domingo, dezembro 28, 1980

Rehashed SF: "Probability Broach" by L. Neil Smith

(Original Review, 1980)

As for me, conflict of all kinds is a most important part of what I look for in a story.  This certainly includes good (or even just "passable") vs evil, so I agree with most people to that extent.  But denigrating FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE because it was a classic "engineer vs problem" story seems to show an awfully limited set of preferences.  There certainly is conflict in the "engineer vs problem" story; it's just not "person vs person" conflict.  The real world (being neither evil nor good) can interfere with the best laid plans, and this conflict, and its resolution, can fascinate me for hours.  Similarly, social systems pose conflicts, and stories than have people going up against those systems pose conflicts that are not necessarily "good vs evil," but rather personal values vs values that are alleged to be supra-personal. I can understand the feeling that a society that does not create those conflicts must be, in some sense, artificial.  That same feeling must exist for the kid who never lived outside the South Bronx who is shown a book that takes place in Scarsdale. The kinds of problems that exist in Scarsdale are both unbelievable and uninteresting to the kid from the other environment. This, however, does not make that environment and those problems really unreal or universally uninteresting.  Somehow, the slum kid has got to be shown that there are other worlds, before that kid can deal with the problems of those worlds.  That's the way comments that belittle stories with "societies that work" strike me.  SF lets us look beyond the problems of our wretched little societies to see that societies portrayed in books like the PROBABILITY BROACH are potentially real and interesting.  And that's a major reason why I read SF.

If an author is going to go into all the trouble of creating a universe, which every author does, some more successfully than others, why put in evil or irritants?

The obvious answer to this is that very few people will find such a universe believable --- and believability is the primary requirement of a constructed universe.  I know that \I/ wouldn't believe in such a universe outside of a children's fantasy; that's one of the reasons I disliked THE PROBABILITY BROACH --- the author just assumed that everything would work out for the very best over 200 years of history. Certainly the failings of a universe help drive the plot.  Consider Heinlein's description of how he writes a story: "I put interesting characters into serious difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talking the story is done." (quote >20 years old). I'll further point out that if matters hadn't gone downhill from first book to sequel neither WIZARD nor RINGWORLD ENGINEERS could be anything more than \another/ travelogue --- and I'd rather travel myself than read somebody else's rehashing of the same territory, however imaginary. If a character is not in some tight place, his choices can be no more significant than the choice of orange or grapefruit juice for breakfast; it's only when penalties are attached to all possible choices that the situation is interesting.  (David Gerrold described this in his book on what was right and wrong with STAR TREK, saying that the best episodes [with the possible exception of the two comedies] could be summarized as "Captain Kirk has to make a choice between
  -- Earth's history and the woman he loves
  ..." (can't remember the other examples offhand).)

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

domingo, dezembro 21, 1980

Bubble Brain: "The People Exchange" by Robert F Baylus

(Original Review, 1980-12-21)

Has anyone ever run across Carlyle Books, published by Siena Pub. Corp? I just found a perfectly normal looking SF '80 paperback of theirs, THE PEOPLE EXCHANGE by an unknown, Robert F. Baylus in a SF book stack in Lisbon. The plot structure is quite similar to Lee Killough's DOPPLEGANGER GAMBIT, i.e., a sort of detective story with the point of view alternating between the villain and the fempro. The most amazing thing is that it's just as good as the Killough! The heroine is reminiscent of Varley's and the future history scenario which features prominently as background is credible. There are 2 sentient automata, a house-hold unit and a central time-shared computer (which is castigated as "bubble brain"), both of which are referred to as "'droids" (complete with apostrophe, reflecting either the influence of STAR WARS, or the supposition that the word will have established itself in the language in that form).

If you run across THE PEOPLE EXCHANGE, give it a try. Maybe it just seemed better to me than it is because my expectations were so low. But it struck me as a distinctly competently handled story.

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

sábado, dezembro 20, 1980

Wireheads: "The Ringworld Engineers" by Larry Niven

(This edition bought in 1997)

(Original Review, 1980-12-20)

Reading some people's complaints about unpleasant events in SF (e.g. Louis Wu becoming a wirehead in "The Ringworld Engineers") reminded me of an article in Analog some time back. It was written by a founder of a company that would keep you in cryogenic storage until a cure was found for your disease, or the Messiah came or a John Bircher became president or whatever was your heart's desire. He had harsh words for science fiction writers. All this pessimism about the future could only do harm. People are only going to work hard if they think that tomorrow is going to be better than today; progress is fueled by delayed gratification. Stories of doom and gloom are only going to convince people that they better get theirs while the getting's good, thus bringing on the collapse. Besides, who is going to pay him to be frozen if no one believes in the future? He proposed a national campaign for the writing of sunny sf.

