The 2005 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2005. It may seem like quite a bit fewer than in previous years, but I’ve also read dozens of graphic novels that I haven’t reviewed.

[ - Mark's Pick - ] indicates a notable book.

This page also contains my reading queue.

Books Read


Ian Watson
Library book
3-4 January

The titular Mockymen are bodiless aliens who inhabit human bodies that have burned out on the alien-supplied euphoriant Bliss. In exchange, they’ve provided Earth with technology which is returning the world to stability. But are the Mockymen really benevolent? And what does it all have to do with an occult Nazi ritual that took place at the end of World War II?

The result is a book that left me unmoved. The Mockymen are barely alien, the ending wraps up mostly off-page, and the Nazi subplot is never satisfactorily explained. Enh.

The Boy Who Would Live Forever

Frederick Pohl
Library book
4-7 January

The year’s reading is not starting out on a good note. The latest book in Pohl’s Heechee series is a fix-up of several previously published stories, and it doesn’t hang together. Stan and Estella, the nominal main characters, aren’t interesting, and contribute nothing to what little there is to the plot. The dramatic conflict has something to do with the rich jerk Wan, but the whole thing doesn’t resolve so much as fizzle out. The other characters fare little better; Gelle-Klara Moynlin gains some depth, but Marc Anthony’s strategic prowess isn’t explained at all. If you must pick up the book, read chapter seven and ignore the rest.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
Project Gutenberg
8-9 January

This may be a classic, but suffers from didacticism (particularly in the speeches of Lord Henry) and overwriting (particularly in chapter XIII). Still, it does make one think, and it’s full of Wildean bon mots. Of course, once you read it you must read Stevenson as well.

The Man Who Shocked the World

Thomas Blass
Library book
7-17 January

Stanley Milgram was the maverick social psychologist whose work on obedience to authority changed our understanding of human nature. I write "maverick" not for the audacity of his experiments, but for his differences from other social psychologists of the day. He didn’t undertake his experiments on authority, and other later experiments, to prove or disprove a particular theory; rather, he was interested in the results themselves. For another example, despite the continuing debate over whether the obedience experiments were ethical, the truth is that at the time, the obedience experiments broke new ground in the ethical treatment of participants.

The Man Who Shocked the World introduces us to the complex and contradictory character of Dr. Milgram, and describes his evolving research interests. It’s a fascinating picture, and one that makes me want to learn more, but I wonder whether it really captures the man himself. I’d say this is a good biography (assuming it’s accurate, which I can’t judge), but not definitive.

The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde
New trade paperback
17-21 January

Lost in a Good Book

Jasper Fforde
New trade paperback
21-23 January

The Well of Lost Plots

Jasper Fforde
New trade paperback
23-25 January

Something Rotten

Jasper Fforde
Library book
26-27 January

Thursday Next is a literary detective for Special Operations. In her alternate England, Richard III is acted out a là Rocky Horror and Baconists go door-to-door trying to convince people of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Next, whose job usually involves determining the authenticity of bogus manuscripts, faces a truly unique challenge when a master criminal steps into a novel and threatens to take Jane Eyre hostage.

So begins The Eyre Affair. It’s a treat, combining the imaginative zaniness of Douglas Adams with pop culture and maybe a little chicklit too. Fforde walks a fine line, going a little bit over the top occasionally, but it all spins by so fast that it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment.

Recommendation: read Jane Eyre before reading these books. And Shakespeare, and Great Expectations, and Biggles, and maybe a few bodice-rippers for good measure.

The Best of Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown
Used paperback
21-29 January

More than thirty stories, almost all of which feature a twist ending. The prose is workmanlike, with no unnecessary modifiers, leaving them rather flat, but at least they’re short (some less than a page). Better taken in small doses.

Janet and Me

Stan Mack
Library book
29-30 January

Stan Mack’s account of his partner’s life with cancer treads the border between profusely illustrated and graphic novel. The label doesn’t really matter, as I was crying about halfway into it. What I’ll remember is the bewilderment the author felt, the frustration that he had to learn so many lessons about health care the hard way.


William Gibson
16-18 February

It’s a classic, but on rereading it does indeed seem thin. Gibson seems to delight more in flash—particularly surfaces and textures—than character or plot. Good scenes, perhaps, but it’s like a vending-machine raincoat that was all the rage last year.


