ex libris reviews
1 November 1999
Programming is as near to pure mapping as you can get outside your
skull. This is why it is fun. It is endless discovery, understanding
This month's issue is, one way or another, all about mapping: not cartography, but the building of mental maps. You find your way around your neighborhood using your mental map of the streets; a programmer finds his way around a large software program using his mental map of the problem space; a physicist finds his way around his equations using his mental map of the underlying structure of reality. We all use such maps...but do we all create new ones, or do we just inherit old ones from our friends and relations?
As we explore this idea, we will be looking at books by, , and , along with a few others whose names may be less familiar. Ponder them well.
-- Will Duquette
This is the third of King's excellent Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes tales. In it, Russell and Holmes pursue the killer of a bluff, plain-spoken archaeologist whom they met in Palestine during their first adventure; they also seek to discover the truth about a reputedly ancient manuscript that might have been the cause of her death. It read aloud very well, as one would expect after the first and second, and if I didn't pick it up on my own, I was sure to hear Jane plaintively saying "Story?" at the first opportunity.
This was my second time through the book, so I read it with a more critical eye; and of course reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, so there is more time to notice things. And what I've noticed is a particular instance of a more general law: in a mystery novel, the characters can't be any smarter than the author is. In a space opera, it's all well and good for the ship's damage control officer to say "We've repaired the damage to Reactor 3; you've got full power, Captain!" No one expects to be told just how the officer made the repairs, or even precisely what they were. But they essence of the mystery novel is that the sleuth not only has to solve the puzzle, he also has to explain how he arrived at the solution--and that the reader has access to all the same clues. The author has the advantage of inventing the puzzle, which gives her a slight edge over her sleuth, but nonetheless there's a limit. And that limit becomes apparent when the sleuth in question is the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. We expect him to be brilliant, we are told over and over how smart he is, we hear about all sorts of subjects which he has mastered, we have the regular set pieces in which he identifies the home, tailor, profession, and last meal of arbitrary passersby.... And yet, all in all, the cases in these novels aren't generally solved by brilliance. In fact, I'd be so bold to as to say that the puzzles in these novels are rather sorry things.
But, frankly, it doesn't matter. What I'm really after in a novel is a Tale, Well Told, and King manages that exquisitely. I am put in mind especially of the scene in which Russell is aided by another famous literary sleuth. He is never given his full name; anyone unfamiliar with Sayer's work would think no more than that Russell had met a dear friend from Oxford. For the rest of us, it is a chance to meet a dear friend of our own in unexpected surroundings, and King handles it delightfully well.
A Darkness at Sethanon
A couple of months ago I reviewed The Fionavar Tapestry, and compared it with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in terms of the influences upon it and of the philosophy that underlies it. This month I'm reviewing yet another epic fantasy, also derivative of Tolkien, also with an entirely different philosophy. Feist's worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, magically joined by the Rift, derive almost entirely from the fantasy role-playing world. The basic tale got its start in a series of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in which Feist took part; Midkemia is almost straight AD&D with the traditional elves, dwarves, dark elves, goblins, trolls, and so on and so forth. Praise be, there are no hobbits...uh, that would be halflings (After a run-in with Tolkien's estate, the owners of AD&D had to stop calling them hobbits). Kelewan, whose Tsurani Empire is invading Midkemia, is more distantly based on 's Empire of the Petal Throne role-playing game. (Barker has written a couple of novels set in Tekumel, the world of the Petal Throne; there are those who claim that Feist plagiarized the whole world of Kelewan from Barker. I've read Barker's novels, and I've read Feist's novels, and while the influence is plain it's sheerest hogwash to claim that Feist stole the whole thing. Plus, Feist is the better writer.) This role-playing background lends the whole thing a kind of comic-book atmosphere: the elves are (naturally) long-lived and somewhat solemn, and live in a magical land in which invaders disappear; the dwarves and naturally bluff and hearty, and can march 20 hours a day for 30 days and fight a 12 hour battle at the end of it; no matter how immovable the object, there's always a force that can move it, and no matter how irresistable the force there's always an object it can't move. In short, Midkemia/Kelewan slavishly follows Pratchett's law of Narrative Causality: if the plot requires any particular thing, the plot gets what it wants.'s series
All that said, it's a pleasant, enjoyable series. The first book is, at one level, the most satisfying; it's the story of two boys, Pug and Tomas, who are living in a frontier duchy when the Tsurani Empire opens the rift to Midkemia. Shortly thereafter they are swept up into the war, each to mature in his own way. Tomas discovers a dragon's lair and a suit of magic armor that shapes him into a fell warrior; Pug, captured by the Tsurani, is found to have the potential for wizardry and becomes one of the Empire's wizards, the "Great Ones", whose word is as law. Between the two of them, and with a great helping of battles, politics, mad kings, beggars, thieves, pirates, death-bed confessions, and high wizardry they manage to bring the war to the end. It's not a perfect book--the prose, in particularly, is occasionally clumsy in a way I didn't notice in the later books, but it's a good read.
