Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book Four: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Short review: The labyrinth is everywhere and connects everything and is always changing. Annabeth and Percy have to navigate it while dodging monsters, titans and other demigods. Oh, and some of the gods don't like them too much either. Life is hard, and getting harder.

A worldwide labyrinth
And some angry minor gods
Result: invasion

Full review: After the brief sag in The Titan's Curse (read review), the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series picks up again in its penultimate installment, The Battle of the Labyrinth. The primary reason for this is that Percy and Annabeth spend most of the book serving as foils for one another, and the two character work in such a complementary manner that this, by itself, would make the book flow. However, the book also has an interesting story that highlights that the Gods themselves may be responsible for a substantial chunk of their own troubles. In addition, Annabeth's character, well-drawn through the first three books of the series, is explored in greater detail, fleshing her out even more.

After the seemingly obligatory opening in which Percy gets into trouble with monsters at a new school (and unfortunately, a return to Percy being tracked down an attacked rather than taking the initiative as a proactive character), the plot of the book is, once again, in the form of a quest. However, in this case the quest is engendered when a threat to Camp Half-Blood is discovered inside the camp itself. In this case, the threat is the entrance to Daedalus' famous labyrinth. Luke, having seemingly returned from death, is apparently hunting for Adriadne's Thread, the only thing that can prevent one from becoming lost in the maze. So, with the usual cast of characters in tow, Annabeth and Percy delve into the labyrinth to try to find the mysterious Daedalus and save Camp Half-Blood. The quest has several interesting elements. First, the questing hero is once again, not Percy. Instead, it is Annabeth, daughter of the architecturally inclined Athena that must seek out Daedalus, who in the past had been a special favorite of her mother. The labyrinth itself turns out to be an interesting element too, as it is not merely a place, but more of a concept that both connects all places to one another, and changes form to confuse travelers.

However, the quest mostly serves as a backdrop to resolve some of the long standing plot points of the series, and set up the climatic battles of The Last Olympian (read review). The most important plot point that is resolved is Grover's quest for Pan, which reaches its conclusion in an unexpected, but in retrospect, almost inevitable manner. The most important plot development is reflected in both Daedalus and Nico (who feels spurned at Camp Half-Blood due to the lack of a place for him), who are both angry with the Gods for mostly valid reasons, and who allow their obsessions to take them to dangerous places. One of the themes that emerges from the quest is the idea that the Olympian gods, with their machinations, petty squabbles, arbitrary actions, and general indifference to the concerns of others, have caused a great deal of their own troubles. Among the growing ranks of Kronos' followers are not only the other Titans and an array of mythological monsters, but minor gods and demigods who have turned against the capricious Olympians. And what makes this element of the story so effective is that Riordan can draw from the personalities of the Olympian gods established by mythology with almost no embellishment to make the disaffection of those that turn against them ring true.

As usual, the book is filled with humor and action, as the by now well-established relationships between the characters allow for strong character interaction. The addition of the mortal Rachel Dare to the mix adds a bit of spice to the quest, not only because her unique talents turn out to be necessary, but also because she serves as a rival for Annabeth for Percy's attention, sparking some character development that might otherwise have seemed forced, but is almost necessary to maintain believability in a story in which characters who started the series at age twelve have grown into fifteen year old teenagers. As one might expect, everything builds to a climax in which Kronos threatens to score a major victory and Annabeth, Percy, Grover, and even Nico are called upon the save the day. As this story serves as a run up to the final act of the series, the heroes are more heroic, the villains are more menacing, and the action is more intense, all of which adds up to a strong book that ably sets up the grand finale to come.

Previous book in the series reviewed: The Titan's Curse.
Subsequent book in the series reviewed: The Last Olympian.

Rick Riordan     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

2010 World Fantasy Award Nominees

Location: World Fantasy Convention, Columbus, Ohio.

Comments: As the slates of World Fantasy Award nominees get closer and closer to the present, it becomes more and more apparent to me that the powers that be behind the World Fantasy Awards have studiously avoided paying attention to the popular trends in fantasy. There is nothing wrong with having an award that spends much of its time focusing on niche examples of the genre, but if you want to name your award something as grandiose as the "World Fantasy Award", then there is at least an implied responsibility to honor all forms of fantasy, including the fantasy that is popular. But the World Fantasy Awards seem bound and determined to ignore any fantasy that is overly popular - even though Terry Pratchett was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, none of his numerous books were ever nominated for an award. Authors like Laurel K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, and Kelly Armstrong have spent their careers being essentially ignored by the World Fantasy Awards despite the popularity and pervasive influence of their books.

Best Novel

The City & the City by China Miéville

Other Nominees:
Blood of Ambrose by James Enge
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Best Novella

Sea-Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Other Nominees:
Everland by Paul Witcover
I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes (reviewed in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, No. 5 (December 2009))
The Lion's Den by Steve Duffy
The Night Cache by Andy Duncan
The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker

Best Short Fiction

The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler

Other Nominees:
In Hiding by R.B. Russell
A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, as Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc, or, a Lullaby by Helen Keeble
Light on the Water by Genevieve Valentine
The Persistence of Memory, or This Space for Sale by Paul Park
Singing on a Star by Ellen Klages

Best Anthology

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny: From Poe to the Pulps/From the 1940s to Now edited by Peter Straub

Other Nominees:
Eclipse Three edited by Jonathan Strahan
Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations edited by Danel Olson
Poe edited by Ellen Datlow
Songs of The Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology edited by Gordon van Gelder

Best Collection

(tie) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
(tie) The Very Best of Gene Wolfe/The Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe

Other Nominees:
Everland and Other Stories by Paul Witcover
Fugue State by Brian Evenson
Northwest Passages by Barbara Roden
We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Lifetime Achievement

Brian Lumley
Terry Pratchett
Peter Straub

Other Nominees:

Best Artist

Charles Vess

Other Nominees:
John Jude Palencar
John Picacio
Sam Weber
Jason Zerrillo

Special Award, Professional

Jonathan Strahan

Other Nominees:
Peter Crowther and Nicky Crowther
Ellen Datlow
Hayao Miyazaki
Barbara Roden and Christopher Roden
Jacob Weisman and Rina Weisman

Special Award, Non-Professional

Susan Marie Groppi

Other Nominees:
John Berlyne
Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, and Sean Wallace
Bob Colby, B. Diane Martin, Dave Shaw, and Eric M. Van
John Klima
Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker

Go to previous year's nominees: 2009
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2011

Book Award Reviews     Home

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book Three: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

Short review: Percy Jackson has to deal with more monsters, more titans, and the petulant servants of a goddess who doesn't trust him. Oh, and he saves the world. Again.

Annabeth captured
Huntresses are suspicious
Carry the world's weight

Full review: In an interesting twist, at the end of The Sea of Monsters (read review), the power of the Golden Fleece served to cure Thalia's Tree to such an extent that Thalia, daughter of Zeus, also came back to life. This complicates matters in The Titan's Curse by adding a second demigod with a parent who is a member of the "Big Three", and muddying the meaning of the prophecy that everyone had previously assumed applied directly to Percy. This, as one might expect, is just the beginning of the problems that confront Percy Jackson and his friends in the third installment of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, as the main story line of the series begins to seriously pick up steam.

