My review of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World by Patrick Wyman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I first encountered Patrick Wyman from his podcast The Fall of Rome, which I highly recommend. History is a funny thing, there are so many ways to approach a topic. Wyman’s take in this podcast was to look at the lives of some ordinary people during the period when the Western Roman Empire was falling. For example, one episode looked at the life a Romanized Goth who was a soldier in the legions, and what life was like for him and his family. When that was completed, he started a new podcast called Tides of History, which I subscribe to. So when he published this book, I wanted to get it, and I am glad I did. This book looks at a 40 year period in European history, 1490-1530, and again he looks at key developments through the lives of individuals, but in this case not anonymous average people but instead the major players, people like Christopher Columbus, Jakob Fugger, and Martin Luther. And this period was when Europe made the changes that took it from a minor backwater on the world stage to a the dominant culture in the space of a few centuries. I loved the book, and recommend it to anyone interested in history.



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My review of Stop the Presses!

Stop the Presses! by Robert Goldsborough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The Goldsborough Nero Wolfe books are a little controversial among serious Wolfe fans. I would never claim that they match up to Stout’s work, but I have derived sufficient pleasure from them to keep reading them. After all, it is the only way to get new Wolfe stories, and I am a big Wolfe fan. This book is a case of Lon Cohen asking a favor of Wolfe, and as Wolfe has asked many favors of Lon in the past he feels bound to help out if he can. The Gazette has an acid-tongued gossip columinst who has made a lot of enemies. But 5 in particular have made threats that are deemed serious. Lon would like Wolfe to look into it, and maybe help to protect the columnist. And when said columnist turns up dead from a gunshot wound, suspicions abound. Yet the police insist that it was a suicide. But the managemnt of The Gazette hires Wolfe to uncover the killer. There is a neat twist at the end which I won’t give away. This is not a classic, but it is good enough to while away a few hours if you enjoy Nero Wolfe.



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My review of Living With Moore’s Law

Living With Moore’s Law: Past, Present and Future by Dana Blankenhorn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was a fascinating book. I first started following Blankenhorn when he was a reporter covering technology, particularly Linux and Open Source software. Then I added his blog to my feed reader, and it remains there to this day. Moore’s Law is named for Gordon Moore of Intel, who once forecast that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would roughly double every two years, which is of course an exponential growth curve, and if you know anything about mathematics you know that exponential growth curves get insanely steep insanely quickly. In the real world, of course, that cannot persist. Some factor will step in to stop the exponential growth. But Blankenhorn expands on the notion and explores how something very much like Moore’s Law happens in other areas. And the implications are important. For example, with the role that computers play in our economy, this implies a deflationary bias to the economy, which very few people are even thinking about. (Most people are worried about inflation, which concerns me not the least.) But then look at biology. Our ability to sequence DNA and manipulate it meant that the first vaccines for Covid-19 started to appear in record time from when the virus was sequenced and described. The sequencing of the virus happened in record time, and then the vaccines came out in record time. And it is not a fluke or a one-time thing, advances build on what went before. So what this book does is explore how exponential growth in various ways will affect our future. As such, it is reminiscent of Ray Kurzweil’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.



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My review of A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a masterpiece of a book, deservedly considered a classic. It starts with a group of human scientists re-awakening an AI, but everything goes pear-shaped very quickly. From there two plot lines proceed in parallel, one concerning a family from the group that worked on the AI, the other concerning a group of mixed human and alien beings that are trying to deal with the menace unleashed on the galaxy by this AI. The greatest fascination of this novel is the alien races. They are very disctinctly different, but Vinge makes them believable at the same time. The plot line of the escaped family takes them to a world inhabited by beings with group consciousness. They are like small mammals, but an individual of this species is not even conscious or intelligent. It is only when they they join together in groups of 5-8 that they become intelligent entities. This is a very interesting idea, and Vinge develops it beautifully and in great detail. In the other plot line, one of the alien races is derived from aquatic plants/animals that get around on motorized carts, and might be the dominant race of the galaxy. Then there is the idea that in this universe the closer you get to the core of the galaxy the slower you travel, creating concentric zones where the speed possible varies.

What ties the two plot lines together is the possibility that the ship that took the family away may have the answer to defeating the rogue AI, so the ship with the mixed human/alien crew has to get there ahead of the AI. This novel has an impressive set of ideas that are fascinating. This is a book you have to read if you are a fan of science fiction.



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My review of Worlds of the Imperium

Worlds of the Imperium by Keith Laumer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Prior to this I knew Laumer as the author of the Retief stories, but this is not like them at all. It is a very interesting parallel worlds story, where a minor diplomat is kidnapped and taken to a parallel Earth where the British Empire continues to be a major force, and is now called The Imperium. Being a parallel world, some things are different, so this world has discovered the technology to move across dimensions to parallel worlds, many of which seem destroyed, and possibly it was the technology to move across dimensions that destroyed them before they learned to handle it. But one such parallel world seems to be dangerous, and is conducting destructive raids against The Imperium. And the kicker is that the dictator who is leader in this other world is the version of our minor diplomat. So The Imperium kidnapped this diplomat and want him to go to this other world and assassinate the dictator and take his place. And then things just go wrong, and he has to fight just to survive. There are several moments when everything gets turned around and you discover that what you thought you knew was all wrong. But the action keeps going. This is not humor like Retief, but action, and if you like that in your stories you might like this one.



