story is told with humor, and although the politics are fairly simplistic, the story is still good.Despite its title, The Fairy Princess by Dennis Danvers is not a fairy tale story. Instead, it is a fairly unsettling tale about a woman working the night shift as a factory dedicated to making robot sex toys. She uncovers a conspiracy with a surprising source, and makes an unusual friend.

The issue also includes the science fact article The Wild Blue Yonder by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty. Unfortunately, like most science fact articles in Fantasy & Science Fiction (and as far as I can tell, all science fact articles that Pat Murphy has a hand in writing), the article is not particularly interesting or insightful. The article talks about model airplanes and taking play seriously as a way to learn physics. It makes some noises about the Bernoulli effect not actually working, but doesn't really back that claim up very well, and doesn't really say anything else that makes the article particularly worth doing much more than skimming through.

With the exception of the weak science fact article, everything in this issue makes for an enjoyable read. The funny stories are funny, the scary stories are scary, and the strange ones are strange, and all of them are insightful and interesting. All of the stories range from decent to pretty good, with the best probably being either Blue Fire, Amor Fugit, or Class Trip.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 8:36am Top

Book Sixteen: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan.


Short review: Percy Jackson's adventures continue, but now he has to rescue his friend from a distant relative. Along the way, he finds he has more family than he thought.

Long review: Percy Jackson's adventures that kicked off in The Lightning Thief continue in The Sea of Monsters, book two in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Since the bulk of the background about the nature of the fantasy reality that the story takes place in was already covered in The Lightning Thief, the story kicks off quickly, and pretty much never stops moving at a breakneck pace until the end.

Having returned to the "normal" world for the school year after the Gods refused to take seriously Percy's warnings concerning the rumblings from the dark presence in the pits of Tartarus, Percy finds himself attacked by giants wielding fireballs until he is rescued by a big awkward kid named Tyson that he had befriended. Both Percy and Tyson are rescued by Annabeth and all three flee to Camp Half-Blood where they discover numerous changes have taken place. Chiron has been fired as camp director because Thalia's Tree has been poisoned and he is suspected as the culprit. Thalia's Tree is unable to protect the Camp anymore, and the dire situation sets the main plot of the book into motion as a hero is sent forth to recover the Golden Fleece, the only thing that can cure the tree.

Interestingly, Percy Jackson is not sent on the quest, and neither is his friend Annabeth, which makes for an interesting twist on the story. It turns out that Grover is missing, however, and Percy, Tyson, and Annabeth set out to find and rescue him. Along the way, they intertwine paths with the fleece quester, and run across Luke, now openly consorting with monsters and raising an army to be used against Olympus. This also serves to seriously flesh out what is to become the main plot of the series, as Luke reveals that he seeks to revive an ancient and deadly foe of the Gods. This becomes a major complication as the heroes' quests all wind their way through the titular Sea of Monsters (which turns out to be the Bermuda Triangle) to their intertwined resolution. In the end, justice prevails, but things don't turn out exactly as one expects, and a new complication literally crops up at the end.

Once again, the characters have to deal with numerous creatures from Greek mythology that serve as hurdles for our interpid heroes to overcome. One element of the fantasy reality that Riordan has crafted is the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between heroes and monsters. For heroes, the game is deadly: if they die, they are dead and presumably go to Hades. Monsters, on the other hand, are symbolic of the malaides of human nature, and as such, they will eventually reform if they are killed. As the monsters rally against the Gods and Demi-Gods, it seems that the balance of power is potentially insurmountably stacked against the heroes just by the very nature of the fantasy reality. Counterbalancing this to a certain extent is the fact that Riordan seems to have pumped up the power level of the demi-gods well past anything that one would expect from the original myths. With the exception of the prodigious strength of Heracles, the noteworthy half-blooded heroes of Greek myth such as Theseus, Perseus, and Jason seem to be extraordinarily brave and skilled in battle, but none of them display the divinely inspired supernatural powers that are de rigeur in the Percy Jackson series.

The story, being set mostly at sea, bears some resemblances to the journeys of Ulysses in The Odyssey, although the heroes don't wander the oceans for a decade. One of the more interesting encounters the protagonists have is when they run across the sirens, and Annabeth emulates Ulysses in order to hear their song, and ends up learning something about herself. Overall, the story is quite good, managing to pack plenty of humor and character development in among the fast paced action. Though many series suffer a "sophmore slump" in which the second book suffers a let down in quality, Riordan manages to avoid this, and this book is only a touch less good than the first one, and that is only because it is a hundred pages shorter. Just like the first installment in the series, this book is recommended for anyone who likes fantasy fiction, and highly recommended for any young reader who is interested in, or who is a fan of Greek mythology.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 8, 2011, 12:35am Top

Book Seventeen: Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl.


Short review: Dahl recalls his childhood, from idyllic days on vacation in Norway, to the nasty and regimented horror of English boarding school.

Long review: Late in his life, Roald Dahl decided to write about his own early years. Boy: Tales of Childhood consists of his recollections of the period that ranged from his birth to the time he turned twenty. The title is taken from his many letters home, written while he was at English boarding schools from the age of nine until the end of his schooling, which he would simply sign "love from Boy". As his works of fiction deal with the joys and travails of young children, it should come as no surprise that Dahl's youth contained both in substantial dollops. Dahl maintains that this is not intended as an autobiography, which I suspect Dahl believed required an attention to detail he was not interested in, but instead merely the recollections of an adult looking back upon his younger days and picking out those memories both wonderful and tragic. Most fascinating about this book is the glimpse it gives into the mind of the man who wrote so many books about childhood, and the indications it gives as to where his stories came from.

And tragedy seems to have been a fairly common element to Dahl's life. When Dahl was three, his sister Astrid died of appendicitis at the age of seven, and his grief stricken father died shortly thereafter. (In a tragic coincidence, Dahl’s own daughter Olivia died of measles at the age of seven). Although almost everything written about Dahl's father in Boy concerns events that took place long before Dahl was born, one can feel the love he has for a man who, at the time this book was written, had been dead for sixty-four years. This love shows up in many of Dahl's works, most notably Danny: The Champion of the World, which has always struck me as a love letter from a man to the father he never really knew but desperately wished he had. But the loss of one's parents crops up as a recurring theme in Dahl's work, with orphaned children serving as the central characters in works such as The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches.

This tragedy caused by the uncaring world is compounded in Dahl's memoirs by the viciousness inflicted upon him and other children by adults. Though his family was originally from Norway, Dahl was raised in England, and sent to English schools as a result of his father's belief that English schools were the finest in the world, and his widow's refusal to go against her dead husband's wishes. But in the 1920s, when Dahl entered school, it was commonplace for schoolmasters to beat children who misbehaved. In a particularly disturbing sequence, after Dahl and his friends play a prank upon the somewhat crabby woman who runs a local candy shop, after which she complains to the school headmaster, who proceeds to cane the children. Reading this, it struck me as absurd that people would consider an acceptable response to the alleged misbehavior of children to complain to their school and not to their parents, and that the school administration would consider it appropriate to punish these children for actions taken outside of school. This seems to have been disturbing to Dahl's mother as well, because she complained to the school headmaster, who defended his actions on the grounds that Dahl's mother, being Norwegian and a woman, was simply a silly little woman who didn't understand proper schooling.

In a perfect world, Dahl's mother would have seen the absurdity of this system, and made substantial changes to his education (by spurning the brutal English school system), but she seems to have identified the school as the problem, not the system, and Dahl was sent on to boarding schools first to St. Peter's and then to Repton. Of course, the vicious brutality of the system continued, but as Dahl was away from home, and the school masters used subtle and not-so-subtle ways to keep the truth of the violence away from parents, nothing much changed except the boys became inured to the viciousness heaped upon them. It seems quite damning evidence that of all his years in school, the memories that most stuck with Dahl into his elder years were the memories, not of learning, but of the brutality and pettiness of his instructors. Oddly, Dahl recounts a couple of medical procedures, including the removal of his own tonsils, in which, as was the order of the day, the medical professionals dispensed with the need to use any kind of anesthetic on the grounds that children didn't really feel pain. The cognitive dissonance between the idea that removing tonsils by simply slicing them out of a young man's throat because he won't really feel it, and the idea that the best way to discipline that same child is to beat him bloody with a cane should be readily apparent. In many ways, it seems like English society had conspired to try to make the lives of its children as painful as possible while engaging in a series of contradictory rationalizations to keep abusing their progeny.

Of course, Dahl’s childhood was not all vicious beatings at the hands of his school masters and surgery performed without painkillers by uncaring doctors. His life contained numerous moments of happiness and joy, mostly involving vacations his family took every year to Norway. He writes of the excitement of riding in a car with his much older sister at the wheel, careening about the countryside barely under control – an experience that probably served as an inspirations for elements of his screenplay for Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang. Dahl also reminisces about playing pranks upon his sister’s fiancée, and even some of the good times he had in school including the deliveries of Cadbury chocolates the company sent to test new products (which inspired Dahl to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his athletic pursuits. But lurking in the background are always characters like Captain Hardcastle and adults like him who serve as the obvious models for so many villains in Dahl’s stories. Dahl also speaks with great affection for his mother, and how she kept every letter he ever wrote her without ever telling him she had done so. This is, as with so many events in the book, touchingly sweet colored with tragedy as he only discovered this level of devotion after his mother had died.

Written in his easy to read style, this book lays out those memories of childhood that stuck with Dahl through his entire life until he was an old man looking back on the whole of his life. Reading through these memories, one understands the wellspring from which sprang the imaginative children, brutish adults who are at turns inexplicable and vicious, and those rare kindly and understanding adults, all of whom populate Dahl’s stories. The book makes clear that although Dahl grew up, he never lost touch with the child he had been full of equal parts wonder and fear, and from this source, he was able to write the classics of children’s literature that were his stock in trade. For anyone who has read and loved Roald Dahl’s books this book is, quite simply, a must read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 8:37am Top

Book Eighteen: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan.


Short review: Percy Jackson has to deal with more monsters, more titans, and the petulant servants of a goddess who doesn't trust him. Oh, and he saves the world. Again.

Long review: In an interesting twist, at the end of The Sea of Monsters, the power of the Golden Fleece served to cure Thalia's Tree to such an extent that Thalia, daughter of Zeus, also came back to life. This complicates matters in The Titan's Curse by adding a second demigod with a parent who is a member of the "Big Three", and muddying the meaning of the prophecy that everyone had previously assumed applied directly to Percy. This, as one might expect, is just the beginning of the problems that confront Percy Jackson and his friends in the third installment of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, as the main story line of the series begins to seriously pick up steam.

The story starts off, as the previous two installments did, with trouble at a private school. The twist this time around is that it is no longer Percy Jackson having trouble come to him, but rather, he, Annabeth, and Thalia are seeking out previously unidentified demigods to bring them to safety at Camp Half-Blood. This is a fairly critical piece of character development, transforming Percy from being a mostly reactive character into a full-fledged protagonist. This also brings to the fore an element that will become increasingly important to the main plot of the series and Annabeth's character development - the dangers inherent in, and the struggles half-bloods face, in trying to win their way to the sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood.

This thematic development is good, but unfortunately, it is one of the the few plot elements the book that is truly new to the series. After Annabeth is captured in the opening sequence and Artemis sets out to rescue her before getting captured herself, the plot becomes fairly ordinary as the rest of the characters set out on a quest cross-country from New York to California, battling monsters all the way, to stop the plans of the evil titan Kronos and his General. This cross-country quest seems very reminiscient of the quest from The Lightning Thief in which the main characters traveled from New York to California battling monsters along the way. The secondary plot, involving the hunt for a beast so powerful that it could topple Olympus, also reminds one of the quest to recover Zeus' thunderbolt so as to prevent an earth shattering war. The resolution of the secondary quest does have an interesting twist, although as happens so often in the series, one wonders why the various immortals didn't let percy in on the information that would have prevented the crisis stemming from this plot element to begin with. The newly discovered demigods have unknown heritage, just as Percy did in the beginning of The Lightning Thief, although the clues concerning the true nature of their divine parentage are just as heavy-handed as the clues to Percy's were before Poseidon claimed him, leading the reader to wonder just how dumb Chiron and Dionysus are that they are unable to add two and two together to get four.

This is not to say that The Titan's Curse is a wasted book in the series - although it is probably the weakest of the five. The book introduces and fleshes out both Artemis and Apollo as developed characters, as well as adding Artemis' Huntresses as characters. The most interesting character added is Rachel Dare, a mostly normal human with an extraordinary ability that is important to the plot of the book. The action in the book is just as fast-paced as in the previous books, and there is a fair amount of humor, although with Annabeth "off-screen" for most of the book, one loses much of the banter between her and Percy, with Annabeth's role in the book mostly being taken by the angsty Thalia and the somewhat dour Zoe. The book also advances the larger plot relating to Kronos and Luke, revealing a little bit more of Kronos' plans to take on the Olympian gods, and just how dangerous he and his allies are, ramping up the tension just in time for the next book to commence.

Although this book is probably the weakest of the Percy Jackson series, it is still quite a diverting read. The weaknesses of the book seem to stem from the fact that, as the middle book in the series, there is not much new being added to the background of setting or the characters, and the main conflicts of the series have not yet progressed to the point where they are being resolved. As a result, other than some more in-depth character development to flesh out the various actors in the drama, the story is more or less simply filling in the space between The Sea of Monsters and The Battle of the Labyrinth. Even still, Percy Jackson is such a likable protagonist who is called upon to undertake some literally Herculean tasks, and the action and humor are so fun to read, that despite it being less impressive in comparison to the other books in the series, it is still a really good example of young adult fiction, and one that is definitely worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 14, 2011, 9:08am Top

Book Nineteen: A Glory of Unicorns by Bruce Coville (editor).


Stories included:
The Guardian of Memory by Bruce Coville
Tearing Down the Unicorns by Janni Lee Simner
Beyond the Fringe by Gregory Maguire
Stealing Dreams by Ruth O'Neill
The Ugly Unicorn by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Story Hour by Katherine Coville
The Unicorns of Kabustan by Alethea Eason
A Song for Croaker Nordge by Nancy Varian Berberick and Greg Labarbera
The Healing Truth by Kathryn Lay
Child of Faerie by Gail Kimberly
The New Girl by Sean Stewart

Poems included:
The Dream-Child by Nancy Varian Berberick

Long review: I have never quite understood the fascination that some people have for unicorns. As mythological creatures go, unicorns are pretty uninteresting: neither looking like a horse nor having a horn is particularly impressive and the sexual implications of only being able to be ridden by a virginal maiden are somewhat creepy. Bruce Coville, on the other hand, loves unicorns, and the anthology A Glory of Unicorns containing twelve short stories about the beasts is the result. The title is a reference to Coville's belief that like a group of lions is called a pride, and a group of geese is called a gaggle, that a group of unicorns should be called a "glory", which is a pretty clear indication of how he feels about unicorns.

But it seems that merely writing about a horse with a horn and a penchant for virginal women isn't enough to make a good story. Almost all of the stories in this collection resort to pumping up unicorns by adding additional magical powers to them. In Coville's own story, The Guardian of Memory, the unicorns are able to magically travel between our world and their safer, magical world. Likewise, in Beyond the Fringe by Gregory Maguire unicorns are able to magically hide in the fringes of carpets and tapestries. In many of these stories, the fact that the mythological creature at their focus is a unicorn is almost entirely irrelevant: a Pegasus, or a satyr, or a dragon would do just as well. In The New Girl by Sean Stewart the unicorn is mostly a unicorn, and even seems to have the standard mythological preference for virginal girls, but the story is fairly modest - a girl seeking to be free of the suffocating small town life comes to understand the plight of the unicorn the town keeps as a combination first aid kit and good luck charm. Despite its quiet nature, the story is decent, and the only one in which the unicorn in the story is by and large just a unicorn.

Of all the stories, the most intricate one is probably The Ugly Unicorn by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, which is set in a fantasy version of China with dozens of different kinds of unicorns. Once again, it turns out that simply being a horned horse-like creature isn't sufficient to make for a good fantasy story, so we have elephant-unicorns, dragon-unicorns, and tiger-unicorns and curative properties attributed to unicorn horns (to be fair, this is not entirely without precedent, as some traditional myths ascribe antivenin properties to unicorn horns, but not the ability to restore sight) and the ability to change shape. As with many of the stories in the book, the fact that one of the central characters is a unicorn isn't really that important - he could have been a fairy or an elf and the story would have worked equally well. Despite it being a good story, it isn't really a unicorn story at all, it is a fairy realm story dressed up with unicorns. Another fairy realm story in which unicorns are used is Child of Faerie by Gail Kimberly, in which a girl is faced with the choice to stay on Earth with her human family, or abandon them and return with her unicorn to the land of fairy. Once again, the unicorn is somewhat extraneous to the plot, as it could have been replaced by almost any fairy realm type creature without affecting the course of the story in any way.

In some cases, the unicorn has additional magical attributes, but is used metaphorically, as a means of showing a girl growing into adulthood, as in Tearing Down the Unicorns by Janni Lee Simner. Or the unicorn is the bringer of dreams (and is coincidentally named Dreams) as in Stealing Dreams by Ruth O'Neill. The Unicorns of Kabustan by Alethea Eason uses unicorns as a metaphor for peace, and gives them the ability to fly and communicate telepathically to boot, managing to pump unicorn attributes up and make them a literary device at the same time. Another story using unicorns as a metaphor is Story Hour by Katherine Coville, in which a grandmother tells the tale of how a unicorn went from being real to being held in her heart. The story is related as a story that within a story that may or may not be true. It is one of the weakest stories in the book, but to be fair, all of the "unicorn as metaphor" stories in the book are pretty bad and in all of them, there isn't anything particularly unique to unicorns that is used in the story.

Both A Song for Croaker Nordge by Nancy Varian Berberick and Greg Labarbera and The Healing Truth by Kathryn Lay are also "unicorn as metaphor" stories that deserve to be singled out as particularly awful, although for wholly different reasons. In A Song for Croaker Nordge the unicorn is creepily sexualized as only responding to the singing of a girl, and serves as a metaphor for death. Making the story even creepier is the fact that the girl in question is singing to unknowingly summon the unicorn that represents death for her own father. And even creepier is the fact that her father knows that girls can summon unicorns by singing because his now dead wife used to do so, and he has taught his daughter the trick. The interplay between incestuous overtones of the father-daughter relationship, sex, and death is really unsettling. The Healing Truth, on the other hand, is a very weak version of the Pinocchio story. The protagonist is a crippled girl with a penchant for lying. She finds an ugly unicorn that only she can see. For others to see, and for the unicorn to become beautiful, the protagonist must convince others to believe in the unicorn, and to do that she must regain the trust of those around her despite her reputation as a serial liar. Of course the little morality play works itself out exactly as one might expect, and in the most transparently facile way possible. Both of these stories are just weak, one because it is inherently icky, the other because it is so very childish in tone.

While someone who is a unicorn enthusiast may find the book more satisfying than I did, I suspect that they might be somewhat put off by the fact that the unicorns are, for the most part, not really unicorns. They are flying, invisible, telepathic, mystically healing, beasts that hide in walls and carpets and walk between universes. It seems that the unicorns in most of the stories are simply ciphers onto which any kind of magical or otherworldly attribute can be mapped. As a result, most of the stories are only "unicorn" stories by almost random happenstance, and could have just as easily been stories in which elves, pixies, or simply "magic" had been used to replace the unicorn. In short, I found the book entirely useless for demonstrating what is special about unicorns. From my perspective, this makes the book little more than a collection of generic magic stories of uneven quality and as a result I can't give it more than a mediocre recommendation.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 12, 2011, 12:34am Top

Book Twenty: The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland.


Short review: Johnny's friend Fergie gets himself into trouble in the faux feeling fifties and Dixon and Childermass have to save him.

Long review: After John Bellairs died, Brad Strickland took over writing in Bellairs' popular Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnaveldt series, first completing stories that Bellairs had either begun or outlined, and then branching out to create his own adventures. The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder is one of Strickland's first independent attempts to write a book about Johnny Dixon and his close friend the crotchety Professor Childermass. Unfortunately, the book has an almost "paint-by-numbers" feel, in which all of the elements of a Dixon-Childermass mystery are present, but they all seem to be strung together almost by rote.

The story is fairly straightforward. Dixon's best friend Fergie discovers a strange book in the local library which promises to grant him everything he wants. Of course, this being a Johnny Dixon book, there is a catch, and it comes in the form of an evil necromancer bent on living forever by stealing Fergie's youth to do so. The story makes Fergie a viewpoint character rather than Johnny, perhaps so Strickland could distance himself a bit from the characters so well-developed by Bellairs. But this weakens the book, since all of the characters are connected with Johnny as their nexus, not Fergie. As a result, there is a bit of distance between Fergie and the usual cast of characters that inhabit a Johnny Dixon mystery, which makes it more difficult to sell Fergie's growing isolation, since he starts off thematically isolated from so many of the book's characters already.

Bellairs' books are all set in 1950s America, with the Johnny Dixon books taking place in the new England region. Strickland follows this model, but while Bellairs made the setting and the stories in it seem natural and effortless, Strickland's efforts seem contrived and forced. All of the usual elements are there: Professor Childermass uses his fuss closet, they eat gooey chocolate cake, Childremass' nose is described as looking like an overripe strawberry, Father Higgins is called in to provide theological firepower, and so on. But all of them are introduced in such a manner as if Strickland had a big checklist and wanted to make sure he filled in all the boxes. This gives much of the story a mechanical feel as it ticks through all the required elements of a Johnny Dixon mystery, all the while not being particularly mysterious.

Thanatos, the villain of the story and an evil necromancer, is modestly interesting, taking over young men, stealing their youth to power his continued existence, and then repeating the process. (As an aside, given that this book was published in 1997, one wonders if Xanatos, the villain in the animated television series Gargoyles which ran from 1994 to 1997, served as the inspiration for Thanatos' name, although to be fair, Thanatos is the name of a Greek deity associated with death). He has some interesting tricks - a mouse that has been alive forever, attacks by a swarm of mummified bugs, and so on. But a lot of his schtick is pretty standard "evil sorcerer" stuff, and he is a fairly wooden villain, with little motivation for his actions other than "stay alive forever" which is pretty bland as villainous motivations go. The climax of the story is something of a cliche too, as Thanatos more or less has a Wicked Witch of the West style demise.

The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder is another demonstration that Strickland is just not as good at writing a Bellairs style story as Bellairs was. While Bellairs' portrayal of a small town in Massachusetts in the 1950s feels authentic, Strickland's efforts set in the same setting feel artificial. This, coupled with a fairly bland villain and a weak viewpoint character drags this book down. Strickland's writing is decent, so the book remains readable, but it isn't particularly notable, and compared to the Bellairs books that preceded it, it is something of a disappointment.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Mar 20, 2010, 12:49am Top

My, you have been busy, Aaron.

Mar 20, 2010, 12:55am Top

Yep. I was away at a conference for the week with little to do with my spare time but read.

Mar 20, 2010, 12:59am Top

That explains it! At least you had some decent reading material along for the ride.

Mar 20, 2010, 1:04am Top

I never go anywhere without a decent supply of books.

Mar 20, 2010, 1:07am Top

Smart move. Nothing worse than being stuck someplace with nothing to read.

Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 8:40am Top

Book Twenty-One: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan.


Short review: The labyrinth is everywhere and connects everything and is always changing. Annabeth and Percy have to navigate it while dodging monsters, titans and other demigods. Oh, and some of the gods don't like them too much either. Life is hard, and getting harder.

Long review: After the brief sag in The Titan's Curse, the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series picks up again in its penultimate installment, The Battle of the Labyrinth. The primary reason for this is that Percy and Annabeth spend most of the book serving as foils for one another, and the two character work in such a complementary manner that this, by itself, would make the book flow. However, the book also has an interesting story that highlights that the Gods themselves may be responsible for a substantial chunk of their own troubles. In addition, Annabeth's character, well-drawn through the first three books of the series, is explored in greater detail, fleshing her out even more.

After the seemingly obligatory opening in which Percy gets into trouble with monsters at a new school (and unfortunately, a return to Percy being tracked down an attacked rather than taking the initiative as a proactive character), the plot of the book is, once again, in the form of a quest. However, in this case the quest is engendered when a threat to Camp Half-Blood is discovered inside the camp itself. In this case, the threat is the entrance to Daedalus' famous labyrinth. Luke, having seemingly returned from death, is apparently hunting for Adriadne's Thread, the only thing that can prevent one from becoming lost in the maze. So, with the usual cast of characters in tow, Annabeth and Percy delve into the labyrinth to try to find the mysterious Daedalus and save Camp Half-Blood. The quest has several interesting elements. First, the questing hero is once again, not Percy. Instead, it is Annabeth, daughter of the architecturally inclined Athena that must seek out Daedalus, who in the past had been a special favorite of her mother. The labyrinth itself turns out to be an interesting element too, as it is not merely a place, but more of a concept that both connects all places to one another, and changes form to confuse travelers.

However, the quest mostly serves as a backdrop to resolve some of the long standing plot points of the series, and set up the climatic battles of The Last Olympian. The most important plot point that is resolved is Grover's quest for Pan, which reaches its conclusion in an unexpected, but in retrospect, almost inevitable manner. The most important plot development is reflected in both Daedalus and Nico (who feels spurned at Camp Half-Blood due to the lack of a place for him), who are both angry with the Gods for mostly valid reasons, and who allow their obsessions to take them to dangerous places. One of the themes that emerges from the quest is the idea that the Olympian gods, with their machinations, petty squabbles, arbitrary actions, and general indifference to the concerns of others, have caused a great deal of their own troubles. Among the growing ranks of Kronos' followers are not only the other Titans and an array of mythological monsters, but minor gods and demigods who have turned against the capricious Olympians. And what makes this element of the story so effective is that Riordan can draw from the personalities of the Olympian gods established by mythology with almost no embellishment to make the disaffection of those that turn against them ring true.

As usual, the book is filled with humor and action, as the by now well-established relationships between the characters allow for strong character interaction. The addition of the mortal Rachel Dare to the mix adds a bit of spice to the quest, not only because her unique talents turn out to be necessary, but also because she serves as a rival for Annabeth for Percy's attention, sparking some character development that might otherwise have seemed forced, but is almost necessary to maintain believability in a story in which characters who started the series at age twelve have grown into fifteen year old teenagers. As one might expect, everything builds to a climax in which Kronos threatens to score a major victory and Annabeth, Percy, Grover, and even Nico are called upon the save the day. As this story serves as a run up to the final act of the series, the heroes are more heroic, the villains are more menacing, and the action is more intense, all of which adds up to a strong book that ably sets up the grand finale to come.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 4:08pm Top

Book Twenty-Two: The Bill James Handbook 2010 by Bill James.


Short review: Major League Baseball statistics galore updated through the end of the 2009 season. Also included, projections for the 2010 season, the favorite toy, and analysis of everything from baserunning to instant replay.

Long review: Once a year ATCA Sports issues a comprehensive statistical catalogue of the previous season's baseball, running from the standard array of data on teams and individual players to analyses of baserunning, pinch hitting, the effects of parks on performance, analysis of instant replay, and projections of what players might do in the upcoming season, or even over the course of their remaining careers. The Bill James Handbook 2010, published in the fall of 2009, covers the 2009 season, and includes projections for the 2010 season. This is not so much a book that one reads through cover to cover as it is a reference manual, although it is quite interesting to read most of the articles that are included detailing the creation and application of the various idiosyncratic statistical tools that ACTA uses to try to evaluate areas of performance that traditional statistics don't cover well, if at all.

The meat of the book is the statistics. In fact, the career register, listing the career statistics of all the players who appeared in Major League Baseball in the 2009 season (plus a few others) takes up 270 of the book's 514 pages. The platoon split of all the players take up another twenty pages, and so on. Someone picking up the book should be aware that what they are getting is baseball statistics, baseball statistics, and more baseball statistics, with a little bit of added baseball statistical analysis thrown in. For many baseball fans, this should prove to be an invaluable resource, if for nothing else to settle arguments over whether Kevin Youkilis or Alex Rodriguez hit for more power as a cleanup hitter in 2009 (for the record, it was Youkilis, who had a slugging average of .573 when hitting in the cleanup slot, while Rodriguez "only" had a slugging average of .533 as a number four hitter). The book is probably of most value to participants in fantasy baseball leagues, both for its comprehensive volume of data on the 2009 season, but also for the projections for the 2010 season.

The only thing missing from this volume that those who have gotten previous versions might expect is the Young Talent Inventory, which tries to assess the relative strengths of the minor league systems of the various Major League teams. As explained in the section detailing the absence of the Inventory, this has been moved to another publication put out by ACTA Sports titled Bill James Gold Mine 2010 on the basis that the assessments in the inventory were more in the nature of judgment calls requiring subjective opinion as opposed to analysis of objective data, and therefore didn't fit the character of the rest of the Handbook. Those who pick up the book should also be aware that unless a player has very little Major League service time, his minor league statistics will not be included, nor are players included who appeared only in the minor leagues in 2009. Those interested in minor league stats must look to The Minor League Baseball Analyst 2010. These are minor points, as a volume that included Major Leage and minor league statistics would get wildly unwieldy quite quickly.

This annual publication is a useful resource for any baseball fan, from the casual to the hardcore. It is probably a necessity for any fantasy baseball participant, as I am aware of no comparable resource that has as much concrete data presented in such an easily accesible manner. For anyone who loves baseball stats, and for anyone who finds evaluating and comparing the talents of baseball players, and for anyone who just loves baseball, this book is a great addition to one's library.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 23, 2011, 1:01am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (March 13, 2010)
The Economist (March 20th-26th, 2010)

Book Twenty-Three: Virtual Death by Shale Aaron.


Short review: In a cyberpunk work in which technology has collapsed, a girl used to die for the entertainment of others and may have to again.

Long review: The first, and most important thing that one can say about Virtual Death is that the deaths that Lydia Melmoth is famous for are not virtual at all. The apparent contradiction in the title is important because it seems to be a theme that runs through the entire novel. In short, Virtual Death, a cyberpunk novel in which computers have all but vanished from society, depicts a world in which everything seems to have been turned upside down.

While most cyberpunk novels depict a gritty, harsh world in which the haves are separated from the have-nots, and the 'net serves as the battleground between massive corporations that control every one's lives and the heroic plucky hackers who try to subvert the system, Virtual Death turns many of these conventions on their head. As noted before, computers have all but vanished from the future world, driven to extinction by widespread viruses that effectively annihilated all the information technology in the world - the damage was so extensive that public pay phones have seen a resurgence since no one owns a cell phone any more. Though the government, which controls all the remaining computers that are carefully segregated from outside connections, is ostensibly the villain in much of the book, it is mostly ineffective, people drop out of society and live in dumpsters and are ignored, shooting someone in a nonfatal way has become an acceptable form of political protest, and so on.

Into this hyper violent world steps Lydia Melmoth, who is famous as the girl who dies. Basically, a death artist takes a drug and temporarily dies as a form of entertainment. They are then revived before their death becomes permanent, although most death artists suffer brain degeneration known as "gray rot". Lydia is famous for making her name as a death artist in a time when it was officially illegal, and for dying more times than anyone else - seven times - although at the time the story takes place she is officially retired. Her drift into post-artist obscurity is interrupted by two events: a young celebrity death artist named Quigley is set to break her death record, and Lydia's mother's political activities as a banjoist catch Lydia, her brother and her only friend in their wake.

The banjoists are another contradiction: anti-gun activists who seek to reduce the number of gun related deaths by shooting and killing gun store owners, gun friendly politicians, and anyone else they consider to be in any way related to providing guns. Lydia is tagged by the government for prosecution and possible execution because of her connection to her mother, a prominent banjoist. She flees with her brother Stamen and her roommate, the diminutive Frankly. In another set of contrasts, Lydia's brother is freakishly tall and Frankly is a midget. Frankly is a depressionist, effectively the opposite of a stand-up comedian who entertains people by depressing them with stories about his awful life. However, Frankly is constantly pursuing fame and fortune, and for much of the novel has very little to be depressed about, while Stamen seems to be depressed all the time. Frankly is also a "nowist" who insists on speaking only in the present tense, which gets very annoying in short order.

Eventually Lydia runs across a fan and talent agent named Fenester who arranges for her to seek refuge with the only group strong enough to stand up to the government: the television studios who want her to promote Quigley's upcoming record breaking death. Her mother, with secrets of her own, also wants Lydia to do this, for reasons that are entirely related to her mother's political goals. (Lydia's mother is another contradictions: a mother who views her daughter as nothing more than a political tool, and an anti-government terrorist whose favored child is a government worker). Fenester turns out to have contradictions of his own, relating to both his sexual proclivities and gender. The story sort of careens about as Lydia bounces from place to place, hoping to find refuge and in interludes, describing each of her death experiences and the strange and unique hallucinations she had during each of them. Or perhaps they were not hallucinations and Lydia has been granted a view of the "other side". The book is carefully ambiguous on this score, reflecting Lydia's own confusion and providing an explanation for why she chose to "go under" so many times.

In the end, the story gets incredibly complicated as numerous competing interest groups crop up and double cross and triple cross one another. Then it sort of sputters to a stop, which is one of the reasons why, despite having some extraordinarily interesting ideas concerning the nature of the imagined world in which the story takes place, the book is only slightly above average. The other reasons are the entirely annoying nature of Frankly's character and his "nowist" diction (although he was clearly written to be annoying), and the use of an invented pseudo-hacker style of spelling (replacing, for example, the word "no one" with no1 and "to", "too", and "two" with 2 in the text; this gets tiresome quickly). Lydia finally does virtually die at the end of the novel, which finally has something occur that is not a contradiction, and gets answers of a sort to the questions posed by her death-state hallucinations. Despite a somewhat less than convincing ending, the novel is still pretty good, and an interesting take on the cyberpunk genre.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 15, 2011, 11:42am Top

Book Twenty-Four: The Long Man by Steve Englehart.


Short review: A story told with comic book sensibilities featuring a hero who is more or less a mixture of Captain America and Dr. Strange. Unfortunately, the author digresses to try to give a pseudoscientific explanation of the pretentiously spelled "magick" and ruins a good adventure story.

Long Review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biasaes my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Steve Englehart is most well-known as a comic book writer, most notable for having penned runs of Captain America, Dr. Strange, and Batman. It is appropriate, then, that Max August, the protagonist of The Long Man, is more or less an amalgamation of these characters. In many ways, August seems to be a throwback to the hyper competent lantern jawed pulp action heroes with special powers like Doc Savage or E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen. The title of the book "The Long Man" is a reference to August's magically enhanced longevity - despite being old enough to be a Vietnam veteran in 2007, when the novel is set, Max is physically a thirty-five year old man. The book is ostensibly the sequel to The Point Man, which was out of print for a couple decades but it now being republished.

The plot of the book is fairly straightforward, despite the shadowy nature of Max August's foe, "The Necklace". An old friend asks Max to look into the illness of her doctor, and Max more or less stumbles on to a plot to take over the world, which leads him across the U.S., the Carribean, and into South America, with magical escapades along the way. Max battles his foes, has numerous scrapes with death, and wins the pretty girl. The only real problem with the action sequences is that there is rarely any real tension in them - Max simply doesn't seem to actually be in serious danger, even when confronting the final "more powerful" villain. To a certain extent, however, the book is a disappointment. The Long Man reveals that having a writing background in another style of media is not a guarantee that one will be able to translate their success into something like a novel. So long as the book sticks to over the top action, the story works. Unfortunately, Englehart seems to feel compelled to provide lots of added explanation for the magical world in which August lives, and that description simply falls flat.

First, I have to digress about spelling. I know it is a somewhat common affectation to use the word "magick" to differentiate between stage magic and "real" magic. And in the book August explains that is why he uses the "magick" with a "k" version. I find this affectation to be really silly and pretentious. At no point in the book does anyone mistake anything that August does for stage magic, nor is there any reason to expect that anyone would. Most books that involve people with real magical powers seem to have no trouble convincing the readers that the protagonist is not Doug Henning. From my perspective, resorting to the use of nonstandard words like "magick" when perfectly acceptable English words with the same meaning are available is a mark of an author unsure of his ability to convey his meaning through the context of the story. Although no one comments on it at length as they do with the "magick" spelling, the "zombis" that show up in the book, also unconventionally spelled, seem to omit the final "e" of the word for much the same reason - to prevent the reader from confusing the "real" zombis of the book with "fake" zombies from movies like Night of the Living Dead. This affectation is also pretentious and unnecessary.

These spelling foibles are fairly small, so one might wonder why I harp on them. I do so because they are indicative of a larger problem with the book. Whenever the action pauses, the author feels the need to have Max try to explain how "magick" works, and the explanations are long, dull, and don't make any sense at all. First, Max insist that he is not a sorcerer, he describes himself as an "alchemist", although in practical terms this appears to be a meaningless distinction. He also posits that he is not using magic, just highly advanced science, comparing his skills to taking a television back to the Sixteenth century. However, Max's skills don't seem to work even like he describes. Max asserts that magic only "influences" things, it doesn't "control" them, supposedly making magic not reliable like science. Then Max goes on to assert all kinds of reliable things about magic: how it can be studied and evaluated, how the Mayan calendar somehow matches up with the first two hundred and sixty asteroids, and how their gravity affects our daily lives and so on. In short, despite Max's constant assurances that magic is inherently unreliable (and thus different from "normal" science) the magic in the book is nothing but reliable.

And the ways used to describe how magic is different from science are just gobbledegook. In reality gravity "only" influences the position of objects, but this does not mean it is not subject to evaluation and scientific inquiry. Gravity does this in a predictable and regular manner. As an aside, I'll point out that astrology, which supposedly "really works" according to August, because of the "influence" of gravity, is, even on that basis, complete hokum. The person standing next to you exerts more gravitational influence on you than Mars, or any of the "two hundred and sixty" asteroids that supposedly link up with the Mayan calendar. I'll also say how very tired I am of the Mayan calendar and how "magical" it is. If August's magic works like gravity, it should be studiable, and more importantly reliable, despite all of his protests that it isn't. And apparently, you study magic by reading all the mythologies of the world and somehow "evaluating" them, despite this supposed unreliability. Because, of course, people working 500, 1,000, or 4,000 years ago were better able to understand how the universe works than we are now. In fact, if magic is inherently unreliable, then it would be inherently unstudiable, as one could not figure out how it works without some regularity. In effect, Englehart is trying to have things all ways: make magic a usable tool, and make it a mysterious and unpredictable force, and connect it with apparently every magical tradition in the world. And in trying to make these irreconcilable ideas work together, Max spends large chunks of the book pontificating nonsense, which makes for tedious reading.

Of course, magic use is also apparently pretty common in the Caribbean and Suriname (because, presumably, they haven't been contaminated with silly ideas like "science"), with magical casters popping out of the woodwork left and right, which makes one wonder why those regions are so desperately poor. This is one of the random inconsistencies that make the book so frustrating, like the author came up with some cool ideas, but didn't bother to think them through for even five minutes.

But the mixture of fun action plus tedious nonsense explanations adds up to merely a mediocre book. What drives the book into the "less than mediocre" category is the utter idiocy of the villains and their plan, and more importantly, a nasty undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the story. The evil villainous organization, called variously "the Necklace" and the "Free Range Coalition" is a sort of comic book archetype - the shadowy underworld operators who are secretly controlling everything. They apparently control large chunks of the U.S. government, several corporations, as well as most of the criminal enterprises in the country. They appear to be well-connected across the world as well. So what is their master plan? To use zombis to release sarin gas in Suriname allowing them to take over the country and get their U.N. vote. Yep, you read that right. An organization that is powerful and well-connected enough to get someone assigned to (and tortured at) Camp X-Ray on a whim has, as its master plan, the takeover of a tiny South American nation so as to control its U.N. vote. The real oddity here is that the necklace appears to pretty much control Suriname already, since when Max is flying his way there, they manage to get the Suriname air force to mobilize to shoot him down. And of course, this is even sillier when one considers the complicated nature of the plan, requiring them to train mindless zombis to first make sarin, and then engage in a complicated series of maneuvers so they can kill off much of the population of the nation they wish to control, that they pretty much already control. As Frederick Forsyth demonstrated in The Dogs of War, there are much easier ways to topple the government of a tiny third world country making the whole exercise seem so ludicrously stupid that I think Stan Lee would have told Englehart to go back to the drawing board if he had proposed this plot for any of Marvel's titles.

Making this even sillier is the repeated mantra of the book that "the Necklace never fails", when all they do in the book is fail time and again. Max foils every one of their plots, and disposes of every enemy they send against him. The ultimate villain, the evil Aleksandra, is little more than a wooden villain: she hates Max August because she's evil, and she's evil because she hates Max August. It is possible that her character was fleshed out more fully in The Point Man, but leaving her with as little character development as she has in this book is simply an unforgivable omission.

The ugliest thing about the book is the misogyny that runs through it. Most is more or less subtle and would have been just a foible. The ingénue of the piece, Dr. Pam Blackwell, is little more than sex candy for Max to resist for much of the book as he mourns his long dead wife (killed by Aleksandra years before). The whole story is kicked off by a magical attack on Pam, from which Max has to save her. Later, another female character becomes the only person on the "hero" side killed in the conflict that rages through the story. Aleksandra, the mastermind villainess, seems to be little more than a prop to serve as a foil for Max. A lesser villainess is portrayed as nothing more than a drug addled sex fiend (despite supposedly being one of the most successful drug traffickers in Miami). But all of these fade into the misogynistic background when the subplot (and I use that term loosely here) involving Nancy Reinking crops up.

Nancy is a minor villain working for the Necklace in the story. She sets Pam up to be killed early in the book, and was quickly found out by Max, who puts her into a magically induced sleep. She is later discovered by some other Necklace operatives and freed. They then fly her to Camp X-Ray and imprison and torture her to make sure she didn't tell Max anything about the Necklace or the FRC. There is almost no point to this storyline, as whether she told him something or not is of no consequence to the rest of the story. However, Englehart returns over and over to scenes of torturing Nancy in what can only be described as sexually sadistic ways: she is stripped naked to be water-boarded, she is left to lie in her own waste, she is raped by a zombie, and so on. All told in loving detail. And all completely pointless. It is as if Englehart felt like he had to pad the page count and couldn't come up with anything better than to include a bunch of scenes in which a woman is tortured for no real plot related reason. There is also the implication that late in the book, after Pam has been captured, she is subjected to (or merely threatened with) similar treatment. This is all completely gratuitous and pointless (Englehart attempts to make some political commentary here, but it is clumsy and forced, and completely extraneous to the actual story). Every page wasted on the Nancy Reinking subplot is basically garbage that should have been excised by a decent editor as a worthless digression that adds nothing to the book, and actually, makes it substantially worse.

The main problem appears to be that in the transition from comic book writing to novel writing, Englehart didn't shift emphasis. A lot of things that are necessary in the comic book genre - like broad stereotypes such as the drug addled sex fiend cocaine trafficker - simply don't work well in a novel, where one has more time and text to flesh out less clichéd characters. In a comic book, there likely would have been less effort to "explain" magic as well, which would have improved the story significantly. The transition seems to have also brought with it some problems with viewpoint, as the viewpoint seems to shift from third person limited to third person omniscient at the drop of a hat. The Long Man is 376 pages long. It would have been a much better book if it had been half that. Then the extended tedious explanations of magic and the pointless torture scenes could have been excised. If one could read only the pulpy adventure portions of this book, it would get a modest recommendation. As this is not possible, and despite the potential the book shows, it gets a frustrated thumbs down.

This has been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Mar 28, 2010, 6:31am Top

#50: Unfortunately, the author digresses to try to give a pseudoscientific explanation of the pretentiously spelled "magick" and ruins a good adventure story.

Too bad about that. The initial premise sounds good.

Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 8:50am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (April 2010)
Science News (March 27, 2010)
The Economist (March 27th-April 2nd, 2010)

Book Twenty-Five: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.


Short review: Kronos wants to destroy Olympus, which would mean the end of Western Civilization. Percy Jackson wants to save it. The Gods are busy elsewhere. Does anyone think Kronos wins?

Long review: As one might expect, all of the hanging plot threads, character issues, and conflicts left over from the previous books featuring Percy Jackson all culminate in The Last Olympian the final volume of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. While many series experience something of a let down in their final act, as the author struggles to bring his carefully laid plots to a satisfying conclusion, happily The Last Olympian avoids this problem and finishes off this excellent young adult series with a strong story and in a manner that is both unpredictable and yet fully in character for all the participants.

Following the attack on Camp Half-Blood in The Battle of the Labyrinth, Kronos had retired to rally his forces, but also set various plans in motion. After an awkward interlude with plot complication Rachel Dare, the book opens with Percy, along with the demigod Beckendorf (a child of Hephaestus), heading off to try to destroy Kronos' cruise ship of the damned and weaken the forces of the Titans. Although the series has had its share of lethal consequences before - Bianca di Angelo's death, Daedalus' death, and so on - the book signals that things will be getting rough for the final act when Beckendorf meets his end a scant handful of pages into the story.

And the action only accelerates from there. With most of the Olympian gods away to fight the released monster Typhon, and Poseidon defending his undersea kingdom from the forces of the titan Oceanus, Percy and the other inhabitants of Camp Half-Blood are called upon to defend Mount Olympus itself (actually, Manhattan) from Kornos' main forces, including a variety of monsters, disaffected demigods, and several titans (including Prometheus). The demigods are aided by various allied creatures, such as the Party Ponies, the Hunters of Artemis, and various nature spirits, but they are wildly outnumbered. Their position is made even more untenable with the revelation that there is a spy among the supposedly loyal demigods of Camp Half-Blood, and the fact that the entire Ares contingent refuses to fight as a result of feeling snubbed.

Which brings up one of the interesting questions that is more or less unanswered in the book, namely why would anyone remain loyal to the Olympian gods? Riordan presents them in a modern context, with their attributes given a contemporary twist, but keeps them by and large true to their mythologicaly established personalities. And to the modern eye, the mythological personalities of the Olympian gods are fairly distasteful. They are petty, childish, mostly uncaring of the harm they might cause, and generally indifferent to anything that is not of immediate interest. In this context, and with the additional character background provided in this volume, not only does Luke's turn against the Olympian gods become understandable, one begins to wonder why those who are loyal have remained so. In short, the disaffected demigods and minor gods seem to have a much better basis for choosing Kronos' side than the demigods have for choosing to side with Zeus. Interestingly, Prometheus also turns against the gods in this go round (having supported the Olympian gods in the first Titanomachy), which for those who understand the myth centered on him, seems unsurprising, and is yet another example of the arbitrary and cruel nature of the Olympian gods. But the interesting element here is that the character of Prometheus, who the myths say brought man learning and knowledge, is much more in line with what one would describe as Western civilization than the traditional Olympian gods. Given that Mount Olympus is supposed to be located in the "Heart of the West, and the power of the Olympian gods is supposed to underpin Western civilization, this is an interesting (and probably unintentional) contradiction.

Philosophical contradictions aside, the meat of the book is in the fight for control of Manhattan. And the action in the fight comes fast and furious. Just about every character that has entered the story before gets a chance to shine in the fight, even a couple characters that in previous books died get a nod here, notably Daedalus whose creations Annabeth is able to turn to the side of the demigods in a sequence that adds some much needed levity to the otherwise fairly dark story. As noted elsewhere, the demigods in the Percy Jackson series display a level of power that seems more in line with comic book superheroes than the demigods of Greek legend, a fact which comes in to play in the battle. Ramping up the powers of the demigods is probably the only thing that makes the battle even plausible, as one would expect that Jason, Achilles, and Theseus, a heroic as they are in their myths, would have a hard time standing against one or two monsters, let alone the hundreds that swarm Manhattan's defenders in this story. After many twists and turns, eventually everything leads up to a big showdown with Kronos, and the prophecy that had been hanging over most of the series must finally be fulfilled, and it is, although not in the way that one might expect. In the end, it falls to Percy to convince his father to choose the strategic option though it costs him a tactical defeat. Percy must also rectify the troubles caused by the Olympians own personalities by compelling the Olympians to behave in a more civilized manner than they have in the past. One might question whether a sixteen year old boy, even one who has experienced the incredible highs and lows that Percy Jackson has, could have anything to say that divine beings would need to hear. But since Riordan has kept the capricious and almost cruel nature of the Olympian gods intact as part of his fantasy milieu, the lecture Percy delivers at the close of the second Titanomachy seems to fit the story perfectly and caps off the story with a strong finish.

Overall, this is a strong finish to a very good young adult fantasy series. Despite the generally upbeat ending, Riordan weaves in a fair amount of sadness, as many of the heroic characters who have populated this fantasy world fall in the fight to save Olympus from destruction, and others find themselves at the end of their road having won, but having to face their own disappointments. The very final pages resolve the romantic conundrum of the series, but also serve as a potential springboard for a follow-up series, as the newly installed Oracle announces a new prohpecy. But with only that hanging thread left, the story othewise runs to a very satisfying conclusion and serves as an excellent final act to a fun and engaging series of books.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 14, 2011, 9:05am Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (April 3rd-9th, 2010).

Book Twenty-Six: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien.


Short review: Mrs. Frisby discovers that the rats who share the garden with her are more than they seem. What is humanity's responsibility if we make animals sentient?

Long review: I read and enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and watched the movie The Secret of NIMH which is based upon it when I was about the same age my animal-loving daughter is now. So, naturally when she was looking for a book to read I handed this to her. She read about a third of it and decided it was boring and stopped reading. This prompted me to pick up the book and read through it to see if I was merely remembering it with the rose colored glasses of youth. It turns out, that not only is Mrs. Frisby as good as I remember it being, it is actually much better than that.

Mrs. Frisby is the central character in the action, a widowed field mouse living with her children on the Fitzgibbon farm. The family lives in the farmer's fields during the winter, and moves to another location for the summer to avoid being killed during the spring plowing. Unfortunately for Mrs. Frisby, her youngest son Timothy falls ill, after consulting the wise old mouse Mr. Ages, she learns that he cannot be moved. Mrs. Frisby rescues a crow, who takes her to see a wise owl to get advice. Upon learning that she is the widow of Johnathan Frisby, she is sent to see the rats of NIMH, a secretive bunch that live under a rose bush in the Fitzgibbons' garden. Once she meets up with the rats and their leader Nicodemus, the real story of the book unfolds.

It turns out that the rats are the result of genetic experiments in a lab that goes by the acronym NIMH. They have human intelligence, can read and write, use machines, and electricity. It turns out that Jonathan Frisby (and Mr. Ages) were also part of the experiment. The mice agree to move Mrs. Frisby's house if she will drug the farmer's cat. She is captured and learns that people from NIMH have discovered where the rats are and intend to come and exterminate them prompting the rats to put into motion their plan to evacuate and try to set up their own society where they can live without acting as parasites on human labor. Mrs. Frisby is front and center throughout the action, which makes her a rare and well written example of a female protagonist in a young adult book that is not specifically aimed at girls.

The story, originally written in 1971, seems remarkably ahead of its time. The rats are modified using genetic engineering (how this is done other than through a series of injections isn't explained, although since the story is told from the rats' perspective, and they don't fully understand it, this is understandable). Having created rodents with human (or close to human) intelligence, the response of the people who uncover them is immediately to try to exterminate them. This raises a lot of serious questions for a book aimed at children - having made the rats sentient, do the humans owe them respect? The book, told from the perspective of the various animals, clearly advocates for their side. And the sad thing is, when confronted by a non-human intelligence (even if it is one we created ourselves), the "destroy it" response of the human actors in the story seems altogether too plausible. With genetic engineering becoming part of the ordinary landscape of science now, the serious questions about what responsibility humans will have for their creations are being pushed to the forefront. Although it is unlikely that a situation will develop like that of the rats in the book, the broader questions concerning the technology remain.

The only real weakness of the book is that, given the behavior of the unmodified animals in the story - mostly Mrs. Frisby, the crow Jeremy, and the wise old owl - there seems to have been little need to modify the rats to give them intelligence. Mrs. Frisby is able to read, having been taught by her husband. She, Jeremy, and the owl are capable of holding extended and somewhat abstract conversation, and so on. Granted, to make a story involving talking animals work, some concessions in this area have to be made, but it lessens the impact of the increased intelligence that the rats have been given to have other animals seemingly not more than a tiny step behind them. Really, the only difference between the rats and the other animals appears to be that the rats can use machines, but it appears that Mrs. Frisby, given a little instruction, would have no trouble using the machines too. In the end though, this is merely a quibble and doesn't seriously detract from the story.

As a final note, I must point out that the book diverges from the movie in significant ways. The most important of which is that there is no mystical element in the book - the rats are enhanced by genetic engineering, and there is no magical amulet. Secondly, though Jenner is equally misguided in the book as he is in the movie, he is not as villainous in the book. His actions cause trouble for the rat colony, but the harm is unintentional and he doesn't actually appear "on camera". It is clear to me that these elements were added to the story to "punch up" the action and give the story an antagonist that was not human. Apparently the idea of a story in which the "villains" were humans opposing a colony of rats sounded like a box office loser to someone somewhere in the production chain, and thus Jenner was made into a classic animated animal villain. These changes make the story definitely different, and in my opinion, detract from it. However, the book itself is, of course, unaffected leaving us the superior story for our reading pleasure.

This has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 7, 2011, 12:37pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (April 10th-16th, 2010).

Book Twenty-Seven: Love Cools by W. Edward Blain.


Short review: In a sequel of sorts to Passion Play, the Montpelier School for Boys fades into the background, but murder and intrigue still abound.

Long review: Love Cools is a loose sequel to W. Edward Blain's Passion Play featuring some minor characters from the previous book pushed to the forefront for this story. As I noted in my review of Passion Play, I was a student years ago at Woodberry Forest where Blain teaches, and he was my 6th Form English teacher. The Montpelier School for Boys, a very thinly disguised fictional version of Woodberry, also makes a return appearance, but only as a bit player this time, as the central character in the book finds himself expelled from the school in the first chapter. Despite this, the school looms in the background of the entire story, with a dark lurking presence that colors much of the action that takes place as the fall out from this expulsion drives Richard throughout the novel.

Richard Blackburn, established in Passion Play as a prank playing delinquent, takes center stage in this book. As noted before, in the first chapter he is expelled from the Montpelier School for Boys after being found guilty of an honor code violation: Oscar Davidson, one of his teachers, accused him of plagiarizing a story and turning it in as his own work. Although he maintains his innocence, Richard's reputation as a prank player makes his protestations less than credible in the face of Davidson's testimony and the apparently plagiarized story. It seems that at least in part, that the book is intended to call into question the integrity of the Woodberry style honor system by showing how potentially easy it could be to manipulate it. After being expelled from the school, he returns to the fictional town of Rockbridge (which appears to be a fictionalized version of Lexington, Virginia, which is situated in Rockbridge County, and is coincidentally the location of Washington & Lee University where Blain earned his B.A.) and is drawn into a web of family politics. His relationship with his older, more athletic and sexually assured brother Tucker has become strained following a lawnmower accident that nearly permanently crippled Tucker. His relationship with his father has collapsed following what, in Richard's eyes, was his father's unforgivable sin of taking Richard's mother's side against Richard. Finally, Richard's mother, a a soap actress who has recently lost her job, struggles to acclimatize herself to living in a somewhat sleepy Virginia town after years as a working television actress in New York.

All of this family drama provides grist for the mill when the real mystery of the novel is introduced. Sarah Davidson, a college professor at the University of Virginia (notably, the university where Blain received his M.A., one thing he seems to take seriously is the adage "write what you know". I can't blame him, the resulting books are quite good), had been killed in a fire in her Charlottesville home. Tying this together is the fact that Mrs. Davidson was the wife of Oscar Davidson, and the sister of the principal of the Rockbridge Arts School that Richard begins attending following his expulsion from Montpelier. In addition, Chris Nivens, another teacher at the Arts school was her research assistant. Tying everything up in a big bow is the fact that Sarah moonlighted on the side as a writer for the soap opera that Richard's mother was written off of, and apparently it was Sarah's decision to eliminate the character.

(A short digression. This is probably the most implausible element of the book. The idea that a single writer on a major soap opera would have sufficient authority to eliminate a character on her own initiative simply strains credibility to the breaking point. This element is necessary to the story though, as it gives Patricia Montgomery a potential motive to kill Sarah Davidson and keeps her on the list of suspects).

It turns out that for a professor of English, Sarah Davidson had an impressively long list of people with a motive to kill her and fortuitously, most of them turn up in Rockbridge and become involved with the Arts School or the related Arts Council. Included in this list is Richard himself, whose primary motivation through most of the book is to get revenge upon Oscar Davidson who he believes framed him for plagiarism. Richard continues to maintain his innocence of this offense, but through much of the book harbors guilt over an unvoiced crime that is vague enough to potentially include causing the fire that killed Sarah Davidson via a prank gone wrong. This is made somewhat plausible by the extraordinarily well-drawn and completely unpleasant character of Oscar Davidson, who appears to detest his students and hate every moment spent teaching. (In yet another side note, the character of Oscar Davidson appears to this former student to be at least partially based upon a particular teacher at Woodberry who was, and probably still is, notoriously harsh).

As in Passion Play the action of the story is framed by Shakespearean productions, although in Love Cools there is not one, but two plays: a production of Hamlet and a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The themes of both plays are reflected in the action of the story, and to a certain extent that is one of the few problems with Love Cools. While unmooring the story from Montpelier gives the story a more expansive setting and allows for a greater variety of characters, the novel is in some ways too busy with multiple interlocking storylines. The fact that it required two Shakespeare plays to provide sufficient literary allusions is, to me, an indication that the story is simply too complex. There are, in short, too many characters, too many subplots, and too much confusion. Some characters, such as the bulimic Nancy Gale Nofsinger, are little more than distractions thrown in as somewhat less than convincing obstacles. The story meanders a bit, adding some petty embezzlement to the mixture of revenge and jealousy that pervades the atmosphere, until a second grisly murder ramps up the tension, and surprisingly, most of the same characters who had possible reasons to kill Sarah Davidson also have potential reasons to kill the second victim, and the opportunity to do so.

Despite the overly complicated nature of the story, the resolution is better than that of Passion Play, as the killer is uncovered and foiled not by his own hand, but as a result of some quick thinking. While many of the "hero" characters have somewhat predictable happy endings in the book, and the villains get their well-deserved comeuppances, the story is unpredictable enough to avoid giving away the identity of the murderer, or prevent several sad endings. One untied up thread at the end of the novel is why a key character who did not commit the murders, but tampered with evidence, was not charged with obstruction of justice, being allowed to merely walk out of the story after being exposed. Overall, despite being convoluted, the story is a fine successor to Passion Play, and although quite different, is equally as good.

Final note that is probably of interest to no one who did not attend Woodberry Forest at the same time I did: Two of the tertiary characters in the book, Mr. Epes and Mr. Vita, are clearly named after identically named teachers who were in the Woodberry English department when I was a student there. This has no impact on the story itself, and the characters are so minor that it is impossible to draw any other connection between the real person and the character. However, I could not let such an obvious reference go by without comment.

This has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Apr 19, 2010, 12:25am Top

#53: I am still looking forward to your long review of Mrs. Frisby, Aaron. I have seen the movie several times, but never read the book.

Edited: Mar 3, 2011, 11:09am Top

Book Twenty-Eight: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear by Frank miller.


Short review: The origin story of Daredevil retold from his childhood, through his teen years and up to the moment in which Matt Murdock accepts his destiny as the man without fear all given the typical hyper violent somewhat misogynistic treatment that is Frank Miller's trademark.

Long review: In the early nineties, several years after his long and successful run with the character, Frank Miller returned to writing Daredevil for a special series filling in the details of the character's youth and origins. The result is the graphic novel Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. Oddly, though the content was originally conceived as a graphic novel, due to the fact that marvel had phased out the graphic novel format, it was released as a limited comic book run. The materials from the run were then later collected together and released in its present form as a graphic novel.

Daredevil is one of my favorite marvel characters, possibly because his alter ego Matt Murdock and I share the same profession. The interesting thing about Daredevil as a superhero is that his primary "superpower", his enhanced nonvisual senses, serve primarily to offset the fact that he is blind. Granted, his senses are so enhanced that he actually is more aware of his surroundings than a typical sighted person, but for the most part, his superpower is mostly effective in making him not disabled. Daredevil is also interesting insofar as he is one of the few comic book superheroes who has a regular "day job" as his alter ego that is more or less directly connected to the same impulses that drive him to don a mask and hunt villains in the night. Unlike, say Tony Stark, who is a playboy industrialist, or Peter Parker, freelance newspaper photographer, or any number of other heroes who have jobs that are often glamorous or exciting, but have basically nothing to do with their superheroic persona, Matt Murdock is a lawyer who advocates for the same poor and downtrodden people that Daredevil fights to protect. Of course, this means, as Miller notes in his introduction to the book, that Murdock in his persona as Daredevil, is a lawyer who routinely breaks the law, a tension that makes the character even more interesting.

