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Review: Hidden Figures [★★★★★]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 22 January 2017 - 24 January 2017
Goal: Non-Fiction

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it on multiple levels. I'd heard that the story involved the African-American women scientists, who helped NASA send men into orbit. I was surprised to learn that all of them worked in Hampton, VA.

I grew up next door to Hampton, in Norfolk, VA. I'm not used to reading about my hometown in books. It was a very pleasant surprise to read about my hometown in this book. I'm woefully ignorant of the history of the area, so I'd never known that Hampton had played such a pivotal role in the development of flight.

The women worked for an organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — a precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). I was fascinated to learn about the role that NACA played in the development of airplane technology, discovering the science behind many of the airplane features that we take for granted today.

I also learned something about airplane designations. For instance, we've all heard of the B-29 bomber or the P-51 Mustang. I hadn't realized that the "B-" and "P-" designations had specific meanings. Shetterly explains.

Like Darwin’s finches, the mechanical birds had begun to differentiate themselves, branching into distinct species adapted for success in particular environments. Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production.

I was also struck by the love that these woman had for science and mathematics. They were truly doing these jobs because they loved the work and the mathematics behind the work. I don't think it would be inaccurate to call them math nerds and I love reading about the contributions that nerds have made to our world.

Finally, I was struck by the racism that Shetterly revealed. I'd known that Virginia had a racist past. I wasn't aware of just how committed to that racism Virginia had been and just how adamantly they fought for it.

The racism could be casual, such as the incident that Mary Jackson experienced, at the predominantly white East Side section of NACA.

Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. “Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them.

And the racism could be very deliberate, entrenched, and vindictive. For instance, one Virginia school system took extreme measures to avoid integrating their schools.

In Prince Edward County, however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system, including R. R. Moton in Farmville, rather than integrate.

… Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.

… Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Definitely, it was offensive. But, ultimately, Southern racism was incredibly stupid and shortsighted.

Foreigners who traveled to the United States often experienced the caste system firsthand. In 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries. Headlines like “Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America,” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.

… Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?

I came away from this book with great admiration for these black women as well as an even greater contempt for the racists that dominated the South during this time period.

I was also struck by Shetterly's epilogue. She wants to give these women their due, not by showing how extraordinary they were but by showing how normal they were. They were extraordinary because they were black, female nerds who had to fight to fit in, but they were also very normal because they were nerds who just wanted a chance to fit in and do what nerds everywhere do — geek out about the science.

For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

… By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

I enjoyed reading about these women and I'll recommend this book to anyone that asks for a recommendation of what to read.

Thoughts on *Dr. Strange*

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." — Arthur C. Clarke

Doctor Strange used this quote in reverse. The movie eases the viewer into magic by smuggling in magic as just advanced technology. The Ancient One and Dr. Strange talk about cellular regeneration as Strange gets his first introduction to magic. By the time that the story moves into astral projection and the weirder forms of mysticism, we've already been lulled into accepting magic through our acceptance of the miracles of advanced technology.

The movie's weakest point is that the magical school is both too large and too small. During a couple of scenes, Stephen Strange is shown practicing magic with 15–20 other students. But when the time comes to throw down with evil, the fighting force is limited to the Ancient One, Mordo, Wong, and Strange.

It's strange that Strange gets thrown into battle so quickly, even as he's constantly told that he's nowhere near ready. Certainly the plot would dictate that Strange be the hero of his own movie, but it seems like an odd choice to show other students but not actually use them.

The surprise character of the movie is Strange's cloak. It shows a surprising amount of personality for a normally inanimate object. As a non-living side kick, it rivals BB-8 in expressiveness. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the cloak in future movies.

This may be one of Benedict Cumberbatch's best movies. He's one of those quirky actors that usually ends up portraying a variant of himself on screen. In this movie, he became Stephen Strange to an impressive degree. I spent the entire movie watching Strange, without ever once thinking of Sherlock or Khan.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy [★★★★★]

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 27 August 2016 - 10 September 2016
Goal: Non-Fiction

I highlight the things I read for one of three reasons: because I vehemently disagree with it, because I agree with it, or because it makes me think. I've highlighted this book more than any other and all of it made me think.

J. D. Vance writes his story, of how he achieved the American dream. He's now a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, living in San Francisco, married, and with two dogs. He started as a hillbilly in Eastern Kentucky, lived with his mother, grandparents, and a string of his mother's boyfriends and husbands. He came from a broken home — in nearly every way that it's possible for a home to be broken.

