Support Books Under the Bridge

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reviewer Blogs Vs. Reviewers has a post about Amazon's new Vine early reviewer program. You sign up and you get early releases of books to review! For free! It sounds like a neat idea, but it turns out to have lots of problems caused by the basic human urge to hoard free stuff. One of the big problems was that people would write a review before receiving their book so they could quickly request another one.

On one hand, I'm disappointed that Amazon's reviews are getting padded with more junk. I occasionally read the reviews for a book that I'm interested in. However, bad book reviews are not a new thing. At Amazon I've learned to cultivate a caution, so that I can quickly recognize and skip over reviews that I think will annoy me or ruin the book. There are also fake, glowing reviews written by publicists, which can sometimes be harder to detect, and seem to growing in frequency.

However, on the other hand, a part of me is happy to see the further ghettoization of Amazon's book reviews. They make book review blogs, including this blog, more valuable to you, our readers. This assumes that you continue to believe that we have not been bought off. This shouldn't be too hard if you look at our traffic, our posting frequency, and the many old old books we've recommended. If we'd sold out, we'd be making much more money than the five dollars a year we're currently netting from Google ads (woo, I'll be 50 when we get our first $100 check!), we'd quit our day jobs, and we'd be living our own fantasies of literature-reviewing hedonism.

Early on, actually made me wonder why I was bothering to blog about books. Why not just write up my recommendations over there? Did I seriously need my own blog, to set myself apart, to stroke my own ego, that much? Well, you know the answer to that!

However, there's more to it. When Mister Troll asked me to create this blog with him, I wanted to provide something more than just a clump of reviews. I think Gabe at Penny Arcade said it best when he wrote, albeit about video games instead of books:

The first thing you do is get rid if the numbers or percentages or stars or monkeys or whatever the fuck it is your site uses to review games. Then you get together a group of five or six guys and you give me some background on each of them. Tell me what kind of games this cat likes to play. Did he like Halo? Did he enjoy REZ? I need to know if my tastes match up at all with this guy. Then you have him write an article about a game he just played. No bullshit though, I just want to know if you had a good time. What did you like, what didn't you like? In the end I want you to tell me if it's something you think I should pick up. Once this has been going on for a while people will be able to identify with certain reviewers. If after six or seven games Steve and I seem to agree on pretty much everything I'll know that I can trust Steve's choices in the future. You need to make them people though, not just names at the end of a review.
I think the big value of a book blog is that the reader gets to know the blog author's tastes, and how those tastes match up with his. That's the bonus we provide with our recommendations and reviews. If I had not thought we could provide something that can't, I would not be doing this.

Of course, there's plenty of other content to set us apart, too, like our half-baked rants, controversial pronouncements, goofy lists, and silly stories.

Ethics and A.I. (via Uncertain Principles)

Over at Uncertain Principles, a request for sci-fi literature that deals with ethics and A.I.

Quite a number of stories mentioned in the comments.

Monday, July 28, 2008

R.I.P., old friend

For several weeks, I've been putting off the inevitable: buying a new calculator.

In case you weren't aware, my day job may be goat-eating bridgekeeper, but by night I moonlight as a scientist. (It's tough to make ends meet, what with our little horde of troll-lings.)

It's my trusty TI-85. Actually, it's been dying for a long time; the screen dims within weeks of putting in new batteries. It's not quite dead yet, but I've admitted to myself that it's destined for the trash heap.

I've had this calculator about fifteen years. At the time it came out, the TI-85 and its cousins were really impressive. It could graph basic equations (very useful for pre-calculus) and do symbolic arithmetic. Nothing terribly revolutionary, but to be able to do this on an affordadable handheld tool... very cool. Of course at the time I mostly used it to play Tron in government class.

I used this calculator in university (engineering: advanced bridge design), graduate school (economics: modeling income flow as coupled differential equations describing populations of toll-paying goats), and in my work as a Real Scientist.

I really like this calculator. I'm not ready to give it up.

But being made of stern stuff, I decided to go calculator shopping. I remember it cost more than $100 when I first bought it (or rather, the Bank of Parents bought it). So I figured, Moore's Law, something similarly powerful should only cost a few dollars.

OK, maybe not that low: the price of a calculator isn't all in its transistors. But let's say, a regular scientific calculator might be $35. No way a graphing calculator could be more than $60, unless it has so much horsepower that it's practically sentient.

