Summer Reading List 2023: Second / Great Books 05

Here’s a nice little bit of synchronicity or kismet or whatever you call it. The second entry in my Summer Reading List challenge for this year also gets to cover one of the slots in my Great Books challenge!


Title: Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite
Author: Molière (Jean-Baptiste Porquelin)
Genre: Theatrical Comedy
Year: 1664

Yep. I read a play. First time I’ve done that since high school, and the first time ever that I’ve done it willingly. Since I neither understand nor like French, I used the modernized English translation available from Project Gutenberg. I’m sure there are a lot of translation errors and cases where the original meaning of the text is lost, but…whatever.

Anyway, Tartuffe is basically the French Enlightenment equivalent of a sitcom. It’s a five-act play about an aristocrat of the time who has been swayed by the words of a so-called holy man (the titular Tartuffe) to the point where he’s willing to give this charlatan his estate and even his daughter. The patriarch, Orgon, spends the first three acts defending Tartuffe as his family and servants call out the man’s hypocrisy. Only his mother has his back, seemingly for her own ends—her intentions are never made clear.

As the story progresses, Orgon’s son hides in a closet to overhear Tartuffe attempting to seduce the lady of the house, Elmire. The young man then confronts his father with evidence of the hypocrite’s ill will, only to be cast out of the house and, in effect, disinherited. Elmire (who is actually Orgon’s second wife, and thus the boy’s stepmother) then goes as far as possible in letting the impostor seduce her while her husband is watching from under a table. That finally gets Orgon to see reason, but by then it’s too late: Tartuffe already has the deed to the house.

The final act is all about this bit of trickery, and it ends with one of the most blatant uses of deus ex machina imaginable: a royal officer (this is pre-Revolution France, remember) stops the eviction of Orgon’s family, saying that the king himself saw through Tartuffe’s lies. Then follows a classic "no, you’re the one being arrested" scene and a bit of moralizing about moderation from Orgon’s son.

All in all, it’s a very modern tale for being 350 years old. The scenario of a hypocrite or just a stranger with ulterior motives enthralling someone beyond reason with his words is commonplace in modern books and movies. (The first example off the top of my head is the character of Gríma Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings, but others abound.) And the fact that Tartuffe is supposed to be a man of God only brings to mind the actual hypocrisy of so many evangelists.

But the comedic elements are what make the play shine even in written form. There’s this tension between wanting to be serious about the situation and wanting to tell it in a humorous way that just works and makes the whole thing a delightful read. It’s also pretty short—170 double-spaced screen pages on my ebook version—without a lot of digressions. Imagine it as a two-hour comedy movie, but one of those British-style comedies. While it goes for low blows on occasion, there’s a cerebral quality to it. Well worth checking out, if you ask me.

Summer Reading List 2023: First

I’ve had a hard time reading lately. My relationship took a disastrous turn last week, which put me behind even further than I’d like. But I’ve managed to push through the adversity and finish one of the goals I’d set for myself. Here we go.


Title: Now the Chips Are Down
Author: Alison Gazzard
Genre: Tech History
Year: 2016

Now the Chips Are Down is another entry in the MIT Press "Platform Studies" series. The series started in 2009 with Racing the Beam, a deep dive into the Atari 2600 and how its very peculiar implementation shaped the American video game market. Since then, a variety of authors have written about a variety of creative platforms. Most are game consoles, such as the NES (I Am Error) and the Wii (Codename Revolution), while some are home computers like the Amiga (The Future Was Here). A few don’t seem to fit in, such as Macromedia Flash (Building the Interactive Web) and the Amazon Kindle tablet (Four Shades of Gray), but there’s a cohesion to the series despite that.

