Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review - The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

Short review: Mrs. Zimmerman and Rose Rita deal with a farm and magic ring that Mrs. Zimmerman inherited and run into a magical mystery. Rose Rita also has to deal with adolescence.

Inherited farm
Plus a mysterious ring
A girl growing up

Full review: The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is listed as being part of the Lewis Barnaveldt series, but Lewis plays an extremely minor part in the book, and doesn't affect the plot except that his absence drives the his best friend (and heroine of the story) Rose Rita to travel with the elderly Mrs. Zimmerman to her late cousin's farm.

The plot of the book is kicked off by a letter Mrs. Zimmerman receives from her late cousin bequeathing her his farm in upstate Michigan. The letter also mentions a magic ring that her cousin says he found on the property. Thirteen year old Rose Rita, feeling abandoned as her best friend Lewis Barnaveldt has decided to go to scout camp for the summer, decides to accompany Mrs. Zimmerman to settle the affairs related to the farm.

One of the elements of Bellairs' stories that seem to date them is the easy acceptance of these sorts of friendships between older adults and children. The friendship between Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass in the Johnny Dixon novels and the close friendship between Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman in the Barnaveldt novels are associations I doubt parents would condone in more recent years. In Mrs. Zimmerman's case, it appears Rose Rita's parents don't even like her (unlike Johnny Dixon's grandparents, who are friends with Professor Childermass), but they let her spend the night at Mrs. Zimmerman's house and go away with her on long trips. Nowadays, such a close relationship between an older woman and an unrelated teenage girl would raise more than a few eyebrows, and probably be prohibited by the child's parents. I'm not sure all of Mrs. Zimmerman's influence on Rose Rita is good, but she means well, and if it were prohibited, Rose Rita would clearly suffer, so maybe we have become too sensitive about this sort of thing.

Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman travel to northern Michigan, find an old nemesis of Mrs. Zimmerman's, find the farm in disarray, and the allegedly magical ring missing. The two then spend a couple weeks in the area, surrounded by odd events and getting themselves into troubles of various sorts, until Mrs. Zimmerman vanishes one night.On her own now, Rose Rita springs into action, jumps to a couple conclusions, makes a new friend, stretches the truth a bit, and nearly gets herself killed trying to locate and rescue Mrs. Zimmerman. In the end, the villain does herself in, and all turns out well.

In some ways, the mystery, while fun, is merely a backdrop for the story of tomboyish Rose Rita coming to grips with becoming a teenage girl. She is conflicted, not wanting to give up the things she enjoys (and that make her a tomboy), but she also has started to think about what it would be like to be more "girlish" and whether she wants to do that.In the end, an enjoyable gothic mystery story, combined with engaging and well-written characters made this an enjoyable read, and a book I would certainly recommend to any young reader.

Previous book in the series: The Figure in the Shadows
Subsequent book in the series: The Ghost in the Mirror

John Bellairs     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review - The House With a Clock in Its Walls/The Ghost in the Mirror by John Bellairs (with Brad Strickland)

Short review: A clock winds towards doomsday in one story, and time travel is the key to the next.

To impress a new friend
Lewis does something stupid
And Rose time travels

Full review: This is an odd pairing of books, as The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the very first young adult story Bellairs wrote (and the first featuring Lewis Barnaveldt) whereas The Ghost in the Mirror was written twenty years later, and not completed until after Bellairs' death.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls introduces the characters of the Lewis Barnaveldt series, starting (naturally) with Lewis Barnaveldt, a bookish, overweight boy orphaned by the accidental death of his parents who goes to live with his quirky uncle Jonathan. Adjusting to life in a new town with a bachelor uncle in a large and sometimes scary Victorian house proves difficult for Lewis. Jonathan is a kindly guardian, but inexperienced with children, and Lewis, unskilled at "boy" pursuits like sports, has trouble making friends. Things are not made any easier when Lewis discovers that his uncle is a wizard, because he also discovers that the house has a clock hidden somewhere inside the walls that ticks constantly.

Lewis makes an unexpected friend with a boy who is the exact opposite of Lewis, but things start to go sour. In desperation, Lewis tries to impress his only friend by conjuring some magic using his uncle's books. Things, of course, go awry, and Lewis conjures up an evil spirit - the wife of the former owner of Uncle Jonathan's house. She quickly sets about trying to raise her husband form the dead and finish the enchantment he started that was supposed to end the world (the ticking clock in Uncle Jonathan's house is the clock trying to countdown to doomsday). The evil sorceress is foiled in part by Lewis' neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (a witch who is friends with Uncle Jonathan), and by some quick thinking by Lewis. In the end, Lewis figures out that "friends" that you have to run silly risks to impress aren't really friends at all, and ends up making a real friend in the person of the tomboyish Rose Rita.

The Ghost in the Mirror is classified as a Lewis Barnaveldt book, but Lewis and his uncle Jonathan appear in it almost not at all. Mrs. Zimmerman and Rose Rita take center stage here, setting out on a trip to visit Pennsylvania. On the way, they find themselves transported back in time to the 1840s, where they are taken in by the Weiss family, who turn out to be Mrs. Zimmerman's ancestors. Drexel Weiss, the family patriarch, is under suspicion of being a witch. Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman try to help, but Mrs. Zimmerman ends up losing her magic powers.

Rose Rita and Drexel's granddaughter Hilda continue to investigate, and figure out that the accusations against Drexel and the loss of Mrs. Zimmerman's powers are both caused by the Weiss' hateful neighbor. After a number of scary escapades, the villain is ensnared by his own magic and all is well. Mrs. Zimmerman recovers her powers, and via a quirk of time travel, gains even more power than before.

It isn't entirely clear why these two novels were put together in one volume, but on the whole, they are a decent representation of Bellairs' work, spanning from his first foray into children's fiction to a work that was half finished when he died. Both stories are good, and both have scary villains, creepy scenes, and hair raising escapades. The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the better story, but that should not be surprising as it is probably Bellairs' best story overall. Both Lewis and Rose Rita are misfit children who remain comfortable with their misfit ways, encouraged by the unconventional guidance of Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. I did not read any Bellairs as a child (I was never exposed to his books), but I wish I had.

Subsequent book in the series (The House with a Clock in Its Walls): The Figure in the Shadows

Previous book in the series (The Ghost in the Mirror): The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring
Subsequent book in the series (The Ghost in the Mirror): The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder

John Bellairs     Brad Strickland     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, February 25, 2013

Musical Monday - You Can Touch My Boobies by Rachel Bloom

So, last night on the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane hosted the event and his big "funny" number was a song titled We Saw Your Boobs, a tune wherein the alleged humor consisted of MacFarlane simply listing actresses and the movies in which they had shown their breasts on camera. It was both incredibly unfunny, and incredibly obnoxious, as witnessed by the numerous shots of very uncomfortable actresses in the audience. In many of the referenced movies, such as Silkwood, Monster, and Boys Don't Cry, the nudity was illustrative of the ways in which women in society are victimized or brutalized. But in Seth's mind, the fact that he got to see some naked boobs was enough to set all that aside and titter.

Now many people have already commented on how clumsy the supposed satire in We Saw Your Boobs, and how Seth might have made an actually insightful and biting commentary by including a segment in which he switched to something akin to We Saw Your Dick, and then noted that unlike female nudity, which has become so de rigeur that it is unusual when an actress like Jennifer Lawrence hasn't had a topless scene in a movie, male nudity is almost never seen. But the thing that struck me was just how completely juvenile and banal MacFarlane's song was. It wasn't just unfunny, it was boring. Which is why my musical selection this week is Rachel Bloom's You Can Touch My Boobies, because Rachel knows how to make a funny song about breasts.