Me, I say smoke dope if you wanna feel good; that's not what art is about.

I had read that Larry Niven inherited some independent wealth, and didn't NEED money. This affected his writing (either positively or negatively). I forget exactly where I read this, but I believe it was BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS, edited by Spider Robinson. Now, I don't know what Ben Bova's financial situation is like, but he does seem to occupy a lucrative position with OMNI (admittedly after the cartoon episodes were written).

One thing that did bother me in reading The Ringworld Engineers
was that here were these Pak, who apparently upon seeing the fate that
the galaxy was about to have visited upon it, built the Ringworld and
populated it with the beings of many planets, including Earth, Kzin,
and Mars.

     What disturbs me is the time frame:

     1. A group of Protectors and breeders set out along the galactic arms looking for yellow dwarf stars in their hollowed out asteroid slowboat, which moves about .06 lightspeed. These find Sol and its evolving ape men, and decide to set up shop. They are shocked to find that the tree of life will not grow properly.  They are stranded on Earth because they used almost their last resources to land there.  And they have no guarantee that any other planet in that region will grow tree-of-life.  Hence the protectors die and the breeders intermingle with the nascent humans already there. Thinking about it, these protectors almost certainly could not have built the Ringworld, for if they had the technology to build the Ringworld, then they certainly could have refitted their ship to travel to another system to try again or figured out something as simple as lack of thallium in the soil. In any case, they really would have to posses hyperdrive in order to get out TO the worksite, much less move the mass of material involved.  Again, if they had hyperdrive (it is possible that the Outsiders swept through the galactic vicinity before), they could have looked for new planets to establish themselves on.

     2. Two and one-half million years later, Phssthpok finds the record of this ill-fated expedition, including a 2 million year old distress call. Then many of the resources of the Pak homeworld are cranked up to produce another interstellar ship (which leads to the plethora of ships which follow Phssthpok), and off he goes, having adopted these long lost breeders as his children. Now, in "Protector", we are told of the considerable resources mobilized to build that one ramrocket. Although it is not impossible that another expedition also went out along the galactic arms in search of suitable planets, they would have left a record of at least the collection of resources needed to do it. In a century or two, other ships leave the Pak homeworld, with more childless protectors looking for a piece of this new world. It appears evident that the Pak had no idea of the existence of humanity or even of the planet Earth, in that there is no record of any other expeditions into the galactic arms other than the ill-fated one to Sol.

     3. 700 years later, the Ringworld is discovered and it's origin traced back to the Pak. Taking the age estimate in "The Ringworld Engineers" as a good working range, that places the age anywhere from 2 million to 500,000 years.  Now, 500,000 strikes me as too young, for Phssthpok had not even gone to the Library yet to discover the lost colonization effort. Two million would be consistent with this colonization flight being responsible, but they didn't have the technology to even save them-selves, much less any other races of the region (and a large region at that -- Kzin is some distance from Earth).

     To get to the final point:

     If the Pak knew enough about Earth (and Mars), to put maps of them on the Ringworld (even going as far as putting the control center in the map of Mars), and populate them with the creatures of the era, why didn't they know and do something about the lost colony of Pak on Earth and therefore there would have been no Pak version of the Lone Ranger to ride across the interstellar void to rescue them?

     I know this seems a bit overboard, as Niven himself writes that the whole thing just sort of came to be and the pieces just sort of fell together, but it seems that a book that took as long to write as The Ringworld Engineers would allow time enough to create some mechanism to fill in this gap.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

sexta-feira, dezembro 19, 1980

"TNT: Telzey Amberdon & Trigger Argee Together" by James H. Schmitz

(Original Review, 1980-12-19)

The story is the The Telzey Toy and it is in a collection of the same name. There are about 3-4 stories in the novella. It was the second time I had encountered the lady and it took some time to make the connection. I thought that the first story I had read was much better. I dont recall its name, but it was the story in which she first realized that She Had Powers. There was a large cat-like creature that was her pet, till she discovers that it is of an intelligent, telepathic species that had chosen her as a candidate for developing a comm-link with humans.

By the way, does anyone know if there has been a sequel to David Gerrold's MOONSTAR ODYSSEY (1977)? There was \going to be/ one, and I seem to recall reading something about its plot, but I've not seen any. Not that I cared for MOONSTAR..., but again, after WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE, my expectations were probably too high..., however, it \was/ a fempro, and its sequel is likely to be, too.

[2018 EDIT: The above edition on the picture is the 2000 edition I bought later on in that very same year.]

