Thursday, May 31, 2007


Slanted Jack

One Jump Ahead; Mark L. Van Name (Baen Books, ISBN 978-1-4165-2085-6, June 2007. Cover art by Stephen Hickman.)

Sample chapters found here.

Oops. I did it again. Went into the local Big Box, and just like a time before, spotted a new book from Baen by an author I only knew the most vague things about. I had read one story, in the first issue of Jim Baen's Universe that was fun. Picked up the book, saw some blurbs from the usual suspects, mostly other Baen authors. Hmmmm...

So I bought it. And read it. Quickly. When is the next one coming out?

Seriously, it was a fun read. Think of The Saint, in space. Jon Moore, a character with a somewhat mysterious past and some pretty nifty powers, is hired to rescue a girl, the daughter of a corporate big wig who is involved in the bidding to open up a new planet. While preparing for the rescue, Moore hooks up with Lobo, a sentient (and, at time, annoyingly so) device that is a combination of M1A1 tank, Apache helicopter and a few other nifty vehicles, all rolled into one.

Moore is human, despite his nifty powers. And, being human, he manages to screw up. Several times. Corporations are fighting for turf, and he is a pawn that is manipulated, until he realizes what is going on and starts acting, instead of reacting.

In addition to a good action tale, Van Name also manages to weave in a lot of technology without overwhelming the reader. We have one mysterious alien artifact (the Gate system that allows for travel from one star system to another), nanotechnology, genetic enhancements, massively networked intelligent machines (and humor comes from this when Van Name explores what happens when your washing machine is able to talk...whom does it talk to and what does it talk about?) and more.

Toss in believable action (lots of firefights and the like, but nothing beyond the scale of what should be handled by the powers of the main characters), backstory that will be built upon and revealed in the next books, and some good character's (with flaws). A good read and I'm happy to say not the last to come. Van Name is working on the second (part of which apparently is the story that I read in Jim Baen's Universe last year) and has contracted for a third. I can't wait!

The Smoking Gun

Boundary; Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor (Baen Books, ISBN 1-4165-0932-1, March 2006. Cover art by Kurt Miller).

Sample chapters here.

Eric Flint was a familiar name to me, thanks to his tireless efforts as a writer and editor at Baen Books, but Ryk Spoor was unfamilar. The book intrigued me thanks to the cover, but I held back on buying it when I saw it in the store...a hardcover, one unfamiliar name...

Eventually I picked it up (or rather downloaded it) from Baen's superb Webscriptions service. Not sure if you want to lay out money for a hardcover? The Webscriptions route is your friend!

Now I need to order the hardcover!

Take a paleontologist who makes a rather strange discovery in the field involving a bunch of raptors and a previously unknown creature (which resembles something out of H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness rather than most previously discovered dinosaurs). Toss in a competition between NASA and private efforts to get to Mars. Stir in a couple of robotic probes that discover Something Is Up around Mars. Shake well. The result? A multi-national expedition to Mars to find out what was happening on Mars and Earth during the age of the dinosaurs.

Good tale, and I look forward to the sequel. Even more interesting was the Tuckerization of one Joe Buckley. Rumor has it that Buckley, who runs this excellent site (download like crazy, folks, it is all free and legal!), managed to annoy one of Baen's authors. That author then proceeded to kill Buckly off in one of his books. Since then many authors have taken up the tradition, killing or maiming Buckley. In this tale, Joe Buckley's alter-ego manages to get by with various wounds.

(Re-read in 2010, in preparation for reading the sequel. Even more fun the second time through!)
Another Revolution

Russian Amerika; Stoney Compton (Baen Books, ISBN 1-4165-2116, April 2007. Cover art by Kurt Miller).

Sample chapters (24!!!) here.

Well, I'm calling it quits on this one. I hate to say it, as Baen Books have consistently been fun and enjoyable reads for me. This one, however, just isn't working. When it comes to revolutions in SF, I'll stick with the Master's own The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

When Doves Cry

What happens when you mix the reality of physics with fantasy (science fantasy, heroic fantasy, comic fantasy, take your pick!).

Priceless.
The Jerry and Larry Show

Science fiction author's Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are featured in this article that recently appeared in The Washington Post. Fans of The Mote in God's Eye might want to note that they are correcting the book, one copy at a time. Fans of Robert A. Heinlein might want to look to their book Footfall for an appearance by that author as a character in the book!

In the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction Department, the Department of Homeland Security is tapping some science fiction authors for ideas. In that scene where that Robert A. Heinlein appears in Footfall, that is exactly what is happening. What a hoot!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Polymaths and Snails

I'm not sure which interested me the most about this item. It came to my attention as it mentioned Sir Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favorite writers. But the subject of polymaths also interested me. Then there's the name of the blog. I mean, can you go wrong with a name like Keeper of the Snails?
The Very Secret Diaries of George Lucas

I missed the Star Wars hoopla due to family and work commitments. However, I did run across a site where you can download a 400-page eBook looking at the making of the films (with updates not included in the book on the main site). Everything you wanted to know about the inner George Lucas but were afraid to ask!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Military Dimension

The Military Dimension and The Military Dimension Mark II; by David Drake (Baen Books. 07/91 for Mark I; 12/95 for Mark II. Cover artist John Rheaume for Mark I and Newell Covers and John Pierrard for Mark II. ISBN 0-671-72054-6 for Mark I and 0-671-87697-X for Mark II).

Welcome to the War Zone: Drake outlines some autobiographical notes, before, during and after his Vietnam experience. He also talks about being a soldier...

When they say that war changes a man, they're being euphemistic. War makes a man insane by civilian standards. When the man comes back, he may return to civilian norms again. After a while.

I'm not proud of many of the things that happened in Nam. I'm not proud of some of the things I did myself. But the men I served with were, for the most part, doing the best job they could with the cards they'd been dealt. I'm proud of them, and I'm proud to have been among them.

Anybody's got a right to criticize the things that happened. But don't criticize the men who did them unless you've been in their shoes. Ever since I came back, the object of my military fiction has been to put somebody as normal as you, or as I was, into a war zone.


Rescue Mission: What happens when the people you are trying to rescue are as bad as the enemy? Collaborators have been found in every war. Innocent victims of Stockholm syndrome or cooperative enemies?

The Dancer in the Flames: Drake takes a horror story idea and tosses it into the horror of war. I seem to recall that there were a lot of American Civil War tales that involved ghosts and the like; I'm surprised that I haven't encountered more such from other (more recent) wars. Reads like a classic Twilight Zone episode.

Arclight: All that reading of H.P. Lovecraft and writing of Lovecraft/Derleth pastiches is put to good use here. Also, I detect a hint of "Monsters from the Id!"

Band of Brothers: Looking at the bonds between soldiers in a unit. I heard an utterly ludicrous story on NPR this week which seemed to be faulting the US Army credo of "leave no man behind" as "costing" too much. They don't seem to realize that things like that is what allows people to make it through things like the hell of combat (or fighting fires, etc.) to begin with!

Firefight: In this story, US soldiers in Vietnam encounter a primal horror older than their civilization, or that of the people we usually think of as living in that country.

Contact: The US Air Force zaps a UFO. The Viet Cong and the US ground forces both race to the site, not knowing what lies there. A unit commander makes a decision between saving his soldiers and obeying orders.

As Our Strength Lessens: A story set in Keith Laumer's Bolo series. Drake does a good job of bringing the Bolo to life and a good job with the somewhat vague and sometimes contradictory background of the series.

Best of Luck: A cheap good luck piece turns out to be the real thing when a soldier in Vietnam has an unexpected encounter with an odd creature during a firefight.

The Guardroom: Possibly the weakest entry in the book. Part of either a theme anthology or a shared-world anthology, so possibly I would have enjoyed it more had it been part of that collection.

The Last Battalion: All those tabloid tales you read about Nazi flying saucers are true! True, I tell you! A pretty odd background/backstory, but Drake makes it all work.

Something Had to be Done: A good example of why a military uses the draft is not a good idea. You never know who...or what...is going to be drafted!

