Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?

I just finished listening to House Rules by Jodi Picoult, about a boy with Asperger’s who is accused of murder.  It was a compelling story that I couldn’t turn off, not just because of the plot, but because of the details about autism.  My wife and I have a niece with autism, and I’ve met people with Asperger’s, so the topic is not new to me, but this book went deeper into the subject than any I’ve read before.  Since this book was written, Asperger syndrome has been removed from the new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to be replace by the general term autism using a severity scale. 

This is interesting in and of itself, to think that a classification of behavior belongs on a scale.  From reading the book I’d say personality is composed of many scales, and low settings on a number of scales would add up in combination to the general diagnosis of autism.  Let’s say our personalities could be composed of 100 different traits, my theory would be the autism scale would start with low scoring on 20 or more of them.  I’m not a scientist though, just a reader.  But it seems to me there are some traits always attributed to people with autism that if singled out are sometimes seen in normal people.


The cover of House Rules is very deceptive, since the main focus of the story is Jacob Hunt, and he’s 18, weighs 180 pounds and is over six feet tall.  Jacob is normal in many respects, except his obsessions.  He’s obsessed with crime scene investigation (CSI), but cannot fathom other people.  He won’t look other people in the eye, can’t understand their body language, takes everything people say to him absolutely literally, lives his daily life compulsively around patterns – such wearing yellow and only eating yellow foods on Tuesdays, and will have full blown tantrums and disassociates from reality if he can’t get his way.

Like I said, I’m not trained as a psychologist, but I find it hard to believe that autism is one spectrum.  I know perfectly normal people who won’t look you in the eye.  I know perfectly normal people that always takes things literally.  I know perfectly normal people who are obsessed with single subjects.  I know perfectly normal people who dominate conversations and won’t let others talk.  I know people who can’t make friends.  The lists goes on and on.  Jacob unfortunately has all of these traits and more, so that the cumulative effect is he’s different from normal.

This book begs the reader to ask:  What is normal?  I can’t believe autism is a binary – black and white – diagnostic.  It’s why they use the phrase autism spectrum, but that’s psychologists just saying all the various forms of autism fit on a spectrum, as if you could catch that spectrum, or have a gene that gives you the autism spectrum.  My guess is personality is a spectrum of spectrum – like a rainbow, and very wide, and autism is just one piece of the whole personality spectrum.  I also think we all could have individual traits that function low that could fall within the autism spectrum. 

While reading House Rules I noticed a lot of my own quirks that if taken to extreme would make me weirder, but still not autistic.  But if I had enough of these low functioning traits I would be labeled autistic.  So, I’m wondering if it takes X number of traits to create the autistic spectrum.  That if autism was a readout on a spectrum, that autism number would be a composite number generated by settings on many other spectrums.  Picture a mixing board with 100 sliders with settings from 0 to 100.  My guess, and this is analogy, not science, that autism would be 20 of those sliders falling to the low side of things – say under 25.  So a profoundly autistic person, one who is very low functioning, might register 10 or lower on 60 of those scales.  Whereas a high functioning autistic might just register 20 or lower on 30 of those scales.

But by this theory, it might might be possible for normal people to register a 20 on one or two scales and still be considered normal.  In other words, when you read a book like House Rules, you might see something in yourself that helps you empathize with Jacob.  I know I did.  I’m a guy who loves his rut.  I’m nowhere near as compulsive as Jacob, but if my routines get sidetrack I feel annoyed – just not as much as Jacob.  I can handle it, but I can also sense if my slider was slid down a few numbers I’d be a lot more like him.

My point is autism might not be as far away as some people think.  In House Rules most of Jacob’s peers at school shut him out, but some of them act so badly, so lacking in empathy, that they reveal personality traits with low slider settings too.  It’s that whole cast the first stone thing.  Or maybe those little bullies belong on another scale, the psychopathic spectrum.  Right now we divide people into just a very few groups: normal, autistic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, bi-polar, etc., but what if personality is far more complex than those simple labels.  What if autism was settings on 35 of our sliders, and each of the other general personality types were similar combinations.  Wouldn’t it be possible that normal or bi-polar people might have a few settings that relate to autism?  And maybe we all might share a trait with a psychopath?

What if personality was even more complex than 100 traits?  Imagine a 1,000.  Have we even begun to understand ourselves?  I wonder if general labels are good at all?  The concept of spectrums is a step forward.  But is that even good enough?  What if personality is an array of spectrums?  Or even arrays of personality trait constellations?  Imagine personality as the main() loop in a computer program that contains thousands of subprograms.  Each with a power scale from 0-100.  Something as unique as sarcasm could be personality trait.  Imagine being a guy with a 10 on the sarcasm scale going out to lunch with four catty women who have 95 or higher on their sarcasm scales.

Reading House Rules makes me think autism is not one spectrum but many.  I have no idea if that’s true scientifically, but the book gave me a lot to think about.

JWH – 3/21/14    

2013 Year in Reading

The older I get, the more I feel my reading life is fading away.  I was born to read.  Reading has shaped and defined my existence.  So it’s scary to think that I’m running out of reading time.  Even if I live another 20 years, that’s only 1,040 books at this year’s pace.  That seems like a lot, but it’s a finite number.  Picture an hour-glass, but instead of grains of sand, imagine tiny little books falling through the narrow waist of the time.


I retired this year on October 22nd, and assumed I’d start reading books like crazy.  When I worked, I read about one book a week.  I hoped after retiring, to read two books a week – instead it’s one book every two weeks.  Damn.  That’s not what I planned at all!  I’ve only been able to catch up to my yearly average by quickly finishing off several half-read books.

As 2013 closes out, I contemplate the power of less, both having less time, but also wanting and owning less, so I can focus clearly on my goals, and I realize I need to change my attitude toward reading.  More than ever, I want to make every book count.  This might sound contradictory, but I’m thinking I need to read less too.  Instead of consuming books in great numbers, I should savor and study them.  But what if that means I have 300 books left?

In 2012 I read 49 books and I wrote in my 2012 Year in Reading that I wanted to read 12 novels, 12 science books, 12 history/other non-fiction books in 2013, and hopefully 12 of those would be published during 2013.  Well, I didn’t do so good, especially with science books – I didn’t read any science books at all!   I did read one math book.  Plus, I only read just seven 2013 books (I did read eleven 2012 books, so I’m close).  I read 24 fiction books, twice what I wanted.

When I look at the list below I realize that some books were definitely worth my reading time, but others, even ones I really enjoyed, weren’t.  I’ll rate the books I felt added much to my life with up to 5 pluses (+), but any book I didn’t rate means I could have skipped without impact.  Some of these were lots of fun, but I need more than just fun.

Books Read in 2013

Favorite Fiction

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  2. The Short Stories Volume 1 by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  5. The Long Tomorrow  by Leigh Brackett

Favorite Nonfiction

  1. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
  3. The Unwinding by George Packer
  4. The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson
  5. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith

Order of Reading

  1. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) – Philip K. Dick (+++++)
  2. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (+++++)
  3. Beautiful Ruins (2012) – Jess Walters (+++)
  4. The World Until Yesterday (2012) – Jared Diamond (+++++)
  5. At Home (2010) – Bill Bryson (+++)
  6. Redshirts (2012) – John Scalzi 
  7. The Wrecking Crew (2012) – Kent Hartman (+++)
  8. The Sheltering Sky  (1949) – Paul Bowles (+++)
  9. Hull Zero Three (2010) – Greg Bear
  10. Wishin’ and Hopin’(2009) – Wally Lamb
  11. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) – Susan Cain (++++)
  12. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1999) – Barbara Goldsmith (++++)
  13. The Searchers (2013) – Glenn Frankel (+++)
  14. Heaven is for Real (2010) – Todd Burpo
  15. Darwinia (1999) – Robert Charles Wilson
  16. Society’s Child (2008) – Janis Ian
  17. We Can Build You (1972) – Philip K. Dick
  18. Oz Reimagined (2013) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  19. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) – Daniel Pink (+)
  20. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triump, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players (2001) – Stefan Fatsis (++)
  21. The End of the Affair (1951) – Graham Greene (++)
  22. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – Virginia Woolf (+)
  23. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) – John Green (++++)
  24. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (++)
  25. Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (2012) – Greta Christina
  26. The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009) – George Friedman
  27. The Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph Conrad (+)
  28. Life As We Knew It (2006) – Susan Beth Pfeffer (+)
  29. The Ballad of Bob Dylan (2011) – Daniel Mark Epstein (+++)
  30. 2312 (2012) – Kim Stanley Robinson
  31. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
  32. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) – David Sedaris
  33. Door Wide Open (2001) – Joyce Johnson
  34. The Unwinding – (2013) George Packer (+++++)
  35. The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science Fiction 5 (2013) – edited by Allan Kaster
  36. Euclid’s Window (2001) – Leonard Mlodinow (++)
  37. The World Jones Made (1956) – Philip K.  Dick
  38. The Long Tomorrow (1955) – Leigh Brackett (++)
  39. Lightspeed Year One (2011) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  40. One and Only (2011) – Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos
  41. Po-boy Contraband (2012) – Patrice Melnick
  42. The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012) – by Joyce Johnson (++++)
  43. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) – Joan Didion (++++)
  44. Boys Adrift (2005) – Dr. Leonard Sax (++++)
  45. One Summer: America 1927 (2013) – Bill Bryson (++++)
  46. The Power of Less (2008) – Leo Babauta (+)
  47. Wheat Belly (2011) – William Davis MD (+++)
  48. The Short Stories Volume 1 (2002) – Ernest Hemingway (+++++)
  49. Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012) – William Gibson (++)
  50. Pulphead (2011) – John Jeremiah Sullivan (+++)
  51. Leviathan Wakes (2011) – James S. A. Corey
  52. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell (+++++)

Reading Plans for 2014

Once again I want to read less science fiction and more science, fewer fiction titles and more nonfiction.  Of course I’d like to read all +++++ books, even if I only read half as many books total.  I find it tragic that I forget what I read so quickly.  What a crying shame it is to take in so many fascinating facts that flee my mind in just minutes and hours.  Shouldn’t I be doing more rereading than reading, studying, rather than rushing by all those scenic words?

