Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Emsley: The 13th Element - Sordid Tale of Science and Alchemy

The 13th Element always reminds me of a hot mineral springs pool in winter. I first took this book by John Emsley (with several others) to a weekend at a spa, and devoured it with unseemly haste and occasional chuckles that brought frowns to the faces of others in the quiet room.

Surrounded by the mephitic steam of the soaking pools, I was immersed in this tale of the discovery and use of phosphorus for matches, weapons, murder and medicine. The least controversial exploitation of phosphorus (match heads) turns out to have had nationalist implications—even the Salvation Army was involved! This and other tales of the early Royal Society researches into the element prepared me to enjoy the fictional exploits in Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Phosphorus is part of nerve gas compounds from WWI, WWII—and Sarin. The author concludes, in part, "The chemistry of organophosphates presents us, not with the dichotomy of either good or evil, but with a spectrum which ranges from the essential (DNA) at one to the deadliest of agents (nerve gases) at the other."

It is altogether a fascinating read. (Mineral spa not required.)

Three science reviews include the following insight: Other reviewers have outlined in some detail the contents of this book but let me emphasize that the "science" never gets in the way of the narrative. Anyone who has even a passing interest in natural science should find this book an excellent read. Gerry Rising also has a useful review with a little more information than some may want before they've read the book.

Opening Hooks - Feedback Your Favorites

Kate's Grab Bag has an interesting topic worth visiting: Your favorite opening from a book.

Drop in and drop your choice in the comments!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Baxter: Evolution - Growth of Mind and Consciousness

In a sweeping story, Stephen Baxter has chosen to tell the tale of human Evolution, from our earliest mammal ancestor through present day and into a post-human future. Bringing together factual elements to paint a picture of what it might have really been like to live in these "geologically interesting" times, Baxter begins with a mass-extinction event, the comet-fall that spelled the end of the reign of dinosaurs.

By following individuals in the line ancestral to humans, he traces the rise of human thought and consciousness, the coming of religious beliefs, human societies and nations, war and extinctions. Characterizing these developing minds as actors in understandable dramas of survival helps Baxter present some deep concepts without being pompous or preachy, and set the stage for what might really come next.

For example, at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, ~65 million years ago [mya] and just after the comet-fall: "...here and there living things moved in the ash: insects like ants and cockroaches and beetles, snails, frogs, salamanders, turtles, lizards, crocodiles - creatures that had been able to hide in mud or deep water - and many, many mammals... It was as if the world ran with rats." In this time, proto-primates already have brains "large and complex enough to require self-referential cleansing...", and so they dream.

An arboreal primate in the arctic jungles of ~51 mya is threatened by his own reflection: "From inside the water two primates were looking out at him... He could not smell the male, could not tell if he was kin or stranger... [He] could recognize others of his species [but]... could not recognize himself, for his mind did not contain the ability to look inward."

About 5 mya, proto-hominid "Capo" leads his ape-troop on the coast of North Africa with guile born of nascent consciousness: "He sat under a tree, dropped his hammer stone, picked up a stick and began to work methodically to clean out the spaces between his toes. He knew if he made a dash for his palm nuts the others would get there first and pilfer them... This new ability had even made him self-aware, in a new way. The best way to model the contents of another's mind was to be able to study your own. If... I believed what she does, what would I do? It was an inward look, a reflection: the birth of consciousness. If Capo had been shown his face in a mirror, he would have known it was him..."

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, even though I do not agree with Baxter's rather grim projection beyond the present. Then again, if it isn't speculative, it just isn't science fiction!

I found this novel strongly reminiscent of Michener's The Source, in the way he uses fictional characters to make the history more approachable. Random House echoes the cover text, the reason I decided to buy this book.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Intriguing Views from Blogspot Owners

Gaussian Stock Market Strategies? Information processing...

Platonian Dialogs? One blogger's exloration into philosophy.

Sensible mom? Sensible commentary on the right side of politics and life.

French Libertarians? Each for himself! (AltaVista's Babel Fish translator works well enough to get the gist...)

Tempest Nanowrimo? Cute story with mermen.

Joshua Trees? Interesting images.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

McPhee: The Control of Nature - Los Angeles Against the Mountains

The Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee writes with a style informed by the journalist he was and the sciences he has explored for The New Yorker magazine for decades. When you read a piece by McPhee, you hear honest echoes of the people and places and concepts he explores.

