Thursday, December 15, 2005

What He Said

For myself, I probably stand alone in owning to a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle--judiciously remote, as some men love the skirl of the pipes. In the days when streets were less wearily familiar than now, or ever the golden cord was quite loosed that led back to relinquished fields and wider skies, I have lain awake on stifling summer nights, thinking of luckier friends by moor and stream, and listening for the whistles from certain railway stations, veritable "horns of Elf-land, faintly blowing." Then, a ghostly passenger, I have taken my seat in a phantom train, and sped up, up, through the map, rehearsing the journey bit by bit: through the furnace-lit Midlands, and on till the grey glimmer of dawn showed stone walls in place of hedges, and masses looming up on either side; till the bright sun shone upon brown leaping streams and purple heather, and the clear, sharp northern air streamed in through the windows..."We are only the children who might have been," murmured Lamb's dream babes to him; and for the sake of those dream-journeys, the journeys that might have been, I still hail with a certain affection the call of the engine in the night...


—Kenneth Grahame, "The Romance of the Rail", Pagan Papers (essays)

In later years it is stifled and gagged--buried deep, a green turf at the head of it, and on its heart a stone; but it lives, it breathes, it lurks, it will up and out when 'tis looked for least. That stockbroker, some brief summers gone, who was missed from his wonted place one settling-day! a goodly portly man, i' faith: and had a villa and a steam launch at Surbiton: and was versed in the esoteric humours of the House. Who could have thought that the Hunter lay hid in him? Yet, after many weeks, they found him in a wild nook of Hampshire. Ragged, sun-burnt, the nocturnal haystack calling aloud from his frayed and weather-stained duds, his trousers tucked, he was tickling trout with godless native urchins; and when they would have won him to himself with honied whispers of American Rails, he answered but with babble of green fields. He is back in his wonted corner now: quite cured, apparently, and tractable. And yet--let the sun shine too wantonly in Throgmorton Street, let an errant zephyr, quick with the warm South, fan but his cheek too wooingly on his way to the station; and will he not once more snap his chain and away? Ay, truly: and next time he will not be caught.


—Kenneth Grahame, "Orion", Pagan Papers (essays)

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Authorized Biography

Neil McAleer was given the blessing to write Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography. This biography really didn't tell me anything that I did not know about Clarke from reading his many non-fiction pieces. I get the impression that McAleer used the same sources, plus some interviews with associates and family members. You really don't get much of the "inner Clarke" here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Space Is A Place

One potential setting is either the asteroid belt or an asteroid in general. Looking at this site, there seems to be no lack of material for resources!
L5 News

One good source of scenarios are the back issues of the newsletter for the L5 Society. They can be found online here. NASA's space settlement studies can be found here and can be found here. A special issue of CoEvolution Quarterly is also online.
Geologic History of the Moon

One setting for a story is on the Moon, around the time that it starts to get explored again. This work is considered one of the seminal papers on the structure of the Moon.
Borderlands of Science

Another good non-fiction reference is Borderlands of Science by the late Charles Sheffield. As with the previous book mentioned, Baen Books has an electronic version available. If I could get anywhere near the level of these stories, I'd be a very happy camper.
Indistinguishable from Magic

Indistinguishable from Magic is a non-fiction book by the late Dr. Robert L. Forward. He takes a look at (what was at the time of the writing) some bleeding-edge science. A good book for reference if you're writing science fiction. And, even better, Baen Books has an electronic version available!
Project Rho

One of the most invaluable sites on the web. By the time you work through the Atomic Rockets section, you'll be ready to fly your own spaceship!
The World, The Flesh and The Devil

One of the biggest inspirations to science fiction has been a little book called The World, The Flesh and The Devil by J.D. Bernal. There are a couple of versions available online, this one is pretty good (if you ignore some of the additions).

For a good addition, however, I recommend this posting at Impearls. Michael McNeil got permission to post Freeman Dyson's look back and speculations forward from Bernal's seminal work.
Beginnings Are Delicate Things

So I've been kicking around a couple of story ideas and a framework to hang them on. This blog will show some of the framework and perhaps (if I feel brave enough) drafts of the stories.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

Del Rey has been coming out with a series of trade paperbacks containing the works of Robert E. Howard. This installment was The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. Other than a short encounter with this character sometime during college, I wasn't really all that familiar with Kane. As I recall, I thought the idea of a Puritan running around getting into sword fights, pistol duels and various encounters with the fantastic and supernatural was pretty silly.

However, when I spotted this book in the store, I was interested. For one, the artwork, by one Gary Gianni, was excellent. It seemed to really capture the pen-and-ink style used in the pulps that stories like these originally appeared in. For another, since this was a complete set of Kane stories, I figured I'd get a pretty good sense of the worth of the series.

The stories are pretty darn good, and I'll have to read more of Howard's stuff ths year. I have a feeling that my appreciation of his writing was probably ruined by the various camp followers (ranging from the good such as Poul Anderson to the simply atrocious such as Robert Jordan) who have attached themselves to Howard over the years. These tales (overall) were nicely plotted and had some good characters, not the least of which is Solomon Kane himself.

The stories range pretty widely and seem to be arranged in chronological (for the stories) order. Kane starts out in England, travels through Europe, and then (for the bulk of the book) spends a lot of time in Darkest Africa. While Howard occasionally slips into less than politically correct characterizations at time, many of the secondary characters in the African sequence are written a lot more sympathetically than his contemporaries.

There are a number of story fragments scattered throughout the book. It's a shame that Howard never finished them, as I would have liked to see how they ended. There are also a couple of poems about Kane, as well as a article by H.P. Lovecraft on Howard's death, an essay by the artist, and couple of articles in the end. These include a biography of Howard, a profile of the artist, and a series of notes on the texts themselves.

The book is made up of: Foreword (Gary Gianni); In Memorium: Robert Ervin Howard (H.P. Lovecraft); Skulls in the Stars; The Right Hand of Doom; Red Shadows; Rattle of Bones; The Castle of the Devil; Death's Black Rider; The Moon of Skulls; The One Black Stain; The Blue Flame of Vengeance; The Hills of the Dead; Hawk of Basti; The Return of Sir Richard Grenville; Wings in the Night; The Footfalls Within; The Children of Asshur; Solomon Kane's Homecoming (two versions); A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard (Rusty Burke); Gary Gianni; Notes on the Original Howard Text.

This book counts as 20 entries for the 2005 Short Story Project.
Rocket Boys

Former astronaut Walt Cunningham talks about his experiences as an astronaut up to the flight of Apollo 1 and then (in this revised edition of his The All-American Boys) looks at NASA and the space program today. The older story is more interesting than the new material; Cunningham manages to contradict himself on several occasions in the new material.

The Honorverse

David Weber's Honor Harrington Series...another end-to-end reading project!

This entry in the 2005 reading sprint was On Basilisk Station by David Weber (Baen Books, 1999 for the hardcover, but the paperback was published several years earlier).

David Weber is one of the more polished writers of science fiction snack food out there. Now, before you get angry, think about it. When we eat snack food, we enjoy the experience. But rarely does it conjure up the fond memories that a home-cooked meal does. Weber is of a similar ilk. I enjoy reading his stuff, while I'm reading it. But, when I discuss science fiction and my favorite books, his name does not come up. Like snack food, I'll keep on buying and reading his stuff as long as he produces it.

Weber was involved in the production of the Starfire series of games (originally from the same folks who brought us Star Fleet Battles). Star Fleet Battles started out pretty simply, one boxed set. Then came a couple of expansions, which added races and ships and rules. Still pretty playable. Eventually the whole system underwent a rewrite (and still seems to be rewritten on a regular basis), adding more and more ships, more and more races, until the whole thing creaks under its own weight. Starfire had a similar history; it started out simply, started growing. Weber got involved in one of the re-writes and eventually co-wrote a series of novels about the game universe.

