Books of 2013

Lately, I have been following my reading using Goodreads. This post is meant as a snapshot of my reading last year, and in particular, its highs and lows. 

 The Lows 

Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan 

I am deeply sorry not to have enjoyed this. Carl Sagan does a wonderful thing here – he explains the scientific method at a level aimed at a lay person. Unfortunately, being a scientist myself, I appear to be the completely wrong type of audience for this book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found it a bit simplistic and bland, but at the same time rather ponderous, with much unnecessary jargon and curiously unengaging. I am acutely aware that I am setting myself up for a fall, since Carl Sagan is undeniably one of the most eminent popularisers of science. This book left me utterly cold however.

A somewhat similar randomly selected book I did like: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a much more vivid pop-science treatise. Yes, the man writes with overwhelming arrogance, but I find that much more engaging that Sagan’s near-obsequious even-handedness.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I discovered Brandon Sanderson two years ago and it that time read nearly everything he has written – with the exception of his young adult books. I enjoyed them all immensely, and they brought interesting new twists to the somewhat tired epic fantasy tropes. One weakness I would acknowledge is that he cast of supporting characters can be a tad underdeveloped (e.g. Kelsier’s crew in the Mistborn books), but this normally isn’t a problem as the main characters are compelling, interesting and complicated people. Sadly, the main concession Steelheart makes to being YA fiction is the relative simplification of characters and their motivations. Devoid of any real character development, the adventures of the curiously personless main character fall flat. I am still willing to give the inevitable sequels a go though.

A somewhat similar randomly selected book I did like: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I was thinking of mentioning other Sanderson novels here, but my main problem with Steelheart is that its very shallow characterisation and plotting contrast sharply with the rest of his opus. Neil Gaiman’s the graveyard book is arguably aimed at even younger readers, but he manages to write in a simple straightforward way, suitable for YA readers, while retaining complexity of character development and addressing some very grown-up ethical and moral issues.

Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip

This is an anomalous choice for this list. It is one of the two books I didn’t actually finish. But unlike the other one (more detail below) I didn’t hate this one. In fact, there are moments I was positively enthralled. Most of it however, I found really difficult to read – not overly complex perhaps, but written in a particular style that did not sit well with me. I found myself re-reading entire pages of text several times with my attention drifting. Again, this is probably an indictment of my short attention span more than the quality of writing. Finally, I found the actual story to be weirdly flighty and somewhat disconnected. Characters ascribe great importance to seemingly inconsequential events while life-changing drama is treated curiously matter-of-factly. For example, the protagonist almost dies in a shipwreck and loses the ability to speak for months, but after it returns he doesn’t seem to even think it worth a mention. After slogging through for weeks, I had to abandon it, but I felt vaguely guilty…

A somewhat similar randomly selected book I did like: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. That one has actual riddles at least…

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Every now and again, I have what can only be described as a moment of cultural dissonance (if you’ll pardon the slightly pretentious term). I run into a book (or film, or computer game, or any other piece of pop-culture) where my reaction is so contrary to the prevailing consensus that I wonder whether I have read the same thing as everyone else. Brent Weeks is a fantasy writer I had never heard of before but he came warmly recommended by two different people and  I noticed his books were very highly rated on Goodreads and Amazon. So I picked up The Way of Shadows, the first of the Night Angel trilogy. To paraphrase Roger Ebert – I hated, hated, hated, this book. On the one hand, the overall plot and fantasy setting are somewhat cliché but not without interest. On the other hand, what originality there is in the worldbuilding was completely lost upon me as I read long exposition-dumps or meandering descriptions of insignificant details. These were then followed by pages of dull dialogue with no narrative respite. Often a concept or character would get two pages of introduction only to be disposed of on the third and never mentioned again. Bizarrely, some characters which were introduced almost as an aside ended up being central to the story. But all of this would be forgiven and forgotten if the characters were interesting and well developed. However, with a few exceptions I found the characters incredibly shallow and inconsistent. While I don’t require characters in a novel to be one-dimensional archetypes, some sort of consistency in their behaviour would be welcome. The protagonist in particular lurches unexpectedly between smart and unforgivably dumb, brave and cowardly, calm or hot-tempered, supremely skilled or ridiculously clumsy as the scene demands. Overall, there are some good ideas buried here, but mostly lost in a mountain of rubbish. I struggled through to the end (and the last 200 pages were admittedly somewhat more skilfully written than the first half of the book) but I can’t imagine ever picking up the sequels. The stupid cliffhanger ending notwithstanding.

