Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2017-06-30: End of month haul

For some reason, June is always incredibly busy for me. It's historically the most likely month in which I don't post anything here at all except reviews (and sometimes not even that). But I'm going to tell you about what books I bought (or were given to me) on the very last day of the month to break the pattern of no journal postings in June.

Ted Chiang — Arrival (Stories of Your Life) (sff collection)
Eoin Colfer — Artemis Fowl (sff)
Philip K. Dick — The Man Who Japed (sff)
Yoon Ha Lee — Raven Strategem (sff)
Paul K. Longmore — Why I Burned My Book (nonfiction)
Melina Marchetta — The Piper's Son (mainstream)
Jules Verne — For the Flag (sff, sort of)

This is a more than usually eclectic mix.

The Chiang is his Stories of Your Life collection reissued under the title of Arrival to cash in on the huge success of the movie based on one of his short stories. I'm not much of a short fiction reader, but I've heard so many good things about Chiang that I'm going to give it a try.

The Longmore is a set of essays about disability rights that has been on my radar for a while. I finally got pushed into buying it (plus the first Artemis Fowl book and the Marchetta) because I've been reading back through every review Light has written. (I wish I were even close to that amusingly snarky in reviews, and she manages to say in a few paragraphs what usually takes me a whole essay.)

Finally, the Dick and the Verne were gifts from a co-worker from a used book store in Ireland. Minor works by both authors, but nice, old copies of the books.

2017-06-30: Review: Make It Stick

Review: Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, et al.

Author Peter C. Brown
Author Henry L. Roediger III
Author Mark A. McDaniel
Publisher Belknap Press
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-674-72901-3
Format Kindle
Pages 255

Another read for the work book club.

"People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways." This is the first sentence of the preface of this book by two scientists (Roediger and McDaniel are both psychology researchers specializing in memory) and a novelist and former management consultant (Brown). The goal of Make It Stick is to apply empirical scientific research to the problem of learning, specifically retention of information for long-term use. The authors aim to convince the reader that subjective impressions of the effectiveness of study habits are highly deceptive, and that scientific evidence points strongly towards mildly counter-intuitive learning methods that don't feel like they're producing as good of results.

I have such profound mixed feelings about this book.

Let's start with the good. Make It Stick is a book containing actual science. The authors quote the studies, results, and scientific argument at length. There are copious footnotes and an index, as well as recommended reading. And the science is concrete and believable, as is the overlaid interpretation based on cognitive and memory research.

The book's primary argument is that short-term and long-term memory are very different things, that what we're trying to achieve when we say "learning" is based heavily on long-term memory and recall of facts for an extended time after study, and that building this type of recall requires not letting our short-term memory do all the work. We tend towards study patterns that show obvious short-term improvement and that produce an increased feeling of effortless recall of the material, but those study patterns are training short-term memory and mean the knowledge slips away quickly. Choosing learning methods that instead make us struggle a little with what we're learning are significantly better. It's that struggle that leads to committing the material to long-term memory and building good recall pathways for it.

On top of this convincingly-presented foundation, the authors walk through learning methods that feel worse in the moment but have better long-term effects: mixing practice of different related things (different types of solids when doing geometry problems, different pitches in batting practice) and switching types before you've mastered the one you're working on, forcing yourself to interpret and analyze material (such as writing a few paragraphs of summary in your own words) instead of re-reading it, and practicing material at spaced intervals far enough apart that you've forgotten some of the material and have to struggle to recall it. Possibly the most useful insight here (at least for me) was the role of testing in learning, not as just a way of measuring progress, but as a learning tool. Frequent, spaced, cumulative testing forces exactly the type of recall that builds long-term memory. The tests themselves help improve our retention of what we're learning. It's bad news for people like me who were delighted to leave school and not have to take a test again, but viewing tests as a more effective learning tool than re-reading and review (which they are) does cast them in a far more positive light.

This is all solid stuff, and I'm very glad the research underlying this book exists and that I now know about it. But there are some significant problems with its presentation.

The first is that there just isn't much here. The two long paragraphs above summarize nearly all of the useful content of this book. The authors certainly provide more elaboration, and I haven't talked about all of the study methods they mention or some of the useful examples of their application. But 80% of it is there, and the book is intentionally repetitive (because it tries to follow the authors' advice on learning theory). Make It Stick therefore becomes tedious and boring, particularly in the first four chapters. I was saying a lot of "yes, yes, you said that already" and falling asleep while trying to read it. The summaries at the end of the book are a bit better, but you will probably not need most of this book to get the core ideas.

And then there's chapter five, which ends in a train wreck.

Chapter five is on cognitive biases, and I see why the authors wanted to include it. The Dunning-Kruger effect is directly relevant to their topic. It undermines our ability to learn, and is yet another thing that testing helps avoid. Their discussion of Daniel Kahneman's two system theory (your fast, automatic, subconscious reactions and your slow, thoughtful, conscious processing) is somewhat less directly relevant, but it's interesting stuff, and it's at least somewhat related to the short-term and long-term memory dichotomy. But some of the stories they choose to use to illustrate this are... deeply unfortunate. Specifically, the authors decided to use US police work in multiple places as their example of choice for two-system thinking, and treat it completely uncritically.

Some of you are probably already wincing because you can see where this is going.

They interview a cop who, during scenario training for traffic stops, was surprised by the car trunk popping open and a man armed with a shotgun popping out of it. To this day, he still presses down on the trunk of the car as he walks up; it's become part of his checklist for every traffic stop. This would be a good example if the authors realized how badly his training has failed and deconstructed it, but they're apparently oblivious. I wanted to reach into the book and shake them. People have a limited number of things they can track and follow as part of a procedure, and some bad trainer has completely wasted part of this cop's attention in every traffic stop and thereby made him less safe! Just calculate the chances that someone would be curled up in an unlocked trunk with a shotgun and a cop would just happen to stop that car for some random reason, compared to any other threat the cop could use that same attention to watch for. This is exactly the type of scenario that's highly memorable but extremely improbable and therefore badly breaks human risk analysis. It's what Bruce Schneier calls a movie plot threat. The correct reaction to movie plot threats is to ignore them; wasting effort on mitigating them means not having that effort to spend on mitigating some other less memorable but more likely threat.

This isn't the worst, though. The worst is the very next paragraph, also from police training, of showing up at a domestic call, seeing an armed person on the porch who stands up and walks away when ordered to drop their weapon, and not being sure how to react, resulting in that person (in the simulated exercise) killing the cop before they did anything. The authors actually use this as an example of how the cop was using system two and needed to train to use system one in that situation to react faster, and that this is part of the point of the training.

Those of us who have been paying attention to the real world know what using system one here means: the person on the porch gets shot if they're black and doesn't get shot if they're white. The authors studiously refuse to even hint at this problem.

I would have been perfectly happy if this book avoided the unconscious bias aspect of system one thinking. It's a bit far afield of the point of the book, and the authors are doubtless trying to stay apolitical. But that's why you pick some other example. You cannot just drop this kind of thing on the page and then refuse to even comment on it! It's like writing a chapter about the effect of mass transit on economic development, choosing Atlanta as one of your case studies, and then never mentioning race.

Also, some editor seriously should have taken an ax to the sentence where the authors (for no justified reason) elaborate a story to describe a cop maiming a person, solely to make a cliched joke about how masculinity is defined by testicles and how people who lose body parts are less human. Thanks, book.