This book falls into the "home computer" category, but it’s a very specific one that I’ve never used and never even seen in real life: the BBC Micro. As its name suggests, this was a computer built—well, contracted—by the British government.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC was well-respected as an impartial presenter of the news. Today, of course, it’s a leftist propaganda outlet little different from the New York Times or Washington Post, but the Thatcher era was a different time. This was back when governments cared about building up their constituents, making them more informed, not less. As the UK was a technological backwater, missing out on many of the advances taking place in the US at the time, they needed something special to create the kind of digital literacy we now take for granted.

Their answer was the BBC Micro, a fairly large and expensive 8-bit home computer. Built by Acorn—the creators of other also-ran computers like the Atom and Archimedes—using the same 6502 processor that almost everyone else used, the BBC Micro had a few additions that made it unique to its time and place. Open, accessible expansion ports encouraged tinkering. Manuals described programming, an absolute necessity for computer owners in the years before I was born, in better detail than most of the competitors’ offerings, and the included dialect of BASIC is still regarded as one of the most advanced. The thing even had an adapter for Britain’s early attempt at a nationwide on-demand streaming service: Ceefax.

All this was part of the UK government’s attempt at getting its citizens, especially children, both interested in and comfortable with computers as tools. And that’s admirable. Too often today, we see the opposite: computers are expected to be black boxes, mere appliances that do whatever their creators tell them. The hacker spirit is actively discouraged through social and even legal means. But again, Britain circa 1981 was a different place. This was a country afraid of losing what little remained of its status on the global stage.

Gazzard harps on this point repeatedly in the book, always trying to paint the BBC Micro as innovative because of its intentions. It was used in education, for gaming, and as a way to connect people together. Okay, that’s great. The thing is, all that was happening with American home computers, too. And minicomputers in academia, and…well, you get the picture. The fact of the matter is that Britain really was behind the times, and no amount of praise for a government program can change that.

The book itself is light on details, and completely devoid of screenshots. The text has a few obvious typos, formatting errors, and grammatical mistakes. This is not the level of quality I expect from a Platform Studies book. The veritable fawning over the platform is a little over the top, though it is a welcome change from Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware, which was written by an author who let his apparent hatred of the Super Nintendo shine through in his introduction and the tone of the book as a whole.

It’s good to be a fan of something. There’s nothing wrong with a nostalgic love letter. In this case, however, the nostalgia is just too thick. Any developer or even gamer who knows even the first thing about Elite knows it started on the BBC Micro, yet Gazzard feels the need to remind us of this on multiple occasions in the chapter about the game. She also dedicates full chapters to a low-budget educational adventure game and a Boulder Dash clone, acting as if these were innovative. But the truth is different. Oregon Trail came out years before Granny’s Garden, and it’s still played today. In the Repton chapter, she even admits that games with level editors already existed.

Overall, that’s the glaring flaw of Now the Chips Are Down. It’s actually too nostalgic, and that nostalgia gets in the way of the history. There aren’t enough whys or hows in the narrative, and I feel that’s where it falls short. Racing the Beam set the gold standard for the series. I Am Error and The Future Was Now both met it, and even exceeded it in places.

Here, there’s just no substance. The final chapter, for instance, combines Acorn’s future after the BBC Micro—they went on to create the ARM architecture, a curse for developers everywhere—and the Raspberry Pi, which started as an attempt at recreating the educational aspects of the platform. But the text is just so rushed. It feels like Gazzard is bored and wants to get through it so she can work on something else instead. And while this book, written in 2016 as it was, is mostly free of wokeness, there’s way too much emphasis on the sole female engineer on the Acorn team.

I did learn from this book. For that, I’m glad I read it. It makes me curious about a platform I’ve never used. I wonder why it was special, and why it’s so loved 40 years after its release. But Now the Chips Are Down doesn’t give me any answers except the author’s 200-page statement that boils down to, "I love it, and so should you."

Summer Reading List 2023

Here we go again. Sorry for being a little late on the post this year, but real life is increasingly becoming a factor. Once again, it’s time for my favorite annual tradition, the Summer Reading List challenge. I’m hoping to complete it for the 8th year in a row, and I’ll eventually get anyone else join in.

