Monthly Archives: January 2009

Book stuff

I’ve seen several interesting posts lately on various topics involving books and reading, so I thought I’d share.

Bill Ward has a couple of articles (at his own blog and at Black Gate) on the subject of speed-reading, with special reference to a columnist/reviewer who ripped through a whopping 462 books last year. (And I thought I was doing well…. sheesh!) Also of interest is Bill’s post on keeping book lists.

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Wanna win some free books? Well you’re in luck. The Old Bat’s Belfry tracks down all the SF/F book giveaways going on and lists them for your convenience. So check there frequently, go enter those contests, and good luck!

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Shannon (at Books Worth Reading) posts on the books that have appeared throughout the tv show Lost. It’s an eye-opening list, actually. I’ve been a fan of the show since the first episode, and of course I’ve seen the various characters reading books from time to time. But somehow, I never paid all that much attention to exactly what they were reading. And it turns out there have been a lot more books involved than I ever noticed (see Shannon’s list). Looks like a half dozen or so science fiction and fantasy titles, and just a wild mix of other stuff. Any Lost fans reading this, go take a look.

I’m a “top 100″ — cool!

Distance Learning Net has posted a list of what they consider the Top 100 Science Fiction Blogs. And what’s that, down there in the Reviews section…… some place called “From A Sci-Fi Standpoint.” Hmmm, I’ve never considered this little ol’ blog of mine to be in that league, but apparently someone there thinks I provide “thoughtful criticism” in my SF reviews. Well, I try, and I’ll simply say, thanks for the compliment, DLN!

The two Vernor Vinges (the short and the long of it)

vingestoriesI have read several of Vernor Vinge’s novels and found their quality to range anywhere from “good” to “outstanding.” Indeed, over the time period I read those books, I’ve come to regard him as a solid and reliable author, perhaps even a growing favorite. So it seemed like a no-brainer to get this 2001 volume, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, containing nearly every story he had published up to that time. After all, if he’s that great a writer, how could I go wrong? Surely there must be some decent stories, and maybe some real gems, residing inside this 464-page tome of tales, right? Well, umm, as it turns out…… no, not really. I honestly can’t think of another story collection or anthology that I was more thoroughly unimpressed with than this one. And I take no pleasure in saying this, believe me.

The thing is, I know Vinge can write, damn it; A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the finest space operas ever written, if you ask me, and his other novels aren’t too shabby either. That’s why I’m at a total loss in explaining or understanding this. When it comes to short stories, it’s as if every ounce of writing talent Vinge possesses flew out the window. I mean, a lot of these stories are downright ineptly written, and I can’t figure how they ever got published (a few were even bought by Campbell, which surprises me). It strikes me that with Vinge’s writing, the rule is: the longer the better. There’s a clear (at least clear to me) rise in the quality level as he goes from short story to novelette/novella to medium-length novel to longer novel. And so, the longer pieces of this collection, those around novella length, are the best of the lot — although I cautiously use “best” as a relative term.

The single piece that was of any interest to me was “The Blabber.” This is one of those longer stories I mentioned, and it was Vinge’s first foray into his “Zones of Thought” universe, the setting for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It was written before either of those novels, although the events take place in a later time. While not that great a story in its own right, it was interesting to read the first instantiation of some of the ideas and characters that I would later fall in love with in Fire.

Similarly, this collection also contains Vinge’s novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” the first example of the near-future world that would later become the basis for Rainbows End. The same technological and social extrapolations are present, and for that this novella deserves some credit. However, “Fast Times,” unlike Rainbows End, fails to place those extrapolations in the context of anything approaching an interesting plot, and it ends up being just a day in the life of some junior high school kids, a showcase for their technological savvy. My advice: skip the story, read the book.

There were a couple more “from the same world” stories. One was “The Ungoverned,” set in the world of The Peace War. I thought that novel was pretty good; I thought this story was a complete waste of the paper it’s printed on. And “The Barbarian Princess” is a companion to Grimm’s World. I haven’t read that one, so I admit I skimmed over this story pretty quickly, but nothing about it inspired the barest flicker of my interest.

And none of the rest of these numerous stories did anything for me either. A story should have at least one thing going for it, whether it’s character development, or an exciting plot, or a fascinating idea to explore. Most of these stories failed on all counts, consisting of characters I didn’t care about, engaged in events that seemed ridiculous, in the service of ideas I thought were dull and uninspiring.

So, great novels and lousy short stories, from the same author? Can someone explain this to me? Are there really two Vinges, one doing the short writing and the other the longer projects? Did we gain an extra Vinge from some alternate universe, like in that old Star Trek episode with the evil Spock? If so, I hope the one writing the novels sticks around a long time, because I’ll keep on reading those. But I think I’m done with the short stuff.

