What I’ve Been Reading

The Heritage Universe quintilogy by Charles Sheffield

A very fun adventure series set against the common background trope of a mysterious vanished alien civilization having left amazing and incomprehensible toys behind for the younger civilizations to puzzle over. The arc follows a gang of human and alien characters with a healthy mix of motivations as they get caught up in events that lead to some answers about the long-vanished Builders.

The first two books in this series don’t stand well on their own, but they work well in the context of the overall arc. At first I didn’t like that Summertide didn’t really reveal anything about the Builders, and then I didn’t like that Divergence revealed too much too quickly, but later books damped those oscillations retroactively.

I like the creative variety in alien forms and civilizations presented here; they seem to fit well. I also like the quietly implied moral present in the reason for the Builders leaving their artifacts lying around: Cooperation is better than conquest.

One thing I didn’t like was the complete silence about the fate of the Zardalu in the latter part of the series. Here’s this ruthless, menacing race whose subjects hated them so much they attempted genocide against them, and everyone has been happy thinking the Zardalu have been dead for thousands of years. Now they’re making a comeback but were discovered while in a position of weakness, and… nothing.  Some time was bought by convincing the Zardalu that they’re in danger of being stepped on by other races grown more powerful in the interim, but they have to eventually figure out that’s not the case.  No governments have taken any initiative to contain, protect or negotiate with the Zardalu, and their ambassador became little more than a thug and plot device to help the plot in the fifth book.  This better be addressed in future books.

The setting of this series is one of the most MOO-like I’ve encountered. It could also potentially make for several good movies or a TV series.

 

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

As mentioned in previous posts I’ve been on a quest to read all of Lovecraft’s stories. One story I was having a hard time finding was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which based on the implications of other stories sounded like it might be one of the most epic. It was, but it was also disappointing in a few ways – the silliness with the cats being first and foremost.  It was a good story, but I enjoyed At the Mountains of Madness more.

I was delighted to find a handful of other stories in this volume that I had not previously read.

 

Free Will by Sam Harris

A short, easy read about the experimental evidence that suggests free will is an illusion, and what it implies for our justice system and for our thoughts about choice and self-determination.  I found it a fun and easy read and it extended my awareness of the matter a little by exploring some implications I hadn’t thought of.

 

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while but it became more opportune when I discovered the audiobook version was on YouTube.

This is a book I’ve been thinking for a long time needs to exist, and I’m glad someone else went to the trouble of writing it so I don’t have to. And that he then read it to me in his nice accent. See the wikipedia article at the title link above for detailed information on the content, but suffice to say he enumerates most of the major things about religion that bother me, and adds more I wasn’t aware of.

Can we abolish this supernatural nonsense now, please?

 

Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan

A well-written and interesting hard SF story about a galaxy-threatening accident and the scramble to mitigate it. Less tiresome and more engrossing than some of Egan’s more exposition-heavy, visualization-taxing efforts.

I found it odd that the titular construct played only a tiny role in the story.

The best part of this story, in my opinion, was the interesting model of future human sexuality presented. This is a future where humans are heavily bioengineered and have gotten over their gender-induced hangups. Children do not have genitalia nor do lone adults unless they want to for some odd reason. When two or more people start to develop romantic attachments with each other, their hormonal systems negotiate via pheromones and initiate the growth of appropriate combinations of sex organs based on the emotional dynamics of the relationship. Under this system non-consensual sex is very difficult and sex hormones are less likely to poison rationality.

 

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Quite enjoyed this. It’s a story of survival, discovery and human politics over deep time. But more than anything else it ends as a setup for one or possibly two sequels that I hope will prove as engrossing if they’re ever written.

I require a character in the sequel to use the phrase, “Let’s caul ass!”

 

Hold Still by Sally Mann

A few years ago, on impulse, I started a collection of books by and about controversial photographers with some half-baked idea of making a study of what gets fussbudgets wound up. So far I only have a couple of autobiographies in the collection, and this is the most recently written of them. I decided to read one to see how one of these photographers reacted to the fuss over her work.

If you don’t know, Sally Mann has several series of photographs that have drawn some flak, but the biggest noise came from nude photos of her own children. She was accused of everything from poor taste to abuse of trust to child pornography.

She seems to have been more naive than photographers would be today (partly thanks to her example), and was taken by surprise by the reaction. She even went to the point of taking her kids and all of her photos of them to an interview with an FBI investigator, and was assured that none of her work was illegal but that she should expect some trouble with stalkers. Sadly, that did come to pass but not as badly as you might fear.

