Monday, June 13, 2016

Undiscovered America

Review: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson


As a pre-teen boy growing up in Iowa, Bill Bryson read National Geographics and yearned to be a European boy, to travel, to be someplace else. Small-town America was just so rural. 

And in many books (In a Sunburned Country, Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson's African Diary), Bryson has done exactly that. Even better, his witty travelogues invite us to join him for good times and bad.

In Britain it had been a year without summer. Wet spring had merged imperceptibly into bleak autumn. For months the sky had remained a depthless gray. Sometimes it rained, but mostly it was just dull, a land without shadows. It was like living inside Tupperware.

The Lost Continent brings Bryson back to America, back to the rural scenery he once despised. He plans to travel a route across the mid-west in homage to his father. Along the twisted secondary-highway route, Bryson reconnects with the country of his birth, as manifested in the small towns, parks, and wayside stops he visits. His road trip expands to cover the whole American scene, from the largest city to the grubbiest desert cafe-grocery store-gas station. This is Bill Bryson, after all—we visit the pits as often as the heights.
In the morning I awoke early and experienced that sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scattering of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio.

A Bryson travelogue is a series of poignant or pithy vignettes, stirred together into a potage of unique flavor. It will never be too sweet. New York: "Next door a store sold pornographic videos, right there on Fifth Avenue. My favorite was Yiddish Erotica, Volume 2. What could this possibly consist of...?" 

Wells, NV, had: "absolutely, in my opinion, the worst food I have ever had in America, at any time, under any circumstances..."; Savannah, GA: a Hyatt Regency: "from the F-ck You school of architecture..." 

But then he praises Detroit's Henry Ford Museum: "Grudgingly I paid the admission charge and went in. But almost from the moment I passed through the portals I was enthralled." And Charleston, SC: "I walked away the afternoon, up and down the peaceful streets, secretly admiring all these impossibly happy and good-looking people and their wonderful homes and rich, perfect lives."

Bryson's decades living in England make so much about America appear fresh to him, from TV commercials to the "chichi" signs on a shop door. Like many readers, I watched to see if Bryson would visit my hometown, and then waited with bated breath to see if it would receive that rare sweet comment, or strike a sour note. Even Bryson himself is not immune; he detoured from his planned route to visit Bryson City, and found himself regretting he did not have a crowbar to remove a souvenir sign.

I particularly fancied having the Bryson City Church of Christ sign beside my front gate in England and being able to put up different messages each week like REPENT NOW, LIMEYS.

I like Bill Bryson's books; I've been to many of the places he describesor I feel that I have, after reading them. It's the way he has of taking us along, like passengers in the back seat of the family car. We may not pick the itinerary, but there we are, enjoying and suffering by turns as Bryson drives.

Are we there yet?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lemon 3D Printer: A "Life" Lesson

It should say: "WARNING! LEMON!"

Review: Orion Delta 3D Printer from SeeMeCNC

Our Bukito 3D printer reached its end-of-life after a yeoman performance that ran somewhere around 3500 printing hours, over the course of a year and a half. It included lots of transport and "waving" the printer during operation, since the Bukito is designed for portability. 

We knew the Orion Delta, purchased with a MatterControl Touch controller through Amazon, would not match the portability of the Bukito, but we certainly expected a longer life than 75-100 printing hours.

Yes, that's the total. Out of the box, it worked well, and we began to climb the learning curve of the new controller with its dedicated slicing and rendering software. We had just over a month of using the new Delta printer at around half the printing hours per week as the Bukito. Then we began to have heating problems with the unit. 

First to appear were odd blobs of plastic studded on otherwise-smooth objects. Then extrusion began halting mid-output, with models "printing air." The extruder nozzle was still moving above the half-finished object, but no plastic was coming out. Observing conditions when this happened, we noticed the temperature was reading low. Something was wrong with the equipment: either the sensor was misreading, or the extruder was not heating sufficiently. 

We researched the problem online, and discovered many complaints about failure of the heating resistors for this model. One user told of his experience in following the recommended repair of his self-assembled printer: after the resistors were replaced, he had a fire that torched the printer and his workbench.