While this is a story about overcoming obstacles, it's really a story about the obstacles and how daunting they are. This is a story about J. D., but it's really a story about hillbilly culture and how it's both an asset and an incredible hindrance to success.

I was enthralled by this book and often had trouble putting it down. But I also had multiple nights when I had to put it down, because J. D.'s story was wrenching and too emotionally draining to just power through.

This book, more than anything else I've ever heard or read, showed me how incredibly privileged I've been. Not in finances — I definitely didn't grow up rich — but in having an intact family, in having stability, and in having a supportive community who never told me anything other than how I would succeed in life. J. D. Vance's story was educational, in the best possible way.

This book is worth your time.

Review: Grendel [★★★☆☆]

Grendel

Grendel
by John Gardner

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 2 July 2016 - 5 July 2016
Goal: Literary Fiction

I read this book because Adam suggested it to me, as a somewhat out of the box choice for literary fiction. It's the story of Beowulf. Except that it's really the story of Grendel, the monster whom Beowulf killed. The entire story is told by Grendel, from his perspective.

This is one of those books where I feel like I must be missing something. Probably a lot of somethings. A lot of people really like this book. I didn't like it. I didn't hate it. I was mostly apathetic towards it.

It's short enough that I'd be willing to read it again, if I was reading it as part of a larger discussion group. I'd be interested to see what's there that I'm not seeing.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

A Nerd's Review of the Tesla Model S →

iOS developer David Smith recently wrote about his own experiences owning a car from Tesla.

I’m going to draw on my own background as a lifelong nerd and technology enthusiast to discuss what makes it so compelling to me.

​On charging:

The thought of instead needing to remember to plug in my car each and every night was admittedly a bit daunting. In the end it has really been a rather boring non-event.

It is now just a simple habit that I am used to. I park the car, get out, walk around to open the door for my kids and on the way almost absentmindedly pull the charger from the wall and plug it in. It’s so unconscious now that I occasionally have moments of puzzlement trying to remember if I did it or not.

What surprised me most around charging was not what it was like to keep a car charged but instead how much it drew my attention to how awful gas stations are. We still have another car that requires increasingly less frequent trips to the gas station. The smell was oppressive and the experience decidedly gross.

Also surprising, was how nice it is to essentially always leave your house with a full ‘tank’. No more rushing out of the house, late for an appointment, only to discover that I have to stop for gas along the way. I had worried that I’d have a constant sense of anxiety about having enough charge, instead I find I think about keeping my vehicle fueled less than I did before.

​On the self-driving autopilot feature:

Tesla’s autopilot system is a far reach from truly autonomous driving but also tantalizingly close. It is very competent at typical and routine highway driving. It can hold its speed, adapting to changing traffic conditions. It can keep itself perfectly centered in a lane and on command perform neat, clean lane changes. Closer to home it can park itself with a precision I doubt I’ll ever match.

​And:

As with everything Tesla does, autopilot seems to be getting better each and every software update (which as a side note is amazing…my car is better now than when I bought it, which is quite a thing).

While now I find I rely on autopilot mostly just situationally when having the extra help is useful, I imagine the days where my skill exceeds my car’s will be short-lived. Sadly I don’t get software updates, my driving is probably about as good as it will ever be. It is bound to catch up.

​It sounds like fun. I'd like to get a Tesla, but I want it for the nerd fun, not for phantom dreams of clean energy. My Wisconsin electricity comes from a coal plant, so gasoline may well be cleaner than an "electric" car.

This entry was tagged. Cars Review

Review: Starship: Mutiny [★★☆☆☆]

Starship: Mutiny

Starship: Mutiny
by Mike Resnick

My rating: ★★☆☆☆
Read From: 27 August 2015 - 30 August 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

This piece of space opera stars Wilson Cole, a space navy officer who never met an order he liked and who makes a habit of being demoted for cause. He's assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt for his insubordination. Once there, he proceeds to violate orders multiple times before finally mutinying and taking over the ship.

This is all supposed to be in the service of a grand adventure, starring a supremely competent officer. It fails because Cole is a jerk who's constantly explaining his own superior understanding of what everyone else should be doing. Worse, he's a loose cannon who acts on his own initiative, always impressed by his own abilities. If you developed a plan no failed to tell him the entire thing, he's exactly the type of officer that would screw it up, by taking the part of it he did know and deciding to "improve" it.

