The last couple of weeks have been heavy on the D&D for me. First, the long time in the planning the Incomparable D&D session happened over the weekend. The podcast isn't up, but you can watch it on YouTube if you're into that sort of thing (and who isn't).
I also penned a piece for The Magazine about how D&D has shaped me as a person. The isn't my normal kind of writing, but I'm pleased with how it came out (thanks to Marisa for helping, and thanks for Glenn for accepting the pitch!).
Let me know what you think of the piece. I'm very curious because this kind of writing is outside of my comfort zone. I'm also concerned that the last section makes me out to be something of a sociopath, but I'm really not! You can trust me, I totally have "human" "emotions."
Amazon is much more excited about my shampoo order than I am.
Ever since I started a concerted effort to read all the Hugo nominated novels (check out the Incomparable episodes: 2011 and 2012) I've been disappointed with the awards in general for two reasons: my own misconceptions and Mira Grant. Oddly enough, they are related to one another.
In my mind the Hugo award nominees represent the finest, most creative and interesting writing done in science fiction novels during the previous year. While this is true for some nominees that's not what the Hugos are. The Hugos are voted on by the readers, which means that at the basest level the Hugos are a popularity contest.
Which explains why every novel in the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant has been nominated. I'm sure Ms. Grant is a lovely woman, and clearly there are people who enjoy her work. Kudos to her! But do her novels represent the best that science fiction has to offer? No, they do not. However, lots of people like her and her books are very easy to read and are fun if you don't mind overly repetitious prose, blunt force world building, borderline incest, cardboard villains, and rudimentary plotting.
I will be reading all of the nominated novels for the Incomparable yet again. Luckily I've already read 3 out of 5. Here's the list:
It is all well and good to complain about the books that got nominated, but a real critic should provide some alternatives. Looking over what I read last year that were Hugo eligible, I've come up with nine books that should have been on the list:
There you have it, add my voice to the chorus bellyaching about the Hugos. Of course, say what you will be the awards but at least they get people talking about, and writing about, science fiction. That can't be a bad thing, right?
I read a lot, but I tend not to stray from the safe confines of fiction. I don't why, but non-fiction generally doesn't do it for me. This is what makes my choice for the Best Book of the Month for February 2013 all the more unusual.
Not only is Carthage Must Be Destroyed non-fiction but it also happened to enter my reading queue during the same month that Great North Road was released. Peter F. Hamilton (author of The Great North Road) is on my list of immediate reads, but his latest was soundly beaten by Carthage Must Be Destroyed.
I've long been interested in Ancient History. In fact, if I had bothered to fill out the paperwork I would have minored in it during college (I had enough credits but I also loathe paperwork). Generally, my reading/interest centers around the Romans which lead me to believe that the Carthaginians were just an also ran society that the Romans rolled over during their conquest of the known world.
And that speaks to the central thesis of the book: since Carthage was so completely destroyed everything that we know of it (outside of archeological digs) comes from historical sources that are decidedly biased (the Greeks and the Romans cast Carthage as their "other," meaning that even though for many years most of the trade in the Mediterranean involved Carthaginians they were not a well liked people).
I learned a lot of interesting things about Carthage including:
The book is a little slow to start but really picks up in the Punic War section when Rome and Carthage clash for the first time. It was incredibly interesting to see how Rome, a relative newcomer, was able to soundly defeat Carthage which was one of the superpowers of the Ancient World. It even inspired me to pitch an article comparing the Roman's use of a specific technical innovation to basically negate Carthage's naval advantage to the way Apple out foxed RIM (sadly the editor pitched said it was too obscure. What the hell are kids learning today if not about the Punic Wars?!).
Anyway, the book is well worth a read if you're interested in a view of the ancient world from a different vantage point.
The other books I read in February were:
The New York Times has a great/terrifying article called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. You should check it out, however, my favorite beverage's origin story is revealed:
The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business, which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since been valued in excess of $11 billion.
I've long had illusions that I'd write a review of every book I read, however, since I read over 70 books last year and wrote a review for one or two of them that goal seems unrealistic.
Therefore, a new feature of Blankbaby is born: the best book of the month! Hurrah!
Last month (January 2013) I read a total of 10 books, all fiction. There were a number of good books in the running, but the best book I read that month was: The Dog Stars.