A somewhat similar randomly selected book I did like: The aforementioned Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. The central set-up of an apprentice as main character and mentor as strong support is similar to The Way of Shadows but handled much better. In addition, that world is also something of a fantasy cliché… at least at first. One of the many joys of Sanderson’s writing is how he subverts (and often inverts) common fantasy motifs.

Elminster: The Making of a Mage by Ed Greenwood

Eager for something a bit more ‘light’ after trying to struggle through the Riddle-Master of Hed, I noticed the first book of the Elminster series on sale. It was my own fault really. I was in the mood for something trashy and disposable. Well. There’s trashy and then there’s this. The book follows the life of a young orphaned prince seeking revenge for his parents’ death at the hands of evil wizards! On his quest for revenge, he becomes (in order and for no particular reason): a skilled swordsman, a bandit, a sneak-thief and cat burglar, a cleric and, at about midway through the book, a woman. At this last point I decided that the book was too much trouble to continue and set it aside. I would have abandoned it a lot earlier but I felt bad about quitting two books in a row. 

A somewhat similar randomly selected book I did like: The Dark Elf trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. It is one of the several trilogies of books about the adventures of the Dark Elf Drizzt Do’Urden. It is set in the same ‘Forgotten Realms’ fantasy universe as the Elminster books and the Baldur’s Gate games. While by no means great literature, it is a fun read full of entertaining characters, fun plot twists and amazing fight scenes.

 The Highs

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (First book of the ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ sequence)

While the overwhelming majority fantasy novels take place in a faux-middle ages setting, The Lies of Locke Lamora takes place in a city reminiscent of Renaissance-period Venice. That little breath of originality is in itself is good entry point into a neat little story about a group of thieves (The eponymous Gentlemen Bastards). Several things stand out: the surprising amount of humour, the slightly unusual structure of alternating chapters dealing with Locke’s childhood and adulthood and a twisty and unpredictable plot which ultimately develops surprising gravitas. The sequel Red Seas under Red Skies is not quite as much fun, but manages to spin the story further while also being much more than a retread of old ground. A series to look out for.

A Kiss before Dying by Ira Levin

Ira Levin is mostly associated with the film adaptations of his books – especially The Boys from Brazil, Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. I meant to read some of his books for a while now and by happenstance I got this one for my birthday. It has a somewhat unusual three-act structure and despite some minor contrivances it is tightly plotted and very compelling, a real page-turner. It also features one of the more compelling portrayals of evil I have encountered –  presented as a weakness of character, a flaw of self-narcissism and self-deception.The narration of the book is partly handled by the villain – and the coldly logical, self-deluding steps he takes in order to justify his undoubtedly evil actions are a masterstroke. Levin employes first person narration on the part of a psychopath as a very effective (and highly disturbing) or eliciting some empathy for the killer.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Ah, what a delicious treat this books is. I have written briefly about it before:

“About half the novel is set during WWII … and tells the behind-the-scenes story of allied soldiers breaking an axis code system (it also tells a bunch of other stories, concerning, among other things: Van Eck phreaking, deep sea diving, erotic properties of antique furniture, construction of underground tunnels and the post-war fate of the Philippines).”

And that is a woefully inadequate description. This doorstop of a book can seem daunting, but what you’re actually getting is about four or five books’ worth of ideas squeezed into one. In addition, it is clearly meticulously researched and is remarkably effective of transferring that knowledge to the reader. For instance, it features the clearest explanation of cryptography in general and the principle of the Enigma machine in particular.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

If anyone ever questions my love of genre literature, I will point them to Tigana. For me, the best  Science Fiction or Fantasy are true Speculative Fiction. They explore how the behaviours and lives of people – whether individuals, institutions or whole societies – are altered and shaped by a new, previously unexplored factor or situation. This is much more frequent (or almost obligatory) in SF, where the changes are brought about by new technological advances. More rarely, fantasy novels use magic as an agent of change – and very few fantasy novels I have ever read do it better than Tigana. A spell wipes all the memory, history and trace of the once proud nation of Tigana. As a special daily torture, the natives of Tigana still remember everything about it – and are not able to make anyone else remember or understand. Now, the last of the princes of Tigana leads a small group that try to break the spell or at the very least get revenge on the man that cast it.

This simple setup leads to a myriad of interesting moral quandaries. For instance, how far are the prince and his co-conspirators allowed to go seeking justice/revenge? Can they kill enemy soldiers? How about civilians? Remember, while the people of Tigana suffer the loss of their entire history, very few people have actually been killed or even injured. It’s not all navel-gazing moralising though, at its heart this is a rip-roaring yarn of adventure and bravery, just more morally complex than it at first appears.

Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is clearly cheating, as the Vorkosigan saga actually encompasses some 15ish books and I started reading them back in 2012. However, it is a superb series of stories: funny, touching, heroic and compelling. The majority of the books are centred on Miles Vorkosigan – the physically stunted but intellectually remarkable hero. What makes Miles really compelling to read about are his character flaws (the somewhat manic personality, the schizophrenic leanings and the (understandable) social awkwardness and emotional fragility) and the way he changes and grows throughout the series. The emotional payoff of later novels only really works once both the reader and Miles have been through so much turmoil and drama together. What makes the series REALLY stand out is the immense cast of supporting characters – starting with Miles’ parents (who get a couple of books as protagonists), his extended family (cousin Ivan especially, who, through the course of the series grows from comic relief to hero in his own right), his friends (including Gregor, the emperor of the Vorkosigan family’s home planet of Barrayar, whose character development through the series is almost as compelling as Miles’), allies, lovers and even enemies.

While the series overall falls under the banner of space opera, the genre of the individual books varies considerably – there are coming of age adventure stories (Warrior’s Apprentice, Vor Game), mysteries (Cetaganda, Diplomatic Immunity), war stories (Barrayar) and even a romantic comedy (A Civil Campaign). There are also elements of ‘true’ SF. Bujold introduces several technological elements that have a major influence on the setting. Most notably, uterine replicators, which allow ex-vivo gestation of human embryos, which are the root cause of societal changes that Barrayar goes through during the course of the series.

 

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Larry Gopnik’s Movie Quiz

It’s time for another famous Sergio Leone and the Infidel Fly Rule movie quiz. This time:

PROFESSOR LARRY GOPNIK’S POST-HANUKAH, PRE-CHRISTMAS, POST-SCHRODINGER, PRE-APOCALYPSE SLIFR HOLIDAY MOVIE QUIZ

My answers below…

1) Favorite unsung holiday film

One Christmas film I feel is not nearly famous enough is Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It’s a half-hour adaptation of the Dickens novel, with the roles played by Disney characters. Ebenezer is, unsurprisingly, Scrooge McDuck, but the real genius is the ‘casting’ of smaller roles. Most notably, in a flash of genius, Goofy plays Jacob Marley’s spirit.

A warning - from beyond!

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved

The American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I watched the Swedish version when it came out, and this seemed an unnecessary remake, to spare us reading subtitles. However, David Fincher makes it visually interesting and the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a particular highlight. And while Noomi Rapace did an excellent job as Salander, Rooney Mara’s portrayal is different enough to be just as compelling.

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?

Horton wins this one by default, as I can at least recognise him as Mr Witherfork Witherspoon the head of the insane asylum (“We prefer to think of it as a rest home!”) from Arsenic and Old Lace, one of my favourites…

There is a happy dale, far far away...

4) Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy– yes or no?

No, not really. I remember watching it ten years ago and finding it rather dull. Maybe time to revisit?

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past

Karl Urban as a film-noir gumshoe is what came to mind.

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere

I was going to be a smartass and say Singin’ in the Rain, but let’s go for Key Largo.

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie

Let’s see… I’ve seen The Leopard and… that’s it. Really? OK, one for the watchlist…

8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?

In the cinema – it was Thor 2. I find I have less and less time for the cinema these days and only really go to see films with a large group of friends. On DVD, the last film I saw was the Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ‘cancer comedy’ 50/50. While the pitch sounded in really bad taste, the film is actually quite sensitive and the sometimes crude humour doesn’t come across as exploitative but rather the kind of humour people resort to in impossible situations. I guess that the reason is rings true is because it’s partly based on the screenwriter Will Resier’s battle with cancer – and the support he got from Seth Rogen.

...and what a lovely supportive chap he is...

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)

I usually enjoy it. I have an ongoing email discussion with a friend I rarely get to see nowadays about the merits of various Christopher Nolan films. I mounted a spirited defense of The Prestige, but had to admit the many sad failings of The Dark Knight trilogy.

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?

Apparently they co-starred in nine movies, but I have only ever seen Glenda Farrell in anything. Another default win.

11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping

Since I absolutely hate camping, it would have to be someone reasonably good at it. How about Humphrey Bogart? I bet you it wouldn’t be boring even if it would be somewhat alcoholic. Maybe also Peter Ustinov, but I imagine we wouldn’t even manage to get the tent up before the drinking started…

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie

For once in these quizzes, I have seen quite a few films. Let’s answer My Fair Lady, with the Philadelphia Story being my favourite. Just for the record, I have also seen Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz (these last two co-directed with Victor Fleming, bizarrely), Gaslight, A star is Born, Let’s Make Love and Adam’s Rib (which would be No. 3).