All of the other characters are wafer thin and seemingly only exist to either admire Cole's brilliance or make Cole look more brilliant by playing the part of the idiotic foil. There's the weapons tech who worships Cole, just because he disciplined the tech for being high on duty. There's the alien best friend, who will support him no matter what. And there's the beautiful security chief who will tell him everything, subverting ship,security to do so, , and who (of course) ends up in his bed.

Having been blinded by the light shining from Cole's halo, I have no interest in reading any further in this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: River of Stars [★★★★★]

River of Stars

River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 18 June 2015–29 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This is another novel of Kitai, Guy Gavriel Kay's analog to historical China. This book takes place in a time roughly equivalent to the early 12th century. Kay described his own setting, in the book's "Acknowledgement" section, along with his reason for working in historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction.

River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.

... I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desires for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, or developing the characters of my two Lu brothers, than I would be imposing needs and reflections (and relationships) on their inspirations: Li Qingzhao, the best-known female poet in China’s history, General Yue Fei, or the magnificent Su Shi and his gifted younger brother. Not to mention other figures at the court (including Emperor Huizong himself) in the time leading up to and through the dynasty’s fall.

But what is the river of stars? In Kitai legends, it is that which lies between mortal men and their dreams. It is what must be crossed over, after death, to reach the afterlife. That's an appropriate title because the major theme of the book is what is remembered of a life, after that life is over. River of Stars focuses largely the life of the main character, Ren Daiyan and explores what he did and how he was remembered.

Kay is fascinated by the ways in which the decisions and events that seem almost trivial at the time become something that reverberates throughout time. He's also fascinated by the opposite side of that: the things that could have been momentous, but sink with barely a ripple because of what was happening elsewhere or because of the way in which a life was cut short.

All of that leads, inexorably I think, to a meditation on the way in which we construct narratives to explain the world around us. I think the result musings were frequently poignant.

He died too young in a war in which too many died.

We cannot know, being trapped in time, how events might have been altered if the dead had not died. We cannot know tomorrow, let alone a distant future. A shaman might claim to see ahead in mist but most of them (most of them) cannot truly do this: they go into the spirit world to find answers for today. Why is this person sick? Where will we find water for the herds? What spirit is angry with our tribe?

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought. A tale-spinner by a hearth fire or gathering a crowd in a market square or putting brush to paper in a quiet room, deep into his story, the lives he’s chronicling, will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a river spirit, a ghost, a god.

He will say or write such things as, “The boy killed in the Altai attack on the Jeni encampment was likely to have become a great leader of his people, one who could have changed the north.”

Or, “Lu Mah, the poet’s son, was one whose personal desire would have kept him living quietly, but his sense of duty and his great and growing wisdom would have drawn him to the court. He was lost to Kitai, and that made a difference.”

However boldly someone says this, or writes it, it remains a thought, a wish, desire, longing spun of sorrow. We cannot know.

We can say Mah’s was a death too soon, as with O-Yan of the Jeni, their kaghan’s little brother, slain in the first attack of a grassland rising. And we can think about ripples and currents, and wonder at the strangeness of patterns found—or made. A first death in the north and the death farthest south in the Altai invasion, in the years of the Twelfth Dynasty when the maps were redrawn.

But then, maps are always being redrawn. The Long Wall had once been the forbidding, fiercely guarded border of a great empire. We look back and we look ahead, but we live in the time we are allowed.

A related theme is the way in which we, of the present, look back at the past and try to draw lessons from it. But that too is a construct. Life happens and is often incomprehensible in the happening. It's only much later that someone can see a pattern or a lesson.

He died on that last thought, not the one about fearing a sword. That had come a moment before, while the man who ended his short span of days (Pu’la of the Altai was seventeen years old, his father’s only son) had been levelling a bow.

It was a similar death—on guard at night, an arrow—to that of another young rider two summers before. O-Yan of the Jeni, fourteen years of age, had been killed by an arrow loosed by Pu’la’s own skilled and deadly father on the night the Altai attacked the Jeni camp, beginning their assertion of themselves upon the world.

There might have been a lesson, a meaning, in this, or not. Most likely not, for who was there to learn of it, and what would the teaching be?

