Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Here Be (More) Dragons

Review: Dragon’s Kin by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey


There are worlds we adore from the first novel: Harry Potter. Honor Harrington. Flinx and Pip. For many of us, the first of those instant loves was with the third world of Rukbat, called Pern. Here, there were dragons.

Together with Anne McCaffrey, we explored the consequences of a telempathic, flight-capable companion which selected its life-long partners. Every lonely child could dwell for the space of reading in a place where one might be plucked up from the ordinary and removed forever to the realm of heroes.

McCaffrey’s own hobbies and interests echoed throughout the Pern novels. Song and music, art and craft- and cot-hold technology flavored the tales of great dragons and tiny fire-dragons. 

Then between one breath and the next, it seemed, the author lost the taste for dragons. She launched the Acorna series. She co-authored novels with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Elizabeth Moon. Meanwhile, Pern languished unconsidered.

With Dragon’s Kin, 
Anne got back on the dragon. The novel is a real addition to the Pern oevre, with the genuine flavor of McCaffrey’s writing, and the adolescent heros that won us to this world in the first place. Co-authored by Anne’s son Todd, the book tells how miner’s son Kindan finds the dragon-power and kinship in the watch-whers. 

Todd’s story is slightly darker than his mother’s have been. No less than ten miners die in the course of the story, and Kindan and his friend Zenor are both orphaned. But like all of the Pern stories, the story ends with growth and satisfaction, not fairy-tale happiness—and the promise of a sequel. 

That’s happy ending enough for me!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

My DNA Made Me Do It!

Review: Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner

Not since the Age of Enlightenment had the world seen such a crew of intellectual cutthroats, divinely assured of their rights of succession and their place in history. The philosophes of the Enlightenment also had their share of tall, thin, prognathous young men, and many of their contemporaries found them (in the words of Horace Walpole) “solemn, arrogant, dictatorial coxcombs—I need not say superlatively disagreeable.”

This book is the tale of the “intellectual cutthroats” who tracked down the mechanism of Mendelian inheritance, DNA. 

From Watson and Crick (whose names are famously linked to the discovery) to Brooklyn-born Seymour Benzer (whose name is virtually unknown, even in scientific circles outside DNA research), Weiner has put together a brilliant presentation of the unfolding of a new science.

After the eureka of Watson and Crick, one of the challenges for the new science (which did not yet call itself molecular biology) was to connect these classical maps of the gene with the new model of the double helix. It was Benzer who thought of a way to do it. Not long after Watson and Crick announced their discovery, Benzer hit on a plan that might unite the old revolution and the new revolution: classical genetics and molecular biology.

Weiner’s “cast of characters” reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century iconoclastic science: Richard Feynman, Max Delbrück, E.O. Wilson, geneticists Watson and Crick and Ronald Konopka, and the “Fly Room” scientists T.H. Morgan (whose name was given to the chromosome map unit “centimorgan”), Alfred Sturtevant and Ed Lewis. At the center of the tale, though, is Seymour Benzer, an innovative thinker who took the inheritance paradigm one step further, asking, can behavior be inherited?
With the discovery of the clock gene, the sense of time, mysterious for so many centuries, was no longer a mystery that could be observed only from the outside. Now it could be explored as a mechanism from the inside. This discovery implied that behavior itself could now be charted and mapped as precisely as any other aspect of inheritance. Qualities that people had always thought of… as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.

Benzer’s band of “cutthroat intellectuals” would have to battle for the new paradigm, both within the scientific community and outside it. Weiner’s book is, therefore a war story; but one in which the victories are celebrated by all combatants, and coups are bloodless. 

For those interested in behavioral science, genetics, or the concept of paradigm change, it is a fascinating read.

