The Island (Fallen Earth)

I downloaded two books out of the iBookstore at the same time, both free. One had a dragon on the cover, the other a biohazard symbol. I decided to start with the one that had the dragon. I generally prefer fantasy to thriller, though I enjoy both.

I hadn’t got very far when I scratched my head and figured that I must have fired up the biohazard story first. I read about an outbreak of La Fiebre in Mexico, the failed attempts of the governments to contain the deadly contagion (measures that were incredibly half-assed, but that’s a quibble), and the pending collapse of Civilization As We Know It. It was interesting, and the main character was interesting.

But first we’re given a whole crapload of backstory about our guy William — all to answer the question that must come later, “how did this guy become so damn capable?” But William is all right. The world is about to die, and he has no illusions that he is going to make it through. He decides to take control of the one thing left to him: where he will die when the fever catches him. He chooses to take the boat his father restored and go to an island along the coast of North Carolina, scene of one of his happiest weeks ever.

I like the logic of that. I like William’s melancholy-but-not-crippled vibe. I like his intelligence. No need to make him selectively stupid to make the plot work.

Which brings me to my biggest beef with this story, and it’s a big one. The plot. At the end of the book, I read some notes by the writer. He said he wanted to write fantasy, but built on a rock of reality. This book was the rock. Which is another way of saying I got all the way to the end, and the story hadn’t started yet. We’ve had some events, a few Important Sailing Facts, more than enough foreshadowing, and we’ve got a bad guy — but the conflict so far is just two guys who don’t like each other. Neither has an actual goal.

And while our first-person narrator is not at all shy about foreshadowing the ravages of the disease and saying that what comes next is much worse, he is annoyingly coy about what that is, especially considering a presumed audience in a first-person narrative that has lived through it all.

There is exactly one sentence in this novel that hints that it’s the introduction of a fantasy story. It comes right at the end of this volume, and leads me to suspect that the actual story may be about to begin.

So, what to say? I liked the writing from a technical standpoint. A good flow, capturing the voice of the main guy. I liked William. I liked the setting. But I didn’t like The Island. Too many pages burned setting the stage, not enough of the actual drama.

Still, I’m tempted to pay for book two. The writing is solid enough that it might be enjoyable when the story actually gets under way.

Are You Shitting Me, <name of my employer here>?

One of the things I do is read. Another thing I do is review what I read. Occasionally, at least. Right now I’m wrapping up a review of a novel I downloaded from xBookstore (where x is an arbitrary letter of the alphabet) and I decided that I should share that review with others who might be interested in the story.

Oddly, I couldn’t figure out how to leave the review from my laptop. Then I realized I couldn’t figure out how to read the story from my laptop. Apparently that’s not a feature of that particular electronic bookstore. You must use an xDevice. Frankly I’m stunned. Boggled.

Also, I have more respect for the people whose reviews appear on that site; they were typed in adverse conditions.

Time to Let Hunter Run Free

I’ve spent a lot of time writing a novel called The Monster Within. If you ask me, the thing’s pretty damn good. While I may not be the most unbiased judge of the story’s merit, I have to say that even after spending countless hours honing it, I still enjoy sitting back and reading it.

The thing is, I suck at selling stuff. I sent the novel off to some of the top agents in the biz, and got kind rejections. Almost universally the rejections actually contained specific commentary, which is unusual. The main message: We like the writing but way too many pages. The length is a problem because a) there are a lot of 300-page stories trapped in 700-page manuscripts out there, and b) the book would have taken too much physical space in a rack (can’t fit in as many copies), and would cost more to print.

As to a) above, I had completely failed to convey the complexity of the story. I kept trimming the message to the agents, smallifying the synopsis to fit submission requirements, but in the process losing so many elements of the story that of course the agent would say, “125k words for this little story? *Yawn*” The navel-gazing preamble did nothing to reassure the reader that a tight story was to follow.

Regarding b), Monster is a fantasy novel, and readers these days expect them to run fat. That doesn’t change the economics of cutting down extra trees for a guy no one has ever heard of before.

In the end, my poor sales skills and lack of perseverance led to my failure to form a partnership with someone trained in exactly those qualities, and Monster rests idle.

Since those failures, the Kindle came out, and Amazon stabbed the already-wounded bookstore chains in the soul. Nook and iBookstore followed. Books aren’t necessarily made of paper anymore. A fat novel costs the same to distribute as a pamphlet. (Well, almost.) I could publish Monster myself. Charge a lot less yet put more money per book into my own pocket.

That’s great, right? Stick it to the man! Who needs all those editors in their New York offices?

