Category Archives: Book Reviews

Personal reviews and ratings of fiction by others.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (The Thorne Chronicles, #1)How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.

It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.

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And Then There Were Crumbs

And Then There Were Crumbs (A Cookie House Mystery #1)And Then There Were Crumbs by Eve Calder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is about as cozy a cozy mystery as you can get. A professional pastry chef flees a philandering fiance in New York and escapes to a small town in Florida, where she picks up a job at a bakery, but not as a baker, as counter help. Oddly, this bakery doesn’t sell pastries or cakes or cookies, which is unfortunate because Kate, the aforesaid pastry chef, has a kind of magic ability; she can tell your favorite kind of cookie just by looking at you. She’s only working there one day before an unsavory customer dies after eating some cinnamon buns that the shop’s owner made for himself. The owner is soon arrested for poisoning the guy.

As far as the mystery goes, I had the the perpetrator, the motive, and the general means pegged pretty much from the start. As for the cozy, it couldn’t get much cozier. When Kate first comes to town, she finds the locals helpful, sharing, encouraging, and just as fond of food as she is. It’s like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the warm, fuzzy addition of a friendly community dog that everyone chips into to feed and care for. (It was delightfully refreshing to read about such a lovely imaginary place. I like this about cozies. They’re a nice break from the nonstop action, conflict, and general nastiness you find in so much fiction. But, I digress. Back to the story.) So, in friendly small town spirit, Kate’s new neighbors all volunteer to help her prove her new boss innocent and get him out of jail. A lot of cooking and eating is involved.

I quite enjoyed this book even though it’s almost too cozy and the mystery is fairly predictable. It was a welcome change from the last book I read, but I won’t mention that one here.

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The White Magic Five and Dime

The White Magic Five and Dime (Tarot Mystery, #1)The White Magic Five and Dime by Steve Hockensmith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you come across a book that you really like but you don’t really know why. This is one of those. There’s nothing overly special or unique about it. It’s a contemporary murder mystery. A woman is notified that her estranged mother has died and left her all of her worldly assets, which includes a shop in a nothing of a town in Arizona. The shop (see title) is only one of several in the area that provide psychic readings and other woo-woo services. The deceased mom was a career con-woman. The daughter would rather not be, although it is what she was groomed for. So, when it turns out that the woman’s death probably wasn’t due to a burglary gone wrong but was, instead, a targeted slaying, the daughter is not surprised, and she begins to investigate.

I like stories with clever, witty, but essentially moral protagonists. The one in this book certainly qualifies. Alanis (possibly her real name, although she’s had many aliases) is given depth in the story through flashbacks to scenes from her childhood, traveling around the country, living in hotels, and playing parts in her mother’s cons. From these you see why she is what she is, and you admire that she’s not been completely destroyed by her experiences, that she’s somehow retained both her sanity and her humanity. One of her first acts upon arriving in Arizona is to make amends with some of the people her mother conned out of money or jewelry. But I think what I find most appealing about this spunky heroine is that she’s a clear thinker, skeptical, logical, perhaps even a bit cynical. She arrives knowing that her mother, her shop, and the mystical stuff the town is known for are nothing more than ways of extracting money from credulous, superstitious tourists. But as she learns more, she wonders if the tarot cards can’t be more than just a con. In the hands of a skilled reader, perhaps they can provide comfort, or motivation, or confidence…. Rather than being used to cheat people, maybe they can be used to help them. Of course they’d need to be in the hands of someone skilled at reading people to do that. Alanis feels that she is.

There are two more books in this series. I just ordered the second, and the third is in my local library system. I’ve added both to my TBR list. I suppose you could consider that an endorsement of this one.

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Bellweather Rhapsody

Bellweather RhapsodyBellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A once-elegant resort hotel in Upstate New York is hosting a rehearsals and a concert to be performed by talented high school kids, and one of them, a true prodigy with a flute, goes missing. Her roommate, one of a pair of fraternal twins, finds her hanging from a pipe by the neck, duplicating the scene of a murder/suicide of a bride and groom exactly fifteen years before. But is it what it looks like? After the roommate runs for help, the body, and all signs of a hanging, are gone. Is the young flutist really dead? Did she stage a suicide to escape her domineering mother? Maybe the girl who witnessed the events of fifteen years ago and has returned to dispel lingering demons has something to do with it. Perhaps the elderly and peculiar hotel concierge is somehow involved. Or the teacher who once shot and killed a former student who broke into her home, or the Scottish orchestra conductor who has one and a half hands… All of them seem to be hiding something. They are all interesting characters in that they are bent or broken in some way. I can’t say I’d want to be friends with any of them. They’re undoubtedly a high-maintenance lot, but as fictitious suspects in a contemporary whodunit, they’re fun. I quite enjoyed this one.

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Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game (Cas Russell, #1)Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**BEWARE!**SPOILERS AHEAD**
Cas is a super hero. Actually, she’s a super antihero. Her super power is that she is unbelievably (literally) good at math. She knows all the formulas, constants, algorithms, axioms, and whatnot necessary to compute, well, pretty much anything faster than a supercomputer. Combined with her uncanny observational skills and her ability to judge relative distances, atmospheric pressure, wind speeds and directions, and any other pertinent variable, along with her impressive physical strength and apparently superhuman reflexes, she’s close to unstoppable. You really don’t want to annoy her or get in her way because she’ll kill you stone dead without a second thought or a moment of remorse. Like I said, she’s an antihero, so screwed up she makes Batman look psychologically well-adjusted. Cas is the protagonist of this story.