Steven Gould
Library book
18-19 February

This sequel to Jumper begins with Davy, its teleporting protagonist, being kidnapped. While he tries to effect his own escape, Millie, his wife of ten years, begins her own search. Both of them are going to face challenges and discover new skills.

The book alternates chapters between the two main characters, and that’s a good thing. After the USA’s tortures in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was in no mood to read about someone’s imprisonment and conditioning. Breaking my rule of always reading the entire book, I skipped the Davy chapters, reading just the Millie chapters. Afterward, I skimmed the Davy chapters.

The novel is a mixed bag. I was particularly pleased that the author showed some sympathy for the plight of the homeless (a subject usually ignored in science fiction), although the concern petered out after the first few chapters. Likewise, Millie’s inspiration in the National Gallery was a good touch, but didn’t last. On the other hand, the Davy chapters had me wondering what kind of person would voluntarily spend time thinking up scenarios for kidnapping, imprisoning, and conditioning someone. That’s just sick.

Stable Strategies and Others

Eileen Gunn
Library book
22-23 February

A mixed collection of stories. "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" is the strongest; the others range in quality. For a collection so lauded by good writers, I was disappointed to find not one but two slipstream stories. Can’t we do better than that?

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days

Alastair Reynolds
Library book
23-24 February

Two long stories set in the universe of Revelation Space. "Turquoise Days" is the better of the two; "Diamond Dogs" left me unmoved.


John Barnes
Library book
25-26 February

A tall tale about drugs, an amazing gizmo, industrial espionage, and the end of the world. It’s a fun ride, and a welcome change from the third person narratives of most SF, but in this case I ended the novel with a nagging need to slap the tale-teller. Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable, kind of like what Rudy Rucker might write if he wanted to get his stories read by those who don’t take drugs recreationally.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see an author inform his readers of a powerful but rarely discussed point of law, jury nullification. Check it out.


Gwyneth Jones
Library book
27 February-1 March

Anna Senoz is a student, scientist, and great character. Life is her story, and it’s very good. Following Anna from college through parenthood, we see her cope with skeptical colleagues, troubled friendships, love, and herself. She’s not the virtuous heroine, yet neither is she the incomplete villain. Neither of these apply to a story that owes more to John Crowley than most realistic SF. I don’t mean to slight the author by comparing her work to others; Life is completely her own, and well worth reading. (If I were feeling spiteful, I’d mention that this is what Margaret Atwood miserably failed to achieve when she tried to write literary SF.)

The cover of the first US edition depicts two ornately dressed young Asian women. It brought to mind the author’s story "Balinese Dancer", which was the standout story of its year. In correspondence, the author confirmed that although the characters in Life are based on the ones in "Balinese Dancer", the two are not directly connected. Nonetheless, read the story after the novel; it’s a powerful postscript.

The Life of Samuel Johnson

James Boswell, abridged by Edmund Fuller
Used paperback
27 June 2003-15 March 2005

It usually doesn’t take me two years to read a book, but The Life of Samuel Johnson was an exception. The first quarter of the book recounts Dr. Johnson’s life prior to his meeting with Boswell; the rest consists chiefly of recollections of Johnson’s behavior and witticisms in conversation. It’s not a book one can read straight through, as there’s too much of a muchness to it. However, there are some gems, such as the advice Johnson recalls a tutor once gave him:

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

On the whole, though, I found the biography slow going due to Johnson’s character. While he may have sparkled in conversation, Boswell makes it abundantly clear that Johnson considered conversation a contest, and sulked when bested. That struck a little close to home for me, as I have a bit of that ugly trait in my character. Yet I’ve made more progress in rooting it out in thirty-eight years than Johnson did in almost twice that span. Who wants to read about someone who exemplifies an unpleasant aspect one’s character?

On the other hand, there’s more than enough description of Johnson’s habits to form a sense of the man. Indeed, there’s enough material here for someone to diagnose Johnson’s various ailments (depression? obsessive-compulsive disorder?) if they so choose.

Abridged and unabridged editions are available from Project Gutenberg.

The Cyberiad

Stanislaw Lem
Used paperback
15-21 March 2005

Lem’s first(?) book of fairy tales updated for the cybernetic age. Okay, but a little of it goes a long way, particularly his wordplay. Best taken in small doses.

