Recent Reads

Nathan W. Pyle: Strange Planet and Stranger Planet

Totally delightful. This being thinks in manners pleasingly similar to my own. I originally stumbled over this comic on Instagram, which is a great medium for online comics now that a post can have multiple images. I was immediately taken by the manner of speech of the characters, which has a formality and accuracy that just plain makes sense.

Richard Littler: Discovering Scarfolk

The pamphlets, posters and other pleasingly skewed civic media associated with the Scarfolk phenomenon made this a tempting buy, but it was a little disappointing in the end.

I still love all the visual media and elegant turns of phrase to be found within, but the story constructed around the fictional adventure of a visitor to the town of Scarfolk didn’t really grab my interest. The story does a great job of providing a setting in which the imagery fits, and provides more opportunity for the kind of writing we see in the text of the posters and pamphlets, but for some reason I found it a bit tedious to read. Maybe that’s intentional though, and part of the charm, since there is a heavy focus on the trappings of bureaucracy.

For more information, please re-read this section.

Peters and Waterman: In Search of Excellence

I only skimmed this book at first, but then got increasingly interested towards the end. I made the assumption that this book from the distant past world of 1982 would be regurgitating a bunch of antiquated corporate nonsense that has since been cast aside, but some of what it says is still surprisingly relevant.

Relevant in that it feels like only today are the lessons from that world starting to be applied in practice. The interesting parts are about company culture, what motivates workers and what makes large companies succeed. They mention trusting employees, empowering them with responsibility and autonomy, taking risks on side bets, avoiding stagnation by always coming up with new ideas, and keeping business unit size small to cut down on red tape.

It’s not until the last decade or so that I’ve been exposed to companies that are actually doing some of these things. It’s refreshing, but why did it take this long?

Frank Gasking: The Games that Weren’t

This book is about assorted famous and unknown video games that failed to reach market for various interesting reasons. It covered the whole range of history from almost the beginning right up to the date of publication.

I found the book very inconsistent in the amount of information presented on each game – many pages for some relatively uninteresting ones and almost nothing on some of the more tantalizing ones. I suppose this is inevitable given how difficult it must be to obtain this kind of information, especially in cases where the developers have died, disappeared from public life, or are legally bound not to comment.

There were a few stories that were particularly interesting to me. I learned of the existence of Akka Arrh, a novel game that was pushed out of the crib by Robotron – but I think the unpronounceable name would have killed it anyway. I learned what happened to some arcade-to-home ports that were promised in the gaming magazines I loved as a kid but never materialized. There were even bits about console hardware that never hit shelves. Now I know why Carmageddon 3 ended up being so terrible.

The book has a website (linked in the title above) that continues to add new entries that weren’t in the book.

Daniel Konstanski: The Secret Life of Lego Bricks

I contributed to the kickstarter for this book and it was well worth the money and the wait. There isn’t really any need for other books about Lego history – this one is amazingly thorough and answers a lot of the questions I had about Lego the company and their processes.

It’s mainly about the history of Lego themes and related pieces, how they came to be and how Lego learned to understand the popularity of various sets and get out in front of what customers wanted.

Jerry Pournelle: King David’s Spaceship and Jennifer Pournelle: Outies

Prequel and almost-sequel to the Mote in God’s Eye series by Niven and Pournelle, which is required reading for any science fiction fan. These two stories have a similar theme built around using the Empire of Man’s own rules against it. In the former book it’s humans doing it and in the latter it’s Moties.

They’re both decent. My only complaints were that the former book shows its age in its treatment of the one token female character – some but not all of which can be excused by the story being set it a very patriarchal society, and the latter book is a big slow getting started but really picks up in the second half.

Stephen Baxter: Proxima and Ultima

Did Not Like. I tend to find cross-time and alt-history stories tedious because I read SF to learn about the future, not the past. The anachronistic Roman and Inca civilizations depicted here managed to be not completely boring, but I also didn’t like the conclusion of the story arc – it was a downer to me.