On the other side of the narrative equation is an organization that wants to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, it’s operating under the standard rationalization used by dictators, religious cults and ideologues throughout history: the ends justify the means. They also have a superpower. It’s mind control. They can make you believe whatever they want, which means you’ll do what they want, almost like a puppet on strings. It even works on Cas, although she does have more resistance than most people. The one person who does seem to be immune is her not-friend and ally Rio. Like Cas, he’s a psychopath, but as an added bonus to his uncharming pesonality, he’s also a sadist. The secret organization bent on improving the world wants to recruit him, which is how Cas gets involved. It’s a clever bit of plotting, but we don’t need to go into that for a short book review.

It’s difficult for me to come up with a single star rating for this book. There are parts that I think are brilliant. The story is interesting. The pacing is excellent. The prose is fine. There are no obvious flaws with the editing. But then there are the characters. Since this is a superhero kind of story, you can’t expect them to be believable, but they are comprehensible. They have distinct personalities and understandable motivations (more or less), and yet I found them lacking. The thing is, I like to have good guys in my fiction, at least one character I can like and relate to. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist, and they don’t have to be capital G good. Actually, it’s better if they have flaws and shortcomings and things they are striving to overcome or improve. But they need to have some redeeming qualities, and the main characters in this story really don’t have any. At least the major players don’t. An action story is like a sporting event in which two (or more) players compete, and the reader is supposed to root for one of them to prevail over the other. But in this story, I couldn’t pick a side. Since the story is told in first person from Cas’s point of view, I knew more about her than than the others, but I didn’t feel any sympathy for her. She abounds with negative personality traits. The only positive thing about her that I could see is that she isn’t worse. I certainly didn’t like her. Her primary motivations are self-preservation and revenge. Unlike her opponents, she doesn’t really have an ultimate goal or idea she’s fighting for. As far as the outcome of the fictional narrative went, I didn’t much care which side prevailed.

The Goodreads rating system is based on how much you enjoy the book, and I can’t say I really enjoyed this one. It’s a well-written, action-packed tale with lots of ass kicking, but it doesn’t have much of what I normally look for in a book. There are no endearing, admirable, or even likable characters. It’s not witty or insightful. There is no theme with real-world relevance, a tone I could relate to, or a compelling mood. This may be a great book for readers who like lots of “action,” but I’m not motivated to read any more stories with these characters.

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The Portrait of Doreene Gray

The Portrait of Doreene GrayThe Portrait of Doreene Gray by Esri Allbritten
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The team from Tripping Magazine is investing another (possibly) weird occurrence, this time involving a pair of twins—one who appears not to be aging (much) and her sister who is. Oddly, the portrait of the younger looking one, which she keeps in a locked room, appears to be tolling the years in her stead. Her sister, who painted the thing years ago, claims not to understand why.

This is a Scooby-Doo kind of mystery, with a team of investigators looking at clues to figure out what’s really going on. Their leader (editor of the magazine) is biased toward finding the most woo-woo version of events possible. The chief writer is far more practical, and the sexy photographer is mainly in it for the fun. I wish there were more books in this series. I find them quite enjoyable.

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The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All FleshThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Women are dying in Edinburgh in the mid-19th Century, but is it murder? That’s the question that Will (our protagonist) asks himself after a lady of negotiable affection, with whom he is well acquainted, dies in apparent agony. His interest is both personal and professional as he has just been apprenticed to an eminent doctor who is the Victorian version of an OBGYN.

The setting and characters are believable. The story moves along well, and the plot is interesting. I was also surprised because the person I had pegged as being behind the dire events wasn’t. The fact that I was wrong and it made sense is certainly worthy of an extra star! I tend to enjoy Victorian whodunits, but it’s the historical medical details that make this one stand out.

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The City in the Middle of the Night

The City in the Middle of the NightThe City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

January is a tidally locked planet, habitable only along a strip of land running north and south, with frigid cold and perpetual darkness on one side, and endless light and searing heat on the other. Sophie, the protagonist of this story, is a student in one of two major cities in this zone. She makes a life-changing (and story-starting) decision when she takes the blame for a theft committed by a friend. The punishment for someone of her disfavored ethnicity is death, and she is hurled into the freezing dark and certain doom. Except it’s not. Certain, that is, due to the intervention of native monsters who may not be quite as monstrous as people believe.

The chapters in which Sophie provides the point of view are narrated in first person, present tense. The others are in third person, past tense. This felt awkward to me, but not jarring. It was the depressing setting, the oppressive culture, and the essentially unlikable characters that prevented me from actually enjoying the time I spent reading this. Dark stories can still be compelling, but this one was not. I never became emotionally invested in the place, the people, their politics, or even in the aliens, although the latter were interestingly, well alien. The ending, well, can’t give that away, but I can say that I found it less than satisfying.

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Paper Towns

Paper TownsPaper Towns by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fairly average high school boy in central Florida lives next to an unbelievably uncommon girl of about the same age. She’s endearingly clever, but she’s also totally self-absorbed, casually inconsiderate, socially domineering, recklessly adventurous, and inexplicably popular. He is, of course, infatuated with her. It surprises no one when she goes missing just before graduation. She’s done that kind of thing before. But there are circumstances that suggest this time may be different. Fearing that she might be emotionally unstable enough to off herself, the average kid recruits a few friends to help him follow clues she’s left behind, seemingly for his benefit, to try to find her… or maybe her body.

