Saturday, December 31, 2011

Robots and Empire (SF Book)

An Impending Crisis. Descendants. Revenge. The Zeroth Law. An Abandoned World. The Fate of the Earth. Galactic Expansion. 

Isaac Asimov’s Robots and Empire is a sequel to The Robots of Dawn. It unites the Robot and the Foundations Series. We discover what ultimately happened to Elijah Baley and how Han Fastolfe’s victory affected the people of Earth and the Spacers. We learn about the origins of the Empire and the fate of the Earth. We continue to see the faint beginnings of psychohistory. Most of the storyline takes place two centuries after the events of The Robots of Dawn.

Briefly, the robots are the main characters of the story. After Fastolfe’s death, Gladia is bequeathed Daneel and Giskard. Daneel, a humaniform robot, continues to evolve, having learned many things from his former partner Elijah Baley. At one point Daneel refers to having programmed himself with the Zeroth Law. Giskard, a telepathic robot, can read the emotions of humans and can subtly nudge feelings according to what he interprets as being beneficial. Giskard senses an impending crisis. Using their skills, the two robots must determine what the crisis is and take whatever steps they believe will lead to the highest outcome.

The story includes a number of interesting supporting characters. Gladia grows into a woman who wants to bring peace to the Galaxy. —In The Naked Sun, she almost never saw a person. Now we see her speaking before thousands of people— D. G. Baley is a Settler Trader and a descendant of Elijah Baley. He talks Gladia into helping him visit Solaria, which has been abandoned, in hopes of selling robots to the other Spacer worlds. Mandamus, a descendant of Gladia, unites with Amadiro to orchestrate the destruction of Earth.

Reading Robots and Empire was especially rewarding for me. When I was reading the Foundation Series, I was disturbed by the sudden appearance of robots. After reading the Robot series —beginning with I. Robot—the storyline makes much more sense. To anyone who has not read the full Foundation Series yet, I highly recommend reading the Robot and the Foundation Series as one combined series according to the publication dates of the novels. Robots and Empire is also fun because of the way Daneel and Giskard work together to solve the mystery of the impending crisis. They both have such wonderful personalities and thought processes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I, Robot (Classic Science Fiction Book)

“And that is all,” said Dr. Calvin, rising. “I saw it from the beginning, when the poor robots couldn’t speak, to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction...”
I, Robot consists of nine short stories (with some transitions to tie the stories together) about robots that were written by Isaac Asimov and published between 1940 and 1950. Each story deals with one or more of the Three Laws of Robotics in some way. The book reminds me of the boxes of small puzzles I often see sold at Christmas time. Each story is a small puzzle about robot behavior that the characters must solve. Most of the stories include the main characters of Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who are robot engineers, or Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist. The complexity of robots within the book progresses from a very primitive robot that can’t speak in the first story to robotic machines that basically oversee the management of Earth in the last story.

While I found I, Robot enjoyable but not necessarily great science fiction, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read Asimov’s major books. The stories provide background into the later Foundation Series and Robot Trilogy. When I was reading the Foundation Series, I was jarred when robots first appeared; they seemed so out of context. In retrospect, I wish that I had begun reading with I. Robot and then read the Foundation and Robot books in order of their publication date. Some things would have made more sense.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Alice Adams (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Parents and Children. Social Climbing. Integrity. Pretense. Paternalism.

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. I found the novel naïve and sweet, the product of a more innocent time. It has a bit of humor, a bit of morality, and a simple storyline. In 1935 Alice Adams was made into a romantic film that starred Katharine Hepburn.

Briefly, the story opens with Alice’s father recovering from an unknown illness. Alice goes to a dance given by Mildred, a young woman of a higher social class. Alice has learned to put on pretenses to compensate for her perceived deficiencies—in this day and age, we would say that she has low self-esteem. Alice’s well-meaning mother insists that Alice’s brother, Walter, accompany her. Walter, it turns out, is drawn to people of questionable reputation. At the party, Alice meets Arthur Russell, a distant cousin and alleged fiancé of Mildred. Much to Alice’s surprise, Russell takes an interest in Alice and begins visiting her on a regular basis. Alice tries to hide her lower social status from him. In the meantime, Alice’s mother convinces Alice’s father to leave the company he has been with all his adult life, striking out on his own and opening a glue factory. The problem is that the formula he will be using was created for his employer many years ago. The Adams clan eventually experiences a “rain of misfortune.” By the end of the story, both Alice and her father have grown in integrity.

I found the book pleasant. Those who like to watch classic movies will probably find it much more appealing. I did find one scene in the book especially memorable. Alice is trying to find a way to be more attractive for the dance, despite her family’s lack of money. So, she picks 300 violets, which she will carry and will pin to her dress. Tarkington goes on to describe the wonderful fragrance.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Robots of Dawn (SF Book)

Roboticide. Planetary Customs. Humaniform Robots. Sexual Mores. The Fate of the Earth. Intellectual Property. Galactic Expansion. Politics. 

The Robots of Dawn is the third book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. Like the previous books, it is part science fiction and part detective novel. While there is some science, much of the book is focused on the cultural differences between Earth and Aurora, a Spacer world. What surprised me about the novel was how much of the story focused on a romantic relationship. I had not remembered that in the Foundation Series novels. I especially enjoyed the plot twist at the end of the novel.

Briefly, once again Elijah Baley is called upon to investigate a murder. One of only two humaniform robots ever created is found dead on Aurora. Allegedly, the only one who had the ability to commit the crime was Dr. Han Fastolfe, which has potentially catastrophic implications. Fastolfe is a supporter of allowing Earth to expand in the galaxy. His opponents want to keep Earth isolated and instead colonize the galaxy themselves using humaniform robots. Once again Baley partners with Daneel and encounters Gladia, who we first met in The Naked Sun. In order to solve the murder and save Earth, Baley must understand the culture of Aurora and overcome his own fears.

Asimov does a nice job of creating a world and then exploring the implications. I can easily get lost in Asimov’s books. The Robot series and the Foundation series tie together. While reading The Robots of Dawn, I found my mind wandering to different books in both series. The novel is a worthy addition to the combined series.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Universal Story Plot (Quotes)

In Musings and Meditations, Robert Silverberg describes “the essential story themes that underlie nearly all fiction:”
A sympathetic and engaging character(or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome the problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of he story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind.
Later in the book, Silverberg continues on this theme:
Joseph Campbell, in his classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, showed how all tales of heroic struggle fulfill the terms of what he called the “monomyth,” the basic story of stories: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are then encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Musings and Meditation: Reflections on Science Fiction, Science and Other Matters (Book)

Science Fiction Magazines. Cave Paintings. A Dinosaur Heart. Y2K. Golden Age. The New Wave. Writing Science Fiction. Language Translation. The End of the World. Awards. Conventions. Monomyth. Nostalgia. Great Writers. Calendars. Interesting Science. 

Musings and Meditation: Reflections on Science Fiction, Science and Other Matters by Robert Silverberg is a coffee break, bedtime read, waiting for the bus type of a book. Don’t expect to sit down and read it straight through. It consists of 75 essays that Silverberg wrote between 1995 and 2010 primarily for Asimov's Science Fiction magazine and, in a few cases, book introductions. Most of the essays are four pages long, and they are loosely grouped by topic, which helps the ole brain navigate a bit easier from essay to essay.

As I went from essay to essay, I had different reactions. Sometimes I was bored. Sometimes I was taking notes. Sometimes I wondered why the heck an essay was in a book that was aimed at Science Fiction readers. Sometimes I was practically yelling “Now this makes sense!” For example, when I was reading the Hugo winners, I confess, I just didn’t get some of the books. Now I understand that they were part of the New Wave writing movement. I found out a lot about Science Fiction magazines. One of my favorite pieces of information was that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics actually originated with the editor John Campbell. I scribbled a whole list of books, short stories, and authors to add to my reading list. I enjoyed the information for aspiring Science Fiction writers. I felt a little thrill when I saw references to some of my favorite authors. If I knew someone who liked Science Fiction as much as I do, I would definitely buy them the book for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Some Changes in My Blogging (Personal Notes)

I have a passion for reading books. I have been known to walk three miles in sub-zero weather, cancel a dinner date, and spend my last few precious dollars all for a book. My personality is transformed when I talk about books. I became animated and focused. Books have given me purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning and for dealing with all the inanity I too often see in the world. Books have been my teachers, my inspiration, and my life-lines when times were rough. Reading the Hugo winning novels changed my life in many ways. As much as I love books, I need to focus more attention on my professional life.

This blog was originally intended to be my professional blog, where I shared bits of wisdom that I thought might help other people. Over the years, it has become more and more a blog about what I am reading. That is okay. Change is healthy. I enjoy sharing my passion for reading with other people. But, I no longer feel comfortable posting essays about change, learning, and similar topics in this blog. The demographics are different. The expectations of the readers are different. So, I am beginning a new blog. Who know how that will evolve over time? Right now it consists of a title and a subtitle.