Autumn Cthulhu

Picked up on a whim when browsing a book store, and it was worthwhile. Given the distinct lack of new, original stories coming from Lovecraft himself (death is no excuse!), one must make do with stories set or potentially set in the same universe. While few of the short stories in this volume fully captured the Lovecraftian flavor I like, they were close enough.

Benford & Niven: Glorious

The anticipated third book in the Bowl of Heaven series, which I mentioned in an earlier post. It introduces another new type of macro-engineered habitat, and was interesting and entertaining. I liked this best out of the three books in the series, I think.

Alastair Reynolds: Inhibitor Phase

I was absolutely delighted to stumble over another Revelation Space book that I didn’t know was coming, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. This puts a nice cherry on top of a universe that still inspires my imagination.

James Martin: Calgary the Unknown City

This was recommended to me but I found it a disappointment. I was hoping for some insight into the history of the city and some little-known facts. While there was some of that, the bulk of the book is more like a tourist guide advertising present-day popular businesses and tourist spots, which a never-ending stream of snide and sarcastic comments and jokes so obvious they could go without saying.

The Berserker Saga

At the beginning of 2021 I decided to make a project of reading Fred Saberhagen’s entire Berserker saga, in as close to chronological order as possible. I had been accumulating the books for years already and only had a few left to find.

For those unfamiliar, the basic premise is that one of the very rare warlike species in the galaxy built a fleet of intelligent, self-replicating war machines as an ultimate weapon to overcome their bitter enemies. It worked, but random events eventually let the war machines turn on their creators. These berserker machines then proceeded to continue to eradicate all life down to bacteria around the galaxy until they ran into humans, who were the only other intelligent life violent enough and well-placed to fight back. This setting yields a universe for war and adventure stories spanning a large volume of space, and thanks to carefully balanced environmental factors around space travel, also somewhat expansive in time. It’s a shared universe too, with other authors occasionally invited to play.

Overall I enjoyed the series. It’s a similar universe in scope and wonder to Larry Niven’s Known Space, though I do much prefer Known Space.

Saberhagen’s writing style is a bit odd, especially in the early stories. He repeats bits of exposition too frequently, has some awkward phrasing and never made much headway towards having female protagonists. A friend suggested to me that this awkwardness results from editing together the originally serialized stories, and that may account for some of it but I find it had to believe it’s all from that.

He also has an unusual convention, perhaps meant to be thought-provoking, of referring to all intelligent lifeforms as “human” and our particular variety as Earth-descended human. I have a little trouble accepting this as non-accidental because I’ve seen far too much abuse of such terms in science fiction (though admittedly mostly in film). Perhaps his point is that all intelligent beings should consider themselves kin based on that property alone, which I certainly agree with. It’s just weird to abuse the term that way.

That said, the writing improved noticeably in the later (non-serialized) stories and the adventure is there and there are enough mysterious artifacts and natural wonders to fire the imagination.

If you choose to follow this path, be aware that there are lots of volumes that contain reprinted short stories. Here’s my reading order, with repeats crossed out. You might be able to find a more optimal combination of compilations than I did.

