Worlds & Time

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hotel Reservations and Pricing

So, because when I'm looking back there's a huge hole for rant posts during the month of November, I decided to create this post and backdate it into November to make up for the big blank space. It was actually written in mid-December, 2007.

In a previous post about hotels, I mentioned how price and occupancy correlate, and that this is a big subject, so here's a quick synopsis of it:

The busier a hotel is, the more rooms cost.

Yeah, I know that sounds easy, but there are a lot of really complicated sliding scales that you can throw into this to complicate matters. And, since everyone and their mothers want to get the best rates, you'll have a lot of people arguing about how much the rooms cost.

In the grand scheme of things, the most important thing that determines the price of any hotel is how many people want to stay there, which is itself made up of a few different variables.

Of the three components that determine how attractive your hotel is to potential guests, there are three continua.

The first variable is location. Is the hotel in a popular business or tourist destination such as the Bahamas or New York City? If so, people will want to stay there. People will even want to stay in out of the way places in Montana and the Florida fens, so there are hotels in those places to accommodate them. However, a lot more people want to get a room in Manhattan for the night, so even though there are more options, you'll be paying more.

The second variable is how nice the hotel is. This is where stars and AAA Diamonds come in. The more stars or diamonds, the more you'll pay. However, this is still modified by the location. A four star hotel in LA costs more than a four star hotel in Kansas. If you have a nice hotel, people will want to stay there.

The third variable is price, which seems odd considering that this is a sub-variable of how to determine a price for a hotel room, but it does make sense. I just hope I can explain it. People will spend hours and lots of dollars searching out the absolute best price on anything, and with the internet that means that you can be competitive by fiddling with your price to make it appear first in the search engines. People are attracted to lowest prices, which is why this variable can be self defeating. Yeah, I could sell my rooms at$5 a night and sell out every single night, but I certainly wouldn't be covering my costs. Big, nice hotels don't play this game. The higher the star value, they less they'll negotiate their price down to make it attractive to people looking for a good deal.

So, these three factors combine together to form the typical demand side of the equation, balanced by the supply. And in hotels, you have a fixed supply. As much as I wish that we could expand the hotel by twenty rooms for our busiest nights of the year, that isn't possible. But there are some variables there too.

First, we have a few "last sell" rooms. Many hotels have these, or something similar. They're the rooms that you wait until you're sold out of everything else to sell. Sometimes these rooms are a bit smaller or in an awkward position (such as next to the dumpster). Usually, by the time you need to use these rooms, people are happy enough to have a roof over their head that the hotel get top dollar for sucky rooms. If a hotel has these (and not all hotels do), they usually won't quote you a rate on them when you first call unless they're sold out of everything else. You may be able to book them through the website though. These rooms are going to suck compared to a normal room, so if you're looking for the best bang for your buck, you may not want to automatically ask if that's the smallest and cheapest room that they've got available.

Second, if the hotel is busy (and/or the surrounding city too), that means that there is a sort of artificial reduction in the supply, and hotels will stop quoting their best rates to you. If they've only got six rooms left and you're the fourth person that's called in the last hour about finding a room, they've got the upper hand. You're going to pay through your nose to find a room, and there isn't much that you can do about it.

There's something that I haven't mentioned yet, and that's conferences. Conferences are how many hotels survive, and they create little pockets of extreme busyness during completely odd periods of time. Even in the low season for the hotel, a conference can easily sell out a hotel.

Hotels sometimes have negotiated rates (Re: Travelocity, State or Federal government, military), and often there is a negotiated rate with conferences as well. The conference rate is usually a good rate, because the hotel is guaranteed to fill up. The conference will have a limit on how many of those rates are available. They fill up fast so book early. And when they're gone, they're gone.

Do not expect us to honor the rate if the conference room block is full. If you are the guest speaker, talk to the person making the hotel arrangements and they might be able to do something about it, but the guy at the hotel taking your reservation can't help you with that. Yeah, sometimes we'll have suites available. I'll offer you a discount on those if the room block is sold out, but don't expect me to go down to $85 a night on a $359 room. That's not worth it, and suggesting it to the person making your reservation is a bad idea (we know how much the rooms are worth, and we take it personally when people under value them).

If you aren't part of a conference, you won't get a conference rate. They check, we check, and if you aren't on the list, the group can purge you.

Right, along that same line; don't ask for the government discount and then ask if we have any recommendations for spas, day trips, or bars. I'm not stupid, I just work at a menial job. You actually need to be on government business to get a government discount, and a real government agency will be able to provide a letter on department letterhead to the hotel that we can put on file.

All of this means that if you're calling for a weekend during the off season, and you get a high rate, it's possible that you're asking for a room during a period of time that a conference is going to be in the hotel. That will create a reduced supply, because hotels usually fill up by about 70% when there is a conference in house.

Okay, now we've got supply and demand, but we're still not done. Hotels have seasons. For example, hotels in Miami are slow during the summer because the temperatures are in the 100+ Fahrenheit range and hotels in Montana are slow during the winter because you can't get out from under the snow. Hotels in NYC are always busy. That means that you'll have summer and winter (or "high" and "off") seasons where the prices vary. I'm in the unusual position of working at a hotel that has an off season, a shoulder season, and a high season but most good hotels just have 2 seasons.

These seasonal rates are based on anticipated business (and busyness), so that we can quote people calling a year in advance and two days in advance about the same rates.

When you're talking to a reservations person on the phone, and you tell them that you want to book for May 10th for two nights, they look down at a little sheet in front of them. It has their two (or three) seasonal rates listed, and usually a 10%, 20%, and 30% discount column. Those columns represent different kinds of discounts (AAA, AARP, more than 3 nights, etc). For each eligible discount you'll move over one column.