The Dog Stars is set in a world ravaged by a pandemic (an out of control super flu) which killed off lots and lots of the world's population. The story follows Hig whose wife and child died of the flu. Now he's holed up with Bangley who seems to have waited his entire life for something like this to happen. Hig isn't happy, but he's making a go of it with his trusty dog at his side and frequent trips in a small airplane to scout for dangers, and other survivors.
I won't recap the story since there are some surprising bits, but it is well written and worth your time. I will say, however, that while I thought it was a good book it is unfortunate that it contains some echoes of The Road. Why is this bad? The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a brilliant literary achievement next to which most books would pale in comparison. Add in similar story lines and The Dog Stars just can't hold a candle to The Road.
That being said, The Dog Stars is good it just isn't great.
The other nine books I read last month were:
That's a picture of me 6 years ago (and many pounds heavier… sheesh. I think I'm fat now but I forget how much progress I have made!) at the Suburban Square Apple Store grand opening. How times have changed.
Not only have I lost some weight, and look much more handsome, I also don't like going to the Apple Store any more. The fine folks over at Macworld asked me to explain why, and the result was this: Why I dread going to the Apple Store.
Somehow I don't think this is going to be popular over at Macworld.
Thanks to the unseasonable weather here in Philly (today's high is 65) Hawaiian shirt season has been extended. Look how happy I am!
I'm wearing the newest addtion to my shirt collection to work today (the Moon Festival Camp shirt).
That image is from my fancy new Kindle Paperwhite (yes, that's an affiliate link). How did I take it? It is pretty simple:
I did try this trick on a Kindle Touch, and it didn't seem to work.
As a reader, and a person, I tend to fixate on things. I have spent days listening to the same song over and over again (one inexplicable example: A View to a Kill by Duran Duran), and countless hours watching episode after episode of TV shows.
When I stumble upon a new author (well, new to me) and find that I love his work I go a little wild. I read about the author, I follow them on Twitter, and I subscribe to their blog. Oh, and I read a bunch of their books too.
Thanks to my involvement with the Incomparable (a fine podcast filled with geeky delights) I've been reading all the Hugo nominated novels for the last couple of years (2011, 2012). Sometimes this makes me happy, and sometimes not so much.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald was nominated for a Hugo in 2011, and so I knew I was going to read it. For some reason I thought it was a sequel to River of Gods, an earlier novel by the same author, so I picked that up from the library.
Wow. It was a great book, and it really set my expectations high for the Dervish House (which I found out had nothing to do with River of Gods). After reading the Dervish House I knew two things to be true:
I was only right about one of those things (Connie Willis won the Hugo for Blackout/All Clear which were the only nominees that year I hadn't read), but McDonald was certainly upgraded to an author whose books I buy no matter what they are about.
McDonald's novels are complex stories intricately plotted featuring characters in non-Western cultures (generally speaking). The neat thing about setting his novels of the near future in cultures that I am not super familair with is that it transforms me, as the reader, into "the other." I'm the one that is sort of an alien, as opposed to the characters I'm reading about in this science fiction novel.
Narrative complexity like this appeals to me, which is why I loathe Young Adult novels (YA, for those in the know). Since they're written for a younger audience a more straightforward story is needed, which leave out all the interlocking stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other until that beautiful moment when it all clicks into place (at least in a well written novel).
When I heard McDonald was going to start writing a YA book I was nervous because I knew I had to read it, and that my bias against the genre wouldn't make it easy for me to like it.
That book was Planesrunner, the first in the Everness Series following the adventures of a teenage boy (what else?) as he tracks down his father through the multiverse. To sum up my thoughts of Planesrunner I offer you one word: disappointment.
Gone were the interweaving plots. Good bye to the myriad of characters. Hello straightforward story, typical YA hero, and fairly well trod scifi tropes.
The book read like a very well written episode of Sliders with a main character who is just like normal kids except he's a math genius who can cook (which is admittedly a nice touch).
I wasn't thrilled with it, but it was a solid book overall (though if it hadn't been written by McDonald I never would have picked it up in the first place).
Now the second book in the series, Be My Enemy, is out and I've just finished reading it the other day (I finish reading series that I begin, damn it!).