The story starts off, as the previous two installments did, with trouble at a private school. The twist this time around is that it is no longer Percy Jackson having trouble come to him, but rather, he, Annabeth, and Thalia are seeking out previously unidentified demigods to bring them to safety at Camp Half-Blood. This is a fairly critical piece of character development, transforming Percy from being a mostly reactive character into a full-fledged protagonist. This also brings to the fore an element that will become increasingly important to the main plot of the series and Annabeth's character development - the dangers inherent in, and the struggles half-bloods face, in trying to win their way to the sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood.

This thematic development is good, but unfortunately, it is one of the the few plot elements the book that is truly new to the series. After Annabeth is captured in the opening sequence and Artemis sets out to rescue her before getting captured herself, the plot becomes fairly ordinary as the rest of the characters set out on a quest cross-country from New York to California, battling monsters all the way, to stop the plans of the evil titan Kronos and his General. This cross-country quest seems very reminiscent of the quest from The Lightning Thief (read review) in which the main characters traveled from New York to California battling monsters along the way. The secondary plot, involving the hunt for a beast so powerful that it could topple Olympus, also reminds one of the quest to recover Zeus' thunderbolt so as to prevent an earth shattering war. The resolution of the secondary quest does have an interesting twist, although as happens so often in the series, one wonders why the various immortals didn't let Percy in on the information that would have prevented the crisis stemming from this plot element to begin with. The newly discovered demigods have unknown heritage, just as Percy did in the beginning of The Lightning Thief, although the clues concerning the true nature of their divine parentage are just as heavy-handed as the clues to Percy's were before Poseidon claimed him, leading the reader to wonder just how dumb Chiron and Dionysus are that they are unable to add two and two together to get four.

This is not to say that The Titan's Curse is a wasted book in the series - although it is probably the weakest of the five. The book introduces and fleshes out both Artemis and Apollo as developed characters, as well as adding Artemis' Huntresses as characters. The most interesting character added is Rachel Dare, a mostly normal human with an extraordinary ability that is important to the plot of the book. The action in the book is just as fast-paced as in the previous books, and there is a fair amount of humor, although with Annabeth "off-screen" for most of the book, one loses much of the banter between her and Percy, with Annabeth's role in the book mostly being taken by the angst ridden Thalia and the somewhat dour Zoe. The book also advances the larger plot relating to Kronos and Luke, revealing a little bit more of Kronos' plans to take on the Olympian gods, and just how dangerous he and his allies are, ramping up the tension just in time for the next book to commence.

Although this book is probably the weakest of the Percy Jackson series, it is still quite a diverting read. The weaknesses of the book seem to stem from the fact that, as the middle book in the series, there is not much new being added to the background of setting or the characters, and the main conflicts of the series have not yet progressed to the point where they are being resolved. As a result, other than some more in-depth character development to flesh out the various actors in the drama, the story is more or less simply filling in the space between The Sea of Monsters and The Battle of the Labyrinth (read review). Even still, Percy Jackson is such a likable protagonist who is called upon to undertake some literally Herculean tasks, and the action and humor are so fun to read, that despite it being less impressive in comparison to the other books in the series, it is still a really good example of young adult fiction, and one that is definitely worth reading.

Previous book in the series reviewed: The Sea of Monsters.
Subsequent book in the series reviewed: The Battle of the Labyrinth.

Rick Riordan     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, October 29, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book Two: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Short review: Percy Jackson's adventures continue, but now he has to rescue his friend from a distant relative. Along the way, he finds he has more family than he thought.

A tree is poisoned
Sparks a quest for Annabeth
To the monster sea

Full review: Percy Jackson's adventures that kicked off in The Lightning Thief (read review) continue in The Sea of Monsters, book two in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. Since the bulk of the background about the nature of the fantasy reality that the story takes place in was already covered in The Lightning Thief, the story kicks off quickly, and pretty much never stops moving at a breakneck pace until the end.

Having returned to the "normal" world for the school year after the Gods refused to take seriously Percy's warnings concerning the rumblings from the dark presence in the pits of Tartarus, Percy finds himself attacked by giants wielding fireballs until he is rescued by a big awkward kid named Tyson that he had befriended. Both Percy and Tyson are rescued by Annabeth and all three flee to Camp Half-Blood where they discover numerous changes have taken place. Chiron has been fired as camp director because Thalia's Tree has been poisoned and he is suspected as the culprit. Thalia's Tree is unable to protect the Camp anymore, and the dire situation sets the main plot of the book into motion as a hero is sent forth to recover the Golden Fleece, the only thing that can cure the tree.

Interestingly, Percy Jackson is not sent on the quest, and neither is his friend Annabeth, which makes for an interesting twist on the story. It turns out that Grover is missing, however, and Percy, Tyson, and Annabeth set out to find and rescue him. Along the way, they intertwine paths with the fleece quester, and run across Luke, now openly consorting with monsters and raising an army to be used against Olympus. This also serves to seriously flesh out what is to become the main plot of the series, as Luke reveals that he seeks to revive an ancient and deadly foe of the Gods. This becomes a major complication as the heroes' quests all wind their way through the titular Sea of Monsters (which turns out to be the Bermuda Triangle) to their intertwined resolution. In the end, justice prevails, but things don't turn out exactly as one expects, and a new complication literally crops up at the end.

Once again, the characters have to deal with numerous creatures from Greek mythology that serve as hurdles for our intrepid heroes to overcome. One element of the fantasy reality that Riordan has crafted is the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between heroes and monsters. For heroes, the game is deadly: if they die, they are dead and presumably go to Hades. Monsters, on the other hand, are symbolic of the maladies of human nature, and as such, they will eventually reform if they are killed. As the monsters rally against the gods and demigods, it seems that the balance of power is potentially insurmountably stacked against the heroes just by the very nature of the fantasy reality. Counterbalancing this to a certain extent is the fact that Riordan seems to have pumped up the power level of the demigods well past anything that one would expect from the original myths. With the exception of the prodigious strength of Heracles, the noteworthy half-blooded heroes of Greek myth such as Theseus, Perseus, and Jason seem to be extraordinarily brave and skilled in battle, but none of them display the divinely inspired supernatural powers that are de rigeur in the Percy Jackson series.

The story, being set mostly at sea, bears some resemblances to the journeys of Ulysses in The Odyssey, although the heroes don't wander the oceans for a decade. One of the more interesting encounters the protagonists have is when they run across the sirens, and Annabeth emulates Ulysses in order to hear their song, and ends up learning something about herself. Overall, the story is quite good, managing to pack plenty of humor and character development in among the fast paced action. Though many series suffer a "sophomore slump" in which the second book suffers a let down in quality, Riordan manages to avoid this, and this book is only a touch less good than the first one, and that is only because it is a hundred pages shorter. Just like the first installment in the series, this book is recommended for anyone who likes fantasy fiction, and highly recommended for any young reader who is interested in, or who is a fan of Greek mythology.