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is basically a straightforward and linear story. it starts with Murdock as a young boy being raised by a single father in the slums of Hell's Kitchen in New York. His father, a one time boxing champion, is now a boozed up has-been pressured by the mob to work as an enforcer. His father pushes Matt to excel academically, hoping his son will have a life that he was never able to achieve. The younger Murdock grates under this pressure, tormented by bullies on the schoolyard, but forbidden to fight back with his fists. Still, he obeys, building the strong will that is one of the hallmarks of the character. Eventually Matt is blinded in an accident, with radioactive material spilled into his eyes. He is then instructed by a mysterious character named "Stick", who is also blind, in the ways of martial arts, learning to use his other senses to compensate for his lack of sight. This is all very quasi-mystical, as it is made clear in the story that Stick was shadowing Matt before his accident, apparently possessed of foreknowledge that the accident would occur. This version of the Daredevil origin story also deemphasizes the traditional "radioactive materials did it" backstory explanation for Matt's heightened senses, substituting the mystical martial arts training provided by Stick. (This makes one wonder why other blind people do not routinely develop similar radar powers. Apparently they aren't dedicated enough or something).

In one of the pivotal events in Murdock's life, his father refuses to throw a fight for the mob and gets killed as a result, starting Matt's . Matt then goes on a revenge fueled murder spree, killing all the men who participated in killing his father, but killing an innocent woman along the way. This causes Stick to disavow him as heir to the shadowy mystical organization that Stick is part of and sets Murdock free from that potential entanglement. The story then ticks off all the requisite backstory boxes. Murdock goes to college and law school. meets his longtime friend Foggy. Comes across and has an ill-advised and ill-fated romance with the unpredictable and dangerously mercurial Elektra (who is already apparently under the influence of dark forces, hearing disembodied "voices" that drive her to commit unspeakable acts). Matt befriends a young girl named Mickey in Hell's Kitchen who frequents the same abandoned gym that Matt has haunted as a youth, and when she is kidnapped by a minor functionary in the Kingpen's organization he once again takes on organized crime, this time in an effort to save Mickey. This brings him to the attention of the Daredevil's long time nemesis, the Kingpen, and all the pieces of the backstory are in place. The final panel of the novel is Matt's coming out as Daredevil in his familiar red costume with horns.

As an origin story this graphic novel is effective to a certain extent. Unfortunately, the story pretty much assumes that one already knows a great deal about "Daredevil lore", as the connections between various characters are left undrawn, and the significance of some events is left unexplained. For example, though there are oblique references to the organization of which Stick is part of, the significance of this organization is left entirely a mystery. It is implied that Elektra killed her own father at the behest of her inner voices, but whether she actually did, and whether the demons that drive her are anything other than delusions is entirely unexplained in the pages of this book. Those who had read the comic book series in the years before this run was penned will immediately understand who they are, and why they are important, but for someone reading this as an introduction to the Daredevil character, it will be essentially meaningless. The graphic novel has a sort of "fill in the boxes" feel to it as well, checking off the required elements of the backstory one by one like clockwork. As a result, as an introduction to the Daredevil character, this graphic novel is less than effective. As a gift to longtime fans of the series, it is perfect. While I give this a strong recommendation to anyone who is familiar with the Daredevil character (and who, as a result, has probably already read this graphic novel, making this recommendation redundant), for someone just starting to read this particular superhero's tale I can give only a modest recommendation, as much of the material will probably seem confusing and extraneous to the story being told within its pages.

This has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 27, 2011, 12:22am Top

Book Twenty-Nine: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 6 (June 2010) by Sheila Williams (Editor).


Stories included:
Earth III by Stephen Baxter
The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
Petopia by Benjamin Crowell
Monkey Do by Kit Reed
The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett
Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend
Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour

Poems included:
Human Potential by Geoffrey A. Landis
Crushed by Susan Abel Sullivan
Of Lycanthropy and Lilacs by Sandra Lindow

Long review: The June 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a bland and uninteresting affair, with mostly adequate stories that bob up and down between "just a little better than average" to "just a little worse than average" and nothing particularly noteworthy in either direction.

The longest story in the issue is the novella Earth III by Stephen Baxter, which returns to the same fictional reality that Baxter's novel Ark and his short story Earth II are set in. The story is set on a tidally locked world that has one pole perpetually facing its sun (so that one side of the planet is forever in daylight, while the other is perpetually in darkness). The inhabitants of the world share a common religion that asserts that the entire world and everything on it is merely a virtual reality simulation enforced by a somewhat ruthless theocratic elite surrounded by fractious and hungry mercantile states kept uneasily under its heel. This volatile situation is sparked into open war by the actions of a headstrong young woman and the more or less foolish man who falls in love with her. Events push the characters into exploring the lost knowledge of their ancestors and threatens to shake the very foundations of the religious establishment. The only true weakness of the story is the about face done by one of the major characters at the last minute which seems completely unexpected, against his own interests, and completely out of character. Like most Baxter stories, the characters are almost all entirely too reasonable, but even still the setting and plot are interesting enough to make for a decent read.

The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele seemed to me to be somewhat of a Heinlein-influenced story, discussing events from the early years of the colonization of Mars. The plot explores the mental healing process of one of the colony workers following extreme personal tragedy, resulting in his retreat into written science fiction (by then a mostly forgotten genre). The story is replete with references to the vast collection of science fiction stories contained on the disk sent with the Phoenix lander which landed on Mars in 2008. Like many science fiction stories today it is filled with nostalgia laden references to earlier works, which I find to be a mixed blessing. It is nice to see an author paying homage to the stories he (and probably most of his readers) grew up on. It is, however, distressing in the sense that it seems to be a potential sign that the genre has become moribund and inward looking. I'll go (in this case) with the theory that it is a fitting tribute to the genre, as the story itself is pretty good. But I'll still worry.

Both Petopia by Benjamin Crowell and Monkey Do by Kit Reed deal with precocious pets. However, that is more or less where the similarities end. While Petopia has some comic elements, it is a mostly straight story about the struggles a young woman faces living in a third world country while saddled with an alcoholic father and a shiftless younger brother. In her routine and dreary life she comes across a toy robot, the Petopian of the title, which had somehow been mistakenly shipped from California to be found by her. This tiny bit of technology falling into her lap allows her to change her life, and the lives of her family, although certainly not in a manner that the creators of the toy would have approved. Monkey Do on the other hand, is a purely comic tale regarding the travails of a bad writer and his pet monkey (which he acquired when writing the commercially unsuccessful book Rhesus Planet). He purchases some writing software to keep his monkey occupied, and the results are not exactly what he planned. Although the two stories are markedly different in tone, they are both pretty good.

Both the The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett and Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend are also thematically similar, being stories about artificially created worlds. They are, however, quite distinct, as one is told from the perspective of the creators of the world and the other from the perspective of those living within it. Of the two, I found Peacock Cloak to be the less effective story. Told from the perspective of Tawus, a deific figure and the last of his numerous siblings who had fought for control over the world they made, the central element of the story is Tawus' confrontation with his own creator. The story is very symbolic and wants to be full of deep meaning, but never quite hits the mark. Voyage to the Moon, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of scientists living on an alien world. The protagonist proposes using an animal that resembles a natural gas balloon to reach the moon, a notion that is scoffed at by his "scientific" colleagues. The expedition sets out, and things don't turn out like any of the participants expected. It is quite a good story, set in a world that is fairly different than what the reader would have expected at the outset.

The only story that was fairly weak in this volume was Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour. The story takes place amidst the rush of people to journey to Neptune on a ship that pops up randomly on the street. In the mad rush, everyone crowds aboard until they are packed shoulder to shoulder inside. The story tries to make a psychological statement about humanity and the relationship between a father and son, but it never explains why random people on the street would rush in to a randomly appearing spaceship until they were packed in like sardines. Because of the flawed premise of the story, the remaining material just isn't very convincing. The writing isn't bad, but the story just doesn't make sense.

Overall, this issue is not particularly good or bad. With mostly average stories and none that are particularly noteworthy, it serves as merely a placeholder issue until a better one comes along. There's nothing really wrong with the issue overall, there's just nothing to recommend reading anything in it more than once.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Apr 19, 2010, 8:44pm Top

I've been awaiting your review of The Rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health-the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to research focused on the understanding of mental illness) eagerly, as this was a story I encountered as a young adult in my 20s and really loved the themes therein. I also detested the movie with a passion as I felt the addition of "magic" detracted from the whole point of the book, which is the concept of what is intelligence or sentience and how do we respond to it. Glad you also found it worthwhile, as well as a good story.

Apr 20, 2010, 2:58am Top

Thanks for posting the review, Aaron. I have already checked and my local library has the book, so I will get it as soon as I can.

Edited: Feb 10, 2011, 10:32am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (April 17th-23rd, 2010)
The Economist (April 24th-30th, 2010)

Book Thirty: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXX, No. 6 (June 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
The Annunnaki Legacy by Bond Elam
Space Aliens Taught My Dog to Hunt by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott
Connections by Kyle Kirkland
Heist by Tracy Canfield
At Last the Sun by Richard Foss
A Time for Heroes by Edward M. Lerner
Cargo by Michael F. Flynn
Probability Zero: Light Conversation by Alastair Mayer

Science fact articles included:
Der Mann, Die Frau, Das Kind by Henry Honken

Long review: This month's issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact features stories about A.I.'s and MMOs and nightmare dystopian futures. Like most issues, this one seems to have a mini-theme, although in this case there seem to be two: one features artificial intelligence, with a subtheme of artificial intelligence intersecting with online gaming, while the second deals with dystopian cautionary tales. overall, the stories in this issue are all fairly good, even the somewhat pedestrian cover story The Annunaki Legacy is decent. However the two science fact articles are merely average and Stanley Schmidt's lead editorial is so resoundingly awful that the entire issue gets downgraded from being slightly above average to merely average.

Normally, the editorial presented by Stanley Schmidt at the beginning of each issue is at most a mildly controversial affair, usually the result of coming at an issue from an unusual angle. The editorial in this issue, however, is so stunningly stupid that I feel compelled to comment upon it. Schmidt tries to argue a compromise position between advocates of scientific explanations of the universe and those who insist upon a religious one. He analogizes the explanations given to religion to simplified explanations given by adults to children when they ask questions like "why is the sky blue" or "where do babies come from". Essentially he takes the position that the religious answers were just stop gaps simplified to provide answers to humanity until it "grew up" and could handle the real explanations. Leaving aside the assumption that there was some sort of superior intellect (be it divine, alien, or otherwise) to provide this dumbed down version of the truth, the reason this argument is so astonishingly idiotic is that the various religiously based explanations are inconsistent with each other (each religion has its own version) and inconsistent with what we have discovered via science. In other words, they aren't "simplified" explanations, they are just wrong. It is as if when a child asked "why the sky is blue", instead of giving an actual simplified explanations like "because of the way the light from the sun interacts with the particles in the air", the adult instead said "because invisible fairies paint it that way". Furthermore, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, when an adult gives the sorts of answers Schmidt refers to, such as the stork explanation for infant origins, they are intended to discourage children from asking more questions. In an effort to show how religion and science can be "reconciled" in this way, Schmidt has fallen back on an explanation that results in the conclusion that, if God (or some analogy) exists, then he didn't want us asking questions, but to just shut up and be content with the blatantly incorrect answers handed to us. I don't think this is the message Schmidt intended, but it is the implication of the editorial. In addition, the editorial is astonishingly arrogant, implying that previous generations of thinkers could not have grasped the true answers for some reason, as if Babylonian and Greek philosophers were not merely hampered by poor tools, but were simply too stupid to understand reality and thus had to be handed simpler explanations. Frankly, I expect more of a man who is generally a smart and on the ball guy, so this editorial was a major disappointment.

The cover story of the issue is The Annunnaki Legacy by Bond Elam, the tale of a group of space explorers hunting for the elusive Anunnaki, an alien race that apparently took the form of Babylonian deities and raised humankind to civilization. The story covers the typical conflict between xenoarchaologists and xenobiologists trying to buy time to study a planet more fully while pitted against the evil mining interests that want to mine it for its resources. Like most stories of this type, the scientists stumble across an unexpected and paradigm shifting discovery and are able to put their thumb in the eye of the evil mining boss. The ending isn't entirely upbeat, meaning that this story isn't entirely a paint-by-numbers affair, but the ground it walks is pretty well worn.

Space Aliens Taught My Dog to Hunt by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott is the humor piece in the issue. The story revolves around a conspiracy theorist convinced that aliens have infiltrated the government who discovers that his worst fears are true. he struggles against the conspiracy and attempts to expose them, being confounded time and again, and in the end sets upon a solution that seems almost certain not to work. The story is pretty good, but like most humorous pieces it is pretty lightweight. Probability Zero: Light Conversation by Alastair Mayer is also an intended piece of humor about an intelligent slime mold living in the narrator's refrigerator. It is mostly goofy and little more than fluff. Connections by Kyle Kirkland also deals with the implications of A.I., this time in a dystopian future in which the government regulates everything and every character seems to be a member of the underground opposition. The story is ostensibly a murder mystery, but that's only more or less a framing story. I found this one slow at first, but it picked up substantially and I ended up liking it quite a bit.

Given the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill, At Last the Sun by Richard Foss seems to be extraordinarily timely. In this story, scientists studying the damaged waters off the coast of Louisiana stumble upon an unexpected discovery. Though the focus of their study is the deoxygenization caused by fertilizer runoff pouring out of the mouth of the Mississippi River and not the effects of an oil spill, thematically the story, concerning the effects of human indifference upon the environment, seems particularly apropos. Following on the "disastrous things humans do to themselves and their environment" theme is Cargo by Michael F. Flynn, a post-apocalyptic story in more or less classic form, with remnants of the collapsed modern society peeping around the edges of a primitive culture that has grown up scrambling in the rubble. The facts about the past has become mixed with myth, and taboos about forbidden technology have become entrenched. The story mostly explores how it is attitudes more than capabilities and resources that hold humans back and how thin the line is between the comfortable modern society we have today and a hardscrabble subsistence existence. Overall, this is the best story in the issue.

The science fact article this month Der Mann, Die Frau, Das Kind by Henry Honken covers a topic that crops up in Analog on a regular basis - the study of language. In this case, the study of gender in language ranging from English, which has almost no genderization of nouns, to exotic languages like Jul'hoan and Yimas (both real, the first from Namibia, the second from Papua New Guinea) that have dozens for gender indicators describing the gender of the object, its relation to the speaker, its relation to the listener and a variety of other attributes. It is decent enough, but I rarely find the language oriented science fact articles to be particularly interesting, since they generally cover mostly the same ground over and over again. There isn't anything wrong with this article, its just not very interesting. In Jeffrey D. Kooistra's Alternate View column, he complains about the negative reactions that his climate change skepticism has engendered, and promises to rhetorically "take the gloves off" when dealing with his critics in the future. Despite this, he does little in this article but talk about the science in Alfred Bester's classic The Stars My Destination and promise retribution in the future. Yawn.

Overall, the stories in this issue range from average to quite good, which would normally mean a positive recommendation from me. In this case, however, Kooistra's article is so petulant, and Schmidt's is so mind-blowingly stupid that by themselves they drag the whole down to being merely average. With the caveat that these two elements are truly bad and best avoided, I would give this issue a guarded recommendation.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 10, 2011, 9:46am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (April 10, 2010)
Science News (April 24, 2010)

Book Thirty-One: The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.


Stories included:
The Nine Billion Names of God
I Remember Babylon
Trouble With Time
Rescue Party
The Curse
Summertime on Icarus
Dog Star
Hide and Seek
Out of the Sun
The Wall of Darkness
No Morning After
The Possessed
Death and the Senator
Who's There?
Before Eden
A Walk in the Dark
The Call of the Stars
The Reluctant Orchid
Encounter at Dawn
'If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . .'
Patent Pending
The Sentinel
The Star

Long review: In the introduction to The Nine Billion Names of God, Clarke writes that the thread that ties this collection together is that it is comprised of his favorite stories from his repertoire. Interestingly, it turns out that Clarke's favorite stories also turn out to include pretty much all of his best and most famous stories that were published between 1953 and 1966, which makes this an excellent collection. Whether one is unfamiliar with Clarke and trying to get a high-quality sampling of his work, or a long-time fan who wants to read through some of Clarke's best stories, this is a great collection to pick up.

The highlights of the book are, unsurprisingly, among Clarke's best pieces: the title story The Nine Billion Names of God, Rescue Party, Hide and Seek, The Wall of Darkness, Superiority, "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . . ", and The Sentinel. (For those who do not know, the movie and book 2001: A Space Odyssey is an expanded treatment of The Sentinel. While these are the high points, pretty much every story in this volume is good - there is a reason that Clarke was considered one of the giants of the genre for the bulk of his career.

This is not to say that there are no missteps in the stories. Some of the story elements seem quaint now - the result of the stories having been written many decades ago. So, for example, the scene in The Sentinel in which the protagonist makes himself and his fellow lunar explorers breakfast by frying up some sausages seems, in retrospect, quite silly. The story Hide and Seek only works because the "seeker" doesn't have something as simple as a landing shuttle, which seems to me to be pretty weak engineering. And so on. Even still, most of the stories seem to have aged fairly well, with only a few elements here and there that have been invalidated by the passage of time.

The stories are mostly quite short, which should be easy enough to figure out when one realizes that twenty-five stories are packed into a volume that is a mere 240 pages long. Clarke's style is pretty straightforward and direct - each story had a main idea, and one or two central characters. Many of the stories, such as Hide and Seek or Summertime on Icarus, are what I call "engineering puzzle" stories in which the protagonist confronts a problem that threatens his life and uses basic science and engineering to solve it. Many others are "wonder" stories, such as Transience, The Nine Billion Names of God, or The Star, in which the reader is presented with the awesome majesty of the universe and invited to gaze in wonder. There are silly, humorous stories, such as Superiority and The Reluctant Orchid (although Superiority has a serious message hidden in its humor), and "shaggy god" stories such as Encounter at Dawn. And there are stories about both man's reach for greatness, such as The Call of the Stars, and man's foolish self-destructiveness, such as I Remember Babylon. In short, this collection is a huge grab bag that touches on almost every popular science fiction story type of the mid-Twentieth century.

Clarke is a practitioner and serial abuser of the "deep and meaningful last sentence" method of storytelling, as this device is used in several of the stories in this volume. To a certain extent, this probably stems from the era that the stories were written insofar as they first appeared in pulp magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, and this sort of "big reveal" moment was probably what the market demanded. Even still, the repeated used of this literary device gets a little wearying.

One story that I found particularly prescient was Death and the Senator. The science fiction of the story - the idea that an orbital hospital could be constructed and that patients would experience great benefits from being treated and recovering in zero-gravity conditions - appears to be somewhat optimistic. However, Clarke's narrative is dead-on when it comes to the short sightedness of politicians deciding whether or not to fund long-term scientific projects, and how this is likely to turn around and have substantial negative consequences as a result of our limited vision. Every time someone says "establishing a base on the moon will take a decade, so we can't start now", I think of this story and get a little bit angry.

Despite the various quibbles, the stories in the book are almost all good, with several rightly considered "great". The only stories I though were average at best were A Walk in the Dark, The Possessed, and Patent Pending and given that there are twenty-two other stories in the volume, all of superior quality, this is a minor point. Simply put, this is an excellent collection of stories from one of the top writers in the field of science fiction, and well worth reading for anyone who is a fan of the genre.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 16, 2011, 8:46am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Woodberry Forest Magazine and Journal (Fall 2009/Winter 2010)
Poets & Writers (May/June 2010)
Virginia Lawyer: The Official Publication of the Virginia State Bar (April 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (April 2010)
National Geographic (May 2010)
The Economist (May 1st-7th, 2010)

Book Thirty-Two: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 7 (July 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
A History of Terraforming by Robert Reed
Haggle Chips by Tom Purdom
The Jaguar House, in Shadow by Aliette de Bodard
The Other Graces by Alice Sola Kim
Eddie's Ants by D. T. Mitenko
Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveller by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Poems included:
The Gears of New August by Bruce Boston
Neosaur by Robert Borski

Long review: The July 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is something of a mixed bag. Containing a couple of fairly ambitious stories that simply didn't quite work, a couple of good but somewhat strange stories, one very bland story and one story that just doesn't work, the entire issue gave me a mixture of frustration and enjoyment. Overall I think the issue is still pretty solid, as I think that a publication like Asimov's should try to publish work that is a little experimental, but it would have been even better had the stories had just a little more polish on them.

I would call The Other Graces by Alice Sola Kim an ambitious failure. The story is about a teen struggling to make something of herself who apparently starts getting help from a version of herself from an alternate future timeline. The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the teenage Grace (and the bits that are told from other perspectives probably would have been better left out) as she wrestles with whether accepting this sort of help cheapens her accomplishments, all the while realizing that she depends upon the unexpected aid. The story is very disjointed, making it difficult to follow, but it is an interesting idea and is put together in an ultimately interesting manner, which makes it a mess, but a kind of beautiful mess. Another story that was something of a mess, albeit for different reasons, is Aliette de Bodard's The Jaguar House, in Shadow, set in her alternate historical timeline in which the Chinese found the Americas first and changed the course of history. The story, such as it is, covers political infighting in the nation of Greater Mexica as religious issues drive the rise of a theocratic and bloodthirsty ruler and the opposition his reign engenders. The problem with the story is that if one is not familiar with the Xuya version of alternate history (and I am not) the story doesn't really explain what is going on or why we should care very much about the various characters. The story itself is readable, but I was as confused at the end as I was at the beginning. It did make me want to read more about Aliette's alternate history, which means I think one could call it a success, but as a stand-alone story it just doesn't quite work.

Haggle Chips by Tom Purdom, which follows immediately after The Other Graces, is a much more conventional story. It is basically a science fiction kidnapping with a few twists and quirks, as the main character is held hostage by a radical religious group seeking concessions from the planetary government. The main character in the story is both the titular "haggle chip" and the user of such chips to try to get his freedom. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking or noteworthy about the story, but it is a solid adventure story with a little humor, a little romance, and just enough science thrown in to fit the magazine. D. T. Mitenko's story Eddie's Ants, on the other hand, is somewhat bizarre but mostly interesting due to the speculation it engages in concerning the nature of collective intelligence, and how such an alien being might be socially dysfunctional by nature. The story itself, detailing the humorous efforts of a frustrated ex-boyfriend to kill his former girlfriends nigh indestructible alien paramour, is moderately humorous. However, it is deadly serious when it comes to exploring alien psychology, and how truly alien it might be, and why. Overall, Eddie's Ants was, to me, the most thought-provoking story in the issue. Also humorous is Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveler by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, written in the form a guidebook that gives "helpful" tips to travelers embarking on an extended space cruise. The tone is intended to be silly and farcical, but a lot of the jokes came off as somewhat forced, and the entire story was simply flat where it should have danced.

The cover story of the issue, and the one that is probably most likely to figure in awards season, is Robert Reed's A History of Terraforming. The story is built around the life of Simon, a single, long-lived but mostly otherwise unexceptional man who lives through much of the terraforming of the solar system. The story is as much about transhumanism, and how "terraforming" the solar system might change us as much as it is about how we might change it. Through all the upheaval, Simon remains hardworking, and just smart enough to have important jobs, but not so brilliant as to be caught in the focal glare of the political struggles concerning the destiny of humanity. like most truly insightful stories about the possible future courses of humanity, the story is more than a little disturbing, but Simon's bland everyman nature keeps things from getting too alien to be accessible to the reader. This wasn't my favorite story in the issue, but it is probably the one that most people will remember.

Overall, this issue had more ups and downs that most, but even the downs are mostly the result of an author trying to do something difficult rather than an author just turning in a bad story. In the end, the overall issue is worth reading, so it gets an average rating.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 10, 2011, 10:30am Top

Belated Review: The Wrath of Alexander the Great by Terry McCarthy.


Short review: Alexander is laying siege to Tyre, which has the Book of the West, but Barkane is awesome, and will do anything to get them before Alexander does.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: At the outset, I have a quibble with the cover. I understand that an author often has little or no influence on the cover that is attached to their book, but this seemed to me to be so glaring that I could not let it pass without comment. The title of the book - The Wrath of Alexander the Great - should be an indication of the time period in which the story takes place, that is during the life of Alexander the Great. However, the cover picture shows a trident superimposed on a collection of soldiers that are clearly dressed in Roman regalia, complete with what appear to be legion standards. Instead of showing Greeks, Macedonians, or even Persians, the cover instead provides a wholly anachronistic picture. This, as one might expect, gets the book off on the wrong foot.

This is unfortunate, since the book itself isn't actually bad, and the historical information it contains appears to be accurate. Unfortunately, the story itself has a number of problems in plotting and character that prevent what could have been a really good book from being anything more than a fairly average book. Oddly, despite Alexander's wrath being prominently featured in the title, Alexander doesn't actually appear in the book, and his army, occupied with one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history, serves as little more than a framing device for the story.

The story takes place after Alexander has smashed the Persian Empire, and has set his sights on the trading city of Tyre. Tyre, located on an island off the coast of what is now Lebanon, is supposedly impregnable with walls that rise directly from the sea preventing any invading force from landing to lay siege. Alexander famously undertook to change geography to his advantage, and had his soldiers build a causeway that extended the half mile distance from the mainland to the island. Against this backdrop is placed the protagonist of the story, a Carthaginian soldier named Barkane whose mission is to enter Tyre with a select team of Carthaginian warriors, recover state secrets of incalculable value to Carthage, and escape.

Barkane starts his task by seeking to set free a pirate captain named Sajan being held prisoner and condemned to death by the Cypriot navy. At this point, one of McCarthy's annoying literary devices rears its head - the escape is told from Sajan's perspective, and since he takes what turns out to be Barkane to be a drunk imprisoned with him he refers to Barkane throughout the chapter as "the drunk". This gets old really quickly, and is especially silly when it becomes obvious to everyone, including Sajan, that "the drunk” is not drunk at all. Yet he keeps referring to "the drunk". We are also told of Sajan's hatred for all things Greek (Sajan is a Phoenecian) and how he had been hunted and captured and condemned at the behest of one of Alexander's generals, a man named General Bousardis. Almost immediately Sajan's actions begin to make no sense at all. After he is rescued from certain death by Barkane and his men, his reaction is to immediately turn on them and throw his lot in with a bunch of Greeks. Eventually he even throws his lot in with General Bousardis, joining up with the man who actively tried to have him killed in the opening chapters of the book. Why he does this is a complete mystery. It seems as if he just acts like an ungrateful pain in the ass through much of the book just because it is necessary for the plot complications to work. This sort of bizarre character action marks much of the book, and while Sajan's bizarre behavior is among the most egregious, it is not the only inexplicable element to the story.

Barkane himself is supposedly a brilliant and unconventional military tactician. But for most of the book Barkane is made to seem smart mostly by the expedient of having his enemies behave stupidly. His enemies fall for absurdly simple tricks - he bluffs his way into a Greek held town by having his men execute a cavalry maneuver supposedly unique to Alexander's elite "Silver Shields" that is so simple that untrained soldiers are apparently able to master it while on the run in less than a day of practice. One wonders exactly how stupid the Greeks he is dealing with given this background. When discussing Barkane's plans McCarthy also uses and reuses another somewhat annoying literary device often times "hiding the ball" from the reader, having half his plan known and having him sagely pull on his half-ear and smile cryptically while refusing to reveal the remainder of his devious plan - while at the same time telling the story with Barkane as the viewpoint character, meaning that keeping his plan a secret makes no sense at all.

Before going further, I have to discuss one of my pet peeves about depictions of combat in the age of armor which not only crops up in The Wrath of Alexander, but litters it pages. If one were to count the number of times in the story in which Barkane or one of his men punches, kicks, elbows, or knees a fully armored man and doesn't break his hand, foot, or other appendage on that man's armor, one would be counting for a very long time. Soldiers in the era before gunpowder wore armor for a reason, and that reason is "punching them in the nose" becomes singularly ineffective. (The sequence on page 138 is pretty typical, Barkane grabs two Greeks by their helmets and bangs them together, knocking one out, and then punches the other in the nose. One wonders how their helmets are supposed to prevent battlefield injuries from swords and spears if they can't even prevent fisticuffs from knocking them out). Every time Barkane kicked or punched some armor-clad enemy I groaned a little bit and lost a little bit of faith in the book. Also of seemingly little value are shields, with even the elite "Silver Shields" cavalrymen seemingly carrying their moniker only sparingly, and when they do, the shields are of little use other than getting in their way. Conversely, despite the hyper-effectiveness of fists and feet, weaponry seems to be of at best random usefulness. At times the composite bows carried by Barkane and his men seem incredibly deadly, at others they are completely ineffective, flipping from one extreme to the other without rhyme or reason. In one sequence, Barkane refuses to arm himself with a proffered knife, preferring to fight unarmed, because somehow that is more effective. Granted, there are plenty of myths about martial arts masters being more deadly with their bare hands than with a weapon, but they are basically just that, myths. The only time a man with a weapon is less dangerous than one who is unarmed is when that man is untrained, which category Barkane is decidedly not supposed to fall into. In short, all of the fighting sequences in the book are so wildly inaccurate that they are often unintentionally hilarious.

The story jumps about, as the Macedonian General Bousardis and his supposedly elite "Silver Shields" (who don't seem to be all that elite in practice) first sets out to recapture Sajan, then sets about hunting down Barkane. There are double crosses (mostly inexplicable ones undertaken by the apparently schizophrenically insane Sajan), near escapes, and desperate fights. Barkane picks up some unexpected allies, a couple of damsels in distress, and finally makes it into Tyre (and after hiding the ball for much of the book, finally reveals why he went to the trouble of rescuing and then riding herd on Sajan). In the end, the mission ends up not making much sense - one wonders why the MacGuffin had to be recovered, which proves to be really difficult, as opposed to destroyed, which would have been much, much easier. Like most of the plot elements of the story, the reasoning behind this goes unexplained. Having led Bousardis across much of Syria, Barkane confronts him in Tyre, outwits him, is betrayed by someone close to him, and is saved by serendipity. Barkane's method of recovering the MacGuffin is supposedly really sneaky, but it really appears to be so obvious that it is hard to imagine anyone would fall for it, even someone who seems to be as buffoonish as Bousardis, another inexplicable element of the story.

Finally, one element that just kept nagging at me through the whole book is this: Barkane is on the wrong side of history. While it is all well and good that he is a patriot who loves his adopted city of Carthage, it is Greek civilization as spread by the Macedonian conquests that forms the basis for our civilization, not the moribund and hidebound Carthaginians. While the Greeks left behind culture, learning, philosophy, and art, the Carthaginians left behind next to nothing. Through the book the informed reader feels the tension between rooting for Barkane to succeed (he is the hero of the story after all) and realizing that his victory will be ultimately meaningless and probably counterproductive. In the end, while the historical elements of the book are generally not too far off, the bizarre and inane actions of many of the characters, coupled with keystone cops style combat scenes, and a plot that makes little sense at all results in a book that is merely adequate. While the idea of a commando in ancient Persia sounds really interesting, the execution is just not sufficiently well-polished for this book to be worth more than a lukewarm recommendation.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

May 12, 2010, 7:42pm Top

#63: Great review, Aaron. I think I will pass on that one.

Edited: Jan 20, 2011, 11:18pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (May 8, 2010)

Realms of Fantasy (June 2010)
Stories included:
Desaparecidos by Aliette de Bodard
Sultana Lena's Gift by Shweta Narayan
The Well of Forgetting by Meredith Simmons
The Hearts of Men by T. L. Morganfield
Fallen by Bruce Holland Rogers

Note: This issue of Realms of Fantasy represented a rebound from the last couple of pretty bad ones. The fiction has improved compared to the last few issues (although two stories about fallen angels in one issue is probably one too many), and the gullible "woo-woo" element to the factual material is thankfully absent.

Book Thirty-Three: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXX, Nos. 7 & 8 (July/August 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes by Rajnar Varja
Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns
Project Hades by Stephen Baxter
Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson
The Andorid Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter
The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick
Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken
The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper

Science fact articles included:
Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett

Special features included:
The Seriousness of Writing Humor by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis

Long review: The July/August 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, like most double issues of the magazine, has a couple stories that below the typically high standard of the magazine, but on the whole, it is a very good issue. As with many issues, there is something of an unremarked upon theme to the issue, in this case there are two: there are several stories involving Lunar exploration, including some material paying tribute to the Apollo program, and there are several stories that portray dystopian futures (or in one case, a past that could have turned into a dystopia). As usual for Analog in recent months, the general quality of the stories is high, and the quality of the science fact articles and the special feature article is excellent.

Rajnar Vajra's Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes is set in the same fictional setting as Vajra's previous story Doctor Alien. In this universe, humanity has come into contact with an alien race known as the Traders, and Al, the Doctor Alien of the story, has earned an accidental reputation as a man who can treat alien mental problems. The Traders have set a clinic up for Al, and the governments of Earth find themselves so desperate for access to alien technology that they cannot refuse. The story involves several threads: Al dealing with an alien patient he cannot cure, his odd alien office staff, an attempt on his life, the resentment of his neighbors who don't want the alien center in their backyard, and an unexpected visit from a Trader bearing five boxes and a request for help. The story is somewhat silly, not quite as overtly comic as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett would be, but clearly meant to be taken as light hearted fun. And following Al about as he tries to solve all of the various problems is fun, and in the end, the conclusion is quite satisfying. Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns also deals with unwanted alien artifacts on Earth planted by aliens to powerful to refuse. In this case, the protagonist takes the aliens up on an implied offer of sanctuary, choosing to leap into the unknown in preference to the known (and unpleasant) consequences of staying on Earth. He finds something of an anarchists fantasy, and as usual with such places, things aren't quite as idyllic as many ardent anarchists would have one believe such a place would be. It turns out to be not quite as anarchic as it seems at first, and the protagonist learns that the aliens have a job in mind for him that is not quite what he expected. Although not entirely lacking in humor, Bug Trap is not silly fun the way Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes, but is rather a fairly thought provoking look at the ways humans might organize themselves if they had minimal restraints on their behavior.

Project Hades by Stephen Baxter is another story with dystopian overtones in which an insane military commander commandeers a dangerous project to confront a poorly understood alien enemy. In a twist, the insane military commander in the Anglo-American operation is not an American, which is nice to see for once. The story is also set in an alternate 1960. However, the story follows a fairly standard script with courageous scientists aided by an implausibly well self-educated local boy desperately trying to convince the military not to misuse their technology or overlook a problem that could result in the extinction of humanity. Overall, Project Hades reads more or less like a Doctor Who episode, with Chapman Jones filling in for the Doctor, and Thelma Bennet filling in as the Doctor's companion. The story is a bit overlong - I think it would have been improved with fewer scenes concerning the plucky locals and the villain's diatribes - but on the whole the story does a good job of ratcheting the tension up from the calm opening scenes in a neighborhood pub to the high intensity ending.

Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson is one of three stories in the issue that deals with Lunar exploration and is the best of the bunch. In its future humanity has returned to the Moon and set down roots there. Unfortunately some of the denizens have a mishap that places them beyond the reach of rescue, but conveniently places them near a restored Lunar Exploration Module that serves as a monument to the Apollo program and sets the puzzle-solving element of the story into motion. The story is told from the perspective of a teenager who volunteers at a nursing home and who discovers that the elderly gentleman he spends much of his time with may be much more than he seems. The story is both a touching commentary on old age and an excellent tribute to the Apollo astronauts. As such, the story serves as a complement to the poem Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis, which I found made me both inspired by the men who blazed the trail and angry that we abandoned Lunar exploration so long ago. Unfortunately, the other puzzle-solving story set on the Moon is not nearly as good. The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick is an attempt to make a classic science fiction style story involving a life threatening problem that intrepid space explorers have to solve using unorthodox engineering. The trouble with the story is that the technological device that causes the trouble in the first place is so ludicrous in design that it just seems implausible that it would be used at all. One of the most critical elements in the puzzle-solving type of science fiction story is that the reader has to buy into the problem as one that could happen, and that is just impossible to do here.

The Android Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter is a noirish mystery story featuring a down on his luck detective, the beautiful and dangerous woman who did him wrong, and her wealthy husband who has gone mysteriously missing. This being a science fiction story, the woman has had multiple modifications made to herself (including the addition of a third breast, something that is supposed to make her sexier, but I just don't see how it would) and the missing wealthy husband is an android. Or rather, was an android before he had his consciousness moved to a human body, and then back to an android. The story is clearly intended to evoke a Dashiell Hammett-like sensibility, and it does, but as it is a science fiction story it raises questions about what rights one might accord to an artificial intelligence, and more broadly, who counts as human. An interesting subtext to the story is, if such sorts of standards are applied, would there be some humans who would fail them? The story is told with enough of a light touch that it doesn't get weighed down, and as a result, it is interesting while remaining fun to read.

The two explicitly dystopian stories in the issue both involve government interference in scientific endeavors, but they both seem to approach the issue from a different ideological bent. Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken is set in a future in which the government has assumed full responsibility for running the health care system, right down to dictating how doctors go about diagnosing their patient's maladies. Doctors are required to use a specific battery of questions, the "tree" of the title, which in the context of the story proves to be fairly obviously inadequate to the task. Doctors who do not are subjected to criminal liability for going against the "tree". The protagonist, a doctor, must wrestle with how to work with the system, and whether to cast it aside for the benefit of his patients despite the personal risk of doing so. The story has moderately strong libertarian leanings, and while told with a heavy dose of hyperbole, seems to be something of a caution against too much regulation in a field as full of judgment calls as medicine. The other dystopian story is The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper, featuring a scary future in which the "World Science Court" passes judgment on inquiry and upon which four of the seven justices do not believe in evolution. The "single larry ti" of the title is a reference to a singularity: the central conflict of the story is a hearing held before the World Science Court involving a project to run a particle accelerator on the Moon and the supposed dangers that this might create a mini black hole (or singularity) and destroy the Moon and the Earth. The sign, and the protestor holding it, is an indication of the dangers of allowing superstitious fear to hold sway over science education, as is the entire story. Of the dystopian stories in the issue, this one is the most frightening because it seems most plausible.

The science fact article in the issue is Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett. This article deals with the idea of offsetting rises in global temperatures by cooling the Earth by means of injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere to shade its surface. Geoengineering has become a much more widely discussed option recently - the lead article in the June 5, 2010 issue of Science News deals with the subject - so this article is very topical. In typical fashion, Lovett boils a complicated scientific issue down to its essential elements and makes it both understandable, and enjoyable to read. Lovett also contributes a special feature article to the issue titled The Seriousness of Writing Humor in which he discusses the difficulties of using humor in fiction, and the mistakes many writers make when the try to incorporate humor into their writing. As usual, Lovett is clear and effective even on a somewhat difficult subject like how to write humor.

Overall, with only one weak story and one mediocre story amidst a pile of good ones, this is one of the better issues in the past year. The unremarked theme of Lunar exploration, while unexpected, provided some quite good material that reminded me to be both happy that we had accomplished something so transcendent, and angry at the fact that we had thrown all that away so casually. Coupled with the often scary dystopian theme, this is an issue that could have been quite depressing. Fortunately, it is leavened with a healthy dash of humor that prevents the material from becoming to morose, although the humorous stories contain enough intellectual content to remain thought-provoking. Although the magazine as a whole seemed to suffer a bit of a dip with some mediocre issues last year (especially the double issues), the trend over the last couple months seems to be moving back to the high standard of quality that readers have come to expect from Analog. This is a trend that I hope continues, and it has resulted in an excellent issue that I can give a strong recommendation.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 23, 2011, 1:00am Top

Book Thirty-Four: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik.


Short review: If C. S. Forester had imagined the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, this would have been the result.

Long Review: His Majesty's Dragon is the first book in the Tremeraire series, now up to six books, and projected to be at least nine. The books are alternate history mixed with fantasy that could best be summed up as Horatio Hornblower if C.S. Forester had added dragons to the mix. The result is a version of the Napoleonic Wars that is imaginative and packed with exciting action.

The Hornblower stand-in is Captain Will Laurence, who starts out as the Captain of a frigate in the respectable Royal Navy. He and his crew seize a French ship carrying an unhatched dragon egg, and circumstance forces Laurence to take on the burden of "harnessing" the newborn dragon and assuming the responsibility to becoming its permanent companion. He named the dragon Tremeraire, his Navy career ends, and he becomes part of the much less reputable Dragon Corps.

Fully half of the book is basically worldbuilding, as Novik first describes a world in which dragons are real and are used as weapons of war, and then describes the unique branch of service that has grown up around their use, and Laurence's induction and training in the ways of that service. In the hands of a less skilled writer this portion of the book could have seriously dragged, and at times the pace does become just a bit too slow, but Novik spices things up with a variety of small conflicts ranging from interservice rivalries between the Navy and Aviator Corps, Lawrence's discomfort at adjusting to a wholly new and unfamiliar way of life, and Lawrence's conflicts with both his own family and other officers. The development of the relationship between Lawrence and Tremeraire also adds depth to this section of the story.

Eventually we get to see dragons in combat as a variety of missteps by the British high command thrust Tremeraire and a collection of other inexperienced dragons into desperate action to defend England against Napoleon's forces. Novik portrays the speed and drama of swooping dragons crewed by bomb-throwers and musketmen in such vivid detail that one almost feels to rush of wind in your face. During the battle, the true nature of Tremeraire (who, of course, is not just your usual run-of-the-mill dragon) is revealed, which clearly serves as grist for the rest of the book series.

Novik hints at a wider world in which political power has been shifted by the existence of dragons as weapons of war. China and Japan, with their powerful dragons are no longer backwaters subject to being pushed around by European powers. Instead, they are nations to be reckoned with and which even the British Empire must deal with kid gloves. While this does not directly impact the story in this book, it does cast the entire European conflict in a different light. The existence of dragons and their demands also force some social changes as well - certain kinds of dragons only accept female companions, requiring the hidebound British military to accept female officers, at least in the Aviator Corps. In addition, since the dragons can reject a proffered companion, the influence of family connections in securing a dragon is diminished to nothingness, making the Corps much more egalitarian than the society around it. One suspects that this will be a source of friction in later books.

While Novik's imagined alternate reality is generally quite well-realized, there are a few points that seem to be less than well-thought out. The Aviator Corps is a loose, informal organization, reflecting the nature of the Royal Air Force (and the U.S. Air Force as well), which was much more informal in its early days than the other services. But a large portion of that loosey-goosey nature was the result of aviation being a new technology that was both feeling its way towards military usefulness and attracted only those officers with something of a maverick personality to begin with. In the Tremeraire series, dragons are not a new element, having been around for as long as men can remember. It also seems as though the use of dragons in warfare is also not a new development. As a result, there seems to be no real reason why the Dragon Corps remains such an informal organization other than it makes for a nice parallel with the air forces of the first half of the Twentieth century. Further, it seems as though the British Navy has been generally unaffected by its sister service, for example it retains the system of prize shares being divided among the crew, a system that does not seem to extend to the Aviator Corps. It seems odd that the system would crop up in one service but not the other.

Finally, while Napoleon's invasion plans are quite interesting, and make for a dramatic scene placing the dragons front and center in the fight, upon reflection they don't seem to make much sense. Effectively, napoleon's strategy seems to be akin to intentionally stranding thousands of men with little hope of resupply. I suppose that one could assume that Napoleon intended his men to forage for food, but it seems like they would have been hard pressed for ammunition. They also seem like they would have been desperately short of cavalry and artillery. Napoleon was famous for his attention to logistics and artillery support. it seems odd to posit a plan from him that seems to throw both out the window. In short, despite the desperate language surrounding the fight to keep Napoleon's troops out of England, it seems as though if they did succeed, it would have been the equivalent of throwing a beached whale on the shore.

However, in the end, these are relatively minor quibbles. Some concessions have to be made in these areas in order for the alternate reality being presented to be relatable to real history, and the "problems" I have noted are fairly minor (and probably idiosyncratic to my tastes), they are really not that important. What is important is that Novik has given us a well-realized, exciting adventure that is both fun to read, and gives more than enough foreshadowing of likely future conflicts to whet the reader's appetite. The most important task the first novel of a series has is to make the reader want to immediately pick up the next book, and in that regard, His Majesty's Dragon is a rousing success.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

May 17, 2010, 7:57am Top

Strangly enough, I started reading Forester's Hornblower series after reading of Novik's Temeraire series. And enjoyed it thoroughly. So, thank you Naomi for introducing me to naval fiction.

Edited: Jan 23, 2011, 1:23pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (May 8th-14th, 2010)
The Economist (May15th-21st, 2010)

Book Thirty-Five: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik.


Short review: Lawrence and Tremeraire must go to China and reconcile with an alien culture.

Long review: The conflict foreshadowed in His Majesty's Dragon between the British and Chinese over Lawrence's pairing with Tremeraire becomes the main plot in Throne of Jade. Apparently incensed that a common British officer could be matched with one of the exalted "celestial" breed of dragons (normally reserved for the members of the Chinese Emperor's immediate family), a delegation led by the Chinese prince Yongxing demands that Tremeraire be returned to China, characterizing Laurence's seizure of the egg from the French in His Majesty's Dragon as "piracy among barbarians".

It is a feature of Novik's alternate world that the introduction of dragons has altered the political balance of power among nations. While the central conflict of the books is the struggle between Britain and her allies against Napoleon's France, adding dragons has substantially increased the weight of nations such as China in world affairs. Consequently, the British cannot (as they probably would have in reality) brush off the Chinese delegation, and the threat of China entering the war on the side of the French is of grave concern to Britain. Interestingly, the influence of dragons does not seem to have saved the Americas or India from being subjected to European domination and colonization, which seems to be something of a contradiction in the structure of the alternate reality Novik presents us with. India, for example, is dominated by Britain and the East India Company in the Tremeraire universe, just as it was in our real history.

Given Laurence's affection for Tremeraire, and Tremeraire's own absolute refusal to consider leaving him, the British are on tenterhooks, unable to satisfy the Chinese. In order to avoid a charge of treason, Lawrence agrees to go to China with Tremeraire to meet with the Emperor, who will then decide what is to be done with them. The overland route being barred by Napoleon's forces, Tremeraire must be carried by sea aboard one of the massive dragon transport ships employed by the British, along with the entire Chinese delegation. Once on board ship, the story begins to pick up steam as a variety of cultural conflicts are exposed. Chinese disdain for those they consider barbarians creates friction, as does Yongxing's continuous (and unsubtle) attempts to pressure Tremeraire to part with Laurence. The interservice rivalry between the sailors and aviators adds still more tension to the mix. For the journey, Laurence is saddled with a China expert to assist him, and his advice often rankles at Laurence as well, adding still more delicious conflict to the mix.

It is during this lengthy sea voyage (which takes up the bulk of the book) and after the arrival in China that Novik truly sets her book apart from the typical fantasy by fleshing out both Tremeraire's character, but also by confounding the reader's expectations regarding dragons and their treatment. In His Majesty's Dragon, by means of describing their use, care, and crew, Novik cleverly established dragons in the mind of the reader as more or less intelligent sailing ships that happened to fly, or perhaps, really big smart flying horses. As such, housing them in the equivalent of stables, and treating them as animals to be fed, watered, and trained felt right to the reader. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the alternate reality would continue in this vein and focus on thrilling aerial battles between fire-breathing and acid-spitting behemoths. However, in Throne of Jade, Novik calls into question the entire European attitude towards dragons that was laid out in the previous book. One begins to wonder why a sapient species is held as beasts of burden, and housed and fed as animals. It begins to seem almost monstrous that dragons or dragon eggs would be traded among nations to improve breeding stock, or as diplomatic gifts. Novik draws some parallels with the slave trade in African slaves, but with a light enough touch as to be able to make her point without being offensive.

(As a side note, one scene in China would seem to indicate that there are vast untapped reservoirs of dragon power available. In a dragon starved Europe, one would think this would prove to be a substantial opportunity for a nation who figured out how to entice such potential to rally to their cause. Unfortunately, none of the characters in the novel seem to see this potential, and spend their time focused on wooing the humans, rather than the dragons).

I had a few minor difficulties with the book. One is that despite dragon transports being a regular feature of the world apparently no one in the Tremeraire universe has thought to use them as floating platforms to launch dragon attacks. Essentially, despite having the ships that mirror them in characteristics, no one seems to consider the idea of using them as the draconic equivalent of aircraft carriers. Another is that in the resolution of the story, Laurence's status is altered so substantially that one would think he would be one of the most important British subjects alive, and that he would be accorded substantial status (and possibly virtual legal immunity) in his home country as a result. Although I had to cheat a little bit by looking at the cover blurbs of later books in the series, this does not appear to be the case. I would consider it a substantial plot hole if some of the events that take place later in the series do so without causing significant diplomatic complications for the British.

As good as His Majesty's Dragon was, Throne of Jade is better. Despite having very little in the way of action, most of the book being taken up with diplomatic intrigue, the story makes Tremeraire specifically, and dragons in general, much more fully realized characters, and in doing so, sets up the conflict that appears to be in line to become one of the central themes of the series: the social and legal status of dragons. While many series suffer a "sophomore slump" in the second book, Throne of Jade is a noteworthy exception, and highly recommended.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 24, 2011, 8:42am Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (May 22nd-28th, 2010).

Book Thirty-Six: Black Powder War by Naomi Novik.


Short review: Tremeraire must fly from China to Turkey to pick up valuables for Britain, and then gets caught up in war on the continent as tensions between France and Prussia erupt into open war. Tremeraire doesn't just bring his crew back from China, but also a cunning and deadly new enemy.

Long review: The third book in the Tremeraire series, Black Powder War picks up immediately where Throne of Jade left off. Having resolved the diplomatic crisis of having a British officer in possession of an extraordinarily valuable Celestial dragon and averted a Chinese civil war, Laurence and Tremeraire are cooling their heels waiting for favorable winds to allow their massive dragon transport ship to sail them back home to England. Because an uneventful voyage home after a successful mission wouldn't make for a very good story, one can guess that they don't get the opportunity to wait for the winds to change. Instead, a mysterious courier named Tharkay arrives with an urgent set of orders directing Laurence to proceed to Turkey with all possible speed to collect some valuable dragon eggs the Turks have agreed to sell to Britain.

Why such orders would be sent to Laurence, halfway around the world, and certainly further away from Turkey than for example, British forces in Gibraltar, is a mystery. But orders must be obeyed, and Laurence makes arrangements to travel via the arduous overland route. Lacking other options, Laurence must hire Tharkay as his guide despite his misgivings. Tharkay makes an interesting contrast to Laurence as a character. Whereas Laurence is a member of a respectable family, an officer and a gentleman, who feels a strong sense of duty towards his country, Tharkay is the child of a mixed-union of a British father and Nepalese mother, who has a decidedly mercenary mindset, and who is less than enamoured of his treatment by British society which regards him (as a mixed-race child) with disdain. The introduction of Tharkay allows Novik to call into question the organization of British human society, just as Tremeraire's exposure to the Chinese called into question the European treatment of dragons.

The journey across Asia manages to add still more substance to Tremeraire's growing ire over the prevailing attitudes towards dragons, triggered both by Tremeraire's continuing contact with Tharkay and an encounter with a band of wild dragons. It turns out that feral dragons are not quite so uncivilized as humans had assumed, although the band of mountain dragons proves to be quite difficult to deal with despite their amiable nature. The journey also causes Laurence to question Tharkay's reliability, and Novik skillfully manages to ensure that Tharkay's actions are just cryptic enough that one is never sure whether Laurence's suspicions about him are reasonable and well-founded, or are merely born out of his ingrained prejudices.

When the group finally reaches Turkey, they find that the Turks are (with some justification) less than happy to see them. They also discover that Lien, formerly paired with the deceased Chinese Prince Yongxing, has preceded them, and is plotting against them, seeking revenge against Tremeraire. After much intrigue, they escape first to Austria, and then to Prussia, where they land in the middle of the war referenced in the book's title. The Prussians, regarded as the military elite of the continent, have gone to war with Napoleon, and despite Tremeraire's precious (and secret) cargo, he and his crew are pressed into service to replace promised British aid that has not arrived. Anyone familiar with the history of the time period will be unsurprised to find that the Prussians are hidebound and tied to the military teachings of Frederick the Great, which now extend to rigid adherence to Frederick's drills and formations for dragons as well as men. In the alternate reality of the Tremeraire universe, just as in reality, this doctrinaire approach to warfare proves disastrous as Napoleon is able to use their predictability to his advantage.

One of the more interesting things Novik does in the Tremeraire books is to come up with ways for Napoleon's famous victories to be recreated in sensible ways despite the addition of dragons. In Black Powder War, Napoleon seizes upon Lien's assistance to reorganize his entire dragon corps, and the way his entire army operates. In many ways, it seems as though Napoleon in this book is behaving in a manner similar to the German high command in the beginning of World War II, seizing upon methods to increase the mobility of his troops, their ability to coordinate with one another, and to strike at heretofore unexploited weaknesses. For their part, the Prussian commanders play the part of Weygand perfectly, always one step behind the quickly moving French forces. Napoleon's campaign, as Novik describes it, is brilliant. I am, however, of two minds about the innovations that change the face of warfare in the book. On the one hand, it seems perfectly natural that Napoleon would be the one who would seize upon unorthodox ways of managing his army, especially given the assistance of Lien (it is an indication of how unorthodox Napoleon is that he openly elevates her to his officer corps and gives her command). On the other hand, dragons are not a "new" technology in the Tremeraire universe, so it seems almost implausible that no one in Europe would have thought of any of these ideas before, or that the French could have made such a radical transformation in their own military structure so rapidly with so few apparent miscues. I consider it an indicator of the strong nature of the series that neither Napoleon, nor his enemies remain static, as Laurence and the Prussians end up with some unexpected allies, and engaged in some desperate, unorthodox strategies of their own.

Throughout the book, Tremeraire grows as a character, calling into question many of the ways humans treat dragons which are taken for granted. He is especially concerned over the purpose of the Turkish trip, appalled, as one might expect, by the idea that dragon eggs (and therefore dragons) may be bought and sold like property. he also takes the opportunity to preach his new found belief in dragon rights to any dragons he happens to come across, which as one might expect, causes additional troubles for Laurence and his crew as they must not only try to explain matters to Tremeraire in a way that he will accept and understand, but must also smooth over the ruffled feathers of foreign dragon captains whose dragon have been exposed to the seemingly subversive idea that dragons should be treated as free creatures, and not as glorified beasts of burden. Tremeraire, for his part, is shocked by both the human hostility to his ideas, and the seeming indifference of many of the dragons he encounters. The afterward to this book, as in the previous ones, is a small snippet of a fictitious scholarly writing on the subject of dragons, but whereas the previous two books were by naturalists engaged in the study of dragons, this is by a somewhat less than informed member of the clergy, who, after making some clumsy attempts at a scientific analysis of draconic intelligence, ends up using scriptural arguments to discount the possibility that dragons are more than mere beasts. It seems to me to be something of a commentary on modern clergy sticking their nose into scientific matters and making pronouncements on matters about which they know next to nothing as well as those who used the Bible to support the repugnant practice of black slavery. This afterword suggests, quite strongly, that Tremeraire is headed for trouble in his effort to secure rights for his kind.

In the end, Black Powder War is as good as the preceding two books. In many series it is common for the quality of the books to tail off slowly as the series progresses, but Novik appears to have avoided that problem thus far. The only possible problem that may be looming on the horizon for Novik is that it seems as though she will soon have to leave behind the more or less strong parallel between the actual history of the period and her alternate history. In reality, by the time the events of Black Powder War took place, the British had destroyed the French fleet at Trafalgar, making invasion of the British Isles a practical impossibility. However, with his large (and growing) superiority in dragons, this is not true in the Tremeraire reality. It will be interesting to see how Novik handles the alternate history that, it seems, must diverge substantially further from actual events in the near future. No matter how she handles these potential difficulties, the fact remains that this is an excellent book, that somehow manages to retain strong verisimilitude despite the wild card element of intelligent dragons. For a series of books about dragons fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the series is remarkably thoughtful without sacrificing exciting action and drama.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 25, 2011, 1:37pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (June 2010)
The University of Virginia Magazine (Summer 2010)

Book Thirty-Seven: Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik.


Short review: All of her Dragons are sick, and the slave trade blows up in the faces of the British.

Long review: The first book in the series to diverge almost completely from the events of the actual Napoleonic Wars, Empire of Ivory begins with Laurence and Tremeraire entering England laden with Prussian refugees only to find that the mystery of the missing British dragons in Black Powder War is due to circumstances more dire than anyone could have imagined. It turns out that the promised British dragons never arrived to assist the Prussians in their struggle against Napoleon because almost every dragon on the Isles has fallen sick with a debilitating illness that appears to have no cure, and seems to lead inevitably to death.

Given the heavy reliance that the military organizations in the Tremeraire universe place upon the use of dragons as weapons of war, this widespread illness is both a cause for great alarm, and a heavily guarded state secret. Laurence's return to the country with Tremeraire, the crew of feral dragons led by Arkady, and the hatchling fire breather Iskierka is regarded by his superiors as a minor miracle. After impressing on the reader the dire circumstances England is in with her shores patrolled by a mere handful of dragons, Novik has serendipity strike when it is discovered that Tremeraire, quite by accident had been infected with the disease and somehow cured on his journey to China in Throne of Jade. This sets into motion the main plot of the book: a journey to the Cape colony with a wing of sick dragons to hunt for the cure.

The story, for the most part, merely serves as a vehicle to advance the themes of equality that run through the books. Almost immediately upon embarking on their voyage, Laurence and the transport's captain Riley begin a bitter feud over the question of slavery. Despite the fact that Riley had been one of Laurence's proteges when he was serving in the navy, their political differences on the issue now tear them apart. As usual in the Tremeraire books, whenever the issue of human slavery crops up, the shabby European treatment of dragons also rears its head. And, of course, where you have dragons, you have female officers, which creates yet more tension between the aviators and the seamen exacerbating the conflict between Laurence and Riley. The only real problem with the book in these areas is that it is quite heavy handed in its treatment of the issues, hammering the reader over the head more or less needlessly to demonstrate that, for example, slavery and racism are wrong.

Once the expedition arrives at the Cape, the treatment of Africans by the British, already an issue in the story, becomes an even bigger issue, as the racist attitudes of the British are exceeded by the even more racist attitudes of the Dutch colonists they conquered. Eventually, the action moves to the interior of the unexplored African continent, where Laurence and his compatriots make some rather unsettling discoveries about the inhabitants and their relationship to their dragons and find the promised Empire of Ivory. This part of the story seemed to a certain degree reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan books, or possibly H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. The action turns, and we are treated to the Tremeraire universe equivalent to the Battle of Isandlwana, although in this case it turns out to not merely be a tactical victory for the natives, but a strategic one too, shattering the European sense of superiority.

And this raises the crucial problem I have with the book, namely where would Europeans get this sense of racial or cultural superiority. This sensibility was part and parcel of the British make-up in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the motto "make the world England" carried to all corners of the globe. But this attitude was rooted in the fact that the British (and Europeans in general) could impose their will on non-Europeans throughout the world. But in the Tremeraire universe, we know for a fact that China is a force to be reckoned with, and we are told that the Aztecs and presumably the Incas have also proved to be impenetrable nuts. Unable to do more than establish a handful of trading colonies on the coast of Africa, and with the British Empire reduced to, apparently, the colonies in India and the former colonies in North America, one is left to wonder how Europeans come by this apparent attitude. Given that Novik seems to have given a fair amount of thought to how the existence of dragons would shift the geopolitical balance of power in her fictional world, it is quite disappointing that she seems to have neglected to consider how these changes would alter the cultural attitudes of those who live in that universe.

The last part of the story brings the question of European treatment of dragons to the forefront. Having more or less resolved the human slavery question, Novik is free to bring the dragon issue out of its shadow. Threatened by invasion by Napoleon, the British elect to try a solution that seems parallel to Churchill's proposed plan to use chemical weapons to defend the United Kingdom against Nazi invasion. And by means of this plan, the British prove themselves to be utterly callous in their attitudes towards dragon welfare, prompting Tremeraire to drive Laurence to examine his own conscience on this issue. It is both unsurprising and depressing that the British, having been jolted out of their complacent superiority regarding African slavery, still regard dragons as merely large beasts of burden to be dealt with as cattle, an attitude in stark contrast to the attitudes held by Chinese and the Africans. The course Laurence and Tremeraire set upon in response to this seems to be the element that sets up the storyline for the remaining books in the series, which increasingly appears not to merely be "the Napoleonic Wars with dragons", but a fully realized alternate reality dealing with how humans will share their world with another, coequal intelligent species.

