Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Word: coaster nazi

coaster nazi: noun. a person who insists upon placing a coaster under your drink, no matter what. A coaster nazi will surreptitiously slip a small disk beneath someone's cup, glass, mug, stein, chalice, grail or beaker, unless the opportunity presents itself to "out" the offender in the loudest way possible and thereby introduce a parable in which the damage inflicted by excessive moisture upon a wooden surface leads to an environmental catastrophe that renders the Earth inhospitable to life.

Coaster nazis can usually be identified by a disproportionately high number of coasters relative to the number of horizontal surfaces in their homes that are large enough to support a drinking vessel of any type. Other signs include a tendency to secrete coasters (or in extreme cases, napkins) on their persons, or limited kleptomania, exhibited only in bars, and focused totally on those small cardboard coasters with beer brand logos on them.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Conversation with Siderealette

In which my two year old daughter is proven to be more intelligent than every living Republican......

Siderealette: Daddy, big cars bad de Earf.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Someone Who Just Doesn't Get It

From an interview on, with a British political journalist named Dennis Sewell, who has written a book on the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution on politics:

All things considered, do you believe Darwin was a great luminary in the path of human progress?
What has the theory of evolution done for the practical benefit of humanity? It's helped our understanding of ourselves, yet compared to, say, the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the World Wide Web, I wonder why Darwin occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem. I can only imagine he has been put there by a vast public relations exercise.
This is what happens when supposedly educated people don't receive enough education in science. While it is certainly one motivation of science to produce inventions (e.g. ones that allow uninformed journalists spout off on topics on which they don't know very much and can't be bothered to actually reseach), the first and foremost goal of science is to explain things. Darwin "occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem" because he provided an explanation that, in turn, provides a framework for understanding how nearly every biological thing you see around you got the way it is. On top of being a very profound explanation of the nature living organisms, Darwin's theory helps us understand important, practical things like the emergence of strains of diseases that resist antibiotics, and drives our understanding of the applications of things like genetics in the natural world.

In my mind, what this guy is saying is the equivalent of saying: "What's the big deal with Newton, it's not like he invented the Ipod or anything."


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Books I Read in July: Wherein I Partially Catch-up with My Blog After An Eventful Summer

In July we have seven books, though five of them are in two separate series compilations put out by the Science Fiction Book Club. These kinds of volumes are the best thing the SFBC does, and I've pretty much reduced my purchases from them to these sorts of compilations. This is mostly because single volume books from them are more expensive than mass market paperbacks, and they take up too much space. So, if you are listening SFBC people, more multi-volume compilations, please!

The Audran Sequence -- George Alec Effinger: 7/7/09 - 7/18/09

This is a SFBC compilation of three excellent novels originally published in the mid 80s - early 90s: When Gravity Fails; A Fire in the Sun; and The Exile Kiss. I read them when they first came out, and jumped at the chance to own them in a nicer format. They're sort of Arabic-cyberpunk-hardboiled crime-soap opera novels.

Virga 1.2 -- Karl Schroeder: 7/19/09 - 7/26/09

Another SFBC compilation, this time of two novels: Sun of Suns; and Queen of Candesce. The world is a gigantic gasbag where people sail around on currents generated by hot air. Sort of like Congress... Awesome adventure tales filled with cool SFnal ideas.

The Vondish Ambassador -- Lawrence Watt-Evans: 7/26/09 - 7/26/09

A naive ambassador from an obscure land comes to the court of the ruler of the world's most important city with a secret mission. Coming off the boat, he hires the first dude he sees as his assistant. The world's most incompetent spies try to stop him. Hijinks ensue.

Star Dragon -- Mike Brotherton: 7/30/09 - 8/3/09

Oh, hey, we just found the only known life forms outside of our solar system living on the surface of a nearby star! Let's send a crew of psychopaths on a nuclear armed spacecraft to go see if these unique beings are worth exploiting commerically. Oh yeah, the trip takes years (sorry, no FTL here!) and the only forms of recreation for the crew are boning each other and extreme cosmetic body modifications. Ugh, stay away from this book.

So, seven books, 5 as SFBC multi-volume compilations, and two on the Kindle (the last two onthe list, in case you weren't keeping track). A good month for reading books in alternatee formats.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Word: facon

Facon: noun. a substance assuming bacon-like qualities (e.g. coloration, shape, texture) without capturing any of the true essence of bacon.




Tuesday, September 8, 2009

WWJB (Who Would Jesus Bill?)

For all my fellow citizens (notice how I didn't refer to you as my fellow taxpayers?) who are of right leaning political persuasions and who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, I have the following questions:

When Jesus healed the sick, did he check first for proof of insurance? To whom did He send His bill?


Friday, August 28, 2009

New Word: fixel

Fixel: noun. a fixture element. The fix for a problem the requires the least possible amount of work. Sometimes fixels do not actually solve the problem, but give the appearance of having solved the problem, at least for long enough time that the responsible party can flee the scene.

Many common fixels involve the liberal application of duct tape, or wood putty, or baby wipes, or all three simultaneously. IT personnel often use the word "workaround" as a synonym for fixel.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Failure of Truth in Advertising.

I have a hard time taking anyone with this license plate on their car seriously, as the residents of the state of New Hampshire failed to collectively off themselves at any time between 2001 and 2009.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

In which an alternate explanation for the disappearance of the dinosaurs is posited.....

S. Jr.: Daddy, are the dinosaurs all gone from the Earth?

S.: Yes, they are.

S. Jr.: Are they dead?

S.: Yes, they died a long, long time ago.

S. Jr.: Why are they all dead?

S.: I don't know. Maybe they got sick?

S. Jr.: Or maybe they all went to the Sun!

He's at the forefront of both astronomy and paleology!


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Books I Read in June

Okay, so July was pretty much a loss as far as blogging goes. But at least I was active in ways that were financially rewarding. And I managed to do a lot of reading. But first I need to cover June's reading list, so here goes, along with the usual comments of varying degrees of snark:

Poison Sleep -- T.A. Pratt: 6/3/09 - 6/4/09

Good book. Bad dreams become real as living nightmares walk the streets. The Forces of Good must stand together to defeat Evil once and for all. No, wait a minute, that sounds like our world, from January 2001 to January 2009.... At least in our world the Forces of Good finally triumphed.

Dead Reign -- T.A. Pratt: 6/5/09 - 6/6/09

Death comes calling, literally. And what's worse, he wants Marla Mason to return his magic Swiss Army Knife of Doooooom! But without it she can't be the top dog sorceress anymore. Plot ensues.

Spell Games -- T.A. Pratt: 6/7/09 - 6/8/09

Marla's dead beat brother comes looking her up wanting to patch up their bad relationship. And the fact that she's now fabulously wealthy has nothing to do with it, no sirree. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the fungus god of the Pacific Northwest (ahh, that explains Starbucks.....) decides to invade Marla's city in search of magic mushroom spores.

Daemons are Forever -- Simon R. Green: 6/9/09 - 6/11/09

Number two in Green's series about Eddie Drood, magical secret agent whose family has been protecting us from Lovecraftian horrors for centuries, while also exploiting us lesser mortals. Despite the fact that all the entries in this series so far have been puns on the titles of James Bond novels, they have absolutely none of the feel of Bond, at least the movie version.