That most expensive rate is the rack rate. That's the "quotable" rate. If you have a coupon for 20% off a hotel room for a night, that is 20% off the rack rate.

Now, most people don't stay in hotels at the rack rate. For example, I'll say "I have this beautiful room that normally goes for $419, and I can offer it to you for $339," that's a 20% discount on the price of the room already. If you mention that you are AAA eligible at this point in the conversation, I might play ball with you and offer you $319, or I might just point out the rate that I quoted you is already about 10% better than the AAA rate.

That's where being nice to the person on the phone comes in. The nicer you are, the better of a rate (and possibly room) you'll get.

Again, you have to remember that even if you get 30% off this time, you might not get it next time. If you say "The last time I stayed there, that kind of room was $259!" my response will probably be along the lines of "Isn't inflation a funny thing." Only I'll try to make that sound polite.

This would be a good time to mention that you aren't a repeat guest until you've stayed here 5+ times in the last two years or for any 4 consecutive years in a row. Some hotels will offer the same rates year to year to guests that prove that they're reliable business from year to year, but if you stayed at this hotel once two years ago, that doesn't prove anything to me. I don't care, and I certainly won't drop your rate for that.

Also, sometimes the people taking your reservation are paid on commission, so if you pretend to be the reservation agent's best friend and ask for an employee or government rate, not only are you potentially trying to screw over the hotel, you might be screwing over the reservation agent him or herself. This means that if you aren't eligible for the employee or government rate, don't ask for it. Otherwise, I suspect that the agent is about to give you the cold shoulder, as much as he or she can.

Sometimes you can negotiate with reservations attendants a little bit. Not always. The rules are: Be Polite, be patient, and if you don't like the price, just tell us that you'll call back. That's the easiest way to get off the line.

I'm sure you've noticed the most important theme by now: being polite is always better than being rude. If I don't like you, why would I work to get you a nice room?

You usually pay more for nicer rooms, incidentally. I have absolutely no idea why people think this doesn't apply to them. Out suites are beautiful, but you'll pay more for them. Our two bedroom suits are even more beautiful, but obviously you'll still be paying more than for a one bedroom suite. The hotel I currently work for has a one bedroom executive suite on a restricted access concierge floor. It is the most expensive room in the hotel. "Standard" rooms, with one queen size bed are the least expensive. If I mention that two different types of rooms are available, please don't assume that the price that I give for the standard room can be substituted for the executive suite. (This happens a surprisingly large amount of the time.)

Finally, you may want to explain the circumstances of your visit to the reservation agent. If you make it clear why you need a room with two beds and a pull out sofa sleeper, the agent will probably help you make arrangements for that. If you explain why you need a refrigerator (i.e. "I need to keep my insulin cold"), we're more likely to work to get you a fridge. The more information that we have, the better the suggestions that we can make.

Okay, that's an acceptable rant on hotel pricing so let me move on to a bit of a rant on reservations in general.

If a hotel doesn't tell you what their cancellation policy is, ask them. This is an important bit of information. Listen to what they have to say. If you don't understand, ask them to explain. Because when you call up the hotel and try to cancel, things can get sticky if you've violated the cancellation policy.

Another important concept is the difference between guaranteeing a reservation and "requesting" something. Guaranteeing something in the hotel business is better than "requesting" it, but it's not an absolute, especially at corporate hotels. We'll do our best though, but if you really want to be sure that you get a non-smoking room, tell the person taking your reservation that you just had lung surgery ("I'm allergic" isn't going to work. If you don't die when someone smokes a cigarette next to you, I don't care). Most hotels will guarantee smoking/non-smoking and bed type. Nearly everything else is a request.

I realize how stupid that is. If it was in my power to change that, I would. The large chain that I used to work for was especially bad at this.

Request an upper, quiet room when available. Upper rooms are usually quieter, and sometimes there's a better chance of being bumped to a nicer room. If you haven't been to the hotel and don't know their layout, don't bother requesting a specific direction to face because you won't know what to ask for and we can't read your mind and figure it out for you.

If you get to the hotel, and you don't like the room, don't wait to tell the front desk. The earlier you tell them, the better your chance of getting another room. Also, it's a lot easier to clean a room if you've only been in it for ten minutes rather than an hour, which the hotel staff will appreciate. If it's 11pm and you don't like the room, but you won't die to stay there, then ask in the morning, and you'll be put at the top of the list.

Finally, there are in-house and central reservations facilities. In-house know the hotel, know the best rates, and can answer nearly any question that you have. Central reservations are what you get after hours, or in the case of some chains, all of the time. They won't be able to describe the views, they won't have the authority to guarantee more than bed type, and they won't be able to negotiate as much as in-house reservations.

If you get central reservations, ask what time you can call back and get in-house reservations.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

10 Best Intellectual Science Fiction Novels

You'd think that I'd know better than to do this again, but this isn't going to appear for a while, so I guess I don't have to deal with the backlash yet. Anyway, I was looking at my stats, and the original "intellectual science fiction movies" list appears to be the only thing that anyone cares about anyway, so I thought I'd do another one.

So here's another list, this time about books instead of movies. Of course, the title is a little misleading. There are a lot more than 10 books listed because instead of individual novels I thought it would be easier to list entire multi-volume series than listing one single novel from a masterful set. Also, I haven't read every single science fiction novel there is, so I can't claim that this is positively and universally correct, but from my current perspective it is.

