Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Century Club (and two more book reviews, too)!

Yes! Yes! According to Blogger, this is the 100th post here at The Bitter Buffalo! Take that skeptics, naysayers, and pessimists!

And a big Thank You to everyone who stops by here to read what's on my mind. I certainly appreciate your company.

Now onto book reviews. I've decided to get the other two hard sci-fi titles out of the way first, so those of you who don't like sci-fi (and email responses to the last reviews indicate that includes most of my regular readers) have something to look forward in coming weeks. Consider this a gift in honor of the 100th post.

So, let's discuss Stephen Baxter's Manifold series, shall we? I read the first two of three, Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space. Manifold: Origin is sitting on my shelf, and will likely remain there for some time, as the first two books have almost completely exhausted my hunger for hard sci-fi.

And by "hard" sci-fi, I mean science fiction that is less about story or character than it is about ideas, specifically scientific ideas. Baxter's ideas are so technical and obtuse as to be almost incomprehensible to a lay person like myself, and his scope so far-reaching it's difficult to really appreciate their fundamental elegance.

Still, if you like that kind of thing, these books are worth a try.

Both novels revolve around the same character, an egotistic space nut billionaire named Reid Malenfant. But both novels presumably take place in slightly alternate universes, because though the timeframe for the beginning of the story is the same, Malenfant's circumstances are completely different.

In Time, Malenfant the industrialist has plans to privately mine an asteroid in an effort to be the first to exploit (and thereby stake a claim to) the nearly limitless resources available in near space. Rather than send humans (which is expensive, you see), he sends genetically modified and specially trained reef squid. You read that correctly -- he puts on a spaceship cephalapods that have developed enough intelligence to operate the spaceship and associated mining machinery.

It is a testament to Baxter's own intelligence and storytelling ability that he pulls the whole squid-spaceship thing off, and manages to do so convincingly. Kudos to him.

Anyway, a mathemetician convinces Malenfant that a catastrophe called "The Carter Event" will in all likelihood occur within 200 years, and in the process end humanity (conceptually, this is pretty cool stuff, and is presented in a most fascinating manner). So, his plans are altered somewhat, at more or less the same time that the squids go all rogue and reveal a quantum portal of some sort on the asteroid and the population of superintelligent autistic children on Earth reaches a critical mass. A few trips through the portal and we're looking at our universe in its waning hours, billions of years from now. Oh! And the autistics build a special rocket to the moon and colonize it, too.

Is that big enough for ya?

Space is even more ambitious in its scope. Portals show up in this one, too, but they are designed to allow interstellar travel. Several humans (including Reid himself, and some neanderthals, and a few others) warp from port to port, allowing them to live for thousands of years and, with the help of an alien robot-like species, follow the development (or devolvement, in some cases) of humankind over vast periods of time. All the while, humans are aware of a war at the fringes of the solar system between a species that has aparently cleansed the universe previously, and the robot-like species that wants to exploit the solar system on a smaller scale.

So many ideas are thrown at the reader in these books, it is honestly difficult to keep track of them all. I have to admit I was not able to -- just two months after finishing them, it is difficult for me to recall many of the scattered themes. The "ideas" are so thematically relevant in Baxter's books, in fact, the characters and their stories wind up being almost an afterthought. Not that it matters much. Characters have a way of becoming insignificant when your story takes place over billions of years.

Still, if you can handle the big stuff, modern sci-fi doesn't offer much better.

Personalized recommendations, as promised:

Mark, Beth, Dave, Pat, Mom: Nope. Look elsewhere.
Jeff: An excellent choice, sir! May I assist you in any other way?

Matt and Bill: Matt, you'd like one or the other, if not both -- I think Time is the most coherent and "fun" to read. Bill, you can forget these two entirely. Thanks for stopping by.

posted by Bill Purdy, 11:04 AM | link | 0 comments

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Neanderthal Parallax

As promised yesterday, today I will begin posting reviews of the eight books I have read recently. As a bonus, I will also be flagging personalized recommendations for everyone who subscribes to my blog via FeedBlitz.

Today's review covers parts 2 and 3 of Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax: Humans and Hybrids. But since those two books are really just continuations of the story established in the first book, Hominid, I'll be discussing all three.

Backstory is important with sci-fi titles, since that's the foundation on which entire careers are launched. It seems the guiding principal of successfully writing SF (i.e., actually making a living doing it) is to develop and establish a compelling "universe," preferably one that resonates with the book-buying public, then milk that "universe" for all it's worth by first writing a trilogy, then (if you're really good) writing several more trilogies (e.g., "Volume 17 of the Ayy'k'brin Starquest") until your "universe" is tapped out, or until you've achieved enough acclaim (and sold enough books) to collaborate with another established sci-fi writer to develop yet another "universe" to exploit.