Although the series is called the Riftwar Saga, the Riftwar proper is over in the first book. The second and third books together form a related but separate tale, and although Pug and Tomas play key roles, the focus has shifted to other characters. And that gets me back to fate. In Middle Earth, fate has no place--the cosmos trembled during Frodo's ordeal on Mount Doom. In Fionavar, fate is king. In Midkemia and Kelewan, everything that happens happens because of the efforts of an amazingly powerful, ridiculously long-lived wizard named Macros the Black. There is literally not a single major event in these three books in which Macro's hand is not felt. And that's where the comic book aspect comes on most strongly. For the sake of a story I'm willing to posit the power of fate over the lives of the characters; I'm much less willing to posit that fate does all of its work through one man's hands.
If you've not read these, and you like epic fantasy, go get 'em; but read 'em with your silliness filter set to maximum absurdity.
Servant of the Empire
Having read Feist's Riftwar books, I immediately had to read these two (there's a third, but I only got a chapter or so into it before I remembered why I didn't like it the first time, and put it back on the shelf). They are set entirely on Kelewan and are altogether more satisfying than Feist's solo work.
The Riftwar books are epic fantasy, prime examples of what I call The Big Story: if we don't do X, the world as we know it will be utterly destroyed! These, on the other hand, are prime examples of the small story, something one encounters all too seldom in fantasy these days.
Mara of the house of the Acoma is a young woman about to embark on a life of temple service (literally; she's in the process of taking her vows) when word comes that her father and brother have been killed on Midkemia in the latest battle of the Riftwar. She alone is left of her family; she must leave the temple and, as Ruling Lady of the Acoma, try to prevent her family name from being obliterated by her enemies. The Tsurani Empire is based on thousands of age-old traditions; Mara must bend those traditions to the breaking point just to survive. How she does so is an intriguing tale, and if it seemed a little too easy on a fourth reading, it most certainly did not on the first reading. Wurts brings Kelewan to life in a way Feist never managed to do (as he would be the first to admit). Highly recommended, except for the third in which Mara begins to act like a damned fool. (I may get back to that one eventually; maybe I'll like it better this time.)
Eight Million Ways to Die
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
Out on the Cutting Edge
A Ticket to the Boneyard
These are the next five of Block's Matthew Scudder books; they are notable mostly because they are as good or better than the previous books and because the cover the time-interval in which Scudder gives up the bottle and gets into Alcoholics Anonymous. I will give specific mention to two of them.
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is rather an oddity. All of the other books are narrated as recent past--something that just happened to Scudder. In this book, he's telling a story of his distant past; in fact, I think the story may chronologically precede all of the others. It's also interesting in that it's the only one in which we get to see much of his drinking buddies. We know he's spent most of his time in bars for many years, and acquired many cronies in that time, but we have hitherto never met them. This book followed Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Scudder realizes that he needs to dry out or he will die sooner rather than later; I figure it suddenly occurred to Block that there was a story he hadn't told, and that with Scudder's sobriety it was too late. So he yielded to an unusual narrative flashback, and told it.
The writing is good, as always, but there's a stifling, smoky closeness to it that is very uncomfortable (and probably intentional).
A Ticket to the Boneyard is notable as yet another appearance of The Untouchable Enemy. You know the guy...the one who can pick a fight, and then make it plain to the authorities that he's the victim. The one who will revile you to your face, and say nothing but good things in public...and say them in such a way to make people doubt their truth while never doubting his sincerity. The one who is always prepared with the Big Lie, is always one step ahead, who simply cannot be killed, no matter how hard you try. That's what we got in this book.
I hate this character. Well, you're supposed to, aren't you? But I hate this character especially because he's so darned plausible. I pray I never meet up with a psychopath like Block's James Leo Motley.
Dunsany is much lauded for being a fantasist at a time when no one was writing fantasy. The King of Elfland's Daughter that I got from a friend, but until recently it was the \ only novel by him that I'd seen. Consequently, when I spotted The Charwoman's Shadow at the local bookstore I snapped it up (Both it and The King of Elfland's Daughter have recently been reprinted.was strongly influenced by him, as have been many other writers, but it's hard to find his books these days. I've got an old copy of
Dunsany had the knack of dreamweaving; both of these books have an quiet, dreamy quality about them, an unworldliness that separates them from the exuberance ofMidkemia and the quiet, prosaic magic of Middle Earth.