The Tank Lords: An entry from Drake's most famous creation, Hammer's Slammers. A platoon of the Hammer's vehicles is sent to a castle. The lady of the castle is attracted to a member of the detachment. Toss in an interesting main character (that I hope Drake uses again some day) and you've got a good entry into that series.

The End: As with Rescue Mission, part of The Fleet series. Peace is called with the Weasels and some are trying to ride the glory of the Headhunters.

The Way We Die: Not a science fiction story. The major incidents of the story are based on real events from Drake's time in Vietnam.

Afterword: One War Later: Drake talks about the (first) Gulf War. Time for another edition of the book?

Made up of: Introduction: Welcome to the War Zone; Rescue Mission; The Dancer in the Flames; Arclight; Band of Brothers; Firefight; Contact!; As Our Strength Lessens (Mark II only); Best of Luck; The Guardroom; The Last Battalion; Something Had to be Done; The Tank Lords; The End (Mark II only); The Way We Die; Afterword: One War Later (Mark II only).

Counts as 16 entries in the 2007 Short Story Project (collection completed).
Future Weapons of War

Future Weapons of War; edited by Joe Haldeman and Martin H. Greenberg (Baen Books, 03/07. Cover art by David Mattingly. ISBN 978-1-4165-2112-9.).

Maybe it's the influence of the editors (especially Joe Haldeman), but this collection did not turn out to be what I have come to expect from a Baen Books anthology. The tales were, well, grimmer or maybe, more depressing, than other Baen offerings (even after several planets get destroyed in a typical offering from John Ringo, for example, you still get something positive out of it all!)

This is not a bad thing, however. It shows that Baen is willing to stretch beyond what is expected. They've done this quite a bit with Jim Baen's Universe, the eMagazine that they publish. Themed and unthemed anthologies are the next logical extension.

Introduction: Joe Haldeman leads off with some discussion of his own experience in Vietnam and what the intent of the book is. The anthology isn't a technothriller, nor a hardware manual, but...

There is vivid imagination in these stories; there is cleverness and intelligence and occasional wisdom. Violence on the cosmic scale and the molecular, and violence up close and personal. Sometimes the avoidance of violence altogether.

There are aliens who seem human here, no surprise, and humans who seem alien. Soldiers who are animals or machines or abstract entities.

They all speak to the human condition, though, of which war has been an aspect for as long as there have been divisions of humanity on the basis of geography, citizenship, race, or religion. Perhaps we'll evolve out of it before it destroys us.


Craters: The lead story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch certainly bears out Haldeman's intent. There's nary a gun in sight, let alone jets, tanks, rockets and the like. But there are plenty of weapons, disturbing weapons. With the removal of several relatively minor elements, this could be a story that takes place in several regions of the world today. A good, and very disturbing, story.

David in the Lion's Den (Geoffrey A. Landis): Landis is most familar to me as a writer of hard SF, dealing with physics or space travel. He's also a real live rocket scientist, with an instrument on the (still operating!) Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. With this tale, he takes a very different approach and looks at a very grim war in the Middle East.

Rocket Boy (Paul J. McAuley): McAuley is a wide-ranging author, with works running from fantasy to the grandest hard SF and galaxy-spanning space opera. This tale restricts itself to one planet and a few characters. It tells of the rise of a gutter-rat from the mean streets to planetary government, with the help of an intelligent weapon.

Jade Angel (Dena Bain Taylor): Take a bit of post-Vingeian Singularity, some nanotechnology, some Mecca and mix. One of the weakest stories in the collection, mostly due to a lot of scientific technobabble. Is the babble real or not? It's hard to tell, as it slows the tale (when it gets interjected) to the point of breaking.

Broken Bits (Mark L. Van Name): A tale set in Van Name's Slanted Jack series. For a review of the first novel in that series, see this posting. This story is an excerpt from that novel.

The First Cup of Coffee War (James H. Cobb): Excellent story about a future attack on the United States. Very taut writing, would have the audience on the edge of their seats if it were a television movie. Reminded me strongly of Fail Safe. I'm going to have to look for more stuff by Cobb.

The Soldier Within (Michael A. Burnstein): A second story in the collection dealing with an intelligent weapon. A couple of mistakes (sergeants are not called "sir") and a obsession with "taking hills". Possibly weaker in feel, due to the presence of that other story (does the placement of a story in an anthology have an effect, just as the order of tracks on an album have an effect, on our experience?).

Spec-Ops (L.E. Modesitt, Jr.): A somewhat jumbled entry.

The Weapon (William H. Keith): This one was quite a surprise. Dyson spheres, spomes, Kardeshev civilizations, zero point energy and a conflict that eventually engulfs two galaxies! Written most like the style of Olaf Stapledon (or George Zebrowski) with a wide view, and containing the spirit of E. E. "Doc" Smith, this story matches anything being written by Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Gregory Benford or Stephen Baxter. Very good stuff! (The funniest contrast between this and the others was the scales involved. Most of the stories take place on Earth, or one other planet. Most of the time scales are rather short—the plot of the entry by Cobb takes place in less time than a cup of coffee needs to get cold. This entry takes place across multiple galaxies and over billions of years.)

The Looking Glass War (Brendan DuBois): Didn't I see this plot on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation? It didn't really work there, either.

The Humans Call It Duty (Michael Z. Williamson): A pretty good tale of a soldier's non-human partner. Nice characterization and good plotting.

Casualty (Brian Stableford): Stableford has explored biological themes before and it is nice to see him doing it again. A rather scary story about biological warefare.

Made up of: Introduction (Joe Haldeman); Craters (Kristine Kathryn Rusch); David in the Lion's Den (Geoffrey A. Landis); Rocket Boy (Paul J. McAuley); Jade Angel (Dena Bain Taylor); Broken Bits (Mark L. Van Name); The First Cup of Coffee War (James H. Cobb); The Soldier Within (Michael A. Burnstein); Spec-Ops (L.E. Modesitt, Jr.); The Weapon (William H. Keith); The Looking Glass War (Brendan DuBois); The Humans Call It Duty (Michael Z. Williamson); Casualty (Brian Stableford).

Counts as 13 entries in the 2007 Short Story Project.
Drowned Mountains and Jagged Coasts

Here's a relatively mundane orbital shot of a "drowned mountain" and some rugged looking coasts. Mundane except for the fact that the water isn't water (it's most likely a combination of methane and ethane) and the planet isn't Earth, it is Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
The Origin of Life

Stanley L. Miller, who helped to demonstrate that simple organic compounds could be formed from simple processes in the early Earth, has died. I did that experiment for my Chemistry II senior thesis in high school.
Bigger is Better

Via Locus Online comes a report that as part of its acquisition of Bookspan, Bertelsmann is starting to (ahem) reduce waste by laying people off. What will this mean for the future of the SF Book Club (part of the Bookspan line)? The SFBC's senior editor has been given "early retirement". Jonathan Strahan speculates on the SFBC's future (if any).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

All the Way to the Gallows

All the Way to the Gallows; David Drake (Baen Books, December 1996. Cover art by Bob Eggleton. ISBN 0-671-87753-4).

You don't normally, if you've read his stories of Hammer's Slammers, that David Drake is a funny guy. Actually, as he points out in the introduction, those in combat find their own humor (however much we might not appreciate it).

This collection will prove that Drake is funny. Usually chuckle funny, but several times grinning funny or belly-laugh funny. The collection is made up of previously published stories, all for the most part in shared-universe or theme anthologies. Despite this, it is a solid collection of stuff that stands well on its own. Each story has its own introduction to help explain its origin (and sometimes as an added bonus you get a few more jokes and funny bits from Drake).

Some brief comments by David Drake here.

The Enchanted Bunny: The first story is a sequel to L. Sprague de Camp's The Undesired Princess. Baen Books republished some short works by de Camp and others in this fashion (pair them up with a sequel by one of Baen's authors). The only problem I have with this story is that I cannot, for the life of me, recall whether I've read the de Camp tale or not. Oh well, time to haunt the second-hand shops again! (Addendum: Found a copy! So I will eventually post a second review for this one, to include the de Camp tale as well as a re-read of the Drake tale!)