Previous book in the series: The Lightning Thief
Subsequent book in the series: The Titan's Curse

Rick Riordan     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Short review: Percy Jackson is a misfit, but not really. In fact, he's super special and takes a tour through the monsters of Greek mythology.

Percy's a misfit
But it turns out not really
Just a demigod

Full review: The Lightning Thief is the first book in Rick Riordan's young adult oriented five book Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. As one would expect, the central character of the story is Percy Jackson, who opens the book as a fairly typical twelve year old struggling through his classes, dealing with both ADHD and dyslexia and trying to fit in socially and avoid getting kicked out of yet another school. Everything is turned upside down for him when he discovers that he is pursued by mythological monsters, his favorite teacher is actually Chiron, and Grover, his only friend, is actually a satyr who spends his time combing the Earth for the children of the Gods. In what is surely the fantasy of every socially awkward kid struggling through middle-school, Percy learns that he is, in fact, one of those children, which makes him a demi-god.

Percy quickly finds out, however, that being a demi-god means that monsters will hunt you down and try to kill you, which is why Grover and the other satyrs seek them out, so they can take them to safety. Along with his mother, Percy and Grover flee in his stepfather's car to Camp Half-Blood. Along the way Percy's mother is killed by a minotaur, which Percy slays. Camp Half-Blood turns out to be not just a refuge, but a a training ground for would-be heroes, and Percy, his parentage undetermined, takes up residence in the Hermes house. Things go more or less well until a crisis forces Percy's divine parent to openly claim him, and then sends Percy, along with Grover and his new found friend Annabeth (daughter of Athena) on a quest across the country to enter the Underworld and recover Zeus' stolen masterbolt. The heroes face several classic villains of Greek mythology along the way, make the acquaintance of Ares, the God of War, and finally confront Hades in his throne room. Of course, things aren't as simple as they appear to be on the surface, and various subterfuges are revealed until finally the ultimate villain is uncovered and his plan foiled.

Through the book the story rolls forward at a pretty swift pace, moving Percy and his companions from point to point in fairly short order. The only somewhat slow portion of the book is between when Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood and when he sets out on his assigned quest, as most of the world building that develops Riordan's alternate reality takes place in this section, requiring a fair amount of information to be dumped on the reader while limited actual action is taking place. The other major weakness of the book crops up here too, which is that while everyone is wondering about who Jackson's actual divine parent is, the clues dropped are so heavy handed that any reader with any knowledge at all concerning Greek mythology will figure it out in pretty short order, and be left wondering why all these figures from actual Greek mythology like Chiron and Dionysus remain befuddled.

The one major criticism I have of the book is the idea that Mount Olympus, and thus the Greek Gods, follow the heart of Western culture and civilization about, which is why Mount Olympus is located above New York City in the book. Leaving aside the fact that it take a considerable amount of hubris to assert that the United States is the "heart of the West", the various cults of the Greek Gods were, by and large, impediments to the development of Western thought and culture. It was only when the Greek philosophers rejected the various divine explanations for things that science began to flourish - the birth of the idea of a natural universe probably began when Thales left Marduk out of his explanation for how the continents formed out of the sea. And the Greek Gods in Riordan's version live up to this - they are petty, vain, argumentative, short-sighted, and quite simply exemplars of why they aren't the source of Western culture, all the while remaining completely in line with their established character traits from actual Greek mythology.

Even so, Riordan has created a very believable fantasy reality, weaving in the mythological Gods and monsters of Greek myth into the fabric of modern life, giving the fantastic elements of the story a rooting in reality that serves as a reference point for young readers. Through their travels, Percy, Grover and Annabeth meet and overcome foes, but those foes are embedded in the world around them sufficiently well that famous figures of Greek mythology such as Medusa or Procrustes don't seem out of place (although a knowledgeable reader will probably spot the monsters long before the heroes in the story do). The strong background coupled with the well-paced action scenes and the fact that all of the youthful protagonists are quite well-written and likable characters makes The Lightning Thief a great young adult fantasy, and an excellent book for any young reader who loves Greek myth, or just one who would enjoy being introduced to it.

Subsequent book in the series: The Sea of Monsters.

Rick Riordan     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Review - Pureheart by Rita Hsu Syers

This is the worst book I have ever read. I accepted the book on condition that I would review it and dutifully slogged through the whole thing. When I posted this review, the author and publisher went nuts. I am posting this now so that when I get to the universally panned Hugo award winning They'd Rather Be Right (read review), there will be some context on the awfulness scale. I still have the book in an effort to keep it quarantined from the general public so it will do no harm - I won't give it away or sell it for fear that someone else will make the mistake of reading it.

Short review: A Horror has risen from Hell and seeks to destroy humanity. The Horror in question is this book.

Even if you are
A really bad writer you
Can self-publish books

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: PureHeart is a book so badly written with a story so weak that the glowing reviews on the back cover read as if penned by illiterate people. I can only explain them by assuming they were paid for. For example Clark Isaacs of Clark's Eye on Books starts his review with:

"Demons, witches, and Angels from God abound on earth in fury [sic] battles. The conclusion will make you a believer that the main character of PUREHEART is a champion in all sense [sic] of the word. Jack, a Boston terrier, and his sister Scout bring to life a story that revolves around the nether world and other unearthly creatures which are swiftly dispatched."

Three sentences to lead off, each with at least one grammatical error, and the third sentence is almost incomprehensible to boot. The second, from Mind Fog Reviews starts off with this gem of a sentence:

"One of the best of these stories of mystical powers that I have read in a long time, Ms. Syers has pulled off a new format for this type of writing."

Leaving aside the comma splice, I wonder what sort of new format Mind Fog was referring to. Amateurishly bad? Incomprehensibly awful? Mind-numbingly tedious? No matter which one chooses, PureHeart is much worse - the reviews on the back are actually the best written parts of the book.

To summarize what passes for a plot - Jack, the "PureHeart" of the book is a Boston terrier, born from a runaway purebred show dog that had been spayed prior to his (and his sister's) birth. You see: Jack is Special because he is going to Save the World from an evil demon. Did I mention that the author likes to Randomly Capitalize words that are Important so that you will understand their Significance? The author also likes to throw in Digressions in the middle of the action, just Like This, to hand out background InforMation.

And likes to set off the final sentence to make an Important Point.

But back to Jack: After his improbable birth, Jack is dubbed the Healer, and his sister Scout is named the Warrior. Jack can heal people by licking them, and Scout turns into an angel with a sword whenever demons threaten Jack. Sometimes. (One of the things that mark this book as especially awful is its resolute inconsistency).

A bunch of high school girls summon Proserpine, who is described as an ultra-powerful demoness (stronger than Lucifer!), and Jack and Scout and their owners and the hosts of heaven are required to turn aside the demonic invasion. Of course, this doesn't happen before numerous mostly faceless people are dismembered by demons in particularly gruesome scenes.

The trouble is, this summary makes the book sound a lot better than it actually is. Aside from the random capitalization, and the heavy handed paragraph structure, the theology in the book is more or less what I would imagine Catholic theology would be if recounted by an individual whose only knowledge of the subject came from watching Stephen King movie adaptations and watching reruns of Passions.