The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross
Library book
23-24 March 2005

H.P. Lovecraft meets Len Deighton amidst the bureaucratic infighting of a British government agency. It’s imaginative, moves along quickly, and assumes the reader hasn’t been living under a rock. Worth it.

The Whole Man

John Brunner
Used paperback
27 March 2005

Gerry Howson is unloved, crippled, and a hemophiliac. He’s also the world’s most powerful telepath. Yet despite his prodigious abilities what he truly longs for is something that he cannot obtain: to be whole. What does it do to a man to have powers beyond others, yet remain powerless in what matters most?

The Whole Man stands alongside the best SF novels of telepathy: Bester’s The Demolished Man, Silverberg’s Dying Inside, and especially Sturgeon’s More Than Human. In fact, I can’t help wondering how much the latter inspired this novel, right down to identical first names for their protagonists. Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter. This novel too has something to say.


Nick Sagan
Library book
22 April 2005

Edenborn makes a little more sense now. I realized after reading Idlewild what it is that bugs me a little about these novels: while both work out the consequences of the characters’ relationships in virtual reality, we never get to see how those relationships formed. Both are interesting novels, but a prequel might be in order.

The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses

Lester Walker
Library book
23 April 2005

This small, short book profiles seventeen tiny houses, from a 288 sq. ft. Cape Cod honeymoon cottage to a 42 sq. ft. remodeled delivery van. These little houses and working spaces are inspirational; the pictures of the interiors of dune shacks on p. 90 & 92 make me long to live there with someone special.

All Judgment Fled

James White
Used paperback
13 May 2005

What happens if our first contact with aliens is a fiasco? That’s the scenario of All Judgment Fled. It’s a study of people under intense pressure, given responsibility but not authority, thrust into a situation they do not understand. In one way the novel is as prescient as anything by Pohl and Kornbluth, and that’s in how the first contact is being stage-managed by those back on Earth. As a case study in how not to manage people, it’s still instructive.

The Dawning Shadow: The Light on the Sound

Somtow Sucharitkul
Used paperback
14-15 May 2005

The Dawning Shadow: The Throne of Madness

Somtow Sucharitkul
Used paperback
16 May-4 June 2005

The Dawning Shadow: The Throne of Madness

Somtow Sucharitkul
Used paperback
5-8 June 2005

The Darkling Wind

Somtow Sucharitkul
Used paperback
8-14 June 2005

Big-canvas Space Opera about the fall of the Inquest, a galaxy-spanning regime whose one heresy is the belief that a utopia could exist. A good read, but I kept thinking thoughts like “can these characters possibly not explain every single emotion they feel?” and “in the company of Wolfe and Delany, this world-building seems a bit facile”. There seems a lost opportunity, too: the revelation to Arryk that he is playing makrúgh not against Kelver, but against the thinkhives of Uran s’Varek. That would have given a greater depth to the tetralogy.


Charles Stross
Creative Commons download
17-21 June 2005

Fun, thought-provoking SF, overstuffed with ideas, yet never careening over the brink of incoherence (a brink Rudy Rucker seems constitutionally incapable of avoiding). What would it be like to live through the Singularity, or at least near it? Is Stross’ answer to the Fermi paradox correct? The novel, a fix-up of nine linked stories, has its problems, but read it for the ideas, not the form and characterizations.

The Underminer

Mike Albo with Virginia Heffernan
Library book
26 June 2005

Subtitled “or, The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life”, this evil little book consists solely of the infrequent dialogs between two college classmates. However, we hear only the underminer’s side, as he leaves a trail of reproach and self-doubt in his wake:

So what is up with you?

I think your body looks good, it’s normal. It’s a normal body. People get too hung up on thinness. You’re more like a typical American.

But I know, like, when you are single, which you are, you can just get so self-critical. It’s just so hard to find someone worthwhile. I count myself lucky that I found Nicholas. I could not even face the world if I didn’t have somebody by my side.

It’s a comedy, but a dark one. Yet we still laugh, because at one time or another we’ve all had a friend we’d wanted to strangle.

I first heard a fragment of this performed by Mike Albo on This American Life. I recommend listening to it before reading the book.

