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The Reference Library
Tom Easton 


A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Janna Levin,
Knopf,
$23.95,
232 pp.
(ISBN: 1400040302).

It is a cliché that madness and creative genius go together. Those who favor it often mention Van Gogh as a prime example, but creative people in many areas seem to strike ordinary folks as at least weird and at most dangerously warped, perhaps mostly because they think unusual thoughts and display a tendency toward extreme focus on those thoughts, bordering on obsession. We can see this in artists, poets, writers (including SF writers), and scientists. We also see it in the efforts of the mad to justify their madness (“I’m not crazy—I’m a genius!”). Add to this that people love to gossip about others who are in some way out of the ordinary, and perhaps you have enough justification for a public obsession with the madness of creative geniuses.

So why does most of the obsession in recent years seem to focus on mathematicians? I think of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash, whose madness was schizophrenia. And now we have Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Levin is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. Her obsession here—or, to be more fair, the obsession of her narrator—is with the lives of two men whose ideas have done an enormous amount to shape the modern world. Alan Turing played a seminal role in the development of computer science. Kurt Godel demonstrated that any system of thought (such as mathematics) must contain truths that cannot be proved from within the system (often misunderstood as just “truths that cannot be proved”). Both men are often mentioned as examples of high-achieving autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s, marked by social incompetence, repetitive behaviors, and often high intelligence, is sometimes called the “geek syndrome.”

But Levin does not mention autism or Asperger’s. She—or her narrator—begins by saying “The unsorted catalogue of biographical facts provides nothing without stories with their dents and omissions and sometimes outright lies to create meaning . . . Because some truths can never be proven by adhering to the rules.” A Godelian notion, of course, and the reader is left to wonder what is truth, what is a lie in the pages that follow (with a bit of help from the Notes at the end), beginning with Wittgenstein and the obsessive mathematicians and logicians of the Vienna Circle, where the extraordinary Godel, social misfit and food-obsessive, introduced his great insight. Then to England, where young Turing is being mistreated by his schoolmates and displaying his own food obsessions (“He likes his food smooth”) and his fixation on a classmate. And on Levin moves, focusing more on the two men and their madnesses than on their work, building a sense of time and place, and moving with a sense of inevitability toward their deaths, Godel by self-starvation, Turing by cyanide (after his trial for gross indecency or homosexuality).

The tale is quite modern in its self-referential character and lack of plot external to the characters’ lives. It is more interesting than many such novels because Turing and Godel are interesting characters, and Levin handles them deftly and sympathetically. I found A Madman Dreams very readable.

But A Madman Dreams is science fiction only if you include fiction about science and scientists in the definition. I’m willing to do that, and if you share that willingness, you should enjoy the book.





Mathematicians in Love,
Rudy Rucker,
Tor,
$24.95,
364 pp.
(ISBN: 076531584X)

Rudy Rucker is a mathematician and a highly creative SF writer. Is he crazy too? After considering A Beautiful Mind and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, one might think so. Madness is a perfectly natural state of mind for such fellows, right? But Rucker saves the madness for his fiction, and indeed Roland Haut, thesis adviser to math grad students Bela and Paul, is pretty far around the bend. Why, he sees giant cone shells floating outside his office window! You might wonder about Bela and Paul too, for their theses involve a theory that permits prediction of events from such things as the splash of raindrops. Paul’s an orderly fellow, so he writes down his math as neat rows of symbols. Bela’s more artistic, so he envisions the math as teapots, cakes, fish, and rakes. And when Bela insults Haut on camera, Haut kicks him out.

Poor Bela. He has a mathemagical mind whose visions sound like ’60s dope dreams. He also has a new girlfriend, Alma, who needs a place to live, moves in, and starts acting interested in Paul. Of course, Mathematicians in Love act just as numb as anyone else, so it isn’t long before tempers are a bit short. Fortunately, Bela is brainstorming like mad and finally proving the great theorem. He and Paul write the paper, add Haut’s name as coauthor, and graduate. Paul moves out and takes Alma with him. Bela starts having trouble finding a job and no trouble at all finding trouble. Fortunately he’s a musician too, and before long he’s famous. But what he really wants is Alma.

