Book Review: If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin

Cover of the book If This Book Exists, You're in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin
If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe
by Jason Pargin
St. Martin’s, 2022

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

This time, it starts with an alien bug eating a man’s brain. Then there’s a specter that manifests inside of John’s wall and gets sliced up. So begins an ouroboros of a tale involving cults, alternate time lines, the end of the world, and a possessed plastic toy. This fourth entry in Pargin’s John Dies at the End series is less frenetic than its predecessor, What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017, as David Wong). Within the snarky humor is an incisive commentary on social media and the state of our connected world, and a story about trauma and how people lash out when they’re hurt. It’s a story about love and how people can be better. It’s rewarding to witness how Pargin has grown as a writer. He’s less interested in the gimmick and more focused on his characters. His compassion runs deep. This isn’t just a funny tale of inept supernatural investigators; it’s a story of people struggling through pain to find a better path. Pargin offers us a welcome note of hope.

Book Review: Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson

Cover of the book Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson
Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure
by Bryn Nelson
Grand Central, 2022

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

As a rule, we try not to think too much about our poop. It’s one of the most taboo topics in our society, and our sewer systems are designed to keep it out of sight as much as possible. And yet, poop is a treasure trove of resources that we can use to make the world better. Scat can cure diseases and protect us against several major health concerns, aid in forensic and medical investigations, replenish our soils, and even become a source of energy, precious metals, and clean drinking water. New methods to make better use of our sewage can also help reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Poop can help heal our planet. Nelson dives into the science of scat and profiles several examples of how people are using poop in new and innovative ways. Wide ranging and deeply informed, with a wry sense of humor, this is a solid recommendation for fans of Mary Roach, as well as anyone interested in out-of-the-box ideas to help fix some of our most pressing problems.

Book Review: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others

Cover of the book The Skeptics' Guide to the Future: What Yesterday's Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow
by Steven Novella and others
Grand Central, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on August 5, 2022.

People have a long history of trying to predict the future, especially with the rise of modern science and science fiction. Several futuristic tropes have become common, such as cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, immortality, space exploration and settlement, energy weapons, faster-than-light travel, flying cars, and more. Novella turns his skeptical eye on futurism, assessing whether any of these predictions are possible, from the likely to the probably impossible. He identifies several common fallacies which plague our attempts at futurism, most notably the tendency to overestimate short term advancement while underestimating long term change, and our insistence on picturing people in the future as just like us. Old technology persists for surprisingly long times, and new disruptive technology can radically alter who we are and our relationship to the world. Predicting the future isn’t an exact science, but skeptical scientific inquiry can help assess the likelihood of our various visions for it. A fun overview of both the current state of modern science and a general survey of the history of futurism.

Book Review: Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines

Cover of the book Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines
Terminal Peace
by Jim C. Hines
DAW, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on July 29, 2022.

After Mop and crew’s discoveries on Earth, the Prodryans are massed to attack, and the Alliance is falling apart. Mop’s next mission: Tuxatl, the only planet in the galaxy the Prodryans fear, seeking a weapon that can win the war. As usual, what she finds isn’t what she expected: a legendary lost warrior and the Jynx, an intelligent race hiding dark secrets. There is a weapon—but what do you do if using it makes you just as bad as your enemy? While there’s plenty of humor in this installment of Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse (after Terminal Uprising, 2019), it’s not a funny book. Characters face deep personal threats and challenges to their status quo and struggle with significant ethical quandaries; the book achieves impressive emotional depth and moral weight. Hines has a talent for creating interesting aliens, and the Jynx are one of his best yet, with a fascinating culture and backstory. The newest members of Mop’s crew lend some fresh perspectives, and the ending—unexpected as it is—rings true. Hines serves up a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the series.

Book Review: A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson

Cover of the book A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson
A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age
by Alec Wilkinson
Farrar, 2022

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

Wilkinson was never very good at math. Deep into middle age, he decides to relearn algebra, geometry, and calculus to return to the subject that defeated him and conquer it anew. The project doesn’t exactly go as planned. The difficulty he encounters challenges many of his core beliefs about himself. Maybe a lifetime of experience isn’t enough to do better the second time around; maybe mathematics isn’t what he assumed it is. In a unique combination of memoir and intellectual spelunking, Wilkinson takes readers into the heart of math’s complex mysteries and the biggest questions that arise. What unfolds is a wide-ranging exploration of identity, philosophy, faith, the history of mathematics, and the nature of the divine. Mathematics has always been a subject pointing its practitioners toward a sense of the unknown, and Wilkinson’s quest becomes something akin to a spiritual pursuit. This is a deeply insightful, lyrical, and erudite work, filled with gems of wisdom and fascinating digressions, all characterized by Wilkinson’s delightfully dry, self-deprecating humor. He proves it’s never too late to learn something new, even if what you learn isn’t what you expected, and even high-school math can blossom into surprising vistas of metaphysical and psychological significance.

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).