This was bad enough that it dominated my memory of this chapter, but, reviewing the book for this review, I see it was just a few badly chosen examples at the end of the chapter and one pointless story at the start. The rest of the chapter is okay, although it largely summarizes things covered better in other books. The most useful part that's relevant to the topic of the book is probably the discussion of peer instruction. Just skip over all the police bits; you won't be missing anything.

Thankfully, the rest of the book mostly avoids failing quite this hard. Chapter six does open with the authors obliviously falling for a string of textbook examples of survivorship bias (immediately after the chapter on cognitive biases!), but they shortly thereafter settle down to the accurate and satisfying work of critiquing theories of learning methods and types of intelligence. And by critiquing, I mean pointing out that they're mostly unscientific bullshit, which is fighting the good fight as far as I'm concerned.

So, mixed feelings. The science seems solid, and is practical and directly applicable to my life. Make It Stick does an okay job at presenting it, but gets tedious and boring in places, particularly near the beginning. And there are a few train-wreck examples that had me yelling at the book and scribbling notes, which wasn't really the cure for boredom I was looking for. I recommend being aware of this research, and I'm glad the authors wrote this book, but I can't really recommend the book itself as a reading experience.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-06-05: Review: Star Healer

Review: Star Healer, by James White

Series Sector General #6
Publisher Orb
Copyright 1984
Printing 2002
ISBN 0-312-87770-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 206

Star Healer is the sixth book of the Sector General series, and I think it may be the first novel in the series that was written as a novel instead of a fix-up of short stories. That makes it not a bad place to start in the series if one would rather not deal with fix-ups or barely-disguised short story collections. There isn't a huge amount of character development over the course of this series (at least to this point), so the main thing you would lose by starting here is some built-up reason for caring about the main character.

This is the third book in the Alien Emergencies omnibus (the book referenced in the publication information here).

Most of the previous stories have focused on Conway, a Senior Physician in the sprawling and wonderfully well-equipped multi-species hospital called Sector General and, in recent stories, the head physician in the hospital's ambulance ship. Becoming a Senior Physician at Sector General is quite the accomplishment, and a fine point to reach in the career of any doctor specializing in varied life forms, but there is another tier above: the Diagnosticians, who are the elite of Sector General. The difference is education tapes.

Deep knowledge of even one specific type of life is a lot to ask of a doctor, as shown by the increasing specialization of human medicine. Sector General, which deals with wildly varying ailments of thousands of species including entirely unknown ones (if, admittedly, primarily trauma, at least in the stories shown), would be an impossible task. White realizes this and works around it with education tapes that temporarily embed in a doctor's head the experience of a doctor of another species entirely. This provides the native expertise missing, but it comes with the full personality of the doctor who recorded the tape, including preferences for food and romantic attachment that may be highly disorienting. Senior Physicians use a tape at a time, and then have it erased again when they don't need it. Diagnosticians juggle four or more tapes at the same time, and keep them for long periods or even permanently, allowing them to do ground-breaking original research.

The opening of Star Healer is an offer from the intimidating Chief Psychologist of Sector General: he has a shot at Diagnostician. But it's a major decision that he should think over first, so the next step is to take a vacation of sorts on a quiet world with a small human scientific station. Oh, and there's a native medical problem, although not one with much urgency.

Conway doesn't do a lot of resting, because of course he gets pulled into trying to understand the mystery of an alien species that is solitary to the point of deep and unbreakable social taboos against even standing close to other people. This is a nice cultural puzzle in line with the rest of the series, but it also leaves Conway with a new ally: an alien healer in a society in which being a doctor is difficult to the point of near hopelessness.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that of course Conway decides to try for Diagnostician after his "vacation." The rest of the book is him juggling multiple cases with his new and often conflicting modes of thinking, and tackling problems that require a bit less in the way of puzzle-solving and a bit more in the way of hard trade-off decisions and quick surgical action. Senior Physicians may be able to concentrate on just one puzzle at a time; Diagnosticians have to juggle several. And they're larger, more long-term problems, focusing on how to improve a general problem for a whole species rather than just heal a specific injured alien.

One interesting aspect of this series, which is very much on display here, is that Sector General most definitely does not have a Prime Directive. They are cautious about making contact with particularly primitive civilizations for fear that spacefarers would give them an inferiority complex, but sometimes they do anyway. And if they run into some biological system that offends their sensibilities, they try to fix it, not just observe it. White frequently shows species caught in what the characters call "biological traps," unable to develop farther because of some biological adaptation that gets in their way, and Sector General tries to fix those. It's an interesting ethical problem that I wish they'd think about a bit more. It's not clear they're wrong, and I think it's correct to take an expansive view of the mission to heal, but there's also a sense in which Sector General is modifying culture and biology to make aliens more like them.

(The parallels between this and all the abusive paternalism that human cultures do around disability is a little too close to home to be comfortable, and now I kind of wish it hadn't occurred to me.)

The gender roles, sadly, continue to be dire, although mostly ignorable because the one major female character is generally just shown as another doctor with little attention to sex. But apparently women (of every species!) cannot become Diagnosticians because they have an insurmountable biological aversion to sharing their minds with a learning tape from any doctor who doesn't find them physically attractive, which is just... sigh. It's sad that someone who could write an otherwise remarkably open-minded and pacifist series of stories, in sharp contrast with most of SF history, would still have that large of a blind spot.

Apart from the times gender comes up, I liked this book more than the rest of the series, in part because I strongly prefer novels to short stories. There's more room to develop the story, and while characterization continues to not be White's strong point and that space mostly goes to more puzzles instead, he does provide an interesting set of interlocking puzzles. The problem posed by the aliens Conway meets on his "vacation" isn't fully resolved here (presumably that's for a future book), but he does solve several other significant problems and develops his own problem-solving style in more depth than in previous stories.

Mildly recommended, particularly if you like this series in general.

Followed by Code Blue - Emergency.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-05-31: Review: Migration

Review: Migration, by Julie E. Czerneda

Series Species Imperative #2
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2005
ISBN 0-7564-0260-3
Format Hardcover
Pages 453

Migration is the second book of the Species Imperative, and this is the old-fashioned type of trilogy that you very much want to read in order. Start with Survival. There is a (slightly awkward) recap of the previous book at the start, though, if it's been a bit since you read it.

In my review of Survival, I praised Czerneda's ability to capture the feel of academic research and the sense of real scientists doing science. I thought I went out on a bit of a limb, not being a scientist myself (just someone who worked at a university for decades), but Czerneda was still holding back. I'm now completely convinced: whatever else this series is, and it contains a lot of politics and world-building and fascinating (if very human-like) aliens, it's some of the best science fiction about practicing scientists I've ever read.

I cannot express how much I adore the fact that the center of this book is not space combat, not daring adventure across alien landscapes, but getting a bunch of really smart experts in their field together in a room with good equipment and good computers to chase an intellectual problem from their own individual perspectives. And if Mac is perhaps a bit *too* good at quickly overcoming interpersonal conflict and suspicion, I'll forgive that for the deft sense of politics. Mac's success may be a bit unrealistic, but the direction and thrust of her tactics are spot-on. This is how interactions between smart and curious people often work, at least if they're sufficiently motivated to put aside pettier political infighting. This is also how the dynamics of emergency war rooms work: if you can give people a focus and divide up the work, the results can be amazing.

The second best part of the book is Oversight. The first book opened with the latest round of Mac's ongoing war with Charles Mudge III, the oversight board of the neighboring wilderness trust. He shows up again at the start of this book, acting completely consistent to his stubborn idealism shown in Survival, and then develops into one of the best characters in the book. Unexpected allies is one of the tropes I love most in fiction in general, but this one resonates so deeply with the way grudging respect and familiar patterns, even patterns of argument, work on people. Czerneda had me grinning. It's just perfectly in line with Mac's character, her single-minded focus on work that tended to miss a few points of human connection, and the sort of deepening respect that builds up even between adversaries when they know deep inside that they are following different interpretations of the same principles.