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)

Oof. I’m not sure I have actually seen 10 films released this year. I tend to lag by about a year or two…

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction

Fight Club. I loved it when I first saw it, but the second time, I was vaguely dissatisfied with it. I watched it again recently and it just gets on my nerves now… This is either me becoming cynical or growing up, not sure which.

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover

I don’t think any films really need this. Oh what the hell, Delta Force.

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?

I don’t really have a strong opinion here, but at least I know who they both are. Let’s say Marcello Mastroianni…

17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)

Blade.

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies

How about Billy Wilder between 1950-1960? Not a bad decade by anyone’s standards: Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Seven Year Itch, Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon (a weak link admittedly), Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment!

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?

I’m not sure it’s good or bad necessarily, but it is inevitable. After a while, ‘unusual/novel’ holds more sway than ‘merely entertaining’. Then again, I don’t think this is specific for films either.

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film

True Romance, with The Last Boy Scout being No.1. Both liked more for their screenplays than the direction though…

21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?

House of Wax from 1953 popped up for streaming. It’s an entertaining thing, nothing special, but that was the only film that conforms to these rather stringent criteria.

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy

BRIAN BLESSED!

DON'T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN!

Let’s face it, it wouldn’t take much.

23) Video store or streaming?

I’m not sure there are any video stores left. Besides, streaming is so much more convenient – I don’t even have to get up off the sofa to change discs…

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter

I found this a really difficult question. While some directors’ last films definitely weren’t bad – e.g. Hitchcock’s Family Plot and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – they pale in comparison to their earlier efforts. The only satisfactory candidate I could think of was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red – the concluding (and in my opinion best) part of the Three Colours trilogy. (Dangit, I was one ‘z’ away from spelling his name correctly without google.)

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?

Monica Vitti.

26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?

Evil Dead II. Let’s face it, the title doesn’t really sell it, and neither does part I. Part II, however, is a comedy/horror masterpiece. I have managed to talk two different groups of friends into watching it at two different times. Surprisingly (?) the results were nearly identical – two really strong (male) converts who wanted to watch Army of Darkness immediately afterwards, and endless eye-rolling from the girls.

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest

I have never seen Hitchcock’s Frenzy.

28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it

Not really an out and out horror, but Rare Exports has some nice moments…

HO, HO, AAARGH

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree

The butler from Hudson Hawk has a sort of weird, retractable sleeve-mounted short sword. That. I want that.

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014

More reasons to go to the cinema.

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SF books are awesome!

I love these kinds of things. They help me think about what kind of books I like, and occasionally lead to the discovery of new things to enjoy. Once again, thanks to Kaedrin for bringing it to my attention.

My favorite alien invasion book or series is…? 

My favourite example is the rather genteel ‘invasion’ described in ‘The Midwich Cuckoos‘ by John Wyndham. Since every alien invasion scenario on TV or film seems to take place in a cosmopolitan city, it’s quite a nice change of pace to see one happen in the British countryside.

My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Again, not a typical representative of the genre, but it certainly fits the criteria. About half the novel is set during WWII (and considering what a doorstop the whole book is, it more than qualifies in terms of length) and tells the behind-the-scenes story of allied soldiers breaking an axis code system (it also tells a bunch of other stories, concerning, among other things: Van Eck phreaking, deep sea diving, erotic properties of antique furniture, construction of underground tunnels and the post-war fate of the Philippines).

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…? 

It has to be Snow Crash.

My favorite Dystopian book or series is…? 

I feel like I am being overly obvious with my answers, but I have to go for 1984 here. It established too many tropes of the genre not to mention and in addition, does all of them wonderfully well. I read this in my twenties, and the power of the imagery and the seemingly prescient plot left a deep impression. 

My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…? 

Wikipedia tells me that the golden age lasted 1938-1946. I can’t think of too many SF books from the period that I even read. However, I notice that one of my all time favourites came out in 1950 - I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. That will have to do…

My favorite hard sf book or series is…? 

Once again, I am a bit unsure over the exact boundaries of the genre. Let’s assume that Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama‘ or ‘The Fountains of Paradise’ (which primarily concern the technological and scientific details of the construction of a generation starship and a space elevator, respectively) are hard enough. I would go with the former if pressed, just avoid the somewhat dubious sequels.  

My favorite military sf book or series is…? 

Not my favourite sub-genre, but I think the definition will stretch enough to accommodate ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card. 

My favorite near-future book or series is…? 

Another sub-genre I could afford to delve into more deeply, as I find my knowledge of it somewhat lacking. Let’s say that my favourite is ‘Halting State’ by Charlie Stross, bearing in mind that it’s also one of the only near-future SF books I have read. 

