Category Archives: Books

The Real Sherlock Holmes

How real is Sherlock Holmes, and what is the nature of his reality? On the one hand, Holmes is a fictional character from writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but on the other there is a Canon of 56 short stories and four novels defining that character. It’s hard to deny at least some reality to something so well defined.

Others have extended the concept of Holmes far beyond the original in books, movies, TV shows, and more. The original texts are in the public domain, so there is considerable freedom to explore the idea of a crime-solving duo comprised of a brainy detective plus a faithful sidekick.

As a result Holmes has a well-defined center and very fuzzy boundaries!

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Fall: or, Dodge in Hell

I finished Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, the latest novel from Neal Stephenson, and I’m conflicted between parts I found fascinating and thoughtful and parts I found tedious and unsatisfying. This division almost exactly follows the division of the story itself into real and virtual worlds. I liked the former, but the latter not so much.

Unfortunately, at least the last third of the book involves a Medieval fantasy quest that takes place in the virtual reality. The early parts of the story in the VR are fairly interesting, but the quest really left me cold, and I found myself skimming pages.

I give it a positive rating, but it’s my least-liked Stephenson novel.

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Neal Stephenson

I’ve been a fan of Neal Stephenson since Snow Crash (1992), his third novel. I’ve read much of his work — the big exception being The Baroque Cycle, descriptions of which haven’t captured my interest yet. I like his writing enough that I’ll probably enjoy them if I ever take the plunge.

Stephenson writes pretty hard SF, which I love, and he explores such interesting ideas that I’m generally quite enthralled by what some see as fictionalized physics books. The thing is, I’d enjoy reading those physics books, so having it come coated in any kind of frosting is a win in my (pardon the pun) book.

I’ve just gotten started on his most recent novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.

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Nero and Archie

Science fiction has been a deep part of my life since I was a child. I discovered it early and have been reading it ever since I started picking my own reading material. As a consequence, I’ve written a lot of posts on various SF topics, but somehow I’ve never gotten around to writing much about my other favorite genre: detective stories.

As with the SF, I discovered Sherlock Holmes early, along with the Agatha Christie detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I fell in love with the idea of the puzzle-solving detective. (I also had a crush on Nancy Drew, but that was a whole other kind of interest.)

Then my dad, who also loved mysteries, introduced me to Rex Stout

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A Bit of Huang and Laurie

For a Sci-Fi Saturday post, this started as a stretch and then some. While Zero Sum Game (2018), by S.L. Huang, has at least a science fiction flavor, The Gun Seller (1996), by Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie), is more fantastical than science fictional. They do have in common a protagonist beyond capable as well as action hero thriller plots.

I can redeem the post now that I’ve read The Android’s Dream (2006), by John Scalzi (whom I’ve praised here before for Redshirts). Here, too, is an extremely competent protagonist in an action hero thriller. (As an aside, the two written by men feature a love interest. (While I’m at it, guess which of the three does not have a Wiki page.))

The bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed all three!

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SF: Old Gems and Older Duds

I’ve been reading Spacehounds of IPC (1947), by E.E. “Doc” Smith, and… it hasn’t aged well. For a long time I’ve been thinking it would be fun to read Smith’s Lensmen series again, but given that I’m having a hard time finishing Spacehounds, maybe that train left the station some time ago (especially with so much other stuff to read).

It’s a pity because I sure liked those books when I was (much) younger. Smith wrote action-filled space opera that was very imaginative and which also reeked of technology and science. I’ve never been that much into the space battles, but I’ve always been a sucker for hard SF. Fictionalized tech manuals work okay for me.

But these aren’t the gems mentioned in the post’s title.

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The Playfair Cipher

Code master Wheatstone

Among my second tier interests are murder mysteries, detective stories, and cryptography. The first typically includes the second, but there are many detective stories that don’t involve murder. Two of my favorite detectives, Spenser (by Robert B. Parker) and V.I. Warshawski (by Sara Paretsky), often have cases not involving murder.

The third interest I listed, cryptography, doesn’t usually coincide with the first two, but it did play a role in a recent locked-room murder mystery involving the delightful amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey (by Dorothy L. Sayers). While I’ve always enjoyed secret codes, I’d never heard of the cipher Sayers used — the Playfair cipher.

It dates back to 1854, and is kind of cool, so I thought I’d share it.

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Scalzi: Redshirts

I just finished reading Redshirts, by John Scalzi, and it’s just about the best, most entertaining, brilliant story I’ve read in a good long time. It’s so good that I have to place it with other best-of-kind laugh out loud science fiction delights such as Galaxy Quest and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It has a lot in common with Galaxy Quest in being a multi-level utterly ingenious send up and hysterical deconstruction of Star Trek (The Original Series). Scalzi has captured and lampshaded so many of the things fans have discussed over the years. And, as with Galaxy Quest, it’s a pretty good story all on its own.

But it is an absolute must-read for any fan of the original Star Trek.

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Dark Run & Ball Lightning

Recently I’ve dedicated myself to catching up on my reading list. Various life distractions have caused me to not read nearly as much as I used to. Actually, it’s more that I haven’t been reading fiction that much lately; I’ve been more focused on news feeds and science (articles and books). I find I miss curling up for hours with a good story, so I’ve determined to return to it.

Here for Sci-Fi Saturday I thought I’d mention a couple I finished this past week: Ball Lightning, by Liu Cixin, and Dark Run, by Mike Brooks. The former is a standalone novel; the latter is the first (of so far three) in a series.

The Brooks books are sheer adventure yarns, but telling you about Ball Lightning requires a pretty hefty spoiler.

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Greg Egan: Quarantine

Last week I read Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992), a science fiction novel that explores one of the more vexing conundrums in basic physics: the measurement problem. Egan’s stories (novels and shorts) often explore some specific aspect of physics (sometimes by positing a counterfactual reality, as in the Orthogonal series).

In Quarantine, Egan posits that the human mind, due to a specific set of neural pathways, is the only thing in reality that collapses the wave-function, the only thing that truly measures anything. All matter, until observed by a mind, exists in quantum superposition.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explore how this ties into the plot without spoiling it, so I’ll have to tread lightly.

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