This book marks an important turning point in Novik's series. In the first three books events more or less paralleled the actual Napoleonic Wars: His Majesty's Dragon had Trafalgar, Throne of Jade had Austerlitz, and Black Powder War had Jena and Friedland. In Empire of Ivory events move entirely outside of anything that would relate to actual history, and in fact, are directly counter to actual history. At this point, Novik is moving into uncharted territory, and it appears that there may be no going back. This is the point where alternate history novels prove their mettle, either turning very bad very quickly, or emerging into the limelight to shine. In Empire of Ivory Novik seems to have made a good, although somewhat heavy handed, start on her own version of events. In the end, this is yet another excellent installment in the series that seems now determined to ply an independent course further away from history into new and potentially much more interesting areas.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 26, 2011, 9:57am Top

Between the last book and this one I have read:

The Economist (May 29th-June 4th, 2010)
Science News (May 22, 2010)
Mason Spirit: A Magazine for the George Mason University Community (Spring 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (May 2010)

Book Thirty-Eight: Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik.


Short review: Napoleon invades England, Laurence is a traitor, and Tremeraire gets some of what he wanted.

Long review: Unlike the previous two books, which more or less picked up immediately after the preceding one left off, Victory of Eagles skips over intervening events and kicks off with Laurence having already been convicted of treason for his actions in Empire of Ivory and Tremeraire having been sent to the breeding grounds, his good behaviour the price of postponing Laurence's death sentence. Against this personal drama, Napoleon's long dreaded invasion of the British Isles finally arrives and throws the entire nation into disarray.

Of course, this marks a major departure from history, in which Napoleon did not actually invade Britain at all. As has become a mark of the high quality of the Tremeraire series, the military strategies employed by the various combatants are in constant flux as each side copies the other, and then leaps ahead to exploit weaknesses in the operations of the other, and Napoleon's invasion force is no exception. Having already introduced Nelson into the storyline in His Majesty's Dragon, the battles for control of Britain itself now bring Wellesley to the fore, and he proves to be a heroic character, but only from a particular point of view. To a certain extent, Laurence's part in the war to liberate England seems to draw upon the Boer War as presented in Breaker Morant, with Laurence taking the place of the title character of that movie, handed vague unwritten orders to engage in actions to disrupt French operations behind their lines. This gives the war a brutal character that had been lacking before, drawing the populace directly into the conflict in a way that they had not before and ramping up the tension.

But the invasion and subsequent battles are really only the background for the real stories of the novel: Laurence coming to terms with his new status as a traitor, Tremeraire emerging into his own as an independent minded free individual, and both Laurence and Tremeraire finally fully understanding what the actions taken in Empire of Ivory have cost Laurence. To tell these stories, Novik begins to shift viewpoint regularly between Laurence and Tremeraire, which both makes Tremraire's viewpoint much more real to the reader, and interferes with the story in several places. In more than one instance, the same events are told from one viewpoint, and then told again from the other. This method can work, but more often than not it ends up being slightly tedious, especially if the characters are well-drawn enough that the reader can accurately tell ahead of time how a particular character will view a situation. Laurence, having been the primary focal character of the previous four books, is pretty predictable in most of the double recounted situations, and as a result his side of these particular scenes feels a little redundant.

On the other hand, it is critical to the story to get inside Laurence's head for much of it. Being a man of honor, Laurence is, of course, resigned to being condemned as a traitor and Tremeraire, though he does not understand why Laurence would accept being hanged, understands that his captain thinks this is an important point to stand upon. But Laurence does not, for much of the novel, fully grasp that being a traitor and being allowed to live means a life of almost total ostracism. Laurence also was seemingly unprepared for the responsibility he would feel for every death resulting from Napoleon's invasion. And when he does realize these things, he falls into despair and accepts an assignment from Wellesley (who demonstrates both his cunning and his ruthlessness by making the offer) that Laurence considers to be truly reprehensible. Laurence rationalizes this by telling himself that he, as a condemned man, has nothing to lose. Interestingly, it is Tharkay, who places little value on refinements like personal honor, who pushes Laurence into realizing that he is only honorless if he allows himself to be. Once again, Novik's deft touch allows her to make a sharp comment upon the social structure of Napoleonic era Britain.

Tremeraire, for his part, slowly comes to understand that having saved Laurence from death, he is unable to save him from the other baleful consequences heaped upon him, including the loss of his rank, social standing, and fortune. The fall in Laurence's personal fortunes is mirrored by the rise in Tremeraire's as the dragon puts his belief in draconic independence into action by rallying aid to the British cause from a wholly unexpected source. As a result of his new found initiative, Tremeraire finds himself handed authority, and finds his demands for pay for dragons taken seriously, by Wellesley at least. Tremerarie also finds that things don't turn out quite as he expected. Facing difficulties dealing with Iskierka, his most ardent convert, as well as his other dragon followers, Tremeraire soon discovers that freedom, while much preferable to servitude, is not quite as fun or easy as he had thought it would be. Iskierka's almost piratical attitude towards obtaining prizes to increase her plunder, and resulting greater wealth and independence, irks Tremeraire. By focusing heavily on Tremeraire as a central viewpoint character, and introducing a collection of mostly independent dragons to the story, Novik is able to more fully flesh out the dragons as independent characters in their own right, which adds even more depth to the story. The only weakness on this score is that the French dragons in general remain colorless beasts, while Tremeraire's nemesis Lien, though menacing, never seems to be more than a comic book style villain. By developing the individual character of the British dragons, Novik makes the underdeveloped French dragons in the book seem less real.

The developed characters of Laurence and Tremeraire, both noble and honorable in their own right, but regarded with suspicious or scorn by British society, are contrasted with Nelson and Wellesley, exalted by those around them. Nelson, especially, makes an interesting counterpoint to Laurence. In His Majesty's Dragon, while Nelson was lauded for his victory at Trafalgar, Laurence was regaled as almost his equal in heroism for his actions at Dover. However, by the time Victory of Eagles rolls around, Nelson is still a national hero, while Laurence is a despised traitor. The contrast in their fortunes is especially interesting when one evaluates the personal character of the men: Nelson is in favor of slavery, Laurence is an abolitionist. Nelson cheats on his wife and brings her into disrepute, Laurence is sensitive to the reputation of the woman who spurned him to marry another. Nelson was in favor of infecting the dragons of the world with an incurable disease, seeing them as nothing more than beasts of war, Laurence threw away everything to prevent this. And so on. Wellesley, for his part, though able and willing to make compromises necessary to victory, is presented as something of a scoundrel, willing to engage in pious hypocrisy to keep his own hands clean while ordering others to engage in what all around him to be dishonorable acts. One has to wonder if Novik is making something of a comment upon the nature of men who are needed to win wars.

As I have noted before, the Tremeraire series is remarkably thoughtful for a series that is usually described in flippant terms like "Hornblower meets Dungeons & Dragons", focusing on the issue of freedom, how humans treat one another, and how humans treat another sapient species. Interweaving large scale battles with some skullduggery, coupled with a healthy dose of character development and deftly added social commentary, Novik has managed to make "Napoleonic Wars with Dragons" into a series that is both exciting and thought provoking at the same time. The only real question at this point is having seemingly backed herself into a corner, can she figure out a way to keep the series on the superior trajectory it has thus far been upon, and follow up this superb novel with still more to come.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jun 2, 2010, 9:02am Top

I'm going to have to come back and read all these reviews once I've read more of the series! I don't want to accidentally stumble across a spoiler :) But, I'm very interested in your thoughts on Novik's books, they make for such great discussion with others.

Jun 2, 2010, 11:36am Top

72: I try not to be too spoilerish concerning events in the review for each individual book. I will reference things that took place in previous books that may be spoilers for those books if it is important to understand what is going on in the book being reviewed. For example, much of what happens to Laurence in Victory of Eagles is impossible to discuss without spoilers for Empire of Ivory.

Jun 2, 2010, 6:27pm Top

I'm with dk_phoenix, I'm anxious to read more in the series before I do more than skim through your lovely reviews, but, because of your interest, I'm determined to have the whole series on hand before I wade in (I've only read the first book, His Majesty's Dragon so far). Thank-you. :)

Edited: Nov 10, 2011, 11:33am Top

Book Thirty-Nine: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik.


Short review: Laurence and Tremeraire are transported to serve Laurence's sentence in Australia to find the colony in rebellion. Exploring the continent uncovers some unexpected surprises, and more rebellion. Serving British officers are almost uniformly stupid.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Tongues of Serpents, the sixth book in the Tremeraire series, finds Laurence and Tremeraire transported with a shipload of convicts to Australia to serve out Laurence's commuted sentence for treason. It is perhaps a mark of the high quality of this series that this is the first book in the sequence in which the world and the events in it seem contrived. Unfortunately, this still means that this is the weakest and least convincing book in the series thus far.

The first crack in the verisimilitude in the setting appears almost immediately. Once Laurence and Tremeraire arrive in Australia, they discover that Captain Bligh, the Royal Governor of the colony, has been deposed by a band of mutineers (as happened in real history in what is now called the Rum Rebellion). However, Bligh returns to the New South Wales colony with the intention of convincing Laurence and Ganby to use Tremeraire and Iskierka to place him back in power. In New South Wales, Laurence is subjected to insults and attacks due to his notoriety as a traitor. This seems quite strange given two things: first the colony is almost entirely made up of transported convicts and mutineers, which would seem to be a strange group to be overly concerned with Laurence's treachery. Second, while it is somewhat plausible that Laurence would be subject to murderous attempts in England, where there were numerous dragons to prevent Tremeraire from running amuck, it seems absurd that the denizens of New South Wales would risk Tremeraire's wrath, which would almost certainly mean the death of every inhabitant of the colony, by attempting to kill Laurence.

Bligh's constant attempts to get Laurence and Granby to reinstall him in power raises another issue that has been lurking in the background of the setting, but now jumps to the fore. While aviators, tied to their dragons, are considered to be outside normal society, one has to question why. Even if one assumes that the introduction of muskets, tall masted ships, and cannon allow dragonless humans to at least have a fighting chance against dragons, this would not have applied in the preceding centuries. Given that dragons and dragon companioned humans are not a new phenomenon in the setting, one would think that political power in the pre-gunpowder age would correlate closely with having a dragon at your beck and call. Rather than the knight with a large horse being able to install himself as ruler over those around him, it would have been the knight with a dragon at his side. This political sensibility seems to be reflected in the Tremeraire reality's Chinese and Tswana cultures (indicating that Novik at least thought about it a little), but seems to be completely absent from European culture, which seems almost inexplicable. Bligh's constant wheedling attempts to get Laurence to help him regain his position only serves to illustrate how dependent someone like Bligh would be upon the good graces of those with dragons, and how much better off he would be to have his own dragon to depend upon.

Throughout the Tremeraire series, Novik has done an excellent job at showing how the introduction of dragons as military assets into the world shifts the balance of global power. As I have noted before, the fact that the Chinese and Mesoamerican Empires are now forces to be reckoned with, coupled with the introduction of the Africa-spanning Tswana Kingdom in Empire of Ivory makes it clear that the universe is no longer a Eurocentric one. In Tongues of Serpents we also glean a little bit more knowledge concerning the nascent United States, and it appears that the former British colonies in North America are well-integrated with the Native American tribes, once again, demonstrating a lack of Eurocentrism. The only problem with the series is that despite the fact that they live in a non-Eurocentric world, the British characters in the Tremeraire books obstinately persist in behaving like they do. Despite the fact that they live in a reality in which the fundamental base of power has been radically altered, most of the British characters all persist in behaving as if the sentiments reflected in Rudyard Kipling's poem White Man's Burden were still applicable. Put bluntly, this makes all of these characters seem like complete idiots.

One would think after the pasting the slave traders took from the Tswana in Empire of Ivory and the extreme caution the British took in dealing with China in Throne of Jade that the British would be more cautious when dealing with alien powers. However, in the climatic scene in Tongues of Serpents we have a collection of bull-headed British commanders (save for the heroic Laurence and Granby) ignoring all the warning signs to launch an ill-considered attack upon a power that they had treated with kid gloves in previous books. This, of course, has predictably bad immediate consequences, but more to the point, even if the attack had gone exactly according to plan, it would have sparked a war with a nation that the British know has dozens of dragons for every one they can field - all while England is already fighting for its life against Napoleon and his new found allies. It seems ludicrous that a nation that had so recently been ravaged by an occupying army and still engaged in an arduous conflict would willingly take on a second major power for any reason. And then, to cap off the stupidity, after it is clearly demonstrated that the immediate consequence of belligerence is defeat, the British regroup, and a further set of authority figures sets about planning a foolishly conceived second attack. The only conclusion one can draw from this behaviour is that the British officers portrayed in Tongues of Serpents are not from the Tremeraire universe at all, but are rather British officers from our universe who have somehow been transferred over into the alternate reality with no briefings on the differences between the worlds, a fact made all the more glaring by the fact that the members of most other nations, such as the Portuguese and American traders who show up, seem to understand the changed nature of the world quite well.

This does not mean that Tongues of Serpents is simply wasted pages. Although there is fairly limited character development for Laurence and Tremeraire, the book introduces some new dragons who almost immediately set about demonstrating their own independence. Tremeraire is confronted with the idea that a dragon who can make his own choices may not simply make choices that Tremeraire would not make, but which make a certain amount of sense (as Iskierka often does), but may make choices that Tremeraire believes to be entirely wrong. This sequence of events also results in the return of Rankin, and his development into a formidable enemy for both Laurence and Tremeraire. Rankin is unlike the implacable Lien who merely wishes to kill Tremeraire, and who they could simply kill in return if they got the chance, but is instead a political enemy who will undoubtedly cause substantial trouble for Laurence via his family connections.

While Tremeraire spends much of the book dealing with the ramifications of dragon independence, Laurence spends his time grappling with the question of who he should give his loyalty to. Unfortunately, all of the various power groups that Laurence could align himself with are quite objectionable. It seems as though Novik intended to create doubt in the reader's mind as to which side of the conflict surrounding New South Wales Laurence would pick. But the real effect is to make one wonder how the British Empire survives at all with such a collection of complete idiots running it, and makes Laurence's final decision in the book an almost foregone conclusion. The only bright bit of character development is the somewhat comic nature of Laurence's clumsy handling of how to deal with Emily Roland's budding sexuality, and the earnest seriousness of the development of the African refugee Demane into a more fully fleshed out character.

In the end, the false internal conflict requiring Laurence to choose sides in the colony's petty political struggles, plus the complete and inexplicable idiocy of almost every British officer drag the book down from the excellent standard set by the previous entries in the series. That said, even with the slight downturn in quality this book displays, the series starts from such a superior starting point that this book remains quite good. It may be that the real problem with this book is that the story feels so small after Victory of Eagles in which the fate of England as an independent nation hung in the balance. Even the more interesting elements, such as the bunyips that infest the Australian Outback who could have been quite interesting given all the questions posed by their apparent society, seem to be little more than filler material to present an obstacle to the heroes and nothing more. As a result, the limited character development has to carry much of the book, and it simply isn't fully up to the task. I am concerned by the cracking verisimilitude of the setting - whereas the alternate reality seemed to fray a little bit at the edges here and there in previous stories, in this one at times it seems in danger of coming unraveled. The way seems clear for the series to return to the excellent path is took in previous books, but these inconsistencies must be sewn up or the entire series runs the risk of falling apart. I still recommend this book, but for what should be obvious reasons, not as highly as the previous ones in the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Feb 3, 2011, 2:29pm Top

Book Forty: The Gnoll Credo by J. Stanton.


Short review: A heavy-handed condemnation of modern society coupled with some Randian-style ramblings couched in the guise of a generic fantasy world.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

The Gnoll Credo is a book of libertarian atheistic philosophy thinly disguised as a work of bad fantasy. The idea of examining a nonhuman viewpoint using fantasy sensibilities to do so is certainly an interesting and intriguing idea. Sadly, the nonhuman viewpoint isn't much more than a rehash of some fairly standard libertarian ideas. I generally look favorably on libertarian fiction - I have a large number of Prometheus winners and nominees in my library - but the first requirement of a piece of fiction is to be good fiction and unfortunately, this is more of a lecture dressed up in generic fantasy clothing.

The first problem I have with the book is that the fantasy elements are so very, very generic. Everything is couched in generic terms - there is a generic fantasy city ruled over by a generic Duke, who has troubles with a generic bishopric and funds a generic university, and a generic frontier town that is visited by generic caravans carrying generic trade goods. The various evil denizens are generic: there are lion men, wolf men, orcs, trolls, ogres, and of course, the hyena men or gnolls. Most of the descriptions of the various humanoid creatures could have been taken directly from the pages of a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. The gnolls, described as hyena-like, appear to be identical in form to those that can be found in the various D&D Monster Manuals. On the whole, the fantasy element of the book reads more or less like the fluff text of a generic role-playing game supplement. Partially because of the incredibly generic nature of the fantasy, the various characters are never entirely convincing as being real, and as a result the reader simply doesn't care about them or their musings on the meaning of life.

This would have been excusable if the story had been a good one, but there isn't really a story here. The book is composed of the fictional scholarly studies on the gnoll race done by the fictional researcher Aidan O'Rourke who interacts with an especially intelligent gnoll named Gryka. The book is mostly made up of little vignettes, each of which is supposed to illustrate some element of gnoll culture that shows how it is superior to human culture. Gnoll culture is presented as an extreme hunter gatherer society, lacking in any religion of mysticism, with a matriarchal structure and a devil-may-care philosophy of life. The gnolls are supposedly completely fatalistic and utterly free of hypocrisy, resulting in a happy bunch of supposedly nomadic tribesmen. This is, of course, contrasted with the humans who are "slaves" to other humans because they are tied to land as farmers that they have to defend (never mind that gnolls are, according to the book, tied to a territory that they will defend). I will digress for a second and recommend Ride of the Second Horseman by Robert L. O'Connell in which he describes what he calls the "plant trap", and why it is beneficial and why it caused warfare, covering this ground more effectively and in more detail. Among many other faults humans are, according to the gnolls, too tied to possessions and too worried about what might happen.

Oddly, at one point the story goes on about how humans are bad hunters. I say this is odd, because the one thing history tells us is that humans are the most effective hunters in our world's history. The book does this by separating humans from the fruits of their intellect, and comparing them to the natural gifts attributed to gnolls. But that's just silly. Humans are ferociously effective hunters because of our prodigious minds, and splitting them up simply misses the point. We are, in fact, such effective hunters that we convinced our prey to live under our protection so that we can eat them any time we want to. This, of course, doesn't fit the philosophical point being made in The Gnoll Credo, so it is taken as yet another weakness of humans that we rely upon domesticated animals. But the human mind, and human imagination which allows that kind to conceive of things that have never existed before, is what allows us to dominate. Oddly, the gnolls in the story are supposedly able to guide the development of their species via self-directed breeding programs (a form of artificial selection mislabeled natural selection in the book), but at the same time supposedly never daydream, or even seem to have any kind of imagination. The contradiction here should be obvious: if you are unwilling or unable to conceive of something that has never been, it is hard to see how one would conceive a way to develop a version of your own race that does not yet exist.

As an aside, one of the elements that repeatedly pulls the reader out of what little story there is the constant insertion of somewhat anachronistic elements. Aidan, for example, refers to the Goidelic heritage behind his name. The characters talk about the theory of evolution by natural selection. Late in the book, when the author seemingly feels the need to beat the reader over the head with his point, references are made to Orwell, Islam, and the internet. And there is copious amounts of modern profanity. At some points the page is littered with "fuck", "cock", "ass", "shit", and so on. This is not in and of itself a problem, but most of the profanity seems to be added merely out of a desire to seem edgy and daring for its own sake. Instead, it comes off as slightly pathetic. At one point there is even a version of "in Soviet Russia, the dice roll you" in the book. This sort of incongruity makes the characters in the story, that were already not particularly convincing, even less so.

So what are we left with? Basically the book is an extended lecture on how screwed up human society is because we have farming, and civilization, and religion, and fantasies (which is odd, because if we didn't, then this book would not exist), and how much cleaner and purer the hypothetical gnoll society is. Over and over Aidan is stunned to silence by the supposedly great insights Gryka confronts him with. The only real conclusion a reader can come to is that Aidan is seemingly pretty easy to stun. After making his argument not very subtly, the author adds an epilogue in which he repeats his argument in a didactic manner, beating the reader about the head and shoulders with his point. But the point, that humans are called by their blood to be hunters, and we would be happier (and presumably better off) if we discarded civilization and emulated the gnolls as hunters is simply unconvincing. The argument is something of an extreme form of libertarianism that only works for the strong and the lucky. But who would really want to give up modern dentistry, modern medicine, music, art, literature, heated homes, indoor plumbing, and all the other fruits of civilization in exchange for the joys of the freedom of the hunt. It is not enough to say some people do not enjoy these benefits, the answer there is to work towards a society in which they do. Yes, we are hunters by evolutionary heritage, but that does not mean that is all we are, or all we can be.

Finally, lurking on the edges of the argument is the idea that religion and mysticism is a frippery that humans have that the clear headed gnolls have eschewed. I am not particularly in favor of religion, but what it reflects is the vast imagination of humans, and I contend that this vast imagination is the foundation of human civilization and no thinking creature can exist without such an imagination. It is the ability to conceive of a thing that does not yet exist that allows for the creation of innovative things - even things as simple as a stone cutting tool. Our imaginations are so powerful that under their influence we put spirits in the trees, pictures in the sky, and gods behind the mountains and then convince ourselves that they are real. Gnolls, supposedly lacking in such thinking, would be unable to do any of the things they are depicted doing in the book. As a result, the argument made in the book simply does not stand up on its own merits.

In the end, The Gnoll Credo is simply a mess. It is mostly inoffensively bland as a fantasy story, and entirely unconvincing as a philosophical piece. With only two real characters in the book, it is telling that they remain little more than cardboard mouthpieces for the author. While this book might be of some modest use for someone trying to play a fantasy role-playing game who wanted some sort of in-depth treatment of a hypothetical gnoll society, as a piece of fiction or a piece of philosophy it is simply not that good.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 10, 2011, 3:56pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (June 5, 2010)
University of Virginia Arts & Sciences (Spring 2010)
The Economist (June 5th-11th, 2010)
The Economist (June 12th-18th, 2010)

Book Forty-One: The Prophecy of Zephyrus by g.a.G. A. Hesse.


Short review: A long, not very exciting story set in a fairy tale world with preadolescent sensibilities.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

I think that there are a substantial number of young girls who spin themselves imaginary fairy kingdoms they can populate with winged horses that fly to the moon, castles of brave knights, queens, and forests with elves. Since these little girls have probably read The Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia, they probably also populate their fairy lands with talking animals. Because knights and elves need enemies to bravely face they put evil sorcerers, fire breathing dragons, and scary insect people. At the center of this fairy world is, of course, the beautiful princess, perhaps a stand-in for the little girl herself. Once in a while, a little girl like this grows up and writes a book using her fairy kingdom as the setting. G.A. Hesse appears to have been one of these little girls who grew up and decided to become a writer, and The Prophecy of Zephyrus is the result.

Unfortunately, fantasies spun in the daydreams of young girls don't seem to result in much more than a mediocre story. The primary problem that The Prophecy of Zephyrus has as a book is that this being a world spun in a daydream, there can't really be very many bad things that happen to the characters in the story. The villain in the book goes to great lengths to abduct the beautiful ingenue, but since this is a daydream-based fairy tale, she is never threatened with any harm as a result. In effect, the villain simply wants to get our heroine to his tower so he can try to woo her because he is awed by her beauty, which seems like a fantasy a twelve-year old girl might spin. The heroes who set out to rescue her from being courted don't kill their enemies (although their enemies are spider-men and ant-men who humanity is more or less at war with, and who would happily eat them), but knock them out and tie them up. Granted, the villain's spider-men ambush a group of soldiers and kill them all (and apparently eat them), but the soldiers are a faceless group that are eliminated off-stage, so the impact is pretty minor. On the other hand, the worst a supposedly scary fire-breathing dragon can do is shorten a small animal's tail.

The other central problem with the book is that it is just not that well-written. The first of these problems is that much of the writing itself is stilted, especially the dialogue. Much of the dialogue is incredibly stiff, although the style of dialogue lurches between stiff formality to very weak attempts to make the speech more colloquial (by having characters say "ya" instead of "you" a lot). One speech oddity that crops up over and over is characters addressing the person they are speaking with by name. In general, when two people are having a conversation at which no other person is present, they don't say things like this bit of text found on page 4 after a half page of dialogue: "What I want to know is, who wrote that on the rock, and why? Tell me what to do, Will. What's going on? How can I get rid of these bad dreams?" This sort of gratuitous insertion of character names into conversation is a fairly common pattern in the book, and it just grates on the reader's nerves. Another fairly annoying recurring writing foible is the tendency to italicize the names of places or things (although not always consistently). Names of places, translations of names, and so on get this treatment, although not every time, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to what gets italicized and what doesn't, and when.

The second writing problem is a lack of attention to detail. The book itself is centered around the prophecy of the title. But the book never explains who Zephyrus was, or why anyone pays attention to his prophecy. Oddly, the writer seems to go out of her way to try to keep the exact nature of the prophecy a secret in the early part of the book, revealing it in full on page 91. But the text of the prophecy is found just before the table of contents, making the secrecy kind of moot, since any reader who looked at the beginning pages in the book will have already seen the prophecy. Making the entire prophecy element kind of silly is the fact that the prophecy doesn't actually contribute anything to the story. Characters don't make decisions based on the prophecy, no one consults it to guide their actions. They just see the male lead show up, decide he's the guy who is going to save everyone, and sit back to let it happen. The prophecy is sort of Nostradamus-like in that no one can use it to predict what is going to happen, as the meaning of the text only becomes clear after the predicted events have already happened. The hero has a horse that is telepathic, although why some animals can talk telepathically, some can talk normally, and some can do both is never explained. The horse pops into and out of the story-line, and eventually just drops out of the story. Early in the story we are introduced to malevolent trolls, and slightly more ambiguously evil goblins, but the villain doesn't recruit them as his soldiers for wholly unexplained reasons, instead making insects and lions into men. Once the spider-men, ant-men, and lion-men show up, the trolls and goblins vanish, never to be seen again. Over and over again, elements are introduced to the story, hang around for a bit, and are then dropped.

And this doesn't even begin to deal with the oddities of plot and characters featured in the book. The main character is Oberon Griffin, a character presumably from our modern day world who is whisked away to the fairy land of Windermere. Once there, he is tagged as the central figure in an all-important prophecy, and sets about his adventures. In keeping with the stiff dialogue, the various characters around him patiently spend copious amounts of text dumping information upon Oberon (or Obie, as he prefers to be called), making for some fairly tedious background scenes. This being a fairy tale story, everyone Obie meets immediately accepts his explanation of being transported by magic to the kingdom, and the Queen of Windermere takes a shine to him, giving him clothes, training and a horse. One thing Obie brings with him from the modern world is his "Raptor", a special and powerful slingshot, which the locals are improbably impressed with (as it is less effective as a weapon than, say, a bow, a weapon they seem to have plenty of, due to its non-lethal nature). Obie is more or less a wish-fulfillment character - once in Windermere he discovers that he can communicate via telepathy, discovers that he has elvish blood in his veins giving him superior abilities, loses the limp that has plagued him for his whole life, and falls in love with the princess.

The main problem facing Windermere is the "celestial dimming", meaning that the stars, the moon, and the sun are slowly fading. This is caused, apparently, by a cabal of six evil sorcerers, including the antagonist of this book, the evil Torolf. This seems to be a pretty stupid plan for the evildoers, since everyone pretty much accepts that once the various celestial lights go out, all life on Earth will end, which would seem to make the villainous plans amount to little more than an elaborate form of suicide. Instead of setting out to figure out how to prevent this inexplicably stupid plan, the good inhabitants of Windermere place all their hopes on flying to the moon to gather a crystal to pair with a hidden crystal they think they know the location of to somehow fix the problem. I say "somehow" because none of them actually know what the two crystals do, either individually or together. Meanwhile, Obie sets about learning swordplay, getting into arguments with the soldiers he spends his time with, and attending royal meals and festivals. As an aside, one thing that is odd about the book is the enormous verbiage spent discussing what everyone has for dinner. Despite the story supposedly taking place in the winter, with all the lights in the sky getting dimmer and colder (presumably making winter even harsher than normal), everyone almost always seems to have plenty to eat, and Hesse seems to feel the need to describe it all. Another oddity is that the horses and windlords (or winged horses) seem to eat nothing but clover in the book.

As noted before, the princess-figure is kidnapped, and Obie sets out with no one but his telepathic horse to rescue her. He comes across a lion-man to help him, but like most elements of the story, the fact that his companion is a lion-man turns out to be of little more than cosmetic consequence. Tau, as the lion-man calls himself, is more or less just a big strong guy. He fights with a sword, eats human food, acts like a normal man, and pretty much behaves more or less like Little John to Obie's Robin Hood. Along the way, they also pick up a mole named Mole to accompany them, who turns out to pretty much behave like a human in a mole suit. The odd thing about the quest is that almost all of the book is spent describing the travels of the characters, what they eat, and where they camp. The few times the heroes run across bad guys, they spend all their time running away from them. At one point they suffer through a blizzard and run out of food, but once they find some friends, that sort of privation is immediately forgotten. Once they reach their objective, they sort of run through the actual rescue in an almost perfunctory manner.

Of course, having rescued the damsel, the heroes have to foil the evil wizard. Once again, large volumes of space are spent on moving people about, until everyone is finally ready to confront the evil villain and his dragon, and then everything ends in a hurried deus ex machina ending. Adding insult to injury, after the villain's armies vanish in a puff of smoke (almost literally), he is killed, and all the bad things that happened to people are undone, the budding love triangle of the story is resolved in a Return of the Jedi type twist that is no less groan-inducing than George Lucas' original. Even the terrible memories of his own mother's death that haunt Obie are whisked away in a rather odd scene. Of course, after Obie returns to the real world, he's been changed for the better - where he was geeky, he becomes popular, where he was beset by a limp, he becomes a star athlete, where he fumbled over the girl of his dreams, he now confidently courts her, and so on. In effect, everything wraps up in a bow in the last ten or twenty pages of the book, as everything bad is basically washed away by overwhelming magical aid.

Although the book has serious problems, it does have some redeeming qualities. Though the book is mostly generic fantasy, the idea of having spider-men, called raks, and ant-men, called muks, as the villains' army is kind of unusual. Unfortunately, like many things in the book the fact that they are spider-men and ant-men is not particularly relevant (although the spider-men do have poisonous fangs). They don't seem to gain any particular advantage from having multiple limbs, and their one big advantage, the ability to climb sheer walls, never really comes into play, and they prove to have a huge weakness that makes them entirely useless as an army at the end of the book. The idea of the villain darkening the world is not a new one, featuring prominently in The Silmarillion for example, but it isn't a bad villainous plot (except for the fact that everyone on Earth, including the villain, will die as a result). Some opportunities seem to be missed - the "Shadow People" talked about in the book turn out to be little more than stereotypical Native American imitations that are really good at hiding, instead of people made of shadows, which would have been much more interesting.

In the end, this book seems like a missed opportunity. With a little more care, and a little more imagination, it could have been a pretty good young adult fantasy story. As it is, the unpolished nature of the setting, the extraordinarily slow movement of the plot, a wooden villain with an inexplicably dumb plan, the deus ex machina ending, coupled with some fairly stiff writing makes for a mediocre book. The fantasy elements are mostly bland and generic, which is not a failing in and of itself, but a book built on a fantasy world more or less interchangeable with a dozen others has to have a strong story, and this one simply does not. Perhaps because the book seems to be built on a child's daydream, nothing bad can happen, or seem like it is going to happen, and as a result, very little does happen other than a lot of walking around, a lot of exposition, and a lot of descriptions of dinner. This, unsurprisingly, does not make for a very interesting book.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 6, 2011, 9:58am Top

Book Forty-Two: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 5 & 6 (May/June 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Why That Crazy Old Lady Goes Up the Mountain by Michael Libling
Thief of Shadows by Fred Chappell
Dr. Death vs. the Vampire by Aaron Schutz
The Crocodiles by Steven Popkes
A History of Cadmium by Elizabeth Bourne
The Real Martian Chronicles by John Sladek
Remotest Mansions of the Blood by Alex Irvine
Seven Sins for Seven Dwarfs by Hilary Goldstein
Silence by Dale Bailey
Forever by Rachel Pollack
The Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe by Robert Onopa
The Gypsy's Boy by Lokiko Hall

Long review: The May/June 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is heavily skewed towards fantasy. While this is not a big deal, since the need for magazine based science fiction can be filled by Analog and Asimov's, it is somewhat disconcerting to see a magazine that has half its title devoted to science fiction devote a mere third of its stories to the genre. Even so, this is a very good issue of the magazine, as the stories are all at least average, with several being decidedly above average.

The Real Martian Chronicles by John Sladek is science fiction in form, but is mostly a humorous story that, to a certain extent, apes the style of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, positing a Mars colonized by British and American settlers from the 1950s, complete with nuclear paranoia, and quaint ideas about how to keep house and what sort of work is important to get done. This is contrasted with the somewhat less than plush living conditions the settlers have to put up with. It is silly and funny. Steven Popkes dark version of a George Romero zombie apocalypse set in the Third Reich titled The Crocodiles is anything but silly and funny. Combining the horrors of a brain-eating zombie plague with the cruel indifference of Nazi Germany, the story is bleak and depressing, and yet still excellent. Following on the theme of cruelty, is Silence by Dale Bailey, which I classify as science fiction here, although the story is ambiguous enough that it could be fantasy (substituting a fairy creature for an alien). Smaller in scope than The Crocodiles, but with a more personal and familiar form of human cruelty, this story is close to being just as bleak, and is also quite good. The final science fiction story in this issue is The Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe by Robert Onopa, a nanotechnology run amuck story that wraps its horror elements in some light comedy, with a series of decisions by a young boy that unintentionally lead to a rather frightening conclusion.

The meat of the issue is the fantasy. The cover story is Why That Crazy Old Lady Goes Up the Mountain by Michael Libling, a somewhat convoluted tale about an orphaned girl seeking God, and a neglected boy who tries to bring her to him. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, dealing with the subject of death from multiple angles. The writing in the story is good, and the characters are well-drawn, but the ending seems to come out of left field and leaves most of the question raised in the text completely unanswered. Another story that places the subject of death at its core is Remotest Mansions of the Blood by Alex Irvine, in which a strange sort of love triangle involving an American man in love with a Hatian or possibly Belizeian woman he has never actually spoken to who is seemingly in love with a collection of dead potential lovers that she never spoke to when they were alive. Situated in Caracol, following an earthquake which killed large portions of the population, the American protagonist becomes obsessed with following his love-interest to find the mansions of the blood, where the ghosts of the freshly departed are trapped until no one remembers them. The story is full of imagery and deep meaningful metaphors, and one is never sure if any of the people involved in the story are actually alive, or if they are all dead and are simply lost souls play-acting at being alive. I'm not sure if the story is as insightful as the author intended, but it is still disturbing and worth reading.

Thief of Shadows by Fred Chappell is a more traditional fantasy, set in a world in which shadows contain the essence of a person, and can be stolen by people with the right skills. The protagonist is the apprentice of a prominent dealer in shadows (and who has something of a dark history as a stealer of shadows). The story is a fantasy whodunit, as the characters are drawn into a web of intrigue concerning a stolen shadow. The story is full of action and mystery, and the resolution of the story is both unexpected, and perfectly in line with the clues provided to the reader. Also more or less a traditional fantasy is Dr. Death vs. the Vampire by Aaron Schutz, although this is an urban fantasy involving a confrontation between a supernaturally gifted vampire-hunter and a vampire who both happen to be riding the same intercity bus. The story has a well-defined cast of characters, and a fairly vividly described fantasy reality. One interesting element of the story is that the vampire does not feed on blood, but on pain, and the portrayal of the creature runs almost directly counter to the currently popular vampire-as-Lothario imagery used in most fangbanger stories.

Two of the fantasies draw upon fairy tales for their inspiration, but have decidedly un-fairy tale sensibilities. Seven Sins for Seven Dwarfs by Hilary Goldstein is, as one would expect from the title, a variant on the classic story of Snow White mixed with the Greek myth of Pandora's box. Each of the dwarves in the story is the guardian of a box holding, presumably, one of the seven deadly sins, and each one seems to have had their personality affected by their charges, making for some somewhat risque banter. Of course, the introduction of the nubile young Snow White, exiled for her beauty at the behest of her jealous stepmother (which seems like a contradiction in the story if the deadly sins are really locked away), sets events in motion with somewhat disastrous consequences, although the ending is somewhat ambiguous as it seems like maybe the dwarves have not been as good stewards of their responsibilities as they claim. The second fairy tale inspired story is Forever by Rachel Pollack, which seems to draw from the same well that Neil Gaiman used when he created his Sandman series. The title character Forever loses a bet with her sisters and has to become mortal for a day. As might be expected, things go awry, which throws the cosmic balance off kilter. In the end, Forever is confronted with a choice between her new mortal life and her old immortal life, which proves to be more difficult than one would think. The story is both sad and moving.

The remaining two stories in the issue are fantasies that deal with the questions of heritage and loss. In A History of Cadmium by Elizabeth Bourne, a young woman's primary legacy from her famous artist mother is a single painting. The story winds through the woman's life until the final resolution when she discovers that some things she thought were true about her and her mother have turned out to be not as clear as she thought. The fantasy of the story is, of course, the painting, which demonstrates a woman's love for the girl she raised. This was, in my opinion, the best story in the issue. Also dealing with heritage and loss is The Gypsy's Boy by Lokiko Hall, a fantasy about a young blind boy sold to a gypsy to serve as her hands. The story packs a lot of elements into a few pages: the boy growing into manhood, his loss of the only mother he had known, and his first love and loss, as well as the price of getting what we have always wanted. Though not as good as Cadmium, it is still a very good story.

Overall, this is one of the better issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, although the issue was a little heavy on stories with themes of death and loss, and two of the four science fiction stories were more horror than science fiction. Even so, the generally high quality of the writing and the engaging nature of the stories makes up for this. This issue could have been turgid and depressing, with all the death oriented stories, but each writer manages to make their story sad without making it so dark as to be unreadable and the issue is punctuated with just enough other stories to give the variety needed to keep one's interest.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 25, 2010, 1:25am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (July 2010)
Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (June 2010)
Science News (June 19, 2010)

Book Forty-Three: Stealing Fire by Jo Graham.


Short review: Alexander is dead, and in the following chaos Lydias chooses to throw in his lot with Ptolemy and Egypt.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Stealing Fire is billed as a historical fantasy - that is, a book that is set in something akin to our own history but upon which magical elements have been overlaid. The novel is set in the chaotic time immediately after Alexander the Great's untimely death and is told from the viewpoint of Lydias, a Companion cavalryman of mixed heritage who must navigate through the political infighting that takes place when Alexander's ambitious generals try to stake their claim to his throne. The novel is loosely connected to Graham's other two historical fantasy novels Black Ships and Hand of Isis, although loosely enough that despite the fact that I have read neither, I did not feel like I was missing anything from this story.

The novel opens immediately after Alexander has died, and the fighting breaks out seemingly before his body has even grown cold. Lydias, as a commander of an Ile of Companion cavalry, is important enough to be in danger, but not important enough to do anything on his own. Based upon almost nothing but some sense that he is the only figure of political importance worth following, Lydias throws his lot in with Ptolemy the Satrap of Egypt. He is entrusted with the sensitive task of spiriting Ptolemy's concubine and children away from the dangers of Babylon to Egypt. Once in Egypt, Lydias learns that all is not well following the Great King's death, and there is much to be done to set things right.

The main story of the book is told in mostly linear fashion, but it is intercut with flashbacks that give the reader background information about Lydias, how he became a soldier and eventually a Companion, and the interrelationships between the various characters in the story. Although this sort of background detail interwoven into an ongoing story could serve to bog things down, Graham is able to inset them into gaps in the action in such a way that they feel natural and, in most cases, provide critical details without interrupting the main narrative. This sort of background detail is needed as it helps to define the various relationships between the characters, and explain why the various actors have chosen particular sides. Given the somewhat intricate nature of the politics of the day, adding this sort of information in small chunks interwoven throughout the book rather than overwhelming the reader with long expository material at the beginning is an effective and probably necessary method.

Much of the story revolves around the intrigues surrounding the disposal of Alexander's body, which takes several years to accomplish. The fantasy element of the story enters in through this portion of the story, as the supernatural denizens of Egypt have become unsettled as a result of the death of the Pharoah, in the form of Alexander, with no replacement to keep the unsavory spirits in check. Through various signs and visions, the Gods of Egypt offer Ptolemy the throne of Egypt, but only under certain conditions. This fantasy overlay upon the events of history is done with a fairly light touch, as almost all of them could be easily explained as hallucinations or coincidences. They are, however, regarded as real by the characters in the novel, so whether they are in truth real or not is a somewhat unimportant question. The reality the characters face is that they accept the truth of the mythology of Egypt, and hence they are real for the reader as well. This effectively adds an interesting element to a piece of historical fiction without changing the world so much that history would be affected.

The meat of the story is the path taken by Lydias. During the main plot line of the book, he has already progressed from being a half-Greek sold into slavery by his indifferent father to stableboy to soldier. In the book he, by necessity, has to learn how to lead men in battle and rule men in peace. Lydias must also learn to let go of the tragedies of his past and embrace the future, both his own personal future (which sees him coming full circle, effectively accepting the same burden that he accepted at the beginning of the story) and the one envisaged for Egypt by Ptolemy. Ptolemy, as portrayed in the book, represents the element of Alexander's philosophy of rule that modern readers in the Western world would most identify with: tolerant, even encouraging of a polyglot society with fundamentally fair laws that apply equally to all. And it is to this ideal that many of the men who rally to his cause are drawn, including the half-Greek half-Anatolian Lydias. Lest one imagine that Ptolemy is wholly altruistic, this society is necessary to protect his own half-Macedonian half-Greek children and the children of his soldiers, most of whom married or merely fathered children with women from across Asia during Alexander's years of conquest.

The only caution I would have concerning the book is that it does deal with the sexual activities of the various actors in a fairly straightforward manner. Given that male bisexuality is taken as an accepted norm of the period, many of the male characters are involved in sexual relationships with one another. The book also deals frankly with societal norms such as the common presence of eunuchs, and the often unequal sexual relationships between men and women. Ptolemy, for example, has a long term relationship with an Athenian hetaira, with whom he had fathered three children, but both he and she accept a politically advantageous marriage to a Macedonian princess. A reader who is likely to be offended by male homosexuality or the open acknowledgement of the sexual politics of the era should probably avoid the book. Graham's treatment of these issues, however, is presented as a well-integrated part of the story, and serves to enhance the reader's understanding of the characters. Unlike many books that seem to include sex as something that seems almost tacked on as an obligatory part of a story checklist, this element in the story is a necessary and integral part of the novel.

The novel starts at a fast pace, and is punctuated with action throughout. But the best part of the story is not the battle scenes, as well written and realistic as they are. The best part is watching Ptolemy, Lydias, and the rest of the characters attempt the seemingly impossible tasks of navigating the political quagmire of Alexander's disintegrating empire while at the same time transforming themselves from soldiers into architects, diplomats, and rulers. Set in the backdrop of these events is a mythology that successfully walks the fine line between history and fantasy. In short, this is a book well worth reading for anyone who is interested in historical fiction or fantasy.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jun 24, 2010, 1:44am Top

#79: Very nice review, Aaron. Thanks!

Jun 24, 2010, 9:32am Top

80: Thank you.

Jun 24, 2010, 1:51pm Top

I read all your reviews. You do a terrific job every time.

Jun 24, 2010, 2:03pm Top

82: Well, thank you many times over! The best reward I can get for writing these, besides the personal satisfaction that comes from focusing my thoughts on a book by writing something about it, is the knowledge that someone else has enjoyed them too.

Jun 24, 2010, 2:07pm Top

I enjoy reading reviews, especially in genres with which I am not familiar, so that I continue to expand my reading horizons, one of the definite benefits of LT for me.

Jul 3, 2010, 1:01am Top

Your reviews really are excellent, Aaron. The depth and readability actually have convinced me to pick up the Temeraire series again after I dropped it after Black Powder War.

Edited: Dec 16, 2010, 9:28am Top

Thank you ronincats.

Between the last book and this one, I read:

The Economist (June 19th-25th, 2010)
The Economist (June 26th-July 2nd, 2010)

Book Forty-Four: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXX, No. 9 (September 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone
Pupa by David D. Levine
Eight Miles bySean McMullen
Spludge by Richard A. Lovett
Red Letter Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Flotsam by K. C. Ball
The View from the Top by Jerry Oltion
Sandbagging by Kyle Kirkland

Science fact articles included:
Bad Medicine: When Medical Research Goes Wrong by H. G. Stratmann

Long review: The September 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is another example of the overall good quality of this magazine. Although it is weighed down by a lacklustre science fact article and a couple of mediocre stories, the high quality of the remainder of the issue more than makes up for these minor missteps.

That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone is another entry into the odd field of Mormon based science fiction (seriously, what is it about Mormonism that seems to drive people to include it as an element in science fiction stories). In this story, an LDS member working on humanity's colony on the Sun tends to his flock of Solarian converts. The Solarians are the leviathan creatures of the title, giant hydrogen creatures that inhabit the insides of stars and who make interstellar travel possible. Humanity's attempts to convert these creatures to its faiths does not go unnoticed, and the conflict over religious freedom forms the core of the story. The story isn't bad, but it isn't particularly interesting either, falling back onto some fairly tired religious cliches in its resolution, although one character does point out that the main character has placed God into a no lose position with respect to the various potential outcomes, making the actions attributed to God less than convincing as demonstrations of God's power.

Pupa by David D. Levine is another story dealing with alien interaction with humans, this time told from the perspective of an alien who has to transcend the cultural and biological limitations of its species in order to ensure its own survival and the survival of its siblings. Humans in the story are looming giants, frightening and inscrutable, so the alien interacts with a child, albeit a fairly well-placed child. The only real problem with the story is that the humans the alien interacts with are so clearly intended to be members of Barack Obama's administration and family that the story probably won't age particularly gracefully. This is a shame, because the story concerning the alien and its culture is quite interesting and told quite well. Spludge by Richard A. Lovett is yet another alien contact story, this time told with a humorous bent as a long time practical joker figures out that the aliens who have landed may not be exactly what they seem to be. There's nothing particularly insightful about the story, it is merely a somewhat humorous interlude in the issue.

Probably the most memorable story in the issue is Red Letter Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which tackles the long pondered question of the morality of time-travel. In short, the story poses the question: if you could send one piece of information back to your past self what would you tell them? More importantly, would you tell yourself anything? And if you did tell yourself something, could it cause more trouble than the danger you were trying to warn against? The story is set in a world in which such time travel is a reality, and everyone is allowed to send one letter back to their high school self when they turn fifty years old. Of course, some high schoolers don't get a letter, but instead get the so-called red letter indicating nothing was sent for them. The characters in the story are a group of these students, as they deal with the implications of the absence of communication from their future selves.

Flotsam by K. C. Ball is an old-fashioned engineering puzzle story, as a crew of space salvage workers must figure out a way to survive an accident in space that has crippled their ship. Typical of these stories, the fun in reading them stems from watching the characters unravel the problem they are confronted with and coming up with a solution using the tools at hand in Apollo 13 style. The solution the characters in this story come up with is pretty basic, but would probably work, and the story on the whole is pretty satisfying, if unspectacular. The View from the Top by Jerry Oltion is also something of an engineering puzzle story, although less obviously so. In this story, an astronaut assigned to a tour aboard the International Space Station finds himself subject to uncontrollable fits of emotion, and must either figure out how to get them under control or be forced to end his time in space prematurely. I'm not sure that the cause and solution that the characters arrive at is plausible, but I don't know enough about the specific science involved to state that it is implausible either. Decent characterization and good story-telling make the story pretty good either way.

Sandbagging by Kyle Kirkland is a dystopian tale in which the best of intentions have placed humanity's future in peril. Having turned all decision-making over to an orbiting computer, humanity finds itself subject to some unpleasant decisions made by its new overlord. Having already had most power sources turned off, humanity faces the possibility of mass genocide directed by its supposedly benevolent computer ruler, and the characters in the story, a set of professors and graduate students at the "University for Advanced Research" must cope with this information as well as the continuing academic squabbles over research. The conclusion of the story reminded me to a certain extent of the conclusion in Stand on Zanzibar, and any story that reminds me of that book is a pretty good one. Coming from an entirely different, but equally enjoyable angle is Eight Miles by Sean McMullen, in which a balloonist in Victorian England is hired by a wealthy Baron to hoist an unusual passenger up to high altitudes. The story seems influenced in equal parts by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne, with plenty of Victorian gadgetry and planetary romance as well as a nefarious plot that the heroic protagonist must foil. Though it isn't anything more than a fun yarn, it is a really good fun yarn, and thus it is quite enjoyable to read.

The science fact article in this issue is Bad Medicine: When Medical Research Goes Wrong by H. G. Stratmann. Like most science fact articles focused on medical developments, it is fairly dry and bland. Put bluntly, although Stratmann does his best, there is almost no way to make an article that explores the failures of medical research as interesting as one concerning new discoveries in astronomy or developments in alternative energy. Still, the article is replete with useful factual information, and covers the intended subject fairly well.

Despite the dull and dry nature of Bad Medicine, and the moderately tedious nature of That Leviathan, the rest of the issue is quite good. Both Red Letter Day and Sandbagging are superior stories, and Eight Miles and Pupa are above average. Even the engineering puzzle stories are well-executed, making them enjoyable to read. Overall, this is yet another good issue of a good publication.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 8, 2010, 12:09am Top

Book Forty-Five: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.


Short review: All the heroes of legend share the same story. Maybe.

Long review: The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell's magnum opus, and is probably most famous in popular culture as the work that George Lucas claims he used to craft the hero myth of the Star Wars series. The trouble with this assertion is that Campbell's "monomyth" is so overbroad and generic that Lucas could have come up with almost any story featuring a heroic protagonist and it would have fit into Campbell's theory. The fact that the central thesis of the book is so completely pointless, coupled with an almost obsessive fascination with the somewhat less than convincing Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, seriously hampers the enjoyment and supposed insights to be derived from this book. The only truly saving grace of the book is Campbell's extensive references to a broad range of mythology to make his points, drawing some interesting parallels between the mythologies of disparate cultures, although they are parallels that simply don't serve to make his case.

Cambell was a leading figure in the fields of comparative meythology and comparative religion, and this fact is on display throughout this book. Campbell pulls myth stories from a wide variety of cultures and traditions, each intended to highlight some point or another. Those who are ardent followers of a particular faith may find Campbell's treatment of their faith's stories jarring, as he treats all religious stories, whether they be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or any other, as mere myths to be analyzed as creations of the human mind. Unfortunately, while Campbell was clearly an expert in mythology, he was also infatuated with Freud and Jung, and throughout the book he tries to shoehorn all of the stories into Jungian archetypes and subject them to Freudian psychoanalysis. Campbell also tries to use both Freud and Jung to draw parallels between the myth stories of older eras, and the unconscious dreams of modern men. Campell's attempts to drawn parallels between a collection of dream case histories and a selection of events from various myths is particularly unconvincing when one realizes that for almost any event someone would dream about, one could find some story somewhere with which one could draw some sort of comparison. Whether this element of Campbell's book resonates with the reader is entirely dependent upon how one views Freud and Jung. As I don't find much of value in Freud's work, and am only marginally impressed with Jung, these comparisons in the book left me cold.

Campbell's main thesis is that all of the hero myths in human history are merely expressions of a single "monomyth" that transcends culture. The trouble is that Campbel achieves this "monomyth" by the simple expedient of including every possible variation into his definition. A hero is called to quest, does or does not accept, is or is not helped by a wise guide, is or is not granted supernatural aid, does or does not fight an enemy who may or may not have supernatural attributes, does or does not survive and does or does not return home. To dilute things even more, Campbell includes an array of other, sundry possibilities in order to be able to encompass as many mythological stories as possible. And yet, despite having crafted a thesis that appears to be so broad as to be almost meaningless, Campbell still has to stretch some of the stories he cites beyond all recognition to fit them under the umbrella. In short, most hero myths probably are part of the Campbellian monomyth simply because Campbell made the monomyth such a big tent that almost any story could fit under it. While this makes his thesis more or less true, it also makes it pretty much completely worthless.

The book is not, however, completely useless. Campbell is an expert on mythology, and his in-depth analysis of the wide array of mythological stories, symbols, and themes that are detailed in the book gives a good insight into these subjects that would be quite useful to a student of mythology or a storyteller. I have seen many people recommend this book to would-be writers, and I believe that this advice is probably good. However, I think that advice should also come with a warning that the monomyth itself is meaningless, but that the true value in the book is to be found in the way each story is individually dissected and analyzed. This analysis serves to illustrate why some stories seem to draw particular emotional reactions, and why others simply fall flat. While it would probably be a mistake to follow along with Campbell's suggestion that these emotional reactions are universal for humanity, within the particular cultures the stories are drawn from (when viewed through Campbell's lens), the reason the stories resonate with their intended audiences is, to a certain extent, explained by the discussions of the various myth stories detailed in the book.

The idea of a monomyth tying all hero stories together is an enticing one. It is easy to see how Campbell would generate this idea, and why he would spend so much time trying to demonstrate it. It is also easy to see how this idea has caught hold in the modern popular imagination, fueled by the declarations of an individual like George Lucas. The reality is, however, that the pieces just don't add up to the desired conclusion. As a demonstration of the truth of Campbell's monomyth thesis, this book is a failure. On the other hand, as a guide to some of the many types of hero myths that have cropped up in human history, this book is quite good. Overall, while the monomyth thesis and the psychoanalytic ramblings drag the book down, the presentation and analysis of mythology is strong enough to bring this book back up to average.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 22, 2010, 11:55am Top

Book Forty-Six: The Double Planet by Isaac Asimov.


Short review: A pre-Apollo landing book about the science and history of the Earth and the Moon.

Long review: The Double Planet is a short science fact book that deals with the Earth-Moon system. Originally written in 1960 and revised in 1966 and 1968, the material contained in this book obviously does not include anything that was discovered as a result of the Apollo landings. To a certain extent, the book was intended to build up interest in exploring the moon, and the cover blurb even makes the somewhat misleading statement that the book contains "fascinating secrets of Man's first step across space - to the moon", even though the book itself does not contain more than a passing reference to the projected human exploration of our closest neighbor.

What the book does contain is a fairly decent introduction to the basic facts of the Earth and the Moon. Starting with the Earth, Asimov discusses how large it is, what it is made of, its orbit, its rotation, and several other physical details concerning our planet. To leaven the dry recitation of facts, Asimov also includes background information concerning how and why we know these things about the Earth, recounting the various creative experiments and painstaking observations made by scientists throughout history that led to the conclusions that are presented in the text. Asimov then moves on to discuss what we know about the Moon (or more accurately, what we knew about it as of 1968), once again interlacing the dry data with background concerning those who discovered the various facts about the Moon and how they went about doing so.

The book is written in Asimov's typically straightforward writing style. As I've noted before, this style can lead to some relatively dry fiction, but works quite well for a science fact piece. The book includes several photos taken by unmanned probes sent to the Moon by NASA, which was probably a decent selling point in the late 1960s, but are fairly mundane now, especially when contrasted with the photos taken by the various Apollo missions that followed. The most interesting element of the book is the timing: written originally just before Gagarin became the first man in space, and revised just one year before the Apollo landings began, the book gives a very readable historical perspective on what we knew about both the Earth and the Moon at the outset of the Space Age. In the decades since we have come to take for granted the vast amount of knowledge that we have gained concerning our universe that has been provided to us by our space endeavors. For that historical perspective alone this book is a decent addition to one's library and despite being more than forty years out of date, it is worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 16, 2010, 11:55am Top

Book Forty-Seven: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 8 (August 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love by Ian Creasey
Warning Label by Alexander Jablokov
Slow Boat by Gregory Norman Bossert
Superluminosity by Alan Wall
The Lovely Ugly by Carol Emshwiller
The Little Battle of Little Big Science by Pamela Rentz
The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies by J. M. Sidorova
On the Horizon by Nick Wolven

Poems included:
Cultural Boundaries by F. J. Bergmann
A Wrong Turn by Elizabeth Penrose
The Great Peeloff by Qadira P. Garger

Long review: The August 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a mixed bag of mostly decent stories. The issue is a little heavy on cyberpunk style dystopias, but also includes two decent time travel stories. As is often the case, one of the stories in the issue is not really a science fiction or fantasy story at all. In an unusual twist, it is probably also the best story in the issue.

Featured on the cover of the issue, The Lovely Ugly by Carol Emshwiller, is not a cyberpunk or time travel story, but instead deals with contact between aliens and humans from the perspective of the aliens. Told from this side of the story, the hubris of the human explorers is readily apparent, which seems to be the main point of the story, but the alien perspective is never entirely convincing. The secondary theme of the story, the lack of cross-species understanding, and how to bridge that gap, seems a little forced as well. Attempting to tell a story from a non-human perspective is a difficult endeavor at best, and Emshwiller manages to do it, but not well enough to make the story really work well.

Superluminosity by Alan Wall is a time travel story mixed in with a lover's spat. The story features a caution as to why it might not be a good idea to give someone who is angry with you too much power over your safety, although the design of the time machine in the story seems to me to have a severe design flaw (if one can signal that one is ready to return, why can one not simply trip the trigger that will cause you to return). Another story dealing with time travel, The Little Battle of Little Big Science by Pamela Rentz is actually a combination that includes both time travel and alternate history. Set in a alternate reality that assumes that Native American tribes control all scientific research, the protagonist is a scientist trying to impress her tribal elders enough to keep alive her project into building a time viewing machine. She confronts a collection of obstacles on her way to securing funding, but ends up realizing that others may not view the utility of her device in the same light she does. Although the premise is somewhat implausible, the story is interesting and enjoyable.

Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love by Ian Creasey is a post-apocalyptic story about the denizens of a post-industrial world sifting through the piles of mostly useless information left by people in blogs, Facebook profiles, and other data sources. Seen from the point of view of people struggling to survive, the current obsession with documenting the most mundane trivia of our lives seems both insane and compelling. While hunting for useful tidbits, the narrator of the story is also trying to uncover her own past in a society that frowns upon making new records. The story is full of melancholy and makes many of the same points Neal Stephenson made in Anathem concerning the obsession modern society has with trivial ephemera. Dealing with the overlod of information found in modern society from a different angle is the cyberpunk influenced Warning Label by Alexander Jablokov in which the protagonist tries to figure out the mystery of some inexplicably missing data. The story highlights the avalanche of useless information that we are already inundated with, and carries this element of modern society to an extreme that is both humorous and disturbing.

Another story told with cyberpunk sensibilities is Slow Boat by Gregory Norman Bossert featuring a kidnapped data hacker who finds herself on the titular slow boat to Mars. Combining the background of a Gibson story with the problem solving plot of a classic work by Asimov or Niven, the story is both funny and suspenseful. Another story with cyberpunk overtones is On the Horizon by Nick Wolven, a murder mystery set in a dystopian United States in which cities have become unmanageable regions turned over to gangs, and the agrivcultural industry has officially set about treating the illegal immigrants who work its fields in a manner reminiscient of the treatment of black slaves in the antebellum South. The protagonist is a felon turned into an empath to serve the government by hunting down other felons. The murder that dirves the plot merely serves as a backdrop for the political points being made by the author in a fairly heavy-handed manner, and as a result the story, while somewhat scary, has far less impact than it might have.

By far the most frightening story in the issue is The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies by J. M. Sidorova. The story, demonstrating the dangers of State adherence to a dubious scientific theory is almost not science fiction, and yet fits in the issue anyway. Set in the Soviet Union during World War II, a period during which official Soviet support was handed to the crackpot theory of Lysenkoism, and research into genetics was banned and suppressed. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl who befriends a geneticist keeping her head down to avoid notice by the NKVD. The story is chilling because it is so close to reality, and offers a strong statement on the dangers of accepting unscientific ideas in lieu of actual science. Given the debates working their way across the United States today concerning the teaching of actual biology as opposed to fairy tales like Intelligent Design, the story hits close to home.

Although the cyberpunk theme gets a little repetitive, the variety within that subgenre keeps the issue from getting tedious. While The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies is the only truly stand-out story in the issue, most of the rest are pretty good. Even stories such as The Lovely Ugly and On the Horizon are, at worst, moderate disappointments that tried for greatness and came up short. As a result, this is a moderately good issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and should be a decent read for any science fiction fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 23, 2010, 5:56pm Top

Book Forty-Eight: The Rings of Saturn by Isaac Asimov.


Short review: The Sirians try to claim Saturn, and it is up to Lucky Starr to stop them without causing an interstellar war.

Long review: In the 1950s Isaac Asimov was approached to create a character that could form the basis of a science fiction television series. Writing under the pseudonym Paul French, he produced David Starr, Space Ranger, modeling his hero as a sort of interplanetary Lone Ranger, complete with a Martian-born sidekick to fill in for Tonto in the form of the diminutive and pugnacious Bigman. Although the television series never materialized, Asimov wrote six books featuring his dashing hero (known through the rest of the books in the series by his nickname "Lucky", since Asimov thought David didn't seem like the name of a space faring hero). The Rings of Saturn is the sixth, and final, book in the series.

