Chronopolis is a 1971 anothology of science fiction short stories by J. G. Ballard. I’ve not read much by this author but I’m definitely looking forward to another Ballard book after reading this one. His stories have a certain uniqueness that’s hard to describe; so much so that the adjective Ballardian was coined and according to the Collins English Dictionary, means “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

Many of the stories in the book are indeed dystopian and bleak but they also seem like a bridge from the traditional science fiction of the 1950’s to the new wave and Cyberpunk SF that emerged in the 70s and 80s. Some of the stories don’t really feel connected to anything in historical science fiction; they have a dream-like or nightmare-like quality that’s, well, Ballardian.

The book starts out with The Voices of Time, not where I’d recommend anyone start if they’ve never read Ballard before. I almost didn’t go on to the next story. It’s not badly written or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It’s a bleak, depressing tale whose goal seems to be finding the reader’s tolerance level for bad news. It’s the story of a scientist named Powers who is becoming a Sleeper, a condition which affects a growing number of people. Over time, it reduces one’s ability to stay awake; each day one spends slightly more time in a coma-like sleep until sleep eventually becomes continuous.

Powers theorizes that the Sleeper phenomena is an attempt by life to adapt to a world poisoned by radiation from atomic weapons tests. Powers’ friend and colleague, Whitby, now in permanent sleep, studied animal biology. He learned that every species is evolving into nightmarish, violent creatures; to be followed by extinction. Whitby believed the cure for Sleepers was in understanding why animals were changing. With Whitby gone, Powers realizes any hope for a cure has gone with him.

Power’s nemesis, Kaldren, has so far escaped the Sleep and has been busy deciphering a numerical signal flooding the world’s radio telescopes. Kaldren concludes it’s a countdown to the end of the universe, being broadcast to any remaining life forms so they can get their affairs in order. He recounts to Powers the story of astronauts who recently made first contact with aliens. The message they received is that we left the Earth too late; the Universe is old and dying, all the interesting races are long gone, there’s nothing left to see, no one to meet, nothing left to do but wait for the quickly approaching end of our planet.

I could go on but you get the idea; anyway, things really take a turn for the worse at this point. It’s not a spoiler to say the story has no happy ending.

Fortunately, I didn’t stop with The Voices of Time. I read on and found some truly amazing stories. It’s no wonder the book is named for the story Chronopolis. This was one of the most enjoyable in the anthology. It’s set in a dystopian future, but in a good way. We get an early mention of “time police” but this is no time-travel story. The time police are on the look out for illegal clocks. Clocks, watches, time keeping technology of almost every kind is forbidden. The story concerns a boy growing up in this timeless world who dares to wonder about clocks. The turning point is a chance encounter that leaves him in possession of a working and very illegal wrist watch.

His secret knowledge of time changes life for the better but when a school teacher discovers his watch, he is taken to visit Chronopolis, the time city, a huge ghost town that was the center of the world in the era of clocks. He’s peppered with propaganda about Chronopolis and what its clocks were used for, how they ruled everyone’s lives. The intent is to show him the horror and evil of clocks but, instead, it feeds his fascination. The question is whether he can escape the time police and fulfill the destiny he sees unwinding before him.

Billenium concerns the adventures of John Ward and his friend, Henry, in an over-populated future where personal living quarters have a maximum size set by law. After Ward is evicted from his cubicle and hears rumors the space quota is being reduced to 3 square meters per person, he and Henry go hunting for a new cubicle they can share.

While looking at a cubicle in a very old building, Ward punches the wall in a moment of frustration. A hole is created revealing a large 15 x 15 foot room, an unimaginably huge space that even the wealthiest person couldn’t afford to possess. It was walled over during some long forgotten repartitioning. Without hesitation, they sign a lease for the cubicle and build a secret door into the hidden room.

At first they take turns sleeping alone in the vastness but guilt gets the better of them. One by one they begin letting others in on their secret; first inviting two female friends to live with them, then relatives. Along the way things get complicated. The story has more humor than most in the book, even if it’s a dark humor. I also found it reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (which became the film Soylent Green) and Logan’s Run.

What would the world of Billenium look like hundreds of years down the line; a world where buildings covered every square foot of the Earth? Such a world is imagined in Build-Up. Civilization has long since collapsed and is now rebuilding. The old high-speed trains are running again, education of sorts is returning. But knowledge of the Earth and how people came to live the way they do is long lost. There is nothing to the world beyond level after level of corridors and rooms. Any talk of a “top” level or “bottom” level or of what could lie beyond them is considered superstitious nonsense.