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

quinta-feira, dezembro 18, 1980

Competent Fempro: "The Hub - Dangerous Territory" by James H. Schmitz

(Original Review, 1980-12-18)

While Telzey (and Trigger Argee) are okay, my favorite Schmitz heroine is Nile Etland of THE DEMON BREED. No psi, but an intriguing water-world ecology, and a smart, level-headed, very competent fempro. Schmitz has consistently led the field since the mid '60's, in having more SF books with female protagonists than any other writer, 5 at present.  But if he doesn't have a new one in the works, he's surely going to be matched by Barbara Paul, who has had 4 between 1978 and 1980.  (Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey have each had 4, also, but over 11-year spans.) Spotting new fempro paperbacks isn't so much of a problem for those put out by the usual publishers, it's the off-beat ones that are hard to come by.  Where new Manor books are sold I have no idea -- certainly not in our local SF-oriented emporia, nor in any of the supermarkets I've checked.  Yet I've found 2 Manor fempro's in 2nd-hand SF racks, which leaves me worried at what others might have been issued that I've missed. For a collector, it's no consolation that SF from such sources is almost inevitably 3rd rate at best... about like what you'd expect from a vanity press.

[2018 EDIT: The above edition on the picture is the 2001 edition I bought later on in that very same year.]

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

terça-feira, dezembro 16, 1980

Sex and Buzz Bombs: "Wizard" by John Varley

(Original Review, 1980-12-16)

It introduces more complications into the plot of the TITAN series, and clears up some nagging items as well; ever wonder what a satellite-brain looks like? What happens when \tourism/ hits Gaea? What composers does a Titanide like?

I just finished reading Wizard by John Varley (at the cost of getting an incomplete in Philosophy because I was supposed to be writing a paper and of not studying for my Physics test tomorrow). Wizard was better than `Titan' and The Ophuichi Hotline (which are very good), but not as good as Varley's short stories (which are great). I don't know what that makes the book (excellent perhaps?), but in any case it is is definitely worth reading! It is the sequel to Titan. (I realize the period should be inside the quotes, but it looks really bad that way. Anyone interested in starting a movement to have punctuation placed where it should go and not where English books tell us it should go?) I suggest that you read `Titan' first if you want to read “Wizard and haven't read Titan. From the end of Wizard it is obvious that it too will have a sequel called Demon. “Wizard is the story of two humans, Robin (an epileptic) and Chris (a schizophrenic), who are two out of the ten people that are picked that year by Gaea - out of all humans - to be granted miracles. Robin and Chris want to be cured, but they find out that there is a big catch. They have loads of fun with Rocky, Gaby, and Gaea (who has gone somewhat bonkers). There is love, violence, sex, and buzz bombs. There are loads of neat creatures, new ideas, and wonderful imagination. To find out more, read it for yourself!

If you read "Titan", "Wizard" is a must read and in some ways I found it better. Varley's writing style is definitely showing signs of improving. I felt him to be fairly rough and simplistic in his early works. "Wizard" definitely picks up where "Titan" left off. Rocky has been "wizard" for many decades and has become tired of life. The story is of her and Gabby joining on a quest with two visitors who have come to Gaea to be cured of incurable illnesses and must prove themselves worthy of the "god's" notice. Of course, Gabby and Rocky have their own secret plans to take care of along the way, which is why they have joined this particular quest.

I found the book to be a good read, but since it is obviously the second book of a trilogy, borrow the hardcover to read or wait for the paperback to come out. (Unless you prefer to collect hardcover.)

This Voyager/Saturn activity has a Varleyesque feel to me.  It really resonates with both Titan and the Ophiuchi Connection stuff. I wonder if it will show up in his future work.  Speaking of Titan, it surprised me when I read it that he had ventured a specific number for the count of Saturn's known moons as of 2025 --- especially a number as low as 11.  It seemed likely to me that Voyager would turn up more moons, as it has, making his book dated almost as soon as It appeared.  That kind of specificity on real-world statistics is usually a bad idea in sf.

PS1. There are very substantial differences between the ANALOG version of "Titan" and the actual novel. A major subsection was simply eliminated from the novel in the serialization. Unfortunately that section plays a major role in Rocky's development. In my personal opinion, if you have only read the serialization you have not read "Titan".

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

sexta-feira, dezembro 12, 1980

Erudition: "The Last Defender of Camelot" by Roger Zelazny

(Original Review, 1980-12-12)

"The Last Defender of Camelot" is not really a new Zelazny book, but is a collection of short stories and novelettes from the very beginning of his career til now. I didn't much care for the title story (Merlin, not Lancelot was always my favorite Arthurian character), but they're all worth reading unless you have them in other collections. Zelazny likes to put his off-hand heroes in situations that are the stuff of legend, and this gets out of hand cases like "Damnation Alley" where the hero is basically a motorcycle thug (aside: everybody, but everybody smokes a lot in his books. Is he himself a chain smoker?), but usually it's just to let you know that he doesn't take this stuff too seriously. He does take it seriously in "He Who Shapes", the original from which the novel "The Dream Master" was derived, and the best story in the book. But then, I'm a sucker for erudition; other people might find the story pretentious.

