Monthly Archives: December 2006

Features Blog

We’re doing something a bit new here at Locus Online (and Locus Magazine), for which I’ve created a new Blogger blog for ‘Locus Online Features’, and have re-posted the Graham Sleight retrospective review of Arthur C. Clarke and George R. Stewart using that function with a new URL. The point is to more easily enable commenting from readers, which will appear almost-automatically (I did enable comment moderation, which means the comments you post are sent to me via email first, for my approval or rejection, as a means of blocking spam).

Gary Westfahl’s review of Children of Men has been posted the same way.

More sample reviews from Locus Magazine are on the way — Graham Sleight’s columns, as well as one or two reviews from each issue by Gary Wolfe, Faren Miller, and the others. The idea is to drum up interest in subscribing to the magazine! Of course surely anyone reading this blog is already a subscriber.

Carl Sagan Memories

OK, here are a couple of my own. After Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan was the writer who alerted me to the wondrousness of reality, of the universe, of everything beyond ordinary life and antique religious verities. As a teenager I was sufficiently up-to-speed about current books to put The Cosmic Connection on my Christmas want-list, distributed as was our custom to other family members. In those days if a bookshop didn’t carry a particular title, you had to place a special order and wait 2 or 3 weeks for it to be delivered. My grandmother placed such an order and made it her gift to me. I’m sure she must have blanched at the image on the back cover — the Pioneer 10 plaque engraving, which shows a naked man and woman alongside a diagram of the solar system — but she never said anything.

A few years later there was Cosmos, the TV series, which at the time I watched on my 12-inch black and white TV. I’d read enough astronomy books so that the material was mostly familiar, but the presentation was mesmerizing, and some of the musical selections, Shostakovich’s 11th symphony and the electronica of Vangelis, have remained favorites.

And then came Contact, a surprisingly intelligent novel, I thought, by someone not known for fiction and whom one might suspect had hired a ghostwriter. I talked about it at work one day with a friend, a week later saw another employee who I think had overheard us reading it himself. (I was irritated by the movie, which gave all the best lines to Jodie Foster’s evangelical critic, played by Matthew McConaughey.)

I’ve read most though not all of the later books, of which The Demon-Haunted World may be the most significant, and prescient, in light of the current, remarkable and gratifying, books by Michael Shermer and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and others about atheism and reason against the rising tide of religious fanaticism.

I never met Carl Sagan, or even saw him in person.

Secure Sockets Layer, and so on

There’s currently a hiatus with the website’s security certificate, which a couple visitors to and similar pages have complained about (while many others have proceeded unawares). The nice folks at CI Host seem to be very busy this holiday season, and entreaties to have so far gone unreplied. Real soon now, I’m sure.

Follow-up on my cruise: the onboard comedians were Lowell Sanders and Merl Hobbs, and there was also a card-trick magician (whose credit was some recent Disney movie called Now You See It) named Bobby Borgia. Quick Google checks show their claims to fame are… doing acts aboard Carnival’s Paradise.

Coming soon on Locus Online: sample reviews from Locus Magazine. Including Graham Sleight’s “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” columns. (Why hasn’t such an idea occurred to any of us before? Hmm.) And special to Locus Online–reviews of Children of Men, Perfume, and Pan’s Labyrinth. And end-of-year features…

UPDATE Friday morning: the SSL issue seems to be resolved; CI Host finally got back to me about renewing the certificate.

Notes on Next

Starting on last week’s cruise and finishing over the weekend, I read the latest Michael Crichton thriller, Next, which is about the thrills and perils of biotechnology. It’s less strident than previous book State of Fear; his messages here, spelled out in several pages of afterword, aren’t so one-sided or anti-scientific as that book’s.

The main plot thread of Next concerns a southern California biotech firm called BioGen, which has rights to a cell line derived from a UCLA leukemia patient who’s now suing the university for some of the big bucks they made selling his tissues. BioGen needs investment money, but an appeal for help from ruthless industry leader Jack Watson sets off a chain of events seemingly designed to ruin the company, prompting BioGen’s leader to set a bounty hunter on the trail of the leukemia patient’s daughter and grandson, an extended chase sequence that drives the second half of the book.

Several parallel and intersecting plot threads involve ‘transgenic’ animals — an orangutan in Sumatra, an African grey parrot living with a Parisian family, and a chimp in a US primate facility — all of whom can talk (the parrot can do arithmetic too), having been infused with human genes and then apparently forgotten or abandoned. The ‘father’ of the chimp takes him home to San Diego, where his wife, after the initial shock, gives ‘Dave’ a haircut and sends him to school as a child with a very rare genetic deformity… which works, for a while.

