What non-Go book are you reading right now?

Ah, yes, there is an old joke among SF fans that takes the form, “Hey! Where are those flying cars we’ve been promised?” A couple weeks ago, after the main discussion at my book group meeting, a few of us (including a friend who is a literature professor at a major university), discussed this issue of outdated SF. We all agreed that one should try to appreciate such stories on their own terms and/or as historical documents. Some have been overtaken by events, such as C. M. Kornbluth’s Takeoff!, John D. MacDonald’s Ballroom in the Sky, and Eric Frank Russell’s Dreadful Sanctuary, all excellent narratives about the first moonshot that seem now like they occur in an alternate universe. (In a spooky mirroring of reality, Russell’s novel features John J. Armstrong in 1972!)

An even greater handicap, I suppose, are those stories that feature outdated science, such as Asimov’s fun Lucky Starr series of juveniles, or all the stories about a benign Venus or Mars. My advice: pretend they occur somewhere else. The most tragic example of this is Algis Budry’s 1958 novel Who? This profoundly philosophical SF mystery—faithfully made into a fine movie of the same name (aka Robo Man)—hinges on the identification of the protagonist. Sadly, its premise is now entirely outdated by DNA identification.

The most important thing to remember—expressed by Heinlein, Asimov, and other famous SF writers—is that SF does not aim to predict the future, but to play with ideas in an appealing narrative.

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I can’t read the link, as I have reached my limit for NYT. However, the one-sentence description above is inaccurate. Even if one interprets “genre” to mean the ghettoization of SF, it is incorrect. Amazing was the first pulp dedicated to SF (even earlier pulps published occasional SF stories).

Learning of this book makes me regret even more that I never finished my project to write a book about Unknown, the famous fantasy companion magazine to Astounding, as I described in the How Was Your Day thread.

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Yes, I believe reading SF is a training in “thinking in scenarios”.

IMO, if you read “enough” SF written by intelligent people you do get an inkling of possible futures into which the present could develop if it does—or doesn’t—go on the way it currently is … junctions, branches, wrong turns, dead ends …

For me at least it feels as if not many things (even those that are mutually exclusive) really surprise me—often I just watch and feel reminded of things that I have read long ago. And sadly, it’s just as often the dystopian stories.

Like … a feeling of being sort of mentally prepared for things like epidemics, wars, natural disasters, or generally: “evil things”, that drive many others into panic mode or beneath their respective rock, which both I have witnessed a lot, especially since 2020 (Corona) and 2022 (Putin’s War).

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@trohde put a picture of a book cover from somewhere in the forties (I guess) and in that article where some nice other pictures.

Didn’t read the article, but thought the pictures would make a nice illustration.

me neither, I :heart:-ed too quickly :wink: and I’m not going to take it away again now.

@Atorrante I couldn’t find a web image that OGS would accept, so here is the January 1928 Amazing Stories cover, scanned from the oldest issue in my own collection. However, Amazing Stories began in April 1926, while Astounding began in January 1930.


Joshua Foer, freelance journalist, has written an engaging study of memory called Moonwalking With Einstein. He found himself in the unlikely situation of a participant in the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championship. Despite his newcomer status, and despite having by his own admission a very average memory, he proved to be much more than an also-ran. This book details how he became attracted to the event, the training regimen he undertook, various eccentrics and possible charlatans he met along the way, and finally the competition itself. It also explores memory more broadly; its known inner workings, relationship with learning, and its more extreme case histories.

The techniques Foer adopted have been in use since ancient times. Most prominent of these is the memory palace, an idea conjecturally related to the fifth century b.c. Greek poet Simonides. The memory palace uses intimately known locales (real or imagined) to create a sequence of highly distinct and indeed bizarre images that form connections to the items to be remembered. Going through your memory palace you might literally have an elephant in the first room, then something thoroughly pornographic going on in the second room, and so on. The more imaginative and detailed it gets the more effective it will be. And, as Foer indicates on multiple occasions, it helps a lot to have a dirty mind.

Fun trivia fact: when people use the phrase “in the first place” they are subconsciously hearkening back to the days when the memory palace was in broader use.

If you ever wanted to memorize a deck of shuffled cards in the precise order in which they are presented to you; or a list of phone numbers; or maybe the complete text of The Divine Comedy, this book can get you started. Eventually you’re likely to run up against the recurring question of whether this is all really nothing more than an elaborate parlour trick with very limited application in what we call real life. It’s a fair question certainly, but what the author wishes to emphasize is that if the book does nothing more than heighten your appreciation of human potential and make you somewhat less skeptical on the matter, it will have done its job.