Happily, Be My Enemy is a much better book than Planesrunner. I'm not sure if that is a result of my lowered expectations (as set by Planesrunner) or if this book is just better. I tend to lean towards the latter since McDonald seems to be playing with some of the very ideas that made the first book a bit cliche in interesting ways.
At one point a character says something long the lines of, "This is an alternate universe, of course there are airships." That made me laugh out loud (LOL as the kids say).
The central premise of the series remains unchanged: our 14 year old hero Everett Singh must track down his father who has been shot into a random universe by mysterious agents of the Plenitude embodied by the main villianess Charlotte Villiers (who gives me shades of Marisa Coulter). There are 10 Earths that have discovered one another by inventing Heisenberg Gates which allow them to jump from one Universe to the next. In some universes this is a known fact, in others it is a secret.
The first book see Everett teaming up with an airship crew, and he is still with the same crew in the second book.
While the setup isn't all that orignal (special kid goes on quest, fights adults) the concept of Alters (introduced in the first book) is explored during the course of this book to great effect.
Given there are multiple universes it stands to reason that there are multiple versions of people too. The other versions of you in other universes are known as Alters. Everett is confronted with his own Alter who has been altered (see what I did there?) by a colony of aliens who, in the Alter's universe, live on the moon (the aliens are kind of neat, but I won't spoil them for you). Pressed into service by Villiers and her male Alter, the Alter Everett is made into a weapon to track down Everett and get the map of the multiverse.
Alter Everett is placed on Earth 10 (our Earth) to replace real Everett at school. Everett then decides he's going to rescue his family (well, mom and kid sister) before continuing to look for his dad. That doesn't go well, but we get to see Alter Everett power up his internal weapon systems and blast some stuff only to be outsmarted by real Everett (just before this fight Villiers reminds Alter Everett that he is just a tool, the real Everett is the important one).
After that battle a good chunk of the action happens on Earth 1 which has been quarantined for mysterious reasons. No one can jump into the world, with the exception of Everett and his airship buddies (who have his map of the multiverse that he figured out based on his father's work, and which the villains want) and his Alter (who gets there thanks to the moon aliens). The mystery of why this Earth was quarantined is pretty easily solved by a frequent science fiction reader, though McDonald does offer an interesting twist of a modern scifi chestnut (I'm really trying to avoid spoilers). On Earth 1 there's some chase scenes, characters trying to figure out the obvious, and a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.
The Alter Everett makes a critical deal towards the end of the book which will have a great impact on the third (and final?) volume in the series. I must admit I had a hard time accepting that anyone would make the deal he did (once again, avoiding spoilers) but he is a 14 year old who is being manipulated by people… so I bought it.
The writing is solid, with some glimpses of McDonald's true talent (I get the feeling that he was holding back since this is a YA book, though one could argue he is just stretching other writerly muscles with this series). There are a couple of false notes when McDonald tries very hard to write like a 14 year old would think/talk, like this: "His body felt out the different slopes and structures an slipperinesses of the roofs. Just like a real-life version of the Assassin's Creed video game." But those are few and far between (thank goodness).
At this point I'm surprised to say I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. The first book left me cold, but my interest in McDonald's work convinced me to stick with it, and I feel like the pay off is going to be worth it.
I read the Kindle version of Be My Enemy, which is my preferred version of a new book that I don't have any real reason to own as a keepsake (some books are just better as physical artifacts, and older books tend to be way cheaper when you buy a used copy vs. a digital copy). For some reason Pyr, McDonald's publisher, delayed the reason of the Kindle book for 2 weeks. I have no idea why, but it was very annoying to me.
Furthermore, if you're going to delay the Kindle book you really need to make sure the ebook formatting is spot on. I was more than 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized the chapters were numbered. The chapter number graphic was so faint as to be nigh on impossible to read on my eInk Kindle's screen (and I have the fancy new Paperwhite).
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
Smart, clever and abundantly original, with suspense that grabs your eyeballs, this is real science fiction for all ages.
If I’m to be completely honest, Be My Enemy didn’t blow me away as completely as Planesrunner did. That’s partly because it’s, well, a sequel. A sequel to an outstanding novel, granted, but still, some familiarity sets in. The surprise factor wears off, ever so slightly.
In softer hands these books could become a "monster of the week" series but here there are consequences, none more so than when Everett is punched in the stomach by an authority figure. This basic, personal violence is a reminder that this is not a game and that even a genius can't get through unscathed. I can't wait to see what happens next.
