- Modern Wine Encylopedia, Hugh Johnson
- Virtual Light, William Gibson
- Neveryon, Samuel Delany
- The City and the Pillar, Gore Vidal
- Palimpsest, Gore Vidal
- World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson
- Oxford Companion to Wine, Parker's Buying Guide, Hugh Johnson's
- Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall
- Tales of the City, Armistad Maupin
- Autopornography, Scott O' Hara
- American Bar; The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, Charles Schumann
- Cookbook, Gundel
- Growing Artificial Societies
- Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
- McLuhan for Beginners
- Berlitz Hungarian
- A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Christopher
Alexander, et al.
- Islands in the Net,
Bruce Sterling (2/18/97).
- Somehow in catching up on all that cyberpunk reading last year I skipped
over Sterling. So I went to him, with the one I'd heard the most
about - Islands in the Net. It's an ok book, enjoyable to read.
The spin on cyberpunk here is odd, maybe a bit interesting -
the politics of the information future, the dominance of
terrorist / pirate states. The narrative is basically a tour of
three distopias of the future - Grenada, Singapore, and Mali.
His take on these futures is basically believable, if a bit
pedantic. I didn't care much for his protagonist - too much like
Jane Doe. But some of his other characters, in particular his
own version of Steppin' Razor, are really nice.
- The Oxford Companion to Wine,
Jancis Robinson, ed. (2/17/97).
- An absolutely terrific wine encyclopaedia, containing more
minute information about wine production, history, enjoyment,
and custom than anyone could ever want to know. The entries feel
authoritative, the information is useful and eclectic. The
does a nice job of escaping the hegemony of French wine -
there's ample information on the rest of Europe (eastern, too),
the US, South American, and Australia. If you really like wine,
this book makes a handy reference. Note, though, that its
intent is not to help you pick particular bottles of wine to
buy. I'm still looking for a good timeless guide for that.
- The Design of Everyday Things,
Donald Norman (2/17/97).
- One of those highly recommended books that when you finally read
it is disappointing. The premise is great - talk about
designing those objects we use everyday, doors and stereos and
light switches. The spin is right - the author points out how
stupid it is that so many of
things we use everyday are
poorly designed. Objects should be simple to use. But
that's where the book poops out, at least for me. He has
suprisingly little insight into how to actually design things
well and his few attempts at cognitive science explanations
seem pretty weak. I think this would make a better 20 page essay
than a book.
Charles Bukowski (2/10/97).
- I'd never read any Bukowski before, a horrible omission. So I
picked one at random - I gather they're all sort of
interchangeable. Factotum reads like William S Burroughs if he
we straight, a drunk (not a junkie), and wrote linear
narratives. I'm not sure if that description is compliment or
an insult to Bukowski.
I enjoyed reading the book fairly well, at least it made good
airplane reading. Then again, I like filth.
The Uplift War:
David Brin (1/2/97)
- This is one of those "famous trilogies" people kept referring me
to. David Brin is also the author of The
Postman. Overall I enjoyed reading these books, they're fun
and undemanding and vaguely interesting. But also a bit, well,
childish. Especially Sundiver, which suffers from some difficult
plot problems. The general theme is humanity's role in a
universe populated by galactic civilizations with billions of
years of history. We're newcomers and outsiders; our kooky
ways of doing things make us interesting and save the world.
Some interesting moments, and generally an entertaining read.
- The Ecology of Computation: B.A. Huberman, ed. (1/2/97)
Broader approaches to
computation, from a book with a very suggestive title.
This collection of essays inside has been influential to me. In my
I've been trying to think of computation from different points
of view than just the strict Turing machine model, in particular
Artificial Life ideas.
The ideas here are really helpful, especially the
Agoric Computation papers
which develop an interesting vision of distributed object
computation based on an economic model. The book is hard to find
and very expensive. Happily, the Agorics papers are
- Against my Better Judgment,
Roger Brown (1/2/97)
- A painfully honest autobiographical account of the author's life from
ages 62-67 or so, after his lover of 40 years died.
