Sunday, 20 June 2010

Journey to the West, Part 2: San Francisco, California

The next stop on my world tour was San Fransisco, where I spent a week with my colleagues at Atlassian. Most of them were feverishly getting ready for our annual Summit, but there were still plenty of opportunities to put faces to names and get to know the extended family of Atlassians and ex-Atlassians. There's a love, excitement, and drive common to so many Atlassians that at times it seems less like a job than a life philosophy. It was a blast to meet so many of them at a go, and I gather I'm in for an even bigger dose in Sydney.

In addition to meeting and talking with so many new people, I was fortunate enough to eat some nice sushi, a sausage biscuit (bliss!), and to have three really great burritos and a bit of Mayan food as well.

The last day of my visit, the Atlassian Support team in SF had a picnic in Golden Gate Park. Here are a few photos:

Here's hoping the rest of the trip is as much fun.

Journey to the West, Part 1: Boulder, Colorado

The first stop in my world tour was a side trip to see my friend Antranig in his new home in Boulder.

The city is lovely and so warm after Amsterdam. We did a fair amount of walking around, which is always welcome after a long flight or three. The Boulder Creek was swollen with snow melt after a recent hot spell, it was both relaxing and exciting to experience the rushing water among the trees. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to stock up on books at the excellent Boulder Book Store on Pearl Street.
Afterwards, we went to the Taiko Summit and heard some exciting drum work.

We had our last meal together at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, shown here:

We talked a lot about Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of China. I'd been taught that he unified the Chinese writing system. Fans of the film "Hero" will remember the scene in which a rival school of calligraphy is beseiged by the emperor's army. Thanks to Antranig's Droid and data plan, we discovered that Wikipedia does not share that view of history (although I've since figured out that the Qin Dynasty entry includes something about the topic). It still made for a good conversation, particularly given the backdrop at the Dushan Tea House, the interior of which was crafted in Tajikistan, disassembled, and shipped to the US.

Antranig and I have both studied Mandarin, during my visit he showed me the remarkable Chinese learning site Skritter on his new Lenovo tablet. It's a paid site, but you can see the amount of polish they've put in to justify the $10 monthly fee. You write a word and pick the right pronunciation, and you get feedback immediately. Words are repeated periodically based on how often you remember them correctly. The stroke recognition is amazing. The whole experience of using Skritter is almost enough by itself to make me go out looking for a tablet PC, iPad or the Android equivalent.

It was a great visit, and a good start to the trip.

My Journey to the West...

For the month of June, I'm traveling around the world on business, hitting the following ports of call:

I'll be posting from each of these places and writing about the absolute flotilla of books I'm reading in transit. Stay tuned!

Friday, 18 June 2010

"Tau Zero" by Poul Anderson

I was pleased and surprised to encounter a copy of Poul Anderson's "Tau Zero" at the American Book Center when stocking up on books for a recent trip. This is one of a shrinking handful of books I still haven't read in the Gollancz Sci-fi Masterworks series, and I was happy to have found it.

"Tau Zero" is a novel about relativity, about a generation of astronauts who travel close to the speed of light, reaching other worlds in a few years subjective time (the rate at which people on the ship age), but several decades objective time (the rate at which the Earth they leave behind ages). In "Tau Zero", the idea of traveling close to the speed of light is the main character, and it is explored to the fullest, and with the highest respect for the hard science behind the concept. The technology behind their travel is roughly the same kind of ramjet that the main character in "World Out of Time" uses to circle the universe at relativistic speeds and thus outlive the society that imprisons him, but here it's not just a means to roll the clocks forward on Earth and encounter a new world.

The 50 astronauts (and potential colonists) in the ship which is the focus of the story must live together for years before reaching their goal and either founding a colony or deciding to brave the trip back home. Many of them have skills that are more useful when they arrive, and must find ways to occupy themselves. Even those of the crew who are busy with its day-to-day maintenance must find ways to keep their spirits up over the long haul even if the mission goes exactly as planned. Of course the mission does not go as planned, and Reynoud (arguably the main character) must play father to the crew and enforce the basic routines that help keep everyone's sanity as things unravel further and further. I won't spoil the ending except to say that it reminds me of the ending of Cities in Flight in its scope, but is more hopeful and amazing.

