Tag Archives: Books

Harry Potter

Today is the day the “last” Harry Potter book gets published. Crazed fans are besieging bookshops, which will start the sales frenzy at midnight. A lot of these crazed fans are adults. Now here’s something the government could do to help all of us: Gather up these people, and send them back to elementary school. Make them take part in forced literacy programs. I may believe that an educated person will read Harry Potter to find out what the hype is all about. I do not see how any educated and intelligent person would actually do so. And there is no way in hell either of the two would queue up for days or hours to get their hands on a stupid children’s book.

I just hope J. K. Rowlings had the guts to kill Harry Potter off, so that we will be spared this insanity in the future.

Update, much later: No such luck.

Parallel Worlds, by Dr. Michio Kaku

I completed the book last weekend. It’s not very big – about 400 pages paperback. I can’t really review the physics; and the book isn’t very technical or mathematical. It’s a book for everybody and I think that anybody with two braincells or more should be able to understand it.

Dr. Kaku describes the history of cosmology, and how modern cosmology came to the realization that parallel universes aren’t as unlikely as once thought. In the end, the jury is still out on the issue, but if the topic fascinates you as much as it does me then you will find this book to be a good overview of the argument for parallel worlds. It’s also quite a compelling read; I basically read it in three evenings.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and thus can recommend it to anybody interested in the topic; however, if you’re a physicist or mathematician you will find this book to be very superficial.

Annals of the Heechee by Frederik Pohl

I read “The Annals of the Heechee” while I was in Detroit. *Annals* is the fourth book of the “Gateway” series by Frederik Pohl.

As you may or may not know the Heechee series centers around the story of Robinette Broadhead who escaped the nasty life of lower-class workers in a dystopian future to become a prospector on the Heecee asteroid, “Gateway”.

The astroid was discovered years before the story begins to contain working space-ships left there by a mysterious race, the Heechee. Using them is extremely risky, however, as the humans don’t know how to control them at all. By sheer luck, Broadhead strikes it rich and becomes a prominent figure who shapes Earth history when mankind finally do encounter Heechee. Things don’t go quite so well for Robinette, as he is killed in book three and converted into a digitized person.

Book 4 picks up some time after the Heechee technology has solved most of mankind’s pressing origin. However, book three had left one loose end that Pohl had to tie up: Namely the reason for why the Heechee ran. This “Foe”, the so-called Assassins is a race of energy beings who have been known to eradicate all intelligent life in the galaxy, and to introduce so much additional matter into the universe to cause its expansion to slow down. Broadhead and the other characters speculated that the Assassins aim to cause a big crunch and to re-create the universe to their liking afterwards.

Unfortunately for Pohl book three not only suffers from the lack of the mysteries and powerful motives that had powered the first two – and to some extent the third – book; it is exceedingly difficult to relate to the protagonists who are all digital personalities. There are a few two-dimensional “special” children with the personality of cardboard. And there are two “former terrorists”, who escape their high-security prison and kidnap aforementioned children. These two antagonists are about as well-developed as the Whale in Hitch-hiker’s Guide. Pohl tries so desperately to build them up as villains that he has to resort to having one of them enjoy child-rape. This is never actually carried out in the book, except for the use of robots as substitutes, and then only hinted at; but it just reads as a cheap device.

The greater plot, however, is about mankind’s contact with the Assassins. These energy-beings use the children to travel to Earth, infiltrate the global computer network, and, oh-wonder, talk to Broadhead as he tries to free the children from their predicament. Unfortunately, Pohl also manages to screw up this villain: Turns out, and I am sorry to spoil this, that the Assassins aren’t really evil. The extermination of intelligent races was just a mistake, one they won’t repeat with mankind and Heechee, and anyway, their manipulation of the universe is a good thing because it will save the universe from the big freeze (when the universe expands so much that stars are extinguished and the entire universe literally freezes solid). By the time this will happen, Mankind and Heechee will have evolved to become energy beings too – because, what afterall are AIs and digitized personalities but beings made of energy?