On Basilisk Station is the start of a series of books dealing with Honor Harrington. Think of it as Horatio Hornblower (get it, HH?) in space. Ships have sails, of a sort, there are lots of broadsides; I haven't come across any cutlasses yet, but swords of another kind do play a role in the series a few books down. There's a good empire (based on England), and a not-so-good empire (a sort of a combination of post-revolution France, a corrupt pseudo-socialist country and a few other things thrown into the mix).

Follow us as we travel with Honor in her career from captain of a ship to eventually (I presume, but I haven't gotten that far) being Admiral.

There's action. Missiles! Lasers! Lots of explosions! Big ships (really, really big ships)! Death! Destruction! Strange societies! Alien cats! Intrigue! Schemes! And more...memorable characters? Not so much.

But like I said, it is snack food. Snack food doesn't stick with you for long. But you sure enjoy it while it is going down.

(Also read this year, so far, were: The Honor of the Queen and The Short Victorious War and Field of Dishonor, Flag in Exile and Honor Among Enemies.)

2009 Update: Re-read On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, The Short Victorious War, Field of Dishonor. Hoping to get through the series before Mission of Honor comes out next year!

Now that you've read this far, perhaps you'd be interested in buying (when it comes out) the game based on the series?

Friday, November 18, 2005


McAndrew Almost Complete

I first encountered Charles Sheffield, and his wonderful characters of brilliant physicist Arthur Morton McAndrew and spaceship captain Jeannie Rokker in Sheffield's first collection, Hidden Variables. That volume contained several of McAndrew's tales, along with a couple of independent stories. A few years later came a second collection, pure McAndrew, and even though there were only a couple of new entries I bought it. Ditto a few years after that when a third collection came out. I snapped it up in an instant. When Baen Books announced The Compleat McAndrew, I not only bought the paperback, but the electronic book version as well. And when I heard that T.K.F. Weisskopf's Cosmic Tales: Adventures in the Sol System was going to have a McAndrew story (alas, the last), I haunted the bookstores until I found a copy.

These are hard science fiction. They are all "puzzle stories", McAndrew tries to solve some sort of problem in physics and usually ends up in a fix that requires the help of his traveling companion Jeannie Rokker (who has more sense than him) to come to his rescue. We explore the mysteries of inertia, dark matter, the solar focus, see the future Earth, dive in the oceans of Europa and much more in these tales. There's a lot of hard science here, but the characters are fun, the dialogue is fun, and the stories are just plain fun, hard science or no. Highly recommended. Too bad Sheffield never found a problem in physics "worthy" of a McAndrew novel, I would have loved to seen him shine in a longer work.

Contains: Introduction; Killing Vector; Moment of Inertia; All the Colors of the Vacuum; The Manna Hunt; The Hidden Matter of McAndrew; The Invariants of Nature; Rogueworld; With McAndrew, Out of Focus; McAndrew and the Fifth Commandment; Appendix: Science & Science Fiction; McAndrew and The Law (appears in Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Sol System, edited by T.K.F. Weisskopf, Baen Books, 2004).

Counts as twelve entries in the 2005 Short Story Project.
Tarzan of the Apes

I thought I "knew" the story of Tarzan until I read this book by Edgar Rice Burroughs. After all, hadn't I seen the stories on television as a kid? In the movies as Greystoke or the Disney version? Nah, how wrong can you be! In general outline, you probably know the tale, but the animated, televised and filmed versions of Tarzan's life overlook a lot of interesting detail. For example, there's a lot of detail of Tarzan's life with the "apes" (not gorillas or chimps, as it is often depicted, but a "lost race" of primates). Tarzan learns to talk (multiple human languages), learns to read (on his own), heck, Tarzan even travels out of Africa (to the United States and Europe). The writing is not as "pulpy" as some of the work by Burroughs, this might be his high point. Good stuff!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Baroque Cycle

It was time to tackle the Neal Stephenson world-hopping trio of bookstops end-to-end!

Quicksilver: What again? Yes, again. I read it last year and considered it to be one of the best books I read during that year. Enough time, however, had passed, before I started to tackle the other two volumes of The Baroque Cycle that I felt I needed a refresher. Plus, I had bought the eBook versions, and suddenly had the ability to do bookmarks, take notes and more. So away I went. Even more fun the second time around!

The Confusion: Hard on the heels of my re-read of Quicksilver, came my first time through with The Confusion. Holy smokes, what a read! Spanning from 1689 to 1702, we span the world with Jack Shaftoe, travel in smaller circles in Europe with Eliza (now Countess de la Zeur) and both in the inner circles of Europe's intellectual elite and in a general westerly direction (towards his goal of Massachusetts colony) with Daniel Waterhouse. As with Quicksilver, this is a immense and complicated book and I can see where reviewers (who go for quantity of reviews, not quality of fewer reviews) did not have the patience for it. I'll have to revisit it again. How can you not like a book with pirates, travels around the world, economics, the first hints of computers, politics, sex, romance, privateers, slavery, several fortunes made and lost, intrigue and much more?

The System of the World: Here ends The Baroque Cycle and what a long journey it has been! The final volume differs from the first two not only in its scope (it pretty much centers around England, unlike the globe-trotting plot of The Confusion) but its time frame (unlike the multi-year timelines of Quicksilver and The Confusion, this one takes place in 1714). Another wonderful mix of real and imagined characters, this one features more of Daniel Waterhouse and his friend Isaac Newton (both acting for a good part of the book like Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes tracking down Jack Shaftoe, a.k.a., "Jack the Coiner" in a Dr. Moriarty role). I'm sorry the story ended!

Addendum (November 5, 2006): This 2005 interview with Neal Stephenson just popped up in my inbox.
Just Wild About Harry

I decided to re-read the various Harry Potter books (J.K. Rowling) for two reasons. One, I just finished watching the third movie (and re-watched the first two movies during my weekend shifts). A good job, overall. The change in directors (and one actor) was not obtrusive. However, they better get cracking on filming the remaining books. Those kids are starting to grow up faster than the books are being filmed!

I first read Sorcerer's Stone when it came out in 1998 (American edition). This was before the craze had gripped us. I enjoyed the book, thought it rather lightweight, but enjoyed it.

Now we've got bookstores staying up until midnight when a new volume comes out and the next installment (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) is perpetually poised at the top of Amazon.com's bestseller list...months before it gets released.

So, what do I think of the book with all this buzz and three movies? I still like it. I still think its rather lightweight, but I still enjoyed it. Rowling manages to toss all sorts of fantasy elements into the pot without regard for real consistency and manages to make it work with a page-turner of a book (even though I had read it previously and have seen the movie more than once at this point, I still raced through to see if it would all turn out right in the end!) The writing is crude compared to folks in the field that I admire (e.g., Tolkien, Leiber, Hodgell, Hughart and others), but its fun.

I'm all for these books, and encourage J.K. Rowling to keep on rolling. Anything to get kids reading these days should be encouraged, not banned, due to allegations of black magic and all that rot (allegations leveled, probably, by those who have not read the books).

One thing that amazes me is to line up the volumes (one to five) and see how they keep growing. Volumes one and two are roughly the same size. Volume three starts the growth spurt...it is maybe 25% (not even) thicker than the first two. Volume four, look out! Ditto volume five. How big will volume six be?

Two more entries in the reading list for the year, both by J.K. Rowling, both re-reads. The first was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the second was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It was especially interesting to re-read these as (a) I had not read them since they first came out; and, (b) I was working from the perspective (as with the re-read of the first book) having better memories of the movies than of the books.

As most of the folks who read this blog have probably encountered the Potter marketing machine in some form or another, I won't go into much detail. Overall, I enjoyed reading the books again, having forgotten enough plot details to make many things a surprise the second time around. If I was bothered by anything, it is Rowling's tendency to make too many things "cute" (names of creatures, names of spells, etc.). Reading one of the series, it isn't bothersome. Reading two back-to-back and you get a bit irked.