Although he had originally envisioned Starr as a semi-sanctioned crime fighter in outer space, the story more or less morphed into a spy series, with Lucky taking the side of the Earth against her Cold War rival from the star system of Sirius. The Sirians are not aliens, but are instead men originally from Earth who had moved to the stars. Although the struggle between Earth and Sirius has some overtones similar to the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the attitudes of the Spacers seem much more like those of members of the Nazi Party. Although the Earth government is ostensibly democratic in nature (in contrast to the autocratic Sirian government), the unelected "Council of Science" wields substantial power and seems to add an elitist faction to the structure of the government.

Several elements that crop up in Asimov's adult novels show up in this book. Reflecting his novels such as The Caves of Steel or The Naked Sun, the Spacers are heavily reliant upon robot labor, disdainful of the "rabble" of Earth, and believe that those who ventured to the stars are simply superior men. The Three Laws of Robotics feature fairly prominently in the story, as does the idea that one could attempt to get around the First Law (which bars robots from harming humans) by redefining humanity in a manner that would include "superior" Sirians, and exclude "inferior" Earthmen.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward Cold War conflict. The Sirians establish a base upon Saturn's moon Titan, claiming that as it was uninhabited, it is fair game. The Earth espouses the position that star system integrity cannot be compromised, and threatens war, which plays into the Sirian's hands as they wish to cast Earth as the aggressor, and thus rally the other outer systems to their cause. Lucky is called upon to dislodge the Sirian base and avert a war while doing so. As this is a novel aimed at younger readers, the trap Lucky sets for his Sirian adversaries is not particularly hard to spot, but it is fairly clever, and the story is decently executed.

A secondary goal of the series is to impart scientific information to the intended audience of juvenile readers, and despite the fact that this books was originally written in 1958, the science relating to Saturn mostly holds up. Although some of the details are wrong in small ways (for example, Titan is identified as the third largest moon in the Solar System, when it is in fact, the second largest), most of the data inserted into the story is reasonably accurate. I do question one major plot point, that being Lucky Starr using the Cassini Division to pass from above Saturn's rings to below them. In the 1950s, the Cassini Division was believed to be mostly empty, but data from the Voyager probes showed that there is much more material in this part of the rings than had previously been thought. As a result, Lucky's maneuver would have been, at a minimum, much more hazardous, and might be impossible.

As the last of the Lucky Starr novels, The Rings of Saturn is a decent finale to the series. It is also the most like an adult Asimov novel, which might serve to help younger readers interested in more science fiction of similar nature transition to reading something like I, Robot or Foundation. With equal parts science and well-plotted intrigue plus a dash of impetuous hot-headed comic relief courtesy of the always amusing Bigman, this final adventure of Lucky Starr is a decent book that any young science fiction fan will probably enjoy.

Note: Although the cover of this edition states that this book is "Number 5 in the Series", this book is, in fact, the sixth book in the Lucky Starr series. This might be explained by the fact that this edition was issued in England, and thus may not have counted David Starr, Space Ranger as part of the series, since the practice there was to omit the "Lucky Starr and the" portion of the titles found in the American editions. Other than that possibility, I have no idea why this edition is misnumbered.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 3:48pm Top

Book Forty-Nine: Stealing from Each Other: How the Welfare State Robs Americans of Money and Spirit by Edgar K. Browning.


Short review: An economist assembles an impressive array of facts to demonstrate the true cost of the welfare state, and the negative impact it has on some that it purports to help.

Long review: It is accepted wisdom that the publicly funded social support network in the United States is weak and ineffective. It is also accepted wisdom that the American welfare state is drastically underfunded. In Stealing from Each Other: How the Welfare State Robs Americans of Money and Spirit, Edgar Browning challenges this accepted wisdom in the most effective manner possible: by examining the facts. After extensive analysis, Browning concludes that the U.S. welfare state is neither weak, nor ineffective, nor underfunded. However, he persuasively argues that as currently constituted it serves as a substantial and unnecessary drag on the national economy and in many cases serves to harm the poorest among us while functioning as a massive wealth transfer to the middle-class.

While many critics of the social safety net are primarily driven by ideology, basing their conclusions on appeals to emotion. Browning is an economist, and his method of argumentation is rooted in this background. Browning relies upon census data, the results of academic studies, and other public information to make his points. He sets about evaluating the true cost of the U.S. welfare system, identifying what he considers to be the true measure of economic inequality, and evaluating the effect of the various wealth transfer programs implemented in the United States. The conclusions he draws from this data are somewhat depressing. If Browning's analysis is correct, the GDP of the United States is depressed by about twenty-five percent as a result of these programs. One might quibble with his analysis, but Browning lays his data out in a step by step fashion, so if there is a bias in his analysis, it would be readily apparent to the reader.

Of course, one could argue that even if the U.S. welfare state is a drag on the economy, it is valuable and necessary to reduce social inequality and provide for the neediest denizens of the country. This is the opposing position that Browning identifies in the book, calling those who adhere to this principle "egalitarians" (the one failing of the book is that Browning spends too much of his text railing against egalitarians, when he is much more persuasive when he simply demonstrates the paucity of the arguments that underpin the egalitarian position). Browning points out that some inequality is justified, and at the same time points out that once a number of relevant factors are accounted for, many of the alarming inequalities highlighted in lurid media articles turn out to be little more than a set of illusions. But Browning also does an able job of demonstrating that the current system has already substantially eliminated true poverty (as defined by the Federal Government) even though the official data obscures this fact by leaving out substantial wealth transfers when evaluating poverty, and that much of the wealth transfers in the U.S. are actually not to the poor, but rather to middle-class households.

Browning's two most effective arguments center around two of the most pervasive social programs in the United States: the social security system and affirmative action. Browning makes the case that social security as currently constituted is probably irretrievably broken, comparing it (accurately) to a Ponzi Scheme. This is not a particularly new observation, nor is it unique - as he notes, members of Congress have known that the Social Security system was in impending financial trouble since the 1980s. Still, Browning ably lays out exactly why the venerable Social Security system is not merely a financial disaster in the future, but how it serves as an anchor weighing down both contributors and beneficiaries right now. However, it is on the subject of affirmative action in the education system that Browning makes the most damning case. While diversity at our universities might be a laudable goal, the statistics that have resulted from the system indicate that it serves minority students quite poorly. Put simply, by effectively lowering admissions standards to accept larger numbers of minority students, admissions officers at elite institutions create a cascading effect that results in minority students frequently being mismatched with education institutions that are more academically rigorous than those students are prepared for. This practice sets those students up for failure, and the numbers bear this out. Minority students drop out of college much more frequently, are very disproportionately represented at the bottom of the class rankings, and for minority students who attend and graduate from law school they fail to pass the bar at a much higher frequency than for comparable white students. In effect, the goal of creating diversity results in academic frustration and failure for students, harming those the program is intended to help.

Even though some may find the data presented in this book uncomfortable, as it challenges a collection of accepted truths about our society and our government. While one can always argue about the analysis, it is difficult to close one's eyes to the data that is assembled in this book, and that data paints a picture that is wildly at odds with the picture presented in our media and our political campaigns. Even those who are not persuaded by Browning's analysis, and who reject his suggestions for how our welfare system could be overhauled to alleviate the negative effects he believes result from the current system will find this book thought-provoking. For anyone interested in how the welfare state functions, how it affects us, and how it might possibly be improved, this book is a must read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 4:14pm Top

Book Fifty: The California Voodoo Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes.


Short review: Set in the same future as Dream Park, the players return to the bigger and better game, but there is a murderer amongst their midst yet again.

Long review: The California Voodoo Game is the third and final book written by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes revolving around elaborate live-action computer aided role-playing games. The book follows Dream Park and The Barsoom Project, and includes many of the same characters from those books. While the story is decent, there is something of a "been there, done that" quality to the story, as the basic plot of the book is once again a murder mystery set against the backdrop of an ongoing and high-profile gaming session.

The background of the Dream Park world is fairly straightforward. In the future, computer and hologram technology allows for the creation of elaborate illusions that permit the creation of interactive scenarios in which participants can act out fantastical stories. Gamers become celebrities, acting out their adventures which are broadcast for the consumption of their fans. As a strange sort of side element, the Dream Park corporation, which runs one of the most sophisticated (and expensive to use) gaming sites in the world decides to get involved in an attempt to colonize Mars (an element introduced and explored in some depth in the book The Barsoom Project). In each of the the Dream Park books, the plot of the story is framed by an ongoing game, with the players in the game, the gamemasters, and the various employees tasked with making the game run smoothly serving as the focal characters.

As an aside, I'll note that the nature of the gamers themselves, as portrayed in these books, irks me to a certain extent. As presented in the book, most of the players in these elaborate role-playing games are presented as superior athletes trained in fencing, martial arts, mountain climbing, and a variety of other physical skills. In this way, they are little different than most professional athletes of the modern day. While this may be a reasonable supposition, it is somewhat disappointing as people who are world class fencers, martial artists, and mountain climbers already have high profile showcases for their talents. While there are certainly role-playing gamers who are quite physically fit and who have a variety of physical skills, many of them are far from what one would call world class athletes. One thing missing from the stories is the idea that people become role-playing gamers so that they can imagine themselves doing things that they actually could not do. While some of the gamers in the book make a distinction between themselves and their characters, the characters they portray are much more like avatars of themselves than they are alternate identities that they play. One character returning from previous books in this one had actually joined the Army in order to make himself physically fit for the game, because his lack of physical conditioning hampered him in previous installments in the series. The one character in the story that seems most like an actual role-playing gamer is treated with some disdain by the other players in the game because of his lack of physical fitness. In short, rather than books about role-playing gamers getting to play out their dreams via technology, the Dream Park universe simply gives the physically gifted yet one more venue to showcase their talents.

The story itself is more or less evenly bifurcated between the events in the role-playing game and the investigation into the murder of a Barsoom Project employee. The book does not make the identity of the murderer a mystery in any way. The only real mystery in this element of the story is why the murder was committed rather than who committed it. Even though the reader knows the identity of the murder, the characters in the book do not, making reading the book a little like watching an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as one follows the investigators on their quest to uncover the information that the reader already is privy to. As the murder mystery is unraveled, the layers of deception surrounding the real goal of the killer are stripped away, revealing to the reader the true intricacy of the villain's plot. In this respect, giving away the murderer's identity is necessary, as the story would have been impossible to follow otherwise. In the end, the murderer is revealed, his villainous plots foiled, and justice is served after a fashion.

The game that is played in parallel to the murder investigation is moderately interesting. As one might guess from the title of the book, the fantasy element of the game involves Voodoo, and it is a hodge-podge of just about every type of Voodoo imaginable, a fact that the authors freely acknowledge in the afterword to the book. In this book the game element of the story is transferred from the dream park facility to a ruined arcology in the California desert (which is something of a reference to the Niven and Pournelle collaboration Oath of Fealty). The size and scale of the place makes the game substantially larger than the games of previous books, giving the story a somewhat desperate air, as it seems like the authors are trying to outdo their previous efforts by upping the scale. As in previous books, the game element is somewhat overshadowed by the crime investigation - it is hard to continue to be primarily concerned with who will prevail over the imaginary Voodoo spirits when there are actual dead bodies to be investigated. In fact, the various rivalries and dominance games played by the players and game masters in the story makes them seem petty and obnoxious. As in the murder mystery, in the end goodness prevails in the game, cheating is punished, and life lessons are learned.

While this is a serviceable finale to the Dream Park series, and would most certainly please anyone who had read the earlier books in the series, it is probably good that the series ended with this book. With the recurring themes of industrial espionage and murder the series was beginning to run the risk of becoming overly repetitive, and highlighting a different somewhat obscure mythology in each book can only alleviate this problem so far. Despite the rapid advances in technology, it seems unlikely that anyone would create anything like the Dream Park facility, or at this point would want to, since I suspect that virtual reality technology could do the job just as well these days. Even so, following a bunch of high-strung athletes about while they unravel Cargo Cult, Eskimo, and Voodoo mythology is a diverting endeavor, and this book remains quite enjoyable.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 10:32am Top

Book Fifty-One: Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact: Vol. CV, No. 12 (December 1985) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
The Blacksmith's Tale by Spider Robinson
Runner by Bob Buckley
The Case of the Gring's Mill Goblin by Thomas R. Dulski
The White Box by Rob Chilson and Lynette Meserole
Hatching Season by Harry Turtledove

Science fact articles included:
The Brush that Painted the Man in the Moon by J.E. Enever

Long review: It is interesting to read and evaluate an issue of Analog that is twenty-five years out of date. Most science fiction novels that old that one might want to read are still around because they were somewhat noteworthy at the time. The stories in a science fiction magazine, on the other hand, have no similar guarantee, so there is the substantial risk that they will have aged quite badly. Happily, while some of the peripheral material in this issue is humorously out of date (most notably the On Gaming article concerning then current computer games), the stories themselves have aged remarkably well.

The featured cover story in the issue is Runner by Bob Buckley, a post-apocalyptic story told from the perspective of a somewhat down on his luck "runner", a sort of combination messenger and mailman living in the post-nuclear wasteland. he is paired with a man who claims to be from the past, and who the runner thinks is nuts. Buckley weaves his story, from the runner acquiring a new vehicle, to delivering material to the boss of what used to be Manhattan, to discovering the truth about his somewhat nutty traveling companion. In the end, the protagonist gives up being a runner for what he believes will be a nobler purpose in life.

The longest story in the issue is the somewhat comic The Case of the Gring's Mill Goblin by Thomas R. Dulski, featuring a paranormal Sherlock Holmes and his less than willing Watson who head out to the Pennsylvania countryside to investigate reports of a glowing blue goblin that has been purportedly haunting the local farms. Of all the stories in the issue, this one shows its age most strongly, as the lack of current technologies like cell phones and internet search engines is noticeable. Even so, the story remains a fun and funny mystery that manages to mostly play fair with the reader, and yet avoid giving away the culprit until the end. Also humorous in tone is The Blacksmith's Tale by Spider Robinson, set in his now-familiar Callahan's Crosstime Saloon setting, and featuring a bar regular who meets a new face while both of them are standing naked on the roof of the bar during a rain storm. After an awkward introduction, the two hit it off until one of them saves the world from destruction by another bar patron. The story is, as one might expect, somewhat raunchy, fairly humorous, and in the end, bittersweet.

The White Box by Rob Chilson and Lynette Meserole was my favorite story in the issue. Having discovered a way to construct a device that seems to stimulate the human body to cure itself, humanity finds itself with no real need for most of the medical establishment. However, the story delves into the question of the dangers of relying upon a device whose working no one truly understands. it turns out that the miracle device may not be such an unalloyed miracle after all, and may actually be causing (or merely exacerbating) certain problems while acting to mask those problems at the same time. As with most really good science fiction stories, this one makes a point that is relevant to the real world, and in this case, that point is that understanding is as important as results, if not more so. The story makes a more muted point about the dangers that might be posed by alternative medicine even if it was shown to work, and was not merely chicanery.

Hatching Season by Harry Turtledove is a brief but decent time-travel story about a graduate student sent back to Cretaceous to study duck billed dinosaurs. Left on her own amidst the giants of the past, she finds herself lost and without her technological equipment to help her find her way back to the beacon that will take her home. The story is an interesting twist on the "engineering puzzle" subgenre of science fiction stories, since the puzzle the protagonist must unravel does not stem from the hazardous environment of space, but rather from the living hazards of the denizens of the distant past. The story is engaging and suspenseful while the resolution is both interesting and completely believable.

The science fact article in the issue is The Brush that Painted the Man in the Moon by J.E. Enever. Because the article concerns possible theories as to how the unusual grouping of craters on the northern hemisphere of the Earth facing side of the Moon could have formed, it has aged pretty well. Although the theory presented is essentially unprovable, the explanation given in the article is consistent with the observed data, and is probably the best explanation we will get. I am not aware of one, but it seems like the scenario described would make a good backdrop for a science fiction story. Either I have simply missed such a story, or there is a pretty good framework for a story waiting to be used by the right person.

Despite being published in December 1985, this issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact remains an interesting and enjoyable read. With stories running the gamut of the genre from time-travel to post-apocalyptic adventure to medical drama, the issue contains a wide enough range of stories that at least some are almost certain to appeal to any science fiction fan, and the stories are generally of high enough quality that I found all of them interesting and enjoyable.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 3, 2010, 6:39pm Top

Did you know you have 2 book 48s?

Jul 3, 2010, 9:42pm Top

95: Whoops. Now I have to go back and renumber everything afterwards. That's what happens when you try to post a week's worth of reading after you get back from camp all strung out from a lack of sleep the night before.

Jul 4, 2010, 2:07am Top

I cannot wait to see all these 'long reviews,' Aaron.

Edited: Dec 24, 2010, 11:22am Top

Book Fifty-Two: Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson.


Short review: A Heinlein juvenile written years after his death by someone else with plenty of inside references for science fiction afficionados.

Long review: Several years after Robert A. Heinlein died, and a couple years after Ginny Heinlein had also passed away, a detailed but unfinished outline that he had written during his years producing juvenile novels was uncovered. Spider Robinson was asked to create a novel based upon this partial outline. The novel Variable Star, an odd amalgamation of some of the sensibilities of a Heinlein juvenile, the sex and drugs in later Heinlein works, and Spider's own style, was the result. Happily, this combination turns out to be a pretty good story.

The story itself is pretty straightforward. Our intrepid protagonist is madly in love with a red-headed woman who turns out to be the stupendously wealthy heiress to a vast mercantile empire. After being more or less connived into proposing marriage, he learns that he is expected to fulfill a collection of obligations to take his place in the family business. He balks, and ends up on a ship bound for the stars, whereupon he has a collection of adventures typical of the hero in a Heinlein novel. He eventually finds his place in the world, his true love, and more or less lives happily ever after. Along the way, there's some drugs, some sex, and a lot of inside references to other Heinlein works.

The first thing any person who has read any amount of Heinlein will notice is that the book is something of an homage. The opening scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Number of the Beast, although things progress quite differently in this story. The central character of the book, Joel Johnston, is something of a hick from the farming colony of Ganymede, a clear reference to the book Farmer in the Sky. His love interest is a strong-willed redhead named Jinny, a reference to Heinlein's red-headed wife Virginia. References are made to Neimiah Scudder, the telepathic twins of Time for the Stars, loonies and group marriages from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday, and so on and so forth. To certain extent, the novel, published so long after Heinlein's death, is a walk through memory lane for his fans. In addition, Robinson sprinkled several more contemporary references to other science fiction authors (the most obvious being the name of the starship central to the story, the Charles Sheffield), and even a reference to Smethers from The Simpsons.

This is not to say that the book is merely a giant pile of references to please those with insider knowledge. In his afterword, Spider notes that he was instructed not to write a novel in a style imitating Heinlein's, but to use the outline to write the best novel he could. Despite this, in the early pages of the novel, Robinson does a pretty good job at making a Heinlein juvenile, although it diverges from this sensibility more and more as one progresses through the book. With the entire library of Heinlein works to draw upon, Robinson adds in many elements that would have never shown up in a Heinlein juvenile, exploring how Joel deals with losing the woman he thought would be the love of his life as he descends into experimentation with excessive drug and alcohol use, leading to an interesting exchange that calls into question Joel's reliability as a narrator before he sets about transforming himself into a more productive member of the ship's crew. The book also deals with Joel's sexual experiences in a straightforward manner that would have been entirely out of place in a juvenile, but thankfully avoids elements such as incest that crop up in some of the later Heinlein titles.

As he notes in his afterword, the outline he was handed was incomplete, and contained no indication at all as to what the ending should have been and thus he was forced to come up with one that would be suitable. Left on his own, Robinson demonstrates that he is more than up to the task (and more than willing to discard elements of Heinlein's Future History to suit his story) as he takes Heinlein's beginning, and crafts a suitably satisfying conclusion. In many ways, Variable Star is a novel written with the quality of a Heinlein juvenile aimed at a more adult audience without delving into Heinlein's personal sexual preferences. A fan of Heinlein who is looking for something that will remind them of works like Citizen of the Galaxy or The Door into Summer or any number of other Heinlein titles will enjoy this book. Any fan of Spider Robinson will also probably find this book to their liking. In short, anyone who is looking for some space adventure coupled with a little nostalgia and a bunch of contemporary references will probably be happy if they pick up Variable Star.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 1:45pm Top

Belated Review: Hi, Mom! Hi! Dad! The First Twelve Months of Parenthood by Lynn Johnston.


Short review: A collection of mostly lovable but sometimes cloying one panel strips about the travails and joys of parenting newborn through their first year of life.

Long review: Before she began writing For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston wrote a series of single panel strips focused on pregancy and the first years of parenthood. Hi Mom! Hi Dad! is one hundred and one strips that highlight the first twelve months of parenthood. Although the characters in the strips are not the pattersons who would feature in Johnston's later work, the situations and style of comedy will be familiar to anyone who has ever read For Better or For Worse.

The strips are little vignettes concerning the ups and downs of parenting an infant, and as one might expect they are often more than a little cloying as a result of their sickly sweetness. Some of the strips, concerning out of touch fathers, overbearing grandmothers with plenty of child rearing advice, and overly enthusiastic siblings are a little dated in execution, but the themes they touch on are universal enough that they are still relevant enough to be funny. More or less equal parts sappy and touching, the strips are probably only truly funny to those who have had young children, but whose children have grown up enough that the frustrations of sleepless nights, vomit, and diaper changes are behind therm.

As noted before, there are only one hundred and one strips in the book, so it is quite short. That is probably a good thing, because too much more would probably provide enough syrupy sweetness to turn any reader into a diabetic. However, for anyone who is curious to see the ideas that became the long-running For Better or For Worse comic strip in embryonic form, this book is worth a quick read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 12:56pm Top

Belated Review: Always Postpone Meetings with Time-Wasting Morons by Scott Adams.


Short review: In the first collection of Dilbert strips, Dilbert lives the life of a nerdy engineer with a wise-cracking dog. The satire is bitter, but not yet honed to a razor's edge.

Long review: Always Postpone Meetings with Time-Wasting Morons contains strips from the beginning of Dilbert's run as a comic through its first six months. Although a handful of the strips in this volume show Dilbert at the workplace, most of the comic is centered on the interaction between Dilbert and Dogbert as Dilbert faces the world as a socially inept technology obsessed engineer. While the strips lampoon Dilbert's nerdiness and Dogbert's megalomania, the bitter and incisive workplace satire that would come to characterize the strip in later years is almost completely absent.

Because the strip only touches on Dilbert's workplace in passing, many of the characters that are now familiar to fans of the strip are absent from this volume. There is no pointed haired boss, no Wally, no Alice, and no Asok. The strips do introduce Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light and ruler of Heck, as well as Bob and Dawn, the dinosaurs who were hiding behind Dilbert's couch. As the strips mainly take place in Dilbert's home, they generally revolve around Dilbert's troubles dating women, his bizarre and often dangerous inventions, and Dogbert's undisguised contempt for him.

Although the Dilbert strip didn't really come into its own until the workplace humor took center stage, this book remains quite good. As the book deals so heavily with Dilbert's personality and his interactions with Dogbert, the strips provide a level of character development for the two of them that many of the later strips lack, as the later strips simply assume one is already familiar with their personal foibles. Though not quite as good as later Dilbert books, even a book that is mediocre by Dilbert standards is really enjoyable, and thus this book gets a strong recommendation.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 2, 2010, 2:08pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Realms of Fantasy (August 2010)
Stories included:
Super Family by Ian Donald Keeling
Father Pena's Last Dance by Hannah Strom-Martin
Seagull Girl's Butterfly Tongue by Sara Genge
(Dragon) by T. D. Edge

Science News (July 3, 2010)
The Economist (July 3rd-9th, 2010)

Book Fifty-Three: The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E. Richards.


Short review: The Resnick kids save the day again by applying basic science principles to the problems they face.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

The Prometheus Project: Stranded is the third book in Douglas E. Richard's Prometheus Project series, although it is labeled a stand-alone volume. The book is aimed at younger readers or what would be called in classic science fiction as "juvenile", but despite having teenagers as its protagonists but not in the purely adventure story way that can be found in some juvenile science fiction, but in the same sense that similar works by writers like Heinlein and Asimov that conveyed basic science to the reader via their storytelling. I have not read the first two books in the series (Trapped and Captured), but this did not impair my enjoyment of this book as sufficient back story exposition is included in the early chapters to fill in the basics of the background of the setting and characters. I would suggest that some of the best praise for Stranded is that reading it makes me want to obtain and read the previous two Prometheus Project books.

The story features Ryan and Regan Resnick, a pair of siblings whose parents are researchers studying a mysterious alien city found underground in Pennsylvania that has been given the name Prometheus. The previous two volumes in the series apparently deal with the Resnick kids discovering their parent's involvement with the study of this city, and the adventures that led them to become attached as junior members of the research team, come into contact with the alien intelligence controlling the city, and gain the power to communicate telepathically with one another. Also apparently covered in previous installments is a transportation system reminiscent of the wormhole generators of Stargate: SG-1 that allows for near instantaneous travel from Earth to distant planets orbiting faraway stars. Ryan and Regan join up with an expedition to one such planet named Isis, located much closer to the center of the Milky Way. The objective of the expedition is to set up instruments to observe astronomical phenomenon in the center of the galaxy and to study the fauna on Isis, which usually completely ignores the human interlopers but reacted quite differently during a previous expedition.

Of course, things go wrong, which sets the adventure of the story in motion. An alien artifact is stolen, a scientist working on the Prometheus Project is shot, and the expedition finds itself stranded on Isis and confronted by some decidedly unfriendly native creatures. Through circumstance, the Resnick kids find themselves called upon to save themselves, their parents, and friends from being marooned thousands of light-years from home, and save Prometheus from being taken over by a gang of ruthless mercenaries. It is the method by which the Resnick kids (and others) go about solving the problems that confront them using the application of science and technology in a clearly explained way that makes this book superior. To a certain extent, the book is thematically similar in this regard to classic works of juvenile science fiction such as Farmer in the Sky, or David Starr, Space Ranger. Richards weaves into the story background lessons on a variety of scientific topics, using Edwin Abbott's Flatland to explain the concept of extra dimensions, or Pavolv's famous experiments with dogs to introduce operant conditioning. Later, like Chekov's gun, these tidbits of scientific information form the basis for overcoming the hurdles faced by the protagonists, demonstrating a realistic, albeit fictional, application of the scientific principles already discussed. As a result, while there is plenty of adventure and fun in the story, it is all rooted in strong scientific fundamentals.

There are a handful of weaknesses in the book. The only one of real substance is that when Ryan and Regan unravel the mystery of the strange behaviour of the creatures on Isis, they make a number of conceptual leaps that are pretty broad and to a certain degree unwarranted to arrive at the correct answer. It would have probably improved the story somewhat to have them try a couple of different solutions on the way to arriving at the correct one, since it would have made their mental gymnastics on the way to solving the problem seem less like a case of serendipitously arriving at the right place based on scanty information and more like a reasoned conclusion. This is not a huge deal, and to a certain extent one can understand that adding a lot more material would have made the book overlong, but a few extra pages of sorting through some alternative possibilities would have, in my opinion, made this element of the story much stronger. In addition, there were a couple of points in the story where the viewpoint seemed to shift from the younger protagonists, from whose perspective much of the story was told, to the adults around them. This, I think, hurts the story, since having the book told exclusively from the perspective of the youthful protagonists would both allow the intended audience to identify with them more, and also make the expository sections in which the adult characters explain things like scientific principles to the kids make more sense. If the writer shifts to the perspective of the adult characters, then the passing of information via expository explanations becomes somewhat gratuitous in feel, and makes them seem more like infodumps than an organic part of the story.

That said, this remains a very good book. With interesting characters, a well-thought out background, and a fun and action packed story that has some real science thrown in for good measure, this is a superior science-fiction story for young readers. An adult reader will probably be reminded of the classic juvenile works of their youth updated with modern technology and sensibilities, while a younger reader will probably love the adventure and might not even notice they were learning something on the way. Anyone who knows a curious kid who likes science fiction would do well to get a copy of this book and hand it to them.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 20, 2010, 10:06pm Top

Book Fifty-Four: Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 by Stephen J. Pyne.


Short review: The U.S. Forestry Service is born in a baptism of fire that was probably misguided and unnecessary.

Long review: Names like Gifford Pinchot, Richard Ballinger, Henry Graves, Coert DuBois, Joe Halm, Ferdinand Silcox, Ed Pulaski, and William Weigle are probably completely unfamiliar to the majority of people in the United States. This is understandable, since most of them are fairly obscure figures who were involved in politics and forestry in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, but it is also, to a certain degree, unfortunate as these people and their actions largely determined the course the U.S. government took in administering the vast public lands of the American west for most of the Twentieth century. Year of the Fires focuses mostly on the pivotal year of forest fighting in the northern Rocky Mountains in Montana, Idaho and Washington, and the events that led to the embryonic U.S. Forestry Service's determination that all forest fires must be fought in the name of progressive virtue. But the real crux of the book is the conflict between science and ideology, and the dangers of allowing ideology and public sentiment to triumph over science, and the cost that this can entail, not just in terms of money and resources, but also in terms of human lives.

At its heart, the book is about the conflict between Teddy Roosevelt's protege Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the nascent U.S. Forestry Service and President Taft's Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the proper administration of the national forest reserves. Pinchot was a committed conservationist, but one who would brook no opposition to his view of how conservation should be undertaken, and as a result, he clashed with Ballinger, who was technically his superior, as well as just about every other Taft administration official in the Department of the Interior. But what was the clash about? As Pyne details, the clash was a conflict of ideology with Pinchot and the progressive movement on the one side buttressed (somewhat) by the newly formed Yale School of Forestry, and basically everyone else on the other. Pinchot and his followers, who populated the newly formed Forestry Service, were eager, brash, well-meaning, and committed to their cause. They were also, as Pyne amply illustrates, probably dead wrong in their views.

The basis of the problem was that the Forestry Service needed to find a reason to justify its existence, and the newly minted graduates of the Yale School of Forestry needed to find a purpose for their chosen profession. Pinchot, like many conservationists of the era, was an believer in the idea that the U.S. was wasting its natural resources (and waste, to a progressive activist at the time was an anathema), variously espousing the views that the U.S. faced an impending timber famine, that forests were needed to regulate climate, and that forests prevented flooding. Unfortunately, almost all of these arguments were shown to be at odds with the science, which left only the question of fire policy to serve as the sine qua non of the Forestry Service's existence. Fire, in the minds of the progressive conservationists of the era such as Pinchot, was nothing but a destructive force that harmed the natural beauty and wealth of the nation. Unfortunately, the denizens of the rural countryside of the time saw fire as a potential tool, to be used to clear land, drive out or kill vermin, reduce the available "slash" or fuel that might keep bigger , uncontrolled fires going, and a number of other purposes. As Pyne writes, 'the rural South was alight with flame". Further, Pyne shows that the available science seemed to suggest that fire was not wholly bad, was probably necessary, and was likely responsible in large part for the majestic nature of the vast western forests the Forestry Service purported to be guarding. Scientific studies on the effects of fire commissioned by the U.S. government suggested that not only did some species not suffer from forest fires, but some depended upon them as part of their reproductive cycle. Native American practices predating the arrival of white settlers in which Indian tribes would engage in controlled burning of forested regions were highlighted as evidence that fire, when properly used, was actually advantageous to the health of a forest.

But these pieces of evidence conflicted with the ideology of the progressive activists, and were swept aside. The studies that indicated the benefits of fire were either dismissed or suppressed. The Native American forest management practices were tagged with the derogatory label "Pauite Forestry", and treated as little more than the foolishness of savages. Fire, Pinchot and Harry Graves (Pinchot's successor as the Chief Forester) declared, was always bad, and should be prevented if possible, and immediately stopped if not. There was no such thing as a good fire, no matter the source, all forest fires should be fought, and further, it was the Forestry Service who would do the fighting. It was this conviction that led to the Forestry Service taking the lead and placing its foresters, its hired crews, and the U.S. Army in the path of the great forest fires of 1910 which created the story that dominates much of Pyne's account in Year of the Fires.

Unfortunately, it is this element of the book, focused on the individual foresters who hired, equipped, and led the crews through the firefighting season of 1910, that is the weakest. Pyne follows the various firefighters - men like Joe Halm, Will Morris, Major William Logan, and Ed Pulaski among many others - through the year with a month by month account starting in January and running through November. Pyne shifts from one story to another on a chronological basis, tying all the threads together in the "Big Blowup" of August 20-21, and then letting each play out to the end of the season. But by structuring his story this way Pyne's narrative isn't able to gain any momentum. As he is determined to keep all the dozen or so thread up to date through the book, just as soon as one forester's story begins to pick up steam, Pyne abandons that account, shifts to another forester and brings him up to date, and then shifts to a third, and a fourth, and so on before returning to the account of the original forester or Army officer and picking up where he left off. This means that all of the individual stories are hard to follow, and the overall narrative lacks substantial power, as the reader is always having to make mental notes to keep all the players straight. Further, since the reader is always up to date on all the stories, many of the dramatic (and highly publicized) turns of events of the summer (and most especially the Big Blowup) lose their impact. When William Weigle is told, for example, that Ed Pulaski and his entire crew have died in the fire, the moment has almost no emotional impact for the reader, since the reader knows (because Pyne has told him) that Pulaski and his crew are not dead, merely cut off from communication by the path of the fire. If Pyne had instead told each individual fire fighter's story in turn, or at least in larger chunks than the rapidly rotating snippets in the book, then not only would the history be much easier to follow, it would allow for much more emotional impact, and impress on the reader to a much greater degree how these events played out to the public.

Because as Pyne makes clear, it was the mythologizing of the brave foresters who stood against the fires that carried the day for the Forest Service's firefighting in the face of contradictory science and theory. The fact that during the Big Blowup of August 20-21 between 70 and 90 men died (Forestery Service and U.S. Army records are contradictory as to the actual number of the dead) as the fires they were fighting, stoked by the winds, swept over their lines and sent them running for any refuge they could find, allowed the Forestry Service to create a cadre of heroes who would have been dishonored should the nation decide that the cause they fought in was not justified. Never mind that no actual foresters died fighting the fires, and those who did were mostly men who were considered so unreliable that the Forestry Service could not give them their train tickets to travel to the fires directly for fear that they would immediately cash in their tickets and head for the nearest saloon. (One interesting aside is that the events of the summer of 1910 seem to indicate that while you can induce a man to take a dangerous job with the promise of high pay and good food, this is insufficient inducement to get him to care enough to actually do the job well). Never mind that many of the men who fought the fires were employees of the less than popular railroad and lumber companies, or Army privates grumbling about the damage the fires did to their uniforms as they were ordered into action. never mind that when called upon to compensate those injured in the flames and the families of the dead, the Forestry Service proved to be difficult to deal with at best. The resulting account of the Big Blowup was written by three heroic foresters, whose most important qualification was that they lived, and filed reports with their version of events. And because they crafted the account, the lesson of the Big Blowup and the rest of the terrible fire season of 1910 was not that the policy adopted was misguided and should be revised, but rather that what was needed was simply more commitment to the cause, more money, more men, and more effort.

And this is why U.S. forestry policy from 1910 until the 1990s was one of almost rigid adherence to the doctrine of fighting fires no matter how small they might be. True the policy relaxed somewhat in the 1930s, when the service began to allow some naturally occurring fires to burn out on their own, but on the other hand the creation of the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps gave the Forestry Service a massive number of available bodies to throw into their fire prevention and fire fighting efforts. What makes Year of the Fires compelling to read is the careful account given by Pyne that illustrates how a government service clinging to an ideology with almost no substance behind it managed to secure its vision for the administration of public lands across the entire United States for the better part of a century. Despite the sometimes confusing nature of the account, Pyne's thorough and comprehensive treatment of the data that was at best poorly preserved will allow a careful reader to understand how ideological advocacy and a little myth-making can triumph over fact, and exactly how dangerous this truly is. This is, in the end, a superior piece of historical scholarship, and well-worth reading.

This book has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 13, 2010, 8:56am Top

Book Fifty-Five: Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us by Dan Agin.


Short review: A scientist exposes a collection of misinformation that has been foisted on the public, but then undermines his argument by trying to make ill-founded policy suggestions.

Long review: At the outset, I should make clear that I agree with Dan Agin on just about every scientific point he makes in Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations and Other Hucksters Betray Us. This fact makes the book that much more frustrating, because while he makes a number of quite salient points, and does a decent job in arguing his case at some points, in other sections of the book his arguments are supported by little more than ranting, and when he tackles economics, he stumbles into the same fundamental error he accuses other scientists of falling into. Some portions of this book are quite good, excellent even, but given its uneven quality and muddled conclusions, the book as a whole is no better than average.

Junk Science is intended to expose all of the twisted misuses of science that are performed in the service of political gain, corporate greed, religious ideology, and simple deceit. The book is divided into five broad sections capped by an introduction and an epilogue. The introduction gives an overview of what "junk science" is, and an overview of some of the misuses of science through history. In short, "junk science" is not bad science or nonscience posing as science, it is actual science that has been twisted and corrupted by what Agin describes as "special interests" or by scientists with an agenda. Each of the following sections tackles a group of more or less thematically related subjects and argues that science has been twisted or distorted with potentially damaging societal effects. For example, the first section, titled "Buyer Beware", deals with food and quasi-food products marketed to people: first dealing with the content of food in general and herbal or diet supplements that promise a variety of beneficial effects, then genetically modified foods, then a variety of products that suggest they can extend human lifespan, and finally the marketing ans sale of tobacco. The book then closes with an epilogue that tries to address the broader question of who is responsible for this corrupted science being promoted to the public, and some general ideas about how this could be prevented.

Agin is a biological psychologist - the cover of the book prominently credits him as "Dan Agin, Ph.D." to establish his science credentials - but as he repeats several times, even a highly trained scientist is little more than a reasonably well-informed layman when he opines on subjects outside of his particular field of study. When Agin deals with areas related to biology and genetics he is clearly on solid footing, and his discussions are replete with concrete details. He takes on topics such as genetically modified organisms, alternative "herbal" medicine, and stem cell therapy, and then relentlessly illustrates exactly much of what is popularly believed about these topics is dangerously wrong and why and how such misinformation is disseminated. But when Agin tackles subjects such as global warming or health care policy his style degenerates into little more than pointing out, for example, that scientific consensus is in favor of anthropomorphic global warming and following up with some rants about the foolishness of those who believe otherwise. On subjects outside his field of expertise, Agin is simply not able to mount a detailed argument in favor of the science. Were I not already convinced of the correctness of the positions he takes on many of these issues, I doubt I would be convinced by his rhetoric.

And that is the first substantial problem with this book: exactly who is this book aimed at? People who already believe that science has been corrupted by political, religious, and financial forces by and large don't really need to have it explained to them why the junk science described in the book is, in fact, junk science. Those who are ideologically opposed to some of the conclusions in the book will likely be immune to any argument contained in this or any other book, and will be comforted by the fact that the weak chapters are simply not very well-argued. Those who are undecided, who would probably benefit most from this book, will probably come away feeling confused, and not particularly convinced. While it might be helpful to a reader who wants to formulate arguments to convince others that, say, chiropractic medicine is bunk, the book is at best unevenly useful for this purpose, since in many areas the arguments are little more than a pile of finger pointing and shouting.

The first problem is further exacerbated by the second,more substantial problem: Agin makes a couple of pronouncements that are simply wrong, and others that are self-contradictory. One thing that comes through clearly in the book is that Agin dislikes Milton Friedman. This is, of course, not a failing in and of itself. But Agin's denunciations of Friedman demonstrate that Agin is engaged in the practice of opining on an academic field that he has little training in, a practice that he castigates other scientists for engaging in at several points in his book. He exposes his ignorance most clearly when taking Friedman to task for a response Friedman made in a verbal interview concerning child labor in Victorian England. Leaving aside the farcical nature of Agin's criticism that Friedman was not sufficiently precise when discussing a matter in a verbal interview, Agin simply gets some of his facts wrong. Friedman's basic argument was that while child labor is not good in the abstract, one has to consider context, and the context was that city life and working in the factories was probably superior to the conditions of rural life in England at the time. After all, people were migrating to the cities in large numbers, and one would not expect them to do so unless they expected to better their situation. Among Agin's criticisms of Friedman, he takes Friedman to task by saying that the legal system in rural England was the same as the laissez-faire system in urban England, so they couldn't be moving to get better treatment on that basis. But here Agin exposes his ignorance: the laws were not the same. Rural England was still covered by a patchwork of customary and common law precedents controlling land usage and relations between people that dated back centuries, a patchwork of law that did not extend to the cities. In short, while there are many reasons to disagree with Friedman, Agin harms his own arguments by choosing to criticize him on a fallacious basis.

But this is only the beginning of the muddled mess that Agin's book degenerates to in its waning pages. Agin makes the case that one should not evaluate scientific output by looking to the character of the scientist who produced it, but in his chapter on race, heredity, and intelligence, he proceeds to do just that by tying A.R. Jensen to the White Supremacist movement via the Pioneer Fund. This is entirely gratuitous as Agin's argument in this area doesn't need buttressing. But by indulging in it, Agin exposes himself to the charge that he is a hypocrite, and as the book continues on, this characterization becomes more and more apt. Through much of his chapters on stem cell research and cloning, Agin takes the President's Council on Bioethics, a government commission, to task for interfering in the pursuit of science. He is especially critical of Charles Krauthammer's contributions to the Council. Agin regards the council as interfering busybodies who lack the scientific training to understand bioethics, and who are unfairly interfering with valuable research. And it is likely that they are. But later Agin states that he is incensed by Friedman's argument that a corporation can serve no purpose other than the legal pursuit of profit, and points out that it is the government's duty to oversee how corporations deal with science. The same government that the Council on Bioethics is part of. In short, when he talks about government, he wants government to butt out of science, and when he talks about corporations, he wants government to butt back in. Similarly, he wants schools to provide strong basic science education to counter the spread of antiscience ideas like creationism, but once again, those schools are an arm of government. Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways. If you want government to provide science education and regulate the market's use of science, then science will be affected by political ideology. If you want corporations to fund science, then corporations will also expect to control the uses to which the fruits of that science are put. And so on. When it comes to policy prescriptions, Agin fails to realize that science will always be buffeted by special interests: even scientists are shown in the book to bend and twist science for their own material benefit, or for the benefit of their own ideological biases.

To a certain extent, it is probably inevitable that someone trying to write a book with as broad a scope as this one would prove to be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. However, that doesn't excuse the weaknesses of the book. Agin could have focused on those scientific areas in which he is clearly bubbling over with expertise, and produced a powerful piece of work. Instead, he produced a broad but unfocused mess and then capped it off with a collection of policy prescriptions that are poorly founded and inherently self-contradictory. The result is a work that, while brilliant at times, is profoundly flawed.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 18, 2010, 12:46am Top

I cannot wait to see the long reviews on your latest reads, Aaron. They all look like books in which I would be interested.

Jul 18, 2010, 12:48am Top

You have been reading fun and interesting stuff, StormRaven. I will look for The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E. Richards & Year of the Fires. I used to be a great Dilbert fan when I was a programmer; you've made me want to pull the ol' funny books out again. :)

Edited: Nov 23, 2010, 12:24pm Top

Book Fifty-Six: A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins by Michael D'Antonio.


Short review: The Russian launch of Sputnik signals the beginning of the space race.

Long review: A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins is a tightly focused history concerning the brief time period between the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the U.S.S.R. and the formation of NASA as an effective agency of the U.S. government responsible for space exploration. Looking back from a perspective of more than fifty years, D'Antonio recounts the heady first days, from the quick succession of Soviet public relations triumphs in the early going of the space race, to the mixed response in the U.S., past the inter service rivalries that characterized the early U.S. space efforts, and finally to the creation of NASA to marshal the U.S. effort into a unified front that, as history shows, allowed the U.S. to leap past their Soviet rivals in technological prowess and claim the Cold War prestige of being the dominant player in space exploration.

The book starts with the launch of Sputnik I, a tiny piece of hardware that amounted to little more than a ball with a radio transmitter. D'Antonio then takes the subsequent events in more or less chronological order, detailing the combination of fear, admiration, hysteria and indifference that Americans displayed in response to this Soviet achievement. D'Antonio puts the Sputnik I launch into historical perspective, but also details how Stalin sought to leverage it for public relations and why the Eisenhower administration's response, at first, seemed to be little more than a yawn. Taking events more or less in chronological order, the book then describes the Soviet follow up to launch the dog Laika in Sputnik II and points out the huge consternation caused by the now little-remembered fact that Laika's trip was, from its inception, a one way ticket to the dog's demise. And D'Antonio details why the U.S. government's response to Laika's fate was muted, due to its own use of animals in aircraft and rocket testing. But where the story really gains traction is when D'Antonio recounts the bitter feuding between the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy over which service would take precedence in the U.S. space effort, and Eisenhower's determination that the primary U.S. effort should be civilian, and not military in nature. Focusing on outsize personalities like the egotistical General Bruce Medaris and the officially sanitized ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun, the story shows how unfocused and haphazard U.S. efforts were, and how this inter service conflict served to hinder U.S. efforts, and diminish the civilian NACA (National Committee for Aeronautics) at a time when it should have been pushed to the forefront.

D'Antonio assembles a collection of impressive resources, ranging from government documents to media reports, and interviews with a wide variety of people who were involved in the early U.S. space program, from those intimately connected with the program, to reporters who covered it, to those who were only tangentially involved by being at the right place at the right time. Some, such as the reports of Bradford Whipple, among the first to hear Sputnik I as it orbited the globe, and who was involved in a strange clandestine theft of Sputnik I from the Soviet pavilion at the world's fair, or the accounts given by Cocoa Beach resident Roger Dobson whose family owned a trailer park where many of the early rocket engineers who worked on what would become Cape Kennedy made their homes give a very human feel to what could have been a story dominated by political infighting, cold war paranoia, and engineering reports. Others, such as Jay Barbree, a reporter in the Florida area who covered all of the rocket launches serve to give a perspective on the media response to the repeated U.S. failures, and the handful of triumphs. Among the more interesting elements of the book is the information concerning Wernher von Braun's past as an SS officer directing the construction and use of the V-2 rockets in World War II, and the efforts made by the U.S. government to sanitize and hide his past and true involvement in war crimes (and the involvement of many of the other German rocket engineers brought to Huntsville, Alabama to work on rockets for the U.S. Army). Even with the perspective of fifty years distance, it seems almost shocking that a man who was directly responsible for selecting concentration camp inmates to work as slave labor to build missiles could have his image rehabilitated to such an extent that he would appear in Disney specials espousing the wonderful future that space travel would bring to the U.S. populace.

The most important element of this book is that it covers a time period in U.S. history that is cloaked in nostalgia and recounts it with all its glories and flaws with an unflinching eye. Sweeping away the nostalgic vision of a happy America presided over by the grandfatherly Eisenhower, D'Antonio recounts how Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson jumped at the chance to score political points at the expense of a seemingly out of touch Eisenhower (whose health problems, including a minor stroke, went unreported). Also breaking up the idyllic view of the era is the treatment of women and minorities (despite most of the rocket research being done in the South, minorities are almost completely absent from the book, and oddly, one of their strongest advocates is ex-Nazi von Braun). Most accounts of the U.S. space program, such as The Right Stuff, more or less begin with Project Mercury, with NASA already an established fact, and the rocket program already well on its way. A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey, in contrast, ends with project SCORE, an unmanned launch of an Atlas rocket intended to do little more than show that the U.S. could throw four thousand pounds of payload into orbit just after NASA had been created, but before it had actually pulled together all the elements that would eventually make up the space agency (including von Braun's rocket research group, explicitly blocked from joining NASA by the Secretary of the Army). The account in this book, demonstrating the repeated and frustrating failures to even successfully fuel some of the rockets that the U.S. expected to use to get itself into space puts into perspective the truly brilliant triumphs of the later years, and how it seems almost a miracle that there were no human fatalities on any of the launch vehicles until Apollo 1. Reading this history makes it seem almost amazing that only twelve years separate the fitful and halting efforts described in this narrative and Apollo 11. Anyone interested in the history of the U.S. space program should read this account of its painful birth of NASA and first feeble steps taken on the path that eventually led to the Moon.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 20, 2010, 4:56pm Top

#100: Definitely adding that one to the BlackHole. Nice review.

#102: I think I will be skipping that one. Thanks for the heads up!

Jul 20, 2010, 5:24pm Top

#105 Does that book add anything to the loads of other books already available on the subject? I collect books about the Space Race (see here), although more Apollo-related than Sputnik.

Jul 20, 2010, 5:30pm Top

107: I'll probably write up a review of it later tonight. It focuses pretty tightly on the mostly pre-NASA era of the space race. It opens with the launch of Sputnik, details the launch of Sputnik II (with Laika inside), and the U.S. attempts to get a launch vehicle that could get objects into orbit. It focuses on the chaotic and unfocused nature of the U.S. effort, as interservice rivalry between the Army, Navy, and Air Force dominates and NACA (the precursor to NASA) is treated like a poor relation. It is a good historical account of the very start of the space race. The book ends with the project SCORE launch just after NASA was created around the core of NACA.

Jul 21, 2010, 3:53am Top

Ah well. Like I said, I'm more interested in the later period. And the planned stuff that never happened - Man in space soonest, Project Horizon, all that sort of stuff. Have you seen this blog, Beyond Apollo? It's excellent.

Edited: Nov 14, 2010, 7:30pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (August 2010)
Science News (July 17, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (July 2010)
The Economist (July 10th-16th, 2010)
The Economist (July 17th-23rd, 2010)
The Economist (July 24th-30th, 2010)

Book Fifty-Seven: The Far Side Gallery 3 by Gary Larson.


Short review: Another large collection of the weird and funny single panel comics with an introduction by Stephen Jay Gould.

Long review: The Far Side Gallery 3 is, as one might expect, the third omnibus collection of Gary Larson's very funny but always off-kilter comic strip The Far Side featuring the usual cast of cows, cavemen, nerds, insects and other strange denizens of Larson's twisted imagination. The single panel comics that make up the bulk of the book are the usual collection of weird but funny windows into a strange alternate reality where lions open car doors with coat-hangers to get at tourists and praying mantises argue over who ate whose husband. As usual for his collections, Larson recruited someone interesting to write the introduction to the book, in this case the noted scientist (and co creator of the theory of punctuated equilibrium) Stephen Jay Gould who merely introduces himself as a paleontologist and taxonomist who studies snails.

Though depreciating his own talents at humorous writing, Gould dissects why Larson is so popular among scientists, noting that by Gould's estimation 80% of the doors of his colleagues are decorated with a Far Side strip or two. Gould's introduction examines why this is the case, as he says, it isn't just the chuckles. And the fact that, as Gould notes, Larson has such a keep eye for reality and the weirdness that is just a hair away from reality that makes his strips so enduring. The idea of a cow in a hamster ball rolling about the house is funny because it is silly, but so is the idea of putting a hamster in a ball and setting him loose about the house. we just don't think about the silliness of the hamster in a ball until Larson makes us. Over and over again, Larson takes the mundane, rotates it slightly and gives us flies examining their garbage filled baby nursery or birds getting excited over cocktails served with skewered bugs or cavemen playing rock paper scissors before paper and scissors were invented. Almost every strip is funny, some will make you laugh out loud.

(As an aside, I only found one comic in this book to be not very funny. It is on page 181, and involves a brother playing a prank on his sister. There's nothing offensive about the strip, in fact it is just so boringly mundane that it seems like it should be filler in Family Circus rather than something in The Far Side).

The comics in this collection are from Larson's prime as a cartoonist, and it shows. The comics are almost all at least funny, and over and over again a strip will hit just the right comic note to make it hilarious. If you like The Far Side and its strange humor as I do, then this book is a must read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 19, 2010, 8:13am Top

Book Fifty-Eight: The Reapers Are the Angels: A Novel by Alden Bell.


Short review: The story of the depressing life of a young girl living in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

The Reapers Are the Angels is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where zombies have killed off most of humanity and the remnants are left to try to make their way in a world filled with hostile, brain eating "slugs" (as the zombies are called in the book). The twist in the book is that the protagonist, a teenage girl who goes by the name "Temple", was born after the zombie takeover and collapse of civilization. Temple is tough, carrying and almost fetishizing a Ghurka knife, while having a very different vision of herself than the many people who want to dress her up like a doll do. The book will remind readers of McCarthy's The Road, but it is told with a narrative style that reminded me of McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City. Other influences seem to be Apocalypse Now, Dhalgren, and even the X-Files episode "Home".

The story is pretty basic: Temple starts in the Florida Keys, begins moving when the "slugs" catch up with her, and drifts about the American southeast stumbling into various plot points. She seeks refuge in a large fortress in Georgia where she kills a man who tries to rape her, which sets his brother Moses Todd on a quest to kill her. She picks up a mentally impaired man and sets about trying to find him a safe place to stay, a relationship laden with healthy dollops of symbolism as he becomes a kind of surrogate child to replace the family she lost and that she apparently could never have even if she decided to. She runs across the Grierson family living in seeming denial of the reality around them who reminded me of the de Marais family in Apocalypse Now and the Richards family in Dhalgren. She tangles with a collection of inbred mutant hillbillies who reminded me of the Peacock family in "Home". Temple drifts west, she drifts south, on the way securing something of a purpose to her wandering, but mostly just making her way across a hostile countryside, spurning both refuge and assistance on her blood-drenched journey.

The novel seems to want to apply literary sensibilities to the typical zombie tale, and this creates an interesting work, but also results in some problems. Bell's writing flows very well, allowing the reader to eat through pages quite quickly. But he has a tendency to overwrite at times, giving very flowery descriptions for much of the action. When characters for whom this would be suitable are about - such as the aging southern belle Mrs. Grierson who spends her days teaching her younger son to play the piano while being waited on by a patient staff of house servants - this fits the book. But when the book focuses on hillbilly mutants, weathered hunters, or even Temple herself, this language seems wrong for the story. The story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, which makes the story quite linear, but this turns out to be something of a strength, as it casts an air of uncertainty about the actions of those around her. If a person leaves Temple's sight, the reader also loses sight of them, a device that makes Moses Todd seem much scarier than her would have been if his actions tracking Temple about were detailed. Where the story is strongest is in the scenes of interactions between the characters - Temple overlooking a destroyed city while talking with James Grierson, Temple's friendship with the hunter Lee she meets on the road, Temple impromptu date in Texas, and her bizarre relationship with Moses Todd. Unfortunately, for much of the book Temple is either on her own or paired with the mute imbecile Maury, limiting the potential for substantial interaction.

However, the first substantial problem I had with the book is the lack of explanation for anything which leads to fairly weak world-building. Given that the story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, and she was born after the zombie apocalypse, her lack of understanding becomes the reader's lack of understanding. While some ambiguity is to be expected, and even welcomed in a book like this, there is simply no rationale given for almost every element of the book. Temple's real name, for example, is apparently Sarah Mary Williams, which she uses on occasion. But the reader is never told why she adopted the name Temple, or really why she switches between them. The zombies are an ever-present fact of life, but no explanation is given as to where they came from. Similarly, though civilization supposedly collapsed a quarter century before the events in the book, there are functional cars sitting on the sides of the road, gas stations with gas and packaged food (although one wonders how one pumps gas when there isn't electricity), in places there is electricity and one wonders who keeps it on, people live in compounds housing many people with no visible means of growing enough crops to feed them, and so on. Every settlement Temple runs across seems to have coke and ice, and a generous willingness to hand them out to her. The Grierson family is a salient example: they are supposed to be living in an unreality where they pretend that playing Chopin on the piano and building model ships are worthwhile pastimes behind their walls, and because they are supposed to be rich, they eat like comparative kings. But other than a passing mention that one of the brothers scavenges once in a while, they have no apparently substantial enough source for all the food they eat. The hillbilly mutants also seem to have limited food sources, although the missing explanation concerning them is how they figured out the discovery that makes them giant, which seems to have eluded everyone else. While one would not necessarily expect answers to any or all of these questions, the characters in the book don't even bother to try to figure any of them out or even spend any time considering them, which one would think would be pretty close to the forefront of everyone's mind.

And this leads to my second substantial problem I had with the book: the world doesn't seem nearly as dangerous as it should be. The unexplained plentiful resources make living off the land seem pretty easy for the survivors. Temple and Maury never seem to be in danger of going hungry, or being exposed to the elements, or any of the other hazards one might expect people to face twenty-five years after civilization collapses. Granted other post-apocalyptic novels like The Stand also have people living well by scavenging through the remnants of civilization, but in a novel like The Stand the collapse is supposed to have just happened (in fact, it takes place in front of the reader's eyes), so having supermarkets filled with canned goods and packaged crackers doesn't seem wholly unreasonable in that book like it does here. A side issue this raises is the fact that the events described in the book are twenty-five years after the collapse and no one has moved on to using technology that isn't scavenged. Despite a story that wanders about the American south, we never encounter anyone riding a horse, no one ever uses a tool or weapon made after the collapse, and so on. But the most glaring example of the lack of dangerousness of the world is the zombies. The zombies are a collection of genre conventions: they are slow, they have an insatiable desire for human flesh, they are mindless animals, to kill them requires destroying their brain, and they spread the "zombie plague" by biting. But the zombies that actually show up in the book are almost laughably harmless. They are so slow that everyone calls them "slugs". They are so clumsy and so stupid that outwitting them and outfighting them seems almost trivially easy. In short, whenever the "slugs" show up, Temple seems to handle them so easily that one wonders exactly how they overwhelmed civilization.

The only real threats in the book turn out to not be either the post-apocalyptic landscape of the zombies at all, but rather the seemingly minor threat posed by the mutant hillbillies and the more dangerous threat posed by Moses Todd. I suspect this is intentional, since Temple dismisses the moral significance of the zombies in an almost offhand manner, but the evil of the hillbillies and Moses is front and center. With respect to the hillbillies, I think that their evil is supposed to be intentional, but I think that Moses Todd is supposed to be an ambiguous character. Bell seems to have tried to set up a conflict between Temple, who considers herself evil, but is actually good, and Moses Todd, who I think is supposed to be morally ambiguous - sort of a good man sent by circumstances to do something bad. But Moses Todd as a morally ambiguous character (and thus the ending of the book) simply falls flat on its face. Todd's actions and attitudes are simply unjustifiable as anything other than evil. In short, the intended morality play doesn't work out, in my opinion, because "revenge for my rapist brother's death" is simply not sufficient justification for Moses Todd's actions.

In this book it is clear that Alden Bell aimed high. The intent was seemingly to create for the zombie apocalypse a work of literary quality that would highlight the morally ambiguous landscape that an anarchy red in tooth and claw would likely create. While the book is quite readable, and Temple a fairly likable character (and hence enjoyable to follow around the countryside), the inherent contradictions of the setting coupled with a pretty weak moral conflict and an unconvincing resolution results in a flawed book that I cannot regard as any better than average.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 10, 2011, 10:50am Top

Belated Review: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else by Rob Neyer.


Short review: Rob Neyer fact checks numerous tall tales told by and about baseball players and finds many wanting and makes debunking funny and interesting stories funny and interesting.

Long review: Baseball history is full of stories. The baseball yarn, usually told by an aging ex-player that begins with some variation of "there I was . . .", is a familiar and time-honored event. Every baseball fan can probably recount at least a half-dozen such stories from memory, if not more. Some of these stories have become treasured lore, woven into the mythology of the game. If you are a person who loves these sorts of stories unconditionally, then you should avoid this book at all costs. If, on the other hand, you are curious about the origin and veracity of these tall tales of the diamond, then this is the book for you.

Modern technology, by placing information at the fingertips of everyone from news reporters to your brother, has become the bane of faulty memories, puffery, and the tall tale. The availability of information can catch people in lies that change their careers, as Tim Johnson, former manger of the Toronto Blue Jays discovered when he was fired after it was revealed that he had lied about his service as a Marine in the Vietnam War. In Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, Neyer turns modern technology (mostly databases of boxscores and newspaper records) to a less serious purpose: checking up on a number of colorful yarns told through the years about baseball and figuring out if they can actually be confirmed as true, or were just made up as entertaining anecdotes.

The format of the book is pretty straightforward. In some ways, the book is sort of like a Mythbusters for the baseball yarn. A baseball story is presented, usually with attribution to one or more sources. The potentially verifiable facts of the story are then identified. Then Neyer sets to work, combing through team rosters, boxscores, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts to determine if the story is potentially true, or if it simply doesn't match the concrete data. Each story gets the treatment, and most are examined to see if you slightly change the facts that they could match. If there are similar stories involving different players, different teams, or a different time and place, they are usually examined as well. The stories range from the obscure, like the first one in the book concerning a shower of boiling beans, or whether a Chinese player was in organized baseball in the 1920s, to more notable ones like Lou Gehrig's supposed impostor, to the most famous of baseball legends Babe Ruth's called shot. Each story is presented with quotes and anecdotes from players, managers, umpires, and reporters while Neyer tries to match all the often varying accounts of events against the known facts.

