My damn whatever-this-illness-is is still lingering around. Other than making me really tired on Thursday-to-Sunday, it’s given my throat that thick, kind of clogged feeling. It doesn’t really hurt, but it’s uncomfortable. Fortunately it’s not obstructing my breathing or swallowing, it’s just annoying.

Fortunately, tea seems to help. Even more fortunately, I learned yesterday that tea at the coffee bar at work is free! Pretty nifty. It’s even Numi Tea, which is pretty yummy. So now I can try out all their various flavors for free!

The downside to drinking tea in the afternoon rather than my usual mocha is that I’m that much hungrier come dinnertime. Which I shouldn’t complain about, because I don’t really need the 400 calories (or however many) those mochas come with, anyway.

I’m hoping my throat is all better by tomorrow, though. It’s a little better every day, but I wish it would finish healing up.

My Theoretical Vacation to England

I wrote over in LiveJournal (since that’s where most of my friends relevant to the subject hang out) that I won’t be going to WisCon this year. And in addition to not seeing my Madison friends, I’m bummed that I won’t get to see my British friends, whom I don’t really have much hope of ever seeing aside from at WisCon, until and unless I go on my Theoretical Vacation to England.

Naturally, the TVtE seems like a good topic for a journal entry.

I’ve been to England twice before, once with each of my parents, back in the mid-1980s. I had a terrific time, I loved the Underground, loved the parks in London, loved the comic book stores in London, loved what I saw of the British Museum, and was mostly bored silly at the Tower of London and the couple of castles we went to. This was a peculiar time in my life (my mid-teens) to go travelling, as I was starting to become a little more interested in the world around me on its own terms, but I was still very much wrapped up in my own hobbies (I spent a bunch of time perusing rules books for the Champions role-playing game, for instance). In other words, as much as I enjoyed it, I surely didn’t get nearly as much out of it as I could have.

One of the biggest disappointments for me was Stonehenge, which was roped off so you couldn’t get within, oh, 50 feet (17 meters) of it. Actually I have no idea what the actual distance was, but it was far enough that I just found it an unrewarding experience. Of course, it’s roped off because tourists had been chipping little bits off the stones for years as souvenirs, thus the stones were gradually eroding. It makes sense, but I was still disappointed.

Some years later I learned that there are actually hundreds of stone circles throughout England, and many of them, although local landmarks, don’t have the celebrity of Stonehenge. But many of them are interesting and cool in their individual ways.

So for some years now I’ve had the notion of making a two-week trip to England, and spending the first week (or maybe slightly less) in London, seeing the sights there, and then renting a car and driving around the countryside seeing various stone circles, as well as the towns and landscape of England.

If this sounds like a half-baked plan, well, you’re exactly right: I’ve never done any research as to where the other circles are, which ones I should visit, how easy they are to reach, whether it’s easy to find sleeping space nearby, or for that matter how easy it would be to rent a car in England. Heck, 7 or 8 or 9 days might not be enough time to make such an expedition worthwhile. But I figure until I have even a half-formed idea of when I (and Debbi!) might go on this trip, it doesn’t make sense to spend a whole lot of time working out the details. I’m hoping it’s not a completely infeasible idea, though.

It’d be fun to see my British friends in their native habitat, too!

I’m not much of a traveller, though, so I don’t know when I might try to make this trip a reality. Debbi and I still haven’t gotten back to Hawaii in nearly four years since our first trip. I admit it: I’m a stay-at-home kind of guy. I worry about leaving the cats when we go away, I worry about the flight going wrong, or some government-related stupidity that might leave me (or maybe just my laptop) stranded in a far-away land for some unknown period of time.

But, maybe someday. I’m probably not going to stay here forever. After all, for all my sluggishness, I’ve never stayed anywhere else forever, either…

Larry Niven: The Ringworld Engineers

Review of the novel The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven.

The sequel to Ringworld was published a decade after the original, and from Niven’s introduction it sounds like it was inspired by a desire to shore up some of the scientific deficiencies in the original, such as the implausibility that the Ringworld would hold its position about its star without drifting away or collapsing upon it.

On the one hand, I’m not sure Niven should have bothered: No science fiction novel is going to be perfect, even if (maybe especially if) it’s meticulously worked out, and the fact that Ringworld sparked such interest and criticism I think helps make it a worthy novel on its own. Better to take the lessons learned and put them into a new novel, rather than trying to “fix” the earlier work.