One thing that I thought interesting was how much had been trimmed out of the third film when I re-read the third book. Nothing vital was really taken out, but I think that I would have liked some of the background information (e.g., the origin of the map that Fred and George Weasley pass on to Harry) in the third movie. I also think that some of the "end game" was better played out in the book than the movie.

On to the Goblet of Fire (after, probably, a break for some non-Harry Potter reading!)!

After plowing quickly through the first three volumes of the Harry Potter series, I came to the two doorstops: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Scholastic Press, 2000) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic Press, 2003).

I found Goblet, overall, to be a better book than Phoenix. We'll get to that in a moment.

Both of these are "bridge" books. Rowling has stated that the series will be seven books long, one for each of Harry's years at Hogwarts. So, like The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers, we've got to have a bridge between the set up and the climax. Sometimes an author (or filmmaker) succeeds, sometimes not so much.

Goblet broke some of the mold set up in the first three books. We still have a bit with Harry's "muggle" family, but Harry gets to go to the World Quidditch Cup. There a few things happen to indicate that our big nasty bad guy is on the move again. Harry returns to school where he gets thrown into the midst of a contest that he should not have been involved in. Eventually there's a big showdown with you-know-who and you-know-who returns to human form, although his ultimate triumph (getting rid of Harry) is thrawted. Overall, as a bridge book, it works. There's enough interesting new stuff to keep you moving, but no real resolution. You're nicely set up for the two book climax.

With Phoenix, things dragged a bit. Weighing in over 800 pages, there's a lot of bridge to cross here. The first 350 pages I found a bit annoying. Harry is such a git that you want to strangle him at times. It's not until he takes things into his own hands, and starts to fight back the forces of stupidity (descended upon Hogwarts from the Ministry of Magic), that things get interesting. There are a number of neat new characters (starting to appeal to a older crowd), some love interest, and even what will be (if done right) a nifty battle that will film nicely. However, even after the book picks up, Harry gets into annoying mode. I'm not sure if Rowling was trying for major character development or what, but overall, it came off making me want to race through the book instead of enjoying the book.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The latest installment in the series. One tale to go! While I enjoyed it, not much really happens here until the end of the book. Much of the tale explains the origins of Lord Valdemort. An enjoyable tale, but I wonder how it will translate to the big screen when it makes it there.

Will Rowling be able to write anything that follows on to these books?

2010 Update: Finally got The Young Lady interested in the books—she asked to see the movies, after we watched several, I started re-reading the books and she picked up the first as well. We're now "racing" through the series, discussing it. So far, I have re-read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (Mention here.)
Just About Half of the Callahan Saga

I first encountered Spider Robinson in the pages of Analog, when I purchased it from a local newsstand (one that I had to walk about 4 miles to get to, ah, the "good old" days!). So I've been reading the Callahan tales since the initial appearance of The Guy With the Eyes. I haven't read all of the books, there's a few of the later novels that I have bought and not gotten to. This re-read is part an encounter with old, beloved friends and part getting me up to speed so that I finish all the books.

Overall, from the few novels that I have read, I prefer Callahan (or Lady Sally or Mary's Place) as a series of shorter works than novels. The impact has usually been greater and I still think that Spider Robinson is weaker as a novel writer than a writer of shorter works. I've read a number of his other novels, only the Stardance sequence has been a set that I've wanted to re-visit (other than the Callahan tales).

The Callahan tales are wonderful. I urge you to seek them out, at least the first three (all collections, sometimes available in an omnibus). Imagine a bar where time travelers, aliens, mutant dogs, punsters, tellers of tall tales and more can all gather and are freely accepted. Imagine a place that actually cares about their regulars (and strangers) and tries to help those who need it. Good stuff, those tales, I actually wept the first time I read The Mick of Time and XXXXXXXXX (censored for those who haven't read it) happened. Seek them out. Pain shared is pain lessened.

Off the Wall at Callahan's: This one is actually not a Callahan novel or collection, per se. It is a collection of sayings, filk songs, tall tales and the like that have appeared in the various stories and novels. Not recommended until you have read some of the other collections or novels.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon: The book contains Introduction (Ben Bova); The Guy With the Eyes; The Time-Traveler; The Centipede's Dilemma; Two Heads Are Better Than One; The Law of Conversation of Pain; Just Desserts; "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah..."; Unnatural Causes; The Wonderful Conspiracy. Counts as ten contributions to the 2005 Short Story Project.

Of these, The Time-Traveler and "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah..." have the most impact. Interestingly, according to Spider Robinson's notes, The Time-Traveler resulted in one subscriber threatening to stop getting Analog because it "wasn't science fiction". Ben Bova apparently replied and nothing was heard back, so I guess he or she still subscribed!

Time Travelers Strictly Cash: Contains a mixture of Callahan tales and independents. It seems that Spider Robinson promised a second collection, but when the book came due, he didn't quite have a second collection's worth of stories. So he filled it up with a mixed bag of other items. The non-Callahn material is made up of Soul Search (short story, has some interesting ideas); Spider vs. the Hax of Sol III (his first book review column, a couple of books that have stood the test of time since it was published plus one author that sank from sight); God Is An Iron (a chapter from a non-Callahan novel that could stand on its own as a story); Rah Rah R.A.H.! (an essay about Robert A. Heinlein that I have used here in this blog to counter critics of the Grand Master); Local Champ (a fantasy tale, possibly his only contribution to that genre, and fairly weak); The Web of Sanity (a speech to a SF convention, marginal value); Serpent's Teeth (a tale of young society gone amok, also fairly weak). The Callahan tales in this collection are Fivesight; Dog Day Evening; Have You Heard the One; and Mirror/rorriM Off the Wall. Counts as twelve contributions to the 2005 Short Story Project.

These are all excellent tales. Dog Day Evening introduces my second favorite Callahan character and Have You Heard the One introduces my favorite (sadly non-recurring) character. Good stuff.

Callahan's Secret: Foreword; The Blacksmith's Tale; Pyotr's Story; Involuntary Man's Laughter; The Mick of Time. Counts as four contributions to the 2005 Short Story Project.

A very good quartet of tales, especially, I think Involuntary Man's Laughter and The Mick of Time. Can such a place as Callahan's exist in our increasingly weird and fractionalized work? One hopes so!

For a while, with The Mick of Time, it appeared that we saw the end of the Callahan stories. That hasn't turned out to be true, luckily. The series was expanded to include the Lady Sally tales and the tales of Mary's Place. I'll start working on them and let you know what I think as I either read or re-read the books.

Callahan's Lady: Contains A Very Very Very Fine House; Revolver; The Paranoid; Dollars to Donuts. Counts as four entries in the 2005 Short Story Project.

Callahan's Lady is the first of two books set in the Lady Sally sequence, a kind of spin-off of the Callahan's series. Instead of a bar, we have a house of "ill repute". As with the bar in Callahan's, the House is not what you'd expect, the "artists" are treated decently, as are the "clients" (unless they misbehave). Some characters from the Callahan sequence show up in these stories such as Eddie (the piano player) and Ralph (the talking German Shepherd). There are some amusing nods to Heinlein here, especially with the fourth tale (Dollars to Donuts). However, overall, I haven't found the Lady Sally stories as appealing as the Callahan stories. Too strange a setting? Characters not as sympathetic? I'm not sure. This book was a series of interconnected long stories, the next in the sequence (Lady Slings the Booze) appears to be a novel. So I'll reserve final judgment until I see how the sequence develops. After that will come the Mary's Place sequence to wrap up this little corner of the universe (for now).

