Mini review: “Tales of Known Space” by Larry Niven


This is the second Larry Niven book I’ve read as I work towards his award-winning science fiction story “Ringworld”.  This, like the first book Neutron Star, is a collection of short stories set in the universe he created called “Known Space”.

My ventures into Known Space at this stage are only to provide some background before reading Ringworld, so I’m not reading every story.  I concentrated on the stories recommended here.  This book starts with an introduction by the author who admits that some of the other stories are not his best, so I feel confident in my decision.

Here is the rundown:

The Jigsaw Man: an interesting idea is highlighted in this story – that some people can extend their lifespans by using replacement organs.  These organs come from executed criminals.  This leads to a change in how society deals with sentencing criminals…

The Warriors: mankind’s first contact with a race of aliens from the Kzinti Empire.  The Man-Kzin wars appear to be significant in the history of Known Space.

There Is A Tide: the first story to feature Louis Wu, one of the main characters in Ringworld.

The Borderland of Sol: this is another Beowulf Shaeffer story (a character who featured several times in Neutron Star), and the best so far.  This is an excellent story, featuring some great science and a lot of dry humour.

Overall, I feel that these four stories have introduced me to some important ideas and history that will help my understanding when I tackle Ringworld.

One thing to watch out for is that my copy of the book has the cover above but I also have a copy of “Three Books of Known Space” which I bought so that I can read the stories “World of Ptavvs” and “A Gift from Earth”.  It contains a version of “Tales of Known Space” but it is missing the story The Borderland of Sol.  I don’t know why this differs but you can find The Borderland of Sol in the book Crashlander, the collected stories of Beowulf Shaeffer.  It is well worth tracking down for that alone – but also be aware that if you have read the short story collection Neutron Star you will have read the majority of the Crashlander stories.  If in doubt, it is something you can check out.


Mini review: “Neutron Star” by Larry Niven


I’m not a big reader of science fiction (the last books were the excellent Ender’s Game and Hugh Howey’s Wool) but I have been thinking of reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld for a while.  A little research online showed people recommended reading the short story collection called “Neutron Star” before tackling the main book – it would provide some background to the main characters and alien races that appear.  It is out of print but I easily found a copy on Amazon.

Overall the short stories do a very good job at building the quirky, bizarre universe.  We get introduced to Niven’s principal character (at least so far) Beowulf Shaeffer, who features in four of the stories.  He is an alien pilot who cannot hold on to money, gets into a lot of adventures, has a nice line in dry humour and discovers a crucial fact about the galaxy.  There are also a number of distinctive alien races and worlds.

The collection is not without its faults.  One thing about the aliens for me is that they are described in detail but I have trouble picturing them. Also, as the book goes on the stories get longer and the final Beowulf instalment is just an adventure that does not reveal much more about Niven’s creation called “known space”.  I also skipped one story, “The Ethics of Madness” as it apparently doesn’t fit properly within the universe.

Despite these points, it looks like I’m going to be living in known space for a while yet.  Although I do not intend on reading everything in the series, there are some more short stories and another book to investigate before arriving at Ringworld.  I hope it is worth the journey – with Neutron Star it’s off to a good start.

If you are interested in coming along for the ride then there are a few resources I found useful:


Mini review: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (audiobook version)


When the film originally came out it blew most people away with its realistic dino special effects.  Straight after seeing it I read the book and enjoyed it immensely.  This audiobook is a recent 2015 release marking the book’s 25th anniversary and it doesn’t disappoint.

It is a reminder that the book is very well written, one of the best techno-thrillers ever.

The narrator does an excellent job all round, especially at putting over the tension and the (almost constant) sense of impending danger.

I recommend experiencing this again.  It is up there with The Silence of the Lambs when it comes to being a classic thriller with an audio performance that elevates the story even more.

Mini review: “Blood Med” by Jason Webster


I picked this up over the summer as it is set in Valencia and that was where I was headed for a short break.  It is a city and a region that I know somewhat and I would recommend to anyone.

This is the story of a policeman investigating a murder, but it is much more than that.  It is a look at – and a commentary on – modern Spain.  Economic downturn, unemployment, starved resources, corruption.  Hardly the sunnier side of the country.  But it definitely catches the mood.

The characters are solid enough although I get the impression that it would be better to start this series with an earlier book.

Not awe-inspiring but good enough to want to read more.  I’ll be back one day.

Mini review: “Data and Goliath” by Bruce Schneier (audiobook version)

This book looks at the current state of internet data gathering (surveillance) by nation states and private companies.  They are involved in collecting as much data as possible about you in the interests of security and profit.  This has big implications for individuals and society both now and in the future.

It is well balanced, easy to understand and I agree with every word.  Do not miss it…

… Having said that, there are a couple of points I want to raise.


It frustrates me that a book that contains information that everyone should be aware of, with clear and reasoned arguments should be pitched at such a niche audience.  What this book needs is a new cover – and a willingness to get the book out in front of as many people as possible.  This is the only way that you are going to stimulate the debate that this issue deserves.

Look at what we have:


Look at the kind of thing that can be achieved:

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, jacket cover

Clean, simple, interesting – and approachable.


I listened to the audiobook version and the publishers got this right.

They used an excellent narrator who is able to make this an easy listen.  I know him from fiction –  the Nate Heller series of novels from Max Allan Collins.  When you have a subject that people need to pay attention to, you need to have someone who can put over a story.

This is what it takes to make the book approachable.  Compare the good “Data and Goliath” with the poor “The Second Machine Age” (my review – with criticism of the narration – is here).

Well done.


This is a book that needs to be read (or listened to).  Society has to decide where to draw the line when it comes to data gathering – not an easy task given the different points of view and the international nature of the issue.  There is probably not a definitive answer to this subject, but there should at least be a debate to highlight the situation.

Radio: The Making of the Modern Arab World (BBC Radio 4)


An excellent four part series looking at the history of the Arab world – in particular Eygpt and Syria – from the invasion of Eygpt by Napoleon in 1798 to the present day.

The early history is interesting, but it is the post-war period that is riveting – in particular episode three.  The defeat of colonial powers, a more permissive time especially for women, then war with Israel.  Defeat for the Arab states in the war led to a shift towards Islamism.  This was strengthened by newly oil (and dollar) rich countries such as Saudi Arabia which had stricter religious views. With greater economic influence in the region comes a greater religious influence. All this has only happened in the last 40 years – something of a surprise to me that such a big change actually occurred relatively recently.

More broadly in the area, the series looks at the revolution in Iran and the impact of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets.

The look at Syria’s recent history puts today’s situation into some context, in that the current leader, President Assad,  is continuing the actions of his father who was leader before him.  This is indeed a vicious circle.

This is the BBC once again at its best – informative and interesting.  I learned a lot.

• BBC Radio 4:  The Making of the Modern Arab World (available indefinitely)

• BBC Radio 4:  Analysis – programmes on Syria