Thursday, 21 August 2008

Review: "Emphyrio" by Jack Vance

Yet again I am delighted to have encountered (through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series) a book I would never otherwise have read.

Ghyl Tarvoke is a curious young man, who drifts aimlessly through his young world, allowed by his father the freedom to live somewhat outside the strictures of society. When his father is killed for contradicting the simplistic understanding of the police and judiciary, Ghyl rises beyond his childhood dreams of star flight and adventure to uncover truths worth sharing.

The story unfolds slowly, with a tempo that only gradually rises in the second act, and which finally hits its stride well into the third act. Vance takes the time to build the environment of his characters in lavish (but never tiring) detail. Thus, we care when Ghyl makes his break from polite society, and delight when the rough cloth of his society finally shows signs of unraveling.

This is a very good book, well worth the time to read.

Review: "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

On a recent trip, I finally finished "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet". Most times, I'll wade through historical nonfiction, and it seems unfamiliar, difficult to engage with. I've abandoned even well written books like "The Power Broker" and "Team of Rivals" because it just wasn't enjoyable to keep on reading. I may finally have discovered what I've been doing wrong. In short, read what you know. Although broadening your interests is a worthy goal, you have to build on your current knowledge and understanding and branch out from there. Case in point: This book deals with the history of the internet, email, telnet, FTP, chat, all topics near to my heart, and that made this book a great departure point for me.

Most of the technologies discussed in this book are so well established that their RFC (requests for coment) are commandments, well understood and inviolable. In this book, these RFCs are brought to life as the product of careful thought, ongoing and fierce debate, and even trial and error. In short, the technology we take for granted was crafted by sharp minds and strong personalities working through their differences and the inevitable technical hurdles. Most of us don't get to make this big a difference (connecting billions of people with each other), but their success should inspire us to try anyway.

Given how much I enjoyed this, I think it may finally be time to read up on the history of Computer Science a bit more, perhaps with a biography of Turing...

Monday, 4 August 2008

Review: "Desolation Island" by Patrick O'Brian...

I went through all the fiction books in the house while resting during my recent cold. At the bottom of the stack was "Desolation Island", the fifth in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. I'm glad I finally got to it.

As with the other books in the series, "Desolation Island" is set during the Napoleonic Wars, a generation after Nelson. The period is lovingly rendered, the details of daily life are amazingly rich. However, what holds the piece together are the central characters and their motivation. We see their great moments and their human and ordinary moments. The color of their emotional lives shows through. We realize that these were people living in their time and making their way within the constraints of their society. During the first few books, the details about bracings, sails, riggings can be incomprehensible. After five books, patience wins out, and the technical detail adds to the charm and even the excitement of the work.

Anyway, this was an enjoyable read. Looking at the fact that there are twenty volumes in the series, I was considering taking a break once I finished the book. However, things are left at a good stopping point, but somewhat unresolved at the end of "Desolation Island", so I may have to pick up "Fortunes of War" before I stop reading the series for a while.