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: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

Manga Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3 by Naoko Takeuchi

Usagi Tsukino doesn’t look much like hero material at first glance.  She’s clumsy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and a bit of a crybaby.  But Usagi has a secret heritage, and when talking cat Luna seeks her out, Usagi becomes the bishoujo senshi (“pretty guardian”) Sailor Moon!  Now gifted with magical powers, Sailor Moon must seek out the other guardians and defeat the monsters of the Dark Kingdom to save the world.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

This 1991 manga series was groundbreaking in many ways.  The mahou shoujo (“magical girl”) subgenre of fantasy manga and anime had been around since the 1960s, inspired by the American TV show Bewitched, but was primarily about cute witches, fairy princesses and ordinary girls who were gifted power by witches or fairies who used their magic to help people with their day to day problems and maybe once in a while fight a monster or two.  Takeuchi blended this with the traditionally boy-oriented sentai (“warrior squad”) subgenre to create magical girl warriors whose primary thing was using magical powers to defeat evil.

It was also novel for being a shoujo (girls’) manga with an immediate animated adaptation as Takeuchi developed the series in coordination with Toei.  The manga ran monthly while the anime was weekly, so the animated version has lots of “filler” episodes that don’t advance the plot but do expand on the characterization of minor roles.  Indeed, it’s better to think of the manga and anime as two separate continuities.

Both manga and anime were huge hits, though the versions first brought to America were heavily adulterated.  American children’s television wasn’t ready for some of the darker themes of some of the episodes, and the romantic relationship of Sailors Neptune and Uranus blew moral guardians’ minds.  More recently, new, more faithful translations have come out, and there’s a new anime adaptation, Sailor Moon Crystal that sticks closer to the manga continuity.

The volume to hand, #3, contains the end of the Dark Kingdom storyline.  Wow, that was quick.   Once forced into a direct confrontation, Queen Beryl isn’t really much more formidable than her minions; only the fact that she has a brainwashed Prince Endymion (Tuxedo Mask) on her side makes the fight difficult.  Queen Metallia, the true power behind the throne, on the other hand, is a world-ending menace and it will take everything our heroes have plus Usagi awakening to her full heritage to defeat it.

Takeuchi had originally planned for her heroines to die defeating Metallia and ending the series there, but the anime had great ratings, and both Toei and her manga’s editor felt that this would be too much of a downer.  After some floundering, the editor suggested the new character “Chibi-Usa” and her startling secret, and Takeuchi was able to come up with a plotline from there.

So it is that just as Usagi and Mamoru are getting romantic, a little girl who claims her name is also Usagi drops out of the sky to interrupt.  “Chibi-Usa” looks a lot like a younger version of our Usagi, and is on a mission to reclaim the Silver Crystal (despite the fact that she seems to be wearing a Silver Crysal herself.)  She infiltrates Usagi’s family, much to the older girl’s irritation.

At the same time, a new enemy appears, the Black Moon.  Led by Prince Demande and advised by the mysterious Wiseman, they seek not only the Silver Crystal but a being called the “Rabbit.”  Their initial ploy is to send out the Spectre Sisters to capture the Sailor Senshi one by one.  The Spectre Sisters are very much evil counterparts of the Senshi, each having an elemental affinity and interests matching one of the heroes.  The first two, Koan and Berthier, are destroyed in battle, but not before they remove Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury from the board.

In a subplot, a new minor character is introduced, an underclassman of Mamoru’s whose job is shilling Mamoru and his fine qualities.  This is actually kind of helpful, as Tuxedo Mask had spent most of the Dark Kingdom arc either being mysterious or unavailable.  This allows us more insight into who this Mamoru person is when he’s not around Usagi.

Rei and Ami get some development in their focus chapters, but seemingly mostly so that the Spectre Sisters can have similar interests.

Some of this comes off as cliche now, but that’s because Sailor Moon was such a strong influence on magical girl stories that came afterward.  Here’s where many of the tropes started!

The art is very good of its kind, and again seems less distinctive now because of imitators.

Recommended for magical girl fans, teenage girls and romantic fantasy fans.

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)

 

 

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic books were still a very new thing in 1940, and the publishers were still trying to figure out what there was a market for.  Science fiction themes seemed popular, so Fiction House created the pulp-inspired Planet Comics to appeal to fans of rockets and aliens.  This volume collects the first four issues, including some of the advertisements.