Franz, a university student, has imagined a flying machine. In attempting to describe it to his friend, it’s evident that such a machine would be pointless without a very large room to fly it in. The largest room anyone has seen is the district’s stadium but even in so large a room what purpose could it serve to fly across it? Franz speculates about whether there could be “completely free space” – an area that has no walls, no floors above or below. His friends find the concept ludicrous but Franz becomes obsessed. He begins to question how the world came into existence – who built the first walls and floors, what was there before them?

He decides to find answers and starts by asking the local transit authority how far the trains go. They don’t know. Their trains go a few districts in each direction but the tracks go on and there are other trains. No one ever had a reason to travel more than a district or two away; why would they? Franz knows what he has to do. He takes all is money and buys transit tickets, determined to ride the trains continually in one direction until he finds an answer. What he finds instead is so much stranger than free space that he begins to doubt his sanity. This story was later retitled to The Concentration City in later Ballard collections.

There are a total of sixteen stories in this anthology and every one of them is well written, readable, and addicting. I found even the ones I didn’t entirely like were too compelling to put down, I had to find out what happened. I’m fairly sure it’s out of print (no suprise there, what good science fiction book isn’t out of print?) but if you can find a copy, buy it and read it! Oh, and my edition has more of that classic Richard Powers artwork on the cover.

The Monster From Earth’s End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth’s End by Murray Leinster is another recent estate sale find. Murry Leinster isn’t my favorite author but always writes an entertaining story. Leinster was a pseudonym. His real name is William F. Jenkins, under which he’s better known as the inventor of the front-projection process used in movie special effects during the 1960s and 1970s. In the SF world, he’s known as an early explorer of the parallel universe story, the originator of the term “First Contact”, and the idea of a Universal Translator, a handy device that later became common in SF and even beyond, thanks to its use on Star Trek.


The Monster from Earth’s End is not a groundbreaking novel. It’s billed as a science fiction “horror” story but fans of Stephen King or Dean Koontz aren’t likely to be very horrified. Despite the back cover blurb about bloody deaths and mysterious disappearances, and despite the front cover artwork of a beautiful nude woman being hoisted into the air by strands of green slime, the novel is pretty tame. It focuses much more on the characters and the science fiction aspects of the story than on the horror.

The plot is something of a cross between Gilligan’s Island, Who Goes There? and Day of the Triffids. Our protagonists operate a small military base on remote Gow Island, used as a refueling stop and storage depot for military and scientific planes doing research in the Antarctic.

“The island was a pile of dark rocks in an ocean which reached out endlessly from its shores. The winds of all the world blew around it, and seas marched three-quarters of the way around the globe to hurl themselves thunderously against its cliffs.”

Actually the island is not entirely dark rocks. It has a variety of wooded areas convenient as hiding places for spooky monsters and even an extra-spooky swampy area heated by underground hot springs. But the island has no animal life larger than harmless snakes and sea birds. There is a dock near the rocky shore for cargo ships. The inland base has a runway, some warehouses, a mess hall, radio shack, and a few other buildings.

The primary characters are Drake, the administrative officer; Nora, the executive assistant Drake would like to notice him; and Beecham, a research biologist. There are 20 people on the island including quite a few supporting characters. There’s Spaulding, an officer who’s been stuck on the island too long and through overwork has become a bit irrational and paranoid. Hollister, the island’s chief mechanic, who can improvise a solution to any problem that crops up. Tom Beldon is a younger military man who’s made it his job to protect Drake from harm. There’s Sparks the radio guy, the cook and his assistant, and assorted other stock characters who seem to inhabit every remote base. Leinster does a great of job of giving every character a backstory and role to play as the plot unfolds.

As the story opens, an unscheduled cargo plane has stirred up excitement. It’s a research plane carrying scientists and crates of plant specimens from a newly discovered area in the Antarctic, an oasis of life heated by underground hot springs where life has evolved isolated from the rest of the world for untold years. As the plane approaches, something goes wrong. Over the radio, they hear shouts for a gun, shots fired, and then silence. The plane manages a crash landing. There’s no one aboard but the pilot, who shoots himself before they can reach him to find out what happened. All the passengers are missing and one of the crates of botanical specimens is scattered inside the plane.