Lady Slings the Booze: The second book that takes place at (and around) Lady Sally's place. A tad better than the first in that the first of two tales is long enough to do a better job of developing a major new character. Hints are dropped of further tales in the sequence.
The Many Voices of Sir Arthur C. Clarke

I'll be reading a lot of Clarke's books this year. Mostly they are re-reads, but they are old friends and I like to revisit old friends every now and again. Some I have read or re-read relatively recently, others I have not visited for decades.

Like Simak, Clarke is a master of sparse writing. We need that every now and again, too much of a good thing, over and over again, becomes boring. It is not that Clarke lacks for ideas, any one of his books, even short stories, have enough ideas to keep several other authors busy for a long time.

And look at some of the subject matter covered! The Fountains of Paradise with space elevators, those puppies maight actually become reality. The Hammer of God with rogue comets; look at our recent efforts with Deep Impact. While it may be a long time before we see the quantum overdrive of The Songs of Distant Earth, there seems to be something going on in "empty space".

It has been said that Clarke does not do characters well. Upon reading some of these again, I tend to disagree. There are some finely drawn characters in books such as The Ghost from Grand Banks and The Songs of Distant Earth. Many of the short stories in The Wind from the Sun have excellent characters.

And even if he doesn't "do characters", he can raise a lot of emotions. The grand sweep of time, the grand scale of the cosmos, the end of the Earth, the meeting with aliens (on Earth or in the Universe). Wonderful stuff!

To be honest, the reason I'm reading and re-reading so much of his stuff is because of what I've heard recently about Clarke's health. I'm visiting with an ailing friend, one who has had almost as much influence on me as any relative. Perhaps through the visit, I'll help him get better.

The Ghost from Grand Banks: One of several books in which Clarke explores his love of the story of the Titanic. This book is probably the closest to our own time of any Clarke's books, in fact, much of the story is already in the past. Some interesting stuff about obsession (of several kinds) plus fractals and the genius of mathematics.

The Hammer of God: Clarke's contribution to the killer comet/asteroid sub-genre. In fact, the book was optioned by the folks that made the movie Deep Impact.

Rendezvous With Rama: This was Clarke's first novel past 2001: A Space Odyssey and remains one of my favorites. It's a typical "compact" novel where ideas are sprinkled throughout that would take volumes for other authors to explore (contrast this slim book and all of its ideas with the three sequels "co-written" with Gentry Lee and you'll see what I mean). Rama is a mystery object, discovered falling towards the Solar System. First thought to be a comet or asteroid, it is discovered to be a vast artificial structure, a ship, a sort of extraterrestrial Noah's Ark. A ship from Earth manages to rendezvous with Rama and the crew makes their way inside to explore. Not as big as Niven's Ringworld, Clarke does a better job of conveying the vastness of this artificial structure. Political intrigue, strange aliens, incomprehensible technology, even Clarke's first use of s-e-x. Highly recommended.

The Songs of Distant Earth: Expanded from a story that he wrote relatively early on in his career. One of his best when it comes to character realizations, and chock-full (as usual with more ideas per page than most other authors explore throughout an entire book. One of his best.

The Wind from the Sun: This collection contains stories that Clarke wrote after the Space Age began (earlier collections, e.g., Tales from Ten Worlds, The Other Side of the Sky, Reach for Tomorrow, etc., were all written before Sputnik.) Some are set in space, some set underwater and some set in various places on Earth. It's a fine mix, especially A Meeting with Medusa and its hair-raising trip into the atmosphere of Jupiter using a "hot air" balloon. You can get all these (plus Clarke's other short stories to date) in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (a fine collection, but marred by lousy proofreading on the part of the collection's editor).

Contents: The Food of the Gods; Maelstrom II; The Shining Ones; The Secret; The Last Command; Dial F for Frankenstein; Reunion; Playback; The Light of Darkness; The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told; Herbert George Morely Roberts Wells, Esq.; Love That Universe; Crusade; The Cruel Sky; Neutron Tide; Transit of Earth; A Meeting with Medusa.

Counts as 18 entries in the 2005 Short Story Project.
David Gerrold

The Voyage of the Star Wolf and The Middle of Nowhere: There's a pretty good website which summarizes the history behind these books; depending on which edition of the books you come across, you'll get some additional background information. Suffice it to say that Gerrold has tried to bring these tales to the small screen on a couple of occasions (scroll down to the article entitled "The Long March of Star Wolf" from 07/27/99), and it is a shame he never succeeded. While not great written science fiction, they are much more interesting than most of the dreck that passes for science fiction on television. For example, if this series had been done the first time I heard about it (through an article and some beautiful illustrations by Andrew Probert in Cinefantastique), and done the way Gerrold wanted it to be done, all the "buzz" you hear about the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica would be applied to these tales. Some nifty stuff here: a ship that is less than perfect, a crew that is definately less than perfect, a war that isn't going as well as it should, and the conflict is not resolved in one episode. It would have been a wonderful television series! Hopefully I'll get to the prequel/sequel/parallel universe novel, Starhunt (not republished by Ben Bella Books like these) as well as the latest book in the series, Blood and Fire before the year is out. One thing is for sure, like the (in)famous Chtoor series that Gerrold seems to be forever finishing, I'll probably get caught up with the series before the promised next installment is published!

Probably the most interesting part of these books are the introductions and afterwords in the various editions that I have, some by Gerrold, some by other authors who have worked with him. Neil Gaiman commented in one article I read that he held a record for the most unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Reading about Gerrold's many frustrated efforts to bring some intelligence to science fiction on television you wonder if he might hold that title (with Harlan Ellison in close proximity).
Perry Rhodan

(Various Authors)

Enterprise Stardust and The Radiant Dome and Galactic Alarm: Hey, they're popcorn, but I like popcorn every now and again. Perry Rhodan is the most prolific SF series around (and it's a shame we can't get him in English!) I actually read these three as eBooks, somebody has put the text of many of the Ace editions up online. So I copied them, started printing them out, and now I've been proofing them. As proofing is fairly time consuming, I've only managed to get through three. But it is a great activity for those guard shifts where I don't have access to other forms of entertainment. Go Perry!
The Chronicles of Narnia

Seeing that the first movie in the hoped for "franchise" based on the tales of C.S. Lewis is coming this December, I decided to re-read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time since the 1970's.

The Magician's Nephew: The "first" of the Chronicles of Narnia chronologically but one of the last to be written. It gives you the backstory on how Narnia was formed, and why, for example, there's lampost standing in the middle of a wood. Probably the weakest of the set. I'm reading them to Young Miss Laura, so we'll see how far we get before she gets bored with them.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: Second installment in the Chronicles of Narnia and the one currently on the big screen. The book is bogged down on occasion by the "cuteness" of the writing (Lewis manages to outsilly H.P. Lovecraft's various names in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) and the "writing down to a child's level" that I find annoying in a lot of children's literature. However, certain scenes (a lampost in the woods, the first meeting with Mr. Tumnus, dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver) make up for the groaners.
I Really Tried to Like It

I really wanted to like Rocket Man by David A. Clary. I very much wanted to like this book. After all, Robert Goddard is a boyhood hero of mine. It's been too long since his accomplishments have been brought to the attention of a public that thinks we've always been able to fly in space. Heck, the cover of the book has quote from Arthur C. Clarke, "Rocket Man is a long overdue tribute to one of the greatest engineers of the Twentieth Century—whose work helped change the future of this and many other worlds.

Hello? Are we talking about the same book here? This was a terrible book on several fronts. My biggest complaint is that Clary seems shocked, shocked that Robert Goddard was not perfect. Finding him to have feet of clay, he spends much of the book shooting at those feet. Then he spends a smaller portion of the book contradicting himself and a very tiny portion of the book praising Goddard. It took me nearly the entire year to get through the book, so many times did I walk away in anger or disgust, constantly restraining myself from hurling the book against the wall.