I certainly am not giving up reading books and writing up my reactions in this blog. Based on the reading list that I have been creating while reading Robert Silverberg’s book of essays, there is a lot of science fiction out there calling for me to read it. Also, I certainly can’t stop reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, which I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with. On the other hand, I have read over 120 books so far this year, and I can’t continue that pace and make a living. My goal for the next year is to read a novel a week, more or less.

I love small, semi-structured change. Right now I am going through a far less subtle change in my life. Sidney Harris so wonderfully illustrated that type of change in a cartoon in which a scientist points to a gap in a formula that reads, “And then a miracle happens.” Who know how my blogging life will evolve? I like the structure it gives me and I enjoy sharing my ideas with other people.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Making a Living Without a Job (Non-fiction Book)

Being Joyfully Jobless. Making Self-Esteem a Priority. Looking at Assets. Creating Ideas. Dealing With Obstacles. Implementing Ideas. Developing Multiple Profit Centers. 

Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winter is changing the way I look at my life and how I fit into the world. Many of us feel like victims in the current economy. Many of us are looking for the next big thing in our lives. Making a Living Without a Job is for those of us who need a major paradigm shift. Winter offers a non-traditional approach to making a living that has worked well for many people. It provides us with ways to be proactive. This is a book that should be read with your notebook or computer beside you so that you can begin to brainstorm how you can implement the ideas.

The main idea of the book is how to be joyfully jobless. In some ways this is similar to being an entrepreneur or being self-employed. It involves being in the world differently: always being aware of your assets, constantly being aware of opportunities and unmet needs, and continuously being willing to grow and evolve.

The book is not new— the copy I read was revised in 2009 —but it is relevant. The book does not cover everything a person needs to know. Certainly many people will need to do more research on their particular interests. But the book is a good starting point, highlights the major practical issues involved in going out on ones own, and has a good bibliography. I have been happily exploring websites and signing up for newsletters. I am reminded of the adage “the proof is in the pudding.” I suppose the final proof is how well the ideas in the book standup to the testing ground of the real lives of those of us who read the book.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Naked Sun (Classic SF Book)

A Murder. A Fetologist. Robots. Robotics. Obscenities. Seeing vs. Viewing. Sociology. Galactic Conquest.

The Naked Sun, the second book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series, is another Science Fiction/Mystery hybrid. Asimov uses the Laws of Robotics and the sociology of Solaria, the planet where a murder takes place, as clues to help point to the who, how, and why of the murder. The book has a bit of the feel of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It also takes an interesting look at how a culture evolves.

Briefly, Earth detective Elijah Baley is once again called on to solve a murder, this time on the Outer World of Solaria, a planet that has not had a murder in recent times. Lije is to be the first Earthman to go to an Outer World in centuries. The government on Earth wants him to bring back any information—weaknesses—that might help it gain an advantage over the Outer Worlds. R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, is once again sent as Lije’s partner. The government of Aurora, who sent Daneel, appears to have its own political agenda. Solaria is a sparsely populated planet, filled with robots. The human inhabitants live most of their lives without having any contact with another human being. In order to solve the murder, Lije must understand the culture as well as overcome his own prejudices and fears. As the story unfolds, Lije learns that there may be more at stake than what he was first led to believe.

Like The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun has a simple storyline compared with today’s standards. The story is still enjoyable. One of the things that I found especially interesting is what people find obscene or repulsive. On Solaria having direct contact with another human being is obscene but having direct contact with the soil is not. Lije is repulsed by nature and by the idea of keeping time based on where the sun is in the sky. What disappointed me about the book was the relative lack of camaraderie between Lije and Daneel, which seemed to be blossoming in the earlier book.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Creative Person (Quotes)

I am finding the book Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winters very inspiring. Below are two quotes about creativity from her book:
The creative person takes the material at hand and begins to see it in a new way, to make connections and observations that others miss. The creative person looks for inspiration rather than waiting for it to magically appear.
Like everyone else, you will have ideas that are marvelous, some that are mediocre, others that are ahead of their time, and still others that are worthless. How do you know which are which? The truth is, you may be the worst judge of your own creativity; therefore, it’s up to you to keep acting on your ideas and see what happens when you do.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Caves of Steel (Classic SF Book)

A Murder. Elijah and Jezebel. A Dangerous Political Situation. Robots. Underground Cities. Overpopulation. Increasing Unemployment. Riots. Yeast. Medievalists. 

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is like a peanut butter cup for the geek mind, combining the two great tastes of science fiction and mystery. Oh, how fun! The novel was original published in 1953 as a serial and in 1954 as a book. It is the first novel in the Robot Series and introduces the character of R. Daneel Olivaw, who appears in many novels in the Foundation Series.

Briefly, the novel takes place in the future, where the people of Earth live in underground cities and unemployment is an ever-present concern. The relationship between the Spacers—descendents of space colonists—and the people of Earth is not good. When a leading Spacer scientist is found murdered, there is fear that it could lead to retaliation. Lije Bailey, a police officer, is called in to investigate. Like most of the people of Earth, he is not fond of robots, but the Spacers insist that he be given a robot partner, the newly created R. Daneel Olivaw. As Lije works to overcome his prejudice against robots and solve the murder, he finds himself in potential danger from both the Spacers and the Medievalists, a back to the past movement. Despite a number of wrong turns, Lije and Daneel solve the murder and form a bond.

The Caves of Steel isn’t great literature, but it is very enjoyable storytelling. I love to try to follow the threads of a mystery. The novel felt real to me, with a well thought out setting and interesting characters. While the style might be simpler than that of current novels, the plot is perhaps even more credible than it was over half a century ago. Many of us feel vulnerable in a fragile economy. Instead of blaming robots, present day people blame immigrants. Groups protesting the current political situation are becoming more common. A growing population was recently in the news. I also think that an explosion in robotics is just around the corner. While The Caves of Steel is not a must read, I definitely recommend it to science fiction fans.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Age of Innocence (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Society. Etiquette. Expectations. Family. Loyalty. Divorce. Honesty. Innocence. Emancipation. Love.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, marking the first time a woman won the award. The novel is set in New York upper-class society in the 1870’s, where almost every action is prescribed by etiquette and tradition. While the characters live in outer opulence, their imaginations are impoverished.

Briefly, the story opens with Newland Archer about to announce his engagement to May Welland. He has romantic ideas about what their life will be like together. His expectations are complicated by the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, a woman separated from her husband after an abusive marriage. Her presence back in New York is scandalous. Newland soon finds himself intrigued by the woman and then falling in love with her. Unlike May who is kind, innocent, and does what she is expected to do, Ellen has an honest perspective and questions life. At one point, in thinking about May, he wonders how can he emancipate a woman who isn’t even aware there is anything to be emancipated from. Newland and Ellen must deal with their loyalty to May and their attraction for one another.

I’m finding that reading a classic as a bookworm is different from reading a classic as an English major. After all, I don’t have to read the book, and I almost didn’t read the Age of Innocence because in the beginning it felt too stilted and confining. Slowly I began to be motivated by the urge to see good craftsmanship. I began to pay attention to where Wharton included a lot of detail and where there was almost none. At one point she does not even refer to May by name, helping the reader to understand how insignificant May had become. The obnoxious details that I detested in the beginning of the novel invoked in me the tediousness of all the little social rules the characters were observing. I enjoyed how Wharton paralleled and contrasted the beginning and near ending scenes of the novel. The last scene was perfect.

My mind, ever changed by reading too many time-travel books, still can’t wrap itself around the idea of sitting here in 2011, reading a book about the 1870’s that was published in1920. At the end of the novel, Archer’s adult son represents the new world to come, which is now over a century old. I realize that I look at my life differently than most people. I am aware that so many of the things that people get upset about are just passing trends, which will soon be replaced by more passing trends. Both classics and science fiction reinforce that perspective. Now, on to some good old fashioned robot novels.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Book)

Speculative Fiction. Science Fiction. Slipstream Fiction. Superheroes. Ustopias. Utopias. Dystopias. Mythology. Maps. History. Cartography. Archeology. Anthropology. Fantasy. Folktales. Fable. Scientific Romance. Mad Scientists. Archetype. Immortality. Biography. 

Margaret Atwood’s book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination contains bits and pieces loosely associated with the concept of Speculative Fiction. Atwood includes descriptions of the roots of speculative fiction and essays about particular books—most of which were written before the Hugo Award winners. She includes autobiographical snippets in which she describes her relationship with speculative fiction. She also includes snippets of her own speculative fiction writing.

Much of the time the book felt rambling to me. Yet there were nuggets of gold that made it at least partially worth reading for me, and in places her wit made me laugh. I wonder whether I would have thought differently about the book if I had been an Atwood fan—I vaguely remember reading something by Atwood in school. I also questioned whether a linear book was the best medium for the content, because there seemed to be so many little rabbit holes it went down. To me, the book felt more like a website with layers of hypertext and interesting links to follow.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

One of Our Thursdays is Missing (SF Book)

A Missing Thursday. An Understudy. Malapropism. Cog-based Life Forms. Men in Plaid. An Unrepeatable Accident. Metaphor. Compassion. An Imaginary Daughter.