The difference between Bloom's song and MacFarlane's song is that You Can Touch My Boobies is a fantasy that is supposed to have been spun from the mind of a sexually repressed twelve year old Jewish boy. So the fact that the humor is decidedly childish is the point. And almost everyone has been at that awkward stage where sex and the opposite gender were weird and just mentioning body parts was titillating. But most of us grow out of the idea that just saying "boobs" is funny. And guys like Seth MacFarlane apparently have not. Not only that, Rachel's song told from the perspective of a tween is more sophisticated in its humor than We Saw Your Boobs, containing several fairly witty lines and consisting of more than just saying "boobs, boobs, boobs" over and over again. And as a result, the humor of the Oscars is now more childish than the humor of a juvenile's masturbatory fantasies.

All that said, I'm not sure why Seth MacFarlane is so excited about seeing boobs, since he can see one whenever he looks in the mirror.

Previous Musical Monday: The Bed Song by Amanda Palmer

Rachel Bloom     Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 2 (February 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Ice Line by Stephen Baxter
Stone Wall Truth by Caroline M. Yoachim
The Woman Who Waited Forever by Bruce McAllister
The Wind-Blown Man by Aliette de Bodard
Dead Air by Damien Broderick
The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond by David Erik Nelson

Poems included:
Reincarnation by Peter Swanson
Subatomic Redemption by Michael Meyerhofer

Full review: The February 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction sees a return to form of the magazine after a disappointing January issue. With three "punk" stories, the magazine seems to have a mini-theme, although this is probably not a strength as two of the "punk" stories are the weakest two in the issue. On the other hand, Baxter's The Ice Line is the best story Asimov's has had in a few months, so that more than balances out the duds.

Stephen Baxter's The Ice Line is another installment in his "Anti-Ice" alternate history series in which England is caught fighting off the invasions of both Napoleon and the alien Phoebans. It is a strange combination of hard science fiction and steampunk (two genres that one might not expect to work well together) and brings a collection of secondary historical characters to the forefront of its narrative. Baxter weaves the historical characters together with the alien element with great skill to come up with a bizarre but believable alien invasion story that is my favorite offering of this issue. Also in the steampunk genre is David Erik Nelson's The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond concerning a drunken relating of a water dweller's foray on to dry land to explore, the troubles he encounters, and the help he receives that doesn't turn out quite like what he expected. Unfortunately, as it is in the same issue as Baxter's story, this one suffers by comparison, as it just isn't as good.

Moving away from steampunk to cyberpunk we find Damien Broderick's Dead Air, a truly strange story about life in the New York of the future in which the dead apparently have begun to commandeer television sets so they can look out on the living. The story is told using a quirky writing style clearly intended to convey a cyberpunk feel to the telling, but I thought it sometimes got in the way of narrative. The "twist" ending was somewhat predictable, and in the end this wasn't really a great story, but merely an adequate one.

Caroline M. Yoachim's Stone Wall Truth is a surprisingly gory story revolving around the misuse of lost technology as a device for horrific torture and punishment by those who had forgotten the original purpose of the device in question. The story meanders along in its bloodiness until the protagonist has an epiphany and the story simply stops with little resolution. Also surprisingly violent is Aliette de Bodard's The Wind-Blown Man, an alternate history story that posits the dominance of Chinese culture on the world stage, and the resulting apparent stagnation. An unexpected element returns to possibly shake things up, and the establishment reacts badly and viciously. I found these two stories to be stronger stuff than is normal for the magazine, but not notably over the top.

Less violent, but still somewhat bloody is Bruce McAllister's The Woman Who Waited Forever, a ghost story that details the brutality of adults towards one another in wartime, and children towards one another when at play. I'm not usually a big fan of ghost stories, but this one is well-done and the ghost element is so generally limited and the believable relationships between the boys hold center stage in the story.

This turned out to be an up and down issue, with some less than good stories, but these are balanced out in my opinion by Baxter's contribution. When one adds in the sundry good stories the overall quality of this issue is standard for Asimov's. After the modest disappointment that the January 2010 issue turned out to be, this one is a definite step up in quality.

Previous issue reviewed: January 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: March 2010

Asimov's     Sheila Williams    Magazine Reviews     Home

Friday, February 22, 2013

Follow Friday - About 97% of the Water on Earth Is Salt Water

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Reading . . . Dreaming and Jelly's Insider.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: We always talk about books that WE want. Let’s turn it on its head. What books have you given other people lately?

My daughter loves the Warrior Cat series, as do most of her friends. For Christmas I got her a copy of  Yellowfang's Secret, which turned out to be the perfect gift for her. My son, on the other hand, likes the snarky rapid fire Zero Punctuation reviews by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, and he wanted a copy of a book Croshaw wrote titled Mogworld. Unfortunately, Mogworld was out of print when I went to look for it before Christmas, so he's going to have to wait until his birthday to get it.

I also got my mother a copy of The Help, which turned out to be such a good choice for her that she already owned it. So I guess I have a good handle on what sort of books she likes, but I'm not so good at getting her books she doesn't already have. On a better note, I recently gave a copy of Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 to a friend, and she absolutely loved it.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: In 98 A.D. Tacitus Finished Writing the Germania

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review - Terovolas by Edward M. Erdelac

Short review: Fresh after killing Dracula, Van Helsing travels to the Old West to deliver Quincey Morris' ashes to his brother. Once there, he tangles with a cult of Norwegians and wolves.

Out in the Old West
Norwegians worship Fenris
Seductive werewolf

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers 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: Terovolas is a book that mines a character out of one of the famous works of the past in order to create new fiction. This does not necessarily result in a bad book - after all, Philip Jose Farmer had a long career in which he made a practice out of doing just that, and Fred Saberhagen also got a decent amount of mileage out of the same trick. And when well-executed, the result can be a good book. The character of Abraham van Helsing, drawn from Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a potentially interesting character, and Terovolas details his continuing adventures after the death of the blood sucking Count. The resulting book is a fairly decent adventure story, somewhat hampered by the artificial story telling style that the author chose to present it.

The book opens with a brief forward in which a character called John Seward presents the premise: that the story he is about to tell is drawn from the collection of personal papers left to him by van Helsing. This conceit runs throughout the entire book, with the story told via the letters, journals, and newspaper articles of the various participants in the tale's events. And while this is handled reasonably well through most of the book, this method of storytelling becomes awkward and forced at times, with nearly illiterate characters sitting down and writing an account of their daily activities on a scrap of paper, or literate characters making sure to update their journal huddled around a campfire while on the run from insane murderous berserkers.

Once it gets going, the story proper has Van Helsing heading off to Texas to find Coleman Morris and deliver to him the personal effects of his late brother Quincey along with the news (and account of) the latter's death. Along the way he spends some time traveling with Callisto Terovolas, an almost supernaturally attractive Greek woman whose importance to the plot is given away by the fact that the novel is named for her. In an instance of amazing serendipity, Terovolas also happens to be heading to the same small Texas town as Van Helsing in order to meet her intended fiance, a transplanted Norwegian named Sigmund who coincidentally happens to have purchased the ranch immediately next door to the one owned by Coleman Morris. Van Helsing is immediately entranced by the Mediterranean beauty, as is pretty much every other male character that crosses her path in the book, which was probably a storytelling mistake. For reasons that become apparent later, it would have been much more thematically satisfying for Van Helsing and her intended husband to be the only men who found her particularly attractive while other men were either indifferent to or even repulsed by her.