The Sharing Knife: Passage -- Lois McMaster Bujold: 6/12/09 - 6/15/09

I get the feeling that I read this book back in third grade, when we covered settling of the Midwest USA, only back then it didn't have a 60 year old guy shacking up with an underage girl.
If you liked the first two, you'll probably like this one.

Ragamuffin -- Tobias Buckell: 6/19/09 - 6/22/09

More good space Jamaicans only this time they are versus fewer evil space Aztecs, but have some eeevil space Chinese to be versus against. It is a follow-up to Crystal Rain, and has some of the same characters, but they show up only about halfway through the book. Ragamuffin really expands Buckell's future history, and it has a pretty unique feel to it. Recommended.

Sideways in Crime -- ed. Lou Anders: 6/25/09 - 7/6/09

An anthology of mostly good alternate history crime stories. In some cases the term "crime story" is pretty loosely defined, but that's okay. I heard somewhere that the publishers went ahead with this book only after shooting down the companion book: Sideways in Dentistry.

So, seven books in June. Not bad. Of the seven, the first four were read on my Kindle. The first three of those were purchased directly as a result of reading the first book in the series as a free e-book. Ragamuffin was also bought because I enjoyed the first book for free. Sadly in the case of Ragamuffin, books 1 and 3 can be had in e-book form, but not book 2. But four sales made directly as a result of free e-books, in June alone. I hope all your marketing people are taking notes.....


Friday, July 10, 2009

Why the Republican Party Sucks: Part 3 of an Inifinite Part Series

Just wondering......

How many of those Republicans in Congress who are opposed to allowing their employers (i.e. ordinary Americans) a "government option" for health care have voluntarily given up the "government option" health care plan that their employers (i.e. ordinary Americans) are providing for members of Congress. One would think that if the "government option" is so bad then the Republicans in Congress would not avail themselves of it, insure themselves privately, and save their employers (i.e. ordinary Americans) the expense of insuring them.

Imagine the tax cut that could be passed along to ordinary Americans if the millionaire lawyers who take up so much space in Congress just paid for their own health care!

Just wondering.....


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Review: Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, published in 2008 by Night Shade Books.


A pirate themed anthology of original science fiction and fantasy stories. Story titles follow, along with my opinion of each one:

  1. Boojum, by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette: good
  2. Castor on Troubled Waters, by Rhys Hughes: bad
  3. I Begyn as I Mean To Go On, by Kage Baker: OK
  4. Avast, Abaft!, by Howard Waldrop: bad
  5. Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves, by Kelly Barnhill: good, but insufficiently piratical
  6. Skillet and Saber, by Justin Howe: OK
  7. The Nymph's Child, by Carrie Vaughn: OK, but insufficiently piratical
  8. 68d 07m 15sN, 31d 36m 44sW by Conrad Williams: bad
  9. Ironface, by Michael Moorcock: bad
  10. Pirate Solutions, by Katherine Sparrow: bad and insufficiently piratical
  11. We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars, by Brendan Connell: OK
  12. Voyage of the Iguana, by Steve Aylett: bad
  13. Pirates of the Suara Sea, by David Freer and Eric Flint: good
  14. A Cold Day in Hell, by Paul Batteiger: excellent
  15. The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth, by Rachel Swirsky: bad
  16. Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake, by Naomi Novik: good
  17. The Whale Below, by Jayme Lynn Blaschke: excellent
  18. Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Skarskoe, by Garth Nix: excellent
My Opinion:

It's a tough call -- IMHO there are a lot of turkeys herein, stories that just aren't about pirates at all, or are about ex-pirates, or the children of ex-pirates, neither of whom are having piratical adventures. And some stories that are about pirates, but which are just plain bad. On the other hand, some of the stories are very good.

The first one, Boojum, tells the story of a living pirate vessel which sails a future solar system in which Lovecraft's Mi-Go patrol interplanetary space. Elegy.... is a wonderfully written story, but it felt a bit out of place, given my expectations of swashbuckling adventure stories. The Nymph's Child was a bit the same way, but not quite as well done. Pirates of the Suara Sea, and The Whale Below both succeed by merging a more traditional sort of pirate tale with science fictional trappings. A Cold Day in Hell features a naval officer on a hunt for a reknown pirate who terrorizes the American coast during the golden days of piracy -- only in this alternate version of our world, an ice age has begun to settle in on the world, and ships can only sail the seas rigged with skates for racing across the ice. Araminta is a secondary world fantasy wherein the titular heroine uses magic and her superior wits to survive at sea. The star of the anthology has to be the very last tale, Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Skarskoe, which appears to feature characters that the author, Garth Nix, has written about before. Here Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz masquerade as pirates, join a pirate crew, and manipulate the pirates into assisting them on their quest. I'm definitely interesting in looking up some of Nix's other work now, to see what I've been missing.

The Roundup:

There are enough good stories here for me to recommend looking this book up in the library. I wouldn't buy it, unless you are a pirate fanatic, or just really, really like anthologies.


What other people have to say about Fast Ships. Black Sails:

Richard Larson at Strange Horizons

Brad Moon at Wired

Fabio Fernandes at The Fix

Charles A. Tan at Bibliophile Stalker

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New Word: crypto-invention

Crypto-invention: noun. An invention that is just so useful, or so blazingly obivous that somebody, somewhere simply must have already created it, if only you could find it.

A classic crypto-invention is toddler pajamas made from velcro, with matching velcro bedsheets. This is commonly held to be superior to bungee cords because bungee cords often leave marks on the skin.


Books I read in May

The books I read in May, along with some comments. The lateness of this entry is strongly correlated with the timing of Finals Week at the Major Regional University where I am engaged as a professor.

Fast Ships, Black Sails -- eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: 5/1/09 - 5/10/09

An anthology of SF/F stories about pirates, with lots of stories about wannabe pirates, ex-pirates and people who live in pirate infested waters, but surprisingly few stories about pirates and acts of piracy. The few that there are tend to be really good.

Sunborn -- Jeffrey Carver: 5/11/09 - 5/17/09

John Bandicut and his team of crack interspecies commandos promptly escape into.... no, wait.... John Bandicut, a loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the powerless.... no, that's not it either. Oh, the heck with it. John and his alien pals are whisked across the Galaxy yet again to stop a terrible disaster from happening, and to save the sentient stars inhabiting the Orion Nebula.

The Element of Fire -- Martha Wells: 5/17/09 - 5/23/09

Treachery has weakened the magic holding back the powers of the fae from the city of Vienne. They mount an invasion and put the royal palace under siege, primarily because no one thought to lay in a supply of grape-shot for the cannons.

The Alchemist's Apprentice -- Dave Duncan: 5/23/09 - 5/25/09
The Alchemist's Code -- Dave Duncan: 5/26/09 - 5/29/09

Imagine the Hollywood pitch: "It's just like Nero Wolfe, only Nostradamus is Nero Wolfe, and he collects rare books instead of orchids. And Archie is this Italian dude (has to be, they live in Venice) who is best friends, with privileges, with the hot courtesan who lives across the street from them. Oh yeah, and magic works!" I can see the HBO series already!

