Posts for November 2005

2005-11-02: Back from vacation

I'm back from my yearly vacation on the Oregon coast, away from computers, work, cell phones, and all other distractions besides family. I'm feeling very rested and much recovered, am full of ideas on how to keep some of that vacation feeling going forward, and have read quite a few books.

The long vacation haul post is coming shortly; I have to power on my laptop first and upload the list. As usual, I found lots of good stuff in the excellent Lincoln City bookstores. I have a long backlog of reviews, so I'll probably post one per day until I'm caught up.

OpenAFS 1.4.0 Debian packages should be coming shortly, possibly tomorrow since I want to test a few other changes that I made in Subversion and make sure that I didn't break anything. Also on the immediate list to look at are catching up on responding to e-mail (I've read it all at this point), some news.groups work, libpam-krb5 Debian packages, and more cleanup of kerberos-config.

While I was on vacation, Marc finished my AM report, so now I'm just wanting for DAM approval to become an official Debian developer.

2005-11-03: Starship Troopers

Review: Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1959
ISBN: 0-441-78358-9
Pages: 264

I had many mental connections with Starship Troopers before reading it. It's perhaps Heinlein's most famous work (only Stranger in a Strange Land really competes). It essentially founded the military SF sub-genre. It's also a touchstone of the libertarian SF crowd and is somewhat notorious for some of its political suggestions. I was expecting another of Heinlein's well-paced, engrossing stories sprinkled with the occasional odd political rant and embarassingly bad characterization (particularly of women).

That isn't what I got at all, and that was quite a surprise.

Starship Troopers has only the barest outlines of a story. It is a fictional autobiography, written by a rich kid who enlists in the military on a whim driven by a few underlying personal tensions. It records his time in boot camp, follows him through a few combats and officer training school, and then leaves him as an officer still in the military. That's pretty much the entirety of the plot arc. There is no true villain (the Bugs that are the target of the ongoing interstellar war are more background than anything else), not much in the way of plot structure, only a handful of significant characters, and huge wads of exposition, political speeches, descriptions of government structure, and various other narrative sidetracks. In short, it's basically a fictionalized memoir.

As a novel, this book would be a failure, lacking the cohesiveness that would pull it together into a story. One develops some curiousity over the course that Johnnie's military career will follow, but it quickly becomes obvious that he'll succeed at anything with few actual setbacks and rise in the ranks to show off all parts of Heinlein's lovingly detailed command structure. It's not trying to be a novel; Heinlein was trying for something else entirely. And how successful that will be likely depends to a large extent on how interesting you find his constructed society.

Starship Troopers is, in essence, a description of a utopia. In fact, it is a description with considerably less window-dressing of story than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, even though the latter is more commonly associated with the genre. The point of Starship Troopers is not really to tell Johnnie's story; it's to give the reader a guided tour of the mindest and ethics of Heinlein's imagined military, to defend the wisdom of its structure and training protocols, and to propose and advocate a world in which only veterans in a fully volunteer army one can leave at any time are allowed to vote.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Heinlein's constructed world isn't a simplistic portrayal of some traditional side of US politics. Yes, he uses the typical tactics of the utopia: setting up straw men for his characters to shoot down, designing into the world problems that are perfectly solved by the utopia's solutions, and denying the opposing view any effective advocate. But he's clearly given some of the issues that arise real thought, and has (through the mouthpiece of various characters but most notably the veteran and schoolteacher Mr. Dubois) produced at least superficial responses to all the obvious objections. He's also obviously and deeply in love with the structure and honor codes of the military, and that love shows through glowingly in many of the vingettes that make up this book. It feels good when military honor and personal responsibility win through triumphantly.

Still, there isn't much here besides that. The bits of military action bog down in lists of equipment and meaningless bits of tactics presented in detail at odds with their lack of context. Johnnie's career is obviously artificial, every event an opportunity to either describe some other facet of the world or launch into a political argument. One never gets sufficient detail about the underlying interstellar war to care about it at all. In fact the soldiers seem strangely aloof from such war atrocities as the complete destruction of an Earth city, not to mention the overruns of many human colonies. They're too caught up being proud of each other and the merits of their service. There is, in short, essentially none of the dirtier emotional realities of war present here, despite a fair bit of blood.