Year’s Best SF 10

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
New paperback
22-30 June

Once again, I’m underwhelmed. Mostly good stuff, but nothing stands out; I do not expect any of it to stick in my memory. A particular disappointment was Gregory Benford’s story, which ripped off not only Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” but his own “Matter’s End”. I hereby declare Eschatologic SF to be a played-out vein of the SF mine.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Second Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
30 June-8 July

The more science fiction I read, the clearer it becomes that the genre is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. (Perhaps this should be called the “Shimmer” theory of SF.) On the one hand, SF is a set of themes (the alien, the nature of intelligence, the consequences of technology); on the other, SF is a collection of settings (outer space, the future) in which one can tell stories which may or may not use those themes (Star Wars, James P. Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker). As usual, this anthology contains more of the former than the latter.

Nothing hit me like a bolt of the blue, but there’s a lot of good work here. I particularly enjoyed Nancy Kress’s “Shiva in Shadow” (though she’s got to try a new theme someday) and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s inventive “Start the Clock”. The predominant theme this year seems to be “alien means unpredictable”, with at least four good stories making this point in different ways. And there are only two slipstream stories, which is an improvement over last year’s volume.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

J.K. Rowling
Borrowed hardcover
27-28 July

Another year, another crisis. Harry’s still trying to figure out the dating thing, the Dark Lord is... oh, why bother? If you’ve read the other books, you’ll read this, and little I could say would influence you.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Cory Doctorow
Creative Commons download
28-30 July

Alan (or Andy, or Archie, or Arnold, or...) comes to town, rehabs a house, agrees not to fall in love, helps spread a free wireless network, and deals with his distinctly different and messed-up family. As the eldest son of a mountain and a washing machine, stalked by a vicious dead brother (Davey, or Darl, or...) bent on malice, he’s got a lot to handle. Did I mention the neighbor and her “wing” problem?

Someone Comes to Town is a bold experiment in mixing situations. On the one hand, there’s the fantastic element of Arbus’ family, while on the other there’s the unrelated polemic discussion of communication and freedom. That the author managed to integrate the two as well as he did was an achievement, but I was left unimpressed. I think Air has raised the bar for this kind of fiction.

The author has released this under a Creative Commons license; it’s (legally) available in more formats than possibly any other book in history (save a few trivial religious works).

Cosmonaut Keep

Ken MacLeod
31 July-4 August

Dark Light

Ken MacLeod
5-10 August

Engine City

Ken MacLeod
10-13 August

How can a year pass without rereading Ken MacLeod’s works? This trilogy made a bit more sense this time, as the relationships between the different planets was clearer. As usual, MacLeod does not opt for simple answers or characters. Plus, you can tell he’s having fun. What’s not to like?

Fire From the Wine Dark Sea

Somtow Sucharitkul
Used trade paperback
13-17 August

A bunch of stories from early in the author’s career, along with poems, two interviews, and a march written for a science fiction magazine (hey, the Washington Post has one...). Some of it’s a little clunky in the Delany-exotic-compound-word sense (e.g. “mirrorsilver walls”), but there’s some good stuff here. Some of the best became the basis of later novels.

The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde
17-19 August

It’s still fun, though this time I think I’ll wait before rereading the other books in the series.

Dr. Futurity

Philip K. Dick
Borrowed paperback
21 August

Early PKD concerning a doctor thrust into the future who struggles against the inevitability of history: can he change the past? Unfortunately, the interesting part of the novel is the beginning, when the protagonist confronts a future society with a radically different philosophy than our own. Once the focus shifts to the attempt to change history, the novel becomes the standard author’s attempt to show off his cleverness in plotting a time loop. It gets points for acknowledging the existence of non-Caucasian skin colors, but goes no further in depicting cultural differences.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë
Library book and Project Gutenberg
19-23 August

A classic, indeed: fine writing combined with a great protagonist (although there were a few moments that made me roll my eyes—c’mon, an angelic consumptive waif named “Helen Burns”?). It make me appreciate The Eyre Affair even more.


Geoff Ryman
Library book
29 August

A man discovers by accident that he can summon any person, living, dead, or fictional, who he’s ever yearned for. Other people see these “angels”, as the protagonist calls them, but when they disappear reality reknits itself and they leave no trace. What are they? Why is this happening? What are the limits to the exploration of lust?

The result fits squarely into the “exploring others’ lives as therapy” subgenre of SF, like McQuay’s Memories. It’s a hard kind of story to write well, and Lust does an adequate but not superb job. The pseudoscientific babble at the end would have been better left vague; as written, it’s laughable.