But that story was only a tiny part of the content of this book. This is the story of her life, interweaving the distant history of her family back to her great-grandparents, her unbelievably film-like growing up in the Southern USA – as in “Suthan” – the complex racial situation there that she was oblivious to until adulthood and now has complex feelings about, and her relationships with horses, dogs, men, her children, the land, photography and other artists. It’s all a lot more fascinating than you might expect, and for me it was a window into a very alien lifestyle.

 

ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

This is a fast and easy read; it’s a collection of one-page theses that each attempt to justify a one-sentence quip about how to run a workplace. It came up in the book club at work, which is why I read it.

While I actually agree with a lot of what they say, this book irritates me because it’s written in a very cocksure style. Reading between the lines – and sometimes not between them – the authors are saying, “We ignored conventional wisdom in the following ways and created a small business that happened to be famously successful at the time we decided to publish this book, so therefore we are qualified to assert that this is the Right Way To Do Things.” Even if they’re right, nobody likes braggarts. Actually, especially if they’re right.

There are a few items in this book that I strongly disagree with, though sometimes it’s the presentation that I disagree with. As an example, in the section titled “Build a Rockstar Environment / Skip the Rock Stars” they assert that instead of trying to recruit star talent, employers should try to create a work environment that naturally boosts everyone’s productivity. I think these two things are orthogonal and they’re presenting them in a false dichotomy. It is simultaneously true that the work environment affects everyone’s productivity and that some people are inherently more productive than others. You should do both – create a good environment AND try to hire good people.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Pretty decent hard-SF first-contact story. A lot of it details the reasoning process of figuring out the nature of movement under gravity using natural observations, and some of the experiments described I found a little difficult to visualize.

What I liked most about this story is how the two threads almost sailed right past each other. Often in first-contact stories there are two narrative threads, usually one from the “explorer” perspective and one from the “native” perspective, and at some point they meet and usually combine into one thread or two parallel threads after that.  This book follows that model, except for the meeting part – basically the two threads are only joined together by one sentence near the end; no characters from either thread ever meet any characters from the other thread, but one thread still depends heavily on the other.

 


Halting State by Charles Stross

A pretty fun spy vs. spy mystery-thriller with a strong nerdish bent and good plot twists near the end.  It had a lot of near-future Scottish slang that I couldn’t figure out, but that’s acceptable in stories where the author is making up a future regional slang.

I like how the three narrative lines were arranged in such a way that two of them almost merged to provide quick gratification of some of the end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

Stross was wrong about facial recognition software being a hard problem though.

 


 

Manta’s Gift by Timothy Zahn

Pretty much what it says on the cover: Political maneuvering between human with shadowy, presumed-evil overlords and aliens with unclear motivations in an exotic environment, with a little bit of adventure thrown in.  It was a pretty decent read and kept me going from chapter to chapter.

 


JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford

A friend recommended this when I expressed an interest in learning JS, and I’m glad she did. This book makes sense out of a potentially very powerful programming language that gets a few things wrong in very confusing ways.  Getting a tour of the language features from someone who can explain what’s good and what’s bad and why they’re good and bad is the perfect approach.  Highly recommended.

 


 

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury

I’ve had this book on my inbound shelf for decades. I tend to have a habit of being slow to getting around to this sort of classical science fiction, but I tend to find it rewarding to read when I get around to it.

This book was definitely rewarding; seldom have I read such a well-written story. Kingsbury manages to weave an engrossing tale of a historical event in a slightly bizarre human society on a far-flung colony world, without any narratorial exposition until the very end. It gradually expands from the very small scope of one familly, to the machinations of a few small societies, and then at the end very satisfyingly zooms out to put it all in the context of a suddenly very fascinating galactic diaspora.

I now want to read more stories set in this universe.

 

Lethe by Tricia Sullivan

A reasonably interesting post-apocalyptic adventure with an unusual vision of the grim meathook future. Some interesting plot devices and characters, but although the minor plot points of the ending were not predictable, the big revelation was telegraphed far ahead of time.

 

507 Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown

Exactly what it says on the title – patent diagrams and descriptions of 507 mechanisms for performing different kinds of transformations on mechanical power.

I’m not disappointed, but I did find some of the diagrams and descriptions difficult to follow, partially because more views would have been useful and partially due to use of opaque and archaic language.

There was one mechanism that I had a hard time believing would work, but all attempts to search for it online lead back to this book.

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Another excellent romp in the Culture universe.  I’m really sad this one will be the last, because they’re all so good.  The Culture is one of the most sensible and realistic views of the distant future I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading SF.

