Sunday, August 14, 2005

Only The Lonely

posted by Tim Walters @ 9:20 PM

David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets. A very enjoyable romp through the history, current state, and prospects of astrobiology, completely with highly informal style (there's even a smiley... I'm not sure how I feel about that), humor that's actually funny (read the footnotes!), refreshing humility (not so hard, I guess, when, as he points out, what we actually know about extraterrestrial life can be expressed in one word: nothing), and a couple of entertainingly iconoclastic theories (he thinks that Venus and Io are more likely to have life than Mars, although he admits that they're all long shots). I'll be checking out his previous book, Venus Revealed.

Like, Radical, Dude

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:55 PM

Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution. A nice little book about the Singularity. He divides the current thinking into three strands, each with its own spokesmen: the Heaven scenario (Ray Kurzweil), the Hell scenario (Bill Joy, Francis Fukuyama), and the Prevail scenario (Jaron Lanier). While he's overtly neutral, he seems to be a bit inclined to the last of these, as am I. Given the number of strands converging on superhumanity (Garreau calls them GRIN technologies, for genetic, robotic, information, and nano technologies) it seems likely, for better or worse, that huge changes are afoot, and fairly soon. But both the Heaven and Hell scenarios seem overhyped to me. I'm not convinced that we really have any good idea how to create sentient computers, even when we have sufficiently powerful hardware; likewise, no one really knows how to make universal nano-assemblers, or whether it's even possible. History would seem to indicate that muddling through is more likely than transcendence or destruction.

Initial-Guy Number One

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:40 PM

M.R. James, A Warning To The Curious And Other Stories. Very nice, if a bit samey. At first I wasn't sure I liked his intrusive authorial presence--constantly saying, "I'll just skip this bit"--but once I started thinking of it as oral storytelling, it made sense. The similarity of the stories also makes more sense if you think of them as being doled out one at a time at long intervals.

The plots are rather slight--sometimes barely seeming to make a story at all--but that leaves all the more room for atmosphere and character, which he handles very well. Some of the minor characters could come right out of Dickens.

He also has a wicked sense of humor, which I didn't expect (especially in "Wailing Well").

I'm not sure I'm ready to count myself a full-blown devotee of old-school ghost stories, but this is good stuff.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A cool Link

posted by Todd T @ 9:37 AM

I have not been able to stop chuckling over this bit in Kelly Link's story "Magic for Beginners" in the September 2005 issue of F&SF: a teenager wears a t-shirt that says "I'm so goth I shit tiny vampires".

If she were my friend, I would have to have a shirt made that said: "Yeah, well I'm so goth that tiny vampires shit me."

It's a nice little story, about a group of teens whose life revolves around a TV show, their parents' quirks, and their own quest for the secret key to life. The TV show appears unannounced on unpredictable channels and times, and no one will admit to producing it or acting in it, so in the teen mind it takes on a certain reality, though it is wildly fantastic. Towards the end, Link obliquely asks the reader to consider for a moment - almost like a commercial break in the story - how much of life we watch, and occasionally dress up like the characters, but do not act as though it is all real. At least, that's what I heard her ask. The tale is told in a focused third-person voice that convincingly mimics a teen's thoughts and yet conveys a knowing nod to the reader as well. Perhaps not her most socks-off-knocking story, but well done.

What is art to a hermit?

posted by Todd T @ 9:27 AM

Recently I read of a near-hermit who spent as much of his time as he could manage shut away in his home reading classic literature. What I wonder is how someone who does not value nor have much experience with personal relationships could enjoy classic literature so deeply.

Does literature have a payoff for the reader if they do not care at all about human nature and its joys, horrors and conundrums? Is there a raw value to the writer's art and craft, the use of words, the structure of the thing that can be admired regardless of subject? I suppose there must be, but I think that I would not find it enough on its own. Sure, I can read an adventure story and enjoy it even if there's no apparent difference between the heroes and the monkey men, and I love great style for its own sake, occasionally, and I can find interest in Oulipian exercises, but we're talking classics here. How does one appreciate Jane Austen or F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name the merest sample, without caring about human interaction?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Talking Animals

posted by Tim Walters @ 7:39 AM

Time flies when you're frantically preparing for a gig. Also, I've been beta-reading a friend's unpublished novel, which is not to be blogged. But I have snuck in a few books in the last month and two days:

Lloyd Alexander: Time Cat

I suppose that if I had thought about it, I would have guessed that Alexander had written stuff besides the Prydain books. But I never thought about it until I saw this at my neighbor's yard sale. A boy and his cat wander in time, sometimes to places you might expect (Leonardo's childhood), sometimes to less-familiar territory (early Spanish Peru, heavily sanitized). Pleasant enough, but comes off as more of a travelogue than a story; both the boy and the cat remain observers more than participants.

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman

I read this years ago, and in my recent Fowles excitement decided to revisit it. I'm impressed with how he manages to get away with doing everything a writer isn't supposed to do--whole scenes told not shown, big infodumps, authorial intrusions. In the hands of any writer less deft it would have been lumpy pudding; it's as much an essay on the Victorian age as it is a novel, but never fails to fascinate. I haven't seen the film, but would be very surprised if they managed to capture anything of the book's flavor.

David Nemec: The Rules of Baseball

A breezy anecdotal look at the history of baseball's rules. Interesting, but I often wanted more detail. Also, you get to call a home run a "circuit clout" once per book, tops.

Richard Adams: Watership Down

Some days you just need to grab a beer and a perfect (and perfectly comforting) book and head for the back yard. Adams may be a one-shot author (although that may be selling Shardik a bit short), but what a shot.