After all of this improbable happenstance, one might suspect that the story will revolve around the dispute between Coleman and Sigmund with Terovolas and Van Helsing neck deep in the middle. And one wouldn't be far wrong, except that it turns out that Terovolas is mostly off-stage for most of the book and a drunken newspaper writer named Alvin Crooker takes the role of Van Helsing's sidekick for most of the book. Once Van Helsing shows up in Sorefoot, a Texas town drawn straight from a Hollywood movie set, he runs afoul of some local miscreants and some impromptu action breaks out before the brigands are imprisoned. Van Helsing's assailants are then broken out of jail in an amazingly bloody manner resulting in a posse tracking them down and killing them off. Having recovered from this sideline, the story chugs along and it turns out that Coleman has been having some trouble with the encroaching Norwegians that Sigmund has gathered to himself on his newly purchased ranch. Because the tension has been somewhat mitigated by their joint participation in the recent posse, Van Helsing is able to arrange something of a detente between the two when Terovolas invites him to a celebration of her nuptials. The tension ramps up again when Van Helsing unravels some of the Norsemen's secrets, identifying some carvings in Sigmund's household as being related to the legend of Fenris.

From there, things get somewhat predictable. The Norwegians are part of a cult devoted to Fenris who like to dress themselves up as wolves and work themselves into an unreasoning murderous frenzy. Why they felt the need to uproot themselves and move to Texas is fairly poorly explained, and the end result is that the book revolves around a Dutch doctor contending with Norwegian berserkers in Texas with a Greek woman hovering about the fracas. There are also a couple of ex-Confederates thrown in, and a Native American shaman named Plenty Skins tossed into the mix for good measure. The odd thing about the book is that despite moving all of these characters from around the world to Texas, the author doesn't really do much with the Texas setting other than what seems to be a mostly recycled plot from a B Western movie. And that is something of a shame. Because while I was reading the book I kept wondering why the story wasn't set in Norway, where there could have been a spooky northern atmosphere with ancient Viking ruins, or set in the Balkans among old Greek monasteries and Turkish fortresses. Instead we have ranch houses and tumble weed with transplanted characters fighting it out over what really seems like nothing in particular.

This doesn't mean that the action isn't fast paced and somewhat interesting. It is. It just seems like everything was more or less pulling from the standard Western collection of plot hooks with some fairly weakly defined weirdness thrown in. And the weirdness is mostly weird because of the improbability of it - Sigmund and his Norse followers turn out to be just religious fanatics who dress up in skins and wear metal claws on their hands, but they seem to be almost invulnerable to bullets when they work themselves into a frenzy, which seems odd considering they aren't supposed to be the least bit supernatural. Even the character of Plenty Skins, who seems to be the most interesting and mysterious element of the book and who might be able to either summon or shapechange into a giant wolf, mostly stands around looking mercurial between sessions of chanting. To a certain extent this book feels like the author couldn't decide what kind of werewolf legend he wanted to focus on, so he took the kitchen sink approach and threw in all of the ones he could think of.

Overall, the book is interesting, although somewhat disappointing when one considers what the book could have been. Each of the various elements of the book - the Norse Fenris cult, the Native American wolf shaman, and Terovolas herself - could have been the basis for an entire book by themselves if they had been fleshed out and fully developed. As it is, however, each of these elements seems rushed and incomplete, resulting in a book that feels like it should have been very good, but turned out to be merely average.

Edward M. Erdelac     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review - Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
 Little Lost Robot
Robot Dreams
"Breeds There a Man . . . ?"
The Machine That Won the War
Eyes Do More Than See
The Martian Way
The Last Question
Does a Bee Care?
Light Verse
The Feeling of Power
Spell My Name With an S
The Ugly Little Boy
The Billiard Ball
True Love
The Last Answer
Lest We Remember

Full review: The entire impetus for this collection was a piece of artwork by Ralph McQuarrie - which eventually became the cover painting for the book. Containing one new short story (Robot Dreams) and a bunch of reprints of Asimov's short fiction, the book is a very good compilation of his work. Oddly, despite the title, only a handful of the stories in the volume are related to robots, although that doesn't detract from the quality of the finished product.

The first story in the book is Little Lost Robot, a story recycled from I, Robot (read review) that focuses on the effect of modifying the First Law of Robotics. As with all of the other stories that explore the implications of the Three Laws of Robotics, it is an interesting story, both as an engineering puzzle, and as a means of exploring the implications of technology. The new story in the book concerns a robot that is dreaming somewhat disturbing dreams. It features a return of Susan Calvin, a figure who shows up in many of Asimov's robot stories, and, as typical of the robot stories, deals with the effects of the Three Laws of Robotics. While it isn't one of the best robot stories, it is still one of the better ones. The second story in the volume is another robot story, and the only new piece of fiction written for this collection: the Locus Award-winning Robot Dreams. Once again, Susan Calvin is called in to clean up somebody else's robot mess, in this case a young robot designer build a robot brain using fractal geometry resulting in a more human-like robot mind. The side effect of this human-like mind is that the robot says he is dreaming, and when he describes the dreams it seems that robots may have a more complex inner psychology than even Susan Calvin may have suspected. This is another story in which Asimov explores exactly how dangerous it would be for humanity to have a manufactured race of slaves constrained only by a brief set of programmed rules, although Susan Calvin's solution to the problem at the end of the story is somewhat anticlimactic.

Light Verse is robot story, but doesn't sit inside the Susan Calvin set of stories. Instead, this piece seems to lean more towards the Bicentennial Man investigations of what differentiates a robot from a human, and how a robot could bridge that gap. In this story Alvis Lardner, a wealthy widow of a man who died in space, is famous for her light sculptures and is also a murderess. The victim in this case is a robotics engineer from U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men who unwittingly destroys the source of Lardner's light sculptures when he adjusts what he believes is a malfunctioning robot. The question posed by the story is an interesting one: how much of aesthetic value might be destroyed in a quest for "normality"?

Another story that is more or less about robots is Sally, but the focus this time is on cars equipped with positronic brains so they don't need human drivers. The story itself is fairly straightforward, the protagonist runs a farm for retired cars, and an unscrupulous visitor suggests recycling the brains of the resident cars into new vehicles in order to turn a profit. After he is turned down, our unsavory businessman tries to take the car brains by force, but he didn't count on the cars themselves objecting to this. The story raises questions about the rights of machinery that may be sentient and the danger posed by technologies that may be smarter than we are. It is clear that the protagonist regards the cars as individuals, but that his antagonistic would-be business partner does not, and that lack of regard is what undoes the villain in the story. Noticeably lacking in the story is the concept of the First Law of Robotics that a robot may never harm a human being or by inaction allow a human to come to harm. One wonders why Asimov left it entirely out of the story when it is so omnipresent in his other robot stories. Perhaps Asimov himself was guilty of what he has his villain doing: not regarding the vehicle-robots as individuals in the same way he regards humaniform-robots in other stories. In a minor side note, at one point the protagonist in the story mentions that he keeps the cars constantly full of gas with their engines turning over. This was a throwaway line in the 1950s when the story was written and gas was plentiful and cheap. But now it seems almost ludicrous to think that someone would keep fifty-one cars constantly running.