I have to be honest here – The entire book is one long disappointment. Pohl has obviously lost whatever creative energies he had in creating the series; he thoroughly manages to end the series in one big anticlimax. He’s screwed up two good mysteries (Heechees and Assassins) with boring explanations. He’s screwed up his characters. He’s managed to go out not with a bang, but with a whimper. It’s not that the book is really badly written; it’ll just bore you to death. The only thing that kept me going was the determination to find closure to the Heechee saga. I did not find it, and fans of the series should just ignore the fourth part.

Sometimes leaving things open is better than finding a bad explanation.

I paid $1 for this book in a used bookstore, and I consider it a waste of a perfectly good dollar, not to mention my time.

The Number of the Beast

I’ve finally managed to stomach completing The Number of the Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein. Number of the Beast tells the story of four characters, who have to flee after an attempt on their life, and end up in various parallel universes through the means of a device invented by one of the four. This knowledge of inter-dimensional travel is also the reason why an unknown enemy is trying to kill them. Towards the end, the book turns into a discourse of Heinlein’s favorite world-view (that universes are created by the belief in them; meaning that all fictional worlds actually exist somewhere).

Number of the Beast has been hotly disputed like few other Heinlein works. Fans of the work contend that it is a brilliant parody and a textbook on how not to write a story. Critics claim that Heinlein must have been senile to produce such drivel.

I’m almost inclined to follow the first line of logic. There are sections in the book which are intriguing and well-paced. Unfortunately, the book slows down and the four protagonists begin to squabble among one another almost constantly. At other times, Heinlein degrades into his often-used more or less graphical descriptions of of sex and various very liberal sexual practices. The same pattern holds true for “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”, which is tied to this novel at the end. The well-crafted parts surely are not the work of a senile mind; *Cat* is probably written even better.

Unfortunately for the prospective reader of *Beast*, the critics are correct in that the book is simply too annoying, too tedious to bother with. What good is any book that is so annoying that it makes you want to drop it into the next recycling bin? If Heinlein’s purpose truly was to demonstrate how not to write a book, he failed in that few people will have to patience to complete it, and even less would be able to draw a lesson from it. A more traditional “how to write” textbook might have been a better idea.

As it stands, *Beast* is a horrible book, and you’ll have to be an absolutely die-hard Heinlein fan – or a masochist – to even make it through it, much less to enjoy it. Not recommended for any sane person.

Geisterjäger John Sinclair

I was browsing about at random last night and I came across a mention of the fictional character of John Sinclair. For those of you who don’t know – probably most, especially if you don’t live in Germany – John Sinclair is a “ghost hunter” character of a German horror pulp magazine series.

I remembered the series from when I was a kid. I never read any of it myself, but I do remember the cover, the “John Sinclair” logo, and I think some kids in my school read it. So, it being a boring time of the year, I decided to launch the good old peer to peer clients, and see if I can find a sample issue. And lo and behold, I was surprisingly successful. The download didn’t even take very long, I guess not many people are queuing up.

I read a few pages, and the quality of the writing is what you expect – pretty horrible (no pun intended). But what amazed me was how many of the works were available. I quickly did a search on Google, and came up with some very interesting information.

John Sinclair is written by one “Jason Dark”, a pen name of Helmut Rellergerd. Supposedly, he has written most of the John Sinclair books himself, with some exceptions especially during the early days when the editors did not believe that he could keep up with a weekly publishing schedule.

What’s so amazing is that since the first John Sinclair book, over 1400 books have been published. The common format is a 90-100 pages weekly magazine, but there are also longer novels (which may or may not be included in the 1400 books figure, I think they are). Rellergerds schedule is to write 30 pages per day, on an old mechanical typewriter. He has never visited any of the locations his stories are set at, and he gets most of his inspiration from various books dealing with the occult.

I am pretty convinced I could create stories of the same “quality”, the big question is, would I want to? The articles I found quoted Rellergerd as being paid 2500 DM (1250 Euro) per book in 1998, which adds up for a decent monthly salary, although the frantic pace is probably a killer.