Blood Engines -- T. A. Pratt: 5/30/09 - 6/2/09

Sorcerers are real, and they secretly run the world in an organization amazingly like how you think the Mafia works if you haven't even read The Godfather or seen the movie. But this is a parallel Earth, because the entire population has had a nice-ectomy.

Despite my purposefully snarky descriptions, all these books are good, and definitely worth reading. Note for e-book aficionados, The Element of Fire is available for free on, and Blood Engines is free from the publisher at the Suvudu Free Library. The latter was an especially good tactic, since as soon as I finished Blood Engines, I immediately bought the other three books in the series on my Kindle. I didn't do that for The Element of Fire because I already own all of Martha Wells' non-tie-in novels, and they are all highly recommended.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Wise Old Sayings (that Never Were, but Should Have Been)

"All good recipes begin 'First, chop an onion'."


Books I Read in April 2009

The books I read in April 2009, along with some comments. The number is sadly reduced from previous months, an indication of two books that slowed me down, along with an excessive amount of interference from The Job.

Small Favor -- Jim Butcher: 4/1/09 - 4/2/09

Harry Dresden gets in over his head in dealings with supernatural beings and gets lots of help from his friends in extracting himself from between the rock and the hard place. Hmm.... Sounds familiar....

Ingenious Pursuits -- Lisa Jardine: 4/3/09 - 4/9/09

The book that ate a week of my life. Scientists in the late seventeenth century were cool! But weird!

A Cavern of Black Ice -- J. V. Jones: 4/10/09 - 4/16/09
A Fortress of Grey Ice -- J.V. Jones: 4/17/09 - 4/26/09
A Sword From Red Ice -- J.V. Jones: 4/27/09 - 4/30/09

And from this experience I learned that I am no longer so happy to reread books, even if I need to in order to understand the most recent entry in a series. Summary: Pseudo-Scots clansmen fight each other instead of uniting to fight the evil city dwellers intent on stealing their marginally inhabitable clanholds. Evil city dwellers try to steal only marginally inhabitable land from pseudo-Scots clansmen and from mystical race of pseudo-Elves. Pseudo-Elves engage in ritualistic self-mutilation instead of warning other races about impending invasion by undead army ruled by evil gods from the dark realms of Death.

I like the world building, but it often seems as though the plot depends on every single person involved in a given situation acting in the least intelligent way possible. If I didn't already know that the next book is to be named Watcher of the Dead, I'd suggest: A Taste of Yellow Ice.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

In which the science of Chromomathematics is born.....

S.: What's your favorite color?

S. Jr.: I have three favorite colors, blue, red and green. That's because I'm three.

When I'm four I'll have four favorite colors, blue, red, green and yellow.

And when I'm fivel I'll have five favorite colors, blue, red, green, yellow and brown.

According to Crayola, he's good until he reachs 133....


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Review: Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine

Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine, copyright 2004 and published by Random House.


Ingenious Pursuits is a very interesting series of stories that center on the scientific community in England (and to a lesser extent that of continental Europe) from the mid 1600's to the early 1700's. This structure is both its strength and its weakness. Each chapter takes a scientific topic or set of related topics and explores how the various personalities of the age contributed to the discoveries on that topic. For example, Chapter 1 begins with the sightings of two comets in 1680/1681 and carries a string of personal friendships, rivalries and professional jealousies and ends with Newton's Principia Mathematica, which lays out his work on the science of motion, and on gravity. Various chapters tackle topics in physics, chemistry, biology, medical science and botany. What is lacking is a feel for the "big picture".

My Opinion:

The book is very interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the interactions between the scientists responsible for some of the discoveries underlying modern science. Part of what is most interesting is how most of these people were not just involved in one field, but maintained an intense curiousity about all fields. Robert Hooke, for instance, of Hooke's Law fame (describing the restoring force of springs) was also a major player in the study of the biology of respiration, was an architect and surveyor, and wrote a book describing his studies using a microscope. But despite the inherent interest in the subject matter, I really do feel the lack of a larger perspective handicaps this book. It almost feels like a student paper where the student has done lots of good research, but doesn't quite bring it all together in the end. And yes, I know the author is a professor.

The Round-up:

Worth reading, but get it from the library.


What other people thought about Ingenious Pursuits:

A review at The Reading Nook.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

A finely tuned sense of moral outrage:

S.: Okay, which book do you want to read first, "Curious George and the Puppies" or "Curious George Takes a Job"?

S. Jr.: We should read a different story; Curious George always gets into trouble.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review: Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell

Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell, copyright 2006 and published by Tor Books. I read it on my Kindle, from the free version Tor distributed to celebrate the start up of their new website.


The story begins very much in a low tech setting, so much so that it wasn't until about halfway through that I was convinced that Crystal Rain was science fiction, and not fantasy. The setting is a continent with a topical climate that is divided by impassable mountains, called the Wicked High Mountains (which made me think of a Massachusetts dialect!). On one side is a Caribbean derived society, where people live with considerable freedom. The people on this side appear to have only local government, and no national institutions, and their national identity seems to be tied up in NOT being of the culture on the other side of the Wicked Highs. On the other is an Aztec derived culture with highly organized and efficient theocratic governments. This land is called Aztlan by its inhabitants, a fact which made me wonder whether or not the lack of a name for the other side was significant or not. On both sides of the mountains the societies have gods which live among the people and occasionally make appearances, though the Aztec gods are as bloodthirsty as tradition would hold. These two sets of gods are at war with each other, and are using the human population as pawns to carry out the struggle.

In this setting we meet John deBrun, a stranger who literally washed up on shore twenty-some years earlier with no memories of who he was. He's currently living a happy life as a fisherman in a coastal village, with a wife and a young son. He occasionally wonders about his previous life, but doesn't let it stop him from being happy. This happy existence is maintained by a military force known as the mongoose men, who man the barricades at the only usable pass through the Wicked High Mountains, thereby keeping the violent Azteca on their own side of the mountains. At the start of the book, the Azteca have broken through the mountains by means of a tunnel they've been digging for centuries under the instructions of their gods, and begin a full scale invasion of the other side, in search of slaves, sacrificial victims, and prosecuting their gods' wars against the other side. The mongoose men are woefully unprepared for full scale warfare, and so the only hope is for John to recover his memories, which seem to be related to legends of long lost technology which could drive the Azteca back.

Most of the book is the story of John deBrun solving the mystery of himself in order to save his family from the sacrificial daggers of the Azteca, at times both assisted and hindered by another mysterious outsider named Pepper, who literally falls from the sky just prior to the invasion.

My Opinion:

A good book. I was a little confused towards the beginning with respect to the background, but that's okay. I suspect that figuring out what the heck is going on is one of the draws of reading science fiction and fantasy. Most of the book is from John's POV, which also adds to the confusion, since he is an amnesiac. In this it reminded me a little of Roger Zelazny's first Amber book, which uses the same device. There are a couple of other POVs, including one of an Azteca double agent on a mission from one of the Azteca gods to capture John (no spoiler here, this is made apparent from the first time the character appears). I think this was thrown in partially to show us that the Azteca aren't just cardboard villains, but to my mind it doesn't really succeed at that goal. The Azteca do seem like eeevvviillll cardboard villains, and I think the book would have benefited from a more shades-of-gray approach to them. The Caribbean descended society (how I wish they had a name by which they referred to themselves!!) are clearly supposed to be the good guys, and do have a moral compass closely aligned to that of today's society. Never having been to the Caribbean, I can't say how realistic the culture seems, though aside from the use of an odd dialect and a few specific Caribbean references, I would not have figured out that this wasn't just more Americans in space.