I just re-read my favorite McPhee bit, Los Angeles Against the Mountains from The Control of Nature. Perhaps because at the time, I lived near those "over-steepened slopes" of the San Gabriel Mountains, I first read this piece with a distinct frisson. McPhee tells of the debris flows, a little-known regional problem.

The source material for a multi-ton flow builds up over decades, and needs specific triggering conditions to mobilize, making this a particular problem in a place where even last week is ancient history. Without realizing the danger, developers, realtors, home buyers, and other new-comers to the area are often led to occupy hazardous properties. The good news, as they say, is that 30, even 50, years may go by without a killer debris flow.

The bad news is that when it does come, you can't outrun it. And everything it sweeps through is added to the tonnage of the flow: cars, refridgerators, garden sheds, iron gates. Los Angeles has tried to control the flows by trenching debris basins above the built-up areas, and (theoretically, anyway) emptying them periodically so the flows are trapped.

And it would work, too, except that people keep building their houses above the basins. Right in the path of the next debris flow.

McPhee's own website has bites of reviews, and of course Amazon readers have added their thoughts.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Blogging Under the Covers

Okay, this isn't about a book. It's about the blog. Sure, I want to spend more time reading, and that drove my choice of engine. (Blogger - the free stuff under the hood of so many blogsites!).

But I still got sucked into the HTML wiring. And if you notice strange new gizmos sticking out from under the vanilla hood, don't pay me no mind. I'm just eating a Gopher...*

So instead of devouring Stephen Baxter's Evolution, or spending an hour or two munching my way through Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves, I'm joining blogdexes and reading up on safe ways to tinker with the wiring. I'm sure it's a passing phase.

*Sorry about the misquote from a great old Hudson and Landry skit. It was the rattlesnake Lloyd at the campfire of the prospectors about whom they said, "Don't pay 'im no mind. He's eating a Gopher."

Schulman: Three by Schulman - From the Vaults of Memory

Max Schulman was a popular screenwriter and humorist in the 1950's, with movie and TV credits like The Tender Trap, Rally Round the Flag, Boys! and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I first found his books on my father's bookshelf in this collection that includes Barefoot Boy with Cheek*, The Feather Merchants and Not as a Crocodile.

The first of the three tells the story of the naive country boy who goes off to college, and how he fares there. At one point, this "barefoot boy" goes off into an ecstatic description of a notable meal at home (consisting mostly of bread and lard in "mass quantities", as I recall): "My, how we eat! My aunt Alice B. Toklas*, she et so much once, she got the bloat and we had to roll her home. Lord, how we eat!" So you can see why this particular passage would spring to my mind during the dessert course of the Thanksgiving Day dinner.

If you can find this book (now, sadly, out of print) in a used book store or yard sale, grab it up. The characters and situations are only dated in the fact that no one uses a cell phone or computer - otherwise, if you've been to college, you've met every one of the people in Barefoot Boy with Cheek. Well, perhaps you've not encountered the Communist activiste whose nude body our barefoot boy confronted in shock: "What's the matter?" she snapped. "Haven't you ever seen supernumerary nipples before?" "Yes," he replied, "but always in even numbers..."

*The title comes from a poem that begins "Blessings on thee, little man, barefoot boy with cheek of tan!" Schulman's readers in the 50's would have been familiar with the poem, and also have known Alice B. Toklas as the name of Gertrude Stein's lover...

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Baxter: Evolution - First Look

Just opened this one (page 10). It promises to be one of Stephen Baxter's typical stunning reads. Lots of grist for thought and need for digestion, impossible to manage in the midst of Thanksgiving dinner! I believe I'll come back for a helping of Baxter once the pumpkin pie has cleared center stage...

The Random House squib echoes the cover text, which is the reason I decided to buy this book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Kress: Crossfire - Choosing Sides When You Cannot Choose Peace

The cover reminds us that Nancy Kress is a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, for the brilliant and challenging Beggars in Spain. Like that book, Crossfire explores how people relate to the "other" in their midst.

Initially, we learn about a culturally diverse group who have set out to colonize a new world. Fundamental Moslems, a closely-knit family of well-educated achievers, a tribe of American Indians, a substantial community of Quakers, and a small band of soldiers - and one possibly criminal leader - must find a way to coexist in the new world. Before the humans can really begin this task, they discover aliens - not just one kind, but two. They have made first contact with the two sides in a hot war; and like it or not, they must choose sides or be cut down by the crossfire.