We don't have to worry, I assured my partner. We bought the unit fully assembled. But no, this is the response we got from SeeMeCNC support on the matter:
It sounds like the issue that you have is with the heating resistors. They have simply come to the end of their life and will need to be replaced. I have attached a PDF that shows where the heating resistors are located on the hot end. [emphasis mine]

The support email concluded with instructions about how to test this diagnosis with a multi-meter and where to obtain parts and a guide to replacing them in the printer.

We told them we were uncomfortable trying this repair at home, and asked for a different option, perhaps a modular replacement that could be plugged in. We got a support ticket number and a promise of followup "within a few days". That was May 30th.

On June 6th, my partner sent a reminder ("Seven days is a few, right?") 


Yesterday, still having heard nothing after 12 days of waiting, we sent an urgent request for an immediate response: "On May 30th, you told us that we would have a reply in a few days. Seven days later, having heard nothing more from you, I sent a reminder, to which we have still had no reply... I don't want to call 'lemon' on this equipment, but saying that we need to essentially rebuild the equipment we purchased from you via Amazon after such a short use is not a reasonable support response."

Still no response. It's a pity, and a waste of the $1200+ we spent to acquire it fully assembled with the dedicated controller. The controller works well, and we can put it to use with our next 3D printer, when we scrape together enough extra funds to purchase one.

But the printer itself is a lemon.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Engineer's Choices: Complexity, Reliability and Politics

Review: Beyond Engineering by Robert Pool

Robert Pool, author of the controversial look at the biological basis of gender, Eve’s Rib, and longtime contributor to several distinguished science and technical journals, did not realize what a complex topic he had chosen when he began this book. Originally, he intended to write “a straight-forward treatment of the commercial nuclear industry—its history, its problems, and its potential for the future.” Instead, he discovered a Byzantine maze of inter-connected choices, society shaping technology, rather than the opposite. Beyond Engineering completes the circle, reflecting what he discovered back to the general, non-technical, public in very accessible terms.

History and Momentum begins this journey into complexity with a look at how society has shaped the choices made in providing electricity to the user. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla; Szilard, Einstein and Rickover—choices made by these men before 1950 determined the economy of future decisions in the power industry. Pool then looks at The Power of Ideas, giving us a background on the concept of paradigm shift in molding scientific inquiry, before exploring how the “endless power source” paradigm shifted irretrievably to an “evil destructive nuclear polluter” view of nuclear power.

These shifts in choice, decision, and viewpoint are reflected in the book itself, Pool tells us in his Introduction:
This is a very different book from the one I began writing four years ago… In 1991, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided grants to some two dozen writers to create a series of books on technology. Because [technology has shaped the modern world so profoundly], Sloan wanted to give the general, non-technical reader some place to go in order to learn about the invention of television or X-rays or the development of birth control pills. This would be it. Sloan asked that each book in the series… be accessible to readers with no background in science or engineering…

I took nuclear power…

A chapter on Business looks at the rise of giants like GE, IBM, Apple and Xerox, in the background of the growing industrial demand for power; one on Complexity examines the history of steam power, the growth of the US automobile and airline industries and airplane manufacturers like McDonnell, before presenting information about nuclear generation of electric power. By doing this, Pool gives his reader a stronger base to judge the value of the information he presents.

Choices and Risk then take us into the heart of Pool’s contention that society shapes technology. In delineating the choices available in nuclear power, Pool first introduces the concept by discussing previous choices: internal combustion vs. steam; QWERTY vs. the Dvorak keyboard; VHS vs. Betamax. To illustrate how risk assessments should and do guide such choices, he uses a discussion of recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH, and the controversy its use stirred up:
…The system of cows, humans and bacteria was simply too complex to analyze in any but the crudest detail. The calculation of risk could only be an approximation. In such cases, where there is no clear right or wrong answer, people tend to rely on their instincts, biases and gut feelings about how the world works…

Finally, Pool looks at control and reliability in a section titled Managing the Faustian Bargain. The chapter on control investigates the legal system that has grown up around the power industry, by telling the story of how a former church secretary named Juanita Ellis fought the giant Texas Utilities to a standstill—for nearly a decade—over the building of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant. In looking at reliability, Pool examines once-reliable entities such as NASA, and what happens when that reputation is allowed to substitute for acting in reliable ways. The description of an exemplary “highly-reliable organization” (a Nimitz-class carrier, written by a naval carrier officer) is notable:
So you want to understand an aircraft carrier? Well, just imagine that it’s a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns that same day. Then turn the radar off to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radio, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane close up. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.