The first chapter or two is about his relationship with his lover.
This was the most painful part to me - it's quite honest and self
critical, full of the minute dissections of life that make the
miseries become apparent. At the same time the description is of a
relationship with a lot of strength and companionship.
After his lover's death the author goes on to talk about his new
sexual life, the various relationships he has with call boys. The
interesting thing to me is that he developed long term relationships
with three different hustlers; the narrative is about his experiences
with them. It's not spoiling the book to say none of the relationships
worked out very well.
The book as a whole is not exactly exuberant. There are moments in it
that are quite fun, or funny, or even hopeful. And I really enjoyed
the author's ability to analyze and talk about himself. It's
worth a read, though, if nothing else than for the voyeuristic
pleasure of it.
- Blue Mars:
Kim Stanley Robinson (1/2/97)
- The long-awaited final book in the Mars Trilogy. Sadly, this
follows the usual rule - the first two books are better than the
last. Blue Mars just runs out of steam, becomes static and
repetitive and a bit pointless. Interestingly enough, though,
the society he describes has itself become static, repetitive,
a bit pointless. So maybe the feel of the book isn't entirely
accidental. I did enjoy reading this, and I think any fan of the
first two will feel compelled to read the third.
One nice thing: I was reading this on my
Canyonlands looks a lot like the planet described in Blue Mars.
- Mind Grenades:
John Plunkett and Louis Rossetto (1/2/97)
- I'm not quiet sure why I bought this - it's compelling design
pornography, I guess. Mind Grenades is the published collection
of the front four page graphic spreads that appear in Wired
magazine. These little tidbits are often my favourite part of
Wired: beautiful, garish, indulgent, interesting. I'm glad
they've been reproduced in high quality. It's the kind of book
I'll be really glad to own twenty years from now.
- A Fire Upon the Deep:
- True Names:
- The Wild Shore:
Kim Stanley Robinson (1/2/97)
- Since I liked the Mars trilogy so much, I decided to try out his
other famous work, the alternate California novels. I didn't
like this first one much. It's, well, not very good. A basic
coming of age novel set in a degenerate, post-apocalyptic
Ameicna culture. Some of the culture stuff is reasonably well
executed, but on the whole I found this book kind of dull. I'm
not likely to read the next two.
- Count Zero,
Mona Lisa Overdrive:
- Ah, Gibson, patron saint of so many would-be-netheads. After
enjoying Neuromancer so much recently, I
decided to go ahead and read the two other novels in the
trilogy. Definitely not the same quality as the original. Count
Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive don't have the same plot problems
as Neuromancer, but he's adopted an interwoven story aspect,
switching between plotlines every chapter in both novels. That
drives me nuts! I can live with it, but the real criticism is
that these newer novels lack the urgency, rawness, and sparkle
of Neuromancer. That's ok, it's not a failure, just not the same
incredibleness. I do like the overarching theme of all three
novels, that we are merely puppets at the hands of Artificial
Intelligences. Not even friendly AIs, but trans-godlike beings
who don't really understand or care about the actions of their
human creators, just use us as tools occasionally. A very dark
future, much darker than the typical vision of AIs deliberately
destroying humanity (a la Terminator).
- The sleazeball of gay fiction. Dennis Cooper has something
of a reputation as a writer of violent, disturbing, pornographic,
mostly-well-written fiction. Frisk is the only
novel of his that I've read, and it does live to that
reputation. I've read a fair amount of disturbing stuff before
(I'm a big fan of William S. Burroughs, I spent some time once
reading de Sade, and I still try to read
Les Chants du Maldoror from time to time.)
Stuff like Frisk doesn't really suprise me, so I
was suprised at how unpleasant I found the process of reading
it. Maybe it's because it's not that well written, or too well
written, or so contemporary I can't distance myself from it.
