Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Top 10 Science Fiction Authors - And Why

I've been a huge fan of science fiction for as long as I can remember. A list of top authors is of course a personal and subjective thing. They say the "golden age" is what you experienced when you were ten years old. My list is biased towards my early reading experiences when I was about that age.

So starting from the bottom, here is my list:

10. H.G. Wells

Herbert George Wells was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction but today is best known for his science fiction novels, most notably The First Men in the Moon, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds.

It is a testament to his work that his novels are still well known and are still being remade as films in the 21st century, even though they were written in the 19th century. His novel The Sleeper Awakes was said to be Robert A. Heinlein's favourite novel.

9. Jules Verne

Like Wells, the French writer Jules Verne was one of the pioneers of science fiction and is best known for writing Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. He predicted many modern inventions including underwater, air, and space travel.

8. Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton may tend to be overlooked by science fiction fans because his books are just too popular -- Science Fiction novels are not supposed to be best sellers. With over 20 published novels (not all science fiction) including The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Congo, Sphere, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World, I think he deserves to be on my top 10 list despite what the purists may think.

7. Edgar Rice Burroughs

Most famous for his Tarzan series, Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote over thirty science fiction novels, practically inventing the Space Opera genre. His Barsoom series about John Carter of Mars are the most well known, and my personal favourite. While arguably more fantasy than science fiction, his novels still hold up well for those who enjoy some pure escapism involving green men, princesses, sword fights, and flying wooden ships.

6. Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams is best known for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. He also wrote for television, including some episodes of Dr. Who. His style of humour was unique to Science Fiction and earns him a spot on my list.

5. Frederik Pohl

A childhood friend and one-time literary agent of Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl started as a fan, and moved on to be an editor and a writer of Science Fiction short stories and novels. The novel he co-wrote with Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is a classic that is still relevant today, combining action, mystery, and allegory of the advertising business. He is said to be currently working on completing Arthur C. Clarke's unfinished novel The Last Theorem.

4. Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is the great poet whose work includes fantasy, horror, and mystery. He has said he only wrote one Science Fiction Novel, Fahrenheit 451. He is also well known for The Martian Chronicles and other collections of short stories. Born in 1920, he is still writing. I find that of all my favourite writers, his short stories are the ones that I can read over and over again.

3. Robert A. Heinlein

Like so many famous writers, poor health forced Robert Heinlein to take up writing for a living. His background in the military, engineering, and a wide variety of jobs was ideal preparation for a science fiction author. He is perhaps best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

His later works reflected his controversial beliefs on the role of the military, economics, and the nature of love, marriage, and sexuality. I, like many readers, prefer his earlier novels but appreciate anyone who challenges our beliefs and assumptions. As George Bernard Shaw once said "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

2. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is best known as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as possibly the first to propose the idea of geostationary communication satellites. I feel a kinship for Clarke because we share a number of characteristics: a background in Engineering (specifically radio), interest in the space program and science in general, and an avid scuba diver. He wrote over 30 books, both novels and short stories.

1. Isaac Asimov

The prolific Isaac Asimov wrote over 400 books, from short stories and science fiction novels to non-fiction books on science. I can't decide what I like more: his science fiction or his books popularizing science. In fact he wrote books on almost every subject from limericks to the Bible. For many more reasons than I have time to relate here, he is a clear choice for my favourite science fiction author, and in fact by favourite author bar none.


Well, no surprises here. My top three are often referred to as the big three in science fiction.

There are others I would have included on a longer list: C.S. Lewis, Carl Sagan, E. E. Doc Smith, Frank Herbert, George Orwell, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, and more.

If you are a fan or even just occasional reader of science fiction, I encourage you to spend a few minutes thinking about who your favourite authors are, and why.

Friday, January 25, 2008

TV-B-Gone Kit Review

Okay, you might not get this at first. It's a TV remote control with only one button. All it can do it turn TVs off. And it works with almost every set on the market.

Have you every been in a restaurant covered with walls of television sets? Or a shopping mall or a school cafeteria? Did you find it distracting and annoying? Now do you get the idea?

I heard about the TV-B-Gone in Make Magazine and thought it was a pretty cool idea. When they came out with a kit version I decided I had to get one (I love electronic kits).

So I placed an order and shortly received a box of parts and some instructions. The full instructions are actually on the web.

I found it easy to assemble. It's a small silk-screened printed circuit board with less than 20 parts, all through-hole with no surface mount devices. The instructions are clear and you should have not have a problem putting it together correctly if you have some experience soldering. All parts are included, the single IC is socketed, and it includes a battery pack for two AA batteries.

It took me about an hour to assemble, taking my time and checking my work. I had no problems and it worked the first time. I didn't test it after partial assembly as they suggest, I just went ahead and assembled it all.

I also bought one of the assembled keychain versions. It is smaller and more discrete, but has less range than the larger kit version (which has 4 LEDs).

I found it worked with almost all of the TV sets I tried it on. I have to admit I had some fun in some big box electronic stores and restaurants, although I stopped short of turning off every TV in Best Buy.

  • you can buy a complete kit or just the PCB for $5 and/or microcontroller for $5
  • source code is available, and can be modified if you have a suitable device programmer
  • fun to build
  • high power (meaning it works over a large distance)
  • kit is for North America/Japan only (the forums describe some mods for Europe)
  • no case included (but that gives you opportunity to customize it yourself)
  • the kit doesn't offer as many TV codes as the assembled unit (but they estimate 90% of TVs)
Use it wisely or you could get in trouble like some people at CES who went overboard.

Now I must remember not to leave it in my coat pocket the next time I go on an airplane flight ("that's not a terrorist device, officer!").


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's in a Name?

I need a name for my blog.

Back in the 1980s when I was an avid reader of Byte Magazine, I enjoyed reading Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column. Working as a science fiction writer, computer user, and reviewer of computer hardware and software sounded to me like just about the best job in the world. As a telecommuter myself I work out of my own "Chaos Manor".

Using an on-line thesaurus I came up with "Havoc Mansion". That sounds too much like Maniac Mansion. Anyone remember the computer game? The television series? My house isn't a mansion, although it is bigger than Horace Rumpole's "mansion apartment".

The topics I cover here make it more of a "Hodgepodge Lodge". Or maybe "Scuttlebutt Lodge"? No, that was already used by Red Fisher and then adapted by Red Green as his "Possum Lodge".

I'll keep thinking about it.

Keep your stick on the ice,



Welcome to my blog. You can expect to find here an eclectic mix of discussion on new and retro technology and whatever else I want to talk (or just rant) about.

By career I'm an Engineer, software developer, and manager with 25 years of experience in the high-tech industry.

My personal interests include Linux and other Open Source/Free software, electronic hardware, science and science fiction, beer home-brewing, ham radio, motorcycles, and scuba diving.

What you won't find here are details of my personal life (boring) or details of my work (sometimes confidential).

Welcome, and feel free to comment.