The John Varley Reader

John Varley
Library book
30 August

The two or three clunkers in this collection do not keep The John Varley Reader from being a first-rate collection. All of his best stories are here, including “The Persistence of Vision”, “Press Enter _”, and “Options”. If you like SF that both entertains and makes you think, grab this and understand why Varley was the hot author when he appeared on the scene.

The Island of Lost Maps

Miles Harvey
Library book
31 August-4 September

Over the course of years, an unassuming man named Gilbert Bland stole valuable maps from some of the most noted libraries in North America. Why? Was he a rabid collector? A veteran unbalanced by the trauma of war? Someone who enjoyed the thrill of theft? Was he caught up in the rapture of maps, or simply a guy looking to turn a quick buck in the high-stakes world of map collecting?

Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps, can state with absolute confidence that he has no answers to these questions. As a literary detective story, this is a washout; there are few records of Bland, and he has refused to speak. So the book is a mishmash of cartographic history, symbolism, psychological speculations, and suchlike. There’s just not much there here.

The question I’m left with is why, given the unresolved premise, someone decided to give the author an advance to write the book. To borrow Harvey’s habit of imagining events of which you have no record, in my mind’s eye I see the pitch meeting: “Give it to me in one line.” “The Orchid Thief with maps.” “Buddy, you’ve got a book deal.”

Bold as Love

Gwyneth Jones
New trade paperback
24 August-7 September

It’s the near future in England, and the green movement has violently co-opted the fragile politics of the land. Three rock stars are about to step into the chaos to salvage what they can: fiery young Fiorinda, skull-masked Sage, and guitarist Ax. This trio, thrust into a situation they cannot control, must do what they can to prevent a bad situation from becoming a catastrophe.

That’s roughly the premise. Like Life, though, a summary of Bold as Love gives no feel for the book itself. It doesn’t demonstrate how easily we follow the narrative despite being given the bare minimum of what is going on. (In a cruder author’s hand, this novel would have been more than twice the length.) And it certainly doesn’t begin to do justice to the complex main characters, nor their shifting relationships.

It’s really quite an accomplishment. Waiting for the sequels (there are, amazingly enough, three!) will be a challenge.

The Cuckoo’s Egg

Clifford Stoll
Library book
4-8 September

After the pathetic The Island of Lost Maps, I hungered for a true detective story with a satisfying ending. What came to mind was The Cuckoo’s Egg, Clifford Stoll’s account of how his investigation into a 75¢ computer accounting discrepancy led to a ten-month game of electronic cat and mouse, and ultimately the criminal conviction of several foreigners. It’s quite different from Island; Stoll’s account is meticulously detailed, and when he ponders larger issues (e.g., security vs openness on electronic networks, the role of three-letter agencies) those issues are directly related to the matter at hand. Compared to Harvey’s meandering navel-gazing, Stoll’s reconsideration of his radical ideals comes across as a true moment, an experience which could change a life.

The story may not be that entertaining to non-propellerheads—there’s a few too many “my beeper went off at an inconvenient moment, screwing up my social life” bits—but this book may make you reassess some of your assumptions. Harvey’s book won’t.

Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome
Project Gutenberg
8-11 September

As my next novel to read is Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, I thought it would be a good idea to refresh my acquaintance with one its inspirations. It’s much as I remember, although this time I found the style a bit more trying. What’s odd is that I’d completely forgotten the striking events of chapter 16, which to modern ears gives the story a callous edge. Was life really so cheap then?

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis
12-14 September

This was the first book I reviewed when I started writing these annual book lists in 1998; my sense of symmetry is begging for it to also be the last one, but it’s fighting my compulsion to write. My money’s on the latter.

So; how does the novel hold up? Not perfectly, but well. Without the element of surprise, we’re forced to focus more on the interactions of the characters, which go a bit long. Willis’s writing isn’t as precious as that of Three Men in a Boat, but this advantage is balanced by the sheer length of Willis’s book. I rather wish the flame between Ned and Verity burned a bit brighter, but perhaps that’s part of the Sayers influence.

Fire Watch

Connie Willis
Library book
18-19 September

Either I've read too much of Connie Willis's work, or I've read this collection before. Almost all of the stories triggered a sense of déjà vu. I'd read the award-winning stories before, but even the others seemed familiar. Perhaps I'm just too familiar with Ms. Willis's authorial toolbox.