I picked this up at my local library mainly because I recognized the author as the guy who did the entertaining and informative Crash Course videos on YouTube. I had no idea at the time: 1. That it had been made into a movie (so the sticker on the cover claims), 2. That it is set very near where I currently reside (a norther suburb of Orlando), or 3. What a paper town was (actually, I did, but I had never heard them called that).

Because of the age of the characters, the story is shelved as YA, but it’s not juvenile. The prose and pacing are both quite good. The crazy girl may not be overly likeable (although she is, in a way, admirable), and her imaginative pranks may be unbelievable, but her story is quite entertaining.

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The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Bedouin girl comes down with a mysterious malady, and her father brings her to an unscrupulous magic maker with hope of buying a cure. Centuries later, an unlikable man wants a wife, so he goes to an unscrupulous magic maker to have one made out of clay. . . . Although not necessarily in that order. These events, relayed in flashbacks, provide the backstory of a meeting between a golem bride and a jinni in New York City around 1900. The jinni has no memory of how he got there, or of anything else for the last thousand years. The golem was born only a few days ago. Each is trying to find their place in this strange new world when a chance encounter evolves into a strange friendship between them.
The golem’s plight is especially engaging. She essentially has to invent what she is on her own, figure out if and how to interact with others, and decide on a course for her future. I found the jinni character less interesting overall, but he has his moments. I’m not a fan of flashbacks, and there are a lot in this book, but they’re handled well, providing essential background without confusing or disrupting the flow of the main story (much). Pacing is good, for the most part, although it bogs down a bit in the middle with more emotional turmoil and soap opera angst than seemed necessary. All in all, a good story.

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A Knife in the Fog

A Knife in the Fog (Margaret Harkness and Arthur Conan Doyle #1)A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a four-year gap between the first Sherlock Holmes story and the next. This well-crafted tale tells us what Arthur Conan Doyle was up to during that time. I’ll give you a hint. It involves Jack the Ripper.

Okay, I know. You’re rolling your eyes. Doyle wasn’t actually involved in hunting down the Ripper. This isn’t a true account. It’s historical fiction. A murder mystery. A Victorian whodunit. And do we really need another Ripper story to add to gazillion already out there? I can’t answer as to need, but we can always use more really good stories, and this is one. The characters have depth. Their words and actions feel real. The setting is vividly drawn and historically accurate (to the extent that fiction can be). The events described are believable. The pacing is good, and the story is intriguing. It tickles your intellect and nudges your emotions. Yeah, this is a good book. I don’t give out a lot of five-star ratings, but this earns one. I’m happy to recommend it to readers who appreciate historical fiction or a good murder mystery.

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Prudence

Prudence (The Custard Protocol, #1)Prudence by Gail Carriger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an alternate Victorian British Empire, werewolves, vampires, and mundane humans coexist in staid civility. And then there is Prudence. She has the rare ability/gift/curse of stealing another supernatural person’s form simply by touching them. If she touches a werewolf, she becomes a werewolf, and the person she touches becomes a mortal human for as long as they stay in reasonably close proximity with one another. Although she is said to be something of a scandal to her family (including both of her fathers and her mother), this is a relative assessment. Within the section of privileged society in which she travels, the main concerns are fashion, reputation, propriety, etiquette, convention, manners, and tea. This isn’t quite as funny as it might be because Prudence apparently shares these fatuous values, and it’s difficult to care much about her or any of the other characters presented in the first 200 pages of the story. And when she is sent on an adventure to India in a private, state of the art dirigible to secure a new type of tea…. Well, it’s really not all that interesting. But on her journey, mysteries begin to appear, her character begins to evolve, and by the time her airship arrives, there are signs of a respectable plot emerging. Since revealing what that is would be a spoiler, I won’t. You’ll have to go through the slow buildup to it yourself if you read this. All I will say is that the last third of the book is fairly interesting.

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The Invention of Science

Invention-of-ScienceThe Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015

Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)

Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:

The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)

And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!

From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).

He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)

I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.

Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.

The Evolution of Everything

Evolution of EverythingThe following is a rather lengthy review of The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley. I apologize for the length, but some things just need a bit more explaining than others.

People have a natural tendency to seek agency. If something momentous happens, then someone must have caused it. If something complex exists, someone obviously designed and built it. But this natural human way of looking at things leads to unwarranted assumptions. No one, for example, planned the evolution of life.

Ridley extends Darwin’s insight about biological evolution to human culture and invention. No one planned the development of language. No one planned the industrial revolution. No one planned today’s global economy. These things evolved. They weren’t designed from the top down. They emerged from the bottom up. In this book, Ridley specifically argues that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guides economics in much the same way that natural selection guides the evolution of life. Both emerge from the complex interplay of individual agents acting out of self-interest with no common goal. They operate without any grand plan, and yet they create (albeit unintentionally) complex, well-ordered, and reasonably efficient systems. He has great faith in the power of the Invisible Hand. Don’t try to direct it, and good things will happen.