Two examples. First, Clary berates Goddard for not following up on early radio and electronics work, work that became the basis (he asserts) for much of the later radio industry. But later in the book her berates Goddard for "wasting" time going after RCA for patents when it seemed that RCA had benefited from Goddard's early work. Second, Clary spends a lot of time complaining that Goddard either worked in what Clary felt were dead ends in rocketry or areas that had no immediate payoff. A prime example was the quest that Goddard had in trying to develop gyroscopic controls for rockets. But then in the final pages of the book, Clary shows how a rocket...using all these "dead-ends"...took man to the Moon.

Sigh. I really tried to like this book. Maybe in a few years somebody will undertake the project again (as well as similar projects for the other so-called "fathers of rocketry") and we'll get something worth reading.

The Wacky Worlds of "Doc" Taylor

Warp Speed (Baen Books, ISBN 0-7434-8862-8, 12/04. Cover artist David Mattingly) and The Quantum Connection (Baen Books, ISBN 0-7434-9896-8, 04/05. Cover artist David Mattingly) by Travis S. Taylor.

Warp Speed: Hey, didn't I read this last year? Sure did. However, I was feeling poorly one weekend and wanted some space opera to take my mind off the virus. While I'm in the middle of the David Weber Honor Harrington series, each of those entries is getting longer than the previous, and I wanted something that I thought I could finish in the weekend. I enjoyed this even more than the first time around. Perhaps it was because I read this after reading Sheffield's McAndrew stories, but I enjoyed the blend of odd characters, fantastic physics and technology and fast-paced action and thought to myself...hey, maybe this Taylor fella will become the new Sheffield! I've started on the second book of the series (The Quantum Connection) and hope to finish that soon.

(Addendum: October 2, 2008: Re-read it again!)

The Quantum Connection: The second installment in what I hope will be a long series. More of the same, but with lots of nifty new twists. Ever wonder about all those grey aliens running around? Learn the truth!

An excerpt of Warp Speed can be found here.

An excerpt of The Quantum Connection can be found here.

Expanded Universe

Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein was an expansion (hence the title) of an earlier work, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. The expansion was pretty dramatic; about two-thirds of the material are new to the book, and quite a bit of it was probably new (in 1980) when it was first published. This version was a Baen Books hardcover published in 2003.

The book is an odd mixture of material, very uneven in nature. There are some real Heinlein classics here and there are some items that you wish they had left in the files. At least half is non-fiction of various sorts, some of which has aged pretty badly.

The classics are stories such as Blowups Happen and Solution Unsatisfactory. In both cases we have tales that, on one level, don't work anymore (the science and engineering has been superceded). But, another level, they are just as good today as they were when they were first published. These are the kind of stories that make one think.

You've got some samplings from Heinlein's so-called Future History (Life-Line and Searchlight; Heinlein says Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon is "compatible" with the Future History), these are minor parts of the Future History, but like Let There Be Light, they are hard to find, so it's nice to be able to read them again. Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon is one of Heinlein's future Boy Scout stories. One of these was eventually expanded into Farmer in the Sky and I believe that there is another set on Venus. It would be nice to get them all under one cover.

There's a lot of non-fiction here, and as I said, the quality varies. I'd rather have Heinlein preaching via his fiction than preaching directly through non-fiction. Several of these have aged poorly (the society of the United States, for example, seems more prudish about certain things than Heinlein predicted); luckily we've avoided (so far) Nuclear Armageddon. Other non-fiction entries, like Heinlein's contribution to Encyclopaedia Britannica, are still well worth reading. There are a couple of examples of travel writing which are amusing, from a historical perspective, if nothing else.

There are a couple of real dogs. Cliff and the Calories is one of his Puddin' stories. He apparently had enough of these, planned or written, to fill a fat volume. Puddin', or Maureen, eventually became Podkayne and moved to Mars, she's much better under that incarnation.

One high point of the book, other than some of the titles mentioned above, are Heinlein's various Forewords, Afterwords and updatings to the individual stories and essays. Take this and the amusing Grumbles from the Grave and you've got about as close to a autobiography as we ever got from Heinlein.

Contains: Foreword; Life-Line; Successful Operation; Blowups Happen; Solution Unsatisfactory; The Last Days of the United States; How to Be a Survivor; Pie from the Sky; They Do It With Mirrors; Free Men; No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying-; A Bathroom of Her Own; On the Slopes of Vesuvius; Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon; Pandora's Box; Where To?; Cliff and the Calories; Ray Guns and Rocket Ships; The Third Millennium Opens; Where Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?; "Pravada" Means "Truth"; Inside Intourist; Searchlight; The Pragmatics of Patriotism; Paul Dirac, Antimatter and You; Larger Than Life; Spinoff; The Happy Days Ahead.

Counts as twenty-eight entries in the 2005 Short Story Project.
Nova

This was probably the second novel by Samuel R. Delany that I read (I had encountered several of his shorter works in various Nebula Award collections) after Dhalgren. This remains, along with some shorter works in the same vein (Babel-17, Empire Star, The Star Pit) my favorite book by Delany. A mixture of the Grail Quest myths, Tarot, Moby Dick, space opera, heck, even grand opera! A strugggle between old cultures and new. The archtypical Delany character in the Mouse. Grand planets and settings worthy of Jack Vance. Interstellar action worthy of "Doc" Smith. Again, my favorite by Delany. I'll visit it many more times, I'm sure.
Starting Over Again with the Ring

The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien): This year marked the start of a long-planned project...to read the books that once appeared in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of the late 1960's and the early 1970's (plus a few volumes that were not officially part of the series, but associated with it and one series—the Deryini tales of Katherine Kurtz—that have continued long after the demise of the series). I'm not going to read them quite in the same pace as the original publications (sometimes four volumes came out in a month; I intend on reading some things other than fantasy!), but over the next few years I should make it through the series.

The first two books published (not officially part of the series, but predating it) in what is considered the "canon" of the series are The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. I've read both (and the rest of the Ring trilogy) many times over. They get better each time.
Dinosaur Summer

Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer was a real change for the usual fare from Bear that I've been reading. He's probably been more known for sweeping tales involving grand themes like revolution on Mars (Moving Mars), altering humanity (Slant) or his more recent set of books revolving around genetics (Darwin's Radio, Darwin's Children) and others.

Dinosaur Summer returns him to the field of books written for young adults (like his earlier duo of The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars). However, there's a caveat: this (as with the two earlier) are written for young adults, with emphasis on the adult. There are occasional adult themes, adult language; these aren't watered down books.

The book is set in the same world as Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Professor Challenger, specifically the book The Lost World. In that tale, Professor Challenger journeyed to South America and found an immense mesa populated with dinosaurs. Bear's book is set shortly after World War II. Numerous expeditions went to El Grande and brought back dinosaurs for museums, but also for circuses. The book opens at the last show for one dinosaur circus; the decision has been made to return the remaining dinosaurs to El Grande. The story follows the expedition as they try to bring the dinosaurs back to the wild, battling tin-pot dictators, saboteurs, the elements, revolutionaries and more all the way.

The characters are a mix of real and imagined. The main character is teenaged Peter Belzoni, who is taken on the journey by his father, Anthony (a freelance photographer). A number of real people are thick in the action of the book,notablyy Meriam Cooper, Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

My copy of the book was a hardcover from Warner Aspect from 1998. I hope they made money on it, because they put some nice touches into the book. The book is sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi as well as a number of color plates by the artist depicting various scenes of the book. Other than specialty books like the recent Del Rey series of books by Robert E. Howard, you don't see an effort like this too often!

Not a heavyweight book of grand themes like man of Bear's other books, but a fun tale. I can't wait to loan it to my daughter in a few years.


Two By O'Brian

I started re-reading and reading (where appropriate) Patrick O'Brian's nautical tales this year. I got through two of the books. Two is a good number. You need to savor books such as these.