When I lumbered over to Ye Olde Staples, a wee tear in my eye, and found to surprise that they still sell the same calculator. Actually, I saw the TI-85+ (oooh, "plus") and a few other similar models, along with some crappy knockoff graphing calculators. As near as I can tell, it's the same calculator, with a slight style re-design. (Possibly there are some improvements in memory, speed and screen resolution?)

The asking price was about $150.

Shock! Consternation! It's been 15 years, and the price hasn't dropped! (!!)

There are some differences, but it sure looks like basically the same calculator. The profit margin must be obscene.

Did I buy it?

Well, the interesting thing is: I don't actually need a graphing calculator. A high-school student might still find a graphing calculator to be useful. The rest of us have better tools on our computers. If I want to do graphing, I'll use Kaleidagraph on my computer (Kaleidagraph is the best graphing program out there; sorry, Igor fans). Symbolic mathematics and calculus: hello, Mathematica (although Mathematica is fiendishly difficult to use).

In fact, I haven't used TI-85 to do any graphing in many years. A calculator is just not the right tool for the job. What I did use it for was entering long sums; you can write out many lines of your calculation all at once and double-check. Complicated mathematics is tough to do with a regular scientific calculator; if you make a typo, it's very hard to notice.

That's the real reason I hung onto my TI-85: the multi-line screen. Amazingly, I couldn't find anything usefully similar in the store. There was one four-line-screen calculator, but entering a long calculation on one line just ended up having it scroll to the right (instead of wrapping to the next line). Oh, that's so helpful folks; I just love doing calculations when I can't see all the bloody terms on the screen.

No, I didn't buy a replacement. The price was too high. Offensively high. Texas Instruments should feel free to envision me saying something rude in their direction.


I have other calculators. But they can never take the place of my TI-85.


Anyone who can suggest a replacement (impossible!), please leave a comment. (If your suggestion mentions Reverse Polish Notation, your comment will be ruthlessly deleted; let's not mock the dead.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Depressing Reads and The Road

Another of the three books my friend Dana lent me was The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The Road tells the story of a man and his son, neither of which are named. The country in which they live (perhaps America), and perhaps the world, has been ravaged by an unnamed holocaust. Society has decayed, and the land has been picked over by refugees that have wandered since the disaster. Little remains except trash and the people ruthless enough to survive in such a wasteland. Fall is fading, and the man and his son do not have the resources to survive another winter. They must set out for the coast, a warmer place in which they will hopefully be able to create a new home for themselves.

The style of this book caught me off guard at first. It is written as if the finer points of English grammar and punctuation don't matter. Sentence fragments are common, apostrophes are nonexistent, and speech is not quoted. I found this off-putting at first, but rationalized it as mimicking the fundamentally broken, post-apocalyptic world in which the story is set.

The story itself had a profound effect on me. The picture it paints is bleak and horrible, the man and his son continually pushed to the edge of survival, slowly starving, overcome with fear of everyone they meet, only getting by through caution, ingenuity, and luck. There were times as I read this book that I had to set it down. One such scene involved the duo's exploration of house containing a locked basement full of naked people, wasted by hunger, and kept imprisoned as a sick sort of livestock. Of course, the homeowners return and the situation intensifies. Although the slave owners are barely described, they seem so alien, so evil . . . and yet, making their terrible choices to survive. A recurring dialog between the man and his son amounts to, "Are we going to become like them? How far will we go to survive?" It is scary, depressing, and a burden, especially when you attempt to identify with it.

Now, reading the above, you might say, "Why would I read such a depressing book?" I described The Road to my friends Jamie and Rachel over dinner a few weeks back, and that was the question they asked (after giving me the "We're not going to read it" go-ahead to drop spoilers for further discussion). I don't doubt that they will never read it, and that's understandable. This book is certainly not for everyone. But I find the question interesting: Why would a person read a depressing book?

I thought about this for a while. I think that there is an obvious category of books that you should not read: bad books. Depressing books with nihilistic messages fall into this category for me. Why would I want to read a book with a primary message of, "life is worthless," "people are evil," etc? However, I find some depressing books can be worthwhile to read. A worthwhile book needs to have an idea, a theme, a character--something--that grabs hold and keeps my attention despite the waterfall of terrible events pouring over me. And I have to admit that there's a part of me that enjoys some melancholy on occasion. Unlike a real-life tragedy, it's a caress of the sadness nerve clusters that I can put away with the book, and escape back into real life (reverse escapism?).

