position, and authority to the list of eminent scientists, leaders, and philosophers who counsel against the capitalistic shackling of society and its dangers to humans and planet Earth. In a clear and precise statement about what religion expects of its followers, the Pope encourages a return to an unhurried and unselfish life that fosters goodness towards others and care for our planet. (April 2017)
Take Back the Sky
By Greg Bear
Only the obsessive will stay until the Skyrines return from Titan, though battle action is more boring that engaging. Whether they on board a ship or on the moon never solidifies and the aliens who are allies or foes change at Bear’s whim. It’s hard to imagine that the reader is not reading the description of an evolving computer game. By the time foes and friends alike seem to be sorted out, Bear offers one more “but wait.” Ultimately the small Skyrine and Russian cadre discovers they have saved aliens from their enemies, a long struggle is over, and Earthling heroes are returned to Earth for an unsatisfying denouement. (April 2017)
By Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens is a conglomeration of minutia categorized and sequenced to create an historical timeline ending at the current era. Chapters appears as pegs for Harari’s history class syllabus and discussion. His content order never varies. He begins with a general statement followed by details that counter the accepted belief and never concludes with a modified statement. Any reader looking for a definitive belief from Harari will be continuously disappointed and unable to argue his own convictions with an author who is unwilling to write what he believes. Nor does Harari ever hint at his religious preference or lack that might drive his scattered hints at the nature of humans. Perhaps his conclusions will be found in Homo Deus, an obvious demand to buy another book. (March 2017)
Edited by Steven B Howell & David Lee Summers
A baker’s dozen tales are placed on potential human habitation of planets of stars discovered by the Kepler mission. The intriguing stories are intrinsically tied to the imagined planetary characteristics each orb might offer. Each tale suggests how human life might exist or interact with the planet of choice which says more about the author’s wishes than the discovery of the star system. Though in all fairness, humans do what is necessary, moral, and scientific: what science fiction generally promotes. (February 2017)
The Brazen Shark
By David Lee Summers
The continuing steampunk saga concludes (?) as Ramon and Fatemah are swept to Japan to avert a potential clash between Japan and Russia. The north Pacific is the scene for a Samurai rebellion intended to retake power of their government. Their subterfuge begun with a small village of Eskimos and the hi-jacking a Russian blimp sets the complicated series of secret services, American intervention, Russian expansion into North America, and Legion’s divided presence (not entirely disinterested) in several humans to direct their cooperation towards altruism. The couple’s honeymoon is disrupted as each become separated secret agents undoing the misapprehensions created by the Samurai. They are successful, of course. Summers manages to revisit all his characters from his steampunk saga and resolve whatever questions the reader might have asked as well as several others that might have kept the world from being different than what it is. (February 2017)
Apes & Angels
By Ben Bova
The second volume about Earth’s humanitarian struggles with the approaching galactic death wave from a gamma-burst puts an exploratory mission at Mithra to save primitive endangered humanoids. Bova returns to his energetic descriptions of human society with all its foibles and introduces unexpected proto-rationality that is equally imperiled. That discovery opens a rich and engaging discussion about technological beings encountering primitives. Though Apes & Angels seems more involved in the petty human squabbles of power and control, Bova opens the ethical dilemma questioning whether advanced travelers have a duty to remain dispassionate and invisible or appear and alter alien society from outside. Bova’s hero is one who presses the edges of propriety for all the right reasons, but seems to have little understanding of the questionable implications of his actions. More to the point, Bova’s willingness to save rational aliens at all costs refuses to deal with an agony and acceptance that some rational species can’t be saved. (January 2017)
A Crack in the Edge of the World
By Simon Winchester
Beginning with Apollo astronauts and the moon, Simon Winchester demonstrates his ability to interrelate information from all areas of life as he leads readers up to, through, and after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. We get several geology lessons that depict the huge north American plate whose eastern edge is Iceland. Winchester also explains how the crust of our planet slips, slides, and dives while providing release of magna through volcanic hot spots, not least of which is Yellowstone’s smoldering caldera. After a lengthy rambling auto journey across the United States with a detour at the New Madrid earthquakes (1811-12) of Missouri, Winchester reaches San Francisco and begins to dissect the events and after-shocks that forced re-creation of the area now recognized as a touchstone of California society and culture. His penchant of gathering detail provides information that lets to the reader experience the cataclysm and subsequent conflagration. Then in afterthought he takes a road trip to Alaska in memory of the 1964 quake to compare and minimize that recent event with San Francisco’s 1906 travesty. (January 2017)
By Wilbur Smith
Returning to ancient Egypt Smith rediscovers his engaging story-telling, though Taita, well into his second century and hardly losing his abilities, has become more boastful. In the sixth book of this epic, Smith weaves a tale that introduces Ramses amid the pharaonic era of his older unmanly and narcissistic brother and brings back major characters from Desert God. Utteric adulterates the kingdom and removes Taita from his pre-eminence. The pharaoh’s baseness and implied destruction of Egypt launches Taita’s plan to enlist Ramses, the younger abler brother, and the extended families of former Pharaoh Tamose whose daughters taken to be married to Crete’s ruler ended up with Spartan (Lacedaemonian) kings after the island’s volcano erupted. In Smith’s inimitable style, the reader is offered a mingling of Greek and Egyptian mythology as the proper pharaoh is involved in battles and subterfuge to vanquish his older brother who exemplifies all the characteristics of a sneaky weakling demagogue. Smith traces the ultimate destruction of Utteric through battle plans that go awry and are re-energized, the repatriating of citizens and military from the “wrong” pharaoh, to the ultimate revenge death of Utteric.
To those who swore off Smith after the mis-guided collaboration of Golden Lion, Pharaoh is Smith at his best. That Taita succeeds and is re-established to his former status is a foregone conclusion, but he must overcome serious roadblocks that threaten death and destruction. (December 2016)
By David Waltham
The Earth is unique in the galaxy and probably the universe according to author Waltham. His short book discussing the potential of life in the universe gives earthlings the edge. Although the author offers examples of how life might originate based on Earth's history (he rejects a creator and is enamored of spontaneous fortuitous generation), whenever his discussion approaches statistical multiplicity of elements for any life arising, he discounts the possibility except for our planet. Discarding his scientific belief that we are more than likely alone in all of creation, Lucky Planet is a good explanation of how we did arise on and why conditions for our existence cooperated to result in our singular place in the universe. That similar conditions evolving to rationality might arise in the growing immensity of the universe or potential multi-verses is rejected without reason other than that Waltham prefers to think that we are the pinnacle of creation. The astonishing implications of that thought he never deals with. (November 2016)
Night Without Stars
By Peter F. Hamilton
The non-stop problems mirror the social construct of our planet and we see political upheaval tending to tyranny. However, generations of Commonwealth citizens expelled from the void and imprisoned Riael return to the galaxy through the magical ability of clones and downloaded brain content that provide a full range of necessity to defeat the evil Fallers. Only through the assistance of another alien mechanical race that provides transport far beyond the Commonwealth's ultimate travel speed is homecoming achieved. Hamilton is not as mysterious in this plot line, though he does surprise. His evil is worse than usual, harking back to the Night's Dawn Trilogy. His good is inherently altruistic and the reader expects the victory. Much hero success seems contrived as Hamilton is engaged in trying to bring together several hundred years of history on one planet expelled from the void and the tenuous connection with Commonwealth intelligence that was expelled with the planet. Almost as an afterthought, perhaps the basis for a following tale, the major characters are detailed in their now Commonwealth existence. Night Without Stars offers some tedium as Hamilton spends more words than necessary adding detail and connections to show the gnat's eyelash. Still Night Without Stars is engaging Hamilton. (November 2016)
The Island of Knowledge
By Marcelo Gleiser
This book on philosophical cosmology is a paradox attempting to blur the boundary between science and philosophy. In Part One Gleiser reviews the Greek philosophers who defined reality based on what "little" they could see and understand of the physical world. He leaps to medieval scientists and critiques their inadequate (compared to current information) discoveries as "the best they could do." Philosophical thought had not changed, but reality was more intensely examined in an attempt to find physical connections to the universe. Part Two discusses the rise of quantum mechanics and the development of instruments that measure what we cannot see. Hardly a change from the original Greeks, but a reverse order: measurements of the intangible explain reality. A side trip into multi-verses explains nothing except that we cannot know whether reality is what we understand or not. In true scientific perspective that nothing can be assumed, Gleiser concludes that we must wait for better measuring devices to expand our apparent knowledge of reality which will always be horridly incomplete and possibly mistaken. (October 2016)
By Gordon Corera
Everything you ever wanted and didn't want to know is wrapped up in this volume of spying, breaking codes, and hacking. Corera begins his history with the first world war and moves forward in discussing how the military spies on the enemy and intercepts code. Once computers and the internet permeated society, governments expanded their espionage and defenses against hacking, little of which seemed effective as being able to hack was more of a badge than the information gathered. The reader is led through the intrigue of US vs USSR vs China as each works to discover attacks and defend against foreign agents. Important breaches, discovery, and defenses highlight the second half of the book. Concluding his volume is NSA's involvement in gathering information, which is detailed as a cooperative venture of US and Britain counter espionage. Ultimately the reader gets the idea that nothing on-line is sacred or inaccessible. (September 2016)
By Greg Bear
This second of a trilogy (?) doesn't reach Titan (let alone begin to "kill" it) until the last pages of the book. Instead we are dragged with the hero Skyrine from his medical imprisonment on Earth back to Mars and given a brief recap of the Earthling sociology on Mars before being bored with the long trip to Titan and physical acclimatization for the unit's existence on Titan. We are tantalized that an alien civilization is involved in the human battle with a different species bent on possessing or destroying Mars. At last our hero's introspection, which drives the whole book, offers a hint that the two warring sides are performing for an older species' enjoyment. Bear does give the reader physical details of Mars and the interminable voyage to a gelid moon, but as the second installment in an action series this volume is a waste of time—hardly representative of what Bear is capable of. (August 2016)
Genesis and the Big Bang
By Gerald L Schroeder
Spawned by the insistence of a child's belief that the universe is only 5,700 years old, Schroeder relates scientific statements that explain how the thirteen and a half billion year existence from the big bang matches the Biblical creation narrative. Using four ancient Hebrew commentators, he relates the meaning of the words (from ancient Hebrew) in the first chapter of Genesis to the scientific sequence of the big bang up to the presence of humans. Filled with both Biblical references and scientific explanations Genesis and the Big Bang is not a book to be feared. Schroeder takes care to lead the reader with clear and understandable reasoning, even to stating that Biblical "days" were mostly billions of our years long. (July 2016)
Better Than Human
By Alan Buchanan
Once DNA was sequenced and tinkering with human characteristics became an option, the possibility of improving human beings mentally and physically sprang up. Buchanan begins with an intention of "fixing" mistakes and undoing natural lacks that make lives difficult. Providing a limb where none developed or replacing one that was lost are certainly noble aims and it's hard to imagine that such repairs are wrong. However, he quickly moves to the monetary demands that separate ordinary people from the wealthy and enters the ethical realm. Along his discussion he considers whether humanity might create a new species separate from the original we sprang from and whether we should all possess the same outstanding characteristics. Buchanan begins each chapter with a tantalizing explanation of a need for genetic engineering and ends with a cogent discussion of its dangers. Throughout he contrasts the growing ability of scientists who question the efficacy of the Creator's work, with how they might improve or correct it. The intelligent reader will enjoy the fascination of what we might do, and then realize we just don't have the foresight to miss all the pitfalls. (July 2016)
By Wilbur Smith and Giles Kristian
A second generation Courtney is embroiled in pirates, infidels, and his father's enemies as he plans his wedding with a beautiful female Ethiopian war general. Golden Lion is filled with the typical swashbuckling Smith is known for all of which is parceled out through twists urging a new reader to see what happens. The expected gory introduction Smith's following are accustomed to is excessive and its recurrent grotesqueness lengthens what would be a short tale for Smith. Despite the second author, the tale and words are Smith's recognized detailed descriptions and actions letting the reader watch the story. However, the plot seems more contrived than free flowing and the climax and conclusion do not evolve; they are tacked on. If this is Smith's swan song, perhaps he should have left his name off and schooled Kristian better. If Smith's research was lacking (hard to imagine!), maybe Golden Lion should have been reworked before published. (July 2016)
By Sylvain Neuvel
The discovery of a buried part of a dismembered huge robot leads to the discovery and reassembly of the whole body by a para-governmental search team scouring Earth. The assembled robot, many times larger than Klatu, is imagined to be either a weapon or a protector and houses two humans who can direct the robot's activities. The intriguing concept of rational beings once existing on the earth, or at least visiting to leave evidence of their existence, does more to show the militaristic nature of earthlings than our curiosity in finding a connection to alien species. The format of Sleeping Giants takes some getting used to as there is essentially no description. Dialog between characters offered as interviews moves the action forward and introduces growing tension between main characters and authorities and puts Earth in political jeopardy. (July 2016)
By the People
By Charles Murray
Murray offers us a way out of the morass of political and regulatory nightmares that the United States has slipped into—a sort of way out—and he leads the reader through the historical sequence of significant laws and regulations that have encumbered and bloated the original simplicity of the Constitution. The author's Madisonian underpinnings lead him to pine for the smallest possible government and provides the basis for his legal and governmental discussions of how the country went off track. Though his singular solution to our decreasing freedoms—civil disobedience—is one that he admits is far-fetched, he provides a rational, educational, and legalistic solution that just might reduce government regulations. Unfortunately his solution requires an educated and morally just electorate. As a country we are far from the basic requirement. but it's an enjoyable romp through wonderland. (July 2016)
By Alastair Reynolds
The end to what can only be described as a multi-generational/planetary sci/fi soap opera has arrived. Whatever potential purpose there is to this huge work doesn't appear until late in this third volume of the Akinya saga. Its presence is neither clear nor sufficiently bolstered to give meaning to the entire trilogy. However the undercurrent of what Reynolds appears to be saying about machine thinking and existence is a thin dotted line drawn throughout this three book set.
