Book Review: Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier by Colin Burgess

Cover of the book Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier by Colin Burgess
Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier
by Colin Burgess
Reaktion, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on June 30, 2022.

This is an accessible, comprehensive history of the Russian space program from the end of WWII to the present day. Soviet missions were long shrouded in secrecy, the facts obscured by active disinformation tactics. It’s only been in the past several years that primary-source records have been declassified and released to the public, providing insight into everything from initial dominance in the 1950s and ’60s, through multiple failures in the 1970s, to the spirit of East-West cooperation in the 1990s, to the defining success of MIR and the Russians’ present-day role as mainstays on the International Space Station. It’s remarkable how much information Burgess fits into a fairly short volume; in around 200 pages, he covers just about every known mission and crew member, along with the politics and larger context surrounding the space race, without the reader feeling like anything important is missing. It’s a quick read and a useful overview of our best up-to-date understanding of the reality of the Russian space program.

YA/S – special interest: This is an excellent beginning for young people wanting to explore the history of the Space Race.

Book Review: The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

Cover of the book The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden
The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars
by Simon Morden
Pegasus, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2022.

Our understanding of Mars has grown immensely over the past few decades, to the point that we can meaningfully speculate about its past and how this unique planet came to be. Morden, a science-fiction author and trained geologist, serves up a natural history of Mars, from its formation over 4.5 billion years ago to the present. He summarizes what we know about its physical features and the geological history behind them. Mars is unique in several ways, and there are several different possible paths it could have taken to become like it is today. We don’t currently have enough information to know which possibility is the truth. Morden embraces this uncertainty and paints a multifaceted picture of what might have been. Morden’s writing style is friendly and accessible, and his excitement for the subject shines through. It’s impressive how much information he packs into a narrative that flows so easily. The Red Planet is an excellent overview and an easy recommendation for space buffs, geologists, or anyone with a general interest in science.

YA/S – special interest: Science-inclined teen readers will enjoy this overview of Martian geology.

Book Review: Invisible Things by Mat Johnson

Cover of the book Invisible Things by Mat Johnson
Invisible Things
by Mat Johnson
One World, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2022.

A science mission to explore Jupiter discovers something unexpected on the moon Europa and disappears. A chauffeur in Arizona who believes his wife was abducted by aliens gets wrapped up in a covert rescue mission. This sounds like a setup for a standard alien-encounter story; instead, Johnson (Pym, 2011) uses the premise to examine many of the immediate problems facing our society today: intolerance, unearned privilege, religious fundamentalism, corrupt politics, and mass obliviousness. There’s nothing subtle about this work, and some might find it too on the nose, but there is power in addressing these issues so unflinchingly. His writing style is fairly cerebral, which mutes some of the emotional impact, and that’s the point: Johnson has an argument to make, and the story humanizes it enough for it to really hit home. His characters are vivid and compelling, and even the villains retain their full measure of humanity, with motivations that make sense. The ending veers unexpectedly into the fantastical while offering a welcome measure of hope.

Book Review: Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age by Lori Garver

Cover of the book Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age by Lori Garver
Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age
by Lori Garver
Diversion, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2022.

America’s space program has undergone a seismic shift in recent years, from a partnership between the government and the aerospace industry to an open, competitive field for private start-ups like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Garver, a self-proclaimed “space pirate,” was a primary architect of this change, in a career spanning her time with the nonprofit National Space Society through two stints at NASA from 1996 to 2013, culminating in her confirmation as deputy administrator of the agency in 2009. Frustrated by NASA’s lack of vision and progress in the decades after the Apollo program, Garver believes that expanding our space presence is essential to proper stewardship of the earth and a healthier future for humankind. She championed a more innovative and visionary direction, fueled by the conviction that private industry is better suited to developing cost-effective launch technology, which can free the government to pursue large-scale science and exploration. Her changes at NASA haven’t been without controversy and criticism. She makes a compelling case and offers a hopeful vision for the future of America’s space program.

Book Review: Mercury Rising by R. W. W. Greene

Cover of the book Mercury Rising by R. W. W. Greene
Mercury Rising
by R. W. W. Greene
Angry Robot, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on April 15, 2022.

Greene’s latest is set in an alternate time line where the U.S. and Soviet Union made it to space in the 1950s and fended off an alien attack in the 1960s. Brooklyn Lamontagne, a petty crook who just wants to take care of his mother, joins the Earth Orbital Forces to avoid a prison sentence. Soon he’s swept up in a series of events that uncover a deep secret which could save humankind. Mercury Rising is a rollicking, funny, picaresque adventure novel. It doesn’t follow any predictable path and requires a willingness to go along and see where it takes you. The hero isn’t a typical good guy, but he’s likable and compelling. The secondary characters are all people you want to spend more time with. Most of all, this is a stellar example of effective world building. Greene provides enough detail to make the alternate reality believable and immersive, but he’s not concerned with showing it off. Recommended for fans of old sf-adventure serials and Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015).