My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

Aha, another quite genteel and very British selection here:The Day of the Triffids‘. Even though the future isn’t presented as bleak and horrible as possible (which is a condition of entry for this particular genre it seems), it does present a rather interesting dilemma, never too far from my mind: what if 99% of the people went blind overnight? And humanity then found they had to deal with carnivorous semi-sentient plants. Trust me, it’s way more intelligent than I am making it out to be.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…? 

I, Robot! You Robot. We all robot!

My favorite space opera book or series is…? 

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (handy chronology by Kaedrin at the link). A series of 15 superb books about the members of the Vorkosigan family. I started reading these in May of last year (on Kaedrin’s recommendation) and have just finished the newest one ‘Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance’ last month. It has been an incredibly compelling series, much better than I could have guessed when I started.

My favorite steampunk book or series is…? 

I really enjoy the visual aesthetics of steampunk, so I am going to go for a graphic novel here: ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘. And speaking of Alan Moore…

My favorite superhero book or series is…? 

Watchmen! Er, I mean, sorry, Watchmen.

My favorite time travel book or series is…? 

Surprisingly, drawing a blank here. Yep, I got nothin’. Moving on…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…? 

Unlike the others, this isn’t really a sub-genre defined by theme or setting, but a somewhat arbitrary ‘intended audience’ subcategory. Therefore, I am going to be equally arbitrary and say The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. What do you mean – it’s not really YASF? I read it when I was 14, so there.

My favorite zombie book or series is…? 

I must be coming across as some comic-book reading philistine here, but the best treatment of a zombie apocalypse in any media is the comic run of ‘The Walking Dead‘. Classic. Not entirely sure when zombies became a SF sub-genre though!

The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…? 

Currently, the next three would be: ‘Jack Glass’ by Adam Roberts, ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ by Scott Lynch and ‘Diamond Age’ by Neal Stephenson. This may change however…

Some thoughts for the end

Two things came to mind as I was going through that list. First, it’s really difficult to categorise books in this way. For instance, one of my (and everybody’s) favourite SF books is ‘Dune’ which doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories. Often, the best SF is just too original/bizarre/unique to be easily classified – e.g. Asimov’s ‘Gods Themselves’, anything by Philip K Dick or China Mieville… Admittedly, this may not the most original of observations!

Second, while I really enjoyed all the books I mentioned, I kept thinking that quite a few of them have been adapted for other media, often with dubious success – ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ being a particularly horrible example. However, more notably, it struck me at how often the adaptation differs in some fundamental way from the source material, even when the difference in quality isn’t as extreme. For example, ‘The Walking Dead’ now exists as a phenomenally successful TV series (and a superb computer game) but the tone of it is markedly changed. The Watchmen is a faithful film adaptation of the style of the original graphic novel, but lacking much of the nuance and depth. While this is probably true of all sorts of books, I think it may be particularly acute for SF – whose appeal (generalising outrageously) largely hinges on new and original ideas, rather than plot and character.

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Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013)

Rest in peace, Roger. You will be missed!

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Grr. Argh. Martin.

The Winter is Coming guys recently carried an article about the possibility that the Game of Thrones series will catch up and possibly overtake George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books. The authors of the original article assume a seemingly optimistic date of late 2015 for the release of the putative sixth book – The Winds of Winter. Since the sixth book is supposed to be huge, my initial reaction is that there is absolutely no chance that GRRM would finish it in only five years. However, looking around the web for publication dates, I noticed that the third book, The Storm of Swords, came out only a year after the second. This got me thinking – how often did these books actually come out? And more naively (and geekily), can we learn anything about when we might expect the next book? If you have a look at the release dates of the books, you can plot a book over time graph, like so:

booksovertime

The numbers on the x axis correspond to the number of the book in the series, except for ‘0’ which I set at 1994 – a date cited several times as the time GRRM started writing the series in earnest. By turning all the data points into numbers, we can plot a trendline and try to predict when the next books might realistically be expected. The simplest way to describe a relationship between two numerical data sets is a linear regression: effectively a mathematical model which assumes that the two data sets change (increase or decrease) at a constant rate. This can then be used to predict unknown data points – in this case the years that the next SOIAF books will come out. Plotting a linear regression gives you this:

lin1

Using the equation above, we get release dates of ~2012, 2015 and 2018 for books 6, 7 and a possible book 8*. Now, since we are in 2013 and book 6 had not been published yet, clearly this model is not very useful. Specifically, it accounts poorly for book 3 (which came out much sooner than the trend predicts) and book 5 (which came out much later than predicted).