In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.
I rarely venture forth from Center City Philadelphia, let alone the state of Pennsylaniva. However, circumstances conspired to force me to leave the Keystone state for a wedding over the weekend. As luck would have it Apple released iOS 6 with the banner Passbook feature mere days before I was to board my flight. Further proof of my luck: all four of my flights were on United, which is one of the few airlines who support Passbook at this moment (along with American Airlines and Lufthansa). How did it go?
Using Passbook isn't difficult, but there are a lot of steps you have to take to get your eTickets into it:
There you have it, you can use Passbook to get onto your plane (and yes, the actual ticket has a QR code, which I've blurred out in the picture above)!
Now that your eTickets are in Passbook an alert shows up on your lock screen a few hours before your flight's boarding time. Swipe the notification and the eTicket is displayed with a QR code (if you have a lock code enabled on your phone this process does not require it. The eTicket is displayed without having to enter your PIN or password). One nice touch is that when your iPhone is displaying the eTicket the screen brightness is automatically set to the highest level (I usually keep my screen at 33% brightness) and then goes back to your setting when the eTicket is dismissed (by swiping upwards).
At the airport the friendly TSA folks and gate representatives all have scanners waiting for you. Just hold your iPhone, which is displaying your ticket, up to the scanner and wait for the green light that proves you aren't a security risk (the first time I scanned my ticket the scanner turned red and beeped loudly. I slightly panicked until I realized I had an exit row seat and they had to ask me if I was OK with sitting there… which I was). And that's it, you just used your $500 iPhone to replace a 1 cent paper ticket. Yay, technology!
It seems to me that Passbook is a clever idea, but honestly having my eTicket with the QR code emailed to me (or just using the one displayed in the United app) would have been simpler. Once you get the ticket into Passbook it is a nice experience, but adding stuff to Passbook isn't intuitive. In fact, once I had my 2 tickets to CA in Passbook I didn't have the option to add anything else from within Passbook itself since the App Store button was no longer displayed.
The spaceship hit the atmosphere with a clang.
"That's odd," said First Mate Bishop, "ships don't usually clang at this high a velocity."
He glanced at the readouts on his glowing control pod and frowned. Something was wrong, and though he didn't know what that thing was it was a big important thing, and it wasn't good. Not good at all.
"Captain, something's wrong."
Capt. Drake Belleweather looked at his First Mate with a mix of annoyance and calm. Belleweather was almost always annoyingly calm, which mostly accounts for his rise through the ranks of the Imperium. It certainly wasn't because he knew what he was doing; mostly he just winged it.
"Yes, I heard the clang. Most unusual that clang. I don't recall ever hearing a clang like that before. Get me engineering. They know about clangs and things, one imagines."
Engineering, which on the I.S. Confident consisted of one human, Lt. Carothers, and one robot, General Robotics Engineer Mark V, was well versed in any number of spacefaring related noises. Bangs, wizzles, zaps, sproongs, whispers of air escaping a once airtight space were noise in their repertoire. Clangs not so much.
When the whistle denoting an incoming message from the captain sounded Engineering knew what to do. Carothers answered the call.
"Carothers, tell me what the hell that clang was. We're rapidly approaching the planet surface."
"Ahh, yes, Capt. You heard that too? I thought it might have been Ned's servos grinding again."
"Who the hell is Ned?"
While I agree with most of this article about Apple's awful, and slavish, devotion to mimicking real world artifacts in software this line stuck me as very odd:
How many iPhone users have ever actually seen a paper shredder in real life?
Are paper shredders really that exotic?
I was off on vacation with Marisa for Labor Day weekend (we padded it by taking Friday and Tuesday off because we are awesome). Say Marisa likes to say we take "old people" vacations: we rent a cabin and read for awhile, go to thrift stores, and eat dinner early.
As is my wont I bought a bunch of used books:
Blankbaby is known to his friends as Scott McNulty (though he is @blankbaby on Twitter). He writes this blog, used to co-host (with Marisa) Fork You, infrequently contributes to Macworld, and authors tech books.
Everything on this blog is Scott's opinion, and his opinion alone. It in no way reflects the opinions of his employers, friends, concerned passers-by, or anyone else for that matter. But you're smart, you knew that already.