This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2023.
The past comes back to haunt the present in more ways than one in the third installment of Wagers’ NeoG series (after Hold Fast through the Fire, 2021). Missing ships mysteriously reappear and wreak destruction in the Trappist system. D’Arcy struggles with the aftermath of the sabotage of Jupiter Station, while both he and Sapphi deal with the return of important people from their pasts who they thought were long left behind. Max struggles to break free from her family, with surprising results. Doge exhibits surprising behavior, while Jenks falls deeper into unexpected domestic bliss, and the crew of Zuma’s Ghost dominate in their fifth Boarding Games. Behind it all is a mysterious being with a strange connection to Sapphi. Wagers juggles a lot of plot threads in this outing, mostly with great success, and offers a clever exploration of identity, community, healing, and what it means to be alive. Wagers continues to impress with deeply drawn characters and their focus on the power of supportive relationships. Fans of the NeoG will certainly find more of what they love in this outing.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2023.
Ice is everywhere. We put it in our drinks, use it to numb pain and injuries, and have machines in our kitchen that make it on demand. Given its ubiquity, it’s remarkable how little attention we’ve paid to its history. Environmental historian Brady is on a mission to fill this gap. Ice has played a central role in the evolution of culture, economics, and technology from the sixteenth century on. It revolutionized how we live: what we eat and drink, the sports we play, and how we treat illness. Ice, along with the rise of car culture, led to the invention of convenience stores. Ice even helped elect one the United States’ most popular presidents. But our obsessive pursuit of cold via refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a driver of global warming. Ironically, the growing role of human-made ice in our lives has caused the crucial loss of ice on earth. Brady’s history of ice focuses a fascinating lens on how our modern world came to be.
This review was first published by Booklist on April 15, 2023.
Fleeing from personal tragedy, xenobiologist Alex Crichton is assigned to a corporate exploration ship scouting a new star system for potentially habitable planets when the team discovers an anomaly: a gigantic, perfectly circular hole in a planet that emits a regular signal encoding the Mandelbrot set. Despite his misgivings, and spurred by the memory of who he lost, Alex volunteers to be on the landing crew sent down to explore the planet’s surface. What follows is a torturous journey of mounting tension, danger, and uncertainty. It’s a pressure cooker that gradually wears away at the characters’ psyches. Things get dark. This is a deep character portrait, enhanced by the mystery and disconcerting nature of the setting. Layered on top is a meditation on grief and faith. It’s a heady mix of ingredients. The central mystery is never solved, and the ending is left unresolved, but it finishes with a welcome note of hope. Fractal Noise is very different in length and tone from its predecessor (To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, 2020), and it shows Paolini’s range as a storyteller.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Since leaving his YA fantasy series behind, Paolini’s SF star has shone more brightly with every new release.
This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2023.
**STARRED REVIEW** This anthology from the European Astrobiology Institute explores the possibilities of nonhuman life in the cosmos. Each of the 27 short stories is paired with a nonfiction essay examining the concepts explored in the story. These works are written by a diverse group of accomplished authors and scientists from across the world. In them, we meet intelligent aliens on moons and planets, from deserts and forests to worlds in water and ice to interstellar dust and black holes; beings made up of space-time itself, and even nonhuman intelligent life here on Earth. The essays cover a broad range of topics, including what we know about the possible chemistry of nonhuman biology, planetary and stellar formation, semiotics and the anticipated challenges of communication with nonhuman beings, and the ethics of such interactions. It’s incredibly comprehensive. Each story is short enough to be easily digestible, and the essays are similarly focused, but they don’t lack any depth of information. Taken altogether, this is a deep dive into the subject. Pairing fiction stories with nonfiction essays illustrates the deep connections between sf and science, particularly the necessity of imagination and creativity in scientific work. This spectacular collection is a deeply rewarding work.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 15, 2023.
What would it be like to stand on Mars or experience sunset on a world with multiple suns? To visit a stellar nursery or orbit a black hole? What would you see? How would it feel? Plait takes readers on a tour of the cosmos, from the moon to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and paints vivid descriptions of what these objects are like, using the best observations and theories we currently have. It’s an effective framing device to explore what we know about the strange and wonderful things we’ve discovered, from exoplanets to nebulae. His realistic depictions, grounded in human senses, awaken a feeling of wanderlust and make the esoteric feel real. What elevates this above similar books about our universe is Plait’s sense of wonder and joy. He clearly never lost his childhood glee for discovery, and it’s refreshing for a scientist to be so open about it. He shows that science requires creativity and imagination and rewards curiosity and the urge to explore. It’s a remarkable journey.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2023.