As for the stories themselves, they ranged from very good to so-so. I was most interested in “Fire Watch”, which is set in the same fictional universe as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Although the main character's change of heart was a little rushed, it was a fine story, with a throwaway line that took on great significance in light of the other novels in this cycle. As for the other stories, the one that will stick with me is “All My Darling Daughters”. Its future slang is forced, but the story overcomes that flaw to leave a sense of horror.

I'm surprised that the collection ended with “Blued Moon”. It's an okay story, but there were better choices.

I'm sad to find that Willis is slowly moving up my list of frustrating authors. Like Nancy Kress, she's great when she's at the top of her form, but her lesser stories get judged harshly because she's shown that she can do better.

Castles Made of Sand

Gwyneth Jones
New paperback
24-27 September

Midnight Lamp

Gwyneth Jones
New trade paperback
29-30 September

Band of Gypsys

Gwyneth Jones
New trade paperback
4?-10 October

I'm not going to tell you anything about these other than this: they're sequels to Bold as Love, I quite enjoyed them, they immediately went on my to-reread queue, and I await the next book, Rainbow Bridge.

Heavenly Breakfast

Samuel R. Delany
Used paperback
22-23 October

Is it possible to describe something that your language doesn't have a word for, your culture no concept? That's the challenge Samuel Delany undertakes here, as he tries to capture the essence of the Heavenly Breakfast, a communal musical/living group in early '70s New York. How did it differ from other, established communes/cooperatives? How can that difference—which was hard even for those who lived it to talk about amongst themselves—be conveyed to those for whom anything outside the nuclear family is filled with preconceptions, fear, and noncomprehension?

Delany's answer is to limit the analysis and instead show how the group worked. A good example is when a woman stopped by, bringing her young child. When they're offered dinner, she refuses for both, saying they're on a macrobiotic diet. Yet the child is obviously hungry, possibly malnourished, and the woman herself can't keep to her diet. When she's distracted by a question, someone gives the child some food, and it just works out that someone else blocks the woman's view of the child eating. Without planning, the group found a way to feed the child without provoking confrontation or embarrassment. The tale immediately brought to mind “bleshing” in Sturgeon's More Than Human and the final defensive “dance” in Robinson & Robinson's Stardance. The difference is that the Heavenly Breakfast was truth, not fiction.

Heavenly Breakfast, though short, provides a lot to think about.

In the Shadow of Memory

Floyd Skloot
Library book
2-3 November

One day, the poet Floyd Skloot contracted an infection that very quickly damaged his brain permanently, impairing his ability to move, balance, speak, and think. In the Shadow of Memory is his memoir of that change, and of his childhood. In a series of well-regarded essays, the author describes how he rethought his life after such a cataclysmic change. It's refreshing in that it's not a triumph-against-all-odds story; the author is too insightful for that. For that reason, when he recounts a moment where the powers that be made him literally crawl to demonstrate that he needed help, our shock and outrage is that much stronger.


Samuel R. Delany
Used paperback
25 April-11 November

Where do I begin...?

Dhalgren and I have a history. It seems that it's my fate to buy the book, read it (or try), give it away, and then repeat the process a decade later. This is my third attempt, and the second success. Yet I'd forgotten so much of the novel that sometimes it was like reading it for the first time, yet at others I was absolutely sure what a character was going to say. It made for compelling reading.

I'd try to write something about the setting and plot, but it would probably come out as bad as the blurbs on the jacket of my 1970s-vintage Bantam paperback: “the major novel of love and terror at the end of time” (just above the title). Love, yes, but terror? The end of time? Missed the mark. And even “love” is too simple a word; love, lust, the varieties of attraction and what its endless varieties (from admiration to S&M) mean to us.

Is this sufficiently elliptical yet? No? Then let's say that this novel, marketed as SF, doesn't fit any of the definitions of that genre. Or perhaps let's say that the theme is identity, or complete freedom, or communication, or what is said, how it is said, what isn't said, how it isn't said, and what not saying leaves out just as much as saying. It's the author's attempt to capture real life in words, knowing full well how impossible it is:

“What I write,” I said, “doesn't seem to be . . . true. I mean I can model so little of what it's about. Life is a very terrible thing, mostly, with points of wonder and beauty. Most of what makes it terrible, though, is simply that there's so much of it, blaring in through the five senses. In my loft, alone, in the middle of the night, it comes blaring in. So I work at culling enough from it to construct moments of order.” (p. 818)

That may be the key to Dhalgren: recognizing it as an attempt to capture reality in words. As evidence of this, I point to Delany's Heavenly Breakfast; there are passages in it that appear almost verbatim in Dhalgren.