By the end of the book we have figured out the broad outlines of John's origin, and how it relates to the rest of humanity out there among the stars (yes, it really is a science fiction book!). I gather that the other two books set in the same universe don't take place on the same planet, and am looking forward to reading those: Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose.

The Roundup:

Buy the book. It features an interesting background with a good mystery to be resolved, and promises more of the same in the subsequent books.


What other people have to say about Crystal Rain:

Donna Royston at Strange Horizons

John Ottinger III at Grasping for the Wind

Rob H. Bedford at

Steven Klotz at Mentatjack

Thomas M. Wagner at SF

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers

Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers, copyright 2008 and published by Solaris Books.


An anthology of original steampunk stories. The line-up follows, with my rating for each story:
  1. Steampunch, by James Lovegrove : bad
  2. Static, by Marly Youmans: OK
  3. Speed, Speed the Cable, by Kage Baker: excellent
  4. Elementals, by Ian R. MacLeod: good
  5. Machine Maid, by Margo Lanagan: bad
  6. Lady Witherspoon's Solution, by James Morrow: bad
  7. Hannah, by Keith Brooke: OK
  8. Petropunk, by Adam Roberts: OK
  9. American Cheetah, by Robert Reed: bad
  10. Fixing Hanover, by Jeff VanderMeer: bad
  11. The Lollygang Save the World on Accident, by Jay Lake: good
  12. The Dream of Reason, by Jeffrey Ford: bad
My Opinion:

My advice, don't bother. There are only three stories worth paying for here, the Baker, the MacLeod, and the Lake. The rest really seemed to be worn-out tales that have been told before, but now wrapped up in retro-Victorian dressing, using themes that have been better done elsewhere. For example, Steampunch is about a mechanic who maintains a steam powered mechanical boxer, and is partially about whether or not such devices can become intelligent. Seen that, watched that on Star Trek 20 years ago. The framing story in Steampunch is actually much more interesting than the story we got. A few others stories deal with similar themes, especially American Cheetah. Other stories are completely dull, like Fixing Hanover, which is about a technician who, against his better judgement, repairs a robot that washes up on the shore near a secluded village he's sheltering in. All buildup, with no real payoff.

The Roundup:

This anthology sounds interesting, but really, save your money and go buy The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, or The Difference Engine by Sterling and Gibson. If you check out some of the reviews I link to below, you'll notice I'm more or less alone in my dislike of this book, for what its worth.


What other people have to say about Extraordinary Engines:

Duncan Lawie at Strange Horizons

Eric Brown at The Guardian on-line edition

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker

Dark Wolf, at Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sidereal's Second Law of the Culinary Arts (and Sciences!)

When in doubt, feed the kids fish sticks. With lots of ketchup. Because ketchup is a vegetable!


Books I read in March 2009

These are the books I managed to read in March 2009, along with some comments. Most of these comments tend to be smart-ass, which is perhaps an indicator of my personality.

Shadow Unit, Season 1 -- Emma Bull et al.: 2/27/09 - 3/06/09

A cross between the X-Files and Criminal Minds, only in this, Mulder is an alien, and Scully has a sense of humor.

Good reading, especially at the price, which is free. Though donations are accepted. I read this on my Kindle using the Kindle compatible file put together by Arachne Jericho, and available through her website and blog. Lots of good e-book stuff there, both Kindle specific and other formats.

Reaper's Gale -- Steven Erikson: 3/08/09 - 3/20/09

The book that ate New York, and New Jersey, and didn't even get indigestion! Seventh in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, weighing in at 1,260 pages. In one book. A good entry in an excellent series, but the extreme length and plot complexity defy my attempts to wise-crack it.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology -- Ed. Nick Gevers: 3/22/09 - 3/28/09

Steam powerd robotz R kool! Blah, skip this book. Will be reviewed in this blog later.

Crystal Rain -- Tobias S. Buckell: 3/28/09 - 3/30/09

Good space Jamaicans vs. eeevvvilll space Aztecs, only everyone has forgotten how to build spaceships and are all reduced to fighting with blimps, swords and spears. I read this one on the Kindle too, and will review it ASAP. Good book.

The Ghost Brigades -- John Scalzi: 3/30/09 - 3/31/09

Superpowered one year olds inhabiting vat grown bodies defend Truth, Justice and the Colonial Way against eeevvvilll aliens who want to eat our children. Good book, building upon and improving upon Old Man's War.

Five books, not a good showing. But in my own defense, I did get injured carrying the Erikson book home from the store and lost a week in a coma.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War by John Scalzi, copyright 2005. I read it on my Kindle, using the free e-book version offered at the website as part of the promotion around the start up of the site.


In the Earth of the future humanity has begun to colonize the stars. Unfortunately so have many other species of aliens, and nearly without exception they are all hostile. The colonies operate more or less independently of Earth. The colonial administration has a monopoly on all FTL travel by humans and dictates the rules for who is allowed off planet. Leaving Earth is a one-way trip, and most of the colonists who are permitted to emigrate come from devastatingly poor nations. No one on Earth, including the various governments, knows what is happening out in space as the colonials also control all flow of information into and out of Earth. The only way for people outside the target groups to get make it into space is to volunteer for the Colonial Defense Forces. Only senior citizens are allowed to volunteer, on or about their 65th birthdays, and then must finalize the committment upon reaching 75. Why senior citizens? Well, space is dangerous and old people can be lured into service with the promise of brand new, young bodies. Volunteer for the CDF and get a new lease on life, literally!

John Perry has lost his wife, and is not close to family or friends, so he decided to complete his enlistment. He and many other 75 year olds are quickly whisked off planet by the superior technology of the colonies. Each of the recruits is transplated into new, youthful bodies cloned from their own DNA, with modifications made to turn them into super soldiers. At this point the book goes into detail about the modifications and we readers get to see the recruits go through boot camp. While I was reading this, it all reminded me of the first part from the movie "The Dirty Dozen", where all the "volunteers" are quickly trained as commandos. In a good way.

After training, John and his circle of friends from boot camp receive their assignments and are shipped out to various units and are thrust into combat. It seems the primary method of interaction with alien species is combat, in competition for habitable colony worlds and vital resources. The average lifespan of a new recruit is only a few years, and soon enough John experiences losses. We see everything through John's eyes, and as he doesn't learn much about what's going on, neither do we, until close to the end of the book. As the book progresses John begins to work his way up in rank, from grunt to officer material, and he eventually plays a pivotal role in negociations with an uber-powerful alien species and manages to gain a little respect from them.