  • Berserker
    • Fortress Ship
    • Goodlife
    • In Temple of Mars
    • Mr. Jester
    • Masque of Red Shift
    • Patron of the Arts
    • Peacemaker
    • Sign of the Wolf
    • Stone Place
    • The Face of the Deep
    • What T and I Did
  • Brother Assassin (also titled Brother Berserker)
    • Stone Man
    • Winged Helmet
    • Brother Berserker
  • Berserker’s Planet
  • Berserker Man
  • The Ultimate Enemy
    • The Smile
    • Pressure
    • The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron
    • Inhuman Error
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • Starsong
    • Smasher
    • The Game
    • Wings out of Shadow
  • The Berserker Wars
    • Stone Place
    • The Face of the Deep
    • What T and I Did
    • Mr. Jester
    • Winged Helmet
    • Starsong
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • Wings out of Shadow
    • The Smile
    • The Adventure of the Metal Murderer
    • Patron of the Arts
  • Berserker Base
    • Itself Surprised (Roger Zelazny)
    • Teardrop Falls (Larry Niven)
    • With Friends Like These (Connie Willis)
    • Deathwomb (Poul Anderson)
    • What Makes Us Human (Steven R. Donaldson)
    • Pirates of the Twilight (Ed Bryant)
    • Prisoners’ Base
    • Friends Together
    • The Founts of Sorrow
    • The Great Secret
    • Dangerous Dreams
    • Crossing the Bar
    • Berserker Base
  • Berserker Throne
  • Berserker: Blue Death
  • The Berserker Attack (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserker Lies
    • Introduction
    • The Machinery of Lies
    • Masque of Red Shift
    • In Temple of Mars
    • Brother Berserker
    • Smasher
  • Berserker Kill
  • Berserker Fury
  • Shiva in Steel
  • Berserker Prime
  • Berserker’s Star
  • Rogue Berserker
  • Berserker Death (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The beginning (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserker Man (anthology) (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The Early Tales (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The Later Tales
    • Berserker’s Prey (alternate title: Pressure)
    • Starsong
    • The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron
    • Inhuman Error
    • Wings Out of Shadow
    • The Game
    • The Smile
    • Smasher
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • The Metal Murderer
    • The History of the Galaxy
    • Introduction to The Machinery of Lies
    • Machinery of Lies
    • The Bad Machines
    • Servant of Death (co-author Jane Lindskold)
  • Earth Descended
    • The Adventure of the Metal Murderer
    • Patron of the Arts

What I’ve been reading

Benford and Niven: Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar

It’s always good to see Niven back in the Big Dumb Object game, and a team-up with Benford is a welcome surprise.

This one’s about another Ringworld-like object, only this one goes tooling around the galaxy on a slow cruise. I can’t say a whole lot more without giving away several of the many big reveals in the story, but suffice the say the back-story here is quite different from that of the other BDO books I’ve read.

I found this pair “just one more chapter” engrossing, and I couldn’t wait to find the second after reading the first. There are plot hooks in place for a possible third installment, and I hope it occurs.

Alastair Reynolds: On the Steel Breeze

Rollicking good adventure. The setting is a good example of an updated plausible future taking into account recent advancements in science. The plot centers around the tension many seem to believe is inevitable between the emergent machine sentients and the meatbags that spawned them.

This book has an uncommonly strong heroic-lineage trope, in that the already accomplished protagonists come from a family full of accomplishments that affected the course of human civilization. But I can accept that now and then in the service of good, comfy escapism.

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

This is one of those stories where you’re late for a family reunion and then arrive to discover that someone has assassinated nearly everyone there. The rest is about figuring out who, why, who gave them inside help, and what to do about it. In a science fiction setting six million years hence, with some interesting set dressings.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other Reynolds books I’ve read, but it did feature a great example, in the historical character of Ludmilla Marcellin, of what I would like to do: She created thousands of identical clones of herself and sent them in all directions to explore the galaxy, re-convening on rare occasions to share memories.

Charles Sheffield: Dark as Day

I didn’t realize when I started this that it was the third book in a series. Thankfully that didn’t matter much; from what I can tell a couple of characters were carried over, but this installment mentioned as much of their history as was needed.

The story was interesting enough to keep me involved, but I didn’t find it remarkable. For most of the latter half I was wondering where it was going; there were multiple threads going on that didn’t look to be related in any way, and I was wondering if there was going to be any connection at all. In the end he did tie almost all of them together, but not in the usual big reveal way that shows why things turned out this way. Instead it was, here’s a massive coincidence that all of these people ended up in the right place at the right time to avert a huge disaster. A bit less satisfying, though it could be seen as refreshing in its unconventionality.

There is a slight chance I might read the other books in this series if I stumble over them, but I’m not likely to hunt them down.

Alan Cooper: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Nonfiction about software user experience design – read as part of a UX reading group at work.

