Tag Archives: reviews

The Hard SF Renaissance, Part 1

I’ve passed the quarter way mark in my reading of The Hard SF Renaissance, having read the first 10 of 41 stories in the book. It seems that this would be a good time to collect my thoughts on the first 10 stories.

For those who are interested…

Old Man’s War

I finished Old Man’s War early this afternoon. It was terrific. It was just what I hoped it would be, and I think it easily holds its own with books such as Starship Troopers and The Forever War.

Minor spoilers behind the cut

Review: Ear to the Wire

Todd McCombs is a tall, lankly fellow who typically stands a head taller than those around him. He, along with his brother Scott, make up the eclectic rock band, The Shimshaws, who recently released their sophomore album, Ear to the Wire. Just as Todd stands taller than most of his peers, Ear to the Wire stands tall in an otherwise relentless stream of mediocre music that seems to want to do nothing more than imitate the latest trends on American Idol.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention that I’ve know Todd for more than 10 years, and have always been a fan of his music. By day, we both work in the same department at the same company, our offices right next to each other. Outside of work, Todd and his brother Scott’s musical talent and artistry are injected into all of their projects, be it their excellent debut album, Subcutaneous, or the music for a finalist in the 48-hour film festival project. The Shimshaws have a mastery of the pop/rock genre that comes across in each of the dozen tracks on their latest album.

Such mastery is no surprise once you know something about Todd’s musical background. From broad influences from the Beatles and R.E.M. to more recent bands like The Shins, there is a fun, high-energy feel to The Shimshaws music. And while songs from Ear to the Wire and Subcutaneous have had more limited radio play, it has always been my opinion that their work is good enough to earn them a Billboard hit if only The Shimshaws were willing to tour. It is not an unfamiliar scene to Todd, who has performed at D.C.’s famous 930 Club, and at New York’s way station for punk, CBGB‘s. Touring and a little more promotion could turn this excellent local band into something even bigger.

Ear to the Wire contains a stimulating mix of the genre. There is “Ocean CIty”, perhaps the signature song of the album (and the only one for which Todd and Scott produced a music video, which they have made available on YouTube). “Ocean City” is a local song (the title refers to Ocean City, Maryland, a popular summer vacation spot in the metro D.C. area), but at the same time appeals to the broadest possible audience. It’s a song about youth and fun and the beginning of summer. This is all captured in the outstanding and intelligent song-writing, and also in The Shimshaws’ signature guitar bridge just about 2 minutes into the song. With proper marketing and management, it would not surprise me to see “Ocean City” adopted by Ocean City, Maryland for use in promotional tourism commercials.

Perhaps my favorite song of the album is a more mellow, yet more sophisticated song called “Once Again”. The music in this track clearly evokes The Beatles’ influence on the band, while the subject matter, imagery and lyrics are the most mature of the album, reminding me of the intelligent sophistication of songwriters such as Elvis Costello.

If you just like to rock, then “Another Life” is the song for you. Just as their song “I’m On My Way” was the fun-loving, pop/rock song off of their debut album, “Another Life” fits that bill on Ear to the Wire, yet with added maturity. While the Shimshaws are already good at placing aptly timed bridges in their music, this song demonstrates not only the keenness of their musical acumen, but also what good performers they are. It has what I consider to be the best guitar work on the entire album. I can listen to this song over and over again without tiring of it.

Other songs on the album demonstrate the range of Todd and Scott’s talents: the impressive vocals on “Ordinary Days”; the soft, acoustic sounds of “Acadia”; the montage-like feel of “Closer”. All of these songs combine to give Ear to the Wire the feel of a solid pop/rock album produced by a band who knows what they are doing, and can do it very well. The production quality is profession from the music and lyrics to the cover art and liner notes of the album. When I listen to Ear to the Wire, I can’t help but think that this would be the perfect set of songs to perform live, and it is to my great dismay that The Shimshaws simply no longer have the time for live performances. (Though I am doing my best to encourage Todd to get back on the road.)

Ear to the Wire is an outstanding album, put out by a talented set of siblings. I would strongly urge you to go out and get a copy. And if you like it, pick up their debut album, Subcutaneous. Both albums are available on iTunes and CD Baby. Or see The Shimshaws’ website for more information:


Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer

I finished Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer, last night around 10 PM. It’s the 386th book on my list. Like most of Rob’s books have been for me, I could hardly put this one down. I started it on Sunday and got through perhaps the first 90 pages or so. Yesterday, although I worked all day and then spent time in the evening doing some writing of my own, I still managed to get through the remaining 260 pages, although I had to stay up late to do it.

This is good science fiction that combines a half dozen big idea into one exciting mash-up. It’s a book about First Contact, in the same vain as Carl Sagan’s Contact. It’s a book about artificial intelligence, quantum computing, human consciousness (even what it means to be human), psychology, and false memories.

It is all of this and yet it is also the story of a family that has fallen apart and is struggling to find some way to put itself back together again. It’s a touching story that–science fiction tropes aside–I found moving at several levels.

Like most of Rob’s stories, this one takes place in Canada, which gives it an almost alien quality to those of us who are American readers. I really like this about Rob’s books. I feel like I’ve grown to know the Canadian psyche, in some small way, through the characters I’ve met and identified with in his books, and Factoring Humanity was no exception.

Some books that attempt to tackle such a variety of mind-expanding ideas, build up to a requisite pitch of excitement and anticipation, but fall flat, somehow, when unveiling the conclusion. No so, Factoring Humanity. The payoff is, in my opinion worthy of the story being told. The characters are strong, struggling with their demons and each other. It’s one of those books that really had me, it was a page turning, and it was moving. It had almost everything that makes a perfect read for me.