The rules haven’t changed from the beginning. They’re so unchanged, in fact, that I’m just going to copy them verbatim from last year’s post. The only added wrinkle for me is that I’m also doing my “Read 12 Great Books in 2023” challenge, so I’ll limit myself to only counting one of those for the Summer Reading List.

Really, they aren’t rules, but more like guidelines. This isn’t a competition. It’s a challenge. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself.

  1. The goal is to read 3 new books between Memorial Day (May 29) and Labor Day (September 4) in the US, the traditional “unofficial” bounds of summer. (For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere reading this, it’s a winter reading list. If you’re in the tropics…I don’t know what to tell you.)
  2. A book is anything non-periodical, so no comics, graphic novels, or manga. Anything else works. If you’re not sure, just use common sense. Audiobooks are acceptable, but only if they’re books, not something like a podcast.
  3. One of the books should be of a genre you don’t normally read. For example, I’m big on fantasy and sci-fi, so I might read a romance, or a thriller, or something like that. Nonfiction, by the way, also works as a “new” genre, unless you do read it all the time.
  4. You can’t count books you wrote, because they obviously wouldn’t be new to you. (Yes, this rule exists solely to keep me from just rereading my books.)

As always, I’ll search for something new (at least to me!) and share it with you when I’ve finished reading it. I’ll post it over on the fediverse ( is my main account there for the time being) and in more depth here at PPC, but feel free to discuss your own reading adventures wherever you like.

Have fun, and keep reading!

Summer Reading List 2022: third

Coming in under the wire this time, but I have my reasons. See yesterday’s post if you’re wondering about those.


Title: The Phoenix Project
Author: Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
Genre: Business/Fiction
Year: 2013

This one was, in a way, assigned. My predecessor as CTO, who is now an investor and board member, suggested I read it as part of training for a position that I will freely admit I am still unprepared to hold. That said, it wasn’t all bad. I could justify reading it during working hours if I had downtime, so there’s that.

The premise of the book is that it’s a guide to implementing DevOps practices, but disguised as a novel. The story follows Bill, an IT manager at an automotive corporation, as he attempts to right the sinking ship his company has become. Their latest creation, the titular Phoenix Project, is long overdue and far beyond its initial budget, but the company is in such disarray that they can’t make any headway on it. Instead, management pushes them through a disastrous deployment, and our hero is left to clean up the mess.

Yeah, I get that. And I get how it relates to my own position. We’re pretty close to that rollout right now, so the advice is…timely, I suppose.

As non-novel novels go, it’s not too bad. Characterization is scant, dialog sometimes feels forced, but the story progresses in a relatively normal manner. It reads like a novel, not a manual, although the manual qualities come out a lot more often than in other attempts at the format. (Is there a Manga Guide to DevOps yet? There should be. That might actually get me interested in the art style!)

If the book has any major failing, it’s that far too much of the “story” revolves around the Mary Sue character of Erik. He isn’t there to create or resolve conflict; his only purpose is to recite MBA mantras cloaked in mystical thinking. As you probably know, I detest mystical thinking. It’s why I couldn’t continue CBT. It’s why I tried to reinvent humanism. When people start blathering about threefold paths and pretending their way is the only way, that’s when I tune out.

So it was here. For the business improvement aspects of The Phoenix Project, I would rather read a bulleted list than the monologue of an author insert. At least then the lack of criticism and skepticism surrounding it would make sense.

Despite that, I consider this a good read, but only because it has useful information. Forget the story part. That’s nothing to write home about. But the business advice, even presented in this form, does have merit. And that’s not a bad way to end the summer.

Summer Reading List 2022: second

This one took a lot longer than I anticipated, due to all the upheaval in my life. I’ll have to rush to finish the third before Labor Day, but I think I can pull it off.