In regards to this story, I’ll just say the ending was not predictable at all, and the Mountains of the Sound is a place I’d love to visit or perhaps even create.

 


The Black Wheel by A. Merritt and Hannes Bok

I’ve long had the idea of reading all of Merritt’s books, based on the strength of The Metal Monster.  This is the third of his books I’ve read, and I have to say it wasn’t terribly great.  I didn’t realize until after reading it that more than 2/3 of the chapters were written by Bok, based on a rough outline left by Merritt.  I didn’t notice the transition.

It’s a decent enough adventure story with lots of psychological drama, but I had trouble following some of that drama; there were a lot of intuitive leaps that I suspect made sense for the authors’ culture but not for mine.  It was good enough to keep me reading until the end, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

 


The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Fourth book in the highly entertaining Laundry series.  I was expecting a letdown from reading the back cover copy, as it described the plot as centering around a televangelist type, but this book was very much not a letdown – every bit as engrossing as the previous ones in the series.

I like that Stross is not afraid to involve large pieces of the stage dressing in the action.

 


Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Mixed feelings about this one.  It did provide stuff to think about and had an involving story, but it also felt like the story was made just to be a framework for a guided tour of current thinking in science and cosmology combined with too much conciliation of religious ideas.

Books that are set in places that I’ve lived give me an odd vibe too, but in this case it was better than most – largely because he describes the same trick I always used for getting a seat on the Northbound subway in Toronto.

 


The Relativistic Brain by Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis and Dr. Ronald M. Cicurel

This one came up in a Facebook thread and the Amazon cover blurb convinced me to read it – it’s good to study your enemies as well as your friends, and their position as represented by Amazon definitely sounds enemy.

Here’s the review I posted in the Facebook thread:

—–

Just finished reading it – it’s short.

In the first two chapters they present a theory that neural firing generates small electromagnetic fields that influence other neurons at a distance, without a direct axon connection, and that in the aggregate these fields are what constitute the meaningful state information in the brain, and encode our mind state in a representation of a Riemann space in which experiences are formed by folding different conceptual and sensory regions together. All of this doesn’t really matter to the important bits though – basically what they’re saying is that brains contain multiple overlapping systems, only one of which (the actual electrical firing of neurons) can be considered digital – the rest are analog.

The rest of the book is a collection of distinct arguments that no digital computer can simulate a brain. For example:

1) Simulating analog phenomena on a digital computer is impossible to do perfectly. While strictly true, I disagree with their assumption that it needs to be done perfectly.

2) It’s impossible to keep all portions of a large-scale simulation synchronized. This is flat-out false; they seem ignorant of basic techniques for keeping simulations stable and synchronized.

3) Brains are special objects. Really, really special. Preciouuussss. Note this is me using a bit of a straw man of my own. They do mention ideas like quantum effects in the brain but don’t go so far as to outright state that brains violate the laws of physics or anything like that.

4) Computers explode in a shower of sparks when you feed them contradictions. No simulation will ever be able to handle contradictory data in a useful way. This is a ridiculous claim to me.

5) Computer simulations are usually created by finding a mathematical representation of a physical phenomenon, then writing an algorithm that solves the math. Even ignoring the analog precision problem from (1), the mathematical representation is often an imperfect representation of reality. This is true of complex systems, but down at the neural level of molecules and electromagnetic fields, I think we’ve got the math down well. Admittedly some of it is probabilistic (ie chance of two protiens bumping into each other) but I don’t see that as a problem.

6) No matter how accurate the computer simulation, it will diverge and fail to perfectly predict the behavior of the organism, because it cannot take into account all the stimuli the organism receives without simulating the entire universe. Well, duh. Also, that’s not a real problem because our senses are pretty limited anyway. And even a perfectly duplicated organism would immediately diverge from itself for the same reason – different sensory input from having a different physical location.

7) If we can’t perfectly predict the original organism, there’s no point in doing this. I completely disagree with this.

8) It is difficult to imagine a simulated brain running in real time, even with more Moore’s Law. If the simulation can’t interact with the world at normal human speed, there’s no point in doing it. Again, this makes absolutely no sense to me.

9) It is difficult to digitally model neuroplasticity – ie the hardware continuously changing while the software still runs. Yes, it is difficult, but not impossible.

Also, the authors seem to conflate simulation with emulation. They’re attacking something that might exist but to my point of view is a straw man: The idea that “digital mind” (my term) researchers are trying to develop algorithms that simulate human minds – that is, actually write code that behaves like a mind. They ignore the approach that seems more reasonable to me, which is that the code is just a dumb physics simulation and the mind exists in the data it manipulates – ie a true uploaded mind, no code involved.