As usual with Crichton, the book is composed of many short chapters, multiple story threads only some of which eventually merge, and occasional sidebars of mock news items or speeches. The prose is flat and to the point, characters are one-dimensional, and usually (not always) greedy, hypocritical, or merely stupid, and plot contrivances are sometimes awkward or transparent. (Two women in the book both have sons named Jamie, a circumstance which at first I thought was an egregious authorial oversight — but no, it’s a setup for a chase-scene confusion that is only temporarily consequential.)

However creaky Crichton’s book is as fiction, you have to hand it to him that, whatever his political sway, he’s writing books these days that address serious issues of technology and science in a direct, popular way that virtually no one else is attempting. (The closest might be the occasional SF thriller from Benford or Bear or McAuley, without anywhere near the visibility.) He’s raising issues that matter, and at least in this book he’s not setting scientists up merely as ruthless monsters whose work could destroy the world and who therefore must be suppressed. If anything Crichton’s message here is that the legal system needs some serious adjustment to handle the implications of biotechnology — his point #1 is that genes shouldn’t be patentable, as they are now, a situation which leads to counter-intuitive notions about ownership of bodily tissues, and disincentivizes research into genetic diseases where ownership of the gene is lacking. And another of his points is that prohibitions, on types of research or anything else, simply don’t work. He spells all this out in the afterword (recapitulating points of a judge’s decision late in the story) which can be skimmed at the bookstore, perhaps, by those uninclined to read the whole book…

At the same time I admit not entirely trusting an author who can be so cynical (as in State of Fear) as to sound ideologically paranoid, and who would commit the gratuitous slur against a columnist who wrote a mildly unflattering article (now subscriber-only) about Crichton a while back (Crowley’s response is here). Just think if a Michael Crichton novel were to contain a character who was a bestselling novelist on contemporary scientific and technological themes who was taken so seriously as to be invited to meet the President(!), the devious motivations that would be impugned upon him. Still, Crichton does raise pertinent issues, even if we might suspect he’s giving us only his side of the argument.

Back on Dry Land

I’m home from my cruise, a four-night expedition on Carnival’s Paradise, out of the port of Long Beach, with one day at Catalina (one of the Channel Islands off the southern California coast), one day at Ensenada, Mexico, and a final ‘funday’ on board simply sitting out at sea, unmoving.

I’ve never been on a cruise before and I’m not sure it will ever occur to me to go on one again. It’s somewhat analogous to going to a science fiction convention, in that you are isolated from the everyday world, enclosed in a pocket universe with its own protocols, except that on a cruise the goal is simply to have ‘fun’, with random strangers. That means eating and drinking and shopping and attending shows. The decor of Paradise is not unlike a Las Vegas casino — in fact it does have a casino aboard — with glittery lights and fancy furnishings everywhere, and a huge 5 or 6 story atrium in the center of the ship with glass elevators running up the middle. (And this is a nearly 10-year-old ship; newer ones are bigger and more elaborate, I’ve been told.)

My impressions of ocean cruises were formed by old movies and the TV series of Brideshead Revisited, I’m afraid, but I was not surprised by the many noisy children running around and obese middle-America couples aboard, taking advantage of every open buffet and splashing in the pools and jacuzzis dotting the decks. I have a friend whose partner is a cruise-ship aficionado, who sneered just a bit when I told of booking a cruise on Carnival. No doubt other lines cater to different clienteles.

On the plus side, I was fascinated by the layout of the ship and enjoyed exploring the decks with its many restaurants, auditoriums, bars, libraries, lounges, and other facilities. The top front deck held a gym, with huge slanted windows across the front like the windshield of the Jupiter 2, and on top of that, a running track (11 laps per mile) that I had to try out for 10 minutes, and inside that a miniature golf course. The evening shows were actually quite spectacular, song-and-dance revues with singers and dancers the equal of any I’d expect to see in Las Vegas. There were two stand-up comedians, doing open and R-rated shows on two nights each. Food, included sit-down dinners where in practice you can order as many items off the menu as you like, was fair to very good, and covered by the cruise fare — but they charged extra for drinks, even Diet Cokes.

On the down side, I never found a quiet chaise lounge, away from the kids and bustle, where I could sit and read for hours at a time as the ocean slid quietly by — my cruise fantasy. (I did get about 3 hours reading done, anyway.) The room was cozy, as you’d expect on a ship, but the window was sealed and unopenable, a frustration. (Newer ships have almost all rooms with balconies, I was told.) And the cruise format itself presumes that you need to be busy at every possible moment; thus daily stops at Catalina and Ensenada provided numerous ‘excursions’ onshore to tour or shop. Avalon on Catalina is a fascinating community, a mile-square city on a 26-mile long island that is otherwise almost entirely a wilderness preserve, bought by William Wrigley (of gum fame) in the early 20th century, whose family built the largest mansions on the hilltops of Avalon, where the number of autos is now limited and many of the residents drives around in golf carts instead. (Avalon was the location of a key scene in Chinatown.) I can’t say much for Ensenada, however; some 400,000 population, supported by fishing (for legal reasons, high-quality tuna for sushi goes to Asia, but not the US) and tourism, hillsides around the harbor dotted with shanties and mansions, but nothing much to see in the city as such. Shopping — a few nice shops selling silver jewelry and leather, and many many street vendors selling tourist junk. Well, there was also the tequila.

