Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: The Hollow-Hearted

Book Review: The Hollow-Hearted by C.A.  Bryers

Things are not going well for Natke Orino.  After having to leave her old job as a secret agent, Natke has moved to the Odyssan Archipelago to form her own exploration company.  But her rivals seem to be always one step ahead getting to new archaeological sites and Natke’s financial backers have stopped funding her.  Also, her barely-kept-secret relationship with her second in command Fuorento is at a crisis point.  If she doesn’t have a success soon, she may need to admit defeat and go to work for a smug competitor.

The Hollow-Hearted

That’s when Natke’s information expert L’Anne reveals that there’s been an earthquake on a remote island associated with legendary assassin Cary the Hollow-Hearted.  It’s exposed what may be the cave system that Cary made her final stand in, and if an explorer found proof of Cary’s existence, they’d be set for life!  Natke quickly gets her small (and rapidly dwindling) company aship, and they are on their way to Hollow Rock.

But although they seem to be the first expedition to arrive, it’s soon clear the explorers are not alone, and whoever or whatever else is on the island, it’s hostile.  Natke must battle for both her life and her career, but will victory cost her heart?

This novella is a prequel to The 13th Paragon duology by the same author.   The genre is unclear, so let’s call it science fiction for now.  It’s set in a world where technology was once at a higher level, but is swiftly regaining ground.  Natke and Fuorento were supporting characters in the duology, and this fills in an important piece of their mutual background.

As a short work, this is fast-paced, and sheds characters quickly (not all by death, thankfully.)  Sadly, some of the characters I liked best were vanished from the story for the all-important final confrontation to work better.  And those who have read the work this is a prequel to will know at least some of the end already.

Overall, this is a light read that will most appeal to fans of the author’s other works.

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015 edited by Trevor Quachri

Since its debut issue as Astounding Stories of Super-Science in January 1930, what would become Analog was one of the most influential, and often the most influential, science fiction magazines on the racks.  After I reviewed Analog  1 (a collection of stories from when the magazine made its main name change in 1960) last week, I was informed that this month’s issue was in fact the 1000th issue, the longest run of any science fiction magazine and a respectable milestone for any publication.  (It has skipped a number of months over the years, or April 2013 would have been the lucky number.)

Analog 1000

If the cover by Victoria Green looks a bit odd, it’s because it’s a “remix” of the very first cover (illustrating the story “The Beetle Horde” by Victor Rousseau and painted by H.W. Wessolowski) with the  genders reversed.  The editorial speaks about that first story (and the issue is available to read at Project Gutenberg!)

Former editors also get to pen a few words.  Stanley Schmidt talks about there always being new futures for science fiction writers to write about–no matter how many milestones are passed, there will be more to come.  Ben Bova writes of John W. Campbell and his influence on the field of science fiction (generally positive.)

Naturally, there is some fiction in this issue, beginning with “The Wormhole War” by Richard A. Lovett.  An attempt to send a wormhole to allow humans to travel to an Earth-like world in a distant star system ends disastrously.  Follow-up wormholes end equally badly, but much closer to home.  It dawns on the scientists that someone else is making wormholes, and they might not be too happy with us.  It’s a serviceable enough story.

“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare features exobiologist Becca and her alien partner Shurza helping with an archaeological dig that is developing some unusual results.  Possibly the vanished natives haven’t actually vanished–but then, where are they?  This story appears to be part of a series, and refers back to earlier events.  (One of the letters to the editor in this issue praises that another series story got a “previously on” section, but this one didn’t.)

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F. Wu is a tale of a  human/alien war told in brief reminiscences by the participants.  It is a condensed version of many war-related themes, such as the home government not living up to the principles its soldiers are supposedly fighting for, and the ending twist is not surprising if you think about it.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins may be titled like a business blog, but is actually about an artist taking on a  strenuous job because their art doesn’t pay well.  A crisis arises when his shirt stops working.  Amusing.

“The Odds” by Rod Collins is a rare second-person story, with a narrator emphasizing just how unlikely the scenario “you” find yourself in is.  It’s short, and describing the plot would give away the twist, so I’ll just say that it’s chilling.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C.C. Finlay has a misleading title, as one of the characters admits.  The protagonist is visiting a doctor to be rid of his capacity for empathy, and doesn’t think through the implications to their logical conclusion.  Perhaps it is because his empathy was already too low.

“Flight” by Mack Hassler is a short poem about kinds of flight.  It’s okay, I guess.  (Long-time readers know modern poetry isn’t my thing.)