At first blush one might think a book devoted to using boxscores from 1956 to fact check some story told by umpire Tom Gorman would be dry and uninteresting, but Neyer keeps the writing light and conversational, making the pages roll by. The stories are drawn from a wide range of baseball eras, from the early 1900s all the way up to the 1980s. Some of the stories will no doubt be familiar to most baseball fans, while some will probably be completely unknown, and some of the fun of the book is reading these obscure baseball stories which are often quite entertaining, even if they stretch the truth a little (or, as often seems to be the case, quite a bit). So, for a baseball fan who doesn't mind if the legendary exploits of his boyhood heroes turn out to have been a little exaggerated, this is highly recommended.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 29, 2010, 4:27pm Top

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends sounds like a nice gift idea for the sports nuts in the family. Thanks for the rec.

Jul 30, 2010, 2:27am Top

#111: Nice review, Aaron. I have that one in the BlackHole, but think I will bump it down in priority.

#112: I definitely need to find that one, baseball nut that I am! Thanks for the review and recommendation.

Edited: Nov 12, 2010, 1:40am Top

Book Fifty-Nine: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, No. 1 & 2 (July/August 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Advances in Modern Chemotherapy by Michael Alexander
The Revel by John Langan
Mister Sweetpants and the Living Dead by Albert E. Cowdrey
Pining to Be Human by Richard Bowes
The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha by Ken Altabef
The Precedent by Sean McMullen
Recrossing the Styx by Ian R. MacLeod
Brother of the River by Rick Norwood
The Tale of Nameless Chameleon by Brenda Carre
Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon by Ramsey Shehadeh
Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th Anniversary Edition by Heather Lindsley

Poems included:
Physics by Annabelle Beaver

Science fact articles included:
How Low Can You Go? by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy

Long review: The July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction provides the reader with a varied array of stories, but drawn into a couple of broad themes. Four stories read like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes in print form. Two excellent stories, one fantasy and the other science fiction, deal with the threat of global warming, two fantasy stories are heavily Asian influenced, and the issue is capped off with two humorous stories. As seems to be the case in many issues of genre magazines, there is also a story that doesn't seem to actually fit as a genre story at all, which is always frustrating. However, with that sole exception, the stories in this issue are all pretty good.

Mentioned on the cover, Recrossing the Styx by Ian R. MacLeod is the most Twilight Zone-ish story in the issue. The story is told from the perspective of a cruise line employee in a future in which those who can pay can extend their lives and even return from the dead so long as they have the cash to pay for the myriad of advanced procedures necessary. he falls in love with a beautiful woman married to an elderly, wealthy man, and conspires with her to free her from this situation while retaining access to wealth. All goes well until the Twilight Zone twist at the end, which, even though it is a little easy to spot coming, is still a somewhat creepy resolution to the story. Advances in Modern Chemotherapy by Michael Alexander also seems like a Twilight Zone episode, as elderly cancer patients begin displaying paranormal powers in their last days before they die. The story posits a cruel irony that only those who are advancing quickly towards death gain these abilities, making it very difficult to study them , or figure out why it is happening. The story is well-done, both making the reader feel the tired sickness of the patients, and the joy and confusion they feel as they test their new abilities. As a side note, with the baby boomers moving into old age, it seems likely that more and more science fiction stories will deal with the effects of aging, so I suspect we'll see more and more stories like these in the future.

The other two Twilight Zone type stories in the issue are more horror themed than science fiction. The Revel by John Langan is one of the best stories in the issue and tells a fairly typical werewolf tale from the perspective of an outside narrator who is openly aware of the conventions of the genre, shifting from character to character as the story goes. With the typical cast including a small town sheriff, local weirdo, hapless victims, and of course, the werewolf, Langan weaves a fast moving and compelling story that moves towards the twist ending that both seemingly crops up from nowhere and fits the story perfectly. The other horror story in the issue is Mister Sweetpants and the Living Dead by Albert E. Cowdrey, a modestly comic zombie story involving a wealthy writer and his dead ex-boyfriend who is stalking him. The story is told from the perspective of the owner of a security company hired to protect the writer, and it is both creepy and somewhat funny. Of the stories I have described as being reminiscent of the Twilight Zone, this one is the least Zone-like, but it is still quite good.

One of the strengths of this issue is that it deals with a variety of topics from a variety of angles. The global warming story has become more and more popular in science fiction, but both The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha by Ken Altabef and The Precedent by Sean McMullen are strong enough to stand out in the crowded field. The Lost Elephants is a fantasy story set in Kenya, at some undefined point in the future, featuring a scientist struggling to preserve the elephant as a species in the wild. Strange events in Tanzania lead the Tanzanian government to lift a ban on hunting, and with the aid of a British psychic and an African witch-doctor, the mystery of the elephants is unraveled in an unsettling conclusion. Although The Lost Elephants is quite good, it is overshadowed by The Precedent, which is by far the best story in an issue full of good ones. Set in a future that feels very plausible, The Precedent focuses on what the societal reaction might be if global temperatures soar. The result is a society that has deluded itself into thinking revenge is the same as justice, and in which all people born before the "tipping" (or the millenium) are guilty until proven innocent of crimes against humanity such as driving SUV's, using their hose to clean leaves, or just watching a lot of TV. The story focuses on the trial of an elderly climatologist - all of the defendants are old, all of the prosecutors are young as climate change has divided the generations - and his efforts to demonstrate his innocence to the various charges brought against him. The story is chilling, both for the vision of the planet that it describes, and for the callousness of the legal system that this has created. There is a little implausibility in the story: it is hard to believe that a younger generation would turn on their own parents and grandparents so viciously, but this only serves to heighten the tension. On the whole, it is an excellent story.

The issue also has its almost obligatory examples of Asian themed fantasy which will probably both remind readers of tales from 1,001 Nights. The first, Brothers of the River by Rick Norwood concerns two magically inclined brothers with very different demeanors who challenge one another to a race of epic proportions. They both have adventures along the way which allow them to overcome later challenges and eventually, as in many fairy tales, their race becomes an explanation for a terrain feature. It is a decent read, but nothing really special. The Tale of Nameless Chameleon by Brenda Carre is a story set in a city that seems at times like it would fit in ancient China, and at others like it would make a good proxy for a medieval Baghdad in which magic was real. The story itself is a classic revenge story, with a hardscrabble protagonist angling to get revenge upon the man he holds responsible for the death of his only friend. The method of revenge (and the price the protagonist must pay) are unusual, and the resolution seems to tie the story in a strange way to the Arthurian legend, although not so tightly as to be annoying. The protagonist is interesting, the setting is colorful, and the plot is good, all of which adds up to a good story.

The first of the two out and out humor stories sees the return of the incompetent wizard Epidapheles and his invisible chair familiar named "Door" in Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon by Ramsey Shehadeh. The story takes Epidapheles and his weary and not very happy companion to a demonic realm where they are confronted with the demon of the title. The story is convoluted, and since Epidapheles is involved, quite strange while still being quite funny. The other humorous story, Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th Anniversary Edition by Heather Lindsley, is a short and funny piece imagining The Joy of Cooking a hundred and fifty years from now, discussing the new recipes that have been added to the book, and the old ones that were taken out. It is quick, light, and funny.

For some reason the editors of genre magazines seem to think putting a non-genre story in their magazine is a good idea. Maybe they think this will earn them literary credibility. Maybe they think their readers want some non-genre material. Maybe they have some other reason. I don't know the answer. Pining to Be Human by Richard Bowes is an example of this phenomenon. The story features a gay protagonist in the 1960s struggling with his sexuality in a society that regards being gay as an abomination, and as a result struggling with life in general. he struggles through college, uses a lot of drugs, has some not very happy relationships, and tells all of this to his therapist that he can afford by doing nude photo shoots. The "fantasy" element to the story is his visions of a set of witches from a play he saw when he was a young boy that featured a witch boy marrying a human girl - the boy is "pining to be human", which serves as a metaphor for being gay and yearning to be straight. The story isn't bad in and of itself, but there is no fantasy and no science fiction in it, which makes it out of place in this magazine.

The science fact article titled How Low Can You Go? by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy is, as are most of the science articles in Fantasy & Science Fiction, a pretty bland affair. Although the subject matter of the article - the nature of absolute zero, how materials behave at very low temperatures, and other temperature related tidbits of information - might be useful to a very uneducated reader, most people who pick up a magazine heavily focused on science fiction will probably find the article an exercise in remedial learning at best. There is a running joke in the article about "contributing to the heat death of the Universe", but it gets pounded into the ground so much that it loses all humor value. The sad conclusion I have come to is that most of the science fact articles in Fantasy & Science Fiction are simply not worth the page count they take up in the magazine.

Overall, despite a weak science fact article and an out of place non-genre story, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is really good. In fact, those two missteps are the only elements that kept me from rating this issue at five stars. While The Precedent is the best story in the issue, all of the stories are at least good, even Pining to Be Human. In the final assessment, this is simply a standout issue of a good magazine.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 6, 2010, 11:57pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (July 31st-August 6th, 2010)
Science News (July 31, 2010)

Book Sixty: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 9 (September 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
Backlash by Nancy Fulda
Wheat Rust by Benjamin Crowell
The Palace in the Clouds by Eugene Mirabelli
For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal

Poems included:
The Now We Almost Inhabit by Roger Dutcher and Robert Frazier
Egg Production by Ruth Berman

Special articles included:
Thought Experiments: The View from the Other Side - Science Fiction and Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries by Aliette de Bodard

Long review: I've noted numerous times that the various science fiction genre magazines often seem to have unannounced themes in them. The unnanounced theme in Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 9 (September 2010) seems to be "hard science fiction stories", which is slightly unusual, because when compared to Analog, Asimov's usually tends to lean more towards the softer side of science fiction, and dabble in out and out fantasy. In this issue, however, almost every story is either clearly a hard science fiction story, or very close to one. Given this, coupled with the fact that the stories are all pretty good, the resulting issue is a superior one.

The issue starts off with a special article by Aliette de Bodard titled Thought Experiments: The View from the Other Side - Science Fiction and Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries that examines science fiction from outside the Anglosphere. It seems odd to describe a genre in which readers happily consume material written by American, English, or Australian authors with equal abandon (and in many cases, in complete ignorance of the nationality of the writer who penned the book they are reading). However, English speaking science fiction seems to have almost no room for authors from outside their sheltered sphere. In her article, de Bodard highlights the science fiction that has been produced outside the U.S., ranging from the long standing tradition of science fiction in Japan to that produced by Brazilian writers to the new interest in science fiction emerging in China and convincingly details why science fiction takes root in some areas and not in others. The article is full of insight into the nature of the history of the genre, and thought-provoking concerning the possible future.

This month's story featured on the cover artwork is The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis, and the first of the hard science stories features questions of terraforming, immeasurable wealth, some political machinations, some oppression and a little bit of romance. Set on a colonized Venus, and stuffed full of a heavy heaping of creativity, the story seems to have stemmed from someone posing Landis with the question of how humans could plausibly settle on Venus, and what might happen if they did. The story seems to be a throwback to some of the Arthur C. Clarke or Brian Aldiss stories in which projects to transform planets take place on a massive scale, but this story comes at the problem from the other end during the planning stage, and examines some of the somewhat less than altruistic reasons such a project might be started. It is, through and through, an excellent story.

Wheat Rust by Benjamin Crowell is the second hard science fiction story in the volume, set on a massive generation ship on which various primitive inhabitants are kept from technology (and even the knowledge that technology could exist) by beings that the ship inhabitants have mythologized as "builders". Into the bickering groups in the habitat drop a pair of space suited builders who first set off a political fight, and then set the reluctant protagonist in motion to combat the titular infection that threatens the food supplies of every inhabitant. The story is quite timely as wheat rust has reappeared as a threat to Earth's crops in reality, but unlike the characters in the story, we don't have more or less benevolent "builders" watching over us. One might not expect it from a story like this, but it is loaded with humor and sex which makes it flow by, and the end result is a pretty good story.

The final hard science fiction story in the issue, For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal, is also set on a generation ship. In this case the story revolves around the attempts of the main character to repair her family's Artificial Intelligence after it has been dropped. The characters must struggle against their own ignorance, their normal reliance upon the A.I. to handle most tasks for them, and the unpleasant secret that is revealed as a result of the damage to the A.I. The story highlights how helpless humans can be if the technology they depend upon goes awry, and also contains a tragic story of how a person with power can abuse that power in their own self-interest, albeit perfectly understandable self-interest.

Backlash by Nancy Fulda breaks slightly from the hard science theme of the issue by introducing time travel into a story about espionage and terrorism, although the version of time travel described in the story is almost plausible. The protagonist, a retired secret operative, is delivered a botched message from the future and is sent to halt a terrorist plot that threatens to kill half of the city and in the longer term radically changes the government of the United States to a repressive dictatorship. His daughter, her boyfriend and his future wife all get involved while he simultaneously figures out a way to foil the terrorists and deal with the demons of the past. Almost unremarked on in the story is the method by which the potential for a time-travel paradox is resolved, although the characters do realize the tragic consequences of the effects that time travel has upon them. It is a well-done and action filled time-travel story.

The Palace in the Clouds by Eugene Mirabelli is a story reminiscent of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, hypothesizing an airborne Venice, suspended by massive white ballons floating among the clouds. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy let in on the secret of the Venice among the clouds, and intercut with historical background explaining how and why the city was built. The story is something of a fantasy even though nothing in the story actually breaks the laws of physics, and thus everything could be potentially plausible. The floating city is described as beautiful, and almost magical, which lends credence to the stubborn resistance the last inhabitants display, and makes one wish such a place actually existed. The story has a dreamlike and almost unreal quality the brilliantly conveys the image of the doomed drifitng platform suspended in the clouds.

With one strong science fiction story after another, the September 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is an excellent installment of the magazine. If the editors can keep the content of this magazine as consistently high in quality as in this issue, I will be a very happy subscriber. At the risk of sounding a little too eager, this is one of the best issues of Asimov's Science Fiction that has come out recently.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 5, 2010, 4:22pm Top

Book Sixty-One: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 10 (October 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
The Rift by John G. Hemry
Midwife Crisis by Dave Creek
The Great Galactic Ghoul by Allen M. Steele
Ghosts Come Home by Justin Stanchfield
The Whole Truth Witness by Kenneth Schneyer
The Alien at the Alamo by Arlan Andrews
Never Saw It Coming by Jerry Oltion

Science fact articles included:
Visit to the Forgotten Planet: What Scientists Are Learning as Messenger Prepares to Orbit Mercury by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
We Just Want to Dance by Mary A. Turzillo

Long review: The October 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is another strong issue of a consistently strong magazine. There is only one weak story in the issue, and it is only about four pages long. On the other hand, there are a couple of very good stories, and the remainder are pretty good as well. This is capped off with an interesting science fact article, and even a fun to read poem about dust devils on Mars by Mary A. Turzillo.

The opening story of the issue is the novella The Rift by John G. Hemry, a sort of Aliens inspired story about a military rescue mission sent to aid a scientific research installation that has been studying the supposedly peaceful alien inhabitants of the planet Imtep. The comparison to Aliens probably makes it seem more simplistic than it is, as the story itself revolves around a cultural misunderstanding between the oblivious humans and the aliens they are studying that leads to tragic consequences. The characters are fairly well-drawn, albeit somewhat stereotypical, and the plot is okay. The only real weakness of the story is that a reasonably astute reader will figure out the source of the cultural offense that set the story in motion. Even so, the Rourke's Drift style nature of the story makes for good reading.

Midwife Crisis by Dave Creek is a kind of reverse version of the Fantasic Voyage story. Instead of miniaturizing humans to fit inside of a normal human to perform surgery, a normal size human (accompanied by an aquatic alien) enters the body of a massive alien to try to help it deliver its unborn child. The story mixes in some genetic engineering, some cross-cultural conflicts, and some of medical science fiction to make a pretty decent story.

The Great Galactic Ghoul by Allen M. Steele is a hard science fiction story about a space rescue operation. The story covers the efforts of the rescuers and the ongoing scientific inquiry as to the source of the disaster against a background of speculation, much of it misinformed and half-baked. This element of the story seems to me to be a direct shot at goofball conspiracy theorists like the "9/11 Truthers", and as such it is pretty well-aimed. The story eventually establishes a very strongly supported rational explanation for the mysterious deaths of six people, but lunatic theories still abound, just like the lunatic "truthers", "birthers", moon-landing hoaxers, and so on. The science in the story is thorough, the mystery is interesting and well thought out, and the commentary is insightful, all of which adds up to a great story. Ghosts Come Home by Justin Stanchfield is another space rescue story, this time set further into the future and mixing in some interesting ideas about genetic engineering and human relationships. The story is well-done, and has a bittersweet conclusion that is still satisfying.

As a lawyer, I was fairly impressed by The Whole Truth Witness by Kenneth Schneyer, a somewhat humorous science fiction story set in a future in which some people have undergone a procedure that is supposed to make it impossible for them to lie. The protagonist, a lawyer having to deal with cases involving such witnesses on the other side is forced to figure out a way to in a case in the face of effectively incontrovertible testimony. The solution is quite creative (and probably a little unethical) which is in line with the humorous nature of the story, although I saw a number of other avenues of attack available to the protagonist that could have been used that would have fit into a more seriously inclined story that examined the impact of such technology on the legal system.

The Alien at the Alamo by Arlan Andrews is a very short and fairly silly story about a man who comes into contact with an alien at the Alamo in Texas. The alien makes a fairly classic comparison between alien and human intelligence (one that showed up in Babylon 5 in G'Kar's mouth) and tests human perception. The whole story is more or less a set-up for a final punch line though, and the punch-line is pretty cliched, which makes the story less than interesting in the end. Also fairly humorous, and touching on the theme of how difficult it is to get bad information out of circulation, is Never Saw It Coming by Jerry Oltion, focused on an amatuer astronomer who finds a previously unknown asteroid and accidentally (at first) and intentionally (later) starts a world-wide panic. The story is a well-crafted send up of the science illiteracy and hysteria that permeates much of the media. It is a fairly light-hearted story, so all ends well, but the story is quite fun all the way through.

The science fact article in the issue is Visit to the Forgotten Planet: What Scientists Are Learning as Messenger Prepares to Orbit Mercury by Richard A. Lovett, a discussion of the history and future of the exploration of the planet Mercury. After giving an overview of the past and current efforts to explore the planet, Lovett discusses some of the interesting features that have been uncovered and that scientists hope will be more fully explained by the MESSENGER probe. The article, which serves to bring attention to the "forgotten planet" is quite interesting, and should serve as fodder for some decent fiction stories.

Analog has a well-deserved reputation as a magazine that delivers high-quality science fiction stories, and this issue lives up to that reputation. The Great Galactic Ghoul is probably the best story in the issue, but as a lawyer I have a soft spot for The Whole Truth Witness. However, with the exception of The Alien at the Alamo, every story in this issue is well-worth reading, and Alamo is at least mildly amusing. Consequently, this issue is strongly recommended for any science fiction fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Sep 27, 2011, 11:38am Top

Book Sixty-Two: Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories by Marty Crump.


Short review: The natural world is weirder than any imagined one that people could come up with, and Marty Crump has assembled the examples from the animal kingdom to prove it.

Long review: Reality is strange. Reality is, in fact, often stranger than anything humans can come up with in fiction. For anyone who is reasonably educated in the field of zoology, it is readily apparent that no matter how imaginative science fiction and fantasy authors are in their descriptions of alien or fantastical biology, they simply have a hard time matching the wild diversity and bizarreness of the natural world. In Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories Marty Crump places this truth front and center, and gives an accounting of a wide array of bizarre ways that animals breed, care for their young, find food, defend themselves from predators, and communicate. Using nontechnical language Crump effortlessly moves from animal to animal, describing their strange behaviour patterns, explaining the rigors of the lives this sort of activity requires from the creatures, and explains the survival value that some of the odder animal adaptations bring to the animals.

The book is divided up into five sections, each one covering a broad aspect of animal physiology and behaviour. Within each of these broadly defined sections are chapters that group the various animal behaviours into related categories. So, for example, under the section title "Ain't Love Grand" (which covers breeding strategies), there are chapters titled "Sneakers and Deceivers" (covering animals that try to sneak their way into the breeding market), "Trading Food for Sex" (about animals that use food to entice or even ensnare their mates), and of course "Headless Males Make Great Lovers" (about animals, including the praying mantis, where the male has to be careful to avoid being eaten by his partner). As one can tell from the chapter titles, Crump approaches each topic with a mixture of humor combined with the eye of a serious scientist resulting in a book that is both enjoyable to read, and packed with information.

But Crump doesn't just describe the animals and their behaviour. She places their behaviour in context, explaining what survival benefit the often seemingly inexplicable physical and behavioral adaptations give to the various creatures. But Crump also highlights the often extraordinary costs that these attributes extract from the animals, in many cases requiring them to sacrifice their health, well-being, or even their lives in the pursuit of survival and reproduction. Crump places many of the various species into evolutionary context, explaining how these attributes could have developed, and offering the best explanation we have for how such oddity could not only arise, but thrive and prosper. Finally, Crump does this not just by relating facts like a textbook, but by recounting stories from her own research, the research of her colleagues, and her own experiences traveling the world to study fauna on its home ground (with all the attendant hazards that entails). This gives the book a personal touch that draws the reader in even further, and makes the examples that much more compelling.

And the information is often times so extraordinary that if one were to come across the animals described in a work of fiction, one might well assume they were too strange to exist. From praying mantises whose mating reflexes are so strong that the male will continue to mount and mate with a female after it's head has been removed, or even after most of its upper body has been consumed, to male Australian redback spiders who intentionally place themselves into their partner's mouths to be eaten, to frogs that lay their eggs on land and keep them moist by periodically urinating on them, to poison dart frogs that lay additional eggs after their tadpoles hatch to serve as food for the newborns, and on and on. And this list only scratches the surface of the weird, the strange, and the downright creepy that exists out there. The only real problem I had with the book was that it is relatively short at a mere 175 pages of text (plus a list of references and an index). I am sure there is more wonderful bizarreness in the world, and I would have loved to have more included.

Still, a book that leaves you wishing you had more content is usually a great book to read, and this one is no exception. For anyone who is interested in the stranger side of zoology and is not already a practicing zoologist, this book is probably a must read. However, this book is so entertaining that it would be fun to read for almost anyone with any interest in the natural world. In the end, short of traveling the world with a trained zoologist in tow, it is hard to think of a better way to get a guided tour of the strange and wondrous beauty of nature in all of its wild glory.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Aug 6, 2010, 12:32am Top

#118: I cannot wait to see the long review of that one!

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 4:06pm Top

Noting a personal LibraryThing milestone, this review is my three hundredth review on the site.

Book Sixty-Three: Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software by Scott Rosenberg.


Short review: Software is hard to make. Open source software that does revolutionary things is even harder.

Long review: Dreaming in Code is, at its most basic, the story of the development of Chandler, an ambitious software project that was intended to challenge Microsoft Outlook as a personal information manager. But the story is much more than that. The deeper story of Dreaming in Code has to do with why making software is so difficult, how computers are fundamentally different from humans, and why software programmers are probably the worst people to direct a software writing project, and at the same time how they are probably the only people who could do so.

The idea for Chandler was brilliant. That, it seems, was a large part of the problem with its development. Mitch Kapor, the man who made himself a multimillionaire by creating Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s, had a vision. The vision was of a personal information manager that would coordinate the user's e-mail, calendar, personal notes. It would also be flexible enough that the software would be able to interpret a variety of styles of input, and not tie the user to some predefined set of boxes to fill in. It would be shareable, allowing, for example, a husband and wife to each view and edit their spouse's calendar. And it would be both peer to peer, eliminating the need for a server to act as an intermediary, cross-platform, and open source to harness the power of the open source community to overcome the difficulties in implementation. In short, Mitch wanted the transcendent. Instead, it seems like he got disaster.

The story in the book itself is told by Scott Rosenberg, the managing editor of Salon.com magazine, who got access to the Chandler team at the outset of the project and followed them through much of their development process. When announced, Chandler was supposed to be "about two years away" from being ready for release. When Rosenberg ends the book, three years later, Chandler is still "about two years away" from being ready. The interesting part about the book is why this is so. The people Kapor hired to develop the software were not incompetent, in fact, most of the people involved with the project at the outset were scooped up from the wreckage of the dot.com crash, and were among the top people in the field of software development. The problems that develop seem to stem from too much ambition, too little focus, and, as Rosenberg discovers, the difficulties inherent in software development.

In the book, told in longer chapters broken up into short, topical chunks, and which jumps from event, to background, to history, and back again, one quickly figures out that having an idea for what you want software to do is no substitute for having an idea of how to implement it. Over and over again, the development team sits down in a conference room and fills a whiteboard with a plan for what they want done, seemingly without considering how they might do it. A programming language is chosen, plans are made, pieces of tertiary software are written without any real idea of how they can be fit together. And then in a process that happens seemingly ad nauseum, plans are redrawn, goals reset, and the program redesigned. Old personnel leave, sometimes moving on to bigger opportunities, others merely leave in frustration, and they are replaced by new faces, who try to add their own imprint onto the Chanlder development, requiring even more redesign and reprogramming.

In some ways, the narrative of this book is a real world example of the various pitfalls of software development that have been outlined in previous works such as The Mythical Man-Month. Rosenberg doesn't just explain what things like "software time" are, he shows how the Chandler project was affected by this sort of creeping malaise, and why. Rosenberg also delves deeper into the history of the computer industry and software development to try to uncover the roots of these problems that seem to plague all software projects. While Chandler's development is shown to be a mess, Rosenberg illustrates the reasons why these sorts of problems are endemic to software projects, and the depressing reality that this situation is unliekly to change any time soon. Among the most interesting topics covered is how exactly you determine what is good productivity for a software programmer, since the classic measure of performance - lines of code written - is so clearly inadequate.

The main body of the story ends with Chandler unfinished and a truncated version that amounts to basically a computer controlled calendar released to the Open Source community. There is an added chapter in the paperback version that updates events concerning Chandler through 2007 (and which therefore does not include the fact that the project was effectively abandoned in 2008). In the end, the reader is left wondering how any software gets completed, which is kind of the point of Chandler's story. While most people who are in the industry will find nothing particularly new or surprising in the book, as an explanation and brief history of software development for an interested amatuer, this is an excellent piece of journalism. For anyone who has wondered why software always seems to be late, full of bugs, and unfriendly to nontechnically inclined users, or is simply curious as to how software gets made, this book will be a fascinating expose of the true fragility of the information technology that we rely upon to run most of our modern world.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 4:01pm Top

Book Sixty-Four: Who Killed the Constitution?: The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and Kevin R. C. Gutzman.


Short review: Extreme originalism combined with libertarianism creates a view of Constitutional history that is almost as incoherent as the mainstream version the authors decry.

Long review: Viewing history and law through an ideological lens colors your perspective. This coloring can affect your ability to make consistent arguments in support of your favored position. This appears to be a pitfall that Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and Kevin R. C. Gutzman have fallen into in Who Killed the Constitution?. While they espouse, for much of the book, a version of strong libertarianism in the spirit of Ron Paul (they advocate a return to the gold standard for the U.S. among other things), and an extreme form of originalist Constitutional interpretation, they stretch their arguments too far in many of the examples they give in an effort to reach their desired conclusion. Consequently, this dilutes the impact of the arguments that they make upon which they are on solid footing, and renders the book less powerful than it could have been. While in some parts much of their fundamental thesis, that all branches of government and all elements of the political spectrum have joined together to systematically trample on the Constitution, is sound, their clear biases result in numerous examples that don't really support their point, making their argument less than convincing.

The format the authors choose to illustrate their argument that U.S. liberty has been consistently eroded through the twentieth century is an analysis of several discrete examples intended to build their case. The twelve instances of governmental overreach that the authors identify and examine in the book, the "dirty dozen" as they call them, are: the sedition laws passed and enforced during World War I under Woodrow Wilson; Harry Truman's seizure of the steel mills in the 1950s; the Brown v. Board of Education decision; the subsequent decisions to require forced busing to remedy past discrimination; the arrogation by the Federal government of the ability to build roads; the seizure of the U.S. gold stocks from the populace by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933; the removal of prayer from public schools to enforce the "Wall of Separation" between Church and State; the draft; the prohibitions against the use of medical marijuana; the increasing power of the executive to set and implement foreign policy; the development of the doctrine of executive war powers; and finally, the ever expansive view of executive power, culminating with the rapid rise in the use of signing statements and the assertion by George W. Bush's administration that Congress could not interfere in its ability to judge what is and is not permissible interrogation techniques or torture.

In each example, the authors try to make the case for these being unjustified expansions of governmental power in violation of the U.S. Constitution, which, of course, supports their central thesis that the Constitution is "dead". In some cases, their points are quite salient. Most notably, in the examples describing the expansion of executive power, drawing a line from the expansion of Presidential power to the level of exclusivity in foreign affairs, to the broad executive "war powers" doctrine that has come to override the Congressional war making power, to the unfettered executive power asserted by the administration of George W. Bush. The authors also make a strong case that the erosion of free speech under Woodrow Wilson was particularly egreigious. But what goes unmentioned is that the excesses of (for example) the Woodrow Wilson years have been by and large repudiated, and although there have been abuses that have occurred subsequently, the issue has moved more like a pendulum swinging back and forth rather than an ever increasing infringement upon liberty. This sort of one-way logic is most apparent when the authors recount Harry Truman's seizure of the steel mills, which was probably the most naked grab for power in the Twentieth century. Although they point out that the negative reaction was massive, they gloss over the fact that this sort of naked exertion of executive power has not been repeated since then, giving the impression that seizure of industries has become de rigeur in American life.

One could argue that where the authors most go astray in their analysis is with respect to Brown v. Board of Education, in which their adherence to an extreme version of originalism blinds them to the actual basis for the decision in the case. While they argue that the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was not to desgregate schools using the fact that most states at the time of ratification had segregated schools to support this assertion. But Warren's decision relies primarily on an evaluation of what 'equal" means, and finds that segregated schools simply don't meet the standard. By asserting that only the inferred meaning that those who originally adopted the Amendment counts, the authors foreclose the possibility that an opinion concerning what is "equal" can change. They also fall into the trap of assessing legislative history and commentary as a primary guide for the interpretation of a piece of law. As any serious practicing lawyer will tell you, one only resorts to the use of legislative history or commentary when one is desperate. This is because legislative history is so unreliable as a guide to the intent of the legislature: it is merely a guide to the intent of those legislators who have spoken on the legislative record, or, at best, a guide to the intent of a committee that has placed its thoughts into the record. But the only way to truly evaluate the will of a legislative body as a whole is to independently evaluate the output of the entire legislative body - the text of the legislation itself. It should probably come as no surprise that using commentary to deduce meaning is even more unreliable. And this is truly unfortunate, because their clearly poorly grounded criticisms of Brown serve to sap the life out of their much better founded criticisms of forced busing. In short, stetching their point beyond tenability in some areas makes them less convincing in the others where they are on more solid footing.

The true illustration of the authors using results based analysis comes with respect to the end of prayer in schools. After applying their extreme version of originalism to the First Amendment establishment clause, and glossing over the incorporation doctrine of the Reconstruction Amendments, the authors proceed to assert that the decision in Evenson v. Board of Education is suspect because Justice Hugo Black was a bad guy because he was a racist. But this sort of data is entirely beside the point when evaluating whether a particular ruling was wise or unwise. The fact that they spend much of the chapter belaboring this point only illustrates the paucity of their arguments on the merits. And while they are more than willing to cite legislative history and commentary when it supports their position, they completely ignore Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which clearly shows that they are cherry picking their sources to fit their biases. They later show their hand further when discussing Franklin Roosevelt's gold seizure and leap from assessing the legalities of this action to a diatribe about why the government should have never abandoned the gold standard that would have fit perfectly in Ron Paul's mouth. They also advocate a ruinous banking policy that would contract the U.S. economy many-fold, which makes one wonder if they truly understand the economic matters they discuss in the book at all.

Because it lurches back and forth between fairly reasonable criticisms of government infringements and wild-eyed claims that don't hold up to scrutiny, Who Killed the Constitution? undermines its own central thesis. Because the supporting material is so clearly cherry picked on several issues, and is in large part of dubious quality to begin with (being legsialtive history and commentary) one begins to suspect that the authors have let their ideological biases color all of their assessments. And given that many of the infringements they cite have either been redressed or merely abandoned in subsequent years, their thesis of an ever shrinking ambit of Constitutional protection is unconvincing. In the end, despite strong rhetoric and ardent arguments, the book contains so many inherent contradictions that while the good parts are quite good, the bad parts damage the overall thesis enough that one feels that it is probably too soon to write off the U.S. Constitution. The document's funeral, it seems, is simply not as imminent as the author's would have you believe.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Apr 8, 2012, 1:44am Top

Book Sixty-Five: iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith.


Short review: Wozniak is a weird guy, but he is weird in exactly the way that was probably necessary to make the personal computer a reality.

Long review: Steve Wozniak is well known to tech savvy people as one of the two cofounders of Apple Computer, and the driving force behind the development of the original Apple I and Apple II personal computers. More recently, he has achieved a slighly more kitschy kind of fame as Kathy Griffin's boyfriend on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List and a short-lived contestant on Dancing with the Stars, in which his slightly off-kilter personality came to the fore. In iWoz it becomes apparent that while Wozniak is a very quirky individual, he is probably quirky in a way that we should all be thankful for, because without his ability to work out computer achitecture on sheets of paper, program in binary in his head, and has an odd fondness for repeating numbers and other number patterns, then it is quite possible that the personal computer as we know it would not have been developed when it was, if ever.

Wozniak starts, logically enough, at the beginning and proceeds to tell his life story more or less in chronological order. One of the more interesting elements of his biography is the relatively scant amount of attention that is paid to Woziniak's time developing the original Apple computer and his time with the company. While this is obviously what he is most famous for, it is also obvious that it isn't of substantial consequence to him. His pride in the technical achievement of getting a machine with keyboard input and video output comes through clearly, as does the fact that using his designs Apple put a pair of high quality products on the market, but it is also clear that just about everything else about Apple wasn't that important in Wozaniak's eyes. He also makes clear that he did not leave Apple on bad terms, in fact, he never left the company at all, and is still listed as an employee on its payroll. This illustrates that loyalty is one of the key elements that Wozniak considers to be of high importance in a person, a fact that comes up over and over again.

Over and over in the book the striking thing is how nice, and yet truly odd Wozniak is. As a kid he was a Little League star (which is unsurprising as his father was a star quarterback in college) who loved to build technological toys like an improvised intercom system between all of the neighborhood kids' houses. He spends a decent chunk of the book discussing his involvement with the phone phreaks and building devices to work around the phone system to get free calls, but asserts ethical reasons for doing so. Wozniak developed the original Apple computer while working at Hewlett-Packard, and was loyal enough to offer the machine to them up front (they turned him down). He gave portions of his own stock in Apple to employees he didn't feel had gotten enough, and based upon a verbal committment sold some of his stock to an outside investor for a ridiculously low price. He is the guy who ran a dial-a-joke line for years, just because he wanted to make people laugh. But this is the same guy who ran up huge computer fees in college running programs that spat out Fibonacci numbers or who was overjoyed to move into a house in which the address had all of the first five digits in its number. The person that comes through is one who is definitely an oddball, but a well-meaning, gentle, and kind one, and one who it seems, would be an intensely loyal and valuable friend.

Wozniak seems to be something of a utopian, not really caring about money in a way that only someone who has become truly rich can, but to be fair, he seems to have felt this way before Apple made him a multimillionaire. It seems that so long as he has someone to joke with, and a technical project that interests him, he's a happy guy, and everything else is just gravy to him. For anyone who wants the inside scoop on the doings at Apple in the early years, and the machinations of Steve Jobs jockeying for position in the industry this book will likely be a disappointment. But for anyone who is interested in a portrait of what gentle genius looks like (and Wozniak is so forgiving that it doesn't even bother him that Jobs cheated him when they developed Breakout for Atari), then this book will give a fascinating glimpse into that mind. Before I read this book I had tremendous respect for Wozniak's accomplishments, and thought of him as a bizarre genius. After having read the book, I have come to see him as much more, a truly rare kind of person who is not only genius, but who is full of humanity as well.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Aug 11, 2010, 2:12pm Top

#120: Kind of sounds like an update of one of my favorites, The Mythical Man-Month. I'm eager to read your long review.

Aug 11, 2010, 2:49pm Top

123: The author references The Mythical Man-Month several times in the book. After reading the book, it is kind of hard to figure out how any software gets written, although as far as I can tell, the problem with the development of Chandler (the software that is the focus of the book) stemmed mostly from the fact that they kept changing their idea of what the software was supposed to do.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 3:57pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (August 7th-13th, 2010)

Book Sixty-Six: The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely.


Short review: Humans are much more irrational than standard economics assumes. This can be a good thing.

Long review: The first thing to understand about Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality (and his related book Predictably Irrational) is that by "irrational", Ariely is not describing actions that are insane, foolish, or stupid. Instead, irrationality is used in contrast to the "rational economic agent" model used in standard economics. In that model, people in the aggregate can be treated as rational beings who strive to maximize their benefit while avoiding decisions that are costly, time consuming, or require additional work if they can. As he pointed out in Predicatbly Irrational, experimental evidence shows that people make decisions that don't fit this model, but do so in predictable ways, calling into question the conclusions reached by standard economics in many areas. In this volume, Ariely expands upon the ideas in Predictably Irrational and explores the possible reasons behind this consistent irrationality and why it may actually be beneficial in many cases.

One might think that the primary difference between standard economics and behavioral economics is the abandonment of the rational economic actor standard. But the real difference seems to stem from the fact that a behavioral economist seeks to test their assumption and at least make an effort to evaluate whether they are justified, whereas most of the assumptions underlying standard economics are not only untested, but many are to a certain extent untestable. While many adherents to the standard economic models criticize behavioral economists conclusions that are at variance with the standard theories, one has to wonder on what basis they do this? It is certain that many experiments done by behavioral economists are crude at best, as the ones illustrated in The Upside of Irrationality will bear out, but since the standard economists have nothing similar on their side to put forward as evidence for their assumptions, it seems to me that they are infinitely outclassed in the support arena.

Each chapter more or less folows the same format. Ariely identifies an area of human behavior in which actions are taken based upon what seem to be reasonable assumptions, and then sets out to recount experiments he and others have created to test them, and analyse the resulting data. Ariely then connects the experimental data with real world practices, and evaluates why he believes they do or do not work. In this way, Ariely tackles questions including whether large bonuses spark better work (they don't), why people are often dissatisfied with their work, whether we can correctly evaluate our own work product (we can't), why people engage in revenge, even when it is costly to do so, whether we should do all of an unpleasant task at once or break it up into smaller sizes (break it up), why the modern dating market is a failure, and whether online dating sites are a solution (they aren't), why we fel the need to save a single person we can see, but are unwilling to spend less to save many people we cannot and whether we can correct the poor decisions we made while in an emotionally charged state and make better decisions on the same subject in the future (probably not). In each case, Ariely frames the question, describes the experiments, and recounts the results, all in an engaging and interesting way that allows the reader to absorb the large volumes of data without choking on it.

But the real beauty of the book comes when Ariely takes each case and explains why our irrational decisions often amount to a better result than "rational" ones would. For example, Ariely explores the question of charity, and why a person who would jump into a river ruining his thousand dollar suit to save a single six year old girl would not spend an equal amount of money and far less effort to save a thousand children in Africa (or some other farawy place). In short, why does Jessica McClure get outpourings of support while the victims of Rwandan genocide are ignored? And given that this is true, would we want to spur people to be more rational in their decision making? Like the other examples, Ariely conducts and reports on several experiments, and determines that in fact, we would not like the results if people were wholly rational, as rather than leading to more rational empathic decision, people would likely make less empathic decisions in general. Irrationality, it appears, makes us nicer to one another, even if our efforts are not directed in the most efficient manner.

For anyone who is interested in seeing concrete evidence concerning how humans actually behave, The Upside of Irrationality is an excellent resource while remaining emminently readable (despite Ariely's protestations concerning his lack of writing skill). The book is further enhanced by Ariely's injection of recollections from his own life, including the extreme trauma that got him interested in human behavior (while he was a teen, he suffered severe burns over most of his body, requiring prolonged hospitalization), which gives the book a personal touch that many economic texts lack. In the end, this follow-up to Predictably Irrational is just as good as the first book, and a book almost anyone would benefit from reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Aug 14, 2010, 12:46am Top

#125: I would suspect it can also be a bad thing!

Aug 18, 2010, 3:41pm Top

My review backlog is finally cleared!

Time to start building a new backlog . . .

Aug 19, 2010, 1:53am Top

Thanks for posting your reviews, Aaron. I am off to see if the library has the books!

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 3:50pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (August 14, 2010)
The Economist (August 14th-20th, 2010)

Book Sixty-Seven: Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke.


Short review: Arthur C. Clarke speculates about what the future might be like.

Long review: Profiles of the Future is a sort of hybrid science fiction and science book in which Arthur C. Clarke speculates upon possible future advances in technology. Originally published in 1962, this edition was updated and revised through 1984, and thus much of the original speculation has been replaced by concrete fact, and new speculation has been added that accounts for, among other things, the massive advances in communications and computing technology that took place in the interim. Clarke makes clear that he is not attempting to make (or limiting himself to) a prediction of what is likely to happen, but rather setting forth a wide ranging set of possible futures that might come about.

Clarke tackles a different general area of technology in each chapter, and speculates upon the future development of that technology with musings ranging from the relatively modest and highly possible, to some extremely outlandish ideas, some of which would require a violation of the currently known laws of physics to accomplish. Clarke is careful to distinguish between advances that would merely require an improvement in our engineering capabilities from advances that would require us to master entirely new technologies (but would not do violence to the laws of nature as we understand them today), from advances that would require a modification to our current understanding of the workings of the universe.

Using this metric, Clarke is able to distinguish between what he considers to be reasonably probable and what is purely speculative. In fact, in this revised edition, many of the near future advances that Clarke originally predicted in some areas had actually come to pass. The only caveat being that in many cases they transpired much more quickly than Clarke had anticipated, because, in my opinion, Clarke's somewhat utopian socialist leanings blinded him to the fact that commercial usefulness would drive some technologies to advance quickly. On the other hand, the advances in some areas, such as space flight and exploration, have proceeded much more slowly than Clarke believed, and once again it seems, for much the same reason - Clarke believed in a somewhat utopian vision of humanity that made him believe that we would develop technologies that would elevate and enhance what he saw as the better elements of human nature, rather than ones that would have purely crass commercial goals. In short, Clarkes speculations are too hesitant in some areas, and too optimistic in others due to his somewhat starry-eyed vision of humanity.

As an interesting side element, it is clear that the speculations about the future fueled Clarke's science fiction stories. Several of the technologies he speculated upon crop in in various forms in his books, a fact that he comments upon from time to time in this volume. Technologies that drive the plots of The City and the Stars, Imperial Earth, The Fountains of Paradise and numerous other works by Clarke are highlighted in the pages of this book. In his fiction, of course, all of these technolgoies are used in ways that Clakre believed would exalt the human spirit, which makes his fiction substantially different from the more recent grittier Alien influenced material that has been produced since the 1980s, leaving Clarke's utopian vision behind in a world of dark corporate dominated science fiction laden with cyberpunk-style overtones. From a certain perspective, Clarke as a writer is the anti-Michael Crichton. Whereas in Crichton's books the technological advances always turn into nightmarish disasters that threaten to maim or kill the characters, in Clarke's books, technology is a helpful tool that aids humanity and provides endless benefits. I think I prefer Clarke's vision of the future, even if it is a little overoptimistic.

For a book originally written in the 1960s, and last updated in the early 1980s, Profiles of the Future holds up remarkably well. This is probably to be expected, as Clarke had a fundamentally sound grounding in the sciences, and thus was able to imagine fairly well what was possible, and connect those possibilities to the needs of humans. The only flaw in the book that that Clarke's vision of what humans want is probably more high-class than the actual wants displayed by our actions. Of course, Clarke does not pretend to be predicting the future, only speculating about what is possible, what is plausible, and what can be dreamed about. On this score, the book is quite good. Anyone looking for a guidebook to how technology will develop in the future is likely to be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone looking for a view into how Clarke viewed humanity, and what the future could look like if we become better people will find this book quite interesting.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 3:47pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (August 21st-27th, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (August 2010)
The University of Virginia Magazine (Fall 2010)
National Geographic (September 2010)

Book Sixty-Eight: The Far Side Gallery 4 by Gary Larson.


Short review: Gary Larson's strips are still really funny. Robin Williams' foreword is surprisingly bland.

Long review: The Far Side Gallery 4 is, naturally enough, the fourth compilation of Far Side comic strips put out by Gary Larson. This compilation includes strips from the previously released collections Wildlife Preserves, Wiener Dog Art, and Unnatural Selections. Unlike some other Far Side collections, the only bit of extra content included is a fairly brief foreword written by comedian Robin Williams.

The primary difficulty in reviewing a book that consists of a series of single panel comic strips is that there is both too much and too little material. Since all of the strips are unrelated single shot jokes, there is no theme, no plot, and no ongoing characters to provide the meat for a review. One could, on the other hand, try to review every individual strip, which would lead to a ridiculously long and not very readable piece of work. The only truly overarching things that can be said about the book are that the strips contained in it are from the heart of Larson's comic writing career, they are almost all weird and funny in the way that only Far Side comics are, and that the usual cast of cows, dogs, insects, dorks, cowboys, scientists, and snakes all make their appearance. As a further bonus, several full color strips are included interspersed with the black and white ones, and several strips (both color and otherwise) are presented in a full-page format.

The only unfunny thing about the entire book is, oddly, Robin Williams' surprisingly bland foreword that reads like Williams was trying to maniacially funny in his writing, but simply comes off as manic. Based upon this, it seems clear to me why Williams never became a writer. But Larson is always bitingly funny, even when he is trying to subtly convey a serious message. As one might expect of a man whose output includes so many animals, more than a few of the strips in this collection have an environmentalist message, such as the strip in which two bears create a pipeline into a human home to get rid of animal waste. But these strips are still funny, and the added implied message just makes them even better. But there are plenty of straight up bizarre bits of humors included, such as a family of goldfish escaped from their burning bowl only to observe that they are still screwed, or Leon Redbone hosting a workout video, or the infamous strip (which caused a minor controversy, amicably resolved, with the Jane Goodall Foundation) involving a female ape grooming her companion and finding blonde hair. To sum up, nearly every page has at least one really funny strip, and most have several.

This is, in short, a truly funny collection of the strange and bizarre humor that is Gary Larson's unique genius. From start to finish, the comics give an odd, off-kilter view of the world that is so out of the ordinary that even the mundane becomes hilarious. The collection even includes my favorite strip (which my horseback riding wife and daughter hate) with rifle toting doctors at the horse hospital, which is a personal added bonus for me. If you like the Far Side, then this is a collection you should love.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 12, 2011, 2:55pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (August 28, 2010)
Poets & Writers Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2010)
The Economist (August 28th-September 3rd, 2010)

Book Sixty-Nine: Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor.


Short review: The history of Rome from pre-foundation to the end of the Republic, told via a series of loosely connected short stories.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

For all the people who are disappointed that James Michener never wrote a novel about ancient Rome can now rejoice, because Steven Saylor has provided them with a perfect substitute in the form of Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome. Roma begins before Rome has even been founded, when the site is nothing more than the crossroads of a pair of trading routes and follows the fortunes of the Pinarii and the Potitii, a pair of Patrician families, through to the ascension of Augustus Ceasar and the end of the Republic. The book is a seires of interconnected short stories featuring various members of these families as they live through some of the defining events of the history of the Roman Republic, with some member of the family almost always having a pivotal role in the events, or at least a front row seat, which of course gives the reader the same close up view of history.

A reader should be warned, however, that the book has a rather generous interpretation of what history means. In the case of the book, it means that many of the foundational myths of Rome are taken to be essentially true: Hercules slaying the monster Cacus, Romulus killing Remus as they fight over the city walls, the overthrow of Tarquinius following the rape of Lutetia, and so on. Obviously the early history would be entirely speculative no matter what Saylor wrote about that era, but his versions basically hew close to the legendary versions with very little variation. Perhaps it is because I am used to Bernard Cornwell's very imaginative versions of history that Saylor's seems to be a little too close to the mythical version that has been handed down to us. Perhaps a better description of the early section of the book would be "the history of Rome as Romans told it" as opposed to "an attempt to tell actual history". That said, Saylor does make some stabs at having supposed historical events be misinterpreted or forgotten by later generations, such as the origins of the Lupercalia, or the legend that Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, but by and large, the self-made pseudo-history of the Romans is relayed to the reader intact. For anyone who comes to the book looking for a version of these stories that differs from the standard legends will be disappointed, but this is a minor point, as the stories are all well told regardless.

The primary framing element that connects the various stories is a fictional amulet of the deity Fascinus which is handed down from family member to family member from the first story to the last, which is somewhat improbable, but does serve to place a common element in each story. There are only two substantial weaknesses of the book. The first is the fact that despite its constant presence, the Fascinus amulet is nothing more than a MacGuffin, serving no purpose in any of the stories other than a strange keepsake to be handed down the generations. The second is that by presenting the story of Rome over several hundred years via a series of short stories, there is limited continuity of characters from one story to the other, so once a character is established, he or she usually disappears from the book relatively quickly. This constantly changing cast of characters is made even more confusing by the Roman practice of naming people after their ancestors, so there are several instances of two different characters in two different stories who share the same name, which can get confusing, especially as there are a few characters in the book who cross from one story to another. One lesser problem is Saylor's tendency to shift from a character driven narrative to a textbook like accounting of historical events from time to time, which serves to pull the reader out of the story.

These issues aside, the individual stories and the overall narrative are a fast flowing and enjoyable presentation of the history of the rise and disintegration of the Roman Republic. Each of the individual short stories is well-crafted, reflecting critical events in Roman history using strong characters and a writing style that makes them flow almost effortlessly. Despite being 555 pages long, the book flies by because it is so easy to pick up one of the short stories, finish it, and then say "I'll just read one more", and before you know it, you are 200 pages further in the book. The stories all work well together, adding up to a narrative in which the city of Rome takes shape, grows into maturity, and then becomes a creaking ramshackle structure constantly on the verge of collapse. In the stories, Rome's origins are violent, and grow progressively bloodier as time goes by, with a level of casual violence that will probably be shocking to readers unfamiliar with Rome's actual history. One of the best elements of the book is the way that Saylor presents those attributes that Romans considered virtues in a way that makes perfect sense, and yet highlights just how alien Roman culture was when compared to the virtues familiar to the modern Western mind. As an aside, it should be noted that all of the action in the book takes place within (or just on the border of) the city of Rome itself, so even though the events are set against the backdrop of the wars against King Pyrrus of Macedon, the Punic Wars against Carthage, and other large scale events in the outside world, these events are only related second hand and after the fact by characters going about their daily lives inside the city. People hoping to find stories about Julius Ceasar's campaigns in Gaul and Britain will not find those stories here, but rather will be regaled with the political machinations surrounding his attempt to be declared King, and the plot to assasinate him, and then the plot to avenge his death. This serves to focus the narrative somewhat, which is probably necessary in a book that attempts to encapsulate more than a half-dozen centuries in its pages, and it gives a somewhat unique perspective on Roman history to only hear of events such as the disaster of Cannae related as a confused swirl of rumors.

For anyone looking to get an in depth treatment of Roman history, this is probably not a work that will serve their purposes. On the other hand, anyone who wants to read a version of Roman history that reflects to a certain extent how its inhabitants might have experienced life in the city over the course of its life, this book probably comes as close as one can hope to find. The vast scope of the story that Saylor is attempting to tell hampers the effectiveness of the book to a certain extent, but Saylor has done an admirable job of pulling off this very difficult task and making it accessible and readable.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Aug 31, 2010, 12:29am Top

#131: Since I just downloaded Roma to my Nook, I will be interested in your long review, Aaron.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 2:56pm Top

Book Seventy: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 11 (November 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
Phantom Sense by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross
Howl of the Seismologist by Carl Frederick
Outbound by Brad R. Torgerson
Zoo Team by Allen M. Steele
Contamination by Jay Werkheiser
The Deadliest Moop by Michael A. Armstrong

Science fact articles included:
Phantom Science: The Facts Behind "Phantom Sense" by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross

Long review: The November 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a strong issue with a collection of well-written space stories, including an apocalyptic tale that is probably the strongest story in the issue, plus an interconnected story and science fact article and a decent Scooby Doo style story involving an earthquake sniffing dog. Overall, this is a strong issue, filled with good to very good stories.

The best story in the issue, and the last in placement is Outbound by Brad R. Torgerson, a story that begins with humanity's suicide and a desperate flight from Earth. Torgerson pulls no punches in establishing a mood of despair, surrounding the protagonist with characters that in a lesser story would become his companions in his flight to presumed safety, but in this story they are stripped away until the our hero must contend with complete isolation in a quixotic quest for a refuge that may not even exist. The story is at turns terribly tragic and powerfully inspirational as one might expect of a tale in which the deeply rooted flaws of humanity manifest in frightening ways, and individuals struggle against the consequences, refusing to yield without fighting against the night. In short, it is a very good story.

A slightly unusual feature of this issue is that the science fact article is essentially a commentary on the science that forms the basis for the lead story in the issue. The storyand the science fact article are Phantom Sense Phantom Science: The Facts Behind "Phantom Sense" both by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross, and deal with the idea of using insects with electronic implants to serve as scouts to gather military intelligence. The story is pretty good: in a near future world in which the military has adopted the technology with serious human consequences to those who use it a father suffering from the psychological problems associated with retiring from having the "sense" must repair the damage his service has done to his family and save his daughter. The story focuses on the very real human costs that the posited technology imposes upon those who use it, with a central character who is at turns supremely confident and pathetically debilitated and for whom the reader always feels sympathetic. The science fact article examines all the various technologies that would be necessary to equip someone with the 'sense" that is described in the story, and evaluates how close we are to actually having that technology.

Featuring an earthquake sensitive dog, Howl of the Seismologist by Carl Frederick is an almost not science fiction story involving a group of postdocs working at the Tevatron. By a happy coincidence, a physicist, a neurobiologist, and a seismologist all meet up and their individual quirky theories about reality add up to a startling discovery just in time to avert a worldwide catastrophe. The plucky heroes circumvent bureaucratic obstinance to save the day and the bad guy even gets his comeuppance. On the whole, the theory the heroes stumble across is kind of silly, and the plot is pretty basic, but it is a serviceable effort nonetheless.

Zoo Team by Allen M. Steele is a fairly standard space emergency story that takes the form of a modertaely interesting engineering puzzle layered with an examination of the effects of long term space flight on the human psyche, and a modestly interesting take on what sorts of people might be best suited to live under such conditions. There's nothing really noteworthy about the story, but it is well-written and the characters are likable and funny. Contamination by Jay Werkheiser is also a space exploration story, but set in a more distant future in which two very different ideas about how to go about human colonization on other worlds clash, with potentially deadly results. Once again, there is a minor engineering puzzle to be solved, but the pirmary theme of the story is the conflict between two very different approaches to an alien ecology.

The Deadliest Moop by Michael A. Armstrong is a story that more or less imagines that the crews featured on the reality show The Deadliest Catch, instead of fishing for Alaskan king crab in the Bering Sea, were cleaning up sattelite debris (or moop, for "material out of place') in Earth orbit. The crew of the Anna Marie (a name suspiciously similar to the actual crab boat Cornelia Marie) pull in a mysterious object that seems suspiciously unmarked, which turns out to be more trouble than the crew expects. Outside of the parallels the story draws between present day crab fisherman and the debris fishermen of the story, there's nothing particularly original here, but the story is still pretty good.

With no weak stories, and a couple of quite good ones, this is a strong issue of Analog. All of the stories fall squarely into the reasonably hard science fiction vein, which is what one should expect from this publication, so the typical reader will probably be quite pleased with this selection of stories. To sum up, this is exactly what one should expect of an issue of Analog, providing consistently high quality science fiction stories coupled with some good science fact writing.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Aug 31, 2010, 12:12pm Top

#131: Thanks for posting your review so quickly, Aaron. It is appreciated (and thumbed up as well.)

Aug 31, 2010, 12:25pm Top

134: I try to avoid building a backlog if I can. Having a pile of books in the "to be reviewed" pile on my desk is annoying. I'm glad you found the review helpful, which is always my primary goal when writing these.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 2:23pm Top

Book Seventy-One: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, Nos. 10 & 11 (October/November 2010) by williamsheila::Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Becoming One With the Ghosts by edkristinekathrynrus::Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Several Items of Interest by wilberrick::Rick Wilber
Torhec the Sculptor by Tanith Lee
Frankenstein, Frankenstein by mcintoshal::Will McIntosh
Names for Water by johnsonkij::Kij Johnson
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula by Mike Resnick
No Distance Too Great by dammassadon::Don D'Ammassa
The Termite Queen of Tallulah County by shouldersfelicity::Felicity Shoulders
Dummy Tricks by neuber::R. Neube
Changing the World by wilhelmkate::Kate Wilhelm
Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol by steinmetzferrett::Ferrett Steinmetz

Poems included:
Roadside Stand by Mark Rich
Foxwife by Jane Yolen
Welcome Home by ianjanis::Janis Ian
All That Matters by dutcherroger::Roger Dutcher

Long review: I have often said that the double issues put out by the various genre magazines seem to suffer in terms of quality, presumably due to the double count of pages that they must fill. The October/November 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is another example of this recurring problem. Though it has several quite good stories, it is leavened out with some fairly mediocre ones as well as a turgid lead story that makes the issue start off with a hobble.

Leading off the issue is Becoming One With the Ghosts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of the two stories featured on the cover. This gets the issue off to a very slow start, as the story is a very slow moving mystery revolving around the crew of a starship that discovers things are not all in order when they return to what they had assumed would be a safe haven. The glacial pace of the story only serves to highlight that the "mystery" is only a mystery because the reader doesn't know the full capabilites of the ship, and because it turns out that the crew do, their perplexed reaction to the problem that presents itself makes the story unbelievable. Overall, the story is just not all that good.

In the other cover feature in the issue, Several Items of Interest, author Rick Wilber returns to the same universe that he created in With Twoclicks Watching in which Earth has been conquered by a mostly benevolent, but definitely Machivellian race of aliens. The protagonist has journeyed to the alien's homeworld to act as a sort of Quisling reporter, while his brother has turned against the invaders, attempting to drive them from Earth. The main action of the story involves the narrator's repeated journeys to Earth in order to try to dissuade his brother from continuing his insurgent campaign that threatens to provoke retaliation that will result in the loss of vast numbers of human lives. The story twists and turns until the full devious nature of the plot is revealed. over all, this is the best story in the issue.

Torhec the Sculptor by Tanith Lee is an interesting tale that focuses on Torhec, an eccentric artist whose personal philosophy concerning the nature of art leads him to always destroy his creations. His paths intersect with an incredibly wealthy man whose fondest desire is to own one of Torhec's undestroyed pieces, which is an anathema to the artist. The two end up negotiating a satisfactory exchange, but the final resolution of the story is will probably catch most readers by surprise, although it is the perfectly natural logical consequence of the personalities established for the characters in the story. Another story delaing with loss and impermanence is No Distance Too Great by Don D'Ammassa, in which a bereaved spouse signs on to travel to a distant world in honor of his dead wife. However, the story establishes that the method of traversing interstellar space is affected by the emotional state of those travelling through it. The protagonist's ambivalence manifests itself in a dangerous way, threatening to strand the entire ship and its crew forever in hyperspace. As the title implies, the story is a science fiction love story, but it is also a tragically bittersweet one.

Frankenstein, Frankenstein by Will McIntosh is a gaslamp fantasy style story in which a charlatan posing as the famous monster discovers competition, and then ends up biting off more than he can chew as his con job ends up becoming a little too real for his liking. The story is a nice riff on the classic Maty Shelly story, including enough of the fantastic and yet always hovering close enough to the edge of realism to drive home the horror that is revealed. Taking the frankenstein monster type story from a different angle is Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol by Ferrett Steinmetz, which posits an alternate reality in which the nerdy smart kids run the social scene in high school, and jocks are picked on outcasts. Some of the "neurals" as the geeky popular kids are known, trick the jock protagonist into a trap in which he must fight their genetically engineered creations. His solution to the problem is a pretty decent one that displays the benefits of compassion. The story isn't particularly deep, but as a classic morality play, it works fairly well.

The Termite Queen of Tallulah County by Felicity Shoulders combines the exterminator business with time travel technology, featuring a woman who uses the ability to travel in time to go back and stop insect infestations before they start. She discovers an unexpected secret about her father, but manages to set things right by the end. There is nothing particularly new concerning time travel here, but the story is a fairly heartwarming tale about saving a loved one from their own folly. Another story that revolves around family relation, Dummy Tricks by R. Neube, takes the issue on from a completely different angle. Set on a hellish ice world, a hired family member, despised by his supposed family members runs across a pirate ice prospector. After destroying the intruders, he discovers that his antagonists are not exactly what he thought they were. The entire story is violent and tragic, with the characters reflecting the harsh conditions that surround them. Anyone reading it should be warned that although the story is good, unlike Termite Queen it is not a happy one.

