Chuq Von Rospach is a Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management and amateur photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and landscapes. My goal is to explore the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found. You can find out more on the About Page.
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This year for the holidays I decided to try something different with a couple of my gifts. Every year, I try to make christmas gifts for the family a little personal, and in the last few years, that’s meant something using my photos.
This year, rather than a standard framed print or a calendar, I had prints done via ArtisanHD on Plexiglas. It looked like an interesting, modern alternative to the standard matted print. These images in the 12×18 size (good for 11×14 prints) ran a bit over $50, and to be honest, I was blown away with how they looked.
If you’re looking for something different and memorable, with good quality, something that’s going to leave an impression — this is something you might want to consider. I liked the quality of the final product, I was very happy with the quality of the print, and in fact, I did one for myself, which is going up in my cube at work tomorrow, too. And I expect it’ll get people to come into the office and ask about it.
I’ve finally finished Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. Having worked at Apple through much of the time covered in the book, I was curious how my view of the time and events matched up with this — the official — version, and to try to get some perspective on the man behind all of this.
I’m happy (and a bit surprised) to say that I found nothing in the book that was demonstrably wrong compared to reality as I remembered it; this is no sanitized, “remember me fondly” hollywood bio; Steve seems to have played fair with Isaacson, and Isaacson played fair with Steve.
You get Steve unfiltered. The book brings clear a complex man; not easy to work with, but not evil. Just — insensitive. I can speak to many people who cursed having to deal with him at times; and after, loved him for having brought out the best in them along the way. The Steve in the book matches up well with the Steve I came to know through living in Silicon Valley and working at Apple. He was an exceptionally intelligent person, but more so, an exceptionally intuitive man who could make that jump directly from point A to the end point, and wasn’t afraid to take those leaps without endless masses of data to justify them. He was also right often enough that he was allowed to do this, even though this can be a scary way of operating to people who aren’t strongly intuitive.
And yet I found myself fighting to get through the book. Unlike some of Isaacson’s other works, this book feels flawed and somewhat lifeless.
I don’t think this is Isaacson’s fault. Unlike some of his other biographies (I especially loved his book on Franklin), the material here is new, it hasn’t been given the benefit of time to smooth off the raw edges or any chance at perspective and consideration that helps us understand what really matters in the essence of the man. I also get the feeling that since so many of the other people involved in this book are alive, Isaacson stepped carefully through various minefields; it feels like there are punches being pulled, that people are being careful — but may not even realize it’s happening. The frustration that Bill Gates showed at some of the comments Steve made is one place where this breaks through, but even there, I think both sides watch their words, knowing posterity was watching, and I think that “carefulness” invades many of the relationships in the book.
That’s inevitable in a book like this, and I’m not criticizing Isaacson for it. I do feel like he was still grappling with the material, still really trying to get his head around the material and Steve and how to write the book, and the end result is that parts of the book, especially later parts, are missing the perspective and analysis I expect from this author. This is a book that would have been better suited to a year of incubation, giving him more of a chance to ponder and polish.
It is, however, a massive and fascinating source of material about Steve, Apple, and Silicon Valley at a seminal time where the people and companies here changed society in so many ways.
My criticisms here are minor — give the book a B-, maybe (where I’d give the Franklin book an easy A-). If you’re at all interested in what has gone on behind the keynotes and product introductions, then this is a definite read for you. But there’s a bigger, better book on Silicon Valley and Steve to be writen, but one that is going to need five or ten years for us to understand Steve in the larger context and let time help us see him after time salves some of the raw emotions so many of us have felt in the last few months.
This is a good book, but not a great book. It is, I think, the best book Isaacson could have written right now, and it’s definitely worth your time (but also go grab the Franklin book, to see Isaacson at his best).