The Noble Savages: One of the best entries of the book, and part of The Harriers shared universe created by Gordon R. Dickson and Bill Fawcett. If you think political correctness is out of control today, imagine a future where swearing is sanitized, weapons are sanitized, rules pile upon rules...The possibility of a good tale in such a future seems impossible, but Drake manages a good and funny tale. (Addendum: Found copies of two books in this series, so I'll have more reviews down the road.)

Airborne All the Way!: Probably the weakest story in the collection. Part of an anthology for the endless Magic: The Gathering line of cards and game items.

Cannibal Plants from Heck: Now here's an anthology I'll have to hunt down. Stories inspired by tabloid headlines? Sounds like my kind of humor. Drake looks at what happens when a father lets his neglected hobby urges go a bit too far. Funny thing is, I resemble that character!

The Bond: A rather strange tale of inter-dimensional meeting points.

Mom and the Kids: A collaboration with Larry Niven for The Fleet series of shared universe anthologies. When you're captured by the enemy, you're supposed to resist. Now suppose you are a von Neumann machine...

The Bullhead: Part of Drake long-running series of fantasy stories about Old Nathan. Set in our world, our one very close to it, in a United States where elements of magic exist, I'll admit this is my first encounter as I usually ignore (except for a relatively small slice) fantasy tales. Hunting down the book, of course! My only problem with the tale is that Drake writes out the local dialect, so I 'spect it might take you some time to interpret it right. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm not sure which approach is better. In Iain M. Banks and Feersum Endjinn, it didn't really work (for me). Sometimes ignoring dialect works. For examples, Clifford D. Simak wrote many books that could easily slip into Old Nathan's stomping grounds. But all his characters spoke in a very formal way (Simak was a newspaperman, and that seemed to have shaped the dialog of his characters). For me, at least, that worked. If the writer is good enough he will pull it off, no matter what the approach. Both Drake and Simak pull it off. (Addendum: Got a hold of a copy of the collection Old Nathan. I also picked up Mountain Magic, a multi-author collection in the same spirit. More reviews to come!)

The Very Offensive Weapon: This entry was part of the Baen Books anthology Forever After, created and edited by Roger Zelazny (but published after his death). Each entry took place after the big quest. Remember those last chapters in The Lord of the Rings? Imagine a whole book of finishing acts. The backstory was that several objects of power were brought together for the quest...but keeping those objects together would be Very Bad, so the stories in the anthology are how those objects were gotten rid of. The Very Offensive Weapon talks about a Ring of Power. An offensive ring. A flatulent ring. A ring that is also very obnoxious. Very funny stuff!

A note on the cover. As much as I like Bob Eggleton 's work, this cover has nothing to do with anything in the book. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I guess they had a cover hanging around the Baen Books office!

Made up of: Introduction; The Enchanted Bunny; The Noble Savages; Airborne All the Way!; Cannibal Plants from Heck; The Bond; Mom and the Kids; The Bullhead; The Very Offensive Weapon.

Counts as nine entries in the 2007 Short Story Project.
Star Wars, Bar Wars

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you're probably aware that there's a big Star Wars anniversary a-coming. Here's a site that celebrates that fact. I wonder about some of the "scholarship", though. For example:

The targeting grid used for the Millennium Falcon's canon is based on a paperweight Lucas saw on Arthur C. Clarke's desk.

First off...canon is usually spelled cannon...and second...why on earth would Arthur C. Clarke given George Lucas the time of day before SW was filmed...

Anyway, true or not, there are some amusing bits in there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Sheep Look Up

John Brunner was a science fiction writer who, unfortunately, is pretty much forgotten by today's readers. Most active in the 1960's and 1970's, he died, appropriately enough, during the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, Scotland (1995).

This publisher is coming out with a limited-edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition of one of his scariest books, The Sheep Look Up. TSLU is one of Brunner's dystopian novels. Other titles in this vein were Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, The Jagged Orbit, and, to a lesser extent, The Squares of the City.

TSLU takes place in a heavily stressed world. It's our world, down a slightly different path. While some of what Brunner wrote about in terms of pollution, population, etc., have not come to pass, we are living with many equivalent horrors. One scene in the book, involving a defective microwave oven, has haunted me ever since I read it. I applaud the publisher for taking the chance on bringing the book out again and hope that it's a success.

SOZ is interesting from both the story and the way it is written. For the time when it first came out, it was a very big book. For science fiction, it was fairly experimental in format. Despite the dystopian theme, the size, and the format, it won the Hugo Award in 1968. Recently the SF Masterworks Series (easier to find in the UK than here, but worth the effort) reissued the book. If you've never read it, try it.

When you do, let me know **how** you read it. Why do I ask that? Well, it seems to me that SOZ is actually one novel, a series of essays, and a series of short stories or profiles. So you can read the book from end-to-end, experiencing a bit of the novel, an essay, a stories, etc., all the way through the book. Or, you can read the novel in it's entirety, read the short stories, read the essays. I've done it both ways.

The story takes place in the future, but that future is a lot closer "now" than when the book was first written. Recently I heard the opinion expressed that the future of SOZ is better than where we are in this, our "real", future. What do you think?

The Shockwave Rider could be seen as a proto-cyberpunk story. Many elements of the story have been copied by subsequent authors. Heck, many of the elements have been used by programmers! The title comes from Alvin Toeffler's Future Shock. As with TSLU, Brunner missed on some things and hit square on the head of others.

From what I've read, however, the version of the story we have access to (and Del Rey claims to have it in print in the US) is somewhat butchered. Apparently things were changed, characters combined, etc. Perhaps someday we'll see a restored edition. Still worth searching for!

I must confess to not having read The Jagged Orbit. I do have a copy, though, worn but in good condition. It's on the pile to be read.

The Squares of the City is interesting if for no other reason than the fact that the story is a chess game.

Brunner produced many (many!) other works besides these. These are the titles that have stuck with me over the years. While summer might be the time for "beach blanket books", you'll find it worth your while to spend some time with these as well.

I added a comment to this posting on June 26, 2003...

Try this link for a computer science teacher's perspective on some of Brunner's works. Unfortunately, since it is from a computer user's perspective, he skips over SotC and TSLU, but does talk about TSR and SOZ (have you got all those down yet?).

There are also a few good links provided, including rules for the game "Fencing" (from TSR, no, not the ex-gaming company, the book!)

On September 9, 2003, Steve Hart added the following comments...

For an interesting comparison with Stand On Zanzibar, and an insight into what John Brunner was trying to achieve, go find a copy of the U.S.A. trilogy, written during the first half of the Depression by John Dos Passos. The three books—The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money—are a combination of montage and tapestry, blending fictional characters with straight documentary material, stream-of-consciousness monologues, biographical sketches of figures like Henry Ford, and social comedy, attempting nothing less than to give a top-to-bottom picture of American life. The books are a deliberate jumble: maybe the first attempt in literary fiction to present the crazy quilt of American life as it was starting to go into media overdrive.

Dos Passos came to mind when I first read Stand On Zanzibar, and I gather Brunner used the same method in The Sheep Look Up. Always liked Brunner—he's a classic case of a big talent swallowed whole by a small category.
The World, The Flesh and The Devil

(Yes, I've mentioned this book before. Yes, this is another recycled posting. Yes, I will be mentioning this book again. And again.)

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.
The Best Dang "Amateur" Science Site Out There

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!
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!
Geologic History of the Moon

One possible setting for a story that I'd like to write 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.
Eight Things

Robert J. Sawyer talks about eight things new writers need to know.
Space Is A Place

One potential setting for a story I would love to write is either the asteroid belt or an asteroid in general. Looking at this site, there seems to be no lack of material for resources!
Macrolife

John Barber (writing at The Space Review) re-explores the concepts of macrolife.

