This review was first published by Booklist on February 15, 2021.
Tech billionaire Elon Musk set out to revolutionize the space industry, and founded aerospace company SpaceX in the hope of one day landing humans on Mars. Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, was granted unprecedented access to interview Musk, as well as current and former employees of SpaceX, and here shares first-hand accounts of their experiences. The main focus isn’t Musk himself, but the engineers, technicians, vice presidents, and lieutenants: passionate and driven people bold enough to take on Musk’s ambitious vision. Berger shares how they came to work for Musk, their experiences of toil and sweat, uncertainty and victory. There’s very little technical detail in this book; instead, it’s a story about people and their faith in one man’s compelling mission. What stands out most is the author’s command of pacing. He depicts race-against-the-clock crises as fast-paced as a thriller, with moments reminiscent of Apollo 13 or The Martian (albeit with slightly lower stakes). An exciting and insightful read for anyone interested in the story behind the early days of SpaceX.
This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2021.
Just as humankind was on the brink of reaching the stars, fueled by new biotechnology that conveys near-immortality, the Earth was almost destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Now, a once-great corporation is clinging to power from its orbiting stations, an Earth-side alliance seeks to overthrow it, and a new kind of artificial life lurks in the dark, where nothing is as it seems. Rex is an addict of Glow—a nanotech drug—who can’t remember who he is. When he’s taken in by a sect of nuns who promise salvation, he finds himself in a conflict that could destroy all he holds dear, hunted by something not of this world. He must survive long enough to solve the mystery of his own identity. In Jordan’s impressive fiction debut, the action and pacing are taut, the characters well drawn, the conflict compelling, and the world he creates is fascinating and immersive in its detail. His world building is reminiscent of the best space opera mixed with the gritty, violent dystopia of cyberpunk. Recommended for fans of Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 15, 2021.
When Joseph Bridgeman was a teenager, his younger sister, Amy, vanished while under his supervision. She was never found and the loss tore his family apart. Twenty years later, in the midst of crippling depression, a hypnotherapy session unlocks a strange new ability: Joe discovers he can travel back in time. If he can figure out how this power works, maybe he can save his sister. Time travel is used to tell an intimate, personal story here: a tale of grief and guilt and what a loving brother will do to heal the wounds of the past. But there are moral quandaries posed by changing history and Jones doesn’t shy from that. The novel, originally self-published in 2015, offers an ending that isn’t as neat and happy as readers might expect: there’s a cost to getting what you want. Jones’ version of time travel is compelling; though the mechanism remains secret, the rules of time travel are clear. It’s a compelling set up for the next in the Downstream Diaries series.
I read 41 books this past year, which is one more than the least amount I’ve read of any year since I started tracking (2014 only had 40). Honestly, this is more than I thought it would be because… well, because 2020. This was not an easy or normal year. 22 titles were assigned to me by Booklist to review.
2020 is the first year in the past six that I didn’t track my reading in depth. I kept a list of titles but I didn’t record start or end dates, or the number of days spent on each book. I explained why I chose not to keep a detailed reading list anymore in a previous post.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2021.
Lefkowitz grew up wanting to be a doctor, not a scientist. But life took him down some unexpected paths and his pioneering research identifying the nature and structure of beta receptors won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. An avid and inveterate storyteller, he chronicles his life in medicine and science. Well on his way to becoming a cardiologist, he found himself drawn to the world of medical research, where he contributed to groundbreaking discoveries for more than 40 years, and became one of the field’s great mentors. Told with humor and humility, what shines through most is his love of stories. This book came about because of his penchant for sharing tales about his life, but he also argues for the central importance of storytelling in both patient care and scientific research: knowing a patient’s story is essential to understanding their ailments, and research data doesn’t mean anything without a story to make sense of it. His passion for science and discovery, for helping people, and for celebrating stories is infectious.
I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking about anger. When my major depression hit for the first time in college, it manifested in two primary ways: almost complete numbness interspersed with explosions of anger. I developed a bad temper. I’d fly into rages for very little reason, over the tiniest of things. I did incredible damage to my relationships, hurt my friends and loved ones, but I couldn’t make myself stop.
This lasted on-and-off through most of my 20s. And there have been a couple resurgences since then.
Looking back, it’s obvious my temper was a projection: I was angry at what was happening to me and my inability to fix it. I was angry that my anger was completely useless against my own mind. I couldn’t control any of what was happening in my head. My depression rendered me powerless.
Anger felt powerful. I couldn’t control my depression but anger showed I could still have some impact, some agency, in the world, even if that impact was destruction and pain. It was all a lie: I had no control over any of it, but the lie felt better than sliding entirely into numbness. I had to grasp at something because the only other alternative was to give up.
This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.
Hail, Star of Indrana, seeks to broker peace between the Farian and the Shen, a task made unimaginably more difficult when she meets the Farian gods and discovers they’re not what everyone has long believed. Now, an ancient, dangerous enemy is hunting them down. To preserve peace and save her empire, Hail must discover the truth behind centuries’ worth of lies and avert an all-out war. But the cost might be more than she can bear, just when she was hoping to finally put violence behind her. What makes Hail such a likable character is her obvious love for her compatriots. What makes her admirable is her unwavering commitment to doing what’s right, even when it’s not at all clear what the right choice is. The story is a compelling mix of action and politics, but Wagers’ strength is crafting character-driven science fiction, and it’s on full display. Everyone, including the villains, are complex and compelling. Relationships, both old and new, are rich. Wagers offers a well-earned, heartfelt, and hopeful conclusion to the Farian War series (which began with There before the Chaos, 2018).
This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.
On October 19, 2017, astronomers discovered ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. But its behavior was strange. While many hypotheses have been presented to explain its anomalies, Loeb, the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy and founder of the Black Hole Initiative, postulates the most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. He offers strong evidence to support this conclusion, but perhaps more valuable is how he uses this as a jumping-off point for much broader musings on the state of science. He critiques the tendency of science to be too conservative and the pernicious effects of scientific elitism toward the public. He considers the larger implications of what it would mean if we do obtain proof of other intelligent life in the universe, including the need for humanity to overcome our shortsightedness and invest in further exploration. Some of his digressions are a bit of a leap, but whether or not readers agree with him, his vision and curiosity are compelling.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2020.
The common thread in most of the works here is disaster and how one recovers from it. Disasters range from extinction-level asteroid impacts to natural disasters to accidents and illness. Works raise two questions: “How did this happen?” and “What comes next?” These questions occupy many of the writers featured here, and the exploration of the recovery process will be particularly resonant for current readers; because all of the pieces included here were published in 2019, the 2020 edition of this series feels a little like a pre-pandemic time capsule. Selected works cover everything from climate change to medicine to ecology to geology to cosmology to chaos theory: proof that any subject makes a good story in the hands of a talented writer. Also striking is the way this collection as a whole jumps through time, with articles about dinosaurs and the geological K-t boundary alongside explorations of future technology. However, the articles focused on the present are the most personal and carry the deepest emotional resonance. This series remains a must-buy for most library collections.