On the other hand, Niven left a bunch of backstory out of Ringworld, and the sequel afforded him the opportunity to revisit some issues, such as who built the thing.

In the novel, the deposed leader of the Piersen’s Puppeteers, the Hindmost, wishes to find a matter transmuter whose existence was deduced by the original Ringworld expedition, and to this end he kidnaps Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (who has earned his own name, Chmee) and brings them back to the Ringworld. Once there, they discover that the Ringworld has drifted away from the orbit of its star, and is less than two years from striking its primary and being destroyed. Louis has an idea who built the thing, and wonders why they didn’t provide for this possibility. Louis has also spent several years as an addict of electrical current fed directly to his brain, and feels he has a lot to atone for, and so he embarks on efforts to improve the lot of various cultures they encounter while on the Ringworld, even as they both try to save the world, and seek out the matter transmuter (which Louis is certain does not actually exist).

Engineers is as much a travelogue as its predecessor, but it feels like it drags on even longer. While much of the purpose of this is to give Louis a sense of the population of the Ringworld in order to set up a hard choice he has to make at the end, it just feels like more of the same. I did appreciate that the novel finally tackles head-on the nature of the Ringworld’s builders, and we even get a sense of what they were like, in an oblique manner. But overall the novel doesn’t have the sense of grandeur or the clever ending of Ringworld, and of necessity it completely avoids the humanity-changing implications of the conclusion of that novel. Instead it’s a continuation of the stories of Louis Wu and Chmee.

But despite the scope implied by Known Space, The Ringworld Engineers seems claustrophobic, exploring old venues and closing doors rather than opening them, and consequently it’s just not as exciting as the first book. It’s not entirely redundant, but it is disappointing. Ultimately, I think Niven would have been better off leaving the Ringworld only as explored as the first novel depicted.


Larry Niven: Tales of Known Space

Review of the collection Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven.

The next book in my ongoing odyssey of Larry Niven’s classic SF writing is this short story collection, which fleshes out his Known Space universe. It’s no surprise that the liner notes and timeline are almost as interesting as the stories themselves: The fun of future histories is often the history as much as the stories, figuring out how everything fits together. Although Known Space isn’t as carefully fit together as H. Beam Piper’s less-famous Terro-Human Future History, that’s merely because Niven didn’t set out to write a future history (Piper did), and Niven acknowledges that he wrote himself into a corner at times through the invention of devices like the stasis field. Known Space still holds up remarkably well, though. Tales comprises about half the short stories in the universe, the other half being in Neutron Star, which I haven’t yet read.

About half the collection takes place in the early days of Known Space, before humanity’s first contact with an alien (in World of Ptavvs), when they were still confined to the solar system. These are some of Niven’s earliest stories, and pieces like “The Coldest Place”, “Becalmed in Hell” and “Wait It Out” feel like they could have come straight from an Isaac Asimov collection from the 40s. Which surprises me not at all, since I think Niven was the direct inheritor of Asimov’s mantle (since Asimov was fairly quiet in the SF field in the 60s). They’re nuts-and-bolts explorations of little bits of science, with slightly witty, slightly melodramatic narratives.

The collection gets more interesting when Niven turns his eye towards cultural elements: “Eye of an Octopus” considers the unusual nature of Martians in Known Space. “How The Heroes Die” concerns an act of treason in a very small community on Mars which leads to a vendetta of blood, a high-stakes act when living on the razor’s edge. And “The Jigsaw Man” introduces the quandary of organ transplants, which leads to a variety of moral and legal conflicts only touched on in this one story.

My favorite story in the collection might be “At The Bottom of a Hole”, which reprises elements from “How The Heroes Die”, and introduces the complex political tension between Earth and the people living in the asteroid belt (the “Belters”), and how people living at the edge of the law may find themselves unable to turn to either one.

The later stories are something of a hodgepodge. “Intent to Deceive” is a canard, “Cloak of Anarchy” feels like an experiment more than a story (although it feels in spirit similar to Vernor Vinge’s recent novel Rainbows End), and “The Borderland of Sol” is an ambitious tale which felt rather disappointing in that the explanation for the starships disappearing at the edge of the solar system was far more prosaic than I’d hoped.

On the other hand, “The Warriors” concerns humanity’s first encounter with the Kzinti, and it’s full of nifty aliens, human optimism, tragedy, and a neat resolution. I wonder if the Babylon 5 accounts of mankind’s first encounters with the Minbari (e.g., in “In The Beginning”) were inspired by this story, as they have very similar feels (and endings, for that matter).