Going through my bulging bookcases, here’s what I’m pulling down to pile beside my reading chair, hoping to read in 2014.

  • On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013) – Alexandra Horowitz
  • Grain Brain (2013) – David Perlmutter, MD
  • Time Reborn (2013) – Lee Smolin
  • The Goldfinch (2013) – Donna Tartt
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Beginning of Infinity (2011) – David Deutsch
  • Darwin’s Armada (2009) – Iain McCalman
  • The Best Writing on Mathematics (2013) – Mircea Pitici, Editor
  • The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (2011) – Victor J. Stenger
  • Waging Heavy Peace (2012) – Neil Young
  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
  • Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  • Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John M. Hull
  • The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  • Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Mathematics by Joseph Mazur

JWH – 12/27/13

You Don’t Know Jack (Kerouac)

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 and died October 21, 1969.  Nearly all people who knew him in the 1st degree of separation has died – not all, but most.  In recent years, books by the women he knew have been coming out, revising the fiction and the facts.  Kerouac wrote roman à clef novels.  Kerouac and his friends appeared in other roman à clef novels. The same crowd also wrote and talked endlessly about their lives.  Countless biographies have been written.  Then friends and lovers started publishing their stories.  Kerouac has always been ground zero for the Beat movement, and trying to understand why is a fascinating snark hunt that ultimately reveals a lot about universal psychology and philosophy.

Recently Carolyn Cassady died.  She was Camille Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, wife to real-life Neal Cassady, who was Dean Moriarty in the book.  Carolyn wrote her own books, Heart Beat and Off the Road.  Jack Kerouac haunts me, so it saddens me to hear about Carolyn, who now becomes another of the Beat Generation ghosts.


In 2011 Lu Anne Henderson, who was Marylou in On the Road, and Neal Cassady’s first wife, had her side of the story told in One and Only.  Like Carolyn, Lu Anne was the oxygen atom to Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hydrogen atoms.  Camille and Marylou were the pivotal women of On the Road, so to get their stories is very revealing, even creating new mysteries.


Finally, there’s Joyce Johnson.  In 1999 she came out with Minor Characters:  A Beat Memoir, and then in 2000, Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between her and Kerouac, and finally in 2012 The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, a major biography.  Joyce knew Kerouac just before and after the publication of On the Road.


I often ask people:  Which would you rather do, write a great novel, or be a model for a character in a great novel?  Jack Kerouac wrote many novels and was a character in many more, and he has been the subject of many biographies.  Carolyn and Lu Anne were  featured characters in both the novels and biographies.

Jack Kerouac is a person I like to keep up with, even though he died in 1969, the year I graduated high school.  About every half decade I check out what new discoveries have been unearthed about his legend.  That’s the thing about legendary figures, they always evolve and mutate.  There is much to be learned about oneself by careful studying of other people.  Pick a person and try it out.  I find ambitious writers with lots of personal flaws to be quite revealing about life.  Jack Kerouac makes a particularly painful role model.

Most of Jack Kerouac’s novels are semi-autobiographical.  Many people read On the Road and never read another Kerouac novel – their curiosity for Beat life was quickly quenched.  A few more might go on to read The Dharma Bums, or even Big Sur or Visions of Cody, but for most readers, a little Kerouac goes a long way.  But if you’re like me, you keep reading books by and about Kerouac and the story changes as it becomes deeper.

Part of the problem is most readers think Kerouac equals the Beat Generation, and once they think they understand the Beats and reject their philosophy, because most do, they are through with Kerouac.  That’s too bad.  But to really know Jack, you have to separate him from the Beats and read him as one man trying to make literary sense of his reality.  Kerouac was on the edge of several social and literary movements, but because he was crowned King of the Beats, that’s all most people judge him by.

Some people study genealogy because they want to know about their ancestors, about their genes and blood.  Not me.  I consider myself a creation of pop culture, and I want to know my pop culture ancestors.  Who we are is our cultural history.  We’re all descendants of Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, Science and a whole host of 19th and 20th century influences.  Most Baby Boomers focus on the 1960s, but to really know yourself requires getting to know the 1950s, 1940s and 1930s.  And to understand those times means studying the 1920s, 1910s and 1900s.  America is constantly changing and mutating.

I was born in 1951 and remember the 1950s.  My father died when I was 19, and I never really knew him.  He was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922.  They both died miserable drunks a few months apart, both in Florida no less.  I use Kerouac to understand my father.  And to understand them both I need to understand the 1940s.

By the time the Beats got famous, their movement was already over, and had mutated into many new movements around the country. Go (1951) by John Clellon Holmes and On the Road (1957) by Kerouac, were the real Beat novels, and were about events a decade before the public discovered the Beats.  Kerouac was a character in Go, as was Neal Cassady.  Carolyn Cassady knew Kerouac in both the late 1940s and later in the 1950s, and her books, clarify the story.

The trouble with studying the Beats, is most of the documentation on them is about when they all got famous in the late 1950s.  What defined the Beats were their reaction to America in the late 1940s, but how we remember the Beats is defined by their public personalities of the late 1950s.  To understand Jack Kerouac means understanding American from 1945-1955, and even dividing that time into two parts.

Most people are shaped by their teen years, early twenties and late twenties, from 13-30.  Jack turned 20 in 1942, and 30 in 1952.  It’s those ten years that we want to get to know.  Later on, Jack tried to understand his own personal development by writing about his childhood, the 1930s.  It took a long time to get On the Road published, and by 1957 when it hit the scene, and defined the Beat Generation, Jack was 35, a burnout, living most of the time with his mother in Orlando, Florida, and committing slow suicide with a bottle.  He died at 47.  My father died at 49.  I was 19.

A good contemporary view of Kerouac in 1957 and 1958 is Door Wide Open by Joyce Johnson, a collection of letters between Johnson and Kerouac.  This is not the Kerouac of the 1940s.

There are people who never stop reading about Kerouac and the Beats.  This is hard to explain.  In a way, it’s like studying cosmology – there’s always more to discover.   First you are drawn to the excitement of rushing back and forth across America in the 1940s, but soon realize all this rushing is madness, that there is no normal life to be found.  You accept that poor Jack was a loser, a drunk, and the dazzling Neal Cassady was a low life hustler, con man, thief, and a man who would always let his wife, children and friends down, but they all loved him.

You walk away from the Beats thinking they were Nowheresville.  That’s too bad.  The real mystery is beyond the Hudson rushing across the plains at a 100 mph, the kicks, the drugs, smoking gigantic reefers in Mexican brothels, or following the mad ones Kerouac was so enamored with, but instead, we have to look over Neal’s shoulder’s to the American he was speeding by, to the couples they shared rides with, to people who own the cars they boosted, to the sane folks who saw them in the jazz joints acting like madmen.


If you’re lucky, you’ll read one of the biographies  and discover Jack is more complicated.  Slowly this Charlie Parker generation starts coming alive, and you begin to realize that the Beats weren’t Beatniks.  America is the sum of all its hidden histories, and not the history they teach you in school.  Reading books by the Beats, and books about the Beats, leads to exploring a different 1940s America than what we remember from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – the films by which most Americans remember America from 1946-1950, which is the time covered in On the Road.  It’s not that those great films are wrong, but they are only one facet of a multifaceted view.

All novels have a gestation period.  On the Road was published in 1957, but was about events from the late 1940s.  The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, the year I was born, but was about the earlier 1940s.  Also published in 1951 was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which was about 1941.  Zeroing in on On the Road’s America, isn’t easy.  It comes before The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) about 1953, but I think many readers picture Kerouac’s adventures happening around the time of its publication in 1957, just after Sputnik went into orbit, and thus the term Beatnik.  We think of the Beats as the generation before the Hippies, but in reality, they were the 1945-1950 youth, and the famous 60s generation happened between 1965-1975.  1955-1965 included the folk generation, as well as the early rock and roll kids – think Grease and American Graffiti.

By 1957, Kerouac was well on his way to being a full time drunk.  His short moment of fame gave him enough money to reignite his life and go on a few more road adventures, that were mostly lonely and pathetic.  Kerouac in Paris is very sad.

If Kerouac had an artistic vision that chronicled his spiritual quest for transcendence in America, it wasn’t about the end of the 1950s when he was famous, it was about his life between 1940 to 1955, and even earlier when he tried to reconstruct his childhood of the 1930s.  Strangely enough, the late 1950s was Ginsberg’s time, because of the Six Gallery reading in 1955, and the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance.  Kerouac was there, but his involvement was waning.  Kerouac had been a part of a reactionary movement a decade earlier at Columbia, with his anti-academic friends.  By the mid-1950s Kerouac wasn’t a leader but a follower, inspired by younger writers like Gary Snyder, who inspired his interest in Zen, Buddhism, hiking, mountain climbing, and spiritual practices.  By then, Beats, Beatniks and proto-Hippies were everywhere.  The counter culture was a good sized snowball rolling down the hill that would become an avalanche in the 1960s.

What I want to know about is the counter culture of the 1940s and 1930s.  The radicalization of America in the 1960s didn’t start then – it started much earlier.  I think we’re currently living through times getting ready for another big social change.  Whether the 2010s will be the 1960s, when all hell broke loose, or the 1950s or 1940s when the seeds were planted, is still to be seen.