Liner Note:

I was surprised that the ground-breaking crystallography of Rosalind Franklin, whose photographs of the helical structure supplied the data that Watson and Crick used to achieve their leap of insight, was scarcely mentioned. Of course, since Franklin died before the Nobel was awarded, she was not a recipient. And like Benzer, she might have been forgotten, aside from DNA researchers, had it not been for an amazing BBC Life Story episode usually referred to as The Race for the Double Helix. The movie, which gives full weight to Franklin's contribution, was only released on VHS, and is largely unavailable now.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Revolt Against Asimov’s Second Empire

Review: Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury


One of the pillars upon which the giant reputation of Isaac Asimov still rests is the sweeping Foundation Trilogy.


These three novels detail how mathematician and historian Hari Seldon foresaw a 30-millennium-long Galaxy-wide collapse of civilization, and devised a plan to shorten those coming dark ages to a single millennium. Seldon planned an openly-acknowledged path of historical development for the newly-created Encyclopedia Foundation located on a world at the fringe of the Empire whose collapse Seldon predicted. 

Periodically, this Foundation would face a Seldon Event, a psychohistorical crisis, in which a threat to its existence which would constrain the nascent second empire to follow a single, pre-determined, path. To keep the Seldon Plan on track, a second, hidden foundation consisting of heirs to Seldon’s science of psychohistory would act as “wizards behind the screen” to ensure the coming of the Second Empire.

In Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury looks at the re-established Second Empire, over 2700 years after the crafting of the Seldon Plan. In this far-distant future, Seldon’s name is lost in the mists of history, and psychohistory is a occult practice, whose “Psycholars” maintain their Galactic rule by keeping the tenets of their science a deep secret. Citizens of the second empire exist in their complex society only with the aid of a mind-enhancing outgrowth of Asimov’s mind-probe, the quantum-mechanical familiar, or “fam”. On the surface, all is pleasant and peaceful.

Beneath that calm, however, are roiling currents of revolution. And bobbing along, pulled this way and that by these currents, is Eron Osa, a mathematical genius with a modified fam. We meet Osa as he is stripped of his fam for an unspecified crime. Condemned to live without his memories (but warned by the rebel Psycholar Hahukum Konn not to use the “prosthetic” fam supplied by the ruling council), Osa is forced to live by his native wit—even to the extent of actually reading with his eyes (gasp!) a purloined book of the Founder’s lessons as he attempts to recover the science he has lost.

We then flash back to Eron’s childhood, where we meet Hiranimus Scogil, another rebel, who is seeking a brilliant student to place as a sleeper in the Psycholar’s Lyceum on “Splendid Wisdom,” the seat of the Second Empire. Scogil places his student in the hands of Nemia of l’Armontag, who modifies his fam, ostensibly to give him faster access times, but with a longer-term plan to allow the mysterious Oversee organization to activate their sleeper when desired. 

We meet Kikaju Jama, yet another schemer bent on manipulating events by training and releasing agents, the tattooed barkeep Rigone of Splendid Wisdom, and Frightfulperson Otaria of the Calmer Seas, all of whom have designs upon the mind and future of Eron Osa. In deliciously complex inter-woven character histories, Kingsbury examines the human desire to manipulate others, on the personal as well as the Galactic scale.

Wrapped in layers of philosophy, history, metrical science and astrology, Kingsbury has also given us a closer look at the central premise of Asimov’s trilogy: that what men can predict, men can control. He then challenges this premise, exploring themes of free will vs. prediction; the scalability of government styles, knowledge acquisition and knowledge retention; and the quantum-cat nature of both prediction and history.

This is a demanding read, with sly references to a wide range of science-fictional works in addition to its densely-woven core story. You can enjoy the novel as a mystery (why does Eron Osa merit the execution of his fam?), as science fiction (will the various rebels succeed in overthrowing the Psycholars’ rule, and what is the mechanism by which knowledge slides into myth?), or as skillful homage to Asimov. 

However you read it, the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Liner Note

At the time of this review, the book was not available on Kindle.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Light Horror from a Dark Past

Review: The Boys Are Back in Town by Christopher Golden


Like Rod Serling. Stephen Donaldson. L. Frank Baum crossed with Stephen King.” 

Reviewers have struggled to place Christopher Golden’s work into a specific niche of the horror genre, but previous books have defied such placement. The Boys Are Back in Town is no different.