Addendum: Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski on the subject. Gary Westfahl on the subject. An immense launch vehicle developed by Dandridge Cole. Some notes on a mega-"Deep Impact" mission using Saturn V's that Cole was involved in. David Darling on the subject. Space Settlement FAQ. Colonizing Mars vs. colonizing free space using a Stanford Torus.
Chess: The Review

The latest offering in the rapidly overflowing strategy genre is hard evidence that strategy games need a real overhaul, and fast. Chess, a small-scale tactical turn-based strategy game, attempts to adopt the age-old "easy to learn, difficult to master" parameter made popular by Tetris. But the game's cumbersome play mechanics and superficial depth and detail all add up to a game that won't keep you busy for long.

Chess casts you as king of a small country at war with a rival country of equivalent military power. There is little background story to speak of, and by and large the units in the game are utterly lacking any character whatsoever. The faceless, nondescript units are dubbed arbitrarily such labels as "Knight" and "Bishop" while their appearance reveals nothing to suggest these roles. To make matters worse, the units on both playable sides are entirely identical aside from a simple color palette swap.

The setting of the conflict is equally uninspiring and consists merely of a two-color grid so as to represent the two warring factions. Adding insult to injury, there is only one available map—and it's pathetically small, an 8x8 matrix (Red Alert maps are up to 128x128 in size). The lack of more expansive battlefields makes Chess feel like little more than an over-glorified Minesweeper.

In a definite nod to Tetris, Chess eschews any kind of personality and styling in order to emphasize its supposedly addictive gameplay. Unfortunately, that gameplay is severely lacking. For one thing, there are only six units in the game. Of those six, two are practically worthless while one is an overpowered "god" unit, the Queen. She's your typical Lara Croft-esque 1990s "me, too" attempt to attract the fabled gaming girl audience from out of the woodwork to help solidify a customer base for a game that simply cannot sell itself on its own merits. The Queen can attack in any direction and she is balanced solely by the fact that both sides are equally equipped with only one. Otherwise, the functions of the six Chess units feel entirely arbitrary. For instance, Rooks can only move in horizontal lines, unable to attack enemies at diagonal angles; yet Bishops can move diagonally, but not horizontally.

The result is a frustratingly unrealistic effort at creating balance and strategy where there is, in fact, very little of either element to be found.

Inexplicable pathing problems also plague Chess—the irritating Pawns can only move straight ahead, but for some reason or other they attack diagonally. Worst of all, your units are always deployed in exactly the same fashion. While there might have been some strategic element involved in cleverly deploying one's troops around the undeniably constricted map, the designers saw fit to enforce a "rule" about how the game should be set up. In the end, Chess matches may often go on for a great length of time because your Pawns always begin in front of your more useful forces, thereby blocking them off.

Only two players can compete simultaneously, thus severely limiting any play life to be found. There is only one gameplay mode—no capture the flag or team play—and that involves the two players taking turns moving their units one by one. The moment a player's King is threatened, that player is placed in a state of "check." At this point, the player must defend his King with whatever means are available. If he cannot defend his King, he is defeated. Yawn. All units are killed by a single hit, so even a lowly Pawn can be instrumental in defeating an opponent if you plan accordingly. While the artificial balance of forcing equivalent deployment for both sides turns Chess into something of a battle of wits, the turn-based play is poorly paced and never really picks up speed until halfway through a game, if then. And half the time, because of the limited troops available (and no resources with which to purchase more), matches end in disappointing stalemates.

This game attempts to accredit itself by virtue of its tactical play mechanics. Yet those mechanics are tedious and difficult to grasp and exacerbate Chess's other numerous failings. In fact, should you actually memorize all the infuriating little rules governing how the game is played, you'll find yourself growing weary of it all in short order. There's just no payoff to a properly executed game, because the restrictions on the units mean there's a "right" way to play.

Thus no real variety can exist between competent players. The sluggish turn-based nature of Chess bogs the package still further and renders this strategy game an irreverent exercise in wasted time for all but the most die-hard turn-based strategy enthusiasts. It's more than likely that Chess, due to its self-conscious though not entirely elegant simplicity, will garner a small handful of fans. But in light of this game's boundless oversights and limitations, there is no chance it could ever enjoy the sort of success that makes games like Westwood's C&C: Red Alert and Blizzard's Warcraft II the classics they are to this day.


(Original source lost in the mists of time and one crashed disk...)
Relativity

"While a llama may produce the finest of wools, prized around the world, its breath, on the other hand, could be prized only in the far reaches of Llama Hell."

(FBI Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks)
Guns & Ammo

"All that ammo and they didn't kill a thing. No wonder we lost the Vietnam War."

(Comment made by a parent, watching the debut of The A-Team.)
Short Stories

"Another fertile source of ["moral insanity"] appears to be an undue indulgence in the perusal of the numerous works of fiction...with the effect of vitiating the taste and corrupting the morals of the young."

"Parents cannot too cautiously guard their young daughters against this pernicious practice."


(Dr. W.H. Stokes, Scientific American, April 1849)
Back to Creation

"Come on, then, back to Creation. I mustn't waste any more time. They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution."

(The Supreme Being, Time Bandits)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dark Yuggoth

There lies a world beyond the seas of night
Past the last planet, on the farthest Rim
Of curving space, where by some cosmic whim
It reels and wheels beyond the shores of light,
Lost in the howling dark. The eye of man
Can never glimpse its lone imperial place,
Deep in the blackest depths of elder space,
Nor astronomic glass may ever scan.
This is the planet that Alhazred knew,
Beyond the measured, known, and numbered nine;
Lost and alone where never sun doth shine,
Nor soft winds blow, nor skies are ever blue.
Far in the midnight deeps beyond our sight,
There the black planet rides the tides of night.


(Lin Carter)
To Boldly Go...

"Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors—nothin'. Nothing to do but throw rocks at tin cans and we got to bring our own tin cans."

(Ship's Cook, United Planets Cruiser C-57D, Forbidden Planet, just about the best dang SF film ever made.)
A Dangerous Thing

"I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters."

(Frank Lloyd Wright)
Water into Wine

"My books are water; those of great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."

(Mark Twain, Notebook)
The Universe in a Nutshell

"He showed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding and though: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made."

(Julian of Norwich, a 14th century hermitess)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rocket Ship Galileo

It's at times like this that I wish I still had a shred of modeling ability!

Premium Coffee

(Given the news a few months back about premium coffee beans that pass through the digestive system of a small animal...I found this appropriate!)

'Killick,' said Stephen, 'what's amiss? Have you see the ghost in the bread-room? Are you sick? Show me your tongue.'

When Killick had withdrawn his tongue, a flannelly object of inordinate length, he said, paler still, 'Is there a ghost in the bread-room, sir? Oh, oh, and I was there in the middle watch. Oh, sir, I might a seen it.'

'There is always a ghost in the bread-room. Light along that pot, will you now?'

'I dursn't, sir, begging your pardon. There's worse news than the ghost, even. Them wicked old rats got at the coffee, sir, and I doubt there's another pot in the barky.'

'Preserved Killick, pass me that pot, or you will join the ghost in the bread-room, and howl for ever more.'

With extreme unwillingness Killick put the pot on the very edge of the table, muttering, 'Oh, I'll cop it: oh, I'll cop it.'

Jack walked in, poured himself a cup as he bade Stephen good morning...[discusses the ship's situation]...'The coffee has a damned odd taste.'

'This I attribute to the excrement of rats. Rats have eaten our entire stock; and I take the present brew to be a mixture of the scrapings at the bottom of the sack.'

'I thought it had a familiar tang,' said Jack. 'Killick, you may tell Mr. Seymour, with my compliments, that you are to have a boat. And if you don't find at least a stone of beans among the squadron, you need not come back. It is no use trying Nereide; she don't drink any.'

When the pot had been jealously divided down to its ultimate dregs, dregs that might have been called dubious had there been the least doubt of their nature, they went on deck.