The Machine That Won the War is another quasi-robot story involving an interstellar was between Earth and Deneb in which the massive Multivac computer is credited with providing the edge that allowed Earth to win. As the story unfolds, each of the key individuals who dealt with the computer admit that they falsified their data, manipulated the results, or simply ignored Multivac's proscriptions. The story is quirky and humorous, especially the final scene in which the true "computer" that won the war is revealed. But the story does touch upon the important point that a machine is only as good as the people that use it. Also falling into the quasi-robot category is Franchise, a story about an election set in the far off future of 2008. Asimov imagines that the job of deciding how elections turn out has been handed over to Multivac, which is now not only used to predict the outcome of elections, but also to predict how people would have voted if they actually were allowed to vote. The process has been refined down to the point where Multivac only needs to consult a single voter that the machine designates as being the most "representative" voter. Franchise features one such voter, a confused and reluctant man named Muller, as he participates in the process. The story is funny, in a strange sort of way, but at the end, one realizes an odd thing: even though the story is called "franchise", and Muller has supposedly been selected as the "representative voter", her never actually casts a vote. Instead, Multivac simply decides the outcome of the election based upon an extended question and answer session with Muller. A somewhat unnerving strain of thought that runs through a fair amount of Asimov's work is that people would be better off if we were ruled by a technocracy of smart people, or better yet, smart computers or robots. And Franchise definitely reflects this thinking.

Possibly the most expansive of all the "Multivac" stories is The Last Question, a story that is told in successive jumps through time as increasingly advanced computers are all asked the same apparently insoluble question: Is it possible to stop the heat death of the Universe? The story is moderately interesting, but it doesn't really go anywhere for most of its length, after all, when your plot is essentially a single question, answering that question ends the story. So most of The Last Question is merely filler designed to delay the final resolution of the story without adding much of interest along the way. Jokester is another Multivac story, this time mixing Asimov's "Multivac" setting with his fondness for jokes. Meyerhof is a "grand master" who is feeding information into Multivac about jokes. The concept of a "grand master" is modestly interesting, apparently Asimov surmised that a machine as massive as Multivac would be impossible to deal with logically, so those few people who master working with the massive computer on an intuitive basis are called "grand masters", and pretty much have free reign when dealing with the computer. This is a kind of odd way of looking at computers which, by their very nature are nothing but logic based, but given that the story was published in 1956 when computers were in their infancy, it seems moderately excusable. Meyerhof is searching for the source of jokes and humor, and the answer he gets makes this one of the few Asimov stories to deal with extraterrestrials, as multivac concludes that the only possible source for jokes is nonhuman intelligence. The end of the story is bleakly humorous, and somewhat scary.

The final "Multivac" story in the volume is True Love, and it is both creepy on purpose and creepy unintentionally. The story is about a computer programmer named Milton working with a program in Multivac that he calls "Joe". Milton is using Joe illegally to try to find himself true love, by finding the perfect woman for him to marry. After some false starts, Milton begins uploading his personality profile into Joe so Joe will be able to match him psychologically with a woman and make sure that the "true love" he picks out will also love him in return. Milton and Joe become so closely identified with one another that Joe falls in love with the chosen woman, arranges to have Milton arrested and taken away, and plans to woo the woman himself. The intentionally creepy part of the story is the "computers replace us" theme that has Joe turning on and supplanting Milton. We are supposed to feel uneasy at the idea that a computer could become obsessed with a woman. But when stops and thinks about the story, one realizes that the computer is only reflecting Milton's obsession with "true love". And Milton is incredibly creepy. He has Joe select women almost entirely based upon their physical characteristics. He winnows the field down to two-hundred and thirty or so women, and then has Joe select from those based entirely upon which ones look most like beauty pageant winners. Milton has Joe then bring each woman to him so that he can clumsily ask them out on dates. So even at the outset he has reduced the woman he is allegedly looking for to a collection of body parts: height, weight, age, eye color, hair color, and so on. Then when this plan doesn't work, he hits on the idea (but only because Joe thinks of it) that maybe he would have better luck finding "true love" if he found a woman who might find him attractive, which is the point at which he starts loading in his psychological data, so that Joe can match it up with the two-hundred and thirtyish women who meet Milton's physical specifications. And to help him in his quest, he has Joe arrange to get all of the women psychologically tested so as to be able to compare their psychological profiles with Milton's. None of the women know why they are being psychologically tested, their consent to the courtship doesn't seem to matter much to Milton, Joe, or Asimov. This is, essentially, cyberstalking, and it is deeply creepy. And it is all the creepier because Asimov doesn't seem to realize it.

In a similar vein, although lacking the Multivac angle, is the the psychological thriller "Breeds There a Man . . . ?" in which a bizarrely gifted scientist inexplicably starts wanting to kill himself. It turns out that the scientist in question doesn't so much do any science but rather just seems to magically come up with solutions when presented with problems, and he he has used this magical science ability to determine that humans are actually an experiment being performed by some long-lived and unseen intelligence, with cultural and technological advancement taking place in spurts followed by cleansing destruction. Since humanity has invented the atomic weapon, he foresees that humans will be wiped from the Earth by this process and is therefore under a compulsion to kill himself because the unseen intelligence wipes out all the smart people who could solve all the problems and avert the cleansing destruction. The story ends on both an up note and a down note, but it isn't a very convincing ending either way, mostly because the protagonists magical science ability just pops out of thin air, and his conclusions seem just as unsupported by anything of substance. The third of the "alien interference" stories in the volume is titled Does a Bee Care? although this time the alien interferes with human development not as part of some sort of experiment, but rather in order to facilitate its own departure from the Earth. The central character uses humanity almost unconsciously, and is ultimately indifferent to our concerns, much as a bee uses a flower. And like a bee cares not at all for the concerns of the flower he uses, the central figure in this story simply doesn't care about humanity, giving the story its title. The question raised when one considers this story in relation to the other "alien interference" stories in this volume is whether it is better for an alien power manipulating you to be interested in the consequence to you or simply be indifferent to whatever might happen to you.

Getting somewhat away from the Multivac stories, but still somewhat related to them is The Feeling of Power, which imagines a future in which computers have become so ubiquitous in human society that no one remembers how to do mathematics for themselves. An undistinguished technician named Myron Aub rediscovers how to do computations by hand, a discovery that is quickly taken up by those in power, named "graphitics", and turned to the war effort against Deneb, with the enticing ability to create computer-free star ships and missiles manned with human operators looming in the future. Myron, distraught at his discovery being turned to violence and war, kills himself, but at his funeral, a general reflects upon the feeling of power that it gives him to be able to multiply seven times nine. Hostess is a quirky little story that at first seems like a tale about a hysterical policeman who is concerned about a imaginary alien threat to Earth from an extraterrestrial centaur. The policeman's biologist wife narrates the story and she tries to figure out what is going on when he displays a strange hostility towards a social visit from a denizen of another planet. Her investigations lead to a showdown between the three and a and somewhat unexpected strange resolution. The story is a display of Asimov's mystery writing skills, although he does kind of hide the ball until the very end. The only flaw in the story is the somewhat sexist nature of the society that Asimov imagines will flourish in Earth's future, but that's common to a lot of Golden Age science fiction, so it is more or less excusable.