Simmons satisfies with The Hollow Man

hollowman1After experiencing (and loving) Dan Simmons’ take on space opera as displayed in his Hyperion Cantos, I was looking forward to delving into some more of his work, and it didn’t take me long to find some. The Hollow Man (1992) recently caught my attention at a used bookstore, and reading it has only added to my growing admiration for Simmons. This novel is very different from the Hyperion stuff, and takes place much closer to home. It’s a mysterious SF suspense thriller (think Dean Koontz here for a general idea of the style), and Simmons seems just as comfortable with this type of story as he is with the grand arena of space opera.

Jeremy Bremen has an exceedingly rare gift: telepathy. Only it’s more of a curse, as the incessant noise of thoughts from other people can be maddening. However, he has been extraordinarily lucky in finding another telepath and gaining some relief. For the last several years he and his wife Gail, using their abilities together, have been able to shield each other from the “neurobabble” of the surrounding world. When his wife dies, though, that protective mindshield is gone, and Bremen is once again subjected to the torment of his accursed ability. As his life is turned upside down and he struggles with his affliction and loss, Bremen begins a downward spiral into emptiness and despair. As the darkness within him deepens, he burns his house and starts a cross-country journey that will bring him into confrontation with other sources of darkness and violence, including a serial killer, a rapist, and other criminals. During his long, dark night of the soul, Bremen himself sometimes engages in questionable or illegal behavior. Yet through it all, there are moments of kindness and glimmers of hope, and the feeling that Bremen has some greater destiny to fulfill.

Besides the theme of telepathic anguish, the book also revolves very much around a shocking discovery involving a new understanding of the nature of reality. This is based on some of the more fanciful implications of quantum mechanics, and Simmons also draws on chaos theory, fractals, strange attractors, and the like, tying all these together to come up with a suitably bizarre and mind-blowing explanation for the novel’s strange events. To be honest, I’m not sure I even completely understood the model of reality being put forth, or if it made any rigorous kind of sense; but I was relieved to see some kind of scientific explanation being attempted, rather than leaving it to the realm of the supernatural.

Simmons reuses here some of the elements and stylistic flourishes also used in his Hyperion books. For example, he likes to make reference in his fiction to real science fiction writers. In this case, two of the characters discuss Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, using the “jaunting” concept as an analogy for another process. Simmons’ interest in poetry is also evident here. As with Hyperion, the title of this book is taken from a real poem; in this case it’s Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” of course. It’s an appropriate title, for the novel shares that poem’s sense of gloominess. The chapter titles are taken from the poem as well. Also used is the very sad “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke.

While the strange discovery about reality that lies at the center of this novel may come across as a bit flaky, the book still succeeds very well on the strength of the characters and their emotional turmoil, and on the deep sense of urgent mystery that propels the story along. It’s an engaging tale of loss and redemption, of both the pain and the wonder of life, and of people just trying to make some sense out of it all. On that level The Hollow Man comes across as anything but hollow. And the more I read Dan Simmons, the more I like him.

Fellow bloggers share their thoughts on 2008

I’ve just had a chance to catch up on some of my blog reading that I’ve been slacking on since New Year’s Day. And I see that several of my blogger friends have posted their blogging/reading/whatever experiences in the year just ended.

Any biology fans among my readers? There must be. Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction has posted her End of the Year Stats, and it turns out this blog was among the top ten sites sending traffic her way last year. Be sure to keep visiting, because Biology in SF is a never-ending source of coolness!

Bill Ward looks back at 2008 in his Year of Reviews in Review. In some ways his experience sounds very similar to mine, in the ways my reading habits have changed since starting a blog and writing reviews (for example, like Bill, I’ve found less time for non-fiction lately). I also agree very much with his comments about the benefits of writing reviews:

And setting your thoughts down on a book forces you to not only think about what you are reading, but to have an opinion that goes beyond the merely superficial. Overall, I’d say the act of reviewing is good for readers, and that the books I’ve reviewed feel a bit more ‘mine’ afterward.

That’s exactly how feel and I couldn’t have said it better.

Then there’s Shannon’s 2008 Year in Books at Books Worth Reading, in which she analyzes her year’s reading in a variety of ways, including favorites in numerous categories. Hmmm… I see that only 27% of the books she read were science fiction. Come on Shannon, let’s step it up a notch this year! ;) Well ok, SF was her single largest category read, so we’ll cut her some slack.