(The Mauritius Command, Patrick O'Brian)

Addendum: The madness continues. Elephant-filtered coffee. What a fascinating modern age we live in.
My Theme Song

"Strange adventures on other worlds, the universe of the future."

(Motto of Planet Comics)
Technology: A Giant Step Sideways!

Reasons Why A Slide Rule (And Paper Pad) Is Better Than An X-Workstation:

—A Slide Rule doesn't shut down abruptly when it gets too hot.

—One hundred people all using Slide Rules and Paper Pads do not start wailing and screaming due to a single-point failure.

—A Slide Rule doesn't smoke whenever the power supply hiccups.

—A Slide Rule doesn't care if you smoke, or hiccup.

—You can spill coffee on a Slide Rule; you can use a Slide Rule while completely submerged in coffee.

—You never get nasty system messages about filling up your entire paper quota with pointless GIF pictures for the root window.

—A Slide Rule and Paper Pad fit in a briefcase with space left over for lunch or a change of underwear.

—A properly used Slide Rule can perform pipelined and parallel operations. (Okay, you need a guru for this.)

—You don't get junk mail offering pricey software upgrades that fix current floating point errors while introducing new ones.

—A Slide Rule doesn't need scheduled hardware maintenance.

—A Paper Pad supports text and graphics images easily, and can be easily upgraded from monochrome to color.

—Slide Rules are designed to a standardized, open architecture.

—You can hold a Slide Rule at arm's length, to hit the obnoxious person at the next seat over.

—A Slide Rule is immune to viruses, worms, and other depredations from hostile adolescents with telephones.

—Additional Paper Pads can be integrated into the system seamlessly and without needing to reconfigure everything.

—Nobody will make you feel bad by introducing a smaller, faster, cheaper slide rule next month.
Ancient Weapons and Hokey Religions

"The slide rule, talisman until recently of the honorable profession of engineer, is in the electronic age as obsolete as any Bronze Age relic. An archaeologist of the future, finding a slide rule and wondering about it, might note that it is handy for drawing straight lines or for buttering bread. But to assume that either of these was its original purpose violates the economy assumption. A mere straight-edge or butter knife would not have needed a sliding member in the middle of the rule. Moreover, if you examine the spacing of the graticules you find precise logarithmic scales, too meticulously disposed to be accidental. It would dawn on the archaeologist that, in an age before electronic calculators, this pattern would constitute an ingenious trick for rapid multiplication and division. The mystery of the slide rule would be solved by reverse engineering, employing the assumption of intelligent and economical design." [p. 103]

(Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life)
The History of Civilization

Chubby, brunette Eunice Kinnison sat in a rocker, reading the Sunday papers and listening to the radio. Her husband Ralph lay sprawled upon the davenport, smoking a cigarette and reading the current issue of EXTRAORDINARY STORIES against an unheard background of music. Mentally, he was far from Tellus, flitting in his super-dreadnaught through parsec after parsec of vacuous space.

E.E. "Doc" Smith, Triplanetary, Chapter 5: "1941"
Universe

"Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"


(Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Bad Literature

I'm sure that this is one of those urban legend style quotes, but it came to mind.

"The decline in American pride, patriotism, and piety can be directly attributed to the extensive reading of so-called 'science-fiction' by our young people. This poisonous rot about creatures not of God's making, societies of 'aliens' without a good Christian among them, and raw sex between unhuman beings with three heads and God alone knows what sort of reproductive appartus keeps our young people from realizing the true will of God."

(Jerry Falwell, Can Our Young People Find God in the Pages of Trashy Magazines? Of Course Not! Reader's Digest, August, 1985, pgs. 152-157.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Quantum Connection

Anybody who has owned a dog will realize the truth of this tale: Dogs know a lot more than they let on.

Friday, May 11, 2007

1996: The Year in Books

I recently came across a list of books that I had read (the first one on the was actually started in 1995) in 1996. It was in a reading log that my former boss had given me. I recall starting to keep notes there, but when I ran out of sheets, I found that the manufacturer no longer made the notebook or the sheets (and it is of an odd size, so I could not just adapt another brand of sheets).

For some reason (workload probably, we were starting a new product at a new company around then) I did not do anything similar for 1997-2000. In 2001 I started keeping an online list of books read so you will see my entries for 2001 to 2006, as you've already started seeing my entries for 2007.

My count for 1996 was 70 books (counting omnibus editions as multiple books, not a single book). My average is usually around 60, so it is interesting to see that during a period of time when I was putting in a lot of overtime, I managed more than my average. What probably helped was the three hours of day commuting by bus (the only blessing of such a thing!). Of course, becoming a father in 1998 decreased my hours for reading, hence the average of 60, not a consistently higher number.

(I've pretty much put this up as a transcription of my notes. I will add more detail going forward, so this will be revised with a bit more description.)

Roger McBride Allen: The Ring of Charon. The Shattered Sphere.

When a book starts with a significant chunk of the human race apparently being lost, you know you're in for an exciting time. The Earth vanishes, apparently as the result of alien interference and some gravity experiments being carried out in Pluto's area by humans. This begins a quest to find the Earth. At one point it was rumored that this was the start of a ten book (!) series, but the latest information indicates it will be a trilogy (although the publication of the third volume is, like John Varley's Irontown Blues, always pending!

Allies and Aliens (omnibus of Torch of Honor and Rogue Powers). A pair of linked books by Allen in an omnibus edition. These were slightly revised and expanded from the original editions for this omnibus. Good rousing space opera!

Ambush at Corellia, Assault at Selonia and Showdown at Centerpoint. Three Stars Wars books by Allen. I don't recall much beyond that, having given just about all my Star Wars (and Star Trek) books on to a couple of nephews a few years after this!

Isaac Asimov: The Lucky Starr series, written originally under the pen name of Paul French and made up of the following volumes: David Starr, Space Ranger. Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury. Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter. Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn.

Asimov's autobiography talks about how he was approached to write a series of young adult (or juveniles) novels that might be turned into a television program, making the author (his agent and his publisher) piles of money. Given the state of science fiction on television (then and now!) Asimov adopted the pen name "Paul French". The series never came to pass, and Asimov continued to write the books, adding more and more of his own touches into the series (such as the Three Laws of Robotics). Later editions would appear under his own name.

Did I enjoy the books reading them this time around? Yes and no. The state of the solar system has changed a lot since these were written. We have no "Mars Apples" growing on Mars. Venus has no oceans. So, as long as I put myself in the right frame of mind (both in terms of ignoring scientific fact and reminding myself that these were aimed at a younger audience), they were fun, especially when you run across an Asimovian touch or two.

Gregory Benford and Mark O. Martin: A Darker Geometry. Part of Larry Niven's Known Space series and the Man-Kzin Wars sub-series. Niven "opened up" his universe to other authors, allowing them to "play" in the Man-Kzin Wars period. He has final approval over the stories, so I guess we could say these are "canon" to the universe. This entry deals with the rather enigmatic Outsiders, an alien race that spends most of their time between the stars, selling information to various races. Benford is a physicist and a well-known author of hard SF books. Martin seems to have only made this contribution; he did surface at Baen's Bar after Jim Baen died. A good space opera and I wish Martin would team up with Benford for another entry!

Ben Bova: Mars. Part of Ben Bova's loose-but-associated Grand Tour series. This novel deals with a multi-national expedition to Mars and what they find there. Not quite as sweeping as Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy, but plenty of adventure and hard SF for fans of relatively near-future space stories.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Falling Free. Barrayar. The Vor Game. Shards of Honor. The Warrior's Apprentice. Cetaganda. Ethan of Athos. Brothers in Arms. Borders of Infinity. Mirror Dance. Several entries in the Miles Vorkosigan series. Part humor, part satire, part space opera, part detective series, I keep coming back to the series as Bujold allows her character to grow and keeps refreshing the series by changing the focus (e.g., from space opera to detective fiction) instead of allowing things to get staler and staler. I have one complaint, though. Since reading this batch in 1996, and a few others in subsequent years, all we've gotten has been one relatively short work. Dang. What is Miles up to? Don't leave the fans hanging!