So what do I mean by intellectual? The same thing I meant last time: when the stories explore issues in an interesting, realistic, and question provoking way I would consider them to be intellectual science fiction. And if they're well written, that's a plus as well. And if you don't see your favorite series of all time, you can always check at the end to see if I forgot it/haven't read it, or just didn't think it fit on this list.

Again, this isn’t based on gross receipts or popularity. The opinions are my own which obviously carries its own inherent bias. Just as a warning, I am biased toward more recent novels rather than older ones. Finally, notice that I said that these are the 10 best intellectual science fiction novels, not the 10 most intellectual science fiction novels.

Here's the list:

No. 1: The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

Comprising Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion this set of epic science fiction set the bar at a height where no other author has since managed to reach, although Vernor Vinge has come very close.

Each duo sharing a common name contains one complete story, with Hyperion set years before Endymion chronologically. They're separate stories dealing with different themes and events, but only through reading both duos is the story completely revealed. I'll admit that I cried at the end of The Rise of Endymion because it was so amazingly hopeful and touching, and that's why these books are at the head of this list. The Hyperion books focus on the travels of seven strangers known as the Hyperion pilgrims on the strange planet of Hyperion toward the mysterious Time Tombs. They each have their own story and their own reason for making the dangerous voyage, and they have their own secrets as well. The Endymion books trace the voyages of some of the descendants of the Hyperion pilgrims as they battle against an interstellar theocracy known as the Pax.

True, I wasn't too impressed with Simmons' complete dismissal of me when I went looking for science fiction and fantasy writers to interview, and his two subsequent science fiction novels (Ilium and Olympos) weren't nearly as impressive (in fact, I found parts of them downright confusing). However, this set of books proves that Simmons is a master of this field, despite any personal feelings I harbor toward him.

No. 2: Most novels by Vernor Vinge

Vinge is terrifyingly good, but at least he can't pump out two or three of these novels a year to put everyone else on the market to shame. We wouldn't want him to scare off other writers from the genre. My first exposure to Vinge was the Across Realtime duo, and since then I've read Rainbows End, Tatja Grimm's World, A Deepness in the Sky, and A Fire Upon the Deep. Each one is a jewel, and Rainbows End, A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep have all won Hugo awards, plus two others for novellas. When your books have won almost as many awards as there are books, you know that you're doing something right. The only book by Vinge that I wasn't shockingly impressed by was Tatja Grimm's World, which I found grim and sort of boring, but I can't deny that it was well written.

Since Rainbows End is the most recent novel by Vinge, I'll concentrate on it. It follows a family in the near future as the world changes around them. The grandfather is brought back from beyond the event horizon of Alzheimer's Disease, his son and her wife deal with their government jobs involving national security and their daughter grows up more in computers than out of them. Around them, very serious political and social events are taking place and eventually the entire family is caught in the middle.

It is a brilliant and elegant work, and some facets (such as its depiction of the loss of genius) are sublime.

No. 3: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you like hard science fiction and you haven't read this, you must stop here and go read it. This is what a masterwork of the genre looks like. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novel, this book got me sucked back into a Le Guin obsession for weeks after I read it. I've already mentioned one of her short stories, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," in this blog, but this is another treasure.

Told from the perspective of a human emissary to the world of Winter, The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerful work about humanity would look like with just one little difference between us and them. Mr. Ai has traveled to a disturbing new world due to both its alien qualities and its haunting familiar resonance with the world in which we live.

A few paragraphs doesn't do this book justice, and there are other amazing works of science fiction by her out there such as The Lathe of Heaven and The Dispossessed but they'll have to suffice as we move on to . . .

No. 4: Many books by Robert A. Heinlein

That's vague enough, isn't it? I certainly hope so. Heinlein is another author with a lot of great books, but unlike Vinge I don't think that he's almost always good, nor does he have one masterful opus that knocked me for a loop like Simmons.

Some of the books that I thought were truly amazing and thought provoking were Friday, The Puppet Masters, and especially the time travel epic The Door into Summer. I've also read Stranger in a Strange Land, and while it introduces us to the important concept of groking things, I didn't like it. I've been told that you have to be in a specific state of mind to read it and like it. Well, I must have been in the wrong state of mind, because I thought it was poor enough to put me off anything else by Heinlein for a long time.

While not really science fiction, I have also recently Job: A Comedy of Justice. I found it interesting, intelligent, witty, and brilliant. I'll guess I will have to pick up the rest of his works after all. I just picked up Have Spacesuit--Will Travel, and I put it on my reading list.

No. 5: The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) by Issac Asimov

Possibly the second most famous science fiction series after Dune, this series examines the decay and collapse of a galactic empire. Hari Seldon, a "psychohistorian" capable of mathematically mapping social systems in the future, realizes that the galaxy spanning empire will soon collapse. In order to prevent thousands and thousands of years of war and turmoil he establishes the Foundation, a library and colony of scholars that are intended to dramatically reduce the time between the collapse of the gallactic empire and the establishment of a new and stronger empire.

The second book continues in this examination until a single unexpected variable leads to unexpected results and Seldon's plan seems to fall apart. In the third book, Seldon reveals that he may not be able to be counted out yet.

While the recent bastardized movie I, Robot was based on Asimov's work, don't think that it had anything more than a passing veneer of his ideas on it. He's produced some of the greatest works of science fiction, including the breathtakingly wonderful The Gods Themselves.

Aside from the Foundation trilogy, there are seven other novels that contain the "Foundation" moniker, including three by other authors. Additionally, the same universe contains the entire "Robot" series of stories and books as well. Although I've skipped around in his other novels, I'm not as familiar with them as I am with these first three (I specifically went back and read them specifically for this post). These books were voted the best science fiction series of all time during the 1966 Hugo Awards.