Oh, Boys begins typically enough, B-movie script expectable. Will James is a world-weary tabloid reporter, collecting yet another story before he heads back to the home town for a tenth-year high-school reunion. 

He’s made plans to meet with all his old friends while back home, exchanging eMails and setting up dinner plans with each of them. Aside from Mike Lebo, though, Will hasn’t seen most of them since high school. 

Then he arrives for the reunion, and his innocent inquiries after Mike are met with shocked stares. Everyone else remembers Mike Lebo’s death during their senior year.

As Will examines his memories, a darker history than he recalled before the reunion begins to emerge. There’s a reason he’s not an award-winning journalist. There’s a reason Will alone remembers Mike Lebo alive after graduation. And there’s a sinister reason Mike eMailed him before the reunion.

It’s all tied up with the black magic these high-school friends practiced ten years ago. Will finds his world changing around him as his memories shift. He must travel back in time to undo the disastrous events that have set an entire high school class onto a twisted path.


Golden writes dialogue in a very “new age” style, with the choppy rhythm of eMail, tweets, and voice-mail. Yet he uses a descriptive technique straight out of Dashiel Hammett: objective, blunt and unemotional. The combination works to create a modern atmosphere for some very creepy action.

The novel lightly explores the way our destinies are determined by choices we make, and how our identity is inextricable from our memories. Like most horror novels, the message is superficial. If you’re not looking for anything deep and lasting, this is an excellent choice.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Galaxy Quest It's Not—And That's Good!

Review: The Orville, Fox TV, Initial Episodes with Seth McFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, and—Liam Neeson!?


Touted as a comedy, set in the "hallowed" Star Trek universe—sort of—and helmed by its writer/producer, and often, director Seth McFarlane (Family Guy, but also Ted and Ted2), The Orville on Fox Thursdays was not on on my watch schedule. I have a favorite comedic space-opera movie in Galaxy Quest, and sincerely doubted this TV show could match it.

Then I got a nudge from a friend on Gab, and went to Fox OnDemand to catch Episode 1. I wound up watching four episodes in a row.

Surprise! I don't know who was blowing air up whose skirts, but whether with intention or not, this is no comedy. Oh, it has its light-hearted moments. With McFarlane as its principal writer, of course it has plenty of puerile humor. (The "best helmsman in the Fleet" has been beached for "drawing penises on pretty much everything.") The zany mix of aliens in the Fleet are weirder than otherwise expected, including a mucusoid green blob that keeps propositioning the Doctor, finally settling for an evening alone, "just me and my toothpaste."

But the stories are classic Star Trek serious. Episode 1 has Captain Ed Mercer (McFarlane again) battling his XO ex-wife (Palicki) publicly on the bridge, and privately sniping back and forth whenever the opportunity arises. Everyone in the ship, it becomes obvious, is in on the issue, casually debatingor bettingon the outcome of their spats. Others have criticized the marital squabbling and the crew's absorption in it; I found it contributed to the realism. What people anywhere, anytime don't gossip about such things? 

Can you spell Kardashian?

A screamingly funny bit in fact literally brought in the Kardashians as a solution to a kidnapping. Helmsman Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) defeats an enemy ship by "humping the donkey", then wonders why his CO didn't ask where the egg produced by alien Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon in a Worf-like appliance) came from, complaining, "How is that not the first thing you ask?"

So there's comedy in this "comedy-drama," just a whole lot more drama. And if it's a bit (or even a lot) strained, I'm willing to stick with it a while longer. I'll give McFarlane and the other writers a chance to grow into the drama-writing.

You see, I remember the initial episodes of Star Trek TOS. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Great Book, Appalling Movie

Original DVD Cover Image, 1998

Review: Starship Troopers with Casper van Diem, Michael  Ironside vs. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein


Challenged to name a movie that fell disappointingly short of its source, my first reaction is Starship Troopers, out in a 20th anniversary edition this month.

Two decades ago, I was tremendously excited when I learned they would make this book into a movie, even as I doubted they would capture its flavor in full. The problem is internal dialogue. Truly interesting books take us into the inner life of their main characters; in revealing those meditations and self-recriminations, they expose their souls. 