As with the first two volumes, Poseidon's Wake is filled with interminable detail, much unnecessary and boring, that seems added for the sake of extending pages. Akinya lineage is further described around "skipovers" that take the reader across light years of travel and through centuries of lifetimes without the main characters becoming aged and decrepit but encountering ordinary social problems humans are mired in. Perhaps we will extend our livespan into centuries, but little promise of useful activities seems possible. Beyond the factual cost of the episodes in Poseidon's Wake and its two precursors, we are offered a story of colonizing planets (vital and necessary) of joining the uplift of the non-rational (Francis Crick's dream of thinking being merely biological), and introducing human machines (foreshadowed by a dream of downloading brain contents to digital storage). Disregarding the last two as philosophically impossible, the reader is left with a tale of colonizing planets light years distant from earth and only as a sidebar can we catch what Reynolds is asking. Is there purpose to life? The blunt answer offered from the impossibility of machines colonizing and from the TERROR enjoined from a descent to Poseidon is refuted by the human demand to choose an ideal regardless of outcome. The human answer seems supported by the controlling beings of Poseidon and places humanity at the pinnacle of creation with the responsibility to make the most of life. (June 2016)
By Samuel I Schwartz
Schwartz lets us glimpse basic concepts and history of streets, highways, and Interstates and extends a plea that society might be better if we walked and biked when not riding transportation systems. We should be more healthy and social if we followed his advice … if society evolved to that level: a boon in his thinking. Traffic conundra encompasses the world and few cities exemplify the ideals of a former New York City traffic commissioner. Reading Street Smart is like eavesdropping on party conversation with all the tangents that erupt when word association demands abrupt detours. Schwartz's plea that we scale back our living to a century ago is intriguing. Unfortunately his blueprint for the technological means ignores the reality of low wages, crime, the seedier elements of life, and drivers unwilling to share the road. Impossible is the movement of citizens—on foot—wandering aimlessly or to shop, or children free to play on streets or walk to parks, or anyone casually strolling in the midst of traffic without the ugly rise of danger. Utopia is a long way off; but Swartz can imagine it. (May 2016)
On the Steel Breeze
By Alastair Reynolds
Following Blue Remembered Earth by considerable time the saga of an ecologically motivated African Akinya family extends itself into the principle developments of a colony fleet headed for a planet named Crucible. Earth has divested itself of several million humans undertaking the voyage to create a new earth, but find themselves embroiled (when they're not in hibernation) in the political in-fighting and social immorality that their home planet is fraught with. A small group, headed by the Akinya matriarch, driven by intuition and telepathic messaging, manages to secede from the armada that is controlled by a political faction influenced by a narcissistic mentality that possesses near divine powers. This second book of a saga focuses on exposing the skullduggery that only one or two are aware of. If relentless describes the chronology of On Steel Breeze, ponderous details the events which the reader has no difficulty imagining. Perhaps we have an allegory of the future of Earth: two omnipresent mentalities provide both the wisdom and the underhandedness of history's great leaders and evolve problematic events among the colonists who react as rebels and luddites. (April 2016)
Babies by Design
By Ronald M. Green
How far can humans go to create a child's physical and mental traits by scientific procedures? Green provides an elementary consideration of what science (as of 2007) is able to generate in procreation. The list of physical characteristics and genetic jiggling is not yet absolute, but expanding as we zero in on determining specific desires potential parents desire: athletic ability, size, color, artistic bents, gender, intelligence. Hardly a chapter begins without benefit of legitimate tinkering only to have the normal caveat of illegitimate reasons for adjustments popping up. The questions of subsuming God's creative act is never far from the text, but not until the concluding chapters does Green proclaim the horrors contained in manipulating our genes. Before genetic options become available to all, the wealthy will have separated themselves from the hoi polloi and possibly created a new species of humanity unwilling and unable to procreate with the rest of us. Basic aberrations of genetic dissimilarity bode greater danger than for humanity's procreation and point again to our inability to imagine all the repercussions of our actions. (April 2016)
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Unfulfilled plotlines abound in Robinson's novel that supplies us with multiple reasons that colonizing another star system is impossible. After colonists are split into those staying in the Tau Ceti system on moon Iris (after moon Aurora proves fatal) and those returning to Earth, the stayers vanish from the story. Devi's evolutionary attempt to teach narrative to the ship's computer is achieved by the sixth section as Ship drones on about the difficulties of caring for the crew and the Biomes and the extraordinary light year time lag that suggests Earth has little care for the travelers or their return. Robinson's continued preaching about selfish humans is couched in Ship's narrative about an early on-ship rebellion and the unexpected loss of a companion colony ship. The tedium extends to a repetitious litany of overcoming impossibilities in returning to Earth. By the middle of Aurora the reader recognizes an allegory of "Spaceship Earth," as the twin-ringed colony ship exhibits all the best and worst our planet and inhabitants possess. The end of the novel, appropriately titled What is this bombards us with the ecologists' accusation that we are ruining the planet as the space travelers ruined their ship. The concluding pages beat the same drum with a tableau unconnected to the primary story. Aurora is hardly vintage Robinson. (March 2016)
The Broken Eye
By Brent Weeks
Intertwined alliances and enemies that filled the first two volumes plumb new depths with more twisted history. Gavin/Dazen's drafting expertise, cunning, power-seeking, and lying justify his final days. Major characters Andross Guile, the White, and Ironfist play important roles in the development of intrigue that underlies the naming of a new Prism and elevates the stature of Kip and Karras. The Broken Eye ends with preparation for another major battle (and no doubt many surrounding struggles) to determine who will control the satrapies and bend their wills to Guile, (who has no real blood heir) or some other family that has been patient for generations and rises to best Andross. The Broken Eye reads better than the first two. Description is still over-drawn but not without merit. Characters continue to proliferate and support subterfuge arising from hidden alliances topping each other as characters amorally play against multiple sides. The only understanding a reader can gather from Weeks's fantasy is that nothing is as it seems. In perpetual what-else-can-go-wrong, things built from manipulation of light wave lengths and 15th century technology mixed with inventions hardly surprising to 21st century keep the reader wondering what new magic can spring off the pages. Though physically huge books are unwieldy, the reader must admire the fertile imagination contained in a story that will easily top three thousand pages when the final installment is published in November. (March 2016)
The Black Prism
By Brent Weeks
This first volume of Weeks color fantasy I read three years after I plowed through his second volume. The time gap made the story a pleasant prequel. Having to remember the characters from the second volume was not too difficult, as he regularly makes historical and personal relationships clear. Weeks's hundreds of roles are begun and developed in a medieval timeframe with startling technological advances created through the use of single colors separated from ordinary light as material elements creating on the spot anything physical. Subversion, hatred, war, jealousy, and grasping are hardly different than we can see today in society. Killing, slavery, and rejection of personal value underscore a lack of universal morality that doesn't seem to bother anyone except in moments of weakness or when fate (Orhalom: God?) is used to explain away awkward events. The main characters are introduced and we read their presences and growth, knowing they will continue through long (600+ words) volumes. The intricate relationships between major, minor, and walk-on characters seems impossibly workable, but Weeks has a talent for flowing his tale through all and has managed to keep separate each with their own roles in the intrigue that might easily be recognized as the skullduggery that can be found in any modern-day government. Hardly different from any fantasy the color series if filled with battles, spies, envy, jealousy, pride, and personal aggrandizement. The only complaint I have is that the books are so filled with detail and interrelationships that the action must be viewed from multiple fronts. Frequently Weeks bounces between at least five different scenes, making the pages seem like different stories intermixed in one volume. (February 2016)
By Alastair Reynolds
This novella fits into my limited category of exceptional tales that demonstrate the nature of altruism, civilization, and human need. Slow Bullets joins Canticle For Leibowitz and The Postman as tales that inspect the nature of being human and what that entails. The reader is soon provided a mystery and its impossible explanation. Only through cooperation can a transport ship keep all alive. Ultimately everyone is faced with a decision that runs against human nature. Their actions together with the outcome of the vengeful urge of the story-teller show the grandeur that humans are capable of. (February 2016)
By Stephen Baxter
This tale brings together a future time with alternate histories linking a Roman and Incan ruled Earth. When kernels (a discovered energy source) provides wormhole travel around the galaxy and a mysterious race offers "hatch" technology to the holes, an extended generational family (with their on-going feuds) dashes through the galaxy in search of the purpose of their ability to travel through time and space as observers of the multi-verse. Baxter never actually gives the reason for their exploits, though his implied purpose is hardly meaningful since their information is never universally proclaimed, unless we imagine those returning should chance being ridiculed for announcing what they learned. Baxter's knowledge of Roman and Incan life and society represents good research to represent what these ancient societies might be like with space travel. (February 2016)
By Greg Bear
This war tale told in retrospect is more about the Martian climate, early immigrants, and military technology than it details actual battles between humans and invading aliens. A small remainder of an insertion force is hard pressed by the enemy and everything else to stay alive. Most do along with the narrator who obviously lives through all the problems (tied to the austere Martian landscape), since he is telling the story to a debriefing counselor looking for proof of high administration malfeasance (emerging in the following story?). Not the best of Bear, War Dogs far surpasses the first of his Halo series and Hull Zero Three. We are also offered a fanciful glimpse of potential technology to keep us living in alien landscapes. (January 2016)
By Ben Bova
Following on the heels of New Earth Bova returns us to Earth after a two hundred year gap to enlist support for costly space missions to save emerging intelligent species from a deadly gamma burst flooding the galaxy. Bova's usual political and moneyed complaints of our societal greed foster the development of this novel. The underlying difficulties of mounting mercy missions are increased by human paranoia. Bova casts returners from New Earth as moles who are chased, incarcerated, and targeted as harbingers of alien takeover. The flow of Death Wave—after a slow start—is frenetic and the reader wonders how the author will let the heroes escape difficulties. Better than his more recent tales, Death Wave takes the reader through a course of developing necessary altruism if technological humanity will survive even a few more centuries (the gamma burst is two millennia away). Death Wave encourages page turning, with occasional breath-catching, to reach a satisfying conclusion. (January 2016)
The Lost Starship
By Vaughn Heppner
We are given a vision of the galaxy several centuries in the future. Little has changed from our earthly civilization except the names. Principalities are now planets in far flung planetary systems. In the galactic politics of several federations, not all friendly, an evolutionary challenge is hurled at homo sapiens by a group of perfect humans intending to take charge of the federation. Captain Maddox, the stereotypical miscreant genius, is given the duty of finding a fabled nearly omnipotent ship of past millennia that saved the galaxy from a super race. Maddox's small crew of misfits is naturally successful at beating the "New" men and escaping his own military unaware of his mission. Heppner provides more background and narrative than dealing with the philosophical elements of the proffered tale. Without actually defeating the "New" men, but having the ancient space ship with its armaments (not all still working), the Galaxy may be able to defend itself against this new challenge. The Lost Starship is frequently tedious as Heppner belabors scenario details and often magically escapes serious problems. It's hard not to compare The Lost Starship to Resnick's Dead Enders escapades in purpose and development but perhaps unfair. A second installment of the battle against the "New" men might be in order. (January 2016)
The Prison in Antares
By Mike Resnick
The second book of the Dead Enders series is not as intriguing as the first, but Resnick is engaging. Chief spy Pretorious is still the federation's best weapon against the coalition. In this tale his small band of abnormal misfits must infiltrate a deep underground prison to rescue a federation scientist who has managed to defend against the coalition's greatest weapon. Of course they are successful, but not after the team loses two original members (whose deaths are so matter-of-fact that one wonders if they will—somehow—return) who are replaced by two different personalities with unique abilities. What else can be said about The Prison in Antares? Resnick is enjoyable and his character relationships and interchanges are why we dash through his stories without concern for the twists and "but wait" that confront us. (January 2016)
The Flight of the Silvers
By Daniel Price
Touted as the first of a series, the reader is offered a glimpse of strange time travel, alternate universes, and characters who possess superhuman powers necessary to act on unspecified desires by more magical overlords who are orchestrating the events between universes. The main cast of characters learn their extra-normal powers through brief instruction at the beginning of the tale and then hone their skills as they are chased by federal authorities across a United States that is unfamiliar to them to New York for a purpose that is never explained. The Flight of the Silvers is a long and tedious read. Foreshadowing is non-existent and the perpetual "caught again" sequences always melt away as the reader soon learns that the "Silvers" (a descriptive title that is finally explained at the end of the book) will always escape through of the machinations of the overlords who use the protagonists as puppets. (September 2015)
A Deadly Wandering
By Matt Richtel
Read this book and you'll never text while driving; maybe not use a phone— even hands free—unless you're an arrogant egotist. A Deadly Wandering is a must read for every driver. (July 2015)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams
By Peter F Hamilton
Hamilton has extended his reach far beyond the Milky Way Galaxy in this offering of the Commonwealth's reach. This first of two promised parts entertains the reader with a civilization within the void that is menaced by clone zombies. The humans come from an earlier passage of an exploratory vessel that was captured by the void and developed from primitive life with what electronics were allowed by the void into a feudal society now encouraged to develop into a democratic system and encouraged by a Commonwealth clone who has managed to enter the void with help by the ancient Raiel who have worked to protect the galaxy from the void's expansion.
Hamilton's casts of hundreds and detailed descriptions initially appear excessive but the mounting avalanche of words quickly provides understanding of Hamilton's ability to make his stories something the reader is completely involved in the action. (June 2015)
By Emily St. John Mandel
This apocalyptic tale posits a biological epidemic that wipes humanity from the planet. There is never proof that only a few hundred people are still alive except for the lack of information available from anywhere except the environs of Michigan and Toronto. The reader is given a cast of characters, primarily a traveling band of entertainers who provide a social and historical connection to times prior to the devastating epidemic. Emily St. John Mandel, in a complex plot that flips between pre- and post- scenarios of the deadly Georgia Flu, traces significant lives of those related to one victim and whose luck or safeguards or immunity kept them from being infected. Station Eleven (a comic book within the tale and minor sidebar to the story) credibly details the initial and complete destruction of modern civilization—survivors thrust back to fifteenth century life—and the passion of the traveling "Symphony" to maintain an aesthetic presence within the impossible task of regaining obliterated civilization. Station Eleven reads like a memoir and lacks a purposeful theme beyond a long-rejected form known as "slice of life." However, nearly hidden are two subtle questions. Is remembering the past important or even possible? Should dead civilization be resurrected or scrapped for something new and different? (May 2015)
The Meaning of Human Existence
By Edward O. Wilson
Wilson fails to deliver anything close to what the title promises; nor does he offer a convincing argument that he understands anything about human nature beyond basic biology as he details us as highly evolved insects. Early in this long multi-part essay (more about lower life forms than humans) he states and then restates that humanities hold answers to human existence that science cannot provide. Yet he never presents anything from the humanities that answers what science can't nor does he suggest any philosophy that science can look toward for solutions to human problems it can't measure and explain.
Wilson's atheism colors most of his discussion, but it erupts when he disparages religion and free will as being irrational and anti-science. With a hodge-podge of religious inconsistencies frequently spouted by the ill-educated he demonstrates that he has even less understanding of a religious mentality or purpose than he does of the humanities or the essence of human society, which he appears to desire growing into a mindless obedient insect culture.
