Off the Bookshelf: Analog’s June Issue, King’s Cell, Hard SF Renaissance, Google Hacks

My resurrected reading habit picked up in April, allowing me to tear through Analog’s June issue and make another serious dent in the Hard SF Renaissance anthology, while a trip to New Hampshire to visit my sister for Easter gave me time to listen to the unabridged audio of Stephen King’s new horror novel Cell.

And just to round out my geeky knowledge base, I quickly read through O’Reilly’s Google Hacks, a book that explains the ins and outs of the world’s most popular search engine.

Cell by Stephen King

In his long horror-writing career, Stephen King has never written a zombie novel. Vampires, the apocalypse, gunslingers, haunted houses and possessed cars, but never zombies. And then along came Cell (Amazon)which turns millions of cell-phone using Americans into mindless, rampaging horrors that turn on anyone they can lay their claws and teeth on. The survivors — those few who weren’t using phones when the “Pulse” destroyed civilization — must deal with these creatures … and what they ultimately become.

Strictly speaking, the phoners — those who were transformed — aren’t undead, no more so than the “zombies” of 28 Days Later (Amazon). They follow many of the rules of zombiedom — mindless creatures, a tendency to swarm, a hunger for the flesh of others — and the opening chapters of Cell are reminiscent of the classic Dead trilogy. But King takes things in a direction that most zombie tales don’t take. Most zombies are static, unchanging, brain-hungry monsters — that is, in many cases, what makes them so horrific. King’s spin is to give the monsters, if not a purpose, then a destination. After the Pulse, the phoners rampage, but then they begin to evolve into something else. Something as alien as any zombie, and in many ways, just as horrific. King’s not at his best here — it reads like a fleshed out thought experiment rather than a true novel (say like The Shining, The Stand or Bag of Bones) but it’s a fast, entertaining read that adds to the zombie mythos.

Analog Science Fiction & Fact, June 2005

I started off the month by tearing through the June issue of Analog. First up (actually last in the magazine) was Part 2 of “A New Order of Things” which tells the tale of humanity’s first physical contact with an interstellar species known as the Snakes. The motivations of the duplicitous sliens are revealed, as is the nature of the ship it turns out that they stole, rather than built, in their home star system. The interplay of alien species — and their unique ecologies — reminds me somewhat of David Brin’s Uplift universe, though no where near as complex.

“Puncher’s Chance” (the featured story on Analog’s site this month) highlights a future in which humanity has established a foothold colony on Mars, and setup a system of beam-powered transports to refuel and equip it. When a medical emergency breaks out on the planet, an old transport is pushed back into service to rush a cure to the colonists, but it’s a voyage that’s anything but easy. It’s my kind of hard science fiction story: an entertaining plot draped over a plausible science hook.

Hard SF Renaissance

My journey through the Hard SF Renaissance (Amazon) continues, taking me to the final quarter of the book. The third-quarter of the book featured the nuclear/nanotech nightmare “Griffin’s Egg” by Michael Swanwick, in which a lunar colony is cut off from civilization by a limited nuclear war on Earth, a war that unleashes a nanites plague of schizophrenia on the moon. The survivors must deal with their hyper-distracted fellow Lunarites while trying to come to turns with a technology that could re-write the human mind. It’s a chilling future, one in which there doesn’t seem to be much hope for ordinary humans, and in which our only salvation may come from reprogramming our very souls.

Greg Egan ventures in to similar territory with “Reasons to Be Cheerful”, in which a rare brain tumor causes euphoria to flood the main character’s mind and body. His only hope for survival lies in removing the tumor, but in doing so he’s left an emotional cripple, one who’s incapable of feeling any true joy. Nanotechnology may heal him … but is happiness really happiness when it’s achieved through the flick of a switch? It’s a good question, but I think Egan’s answer leaves something to be desired — happiness isn’t just about good chemistry. There’s an intellectual component as well, and I do think its possible to miserably happy, doing something you love while knowing that you shouldn’t be doing it. Egan touches on this, but I think his ultimate answer to this problem ignores the idea that the main character would need to create his own values based on his own logical reasoning, not just the whim of a few million nanites.

Google Hacks

I’m a big fan of O’Reilly Press’ various Cookbook books, which provide step-by-step recipes for solving dozens of real world problems in Perl, PHP and other programming languages and Web technologies.

Its Hack Books take that philosophy to a variety of other subjects, including podcasting, Skype, Flickr and more. Each book contains a few dozen hacks — usually in the neighborhood of a hundred or so — explaining some trick or tip. I read Google Hacks (Amazon) this week, and while some of it was familiar, there were a bunch of tricks I hadn’t seen before, like using the word “title:” in a query to limit a search to just the title tags of Web sites or using TouchGraph to generate a visual map of how Web sites interconnect.

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