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review 2017-09-25 01:24
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words - Randall Munroe  
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words - Randall Munroe

I had two hours reads going today, The Thin Man and Real World by Natsuo Kirino for the Terrifying Women square, and I got to feeling a tad oppressed by the dark and the existential dread. It was bad: I had two hours to kill by myself in Target and I walked out with nothing, because there was just no point. So the two options for lightening my mood that were to hand were Amphigories or Randall Monroe. It was a good choice. Now I am both amused and well-informed. A NASA roboticist who quit to draw stick people and made a successful career as the ubiquitous comic of technology. His family must be so proud! There isn't a lab that doesn't have at least one XKCD up.

 

But I think that's enough reading today. Ikea catalog is next.

 

Personal copy of the Offspring, graciously loaned to me.

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review 2017-09-23 19:17
A great caper story, with fun characters, not too deep, but with plenty of technical and scientific information to keep your brain going
Artemis: A Novel - Andy Weir

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin Random House UK, Ebury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read Weir’s The Martian shortly after its publication (I discovered it through NetGalley. Many thanks again), before it became a movie, and loved it. Although I regularly recommend books to people I know, this must be one of the recent books I’ve recommended to more people. (In case you want to check my review, I published it on Lit World Interviews and you can check it here). Because of that, when I saw the ARC of the author’s new book was available on NetGalley, I requested it. A few days later I also received an e-mail from the publishers (well, their PR company) offering me a copy as I’d reviewed The Martian. Good minds think alike and all that. I read the book a while before its publication but I don’t expect there would be major changes with the final version.

So, how is the book? Well, I loved it. There aren’t that many books that make me laugh out loud, but this one did. Is it as good as The Martian? That’s a difficult question to answer. It is not as unique. It is very different, although in many ways it’s quite similar too. I suspect if you didn’t like The Martian you will probably not like this one either. The story is a first-person narration from the point of view of a young woman, Jazz Bashara. She lives in Artemis, the first city in the Moon, and has lived there since she was six years old (children are not allowed in the Moon until they are a certain age, although that had increased by the time of the story, so she’s probably one of the few people who has been there almost from birth, as most are immigrants from Earth). Nationality is a bit of an interesting concept in this novel (people are from wherever place on Earth they come from, but once in Artemis, they are in a Kenyan colony… I won’t explain the details, but the story of how that came to pass ends up being quite important to the plot), as are laws, work, money, economy, food… Based on that, Jazz is from Saudi Arabia, although she impersonates women from other nationalities through the book (even in the Moon, otherness unifies people, it seems). Like its predecessor, the story is full of technical details of how things work (or not) and how different they are from Earth. Jazz is a quirky character, foul-mouthed at times, strangely conversant with American pop culture, including TV series, music, etc., extremely intelligent, and like Mark in the first novel, somebody who does not express her emotions easily (she even admits that at some point in the novel). She also has a fantastic sense of humour, is witty, self-deprecating at times, one of the boys, and does not tolerate fools gladly. She is a petty criminal and will do anything to get money (and she’s very specific about the amount she requires), although we learn what she needs the money for later on (and yes, it does humanize her character). Her schemes for getting rich quick end up getting her into real trouble (she acknowledges she made some very bad decisions as a teenager, and things haven’t changed that much, whatever she might think) and eventually she realises that there are things we cannot do alone. Although she does commit crimes, she has a code of conduct, does not condone or commit violence (unless she has to defend herself), and she can be generous to a fault at times. On the other hand, she is stubborn, petulant, anti-authority, confrontational, and impulsive.

There is a cast of secondary characters that are interesting in their own right, although we don’t get to know them in depth and most are types we can connect easily with as they are very recognisable. (Psychology and complexity of characters is not the main attribute of the book).  Most of Jazz’s friends are male (so are some of her enemies), and we have a geeky-inventor type who is clumsy with women (although based on the information we are given, Jazz is not great with men either), a gay friend who stole her boyfriend, a bartender always after creating cheap versions of spirits, a rich tycoon determined to get into business on the Moon, no matter what methods he has to use, and her father, a devoted Muslim who is both proud of his daughter and appalled by her in equal measure.

The plot is a caper/heist story, that has nothing to envy Ocean’s Eleven although it has the added complication of having to adapt to conditions on the Moon. Although there is a fair amount of technical explanation, I didn’t find it boring or complicated (and yes, sometimes you can guess what’s going to go wrong before it happens), although when I checked the reviews, some people felt that it slowed the story down. For me, the story flows well and it is quick-paced, although there are slower moments and others when we are running against the clock. As I’m not an expert on the subject of life on the Moon, I can’t comment on how accurate some of the situations are. Yes, there has to be a certain suspension of disbelief, more than in The Martian because here we have many characters and many more things that can go wrong (the character does not  fight against nature and her own mistakes here. She also has human adversaries to contend with), but we should not forget that it is a work of fiction. Some of the reviews say there are better and more realistic novels about the Moon. As I’m not a big reader on the subject, I can’t comment, although I can easily believe that.

