z-logo marq_br

Ziring Book Pages - 2nd Quarter '97 Reviews

These are the reviews from the spring of 1997. For newer reviews, go back to the main book page.

Foundation's Fear by Gregory Benford - 1997
Harper-Prism (ISBN 0-06-105243-4)
Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is an acknowledged classic of science fiction. This novel is set in the same universe and deals with some of the same characters as the originals, but is written by the late Dr. Asimov's friend, Dr. Benford, with the permission of the former's estate. This book is the first of a new trilogy, the other two books are being written by two more top talents of the genre: Greg Bear and David Brin.

Foundation's Fear is tightly focused on a small set of characters, and how they deal with a variety of interlocking crises near the beginning of the dissolution of the Galactic Empire. The main character, one Hari Seldon, is the pivotal figure in the entire Foundation timeline. Some of Hari's associates from earlier books also appear here. Especially for this novel, Dr. Benford introduces several new characters, including virtual re-creations of Joan of Arc and Voltaire.

Two fundamental circumstances drive the plot forward. First, Hari Seldon has been selected for First Minister by the reigning emperor, a matter which some of the emperor's political oppontents try to douse in a variety of creative and violent ways. Second, simulations of Voltaire and Joan of Arc have been reactivated and trained for a grand debate between Faith and Reason. These plot devices are the foreground over a background of social upheaval, corporate intrigue, and imperial excess.

Dr. Benford chose a challenging course for this novel, but the final result succeeds very well. The plot is very complex, of course, but a tiny slice out of the fall of empire, and the life of man like Hari Seldon, could hardly be otherwise. The characters carried over from Dr. Asimov's work are wonderfully extended, and the new characters are very convincing. The plot of Foundation's Fear fits into the timeline overall series very neatly, but Dr. Benford introduces several new themes. Hopefully, some of these will be more fully explored in the next two books of this new trilogy.

Some of the technical matters outlined in Dr. Asimov's original books have been drastically altered here. The changes do not detract significantly from the story or its connection to the original series, but they don't add much either.

If you have not read the original Foundation books, I strongly urge you to read a few of them first. The settings and events of Foundation's Fear will be more exciting (and comprehensible) with a deeper context.

Conclusion: Recommended, especially for fans for the original series


3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke - 1997
Ballentine Books (ISBN 0-345-31522-7)
Everybody who has seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey remembers the terrible scene of Frank Poole flying off into empty space with his air hose cut - victim of the malevolent HAL. Well, for this far-future conclusion to the Odyssey series, Frank is back, retrieved from his frozen doom by lucky accident and advanced medical technique.

About half of 3001 is an exploration of a few people and facets of earthling culture one thousand years after Poole and Bowman's fateful trip to Jupiter. This portion of the book is charming, written with a light touch and calm plausibility too often absent from hard science fiction. As the plot progresses, Frank gets more heavily involved with the conclusion of the events he helped set into motion. Through the agency of David Bowman, Frank finds out that the monolith has come to a decision about the fate of the human race.

This novel was written wholly by Arthur C. Clarke, unlike other recent books of his which have been collaborative efforts. To me, 3001 seems to embody some of the author's best qualities, especially the mixture of portentious events with human feelings. While no sequel could ever quite achieve the level of 2001, this new novel is a delight to read, and a fitting conclusion to a classic series.

[For greatest enjoyment, I recommend reading all four books, 2001, 2010, 2061, and 3001, in a marathon session - Strauss music optional.]

Conclusion: Recommended


Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers by Dr. Jan Gullberg - 1997
W.W. Norton and Co. (ISBN 0-393-04002-X)
This magnificent volume surveys the history of mathematics, and also provides a review of a broad complement of fundamental topics:
  • Sets
  • Geometry
  • Vectors
  • Series
  • Matrices
  • Trigonometry
  • Calculus
  • Probability
  • Logic
  • Combinatorics
  • Fractals
  • Limits
Dr. Gullberg provides engaging commentary with much of the material. The illustrations are very good, and much more diverse than in a typical survey text. In addition to the customary bunch of 2D and 3D figures, the 34 chapters are sprinkled with reproductions of famous texts, pictures of mathematicians, and charming little cartoons.

