Some of the things Nelson has been reading

I like reading paper, it's a special sort of pleasure for someone who spends too much of his time on the net, Usenet and email and Web. Paper is slow, and permanent, and friendly. Unfortunately I also find reading a serious book tiring and sometimes all I can do is go home and let Aaron Spelling take over my world. Anyway, I decided that when I read something interesting I'd write a little paragraph about it, put it on the Web. Pretentious, maybe, but why not? These writings are as much for my own records as for anyone else to read.

There are also some good reading lists I'd like to work through: the Global Business Network Book Club list has an interestingly selection of science/technology futuristic books, and the list of Hugo award winners contains a uncommon concentration of worthwhile sci-fi.

This page is in association with Books. Amazon is a really nice online bookstore. The titles listed here are links into their catalog: follow the link and get more information about the book, reviews, and the chance to buy it from Amazon (usually at a discount). I get a kickback for anything you order from a link on this page, which is nice, but honestly I really put the links there for convenience.

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 Encyclopaedia.
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 editorial board 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 the 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.

Factotum, 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.

Sundiver, Startide Rising, 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 own research 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 available online.

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 big roadtrip. 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: Vernor Vinge

True Names: Vernor Vinge

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: William Gibson
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).

Frisk: Dennis Cooper
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: Stewart Brand
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 manipulation.

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 becoming overwhelming.

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 social equality.

Designing with Type: James Craig
"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.

Neuromancer: William Gibson
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: Edward Tufte.
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: Christopher Davis
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 screwed up.

Applied Cryptography, 2nd ed: Bruce Schneier
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, Neveryona: Samuel Delany
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: Edward Thorp
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: Pat Califia
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 interesting.

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: Jean Genet
I'd been intending to read this for awhile: one of my favourite films, Poison, 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.

Fiasco: Stanislaw Lem
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: Neal Stephenson
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: William Gibson
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?

Sandman: Niel Gaiman
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: Douglas Coupland
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 Lost Generation.

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? or 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.

Eden: Stanislaw Lem
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: Bruce Chatwin.
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, it's here.

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: David Brin
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: Kate Wilhelm.
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 refreshing.

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: J.G. Ballard
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 Crash, 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: George Chauncey
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 left off.

Nelson Minar Created: January 15, 1996
<> Updated: May 02, 1998