John W. Campbell, Jr.: The Black Star Passes.

C.J. Cherryh: Heavy Time (first of two books about Dekker and Pollard. Set early in the Alliance/Combine wars, the start of the Company Wars). Hellburner. Second book about Dekker and Pollard. Building of the Alliance Carrier Fleet. Cuckoo's Egg (slow to start, irritating to start. Open for sequel, might be better. A warm-up to the "Foreigner" series of books?).

Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee: Rama II: Probably more Lee than Clarke, not as good as Clarke by himself.

James Clavell: Shogun.

Cole & Bunch: Sten.

Daniel Graham: The Gatekeepers.

Joe Haldeman: Worlds, Worlds Apart, Worlds Enough and Time.

Murray Leinster: Space Platform and Space Tug (still haven't found Space City). Real hokey!

Andre Norton: The Sioux Spaceman. The Stars Are Ours! The Zero Stone. Uncharted Stars.

Alan E. Nourse: Raiders from the Rings.

Patrick O'Brian: Master & Commander. Post Captain.

Fred Pohl and Thomas T. Thomas: Mars Plus. Sequel to Man Plus, not as good. More of a Thomas book than a Pohl book?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars. Green Mars. Blue Mars.

L. J. Rowland: Shinju.

Charles Sheffield: Godspeed.

Allen Steele: The Tranquility Alternative.

Robert Van Gulik: The Chinese Gold Murders, Judge Dee at Work, The Lacquer Screen, The Chinese Lake Murders, The Monkey and the Tiger, The Haunted Monastery and The Chinese Maze Murders, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, The Chinese Bell Murders, The Red Pavilion, The Emperor's Pearl, Necklace and Calabash, Poets and Murder, The Phantom of the Temple, The Chinese Nail Murders, The Willow Pattern, Murder in Canton.

David Weber: On Basilisk Station.

George Zebrowski: The Sunspacer Trilogy.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Video Killed the Radio Star

Via BoingBoing, a link to a collection of videos from last year's Singularity Summit. See Ray Kurzweil, Eric Drexler, Cory Doctorow and Mr. GEB himself!

And they say that I am a strange loop!
Cathode Ray Tubes

Because there is nothing like the warm glow of CRT's, oscilloscopes with those wonderous green screens, analog tuning dials and more...may I present The Cathode Ray Tube Site!

I am still annoyed with my grandmother for dumping (dumping!) all of my grandfather's "ham radio" and "hi-fi" equipment without asking me if I was interested in it. I loved all that stuff as a kid and would have lept at the chance of even buying it from her and storing it until I could use it. Dang it, she even threw out his wooden sliderule!
Beyond the Edge of Space

In the Department of Poorly Written Headlines Department, Methane May Allow Rockets to Go Beyond the Fringes of Space (!). Let's hope they don't run into...REEEEAAAVVVVEERRRRSSSS!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Science of Magic

So far, therefore, as the public profession of magic has been one of the roads by which men have passed to supreme power, it has contributed to emancipate mankind from the thraldom of tradition and to elevate them into a larger, freer life, with a broader outlook on the world. This is no small service rendered to humanity. And when we remember further that in another direction magic has paved the way for science, we are forced to admit that if the black arts has done much evil, it has also been the source of much good; that if it is the child of error, it has been the mother of freedom and truth.

Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). The Golden Bough. 1922.
The Poetry of Jack Vance

The suns tumbled up into the mauve autumn sky like rollicking kittens.

(Jack Vance, The Anome, 1973)
Reverse Engineering

"Sir, have you considered the converse of engineering? We fall into it so naturally, but in the end every project expires, and one way or another every team is dismantled, and that's something we're not wired to deal with. It saddens, even traumatizes us. That's where geniuses are needed, to engineer the conclusions of things."

(The Collapsium, Wil McCarthy)
Demoted Planet Speaks Out

John Scalzi interviews the ex-planet Pluto.

I’m not going to sue. Who am I going to sue? You think the International Astronomical Union has any money to speak of? There’s a reason the most popular event at an astronomer’s conference is the free buffet.
Like a Bad Penny

Cold fusion keeps coming back! No word when I can install a reactor in the basement, though.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Gold at Starbow's End

Looking like something that Spirit or Opportunity might see on the surface of Mars, today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is actually a shot from our own Death Valley.
Safety Lecture

"Okay, Seaman Sanson, this is your safety briefing," the rep said, grinning again. "Be aware that the platform you are using for entry is poorly constructed and may collapse. Be aware that on the far side of the gate you may experience reduced air quality. Be aware that on the far side of the gate you may experience increased or decreased gravitational field. The far side of the gate may not be at ground level and you may experience vertical movement on exit. Upon returning you may find that you do not hit the platform in which case you will experience an approximately twenty-meter fall to ground level. The gate may not return to this same location at all in which case you may find yourself in any location in this universe or in any other universe. The environment suit that you are using is not warranted by the manufacturer for use in any nonterrestrial environment and, therefore, you are using it at your own risk. Do you understand this warning?"

(John Ringo, Into the Looking Glass)
Perceptions

"What is his background Mr. Secretary?"

"NASA, then defense contractors," the secretary said, smiling faintly. "Ph.D.s in physics, aeronautical engineering, optics, electronic engineering and some other stuff. Smart guy. Very bright, very sharp, high watt."

"Fifty-ish, balding," the Homeland Security director added, chuckling. "Fifty pounds overweight, pocket protector, five colors of pens, HP calculator on his hip."

The defense secretary just smiled.

The man who entered, passed by the Secret Service, was just below normal height. He had brownish-blond hair that was slightly tousled and lightly receding on both sides. He walked like a gymnast or a martial artist and if there was an ounce of fat on his body it wasn't apparent; his arms, which had strangely smooth skin, were corded with muscles. He had light blue eyes and a face that was chiseled and movie star handsome. He was wearing a light green silk shirt and well-worn blue jeans over cowboy boots.

"Gentlemen and ladies, Dr. William Weaver," the defense secretary said, lightly with some humor in his voice. "Senior scientist of Columbia Defense."

"I'm sorry about how I'm dressed, Mr. President," the scientist said, sliding into a chair at a gesture from the President. "I didn't think I was going to need a suit this weekend; they're all at home." He had a slight, but noticeable, deep south accent. "Ahm sorry 'bout how Ahm dressed, Mister Pres'dent."

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Mister Satchel Charge

"Just remember," Miller growled, over the radio. "Once you ignite the fuse, Mister Satchel Charge is not your friend."

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Telephone Call (Two)

He dialed his phone again.

"Garcia."

"Have the detectors arrived?"

"About an hour ago, and you were right. There's a fairly continuous stream of subatomic particles coming out of it. I think it's degrading."

"Okay, good," Weaver said.

"Is that firing I hear?" Garcia asked.

"Yeah, we're being invaded," Weaver replied and yawned. "Monsters from the eighth dimension or something. I think we're about to get overrun."

"Jesus! Get out of there!"

"Well, we're sort of cut off," Weaver admitted. "Look, what sort of particles?"

"Muons and something else," Garcia said. "Do you really want to talk about this now?"

"Yes."

"Okay, there's some muons, like I said, but we're getting readings on others. They're not anything I recognize, not mesons, not quarks, very high mass. I'd guess they might be bosons."

"That doesn't make sense," Weaver said, squinting his brow as the machine gun set up an almost continuous clatter. "Not the big particles, the muons. I'd have expected neutrinos."

"I don't happen to have a neutrino detector on me at the moment," Garcia said, sarcastically. Neutrino detection required very large tanks of chemicals, usually in the tens of thousands of gallons. When the neutrinos hit the chemicals they were accelerated to faster than light speed, creating Cherenkov radiation detectable as purplish-blue flashes of light.

"The Japanese have one down to, oh, the size of a container car or so," Weaver said, yawning again. "Maybe we can borrow it. But the rest makes sense. If it's degrading into the universe it's probably going to increase the charge of each of the released particles. That means you get small gates at first and larger ones as it continues to degrade. Or maybe they'll go further and further away. And the first gates that would open would be nearby. Finally things are starting to make sense."