(addendum, added later, but before publication:
One thing that struck me in reading the book was Jobs saying he wanted the book to exist so his kids could read about him and learn who he was. In similar situations, very few of us would think to call up Walter Isaacson and tell him to write our biography. Steve did (and Walter did, because he’s Steve, and this is an important book about an important person). But it seems to me there’s a deeper meaning to this; while most of us would solve this problem by sitting down with our kids and talking, at some level, Steve realized he couldn’t, that he just wasn’t wired that way. I also get the impression that because he insisted on this book being honest, and his flaws weren’t hidden or glossed over, that at some level this book was in Steve’s way also a way of acknowledging he wasn’t the greatest father in the world, and in the kind of act only someone like Steve would do, apologizing to his kids for being what he was, in public. And I think that sums up the Steve we’re seeing in the book: a very complex person who both had flaws and recognized them — but couldn’t overcome them. He was who he was. And he couldn’t just sit down with his kids and explain himself or say I’m sorry. But he could stand up in a very public display and do that — which if you think about it, is a very powerful way to show that you really mean it when you say “i’m sorry” for being what he was to them.)
City of Ruins is Kris Rusch’s sequel to Diving Into the Wreck, which I reviewed back in June. It carries forward the story of from Diving into the Wreck, with the Boss now running an organization committed to acquiring as much of the stealth technology as it can to keep it out of the hands of the Empire and maintain the balance of power. There’s are reports that seem to indicate there might be stealth technology on a planet instead of in deep space, and while the Boss is skeptical, she pulls a team together to go and investigate.
To say “it’s complicated” is an understatement. The planetary government has secrets it would rather not be discovered. The Boss and her team make discoveries that include stealth technology, but definitely not the kind of find they were expecting. Rusch weaves in a completely independent plot line, except it’s really not, and I don’t want to say more than that because it’d be a spoiler. There’s a major earthquake, a first contact sequence, one heck of a chase scene with a “nick of time” escape, and what you end up with is a really fun, high energy romp.
The reader (and the Boss) also take big leaps forward in the understanding of the stealth technology and the ancient history that these derelict ships came from, and the history of how things got to this point in time becomes much clearer.
She also does something I love, and which happens all too rarely in series books — she brings this book to a perfectly satisfactory ending while at the same time clearly setting up the structure for future books and showing hints of where this series is going to go in the future. Too often authors fall too much in love with the overarching story arc and forget to tell the series as a set of solid independent stories, but Rusch avoids that trap. Both City of Ruins and Diving into the Wreck are in depending stories within a larger story, rather than extended chapters.
Oh, and Rusch leaves a subtle but clear sign that uber-loner Boss is going to find her reality complicated even more than expected in future books by a personal relationship. How Rusch handles that should be fascinatingâ€¦.
These books are fun, high energy action adventure science fiction. You don’t need to think too hard, but they don’t fall apart if you poke at them and consider what’s going on underneath the chase scenes. Solid entertainment and well worth your time to grab a copy and spend an evening with them. For best results, read them in sequence, but both books do stand alone if you choose not to.
This week I wanted to give a quick shout out to two local restaurants I’ve really taken a liking to.
A friend of mine has a sort of hobby — he likes to discover the restaurants his favorite chefs go to when they take a night off from their own kitchens. It’s an interesting way to find hidden gems, and they aren’t necessarily famous or expensive; it’s quality food that comes first.
A recent find here is Vedas Indian Restaurant, which is in Milpitas, not a town you normally think of for great restaurants. In fact, it’s a rather unpresuming place, in a strip mall on a secondary street and from the outside doesn’t look very distinctive. Inside? it’s beautiful, and it’s full of really awesome food.
We’ve eaten there twice now, and I’ve been blown away both times. They have their standard menu, but they always have specials as well, and on our last visit we found out they’d just brought on a new chef in from India, and he’s been using specials to experiment with some new dishes. We tried a couple of those experiments, a cooked chicken wing appetizer that we all loved (“this is how buffalo wings should be made!”) and a vegetarian dish that my friend raved on. They also shared a special bread that was cooked in no oil and had parsley added to the dough that was quite tasty.
Being a carnivore, I tend to eat from the tandoori and curries. This last visit I tried theÂ Basil Murgh Makhmali Tikka, tender and moist, and the Daal, which was one of the best Daal soups I’ve ever had. They also do a mango and avocado salad that’s quite tasty. Laurie tends to eat the lamb or goat, and my friend is a fish vegetarian, so we tend to hit most of the menu over time. Everything we’ve ordered there has been astounding.