All worlds have politics. Before long, Bela and Paul are being enlisted in a corporate-political scheme to use their math to make devices that will help a certain party (there’s a pretty explicit analog here) take supreme power. That’s when they find a way to tickle the device with an irresolvable paradox (shades of Godel!), open a hyperdimensional tunnel, and flee to another world where they find . . . Giant talking cone shells. Giant talking cockroaches (sort of). And a jellyfish that creates worlds the way poets write poems, each one better than the last.

Will the jellyfish create a new Earth where Bela can have Alma back? Can a world contain more than one Bela, Paul, or Alma? If not, who dies? Or as so many fairy tales have asked, what is the price of a wish?

Right on page one, Bela tells the reader that his tale begins on another Earth and ends on ours. When the jellyfish comes in, creating worlds in an ever closer approach to perfection, the reader must smile and perhaps anticipate the tale’s penultimate punch line and wince a bit at the thought that our world, as messy and imperfect as it is, is the best of all possible worlds. Yet that thought is not unusual for Rucker. For all the weirdness of his fiction, he seems an essentially benign fellow, well pleased—despite the need of sundry groups, governments, and parties for criticism and satire—by the overall tenor of life in this world. Yet he is not usually so explicit. His benignity now comes across as a bit Pollyannaish, though if that’s a flaw, it mars only the last page or two. The rest of the novel is as weird and wonderful as anything Rucker has ever written.






The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi,
Tor,
$24.95,
396 pp.
(ISBN: 0765309416)

John Scalzi departs from his Old Man’s War novels with The Android’s Dream, a fun tale frankly inspired by Philip K. Dick, but going off in a much more rational, if still wacky, direction.

Earth, new to interstellar civilization, has as a chief ally the Nidu, the interstellar equivalent of a third-world country. At the moment, the two are in the midst of trade negotiations, but Earth’s chief negotiator has a long-standing grudge against the Nidu, and when someone offers him a way to strike back, he grabs it. Even if . . . Well, the Nidu are caste-ridden and the high castes use odors to communicate. An Earth faction that wants to disrupt relations has come up with a gadget that, powered by intestinal methane and controlled by a wireless link, can emit deadly insults. It’s quite inconspicuous, too, since it is implanted in . . . You got it. It works very well, too. The Nidu negotiator has a stroke and dies. The human conveniently has a heart attack in his moment of triumph. And the Nidu are furious.

They’re also feeling frustrated. A coronation is coming up, complete with rites that demand the presence of a bright blue sheep of the very special “Electric Android” breed, ownership of whose genome was given by Earth to the Nidu. Unfortunately, the flocks, both on Nidu and on the human colony world where the breed was engineered, have been destroyed by a plague. The Nidu regime is in danger. If Earth’s government can come up with a suitable sheep, then maybe there will not be a devastating war.

Enter Harry Creek, heroic survivor of a war that amply demonstrated the way the Nidu treat enemies and even bystanders (it ain’t pretty). He’s also an ex-cop and a grand hacker. A friend in the State Department, Ben Javna, hires him to hunt for the sheep, and he makes rapid progress, quickly learning that someone is destroying potential targets before he can get to them. But with the help of a unique AI, he finds Robin Baker, a pet shop owner whose DNA is 20 percent “Electric Android” (I won’t tell you how; Scalzi does fine). Since the sheep-killers are right behind him, now the chase is on, with action that fits very well with what you might expect from the author of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades.

Enter also the Church of the Evolved Lamb, derived from the desperate poetry of a drunken SF writer and con artist who thought founding a religion would be a great way to make money. The religion turned out to have a life of its own. Now it forms a faction in the tale, as well as a deep and far-reaching conspiracy. And when Scalzi reveals that any Nidu clan—anyone, actually—that can come up with an “Electric Android” sheep during the coronation ceremony has a chance to supplant the clan currently in power, the Astute Reader gets a hint of where he’s going. All that’s left is the fun part, the details, and the biggest question of all: Will Robin and Harry ever have a second date?