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My review of Variable Star

Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


You don’t know what to expect when one writer finishes a work started by another writer, particularly when that other writer is considered one of the greats in the field. Happily, Spider Robinson is a pretty darned good writer himself, as the Callahan’s series demonstrates, and is a big Heinlein fan as well. So I was delighted to find that this book read to me like a Heinlein I had somehow missed reading that came from his prime period. It is rather like a typical YA novel that Heinlein wrote, and indeed that was its intended use, but somehow it got put aside in the form of detailed notes. So the characters and plot are all Heinlein, and like most of his YA novels it is about a young fellow (named Joel Johnston) who nearly finds himself married to the richest heiress in the solar system, but then decides he can’t do that and goes on a one-way journey to the stars. And as things happen he gradually grows up and learns a few things. So like all Heinlein YA novels, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. I not only read it with great pleasure, it is a novel I will certainly re-read in the future. This may well be the last new Heinlein I ever come across, given that he died in 1988. But if anyone wants to read something has definite touches of Heinlein, I can also recommend John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.



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My review of The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street by Josh Pachter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I quite enjoyed this book as a long time fan of Nero Wolfe. I read it on our long RV trip, when we also watched both seasons of the A&E series (outstanding), and the whole season of the earlier William Conrad version (watchable). I have read the Nero Wolfe Corpus several times, been a member of the Wolfe Pack, and currently host an email list devoted to discussions of the stories, though it has sadly drifted into silence. So you might just say I am a fan. This volume is inspired by the earlier Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, and similarly contains a variety of partiches and parodies. There are some very good writers represented here, such as Lawrence Block, Loren Estleman, and John Lescroart. And because it contains short pieces, it is perfect for people like me that often have 3-4 books going concurrently. This is the kind of book that when you have a few minutes to fill you can pick it up and read a story and enjoy it. Of course, you have to already be fan to appreciate this sort of book, it is very “inside baseball”.



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My review of In the Ocean of Night

In the Ocean of Night by Gregory Benford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the kind of book that on its own is not a masterpiece, though it is interesting enough. The main character, Nigel Walmsley, is an astronaut who stumbles across an alien derelict and it changes his life. The setting is a future that has some elements of dystopia, but they are mostly offstage and just refered to in passing. Walmsley is Brit who is also employed by NASA and ends up working at the JPL in the middle of the book, then manages to get assigned to a moon base when more alien technology is discovered there. The way he gets involved in all of this stuff is just little unrealistic, but you have to suspend disbelief. The thing about this novel is that it is setting up the rest of the series. After all, the Galactic Center makes no appearance here, but it will show up later. So all in all it is worth your time if you want to read a sereis that is considered a classic in the genre.



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My review of Caliban’s War

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This continuation of the story of The Expanse universe maintains the pace set in the first volume, Leviathan Wakes. It also continues the writing technique of switching the viewpoint character with every chapter. This might sound confusing, but it works because the plot involves the interaction of different characters in different places on this wide canvas. Returning characters include Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. And a wonderful new character, Chrisjen Avasarala, makes an appearance here. She is a very smart politician in the U.N. and she manages to play a crucial role in preventing an interplanetary war. Then there is the alien presence represented by the proto-molecule that was the focus of the first book. It is up to something, but just what? A little bit of that mystery is hinted at, but there is much more to come. Now at this point I should admit I have not yet watched the TV series made from this. I prefer to read the source material first. But I have all of the DVDs ready for when I make it to the end of the books. This is a series of novels worth your time. There is not a lot of good SF these days that is set in the solar system, but this has the feeling of reality that makes you think it could actually work out like this.



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My review of The Pursuit of the Pankera

The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In 1980 Heinlein published a novel called The Number of the Beast. It involved parallel universes, The World as Fiction, and dragged in Lazarus Long, as Heinlein seemed to do in most of his later books. While parts of it were fun, it was also confusing and disjointed in my opinion. I will read any Heinlein for the writing alone, so I am a fan (in fact, I was for a time the webmaster for The Heinlein Society), but I can see that some of his stuff is better than others. So when I heard there was an alternate version of this novel, I had to check it out. And The Pursuit of the Pankera keeps the same basic setting and has the same beginning as The Number of the Beast, but I think it is much better. The plot is a lot more cohesive and the novel just flows in way the previous didn’t. This is the one I will reread in the future. And as a huge fan of the Lensman universe the part of the book that goes there was quite a treat. For those who don’t know, the idea of The World as Fiction is that fictional worlds are real in other universes, so the characters here visit Barsoom, Oz, and the Lensman universe. Tons of fun.



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