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.

tmm

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.

What I’ve Been Watching

Europa Report – Above average science fiction, delivers what you want from this type of movie.  Decent effects.  Good acting and story.  Slight over-reliance on simulated video transmission glitches.

Contagion – Not knowing what actual contagious disease control protocols are, this seemed a pretty reasonable dramatization of a new plague to me.

Dark Space – You know all those movies where some teenagers go off to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying, and mostly get killed by something there?  This is that, in space.  The nature of the danger is different from what I expected, and that made it a little more interesting.   This is one of those “Nouveau B” movies that has decent CG effects that are undermined by bad compositing (typically the CG lighting doesn’t quite match the live footage) and what might be competent acting obscured in some scenes by bad foley (sound timbre or echoes that don’t match the setting).

 Last Days on Mars – Pretty much the same as all the other zombies-on-Mars stories I’ve seen.  Good production values.

 Cargo – You know when someone signs on for a long haul on a corporation-run space ship, that corporation will turn out to be up to no good and it will cost a lot of lives.  But this standard-trope tale was more well told than usual.  Good effects, good acting, and best of all no reliance on blood and gore or spring-loaded cats.

The Haunted Palace – Another entry in my project to hunt down HP Lovecraft stories. This one claims to be based on both a Lovecraft story and an Edgar Allen Poe poem, though which specific ones are unstated.  The main character’s name, Charles Dexter Ward, is taken from a Lovecraft story but there’s no strong correspondence with any of the Lovecraft stories I’ve read.  Generally this is a pretty good flick though, as are most featuring Vincent Price.  The only place it falls flat is in the creature effects department – using optical effects to try and suggest movement in what is clearly a statue.

Slime City Massacre – Pretty much what you’d expect.  It starts out like a modern B-movie with bad effects, then turns into typical stalking monster fare.

The Hybrid – Quite enjoyable.  The first half is decently suspenseful cloak & dagger stuff, and the rest is a science fiction splatterfest.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – Documentary about the CoS.  It’s well known that they’re dangerous crazies, but there is a lot of stuff covered in this film that I wasn’t aware of, that makes it even worse.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Reasonably entertaining, though I don’t like how divergent it is from the mainstream origin story for Ultron.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh hell yes! I was looking forward to this so much I went back and re-watched all the previous Mad Max movies.  I thought I might not like this one as much because it had a different lead actor, but he pulled it off satisfactorily. Though really it was Furiosa who was the star of the show.  Rollicking good post-apocalyptic road warrioring fun!

Ex Machina – Entertaining and has a nice happy ending, but I wish it were possible to write this sort of story in such a way that it was entertaining AND made sense. The problem with this one, as is too often the case, is that some of the main characters (the two human ones) are morons, and have to be stupid for the plot to work. We’re let to believe through exposition that they’re both super geniuses, but they both overlook some rather basic flaws in their planning, and are very careless.

The Machine – Similar theme to Ex Machina but in a different setting and with different motivations. Still some stunningly stupid blind spots, this time on the part of the organization running the show.

Age of Ice – In the budding “father tries to save family from natural disaster” genre, and as seems typical of the genre the uptight, domineering, stupid asshollishness of the father proves to be more of a menace than the disaster itself.  I tend to be pretty forgiving of bad movies but this is one of the rare ones that makes me resent the waste of time spent watching it. There is so much stupid and inexplicable dialog it feels like the script was written by a committee of infinite monkeys, and I wanted to strangle many of the characters much of the time. The CG effects are poor – no attention to detail (I spotted multiple copies of the same tree in some scenes, not even rotated relative to each other), and terrible compositing and lighting.  Oh, and predictably the little kid’s video game obsession turns out to be a survival skill. That always happens when there’s a game-obsessed little kid in an adventure movie.

 

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.

 

 

 

Next Page »