Thursday, 10 July 2003


Let's deal with *that* book (You-know-who and the Order of the Phœnix). No, I didn't buy it, I had it forced on me by my parents. It's a pure maguffin-hunt, with the final revelation coming as no surprise (if we didn't already know it, it was pretty obvious if one applied the conventions — or should I say clichés — of the genre. There's a lot of teasing before she actually does kill of the character; and it's not a major one in terms of the reader's estimation, only in terms of Master Potter's. There were a number of places where it seemed that even some light copy-editing hadn't been done. let alone the heavy blue pecilling to cut out the fluff.

Permanence by Karl Schroeder – this starts off in Andre Norton mode (outcast adolescent flees repressive family after death of supportive parent), detours into Carol Cherryh territory (she's soon worrying about financing docking fees when her ship will reach the next civilised port of call), and then takes a left turn deep into strange territory, with ForeRunners like you've hardly seen them before, plus a whole new type of interstellar colonisation. Not a book afraid to confront the Fermi Paradox and that last term in the Drake equation – factors which are strongly correlated with my liking interstellar-SF.

Now in paperback, the Scar returns us to the world of China Miévilles Perdido Street Station, to follow what befalls one of the peripheral characters who got out of New Crobuzon while the going was good. Not quite as bleak as its predecessor, it is still just as darkly Gormenghastian in its construction, both in its use of language, and in its setting in an urban labyrinth. I did manage to read this one all in one sitting, which Perdido certainly didn't lend itself to.

Hannibal's Children by John Maddox Roberts (author of the SPQR Roman mysteries) has Rome losing to Hannibal. It's not surprise that this book (#1 of 3? it doesn't say, but the tempo looks right for that) has them preparing to kick much ass in a belated 3rd Punic war. So-so what-if historical fiction. While in that neck of the woods, I'll belatedly mention Thomas Harlan's Oath of Empire sequence, whose final volume should be out in paperback summer '03 – that one is Rome (+magic) never fell, and has a massive Eastern Empire vs Western Empire vs Persia vs Mohammedan four way struggle in the 620's CE. At worst, harmless holiday reading.

Cat people should definitely look out for Varjak Paw, by SF Said (publ. David Fickling Books, which is a Random House imprint). It's an urban-horror story, as the youngest of a family of pedigree cats has to save the day when the old lady who owns their house dies. As the cover puts it "This cat must learn to fight."

In the field of comics, I recommend the Red Star, a feast of post-Soviet nostalgia for the eyes.

In gaming, well, maybe I spend too much time in odd hangouts, like the Singularitarian SL4 mailing list at, but given the title, I had to buy Transhuman Space. From that context, it does feel very timid even within its no-Singularity remit – comparable to 1980s SF like Voice of the Whirlwind, I'd say. Something very twen-cen is expecting people to buy general purpose computers. Having either cycles on demand (grid computing) for general purpose computation, or special purpose appliances (you don't buy a car for the CPU) that might use spare capacity in the grid would be more plausible. The high-tech smart clipboard (descended from the Tablet PC) is perhaps more 2010s rather than 2100s, but would feel a little more sexy-future-gadget than most of the electronic hardware that the game offers.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds – while Chasm City was a detour to fill in some background for his universe, this latest book follows on from the events and disclosures of Revelation Space, and gets us back to the main plot; the discovery that something is wiping out starfaring civilisations, and we're next.
This time more back-story gets filled in as many factions struggle at cross purposes to find ways to cope with the Inhibitors, and the book closes when another little facet of the tale comes to an end. Now there's the frustrating wait for the next part – it feels like there are 2-3 more chunky volumes' worth to come, not counting other side stories.

Marrow by Robert Reed. An STL interstellar setting, set in the lightly populated epoch of the 10^5s CE, with (at least) emortal post-humans as the primary protagonists. It's not afraid to take this to its logical conclusion - a few dozen such are marooned on a marginally habitable planet without equipment. So they respond by spending the next 5000 years building a technological and industrial base sufficient to escape from their exile, and to find who trapped them there.

Security Engineering by Ross Anderson. OK, this is a title I'm also assigning my colleagues for reading, but it is very much the most comprehensive and up to date book on the subject, with plenty of relevant examples of how systems - military and commercial - have failed in the past, usually as the environment in which they operate changes, or the assumptions of what it is that they need to protect changes. The exploits can both be enlightening, and can also be mined for use in modern or soft-cyberpunk type gaming to add an air of verisimilitude.

In similar vein, but definitely more a popular exposition than an instructional text, is Secrets and Lies by Bruce Schneier. This isthe less substantial of the two works.