Actually, the reading public owes those guys quite a lot. The stuff the big publishers put out falls into two categories: good writing and crap that will sell anyway. In the Kindle bookstore, there is a frothing cauldron of sewage with a few choice works bubbling to the top. When you pick up a book made of paper, at least someone somewhere thought it was worth cutting down a tree. If that book has a name on it and it turns out to be a worthless piece of shit, you know to avoid that name (and perhaps that publisher), and to disregard all the glowing reviews by people who don’t actually read the books. Eventually you will find those you do trust, and by letting them screen the novels before they reach you, they protect you from a lot of crap.

Unless you get caught in a spiraling disaster like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which doesn’t fall so much into the ‘crap that will sell anyway’ category as it does in the “remember the good old days at the start of this series when Bob had an editor?” bin. I suspect the publisher would have loved to help him tighten his story, only Jordan, as a self-proclaimed genius (I heard him proclaim it), would have none of it. The only people reading the series by then were the people with so much invested in the roughly ten bazillion pages that had already gone by that they were willing to tough it out just to get to the end.

Um… I’m drifting off-point here. I started to say that editors helped readers with a major signal-to-noise problem and then I provided two concrete counterexamples. I think in debate class this was a frowned-upon tactic.

But, signal-to-noise. That’s the key here. Editors and agents are filters, reducing but not eliminating the noise. If I self-publish Monster, I will be living in the realm of pure noise. As bad as it is in the dead-tree publishing world, it’s far, far worse in the self-publish world. There’s a lot of really bad fiction out there.

So how does one float to the top of the cesspool? How do I separate myself from the blather and unmitigated horribleness? How do I convince people who have never heard my name to spend a couple of bucks on my book?

There are two things I must do:

  • Have a great cover.
  • Make a lot of noise.

Yep, to overcome the signal-to-noise problem, I have to make more noise. It’s like being at one of those parties where everyone is talking really loudly and you realize that nobody would have to shout if everyone would just stop shouting. But to sell this book, I’ll be calling on all of you to amplify my voice. I will be resuming my podcasts. I’ll probably fire up a Web site for the book. And I will relentlessly bug everyone I know to buy the damn thing, and if they liked it to leave reviews on Amazon and iBookstore. I’ll be emptying out my address book on this one. Just tellin’ you now, so you can be ready for the awkward conversation later.

First, however, is the cover. I’ve had the cover in my mind for a long time, and one thing about self-publishing is that no joker who’s never read the story is going to put some generic “insert standard hero here” shot on the cover. (Hunter is a non-standard hero.) The biggest problem with my vision is that it will be both difficult to pull off and not especially powerful when viewed as wee icon in the bookstore. So you all have a reprieve while I get that into place.

SOx Sucks

A few years ago a handful of companies, notably WorldCom and Enron but plenty of others, faked up their books and defrauded investors and their own employees of billions of dollars. This despite requirements that the books of companies be audited by an independent accounting firm.

It turns out that in some cases the big accounting firms were more interested in keeping the client than in protecting investors. They allowed the fraudulent behavior continue, so that WorldCom and Enron would continue to pay them for their other services. Not really the independent audit that was needed.

The government stepped in, and passed the Sarbanes-Oxley act, lovingly called SOx. What this did was to provide a vast set of new accounting requirements demanding that companies be able to prove that every important number in every system was properly protected and any monkey business would be traceable. This is a gigantically complex undertaking for a business. Also added was an audit of the audit, and a review of how every number is checked and double-checked. The US government for the first time takes a direct role in looking at corporate ledgers.

A system my department developed and hosts has now been declared to be SOx-related. That means that the server it sits on has to be extra-super-secure, and that we have to document checking the security of the server periodically. (Different aspects of the security have to be checked at different intervals.) Every change to a line of code has to be documented as well, and justified, and audited. Likewise the database has to be extra-super-secure. I’m a big fan of secure, actually, so for the most part I’m totally down with all this. Extra-super-secure is many times more of a hassle than secure, but if someone monkeyed with the numbers in this system, our CEO could go to jail. So, yeah, best to be careful.

Getting the servers set up properly was not really that difficult. Actually, I wasn’t allowed to configure the servers, because I was the only one able to test if it had been done right. Every setting has to be tested by someone other than the one who did the work. Then the test document I create is audited by my boss before being sent over to the Internal Audit department.

Documenting the security of the servers to the satisfaction of the law just plunged me into several long, long days of bureaucratic hell. I had templates for the documentation from the IT department’s setups, but those docs had some surprising holes and some parts that were simply badly written. I spent several hours trying to figure out how to meet a requirement in those docs that was simply wrong. An IT expert probably could have identified the problem at a glance and said, “I expect the writer meant this…” I am not an IT expert, and honestly I like that sort of arcane activity almost as little as I like paperwork.

So, yeah, this was a perfect storm of things I don’t like to do, and I underestimated the time it would take me to do them, which led to a lost weekend and almost every waking hour for a week devoted to the task. Now my work goes on to be audited, and it’s hard to imagine that after a push like that there isn’t an error somewhere.