To me, his belief in the power of the Invisible Hand seems a bit too…well, utopian. Simplistic. Possibly even a bit mystical. The Hand works in mysterious ways. We don’t know how, exactly, but we must have faith that it is all for the best and let it get on with things. As long as we don’t interfere, all will be well. Society will evolve for the better. The state will wither away, and everyone will live in peace and prosperity. His end state seems ironically similar to the one Karl Marx envisioned, and I think it’s flawed for one of the same reasons Marx’s was—people. They aren’t ready for it…yet. There are those, and I like to believe the number grows with every generation, who do not require coercion or the threat of divine or secular punishment in order to behave properly toward their fellow human beings. But many still do. The state may be an unfortunate necessity at this point in human evolution.

If it’s possible to be a cynical optimist, Matt Ridley qualifies. He makes several valid points in this book. Order can emerge from chaos. Actions motivated solely by self-interest can have unintended and broadly beneficial consequences. Human culture does evolve, and it has progressed and improved over time. But he makes an unjustified leap by concluding that it is therefore a mistake to attempt to bring about cultural change or broad social benefits intentionally. Evolution, both biological and cultural, he seems to argue, are best left to natural selection and the free market. Restraining the Invisible Hand leads to disaster.

Well, it can, except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Hand needs a shove. Or maybe it’s better to say that the Invisible Hand has more fingers than he seems to think it has.

Ridley often sounds like a cranky old man grinding philosophical axes*, and in this book, he vents his libertarian spleen on all things that smack of authority. This includes religion and crony capitalism, but his favorite target is government in all its current and historical forms. He doesn’t like government (which seems odd considering that Viscount Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords). He sees it as a top-down intrusion on the proper bottom-up evolution of human society. Let the free market work!

But there is no free market, and I doubt one would last long if there was. (See Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24338377-saving-capitalism) Markets in our modern society depend on governments to protect capital assets and intellectual property. Governments provide the framework within which individuals and businesses negotiate contracts with one another, and they provide legal recourse in the event of contract violation. Governments maintain competition by restricting monopolies so that large corporations cannot eliminate their existing and potential competitors (e.g. through hostile takeovers, dumping goods, or intimidating suppliers). Governments also help bolster the economy by instilling consumer confidence. Because of governmental regulations, you can be fairly sure that the food and medicine you buy isn’t toxic; that your appliances, cars, homes, and other purchases are reasonably safe to use; and that whatever else you buy will function almost as well as the seller claims it will. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to work for a living, your workplace is probably safer, your workday shorter, your pay better, and you may even enjoy some kind of insurance or even paid holidays because of governmental policies.

A firm believer in laissez faire economics might argue that all of these benefits would come about on their own accord through the magic of market forces, but they didn’t, which is why these governmental policies came about. Worker exploitation, sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe working conditions were rampant only a century ago. The case of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911 is probably one of the most famous examples. (http://www.history.com/topics/triangle-shirtwaist-fire). In a bottom-up effort, voters demanded that something be done. Government responded by enacting laws. (e.g. the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972). Admittedly, these probably did not all work as well as many hoped, and some may have had unforeseen consequences, but these laws and others were passed because the ‘free’ market had not been able to prevent abuses by private businesses that exploited workers and cheated consumers. Clearly, not all business were dishonest or exploitative, but a top-down mandate was needed, not only to protect workers and consumers, but also to establish a level playing field to protect responsible business owners from unfair competition by those who were not.

So, were these societal changes examples of bottom-up evolution brought about by voter demand or were they top-down impositions on the free market by government? Both? Neither?

Personally, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Let me begin by saying that power bases emerge in human society whether you want them to or not. They form from the bottom up. We can’t prevent them, nor do I think we should try. They exist to pursue the interests of their constituents, and in doing so can provide benefits to each member that they cannot obtain as well on their own. But they can also unjustly impose their will on nonmembers. If one group becomes too powerful, or if two or more combine forces, they can oppress or exploit others. Maintaining some kind of power balance so that this does not happen can be difficult.

Prior to the Enlightenment, government, in the form of a monarch and sundry aristocracy, could be seen as a separate power base, as could the Church, landed gentry, craftsmen, and peasants. Each of these had its own unique interests, which they pursued, sometimes cooperatively but often competitively. If you wish to imagine society as something guided by an invisible hand, these would have been its fingers, the two strongest of which were the monarch and the Church.

Modern Western society has different fingers. These can be generalized as workers, consumers, business owners, and bankers. Religion is still with us, of course, and it does have unique interests and it does exert power, so it may be seen as a finger as well. As in the past, these groups may have overlapping constituencies, but they don’t have common goals, and the conflicts between them create the evolutionary pressures that move societies. Together, these five fingers shape human culture in unplanned ways. (I don’t include government as one of these modern fingers for reasons I’ll explain soon.)

All of these fingers represent their members and push society in some way. Consumers want quality products at affordable prices. Workers want secure, well-paying jobs. Religions want to spread their faiths. Businesses and banks want to earn profits for owners/investors. Democratic government is a bit different in that it represents (or should represent) interests common to everyone. As difficult as it may be to imagine at times, and despite the real differences that may exist between them, all people have more interests in common than not…safety, property, opportunity, freedom…or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A properly functioning democratic government has the unenviable task of ensuring equal rights for all its citizens and for being an impartial arbiter when the goals of the metaphorical fingers come into conflict. Is it more important for consumers to have lower prices or for workers to have higher wages? Are these more or less important than business owners reaping high profits or banks charging high interest? When does a religion’s goal of spreading the faith intrude on the freedom of nonbelievers? These are not hypothetical questions. All have had to be addressed in the past, and it has fallen on governments to do so because market forces can’t, at least not as well. When one group attempts to dominate, exploit, suppress, or even eliminate another, the purely evolutionary solution of allowing the strongest to win is probably not the best one for the long-term survival of a civilization. The government stands in defense of all, regardless of numbers or wealth. It codifies protected rights that apply to all its citizens, and it acts as a societal ratchet to prevent these rights from being denied in the future. Once proscribed by law, such things as slavery, child labor, and racial discrimination are far less likely to reemerge. A democratic government provides a balancing force so that the many cannot dominate the few and the rich and powerful cannot prey on the poor and weak.