After finishing One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I feel like a little kid who has just finished running down a hill with her arms wide opened. You definitely need your sneakers tied to read this book. It is wild and wonderful. Jasper Fforde is an amazing world builder and creates some fun characters. Most of the story takes place in the Bookworld, which has been recreated as a geographical place; the book even comes with a map. How can such an odd story seem so real? [Fforde describes the series as being on the speculative side of Fantasy.] This is the sixth book in the Thursday Next series, so don’t even try to read this before reading the other books.

Briefly, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is narrated by book Thursday, the granola munching Thursday from First Among Sequels. She gains an understudy, allowing her to take a break from her usual responsibilities. Early on, she begins to suspect that the real Thursday Next is missing and explores that possibility. Book Thursday is also given the task of investigating an accident in the Bookworld, but realizes that she has been chosen because of her incompetence. Along the way, she acquires a sidekick, Sprockett, a cog-based life-form. Near the end of the book, she visits the Outland, the real world, in hopes of finding clues to what happened to the real Thursday.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, yet in some ways it is one of the better books in the series. It is very visual. Even though I was reading, I felt that I was watching a fun movie. I especially liked Sprockett, with his emotion indicator. The action scenes are madcap and imaginative. Fforde’s description of the remake of the Bookworld is ingenious and also expanded my knowledge of fiction and of book genres. The ending felt right. This is another novel for those of us who love books but who also have a silly side that too seldom is let out to play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Able McLaughlins (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

The Civil War. A Young Couple in Love. A Violation. A Secret. Mothers and Sons. Scottish Immigrants. Prairie Farmers. Justice.  

The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson is a wholesome, well-written and enjoyable story. It won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The story is set in a Scottish farming community at the time of the end of the Civil War. The characters are warm and relatable. While the storyline is simple, it is pleasant. The novel contains a little humor, some tragedy, a lot of love, and a bit of justice.

Briefly, when Wully McLaughlin is on leave from the Civil War, he falls in love with his neighbor Chirstie. When the war ends and he comes home to marry her, he finds that she has been raped and impregnated by his cousin Peter. Wully marries her anyway and takes the blame and shame for the out of marriage conception. –Wully comes from a family with a strong sense of religion– When the baby is born, Wully accepts the child as his own. But the little family’s happiness is again challenged. The novel also has a minor storyline that involves Chirstie’s father marrying a feisty woman, Barbara, who he brought back from Scotland.

As a woman who has sometimes dreamed of becoming a novelist, I noticed a number of things that I liked about The Able McLaughlins. The first is a series of scenes that involve the people of the community searching for Peter. Wilson does a nice job of contrasting Wully, who is obsessed with killing Peter, with Aunt Libby, a woman who fiercely loves and longs for her son. Second, Wilson does a nice job of linking the ending of the story back to the beginning. She includes information that seems to be only ambient detail but later proves to have significance.

I also like The Able McLaughlins because parts of it feel familiar to me. I have known families with strong religious faiths, who always offer up a prayer with meals; hardworking farmers; fierce mothers. Wilson has a series of scenes, where Barbara is looking for flowers to put in her new garden, which resonate with my own life. Some of the neighbors where I grew up, as well as my grandmother, were passionate gardeners, who would willingly give slips of plants to appreciative strangers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Early Autumn (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Family. Love. Madness. Heritage. Scandal.

A small box. That was the thought I had right after I finished Early Autumn, the 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Louis Bromfield. This book feels neat, tidy, and restrained, yet there are whispers of ideas that make me think. Also, the book tells the story of a woman living in a small, restrained world.

Briefly, the story begins with a party for Sybil, the daughter of Olivia and Anson Pentland, who has come of age and is being introduced to society, with the hopes that she will find a suitable husband. Olivia’s friend Sabine, who is also Anson’s cousin, and her daughter arrive in Durnham for the purpose of stirring some things up. Olivia has a loveless marriage with Anson and yet she has spent her adult life humoring Anson’s controlling Aunt Cassie, soothing his mad mother, and being a confidant to his father. Olivia and Anson have a son, Jack, who has been an invalid since birth. The story is primarily about Olivia, describing the months between the party and Olivia’s fortieth birthday. There is both love and tragedy.

This is not the type of novel I normally read. I find myself arguing with my reaction. Part of me found it depressing, yet another part of me saw a type of triumph in it. Part of me found it boring and a bit pretentious, yet another part of me was touched by some of the ideas about heritage. This is not a book I would have sought out, yet I know that I have grown a little bit in my understanding of people because I have read it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Forward the Foundation (SF Book)

The Loss of Loved Ones. Despair. Hope for the Future. A Plan. Subtle Manipulation.

Years ago when I overenthusiastically described a book to a friend, she sarcastically quipped, “You know it isn’t real; it’s pretend.” So, I have to confess that part of my mind thinks of Forward the Foundation as the biography of Hari Sheldon. The book makes me sentimental. It was written at the end of Isaac Asimov’s life and published after his death. While the novel ends with the triumph of a life’s work, it contains many stories of loss. The novel is another example of good storytelling, with little unexpected twists tucked in to make it interesting.

Briefly, Forward the Foundation fills in the period of Hari Sheldon’s life between Prelude to Foundation and Foundation. Asimov describes the origins of The Sheldon Plan, First Foundation, and Second Foundation. He describes the decay of Trantor over the decades as well as the aging of Sheldon and many of the other major characters. One bright spot is the birth of Sheldon’s granddaughter Wanda, the daughter of Sheldon and Dors’ foster-son, Raych. While the original Foundation Series novels refer to Sheldon in terms of some larger than life character, Asimov shows how other individuals made major contributions that made The Sheldon Plan possible.

Besides being entertaining, Asimov’s Foundation Series made me think. — I started reading the series almost a year ago. — I look at politics differently, losing my last bit of naiveté. The novels made me more aware of cause and effect on a large scale. Forward the Foundation also makes references to making subtle changes in order to bring about a major outcome. This reminds me so much of the recent attempts to stabilize the world economy. All in all, I’m glad I read the whole series.

End Note: Asimov wrote a Robot Series that has some overlap with the Foundation Series. Also, there are  a number of Foundation novels not written by Asimov.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Prelude to Foundation (SF Book)

I refer to the theoretical assessment of probabilities concerning the future as ‘psychohistory.’
Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation is both a prequel and a sequel to the first five books in the Foundation Series. Chronologically, the actions take place before the first book, Foundation. Informationally, the storyline builds on the details that were revealed in the previous books, including the last one, Foundation and Earth. Not only is Prelude to Foundation an interesting story about how Hari Seldon began to develop psychohistory, but it also addresses some of the questions raised about Earth, the early days of human expansion into the Galaxy, and even Gaia. This made the book doubly fulfilling for me.

Briefly, after Hari Sheldon introduces the theory of psychohistory at a mathematics conference on Trantor, his life is forever changed. The Emperor and his rival want to use Sheldon as a tool for propaganda. If they can’t use him, they want to destroy him. Hari finds that in order to protect himself, he must flee to the parts of Trantor where he will be safe. He finds a benefactor in the mysterious Chetter Hummin, a reporter with powerful connections all over Trantor. Hummin tells Sheldon that the Empire is in decay and that psychohistory might be a way of helping humanity. Sheldon soon meets Dors Venabili, a history scholar. She becomes a partner and a bodyguard to Sheldon as he travels around Trantor and tries to find a way to transform psychohistory from a theory into a practical tool. In each of the areas that they visit, Sheldon seems to get himself into some sort of trouble.

After being disappointed with Foundation and Earth, I was very satisfied with Prelude to Foundation. Intellectually, I have been curious about psychohistory since Foundation and had a drive to know more. But Prelude to Foundation is also a good story. Sheldon is an interesting, likeable character with good integrity. Each of the areas that Dors and Sheldon visit is well thought out and helps Sheldon to grow. Also, Asimov takes on such topics as selective history, prejudice, taboos, power, and tradition. The book is the complete package.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Mystery Book)

A Shady Ex-husband. A Wilderness Camp. A Missing Boy. A Gold Mine. Corrupt Officials.  

The Dog Who Knew Too Much, the fourth book in the Chet and Bernie Mystery series by Spencer Quinn, was well worth waiting for. (The book was at our library almost two months before I was able to check it out. One day I almost tackled someone who got a hold of the book before I reached the New Book shelf.) Like the previous books, it is intriguing, warm, and fun; it is a solid mystery. I love this series because it is fresh and interesting. Because the story is told from the point of view of Chet (the dog), we are given details that we might not normally pay attention to: scents, the flow of air, small body gestures, critters, faint sounds, and, of course, food. The Dog Who Knew Too Much can easily be understood without reading the previous books but rewards fans. We not only catch up with Chet and Bernie, but renew our acquaintance with Bernie’s girlfriend Suzie —who is kickass in this book—Iggy and Mr. Parsons.