In this increasingly technological age, the complexity of technology has grown to the point where no one person can know everything about even a very restricted discipline, at the same time that more and more of societal attention is focused on how these complex systems interact. Pool’s book is a good first step on the road to the re-engineering of engineering itself, and an excellent argument that such a sweeping change is essential.

Liner Note:

Beyond Engineering is available for Kindle, Eve’s Rib is not.

Bloody Intellectual

Review: Wire in the Blood, BBC America series (orig. aired 2002-08), with Robson Green

Advertising hype usually arouses nothing but resistance in me, so I was a long time coming to watch BBC America's Wire in the Blood, the "most intense two hours on television." At the time it aired, I just wasn't ready for yet another semi-autistic savant leading investigations; in those days, I had standing appointments with Gil Grissom of CSI and Dr. Gregory House, and had rejected Numb3rs for much the same reason.

Resolutions are made to be broken. After reading a different book by series writer Val McDermid, I finally turned it on—and I was hooked. 

Robson Green's Dr. Tony Hill makes his mental efforts totally transparent, and he's less a mental magician than an obsessed compulsive completer. If you had my training and access to the police data, his manner says, you could solve these crimes, too. The character also has a rational relationship with DSI Carol Jordan, ably played by Hermione Norris, who heads the crime probes he's assisting.

Dr. Hill's assistance comes from his ability to enter the mind of a serial killer (and sometimes, his victims), sorting clues and juggling evidence until a pattern becomes clear. Clear to Dr. Hill, anyway. Wire's process involves some false starts and mistaken diagnoses before the real answer comes clear, when Dr. Hill's solutions are finally couched in ordinary, understandable language.

One episode that originally aired shortly after October 2002 had a chilling echo of that year's Beltway sniper attacks by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo. In Wire's version, Hill and Jordan are faced with a series of seemingly unconnected deaths, in each of which a single playing card is found at the sniper's firing point. Dr. Hill struggles to find a pattern in the killings, even while he deals with the discovery that he has a brain tumor that may or may not be malignant.

Based on the pattern Hill has put together, the police arrest a man who is connected to each of the victims. They seem sure they have the right man, especially when they discover a cache of rifles hidden in the man's home. But as Tony Hill is consulting with a local minister, the man is shot in front of the church, literally inches away from Dr. Hill. The sniper is still at large, and Hill's pattern falls apart.

The phrase "the wire in the blood" comes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.

In an interview, Robson Green said the phrase was taken to mean a genetic kink, something impure and unusual in the blood, that might lead to the kind of psychosis Hill deals with. Val McDermid, author of the Dr. Hill and DSI Jordan mysteries, agreed. "Who knows what Eliot really meant by that line? Robson's explanation is as good as any. For myself, I've always taken it to be a metaphor for the thrill of adrenaline surging through the bloodstream. But we'll never know for sure."

This is a well-written drama. If there are stereotypes here, at least they come from British assumptions, and seem less expectable to American eyes. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, and (I hate to admit) intense experience. 

Liner Note:

The "other book" I alluded to is Val McDermid's non-fiction, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime, finally out on Kindle.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Growth of Mind and Consciousness

Review: Evolution by Stephen Baxter

In a sweeping story, 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.

Baxter's story begins with individuals in the line ancestral to humans. Through them he traces the rise of human thought and consciousness, the coming of religious beliefs, human societies and nations, the practice of war, and extinctions. Especially extinctions.

