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.

Book Review: Turing’s Graveyard by Terence Hawkins

Cover of the book Turing's Graveyard by Terence Hawkins
Turing’s Graveyard
by Terence Hawkins
Running Wild, 2020

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

These 13 powerful, well-crafted stories by Hawkins (American Neolithic, 2019) have been aptly compared to The Twilight Zone: they offer a similar sense of dread and moral disquiet. These are tales of how things go wrong. Though it is marketed as a speculative fiction title, fewer than half are explicitly sf. “Turing’s Graveyard” examines identity and online dating gone haywire. “The Darkness at the Center of Everything” considers the mystery of time from ancient and modern perspectives. “The Thing That Matters” is an alternate history that imagines Ernest Hemingway and characters from the movie Casablanca all in Cuba in 1956. “Changeling” is straight-up creepy. “An Event in Judea . . . ,” about the crucifixion of Jesus, and “Acts of Contrition,” a murder noir exploring greed, spiritual mystery, and forgiveness, both flirt with sf tropes. The remaining stories are literary fiction, focused on the mistakes characters make in personal relationships. In the end, though, genre is irrelevant. Hawkins tells tales that fascinate him, and they provide a beautiful reading experience.

On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

The opinions and positions expressed on this blog are always my own and should never be assumed to express the opinions or positions of my employer nor any other party other than myself.

I want to talk about something that happened where I work and how it changed my perspective. I want to talk about some lessons learned.

My employer, the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas, has furloughed 58% of our staff. We did this as part of a wider furlough strategy undertaken by the Johnson County Government.

I support this course of action. I think this was the right decision both for our staff and for the library as an organization. No one has lost their jobs. Everyone remains employed and retains their health insurance and other benefits. All furloughed staff are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Many of you read and responded positively to a tweet thread I posted last month near the beginning of this pandemic, in which I very strongly expressed my opposition to any form of unpaid leave or layoffs for staff. The fact that I now support furloughing JCL staff probably screams of hypocrisy.

I want to explain why I changed my mind. For all my grandstanding on principle and my moral certainty, this is a complex situation which makes practical action messier than I want to admit. I’m a big fan of lessons learned and I learned some difficult ones through this.

Continue reading “On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind”

Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Cover of the book Network Effectby Martha Wells
Network Effect
by Martha Wells
Tor, 2020

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

**STARRED REVIEW** Everyone’s favorite Murderbot is now working as a security consultant for Preservation Station. While accompanying several members of Dr. Mensah’s family on a research outing, they’re attacked by a ship that looks a lot like their old friend, the transport ship ART. Murderbot and Amena, Mensah’s daughter, are kidnapped and taken aboard, where they uncover a plot that leads back to a strange planet, corporate machinations, and a possible alien contagion. The Murderbot novellas were perfectly paced to fit a ton of action into a short form. Network Effect is just as action-packed, but the pace is now calibrated to fill a full novel, which gives it more breathing room and opportunities to explore the characters and the setting in greater depth. Relationships between all the characters are richer and more nuanced. Wells reveals more about Dr. Mensah’s family and some surprises about ART and establishes more details about how the Corporations function, the contrasts between the Corporate Rim and Preservation Station, the politics at play, and some of the history of pre-Corporate planetary colonization attempts. It’s a welcome expansion of this universe and lays the groundwork for more stories to come in a series that continues to grow and impress.

The Case for Reading Fiction

I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.

The Case for Reading Fiction” by Christine Seifert
Published by Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020

I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.

I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.

And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.

But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:

I told you so!

Continue reading “The Case for Reading Fiction”

Book Review: Titan’s Day by Dan Stout

Cover of the book Titan's Day by Dan Stout
Titan’s Day
by Dan Stout
DAW, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on March 6, 2020.

After striking manna in the oil fields, the citizens of Titanshade thought things were looking up. But federal troops have taken command, and people from all over the planet are flocking to the city in hopes of cashing in. Tensions are high leading up to a political showdown on Titan’s Day, the most important holiday of the year. When Carter and Jax are tasked to solve the murder of a Jane Doe in an alley, it unravels a complicated web of gang warfare, political machinations, and magic. And there’s something wrong with Carter . . . . Titanshade (2019) introduced readers to a compelling new world. The second book in the Carter Archives takes readers on a deep dive into its culture: politics and crime, social conflicts, fear and intolerance, local versus national interests, and especially the workings of manna and magic. It broadens readers’ understanding of how the characters relate to each other and maintains a wonderful sense of discovery. Stout proves once again to be a master of retro sf noir.

Book Review: The Pursuit of the Pankera by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover of the book The Pursuit of the Pankera by Robert A. Heinlein
The Pursuit of the Pankera
by Robert A. Heinlein
Arc Manor, 2020

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

This previously unpublished manuscript by Grand Master Heinlein will be in demand by his many fans and readers interested in the history of the genre. It’s based on the same premise and features the same characters as his The Number of the Beast (1980). Indeed, the first third of the book is identical. But the novel then veers into an entirely different story, appropriately, since the books are based on travel through alternate worlds. As in Beast, our intrepid explorers travel to various fictional universes: Burroughs’ Barsoom, Baum’s Land of Oz, Smith’s Lensman universe, confronting the idea that all fictional universes exist somewhere in the multiverse. Beast is recognized as the first work of Heinlein’s late style, but The Pursuit of the Pankera is mostly in his middle style and occasionally hearkens back to his earliest pulp action writings. Together, the two novels offer fascinating insight into an inflection point in the evolution of one of science fiction’s greatest writers. Pankera can also be read on its own, though it will be of greatest interest to Heinlein fans.

Book Review: Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio

Cover of the book Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio
Galileo and the Science Deniers
by Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster, 2020

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

Rather than present a straight biography, Livio’s (Is God a Mathematician?, 2009) goal is to explore the parallels between Galileo’s fate and the science denialism happening today. He makes apt arguments and offers compelling reasons why science and religion shouldn’t be at odds. Livio is an astrophysicist and his perspective on Galileo’s importance as a professional scientist is particularly valuable. Galileo didn’t just make grand discoveries—he invented new experimental methodologies, established math as an essential tool for scientific work, and challenged Aristotelian primacy of thought experiments with verifiable observation. In short, he created the modern scientific method. Livio also explores Galileo’s work in the arts and humanities: he studied philosophy; he was an accomplished musician, poet, and visual artist; and he was active in the arts community. His arts background was essential to how he made many of his breakthrough scientific discoveries. Livio argues that the distinction we make between the humanities and the sciences is false and damaging, and that Galileo illuminates a better balance between the two. A refreshing perspective on Galileo’s legacy.

Book Review: They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers by Sarah Scoles

Cover of the book They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers by Sarah Scoles
They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers
by Sarah Scoles
Pegasus, 2020

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

In They Are Already Here, science writer Scoles (Making Contact, 2017) turns her attention not to UFOs but to the people obsessed with them: believers, skeptics, and open-minded explorers. Intrigued by the recent revelation that the U.S. government has been studying UFOs, she set out to understand why some people are willing to believe outlandish explanations for mysterious occurrences and why others are completely closed to the idea. She recounts her experiences exploring and interacting with various UFO communities and organizations. Readers meet people from across the spectrum of belief and hear their perspectives. Scoles also offers a concise history of UFO phenomena in the United States, and examines how some of the most compelling UFO myths were born. It’s a fascinating journey; the depth of her research is impressive and her curiosity is infectious. At times the author tries too hard to clarify her own position, which, though her honesty is appreciated, occasionally steals focus from the people she examines. Overall, it’s a fun and insightful book.