All well and good, except too often the "universe" gets played out after the first book. Subsequent volumes seem a bit tossed off to critical readers, while casual readers love it nonetheless and continue to buy the books. Critical readers, meanwhile, move onto some other writer to scrutinize mercilessly.

Count me in the "critical readers" category. And color me suspicious of trilogies and SF series in general. With that foreknowledge, it should come as no surprise to you that I liked the Neanderthal Parallax, since I actually went ahead and read the second and third books in the trilogy. Had I not liked Hominid, you wouldn't be reading this review at all.

Back to the backstory: Volume 1 of the Neanderthal Parallax, Hominid, established the universe in which it and the succeeding books take place. Deep underground, in an abandoned nickel mine in Ontario, human scientists in our time are working on some sort of scientific work (I can't remember what, exactly, it is) that requires a chamber filled with heavy water and a lot of shielding from cosmic rays (which explains what the scientists are doing in a lab so far underground). Meanwhile, in a parallel universe in which Neanderthals thrived while humans died out, Neanderthal scientists are working in the same underground chamber on a quantum computing experiment. One of the Neanderthals inadvertently knocks one of the quantum computing devices while it is plugging away (quantum computers, it is explained, solve a problem by performing computations simultaneously in multiple universes) and BAM, he's transported to our universe. Over the course of Hominid, that particular Neanderthal (whose name is Ponter Boddit), is stuck in our world while the other scientist (who is also Ponter's man-mate, don't ask) navigates the tricky Neanderthal legal landscape, simultaneously trying to clear his own name of the murder of Ponter Boddit (because he disappeared without a trace while on his clock) and to bring him back to his world.

It's a clever device that provides Sawyer with ample opportunity to satirize and criticize human culture, one that has been skillfully created with a great deal of imagination. Despite the quantum physics that underly the novels' premise, these are socio-scientific books, filled with concepts that are easy for laypeople like you and me to understand.

Humans takes the story a bit further: Neandterthal scientists have figured out a way to keep the portal open so folks can go back and forth between the universes at will. Some of them want to close it, others -- their intellectual elite -- want to keep it open. Hybrids promises in its title exactly what it delivers: Ponter and Mary, a human scientist, have fallen in love and want to have a baby. But the only way to do that is to use a fancy gene splicing machine. And a decision needs to be made about whether the offspring gets the extra chromosome, which evidently is responsible in humans for their belief in God. Sounds heavy, but it's all handled with a relatively light and completely readable touch.

And now, personalized recommendations for my FeedBlitz subscribers (all except the one who wishes to remain anonymous). I am referring to the entire trilogy, btw, not just the 2nd and 3rd books.

posted by Bill Purdy, 10:24 AM | link | 2 comments

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reading Is Fun-damental

Faithful Bitter Buffalo visitors may recall a list I assembled of the books I planned to read over the summer. I called that list "insanely ambitious" because I knew there was little likelihood I'd finish more than one or two of the books on it, ever. As much as I enjoy reading, I just wasn't devoting much of my time to it and, unlike my lovely wife, I can't juggle three or four books simultaneously. I also have a hard time picking a book up, reading a page, then putting it down again. To really enjoy a book, I need long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which to lose myself in it, and enough time to get to a good stopping point when the time comes to put it down.

Really, in order for me to enjoy books and pleasure reading in general, I need to be spending a lot of time on airplanes.

Well, beginning sometime last November I started flying to work again. Which means, of course, that I have started reading again. And though I didn't really make much of a dent in my list over the summer, I have managed to knock down some of the books on my list in recent weeks. Among them:

One of my "list" books (I think it was Hybrids), I finished when I was out of town, so I picked up the following book at the bookstore and gulped it down my last night there and on the plane the next day:

So, eight books in two and a half months. Not too bad. At this rate, I might make quite a dent in my list by the end of next summer.

Reviews of the books I've read so far will be forthcoming in the next few days. Here's a preview: there are no real stinkers among them, but some of the stuff (Baxter in particular) is pretty genre-specific. Nonetheless, if you read this blog regularly, and I know you, I think it's safe to say there is at least one selection on this list that you will absolutely love. Even you, mom.

posted by Bill Purdy, 8:53 AM | link | 0 comments

Saturday, January 14, 2006

NHL Saturdaze

Hey, America! It's your lucky day! Beginning today, you can watch the new-look NHL on your own NBC affilliate. It's called "NHL on NBC," and you won't need cable to watch it. You won't even need a satellite dish. That tinfoil-covered coat hanger perched on top of the old Zenith will work fine. If you're lucky enough to have a high definition TV and have figured out how to bring in the local HD signal, then you're REALLY lucky; NBC will broadcast one of its regional games each week in scrumptious high definition! And trust me on this one: hockey looks awfully good in HD.