That means the book will live and die on the strength of the utopia. I'll be blunt: I found it facile and stupid. I think Heinlein's government concept is riddled with gaping logic holes, mostly in the area of magic resistance to corruption acquired somehow by veterans and the complete lack of people carrying ulterior motives through their career in the service (despite the fact that there are easy non-combat assignments and the service is the path to all political careers). The complete lack of arranged favoritism to family members of those with power was markedly unrealistic; this is something that I'm sure we'd all claim to want to eliminate and something that's never been eliminated on this scale in the history of mankind. I also found chilling the degree to which Heinlein took the ethic of following orders into a gleeful abandonment by the military of any responsibility for political decisions, but then I find that chilling about real-life militaries. Other people disagree with all of these points. I'll leave the detailed political argument to the many other essays that have been written on this topic and just say that if you don't enjoy paens to military honor and service, you're unlikely to enjoy this book.

At least the sexism was mostly limited to in-character obsessions, some quaint notions of male and female military careers, and the obnoxiously repeated observation that women are the only thing really worth fighting for.

Heinlein is quite competent at putting together sentences, but usually he also puts together a plot to go with them. For such a well-known classic of science fiction, I was expecting more meat. You probably have to read Starship Troopers at some point to be reasonably well-read in science fiction, but I think it's a waste. If you do read it, or even if you don't, read The Forever War afterwards. Haldeman's skewering of Heinlein's portrayal of warfare, politics, and the military is far more eloquent and better-informed than anything I can write (and, as a bonus, it's a much better story despite a weak middle section).

Incidentally, having also watched the movie (before reading the book, in fact), I'm somewhat amused by the general dismissal of the movie as having nothing to do with the book. The movie manufactures quite a bit of dramatic plot out of necessity, since the book provides little structure for a traditional movie-style story, and it gets details of the technology ridiculously wrong. However, the movie not only reflects the events of the book, it often reflects them through the twisted mirror of well-targetted parody. Starship Troopers, the movie, often manages to capture what Starship Troopers, the book, feels like to a reader who doesn't buy Heinlein's utopia, namely militaristic propaganda intermingled with blithely dismissed horror. For that, if nothing else, the movie deserves a little credit.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2005-11-05: Iron Sunrise

Review: Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 2004
ISBN: 0-441-01296-5
Pages: 433

Set in the same universe as Stross's novel-length debut, Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise is a sequel of sorts, starring some of the same characters and referring to the events of the previous novel. That being said, it's quite readable independently and the sequel parts are some of the weaker parts of the book, so I wouldn't hesitate much to read it without having read the previous book.

Iron Sunrise opens with one of the most beautiful set pieces I've read, the destruction of an entire solar system by way of forced nova of its star. Stross excels at this sort of scene. He mixes hard science and beautiful description into an event that both blows the reader away with awe and shirks none of the emotional weight of its effects. The explosion isn't just pretty, it's significant. The survivors hurt. Destruction has consequences, political and emotional, and Stross doesn't let one forget the scale. The opening is again the strongest part of the book.

In mostly automated response to the destruction, the destroyed world of Moscow launches its deterrant fleet, a slower-than-light doomsday weapon, at it's most recent rival, a world of nearly a billion people who cannot all be evacuated in the four plus years it will take for the fleet to arrive. The fleet can only be recalled by convincing the remaining scattered officials of the Moscow government to send a secret recall code (and not send a secret forced go-ahead code), but some other group is murdering the remaining officials. This is when Rachel Monsour, UN arms control operative, gets involved.

Iron Sunrise focuses far more on Rachel than on Martin (who got much of the attention in the previous book). This is a definite improvement, since Martin not only continues to be a non-entity, he gets even worse. I'm not sure why Stross has so many problems making this one character interesting, since characterization even of supporting characters is otherwise a strength of this book and his writing in general, but Martin continues to be a person-shaped hole in the story. Thankfully, he is only a supporting character, so this is rarely a problem. For the next book in this universe, though, I hope Stross either overhauls him or writes him out completely.