Without that insight, fictional characters are as intellectually interesting as rock-em-sock-em robots.

Typically, movies substitute external dialogue and narrative for these inner debates. An example of this done well can be seen in the 1984 version of Dune. Without the narrative voiced by Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) and Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) in that film, its story would be impenetrable. With it, and by dint of voicing much of the book’s mental dialogue, it succeeds as an adaptation.

So I knew it would not be impossible to capture the philosophy- and social-commentary-laden substance of Heinlein’s novel. Then I saw it in the theatrical release, and was sorely disappointed. This is simply not Heinlein’s story.

Oh, the bugs are there. The sneak attack by this alien hive-dwelling race that wipes out Johnny Rico’s home city is in the movie. The Mobile Infantry are there, with their armored suits complete with heads-up displays, pocket nukes and jump jets. What didn’t survive the cut? Only the reason why Johnny joins the service in the first place.

Heinlein’s novel hinges on two social differences in the world of Starship Troopers. First, only veterans—those who have chosen to place their lives “between their loved home and the war’s desolation”—have the right to vote. Civilians do not have that right, and neither do serving troopers. Heinlein justifies this very succinctly:
Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. “You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?” ”The difference,” I answered carefully, ” lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”

Second, it is anyone’s choice to enlist at any time after their 18th birthday. The services will find something for the enlistee to do, to allow them to earn the franchise. But if they then go AWOL, resign, or are drummed out for any reason, they never have the opportunity to try again. Politicians from dogcatcher to President must, under this system, be veterans, and there are no “reserves”.

The movie barely mentions either of these two critical concepts. Worse, the main source informing Rico’s choices, his high school “History and Moral Philosophy” teacher, Col. DuBois (who pointed his stump at Johnny in the quote from the novel), is barely there in the first scenes, and not mentioned again. These ideas are presented in hit-and-miss fashion, as if they are part of the recruit training after enlistment, instead of why recruits choose to enlist in the first place.

Moving the important motivation to enlist into the recruit training has another consequence—we do not get a real sense of the conflict between Rico and his father. As a result, his reaction when his home city is attacked is shallow. He’s now an orphan, okay, move on. This robs the viewer of one of the most poignant scenes Heinlein has written, when as an officer, Rico is relying on his master sergeant.

Lieutenant Rasczak (Michael Ironside) is given most of the lines that Col. DuBois has in the novel. So we get a tepid, PC-diluted “Violence has resolved more conflicts than anything else. The contrary opinion that violence doesn’t solve anything is merely wishful thinking at its worst,” instead of
Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that “violence never settles anything” I would advise to conjure the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.

If this was the only shortcut, I would not complain. It is not. Sergeant Zim is another crucial character whose best lines from the book are given to Lt. Rasczak, or simply omitted. Rico’s relationship with training sergeant Zim is formative for him. Again, the movie simply ignores this part of the story.

In addition, the movie completely omits Juan Rico’s choice to go to officer training, and how this perspective changes his assessment of his life and responsibilities. I can see leaving this out to save time (and provide grist for a sequel). I suspect, however, that the movie’s creators were simply in a hurry to confront Rico with the alien bugs.

The other changes are minor, and do not, in my opinion, ruin the story. In Heinlein’s novel, women do not serve in the Mobile Infantry; Heinlein was a product of his time and served as a Naval officer in the 40s. He does give women a unique role that men cannot, for the most part, perform as well. In addition, Johnny’s best friend Carl does not end up as a commanding colonel in the novel—to describe where he does would be a spoiler. But these are minor changes, and I can roll with them. 

What I miss are the thoughts about why defensive war is necessary, and how best to conduct a war once one is begun. Once again, the words are those of Col. DuBois:
If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off?… Of course not. You’d paddle it. There can be circumstances when it would be just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an axe. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force.

Dune has been remade, and the second version has qualities that the first did not. I cling to the hope that Starship Troopers will be remade by someone with the vision to see past the great special effects opportunity to create a movie worthy of the power of Robert Heinlein’s novel.