It is not difficult to imagine that Edward Wilson is a pitiable old man trying to recapture his past learning and research since science and atheism seem not to have provided him either comfort or answers to a meaningless human life. He concludes with a brief chapter that opens with a statement that rational humans have the ability to develop altruism without outside assistance. However, he bemoans that our race has never and will never achieve such responsibility and freedom from only rationality, science, or ourselves. Nor does he admit that religion, humanities, and dreaded tribalism have granted humans what he can't accept. (April 2015)
New Frontiers: Collection of Tales
By Ben Bova
New Frontiers offers the reader a wide range of short stories from the master of science fiction. Some flow from Bova's previously created scenarios and characters. Others are new places and characters generated from his fertile mind. All maintain his optimistic view of humans and our ability to overcome unusual and ordinary problems. Longer than expected short stories, the reader is quickly sucked into the tale and frequently conned away from anticipating the conclusion. Not a book to be read at a single or few sittings, the reader is always rewarded with fascinating views and satisfying beliefs from author Ben Bova who has provided us with interesting humanitarian considerations. (April 2015)
The Fortress in Orion
By Mike Resnick
The first of who knows how many more in the series by the master of fun adventures. Colonel Nathan Pretorius heads a group of the most unlikely spies/ agents to tackle impossible missions for the Federation. Resnick reprises his ability to solve any problem, including many that never arise, that turned his five volume Starship series into such a light-hearted adventure that ultimately replaced the entire warrior ruling body of the Federation with officers more concerned with peaceful existence. This time Pretorius has gathered a crew of improbable members: a mostly bionic male warrior, a female computer expert, a female who can squeeze her body into any small space, another female who reads intentions, an alien that looks like a dust mop who can project himself as any living creature to others' senses, and another alien who is from the race the Federation is fighting. It's no wonder that Pretorius will be successful, for that is Resnick's forte. Regardless, the mounting impossible circumstances that continually crop up are no match for Pretorious's preternatural ability to control situations for his success. The only unfortunate element of The Fortress in Orion is that we must wait for another adventure of the Dead Enders led by the galaxy's perfect commander. (March 2015)
1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed
By Eric H. Cline
Ancient history provides a mystery. What caused the end of the Bronze Age? Cline proposes an explanation in five acts. From detailed research he paints a portrait of the many centers of civilization and governments that surround the eastern Mediterranean and interacted with each other. Then he begins a narrative of each major kingdom's death and probable cause. The "Sea People" are repeatedly suggested as the primary cause of destruction covering the broad area, but never given full credit. Not until the final act does he draw all causes of destruction together: earthquakes, internal rebellion, wars, and Sea People. However, I find his conclusion difficult to accept as he explains the end of the Bronze Age by drawing on reasons civilizations from only a few hundred years ago vanished. Three thousand years ago, a solitary force didn't have the range or mobility to hasten the end of multiple kingdoms of the Bronze Age, nor is there geologic evidence that the eastern Mediterranean was blanketed by earthquakes or other natural disasters within a brief span of time. Perhaps internal rebellion ended some kingdoms, but not widespread from Greece to Anatolia to Egypt. However, as we peek into history from 1700 BC to 1177 BC, we see kings and their relationships and monarchies. It is easy to understand that little has changed when the wealthy and powerful are considered today. 1177 might be a primer for our world society, but such simplistic theory neglects to incorporate the technology we are surrounded by. (March 2015)
By David Lee Summers
A steam punk sequel to Owl Dance, Summers loosely ties the defeated Russian invasion of Colorado to a more enthusiastic attempt to annex the Pacific West Coast. However, the Russian invasion is really a backdrop for the development of technology spawned by the Owl fighters. The lightning of the wolves (motorcycles) from the title is a primitive laser that incinerates its targets. The story involves the professor who created the flying machines and the brave warriors who saved Denver and then opens up events that cover the territory from New Mexico to California. Mexican cattle owners, miners, the Clantons, U.S. Army including a general from the Denver front make detours through Geronimo's Apache territory. The addition of bank robberies, AWOL soldiers and bounty hunters make for a rollicking tale that concludes (?) the steam punk wild west tale. The reader is never unsure of the outcome of any interim problem or the ultimate conclusion: Russians will be driven away. And as with Owl Dance, Summers manages to include history, geography, science (anachronistic ala steam punk) to keep plot twists from becoming too abstruse. Lightning Wolves is a quick read, a little slow moving when travelogue replaces action, but still a fun tale. (February 2015)
By Wilbur Smith
The master of historical tales entertains us with another chapter in the life of Taita. This adventure precedes Warlock, the third volume of Smith's Egyptian saga. Geography, political intrigue, friendship, and relationships abound as we view the politics of civilizations long past. Taita's mystical (magical?) powers are more present in Desert God than in the other volumes and Smith continues to endow his eunuch hero and mastermind with super-human ability, this time with more than a little arrogant pride. Desert God introduces the Hyksos as the vile creatures they were and whom Taita will be most concerned with in Warlock. However, his care and concern for two young Egyptian princesses, intended as gifts to the Minoan ruler's harem in exchange for his participation in Taita's complicated and unsuccessful plan to drive the Hyksos from northern Egypt, figure prominently in his intrigue. In a circuitous route from Thebes to Babylon to Sidon to Crete the well-known Taita gathers warriors and equipment. The dangers and scrapes that his small army encounters provide the stage for his own brilliance and forethought that is explained in his encounters with a lesser-known Egyptian spirit. All the problems and dangers that beset Taita's plan (combined with Cretan refusal to be an active ally) are never enough to shake the reader's confidence in the ultimate outcome, as Smith disguises solutions and makes the expected questionable. Desert God is a quick read and filled with classic Wilbur Smith. (February 2015)
The Night's Dawn Trilogy: The Reality Disfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, The Naked God
By Peter F Hamilton
That the trilogy is an allegory of our planet is evident throughout the more than three thousand NOOK pages that translate into six thousand four hundred screens and took me months to wade through. As with other Hamilton opera (opuses) little can be removed as the amassed elements defining planets and their inhabitants—all of whom interact—are necessary in this galactic tale of human aspiration. Hamilton's ability to keep the reader abreast of the changes and interconnections of humanity's spread over several hundred planets in the Milky Way demands his detailed explanations that frequently prompt the reader to think "Get on with it." Although set some six centuries into the future, characters and situations then are little different from today's Earth, except for the ease of production, seemingly unlimited energy, simplicity of galactic travel, and the obscene wealth of the entitled class. Humans have separated themselves into normal and biological/technological constructs and maintain a tenuous relationship with a few alien species who refuse to be drawn into humanity's problems. Into this presence of human belief that we "can do what we want," the dead, tired of existing in the void of a parallel universe, discover how to return and possess the living, piggy-backing living personalities with their own. Then the possessors from history set about supplanting all humans intending eventually to remove part of our universe into their former void. Not until the final fifty pages of volume three can the reader relax when the dead are properly disposed of. And also not before Joshua Calvert manages to confront "the Naked God" and intuits a divine solution eliminating possession that ravages normal society.
Filled with action, emotion, disgust, hope, and unvarnished humanity, Night's Dawn trilogy lays bare our warts and ugliness, our beauty and empathy, our successes and needs, and encourages action or rejection of the implicit moral obligation Hamilton placed before us. (February 2015)
By Ben Bova
In a romp about medical possibilities, Bova takes us on a quick and questionable journey across the country. A seventy-five year old researcher expects to cure his granddaughter of brain cancer using unproven DNA treatments and against her parents' wishes only to discover that corporate and FBI and government agents are searching for him. And he falls in love with an accompanying, young medical doctor half his age. Not exactly up to Bova's usual tales, the reader is required to withhold a sense of reality that what is necessary always takes place, including grandfather's scaling razor-wired security fence around a military installation to escape confinement. Should agents be as inept as described and our military as unaware, our country is in trouble. However, the lightness of the story is engaging, despite its blatant improbabilities required to reach a typical Bova ending, and the reader is exposed to potential genetic engineering (August 2014)
A Sense of the Mysterious
By Alan Lightman
Another intriguing set of essays by Lightman leads the reader from the nature of science to the morality of what science should do and how it has been kidnapped. Most of the essays are personal encounters the author has had with notable scientists and Nobel Prize winners during his own science career that managed a detour into dreaded humanities. For a brief time Lightman shared his theoretical physics while teaching creative writing. Seldom is the reader treated to the abstruse nature of mathematical formulas or esoteric discoveries. What Lightman does offer is snapshots of scientists as human beings and their almost universal goal of aiding the human experience, a goal that current technology seems to have rejected. A Sense of the Mysterious concludes with Lightman's wishing it were otherwise, but knowing there seems no way back. That even science worships "the bottom line," that bettering human lives is an outmoded ideal, that the modern world has co-opted technology for its own sake scientist Lightman decries and unfortunately judges that the situation is natural evolution that can not and will not regress as it ought to. (August 2014)
By Ben Bova and Les Johnson
One wonders if Rescue Mode was in work before or after Mars, Inc. Both books urge space exploration and Mars as the first destination. The addition of Johnson of NASA is most evident through the first half of this novel that quickly becomes a sequence of Murphy's Law catastrophes. Bova's optimistic motif is invisible until the second half of the novel. The political anti-exploration sect has the reader's attention until all seems to be lost. Then Bova's style and development rescue the reader and reasserts human heroic ability. Space exploration is rife with dangers, but that the Arrow lacks an asteroid scanning detector seems far from possibility. Just as far fetched is crew members fooling the psychologists testing their ability to survive with each other for two years. Rescue Mode closes down much too fast given how it developed to reach its "all okay" finish. However, the reader should neither be forced into more Murphy's Law nor a sequel. Let the Christmas presents suffice. (July 2014)
The Star Conquerors
By Ben Bova
This early sci-fi tale demonstrates the natural human trait that we can accomplish anything. Many science fiction themes are evidenced. Earthlings are late-comers in the galaxy that possesses other human races older and younger than we. And there are those who are beyond ancient. Bova's hero is wiser than indicated by his youth and adept as a warrior and politician who leads the fight for the prime human demand for freedom, despite the offer of benevolent servitude. However, in this quick read, we are once again reminded to be cautious of what we wish for and simultaneously encouraged to investigate well beyond the obvious. Regardless, this first novel by Bova establishes his long-maintained ability to create solid characters and develop intriguing plot lines. The Star Conquerors may not have the finesse of later work, but the underpinnings are all there. (July 2014)
By Mariano Rivera and Wayne Coffey
If all record-setting Hall of Famers are like Mariano Rivera, they are not only accomplished athletes but paragons of human beings. What the reader sees in The Closer is a committed team player who never forgets his humble beginnings or his religious beliefs. Rivera's tenure with the Yankees parallels the team's ascendance in baseball after a long absence from an accustomed reign. Whether that success evolves from Mariano's outstanding ability or the convergence of several players is never discussed. We read of the Yankee's success through the development of the greatest closer in history as he recounts mainly post-season competition and in-season turning-points. This autobiography is not 270 pages of boring ball/strike counts for outs. Rivera pulls aside the curtain for glimpses at the invisible part of baseball, behind the injuries, before the spotlight shines, plans and intentions and motives that create athletic success: the recipe for team greatness. For Rivera team success trumps all and God is in charge. Both ideas flow from his love of baseball and his humility that his God-given talent is not a source of pride. In an era of athletes skirting and defying rules and demanding special privileges for their physical prowess, Mariano Rivera stands above all as a role model who might turn athletes away from one-ups-man-ship and back to sportsmanship. (June 2014)
The Future of the Mind
By Michio Kaku
The Future of the Mind is as far from understanding "mind" as Francis Crick was in discovering a biological basis for the "soul" in Astonishing Hypothesis. Neither scientist offers any philosophical understanding that mind or soul is not a measurable object in the realm of physics or biology. This latest book by Kaku, as energetic and promising as the title suggests, presents his usual physics for the intelligent but never approaches what the title offers. Instead he revisits and announces the latest research that describes the brain as a powerful programmable parallel-processing computer. He also touches on the inane concept of immortality evolving from downloading ourselves onto some hard drive. His major mistake, identifying "mind" as the same as "brain," is compounded by suggesting that consciousness is mind. Perhaps in the far future we may understand the brain, be able to diagnose genetic alterations and repair it, map our neuronal structures leading from our experiences to our thoughts, and create a digital brain. These ideals Kaku offers as benefits to humanity. He seems not to appreciate that such brain-reconstruction is dangerous and demeaning. Individuality and personality will vanish. Do we really want to be like everyone else? Could, or should, we all be geniuses? Can selfish human nature use such power for the good of society? (June 2014)
By Ben Bova
Aspiration, power, mega-wealth, greed, and government dash through this encapsulated tale about readying us for another planet. Art Thrasher is a visionary who discovers that his moneyed backers and NASA are looking to squeeze him out of a lucrative and patriotic success. Mars, Inc. is not Bova’s usual tight plot in this loosely veiled mystery. The action is swift and the reader is never lost, though Bova keeps us guessing about the culprits. Mars, Inc. gives us a cast of characters different from his developed solar system tour population many of whom are little more than scenery and he ultimately manages to dismiss them, despite their presence to move the story along. His short chapters are briefer than usual and one might imagine this tale is a TV script of chronological scenes stitched together. Regardless Bova manages to keep Thrasher’s ultimate fate in question until the last pages. Hardly a thought-provoking lesson, Mars Inc. is an enjoyable read. (June 2014)
The Unincorporated Future
By Dani & Eytan Kollin
The interminable space soap opera does end, but with unexpected implications. Most of this fourth book is warfare: battles, intrigue, and sedition. Avatars undertake important roles, as they shadow and match the human sides of the intense and continuing degenerative war. Much of what the reader recognizes is each side’s diminishing returns in the billions of deaths, which seem to make no impact on either the Alliance or the Federation, and the posturing that forces both into greater idiocy for the imagined success of obliterating the other side. The Kollins’ stage is the solar system and they involve the entire stellar playground. For every victory, corresponding defeat urges a counter-offensive, until sanity and reason finally take charge—would that our world take a lesson. The Alliance and the Federation engineer a cease-fire, long after the reader has tired of the continual “but wait.” (In all honesty, little could have been left out.) And then the saga ends. The plug is pulled; a switch, flipped. The tedious settings and events that spring from the brothers’ palette conclude with narration, not description: not without the reader issuing a sigh of relief that it’s over. However, the reader is caught by a gotcha. “Exodus,” the final chapter, startles us with an astonishing concept that is extended in the short “Epilogue” that should not be passed over. (June 2014)
The Accidental Universe
By Alan Lightman —&—
Why Science Does Not Disprove God
By Amir D. Aczel
A double dose of thoughtful science is provided by several brief whimsical views of the universe by Lightman and the mathematical underpinnings for Aczel's contention that science and religion are not antithetical.
Alan Lightman's Accidental Universe leads us to more facets of the grand construct that provides us with a minuscule section for our lives. Whether we are the only rational beings in the universe has little bearing on how and why we ought to consider our blessings rather than that we may be chancy results of the big bang's evolution. Lightman's impetus that we revel at what we have is more satisfying than the atheist's desponding that there's nothing more than our ineffectual selves.
