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.

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3 by Jiro Kuwata

Quick recap:  The 1960s Batman television show was popular in Japan as well, and a tie-in manga was done by 8-Man creator Jiro Kuwata.  It was not based on the show as such, but on the Batman comic books of the time, so had a slightly more serious tone.  This is the final volume of the translated collection.

Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3

We open with Batman and Robin battling the Planet King, a character who uses superscience gadgets based on properties of the planets of our solar system.  The Mercury suit projects heat, the Jupiter suit can make objects giant-sized and so forth.  There’s a double fake-out as to the identity of the Planet King, and a motive for his rampage that seems better suited to a Superman comic.

Then there’s a story about three escaped criminals using remote-controlled robots to commit robberies.  This one has a “electricity does not work that way” moment that took me out of the story.

This is followed by a Clayface story that chronologically happens before the story in the second volume, which may have confused some readers at the time.

The next story is about a series of robberies committed by criminals in cosplay outfits as part of a contest.  Some highlights include Batman disguised as a criminal disguised as Batman, a functionally illiterate crook faced with writing a name, and one contestant’s attempt to rig the contest being foiled by criminals’ congenital inability to follow the rules.  In many ways the best story in this volume.

After that, we have a story of Catman, whose cloak supposedly gives him nine lives.  (No mention of Catwoman, alas.)  His Japanese costume is much cooler looking than the American version.

Then a somewhat longer story about a “ghost” who initially looks like Robin, then Batman, and finally gives up the disguise to be his own character.  The main difficulty the Dynamic Duo faces here is that the Phantom Batman can hit them, but not vice-versa.

The final story has our heroes being captured by an alien dictator and forced into gladiatorial combat with representatives of three other planets for the Emperor’s amusement.  Naturally, Batman restores good government.  “Peace is the best option for everyone.”

There’s a short article about Mr. Kuwata’s adaptation process, and a list of which American issues he adapted.

This is very much an adaptation for elementary school boys, with little in the way of subtlety, and female characters kept to a minimum.  The art is often stiff and old-fashioned, and minor character faces are reused quite a bit.  Still, it’s fun adventure, and Kuwata often put an interesting spin on the original material.  Recommended for the intersection of Batman fans and manga fans.

Book Review: The Players of Null-A

Book Review: The Players of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt (Also published as The Pawns of Null-A)

Note:  This book is a direct sequel to The World of Null-A and this review will spoil elements of that first novel.  Like, immediately after this paragraph.

The Players of Null-A

With the death of the mighty Thorson, the plans of the Greatest Empire for Venus and Earth have been thwarted.  But that empire and its master Enro the Red are still active threats to the Galactic League.  As well, Gilbert Gosseyn, the man with the extra brain,  has come to the attention of the mysterious Follower.  Even with the aid of his Null-A training, can Gosseyn survive long enough to learn the true nature of his enemies?  And who is the Player who seems to be guiding Gosseyn?

This story was originally published as a magazine serial in 1948, and revised for book publication in the 1950s.  It follows van Vogt’s standard formula of short scenes and plenty of plot twists, while using psychologically tricky phrasing to slow the reader down and make them think a bit.  Still, the plot practically gallops.

One thing Mr. van Vogt did well was allow his overpowered protagonist to still feel challenged.  His training in non-Aristotelian logic gives his cortex (seat of reasoning) mastery over the thalamus (seat of emotions) so that he is able to understand his own feelings and psychology.  This has allowed Gosseyn to reach the peak of human mental and physical conditioning.  In addition, his apparently unique extra brain allows him to teleport himself and other objects without the aid of machines, as well as other minor tricks.  Oh, and if he’s killed, there are backup bodies.

But Gosseyn is up against Enro the Red, a dictator with the resources of an empire and the ability to see and hear events anywhere he chooses; and the Follower, a living shadow with the ability to predict the future.  To make things even more complicated, Gosseyn is forced into a different body from time to time, one without any special powers or training to assist him.  While if he gets killed, Gosseyn will revive in a new body, he doesn’t know where that body is stored–it could be far from the places he needs to be.

Eldred Crang, the Null-A detective, is also busy, but mostly behind the scenes with his alleged wife (who turns out to be Enro’s sister, and co-ruler of the planet…but with no power over the extrastellar empire.)

There are several competent, strong-minded women in the story, but for reasons, none of them are fully trained in Null-A, so they play subordinate roles.  There’s a scene where this book almost passes the Bechdel Test.  It seems that Enro has a childish attitude towards women, considering their primary use to be sex objects (including his sister), so Gosseyn has two of them engage in “girl talk” so that if Enro is listening in, the inanity of it will mask the men’s plot-relevant conversation.   Doesn’t quite pass the test, as none of the women’s dialogue is quoted.

The ending is very abrupt, like one of those old kung-fu movies that stops at the moment the hero lands a knock-out blow on the villain.  Mr. van Vogt was not big on wrap-up chapters, so the fate of several characters is up in the air at the book’s end.

The Null-A philosophy extracts that start each chapter can be a bit repetitious, and one has to wonder just how one leaps from them to rewiring your brain through intense training.  There’s also a lot of technobabble around the teleportation system.

You might want to read the previous book first, (try to get your hands on the 1970s revision which fixes some of the worst plot holes in World), but this is perfectly acceptable pulp science fiction that might give you something to think about.

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