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.

Book Review: Wild Massive by Scotto Moore

Cover of the book Wild Massive by Scotto Moore
Wild Massive
by Scotto Moore
Tor.com, 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.

Book Review: The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse

Cover of the book The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse
The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos
by David WhitehouseR
Icon, 2022

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

The question of whether we’re alone in the universe is one of the most profound, and one which struggles to be taken seriously in scientific circles. It’s a question that extends beyond science into the realms of religion and philosophy. Evidence of intelligent life elsewhere would upend our understanding of our place in the universe. In his latest, Whitehouse summarizes the efforts we’ve made to search for other life in the universe, from SETI to UFO sightings, and the limitations such efforts must overcome. He assesses what we actually know about the likelihood that anyone else is out there. He also explores possibilities for what alien life might be like, an impossible question to answer, as we only have ourselves as an example, whereas life on other planets could be radically different. Finally, he examines what’s in store for the future of the universe with an eye toward whether or not life might survive. In the end, without definitive contact with extraterrestrials, any searches we make tell us more about ourselves than about life elsewhere.

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.