JWH – 10/6/13

A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.


Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.


I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

A Feminine View of an Apocalypse

I hope I’m not being too sexist here, when I review Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  The books seems to be a feminine take on the end of the world.  But I have read many end of the world stories, and I think they’ve always have been written by males.  Books about the collapse of civilization are a special favorite of mine since I was a little kid, and now they are becoming very popular with young adult readers.  It’s rather fascinating to read a woman’s take on the genre.

First off, this isn’t going to be a regular review, because it’s going to contain spoilers to all the essential events in the story.  Let’s just say that I found Life as We Knew It to be extremely readable and likeable, but I want to dissect it because it was such a different view on the end of the world as I know it.  It was a rather nice and civilized view, and I’m essentially asking if that’s because the author was female.  Of course, this is a YA novel, so maybe it was pulling its punches, but then I’m not sure if YA readers want to be handled with care.  Kids loved The Hunger Games, which made them sort of like Romans at the Coliseum.

Surviving a brutal world at the collapse of civilization is the core appeal of reading end of the world stories.  Like I said, I really liked Life as We Knew It, and felt it was a compelling read.  I’d recommend it to any adult or kid who loves to read YA novels, but I’m now going to pick it apart for psychological reasons.  If you haven’t read it, don’t read beyond the cover photo.


When civilization collapses all rules disappear.  Survival is the number one driving force.  And in most post-apocalyptic novels of this type, the key conflict is kill or be killed.  Susan Beth Pfeffer completely side steps this issue.  An asteroid hits the moon and brings about catastrophic changes to life on Earth.  The story takes place from May to March, beginning slowly, but ending with a brutal “nuclear winter” like winter.  The story is told by Miranda, a sixteen-year-old girl in diary form, and is about how her single mother Laura keeps Miranda, and brothers Matt and Jon alive when civilization falls apart.

One reason I love these after-the-collapse stories is they present a perfect fantasy puzzle of “What would you do?” in the same situation.  If you were sitting in your suburban home watching the news and knew that civilization was about to come to an end, what would you do?  Laura withdraws a lot of cash out of her bank and pulls her kids out of school.  She also gets an old lady neighbor and they all go on a frantic shopping spree for food and necessities.  Now this is practical, but Pfeffer presents this chaotic moment as too civilized.  Sure it’s a madhouse at the grocery story, but not crazier than Walmart at 4am on Black Friday.  And it’s a bargain, all shopping baskets can be stuffed with as much stuff as possible for just $100, so each person gets several loads.  That’s just unbelievable.

And here’s the thing, that one shopping spree lasts the family eleven months.  Even though they live near a pond, there is no mention of fishing.  Even though they live in the outskirts of town with lots of trees to cut down for firewood, there’s no mention of hunting squirrel, rabbits, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, dogs, cats, birds or anything else.  Everyone begins to starve, but they take dead bodies to the hospital.  If these people are that hungry and think they won’t make it through the winter, why aren’t they eating the dead?  I’ve been a vegetarian since 16, but hey, every real life story I’ve ever read about starving finally comes down to cannibalism.  By the time Mrs. Nesbitt died, Miranda and family should have been hungry enough to eat her.

Pfeffer evidently doesn’t believe in killing animals for food even though the family eats a lot of canned meats.  It’s strange that the boys chop wood seven days a week to get ready for winter, but never go hunting and fishing.  Nor do they go scavenging.  In Pfeffer’s world, the rule is people leave each other alone, and only plunder each other’s houses if the family dies or moves south.  But Matt, Jon and Miranda never routine scavenge homes on their own.  That’s way too civilized.  And dare I say too girly?  Life as We Knew It is way too civilized view of no civilization.  America is full of gun owners, but we don’t see guns in this story except for a couple tiny mentions.

Liberals often ask NRA members why do they need assault rifles.  Well, they are for the end of the world.  When civilization goes down the toilet, it’s a dog eat dog wild west world.  In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s apocalypse it’s a please-and-thank-you end of the world scenario.  Only nature kills, not people.

Like I said, Life as We Knew It is a gripping, well told story, even though it doesn’t fit the standard after-the-collapse model.  Is that because Pfeffer is a woman and expects the end of the world to be different?  Or does she believe young adult readers shouldn’t imagine such a brutal existence, even though they’ve been assigned Lord of the Flies for decades?   Or is her novel just a cozy story of how she thinks things should be if civilization should collapse?  Sort of a politically correct Mad Max?

Even the ending was too nice.  Miranda has decided to leave home to die in hopes of leaving more food for her younger brother who everyone thinks should be the ultimate survivor.  But at the last minute she finds a flyer from a newly set up government office that’s giving away food.  They are saved.  Civilization hasn’t completely collapse and its making a comeback.  Survival has merely been one of waiting, hoarding food, and rationing.  No one in this story fights to survive.  They struggle, they endure, they work hard, but they don’t fight.

The thing I’ve always loved about after the collapse stories is the pioneering spirit of starting over.  Of reinventing old ways of doing things to replace modern technology.  There is no invention in this story, no learning to make bows and arrows, no Gilligan’s Island professor inventing new tools out of old parts, no reading old books to figure out how to make animal traps and cure hides.  Most of all, these people don’t scavenge, steal or kill.  Nor are they preyed upon by armed hoards of starving survivalists.  Every family holes up in their own house and waits.  Ultimately, waits for the government to help them.

Hey, I’m about as liberal as they come, but I know better than wait on the government after civilization goes down the drain.   I don’t know if the collapse of civilization would be as brutal as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it should be as brutal as Survivors (BBC 1975-1977), a favorite TV show of mine.   My all-time favorite after the collapse story is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  That’s because it’s about the intellectual rebuilding of society.  Stewart shows that once civilization collapses it will be very hard to rebuild.  I’m afraid Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t really understand what a collapse of modern society means, or she didn’t want her story to be all about realistic brutality.  I have to give Suzanne Collins a lot of credit for having her sixteen-year-old Katniss facing realistic brutality in a honestly violent way.

Even if Pfeffer didn’t want Miranda and her family shooting guns at other people, she should have at least included a local militia protecting the neighborhoods and setting up the power behind the rule that you don’t loot your neighbor’s house unless they are dead or moved.  Pfeffer makes no suggestion that strangers would organize or work together.  Family is the only bond.  That’s odd, don’t you think?  After every natural disaster I see endless news stories about strangers helping each other.

Also I was disappointed that Miranda and her family totally depended on the phone, radio, TV and the Internet for their news, and once those systems died, they just did without.  Why didn’t they communicate more with other people?  Why wasn’t their some kind of gossip grapevine, or bulleting board news system?  Pfeffer’s characters aren’t inventors, but I think necessity really is the mother of invention, and they faced a whole lot of necessity.

I believe we all write end-of-the-world stories that reflect our own psychological make-up.  And this could be a little like taking your clothes off in public.

I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males.  Is that sexist or political incorrect of me?  Who says end of the world stories have to play by masculine rules?  But why didn’t Miranda try to catch fish at the pond, or the boys try to kill squirrels when they were chopping wood?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe most women would be fighters in real life, and probably if they wrote fictional accounts of surviving, their characters would be fighters too.  I’m just wondering why Pfeffer wrote such a polite story about a brutal time?  Is this her naked honesty of how she thinks people would behave?

In this story food only comes from the grocery store, and help only comes from the government, and desperate people never resort to using guns.  Where’s the 4th of July spirit?  I grew up watching westerns, so I guess I might be indoctrinated differently.

Maybe I shouldn’t write such a story as this, because my naked views might be loathsome.  But now that I’m old, and in declining health, it would be much different from one I would have written at 25.  I should write an after-the-collapse story about a gimpy old fart trying to survive the end of the world.  It would have a hilarious scene of a life long vegetarian killing and eating a squirrel.

JWH – 7/4/13

What Are The Best Sites For Reading Science Book Reviews?

Generally, when I discover a great science book, it’s through accident, rather than intent, and usually it’s a couple years after it originally appeared.  Popular science books seldom become beach reads that everyone talks about.  Maybe I should say never, because I can’t name one.  Even though our culture is massively tech driven, science isn’t popular like football or superhero movies.  It’s a darn shame that science books don’t get the press that Kim Kardashian does!  What I’d like is a handful of science book review sites to read weekly, and when a book gets praised on many of them, I’d know what to read right away.

Quite often I’ll visit one of my two favorite bookstores and check out the science book section and see many new science books that look appealing, but I’m afraid to buy them without knowing more.  Over the years I’ve bought several science or science history books that I later discovered were not very well received.  What I need to do is read reviews before I go shopping, so I’ll know something about the new science books.

Since Google is our best friend, I started with a search on: science book reviews.

At the top of the search results is book reviews at Science Magazine.  Ah, an obvious choice!  But before I could get too excited, I was quickly reminded that Science is rather parsimonious with its words.  You have to be a subscriber to read the full text reviews.  However, they do give yearly listings of book reviews with links to Amazon, where I can read the customer reviews.  Here’s the list for 2013.  Overall, I’d stay it’s not worth the visit though, especially since many of the book are expensive academic books I’d never buy, like The World in the Model by Mary S. Morgan, which does sounds great though.  Although I did spot a couple books I’m going to keep my eye out to find.


What Did The Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking by Daryn Lehoux.


Faking It – Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop by Mia Fineman

Second in the Google returns is The Guardian:  Science Book Reviews.  Now these popular science books are more my speed.  Right off the bat it reviews two books I want to read.  However, it’s not exactly what I’m looking for either.  The Guardian provides a rather hodgepodge look at science books.  What I’d really like is a site that covers each week’s new published science/math books, pretty much like Entertainment Weekly does for movies, television, music and books.  Here’s one book reviewed at The Guardian I’ll buy when it comes out in America 8/1/13.


