Just Read: The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson

The System of the World cover Anyone who has read nearly any of Neal Stephenson’s works will know that he must spend countless hours hunched over books in the library. The Diamond Age, where he recreated Victorian society in a future world; The Sumerian mythology in Snow Crash; and now, the ridiculously complicated Baroque Cycle, of which The System of the World is the last of the three books.

The Baroque Cycle aspires to nothing less than a history of the modern economic system, the end of Alchemy as a respected profession, the final years of the British slave system, the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, the invention of the calculus, and the founding of modern scientific thought; all of this through the accounts of fictional, semi-fictional, and historical personages, the sheer numbers of which will give most people a headache.

Less science fiction that historical fiction, Stephenson somehow manages to conjure up the the things that I like about his “regular” stories: great tech (for the day anyhow,) novelty of ideas, great character backgrounds, and long explanations of should-be-tedious-but-somehow-aren’t points. The construction of the Logic Mill is a particularly well thought out invention, and he even makes complicated financial transactions somehow – well – exciting. Really.

Stephenson also seems to avoid the thing that plagues most of his other works: the horrible, horrible, ending. For those who don’t know, lots of his books Just End, with so many loose ends and unexplained things, it drives some people nuts. Though the first two individual books in this series have this fault, the third wraps up most of the important things neatly. Yes, there are loose ends, but no more so than any other 2700 page books.

Loved it. Looking forward to anything new from Neal. Hopefully he’s not totally beat from hacking out these bludgeon-capable (but eminently readable!) phone books.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game Cover Yes, another book in my long series of “Catching up with authors I should have read years ago.” This book simply is one of the best I’ve read anywhere, period, science fiction or not. Though it’s root comes from a short story from the middle 70’s, it doesn’t feel dated at all (ok – the Warsaw pact subplot could use a little updating.) In fact, it could have been written last year and still been as good. I cannot believe I’ve skipped over this one for so long.

From Ender Wiggin, the archetypical reluctant savior of mankind, to Mazer Rackham, the old veteran who skillfully pushes the unknowing Ender over the edge to do great things, the story puts together a seemingly non-stop series of what has become clich̩d characters, but somehow they come off as originals. You cannot help but feel for Ender as he plays the endless games and suffers the torments of his lesser rivals Рhow he is truly upset after hurting others, yet his whole reason for being is to destroy an entire race. And you can completely relate as he begins the process of re-seeding the universe with the beings he thought destroyed.

If you’ve never read this, get it now, or you’ll hate yourself later for missing out. A master work. Seriously.

Link to Amazon’s book page.

New Cory Doctorow Story on Salon

Anda's Game Cory Doctorow, author of some of my favorite recent sci fi novels, has just published a new short story in Salon called Anda’s Game about a girl getting paid for killing online gaming cheats. If you like it, you should check out some of his other work esepcially Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which you can still download for free in about 400 zillion formats from his personal website, craphound.com. Also, you might want to check out Boing Boing, a cool weblog he helps run that somehow finds the most amazing things online.

Just Read: Darwin’s Children, by Greg Bear

Darwin's Children Book Cover Ok. I didn’t really read it, I listened to the unabridged version from Audible.com. And thank God I did that, because otherwise this thing would be taking up valuable shelf space in my library instead of lurking around on my hard drive. I read and loved Darwin’s Radio, the predecessor to this book. Mr. Bear is obviously a very intelligent person, and likes to put a lot of research into his “hard sci-fi” books, going so far as to solicit corrections from scientists involved in the fields. In Darwin’s Radio, he used this research to great effect, weaving the science in tightly with the plot. However, in this sequel, his efforts just kind of sat there. None of the science portions of the book had *any* effect on the plot whatsoever.

Basically, what you have here is a short and boring story about political infighting in D.C. and xenophobia. Surrounding this boring story is 500 pages of fluff that doesn’t have anything to do with .. well .. anything at all. You’ve got page after page of description, medical and scientific explanations and super MRI “action scenes” for someone’s feeling that God is present with them. Wonderful. Except that this didn’t move the story forward at all, didn’t effect that character’s actions, and was completely extraneous.

Another example – in the beginning of the book, the virus children are getting sick and dying at incredible rates. Sounds like the start of a medical mystery. Except that the whole lead up to this event, all the time spent on the scientific explanation of humans making the kids sick just kind of goes away. You turn the page, and suddenly, it’s as if it hasn’t happened. All the remaining kids are healthy, years older, apparently immune to the viruses that attacked them, and it’s never mentioned again.

While listening to this book, it seemed as if most of the stuff you were getting information on was fed into a huge machine and then completely different situations are developed with little or no explanation of how we got there or why. Just turn a page and suddenly we’re years down the road and things are Just Different Now.

