link salad

Or, Five Things Make a Post.

The beginning of the year was fairly quiet, but things are starting to get busier again. Paradoxically, this may mean the frequency of posts here will increase, since I'm actually doing things so I have them to talk about. Or I might get hosed and disappear completely. We'll see.

I've been accumulating links I think other people might be interested in for a week or two. Here's what I've got:

Marian Churchland, who's apparently a comics artist of some note — and does demonstrably create excellent art — here describes The Crossing, an imaginary MMO she designed. It's a neat exercise in concept art, world-building and game design in six (seven?) short parts.

A sweet and beautiful three-page comic by one Emily Carroll which begins "The goddess Anu-Anulan was in love with the bright, silvery hair of Yir's daughter."

…which I found via someone else, but was then amused to discover linked off Robin Sloan's blog after finishing his novella Annabel Scheme, which I read in the Kindle edition on my phone on a couple long T rides, via a friend's recommendation. (You might remember Mr. Sloan as the author of "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store", which I highly recommend.) Scheme is what happens when you cross Snow Crash with The Dresden Files, and though I was hoping for something a bit closer to the former I was still happy with what I got.

And now for something completely different, my friend Ed has an interesting blog post up on checked exceptions and proof obligations. I can't count the number of times where I've written some Java code like:

try {
catch (PrimeNumberException e) {
  throw new RuntimeException("the number is hard-coded non-prime; this code should never be reached", e);

Passing the PrimeNumberException to my caller is stupid — my caller likely doesn't care about my implementation details — but the RuntimeException is only useful when I screw up and change the 4 to a 5, and it's all boilerplate code anyway. It would even be tempting to just drop the exception on the floor — not throw a RuntimeException at all — and thereby miss the case where I change the 4 to 5. There should be a better way to express this constraint. I'd love to see Ed propose a syntax for dependent exceptions in Java. (Or I could just go finally learn Haskell. Copious spare time, &c.)

I'll leave you with this other thing I just now saw linked off Robin Sloan's blog, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which Sloan's linked Snarkmarket blog post describes as

The Lost Books of the Odyssey manages a pretty impossible mix; somehow, it’s both mathematically precise and completely wacky. Like, you start reading it and, especially if you know its reputation (a combinatorial exploration/explosion of the classic myth, written by a computer scientist, etc.) you expect this cold, hard Borgesian puzzle-box. And the book does, in face, tickle your brain in that way, and with no word wasted in the process… but then it also surprises you with warmth, and real sadness, and a terrific storyteller’s voice all throughout. It’s one of my absolute favorites of the past few years.

I think I know what I'm reading next. 🙂

january 2011 asimov’s

In magazine publishing, the new year begins… well, whenever the January issue hits the stands, which is usually a month or two in advance of the actual calendar date. So we're into a new year for Asimov's even if we've still got a couple weeks to go before January 1st. There weren't any real standouts in this issue, but there were a solid three or four compelling stories, so it was a pretty good issue all told.

  • "The Backward Banana", by Martin Gardner — The first thing in the issue of note is a puzzle, as you might have guessed if you recognize the author's name, told as a single-page science fiction short-short story. Apparently these ran regularly in Asimov's for a bit under the first decade of its run, and it's a cute little thing. It's neither as tight, nor as opaque, nor as hard as the puzzles I'm used to, written for the MIT Mystery Hunt, but the skills I've developed there came in handy to solve it, and I had fun doing so.
  • "Two Thieves", by Chris Beckett (novelette) — A bit of a swashbuckler, I guess ("novela de capa y espaza," literally "story of cape and sword," as I have just learned it would be called in Spanish). It's cute enough, but the characters are stock, and it's not subtle with its images and tropes. Fun, but nothing more than that.
  • "Dolly", by Elizabeth Bear (short story) — Fans of Bear's Shadow Unit will recognize her facility with police procedural detail at work here. As always, she builds layered and believable characters with an economy of strokes, and, though there's nothing new about the big idea at work here, she draws it to a real-world, logical conclusion in a way I found deeply satisfying.
  • "Visitors", by Steve Rasnic Tem (short story) — A middle-aged couple go to visit their son in a cryogenic facility which, we gradually discover, is also his prison. That's an application of cryogenic tech I confess I hadn't considered before, and it's interesting in its implications. Unfortunately they're not drawn out especially well, I didn't really connect with the story otherwise, and it doesn't really go anywhere. It did do better than average at letting me figure out what was going on rather than telling me up-front.
  • "Interloper", by Ian McHugh (short story) — The setting here is interesting — a potentially post-apocalyptic Australia where a Torchwood or Primeval-style interdimensional rift has appeared, spewing dinosaurs and odd powers and things that go bump in the night, the titular Interlopers. The main characters are a circus of people touched by the rift, who are also not coincidentally on the lookout for anyone like them, which of course goes wrong. The ending is sort of predictable, but there are worse things to say about a story. Lots of good detail, lots of good showing-not-telling, and it did keep me guessing for a bit. A fun story.
  • "Ashes on the Water", by Gwendolyn Clare (short story) — This is a bit of a travelogue or maybe quest story, as a young woman in India looks for the river on which to spread her sister's ashes. (It feels a bit like it could be set in Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl universe, a few decades before Bacigalupi's work takes place, the strongest similarities being its non-Western setting and its preoccupation with water.) I felt for the protagonist, and she seemed well-drawn. The story did feel a bit preachy, and it has the usual potential for problems that all fiction about non-Westerners written by Westerners does, of which I'm not a good judge because I'm a Westerner too.
  • "Killer Advice", by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (novella) — Despite being set on a space station, this is a traditional locked-room mystery, and (except for its murder weapon) could be set in any of the traditional settings for such. The characters are mostly stock characters one recognizes from other such work — the officious hotelier, the alcoholic doctor, the moneyed widow, the captain's daughter, etc. It's a fun read, as evidenced by the fact that I actually finished it (I don't usually read the novellas). It's been a while since I've read a mystery story, and it was fun to revisit the genre. The stock characters are stock for a reason — they work. That said, this is not, unfortunately, anything like a tightly-plotted story. The information necessary to solve the mystery isn't given to the reader until the characters themselves discover it, so no figuring it out on your own for the perceptive mystery readers in the audience, and there's a careless red herring early on — one of the characters uses the past tense to refer to the first victim before the character knows the victim is dead — which perceptive mystery readers will pick up on and be distracted by for the next twenty pages. Thankfully it is just twenty or so pages, so one can ride with the plot along the well-worn ruts of the genre in easy enjoyment and reach the destination before the journey becomes tedious.

Every year Asimov's runs a Readers' Award poll, which seems a remarkably straightforward way to encourage it to print more of the interesting things I like. At some point in the next few weeks I'll go through the posts I've made here and extract some semblance of a top three in each length category, which is what the poll calls for, also conveniently good Hugo nomination fodder, and I'll probably post them here as well. Best is always a dicey proposition — best on what axis? — but I'll pick an axis, and it'll do for this purpose.