Amir Aczel's stated intention is to explain why Dawkins and the New Atheists have got it all wrong, when they attempt to use science to prove that God does not exist. Aczel is not championing God, though he leans towards Anselm's natural proofs for His existence and makes clear the difference between a personal God and a Prime Mover. His continued emphasis, through the use of mathematics, is that the New Atheists have mistaken their objections to a deity as scientific conclusions when they are unrelated to any scientific study. One imagines Dawkins's and atheists' replies as unscientific as their assertions. (May 2014)
Reign of Error
By Diane Ravitch
This comprehensive tome follows The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Unfortunately, that proffered “life” may be in ICU and uncared for by the business moguls who imagine students are nothing more than assembly-line elements of a manufactured product that will generate money for the wealthy. In Reign of Error Ravitch stresses again and again that for America to remain the democracy it was founded as, education must be returned to educators (who need to become real teachers through a liberal arts curriculum and not only aware of a small sliver of some subject). The conservative reformers, who only think of the bottom line, must be exiled from any connection to scholastic ideals except financial: offered without strings to its use. Ravitch’s parallel theme is that equal education for all (an absolute necessity for democracy) can only be provided our children, if poverty is eliminated. Repeatedly she shows the physical damage in children that poverty effects and its residual in disadvantaged ability that compounds unequal learning. Reign of Error demonstrates that the reformers’ pet solutions—charters that quickly become for-profits that strip state monies (taxes) from public schools—are worse than the public system they decry. Under the surface of the rebuttal to the reformers’ beloved and erroneous data is the implication that those opposed to public education are the forefront implementing an aristocracy (trumping our democracy) where they will be in charge to commandeer millions as their slaves. Fifty years ago, the United States was projected to follow the demise of the Roman Empire as we appeared to follow in the steps of Rome’s depravity fifteen centuries before. Now, our democracy may be closer to disappearing, but from enlightened ignorance that yields our rights to the wealthy who seem convinced that education is subservient to the desires of the selfish rich. (May 2014)
By Ben Bova
A follow-up to Farside, this tale of Bova’s first human exploration outside the solar system is a veiled addition to the ecology offerings of other major sci-fi authors. This work departs from Bova’s normal plots. However, his characters and their interaction are up to his usual clarity. While the crew engages in their scientific exploration of the planet, the reader is kept aware of the mystery of an alien species inhabiting an improbable planet orbiting Sirius and its companion. Only in the last few pages is the novel-length conundrum solved with a whimper rather than a bang. The conclusion to New Earth leaves much to an inquiring reader and that uncertainty might well found a following tale to answer implied questions of accepting the encounter as the aliens have orchestrated it: whether the small colony of explorers has been brain-washed. Two major concerns over the planet and its inhabitants that the human skeptics have are never answered. Further, the alien claim of repeatedly visiting Earth (even before humans resided there)—eight and a half light years away—suggests an alien heritage or ancestry that ought to have neglected Earth and its human population or explain more fully their omniscience to be interested in humanity. If Bova has exhausted his solar system tales, he has begun what might be a most interesting sequence as his humans begin the necessary step into the truly unknown. (April 2014)
By Alastair Reynolds
The conclusion to the trilogy still leaves possibilities for ancient machines to exterminate galactic faring species. Nearly all the characters from the prior two books are eliminated as they manage to sacrifice themselves against the machines. The escapees from Redemption Ark have a tenuous connection to the main tale of Absolution Gap which details a religious development. The religious leader has aims that he keeps secret but bode disaster with his attack on the single remaining light ship that returned to Chasm City and back to save any remnants of humanity left by the machines. The religious cults continuously watch a planet that occasionally vanishes momentarily and is assumed to be tied to the godhead. The planetary mystery leads to the potential of a parallel universe that might mingle with our universe and whose inhabitants might have the power to eliminate the technology-exterminating machines. Reynolds manages to weave his characters from multiple settings and books in smooth combinations. However to brings his characters together in this most epic of the trilogy the reader is forced to wade through considerable back-grounding that is tedious but necessary.
By Alastair Reynolds
Part two of the “Revelation Trilogy,” Redemption Ark continues as human-machines battle advanced humans for the control of weapons that may protect humanity, or only themselves, against a growing fear that they may be exterminated by very old galactic machine technology that targets emerged intelligences. Most of the same cast from Revelation Space is back with necessary additions, who change allegiances easily and add to both the mystery and the insufferable bouncing from setting to setting. Little of the narrative flows smoothly except for the unsuccessful plans that are regularly resolved by a newly introduced character or inevitable scientific magic that demonstrates society is immune to death and disease and fatally wary of nearly everyone else who possesses machinery and implants different from their own. The technological enemy is finally explained to the reader who must wonder why the bigoted Conjoiners and Ultras can’t agree to a solution to the common problem despite their antipathy toward each other since the extinction of humanity looms before them. In an expected battle against the destroying technology, the fought-over weapons are shown to be useless and most of targeted humanity, in its exotic manifestations, apparently escapes extermination leading to the final chapter of Reynold’s interminable saga. (January 2014)
By Alastair Reynolds
The first of a trilogy, Revelation Space provides the reader with characters, a galactic area somewhere within the reach of Earthlings (six centuries from now), and the mystery of an extinct race. Reynolds posits human-machine integration, digital downloads of human personality and characteristics and brain contents. Long-living, necessary for the time scale of the tale, is never explained but characters’ ages approach centuries and they interact with machines that self-replicate. Though characters and settings are clear, alliances are never as they appear: whom to trust is directed by personal agendas. Though much of this book is backgrounding, the characters are brought together on a powerful military spaceship that soon demonstrates it forces the characters into its purposes. The initial mystery that is woven into the narrative as the reason all are united is ultimately but incompletely explained. Loose ends that bedevil the reader would seem to be explained in the next part of this lengthy saga. (January 2014)
By Mike Resnick
Sub-titled “A Myth of the Future” this older book (1985) is another list of legendary heroes. Resnick unconcerned over his characters flitting throughout the galaxy as if they were traipsing across countries on Earth, for his tales are neither technological nor scientific constructs but interactions of his characters with success granted to the morally better. This tale of bounty-hunters seeking the galaxy’s most notorious and mysterious criminal (according to the government) frequently drags as Resnick’s sequence of hunters and their exploits tends to the tedious. However, the intricate story-line never detours from Sebastian “Songbird” Cain’s purpose of reaching the slippery criminal. Nor does Resnick vary from his “surprise” ending, though the careful reader should recognize the twist before it becomes evident. As always Resnick is fun, more from his creativity of character encounters, and enjoyable without the suspense of serious drama. Santiago is a fun read. (December 2013)
Great North Road
By Peter F Hamilton
This saga by Peter Hamilton is encyclopedic in nature and length. Though covering a timeline of only six months, Hamilton paints a thinly veiled critique of baser human characteristics: greed, jealousy, oppression, intolerance. Providing specific details would spoil the intrigue. Hamilton’s trademarks—huge casts of characters, diverse settings, brief detailed descriptions that allow the reader to watch the book unfold, and hi-tech surveillance and weaponry—are neither lacking nor cumbersome. We are led about two worlds, Earth and St. Libra, a body orbiting Sirius. The orbs are connected by a gateway providing instantaneous travel between them. The Earth-side of the gate erected in London is bedeviled by the seemingly unsolvable murder of a wealthy North, a clone of a trio of clones who own Earth’s dominant financial corporation. The St. Libra-side leads to a terrestrial planet supporting only flora and provides the Norths with bioil for energy. However, St. Libra’s climate mounts an effort to drive humans from its surface. Weaving the murder mystery, believed evolved from a North rivalry of the original three clones, and St. Libra’s war, waged against Earth’s military force investigating an alien existence there, provides the reader with Hamilton’s intricate and well-narrated relationship of main characters. Great North Road is a maddening sequence of things always going wrong—on both planets—until Hamilton finally ends the frustration, first on Earth then on St. Libra. Nine hundred forty-eight pages is daunting, but normal for Hamilton’s stories. Nothing can be removed without destroying the fabric of the tale, except the last few pages that seem tacked on as an afterthought or as a hint to a potential sequel. (October 2013)
By Ben Bova
Though the characters seem at first underdeveloped, Farside is a good Bova novel that offers his usual mystery of greed losing to good honest effort and ends with good feelings, though the epilogue is an add-on, unless it kicks us into his next book, New Earth. One more stop on his grand tour of the solar system, this tale is placed on the back of the moon and introduces the potential for a whole new “galactic” tour. The astronomy business of the Moscow Crater provides the basis for Bova’s usual skullduggery and also gives the reader a new Earth-like planet that is the subject for his next novel. Farside reintroduces several characters that we are familiar with from his prior tour novels and introduces others who may well continue his grand epic narrative of space exploration. In a quiet off-handed manner, Bova introduces a potential storyline that may loosen the religious shackling of Earth’s scientific community. (September 2013)
The Unincorporated Woman
By Dani & Eytan Kollin
And the war continues. Were right and just as strong as evil, the tale should be done. But not so. The war drags on; the corporate forces are not drawn as capable as the unincorporated Alliance, yet they continue to fall into success because they naturally don’t play fair. The avatars come alive as allies for both sides and the reader is offered the possibility of a traitor at the highest level of the Alliance. Few main characters are done away with and the reader is required, almost, to create his own playbill to keep aware of the former and myriad new players. After three volumes the reader rightfully questions whether the several plotlines will ever coalesce to a fitting conclusion: The war continues into the fourth book; Justin Cord is probably dead, but maybe not; Neela may throw off the psyche audit Hector forced on her; the second resurrected individual from Justin’s original time appears sufficiently power hungry to copy Hector’s ascension but in the Alliance; avatars may be the new ruling caste that will dominate humans who could become their pets.
The need to keep Mars, Earth, Ceres, Jupiter, several armies and their commanders, and all the internal and external relationships make for difficult reading. And there’s at least one more volume. The concept of everyone incorporated at birth and being able to sell stock on himself that he might eventually buy back was an intriguing concept in The Unincorporated Man. However, that unique consideration has degenerated into a very long and tedious battle on the field and in society between the haves and those who wish not to be had and clamor for freedom as Justin Cord had. (September 2013)
By Dan Brown
Similar format, multi-setting, and not as fast paced as Angels and Demons or DaVinci Code, this recent offering from Brown is more travelogue than mystery. The astute reader can anticipate until the highly questionable climax. Though the scavenger hunt continually provides clues, one of the initial ones is a glaring counting error. Brown leads us through Florence, Venice, and Istanbul in search of the solution to a puzzle that has universal human implications. Through continual side trips that waste time and main characters that appear to change sides with some frequency, the reader ultimately discovers that two accompanying Langdon have the identical memory of an interlude with the nefarious villain on the same night in Chicago without seeming to recognize each other. Unless Brown callously kills off Robert Langdon in some future novel, the reader is always sure that Langdon will survive the most harrowing of situations as he solves the riddle of symbols. In Inferno, with some frequency, explaining clues or escaping seems more deus ex machina than produced from the evolving logical hints. Much Italian history is added to the mix and the reader is regaled with details of renaissance art and Dante, as he/she follows the maze of clues to an unsatisfying conclusion. The most compelling reason to read Inferno is to see how Brown gets where he is going. (August 2013)
By Sebastian Seung
might be sub-titled Everything you ever
wanted to know about the brain. Seung offers to
the non-scientist a vision of the brain, its structure and its complexity. He
provides the reader with nearly a new tale every chapter to help understand the
nature of the information he is offering about how the brain is put together.
Once the incredible formation of the brain’s parts is concluded we are taken
through another journey about how we might maintain our personality to
immortality. Given the current possible options, Seung
discounts immortality without positing some extremely technologically able
Seung’s style is easily followed, though he does run off on tangents that are longer than I think they need to be. He does, however, commit a major blunder when he lists Rosalind Franklin in the same sentence of Watson and Crick as co-discoverers of the DNA helix. Concluding Connectome, Seung offers Pascal’s Wager to introduce and debunk the two current immortality theories: cryonics and digital download. His own subtitle that implies a discovery of how we are all different goes rather to the difficulty of understanding the brain’s connections. We are not informed about how any experience is recorded in multiple parts of the brain and that recording is not possibly matched by any other human. We are presented with much research that attempts to understand how the brain might be wired and how it might be repaired. The conclusion of Connectome might well be the statement that we must believe how the brain works—making the study religion—because what must be studied is so impossibly tiny. Further, the brain of a living person can’t be dug around in and the brain of a dead person is no longer functioning. (July 2013)
Blue Remembered Earth
By Alastair Reynolds
Set not too far in the future, Reynolds posits clones, mental constructs, life on the moon and Mars, and technological economy beyond the solar system. In a change from his space adventures, this novel involves political and familial intrigue involving characters that are loosely connected and physically far, far apart. The singular mystery or riddle, gaining information about Geoffrey’s and Sunday’s grandmother, is held off until the conclusion of the tale. Written in the style of old-fashioned cliff-hanging serials, the main characters never manage to enjoy the solution to one difficulty before they are confronted by another, often from an earlier villain, and all manage to recur in odd combinations with each other. Departing from his normal tightly constructed plots, Blue Remembered Earth leaves loose too many thoughts, not least of which is the disposition of Geoffrey’s attempted physical assault on his cousin. The story does contain a gem of science fiction. However, it is presented to the reader in such a desultory way that it hardly achieves the grand purpose because it is insufficiently foreshadowed. (June 2013)
By Stanislaw Lem
Solaris is old science fiction by a recognized giant of sci-fi. The tale has the elements of a short story: few characters, hardly a scene change, and character driven. The tale is between a novella and a novel and is evenly divided between long narrative sequences separated by dialog. From fifty years ago, Solaris is more philosophy than story and placed on a water planet that is “watched” by three humans from an outpost that sits gravitationally above the planetary ocean. Strange goings-on are sufficiently explained, but never does the reader receive a definitive explanation of the mysteries that surround the main character, Kris Kelvin. Instead the reader is allowed to develop theories that provide discovery that nearly matches Lem’s purpose. Not written in the style of today’s action-packed stories, Solaris speaks to the thoughtful who care to be offered ideas that they can wrestle with. (April 2013)
Genes, Cells and Brains
By Hilary Rose and Steven Rose
This book offers guarded hope for science defeating diseases that most hideously infect us. It also identifies a glaring human failing that may keep science from that grandiose accomplishment. Clones and DNA sequencing and stem cells could be the magic bullets and have been so heralded for the last two decades. However, the Roses rightly explain that the work is still in it’s infancy, so much so that most research is hampered and dropped because not enough money is being made and because shortcuts and ethics violations limit and erode the trust of the research. The Icelandic beginning of genetic data bases collapsed for personal and business reasons, not least of which was the fear of discovery of familial diseases that would have kept families from insurance and proper care. Before humanity can advance far along the road to eliminating debilitating diseases and successfully repairing human bodies, we must become altruistic and without fear of suffering from the greed of those who believe they are above morals and ethics and humanity itself. Genes, Cells and Brains is not an easy read. Long sentences and scientific references to summaries of studies abound. The authors’ stand is not apparent; they present with disinterest the beginnings of a new biology that offers promise for the human race and deride the inherent problems that keep good science from happening.