Here’s the thing: as I was doing all this, I wasn’t mad at the government. Red tape driving up taxes and costing companies millions of dollars usually will make me call for revolution. This is all deadweight on our economy. But who I’m really mad at is Enron et. al., and I’m ready to murder the leadership of the major accounting firms whose dereliction led to this whole fiasco. They owe me. Bigtime.

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear has written before about the end of the human race. One thing he does well is making the end of mankind as we know it not such a bad thing. He’s also better at science than many Science Fiction writers out there.

Darwin’s Radio is a pretty good story with some really interesting science. You see, our DNA is filled with junk. It’s possible that some of that junk came from viruses that made themselves a permanent home in our genome. Now they’re just camped there, never activated, hitchhiking in the backwaters of our chromosomes. Mission accomplished, as far as preserving that pattern goes.

So what if some trigger kicked one of these garbage genes into production? And what if the resultant virus could hop from person to person and activate that gene in the new host’s cells? The virus could actually move DNA from one person to another.

Finally, what if that new virus activated a sequence of events that fundamentally changed our offspring? Perhaps it has happened in the past; evolution seems to be more a series of little jumps (and occasionally a big jump) rather than a continuous progression.

In this story, the time is roughly now. Biology, the ascendant science, is starting to produce astonishing results. And just as we start to understand the human genome, some crazy shit starts going down. DNA is moving laterally — being exchanged between people — and that’s never happened before. Bacteria share DNA willy-nilly, but they don’t keep their genetic material bundled up and cataloged they way more complex organisms do.

Children are coming out broken. And when they’re not broken, they’re weird. What would you do, if your job was to protect the people of your society? What if, as time passed, you realized that you were working to protect not just your society but humanity as we know it? Would you slaughter an entire village to contain the epidemic?

Maybe you wouldn’t, but you can bet your boots that there are plenty who would. And if saving the human race isn’t justification for a few atrocities, I don’t know what is. And the effects of the virus are really, really bad. Lots and lots of dead babies. People are doing the math and there might be a time when there are no children born alive at all.

Then there’s the guy who has evidence that all this has happened before, to the Neanderthals.

Despite all the science flying around, the root of the drama is political. How does a civilized, law-respecting society face a horrific health crisis that just keeps getting worse and worse? What effect can the ambitions of a few key people have on a global calamity?

Mr. Bear went out of his way to create a peripheral precondition for the virus to take effect: The parents have to be in love. Sex without love produces normal human babies. This makes love a biological condition, and I’m all right with that. Presumably the virus is designed to work in the cases where the new child has the best chance at success. Makes sense, but biology is rarely self-limiting like that. Even if the chance of success is zero, biology will give it a try.

Parents are also altered, and the disfigurement they suffer becomes a social stigma. They carry the virus.

There are some really good scenes in this story. The scene that first springs to mind is when one of our favorite characters is in a crowd. There is a surge, a change of atmosphere, and the peaceful gathering crosses a threshold and becomes a mob. It’s a moment impossible to define but obvious when you see it.

That said, there are also some events and one element of the science that I just couldn’t buy. That wasn’t enough to stop me from staying up later than I should to read a few extra pages each night.

The story ends with a lot of questions, but enough is known to allow the enthusiastic reader to set down the book and imagine a wide range of scenarios, all with one inevitable outcome. Any by the end, that outcome seems like a pretty cool thing.

If you like Science Fiction with actual science in it, you will likely enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Millage Flying Tourbillon (3826) Collection), I get a kickback.

The Ice Man

A variation on a joke we’ve all heard:

Me: Doctor, it hurts when I do this. (waggle arm)
Doctor: Yeah, it hurts when I do that, too! I know just the specialist.
Me (to specialist): It hurts when I do this.
Specialist: Then don’t do that.

The advice pounded into me over a few weeks of physical therapy: don’t do things that hurt. At first I thought the advice was laughable, until I realized just how many times each day I performed through the pain. Little things that put a twinge through my elbow were not things to gut out, they were things to avoid. More pain = more harm.

The other thing I learned: ice doesn’t just feel good, it helps healing at a structural level. I love the cold. I’ve had a knee bothering me for years, and now I work it harder than ever but always I ice it afterwards, with a donut-shaped product called ‘peas’ from CVS. My knee doesn’t bother me at all anymore. Maybe it’s the peas, maybe it’s better workout form, or maybe it’s just natural healing. I don’t care, I’m strapping the chilly donut onto my knee every day. My knee is doing just fine, now, thankyouverymuch.

Then came the elbow pain, and the above dialog. The professionals did a fine job getting me up and running, but the best thing they did for me was to say, “don’t do that.” The second best thing they said was, “put ice on it.” A tantalizing phrase from one of the therapists: “Ice massage.”