I'm going to be rather sketchy on the plot, since Migration follows closely on from Survival and is concerned almost entirely with the aftermath of the climactic events at the end of that book. But as you can tell, this is more of Mac, and she's not managed to separate herself from Dhryn problems or from the Ministry of Extra-Solar Affairs. She does, however, get rather far away from Norcoast for a while, an interlude in the wild northern Canadian wilderness that once again proves Czerneda to be the type of writer who can make the quotidian as engrossing as alien dramatics. She's also suffering from nightmares, anxiety, and a lot of circular thinking, making this one of the series that shows the realistic toll of dramatic events on human psychology.

There was a bit of a nascent love story in Survival; there's a lot more of that here. It's the one bit of the book that I have mixed feelings about, since it feels a touch unnecessary to me, and therefore a bit intrusive. It also involves a fair bit of love at, well, not first sight but surprisingly fast, which is something I know intellectually that other people think happens, but which always undermines my suspension of disbelief. That said, Czerneda gives Mac a clear tendency in how she forms emotional attachments and sticks with it throughout this series to date, which I do like, and she keeps the romance consistent with that. It thankfully does not get too much in the way of the plot, although I could have done with just a few fewer determined proclamations that the characters won't let love get in the way of doing what they need to do.

That quibble aside, this is fantastic stuff that avoids most of the cliches of this sort of story of alien politics and possible war. The focus is firmly on analysis and understanding rather than guns and action, the portrayal of scientists, analysis, and problem-solving is spot on, the aliens are delightfully different (and different from each other within the same alien species, which is important depth), and Mac is a fantastic protagonist. She's vulnerable, wounded, and out of her depth, but she knows how to map new situations to her areas of competence and how to admit when she doesn't know something, and her effectiveness is well-grounded and believable. Oh, and there are some amazing descriptions of the Canadian wilderness that almost make me want to find a secluded cabin without Internet access. (At least if it had all of the convenient technology that Mac's future Earth has.)

It's a rare middle book of a trilogy that's better than the first, but this one is. Much better. And I already liked the first book. Highly recommended; I think this is one of Czerneda's best.

Followed by Regeneration.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-05-28: Debian Policy 4.0.0.0

Today, about a month later than I had intended due to having three consecutive work weeks that mostly drained me of energy, I finally uploaded Debian Policy 4.0.0.0 to Debian experimental.

This went to experimental rather than unstable for two reasons:

I expect there to be a few more point-release changes to packaging and formatting uploaded to experimental before uploading to unstable for the start of the buster development cycle. (I've indeed already noticed about six minor bugs, including the missing release date in the upgrading checklist....)

Due to the DocBook conversion, and the resources rightly devoted to the stretch release instead, it may be a bit before the new Policy version shows up properly in all the places it's published.

As you might expect from it having been more than a year since the previous release, there were a lot of accumulated changes. I posted the full upgrading-checklist entries to debian-devel-announce, or of course you can install the debian-policy package from experimental and review them in /usr/share/doc/debian-policy/upgrading-checklist.txt.gz.

2017-05-27: On time management

Last December, the Guardian published a long essay by Oliver Burkeman entitled "Why time management is ruining our lives". Those who follow my book reviews know I read a lot of time management books, so of course I couldn't resist this. And, possibly surprisingly, not to disagree with it. It's an excellent essay, and well worth your time.

Burkeman starts by talking about Inbox Zero:

If all this fervour seems extreme – Inbox Zero was just a set of technical instructions for handling email, after all – this was because email had become far more than a technical problem. It functioned as a kind of infinite to-do list, to which anyone on the planet could add anything at will.

This is, as Burkeman develops in the essay, an important critique of time management techniques in general, not just Inbox Zero: perhaps you can become moderately more efficient, but what are you becoming more efficient at doing, and why does it matter? If there were a finite amount of things that you had to accomplish, with leisure the reward at the end of the fixed task list, doing those things more efficiently makes perfect sense. But this is not the case in most modern life. Instead, we live in a world governed by Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion."

Worse, we live in a world where the typical employer takes Parkinson's Law, not as a statement on the nature of ever-expanding to-do lists, but a challenge to compress the time made available for a task to try to force the work to happen faster. Burkeman goes farther into the politics, pointing out that a cui bono analysis of time management suggests that we're all being played by capitalist employers. I wholeheartedly agree, but that's worth a separate discussion; for those who want to explore that angle, David Graeber's Debt and John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society are worth your time.

What I want to write about here is why I still read (and recommend) time management literature, and how my thinking on it has changed.

I started in the same place that most people probably do: I had a bunch of work to juggle, I felt I was making insufficient forward progress on it, and I felt my day contained a lot of slack that could be put to better use. The alluring promise of time management is that these problems can be resolved with more organization and some focus techniques. And there is a huge surge of energy that comes with adopting a new system and watching it work, since the good ones build psychological payoff into the tracking mechanism. Starting a new time management system is fun! Finishing things is fun!

I then ran into the same problem that I think most people do: after that initial surge of enthusiasm, I had lists, systems, techniques, data on where my time was going, and a far more organized intake process. But I didn't feel more comfortable with how I was spending my time, I didn't have more leisure time, and I didn't feel happier. Often the opposite: time management systems will often force you to notice all the things you want to do and how slow your progress is towards accomplishing any of them.

This is my fundamental disagreement with Getting Things Done (GTD): David Allen firmly believes that the act of recording everything that is nagging at you to be done relieves the brain of draining background processing loops and frees you to be more productive. He argues for this quite persuasively; as you can see from my review, I liked his book a great deal, and used his system for some time. But, at least for me, this does not work. Instead, having a complete list of goals towards which I am making slow or no progress is profoundly discouraging and depressing. The process of maintaining and dwelling on that list while watching it constantly grow was awful, quite a bit worse psychologically than having no time management system at all.

Mark Forster is the time management author who speaks the best to me, and one of the points he makes is that time management is the wrong framing. You're not going to somehow generate more time, and you're usually not managing minutes and seconds. A better framing is task management, or commitment management: the goal of the system is to manage what you mentally commit to accomplishing, usually by restricting that list to something far shorter than you would come up with otherwise. How, in other words, to limit your focus to a small enough set of goals that you can make meaningful progress instead of thrashing.

That, for me, is now the merit and appeal of time (or task) management systems: how do I sort through all the incoming noise, distractions, requests, desires, and compelling ideas that life throws at me and figure out which of them are worth investing time in? I also benefit from structuring that process for my peculiar psychology, in which backlogs I have to look at regularly are actively dangerous for my mental well-being. Left unchecked, I can turn even the most enjoyable hobby into an obligation and then into a source of guilt for not meeting the (entirely artificial) terms of the obligation I created, without even intending to.

And here I think it has a purpose, but it's not the purpose that the time management industry is selling. If you think of time management as a way to get more things done and get more out of each moment, you're going to be disappointed (and you're probably also being taken advantage of by the people who benefit from unsustainable effort without real, unstructured leisure time). I practice Inbox Zero, but the point wasn't to be more efficient at processing my email. The point was to avoid the (for me) psychologically damaging backlog of messages while acting on the knowledge that 99% of email should go immediately into the trash with no further action. Email is an endless incoming stream of potential obligations or requests for my time (even just to read a longer message) that I should normallly reject. I also take the time to notice patterns of email that I never care about and then shut off the source or write filters to delete that email for me. I can then reserve my email time for moments of human connection, directly relevant information, or very interesting projects, and spend the time on those messages without guilt (or at least much less guilt) about ignoring everything else.

