Book Review: Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Universe by Philip Plait

Cover of the book Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer's Guide to the Universe by Philip Plait
Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Universe
by Philip Plait
Norton, 2023

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.

Book Review: The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix Flicker

Cover of the book The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix Flicker
The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life
by Felix Flicker
Simon & Schuster, 2023

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.

Book Review: Village in the Sky by Jack McDevitt

Cover of the book Village in the Sky by Jack McDevitt
Village in the Sky
by Jack McDevitt
Saga, 2023

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.

Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever directed by Ryan Coogler

Poster for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, directed by Ryan Coogler, screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
Marvel Studios, 2022

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.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever directed by Ryan Coogler”

Book Review: The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel by Meredith Bagby

Cover of the book The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel by Meredith Bagby
The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel
by Meredith Bagby
Morrow, 2023

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.

Book Review: Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton

Cover of the book Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton
Antimatter Blues
by Edward Ashton
St. Martin’s, 2023

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?

Book Review: The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans by Bill Hammack

Cover of the book The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans by Bill Hammack
The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans
by Bill Hammack
Sourcebooks, 2023

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2023.

**STARRED REVIEW** The Things We Make is a heartfelt ode in praise of engineers. Hammack, a long-time engineering educator, argues that far from merely being “applied science,” engineering boasts a robust method all its own, meaningfully separate from science. He offers several compelling examples of how engineering has changed our world and pushes back against the harmful myth of the lone inventor, which too often excludes the work of marginalized individuals, and perpetuates popular misunderstandings of what engineering actually is. The book starts with a description of how, in the Middle Ages, illiterate masons who didn’t know any math managed to build Gothic cathedrals that have stood for centuries. Other examples range from the development of color photography to the creation of designer enzymes, from such marvels as the modern computer chip to the quotidian soda can. He really runs the gamut with his examples, but all of them show how engineering utilizes rules of thumb and compromise solutions to resolve real-world problems.The Engineering Method, as much as the Scientific Method, stands as one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A must-read for anyone interested in engineering or the history of technology and human achievement.

2022: My Year in Reading

For a list of my favorite books I read this year, go here >

I read 54 books in 2022. It felt like a pretty normal year in reading, for the first time in a while. I read when I wanted to, didn’t when I didn’t, and didn’t overthink it either way, other than to reaffirm my intense dislike of Jack McDevitt. I didn’t watch much TV—my desire for visual storytelling has been subsumed by YouTube, where I follow many channels. I finally went back to a movie theater for the first time since the pandemic started. I missed seeing things on the big screen! I saw Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (so good, but it should have been so much better!)

I also purged half of my personal book collection this year, which still sometimes feels a bit like sacrilege, but I remain confident it was the right thing to do and I haven’t regretted it yet.

Continue reading “2022: My Year in Reading”

Book Review: Wild Massive by Scotto Moore

Cover of the book Wild Massive by Scotto Moore
Wild Massive
by Scotto Moore, 2023

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

Carissa minds her own business, living in an elevator in the Building, a structure tens of thousands of stories tall, with entire pocket universes contained on individual floors. One day, an alien shape-shifter lands on top of her elevator, pulling her into a crisis of politics, betrayal, and the looming threat of war. Thus begins a complex tale featuring fractious governments, deep mythological history, a centuries-long soap opera, and gargantuan theme parks. There are aliens, robots, artificially intelligent cloudlet computers, mind control, exploration, magic, and art. Wild Massive is one of the most singular and difficult to summarize books of the year. Moore’s characters are well rendered, and his style is a heady mixture of propulsive plot, sideways humor, and expository asides, with a healthy dose of the proudly bizarre. World building takes undisputed center stage. The Building is compelling, imaginative, expansive, and ridiculous, with a history and creation mythology as unique as the structure itself. Exploring this place is irresistible and deeply rewarding. It will leave readers hoping for more stories set in this world.

Book Review: The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe

Cover of the book The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe
The Spirit Phone
by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe
BHC, 2022

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

Set in 1899 New York, The Spirit Phone is a cosmic-horror, murder-mystery detective yarn in which Nikola Tesla, famed inventor, and Aleister Crowley, famed occultist, team up to save the world. Along the way, they encounter a cult, people who appear to be clones, and spiritual beings bent on destroying Earth, all centered on a new invention from Thomas Edison which aims to let people speak to the dead. Teleportation, astral projection, Edgar Cayce, a zeppelin, and Devils Tower all make an appearance. O’Keefe’s debut novel certainly serves up a unique blend of elements. He takes some anachronistic liberties, but all in service of the story. The entertainment factor alone alleviates anything that strains credulity, and the action is well paced. Perhaps most rewarding is his evocation of this time and place: new innovations were radically altering the fabric of everyday life, with modern technology like cars and electric lights commingled with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. It was a world made magical and strange, an ideal setting for such a strange tale.