I gained two things from this novel. The first is a continuation of my desire to learn more about Chinese history and culture. Kay has convinced me that that history is rich and deep and worth studying. Second, is a humility about looking back at that history. The events of the past are the sum of the hopes, dreams, fears, and actions of the people of the past. Their stories are what's worth focusing on, more than the supposed lessons of the past.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Under Heaven [★★★★★]

Under Heaven

Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 10 June 2015 - 15 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This story, set in a fictional country of Kitan, is loosely based on Tang China, the master poets of the dynasty, and the An-Lushan rebellion. I came to the story completely unfamiliar with Chinese history. I was captivated by the story and the beauty of the society that the story depicts.

Shen Tai, the second son of General Shen Gao, has spent the last two years in a solitary pursuit—he's been burying the dead at Kuala Nor. These are the soldiers killed during one of the last battles with the Taguran Empire. He's been burying the dead of both armies, as a way of honoring his late father's memory.

Near the end of his two years at Kuala Nor, Shen Tai receives a letter from the Taguran princess, giving him a gift of 250 Sardian horses. These are the most magnificent horses for hundreds of miles, coveted by everyone in Kitan. Men would kill for any of these horses, let alone 250 of them. This gift is both a potential death sentence and an incredible opportunity.

The rest of the story concerns both Shen Tai and the empire of Kitan, how they grew and changed and what effect the horses had on the course of history. This is a story about Kitan, the Tang Dynasty, as much as it is about Shen Tai or anyone else.

Like all of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels that I've read, this one is beautifully written and very moving. There are fantastical elements to the story, but they take a back seat to the characterizations and the evocative language. It's a story that forces you to appreciate human nature and the way that history can change on the smallest of decisions. It was a pleasure to read.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Lords and Ladies [★★★★☆]

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 15 March 2015 - 17 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

After Terry Pratchett's death, last week, I felt the need to read more of his novels, in memoriam. When I last read a Discworld novel, I was reading in the "Witches" sub-series. I decided to keep going with that and read Lords and Ladies.

The last novel was a send-up of fairy godmother stories. This was a pastiche of elf (or fairie) stories, primarilyA Midsummer Nights Dream. Pratchett chose to present his elves as amoral monsters who toyed with humanity purely out of a boredom and a desire for entertainment. Their power derived from their ability to make people feel completely overwhelmed by their inferiority to the elves. The overmatched individuals lost all inclination to fight back, feeling that whatever happened to them was just and right.

The surface plot revolved around the wedding of King Verence and Magrat Garlick. Throughout the story, Magrat tries to figure out who she is and what her role in life should be. Granny Weatherwax and Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University, both feel regret for paths that they didn't take through life.

Surprisingly, I thought the story contained a strong streak of conservatism. Part of the idea of conservatism is that past generations knew things that we don't and structured society (or traditions) in response to that knowledge. We may have forgotten the knowledge that they had, but we still have the traditions that they established to embody that knowledge.

In Lords and Ladies, elves are let into the world of men through the actions of young witches who think that their elders (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) are exasperatingly old-fashioned. They flout several traditions, including several that were key in keeping elves away from the Discworld. Because of their rejection of tradition, Lancre almost falls under the sway of the elves again. The current generation has to relearn the lessons that led to the traditions of past generations. By the end of the story, they begin following those traditions again, to keep their own families and children safe.

I enjoyed this story on all of the levels that I saw.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Maskerade [★★★★☆]

Maskerade

Maskerade
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 17 March 2015 - 18 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

The Ghost in the bone-white mask who haunts theAnkh-Morpork Opera House was always considered a benign presence -- some would even say lucky -- until he started killing people. The sudden rash of bizarre backstage deaths now threatens to mar the operatic debut of country girl Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt, she of the ample body and ampler voice.

Perdita's expected to hide in the chorus and sing arias out loud while a more petitely presentable soprano mouths the notes. But at least it's an escape from scheming Nanny Ogg and old Granny Weatherwax back home, who want her to join their witchy ranks.

Or as I'd describe it: "the one where Gytha Ogg and Esme Weatherwax go to Ankh-Morpok and meet the Phantom of the Opera." I quite enjoyed it. Pratchett had some great humor around the inherently nonsensical nature of opera. And, of course, it's great fun to see what happens anytime that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg interact with unsuspecting innocents.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Carpe Jugulum [★★★★☆]

Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 18 March 2015 - 19 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

[This book] involves an exclusive royal snafu that leads to comic mayhem. In a fit of enlightenment democracy and ebullient goodwill, King Verence invites Uberwald's undead, the Magpyrs, into Lancre to celebrate the birth of his daughter. But once ensconced within the castle, these wine-drinking, garlic-eating, sun-loving modern vampires have no intention of leaving. Ever.