Characterizing the developing minds he follows as actors in understandable dramas of survival helps Baxter present 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: 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 also, 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 without necessarily agreeing with Baxter's rather grim projection beyond the present. Then again, if fiction isn't speculative, it just isn't science fiction!

Liner Note:

I found this novel strongly reminiscent of Michener's The Source, in the way both authors use fictional characters to make the history more approachable. The publisher echoes this thought in the cover text, which was the reason I decided to buy this book.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Shoddabags and Esteefee

Review: Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

H. Beam Piper's output of science fiction includes three highly successful series, and two well-beloved novels: Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen and Little Fuzzy. Piper himself, however, believed he was a failure; he committed suicide barely 14 years into his writing career.

Little Fuzzy is the tale of an endearing creature encountered on a mining planet by Jack Holloway, a somewhat reclusive sunstone miner. Holloway recognises the intelligence of this little guy, especially when he happens to slow down a recording of the "Yeek!" noises that Little Fuzzy makes. 

That's how Holloway discovers there are discrete words in that high-pitched yeek—and "Pappy Jack" sets out to learn Fuzzy speech, as Little Fuzzy begins to learn English.

Navy emergency rations (ST3) are a big hit with Little Fuzzy, so much that he brings a few fuzzy friends to get them from Pappy Jack. All the Fuzzies want shoddabag (shoulder-bags made from old cartridge cases) and esteefee (the "wonderful food," as they refer to the Navy rat-bars.)

When more new Fuzzies show up with a wealth of sunstones to store in their new shoddabags, Holloway has a mystery to solve. Are the Fuzzies thieves? Even if they are, are they competent enough to be charged uder the law? Holloway's investigation pits him squarely against Victor Grego's Zarathustra Sunstone Mining Company, which has a monopoly charter to buy sunstones on the planet.

Holloway realizes that the Fuzzies' presence on the planet may mark the end of Zarathustra Company's charter, and that someone in the Company may be trying to eradicate all the Fuzzies before that can happen. The thrilling climax of the story pits Pappy Jack and Little Fuzzy against Grego and the Company in a court of law.

The story is charming, sweet enough that we do not notice how many serious themes are being presented. Guns and hunting, "appropriate technology," merchantile monopoly, faginy and the "legitimate" exploitation of minors, self-rule, and the rule of law are all tackled as Little Fuzzy and his champions establish Fuzzy sapience. You can thus read Little Fuzzy as a tale about cute little smart beings or as an allegory for conservative values.

Either way, Little Fuzzy is a book that ought to be on the shelf of any self-respecting science-fiction reader. 

Liner Notes:

  • I recommend it in the printed collection, The Complete Fuzzy, which includes the other two Piper Fuzzy novels, Fuzzy Sapiens and Fuzzies and Other People
  • A new version by John Scalzi (author of the Old Man's War series), Fuzzy Nation, retells the story of Pappy Jack and the Fuzzies. Piper's original may be a bit too saccharin and simplistic for modern tastes; Scalzi's Fuzzy has more kick and conflict. Perhaps both should be in your library.
  • Available for Kindle: Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens (Piper); Fuzzy Nation (Scalzi)
  • Not on Kindle: The Complete FuzzyFuzzies and Other People

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Life on the Edge... of Elfhome

Review: Tinker by Wen Spencer

I'm not usually a reader of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Maybe I don't have the D&D gene, or perhaps I just miss the internal consistency of reality-based fiction. This novel is an exception.

Start with the accidental translation of a chunk of American city into a parallel universe. For 20-plus years, part of Pittsburgh has been rotating for 29 days out of every 30 into Elfhome, where passenger pigeons exist side-by-side with leg-chomping wargs and flesh-eating willows.

Add in the Elfin Interdimensional Agency, charged with insuring that only adult residents of Pittsburgh and their dependents may remain in the city as it returns to Elfhome. Toss in two minors, Tinker and Oilcan (not their real names, of course), orphans who have held on to their home despite the death of their grandfather. Stir in a soupçon of elven politics, and a dash of nasty orc-ish oni villains, and the stew is bubbling.