- How Buildings Learn:
- A fun book, documenting what changes take place in buildings
after people live in them, adapt them to their needs. It's an
interesting spin on architecture, looking more at how a
building works for people than how it looks as a piece of
sculpture. Plenty of practical information here if you're
thinking of building a space, and plenty of aesthetic
information to change the way you think about buildings.
The coolest thing for me with this book, though, was how it
seemed to inform my understanding of writing software. I've
always been careful to write my code not just so that it works,
but so that the structure of the code itself follows a certain
aesthetic. Well-designed source code to me means that foremost
it is readable - I don't mean comments, I mean that it's written
in a logical, readable way (if something is obscure, comment it
thoroughly). My code is designed not just to run right, but to
be understandable by others (and by myself later), to be
extensible. To adapt to people's needs. Brand's book is about
designing buildings that way, and it's interesting to see how
well the analogy works. I'm not sure that How Buildings
Learn has changed the way I write code, but it has
changed the way I talk about it.
- Vacuum Flowers: Michael Swanwick
- An amusing book: the ideas are great, but the execution isn't
very convincing. In the future humans are split into various
societies, a cultural divergence because of isolation brought on
my different space colonies. We've got hive-mind humans at the
service of a new consciousness that spans Earth, a bunch of
socialists building a worker society on Mars, and lots of free
thinkers and personality reprogrammers hanging out in various
small colonies. The interesting idea here is the manipulation of
personality, especially the new technology whereby people can be
entirely reprogrammed. It's a fertile theme, but I don't think
Swanwick treated the scarier aspects of that very well. I'd love
to see what P.K. Dick could do with this story. Karl recommended this to
me, I think because he likes to think about personality
- Digital Money:
Dan Lynch and Leslie Lundquist
- One of several books on how to make a buck on the Internet,
focussed in particular on the new technology of digital
commerce, what it enables. I think this book is probably better
than most, although I haven't sampled the field. The exposition
is correct (at least in what I can verify), and gets into enough
detail that you can understand what the issues are without
If you've read Schneier then the
technical chapter will be too simplistic, but the chapters on
economics, social influences, and business plans are great.
Chapter 5, "New Business Concepts", was the most valuable for
me: exploring what options new technologies make possible. I
thought the technotopic vision in the final chapter was a bit
facile, but that's just futurist writing. Mostly the book gives
a responsible treatment of the implications of moving commerce
online. Extra points for addressing concerns about privacy and
- Designing with Type:
- "Now includes information on phototypesetting!". Typesetting
book from 1979, a few years before DTP took over. I think it's
valuable to go back to pre-hightech typesetting, the focus is
much more on practical design than the typesetting obscenities
that computers make possible. This book contains good, solid,
basic information about how to typeset a book so it looks good,
and just a bit on display face layout so you can make book
jackets. It's got a straightforward guide to font choices, useful
notes on wordspacing and leading. Some technically irrelevant
chapters on obsolete typesetting technologies, but the focus on
what to do, aesthetically, instead of how to do it,
technically, is great. The link above is to a newer version of
the book, I haven't seen it myself.
- I read this first in high school, back when it was new and hip.
I didn't like it much, I think because of the plot problems in
the second half of the novel. Now I'm reading good sci-fi as a
fun alternative to stuff that's "good for me" and finding it
incredibly entertaining, not to mention stimulating. I really
enjoy the way Gibson puts words together, creates moods with
inflection. And the way Gibson catches, and in some cases
predicts trends is incredible. I can't help but be amused at the
few anachronisms ("the clattering of printers", for instance),
but in general he gets things right on.
I've been thinking some about virtual realities, and
"cyberspace", and that sort of cruft. Neuromancer's view of VR
provides a nice opposition to that in Stephenson's Snow Crash. Stephensonian
cyberspace is very true to the physical world - hop on a
motorcycle, go into a building, chat with people. In contrast,
Gibson's cyberspace is much more natural to the computer: it
matches the true organization of infostructures,
multidimensional and probably non-Euclidean. As a computer geek,
I find Gibson's conception more appealing. I want to use the
binocular vision processing hardware in my brain to increase
bandwidth, but I don't want to constrain my understanding of
cyberspace to 3d physical reality.