Only an uneasy alliance between a nervous young priest and the argumentative local witches can save the country from being taken over by people with a cultivated bloodlust and bad taste in silk waistcoats. For them, there's only one way to fight.

Go for the throat, or as the vampyres themselves say...Carpe Jugulum.

The best part of the book is the fact that Lord Magpyr is aware of every single vampire trope—and is determined to be unaffected by any of them. He intends to be the first of a new breed of vampire: invulnerable to anything. The main hitch in his plan isn't the witches. It's his servant Igor, who thinks that the old ways are the best and that his new master is a disgrace to the memory of the old Lord Magpyr.

This book is a humorous send-up for anyone who's ever enjoyed a Frankenstein movie, a Buffy episode, or Dracula itself.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Time [★★★★☆]

Time

Time
by Stephen Baxter

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 07 March 2015 - 22 March 2015
Goal: Hard Science Fiction

I like hard science fiction, but I don't like it for the stories. Most of the hard SF stories that I've read are a little bit thin in the plot department. Mostly I don't care, because I'm not reading them for the plot or the characters. I'm reading them for the ideas. It's a more enjoyable way to learn about science than actually reading journal articles.

This story isn't an exception to that generality. There wasn't a lot of plot and the characters weren't very deep. But the science was interesting. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy. There's a company called "Bootstrap" that exists to, well, bootstrap humanity into space, mining the incredible wealth in the asteroids.

Bootstrap uses cheap, disposable rockets and its initial flight is piloted by an intelligent squid. The flight is to an asteroid called Cruithne, which appears to orbit the earth in a very odd pattern. The launch date is sparked due to the Carter catastrophe.

The characters also use something called a Feynman radio, to pick up signals from the future. As things progress, we see a vision of a possible far, far future where humanity's distant descendants mine the stars themselves, and blackholes, for energy. The characters also witness a succession of universes, showing that our universe is but one of an evolutionary tree, with universes evolving from each other. It turns out that blackholes could be the means by which daughter universes are spawned.

All of these science elements are either real or quite plausible and Baxter gives a list of references, at the end of the book. Don't read this for the plot, but do read it for the ideas and the exploration of what could, quite possibly, be.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Yesterday’s Kin [★★★☆☆]

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday’s Kin
by Nancy Kress

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 10 March 2015 - 11 March 2015
Goal: Interesting Hooks

I put this book on my reading ideas list because of the author's description of the story.

I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.

I don't feel like I saw that in this story. The science seemed real enough. (I don't have nearly enough knowledge to speak confidently on the subject.) But I don't feel like I saw any career-impacting mistakes or triumphant corrections.

The main viewpoint character didn't really do any science in the story. It opens after she's already published her groundbreaking paper. Everything else she does, throughout the story, is described as the type of thing that a lab assistant could do. As a result, I didn't see "biological discoveries being made under pressure", either with teamwork or competition.

The overall story also seemed flat, like pieces were missing. Everything was painted in with a brush that was just that much too light. We needed more more detail than we got. The story worked fine as a pitch for a longer novel, but didn't work all that well as it is.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Beyond the Shadows [★★★☆☆]

Beyond the Shadows

Beyond the Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 8 March 2015 - 10 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This book was better than Shadow's Edge, the previous book in the series. The action moved along at a brisk pace and there was plenty of it. Much more action than you normally get in a book of epic fantasy.

The action comes at a cost though. This entire series spent much less time on world building than typical epic fantasy novels do. I think that's a weakness of this action packed approach. Because it's epic fantasy, Brent Weeks created a large world with multiple different nations, complex politics, varied religions, and multiple different magic systems.

Weeks spent comparatively little time actually describing how everything worked. I spent a lot of time confused, wondering what was going on and what the significance of certain characters or actions was. Things were unexplained enough that I spent parts of the story wondering if I'd missed a previous book that set things up or if parts of this story were missing.

The story was also prone to sudden bouts of info dumping. Often, it would come as characters suddenly paused and "realized" what had been going on for the past 10 chapters and thought threw a whole chain of events. Or characters would suddenly start explaining things in-depth in a way that rarely felt natural. These info dumps served to inform the reader, but in a way that magnified the story's flawed structure.

