Archive for January, 2016

Review: Engraved On The Eye

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Saladin Ahmed is a great follow on twitter.  I’ve been enjoying his wit and insight in 140-character chunks for a while and decided to check out some of his longer writing. He’s been nominated for Hugos and Locus awards, which is encouraging.

Engraved On The Eye is a collection of his short SF works. His work lives up to his reputation quite nicely.  Almost all of his work is informed by his Muslim and Arab background.  When he alludes to conventions and background in those areas, one gets a feeling of authenticity.  Of course I don’t know enough about the customs in question to know if that’s because he knows what he’s talking about intimately or because he’s a confident and persuasive writer.  I don’t much care about the cause when the result is so effective.

While the local color of the works in Engraved is always worthwhile, I found I enjoyed the stories that stretched the genres to be his most interesting.  Again one gets the feeling of a writer who is stronger when he challenges himself and convention.  Several of the earlier pieces are traditional fantasy set in what I would naively call a Middle Eastern tradition.  These are certainly well executed and good fun, but his work is brighter when he’s challenging superheroic tropes or writing about duped cyborgs.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Flights of No Return

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

One of the aspects of electronic books that still befuddles me at times is the inability to judge a book by its heft, production quality and other intangibles.  I get the feeling that if I had a physical copy of Steven Ruffin’s Flights of No Return, I would have expected less from it.  It has the definite feel of an overview intended for a student or newbie to an area, in this case the area being aviation crashes.

If I’ve understood its intended audience, the book itself is quite good.  Each short chapter tells the story of an aviation disaster, tragedy or mystery in sufficient detail to give the reader a flavor for the events.  In many cases, the description is compelling enough to whet the appetite to learn more.  That’s the perfect balance in my opinion.

Ruffin selects events from throughout aviation’s history, from 1800’s ballooning crashes to the 9/11 2001 horrors and beyond.  In all cases he gives a clear, concise overview of what we know, including recent updates.  It shows that we as a society continue to pick at these scabs.

Overall a diverting short book.


Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Roz Chast’s memoir about her parents’ last years is almost a confessional.  She displays great courage in exposing her feelings and her family to the reader with great honesty. I respect the investment this takes.  I know from my parents’ experience in similar straits how raw the emotions this engenders.

That said, the work as a work never gets from the personal to the universal for me.  It’s not that I don’t feel some hint of how the experience is for others, but the descriptions of her parents and their world are so specific that it kept me at a distance as a reader.  I was always watching her react to that small and contracting world without becoming a participant.

The work itself is a comic, and like Logicomix, I think it was something of a missed opportunity. Chast’s style here is the loose line of a Feiffer or the New Yorker’s house style.  Her line is closer to Feiffer with his neurotic energy rather than a sterile distance, but the level of abstraction feels similar to me.  Combined with the distancing feeling that her family’s specific quirks gave me, the art reinforces the feeling that this is a clear depiction of a world that doesn’t draw me in.

It may be that Chast invokes a time and place very well that simply isn’t my time and place.

In any case, I’m left with some admiration for the work without being moved very much by it.

Your mileage may vary.

Review: The World According To Professor James A. Finnegan

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

This is a collection of brief satirical essays on networking and Internet design topics from the 1980 and 1990s.  This makes for something of a niche market.  Danny Cohen, the author, was a long time ISI-er with whom I never quite overlapped, though we passed rather closely for ships in the night.  He had headed off to found Myricom around the time I appeared on the ISI scene.  We certainly knew many of the same people. When I heard this collection was being published through a mutual friend, I made a note to check it out.

The essays here are actually better written than I was expecting.  I wasn’t expecting anything bad, mind you, but they’re a significant cut above the usual academic tomfoolery or April 1 RFC. Cohen does a rather nice job making sound technical points while keeping his tongue firmly in cheek.

That said, these are primarily making points about protocol design, the old ISO/OSI vs. TCP/IP wars and other technical battles.  While many of the points raised remain valid – even compelling – sifting through the history and obliqueness to get to them can be tricky.  I find it humorous that Cohen uses mass transit analogies to describe his protocol insights where a modern writer might use protocol analogies to make transit points.  Funny old world.

Overall these are primarily interesting to networking/technical folks, but there are a few gems.

Review: Logicomix

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

Logicomix is the kind of grand experiment I like to see in comics. The creators, Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, approach a mature theme thoughtfully with thorough research and the intent to tell a human story.  There are no capes or supernatural powers to be see.  This is non-fiction or at least topical exploration with sound research behind it.  Through such experiments is the form advanced.

Their topic is the advancements of math and logic in the early part of the 20th century, primarily centered on the work of Bertrand Russell, and how those inform logic as a tool for living a reasoned life.  It’s a fertile set of ideas driven by an interesting set of eccentric characters.  This is a great story to tell.

I think they miss a bit on the execution.  The first problem is one of taste.  They back into the story slowly with a few instances of “well,we’ll tell you about that later.” I understand teasers, and that not every story starts dynamically. In this case I think that because they’re wading into waters that threaten to be abstruse they should grab the reader as quickly and directly as possible.  As I say, this is an issue of taste.  They opt for a slower ramp up and more discursive overall style.  Not a choice I advocate, but not offputting.

More troubling is that large parts of the story never become visually interesting.  The characters are deep thinkers and their work is in the most abstract areas of mathematics, but there has to be a way to involve the reader more visually.  If not, a comic is probably the wrong media to tell the story.  There are many pages of Logicomix that are literally panels that are half characters head and half speech balloon.  I think that’s largely a waste of the power of the comics medium.

This reads as a pretty negative review, but overall Logicomix works to tell a thought-provoking story in a novel way.  I don’t think they were entirely successful, but I think the experiment is worth a look.  I certainly learned from it and was inspired by it.  Don’t let my faint (or non-existent) keep you away.  It is worth reading.


Review: My Pal Splendid Man

Friday, January 1st, 2016

Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs are (among other things), the creators of a well regarded but somewhat obscure comic, The Trouble With Girls, that is a spot-on send-up of heroic serial fiction. I mention it because there are elements of that sort of satire here in Splendid Man, but more rough and clumsy.

Splendid Man reads much more like fan fiction than Girls.  In fact Splendid Man is pretty much Mary Sue fan fiction.  The POV character finds himself cast in the role of the best pal of Splendid Man, a direct Superman stand-in.  It’s never clear exactly why Splendid Man would spend time with our Mary Sue, or why we are interested.  Jones and Jacobs eventually get better at this.

A fan of Superman and Jones and Jacobs – like me – can find things to divert themself. It’s interesting to see a snapshot of their writing skill at the time.  One can see little quirks and stylings that remain as they mature.  The structures of the stories are well executed.  Seeing how their later writing animates these skeletons is instructive.

The two authors are also quite knowledgeable about comics in general and the Superman mythos in particular. It’s interesting to see the in-jokes and commentary on the comics that they incorporate. That encyclopedic knowledge is, again, better deployed in their work to come.

Finally, it stands as a snapshot of attitudes and biases of the 1980’s.  The Mary Sue spends a lot of time smoking and drinking in ways that I found cheerfully anachronistic.  In addition, the attitudes toward gays which were probably considered controversially compassionate when the stories were written have become quaint.

As anthropology, the stories are recommended.