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.

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

In the far future year of 2015, World War Three is interrupted when Earth’s magnetic poles shift drastically, causing global disaster.  The silver lining is that the survivors united to form a peaceful culture that then rapidly advanced.  However, by the 31st Century, humanity was again at war, against aliens this time.  After several centuries of stalemate, a contest of champions was proposed, a series of athletic competitions.  Despite the aliens being physically superior to Terrans on average, Earth’s exceptional champion succeeded in ending the war in Earth’s favor.

Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

As a result, humanity has become obsessed with physical culture and athletic competition.  Female athletes compete at the University Satellite to gain the title “Cosmic Beauty.”   The year is 4999, and Akari Kanzaki, daughter of former Cosmic Beauty Tomoe Midou, has come to the University Satellite to train and then compete for her own shot at the title.

There were two anime continuities for this series; I’m looking at the original OAV version of six episodes in this first DVD volume-but the television remake Battle Athletes Victory lasted 26 episodes.   The TV series drastically altered several characters’ personalities and plot arcs, as well as adding more characters in general.

The first episode, “Chronicle Beginning”, sketches in the backstory, then introduces our heroine, who is running (literally) late for the rocket from Earth to her new school.  We are then introduced to her buddies from training camp; Tanya, who has animalistic qualities that are never really explained and a blonde girl whose name I didn’t catch and quickly becomes irrelevant.

The girls are assigned to random roommates who will be their team for the upcoming year; Tanya wanders off to find food first, while Akari checks out the training facilities.  She soon finds out the students here train at a completely different level, and spends so much time bonding with senior students that the information kiosk that would have told her where her new dorm room is has closed.

Meanwhile, painfully shy new student Anna Respighi has become hopelessly lost and innocently interrupts senior student Mylandah’s visualization training.   Mylandah, who is obsessed with becoming number one, is slapping Anna around when Akari shows up.  Mylandah directs them through a deserted corridor to the new student dorm…without telling them that it’s got variable gravity.  She then bullies them some more.

The girls are rescued by their third roommate, Kris Christopher, who is from the Moon and is used to operating in variable gravity environments.  She in turn is bailed out by Headmaster Grant Oldman, the champion of Earth (and not so secretly the kind of guy who pervs on teenage girls.)

Kris is thrilled to meet her roomies, and tells them she wants to feel even closer to them…while removing her clothes!

In the second episode, “Oath Entrant”, Kris takes off her clothes (there’s Barbie doll anatomy,) and performs a skyclad ritual.  It turns out she belongs to a Lunarian cult called the Beginners, who are into spirit worship and casual nudity.   Anna is especially freaked out by the latter due to her strong nudity taboo (but that is something that comes up in Episode Three.)

The first sport the trio is entered into is Zero-G lacrosse; which they aren’t allowed to warm up for or learn the rules before being thrust into the first match…which just so happens to be against Mylandah and her anonymous teammates.   Lacking teamwork and basic information about how the sport works, Akari’s team is stomped.  Akari promptly has a crisis of confidence.

Akari consults a hologrammatic display of her mother when that person was a student at the Satellite, then sets up a robotic practice room.  Mylandah sabotages the practice by altering the settings to “lethal”, but this gives Anna and Kris the chance to rescue Akari and bond with her.  By the end of the lacrosse matches, Team Akari is able to win one.

This 1997 series came out before the current moe movement, but one can see the roots of that treatment here.  Akari is underconfident and emotionally vulnerable in a way designed to make male viewers protective of her, while Anna, Kris and Tanya appeal to specific fetish points.  While the focus on female athleticism is welcome, the young women with visible musculature are treated as less desirable by the camera framing and narrative flow.

Male-oriented fanservice is right up front, and Grant Oldman’s sexual interest in teenage girls is treated as a lovable foible rather than a concerning flaw in a teacher.

This isn’t as deep as Ender’s Game, but does have a similar feel at points.  Interestingly, Japanese culture seems to have survived just fine in the internationalist future.

Recommended for male fans of female athletes; there’s better anime of girls’ sports actually aimed at girls.

 

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

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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