Title: I, Citizen
Author: Tony Woodlief
Genre: Political Science
Year: 2021

“A blueprint for reclaiming American self-governance,” reads this book’s subtitle. Knowing me, you’d wonder how I managed to miss it until a fediverse friend posted about it a few months back. I’m glad he did, because it was an interesting read. Not great, mind you, but interesting.

Woodlief introduces the problem that we already know, but in more detail than anyone would think to provide: America is divided, almost irreconcilably so. Our hyperpartisan country is tearing itself apart before our very eyes, and everything the so-called elites do only seems to make things worse. Of course, that’s by design, which he explains fairly well.

This isn’t how America is supposed to be. Our founding documents make no mention of parties—except for a denunciation of them in Federalist #10—or lockdowns, or social justice, or any of the other problems plaguing the United States of today. We have, at some point, turned our collective backs on the guiding principles of our nation, and only a return to that tradition would stop the coming calamity. All that is well and good. When he sticks to the topic, the author does a good job laying out the reasons for our fall and the things we need to do to avert it.

Unfortunately, Woodlief spends far too much of this book getting off topic, or making illogical leaps that only serve to paint him as just another Washington hack trying to make a quick buck. His “solutions” are only found in the final chapter, and he spends most of that trying to convince people to join his network of do-nothing think tanks. Yes, this push is prefaced with some sensible advice about love and community, two things sorely lacking in modern society, but his only guidance to build those boils down to, “Join a church.” For the growing numbers of us who find Christianity (or religion in general) distasteful, that’s no help.

It gets worse than that. The author’s true colors can be seen throughout the book, in fact. Often, he falls victim to the fallacy of false equivalence, painting both major parties as equally responsible for the decline in community. But only one “side” is censoring its opponents. Only one party is sending jackbooted thugs after its political rivals. Woodlief wants us to reach across party lines, but who would extend a hand in friendship to those who have spent the past two years wishing death on us? The truth is, some very vocal people in America want nothing more than to destroy America. Yes, he’s right when he says these make up the minority, but they wield power far beyond their numbers, and he’s wrong not to call that out.

Likewise, the final chapter makes mention of the dictatorial edicts of state governors during the so-called pandemic, as this book was written in 2021. But Woodlief only calls out the most heinous offenders: Whitmer and Cuomo. Never mind that 49 governors (all but Kristi Noem of South Dakota) are culpable in this destruction of basic human rights. The author is a traditional conservative, so Republicans like Bill Lee and Greg Abbott were…just following orders?

My last gripe is much more minor, but it illustrates the underlying hypocrisy of the book. In every case, Woodlief refers to the “Founders”. The correct term, as any student of history knows, is “Founding Fathers”. They were all men, and there is nothing wrong with that. To use the politically correct phrasing shows the same spinelessness that is part and parcel of any conservative call to action.

To be sure, this is an informative book. It’s a good book. But it’s not a blueprint for regaining our rights. Nowhere in it does the author talk about, for example, how to get Critical Race Theory out of schools, or how to reform police departments so they can be held accountable. His advice can be summarized quite simply as, “But if we talked to each other…”

Maybe that made sense in 2021. Now, though, we may very well be past the point of talking.

Summer Reading List 2022: The beginning

One down, two more to go. I had started a couple of nonfiction books, but they just haven’t been holding my attention. So let’s go with a novel instead.


Title: Blood of Empire
Author: Brian McClellan
Genre: Fantasy
Year: 2019

This is the culmination of the second trilogy in the Powder Mage universe, one of my absolute favorite fantasy settings ever. And that includes the ones I’ve made. (To be perfectly honest, at least one of them came about because of the original Powder Mage series.)

I’m just going to say this right now: I loved this book. It took four days to read, longer than its 650 pages would indicate, but that’s because I read it before going to bed each night, and work means I can’t do the eight-hour marathon reads anymore. But every minute was worth it. Every page was worth it.

