Tuesday, January 16, 2007

This Christmas, one gift from my dad was the science fiction novel Variable Star. The names on the cover are Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson, but the circumstances of authorship are a little unusual, since "Grand Master" science fiction writer Heinlein died more than 15 years ago. The outline and notes for this novel were found in Heinlein's papers after the death of Heinlein's wife Virginia, and Spider Robinson, a well-known sf writer who was once called "the next Robert Heinlein" in a review that has probably been quoted on every one of his book jackets, actually wrote the book. My father, a dedicated Heinlein fan since childhood with no special preference for Robinson, said he found the book depressing -- not because of the events in the book (though some of them admittedly are depressing) but because it wasn't Heinlein. And it isn't Heinlein, though there are references and turns of phrase that will certainly recall his work. (The plot, however, is definitely 1950s/early '60s Heinlein, as well as many of the characters -- I can see echoes of Citizen of the Galaxy, Time for the Stars, Space Cadet, and even the much later Friday in it.) I enjoy both authors quite a lot, and I enjoyed this book. But if both men get credit for this novel, then John W. Campbell's name should be on the cover of Heinlein's Sixth Column, as the magazine editor Campbell gave Heinlein the plot outline for that book (which first appeared as a serial in Campbell's magazine, Astounding Science Fiction) with a request to write it. If Heinlein gets solo credit for that one, then Robinson should get sole credit for this book -- but Heinlein did not keep Campbell's contribution a secret and Robinson would not want to hide Heinlein's. However, the reader who looks at this as a Robinson work will probably enjoy it more.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I read a lot of history and a fair amount of medical books, so the combination of the two is something I particularly seek out. So I was particularly pleased to see one in the latest set of book excerpts I was provided by BzzAgent, Molly Caldwell Crosby's The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History. I knew a little bit about yellow fever from the section on it and Walter Reed's proof that it was carried by mosquitoes in Microbe Hunters, but Crosby's book gives a lot more historical surroundings for the disease. She opens in 1878, an extremely virulent year in the Americas for a disease that affected those of European ancestry far more than those whose African ancestors had developed the ability to deal with the virus, and affected those moving into the South more than those who had grown up there. The description of the great Mardi Gras celebration inaugurated that year gives a deeper understanding of what it was like for the people living in that time and place and the doctors faced with the epidemic. And the situations described once the epidemic hit Memphis resemble something from a horror novel. It is, however, a story I want to finish, rather than just reading the excerpt.

Bill Lamond's Born to Lead: Unlock The Magnificence In Yourself And Others was the next excerpt in the set, and it was definitely not my cup of tea. It is mostly aimed at women, to help them lead and accomplish things (the introduction says "You have a new assignment -- to save the world by ensuring that it goes on for your children and grandchildren.") through "a new style of leadership" that "combines the strengths of the feminine and masculine models to become whole." I've got no problem with any of those concepts, and I am a dedicated believer in women's equality. I just wouldn't normally choose to read a book about learning to lead and act -- I see myself as a member of the "geek" subset of humanity, where male and female stereotypes have less hold on our behavior and the difficulty in dealing with society is more likely to be learning to speak non-geek than crossing the gender divide. I agree with most of what Lamond says; it's just not all that new to me. This is a book for someone who hasn't read stuff about models versus reality, or about how gender differences may or may not be culturally prescribed.

Elliot Perlman's The Reasons I Won't Be Coming is a story collection; the excerpt I read was the story "I Was Only In A Childish Way Connected To The Established Order," narrated by a middle-aged poet who has had some psychotic episodes that landed him in a mental hospital -- but he doesn't sound all that abnormal to me. Stuck in a life where he doesn't fit in, certainly, but comprehensible and sympathetic. I read reviews on amazon.com which praise Perlman's ability to create distinctive voices in his work, and this story definitely fit the bill there; I believe I will have to seek out more of his work.