Prioritization is extremely difficult, particularly once you realize that true prioritization is not about first and later, but about soon or never. The point of prioritization is not to choose what to do first, it's to choose the 5% of things that you going to do at all, convince yourself to be mentally okay with never doing the other 95% (and not lying to yourself about how there will be some future point when you'll magically have more time), and vigorously defend your focus and effort for that 5%. And, hopefully, wholeheartedly enjoy working on those things, without guilt or nagging that there's something else you should be doing instead.

I still fail at this all the time. But I'm better than I used to be.

For me, that mental shift was by far the hardest part. But once you've made that shift, I do think the time management world has a lot of tools and techniques to help you make more informed choices about the 5%, and to help you overcome procrastination and loss of focus on your real goals.

Those real goals should include true unstructured leisure and "because I want to" projects. And hopefully, if you're in a financial position to do it, include working less on what other people want you to do and more on the things that delight you. Or at least making a well-informed strategic choice (for the sake of money or some other concrete and constantly re-evaluated reason) to sacrifice your personal goals for some temporary external ones.

2017-05-27: Optimistic haul

I never have as much time to read as I wish I did, but I keep buying books, of course. Maybe someday I'll have a good opportunity to take extended time off work and just read for a bit. Well, retirement, at least, right?

Charlie Jane Anders — All the Birds in the Sky (sff)
Peter C. Brown, et al. — Make It Stick (nonfiction)
April Daniels — Dreadnought: Nemesis (sff)
T. Kingfisher — The Halcyon Fairy Book (sff collection)
T. Kingfisher — Jackalope Wives and Other Stories (sff collection)
Margot Lee Shetterly — Hidden Figures (nonfiction)
Cordwainer Smith — Norstrilia (sff)
Kristine Smith — Code of Conduct (sff)
Jonathan Taplin — Move Fast and Break Things (nonfiction)
Sarah Zettel — Fool's War (sff)
Sarah Zettel — Playing God (sff)
Sarah Zettel — The Quiet Invasion (sff)

It doesn't help that James Nicoll keeps creating new lists of books that all sound great. And there's some really interesting nonfiction being written right now.

Make It Stick is the current book for the work book club.

2017-05-21: Review: Sector General

Review: Sector General, by James White

Series Sector General #5
Publisher Orb
Copyright 1983
Printing 2002
ISBN 0-312-87770-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 187

Sector General is the fifth book (or, probably more accurately, collection) in the Sector General series. I blame the original publishers for the confusion. The publication information is for the Alien Emergencies omnibus, which includes the fourth through the sixth books in the series.

Looking back on my previous reviews of this series (wow, it's been eight years since I read the last one?), I see I was reviewing them as novels rather than as short story collections. In retrospect, that was a mistake, since they're composed of clearly stand-alone stories with a very loose arc. I'm not going to go back and re-read the earlier collections to give them proper per-story reviews, but may as well do this properly here.

Overall, this collection is more of the same, so if that's what you want, there won't be any negative surprises. It's another four engineer-with-a-wrench stories about biological and medical puzzles, with only a tiny bit of characterization and little hint to any personal life for any of the characters outside of the job. Some stories are forgettable, but White does create some memorable aliens. Sadly, the stories don't take us to the point of real communication, so those aliens stop at biological puzzles and guesswork. "Combined Operation" is probably the best, although "Accident" is the most philosophical and an interesting look at the founding principle of Sector General.

"Accident": MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are human and alien brought together by a tragic war, and forever linked by a rather bizarre war monument. (It's a very neat SF concept, although the implications and undiscussed consequences don't bear thinking about too deeply.) The result of that war was a general recognition that such things should not be allowed to happen again, and it brought about a new, deep commitment to inter-species tolerance and politeness. Which is, in a rather fascinating philosophical twist, exactly what MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are fighting against: not the lack of aggression, which they completely agree with, but with the layers of politeness that result in every species treating all others as if they were eggshells. Their conviction is that this cannot create a lasting peace.

This insight is one of the most profound bits I've read in the Sector General novels and supports quite a lot of philosophical debate. (Sadly, there isn't a lot of that in the story itself.) The backdrop against which it plays out is an accidental crash in a spaceport facility, creating a dangerous and potentially deadly environment for a variety of aliens. Given the collection in which this is included and the philosophical bent described above, you can probably guess where this goes, although I'll leave it unspoiled if you can't. It's an idea that could have been presented with more subtlety, but it's a really great piece of setting background that makes the whole series snap into focus. A much better story in context than its surface plot. (7)

"Survivor": The hospital ship Rhabwar rescues a sole survivor from the wreck of an alien ship caused by incomplete safeguards on hyperdrive generators. The alien is very badly injured and unconscious and needs the full attention of Sector General, but on the way back, the empath Prilicla also begins suffering from empathic hypersensitivity. Conway, the protagonist of most of this series, devotes most of his attention to that problem, having delivered the rescued alien to competent surgical hands. But it will surprise no regular reader that the problems turn out to be linked (making it a bit improbable that it takes the doctors so long to figure that out). A very typical entry in the series. (6)

"Investigation": Another very typical entry, although this time the crashed spaceship is on a planet. The scattered, unconscious bodies of the survivors, plus signs of starvation and recent amputation on all of them, convinces the military (well, police is probably more accurate) escort that this is may be a crime scene. The doctors are unconvinced, but cautious, and local sand storms and mobile vegetation add to the threat. I thought this alien design was a bit less interesting (and a lot creepier). (6)

"Combined Operation": The best (and longest) story of this collection. Another crashed alien spacecraft, but this time it's huge, large enough (and, as they quickly realize, of a design) to indicate a space station rather than a ship, except that it's in the middle of nowhere and each segment contains a giant alien worm creature. Here, piecing together the biology and the nature of the vehicle is only the beginning; the conclusion points to an even larger problem, one that requires drawing on rather significant resources to solve. (On a deadline, of course, to add some drama.) This story requires the doctors to go unusually deep into the biology and extrapolated culture of the alien they're attempting to rescue, which made it more intellectually satisfying for me. (7)

Followed by Star Healer.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-05-13: Review: The Raven and the Reindeer

Review: The Raven and the Reindeer, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright 2016
ASIN B01BKTT73A
Format Kindle
Pages 191

Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

There are a hundred stories about why this happens. Some of them are close to true. Most of them are merely there to absolve the rest of us of blame.

It happens. Sometimes it's no one's fault.

Kay is the boy with frost in his heart. Gerta grew up next door. They were inseparable as children, playing together on cold winter days. Gerta was in love with Kay for as long as she could remember. Kay, on the other hand, was, well, kind of a jerk.

There are not many stories about this sort of thing. There ought to be more. Perhaps if there were, the Gertas of the world would learn to recognize it.

Perhaps not. It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.

Then, one night, Kay is kidnapped in the middle of the night by the Snow Queen while Gerta watches, helpless. She's convinced that she's dreaming, but when she wakes up, Kay is indeed gone, and eventually the villagers stop the search. But Gerta has defined herself around Kay her whole life, so she sets off, determined to find him, totally unprepared for the journey but filled with enough stubborn, practical persistence to overcome a surprising number of obstacles.