From the Birth of Numbers is not a traditional textbook. The coverage is much more broad than any classroom text, and the lists of homework problems so familiar to students are not provided. This is a book for the educated reader, curious about the subject that supports so much of modern science and technology. While the book is over 1000 pages long, it is worth the effort to read it.

No single, portable, volume can cover all of modern mathematics. Dr. Gullberg covers basic continuous mathematics very well, but discrete math topics like graph theory, abstract algebra, and number theory are omitted.

Finally, the icing on the cake for the excellent content is the extensive index and list of references.

Highly recommended
for the mathematically
inclined reader.


Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry - 1996
Bantam Books (ISBN 0-553-57413-2)
Numerous books have been written in the STAR WARS universe, but this new story by Steve Perry is a fine addition to the pot. This book is one element of a multi-medium exploration of a particular time in the Star Wars storyline: the time between The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi.

Several familiar characters appear in Shadows: Luke, Leia, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca. Two new characters add novelty and action to the story: Dash Rendar, a mercenary, and Lord Xizor, a reptilian underworld figure and confidante of the Emperor. Luke and Leia are mostly concerned with tracking down the frozen Han Solo. Darth Vader is searching for Luke. Xizor is trying to undermine Vader and also ends up looking for Leia. Dash ends up looking after Luke. C3P0 and R2D2 are in the thick of event, as usual. The plot swirls around the characters, setting them off on a variety of adventures and excursions.

While Dash and Xizor are fascinating characters, the deepest and most unusual aspect of this book is its exploration of Darth Vader's character and his relationship with the Emperor. We get to see a little more into Vader's head than in any other Star Wars novel, and it makes an insightful supplement to the movies.

Conclusion: Recommended for any science fiction fan

[Note: while this book is very good, it is not quite the equal of Steve Perry's strongest novel, The Man Who Never Missed. Readers who enjoy the Star Wars stories might also enjoy this other work.]


Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe - 1996
Tor Books (ISBN 0-312-85585-0)
The Book of the Long Sun is a four-book series, centered around Patera Silk and his struggles to save his home. Exodus from the Long Sun is the concluding book of this masterful tale.

When we first meet Patera Silk, in Nightside of the Long Sun, he is a priest in charge of a manteion in the poorest part of his home city-state, Viron. Over the course of a few weeks, he manages to rise to become the leader of Viron, and gains the knowledge of his world's reality. The whorl of the long sun is a generation ship, 300 years into its voyage, and the gods that Patera Silk serves are the ship's builders as well as its soul. In Lake of the Long Sun and Caldé of the Long Sun Silk gradually expands his mission from saving his manteion to saving his city. His faith also shifts, from a blind belief in the pantheon of the whorl to a deeper understanding of the roles of religion and morality.

While Silk is the central character of all four books, the plot shifts frequently between him and a wide array of his friends. The other characters are a fascinating bunch, drawn for the reader with staccato strokes of dialog, action, and observation. The use of symbolism and metaphor in the books is excellent, very thought-provoking and insightful. In my view, these books defy the science fiction stereotype of action at the cost of literary depth, giving ample helpings of both. While the overall theme of a generation ship whose passengers have forgotten their mission is a classic one, Mr. Wolfe's interplay of the classic against fresh views of politics, technology, and religion make this one of the strongest interpretation of the theme I've read.

The plot and symbols woven through the four-book series are complex and well-integrated. This gives the series more scope than it could otherwise have held, but it makes the later books rather dependent on the earlier ones. Mr. Wolfe has essentially broken one very long novel into four large chapters, and the character development and action in Nightside, the first book, is essential to understanding the events in Exodus, the last book.

Conclusion: Highly recommended, read the whole series


In Search of Infinity by N.Ya. Vilenkin (trans. by Abe Shenitzer) -
2nd edition, English 1995 (ISBN 0-8176-3819-9)
Infinity is a fascinating concept from both a mathematical and philosophical view. There have been several books written for the general reader in recent years delving into the mysteries of this topic, but In Search of Infinity is a unique example. Written by a academic mathematician, originally in the Soviet Union, and revised in recent years, this book gives an uncommon and forthright view of the history and current thought on infinity.