The restaurant has a very good wine list, and this last visit we had a rather nice Argentinian Malbec from Filus; that should be a hint that this isn’t a list full of generic Napa Chardonnay by the glass. Pricing on the wines is reasonable, and the servers are happy to talk over the list and help you find something you like.
The service has been fine on every visit; attentive without hovering or trying to be your best friend. We typically set our reservations for 7 or 7:30 and it’s not unusual for us to stay at the table for 90 minutes or two hours; typical for an Indian restaurant, when we arriver they’re almost empty, and when we leave, they’re packed.
Pricing is moderate; we’ve spent about $50 a head on our two visits there, including cocktails, wine and tip. Of the various indian restaurants we eat at (including Maudhuban in Sunnyvale and Mynt in San Jose) this one’s rapidly become my favorite.
If you’re looking for something more Italian and upscale, you might want to try Tigelleria Risorante in Campbell, right on the edge of downtown. This is a small place doing very well-prepared Italian dishes using organic and heritage ingredients. The dishes are generally not complicated, but they are cooked as well as the chefs can make them. Menus are changed quarterly. They do both pastas and meats here, plus they do a full charcuterie with cheese, meat and veggie boards that include both locally sourced artisan meats and cheeses and high quality, imported italian options as well. I strongly — very strongly — recommend that at some point you bring a couple of friends and you all agree to share a few boards off of the charcuterie. You won’t regret it. As someone who’s occasionally driven to speaking in tongues by a well done cheese board, their selection left me speechless and whimpering.
Our last visit, we tried their carpaccio and a gelato al peperoncino appetizer (chili pepper ice cream over arugula with aged vinegar and pine nuts); their soup was a carrot, potato and parmesan soup that was velvety and would have made a great entree, they’ll usually have a gnocchi on teh menu and it’s always been light and fluffy. Our last visit the menu included everything from squid ink noodles with shrimp and asparagus in a paprika and cream sauce to wild boar tenderloint to a seared duck breast that was cooked perfectly and was quite tasty in a wine and orange sauce. Their menu is appropriate for both vegetarians and carnivores, and as you can see, this is not your lasagna and pizza roadhouse.
desserts are just as innovative, and the wine list is extensive and they have a full bar including a selection of grappa.
Tigelleria isn’t inexpensive; we typically end up spending $100-125 a head. But for that price there’s usually two bottles of wine, cocktails before, grappa or cordials with dessert, and a full meal and a tip. The staff is well trained and attentive and it’ll be hard to avoid the owner, since she likes to wander the room and make sure everyone is happy.
It may be headed towards the “special event” price level for a restaurant, but it’s not a formal place like Manresa or Kuletos; it’s that nice combination of really great, serious food in a place that isn’t taking itself too seriously.
Because of the price, though, it’s a place we tend to visit about once a quarter to try out the menu when it changes. It is, however, a very good value for the price, and you can keep the cost more moderate by being a little less — enthusiastic — about the wines and cocktails. Still, it’s fun to once in a while just go and pamper yourself, and this is a good place to do some pampering.
(If you’re looking for more of family-style italian restaurant that you won’t mind going to on a regular basis, we really like Mama Mia’s, also in Campbell, where you can get in for a good meal and a bottle of Chianti without upsetting your bank account). I typically judge an italian restaurant by the lasagna, not just because I really like it, but because it’s a dish that suffers if the kitchen is just going through the motions, but if they really care about the food, it tends to shine. It’s quite good here, and this is a good place to come for a nice italian oriented seafood dish, because they always have one on special based on what’s good in the market).
This week I’m reviewing Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s Diving into the Wreck, first book in a new SF series. This is high energy space adventure about a wreck diver, someone who searched space for derelict spaceships and then explores them for usable material. The lead diver, Boss, is a loner who discovers an ancient ship in a location where it shouldn’t be and decides to bring in a team to explore it. The ship may hold great value and great secrets, but it carries risks beyond the obvious one of going inside amid the ruins of a dead ship. There are also other parties interested in the ship and contents, not all of them your friends, and along the way Boss finds herself dealing with various interpersonal conflicts among her team and some unexpected personal history from her past.
