Category Archives: books

The Worldcon Reading List

Worldcon was 3 months ago, but I’ve only just recently finished the last of the books I bought there. Herewith, a mostly-unordered list, complete with reactions, and Amazon links for your buying pleasure.

Of Worldcons that Never Were

One of the first panels I attended this year was about the Worldcon in fiction; I picked up a few of the books mentioned there.

  • Now You See It/Him/Them and Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats (Doubleday science fiction), both by Gene DeWeese and Robert “Buck” Coulson, fall into the genre of con mysteries, told by authors who love cons, mysteries, and have fun with their ideas. Only the second book actually takes place at a Worldcon, but both were quite enjoyable.

  • Gather in the Hall of the Planets/In the Pocket and Other Stories by Barry Malzberg writing as K. M. O’Donnell. This is an Ace Double that proves that more is not always better. Gather in the Hall of the Planets is cute, if very dated — the protagonist, a fading SF writer, has to figure out who at the Worldcon is an alien, or the aliens will destroy Earth. Very much a work of its era (1971), with the obligatory badly-written sex scenes and inner turmoil. The stories in the other half of the book are, to put it kindly, unreadable.

  • Alternate Worldcons, edited by Mike Resnick, is unavailable from Amazon; I got my copy from Dean Wesley Smith on eBay. It was conceived and sold at a Cincinnati Fan Group party at ConFrancisco, and, as Mike said during the panel, paid its authors very little. The stories are uneven and very in-jokish…but that was OK, because I’m on the inside of the jokes.

More Usual Alternate Histories

As usual, I went to a few alternate history panels, and came away with strong recommendations for two series.

  • Jo Waltons’ Ha’penny
    and Farthing
    are set in a world where England made peace with Hitler after just a year or so of war; antiSemitism is very much the order of the day in this England, and there are plots afoot. These are very political novels, and are far too believable for my comfort. The third book, Half a Crown, was recently released but I haven’t read it yet — I intend to, though.

  • S. M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time (Island) is the first in a series set on a Nantucket Island which mysteriously is displaced back to the Bronze Age. Unlike the 1632 (The Assiti Shards) series from Eric Flint, not all of the castaways are good guys — far from it. Strongly recommended.

Miscellaneous Old Stuff from the Huckster Room

I spent a long time in the Huckster Room and came away with surprisingly few books to show for it, mostly ones which I remembered having owned at some time in the past.

  • Wine of the Dreamers, by John D. MacDonald: This is one of MacDonald’s rare SF novels; it shows its Cold War origins very clearly, but it’s still an interesting read.

  • Other Times, Other Worlds by John D. MacDonald: A collection of MacDonald’s SF shorts, written between 1948 and 1968. You can see his maturation as a writer over those two decades. Some of the stories are minor classics, like “Spectator Sport”; others are good fun, like “Ring around the Redhead” and “The Big Contest”.

  • Best Science Fiction of the Year: Third Annual Collection, edited by Lester Del Rey. The title is accurate. My favorite story in this collection is Norman Spinrad’s “A Thing of Beauty” (especially after having walked across the thing in question last month), but there are many winners, and almost all of the stories have aged well.

  • Not This August by C. M. Kornbluth, revised by Fred Pohl. I remember reading the original version of the book when I was in high school; it was amazingly chilling, and, unlike most SF, drove me to the dictionary. Pohl revised the book in 1981 to “remove glaring anachronisms”, but I’m not sure what those revisions were — the book is, thank God, very dated indeed. Read it along with Heinlein’s Sixth Column for an overwhelming sense of Cold War gloom and doom!

  • The Merchants’ War by Frederik Pohl. This is the sequel to Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants; the books take place in a world where advertising has gone wild (yes, even more than in our world), but where the Venusians offer an alternative prospect. This was a good one to read during the campaign: “How can we win with truth?”

  • The Long Way Home by Poul Anderson. Dated, but an enjoyable read — like almost everything Poul Anderson wrote.

  • Slan: A Novel by A. E. van Vogt. Yes, it’s a Classic of SF. Yes, Fans are Slans. But most of the plot points make no sense, and the dramatic revelation at the end wasn’t. Read it because it’s a classic, but don’t expect it to meet today’s standards.

  • The Joy Makers by James Gunn. This is three novellas under one set of covers, telling one somewhat contrived story. What would the world be like if happiness could be ensured? Not happy, that’s for sure. Still, worth a read.

  • Satan’s World by Poul Anderson. Chee Lan, Adsel, and David Falkalyn at work, with Nicholas van Rijn along to save the day. Serendipity, Inc., provides a service much like Google — but they are definitely evil. Well worth a read, along with the rest of the Polesotechnic League series.