The wrecked plane is blocking the runway, so the only way to get on or off the island now is by sea. After reporting the incident, base personal are asked to preserve the botanical specimens as best they can. Beecham takes the tree-like specimens from the broken crate and plants them near the island’s swampy hot spring area. The undamaged crates of specimens he moves into a warehouse for storage. Hollistor is set on the task of moving the wrecked plane from the runway.

That night the horrors begin. The dead pilot’s body vanishes. A dog dies mysteriously. Within a day, people start disappearing. Strange venomous insects turn up on the island. Evidence accumulates that some type of beast is loose on the island; something strong enough to kill a man and bend rifles in half. It comes and goes without being seen. Spaulding jumps to more and more irrational explanations, from prehistoric birds to invisible monsters. Drake does his best to keep the base from panicking. And, like any good leading man in a science fiction novel, he insists on reason.

“In the real world, everything follows natural laws. Impossible things do not happen. There is an explanation for everything that does happen. The explanation links it to other things. There are no isolated phenomena. There are only isolated observations, and sometimes there are false observations. But everything real is rational. There was a rational reason for everything that had taken place on Gow Island. The problem was to find it.”

He’s helped out here by Beecham, the biologist who spends most of the book gathering evidence and testing theories. How many horror novels these days have protagonists who fight unseen horrors using the scientific method? When Beecham’s research leads him to an extraordinary conclusion, he asks Drake to double-check his evidence and come up with his own theory:

“I’ve been guessing at things, Drake, and I’ve got some evidence. Pitiably little, but evidence. Will you look at it? I think that just possibly there’s a very simple explanation for everything that’s happened. I want to show you the evidence and have you come to your own opinion. If it’s the same as mine, we’ll know what to do. What I suspect is perfectly reasonable. There’ve been legends about it. People have believed it for centuries. Nothing superstitious, Drake! I’m not talking about an actual discovery of werewolves, or anything like that. It’s quite natural. It’s even inevitable from a biologist’s standpoint. But I want somebody to look at the evidence with an open mind.”

But Beecham’s theory may be too late. Bad weather has cut off the base from sea rescue and Hollister needs more time to clear the runway — time they may not have. They’re forced to retreat to the buildings for safety when they learn they’re facing not one impossible creature but a multitude. Can they hold out until help arrives? Do they dare go outside to finish clearing the runway? Or should they try to hold out until the weather allows help from the Navy. Even if help arrives, can they chance a run for the docks? Who will die next? Will Drake ever get a chance to be alone with Nora? Will Beecham find a way to stop the invisible killers? The answers to all these questions await in this compact 175-page novel. Even if it’s not scary it is a fun read.

I’ve since discovered the book was the basis of an apparently awful 1966 Roger Corman film titled The Navy vs the Night Monsters, staring Mamie van Doren and Anthony Eisley. I haven’t seen it yet, but I found the trailer on YouTube.

The Non-statistical Man

The Non-Statistical Man

The Non-statistical Man is a collection of four short stories by Raymond F. Jones. The author is better known to some for his novel, This Island Earth, which was turned into a cheesy 1950s B movie and later lampooned on MST3K. But Jones’ real claim to fame is the title short story in this book, The Non-statistical Man, which has been called the best science fiction ever written about the human sense of intuition. Like most interesting SF books, this one is long out of print. I’d read it before, many years ago, in an anthology or old pulp. I recently happened across this copy at an estate sale and bought it so I could re-read it.

The Non-statistical Man is the story of Charles Bascomb, chief statistical analyst for a major insurance company; a man obsessed with logic and precision, a man who lives and breathes statistics, a man who endlessly ridicules his wife’s sense of intuition. His world slowly turns upside down after he discovers a series of anomalous insurance claims. Somehow a growing number of people are buying exactly the insurance they need, just in time to make a claim, and then cancelling. Convinced there is something possibly illegal and definitely strange going on, Bascomb sets out to investigate.

The trail leads to Dr. Magruder, an obvious quack who teaches self-help classes designed to develop the human sense intuition through a series of mental exercises and pills. The mental exercises are clearly nonsense and the pills turn out to be ordinary vitamins when analyzed. But somehow, where ever the doctor turns up, people begin outsmarting insurance companies. Every time Bascomb thinks he’s close to understanding the scam, logic and statistics fail him. His wife’s logic-defying intuition, however, repeatedly puts him back on the right track.