Briefly, Bernie is approached by Anya, who wants Bernie to pose as her boyfriend when she goes to Parents’ Day at the wilderness camp her son is attending. She is afraid of her ex-husband and wants a bodyguard. When Bernie and Anya arrive, they discover that her son, Devin, is missing, never making it back from an overnight trip with his group. The story becomes even more complicated when Bernie is implicated in a murder. What happened to Devin? Who is the real murderer or was there even a murder? Can Chet once again rescue his best friend?

I don’t remember laughing out loud while reading the previous books, but I did with this one. It is humorous without being too cute. Bernie is the type of person I would want on my side. I wish I had someone as loyal to me as Chet is to Bernie. The book is easy and quick to read, while still being intelligent. Part of me was slightly (a teeny, teeny bit) disappointed with the book, but I have felt that way with almost every sequel I have read this year. I still am talking up this book to everyone who will listen to me.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foundation and Earth (SF Book)

Earth. A Search. Galaxia. Isolates. Robots. Transducer-lobes. Zeroeth Law. 

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is the sequel to his Hugo Award winning novel Foundation’s Edge and continues the storyline.

Briefly, in Foundation’s Edge, Trevize was asked to choose the fate of his fellow galactic citizens. He chose the way of Gaia, a group entity. In Foundation and Earth, he questions his decision. He decides that if he can find Earth he will understand his choice, but he can’t find references to Earth in any records. So, he searches for anyone who might know where Earth is located. He also attempts to determine where Earth might be based on how humans expanded into the galaxy. On his journey, he is accompanied by the historian Pelorat and by Bliss, who is both an individual woman and part of the entity Gaia. Later on in their journey, they adopt the orphan Fallom. Each planet they explore in their quest has some danger. Ultimately, their combined talents help them find out the truth about Earth.

Foundation and Earth is a nice story. It is not a book that I would rave about, and I have mixed feelings about the ending. What I did find interesting was the contrast of Bliss to Trevize. They are often at odds in the novel. Bliss is reluctant to kill anyone, even when the little group is in danger, much to Trevize’s consternation. In decision-making, Bliss chooses options based on her perspective of being part of a larger entity. Trevize thinks from the perspective of an isolated individual. At times the discussion felt spiritual to me. I am reminded of the belief that many people have that all people are a part of the Divine and interconnected with one another. This is interesting given the fact that Asimov was a professed atheist.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

An Old Love. A Spoiled Son. Repudiations. Changing Fortunes. The Dawn of the Automobile. Gossip. Comeuppance. Riffraff.  

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington is the winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. This novel has the feel of a period piece. It describes the rise of the automobile, the metamorphosing of towns into cities, and how wealth changed possession from old families to those associated with industrialism. The novel has been made into a number of movies.

Briefly, the beautiful and wealthy Isabel had two suitors. After one does something silly and embarrassing, Isabel chooses the safe one. They marry and have one child, George. She worships him and thinks he can do no wrong. To most other people he is an arrogant and obnoxious child. Tarkington refers to people hoping that he will get his “comeuppance.” The novel follows his growing up, including his success at proving his social superiority to those around him, his falling in live with Lucy—the daughter of Isabel’s old boyfriend, the death of George's father, and George's efforts to protect his mother from the gossip of the town’s people.

The Magnificent Ambersons made me think about a number of things. First, despite George being a young man, he is very resistant to change, which is different than most novels. Second, the idea of evolving towns expanded my awareness of my own city. Yesterday, when I was out walking and looking at the various buildings, I thought of the different eras they come from and how the area has changed over the decades. Third, our society is currently undergoing tremendous changes, the West losing substantial power and influence. Reading about another time of great change gives some perspective to our current situation.

Alternating reading Science Fiction and Pulitzer Winners is giving my brain a workout. I was surprised that both make me think about the passing of time and how transitory our current world really is.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

His Family (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

And when you come after me, my dear, oh, how hungry I shall be for all you will tell me. For you will live on in our children's lives.
While reading Ernest Poole’s novel His Family, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that this was a novel written almost a hundred years ago and not a more recent novel set in the 1910’s. The novel seems timeless. It tells the story of a father dealing with his grown-up daughters. I see this theme playing out in the lives of the people around me, including one of my cousins who has three grown-up daughters. His Family was the first novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, and so begins my own adventure reading this esteemed group of novels and fiction.

Briefly, Roger Gale is a widower, who lives in New York, with three grown-up daughters. Edith is the traditional one, with a husband and three children. She builds her life around her family. Deborah, who lives with Roger, has a brood of thousands, so to speak. She is what I would call a social reformer. She heads a school—later schools—and tries to better the lives of the people living in the tenements. Roger wants her to settle down with Allan, a doctor who has been courting her for years. Laura is the free spirited child. She only wants to have fun and does not want to have children. She marries a man, and they go off to Paris. His Family tells the story of how Roger and his daughters adjust to the changing times of the 1910’s, including the beginning of World War I.

His Family is a beautiful story, still relevant to today. Roger is a loving, caring father, who is easy to relate to. The setting was fascinating to me. The 1910’s were the height of the Progressive Era, when so many social reforms were going on, including Women’s Suffrage. I can only hope that most of the Pulitzer winning novels will be as interesting as this one.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Importance of Stories (First Among Sequels Quote)

The book may be the delivery medium, but what we’re actually peddling here is story. Humans like stories. Humans need stories….Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms—of life, of love, of knowledge—has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath…
First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Sunday, October 16, 2011

First Among Sequels (SF Book)

Stupidity Surplus. Too Many Thursdays. The Recipe to Unscramble Eggs. Long Now. Dirty Bomb. Difficult Teenagers. 

First Among Sequels, the fifth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next Series, is fun and fast-paced. Thursday is now the mother of three children–I think. Mycroft has passed away. Pickwick has some feather issues. Most of the Special Operations divisions have been disbanded, including Literary Detectives. And the Common Sense Party is now in power. Fforde has major and minor story threads woven throughout the story; a reader new to the series would have no clue what was going on.

Briefly, Thursday and friends are secretly continuing to run SpecOps divisions under the guise of a carpeting store. Thursday also continues to be heavily involved with Jurisfiction, keeping the fact from her husband, Landen. Thursday finds herself in charge of two apprentices: a granola munching Thursday 5 from the last Thursday Next book; and an oversexed, violent Thursday 1-4 from the earlier Thursday Next books. Among the numerous other problems that the Bookworld is dealing with, book readership is in sharp decline and Speedy Muffler threatens to release a dirty—think smut—bomb. Back in the real world, Friday refuses to fulfill his destiny of becoming a luminary in the ChronoGuard; and they plan to replace him with a potential Friday. Late in the story Thursday joins forces with Goliath Corporation to help save the Classics. Oh, and someone is trying to kill Thursday. By the end of the book, the Thursday Next series undergoes a radical change.

I enjoy First Among Sequels for all the reasons that I have enjoyed the previous books in the series. Most notably, it is silly while still being intelligent. It speaks to those of us who like to read books. It makes me think, not necessarily in deep philosophical ways, but in intelligent ways. For example, at one point a character offers proof that Speedy has released a dirty bomb in a classic by citing the word “ejaculated.” Yesterday, I did indeed find the word in His Family, a 1918 novel that I am reading. Fforde talks about ways of making novels more appealing to the masses with interactivity, and in fact Fforde has practiced some of that with his own books, offering additional content on his website. He also listed the major components of fiction, and you better believe I am going to write that down in my notes for further reference when I discuss novels. After I finish reading a Thursday Next book, I feel like a puppy that has just had a good romp in a dog park. Oh, the fun!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sirius (Classic SF)

A Man-Dog. Super-Sheep-Dogs. Nature vs. Nurture. A Life-long Relationship. Scents. Manual Dexterity.

After reading Olaf Stapledon’s rather aloof Last and First Men and Star Maker, I was delightfully surprised to find that Sirius is an intimate story. Not only does Stapledon describe the life of Sirius, a dog-man, but he also shows humans in all their complexity. The plot has a comfortable rhythm and moved me emotionally.

Briefly, Thomas Trelone is a scientist who attempts to create super-intelligent mammals. He succeeds in creating a number of super-sheepdogs. When he tries to create an even more intelligent dog, he manages to produce one viable puppy, Sirius. In order to create the most conducive environment for high intelligence, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth raise the puppy alongside their newborn daughter Plaxy, treating them as similar as possible. The results are sometimes amusing and sometimes sad. Sirius is often frustrated by his lack of hands. Sirius and Plaxy form a unique bond that is tested by the world and their own natures.

I enjoyed the story and found it ponderable. It is definitely written for adults and stays away from any cuteness. Stapledon has a skill for showing human nature. He uses the dog Sirius to illustrate people’s true intentions as well as what they do when they think no one is looking.