Farewell To Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggot.

Over at American Scientist, they have a Book Review Links page that attempts to do what I’m doing here, find science book review sites.  There I found Download The Universe: The Science Ebook Review.  This is a very cool site about science ebooks, both free and priced.  I liked this site so much that I subscribed to their RSS feed in Outlook.

Another great site is, and their Library page.  It’s not really a book review site.  Title links go to Amazon, but author links go to pages about the writers, and since focuses on interviews, this often leads to book discussions.

I did stumble upon ForeWord Reviews Science Section.  One book it reviewed that intrigued me was Software and Mind: The Mechanistic Myth and Its Consequences.  But it’s priced out of my reach, and is probably outside my intellectual grasp.  But it sure does sound fascinating.  I bought The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates by Howard Bloom because of their review.  I’ve always wondered why a universe ruled by the 2nd law of thermodynamics could create such complex systems.


A book I spotted at my favorite bookstore, Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science In Medieval Europe by John Freely was very enticing, but I went home empty-handed to read the reviews first.  The reviews at Amazon were overall positive, but one made me worry.  It claimed the narrative was more like an annotated bibliography.  The review at Physics Today was a lot more encouraging.  However Nicole Archambeau, the reviewer, claimed she wouldn’t assign it as a textbook, but preferred The History of Science: From Augustine to Galileo.  But at Amazon, one of the two reviewers called that book mediocre.  But over at the the Wall Street Journal, Laura J. Synder didn’t fuss over Before Galileo much, but did mention a few subjects it covered that made it appealing again.  I always find books that make a case that the dark ages weren’t completely dark to be a reason to get on my To-Be-Read pile.  But if you follow my links and read the reviews, Before Galilio is a good example of why you don’t just grab an interesting title off the shelf and buy it.  I think I’ll wait to see how the Kindle edition will be priced.


Science News has a Bookshelf section on their web with reviews of many books I saw at the bookstore yesterday.  They are short reviews, and not good enough to effect a buying decision, but they do list a lot of books worthy of researching to see if they are worth buying.  You’d think just looking at Amazon’s New & Notable > Science and Math section would list all the good science and math books that are coming out, but often I see books at the bookstore that aren’t listed there.  And, Amazon annoyingly lists books I don’t think belong in the science and math section.  However, the Amazon list is one of the most inclusive of all the sources I’ve cited.  It makes me wish I could read and digest a science/math book a day, because they offer at least 365 of my-interest-worthy science and math books a year, out of the 1,031,471 that Amazon claim to have for sale.

On average I read about 52 books a year, or one a week.  At best, I read one science/math book a month.  So you see my problem?  If I’ve only got time for 12 books a year, I want to make sure they are the best ones to read.  Which brings me back to why I wrote this blog.  How do you find the best books on any topic published each year?  Normally, you have to wait until next year when all the reviewers pick their favorites.  But if you don’t want to wait, then you’ve got to find sites like I mentioned here to figure things out on your own.  I always get a kick out of picking books when they come out and then later discovered that many reviewers considered them the best of the year.

JWH – 7/3/13

All Things SCRABBLE: Word Freak, Word Wars and Scrabylon

I’ve always been a piss-poor SCRABBLE player, so it’s strange that I picked up this book about SCRABBLE tournaments and got totally engrossed in reading about the fanatical world of SCRABBLE players.  Words With Friends has changed my attitude towards playing SCRABBLE, a game I’ve always thought as tedious.  Words With Friends is easier to play, and always handy.  I keep ten games going and make plays throughout the day.  When I saw Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis I bought it thinking it might help my game.  Word Freak came out in 2001, but in 2011 it had a 10th anniversary edition, with a 30 page update.  Because the Word Freak was so fascinating I went searching for more information about SCRABBLE players, and their tiny world of word geeks.  I thought I’d collect what I found for a blog post, since I love reading about micro-subcultures.

Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (2001)


For some reason Word Freak just grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down.  Stefan Fatsis, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and NPR, started out doing a short article on SCRABBLE players, and their tournaments.  Then he got hooked on competing himself.  Word Freak is a memoir of Fatsis getting to know many of the major SCRABBLE competitors and his efforts to improve his own skills to get higher rankings in the tournaments.  SCRABBLE players have a rating system somewhat like chess players.  Fatsis started off playing in the 700s and by the end of the book was ranked 1697.  He’s currently ranked 1597.

Even if you hate playing SCRABBLE you might find Word Freak worthy of reading.  Fatsis takes a complex subject and explains it in very clear details.  Word Freak is really about three subjects that Fatsis weaves together.  At one level the book is about the history of a game and how the tournaments work.  At the next level its about lexicology and studying words.  Finally, the story is about obsessive people, and how far they will go to become great at playing a game, and how that changes their lives.

Reading the book does require some patience – it’s somewhat technical when it comes to words and wordplay.

Word Wars – Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit (2004)

After reading Word Freak I checked Netflix and found Word Wars, available on disc and streaming.  The documentary film by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo credited Stefan Fatsis and Word Freak as their inspiration.  The film followed  four players Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill and Joel Sherman for nine months as they prepared for the 2002 National Scrabble Championship.  All four were profiled extensively in Word Freak, so it made me happy to meet them on film.

Scrabylon (2003)

Finally, I got to see Scrabylon, a film by Scott Petersen, which was made before Word Wars, but is pretty much about the same cast of characters.  By now I was beginning to burn out some on SCRABBLE documentaries, but I still want more.  I can’t help but wonder how things are ten years later?  Are the old players being pushed out by bright new word freaks?  In the book and films, all the players talked about SCRABBLE tournaments becoming more successful, to offer bigger prizes and get more public attention.  I’m not sure that’s happened.  Quite often I have seen short pieces in the news about SCRABBLE championships, but they don’t reflect the hoped for growth.


After reading the book and seeing these films I started thinking about my own skills.  In Words With Friends I’m averaging about 22 points per words, but there are players that average over 200 points per word.  I assume they are cheating, but maybe not.  I win a lot of Words With Friends games, but I don’t think I’m a particularly good player.  Reading Word Freak made me want to improve at Words With Friends, but maybe also play SCRABBLE itself, live with friends.

SCRABBLE v. Words With Friends

Many people think they are playing SCRABBLE when they are playing Words With Friends, but it’s really two very different games.  Which is why Words With Friends isn’t being sued out of existence.  The boards are different, the tile values are different, the number of tiles are different, but most importantly, you have to know how to spell to play SCRABBLE, whereas you can endlessly guess in Words With Friends.  In SCRABBLE you can intentionally play a phony word to bluff your opponent.  But if she challenges you and the agreed upon dictionary supports her, you lose your turn.  SCRABBLE is all about memorizing real words.  Words With Friends is all about finding real words that’s acceptable to the game.  You can try as many as you want.  With SCRABBLE you only get one try.

Words With Friends is also notorious for people cheating.  Playing real SCRABBLE, with real people, with a real board, not in cyberspace, but real space, means you’re on your own to come up with words out of you’re own little brain.  When I get together with someone to play SCRABBLE my average word values go way down, and it feels like I’m straining my brain to play.

Skill Versus Luck

Chess is a game that is all skill.  SCRABBLE is a game that involves a huge amount of luck with a lot of skill.  SCRABBLE appeals to more people because it is accessible, and easier to play than chess.  Words With Friends is even easier and more accessible than SCRABBLE, which explains its huge success.

Tournament SCRABBLE players often whine about the poor tile combinations they pulled from the bag, but the real experts can use their tremendous word knowledge to make a bad rack of letters into a high scoring word.  That’s why they memorize tens of thousands of obscure words.  Knowing words and how they can be played in novel combinations in a board arrangement can thwart an opponent’s “lucky” streak of drawing good letters.

SCRABBLE Dictionaries

Professional SCRABBLE tournaments use various standard dictionaries.  Players spend time every day learning the words in those dictionaries – often without learning their meanings.  Because English is a world-wide language, SCRABBLE is even played by people whose first language is not English, deciding on an official dictionary is difficult.  Basically it breaks down into three groups of English words.  Tournaments in the U.S., Canada and Thailand use the Official Tournament and Club Word List (TWL) (178,691 words).  For international play, SCRABBLE players use SOWPODS, which combines American and British words (267,751 words).  Players using SOWPODS have more words they can play, but it also means potentially memorizing almost a hundred thousand more words.  This also makes it difficult for world players to compete in America, because they need to know which words not to use, or for Americans to compete internationally, which means they need know all the additional words that can be used.  Plus players need to know when to challenge a phony.

For non-professional, home players of SCRABBLE, Hasbro recommends The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), now in the 4th edition.  The OSPD doesn’t have “offensive” words in it, which many professional and amateur players like to reply on.  Strangely, the internal dictionary for Words With Friends allows some offensive words and not others.

Because on July 1, 2013, Hasbro, the American maker of SCRABBLE, is dissolving the National Scrabble Association (NSA), which it has hosted for 25 years, things might change.  Since 2009, North American tournament SCRABBLE is organized by the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA).  Here is NASPA’s most recent statement on word lists.

Word Freak has an extensive discussion and history of SCRABBLE players struggling to come up with an official dictionary.  It’s a fascinating problem.  Words are constantly added to the language.  Words also go out of favor, but should they be removed from the official dictionaries?  Players want to use them.   As SOWPODS grows, the number of playable words grows, which makes it harder and easier for players.  It’s much easier to build elaborate tile combinations if they get to use all words, but at some point many of the words look like gibber-jabber.

Now, I’m not a tournament player, so my opinions don’t count.  But while reading Word Freak I was appalled by herculean efforts some professional players go to memorize words.  If all the top players have to become Rain Man to compete then it makes the idea of tournament play far less appealing.  It also bothers me that the players aren’t required to know the definitions of the words they play.