- Envisioning Information:
- A very beautiful book, an elegant presentation of lessons in the
layout of graphical and textual information. Anyone who is doing
presentation of complex information, particularly people
aiming for visual style on Web pages, should read this book. I
was disappointed at first that the book isn't a manual for
graphic design, but once I realized that wasn't Tufte's goal
that was ok. Instead, Tufte points out interesting examples,
showing what works and what doesn't. I really like his phrase
"information prison" to refer to a presentation that has too
many heavy grid lines. I was also impressed with how beautiful
the book itself is, high quality heavy paper, excellent
illustrations, nice font (Bembo), excellent layout of tables. I
guess one would expect that for a book on graphic design, but
still quite a pleasure.
I've also flipped through Tufte's earlier book The Visual
Display of Quantitative Information. It's got much the
same feel as Envisioning Information, examples and
analysis of examples of graphical design. Quantitative
Information, though, is only about presenting numerical
data, a peculiar focus that shows that data doesn't have to be
boring. Also fun reading.
Reading this book, and looking at a few web pages that actually
look good, have made me think about casting off the restraints
of proper, boring HTML 2.0 to do some pages that look
spiffy. Danger! I wish Tufte would write something about
display on low bandwidth devices: computer screens, web
pages. The most beautiful examples presented in his books
require very high resolution display. Fine for paper, but not
clear how to apply these lessons to on-screen design.
Many thanks to Kurt
for recommending the book, and
Steph for letting me
flip through Tufte's earlier book.
- The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch:
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
- More graphic novels from Neil Gaiman, the creator of Sandman.
Mr. Punch is even better than Sandman, maybe because it's just
more adult. The core of the story revolves around the narrator
remembering his childhood, trying to understand things now he
didn't comprehend then. The Punch & Judy puppet show serves
as a disturbing backdrop for the frightening machinations of the
adults in his childhood world. I wish I knew more about Punch
& Judy shows.
The story itself is wonderful, and once again the graphic novel
format make all the difference as the illustrations augment the
narrative. The pen and ink drawings aren't that interesting, but
about half the panels are photographs, creepily lit still lifes
of Mr. Punch puppets, wire stick figures, and random detritus.
The look is really great.
- Joseph and the Old Man:
- This is the first "gay fiction" I've read in awhile: so much of
the genre is writer-workshop prose, a sort of sameness that
doesn't inspire. But this book worked for me, if nothing else
than as a nice gay romance novel. It gives a particularly good
treatment of intergenerational relationships, I think, something
that's rare in writing, gay or straight. And the life described,
an endless, slow parade of friends on Fire Island; well, it's
very appealing, sad to think that it might no longer exist. I
hope to visit Fire Island on my big
roadtrip this summer, see what it's really like.
I like the style of most of the novel, a sort of sensitive gay
male Hemmingway. Simple, upfront prose presenting the daily
life of the lovers. The book compelled me enough that I stayed
up all night to read it instead of sleeping, called a friend it
reminded me of and raved about it.
- A Scanner Darkly:
Philip K. Dick
- Yet more painful mind-wrenching schizophrenic literature by PK
Dick. Scanner Darkly is barely even sci-fi, just a story about
paranoid druggies hooked on some a drug, undercover cops trying
to find the source. The wonderful thing about Scanner Darkly is
that Dick once again communicates the awful fear of not knowing
what is real, blurring of identity between two people. The
personal message at the end is pretty moving, his explanation
that he's writing about his own friends who had their lives
- Applied Cryptography, 2nd ed:
- What a wonderful book! I studied some crypto in college (public
key and zero knowledge proofs) and found the field almost
incomprehensible: lots of very specific number theories, very
little overview information. Applied Cryptography
fills this vital gap very successfully, going from completely
introductory information to some fairly specific details on
particular systems. The 2000 or so references in the back are
great when you need to follow up on particular details. It's
good this book was published when it was, right at the time that
the US government is trying to censor net traffic and stop
people from using strong cryptosystems.