Depending on your past reading experience (and cultural consumption in general), there are two things that may be immediately obvious from this beginning. First, it's written by Ursula Vernon, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym that she uses for more adult fiction. No one else has quite that same turn of phrase, or writes protagonists with quite the same sort of overwhelmed but stubborn determination. Second, it's a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

I knew the first, obviously. I was completely oblivious to the second, having never read "The Snow Queen," or anything else by Andersen for that matter. I haven't even seen Frozen. I therefore can't comment in too much detail on the parallels and divergences between Kingfisher's telling and Andersen's (although you can read the original to compare if you want) other than some research on Wikipedia. As you might be able to tell from the quote above, though, Kingfisher is rather less impressed by the idea of childhood true love than Andersen was. This is not the sort of story in which the protagonist rescues the captive boy through the power of pure love. It's something quite a bit more complicated and interesting: a coming-of-age story for Gerta, in which her innocence is much less valuable than her fundamental decency, empathy, and courage, and in which her motives for her journey change as the journey proceeds. It helps that Kingfisher's world is populated by less idealized characters, many of whom are neither wholly bad nor wholly good, but who think of themselves as basically decent and try to do vaguely the right thing. Although sometimes they need some reminding.

The story does feature a talking raven. (Most certainly not a crow.) His name is the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God. He's quite possibly the best part.

Gerta does not rescue Kay through the power of pure love. But there is love here, of a sort that Gerta wasn't expecting at all, and of a sort that Andersen never had in mind when he wrote the original. There's also some beautifully-described shapeshifting, delightful old women, and otters. (Also, I find the boy who appears at the very end of the story utterly fascinating, with all his implied parallel story and the implicit recognition that the world does not revolve around Kay and Greta.) But I think my favorite part is how clearly different Greta is at the end of her journey than at the beginning, how subtly Kingfisher makes that happen through the course of the story, and how understated but just right her actions are at the very end.

This is really excellent stuff. The next time you're feeling in the mood for a retold and modernized fairy tale, I recommend it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-05-07: Review: Chimes at Midnight

Review: Chimes at Midnight, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #7
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2013
ISBN 1-101-63566-5
Format Kindle
Pages 346

Chimes at Midnight is the seventh book of the October Daye series and builds heavily on the previous books. Toby has gathered quite the group of allies by this point, and events here would casually spoil some of the previous books in the series (particularly One Salt Sea, which you absolutely do not want spoiled). I strongly recommend starting at the beginning, even if the series is getting stronger as it goes along.

This time, rather than being asked for help, the book opens with Toby on a mission. Goblin fruit is becoming increasingly common on the streets of San Francisco, and while she's doing all she can to find and stop the dealers, she's finding dead changelings. Goblin fruit is a pleasant narcotic to purebloods, but to changelings it's instantly and fatally addictive. The growth of the drug trade means disaster for the local changelings, particularly since previous events in the series have broken a prominent local changeling gang. That was for the best, but they were keeping goblin fruit out, and now it's flooding into the power vacuum.

In the sort of idealistic but hopelessly politically naive move that Toby is prone to, she takes her evidence to the highest local authority in faerie: the Queen of the Mists. The queen loathes Toby and the feeling is mutual, but Toby's opinion is that this shouldn't matter: these are her subjects and goblin fruit is widely recognized as a menace. Even if she cares nothing for their lives, a faerie drug being widely sold on the street runs the substantial risk that someone will give it to humans, potentially leading to the discovery of faerie.

Sadly, but predictably, Toby has underestimated the Queen's malevolence. She leaves the court burdened not only with the knowledge that the Queen herself is helping with the distribution of goblin fruit, but also an impending banishment thanks to her reaction. She has three days to get out of the Queen's territory, permanently.

Three days that the Luidaeg suggests she spend talking to people who knew King Gilad, the former and well-respected king of the local territory who died in the 1906 earthquake, apparently leaving the kingdom to the current Queen. Or perhaps not.

As usual, crossing Toby is a very bad idea, and getting Toby involved in politics means that one should start betting heavily against the status quo. Also, as usual, things initially go far too well, and then Toby ends up in serious trouble. (I realize the usefulness of raising the stakes of the story, but I do prefer the books of this series that don't involve Toby spending much of the book ill.) However, there is a vast improvement over previous books in the story: one key relationship (which I'll still avoid spoiling) is finally out of the precarious will-they, won't-they stage and firmly on the page, and it's a relationship that I absolutely love. Watching Toby stomp people who deserve to be stomped makes me happy, but watching Toby let herself be happy and show it makes me even happier.

McGuire also gives us some more long-pending revelations. I probably should have guessed the one about one of Toby's long-time friends and companions much earlier, although at least I did so a few pages before Toby found out. I have some strong suspicions about Toby's own background that were reinforced by this book, and will be curious to see if I'm right. And I'm starting to have guesses about the overall arc of the series, although not firm ones. One of my favorite things in long-running series is the slow revelation of more and more world background, and McGuire does it in just the way I like: lots of underlying complexity, reveals timed for emotional impact but without dragging on things that the characters should obviously be able to figure out, and a whole bunch of layered secrets that continue to provide more mystery even after one layer is removed.

The plot here is typical of the plot of the last couple of novels in the series, which is fine by me since my favorite part of this series is the political intrigue (and Toby realizing that she has far more influence than she thinks). It helps that I thought Arden was great, given how central she is to this story. I liked her realistic reactions to her situation, and I liked her arguments with Toby. I'm dubious how correct Toby actually was, but we've learned by now that arguments from duty are always going to hold sway with her. And I loved Mags and the Library, and hope we'll be seeing more of them in future novels.

The one quibble I'll close with, since the book closed with it, is that I found the ending rather abrupt. There were several things I wanted to see in the aftermath, and the book ended before they could happen. Hopefully that means they'll be the start of the next book (although a bit of poking around makes me think they may be in a novella).

If you've liked the series so far, particularly the couple of books before this one, this is more of what you liked. Recommended.

Followed by The Winter Long.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-05-01: Review: Ninefox Gambit

Review: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Series The Machineries of Empire #1
Publisher Solaris
Copyright 2016
ISBN 1-84997-992-8
Format Kindle
Pages 384

Charis is a Kel, which means that she's a soldier of the Hexarchate. A captain, to be precise: Captain Kel Charis of Heron Company, commanding infantry forces to stamp out heresy. The heresy she's stamping out at the start of the book are the Eels, or the Society of the Flourish as they call themselves, and they're strong enough that they can also command heretical technology.

Charis manages to win through, but only because she has enough flexibility and quick thinking to adjust to the presence of a heresy and reach beyond the Lexicon Primary, improvising formations on the spot to adjust for the affects of the rebel calendar. Military victory is prized among the Kel, but stepping outside the bounds of Doctrine to achieve it is not. Charis is not particularly surprised when her company is disbanded for re-education after the battle. She is very surprised when she personally is tapped to offer a solution to a far greater attack on the Hexarchate.

I first encountered Yoon Ha Lee's fiction in the short story "The Unstrung Zither", was blown away by the creativity and delightfully weird twist on science fiction war, and have been following his writing ever since. Most of it is short fiction, though, and I'm not much of a short fiction reader, so there haven't been many reviews. Ninefox Gambit is his first, and much-anticipated, full-length novel.

It's probably not too surprising for someone from the generation that grew up with Star Wars, but I have a soft spot in my heart for magitech. Hard science fiction has its merits, as does the softer sort that takes standard, if impossible, genre tropes for granted. But something about a far-future, space-faring society based on magic that straddles the rules of technology, physics, affinities, and beliefs calls to that part of me that spent hours thinking about the nature of the Force. It has to be good magitech, though: something odd and different but well-thought-out, full of implications and twisty consequences that reshape society and that inspire a whole new type of engineering and science. Magic that's not physics as we know it, but that's knowable, researchable, and something that a society can reshape itself around.