My Opinion:

I liked Old Man's War. It's got interesting characters, doing interesting things. Unfortunately they're mostly things I've seen or read before. A lot of the plot feels like scenes or set pieces that are commonly used in military SF or adventure fiction -- the boot camp episode I mentioned above is a major example of this. It's all stitched together well, however.

The bigger problem I had with the book is the setting. And this is a pretty big problem. Much of the draw of science fiction and fantasy is the world building, and it seems to be weak in Old Man's War. I found it hard to buy the idea of the colonies being so technologically superior to the homeworld, and only using Earth as a source for indentured soldiers and easy to control settler populations. I guess I would have been happier had the logistics been hinted at more. If the colonies are constantly at war with more or less every other alien species they encounter, how do they have the space to develop resources they can tap for their war machine? How do they stay competitive in the technological arms race, without a peaceful homeworld population which can support scientific research? Stealing alien tech would only go so far. And the whole idea of warfare being a more profitable means of acquiring planets and resources than cooperation is also hard to buy, especially given how very destructive the warfare depicted in Old Man's War is.

The Roundup:

Okay, so I have some quibbles with the book. I'm glad I read it. I'm glad it was free. I'm intrigued enough with the setting to see if Scalzi has addressed any of my issues in some of the later books. And I'll happily pay for those. I just hope they're available for the Kindle.

Next up: Extraordinary Engines: the Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers.


What other people have to say about Old Man's War:

Stuart Carter at SF Site

Adrienne Martini at Bookslut

John at Grasping for the Wind

Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics

John DeNardo at SF Signal

A review by Russ Allbery

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why the Republican Party Sucks: Part 2 of an Infinite Part Series

I know I'm not the first to comment on this, but I simply cannot let it go uncommented.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, on February 24, 2009:

While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a "magnetic levitation" line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring." Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.

For something called "volcano monitoring"? Has Governor Jindal forgotten the 57 Americans who died when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980? Are all monitoring services that keep track of potential natural disasters "lard" in his mind? How much worse would hurricane Katrina have been had there been no warning? Or does he honestly believe that services which monitor potential natural disasters are only justified when they benefit his state?

Or is it more likely that his Republican Party handlers decided to try for a cheap shot, thinking that most Americans don't live near volcanos? Or that volcanic eruptions are so infrequent that they could get in a cheap shot and not make too many waves? Either way, if volcanic eruptions can be considered acts of God, then perhaps the Republican Party has now learned what the Almighty thinks of its recent behavior?

The irony of the Mt. Redoubt situtation is that it's happening Republican Barbie's home state.

This is what happens when a political party develops an unhealthy contempt for science, combined with an unhealthy contempt for the citizenry.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Work in Progress

Newton's Ghosts

Word count as of 3/23/09: 1,995 words.

Work in Progress

I've started writing something. Don't know how long it'll be, but the title so far is Newton's Ghosts.

Word count as of 3/22/09: 1,399.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sir Topham Hatt and Uncle Moneybags

Did you ever notice how the Evil overlord of the Sodor Railway, Sir Topham Hatt, looks just like the Evil monopolist from the game Monopoly, Uncle Moneybags?

Sir Topham Hatt

Uncle Moneybags

Perhaps our avuncular landlord from Atlantic City is merely the British rail baron with a clever mustachioed disguise? Maybe the casinos on Boardwalk are being used to launder monies embezzled from the Sodor Railway? Are the bizarre, anthopomorphic talking trains really part of Hatt's secret police, who quietly disappear Sodorian dissidents to underground cells along Tennessee Avenue. Maybe there's a reason why the railroads are considered some of the most valuable properties in Monopoly, even though the Golden Age of Rail is long past

Maybe Sidereal Jr. and Siderealette spend too much time watching Thomas and His Friends?


Sidereal's First Law of the Culinary Arts (and Sciences!)

Anything will taste good when combined with sufficient amounts of sugar, and deep fat fried. Even poop.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

New Word: whale jail

Whale jail: noun. The circle in Hell reserved for people who shop at Whole Foods and insist on parking their suburban assault vehicles in the parking spaces reserved for fuel efficient, eco-friendly sub-compact cars and hybrids.

In Dante's Inferno, whale jail is lodged in between circle three (the gluttonous) and circle four (the avaricious). Some scholars argue that whale jail is, in fact, an annex of circle eight, bolgia six, wherein lie the hypocrites. However it can be counter-argued that while being shallow and ignorant is functionally equivalent to being a hypocrite, it is not morally equivalent.


Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

Completely unassailable logic:

S.: I am a big scary monster looking for a little boy to eat for lunch!!!

S. Jr.: You can't eat me! My nose is full of boogers!


Monday, March 2, 2009

Books I read in February 2009

Books I read in February 2009, in chronological order, with comments, snide, snarky, or otherwise.

In the Court of the Crimson Kings -- S.M. Stirling: 2/1/09 - 2/2/09

Good book, in a retro 30's sort of way.

A Talent for War -- Jack McDevitt: 2/4/09 - 2/6/09

Indiana Jones crossed with The Da Vinci Code, in spaaace!

Firearms -- Roger Pauly: 2/6/09 - 2/8/09

A brief history of the technology used by people to shoot other people. Oh, and to shoot animals too, but not as often.

The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy -- Patricia McKillip: 2/9/09 - 2/15/09

If you are a farm-boy, even a princely farm-boy, and you have three stars emblazoned on your forehead, then beware! People are out to get you!

Old Man's War -- John Scalzi: 2/18/09 - 2/19/09

Getting old sucks, but it's better than the alternative, in spaaace! (to be reviewed soon, read on the Kindle).

The Merchant's War -- Charles Stross: 2/20/09 - 2/23/09

You think your family sucks; these guys will literally go Amber all over your ass, drag you kicking and screaming back for Thanksgiving dinner, and then make you marry your cousin as part of a forced breeding program.

Eight books for the month, not bad considering it's a school month.


Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why the Republican Party Sucks: Part 1 of an Infinite Part Series

To get a sense of the priorities of the two major parties in American politics, I took a look at their platforms from the 2008 election. I searched each document for two words: "taxpayer" and "citizen". Here are the results:

Republican Platform:
"taxpayer" = 12 mentions; "citizen" = 17 mentions

Democratic Platform:
"taxpayer" = 3 mentions; "citizen" = 29 mentions

Just for reference, "taxpayer" is not mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution, while "citizen" appears 22 times.

It is pretty clear that the Republican Party is more concerned about the size of your wallet than anything else when they consider your status as a taxpayer of equal or more importance than whether or not you are a citizen.

Wal*Mart pays taxes; Wal*Mart doesn't get to vote.

Taxpayers don't have rights; citizens have rights.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip

Today: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, consisting of The Riddle-Master of Hed, copyright 1976; Heir of Sea and Fire, copyright 1977; and Harpist in the Wind, copyright 1979. All three of the editions I have were published by Del Rey Books.

Back in the days when I was but a wee Bok globule, I read a trilogy called the Lord of the Rings. Being greatly excited by this work, I looked for other, similar books that I might enjoy as much. Alas, there was not much on offer in those days, but eventually I did come across a book called The Riddle-Master of Hed, the back cover of which promised wizards, riddles, dead lords, evil forces, shapechangers and perhaps most importantly, that it was book one in a trilogy.