This is one I stayed up late to finish reading. Not many make me do that any more.






Alphanauts,
J. Brian Clarke,
Edge
(www.edgewebsite.com),
$14.95,
325 pp.
(ISBN: 1894063147)

J. Brian Clarke has appeared often enough in this magazine to be familiar to most of you. Indeed, his stories “Return of the Alphanauts” (1990) and “Adoption” (1992) gave rise to the novel at hand, Alphanauts. Unfortunately, he strikes me as stronger at shorter lengths. Alphanauts is an episodic tale that, while mildly interesting, breaks no new ground for experienced SF readers. It is most suitable for young (middle school) readers.

The tale begins when Earth’s first interstellar explorers return from Alpha Centauri, where they found a habitable world. While enduring three years of quarantine, they learn that people who are too long away from Earth have a way of going berserk. It doesn’t seem to have affected them, but when they visit Earth at last, it does. Have they transferred their internal “allegiance” to Genser’s World? Then they must return, with others, as colonists. Once there, they soon discover a colony of aliens and their ships—still occupied by cyborg intelligences—and empathic “catbird” symbiots. In due time a ship arrives from Earth a bit ahead of schedule and proudly announces that it has licked the FTL problem. Then the signals from Earth stop. Since the colonists have FTL, they return to find disaster and discover that a ship loaded with would-be dictators is on its way to Genser’s World.

It’s not really a reviewer’s place to tell a writer how he or she should have written the story. But calling a novel only “mildly interesting” is the sort of thing an author might well find insulting. So what would it take for me to retract the insult? Characters could be much more fully developed. Clarke could refrain from short-circuiting or leaping across (in the gaps between episodes) potential conflicts. Problems could resist solution more realistically and thereby contribute some dramatic tension to the tale.






The Elysium Commission,
L. E. Modesitt, Jr.,
Tor,
$24.95,
336 pp.
(ISBN: 0765317206)

In his “ghost” novels (and elsewhere), L. E. Modesitt, Jr., has displayed a fondness for heroes with military backgrounds who work in intelligence, academia, and/or research of some sort. The pattern holds in The Elysium Commission, which begins when private researcher and problem-solver Blaine Donne is approached by a client who wants him “to discover and ascertain in evidentiary terms the exact relationship between Eloi Enterprises, Judeon Maraniss, and Elysium.”

Donne is a war hero whose current hobby is being the “knight of shadows,” who prevents crime in the streets. His world is Devanta, ruled by the secretive Sorores and nervous about the tendency of the interstellar ubergovernment to disruptive, cataclysmic intervention when it decides a local government is too repressive. Eloi Enterprises, run by the ruthless and violent Eloi brothers, is dedicated to pleasures of the flesh. Maraniss is an arrogant, unsympathetic, and vindictive city planner who—the cover blurb reveals this much—has created a pocket universe containing a utopian city. As the story develops, the reader learns that he and the Elois are the heart of a conspiracy that involves interstellar politics, powerful enemies, and a pathological yearning for vengeance on the Sorores and their society. But Donne does not know this. He can only search Devanta’s databases for connections, find a secretive research compound, massive energy use, and a movement of Eloi personnel offworld, be noticed, and survive violent attacks. He must also work on other cases, discover that his sister’s business partner, Siendra, is both helpful and appealing, and in the end discover that everything is astonishingly connected, that the Sorores have a pretty good idea of what is going on and how to handle it so the ubergovernment doesn’t step in, and that Siendra is much more than she at first appeared.

The finale is a satisfying flurry of extreme violence and a happy clinch. As usual, Modesitt leaves behind a very contented reader and a hope that he doesn’t plan to leave Blaine and Siendra alone for too long.