Learning Words

Professional SCRABBLE players spend hours a day learning words, usually from word lists.  2-letter, 3-letter, 4-letter lists, and so on.  Or from lists of special words, like all the Q Words, or  Q Words Without U.  Most non-tournament SCRABBLE players eventually get around to memorizing short lists, but few people have the stomach for the long lists.  That’s what separates the living room players from the rated players.

Tournament players often print out long lists of words, thousands and thousands of them, and cut them into flashcards, so they can study them a hundred at a time.  I would never do this.  I’m surprised by how much memorization Stefan Fatsis had to pursue to write his book and become a expert player.  I think it’s the willingness to study the long lists that separate merely great players from wannabe tournament champions.


Another astonishing feature of word power shown by professional SCRABBLE players is their ability to anagram verbally.  You know how parents often spell out words in front of young children so kids won’t know what the grownups are talking about, well, I’m 61 and if people verbally spell out words I don’t understand them.  So it blows me away that these SCRABBLE players can spell out 8, 9, 10, 11 or more letters and they can anagram them in their heads.  Fatsis reported that the tournament players often sat around playing anagrams after the tournament ended each night.  But Fatsis was also told that learning to anagram was a key tool to learning to compete in SCRABBLE competitions and raising his competitive rating.

Strategy and Bingos

Another big difference between living room players and tournament SCRABBLE players is their ability to plan ahead, and especially, plan their end games.  Competition level plays constantly seek to get Bingos – playing all seven letters from their rack at once.  Great players track the titles played and know which letters might be in the bag or on their opponents rack, and they often play short words one round in hopes of pulling the letters to make a bingo in the next round.

Average Words With Friends players love getting the Q and J because of their 10 point values, but competitive SCRABBLE players often consider these letters a burden.  They’d rather get letters, with lesser values, that help them make bingos.  They are always collecting prefixes and suffixes thinking about 7 letter words + 1, those words that can be made from 7 letters on the rack and hooked to one letter on the board.  They especially love making 8, 9, and 10 letter words by playing 7 titles across three lines of words.

You can follow the game where Mark Landsberg achieved the highest score ever to see how such strategy works.

Visit to follow games, tournaments, strategy and tools.

If you really want to get caught up in SCRABBLE competition you can read The Last Word newsletter or join SCRABBLE Club or Internet Scrabble Club.

Word Freak chronicled Fatsis meeting many champion players and their own personal strategies they used to win.  Most of their strategies involved game play or word study, but sometimes it involved brain drugs, meditation, positive thinking, attitudes towards winning, and even methods to achieve Zen-like flow.

Postgame Analysis, Quackle and Zyzzyva

Fatsis spends a lot of time analyzing games in Word Freak, and he reports that most competitive players write down all their racks for every game they play and then analyze them later for possible better plays.  Often at the tournaments, players will gather together to tell each other better possible words to each play.  Many players use computer software to analyze their games.  Two such programs are Quackle and Zyzzyva.  There are many online programs and dictionaries to help players find more word combinations from any given set of letters.  Many Words With Friends players use these tools to cheat. but they can also be used to practice

Changing My Game

I still enjoy Words With Friends, but I think I need to switch to SCRABBLE.  I know I will never push my mind to be a SCRABBLE champion, but I do think I should push it to memorize words.  I have started paying more attention to word spellings as I read books.  Like I said earlier, I was disappointed that SCRABBLE masters don’t focus on word definitions.  Stefan Fatsis spent a lot of time in his book dealing with word play and it made me want to study words more, maybe even read some books on lexicology.  I think I’ll start with Word Buff.

I won’t be making lists of words to memorize, but I might start studying words in general, and their definitions.  Reading Word Freak and watching these documentaries made me aware of my wimpy vocabulary.  My wife Susan has always loved anagrams, crossword puzzles, and other word puzzle games, and she’s always been much better than me at SCRABBLE and Word With Friends.

JWH – 6/16/13 (Happy Birthday Susie)

Remembering Oz

I have written this essay many times over.  Starting out, I merely meant to review Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, edited by John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen.  Oz Reimagined is a new collection of short stories inspired by the Oz books by L. Frank Baum.  That led to trying to explain what the Oz books were, and finally, trying to psychologically explore what reading those stories in childhood meant to me.  Cramming a full memoir and literary study into one blog post of a few thousand words is very difficult.

Fifty-one years ago, when I was ten, I discovered the magical world of libraries, and a set of moldy old books with Oz in each title. CBS began showing the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz every year around Christmas since I was eight and it had a huge impact on me.  So discovering two rows of Oz books at Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1962 was a major find.  I was just discovering the world of books, and I hadn’t understood that movies were often based on books.  Nor did I know about series books – what a fantastic idea, returning to the same fantasyland again and again.  When I first started reading for fun, all I read was series books, starting with the Oz books, then Danny Dunn, Tom Swift and on to the Hardy Boys.  The Oz books had started my lifelong addiction to fiction.


The Oz books were not as dazzling as the MGM movie, but they were incredibly far out.  I can’t recommend that you run out and read the Oz books, because you need to discover them when you are young to come under their spell.  The Oz books aren’t like the Harry Potter novels where both young and old can enjoy them.  Nor do I think they are well written.  So I thought it strange that Adams and Cohen would be trying to sell Oz stories to adults.  Is there a large enough market of people who discovered Oz books as kids who might want to return to Oz as adults?

The original Oz novels were seriously whacked – beyond bizarre, but not clever like Alice in Wonderland.  Oz was not a gentle children’s world like Winnie the Pooh, but more cracked like Dr. Seuss.  They were aimed at older children who could read a three hundred page book.     If you want to get an idea of what the Oz books were like, Mari Ness over at has been rereading all 40 books in the Oz series.  Follow the link to see the covers of the books I found in the library 51 years ago.  If you click on the title beside each cover you can read Mari’s summary with critical comments.  This is about the best introduction to the Oz books for an adult that I can find.  You can also go to and read the original books.

Rereading them now brings back memories, but not the experiences I felt when I first read them.  This is embarrassing to admit, but when I was ten I wanted to believe that Oz existed.  I knew Oz was made up, but it was so charming I wanted it to exist.  It’s a kind of meta-magic.  Oz makes you want to believe in magic.  I think all kids want to believe in magic.  But when we get old we become skeptical.  However, with all the fantasy in our culture, I get the feeling many adults wish that magic existed for them too.  But how many adults really loved the recent Oz The Great and Powerful?  Why is Oz suddenly making a pop culture comeback?  Some people are trying to elevate L. Frank Baum’s stories into American fairytales.  Oz Reimagined attempts to build the classic Oz characters into archetypes, which makes me wonder just how deeply rooted Oz is in our subconscious minds?  How many Americans know of Oz outside of one great movie and Wicked?


There are other embarrassing things to confess.  Reading Oz books brainwashed me.  Even though the books aren’t particularly well written, and were childish even to my childish mind, they did a number of me.  And if you read far and wide, you’ll find a lot of people who grew up between 1900 and 1970 that also imprinted on Oz.  As a child, Oz books had a far greater impact on me than the more famous brainwashing Bible and going to church.  It’s funny, but fantasy books, science fiction and religion all have common themes that prey on young minds.

I have fond memories of reading those Oz books and daydreaming about magical worlds as a kid, but when I look now at the books I have to wonder what a goob I must have been as a kid.  But then all kids were once naïve goobers who will believe anything you tell them.

Okay, after that long introduction I need to get now to reviewing Oz Reimagined.  Why go back?  Why write new stories about Oz?  And it’s strange, I’ve returned to Oz twice in the last couple of months, because Oz The Great and Powerful also came out around the time the book did.  What’s with all these people returning to Oz?   

Within weeks we had a new Oz movie and a new Oz book.  Even if you have no interest in Oz, this is still rather interesting if you are fascinated by the concepts fiction and myths.  In the year 1900, L. Frank Baum published the original Oz story, The Wizard of Oz, and since then there have been hundreds of sequels and many movies based on this imaginary place called Oz.

From time to time, a writer will create characters and a story world that readers just won’t let die.  Think of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Scrooge, Superman, Kirk and Spock, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Harry Potter – maybe you’re surprised by the last one, but just gander at the list of Harry Potter fan fiction stories.  There’s over 645,652 of them.  One measure of obsessive popularity with fictional worlds is fan fiction, where young people write stories set in their favorite fictional worlds.   Just check this list sorted by popularity.   Harry Potter has 645,652 entries, Twilight has 210,560, Lord of the Rings has 49,016, and  Hunger Games has 32,298.  Way down the list, with 42 entries is Oz books.  The young just aren’t interested in Oz anymore, and I doubt the new movie will create many new fan writers.

Fan fiction is an amazing pop culture barometer.  If it existed in 1920, I’m pretty sure Oz books would have topped the list.  Fan fiction shows a deep level of love by some readers for their favorite story worlds and characters.  Most of these entries are just fragments, scenes or short stories, but many are fully developed novels.  For example, Watchers & Dancers is 108,631 word novel that takes The Little Women March sisters from the 19th and puts them in the 21st.  You have to admit that such dedication reveals the power of fiction to inspire the imaginations of young people.

There’s only 42 Oz stories at  If we could collect all these Oz inspired stories that’s ever been written, I’d bet there would be thousands.  Oz Reimagined adds 15 more.  But here’s the weird thing, some of the stories in Oz Reimagined are just stories set in Oz, but many stories are about being memed by Oz stories.  I think there are two kinds of grown-ups who read Oz books as a kid.  The first want to return to Oz, and the second want to deprogram themselves from the influence of Oz as a child.  You’re either an Oz believer, or an Oz atheist.  It all depends on your attitude towards magic.