Master & Commander: The start of a long series. These are books of craft and skill. You get the feeling that O'Brian wrote these longhand, and chose each word with care. Great characters, superb dialogue and wonderful tales of life at sea chock-ful of details of life during the 1800's. When I first bought these books, I limited myself to one a year, knowing that the author would not last forever. Now I'm working my way through the series again (hopefully at a faster rate!). Another one that I can't recommend highly enough!

Post Captain: The second in the series. All the praise I had for the first and then some.

Read these books and savor them.
Kinsman

A collection of short stories in one of Ben Bova's near-future series (the others being the Sam Gunn stories and the loosely-connected Grand Tour stories). Chet Kinsman is a USAF astronaut for much of the stories. There are several stories original to the collection (which act more as bridges than to advance the tale) and a couple of longer works that appeared elsewhere (these form the core of the book). In one Kinsman becomes the "founding father" of the zero-gee club when he gets to "make it" with a beautiful reporter in orbit. It turns out that she was using him to. In a second, Kinsman kills a Russian cosmonaut when he is investigating a Russian satellite. In the third, Kinsman partially redeems himself by saving a lost astronaut during a stint with NASA. In the fourth, Kinsman is instrumental in getting a USAF moonbase started. These tales lead to the novel Millennium, which in turn leads to the novel Colony. The longer tales are good and worth reading. Skip the shorter stuff.

This book counts as 8 entries for the 2005 Short Story Project. I would list titles, but any titles that existed when the stories were first published have been erased for generic titles like "Age 32", etc.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Feynman's Rainbow

Feynman's Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow might have been called Tuesdays with Dick as on one level you have a similar story to Tuesdays with Morrie. A young physicist (Mlodinow) goes to Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman for wisdom and direction. On the way he determines a few things about life and careers and the like. Some amusing stuff, some good stuff about physics, some great stuff about Feynman.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Roving Mars

So there's this guy Steve Squyres who has been exploring Mars and now he's written a book...

Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet: The bad news is that this is only part of a book. The good news is that it is only part of a book because the story is still unfolding. Squyres is the Principal Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover project, the effort that (successfully) landed two rovers on Mars (Spirit and Opportunity). Designed to operate for 90 "sols", these rovers are still going several quantum increments past their original "expiration date". A good chunk of the book is spent on previous efforts that Squyres was involved in to get something to Mars as well as the process of building and testing the two rovers. Even though you know that those rovers are there, operating well, he writes a gripping story. Hopefully they will operate for a long period and he can write two or more additional books. I was reminded strongly of Oliver Morton's Mapping Mars in many ways. Morton takes the big picture view and is a fine writer (but not a Real Scientist); Squyres is somebody who is a Real Scientist and doing the Real Thing and he is very enthusiastic about it all. So I'll give a slight edge to Roving Mars over Mapping Mars despite the fact that you are getting a smaller (and still developing) tale.

I breezed through this book in a few days as the tale unfolded. It was interesting to contrast this book with another one that I've been struggling with: Alan Binder's overly massive and over-written Lunar Prospector: Against All Odds. Why the difficulty? Squyres spends a lot of the book talking about other people and their (positive) contributions to the project. Even if they were in competition with him to begin with, he finds a way of praising them. Binder spends his book putting people down. He wrote his book to show people how the Lunar Prospector was the "right way" to do a space project, but his management style seems to resemble that alleged of a recent apointee to the ambassador corps. I keep slogging through the book (after all, it is a subject that interests me). Hopefully I'll finish it.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Tower Stories

Tower Stories is a collection of stories about 9/11, edited by Damon DiMarco. Not as much impact as 102 Minutes was (which see). Perhaps if I had read this one first, but I suspect it was as much because of the much wider focus than 102 Minutes. In casting a wider net, trying to get the tales of people beyond those in downtown New York and the WTC, I think that the book was not as intense as it could have been.
102 Minutes

102 Minutes (Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn) is the saddest damn book that I have read this year. Tales from 9/11, from the inside of the World Trade Center. Stories of those who survived and those who did not. If you are not crying when you finish this book, you are not human. Maybe it's my own experience, but I don't think so.

Monday, September 05, 2005

At the Earth's Core

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pulp writer. He pounded them out fast and furious. He used formulas. So what? A lot of his books are a ton of fun. At the Earth's Core is the first of several which take place in the "inner world" that is found inside our planet. Main character David Innes penetrates to the center using a giant iron mole (ohhh, the symbolism!). In many ways, the plot is a standard Burroughs setup. Character finds a strange place. Character is thrown into a strange culture. Character meets beautiful woman, falls for her, but manages to insult her by not knowing the local customs. Character escapes, journeys, makes allies and overthrows the oppressors. Character is reunited with beautiful native, but loses her in the end, leading to the sequel.

O.K., so on the face of it, it may sound silly. Burroughs knows how to tell a tale and you race through the book pretty quickly. Fun stuff. Whether he can keep it up for the other tales set in this locale, we'll see!
Ever Since Darwin

This year's first contribution by the late Stephen Jay Gould is his first collection of essays (originally published in the American Museum of Natural History's magazine) called Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (Norton, 1992).

This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me, in more ways than one. First, it is amazing how far-ranging Gould is: biology to politics to geology to astronomy and back again. Most of the essays held my interest and I picked up on a lot of things I'd like to explore further. However, every now and again you'd come across an essay that is in response to some trend of the day (usually a response to a book or article). Sometimes these essays worked (well, for me, I was familiar with the controversy surrounding Velikovsky, for example); other times, I had difficulty in following the train of thought.

The saddest thing about this collection (other than the fact that Gould is no longer with us) is that so many of the issues explored here keep coming back again and again. We're closer to the Dark Ages, at times, than we realize.

Contains: Prologue; Darwinia: Darwin's Delay; Darwin's Sea Change, or Five Years at the Captain's Table; Darwin's Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution; Darwin's Untimely Burial; Human Evolution: A Matter of Degree; Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution; The Child as Man's Real Father; Human Babies as Embryos; Odd Organisms and Evolutionary Exemplars: The Misnamed, Mistreated, and Misunderstood Irish Elk; Organic Wisdom, or Why Should a Fly Eat Its Mother from Inside; Of Bamboos, Cicadas, and the Economy of Adam Smith; The Problem of Perfection, or How Can a Clam Mount a Fish on Its Rear End?; Patterns and Punctuations in the History of Life: The Pentagon of Life; An Unsung Single-Cell Hero; Is the Cambrian Explosion a Sigmoid Fraud?; The Great Dying; Theories of the Earth: The Reverend Thomas' Dirty Little Planet; Uniformity and Catastrophe; Velikovsky in Collision; The Validation of Continental Drift; Size and Shape, From Churches to Brains to Planets: Size and Shape; Sizing Up Human Intelligence; History of the Vertebrate Brain; Planetary Sizes and Surfaces; Science in Society—A Historical View: On Heroes and Fools in Science;Posture Maketh the Man; Racism and Recapitulation; The Criminal as Nature's Mistake, or the Ape in Some of Us; The Science and Politics of Human Nature: Part A—Race, Sex and Violence: Why We Should Not Name Human Races—A Biological View; The Nonscience of Human Nature; Racist Arguments and IQ; Part B—Sociobiology: Biological Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism; So Cleverly Kind an Animal; Epilogue.

This collection counts as 35 entries for the 2005 Short Story Project.
A Heritage of Stars

This book was written towards the end of the middle (does that make sense?) of Clifford D. Simak's novel writing career. It has many of his more usual themes: a depopulated Earth, enigmatic aliens, paranormal powers, robots. Instead of the lovable dog character we have a lovable hors, but you'll find familar settings all around. One that I'm going to revisit again and again.

Not much of a review, I know. But Simak was a man of few words, so it is probably best just to say "pick up his books and read them"!