I enjoyed the book as a whole. It's hard sci-fi (with real science rather than science as magic) at its best, playing with the best science available at the time to see how it might change the human condition. I also think the drama is handled well enough. The only small thing that bugs me about "Tau Zero" are the characters. As in his "HeeChee" saga, Anderson can't resist the urge to analyze the characters, and adding that to the somewhat stiff way the characters tend to express themselves, the novel on balance feels a bit more firmly an intellectual novel than an emotional one. The same could be said of many science fiction works, and this is definitely one of the better ones. Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 June 2010

"Lisey's Story" by Stephen King

When I was 12, I read almost everything Stephen King had ever written. His work was (and is) imaginative, but accessible. He spins a web of simple words, drawn from music, movies, books, but always combined in novel ways. His books were filled with memorable (but flawed) protagonists and sinister, sometimes leering villains. They were a quick and enjoyable read, comfort food, but eventually, I moved on to other reading interests (mainly science fiction, graphic novels, and mainstream literature).

Recently, on a visit with my mother, she played part of the audiobook of "Lisey's Story" as we drove around. I enjoyed Mare Winningham's narration, and had a kind of itch to hear the rest of the story. I just finished reading "Lisey's Story" from cover to cover, and wasn't disappointed.

One of my favorite parts in any Stephen King novel is the way he establishes a unique vocabulary. Each character has their own way of speaking, built from their own life experiences. I especially like how words pass between characters in King's writing. Sisters share phrases from their childhood. A husband and wife evolve almost their own private language based on years of using their own pat phrases with each other. When you use the same words, on some level you think the same way. The shared language of husband and wife is really a sign of the depth of their relationship, and the intimacy they share. King also knows how strongly words evoke memories, and Lisey is never more than an uttered (or misheard) phrase away from her past.

I also like King's shifting narratives. Often, his books cover multiple characters, and we alternate between them (as in "The Stand"). In books like "The Dark Tower" and "Talisman" (with King and Peter Straub), the story is divided between two worlds. "Lisey's Story" is split into four worlds. At first, the story stays firmly in Lisey's present as the recent widow of a famous writer. Over time, we jump back and forth between the couple's shared past and the present alternately. Eventually, the story encompasses another fantastic world, one of imagination. As we start to experience this world, the story moves between the present reality, the past reality, and the past fantastic. At the climax of the book, the story shifts so quickly that chapters are often only a paragraph in a single mode before moving on.

"Lisey's Story" is a good book, nuanced and fresh comfort food that's grown up quite a bit. When I stopped reading Stephen King, he was two books into "The Dark Tower" series. After a long hiatus, the series is now a lot further along. I'll have to pick them up soon and continue rediscovering the ever-evolving comfort food that is Stephen King.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

"Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon isn't afraid to work on a big canvas. His "Star Maker" spans the life of our universe and beyond. Rather than searching for power, or money, or fame, or even love, the main character in "Star Maker" roams the universe trying to become aware enough to perceive and interact with a higher power. It's a spiritual book in which the universe is revealed to be both sublimely ordered and painfully uncaring. In this epic and amazing work, the life of humanity is a but a single thread, a few paragraphs in the larger story.

"Last and First Men" is more tightly focused, and follows the development of humanity over the course of some three trillion years. It starts in our own time, and moves forward slowly at first. As is inevitable, Stapledon's ideas about the immediate future date the work, but once modern civilization is safely past, the book hits its stride. Eighteen species of humanity come and go, rising to meet the challenges presented by the universe around them (or succumbing to them). Along the way, Stapledon explores ideas about longevity, higher consciousness, the proper goals of a world society, and imagines that larger patterns of rise and fall (for the world, for the species, for intelligent life in our solar system) might lie far beyond our own history.

The focus of "Last and First Men" is societies, states, civilizations, and species rather than individual lives. It's only toward the end that we learn the history of the narrator and find the full spiritual center of the book. "Star Maker" on the other hand, begins with the life of an individual and his core quest, and draws us in from the beginning. The later book ("Star Maker") seems more mature and complete as a result. I tend to pick lovingly worn second-hand copies of books in used bookstores, which doesn't always lend itself to reading things in the right order. In this case, I read "Star Maker" (the sequel) some months before "Last and First Men". "Last and First Men" holds up well, but if you get the chance, go through them in order, as the ideals of "Last and First Men" are expanded and played out on an even grander stage in "Star Maker".

Both "Star Maker" and "Last and First Men" are highly recommended food for the mind. If you find yourself getting a headache from the ultra-wide focus of both books, you could do a lot worse than Larry Niven's "World Out of Time", in which a single individual encounters the distant future (in two discrete chunks). I'd also recommend "Forever Free", by Joe Haldeman, which pans out toward the end to embrace some of the same scope, but keeps its focus more firmly on the individual.

Yet again I'm indebted to the Sci-fi Masterworks series for broadening my horizons to include Stapledon. Stay tuned for the few remaining installments ("Tau Zero" is coming with me on my next trip).