Weeks created characters that I liked and magic systems that were interesting, but I didn't completely enjoy the books that contained the stories. I read Brent Weeks as an experiment. After concluding the experiment, I'm not sure I'll be reading more of his books.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Shadow’s Edge [★★★☆☆]

Shadow's Edge

Shadow’s Edge
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 3 March 2015 - 7 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I really enjoyed The Way of Shadows, the first book in this series. I thought it was exciting, fast paced, and a real page turner. I did not feel the same way about this book.

I wish I'd been taking notes as I read this book. There were several instances where the dialog was downright pedestrian or things were awkwardly phrased. The pacing felt odd in places. There was a lot less action and a lot more moping around and traveling from place to place. This definitely was not a page turner.

I'm hoping this was just a sophomore slump or a middle book muddle. I'll be disappointed if The Way of Shadows was the highpoint of this series.

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Review: The Way of Shadows [★★★★☆]

The Way of Shadows

The Way of Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 28 February 2015 – 2 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I put this book on my reading list for 2015 because Brandon Sanderson described Weeks' writing as "epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller". After reading this novel, I can confirm that Sanderson wasn't exaggerating. This book is an absolute page turner, even as Weeks paints a world worthy of epic fantasy.

And it's a gritty, dark, painful world. Pain, viciousness, and brutality are everywhere. Don't spend too much time hoping for things to come up roses for our heroes—no one will make it to the end of the story uninjured. Azoth is a 10-year old member of a criminal street guild, barely able to survive. He wants to become a "wetboy" (an assassin with magical Talent) because he's tired of being afraid and powerless; he wants the security that kind of power can give him. His desired mentor and teacher is Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in Cenaria.

This is the story of how Azoth becomes Kylar Stern, the wetboy that he always wanted to be. He has to make painful decisions about whether or not to have friends and how to protect the people that he cares about, in spite of trying not to care.

This isn't a great story. But it's a good story that's written very well. I read it to see if Weeks was an author that I wanted to follow closely. Given that I read a 659 page novel in 3 days, I think I've got my answer. I'm already looking forward to the next novel in the Night Angel series.

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Review: Times Three [★★★★★]

Times Three

Times Three
by Robert Silverberg

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 23 February 2015 - 28 February 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

Time travel stories are my favorite sub-genre of science fiction. I've always loved the idea of visiting other times. I'd like to experience history directly. I'd love to sit in the audience for the first performance of Handel's Messiah or one of Beethoven's symphonies. I'd love to experience Teddy Roosevelt's charisma for myself. What was imperial Rome like, at the height of its power?

I'd also like to experience the planet as it existed in the past. I'd love to see what it would be like to walk through the forests that used to sit where Buffalo now stands. What would it be like to hear Niagara Falls from a distance and walk up to it through the trees? What did the Great American Plains really look like, during the pioneer days?

In this collection, Robert Silverberg provides three time travel stories that touch on these elements. I've read a lot of time travel stories and these three are all worthy of a place in my personal top ten list.

Hawksbill Station

Hawksbill Station is the perfect prison for political dissidents. Instead of spending money to guard them or courting political dissent by executing them, just exile them to the past instead. In this case, the late Cambrian era. The only form of life is trilobites; everything else is rock and water. There are no trees, no grasses, no ferns, no birds, no fish, no mammals, nothing. There's nowhere for the prisoners to escape to and no way they can interfere with history, to change the world of their past.

When I first read this story, I fell in love with Silverberg's description of the bleakness of the late Cambrian era. It's haunting, in the best possible way, and makes me excited about that part of the Milwaukee Public Museum's pre-history exhibit in a way that probably mystifies everyone else.

But the setting is almost the least important part of this story. "Hawksbill Station" is really a character study of Jimmy Barrett, the King of Hawksbill Station. He was a reluctant revolutionary long before he was a political prisoner. Silverberg invites us into his life, both at the beginning and end. It's a moving story where the time travel, as fascinating as it is, is the least important part of the story.

Up the Line

This is a more comic story. Judson Daniel Elliot III is a bored young man, who allows himself to be talked into a job as a Time Courier, a tour guide of the past, because of his love for historic Byzantium. A job as a Time Courier gives him the opportunity to criss-cross Byzantium's history, seeing all of the great events, people, and places.

Don't picture the Time Couriers as lantern jawed heroes, in love with the past and devoted to their duty. You should picture them more like a group of clock punchers, more dedicated to having fun on the job than to the job itself. And, well, with all of history to play around in, hijinks will ensue. Things will go wrong, and the police (the Time Police) may get called.