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson involves three people who have been assigned to evaluate human colonies sent into space millenia ago to see if they are a threat to humanity, and if so to destroy them.  This is their final stop, and perhaps their hardest decision.   Is preserving civilization as it exists worth losing the potential that this new direction offers?  Disturbing.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser is a tale of a near-first encounter with aliens spun by a spacer to colonists in a local bar.  Physicists may catch the twist in the story before the end.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen rounds out the fiction with a tale of first contact gone horribly wrong.  It turns out there’s another planet passing through the Oort cloud, one that’s inhabited.  Unfortunately, the aliens aren’t  the sort humans are ready to deal with, and it’s up to a storyteller to spin a yarn that will save the day.

That first issue of Astounding.
That first issue of Astounding.

One of the things I notice reading this issue as compared to even the 1960 stories in Analog 1 is diversity of protagonists.  In the earlier stories, women are love interests and faithful assistants at best, and a non-WASP protagonist is something special that has to be justified.  Now, women, people of various ethnicities, and more…unusual protagonists are able to appear with it being “no biggie.”

The fact article is “Really Big Tourism” by Michael Carroll, talking about the possibilities of the Solar System’s gas giants for tourist visits (once we lick the problem of getting there.)

“The Analog Millenium” by Mike Ashley gives us all the statistics we need about the magazine’s 1000 issues.   There are a few surprises in here!

The usual departments of letters to the editor, book reviews (mostly psionics-based stories this month) and upcoming events are also present.

This issue is certainly worth picking up as a collector’s item, if nothing else.  I liked “The Kroc War” and “The Empathy Vaccine” best of the stories.  If you haven’t read science fiction in a long time, you might find the  evolution of the genre interesting to consider.

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1 art by Naoki Urasawa, story by Hokusei Katsushika & Takashi Nagasaki

Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a mild-looking fellow with a bumbling exterior personality.  You’d never guess that he’s a brilliant archaeologist, ex-SAS soldier and freelance insurance investigator.  He often takes leave of his day job as a poorly paid lecturer at a small Japanese college to investigate possible insurance fraud around the world, especially if it involves archaeological artifacts.  Adventure awaits!

Master Keaton

Now if he could just figure out a way to get back with his mathematician ex-wife like his outspoken teen daughter Yuriko would like….

This late 1980s manga series has art by Naoki Urasawa, famous in the U.S. for his work on Monster and 20th Century Boys.  There are touches that suggest he had some input on the writing of this series, but it lacks the intricacy and long-term plotting of his solo work.

As it is, this is a fine action series, very episodic in nature and could easily be done in live action.  While Mr. Keaton has special forces training, and several of the stories do have heavy violence, he’s fundamentally a man of peace who prefers to solve problems with MacGyver style ingenuity and thoughtful negotiation.  He goes well out of his way to avoid killing people.

The 1980s setting is very obvious from time to time, especially in the politics; but at least one story involves a piece of then-new technology today’s kids would find hopelessly obsolete.  Taichi being Cornish-Japanese with dual citizenship helps move the story along and gives him a unique perspective.

The final story in this volume is a two-parter that focuses on James Wolf, Keaton’s fencing instructor in the SAS and a perfect role for Liam Neeson.  He has a mad on for Corsican drug gangs and Keaton is called in to deal with the situation, in hopes that he can keep the body count down.  This story also explains why Keaton is called “Master.”

This is a seinen (young men’s) series, so there is some nudity, including male nudity in art reproductions.

Keaton can come across as a bit too competent in some of the stories, which presumably is why he’s written as such a bumbling father.  Recommended for fans of Eighties action shows.

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church by A.C. Graziano

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I received is the first edition, which has a number of typos I am told were fixed in the second edition.

From the Cross to the Church

This book is a basic introduction to the subject of the creation of the canonical New Testament and the formation of the Roman Catholic church from the early community of Christian believers.  It covers what scholars now believe (although there are great differences in opinion among Biblical scholars as to details) as to when the books were written, by whom as far as can be determined, and where they might have been altered to match then-current concerns.

This is a fascinating subject for those interested in learning more about where the Scriptures came from.  It is likely to be less pleasing to one whose framework for interpreting the Bible requires it to be immutable, and by the writers tradition has assigned, directly inspired by God.

I found this volume poorly organized, with bullet points not always recapping the previous material, and inserted in non-intuitive places.  A chapter on documentary sources of Genesis is just sort of plopped down at the end.

The author does not claim any original research, describing himself instead as a “journalist.”  To that end, the list of sources at the end of the volume, ranked by importance and accessibility (but not by credibility, let the reader beware!) may be of more use to the interested scholar.