The balance breaks down if one societal power base exerts too much influence over governmental policies. Business control of government is just as detrimental to a society as governmental control of business. But democratic governments are self-correcting. They change from the bottom up. The dominating powers will fight to preserve their privileged positions. They’ll try to bend public opinion to maintain their position, but when voters feel that one group has too much influence, they’ll vote for change…and they might even achieve it. We may be seeing something like that happening now in the U.S. Time will tell.

There is much about Matt Ridley’s argument with which I do not agree, but his central point that complex systems evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways is undeniable. They do. No single strategy directed the course of human progress. The scientific discoveries and cultural changes humanity has made since our ancestors first chipped stones into knives two and a half million years ago (or thereabout) have created a world that no one could have imagined, let alone planned. These advancements emerged incrementally, iteratively, one thing leading to another, with all the parts interacting in complex and often unpredictable ways. In short, our society evolved. There was no grand plan, but many of the little steps along the way were planned, which is where the comparison of scientific and cultural progress with biological evolution breaks down. The two processes appear similar from a great enough distance, but they differ in the details.

Biological evolution lacks intent. Cells and microbes can’t imagine the future. They can’t plan. Over time, the individual cells that comprised the earliest forms of life came together, differentiated, and specialized to form larger and more complex organisms. This improved their survivability, but they didn’t adapt to survive. They survived because they adapted. This is an important difference. It’s a matter of cause and effect. It took natural selection billions of years to go from those earliest microbes to creatures like us because it operates without intent. It doesn’t build to a plan. Discrete biological changes (to DNA) are close enough to random to think of them as such, and most of those random mutations are fatal. Natural selection can create astounding complexity in this manner, but it’s hit or miss, and it takes a while.

Cultural evolution is faster. The time span from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens took almost two million years. The time span from steam engines to nuclear power was less than three hundred. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but complexity isn’t one of them. There are more differences between Newcomen’s steam engine and a nuclear reactor than there are between you and your multi-great grandmother a couple million years ago. A big factor for the difference in time scale is that each evolutionary step from pre-modern humans to us relied on unplanned natural selection. Each development between steam power and nuclear energy was the result of human premeditated action. Each improvement, every new idea along the way was proposed and developed by a human mind with intent.

Ridley summarizes his position in the epilogue of his book. “To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news in manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”

Ah, if only reality were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that most evolutionary changes are failures. Unplanned evolution doesn’t always bring success but neither does planned change. Most plans people make fail as well. What Ridley’s argument seems to boil down to is that evolutionary changes that have survived are successful. True, but tautological. Extrapolating from this dubious insight by claiming that unplanned evolutionary change is good and that manmade change is bad is simply absurd. It’s like claiming that doctors shouldn’t cut out tumors, prescribe antibiotics, provide vaccinations, or attempt to cure genetically inherited diseases because the bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations they are trying to eliminate have evolved through natural selection and therefore must be good.

Let me offer an alternate idea. Human culture and technology have advanced rapidly because when people see problems, they take action to fix them. They don’t wait around for the slow plod of evolution to make things better or, alternately and more likely, to drive them to extinction. Humans are toolmakers. The things we create, from hammers to stock markets, are tools that we intentionally design to accomplish certain tasks, and we improve upon them over time to make them work better.

By all measurable criteria, our species’ quality of life has improved over time. People today (on average) are healthier, eat better, live longer, are freer, safer, and enjoy more material wealth than at any time in history. No one planned the current state of human affairs. It isn’t anyone’s imagined end state or ultimate goal. There is no end state. There is no final goal. Evolution is a continuing process. The reason our cultures evolve faster than our biology is partly that they have something biology does not. When it comes to the components of human culture, such as our religions, laws, forms of government, economic systems, philosophies, ethics, educational systems, music, art, inventions, and all other creations of the human mind, an intrinsic part of all of them is that they include an element of intent. People designed them from the top down in response to conditions imposed from the bottom up. They saw situations that they wanted improved, considered ways of adapting what they knew to the problems facing them, and came up with ideas they thought might work. Some did. Some didn’t. Those that work are more likely to survive. Richard Dawkins calls such ideas memes, but the important point is that these ideas do not spring up spontaneously. They originate in human minds. And although each of these ideas may be intended to address separate, seemingly unconnected issues, each forms a small component of a larger evolving system. Unlike biological evolution, human progress has an aspect of intelligent design.

Which brings me back to Ridley’s issue with government and the free market. The Invisible Hand of the free market is not a separate ineffable force any more than the human mind is separate from the brain and body that create it. Both can be seen as emergent properties. But perhaps a better way to view the free market for this discussion is as a process. Just as evolution describes the process of living matter reacting to its environment, the free market describes the process of humans interacting to improve their lives. To do this, they build tools. If those tools don’t work quite as well as we’d like, we try to improve them.