Dodgy Math

Looking at the original graph once again, we can see that the data could be (somewhat arbitrarily, but bear with me) divided into two groups: data points 0-2 lie on a straight line as do data points 3-5. If we look back at interviews with GRRM, it’s clear that there was supposed to be a time gap of a few years in the plot between book 3 and 4. This plan was subsequently changed and GRRM decided to continue with the plot of book 4 continuing the timeline of the end of book 3. Book 4 then blossomed into two books: Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons, which subsequently became books 4 and 5 on our graph. Using that rewriting gap between books 3 and 4 as justification for breaking up the data, we can plot two separate linear regressions**:

lin2

The red line models what might have happened if the books continued at their initial rate (2.5 years per book and the series would be close to finished by now). The black line models the rate new books will come out if GRRM maintains the rate of writing of the last two books of the series (a book every 5.5 years or so), giving us publication dates of books 6, 7 and 8 as: 2016, (late) 2021 and 2027! While the last two dates might be somewhat shocking, the estimate of 2016 is not that far off from the Wertzone’s prediction of late 2015.

Ever the optimist

However, there is more optimistic estimate we could get from the above models. Let’s assume that the structural and chronological changes between book 3 and 4 caused an unexpected dip in GRRM’s rate of writing. Let’s also assume that these problems have now been circumvented and that an emboldened GRRM might start churning them out at the same rate as the early ones. In addition, as various plot lines get wrapped up, the books may get easier to write once again. I don’t have a graph for this, but the values of 6, 7 and 8 would be: 2013.5, 2016 and 2018.5, which is a book every 2.5 years. If we adjust for the fact that GRRM stated he wouldn’t start writing book 6 until January 2012, we get: 2014.5, 2017 and 2019.5. As far as I can see this is the most optimistic estimate possible – and I find it unlikely, as the manuscript would have to be more or less complete by the end of 2013 to hope for a mid-2014 publication date.

Winter is not coming just yet

Contrastingly, we could also mathematically model a much more pessimistic situation: let’s assume that writing these books gets more difficult with time. Or mathematically: that the decrease in writing rate has to do with the increasing complexity of the overall ever-branching plot, and that, as books go on (and GRRM gets older), it would only decrease further. We could then model a quadratic equation on all our data:

quad

This model would give us estimated publication dates for books 6, 7 and 8 as: 2016.8, 2024 and 2032! In 2032 GRRM would be 84 and I would be in my fifties, which would be quite galling for a book series I started reading as a teenager. I really hope that this won’t be the case…

Conclusions

Before we get too serious, I have to emphasise that the above was just a fun*** way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, and I am not seriously suggesting that I am able to predict the future using excel. In fact, my predictions about book 6 are quite vague and range from it getting published last year (!) to sometime in late 2016. Nevertheless, once book 6 is eventually published, I look forward to (reading it!) adding another data point to my graphs to see which model is looking best. Until then we can just say: write, write like the wind!

* Currently, only books 6 and 7 have been announced. GRRM has dropped a few hints that book 8 is not out of the question, so I am including it here.
** Book 3 should really be included in both models, but for simplicity and symmetry I am just including it in the 3-5 model. For the record, including it in the 0-2 model would further flatten out the red line and decrease the R^2 value.
*** Definition of fun may vary.
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A Different Path

A computer game has been taking up a lot of my time recently. Quite a lot of my time. In fact, you could say every single waking moment of my free time. And it hasn’t all been spent playing – I have been reading the FAQs and the wiki, planning skill sets, learning crafting recipes…

But let’s back up for a second. In the dark depths of the last century (1997) when the first Diablo came out, it was (along with the more complex Baldur’s Gate) credited with ‘saving’ the RPG genre which was widely proclaimed to be dead or dying. Nevertheless, Diablo featured a streamlined RPG mechanic, which reduced the often ridiculous complexity of golden age RPGs, while still offering plenty of depth in terms of choices for players to develop their character. The choices were inherently non-complex, boiling down to choosing your character’s stats (Strength, Dexterity, etc.), items and spells of various differing attributes. This deceptively simple system allowed for a great deal of customisation, often creating quite different gameplay experiences. In 2000 Blizzard followed up with Diablo 2, which elaborated on the themes, added organised multiplayer and became a huge hit. And in 2012 we got Diablo 3.