If you need a quick introduction to the concepts covered here, this book will do.  For better choices, consult your pastor or a Biblical scholar of your acquaintance

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Book Review: Girls Research! Amazing Tales of Female Scientists

Book Review: Girls Research!  Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Girls Research!

This is a part of the Girls Rock! series by Capstone Books, which presents short biographies of women and their achievements, aimed primarily at young girls.  In this book’s case, the stories are about female scientists and women who made advances in science-related fields.   The introduction talks a bit about the difficulties that faced women who wanted to become scientists, and still do.  But it’s emphasized that these are women who overcame those obstacles.

There’s a variety of presentations, from short quarter page blurbs to two-page spreads.  Some entries have a dry recitation of facts, while others use “creative non-fiction” for the scientist to tell her story in the first person.  There are plenty of photographs, some in color.

Naturally, the usual suspects such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale appear, but there are also much less well known examples, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, who was a vital member of the Manhattan Project.  There’s a good effort to include diversity, but the book does tend a little bit U.S./Western Europe-centric.

The obstacles faced by women who are scientists are mentioned in various stories; difficulty getting an education, getting hired, getting listened to (a couple of them had their research outright stolen!)  At least one is mentioned as having additional difficulties because she was Jewish in Mussolini’s Italy.

But there are also accounts of Frances Glessner Lee, who turned her dollhouse hobby to good use in developing forensic crime investigation techniques, and Hedy Lamarr, who was a glamorous Hollywood actress when not inventing torpedo guidance systems.

The biographies are grouped by the type of science (astronomers here, primate researchers there) with an alphabetical index at the end.  There’s also a timeline of when these scientists did their most important work.  My major nitpick is that the source citations are on the indicia page in tiny print, and not well-formatted.  The bibliography is short and a bit lacking; parents will need to do the heavy lifting to find more complete biographies and vet them for their children.

The book has a nice sturdy binding, suitable for elementary and middle school libraries.  While the primary audience is of course elementary school girls, boys should also find the biographical sketches interesting, and parents may find out some new things too.

Book Review: The Sky Devil

Book Review: The Sky Devil by L. Ron Hubbard

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, because of severe shipping delays, Galaxy Press also sent the audio version.

The Sky Devil

This is another in the series of L. Ron Hubbard pulp stories reprints from Galaxy Press, a novella and two short stores.  As always, the physical quality of the book is top-notch.

The title story, “The Sky Devil”, starts with aviator Vic Kennedy fleeing retribution for his part in the failed 1935 Greek revolution.  He’s been denied asylum by both the British and French, and finds himself flying over the Sahara desert with a nearly-empty gas tank.  Suddenly, he sees a city, and upon landing finds himself embroiled in local politics.

It’s an exciting story, and features some creative use of those last few gallons of gasoline.  Hubbard loved his airplane stories, and it really shows.  There’s a love interest, but it’s kind of a lopsided victory.   I mean, you have your choice of a handsome, strapping warrior with the power of flight, or a malformed degenerate whose only claim on you is extortion of your father.  Who you going to pick?

The author is quick to point out that the locals are “white” Muslims, and it just so happens that Vic knows Arabic from…somewhere never fully discussed.

“”Buckley Plays a hunch” is set in the Southwest Pacific.  Buckley is a sailor who’s been looking for a lost scientific expedition, and has now found them.  It’s clear that they have all gone mad on this isolated island, but Buckley gets the feeling there’s more going on than meets the eye.  It isn’t quite as creepy a story as it really should be; Buckley’s just a little too calm and collected to sell it.

“Medals for Mahoney” is likewise set in the Southwest Pacific.  Mahoney is the latest clerk for a trading company.  Kamling Island has a problem with short-lived clerks and natives raiding the storehouse.  Mahoney is trying to defend the warehouse from the latest raid, but he may just possibly have the situation backwards.  A good twist in this one, and a nice bit of comedy at the end.

There’s a helpful glossary, a preview of another volume “Black Towers to Danger”, and the standard introduction and Hubbard Bio that’s in all the Galaxy Press editions.  As I have noted before, the shortness of the book and the mandatory repeated material lower the value for money if you have more than one of these volumes.  I would recommend this from the library or used bookstore, though.

The audio edition is quite splendid; it’s fully voice-acted, with sound effects.  The touted actor is Yasmine Hanani as Dunya, the love interest in “The Sky Devil”, and she has a strong cast backing her.  The actor playing Vic Kennedy came off a little bland, but that may be because everyone else was having fun with the Arabic accents.  The potted biography is in the included leaflet, which is heavily illustrated.  This has better value for money ratio, but a book is easier to pick up and read.

For other books in the series, see the “Related Posts” below this post.

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