All in all, a bad book. Good science research, but poorly integrated with the plot and characters.

Just Read: Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling

In marked contrast with his latest effort, Zenith Angle, Zeitgeist actually was a book I could sink my eyes into. Ephemeral children who eat only things that are white; reality determined by someone’s idea of their place in the “narrative”; Turkish, Greek, and Russian mafia; half-realized global pop stars; mass graves; ghostly grandparents and more.

I went into this with a little trepidation. I was sick of novels with Y2K as a central theme about 1997 or so. But despite the jacket blurb, this isn’t really about the turn of the clock, but about reality and your place in it being determined by what other people think (or in some cases, what an individual believes about himself.)

Focusing on a half crazed band promoter and general scammer, the book follows what he thinks as being his narrative. He goes from a rich promoter to a Mexican-impersonating border crosser with no ID to responsible father working at a convenience store to fake shaman to trucking company executive to software promoter. Sterling even manages to weave this guy into the big Turkish scandal of 1997, itself a very strange event.

Well worth a read.

Just Read: The Scar, by China Miéville

Miéville’s followup to to his well received Perdido Street Station, The Scar leaves New Crobuzon behind, following Bellis (who was mentioned tangentially in Perdido) being press ganged by pirates from a floating city called Armada. In some ways (and for certain people) Armada actually is a haven from the “civilized” world, offering employment and a non-judgmental attitude toward the remade (you did read Perdido, right?) and other outcasts from the cities. Bellis isn’t quite satisfied with hew new home, and unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that will nearly destroy Armada from within and without.

The story follows the ambitious and secret plans of one of the cities rulers, a couple known as the Lovers, to capture a huge sea creature to tow the city, and eventually to tap a power that will change the dynamics of Armada forever. This book adds quite bit to the history of Bas-Lag, and gives a much better view of the various races, classes, and technologies of the period. The mosquito people in particular are exceptionally interesting.

You can read this without reading Perdido, but it helps, and readers of the first one will feel right at home with this title. Now I just have to read The Iron Council. Yes, I’m only like two years behind on my reading list.

Ray Kurzweil On Aging

Ray Kurzweil recently gave a talk at MIT where he laid out his ideas for stopping aging. While in the future, Kurzweil expects the merging of man and machine, effectively granting immortality, at the moment he is relying on nearly 250 different dietary supplements (taken daily!) He claims that this regiment gives him the body of a 40 year old, despite being 56 himself. This article in the Washington Post gives more details of his talk. All of this is apparently a promotion for his new book. Read More.

Just Read: Gettings Things Done, By David Allen

Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of those stereotypical books sitting collecting dust on the CEO’s office shelf. Or so I thought when someone recommended it to me. As it turns out, it actually has a good system for a certain group of people for (ahem) getting things done.

First massive generalization about this book: for people who have procrastination as a problem, this book will be a godsend. It forces you to get all of your projects (defined as anything with more than one step) together and write it all down and organize your information. From there, the system described makes you define “next actions” that need to be completed to move forward on those projects.

Second massive generalization: for people who can’t prioritize, this thing is useless. For all the good the system does for getting organized, it really doesn’t help with what to do first. It mainly claims to rely on your intuition to define your “next actions.” Fine for some people, but not others.

Because of these two generalizations, this system seems to be well received by geeks in general, who have trouble with keeping too much state in their heads but can generally prioritize their tasks once they have the whole picture. For more information and a great resource for OS X users of this system, check out 43 Folders, a website that has lists of tools and common experiences of it’s users.

Just Read: Ringworld, Larry niven

Just to get it out of the way, yes I just now read (or in this case listened to) this book. I woke up one day and said, “Hey! I need to read a book published 34 years ago!” Everyone says it’s a classic, so I figured I must be missing something. So I dove in and downloaded it from Audible, burned some CDs and I was off and running.

I did like the book – the concept of the Ringworld is pretty interesting, as is all the speculation about how it got there, who inhabits it, etc. That whole side of the book, great, no problem. However, there was a lot of stuff that felt *very* dated – as I suspect most of our current science fiction books will sound 30 years from now. The constant references to tapes, communicator disks, etc., just wore on me after a while. It felt like “The World of Tomorrow!”

The pacing was frenetic. One thing you can’t criticize Niven for was dragging something out. Twenty minutes into the book and everyone’s recruited, on board, and heading to who knows where for no damned good reason. A *tad* unrealistic, but something Neal Stephenson would have made in to a 400 page book in itself, complete with a 50 page digression on the history of the Kzinti monetary system and how it relates to modern human government. So I guess it’s not all bad.

Overall I’m glad I read (listened) to it. I’m just not looking forward to re-reading Altered Carbon in 2036.