One of my favorite mystery series is Chet and Bernie by Spencer Quinn. I wonder whether Quinn was influenced by Sirius. They use similar perspectives to look at the world of a dog.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Odd John (Classic SF)

Homo sapiens. Homo superior. 

In Odd John, Olaf Stapledon explores what might happen if Homo sapiens began to evolve into a new species. The result is fascinating, and, at times, disturbing. While Odd John was first published in 1935, between the release of Last and First Men and Star Maker, the novel has a stronger plot line and more character development. It tells the story of John, a Supernormal.

Briefly, John is born prematurely after eleven months in the womb. His parents immediately know that he is unusual, and his mother calls him Odd John. He looks unusual, physically develops slowly, and is incredibly intelligent. He realizes that he is different from those around him. He thinks of Homo sapiens as cattle, not quite human. Those who he cares about he thinks of as beloved pets. He nicknames the narrator of the story, a family friend, Fido. John teaches himself about Homo sapiens and the world around him. He is able to manipulate people to get what he wants, especially information. He also develops a certain amount of psychic ability. To deal with the loneliness he often feels, he seeks out others of his kind. The story ends with John’s death.

Although Odd John is not as brilliant as Last and First Men and Star Maker, I found it easier to read. Stapledon does a nice job of balancing some sympathy for John with some revulsion for his actions. Other than some cosmetic details, the story is timeless and has some ponderable ideas. It provides some ideas of how humans might evolve. It also looks at the everyday world from an outsider point of view. Stapledon continues to expand my view of reality. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Star Maker (Classic SF)

But, as we advanced on our pilgrimage, our own desires began to change…We came less and less to require that Love should be enthroned behind the stars; more and more we desired merely to pass on, opening our hearts to accept fearlessly whatever of the truth might fall within our comprehension.
I found Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker amazing and difficult. This sequel to Last and First Men has a scope that spans from the birth to the death of our cosmos, and beyond. It includes many different types of “men” in many different periods of our galaxy, sometimes discussing the sociological implications of particular types of biology. Star Maker also includes a fascinating creation myth. I admire Stapledon’s imagination. Yet, the book is challenging. Other than the opening and closing sections, Stapledon does little to help the reader relate to the characters. Likewise, the book has only a tenuous plot. The book is more like a travel guide that discusses zoology and galactic anthropology than a dynamic story.

Briefly, the story opens with the narrator outside of his house in England, looking at the stars. He finds himself disembodied and able to travel beyond the Earth. Slowly he learns how to navigate and begins to travel to other planets that contain types of men. He is able to go inside their consciousness, seeing the world from their perspective and also communicating with them telepathically. As with Last and First Men, each world has its crises and successes. He is also able to travel in time. As the story progresses, he is joined in his travels with other beings, often forming a group consciousness. At first the group only goes to planets that contain similar types of men, but gradually they visit beings who are less and less like themselves. Toward the end of the story the narrator learns that even the stars have consciousness. Many of the beings that the narrator meets have an urge to know about the Star Maker, what I would call God or the Divine Creator.

Star Maker made for very slooooow reading. In the beginning I literally would read a paragraph or two and fall asleep. Yet, I was and am awed by Stapleton’s talent and imagination. I am very glad I read the book, but I am also very glad that I am done with it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scientific Breakthroughs (Quotes from Bellwether)

I wanted to share these wonderful quotes from Bellwether by Connie Willis. One relates to fads and the other two relate to scientific breakthroughs:
Why do only the awful things becomes fads? I thought. Eye-rolling and Barbie and bread pudding. Why never chocolate cheesecake or thinking for yourself? 
You can’t just order scientific breakthroughs. They happen when you look at something you’ve been working on for years and suddenly see a connection you never noticed before, or when you’re looking for something else altogether. Sometimes they even happen by accident. 
Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

The last two quotes could easily apply to innovation in areas beyond science.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bellwether (Book)

Hair-bobbing. Fads. Sheep. Bellwethers. Chaotic Systems. Scientific Discoveries. Paperwork. Aversion Trends. Personal Ads.

Bellwether is the type of Connie Willis novel I have come to love. This short novel is funny and made me think. It is well-written and has enjoyable characters. Bellwether was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award. While the novel is about science, it is not what I think of as “science fiction.” It is primarily about fads and about scientific discoveries.

Very briefly, Sandra Foster and Bennett O’Reilly work for the research company HiTek, which is out of touch with its employees and manages by paperwork. Sandra is a sociologist who is researching what triggers fads. More specifically, she is trying to find the person or event that started the fad of women cutting their hair in the bob style. Not only has she hit an intellectual wall in her project, but she is also being thwarted by her assistant Flip, an incorrigible young woman. Through a series of mishaps, Sandra befriends Bennett, a man who is immune to trends. They collaborate on a learning experiment that uses sheep as subjects. Chaos ensues.

I liked this story a lot. I was laughing aloud for much of it. The subject of trends is one that is near and dear to my heart. As Sandra deals with the ever-changing trends of restaurants, my taste buds and tummy are often frustrated by the ever-changing trends at the grocery store. I also like the discussion of the role of chaos in scientific discovery. (I am going to include some of my favorite quotes in my next post.)

Bellwether is the third novel is the omnibus Future Imperfect.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Remake (Book)

Movies. Remakes. Computer Graphics. Drugs. Sex. Musicals. Dancing. Time Travel.

After reading so many Connie Willis novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her stories. Oh, what a surprise. Remake is nothing like To Say Nothing of the Dog or Blackout, which are fairly wholesome. Remake has casual sex and drug use. Yet, as I would expect from Willis, the story is well written. It does a nice job of juxtaposing cynicism with fresh-faced optimism. Not surprisingly, this short novel was nominated for the 1996 Hugo Award.

Briefly, Remake takes place in the near future where original movies are no longer being made. Instead movies are remade using computer technology. Tom is one of the technology wizards. Some of his jobs involve replacing the face of the original actress with that of an executive’s current girlfriend. Needless to say he is cynical, but part of him loves movies. He can easily quote lines. At yet another industry party, he meets Alis, who is nothing like the movie lookalikes he is used to. She has dreams of becoming a dancer in a musical. Tom tries to take her up to his room for sex. Instead he learns more about her aspirations. He tries to discourage her, and they part company. When she starts to appear in musicals that he is watching, he tries to uncover the reason. Is it a side effect of the drugs he took? Has another person put her in using computer graphics? Has she traveled back in time? Or is it something else?

Like Uncharted Territory, Remake feels more like a short story than a novel. I found it clever, but it is definitely not among my favorite works by Connie Willis. Remake is the second short novel in the omnibus Future Imperfect.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Uncharted Territory (Book)

Surveying. Regulations. Fines. Birds. Partners. Courtship Rituals.  

Uncharted Territory is a very short novel—probably, technically a novella—by Connie Willis. This amusing story is the first space fiction that I have read by Willis. I found the premise a bit odd, but I was entertained. The story has the feel of a short story.

Briefly, Carson and Findriddy, long-time partners, are surveying the planet Boohte, but are being hampered by regulations. It seems the indigenous population has been given the power to impose fines for practically anything. In order to reduce the number of fines, the surveyors use horses for transportation. When Findriddy discovers that a section of the planet has been mysteriously overlooked, the two partners, their indigenous guide Bult, and a newcomer, the socioexozoologist Evelyn, go on an expedition to the territory. Evelyn it turns out is a great fan of Carson and Findriddy and is also a specialist in sex. The surveying team goes on to make some interesting discoveries.

I felt out of sync with most of the story. It contains numerous incidents of Bult fining the surveyors for ridiculous things, but I was only mildly amused. My logical mind couldn’t understand why someone specializing in sex would be sent to a planet like Boohte for surveying. Finally, finally, near the end of the story, I felt that I was reading a touching story.  

Uncharted Territory is the first novel in the omnibus Future Imperfect, which contains three short novels by Connie Willis.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Last and First Men (Classic SF Book)

But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man.
I expect that Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon will haunt me for a long time. First published in 1930, this novel has influenced a number of great science fiction writers, including Arthur C. Clarke and Doris Lessing. I see hints of some of the ideas in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series and McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Series, whether or not the authors were directly influenced by the book. Last and First Men is definitely a forest—in contrast to tree and leaf—novel. It does not have relatable characters or scenic descriptions that make you feel like you are really there. It reads more like an anthropology book of future events. It gives a perspective of mankind over millions of years.

The basic premise of the book is that a man from the future, one of the last men alive before a future cataclysmic event, is able to write a book through a modern-day writer. This future man then goes on to tell the story of 18 species of men.—We are considered the first species. — The author describes the waxing and waning of civilizations and “man” species. A number of times he describes species of men dying out almost to the point of extinction and then slowly coming back in a different form. He tells of knowledge lost, rediscovered, and lost again. He describes encounters with both Martians and Venusians.