Do you believe in magic?  Did you believe when you were a child?  Do you like reading stories and watching movies even now as a grownup that features magic?   The success of Harry Potter seems to indicate that many of you will answer yes.  Does that reflect a secret longing for magic to exist in our very scientific reality?  Or does it reflect that when were children we thought magic should be real?

Obviously the history of the human race has involved a lot of magic and myths.  I am a solid believer in science, an atheist, and know absolutely that magic does not exist.  Yet, I have this hang-up about Oz. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Oz.  I can’t remember when I first saw the classic MGM film, but I think it was in those twilight years before the beginning of memories and self-awareness.

If you only know of Oz through the famous 1939 movie, then you really don’t know Oz.  The Land of Oz was a powerful fairyland first created in 1900 by L. Frank Baum with his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Baum didn’t intend for it to be a series, but fans wouldn’t let go.  Baum created thirteen more books about the citizens of Oz over the next twenty years, infecting millions of children with a deeply psychological desire for magic.  I read the fourteen Baum books as a child, before switching my reading addiction to science fiction.  I guess if I couldn’t find over the rainbow on Earth, I’d go much further to find it.

Right from the start people tried to ban the Oz books.  The faithful considered them spreading ungodly ideas and undermining gender roles.  Librarians banned them because they believed Oz books gave children unrealistic ideas about reality.

The funny thing is they were right.  Oz books do undermine religion, promote feminism and give kids unrealistic expectations about life.

Is you become addicted to Oz as a child, you’ll spend you’re whole life trying to get back to Oz.  Just read The Number of the Beast – Robert A. Heinlein was a major Oz addict.  For the most part, the Oz books are slowly becoming forgotten, but not their legacy, because stories with magic for children have come to dominate our culture.  Has there been an era that’s embraced fantasy so deeply as now?  Many mainline fantasy hours a day through their television, movie and ebook screens.

However, there must be plenty of readers still discovering the Oz books, because we have this new anthology of original stories set in Oz.

Oz Reimagined, is aimed at an audience I’m be curious to know.  How many kids growing up today read  the original Oz books by L. Frank Baum?   People have been writing new stories set in Oz since 1920 when Baum last title, Glenda of Oz, came out the year after he died.  Wikipedia has a great list of Oz Books.  Writers just can’t forget Oz.  But how many kids today grow up reading the Oz books?  It can’t be many.

And we also know the long checkered history of Oz movies, including the latest, Oz the Great and Powerful, which I thought was beautiful but had too many flaws – and by the way, there’s no sex in Oz, at least not the Oz I grew up with.  The Wizard might have been a humbug, but not a horndog, but that’s my interpretation.  Who brought adulthood to Oz?  Was it Gregory Maguire and his Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, who writes an introduction to this collection?  I don’t know, but probably not.  I haven’t read or seen Wicked, so I don’t know how much current pop culture Oz is related to Maguire’s re-visioning of Oz.

See, that’s the thing about the new anthology, Oz Reimagined, depending on how you picture Oz, will determine how much you enjoy the many types of stories.  This collection isn’t for kids, but a few of the stories are aimed at us who try to remember being kids.  Some of the other stories show a bitterness, maybe from the realization of their Oz addiction is corrupting.  And even other stories show a cynical view, having Dorothy reliving her adventures inside a mental hospital (“One Flew Over the Rainbow” by Robin Wasserman).

There is a common theme in all Oz stories, a search for transcendence from the mundane.  There is a wistful recognition that magic doesn’t exist, but if we could become innocent again it might.  

My favorite of the collection, “Off to See the Emperor” by Orson Scott Card.  It’s the deepest story emotionally, when it comes to remembering being a kid.  I can’t help but wonder if Card’s personal belief in magic – Mormonism – allows him to write such a wonderful story about magic.  Most of the writers in the anthology aren’t true believers.  Magic is just a story gimmick.  It takes powerful writing to make readers believe in magic, or want to believe in magic.  The Harry Potter books are the best example today.

I bought both the Kindle and Audible editions of Oz Reimagined, and have to say the narrators, Nick Podehl and Tanya Eby do such a fantastic job, and I highly recommend getting the audio edition if you decide to try this book.

But in terms of creating a Oz like story for kids, I’d say “The Cobbler of Oz” by Jonathan Maberry came closest to how I remember the books.

The book contains 15 stories plus a forward, “Oz and Ourselves” by Gregory Maguire and an introduction Adams and Cohen.

  1. “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz” by Rae Carson & C.C. Finlay
  2. “Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust” by Seanan McGuire
  3. “Lost Girls of Oz” by Theodora Goss
  4. “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story” by Tad Williams
  5. “Dorothy Dreams” by Simon R. Green
  6. “Dead Blue” by David Farland
  7. “One Flew Over the Rainbow” by Robin Wasserman
  8. “The Veiled Shanghai” by Ken Liu
  9. “Beyond the Naked Eye” by Rachel Swirsky
  10. “A Tornado of Dorothys” by Kat Howard
  11. “Blown Away” by Jane Yolen
  12. “City So Bright” by Dale Bailey
  13. “Off to See the Emperor” by Orson Scott Card
  14. “A Meeting in Oz” by Jeffrey Ford
  15. “The Cobbler of Oz” by Jonathan Maberry

Like Tarzan, or Sherlock Holmes, or even Star Trek, we have discovered that fans of the these original story worlds love them so much they want to return time and again, even after the original author has died.  Unlike these other stories, which are character driven, Oz is really place driven.  We see many new Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Woodsmen, Cowardly Lions and Wizards, but the real appeal of Oz, is it’s rich magical landscape.

You can read the original books at Gutenberg, and I recommend you try them, or a portion of them, to get a feel for what they were like.  Most everyone today knows Oz from reflections and reflections of reflections.  It very important to remember these were books written for kids, and they were written around a hundred years ago when times were much simpler.


Here is  The Patchwork Girl of Oz with the beautiful John R. Neill illustrations from the 1915 edition.  This is how Oz looked when I was first introduced to the books when I was ten.  The story is about a magician who has a potion, The Powder of Life, that will make inanimate objects come to life.  One of his first experiments is on a glass cat, who is also one of the main characters in “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story” by Tad Williams, from Oz Reimagined.

The cat was made of glass, so clear and transparent that you could see through it as easily as through a window. In the top of its head, however, was a mass of delicate pink balls which looked like jewels, and it had a heart made of a blood-red ruby. The eyes were two large emeralds, but aside from these colors all the rest of the animal was clear glass, and it had a spun-glass tail that was really beautiful.

"Well, Doc Pipt, do you mean to introduce us, or not?" demanded the cat, in a tone of annoyance. "Seems to me you are forgetting your manners."

"Excuse me," returned the Magician. "This is Unc Nunkie, the descendant of the former kings of the Munchkins, before this country became a part of the Land of Oz."

"He needs a haircut," observed the cat, washing its face.

"True," replied Unc, with a low chuckle of amusement.

"But he has lived alone in the heart of the forest for many years," the Magician explained; "and, although that is a barbarous country, there are no barbers there."

"Who is the dwarf?" asked the cat.

"That is not a dwarf, but a boy," answered the Magician. "You have never seen a boy before. He is now small because he is young. With more years he will grow big and become as tall as Unc Nunkie."

"Oh. Is that magic?" the glass animal inquired.

"Yes; but it is Nature’s magic, which is more wonderful than any art known to man. For instance, my magic made you, and made you live; and it was a poor job because you are useless and a bother to me; but I can’t make you grow. You will always be the same size—and the same saucy, inconsiderate Glass Cat, with pink brains and a hard ruby heart."

"No one can regret more than I the fact that you made me," asserted the cat, crouching upon the floor and slowly swaying its spun-glass tail from side to side. "Your world is a very uninteresting place. I’ve wandered through your gardens and in the forest until I’m tired of it all, and when I come into the house the conversation of your fat wife and of yourself bores me dreadfully."

"That is because I gave you different brains from those we ourselves possess—and much too good for a cat," returned Dr. Pipt.

"Can’t you take ‘em out, then, and replace ‘em with pebbles, so that I won’t feel above my station in life?" asked the cat, pleadingly.

"Perhaps so. I’ll try it, after I’ve brought the Patchwork Girl to life," he said.

The cat walked up to the bench on which the Patchwork Girl reclined and looked at her attentively.

"Are you going to make that dreadful thing live?" she asked.

The Magician nodded.

"It is intended to be my wife’s servant maid," he said. "When she is alive she will do all our work and mind the house. But you are not to order her around, Bungle, as you do us. You must treat the Patchwork Girl respectfully."

"I won’t. I couldn’t respect such a bundle of scraps under any circumstances."

"If you don’t, there will be more scraps than you will like," cried Margolotte, angrily.

"Why didn’t you make her pretty to look at?" asked the cat. "You made me pretty—very pretty, indeed—and I love to watch my pink brains roll around when they’re working, and to see my precious red heart beat." She went to a long mirror, as she said this, and stood before it, looking at herself with an air of much pride. "But that poor patched thing will hate herself, when she’s once alive," continued the cat. "If I were you I’d use her for a mop, and make another servant that is prettier."

"You have a perverted taste," snapped Margolotte, much annoyed at this frank criticism. "I think the Patchwork Girl is beautiful, considering what she’s made of. Even the rainbow hasn’t as many colors, and you must admit that the rainbow is a pretty thing."

The Glass Cat yawned and stretched herself upon the floor.

"Have your own way," she said. "I’m sorry for the Patchwork Girl, that’s all."


