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.