Book Review: Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis

Cover of the book Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis
Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe
by Fred Nadis
Pegasus, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on July 31, 2020.

Star Settlers is a cultural history of the human quest to conquer space. People have dreamed of travelling through the heavens for centuries, and the scientific advancements of the twentieth century have brought the possibility close to reality. Nadis seeks to understand the reasons why people want to expand out into space: as evolutionary imperative, as necessary for the survival of our species, and as spiritual quest. He traces the development of these ideas, from their earliest expressions in the seventeenth century to the present, and profiles many of the individuals and organizations who have pursued them. Some focus on colonizing Mars or the Moon, some want to build space stations, and some see humans filling entire star systems. Terraforming, ecosystem design, robots, AI, and transhumanism all have potential roles to play. The dream of space has been nurtured in science fiction, philosophy, spiritualism, and among the engineers and scientists of the Space Age. Ultimately, it’s not just a question of how we do it; it’s a question of whether we should.

Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

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The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:

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Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control by Paul Dye

Cover of the book Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control by Paul Dye
Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control
by Paul Dye
Hachette, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on June 19, 2020.

Dye started working for NASA as a college student in 1980. He eventually spent 20 years as a Flight Director in Mission Control, responsible for coordinating all the myriad teams and departments necessary to make the Shuttle fly, complete its mission, and land safely back on Earth. He ascended to the “center chair” during the first cooperative ventures with the Russians and the Mir space station, and stayed there through the construction of the International Space Station, to the last Shuttle flight in 2011. This gave him a front row seat to the entire span of the Space Shuttle program. His passion for his work is most apparent when he dives into the technical details of how missions are planned, how the Shuttle’s systems work, and the complexity of managing each flight. There are a lot of acronyms and jargon, descriptions of machines and computer systems, as well as some fundamental science, but nothing overwhelming. He does a fine job of explaining things without oversimplification. Shuttle, Houston is a fascinating insight into inner workings of NASA.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: This title is recommended for teens with a strong interest in space flight.

F*ck the Books

Now that I have your attention with my intentionally confrontational, click-baity post title…

Last month (May 2020), my library reopened our book returns in preparation for limited reintroduction of material circulation in our community. The course of the pandemic in our service area was on a trend that indicated it would be safe to do so. The best data we have suggests we need to let returned materials sit for 72 hours before processing them back into the collection, onto the shelves, and into patrons’ hands.

Which is why a few of our branches have giant piles of books dumped on the floor:

Pile of books on a library floor

(From this news item: “Johnson County libraries busy after restarting dropoffs, holds and pickups,” Carey Wickersham. Fox 4, Nexstar Media Group, Inc. https://fox4kc.com/tracking-coronavirus/johnson-county-libraries-busy-after-restarting-dropoffs-holds-and-pickups/. Accessed June 18, 2020.)

Images like this one were presented in the media as my library reopened our book returns. It caused a minor furor online: people were offended we would treat books so callously. There were outraged comments on Twitter. Even the article this image is taken from can’t seem to avoid a slightly judgmental tone:

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Book Review: Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend

Cover of the book Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend
Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car
by Anthony M. Townsend
Norton, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2020.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are on their way and Townsend (Smart Cities, 2013) wants readers to be prepared. AV will fundamentally change the nature of communities in ways even the most optimistic prognosticators can’t imagine. Self-driving cars won’t be the end of it: this technology opens the door to everything from intelligent hoverboards to self-driving buildings. Fleets of driverless trucks and delivery rovers will upend manufacturing, shipping, and delivery systems. Algorithmic analysis of traffic patterns can drastically reduce carbon emissions and virtually eliminate accidents. There’s tremendous potential to be tapped into that can transform the world for the better. But there’s also great danger. Technology tends to worsen social inequalities, it threatens to create ubiquitous surveillance, and the fortunes to be made could easily lead to the near-complete privatization of public space. Townsend posits a set of principles for individuals to commit to so they can take control and demand a human-focused future before it’s decided for them. Ghost Road is a balanced, well informed, and ultimately hopeful examination of AV.

Vocational Awe

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.

But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.

We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.

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Book Review: Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

Cover of the book Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth
by Kate Greene
St. Martin’s, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2020.

In 2013, science journalist Greene was selected to participate in a four-month experiment simulating a crewed Mars mission: the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). As NASA works toward sending humans to Mars, many of the thorniest issues they need to solve are psychological and not technical: the effects of isolation, the difficulties of communication, the reality of boredom, and the conflicts that arise when small groups of people are stuck together for long periods of time. The object of Greene’s experiment was to study “menu fatigue” and whether it would be beneficial to let astronauts cook their own food. Greene uses her experience in HI-SEAS as the basis for 12 essays exploring these issues and others: questions about who gets to be an astronaut and why, how extreme circumstances alter our perceptions of time and space, the ethics of human research, the complicated relationship between public and private efforts to explore space, and the personal aftermath of such endeavors. She addresses them with wit, insight, compassion, and, ultimately, hope.

Book Review: How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena by Paul M. Sutter

Cover of the book How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena by Paul M. Sutter
How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena
by Paul M. Sutter
Pegasus, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2020.

Astrophysicist Sutter has some advice for anyone interested in exploring our universe: don’t. It’s really dangerous out there, and How to Die in Space catalogs the many things that can kill you when you venture into space. Sutter uses this humorous premise to explain the current best understanding of the cosmos and the physics behind it, macro to quantum, covering everything from local hazards like comets and solar flares, to more distant threats like planetary nebulae and all the various ways stars can incinerate you as they die, to deeply mysterious monsters like white dwarves, quasars, and black holes. He even delves into purely theoretical ideas such as dark matter, wormholes, and the possibility of alien intelligence. He has a gift for explaining cutting-edge physics and quantum mechanical concepts with clarity in nonspecialist terms, often utilizing delightful similes. The tongue-in-cheek alarmist tone offsets Sutter’s deep fascination, and his joy of discovery is infectious. This accessible overview of our bizarre universe will encourage readers to delve deeper and learn more.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: The humorous approach to astrophysics makes for teen-friendly reading.

Book Review: Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow

Cover of the book Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow
Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics
by Leonard Mlodinow
Knopf, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2020.

In his latest, Mlodinow (Elastic, 2018) offers a heartfelt account of his friendship with theoretical astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. They met in 2003 and collaborated on two books before Hawking’s death in 2018, A Briefer History of Time (2005) and The Grand Design (2010). The narrative anchor of this memoir is an account of their collaborative process of writing the latter interwoven with details about Hawking’s life, how he learned to live with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his ground-breaking work in cosmology. Fellow physicist Mlodinow has a scientist’s perspective on Hawking, eschewing often hyperbolic media accounts. He does an admirable job of explaining the cosmological concepts without overwhelming casual readers. Their working relationship quickly turned into friendship, and Mlodinow gleans many insights into the kind of man Hawking was—passionate, rebellious, funny, warm, unconventional, stubborn, sometimes peevish, often controversial, and unafraid. He was a complex person driven by a passion to understand, overcome the limitations of his disability, and make human connections. Mlodinow renders a satisfying and humane portrait.