You wander through the stores, opening and closing, skimming the blurbs, trying to recall snatches of reviews, attempting to parse out how much of what you've heard was meretricious (Quiz for the day: what does "meretricious" mean? (Hint: it does NOT mean "having merit.")

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

quarta-feira, dezembro 10, 1980

Just for Us Techies: "Shatterday" by Harlan Ellison

(Original Review, 1980-12-10)

Houghton Mifflin finally delivered a receptacle for the Shatterday limited edition book plate Ellison: the book itself. I definitely approached the book with a pro-Ellison prejudice, but even normalizing for that leaves me in awe of this guy. Half way through, every story so far has captivated me--even the funny ones have their punch. The book is 332 pp., 16 stories including "Jeffty is Five", "Count the Clock That Tells the Time", "All the Lies That Are My Life", and the story everyone will remember Harlan read during his lecture a few years back, "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge". (Note: Harlan said he wrote that one "just for us Techies", but I've been told the very same story was read at an earlier lecture at some other US Univ. earlier...) The quality of the physical volume is startling, compared to the cardboard-like nature of "Dragon's Egg" (binding only, Bob! The book was great!) and "Beyond the Blue Even Horizon", the other hardcovers I've recently purchased. Shatterday's binding is close to Gregg Press durability, paper heavy, and there are nice frills like tinted intro-pages to each story. There is an interesting continuity to the intro's this time, revolving around the phrase "Writers take tours in other people's lives".

PS1. Cripes. Doesn't the Lennon ordeal sound like something out of "The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart of the World"?

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

sexta-feira, dezembro 05, 1980

{ s(Q|X) = -K SUM(p*ln(p)) }: "Symbols, Signals and Noise" by J. R. Pierce

(Original Review, 1980-12-05)

Final answer to question, "How many joules to send a bit?"

The unit of information is determined by the choice of the arbitrary scale factor K in Shannon's entropy formula:

                     { s(Q|X) = -K SUM(p*ln(p)) }

If K is made equal to 1/ln(2), then S is said to be measured in "bits" of information. A common thermodynamic choice for K is kN, where N is the number of molecules in the system considered and k is 1.38e-23 joule per degree Kelvin, Boltzmann's constant. With that choice, the entropy of statistical mechanics is expressed in joules per degree. The simplest thermodynamic system to which we can apply Shannon's equation is a single molecule that has an equal probability of being in either of two states, for example, an elementary magnet. In this case, p=.5 for both states and thus S=+k ln(2). The removal of that much uncertainty corresponds to one bit of information. Therefore, a bit is equal to k ln(2), or approximately 1e-23 joule per degree K. This is an important figure, the smallest thermodynamic entropy change that can be associated with a measurement yielding one bit of information.

The amount of energy needed to transmit a bit of information when limited by thermal noise of temperature T is:

                      E = kT ln 2  (Joules/bit)

This is derived from Shannon's initial work (1) on the capacity of a communications channel in a lucid fashion by Pierce (2), although it is not obvious that he was the first to derive it. This limit is the same as the amount of energy needed to store or read a bit of information in a computer, which Landauer derived (3) from entropy considerations without the use of Shannon's theorems. Pierce's book is reasonably readable. On page 192 he derives the energy per bit formula (Eq. 10.6), and on page 200 he describes a Maxwell Demon engine generating kT ln 2 of energy from a single molecule and showing that the Demon had to use that amount of energy to "read" the position of the molecule. Then on page 177 Pierce points out that one way of approaching this ideal signalling rate is to concentrate the signal power in a single, short, powerful pulse, and send this pulse in one of many possible time positions, each of which represents a different symbol. This is essentially the concept behind the patent (4) which led me to ask the original question. My thanks to those who helped with their replies.


1.  C. E. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", Bell
    System Tech. J., Vol. 27, No. 3, 379-423 and No. 4, 623-656
    (1948); re-printed in:  C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver, "The
    Mathematical Theory of Communication", University of Illinois
    Press, Urbana, Illinois (1949).
2.  J. R. Pierce, "Symbols, Signals and Noise", Harper, NY (1961)
3.  R. Landauer, "Irreversibility and Heat Generation in the
    Computing Process," IBM J. Res. & Dev., Vol. 5, 183 (1961).
4.  R. L. Forward, "High Power Pulse Time Modulation
    Communication System with Explosive Power Amplifier Means",
U.     S. Patent 3,390,334 (25 June 1968).

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]