As is typical with Silverberg, the story revolves more around the characters than around the gizmos. It's a human story, but also a bit of a farce as we get to witness how human nature mixed with time travel can be a recipe for trouble.

Project Pendulum

Two identical twins: Eric and Sean Gabrielson are the subjects of the very first human experiment in time travel. They'll start their journeys through time together, from the same platform. They'll both move through time, like a pendulum that's gradually increasing its swing. First Eric will move five minutes back while Sean moves 5 minutes forward. Then Eric will move 50 minutes forward (from the fixed reference point), while Sean moves 50 minutes backwards. They'll continue alternating swings through time, each swing taking them an order of magnitude further into the past and future.

That's the hook. Silverberg uses it to paint one vignette after another of both humanity's past and humanity's future. With the twins, we see an inauguration parade for President Harding, have an encounter with neanderthals, and get to experience the majestic grandeur of California's redwood forests, centuries before they were overrun by development and tourism.

This is another story, like "Hawksbill Station", that I'll love just for its beautiful descriptions of lost worlds. I'll never be able to see them in person, but Silverberg has a genius for helping me to see them in my imagination.

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Review: Lock In [★★☆☆☆]

Lock In

Lock In
by John Scalzi

My rating: ★★☆☆☆
Read From: 20 February 2015 - 23 February 2015
Goal: Awards

Warning: This review contains spoilers. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it.

Haden's Syndrome is a flu-like virus with a nasty side effect: one percent of its victims experience "lock in". They're fully awake and aware but they're completely cut off from control of their own bodies. They can no longer speak or move. It is, essentially, a conscious coma.

A whole panoply of technologies were created in reaction to the disease. The locked in are able to interact with the physical world through the use of cybernetic bodies called "threeps". (In homage to C-3PO.) They're also able to control the bodies of volunteer Integrators, through neural links.

Lock In is the story of FBI agent Chris Shane's first week on the job. It's a nasty first week, as his first case involves the murders of multiple "Hadens" and the suicides of multiple Integrators. As he investigates, he begins to see a common thread weaving everything together.

That grand tapestry is what ruined the book for me. (This is where I spoil the mystery.) The criminal mastermind is that most likely, most stereotypical, of suspects: the corporate billionaire. One man, seeing harsh times ahead as his government subsidies come to an end, decides to keep the profits flowing by any means necessary.

The billionaire's plan involves committing multiple murders, blowing up a competitor's research facility, manipulating stock prices to crash multiple competitors, and then buying everyone up to create a near-monopoly. Because, greed. Everyone knows the rich are greedy and will doing anything to keep the wealth coming. Murder and stock market manipulation are common tools of the wealthy elite. One frequently sees it in the news headlines.

I like the set up Scalzi created for this novel. I though Haden's Syndrome was creative and the various tech created to help the Hadens offered a lot of storytelling potential. But Scalzi decided to waste all of that on a murder mystery with an unintelligent plot.

This is a plot that I expect from the worst of the mass-market action thrillers. This story is science fiction only in that the hero has a robo-body and the villain controls people through neural links rather than blackmail. Without those elements, it's just another by the numbers murder thriller. Boring.

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Review: Asimov’s, September 2014 [★★★☆☆]

Asimov's Science Fiction - September, 2014

Asimov’s, September 2014
by Sheila Williams

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 22 August 2014 - 26 August 2014
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Novelettes

Place of Worship by Tochi Onyebuchi—Lit fiction. I couldn't even read it; I had to just skim it. It seemed to wander around aimlessly. It was less of a story and more of a meandering reflection. Parts happened in space—that was about the only thing in it that could be loosely considered to be SF.

A Lullaby in Glass by Amanda Forrest—New writer takes us to a future Vietnam. A young man struggles to figure out what caused a recent production failure, to protect his family. I feel like I should have felt more than I did, reading this story. But I didn't.

Bogdavi’s Dream by Tom Purdom—This novella is the concluding piece of a much longer story that Purdom's been writing about interspecies war in the distant future. Groups of humans and aliens will have to join together to fight other groups of humans and aliens, to protect the dream of peaceful coexistence. Before reading this, I hunted down some of Purdom's previous stories. I enjoyed them. This feels more like the mid-50's SF that I read growing up.

Short Stories

Patterns by James Gunn—A secret lurks inside of the most hidden of patterns. Of course, to talk about the secret is to trigger another pattern: denial, denunciation, and ridicule followed by dismissal and irrelevance. But the secret is still there, still lurking, still waiting. This was extremely short, but I really like it.