 


Inferno and Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but I gather it was a poem rather than a story so I probably would have found it frustrating anyway.

These two stories I quite enjoyed, but I tend to enjoy everything involving Niven, and his collaborations with Pournelle are always good.

What I take to be the main theme here is that the common image of Hell as a place of internal punishment just doesn’t make sense when you approach it rationally, but if you make the assumption that it’s not supposed to be eternal punishment but only sufficient punishment, then it becomes possible to make some sense of it and of some other Catholic doctrines.

 


The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

I picked up a signed copy of this from Zoltan himself when I went to hear him speak about his US Presidential platform a few months ago. Zoltan for President, by the way!

It’s a tour of transhumanist thought couched in an adventure story. It was a fun enough read, but there were some spots that could have used some editing and other forms of polish, and as stories go it was a bit lacking in suspense – the threats facing the protagonist just didn’t seem sufficiently credible to create drama.

I did like the philosophical stuff though – there are a few wonderful rants about what’s wrong with the world today. Basically the only part of the mindset presented by the book that I don’t agree with is the assertion that enemies of progress should be killed if they don’t get out of the way. I think people who don’t want to be a part of the future can be allowed to practice the old ways apart from mainstream society, like the Amish.

 


The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

A delightful full-length story that I wasn’t aware of until I spotted it in a used book store recently. Thoroughly enjoyed this one – it fits nicely into the neighborhood formed by The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Whisperer in Darkness, while mostly avoiding those noxious fish-men and involving some of the more interesting horrors of Lovecraft’s mythos.

 


The Fox Woman & Other Stories by a. Merritt

Reading that last Lovecraft book left me with a desire for more old-style adventure writing, and lacking another HPL to read I turned to Merritt, who combines a slightly later style with imaginative semi-science-fiction.

The titular short story was good but had an unsatisfying ending – overall it read like the introduction to a novel-length tale and felt unfinished.

Several of the other shorts in this collection were quite good. I quite liked The People of the Pit as it evoked some of the same atmosphere as The Metal Monster but with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in, and I really wish Merritt had been able to finish The White Road as it was an intriguing concept.

What I’ve Been Reading

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (1998)

For almost as long as video games existed there has been debate about how video games should be made with female players in mind.  This book is a collection of essays on the subject.  It has been on my to-read list for a while since I’ve always wondered what the answers might be, but the recent furor over the furor over Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games essay series prompted me to finally get around to reading it.

The short answer is: There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how to make games for girls, or whether that is even a valid question.  The phrase “for girls” raises the ugly specter of pink toys, which many people (myself included) unfairly channels girls into culturally predefined roles.

One theme that kept coming up in the essays is that games that let the player create their own narrative (ie be a storyteller) were popular with girls.

I think the book has been outdated by changing demographics, as despite the continuation of the games market containing mainly “generic” and “for boys” games, roughly half of gamers these days are women.  There certainly still is plenty of room for games targeted at women, and if anyone ever finds the right formula for that it’ll be interesting to see what it does to the demographics.

 S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis trilogy: Prophets, Heretics and Messiah

A sequel trilogy to his earlier Hostile Takeover trilogy, I enjoyed this one just as much.  The characters and settings all feel familiar, though only a few characters are in common with the previous books.

The main thread of this trilogy is an insane AI accumulating tremendous power and launching an assault on all of human space.

What I kept thinking about this was, what a waste.  The way this AI builds its power base and interacts with the technology at its disposal is very much like what I would like to do one day, but it wastes all that potential by proclaiming itself a god and trying to exact revenge.  With that kind of tech, I’d be leaving human space behind and exploring the universe in all directions at once.

America’s Painted Ladies by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen

Well, I haven’t exactly read this one – mostly just looked at the pictures.  It’s a tour of lavishly restored and painted Victorian houses.  I really love this style of house and pored over the pictures in a way I rarely do.  I think it’s mainly the exteriors I like – although I like many of the interior decoration features, I’d rather have a much more modern appearance on the inside.

 

Lovecraft: Tales and Waking Up Screaming by H.P. Lovecraft

I’ve always been attracted to Lovecraft’s mythos but recently realized that I’m getting most of it secondhand, by others who are building on top of it.  I decided to rectify that by reading all the original stories I could find, but I wasn’t able to locate a complete collection.  These two compilations have proved a good start, with the second only duplicating about half of the first.

So far my favorites by far are “At the Mountains of Madness”, which really needs a movie adaptation, and “The Dunwich Horror”, which has a couple of movie adaptations that I’m not really satisfied with.