I have read Strikebreaker several times, and every time I find myself angry at the end of the story, even though by now I know exactly how it will end. The story takes place on a small colony that is housed on a hollowed out asteroid. An anthropologist named Lamorak is studying the caste system that has arisen on the colony and learns that the one individual who is ostracized is the sewage treatment specialist named Ragusnik. The asteroid inhabitants have a strict taboo against dealing with Ragusnik, and no one talks to him. Female babies are selected from mothers who have died in childbirth and given to the Ragusnik family to raise and then marry. The Ragusnik children are isolated from the rest of the colony and required to take over their fathers' jobs. This has led the current Ragusnik to go on strike, which Lamorak finds completely justifiable. But Lamorak decides to side against Ragusnik and agrees to work as a strikebreaker, a job that no member of the colony would touch for fear of becoming socially tainted in the same way. Defeated, Ragusnik ends his strike, at which point Lamorak finds out that he is now required to leave the colony and never return. The manifest injustice of the colony's arrangement is bad enough, but when Lamorak helps to perpetuate it on a fairly flimsy rationalization the reader will seethe. But an interesting note, never mentioned in the story, is that Ragusnik is only trapped because he allows himself to be: he presumably could simply leave the colony, just as Lamorak does. Neither he nor his son have any connection with anyone on the colony, and he seems to have skills that would be useful in place where he wouldn't be a social pariah for plying his trade. But that thought never crosses his mind, nor does it cross Lamorak's mind to suggest it to Ragusnik. In a way, they are both as confined by the expectations of the caste system in the story as anyone else.

The Nebula-nominated Eyes Do More Than See tells about a pair of immortal energy beings who painfully rediscover their humanity. Amidst their eternal boredom, one, who begins to call itself Ames, considers the idea of working with matter as an interesting diversion. Ames' companion Brock considers this a waste of time and tries to dissuade her. Ames creates a head, and as the story progresses, adds features to it, each time uncovering the memory of what the two were like when they had flesh. Though the story is quite brief, it contemplates whether the cost of immortality may be too high if it were to require us to give up our ability to touch, to hear, to see, to love, and to feel enough to shed tears. Another story that deals with energy beings is Spell My Name With an S, although it doesn't appear to at first. In the story an undistinguished physicist named Marshall Zebintsky consults a numerologist at the behest of his wife in an effort to change his own personal fortunes. After consultation, the numerologist advises Zebintsky to change the first letter of his name to "S", which raises the suspicions of the security apparatus in his Cold War era workplace. Investigations lead to the discovery that the Eastern bloc physicists are working on a project that might change the nuclear balance of power, and the U.S. decides to focus its efforts into this new area of physics. But Zebintsky, now Sebintsky, is now considered to be a potential but unproven security threat, so the powers that be arrange for him to be offered a position at Princeton to quietly get him out of the way. It is only after Sebintsky's personal fortunes have been brightened in this way that the reader is let in on the twist of the book: the numerologist was actually an alien energy being who whose actions were directed towards winning a wager against one of his own kind, with the stakes being whether or not humankind annihilated itself. As with all of the other "alien interference" stories, the question that comes to mind is whether alien experimentation of indifference to humanity is worse. In this case, the aliens are indifferent to our concerns in any respect other than whether our actions can help them win a wager, which is a fairly chilling prospect when one realizes the stakes they are playing are essentially meaningless for them, but threaten our very existence.

I've read The Martian Way several times because it appears in numerous short story collections, and every time it feels as inspiring as the first time I read it. The story itself is fairly simple: Hilder, a thinly disguised analogue for Adolf Hitler, has taken to blaming space flight in general, and the human inhabitants of Mars specifically, for "wasting" Earth's water resources. Water, it seems, is used as propulsion fuel by the interplanetary space craft, and Hilder has built an entire political movement based upon decrying this "waste". In response, a philosophically minded Martian named Ted Long secretly organizes a trip to Saturn to obtain a supply of water for Mars from the chunks that are free-floating in the planet's rings. As an aside, the era in which the story was written is clearly displayed by the all male crew of the expedition. Apparently women on Mars are only suitable for housekeeping, and are regarded as something of an annoyance by the grizzled space hands who populate the story. Further, given advances in our knowledge of the Solar System over the last thirty or so years the necessity of traveling all the way to Saturn would be obviated - after all we now know that Jupiter has its own rings that are presumably as filled with ice chunks as Saturn's are. But the key insight of the story is unchanged: the idea that it will be Martians, used to living in an artificial environment their whole lives, who will lead humanity's push to becoming a truly space-faring race. This story also touches on the fact that most of the resources of our Solar System are not on Earth, and to think only in terms of what is available on this minute orb is to engage in a severe myopia that disguises the truth: mankind will never be truly wealthy until we are able to tap into the vast wealth of resources that are out there. And with a story that features technology that we could mostly build today if we desired to, The Martian Way shows how this could be possible.

The Ugly Little Boy is a time travel story in which there is very little time travel. Instead, the story raises questions about who is human, what duty do we owe to our fellow humans, and the ugliness of prejudice. Ms. Fellowes is a nurse who is recruited by Mr. Hoskins to work on a project that he will only say "involves children". Ms. Fellowes quickly learns that the project is "Stasis" a time travel technology that allows people to reach into the distant past and bring objects forward into the present - and this time they have brought forward a neanderthal child. The catch, as Hoskins explains to Fellowes, is that objects brought forward gain potential energy from their displacement, and cannot be removed from the relatively limited stasis field that is brought with them. As a result, the child, which Fellowes soon names Timmie, can never leave the tiny set of rooms they have prepared for him. Through the story, Timmie is referred to as "ape-boy' in the media, even though Hoskins asserts (and Fellowes comes to believe) that Timmie is simply human, albeit a variant subspecies. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that Hoskins doesn't really see Timmie as human, but rather merely a means to his goals. In the end, to save Timmie's life, Fellowes must make a drastic decision involving no small personal sacrifice. Although there are multiple references to Timmie's unattractive physical appearance in the story, one is left wondering if the title might instead refer to Hoskins' mean-spirited son Jerry, or possibly to the callously cruel Hoskins himself.

The Billard Ball is another non-robot story, this time featuring two brilliant minds at odds with one another. Priss is a highly decorated theoretical physicist, while Bloom is a mostly self-educated practical engineer who is famous for taking Priss' theoretical insights and making them into useful inventions. The two were apparently friends when they were students together before Bloom dropped out of school, and they are ostensibly friends, but actually seem to loathe one another with a seething and barely concealed hatred. The story is a mystery story of sorts, told from the perspective of a reporter following Bloom's attempt to transform Priss' latest theoretical insight into a practical anti-gravity device. In an interview with the narrator, Priss dismisses the idea as being impossible, and in a separate interview Bloom bristles at Priss' assertions. Everything wends towards a showdown involving a billiard table that results in Bloom's death. The story isn't quite a murder mystery, since there is no evidence that Priss did anything purposeful, and is more like an engineering puzzle as the circumstances that led to the fatal turn of events, but since Priss just sits down and explains what happened in the final interview of the story, it isn't much of a puzzle, as the characters don't really spend much time figuring the answer out. The story is interesting, but it isn't particularly memorable.

In The Last Answer Asimov steps into the realm of eternity and does something that few religions that promise eternity seem to ever actually do: actually contemplate what forever really means. A physicist named Murray dies and as he is an atheist is surprised to find himself entering into something of an afterlife. He discovers that he is to contemplate questions and come up with answers for an entity that only identifies itself as existing and eternal. But when Murray asks him what his purpose is, the entity says he has none, and that there will never be an end to this process. Murray thrashes about trying to foil the entity, but in the end unwittingly gives it exactly what it wants: a decision to try to come up with a way to end the entity's existence. The story confronts what the infinite really means, in a way that makes it clear that eternity would, in itself, be a nightmarish existence that would destroy any possibility of purpose and any possibility of meaning. It is because we are finite that we can choose purpose and it is because we are mortal that our lives can have meaning.