No. 6: The Galactic Milieu trilogy (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, Magnificat) by Julian May

Set in May's larger alternate and future universe, these specific books revolve around the birth and coming of age of Saint Jack the Bodiless and Illuso Diamond Mask. They are two incredibly powerful "metapsychics" who eventually grow up to fight a war against a rebellion spearheaded by Jack's older brother Marc from the perspective of their Great-Uncle Rogatien Remilliard in his externally compelled autobiography. This autobiography makes of the framework of Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat, as well as some of the other books in the same universe.

Aside from the odd dynamic of the completely psychic family, these books contain the absolute best depiction of psychic powers (or metapsychic powers as they are known in the books) that I've seen, especially since many of the characters are very, very powerful. This is partly but not entirely attributable to the fact that May has one of the largest vocabularies of any author in the last sixty years, possibly due to her years writing articles for the World Book encyclopedias. I think of myself as more than passingly conversant with the English language, but some of her books require so much deep contemplation and thought that they've been known to give my headaches and force me to resort to my unabridged dictionary for assistance.

Still, these books are incredibly well written and thought provoking and I highly recommend them to the people that are able to handle them.

No. 7: Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick

Kirinyaga is a volume of short stories tied together into a novel revolving around the character of Koriba and taking place on the planet of Kirinyaga. This book is based around the short story of "Kirinyaga" which won a Hugo award. Overall, the contents of the novel has won 67 awards and nominations including 2 Hugo Award wins, 2 HOMer Awards wins, and a Golden Pagoda award.

Even though the main character was educated at Oxford, the book's heavily non-Western themes and perspectives were eye opening when I first read it, especially Koriba's denial and rejection of everything that Western culture could offer him and his people.

"Kirinyaga" isn't actually my favorite short story in the volume. That would have to be the story "For I Have Touched The Sky" instead, which deals with themes of sexism and intelligence in tribal cultures, and easily proves why feminism in our own is so important. Each story examines one or more facets of interaction between members of the aboriginal tribal culture and/or members of the Western space monopoly that literally controls their planet.

This is an incredibly different view of dystopia/utopia, far beyond the simplistic Western dominated ideas in the movie Bladerunner or even Neuromancer and Snow Crash.

No. 8: Contact by Carl Sagan

Another masterful work by a master writer, Contact explores humanities first contact with aliens after building a giant machine found in instructions based on radio signals from outer space. Although you probably know most of the plot from the movie, there are some differences in the book including an ending that includes a significant subplot that extends for years after the end of the movie and adds a significant departure from the movie. If you don't mind major spoilers, check out the Wikipedia page for the novel, but I'm not going to reveal it here. Go read the novel for yourself.

Contact is my favorite science-fiction movie, but this is one of my favorite books as well. Sagan knows his science and he was smart enough to make his world, technology, politics and plot realistic as well.

This presence of this book pushed Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama series off of the list. Both are excellent works, but in my mind these two works cover similar ground in the science fiction universe, and Contact was the stronger work by far.

No. 9: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Taking place only a few years in the future, in 2010, Stand on Zanzibar is a brilliant work of fiction, not only a spectacular novel of science fiction. Brunner incorporates a brilliant storyline and narrative into a modern writing style; dividing the plot, context, characterization and setting into separate segments without compromising the novel as a whole.

The two main characters of Stand on Zanzibar are Norman House and Donald Hogan. House is a Muslim Vice President of a major corporation and Hogan is an unactivated sleeper agent. They begin as roommates, but eventually end up in drastically different places dealing with different events. I would like to point out that House is probably one of the most brilliant characters that I've read about in years.

The plot of the book revolves around overpopulation, eugenics, genetic determinism, and economics, all set in an increasingly unlikely but realistic seeming world. The one thing that knocked me for a loop is Brunner's suggestion that 7 billion people will result in a crushing mass of humanity. We have that many people now, but we aren't so compacted yet as the book suggests that we will be.

Also, there are a lot of examples of fictional technology in this book, but unlike Star Wars where everything feels magical, Brunner manages to make everything from the Moonbase to Shalmaneser the super computer seem fully integrated and normal to the world that he creates. There is no magic in Stand on Zanzibar, just the same technological basis that forms our current society with only a few minor design differences and a few years of accelerated advancement.

No. 10: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The book that kicked off cyberpunk was really William Gibson's Neuromancer, but I think the better novel is this one. Stephenson has stepped only a few years ahead and managed to make the completely dystopian landscape seem utterly and completely like the future of America. The setting of this book is almost creepily familiar, which I think is significantly more difficult than making a far future novel seem realistic.

Hiro Protagonist, the uh, well, hero and protagonist of the story is faced with a deadly virus that attacks both computers and the minds of hackers. While trying to stop the virus he travels through the virtual online Street and the real world corporate domains dealing with the mob and megachurches and deadly Inuit warriors. Assistance is provided by the awesome Y.T., a futuristic skateboard messenger that is very good at her job.

Aside from the action, which is truly spectacular, this book also contains some very interesting ideas about the biological basis for language and the way that humans are forced to relate to each other by information, the increasing control that corporations have over our lives, and why complete libertarianism is a slippery slope for governments. Oh, and it basically predicted Google Earth and Second Life.

Runner up: The Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow series by Orson Scott Card

Yeah, I don't agree with Card's politics or religious beliefs but he's created two of the most well known and best loved characters and series with Ender and Bean, the respective main characters of Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow. Both are children manipulated (and in Bean's case, manipulating) the psuedo-unified Earth government as they fight a war against alien invaders not-so-affectionately called the Buggers.