The book has its issues. Stapledon did not like Americans, and this becomes rather apparent in the first few parts. Also, written over eighty years ago, it is apparent that he got the near future wrong. In the introduction of the 1988 Tarcher edition, Gregory Benford suggests skipping the first four parts, which deal with the near future. The book also has a bit of racism, one major episode of genocide, and a number of species that practice suicide when they grow old.

On the other hand, I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s catchphrase “billions and billions."  I am left with a sense of the potential immensity of humankind. The novel gives me a new perspective of reality and my little world. It also has a number of very interesting ideas sprinkled in it. I would love to see a project where writers built stories from some of the ideas in the book and then had the stories linked together on one website.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Vortex (Book)

Prophesy. Consensus. Eutrophication. Message in a Bottle. Forgiveness. Agency.  Sum of All Parts. 

Vortex is the third and final book in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Sequence. (Spin and Axis were the first two books.) Not only is Vortex a good book in its own right, but it is also a worthy conclusion to the series. Wilson takes reader from the everyday to the epic. He finally reveals the truth about the Hypotheticals and the ultimate fate of the Earth. Wilson expertly weaves storylines together and sculptures chapters that continually made me eager to know more. And, most important to me, he includes some fresh, ponderable ideas.

Briefly, Vortex has two major storylines that intertwine at times. The first storyline involves Sandra Cole, Orrin Mather, and Jefferson Bose. It takes place in the near future, in the post-Spin era. Sandra is a psychiatrist responsible for intake evaluations at State Care. Bose is a police officer who brings in Orrin, a fragile vagrant. Sandra soon learns this is far from a routine case, and her involvement changes her life forever. Orrin, it turns out, is a witness to corruption that involves some powerful people. Most important to the story is the set of notebooks he protects and in which he writes words that he doesn’t understand. Sandra and Bose do everything they can to protect him.

The second storyline involves Turk Finley, Isaac, and Treya/Allison Pearl. It takes place approximately 10,000 years after the first storyline. At the end of Axis, Turk and Isaac were pulled into a temporal arch that was created by the Hypotheticals. On schedule, 10,000 years later, they are disgorged. They are rescued by the people of Vox, a type of cult that was built around deifying the Hypotheticals and a prophecy that involves the return of the “uptaken.” Treya is a Vox woman put in charge of Turk. Like all Vox people, she has a cortical implant that connects her with the Vox Network. Early in her life, in preparation for helping Turk, she was also given virtual memories of Allison Pearl, a woman who lived shortly after the end of the Spin. Isaac sustained major injuries when emerging from the Temporal Arch, and the people of Vox rebuilt much of his body and mind. They also irreversibly connected him to the Vox Core, leaving him even less human than he was in Axis. In an effort to fulfill the prophecy, the Vox people return to Earth, which has become uninhabitable due to a poisonous atmosphere. Nevertheless, the Vox travel to Antarctica, where they plan to be united with the Hypotheticals. Turk and Treya/Allison attempt to escape before the journey reaches its likely fatal conclusion. By the end of the story, Isaac, a passive victim for much of Axis and Vortex, finally comes into his own power.

Wilson gave me some ideas to think about. One of the most interesting related to “cortical” versus “limbic” democracies. In the future world, people are linked together, but some groups are linked via intellect, and some groups are linked via emotions. Conversely, Wilson made me think about how people are often shaped by the tragedies they live through. Most of the major characters were strongly molded by incidents in their pasts. Ethics again plays a part in the story. One group in the near future world uses the illegal Martian longevity drug with ethical constraints, insisting that its use uphold a moral code. At the same time, another group has stripped the drug of its ability to make people behave more benevolently.

When I finished the book, I kept on muttering “wow.” Wilson did such a wonderful job of bringing the storylines around in the final pages. Vortex has so many strengths that I hope the major science fiction awards will give it some consideration next year.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Axis (Book)

A young woman looking for the truth about her father’s disappearance. A man just getting by day-to-day. A boy created as a part of a daring experiment. A newly divorced man trying to protect his ex-wife. A Martian woman trying to prevent a repeat of a tragedy from her childhood. A scientist obsessed with trying to communicate with a higher power. An old nurse still affected by the death of her brother. A woman trying to nurture the son she did not want born. 

Axis is the sequel to the Hugo Award winning novel Spin and is the second book in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Sequence. The novel was nominated for the 2008 John W. Campbell Award. For me the characters are what make the novel worth reading. Even the secondary characters have interesting backstories, and many grow or have revelations as the book progresses.

Briefly, Axis takes place on Equatoria, the planet linked to Earth by an arch built by the Hypotheticals. One of the major characters is Isaac, who has known from his birth that he is “special.” The adults he lives with in a remote commune expect something from him. As the story progresses, he learns about his unusual purpose. The second major character is Lise, a woman whose father disappeared when she was a child. Newly divorced, she is obsessed with learning the truth and enlists the aid of Turk, a man without a purpose but with some very interesting friends. Assorted Fourths, people who have been physically and mentally changed by taking a longevity drug, play important roles in the various storylines. Diane, who was a major character in Spin, also appears in Axis. As the novel progresses, everyone is affected by a mysterious ash that falls at the same time as the annual meteor shower.

Like many sequels, Axis was a bit of a letdown for me. I still was immediately drawn into the plot and did not want to put it down. I also found a number or ponderable ideas. One set of ideas centered on ethics: the longevity drug, experimenting on a fetus that would otherwise be aborted, genetic engineering, organizations that make their own rules. The second ponderable idea relates to the Hypotheticals. When I hear scientists talk about alien life, it is almost always some variant of the plant-animal, water-based life we encounter on earth. Why is it always us science fiction folks who have broader expectations?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Feynman (Non-fiction Books)

Quantum Man:
He was brilliant, funny, confident, and charismatic in the extreme…his energy and enthusiasm were addictive.
His joy was solving problems, and solving them himself.
Solving problems was not a choice for Feynman, it was a necessity…Feynman couldn’t have stopped if he tried, and he didn’t try because he was so good at it.
Six Easy Pieces:
The Feynman style can best be described as a mixture of reverence and disrespect for received wisdom. His special talent was to approach essentially mainstream topics in an idiosyncratic way.
Despite reading a lot—over a hundred books this year—of science fiction, I often find myself hungry for more science. To fulfill that need, this August I read Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and Quantum Man, which is about Feynman. Both were enjoyable and expanded my knowledge of physics. Just to give some context, I need to say that the only formal education I have in physics is one undergraduate astronomy course: long live the Doppler Shift. Richard Feynman was an amazing and prolific scientist, whose contributions included the Feynman Diagram and Path Integral formulation. Among his many achievements, he worked on the atomic bomb, won a Nobel Prize, and helped investigate the Challenger Disaster. Reading these books was a major intellectual workout for me.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss was released earlier this year. While a biography, the book focuses almost exclusively on the scientific side of Feynman’s life, with only a dusting of brief paragraphs about his personal life. The book was still very appealing to me. Not only does the book describe Feynman’s scientific accomplishments, but it also describes some of the accomplishments of the scientists who influenced him and the accomplishments of those he in turn influenced. This book is as much—if not more—about science as it is about a man. Yet, Krauss does manage to paint an interesting picture of Feynman, with all his idiosyncrasies and his brilliance. I especially enjoyed learning how his mind worked, how he looked at the world and scientific problems. The book did include a few poignant moments. One of which is how Feynman became depressed after the world had the atomic bomb.

Six Easy Pieces is an edited version of six lectures about physics that Feynman gave at Caltech in the early 1960’s. First published in 1963, the book is in its fourth printing, with the latest edition coming out this year. The book is so popular that our own library often has a waiting list for a copy. Feynman’s personality comes through in the book. The tone is conversational. When he describes the conservation of energy, he uses the example of Dennis the Menace and his wooden blocks. This is definitely not a textbook on physics: the writing has varying levels of difficulty, and the subjects are far ranging. Sometimes I had “aha” moments when I felt that I definitely understood something. Other times, I was lost, like when I was looking at a table of elementary particles. While the book was very slow reading, I enjoyed it very much.

Reading about science soothes me. Perhaps it is the feeling that there is some order in the universe. One of my goals is to read more science books.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Speculative Horizons (Book of Short Stories)

A New Boyfriend. Magicians. A Stranger. A Shaman. Cupids.

I rarely read short stories, but a slim volume kept calling to me from the New Book shelves of my local library. Speculative Horizons, edited by blogger Patrick St-Denis, contains five fantasy short stories. Each story elaborates on an interesting premise:

  • “Soul Mate” by C. S. Friedman describes the relationship between a woman and her new boyfriend, who is either a soul mate or something far sinister. 
  • “The Eve of the Fall of Habesh” by Tobias S. Buckell describes the work of a man who can take away a person’s magical ability. 
  • “The Stranger” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. describes how a stranger changes the lives of a shepherd and his mother.
  • “Flint” by Brian Buckley describes a turning point in the life of a young shaman. 
  • “The Death of a Love” by Hal Duncan describes a world where cupids are real. 