Though I can see why “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s most popular tales, it just isn’t for me; fish-men aren’t my thing.  Also, “The Call of Cthulhu” wasn’t what I expected and was a mild letdown.

There are a lot more aliens in his stories than I expected; supernatural and extrauniversal monstrosities are less than half of his bestiary.

Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of human mental stability.  All of his stories are full of people becoming mentally unhinged by things they’ve witnessed, many of which seem laughably minor (though still scary) by modern standards.  I have to wonder if people really were that easily broken back in his day and if we’ve desensitized ourselves to creature and body horror at a cultural level.

I wish HPL had lived longer and cranked out more of these wonderful tales.

BTW, if you like Lovecraft I’d also suggest picking up the excellent Laundry series from Charles Stross, which builds on Lovecraft better than anything else I’ve seen.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

It has been a long time since I’ve posted one of these, and I’ve probably forgotten some things, but here goes.

I bought a Kindle last year. It’s something I’ve been interested in since they came out, but couldn’t get around to coughing up the dough until I saw a used one for sale in the classifieds at work.  Discount price = quick action!

I’ve been re-reading some old favorites plus a few new things to try out the Kindle, but also still reading some real books.  Overall I like the Kindle, though with the jacket on it’s a little too heavy for reading on my back.  I will continue using it, but it’s not going to replace paper books any time soon.

 

Iain Banks: Surface Detail

A pretty straight-up Culture novel.  As enjoyable as any other, and thus recommended reading.  One of the two main conflicts driving the plot was the use of virtual reality hells to torment uploaded “sinners”, where sin is defined by those who design the hell and pay for the server capacity to run it.

This is something that had never occurred to me before.  I always considered the obvious implementation of uploaded environments to be one of complete freedom – every individual should be free to orchestrate their private VR environment however they want, and design their perceptions of others and of the outside world however they want.  I hadn’t thought of how horrible it could be if we allowed others to dictate the experience inside.  We must prevent this from happening.

 

Kathleen Ann Goonan: Queen City Jazz

Did Not Like.  It sounded interesting because it was a journey story set in a post-apocalyptic world that had been transformed by a combination of a celestial event and a flawed transformation of cities and lifeforms via nanotechnology and genetic engineering.

It ended up feeling kind of muddy in my mind.  There are some stories where the descriptions of things are kind of murky, and the author (intentionally or not) does a good job of conveying the confusion and uncertainty of the protagonist, and this is one of them.  I generally don’t like that.

 

Larry Niven: The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, and Ringworld’s Children

I’ve read them all before, but a very long time ago and the opportunity arose.  I didn’t bother re-reading Ringworld itself because I’ve read that one often enough to remember it well.  The later three, though, I had mostly forgotten and quite enjoyed refreshing my memory of.

 

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner: Betrayer of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, and Fate of Worlds

This five-book series (I read the first volume a while back) is probably the best of the many good cases of Niven letting other authors play in his sandbox.  Together they’ve done an amzing job of knitting together many of the disparate threads from earlier Known Space novels and short stories, into one contiguous and consistent tale of what happens, when humans, Puppeteers, Pak and a young but super-intelligent species butt heads.

There’s a lot going on here.  The Puppeteers, by virtue of their fundamental cowardice combined with a major technological advantage, are extremely dangerous to just about everyone.  They’ve been manipulating other species, including humans, to try to head off future dangers to themselves.  When they discovered that the core of the galaxy was exploding and a major radiation wavefront would be coming along in ten thousand years or so, they started fleeing the galaxy, taking their planets with them.

But now the highly intelligent and very warlike Pak are also fleeing the core explosion and catching up with the Puppeteers from behind.  While ahead, a young species with an amazing capacity for learning is emerging at a rate that could prove a threat, and human interference has prevented the Puppeteers from mitigating that threat as they normally would, through sabotage or extermination.

What’s a civilization of cowards to do?  Why, turn for help once again to the humans they’ve been been tweaking for luck and paranoia all this time…

I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and it’s must reading for anyone who likes the Known Space universe!

 

A. Merritt: The Metal Monster

A childhood favorite that I had mostly forgotten.  Upon re-reading, I’m amazed at the ideas it contains.  This story was first serialized in 1920, but it describes (using Vernian language) what today we would call minds in a computer substrate or natural machine intelligences, possibly including nanotechnology.

The antiquated and excessively flowery and voluminous descriptions combined with concepts that have relatively recently become common in science fiction create a delightfully clashing combination – old and new at once.

 

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