Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson ****

The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson is a four part history of atomic energy.

Part 1: The fundamental science from Marie Curie to Lise Meitner with a refreshing emphasis on women scientists.

Part 2: Los Alamos, Manhattan Project, and the development of the A bomb.

Part 3: Cold War with newly declassified information which is still frightening even after all these years, and in some place laughable.

Part 4: Atomic power generation with highlighting Three-mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Even for someone who follows this history, Nelson has uncovered plenty of new information to keep the story fresh and interesting, like backyard bombs.

The carnage was so extravagant that any idea of strategy or targeting was removed; the backyard bomb of Teller's Los Alamos dreams-the one so huge and so lethal you didn't need to take it and drop it on an enemy, you could just set it off in your own backyard.
Like most history, this book shares a mythology with fiction: people are in charge and the consequences of their actions are critical. Homo sapien sapiens are pattern matching beings. They expect the narrative to be controled by cause and effect, action and reaction, not randomness. This myth persists even though much of our experience is arbitrary and inexplicable.

Nelson makes a strong case for Germany's loss in World War II being a direct result of antisemitism, both from Germany's loss of scientific resources, and from the actions of those angry scientists who were victims of antisemitism. This is a neat example of cause and effect like you'd find in any novel from classics to contemporaries, from literary to genre.

A well-written book for those interested in the history of science and research.

Age of Radiance also receives the Parsec Award (in honor of the Star Wars quote: "It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.") for asserting:
Dyson then designed Orion, which exploded five nuclear bombs every three second two hundred behind itself to reach a thrust of 3,000 mph.
Much like the original quote where time was confused with distance (parsecs), in the case velocity (mph) is confused with force (thrust).

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Little Green Book ... by Brian Herbert ***

The Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma by Brian Herbert is set in 2061 where the most radical environmentalists have conquered the corporations and taken control of the western hemisphere. These are activists who believe that planet Earth is more important than people. As a result, people are confined to reservations and the remainder of the land is greenformed to back to its pristine origins. If you imagine this can not end well, you might be right.

This is science fiction in the classic style: sexist, libertarian, and sexist.
LSD, marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroine, and more-in the form of food, injections, or pills. All in colorful packages ... held by a pretty female servant.
"Give him some of the women in your harem, Rahma," ... "maybe that serving wench."
But maybe she was too outgoing, too friendly. If she was that way with him, she was undoubtedly that way with other men, and he didn't like that.
If you have been pining for the SF of yore, this could be the retro-novel for you.

In the honored tradition of SF, many fantastic ideas are introduced, including vanishing tunnels where huge transports move through the Earth at high speed by liquifying everything infront and solidifying everything behind, a glidewolf created through genetic engineering - marsupial, flying mammal, with room in her pouch to carry several people, and a greenman who is part plant and has many super powers.

For all its SF aspirations, the novel also receives the Parsec Award (in honor of the Star Wars quote: "It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.") for asserting:

... the satellite in geostationary orbit over our northern continent ...
when physics requires all geosynchronous satellites to be over the equator.

 This novel is noteworthy from a writing point of view. One of the most popular advisories to writer is "show, don't tell." This novel contain several examples of why this is important.

A key turning point in the plot happens like this ...
We've made a major breakthrough. It turns out we were closer ... That pilot didn't die in vain. ... he saw something ... it turned out to be the key.
... and I'm like what just happened? What was the key? Show me!

A more trivial example ...
Joss heard Bim Hendrix telling stories, and Kupi laughing. The driver was a wellspring of humorous anecdotes.
... Really? What kind of stories? Tell me one. Show me!

Unfortunately, once the reader realizes that the details that give a story life and depth are not forthcoming...

Friday, January 9, 2015

Mark of the Beast by Adolphus Anekwe ***

  WARNING: This review is based on a pre-publication UNCORRECTED ADVANCED READING COPY. Quotations cited might not appear in the final published version.

Mark of the Beast by Adolphus A Anakwe accepts one of the grandest writing challenges: rewriting a story of the past. William Shakespeare famously borrowed many of his plots from the stories of antiquity and The Walt Disney Studios borrowed many pubic-domain stories before public domain became something of the past. In this case Anakwe seems to be adapting the short story Minority Report by the master story-teller Philip K Dick.

In the shadow of Minority Report, Mark of the Beast explores the implications of a genetic marker for "individuals who are predisposed or predestined to become criminals," and we are not taking pretty theft and parking tickets. These are serial killers of the most horrendous type. If this is your particular interest, I can recommend the book just for the depictions of serial killers.

A reader's trust is important in speculative fiction, and depending on the reader, often a delicate thing. Early in this book, one of the researchers, Dr. Dickerson, designed an experiment with one hundred subjects "to ease mathematical calculations." Well, for the last several decades, such calculations have been done by computers that don't care one way of another about the number of subjects. Unfortunately, this colored by reading of the rest of the scientific details where I was less informed, but now skeptical.

Much 21st century news and politics are lost in the confusion between correlation and causation. This novel builds on this confusion by constantly conflating causation and correlation. These two very different concepts are used interchangeably. Even more troubling, the scientists in story jump from tendency (a weak form of correlation or causation) to predestination. Unfortunately for the novel and the world of the novel, no one seems to be concerned by this.

Instead of investigating of causation or mechanism of action, the scientists (and others) in this novel depend on the Book of Revelations, and some dubious numerology connecting their genetic marker, HLA B-66, with the Mark of the Beast 666. In addition to scripture and numerology, scientists also believe in predestination, suggesting this book might be better classified as Occult Fiction, not Science Fiction.

While the premise of this novel (genetic markers for serious criminals) might be questionable, the story is a fast read, and for those interested in horrendous crimes, many examples are included.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on December 15, 2014. I received my copy on December 19, 2014 - way to go Tor Books.