Sanson walked over and slapped a pistol into the scientist's empty hand.

"You know how to use one of those?" Sanson asked.

"Point and click?" Weaver said, looking puzzled.

"Yeah, more or less." The SEAL laughed. "Round up the spout, cocked, not on safe. Touch the trigger and it fires. Just remember to point it at the bad guys."

"Look, one of the SEALs just handed me a pistol," Weaver said, keeping his finger away from the trigger. "I think that's a bad sign. We'll talk about this later, okay?"

"Okay," Garcia said. "Decaying, releasing particles, particles open gates."

"Something like that. And increasing charge, larger gates or further away as time goes by." Tuffy was small. Small gate? But large enough to take Mimi? The front door burst open and one of the smaller monsters came into the room, howling its terrible cry. Sanson turned and fired a burst that bounced off the armor but as it turned towards the SEAL Weaver lined up the pistol on it and shot. The first round was high, kicking dust out of the wall, but he lowered the pistol slightly and was rewarded with a green blotch on the second round. Two more bullets into it, and one in the floor, and it was kicking and twitching on the ground, spilling green ichor into the blue rug.

"Well, gotta go," Weaver said.

"Doc . . ."

"See you later, Garcia."

Another of the beasts sprang into the room and Weaver shot at it, missing, then two more times and hit. The second round hit it in the hindquarters and its back legs dropped, limp. But it continued to crawl forward on its front legs and his next two rounds missed, poking holes in the far wall and shattering a picture of a sailboat against the backdrop of a tropical island. That was his last round and the slide of the H&K locked back on the empty magazine.

"I think I'm out of bullets," he yelled, standing up and stepping back over the couch.

"Here!" Sanson yelled, tossing a magazine through the air.

Weaver caught it but had no idea what to do with it. However, he was an engineer; it should be easy enough to figure out. The thing had crawled up to him and he backed away, into the room, hoping to draw it away from the two SEALs as he attempted to determine how to reload. Let's see, two levers on the handle of the gun, one blocked by the slide. Lever near the trigger. He fiddled with the lever and was rewarded by having the empty magazine drop out onto the floor. Point bullets forward, insert magazine. Eureka! But the slide didn't go forward and pulling the trigger didn't work. He grabbed the slide and pulled back and was again rewarded by having it slide forward. By this time the thing had nearly crawled up to him again and he jumped backwards then pointed the gun at it and shot several times.

"Watch it!" Miller snarled as one of the rounds hammered into his body armor. "Save your rounds!"

"Hey, I got it, didn't I?" Weaver asked as his phone rang.

"William Weaver," he said, holding the smoking barrel of the pistol upwards where he wouldn't tend to shoot one of the SEALs.

"This is the NSA, we're watching the news, where are you?"

"In the Edderbrook house," he replied. "I think we're sort of cut off."

"Jesus! Get out of there!"

"I don't think that's possible," he noted as another of the damned things just strolled in the door. He aimed carefully this time and managed to hit it on the first shot. But the round only ticked it off and it turned and charged him.

"Hold please," he said, jumping to the back of the couch and over and then coming up with the pistol and shooting it in the back as it tried to make the turn. One of the bullets must have hit its spine because its back legs went out just like the other one. He aimed carefully and fired rounds into its neck until it stopped moving. He realized he'd gotten out of control when the slide locked back again. "I'm out of bullets again!" he yelled. "I'm sorry, I'm a little busy at the moment. Could we talk later?"

"Sure," the NSA said, bemusedly.

"I told Garcia what I think is going on, based on the evidence," he said, catching another magazine from Sanson and missing the toss from Miller. He reloaded and picked up the magazine he'd missed as he talked. Multi-tasking, that's the key.

"We'll talk later," the NSA said.

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Telephone Call (One)

"Shit," Sanson said, dropping out his magazine and slapping in a new one.

The reason for his exclamation was clear. A new type of creature was pouring through the gate. These were bipedal and large but otherwise similar in general appearance to the earlier attackers. The big difference was in their armament. The tops of their beaks appeared to be hollow and as Weaver watched they stitched the line of defenders with projectiles. Two of them concentrated on the big machine gun, which had been gotten back into action, and the two man crew was riddled with the projectiles, their blood splashing all over the truck, which was still painted in desert camouflage.

The beasts were, also, heavily armored and seemed to shrug off most of the rounds coming their way. Only the heavy rounds of the MG-240s seemed able to penetrate their armor and the things were now concentrating on taking out the machine guns one by one.

"Joy," Weaver said, turning over and pulling out his cell phone. He noticed that a news crew had set up behind the line of firing. Alien invasion, live. Joy.

He pulled out his PDA and found the number he had been given then dialed it.

"White House, National Security Advisor's office."

"This is Doctor William Weaver," he said. "I'd like to speak to the NSA if she's available."

"I'm sorry, Doctor, she's in a meeting at the moment," the operator said. "Is that firing I hear?"

"Yes," he replied. "You might want to get a message to her that we're being invaded by aliens and the National Guard company trying to hold them off is about to be overrun. It should be on CNN by now. That was really all I called to say, anyway. Thanks. Bye." With that he cut the connection.

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Diplomatic Relations

Weaver waved at the sergeant and showed his Pentagon ID again.

"I'm Dr. Weaver with the DOD," he said. "This is Command Master Chief Miller with SEAL Team Five. What do you have?"

"We received a call that a nonhostile alien was visiting this home. The home owner is Mrs. Emma Sand. When the first officers arrived they found a three-foot-tall . . . cat that walks on its hind legs. The homeowner alleges that the cat had been visiting for two days, watching television. When confronted by the officers the cat demanded to be 'taken to our leaders.'" The SWAT sergeant was visibly sweating. "Upon investigation we found another gate in the woods behind the caller's home. At that point we contacted the Department of Homeland Security, secured the area and awaited further information. The area is quarantined at this time but by the time we got here quarantine had already been breached."

"Felinoid," Weaver said, gently. "Three-foot-tall felinoid. Looks like a cat but it's from another world so it's not really a cat. And the other term you're searching for is 'bipedal.' That's walking on two legs. Gotta learn the jargon."

"Yes, sir," the sergeant said.

"We've got it," Miller said, tapping the sergeant on the shoulder. "You don't get this much in Archer, huh?"

"No . . ."

"Command Master Chief."

"No, Command Master Chief, we don't."

"Don't worry," Miller said, tapping him on the shoulder again. "We see it all the time."

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Be Prepared!

A science fiction writer he knew always carried a black backpack that he called his "alien abduction pack." "Everything I need to survive for twenty-four hours in eighty percent of terrestrial environments." It was really a "I crashed in somebody else's hotel room at a con" or "the airline lost my bags" pack. Weaver had started carrying one as well and he was glad for it now. He could shave with his own razor and brush his teeth with his own toothbrush. He'd used up the bottle of water the day before but that was easily remedied.

As soon as he was done with his shower, hair brushed, wearing new underwear thanks to the "alien abduction pack" again, he was ready to face the day.

(Into the Looking Glass, John Ringo)
Sacrifice

No soldier ever dies in vain. They have chosen to stand between their country and the barbarians. There is no greater position of honor than this. Politicians sometime do not use the sacrifice correctly; however, that sacrifice is never ever in vain.

(Source Unknown.)
The Gunroom

...it was like gossiping with a chum in the gunroom: the place was littered with port bottles, full and empty, along with three Colt revolvers on the side table, boxes of patent matches, a broken telescope, a well-thumbed Bible next to the Woolwich Manual of Fortification, a shelf packed with jars of Coward mixed pickles, bundles of silver ingots tied with red waxed string and thrown carelessly on the bed, an old barommeter, piles of French crockery, jade ornaments, tea cups, a print of the Holy Well in Flintshire propped up against the Young Cricketer's Companion, and papers, books, and rubbish spread in dusty confusion.