If Bascomb can’t put a stop to Magruder and his quackery, the entire insurance industry is doomed and field of statistics with it. In his desperation to preserve his world view and belief in statistics over intuition, Bascomb decides the only way to find out the doctor’s secret is to sign up for classes, take the pills, and follow the exercises. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe the events that follow.

The other stories in the book are enjoyable footnotes in SF history but don’t compare to The Non-statistical Man. The Gardener is the story of a child born with a mutation that gives him unusual mental powers. It’s notable primarily for an early use of the term Homo Superior. The term originated from Olaf Stapledon’s story Odd John in 1935.

The Moon is Death, set in a future of interplanetary travel, is the story of astronauts sent to Earth’s moon to find out why no mission there has ever returned. It reads like an early SF pulp story; you’ve got weird radiation, rapid aging, gun fights on rockets, and atomic explosions.

I found Intermission Time marginally more interesting. It involves colonists travelling to a planet with two intentionally designed societies that are experiments in solving problems that have plagued human history. Two musicians, a brother and sister, are destined for one of the colonies. John, the brother, falls in love with Lora, a woman he meets aboard the ship who’s destined for the other colony. Once a colonist commits to the voyage, they can’t back out or change plans and both colonies are sealed against contact with the other. The two lovers are faced with a series of dilemmas and choices, balancing individual relationships against the good of the species.

Lastly, I can’t help but add that this is the 1968 Belmont Future Series (B50-820) paperback edition published by Belmont Books of New York with some interesting and uncredited cover art by Ralph Brillhart done in his well-known style reminiscent of Robert M. Powers.

The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

I finished reading The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by the late Denis Dutton a while back and it’s about time I write a short review. Actually, I read it aloud to Susan. In addition to our own personal reading lists, we usually have a shared book that I read aloud when we’re on long drives or working on some project around the house. We alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Susan selected the Art Instinct because it covered topics we’re both interested in: art, evolution, aesthetics, anthropology, the human brain, to name a few.

The title is most likely having a bit of fun with Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, The Language Instinct, which examines how the brain evolved an innate capacity for language (also a great book by the way, did I ever write a review of that one? Hmmmm). Dutton’s book uses a similar model. He argues that our sense of aesthetics is not just an arbitrary social construct as presumed by many art critics and academics.

He leads into his arguments by attempting to answer the question of why landscapes depicted in calendar art are so uniform – in every country, in every climate, everywhere in the world. A well-known 1992 study sought to explain why humans find one particular type of landscape more beautiful and appealing than all others. We favor this type of landscape whether it occurs in calendar art, golf courses, public parks, or classic paintings. Americans favor it, as do Europeans, Inuits, Russians, even members of the most remote and primitive tribes who may never have seen this type of landscape before.

The landscape we favor happens to be identical to the Pleistocene savanna of the type that occurs in Africa. Evolving hominid hunter-gathers who favored this type of savanna had much higher chances of survival. It’s a landscape with direct evidence of game animals, variegated cloud patterns, evidence of water, low forking fruit-bearing trees (food sources and easily climbable to escape predators), alternating open and wooded spaces. If you’ve never read it, the original study is: Evolved Responses to Landscapes by Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen.

Frederic Church landscape with elements we’ve evolved to find attractive.

After going over the various non-evolutionary explanations and why they were found wanting, he moves on to similar cases of direct evidence of evolution shaping our aesthetic tastes. Can evolution explain, for example, why blue, the color of the sky and water is the most common favorite color? Green, the color of plant life, is our second most commonly expressed favorite color. Our desire to see blue and green came to mind as I was writing because I’d just returned from an exhibit of paintings by Cathey Miller. She paints residents of the mythical Cathedonia in luminescent shades of blue or green. Somehow, I find a sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that the part of my brain which finds Cathedonia paintings appealing evolved to help my Pleistocene ancestors survive.

Watching by Cathey Miller, from the Cathedonia Blue Morpho Series

The tricky part is getting from the easy cases like agreement on colors and landscape to a more general description of beauty and aesthetic taste. It’s hard to look for the origin of a thing until you can agree on what the thing is. So, a large part of the book is involved in trying to precisely define art. Much time is spent on edge cases that are controversial – is Duchamp’s Fountain art? Are other readymades art? Why are expertly made forgeries not respected as much as expertly made originals? What about people who insist this or that category of art isn’t really art (e.g. abstract art, rap music, photography, etc).

