Mad Times

“To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” – Wendell Berry

July 28th, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Payback City by John Barnes

Boing Boing pointed to a collection of links to author’s web pages a while back which led me to John Barnes’s blog which is primarily concerned with his efforts to sell the research materials and drafts of his past works to people who will keep them together and make them available for future research. In amongst the posts on this odd activity I discovered that he had self-published an unsellable novel as an e-book.

Barnes is on my buy-on-sight list, so no sooner had I seen that a book existed than I paid the four bucks to download a PDF (ack!) of this novel. (We’ll leave out the bit about the too much time I spent converting the PDF into something I could reasonably read on my Palm.)

Barnes includes front matter exploring how the book aged and why it was unpublishable. The short version of that tale is that it was written about a terrorist attack on an American city carried out by Muslims. And it was written in 1997. For various typical publishing reasons it didn’t get printed before Fall of 2001, and after that it was decidedly out of date.

The book is set in Detroit, Michigan. It follows three characters. First is Kit Miles, an arson investigator attempting to track down a new incendiary device used to set several especially nasty fires. Second is Adhem, one of the terrorists who is trying to find the same devices, only he knows just what they are because they were stolen from him. Finally, there’s Kit’s sister LaTonya who’s an FBI agent working undercover for a possibly corrupt congressman.

The characters are well drawn and the prose is largely up to Barnes’s usual page-turner quality. That said, you probably shouldn’t bother reading this unless you’re a die-hard Barnes fan.

The book clearly needed another rewrite even before true events made its fiction seem less strange. It’s heavily front-loaded with exposition and what turns out to be a subplot with many characters and events that don’t end up having more than a passing relevance to the main thrust of the book which plays out largely in the last few chapters.

Still, I read the whole thing. It was an interesting peek into how even a fairly experienced and talented writer like Barnes benefits from the editorial process.

July 28th, 2007 at 11:02 am

Circle and square

Circle and square

July 21st, 2007 at 11:38 am


If you see this post then you’re seeing our shiny new server. I need to replace all the recently uploaded images (I have them, just haven’t returned them to their rightful places). Otherwise things look pretty normal.

Email to tomecat addresses may be delayed for as much as a day due to systems caching the old address. If you feel you’re not getting through, try me at my gmail address

Now to figure out what to do with all this space.

July 20th, 2007 at 1:00 am

One-click library searching

Merlin over at 43folders pointed to John Udell’s venerable but still spiffy library lookup bookmarklet generator. I couldn’t figure out what values to use to make it work with the King County Library System catalog, but I was able to hack the code to make it work. Since most of my friends who use the library probably aren’t going to do that themselves, I’m sticking it here for them to grab.

What this does is if you’re looking at a book on Amazon or any other page that displays the book’s ISBN in a recognizable way, you click on the link I’m about to share and it will open a new window showing the search results for that ISBN in the KCLS catalog.

Drag this link: KCLS-it to the link bar in your browser. Then go look something up at Powell’s and once you’ve got the book you want showing, click the link in your link bar. It should open a new window (or tab) showing that book in the catalog. If the book isn’t in the system it will show you a list of items around that ISBN that are in the catalog.

Yell if you have problems and I’ll try to help you out.

July 19th, 2007 at 12:17 am

Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Abstract of a rocket launch pad with a person silhouetted in the foregroundShould read “by Spider Robinson from an outline (or most of one) by Robert A Heinlein.” Yes, Heinlein has been dead for a while. What happened was that his literary executor found an outline and some notes for a novel he never got around to writing. Spider was a pretty logical choice to write it, being one of the biggest Heinlein fanboys around and having been frequently compared to the master.

The reason I suggest putting Spider’s name first is that this is very much a Spider Robinson book. No one would mistake it for a lost Heinlein novel. But that’s not to say that Heinlein’s hand isn’t visible. The shape of the plot is more Heinlein than Robinson. In particular, nobody saves the world by getting psychic in this book, so that’s good. The main character mostly feels like one of the characters from Heinlein’s completed juveniles despite the fact that he talks like a Robinson character.

I’m pretty close to the ideal audience for this book. I love Spider like an eccentric uncle, warts and all. I dig, but don’t deify Heinlein. I really like sf with interstellar rocket ships with really big crews (and I’m willing to suspend a whole lot of disbelief to get them, even enough to swallow a ship driven by raw brainpower.) If you don’t like Spider you should probably skip this one even if you adore Heinlein.

I can’t really talk about the plot in a spoiler-free way because there’s a twist in the first chapter. (It’s not a spoiler to say that. The second sentence of the book makes it clear there’s going to be a twist, you just don’t know what it’s going to be.) I can say that the book quickly moves into the story of a young man who chooses to ship out on a near-light-speed journey to colonize a planet in another star system. The trip will take 20 years ship time and the rest of the book takes place on the ship.