At first glance, The Road may seem like it fits into the "bad message" category, but there is definitely more there. There are themes dealing with fatherhood, perseverance, and the nature of good and evil in a hostile world. There are also pieces that are wide open for literary interpretation, if you like that (which I do). For those willing to wade through its darkness, I'd say there's a good chance you will find The Road worthwhile, too.

P. S. -- I have some theories about the ending that I won't put here due to spoilers, but I'd be happy to discuss them in the comments (with appropriate spoiler warnings of course).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Musings on Mars

There's something interesting in science-fiction. Go back to the 50s or 60s, and you'll see that Mars was generally populated by an alien race: the little green men of yore. The Martian civilization was perceived as ancient and noble, dessicated and dying.

But life on Mars had appeared much earlier in modern science-fiction. The earliest I know of would be H.G. Well's classic, The War of the Worlds (1898). The Martians launch an invasion of earth, in massive tripod-like machines armed with devastating heat-rays. Earth gets its ass kicked. (Let's be honest; you were rooting for the Martians, weren't you?) Of course, and you probably could guess this even if you haven't read the original, some kind of microbe ultimately kills off the invaders. And what happens to Mars? Alas, the war effort consumed its last resources: Mars is a dead world.

Not long after came the pulpy, misogynistic Barsoom series (1912-1943): Edward Rice Burroughs. He hit a literary gold mine: the ultra-manly (naked, because, why not?) John Carter rescuing the (naked, because, why not?) Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, from the hordes of four-armed, green Tharks. If these stories don't make you puke, you'll love 'em.

The War of the Worlds was re-done for a radio show, the infamous broadcast of Orson Welles (1938). The program was a kind of early mockumentary, with breaking “news reports” describing the Martian onslaught. Accounts of what happened are conflicting, but it does appear that a number of people across the US did actually head for the hills, somehow believing that the Martian invasion was happening. (Later the program was billed as a “hoax.” My understanding is that regular announcements were made that a particular show was being broadcast, so it seems rather many viewers just didn't connect the dots.)

I'd love to get my hands on a recording of that show.

Later writers emphasized the pathos of a dying civilization. Witness, for example, the tender Martian Chronicles (1950), a set of short stories by Ray Bradbury. Flower power led to the odd Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; Robert A. Heinlein), in which messianistic foundling returns to Earth with the power and wisdom of the Old Ones of Mars, best described as ghosts.

More recent writers have agreed that there isn't any life on Mars (and perhaps wasn't any in the first place). These stories focus on the colonization of Mars. The decent Red Mars (1992; Kim Stanley Robinson), for example, launches a series in which Mars is “terraformed”-made habitable for human life (I'd link to the Wikipedia article on terraforming, but it's skip-worthy). All that I've read recently is along the same vein; the only life on Mars is the kind that we (or others) would bring to it.

Mars in science

Let's take an overview of the science of Mars over the same time. We must begin with Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer who, in the late 1800s, made observations of Martian “seas” and canali (translated into English as “canals”). Percival Lowell subsequently founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (lovely night skies in Flagstaff) for the purpose of studying the civilization on Mars. Lowell's detailed reports of canals and oases led to the idea that a Martian civilization struggled against an imminent demise.

No one really knows what Percival Lowell and Giovannia Schiaparelli actually saw, but the best guess is that the canals and oases were due to common visual error. Stare at a red dot for a minute, and look away. You'll see green. An amateur can see the same thing happen the first time he or she looks through a telescope at Mars. An experienced observer should have no difficulty accounting for this, but perhaps a little subconscious wishful thinking affected Schiaparelli and Lowell's observations.

(Mars is quite beautiful through a decent telescope. The planet is quite red, with perhaps an ice cap visible if you're looking at the right time, and a variety of darkish markings across the surface of the planet. These marks shift around with the massive dust storms, and in no way should a professional astronomer conclude these are canals.)

Finally in the 1960s, exploration of Mars began. Mariner 4 flew past Mars (1964). The Viking 2 mission included a lander (1976), which was intended to study (among other things) the possibility of whether life might be present on Mars.

One of the experiments involved the introduction of organic materials into a sample of Martian soil. It was found that the organics were converted into carbon dioxide. This is a chemical hallmark of life. The results were, nonetheless, somewhat puzzling (I won't go into detail here), and ultimately when combined with other data, virtually every scientist believes that the Martian tested negative for the presence of life. Just this one particular experiment was tantalizing.

(As an aside, please, please don't believe anything you read on Wikipedia regarding the proven existence of life on Mars. It hasn't been proven. The discussion of “Gillevinia strata”, a putative Martian microorganism, by the Viking lander article is outright lunacy.)