The book was definitely worthwhile. I thought that “Flint” was the perfect, little story, like a good novel in miniature. It had a riveting plot, interesting characters, plenty of action, and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the other stories to varying degrees, but found them all interesting.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lincoln’s Dreams (Book)

Dreams. Robert E. Lee. Abraham Lincoln. Duty. Unknown Soldiers. Horses. The Civil War. 

Lincoln’s Dreams, winner of the 1988 John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is one of Connie Willis’s earliest novels. While usually classified as a fantasy, it seems more like a mixture of fiction and historical fiction to me. Having read Willis’s later novels, one of my biggest challenges was to try to read the novel from a fresh perspective. I saw some plot parallels to Passage. But I was disappointed that I did not feel as sympathetic toward the main characters as I did in Willis’s later books. I understand that part of this is the nature of this particular plot. On the other hand, the novel did a good job of making me feel the horrors of the Civil War.

Briefly, Jeff is the research assistant for Broun, a Civil War novelist. At one of Broun’s parties, Jeff meets a troubled young woman, Annie. She is the patient and girlfriend of Jeff’s college roommate Richard, a psychiatrist. She has been having disturbing dreams related to the Civil War—particularly related to Robert E. Lee—and immediately bonds with Jeff. Being a researcher, he can verify that some of the details in the dreams concern facts that very few people know about. (This reminds me of Passages and the detailed visions about the Titanic.) When Annie discovers that Richard has been slipping her Thorazine, she goes to Jeff for help. He takes her away for a few days—unfortunately near Civil War battlefields—in order to keep her away from Richard and possibly help her with the dreams. But the dreams become more and more intense, and Jeff doesn’t know whether he is helping Annie or making her worse. Intertwined with the main plot is the idea of Lincoln’s Dreams, possibly the topic of Broun’s next book. Broun is researching dreams in California, while Jeff is searching for information about acromegaly, possibly the cause of Lincoln’s troubling dreams.

If I had read Lincoln’s Dreams before any other Connie Willis books, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I had problems getting into the story and relating to the main characters. While Jeff and Broun have some tender, father-son moments, for the most part I was disappointed with the depth of the characters. In September I am planning to read some more short novels by Willis. I will be interested to see whether I have the same reaction. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Smart Bonobos (Follow-up to WWW Trilogy and Link)

As I have mentioned before, I am a great fan of Hobo, a chimpanzee bonobo hybrid in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy. Today I saw an interesting article about a series of contests between chimpanzees and bonobos. The chimpanzees ended up losing because of a political struggle. Hmmm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WWW: Wonder (Book)

Wonder. Human Nature. Missing Hackers. Great Firewall of China. Transparency. WWWD. Non-zero-sum. Hacker Street Cred. Homo Placidus.

WWW: Wonder, released this past spring, is the final book in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy. The story continues where WWW: Watch left off. The book has a more driving plot than WWW: Watch but also continues most of the philosophical discussion. It is a wonderful conclusion to a very rewarding trilogy.

A quick overview of major developments from WWW: Wake and WWW: Watch that I did not discuss in my previous blog entries is in order here. In WWW: Wake, Webmind, an entity that resides on the World Wide Web, is created when the Chinese government puts up a huge firewall in an attempt to isolate the country from the rest of the world. When a hacker, Wong Wei-leng, pokes a hole in the firewall, Webmind becomes conscious of self and a part of self that is cut off. Later, in an attempt to avoid apprehension by the police, Wong Wei-leng jumps off a balcony. In WWW: Watch, with the help of Caitlin and her family, Dr. Kuroda, Anna Bloom, and some others, Webmind gains access to all the information on the Web. After the authorities learn of Webmind’s presence, he decides to reveal himself to the greater world. He first gets their attention by eliminating all spam and then sends an e-mail explaining who he is. He then gives people a way of contacting him with any questions they may have. People ask him all kinds of questions. He reminds me of a combination of Google & Bing, Dear Abby,  and Santa. In one of the books, Catlin describes Webmind as everyone’s Facebook friend. Whew! Between this paragraph and my previous two entries, we should be caught up. Now to WWW: Wonder.

Briefly, one of the major storylines involves Colonel Payton Hume. After the initial failed attempt to eliminate Webmind and his subsequent conversation with the current administration, WATCH is no long actively looking for ways to eliminate Webmind. After all, he seems to be doing a lot of good. Hume doesn’t buy this at all and decides that he is the only one standing in the way of Webmind enslaving the human race. First, Hume attempts to find the best and most notorious hackers to eliminate Webmind. When one by one they go missing, Hume decides that Webmind is killing them. Hume then decides to turn to the media in an attempt to crowdsource a virus that will destroy Webmind.

In the meantime, Webmind is attempting to control his public image as well as continue on his personal mission to do good in the world. After a disastrous television appearance by Caitlin, Webmind enlists the assistance of Hobo when giving a speech before the United Nations. (One of my favorite lines of the trilogy is actually signed by Hobo, who refers to all the alphas in government as chest thumpers.) Webmind also decides to look for the hacker responsible for his birth. He finds that Wong Wei-leng is partially paralyzed and in Chinese police custody. Webmind enlists Dr. Kuroda to try to help heal the hacker. Ultimately, Wong Wei-leng is made to work for the Chinese government. When the firewall is again put up, there are some unexpected and tragic results. Throughout the story Webmind and the people he touches continue to grow.

This has been an enjoyable trilogy for me for a number of reasons. The plot was interesting, and I could relate to the characters. I could even sympathize with Colonel Hume. Oh, and who couldn’t love Hobo? Sawyer’s philosophical discussions are continuing to make me think. I wish more people in the world were discussing the topics —including non-zero-sum and reciprocal altruism—that were brought up in the book. I enjoy Sawyer’s optimism about the future and about technology.

Monday, August 22, 2011

WWW: Watch (Book)

Consciousness. Watch. Game Theory.  Non-zero-sum.  Beyond Selfish Genes. Turning the Other Check.  Choice. Big Brother. 

WWW: Watch, the second book in Robert J, Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy, continues where WWW: Wake left off. WATCH refers to Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters, a government agency responsible for keeping the United States safe from on-line threats. Caitlin, the teenager who gained sight in WWW: Wake, refers to not allowing anything happen to Webmind, the name the emerging entity on the internet gives itself, on her watch. Certainly, Hobo, the sign language using chimpanzee Bonobo hybrid, is being watched. Yet, WWW: Watch is also a book about making choices. Both Webmind and Hobo have to choose which paths they will take in the world.

Briefly, at the beginning of WWW: Watch, Caitlin chooses to tell her parents about Webmind. The three humans help play a role in the path of Webmind’s evolution. After Webmind passively watches a teenager commit suicide on-line, Barb, Caitlin’s mother, begins to teach Webmind about being a force for good in the world. Barb draws from the Game Theory of Economics, as well as from Religion. The humans also help Webmind access more information about the world by giving him the capacity to access various types of files as well as to hear actual sounds in Caitlin’s world. In the meantime, Caitlin is still struggling with having sight for the first time and dealing with boys. WATCH not only finds out about Webmind but also makes its first attempt to neutralize him. On another front, Hobo is beginning to exhibit the aggressive behavior associated with chimpanzees. His friends try to give him additional options for how he can choose to relate to the world.

WWW: Wake is not one of the most exciting books I have ever read; the plotline is a bit flat. — I am half way through reading WWW: Wonder, which is more dynamic —Yet, Wake is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. Sawyer talks about the differences between human (animal) evolution and Webmind’s evolution, especially when it comes to selfishness. Sawyer invokes both game theory and the Bible to discuss the usefulness of altruism and cooperation. He discusses difficult topics like on-line suicides and Asperger Syndrome. I have evolved while I have been reading and thinking about the books in the WWW Trilogy.

A Footnote: Yesterday, too tired to write up my reaction to WWW: Watch after staying up late to see who won the Hugo for best novel, I watched an interesting interview with Robert J. Sawyer in which he talked about the WWW Series. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

WWW: Wake (Book)

Consciousness. Expanding Awareness. An Epidemic. Eyepod. WebSight. Phantom. Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. Cellular AutomataZipf's law. Asperger Syndrome. Bicameralism

WWW: Wake, nominated for the 2010 Hugo and Campbell Awards, is a story about expanding consciousness. Robert J. Sawyer’s novel describes the cognitive awakening of a fifteen-year-old girl, a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid, and a cyber-intelligence. This is the type of science fiction I love. Sawyer fills the novel with science and technology. At the same time, he creates characters that I can care about.