For example, Jack has to be a dog because only someone without original sin can send Proserpine back to hell and Save the World. Since humans can't be born without original sin (according to the book) the savior of the world has to be a dog. This, of course, completely misses the fact that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was born free of original sin, which would obviate the silliness of having a dog baptized and take communion, both of which happen in the book.

More silliness: The War in Heaven, which resulted in Lucifer and the other rebellious angels being cast out of heaven, was apparently started as a result of Lucifer and Michael's rivalry for Proserpine's affections. Before this, Hell didn't exist. Except, later we find out it did, and it housed the Ancient Ones (who are demons from before the War in Heaven).

In addition to the silly theology, the book is also annoyingly inconsistent. For example, the crippled occult researcher Matt is described as having a book on vampires that is so incredibly fragile he had to wrap it in plastic to prevent it from crumbling. But just one paragraph later, the book is described as having pages made from human skin and written with vampire blood, which makes the pages indestructible. To top off the randomness, vampires don't show up in the story at all, making the entire description completely pointless.

Demons are described as needing to be summoned in some parts of the book, and in others, they pop up on errands from Hell without the benefit of being summoned. No one seems to be bothered by the fact that demons pop up, treating them more or less as really dangerous animals (but not that dangerous, an ordinary bulldog later in the book seems to kill demons by the bushel). Demons show up to kill people, deliver packages, messages, have twitchy penises, and otherwise gallivant about town. No one seems that surprised by Jack's healing ability either.

Characters pop in and out of the narrative - Jack's crippled teenage owner Maggie is in a dispute with McKenzie, a teenage rival, over a boy named Patrick Ryan. This dispute drives the main elements of the book, as McKenzie, a pretty and popular high school girl, decides the only way to get revenge on her paraplegic rival is to summon a demon. But despite his importance as a catalyst to the plot, Patrick doesn't show up in the book. No characters have conversations with him and based on the text there isn't any reason to assume that McKenzie or Maggie have ever talked with him. We are told that Maggie is his true love in a sort of off-hand way, but he doesn't even show up in the epilogue twelve years later when Maggie is apparently giving birth to their son.

Plot elements are dropped in with no groundwork laid for them - the town the characters live in is apparently the site of numerous mysterious murders, but that fact isn't mentioned until it is important to the plot fairly deep into the book. Important characters, such as the priest who baptizes Jack, don't show up until their services are needed, and then they are treated as if they were best friends with the heroes from then on. The ritual to summon Proserpine requires candles made from human fat, a fact that is mentioned about a hundred times, but the ritual also needs the blood of a child murdered by his own mother - and conveniently they are dropped into the story just in time, with a hurried back story thrown in as part of an extended digression.

Characters talk with stereotypically bad accents when they talk at all. Large portions of the book are taken up with descriptions of conversations between characters, without actually going through the bother of having the conversations included. The viewpoint switches from character to character, from human to dog and back again. Apparently all animals can talk to one another, and are amenable to reasoned arguments. Dogs can sense demons, understand what ghosts are, get depressed for days, and lose self-confidence. Dogs can negotiate trades of services with foxes, or trades of meals with other dogs, and so on.

The author has a bizarre tendency of telling you what happened in the future, but then bouncing back to the past. For example, the next door neighbor's dog Moose shows up and is befriended by Jack. The text tells you Moose's owner ended up killing Moose and throwing his body into the swamp. But that's in the future. After this tidbit of mostly irrelevant to the story information is dropped in, Moose appears in the next couple chapters. The chronology of the story itself is also screwed up: On one page it is Friday, then it is three days later, which we are told is also Friday. The author tells you what happens two days from the present, then hops back to the present and so on.

Characters take bizarre events like demons popping up, scrolls allegedly penned by angels, healing dogs, teenage girls who cast spells that work, and so on, entirely in stride, as if these sorts of occurrences are normal and expected. No one ever responds to Jocelyn (through most of the book McKenzie's witch mentor) casting a spell hurling a fireball with shock, horror, or disbelief. They almost all think "wow, what a powerful witch", like this is the sort of thing that happens every day. In many ways, the characters act as if they know they are in a piece of quasi-Christian literature.

When Proserpine finally does show up, she sets about killing the four virgins who summoned her. The first three (who aren't Maggie, and are therefore expendable as unnecessary to the plot) are dispatched along with their families in gruesomely detailed scenes. Of course, before the demoness shows up, each family is involved in some sort of depraved behavior - whether daughters murdering their mothers, or drug use (which according to the book is apparently as bad as murder), or brothers gang raping their sister, and so on. Then Proserpine shows up and finishes the job, spreading entrails about like streamers.

But when we get to the final battle, having summoned the hosts of Heaven to do battle with the hosts of Hell (with Scout having transformed back into the Warrior Angel Lilith to summon the celestial forces, another interesting piece of bizarre theology), random weapons are pulled out by the various characters to do battle with Proserpine, none of which were hinted at earlier in the text: Blessed crossbow bolts and vials of holy water are produced from thin air, a globe of "demon eaters" is tossed about, a blessed cross pops up, and so on. And in the end, Jack doesn't matter much at all: He doesn't defeat Proserpine, he was just supposed to keep her busy until Lilith could change her back into an angel and let the Ancient Ones have her - a plot twist not presaged in any way in the text.

Which brings us back to the wacky theology - Lilith transforms Proserpine into an angel, something that only God should be able to do. Lilith has this fun exchange with Proserpine just before the former demoness forcibly turned into an angel is carted away by Ancient Ones:

Proserpine screamed in abject terror, "Mercy, oh Lilith, for the love of God, have mercy!"
Lilith said sternly, "Did you have mercy for all those people at the high school? The children you killed? What about the ones you were going to burn alive in the town square and the slaughter of the blood virgins and their families?"
"They deserved it, they all deserved it . . ." shrieked Proserpine.
"And you deserve this," hissed Lilith.

The interesting thing about this exchange is that it caps the idea that Proserpine couldn't be forgiven or have mercy shown to her even by God, which puts something of a limitation on God's powers, one which I think is pretty much contrary to almost all Christian doctrine. It also implies that the people killed by Proserpine deserved their horrible fates - at least Lilith doesn't disagree, which is also an interesting distortion of Christian theology. The book also implies that God and Lucifer are theological equals, likening their struggle to a chess game, with the only difference being that Lucifer just isn't very smart. This is, again, a theological position that is pretty much opposed to almost every Christian doctrine out there. Also interesting is that Jocelyn and her parents, who have a transformation from awful nasty people to God fearing good people, don't do so because of some sort of personal choice, but rather because Jack heals the badness out of them, a theological stance on freedom of choice that also seems to be at odds with just about every Christian doctrine.

Listing all the flaws in this book would take forever. Almost every page has awful grammar, bizarre leaps of logic, long digressions, repetitive passages (how tired I was of reading about candles made from human fat), descriptions of conversations, convoluted chronologies, magical appearing plot MacGuffins, and so on. Many pages seem to have all these flaws, and some had more. This is a truly awful book, and should be avoided at all costs. The last page of the book says that there is supposed to be a sequel named LionHeart. If we are lucky, God will send us some sort of savior who will prevent it from ever being published.