Mars is not a hospitable world. It is dry, dusty, wracked with storms, very cold, essentially without oxygen (what little atmosphere there is, is 95% carbon dioxide, a poison to us but food for plants and many microorganisms), and bathed in strong ultraviolet radiation. Still, we now know that Mars is perhaps not so inhospitable as it seems. Water existed on Mars, in the form of rivers, gullies, river deltas, oceans. Liquid water! This is truly the elixir of life; it is the chemical foundation on which all known life depends. If liquid water existed on Mars, then perhaps, just perhaps, life had arisen on Mars as well. (This is why there is such excitement this month about finding water ice on Mars. This is Big News.)

If life ever did exist on Mars, it could very well have adapted to the conditions now present. Bacteria have been found in a variety of incredibly hostile environments on earth: the extremophiles. Bacteria can thrive in the cold, in extremely dry conditions, and even inside rocks (no, really). It's still tantalizingly possibly that some kind of life might still be present on Mars, perhaps near as-yet-undiscovered underground deposits of frozen water.

Several years ago, researchers reported the presence of fossil life in a Martian meteorite. This was later debunked: the same “fossils” (structures many times smaller than the smallest microorganisms known on Earth) can be produced in the lab through purely non-living reactions. More intriguingly, the same meteorite yielded magnetic minerals that are known on Earth to be formed only by microorganisms. Could this be evidence of (ancient) life on Mars? Hmm...

Well, maybe there was life on Mars billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter. Of course no one knows whether life forms easily or extremely rarely. If life forms very easily and rapidly, well, then likely Mars did have life... and if it did, then maybe it still has life now. If life is unlikely to form, well, the odds are against it having been on Mars in the first place.

(I have absolutely no space to discuss the possible transition between a planetary chemical bath and living, eating, breathing, reproducing life, but please follow the link in this sentence. On Earth, life seems to have arisen after several hundred million years and then it took another three billion years of evolution to produce multi-cellular organisms. Let's be humble, however: microorganisms are the dominant form of life on this planet. Multicellular living creatures, while familiar to us, are squatters in a world owned by bacteria.)

Of course, if life evolved according to a chemical basis that we are not familiar with... well, then, perhaps life is there all along, but we haven't managed to recognize it. This is unlikely: the periodic table imposes pretty rigid constraints on chemistry. It's very unlikely that life could exist without liquid water. (Chemists would have figured out that possibility.) Still, scientists wouldn't be scientists if they didn't want to be surprised, and who knows? Maybe there is a kind of life on Mars based on chemical cycles essentially unfamiliar to us here on Earth. We are, perhaps, liquid-water-loving, DNA-and-RNA-bigots.

Gaia and Martian chemistry

We can approach this discussion even more simply. We ask the question, “On which of these planets can we recognize life?”

(“Blue Marble” image courtesy Visible Planet and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Mars image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Let's use the Gaia Hypothesis (Lovelock and Margulis) to give us a little perspective. The idea is contentious, and not necessarily correct, but still gives us a simple point of view: consider the planet as a single organism. (This is similar to the fact that you are composed of cells, yet somehow all these little bits of life make up one organism.) The planetary “organism” (Gaia) regulates itself, in terms of temperature and chemistry, and that regulation leads to conditions conducive to life.

In other words, life has already changed our planet to make conditions better for itself. (We don't need to explore this in detail, but anyone who lives on or near limestone should appreciate that all of this rock, the rocks on which your houses are built, were produced by microorganisms. I hope that makes you blink for a second; the ground you walk on, the air you breathe, and the water you drink are all intimately connected with life.)

If we examine Earth from a distance, we find that it is not in chemical equilibrium. Most dramatically, the atmosphere contains a hefty amount of oxygen. Oxygen?! That's just not possible; oxygen is highly reactive and couldn't possibly last as an atmospheric component. Something must be driving the production of oxygen, and the only reasonable chemical explanation is life.

Now when we examine Mars from a distance, we do find that it is in chemical equilibrium. The atmosphere is largely carbon dioxide. If there were life on Mars, then Mars wouldn't look like Mars: Mars would look like Earth.

That is the inevitable conclusion you reach, if you accept the Gaia Hypothesis. Mars would have been regulated: it would be warmer, wetter, and more Earth-like. Life would have produced more carbon dioxide, which would have warmed the planet (greenhouse effect), which would have released frozen carbon dioxide at the poles, which would have warmed the planet, which would have helped more life grow, which... Mars can only look the way it does, because it is not alive. (This very simple argument was made, far more eloquently, by Dr. Lynn Margulis in a talk I once attended.)