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken McLeod - His earlier books were all set in one future, but at least had the grace to be free-standing. This one suffers from being a first volume of a trilogy, and is not well paced. There are two strands that alternate chapters (as in his earlier The Stone Canal), which finally meet, but the far future line suffers a lot from keeping mysterious to the reader much of the everyday world of the characters, doesn't well establish the characters (especially their ages - maybe I'm getting old, but I assumed they were a decade or more older than they turned out to be) - and was bloated by a romance sub-plot which failed to advance anything. If only publishers weren't fixated on multi-volume epics, and editors could ply their trade. But it does have Reptoid Greys who would say "Take us to your dealer." which helps to repair things.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. The dangerous idea being that purposeless algorithm is all that's behind the development of life. And that it's algorithms all the way down. And up. Which is what makes people seek refuge in more comfortable magical explanations - and that includes Penrose or Gould as much as the usual suspects. A well reasoned overview of the historical perspective and debunking of contemporary arguments for magic.

There and Back Again by Pat Murphy is a charming re-make of the original work of the same title in the form of a space opera. Not profound literature, but a fun read.

The Stars Dispose/The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner: cookery and other magics in the Medici household in Florence and Rome c1530. Not books to read when you are feeling peckish already; but they do come with recipes. I expect there to be a third installment at some point.

Restoration London by Liza Picard, covering 1660-70 is every bit as interesting as its companion Dr. Johnson's London. It slices things differently, but covers much the same breadth of topics with reference to the source documents. This is the sort of thing an RPG city sourcebook should be like.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene is a non-technical survey of string theory by one of the people at the cutting edge. It suffers from having to first cover relativity and quantum theory in order to set the context - and falls into the all too common trap of explaining relativity as if it were Lorentz' Ether Theory, with its length contractions and time dilations. One of these days someone will write a popular book that starts from the geometric approach as presented in Gravitation (Misner, Thorne Wheeler, 1973), which gives a much more intuitive approach, once one has unlearned the LET-preconceptions. The intro to quantum mechanics isn't too stellar, either. However, after these sections, and we get on to what the book is really all about, he does get into his stride, and, with personal anecdote, but without resort to any equations whatsoever, fills in a lot of gaps between the type of popularizations found in New Scientist or Scientific American articles, and the hairy stuff to be found in John Baez' This week's finds in Mathematical Physics ( home/baez/twfshort.html) - I now understand what the fuss about Calabi-Yau orbifolds is about, even if I can't do the math - they satisfy the generalized equivalent of Einstein's field equation on a vacuum, so are as flat as possible while being scrunched up, so give no new background mass-energy density as a consequence of the compactified dimensions.

All of an Instant by Richard Garfinkle. From the alternate hard SF of Celestial Matters, Garfinkle has turned his hand to time travel, and the fight for History, with an equally novel approach to the genre that makes it make sense that the main characters are Africans and Aboriginal Australians from prehistoric times. The very novelty of the approach makes description difficult without spoiling the developments within the tale; so I'll just say that I recommend it.

London, The Biography by Peter Ackroyd covers from the mists of antiquity, but mainly the last 1000 years in a miscellany that spans the whole history of this ever noisy, ever consuming city. It is more than I can hope to summarise here.

The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is an interesting counterpoint to Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Starting with a brutally direct route from the two-slit experiment to the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, he folds in epistemology, computation and evolution into a credible Theory of Everything (OK, we still need to tidy up the math of super-strings, but that's a detail within this big picture).

Time and Space by Stephen Baxter. I find that a lot of what I feel to be good SF deals in one way or another with the central issue of the Fermi Paradox. This related pair takes two diametrically opposed takes on the issue, starting with the same near future Earth. In the former, we have N=1, and the vision of far deep time of a Universe gardened by human derived intelligences. In the latter life - and star-faring intelligences of nowhere near transcendent technology - are everywhere, and a lot of what looks to be natural is just the action of layer after layer of engineering. They suffer a bit from the "tour of the balloon factory" approach to the genre, but are at least thought provoking, and grist to the SFRPG mill.

King of the City by Michael Moorcock. Despite the cover blurb, this isn't a sequel to Mother London. It interweaves autobiography (the character does things I know MM himself did, like play banjo on Lucky Leif and the Longships) and part tirade against Thatcher, Di, and Blair. It's also, bizarrely, his cyberpunk novel.

Soldiers Live by Glen Cook. Finally, the whole Taglios/Shadowmaster/Kina/Glittering Stone plotline gets resolved. Which means, of course, that this issue, (nearly) everybody dies. Given some of the sprawl over the previous five books, the resolution may not be very tidy, and is downbeat, but overall, satisfying, with a feeling that as best as is possible, closure has been achieved. There are of course some loose ends, and things are set up so that yet another generation of the Black Company can get into further scrapes, but I would hope that he would do something new, at least for a book or two, before succumbing to the temptation to return. If you've stayed the trip with the previous books, you'll enjoy this one.

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