Did I say Tinker is a girl, a genius who owns a scrapyard? Anyone with that much cold iron is a force to reckon with in fairyland. And Tinker has the opportunity to save the life of an elven lord fleeing a pack of wargs when he runs into her scrapyard. Tinker teeters from rescue to rescue, managing to set the entire Elfhome world on its ear as she goes.

Like Tinker the genius girl, Tinker the novel is consistently delightful, and internally consistent as well—you won't learn anything special from this book, but it is a lot of fun.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Power Sheets: Solar Paper

Review of Solar Paper by YOLK

I was intrigued by this product on Kickstarter, but reluctant to back it as it was first described. Instead, I began asking questions of the developers. (The first was: "Could it power my Kindle?") 

I was pleased with the answers, especially as it was not just yes/no, but a complete description of what level I would need to back in order to receive a product that would meet all my needs. ("Aha!" I thought, "this bodes well for future tech support questions!")

So I backed Solar Paper, and in due time, I received the product from my pledge: three "sheets" for solar generation that link together with magnets rather than frangible hinges. Folded up, the whole set is thinner than my Kindle, and about the same width. 

I was so excited when it arrived, despite the fact that three weeks of cloudy, rainy days followed it. The first sunny afternoon, I had it out to charge and quickly saw how easy it is to set it up, use it, and stow it away again. It charges our Kindles beautifully, keeping well ahead of discharge during use. It also charges my Incipio iGO power-block, so I have multiple ways to stay empowered! 

I expect it will become a permanent resident in my travel bag, ready to supply me with power directly on the sunny days, and via the iGO on cloudy ones.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

God in a Fungus

Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick 

Dick is renowned for his strangely compelling stories, but this is certainly one of his strangest. Set in a future that takes elements of 1950s cocktail-party morals and Minority Report precognition, mingled with a global-warming meltdown expected a scant 50 years in the future; Palmer Eldritch then takes a nose-dive into the 1960s’ to find salvation and damnation in an alien mushroom.

Barney Mayerson is a fashion pre-cog, working for Leo Bulero, the head of “Perky Pat Layouts.” Perky Pat and her “boyfriend” Walt are dolls whose materialistic lifestyle is supported by fashionable miniatures of cars, stereo systems, furniture, clothing, and everything desirable to the teeming millions who live on Earth.

The problem is, there are too many people on Earth to allow everyone to have this abundance for real, so random people are “drafted” to become colonists on Mars. There, they use the illegal drug Can-D to become, temporarily, Perky Pat or her boyfriend. The quality of this experience (the only escape available to the colonists) is believed to be dependent on the up-to-date fashion of the miniature layouts they create for their Pat and Walt dolls.

Belief is an important factor in this equation—in fact, religions have grown up around the drug experiences of the colonists. Some believe that the Can-D “translation,” the apparent entry of the women into Pat, and the men into Walt, actually takes them to an Earth before the time when it was suicide to be outside in the unshaded noontime sun, or to a less-than-eternal Heaven. Some liken the taking of Can-D to the wine and wafer of communion; the men commune together in the persona of Walt, the women in Pat. A few cynics believe neither, but welcome the easing of restrictions. After all, it’s Pat’s body that joins with Walt’s, so it can hardly be adultery, right?

The acquisitive, free-love society that has ruined Earth is thus miniaturized on Mars. The other requisite element in this scheme, the drug Can-D, is also manufactured by P-P Layouts (quietly, as contraband), and sold at top dollar to the colonists. Colonial authorities look the other way, because without the drugs, colonies quickly descend into cabin fever, then flash over into murder and mayhem.

As the story begins, Palmer Eldritch, legendary explorer to Proxima Centauri, has returned to the Solar System, bringing with him a new drug, an alien fungus marketed as “Chew-Z.” Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z needs no layout. And its translation brings the user into a world that seems really eternal, Heavenly—complete with an audience with God. The only problem is, sooner or later God, and all the other characters everyone encounters in the Chew-Z universe, take on a distinct resemblance to Palmer Eldritch.