This is a high energy story, a fairly quick read, and very entertaining.Â What attracted me to this book — other than Kris being one heck of a writer — is that I while back I worked with a guy who was just getting involved with scuba wreck diving and it was something we talked around a lot; it is an extremely rigorous and risky hobby with a lot of care and detail put into a dive to explore safely and carefully (and get out alive), and Kris has translated this quite well into the even more dangerous vacuum of space.
I thought the characters fit the story well; they aren’t exceptionally deep or complex, but they aren’t really the focus on the story and I found them internally self-consistent and there were enough conflicts and complications in the relationships to make the story interesting without getting in the way of the action that’s the base of the story.
All in all, a very successful evening’s enjoyment.
The second book in the series is City of Ruins and it’s just come out in paperback and audiobook. A kindle version will evidently be coming along later, and I’ve definitely put it on my todo list.
If you like a good rip-roaring read and space drama, this one is one you should add to your list. Definitely recommended.
I think most of us go through periods were we do relatively little reading, and so you fall behind on books and authors you like. As I’ve been moving back into a period where I’m doing a lot more reading again, I’m not only discovering new writers like Patrick Rothfuss (review coming soon) and established writers I never got around to reading for some reason (like Michael Stackpole), I’m also taking the time to go back and spend check out new works (at least, new to me) of some of the authors I’ve enjoyed many times over the years.
So if you will indulge me a bit, today is all about saying hi to some old friends.
My first visit is with Michael Moorcock, who’s been writing fiction almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve been reading his work almost as long as I’ve been able to read. There are three authors that I grew up reading that have defined the classic sword and sorcery style of epic fantasy, and Moorcock is one of them (the other two are Tolkien and Fritz Leiber, who I’m sure I’ll talk about some other day). Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.
Elric is the last Emperor of Melnibone, a sorceror and an albino. He is the owner of — and owned by — a demon in the shape of a Sword, Stormbringer. If there’s a common theme in the Elric stories, it’s that whatever else happens, “lives happily ever after” is not likely, and not sustained. Elric is far from a noble being and the world around him is dark and bleak, but I don’t believe he’s an evil person. More properly, he’s a survivor in a world that is evil around him.
Del Rey has recently come out with new editions of some of his work, with two collections of his earlier short stories, Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn. There’s a third volume, Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress which I haven’t read yet, but which is on my todo list for sometime soon. The universe Elric lives in is rich and complex, Moorcock’s language is powerful — and the imagery he builds in these stories is dark and frequently somewhat disturbing. I find I can only read so much of his work at a time, and then I have to stop before it depresses me too much; it leaves me with a bit of a desire for something light and fluffy for a while to counterbalance it. Any time an author affects me that strongly it’s a good thing, but at the same time, I do suggest if you find yourself reacting that way as well, you might want to take your time and read these volumes in bits and pieces.
But read them you should, and if you haven’t discovered Moorcock yet, you’re in for a treat.
Another flavor of fantasy I love is urban fantasy, where the themes and memes of the fantasy world get interwoven with today’s reality in a way that makes you feel that perhaps you’ll cross the street and find yourself slipping into Faerie by chance. There’s no author who does that better than Charles de Lint and one of his better books at exploring this intersection is The Onion Girl. His characters live in a typical city, and then the walls into the Faerie world start breaking down, and much of the story involves them coming to grips with this as their world turns upside down.
In the Onion Girl, Jill Coppercorn is an artist who has long painted a fantasy land that doesn’t exist, the dark and the shadow that hides within the city. When she’s hit by a car and facing a long recovery while unable to paint, she falls into depression and disappears down into her dreams to escape her reality. Her friends face the challenge of helping her through this time — but when things start happening in this reality that seem tied to the land she visits in the dreams, de Lint calls into question reality in general.