Lest We Remember is one of the earliest Asimov stories that I read, as part of an anthology of short stories assigned in Ms. Hubin's middle-school English class that also included stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Ray Bradbury. At the time, I'm not even sure if I recognized Asimov as the author, although I'm certain that by then I had already read the original Foundation trilogy. As a side note, living in Zaire, there were few opportunities for me to read science fiction, and Ms. Hubin had a nice collection that she made available to all of the students at TASOK to read. For being willing to nurture the minds of young science fiction fans in the heart of Africa, I thank you Ms. Hubin. The story itself is more or less a cautionary tale: a man participates in an experiment designed to improve memory, and winds up with perfect recall. This proves to be a tremendous advantage, but it proves to also be a somewhat dangerous blessing, as his new skill transforms him into a tremendous pain in the ass to all around him. He becomes an insufferable megalomaniac and offends everyone around him until he is reined in by his fiancee and presumably lives happily ever after. The story brings up something that has always bothered me about science fiction: whenever someone becomes much smarter than they were before by some science fiction method, they always either become much nicer or much nastier than they were before. Just once, I'd like to see a science fiction story where a character becomes a lot smarter via some super-science device and his personality stays more or less the same. That aside, it is a fun little story that demonstrates that having perfect recall is not the same as having good judgment, or even the ability to act intelligently.

The remaining stories are drawn from some of the most famous works by Asimov: Does a Bee Care?, The Ugly Little Boy, Spell My Name With an S, and other stories pull from Asimov's consistently well-written body of short fiction. Unlike his later attempts to link up all his novels in a somewhat unsatisfying manner, Asimov's short fiction never seemed to suffer, and remained strong throughout his career. This collection of short fiction is no exception.

1986 Locus Winner for Best Short Story: With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole by Harlan Ellison
1988 Locus Winner for Best Short Story: Angel by Pat Cadigan

Locus Best Short Story Reviews

1987 Hugo Award Nominees
1987 Locus Award Nominees

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Musical Monday - The Bed Song by Amanda Palmer

I thought a long time before using the song for my Musical Monday. But when I heard the song I wondered if Amanda had some sort of spy camera into my past, because I lived this song for a while. Distance in a relationship, if allowed to grow, will do so. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't have that kind of life any more. In the song, the ending for the couple depicted is a happy one, because I think that despite her tough facade, Amanda is a romantic at heart and yearns for beautiful and joyous conclusions to love stories.

In my case, the distance became irreparable, and the only options were to continue to live like the couple in the song do, in a shared loneliness for years and decades, or to make the hard choice. I made the hard choice. And while I think it was the right thing to do, it wasn't easy, the cost in so many ways has been very high, and it doesn't get any easier. Tragedy is a wonderful genre for artistic expression, but living it is painful.

Previous Musical Monday: The Pope Song by Tim Minchin
Subsequent Musical Monday: You Can Touch My Boobies by Rachel Bloom

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 3 (March 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Helping Them Take the Old Man Down by William Preston
Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov
The Tower by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Centaurs by Benjamin Crowell
Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising by Derek Zumsteg
The Speed of Dreams by Will Ludwigsen

Poems included:
Marble People by Bruce Boston
Crazy Man by Mark Rich
Our Canine Defense Team by Vincent Miskell

Full review: While this issue contains a decent selection of science fiction stories, it continues a worrying trend of tossing in a few non-genre stories, eating up issue pages with material that simply does not match the name Asimov's Science Fiction.

Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov is probably the most ambitious story in the issue, positing a future world in which humans have figured out how to aterwildlife so that it simply does not notice humans or their artifacts. The side effect of this is that humans then have to make sure that they shepherd the animals live among them. The whole story is told on the corners of the doings of a set of socialites most of whom don't understand the careful planning that goes into the wildlife pagent that surrounds them.

The Tower by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a time travel story, but focuses mostly on the competing interests of the time travelers themselves, with the denizens of the past being of secondary concern at best. A scientific expedition to determine a trivial issue is overtaken by an effort to pull off a temporal heist with somewhat less than satisfactory results for both sides. I liked it, but there isn't anything truly memorable or noteworthy about it.

Centaurs by Benjamin Crowell is a hard science fiction story about teenage puppy love in the outer solar system. The story revolves around a date gone wrong (and many things can go wrong in the orbit of Neptune) both physically and emotionally. Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising by Derek Zumsteg is a darkly funny story about human-alien contact, as aliens are brought in to investigate humanity's mass transit systems and improve them, and their ideas about efficiency clash with human sensibilities. The title gives away the ending, but that doesn't matter, as the ending is the least important part of the story. Since moving away from baseball writing into the science fiction field, Zumsteg has put out several good solid stories, and this one is no exception.

As with most poetry in Asimov's, Marble People by Bruce Boston and Crazy Man by Mark Rich are merely average. Our Canine Defense Team by Vincent Miskell, on the other hand, was an incredibly funny take on putting humanity on trial for its offenses against the rest of the biosphere.

I've commented several times before that there seems to be an annoying tendency in many genre magazines to include non-genre stuff, and in this issue this happens twice. The first story, Helping Them Take the Old Man Down by William Preston, is basically a conspiracy story involving a shadowy organization headed up by a mysterious "old man" who bears something of a resemblance to a good guy version of the Smoking Man of X-Files fame. Although the X-Files could loosely be described as science fiction, the story presented here contains none of the science fictional elements, unless one counts having an Arctic base of operations as science fiction. The story is a decent spy-thriller, but simply isn't science fiction. Also not science fiction is The Speed of Dreams by Will Ludwigsen, which is an extended suicide note written in the form of a high school science experiment. If the strange ramblings of the adolescent protagonist were actually true, then there might be a fantasy element to the story, but there's no reason given to believe them to be. Neither story is particularly bad, they are just out of place.

While all of the science fiction stories in this volume are at least pretty good, the presence of the two non-genre stories pulls the average rating of the issue down. There's nothing specifically wrong with them other than not belonging, but one can find that sort of material anywhere. When I pick up a copy of Asimov's Science Fiction, on the other hand, I'm looking for 112 pages of science fiction (or at least science fantasy). Consequently, non-genre material in an issue is a disappointment, and as a result, the overall rating of this issue suffers.

Previous issue reviewed: February 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: April/May 2010

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

30 Days of Genre - What Is Your Favorite Classic Genre Novel?

The Lord of the Rings

Is there anyone reading this blog that is particularly surprised? Ever since I consumed The Hobbit in one overnight sitting during the summer between my fourth and fifth grade years, and then went directly to reading The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King all over the course of the next week, I have always loved J.R.R. Tolkien's work. As soon as I got my hands on it, I devoured The Silmarillion (I distinctly remember reading it on a plane as we were flying over Mount Kilimanjaro). For Christmas, my parents got me The Tolkien Companion. I got a copy of David Day's Tolkien Bestiary and spent hours looking through the beautiful illustrations. I read the Tolkien Reader and Smith of Wooton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham. And so on and so forth. In short, I am something of a Tolkien fanatic.