Morgan is the Prince of Hed, and island state in a land ruled by the High One. Shortly before the events at the start of the book, Morgan's parents die in a shipwreck, and the "land-rule" (a magical divine right including near-complete knowledge of land itself) passes to him. He's at the College of the Riddle-Masters in the town of Caithnard being trained in riddle-mastery when this happens. On his way home he decides to detour to the kingdom of An (also part of the High One's realm), a land where the dead are only loosely bound to their graves, and a crown awaits anyone who can win a riddle contest with a dead king. Morgan wins the contest, takes the crown, and sneaks home to Hed without letting anyone know. At this point the story begins.

The High One's harpist, named Deth, arrives on Hed to express official condolences over the loss of Morgan's parents. In the course of conversing with Morgan, he figures out that Morgan is the one who won the riddle contest in An, and tells Morgan that the entirety of the High One's realm is gossiping and puzzling over the mystery. Raederle, the daughter of the king of An and the sister of Morgan's College friend, has been betrothed in advance by her father to whosoever wins the riddle contest. Morgan decides the time is right for him to travel back to An, this time as a suitor for her hand.

On his way to An he is almost killed in a shipwreck, almost killed by complete strangers, and almost killed by the Queen of Ymris -- who turns out not to really be the Queen at all, but a shapechanger instead. All these events seem to be related to three stars that he has on his forehead. It's never quite clear to me, but I assume he normally grows his hair long enough to cover them. The stars appear to be part of a centuries old prophecy, and the attacks by shapechangers compel Morgan to start investigating their meaning. This takes Morgan on a years long tour of all the kingdoms in the realm, where he picks up clues that seem to involve the High One himself.

Book 2, Heir of Sea and Fire, focuses on Raederle, Morgan's betrothed and her quest to find him after he mysteriously disappears. To say much more would give too much away, but she does discover that she has familial ties to the shapechangers who've been hounding Morgan across the realm. In book 3, Harpist in the Wind, Morgan and Raederle join forces, both of them having learned some potent magic during the course of their adventures in the first two books. Together they learn the significance of the stars on Morgan's forehead, and what the shapechangers are after, and in the process make some unpleasant discoveries about the founding of the High One's realm.

My Opinion:

A good tale, compactly told, especially in light of today's behemoth, multi-volume fantasies (Jordan, Martin, Erikson, I'm looking at you). Combined, all three books would barely amount to a medium sized volume in Erikson's Malazan series. But McKillip gets the job done. I often find it amazing that I like these books at all. Her prose is often described as "lyrical", which to my mind often means "intrusive and showy", and that has been my experience with a few others of her books that I've tried.

The short length also means these books lack the detailed world building that is more or less standard in epic fantasy today. McKillip manages to invoke a detailed world without actually showing all the details. Sometimes this reveals holes in the fabric of her world, for instance a political system featuring feudal overlords with millenial lifespans, everyman farmer-princes, and law and order imposed from above by the threat of magic of the largely absent High One. I just don't get the feeling that such a system could last a normal lifetime, much less a millenium.

Magic is shown as being, well magical of course, but also utter without any rhyme or reason. This despite the fact that a wizard's school flourished in the realm for hundreds of years. What were they teaching, if magic was not amenable to being understood by an organized framework.

Despite the fact that it sometimes feels as though McKillip didn't think through the consequences of the world she was setting up, I still really like these books, largely for the characters. Morgan and Raederle carry the books, and Raederle in particular is one of my favorites. I first read these books almost thirty years ago, and only infrequently re-read them (maybe twice), but I can still remember the slow developement of a relationship that they were tossed into by prophecy and the arrogance of rulers. Even at the end of the third book, they are still trying to figure out if they can be together, even though they clearly love each other.

The Round-up:

If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, where you can smell the urine in the back alleys, then these books probably aren't for you. If you like your fantasy with a strong, self consistent underpinning of magic and politics, then these books aren't for you. If you like your fantasy high, and let's go ahead and say lyrical, with an actual plot, then these books may be for you. McKillip's fantasy isn't like anyone else's I've read (not necessarily a good thing in this case), and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy isn't really like any of her other work I've read (definitely a good thing). Although the resemblence isn't strong, the books I'm most strongly reminded of when I read
The Riddle-Master of Hed are Le Guin's first three Earthsea books.


What other people have to say about the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy:

Lela Olszewski at SF Site

Robert N. Tilendis at Green Man Review

Laurie Thayer at Rambles

James Schellenberg at The Cultural Gutter

A review by Russ Allbery

Monday, February 23, 2009

Introducing: The Ho Ho Diet

Feeling a need to purge all that wholesome food from your body? Need a quick boost of sugar and preservatives to get you through that long, boring meeting at work? Want to stick it in the you-know-what of all those smug eco-shoppers who park their bloated Escalades in the compact spots at Whole Foods? Then the famous Ho Ho Diet may be for you!

The Ho Ho Diet has a multitude of benefits:
  1. It's cheap! One pack of 3 Ho Hos has 250 calories. You only need to eat eight pack, or 24 Ho Hos a day to get a full 2,000 calorie diet. At an average price of $1.50 per pack, that's just $12 a day!
  2. Low sodium: 24 Ho Hos per day give you less than half your daily amount of sodium, but simultaneously provide a solid 32% of your recommended amount of protein.
  3. Great taste! People who eat Ho Hos are happy. You can't say that about someone shoving celery and rice cakes in their yap.....
  4. Chocolatey goodness: Ho Hos feature rich chocolate cake inside, wrapped in a scrumptious chocolate frosting. Chocolate has been linked to many health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, reducing risk for heart attacks, increasing serotonin levels, and causing mild euphoria.
  5. Iron! The chocolate in Ho Hos contains iron, an essential nutrient. Deficiency of iron in the blood can cause anemia. Some of the symptoms of anemia include weakness or fatigue, general malaise, and poor concentration -- all of which are statistically linked to being a Republican.
  6. Cylindricity: food presentation is important, and who can resist those little brown cylinders? Arrange them on a bed of white rice for effect (but don't eat the rice!!).
Some doubters will claim that you can't lose weight by eating only Ho Hos. Guess what? They are right! but it's all a matter of perspective. You're a good person, aren't you? So making more of you is like making more of a good thing. And that's a good thing!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Word: autophotovisualization

Autophotovisualization: noun. The process of using a camera to take a photograph of one's self. Normally this is done by holding the camera at arm's length, pointing it in the general direction of one's face, and hoping for the best. Most often photos taken using autophotovisualization wind up on one's Facebook or My Space pages, or else are featured prominently on one's blog. Autophotovisualization is most common among computer users, especially Facebook or My Space account holders, as these individuals spend so much time on-line that they have no face-to-face (ftf) relationships anymore, and thus have no friends who will hold the camera for them while a photograph is taken.


The Big One

Just my luck to start a blog about ranting (and books) at a time when my reasons for ranting have suddenly gotten scarce. So I'm having to dig back into my mental rant archives for something..... Luckily the previous eight years have provided enough rant fodder for a lifetime (or maybe not so lucky). This one's been brewing in the back of my mind since the year 2000.