Once he’s established a working definition or art, he goes after the problem of understanding how an innate sense of beauty could have evolved. He examines what we know about our evolutionary history to see if we can discover ways in which an innate art instinct would have direct survival value or if it could be an adaptive effect of some other survival characteristic that natural selection would have favored. Alternately, he looks at whether the art instinct is a result or adaptation of the other major evolutionary mechanism, sexual selection; like the Peacock’s tail – a case where sexual selection trumps natural selection. A bright tail actually has a negative survival value but serves as a fitness signal to the females (“hey, look, I’m so awesome at this survival game, even this flashy tail isn’t a problem. Mate with me!”).

Contrary to what art academics have argued for years, that art is culture-specific, Dutton presents world and history ranging emprical evidence that human appreciation for beautify is innate and occurs everywhere and at every time humans exist. To put it another way, Dutton’s revolutionary argument is that beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder” as folk wisdom claims but is rather part of the core workings of every human brain that evolved over millions of years.

What makes Dutton’s effort interesting (to me at least) is that it’s not just some random guy’s opinion, it’s an attempt to find an empirical, objective way to think about beauty and art; something that is not easily done. His efforts stop short of providing definitive proof that the evolution of our aesthetic sense followed the path he describes but he makes a convincing case.

Whether you’re a cognitive scientist or an artist, you’ll find this an interesting read. Who would have thought that it was Darwin and not some philosopher who finally figured out how beauty works! If you’d like to find out more about the book, visit The Art Instinct website. And you can read more about Denis Dutton on his personal website,

In February of 2010, Denis Dutton summarized the book in a 15 minute TED talk. The book offers enormously more detail, fascinating anecdotes, and mountains of evidence collected around the world and throughout history. But if you’d like a quick overview of what his book is all about, you can’t beat this TED talk.

Intermediate Robot Building by David Cook

This review was originally written for the blog

David Cook is webmaster of the popular website, a collector of bizarre safety signs, and author of Robot Building for Beginners. His new book, titled Intermediate Robot Building, explores more advanced issues than his previous book. This one is aimed at the reader ready to move from building robot kits to designing and building a robot from scratch. If you’ve been wondering how to control a motor, build an H-Bridge, or how to attach wheels to your motors in a precise and reliable way, this book is for you. Read on for a more detailed review.

Intermediate Robot Building assumes you understand the basics and have built at least one robot from a kit. The book delves into some of the common problems that face robot builders working on more complex robots built entirely from scratch.

The book focuses primarily on hardware issues such as machining metal parts, connecting wheels to motors, controlling motors, and building robot power supplies, briefly covering microcontrollers and sensors as well. This book provides far more detail on the hardware aspects of robot building than any other I have seen to date and is worth picking up if you want to learn more about hardware.

If you’ve browsed the table of contents above, you may wonder why four chapters of the book are spent on connecting wheels to motors. To quote David, “Until people actually try to build a robot themselves, they don’t realize that one of the more difficult tasks is finding a precise and reliable way to connect a motor to a wheel”. Speaking as someone who is primarily a software hacker, I can certainly vouch for the difficulty of solving seemingly simple hardware problems like mounting wheels, especially without proper tools or experience. The book offers several solutions and describes each in a detailed, step-by-step way with plenty of diagrams and photos.

I particularly liked this book’s promotion of standard SI (metric) units, which are used everywhere else in the world, instead of the medieval system still favored in the US. So you won’t have to measure your robot’s speed in furlongs per fortnight while using this book!

The book also promotes the use of modular robotics. By creating drive modules, motor control modules, power modules, logic control modules, you can assemble your robot from the modules rather than having to build the entire robot as a single project. The modules you build can be improved or re-used to create other robots. The modules described in the book are used to create a robot, called Roundabout, that avoids walls and obstacles using IR sensors.

One convention adopted in the book may seem a bit strange at first. All the schematics in the book use a mix of normal schematic symbols for some components (e.g. capacitors, zener-diodes, transistors) but represent other components iconically (e.g. resistors, photo-diodes). This can be a bit confusing initially. The author explains his reasons early on for this and another exception to modern schematic technique, the old-style use of a “jog” to represent crossed wires that do not connect. David’s experience is that beginners find these wiring diagrams easier to understand, hobby robot builders often prefer them to formal schematics, and he believes his diagrams reduce the chance of mistakes. It’s really a minor issue and experienced builders used to contemporary schematics should be able to adapt easily enough.

Overall, the book provides lots of practical information to help the reader over the difficult areas of building a homebrew robot. Recommended!