(George McDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Dragon)
We Happy Few

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

(William Shakespeare, Henry V)
Policy Maker

"When you send a man out with a gun, you create a policymaker. When his ass is on the line, he will do whatever he needs to do.

"And if the implications of that bothers you, the time to do something about it is before you decide to send him out."

(David Drake, "Afterword to Counting the Cost", Caught in the Crossfire)
Stop Me If You've Heard This Before...

How It All Began

In ancient Israel, it came to pass that a trader by the name of Abraham Com did take unto himself a young wife by the name of Dot. And Dot Com was a comely woman, broad of shoulder and long of leg. Indeed, she had been called Amazon Dot Com.

She said unto Abraham, her husband, "Why doth thou travel far from town to town with thy goods when thou can trade without ever leaving thy tent?"

And Abraham did look at her as though she were several saddle bags short of a camel load, but simply said, "How, Dear?" And Dot replied, "I will place drums in all the towns and drums in between to send messages saying what you have for sale and they will reply telling you which hath the best price.

And the sale can be made on the drums and delivery made by Uriah's Pony Stable (UPS)."

Abraham thought long and decided he would let Dot have her way with the drums. The drums rang out and were an immediate success. Abraham sold all the goods he had at the top price, without ever moving from his tent.

But this success did arouse envy. A man named Maccabia did secret himself inside Abraham's drum and was accused of insider trading.

And the young man did take to Dot Com's trading as doth the greedy horsefly take to horse flesh.

And, before very long, there were many others and They were called Nomadic Ecclesiastical Rich Dominican Siderites, or NERDS for short.

And lo, the land was so feverish with joy at the new riches and the deafening sound of drums, that no one noticed that the real riches were going to the drum maker, one Brother William of Gates, who bought up every drum company in the land. And indeed did insist on making drums that would work only with Brother Gates' drumheads and drumsticks.

Dot did say, "Oh, Abraham, what we have started is being taken over by others." And as Abraham looked out over the Bay of Ezekiel (or as it came to be known "eBay"), he said, "we need a name that reflects what we are," and Dot replied, "Young Ambitious Hebrew Owner Operators." "YAHOO", said Abraham.

And that is how it all began, It wasn't Al Gore after all.
Paying a Second Visit

An elderly gentleman of 83 arrived in Paris by plane. At the French customs desk, the man took a few minutes to locate his passport in his carry-on bag. "You have been to France before, monsieur?" the customs officer asked, sarcastically. The elderly gentleman admitted he had been to France previously. "Then you should know enough to have your passport ready."

The American said, "The last time I was here, I didn't have to show it."

"Impossible. Americans always have to show their passports on arrival in France!"

The American senior gave the Frenchman a long hard look. Then he quietly explained. "Well, when I came ashore at a place called Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944 to help liberate this crummy country, I couldn't find any Frenchmen to show it to."

Into the Looking Glass

(Reposted from 2006, also referenced in 2007.)

So after reading a couple of texts on quantum physics disguised cleverly as science fiction novels, I nosed around the Baen site, to Baen's Bar to see what else might be related. That turned up this novel by John Ringo, one of Baen's regular authors. He's the author (for example) of the ongoing Posleen series (that somehow is inspired by this character from this comic strip, one of my regular reads).

I started reading it and had a feeling of deja vu. The main character...where have I seen him before? Very funny, Mr. Ringo!

Quantum physics, "wormholes", hordes of aliens, lots of explosions. Could be an season or two of Stargate!

One of the cover blurbs says "If Tom Clancy were writing SF, it would read much like John Ringo". Yep, lots of guns, military tech, explosions, action. Not so much character development. But, as I've said before, I can't take a steady diet of rich food, every now and again you need a snack.

Of course, for those elements, you don't find many Baen Books on the Locus best of lists. But (oddly enough), they have won Hugos and other awards in the past. And they seem to sell quite well. So I'm not the only one who likes the occasional snack food style of book!

Seriously, I did enjoy the book. It was nice to see somebody written up as a SF character. There are many funny bits in the book. It moved quickly, not only due to the constant action, but it caught my attention, and kept it to the point where it was a page-turner.

Another blurb on the cover says "...Beginning a new series..." I'll be back to get the next installments, to be sure. (Voyage of the Space Bubble?)

Addendum (January 22, 2007): Needed something shortish to read, and I ended up rereading this. More fun than the first time around and since the sequel is due later this year, I'm refreshed on the plot. "War porn"? Maybe. Snack food level book? Definitely. But fun, and even more fun to see how much William Weaver resembles one Travis S. Taylor. Here are a few favorite passages from the book: Safety Lecture! Perceptions. Mister Satchel Charge. Telephone Call (One). Telephone Call (Two). Diplomatic Relations. Be Prepared!

Addendum (May 14, 2007): Just spotted this at John Ringo's website (see December 27, 2006 entry). Love this bit: "Then there are the braindead morons who are complaining because THE BOOK HAS TOO MUCH SCIENCE IN IT."
SN 2006gy

The celestial object with that innocent name is actually the biggest supernova yet discovered. When will we see such a site in our own galaxy? Astronomers are keeping an eye on one very likely candidate.
Reading and Re-reading

"Isn't it odd how much fatter a book gets when you've read it several times?...As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells...and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower...both strange and familiar."


(Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Check, Please!

Bruce Moomaw writes about Cassini's exploration of Saturn's moon Lapetus. Lapetus? Lapetus? That's a new one. Maybe he's talking about Saturn's mysterious moon Iapetus, featured in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (where it was misspelled as Japetus)?

Check, please! Spell check, please!

Addendum: May 9, 2007: Update! Well, looks like Space Daily got a few e-mails on this one!

Editor's Note: The first edition of this article described the moon Iapetus as Lapetus - with a capital L rather than a capital I. It was a font typo mistake where a correctly cased capital I in Arial font appeared to be a lower case L. It was then transferred all the way through the production processed - including the imaging stage where several "Lapetus moon" search results came back with many good looking shots of the moon 'Lapetus'. An unfortunate mistake - but one that is entirely explainable within the context of text production processes. Typos and misspellings are a regular feature of all publishing operations, and to be perfect to the point where there is a zero error rate is something all publisher's might aspire to, but accept will never actually be achieved in the real world - only in the blogsphere - which was where this article was meant to have been published as a Bruce Moomaw SpaceBlogger report - see the corrected version and a place to comment further here.
Spanish Ladies

And now, inspired by too much reading of the works of Patrick O'Brian...

Spanish Ladies

(Which is what I sing when I read too much Patrick O'Brian...)

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we've received orders for to sail for ole England,
But we hope in a short time to see you again.
We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.


We hove our ship to with the wind from sou'west, boys
We hove our ship to, deep soundings to take;
'Twas forty-five fathoms, with a white sandy bottom,
So we squared our main yard and up channel did make.
We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.


The first land we sighted was called the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, off Portsmouth the Wight;
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
And then we bore up for the South Foreland light.
We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.


Then the signal was made for the grand fleet to anchor,
And all in the Downs that night for to lie;
Let go your shank painter, let go your cat stopper!
Haul up your clewgarnets, let tacks and sheets fly!
We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.


Now let ev'ry man drink off his full bumper,
And let ev'ry man drink off his full glass;
We'll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy,
And here's to the health of each true-hearted lass.
We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.
Them!

Remember that great end sequence from the classic monster flick, Them! You know, giant ants rampaging across California, settling into Los Angeles? The end sequence took place in the flood-control tunnels that criss-cross the city. Here's a look at similar tunnels under Las Vegas. I looks like there are some strange inhabitants down there!

Update! My bad! The earlier version of this cited "Los Angeles", not "Las Vegas". That's what I get for blogging before consuming enough coffee to wake me up.
The Ever-Tottering TBR Pile

Have you got a to be read pile? A pile of books you're about to start? How about a pile of books "in process"? I've got several of them: books I'm reading, books I'm about to read, books being used to research other books, books I haven't gotten around to reshelving (I have a lot of books!).

Via BoingBoing, a new Flickr collection of To Be Read piles!