I liked it. Some of the Spiderisms are laid on a little thick (Zen, transcendence through music, telepathy (didn’t say there wasn’t any, just said it didn’t save the world), interpersonal relations), but they’re nicely leavened with Heinlein’s emphasis on personal integrity and growth. And to Spider’s credit, I think he did a great job filling in the missing end of the outline (yes, Heinlein’s planned ending was lost).

July 18th, 2007 at 11:55 pm

The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley (repeat)

I couldn’t find the cover of the old paperback version I read on the internets so no picture. I saw this book referred to in some blog in the last few weeks so when I was looking for something to take on a recent trip to Portland I grabbed it for a reread. Fun with cloning and brain backups. I lost count of how many different versions of the main character there are by the end of the book. Less than six I think. Some of them die (quite a few, now that I think about it). In the universe of this book we can grow a clone of your body up to the equivalent of 18 years in a week or two. Add to that the ability to do backup and restore of the state of your brain (all your memories and personality), and people have become essentially immortal. But that’s all just background. Multiple concurrent copies of a person are illegal, but not impossible. The book concerns itself with the ways in which the criminal element games the system.

The title refers to a message stream from deep space that contains info about how to do all sorts of useful things (like make quick clones and brain backups). It’s not clear until pretty late in the book why that should be its title.

I love reading Varley for the way he plays with these kinds of cool sfnal ideas by plunking smart capable Heinleinesque characters into impossible situations and letting them try to find ways out of them with the tools at hand.

July 18th, 2007 at 11:21 pm

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (repeat)

futuristic picture of a girl framed by gritty steel plates and gearsSubtitled “or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. The “Diamond Age” part of the title refers to an era ushered in by the perfection of nanotechnology and the ability to build diamonds (or nearly anything else) from raw elements and the parallel ability to use that tech to make stuff (like windows) out of diamond. The book has two primary narrative tracks. The first centers on John Percival Hackworth, a master programmer of nano computers. He is commissioned to build a computer in the form of a book which is optimized to interact with young girls and give them the kinds of experiences that will make them independent and capable women. The commissioned object is for the granddaughter of his wealthy patron, but another copy finds its way into the hands of Nell, a little girl with a drug addicted mother, an absent father, and a seemingly less-than-bright future. And Nell is, of course, the other primary character.

The technology in the book is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. It’s really cool, but it’s hard to see how it would work.

Last time I read it my suspension of disbelief was strained by the idea of Victorian social mores coming back in a high-tech society, but for some reason I found that part easier to take this time. Not sure if that’s because the world has changed to make the idea more plausible or if I just got that particular skepticism out of my system.

This is my favorite Stephenson novel for its combination of tight plotting, revolutionary philosophy, fully drawn characters, and cool stuff.

July 13th, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Lounge act

Cat in a box

Same box as last week (different cat).

July 11th, 2007 at 9:21 pm

The Nymphos of Rocky Flats by Mario Acevedo

Smiling guy with prominent canines and a glowing cigarette (or something)You can’t swing a wooden stake in the fiction section these days without impaling a vampires-in-the-modern-world book. This one is distinguished by the fact that its vampire protagonist was turned while following his duties as a soldier in Iraq. Then he came back home and became (what else?) a private investigator. Goth meet noir. And if those aren’t enough genres for you, it’s also going for humor and sex in addition to the military, supernatural, and PI flavors. The result is a melange as unpalatable to me as the blood-based meals the protagonist subsists on.

July 11th, 2007 at 9:03 pm

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Pretty girl with a sword (and spurs for some reason)Sequel of sorts to Kushner’s Swordspoint, though Becky read this without having read that and managed just fine. As the book opens, our heroine Katherine is learning that in order to settle a lawsuit that is crippling her family she must go to the city (unnamed as in the other books set there, but fans (and the author) have taken to calling it Riverside) and, train as a sword fighter in the house of her uncle, the Mad Duke Tremontaine. Got that?

Katherine is mostly excited by the prospect of going to the city at first, but as she learns just how serious the Duke is about the sword fighting, things become much more ambiguous for her. She does manage to make a friend as soon as she arrives in the person of Lady Artemisia Fitz-Levi. But they are soon divided and Lady Fitz-Levi has complications of her own to deal with as we see in a parallel narrative thread.

Despite the other story lines, the book is primarily the tale of Katherine’s coming of age. She starts changing on the first page of the book and keeps on refining herself all the way to the end. What makes the book irresistible is that nearly every other character in it is busy going through their own changes at the same time. I can’t recall ever reading a book where so many essentially minor characters were so well drawn and given their own little arcs to follow.

This richness of characterization includes the character of the city itself which Kushner clearly adores. The city and its culture are similar to the typical fantasy setting, but Kusher manages to distinguish it well enough that what would be anachronisticly modern attitudes instead seem perfectly natural. In particular, this society has virtually no stigma on sexual relationships between members of the same gender. And while that is a significant factor in the lives of a number of the characters, I just drew more attention to the fact with that sentence than Kushner does in the whole book.

If I have a gripe with the book at all (and I barely do), it is that Kushner perhaps loves her characters a bit too much and so their trials are resolved, if not painlessly, then with somewhat implausible neatness.

output here