At first this book infuriated me; it read like a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about how programmers are evil bastards who delight in tormenting nontechnical users (true, but it’s supposed to be a secret) that had been forcibly toned down by editors. By the end of the book though, I found myself violently agreeing with him about almost everything.

The central messages are:

  1. User-friendly software should not be designed by the programmers implementing it. They are too close to the problems to see them, and they will inevitably and unconsciously use themselves (or “The User”, who is as flexible as Reed Richards) as the person they design for.
  2. Software should not only be designed by UX specialists, but the designers should be the ones accountable for the quality of the software, not programmers. Designers should make the decisions that affect users and mandate changes in the best interest of the users.
  3. Long-term planning is a must. Even the common annual release development cycle is too short to properly do the concept-design-code-debug-market cycle, and trying to overlap design with coding doesn’t work. Focusing on short-term gain results in crufty software. Long-term planning, even at short-term expense, is vital to produce a lasting quality product.

There’s lots more. I highly recommend reading this book if you develop software for which usability is important. Just try not to hulk out and rip it in half during the first few sections. :)

Alastair Reynolds: Terminal World

The cover art and blurb of this one reminded me of Inverted World, a novel I disliked because it (probably intentionally) conveyed a fuzzy and confusing image of the world. Thankfully there wasn’t much more resemblance than that; this one had enough exposition for my taste. It left a lot unrevealed even at the end, but I understood the setting well enough to be able to fill in the blanks.

I didn’t like this as much as Reynolds’ other works, but I think there is room for another novel or two set in this universe – one in in the distant past and one in the near future.

Charles Sheffield: Aftermath

I didn’t like this one very much. Heroic ordinary people struggling for survival after a major natural disaster has been done, as has throwing in a secret cult as the foil. Also I tend to dislike stories featuring cults – I read science fiction to escape, dammit!

There was one tantalizing hint about the cause of the disaster that might convince me to read the sequel, if its cover copy is further encouraging, but I’m not in a hurry to seek it out.

Alastair Reynolds: Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap

Finishing off the Revelation Space series to date. I really, really liked this series and I’ve decided that Reynolds has become one of my favorite authors. Could not put down any of these books, and I’ve taken to reading everything else of his I can find to try to capture more of the flavor – which led me to:

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth and Poseidon’s Wake

Precursor and sequel, respectively, to On the Steel Breeze, mentioned above. I didn’t know these existed when I read the middle book, and I was afraid reading them out of order would spoil the first one, but not at all; it stands independently because there is a large time separation between the first book and the other two, and few characters in common.

Blue Remembered Earth was not as strong as the other two, but still worth the read. I preferred the latter two though, because they’re set further from home in both time and space, and are largely post-Mechanism. The Mechanism is a super-invasive surveillance state described in the first book and part of the second, where crime and violence have been almost totally eliminated but at the cost of privacy. Not worth it in my opinion.


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.


Overlooked gems: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

(IMDB link) (Wikipedia link – contains spoilers)

A meteorite delivers silicate crystals with a composition not found on Earth, that grow at alarming speed when exposed to water and then fall over and shatter, advancing them across the terrain. Essentially a simplified ice-9 problem.


I like this film for two reasons. For one, it’s a science fiction with an unusually credible alien threat.  The only presumption that falls outside known science is that such a substance could exist, and that’s enough to build a potentially world-threatening danger from. And given the amazing properties of some chemical reactions, it is easily believable.

Secondly, there are no stupid or venal characters. Everybody in the film behaves rationally and civilly and makes reasonable decisions based on the information they have. When someone needs convincing, it’s done easily by showing them the evidence. Nobody acts contrary to anyone’s best interests out of greed, vengeance or evil.

In short, deliberate stupidity and malevolence are contrivances not needed to artificially drive the plot. I am hard pressed to think of a movie made in the last three decades that didn’t rely on those things to create plot points. I am increasingly driven to review science fiction movies from the 50s and 60s because of this – it’s refreshing to see some actual competent writing that expresses confidence in humanity rather than the cynical mistrust so common today.

Oh, and for the era the special effects in this film are amazingly good. The sound design is excellent too.

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