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Walk in the Park

Jurassic Park and Lost World by Michael Crichton. How can you go wrong with dinosaurs? And people getting chomped by them? I re-read these as our daughter has become a dinosaur nut and we allowed her to watch the movies. That made me curious to take a look at them again. I thought it very strange that one major character who dies in the first is brought back to life to be the main character of the second. They are fine as adventure novels, but Crichton has a strange mix of being anti-science on the one hand but in love with technology on the other.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Everything You Wanted to Know About Salt...And Then Some!

Mark Kurlansky likes to delve deep into a subject. In Salt he takes a look at something found on tables and in kitchens everywhere...common salt. He is well known for this book as well as Cod. There's also a book about the Basque which appears to be tied into the general themes. I really enjoyed this book, it's a wonderful mix of culture, history, science and salt. Like the book I read last year on coffee, it's amazing how much can be learned about what you think is a simple substance.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Deep Time

This volume by Stephen Baxter is a non-fiction book Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time (Viking/Forge, 2004).

It's hard to believe, but not so long ago (and in parts of the world it is still true) it was generally believed that the age of the Earth could be measured in a (relatively) few generations of man. James Ussher, a famous bishop, spent a considerable amount of time calculating the age of Earth based on the chronology of the Old and New Testaments, plus post-Biblical history, and came up with a sequence of about 4,000 years total.

The problem was, if you looked at the Earth, things did not match with what these learned men (who generally operated in their armchairs, through thought; not in the field and lab, with observations) were saying. How, as Leonardo da Vinci found, did seashells get into mountains? What caused layers in rocks? Why were some rocks made up of the bones and shells of animals?

Baxter examines the life of James Hutton, a man who spent considerable time thinking about the Earth, but also observing the way the Earth seemed to have evolved. Baxter points out Hutton's strengths and weaknesses, and his methods. He also touches on a lot of folks that I'm encountering in a lot of my other recent reading (for example, Hutton's life touches the chronology of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle), so its interesting to get fresh perspectives on various historic figures I've been encountering.

I've had a long interest in geology, which slumbered for a couple of decades. My interest was re-awakened a few years ago by John McPhee's Annals of the Former World. This book fit in nicely with that overview, teaching me more about the roots of the science.

If there's any weakness to the book, it is that it is relatively brief. Baxter spends more of the book talking about Hutton's life than Hutton's theories; I would have liked to have heard more about the theories and what was proven to be true. There is some amusing stuff here about the life of a Scottish intellectual and one laugh-out-loud hint that the French were behind the American Revolution.

A real strong point will of course, have me spending more money. Baxter lists a number of books that he consulted in the course of the writing of the book. I've got a few of the titles (and in fact Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science is among the next books I'll be reading) and no doubt will be spending money for more!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Exiles to Glory

Jerry Pournelle; Exiles to Glory (Baen Books, part of Exiles and Glory omnibus, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-3; cover by Clyde Caldwell).

Sample chapters can be found here.

Exiles to Glory is a young adult science fiction novel by Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle first wrote this in the mid-1970's, as a continuation to several of the stories that appeared in his collection High Justice. It was revised for this edition (Baen Books, 1993). In the spirit of Heinlein's books for young adults, we have a tale of a young man (Kevin Senecal) who gets a job in the Asteroid Belt working for a large corporation. On the way there he survives a couple of murder attempts, and while there he foils a plot combining murder and grand theft. It's not as preachy as some of Pournelle's other works in the field, and its amusing to see some of the areas where Pournelle underestimated technology.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is one of science fiction's best writers. And I'll bet you know diddly about his works.

A Canticle for Leibowitz of the best books in the "post-Holocaust" genre. The book opens some time after an atomic war, when a young postulant in the Order of Saint Leibowitz encounters what might be the Wandering Jew. He is pointed towards some holy relics. The rest of the book (a series of short novels?) leapfrogs us as civilization gets rebuilt, technology is found again. However men still fight and the book ends with the order going to the stars as another atomic holocaust rains down on the Earth. Lots of wonderful characters as well as excellent storytelling on the part of a (alas) largely forgotten author. Miller shows his skills as an author as well as his love of his Catholic beliefs here. I can't recommend this one highly enough!
The Last Call

Man can this man write.

The Fisher King. Tarot. Poker. Gangsters. Tangible ghosts. Fractals, chaos theory and the Mandelbrot Set as a Fat Man. Reincarnation. The Easter cycle. Castles in the desert.

The biggest problem I have with describing a book by Tim Powers is to simply state what it's all about. Is The Annubis Gates merely the adventures of a modern-day time traveler in 19th century England? Is On Stranger Tides only about zombie pirates in the Caribbean? Is The Stress of Her Regard a tale of female vampires preying on Romantic poets?

On the face of it, Last Call (Avon, 1993) is about the Tarot, gambling, ghosts and the legend of the Fisher King. But the best thing about Powers writing is the way he weaves what must be notebooks full of notes into one vast and wonderful tapestry. You start out the book wondering what the heck is going on, feeling like you're almost in some Van Vogtian dream state of a novel. Eventually the characters grab you (and minor players have a way of building into major players as time goes by in a most wonderful way). Legends drift in, particle physics, bits of popular culture. Suddenly you realize that it's 4:00 AM, you've read half the book, and you really should get some sleep as you have to be up in a bit to get your daughter off to school.

I read the book in about two days. I just couldn't put it down, wondering if Scott Crane would be able to overcome the obstacles put in front of him and win at the ultimate game of Poker. Good stuff. Excellent stuff. If I have any complaint about Powers is that he doesn't write enough stuff. You have to wait 3 to 5 years between books, making the dreck that you encounter labeled as "fantasy" in the meantime seem all that much worse.

There are no "official" Tim Powers sites, that I've come across, but here are a couple of pretty good "unofficial" sites, plus a Powells.com interview.
Hell Creek

With Hell Creek, Montana: America's Key to the Prehistoric Past, by Lowell DingusI seem to be firmly moving towards one trend for the year in books...books on paleontology, geology, evolution and the like.

Too bad the book wasn't as good as I had hoped. Dingus is a paleontologist who has worked at (among other places) The American Museum of Natural History. He worked on the repositioning of the T-Rex skeleton, for example. I was hoping that in Hell Creek I would get an overview of his experiences as a paleontologist and why Hell Creek was such an important place for the field. Well, at least part of the book was that.

Mostly it is a constant use of fancy phrasing where simple would do. Dingus throws in constant references to mythology, to the point where you feel it is just an attempt to show off. He spends a good portion of the book describing the various conflicts between settlers, the U.S. Army, and native Americans. A smaller portion describes the experiences of early bone hunters" such as Barnum Brown. And one portion describes the town and county (and focuses on a stand-off between the government and a group of ranchers who were trying to avoid foreclosure).

I'd rather have had the book be about his experiences and concentrate on Barnum Brown. If you want to read about Lewis and Clark, there are many better books on the subject. Heck, I wanted to read about dinosaurs!
Titan

Titan, by Stephen Baxter, was a re-read for me. I first read it in 1997, when it was published. I decided to re-read it as the landing of the Huygens probe on Saturn's moon Titan (an event in the book) made me think of the book.

The book opens with the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia. Alas, the real destruction of the Columbia did not go as well as the fictional one (in the book, all but one member of the crew survives). In the book, the consequences of the shuttle crash are the shutting down of the International Space Station (something that still might happen in reality) and the planned dismantling of NASA.

Right before the Columbia crashes, Huygens lands on Titan...and signs of life are detected.