This promises to be the first of a series. (Unfortunately, in my opinion. I had stopped buying Kress' stuff because later novels in the Sleepless cycle failed to come anywhere near the brilliance of Beggars in Spain.) But Crossfire is another intelligent, well-written tale, suitable in and of itself for a lot of thought. And if you're into series, it is also an admirable intro to a new cycle.

The Bookloons review by Hillary Williamson does not give away the story. I can also recommend the brief review by Donna Scanlon of Rambles, who is "known to tell stories whenever she has a captive audience, for which she resorts rarely to duct tape...".

A third reviewer, Elizabeth Carey of NESFA, goes into more detail, at the risk of spoiling some of the surprise.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Moore: Fluke - Surfing in the Ozone

Christopher Moore has tapped into the weird and wonderful in every book, and Fluke is no exception. From middle-aged "action nerd" Nate Quinn with his angst over and attraction to nubile research assistant Amy, the joyously strange blond Rasta stoner Kona ( Preston Applebaum), and marine photographer Clay and his "pirate booty" girlfriend Claire, Moore has woven another sleigh-ride through the land of odd.

Nate is in Maui researching whale behavior, specifically, why humpback whales sing. So what is he supposed to think when he spots a humpback male whose flukes sport the legend "Bite Me"? Someone is so threatened by his research that they trash his office, format his hard drives, sink Clay's boat and cause his only photo of the fluke graffiti to vanish. And why does the Old Broad who provides his funding insist he needs to take a pastrami sandwich with hot mustard along on his next dive?

If you haven't run into Moore before, be warned! Nothing is sacred, everything is fair game for his humor. I guarantee you'll howl over the tale of why Nate's ex-wife became a lesbian... (The last time I was taken over the edge so uncontrollably was when I read the turkey-bowling scene in Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends.) It's not what you expect; in fact, it's nothing you can expect. Just strap in for the ride.

Infinity Plus has a brief review that takes the Fluke story much too seriously, IMHO. Moore has a better squib at his "official web site". And Rick Kleffel warns us to avoid the Amazon booklist review "unless you want it ruined."

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Lackey: The Fairy Godmother - Making Happy Endings


I don't pick up everything Mercedes Lackey writes, because I have problems with most stories in the sword-and-sorcery genre. Once in a while, though, an S&S writer picks a fresh viewpoint in this murky swamp, and you get something worth reading. So I was pleased that in The Fairy Godmother, Lackey not only gives us that fresh view, but also succeeds in applying it to dozens of well-known older fairy tales.

She does this by telling them from the perspective of a fairy godmother striving to achieve happy endings for the poor wights on her watch list. I especially enjoyed allusive references to stories that don't get much play anymore in this age of political correctness.

With a step-mother and two selfish sisters, Elena is already pre-destined for her part in a Cinderella tale—problem is, the local prince is only four years old. In the magical system she inhabits, this means she will die tragically. Fortunately for Elena, she discovers another option: beat the system by becoming a fairy godmother herself. Then she discovers that the system always bites back!

Lackey does have a talent for dialog, especially that of strong-willed, intelligent women. (Her alchemical spinster The Fire Rose comes to mind - perhaps Lackey should have been tapped to write Angelina Jolie's lines in Alexander.)

The book was apparently written to inaugurate a new "romantic SF" line, reviewed as uncomplicated, but likeable.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Dennett: Freedom Evolves

Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, for several reasons. The first is perhaps most trivial: he writes to communicate, not obfuscate. (On second thought, that's not trivial at all.) His works include web links, for one thing. For another, he consistently chooses accessible illustrations to make his points.

Just for example, in the first section of Freedom Evolves, Dennett is discussing whether determinism (the idea that all outcomes/choices/decisions are set by the initial conditions, that as Andrew Lloyd Webber has Judas complain to Jesus, "everything's fixed, and you can't change it..." ) means that no one is responsible for their choices in life.

To illustrate that determinism - whether or not true - cannot affect guilt, Dennett tells the story of the French Foreign Legionnaire who is hated by all at the fort. Tom, knowing that he will be sent on patrol the next morning, poisons the water in his canteen. Dick, unaware of Tom's actions, empties the Legionnaire's canteen and fills it with dry sand. Harry, also unaware of the previous interventions, pokes a small hole in the canteen so its contents will trickle away as the hated fellow marches out in the morning. When the Legionnaire does march off into the desert with his adulterated canteen, and eventually perishes of the lack of potable water, which man is responsible for his death?