In Legend Born
By Laura Resnick
I have long been interested in reading a fantasy by Mike Resnick’s daughter. Laura is more long winded than her famous father, no less intriguing. With two fantasies read, I conclude that fantasy is more society building than problem solving. That is not to imply that there are no problems in fantasy, or that magic and the supernatural are ever present, but the main thrust is the medieval development of human rights and the struggle to reach and maintain them. In Legend Born is the first of a trilogy that narrates the beginning of the Silerians’ attempt to regain control of their land and throw off the millennial rule of despotic Valdanis. Resnick’s characters are finely defined with all the human characteristics we are familiar with. Heroes are flawed; ordinary citizens are fearful but can rise to the moment; evil is selfish without redeeming qualities. Magic and the paranormal do not drive the story and appear when necessary to direct the outcome if humans are doing their part. Success in confrontations and battles is the result of effort and failure is equally the result of misguided effort. This first volume almost reaches the culmination of the revolution and though one might assume the eventual conclusion to the story, it is not sure. The characters in In Legend Born are insufficient to carry freedom to its conclusion and ever-present evil must be dealt with; that success is not yet evident. During two more volumes necessary to free Silerians from dictatorship, human idealism and grasping greed will run through the narration together with characters with necessary qualities to succeed, no doubt all reflecting what we see around us. (March 2013)
The Republican Brain
By Chris Mooney
Mooney attempts to delineate the essential and basic difference between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and to explain the inherent antipathy between the two. Most of this work from a conservative turned liberal is an explication of multiple statistical studies than confirm (if statistics actually prove anything) the consensus difference between the two political parties that shape the direction of the country. His conclusions, first stated and then supported by results of polls, repeatedly offer that liberals are open to new ideas that will move humanity forward, look for change and are willing to accept scientific ideas after reasonable debate; conservatives reject anything new, seek information that supports their beliefs however contrary to science and reality, and demand everything be as it always was. The singular error in this book is that psychology can be quantified. Beyond that misguided attempt, Mooney offers a vain hope and suggests a method to narrow and fill the current deep chasm between Republicans and Democrats. In short form The Republican Brain is proof that the adage “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts” is the conservative bulwark and continually bolstered by misinformation and falsehood. Getting conservatives to join the twenty-first century is no more possible than successfully encouraging their joining any previous century was. (February 2013)
The Hydrogen Sonata
By Iain M. Banks
Long, complex, and all but concluding with “… and?” this tale of Banks forces the reader to have a play list to keep the characters separated. Avatars seemingly a current plot element to make up for magic, The Hydrogen Sonata is more fantasy than sci-fi. Beneath the given scenario of the Gzilt’s civilization…a handful will reject…planning to sublime as a race (dying to reach “nirvana) is a jab at religion that is an atheist’s dream. Cossant, the novel’s main character and heroine has been tasked with discovering the truth to the Book of All Truths. Her venture is made nearly impossible by several civilizations who are aligned or hostile to each other and who either don’t want the information discovered or fear the announcement of the book’s origin. Battles abound, warp speed is common, AI possesses nearly omnipotence and omniscience and one wonders why humans even remain necessary in the universe. However, the entire robot universe seems the benevolent caretakers of us puny biologicals who continue unaware of the real power embedded in the ancient civilizations. (February 2013)
the unincorporated war
By dani & eytan kollin
Once Justin Cord managed to create economic chaos and then flee to the spacers, the solar system was thrown into civil war: the Alliance (freedom seeking humans who rejected the concept of being incorporated at birth) against the establishment. Sides formed and solidified; Hector achieves the presidency of the corporate federation and Cord leads the Alliance. The reader is provide with more names and situations, mostly inter-relationships that seem interminable and interposed between the major battles in the asteroid ring with few forays to Mars and the inner system. Cord’s demand to maintain morality in war is the cause of his undoing while Sambianco is open for anything and proves his devious nature has rubbed off on other major characters.
This second of a trilogy is tedious, though it represents situations the world has been experiencing, militarily and economically. Instead of the war ending in this part, the reader is forced to enter the third volume, the unincorporated woman.
Avatars, originally the sub-plot of the first volume, become a driving force and take on human characteristics but enhanced with the speed and logic of advanced computers. It becomes clear that they are the guardians of humans (frequently described in anthropomorphic terms) and it is hard to keep them separate from mystical beings as their actions are magical, humanistic, and nearly omnipotent (from their thought, reason, and creativity) not from physical prowess. (January 2013)
The Blinding Knife
By Brent Weeks
For my first foray into fantasy I picked up The Blinding Knife at a signing and at my brother’s encouragement. Action and intrigue abound and it is possible to understand the narrative of the first volume without reading it. I haven’t decided whether I will back-track or not: 600 pages of tight detail does not read quickly. Weeks’s unique characteristic of characters who mold specific light frequencies to create physical armaments and weapons takes some getting used to, though his repeated reminders of the qualities of light keep the reader informed. The continuing epic details the political struggles of a medieval civilization that possesses a strange layer of technology wrapped around warring factions, pirates, brigands, slaves, royalty, and magic. His color motif is well-established. Color dominates society and is equally the basis for the friction between rival powers as well as engendering the strife that appears within families. Building throughout the volume to a decisive battle between the primary leaders, Weeks employs a cliff-hanger that leaves the fate of many characters in question … until the next book, no doubt. Characterization, details of people and places, and interpersonal relationships in The Blinding Knife can be seen around us every day. Once the reader accepts light as a physical building block, Weeks provides us with another vision of our society. (January 2013)
By David Brin
Multiple characters (many of whom never cross paths), worldwide settings, and varied points of view make reading Existence a horrendous ordeal. This recent novel containing few compelling narrative sequences (the best being the final pages) interspersed through all the telling is more an explication of Brin’s pessimism than an introduction to galactic aliens. He joins the many who use global warming to chide the glutinous population unwilling to care for the planet and mixes that imagery with the greedy obscenely rich who care naught that most of the world struggles for food and a safe place to sleep. Though the novel deals mostly with the very well-to-do who revel in ups-man-ship, the reader is shown in character after character that brotherhood is non-existent and Earthlings are still seeking advantage by cheating others. Into our environment aliens appear and seem no different from the humans they are expected to advise and direct to better living. Brin’s pseudo-apologetic Afterword does nothing to improve the lingering taste of Existence which seems more a research vehicle about the unlikely possibility of aliens and humans meeting. (October 2012)
By Kim Stanley Robinson
This offering by Robinson is topped in words only by his Mars trilogy and possibly the California and ecology threesomes. Mars may well be his best writing, though Blue Mars, limping badly, did open his move toward ecology which was the sometimes veiled intent of 2312. Reading this book was real work and not particularly enjoyable. The inclusion of numerous “extracts” and “lists,” scarcely connected to the politics of plot line, seemed more personal musings and loose commentary on society than related to the story. The reader must first toss out any attempt to find verisimilitude in this ponderous work. That earthlings have spread to inhabit the solar system in merely 300 years and doing so by terra-forming along the way (without any apparent alien benevolence) is beyond belief. Robinson’s characters flit about our system in hardly less time than the sun’s rays flow, as if they were jetting around the planet. He does describe well something I long ago considered necessary to extend our lives beyond planet Earth: dismantling the other bodies on our outward journey. Most of 2312 is descriptive of the lives of “spacers” who used to be Earthers. The loose plot is apparent only for description of our possession of the system and an indictment of how we have poorly cared for our world. (September 2012)
By Robert Charles Wilson
POSSIBLE SPOILERS The trilogy ends and with it the Earth, but not quite. Vortex’s galactic chronology is a strange mixture of events before and after Axis and contains an intriguing time-sequence that explains the character biographies in Vortex. Sandra/Bose and Orrin/Ariel, Turk (from before and after Axis)/Allison and Dvali/Oscar are well-defined and each pair is related to the other as their stories unfold within the worlds arched together by the Hypotheticals who are still not described except for their power at sheltering nine planets within their established time frame while galactic evolution speeds ahead faster than light. This concluding volume seems weaker in many ways as Wilson tries to explain Spin and fails miserably. The Hypotheticals (mechanical and non-rational, as opposed to irrational) continue to be a deus ex machina, though we are told that they are the galaxy evolving from its initial existence. The atheistic notion that the universe is a random creation not a theistic event is evident, but never precisely stated. The semblance of a mystery story that explains Turk Findley’s self-incrimination—one element of Axis—and is tied to a time-travel redo seems insufficient as a reason for one more volume, particularly one that ends, as all three volumes do, shouting that the Earth is destroying itself. (August 2012)
By (Michael Crichton? Really?) & Richard Preston
SPOILERS After the last of Crichton’s endeavors—two posthumously published works, we hope there are no more—we have clear proof of his expertise. Preston is no peer and one wonders how much of Micro was the great writer’s final copy. The basic plot line seems to be Crichton’s: cutting edge technology gone bad. Little else fits his pattern. Never before have Crichton’s heroes been predictably killed off and, though the evil perpetrator finally dies, his demise hardly seems fitting. The cliff-hanger sequences and escapes (so now what?) seem more matter-of-fact. Little has the intricacy we came to expect from Crichton. The early disappearance of the concluding hero, represented in so little copy, smacks of State of Fear. And there is a loose end, two actually—the Davros liaison and Karen’s glint of metal, that is not the normal Crichton conclusion. Too much of Micro is filled with gore and the violence of nature herself. The bibliography is an addition and one that also follows of State of Fear, but it does not appear to be much more than a list generated from a Google search to provide the details as the students slog through the insect world. Micro is a quick read, but one that is more insect- and biology-filled than technologically involved as those snippets are sparse and tossed out to explain how and why the characters are involved as they are. (July 2012)
By Robert Charles Wilson
The second in his trilogy of Earth linked with another planet and sheltered (together with Mars) from the normal aging of the universe, Wilson details the lives of two humans on the alien world as they search for a Martian female. Further descriptions of the “Fourth” state of life introduced by Martian biology are the central focus linked to an experiment to contact the Hypotheticals that have altered galactic existence for Earth, Mars, and the connected planet. Axis takes place many years after the end of Spin and simple references to the major figures in Spin are the only connections to the first of the trilogy. The scene-setting of the first part is long gone and Axis is filled with the intrigue of the government’s intention to eliminate Fourths and corral Turk and Lise (in a tenuous affair) who are seeking answers about Lise’s father’s disappearance. (July 2012)
Against the Fall of Night
By Arthur C. Clarke
An old book, but the basis for Clarke’s The City and the Stars that I think is the best he ever wrote and the support for science fiction’s philosophic grounding. Civilization is its only worst enemy. Clarke offers reasons for hope like few others have been able to offer. Of all literature, only sci-fi is generally rosy and offers the best of humanity. I can’t remember ever reading Against the Fall of Night. More than anything we are offered the prophecy that humanity will survive for greatness within the galaxy. It’s hard to be critical of vintage Clarke and I will not try. This short book praises humanity and the singular spirit of seeking knowledge and understanding that so far we have not found anywhere else. If there are other rational species (how could there not be?), we will eventually meet them and our own abilities will grow in collaboration. Clarke never says, “How great things can be,” but those sentiments are never far from Alvin’s thoughts or Clarke’s commentary or my anticipation. (June 2012)
Those in Peril
By Wilbur Smith
I’ve been reading Smith since River God, the first of a four part ancient Egypt story, was published in 1994. Those in Peril surpasses everything from the Egyptian saga and the Courtney saga that extends to establishing the Courtney’s in Africa. Smith is expert in sailing the ocean, in maritime history, in intrigue and spies and war and the espionage of stealing corporate secrets. Mostly he captures the reader with exciting stories that demand attention and satisfy the need for justice. Those in Peril demonstrate his intricate plots, complete characterization, flowing prose that is lyric and poetic, and description that projects his tale to the reader’s inner vision. Though this latest tale has sexual encounters balanced against the violence and viciousness of terrorism, the explicitness is not gratuitous. Anyone familiar with Wilbur Smith’s works will be exhilarated with this work. Those who discover him with this exciting tale, may find his other works tame. (June 2012)
Masters of the Planet
By Ian Tattersall
A champion of the distinct difference between humans and other animals, especially primates, Tattersall takes the reader on an excursion through the prior millions of years linking the discoveries of proto-anthropoids and their relationships, skeletally and therefore biologically. Master of the Planet is a primer for paleontology and our emerging presence in it. Tattersall does not propose an immanent ancestor, nor does he argue for a definite evolutionary sequence of ancestors. He does propose several homo sapiens ancestors that may have arisen and died out over the hundreds of thousands of years of each appearance. Not until he reaches the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons does he suggest any direct ancestry and almost in passing suggests that these two might have interbred, but keeps from saying that might have been the missing link. Tattersall’s normal flowing prose that excites the reader is constrained in this book, which is far more academic than his other works. However, his fourteenth chapter states that when the ability to think—indicated by our ancestors’ ability to use symbols—is not possible to determine from the bone record. He does not offer any reason except that biological elements do not imply any thought process. I wish he had omitted his “coda” after chapter 14. His intention to join the many who wish to excoriate humans for their poor stewardship of the planet, in spite of their intelligence, more than muddied the rest of the outstanding work of presenting Homo Sapiens parentage.
By Greg Bear
The first of a trilogy, and based on a video game, Cryptum is hardly equal to the standard Bear work. The scenes and concepts takes too long to develop. Not being a devotee of gaming, I found the plotline droll and inconsistent, more magical than reasonably developed. Many scenes were reminiscent of stereotypical gaming concepts and most had little connection with reality in any sense. Perhaps this is an attempt to get gamers to look at more established leisure activities like reading good literature, which Cryptum is not. The scam may work or is just pandering to baser levels of human activity. Unfortunately I have the second volume and loathe to let it stay unread, even with a quick page through, but not too soon. Maybe the story will develop interest. Or maybe it will merely turn on the chance that the gamer manages a miscue that turns into triumph.
Hungry as the Sea
By Wilbur Smith
This story comes early in Smith’s career, but it contains all the characteristics he weaves so well. Sea, ecology, love, vengeance, greed, and finance embroil the hero who beats all challenges while almost always doing the right thing. Smith’s descriptions provide more than enough detail to smell the crashing waves and the sweet perfume of his women. Hungry as the Sea is a primer for surviving ocean disasters and catastrophes. The book opens with a successful salvage of a passenger ship grounded in stormy Antarctic winter weather and concludes with the salvage of an oiler during a Caribbean hurricane. Smith’s plotline, a sequence of cliff-hangers, is never farfetched, but the reader frequently agrees, “why not?” as problems continue to surface. Although the ocean and its vagaries are center stage in connection with those who ply their lives on her, we are allowed glimpses into the world of high finance and the lives of the very wealthy, all from the point of view of one who lacks greed and is more concerned with how things ought to be. (March 2012)
By Ben Bova
Straying from his futuristic characters and scenarios throughout the solar system, Bova has zeroed in on politics in Power Play and all the infuriating subterfuge connected there. Would that his plot line could actually develop, really, as he spins his tale. Intrigue without the horrendous exploits we find in movies moves the reader through a year and a half of a political campaign. Improbable solutions do not detract from his characters’ circumstances and the one glaring omission, an attempt to destroy the MHD facility in Lignite never enters the picture. Yet that lack points to one more frightening implication: the criminal element that underscores all the novel’s action is unconcerned about the issues ordinary voting citizens concern themselves with. A more terrifying consideration is how plausible Power Play is.