- Tales of Neveryon,
- Delany is one of my favourite authors: Dhalgren is one of
the best sci-fi novels I've read, and his autobiography
The Motion of Light in Water is quite
compelling. Some of the books he's written are pulp trash,
though, so it's a bit hard to find the right ones. The Return to
Neveryona series is one of the right ones, I think, a nice
multifaceted set of tales about the machinations of people in a
lords and warriors setting. The biggest interest in this novel
is Delany's social commentary. He's set the novel in a time when
lots of trappings of modern civilization are being developed:
weaving, money, the end of slavery, writing. This gives him a
chance to comment interestingly on those topics. The stuff on
slavery and sexuality I thought was a bit dull (although when
the book was written, it may not have been), but the stuff on
the use of money is really interesting, has affected my thinking
about adding money to online communities (like MUDs or the
Web). I think Tales of Neveryon is stronger, because it is so
multifaceted. Neveryona takes on a much more traditional
narrative structure, one that I didn't find particularly
compelling. I think Delany has a hard time writing women.
- Beat the Dealer:
- I've started playing a little low stakes blackjack here in New
Mexico. It's a fun game, just about evenly balanced so you don't
lose a lot (unlike slots or roulette), takes some concentration,
etc. I seem to be breaking even, which is ok with me. Beat the
Dealer was the first blackjack book to teach people how to play
blackjack well. Its information on basic strategy (just deciding
what to do correctly without counting) was groundbreaking, and
is still accurate. The information on counting systems is almost
useless, though. Still, a fun book for historical reasons: this
was written when computer simulation was a new thing, and the
Vegas casinos were still run by the mob.
- The Man in the High Castle:
Philip K. Dick
- I believe this is one of the first novels that made Dick
famous. Alternate present genre - what if Germany and Japan had
won the war? For the genre, I thought it was pretty silly: a lot
of the development is quite predictable. Dick does write himself
into the novel a bit, but he doesn't really run with it in the
way that marks his later writing.
- The Transmigration of Timothy Archer:
Philip K. Dick
- One of the better PK Dick novels I've read, lovely Gnosticism,
half-crazy intelligent men, 70s sexual politics, etc. This novel
is a bit edgier than most, I think because the backdrop of the
story seems so normal but the psychology going on underneath is
pretty creepy. It was nice to see Dick write female characters
well, usually they're just furniture for him.
- Green Mars:
Kim Stanley Robinson
- The sequel to
Red Mars, quite nice. Not as good as Red Mars, I
think, a bit more into itself. The biggest problem is that
Robinson made a lot of great characters in Red Mars
and won't give them up: through the miracle of immortality,
they're permanent. Still, he does let some of the characters
develop, and the plot is unfolding nicely. I can't wait until
Blue Mars comes out so I can finish it up.
- Public Sex:
- Fun book of radical essays about sexuality. I like Califia's no
bullshit attitude, although of course half of what she says is
wrong :-) Still, I'm glad to see someone write challenging
essays, and I think her general liberation message is important.
Back in my Queer Nation days this was the sort of discourse we
were striving for. Maybe it's a bit dated now.
- Structured Computer Organization:
Andrew S. Tanenbaum
- I've been hacking pretty deep on computers for more than half my
life - I wrote my first 6502 assembly code at age 12, back in
1984 or so. But I never understood any of the details of what was
going inside the box, I've never gone below the assembly code
level before. I have to take the Computer Science GRE (bleah!)
soon, though, so that was a good excuse to learn a little
computer architecture. (I did fine on it, btw!).