So it is pretty much a given at this point that the presidency of Little Bush was a complete disaster, except for bazillionaires who don't plan on ever having children. Those guys at least got their tax cuts. What's not so clear is who is responsible. I mean, sure, Bush is responsible, as well as whoever was pulling his strings (Cheney???). But how did such a person, one of such questionable qualifications for high office, get into a position so that he could steal the election with a minimum of handwringing by the people?

Obviously Republican voters bear the brunt of responsibility for this. Without their 47.9% of the vote, Bush could never have beaten Gore's take of 48.4% of the vote. What about the other 3.7% of the vote, you might ask? Well thanks to the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College, these votes tend not to mean much in presidential elections, and this has pretty much been the case for over 200 years! When the election isn't close, or when both major party candidates espouse similar view on the issues, voting third party can be an important expression of dissent. Please note, however, than neither of these two conditions held in 2000. As we've seen (and as was clear even before voting began) the election was very close. As for anyone who can honestly claim that there's no difference between Bush and Gore, all I can say is get your head out of the toilet because after eight years of being submerged in your own vomit you probably need a bath. Or is that stench the rotting corpse of our civil liberties?

From an Electoral College point of view, Florida turned out to be a pivotal state in this election. It was razor close in votes for the major party candidates, and whoever got its E.C. votes would win the big banana. Included among the third parties on the ballot in Florida were the Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties. Voters in these parties are nutjobs who didn't want to vote for Bush because he refused to adopt the following into the Republican platform:
  1. Paying out all monies in the Federal Treasury to "tax-payers", i.e. members of the Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties.
  2. Disbanding the Federal Government in favor of home rule by the States, or else into smaller political units, the size of which will be determined later on the basis of effectiveness of allowing conservative nutjobs with guns to boss everyone else around.
  3. Grinding up all people who are not True Americans -- those not Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties -- and disposing of the remains in vast toxic waste storage facilities constructed in Sodam and Gomorrah (i.e. Hollywood and New York City).
The only effect these voters were going to have on the election was to reduce Little Bush's votes, which is really a good thing, so more power to them.

But there was another third party at play in Florida, one whose voters were ardently opposed to all the principles behind Little Bush's candidacy. These voters were also in favor of many, if not all, of the proposals put forward by the Gore campaign, the difference often being one of quantity, not quality. Even for those who did not find much common ground with Gore would admit that he was by far better than a patently unqualified candidate whose policies would run the country into the ground (which is exactly what happened). Logic, common sense, call it what you will, even self interest, would suggest that in an extremely close election, voting for someone you don't like is better than shooting yourself in the head.

Yet these voters did exactly that, shoot themselves in the head. Not only that, but the bullet passed through their empty heads and managed to bring down the whole rest of the country. According to the Federal Election Commission, Little Bush won Florida by 537 votes. If even six-tenths of one percent of these voters had put the interests of the country over their own selfishness, held their noses and voted for the anti-Bush candidate who actually had a chance to win, then Little Bush wouldn't have been able to steal the election at all.

These people voted for Ralph Nader, and they "elected" Little Bush. They bear almost as much responsibility for the eight year long national nightmare as Republicans do, and no amount of clicking their ruby slippers together and chanting "there's no vote like IRV, there's no vote like IRV" is going to raise eight years worth of dead, heal eight years worth of wounded, or restore eight years worth of lost opportunity.

Eight years later I'm still pissed off, and it makes me hope that the religious nutjobs are right, that the Devil exists and that Hell is a real place, because the Green party presidential candidate from the 2000 election has a lot to answer for.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

How you know your kid is gonna be a geek.....

S. Jr. (holding hands up): Daddy, how come I can't generate a forcefield?

S.: ??? Uh..... ???

I am so proud.....



Today I begin my forty-third orbit around Sol.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology by Roger Pauly

Here's a cool book for you: Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology, by Roger Pauly, copyright 2004. My copy was published by Johns Hopkins University Press and is a reprint of the original by Greenwood Publishing Group.


A short (208 pages!) summary of the development of gunpowder small arms. Artillery and rockets are given a passing mention, but the primary focus of this book is guns. Pauly begins with the invention of gunpowder and its likely initial use in primitive "flamethrowers", covers intermediate forms like the wheel lock, matchlock and flint lock, discusses the transition from smoothbore to rifle, and the development of pistols, finally ending with modern assault rifles.

My Opinion:

A good short book on an interesting topic. I don't think there's anything here an expert in this field wouldn't already know. Thank goodness I'm not an expert. I did find the details of the various types of lock tedious after a while, and my eyes started skimming. Some nice information about the first time certain technologies are found, either in extant devices or written about. The analogy between living organisms, which have specific births, follow a (usually) well-known pattern of growth, and then finally die, and technologies such as firearms is labored at times. The main point Pauly is making, however, seems right on target (har, har) -- that is that the underlying technology behind firearms hasn't changed in a major way since the early 1900's. We've merely refined the techology that had been developed at that point.

The Round-up:

Worth reading, but not worth owning. Get this one at the library.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling

Today's review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling, copyright 2008, published by Tor Books.


In an alternate version of the Solar System, Venus and Mars are not the lifeless planets we know today. Instead they are very much as science fiction writers (and some scientists) in the early days of the twentieth century pictured them -- inhabitable and chock full of life forms, both native and transplanted from Earth.
The situation on Venus is dealt with in The Sky People, in which an intrepid American explores the wild, rugged Venusian jungles, meets the natives and falls in love with the girl of his dreams.

Things are a little different in the Mars of In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Instead of being a lush, almost primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, Mars is a dry desert planet, slowly dying from the loss of a limited supply of water. A civilization exists, founded by humanoids brought to Mars from Earth long before homo sapiens sapiens developed. These evolutionary cousins of ours have a civilzation that is many millenia older than ours, with language, culture, and technology simliar to and yet different from that on Earth.

Jeremy Wainman is an American sent to Mars by the U.S. government, in the context of the Terrestrial East/West Cold War (which is still ongoing in the year of the nove, 2000). He's an anthropologist/archeologist specializing in Mars and he's waited all his life for the chance to go there. Because space flight is so expensive, his is a one-way ticket, but he doesn't mind. His main goal is to find the long lost city of Rema-Dza, a kind of Martian version of Atlantis and El Dorado combined. For reasons he doesn't understand, his quest has been approved by the Cold Warriors of Earth, but he's willing to work with them to get what he wants. An expedition is outfitted with a Martian landship crewed by natives and rigged with sails to cross the vast deserts on Mars. With a native guide/bodyguard and a minder sent by U.S. military intelligence, Wainman sets out on his search. Complications arise when he inadvertently runs afoul of Martian political intrigue and things climax when he ends up involved in the Imperial succession of the rump city-state that remains from the once mighty, planet wide empire of the Crimson Dynasty.

My Opinion:

Excellent read. One of those books you don't really want to put down until you're finished, even though you really ought to, because you have to go do stuff, like sleep and things..... The setting invokes a sense of nostalgia for the science fiction / planetary romance of 60, 70 or 80 years ago, but does it without seeming dated. The idea of setting it as an alternate history is good, and this definitely plays to some of Stirlings strengths as a writer. I've greatly enjoyed some of his other alternate history books, including the Island in the Sea of Time series, and most especially, The Peshwar Lancers. If you liked those books, and you don't absolutely hate Burroughs, then you'll probably like In the Courts of the Crimson Kings too.