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Clearing the inbox

Late last year, I started blogging about the books I read. It was easy — I was on vacation. But I had hopes of continuing to do that into this year…those hopes lasted about one week. Even though my reading pace fell off substantially with the return to work, my blogging pace fell off even faster. But I hung on to the dream and kept books that I finished on my dresser, at least the ones I didn’t borrow from the library, knowing that I’d get around to blogging them some day.

Eventually, though, the pile of books got big enough to become unstable, and I had to do something.

I could simply have shelved the books and gone about my life, but that would have been too easy. Instead, I put them into my inbox (yes, I have been paying too much attention to Getting Things Done lately), and now it’s time to deal with them.

So, in no particular order, and with no guarantee of completeness, here are Some of the Books I’ve Read This Year:

  • Great Science Fiction by Scientists

    I picked up this book at Rasputin Books in the ex-Tower Records in Palo Alto; Groff Conklin’s anthologies almost always have several good stories, and for 95 cents, how could I go wrong? Some of the stories show their age (1930-1962), but there are classics, too. My favorite in this collection is Miles Breuer’s “The Gostak and the Doshes”, the only SF story I can think of based on grammar, but Clarke’s “Summertime on Icarus”, and Ralph Cooper’s “The Neutrino Bomb” are worthwhile, too. And did I mention I only paid 95 cents?

  • All the Colors of Darkness by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

    I first borrowed this book (and its sequel, whose name escapes me) from my elementary school library. It shone more brightly in memory than in the rereading, but I don’t regret spending the time (or the 95 cents). The story here is simple — humanity is developing teleportation machines, which will lead inevitably to self-teleporting spacecraft and our going out to the stars. However, the Powers That Be out there don’t believe we are worthy, and send a team in to sabotage our efforts, by making the teleportation system appear unsafe by making sure that some number of passengers (all They, of course) don’t arrive at their destinations. Our hero, Jan Darzek, investigates, figures out what’s going on, follows one of Them closely, and winds up on their Moon base. Moral dilemmas follow.

  • The Best from F&SF, Sixth Series

    Another Rasputin find, with good stories from Kornbluth (“The Cosmic Expense Account”), Pohl (“The Census Takers”), Anderson (“The Man Who Came Early”), and Sturgeon (“And Now the News…”).

  • Three Worlds to Conquer, by Poul Anderson

    A not terribly exciting story of rebellion in the outer Solar System. It feels like it’s three short stories glued together, but the colophon doesn’t list any previous publication data. Perhaps having read it will come in handy at “Trivia for Chocolate” during Denvention — they often ask questions about Anderson’s stories.

  • You Can Negotiate Anything, by Herb Cohen

    I picked this book up at last year’s IBM Technical Leadership Exchange — they offered a couple of hundred books for “free” (in other words, the charges were picked up at a level above your department), and they shipped them for you, so I erred on the side of grabbing anything which seemed interesting. This year, the model was different — you had to put the books on a credit card (to be reimbursed on your expense account), and you had to haul them home with you — so I was much more careful in what I chose. And I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book this year.

    The book was published in 1980, and the language shows it, as do many of the examples, but the principles are still valid. Worth a read.

  • Power Mentoring, by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy

    Another book from TLE 2007. The key insight in this one is that you can have more than one mentor and be a mentor to more than one protege. Not terribly surprising, but there it is.

  • Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner

    The last of the TLE 2007 haul, at least in this batch. A good tool for understanding what to do about people who drive you nuts — helps you see where they’re coming from, why you can’t stand them, and how to react.

  • Work-Life Balancing, by Paul Baffes, Ph. D.

    I must confess to some bias here — I know Paul and work with him occasionally, and I got the book free by asking a question in his session at this year’s TLE. But despite that, I think I can objectively recommend the book — Paul writes about the methods he uses to make his work and the rest of his life support one another instead of being in conflict. The details may not fit your life exactly, but the ideas are sound, especially being “selfFIRST”.

Now I have to figure out where to shelve these books…there’s always something….

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My recommendations for the Best Novel Hugo

Every year, the members of the World Science Fiction Society choose the Hugo Awards. Most years, I vote in at most one of the Dramatic Presentation categories, but I decided to do better for Denvention and read all of the novels so I could cast an informed vote.

This decision was a bit easier than it sounds, since I’d already read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Rollback, leaving me only three books to read, all of which were conveniently available at my local library.

The Hugo Awards use the Australian ballot (otherwise known as Instant Runoff Voting), so I had to rank-order all five novels, as well as No Award. Here’s my vote, starting with the best and moving down from there.