As you can see, the prose is not magical, but, if you have the right frame of mind, and can imagine Oz, and things like glass cats, phonographs, saw horses and patchwork dolls coming to life with a magic powder, then you might be a Oz person.   It helps to be a kid, or childlike, or maybe stoned, to get into the spirit.  I think the 1939 film did it best, whereas other films never quite caught the magic.  I gave you this average sample from an Oz book to show you how it compares to the new stories.

Tad Williams reimagines Oz as a computer simulation where he must solve a murder.  Many of the writers in Oz Reimagined try to come up with a rational reason for Oz, and in this story Orlando Gardiner, System Ranger, is debugging the kansas simworld.  Something must be terrible wrong with the simulation if a murder happens.   Here is Williams’ introduction to the Glass Cat.

But that still didn’t answer the main question: If everything was good in Kansas, why had he been summoned?

Whatever the reason, someone seemed to be waiting for him. She would have sparkled if the sun had been on her, but since the Glass Cat was sitting in the shade grooming, Orlando didn’t see her until he was almost on top of her. She looked up at Orlando but didn’t stop until she had finished licking her glass paw and smoothing down the fur on her glass face. The Glass Cat might be a sim of a cat— and a see-through cat at that— but she was every inch a feline. The only things that kept her from looking like a cheap glass paperweight were her beautiful ruby heart, her emerald eyes, and the pink, pearl-like spheres that were her brains (and also her own favorite attribute).

“I expected you to show up,” said the Glass Cat. “But not this quickly.”

“I was in the area.” Which was both true and nonsensical, since there really was no distance for Orlando to travel. He existed only as information on the massive network and could visit any world he wanted whenever he chose. But as far as the Glass Cat and the others were concerned, there was only one world— this one. The sims didn’t even realize they were no longer connected to the Oz part of the simulation, although they remembered it as if they were. “I hear there’s a problem,” he said. “Do you know what it is?”

She rose, swirling her tail in the air as gracefully as if it had not been solid glass, and sauntered off the path, heading down toward the stream. “Am I supposed to follow you?” he asked.

She tossed him an emerald glance of reproach. “You’re so very clever, man from Oz. What do you think?”

Following a snippy, transparent cat, he thought: Just another day in my new and unfailingly weird life. Orlando’s body had died from a wasting disease as he and others had struggled against the Grail Brotherhood, the network’s creators, a cartel of rich monsters and other greedy bastards all looking for eternal life in worlds they made for themselves. But now they were all gone, and this was Orlando’s forever instead.

“I hope this is important, Cat,” he said as he followed her down the embankment, into the rustle of the birch trees. “I’ve got plenty of other things to do.” And he did. Major glitches had looped Dodge City— the simulated outlaws had been robbing the same simulated train for days— and the gravity had unexpectedly reverted to Earth-normal in one of the flying worlds, leaving bodies all over the ground. He planned to fob at least one of the problems off on Kunohara, who, like most scientists, loved fiddling with that sort of programming problem.

“There,” the Cat said, stopping so suddenly he nearly tripped over her. “What do you think of that?”

This isn’t the same Oz as Baum’s, but it has the same spirit, just modernized.  Most of the stories are like this, all quite inventive.  Another story, “The Veiled Shanghai” by Ken Liu sets Oz inside of 1919 Shanghai like the dual cities in The City & The City, the Hugo winning novel by China Miéville.  Jeffrey Ford has an old Dorothy returning to Oz in “A Meeting in Oz” that has a rather chilling reimagined meaning to “There’s no place like home.”


Like I keep asking, why do we keep going back to Oz?  But why do we keep going back and retelling classic Grimm tales?  Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow have  six volumes of retold fairy tales for adults.  I think it’s more than writers just wanting to modernize old folk tales.  I think it’s a kind of cultural psychoanalysis with each writer taking their turn at bat being Joseph Campbell.  Maybe they are like me, feeling they were bamboozled as kids by stories that were so much more exciting than reality.  Maybe it’s fun to dress up old fairytales in modern language.  Maybe it’s just more fan fiction.

Reading these fairy tales for adults, I wonder if they are either deprogramming tools, or remembering reprogramming tools, because we want to forget magic, or we want to return to believing in magic.  Writing stories for adults that retell children stories is a weird business.  They either try to make us think like kids again, or they make us think like kids again, but with brutal winks and nudges.

JWH – 6/11/13

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s


The 1990s was the last decade of the century and the millennium, and although science fiction has been around for centuries, it feels like the genre blossomed in the second half of the 20th century.  By the last decade it feels fantasy flavored SF had overtaken hard science fiction in popular appeal, but many of the most successful science fiction books of the 1990s were about space travel.  Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, Dan Simmons, and Peter F. Hamilton began paving the way for the New Space Opera of the 2000s.  Ben Bova, Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson used NASA’s recent knowledge of the solar system to build new visions of interplanetary colonization.  And more than ever, science fiction is concerned with the post-human future.

SF writers of 1990s represents the centennial descendants of H. G. Wells, and his genre originating novels The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898).  Where Wells explored the impact of Darwinism, 1990s science fiction writers were inspired by NASA interplanetary probes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the many breakthroughs in contemporary cosmology.  It’s quite amazing, but in the 1990s, both the scientific universe and science fictional universes are tremendously bigger than the objective reality of the 1950s and its science fictional universes.  Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke loom large in our history, but modern science fiction writers stand on their shoulders and see much further than they ever imagined.

Yet, I would claim by the 1990s that it was obvious that science fiction had forked in its evolution.  On one hand, we still have a branch of science fiction inspired by science, but on the other hand, it’s all too obvious that the larger branch of science fiction is inspired by older science fiction.  New sub-genres like Military SF, seemed descended from 1959’s Starship Troopers by Heinlein, and isn’t the sub-genre of galactic empire romances descended from Asimov’s Foundation stories?  NASA will never be able to send a probe to either of these universes.  Whereas, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Flynn are practically begging NASA to use their books as blueprints for its future budgets.

A handful of writers dominated the decade with their series books.  Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge, all won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards as well as getting many nominations, and winning other genre awards.

Kim Stanley Robinson set the standard for hard science fiction with his decade spanning Mars trilogy.  He won two Hugos and one Nebula by writing about a realistic colonization of the Red planet.


Lois McMaster Bujold had so many award winning books in the 1990s that picking the best is impossible.  The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign are probably getting even more readers today than in the 1990s.  The Vorkosigan Saga just keeps on growing.  And fans debate whether new readers should follow publication order or internal chronological order.


Connie Willis won five Hugos and three Nebulas in the 1990s, with The Doomsday Book winning both.  Willis has carved out a much loved series based on time travel and history, blending two genres together, and like Bujold, Willis keeps expanding her series today.


Vernor Vinge picked up two Hugos and two Nebula nominations for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, proving that fans still love a good space opera.


Some people have asked me how I make up these lists of memorable science fiction books.  The first one, about the 1950s, was more from personal memory, but eventually I discovered various resources I used for the later decades.  I start with Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  I use its advanced search and look up novels, language and type.   I only worry about books in English.  I go down their listings looking for books I remember reading or reading about.  I can right click on any title to bring up it’s bibliographic record which includes how often it was reprinted and whether or not it won any awards.  Most valuable is whether the book made the Locus Poll that year.  That’s the first indicator how popular a book was with the fans during the year it came out.

I also study various best of lists to discern long term popularity.  I look for books that get picked time and again.  This is how I create the short list called the Best Remembered books.  The longer Defining Books list are those books which got particular notice during the year they came out.  Most of these have been frequently reprinted and are often on some of the best SF of all time lists.  I avoided fantasy novels unless they won or were nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, or other SF award.

Best of Book Lists

The Best Remembered Science Fiction Books of the 1990s

  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1990)
  • Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick (1991)
  • A Fire Upon the Deep/A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  • Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
  • The Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
  • Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (1994)
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (1995)
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (1996)
  • The Sparrow/Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Vor Game/Barrayar/Mirror Dance/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1990s

  • Earth by David Brin
  • In the Country of the Blind by Michael F. Flynn
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • Only Begotten Daughter by James Morrow
  • Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Redshift Rendezvous by John E. Stith
  • The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling
  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • The Quiet Pools by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
  • The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Use of Weapons Iain M. Banks
  • Voyage of the Red Planet by Terry Bisson
  • A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason
  • All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
  • Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton
  • Bone Dance by Emma Bull
  • Carve the Sky by Alexander Jablokov
  • Fallen Angels by Niven, Pournelle and Flynn
  • King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald
  • Heavy Time by C. J. Cherryh
  • Orbital Resonance by John Barnes
  • Raft by Stephen Baxter
  • Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
  • Synners by Pat Cadigan
  • The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank M. Robinson
  • The Summer Queen by Joan D. Vinge
  • Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  • A Million Open Doors by John Barnes
  • Brother to Dragons by Charles Sheffield
  • Chanur’s Legacy by C. J. Cherryh
  • China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
  • Fools by Pat Cadigan
  • Jumper by Steven Gould
  • Mars by Ben Bova
  • Quarantine by Greg Egan
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Sideshow by Sheri S. Tepper
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Steel Beach by John Varley
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • A Plague of Angels by Sheri S. Tepper
  • Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
  • Crashcourse by Wilhelmina Baird
  • Glory Season by David Brin
  • Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford
  • Hard Landing by Algis Budrys
  • Moving Mars by Greg Bear
  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
  • On Basilisk Station by David Weber
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • The Norton Book of Science Fiction ed. Le Guin and Attebery
  • The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith
  • Virtual Light by William Gibson
  • Vurt by Jeff Noon
  • Beggars & Choosers by Nancy Kress
  • Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop
  • Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks
  • Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh
  • Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
  • Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling
  • Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Mother of Storms by John Barnes
  • Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Permutation City by Greg Egan
  • Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Remake by Connie Willis
  • The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt
  • Towing Jehovah by James Morrow
  • Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
  • Brightness Reef by David Brin
  • Chaga by Ian McDonald
  • Distress by Greg Egan
  • Far Futures ed. Gregory Benford
  • Invader by C. J. Cherryh
  • Legacy by Greg Bear
  • Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams
  • Sailing Bright Eternity by Gregory Benford
  • Slow River by Nicola Griffith
  • The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata
  • The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  • The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  • Women of Wonder ed. Pamela Sargent
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis
  • Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Endymion by Dan Simmons
  • Excession by Iain M. Banks
  • Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling
  • Memory Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Reclamation by Sarah Zettel
  • Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
  • Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Voyage by Stephen Baxter
  • / by Greg Bear
  • A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
  • Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • City of Fire by Walter Jon Williams
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan
  • Finity’s End by C. J. Cherryh
  • Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel
  • Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
  • Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer
  • In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker
  • Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick
  • Signs of Life by M. John Harrison
  • The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons
  • Think  Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly
  • Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
  • Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
  • Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Distraction by Bruce Sterling
  • Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan
  • Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh
  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg
  • The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  • A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  • Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
  • Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card
  • Teranesia by Greg Egan
  • The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod

JWH – 5/2/13

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1980s

I’ve been reading science fiction for over fifty years, and I’m touring my SF memories decade by decade.  So far I’ve written about the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Something happened to the world of science fiction books in the 1980s.  The genre grew, gaining new writers, publishers and readers.  Star Trek and Star Wars got millions of media fans to try reading SF, often introduced by novelizations.  Science fiction became big business.  From my view of the genre, two SF books went nova in the eighties:  Neuromancer and Ender’s Game, making William Gibson and Orson Scott Card the breakout science fiction writers of the decade, like Delany and Zelazny had been for the 1960s.


Computers and video games made the 1980s a happening decade for science fiction.  Personal computers became all the rage, with the IBM PC being introduced in 1981 and the Apple Macintosh in 1984.  Fandom shifted from fanzines to computer networks like CompuServe and GEnie, connecting readers to the cyber world – letting us all live in a science fictional reality.  Kids growing up with Atari 2600s from the 1970s, jumped to the Nintendo, accelerating the cyber addiction of the 1980s, so is it any wonder that in the mid-80s that teens totally resonated with Ender’s Game and Neuromancer?   They were what the Heinlein juveniles were to my generation.

Now this is a longshot, but I think it was the massive influx of female fans that made Ender’s Game a mega success.  Over the years I’ve been surprised by countless women telling me that Ender’s Game is one of their all-time favorite books.  This was particularly shocking because most of my lady bookworm friends didn’t read science fiction.  Ender’s Game got them started on the genre though, if only a book now and then.

Ender’s Game is often taught in schools, and I’ve met both students and teachers who have gushed over this story.  To me Ender’s Game was just another outstanding science fiction novel, but to new readers it was a mind blowing introduction to the world of written science fiction.  They grew up on science fiction comics, television shows, games, toys and movies, but it’s the books that are the real heroin of science fiction addiction.  Remember, the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12, and to the 1980s generation, their time was just as exciting to them, as the 1960s were to us baby boomers.

These essays about remembering past decades of science fiction are about memory – my memory, our collective fan memory, and maybe the world at large memory of science fiction.  I’m not the only person looking backwards at science fiction.   Last year, Ernest Cline remembered the 1980s in his novel Ready Player One, and its over-the-top success is due to Cline speaking directly to the heart of the Nintendo generation.  The year before that, Jo Walton remembered growing up with science fiction in her novel Among Others.  Walton spoke to the heart of introverted science fiction bookworms, which won her the Hugo, Nebula and British Fantasy Awards.  Here is a list of novels she wrote about in Among Others.  Most of the science fiction books she mentions have been listed in my defining decades lists, but her novel goes further because Walton also remembers fantasy, classics and non-genre books.  Walton resonated with lonely book lovers everywhere.

With each succeeding decade, science fiction gets more sophisticated, and the overall quality of writing improves.  More people take science fiction seriously, and science fiction becomes more serious.  It’s still escapism, but the stories are getting longer and less simplistic.  It also obvious by the 1980s that the genre was shifting more towards fantasy, a trend that has been accelerating ever since.

Science fiction became big in the 1980s.  Bigger books, more books, more series, bigger series, wordier writing, and bigger sales.  In the 1980s writers took to writing trilogies and series like never before.  Lois McMaster Bujold is another standout writer of the 1980s, by developing a huge fan base for her Vorkosigan series.  Her 1980 books won awards back then, but they are still huge sellers today because the series keeps growing. Every new convert to her fictional universe wants to jump back to the 1980s to start the series from the beginning.

For the long list below, I only list the first book in a series unless a later title makes some kind of splash, wins an award, or was very popular for that year.  The 1980s was dominated by series, both new and renewed.  As you gander down the list, think of how many of these stories are part of a bigger whole?  Orson Scott Card, C. J. Cherryh, Iain M. Banks and Lois McMaster Bujold started series in the 1980s that continue to current times.  Isaac Asimov capitalized on his classic Foundation and Robot series in the 1980s in a tremendous way.  David Brin and Gene Wolfe wrote two standout series of the decade.  Dan Simmons started his Hyperion series at the end of the decade.  The most memorable books of the decade were seldom standalone novels.

Not only did we see more series books, but the books seem to be getting bigger, and some writers developed baroque writing styles, moving science fiction away from fast action pulp writing.  Gardner Dozois started his annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction series in 1984, by showcasing a massive amount of short fiction in a single volume.  The 1980s was a boom time for science fiction.

The 1980s will also be remembered for the Cyberpunk moment.  Neuromancer by William Gibson got a subgenre rolling that breathed new life into the old genre.  It was as revolutionary as the New Wave had been back in the 1960s, with Bruce Sterling leading the charge with his fanzine Cheap Truth.  The SF big three, Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov, the old guard of classic 1950s SF, were still selling lots of books, but their future visions were being eclipsed by new ones from Young Turks.

I divide the decade into two lists.  First, a short list for those books that are the most remembered today, and maybe most known by people who don’t normally read science fiction.  Then, a longer list of the books that hardcore science fiction fans should remember, and probably newer fans are slowly discovering.

The Best Remembered Science Fiction Books of the 1980s

  • Timescape by Gregory Benford (1980)
  • Startide Rising by David Brin (1983)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear (1985)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (1986)
  • The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood  (1987)
  • Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)

The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1980s

  • Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
  • Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward
  • Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg
  • Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  • Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
  • Roderick by John T. Sladek
  • Sundiver by David Brin
  • The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels edited by Robert Silverberg
  • The Garden of Delight by Ian Watson
  • The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
  • The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  • The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
  • The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • Wild Seed Octavia Butler
  • Wizard by John Varley
  • Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh
  • Dream Park by Niven and Barnes
  • God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Little, Big by John Crowley
  • Oath of Fealty Niven and Pournelle
  • Radix by A. A. Attanasio
  • Sandkings by George R. R. Martin
  • The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  • The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick
  • The Many-Colored Land by Julian May
  • The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
  • VALIS by Philip K. Dick
  • Windhaven by Martin & Tuttle
  • 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
  • A Rose for Armageddon by Hilbert Schenck
  • Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury
  • Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
  • Friday by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss
  • In Viriconium by M. John Harrison
  • No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop
  • Psion by Joan D. Vinge
  • Software by Rudy Rucker
  • The Compass Rose by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey
  • The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
  • The White Plague by Frank Herbert
  • Against Infinity by Gregory Benford
  • Forty Thousand In Gehenna by C. J. Cherryh
  • Helliconia Summer by Brain W. Aldiss
  • His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem
  • Millennium by John Varley
  • Startide Rising by David Brin
  • Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • The Armageddon Rag by George R. R. Martin
  • The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
  • The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
  • The Void Captain’s Tale by Norman Spinrad
  • Emergence by David R. Palmer
  • Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Final Encyclopedia by Gordon R. Dickson
  • The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
  • The Peace War by Vernor Vinge
  • The Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois
  • True Names by Vernor Vinge
  • West of Eden by Harry Harrison
  • Ancient of Days by Michael Bishop
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • Brightness Falls from the Air by James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan
  • Cuckoo’s Egg by C. J. Cherryh
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Eon by Greg Bear
  • Firewatch by Connie Willis
  • Footfall by Niven and Pournelle
  • Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss
  • Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  • Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Postman by David Brin
  • A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
  • Artificial Things by Karen Joy Fowler
  • Burning Chrome by William Gibson
  • Chanur’s Homecoming C. J. Cherryh
  • Count Zero by William Gibson
  • Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
  • Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams
  • Heart of the Comet by Brin and Benford
  • Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge
  • Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling
  • Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Soldier of the Mist by Gene Wolfe
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
  • The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy
  • The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt
  • The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw
  • The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • This Is the Way the World Ends by James Marrow
  • A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein
  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
  • Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
  • Great Sky River by Gregory Benford
  • Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
  • Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis
  • Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood
  • Sphere by Michael Crichton
  • The Essential Ellison by Harlan Ellison
  • The Forge of God by Greg Bear
  • The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard
  • The Uplift War by David Brin
  • The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
  • Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick
  • When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
  • Becoming Alien by Rebecca Ore
  • Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh
  • Deserted Cities of the Heart by Lewis Shiner
  • Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
  • Eternity by Greg Bear
  • Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson
  • Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
  • The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
  • The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
  • Wetware by Rudy Rucker
  • A Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski
  • Full Spectrum edited by Aronica and McCarthy
  • Good News From Outer Space by John Kessel
  • Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Orbital Decay by Allen Steele
  • Patterns by Pat Cadigan
  • Phases of Gravity by Dan  Simmons
  • Rimrunners by C. J. Cherryh
  • The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson
  • The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman

JWH – 4/13/13


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