Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beach, Barbeque, and a Good Book

It's now well into the summer, and the 4th of July weekend is rapidly approaching. If you're like me, you'll probably want to spend at least part of your vacation relaxing on the beach or by the pool with a good book or two. Here are a few suggestions for light Summer reading to get you started. Just remember one thing — wait at least 30 minutes after eating before diving into your book (and make sure to wash your hands, especially if you've been eating barbecued ribs).

  • Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1)
  • by Jim Butcher — Harry Dresden isn't your typical private investigator. His cases tend to be a bit more interesting than following a cheating spouse, and when he runs afoul of the bad guys, he's less likely to be shot than eaten. If you need to hire him, he's in the phone book — the only listing under "Wizards". Imagine Thomas Magnum wearing a leather duster instead of a Hawaiian shirt, driving a well-abused VW Beetle instead of a Ferrari, throwing fireballs instead of punches, and living with a sex-crazed talking skull named Bob instead of a verbose Brit named Higgins, and you might start to get a feel for Harry Dresden. The Dresden Files is an excellent urban fantasy series, with just the right mix of action, drama, humor, and horror (since the bad guys are often evil sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, dark faeries, and even mobsters). Storm Front is the first in the series, which is currently on its 10th installment. Each novel is fairly self-contained and can be read on its own, though I recommend reading them in order — Butcher is very good with character development, and the Harry Dresden you meet in Small Favor, the most recent novel in the series, is not quite the same man as the Harry Dresden first introduced in Storm Front.
  • Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz — In the last few years, Dean Koontz has gone from an author I tended to avoid to one of my favorites, and a lot of that is due to the Odd Thomas novels. Odd is a fry cook in the desert town of Pico Mundo, California, who has two very special gifts. First, he makes exceptionally delicious pancakes. Second, he can see dead people. The latter tends to put him in some very peculiar and sometimes deadly situations. Despite the numerous tragedies he experiences, Odd approaches life with hope, humor, and — most of all — humility. One of the most unique protagonists I've encountered, Odd Thomas is simply enchanting. While technically horror, the Odd Thomas novels are humorous, inspiring, and highly entertaining.
  • The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin — A serial killer is loose in Toy City (formerly Toy Town), and the old nursery rhyme characters are being killed one by one. To make matters worse, Detective Bill Winkie (who dropped the nickname "Wee Willy" years earlier), the one man who might be able to sort out the mystery, has gone missing. It's up to Bill's partner — an alcohol-soaked teddy bear named Eddie — and a newcomer to the city named Jack to track down the killer. If that sounds even mildly interesting to you, then you should really consider picking up this book. Don't think that because it's about toys and nursery rhyme characters that ...Bunnies... is a kid's book. This is a darkly humorous fairy tale, in which all of the characters you think you know are a bit twisted. Jill, for example, works at a brothel owned by Mother Goose, while Little Miss Muffet hosts a daytime talk show (appropriately called "The Tuffet"). Gratuitous sex and violence contrast absurdly (and perfectly) with the setting, resulting in a hilarious and action-packed story full of plenty of twists and turns, including a mind-bending finalĂ© that I guarantee you won't see coming.
  • The Android's Dream by John Scalzi — When a human diplomat murders his alien counterpart with a well-aimed fart, an underachieving State Department employee is tasked with locating a rare sheep in order to avoid interstellar war. If you think that sounds like the setup for an outrageous slapstick comedy, you'd be absolutely wrong. Scalzi does inject more than the usual share of humor into The Android's Dream, but despite it's ridiculous premise it's actually a very solid sci-fi adventure. Scalzi has been favorably compared to Robert Heinlein for his earlier novels, but The Android's Dream feels a bit like the bastard offspring of Heinlein and Doug Adams. The result is incredibly entertaining. Actually, I bought this book yesterday with the intention of taking it with me to the beach this weekend, but made the mistake of reading a bit over lunch. Since I finished it around midnight, I guess I'll need to go back to the bookstore tomorrow to find something else to read at the beach...

Monday, June 9, 2008

45 Forever? I Can Handle That...

While the predictions of futurists can be a bit hit-or-miss (hence the cry "Where's my flying car?!"), some end up being pretty close. Ray Kurzweil has a good enough track record for the National Academy of Engineering to publish his sunny forecast for solar energy, and I'm certainly hoping his most recent round of predictions, discussed in this recent New York Times article, is as accurate as his 1989 prediction that by 1998 a computer would beat a World Chess Champion (since IBM's Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov 1997).

Ray has predicted, among other things, that in another 15 years, human life expectancy will rise each year faster than we age. That sounds to me that as long as I don't manage to get myself killed in the meantime, I can be 45 forever — which doesn't sound terribly bad, actually. (Of course, the other alternative to continue growing older but never dying, until we're all nothing but shriveled, wrinkly things with no hair except what grows out of our huge ears and noses, which is a somewhat less attractive proposition...) Ray also predicts a technological Singularity sometime in the middle of this century — which any fan of Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, or Dan Simmons knows sounds pretty sweet.