This leads to an audacious plan: Send various salvaged equipment to Titan along with a crew to explore and colonize the moon. Using Apollo Command Module capsules, the "display" Saturn V's (a better fate than having them rust away) and a modified space shuttle (Discovery, appropriately enough, as that was the name of the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey—recall that in the novel version, the mission is to Saturn, not Jupiter), the crew sets out on a multi-year mission that involves gravity assists from Venus, Earth and Jupiter before arriving in Saturn space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth things fall apart. The space program falls apart and planned resupply missions for the Titan colony are cancelled. The ecosystem of Earth crashes. The United States splits into several countries. China asserts its increasing dominance. Eventually, all of humanity dies during a conflict between the declining West and the rising East.

Arriving at Titan, our intrepid explorers have lost one crew member (during a solar storm), have another crew member get injured (during a dangerous crossing of the ring system) and lose a third crew member (during the landing on Titan). They have to work to find local resources (water and various organic compounds) to keep their failing life support systems working.

I'll leave off the details of the final section of the book to avoid spoiling it for those who have not read it. Let's just say that Baxter whips up a finale worthy or Olaf Stapledon at his most visionary. Baxter is both very depressing (after all, humanity is wiped out) and hopeful (life in the solar system does spread to other solar systems eventually) in the course of the book.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Halfway to Anywhere

In his book of the same title, G. Harry Stine has this to say: "The title of this book, Halfway to Anywhere, was suggested by Tim Kyger, currently a staff member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in Washington. It sums up where we are today with respect to real space transportation for everyone and comes from the statement--correct from the viewpoint of the energy and thus the rocket propellant required--I first heard in private, personal conversation with the late author, space advocate, and contemporary philosopher Robert A. Heinlein in 1950:

"Get to low-earth orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system.""

Now, here's my question: Did Heinlein ever use this in a story or novel? I swear I remember reading it in one of the Future History stories, or maybe one of the YA novels, but I haven't found it so far in my search. Anybody remember this as well?

(Halfway to Anywhere: Achieving America's Destiny in Space was written by G. Harry Stine in 1996. It was published by M. Evans & Company, N.Y. There's also a companion book by Stine, Living in Space, published by the same company.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Book Meme

Via Zoe Brain...

Number of books that I own: 4,719 paper books, plus another 1,671 eBooks of various sizes and formats (there's about a 10 to 15% overlap in titles between paper and electronic). Plus a collection of astronomy-related magazines that stretches back to before I was born by a couple of decades.

Last book I bought: Several volumes of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, the volumes by Lord Dunsany.

Last book I read:

A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak. To get a YTD listing, you can always take a look here (for whatever year we are in).

Five books that mean a lot to me:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I've read it dozens of times since I first encountered it in the late 1960's.
2. Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier. A book on amateur astronomy, nature and travel that I re-read practically every year, especially when I am depressed.
3. The World, The Flesh and The Devil by J.D. Bernal. An amazing essay on the future of mankind.
4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. One of my favorite books by a favorite author.
5. Just about anything and everything by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Of course!
6. Just about anything, but especially City, The Goblin Reservation, Way Station and several collections of short stories by Clifford D. Simak.
7. Just about anything and everything by Poul Anderson.

Yep, that's more than five books. So what?

So...who will be next in the meme?

Addendum: I remembered that Professor Hall at Spacecraft did this one back in May 2005.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Man Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever

Leaving Earth (Robert Zimmerman): An excellent non-fiction book covering the various space stations built by the United States and the then-Soviet Union. Zimmerman manages to cover the dreams, hopes and realities of the various programs and comes up with many interesting observations about the programs both in the United States and Russia. For example, is NASA becoming what the Soviet program used to be? Are the Russians stepping towards the innovation of the NASA of the 1960's? Lots of good stuff here and I hope he eventually follows up with a second book.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Larger Than Worlds (One)

George Zebrowski is one of those excellent science fiction authors who just don't do enough writing. I first encountered some of his work in the Laser series of books. A few years later I came across Macrolife, a fantastic work about living in space (not on planets, but living in artificial communities, as suggested by J.D. Bernal, Olaf Stapledon, Gerard K. O'Neil and many others). Coupled with a cover and interior (black-and-white) illustrations by Rick Sternbach, the book blew me away. Years later, after several more Zebrowski volumes were purchased, I was lucky enough to find a copy of Macrolife in hardcover (autographed!).

The book has been out of print for years. Until now. Get thee to the book store and buy this volume! In fact, I'll make it the first entry in my list of favorite fiction volumes!

An older interview with the author.

Addendum (May 16, 2007): The book at the publisher's site.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Dinosaur Tales

I was inspired to read this next book by a look at a really massive book about the animation of Ray Harryhausen (Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton).

That book is Dinosaur Tales by Ray Bradbury (iBooks, 2003) and counts as eight entries in the Short Story Project for 2005.
The book was something of a mixed bag. There are two poems, of which one (What If I Said: The Dinosaur's Not Dead) was much better than the other (and the illustration by Gahan Wilson better than the other illustration). The strongest stories were A Sound of Thunder (soon to be a major motion picture; given the length of this story, no doubt it will be heavily padded) and The Fog Horn (incorporated into another motion picture). Both are excellent examples of Bradbury's style at its best.

Tyrannosaurus Rex was inspired by an incident in which Ray Harryhausen (who wrote a good, if brief, foreword) was insulted by Hollywood. Ray Bradbury gets his revenge.

I did not care for Besides a Dinosaur at all. A boy wants to be a dinosaur when he grows up and manages to annoy the household. His grandfather channels his interests into another subject. I found the story to be quite a bit cynical. Would the author of this story be recognized by the author of a wonderful tale from Dandelion Wine in which a boy finangles a new pair of sneakers out of a shoe salesman so he can have adventures all summer?

The book is a reprint, it was first published in 1983. I don't know whether the illustrations had been in color in the first edition or not. In this edition, some illustrations work, some do not. The cover and interior illustrations by Williams Stout are wonderful. Others don't work because they are spread out over two pages (and are partly hidden by the spine crease) or are a bit subtle (and may have lost something when they were reduced).

The book contains: Foreword (Ray Harryhausen); Introduction (Ray Bradbury); Besides a Dinosaur, Whatta Ya Wanna Be When You Grow Up? (illustrated by David Wiesner); A Sound of Thunder (illustrated by William Stout); Lo, the Dear, Daft Dinosaurs! (illustrated by Overton Loyd); The Fog Horn (illustrated by Steranko); What If I Said: The Dinosaur's Not Dead (illustrated by Gahan Wilson); Tyrannosaurus Rex (illustrated by Moebius).

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Bob Buckley

I've been thinking about Mars stories that I've enjoyed, such as Ben Bova's Mars or Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy.

I recall reading several by an author named Bob Buckley in Analog in the 70's, e.g., "Encounter Below Tharsis" (1974) and "The Hunters of Tharsis" (1975). According to a website where I found biographical data, it appears he hasn't written anything for several years.

Anybody ever hear of him? Know what happened to him? Know if he's still around?

Addendum: May 16, 2007: Since I first wrote that entry, it appears that Mr. Buckley has put up a website. That's the good news. The bad news is that there doesn't appear to be any way of contacting him through the website, nor does there appear to be a contact address listed anywhere. Some of his stories are available in electronic format (but via an e-publisher who seems more interested in making things difficult than helping the customer!).

Addendum: April 18, 2008: I was contacted by Mr. Buckley! He says... "Hi Fred, glad you enjoyed my stories about Mars. I'm writing for a broadband satellite communications company and they have been keeping me too busy to write fiction. When I retire I'll have time to get back to the ol' word processor. I'm still active in the SFWA, however."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Runaway Star

Jack Williamson's classic Legion of Space novel features Barnard's Runaway Star and the evil Medusae who inhabit that system invading Earth. John W. Campbell Jr.'s The Black Star Passes also features a invading star. E.E. "Doc" Smith did both one better and had the planets in two galaxies form when those two galaxies "collided".

Here's a star (for real) that's being flung from our galaxy at over 1.5 million miles per hour.