With what’s effectively the sixth and final book in a series, you would expect a lot of action. And you certainly get it. This being epic fantasy with guns, you’d expect something climactic and almost apocalyptic. You get that, too. At no point did I feel like there was a wasted chapter. Some scenes did drag a little, but the pacing was relentless almost the whole time.

If anything suffered, it was the characters. Vlora, one of the three protagonists throughout this series, seemed a little dull. Part of this was because of her story arc, which involved recuperating from a near-mortal injury at the end of the previous book; that’s forgivable, though it was odd that she became the character I was least interested in reading. Of the other two, Styke was good at the beginning and end, but otherwise felt…impotent; Michel (note: he and I do not share a name!) actually grew on me. The rest of the cast, however, struck me as lackluster. They were there because of the action, rather than being the causes of it. In other words, this is very much a plot-focused novel, not a character-focused one. But that’s epic fantasy for you.

It’s a small price to pay, if I’m honest. It was good to let go for a change, to turn my mind off and get lost in a world again. And what I read felt like the end of an era. The storylines were resolved, although McClellan did leave a tantalizing hook for a future sequel; that annoyed me at first, because it seemed like the perfect excuse for a set piece. We also got an almost literal deus ex machina and a country full of ginger ninjas. I don’t know whether to count those as points for or against.

Most importantly for today’s world, I feel, is that Brian McClellan was able to write without getting bogged down in external politics. Yes, half of the Adran generals are women. Quite a few of the men are, to put it in internet parlance, cucked. Yet that never causes a problem. There’s a very, very oblique reference to one of the enemy leaders possibly being a lesbian, but even that’s more of a footnote, rather than the blazing neon sign some other authors would use. Nobody is going on about trans rights or other nonsense. The racial issues are handled very well. That’s refreshing to see, and I think it helped my enjoyment of the novel.

Riflepunk, like any other subgenre of fantasy, isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested in mixing magic with firearms, the Powder Mage series is one of the best introductions. Start with Promise of Blood. By the time you get to Blood of Empire, you’ll be as hooked as I am.

Summer reading list 2022

Hard as it is to believe, it’s Memorial Day again, and that means summer has unofficially started. Not only that, but the holiday marks the beginning of what has become an annual tradition for me: the Summer Reading List challenge. For the 7th year in a row, I hope to complete it, and I’d love to see anyone else join in. (This year, I didn’t forget until halfway through, so it should be a little easier!)

The rules haven’t changed. Really, they aren’t rules, but more like guidelines. This isn’t a competition. It’s a challenge. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself.

  1. The goal is to read 3 new books between Memorial Day (May 30) and Labor Day (September 5) in the US, the traditional “unofficial” bounds of summer. (For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere reading this, it’s a winter reading list. If you’re in the tropics…I don’t know what to tell you.)

  2. A book is anything non-periodical, so no comics, graphic novels, or manga. Anything else works. If you’re not sure, just use common sense. Audiobooks are acceptable, but only if they’re books, not something like a podcast.

  3. One of the books should be of a genre you don’t normally read. For example, I’m big on fantasy and sci-fi, so I might read a romance, or a thriller, or something like that. Nonfiction, by the way, also works as a “new” genre, unless you do read it all the time.

  4. You can’t count books you wrote, because they obviously wouldn’t be new to you. (Yes, this rule exists solely to keep me from just rereading my books.)

As always, I’ll search for something new (at least to me!) and share it with you when I’ve finished reading it. I’ll post it over on the fediverse ( is my main account there for the time being) and in more depth here at PPC, but feel free to discuss your own reading adventures wherever you like.

Have fun, and keep reading!

Summer Reading List 2021: Third and final

We come to the end of another summer, and with it another Summer Reading List challenge. With all the seriousness on here and in the world at large, I thought I’d lighten things up a bit to close out this year’s series. Well, I didn’t really plan that, but it turned out that way, and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Fantasy (fiction)

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: High fantasy
Year: 1937

I’m a serious Tolkien geek. I have been for 20 years. I’ve read Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times. I’ve read The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most of the History of Middle-Earth series. Tolkien was one of the inspirations when I first started writing my own novels, and he’s the reason why my Otherworld saga focuses so much on the language of the natives. (Technically, making my own languages came before reading Tolkien, but let’s not quibble. Becoming an author was definitely after.)