Anyway, I picked up this book with great anticipation, prepared to be enchanted and entranced. Having read the many accolades that pepper the cover and the end pages, I was expecting a really special treat.
Well, it was OK. I enjoyed it. It's the story of a Spanish lord's son who goes to learn how to turn lead into gold from a dreaded wizard so that his father will have money for his sister's dowry. The wizard wants just one thing in return...his shadow. It's a Tale Well Told, sure enough, and a small gem, and written with great skill, and I'm afraid I just didn't find it that compelling.
If I found The Programmer's Stone purports to be the notes for an eight-day course in software engineering; for all that it's only available on the Web (at http://www.ftech.net/~honeyg/progstone/progstone.html) it reads more like a book about the Philosophy of Thought, with software being merely a case of special interest. It was motivated by...but I'll Carter & Sanger say it:uncompelling, I had no such trouble with this little book, if it can be so called.
The work leading to this course was motivated by wondering why, in software engineering, there are some people who are one or two orders of magnitude more useful than most people. If this was true of bricklayers, the building industry would be very keen to find out why. The problem of course, is that one can film a bricklayer, and later analyze what is happening at leisure. One cannot even see what great programmers do, and for some reason they cannot explain what the difference is themselves, although most of them wish they could.
They feel that have solved the problem, and I'm not sure they aren't right. They have some radical ideas on the subject, but most of their assertions about programming tally with my personal experience, and with that of other programmers I know. (Of course, by so saying I am tacitly claiming to be one of those "more useful" people they are talking about, but I'll let that slide past without comment.)
Their basic thesis is that there are two distinct modes of thinking, which they call packing and mapping. Packing involves accumulating little packets of information, like how to dial a phone, who the current President is, how to order a meal in a restaurant, and so forth. In any given situation a packer pulls down the appropriate packets, and applies what they say. Packers are fairly well at a loss when faced with situations for which they have no packets.
Mapping is based on packing, but goes one step further. Mappers build mental maps of what they know, trying to fit all of their packets into a nice, useful structure; by so doing, they can fill in the blanks in their knowledge. In any given situation a mapper consults his mental maps and acts accordingly, even if he has no directly relevant packets. Packers are often irritated with mappers because mappers seem to pull solutions out of thin air, without solving the problem "the right way"; they are also often suspicious of the solutions. Mappers often get irritated with packers because they feel like the packers are being wilfully stupid and obstructionist just because they can't see what's obvious to the mappers.
If this all sounds a little elitist, it should. As far as Carter & Sanger are concerned, mappers really do have capabilities packers don't have, and further, they claim that skill at mapping is essential to software engineering. All I can say is, their description of mapping matches dead on with how I personally think (and how I would have thought everybody thinks). Having read this book, though, and looked around me, I think maybe they are on to something. I'm not sure they are on to quite as much as they think they are, but they've definitely got something here.
If you're a programmer, or just interested in how people think, I suggest you go to the above URL, and read at least the first chapter (Day 1: Thinking about Thinking). I found it to be amazingly thought-provoking.
Most of the material in The Programmer's Stone is about two years old; in the mean-time they've been working on something called The Reciprocality Project. It claims to explain in detail why so many people are packers rather than mappers, and then goes on to explore some consequences of that. I've read only a bit of that new material, and I'm not sure what to make of it. Either Alan Carter is a genius, or he's totally nuts, utterly mad. Or maybe both. For now, I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
At about the same time I finished The Programmer's Stone I picked up this book of Christian essays. Sayers is, of course, a noted author of mystery novels about upper-class British sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, hence the cutesy title; it's from a series of books containing essays by various noted Christians, each titled "The So-And-So Christian". I first read this book some years ago, and while I liked parts of it, Sayers' central thesis left me cold. This time through, on the other hand, it was riveting.
Sayers, a strictly orthodox Anglican, was concerned with the statement from Genesis that Man and Woman were made in God's image. God Himself makes it clear to Moses in Exodus that there's no physical resemblance; so in what way are human beings made in God's image? Sayers' answer is what she called the Doctrine of Creative Mind. Indeed, she spoke as though this was an established doctrine of the Christian faith, though I've never seen it described elsewhere as such. The doctrine is this: God is a Creator; we are creators as well (or, asput it, subcreators). Whereas God creates something out of nothing, we are only able to create something out of something (as a potter makes a vase out of clay) or nothing out of nothing (as a writer writes a novel); nevertheless, the resemblance is unmistakeable. She denounced Modern Industrial Society for putting people in jobs in which there was no place for creativity--where their work, instead of crafting things, involves pulling the same lever over and over and over.