Everyone Will Want One by Kelly Sandoval—What is it about this new toy and why will every teen want one? It just might hold the key to gaining social status in the most elite of cliques. Isn't that reason enough? This was another really good story. It's something that's plausible and that I could imagine being reality in another decade or two.

Scouting Report by Rick Wilber—A baseball scout spends a few days watching Cuban teams, checking out some new prospects. He also reflects on the aftermath of an alien crash that occured 10 years ago. I wanted to like this story more than I did. The infodumping was heavy handed and I feel like the main character is a real dunce for not seeing what was obvious to me just one-third of the way into the story.

Windows by Susan Palwick—This story showcases the harsher side of life. A mother travels to a far-away prison to pay a visit for her son's birthday and to share birthday greetings from his sister, onboard a generational space ship. She arrives at the prison only to learn that the generational ship just exploded, but hides that news from her son in order to create a happier birthday for him. It's another story, in this issue, that I didn't really feel was SF at all. The only sci-fi element in the story was that it mentioned a generational ship. I think a story needs more than that to qualify as SF.

Departments

Reflections: Flashing Before My Eyes by Robert Silverberg—Every career has to start somewhere and this is Silverberg's story of how he started his. Silverberg reflects on the SF magazines that he admired as a teen and his struggles to get his own stories into these magazines, next to the writers that he so admired.

Thought Experiment: Tomorrow Through the Past by Allen M. Steele—This is a speech that Steele gave at the Philcon Science Fiction Convention, in 2013. He looks back at the history of the SF field and how the genre has reinvented itself over the years. He laments the current clichés: alien invasions, space battles, dystopias, and guys in body armor shooting at each other with big guns. He argues that SF has become paranoid and militaristic and needs to regain a sense of optimism, to tell stories with positive outcomes instead of just stories with negative outcomes. He argues that the genre needs to be more about stories set in the future, rather than just stories about the future. It's a thought provoking speech and I hope some of the authors and editors in the field are inspired by it.

My Take

I liked Steele's speech. I liked three of the seven stories in this issue. Asimov's continues to be something that I subscribe to and read but not something that I eagerly wait for each month.

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Review: Asimov’s, August 2014 [★★★☆☆]

Asimov's, August 2014

Asimov’s, August 2014
by Sheila Williams

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 18 August 2014 - 21 August 2014
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Novella

Of All Possible Worlds by Jay O'Connell—The Old Man lives downstairs, in the first floor apartment. He's busy editing Earth's history to save us from imminent doom from nuclear bombs and asteroid impacts. He's ensuring that our timeline truly is the best of all possible worlds.

Novelettes

Placebo by Nick Wolven—A medical mechanic working in a home for sick children, does what he can to bring joy into the children's lives. Even if that means putting up with a pet. Life is full of unsung heroes, but it may be a while before we forget about the protagonist of the story.

Writer’s Block by Nancy Kress—An off the beaten track novelette about a dreaded authorial problem. The protagonist tries different paths, through many a dark and stormy night, to get past his block. He finally succeeds.

Mountain Screamers by Doug C. Souza—This is Souza's first sold story. A teenager and his grandmother capture several mountain cats. They're destined for a planet that humanity will use as one massive wildlife preserve. Along the way, the teenager strengthens his bond with his grandmother and learns more about her lifelong commitment to wildlife. This story had warmth and personality. It didn't blow me away, but I'm willing to read more of Souza's work.

Short Stories

Wet Fur by Jeremiah Tolbert— This short story depics the unquestioning loyalty of humanity's best friend. Unfortunately, I didn't care for it. Tolbert told the tale entirely as a first person report, to a second person, of that second person's conversation. I thought the resulting pronoun usage was confusing—needlessly so.

The Low Hum of Her by Sarah Pinsker—This short tries to remind us of family, grief, and love. Mostly, it reminded me of how much I don't like steampunk / gollem type stories. That element just ruined the whole thing for me.

Departments

Reflections: Longevity by Robert Silverberg—Silverberg reflects on the many SF authors who have had long, productive lives. There sure are a lot of them. This was mildly interesting, but seemed like filler in that it was mostly a listing of people and ages.

My Take

I thought that "Of All Possible Worlds" was a strong story. I enjoyed the whimsy of "Writer's Block". The rest of the stories were okay, but I don't feel like I would have missed out if I hadn't read them.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review