Tanenbaum is a great book to learn that from. It's a bit
simplistic (perfect sophomore CS textbook, I think), but the
organization that he presents is excellent and it's fun to
read. He starts from the bottom, a transistor (sadly, no quantum
mechanics), and moves up through logic gates, LSI, simple
computer design, VLSI, microcode, and then up to the software
that runs on the hardware. Hardware makes sense to me now! Well,
at least more so.
- Remaking History:
by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Hot off of reading Red Mars, I tried a random other
Robinson book, this time a collection of short stories. Can't
say I enjoyed this one as much - a couple of the stories seemed
pretty good when I read them, but I can't even remember them
now. Short stories are frequently about style, but I think
Robinson is a better story teller than stylist.
- Red Mars:
by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Many thanks to Dave
for loaning this to me. I love going back to reading sci-fi, it
tends to be so pleasurable. Especially when it's well written
and the story is so compelling. Believe me, Genet or Tannenbaum
doesn't inspire me to read 200 pages at a sitting. Why not?
Red Mars is the story of Earth deciding to colonize Mars, and
the people who make it happen. Most of the book centers on the
First Hundred, the first group of scientists and engineers who
are sent to start up the colony. Robinson's great strength is in
his characterizations, as well as his ability to juggle many
people and plotlines through a 500 page novel. His writing is a
mixture of good scifi and good soap opera: lots of personal and
sexual politics, intrigue, and old-fashioned scifi entertainment.
One thing that really stood out for me was the sense of
entitlement the First Hundred feel to Mars, especially after it
starts to be settled by thousands of people from Earth. They
were there first, they created a life, and their loss of control
of Mars is the major plot. Robinson almost exactly
describes how old-timers talk about the Internet: we built it,
and now it's being taken away from us! I'm not sure I have a
right to feel that way myself (I've only been on net since 1990),
but the parallel between Mars and the Internet was very
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who's a scifi fan,
likes good reads with fun characters. I've been waiting to read
the sequel Green Mars for a few weeks, spreading
out the time until the trilogy is finished.
- Diary of a Thief:
- I'd been intending to read this for awhile: one of my favourite films,
is partially based on this novel. That, and a couple of
different European friends recommended it. It's my kind of book:
seamy queer life, attention to personal interactions, lots of
self analysis. Even so, I had a tough time with this one, it was
slow for me to make it through it. Maybe Genet doesn't work well
in translation, but even factoring for that I had a hard time
with the book's general rambling style. It was fun to read it so
soon after coming back from visiting Spain, though.
- This might well be the last Lem novel I ever read: I got a lot
out of a couple of his books, but the ones I've read more
recently have been lost on me. Fiasco was really difficult for
me to finish: the plot was predictable, the characters
uninteresting, and even the story itself was only vaguely
compelling. Humans find another planet, and through a miracle of
time reversal manage to travel there. Lem takes this as an
opportunity to tell a story about how difficult it would be for
humans to interact with a completely alien world. I think he
made the point better in
His Master's Voice,
personally. Sorry to be such a downer about this.
- Snow Crash:
- This is one of the most-recommended cyberpunk novels I know of.
Five or so different friends of mine, all with good taste,
recommended this highly. Which is why I regret saying I thought
it was pretty disappointing. Most of the novel is pretty silly
and needs merciless editing to remove about 200 pages of fluff
and to tighten the rest, fix the continuity gaps. It's an ok
light read, but not much more.
The thing that makes this book cool, though, is his description
of virtual reality ("Metaverse"). It comes the closest to the
social environment I really hope will come about as our
communication technologies improve. Metaverse stuff is dribbled
through the book, but chapters 3, 5, 7, and 9 contain most of
it. Those are worth reading, if nothing else than because he
has the ideas right.
- Burning Chrome:
- For the longest time I refused to read "cyberpunk", I was
pretty snotty and self-righteous about it. Frankly, I feel like
half the time I live that stuff. The graphics aren't as cool,
the world isn't as exciting, but I'm doing the sort of work that
the Wired set is fauning over. It gets a bit tiresome to hear
how glamourous it is, because it's not.