But all of that is rooted in the three volumes that make up The Lord of the Rings. Although The Hobbit is what first set the spark in me, it by itself would not have set my imagination aflame. By itself, The Hobbit is a good quality young adult fantasy that would take its place alongside books by Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. But The Lord of the Rings is something different. Something special. In it, Tolkien does almost everything wrong from a storytelling perspective, and yet the resulting product is beautifully grand in a way that other books can only hope to be. He starts the book with a long party scene. He then has the main characters do nothing but wait around and engage in exposition laden conversations for literally years worth of novel time. When the hero finally starts out on his journey, he wanders around lost for a while until a deus ex machina of a character saves him and sets him in the right direction. Once the characters all get together, they sit down and have a committee meeting filled with more massive volumes of exposition for several dozen pages.The characters set out, fail once, go a different direction, get their wizard killed, wander into some suspicious elves, and then one of their own turns on them. And that's just the first book. Tolkien's literary sins are endless, the songs and poetry that the characters interject throughout the book are charming but ultimately fairly badly written, and the lack of female characters was glaringly apparent even to my eleven year old self.

And guess what? I don't care. None of that matters. Because Tolkien wrote a story that rises above all of these alleged sins. Because the years of painstaking work he put in to crafting the mythology and history of Middle-Earth bleeds through the pages, even when it isn't directly referenced by the text. Because when Aragorn summons the oathbreakers, or Frodo walks through the Dead Marshes, or Eowyn fulfills prophecy by slaying the Witch-King, you can feel the weight behind those parts of the story that is simply not present in many other fantasy works. And for me, The Lord of the Rings is why I read fantasy and science fiction.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Follow Friday - In 96 A.D. Nerva Became the First of the Five Good Emperors

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The LUV'NV and Ginger-Read Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Write a letter to your favorite character. Rant, rave or gush . . . just pretend like they are real and you just want to let them know a “few things”. Activity courtesy of author, Kelly Walker

Dear Paul Muad'Dib Atredies,

I'd say that I'm sorry to tell you that you are kind of screwed, but because you are prescient, you already knew that. I'd tell you that you shouldn't turn your Empire over to your sister Alia because she's possessed by the genetic memory of your evil grandfather Vladimir Harkonnen, but you already knew that because of your ability to see the future, and you did it anyway. I'd say that Chani is being poisoned by Irulan because Irulan wants her to be unable to have any more of your children, but once again, you know this, and you didn't bother to tell Chani about it or stop Irulan. I'd tell you that your beloved Fremen will fall into decay, but you knew that from the moment you first took the water of life. I'd tell you that your son Leto will find himself forced to merge with a sandworm and live for thousands of years attempting to undo what you did, but you knew that before you even took over the Empire. The thing is, because you can see the future, you knew all of these things would happen, and you chose not to try to change them. In fact, by allowing the plot that ended up blinding you before you took to wandering the desert to proceed, you even helped them along.

And knowing this would be the outcome, you let it happen. Why? What was the worse possibility that you saw would happen if you tried to change the flow of history? What even worse fate could you have seen that caused you to accept your own death, the damnation of your sister, the death of your beloved concubine, and the agonies of your son?



Go to previous Follow Friday: NATO Called the Tupolev TU-95 "The Bear"
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: About 97% of the Water on Earth Is Salt Water

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review - I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Stories Included
Catch That Rabbit
Little Lost Robot
The Evitable Conflict
Full review: This collection of short stories by Asimov introduces and explores his initial Three Laws of Robotics (later, in the Foundation-Robot crossover books, some nuances and new laws were adopted, but they just don't seem to be as well thought out as the first three laws). The stories are set within a framing story involving an interview with an aged robotics expert named Susan Calvin (who appears in some of the stories) and build a coherent picture of how robots and man interact.

The stories build upon one another, the first several introducing the Three Laws, and exploring what their implications are. The later stories deal mostly with situations resulting from the interaction between the Three Laws, or problems caused by rigid adherence to them, or, most frightening, what happens if a robot doesn't have the Three Laws programmed into him. Most of the stories take the form of puzzles: A robot does something odd or unexpected, or fails to do something that it is supposed to, and the human characters in the story have to figure out why. Most of the puzzles are, in true Asimov form, well-constructed with quite logical solutions.

The first story in the book, and the first robot story Asimov ever wrote, is Robbie, the story of a very early model robot purchased by a wealthy family to serve as a companion for their daughter. The girl, Gloria, is entranced by her metal companion who she called Robbie, but her mother is less enthused, absorbing the irrational anti-robot sentiment encroaching upon society. Gloria's mother badgers her husband into getting rid of the robot and trying to replace it with a dog, after which Gloria becomes withdrawn and despondent over the loss of her friend. The obvious answer seems to be to take Gloria to New York to distract her with diverting amusements, all of which fail until ultimately Gloria's father suggests taking her to see how robots are manufactured so that she will realize her friend was a machine and not a person. While at the factory, Robbie turns up and saves Gloria's life finally convincing her mother to relent and allow Robbie to return to their house. The story is interesting both for the intended message that robots can be benign, but also for some somewhat unintended messages. Gloria's mother is depicted as hysterical and led by popular sentiment, while Gloria's father, by contrast, is presented as being coolly rational and seemingly more concerned with his daughter's welfare than his spouse. An interesting side note is that while Gloria's father's name George is referenced in the story, her mother's name is conspicuously absent, as she is referred to only as Mrs. Weston. This sort of casual sexism is prevalent in a lot of Asimov's work, but it is fairly conspicuous here. But the other element that becomes clear is that Mrs. Weston's fear of robots will probably never even occur to her daughter, for whom robots are not some sort of alien thing, but are instead a normal part of life, and for whom robots are not merely machines, but rather friends.

The second story in the volume, Runaround, introduces the characters Donovan and Powell, a pair of robotics experts who are trying to determine if a mining operation on Mercury would be feasible using robots. And the one element that sticks out the most in the story is that one story in to the robot saga and already people are monkeying with the Three Laws of Robotics, this time by weakening the Second Law and amplifying the Third Law, which seems like kind of a bad idea since everyone seems to assume that the only thing that keeps robots from destroying humanity is the careful balance of the Three Laws. But since having a normally functioning Third Law would supposedly get in the way of mining on Mercury, Speedy, the main robot in this story, had his ramped up. This, combined with some less than emphatic orders, have resulted in the Speedy behaving oddly and wandering around the surface of Mercury in circles, a puzzle that Donovan and Powell have to solve from afar, as the surface of Mercury is so hot that prolonged exposure to the Sun from there would cook them alive. They have some older model robots on hand to help, but due to some anti-robot hysteria the older models are only able to move when a human is riding piggyback on them. This, it seems to me, kind of defeats the purpose of having robots, which is at least partially to have something that can do work in an area too dangerous for humans. So if you need a human to tag along on all of your robots, it seems like a decent part of their utility would be lost. In any event, after trying some other options, the two humans hit upon the idea of trying to trigger the always supreme First Law response in Speedy and endanger themselves, defeating the engineering puzzle and finishing the story.

Building on the first two stories is Reason, featuring the return of Donovan and Powell, now working on a space station power relay and confronted with a more advanced robot named Cutie designed to be able to engage in abstract thought sufficient to allow it to run the station. Cutie determines that he could not have been made by humans, reasoning that an inferior being could not be responsible for the creation of a superior entity such as himself. The robot then uses logic to come to a series of seemingly absurd conclusions and winds up worshiping the power converter, and then converting all of the other robots on the station to his way of thinking. Donovan and Powell try to convince Cutie that his conclusions are wrong, but since the robot refuses to accept their premises and dismisses all of their arguments as being based on fantasies, they fail. This story is clearly Asimov's way of picking apart the kind of Aristotelian logic-based "prime mover" explanations that some religious apologists think are so airtight. In one short science fiction story Asimov demolishes the entire life's work of Aquinas, exposing the utterly childish nature of Aquinas' "five ways". And Asimov managed to make a funny and interesting story to boot.