And lastly, Mike Brotherton focused on a slightly different aspect of the past year: Idiots of 2008. From the anti-vaccination folks, to Ben Stein and his joke of a movie Expelled, to Orson Scott Card and his anti-gay bigotry, to the antics of the current Pope, to global warming deniers, to the mainstream media, to astrologers…… Mike gives a long list of idiots a good thrashing, which they certainly deserve. Good job, Mike!

Warning: this is not a game! (But it is a review.)

notagameThis Is Not A Game (2009) by Walter Jon Williams is a novel that blurs the lines between gaming and reality and explores the possible interaction between the two, given the fact that games continue to become more complex and better able to simulate reality, and can involve large networks of online participants. Williams looks at some of the unanticipated ways reality might intrude into a game, as well as the potential for a game and/or its players to affect the real world. It is against this conceptual backdrop that the particular events of the story unfold — riots, financial crises, murders — and in that context that their root causes are to be found. Although set in the very near future, as indicated by a few minor technological innovations, the novel comes across more like a contemporary techno-thriller than as science fiction — which is neither here nor there, I suppose. It is what it is, and it’s an enjoyable enough story with plenty of drama. The book is not without a few plot deficiencies here and there; still, it manages to grapple with some intriguing ideas that are worth thinking about, and so on balance I’d have to call it a success.

Dagmar Shaw is a “puppetmaster,” a game designer specializing in Alternate Reality Games. An ARG is something like a MMORPG mixed with a LARP, requiring online interaction and puzzle-solving interspersed with real-world events and missions. It can involve any and every type of medium: email, secret websites, fake documents, phone calls, text messages, live gatherings at special locations, packages in the mail, and so on — whatever the devious puppetmaster can work into the game to make it exciting and challenging. Dagmar is good at what she does, and her games are popular.

However, she soon finds herself the victim of circumstances that are all too real, forcing her to realize that, indeed, “this is not a game.” On her way home from the successful conclusion of a game event in Asia, Dagmar gets stranded for a time in Jakarta as Indonesia’s currency fails, leading to rioting and chaos. When she finally gets out of that mess and gets back to L.A., more bad luck awaits as one of her oldest friends from her college gaming days is murdered, apparently by the Russian maffia. Dagmar’s boss, also an old friend, is acting strange, asking her to make bizarre changes to her newest game, and giving no explanations. Still another old gaming friend also comes into the picture, reminding Dagmar of a seemingly innocuous quirk from a game years in the past, one that just might have relevance to current events. There are more murders, and all the while the currencies of various countries seem to be under some kind of mysterious attack.

Amid all this chaos, Dagmar hits on the idea of harnessing the millions of players of her current game to track down her friend’s killer, drawing on the multiplicity of skills and knowledge bound to be found in such a large group. She refers to this concept as the Group Mind. (Vernor Vinge, in Rainbows End, also invoked this idea of the problem-solving potential of large online groups.) And so Dagmar writes the murder into her game, turning her players into a vast force of detectives. But she gets more than she bargained for, as the Group Mind turns up much more than just the identity of a killer. It also uncovers information bearing on all the other mysteries occurring lately, allowing Dagmar to piece together the shocking truth.

The biggest weakness I saw with the book involved a certain crucial software/malware issue and the proposed solution. It seems to me that the solution was rather obvious and could have been implemented years earlier, thus eliminating this issue before it ever became a problem. I suppose it might be said that previously the problem had not become serious enough to need a solution; but I still think the writing was on the wall, and the relevant character realistically should/would have acted sooner. Other weak points were relatively minor but still noticeable, such as the hired mercenaries who are too laughably incompetent to pull off a simple rescue but yet can re-task a satellite as easily as the agents in 24. Or the hotel patrons in rioting Jakarta who look out the windows to see people jumping to their deaths off the roof of a neighboring hotel that was set on fire, but don’t seem worried enough to leave their own hotel. These kinds of little glitches give the novel a slightly disjointed, unrealistic feeling of weirdness that is a bit distracting.

As I said, though, the book presents some ideas worth contemplating. Just what kinds of problems could a large interactive online community — a Group Mind — solve, and how could it be effectively, and appropriately, harnessed? If you were part of such a group, how would you know if the game’s designers were using you for their own ends or not, or if those ends were legitimate? How can you tell if everything in a game is actually fictional? What happens when gamers take successful strategies for conquering the game world and apply them to the real world — what kind of mischief could they cause? Where should the line (if any) be drawn between games and reality, and is it a line that is worth maintaining?

If those sound like interesting questions, then I’d say you’ll get some enjoyment from this novel.