The collection rounds out with “There is a Tide”, which is a fun – though not exceptional – first contact story, and “Safe at Any Speed”, which is a sort of epilogue to Ringworld, considering where humanity might go after the world-changing events of the novel. Chronologically, I guess it’s the last Known Space story (the sequels to Ringworld I think concern the Ringworld and various aliens, rather than humanity’s future and Known Space generally), and it’s not bad, but as with any story taking place at the far side of a singularity, we only get a glimpse of the wonders which we can barely imagine.

I had a lot of fun reading Tales, even though it does feel a bit dated at this point. Once again, it’s easy to see why Niven was held in such high regard in the late 60s, writing some terrific ideas-driven SF.

Paging In

I’ve been very busy lately, and journalling hasn’t been real high on my list. So now I’m coming up for air.

The worst part, actually, is that I’ve been sick for a couple of days. I woke up Thursday morning feeling dehydrated, and thought maybe I was just dehydrated. By lunchtime my throat was getting sore and – more tellingly – I was etting really tired. So I went home early and lay on the couch for a while, and went to bed early. Friday I was feeling better so I went in and put in most of a full day at work, but I was really wiped out when I came home, and fell asleep for a while after dinner. This morning my throat is still a bit sore and I’m starting to get congested, so yeah, still sick.

So we’re going to lay low for the weekend (other than going out to take care of a friend’s cats). Hopefully I’ll be well enough to go to the book discussion tomorrow night, especially since I’ve missed the last three. I’ve been busily reading the book for the group the last few nights, so it’d be annoying if I had to miss it (especially since I’m not enjoying the book very much).

Oh wait, it looks like the discussion is actually next weekend. Well, now I can worry less!

A week ago we had a little celebration for Debbi’s birthday: We went to dinner with Susan and Subrata to Amber India, and then came home to have leftover cake (which Debbi brought from work) and ice cream from Rick’s. I think Debbi enjoyed it all.

With the release of the new Magic expansion set, Future Sight, we also did a couple of booster drafts on Sunday and Tuesday. I did poorly: The drafts were fun, but I ended up with an ugly mishmash of cards that didn’t work together too well. I was able to hold my own against a few opponents, but I’m clearly doing something wrong in assembling my decks. However, since our next two possible drafts have been cancelled due to lack of interest, I’ll have plenty of time to think about how I can improve.

On the bright side, since last week’s heat wave is over, my garden has been blooming and growing, and even a couple of flowers I transplanted into the not-too-friendly soil in the ground are doing quite well. I enjoy just going out and looking at all the growing things, and now that it’s just about summer weather here, I should start spending evenings on the patio or porch again.

So that’s what’s up with me. What’s going on with you?

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 9 May 2007.

  • Countdown #51 of 51 (counting backwards), by Paul Dini, Jesus Saiz & Jimmy Palmiotti (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #10, by Bill Willingham Matthew Sturges, Tony Akins & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Nova #2, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Sean Chen & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The Secret History Book Two: Castle of the Djinn, by Jean-Pierre Pécau & Igor Kordey (Archaia Studios Press)

Countdown kicks off in the wake of 52, and it involves a cadre of Monitors (from wa-a-ay back in the days of Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-80s), one of whom has gone rogue and is out to kill people who have jumped between parallel universes. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – yet. But it’s early going.

Ah, now I remember why I like Abnett and Lanning at their best: They don’t always take the obvious route. Rather than a big fight between Nova and Iron Man (as suggested by the cover of this month’s Nova), instead Nova is brought up-to-date on what’s happened during Marvel’s Civil War, has an uncomfortable reunion with his parents, and learns what happened to his former partners in the New Warriors. And since apparently the other heroes in the Marvel Universe have gone insane and actually support this “Initiative” that Iron Man has cooked up to keep the heroes in line, Nova seems quite reasonable in feeling very uncomfortable with it.

Nova already feels very believable as a young man with the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, and yet still stuck between being a teenager and an adult, in the sense that he has the sense of responsibility, but not yet the experience to manage it. And given his power level, if he snaps, it ought to make for some exciting comics. Now that I think about it, Nova could turn out to be the series that Ms. Marvel should have been.

Book two of The Secret History isn’t as good as book one: Kordey’s art is still excellent, but I found the story confusing. I’m not familiar with many of the historical references, and I felt like I needed to be to follow the story (which I didn’t in the first book). The narrative didn’t flow as smoothly, and I sometimes had trouble figuring out what was going on in a page. Overall it felt like a lot of running around without much of an outcome, so if there isn’t something sneaky here which is going to inform the series’ eventual outcome, then I’d say this volume felt superfluous.