Businesses are tools. Banks are tools. Government is a tool. All of these are designed, built, modified, and used by people in order to improve their lives, and, over time and not at all miraculously, our lives have improved. Since this was and is the common intent, I’d say we’re not doing too badly. Evolution gave us our toolmaking ability. It would be a shame not to use it.

 
————-
*So am I, but that’s beside the point.

————-
A few recommendations for further reading on this and related subjects:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11107244-the-better-angels-of-our-nature)

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22571741-evolving-ourselves)

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10954979-the-swerve)

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7863046-the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world)

 

Hogfather for the Holidays

HogfatherAn Extended Review of Hogfather, the Book:

The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s counterpart of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)

Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.

In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.

But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.

Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a counterpart of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!

But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.

I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.

Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is far more than it appears at first glance. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.

If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. (I find that Discworld stories are often even more enjoyable the second time.) Before sitting down to write this post, I reread Hogfather for what was at least the sixth time. The Discworld books are incomparable. My only problem with them is that after reading the Discworld stories, all other fantasy stories tend to pale by comparison.

When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.

Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.

If you’re familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays. You’ll be glad you did.

HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!

~*~

P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy, and I’ll be rewatching it sometime soon.

~*~

Related Links:
Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/

~*~

A Trailer for Hogfather, the movie… 🙂

Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction

Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?

No?

Just as well. It was bad.

The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.

The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.

There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.

Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.

What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.

Book Review – The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

SwerveTitle: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author: Stephen Greenblatt
Genre: Science History/Philosophy

Can a book change the world? (Or at least the part that represents a good chunk of human culture.) I’m sure you can think of a couple that qualify, but can a book that claims no divine authority do so? The Swerve is an account of one that may have.

In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini had been the personal secretary of the pope, but when that pope was deposed, Poggio found himself in Europe, far from Rome and out of work. It was definitely a blow to his career, but he made the most of it by turning it into an opportunity to indulge in his hobby, his passion—finding and preserving old books. He roamed Europe, seeking out ancient and remote monasteries hoping to find copies of books lost after the fall of Rome a thousand years before. And he found one.

Poggio did not intend to cause a philosophical revolution. It seems his main concern was to preserve the beautiful Latin of bygone writers. But with the selection and arrangement of words came the ideas they expressed, and those in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius before the birth of Christ, challenged the common beliefs of Poggio’s day and (more dangerously) the dictates of the Church. This was a time when curiosity was a sin and questioning authority was a crime. Lucretius encouraged both. He suggested that everything is made of atoms; that a divine creator did not make the universe for man, and several other ideas about the nature of man and reality that may seem like common knowledge today but were heretical then.

In The Swerve, Greenblatt contends that the rediscovery of Lucretius had a significant impact on European thought and helped loosen the iron grip of theological dogma that controlled almost every aspect of human life in medieval Europe. He goes on to suggest that Lucretius’s later influence on thinkers from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in shaping the modern world.

It’s impossible to say, of course. No one today can ask Jefferson, for example, how much influence Lucretius had on him when he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, or on his decisions when he was President (although Jefferson did have copies of De rerum natura in Latin, English, Italian, and French in his library and said it was one of his favorite books). Even if it were possible to ask him, Jefferson might not be able to say. Everything we read, everything we experience can have some effect on us. Assigning any particular action or inspiration to a single source may not be possible.

It is safe to say, I think, that the rediscovery of Lucretius was significant. If nothing else, it shows that the modern way of viewing nature as, well, natural (rather than supernatural), is not exclusive to our times or a result of science. That it is a necessary precursor to science, however, seems undeniable, and perhaps Lucretius deserves a more prominent place in books about the history of science because of this.

The story of Paggio’s discovery might also provide a good foundation for a work of historical fiction. The Swerve almost starts out as such, narrating the wandering scribe’s search for lost books much as a novel might. This draws in the reader before the author goes on to summarize some points of Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy. When Greenblatt does pause to relate major ideas in Lucretius, it almost seems disruptive to the story of Paggio.

I enjoyed this book. I had known of Lucretius, but I had never heard of Paggio Bracciolini before reading this. Without him, Lucretius may have remained unknown, and, perhaps, history would have unfolded differently as a result. The Swerve provides an important reminder of how individual actions can have significant impacts. It also reminds us of how repressive the Middle Ages were and how those in positions of power at the time actively (and often brutally) discouraged the open sharing of ideas, which we now recognize as not only a fundamental right but also essential to human progress. It’s a good read. I recommend it.

Book Review – The Space Between by Scott J. Robinson

SpaceBetween

Title: The Space Between (Tribes of the Hakahei, Book #1)
Author: Scott J. Robinson
Genre: Science fantasy

This rousing and entertaining adventure begins at a renaissance fair and it ends in space. (Although as the first of a series, the ending remains inconclusive.) Ancient spaceships, snobby elves, a confused dwarf, weird aliens, and portals to strange and distant worlds are all rolled into a coherent story that’s just a bit more sci-fi than fantasy. It’s lighthearted and not overly ‘serious’ sci-fi. After all, in addition to elves, it makes a brief nod to Area 51 and Roswell. But it’s different. It’s fun. I like it.