Rita Hsu Syers     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Awards - The Beginning of a Long Journey Through Science Fiction (and Fantasy) History

For most of the twentieth century there have been few things geekier than being a speculative fiction fan. Ardent fans of science fiction and fantasy plied their way through books by authors like John Brunner, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. LeGuin, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Then along came mainstream popularity fueled by marketplace hits like the Star Wars and Alien franchises, and much later, the Lord of the Rings movies, and suddenly speculative fiction was cool. I'm guessing the genre's sudden popularity was in part because of the presence of Carrie Fischer in a gold bikini and Sigourney Weaver in her underwear, but maybe that's just because I'm cynical. After all, Logan's Run didn't launch science fiction into mainstream popularity despite Jenny Agutter's half-naked efforts. However, despite the new found respectability of speculative fiction the printed form remained as geeky as ever. There has been some bleed over from the fans of popular movie and television franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek or role-playing gamers who are attracted by the virtual tidal wave of spin off books one can find in the science fiction section of every bookstore now. But for the most part, the vast majority of people who consider themselves science fiction fans will never pick up a science fiction book, contenting themselves to watch The Phantom Menace or reruns of Battlestar Galactica instead, and maybe, just maybe, picking up a copy of some spin-off fiction like The Crystal Shard.

Before there were countless stories of how Luke and Leia save the New Republic, or how Drizz't had to deal with the angst of being a drow elf for the umpteenth time, printed science fiction and fantasy chugged along in a non-spin off world populated by books with names like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, The Uplift War, Foundation (read review), The Zero Stone, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Left Hand of Darkness. To navigate their way through the countless unrelated titles and with luck help them separate the good ones from the bad ones, genre fans had (and have) an ever increasing array of awards to guide them. Countless science fiction and fantasy novels have covers that feature something like "Hugo award winner", "Nebula award nominee", or even something somewhat deceptive in the vein of "Locus award winning author"1. Now, despite having to share shelf space with the spin-off newcomers, independent speculative fiction is still thriving, with titles like The Windup Girl, The Last Colony, Anathem, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union. The authors and titles have changed, but speculative fiction chugs on.

The list of awards that a science fiction or fantasy author can receive is quite large – there are no fewer than ten awards that are considered "major" awards including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Campbell Award (not to be confused with the similarly named Campbell Award for Best New Writer), more than a dozen regional awards including the Aurora Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Dittmar Award, a similar number of specialty awards such as the Sideways Award for alternative history, and the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction, a half dozen awards aimed at new writers such as the aforementioned Campbell Award, a half dozen reader's polls, including the massive Locus Magazine poll, and other reader polls conducted by Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction. And this doesn't begin to scratch the surface: there are career honors, academic awards, discontinued awards, and on and on and on. And not only do most of them honor different things (even if the differences are very slight), they all have at least different eligibility requirements and use a wide variety different selection processes to choose nominees and winners. The end result is that while this situation is probably good for authors and publishers (since they are more likely to be able to win an award and put cool stuff on the covers of their books), someone looking to find worthwhile printed science fiction is probably hard-pressed to sort through the chaff and find the wheat.

Starting now, I'll be working my way through the major science fiction and fantasy award winning novels ranging from the earliest genre award granted (I believe this to be the 1951 International Fantasy Award bestowed upon George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (read review), although older books have been honored via "Retroactive Hugos") up to the most recent. I'll be taking on as many of the different award winning science fiction or fantasy books, and then dissecting and reviewing them. Some of the books deserved their awards. Others didn't. Some of the books published decades ago hold up even now. Others have aged badly. Some of these books have sunk into well-deserved obscurity, while others have been forgotten and should not have been. Some have become controversial, igniting raging debates among science fiction fandom (Starship Troopers, I'm looking at you right now). By walking through the awards from earliest to most recent, each book can be put into context, compared to its contemporaries, and the trends in genre fiction as it has evolved over the last half a century laid bare.

I'll start with the granddaddy2 of science fiction awards: the Hugo Award. Technically, this award has not been the Hugo Award until recently, originally designated with the official name of the Annual Science Fiction Achievement Award, but it has always been informally called the Hugo Award. The informal moniker was finally adopted as the award's official name in 1993. The Hugo Award and the Nebula Award (which is bestowed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Association), are considered by many to be the gold standard of speculative fiction awards. The Hugo Award was first presented in 1953 at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) held that year. For somewhat obscure reasons, no awards were presented at the 1954 Worldcon, but the award was revived after this brief hiatus in 1955, and has been awarded at every Worldcon since.3 When a written constitution for the Worldcon was drafted, awarding the Hugo Awards was incorporated into the document and bestowing this award is now a required part of every Worldcon. Works released in the one year period immediately prior to the Worldcon are eligible for the award, and winners are determined by a fairly complex two stage selection and voting process, described on the Locus Index to SF Awards as follows:
Members of past and current years' World SF Convention nominate up to five items per category. The top five items in each category are placed on a final ballot, which is voted on by current members. Final results in each category are determined via the "Australian ballot preference system": all first-place votes are tabulated; the entry with the fewest votes is eliminated; second-place votes from eliminated ballots become first-place votes; this is repeated until a nominee achieves a majority. For second-place, the winner's votes are dropped, and second-place votes from those ballots become first-place votes, and the process is repeated. And so on for third and fourth places.

 The Hugo award categories originally varied from year to year, and among the enduring categories are Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novellette, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form, Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, Best Semiprozine, Best Professional Artist, Best Editor, Best Fan Artist, and Best Fan Writer. While many of the winners in the various shorter categories are quite good, and would be interesting to examine, the novel length is the only form of fiction that is reliably honored by most of the speculative fiction awards. Periodically I hope to be able to go through collections like The New Hugo Winners and review a number of the winners in the short fiction categories, but my focus will primarily be on novel length works starting with the very first Hugo Award Best Novel winner The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (read review). For those who absolutely have to start at the very beginning, even if that beginning was retroactively created in 1996, can instead start with the review of The Mule by Isaac Asimov (read review) which later became the second half of Foundation and Empire. Though I'll certainly mix in a few other books along the way, I'll be focused on taking a trip through the history of award winning science fiction (and eventually fantasy) novels.

Review of 1946 Retro Hugo Winner for Best Novel: The Mule by Isaac Asimov
Review of 1953 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

1Deceptive because even though the author may have won the award described on the book cover, they didn't win it for writing that book. If they did, then the cover would say that the book itself had been awarded the honor. The book you are holding may be really good as well, or it might be something that is really crappy that happens to have been written by an author who had a single moment of clarity and produced one good book to go with a pile of bad ones.

2The International Fantasy Award is technically older than the Hugo Award, as it was first awarded in 1951, in contrast to the first Hugo, which was awarded in 1953. However, the International Fantasy Award was only awarded for six years and then discontinued. The Hugo, on the other hand, has been awarded in every year since 1955 and has influenced the creation of most of the other speculative fiction awards. As a result, the Hugo is the grandaddy of speculative fiction awards, and the International Fantasy Award is more like the long dead bachelor uncle of speculative fiction awards.