The book is full of adventure, action (not always the same thing....), political intrigue, and good world building, all things that are high on my list of what makes an enjoyable good. The characters can seem a little bland at times, but the characterization is not outright bad, so it wasn't a turn off for me. The book is full of references there for devoted SF fans, including the name of the main character, Wainman, a play on Carter, from Burroughs' Mars books; the presence of a real Martian Princess along the way; and a ship named the Brackett, among others.

The Round-up

Buy it, read it, and maybe he'll write some more! There's certainly room for more books in this universe, and mysteries that were raised in both this book and The Sky People that remain unresolved.


What other people have to say about In The Courts of the Crimsion Kings:

Paul Di Filippo at (the sadly departed) Sci Fi Weekly.

Carlos Aranaga at SciFi Dimensions.

Jerry Wright at Bewildering Stories.

Brian Brown at The Dragon Page.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

I'm not one much given to guilty pleasures. If I like something, and it doesn't hurt anyone when I do it, I don't feel guilty. Ice-cream, Trader Joe's candy-cane Joe-Joe cookies, baiting Republicans: these are all pleasures, and I feel no guilt about enjoying them. Although the last one can feel a little too easy sometimes.....

But the other night I was reading a book, and was really into it. Ten PM came around and I looked at the thick sheaf of pages still unread, and I thought to myself that I wasn't going to finish it tonight, but I could read for another hour before I turned in. Round about eleven PM the thickness of unfinished pages was less, but still fairly substantial. Getting to sleep at midnight would still give me a solid six and a half hours of shut-eye, and that's not too bad. So around midnight I checked and noticed only about thirty or so pages left. Well, that's not enough to bother with putting the book down and starting up again the next day, so I might as well just finish it. And that's just what I did. Then I crawled into bed around 1:30 AM and got about five hours of sleep.

I really should have gone to bed earlier -- job, kids, etc..., but I did enjoy reading the book. Doing something you shouldn't do and enjoying it -- that's a guilty pleasure, right?

I still don't feel guilty.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

How you know when you're raising them right.....

Sidereal: What are you looking at?

S Jr.: You and Mommy have a lot of books.

Sidereal: Well, you have a lot of books too. You have two shelves of books in your room.

S Jr. looks up at three six-foot tall bookcases double stacked with books, two rows deep on each shelf.

S. Jr.: When I'm big like you, can I read your books?


The Anti-Rant

Yours truly teaches at a major university located in secure bunker somewhere within the United States. As such, I deal with many, many students on a daily basis. Rarely do they make their way to my office, and when it does happen, most often it's to ask for some extra-credit; or to ask what will be on the next exam so they don't have to study everything, just what's important; or to ask for a make up exam, because they missed the regular exam when their guinea pig swallowed a gold fish and had to have emergency surgery to remove the intestinal blockage (and no note from the vet, of course, not even a bill....)

So it was with some trepidation that I read an e-mail from a student who took my course last semester, wanting to meet with me to talk about his final grade. My mind raced through the possibilities: a semester long case of sleep deprivation, a new computer virus that changed all the answers given in the on-line homework assignments, a dearly beloved pet snail who contracted a case of that flesh eating bacteria. Whatever it would be, it was sure to not be the student's fault that they got a low grade, and was there anything they could do six weeks after the end of the semester to improve their grade?

Imagine my surprise when the student arrived at my office and requested a breakdown of the grades earned for different parts of the course. Imagine my surprise when the student freely admitted that they hadn't spent as much time as they should have on homework, and had not come to class as often as they should have! And imagine my surprise, when after taking responsibility for his own actions, he didn't beg for a way to change his grade!

Wow, a new president in office, and already things are looking better.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: The Unnatural Inquirer by Simon R. Green

Next book up: The Unnatural Inquirer, by Simon R. Green, copyright 2008, published by Ace Books.


Noir-ish P.I. and all around magical bad-ass guy John Taylor lives in a hidden part of London called the Nightside, where he sticks up for the little guys (sometimes), sticks it to the bad guys (sometimes) and causes trouble for the Authorities who rule there (always). This is the eighth book in a loose series featuring Taylor, where there is always a new McGuffin to be sought, but some recurring characters and plotlines from book to book. In the current entry in the series, Taylor is hired by a sleezy tabloid to find a man who sold them a video purportedly showing hard evidence of the existence of an afterlife, but reneged at the last minute and went into hiding. It turns out that some people really, really don't want the reality of an afterlife confirmed, while others would literally do anything to get proof of life after death, and both sides are willing to kill, or worse, to get what they want.

Taylor's employers saddle him with one of their reporters as a sidekick, a half-succubus hottie who wields her magical sex appeal to get stories, and send him on his search, with a reward of 1,000,000 pounds for recovery of the video. Taylor's special magical talent is finding things -- literally anything he can think of, but someone or something is blocking his talent when he tries to use it find the video or its owner. This leaves him to rely on good old-fashioned leg work, and so (as is usual in this series) we get a mini-tour of the Nightside and its weird and deadly inhabitants as he tracks down leads.

Because this book is patterned after a mystery novel, successive clues lead Taylor closer to his goal, but with escalating encounters with baddies of escalating power, leading to a big reveal at the end.

My Opinion:

A good book, and a lot of fun. I've read a bunch of Green's books and have liked them all. The Nightside books (of which this is the eighth) all follow the same basic plot -- John Taylor is asked to find some object of power, or some missing person, wanders through the dark magical underbelly of society that inhabits the Nightside, discovers that more is going on than he really thought, and discovers something new about the nature of his home, something often distasteful, or horrific. Formulaic, but the formula works. What really makes these books work well is the interesting cast of characters Taylor encounters as he carries out his investigations, numbering punk demi-gods and characters from ancient myth and legend among his friends and acquaintances. Green excels in taking well known mythic characters, giving them a twist, and using them to populate the back alleys of the Nightside, as well as developing new modern mythic characters or borrowing them from other works (versions of C'thulu and Dr. Who are both mentioned in passing).

The Round-up:

Buy this book, and all the others in the series! They're great! Urban fantasy without the Vampire Shagging!

-- Sidereal

What other people have to say about The Unnatural Inquirer:

Michael M. Jones at Green Man Review

Max at Revish

Kimberly Swan at Darque Reviews

Maria at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Shoulder Spreader, Arm Rest Stealer Guy

You know who these guys are. They do not weigh 400 pounds and have no choice due to their natural body configuration. They sit next to you on the airplane. They probably got to their seat before you specifically so they can stake out as much space as possible. They view the flight as a game of Risk, only they're staking out the territory with elbows, shoulders, knees and feet. The space they paid for ends at the mid-line of the arm rest, not two inches into my seat.

And short of physical violence, there is nothing you can do to get them back north of the 38th parallel. And no, shoulder spreader, arm rest stealer dude, I was not trying to pull a Larry Craig on the airplane, I just wanted to be able to sit in my seat without having the right hand side of my body jacked.