...and there was much rejoicing

Diablo 3 gameplay

For me, somewhere along the way, Diablo games (and action RPGs which copied it) lost some of their lustre. With each Diablo or Diablo-esque game, the customisation elements (which I enjoyed) seemed less prominent or interesting, and the Skinner box mechanics of getting bigger and better loot was given a more prominent place. When Blizzard (now called, ominously, Activision Blizzard) announced that Diablo 3 would be online-only, even in single player, and that items would be bought and sold in a real-money auction house, I knew that I would never buy it – for two reasons. Firstly, I was never a great fan of the Diablo 2 multiplayer, but I had a go a couple of times and it was fun enough playing with friends. However,I live in the UK, which rejoices in a pre-WW2 telephone infrastructure that can be a bit unkind to its users. The mere idea of playing an online game can be pretty frustrating, with frequent lag and sudden and unexplained interruptions. I couldn’t even imagine trying to go through that for an ostensibly single-player game. I also had a chance to play Torclight recently, which was fun at first but very soon became tiresome busywork*. Seemingly, my tastes, for better or worse, had changed and I did not enjoy action RPGs any more. Oh well…

So imagine my surprise that, after a slow start, I found myself obsessively playing Path of Exile over the past week or so. An action RPG, a Diablo clone, a loot-em-up and of all things – a (mainly) single-player game that is online only! What gives? What’s different?

poeinterface

Red sphere, blue sphere, some potions and some flasks. Oh and monsters. Lots of.

At first glance not much. The interface looks no different to Diablo and its ilk. There are hordes of monsters, they get killed, they drop loot. Player levels up, fights bigger monsters that drop better loot… rinse, repeat… But, despite these initial similarities, PoE does quite a few things differently to Diablo. And although these differences seem subtle at first, they can have a profound impact on gameplay. In fact, at first it’s not easy to see where the main differences are or to predict how they affect the overall experience. I have been playing for a couple of weeks now (getting one character to level 16 and a couple of others to lower levels) and in the next couple of posts, I’ll try to describe a few mechanics that have interesting gameplay consequences.

* I mean, I understand that tiresome busywork is what these games are, but this just got a bit too boring a bit too quickly.
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Books are awesome!

Many thanks to Kaedrin for this :)