3Oddly, despite Hugos being awarded in a number of categories at the 1957 Worldcon, no award for Best Novel any other fiction categories was presented in that year.

Book Award Reviews     Home

Review - Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories by Marty Crump

Short review: The natural world is weirder than any imagined one that people could come up with, and Marty Crump has assembled the examples from the animal kingdom to prove it.

Sex is really great
Creatures do it many ways
Sometimes without heads

Full review: Reality is strange. Reality is, in fact, often stranger than anything humans can come up with in fiction. For anyone who is reasonably educated in the field of zoology, it is readily apparent that no matter how imaginative science fiction and fantasy authors are in their descriptions of alien or fantastical biology, they simply have a hard time matching the wild diversity and bizarreness of the natural world. In Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories, Marty Crump places this truth front and center, and gives an accounting of a wide array of bizarre ways that animals breed, care for their young, find food, defend themselves from predators, and communicate. Using nontechnical language Crump effortlessly moves from animal to animal, describing their strange behaviour patterns, explaining the rigors of the lives this sort of activity requires from the creatures, and explains the survival value that some of the odder animal adaptations bring to the animals.

The book is divided up into five sections, each one covering a broad aspect of animal physiology and behaviour. Within each of these broadly defined sections are chapters that group the various animal behaviours into related categories. So, for example, under the section title "Ain't Love Grand" (which covers breeding strategies), there are chapters titled "Sneakers and Deceivers" (covering animals that try to sneak their way into the breeding market), "Trading Food for Sex" (about animals that use food to entice or even ensnare their mates), and of course "Headless Males Make Great Lovers" (about animals, including the praying mantis, where the male has to be careful to avoid being eaten by his partner). As one can tell from the chapter titles, Crump approaches each topic with a mixture of humor combined with the eye of a serious scientist resulting in a book that is both enjoyable to read, and packed with information.

But Crump doesn't just describe the animals and their behaviour. She places their behaviour in context, explaining what survival benefit the often seemingly inexplicable physical and behavioral adaptations give to the various creatures. But Crump also highlights the often extraordinary costs that these attributes extract from the animals, in many cases requiring them to sacrifice their health, well-being, or even their lives in the pursuit of survival and reproduction. Crump places many of the various species into evolutionary context, explaining how these attributes could have developed, and offering the best explanation we have for how such oddity could not only arise, but thrive and prosper. Finally, Crump does this not just by relating facts like a textbook, but by recounting stories from her own research, the research of her colleagues, and her own experiences traveling the world to study fauna on its home ground (with all the attendant hazards that entails). This gives the book a personal touch that draws the reader in even further, and makes the examples that much more compelling.

And the information is often times so extraordinary that if one were to come across the animals described in a work of fiction, one might well assume they were too strange to exist. From praying mantises whose mating reflexes are so strong that the male will continue to mount and mate with a female after it's head has been removed, or even after most of its upper body has been consumed, to male Australian redback spiders who intentionally place themselves into their partner's mouths to be eaten, to frogs that lay their eggs on land and keep them moist by periodically urinating on them, to poison dart frogs that lay additional eggs after their tadpoles hatch to serve as food for the newborns, and on and on. And this list only scratches the surface of the weird, the strange, and the downright creepy that exists out there. The only real problem I had with the book was that it is relatively short at a mere 175 pages of text (plus a list of references and an index). I am sure there is more wonderful bizarreness in the world, and I would have loved to have more included.

Still, a book that leaves you wishing you had more content is usually a great book to read, and this one is no exception. For anyone who is interested in the stranger side of zoology and is not already a practicing zoologist, this book is probably a must read. However, this book is so entertaining that it would be fun to read for almost anyone with any interest in the natural world. In the end, short of traveling the world with a trained zoologist in tow, it is hard to think of a better way to get a guided tour of the strange and wondrous beauty of nature in all of its wild glory.

Marty Crump     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, October 25, 2010

Musical Monday - The Case for Mars by Symphony of Science

Mars is, as Carl Sagan says, a world of wonders. In his video, melodysheep makes The Case for Mars, another autotuned song featuring selections by Carl Sagan (using material from Cosmos) and Robert Zubrin (using material from The Mars Underground). Brian Cox and Penelope Boston are featured as well (using material from Wonders of the Solar System). The video is, as with all of melodysheep's videos, really cool. But it also underscores the fact that Mars is one of the great disappointments of my lifetime. No, not the planet itself, but the fact that even though we have had the capability to go there for the last thirty years, we just haven't bothered.

Mars holds special fascination for science fiction authors. Mars is featured in some of the classic works of science fiction, such as The War of the Worlds where H.G. Wells' invaders came from there, or Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars where a gentleman adventurer from Virginia was whisked away to battle tharks and win the hand of Dejah Thoris. Mars continued to fascinate science fiction authors through the Golden Age: Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet takes place on Mars, as does Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars, and C.S. Lewis set Out of the Silent Planet there. Ray Bradbury's book The Martian Chronicles is a collection of stories that all feature the Red Planet. Isaac Asimov set David Starr, Space Ranger, the opener for his young adult series featuring the bodies of the solar system, on Mars. And Mars continues to fascinate science fiction authors. Greg Bear featured it in Moving Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the trilogy Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars about terraforming the planet, and the Mars colony was heavily featured in the Babylon 5 television series. One could easily come up with a hundred science fiction stories that are set on Mars.

And this fascination is understandable, which is what makes our lack of ambition with respect to Mars so very frustrating. Although many early works of science fiction were based upon the then accepted (but since discovered to be incorrect) notion that Mars had a much thicker atmosphere than it actually has, science fiction authors have always known that Mars is the best possible option for humanity to expand off of the Earth. Both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers reached Mars in 1976, when I was seven. It took twenty years for us to get our acts together and follow-up the Viking landings with the Sojourner rover, and another seven years before the Spirit and Opportunity rovers touched down. The problem is not technical capability: we've had the technology to go to Mars, even to send humans to Mars, ever since the 1970s. The problem has been a complete failure of will and imagination.

I remember when I was young, my father, confident in the glow of the Apollo landings, looking at reports from Viking and later the Voyager program, telling me that by the time I was an adult we would have sent humans to Mars. "Wouldn't it be incredible to be one of those people" he would ask. And I agree. It would. But now, decades later, we are no closer to going than we were then. When I took my son to see Roving Mars it was bittersweet. The rovers are a technical triumph, but still, the narrative talked about how we would send people to follow them many years hence. In effect, we are no closer to Mars now than we were in the 1970s. I cannot truthfully tell him that I believe humans will go to Mars in his lifetime like my father told me when I was a boy. Instead we have screwed around in low-Earth orbit with the space shuttle and building a useless, missionless space station. As a nation our dreams, it seems, are no longer as large as they once were.