Planet Comics, Vol. 1

After a brief introduction by Carmine Infantino, which is mostly about the fact that he had nothing to do with any of the included material, we get right down to some luridly colored adventures.  Dick Briefer was the artist on “Flint Baker and the One-Eyed Monsters of Mars”, the first story in the volume and perhaps the most complex.  Mr. Baker has designed and built a spaceship, but no sane people want to go on a trip to Mars with him.  So he pulls political strings to have three murderous mechanics freed from Death Row if they’ll volunteer for the voyage.

After takeoff, it’s discovered that Mimi Wilson, a reporter for the New York Globe, has stowed away on the ship.  Flint is quickly *ahem* convinced to let her stay aboard.  The three convicts tell their stories, and amazingly, all three of them were actually guilty.  The first one does claim self-defense, but the second decided to shoot his sister’s fiance at the altar on the grounds that he was “rotten.”  The third man, Grant, claims to have been forced to murder by a mysterious man with hypnotic powers.  Hmm….

It turns out that Mr. Baker’s is not the first expedition to Mars.  As the ruler of the light side of Mars and his daughter Princess Viga explain, the Earthmen were criminals, and exiled to Mars’ dark side (protip:  Mars does not have a “dark side”) where even now they plot to conquer the peaceful Martians.  The word “they” turns out to be misleading.  Their leader, Sarko, has murdered the others and seized control of an army of one-eyed monsters.

There is a fierce battle, during which the named women are captured, and the King of Mars gives up.  The Earthmen are made of sterner stuff and infiltrate the enemy headquarters.  Sarko is planning to kill Viga to prevent any opposition to his eternal rule, and is going to give Mimi immortality to be his Empress.  Turns out that Sarko was the man who forced Grant to murder and then left him in prison to rot–they both wind up dead.  But more adventures next month!

Other standout characters are the Red Comet, a mystery man who can shrink and grow at will thanks to a special belt, Amazona, last woman of a superior Arctic race, and Auro, Lord of Jupiter, who was raised by a saber-tooth tiger.  Spurt Hammond is not so special in and of himself, being a standard two-fisted space pilot, but he battles the Lunerzons, woman warriors of the Moon with a vaguely Chinese culture, who are easily defeated when their leaders both get the hots for Spurt.

Art by Dick Briefer
Just look at this car. Is it not magnificent? Art by Dick Briefer.

 

The design aesthetic is very pulp SF, which leads to some fascinating spaceships and cityscapes.  But much of the art is crude, and some of the stories have lazy pages of big panels with little art in them.  Often the stories are disjointed and somewhat nonsensical; this is most obvious with the Fletcher Hanks “Tiger Hart” piece which is apparently a medieval story with a couple of word balloons edited to make it happen on Saturn.

There’s no real depth of theme in these stories, just plenty of action.  Be warned, there’s some period racism (seriously, a global invasion by what appear to be Eskimos?) and sexism.  For most people, I’d recommend checking to see if you can find this through your public library.  Only the most fanatical Golden Age collectors (like me) are likely to want to own it.

Book Review: Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Book Review: Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum edited by Michael J. Neufeld

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

Milestones of Space

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut.   It sounded like the best job in the universe.  I dreamed of flight, of going into space, exploring new worlds.  I still have my astronaut curtains up in my bedroom.  But it was not to be.  By the time I hit puberty, it was clear that my poor vision would prevent me from being a pilot.  Once the Space Shuttles came along and started accepting astronauts that weren’t pilots,, my life had gone down other paths.  I may never get to space.

And that’s why I was so pleased to receive this book to review.  it’s a bit over-sized, somewhere between standard and coffee-table.  As the subtitle indicates, it’s a series of articles about various items in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, mostly written by Smithsonian curators, and arranged in chronological order.   They range from Friendship 7, which carried John Glenn around the world in orbit, to (pieces of) the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990.

The book is profusely illustrated, and has a lot of sidebar articles that explain topics related to the objects in question.  For example, an explanation of why Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is not currently on display.  (Turns out some of the fabrics and materials have long term interactions that are harmful to each other.)

The language is formal, and younger readers may struggle with some of the vocabulary, but anyone who’s followed the space program over the years should have no difficulty.  There’s an extensive bibliography, and an index.

I would recommend this as a gift for anyone  junior high school and up who has an interest in the space program or related sciences.  I do have to warn that this book made me a little sad.  Why haven’t we gone back to the moon yet?  When will we finally get to Mars?

And now, a video in homage to the Apollo 11 mission:

 

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