The character who steals the show, though, is Wednesday, a rebellious, disaffected teenager with a serious black fetish and an attitude problem. She is among those evacuated from a deep space colony of Moscow as the system is destroyed. She is also an agent of the Eschaton, the trascended AI that is not a god in Stross's future universe but that does meddle in human affairs, suppressing in any way necessary any violations of causalty that could threaten its development. The way Stross handles Eschaton agents is one of the best parts of this future universe, and is handled even better here than in Singularity Sky. Wednesday's banter, cooperation, and debate with her "invisible friend" is the highlight of the book.

Stross has gotten better at endings. Singularity Sky sidetracked into mass confusion in which the characters didn't have much of a role. Iron Sunrise stays tightly plotted and keeps the characters active right up to the end. He is, however, still much better at openings than at endings. The beginning had me completely hooked, but the ending seemed like competent but not particularly exceptional science fiction thriller. I missed seeing more development of Wednesday as a character, and would have preferred that to a few of the chase scenes, battles, or confrontations. Stross seems just on the edge of writing a truly excellent novel, but still occasionally uses his characters as chess pieces.

Unfortunately, the other major flaw in this book are the villains, who are just a bit too evil and cliched to be believable. They're nowhere near as bad as, say, the villains from Weber's On Basilisk Station, but the totalitarian Nazi dominatrix attitude has been a bit overused and is a let-down compared to the strength of the rest of the book. It also may be pure coincidence, but I had a hard time shaking the feeling of similarity to one of the more frustrating Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, particularly with the hook Stross leaves for a sequel. Maybe there are only so many ways to do this style of villain, and Stross certainly handles his villains more deftly, but the congruence was distracting.

Thankfully, Stross mostly focuses on the more interesting villains and throws in some nice complicating twists. None of the flaws hurt the book badly, and the exceptional beginning and strong characterization make it very much worth reading. Recommended. I'm looking forward to the sequel that feels like it should be coming, although I hope Stross works over the villains and takes them in a new direction.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2005-11-05: Oregon coast haul

Somewhat delayed, here's the damage done to my want list over my Oregon coast vacation. There are a couple of truly excellent used book stores in Lincoln City, particularly Robert's, and I got very lucky at the surplus book store in the outlet mall.

Poul Anderson, Agent of the Terran Empire (sff)
Eleanor Arnason, Changing Women (sff)
Barrington J. Bayley, The Grand Wheel (sff)
Peter S. Beagle, The Folk of the Air (sff)
Anne Bishop, The Pillars of the Wold (sff)
Michael Bishop, Unicorn Mountain (sff)
James P. Blaylock, Homunculus (sff)
Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon (sff)
Joy Chant, When Voiha Wakes (sff)
John Clute, Appleseed (sff)
Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (sff)
Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song (sff)
Greg Egan, Quarantine (sff)
John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless (sff)
William Goldman, The Princess Bride (sff)
Peter F. Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction, Part 1: Emergence (sff)
Peter F. Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction, Part 2: Expansion (sff)
Robin Hobb, Assassin's Apprentice (sff)
Diana Wynne Jones, The Chronicles of Chrestomaci, Volume I (sff)
Diana Wynne Jones, The Chronicles of Chrestomaci, Volume II (sff)
Haven Kimmel, Something Rising (mainstream)
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Agent of Change (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin, Unlocking the Air and Other Stories (sff)
Wil McCarthy, The Collapsium (sff)
Maureen F. McHugh, Nekropolis (sff)
Robin McKinley, Deerskin (sff)
Lyda Morehouse, Fallen Host (sff)
Janet E. Morris, High Couch of Silistra (sff)
Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone (sff)
Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (sff)
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (sff)
Bruce Sterling, Crystal Express (sff)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (classic)
Robert Louis Stevenson, David Balfour (classic)
Rex Stout, And Four to Go (mystery)
Rex Stout, Fer-De-Lance (mystery)
Sydney J. van Scyoc, Darkchild (sff)
Ian Watson, Deathhunter (sff)
Gene Wolfe, In Green's Jungles (sff)
Jack Womack, Elvissey (sff)
John C. Wright, The Golden Transcendence (sff)
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (sff)
Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (sff)
Jane Yolen, Cards of Grief (sff)

As you can see, there's a huge variety of stuff here, even in other genres. I finally managed to track down a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's David Balfour, the sequel to Kidnapped that I've been wanting to read ever since I finished the original. Another delightful find was Changing Women, the second half of the paperback split of A Woman of the Iron People, which I've been wanting to read but only had the first part of. And I tracked down a copy of Fallen Host, the second book in Lyda Morehouse's four book series, out of print and almost impossible to find for a reasonable price on-line.