Dadgum Martians Invade the Lucky Nickel Saloon! Ken Rand,
Yard Dog Press,
$14.00, 195 pp.
(ISBN: 9781893687813)

Ken Rand tries too hard. He’s sending too many things up at once—westerns, alien invasions, excessive use of dialect and malapropisms, and more—and while he can make the reader smile from time to time, the overall effect is more wearing than amusing.

The opening scene of Dadgum Martians Invade the Lucky Nickel Saloon! is, of course, said saloon, located on Second Ave., Laramie, Wyoming Territory. The saloon’s “regulars”—and Rand misses only one “regularity” joke—are bemoaning the end of barkeep Mick’s (he’s Irish, of course) generous credit policies at the insistence of his affianced, Miss Emma, who resides behind the red light at Miss Dolly Dubois’ Residence for Refined Ladies. Journalist Sam Somebody (Clemens, maybe?) is taking notes. And that’s when Casper walks in with a chicken on his head. Not just any chicken, of course. It has lips instead of a beak (which makes it lisp as well as replace the “cl” in the typical chicken noise with “f”), it wants a drink, and it says so using Casper’s vocal cords. You see, when it’s asetting on a guy’s head, it can work him like a puppet.

It doesn’t take long for the picture to clarify. The chicken is an escapee from a Martian scout ship, and the regulars soon decide that if they can sell it to the circus (in town at the moment, of course), they can solve the credit problem. They’re chasing it around the bar’s rafters when Jack arrives with a dead chicken snaffled from the whorehouse’s henhouse, and a posse of whores, armed with rolling pins and surrounded by a cloud of lavender-scented pink powder, hot on his tail.

Pretty soon, the barflies are rescuing the alien pseudochicken from the henhouse at the cathouse and fleeing into the countryside with the whores whooting and whollering behind them. Soon rescued by the circus strongman and his mermaid wife, they wind up in control of the Martian flying saucer and crash the circus, in the process goosing the elephant into a pachydermatous tizzy.

You get the idea, I’m sure, and if lowclass over-the-top hyuck-hyucks are your cup of tea, Yard Dog has more Rand titles too, not to mention such things as The Four Bubbas of the Apocalypse. Visit www.yarddogpress.com to see.






New Dreams for Old,
Mike Resnick,
Pyr,
$15.00,
419 pp.
(ISBN: 1591024412)


Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing,
Janet Jeppson Asimov, Prometheus,
$25.00,
207 pp.
(ISBN: 1591024056)

It is something of a cliché to say that dead writers live again whenever someone rereads one of their books. It is also a fond hope of living writers, as Mike Resnick says quite evocatively in “Travels with My Cats,” in which an author actually manages to return to prod a loner toward involvement and love. The story is one of twenty to be found in New Dreams for Old, a collection that amply demonstrates why Mike has been one of my favorite writers since the 1970s. He has a remarkably clean style and a huge gift for sheer story at many levels. He can be light and frothy as in his John Justin Mallory fantasies (two are here) and deeply reflective about the human condition, as in the Kirinyaga stories (one of the best, “For I Have Touched the Sky,” is here). If you aren’t familiar with his work, this collection is an excellent introduction. If you are, his stories tend to be very rereadable. Buy this one, and enjoy.

I’m not sure that one can say dead writers also live again when critics discuss their work, but they certainly do when wives and children and friends publish their memories in memoirs and biographies. It is thus a pleasure to see that Isaac Asimov’s widow, Janet Jeppson, has been persuaded to write Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing. It’s a slim book, but it is an eloquent reflection on life and love with Asimov and the importance of imagination, reading, writing, philosophy, humor, and more in that life and love. There is also a fair amount of material on Jeppson’s own past, which makes the book in part an autobiography. But though she has published her own science fiction—and even rounds out the book with seven short stories that attest to a talent quite strong enough to stand on its own—most who pick up this book will do so for the connection to her late husband. Yet she too will live past her lifetime in her work, and that is no bad thing at all.





"The Reference Library" copyright 2006, Tom Easton
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