1. Favourite childhood book? As Kaedrin says, depends what you mean by childhood. My stock answer when I was very young was the German book ‘Emil and the Detectives’ by Erich Kästner. To this day, I consider it to be one of the most interesting and non-patronising children’s books I have ever read. However, from when I was about 12 and onwards the answer to this question would undoubtedly have to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
2. What are you reading right now? Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Just started it, but looks promising so far…
3. What books do you have on request at the library? To my great shame, I don’t really visit the library any more, although I used to quite a bit when I was a kid. Disposable income and all that…
4. Bad book habit? I break their spines. This is a bad thing, I am told.
5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? See above…
6. Do you have an e-reader? Yes, a kindle which is seeing a lot of use. I believe I have read some 30 books on the kindle in the last year or so, in addition to paper books I have lying around.
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? Usually one at a time. Even if I have two books on the go, I rarely alternate between them.
8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog? Well, I only had a blog for three posts now, so the answer is no :). My reading habits did change this year – mainly due to the wonderful world of ebooks. I now read more books in total, but also a more varied selection.
9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? It’s been a relatively good year actually, with no real stinkers. Maybe Cities in Flight by James Blish – it’s not a bad book but didn’t really grab me.
10. Favourite book you’ve read this year? Hm, again a tough choice. Maybe The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. A first of ten apparently! A dodecaology?
11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone? Until about a year ago, only very rarely – maybe one or two books a year. Much more now that I am an ebook convert.
12. What is your reading comfort zone? Oh, both kinds – SF and Fantasy. Add to that a sprinkling of crime and horror for fiction and some history and politics on the non-fiction side.
13. Can you read on the bus? I don’t get motion sickness from reading on buses or cars thank heavens. I don’t know how I could travel/commute without reading.
14. Favourite place to read? Most places, but I do have a favourite reading chair at my parent’s house. Next to a window, with a handy side table.
15. What is your policy on book lending? If I buy a new book I like to be the first one to read it. Beyond that, I am happy to lend them out. I have had a few books vanish in this way through the years though…
16. Do you ever dog-ear books? Not on purpose.
17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? No.
18. Not even with text books? In high school yes, but I more or less stopped when I started university.
19. What is your favourite language to read in? English, although I can make a fair stab at French.
20. What makes you love a book? I don’t think there’s a single answer to this. Different books have different ways of drawing me in. Good characterisation and interesting ideas are probably the most important and to a somewhat lesser extent a novel and interesting plot. I do notice more and more that I tend to lose patience with books with too many unlikeable characters.
21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? Almost always personal preference, but taking into account the other person’s taste. I quite like being recommended books I would never otherwise have read. A recommendation from a friend led me to Christopher Brookmyre, and ten books later, I am still a fan.
22. Favourite genre? Hm, probably SF overall.
23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? It’s wider than a genre, but I don’t read as much non-fiction as I’d like.
24. Favourite biography? Tall, Dark and Gruesome – autobiography of Sir Christopher Lee.
25. Have you ever read a self-help book? Does the Bible count? It’s kind of a self help book, right?
26. Favourite cookbook? I have a few lying around, but I am not one for following recipes when cooking. I prefer to improvise, sometimes with less than stellar results, admittedly :D
27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold would probably be the only book I read this year that could be described as inspirational on any level.
28. Favorite reading snack? I don’t really snack while reading, but I do enjoy curling up with a big mug of coffee or a dark ale.
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. Not sure it was the hype, but I did note that I liked Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass a lot less than I (or my friends) thought I would.
30. How often do you agree with critics about a book? There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of literary criticism presence on the net as there are for films and games. Even if I find a book review in one of the papers, they don’t seem to review the books I like very often (SF/Fantasy) but do spend quite a lot of time on books I have no intention of reading. So I guess the answer is that I don’t agree at all! If a book is well received by books critics (and especially if they use the adjective ‘important’), I tend to stay away, for fear of boredom. Having said that, I do keep an eye out for Nebula or Hugo nominees, and they are generally a good guide.
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? I feel like I don’t have the required skill or willpower to write a good review of a book I really hated. It seems like a waste of time somehow…
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? Interesting question. Probably German or Spanish.
33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? I can find classics intimidating, probably because our schools made sure we hated them by forcing us to read them. That said, I read Crime and Punishment in one day, in a single 12-hour sitting. Good book, might read it again some day (but probably not).
34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Which has been described as: “needing a good working knowledge of mathematics, philosophy and formal logic to fully enjoy”. Sheesh.
35. Favourite poet? Poe.
36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? Again, not much library borrowing going on here. It used to be about 3 if memory serves.
37. How often have you returned books to the library unread? Occasionally.
38. Favourite fictional character? Ugh, far too many to single one out. At a push, Yossarian.
39. Favourite fictional villain? Again, too ambitious a question. Randomly, let’s say the Lord Ruler from the Mistborn books. Maybe more as a character concept than a specific character though.
40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? The Kindle! Bring all the books! I prefer easy books for the travel itself, but anything is fair game after that.
41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.  Maybe a month?
42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. Anna Karenina. This was one of the books we were forced to read in school. It struck me as almost unbearably boring, although in hindsight, I suspect that we were simply too young for the themes of the book (we were 14 or 15 at the time I think). Not that I ever felt tempted to go back and try to re-read it though!
43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?  A bad book.
44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel? Godfather. The books is pulpy fun. The film is a masterpiece.
45. Most disappointing film adaptation? Not a book exactly, but the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an intriguing, psychologically complex story, set against a rich tapestry of Victorian literary and historical references. The film is an overwrought, shallow action movie. Having said that, it was such an unmitigated disaster, it was easy to watch it as a completely foreign thing, not an adaptation at all. Maybe the answer should really be Watchmen. The film version is an almost uncanny blueprint of how to perfectly copy the style and completely leave out anything of substance. An amusing diversion, but so crushingly inferior to the comic on so many levels.
46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? Probably close to £200 or so, on my university textbooks. Most of which were sold on to the next crop of freshers in pristine condition.
47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? I seem to have recently developed a habit of glancing through the book, scanning for names that appear a lot. I think I am subconsciously trying to find out who the main characters are. Not sure why though?
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? Boredom. Or, more rarely if I suddenly realise that what I am reading is mind-bogglingly stupid. I did get infuriated enough with Patricia Cornwell’s Ripper book that I never finished it.
49. Do you like to keep your books organized? Kindle again! With some help from our friend Calibre.
50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? I generally tend to keep them until they reach a critical mass – and start taking over the house – when a selection goes off to the charity shop or a local bookstore. Lately however – reason No. 234 to love the Kindle…
51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? David Zindell’s The Broken God has been sitting unread on my shelf for almost ten years now. I’m sure I’ll get round to it eventually…
52. Name a book that made you angry. Aha, question 48 made me think of one. Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper (insufferably smugly subtitled – ‘Case Closed’!) is her attempt to outline a case that Jack the Ripper was really Walter Sickert, the painter. The theory is not Cornwell’s and while unlikely, is no worse than dozens of others. What made me angry enough to give up on the book was the utter disdain for any semblance of a scientific method in her information gathering. Sickert is implied to be guilty from the beginning, and all  evidence is altered or ignored in order to advance this theory.
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t? Again, I found The Golden Compass surprisingly boring.
55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading? All my reading is guilt-free! David Gemmell’s books are a nice old-fashioned trashy fantasy read, but with their heart in the right place.

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