Perhaps, Bova can move into the realm Crichton left: taking a potential scientific thought and extrapolating it. This tale is as gripping and his conclusions are equally thoughtful as they have ever been. Power Play is one of Bova’s best. (February 2012)
By C. J. Cherryh
Part of a long and expanding(?) series, Betrayer falls into science fiction by the slimmest of definitions: mention of a space station half a dozen times. Half the book is needed to define, and characterize the interacting tribal leaders, their bodyguards, and the human negotiator. The reader is implanted in a Japanese feudal system complete with characteristic multiple honorifics for nearly everyone and battling egocentric warlords. Once negotiations are complete with the normal disbelief of all involved, attacks from all excluded parties, including a rebel splinter group of a recognized continental “military” force, place the tenuous negotiated agreements in greater jeopardy. Perhaps this was an aberration from a recognized prolific author. I don’t intend to find out. (February 2012)
By David Lee Summers
Steampunk is not my preference, but this anachronistic tale is a fun read and it is not without important lessons. Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi are unusual heroes who get caught up in everyday questionable behavior fostered by those in charge of Socorro’s population and elsewhere some hundred and twenty-five years ago. Their innate sense of fairness and justice keeps them in conflict with the powers-that-be. Their adventures, beginning and based mostly in New Mexico, soon reach notable destinations: Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver. A secondary plot carries the reader to Russia and back. Summers manages to weave southwest history with the presence of an alien existence wishing to learn about humanity. Instead of hands-off observation the alien, intending to save humanity, soon unleashes the baser motivations powerful humans must guard against. Presented as a sequence of cliff-hanger episodes that our pair of heroes must survive (and of course do), Owl Dance manages more insight to human nature than we can witness in the daily news or gain from a psychology class. (January 2012)
By Mike Resnick
And the Penelope Bailey saga ends. But not before Resnick has managed to provide a continuing evolution of characters that will become the basis for his later work The Outpost, which is a “tall tale” expose of how heroes saved the galaxy from a takeover by an invading force from another galaxy. Resnick’s old-time Saturday serial sense continues as Penelope’s existence is hardly more than a nebulous fearful presence haunting and determining the action of his heroes. More than just the shoot’em up, sequences that have flowed through the trilogy, a treatise on a human with omniscience or precognition, as Resnick describes Penelope’s ability, provides a clear demonstration of the irony and difficulty of possessing such a talent. The conclusion ties the story up with a nice bow after the only ending possible has taken place. Resnick never fails to provide the reader with a thought-provoking kernel. Penelope’s revelations should not be totally astonishing, but they are properly critical of many of our culture’s aspirations.
Certainly each volume in the trilogy might be read independently of the others and the whole tale might be a single volume—very large. However, beginning with Soothsayer is the only way to read about Penelope Bailey. No book is particularly long and, as Resnick normally writes “page-turners,” the reader is compelled to see what happens next. The trilogy is dashed through. How could one not enjoy? (January 2012)
By Mike Resnick
Volume two of Resnick’s Penelope Bailey series has little to do with the title character. Rather it heightens Penelope’s mystery and causes galactic wonder and fear. Set sixteen years after Soothsayer, this part of the tale concerns two bounty hunters and their tribulations to get to the alien planet, not of the Democracy, where Penelope is living. In the background the Democracy is fearful that the prescient young lady may still attempt to take over the galaxy, and it wants her out of the picture. Yet killing her, let alone getting to her, seems insurmountable. Only at the end of Oracle is the reader provided with one more twist: Penelope may be imprisoned and unable to leave. Reminiscent of Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs Spy vs Spy” the reader is carried along with the exploits of the most famous bounty hunter and another who is most able but inept. Oracle ends with Resnick giving a glimpse of why the Democracy’s fears are serious, not only for its own control but for the sake of the galaxy. (January 2012)
By Mike Resnick
Penelope is a young child and she knows what can happen—all of the possibilities in the near future—and she manages to work toward those that are advantageous for herself. And the whole galaxy is after her because with her in their control, they will corner incredible power and wealth. Except one man who sees farther and knows she will be a menace when she eventually grows up. He wants her dead. In his normal fast-paced style Resnick weaves the first novel of a three part tale. Chases, captures, and escapes follow one after another until the surprising end, that is a little un-Resnick. Mostly the reader is taken on a tour of the questionable trait and its impact of seeing the future. (January 2012)
By Robert Charles Wilson
It’s hard to imagine this first volume of a trilogy as a Hugo Award winner, unless the award speaks to the temporal (and unexplained) physics of the Spin. The main characters are well-drawn. However, we are presented with a sketchy “end of the world” scenario seen only through their eyes and it looks little different than the catastrophe represented by When Worlds Collide. If one looks beyond the unexplained (and we are offered all sorts of reasons for the lack of explanation) the “what if” seems a rehash of the regular doomsday scenarios the media foist on us and we are at long last provided with the first conclusion (two more volumes each have a conclusion, one presumes), an almost deus ex machina that allows the main characters escape. The format of the novel provides the reader short and discrete and current narrative information that the escape is probable interposed with long chronologies of the history of Earth’s problems and the characters involvement with each other. The tale might end with this part, but a follow story is obvious. (January 2012)
By John Scalzi
Exploration, worldly wealth, emerging sentience, and intense corporate greed: Zara XXIII has it all in this rollicking adventure of life on a distant planet. Jack Halloway is the unlikely hero, a disbarred lawyer from North Carolina, who discovers way beyond a fortune of sunstones and immediately discovers trouble from all directions. Naturally it all works out, the good win, the evil lose and what’s right happens—unfortunately only on the pages of an enjoyable read. Would that things worked so well in the real world. Scalzi moves his story forward with the technique of the old Saturday serial. Things fall apart, get remedied and are destroyed even worse. The conclusion is never in doubt, just how it’s going to happen. Good dialog and short on description that would take from the action, Fuzzy Nation is a good read that leaves the reader shouting for joy.
The Unincorporated Man
By Dani & Eytan Kollin
Far in the future, centuries after a world economic collapse and a nuclear spat that defied the TAPS report, earthlings are all satisfied and reasonably well off. The solar system has been explored, inhabited in many places, including the Ort Cloud, Mars and Venus terra-formed, and the asteroids and moons of Jupiter and Saturn are inhabitable destinations. Into this seeming utopia, a cryogenic capsule from five hundred years early is found and the occupant, a high-powered business man is reanimated to the fear of all the ruling corporations on Earth. Jason Cord refuses to be incorporated as all humans are at birth, thereby becoming an outcast in the business-style world of humanity. Written several years ago, but after the turn of the century, The Unincorporated Man offers a lesson and a prediction about our financial dealings. The current economic woes the planet faces can be found hinted at throughout this novel. Justin Cord, destined to be a folk hero, presages the end of a “comfortable” world order that has existed for centuries. A bit slow at times, this tale weaves itself around the good, the misinformed (mostly illiterate and unthinking), and the tyrants (corporate executives) who refuse to yield their selfish control for the best of all. The book is long, but the necessary financial narrative ties exciting intrigue and action with a love story. A sequel follows, The Unincorporated War.
By Mike Resnick
This shorter, more entertaining older work by Resnick is in his full dialog and rapid moving story format. This mystery has but two main characters who are involved in discovering why the government wants them dead because one, a lawyer, is willing to built a case to defend a space ship captain’s confession that he killed two of his crew who he thought were aliens. This high pressure four-day adventure includes a female computer wizard who introduces the lawyer, who has many of the characteristics of Wilson Cole of the Starship saga, to the intricacies of espionage and underhanded dealings necessary to stay alive while they touch the lives of more and more officials up the chain of command. This page-turner is a quick read and demonstrates the enjoyable facility Resnick has with moving a story with dialog only.
By Mike Resnick
Star Trek’s Prime Directive has been bandied about for more than four decades; however, seldom are we offered an example of why the directive is so important. Humans in their quest for discover and expansion have no empathy or understanding for the needs of “lesser” societies or alien civilizations. We can recognize the failing from the colonialism humans undertook on Planet Earth and generally messed up the enterprise because of selfishness, greed, and lack of concern for cultural differences. Humans seem arrogant enough to believe their ways are best and everyone else should adopt them. Resnick’s Paradise pictures how human exploration and expansion on an alien planet provides nothing but destruction for the inhabitants of Peponi. Nor is his narrative far from what first world nations have always does to third and fourth world countries on our planet. Not much different thematically from another novel, Kirinyaga, written a decade later Presnick seems to have set the parameters of conquest/exploration clearly enough that the later book should be digested with the idea that even when the best of cultural intentions are engaged, culture and heritage take a beating. It is clear that humans are imbued with the belief that our ways are best and we work hard to educate all to understand them, as complex and conflicting as they are. However, the one characteristic that humans seem to have in great abundance, empathy—engaged only later in relationships—should be brought forward at the beginning of our explorations.
By Julian May
This second part of May’s Intervention story concludes the Machiavellian workings of O’Connor and Rogi’s nephew Victor. More, the novel depicts the normal human fears of the unknown or different (mental operants established in the first book) in conjunction with the ordinary political problems that this planet must suffer. Reading a story that purports a future that is in fact the past of my reading is an interesting view that repeatedly says that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Rogi’s ghost is finally revealed in startling fashion. We learn that Rogi never at danger. The foreshadowing that a quick reading will pass over lets the reader sigh, “Of course.” Though May’s style drags because she tries to stuff so much at one time and juggles many sub plots, we are offered one more hope that humankind might still have some value and the possibility that we can overcome our character flaws is possible.
By Peter F. Hamilton
An older work from before I discovered Hamilton, Fallen Dragon is no less exciting in his presentation of human desire and fulfillment of aspirations. The story from a different universe than I have encountered more recently from Hamilton, we are presented with the image of multi-national powerful business that works for its own perpetual grasping, regardless of what it espouses, at all costs. Into this mix Lawrence Newton works to discover how he can spend his time space-faring which is nearly a lost need. Along the journey to his aspirations Lawrence joins the company that seems to control civilization among the stars in much the manner of medieval kings: colonies are required to provide a percentage of their product to the company. In Hamilton’s normally complex plots, we are carried along with the hero and his history as he is involved in love affairs, dashed dreams, war-like skirmishes, and the discovery of his most basic belief: the human need to explore and expand horizons. In this smaller story (only one volume, instead of the multiple book sagas) Hamilton is not shy with his characters or details. Written in 2002, there are hints that a following tale might spring from Fallen Dragon, but that is not a certainty.
By Julian May
The first volume in two parts of a larger work entitled Intervention, the reader is provided with a history of metapsychology and introduced to the alien consortium looking to uplift earthlings who have something to provide the galaxy with. The characters are well developed and the chronology is intermittent from the early 40’s to the early 90’s. This first volume, divided into two parts offers hints of what is to come in volume two, but is more concerned with establishing the emergence of humans who have extra normal mental powers, not excluding ESP or telekinesis. The presence of these “superior” humans who have banded together to bring peace to the planet through their special powers, are made known to the world and immediately seen as a greater problem than the nuclear threat from the two super powers.
The Immortality Factor
By Ben Bova
This effort of Bova’s is a reprint of an older non-spacey novel that was an originally edited novel entitled Brothers. This version contains a previously removed chapter. (Several chapters could have been removed without hindering the story; which chapter was removed is not evident.) The book’s format makes it difficult to become embroiled in the story of potential organ regeneration in vivo. The kernel of the story is a hearing to determine the continuance of research for this possibility. However, the story is frequently broken as Bova has long passages—of many pages—that provides his characters’ backgrounds and thoughts and interactions, all triggered by the brief paragraphs of a five day hearing. This method is far from Bova’s normal technique and not easily followed for one expecting his usual story telling. The conclusion of the tale is typical Bova as all strings are tied together in a pleasing conclusion. Bova’s purpose seems an offensive against the non-scientific elements of society and government and how they are pitted against researchers who are working to make our lives better. This much longer than most Bova is more instructive than entertaining and the reader should be prepared.
With A Happy Eye But …
By George F Will
I took nearly a decade to read this collection of op-ed pieces written from ’97 to ’02. I had read an early collection by George Will, a moderate conservative who writes for the Washington Post and other publications. His earlier book was more interesting. Will is not rabid and that helps. More than anything, his style, vocabulary, and periodic sentences are a delight in an era that has put a premium on short simple statement. The book is exceptionally politically directed and he spends much time on the first amendment challenges and election laws that seem to limit whether all candidates can be heard or should be heard or whether the loudest, richest voice should or should not rule. Much of his writing is tied to his time in Washington, D. C., and to the important people he has been in contact with. In a small way he has managed to let the reader in on some insider understanding of what happens in our Capitol.
Hull Zero Three
By Greg Bear
Years ago I managed about 40 pages of Slant by Bear before I put the book up. I have not opened its pages since. Maybe I will now; it can’t be worse than Hull Zero Three which I should have with Hull Zero Three away after 20 pages. An agent or publisher would have done that with an unfledged writer had they forced themselves that far. I hope that the creative well hasn’t run dry, because from Dinosaur Summer Bear’s writing has been superb, although I questioned killing off his heroes in Mariposa after just two adventures. And The City at the End of Time is more fantasy than science fiction but Bear deserves plaudits for attempting something so ambitious and difficult. His latest effort, however, magical fantasy of a regenerative colony ship, lacks tangible substance and a viable conclusion. Three hundred pages of detail do not a good story make: hot and cold, bubbles that contain forests and environments that morph themselves, monkeys, strange creatures that may be human and who are constantly escaping incarnate evil, and an artificial intelligence that seems more fallible deity that continually takes advantage of its creations. There are some who recommend this effort; I am not one. I have read too many excellent tales from Greg Bear to be conned into accepting this sophomoric drivel.
Leviathans of Jupiter
By Ben Bova
Bova’s latest entry into his tour of the solar system is, like Jupiter, much larger than his normal offerings. One character from the Rock Rats saga continues in this tale and Bova introduces a few others that may populate further stories. Intrigue and political skullduggery underwrite a simple attempt (but technologically difficult) for proving intelligent creatures inhabit Jupiter. Normally Bova provides a clear tale with few “gotcha” events and so it is with this one. Determining the intelligence will, of course, take place and the evil will be countered, maybe completely. However, some of the solutions in this tale include nanotechnology, but the rules that Earth refuses return to any one who has encounter nanites seems to have been forgotten. The chief IAA council member is unaware of that prohibition which is also lost on the heroine who has been promised a scholarship to the Sorbonne. It is unimaginable that Bova has forgotten. Perhaps the next story may annul the nanite prohibition as well as remove the fundamentalist hold on planet Earth.
By Spencer Wells
Spencer Wells takes an unpopular road: humans need to do with less for their sake and the planet’s. His journey skims the development of humans from hunter-gatherers to technologists and provides us with a thin comparison that shows today’s culture as frightfully on the edge of impossibility, to continue, to back up, to improve, perhaps even to exist. Wells wanders through not an original thought that our deadly diseases are as much a result of our longevity as mutant causes. He suggests that our demand for technology (genetics) to solve problems may have unforeseen consequences that are more drastic that the problems it was employed to solve. Wells decries a loss of morality and wonders if a universal ethic is even possible. In the only definitive belief he holds, he stands firm that global warming is human caused and clearly the result of our greed to have an easy life without concern for the consequences. His message, hinted and stated is that we need to back away from our demands, our rushing, our striving, and learn to relax and be satisfied with less. It’s not a new lesson and he doesn’t offer much hope of its learning.
By Erol Ozan
Imagine a scavenger hunt looking for clues that humans are not the only rational beings on Earth. Add the paranoid fear that very few greedy speculators are in charge of the world. Mix with the unknown and you don’t have Dan Brown or National Treasure. This is not the first attempt at providing mythological creatures like Yetis and Bigfoots with a place in society, but it offers at least another explanation; unfortunately it’s unrealized. Rylan and Ursula are faint images of Langdon and Sophe (from the DaVinci Code) but the similarities are unmistakable. The book is self-published and consequently contains the typos one might expect without a professional editor. However, the most glaring holes are the jerky transitions, lack of reality in detail and plot, and deus ex machina’s to escape impossible situations. It appears that when the author realizes he has no where to go or the word count will be short, he dumps long pages of background and “translations” that add little to the moment. These tangents might have been eliminated if details, descriptions, and flowing segues were better developed. The underlying concept has merit. It might have been more successful after another dozen rewrites.