All the Names by Jose Saramago tells the story of a lonely middle-aged clerk at a central registry of births deaths and marriages. An avid celebrity watcher, he has recently taken to sneaking back into the building after hours to gather celebrity information from the relevant index cards; an obvious breach of trust, but seemingly harmless in the greater scheme of things.

Then one night he accidentally removes the index card of a non-celebrity, someone we might well refer to as “one of us”. A kind of epiphany follows, and Senhor Jose comes away with a heightened sense of the inherent value of each and every human being. This feeling grows, and although information on the mystery woman is sparse, he is determined to trace her life story using every means at his disposal. He will commit various indiscretions along the way including forgery and breaking and entering. Complications indeed.

This novel is a thoughtful examination of the need to connect with others in a more than superficial way, and the struggle against time and circumstance to arrive at something more essential. The mass of humanity beckons like the shining surface of a body of water, but to enter it at any given point runs the risk that you end up thrashing and floundering about in unanticipated ways, just as employees at the central registry have been known to get lost in the archives. ( The registrar keeps a ball of string in his desk that he refers to as Ariadne’s thread).

There are striking parallels between Saramago’s novel and Kafka’s The Trial. They share a preoccupation with what might be termed the mystique of bureaucracy. There’s a similar satirical edge as well, although the Saramago novel ultimately seems more life affirming. The narrative voice here is very discursive, and it plays fast and loose with punctuation. That can be offputting at times, but there are far more difficult narratives out there for sure.

I enjoy a variety of fictional scenarios, but the ones I tend to admire most are those that grow out of the most mundane affairs and leave you wondering why nobody had come up with that idea before. This is my second reading of this novel, and I still haven’t entirely sorted out my reaction to it. Until I do, I feel that I can’t really do it justice. But then I suppose I could say the same about almost any number of books.


Sometimes the purchase of a book is a mental battle. This book was an epic fight inside me that lasted several weeks. At the end I gave in, and I lost or won. Just from what point of view you look at it.

I am talking about the integral version of Giacomo Casanova’s History of my life.
I read a chapter somewhere on the internet and became obsessively interested.
Several times I visited the website and started the procedure of buying it and also several times I annulled my order.
It is a 4000 page book and weighs 3,2 kilos. (It is a cassette with 3 books actually.) It was on sale: 75 euro instead of 175 euro. Illustrated by Auguste Leroux.
But I might never finish it. It could well take a year / a few years or more to read it (and will I still interested then?).

Yesterday I decided to buy it.
Hope my mind comes to peace now.

The writer

The illustrator

The book


You can look forward to a wild ride. I have the Willard R. Trask translation, which was considered definitive when it was published (1969), in six volumes of two books each, with hundreds of scholarly endnotes for each book. I read the first nine books before getting distracted by something else; I think your post will inspire me to finish it.

I understand your hesitation. A great many people won’t talk about it, let alone admit to reading it since it is one of the most obscene books ever published. It is guaranteed to trigger prudes, feminists, guardians of the public library, and many other marchers for various causes. But the popular conception is distorted. Casanova was, of course, sex-obsessed, a shameless seducer, and even a pedophile, but he was also a widely traveled adventurer, a soldier, a spy, a linguist, an accomplished duelist with sword and pistol, a felon who famously broke out of jail, and a superb writer (I can’t judge the style, if course, but his command of detail and sense of narrative are amazing). While it is impossible to know exactly how much is true, abundant modern scholarship has verified much of the text. He is considered one of the most important historical sources for everyday life in 18th-century Europe.


I’ve read Revolt in Japan: the Young Officers and the February 26, 1936 Incident by Ben-Ami Shillony. Doctoral dissertation turned book about a rebellious attempt to save Japan from corrupt politicians and oligarchs who are only concerned about their personal gains. Gripping, except for one part where there’s just too many names.

And since humans don’t change, it’s funny to see similar spirit of some of the modern problems in places. Like old people in power.

. . . Old people may realize the need for change, but they lack the courage for carrying it through. This becomes tragic in a national emergency, like the one we are facing now… In such circumstances it is the duty of youth to rise up and act."
The old men in power were well aware of this situation. In 1933, the seventy-five-year-old Prime Minister Saito Makoto told an American correspondent that all would be well, “as long as we old men are here to put the brakes on.” Three years later, Saito and two other elderly leaders were assassinated by the February 26 rebels.