I'm also rather happy about finding two omnibus Diana Wynne Jones collections, since her books are extremely difficult to find around here for some reason and I've been wanting to see what all the fuss is about. The couple that I've read by her weren't really that representative.

2005-11-05: Movie reviews

One of the other things that happens in my October vacation is that I watch movies, something that I rarely do the rest of the year. My parents really enjoy movies, so it's something we do together while on vacation.

It's been a while, but as I recall, the ones we watched this year were:

The Incredibles: This one really was (almost) as good as everyone said it was, and it's a really fun movie for anyone who was ever interested in superheroes. Movies just don't evoke the strong opinions in me that they seem to in most of my friends, so I wouldn't go rave about this one, but I really enjoyed it. The second half was the best part; the first bit was really slow and boring, and while the smatterings of humor helped me through it, I was glad when the action started.

Shrek 2: This was cute. The first movie was also cute and a fun parody (reminding me of Into the Woods), hampered by a very conventional love story. This was basically more of the same, not as fresh as the original and a bit frustrating in parts, but still fairly good stuff. I like the corporate fairy godmother, and the movie references had me laughing outloud (particularly the Flashdance bit). Also, loved Puss in Boots. It's uneven and doesn't always work -- the first was a better movie -- but if you liked Shrek, you'll probably like this too.

Miss Congeniality 2: Eh. Much made of interpersonal conflicts between people I found annoying, and one of those fluffy, light attitudes towards police work. Didn't really do anything for me, particularly since I didn't really like the main character and very much didn't like any of the people that she liked.

The Aviator: A sprawling dramatic epic about Howard Hughes, who's an interesting if not particularly likable figure. The hearing where he lays into the evil Senator is far and away the best part. The bits about his insanity are deeply creepy and capture the uncontrolled paranoia and obsessive compulsive behavior rather well. Hampered somewhat by the lack of likable characters, as Hughes himself is an asshole (if occasionally one with good ideas). Cate Blanchett does a wonderful job as Katharine Hepburn, though.

The Terminal: One of those quirky Tom Hanks comedy movies. About as good as the other quirky Tom Hanks comedy movies, although I like how the romance was handled. Nice to see some unexpected twists in that sort of stock formula. Hanks's character's inability to speak clear English is a bit frustrating in the comprehensibility department, but then I've always had difficulty with accents. Fun, if not particularly memorable, bits of defiance of authority.

Plus, last night I watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at a friend's house, and that I can definitely recommend to anyone who's read the book. I'm not sure it would be as much fun if you don't know the history of the story, but it's a really well-done version. Completely differently than the previous TV series, they nailed Trillian this time, and since she was my favorite character other than Martin (who they also nailed, but who's easier to nail), I was happy. Beautiful special effects that still somehow manage to maintain that quirky Adams feel, which was nicely done. Zaphod and Ford are often annoying, and I was generally disappointed in Ford, but I was willing to put up with that for the good bits. Both the Guide and the Improbability Drive effects were handled wonderfully.

2005-11-06: Brothers in Arms

Review: Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Publisher: Baen
Copyright: 1989
ISBN: 0-7434-3558-3
Pages: 240

I read this book as part of the Miles Errant omnibus, which is what the sidebar information is for. Miles Errant also includes the novella "The Borders of Infinity" (of which this is a direct sequel), but it's probably best to get the short story collection Borders of Infinity unless you're buying all of the omnibuses. In addition to "The Borders of Infinity", you also want to read "Labyrinth" before this book (although it's not vital).

Brothers in Arms is more of the same for the Miles Vorkosigan stories, but that isn't a bad thing. Miles ends up on Earth and quickly gets in over his head while juggling his alternate identities, there's more conflict between his Barrayar superiors and his duties (as he sees them) to the Dendarii Mercenaries, political complications arise, and Miles fast-talks his way to a solution through multiple twists and turns and a running battle finale. It's not a story to win awards as great literature, but it's an enjoyable adventure tale.