Both of the first novels of the eponymous series deal with their main character's experiences in Battle School, a floating space station orbiting the Earth where kids are given military training for their eventual roles as the leaders of Earth's retaliation against the Bugger home world. The series focusing on Ender (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind) eventually leaves earth and happens about three thousand years into the future as one planet deals with a mindbogglingly dangerous virus that threatens human civilization. It also explores the social impact of fear of the unknown, the difference between humanity and alien intelligence, and the important role that minor political changes can have in major governmental policies.

The series focusing on Bean (Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant) focuses on the political effects and fallout following the war with the Buggers on Earth in the years following the first book, especially as it relates to the hyperintelligent children that were taken to the Battle School, and Ender's brother and sister. The first book in this series I found even more brilliant than Ender's Game, but the sequels left something to be desired.

There are rumors (and there have been rumors for several years) about a movie based on the books in the works, which I am excitedly looking forward to.


Now, if this is anything like last time, the comments will be mostly made up of people complaining that their favorite novels aren't on this list. Just like last time, I will probably add most of the unfamiliar suggestions to my reading list just as I added most of the movies suggested to my Netflix queue. However, it's not like this is everything on my shelves. Here are some of books that I've read and considered but ultimately decided didn't belong on this list:

These books are the runner ups, that would have made the list if I would have continued it a bit more. They're in no particular order.

Several books, notably Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Several books by Charles Stross (Accelerando is on my "to read" list at the moment, incidentally)
Gateway by Fredrik Pohl
The Uplift Saga by David Brin
The Ringworld Trilogy by Larry Niven
Otherland by Tad Williams
Rendevous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
The Forever War and The Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Neuromancer and other works by William Gibson

The following selected works were also considered and rejected for various reasons, usually that they didn't meet my standards of "intellectual." This doesn't mean that I didn't like them, it just means that I didn't think that they were appropriate for this list for one reason or another.

The Dune series by Frank Herbert
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
Hammered by Elizabeth Bear
Old Man's War and sequels by John Scalzi
Do Android's Dream of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Several works (including Darwin's Radio) by Greg Bear
Many works by Michael Crichton
Revelation Space by Allister Reynolds
Angelmass by Timothy Zahn
Many works by Anne McCaffrey

Of course, most people complaining that their favorite books are on the list probably aren't going to bother to read this far, and I'm sure at least one or two people will suggest movies instead of novels. Yes, there is a reason that Star Wars isn't on this list. If you have a suggestion for other books, I'd be happy to hear them though.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lex and Lia: Spiders and Webs

There was enough cocaine in the warehouse to supply the city of Las Vegas for two months, bundled into bales and stacked into thick white walls of blow.

Lex had hidden behind one of the larger walls in a little alcove formed by the rounded corners of the bales. The hundreds of kilos of powder was packed so tightly that it felt like stone against his skin.

There were no witches in the room. If there had been when he broke in, he would had to let Sora's voice fight for it and they'd been coming up with new tricks to use against him.

The men moving the stacks of cocaine with fork lifts were just heavies for the mob. The witches wouldn't come all the way out here at night unless something was wrong.

So they should be almost here.

Ready? he thought.

Sora's voice didn't bother to make a response, but on the edge of his consciousness he could feel the presence waken.

Outside there was the noise of an jet taking off from the Las Vegas Executive airport, and then in the background there was a car engine roaring closer. Lex wiped his sweaty hands on his shirt.

There was a squeal of tires in the front and all three of the men in the room suddenly ran for the back door, pulling guns from their holsters as they ran. There hadn't been a warning and, as far as they knew, it was the cops.

*Bang* went the door, and a woman in a black dress with a red shawl was standing there.

The men raised their weapons, but only for a split second before dropping them back down to their sides. They knew what the shawl meant, probably better than Lex did.

The witch stalked into the room, peering from side to side, but there was nothing to see now. Lex wasn't using the least bit of magic, and hadn't since Sora's voice tipped off their intrusion system. Two men, both easily six feet tall, black and covered in muscles followed her.

"Mistress Bybreak?" said one of the men. "Is there a problem?"

She waved him to silence. "Out!"

All three of the mob heavies started toward the door, and the witch and her men spread out among the cocaine boxes.

Time to go, thought Alex, and mentally stepped back, letting the voice take over his body.

The witch was the most dangerous of the three left in the room, but she was also the target. The voice didn't think they'd get a second chance at this, and he didn't want to risk messing up this opportunity.

"Well?" demanded the woman once the door had closed.

"I don't see anything," the first black muscle man said as he peered down one of the aisles.

"Me neither," said the other.

"He can't have left. I would have felt him pass back through the perimeter." She lifted her thin face and closed her eyes. Lex recognized her now, she'd been one of the witches that had gone down the hole after Soraperion when he'd died in pursuit of his box.

Alex gestured with one hand, tracing out a rune. At the same time, the part of him that was him reached out and grabbed a metal bar leaning against one of the stacks of cocaine with invisible hands.

The bar twitched, but didn't fly up like it was supposed to.

The completed rune blazed and took hold. The voice said something to release the spell and it blazed toward the man standing closest to the witch and slammed into him. He collapsed, cracking his head against the concrete floor.

Are you going to . . . started the voice, but Lex reached out with his mind again, suddenly terrified by the absolute uselessness of his telekinesis. As hard as he could he thought, SLEEP, at the other man. There was a pause and then that man dropped to the ground as well.