I love de Lints’ characters and how he tells their stories. Their stories are rarely fun — but this isn’t the bleak desolation of Elric, but more the sadness of desperation and isolation. His intertwinining of the real world and the faerie world is fascinating and complex, and he seems to love playing with the concept of which is “the real world” by challenging our assumptions that what is comfortable and familiar is what is real. Â He’s another author that if you haven’t discovered you will find a treat. Other works of his I’ll happily recommend include Svaha, Forests of the Heart, and Jack of Kinrowan.
I seem to be on a darkish fantasy kick this week, so let’s continue with one more. Peter David has been in the field for a long time as a writer of comic books and Star Trek novels, and also has a strong set of original fiction works as well. He’s written science fiction and fantasy, light work, dark work. I have to admit that Laurie and once named a pair of bad guys in a story we published after him — and he retaliated by making me the sound effect of one of his superheroes being run over by a tank in one of his comic books. I was honored.
Tigerheart is one of my favorite books that he’s written. It is a retelling of a classic victorian tale that we will all find familiar but which won’t get him in any legal trouble with the J.M Barrie’s estate. It’s the story of The Boy, and Gwenny, and the Bully Boys, and a little fairy that cusses a lot more than she did in the Disney movie.
To the degree that Peter Pan is darkish and without happy endings, so is this. But it’s a lot of fun and a rip-roaring read, and a lot of fun. Unlike Peter Maguire’s Wicked (which I love, but I love the stage play even more — but the play is a much different telling than the book of the same story. But I digress), where Wicked puts the story into another character’s viewpoint and turns it on its ear, David tells the same story, but tells it very differently. Both retellings have an adult sensibility to them, so don’t plan on using them to read your kid to bed.
One final book for this week, one final old friend to share. I’ve been reading Larry Niven since high school. His classic work Ringworld defines the hard SF genre for many of us, and his Ringworld universe is one I’ve visited many times. But today, let me introduce you The Draco Tavern. It’s a bar — Â but it’s a bar that caters to all of the known sentient species with all of their known foibles and vices.
Okay, remember when I was talking about Elric and saying that after a while, I felt like I neede something light and fluffy to read? Well, this is it. Larry Niven gets to invent interesting and weird species and have them walk into the bar (or slither, or fly, or teleport, or…) and then entertainment ensues. They’re fun stories. They’re engaging stories. They are not going to make you rethinking the core of your philosophy, but they’ll leave you with a smile, and like everything Niven writes, they’re well done. Mostly? They’re fun. and sometimes, I don’t know about you, but i don’t want deep, earth shaking fiction, I want to turn off my brain and enjoy myself. And Draco’s Tavern is a wonderful place to do so.
In many ways, Draco’s Tavern is Niven channeling James White’s Sector General, which is the same style and type of stories, only set in a hospital designed to take care of the sick of any species known in the universe (and capable of figuring out ones that get discovered). If you’ve read White, you know what Draco’s Tavern is about. If you haven’t, then when you’re done with this book, go grab a copy of Hospital Station. This stuff is classic mind candy — but sometimes, what you need is mind candy. And these are well worth an evening on the couch.
Until next week, enjoy….
Having just returned from my Yosemite trip and using Mariposa as my base camp, here are a couple of places I can happily recommend if you end up in this area….
I stayed at the Mariposa Lodge. This is the first time I’ve actually stayed at the Lodge I’ve recommended the Lodge to a few people over the years based on recommendations I’ve gotten from others; all of the people who stayed there gave it the thumbs-up, and I’m happy to say I can as well. This is your classic motor lodge, park outside the door to your room, carry your bags 20 feet kinda place. Some of these places can be a bit dated; my room was in great shape and seemed recently renovated, but the furniture didn’t quite match, so it avoided that “corporate sameness” problem you have with the chains. Even better, it was quiet, the bed was comfortable, the room was large, and the television had Versus so I even got to see a bit of hockey. The staff was friendly and happily moved some things around to get me a room away from stairs (for which my knees thank them). And they’re inexpensive. Not the cheapest place in town, but the towels won’t exfoliate you when you shower, and your neighbors won’t hear you typing away at night on your computer… It’s in the center of town (such as the town is defined) and there are some places you can walk to if you want food or coffee. I can recommend them without hesitation, since they’re going to be my place of choice when when I’m staying there.