When Barney Mayerson is drafted to Mars, he plans to ingest the new drug along with a toxin supplied by P-P Layouts, then sue Eldritch to convince the authorities that this new drug is worse than Can-D. As a pre-cog, though, he knows that his boss, Leo, will be charged with killing Palmer Eldritch in the near future. And neither Barney nor Leo realize that, once you’ve taken Chew-Z, Palmer Eldritch resides in your mind.

The tone of the story is psychedelic, with confusing chronology and a distorted sense of wonder and awe. Elements that seem to be important to the tale as it begins are abandoned, without apology, when something newer comes along. Earth’s ecological disaster is implied, but never explored; the aliens of Proxima are discussed once, then dropped. Can-D religions are sketched in the barest terms sufficient to contrast them with the Chew-Z experience.

In the end, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch feels something like a drug trip; one is left with the sense of having had a revelation, but its details are lost in the haze.

This is one Dick novel that will never be made into a movie. I hope.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Cultural Genetics

Review: Half Past Human by T.J. Bass

Few science fiction readers "of a certain age" have not read this dystopian novel. The peculiarly ecological vision of Bass found expression in only two books (Godwhale is the other), and echoed contemporary fictions of future societies—Orwell's 1984, for example, and Huxley's Brave New World— in its view of human society as doomed to dark collapse under a weight of population and totalitarian control.

In a far-future Earth, our distant descendants have been altered genetically to allow them to live in ultra-crowded hives. The genes that code for aggression when people are pressed too closely together turn out to be linked to the gene for five toes, so the Nebish people are four-toed and complacent. They fill their dark underground warrens in their billions, despite another genetic shift (and social mores) that limit reproduction.

They are also cannibals. Unapproved children are allowed to exist until they begin to walk and talk. Then they are thrown into the "patty press," producing "flavors" for the Nebish who reports them. Other flavors come from rats and Nebish corpses tossed into the patty press. Aside from the taste of flesh, Nebish society is fed by the world-covering gardens of algae, and the lack of protein in their diet makes them weak and soft-boned, prone to die after only 25 to 30 years of life.

Within the Nebish genome, though, the five-toed gene still thrives. Occasionally, children are born with all five toes, or with "the bud of a fifth toe." These children are allowed to mature, because the hive needs their mechanical skills, but they are not allowed to procreate.

Without help, the Nebish are neuter. This gives Earth Society (the "big ES") control over reproduction, for in all except a few Nebish, hormone therapy is required to "polarize" into male or female. Tinker, an ingenious Nebish mechanic, has been authorized to produce a clone-type bud-child of himself, and is polarized male. He finds his attitudes about other Nebishes and life in the hive changing drastically; he fixates on the female, Mu Ren, who was assigned to carry his bud to term, and instead gets her pregnant with a hybrid child. Their child is born with five toes.

To save their child, Tinker and Mu Ren must escape the hive, and join the savage wild humans who live on the surface and steal from the world garden. Once there, they encounter a host of curious characters: the ancient human Moon and his equally antique dog Dan, the spear-shaped robot Toothpick, a liberated mechanical harvester, the wild human shaman with his cybernetic Ball, Moses the escaped hive pipe-master, and Nebish Val the human-hunter.

Bass gives us a chilling view of the future of humans under the foot of the Big ES, but also offers hope. Olga is coming, and her purpose is to save the five-toed humans from the Big ES. But what shape will that salvation take?

This is a classic novel that ought to be in every thinking reader's library, and studied along with Burgess and Orwell, Huxley and Harrison. If you've read it once, it's time to read it again, especially now that all these novels are available on Kindle.

Bloody Erotic

Review: Love In Vein (anthology), edited by Poppy Z. Brite

The collection of erotic tales in Poppy Z. Brite's anthology—subtitled Twenty Original Tales of Vampiric Erotica—is strongly reminiscent of Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking Dangerous Visions anthologies: edgy, uncomfortable to read, but full of images that are hard to forget. 

Brite has collected twenty stories that skirt the perimeter of good taste—and despite the market among adolescents for vampirica, this is not a book for the teenager. Themes range from ghoulish feasting to lesbian revenge, and include references to Wiccan and pagan corn-god blood sacrifices. 