Originally, I didn’t think of this as science fiction; I came to it as a confirmed fan of Chabon, originally from reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I’ve enjoyed most of his books. And my main interest in the book was its Jewish content; in fact, Shir Hadash chose the book for its first congregational reading program.

But it is SF, of course, dealing, as it does, with an alternate history in which many (but not all) European Jews were evacuated to Alaska as a temporary refuge, leading to a present day where there is a large cohort of Yiddish-speaking Jews (well, mostly Jews) in and around Sitka, and where their lease on the territory is about to expire.

There is intrigue, an evil US Government plot, a love story, a murder to solve, and more — highly recommended. My only real complaint is that the loose ends were tied up very abruptly, as though Chabon had been given a maximum page count and had to avoid going over.

Stross is always reliable, and Halting State does not disappoint. It’s set in a very near-future Scotland (after the breakdown of the United Kingdom), in a world where gaming has gone mainstream and become a significant part of the economy. There are bad guys and possibly some good guys, a love story (of the geekish kind), some tech talk and predictions (I suspect he’s too optimistic on the release date of Python3000), and lots and lots of action. The book is written in the second person, with multiple viewpoint characters, a narrative trick I found irritating, but it kept me turning the pages very steadily indeed.

I wasn’t sure whether to put this or Yiddish Policeman’s Union first, but eventually, I decided I found the characters in Yiddish Policeman’s Union to be more convincing.

I enjoyed Rollback when I read it as an Analog serial, and I enjoyed rereading it, once I figured out why it was so familiar; it hadn’t made a strong enough impression on me for me to remember the title. The McGuffin here is that Earth has just received a reply to the message it sent to aliens in response to their message to us (yes, interstellar email has reply chains), but that it’s encrypted, and the Rich Industrialist is willing to pay to have the scientist who figured out the first message “rolled back” (or rejuvenated) so she’ll be able to figure out this message. She is reluctant, and only agrees if her husband is also rolled back — but his rollback takes and hers doesn’t.

Again, pages turned rapidly, but the characters would have been right at home in 2008; sure, there were some changes in the gadgetry, but they didn’t seem to have any effect on the way people lived and acted. Despite that weakness, I recommend the book — but it’s not outstanding.

Brasyl is set in, strangely enough, Brazil — three Brazils, in fact. One seems to be contemporary, one is about 30 years in the future, and one is a couple of centuries in the past. But they aren’t in the same timeline. And they might not be real.

Brasyl reminded me a lot of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And of various authors’ crosstime books. And of the end of James Blish’s The Triumph of Time.

I found the characters unsympathetic, and I don’t know enough about the history of Brazilian football (soccer) to really appreciate the significance of the Fateful Final (though I did enjoy it when the Brazilian team stayed in Los Gatos for the 1994 World Cup).

Perhaps The Last Colony lost something for me because I hadn’t read the two earlier books in the series, but I found it to be by far the least worthy of the Hugo nominees. The characters were cut from cardboard that Asimov would have rejected as being too thin, the aliens weren’t very alien, and I didn’t find the plot points to be particularly believable.

I did finish the book, but it was largely from a sense of duty.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – the book

Back on December 24, I wrote about going to see Charlie Wilson’s War, a movie I enjoyed and highly recommend. Turbo Todd suggested I read the book.

He was right.

The book (unlike the movie) claims to be true — and it makes the movie look tame. Like the movie, it starts out in a hot tub in Las Vegas, and it has Gust Avrakotos telling his division chief to do something anatomically impossible (I try to keep this a family blog, but the precise phrase ends with “You”) — twice. And there’s plenty of sex and drugs (not much rock ‘n’ roll, though), not to mention guns and roses.

It’s hard to believe that the US Government works the way this book claims. Or maybe it’s easy to believe and hard to swallow. Read it and judge for yourself.

The book does have some weaknesses, especially when it’s being repetitious. But I found it hard to put down, and I strongly recommend it.

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Distraction

While “Distraction” describes large parts of my life, this time around, I’m writing about Bruce Sterling’s book of the same name.

I’d picked up several of Bruce’s books at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2002. Too many, in fact, and so after reading Heavy Weather, I put the others away for “later”.

Last week, I wanted to grab a book for the trip to Tucson, and Distraction was near at hand. And the back cover blurb was intriguing: “It’s November 2044, an election year, and the state of the Union is a farce….” — especially since I knew the Iowa caucuses were going to be a significant event during the trip. And 544 pages promised enough reading matter to get me through the trip, which was another point in the book’s favor. So I took it along with me — and spent the outbound flights doing crossword puzzles.