In the meantime, skip the movie. Read the book.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Strength of Warped Materials

Review: Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown, Compilation edited by Robert A. Baker


Anyone who’s had to revise ISO9000 documents, review a prosy thesis paper, or wade through jargon in an industry magazine, will welcome this compilation with heart-felt relief. These selections from the notorious 50s underground publication The Worm-Runner’s Digest are guaranteed to make you smile.

Consider, for example, “Postal System Input Buffer Device” by Joe and Gil Robertson Obsborne. A simple action, putting an envelope into a mailbox, right? Not in formal instructionese, which must specify that to operate such an input device requires:
a) a passenger in normal working condition mounted upright on the front seat or (b) a driver having at least one arm on the right-hand side which is six feet long and double-jointed at the wrist and elbow.

Then there’s F.E. Warburton’s “Terns,” which reliably informs us that because terns have webbed feet, they will be found in the same books as albatrosses and other waterfowl; further that terns won’t eat anything but fish, so “it is no use putting out bits of suet and coconut for them in the winter”. Besides,
Baby terns just a few days old are the cutest, fluffiest little things. They will sit on your hand just as friendly as anything, going “chirp, chirp” and looking at you with their big bright eyes and vomiting half-digested fish all over your shirt.

Two versions of the 23rd Psalm are included. The first, by Alan Simpson and R.A. Baker, commences: “The Lord is my external-internal integrative mechanism, I shall not be deprived of gratification for my viscerogenic hungers or my need dispositions…”. The second, from science fiction writer Lester del Rey starts: “The AEC is my shepherd, I shall not live. It maketh me to lie down in radiant pastures…”.

Hugh Sinclair contributed the brilliant “Hiawatha’s Lipid,” which simply has to be read entire. Sinclair spoofs the classic poem in an effort for which he concedes he “sought inspiration in innumerable manhattans—taken, of course, because they were good for me since the day’s immobility of listening to papers on atheroma and serum cholesterol had no doubt silted up my vessels, and alcohol is one of the few effective solvents.”
From his briefcase Hiawatha / Took his paper for the meeting… / Started on the introduction, / Giving first a brief description / Of the Proto-Keynesian period / When all fats in equal measure / Raised cholesterol in serum…

Berkeley engineer Charles Siem’s paper supplies the book’s title. “A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown.” This piece includes a wonderfully evocative figure, Force Distribution of Cantilever Beam, complete with rotational and compressional component—in which the beam’s profile is distinctly mammalian. The critical element of the force diagram is identified, with the caveat:
If the female is naturally blessed with sufficient pectoral development, she can supply this very vital force and maintain the elemental strip at equilibrium. If she is not, the engineer has to supply this force by artificial methods.

Sometimes the bibliography is more interesting than the paper, as R. Arnold Le Win points out in “Logarithmic and Arythmic Expression of a Physiological Function.” In fact, the only thing in this item is the list of references, which include:
7. Shadrach, C., Meshach, H., and Abednego, H. and C.. An anaerobic heat resistant monoflagellate ornithine producing sulfur non-purple bacterium isolated from the rectum of a goat. J.Bact., 70: 1-11,1944.
10. Aschitz, K., and Spitz, G. Urea excretion, growth hormone production, and caudal temperature of the 6-week-old hypophysectomized, adrenalextomized, tonsillectomized castrated albino hamster. Proc.Soc.Exp.Biol.& Med.. 50: 2-4, 1956.
13. Strickstaw, A. The fats of cats. 27.Glycero-1, 4-alpha-feritol, a new liquid component of the milk of the lion. Felis leo. Biochem.J. 73: 108-113, 1946.


I can only excerpt a few high points here. To read the rest will take some digging, since Stress Analysis is, sadly, out of print. A slightly more recent compilation from The Worm-Runner’s Digest titled Science, Sex and Sacred Cows (which I reviewed in Spoofing Science Before the Ig Nobel Prize) is more available, as is The Worm Re-Turns. None are available on Kindle. Yet.