The start of the book was a bit frustrating (and this seems to be a common pattern for this series). I could see the train wreck happening and was cringing a little as Bujold pushes her characters into sufficient difficulty for them to have something to do. I was ready to dislike this one as a simple repeat of the same pattern: Miles gets into trouble, Miles frantically runs around trying to get out of trouble while not telling anyone anything, and then Miles finds a brilliant solution mainly by being in the right place at the right time. But, yet again, while Bujold mostly follows that pattern, there's enough new happening here to keep the story interesting and fresh. Brothers in Arms introduces Mark, who goes on to become a major supporting character in the series and who adds some emotional complexity to the story, but the primary depth comes from the interactions between Miles and his superior. A nice change of pace, as Miles's superiors have previously been vague supporting characters.

Bujold's world-building tends towards the simplistic; she's not trying to create a deep and believable future universe so much as create a good backdrop for adventures and political intrigue. Brothers in Arms lacks even the neat ideas of Cetaganda. Earth is unfortunately depressingly normal and uninteresting. That's not too much of a flaw, as there are other things to hold one's attention, but I would like to see a book in this series that combines both neat ideas and some emotional depth in the same story.

I doubt this is a book that will blow anyone away, but Bujold's Vorkosigan series is a good modern successor to pulp adventure novels. She isn't trying to do anything earth-shattering or unique here, just write a solid adventure story. Brothers in Arms lives up to the general quality of the other Miles stories; recommended when you're looking for an undemanding adventure.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-11-09: check_rxdebug 1.10

This is a new version of my Nagios plugin to monitor the status of AFS file servers that has the nice advantage of actually, er, working. Turns out that it was previously monitoring the status of the AFS cache manager on the AFS file server, which is not particularly useful. That would explain why it kept not detecting outages....

You can get the new, working version from the AFS monitoring distribution page.

2005-11-09: High Couch of Silistra

Review: High Couch of Silistra, by Janet E. Morris

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: May 1977
ISBN: 0-553-10522-1
Pages: 245

I'm not sure what possessed me to put this on my want list. It's a pulp-style novel devoted mostly to an elaborate world description, in this case of a planet in the far, far distant future where the technology looks much more like a fantasy novel. It's written in that lavish, overdone style where everything is described in extended and metaphoric detail, and where all units of measurement (hours, miles, month names, etc.) have new, different names. In short, not the sort of book that I generally like.

The hook is that the main character, the first-person narrator, is a prostitute of a sort. The women on her world have a completely unpredictable ovulation cycle and have an extremely difficult time conceiving, which is used as an excuse for making them all elaborate ritual prostitutes of a sort (except for the priests and the disfigured girls who are simple prostitutes). It's an unbelievable background (surely many other solutions should be available) that serves as an excuse to write a submissive main character and allude to a great deal of sex.

That, by itself, is not fatal. Jacqueline Carey used a similar character (without the unbelievable science) as the foundation of her brilliant Kushiel's Legacy fantasy trilogy, and with a female author I was hoping for something less typically sexist and more like that. Alas, while Morris is not John Norman, High Couch of Silistra reads like an early Gor novel with the sexism tuned down. That's not a compliment.

The plot is driven by a quest by the ruler of the most influential center of this odd prostitution (the "high couch" -- "couch" is the word used for having sex in Morris's world) to find her mysterious father. Her father is apparently some sort of alien perfection of humanity who bedded her mother, leaving her a child with special abilities and killing her in childbirth. Some sort of complex obligation system symbolized by welded chains around people's waists is used to structure society, and our hero receives such an obligation from her mother to find her father. I was giving the story the benefit of the doubt up to that point, and Estri (now there's a subtle character name) starts out as a confident, promising character. She then proceeds to do basically nothing, wandering about while being dominated by various men, attacked by a strange hooded figure, taken to an advanced race that controls everything, and used as baffling evidence in a political struggle. In the whole story, the number of times she takes any definitive action can be counted on one hand.

In other words, this is basically a waste of an okay idea, hampered by an obviously manipulative plot and a lead character who, despite a somewhat interesting beginning, ends up having no substantive role in the plot other than simply existing. It doesn't even have good sex scenes; the sex all happens tactfully barely off-camera. The Boris Valejo cover, women who run around naked much of the time, and lots of simpering submission and bits of bondage do not erotic fiction make.