Ballooning defense budgets to maintain peace.

On November 26 Takahashi stated that additional appropriations for defense would start an inflation. On the following day, the Army announced that Japan’s responsibility for maintaining peace in the Far East required additional resources for armament.


A week later, Kurihara told reserve general Saito Ryu that the Young Officers deemed it better to die at home for the sake of reforming their country, than to be killed by the Russians on the Manchurian border.

Maybe not this.

As had been expected, the trial generated considerable public sympathy for the defendant, and thousands of letters calling for his pardon, some of them written in blood, were received by the court. One letter was attached to a little jar which contained the severed little fingers of its writers.

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Some weeks ago, in another thread, @trohde talked about Doris Lessing, an author whose short stories I like. This has prompted me to begin her post-apocalyptic novel, Mara and Dann (1999), which has stood on my shelf for about 10 years. Thanks, trohde.

I am about one-fourth done, but a few points have already impressed me. The book avoids the usual tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction, which may be due in part to its setting in Africa, hundreds of years or more after the collapse of civilization. The remnants of our civilization still exist, but they are treated very incidentally—they are not the focus of the narrative. Life is difficult and dangerous, as a spreading drought has led to a shortage of water and food, but the depiction eschews the typical brutality seen, for example, in Max Max or McCarthy’s The Road.

The most impressive element is the simple language of the narrative, which nevertheless carries great power because of Lessing’s careful attention to detail. The sentences aren’t clipped or punchy in the manner of Hemingway; it’s the words themselves and the sentence structure that are simple. The closest comparison might be with Jack London, except that London typically wrote more colorfully and melodramatically. Although the point of view is omniscient, the simple language may be intended to evoke the psychological atmosphere of the characters.

The characters are traveling north in search of a better life, but I have no idea where the story is going, which makes it inherently suspenseful. Lessing’s restraint and narrative control, so different from modern commercial fiction, are awesome.


Paul Nurse — What Is Life? Understand Biology In Five Steps (Goodreads link)

Next up:

  • Vernor Vinge: “Children of the Sky”
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky: “Lords of Uncreation”
  • Russ Harris & Bev Aisbett: “The Happiness Trap”
  • maybe: Martin Buber: “Der Weg des Menschen”

I’m about half done with Brandon Sanderson’s novella (published as a book), The Emperor’s Soul (2012), which I am reading for my SF book group. It won a Hugo, so it qualifies for our group. The Hugos have encompassed fantasy for decades (and Hugo Gernsback is acting like a top). I’m not much of a fantasy fan, although I do make exceptions, with touchstones like The Pot of Gold (one of my favorite novels of any kind), Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, The Return of the Hero by Darrell Figgis, and of course, Tolkien (not a complete list). As I see it, the trouble is that so much of modern fantasy is hobbled by tropes and trite writing.

Sanderson writes in what has been called English Plain Style (of which Orwell and E. M. Forster were masters). The writing is clean and flows easily, but it lacks atmosphere. The story shows some pleasant originality in its effort to rationalize the transformations of traditional magic (something pioneered by the pulp magazine Unknown), embodied in a class of criminals called Forgers. I see two possible influences in this. One is the movie Inception (2010), where the term Forger is used in the same sense, as someone who goes beyond the surface-level of a scam to a deeper level of psychological manipulation. This manipulation is playing out nicely so far in the cat-and-mouse game between the protagonist and her captors.

The second apparent influence is the case of the famous art forger Han van Meegeren. More than once the story asks the question why does a person of such talent waste themselves on criminal works of imitation? People have asked this about van Meegeren too. The answer may be the attraction of the quick buck versus the long slog to fame and fortune, or the lack of any creative originality.

However this turns out, I am glad to have had the chance to sample Sanderson’s work, especially in a comparatively short example.

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Vernor Vinge: “Children of the Sky”

Amazing read, complex character development, AWESOME world-building, as I already enjoyed in Vinge’s other “Zones of Thought”-books, “A Deepness in the Sky” and “A Fire Upon the Deep”.

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As an in between book I read Isabelle Allende’s Paula, a letter to her daughter who is in coma. Telling her about her family history for when she wakes up.
Sometimes with vague flavours of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Picked it up (from a mini library) at the go tournament of Den Bosch last weekend (2 wins, 3 loses).