Dr. Vilenkin divides the book into four modest-length chapters:

For the most part, the author avoids highly technical or formal mathematics. Formal definitions appear, with good explanations, in a few places in chapters 2 and 3. The transitions between the formal and the informal are somewhat sharp, but not too distracting. Many of the less-formal descriptions are supported with diagrams. While the diagrams are a little crude by modern american standards, they are well-chosen and effective.

The translation, by Abe Shenitzer of York University, is very effective. Unlike some other translated russian books, the cultural differences are handled well but not covered up; Dr. Vilenkin's cultural point of view is one of the book's most interesting facets.

In Search of Infinity is a good first jaunt into this unusual topic, but it's depth might be disconcerting for the casual reader. For the interested student of mathematical history or philosophy, it's a unique and rewarding summary.

Conclusion: Recommended


Inside Java by Dr. K.S. Siyan and J.L Weaver - 1997 (ISBN 1-56205-664-6)
The Java programming language is the hottest topic to hit the computer industry this decade, and that has prompted a veritable flood of books. With the release of a major revision to Java in very early 1997, publishers have been racing to get books describing Java 1.1 features onto the bookstore shelves. Inside Java is one of the very first such books to arrive, and it is clearly something of a rushed job.

Inside Java is intended to serve three rather different purposes: first, it provides a general introduction to Java, second, it summarizes some major changes to the Java Abstract Window Toolkit (AWT), and third, it describes some major new facilities added to the Java system for release 1.1. It would be very difficult for even the industry's best authors and editors to do justice to all three of these topics in a single book.

The introductory section, chapters 1-12, covers all the usual topics found in a beginner's Java programming book. There are code examples related to data types, defining objects, control flow constructs, data I/O, network I/O, program structure, and graphics. The level of technical detail and completeness is fairly low, too low for a book this thick and expensive. The order in which the topics are presented is pretty good, but the depth of coverage varies a great deal. Threads and synchronization, very important aspects of learning Java, are given very short shrift.

The organization of the technical coverage is a little peculiar. Much of the book is devoted to short and medium-length code examples. Each code example is presented in its entirety with very few embedded comments, followed by a detailed line-by-line walk-through of the code, followed by a picture of what the program actually does. (I found this order to be a little confusing at first, but I became accustomed to it eventually.)

The next portion of the book, Chapters 13 and 14, describe the Java AWT and the new features it provides in Java 1.1. This section is only about 120 pages in length, but it provides a fair overview of the AWT. Too few reference-style tables of class capabilities are provided in these two chapters, which might leave the inexperienced reader inadequately informed about the features of the AWT. Of course, all the reference information a programmer could ever need is available with the Java development kit.

The third portion of the book, Chapters 15 through 18, is devoted to some of the major new features of Java 1.1. The major features covered in the book are: Remote Method Invocation (RMI) and object serialization, Java Beans, JAR files, JDBC, and Java Servlets. Several other important new additions to Java, such as reflection and unlimited-precision math, are not discussed at all. The chapters about RMI and Java Beans are very good, and the other material ranges from fair to good.

An important metric of any technical book, especially a computer programming book, is the incidence of factual errors. I saw only a few errors in the text of Inside Java, and some of them were due to changes made in the Java API specifications since the book went to press. However, the book does have an unusually high incidence of mis-prints and grammatical errors.

Like many computer books published these days, Inside Java comes packaged with a CD-ROM. The CD contains some utilities and web browsers, as well as the Beta-3 edition of the Javasoft Java Development Kit (the final edition of the JDK has been available since late March, superseding the edition on the CD). The CD also includes demo copies of some Java development aids from Microline, Thought, and other companies.

Overall, Inside Java is a book that attempts to provide information for both Java beginners and Java experts, and succeeds in satisfying neither. While the coverage of some of the new features is good, it doesn't go quite far enough. Lastly, the title might be a little misleading: the book contains essentially no information about the internals of the Java virtual machine. I credit the authors for their efforts, but the book falls short in too many ways. The Java programming community will just have to wait until more books about Java 1.1 emerge.

Conclusion: Not recommended

[Ziring MicroWeb Home]   [Neal Ziring]   [Julie Ziring]   [Ziring Guestbook]

This page written by Neal Ziring, content last modified 4/27/97.