Names for Water by Kij Johnson is a short little story about a strange telephone call a college student gets, and the strange cosmic connection that results. More fantasy than science fiction, it is interesting, but not anything more than that.

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula by Mike Resnick is a seemingly silly story about a seemingly insane patient being treated for the delusion that he is a galactic hero in the mould of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen. The story has a final twist that isn't all that unpredictable, but transforms the story from silly humor to over the top space opera, but in a good way.

Most issues seem to have a non-genre story, and this one is no exception. While Changing the World by Kate Wilhelm is not technically a science fiction or fantasy story, set in basically the modern world with a healthy dash of paranoia thrown in. It does, however, deal with a something every science fiction fan has certainly been assaulted with: UFO conspiracy theories, and the kinds of people who believe in them. The whole story is basically an exploration of the question "what if everyone bought UFO conspiracy theories", with some rather unsettling results.

While many of the stories in the issue are quite good, several others are merely average. The real problem with the issue is that Becoming One with the Ghosts starts the issue off with such a slow and unexciting story that one has to slog through before getting to the good stuff. Despite generally good stories such as Several Items of Interest and The Termite Queen of Tallulah County and several other decent ones, the lead story is simply so flat and dull that it drags the whole issue down to a merely average rating.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:27pm Top

Book Seventy-Two: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 93, Nos. 4 & 5 (October/November 1997) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Deus X by Jerry Oltion and Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Everything's Eventual by Stephen King
God Is Thus by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Transcendence by Nancy Springer
The Hole in the World by Jack Williamson
Paul and Me by Michael Blumlein
To Church with Mr. Multhiford by Robert Reed
Down the Fool's Road by Lisa Goldstein
The Player by Terry Bisson
Like the Gentle Rain by Lewis Shiner

Science fact articles included:
Selfness by Gregory Benford

Long review: The October/November 1997 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is both a double issue, and the 48th Anniversay issue of the magazine. In my experience reading genre magazines, either one of these elements is often a recipe for a subpar issue. This issue, however, is a happy exception to this trend, with several good stories, a good science fact article, and a very good "celebrity author" story.

Featured on the cover is the novella Everything's Eventual by Stephen King, concerning a man with a very strange talent, a very strange job, and even stranger working conditions. The story fills in slowly, revealing the oddities of the main character's life. This being a Stephen King story, there has to be a monster lurking in the corner somewhere, but the twist in this story is that the monster is front and center, staring everyone in the face for the whole book. Eventually the protagonist figures out who the villain of the story is, and he doesn't like the revelation very much. The story sits at the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and King blends them skillfully to produce a great story. Unlike many featured stories contributed by famous authors for special magazine issues that seem to be little more than whatever the author had on his desk when the request came in, this story is excellent. Also sitting at the intersection of science fiction and horror is Jack Williamson's The Hole in the World a very short story in which a man has to face the titular threat, with disastrous personal results. There isn't really much more to it than that.

One mini-theme of the issue appears to be stories with a religious theme, starting with Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s God Is Thus, set in the same post-apocalyptic world as A Canticle for Liebowitz. In the story, a disgraced monk traveling with a motley crew that includes a powerful church official going incognito come across a colony of outcast mutants. The protagonist discovers more about himself and his traveling companions than he probably wanted to. The story is more or less an excerpt from Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, although people who have not read Canticle might find it a bit confusing. As with other Miller tales, this one is layered with people confronting reality as it is, while attempting to reconcile it with their faith in God. The longest religiously themed story in the issue is Deus X by Jerry Oltion and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a tale about a minor politician who has his seemingly insane sister committed to prevent her from messing up his reelection chances. When the invisible people she had been talking to begin to show up on the protagonists doorstep, he gets a little in over his head. The story is basically a "what if" about the birth of Jesus, but the authors make a rather unusual speculation about the saviour's possible parentage in a way that leads to speculation but no conclusions. The only weak part of the story is the ending, which seems both rushed and forced, like the authors decided that the story was long enough and needed to end it in a couple hundred words or less. The last, and most tangentially religiously related story is To Church with Mr. Multhiford by Robert Reed, a tale about a teenager who lets himself get dragged into some mischief by his friends, and finds himself confronted by a victim who knows a lot more about him than he expected. The church angle comes from the fact that the kid's father is a minister, but it doesn't go much further than that. The story takes an unusual view of the relationship between humanity and agriculture that is a little unsettling, but also quite interesting.

A second mini-theme of the issue is fairy tale inspired stories. Transcendence by Nancy Springer is a sort of twisted modern tale, in which an ardent young fan communicates with the author he has fallen for, despite her protestations concerning her unattractive appearance and vile personal nature. The story is told in a series of back and forth letters that detail their initial contact, modest relationship, and eventual parting. It is cast as a modern fairy tale, but if it is an effort to evoke a classic fairy tale either I am too dense to see which one, or the story is too opaque. Another modern take on a fairy tale type story is Paul and Me by Michael Blumlein, which takes on the Paul Bunyan legend and sets him into the modern day. The story is told through the eyes of a man as he grows from adolescence into middle-age, and Paul's story more or less parallels the protagonist's increasing disillusionment, as the world stops valuing what Bunyan stood for. The story takes a tall tale about a giant lumberjack and makes it into a touching tragedy. The third fairy story if Down the Fool's Road by Lisa Goldstein, in which a collection of enigmatic fairies lead a woman away from her daily routine into a bizarre series of encounters. The story is confusing through most of its run, but eventually winds up ina manner that ties up the confusion and makes it makes some semblance of sense.

The Player by Terry Bisson is a very short, quirky story about an interstellar wanderer and the people who find and repair it. The story seems to aspire to be deep and meaningful, but I must have missed the deep lesson, because it just seemed to me like a technically inclined version of a catch and release fish story.

Also included in this issue is the science fact article Selfness by Gregory Benford, written in the immedtiate aftermath of the announcement of Dolly the cloned sheep. Although many of the more heady predictions following the announcements have not and likely will not come to pass - cloning livestock appears to be so impractical as to likely never be worthwhile - the question of identity in a world potentially full of genetic duplicates remains timely. Benford takes on the question of identity in such a world from the point of view of someone who already has a genetic duplicate in existence: he's an identical twin. Benford allows his imagination to range freely on the issue of personal identity coming to conclusions that are both intriguing and disturbing. This is by far the best science fact article I have read in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Somewhat related to the article is the dystopian story Like the Gentle Rain by Lewis Shiner which imagines a world in which children determined to be destined to be "scientists" are taken from their parents in infancy to be radically altered into coldly rational beings. The story follows a mother's attempts to find and recover her son after he has been taken. Along the way she discovers that the world doesn't work the way she thought it did, and that even when she gets what she wants it isn't what she expected. The future the story posits is all too plausible, which makes it that much more effective.

In the end, despite a couple mediocre stories, this is a very good issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Both the King and Miller stories are quite good, and the Oltion and Rusch piece is pretty good too. The Shiner story is the scariest in the issue, which is odd for an issue in which King has a contribution. Lacking any poor stories, and with a very good science fact article, the October/November 1997 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction avoids both the double issue flab and the anniversary issue doldrums. One generally expects good material from one of the flagship genre magazines out there, and this issue delivers.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:24pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (September 4th-10th, 2010)

Realms of Fantasy (October 2010)
Stories included:
Cutter in the Underverse by Daniel Hood
Middle by Eilis O'Neal
The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake
Saint's-Paw by Alan Smale
Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child by Euan Harvey

Book Seventy-Three: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 71, No. 4 (November 1986) by Edward L. Ferman (editor).


Stories included:
Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton
Stones Edward F. Shaver
Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler
The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas
The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen
On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller
The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens
Agua Morte by Alan Boatman
The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin

Poems included:
Epicenter by Robert Frazier

Science fact articles included:
The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov

Long review: Reviewing an older issue of a genre magazine is always interesting because of the perspective that the distance of time gives one. In the November 1986 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction one can see the lingering effects of the Vietnam war, and the newly discovered knowledge the Voyager probes revealed concerning our outer solar system. Despite the passage of more than twenty years, the stories contained in this issue have mostly held up, with a few exceptions.

The lead story, and featured cover story is Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler, a sad love story involving two people, a xenologist and a poet, seperated from humanity trying to understand an enigmatic alien species. The story delves into what is and is not art, and what a species may or may not value. The tale turns tragic at the end when the protagonist realizes that despite his best efforts he has completely misunderstood his companion and the aliens. The story is a bittersweet story of the cost of success, and is quite good. Another story involving the convulted path of lover is On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller, which uses the traditional Hawaiian gods as a framing device in a story in which a man discovers that the relationship he has with the woman he loves is not, as he had thought, as satisfactory an arrangement as he had believed. While Face Value is tragic, On the Dream Coast in Winter is hopeful, but is equally as good a story. Another story dealing with the interaction between alien cultures is The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin, in which human explorers encounter something truly alien in a bizarrely mutated human culture on a distant planet. Two different expeditions plunge forward, confident that their technology will ensure their survival without taking into account the wholly alien culture of their hosts, a miscalculation that proves to be most unwise.

The story Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton is an example of "Vietnam veteran" speculative fiction, which one does not find very often these days, but once was incredibly common. The story itself would not even really be speculative fiction, but instead just be an examination of the delusions of a veteran gone crazy save for one element: his twelve year old son sees the supposed delusions as well. And the delusions are threatening: Viet Cong popping up out of nowehere around the struggling family farm as the characters try to kill the weeds that threaten to overwhelm their crop. In the end, one comes away wondering if anything that the veteran sees is real, including the protagonist himself. This is not the best veteran cracking up story I've read, but it is a fine effort nonetheless. Also a story about a man coming unhinged, and billed as a modern day version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Agua Morte by Alan Boatman is more or less that, although it is not anything more. The story is so spare and bare bones that it seems to be lacking, especially in comparison with the original.

Stones Edward F. Shaver mixes together astronomy and marine biology in a manner somewhat reminiscent of David Brin's Uplift series as the protagonist blindly tries to unravel the language of the whales at the behest of the armed services. Shrouded in fairly clumsily executed mystery through much of the story, the motivation of the military men is revealed at the end, with potential dire consequences for humanity. In a twist unusual for a science fiction story, the sinister looking military men that surround the protagonist turn out not to be the villains, although the story offers little comfort concerning humankind's potential survival when the nature of the villains is ultimately revealed. Stones is a decent story that isn't nearly as good at hiding the mysterious part of the story as it thinks it is.

The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen is a fantasy supposition involving a pious Chrsitianized elf and a drunken not so pious human abbott. The two come into conflict with fairly humorous results. The story is funny, but nothing more than that.

Taking on both telepathy and death, The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens is a story about a woman with the gift to telepathically ease the way for people who are on the verge of death. Set in a strangely warped future in which Portland has become an isolated backwater, she bargains her services for a horse to give to the man who means the most to her. The ideas contained in this story seem to have been reflected in the way telepaths handle people about to die in the Babylon 5 television series, and the timing is such that this story may have served as a partial inspiration, although that is pure speculation on my part. The story has a promising beginning, and develops well, but the ending is a rushed mess that cuts off abruptly.

One recurring set of oddites in genre magazines are stories that aren't actually genre stories, and The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas falls into this category. A tale involving a protagonist who appears to have multiple personality disorder, it is quirky and fun, but lacking any science fiction or fantasy element, it is simply out of place.

The issue also includes the science fact article The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov, focused on the "unmentionable" planet Uranus written shortly after the exploration of that celestial body and its satellites by Voyager II. Asimov begins the article by referencing his own Lucky Starr series of book (a series that I have a somewhat unexplainable fondness for) and noting that not only did he not write a book about Uranus for that series, it was the only planet that he had no intention of writing a book for in the series. he attributes this lack of interest to the then presumed boring nature of the planet, a presumption that the information supplied by Voyager II shattered. Although the information about Uranus discussed in the article will probably be old hat to anyone who is interested in planetray astronomy, but it is an interesting window on how the information was viewed when it was first revealed, and should be interesting for anyone who has not immersed themselves in amateur astronomy for the last couple decades.

Despite the inclusion of one completely out of place story, one story that simply isn't very good, and two stories that more or less fall apart as they near their end, the remaining fiction in the issue is good enough to make the overall issue a serviceable one. With stories that have held up reasonably well over the last two decades, this issue is a reminder of the generally good quality fiction that Fantasy & Science Fiction is known for.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:21pm Top

Book Seventy-Four: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 1 (January 1987) by Edward L. Ferman (editor).


Stories included:
The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin
The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley
The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson
Salvage Rites by Ian Watson
The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock
Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis
What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young
The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring
Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll

Science fact articles included:
Opposite! by Isaac Asimov

Long review: Science fiction and fantasy, like all other literary genres, are subject to trends. In the January 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the trend seems to have been trepidation, fear, and melencholy. Leavened only by a handful of stories that break the pattern, this issue of F & SF is full of stories that evoke trepidation about the future, sadness for the past, and fear for the present. Despite this theme, or perhaps because of it, this is a strong issue of the magazine, and full of stories that remain as relevant now as they were when they were first published.

The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin is set in what is presumably an alternative version of England during the Napoleonic Wars. A military officer is informed that he has inherited a title and estates when his uncle is unexpectedly killed, but when he goes to claim his inheritance, he discovers that he has been left far more than that. he soon discovers the existence of a secret war that may determine the future of the human race. The story is full of twists and turns, and several characters turn out to be more than they seem to be at first glance. The story is basically a reasonably well-crafted science fiction action adventure with an unusual setting.

The future earth setting of The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley reminded me to a certain extent of the future Earth setting of the Gordon R. Dickson novella Call Him Lord, in which a technologically advanced interstellar civilization keeps the Earth as a non-technological backwater. The most substantive difference in the stories is that this one is told from the perspective of on the the denizens of the primitive Earth confronted by the intrusion of a man from the stars. It becomes clear that the newcomer is not all that he seems to be, and the villagers move from worship to hatred as his layers are peeled away. The action of the story is more or less predictable, but the seeds that the newcomer plants simply through his disruptive presence have far ranging and somewhat unexpected consequences for the protagonist, and it is on this layer that the story truly shines.

After the box office success of Coccoon, it is perhaps inevitable that science fiction featuring aliens making geriatic humans young again would be in vogue for a while. The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson is a decent, if fairly pedestrian story in this vein. Two residents at a nursing home discover a miniature alien spacecraft, help them repair their ship, and in compensation have the aging process reversed. The story doesn't go any further than that, which is a shame, as the patronizing attitude that the nursing home staff have for the residents is fairly well-established and it would have been nice to see some examination made into how they react to two of their charges unexpectedly recovering their health, or some similar plot development in the story. As it is, the story is adequate, but could have been much better.

Set in a depressing future in which garbage has become a valued commodity, Salvage Rites by Ian Watson is another story that appears in the magazine that seems to be a little too close to modern reality for comfort. Having emptied out their spare room a couple takes their junk to the local dump, and when they get there they discover that they are expected to donate a little more than they bargained for. A combination of science fiction and horror, Salvage Rites is brutal and riveting, although the ending is pretty much a horror genre cliche. Also set in a bleak future, but with a more humorous bent is Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis, a story which follows an addict on Christmas Eve as he tries to locate funds to fuel his addiction. The story is told in a sort of sing-song slang, and reveals the nature of the dystopian future the addict lives in only slowly until the final punchline reveals just how restrictive the world has become. The story is something of a long set-up for the big reveal at the end, but the writing is good enough that one doesn't mind.

The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock is a Vietnam War inspired look at the application of advanced medical technology to warfare, and how the ability to return wounded soldiers to duty no matter how damaged their bodies might get in the field might take a deadly toll on the mental health of those soldiers. In 1987, this was science fiction. In 2010, where soldiers with prosthetic limbs are eligible to return to active duty and participate in a seemingly endless guerilla war in the Middle-East, the story seems too real for comfort.

Published after the author's death, What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young is a sad time travel story, told by an old man spurred by the discovery of a strange object on his property into reminiscing about a stranger who lived with his family decades before during the Depression era. Given the title, one might think that the "bleak land" of the story is the cold autumnal landscape of rural America in which the narrator and his family struggle to make ends meet, working long hours for little compensation. The tale takes a turn when one of the children in the family asks their visitor about the classic H.G. Wells story The Time Machine, and the reader begins to realize that the world the characters live in may not be such a bleak one after all. The story is powerful, clearly written by a man facing his mortality, and is laced with melancholy and regret. Sitting at the exact opposite thematic end of the time travel story is The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring, a comic story about a genius from the future chosen to be the first traveler back through time, and whose mission is to meet William Shakespeare. Things don't go quite like he assumed they would, with comical and for the traveler, disastrous results. The story is silly comic relief, and much needed in an issue loaded with weighty and sad stories.

The final story in the issue is the Hitchcock-esque Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll. The story starts with the main character losing his leg while saving his dog named Friend from being crushed by a train. While recovering, Egan meets a crippled young girl in the hospital who claims she gets messages from Friend, and conveying the methods that Friend proposed to thank the narrator for saving his life. The story moves through Egans recovery and then a love match with his neighbor blossoms. At this point, the story takes a very sharp left turn into territory that would be familiar to those who have seen The Birds. The seeming supernatural elements in the story are just vague enough that one can understand the conflicting emotions Egan has in the final passage of the book, making for a disturbing and interesting story.

Featured on the cover, the Isaac Asimov penned science fact article Opposite! is an brief guided tour through the history of the physics of antiparticles, from the discovery of the 'antielectron" or positron, to the discovery of the antiproton, the antineutron and so on. The article is pretty straightforward, and probably would not have been mentioned on the cover had it not been an Asimov piece. Although Asimov does muse on the possibility of entire star systems or galaxies comrpised of antimatter, a possibility that was discarded as an option by most scientists, he engages in little speculation concerning antimatter in science fiction or even whether it might have practical real value. Asimov does state that he intends to discuss practical uses of antimatter in his next column, which will probably be interesting, but it does leave this article as little more than a fairly dry history lesson.

Despite the odd choice for an article to feature on the cover, this remains a strong issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Perhaps the issue is so strong because the editors were unafraid of allowing the issue to be dominated by what most would consider to be depressing stories. These stories are, however, almost all so good that despite the sad topic, they are able to evoke emotional responses int he reader without causing the issue as a whole to drag, which is always a danger when you have numerous melencholy stories in a row. As is expected by those familiar with F & SF, this is a fine selection of strong stories and well worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:18pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (September 11th-18th, 2010)

Book Seventy-Five: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 2 (February 1987) by Edward L. Ferman (editor).


Stories included:
Saving Time by Russell Griffin
The Dutchman's Ghost Town by Andrew M. Greeley
The Children of the Sea by Patricia Matthews
The Greenhill Gang by Barbara Owens
The Anger of Time by J. P. Boyd
Bitch by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Backwater Time by Matt Corwin

Science fact articles included:
Sail On! Sail On! by Isaac Asimov

Long review: The February 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a passable issue of the publication, with a collection of good stories and a couple of marginal ones. I found only one of the stories in the issue to be below average, but conversely found none of the stories to be particularly noteworthy either. Overall, those who pick up this issue are unlikely to be disappointed by its content, but neither are they likely to be particularly excited by it.

The first and longest story in the issue is Saving Time by Russell Griffin, a time travel story involving a pair of university professors and their rather bumbling efforts as they travel into the past. The narrator, an unwilling particpant in the journey, is dragged along by his eccentric companion who believes that the best way to impress his girlfriend is to hijack her time travel project and change the past. Needless to say, this does not work out nearly as well as he might have hoped, and the ensuring bizarre events are told with much humor. as humorous as the story is, Griffin never loses sight of the time travel aspects, and the various paradox issues that crop up in such stories are dealt with quite deftly as well. Overall, it is a well-told, although somewhat standard time travel tale.

Normally I'm fond of ghost stories, expecially ghost stories that are ambiguous about the supernatural. However, The Dutchman's Ghost Town by Andrew M. Greeley just didn't work for me. Set closely after the end of World war II, a veteran finds a beautiful, mysterious, and possibly ghostly widow that he strikes up an odd relationship with. The story meanders with a dreamlike air while he escorts her about the southwestern United States until it takes an abrupt left turn into a horror film when they visit a ghost town. At this point, the story simply seems to fall apart, as there is no rhyme or reason given for the way events play out, nor was any groundwork laid for them. The story simply feels like two completely different stories that Greeley had lying around half finished and crammed together at the last minute. The other ghost story in the issue seems like it may have been originally intended for one of the many Thieves' World anthologies. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Bitch.a female sorceress who must hide her identity fears she may have been exposed by a magical transformation that turns out to have been worked by a long dead malign spirit. The story is pretty straightforward, and the "big reveal" at the end isn't too surprising, but it is written well and enjoyable to read.

A fairy tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and violence, The Children of the Sea by Patricia Matthews is full of the same sort of bitter romance that one might find in classic tales like Wuthering Heights, but is thankfully free of the maudlin self-flagellation of those stories. Another story of jealousy and violent, The Greenhill Gang by Barbara Owens deals with a very odd collection of older women who have stumbled upon an unusual ability that allows them to take advantage of those around them. The story starts out with an ominous tenor that only increases throughout. It is a tall order to make little old ladies living in suburban Florida scary, but Owens manages to do so.

Given that the first story in the issue is a time travel story, one might expect that the two other stories with the word "time" in their titles might be as well. However, neither The Anger of Time by J. P. Boyd and Backwater Time by Matt Corwin deal with time travel at all. The Anger of Time contemplates a world in which extraordinarily long-lived individuals lurk among the general population, and tells the story of an instance in which one of them takes it upon himself to remind the rest of us "mayflies" that violence is not new, and the destructive tendencies of humankind don't rely upon technology to be realized. Backwater Time, on the other hand, is an odd little fairy tale about a man who has found and captured a fairy. There is little else to the story, making it one of the weaker ones in the issue.

Continuing, more or less, to build upon the discussion concerning antimatter that he began in the previous issue's science fact article Opposite!, Asimov deals with the question of how to power interstellar flight in the science fact article Sail On! Sail On!. After explaining why superluminal flight is an impossibility and discussing various currently feasible (and clearly inadequate) methods of traversing the reaches of space, Asimov turns to fission, fusion, and finally antimatter powered starships. Combining concrete science with well-grounded speculation, the article is quite good, although probably will not offer much in the way of revelation to most science fiction fans.

With a publication as long-running as Fantasy & Science Fiction it is inevitable that some issues will serve primarily as place-holders between other, better issues. The February 1987 issue, although loaded with decent to pretty good stories, seems to be one of those issues. Lacking any truly outstanding stories, this issue is worth reading, and will provide a science fiction or fantasy fan with some pleasurable entertainment, but probably not substantially more than that.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:15pm Top

Book Seventy-Six: The 4-Dimensional Manager: DiSC Strategies for Managing Different People in the Best Ways by Julie Straw and Alison Brown Cerier.


Short review: People respond better when you manage them according to their personality type.

Long review: The 4-Dimensional Manager is a pop management book that relies upon the "DiSC" system to categorize people into various personality types, and then present potential ways to manage them so as to get their maximum effort. The "DiSc" system is, like most social science related to management, only loosely based upon any actual science, and categorizes people by whether they have a 'Dominant" personality, an "Influencing" personality, a "Supportive" personality, or a "Conscientious" personality, which is how the "DiSC" profile gets its name (there is apparently no real reason for the "i" to be lower case while the other letters are capitalized, it is just the way that the thing is written). The system also considers that people might be particularly strong in more than one profile area, allowing for a variety of combinations. The book gives an overview of each personality type, describing what typically motivates and demotivates each type, their preferred environment, what they avoid, and how they can be more effective in dealing with others.

Of course, personality profiling isn't going to sell many books without giving people some sort of tactic to use the profiles that will supposedly help them deal with the people they work with. So The 4-Dimensional Manager takes the DiSC profile system and tries to give a working framework to apply it for practical use. The book first asserts that people tend to manage according to their own personality profile, and expect to be able to manage others as if they shared their own preferences, a style the book describes as being a "1-dimensional manager". As I'm sure most people can figure out, the book urges the reader to become a "4-dimensional manager" and figure out how to deal with each of their coworkers in a way that will, according to the theory upon which the book is based, result in them reacting favorably and productively.

The book gives directions in chunks, first giving the basics of managing each personality type, then giving specific pointers for how to deal with specific common work related areas: how to delegate to each personality type, how to motivate each personality type, how to give feedback to each personality type, and so on. The book also has some added chapters near the end of the book concerning how to deal with mixed personality types. The only real trouble is that, since few workplaces are likely to test all of their employees, or allow their managers to assess them, those attempting to apply these lessons are likely to have to figure out what sort of personality type they are dealing with on the fly. The resulting potential for less than accurate evaluations should be fairly obvious. The further weakness inherent in attempting to apply these techniques is that it assumes the validity of the somewhat dubious social science underlying the DiSC system, but that is endemic to all management books, and probably cannot be avoided.

The upshot is, if the DiSC system is valid, then this book is a clear, step-by-step guide to how to apply the theory to practical situations and improve one's dealings with the other denizens of your workplace. By presenting the techniques on a topic-by-topic basis broken down by personality type, the book serves as a handy reference that can be used whenever a specific problem arises. The book is quite readable, and fairly short, making it a good starting point for anyone who wants to improve their management skills.

(By the way, for anyone who cares, I tested as a high D/high C personality type. No one who knows me personally was the least bit surprised by this information).

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:11pm Top

Book Seventy-Seven: The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown.


Short review: A quirky book that tries to compare leadership to quantum physics.

Long review: The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership is one of the many management advice books one can pick up that claim to offer suggestions that will transform the reader from an ineffective bumbler to a skilled leader who will inspire those around them into heroic efforts on the job. Given that the market for such books is so saturated, each new book must come up with some sort of unique element that will set it apart from the crowd. To this end, Warren Blank and Aaron Brown made the rather odd choice to try to draw a parallel between leadership in the workplace and physics. The authors assert that they are not so much creating the concepts outlined in the book as discovering them, much as physicists through history have discovered the laws of the universe, hence they are revealing the "natural laws" of leadership rather than inventing them.

The authors carry the physics analogy even further, stressing a difference bwteen their theory of leadership, which they compare to quantum mechanics and dub "quantum leadership" and the traditional thinking concerning management and leadership which they compare to Newtonian or "classical" physics. One of the central arguments of the book, built upon this comparison of quantum mechanics and leadership, is that leadership is not a continuous attribute, but rather a phenomenon that happens in reference to discrete events. The laws also emphasize that leadership results not from position, but from the willingness of others to follow the person who seizies the initiative and takes the lead. In effect, the theory allows for the book to be of interest not just to people in management positions, but to anyone who thinks that they could be a "leader". A cynic might suggest that this allows for more books to be sold. An optimist might decide that the theory is just that good.

Although I'm not entirely convinced, I lean a little towards the optimistic side of the coin with respect to the strategies outlined in the book. The nine laws, as outlined in the book, generally seem like good guidelines, although some are so trivially obvious that their inclusion seems almost extraneous, and others are phrased in such "New Age" style language as to make them seem silly, such as "Leadership is a field of interaction", and "Consciousness . . . creates leadership". These elements, however, seem to hover on the fringes of the argument, apparently placed into the framework to get to the presumably pleasing number of nine laws. The core argument - that leadership is an event based phenomenon in which one seizes the initiative and inspires willing followers - seems to be a fundamentally sound one.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a failing that seems to plague a lot of management adivce books: while it gives a theoretical framework, and a coupld of "examples" of the framework being put into action, the people who will be most effective at implementing the concepts from the book in the real world are people who were probably already really good at leading others to begin with. For those who are merely average or actually inept, the book will probably have far less utility, because telling someone that they must take risks and accept uncertainty is very different than giving them concrete strategies for actually doing things that will make them better in noticeable ways. In effect, this book, like so many similar books, is probably mostly effective for elevating good leaders to being great but less useful for changing bad leaders into decent ones. This isn't really a condemnation of the book, so much as it is a failing common to most books on this subject. That said, while I doubt the usefulness of the book will be dimisnished for those who are not good at leading already, the strategies outlined in the book should be of at least some value to anyone who reads it.

Despite a somewhat strangely constructed framing mechanism that compares the book's theory of leadership to quantum physics, and a couple of less than impressive or useful "natural laws", this is a fairly decent book about leadership. The overall thrust of the book makes a strong statement about what a leader is, and what leaders do. The only real weakness is that it is somewhat less than useful for making a leader out of someone who doesn't already know how to do the things that the authors assert are the components of seizing the leadership moment. However, this book will probably be of great value to someone who has skills but needs to focus them more effectively, and will be of at least some value even for those people who do not and want to try to acquire them.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 11:54am Top

Book Seventy-Eight: The Leadership Event: The Moments of True Leadership That Move Organizations by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown.


Short review: Rah! Rah! Leadership is an event!

Long review: The Leadership Event is more or less a companion book to The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership, also written by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown. At only 103 pages, The Leadership Event is a quick read, and little more than a summary of the theories outlined in The 9 Natural Laws. In this regard, The Leadership Event is at the same time better and worse than its thematic parent. Because it is so short, the book boils down Blank and Brown's wandering theory of leadership into its essential elements. On the other hand, the brevity means that the book gives some areas a short shrift with insufficient explanation, meaking it less than useful as a stand alone volume.

The essential element of this book is that leadership is not an attribute that some people have and others do not, but it is rather an opportunity sezied at the proper moment by the individual who is prepared to take the risk of stepping forward. The book lays this idea out and then spends much of its pages encouraging the reader to do just that when the opportunity arises, or to support someone who steps forward themselves in order to aid them in their leadership efforts. As a result, much of the book is an extended effort at cheeleading, trying to get the reader excited enough to jump at opportunities and claim their spot at the front of the pack.

While this book is not one that I would recommend as a stand-alone volume, due to the shallow treatment it gives of the subject matter, as a handy reference to refresh one's memory of the ideas contained in the much longer The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership it is worth keeping on one's bookshelf. That way, whenever you need inspiration to jump forward, you can get a quick refresher on the theory and a little bit of cheerleading to pump you up for the leap.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Sep 15, 2010, 8:10pm Top

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 11:31am Top

Book Seventy-Nine: Coping with Difficult People by Robert M. Bramson.


Short review: Difficult people suck. This book will make working with them suck less.

Long review: Difficult people are a fact of life. Everyone knows someone or several someone's who are regularly just impossible to deal with. These are not people who occassionally have a bad day and act out, these are people who consistently display particular types of behavior that engender rancor and anger among those they deal with. In the everyday life one can generally avoid difficult people and the headaches they cause. In the workplace, on the other hand, difficult people are often in positions of authority, or are clients, or suppliers, or are in any number of other positions that make dealing with them necessary. That it is necessary does not, of course, make it any more pleasant. In fact, as the authors of Coping with Difficult People note, one of the primary causes of workplace dissatisfaction that spur people to leave their jobs is the heartburn caused by having to regularly deal with a difficult person on the job.

Coping with Difficult People is one of the rare books offering workplace advice that does not have an overarching theory described in its pages. Nor does the book have any kind of comprehensive advice to plug into your life to maximize your productivity or make your coworkers sing your praises. Instead, the book is about exactly what the title says: dealing with the difficult people you encounter in your life, and specifically the difficult people you have to deal with because your employment depends upon it. Instead, as the book identifies several different types of difficult people, it offers practical advice for dealing with each type, offering strategies designed to use the difficult person's personality traits to your advantage.

The book identifies broad categories of of difficult people: hostile agressive people, complainers, unresponsive people, incredibly nice people who never deliver, negative people who throw a wet blanket on everything, know-it-alls, and indecisive stallers with a few subtypes described in some of the larger categories. For example, the know-it-all category includes two types - people who actually are experts on something, and people who just puff themselves up as experts with no real knowledge of the subject at hand. The book takes each type in turn, walking the reader through examples of the behaviour displayed by that particular brand of difficult person, showing the reader how to identify eactly what kind of difficult person they are dealing with, and then offering concrete pointers on how to deal with them, defuse their behavior, and possibly influence them to do what you want them to do, or at the very least to prevent them from unloading their nastiness on you.

Of all the books I have read that offer tips on how to make one's working life more tolerable, this is the one that I found had the most immediate practical value. Because the author elected to deal with the problem in discrete segments using individually tailored solutions, rather than trying to come up with some sort of unifying theory to explain all of the difficult behaviors, the advice is detailed and specific, and thus quite useful. Although there will, of course, be outliers who will not respond to the techniques set forth in this book, for the most part, using the methods as presented will probably make one's working life that much easier. For anyone who has to deal with someone who always complains, or tries to roll over them like a runaway tank, simply won't mkake a decision, or any number of other annoying habits, this book is a must read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Sep 15, 2010, 10:36pm Top

Can anyone tell that I've been sent for management training?

Sep 16, 2010, 3:23am Top

. . .and loving it, obviously, lol.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 11:25am Top

Book Eighty: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 4 (April 1987) by by Edward L. Ferman (editor).


Stories included:
Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman
Olida by Bob Leman
The Glassblower's Dragon by Lucius Shepard
The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster
Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson
Behind the Night by George Zebrowski
Agents by Paul Di Filippo
Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson

Science fact articles included:
The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov

Long review: The April 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is very uneven in terms of quality. While the issue has a number of very good science fiction dystopias, and a couple of appropriately disturbing horror tales, it also has a couple of rather disappointing fantasy stories and an annoyingly intentionally incomplete science fact article.

The issue also features several dystopian science fiction stories. The first is a story that seems to be set just outside of reality, Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman, in which a high school student devoted to actual science struggles in a world in which the school system appears to have adopted creationism as its science cirriculum. Even his own science project, hunting for ghosts, has a clear unreal element to it, while he must navigate the familiar teen pitfalls of beautiful women with musclebound boyfriends and a best friend who he really should pay more attention to. The bizarre world surrounding the protagonist is eventually explained to a certain extent, but the story leaves plenty open to interpretation. In the end, the insanity makes a sort of certain twisted sense, and the protagonist winds up in decent shape. The story is funny and enjoyable.

The second piece of dystopian science fiction is Behind the Night by George Zebrowski, which imagines a future in which fertility in the United States has fallen to next to nothing, leaving an aging population rattling around by the thousands in cities originally built for millions. With a depleted population struggling to survive, let alone find a cure, the President must decide how to deal with impending waves of immigrants, choosing either to repel them or accept them. The third dystopian story is a cyberpunk tale titled Agents by Paul Di Filippo in which the world is divided into the "haves" who are able to access the world wide information stream via their virtual agent, and the "have nots" who are shut out of the system. The stories of a desperate "have not", a criminal "have", and a police investigator all flow together and result in some interesting implications for the future of the world depicted in the narrative. Despite the stark nature of both settings, each of the two stories is quite good, and both end on a hopeful note.

The final dystopian story is Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson, featuring a pair of genetically engineered people who, rather than being built as superhuman, have been designed with severe limitations and are regarded as little more than property. While one might argue that making one's living as a barroom floozy is as good a profession as any, the story presents the disturbing prospect of a world in which technology is used to construct and condition certain people specifically and solely for that purpose, regardless of what other hopes and dreams they might harbor. Although the central characters manage to find their way to a kind of happiness, the horrific regime that effectively enslaved them is still in place, giving the entire resolution a kind of Pyrrhic air. Alternately sad, touching, and violent, the story is one of the best in the issue.

The fantastic horror Olida by Bob Leman is set in a rural county dominated by a wealthy family whose members end up confronting the creepy Selkirks, a family of seemingly insane hillbillies that live in the county hinterlands. One of the scions of propriety in the county has become entangled with a Selkirk woman, and the others try to come riding to his rescue. The story draws the central characters further and further into the bizarre and frightening domain of the Selkirks, their own scary mirror image in the hills. The story builds to an appropriate climax, and then takes an even scarier left turn, making for a very satisfying, and yet simultaneously disquieting story. Also creepy in a very disturbing way is the story Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson featuring a daughter obsessed with her dead mother and the father she doesn't think treasures his dead spouse's memory quite enough. Technology allows for her fixation to manifest itself in a way that is both touching and truly frightening at the same time. Though it is quite short, the story packs a lot of punch into its handful of pages.

While I generally like his fiction, The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster seems to be little more than a paint-by-numbers folk tale featuring modern day characters. A bunch of geologists in search of oil venture into the Louisiana swamps and run afoul of a Cajun legend, which is pretty much the sum total of the story. Also disappointing was Lucius Shepard's The Glassblower's Dragon, featuring two people in the midst of a disintegrating love affair. A highly symbolic magic glass dragon is produced, but the story sort of tails off without going anywhere.

The science fact article in the issue is The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov, which focuses first on the discovery and isolation of various chemical elements, and then switches to primarily discussing phosphorous and the development of usable matches. As usual, Asimov presents the history of the development of chemistry quite well, but also manages to make the invention and evolution of matches interesting too. Like many of his science fact articles, Asimov stops at what seems to be about the halfway point of his full train of through with a promise to complete the article in the next issue. While this is probably good policy in a regular column in a monthly publication, it is somewhat annoying nonetheless. In Harlan Ellison's Watching, his regular column about movies, Ellison discusses the then contentious issue of movie colorization (a technology whose fad seems to have thankfully passed). The column is mostly noteworthy for the obvious glee that Ellison takes in correctly thumbing his nose at movie directors whining about how their artistic vision is being violated by the process, pointing out that movie directors have been trampling on the artistic vision of writers for the better part of a century. As Ellison notes, turnabout is fair play, and he has limited sympathy for the wounded pride of movie directors who finally get a taste of their own medicine.

Despite the somewhat disappointing contributions by Foster and Shepard and the maddeningly incomplete article by Asimov, the balance of the issue is full of good stories that are variously creepy, depressing, and hopeful. Add to the mix a column from Ellison that is deliciously full of his sharp-tongued vitriol and the end result is a pretty good issue. In the end, the good stuff outweighs the weak material in the issue, but only slightly, so this edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction gets a modest recommendation.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:46am Top

Book Eighty-One: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely.


Short review: Humans are irrational, but systemically so, in a manner that can be studied.

Long review: Traditional economic theory is built upon the idea that people are essentially rational, and upon that foundation it constructs demand curves, supply curves, elasticity functions, and a vast number of other concepts. In recent years, however, a group of economists, often with training in the field of psychology, have begun to test and challenge some of the foundational assumptions of economic theory. This field is known as "behavioral economics", and unlike much of traditional economics, it incorporates field experiments into its repertoire in order to test the questions posed by human behavior. Predictably Irrational is Dan Ariely's enjoyably readable introduction to the field of behavioral economics, and one of the more interesting conclusions that this branch of economic study has to offer: people are not rational, but they are irrational in consistent and predictable ways.

In the book, Ariely takes the reader through an examination of several of the basic concepts of economic theory, and explains why experimental investigation casts doubt upon the assumptions those concepts are built upon. Tackling topics ranging from how we assess value, to why people may not actually have preferences that make sense, to the effect prices have on our decision-making ability and why and how people cheat, the book repeatedly demonstrates that people don't behave in the tidy, sensible ways that most everyone has always assumed they do, but rather that our decisions apear to be profoundly affected by external factors of which we are only vaguely aware. The most interesting examples come at the corners of the commercial marketplace - the fact that we respond in wholly irrational ways when confronted with something that is presented as being "free", and how our reaction to "free" can change radically depending on whether we evaluate it in the context of a commercial or social exchange; or the fact that our expectations have an enormous influence on our reaction to a particular item or service regardless of the actual objective efficacy of that item or service.

Two of the overarching examinations of the book deal with the question of commercial transactions as opposed to social norms, and an extensive study in the conditions under which people cheat. To a certain extent, these two issues seem to be related - from the experiments into the question of cheating, it seems reasonably clear that the true deterrent to cheating is not the potential commercial penalty of being caught and financially penalized, but the social pressure to behave in an ethical manner. Unfortunately, Ariely doesn't follow his experiments to their logical conclusion in the book and make this connection for the reader. And this ommission highlights what may be the only notable flaw in the book, which is that Ariely, probably out of an abundance of caution, does not do much more than explain what irrational behavior people are observed to engage in, but does not follow up to try to explain why people might display this behavior in more than a purely superficial way. To a certain extent this is understandable, since the experiments he described don't address motivations, but rather merely assess behavior (which is probably why they are experiments in the field of behavioral economics). Some people might criticize some of the conclusions the experiments point to as obvious, but the fundamental basis of any field of inquiry must be to establish that the obviously true is, in fact, obviously true and not merely an unfounded assumption. The deeper point is not merely that people make what could objectively be termed as poor choices, but, as is demonstrated over and over in the experimental results described in the book, that people do so in predictable ways that can be replicated and studied.

However, even with this minor (and quite possibly unsolvable) gap in the research presented, the book remains a compelling study into actual human behaviors, and an application of that revealed behavior to the field of economics. Although he does not explain why so many people feel compelled to cheat in small ways, Ariely's studies go a long way towards explaining why cheating in the corporate world seems to be endemic, and, via experimental results, gives some ideas that could potentially be used to deter such behavior. Similarly, while he does not explore why people view social transactions so differently from the way they view commercial transactions, his research clearly shows that they do have these differing views. Ariely's writing style is casual and readable, making it approchable even for someone with a limited background in the academic world of economics, but it is detailed enough that even those with a solid background in the area will find the book engaging and interesting. For anyone who is interested in understanding the nature of the decisions that people actually make, this book is a must read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:43am Top

Book Eighty-Two: Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer.


Short review: Intelligent design is crap. Michael Shermer explains why it is crap.

Long review: It is almost unbelievable that there would be a need for this book in 2010. Given the last 150 years of study in the field of biology and other sciences, and the numerous converging lines of evidence that uniformly support the notion that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the one that best describes how the wide variety of flora and fauna came to exist on the Earth, the fact that there is a noteceable segment of the population that still adheres to the magical world view propped up by Bronze Age mythology is somewhat stunning. The idea that some alleged academics who should know better have trumped up a half-baked theory that is little more than Bronze Age mythology dressed up in fancy clothes is even more perplexing.

We live in a world in which the inexplicable is seemingly commonplace and as a result Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is, unfortunately, a book that is necessary. The book itself, however, is anything but unfortunate, and serves as a powerful antigen to the insidious lies and disinformation spread by groups such as the Discovery Institute and their willing accomplices in dishonesty such as Michael Behe and William Dembski. In his book, Shermer first lays out the basic facts concerning Darwin's theory and the science that has followed from it and then turns to flaying the rotten flesh off of the arguments made by Intelligent design advocates to reveal the utter lack of intellectual muscle or bone supporting them. Ray Comfort and his ilk should truly fear this sort of book, because it exposes the utter foolishness of their positions in exacting detail.

The amount of time Shermer spends explaining Darwin's theory and the evidence supporting it is fairly brief, which some readers may find disappointing. But giving yet another comprehensive explanation concerning why Darwin was correct and marshalling the overwhelming evidence that has been amassed that supports this conclusion is not the point of the book. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of books one could turn to for just such an explanation, many of which were written by much more qualified experts on Darwinian theory than Mr. Shermer. The main thrust of this book is to expose the shoddy thinking behind the creationst fairy tale that goes by the name of Intelligent Design.

Shermer systematically walks the reader through the genesis and promotion of the Intelligent Design theory. First he examines why there are people who, despite the solid scientific basis for the theory of evolution, there are some people who simply refuse to accept it as valid. This section is made particularly powerful because Shermer is connect the thinking of such people with his own thought processes when he was a younger man and an ardent conservative Christian who rejected the theory of evolution. He then turns to evaluate the Intelligent design hypothesis (one cannot call something so weak and poorly founded a 'theory" using the language of science), and examines both the arguments mde against the theory of evolution and the relatively small hnumber of arguments made in favor of Intelligent Design. In a step-by-step manner, Shermer lays out the arguments made advocating the creationist/intelligent design position, and then clearly and effectively demonstrates why they are completely without foundation.

After destroying the intellectual foundations (such as they are) of Intelligent Design, Shermer turns his attention to the tactics used the its proponents, noting that the primary reason one can tell that they are not advocating science is the way they go about promoting their hypothesis. Rather than, as an actual scientific movement would, conducting research and publishing papers in scientific journals to convince other experts in the field of the correctness of their views, they spend their time engaged in political advocacy, subverting school boards, and trying to get the court system to declare their religiously based ideas to be valid fodder for classroom science. Fortunately for science education, the "cedesign proponentists" movement (a term covering both creationists and Intelligent Design advocates in the wake of revelations concerning the creationist/intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial) has been singularly unsuccessful in the modern era in convincing the U.S. courts to accept their religious nonsense as anything other than religious nonsense.

Finally, Shermer turns his attention to the question of whether science and religion can coexist peacefully, and why Christians should not only not fight against the theory of evolution by natural selection, but should embrace it. As a humorous coda, Shermer provides a rewritten account of the Genesis creation story that accords with the somewhat loony world view promoted by creationist chuckleheads like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind, exposing their buffoonery via a sharply worded satire.

This book is, unfortunately, going to be of almost no value in convincing an ardent cdesign proponentist of the error of their ways. Many people who hold such views are simply immune to logic and reason. Conversely, those who are already firmly in the reality based camp of people who accept the truth of the science revealed by the last fifteen decades of study will also find this book of limited utility, although it would serve useful as a means of arming themselves against the silly arguments they will encounter when dealing with the anti-Darwin lobby. The book is probably most useful for people who are, in effect, fence-sitters, undecided or merely uninformed on the issue who could be swayed by rational argument and evidence. For such people, this book would serve as an excellent first step in examining the evidence and forming an educated opinion. For all but the most ardent of cdesign proponentists, this book is an excellent resource, and well worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:32am Top

Book Eighty-Three: Science, Evolution, and Creationism by The National Academy of Sciences and The Institute of Medicine.


Short review: Evolution is science. Creationism is not.

Long review: Although it is only seventy pages long, Science, Evolution, and Creationism packs a substantial intellectual punch in its handful of pages. Published by the national Acedemy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, the committee responsible for writing and revising this volume is replete with experts in almost every field of science (including Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of my personal favorite public advocates for science education) and the academic weight they give to the project shows through in the finished project. Intended as a basic guide to what science is, why the theory of evolution by natural selection is well-grounded and thus far uncontested science, and why creationism is decidedly not science and has no place in a science classroom, this book delivers on these promises quite handily.

The book is divided into three main chapters plus a brief conclusion. In the first, the basic elements of science are described and theory of evolution by natural selection is explained. In the second chapter, the compelling evidence in favor of the theory of evolution by natural selection is presented. In the third, the creationist "explanations", including the theory of intelligent design, are reviewed, and the fundamental flaws in them are detailed. The chapter also explains why creationism is simply not science, has no place in the science classroom, and includes a very biref overview of some of the legal decisions supporting this view. Finally, in the conclusion, the authors reiterate that science should be taught in science classes, and religious based views should not.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism is an excellent primer on the difference between actual science and creationism. Presented in a straightforward and easy to read way, the book presents the basic facts of what, inside the scientific community is a noncontroversy (despite what lunatic creationists would claim), and skewers the wild and innaccurate claims of those who advocate teaching superstitious nonsense to children in the form of creationist myths. For anyone who is interested in a clear, concise, and quite accessible account of what science is, why evolution is science and why creationism is not, this is the perfect place to start.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Mar 8, 2011, 12:46am Top

Book Eighty-Four: The Mansion in the Mist by John Bellairs.


Short review: While vacationing in Canada, Anthony stumbles upon an alternate reality full of evil sorcerers. Adventure ensues.

Long review: The Mansion in the Mist is a John Bellairs book featuring a youthful and thoughtful protagonist with an older mentor who finds supernatural trouble and overcomes it with some grit, determination, and plucky courage. The book does not, however, feature either Johnny Dixon or Lewis Barnavelt. Though Bellairs is best known for his two main series of books featuring Dixon and Barnavelt respectively he also wrote a truncated third series featuring Anthony Monday as the central character. Although the Anthony Monday series never really got off the ground, and has far fewer books than either of those, it displays the same Bellairs style that makes the adventures of his better known heroes so enjoyable.

The basic outline of The Mansion in the Mist follows the Bellairs formula. Anthony Monday is a preteen boy bookish enough that he works at his local library. Like Bellairs other youthful protagonists, Anthony's closest confidante is a much older mentor. Just as Dixon has Professor Childermass, Lewis has his uncle Johnathan, and Rose Rita has Mrs. Zimmerman, Anthony has the elderly librarian Miss Eells. Somewhat unusually for a Bellairs mentor, Miss Eells is not steeped in occult lore, so her brother Emerson, a dabbler in occult lore, is also inserted into the story. This feature of Bellairs' young adult books - a young protagonist whose closest friends are much older and wiser - gives the stories a kind of charming quaintness. It also dates them, as in the current era of child-molesting Catholic priests one simply could not imagine parents condoning a close platonic friendship between a twelve year old boy and a sixty-something year old woman, let alone the various other "young tween and older person" relationships that feature in the books. Such caution is only to be expected, but it is sad that this sort of relationship, which Bellairs demonstrates could be so beneficial to kids struggling to find their own identity in the hostile world of their own peer group, has become taboo.

The story itself is fairly straightforward: Anthony and Mrs. Eells join up with Emerson to go spend the summer at his rustic cabin on a lake island in the middle of the Canadian woods. As noted before, a tween spending his summer in an isolated cabin with a pair of elderly siblings he is not related to would raise more than a few eyebrows today, but in the 1950s when the story is set the only impediment seems to be securing parental permission, which is so easily obtained that this detail is handled entirely off-stage. The trio are soon happily amusing themselves with days of hiking and fishing and nights of singing around the piano and card-playing in the glow of oil lanterns. Of course, this being a Bellairs book, evil must lurk around the corner, or in this case, at the bottom of a wooden trunk that mysteriously appears and vanishes.

As the hero of the story, Anthony is the one to discover the trunk (and some other clues), and to find the strange world to which it leads. Once there, Anthony discovers that the band of evil wizards and witches who have dubbed themselves the Autarchs and rule this alternate reality are plotting evil deeds that may threaten our world. After returning, Emerson quickly takes up the cause of preventing the villains from invading Earth, and the adventure gets underway. The trio jump back and forth from our universe to the dark and creepy alternate world of the Autarchs until the pathway through the trunk is eliminated. The band of heroes have to set off to find another way to reenter the dark fairy land of the Autarchs (although the highly practical Miss Eells is less than enthusiastic about the idea), recover the item that gives the evildoers their power, and destroy it. The story moves along at a fairly rapid pace, with only a few contrived conincidences helping the main characters along, and enough mystery to keep the reader from being certain what is going to happen next.

The only real problem with the book is the Autarchs. As a group, they are fairly bland. The only one who even stands out as a character is the leader of the cabal, the Grand Autarch. The rest are more or less just as faceless and undifferentiated as the minions they order about. And the grand Autarch isn't even that interesting. Rather, the Grand Autarch's villany seems to be completely unmotivated by anything other than a desire to be evil. The Autarchs, as a group (and the Grand Autarch specifically) are basically evil because they want to take over the world, and they want to take over the world because they are evil. This is not unusual for a Bellairs villain: many of the evil characters in his books are basically wooden villains like the Grand Autarch. But even though this is a pattern Bellairs repeats in more than one book, it is still a weakness in the story. One might excuse this lack of motivation for the antagonists on the grounds that this is a book aimed at younger readers who just need to know that the villain is villainous, but that seems like a weak argument to me. Quite simply the fun and enjoyable story told in the book would have been substantially improved if the opposition had been more fully fleshed out and given some sort of reason to be evil other than "they are evil".

Despite the one flaw in the book, The Mansion in the Mist is quite good. Like all of Bellairs other young adult books the protagonist is a likable character surrounded by friendly and well-written adult mentors. Even though the villains are somewhat wooden, the adventure is fun to read, and there are just enough twists in the story to keep things interesting. For anyone who is or who knows a young reader with a taste for gothic fantasy who would like a book set in a somewhat idealized 1950s, this book is an enjoyable ride.

This review has also ben posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:12am Top

Book Eighty-Five: The Sword of Hannibal by Terry McCarthy.


Short review: A mercenary. A mission of revenge. A lack of appearances by Hannibal.

Long review: Set during the Second Punic War against the backdrop of Hannibal's dramatic march from Spain, across the Alps and into northern Italy, The Sword of Hannibal is a historical fiction piece that follows a rootless mercenary as he navigates the perilous landscape of the war between Carthage and Rome. As in The Wrath of Alexander, McCarthy's other work of historical fiction set in the ancient world, the title character never actually appears in the book. To the extent that Hannibal has an effect on the characters who do appear in the book, he is completely unaware of it. Not only that, the sword mentioned in the title doesn't even really belong to Hannibal, and doesn't actually feature in the story much.

Despite the misleading nature of the title, the book itself is decent. The central character, a seafaring mercenary named Strabo who begins the book recently having been in the service of Rome, finds himself washed up on shore on the coast of Cathaginian-occupied Spain. He rescued from certain death at the hands of Carthaginian soliders, taken prisoner by, and eventually joins up with, a rag-tag band on a mysterious mission to exact revenge upon one of Hannibal's officers. Strabo, an experienced soldier with a background as metalworker, quickly determines that much of the band is militarily inept, better at hunting than fighting. To accomplish this secret mission, Nargonne, the leader of the band, sends most home, leaving only the most capable of the group. This also has the effect of reducing the band to a manageable number of characters for the story, and moving the action of the book to what is clearly McCarthy's favorite military arena - covert, commando-style operations.

Strabo learns that Carthaginian rule has exacted a heavy toll on Asturia, the village the other members of the band hail from. A Carthaginian officer took a liking to one of the Asturian women (who happens to be the twin sister of Molena, the lone woman in the band Strabo joins), and when they protested, he took her anyway, impounded the fishing fleet they rely upon for their livelihoods, and imposed a heavy (and unpayable) fine upon them. In turn, Nargonne has come up with a secret plan to reverse these fortunes. To gain revenge upon the Carthaginians, they join the Carthaginian army just as it sets out on its historic march. The rest of the book follows Nargonne's convoluted plan to rescue the kidnapped woman, eliminate the Carthaginian officer, and get enough treasure to pay the weighty fine. The side effect of having the Asturians travel with Hannibal's army is that McCarthy can show off his historical knowledge by presenting the panoply of mercenaries in the army (including the famous war elephants) and show the various strategems Hannibal used to hide the movements of his army from Roman spies and overcome the enemies who impeded his progress towards Italy.

Because Strabo starts the book as an outsider, he learns of the various plans as the reader does, and usually doesn't learn everything about a plan until it is underway, resulting in a fair amount of suspense. As the main plot of the book progresses, the story also shows personal journey of Strabo from hardened, rootless mercenary to an integral member of the Asturian band. Having presented a potential love interest in the book in the form of Molena, Strabo, of course, must fall in love with her. Eventually, Strabo becomes not only accepted as a member of the group, but the hinge upon which their plans rely (one wonders how the Asturians would have accomplished their plans if they had not stumbled upon him since none of them have the requisite skills to pull them off), and ends up as literally the last man standing. The transformation from being a man without a place to call home to a loyal member of a village he has never seen is a stroke of serendipity for the Asturians who benefit from Strabo's talents, but is set up well enough by the events of the book that it does not feel forced.

What does feel forced is the subplot involving Strabo's search for a high quality sword and its eventual resolution. Strabo spends much of the book looking for a superior weapon to arm himself with, making do in the meantime with a series of captured weapons, all of which have their own limitations. Eventually he stumbles across what is clearly a superior steel sword, but the circumstances under which he finds it are so contrived as to be seriously implausible. One could understand such weapons being highly prized, but for an army on the march in hostile territory, keeping them in the manner and location where Strabo finds his superior sword is quite simply stupid. Weapons are tools, which means they must be in use to have value. On the other hand, the book suffers from the fairly common problem of ineffective armor. In short, armor appears to have almost no protective value for anyone who fights in the book. Shields are more likely to be used to hit someone over the head than to block an incoming blow. As a result, it seems like Strabo's quest for a superior blade is somewhat useless, given that there is no real need to cut through anything more substantial than human flesh.

This is a relatively minor issue though, and seems to be common to many books that deal with combat in the pre-gunpowder era. The only substantial weakness of the book is the convoluted plot the protagonists rely upon which is so twisty at times that their successes strain credulity. The heroes' plans also rely heavily upon the villains reacting in exactly the way the hereos predict they will, which makes this element of the story somewhat implausible. Even so, with reasonably interesting and well-written characters coupled with decent use of historical events as a backdrop, The Sword of Hannibal is a decent piece of historical fiction and a reasonably enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Sep 20, 2010, 4:27pm Top

#153: A mercenary. A mission of revenge. A lack of appearances by Hannibal.

You were expecting Hannibal to appear? I thought only his sword was supposed to put in an appearance :)

Looking forward to your reviews when you have a chance to get them done, Aaron.

Sep 20, 2010, 4:30pm Top

154: Just a little flippant commentary. Hannibal doesn't appear in The Sword of Hannibal just like Alexander doesn't appear in The Wrath of Alexander the Great. This seems to be a pattern for Terry McCarthy.

Sep 20, 2010, 6:13pm Top

#155: He could write one called The Wand of Stasia in which I would never have to put in an appearance. I kind of like that idea :)

(I even tried putting brackets around The Wand of Stasia. Oh brother.)

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:09am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (October 2010)
Science News (September 11, 2010)
Science News (September 25, 2010)
The Economist (September 18th-24th, 2010)

Book Eighty-Six: Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 12 (December 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor).


Stories included:
The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte
Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett
Primum Non Nocere by H. G. Stratmann
The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper
Deca-Dad by Ron Collins
Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick
A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad
Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy

Science fact articles included:
Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler by Shane Tourtellotte

Long review: The December 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a strong issue that is marred by one truly disappointing story. Unlike many issues, there appear to be no overarching themes to the stories that appear in its pages, and this variety results in a mostly good collection of stories that are by and large quite enjoyable to read.

The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte is a subtle time travel story, told from the perspective of a citizen of Rome who meets and establishes a relationship with a mysterious stranger. It becomes pretty clear very quickly that the stranger is more than he seems, and even his origins are only thinly disguised from the reader. The story confronts one of the primary questions of time-travel more or less head on, or at least the primary actor in the story attempts to intentionally do so, but the resolution is ambiguous, giving the story a pathos that elevates it to more than the standard time traveler tale. Connected to the story is the science fact article Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler, also by Shane Tourtellotte. In this companion piece, Tourtellotte describes methods by which a frugal time-traveler could earn a profit by transporting goods back with him on his journey. The article is fairly light on the "science", being mostly an exploration of how prices for luxury goods have changed over the centuries, but it is still interesting, especially in the context of the accompanying fiction.

Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett is a sequel to The Hub of the Matter, which appeared in ther March 2010 issue of Analog. All of the characters return to study the mysterious hub, David still seeking to break the monopoly held by the alien Dosperhag, and the Dosperhag still willing to go to murderous lengths to preserve their secrets. Despite this rather dangerous background, the story is quite humorous, with strange alien motivations confounding the human characters at every turn. The story twists and turns until it reaches something of an equilibrium, a situation that the protagonists aren't particularly happy about, but which they are forced to accept. As with the previous installment in the series, the story is enjoyable, and this new tale strengthens and builds upon the previously laid foundation.

Dystopian futures are a classic feature of science fiction, and the dystopian vision of a government that regulates the behavior of its citizens for their own good has a fairly long-standing pedigree as well. Primum Non Nocere by H. G. Stratmann posits just such a world, in which the government, though not explicitly compelling people to eat healthy and excercise de jure, has constructed an interconnected web of incentives and requirements that result in just such a situation de facto. The story is set in a treatment facility intended to rehabilitate those who have managed to circumvent the rules and bring them back to healthy status. The story has a major twist at the end, but unfortunately, the twist only works because Stratmann has played dirty pool with his viewpoint character, an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise strong story.

The issue features two first contact storries, although they are markedly different. The first, titled The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper, is set on a distant alien planet with a failing human colony struggling to survive an environment full of hostile fauna. The protagonist seeks to domesticate the one nonthreatening creature the colonists are familiar with. Things don't go exactly according to plan, and there are some surprising revelations made in the story which lightens a fairly depressing story and makes for a satisfying conclusion. The other first contact story is Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick, which takes a decidedly more comic tone than Cooper's grim tale. A zookeeper at odds with the zoo director in a failing zoo is sent a pair of unusual, and apparently unnatural animals to care for. As with The Hebras, the new arrivals turn out to be more than anyone expected. Although the "twist" in the story is not entirely unexpected, it is still fun.

Dealing with the effects that time dilation might have on future space travelers, the story Deca-Dad by Ron Collins is told from the perspective of an Earth denizen meeting his distant ancestor returning from a lifetime of interstellar voyages. Though divided by time and attitude, the two turn out to be more alike than the narrator believes, and the story ends on a note that I found to reflect my own feelings about the human spirit.