This is the good magitech.

In the world of the Hexarchate, calendrical systems are more than just a mutual agreement for conveying time. They order and structure the laws of the universe as much as they structure society. What technological devices, and what weapons, are possible is influenced by the calendar in observance, which in turn is based on what calendar people believe in and follow. Close adherence to a calendrical regime enables exotics: weapons with incredibly powerful and often horrific effects, such as the threshold winnower that plays a repeated, nightmarish role in this story. Invariant weapons, ones that will work in any calendar system, are much weaker.

The Hexarchate is called that because it is a society formed by six factions, who divide the work of ruling its scattered planets according to the expertise and tendencies of each faction. Together, they impose the high calendar, and maintain it against heresies with an iron fist lest their power be undermined or transformed and their exotics fail to function. The Kel is their military faction, a key component of that fist, and their specialty is formations: specific arrangements of humans or ships that channel the power of the calendar to defend against or attack with exotics. Formations have to be held exactly to hold their power and yet have to be flexible enough to change based on fast-changing battlefield conditions. To assist in this, Kel are programmed with formation instinct: psychological conditioning that helps them obediently take and hold formations. And, not coincidentally, offer nearly absolute obedience to their chain of command.

I just finished reading another book that attempted to use math as a key component of its world-building. I think Lee was far more successful. The math here is realistic for its purpose, obviously necessary given the formation structures built into the world's physics, and a lovely nod to the importance of calendars. A single calendar might involve only simple arithmetic, but the formation and technological implications of a calendar, let alone the fuzzy boundaries between two calendars each partially in force, would naturally require tricky advanced mathematics to work out. For someone in Charis's position, mathematical training is a rare but vitally important tactical advantage.

As you might have guessed from the amount that I'm talking about combat, Ninefox Gambit is military SF. Charis is a military officer, and a comfortable majority of this book is combat of one kind or another. That's not normally my thing, and I did wish there was a bit more non-military social development. But my normal problem with military SF is that I lack the interest in battlefield tactics and strategy to stay fully engaged by description of battle after battle. Ninefox Gambit is the story of Charis attempting to retake a stronghold of the Hexarchate that's fallen to heretical forces, but Lee adds an important twist that does keep me engaged: Jedao.

General Shuos Jedao was the greatest general the Hexarchate had ever seen. He never lost a battle. The only catch is that, in the middle of a highly successful campaign against heretics, he went mad, slaughtering both the heretics and his own troops with a horrific weapon while simultaneously murdering all of his command staff. He's much too dangerous and insane to leave alive, but he was also much too valuable and skillful to lose as a weapon, so for the subsequent centuries he's been kept in a threshold state, an undead ghost. A ghost that the Hexarchate can put into Charis's head, a constant advisor as she's placed in charge of the swarm sent to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles. A brilliant tactician, sociopath, and mass murderer whose advice can never be trusted.

The heart of Ninefox Gambit isn't the combat. It's the interplay of power, analysis, and guesswork under the combat, as Charis attempts to use Jedao's brilliance while not losing her own sense of identity or letting him mess too badly with her head. At the start, she's way out of her depth. But she's thoughtful, careful, has a strong internal sense of identity, and learns fast. And the story of Jedao's past is accurate, but incomplete.

For those who are familiar with the often-ornate language and prose style of Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction and who are worried it wouldn't hold up at longer length, note that his style here is much different. There are a few touches of ornate description, but most of the book is written in a straightforward and easily-understandable narrative style. Thankfully, because the layers of tactical thrust and counter-thrust are complicated enough that I would have lost them entirely beneath too-complex prose.

There's a lot of brutal death in this book. I got a bit tired of both that and the tactical maneuvering, although that's less the fault of the book and more my own mild antipathy towards military SF. But the unique universe background held my interest long enough to become intrigued by Charis's slow but determined probing at Jedao's secrets and the politics of the Hexarchate. I still would have preferred the story to have a somewhat lower body count, but as long as one can read past some gore, there's plenty here to appeal to someone who normally gives military SF a pass. I think its biggest drawback is that, although it has a narrative arc that comes to a clear conclusion, Ninefox Gambit raises a lot of important questions about its world and mostly doesn't answer them. There are more books coming, and I hope they contain more definitive answers.

Followed by Raven Stratagem.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-04-30: Review: Survival

Review: Survival, by Julie E. Czerneda

Series Species Imperative #1
Publisher DAW
Copyright May 2004
ISBN 0-7564-0180-1
Format Hardcover
Pages 401

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to everyone she works with, is a biodiversity researcher specializing in salmon. In her future United States, humanity seems to have caught on to the importance of preserving wild places and learning about them, and is willing to invest in good equipment and a semi-permanent research installation. This comes with some occasional drawbacks, since she has to fight to get access to the salmon runs inside a nature preserve, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She wins enough of those fights, won the latest, and is now in position to monitor a run in a way that she's never been able to before.

She was not expecting an alien to go diving in the middle of her salmon run. She was certainly not expecting that alien to be accompanied by a bureaucrat insisting that this alien's curiosity is more important than her research (hah). But the accompanying letter she receives is scarily persuasive, if maddeningly unhelpful. Much like the apparently jovial, earnest, eager, and very odd alien.

Mac's continued hopes that she can quickly put this bizarre intrusion to rest and go back to her salmon are dashed by an impossible power outage, an alien visitor, and a violent kidnapping. Now her best friend and colleague is missing, the bureaucrat is not who he appears to be, and Mac is getting caught up in something that feels way over her head.

SF novels feature a lot of science, but not a lot of scientific research. The research that does appear is often impulsive, wildly compressed, or far too focused on the breakthroughs of single people. The SF novel that everyone points to for accurate portrayal of real scientific research is Benford's Timescape, which I found deeply unexciting. Now I have a new novel to point to for a better treatment, although (somewhat disappointingly) Mac's research gets sidelined relatively early in the story and left behind for the conclusion.

Czerneda gives us not just a few scientists and an imaginary research project, but an entire operational field station with a history. The Norcoast Salmon Research Facility is located just off-shore in carefully-designed domes to provide easy access to the sea with minimal intrusion into the local ecology. It's a bustling mix of research scientists, engineers, and the ever-present seasonal grad students, who come and go in all their immature enthusiasm and are viewed with a motherly bemusement that I immediately recognized from years of working at a university. Mac splits administrative duties with another scientist in an arrangement that will be familiar to academics everywhere, and the book opens with a mutually suspicious but mostly scripted turf fight with the guardian of the neighboring wildlife trust, the same fight they've been having every six months for years. I know Czerneda is herself a biologist by training; I'm not sure what her other academic background is, but if she hasn't spent years around academics and field studies, she's at least done some excellent research.

A lot of novels have a quotidian background that's interrupted by the arrival of the plot. At the start of the story, the characters often care more about their day-to-day lives than the plot, and are dragged into it reluctantly. But one sign of an excellent writer is their ability to get the reader to care about that quotidian background alongside the character, and to sympathize with the character's reluctance to get pulled into the promised (and generally more exciting) novel plot.

Czerneda succeeds in this about as well as any writer I've read since Robin McKinley's Sunshine, and that's high praise. I cared about Mac's salmon, I was nearly as irritated as she was when her research was interrupted, and I still want to go back and see more of the experiments and studies she was hoping to run. Interstellar drama and threats to multiple species are all well and good, but the salmon are running!