The witch's eyes snapped open. She raised her arm and a ball of crimson fire flew toward Lex. He was still in his hideyhole of cocaine bags, and the bloody fireball burnt through the plastic wrap. The sudden acid smell of burning cocaine seized him. Desperate to avoid the toxic cloud, he pushed forward, through the wall of coke and out into one of the open spaces.

The voice was still sketching runes into the air, but now Lex was gasping for air. He flicked them at her anyway, but they didn't do much without the words to support them. I could use some backup here, kid, the voice thought at him.

The first thing that popped into Lex's head was the bar that he'd been supposed to hit the man over the head with. He grabbed it with his telekinesis and threw it at her, and this time it worked. It was the danger, the adrenaline, that was powering him.

He expected her to try to catch it with her own abilities, like Sue had done in the alley way with the knife, but she didn't. She just stepped to one side, and the bar flew past her harmlessly. She gestured at him, almost negligently, and suddenly the world skewed and Lex's body went completely limp and fell to the floor.

Crap! said Sora's voice in his head.

The witch seemed to think that she'd neutralized him, but she'd been in the hole when Lex had been fighting the other witches in the mansion. She didn't even pay attention to Lex, she went over to the black man and felt his neck for a pulse.

No hands, no mouth, no magic, the voice said.

Except my other stuff, Lex thought back.

His body lifted up, buoyed by his abilities. His arms held out like a scarecrow, his head hanging to one side. His clothes rustled as he moved, and the witch suddenly turned back around, her eyes wide.

Lex's telekinesis propelled him forward, his feet hanging inches above the floor. Bybreak raised her own arm, and he bounced off something that appeared between them.

But the metal bar was behind her and, before she could do anything else, he picked it up and hit her over the shoulders with it. She screamed with pain, looked back, and the metal bar just fell apart into dust.

I hope she can't do that to me, Lex thought to himself.

She looked shocked that he'd obviously been affected by her spell but hadn't been reduced to helplessness.

"They told me," she said aloud. "They told me, but I didn't believe them. I just thought they were making excuses for their failure. After all, we defeated the Mage himself. How three of my sisters failed against one untrained mageling puppet was unbelievable, but I'm beginning to understand."

He said nothing, but then he couldn't say anything: the muscles of his voicebox were paralyzed with the rest of him.

"I am impressed, though," she said. "You're more resourceful that I imagined."

She was doing something, gathering herself for another spell, and this time it was going to be a big one.

He couldn't think of anything to do except throw up his telekinesis like a blanket in front of him. She gestured, and there was an invisible pressure against this blanket. For a moment his abilities seemed to stop it but then Lex felt an itching at the bottom of his feet.

I need the spell you were going to use, he thought at the voice. I need it now!

Without your hands or your voice . . . Sora's voice began.

Now! Lex yelled internally. I have to try it!

Four runes appeared in his head along with two spoken words, just as the itching turned into a burning sensation along the soles of his feet.

He lifted a hand, but with his muscles paralyzed, he couldn't seem to created the glowing runes. But they were magic and so was the telekinesis. There had to be a solution there.

The burning was moving up his legs now, and out of the corner of his eye he couldn't see anything happening, but the pain was intense, as though he was being burned at the stake. Bybreak was watching him carefully now, but not doing anything else. She was waiting for him to try something.

Lex's eyes darted around the room, at the walls of cocaine, looking for another metal bar. None were visible, but as the pain reached his chest an idea popped into his head.

One of the bales of cocaine exploded with a muted *bamf*, showering the room with a cloud of powdered cocaine.

Bybreak's eyes darted to it immediately, and then back to Lex. He hadn't moved a muscle to attack her, not that he could while hanging limp in the air.

Powder rained down, and then another exploded, and another, filling the air with a mist of finely powdered drugs.

Bybreak gestured, and a bubble of clear air formed around her. More cocaine bags exploded, but her eyes remained locked on Lex, and the longer they did so, the more painful the burning sensation became, sneaking up his back like a slow moving fire.

In the powdered cocaine surrounding Bybreak, runes were etching themselves. She was so focused on him, waiting for his attack, that she didn't even see it coming.

Internally, Sora's voice and Lex shouted the words in the silence between Lex's mind.

There was a flash of blue light, and Bybreak looked down to see that she was surrounded by runes nine feet long. She had a moment to blink, and then she stiffened and fell backward. Lex was dismayed to see that the inch of cocaine on the floor cushioned her fall. He would have rather she hurt herself.

The pain and the paralysis vanished, and so did his telekinetic ability. He dropped to the floor, and he overcompensated trying to keep himself up and toppled over. The cocaine wasn't nearly as thick around him, and didn't provide nearly the same protection for him.

Still, he rolled to his feet, kicking up little swirls of coke dust and limped over to her, careful not to disturb the patterns of cocaine on the floor.

One of Bybreak's arms had twisted behind her back as she fell, and he basically sat on the other one, using his right hand to lean on her lower throat. If he was as careless as she had been, he was screwed.

Wake her up, he ordered the voice, and a few seconds later she sputtered awake. She was confused at first, but with Lex holding her down, she got the picture real quick.

"I have some questions," Lex said.

She frowned, gritted her teeth, but nothing happened. Whatever Sora's voice had done to her, it had worked just fine, despite the unorthodox activation. She said nothing though.

Lex leaned forward, putting his weight on his hand and slowly cutting off Bybreak's air. She struggled, but she was weak from whatever the voice in Lex's head had done. She started to keen, and Lex realized that she was trying to scream.

"Talk," he ordered her. "And tell the truth." He relaxed the pressure, and she stopped whining. "Do I have to do it again?"

Bybreak shuddered. "No. What are your questions?"

