Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review: Switcheroo

Aaron Elkins

Aaron Elkins has long been one of my favorite mystery authors. He writes genuinely classical mysteries. They're not cutesy "themed" mysteries, nor I'm-so-dark-I-must-be-terribly-relevant mysteries, nor historical mysteries (with or without an improbable detective). Just ... mysteries, with clues and suspects. 

So it was a matter of regret, a few years ago, to learn that Elkins was retiring Gideon "The Skeleton Detective" Oliver. It was equally a matter of pleasure to learn, quite by accident, that the retirement turned out to be temporary. Switcheroo is very much in the tradition, and in consequence I very much enjoyed it. It is, perhaps, a little slight; it seems like an oversized novella rather than a full-blown novel. (Also, I happened to know one of the forensic tidbits.) However, it has likable characters, good dialog, a nice setting, interesting facts--in short, everything I was looking for. Here's to more Gideon Oliver.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Book Review: 1916 Rising

1916 Rising: The Photographic Record
Turtle Bunbury

Most of what I know about the abortive 1916 Dublin revolt I know from songs. 1916 Rising (published overseas as Easter Dawn) is somewhat song-like itself. That is, it's evocative; it's colorful; it's moving; it's flagrantly partisan; and it's not really all that informative. The photos are terrific, and strongly reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary ... but without a Ken Burns to bring the story together. The overall effect is rather pontillist.

The chief reaction I took away from 1916 Rising is sadness, informed by my knowledge of what came afterwards. Many of the men involved were young, most of them were romantics, and all of them were idealists. A good many were poets and artists and writers. Their unswerving belief in their Cause and its righteousness strikes me as tragic, not glorious. The subsequent executions (aside from being a gross political blunder by the British) were no less so. The follow-on conflicts--the Black-and-Tan War and the Irish Civil Wars--were as stupid and brutal as any. And, least forgivably, a few Irish Nationalists were later to suck up to the Nazis, because the Nazis were fighting Great Britain. Was there no better way?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Review: Insistence of Vision

Insistence of Vision: Stories
David Brin
Science fiction

This is a short story collection consisting mostly of minor works. That said, minor works by David Brin are generally better than anything you'll find, say, here. Bring your brain; don't look for deep characterization, except perhaps in the Uplift novella "Temptation". A couple of these stories are strongly reminiscent of other works: the title story recalls Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man", for instance. The best entry here is the very good "Mars Opposition".

Brin has two outstanding collections: Otherness and The River of Time. Not new, but totally worth reading.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Preview: Books I Want to Read

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. His previous work on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, was one of the best medico-scientific books I've read in years.

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, by Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

Paper, by Mark Kurlansky, godfatherof the single-word-title-biography-of-a-substance book (Salt).

What else should I be reading? Tell me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: The House of Wisdom

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance
Jim Al-Khalili
Science, history

This is a really informative book. Anyone who knows much about the history of science knows that many, many classical Greek texts were lost during the post-Roman Dark Ages, and were rediscovered because they'd been preserved by Arabic scholars. Jim Al-Khalili documents that process, but he also makes a great case for the contributions of the Arabic scholars themselves.

It's not perfect. Al-Khalili sometimes seems a bit defensive. At other times tries too hard to be scrupulously neutral. It's also fair to say that he's presenting the good-parts version of Arabic scholarship--candlelit truth, you might say. All in all, though, I thought he did a great job of rescuing the medieval scholars of Baghdad and Andalusia from unwarranted obscurity, and of showing that their contributions to European science were both vital and under-appreciated.

Coincidentally, this is one of Bruce Watson's sources for Light, the last book I read. The two make an interesting contrast. Al-Khalili's book isn't as large in scope, and it's not poetically written. (Not that the writing is bad; it's generally fine, just not distinguished.) But I think that I learned more from The House of Wisdom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: Light

Light: A Radiant History From the Creation to the Quantum Age
Bruce Watson
Science, art

Critics and academics love this sort of book. Light is beautifully written. It crosses and recrosses the boundaries among science and art and culture, bringing together a diverse set of viewpoints on this one thing: light.

I liked Light very much. (It's hard for me not to like a book that prominently acknowledges my home town's library in the end credits.) I did not, however, love it. The danger in this kind of writing is that can end up as more performance piece than communication, and Bruce Watson does not entirely avoid this danger. The art and science halves of the book are largely separate; the cross-cultural survey is fitful and rather shallow.

More irritatingly, the science is sometimes poorly explained. The description of Isaac Newton's experimentum crucis (showing that white light is a mix of colors) is at best incomplete, and Watson's handling of polarization is just muddled. I'll give him a pass on his explanation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, since even physics books get that one wrong.

In sum, Light succeeds brilliantly at being entertaining. It's less brilliant at being informative, perhaps. Still, it's an elegant conceit--the art-history bits in particular are, well, illuminating--and it is, as previously noted, quite poetic. Enjoy the performance; double-check the facts.