And the third day was a ‘funday’ at sea — which meant that this huge cruise vessel, with 2000 passengers and a staff of 920, sat unmoving out in the Pacific (but within sight, barely, of the coast), for an entire day, bobbing up and down with the swell, so that the passengers could enjoy simply being aboard the ship, eating and drinking and seeing shows and splashing in the pools and playing miniature golf. More than anything about the whole cruise this struck me as bizarre, somehow metafictional — cruising for the sake of cruising. Can you imagine buying a ticket on a 767 just to fly in circles for a day and enjoy the onboard experience? Or sit on a train unmoving on the tracks for the occasional pleasure of visiting the dining car? Of course the cruise ship is only incidentally a vehicle; moreso it’s a destination, a resort on water, and the evident fact of the enormous cruise ship industry (the staff sign 6-month contracts to live on board and work 7 days a week, before a 2-month break and an option to re-sign, I learned; and can you imagine the employment behind the ongoing construction of these ever-bigger ships?) testifies to the popularity of this kind of experience. Which I enjoyed, pretty much, at least this once.


Shopping, mexican food, tequila. The civic center was originally a casino built by ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Nice weather. Email downloaded OK, managed to post a couple blinks. Tomorrow at sea; Friday back to real life.


The cruise ship I’m on has an Internet cafe and even wireless service in areas of the ship. The wifi signal came up in my cabin, albeit weakly, too weakly to maintain a signal long enough to completely download the half-day’s e-mail. This meant that once I re-established the connection, my Pop3 server began downloading the half-day’s email all over again, from the beginning. Then the signal failed again. Later, the time allotment I’d purchased ($24 for an hour) ran out, breaking the signal one more time. Finally I accessed my inbox via the web-based email utility my hosting service provides, thinking this would be faster (at least I could delete those 2 and 3 Megabyte e-mails with photos attachments I’d already retrieved) forgetting that doing so moves the email to separate server for that purpose, so that I can no longer download any of it to my Outlook inbox on the laptop. Oh well. It’s remarkable I can do any of this, I suppose, out at sea, even if so far I’m only 26 miles from Long Beach. More tomorrow.

December Cruise

I’ll be away from keyboard most of the next few days, aboard a ship somewhere in the Pacific between Long Beach and Ensenada. I should be able to check e-mail, and post anything urgent, but it may be Friday before anything routine appears on the site. (Sorry, I’m behind looking at suggestions for Blinks, as usual.)

Var Partition

Email to Locusmag seemed to disappear for about 24 hours, starting Friday morning around 10:30 (Pacific time). The problem didn’t fix itself, like some DSL issues do, so this morning I contacted CI Host, our web hosting service, and got a reply about 3 hours later to the effect that the “var partition” had been cleared, thus restoring e-mail. Period. Not finding this explanation entirely illuminating, I got online and entered into chat with the same technical guy at CI Host who’d responded with the email. I wondered if by any chance my resetting of mis-addressed email to, to divert it into limbo instead of my inbox, had screwed something up, directing hundreds of megs of emails into some buffer, now full. No, LOL. It was just that the var partition was full, the domain didn’t exist in the login database; new system, new database. OIC…well, whatever.

As near as I can tell, the CI Host folks transitioned some function that interprets domains names and/or email addresses from one system to another, and accidentally dropped all the locusmag settings. The effect was to bounce everything sent to *; the reason I wasn’t able to download email was that there wasn’t any, none of it was being accepted by the host.

So what actually happened to everything sent that 24 hours? Bounced? Well, at least one email that *I* sent Locus HQ Friday afternoon did in fact arrive this afternoon, about 24 hours late. So it must have sat in limbo somewhere–or the server from work (from where I sent it) just kept trying until it got through. Anyway. These things happen, I guess. I should have jumped on the problem sooner, perhaps, but all’s well that…

About James Jean, and so on

James Jean, whom I’d previously never heard of, won the World Fantasy Award as Best Artist last month in Austin, Texas, but declined to provide a photo of himself for Locus Magazine’s report of the winners (on page 10 of the December issue; he substituted an artistic representation of himself instead). His website has lots of samples of his art, but what I discovered today is a thumbnail photo of him on the Contributors page of the December issue of Wired, which you might check out in case you’re curious.

The same issue has the last of Bruce Sterling’s published columns for the magazine.

Meanwhile, here at Locus Online HQ, my email service seems to have hiccupped; only 2 new emails since 10:30 this morning, which can’t be right. I’ll hope the problem will fix itself by tomorrow morning, so I don’t have to call them and complain.