"Do you work with the vampires?"


"Then . . . you don't?" He hadn't expected that answer.

"No. Not usually. Whatever alliances exist between the witches and the vampires are temporary and arranged from region to region."

"But the witches control the drug trade here in Las Vegas?"

"Yes. The Vampires control the prostitution, and the Werewolves control the paid violence." His surprise must have been evident on his face because she laughed shallowly. "You didn't know about them, did you?"

"The Wolves," he said. "Yeah, I knew about them."

"Liar," she said.

"Who controls the gambling?"

"This is Las Vegas, all of the factions have a hand in the gambling."

He shook off the answer to the question. "What was Soraperion looking for?"

Her face went hard suddenly. He pressed lightly, but she didn't say anything so he leaned in harder. She was almost blue when he let up, but she still didn't say anything.

"I will kill you."

She smiled again, and she didn't have to say what she was thinking again.

Last question. "Where's Lia?"

She frowned. "Who?"

"The girl! Where's the girl?!"

"What girl?"

"There was a girl," he said, and he started to press down again, although not enough to choke her completely. "But after . . ." he said, thinking about the night on the Strip with Martin the vampire, but stopped. "She disappeared. I've scoured every bloody inch of the city, and I can't find her. You're the only ones that could be protecting her."

Bybreak's eyes narrowed. "Lia, you said?" she whispered through pale lips.

Lex grabbed her by the collar of her dress and pounded on her upper chest. "Damn you!"

"The raven. Your girl is the raven," Bybreak said in a grotesquely happy tone. "No wonder you can't find your little friend."

She laughed shallowly again. "I would give her up now. The wolves have her, and they don't let go of prey easily."

There was a noise by the door, and Lex looked up to find another woman standing in the door. It was Bliss, the witch with the yellow shawl. The one that he suspected had actually killed Soraperion.

Sora's voice slipped nearly instantaneously into control of Lex's body, but even then it was nearly too late. A protection spell caught most of the fire that Bliss threw at him, but not enough to keep the cocaine from breaking out into poison smoke again.

Lex roared something and spun a whirlwind between his hands, sending a tornado of smoke and stinging powder at the older witch.

She ignored it: the air parted around her harmlessly. She geared up for another spell, but Sora's voice and Lex's hands were too quick. He flung himself up and out and her spell sizzled through the space that he'd occupied.

He landed on top of a twenty foot high tower of stacked blow, kicked the bales forward, and then exploded them all as he jumped backward toward the metal wall of the warehouse. Huge clouds of white filled the air, and Bybreak's scream was cut off by the falling metric ton of cocaine.

I wasn't lying when I said I'd kill you, he thought to himself, fiercely proud of having proved her wrong.

Another spell blew open the back wall as he filled the air inside of the warehouse with bolts of ricocheting lightning, and then made for the chain link fence.

He found the gap in the fence that he'd used earlier in the evening, and tried to launch himself through. His pants caught on the edges, and caught off balance, he slammed to the ground.

He twisted onto his back, struggled with the loop of cloth that was tangled in the fence, and looked up.

Meredith Bliss was standing on the roof of the warehouse, her eyes showing up above her yellow scarf were looking down on him.

He froze, waiting for her attack, but she didn't. She raised no hand, no unnatural wind stirred.

His numb hands struggled with his jeans, separated the wire from the fabric, and then slowly pushed his way through the fence.

They looked at each other for a moment as the last of the noise from inside the warehouse died away. Then Bliss turned away, disappearing behind the edge of the roof.

Lex scrambled to his feet and ran, trying and failing to comprehend what had just happened.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Lex and Lia: The Hunt

Michael stood in the desert in front of her with four of his men. Three of them carried weapons, rifles with long scopes, but one of them had stripped down to nothing but black shorts.

It late evening, and it was cold, but Michael had told her that she would be warm enough once she'd changed. Annabelle had still refused to come out of the car.

Lia was wearing black shorts and a black top as well, but she was wrapped in a blanket to protect her from the chilly wind. It was late February, but Michael didn't even seem to notice the cold. He stood in his usual black leather jacket hanging open.

"Do you understand?" he asked her again, and she nodded again for the fifth time.

The man in black shorts was Simon. Mr. Mohan had been waiting for him for nearly a month, but there had been a problem with his paperwork as he crossed the border. He had a funny accent, and he had an odd sense of humor that seemed to drive Mr. Mohan crazy.

"Almost ready, lass?" he asked her, and she looked at him. He wanted to change, Lia could tell because of the way he smelled and the way his bare feet scratched at the soil.

He was important, but not as important as Mr. Mohan. Annabelle had said that he was rare and special, and that was why Mr. Mohan had flown him all the way from Ireland to participate in Lia's Hunt.

She'd been allowed to watch one of Mr. Mohan's hunt. Afterward, in the car on the way home covered with blood Mr. Mohan had explained that sometimes they had animals brought in for the Hunt, but that if he preferred to find an animal that on his own. He said it was harder that way, especially to find something that would feed a tiger.

There was a tingle in her neck and she turned to look over the car toward the last clouds. There was silvery light there, and suddenly she could see the sliver of the moon.

Automatically she resisted the change, fighting against it, crying out as the pain hit her. Last night she'd managed to stop herself from changing all night, but tonight was different.

Simon reached out. "Let 'it come, dearie," he said, in that strange accent of his.

She took a deep breath and then stepped out of the blanket, forcing herself to relax into the change as she did so.

One moment she'd been Lia, but now she was two things. She was Lia the girl still, but that was all clinging on to Lia the raven.