The motivation cannot be artistic in nature either, although the books do sell (a quote of 200 million copies sold in the past 25 years), and there is some strange fascination of such huge series.

At any rate, I found these numbers quite impressive. And who knows, maybe some day I will lock myself away for a vacation and see if I can manage 30 pages a day, and if so, how horrible (again, no pun intended) my results will be.

Ender's Game

I had big trouble sleeping the last week, and thus completed another (unabridged) audiobook. The beauty of audiobooks, as compared to the normal paper ones, is that I can listen to them while I do other things. Sometimes, this is too distracting. But when you are in bed, waiting for sleep to come, it’s at least a very comfortable way to “read” a book: You can pull the cover up to your ears and above all you don’t have to turn on the light.

_Ender’s Game_ was written by Orson Scott Card. It was originally a short story, until Card wanted to write _Speaker for the Dead_. As he put it, he was having problems with that novel until he decided that Ender Wiggin, the protagonist of _Ender’s Game_, should be the main character of _Speaker for the Dead_. He rewrote _Ender’s Game_ into a full novel, which then became a big hit and a cult classic in some circles of the geek crowd.

In the future, on an overcrowded Earth, mankind is looking at its children to find a brilliant leader, a strategist and tactician who would save it from the feared “Third Invasion” by a vicious alien species called the “Buggers”. These children, monitored from early childhood, are recruited into the space-based “Battle School” at the age of six. Here they learn all about military tactic through a series of games. The adult teachers control all facets of their environment, as Ender soon learns, but otherwise have a very “hands off” approach to teaching. And as they believe Ender is their “best hope”, they put an extra effort into pushing him to the limit.

I am not really sure what to make of the book. It’s pretty useless as a war story; we don’t see much of it, nor of the military, their tactics, and so on. It’s equally useless as a science fiction story; the Buggers and the interstellar war are just trappings and the future history and society of mankind are never explored in any real detail. It’s almost as useless as a “coming of age” story. It’s not so useless as a character story, one that describes Ender Wiggin (and to a lesser extent his siblings). They are good, believable characters; unfortunately they’re not really _fun_. Especially Valentine and Peter; Peter manages to be a good character in the early part of the book, a nice threat and motivation to Ender, but he becomes boring quickly. Valentine, well, she’s just redundant. But I guess every book must have a love interest for the hero; and if it’s not a girlfriend to love, you gotta have a sister he can love.

The other characters are just one dimensional, boring, names without substance. This holds true for good guys, bad guys, and neutrals. Everybody pales in comparison to Hero Ender, and thus are given only the most basic of motivations or personalities.

Still, the book makes you continue on. Card’s style is pretty good, and he makes up for what he lacks in creating an interesting setting that way. You’ll also want to see what Colonel Graff, Endre’s hidden “mentor” (and tormentor) will come up with and how Ender will cope. Finally, at least for me, I also wanted to see if the book got any better.

Only it didn’t; it remained insubstantial and predictable to the very end.

If you want to read good Sci Fi, read any number of other books. If you want to read a good war story, read any number of other books. For the military SF subgenre, I heartily recommend Starship Troopers instead (the book, not the “terrible movie”:/Review/195/starship-troopers-dvd!), especially since it includes a lot of moral/philosophical/political debate. Or read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”:/Review/586/the-moon-is-a-harsh-mistress by Heinlein. I cannot even recommend Ender’s Game as the “leadership textbook” I have heard it being described as. I have serious doubts the little bits and peaces Ender learns about leading other soldiers would help anybody but maybe the absolute neophytes.

So, hummm, this comes across as a pretty negative opionion of _Ender’s Game_. Is it a horrible book? No, not really, as in “I have read worse”. But in my humble opinion it is not in any way remarkable. It doesn’t excite, it doesn’t educate, it doesn’t thrill, it doesn’t surprise, but neither does it really bore (except maybe the Peter-and-Valentine bits). If you are stuck on a rainy afternoon, this book is better than nothing. But on your list of books-to-read, it should appear very low in the ranking. _Ender’s Game_ was an afterthought, a novel thrown in when the author was stuck for ideas, and it shows.