Asimov keeps following Donovan and Powell about in Catch That Rabbit, a story in which they have to troubleshoot a new robot named Dave that serves as an overseer for six other subordinate robots. The idea behind Dave is interesting - he is essentially a single robot in seven bodies, with one "master" unit and a collection of subordinate "finger" units. Dave seems to work fine when they observe it, but when they send it off to work on its own something goes wrong and it ends up doing no work, with the seven units instead engaging in a bizarre sequence of what appear to be marching formations. The story doesn't actually turn on the Three Laws, but rather the limitations of processing power, and the solution to the puzzle seems to be trivially easy once Donovan and Powell figure it out. Catch That Rabbit is a mildly amusing story, but isn't anything more than that. The book follows the trivial nature of Catch That Rabbit with Liar! a story that deals with what could have been a very interesting issue, but which ultimately throws the puzzle it presents away in favor of a trivial ending. A robot named Herbie has unexpectedly turned out to have the ability to read minds, and no one knows why. A team of experts including Susan Calvin try to figure out how this happened, approaching the issue from a design perspective and from a psychological perspective. While questioning the robot Susan and the mathematician Bogart question the robot and get what appears to be very promising information. But as the story progresses, Herbie's reliability seems to be questionable. Calvin figures out that the robot is unable to give truthful but unpleasant answers because of the First Law and uses a logical contradiction that this causes to talk Herbie to death. But Calvin's personal vendetta doesn't just short circuit the robot, it brings the investigation to a screeching halt without figuring out what resulted in a mind-reading robot. Basically, Liar! is an engineering puzzle story that doesn't bother to solve the puzzle because, it seems, that Asimov thought even someone who is repeatedly described as a consummately professional woman is liable to become unhinged if her romantic expectations are dashed.

The story Little Lost Robot deals with a robot that is not really lost, but rather hidden. Having established the parameters of the Three Laws of Robotics in the previous stories, in this one Asimov imagines that the laws might be modified. In this story, the First Law has been modified to limit the imperative to merely commanding a robot not to harm a human being, leaving open the possibility that a robot could allow a human to come to harm by inaction. This was implemented to prevent the robots from charging in an trying to save humans working on a secret project on a asteroid that would subject them to improbable but real risks. Given the likely negative public reaction to the revelation that robots had been modified this way, the government had this done in secret with no identifying marks on the robots and no serial numbers, which works out well until one of the researchers tells a modified robot to "get lost" and he hides among a shipment of "normal" First Law robots destined to be shipped out. Susan Calvin is called in to try to uncover the "lost" robot, and engages in a series of psychological tests in an effort to unmask the impostor. However, her quarry is wily and intelligent, and revealing its identity proves more difficult than expected and only the intersection of the modified First Law, alleged robot hubris, and some after market robot training that the missing robot received allows Calvin to do so. But one wonders what would have happened had a modified robot not had this happy intersection of three unrelated factors that enabled Calvin to prevent a First Law free robot from running wild. And that is a typical Asimov - create a seemingly safe and predictable technology, demonstrate how it can be used safely, and then show how human incompetence and meddling can upset the apple cart.

Following directly on the heels of Little Lost Robot is the story Escape!, which is almost not a robot story at all, instead featuring a positronic brain that is used essentially as a very powerful computer. Consolidated, one of U.S. Robots' corporate rivals, presents a contract offer to put a series of questions concerning the development of a hyperdrive that would allow interstellar flight. Apparently Consolidated's own mechanical brain became discombobulated when they tried to feed the data to it, but they suggest that U.S. Robots' more sophisticated positronic brain could unravel the problem. Although they suspect the contract is a trap intended to disable their own brain, reasoning that Consolidated's mechanical brain was derailed by discovering that the hyperdrive process would be dangerous to humans, U.S. Robots accepts the offer and proceeds to carefully feed the data into their computer under Susan Calvin's supervision with strict instructions to pause and think if it encounters something that would harm humans. They are surprised when the brain tells them it can make a hyperdrive capable ship, and proceeds to do so. Donovan and Powell are chosen to test the odd looking result, and the story gets a little odd from there. The lurking question posed by the story is that if humans tell a robot that they don't mind being harmed, or even dying, can that overcome the First Law?

Asimov makes something of a bold statement in Evidence!, which seems at first to be nothing more than a somewhat comical political farce in which an unscrupulous politician advances the idea that his opponent, a man named Byerley, is a robot in order to discredit him. He shows up at U.S. Robots to enlist their aid in his quest, which draws Susan Calvin into the story. Amidst the modest comedy involving whether someone has eaten in public, legal maneuvering, and staged political theatre, Asimov mixes in two incisive points. First, when discussing the nature of evidence, Calvin observes that she could never use robopsychology to conclusively prove that someone was a robot rather than just a human who followed precepts of action akin to the Three Laws of Robotics. When a protest is raised that this is not the sort of proof they need, she angrily responds that the evidence doesn't care what conclusions one wants, but can only be used to draw the conclusions that it is able to support. Second, Calvin notes that a robot who acted according to the Three Laws of Robotics would be effectively indistinguishable from the most moral of human beings. And this statement reveals a truth that has been lurking in all of Asimov's robot stories: Asimov is not merely musing about how he thinks robots should be designed, he is laying out the framework of a secular morality for humans, breaking moral behavior down to three very simple statements.

The final story in the volume is The Evitable Conflict, and is in some ways both the most hopeful and most disturbing of the collection. In the story Byerley has risen to become world coordinator, the most powerful political figure on the planet. But since most of the management of the world economy has been turned over to four massive "machines" consisting of disembodied positronic brains, his position seems to have become somewhat ceremonial. But when the brains start making what appear to be errors, he embarks on a fact-finding tour to visit each of Earth's four economic regions, and then consults with Susan Calvin to try to unravel the mystery. Byerley outlines his theory that the errors are the result of the actions taken by a radical anti-robot organization named "The Society for Humanity" aimed at casting doubt on the efficacy of the "machines" and paving the way for a return to conflict and cooperation, which he presumes the members of the Society intend to profit from. In response, Calvin outlines the theory that the "machines" may be smarter than their opponents, and makes a case for what amounts to the inevitability of a benevolent dictatorship run by the "machines". This theme – that humanity will end up being cared for by a guiding intelligence that treats us like unruly children – runs through a lot of Asimov's work, and it is not disturbing that Asimov thinks this could happen, but rather it is disturbing because it seems clear that Asimov thinks this would be a desirable result. In short, In Asimov's mind it seems that the almost inevitable conclusion of humanity's development of thinking machines is that they will surpass us, take control from us, and run the world as our guardians whether we want them to or not. And Asimov regards this as the ideal outcome.

With stories that range from mere engineering puzzles to stories that are deeply disturbing, I, Robot is a brilliant collection of science fiction. Forget about the misnamed Will Smith movie - this book is entirely unlike the movie, and much better than the movie could have ever hoped to be.

Note: Robbie won the 1941 Retro Hugo for Best Short Story.

1939 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: How We Went to Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (awarded in 2014)
1946 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: Uncommon Sense by Hal Clement (awarded in 1996)

Hugo Winners for Best Short Story

1941 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2016)
1943 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2018)

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