But eventually, I actually opened the book and was hooked almost immediately, as the not-quite-human protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, reviews video of the Worchester May Day Riot of ’42 (which isn’t a riot) on the campaign bus (which is actually taking Oscar and his krewe on a post-election “vacation”), which is stopped by a roadblock where the US Air Force is shaking down motorists for money to keep an air base open.

And then things got strange.

It’s definitely a political story, with a new Huey, Governor of Louisiana, in rebellion against the Federal Government (or what remains of it); it’s also a love story, with Oscar and Greta a most mismatched pair; and it’s a science story, with plausible pseudo-science rather than pure bafflegab. It doesn’t all hang together completely, but it’s doable. And worth the read.

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The Victorian Internet

As 2007 lurches to a close, it seems only appropriate to review The Victorian Internet, a book which hearkens to the past in two ways — most obviously, by talking about a significant technological revolution in the 19th Century, but also from its own time, very late in the 20th Century, before the dot-com bubble burst.

Tom Standage describes the birth and explosive spread of the telegraph network, the first technology to allow information to travel long distances faster than it could be physically carried. He begins with the optical telegraph in France, then moves on to the electric telegraph. The book doesn’t get very deep in the technology, but concentrates on the social effects, many of which were repeated 150 years later with the Internet (and some of which are occurring yet again with Web 2.0 and social networking — his description of the informal chatter of telegraph operators is very similar to what’s happening on Twitter right this instant).

Standage ends his story with the death of Morse (Samuel Morse, not the code, which is alive and well, even if it’s no longer a requirement for a ham license) — the telephone was poised to take over much of the telegraphy business at that point (almost anything which didn’t require written records), and chronicling a downward spiral is no fun.

It’s a short book, a bit dated, but still a good read.

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One more by Charles Stross: Accelerando

I came to Accelerando with a false hope, one I’ll disabuse you of right away. The back cover blurb from Vernor Vinge made me hope that this book would tell the story of the Singularity Sky Singularity, the one which created the Eschaton. It doesn’t.

And unlike the Eschaton, which is a deus ex machina which mostly stays offstage, the transcendent results of Accelerando‘s Singularity are very much a presence throughout the novel.

Well, it’s not really a novel. It was originally published as nine short stories in Asimov’s, and it shows — there is a good bit of repetition and reintroduction (though nothing as obtrusive as in Harry Turtledove’s series). So we get to meet our protagonist, Manfred Macx, many times, along with the other members of his dysfunctional family, as they play out their personal drama against the Singularity as it approaches, happens, and leaves them struggling with the results.

And that’s the weakness of the book — humans can’t comprehend the Singularity. Stross tries hard to show it through its effect on the human (and then post-human) characters, but in the end, it’s Just Another Damn Book Of Magical Stuff (sentient business models? I’d settle for sentient business modelers!).

The book was enjoyable — Stross has a nasty sense of humor at times, and I really enjoyed some of the allusions he threw in to other SF — but the last three chapters were effective at making the point that a post-Singularity world would be incomprehensible, by being rather messy themselves.

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More of Marshall Goldsmith — for free!

A few days ago, I wrote about Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, a book I intend to use throughout the new year.

I just discovered that Goldsmith has a blog on Amazon, which I’ve just added to my feed reader; he also has made a lot of his material available free at http://www.marshallgoldsmithlibrary.com.

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The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

I’ve been reading Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series since the beginning and have found it quite charming. The latest installment, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive is no exception.

As always, the mysteries are minor, and the character development scant, but despite that, I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with Mma Ramotswe, Charlie the hapless apprentice, and the man for whom this volume is titled, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. If you’re not already a fan of the series, this book won’t convert you; if you are, you’ll enjoy it.

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What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I wrote about some of the great events at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange back in April. But there were some other, more mundane, benefits of attending, too. One of them was the “TLE Bookstore”, which had a selection of technical and leadership titles available for the effort of filling out a paper form — a far easier process than our usual internal book-buying system. So, naturally, I picked out a lot of books, including the one I just finished, Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Goldsmith is an executive coach; he deals with people whose salaries have a zero or two more than mine. But that doesn’t make his ideas and advice inapplicable to me — far from it.

The McGuffin here is his list of 20 “transactional flaws” that one person can commit against others. I’m happy to report that I am not guilty of all twenty flaws, but I do see a few of them in myself, including #2 (adding too much value) and #16 (not listening).

Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t just help you identify flaws — he offers suggestions for ways to combat them, especially apologizing and thanking. And he also strongly suggests that you advertise your intention to change, and find a way of really measuring how you do (or don’t) change your behavior. He also points out that you only need to change those behaviors which cause problems with other people (so I’m safe in not working on my messy files at work!).

I will be returning to this book in the New Year and developing an action plan to obviate at least some of my flaws. Recommended.

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