Dennett has said of Freedom Evolves, "If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There’s been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it’s all independent of determinism." [italics mine, quote from ReasonOnline interview linked below]

Exercise for my reader: Was the Legionnaire's death by dehydration avoidable?

This can only be a first visit because Freedom Evolves is not a book I can grasp with a quick scan; and that's the second reason I like Dennett's work. I will read several pages, then be stunned by the light of reason. Aha! And I must go reread this article, or that book, or even turn back to reread a few pages in Dennett, in the light of a new understanding. So I'll most likely be posting more in coming days as I digest...

Dennett pre-dates my paper journal, so I'll share the other things I've read: Darwin's Dangerous Idea was the first Dennett-encounter for me. I enjoyed so much the philosophical exploration of this scientific revolution (and the pro- and con- arguments of the day, and of today) that I went Dennett-hunting.

Consciousness Explained was next. I found this the toughest to read, because I was also reading Stephen Pinker's How We Think at the time, and many of Dennett's thoughts on Thought run exactly counter to Pinker's. Then I got Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and had to reread -both- books in the light of what I learned.

The article in the Guardian is more an introduction to the author than to his ideas. Kenan Malik has an insightful review of Freedom Evolves. Other writings by Dennett are available on the Web: Postmodernism and truth, The Bright Stuff and Two Brights Side-by-Side from the New York Times, etc. Search on keywords "naturalistic" or "determinist" and "Daniel Dennett" for more.

Kelby Mason does a good job of boiling down the naturalistic world view in Thoughts as Tools: The Meme in Daniel Dennett's Work. See also the interview with Dennett in Reason Online.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Drake: Mountain Magic (The Old Nathan Stories)

Old Nathan—Drake's contribution to the anthology—is odd man out in several senses in this collection. He's a loner, almost a hermit, instead of a solid family man surrounded by like-powered individuals; at first glance he's not possessed of astounding powers; and David Drake's Old Nathan stories in Mountain Magic are concerned with magic in the grimoire and grim-sacrifice tradition.

Old Nathan's power arises from his strength of mind and a particular weakness of body. He grows older in the stories, faces loss of those he loves, and beats the Devil in gruesomely satisfying ways. I was reminded of Russian folk tales in which the hero is never guaranteed a victory. If the Old Nathan stories were the only ones in the collection, it would still be worth reading!

See Justin Bischel at Amazon for a brief "draft" review, also the customer reviews at Page One includes a note from Ryk E. Spoor.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Kuttner: Mountain Magic (The Hogben Stories)

Henry Kuttner had the best gimmick for getting past explaining the unexplainable future science, and it's been flattered by imitation ever since: a character would "just do" whatever without knowing why it would work. (Think of the creation of the anti-gravity device in Sturgeon's More Than Human.)

In the Hogben Stories, Shaunk lives with his Maw and Paw, Grandpa, baby brother and assorted uncles in their mountain shanty. When Shaunk needs power at a tumble-down water mill, he and his Maw just cobble together a power source that turns out to be a nuclear pile. Naturally, the family winds up in jail for it (for it is an election year and a corrupt local pol needs an issue to drive his bid for the governorship). It goes skew in unexpectable ways from there -- with the just comeuppance for the bad guy that is another standard with Kuttner.

That's just one of four stories collected here, all really good sci-fi froth. I missed the editor's input, common in anthologies, that might have told why (if) the Kuttner Hogben tales hadn't been collected elsewhere since their first appearance in Thrilling Wonder Stories in the late 40's. Mountain Magic does not appear to have an editor, although I have seen Eric Flint listed as editor on several sites.

There is a surprising dearth of reviews -- Justin Bischel at Amazon has a pithy one that made me thirsty. See also the customer reviews at Page One for a note from one of the authors!

Flint and Spoor: Mountain Magic (Diamonds Are Forever)

The idea that myths and fairy tales might have a basis in reality is usually good fodder for a story. Start with the Nome King of Oz, put two ingenious writers to work on it, and couple it to a story theme like mountain men and magic -- you've got some tasty froth already bubbling up here!

Mountain Magic begins with a story by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor (whose name I always thought must be an anagram) that ought to be set to Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King. No deep thought here, just spelunking for the hard stuff—because Diamonds Are Forever. Yummy! I was vaguely reminded of The People stories by Zenna Henderson. (Now having been reminded, I have to reread them. But first, to finish the Kuttner and Drake stories...)