The world building and pacing are excellent, the prose and dialogue are good, the characters aren’t too unbelievable, and the editing, well…. I noticed about a dozen typos in the Kindle edition that I read. There weren’t enough to detract from enjoying the story, and since this is a DIY published novel, I expect they’ll be corrected in later editions. Indie authors tend to be quite conscientious about such things.

I can recommend this one to all readers of light speculative fiction looking for something with a little meat to it. Of the new books I’ve read recently (both indie and traditionally published), I’d have to judge this one among the most enjoyable. There is a lot of potential here.

Full Disclosure: I received a free digital edition of this book during an open promotion on Amazon. I haven’t read the other books in the series, although I may at some point.

Book Review – The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

SerpentVeniceTitle: The Serpent of Venice
Author: Christopher Moore
Genre: Fantasy

This is a fun, irreverent comedy about a fool (jester) caught up in political/commercial intrigue in a fantasy version of Venice of the late thirteenth century. The story is based (mainly) on various Shakespearian plays. With this as a starting point, one might expect some sophisticated humor. This is not what Moore provides. In some ways, this is refreshing because one need not be an English major or historian to enjoy the book, but it does tend to reach fairly far down to appeal to a baser audience. The characters, without exception, have the emotional maturity and self-restraint of hormonally supercharged adolescents. Their juvenile antics make them funny in the same way some people find clowns funny, but it is a superficial kind humor, which, in this case, relies on vulgar language, sex, a few fart references, and boob flashes. It’s crude, but it manages to float (just) above the shallows of the metaphorical comic cesspit.

I can’t say this book is for everyone, but it should appeal to readers who enjoy humor of the South Park or Family Guy variety. Although I am not much of a fan of these (or TV in general), I enjoyed it.

Book Review – Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

EinsteinsLawnTitle: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
Author: Amanda Gefter
Publisher: Bantam Books
First Published: 2014
Genre: Nonfiction (Science/Philosophy)

What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It’s part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It’s a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it’s an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It’s kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)

I write (soft) science fiction, but I’m not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of ‘true’ and ‘bat-crap crazy’. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.

This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.

She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us ‘normal’ people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.

I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the ‘reality’ behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the ‘thing’ found ‘real’ or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.

Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.

I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.

Book Review – The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

PinkerBAofNTitle: The Better Angels of Our Nature
Author:
Steven Pinker
Publisher:
Viking
First Published:
2011
Genre:
Nonfiction (Science/History/Philosophy)

Has the human condition gotten better over time? In this book, Steven Pinker argues that it has, mainly by showing how dreadful it was in the past. People still intentionally inflict unspeakable harm upon one another, but compared to the atrocities of the past, (some of which, such as animal cruelty, genocide, torture, and rape as a spoil of war, they did not even considered atrocities at the time) we have made considerable progress. In this lengthy book, Pinker provides details, data, and analysis demonstrating his point. At times, it seemed almost too much. Despite the almost painful level of detail, I found this a thoughtful and persuading mixture of history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. I highly recommend it as a much-needed counter for the mistaken idea that humanity has somehow digressed from an idyllic past.

Book Review – The Rainbow Connection by Ian Harac

Rainbow ConnectionTitle: The Rainbow Connection
Author: Ian Harac
Publisher: BlackWyrm Publishing
First Published: 2009
Genre:
Science Fantasy/parallel worlds

This is part science fiction, part fairytale, and part parody. I loved it. The setting is a contemporary world in which portals to alternate realities exist. The protagonist is an FBI agent in charge of copyright enforcement—that is, making sure other-world copies of things like the fourth season of Star Trek TOS aren’t being brought over. One day while on a seemingly routine assignment, he and his partner discover a munchkin, which his partner, quite unnecessarily, shoots dead. Thus begins a well-told tale of mystery and corruption.

The world-building, or should I say worlds-building (there are a few visited in the story) is quite good. I enjoyed the allusions to various works of speculative fiction, from Oz to Star Trek. The characters are likeable. The plot makes sense and unfolds logically. I also found no major editing issues other than some kind of transcription error. It’s the only negative comment I have on this book, but it turned some of the punctuation (apostrophes, single quotes, and emdashes) into little boxed question marks, at least in the Kindle edition I read. I found this a bit distracting at first, but I was enjoying the story and stuck with it. I’m so glad I did. It’s charming. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s engaging. It’s simply a good read. I highly recommend it.

Book Review – Janis by Dain White

JanisbyDainWhiteTitle: Janis
Author: Dain White
Publisher:
Dain White
First Published:
2012
Genre:
Science Fiction – Space Opera

The characters first introduced in Archaea become more developed in this sequel. They are still quirky, a bit too cartoony, but they are fun. It has a clearer plot line than the first book, although the characters and setting largely compensated for the lack. I enjoyed both of these light space operas, of which we see far too few these days.

In this installment, Captain Dak Smith and the crew of his spaceship, Archaea, take on a mission to bring medical supplies to a group of rebels on a frozen planet, meeting challenges all along the way. Janis, the amazing AI of the spaceship, is the title character, but she serves as the central character of the story almost by default. My biggest issue with these two relatively short books is the multiple first-person point-of-view. The position of lead character is divided between the crew members of the Archaea. The “I” character alternates between scenes, and although it is normally clear which “I” is in the spotlight at any one time, I still found this disorienting. It also muddles the role of the protagonist because each of the first-person narrators is given about equal time. Oddly, the title character, Janis, has no scenes in the story written from her perspective.