Figuring It Out
By Nuno Crato
If you watched NUMBERS on TV, you remember that every episode Charlie pulled out some mathematical theory or equation to help solve the problem and catch the perpetrator. This small book by Nuno Crato is the lay person’s version of math related to every day subjects. Crato manages to explain each puzzle, dilemma, encounter, question or intrigue in less than three pages. Seldom does he lose himself in abstract math so the reader is hardly ever out of his element. Occasionally he explains why our intuitions are correct or provides proof that we are simply off base. This interesting little book might be a good bathroom book, but it provides an avenue to realizing that math doesn’t have to be esoteric.
The Buntline Special
By Mike Resnick
The extended title is “A Weird West Tale” and Resnick does not disappoint. The Buntline Special once again demonstrates Resnick’s ability to create characters who delight. He is humorous, a joy to read. This tale of the west is a wacky narrative of the events around the gunfight at OK coral and spiced with vampires, electricity, and prosthetics. The basic elements of this famous gun fight remain, but the whimsy Resnick adds provides intrigue that makes this small slice of history more exciting that normal historical presentations. A short book, word-wise, one might read The Buntline Special in a single sitting. If not, it will call the reader back.
Heroes of History
By Will Durant
Certainly a longer companion to the Lessons of History, Heroes is more concerned with pointing out the succession of major historical figures who have promoted the elements of civilization through their own presence, imagination, and leadership. If the groundwork to our civilization was fully laid by the end of this book, one might imagine that every element of society had been presented by the end of Francis Bacon’s life. Durant has given the reader a primer for what is necessary for humanity if it wishes to understand how life is sorted out in societies and countries. His heroes are the names most are familiar with if not conversant with after a complete education. All are not the best and most favorable of historical characters, but they are the ones who for well or ill molded the people around and after them. The reader who expects superman and crime fighters will be disappointed early on and throughout. Durant allows the evil to be as much a force for developing civilization as the benevolent ruler or the great philosopher or the strong military leader. Rather Heroes of History presents a complete picture of civilization with all its qualities admirable and detestable. With Durant’s tutelage, readers are left to make the future what they imagine to be the best.
By Stephen Baxter
We must leave the planet, if we are to continue to exist, to search, to answer questions, to maintain our humanity. Baxter envisions that colony ship in reaction to the earth inundating all land with miles deep-water, more water than in fact is found in the planet’s oceans. However his tale is more than just traversing space to find a new earth, Earth II, while the nearly drowned remnant of humans scrounge for mere existence on what has become a water world. In Ark he attacks and exhibits the facets necessary to undertake such a human quest: who should go, how should they be prepared, how do they live, how do humans on earth deal with inexorable submersion? Ark is a study in human psychology, interaction, indomitable spirit, and ultimate submission to uncontrollable forces.
Although his tale reaches the planned conclusion, he drops enough hints that the story might be a twist on an old Twilight Zone episode of the earth’s destruction. His characterizations are complete and run the gamut of people we know around us. However he is magical with respect to the needs and provisions of everyday items we take for granted: food, clothing, technology, and the basic elements for maintaining that existence. Since most of the book is about events in faster than light travel (covering some fourteen years at warp 3) the earthen remnant has hardly aged much beyond the same time. Of course Star Trek labored under the same difficulty.
What Baxter has given us is a primer for leaving this planet and setting out into the galaxy. He reminds us, again and again, that there is much we have to do before we set off on such an adventure. The first is to put our own houses in order. Humanity, unfortunately, is not yet ready for the trek; we must mature and do so quickly, especially if the earth should decide to make our lives impossible upon it.
Heirs of the New Earth
By David Lee Summers
In the concluding volume of the trilogy, Earth, humanity, and the galaxy faces potential extinction. In a remarkable confluence, the heroes of the first two volumes all manage to cooperate in the defense of humanity and the Clusters are provided with a different alternative than symbiosis with humans that they have undertaken. Summers dashes through the galaxy gathering his characters, bringing them to one final confrontation at Earth. This third part moves more quickly and definitely toward conclusion that will obviously be in humanity’s favor. His denouement ties all into a nice bow but also keeps a few openings for something that might follow. The Clusters are the first appearance of potential danger or imperfection possible in transferring one’s knowledge and history and personality to a computer. This consideration is not, however, a spot-lighted extension of the far-out desire of those who look to download themselves onto a hard drive. It does provide some wonder about such an operation.
By Michael Crichton
Discovered on his computer after his death, this posthumous novel seems far from Crichton’s normal tales. Historical fiction was never his method. Crichton always took some scientific headline and expanded the logical extreme into his normally long tales. This tale of the 1600’s takes place in the Caribbean as a rollicking jaunt along with privateers. The ending is hardly ever in doubt, but Crichton does manage to throw a few unexpected twists. The resolution of the difficulties along the way, though possible, seem most improbable at times. The tale is entertaining. However given the length and the length (much shorter than his novels for several decades) and the looseness of continuity, I wonder if this is more a very early effort that had not seen publication. And with the word that another novel that had not seen a publisher is waiting for one in the next two years, one must wonder if it is an earlier work as well. Crichton was certainly not without scientific landscapes to write about.
Children of the Old Stars
By David Lee Summers
Volume 2 of The Old Star Saga provides the reader with a twist in sequence. Instead of the hero being demoted, he ends up promoted after doing exactly what was done to be demoted at the end of book one. The mystery of the Cluster is solved but with alarming consequences amid a bit of romance, some subversion and not a little soul searching to provide solid base to the characters who seem always to be at the right place at the right time. However, the cliffhanger for this book is something that provides much greater catastrophe than the mere war on Safiro. Summers has offered us a nice twist on where the intelligence comes from and takes a stab at perhaps explaining, as David Brin never got around to doing, how humans rose to rationality. This volume provides more action and perhaps presages a philosophic twist for the final part to this saga.
The Pirates of Sufiro
By David Lee Summers
This is the first book of a trilogy, founded by a privateer in the galactic federation who is entrapped and eventually lands on a distant planet to begin a new civilization from the ground up. The plot covers many decades as it follows the original settler and his family and naturally glosses over the ordinary lives of the characters as it presents the follies and foibles of humans as we have come to expect them. The conclusion of the book is hardly in doubt, although there are a couple of unexpected twists that allow good to triumph. The grand scheme of things is more important in how civilization or society may develop and Summers manages to introduce the Cluster, an apparent alien probe, that provides the impetus for the tale to continue.
The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake extended is this droll production by Atwood. In my experience, writers wipe out the planet and the human species at the beginning of their careers, not Atwood. Perhaps there is a bit of hope that our species will make the changes fitting for supposed rational beings. The overwhelming ecological and technological demands by our civilizations are evident, but not dwelled on. The Year of the Flood is clearly an ecology treatise but without the hope that most of them offer the reader. Humans are stupid is the underlying message. Perhaps we are; fostering change can be enjoined by praise or damnation. Atwood offers very little praise.
By Peter F Hamilton
The awaited conclusion to the Void trilogy continues the complexity of interacting characters that only astonishes the reader. Hamilton manages to juggle so many elements with skill and incredible anticipation as all have a part in the conclusion which naturally falls in line with his continual belief that all must end well. Description, detail, and psychology all fall in place as the prescribed, within the chronology of the story, brief time is stretched out with innumerable cliff-hanger potentials. Hamilton is a master at tying all up neatly and the Void series, a simplistic "end of universe" (instead of planet or civilization) idea, is turned, analyzed, dissected, and stretched out for viewing.
One book seller waited for this part to be published before he intended to real all of them. If he started quickly after availability, he's finished now. I can't imagine the story without volume gaps.
Long for this world
By Jonathan Weiner
Let's live forever, or a thousand years, which ever comes first. It's a mantra uttered by biologist Aubrey de Grey in a cogent explanation why aging is more disease than condition and that there are ways to counter the inherent demands that our bodies be mortal. Much of the book is a narrative of de Grey's reasons that biology will eventually provide us with immortality and that living forever is a desirable condition. Not until the end of the book—the last three chapters—does Weiner waver from the mantra. Objections to exceedingly long life are introduced in the normal philosophical concerns over boredom and health and quality of life; then he considers the evils that arise from dictators and autocrats maintaining their empires and people refusing to have children which is a selfish and questionable rational existence, not unlike that of the "Q" presented in a "Voyager" episode of the multi-series Star Trek run. Weiner does not convince the reader to buy into immortality. Rather he offers both yea and nay their fair viewing (de Grey has more space). The reader decides.
The Island of the Colorblind
By Oliver Sacks
This book had been on my shelves for several years before I opened it. I had forgotten the pleasure of reading Sacks but was immediately reminded. His language and flow is intriguing. This book is almost a "throw together" of three or four island in Micronesia. Complete colorblindness is rare but on Pohnpei it is very common. Sacks explains how this apparent lack of sensory perception for these people is hardly a handicap. The second half of this small book, less than 200 pages, is about two neurological diseases (the general expertise that Dr. Sacks possesses) that frequently join to incapacitate select families on Guam. We see the ravages of the diseases and the potential causes—cycads—and the mystery of the vanishing of the disease. In a brief final chapter, Sacks takes us to the island of Rota where he receives in depth instruction of cycad trees which instruction is an extension of his own early childhood interest in uncommon plants.
The Lost Symbol
By Dan Brown
One part of the literary definition of a short story is that it should take as long to read as the action of the story takes to happen. Brown manages that time element better in The Lost Symbol than in his first novels. Except for the final pages that are droll and an unwelcomed humanist presentation for a natural religion tied closely to Free-Masonry, the tale dashes madcap with more twists than he offers in his other novels. Brown does employ deus ex machina in places, but the general plotline is reminiscent of Saturday morning action serials of sixty years ago. The belief that characters will not vanish from the story is occasionally difficult to maintain and his ultimate twist should shock for it is not foreshadowed: the reader has been lied to. Though I am not a Mason, I imagine that his presentation of elements of that order are little different in reality than the amassing of myths and legends and innuendo that he employs in The DaVinci Code.
By Greg Bear
Bear's latest futuristic mystery loosely employs his characters from Quantico as they try to defuse a scheme that will ruin the United States. Seemingly fueled by the current crises the country and world face, a single bad guy has technology, multiple moles in many government agencies, and assistance from questionable governments around the world to aid his nefarious scheme. Mariposa does not take off until nearly half way through, the first part placing his characters in mysterious vignettes that the reader knows will fit together and must either try to sort out or follow along for the ride. Once the action takes over, it runs as it did with Quantico. However, as Quantico seemed more plausible an event that might plunge the world into chaos, so Mariposa lacks the same potential, although it is fair to mention that Bear offers no date line that might allow the reader to extrapolate the technology. Unfortunately, the conclusion is less optimistic than his recent books and seems a nod to his first novels when he was accustomed to destroy the Earth.
Skeptics and True Believers
By Chet Raymo
Raymo manages to create the dichotomy that one may possess either science or religion. Within the realm of religion, without much reason, he drops astrology, extra-terrestrials, fairies and elves, and general misinformation. Unfortunately Raymo's concept of religion is indeed childish and not evolved beyond his elementary school catechism despite having dealt with Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity (if he actually read it) at Notre Dame. Consequently his "straw" arguments in deflating believers come from notions that are equal in validity to his deflating of claims of anti-science protesters. One might expect more understanding of his Catholic upbringing. However, his statement that once he found science, religion no longer meant anything explains his one-sided presentation that science is superior to God.
It had been some time since I had read what I determine a "garbage" book, one far off the path of serious discussion or is intellectually dishonest. Raymo writes long in the face of consensus of many that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps he should take his avowed intellectual openness and extend it to an unbiased search of what his early Catholicism really meant.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System
By Diane Ravitch
Ravitch knows what is wrong with education in the United States and what must be done to turn things around. The subtitle "How testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" recognizes that test results do not prove education and the emphasis on that data will turn us into a nation of ignorant test takers. Pat Reeb, late English teacher at Barstow High, once wrote that students are not sausages and they are not things on an assembly line. The powerful influences that are controlling education today are not concerned with anything but their own power. They repeatedly see that their methods are not fostering education, but they only adjust the market strategies; they do not seek to educate. Perhaps they want a nation of dolts.
By Michael Flynn
A second of two books my daughter gave me this year, this historical fiction is a fine example of bringing the middle ages to the modern world with the anachronistic addition of alien encounters. Flynn's details are equal to Ken Follett's detailing of the people of the time and his presentation of Catholic belief and philosophic dissertations is much better. Eifelheim scarcely covers a year's time and the description of the Bubonic Plague is effectively frightening. Almost lost in the story is the appearance of aliens who demonstrate that a species able to travel the universe must be benevolent not malevolent. These Insectoid creatures possess the technology we expect to see from any advanced species and they (some of them) also have the eagerness to learn of and from the creatures they have been stranded with. The book does have some slow spots and it is much longer than one might expect from a story of alien encounters. The original novella "Eifelheim" was reworked and interposed with appropriate chapters of the fourteenth century narrative.
Edited by John Scalzi
This brief anthology of five long short stories purports to describe the future of cities on planet Earth. The reviews suggest each story provides "hopeful" possibilities. If the intent is to turn the planet into a green society, then they are hopeful. Unfortunately I find them more "Mad Max" descriptions of the destruction of all that is technological and recognizable in our current societies. The poor are everywhere and the wealthy are the ones who still make sure the poor remain so. Some technology is present, but the utopian concept is as it might have been with Brave New World, only for a select few who have gated themselves from the rest. Scalzi's contribution was the best of the lot at the beginning as he described a smartass who did not get rewarded for his refusal to accept education. By the story's end we discover that being a recalcitrant smartass still provided the hero his success in spite of his poor education.
The Lessons of History
By Will & Ariel Durant
This short book of thirteen brief essays recounts the basic elements of human civilization. Written more than 40 years ago, its incisive thought about human beings and what they do has been demonstrated repeatedly since the book was written. We should not be amazed that we have not changed much from the 5,000 year history that the Durants point out as important pegs that we align ourselves with from that distant past. Easily read, it does require a familiarity with historical information from around the world.
By Alastair Reynolds
This novels departs from Reynold's usual fare as he ventures into future holocaust, some magic, animal-machine combination, Mad Max, good angels and bad angels. Imagine Saturday serials and Terminal World fits the genre. Although the story seems to drag some and the book is longer than Reynolds seemed accustomed to create, the extra length is found is tedious descriptions of intricate activity. His cast of characters is about normal and they are well-drawn. However the foundation for his plot is not well drawn and the reader is left without explanations other than "that's just how it is." For those who are willing to accept the unexplained and follow the action, the plot moves well and the reader can almost always stay ahead of the solutions that evolve from the personality of his characters, except for the handful of gotchas that Reynolds uses to get out of "now what?"