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Mullis: Dancing Naked in the Mind Field

I knew The Emperor of Scent was jogging my memory about something, and finally recalled the flavor of thought from Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis' autobiographical Dancing in the Mind Field. There it was again—that joyful sense of discovery you remember from your childhood explorations of the world, the belief that you can learn it all if you just keep your eyes and mind open.

Of course, not many of us have childhood memories that include compounding tear gas or keeping laboratory refridgerators stocked with radioactive isotopes.

Kary Mullis was awarded the Nobel for chemistry in 1993, but even before the prize ceremony in Stockholm, his discovery was changing lives. Before Mullis, DNA evidence had to be fresh and abundant in order to be useful in forensic science. Mullis uncovered a way to replicate DNA, expanding the existing sample of whatever size until you have enough to be useful. Move over, Gil Grissom—Kary Mullis is the real star of CSI!

Mullis doesn't hesitate to discuss the use of his discovery—one essay titled Fear and Lawyers in Las Angeles covers the multi-layered part he played in the sensational trial of OJ Simpson. But the collection of essays in the book is more about that journey of discovery than it is about the road signs along the way. Don't look to learn how to put together a polymerase chain reaction. You might learn how to survive the bite of the brown recluse spider, choose nutritional foods, determine which scientist is telling the truth in a debate. Or you might simply trip the light fantastic with Kary Mullis. He's a marvelous dancer!

See the review on Salon.com—where else would you expect to find such an iconoclast?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Burr: Emperor of Scent - Paradigms Up the Nose

What if the political process applied to scientific enquiry? Truth would be determined by vote, and the scientist with the most side-boys would carry the day. Conferences would be raucous with chants: "Birkowitz Lied, and Bean-Plants Died!" Picketers would demand a recount on the human genome.

That the reality of scientific inquiry and publishing lies somewhere south of ideal, Apollonian dispassion (but maybe somewhere north of party politics) is brilliantly set forth in Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, an inside account of a paradigm shift in the field of the human sense of smell.

Luca Turin, an affable fellow with a nose for a mystery, has parlayed his ability to discern and describe the scent of perfumes into a recognized position as a man who knows what he smells. When he follows his nose into a cross-disciplinary inquiry into how we do this -- how we tell sulfurous smells like rotten egg and onion apart from floral scents like iris and violet -- and further, develops a theory that challenges the accepted "religion" of how our senses operate, he runs head-on into the politics of science.

Burr tells the story with all the rich aromas and foul odors needed to create the bouquet. For those with multi-media needs, a great companion piece is the BBC production A Code in the Nose, which illustrates the first part of the book, and gives us the advantage of hearing and seeing Turin's arguments.

That Turin's company Flexitral has been able to use his theory to create scents to order (read: make money) is one of the strongest arguments that his idea accords closely with reality. Realists should not need further argument to make the paradigm shift.

If the book draws you into the science, check out the website for Flexitral, and also the Random House interview with the author.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Stephenson: Cryptonomicon - Sexual Codes (PS warning)

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is, as you might guess from the title, heavily involved with decoding signals. One of the more enticing threads within the story covers the sexual codes of the times (circa WWII and day-after-tomorrow), and how the men at the center of the story decipher the sometimes cryptic signals sent by the women they encounter.

In addition to his war-time horniness when faced with a warm Qwlhmian girl in his hammock (in a very cold tower), cryptologist Lawrence Waterhouse also needs to figure out the relationship of Alan Turing with his Teutonic buddy during their pre-war rambles. His grandson Randy is equally blind-sided by his politically-adept (if scientifically and ethically bankrupt) girlfriend.

In WWII Philippines, Bobby Shaftoe meets the extended family of his desired mate. He must please the parents, her brothers and uncles in addition to carrying her up the steep cathedral steps. When Randy meets the granddaughter of this war-time union, neither is really supplied with the code book for translating the contact.

Voluntary chastity (i.e. no masturbation) and the acquisition of really good shoes and really heavy furniture turn out to be requirements for this coupling.

A review by Wes Unruh can be found at The Green Man Review site.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Tepper: The Singer from the Sea - Consuming Posterity

Sheri Tepper's The Singer from the Sea is a strongly-stressed parable about consuming.