Strangely enough, though, I’d never read The Hobbit, the story that started it all. Years ago, I found it too childish to bother with; I’d rather read “adult” fantasy, not some children’s bedtime story turned into a novel. But time and the wisdom of age, along with the nuisances of the world around me, have left me somewhat disillusioned.

So much modern fantasy exists solely to satisfy the author’s wishes or push a political agenda, and that’s just boring. I gave up on Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire, which felt too much like a rant against capitalism. I never even started Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, because I don’t think I can stand another assassin story. And Martin, of course, will gain enough weight to finish collapsing into a black hole before he ever writes another book, but I still wouldn’t bother reading The Winds of Winter if it ever did happen to exist.

I never thought I’d say this: fantasy has become boring.

So why not go back to the roots of fantasy? The Hobbit certainly isn’t a match for today’s epics, but then it was never intended to be. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a modern myth. It never tries to be anything more, apart from a few vague hints that the world of Middle-earth is larger than the confines of this little story and the perspective of its little protagonist. That’s very refreshing, in my opinion.

The writing is very…haphazard. Certainly, it’s not as polished as LOTR. You can attribute that to the intended audience or to it being Tolkien’s first foray into fiction intended for other people to read. Whatever the reasoning, it’s jarring. So is the narration, because The Hobbit, unlike modern fantasy, is indeed told by a narrator. He often speaks, sometimes offering foreshadowing, sometimes warning the reader away from digressions, occasionally making a little joke that readers not from prewar Britain just won’t get. (LOTR had those, too. Nobody alive today would understand the in-joke of Sam Gamgee hooking up with a woman whose last name was Cotton.)

Despite being written by the true master—indeed, the inventor—of worldbuilding, The Hobbit does seem to fall short in that department. Again, that’s because it wasn’t intended to be an introduction to Middle-earth. Myths, by their very nature, assume that you already know the context. Thus, you don’t get the backstory of the Necromancer, the king of Mirkwood, or Bard of Lake-town. Indeed, you don’t even get the names of the first two in that list! (You do in LOTR, of course.)

So we’re dealing with a book that’s light on characterization, light on worldbuilding, and heavy on songs. Does that make it bad? No. Does that make it bad fantasy? By modern standards, perhaps, but tastes change. Maybe today’s emphasis on epics will eventually end, the pendulum swinging back towards shorter fiction or serials. Something like Amazon’s Vella, for example, might do the trick. It’d certainly be better than their attempt at a Middle-earth TV series.

Speaking of which, I can’t end this post without mentioning the movies. I’ve only seen most of them; I still haven’t watched the first half of An Unexpected Journey. What I’ve seen is troubling, to say the least. There seems to be more content that was added by Peter Jackson than what was originally written by Tolkien. Granted, a lot of that is for monetary reasons, and I understand that. Hollywood is a corrupt empire. Still, this book in no way has 9 hours of film in it. It barely has enough for a single movie. And that, I think, is one of its charms.

Summer Reading List 2021: The second

Here we go again. I finished this one a couple of weeks ago, and it is by far the oldest and weirdest book I’ve ever read outside a classroom. I thought I was crazy when I tried The New Atlantis a few years back, but this one takes the cake. It did have a purpose, however.

Philosophy (non-fiction)

Title: Meditations Author: Marcus Aurelius (tr. Gregory Hays) Genre: Philosophy/Self-Help Year: c. 179 AD (translated edition 2003)

That year is not a typo. I actually read a book that’s over 1800 years old. As I don’t know Greek (I have only a rudimentary understanding of Latin; Greek would be my next target), I’m reading Meditations in the translation by Gregory Hays, which is a little unconventional compared to its predecessors. But it’s one of the newest and most accessible, so I gave it a shot.