Although it is set in the future, A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad seems somewhat out of place in a science fiction magazine. The reason for this is the central "technology" of the story is a placebo pill that apparently works better than actual drugs. The story hints that this may be due to the homeopathic basis for the pills, which moves the story directly into the realm of fantasy as opposed to science fiction. The story more or less meanders pointlessly until it wraps itself up in a somewhat silly manner. Overall, the story seems like an attempt to do something of a dramedy-type story in written fiction, and for that reason, plus the stupid "science" it features, the story seems to be more or less a waste of pages. Continuing the long-running humor series, this month's Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy also seems set in the future but lacks any real science fiction element unless equal employment opportunity standards run wild could be construed as science fiction. The story is at least humorous and, as usual for Probability Zero segments, quite short, so it is enjoyable nonetheless.

With the exception of A Placebo Effect, which a reader should, in my opinion, simply skip, the rest of the December 2010 issue of Analog is quite good. The remaining stories are all above average to very good, and present a variety of different types of tales that the science fiction genre has to offer. Overall, this is another very good issue of what I would almost certainly classify as the consistently strongest genre magazine of which I am aware.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 10:02am Top

Book Eighty-Seven: Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol 34. No. 12 (December 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor).


Stories included:
Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly
Warfriends by Tom Purdom
Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick
Sins of the Father by Sara Genge
Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert
Variations by Ian Werkheiser
Excellence by Robert Reed
The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey

Poems included:
Xenoaesthetics by F. J. Bergmann
Sailor by Mark Rich
Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor

Long review: The December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is, taken as a whole, one of the best issues of the magazine in quite a while. It is one of the best issues of any genre magazine in recent memory. With a collection of stories that are all good, and even a selection of poetry that is strong, the magazine is simply a superior example of one of the most prominent magazines in the science fiction field.

The first story in the issue, and also featured on the cover of the magazine, Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly follows the crew of a cargo ship on its long journey through the asteroid belt. Little more than glorified janitors, the crew is made up of a variety of misfits, including the narrator, a cloned genetically engineered girl who rebelled agaist the parent who decided she should be optimized for crewing interstellar ships. An accident on the journey transforms the story into an engineering puzzle, but unlike many others, it is a puzzle that cannot be solved through clever sleight of hand. Though the story focuses on the petulant rebellion of an angry teenager, the tragedy in the story unfolds on its own. The story is quite good, and unlike some other recent examples, worthy of being the featured story in the issue.

After a very long dormancy, the setting Tom Purdom created in The Tree Lord of Imeten is revisited in Warfriends. The story fleshes out the long-standing conflict between the two intelligent races of Imeten, and the delicate alliance inspired by the human interlopers that has united them against their common enemy the Drovils. Told from the perspective of the itjii, long treated as slaves by the tree-dwellers, the story highlights the sacrifices made by those formerly held in bondage that keep the fragile coalition together. Though humans are known to the characters, they do not appear directly in the story, which is told entirely from an alien perspective, and told quite well.

Those who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand will probably be disappointed in the darkly sobering Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick. Having abandoned the rigidly controlled cities for the libertarian utopia of unregulated the Russian countryside, the protagonist picks up an all-business hooker looking for a ride, and discovers that a completely free landscape is not exactly what he expected. Sitting alongside Swanwick's story is Sins of the Father by Sara Genge, a thematically very different story about a merman exiled to live among the isolated and heavily regulated remnants of humanity. Rigidly controlled by both social custom and the edicts of the sea-dwellers, humanity and the exiled protagonist struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. In the end, a noble sacrifice is made in the face of a brutal government and a desprate plea issued. The story is a dark vision of a possible future, and beautiful in a cruel way.

Another story set in an all too possible feeling future is Excellence by Robert Reed, in which economic catastrophe has resulted in a world where success in fictitious online games has become of paramount importance to many people. The protagonist, a moderately well-off deadbeat and superlative game player, is approached with an offer too tempting to turn down that promises to make him a wealthy man. The story has some major twists in the end, and the true meaning of the title only becomes clear in its final lines. Overall, it is a good story that makes a strong statement concerning what is necessary to optimize human potential. Also exploring the concept of human potential is The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey, which imagines a future in which human potential has been so maximized that further improvements can only be made with extreme dedication and sacrifice. Set against this level of commitment are humans who have been modified to superiority, either before or after birth, and their devalued accomplishments are contrasted with those of the "natural" humans they regularly outperform. But because their accomplishments are easy, they get no attention compared to the objectively lesser but subjectively superior accomplishments of unmodified humans. The central character wrestles with the decisions that he will be faced with if he does accomplish the virtually impossible task of setting a new world record, wondering whether the sacrifices are wirth it, and contemplating the relative value of accomplishments. Overall, it is an insightful and throught-provoking story.

In counterpoint to Excellence and The Prize Beyond Gold is Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert, a story about maximizing the potential of artificial intelligence. The plot of the story is mostly just a framing device to explore the idea of a machine intelligence that becomes sufficiently advanced to contemplate the meaning of beauty, even when its designers don’t intend for it to do so. One would not think that athe story of a former child prodigy attempting to deal with the death of his genius father would be thematically unified with the story of an artificially intelligent unmanned drone. Variations by Ian Werkheiser also contemplates the question of beauty, positing a technology that purports to allow one to capture the reality of an artist's live performances, even after he has died. After years of anger, the protagonist of the story finds his own beauty in his relationship with his father, and finds an empty shell at the end of his journey.

Even the poetry in this issue is memorable. Xenoaesthetics by F. J. Bergmann illustrates the longing for art that an alien species that never created the concept feels when confronted by humanity. The poem Sailor by Mark Rich is an ode to a solar sail, while Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor captures the sterility and prison-like feel of a supposedly protective domed city.

The most critical feature of the December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is that there are no weak stories. What pushes this issue into rarified territory is that many of the stories are not merely decent, but are decidedly above average to very good in quality. From Plus or Minus to Warfriends to The Prize Beyond Gold to Variations, the magazine follows great stories with more great stories. Even Freia in the Sunlight, which is probably the weakest story in the bunch, is a good story that would have been a standout in many other months. Consequently, this issue is strongly recommended.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 9:59am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (September 25th-October 1st, 2010)
The Economist (October 2nd-8th, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (September 2010)

Book Eighty-Eight: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, Nos. 3 & 4 (September/October 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor).


Stories included:
Orfy by Richard Chwedyk
Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe by Dale Bailey
The Door in the Earth by Alexandra Duncan
The Literomancer by Ken Liu
Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills by Fred Chappell
The Window of Time by Richard Matheson
How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King by James L. Cambias
Blind Spot by Rick Wilber and Nick DiChario
Steadfast Castle by Michael Swanwick
F&SF Mailbag by David Gerrold
About It by Terry Bisson

Long review: Billed as an "All-Star Anniversary Issue", the September/October issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction is severely hampered by the non-fantasy and science fiction nature of much of its content and the dark tone so many of the stories take, either deling with death or written as out-and-out horror tales. Though most of the stories are quite good taken individually, taken together they add up to a very heavy issue without much in the way of real science fiction or fantasy content.

Featured on the cover of this All-Star Anniversary issue is the reprinted The Window of Time by Richard Matheson, a gentle time-travel story in which an elderly man climbs through a window back to the days of his own childhood. The story is literally a walk down memory lane, but the narrator also finds out that while memories may be good, they are locked in the past. Despite the story being sixty years old and Matheson's first published piece of fiction, it holds up as a great story even today, demonstrating what a superior storyteller Matheson is. Taking a very different angle on looking back at the days of one's youth is the baseball infused Blind Spot by Rick Wilber and Nick DiChario, which tells the story of a man dealing with the death of his abusive alcoholic father who was also a former professional baseball pitcher. The story captures the anger and rage the main character feels, while also giving the reader a view into the complexities of an abusive relationship that keep serve to tie the abused and the abuser together for far longer than most outsiders can understand. In the end, despite the protagonist more or less reconciling with his father's memory by the end of the story, the distance between them proves to be too great, and he retains his "blind spot" where his father is concerned, which gives the story its name. The story has tragic overtones, and is worth reading.

Ancient Egypt has always provided fertile ground for fantasy, and as a result How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King by James L. Cambias, featuring a court wizard in a magical version of Egypt should come as no surprise. The story, told from the perespective of the wizard's apprentice, describes the fall from grace of a powerful Egyptian wizard whose position is usurped by a barbaric northerner. Eventually the interloper's true intentions are revealed, which puts the two sorcerers on a collision course and seals both of their fates. The story isn't deep or mysterious, but it is a well-told fantasy tale with interesting characters and an enjoyable plot.

The longest story in the issue is Orfy by Richard Chwedyk, which sees the return of the sentient toy dinosaurs from Chwedyk's running series. The only trouble with the story is that because it is the latest installment in a long running series, there are so many characters packed into its pages that for a reader who hasn't read the previous ones it is hard to sort all of them out and make sense of what is going on. Couple this with a bunch of unexplained plot elements such as the "space guys" and the SANI Corporation and you get a story background that is quite confusing at times. The story itself, dealing with the death of one of the saurs, is a fairly straightforward story about the grief of children dealing with a loss they didn't expect, with the hyperintelligent but emotionally innocent saurs serving in the role of children. Each of the various sentient toys deals with the loss in their own unique and perfectly in character way. Despite the complicated and confusing background, the story ends up being quite good. Ending on a somewhat less than happpy note is About It by Terry Bisson, a story about the very short life of a lab experiment that has outlived its usefulness and been brought home as a pet. Though told in a slightly humorous fashion, the story's ending is somber, and raises serious questions about the morality of creating life without a plan for what to do with that life later.

Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe by Dale Bailey mixes the mundane and the infernal into a frightening mix. A waitress apparently working in a diner in a version of Hell is faced with a dead-end low-paying job, a deathly ill child, and alternatively overly friendly and scarily creepy customers. Exactly where the protagonist lives, and who the various authority figures are, and what horrible fate awaits everyone in the story is all left ambiguous, which heightens the unsetling nature of the story. Caught stealing, she is threatened with the loss of her only means of support, but also offered a deal with the devil that turns out to be not what she expected, and also far more costly than she imagined. Putting a very different spin on the horror genre is Steadfast Castle by Michael Swanwick, a love-triangle murder mystery in which the psychotic killer turns out to not to be who the investigator expected, and yet seems perfectly natural to the reader. Unusual in that it is a science fiction horror story (as opposed to a fantasy, or quasi-fantasy horror story) and its somewhat quirky choice of a viewpoint character, the story is both faithful to the genre and appropriately creepy at the same time.

As this issue covers October, and therefore Halloween, there are several other horror-tinged stories included in its pages. The only problem with these is that they are written with such a subtle (one might say nonextant) supernatural or science fiction element that they don't seem like they belong in a magazine that has the words "fantasy" and "science fiction' in the title. The most overtly supernatural of the bunch is The Door in the Earth by Alexandra Duncan, the story of a teenager and his younger brother who go to visit their estranged mother and her boyfriend who have dropped off the grid and live in a cave. The living space in the cave is not finished, and as they settle into the rustic existence of gas lamps, camp stoves, sleeping bags, and building cinderblock walls, the narrator begins to hear unintelligible voices that draw him to a door set into the back of the cave. After both his mother and her boyfriend disappear, he explores beyond the door, makes a grisly discovery, and returns to his brother. The problem with the story is that the supernatural element, to the extent there might be one and the voices aren't just a trick of the wind or something, is so slight that it may as well not be there. Similarly, Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills by Fred Chappell, featuring a young girl who imagines a world around her full of magic, witchcraft, and evil grinning uncles, is also devoid of any real supernatural content. The young protagonist and her trusty sidekick brother wander through a world that, to them, is full of pumpkin headed villains and evil spirits that no one else can see, but from the perspective of the reader, the story seems like nothing more than the somewhat dangerous delusions of children. The story seems to be the more or less obligatory "Halloween" based story for the issue, and it is not bad as a story, but like The Door in the Earth and Literomancer it just seems out of place in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

The final "horror" story in the issue is the Cold War influenced tale The Literomancer by Ken Liu. With an elementary school age girl as the viewpoint character, the story begins with what appear to be some fairly mundane schoolgirl problems dealing with bullying from her peers. She meets an elderly Chinese man who is alleged to be a "literomancer" (that is, someone who predicts the future by reading the meaning in Chinese characters) and his grandson who loves baseball. The story descends into Cold War paranoia and things turn dark and violent as an inadvertent admission by the protagonist sends her newfound Chinese friends into a man-made Hell. The story itself is gripping, tragic, and quite compelling. But the "literomancy" that supposedly makes it a fantasy story is no more convincing than tarot cards, and since it is not establised as anything other than a parlor trick, and there is no real connection between the literomancy and the story itself, it simply isn't a "fantasy" story. Consequently, despite being a good story, it is, like so many other stories in this issue, completely out of place within the pages of a genre magazine.

With so many stories involving death, horror, or both, the issue needs a couple light moments to lighten the mood. This is supplied by David Gerrold in F&SF Mailbag, a quick series fake letters to the editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction that imagine what magazine publishing might be like if various scienfictional ideas were actually true. The story is quite funny, as the possible consequences of time travel, alternate realities, and other science fiction ideas upon the publishing industry are lampooned. As the only really humorous story in the issue, this story has to do a lot of heavy lifting to lighten the black mood set by much of the remaining stories, and while it is good, it simply isn't up to that Herculean task.

Someone needs to tell the editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction that even though they are making an issue that includes the Halloween season, that dark and macabre tale of horror and death after dark and macabre tale of horror and death makes for a weak issue. Someone also needs to tell them that the words "science fiction" and "fantasy" on the cover mean that most readers will pick up an issue expecting a magazine that provides a healthy helping of both. Despite some pretty good stories, the steady diet of woe and suffering offered by this issue wears on the reader, and those looking for a collection of stories of imaginative fantasy and science fiction will be disappointed by their absence. Even taking into account the relatively high quality of most of the stories contained in it, this issue, as a genre magazine, is only modestly above average overall.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 9:53am Top

Book Eighty-Nine: Dragonspell: A Novel by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: Some standard characters go on a standard fantasy quest in a decently imaginative fantasy world, with screeching halts on a regular basis to beat the reader over the head with some Christian allegory.

Long review: Mixing fantasy fiction with Christian allegory is a long standing tradition, dating back at least as far as C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, and less obviously, to J.R.R. Tolkien's writings about Middle-Earth. When done well, it is subtle, or at least not particularly intrusive and serves to enhance the fantasy, or at the very least, does not hinder it. The danger in this sort of mixture is that the Christian lessons can become didactic, and drown out the fantasy to such an extent that it ruins the story. In DragonSpell, the first book in the DragonKeeper Chronicles, Donita K. Paul presents an enjoyable fantasy story set in a fairly original fantasy world but also throws in a heavy-handed Christian message that drags the quest story to a screeching halt every time it rears its head.

The overt structure of the story is fairly straightforward. In the fantasy land of Amara the o'rant slave girl Kale, our hero, is traveling from the village of mariones she lived in her whole life until she unexpectedly discovered a dragon egg and the village council set her free and sent her to study at the Hall in Vendela. Along the way she is waylaid by some grawligs (or mountain ogres) and her adventure takes an unexpected turn. And that's just the first chapter of the book. She is rescued from the grawligs by a dragon-mounted doneel named Dar, an emerlindien named Leetu Bends, and a large and powerful knight, but not before she discovers even more dragon eggs. After this, the MacGuffin hunt portion of the fantasy quest begins. It turns out that the evil wizard Risto is bent on acquiring a "meech egg" from which a powerful dragon will hatch, and Kale has a unique talent for finding dragon eggs. Because it is supposedly a matter of some urgency to find the meech egg before Risto can put his nefarious plan into action. Kale's trip to the Hall is put on hold so she can set out with Dar and Leetu to find the egg before the bad guy does.

Of course, no quest is complete without some complications and extended stops for tea. After stopping off at the elderly emmerlindien Granny Noon's house for some snacks, a special cloak, some religious instruction and hatching a healing dragon, our little band travels through a magical gateway (shades of the Forgotten Realms, or Stargate: SG-1) to get to the Bogs to find the Wizard Fenworth. Leetu gives Kale some instruction in 'mind-speaking", yet another skill that Kale unexpectedly turns out to have, and promptly gets captured by Risto's men, which prompts Dar to stop and make some more tea and play a couple tunes on his flute. And so the story goes. Kale and Dar rescue a dragon, Dar gets mad at a dragon, they rescue Leetu from Risto's fortress, Kale discovers more hidden talents, they all stop for a couple weeks of vacation in the shadow of Risto's fortress, they find Fenworth (who seems to have more than a passing resemblance to Fizzbin of The Dragonlance Chronicles), spend a couple more weeks puttering around his magical tower enjoying some tea and crumpets while waiting for yet another dragon to hatch, and eventually get around to looking for the meech egg. Despite being on a quest that was supposedly enormously urgent, the questers spend a lot of time sitting around. When the quest gets going, and the action is moving, the story is serviceable as a fairly generic MacGuffin hunt that uses most of the standard fantasy cliches in relatively well-written ways. The only real disappointment is that, in the end, the hunt for the meech egg truly does turn out to be nothing more than a MacGuffin hunt.

But the reason the story stops so often for the characters to drink tea, have a vacation, or otherwise sit around and do nothing much of improtance is to allow for the author to insert some lessons in Christian theology into the story. Paladin, standing in for Aslan, standing in for Jesus pops up a couple times in the story to save Kale and her companions and offer some lessons on how to properly serve Wulder, standing in for the Emperor Over the Sea, standing in for God/Jaweh. Kale, being just an uneducated slave girl from a backwater village needs lots of instruction, and so she (and the reader) are subjected to some sort of lesson from someone at least once every couple chapters. (As an aside, I am still wondering how allowing slavery as an everyday condition is copacetic with the Christian message of the book). But not only do the lesson sessions cause the story to grind to a halt to be delivered, but the actual theological stance taken in the book essentially undermines any suspence or tension the story might otherwise have. Kale, and the reader, are repeatedly told that the Pretender (and thus the Pretender's servants) is powerless before the might of Wulder. To keep a Pretender servant from reading your mind, for example, one must merely state that they are under Wulder's authority. Later it also turns out that this protection can be transferred, as others can assert Wulder's protection on your behalf. Leaving aside the fact that this essentially reduces God to a magical incantation, it also makes the villain into a non-threat to the heroes. When Paladin rides out to face a collection of evil dragons, they are unable to harm him in any way because he has Wulder's protection, and he dismisses them with nothing more than a shouted command. Wulder always triumphs over the Pretender, and because the heroes are under Wulder's protection, they win. This does not make for a very interesting story.

The theology presented in the book doesn't just sap the life out of the fantasy adventure, it also has the effect of making Wulder and Paladin seem fairly evil themselves. Kale is taught that everything is part of Wulder's plan. No matter what choice she makes, it is part of Wulder's plan, and therefore the right thing to do. When she reveals to Paladin towards the end of the story that she feels responsible for causing the deaths of some of her companions, he says that their deaths were part of Wulder's plan, and thus she chose the correct course of action. This presents a serious philosophical problem because it effectively means that there is no free will. No matter what choices anyone makes, they are meaningless, because there is no right or wrong answer. This means, for example, that when presented with Risto's offer to join him, it doesn't matter that Kale resisted and did the 'right" thing by staying loyal to Wulder, because if she had joined Risto that would have been the right thing too. This particular conversation also makes Paladin seem pretty callous, because while Kale is feeling guilty for killing her companions, he seems to console her, but doesn't bother to reveal to her that her companions are actually alive and well, a fact that she doesn't discover for months afterwards. So, in effect, Paladin is willing to let a young woman feel guilty over the death of a couple creatures to make the point that no one actually has free will rather than let her know that she didn't actually kill them. But this is not the most obnoxious theological argument in the book. In an attempt to answer Epicurus' question of why God (or Wulder in this case) allows evil to exist if he is omnipotent, Paladin makes the argument that one would not give a needle and thread to an infant destined to become a tailor on the grounds that preventing her from sticking herself with needles is for the child's own good. The comparison is made between a needle free infancy and an evil-free world, and Paladin explains that Wulder doesn't eliminate evil because humanity (in the form of the seven "humanities" of the setting) are not yet ready for such a world. But this is a truly obnoxious argument to make, because, when carried to its logical conclusion it means that the farming family that was slaughtered a few chapters before this little speech is delivered were all killed for their own good. To me, this just makes the Pretender look like a pretty good option - at least he won't arrange the affairs of the world in such a way as to kill you and tell you it is for your own benefit.

Despite the lousy theology and the suddenly not so interesting quest, the book is not all that bad. redeeming the book to some extent is the fact that Mrs. Paul's worldbuilding is fairly strong and inventive. The names and terms fly at the reader thick and fast, as it seems that Mrs. Paul was not content to simply import the more or less standard array of fantasy races and monsters into her fantasy reality. Instead of the usual cast of elves, dwarves, goblins, and trolls, one finds the seven "high" races (o'rant, marione, kimen, urhom, emerlindian, doneel, and tumanhofer) created by the all-powerful Wulder opposed by the seven "low" races (bisonbecks, blimmets, grawligs, mordakleep, quiss, ropma, and schoergs). Each of the "low" races was created by the Pretender, who fills in as the "Lucifer" figure in the theology of the story and is a mockery of one of the "high" races (something that seems to be directly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien). The effect of this creativity is somewhat dampened as the reader works through the book, as one realizes that several of the "high" races are merely standard fantasy races renamed - urhoms are giants, emerlindians are basically fantasy elves, tumanhofers are fundamentally fantasy dwarves, doneels are furry hobbits with their hobbity personality traits on steroids, and so on. Though never explicitly stated, it seems that o'rant is the Amaran name for the human race. several of the low races also correspond to some standard fantasy tropes. In many cases, the renaming accomplishes little save to make the text confusing to the reader until one gets used to the idiosyncratic terminology, which unfortunately serves to obscure the more original elements of the setting, such as the kimen and mordakleeps.

I generally have mixed feelings about glossaries in fantasy fiction. On the one hand, they are somewhat handy as a quick reference that allows the reader to check up on various elements of the fantasy setting. On the other hand, the need for a glossary, especially an extensive glossary, is something of an indication that the author wasn't able to convey their fantasy reality effectively via their text. And the trouble here isn't that Mrs. Paul is ineffective as a writer, but rather that she loads the story with so much fnatasy detail that it gets distracting. trees aren't oaks or maples, they are bentleaf trees, or borling trees. Caves and tunnels don't have rats, they have uddums, the birds flying overhead aren't swallows and wrens, but rather double-crested mountain finches and halfnack birds, and so on. There is some definite fantasy overload in the book, which serves to actually detract from the inventiveness of the setting. if everything is fantastical, then the fantastical becomes somewhat mundane. Dialing just a bit back on the inclusion of fantasy versions of weasels, birds, and shrubs that serve as little more than set dressing would have made the fantastical elements that feature in the story that much more unusual, and thus more interesting. Calling relatively mundane things by mundane names would also help - there seems little reason to call beet, onion, and carrot soup "chukkajoop" or any young animal used as meat "jimmin" when there are perfectly good English words that can be used to express the same meaning quite clearly without the need for extra fantasy jargon.

DragonSpell really seems more like two books crammed together than one book. One book is a relatively cliched but decently written fantasy quest story set in a cleverly inventive fantasy world. The other book is a didactic series of lessons on a fantasy version of Christianity that are ham-fisted in execution and in many cases espouse some fairly offensive theology. Unfortunately, one cannot read the one without the other, so the overall effect is a book that is just barely mediocre. For those pining for more Christian-laced fantasy in the vein of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book would not be an altogether bad choice, but given the choice, I would probably just read the Narnia books again.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Oct 12, 2010, 11:17am Top

8Dragonspell every bit as much as I did!

Oct 12, 2010, 12:00pm Top

#160: I am skipping that one. I do not like being beat over the head with Christian allegory, which is the reason I stay away from Christian fiction for the most part (and I am a Christian.)

Oct 12, 2010, 12:14pm Top

162: It will be mentioned in the review, but the book has what I consider to be one of the most offensive attempts to answer the Epicurian question about God and evil.

Basically it boils down to this: God allows a family to be slaughtered by evil doers for their own good.

Oct 12, 2010, 12:17pm Top

#163: All I can say to the basic statement is 'Hogwash.'

Oct 12, 2010, 1:38pm Top

My message above appears to have been truncated. It said:

8-) It appears that you liked DragonSpell exactly as much as I did.

Oct 12, 2010, 1:51pm Top

165: Probably. My review is likely to be capable of being encapsulated as "a fairly decent fantasy tale marred by lots of preachy didactic interludes".

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 9:50am Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (October 9th-15th, 2010).

Book Ninety: Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King.


Short review: Growing up when you don't know what you want other than to not make the mistakes of your parents is tough. For some kids, it is fatal.

Long review: There some young adult books that seem to be based upon the premise that to make juvenile fiction one must dumb down the narrative. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that feature kids with minor problems that they agonize over ad nauseum until the reader just wants them to grow up and stop whining. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that gloss over the fact that teenagers are nascent adults struggling to deal with adult problems and temptations like drugs, alcohol, and sex. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that deal head on with the beautiful potential and terrible tragedy of kids learning to grow up in a world that is laced with things that are wrong, scary, or simply unfair. This is the sort of book that Please Ignore Vera Dietz is.

Although the primary character in the book is, naturally enough, Vera Dietz, her story is interwoven with the story of Ver's best friend Charlie Kahn, his nasty girlfriend Jenny Flick, her own mother "Sindy", her father Ken, and even her coworkers at Pagoda Pizza. All of the myriad ways that a teenager can screw up their life are explored along with all the crap that adults seemingly unknowingly heap upon their children that serve to make the difficult journey from child to adult even more of a struggle. Fundamentally, everyone in the book is defined by the foolish and unwise choices they made as teenagers, and Vera is confronted with a collection of choices with the only real guiding element being that she is certain what she does not want to be. Vera does not want to be one of the detentionheads whose lives are going nowhere. Vera does not want to be Charlie Kahn's mother, trapped in an abusive relationship. Vera does not want to be her own mother, who married too young, worked as a stripper, and abandoned her child without a look back. Vera does not want to be her own emotionally parsimonious father. Vera does not want to be a stoner who works at a pizza delivery place. Vera does not want to be a community college dropout. But for all that she knows she does not want to be, Vera is still unclear about what she does want to be.

A lesser author might take these elements and make an ABC After School Special out of it where life lessons are learned and Vera and Charlie end up walking away hand in hand to a bright future. But life is messier than that. Some kids simply don't navigate the way to adulthood successfully, especially when their lives are piled high with shit heaped on by thse around them. The tragedy of the story is that Charlie and Vera face much the same choices through their lives, and Charlie's choices lead him down a dark path that irretrivably fractures his friendship with Vera and eventually results in his death, which merely adds to the load Vera must carry as she tries to find her own way through the maze of superficially enticing dead ends to the one that will lead to a better life. And the brilliance of the book is that while it does not sugarcoat the vast array of pitfalls a teenager faces, it also presents them in a way that makes their appeal apparent to the reader. When Vera takes up drinking to deaden her pain, one understands why, and sympathizes. When she dates a man who is completely wrong for her, one understands the attraction. When Charlie makes the many choices that lead him to his own destruction, one can follow him step by step, knowing that each choice is the wrong one to make, but also knowing that each choice has a level of attraction that makes Charlie's decisions understandable.

And the struggle to make the smart choices is simply overwhelming. Following Vera as she works to keep her grades up and work a full-time job (at her father's insistence) as she loses her best friend to the creeping malaise of apathy and anger, one can feel sympathy even for Jenny Flick and the detentionheads. It would clearly be just so much easier for her to just to do nothing and just let life hand her whatever she gets. Even Vera's father, who refused to stay an uneducated alcoholic and changed his own life for the better, is unwilling to take action when it comes to the violence next door, or even take responsibility for caring for an abandoned animal. And when he does take action, he massively overreacts, or clumsily puts fuel on the fire, as when he arranges for Vera to talk to her absentee mother after a silence of six long years. To a certain extent, the Pagoda, a massive eyesore that dominates the little Pennsylvania town where the story is set, serves as a metaphor for the attitude most of the characters in the book display - they don't like it, but they aren't going to do anything about it. And as the reader watches on, Vera, grieving over the death of her ex-best friend, drunkenly stumbles her way towards that trap herself, paralyzed into inactivity by the thought that if she took action it would have consequences.

But the memory of Charlie won't let Vera simply fall by the wayside. Though, from a certain standpoint, solving the mystery of Charlie's death is of limited consequence to the story, the mere action of taking steps to do so is critical for Vera as a character. The story is told in a nonlinear format, interpsersing current events with Vera's memories, Charlie's commentary, Ken Dietz's explanations, and even the musings of the ever-present Pagoda, a format that serves to enhance the story. Through the book Vera is chased by the memory of her dead ex-friend, which she tries desperately to escape, to pretend that nothing can or should be done about his death or the crime he is unjustly blamed for. And because of this, Vera drifts aimlessly, spiraling further and further out of control until she reaches the point of crisis, and must either pull back from the edge, or fall off and follow all of the other human flotsam apathetically floating towards whatever dead end fate they might reach. In the end, Vera must not only save the memory of Charlie, she must save her father, and ultimately, herself.

To pay homage to the book, here is me using the word "brilliant" in a sentence: Please Ignore Vera Dietz is, quite simply, a brilliant book. Casting an unflinching eye upon that wonderful and tragic moment in a person's life in which they are balanced between fantastic unrealized possibilities and the awful potential for utter failure, the book presents the very real struggles of children yearning to become the adults they want to be. Though the book is filled with humor, it never makes light of Vera or any of the other characters, with the humor serving to highlight the tragic elements of the story. Topping off an emotionally intense and compelling story is the fact that A.S. King's writing flows so flawlessly that the pages fly by. To be blunt, everyone who is a teenager, has a teenager, or has been a teenager, should go out right now and read this book.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Oct 13, 2010, 5:50pm Top

I don't know if I want to read the book or not, but your review is superb writing in itself!

Oct 13, 2010, 9:05pm Top

168: Thank you!

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 12:54am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (October 16th-22nd, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (October 2010)
Science News (October 9, 2010)

Book Ninety-One: Dragonquest: A Novel by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: Kale's slow-moving, tensionless, pseudo-Christian fantasy adventures continue.

Long review: It takes a certain amount of hubris or naivite for a fantasy author to name their book DragonQuest. After all, Anne McCaffrey more or less claimed that title with her 1971 Hugo-nominated Dragonriders of Pern novel Dragonquest. The name has also serves as the name for the SPI published DragonQuest fantasy role playing game, and a massively popular series of computer console games. In the case of Donita K. Paul and her Christian fantasy DragonQuest, the second book in the DragonKeeper Chronicles following after DragonSpell and preceding DragonKnight, I tend to think that the title choice probably springs from a lack of familiarity with the fantasy fiction genre. This assessment stems from the realization that DragonQuest is not really a work of fantasy fiction. It is, in fact, a fairly didactic work of Christian advocacy playing a pretty poor version of dress up in fantasy clothing.

The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward. Having been thwarted in his efforts to acquire a meech egg by the heroes in DragonSpell, the evil wizard Risto acquires another one and instead of carrying out his Earth-shattering plan to create a new "low" race from it, he abandons that idea and instead hatches it so he can train the meech to influence other dragons to join his side. In the meantime, an unknown force drops a bunch of "Creemore spiders" on Vendela (which is where Kale and Dar have been training as freshly inducted leecents in Paladin's army) who wreck havoc just as Kale, with two new characters named Bardon and Toopka, is set to head off to Fenworth's castle in order to help raise the brand new meech dragon that hatched from the egg Kale and her friends saved from Risto in the first book. Along the way, Kale is wounded and poisoned by a Creemore spider and we are told she is near death. Because the story is told entirely from Kale's perspective, the drama of her recovery takes place almost entirely outside the narrative of the book. Essentially, the reader gets told "Kale is near death and in dire straits" on one page, and "Kale has been healed by Fenworth and out of danger" on the next, removing any possibility of dramatic tension.

The fact that Kale's recovery takes place basically off-stage presages a recurring theme in the book: any big, dramatic developments almost all take place off-camera, with the reader only told about them as a fait accompli after the fact. The expedition to hunt down the Creemore spiders and discover who sent them to Vendela, the assembling of an army to defeat Risto, the trickery behind the defection and return of the "good" dragons, and even the climactic battle against Risto's forces all take place out of sight of the reader, primarily because Kale was not there to witness them. While this preserves the purity of Kale as a viewpoint character, it was the author's choice to have Kale not present for so many of these events. As a result, the book has far less actual drama and tension than it should have. This might be understandable if the narrative path that Kale and her companions take had its own drama, but instead the reader is mostly treated to a slow moving series of moral lessons in which the pseudo-Christian fantasy religion is imparted to the reader. To a certain extent, at points it seems like Mrs. Paul forgot she was writing a fantasy novel, instead of a Sunday school lesson plan, as it seems like it was far more important to her to have the characters repeatedly talk about how they are powerless and worthless without Wulder (who serves as the fantasy world version of God) to guide and protect them and Paladin (who is the fantasy stand-in for Jesus) to tell them the correct way to properly worship and exalt Wulder.

Once everyone reaches Fenworth's castle and the meech dragon, named Regidor, is introduced, they emphasize the urgency of the mission to investigate the Creemore spider attack and stop Risto's meech dragon from influencing the dragons of the world to rally to the side of evil by spending a lot of time drinking tea, eating daggarts and mullins, and waiting for an accidentally quickened minor dragon egg to hatch. This does allow for some character development for the young doneel Toopka and the rapidly growing meech dragon Regidor. It turns out that meech dragons are basically humanoid dragons, based on the description given they look more or less like a scaly person with sharp teeth, sharp claws, and a tail. Given that they are intelligent, capable of speech, and seem to basically be people with some lizard-like affinity, one has to wonder why they are not counted as one of the seven "high" races, or one of the seven "low" races. One might suppose their rarity prevents them from being counted, but the story chips away at the rarity argument when Dar casually makes reference to a "meech colony" that was attacked by Risto (which really is odd, given that we have been told that meech dragons are so unheard of that the existence of the meech egg from which Regidor hatched was considered to be a once in a lifetime occurence). It also doesn't really make much sense that whether a paritcular race is counted as a race or not depends on how many of them there are given that Wulder (who we are told is the source of all knowledge in the fantasy land of Amara) is supposedly omniscient. I suspect that the reason may be that the seven high and low races may not actually be 'fantasy races" in the sense that most people who read fantasy fiction would be familiar with. In the book, after she returns to the village where she was the village slave before discovering her first dragon egg and being set free, Kale begins to consider the "marione virtues" that grated on her when she lived among them, and how each race displays different virtues that must be combined together for a harmonious whole. Although she has not yet made the connection explicit, based upon the didactic nature of the book, my guess is that Mrs. Paul is setting up a correpondence between each of the seven high races and one of the seven cardinal virtues, and between the seven low races and the seven deadly sins. In short, the reason that there are seven high and seven low races seems to be to fill out a spiritually significant checklist rather than any organic purpose in the setting, and thus the meech dragons are superfluous to that goal and therefore are not counted.

So after piddling around for a few weeks of afternoon snacking, the new minor dragon is hatched - who turns out to be a "laughter dragon" capable of making people feel mirthful. This, we are told, is going to be important on the upcoming quest. But, as one might expect in a book that consistently brings up random and supposedly important details only to drop them without any real explanation, it turns out to have no actual value at all on the quest. Dar shows up with the riding dragons, and after a brief fight with some mordakleeps and blimmets (that, as with much of the action of the book, takes place mostly out of sight, with Kale and Regidor providing magical assistance from miles away) the group sets out question to find the source of the Creemore spiders by camping far away from where the Creemore spiders live and cooking oversize mushrooms like steaks and other tasty meals. Interrupting the cooking scenes, Cam, a lake wizard shows up, and a beautiful woman well-dressed appears to Kale and claims to be her mother Lyll and tells her to keep her visits a secret. This is intended to set up a conflict in Kale, as she is encouraged by the beautiful Lyll to abandon her companions and the urgent quest of preparing lots of breakfast foods and run away to Risto's castle. The problem is that Lyll is pretty unconvincing - and Mrs. Paul seems not to even really want to make her seem tempting other than to describe how pretty her clothes are and have Kale think about how much she wants to have a family. But the Lyll presented in these scenes turns nasty so quickly that any amount of real dramatic conflict dissipates almost immediately, leaving the reader to wonder about Kale's sanity as she continues to consider running off with a woman who berates and verbally abuses her.

Of course, since the action is getting far too close to the pages, Paladin has to show up and direct Kale, Toopka, Bardon, Regidor and Dar to go find the renegade meech dragon and turn it away from Risto's service, leaving Fenworth and Cam to deal with the spiders. This also gives Paladin the opportunity to dispense some fairly offensive advice to the heroes as they head through the magical gate that will wisk them across the continent to where the evil meech dragon might be. Paladin stops each of the travelers to give them some personalized theological advice, and when he comes to Toopka, a child who has spent most of her life prior to meeting Kale as a homeless orphan living rough on the streets of Vendela, he chastises her for not being honest. There are times you want to reach inside a book and punch one of the characters in the mouth for being a complete dick. This was one of those times. The gall of taking a street urchin who had been forced by circumstances Wulder arranged to lie, cheat, and steal just to have food to eat and then chastising her for not learning a moral code that she clearly never had an opportunity to learn is simply staggering. And this callous, obnoxious, and distasteful figure is the Jesus analogue in Mrs. Paul's fantasy world. Paladin also requires Kale to set about hatching another egg, which he specifically selects as beingparticularly well-suited to help with the challeneges that will face her in her quest. It turns out to be a light dragon but, as usual, despite this build up, there is nothing particularly useful about havoing the dragon along.

One thing that makes Paladin's interlude with Toopka seem so odd is that through the rest of the book Mrs. Paul has the various characters espouse what can only be described as a theological doctrine of personal helplessness and worthlesseness. The characters repeatedly assert that they are incapable of accomplishing anything without Wulder's help, and that they cannot take any actions without Wulder's power and authority. This further saps any actual tension from the book, since it results in a collection of characters who don't do much of anything, and when they do, they always end up suceeding because Wulder is on their side. The structure of the book, since the purpose is clearly to impart "correct" theological lessons rather than tell an actual story, violates the basic rule of storytelling, since there is no actual conflict in the book that has any meaning at all. Of course, other than personal interviews with Paladin, it isn't clear where anyone is supposed to learn the wisdom of Wulder. There is a passing reference to the books of Wulder, although they are apparently so rare that they never heard of them in the village Kale was raised in, and when imparting Wulder's knowledge to her, neither Granny Noon nor Fenworth's personal librarian Librettowit make any reference to them. A person identified as a parson crosses paths with the motley band of travelers when they stop at an inn, and is supposedly something of a religious authority, but he requires Dar to argue in favor of Wulder's service before the other patrons will accept him as anything other than a useless appendage. This particular scene also highlights yet another weakness of the book: Mrs. Paul often doesn't even bother to set up a strawman to have her characters argue against, she just has one of the characters say the "correct" version of Wulder's teachings, and those who had been indifferent or opposed to Wulder's message generally snap into line immediately. In short, Amara is the sort of fantasy world where one can do the equivalent of quoting John 3:16 to nonbelievers and have them immediately see the light with no further convincing necessary.

Of course, this sort of conversion only works on the indifferent or the misguided. The heroes, being on the side of Wulder, are immune to the temptations of the forces of evil. The designated villains, being written as essentially insane, seem to be immune to Wulder's message. Once the heroes catch up to the villainous meech dragon, a female named Gilda, who has been spreading discord among dragons, convincing them to leave their family farms and join Risto's cause, she is completely unconvinced by Regidor's arguments in favor of serving Wulder. From a certain perspective this is understandable, since Regidor's arguments are completely unconvincing (probably because neither he nor anyone else in the book has ever had to do more than mouth some platitudes about how great Wulder is and the listener immediately agrees with them), but I suspect that Mrs. Paul intended for the reader to be impressed with the theological arguments between the two meech dragons and come to understand just how right Regidor is. Despite this, the book ends with Gilda still unconvinced that Risto is a villain, but imprisoned in a bottle and thus helpless. I guess in a world in which village slavery is acceptable, imprisoning someone n a bottle until they see the light counts as "rescuing" them. The reunion between Kale and the real Lyll Alerion is similarly unconvincing. (You didn't really think the beautiful but nasty Lyll was really Kale's mother did you? That would have set up an actual conflict in the book, and that is apparently to be avoided like the plague). Lyll makes some very weak justifications for leaving her only child in a village full of meriones to be their slave as opposed to, say, asking one of her good friends like the Wizard Fenworth or the Wizard Cam to take care of her. Or leaving her in the care of Paladin's followers in Vendela, or any number of other choices that would seem far superior to a childhood of slavery. The real Lyll is, of course, sweet and loving, but not as beautiful as the false one (at first, a situation that is rectified quickly). Kale is kidnapped in a last gasp effort by the forces of evil, and a wholly unconvincing temptation sequence lays out in which the false Lyll tries to berate and insult Kale into choosing her. One of the fundamental problems wth the book appears to be that Mrs. Paul cannot understand the thought process of a nonbeliever, and as a result resorts to unconvincing caricatures as opposition for her protagonists.

On the other hand, the problem may be that Mrs. Paul is simply not very good at drawing any more substantial than cardboard characters. Bardon, who is supposed to be difficult and unpleasant to work with, and whom Kale is required to take along with her when she sets out into the world, turns out to be so bland as a character that one frequently forgets that he is supposed to be a stiff-necked pain in the neck. The various wizards have what are supposed to be funny magical quirks - Fenworth changes into a tree if he stis still for a while, Cam drips water all the time, and Lyll gets older if she is sedentary and younger if she excercises - but they have little more than one-dimensional personalities. And this seems to extend to the setting itself. Most of the fantasy elements go little more than surface deep, and once the veneer wears thin, the fundamentally mundane nature of the world begins to peek through. The characters eat mullins and daggarts, but these seem to be little more than alternate words for doughnuts and muffins. Illustrating the skin deep nature of the fantasy element is the "beater frog", described in the obligatory glossary of fantasy terms as a "Tailless, semiaquatic amphibian having a smooth, moist skin, webbed feet, and long hind legs. Shades of green; no bigger thana child's fist; capable of making a loud, reosunding boom". As an observant reader would note, this basically describes this animal as "a frog that can make a loud boom". Once you knock the thin coating of fantasy names off, there just isn't much left other than a bunch of badly presented lessons in pseudo-Christianity that make Risto and the Pretender look like a much better option than the callous Wulder and the dickish Paladin. This sort of superficial reskinning of the mundane in an effort to create a fantasy reality makes one think that Mrs. Paul is not particularly well-read in the field of fantasy fiction, and merely chose this genre because it would serve to draw younger readers in and let her beat them over the head and shoulders with her religious message. The actual lesson a reader will probably take away from the book is that it takes more than renaming a collection of mundane world elements to make an effective fantasy setting.

In between didactic sessions of moral instruction, jusitifications for slavery, repeated protestations by the characters as to their own personal worthlessness, and dinners of renamed the story meanders along aimlessly until the big confrontation occurs. But Mrs. Paul puts limited effort into this aspect of the book. The big threat facing the heroes is the supposedly beguiling Gilda, and her enhanced ability to turn dragons away from working with the members of the "high" races and join Risto's army. This supposedly threatens the economy of Amara, as everyone supposedly depends upon their dragons for just about everything, but as with so many other fantasy elements of the setting, this is never really shown. Instead, the reader is told that the dragons are critical, without being given any real clear indication by example as to why this is so. And when Regidor and Kale confront Gilda, he does not seem to be swayed at all, and neither do Kale's minor dragons. The heroes raise an army of merione farmers to oppose Risto's forces with little effort, which is leavened by a collection of reinforcements. Once the heroes do go out to confront Risto's forces, their dragons seemingly defect to Risto's side, but this turns out to be little more than a ruse by the good guys to turn Risto's dragons back to the side of good (or, at least the side of Wulder, which I'm not sure is actually the side of good). But since we cannot have anything of importance happen "on-camera", Kale only finds out about the ruse after it is over and the good dragons have returned. The good guys also get the bulk of Risto's forces to desert by making the weather bad, although the desertion takes place, yet again, off-camera. Then, as the battle rages (off-camera again), Cam, Fenworth, the real Lyll, and Kale all go to confront Risto and the false Lyll (who turns out to be the evil sorceress Burner Stox). Cam and Lyll prove to be laughably ineffective, and Risto is eventually defeated almost by accident (but since there are no accidents in Wulder's world, it was all part of his design) in a fairly anticlimactic scene.

Overall, if one were looking for an interesting fantasy story, then DragonQuest, with its poorly worked out story and superficial fantasy setting is likely to be a major disappointment. Even if someone were specifically looking for a fantasy story with Christian overtones, picking up DragonQuest would probably turn out to be a disappointment since the story element is completely suborned to the didactic Christian lessons, and several of those lessons turn out to be fairly objectionable. The only people likely to actually enjoy this book are those who are already convinced of the rightness of the particular brand of Christianity that Mrs. Paul is promoting, and I suspect that those are not the people she intended to reach. In the end, the clumsy and pervasive preaching completely overwhelms a what little fantasy story there is and results in a book that is simply not a particularly enjoyable piece of fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Oct 21, 2010, 9:29pm Top

Better you than me. I stopped after reading the first.

Oct 21, 2010, 10:11pm Top

I got Dragons in the Valley as an LT Early Reviewer book, and when I started it it was nigh incomprehensible without reading the earlier ones, so I'm more or less committed to reading the whole series.

You aren't missing much.

Oct 21, 2010, 10:13pm Top

Ah, that explains it. Sorry.

Oct 21, 2010, 10:19pm Top

Yet another case of stealth Christian literature. One would think it would be against their moral code to be sneaky and underhanded about "spreading the word".

Edited: Nov 3, 2010, 12:25pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec 2010)
Science News (October 23, 2010)
The Economist (October 23rd-29th, 2010)
The Economist (October 30th-November 5th, 2010)
National Geographic (November 2010)

Book Ninety-Two: Khan: Empire of Silver - A Novel of the Khan Empire by Conn Iggulden.


Short review: Ogedai's health fails him while Tsubodai and Genghis' grandsons wage war in Eastern Europe.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Khan: Empire of Silver - A Novel of the Khan Empire is set during the transitional period during the reign of the now mostly forgotten Ogedai Khan, third son and heir of Genghis, between the death of Genghis Khan and the brutal internecine struggle that led to the ascendancy of Mongke Khan. Having swept across most of Central Asia and China during Genghis' lifetime, the Mongols have to set about the more difficult task of ruling an empire, a task that seems to be as agonizing and transformative for the Mongols as it is for their subject nations. In Khan: Empire of Silver, Iggulden ties together the progressing civilizing of the Mongol elite, the vicious military campaigns that led the Mongol warriors to the banks of the Danube, and the complex web of familial relationships that dominated Mongol politics and ultimately proved to be the undoing of their Empire.

Though, as one would expect in a novel that covers the entire breadth of an empire that spans all of Asia, there is a large cast of characters, in a sense, the personal stories of the two central characters of Ogedai and Tsubodai are symbolic of the changes that are taking place in the Mongol nation as a whole. Ogedai, whose power is consolidated as he completes his massive city of Karakorum and cements his position as ruling Khan in the first segment of the book, is also afflicted with personal infirmities that ultimately result in the sacrifice of his own brother Tolui, and an increasing dependence upon those around him to conduct the daily business of exerting his tremendous power. Eventually Ogedai becomes dependent upon others just to stay alive. This seems to reflect the growing pains of the Mongol Empire, which has ascended to the pinnacle of power, dominating all those it has encountered, but has been forced to make a bloody sacrifice of its own people to do so, and, over the course of the book, becomes increasingly dependent upon outsiders to run their vast holdings. The descendants of Genghis are in the driver's seat, but while the Mongol warriors ride through the hardships of winter campaigning in Russia, Chinese bureaucrats assume positions of power within the halls of Karakorum.

And Karakorum itself, built at Ogedai's order in the middle of nowhere at vast expense, is symbolic of the changes thrust upon the Mongols accompanying their position perched atop the world stage. Despite the disdain of many of the older cadre of leaders who had been in Genghis' inner circle, the fundamental truth comes through that ruling over an empire requires that one accept the burdens of civlization as well, because without them, it is impossible to actually rule, as opposed to merely engage in despoiling raids. But the Mongols, a people comprised of nomadic herdsman with a supreme talent for warfare, don't have the skills necessary to build a civilization. So the city that serves as their capital is designed by foreign architects, built by foreign craftsmen, and populated by foreign artisans and merchants while the Mongols themselves live in vast camps outside the city and then journey away to wars in distant lands. Though he does not come out directly and say it, it seems that one point Iggulden is attempting to make is that by becoming so specialized as a war making machine, the Mongol nation has ended up ruling over a hollow empire: they provide the military might, but the empire is run by, and much of the benefits derived by others. In this context, the much touted Mongolian tolerance for the faiths and customs of their subject peoples seems not so much like an act of magnanimous generosity so much as an act of necessary self-interest.

And this is reflected in the story surrounding Tsubodai, whose brilliant and brutal thrust through Russia and into the Balkans dominates the third and final section of the book. Iggulden shows the cunning stratagems employed by Tsubodai to outwit and outmaneuver his enemies, and the utter ruthlessness he employs, driving his forces to fight in the harsh cold of the Russian winter so as to be able to use the frozen rivers as highways leading directly into his foe's towns and cities, and the viciousness with which Tsubodai and his soldiers dispatch those enemies who dare to stand against them. But the larger story is that no matter how brilliant his military maneuvers are, the world is changing around him, represented in the story by the accumulation of Genghis' grandsons Batu, Guyuk, Baidur, and Mongke, all of whom travel with his army and technically outrank him. Sweeping one's enemies before you and gaining glory in battle, while still valued (as this is the reason why so many of Gengis' heirs accompany Tsubodai on his western campaign), clearly takes a secondary position behind jockeying for political advantage. While Tsubodai's skill leading an army to victory is unmatched, he is smart enough to see that his particular set of talents is becoming less and less central to the plans of Genghis' heirs although this realization both galls and chafes him.

This transformation is reflected time and again in the book as the old guard slowly fades away, and is replaced by a collection of new leaders more interested in securing their position within the Empire than in expanding its dominions. The aging warriors are felled by sickness, as with Khasar and Kaichuin, or by subterfuge as with Temuge and Chagatai. It seems symbolic that Temuge's attempt at royal assassination is foiled by a pair of women and a Chinese servant. It seems even more symbolic that while Chagatai's bid for power in the first section of the book involved the massing of thousands of soldiers and a bloody nighttime assault upon the bedchamber of his rival, his own downfall in the final stages of the book is accomplished via subtle intrigue and a kirpan dagger. Having conquered an empire, the Mongols had begun to turn on themselves in pursuit of personal gain. The story of the Mongols to this point had been the story of wars against others, from this point on the story of the Mongols would be dominated by wars against themselves, a point that comes through clearly in the latter stages of Iggulden's book.

The book reaches its climax with Tsubodai's campaign into Hungary that led to his most famous battle in which he defeated and destroyed the Hungarian army led by King Bela in 1241 AD. Instead of following up on this victory and leading the Mongol army to Vienna and into western Europe, the news of the death of Ogedai turns the Horde back to the East, so the Mongolian princes may secure their positions in the new ruling order. In the end, Iggulden adds an author's note in which he states that had Ogedai not died when he did, that western Europe would almost certainly have been overwhelmed and all of the subsequent development of western culture would have been swept away, a position that seems to be a fairly common one. It seems to me that this was not such a foregone conclusion - and the way the historical events are portrayed in the book suggest that as well. That the Mongols could have conquered the Holy Roman Empire, France, and possibly England as well as the rest of western Europe seems to be well within the realm of possibility (and has driven plotlines in several other books, such as Ben Bova's Orion), but they were far from home, and had endured numerous campaigns in which they fought and maneuvered in harsh winter conditions, depleting their ranks and weakening the survivors. Just as Alexander's men rebelled when he came to the borders of India, it seems that at some point the Mongol warriors would have reached the end of their own endurance. One also has to wonder about the ability of the Mongols to subdue western Europe given the historical resilience of the western states - if the Romans were able to recover from the disaster at Cannae within months, would it be outside the realm of possibility for the states of western Europe to recover from the same sort of dismemberment suffered by the eastern European armies? Finally, the increasing influence of Chinese officials in the eastern part of the Mongol Empire suggests that even if the Mongols had conquered western Europe and suppressed any rebellious impulses, that control over the levers of power would have wound up back in the hands of European officials within a generation. But Ogedai did die in 1241, and the Horde turned back as a result, so these are questions that will never be resolved.

Putting aside my idle historical speculation one is left with the fact that Iggulden has delivered a very good piece of fiction rooted in solid historical fact. Of course, the historical record is incomplete and Iggulden has had to fill in the gaps, but he does so in ways that enhance the story, and remain well within the realm of possibility. Iggulden is able to being the panoply of historical figures to life and give them motivations such that when they take actions in the story that match their actual historical actions it seems natural and not forced, deftly avoiding a trap that some historical fiction falls into. As this is the story of the Mongols, the mechanics of warfare and battle are heavily featured and both the skill of the Mongol warriors and generals is highlighted, as well as their vicious ferocity and ruthless character. Effectively combining strong character development, thrilling battle sequences, court intrigue, and historical scholarship that shows the deadly growing pains of a vast empire, Iggulden has crafted an excellent and enjoyable piece of historical fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Nov 2, 2010, 9:12am Top

Your reviews are fascinating but although I know you only have 175 posts, their length means this thread is probably twice the length/size where most people start a new thread. I can't load it from my home internet connection (which isn't dial up).

Can I suggest a new thread, so I can read your further reviews from home?

Nov 2, 2010, 9:15am Top

I'm particularly intrigued by your reviews of the school stories from one of your former teachers - I'm trying to imagine who might write such a book out of my former teachers. I knew there was something I forgot to ask at the reunion 2 years ago (21 years on), as there were a few of our teachers there.

Nov 2, 2010, 10:17am Top

Can I suggest a new thread, so I can read your further reviews from home?

That sounds like a good idea. Starting with the Khan review I'll split one off for you.

Nov 3, 2010, 12:28pm Top

Starting with my Khan: Empire of Silver - A Novel of the Khan Empire review, I've split off a thread here at elkidee's request. I'll keep posting my reviews here as well, but if you are using a slower connection, the new thread should be quicker to load.

Edited: Nov 10, 2010, 11:13pm Top

Book Ninety-Three: DragonKnight: A Novel by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: Bardon stumbles through a glacially slow quest without much thought. But that's okay because Wulder doesn't want you to think, you can just rely on him to fix everything for you.

Long review: Q: What would you get if you wrote a fantasy book filled with pseudo-Christian moralizing but left out anything resembling a real story?

A: You'd get the book DragonKnight.

The DragonKeeper Chronicles trudge on in this third installment featuring Bardon, a secondary character introduced in DragonQuest, the previous book in the series. The story moves at a glacial pace, filled with frenetic but pointless action that mostly has nothing at all to do with what little plot the book has, and which is periodically interrupted with bits of pseudo-Christian sermonizing that advocate a particularly passive way of dealing with life.

The primary problem with the book is that the plot is basically a haphazard collection of random coincidences strung together that flow by without the characters making any real decisions for themselves. The reason that the characters aimlessly stumble through the events of the book is that the religious message intended to be conveyed is clearly the idea that Wulder (standing in for God) has a plan for everything, and thus there are no coincidences, and the correct course of action is simply to trust in Wulder and everything will turn out okay. This particular piece of religious advocacy in favor of passivity results in a book in which the characters don't actually do much besides react to events as they pop up in front of them, and as one might expect, this makes for a fairly uninteresting story.

The plot of the book, such as it is, involves Bardon setting out on sabbatical for a year of solitude before he decides whether to dedicate his life to serving as a knight of Paladin. When he arrives at his designated sabbatical retreat, he discovers that two emmerlindian women, Granny Kye and her granddaughter N'Rae, and a minneken have taken up residence before him, and they have a quest that needs to be undertaken to boot.

"Wait", I hear you cry, "what the heck is a minneken"? Well, if you must know, it is a miniature race of beings that are somewhat similar in shape and size to a mouse that hails from the previously unmentioned Isle of Kye. This particular minneken, Jue Seeno, has been assigned as N'Rae's protector (although why N'rae needs a mouse-like protector is never really explained, and neither is how Jue was selected for the job). This, of course, runs counter to the assertions in DragonSpell that there are only seven high races and seven low races, and adding more races will somehow cause earth shattering disaster and signal the end of the world. But, given the introduction of the very humanoid meech dragons in DragonQuest, ignoring anything resembling continuity in world-building seems to be a common practice for Mrs. Paul. In short, what seemed like some clever world construction in DragonSpell turns out to have been just a convenient excuse for a plot MacGuffin, and was cast aside as soon as the MacGuffin was no longer needed.

Bardon, of course, cancels his plans to reflect on whether he wants to dedicate himself to Paladin's service, and instead agrees to help N'Rae find her long-lost father who was imprisoned by a spell cast by Risto that will expire and kill him when a particular comet reaches a particular spot in the sky. Apparently Risto would stop by and renew the spell keeping N'Rae's father in his enchanted slumber every now and then, but since he was killed in the last book he can't do that any more. Lest one stop and wonder why Risto would bother enchanting someone under a spell that he had to check back on periodically rather than just, say, killing them, Mrs. Paul throws in some random action to distract us, having Bardon fight a water snake and then a mountain lion before everyone heads out through the conveniently provided magical portal to a nearby city.

Once there, Bardon sets out to earn some money, and coincidentally there is a kindia breeder who needs several of the animals broken and is offering large sums of money to anyone who can. Like most other fantasy elements, the kindia, a sort of oversized horse with a sloped back and a temperamental disposition, are more or less dropped into the story as a plot device without any kind of foundation laid for their existence as an integral element of the fantasy world they inhabit. After Bardon spends a laborious day training a single kindia, it serendipitously turns out that N'Rae has a unique magical ability that makes taming the breeder's remaining stock a swift and easy process. The breeder, after some more plot extraneous action involving a kindia race, tries to rope N'rae and her special talent into his household by trying to get her to marry his son Holt. The characters kind of mill about randomly for a while, fighting random quiss or sea dragons when the novel slows down too much, getting arrested for stealing food for orphans, getting the orphans handed to their care as punishment, having Holt show up running from his creditors while trying to make passes at N'Rae and taking him in as a member of their crew because, as someone points out, they could use an extra strong body to help out on their quest, and he's handy. The strange appearances of quiss are set up as some sort of mystery involving vile experiments by the wizards Burner Stox and Crim Cropper, but this being a book in the DragonKeeper Chronicles, this foreshadowing never leads to any kind of pay off in the story. (In point of fact, despite heavy foreshadowing, neither Burner Stox or Crim Cropper show up in the book at all).

The characters continue to drift along without any real urgency, despite the supposedly tight deadline they are on. As with previous books in the series, there's no problem so urgent that one cannot take time out to sit around and drink tea and eat cakes, or have philosophical discussions about how great Wulder is, or stopping to paint pictures. (Granny Kye, despite being an older emmerlindian, isn't very wise, but has the special ability to paint pictures that reveal a person's inner self. as with most fantasy elements of the book, this ability is pretty much useless in the context of the story being told and provides almost no benefit to her or anyone else in the book, despite it being harped upon constantly). This is, as we are told repeatedly, because Wulder has arranged everything according to his plan, and if one is intended to succeed in one's quest, it will turn out okay for you (and I suppose, if Wulder wants you to fail, you're pretty much screwed). So the characters pretty much just wander vaguely in what they assume is the right direction.

Along the way, random coincidences are seen as the hand of Wulder. Stittiponder, a blind orphaned street urchin who hears the wisdom of Wulder via voices only he can hear who had been very briefly introduced as a friend of Toopka's in DragonQuest, pops up thousands of miles away from where he was living on the streets in Vendela. Regidor returns to join Bardon's quest, although he arrives in response to a summons from Dar. Bardon literally stumbles across a gateway that transports him from the far northern tip of Amara almost on top of Kale, which pulls her into the quest serendipitously, and then drags along the wizards Fenworth, Cam, and Lyll as well as Librettowit, Taylaminkaydot, and Toopka, all of whom are introduced to the story using this incredibly clumsy plot device.