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Forgot to add this amazing map of the galaxy that is in Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire upon the Deep” and “Children of the Sky”.

“The Slow Zone” is where our known laws of physics rule and where the speed of light is limited—as are minds, and machines—contrary to many other SF works, here it’s the outer parts of the Galaxy where advanced minds dwell.


Comments about Doris Lessing inspired me to reread her first novel, The Grass is Singing, published in 1949. The title is borrowed from T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land and is meant to evoke a kind of mental and spiritual dessication, an inability to regenerate, to reinvent oneself. More specific to the novel, it’s about the burden that comes with living a lie, and readers will see this played out on both individual and societal levels.

The story concerns a horribly mismatched farming couple in Rhodesia. Dick Turner hates the city and has always imagined farm life as the antidote. Unfortunately he is more romantic than pragmatic, and such farming talents that he has appear modest at best. His wife Mary had been living contentedly as a secretary with an active social life, but became overwhelmed by the notion that it just doesn’t do for a woman over thirty to be unmarried. And so Mary, never really the marrying type, hitches up with Dick, who’s not really the farming type, and the marriage of convenience quickly degenerates, though it will take years for it to reach its appalling conclusion.

Doris Lessing chronicles Mary’s descent into quasi-madness in great detail. Its major components are isolation, oppressive heat, a standard of living that remains just a step ahead of outright squalor, a certain stand-offishness in Mary’s character, and finally her growing exasperation at Dick’s various money making schemes, all of which seem to suffer from a lack of follow-through. The one thing that provides her with a sense of empowerment is the way she lords it over her African house servants, who come and go in a revolving door fashion.

Racial tension figures prominently in the story, but is more of a catylist than a causal factor. The turning point comes when Mary’s newest houseboy chooses not to disappear quietly into the furtive and ultra-deferential demeanor expected of Africans. For reasons that are never entirely clear, he seeks a more fully human relationship with Mary, recognizing her for the shrunken husk of a woman she’s become. This will have complications beyond the Turner household since it exposes the big lie that the white farming community depends on to continue; namely that no such relationship can exist between blacks and whites. Africans are to be seen as a different order of human, automatons with little need for even the basic physical necessities, let alone complex human contact.

It’s a compelling read, but also unsettling. Readers should be aware that Doris Lessing is unflinching in her examination of the particular observations and biases that come together to create racial animosity. These passages take up a small portion of the novel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have been redacted in more recent editions or are perhaps about to be. The publishing world does indeed flinch nowadays.


I’m almost finished reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch for my SF book group. It’s an effective suspense thriller about visiting alternate, personal time tracks. Saying anything more about the plot would involve spoilers. It is an exciting, fast read, written in present tense. However, I have very mixed feelings about it due to personal reasons.

First, I greatly dislike extended present-tense narration, because I believe it is inherently unnatural. The very act of narration puts the story in the past. I don’t mind it for special effects (indeed, I once wrote a short story where the plot itself justified the present tense), but nowadays it is used increasingly just as a cheap trick to lend immediacy to the narrative.

Second, and more important, I actually outlined a novel based on this premise more than 40 years ago, but never undertook the writing of it because I felt intimidated by the idea; I felt unable to do justice to it. The basic idea was pioneered by Murray Leinster with a novelette, “Sidewise in Time” (Astounding Stories, June 1934). The idea is probably best known today from the movie The Butterfly Effect. In all cases I know, however, the effect is spoiled by mixing in forward and backward travel in the alternate time track, and/or the involvement of large historical events. Crouch’s story and the one I conceived restrict the movement to the same temporal moment in an alternate track of a person’s life (e.g., what if I had remained a professional musician, where would I be today?). And Crouch does explore the issue that interested me: the dissatisfaction or curiosity that so many people feel about their life choices.

My negative feelings arise from a tiny bit of jealousy that someone has finally treated this idea so well, but more significantly from disappointment that Crouch’s treatment is what one would expect from commercial genre fiction. It is action oriented and sensationalistic rather than a deep character study. My adult expectations for SF are for it to rise to the level of literature. Consequently, 40 years ago I imagined a story arch slightly similar to Butterfly Effect, but without the sensationalism, in which I could explore the character traits that would lead a person to perpetual dissatisfaction. I took my cue from what someone once said about fleeing one’s troubles by travel: the problem is that you can’t leave yourself behind.