Ringworld's Children (Audiobook)

I recently completed “Ringworld’s Children” by Larry Niven. I listened to it in the Blackstone Audiobook version.

Let us look a little at the series first, as I seemingly have yet to publish a review of any of the Ringworld novels.

The book is the fourth novel in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” series, itself set in the “Known World” universe. Basically, a motley crew of aliens – Two humans, a Kzin, and a Pupeteer – arrive at the Ringworld in the novel of the same name. In Ringworld Engineers, they return, albeit with a different pupeteer, and get stranded. Where book two seemed a pale imitation of the original success, Ringworld Throne, the third novel in the series, was just utterly horrible to read. Niven seemed to fixate on Rishatra, the practice of sex outside one’s species, but with another intelligent being. And so, while Ringworld itself already featured a little much sex for a sci fi novel, Ringworld’s Throne had finally degenerated into a rather mindless porn novel. Consequently, it speaks volumes for the coolness of the concept of the Ringworld itself that I forced myself to read the entire book, eager to learn more about it and its inhabitants. One may say I got to know them intimately, and that was more than I bargained for.

No matter. Ringworld’s Children is the result of feedback from fans. The author acknowledges at least one Internet mailing list that was discussing various ideas about Niven’s universe. I am also very certain he noted the negative feedback. To Niven’s honor, his basic style has much improved over Ringworld 3: There is still sex in the book, but it is limited in scope and in a way even necessary for the story.

The book takes off where Ringworld Throne ended and continues from there. The Fringe War – the presence of various species in the Ringworld system, each eager to grab the Ringworld’s secrets for themselves – has turned hot, and threatens the Ringworld and all life on it. Things happen very quickly, and it is difficult to give a synopsis of the action without spoiling the story. Basically, it is the story of the rescue of the stranded mission, and about the end of the Fringe War. He explains the origins of the Ringworld and what happened to it, how it came into its current conditions. Yeah, you got that right: In one novel, Niven resolves all the problems and mysteries he has introduced so far. He even explains away Teela Brown.

It is quite obvious that Niven is tired of the Ringworld series, for one reason or another. I think with the catastrophic quality of the third novel, and the less than perfect performance in books 2 and 4, the series would not attract enough readers to be kept alive. And yet he probably had enough fans that he needed to tie up the loose ends once and for all. To this end, Niven even scoops down to cheating. The whole solution reeks of Deux Ex Machina, and is a violation of established “laws” of Known Space. I may have missed the explanation for it, but I am not going to go through the book a second time.

Overall, I found Children to be a disappointment, but I wasn’t expecting too much anyway. Still, it would have been nice if Larry Niven had come up with something, well, a little more _cool_ than what he did end up writing. At least he did set up one new story arc (the trademarked logo on the autodoc – you will know it when you get to the part) that may result in a good novel if Niven does it right.

So is the book worth reading? Yes…… but only if you read the rest of the series. Because if you did, you will be happy that the whole story has been ended, even if it is executed cheaply. If you have not read all three Ringworld novels, then don’t bother with Children. You’d have to read the rest too, and that’s simply too unpleasant. And if you’ve never read any Ringworld, and aren’t interested in reading all Known Space novels, you should probably just end after reading the first book.

Snow Crash

_Written by Neal Stephenson; Time Warner Audio book edition._

Finally got done with Snow Crash. I had wanted to read this one for a while, so I grabbed the Audio book when I had the opportunity.

Snow Crash is a Cyberpunkish novel published in 1992, and it was a hit. Set in a typically-bleak future, Stephenson weaves a tale of hacking the human mind. He throws together an interesting mix of hacking culture, Sumerian mythology and the question about the origin of languages. Quite an interesting mix.

