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Imperial Earth, A Short Retrospective

Imperial Earth - Arthur C. Clarke The Bicentennial Man And Other Stories (hardcover) - Isaac Asimov

I read Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth back in the late 70s when I was 15 or 16 years old. It was published in 1976 as a sort of tie-in with the American Bicentennial. Isaac Asimov published The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories around the same time. I was just old enough to view these tie-ins as a marketing ploy and did my best to avoid them. But Clarke was smart enough not to put the word "Bicentennial" or any reference to the USA in the title and thus I started reading Imperial Earth as just a book by one of my favorite authors. (Asimov's book of short stories turned out to be pretty good but I didn't discover that until much later.


I found my current copy of Imperial Earth at a used book store for $8.00 in hard cover. Back when I read it for the first time as a teenager much of it went over my head. Back then I saw it as both a "book of wonder" (as in wow, living in the future as a clone on Titan and traveling through space is really cool) and a mystery novel. But as a mystery it was slow and subtle. Somebody dies but there is no murderer. The characters in Imperial Earth act cagy but in the end there is no crime. 


In rereading Imperial Earth nearly 37 years later it's become the great novel that it always was. Clarke requires his readers to come to his books with enough knowledge of history, science, and mythology to truly follow his references and innuendo. The book opens with the hero, Duncan, as a youth discovering a magnificent sound. It could be a storm on the surface of his world (Titan, a moon of Saturn), or a rocket ship, or a monster. He shares the sounds with his best friend Karl. I now realize it's one of the best opening chapters in all of Science Fiction. 


Clarke paints a picture of the future where skin color and sexual preferences are of little importance. A world where the Earth is at peace and humanity is looking out to the stars, listening for alien civilizations or maybe alien monsters.


I don't want to give the book's secrets away but it all fits together like a pentomino puzzle (one of Duncan's favorite pastimes . (And by the way, Clarke predicts the smart phone and the Internet in this book.)



I couldn't put down The Man Who Couldn't Sleep

The Man Who Couldn't Sleep - Charles Eric (pen name used by David McIlwain) Maine The Isotope Man - Charles Eric Maine

This summer I got to do one of my favorite activities: Hunting for books in small town used book stores. I'm not looking for any thing spectacular, just something forgotten that deserves to be recovered.  At a small book store on a side street in New Paltz, New York I found two books by Charles Eric Maine in the scifi section. I had never heard of Maine or any of his titles but something about these thin novels intrigued me. There was 1950's vibe to the covers and the tagline: "a novel of menace." 


You can read more about Charles Eric Maine, whose real name was David McIlwain, on his Wikipedia entry. As far as I can tell he never won a hugo but he created colorful characters and put them in mysterious situations--the kind of situations that look hopeless. And yet his protagonists find their way out in the end through a mixture of hard work, thoughtfulness, and luck. 


The Isotope Man is a pulp detective story with a hard boiled reporter and girl photographer with fantasy science elements and evil foreigners. The best part of The Isotope Man is the setting: London just after World War II. Written in 1957 it's a time capsule full the prevailing stereotypes of the early Cold War.


I found The Man Who Couldn't Sleep much more compelling. The hero is a self-centered, weak willed insomniac. His love interests are using him to further their own interests. The bad guy is a likable visionary. The science element involves recording thoughts and emotions and replaying them back to an audience like a movie. The result is something very much like The Matrix only without robots, computers, or Kung Fu.


Desiging Virtual Worlds Should Be On Every Coder's Bookself

Published in 2004, Richard A. Bartle's Designing Virtual Worlds, is a great resource for the modern software designer. The lessons learned from the early days of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) can be directly applied to help make any Internet or mobile application more fun and successful. Gamification is an important tool in today's world of social networks and smart phones. With Bartle's book you're getting advice from one of the main inventors of addictive software.


Bartle was one of the co-creators of MUD1, a pioneering text adventure game that enable people across the early Internet (the Internet of dialup modems) to play in a collaborative fashion. His book, Designing Virtual Worlds (DVW), contains everything a product designer needs to know about where virtual worlds came from, their core elements, how they are produced, who plays them, their problems and pitfalls, and where they are going. When you take into consideration how greatly technology has changed between 2004 and 2013, the fact that DVW is still relevant is an amazing accomplishment.


There are two reasons for DVW's success as a book...


It doesn't contain code. Software tools age rapidly. Almost none of the operating systems and platforms consumers use today existed in 2004. Bartle explains core concepts which can be applied in any technical paradigm. The savvy young coder writing a modern virtual world or social application in Node.js and MongoDB will get plenty of value out of DVW without having to wade through C++ code.


The other reason is more profound: Human beings are natural gamers. One of our main distinguishing characteristics is that we play well after childhood. Bartle is a an astute observer of human behavior and MUD1 was designed with humans in mind. Bartle's chapters on translating motivation, narrative, and psychology into the design of a virtual world are priceless.


If you think about it, we live in several "virtual worlds" simultaneously.  Facebook and Twitter are virtual worlds. Tumblr and even the Huffington Post are virtual worlds. They each have their own physics, characters, events, shared resources, and persistence. That's because they are all gamified in someway. If you want to design a product that is as successful as any of those you should read Bartle.