Anyway, that's the snottiness. Now I regret it, because I've
missed some really great writing. Burning Chrome is a collection
of incredible short stories, tight and colourful. The
stories themselves are good, but it's the way Gibson
communicates that is the strength here. I read Neuromancer
several years ago and it didn't make an impression, why I'm not
sure. Burning Chrome definitely did, though - maybe Gibson's
just more at home in short stories?
- A comic book^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hgraphic novel! Well, a
pretentious one that I can claim has literary value. Seriously,
the writing for these is terrific, clever classical allusions,
1990s gloom and despair, plus a touch of DC Comics weirdness
to keep things interesting. The art makes the whole thing work
really well. I enjoy these.
- Generation X:
- I figured I better finally get around to reading this, since
it's supposed to be me and everything. It's a suprisingly good
book: entertaining and cleverly written, sometimes a bit too
overwritten. It's also a pretty light book, not nearly as
"important" as many people were claiming when it came out. It
doesn't even contain the genex stuff I know and love, cynicism
about advertisement and general hopelessness in the world. But
then, to Coupland "Generation X" is people who are early 30s
now: I think the term has been misapplied. My main
disappointment was that the book is, ultimately, just another
character development story. Catcher in the Rye for the next
- Strange Pilgrims:
Gabríel Garcia Márquez
- This books was given to me about six months ago by a friend after
I'd remarked that while I'd read lots of Borges, I'd read no
Márquez at all. An embarassing omission. Strange Pilgrims
is a collection of short stories written in the last 20 or so years.
I enjoyed these stories well enough: some are downright beautiful.
None of them really stick in my mind, though, which I regret. My
favourite story of the bunch was Sleeping Beauty and the
Airplane, a nice snapshot of love from a distance. I frequently
feel like that.
- A Maze of Death:
Philip K. Dick
- I wouldn't say this is one of Dick's best books, certainly not up
to the level of
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Valis. It's just a classic Dick
tale, science fiction and psychological intrigue. A bunch of
sub-par humans find themselves on an outpost on a new planet,
they don't know what they are supposed to be doing there, and
something is killing them. The ending is pulled out of a hat,
but it's your standard P.K. Dick "reality isn't what we think
it is" trick that we love him for. Lots of good Dick theology,
not so much schizophrenia.
- I sometimes say that everyone who comes to the
Santa Fe Institute
should read at least two Lem novels. Lem's science fiction
is heavily influenced by cybernetics, sort of a precursor
to the complex systems work that goes on at SFI. Lem's
novels Solaris and His Master's Voice
are highly influential for me.
Eden is pretty good, but I fear I'm beginning to
tire of the Stanislaw Lem thing. Six people crash their rocket
on a new planet and are forced to learn something about their
surroundings before repairing their ship and escaping. The fun
here is the complete incomprehensibility of the alien culture:
they keep encountering new things and making hypotheses that
are clearly wrong. It's a good premise for a book, but I wasn't
entirely thrilled with the execution.
- The Songlines:
- My Australian friend Grant gave me this book when he visited
from Sydney - we'd talked a bit about the Aborigines in
Australia compared to the Native Americans in the US. I'm not
quite sure what to make of The Songlines: it's
well written, an interesting portrayal of an outsider slowly
coming to understand some aspects of Aborigine thinking. And
there are plenty of amusing Australia anecdotes. But then the
book also reminds me heavily of The Teachings of Don
Juan - I sure hope Chatwin is more honest than Castenada.
- Making the Most of Your Money:
Jane Bryannt Quinn.
- I feel a bit like I've sold out, spending so much of my time reading
a thick book that's about something as filthy as money. But then it
is a fact that money comes in handy, and I'm glad I'm learning about
this stuff earlier rather than later. Quinn writes a very
no-nonsense, simple, and readable guide to managing personal
finances. How to manage credit, investments, insurance, mortgages,
retirement: all that basic stuff you wish you knew more about,
- Repetitive Strain Injury:
Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter.