Morris describes her world in far more detail than it deserves. There's even a glossary for all the words she makes up, many of which feature all-important apostrophes. (I can't stop thinking of this book as "High Couch of Silly Straw.") The only bits of science fiction serve as thinly veiled excuses to write a sort of sword and sorcery adventure with sorcery replaced by barely-understood advanced technology from other worlds. The ending, when the readers finally meet the beings who are running this strange world (and Estri is led around on a leash like a pet, neatly summarizing what the plot has been doing to her for the entire book), is the most interesting part of the book, but it's not worth the effort of getting there and still suffers from many of the same problems.

In short, unless you really love pulp adventure and fantasy-like "far future," have a very high tolerance for pushover characters, and really want to read a slightly improved Gor novel, avoid.

Rating: 2 out of 10

2005-11-16: Geek novels

This list of the top twenty geek novels by Jack Schofield in the Guardian (and via some sort of voting) has been going around Debian. Most people have just been saying how many they've read (14 here), but I thought I'd go through the list and see what I thought.

Note: The criteria is specifically top geek novels, something that I won't try to define but that isn't the same thing as the best novels.

1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (read). Hm, yeah, I can't really argue with that. There may be funnier books or better books, but in terms of pure meme penetration, The Hitchhiker's Guide is the Monty Python of novels.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (not read). Kind of an odd choice for #2, but certainly defensible by being widely read and highly influential. This is one of those books whose thematic material I've absorbed from many references over the years but have only read bits and pieces of. At some point, I need to sit down and read the whole thing.

3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (not read). Gaping hole in my personal education that I really should remedy one of these days.

4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick (not read). I wonder how many people were actually voting for the book and how many were really voting for Blade Runner, which is certainly a classic geek film.

5. Neuromancer, by William Gibson (read). An obvious choice, even if the computers are so unbelievable as to be laughable. No matter what, cyberpunk is still cyberpunk and has since shaded much of how geeks think about the world.

6. Dune, by Frank Herbert (read). Sure, makes sense; as good of a representative of classic space opera as any other, and there is always "fear is the mind killer, fear is the little death." Widely quotable books among geeks should get bonus points in these competitions.

7. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov (read). Eh. I guess I'll grant this one on the grounds of influence during childhood, even though in retrospect Asimov simply isn't that good of a fiction writer.

8. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov (read). Likewise.

9. The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett (read). Certainly Discworld belongs here, but I wouldn't have picked this particular representative, even if it's the first one. It's one of the weaker ones of the series.

10. Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland (not read). I don't even know what this book is, although I vaguely remember hearing about it. Some sort of fictionalized Silicon Valley retrospective thing?

11. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (read). I think Cryptonomicon is really Neal's geek novel, but since it's listed too, I won't argue. Neal's whole style fits this sort of list.

12. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (read). Absolutely. This is the quintessential superhero story with adult depth, and summed up everything that was good and bad about the genre for many of us. One of the best graphic novels ever written.

13. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (read). Definitely.

14. Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (read). What a bizarre choice. Sure, it's the first Culture novel (and the Culture belongs on this list, given that it's a UK list), but it's an indifferent if competent space opera. The Player of Games is much more of a geek novel; it's all about wargaming, for heaven's sake.

15. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein (read). One can quibble about the best choice of Heinlein, but this will do as well as anything else. And it has grok, which is important. Still, I wonder if a juvenile wouldn't have fit better.

16. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (read). Important and influential I'll buy, and vital to the history of SF certainly, but geek novel? I don't get it.

17. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (read). Er, no. Don't get me wrong; it's a great book. But it's not a geek book particularly. Gaiman's Sandman series would be a much better choice.

18. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (read). Lots of Neal, maybe more than warranted, but he is definitely a geek writer. And who can resist the towers of Turing.

19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (not read). I've heard of this one but never read it. Still, doesn't seem too far out of line.

20. Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham (not read). Oh, yeah, this is a UK list. (Wyndham is virtually unknown in the States, but extremely important in the UK. I've only heard of his The Day of the Triffids.)