Physics is modern magic, and condensed matter physicists are the wizards of the modern world. Condensed matter physics is the study of how matter behaves in the real world, and how we can harness it to improve our daily lives. It’s what gave us steam engines, electric grids, and computers. It’s the single largest branch of physics, yet it’s one of the least discussed, with more glamorous theoretical fields commanding popular attention. Flicker seeks to reveal the wonder and fascination of this work. He walks readers through the history of how the field developed, introducing the major milestones and scientists along the way. He guides us through the different states of matter, thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, topology, and magnetism, to show us just how enthralling these can be. The joy he has for this work is infectious. Much of the content gets abstruse, but he avoids complex math, and by framing it as modern magic this becomes part of the charm. It’s OK if you don’t understand: it’s magic. You can still enjoy the show.
This review was first published by Booklist on February 17, 2023.
In the ninth installment of his Alex Benedict series (after Octavia Gone, 2019), McDevitt changes things up a bit, introducing the possibility of intelligent aliens that aren’t long gone. An exploratory mission to the Orion Nebula uncovers an isolated village of technological humanoids on an inhabited planet, but a follow-up mission finds the village has disappeared without a trace. Without an explanation for its vanishing, many believe the whole thing is a hoax. But Alex, Chase, Gabe, and Chase’s old friend Robbi Jo (who was a member of the original mission that discovered the village) set out to solve the mystery. McDevitt has been labeled “cozy science fiction” and the description is apt: his beloved characters are pleasant and reasonable, with little conflict and good intentions all around. Crises reliably resolve with no lasting damage done. The reward of this book is the compelling central mystery and the continued exploration of the universe McDevitt has constructed. It may not be the most dramatic or exciting of his works, but fans will find what they’re looking for with this one.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is so good! So, so very good!
But it should be much, much better. All I can see now is how far short it falls from what it could have been. I know this isn’t fair to the film and all the amazing, creative people who worked so hard on it. I don’t want to downplay what this movie achieves, but I’m disappointed.
Wakanda Forever wants to be an intimate character study. It has to be a Marvel movie. I wish it didn’t have to be a Marvel movie. The characters deserve a deeper examination than the format allows.
To be clear, I love Marvel movies. Marvel has stretched the constraints of the super-hero action movie as far as any franchise ever. They make character-driven, funny, poignant stories with genuine emotional depth, within a milieu that historically has never achieved that level of artistry. They let their creative staffs get full-on bizarre, daring and inventive, and it works. They embrace their weirdness in a wonderful way. It’s been compelling and rewarding to see this genre evolve.
But there’s only so far you can push things based on the fundamental needs of the genre. And the limits are beginning to constrict, especially for a filmmaker like Coogler.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 6, 2023.
In 1978, NASA recruited Astronaut Group 8, the first group of astronaut candidates selected to serve on the space shuttle and the first opportunity open to nonmilitary personnel. This group included the first American women, first African Americans, first Asian American, first married couple, and (unbeknownst at the time) the first gay astronaut to fly into space. NASA recruited scientists, engineers, and medical professionals, not just pilots. Members of this remarkably diverse group—known as the “new guys”—served from the shuttle’s first flight to its final decommissioning. They launched technology (including the Hubble Space Telescope) that fundamentally altered our world and weathered disasters (Bagby covers the loss of the Challenger in significant detail), political maneuvering, and bad press. Their crowning achievement was construction of the International Space Station. Much has already been written about these men and women, their successes and tragedies, and Bagby doesn’t break new ground here. But she brings together a wealth of information and crafts it into a compelling, cohesive, and complete narrative. An excellent choice for anyone interested in the history of space exploration.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2023.
It’s summer on Niflheim, and Mickey7 is retired from being the colony’s Expendable. He’s spent the last two years helping tend the rabbits. Then one day, he sees himself heading toward the reactor core. Turns out there’s not enough fuel to last through the next winter, and everyone will die unless he can get back the antimatter bomb Marshall thinks he left with the creepers. But how does he know Marshall is telling the truth? Maybe it’s a ploy to finally get rid of him. Ashton’s follow-up to his excellent Mickey7 (2022) is just as much fun as its predecessor. Readers get to see more aspects of colony life, and Ashton introduces nuances to the creepers while showing us more of their world. The Speaker is a delightful new character, offering an entertaining look at the challenges of communication and mutual comprehension. As in Mickey7, there’s substance behind the humor. At the core of this story are questions of trust and responsibility—what do you do when saving the world means you must betray an ally?