- Another practical book, this time more justifiable. I type about
ten hours a day, and I've had typing related wrist pain twice
now: once in 1991 and just now. RSIs are a serious disability,
something I worry about daily. Pascarelli's book is the best
there is on the subject right now, helpful and
informative. Hopefully, others will be published soon. There's
lots of other information on RSIs on the Typing
Injury FAQ and Archive.
- Lucifer's Hammer:
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
- My friend Karl and I share
a love for post-apocalyptic novels. The end of civilization, the
destruction of our artifacts and our moral codes, humans facing their
mortality. It's a powerful sort of topic. Karl has written a really
great page on
post apocalyptic novels.
Karl calls this a
"two fisted tale", that's about right. It's an amusing book, with
lots of great tales of California in chaos. Great literature it
ain't. Classic post-apocalyptic novel: buildup, horrible cataclysm (a
comet), regression to savagery ("throw that dead baby out the window,
we aren't going to be hungry enough to eat it") followed by an attempt
to recover and preserve civilization. It's about three times as long
as it needs to be, but then again pulp is paid by the page.
- The Postman:
- Nuclear war, but small, but enough disruption that the US
government falls apart and society is fractured. Our unwilling
hero finds a Postman uniform and recreates a dream of a
civilized country. It's entertaining enough, but simple minded
and unsubtle. I think I would have liked it more when I was
about 14. Some interesting ideas, but not highbrow.
- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang:
- This is a wonderful book, sensitive and fun to read and somewhat
unusual. Karl and I can't decide if the author's gender has
something to do with the attention she pays to her characters'
emotions and her avoidance of the "bam! crash!" action of a
lot of sci-fi. Whatever the reason, Wilhelm's writing style is
The novel starts as our normal existence is ending: people have
finally poisoned themselves and the world enough that
everything becomes sterile, including humans. A small group of
people hatch a plan for temporarily building a clone society.
The novel follows the psychological progress of the clone
society. Lots of interesting writing about the relationships of
family members, not so heavy on the post-apocalypse but it
makes a great setting.
- The Drowned World:
- I really like Ballard's writing: I've been sold on him ever since
seeing the RE/Search edition of
The Atrocity Exhibition
and then reading
one of my favourite novels ever.
The Drowned World is an ok read, a little dull. The
apocalypse is the world has gotten hot: ice caps melt, cities
flood and then silt in, humans have to move to the poles.
The book itself borrows way too much mood from
Heart of Darkness: lots of internal strife and jungles
and madmen and all that. Some nice scenes of exploring ruined,
underwater London. A bit of breakdown of human morality.
- The Wind from Nowhere: J.G. Ballard
- This was bound together with The Drowned World. I liked
it much better. The apocalypse this time is a wind that inexplicably
gets faster and faster, ripping cities apart and reducing
all of our civilization to rubble in a month. I think Ballard does
a good job here creating the feeling of living in a world that is
being destroyed out from under you: lots of desolation. He even kills
major characters! Not much to the book but mood and action, which
given the pretention of The Drowned World was something
of a relief.
- Gay New York:
- This book is a study of gay society in New York from 1890-1940.
It's a wonderful piece of social history, completely destroying
the myth that there was no gay life before Stonewall. It also
pursues one of my favourite themes, exploring the different ways
that men express their homosexuality: "straight" men who would
occasionally go out and play, gays who tried to pass, pansies
who were outrageous. So much of modern gay consciousness and politics
is focussed on "we are all alike", it's refreshing to see a book that
reminds us that we aren't.
The book itself is pretty interesting reading for something that's
essentially a history book. Much more readable than
Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (R.I.P., Boswell).
The research Chauncey did is incredible, teasing out lots of
information from local papers, diaries, interviews, and crime reports
from the police and from private morality enforcement committees.
My friend at University of Chicago says that Chauncey's a great
professor, too. Look for his next book; it will pick up where this