Book Review: Afterglow by Tim Jordan

Cover of the book Afterglow by Tim Jordan
Afterglow
by Tim Jordan
Angry Robot, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 25, 2022.

Rex hoped he was safe. But of course, the Sisters have other plans, and Del’s consciousness is still inside his mind, seeking a way out. Elsewhere, a Burn seeks atonement for past crimes, a cyborg woman and her engineer boyfriend are caught up in a conflict they don’t understand, Hmech’s Alliance continues its conquest of Earth, the Convolver Sect machinates for the salvation of mankind, and we haven’t seen the last of Ursurper Gale. There are a lot of moving pieces in Jordan’s sequel to Glow (2021). The story zips along at a frenetic pace, keeping the reader just a little off balance along with the characters, bouncing between different plot threads before he brings it all together for an explosive climax. Jordan expands this world in more dimensions, revealing intricacies of the political landscape and some surprises about certain characters and diving deeper into the workings of the Glow network. At times, the world building threatens to spin out of control, but overall Jordan manages to wrangle his many story threads into a satisfying whole.

Book Review: Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science by James Poskett

Cover of the book Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science by James Poskett
Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science
by James Poskett
HMH/Mariner, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 25, 2022.

Poskett describes how the history of modern science is traditionally presented as the work of white European and American scientists working in isolation, pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This story is wrong. The history of science is one of constant cultural exchange across the world, and it’s deeply embedded in commerce and politics, linked to slavery, war, colonialism, and empire. The discovery of the New World inspired European thinkers to question the accepted knowledge of the ancient Greeks, European explorers depended on sophisticated indigenous knowledge, and trade along the Silk Road brought new ideas from as far away as China and Africa into the intellectual world of Europe and vice versa. These influences were acknowledged at the time but omitted from history for largely nationalistic reasons. The rise of industry and large-scale conflicts inspired great scientific advancements. Europe’s Scientific Revolution spread and inspired similar revolutions worldwide. The history of science is global. Poskett delivers a necessary and welcome corrective to our understanding, highlighting how many of the achievements and influences of people across the non-Western world shaped modern science.

I Did It

I did it. Here’s a pic of my bookshelves in 2015 when I first set them up:

Bookshelves

Here’s a pic of my bookshelves now:

Bookshelves weeded

I ended up weeding half of my collection and donated it all to my local public library friends group for them to use in their fundraising efforts. And it feels good!

I talk a lot about how grad school changed my sense of the value of books. But there was another essential change that happened, one which better explains why I did this.

Continue reading “I Did It”

Book Review: Memory’s Legion by James S. A. Corey

Cover of the book Memory's Legion by James S. A. Corey
Memory’s Legion
by James S. A. Corey
Orbit, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 15, 2022.

**STARRED REVIEW** From the invention of the Epstein drive, to Amos’ backstory, to the fate of Naomi’s son, these eight stories and novellas fill in details of the world of the Expanse (beginning with Leviathan Wakes, 2011), telling tales that didn’t fit into the main novels but which deepen readers’ relationship to this world and its characters. Much like the longer books, each story has its own tone, atmosphere, and pace, and Corey uses the freedom of the short form to experiment with different narrative styles. The stories are creative and inventive, packing the same character-driven emotional power of the novels. It’s remarkable how well Corey adapts their writing style to craft short-form tales that are the equal of the lauded long-form works. Each story is accompanied by an author’s note explaining how it came to be, along with nuggets of trivia about the writing and publishing process. These pieces were written over the course of the series and originally published in a variety of sources, so they weren’t always easy for fans to track down. This collection is a welcome capstone to mark the conclusion of arguably the best space-opera series written in the past few decades.

He / They

Lately, I’ve been wondering if my correct pronouns should be “he/they,” rather than just “he”. I have personal reasons for thinking it may be, but I’m wrestling with the social aspects of it.

If I publicly change my pronouns, I want it to be an act that can help. I want to be a good ally and accomplice to trans folk. I want to do what I can (even if ever so little) to increase acceptance of trans identities.

I believe the most important task we have in pursuit of trans rights, women’s rights, and even men’s rights, is to reject toxic masculinity. “He/they” is such a rejection and undermines the primacy of what we think of as “male.”

If more people like me—commonly perceived to be cisgender male—embraced “they” as a pronoun for ourselves, would it help? Can we make a wider range of identities more acceptable in our communities and our society this way? Maybe I can help normalize “they.”

I believe that gender is fluid and exists on a spectrum. I believe most of us exist as a mix of possible gender characteristics. I believe strict cisgender roles are artificial. If I were to make the public statement that, no, actually even someone like me exists to some degree on a fluid spectrum, that statement could be an effective way to question our preconceived notions of gender.

However, I’m not sure I have the right to take on this identity. I do not, under any circumstance, want to be yet another cis person appropriating trans identity for performative wokeness.

I can’t tell if making this change would be appropriate allyship or just appropriation.