Recognizing the regional appeal of NHL teams (and taking a cue from ABC's regional coverage of NCAA sports), NBC is broadcasting three games simultaneously on each of six Saturdays between now and the end of the season.

I love that the NHL has returned to broadcast TV after a lengthy absence. And I love that nobody's promised to bring back the infamous glowing puck (though NBC has promised to mike players and rig the poor netminders with a "goalie cam" setup). But a closer look at NBC's schedule tells me NHL fans are getting a bit of a raw deal (not unlike Dish Network yanking OLN over a contract dispute), and will alienate NHL fans around the country. Or, if not fans across the country, then at least me. It'll definitely alienate me.

First of all, NBC has chosen not to schedule any games featuring Canadian teams. So, no Ottawa Senators (3rd best team in the league as I write this), no Toronto Maple Leafs (14th best team in the league, but more importantly the most valuable franchise in the entire NHL, according to Forbes magazine), and no Vancouver Canucks (arguably the most hated of the Canadian NHL teams by American fans). Fine, I can live with that. At least it's a consistent programming policy.

You would think NBC would try to schedule each of the remaining 24 teams at least once, since 18 games means 36 available spots -- more than enough to accomodate one game for each American team, right?


Nine American teams, nearly 40% of them, will not appear on NBC as part of this broadcast package at all. Because of this scheduling oversight, America won't get to see three American teams that are currently in the top 10 of the league standings: the Carolina Hurricanes (first in the league as I write this), The Nashville Predators (sixth), and the Buffalo Sabres (eighth). Nor will they see six teams that are languishing at the bottom of the standings, but which still have a strong regional following: the New Jersey Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, and Columbus Blue Jackets.

So who will we get to see?

Well, we'll see the Philadelphia Flyers, N.Y. Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and Dallas Stars -- all top 10 teams -- four times each. We'll also see the Colorado Avalanche, currently 13th in the league, four times. I can live with that, I guess, since I am an Avs fan, but the fact remains that the Avs are pretty solidly entrenched in the muddled middle of the standings and have only in the last few weeks shown any signs that they'll get beyond the first round of the playoffs, if they get there at all.

Pittsburgh Penguins rookie sensation Sidney Crosby will grace television screens across the nation three times, even though his team is third-worst in the league. But the other (and possibly better) rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals will not be seen at all. And, at 27th in the league, the Caps are actually a better team than the Penguins.

The Boston Bruins, in a freefall this season and the 25th best team in the league, will be seen three times as well. The Bruins are, in fact, the only Northeast Division team that will be broadcast on national TV at all. The Sabres were shut out, and the rest of the teams in the division are Canadian.

And this kills me: The St. Louis Blues, hands down the worst team in the league this year, will play twice on NBC Saturdays. Lucky us!

The N.Y. Islanders, Minnesota Wild, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Atlanta Thrashers will be broadcast once each. The Lightning, in case you've forgotten, are the defending Stanley Cup champions. Tampa Bay is currently the 16th-best team in the league, which (if you're the Avalanche) should get them at least two, maybe even three, games on NHL Saturdays. Right? Wrong.

But here's what pisses me off most about this deal: The Southeast Division, with five American teams in it, represents 27.8% of the teams NBC could have scheduled. But only the Lightning and the Thrashers get a nationally televised game. That's just 5.6% of the available spots in the broadcast schedule this spring. Ridiculous!

And before you jump to NBC's side and tell me they (in collaboration with the NHL, of course) selected teams with the largest fan bases, etc., let me remind you that NBC's approach all along has been to regionalize the broadcasts. And the way I see it, the entire southeast part of the country -- home to 5 NHL teams (I'll swap Washington and Nashville for purposes of this discussion) gets to see just two of its teams play over the course of six weekends. Instead, they get to see the Flyers, Red Wings, Rangers, Stars and Avalanche. Maybe there is some regional interest in Dallas, but none of the others are southeast regional teams. So what's the point of having regional broadcasts in the first place if you're not going to show regional teams in their home markets?

The NHL says it is committed to developing interest in professional hockey in nontraditional markets, but this deal with NBC looks to me like a big step back. Count me among the millions who (before the playoffs, anyway) probably won't be watching much of the NHL on NBC this year.

posted by Bill Purdy, 1:25 PM | link | 1 comments

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Important Hurricane Bulletin

A quick post to remind loyal Bitter Buffalo readers of an important fact:

At the moment I wrote this (and I realize it'll probably last as long as it takes for the Senators to throttle the Coyotes, but still), for the first time after New Years in any NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes are the number one team in the entire National Hockey League. A nail-biting 3-2 victory over the Red Wings at home tonight gives them 60 points on 28 victories (the Philadelphia Flyers are in 2nd place with 60 points on 27 victories).

Could I have picked a better year to buy Canes tickets?

posted by Bill Purdy, 9:30 PM | link | 1 comments