But I don’t give those out lightly. I rated the book 4 stars (out of 5). I was tempted to give it 4-1/2 stars, but my policy since I started keeping my list was not to give out half-stars and I simply couldn’t see myself starting now. It was one of those stories that I really, really, enjoyed however, and it’s a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in reading an example of superb science fiction.

The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

I finished The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer last night just before going to bed. What a terrific book!

The book is about a near-future Toronto engineer who makes medical detection equipment. After witnessing an organ harvesting on a “brain dead” patient, he decides to use his equipment to see if he can come up with a better definition of legally “dead”. In doing so, he discovers that the last bit of brain activity appears to be some kind of coherent electric “form” leaving the brain through the temple–what comes to be called the “Soulwave”.

This book pushed all of my near-future science fiction buttons–artificial intelligence, computers, theology, experimental science–and wrapped it all in a murder mystery. I flew through the book, completing all 105,000 words in less than two days. One way I judge how well I like a book is by how hard it is to put down, and like most of Rob’s books, this one was tough to set aside. I had a number of meetings yesterday, and knowing people’s penchant for being late to meetings, I even managed to sneak in some reading while waiting for people to show up.

I don’t know how he does it, but Rob has a knack for drawing the reader instantly into the story and then racing through at what sometimes seems like breakneck speeds, all the while keeping the reader fascinated and entertained. As an American reader, the fact that his stories are typically set in Canada–Toronto specifically in The Terminal Experiment makes the setting all the more interesting. At the same time, the characters themselves are believable, real-life human beings. They are fallible, they make mistakes, bad decisions and we feel for them through the whole story. It was particularly difficult to watch the ebb and flow of the relationship between Peter Hobson and his wife throughout the story. Difficult because, we’ve all been there, or know someone who has; we know exactly what Peter is feeling.

Rob also has a way of making extrapolations about the near future that are so obvious and yet subtle. He is, perhaps, Robert Heinlein’s equal in this respect. He doesn’t tell you about all of these cool gadgets and gizmos. Instead, he includes them as though they are just an everyday part of society and that everyone knows what they are, no explanation required. It provides a much more natural feel for the setting of the story.

Rob is also very good at exploring all avenues of a premise and taking each to its natural conclusion, in this respect, his stories are like Isaac Asimov’s and The Terminal Experiment is no different. The book is an exploration of all of the possibilities of what makes life life, what makes a living person living and a dead person dead.

In another way, Rob is like Asimov: the clarity of his writing. His style is plain, clear, unadorned, and for the type of stories he tells, this is perfect. Mind you, this is not to say the writing is bad. Isaac Asimov used to say that writing clearly is just as hard as writing poetically. But the style does not get in the way of the story-telling and that is crucial.

The Terminal Experiment reminded me, in some ways, of Connie Willis’ Passage. This is phrased wrong. Rob’s book was written years before Connie’s, but I read Connie’s first, back in 2002. They deal in similar themes, exploring what it means to be alive and dead. While I found Connie’s book to be the more chilling of the two, I found Rob’s to be, overall, the more enjoyable read. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday morning

I got a pretty good night’s sleep last night and I was up at about 7:30 this morning, and spent some time browsing online. In noticed that Tangent Online recently reviewed issue #4 of Intergalactic Medicine Show, touching briefly on each story in the issue. (In fact, the magazine has reviewed all of the first 4 issues of IGMS.)

Jen’s train looks like it will be arriving 5 minutes early; she’s scheduled to get in at 10:15. We plan on heading to Georgetown for brunch, and then up to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor later this afternoon. (And we have dinner reservations at Ruth’s Chris up in the Inner Harbor; I am craving their steak!)

I’m about 500 pages through In Joy Still Felt. I probably won’t quite finish it by the 30th, but it will be close. I’m taking a break from it today in order to catch up on magazines. I’m trying to read through the magazines that I receive as close to the day that I receive them as I can. I have two on which to go through today, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN and mental_floss. Rather than lug my big book downtown with me, I’m taking the magazines and see how much I can get through.

It’s overcast right now, but it should be comfortable today, with highs reaching near 70 degrees. I noted that on Tuesday, the highs here in the Metro, D.C. area will hit 91 degrees! (And less than a month earlier, it was still freezing and snowing!)

Yanks dropped their 7th in a row, giving them the dubious honor of having the 2nd worst record in all of baseball (Kansas City is still the worse, but perhaps not for long). I love my Yankees, but I am simply not as emotionally attached this year because I can’t afford to invest the time watching every game as I did last year. Still, I have every confidence that they will turn things around and sports writers will be talking about their incredible comeback after such an abysmal start to the season.

The Iliad Bookshop

One of my favorite bookstores in the whole world, The Iliad Bookshop just got a nice little write-up in the April 2007 issue of Los Angeles Magazine. For 8 years, I lived virtually around the corner from this bookstore, and during that time, I probably purchased 100 or more used books, and spent an equal number of hours slavering over it’s shelves.

It’s one of the few places in L.A. that I really miss.

Deja Vu

I went to see the new Denzel Washington movie, Deja Vu yesterday afternoon and I have to say that I was disappointed with it. The acting was good (it usually is with someone of Denzel’s stature) but the story itself was flawed in my opinion, enough so that it really took away from the movie.

Spoilers contained within. Proceed with caution

Instant Classic

I caught a commercial last night for the new movie Borat which had quotes from reviewers, praising the various qualities of the movie. They save their best praise for last in these things, and the reviewer was quoted as calling the movie an “instant comedy classic”.

“Instant classic” is an oxymoron, right?

Inappropriate hyperbole is a pet peeve of mine (you see enough of it during election campaigns to last a life time). A just-released comedy can’t be a “classic”. The reviewer needs to go back to reviewer school.

Two thumbs down.

Oh, and I TiVo’d the commercial and watched it several times, just because I could.