I spent most of the trip eating from carried supplies, but I did have one dinner at the Happy Burger Diner, because I was ready for some protein and grease. Burgers and similar fare. Fries, Onion Rings (which rocked), drinks, shakes, desserts. Your classic burger joint. Bonus points for friendly staff, double bonus points for saying “hun” without is sounding silly or forced. More bonus points for the sign telling you it’ll take 15 minutes to get you your meal because they actually have to cook it — it’s a burger joint, not fast food. Tasty and well done, and the onion rings were nicely hot and crisp and just a bit greasy, the way god intended, and not the way you get them in the chains. For those in the bay area, food is similar to St. Johns, but not quite so production line. I saw a couple of folks eating chili in a bread bowl that looked quite tasty, too. Maybe next time.
Now, a few words on using Mariposa as a staging point for a Yosemite trip. Be aware it’s a drive — 40 miles one way from Mariposa to the valley floor. It’ll take you a good hour each way, so this is not a place where you can decide to pop back to the room, you’ll see the room at the start and end of the day, and you need to plan drive time into your schedule.
Your options are somewhat limited when visiting Yosemite, though, especially when the weather might be off. You can stay in the park, but it’s expensive. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, which remind me of a 70′s Travelodge — well cared for but dated — will set you back $220 this time of year, if you can get a room. My room was $90 (both prices before taxes). The primary advantage of the Lodge at the Falls is that you’re in the valley, so you have little travel time. On the other hand, food in the park is either expensive and not very good (the Lodge cafeteria) or more expensive but very good (the Lodge restaurant). Other places within the park follow that model. If you want to stay at the Ahwahnee, expect to pay double that price for the room, and dress for dinner (cost: don’t ask), if you can get a room. Curry Village is less expensive, but — rustic. many rooms without electricity or heat. If that’s your style, great. Not me, not any more.
I happen to love the Wawona, which is on the south road. It’s a three season hotel. pricing is on a par with the Lodge at the falls, but it’s a beautiful place. Many rooms share a bathroom, some have their own. And the restaurant is pricey but good. Be aware that even though it’s in the park, it’s easily a 40 minute drive to the valley floor; you aren’t saving much time, if any, staying here. But I really like it, and it’ gets you away from the crowds to some degree.
Further south out of the park is Tenaya Lodge, run by Delaware North, the yosemite concession host. supposed to be nice, I haven’t visited. And pricey, but upscale. Even further drive than Wawona.
Between Mariposa and the park is El Portal, which is really little more than a couple of hotels and gas stations. Right next to park entrance is the Yosemite View Lodge, and a few miles down the road towards Mariposa is the Cedar Lodge. Yosemite View Lodge gets good reviews by people I know, and is typically where photo seminars run in the park stay. Cedar Lodge is less expensive — Laurie’s stayed there and rates it adequate with a bit of character. So to speak. Either one is a reasonable option, but in both cases, if you’re staying there, you’re going to be eating at the motel restaurant, because there’s no other infrastructure around.
As the crowds around Yosemite build (starting now — the park was fairly busy and some hotels in Mariposa were full), the prices for rooms goes up and your options get limited. But as a checkpoint, right now, Yosemite Lodge at the falls would run you about $220, Yosemite View Lodge about $160, Cedar lodge about $120, and Mariposa Lodge was about 90. All plus tax. If you can find rooms; right now, everything within the park is stuffed, and both Yosemite View Lodge and Cedar Lodge seem to be basically full well into June.
One hint if you want to stay within the park is keep an eye on the yosemitepark.com webÂ site, some times you can grab last minute cancellations. Unless you plan way ahead or go during very slow times (November through early March), that’s about the only way you’ll grab a room within the park. They also have a newsletter (somewhat hidden on the site, look for the “Email Updates” forms spread around) that if you’re timing it flexible, can get you offers for discounts if you can go during slow times or can plan ahead.