And Mars is a place we should go. And not just go, we should plan to settle there. Mars has the most important ingredients for human habitation: water, and atmosphere that could be altered to suit us, and enough gravity to hold on to it (but low enough gravity that building a space elevator there would be a lot easier than building one on Earth). Not only could we put people on Mars, we have the capability to terraform the planet using current technology. It would be a huge undertaking, and be massively expensive, but the payoff would be even more massive as we would have an entire new planet for us to live on. We shouldn't be going there in fifty years, or ten years - we should have been there ten years ago. We should have people living there now, laying the groundwork for permanent human habitation. But we aren't, and we probably won't. Not in my lifetime, and I fear not in the lifetimes of my children. Our ambitions, it seems, have withered away to nothing. And that annoys the hell out of me. It should annoy the hell out of you too.

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Previous Musical Monday: Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury by Rachel Bloom
Subsequent Musical Monday: A Wave of Reason by Symphony of Science

Symphony of Science Playlist     Musical Monday Playlists

Symphony of Science     Musical Monday      Home

Review - The Bill James Handbook 2010 by Bill James

Short review: Major League Baseball statistics galore updated through the end of the 2009 season. Also included, projections for the 2010 season, the favorite toy, and analysis of everything from baserunning to instant replay.

Pages full of stats
Plus lots of analysis
And some projections

Full review: Once a year ATCA Sports issues a comprehensive statistical catalogue of the previous season's baseball, running from the standard array of data on teams and individual players to analyses of base running, pinch hitting, the effects of parks on performance, analysis of instant replay, and projections of what players might do in the upcoming season, or even over the course of their remaining careers. The Bill James Handbook 2010, published in the fall of 2009, covers the 2009 season, and includes projections for the 2010 season. This is not so much a book that one reads through cover to cover as it is a reference manual, although it is quite interesting to read most of the articles that are included detailing the creation and application of the various idiosyncratic statistical tools that ACTA uses to try to evaluate areas of performance that traditional statistics don't cover well, if at all.

The meat of the book is the statistics. In fact, the career register, listing the career statistics of all the players who appeared in Major League Baseball in the 2009 season (plus a few others) takes up 270 of the book's 514 pages. The platoon split of all the players take up another twenty pages, and so on. Someone picking up the book should be aware that what they are getting is baseball statistics, baseball statistics, and more baseball statistics, with a little bit of added baseball statistical analysis thrown in. For many baseball fans, this should prove to be an invaluable resource, if for nothing else to settle arguments over whether Kevin Youkilis or Alex Rodriguez hit for more power as a cleanup hitter in 2009 (for the record, it was Youkilis, who had a slugging average of .573 when hitting in the cleanup slot, while Rodriguez "only" had a slugging average of .533 as a number four hitter). The book is probably of most value to participants in fantasy baseball leagues, both for its comprehensive volume of data on the 2009 season, but also for the projections for the 2010 season.

The only thing missing from this volume that those who have gotten previous versions might expect is the Young Talent Inventory, which tries to assess the relative strengths of the minor league systems of the various Major League teams. As explained in the section detailing the absence of the Inventory, this has been moved to another publication put out by ACTA Sports titled Bill James Gold Mine 2010 on the basis that the assessments in the inventory were more in the nature of judgment calls requiring subjective opinion as opposed to analysis of objective data, and therefore didn't fit the character of the rest of the Handbook. Those who pick up the book should also be aware that unless a player has very little Major League service time, his minor league statistics will not be included, nor are players included who appeared only in the minor leagues in 2009. Those interested in minor league stats must look to The Minor League Baseball Analyst 2010. These are minor points, as a volume that included Major League and minor league statistics would get wildly unwieldy quite quickly.

This annual publication is a useful resource for any baseball fan, from the casual to the hardcore. It is probably a necessity for any fantasy baseball participant, as I am aware of no comparable resource that has as much concrete data presented in such an easily accessible manner. For anyone who loves baseball stats, and for anyone who finds evaluating and comparing the talents of baseball players, and for anyone who just loves baseball, this book is a great addition to one's library.

Bill James     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review - Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software by Scott Rosenberg

Short review: Software is hard to make. Open source software that does revolutionary things is even harder.

To make software
The does almost everything
A quixotic task

Full review: Dreaming in Code is, at its most basic, the story of the development of Chandler, an ambitious software project that was intended to challenge Microsoft Outlook as a personal information manager. But the story is much more than that. The deeper story of Dreaming in Code has to do with why making software is so difficult, how computers are fundamentally different from humans, and why software programmers are probably the worst people to direct a software writing project, and at the same time how they are probably the only people who could do so.

The idea for Chandler was brilliant. That, it seems, was a large part of the problem with its development. Mitch Kapor, the man who made himself a multimillionaire by creating Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s, had a vision. The vision was of a personal information manager that would coordinate the user's e-mail, calendar, personal notes. It would also be flexible enough that the software would be able to interpret a variety of styles of input, and not tie the user to some predefined set of boxes to fill in. It would be shareable, allowing, for example, a husband and wife to each view and edit their spouse's calendar. And it would be both peer to peer, eliminating the need for a server to act as an intermediary, cross-platform, and open source to harness the power of the open source community to overcome the difficulties in implementation. In short, Mitch wanted the transcendent. Instead, it seems like he got disaster.

The story in the book itself is told by Scott Rosenberg, the managing editor of magazine, who got access to the Chandler team at the outset of the project and followed them through much of their development process. When announced, Chandler was supposed to be "about two years away" from being ready for release. When Rosenberg ends the book, three years later, Chandler is still "about two years away" from being ready. The interesting part about the book is why this is so. The people Kapor hired to develop the software were not incompetent, in fact, most of the people involved with the project at the outset were scooped up from the wreckage of the crash, and were among the top people in the field of software development. The problems that develop seem to stem from too much ambition, too little focus, and, as Rosenberg discovers, the difficulties inherent in software development.

In the book, told in longer chapters broken up into short, topical chunks, and which jumps from event, to background, to history, and back again, one quickly figures out that having an idea for what you want software to do is no substitute for having an idea of how to implement it. Over and over again, the development team sits down in a conference room and fills a whiteboard with a plan for what they want done, seemingly without considering how they might do it. A programming language is chosen, plans are made, pieces of tertiary software are written without any real idea of how they can be fit together. And then in a process that happens seemingly ad nauseum, plans are redrawn, goals reset, and the program redesigned. Old personnel leave, sometimes moving on to bigger opportunities, others merely leave in frustration, and they are replaced by new faces, who try to add their own imprint onto the Chandler development, requiring even more redesign and reprogramming.

In some ways, the narrative of this book is a real world example of the various pitfalls of software development that have been outlined in previous works such as The Mythical Man-Month. Rosenberg doesn't just explain what things like "software time" are, he shows how the Chandler project was affected by this sort of creeping malaise, and why. Rosenberg also delves deeper into the history of the computer industry and software development to try to uncover the roots of these problems that seem to plague all software projects. While Chandler's development is shown to be a mess, Rosenberg illustrates the reasons why these sorts of problems are endemic to software projects, and the depressing reality that this situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Among the most interesting topics covered is how exactly you determine what is good productivity for a software programmer, since the classic measure of performance - lines of code written - is so clearly inadequate.