As I read this, it became clear to me that Sayers is on the same wavelength as the authors of The Programmer's Stone. Both decry a system that discourages creativity; both exalt Man's creative gift. And by putting these two things together I explained something that had been puzzling me for many years.
If you read a life of some great Christian divine or evangelist of the last two or three hundred years, you will always read that they spent two or three hours of every single day in prayer. I'd never been able to see the point of this, and dismissed it as either pious exaggeration or needless obsession. But Carter & Sanger gave me the key. According to them, they way to learning to map lies in daydreaming: just spending time playing with ideas, exploring them, letting them come to make sense. Mapping involves a fairly large component of this "daydreaming". Personally, I've always called it "pondering"; I tend to do it in the shower, in the car on the way to work, while walking about the building, and various other times when I'm superficially active. The time I spend pondering the writing of software has made me much more productive and "useful", to use their phrase. It suddenly makes sense that if one wants to be a skilled and mature Christian, that is, one who is well-acquainted with God's desires for one's life, one needs to spend a considerable amount of timing pondering the things of God.
The things of Man, however, do not always bear pondering.
Justinian is a historical novel about Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, one of the more lurid and violent people you'd never want to meet. I found it not in the General Fiction section of the bookstore, but in the Science Fiction section, from which it was immediately apparent to me that "H.N. Turteltaub" is nothing more than a pen-name for noted Science Fiction & Fantasy author . Turtledove is best known these days as a writer of alternate history novels, but his first well-known work was set in a fantasy world transparently based on the Byzantine Empire. The Videssos series was entirely enjoyable, not least because it involved a Legion from the days of the Roman Republic which was magically transported to the land of Videssos. It was interesting watching what the Romans made of their faux-Byzantine hosts.
Turtledove is a student of Byzantine history, and so when I saw he'd written a straight historical novel on the subject I bought it immediately. I read it, expecting a glorious treat. Alas, it's a failure...a glorious, ambitious, well-written failure, but still a failure.
The structure of the novel is intriguing. The bulk of it purports to be an autobiography written by Justinian himself late in his life. Perspective is given by the oral memories of Justinian's guard captain, one Myakes, late in his life as the autobiography is read to him. It's clever how the scheme is carried out, and I can't fault that part of it. Instead, I fault it on three grounds.
Justinian was, in our terms, a sociopath. As Emperor, he expected absolute obedience; any disagreement with his Imperial will merited death. Turtledove's task (and it's not an easy one; that's why I call this a glorious failure) was to allow Justinian to present himself in his own words, and still make it clear to us what a monster he was. He succeeded, in part, but I just couldn't make myself believe that such a man would present himself in such a negative light. Ashas shown, the truly evil are rarely given to honest self-assessment. That's the first problem.
The second problem is related; Turtledove spends far too much time on the gory details of Justinian's sex life--more detail than I can believe Justinian would have gone into, and also more detail than I was interested in. OK, so he was a womanizer; so he seduced all of the serving girls in the palace; so he had an active sex life with his wife. Fine; that can be established without going into overly much detail. I'll be honest here; compared to your average summer trash novel, the sex isn't particularly graphic. But it still seemed jarring and out of place.
And now I come to the final, and most serious of the three faults: it was kind of dull. I finished it because I wanted to know what happened in the end, but the book is no kind of page turner. It has neither the suspense of a ripping yarn, nor the intrigue of one of's historical novels.
If the topic interests you, it's a worthwhile read; otherwise, don't bother.
The Honor of the Queen
These are the first two books about Weber's wonderfully superhuman space opera heroine, Honor Harrington. I've reviewed these at least twice in the past, so I won't do so again here; click on Weber's name, above, to jump to a list of past reviews if you're interested. I'm reading them again because the latest one finally came out in paperback, and I'm working my way up to it again. Jane's started the series as well, and has been enjoying it; that's another reason why I'm at it again.
This book was recently given to me by a dear friend of ours, simply because she felt I needed it. It's about a small boy named Harold, who decides to go for a walk in the moonlight. Only, to walk in the moonlight, he needs a moon, so he draws one with his purple crayon. And then he needs somewhere to walk, so he draws that...and on and on through a variety of adventures, all of which are drawn (with great economy of line) by Harold himself. The pictures are good, but it's the text that makes this a classic; our friend inscribed it to "Will, a student of the well-chosen word," and on that basis this book is an example worth studying.
I don't want to oversell it; this little book isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it is, nevertheless, a small gem, and well-worth adding to your collection.
Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.