Of course this is just a very simple analysis, too simple to be conclusive. As I said, this is just for a little perspective.

Is there no hope for sci-fi?

But let's say we want to allow for life on Mars. What is a science-fiction writer to do?

Well, I think there is one big unknown regarding the chemistry of Mars. Over millions and billions of years, meteorites would have “seeded” Mars with organic carbon (yes, there's plenty of organic material in Outer Space). But there's no organic carbon on Mars.

Where'd it go?

Something must be reacting with the organic carbon. On Earth, that would be oxygen, which would form carbon dioxide. But Mars doesn't have oxygen.

So what is oxidizing the organic carbon? And remember that Viking experiment? The one that showed that something in the Martian soil was reacting with organic molecules?

The most likely explanation is that the fairly intense ultraviolet light on Mars directly produces the superoxide radical (O2-, a negatively-charged oxygen molecule; the extra electron makes oxygen even more reactive) in the Martian soil. The superoxide radical is extremely reactive, and would immediately oxidize organic carbon into carbon dioxide. Thus, any incoming organic carbon won't last on Mars.

To make this sci-fi, let's assume that the superoxide radical is not produced inorganically from Martian soil. We'll just pretend that it is a result of Martian life-microorganisms that are ubiquitous in the Martian soil. And we reject the Gaia Hypothesis.

Instead of a rich and plentiful source of energy as on Earth (light, carbon dioxide, oxygen), life on Mars is limited by a scarce resource: meteoritic organic carbon (with plenty of UV light to drive the conversion of carbon to carbon dioxide). Life is rare-and slow. Growth and reproduction would always be limited by an essentially unavailable resource (imagine a planet-wide algal bloom constantly held in check by an unending lack of key nutrients).

This scenario is relatively plausible, largely fits with the known science of Mars, and I think, interesting. Life on Mars is not little green men; it's little starving microorganisms spread throughout the Martian soil.

This is just the merest hint of a sketch of an idea. Please, add to it in your own imagination. (I do not claim to be the first or only person to have come up with this idea--certainly I am not--but I am not aware of any author who has developed something similar. Please comment if you are.)

Do you wonder, though, just what would happen when humans arrive?

(Edited for grammar and clarity. Gotta remember to proofread, sheesh.--Mister Troll)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

TBR Day: Lullaby (Chuck Palahniuk)

Five months have passed, and I have yet to participate in Avid Book Reader's monthly To Be Read (TBR) Day. Well, today that's changing.

I have a bad history of borrowing books and not returning them. Mister Troll is well aware of this (and yet still lends me stuff). I have another friend, Dana, who has yet to learn of my tendencies. She recently lent me three books, all of which I immediately placed at the top of my TBR pile in the high hopes of actually reading and returning them in a decent time frame.

One of these books is Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. He's the guy who wrote Fight Club, which was made into a movie that I really enjoyed. I thought this would be an equally fun read, so I dug in.

Set in modern time, the story follows Carl Streator, who inadvertently learns a lullaby that kills whoever it is sung to. Reproduced in an obscure book of international children's songs, the ancient African "culling song," is a magic spell originally created to be sung to malnourished infants or dying warriors to ease them into death.

Through his investigations of the song, Carl meets Helen Hoover Boyle, a real-estate agent specializing in haunted houses. She knows the spell, which she uses in a number of unique, if not completely ethical, ways. Carl, being the hero, confronts her about it. However, he learns that having the power to kill anyone at will is a dangerously seductive ability, and one not easily controlled, especially after you have internalized it enough that you can do it by just thinking someone dead.

The main plot of the book focuses on unraveling how this spell works and its ramifications, followed by a cross-country hunt for all remaining copies of the book containing it, as well as the original book of spells in which it was found. A couple more minor characters join in to assist the search and add some dramatic tension: Mona, Helen's employee and witch/occultist, and Mona's naturalist anti-society witch boyfriend, Oyster.

I found that I enjoyed much of the beginning. The culling song is a very simple, yet interesting idea. The tragedy of the song being distributed incorrectly as a lullaby, and thus read inadvertently by parents to their loved ones, really resonated with me, and worked to alternately horrify and sadden me (and I consider anything that can move me in such a way to be a good thing). Carl and Helen are both usually likable despite their deep character flaws. I found it interesting, albeit a little disturbing, to imagine myself in their positions.