The actual plot is a mysterious threat that turns into a combination of a biological and cultural puzzle and a sort of first-contact story. Mac is not truly the first human to encounter the Dhryn, but she's certainly the first person they've explained anything to, and the first human to go where she goes. Sadly, it also shares some of the characteristics that sour me a bit on biological SF for personal reasons: a bit too much description of food, eating habits, squishy body parts, digestive processes, and biological discomfort. This is mostly a personal gripe, and won't bother other people as much as it does me, but I could have done without bits like the descriptions of Mac's attempts to figure out how to survive on alien cuisine. I'm also dubious of some of the biology of the Dhryn; given the startling bizarreness of Earth biology, maybe I shouldn't be, but I still think there are a few problems with the square-cube law here. But Mac's irrepressible grumpy curiosity makes this story, even in the bits that made me squeamish. I think I'd read any book in which she's the main character.

I will warn that the ending is surprisingly dark and wasn't what I was expecting, and Survival doesn't resolve its central mysteries. This is clearly the first book of a trilogy and should be read with that expectation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hopefully the next book will have more salmon.

Followed by Migration.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-04-30: git-pbuilder 1.48

Not clear that anyone gets this from my web site instead of just using the version included in git-buildpackage, but just in case, this release syncs up the version with patches already applied to git-buildpackage (thank you, Guido!).

Previous versions did not check for --basepath in the options passed through the environment by gbp buildpackage and hence would ignore some settings. Fixed via a patch by Kevin Locke.

Stop removing *_source.changes files after completion of the build, since pbuilder 0.228 and later no longer create bogus changes files with invalid hashes, and the code in git-pbuilder could remove other files that shouldn't be deleted. Patch from Guido Günther.

Log the exact pdebuild command ran by the script. Patch from Guido Günther.

You can get the latest version from my scripts page.

2017-04-29: Review: Periodic Tales

Review: Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Publisher HarperCollins
Copyright February 2011
ISBN 0-06-207881-X
Format Kindle
Pages 451

Perhaps my favorite chapter in Randall Munroe's What If? is his examination of what would happen if you assembled a periodic table from square blocks of each element. As with most What If? questions, the answer is "everyone in the vicinity dies," but it's all about the journey. The periodic table is full of so many elements that we rarely hear about but which have fascinating properties. It was partly in the memory of that chapter that I bought Periodic Tales on impulse after seeing a mention of it somewhere on the Internet (I now forget where).

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and author, but with a background in natural sciences. He also has a life-long hobby of collecting samples of the elements and attempting to complete his own private copy of the periodic table, albeit with considerably more precautions and sample containment than Munroe's thought experiment. Periodic Tales is inspired by that collection. It's a tour and cultural history of many of the elements, discussing their discovery, their role in commerce and industry, their appearance, and often some personal anecdotes. This is not exactly a chemistry book, although there's certainly some chemistry here, nor is it a history, although Aldersey-Williams usually includes some historical notes about each element he discusses. The best term might be an anthropology of the elements: a discussion of how they've influenced culture and an examination of the cultural assumptions and connections we've constructed around them. But primarily it's an idiosyncratic and personal tour of the things Aldersey-Williams found interesting about each one.

Periodic Tales is not comprehensive. The completionist in me found that a bit disappointing, and there are a few elements that I think would have fit the overall thrust of the book but are missing. (Lithium and its connection to mental health and now computer batteries comes to mind.) It's also not organized in the obvious way, either horizontally or vertically along the periodic table. Instead, Aldersey-Williams has divided the elements he talks about into five major but fairly artificial divisions: power (primarily in the economic sense), fire (focused on burning and light), craft (the materials from which we make things), beauty, and earth. Obviously, these are fuzzy; silver appears in craft, but could easily be in power with gold. I'm not sure how defensible this division was. But it does, for good or for ill, break the reader's mind away from a purely chemical and analytical treatment and towards broader cultural associations.

This cultural focus, along with Aldersey-Williams's clear and conversational style, are what pull this book firmly away from being a beautified recitation of facts that could be gleamed from Wikipedia. It also leads to some unexpected choices of focus. For example, the cultural touchstone he chooses for sodium is not salt (which is a broad enough topic for an entire book) but sodium street lights, the ubiquitous and color-distorting light of modern city nights, thus placing salt in the "fire" category of the book. Discussion of cobalt is focused on pigments: the brilliant colors of paint made possible by its many brightly-colored compounds. Arsenic is, of course, a poison, but it's also a source of green, widely used in wallpaper (and Aldersey-Williams discusses the connection with the controversial death of Napoleon). And the discussion of aluminum starts with a sculpture, and includes a fascinating discussion of "banalization" as we become used to use of a new metal, which the author continues when looking a titanium and its currently-occurring cultural transition between the simply new and modern and a well-established metal with its own unique cultural associations.

One drawback of the somewhat scattered organization is that, while Periodic Tales provides fascinating glimmers of the history of chemistry and the search to isolate elements, those glimmers are disjointed and presented in no particular order. Recently-discovered metals are discussed alongside ancient ones, and the huge surge in elemental isolation in the 1800s is all jumbled together. Wikipedia has a very useful timeline that helps sort out one's sense of history, but there was a part of me left wanting a more structured presentation.

I read books like this primarily for the fascinating trivia. Mercury: known in ancient times, but nearly useless, so used primarily for ritual and decoration (making the modern reader cringe). Relative abundancies of different elements, which often aren't at all what one might think. Rare earths (not actually that rare): isolated through careful, tedious work by Swedish mining chemists whom most people have never heard of, unlike the discoverers of many other elements. And the discovery of the noble gases, which is a fascinating bit of disruptive science made possible by new technology (the spectroscope), forcing a rethinking of the periodic table (which had no column for noble gases). I read a lot of this while on vacation and told interesting tidbits to my parents over breakfast or dinner. It's that sort of book.

This is definitely in the popular science and popular writing category, for all the pluses and minuses that brings. It's not a detailed look at either chemistry or history. But it's very fun to read, it provides a lot of conversational material, and it takes a cultural approach that would not have previously occurred to me. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-04-28: Review: Neverness

Review: Neverness, by David Zindell

Publisher Bantam Spectra
Copyright May 1988
Printing July 1989
ISBN 0-553-27903-3
Format Mass market
Pages 552

Mallory Ringess is a Pilot, one of the people who can guide a lightship through interstellar space from inside the dark cocoon and biotech interface that allows visualization of the mathematics of interstellar travel. At the start of the book, he's young, arrogant, impulsive, and has a deeply unhealthy relationship with Leopold Soli, the Lord Pilot and supposedly his uncle by marriage (although they share a remarkable physical resemblance). An encounter with his uncle in a bar provokes a rash promise, and Ringess finds himself promising to attempt to map the Solid State Entity in search of the Elder Eddas, a secret of life from the mythical Ieldra that might lead to mankind's immortality.

The opening of Neverness is Ringess's initial voyage and brash search, in which he proves to be a capable mathematician who can navigate a region of space twisted and deformed by becoming part of a transcendent machine intelligence. The knowledge he comes away with, though, is scarcely more coherent than the hints Soli relates at the start of the story: the secret of mankind is somehow hidden in its deepest past. That, in turn, provokes a deeply bizarre trip into the ice surrounding his home city of Neverness to attempt to steal biological material from people who have recreated themselves as Neanderthals.

Beyond that point, I would say that things get even weirder, but weird still implies some emotional connection with the story. I think a more accurate description is that the book gets more incoherently mystical, more hopelessly pretentious, and more depressingly enthralled by childish drama. It's the sort of thing that one writes if one is convinced that the Oedipal complex is the height of subtle characterization.