The main body of the story ends with Chandler unfinished and a truncated version that amounts to basically a computer controlled calendar released to the Open Source community. There is an added chapter in the paperback version that updates events concerning Chandler through 2007 (and which therefore does not include the fact that the project was effectively abandoned in 2008). In the end, the reader is left wondering how any software gets completed, which is kind of the point of Chandler's story. While most people who are in the industry will find nothing particularly new or surprising in the book, as an explanation and brief history of software development for an interested amateur, this is an excellent piece of journalism. For anyone who has wondered why software always seems to be late, full of bugs, and unfriendly to non technically inclined users, or is simply curious as to how software gets made, this book will be a fascinating expose of the true fragility of the information technology that we rely upon to run most of our modern world.

Scott Rosenberg      Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review - Who Killed the Constitution?: The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and Kevin R.C. Gutzman

Short review: Extreme originalism combined with libertarianism creates a view of Constitutional history that is almost as incoherent as the mainstream version the authors decry.

Sometimes a good idea
Sometimes it isn't

Full review: Viewing history and law through an ideological lens colors your perspective. This coloring can affect your ability to make consistent arguments in support of your favored position. This appears to be a pitfall that Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and Kevin R. C. Gutzman have fallen into in Who Killed the Constitution? While they espouse, for much of the book, a version of strong libertarianism in the spirit of Ron Paul (they advocate a return to the gold standard for the U.S. among other things), and an extreme form of originalist Constitutional interpretation, they stretch their arguments too far in many of the examples they give in an effort to reach their desired conclusion. Consequently, this dilutes the impact of the arguments that they make upon which they are on solid footing, and renders the book less powerful than it could have been. While in some parts much of their fundamental thesis, that all branches of government and all elements of the political spectrum have joined together to systematically trample on the Constitution, is sound, their clear biases result in numerous examples that don't really support their point, making their argument less than convincing.

The format the authors choose to illustrate their argument that U.S. liberty has been consistently eroded through the twentieth century is an analysis of several discrete examples intended to build their case. The twelve instances of governmental overreach that the authors identify and examine in the book, the "dirty dozen" as they call them, are: The sedition laws passed and enforced during World War I under Woodrow Wilson; Harry Truman's seizure of the steel mills in the 1950s; the Brown v. Board of Education decision; the subsequent decisions to require forced busing to remedy past discrimination; the arrogation by the Federal government of the ability to build roads; the seizure of the U.S. gold stocks from the populace by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933; the removal of prayer from public schools to enforce the "Wall of Separation" between Church and State; the draft; the prohibitions against the use of medical marijuana; the increasing power of the executive to set and implement foreign policy; the development of the doctrine of executive war powers; and finally, the ever expansive view of executive power, culminating with the rapid rise in the use of signing statements and the assertion by George W. Bush's administration that Congress could not interfere in its ability to judge what is and is not permissible interrogation techniques or torture.

In each example, the authors try to make the case for these being unjustified expansions of governmental power in violation of the U.S. Constitution, which, of course, supports their central thesis that the Constitution is "dead". In some cases, their points are quite salient. Most notably, in the examples describing the expansion of executive power, drawing a line from the expansion of Presidential power to the level of exclusivity in foreign affairs, to the broad executive "war powers" doctrine that has come to override the Congressional war making power, to the unfettered executive power asserted by the administration of George W. Bush. The authors also make a strong case that the erosion of free speech under Woodrow Wilson was particularly egregious. But what goes unmentioned is that the excesses of (for example) the Woodrow Wilson years have been by and large repudiated, and although there have been abuses that have occurred subsequently, the issue has moved more like a pendulum swinging back and forth rather than an ever increasing infringement upon liberty. This sort of one-way logic is most apparent when the authors recount Harry Truman's seizure of the steel mills, which was probably the most naked grab for power in the Twentieth century. Although they point out that the negative reaction was massive, they gloss over the fact that this sort of naked exertion of executive power has not been repeated since then, giving the impression that seizure of industries has become de rigeur in American life.

One could argue that where the authors most go astray in their analysis is with respect to Brown v. Board of Education, in which their adherence to an extreme version of originalism blinds them to the actual basis for the decision in the case. While they argue that the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was not to desegregate schools using the fact that most states at the time of ratification had segregated schools to support this assertion. But Warren's decision relies primarily on an evaluation of what "equal" means, and finds that segregated schools simply don't meet the standard. By asserting that only the inferred meaning that those who originally adopted the Amendment counts, the authors foreclose the possibility that an opinion concerning what is "equal" can change. They also fall into the trap of assessing legislative history and commentary as a primary guide for the interpretation of a piece of law. As any serious practicing lawyer will tell you, one only resorts to the use of legislative history or commentary when one is desperate. This is because legislative history is so unreliable as a guide to the intent of the legislature: it is merely a guide to the intent of those legislators who have spoken on the legislative record, or, at best, a guide to the intent of a committee that has placed its thoughts into the record. But the only way to truly evaluate the will of a legislative body as a whole is to independently evaluate the output of the entire legislative body - the text of the legislation itself. It should probably come as no surprise that using commentary to deduce meaning is even more unreliable. And this is truly unfortunate, because their clearly poorly grounded criticisms of Brown serve to sap the life out of their much better founded criticisms of forced busing. In short, stretching their point beyond tenability in some areas makes them less convincing in the others where they are on more solid footing.

The true illustration of the authors using results based analysis comes with respect to the end of prayer in schools. After applying their extreme version of originalism to the First Amendment establishment clause, and glossing over the incorporation doctrine of the Reconstruction Amendments, the authors proceed to assert that the decision in Evenson v. Board of Education is suspect because Justice Hugo Black was a bad guy because he was a racist. But this sort of data is entirely beside the point when evaluating whether a particular ruling was wise or unwise. The fact that they spend much of the chapter belaboring this point only illustrates the paucity of their arguments on the merits. And while they are more than willing to cite legislative history and commentary when it supports their position, they completely ignore Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which clearly shows that they are cherry picking their sources to fit their biases. They later show their hand further when discussing Franklin Roosevelt's gold seizure and leap from assessing the legalities of this action to a diatribe about why the government should have never abandoned the gold standard that would have fit perfectly in Ron Paul's mouth. They also advocate a ruinous banking policy that would contract the U.S. economy many-fold, which makes one wonder if they truly understand the economic matters they discuss in the book at all.

Because it lurches back and forth between fairly reasonable criticisms of government infringements and wild-eyed claims that don't hold up to scrutiny, Who Killed the Constitution? undermines its own central thesis. Because the supporting material is so clearly cherry picked on several issues, and is in large part of dubious quality to begin with (being legislative history and commentary) one begins to suspect that the authors have let their ideological biases color all of their assessments. And given that many of the infringements they cite have either been redressed or merely abandoned in subsequent years, their thesis of an ever shrinking ambit of Constitutional protection is unconvincing. In the end, despite strong rhetoric and ardent arguments, the book contains so many inherent contradictions that while the good parts are quite good, the bad parts damage the overall thesis enough that one feels that it is probably too soon to write off the U.S. Constitution. The document's funeral, it seems, is simply not as imminent as the author's would have you believe.

Kevin R.C. Gutzman     Thomas E. Woods, Jr.     Book Reviews A-Z     Home