I realize this tells you little of the book. That's okay; this is just me telling myself a story, trying to make sense of it all. Read the book (I recommend it) and decide for yourself. For some people, it's their Book of Gold.

Learning the World

Ken MacLeod
Library book
17-21 November

It was probably inevitable that Ken MacLeod would one day write a novel that didn’t set my mind on fire. That novel is Learning the World. I’d be sad, but I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack. After all, how could anyone maintain the standard set by his Fall Revolution tetralogy?

This novel looks at first contact from both human and alien perspectives. Or rather, I should write “human and so close to human that the difference makes little difference”. That’s my big objection to the novel; the aliens are so human that there’s no insight into what it means to be alien, and by extension what it means to be human. Why call sentients alien when they think and act almost exactly like humans?

That said, there’s a few nice touches, like a tip of the pen to Le Guin and a market-driven human colonization ship. Still, they didn’t distract me from my constant thoughts of how contact between the two species was so ridiculously easy. And what was Constantine’s motivation? That was never explained, and it felt like an authorial whack-on-the-stuck-plot-til-it-moves.

Baltasar and Blimunda

José Saramago, trans. by Giovanni Pontiero
Library book
22-28 November

In early 18th century Portugal, Baltasar Mateus returns from war missing his left hand, and meets Blimunda, daughter of a purported witch, who can see into others. As King Dom João V decrees the construction of a convent in Marfa, Baltasar and Blimunda help scholar and Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço on his dream: a ship which will fly through air, with no balloon attached to aid it.

Baltasar and Blimunda has almost no dialog, relying instead on exposition to tell the story. And what a feast of exposition! Open the book to practically any page, and you’ll find not only line after line of exposition, but also a moral lesson in the subject under consideration. It’s an unusual approach—anti-Heminwayesque, perhaps?—and it makes me wonder what it would be like to read a SF novel written in that style. Some might like it, but I expect it would frustrate most readers.


Paul L. Bates
Library book
13-14 December

In a grim city of the future, Wyatt is a sweeper: a person whose job is to destroy rats, dogs, and other vermin (including human “drossies”) in biweekly sweeps. He differs from others in that he remembers the people who have disappeared completely from everyone else’s memories. And there’s the fact that he occasionally awakes to find that he has to reconstruct one of his limb, which has deliquesced overnight...

That’s the setup. What follows is a noir drama of heavies, swells, and dangerous, powerful patrons. It’s not a compelling tale. The prose was pedestrian at best, and the fictional world never came into focus (compared to, say, the future London Geoff Ryman creates in The Child Garden). Even worse, a major component of the plot was never explained. There were one or two good moments, but they passed much too quickly.

Divine Endurance

Gwyneth Jones
Used paperback
28 October-17 December

Part of me wants to make a comment about the endurance required to finish this novel, but that would be a cheap shot. But it’s true; there were times when reading this novel felt like slogging through mud. It’s a post-unspecified-armaggedon novel along the lines of John Crowley’s Engine Summer, but the factional struggles that make up the bulk of the story never came clear. Jones was able to overcome this in her later books, but here the whole conflict is so vague that I didn’t care about who won or lost. The characterizations didn’t help much; only one was defined enough to be memorable.

(The book makes a little more sense after reading this essay by the author, but even so too much of the book was still tied up in meaningless hugger-mugger.)

Counting Heads

David Marusek
New hardcover
18-20 December

The first Marusek story I read, “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy”, set a high standard. Counting Heads, an extension of that story, does well, but doesn’t reach that peak. The focus is too much on the tactical, rather the strategic. Everyone’s trying to get the maguffin, but why? We can infer that it’s very significant, but I’d rather read the story of the part it plays in the bigger picture. As it was, this book felt like a preamble to a larger story, like The Hobbit played to The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t interpret this criticsm to mean it’s a bad book. It isn’t. The writing’s good, and it shows a lot of imagination. I’ll certainly read it again.

Book Queue


Emphasized titles are in progress.

  • Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy
  • Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
  • Peter Watson, Ideas

Last updated 1 January 2006
All contents ©2005 Mark L. Irons.

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