The base story is engaging; as we follow an upper-crust maiden through her "prep-school" training and her debut at court, we learn the Genevieve has powers not possessed by other girls in her society. This foundational tale is almost like a Regency novel, complete with evil old suitors for the young girl's hand, a deceased mother and an heroic (though unqualified) young man who strives to help Genevieve as he falls in love with her.

One by one, the author pours additional, darker flavors into this stew: a king collects precious treasures, then consigns them to a rubbishy pile; men are made widowers over and over as each wife dies tragically; and an addictive substance consumes more and more of the attention and prosperity of the land.

Tepper's work is always richly seasoned with ecological, religious, sociological and feminist arguments. It is ironic, then, that The Singer from the Sea can be read as a warning of the dangers of fetal stem cell research.

The desire to live longer and better lives is a basic human yearning. Tepper's story warns us that "mining" the wombs of women and the lives of our children to sate the hunger for long life will lead us, in the end, to barrenness and death.

Reviews range widely from those who agree with Tepper's world-view and those who see her books as simple stories in a mythos of her own.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Willis: Passage - That Bright Tunnel

Connie Willis usually gives us well-researched stories embroidered with solid historical facts, and grounded with realistic characters. If that's what you expect from Passage, you will not be disappointed.

A researcher into near-death-experiences (NDEs), Joanna Lander negotiates the physical maze of a sprawling research hospital, the memory maze of an Alzheimer's patient, the ethical maze of near-death inquiries, the political maze of competition for research subjects, and a metaphysical dream-maze of the last hours on the Titanic. Willis invites us to join her in the unraveling of these interpenetrated passages.

So is this, as one reviewer has it, "Flatliners for thinking people"? What does lie beyond that bright tunnel? Willis' Passage is less an answer than a gradual swapping of metaphors, one for the other. I enjoyed the trip enormously!

As with any of Willis' work, it helps if you have a basic understanding of the historical fabric underpinning her story. A Night to Remember, Walter Lord's classic tale of the sinking of the Titanic, is a better guide than the recent movie. But in this case, she has provided ample clues and quotes to illuminate her scenes and bring the reader along.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Asprin & Evans: For King and Country - Time Travel Terrorists

For King and Country is an interesting take on time travel by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans. In this tale, only the time-traveler's mind can move back through time. On arrival, it provides guidance to (or takes over) a person in the destination era, in a schizophrenic guest/host relationship.

The story is driven by an IRA terrorist who is known to have acquired a place on the time-exploration team, and complicated by uncertainty about his (or her) precise identity. The terrorist's goal is to assassinate King Arthur, and so prevent the ascendancy of Britain over Ireland.

But how will the terrorist, who is after all unable to carry modern weaponry back to Arthurian times, manage to create this mayhem? The answer is the terrorist's knowledge of a bioweapon, available anywhere (even today), and a plan to "weaponize" and deliver it to the best effect.

This is not an engrossing novel; it is easy to put down and pick up again later. But it is enjoyable and well-written, with engaging characters and a diverting story, worth reading for the plot twists and sense of everyday life in Arthurian Britain and Ireland.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

"Rule of 33" and the "Jane Chord"

There are so many books to read, and so little time to do it. (Not complaining, mind you, just an observation.) I had to develop a way to decide if I wanted to take a chance on a new author. Years ago, I settled on the Rule of 33.

Favorites and old friends (like Tepper, Stephenson, Dennett, Weber, Moon, Brin, Pinker, Moore, and on...) don't have to pass my rule. I know I will enjoy their stuff, and not get lost in some arcane stylistic maze. But how do I decide to buy a book when I've never encountered the writer before?

Others read the cover notes (so do I), or an except at the front of the book (if present - too many publishers now substitute other people's opinions). Some people rely on reviewers in print or online to guide their choices.

But the "Rule of 33" is a direct sample that works for me. I start at the top of page 33 and read no further than page 35. The story should be well underway by then, and I can get a real sense of the writer's style and ability to draw me into the story. Together with the cover notes, cover art (ghastly or ultra-mystic cover art sends the book right back to the shelf, without application of the rule), I can build my personal library with few missteps.

The Jane Chord is found by combining the first (non-article) word with the last. When you get a sentence, it is sometimes interesting by itself. For instance, John McPhee's article Cooling the Lava starts "Cooling the lava was Thorbjorn's idea..." and ends "...hubris enough to provoke a new eruption." So the Jane Chord is "Cooling eruption." I don't use the Jane Chord to make a buy decision, but find it of interest once I've finished a book.