What normally makes Cyberpunk novels into what they are, are not only their interesting characters; in this case Hiro Protagonist (sic) and YT, a hacker and a teenage skater respectively, thrown together by chance to fight the bad guys. It’s also the background. Stephenson’s world design is… weird. It goes one step beyond the normal Cyberpunk setup, and with a lot of satire, dark humor and just plain out craziness (a japanese rapper named Sushi K. and the Mafia “Cosa Nostra Pizza” franchises are probably the best examples) he paints a picture in which world-wide franchise chains are on the verge of replacing the government. So, for example, Hiro is citizen of a world-wide chain of enclaves owned and run by “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” – not affiliated with the former Crown Colony, of course.

Stephenson goes into some detail to convince us of this world of McDonaldisms run by three-ring-binders and anarchy. It’s not a very believable world; it wasn’t from 1992’s standpoint and it certainly isn’t from today’s, but it’s a fun world.

There are two major problems with the novel. One is the Metaverse, Stephenson’s version of Cyberspace. While Stephenson gives a great many thought to the working of the Metaverse, it just doesn’t come across as plausible. It’s half-believable, and he tries hard to base it in reality, but at some point he just crosses the line where he either doesn’t get it, or, more likely, attempts a dumbed-down version that Joe Average Reader can grasp. I suspect the later. Basically, in the Metaverse, security is non-existing and seems to be based on a combination of consensus and application of fake physics. An intruder to a system gets thrown out “physically” by “guardian daemons”, not simply disconnected or whatever. Yes, you could view it as an abstraction, but it’s so far away from the reality that I’ll just consider it “pulp IT”.

The second problem is one that plagues many stories. Snow Crash is decidedly anti-climatic. Sure, sure, it has a big showdown, lots of action, and it’s well written – technically. But it lacks style and vision. The first 70% of the book are great, but as soon as Hiro enters the Raft, a big floating island with the USS Enterprise at its core – things start to go downhill. It is almost as if Stephenson wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t come up with an original ending. In typical Hollywood fashion, everything just suddenly falls into place. It’s disappointing. I strongly suspect that Snow Crash was written with possible movie version in mind. It’d make a fun movie if done right, but books written to make fun movies usually have shortfalls as books.

In the end, I would still recommend Snow Crash to Cyberpunk fans. It’s a solid effort, the humor is never quite overboard or silly, but zany enough to satisfy. It’s too bad about the ending, but I still thought the entire thing was more entertaining than not and certainly worth my time.

The Audio book version from Time Warner Audio book is very nicely done, very well-read by Jonathan Davis. He gets the tone, the voices and the mood just right and it’s one of the better Audio books I’ve listened to so far.

Halloween Reviews 2002

A short collection of the reviews I wrote for [Halloween](/2002/10/12/halloween-2002/).

1. [The Lost Boys](/2002/10/15/the-lost-boys/)
1. [The Thing from Another World](/2002/10/14/the-thing-from-another-world-1951/)
1. [Quatermass and the Pit](/2002/10/11/quatermass-and-the-pit/)
1. [At the Mountains of Madness](/2002/10/22/at-the-mountains-of-madness-by-h-p-lovecraft/) (Book)


At The Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

It’s still the time before Halloween, and after a little break of reviewing a random movie, I’m back to telling you about the gems of the world of horror.

And this time, it’s in printed form. Yes, you heard right, this bit of macabre halloween goodness comes on dead trees.

H. P. Lovecraft is one of the absolute masters of the genre. Even after seventy years, his stories have not lost any of their appeal. Lovecraft manages to create a strange atmosphere of authenticity, almost as if what he writes about could be really true. In fact, he’s so giood at it, that one of his most famous creations, the dreaded Necronomicon, is widely believed to have been an actual book.

At the Mountains of Madness is presented in the form of an expedition diary or report. A team of scientiests travels to Antarctica, and finds terror. First, strange fossils are discovered, and then an expedition gets slaughtered. The main characters explore further and uncover a hidden truth about earth’s pre-history, shielded by the eternal ice for aeons.

I won’t be giving away more of the plot; rest assured, the story is worth reading. I would not rank it quite as high as my favorite stories by Lovecraft – that would be the Shadow out of Time and the Case Charles Dexter Ward – but it’s still an absolute classic that everybody who enjoys a good chill should read.

Highly recommended.