My elbow is feeling much better now. Better than I thought it ever would again. The knee’s all right, too. Now it’s my shoulder that’s bringing me down. It’s always something. Happily I live in one of the few countries on Earth that values the overhand throw. Have you ever seen a European throw a ball? Yeah, so you know what I’m talking about.

I live in a country where shoulder injuries are common. When my shoulder got sore, I resolved two things: I would avoid pain, and I would ice. No need to go back to the specialists. Onto Amazon I went, and I found the right icepack for the job. In this nation, options abound when it comes to icing shoulders.

My mornings go like this, now. The alarm clock starts shouting, and my sweetie slaps her hand on a button that shuts it up for a while. I take this moment of wakefulness and snuggle up with the one I love. Sleepiness returns, and I doze deeply enough that when the next alarm comes I jerk almost hard enough to knock my sweetie out of bed. I don’t awaken gracefully. “One more time.” I usually say, and we repeat the cycle.

Then I drag my sorry ass out of bed, weigh myself, and climb onto the exercise machine. When that’s done with, I shuffle to the kitchen and collect the frosty-cold items waiting to make me happy. Knee donut, elbow cooler, and my new shoulder freezer. I can imagine a time when I just dive into an ice bath, I have so many joints complaining.

It could be that I’d heal just as quickly without the ice. I’m not offering science, here. Just an anecdote. But man, I loves me some chill.

Ice for the knee! Ice for the elbow! And now, ice for the shoulder.

Ice for the knee! Ice for the elbow! And now, ice for the shoulder.

Unsolicited Advice

I am a manager of other people. Tonight, after listening to the unhappy men at the table to my left, I vow:

I will let you do your fucking job.
When I fuck up, I will admit it.

I’m pretty sure that will make me the best manager ever.

Marketing Lunestra

There’s a sleep medication out there called Lunestra. You’ve probably seen ads for it on TV, with a butterfly shedding pixie dust over an attractive slumbering individual. Based on the legally-mandated warnings, which include “we’re not sure how it works”, I think I’d rather stay up all night.

Now, as a sleep-enabled guy, perhaps I don’t appreciate that there are people who can really benefit from this chemical. Obviously I’m not the only one who got nervous based on the ads, however, because now there’s a new campaign, with the same pixie-dust butterfly, but no direct reference to the product at all. Just a butterfly and a Web site. So, no requirement to list the side effects. Just a cult-like invitation to join. On the Web site, it will be much easier to steer folks away from the scary information.

The Ascendant Science

Medicine, it seems, is always the last science to the dance. While one guy was establishing the principles of electricity, one of his friends was being bled to death in the name of medicine. When radioactivity was discovered, health practitioners killed countless patients with it.

For most of the history of humanity, doctors were quacks. All of them. The discovery of tiny creatures that live inside us revolutionized the medical biz, but compared to the physics industry and its spinoffs, medicine was still mostly chanting and waving rattles.

Early in the last century, physical science went through a boom so loud our ears are still ringing today. The second half of the 20th century saw technology go nuts as those fundamental discoveries reached market.

That wave gave us the machines we needed to finally dig deep into how we work as organisms. Allow me to tell a rather long story to illustrate.

I have been working to lose weight. If you use the Internet, you’ve seen ads that read, “New scientific breakthrough can help you shed pounds!” and shit like that. I have long made a point of ignoring those ads, but I became curious about the scientific breakthrough. One night I clicked one of the ads.

I was presented with a video. Generally, when I want the answer to a specific question, I HATE video. But in this case, I understood that the video existed for the very reason I dislike them: the producer wants me to go through a lot of shit before providing me the nugget I want. From their point of view, video is perfect.

With the sound off, I watched as cartoon people were drawn and erased, showing a variety of body forms. Finally, a word came on the screen: Leptin. I stopped the video and fired up Wikipedia, where I was offered an explanation with lots of words I didn’t know. I knew enough of them, however, to understand that leptin was created by fat cells, and when leptin levels go up enough to be noticed by the brain, you feel full, and your metabolism cranks up. Injecting leptin into obese mice helps them lose weight; it doesn’t work so well in humans. Also, leptin was found in the 1990’s.

Then there’s Ghrelin, identified about ten years ago. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and slows your metabolism. The Wikipedia article about ghrelin identifies exactly which gene builds it, how it’s matched with a (perhaps unused) counterpart, and where it binds to receptors in the brain. There are drawings of the damn thing.

I trust the drawings, but it all seems vaguely magic.

I think this is just the beginning. The human organism is the most complex thing in the known universe, but we’re starting to figure out how it works. Next comes how to fix it when it’s broken; how to address the exact problem without mucking with other systems. We will move from drugs to viruses — those that attack specific bacteria and those that give the host the ability to produce a particular protein. It’s pretty cool.

That technology explosion? We’re starting to feel the biology echo, and it’s going to change everything.