One tale pursues the sad end of Lucy Westenra's blighted love, lighting the shadowy corners of Bram Stoker's story. Another explores the death of Mozart and Van Gogh as the result of haunting by lamia. We have stories of Japanese vampires, of shape-shifters who live on spirit more than blood, of the lost and the arrogant and the brutal and the alien. 

Vampire faces are lovely or haunting or weirdly strange, but always attractive. Of all twenty stories, not one speaks of a repellent blood-drinker. The vampire draws us all, victims seeking to provide sustenance. We may regret that attraction and seek also to destroy that which enslaves us, as does Peter in Mike Baker's Love Me Forever. We may embrace it without reserve, even unto death, as does Satoshi in Nancy Holder's Cafe Endless: Spring Rain or the cowboy Quincey Morris in Norman Partridge's Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu. We may even adopt part or all of the vampire's nature, like Marshall in David B. Silva's Empty Vessels and Alex in Christa Faust's Cherry.

However you relate to vampire stories, though, you will find something in this book that goes beyond simply disturbing, that becomes irrationally upsetting. For me it was Geraldine by Ian McDowell. Perhaps it was the extension of early-term abortion to the spiritual and memory side of the equation; as if the loss of a barely-commenced pregnancy equates to the rejection of both the father and the act of conception.

Perhaps for you, there will be a different story here that crosses the line. Something in the vampire still attracts, despite the smell of the grave that clings to the cape. And something, despite that attraction, repels each of us eventually. You'll find both in this anthology.

It's not for the squeamish. Also, not for the Kindle, alas!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bodacious Brews

Free popcorn, delicious beer, and a good mil-SF novel... Sweet!

Review: The Henhouse Brewing Company, Tasting Room in Santa Rosa, CA

I'm not so fond of beer. You'd never have known it when I was a student at CSM, doing my p-chem and calculus homework in the I-Club with a pitcher of beer and a dime basket of popcorn on the table, but now it's rare that I drink an entire glass. I am usually content with a sip or two of my spouse's.

Yesterday, I had three glasses of Saison de la Cruse at The Henhouse Brewing Company tasting room in Santa Rosa. 

This delicious verjus-infused "sour beer" is made by combining Chardonnay juice from Cruse Wine Company in Petaluma (where Henhouse began in 2011) with the Saison-yeast beer, aged in wine barrels. The fruits of the vine meld agreeably with the fruity esters of this yeast to produce a perfect sip for a hot summer's day.

I might have never tried the beer at all, except that Carly behind the bar cocked an knowing eyebrow at me, and when I told her I wasn't "so much into beer," said "I'll bet you're a wine drinker, right?" She was right, and she poured me a taste of each of three different beers she thought I might enjoy. The third was the Saison de la Cruse. It hit all the right notes on my palate, and I surrendered immediately.

To share the brewers' description of the process and product:
...we blended the oak-aged beer with an all-lactobacillus fermentation [of Chardonnay juice] to bring down the oak and bring up the acidity. The result is a tart and effervescent saison with all the fun melon and apple of the grape juice, some slight vanilla and spice oak action, and long funky finish.

I don't know about funky (not a beer person, remember?), but the fruits and spice were definitely discernible. It makes me so grateful to Billy Henderson and a chance meeting with him at Chick-fil-A that opened our eyes to this local gem. We'll be back, and next time, I'll bring along some Alouette Smoky Jalapeño cheese and Milton Crackers to extend the enjoyment.

Liner Notes

  • Free popcorn beats the dime baskets at the I-Club!
  • A local food truck from Sebastopol's Red Horse Pizza is there on the weekends, and other days you are permitted to have food delivered.
  • Picnic tables outside are shady and inviting, and reportedly popular since the tasting room opened in March 2016. On Wednesday afternoon when we were there, the crowd was content to be inside, in the cool.

Address: 322 Bellevue Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95407 
Phone: (707) 347-9211
Open: Wed—Friday, 4—9 PM; Sat & Sun, 11 AM—9 PM