My recommendations: when I visit in the winter and roads and weather can be ugly, I try to stay at the Lodge at the Falls. Off season rates are fairly reasonable, and I don’t have to worry about the roads being accessed; the valley floor is rarely impassible, but the entrance roads can get iffy or require chains. Either motel in El Portal is a reasonable value and minimizes the commute, but be aware you’re limiting your food and gas options; what you save in driving you’ll invest in more expensive gasoline (warning: do not buy gas in El Portal. It is by far the most expensive option. It seems counter-intuitive, but you’ll get your gas cheaper by driving into the park and going to Crane Flats or Wawona. Mariposa is the closest reasonably priced gas, but El Portal is typically $.50 or more a gallon more expensive than Crane Flats. Be warned). Â But while the drive from Mariposa is long (it’s sort of like visiting Disneyland by staying in San Diego) I find I prefer that. It depends on what I’m trying to do — if I’m going to be doing a lot of night photography or crack of dawn work, El Portal would be worth it. But I think the best values are in Mariposa. Just fill your tank before you head in…
There aren’t many authors in the SF field where I can claim both of these statements are true:
- I have read every one of their published novels.
- I make sure I grab and read their books as soon as they are published.
John Scalzi is one of those authors; in fact, the only other two I can think of are Steven Brust and Terry Goodkind. Mike Resnick would be on the list except he’s written so much stuff over the years I’ll never catch up with the backlog, but I’m trying…
The reality is that there’s more SF and Fantasy published in the US in a month than I could reasonably read in a year; add in horror, historical fiction and spy thriller/mystery fiction as areas I dabble in to a lesser degree and the chance I’ll ever come close to keeping up with the field is ludicrous. In many ways this is a good thing, since choice and diversity are great — but it also means that no matter what, there are going to be books and authors I’ll never get to. To be honest about it — in my years involved with SFWA I got to know way more authors than I could keep up with, so even limiting it to “friends and acquaintances” is a big fail.
So I don’t even try. Back in the days when I was publishing OtherRealms, I set myself the goal of making sure at least every fifth book was by an author I’d never read before. I still try to keep to that today — it forces me to explore the diversity and the new voices of the field, but it means I’m less likely to read deeply within the works of any specific author. It helps that I tend to shy away from pure series authors and long series, unless they’re really extra-ordinary (and note for the record that one of the authors above is Terry Goodkind, who is both, so obviously, it’s not a hard and unbreakable rule. But the why of that’s for some other time.)
Which brings me, in the long way around, to John Scalzi. I don’t remember how I got turned onto Scalzi, but it was probably people sending me pointers to things on his blog, Whatever. I liked the writing, and even better, the attitude behind it. So I gaveÂ Old Man’s War, his first novel a try. Halfway through I orderedÂ The Ghost Brigades so I could dive into it immediately. This was 2007, andÂ The Last Colony had just come out in hardcover, so I grabbed it, too. AndÂ The Android’s Dream.
This isn’t typical of me. I rarely buy hardcovers any more, more because of space than cost — and the sad realization that my reading backlog is such that I rarely GET to a book before it comes out in paperback. The Kindle and ebooks are changing this for me, since I’ve made a commitment to buy as few dead trees as absolutely necessary and so I now target the electronic edition of a book (and sorry, if you don’t publish an ebook version, I’ll probably not buy it for a long time).
But over a three month period, I read four Scalzi novels. And since then, whenever a new one’s come out, I’ve grabbed it and put it at the front of the line. Why?
He’s a very good writer, and a very clear writer. He has a strong voice, he’s not afraid to take a strong position, he’s not afraid to challenge difficult topics, and he’s not afraid to challenge himself — but ultimately, his books are solid, good, entertaining reads. The series starting with Old Man’s War (and also includingÂ Zoe’s Tale andÂ The Sagan Diary) is a new take on some classic SF themes — interstellar warfare and galactic politics. Scalzi’s an admitted fan of Heinlein, and this series starts by taking Starship Troopers and re-imagining it and expanding its scope to look at the bigger issues around the conflict and the people involved within the conflict.
