Author: Carlos Bueno
Publisher: No Starch Press
Audience: Children, parents and teachers
Reviewer: Janet Swift
This adventure story follows a young girl through “a land where logic and computer science come to life”. The back jacket suggests Ages 8+. Are there any pre-requisites?
This book comes from computer book publisher No Starch Press and the subtitle is “A story about computer science and other improbable things”. But, as we are told right at the start, even before the contents page you won't find any computers in this book. It goes on to say:
The truth is that computer science isn't really about the computer. The computer is just a tool to help you see ideas more clearly.
If you have bought a copy of the book to help “someone littler than you” as suggested on the book jacket, it will certainly help if you do know where the ideas that Carlos Bueno introduces are coming from. Perhaps it is enough to recognize the reference in the title to placeholder text. All is not lost if you don't know everything – the Field Guide to Userland at the end of the book has explanations that will help.
Although I didn't notice any references to Lewis Carroll, many readers are likely to see the book a modern take on Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass – an imaginative other-worldy story that at the same time illuminates concepts and principles. And given its attractive illustrations some children might just treat it as a fairy tale that has some very strange ideas they just don't fathom.
Here's the story, or as much as you need to know:
Having argued with her mother about attending summer school, Laurie, or Lauren for more formal occasions, is lost in having gone further though the woods behind her home in Hamilton than ever before and gets thoroughly lost. We follow along as she meets a very varied cast of characters as she tries, and eventually succeeds in finding her way home, by which time she is much more positively disposed to the idea of summer school as she has solved many seemingly intractable problems and learnt a great deal.
As the book is about computer science we start at Chapter 0. Lauren is pretending to be a secret ninja moving through the woods like a ghost when she is encounters strange creatures – initially friendly but soon menacing as they chase her further into the woods. Beginning to panic she. encounters the Wandering Salesman who tells her that the creatures are just a bunch of Jargon and he scares them off.
The Wandering Salesman explains he can't help her get home to Hamilton (do you get the reference now) because he has to visit every town once only and he's already visited Hamilton. Instead he sends her to Bach via Mile Zero.
In the next chapter (numbered 1) Lauren meets Xor, a Lizard who will remain her companion for the rest of the book. Together they reach the town of Bach and meet Eponymous Bach whose is a composer – of ideas not music. She tells Lauren that the Wandering Salesman's suggestion for how to get back to Hamilton may make sense but it is not a sensible one. Instead she states that Laurie's Quest is to find the shortest path home.
In Chapter 3 Xor is is danger of being eaten by Round Robins but is saved by Lauren, next we get to Recursion Junction – maybe a step too far or too quick on this journey.
In Chapter 5 we Lauren and Xor arrive at symbol where Tollens and Ponens want to know her account name and password before they let her through the turnstile - and the names will be lost on you if you don't know classical logic.
Chapter 6 introduces algorithms, tools of the trade of Tinker who has a turtle that can draw dot. For this first time in the book there's something that resembles computer programs – although they are referred to as “poems” and Lauren writes some herself that improve on the ones she is initially shown and as a reward she is given an IOU to take to Hugh Rustic who lives in Permute. Hugh Rustic? Say it out loud and you might get it.
A coded message delivered by a Mail Daemon is the next puzzle to be resolved. It turns out to be from Colonel Trapp and tells Lauren, who has been trying to get a map, that the map is not the territory.
Using ant trails to find and trace the most popular paths Hugh Rustic draws Lauren a map to show a short, not necessarily the shortest, path around places with names such as Axiom, Truncate and Probability in Userland and she and Xor start to follow it.
The pace of the story picks up here. New characters are introduced and Lauren is faced with challenges that initially stump her . However as she thinks about them, comes across more problems that provide useful experience she comes up with solutions. If you get hooked – and I did – you won't want any spoilers for the remaining chapters of the book.
So will every reader be engaged by this book?
I'm not sure but if you can get it to a receptive reader at the right time it could be inspirational. Because the main character is a girl, it will probably appeal more to girls and while it might be suitable for kids as young as 8 or 9 if they are reading it for themselves then 10-13, around the same age as Laurie, seems more so.
I would advise that if you intend to give it as a gift to a child you read some of it first (including the Field Guide section) in order to be prepared for questions you might be be expected to answer.