Okay, so that explains the book itself, but not why I chose it. I’ve been interested in Stoicism for a couple of years, as I recall reading sometime in 2018 that some had found comfort in it, using the philosophy to alleviate their depression. Well, that didn’t work for me then, and reading what’s effectively one testament of the Stoic Bible didn’t help matters. I do think Stoicism has some merit, and there are a lot of good ideas in there, but…it’s not for me. It’s too fatalistic, in my opinion.

Considering I’m reading the words of a Roman emperor, you’d think I would have more good things to say. I really don’t, though. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t intending these words to be read, and that shows. Meditations consists of 12 books full of what look like “note to self” reminders. There’s little organization, a lot of repetition, and far too much emphasis on death. (This is a guy who assumes he’s about to die, after all.) Throughout the work, we see the same theme arising time and time again: do not fear death, because it is merely the end of your allotted time.

That fits with the Stoic tradition. Death, to them, is the end of life in the physical sense only. Which is essentially one of the defining statements of a religion, come to think of it. But theirs is a simple and almost banal religion, a worship of fate and rationality above all. I’m on board with the rational part, sure. Fate? Not for me. The way I see it, if everything in our lives was already determined, there would be no reason to live.

There was a reason to read this book, however. It does have a few gems buried in the dirt of the grave. I guess you could say Meditations is the oldest example of the self-help book, the kind that’s mostly full of author narrative and pithy maxims, but with the occasional nugget of true wisdom. And reading it makes you take a closer look at yourself.

In my case, I found something I didn’t like to see, and now I’m working on removing it.

Summer Reading List 2021: First one

Despite the two-week delay, I have been reading. Despite the new job, I have been reading. Despite the rocky road that is my relationship, I have been reading. So here we go.

Science (non-fiction)

Title: Caveman Chemistry
Author: Kevin M. Dunn
Genre: Popular science
Year: 2008

What originally gave me the seed of the idea that would become “After the After” was a book I read a few years ago: The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell. In fact, that book was also a huge influence on the reboot of Otherworld I did in 2015, and it’s the only work I’ve called out by name in the 30+ stories of that series. But The Knowledge was itself inspired. It has a very extensive bibliography, and one of the hardest entries to track down was this one, Caveman Chemistry.

I’m glad I finally did, because this book was worth every minute. Divided into 28 chapters, each focusing (more or less) on a single invention, Caveman Chemistry takes the reader through the entire history and prehistory of chemistry. Experiments throughout the book encourage you to get your hands dirty—I didn’t, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. Charcoal, soap, dyes, homebrewing…Dunn has done the world a great service just by compiling this text.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. One, the writing style makes one think of mad scientists from ages past, and I have to wonder if the author had huffed a few too many fumes before he sat down at the computer. The text itself is loaded with quotations, including some from quack sources such as the Hermetic alchemy treatises. Introductions in each chapter are done by “figments” supposedly representing the four elements (or masters thereof), but more likely belonging to the individual voices in the head of a schizophrenic.

Two, though Dunn doesn’t shy away from giving the formulas and preparation methods for some very dangerous chemicals, he wimps out when the time comes to talk about gunpowder, cowardly disguising the proper ratios. (For reference, the simplest to remember is a 6:1:1 mix of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, respectively.) Making a batch of ethanol potentially tainted by poisonous methanol? Fine. Supporting the 2nd Amendment? Apparently that’s a no-go. Add in the constant remarks about “sexism” in older chemistry texts and stuffing women into what has historically been a masculine pursuit, and it’s clear where the author falls on the political spectrum.

Fortunately, that doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a very useful, very enlightening, and very fun book. Caveman Chemistry is not only worth a read, it’s worth trying for yourself. Even if you aren’t planning on creating a post-apocalyptic DIY video series.