What's missing? Well, The Lord of the Rings, obviously, which is a bizarre omission even if it's not a book about technology (neither is American Gods, I'll point out). Possibly 2001 ("what are you doing, Dave?"), but realistically that was the movie, not the book. I'd make a pitch for Vinge's "True Names," but it's a short story and therefore not eligible. Everything else seems at least arguable to me, which means it's not a bad list at all.

2005-11-18: The Amber Spyglass

Review: The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 0-345-41337-7
Pages: 465

The Amber Spyglass is a direct sequel to The Subtle Knife and you definitely do not want to read this series out of order. There is very little concession to new readers; Pullman jumps right into the story.

I was hoping that Pullman would pull the series back to the feel of The Golden Compass after the change of tone for The Subtle Knife, and he did set that up at the end of the second book. My hopes were satisfied to a degree; there's more adventure in this book, more inventive world-building and neat ideas, and much less wandering about in a completely normal world. And yet, I came away from this series feeling like Pullman got derailed off his original series and ended up writing something rather different and not quite as good.

Lyra is out of it again for the first section of The Amber Spyglass, which is once again annoying. I think the real success off this series lives and dies by Lyra's presence. The other characters are adequate supporting characters, but they're just that. I don't think even Will develops far enough to carry the story by himself, which means that Pullman's move away from a tight focus on Lyra to a more conventional multiple-viewpoint novel is rather disappointing. The first section of the book is also setup for quite a few separate plot threads, so it ends up feeling a touch fragmented.

Once things start happening, though, Pullman delivers on the action. The whole series is a grand adventure that never feels like a simple item collection quest or map exploration, something that's too rare in fantasy. Pullman also does a lot of character development and writes strong emotions and difficult decisions without letting the characters wallow or ruin the pace of the story. Structurally, apart from my disappointing in the shift of perspective, this is a well-written, well-paced novel.

Pullman attempts something else in characterization that's equally rare and rather more difficult: this book has very few true villains. Nearly all of the characters with narrative introductions that lead you to expect them to stay in the villain role end up having other redeeming or at least understandable qualities, and frequently Pullman left me rooting in surprise for what I thought was the "wrong" side. With this, he's not always successful; Mrs. Coulter, for instance, felt like she got a personality transplant between books, and if the changes in her motivations were signalled in the previous books, I certainly missed the signs. Still, I'll forgive the occasional problems when the overall effect is so unusual and intriguing. I like reading a story that starts as traditional fantasy and then makes it clear that the sides aren't anywhere near as well-defined as they first appeared.

The Amber Spyglass is most notorious for its assault on religion and Christianity in particular, and yes, it's rather pointed. Pullman presents the Church and its spiritual superior in his universe as a sick fraud and provides a mystical humanist alternative as the real truth, down to Heaven being a lie and souls left trapped in a Hades-style holding area. It produces an odd effect since it's so different than the standard lines about gods and heavens that one normally sees in fantasy, even fantasy that isn't explicitly religious, but I didn't mind it. Pullman pulls it off rather well and gives it emotional verisimilitude for his characters. On the other hand, it was also occasionally as preachy as Christian religious fantasy, just in a different direction, and I don't think it added much to my enjoyment of the books over a more traditional mythical setting.

More of a problem, though, is that the rest of the logic and metaphysics of his world just don't hold together well. Why is the relationship between Dust and innocence talked about constantly throughout the series when it clearly has nothing to do with traditional innocence or open-mindedness? What logical justification is there for the final revelation of what attracts Dust the most strongly? I can see ways in which Pullman could have set up that revelation, but he didn't, and it feels like cheating, tossing in an effect completely out of the blue at the last minute. The world and evolution of the mulefa is particularly hard to believe in, full of convenient coincidences. The alethiometer is never adequately explained, and Lyra's interaction with it at the end of the book again comes out of nowhere and is extremely unsatisfying. There are more problems like this. In the final analysis, the substance of Pullman's world doesn't withstand poking very well.

All that being said, this is not a bad book, just a good book that could have been better. I was hoping that Pullman would pull everything together into a killer conclusion that would live up to the promise of the first book, and unfortunately that didn't happen. He did, however, write a decent conclusion that takes a lot of chances and a very unconventional approach, down to its emotionally difficult ending. I think the handling of Will's daemon sums up my reaction to the whole book: there are glimmers of the intensity that I was looking for, but it still felt like a badly missed opportunity for something truly powerful.