The characters are likeable, the story hangs together well enough, and there is sufficient techno-babble for hard sci-fi geeks. The editing isn’t bad. I noticed only about half a dozen typos or obvious punctuation errors.

I can recommend this indie Kindle offering as a fun, short, sci-fi read—a solid 3.5 stars (rounded to 4).

 

Book Review – Paw-Prints of the Gods by Steph Bennion

PawPrintsofGodsTitle:  Paw Prints of the Gods
Author:
Steph Bennion
Publisher:
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
2013
Genre:
Science Fiction (YA)

Ravana O’Brien resumes her role as an intrepid teenage heroine in this sequel to Hollow Moon, which ends with… well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say you should not count your dead villains until you see their desiccated corpses. In this story, the residents of her home inside a recently crippled hollowed-out asteroid have become refugees on Ascension, a nearby planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. They are not entirely welcome. In fact, they are not at all welcome. Ravana, now a student at Newbrum University, is not there, though. Her father believes she is on an archeological dig on the distant and inhospitable planet of Falsafah in the Tau Ceti system, but when the story opens, she finds herself in a hospital with very unlikely nurses, and she has no idea how or why she is there. Thus begins a well-told tale of mysteries, escapes, cyberclones, aliens, spies, spaceships, and giant spiders. It is a hard-to-put-down book.

I found the prose, editing, and formatting for the digital edition above average. Pacing is also good. Although some of the science is highly speculative, it is not outlandish within the context of the story. A little suspension of disbelief is required, but this is YA science fiction, so you expect that. The story is written with a limited omniscient point of view from the perspective of several characters, although primarily from that of Ravana. I had no trouble following it, and it was clear who was on center stage at all times. I found the characters quite believable, and I would put Ravana ahead of most teenage heroines I’ve seen in recent fiction. She is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind to short grey aliens and rude little boys.

YA science fiction has become something of a rarity these days, and it was delightful for me to find some that was so well done. I highly recommend Paw-Prints of the Gods for YA science fiction readers, but I suggest reading Hollow Moon first.

Full Disclosure: I received a promotional digital copy of this book through Awesome Indies.

Related Post: Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion

Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion

HollowMoonTitle:  Hollow Moon
Author: Steph Bennion
Publisher:
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
2012
Genre:
Science Fiction (YA)

Spunky kids, political intrigue, a kidnapping, spaceships, surprises, a twisted villain, clever AI, mysterious aliens… What more could you want? In this case, not much. The setting is the future a couple centuries from now. Humanity has discovered a means to get from one place to another faster than light, and people from Earth have colonized space. They’ve accomplished much, but they are far from enlightened. They still have greed, fanaticism, war, corruption, and reality shows.

Hollow Moon is an imaginative and well-told tale centering on Ravana, the daughter of a space freighter captain living in a hollow moon orbiting a distant star. When she witnesses the kidnapping of the young Raja, the heir apparent of her small, inside out world, she becomes involved in far more than she expected. What she does not know is that she was already involved.

Hollow Moon is a refreshing alternative to the bulk of Young Adult speculative fiction I’ve seen in the last several years. The story is engaging. It has well-defined and well-developed characters, a fairly intricate but easily comprehensible plot, a few smiles, and, most appreciated of all, it’s NOT fantasy! It’s science fiction, and most of the science is reasonable. Okay, there was one scene with an unbelievably strong rope and a serendipitously placed wagon, and a girl who can resist a force that several tons of stone elephant cannot but, well, that’s just details. Actually, I doubt many readers would even question something like this. And then there was the school band that played Alpha Centauri by Tangerine Dream. Um, well, yeah, that’s not a violation of the laws of physics, and it’s cool, but I can’t see a school band attempting it. It’s 22 minutes long and sounds like some kind of ethereal improvised jazz bit done on flute and synthesizer. I know; details, and this one, despite being unlikely, made me smile, so it gets a pass on credibility for the sake of subtle humor. Actually, there are several gems such as this—allusions to contemporary culture scattered about and in chapter titles.

The story is written from an omniscient point of view with numerous characters sharing the spotlight. I did not find this at all confusing because the characters are sufficiently distinct. It is clear who the camera is on at any point. There were a few places where the adults seemed slightly too juvenile, but this is a YA novel and this seems to be common for those. This book does a better job with this, in fact, than I have seen in other YA stories, and in Hollow Moon, sometimes the adults actually act and sound like adults. The pace is fast enough to keep the plot moving, but it’s not frantic.

On the more technical side, the editing is more than adequate, although comma usage may not be exactly according the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction writing. I’ve noticed this is also true of science fiction and fantasy novels from bigger publishers, which may follow their own style guides for punctuation.

I normally comment on formatting in my reviews only when it is dreadful. In this case, I’m commenting on it because it was exceptional. It is obvious that a great deal of attention was paid to formatting Hollow Moon as an eBook. I see so many digital editions, especially from older, traditional publishers where the formatting is dreadful with double spacing, no paragraph indents, or no breaks between chapters. I don’t know if this is because they regard digital books as an afterthought or if they simply aren’t good at it, but Hollow Moon had none of these flaws. It even included embedded links for previous and subsequent chapters at the start of each new chapter (unnecessary but thoughtful).

Hollow Moon has charm, intelligence, and wit, and it is one of the most enjoyable YA stories I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend it for readers of YA science fiction.

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