Lia the raven spread her wings and flew off into the night. Behind her she could smell fur and knew that Michael had changed, and something else that she couldn't place.

There were some bushed not that far away, and she easily found her footing among them. Lia the girl had read about ravens. They weren't supposed to be good night fliers, but Lia the crow didn't seem to have any trouble.

Something moved, and she looked. There was an owl next to her on the branch with huge brown feathers and massive yellow eyes. It turned to look at her, and blinked.

"Okay there, lass?" said the Simon part of the Owl. It didn't make a sound, but the part of her that was Lia the girl could still hear him clearly. She tried to respond, but when she did Lia the bird struggled against her.

"Wait, wait," the other bird seemed to indicate and it looked around and then took flight. Raven Lia followed after it, trying to stay quiet in the darkness but not doing nearly as good of a job as Owl Simon did.

Lia the raven didn't seem to have a sense of time, and quickly Lia the girl lost track of how long they'd been flying. Owl Simon flew in odd patterns that Lia the raven didn't like. They weren't natural and Raven Lia was hungry but Lia the girl poked at the mind of Lia the owl until they followed along after him.


There was more information packed into that word than just the human connotation. It described something that couldn't be put into human language.

The Raven lanced down out of the darkness toward an unremarkable patch of gray. Her talons went *tha-thicke* into the fur, and her head came down on the struggling mouse's neck. "Cgrrrr . . ." she croaked. The mouse was still alive, still moving, and she shifted her weight, flapped, and struggled. Under her, something small went *pop*.

The mouse stopped struggling.

A beat of her wings and she hopped to one side. The Owl was looking at her from a nearby bush, and she watched him warily. It was her kill, her kill.

She poked at it, tearing it open, and began to eat from the warm little fuzzy body.

Something shivered down Raven Lia's back, under the glossy black feathers. As bits and pieces of the animal were gorged down, something odd was spreading out into her feathery limbs.

"Lia," the Owl said, but the Raven didn't respond. She was still eating, and eating well.

A few more moments passed, and he tried again, "Lia? Lia?"

She croaked menacingly, but didn't look up at him.


She tilted her head up and sideways, staring at him with her left eye. "Simon?" she finally asked back.

"Yes, it's Simon."

"I'm eating a dead mouse."


"Huh. Why am I doing that?" she asked.

"Because of the Hunt. Do you remember?"

"I am Lia. Lia is a human, and a bird. The Hunt. . . ."

"It is a ceremony to bring your two halves together. You are of one mind now. You can send your thoughts out, just as I can. You can control your changes now, and resist changing with the full moon."

"I am Lia."

"You are. Can I approach?"

"It is my kill."

"I will respect it."

"Then approach."

Simon the Owl lifted off his bush silently and drifted down to the ground like a feathery brown snowflake. He tilted his head, and hooted softly, and then hopped closer.

Lia looked up at him. He was looking at her, and his mind was . . . creeping toward her, like a spider, and she could feel it coming. Lia the human would have waited to see what he was doing, but the Lia/Raven flicked her mind out at him before he could reach out for her.

The Owl stiffened and fell over, struggling against her. "No no no no no no no . . ." the human consciousness howled. "NO!"

The Raven kept one eye on him, watching seriously as the Owl flapped and twitched along the dry ground. She pecked again at the dead mouse.

Wereism had originally been a curse hundreds of years ago, Annabelle had taught her during her classes. Witches wanted servants, and binding a human body with an animal gave them control over stronger and more powerful servants than normal humans.

Then came the wereborn, those born into their powers. They were free of the magical compulsions of the witches, and they had authority and power over others of their kind. They took control of the wereturned, and broke away from the witches.


The Owl gave a final spasm and then finally came to a rest in a heap, his perfectly groomed feathers ruffled and dirty from the ground.

Lia hopped over to him.

"Mistress," he said. "Mercy." For the first time she realized that the voice she heard in her head didn't have the accent. Her human mind was just turning it into words because she was used to speaking.

That will change, she thought to herself and then sent back "There is still some of the mouse left."

Slowly, as if exhausted, the Owl rolled to his talons, and painfully hopped over to her kill. He stared at her with one eye for a moment, confirming that it was alright with her, and then pecked at the meat.

"The other humans will ask about this when we return," the Simon Owl said.

"What is the answer?"

"You are strong. I could not dominate you."

"I dominated you."

"That is a dangerous thing to say."


"Because of the games that werehumans play. They fight for power, if not in their animal skins, than in their human skins. They will see you as a threat to their power. You should not have been able to dominate a wereborn on your first Hunt."

"Then I will dominate them."

"All of them? Even Michael? Mohan?"

Lia fluttered her feathers. She thought of her sense of Michael, Miss Chi-Wong, and Mr. Mohan. They were powerful, especially Mr. Mohan, and dominating even Simon alone had been difficult. She could hope to dominate them with their extensive experience. Not yet.

"Then we will not tell them that you are . . ." she sent a concept that her human mind did not know the word for.



"I will have to go back to my home." Rolling green fields and strange lights and smells accompanied the last word.


"But, if you need me . . . you have only to call on me. You are my mistress. When you call I will come."


"We should go. They will be looking for us soon."

Lia paused. She'd come together now, and her raven senses were now connected to her human mind. In the distance, very far away, she could feel things looking for her, hunting for her. On most she could smell the stick of disgust and hatred toward her.

But her feathers would protect her. Nothing that was searching for her could see through the sheen and the reflection of her feathers. She wouldn't have to worry about that . . . yet.

Lia hopped closer, pecked at the mouse a final time, and then flapped off into the night toward a waiting Michael and his men, followed by a dusty owl.