101 Theory Drive
By Terry McDermott
The way science works and
what goes on in labs is what my daughter told me about this book. If so, it
takes a special person to work in a lab and do science. Gary Lynch, a
neurophysiologist, seeks to find how the brain remembers and what makes memory.
Difficult to read as the science is filtered through the specific personality
of Lynch, driven to find the answer to a search that has not altered in three
decades, the solution is probably not available to a scientist. Francis Crick
in his Improbably Thesis was trying
to discover the biological foundation of thinking in much the same way Lynch is
attempting to discern the biology of memory. Both fail because their goal is
more than biological and they will not admit philosophy and the spirit is
involved. The book does offer some insight into what and how treatment for
brain disorders can be based on drugs that interact with specific brain
More than anything this book offers one graphic demonstration of why "reading someone's brain" will never take place. It is one thing to recognize where the memory may be indicated, but considerable more to imagine what the memory is of and where else it connects.
The Hippocampus is Lynch's playing field and it may be the underlying file system for what is stored in the rest of the brain. This concept was not mentioned, probably because it returns one to the metaphor of the computer which is not the brain.
The Dark Beyond the Stars
By Frank M. Robinson
This tale of a colony, generational spaceship is ponderous. Written from the perspective of the hero, the vision is the despairing belief that only humans from earth inhabit the galaxy or universe. I discovered this book in my pile of books yet to be read and seemed to have started it several years ago and mistakenly left it unfinished. I thought of many possible endings that diverged from Robinson’s who maintained his somber belief until the epilog. The tale does not turn until very close to the end and rushes to the complete explanation of the intrigue, mutiny, and explanation of the currents and riptides that are present throughout. I prefer rosier conclusions, but the presentation of humanity is faultless. Would we had more principled ideals.
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Perhaps every author has one bad book. This departure from what Robinson does best is one more discussion of the travesty that took place between the Catholic Church and Galileo, except Robinson adds a ridiculous construct of time-travel related to the Galilean moons. One more time the thrust of the accusations are couched in the worst possible light on the Church because the real reason is not only glossed over but omitted. Galileo’s problems did not begin because he said that the earth revolved about the sun, but because he said “The Bible is wrong” referring to the text in Joshua that the sun stood still in the sky while the Israelites were winning the battle. Had Galileo recanted his ‘Bible’ statement, things would have been different. The Church had to prosecute over his accusation of the Bible’s inaccuracy. Except for this traditional discussion that has been hashed too many times, the presentation of Galileo’s problems was reasonably presented although the swooning, syncopes, provide questionable explanation for what transpired in Galileo’s encompassing medical difficulties.
By Ben Bova
A second novel by Bova that is not happening in the solar system, presents a similar possible scenario of a potential devastating effect for the world as Greg Bear’s Quantico does. This novel developed in short byte-chapters bounces from character to setting from Southern California to the Pacific to Washington D.C. builds the tension until the very end. There is one sidebar that seems completely out of place, as if it were intended as a red-herring for the plot. Fast-paced, Able One is a page-turner that frequently injects fear from the “what if” conjectures.
Islands in the Sky
Edited by Stanley Schmidt and Robert Zubrin
This collection of essays form Analog purports to explain how humanity might leave the planet and continue its existence throughout the galaxy. Zubrin is known for his fostering ways to emigrate to Mars. But Mars is hardly the focus of this book which offers, sometimes very esoteric, ways to leave earth, populate the solar system and move on. The physics and math are not easy, but the narrative are very encouraging despite the impressions that most of the book seems more science fiction that potential. The saving element is that our sun will not destroy Earth for another 5 billion years and assuming we do not destroy our home, there is enough time to create the physics necessary for the outrageous schemes proposed.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
By Paul Theroux
Thirty-three years after his extended jaunt around Asia, Theroux repeats the trek ostensibly to see what changes have happened to that part of the world. Mostly he discovers that countries are worse and the people, those he comes in contact with are still friendly, kind, helpful, and social: the hope for the world. I have read much of Theroux who is mostly a travelogue writer who shows in vivid description the world to those of us who are too timid, too introvert, too poor to attempt the same personal research. Theroux excels in travel and telling the rest of the world. He is also impossible to read quickly. He uses words interestingly and combines them into long, periodic sentences (an incredibly pleasant discovery during a time of short sentences being the unwritten rule) is captivating and unusual ways that no one else can. Ghost Train is more a series of essays about human beings than it is anything else. It is difficult to be uninterested in humanity and Theroux is unbiased is his presentations.
By Wilbur Smith
The Courtney saga, a continuous narrative of the Courtneys who were privateers in the early 1600’s continues with Leon in Nairobi. Smith spins the tale of a willful British soldier who is sheltered by his uncle, while learning to be a hunting guide in Africa and working intimately with the Masai, during the time immediately before the First World War. Leon Courtney soon becomes a spy and finds that there are others around him. Smith’s inimitable style provides the reader with fine description woven around the political climate and an image of the coming European disaster that has implications for Africa. Assegai is a fun read and those who pay attention to the details will not be shocked at the ending.
The Temporal Void
By Peter F. Hamilton
Volume 2 of the Void trilogy spends more time with fantasy inside the void as it is defined by the dreams of Inigo than in the futuristic Federation some 12 centuries older than the time frame of Judas Unchained. The link between the two concurrent tales is made more clear but it continues to be tenuous. Hamilton has revealed some answers and has directed the reader to recognize our society in many ways as he is a master at placing the future in very contemporary concepts. His cast has increased greatly and the arena of his action is truly the galaxy. He does not leave the reader with the traditional “cliff hanger,” many TV series employ, to keep readers anxious for the next installment. However, the only disadvantage to finishing The Temporal Void months before the concluding volume is available—September 2010?—is that his story telling does not continue to entertain.
House of Suns
By Alastair Reynolds
Epic in scope, Reynolds has an unfolding tale of civilization and its galactic implications. Taking, perhaps, a page from Peter Hamilton in creating characters and complex interaction, Reynolds offers a story of the far future of our galaxy as human clones, machine intelligence, and intrigue shape the fears of one line of long-lived creatures. Slow starting, the book does not take off until it is about half over. The flashbacks describing the development of the Gentian line of eon-existing clones does not satisfy the ultimate conclusion of the story.
By Mike Resnick
And so the saga of Wilson Cole ends as it begins: Cole manages to make the galaxy safe for all species while removing the bad guys from their positions of power. And he does it all without killing anyone. He threatens, he cajoles, he persuades and others jump to his side. Resnick’s format for this five part series is much more evident in this concluding book. Dialog carries the story; narrative is practically non-existent, nor are details lacking. Resnick is a master at providing the reader with everything he needs within the conversation of the characters. The solution to Cole’s dilemma does seem to be far afield, but it fit with the aura of “luck” that seems to clothe Cole in all of his adventures.
Resnick is just plain fun to read. Unfortunately I read the book in one sitting and enjoyed it. The problem is, of course, that there is no more to read until he puts something else out. That’s why my reading is eclectic. I have enough authors that I am intrigued by all without entering a void of nothing to read.
The Dreaming Void
By Peter F. Hamilton
Following Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained after a chronology of some 12 centuries, Hamilton continues his epic saga of populating the galaxy with the first of a new trilogy. The intrigue involved in the previous narrative has been increased several fold as the option of downloading minds and personalities into an over-reaching artificial intelligent consortium in the federation is fraught with rejuvenation, superhuman abilities, and multiple levels of ESP. However Hamilton mixes sci-fi with fantasy as the new religion seems to seek a time Hamilton presents as a fantasy medieval Earth society mixed with magical powers. In a mix I have not seen since LeGuin’s The Dispossessed Hamilton alternates the science future with the medieval in what is essentially two stories each of which might stand alone. Occasionally the reader is must recall characters from the previous two part saga, but Hamilton properly provides enough background and brief flashback in detail to make sure the connections are present.
The Greatest Show on Earth
By Richard Dawkins
For several years Dawkins has steadfastly refused to mount a rebuttal to Creationism. Apparently he has finally succumbed to the need, no doubt from the statistical information about the science knowledge of the general public of the United States and his home country, England (which is found as an afterthought chapter). This book does present information about why evolution does found the existence of life on this planet. Dawkins moves slowly and systematically to cover how it formed and branched out into the kinds we know about. Had he stayed with the biology and development of evolution, the book would have been sufficient (except for the expected refusal of creationists to read it) but he let his atheism take control in the last pages where he summarily rejects the concept of “intelligent design” by offering his explanation of why a creator was really a bungler using a few examples of biological development which he says were poorly done—a nerve in the giraffe’s neck, the vas deferens in males—and maintains his critique demonstrates the lack of intelligence, since he would have done a better job.
By Michael S. Gazzaniga
Thirty some years ago, Mortimer Adler in a Great Books Yearbook discussed the differences of humans and other animals and why biologists and animalists and others who thought the difference was one of degree. His approach was basically philosophical as he was the reigning Aristotelian scholar of his time. Michael Gazzaniga has reprised Adler but from the scientific side of the field. Adler mentioned that none of those dealing with the problem were fit to discuss it because they were either scientists or philosophers; the problem was one contained in both areas. Gazzaniga is well-grounded in both areas. His presentation of why and how humans are different and able to do the things we do covers the philosophy Adler was demanding and supports it with the science of brain theory and biology. Human dismantles the concept that humans are different from other animals in degree and demonstrates why our difference is in kind. More than anything, he celebrates us as being separated from other animals because, although some of the biology is similar and some is not, we possess other biology and abilities dependent on that biology that makes us unique and unable to be duplicated. In a brief conclusion he discusses why AI cannot be achieved if it means a mechanical being with human abilities that are superior to human ability.
By Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick has to be the funniest author I have ever read. Introduced to him in his novel Kirinaga, a utopia concept that fails miserably as all utopias must, I didn’t know his brand of humor until I read The Outpost, a long series of tall tales of the galaxy’s greatest heros. Hazards seems to be a detour from his Spaceship five part series, but it still resides in tall tales peppered with very old “goaner” jokes. Reading Resnick is just plain enjoyable and unfortunately because he reads so quickly the fun is gone until another book appears. Resnick is also the first author I ever read who carries his stories almost totally through dialogue.
By Martin Beech
More technical than I had hoped for, this relatively short book offered reasons why the Earth is our home and what characteristics we demand for life. Only after a long presentation of why the Earth is as it is, does Beech begin to consider how Mars and Venus (yes!) must be altered to allow humanity a place to live. Then he considers some far future and seemingly incredibly expensive methods for terraforming other bodies of the solar system. He deals with Jupiter and its four major moons, Saturn’s moon Titan, the larger asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Other bodies of the system, including the Kuipper Belt are shown to have natural resources we might use to make these other bodies habitable. Lots of math and some far out thoughts make the book difficult and exciting. Mostly this concept is something that will take tens of millennia from happening.
By Bernard Beckett
A very brief novel from one of New Zealand’s fine writers—150 pages—that presents a good discussion of some of the ideas currently in the forefront of consciousness and mind and free will discussions. Description is almost non-existent as the sequence is dialog which occasionally does drag. A good book that should surprise nearly any reader can be read in an extended sitting.
Science at the Edge
Edited by John Brockman
Human beings, computer technology, and cosmology are the three topics discussed extensively by the leading scientists in each field. Nor do they merely rehash the state of each scientific study; they extend the field and parameters well beyond current status. Theories, premises, and imagination abound as one reads about human development and the possibility of dissecting consciousness and what humans might become, the possibility of conscious machines and their impact on our lives, and the dimensionality of the universe and how we might experiment to show them.
The Golden Torc
By Julian May
Volume two continues the saga of humans and aliens in time past. Still very slow, the humans do show their superiority in the midst of fantasy and magic and abilities that are incomparable.
The Many-Colored Land
By Julian May
The first of a four volume fantasy/sci-fi epic about humans who traveled to the Pliocene era and managed to defeat a group of aliens who had long before taken control of the era. The motley group of characters from the latest exile to the Pliocene carry the plot even though their whole group has been split (second volume dealing with the split). Interestingly the races all cooperate to create the success and without the need to press the issues with strong urging. Pliocene details are reasonable for letting the story flow. Interesting speculations about what humans and aliens might do in this era.
The Pillars of the Earth
By Ken Follett
Historical fiction that is epic in scope and more characterized than Dickens is maddening to read. Good is always trumped by devious evil; good seems never to gain. In that concept is truth and it suggests that the civilization is not much better off now than eight hundred years ago. But good, in its quiet, subdued manner does triumph. Perhaps that is a lesson—the patience—that we all need to recognize. What is just and proper and fitting is not necessarily to be exulted in or splashed over all. The book seems to drag for much of its 800+ pages. Follett is able to make the twelfth century come alive with his detailed descriptions, but that imagery is not particularly exciting, though it is accurate. That mundane interweaving of the characters is what drags: Murphy’s Law exemplified—if justice is achieved, the success is short-lived.
The Black Swan
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In the world of finance most believe that there are patterns within which “black swans” are the unexpected singular happenings. Black swans are both good and bad events that impact economics. Taleb does not believe in patterns or axioms, and in the beginning of the book it is difficult to imagine that one should even be reading his own philosophy. Assuming, according to Taleb, that there are no patterns in randomness and that all economics are founded on those who are not manipulative, then one must make one’s choices random as well. However, his belief seems to be that there is no manipulation. Such a belief is hard to imagine given the current spate of economic advisers, companies and other con-jobs that seem all connected with traditional pyramid schemes.
Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things
By Laurence Gonzales
Instead of a general explanation of the stupid things people ordinarily do with great regularity, Laurence Gonzales spends most of the book explaining who humans do not spend much time looking for different solutions to the same problems. According to Gonzales we are our own worst enemies because we are too comfortable with how we live. He begins with several explanations of how we are different from all other animals, especially other primates. Then he shows us that we are unwilling to accept the challenges of the world that have arisen because of our lack of global thinking. Whether he actually believes humans control the fate of the planet in our lifestyle or not, he does present a good case for our considering other cultures and the planet itself as principles that should guide our future.
The Man Who Loved China
By Simon Winchester
Regardless of the subject, Simon Winchester is a delight to read. His research is extensive and we are allowed to pull back the veil of history and become a spectator. Joseph Needham is portrayed as a man obsessed with all things China. Against the snippets of the Chinese and their “magical” culture, Needham is shown to be almost as strange as the “madman” in Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, the story of the beginning of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester’s intensity of explaining and picturing his subject is more an exercise in the breadth and depth of his own extensive studies from the geology of Britain in The Map That Changed the World, and volcanology in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.
By Mike Resnick
The fourth installment of Captain Wilson Cole, the mutinous hero escapee of the Federation’s Navy finally leads him back to a promised confrontation with Federation forces. Cole’s space armada has grown and it has also begun to create rifts within his own dominion. The fast pace of the first three books has not relaxed and the story is still propelled by pages of dialogue.
By Peter F Hamilton
As Hamilton’s other books go, this was a short story. Rejuvenation at the beginning is fraught with problems that are not told to Jeff Baker (or the problems are unknown, leading to the general lack of foresight humans have). More a subdued battle of the generations, the story compares a father and son in their sexual exploits in living and reliving their youth. A quick read and generally transparent, Hamilton does offer a relook at being able to “do that again.”