However, the book has some big problems. There are many sections that try to be clever or trendily shallow (or just plain weird) and they feel forced. This gets annoying quickly, and even though I smirked a few times, I often found myself tempted to skip ahead. Then there are Oyster's preachy anti-society screeds. Basically, anything he says can be counted on to grate. The funny thing is that some parts of Oyster's message make sense, but the whole thing is so overdone that it induces eye rolls. And my annoyance only increased as the main character grudgingly accepted and repeated the message as if it was the author's.

Continuing the bad, later in the book some of the motivations, especially those of the minor characters, seem unrealistic. There's one bizarre scene at the end that I can only describe as garbage. Not only was the antagonist's motivation implausible, but the scene really reinforced the character's smarmy know-it-all jackass image. It did not help that the antagonist's method was so over-the-top and physically improbable that I said out loud, "This is stupid."

I enjoyed Fight Club. This book made me reevaluate the movie, as I saw similarities in the message and style. How much of my enjoyment of Fight Club hinged on me being an angsty, "nonconformist" teenager, more open to anti-establishment ideals and trendy shallowness (the backlash against a previous "deep" phase)? Maybe I'll have to go re-watch it and find out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

B.G. is going to be pissed...

But before I explain why... apologies again for the horribly delayed posting. We'll keep trying to stay updated. Thanks for checking back with us.

And now to the crux of the matter:

Pirate Freedom (Gene Wolfe)

I must disabuse you of any idea that this might be a recommendation. Rather, this is quite the opposite. Which is sort of against the whole point of this blog. Neither of us wants to rip on books that are bad (see here). We really just want to chat about some books we liked (not review them, just chat), occasionally recommend books we think are fantastic, that sort of thing. There are lots of other places you can go read about books that sucked (but seriously, who wants to?).

However, Billy Goat likes Mr. Wolfe's works too much for me to pass on this. And I also have not found any of Mr. Wolfe's novels to be less than good (until now). This is a clear demonstration of Rule Number One: no author is ceaselessly brilliant.

So. Gene Wolfe:

The Book of the New Sun, a series of four novels about Severian, the Torturer's Apprentice, set in the distant future. Ex-cell-ent! Wonderfully turgid.

The Book of the Long Sun, a kind of companion quartet, set in the same universe. The writing is a little more clear, but with Mr. Wolfe's typically cryptic and convoluted plot. I actually never finished the series, but it contains some of the most wonderful writing in science-fiction.

Not as good is The Urth of the New Sun, but it still has such amazing creativity that I can't honestly criticize.

And on the fantasy side: Soldier of the Mist and its two sequels. These are novels set in the ancient Mediterranean, narrated by a man with no memory (the opposite of Severian, I suppose). The setting, the history, the characters -- brilliant. Billy Goat tells me these novels are semi-obscure; I urge you check them out.

I thought for sure Mr. Wolfe would finally succumb to Rule Number One with Free Live Free. This is sci-fi in the near-modern day, much grittier and almost like "real" fiction. Hardly my favorite, but Mr. Wolfe pulls it off with a stunningly creative ending. Alas, to explain why I like the novel would be give you unforgivable spoilers.

And finally (though I have not yet exhausted the Wolfish canon), I came to Pirate Freedom. It's a novel, quite simply, set in the Spanish Main. Pirates! Ships! Guns! What's not to love? And yet, somehow... there's not much there. It's such a quiet novel, admittedly with some intriguing plot twists (very typical of Mr. Wolfe), but a decided lack of swashbuckling-ness. It's almost as if Mr. Wolfe tried too hard to be faithful to the historical period--which was interesting in its own right, but hardly anything like the piratical archetypes that one would long for in a novel.

Worst of all, the novel ends up being narrated from the modern-day, by a priest who somehow ends up back in time (Mr. Wolfe's notions of cyclical time are always present in his novels, but this one compares quite well with Free Live Free. Just in case you've read it.)

OK, OK, I don't mind if the main character is translated back in time to start things off. Works for Mark Twain, works for me. But do we have to spend part of every chapter back in the modern day youth center? Like, really? 'Cause I'm just here for the pirates.

I think perhaps Mr. Wolfe would have been better off just writing a novel set in the Spanish Main. Skip the sci-fi aspect, keep the characters true to the time period -- I think he could have done a fantastic job. But alas, this novel is the inevitable result... of Rule Number One.

That's it, folks, rant over! I hope Billy Goat will offer an indignant defense of his main man in the comments. And let's all encourage him to offer us a series of posts on the good novels of Gene Wolfe (of which there are many).