One of the few characters who Bardon and N'Rae actively recruit to join them on their quest to free her father, and one of the few who has specialized skills that could help them, is the mapmaker Bromptotterpimdosset, but since it turns out that he isn't theologically pure, they spend some effort trying to get rid of him. This illustrates that any semblance of plot that shows up in the story is clearly of secondary importance as far as Mrs. Paul is concerned. The important part of the book is providing "correct" moral instruction to the intended young adult audience, and that "correct" moral instruction is basically this: don't make any plans, because God will make everything work out for you, and don't associate with anyone who asks any hard questions, because they might pollute your mind with bad thoughts. Bromp serves up some straw men for Regidor and Bardon to shoot down, and is then converted to following Wulder when a random coincidence happens, because, of course, there are no random coincidences, there is only Wulder's plan.

So, the good guys eventually wander around enough and find the enchanted knights they were looking for by accident and then, well, they don't do much of anything for a while (remember, nothing is so urgent that you can't stop for a long lunch with tea and cake several times). Having spent no time at all trying to figure out how to break the enchantment until they found the knights, they meander about the abandoned fortress where they found them for a while until the answer drops in their lap. By that time, both the Pretender has shown up to cause trouble (but not too much trouble, since the characters are all under Wulder's protection and thus cannot be harmed), and Paladin shows up for a deus ex machina moment and everything is wrapped up in a nice bow - including the sudden revelation that Bardon is the son of one of the freed knights, Kale is the daughter of another, and Bardon and N'Rae are cousins (which conveniently solves the clumsy love triangle that Mrs. Paul has half-heartedly set-up between Bardon, N'Rae, and Kale in a manner reminiscent of the clumsy resolution of a similar love triangle in Return of the Jedi).

With the knights rescued, the random non-threats stop showing up and everyone is reunited with their family members. And in a huge anticlimax the wizard Fenworth permanently changes into a tree and Kale is dubbed the new Bog Wizard to replace him. Having milked about fifty pages worth of plot into a 393 page book, Mrs. Paul finally stops preaching the virtues of wandering aimlessly through life and expecting God, excuse me, I mean Wulder, to fix everything for you and brings the turgid series of moral lessons to an end. With no real story, a pile of foreshadowing that never pays off, a completely random series of events, and a "moral message" that is pretty much a call to passivity, this book is definitely worth missing.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Nov 8, 2010, 4:53pm Top

#180: OK, I admit I do not get it, Aaron. You are really not enjoying the series, so why are you still reading it?

Nov 8, 2010, 4:58pm Top

181: See #172.

Nov 8, 2010, 4:59pm Top

Ah, OK. I knew there had to be some reason!

Edited: Nov 12, 2010, 4:33pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (November 6, 2010)
The Economist (November 6th-11th, 2010)
Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (November 2010)

Book Ninety-Four: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.


Short review: Murder is impossible in a world with telepaths, but a man tries anyway.

Long review: In 1953, the first set of Hugo Awards were handed out. The first novel to win the Hugo was The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. Though some might quibble that Simak's City or Sturgeon's More Than Human are better books, The Demolished Man is, in my opinion, an instance in which the Hugo went to the right book. The novel is a murder mystery set in a future full of telepaths in which murder, or any other serious crime, has become effectively impossible because anyone who formed an intent to commit such a crime would give themselves away before they could commit it and be considered to be mentally insane.

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

But Ben Reich, the owner of Monarch, an enormous industrial conglomerate is locked in a struggle with his bitter rival Craye D'Courtney, the owner of the D'Courtney Cartel - a struggle that Reich knows he is losing. Pursued in his dreams by the Man with No Face, Reich determines to do the impossible, and murder Craye and then do something much harder - get away with it. Reich turns his vast fortune towards the task, setting events in motion to hide his efforts to accomplish his deadly task and cover his tracks, including placing the "Tenser, said the Tensor" repetitive jingle into his head that becomes a recurring theme of the novel as Reich focuses on it whenever confronted by a telepath, or as they are often called in the book, a "peeper".

The events of the book move at a rapid clip, with little wasted time spent on exposition or explanation. At the same time, Bester is able to work in such extensive background that this book influenced the depiction of telepaths in a vast array of subsequent science fiction works, most notably the Babylon 5 television series. One would note that it is no accident that the most prominent telepath in the Babylon 5 was named Alfred Bester. The Psi Corps itself was clearly inspired by the Esper Guild, although the Esper Guild as described in The Demolished Man is much more benign than Babylon 5's Psi Corps. The Demolished Man influenced Babylon 5's depiction of telepaths in so many ways - including the numerical rating of telepaths, and the conflict between telepaths and "normals" ("normals" would be those of us who do not have telepathic abilities), the hunt of latent telepaths, genetically approved marriage requirements for telepaths - that listing them all would take forever and so would listing the number of science fiction works that have also been influenced by Bester's book. Just to give one more example, the idea of preventing crime before it takes place shows up in Philip K. Dick's short story The Minority Report (which was the basis for the film The Minority Report). In short, if you've read a science fiction book that features telepaths that was written in the last fifty years, at least some part of it can probably be traced back to something that first appeared in The Demolished Man.

The bulk of the book follows the cat and mouse game between Reich and the telepathic police commissioner Lincoln Powell. Powell knows almost immediately that Reich is the man he is after, but because telepathic evidence is not admissible in court proceedings he has to build his case against Reich by more conventional means. The only real weakness in the plot of the book is that Bester establishes that Powell must prove Reich's motive to be able to secure a conviction against him, a point that becomes critical to the plot. This was somewhat grating to me, because while motive is usually a nice bonus for a prosecutor to establish, it is in no way required to prove motive in order to convict someone of a crime. Bester's overarching plot relies upon this, however, and while this bit of legal silliness is mildly annoying, it is necessary for the story to work, and can be forgiven on that basis. The novel, in many ways, is so tightly constructed that there is essentially no wasted material - if something shows up as a background detail early in the book, it eventually becomes an element of the plot. Bester also never overexplains, trusting the reader to put connections together on their own, making the book almost a case study in how to build science fiction background without weighing down the story with clumsy infodumps. Even the concept of "demolition" is not explained for much of the book, even though it is referenced from the very start. Preserving some mystery about these sorts of elements makes them more ominous: all of the characters agree that demolition is something to be avoided, and their fear gives it power that an early explanation would have drained away.

The book is, however, not perfect. It has a couple of other minor problems resulting from being written in the early 1950s. It relies too much upon the now mostly discredited Freudian conception of the human personality, and the women in the book fill decidedly 1950s era roles as secretaries, wives, harlots, or damsels in distress. Some of the supposedly advanced technology seems fairly laughable today, such as a computer that feeds out piles of typed paper as its only output method, but that is true of almost all older science fiction. On the other hand, Bester's conception of a future society seems quite forward thinking in other ways which keeps the book from suffering too badly in the aging department. Bester's tendency to avoid overexplanation is carried too far in some places - late in the book Reich takes on increased personal importance for reasons that are only half explained in the book. Powell, who had spent the whole book adhering to the highly idealistic precepts of the Guild for the bulk of the book, throws those ideals over the side for a while towards the end of the story. Bester also only hints at the potentially sinister nature of the Esper Guild (a hint that J. Michael Straczynski followed up on in Babylon 5), which was kind of disappointing as it would have been interesting to see Bester himself follow up on this potential thread.

Overall this is a very strong work of science fiction, that has held up quite well despite its age. Coupling a rapid moving mystery with strong but unobtrusive world building, Bester delivers a vision of the future that remains a compelling and enjoyable story in spite of the handful of cracks that have developed over the years.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 16, 2010, 8:11pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read: The Economist (November 13th-19th, 2010).

Book Ninety-Five: Between a Roc and a Hard Place by Danny Birt.


Short review: An orphaned dragon, a nest of Roc's, a morality play about living together and environmentalism.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Between a Roc and a Hard Place is a cute little book that starts off as a kind of fish out of water story and ends up delivering a message about cooperation and environmentalism. Aimed at younger readers, the book is short, and a quick read to boot, which is both a strength and weakness for the book. Because it is short and quick, a younger reader is more likely to actually finish the book, but the story the author wanted to tell seems too large for the limited space it is packed into. As a result, some of the fantastical elements aren't explained well enough and a lot of the story development is presented in a manner that feels hurried.

The opening chapter shows the desperate attempts of a female dragon to save at least some of her unhatched offspring from the predations of a group of dragon hunters intent upon slaying her and her progeny. The chapter is actually the best done part of the entire book, putting the reader in the middle of the action, giving just enough information to give a clear idea what is happening without bogging the narrative down in extraneous detail. The problem I had with the book is that this doesn't last too much further into the book, which becomes increasingly about telling the reader about what the characters have done rather than showing them in action, glossing over large chunks of character and plot development. For example, a later critical plot development - the fact that a nearby human king is gathering forces to try to kill the main character - is related to the main character as a second hand retelling of a third hand rumor.

And this is a shame, because the broad strokes of the story are fairly interesting, even if the message, which ends up with the central character taking on the role of both the bridge between two (and eventually three) opposed groups and the world's most dangerous park ranger, is somewhat simplistic. Given the age range that this book is clearly targeted to, a simplistic message is probably what is called for, but it would have been nice to have just a little nuance in the story. Since the story is told in such broad strokes, almost all of the characters remain almost entirely undeveloped. The real weakness is that the fantasy elements are dropped into the mix without a whole lot of explanation, which seems to me likely to confuse readers of the intended age group. I also noted a couple instances of language that was probably too complex for the intended age group, such as a reference to "aviafauna".

As a whole, this book is only average. While the plot of the story is interesting, and there is a potentially really good young adult fantasy here, the weak character development and the extraordinarily broad brush used to deliver the story weakens the end product. If the characters and story had been more fleshed out, this could have been a brilliant book. In the end however, while the book is a decent little tale, but doesn't rise above that.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 22, 2010, 4:28pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read: Mason Spirit (Fall 2010).

Book Ninety-Six: DragonFire: A Novel by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: The Dragonkeeper Chronicles almost find a story to tell, but then all dramatic tension is lost when a supposedly scary villains is killed by accident, and other supposedly scary villains turn out to be no threat at all.

Long review: The primary weakness of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is not that Mrs. Paul attempts to mix fantasy with Christian mythology in what seems to be a morality play designed to give the story a "correct" moral message. After all, this is a fairly common practice indulged in by even the grandfathers of modern fantasy such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who infused a Christian message into their fantasy. And the roots run much deeper than that, one need only look at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Andre Norton's translation of Huon of the Horn to see the lengthy pedigree of the entanglement. The weakness of DragonFire and the remainder of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is that when Mrs. Paul inserted a collection of pseudo-Christian messages into her books, she forgot to include much in the way of an interesting story as a vehicle to carry them.

The opening chapters of DragonFire illustrate this point fairly well. In DragonKnight, the previous book in the series, the knight Bardon declares his interest in the wizard Kale, who states quite quaintly that she desires to be properly courted. But in the opening pages of DragonFire one learns that not only has the story the reader is allowed to see skipped over showing the reader Bardon and Kale's courtship, they got married three years prior to the start of the book. A handful of pages into the story, we learn that Regidor and Gilda have also fallen in love and gotten married, and not only that, Kale has discovered a way to reverse Gilda's incorporeal affliction, once again, all reported to the reader as already accomplished facts. Instead of actually engaging the reader with the story of the characters and their relationships with one another, which might pull the reader into her fictional world and make one care about them and their struggles, Mrs. Paul clearly considers it more important to have her characters spout quotations concerning correct moral action from the "Tomes of Wulder".

This doesn't mean that the pseudo-Christian moral lessons are delivered particularly well either. Mrs. Paul seems to take it for granted that the reader will see the correctness of her characters' moral pronouncements as self-evident, and usually doesn't bother to effectively illustrate them in the story. In the early going in the book, our heroes run across an eccentric elderly emmerlindian who holds less than orthodox views concerning Wulder. Bardon reflects that this will hamper the effectiveness of the assistance this emmerlindian provides them, but of course, the confirmation of this is nowhere to be found in the book. Apparently, the reader is just supposed to take for granted that Bardon is correct, since he is, after all, correctly quoting from the "Tomes of Wulder" and the emmerlindian is not. This sort of sloppy storytelling runs through the entire book, as plot thread after plot thread is simply dropped without any kind of real resolution other than some character mouthing platitudes from the "Tomes of Wulder".

What makes DragonFire really disappointing is that in the middle third of the book it seems as if an actual story might break out - Kale and her father head off to try to find the dragons of Amara and rally them to Paladin's cause, and Bardon and the other characters all head off to try to halt the warring armies of Burner Stox, Crim Cropper, and the Pretender, all of whom have fallen to fighting one another for not particularly well explained reasons. The fact that the characters are actually doing something more or less proactive is tempered by the fact that they had to be told to head off and take action directly by Paladin, once again reinforcing the call to passivity that had been a theme of the prior books in the series. But true to form, the characters quickly abandon any kind of proactive action and let themselves be pulled along by events - Kale and her father abandon looking for dragons when they stumble across a pilfering ropma, and of course, getting side tracked from their goal leads Kale and her father directly to their goal, because everything is part of Wulder's plan and therefore you should just drift through life and not actually try to focus on any goal more distant than one's feet. Of course, this seems to cause the characters trouble, as Bardon, afflicted with the childhood illness of "the stakes" is captured just outside his main headquarters because he didn't think to post any guards to keep Crim Cropper's bisonbeck patrols more than a hundred feet from his camp.

But even this tiny bit of tension evaporates away. When Kale and her father finally confront Burner Stox, a horrible evil sorceress that has been built up as a dangerous villain since the first book in the series, she is killed by accident by a well-meaning but stupid dragon. Crim Cropper's death is more dramatic, but before he dies he clumsily allows Bardon to escape from imprisonment. In the end, even The Pretender turns out to be no threat at all. First, despite accepting a gift from The Pretender, Kale suffers no untoward effects, and the gift turns out to be entirely beneficial to her and Paladin's cause. So much for The Pretender being effective at deception or seduction. And then, when confronted by Paladin, it turns out that The Pretender is powerless because Wulder has decreed it so. The primary villain turning out to be no threat at all may be correct pseudo-Christian theology, but it makes for a pretty uninteresting story. Further, given that all of the events of the book are clearly stated to be according to Wulder's grand design, one has to wonder about the cruelty of a deity like Wulder who seems to have, as part of his plan, the wanton slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of people at the hands of the various evil forces. Rather than convincing the reader of Wulder's supposed love for the people of Amara (and consequently, God's supposed love for the people of Earth), one finds oneself repulsed by such a callous and unthinking deity.

The questionable morality seems to be a theme through to book too. At one point, The Pretender performs some sort of mind-control over a collection of grawligs (or mountain ogres) to make them relentlessly hunt down kimens, drawn by the scent of the diminutive beings. In one of the few instances of planning by the heroes, Bardon builds timber stockades to entice and entrap the grawligs. Once the grawligs are trapped, apparently Bardon and his troops are squeamish about killing the enraged ogres. Squeamish, that is, until the kimens suggest shooting them with kimen arrows. These apparently won't actually harm the ogres, but will make them smell like a kimen, causing the other grawligs trapped in the stockade to attack and kill them. I'm not sure how one reconciles the idea that killing grawligs (as sentient beings) is wrong with the idea that goading them into a frenzy in which they kill each other is not wrong. And this is only one instance in which the weird twisted morality espoused by Mrs. Paul's heroes makes one scratch one's head, especially since the book is clearly trying to promote these ideas as something that the intended audience should take as a valuable life lesson and emulate.

With undeveloped characters and undeveloped interrelationships between characters (both of which are kind of amazing given that this is the fourth book in a series that features the same characters throughout), a plot that more or less just drifts from place to place, and ineffective nonthreatening villains, DragonFire is, like the rest of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles, a limp and uninteresting exercise in didactic instruction of dubious moral lessons. Though it makes a feeble stab at having an actual story, which raises it above the other books in the series in terms of quality, the fact that huge chunks of the story are told "off-camera" (including the climatic battle against The Pretender's own army) and those parts that are told are mostly just characters reciting the dubious morality of the pseudo-Christian "Tomes of Wulder", the book is simply a decidedly below average piece of young adult fantasy fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Nov 29, 2010, 5:14pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The University of Virginia Magazine (Winter 2010)
Phi Alpha Delta Reporter (Fall 2010)
Science News (November 20, 2010)
The Economist (November 20th-26th, 2010)

Book Ninety-Seven: Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, No. 5 & 6 (November/December 2010) by Gordon van Gelder.


Stories included:
Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed
Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov
Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan
Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling
Crumbs by Michaela Roessner
Venues by Richard Bowes
Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion
Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster
Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander
The Closet by John Kessel
Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson

Long review: The November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a fairly strong issue, loaded with a very strong featured story about a kind computer generated ghost, three more traditional ghost stories and several fairy tale like stories. Also included are two post-apocalyptic stories. Overall, every story in the issue is at least average, and several are good to very good, making for a an enjoyable reading experience.

One of the two stories featured on the cover, and the longest entry in the issue, Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed is a murder mystery dealing with a death that has struck a small seemingly close knit community of aging runners. The "dead man" of the title is a virtual version of the murder victim, who keeps in contact with the various other characters, prodding them to find out who killed the real version of himself. The mystery unfolds against the backdrop of training runs and races. All the runners are filled with nostalgia, recalling the halcyon days of their youth when they were faster and stronger (and, it is implied, the world was a better place), which highlights the fact that the virtual reality version of the dead man has nothing but memories. The killer is eventually uncovered, although the final resolution is ambiguous in a way that raised some fairly disturbing questions. Although the story seems at times like it is going to descend into triviality, but in the end the story smacks the reader in the face with the danger that has been lurking behind the surface for the whole story, exposing the true danger posed to people by the technology some of them have unthinkingly adopted.

The magazine also features three more traditional ghost stories, featuring ghosts of the supernatural kind. Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov is a quirky story mixing urban planning architecture with something of a ghost story. The story revolves around two architects, former lovers, and the seemingly supernatural encounter they had years before the events of the story. The story has some interesting things to say about the place humans hold in an urban environment, but doesn't really go anywhere with them. Venues by Richard Bowes is another quirky ghost story, this one centering on a publicity seeking writer and the ghosts that seem to show up at his appearances. There seems to be a message concerning the fleeting nature of fame hidden in the story, but it is pretty subtle. The final ghost story in the issue is Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey, featuring a somewhat upset ghost, and a more upset homeowner that hires an investigator to deal with it. The character of the ghost-antagonist is fairly interesting, and the story as a whole seems to be a commentary on the lies that people tell themselves to justify their actions. Of the three traditional ghost stories in the issue, I found it to be the most satisfying.

The issue contains two post-apocalyptic stories with something of a comic bent. The first, The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling, takes the form of a combination of a want ad and a personal ad. The exterminator, living in a future in which all of the worst fears of climate change have come true. All of this comes out by way of the exterminator explaining why he is a criminal, but not a bad guy, with the whole tale told quite humorously. The second, not as openly comic in tone, is Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan, another future in which the characters live in the aftermath of widespread ecological disaster. In this case, they live in a dusty world in which no plants grow and human fertility has dropped to the point where a woman's most valuable sexual asset is her ability to bear children. This would seem infertile soil for a mildly humorous piece, but Duncan weaves comedy with the tragedy as she follows the main character about the edges of the palace intrigues that dominate the lives of those scrambling for the scraps of civilization. The story is both depressing and hopeful.

The very short story The Closet by John Kessel also has something of a humorous element, but for most of the story it is basically just a description of a fairly ordinary day in the life of a fairly ordinary person. In the end the reader finds out exactly why the story is titled The Closet, which provides a dark but still moderately amusing twist to the tale.

Most of Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion seems to lack much in the way of a speculative fiction element, the story centering on a man who becomes an inveterate hoarder after being unprepared for an impromptu sexual encounter. The story is told well, but I was prepared to be annoyed at the lack of speculative fiction in it when the science fiction popped up at the very end and threw a twist into the story that was both unexpected and thought-provoking. The main character in Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander is a kind of mirror image of the protagonist in Planning Ahead, at least by the end of the story. The plot reminded me of LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven, but if the protagonists power to change the world with his thoughts extended to everyone. As one might expect, the plot progresses fairly rapidly until an equilibrium is reached that might not be what one would expect. It is a pretty good story, although it ends happier than I would have thought it would given the initial set-up.

Crumbs by Michaela Roessner is a kind of reverse version of Hansel and Gretel, told from the perspective of the evil witch, with a different, albeit somewhat predictable ending. As a horror twist on a classic fairy tale, it is fairly decent. Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster and featuring the recurring character Mad Amos Malone is an Old west style tall tale involving a sit off between a villainous blackmailer and Mad Amos. The story is fun to read, but not much more than light entertainment. I will warn potential readers that the title and the resolution to the story is an example of groan inducing wordplay. Though somewhat dark, Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson is told with something of a fairy tale sensibility. Set in a reality that seems reminiscent of Atwood's misogynistic dystopian in The Handmaid's Tale layered with some creationist wingnuttery the story follows a high school girl as she tries to navigate her way through the pitfalls of teen love while indulging her love for the school's science club. The story has something of a happy ending, although not for everyone. Overall, it is pretty good, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy handed.

With its collection of average to well above average stories, the November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is quite good. The best story of the issue is probably the feature story Dead Man's Run, but every story is worth reading. As usual, this publication delivers a solid issue that will probably be an enjoyable read for any speculative fiction aficionado.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 1, 2010, 4:42pm Top

Book Ninety-Eight: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials: Great Aliens from Science Fiction Literature by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Ian Summers, and Beth Meacham.


Short review: Drawings of aliens from dozens of works of science fiction ranging from well-known to obscure.

Long review: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials is a compilation of illustrations by Wayne Barlowe depicting fifty imagined aliens drawn from works of science fiction. The book was first published in 1979, and this edition was printed in 1987, so aliens drawn from more recent works won't be found in its pages. Even so, the books provides an interesting and enjoyable overview of the myriad forms of aliens that science fiction authors envisioned up until that point.

The basic format of the book consists of a two page layout describing and illustrating each alien. Most of the aliens are from fairly well known works of fiction, such as the Overlords from Childhood's End, the Puppeteers from Ringworld (and other books), or the Masters from The City of Gold and Lead, but there are several much more obscure examples from works that either were fairly obscure at the time, or have drifted into obscurity as time has passed. Each two-page spread lists the source work and author for the alien, gives a brief description giving its basic attributes, such as its physical characteristics, habitat, and culture, and a full page full color illustration. Most entries also have a couple of smaller illustration showing unusual or interesting characteristics of the alien in question.

All of the illustrations are well-done, depicting the various aliens with, from what I can tell, fair accuracy. The descriptive text that accompanies each set off illustrations is a little bland, for the most part simply relating the basic descriptions and attributes of the alien in question. In most cases, I think the descriptive text would have been substantially enhanced by the inclusion of a discussing how the alien being described fit into the source material, giving examples of specific characters who are members of the particular alien race, and maybe providing some quotes or very brief excerpts from the originating work. Including this sort of detail would have gone a long way towards making the aliens depicted come alive. As it is, the book is an amazing technical achievement of interpretive illustration, but most of the entries seem somewhat dry and distant.

With its superior illustrations depicting aliens that mostly could otherwise only be imagined based upon written descriptions, this illustrated guide is a very worthwhile addition to any science fiction fan's library. This recommendation comes with the caveat that each description is very dry, and gives limited context as to why the various aliens are interesting or why they were chosen for the book. Anyone who is not already familiar with Dune and its sequels will be unlikely to glean much useful information concerning why they were chosen for inclusion out of the Guild Steersman entry, for example. I don't think it is surprising that the most evocative artwork in the book, in my opinion, is the set of pencil drawings found in the closing pages, which depict several of the aliens from the main body of the book engaged in various activities, but also shows Thyfe, an alien of Barlowe's own invention interacting with an alien landscape of Barlowe's own design. That said, this book is an enjoyable resource that is sure to serve as a walk down memory lane for books one has already read, and possibly a spur to seek out new reading material for books one has not.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 12, 2010, 9:16pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (December 4, 2010)
The Economist (November 27th-December 3rd, 2010)
The Economist (December 4th-10th, 2010)

Book Ninety-Nine: DragonLight: A Novel by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: The story of the Dragon Keeper Chronicles wanders aimlessly until a deus ex machina from left field brings it to a pointless conclusion.

Long review: In this fifth, and final book of the series, The Dragon Keeper Chronicles stumbles to a close with most of the characters standing around not doing much of anything while the action is resolved by a poorly set up deus ex machina. This book offers a new, and more or less random villain, and also includes more examples of Mrs. Paul's tendency to leave plot threads hanging, resolve much of the action of the story off-stage, and eschew storytelling in favor of didactic pseudo-Christian lessons. In short, DragonLight follows in the turgid and uninteresting footsteps of its predecessors to deliver a decidedly weak story and an uninspired reading experience.

The story picks up several years after where DragonFire left off with Amara having enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity after the successive defeats of Risto, Burner Stox, Crim Cropper, and The Pretender. This idyllic existence is shattered when Bardon discovers "The Followers" a monastic sect of Paladin worshippers who have upset the natural order by setting up a small settlement so they can live out an ascetic existence of wearing uniform clothing, eating bad food, and not speaking much. But their ideas are almost immediately dubbed heretical, and they are identified as a threat. It seems as though Mrs. Paul is using The Followers to make a comment upon religious sects whose theology she disapproves of - the doctrine espoused by The Followers seems to bear some similarities to the teachings of Scientologists, Mormons, Catholics, and maybe a couple of other religious groups - but it is difficult to identify exactly who is being metaphorically condemned. It is also difficult for the reader to figure out what specifically is heretical about the teachings of The Followers, since Mrs. Paul has done such a poor job of establishing the parameters of the pseudo-Christian Wulder worship that is at the heart of her books. Bardon, Dar, Kale, and the other main characters certainly tell the reader that The Followers are twisting Wulder's teachings, but the reader has almost no way of figuring it out on their own. And this simply highlights one of the primary recurring weaknesses of Mrs. paul's storytelling: instead of providing sufficient background information and then allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions, she waits until a crisis has arisen in the story and dictates to the reader what the correct solution is, oftentimes using "principles of Wulder" elucidated for the first time as the solution to the crisis.

Of course, no matter how dangerous this threat is, it cannot stand in the way of Bardon and Kale heading off to dance at a party and then trek to the uncharted northern reaches to help Regidor and Gilda find the lost meech colony. After all, Regidor and Gilda have only waited several years to make this journey, so it is clearly of pressing importance that it be done immediately despite the sudden appearance of a mysterious heretical sect. Somewhat justifying this sudden need to head to the wilderness in search of the secretive meech colony is the fact that Gilda is carrying an egg that she insists she can only present to what she imagines to be the glorious meech civilization. However, Bardon and Kale seem to take a fatalistic attitude that, having decided to help search for the lost meech colony, they cannot turn aside and deal with a different potential threat because Wulder apparently already assigned them the "find the meech colony" quest, and they can't do anything else until they complete that.

(As an aside, one meme that runs through all of the books in the series is this very self-conscious attitude that the characters have when they are undertaking a task that they are then "on a quest". This sort of thinking more or less fits with the didactic tone of the books, but it still makes the characters and situations seem oddly artificial. Apparently, once one is "on a quest' it seems that one is more or less obligated refuse any change to one's objectives until the appointed task has been completed, yielding a sort of single-minded myopia that dovetails fairly well with the central theme of surrendering all personal initiative that runs through the books.)

After the obligatory dilly-dallying that seems to crop up in just about all of the Dragon Keeper books when danger threatens (in this case, spending lots of time getting to and participating in a big dance party), Bardon discovers the second big "threat" the rears its head to threaten the peacefulness of Amara in the form of swarms of tiny fire-breathing poison-spined black dragons that seem to randomly crop up and mindlessly attack whoever happens to be in their way. Of course, since Kale and Bardon are on the "find the meech colony" quest, there is no possibility that they might investigate where these dragon swarms are coming from instead, no matter how relevant Kale's skills as a "dragon keeper" might be. Instead, Kale and Bardon head off to the northern reaches to find Regidor and Gilda, but not before Mrs. Paul sidetracks the story to show the reader how a secondary character has created the amazing innovation of a magical crystal ball.

One would think that in a series titled The Dragon Keeper Chronicles that being a dragon keeper might be central to the stories. But other than the fact that Kale can find dragon eggs (of dubious value to the plots of the stories), and has a menagerie of trivially useful minor dragons that follow her around, being a dragon keeper doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, despite the constant utterances of other characters about how special this gift supposedly is. In fact, except for the fact that the mindless dragon swarms seem to react quite oddly to Kale's presence, there is no indication that her status as "dragon keeper" is of any value at all, and despite the book heavily featuring the meech dragons and eventually a dragon antagonist, her supposedly incredibly special talents don't feature in this book at all. This should not surprise anyone who has read through the series to this point, as dropping plot threads is more or less Mrs. Paul's stock-in-trade as an author. For example, the plot of DragonSpell revolved around the threatened use of the powers of an unhatched meech egg to create a new eighth "low race" and upset the balance of power in Amara. But once that book concluded, that entire line of thinking vanished from the series, never to be mentioned again. One would think that if meech eggs were this powerful, in a coherently designed fantasy world the meech would live in fear that their eggs would be stolen to be used by some mad wizard seeking power. But since Mrs. Paul isn't really interested in telling a story so much as she is interested in imparting "correct" moral lessons, once the usefulness of a plot device has served its instructive purpose, it seems to be dropped without a second thought.

The story more or less plods on, as everyone stops off in a village to have the usual interruption of their pressing quest to partake in a leisurely round of tea and cakes. Mrs. Paul seems to have figured out that her characters aren't really moving with much urgency, since an earthquake literally shakes everyone out of their complacency. Of course, there are no casualties, because Toopka runs about with Stittiponder (yes, they brought small children on a supposedly dangerous quest) and warns everyone the earthquake is coming. How does she know? Well, like most "knowledge" that people glean in this series, she just knows it presumably via divine inspiration. But rebuilding from the earthquake is interrupted when Kale and Bardon are called upon to rescue Holt from his espionage mission to infiltrate the Followers. While the actual rescue of Holt takes place as part of the narrative of the book, Mrs. Paul is true to form and has most of the interaction with the Followers, like so many of the other plot elements of the book, take place entirely off-stage. Time and again some interesting plot point comes up, and then is resolved entirely out of sight of the reader, only to be reported after the fact. The wizard Namee is tempted to join the Followers and repents, off-stage. Holt convinces many of the Followers to leave the cult, off-stage. Holt rescues the children held by the Followers, off-stage. Paladin is imprisoned by the Followers, off-stage. N'Rae is called in to permit communication with the imprisoned Paladin using animals, off-stage. Paladin's Followers rise up and defeat the Followers, off-stage. In short, almost everything that has to do with the rise and fall of this supposedly sinister threat to all of Amara is too unimportant to actually include in the book as anything other than an afterthought.

And this is because Mrs. Paul feels compelled to introduce a new villain, having either killed off or rendered impotent all of the villains from the previous books. First Risto was the main opponent, and henchman (and rival) to the supposedly even more powerful Pretender. But he was killed off in a wizard duel in DragonQuest. The Burner Stox and Crim Cropper were elevated from Risto's henchmen to main villains, and once again potential rivals to The Pretender (apparently, when you are evil, loyalty is such a foreign concept that every henchman is just itching to bump off their boss and take his place). But they were killed off in DragonFire - Stox almost by accident, and Cropper in a fairly dull fight while riding a dragon. And then at the end of DragonFire Paladin dismisses The Pretender as a nonthreat almost contemptuously, rendering the supposedly dire danger to all of Amara completely impotent with a wave of his hand. While this might be theologically satisfying to adherents to Mrs. Paul's particular brand of faith, it makes for a pretty weak story. And it necessitates producing a new villainous threat to Amara from thin air. So for DragonLight Mrs. Paul conjures up the previously unmentioned (and for the characters in the story, previously unknown) mountain-sized dragon Mot Angra from the weeds out beyond left-field. Mot Angra proves to be the source of one of the two horrible threats facing Amara, while the other turns out to have have an almost entirely random and trivial source. As an aside, one is left to wonder how strong the faith Amarans have in Wulder truly is if it is shaken to its foundation by a threat that has such a minor origin.

But the fact that these threats result from these wild card elements in the story doesn't prove to be a hindrance to the characters, because time and again, Mrs. Paul drives home the point that one shouldn't try to figure out anything on one's own, or even really take the initiative, since Wulder will provide the answer to everything. Several plots points come up that a reader might expect would foreshadow the resolution of the story, but any of these that result from characters using their own initiative to solve a problem all turn out to be red herrings. When Kale and the kimens get close to Mot Angra, their powers over light seem to falter, which leads Kale to speculate that "light" might be a means to defeat the dragon. This turns out to be a red herring. At one point, Regidor heads off to try to consult Librettowitt's extensive library to find out if anyone has ever recorded any weaknesses of the dragon, but this turns out to be a red herring. Regidor's research turns up nothing, and oddly, Regidor's response is to return to join in an effort to defeat the dragon using brute force tactics that everyone had previously agreed simply would not work (and in case you were wondering, they don't). Several characters speculate that Kale's abilities as a "dragon-keeper" might prove to be useful in dealing with the threat of a massive evil dragon. This proves to be a red herring, as Kale's powers prove to be completely useless (seemingly proving yet again that being a "dragon-keeper" is of almost no consequence to the stories). Paladin does solve the mystery of the lost lyrics to a song that is supposedly important for keeping Mot Angra imprisoned, but he doesn't actually do much other than just know what the right lyrics are, and once again, this bit of knowledge proves to be of no consequence in defeating Mot Angra. Basically, the message Mrs. Paul seems intent on conveying is that taking the initiative to solve a problem is just a waste of time. One should simply sit on one's ass and wait for God, excuse me Wulder, to solve them for you.

And Wulder does solve the problem in the end, in a manner that is almost entirely random, entirely unsatisfying, and serves to demonstrate what a dick Mrs. Paul's God really is. Basically, Toopka and Stittiponder (remember, we are taking children along on our dangerous quest into the unknown to confront an otherworldly and as far as the characters know undefeatable menace) are visited by God, er Wulder. Wulder removes a lump from Toopka's heart that has been killing her and cures Stittiponder's blindness. These actions supposedly show Wulder's love, but since Wulder is directly responsible for the debilitating conditions to begin with, the real message is that Wulder is like a firefighter who commits arson so he can be the hero who puts the blaze out. Wulder made Stittiponder a blind street urchin to begin with, so how is it an act of love for Wulder to then cure his blindness? Wulder inserted a ruck hard lump that almost kills her into Toopka's body for his own purposes (more on that later), so how it is an act of love for him to cure her? In short, Mrs. Paul's message, which is supposed to cause the reader to gaze in wonder at the glory of God's (umm, Wulder's) love, really amounts to "Wulder is a complete jerk who uses people like playthings because it amuses him". But Toopka manages to defeat Mot Angra with a device that is literally a deus ex machina that has almost no groundwork laid for it. In short, despite the characters spending much of the latter half of the book worrying about how to defeat Mot Angra and trying to figure out a way to do it, none of that matters and everything is resolved by a plot device that pops up at the last second. Of course, Wulder isn't a kind enough deity to resolve the plot without lots of soldiers and kimens getting killed by the evil dragon, so at least Wulder is consistently portrayed as a dick in the books.

As a bonus, in the final chapter, Mrs. Paul adds in a story about Toopka's background that further reinforces Wulder's dickish nature, as it turns out that she was not just a homeless street urchin. It is revealed that she had previously been a fully grown woman who watched her husband and children get killed and to "spare her the pain" Wulder transformed her into a child and suppressed the bad memories. This apparently allowed Toopka to carry around "Wulder's truth" to be used to defeat Mot Angra. But since, according the the theology of the book, nothing happens without Wulder directing it to be so, rather than sparing Toppka the pain of seeing her entire family killed, Wulder was the agent that caused that pain to begin with. And Wulder presumably did it because, despite being supposedly omnipotent, he couldn't think of a better way to defeat Mot Angra than having a bunch of children killed in front of their mother. It is obvious that Mrs. Paul really wants the reader to come away from her didactic tale with the impression that Wulder is an awesome deity, and by way of analogy, the God at the center of her real life faith is also an awesome deity. But unfortunately, the lesson that the story actually gives is that Wulder is a more evil entity than any of the "villains" that have been propped up to oppose him, and by analogy, so is the version of God that Mrs. Paul is evangelizing for.

In the end, DragonLight and The Dragon Keeper Chronicles stumble to an unsatisfying conclusion. The book closes on a deus ex machina that feels almost like a non-sequitur to the rest of the plot. And since the villain in this book is more or less unconnected to the villains or the plots from the first four books, it seems to not really be a conclusion to the series so much as the point where Mrs. Paul ran out of moralizing lessons to provide so she just stopped writing. In The Lord of the Rings the series stopped when Frodo destroyed the ring, and thus defeated Sauron. In The Chronicles of Narnia the series ended when the world ended. In The Chronicles of Prydain the series ended when Arawn was defeated. In The Dragon Keeper Chronicles the series just peters out without any real sort of overarching triumph or thematic conclusion. As a result, in addition to being didactic and lacking in strong storytelling, the series is also incredibly disjointed. As the conclusion to a weak and unsatisfying series that lacks any kind of continuing story, DragonLight is just not worth bothering with.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 20, 2010, 12:21am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

The Economist (December 11th-17th, 2010)
Woodberry Forest Magazine and Journal (Spring/Summer 2010)

Book One Hundred: PushBack by Alfred Wellnitz.


Short review: A near future techno-thriller that seems to be more like an outline for a trilogy of books than a book in itself.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

PushBack is a near future thriller that presents a modestly interesting premise, but is ultimately an entirely frustrating book that accomplishes the rare feat of providing the reader both too much and not enough information. Though the events of the book are set in the 2030s, I wouldn't classify the book as science fiction, as there isn't really much meaningful difference between the posited future and the present, which is one of the first things that undermines the believability of the book. Given the substantial technological and cultural changes that have taken place between 1986 and now, it simply seems implausible that so little would change bewteen 2010 and 2034 which serves to start the book off on the wrong foot.

The premise and plot of the book is fairly straightforward. The dollar depreciates drastically in value leading to the breakup and Balkanization of the United States. One of the successor states is taken over by white supremacist government led by a thinly disguised analogue of Adolf Hitler and backed by Russian oil money, and then proceeds to discriminate against and then expel or inter all the black residents under their authority. In response, black dissidents organize an insurrection that culminates in a reverse of The Sum of All Fears with the heroes planting a nuclear device and trying to set it off before the bad guys get wind of their plans and stop them.

But the book falls into an unfortunate middle ground between providing too much detail concerning the events leading from the present day status quo to the imagined situation of the future and not enough. In general, it seems as though a writer needs to choose between giving this sort of background cursory attention, as Heinlein did with background in stories like -If This Goes On and Friday, or devoting the bulk of the book to it. But Wellnitz spends almost the whole first 100 pages setting up the back story - in that span the dollar undergoes hyperinflation, the United States disintegrates, the CAN Party takes over the Federated States (basically comprised of the Confederacy minus Florida and Texas), and blacks are evicted from the region. There is a habit among some writers that having done a lot of research for their book, they want to show the reader all of their work, even the work that is mostly extraneous to the story. It is clear that Wellnitz developed a detailed timeline for the events in the series, but all too often he feels compelled to include this sort of detail in the book, which bogs the narrative down. For example:

"Three days after the planning meeting, Richard Robert Robinson messaged the group that he had negotiated the use of a storage building at the Macon cotton farm from 6:00 p.m. on August 5 to 6:00 a.m. on August 6. There would be a ton of ammonium nitrate in the building on August 5. Cost for the use of the building and the fertilizer: a non-negotiable ten thousand euros.

John informed the team that they had the use of the Federated Laundry Company truck starting at noon on August 5.

On July 16, John Renner drove down to Waycross, Georgia, to pick up a package that had been smuggled into the country through the Okefenokee Swamp. The package contained two detonators and a timer to be used in the bomb.

On the evening of August 5, Kevin Johnson, Richard Robert Robinson, and John Renner . . . .

And so on. The book is littered with dates, details and lots of motion by the characters. But most of the detail is simply irrelevant. The reader doesn't need to know that the Black Resistance on specific dates from a specific time to another specific time. This sort of detail is more or less busywork the reader has to slog through that does little to advance the plot or develop the characters. While keeping the timeline straight might be important for the author to keep the story consistent, I found the inclusion of a constant stream of dates and logistical details to be distracting and tedious. It doesn't really add much to the story to let the reader know that at a meeting one participant had wine, two others had beer, and the last had a diet coke.

And the further problem is that adding lots of detail often simply raised more questions that were not answered. The political crisis of the story is precipitated by the massive devaluation of the dollar. But the reason for this hyperinflation is not addressed. The United States disintegrates in a handful of paragraphs and all of the successor states solve the currency crisis by adopting a new currency and immediately pegging it to the euro. But this just causes the reader to wonder if this solution was really that simple, why didn't the United States government do that to begin with? Further, in a world in which the dollar has become valueless, the idea that the euro would be a model of stability seems rather far-fetched (especially in light of the current struggles the EU is having keeping the euro afloat). Through the story it is reinforced that while the components of the former United States are suffering from a massive depression, the rest of the world is doing much better - the CAN Party is financed by a Russia apparently awash in cash, while in Central America a character is told by a local that the tourist business is kept going by vacationing Europeans, and so on. Given the massive financial and commercial interconnections between the United States and the rest of the world, including Europe, this seems implausible in the extreme. The Federated States are supposedly able to pull out of the economic malaise the rest of the successor states are mired in on the strength of becoming a transit point for imported Russian oil. But this also seems implausible. Nations in this position, such as, for example, Ukraine, do have money flowing through them, but the industry employs so few people that in general they still have unemployment problems, and non-oil related industries are not really buoyed by the presence of oil pipelines and ports. Wellnitz simply doesn't provide enough information to back up his assertions concerning his imagined reality. There is a dangerous middle ground that an author can fall into, in which he gives enough detail to raise questions, but not enough for the reader to be satisfied with the answers to those questions, and PushBack sits right in the center of that territory.

Sapping a little more energy from the book is the fact that the CAN Party, which takes control of the Federated States via a Russian backed coup d'etat, is such a close analogue of the Nazi Party. Carl Haas, the head of the CAN Party stands in for Hitler, and like Hitler he is a vegetarian teetotaller who is a weak public speaker who practices his routines in front of a full length mirror. The plan to remove or imprison all black inhabitants from the Federated States is labelled the "Ultimate Solution", paralleling the Nazi created "Final Solution" to do much the same thing to Jews in Germany. Towards the end of the book, Wellnitz throws aside any semblance of disguising the parallel and begins calling the guards that surround Carl Haas "SS guards". But making the CAN Party of the imagined 2030s such a thinly disguised version of the German Nazi Party of the actual 1930s causes the reader to wonder exactly why one would read this book as opposed to just picking up a text covering the history of the Third Reich.

Despite throwing tons of detail and an imitation Nazi Party headed by an imitation Adolf Hitler, the book seems strangely empty. Most of the characters are so bland that there is no one for the reader to really root of or against in any but the most general manner. John Renner, the putative hero of the book, opposes the CAN Party because he is black and they killed his girlfriend. But the girlfriend is so hastily introduced and then bumped off that one never really gets to know her character, and thus the reader doesn't share Renner's outrage at her death. On the other side, while Carl Haas shows up several times, he is too distant from the machinations of intrigue to be a useful villain, and all of the intelligence operatives used by the Federated States come and go too quickly for the reader to build up any sort of animus against them. All too often the reader is told about events without having a character to follow as they live through them - for example while we are told that black residents in the Federated States who remain in its borders are interred in concentration camps, this is presented in an abstract way. Giving the reader a character to follow into the camps and experience first hand the nastiness of the CAN Party would have made the evil more real to the reader. As the old saying goes, a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. Over and over again Wellnitz gives the reader statistics rather than tragedies. In general, the characters mostly enter and leave the story too quickly to be developed as much more than caricatures, and the few who do stick around are just not that interesting.

I'll also mention two story elements that really stuck out as poorly done. The first relates to the resistance to the CAN Party rule of the Federated States, which is dubbed the "Freedom Legion". Several times, Freedom Legion members pull a business card with their name and a Freedom Legion logo out of their pocket and show it to a potential recruit in order to convince them to join. This just seems so stupid that it is hard to see how the Freedom Legion could survive. When you are a member of a clandestine organization seeking to overthrow an authoritarian government, the last thing you would want to do is carry a business card with your name on it identifying you as a member of the resistance. Every time a Freedom Legion member whipped out their monogrammed card identifying themselves as what the CAN Party would label an anti-government terrorist, I imagined that they must lose most of their members to random roadblocks when the Federated States police rifle through their purses and wallets to find their neatly printed tickets to the gas chamber.

The second problem story element is the final resolution. Given that the illustration on cover of the book, it doesn't seem like much of a spoiler to let the cat out of the bag and reveal that the Freedom Legion smuggles a tactical nuclear device into Atlanta and detonates it. While the attack does serve to decapitate the CAN Party, it kills a couple hundred thousand people in the process. Immediately afterwards, the Freedom Legion takes credit for the blast and moves in to take over. But one would think that no matter how despised the CAN Party might be, killing a couple hundred thousand people would have huge negative political repercussions. It is likely that everyone in the Federated States would have had family members or close friends killed in the attack, which would probably spark a huge negative reaction to the Freedom Legion. Yet the book ends on a Pollyannaish note, with everyone pretty much feeling full of happiness and rainbows and the Freedom Legion riding in on a white horse to save everyone. But at this juncture, when what would likely be the beginning of the real political and logistical heavy lifting, the story ends.

While the premise of the story - a band of freedom fighters smuggles a nuclear bomb into an autocratic successor state to the defunct United States- is interesting, the execution of the book is simply lacking. The book is loaded with lots of little details, but leaves too many larger questions simply unanswered, or provides answers that simply don't make any sense when subjected to any scrutiny. Because it is loaded with lists of dates detailing exactly when events happen, complete with piles of logistical data, the book feels more like an outline for a series of books than a completed work in itself. If Wellnitz had fleshed out the book by filling in these gaps while giving the reader better focus characters, this could have been a compelling series of thrillers. As it is, the book is simply a collection of frustratingly unrealized promises.

This story has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Dec 26, 2010, 9:23pm Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

Science News (December 18, 2010)
The Economist (December 18th-31st, 2010)

Book One Hundred and One: The Vanishing Sculptor by Donita K. Paul.


Short review: A new story about Wulder! In a new country! Except the story is exactly the same, and so is the country.

Long review: In The Vanishing Sculptor author Donita K. Paul returns to the world of The DragonKeeper Chronicles to whack the reader over the head with more didactic preaching about the pseudo-Christian religion of Wulder that have been wrapped in poorly thought out fantasy fiction. Except the story is not set in Amara, it is set in the distant faraway land of Chiril, which is very different. Well, okay, it isn't very different, it is pretty much exactly the same as Amara, but everyone calls Wulder by the name Boscamon and thinks he's a joke and dragons are rare. And they have giant talking parrots.

The first thing that should be pointed out about The Vanishing Sculptor is that it is the first book in a prequel series to The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Because Mrs. Paul seems to assume that anyone who is reading this series would have already read her other series, the book would be nigh incomprehensible to anyone who has not done so. In fact, I originally tried to read this book first, and after a couple dozen pages gave up and went back to trudge through the interminably lousy DragonKeeper Chronicles first, just so I could come back and slog through this one. The book throws out terms like tumanhofer and emmerlindian from the start, not pausing to try to explain what they mean, which serves to confuse the reader from the get-go. Granted, the book has an extensive glossary, but having to flip back to the glossary every paragraph or two is a serious distraction from the story. Further, the extensive glossary is loaded with piles of definitions that are almost completely pointless and artificial pieces of jargon added to the book. When an author feels the need to define "flatrats", "banana bugs", and "mumfers", none of which affect the plot in any way, one gets the idea that they are just adding clutter to their fantasy reality because they think that is what you do in a fantasy novel, rather than adding fantasy elements because they actually bring something new and interesting to the reality being depicted. One wonders what things like "flatrats", "banana bugs", and "mumfers" bring to the story that "mice", "caterpillars", and "mums" would not, other than a distracting glossary entry that must be consulted when they show up in the story.

Which might not be such a problem is the story was compelling enough to hold a reader's interest despite such distractions. But the story starts off slow, and mostly stays that way. The main character is a young emmerlindian girl named Tipper whose father disappeared years before, leaving her with a mentally unstable mother and in the care of the giant talking parrot Beccaroon. In order to make ends meet, Tipper sells off pieces of her father's artwork and tries to keep the household afloat. After reading through The DragonKeeper Chronicles, with its collection of parentless children, and now with a story that begins with Tipper effectively left to fend for herself, it seems that Mrs. Paul has some sort of fetish for abandoned children. I suspect that Mrs. Paul's affinity for parentless children, along with the inclusion of talking animals, may stem from The Chronicles of Narnia. But in C.S. Lewis' works, the Pevensie children were separated from their parents by the exigencies of war, not because their parents went gallivanting about the countryside heedless of their responsibilities to their progeny. Mrs. Paul seems to be saying that so long as you are on a mission for God, er, Wulder, that abandoning your children is okay.

Of course, the "grand parrot" Beccaroon raises the same questions in this story that the meech dragons and minnekins raised in The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Having made a big deal out of the existence of seven "high" races and seven "low" races in DragonSpell, and how the wizard Risto's plan to create a new "low" race from a meech egg would be disastrous. But meech dragons, minnekins, and now grand parrots are outside this constructs of "high" and "low" races. One wonders exactly how they fit in, or how dragons (which seem to be highly intelligent creatures themselves) fit in. The answer seems to be that they don't. The balance of the seven high and low races seems to have been merely a plot device for the first book, a thematic MacGuffin that was discarded as soon as sufficient didactic lessons could be milked out of it. It is this sort of sloppy world-building - setting up a thematic element than then casually ignoring it - that is one of the elements that serves to drag Mrs. Paul's stories down.

Another element that serves to drag Mrs. Paul's stories down is the extreme didacticism of the "moral lessons" that litter her books, and The Vanishing Sculptor is no exception. Though the beginning of the book is slow, because the beginning of the book is set in Chiril, not Amara, and the characters have not been exposed to the tedious reality of Wulder, it is not weighed down by long-winded explanatory passages in which everyone quotes the precepts of Wulder. This changes fairly quickly, as the wizard Fenworth and his librarian sidekick Librettowit pop up with Tipper's long-missing father Verrin Schope to try to fix the malfunctioning gate that causes Verrin to periodically vanish and reform, and also is apparently in danger of destroying the world. And along the way they will spread the good word about Wulder, who the natives of Chiril call Boscamon. This, plus the fact that in Chiril there are no wizards and dragons are are rare and unusual creatures, appears to be pretty much the only real difference between Chiril and Amara. Despite the fact that the two regions are supposed to be separated by vasts distances and culturally isolated from one another, even the naming conventions used by various races are the same - tumanhofers, for example, have ridiculously long names in Chiril, just like they do in Amara. But since, like everything else in the book, the evangelizing is clumsily handled, one wonders exactly how anyone is converted to believing that Wulder is worth spending more than a moment thinking about. Verrin seems to have the zeal of the recently converted, but this doesn't translate into any kind of convincing arguments. Apparently, people are simply supposed to accept Wulder's authority because they are supposed to accept Wulder's authority. In short, the main problem with the evangelizing seems to be that Mrs. Paul simply does not understand why anyone would reject Christ, em, um, Wulder, and thus cannot come up with any cogent arguments in favor of her chosen creed that don't rely upon simple assertions in favor of its rightness. Needless to say, this is rather unconvincing to anyone who isn't already a believer.

So, the plot meanders along - having been alerted by the newcomers that the gate has to be repaired, Tipper realizes that the stone that made the gate was made into sculptures by her father, which she had sold to a tumanhofer artist that she then offended. So Fenworth, Librettowit, Verrin, Tipper, Beccaroon and the house dragons set out to track down the artist Bealomondore (note the long and tedious tumanhofer name) and find out who he sold the statues to. So, despite having no useful skills, Tipper sets out on a quest, which turns out to be mostly riding in a carriage from place to place until Fenworth decides to take a side trip to find some riding dragons to speed things up. Along the way the questers encounter, well, not much really, unless one counts a herd of rampaging sheep as a threat. The unnecessary side-trip to pick up some riding dragons turns out to have been completely necessary when the group finds Prince Jayrus, the dragon keeper, and coincidentally, the Paladin of Chiril. How does Fenworth figure out that Jayrus is the Paladin of Chiril? Like so many other elements of the book, this revelation is simply presented as a fait accompli and the reader is expected to accept it as a given. Once Jayrus the Paladin shows up, the platitudes start flowing thick and fast, interspersed with the extraordinarily thinly plotted quest to retrieve the missing statues which basically involves the questers going to the homes of the people Bealomondore sold the statues to and asking for them back.

Of course, one of the people who owns a statue is a villain who wants all three of Verrin's statues for himself, so that he can use the power of the gate to remove the current king and queen of Chiril and replace them with Tipper's mother who would serve as a figurehead for his own rule of the country. Given the obnoxiousness with which the King and Queen of Chiril are portrayed in their brief appearance in the book, one wonders why this would be a bad thing. But all the characters immediately decide that this is a bad thing, and act accordingly. Tipper, who has no useful skills, and Verrin, who is an invalid for much of the journey, seem to primarily contribute to the success of the quest by getting seized and held hostage by clumsy villains a couple times, leading their companions to rescue them and thereby uncover the evildoer's plans. (As a side note, the kidnappers are always nice enough to serve their hostages tasty meals while they hold them captive, continuing the odd theme that runs through all the books of ensuring that everyone stops for tea and cakes while in the middle of supposedly critical world-saving quests). So the questers more or less fail their way forward through the plot. Highlighting just how extraneous to the point of the book the author considers the quest to be, when confronted with the refusal of this villain to turn over the statue, Fenworth, Verrin, Librettowit, and Jayrus engage in an extended discussion about why simply stealing the statue would be wrong (after also discounting handing the statue over to the bad guy based upon a vague suspicion that he is evil). To put the ludicrousness of this stance in context, consider that the consequence of not reassembling the statues include not only Verrin Schope's death, but the end of the world. But in the eyes of the characters, the most important thing is not to prevent either of these occurrences, but to make sure that they do not lie or steal.

The heroes are incompetent enough that the villain gets the three statues anyway, which kind of makes all the effort spent to try to avoid him getting them more or less moot. Of course, once he gets the statues, he makes sure to bring the heroes along as he invades the King's castle and puts his ill-thought out plan into action. This ensures that Fenworth, Jayrus, and the other questers are conveniently on-hand to foil his plan, which kind of highlights just how stupid the villainous plan was. Fenworth unravels the evil wizard's magic, although there is no indication given as to how he does it, because it isn't explained to Tipper and consequently it isn't explained to the reader either. This makes for a rather flashy but uninteresting scene in which Fenworth does a bunch of magic stuff, but since the reader doesn't understand what he is doing, there is no way to build up dramatic tension with the possibility of failure. Jayrus, for his part, demonstrates his qualifications for the position of Paladin by being better at killing people than anyone else, and then telling a maudlin and weepy story after which Princess Peg is reconciled with Queen Venmarie, which all the characters seem to think is the most important event that happens in the story, apparently much more so than saving the world or averting a threat to the royal family, attributing the reconciliation to Wulder. (Need I point out that according to the theology that permeates the book, Wulder was responsible for the animosity that developed between the women to begin with, making it kind of hard to give him credit for healing the rift). And so the book closes, with everyone safe, the world rescued from impending destruction, the integrity of the crown preserved, and, most importantly, mothers and daughters once again speaking to one another.

The fact that the plot is mildly original, revolving as it does around a search for lost artwork, makes this slapdash and heavily didactic effort all the more disappointing. Although the book starts off slow, the early going is at least more or less focused on something resembling a story and wonderfully free of the heavy-handed "lessons" of highly dubious morality that laced The DragonKeeper Chronicles. Unfortunately, this portion of the book is all too short, and Mrs. Paul quickly returns to her usual pattern, and the book is soon weighed down by a ton of didactic moralizing. Like The DragonKeeper Chronicles, The Vanishing Sculptor is little more than badly written Christian apologetics dressed up as poorly thought out fantasy fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Edited: Jan 4, 2011, 11:18am Top

Between the last book and this one I read:

National Geographic (January 2011)
Poets & Writers Magazine (Jan/Feb 2011)

Book One Hundred and Two: The Samaritan: A Novel by Fred Veturini.


Short review: If you are a loser, even an inexplicable supernatural power won't change that.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Blank Slate Press is a small press publisher dedicated to promoting authors from the greater Saint Louis area. The Samaritan by Fred Venturini is their first publication. Set in rural southern Illinois with a protagonist almost entirely paralyzed by his own self-doubt and insecurities, The Samaritan is bleak, dark, and depressing, but at the same time compelling.

The story follows the life of Dale, a small town loser with limited social skills and no ability to deal with women who seems to mostly drift along aimlessly punctuating his journey with brief and unsuccessful bursts of initiative. Dale's unlikely best friend is Mack Tucker, who is in many ways his polar opposite - a gifted athlete who is loud, brash, aggressive, and almost inexplicably popular with women. But Mack is only a gifted athlete in the small town arena that he and Dale grow up in, and Dale grows to realize that in the wider world Mack will be just another small town hero who can't take the next step.

But while Dale realizes this, and becomes more and more paralyzed into inaction by his recognition of his own inadequacies, Mack does not, and as events play out, never has to confront this reality head on. Life seems to conspire against Dale, every time he decides to take a risk and break out of his shell, his attempt is foiled and things get worse - climaxing in a horrific scene that ends his first, and pretty much only, attempt to romance a girl, the pretty and mostly inaccessible Regina. Like many small town kids, Dale and Mack had big dreams, but the harsh reality of the world kills them by graduation, which turns out entirely differently from the way Dale had envisioned. And on the way, Dale discovers that he has a unique and completely unexpected ability that seems like a miracle, but in the context of his life his gift only drives him into despair.

The story moves from a tiny rural town in Illinois to a slightly larger small town in rural Illinois as Dale sinks further into listless despondency. Unmoored from reality, Dale drifts through his life until a chance encounter with Reanna, the twin sister of his lost love jolts him out of his inactivity. It turns out that she has married badly to a dealer in meth, the scourge of rural U.S.A., and Dale quickly realizes that her husband abuses her to boot. Dale attempts to intervene, and as usual, his attempt just makes matters worse.

And then Dale's strange ability becomes the key to his plans to set things right. You see, Dale inexplicably has the capability to heal any injury no matter how dire, up to and including regenerating lost body parts. Dale's plan, like everything else he does, is executed in a clumsy and halting manner, with missteps and false starts. Eventually he links up with Mack again, who, as always, is the catalyst to action that Dale requires to push him forward.

In a world of reality shows and instant celebrity, it seems inevitable that Dale would end up as the centerpiece of such a circus, and thus The Samaritan, a reality show about a man who gives away his organs. Mack, of course, sees this as his ticket to fame and stardom in a way that Dale, myopically focused on his puppy dog infatuation with a self-destructive woman, cannot. Dale trades in his internal pain for the real pain of repeated surgeries in a vain quest for the love of a woman who is dead hoping to obtain it vicariously through her sister who considers him to be an annoyance at best. Though blessed with a gift that in a comic book would make him a superhero, Dale's reality is that of grinding pain, and a life that is, in his mind, only marginally better than a life without his gift.

Eventually, after dozens of agonizing surgeries, Dale finds the hopelessness in his attempt to rescue Reanna when he is finally given a letter she wrote to him pleading for a donation to save her abusive husband. Just like Dale doesn't really want to be saved from being a loser by Mack, Reanna doesn't want to be saved from a husband who beats her. In short, no matter what supernatural power you might have, you cannot save someone who does not want to be saved. After pointing out that he is not truly a Samaritan, no matter what his Hollywood billing might say, because he sacrifices almost nothing with his donations, Dale decides to donate the one organ he believes he cannot regenerate - his heart - and donate it to Reanna's vile bastard of a spouse in a vainglorious suicidal gesture.

Of course, this being Dale, even his suicide is a failure, and doesn't even have the intended affect on Reanna. It seems that when you are a small town loser with shrinking dreams and no real idea of how to change your life, you are destined to remain a small town loser no matter how amazing your powers are, or how much you are willing to sacrifice. And maybe what you think you want isn't really worth getting. Dale, who has the most amazing gift, and who sacrifices everything, never gets what he thinks he wants. But in the end he ends up more or less satisfied. Reanna, on the other hand, does, and one suspects that her life is not destined to work out well.

Other than the fact that the book seems to imply that trying to help an abused spouse is a lost cause from the beginning, The Samaritan is an excellent book. It takes a brutally honest look at the bleak landscape of the overly romanticized small towns of rural America and exposes the petty nastiness and violence that lurks there. But at the same time, it shows just how noble even the most misguided fool can be, even if that nobility is seemingly ill-directed. As the debut novel for both Fred Venturini and Blank Slate Press, this is a compelling, albeit harshly bleak, read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Note: This is the last book I read in 2010. I'll be starting new threads in the 2011 challenge groups.

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2010

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