I loathed this book. I started loathing this book partway through Ringess's trip through the Solid State Entity, when Zindell's prose reached for transcendent complexity, tripped over its own shoelaces, and fell headlong into overwrought babbling. I continued reading every page because there's a perverse pleasure in hate-reading a book one dislikes this intensely, and because I wanted to write a review on the firm foundation of having endured the entire experience.

The paperback edition I have has a pull quote from Orson Scott Card on the cover, which includes the phrase "excellent hard science fiction." I'm not sure what book Card read, because if this is hard science fiction, Lord of the Rings is paranormal romance. Even putting aside the idea that one travels through interstellar space by proving mathematical theorems in artificially dilated time (I don't think Zindell really understands what a proof is or why you write one), there's the whole business with stopping time with one's mind, reading other people's minds, and remembering one's own DNA. The technology, such as it is, makes considerably less sense than Star Wars. The hard SF requirement to keep technology consistent with extrapolated science is nowhere to be found here.

The back-cover quote from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a bit more on-target: "Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun novels... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." This is indeed reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, in that it wouldn't surprise me at all if Zindell fell in love with the sense of antiquity, strangeness, and hints of understood technology that Wolfe successfully creates and attempted to emulate Wolfe in his first novel. Sadly, Zindell isn't Wolfe. Almost no one is, which is why attempting to emulate the extremely difficult feat Wolfe pulls off in the Book of the New Sun in your first novel is not a good idea. The results aren't pretty.

There is something to be said for resplendent descriptions, rich with detail and ornamental prose. That something is "please use sparingly and with an eye to the emotional swings of the novel." Wolfe does not try to write most of a novel that way, which is what makes those moments of description so effective. Wolfe is also much better at making his mysteries and allusions subtle and unobtrusive, rather than having the first-person protagonist beat the reader over the head with them for pages at a time.

This is a case where showing is probably better than telling. Let me quote a bit of description from the start of the book:

She shimmers, my city, she shimmers. She is said to be the most beautiful of all the cities of the Civilized Worlds, more beautiful even than Parpallaix or the cathedral cities of Vesper. To the west, pushing into the green sea like a huge, jewel-studded sleeve of city, the fragile obsidian cloisters and hospices of the Farsider's Quarter gleamed like black glass mirrors. Straight ahead as we skated, I saw the frothy churn of the Sound and their whitecaps of breakers crashing against the cliffs of North Beach and above the entire city, veined with purple and glazed with snow and ice, Waaskel and Attakel rose up like vast pyramids against the sky. Beneath the half-ring of extinct volcanoes (Urkel, I should mention, is the southernmost peak, and though less magnificent than the others, it has a conical symmetry that some find pleasing) the towers and spires of the Academy scattered the dazzling false winter light so that the whole of the Old City sparkled.

That's less than half of that paragraph, and the entire book is written like that, even in the middle of conversations. Endless, constant words piled on words about absolutely everything, whether important or not, whether emotionally significant or not. And much of it isn't even description, but philosophical ponderings that are desperately trying to seem profound. Here's another bit:

Although I knew I had never seen her before, I felt as if I had known her all my life. I was instantly in love with her, not, of course, as one loves another human being, but as a wanderer might love a new ocean or a gorgeous snowy peak he has glimpsed for the first time. I was practically struck dumb by her calmness and her beauty, so I said the first stupid thing which came to mind. "Welcome to Neverness," I told her.

Now, I should be fair: some people like this kind of description, or at least have more tolerance for it than I do. But that brings me to the second problem: there isn't a single truly likable character in this entire novel.

Ringess, the person telling us this whole story, is a spoiled man-child, the sort of deeply immature and insecure person who attempts to compensate through bluster, impetuousness, and refusing to ever admit that he made a mistake or needed to learn something. He spends a good portion of the book, particularly the deeply bizarre and off-putting sections with the fake Neanderthals, attempting to act out some sort of stereotyped toxic masculinity and wallowing in negative emotions. Soli is an arrogant, abusive asshole from start to finish. Katherine, Ringess's love interest, is a seer who has had her eyes removed to see the future (I cannot express how disturbing I found Zindell's descriptions of this), has bizarre and weirdly sexualized reactions to the future she never explains, and leaves off the ends of all of her sentences, which might be be the most pointlessly irritating dialogue quirk I've seen in a novel. And Ringess's mother is a man-hating feminist from a separatist culture who turns into a master manipulator (I'm starting to see why Card liked this book).

I at least really wanted to like Bardo, Ringess's closest friend, who has a sort of crude loyalty and unwillingness to get pulled too deep into the philosophical quicksand lurking underneath everything in this novel. Alas, Zindell insists on constantly describing Bardo's odious eating, belching, and sexual habits every time he's on the page, thus reducing him to the disgusting buffoon who gets drunk a lot and has irritating verbal ticks. About the only person I could stand by the end of the book was Justine, who at least seems vaguely sensible (and who leaves the person who abuses her), but she's too much of a non-entity to carry sustained interest.

(There is potential here for a deeply scathing and vicious retelling of this story from Justine's point of view, focusing on the ways she was belittled, abused, and ignored, but I think Zindell was entirely unaware of why that would be so effective.)

Oh, and there's lots of gore and horrific injury and lovingly-described torture, because of course there is.

And that brings me back to the second half of that St. Louis Post-Dispatch review quote: "... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." I would love to know what was hiding behind the ellipses in this pull quote, because this half-sentence is not wrong. Insofar as Neverness has any real appeal, it's in the intrigues of the city of Neverness and in the political structure that rules it. What this quote omits is that these intrigues start around page 317, more than halfway through the novel. That's about the point where faux-Wolfe starts mixing with late-career Frank Herbert and we get poet-assassins, some revelations about the leader of the Pilot culture, and some more concrete explanations of what this mess of a book is about. Unfortunately, you have to read through the huge and essentially meaningless Neanderthal scenes to get there, scenes that have essentially nothing to do with the interesting content of this book. (Everything that motivates them turns out to be completely irrelevant to the plot and useless for the characters.)

The last 40% of the book is almost passable, and characters I cared about might have even made it enjoyable. Still, a couple of remaining problems detract heavily, chief among them the lack of connection of the great revelation of the story to, well, anything in the story. We learn at the very start of the novel that the stars of the Vild are mysteriously exploding, and much of the novel is driven by uncovering an explanation and solution. The characters do find an explanation, but not through any investigation. Ringess is simply told what is happening, in a wad of exposition, as a reward for something else entirely. It's weirdly disconnected from and irrelevant to everything else in the story. (There are some faint connections to the odd technological rules that the Pilot society lives under, but Zindell doesn't even draw attention to those.) The political intrigue in Neverness is similar: it appears out of nowhere more than halfway through the book, with no dramatic foundation for the motives of the person who has been keeping most of the secrets. And the final climax of the political machinations involves a bunch of mystical nonsense masquerading as science, and more of the Neanderthal bullshit that ruins the first half of the book.

This is a thoroughly bad book: poorly plotted, poorly written, clotted and pretentious in style, and full of sociopaths and emotionally stunted children. I read the whole thing because I'm immensely stubborn and make poor life choices, but I was saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") by a hundred pages in. Don't emulate my bad decisions.

(Somehow, this novel was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1990. What on earth could they possibly have been thinking?)

Neverness is a stand-alone novel, but the ending sets up a subsequent trilogy that I have no intention of reading. Followed by The Broken God.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2017-07-01