Review: “A New Kind of Science”

The ancient Chinese game of Go has fairly simple rules. In general, it is much easier to teach someone the rules of Go than those of poker, for example, or of chess. Nonetheless, popular wisdom says that in all the 2,500 years that Go has been in existence, no two games have ever been identical. It’s impossible to know whether this is actually true, but it’s statistically plausible; thus, the game of Go demonstrates that it’s possible for very complex systems to arise from a very simple set of rules.

Makes sense, right? At least, when I say it that way it seems pretty obvious. You probably had some inkling in your mind of the idea that “complex behavior can arise from simple sets of rules” even before I mentioned it to you — didn’t you?

Well, strangely enough, Stephen Wolfram — although a mathematical prodigy who published his first scientific paper at 15, went on to school at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech, and invented the mathematical computation software Mathematica, among other things — did not. » More... »

Review: “Beat the Reaper”

First-timer Josh Bazell’s novel Beat the Reaper is an unusual medical crime thriller — which is to say its protagonist, Dr. Peter Brown, is not just a doctor. He’s also a notorious criminal.

The novel opens with Brown, an overworked, sleep-deprived intern at “Manhattan’s worst hospital,” being mugged by a lone gunman. The mugger starts having second thoughts right away. Probably he should have known better than to try to rob someone with a bad attitude and a thorough knowledge of human anatomy. What he couldn’t possibly have known, however, is that Dr. Peter Brown is actually Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, former mob assassin, recently having completed medical school while enrolled in the federal witness protection program. As it turns out, what this mugger really needs isn’t money. He needs to go to the emergency room — he just doesn’t know it yet. » More... »

Review: “Daemon”

If there’s one thing that annoys computer geeks, it’s the portrayal of technology in the entertainment media. Hollywood writers seem determined to throw references to computers and the Internet into their stories, but their ignorance invariably leads to asinine plot twists, with Our Hero “hacking the enemy mainframe” using nothing but his IM client and a spool of copper wire.

You’ll find none of that in Daemon, the first novel by network security consultant Daniel Suarez. Daemon may be a genuine first: a techno-thriller firmly grounded in real-world technology. There’s no jabber about “mainframes” here, no “hacking systems” with pocket calculators. Suarez’ use of jargon, his understanding of the way computer systems operate, and his familiarity with information security practices are all pitch-perfect. If you thought we needed such a book, here it is. But did we? » More... »

Review: “Lush Life”

Richard Price’s novel Lush Life is the story of Eric Cash, who is having a very bad week. In fact, Eric’s life hasn’t been going all that well in general lately.

Eric is the quintessential disaffected New York thirtysomething. He fancies himself a screenwriter, but the only thing he has going is a work-for-hire project that he knows is crap. In real life he manages a hipster bar for his money, which he spends on an apartment that he shares with a girlfriend who may or may not be coming back from an overseas research trip for her master’s thesis on fringe sexuality. Each day makes Eric more aware of the rut into which he’s sunk, as he watches disaffected New Yorkers a decade his junior landing the breaks he feels he deserves. And to make matters worse, one of his coworkers has just been shot, and Eric is the only witness. Or is he the only suspect? » More... »

Review: “Snuff”

Believe it or not, Chuck Palahniuk’s latest fails to be as much of a gross-out as I’d imagined it would be. Coming off of Haunted, a loosely-knit collection of short pieces that includes the story of a man who disembowels himself through his own anus during an act of masturbation, then subsequently impregnates his own little sister by accident, I’d figured being the reigning King of Gross-Out was Palahniuk’s new bag.

Turns out it is and it isn’t. It’s true that Snuff, the new novel, is set in the world of hardcore gonzo pornography, and that Palahniuk has obviously done his usual meticulous job of digging for trivia and fast-facts that will leave you scratching your head and wondering if he’s putting you on. Beyond that basic high concept, however, seekers of cult vile transgressiveness could probably ask for more. » More... »

Review: “The Terror”

In the spring of 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led two ships of the British Navy — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — on a voyage to discover the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. They were the first steam-powered vessels to attempt such a venture. Neither the ships nor their crews were ever seen again.

That much we know. The actual fate of the 130-odd men on that doomed expedition will forever remain a mystery. But where history leaves off, Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror picks up the tale, giving a fictionalized account of what might have happened to Captains Franklin and Crozier and their crews as they weathered the next three years trapped in the Arctic ice. » More... »

Review: “Kirby: King of Comics”

I’m thrilled with this book. Mark Evanier, onetime assistant to comics legend Jack Kirby, has written the definitive biography of the creator of such iconic characters as the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and the New Gods.

More than the text, however, the real treat of Kirby: King of Comics is the lavish presentation of Kirby’s art. Never before have I seen comic book art reproduced so faithfully (and if anyone deserves such treatment it surely is Kirby). In fact, when I first peeked inside the book’s covers, I literally gasped. » More... »

Review: “Spook Country”

It’s interesting to watch William Gibson’s efforts to reinvent the cyberpunk genre, even if they’re not always rewarding. The problem, of course, is that nothing dates faster than a book about the near future. (Gibson himself has pointed out that no one in Neuromancer has a cell phone.) By bringing his setting closer and closer to the present day, he can stick to writing what he knows while still giving it a touch of his patented futurist color.

This is a fine enough idea, but unfortunately Gibson’s execution lacks whatever spark might make it work in practice. His own personal zeitgeist is just a little too eager, a little too agog with the possibilities of modern technology for my tastes. He has a bad habit of repeating himself, going over and over the same old ideas. And worst of all, in the case of Spook Country, he’s not above delivering a dull, flat little book. » More... »

Review: “Dune”

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi epic, and a lot of things have happened in the meantime. Most significant, probably, was the release of David Lynch’s movie based on the book. As is often the case with movies — especially one so visual — readers will probably never again be able to read Herbert’s novel without thinking of the film’s baroque costumes, set design, and aesthetics.

Dune fans are deeply divided on the film. I enjoy it, myself; but on this recent re-reading of the book, I was struck by two things. First, the film does a far better job of following the storyline of the book than I expected it to. But at the same time, the book is a very different creature from the film. » More... »