One of my favorite books of 2015 was Laura J. Snyder's Eye of the Beholder--similar in some ways, but more tightly focused. ("Focused" ... light analogies are really hard to get away from, which is part of Bruce Watson's point.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review: Quantum Night

Quantum Night
Robert Sawyer
Science fiction

WARNING: Contrary to my usual policy, this review contains some SPOILERS.

Rob Sawyer is an author whom I've historically liked a great deal. He writes core science fiction: a big what-if is introduced, and then the consequences are worked out. 

In Quantum Night, the big idea centers around human consciousness. What is it? What would happen if you could raise--or lower--a person's level of consciousness, while leaving them fully functional? Sounds like a great classic-SF premise, I'd say. And the book follows through, for the most part. Its flaws are the flaws of the genre: it's talky (though the dialog is believable, rather than pure infodump), and it's more interested in the idea than in the characters (though the characterization is, in fact, better than average).

But then there's the ending.

Somewhere along the line Sawyer seems to have gotten religion. Not the usual Christ-is-come-to-save-us-all flavor, but the geek version. We poor humans, he evidently feels, need salvation from a higher power. And so, thanks to the High Church of the Technopocalypse, POOF! Deus ex machina! A magic technological thingy comes to pass, and lo! everyone and everything is good and happy and light! Praise the Lord 2.0!

What's worse is that I saw the divine intervention coming for most of the book. I claim no special prescience here; if you read the blurb, you'll probably see it as well.

What's even worse is that Sawyer has now used basically the same B.S. cop-out of a flabby non-resolution in three works: Quantum Night, the otherwise very good W.W.W. trilogy, and Triggers. That's why I say he's gotten religion. I cannot otherwise explain how a fine craftsman has repeatedly gone so badly off the rails, and always in the same direction. Seriously: what makes an intelligent and respected author think that a climax consisting of "And then a divine hand reached down and made everything all right!" is a good idea? Can anyone tell me?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Book Review: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Contintent
Gabrielle Walker
Science, geography

This is a really good book. It's both informative and well-written. Not only is Gabrielle Walker superbly evocative in describing the Antarctic landscape, she's got a gift for describing the people she interacts with--short yet memorable character portraits that make them come alive in the mind's eye. The only downside is that Walker wrote the book based, it seems, on some visits between the late '90s and the mid-'00s; having read the book, I really want to know what's happened more recently.

Naturally, in a book on Antarctica, the subject of climate change comes up. It's not that I disbelieve the science on this, but I've read a lot of books with a lot of hand-wringing on this particular subject. Walker's take is more fact-driven than most, which is nice.

Antarctica is even good enough to have induced in me a desire to visit. (I lay down and ate snack food until it passed.) Seriously, read this one. Have a hot drink handy when you do.

Walker's cabin-mate on one trip was Mary Roach. That must have been a good cruise.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Book Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Science fiction (reread)

I reread this as a palate cleanser from Up and Coming. Even allowing for the fact that Old Man's War is the kind of thing I like, the difference is striking. This was Scalzi's first novel, and he self-published it--and yet, from page 1, it has the I-want-to-know-what-happens-next factor that's largely absent from Up and Coming.

Other than that, my reactions are well summarized by this and this.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Review: Up and Coming

Up and Coming: Stories by the 2016 Campbell-Eligible Authors
Bad Menagerie (publisher)
Science fiction, anthology

The John W. Campbell award recognizes newly-published SF/fantasy/etc writers. Up and Coming has 1.1 million words of eligible work in it. I presume that it therefore gives some reasonable overview of the state of the field today, at least as regards stuff trawled from the minor leagues.

And what, I hear you asking, is that state? In brief, and to borrow a witticism attributed to Samuel Johnson: This anthology contains much that is tolerable and imaginative. However, the parts that are tolerable are not imaginative, and the parts that are imaginative are not tolerable.

I didn't read all 1.1 million words. At least 10% of them are simply unreadable. A considerably larger fraction, say 30%, are authors doing things that don't interest me; I'm not qualified to comment on those. For the remainder, here are some impressions.

  • Depressing is evidently the new black.
  • Succeeding at depressing is still better than failing at funny.
  • Proofreading is, apparently, just something that happens to other people. PROTIP, representative of many: "grizzly" is not the same as "grisly".
  • No conflict, no story. Certain authors who ought to know better have also forgotten this.
If you're a really gifted writer, you can ignore all these strictures (well, except for the proofreading). Most people are not that gifted. If you believe you are, I urge you to consider the statistics.

Out of the 1.1 million words, I'd single out these as worthy of a second look:

  • "Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned From the Trade Summit Incident", by Annalee Flower Horne, is somewhat predictable but amusing.
  • "Haunted", by Sarah Gailey, is an unusual perspective on the haunted-house story.
  • "Rememorations", by Paul B. Kohler, is quite competent.

If you're not a true lover of the genre, don't read this. If you are ... um. Let's say that if you start in on a story and it doesn't grab you, don't bother to stick with it in the hope that it will get better. Alternatively, you could read some better work from a guy who isn't even published yet.