Briefly, the main storyline is about Caitlin, a teenager who has been blind since birth because of a disorder involving the way her retinas and brain communicate. After a doctor performs an experimental procedure to attempt to restore her sight, the first thing she sees is the World Wide Web (nodes, routing, etc.)—she has been using the web since she was eighteen-months-old. Eventually, she also gains physical sight. Sawyer shows how she gradually adjusts. One of the unexpected effects is that she realizes her dad, a respected physicist, has Asperger Syndrome. She retains her WebSight and comes to see a phantom in the web. The second plotline is about the expanding awareness of this phantom. To control public reaction, a major country temporarily creates a firewall isolating it from the rest of the world. The phantom becomes aware that part of him is cut off from another part of him. This awakens his consciousness. The third storyline is about Hobo, a research chimp who uses sign language and occasionally paints. After the researchers put him on a web conference with another sign using chimp, something in Hobo’s thinking process changes. He begins to understand the concept of representing the three dimensional world in two dimensions. To add to this idea of awakening consciousness, Sawyer weaves in the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller and the ideas in Julian Jaynes’s book Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I was drawn into the story and don’t want to leave, even after I have finished the book. Fortunately WWW: Wake is the first book in the WWW Trilogy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

All the Lives He Led (Book)

Terrorism. Indenture. Pompeii. Volcanoes. Disease. Obsession. Zeppelins. A Data Coil. Sex. Inhumanity. 

Frederick Pohl’s All the Lives He Led, released this spring, is a science fiction novel set in the relatively near future, 2079. After a super-volcano exploded in 2062, what is left of the United States is a poor nation. Terrorism continues to be widespread in the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of Brad Sheridan, a small-time criminal, who becomes indentured in order to leave the poverty of his home, a refugee camp on Staten Island. In some ways, I found the book disturbing because of the way it describes how vulnerable people really are to possible future terrorism and to the aftereffects of natural disasters.

Briefly, after a number of tolerable indenture assignments, Brad finds a job working at the Pompeii Jubilee, a type of theme park that recreates the city before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Virts, realistic holograms with sound, are incorporated with the existing ruins. For much of the book, Brad has the job of wine merchant. He also has some small moneymaking schemes on the side. While the Jubilee employs a number of different types of workers, the indentured employees are looked down upon. Brad slowly makes friendly acquaintances—in most of the cases, friends would be too strong of a word. One is a professional, Maury, who is in charge of the city’s water supply. Another is a woman, Gerda, with whom Brad becomes obsessed. She keeps on disappearing for periods of times for various reasons. About a third of the way through the book, some young girls who had attended the Jubilee come down with necrotizing fasciitis, which becomes dubbed Pompeii Flu because it may—or may not—have originated with the Pompeii Jubilee. The disease spreads to other cities. As the story unfolds, Brad seems to have regular contact with various security personnel. First, he is questioned because an uncle by marriage has terrorist ties. Along with doing their assigned jobs, each employee must attend a weekly terrorism prevention seminar. At one point, Brad witnesses some security personnel kill a potential terrorist. Later on, he is in and out of custody because of his “friends”.

I think I had expected more flying magma and fewer scary people when I originally picked up the book, which may have led to my initial disappointment. While for the most part I found All the Lives He Led a compelling story, at times I found it inconsistent. As I have read in some other reviews and noticed myself, Brad is supposed to be a streetwise hustler, so it seems odd that he does not see the suspicious activity going on around him. The flow of the book feels odd to me, which might be a matter of the change of plot content. The descriptions of the Pompeii Jubilee feel well fleshed out and realistic to me. In some of the sections near the end of the book, which are pivotal in understanding the climax, there is less description and the book feels less real to me. Intellectually, I understand how the story builds, but something feels missing to me in the section. Yes, I would recommend the book, but it falls somewhere in the middle of my list.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Something Rotten (Book)

Hamlet. Toast. Denmark. Eradicated Husbands. Croquet. Prophesies. Neanderthals. The Windowmaker. 

Something Rotten, the fourth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, is immensely enjoyable, funny and clever. The style is more like the first two books in the series: not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Well of Lost Plots and containing more political and social satire. Something Rotten continues the storylines begun in the earlier books, wrapping up most of the loose ends by the end of the book. It includes most of my favorite characters, including Spike and Thursday’s dad. While it technically concludes the series, Fforde has since added two encore books.

Briefly, after more than two years as the Bellman of Jurisfiction, Thursday decides that it is time to leave the bookworld and return to the real world—real being Fforde’s alternative history, fantasy world—with her two-year-old son Friday, who only speaks in Loren Ipsum. Back home, Thursday must deal with the problems that she left behind. Her husband is still eradicated, and Goliath Corporation is still trying to dominate the world. In addition, Yorrick Kaine, a fictional character who has escaped to the real world, has proclaimed himself chancellor and is trying to get himself elected dictator. Part of his strategy is to blame Denmark for everything that is wrong in the country. In addition, an obscure 13th century saint, St. Zvlkx, has made a pronouncement that if the Swindon Mallets win the Superhoop, a croquet championship, Goliath and Kaine will be defeated. Oh, and someone is trying to kill Thursday.

The Thursday series is like typeset chocolate to me; I don’t want it to end. Besides all the wonderful things I have said about it in my earlier blogs, it is also very reader friendly. Fforde gives enough backstory information so that a reader can easily continue reading the series after a long absence. He even does that within individual books, where he sprinkles in mini-summaries. I want to keep the last two books until I seriously need another silliness break.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hard Magic (Book)

Magic. Powers. Japanese Imperium. Dirigibles. Kanji. Grimnoir Knights. Peace Ray. Demons. Zombies. Tesla Device.

Fans of superhero stories may have a new book series to follow. Harry Correia’s recently released Hard Magic, the first book in the Grimnoir Chronicles, is alternate history and superhero fantasy, with just a touch of science fiction added. In this Prohibition era story, WWI was ended by the United States shooting a Peace Ray at Germany; Dirigibles are common; the Japanese Imperium is the new world threat; and a growing group of people, Actives, have magical abilities. These abilities fall into categories called “powers.” A secret society, the Grimnoir Knights, vow to use their powers to overcome evil and to protect the weak. The story is action packed and, for me, has the fun of superhero stories like Iron Man.

Briefly, the book chronicles the story of two actives. Jake Sullivan is a heavy, someone who can control gravity, who was sent to prison after he accidentally killed a police officer using his ability. As part of his probation conditions, Jake must take special assignments given to him by J. Edgar Hoover. After one of these assignments, Jake is recruited by the Grimnoirs. Jake is a patriotic, wants-to-do-right, type of a character. Unbeknownst to him, his brother is a member of the Japanese Imperium’s Iron Guard. Faye is a young traveler, someone who can move instantly from one place to another. Her family of origin abuses her because she is different, and they sell her to a farmer. This kindly man is also a traveler and teaches her how to use her abilities. When he is murdered, she vows to get revenge. Her adopted grandpa was once a member of the Grimnoir Knights and was safeguarding a piece of the Tesla Device, a device that can destroy a third of the United States with a single shot. Faye meets up with the Grimnoirs while she is carrying out her adopted grandpa’s dying wishes. Faye is a naïve but talented Active, who reminds me a bit of Elly May from the Beverly Hillbillies. Jake, Faye, assorted Grimnoir Knights and friends, try to stop the Japanese Imperium from using the Tesla device.

I am adding the Grimnoir Chronicles to my list of guilty pleasures, along with some of the silly detective series I follow. Hard Magic does not have a deep message or an impressive literary style. It does have a well thought out magic taxonomy and an interesting context for the magic. I will be looking for Dark Ocean this coming November.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Passage (Book)

Near Death Experiences. Disasters. The Titanic. Mazes and Mirrors. Metaphors. Messages. Confabulation. Identification.

Passage is another Connie Willis novel that needs to be read by the heart as well as by the head. The winner of the 2002 Locus Science Fiction Award as well as a nominee for four other major awards, Passage is a science fiction novel that deals with near death experiences. It is also a novel about the vulnerability of human beings to the “disasters of life”: disease, accident, old-age, violence, and the loss of a loved one.

Briefly, Dr. Joanne Lander studies near death experiences through interviews. She is approached by Dr. Richard Wright, who has found a way to simulate near death experiences through the use of a drug, to collaborate on a study. When they run into some problems finding appropriate subjects for the study, Joanne offers to go under using the drug. Her simulated NDE convinces her that NDEs have some purpose, and she becomes obsessed finding out what that is. Richard looks at NDEs only in terms of the neurology and biochemistry. Their combined preoccupations lead to tragedy as well as triumph. The story includes interesting secondary characters, including Lander’s best friend who works in a dangerous ER, a precocious girl with a heart condition and a love of disasters, Joanne’s old high school teacher who has Alzheimer’s and his niece/caretaker.

I admit that I sometimes find myself becoming impatient with Willis’s books: “Can we just get to the point?” She seems to be repeating very similar scenes over and over again. In the case of Passage, the characters come very close to finding out an answer and then something thwarts them at the last minute. In some ways this plot style is similar to watercolor painting in which layers of paint are put down in order to achieve an effect. Willis uses repetition to help create emotion. This may help explain why reading her books is so cathartic for me. I had a couple of good sobs while reading Passage. Since finishing the book last night, I have found some of the scenes replaying in my head. Willis is one of my favorite authors.