Calvin & Hobbes’ Last Strip

Bill Watterson’s great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 (wow, that long ago?), but it’s still the subject of comment and satire. For instance, I recently received this (uncredited) strip in my mailbox:


I remember back when the strip was ending, there was a lot of conjecture that the last strip would somehow “cut the cord” of Calvin’s childhood by having him realize that Hobbes wasn’t a real tiger. (My own conjecture involved Calvin coming home from college and finding Hobbes in the back of his closet.) Of course, the real final strip was upbeat and optimistic, which was much more appropriate for the strip.

Apparently people still wonder whether Watterson had planned some other end for the strip, but such conjectures appear to be unfounded:

It was conceived in an article in the Washington Post on November 19, 1995 written by Frank Ahrens called “So Long, Kid: An Obituary For a Boy, His Tiger and Our Innocence”, after Bill Watterson had announced that the final Calvin and Hobbes cartoon would be printed on December 31st. In it, he speculated about the final strip.

I’ve always admired Watterson’s integrity with respect to his strip. Really, the only thing I regret is that he hasn’t come back to give us more of his wonderful work since. On the other hand, considering what a disaster Berke Breathed’s strips have been since Bloom County ended, maybe I should be glad he’s kept to himself.

(Note: Some of the comments to this post seem to think I’m presenting the strip above as a real Watterson C&H strip. That wasn’t my intention; I know the strip above was created by someone else, almost certainly as satire, and is not a real Calvin & Hobbes Strip. I think it’s amusing anyway.)

(Update March 2011: If you’re looking for something more in the spirit of the real Calvin & Hobbes, take a look at this later entry.)

Dream Job

Back in college there was a guy a couple doors down from me in the dorm who had interned at Apple for a summer or two. I remember thinking, “Gee, I wonder if I’ll ever be a good enough programmer to work at Apple?” Working at Apple was the dream job for a lot of programmers in those days (and still is for a lot of people these days). I’ve been working at Apple for 8 years now, and it is a great job.

Everyone wants to work somewhere where they’re basically pursuing one of their hobbies at the same time. And on that count it’s hard to beat where my friend Keith is going. Keith founded (or at least co-founded) my fantasy baseball league, which I’ve been in since he recruited me in 1999, and now he’s upgrading to “reality baseball”.

And really, can you have a better dream job than that?

Congratulations, Keith!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 2 May 2007.

  • 52 #52 of 52 (DC)
  • Welcome to Tranquility #6, by Gail Simone & Neil Googe (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #15, by Brian Reed, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan (Marvel)
  • Hellboy: Darkness Calls #1 of 6, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fedrego (Dark Horse)

A light week this week.

52 finally wraps up. All-in-all I thought it was fun. I think the Elongated Man arc was the best, with that terrific conclusion illustrated by Darick Robertson. The Question and Booster Gold arcs were quite fun. The Black Adam arc wandered around but ended up being pretty good. The Steel arc as kind of pointless, but had a decent payoff issue. The Mystery in Space arc was completely, utterly pointless – why did they even bother with it? Overall it was decent light entertainment, enough so that I’m going to head on into Countdown, which starts next week.

Brian Hibbs writes a good analysis of 52, although I think he’s a little harsh on it. Yes, the series’ focus clearly changed from its original direction, but it did so mainly to focus on the stories it was really telling, so it could do them justice. While not all the stories succeeded, I don’t think they would have fared nearly so well had it stuck to its original mandate of showing how the DC Universe changed in the year following Infinite Crisis. Choosing a framework that results in better stories is rarely a bad thing.

Welcome to Tranquility wraps up its first story this month. Greg Burgas wrote an excellent analysis of the story (with spoilers), although I think he enjoyed it more than I did, as I think there are too many characters to feel like I have a good handle on any of them yet, and therefore it’s hard to care about any of them. And, as I’ve said, I’m not a big fan of Googe’s art. That said, it’s quirky and fun enough to keep buying it and see if it improves.

By the way, Free Comic Book Day is this Saturday. I’ll be going to the sale at my regular store, Comics Conspiracy.

(I’m also ridiculously eager to play the new Magic: The Gathering expansion, Future Sight, which comes out tomorrow. But now I’ve wandered away from comics and into gaming, so it’s probably time to go to bed.)