Worth reading, if not the novel that I was hoping for.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-11-28: podlators 2.00

At long last.

Allison Randal has taken over maintainership of Pod::Simple and has released 3.03, including the patch to allow whitespace handling to be done properly. This was the last thing I was waiting for, so today I installed the new release and did my final testing and released podlators 2.00.

This is essentially a complete rewrite of both Pod::Text and Pod::Man from the previous release, based on a lot of work by Sean Burke. I can't say that I actually like Pod::Simple better than Pod::Parser, but I was one of the few people who liked Pod::Parser. Pod::Simple does clean up a few edge cases and minor bugs and, most importantly, it handles non-ASCII characters properly.

This release doesn't do the right thing with non-ASCII characters in Pod::Man. I want to add a special output mode that requires groff and uses UTF-8, but I haven't had a chance to work on that yet. The output from this release should be for the most part indistinguishable from the previous output of Pod::Man, except for a few minor bug fixes.

You can get the latest release from the podlators distribution page.

Note that the version of Pod::Simple in Debian unstable is 3.02, which won't work with the test suite and won't get whitespace correct. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to package podlators for Debian. I might; it will be a while before a new major release of Perl is out that contains the new version.

2005-11-30: Debian update

I didn't post here when it happened, but I have become an official Debian developer. My account was created on the 16th, after considerably less of a wait at the DAM approval stage than I was expecting. I think that's because I did a more task-oriented evaluation that had my AM talking to the DAM all the time, so he was already quite familiar with my application. Still, I feel a touch wry about it, given that other people who applied before I did are still waiting.

Anyway, I've been going through and making minor updates to all of my Debian packages and then uploading them with my new address (yet another place I've scored "rra" as an account name). I'm almost done; only remctl to go of the packages I maintain myself, and that's only taking a while because I want to release a new upstream version and I'm splitting the package into remctl-client and remctl-server.

I was going to finish that today, but I spent the day debugging libpam-krb5. Alas, my original testing wasn't quite thorough, and it wasn't working correctly with OpenSSH and ChallengeResponse. In that mode (as opposed to the password mode I tested), OpenSSH runs the PAM authenticate call in a subprocess, but then runs the setcred call in a different subprocess. libpam-krb5 was assuming that it could pass data between authenticate and setcred in memory, which fails in that mode. I've come up with a solution that I'm having the maintainer look over before I upload.

In other news, Sam has just uploaded MIT Kerberos 1.4.3 to unstable after a stint in experimental. I had to fix libauthen-krb5-perl for the new version, but for the most part it should just work. The exception is the mod_auth_kerb Apache module, against which I've filed a bug and a patch. Hopefully Ghe can get to that in the next few days, or I may end up needing to do my first NMU.... (It digs into undocumented, unexported guts of the Kerberos library to turn off replay caching, something that broke horribly in 1.4 and something that 1.4 now provides a better way to handle.)

That's most of what's going on. I'm also working on an update to kerberos-configs, but I was a bit too aggressive about the changes that I made and need to back out of a few things and have Sam take a look at it again. I also badly need to update my Debian page, since I've now taken out of my personal repository all the stuff that I'm maintaining directly in Debian proper.

2005-11-30: Miscellaneous haul

A little soon to be buying more books given the huge batch I got while on vacation at the end of October, but I wanted to grab a copy of Castle of Days by Gene Wolfe before it disappeared. It reprints various highly out-of-print writings that I'm very interested in.

Holly Black -- Tithe (sff)
Hal Duncan -- Vellum (sff)
Neil Gaiman, et al. -- Marvel: 1602 (graphic novel)
Elizabeth Hand -- Waking the Moon (sff)
Laurell K. Hamilton -- Incubus Dreams (sff)
M. John Harrison -- Viriconium (sff)
Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn (ed.) -- The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (non-fiction)
Gene Wolfe -- Castle of Days (mostly non-fiction)

Viriconium is a trade paperback omnibus of the entire series, about which I've heard many wonderful things. I'd been trying to find them all used, but this way I can support the author and get an attractive copy.

Currently reading: Vellum by Hal Duncan, which so far is exceptional.

Last modified and spun 2017-03-25