Old Man’s War tweaks Starship Troopers in a new direction; take your elderly population and offer them a new life — if they enlist, they get a new young body. If they survive the wars, they go off as colonists to one of the newer outposts within human space. There’s a nod to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War here, in that as you get further into the series, it becomes obvious less obvious what you’re fighting for and why. In Ghost Brigades, Scalzi looks at this body translation from a different direction, where the military uses the DNA of dead people to create soldiers they then raise and teach, rather than transfer the memories of a person. These Ghost Soldiers are human — but not completely humanlike. In some ways it’s almost as if they’ve raised an entire army of functioning autistics and he does a good job of leaving you feeling a bit uncomfortable with the result. In the third book, The Last Colony, Scalzi takes his soldiers and releases them from military duty and sends them off to colonize a world, which gets complicated in various ways that bring forward the real questions of why the war is being fought and who your friends and enemies really are, and what necessary things you do to protect what you care about.
It’s a fast-paced, entertaining read, but it has a quite complex subtext underneath it. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.
And then he went off and did a couple more books in the series — Zoe’s Tale is the story retold, but from the point of view of one of the other characters, who just happens to be a teenaged girl. To be honest, I don’t think there’s an idea that scares most male adult writers than writing a book with a strong and honest female character, much less a teen-aged one. To me, Scalzi pulled it off; more importantly, when I’ve talked or read about the reactions of girls, they seem to think so, too. Circling back into a story is always a risk, because the reader knows how it’s going to turn out, so you have to find other ways to keep then entertained and interested. In this, Scalzi succeeds. In the final book of the series, The Sagan Diary, Scalzi takes a closer look at the Ghost Soldiers with a shorter work written as a series of diary entries by one of the Ghost Soldiers, who realizes she is different than “real” humans and is trying to figure out how to become one. it’s a shorter work published via small press, but it’s a fascinating read.
Along the way, I’ve picked up some of his other works. Android’s Dream is just a weirdly interesting book. If you can imaging Phillip K Dick going off on a long weekend with Keith Laumer’s Retief of the CDT, then you have some idea of what you’re in store for here. If you can’t; well, grab a copy and settle in for a fun and crazy trip. Â You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing is aimed at people who think they want to write for a living — and is a book where Scalzi’s sense of humor (we could call it wry, we could call it dry or sardonic, but honestly, the best word for it is snide) comes out in full force. it’s a fun read — and has a lot of really good material on the reality of the writing life. If you are thinking of being a writer, you ought to read it, because it’ll give you a perspective you won’t find in the “work hard and keep trying! and buy my next book!” writing books out there… Another book where his sense of humor is in full swing isÂ Agent to the Stars, which is a pure skiffy romp through a first contact story that both covers some serious issues (how do you think the world would react to real little green men?) without ever taking itself very seriously. Lots of fun.
And finally, his most recent work,Â The God Engines. Another shorter book, here Scalzi shifts gears completely and writes a darkish fantasy, albeit one with spaceships. Those spaceships are driven not by machines and physics, but by beings, and those beings are not always willing, and so there’s a societal conflict over what is effectively kidnap and torture for the common good — and the implications of what that means to the people (and other things) involved.
I’ve been waiting (somewhat) patiently for his next book, and it hits the stores this week.Â Fuzzy Nation is based on the classic by H. Beam Piper and is somewhere between a sequel and a re-imagining. I’ve already ordered mine, and it’ll be going with me on my trip next week.
If you haven’t read Scalzi, you should; start with Old Man’s War, his first novel, but he was very much a mature writer when he took this on. I also suggest God Engines as an introduction, and I expect I’ll be recommending Fuzzy Nation once I read it as well. The rest of his Old Man’s War series should be read in sequence, it’s not something you can pick books out at random. And if you like Old Man’s War, you’ll like the rest of the series, because he keeps the quality up throughout, and the story he tells is sustained through the entire series. All of his stuff is recommended; he hasn’t disappointed me yet. And that’s rare.