The other main criticism of the novel is Jazz’s character. Quite a few reviewers comment that she is not a credible woman, and her language, her behaviour, and her mannerisms are not those of a real woman. I mentioned before that she is ‘one of the boys’ or ‘one of the lads’. She seems to have mostly male friends, although she does deal with men and women in the book, not making much of a distinction between them. For me, Jazz’s character is consistent in with that of a woman who has grown up among men (she was brought up by her father and her mother is not around), who feels more comfortable with them, and who goes out of her way to fit in and not call attention to her gender by her behaviour and/ or speech. She is also somebody who has not been encouraged to be openly demonstrative or to share her feelings, and although she is our narrator, she does not talk a lot about herself (something that was also a characteristic of the Martian, where we did not learn much about Mark himself). In Artemis, apart from the first person narration, there are fragments that share e-mails between Jazz and a pen (e-mail) friend from Earth. Those interim chapters help us learn a bit more (however fragmented) about Jazz’s background; they also give us a sense of how things are on Earth, and, although it is not evident at the beginning, fill us into some of the information the narration has not provided us. Although she is not the most typical female character I’ve ever read, she is a fun woman and it’s very easy to root for her (even if sometimes you want to slap her). She does act very young at times, and hers is a strange mixture of street-wise and at times naïve that some readers will find endearing although it might irritate others. The book’s other female characters are as hard and business-like as the men, and often the most powerful and intelligent characters in the book are female (the ruler of Aramis and the owner of the Aluminium Company are both females, one from Kenia and one a Latino woman). Both seem to be formidable, although nobody is pure as snow in this novel and everybody has some skeletons in their closets. Although gender politics per se are not discussed (Jazz notes physical differences between her and other characters as is relevant to the plot, and makes the odd comment about her own appearance) one gets the sense that in Artemis people are accepted as they are and they are more concerned about what they can bring to the community than about their gender or ethnicity.

I agree with some of the comments about the dominance of references to American culture and even the language used is sometimes full of American colloquialisms. There is no clear explanation given for that, other than to assume that media and the Internet are still mostly full of content produced in the US, but even mentions of news and feeds about other countries are not elaborated upon.

I highlighted a lot of the book, but I don’t want to test your patience, and as it was an ARC copy, it is possible that there might be some minor changes, so I’d advise you to check a sample of the book to see if you like the tone of the narration. Here are a few examples:

If my neighborhood were wine, connoisseurs would describe it as “shitty, with overtones of failure and poor life decisions.”

My cart is a pain in the ass to control, but it’s good at carrying heavy things. So I decided it was male.

(Only Americans wear Hawaiian shirts on the moon.)

I left without further comment. I didn’t want to spend any more time inside the mind of an economist. It was dark and disturbing.

In summary, a great caper story, with fun characters, not too deep, but with plenty of technical and scientific information to keep your brain going. I’d recommend reading a sample of the novel, because, once again, you’ll either click with the style of the narration and the characters, or you won’t. I did and laughed all the way to the end of the book. And, if you’ve not read The Martian… well, what are you waiting for?

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review 2017-09-22 23:06
Darkover Landfall
Darkover Landfall - Marion Zimmer Bradley

Erf. I've started re-reading this series, because I remember how much I loved it when I was a teenager... but damn, I didn't remember this one was so bad. (Or is it because I sometimes used to like shite as a teenager, and that was part of it?)

The story in itself is not uninteresting, all the more since it's THE origins book in the Darkover series, but the relationships... especially the way women are viewed and treated... Wow. That was one special level of bad.

I can sort of accept a patriarchal society, women being treated as wombs, etc. in the more 'medieval-like' novels of the series, because 1) it fits a certain conception of 'dark ages obscurantism', as cliché as that may be, and 2) as far as I remember, in those books, it was often presented as something that isn't so good: while it does remain infuriating, it's part of the conflict underlying those narratives.

Here, though, in a group of engineers, colonists, space crew, scientists, where men and women have similar levels of skills, with gender equality laws on Earth? Nope. Doesn't sit with me. Especially not as soon as pregnancies enter the picture, and give yet another reason for males (and some women!) to be patronising, chalk every reaction to 'she's pregnant', veer towards gaslighting at times (because obviously, the guys in the story know better than Judy Lovat who's the father of her child), and go spouting crap about how not wanting children is some sort of mental illness. Camilla's arc was particularly painful, because, yes, she is being reduced to a walking womb, what's with the doctor even threatening to sedate her during her pregnancy (actually, it does happen once), like some kind of stupid, ignorant being who needs to be locked for her own good. Empowering much, right?

So basically, you get accidentally pregnant (not through any fault of hers—ghost wind was to blame, same for her partner), while you thought your contraceptive was doing its job, you don't want to have a child, but you're denied an abortion. OK. Not cool. In the context of colonists stranded on a hostile planet, that poses an interesting conundrum (= it's obvious that either they need to spawn as much as possible, or they'll die in one or two generations). However, was it really necessary to lay it in such rude and demeaning ways? The Battlestar Galactica reboot has a similar subplot, but the episode about it was at least treated with much more gravitas and moral ambiguity.

It is also important to note that, no, Camilla didn't sign up for this, so treating her as a spoiled kid throwing a tantrum was inappropriate. Putting it back into context: she's an engineer and programmer, she signed up to be part of the ship's crew during the trip, not to be a colonist meant to help populate a new planet. And even in the event of staying on that colony, it would've been in a society where she would've had a few years to make the decision.

(spoiler show)



I have no idea if anyone considers this book as a 'feminist' work, but if you do, please stop. This is not feminist, it's patriarchy at its worst: insidious.

[To be fair, I didn't remember this book as being the best in the series either, nor my favourite at all, so I'm still going to try rereading 2-3 others.]

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review 2017-09-22 20:47
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death) - Nnedi Okorafor

This short, futuristic novel is essentially a power/revenge fantasy focused on the exploitation of people of African descent, especially in medical research. (Calling it a power fantasy isn’t necessarily a criticism; much of sci-fi and fantasy consists of power fantasies for white male nerds, so it seems only fair for others to get a cut of the action.) Despite a compelling start and socially relevant themes, however, this one flopped for me.

Phoenix lives in a future America in which powerful corporations perform medical experimentation on people, mostly black, who live locked up in mysterious Towers. She knows nothing else and is content until something awful happens to her best friend and love interest, at which point she starts to rebel and discovers the powers with which she was endowed. This is a prequel to a post-apocalyptic fantasy tale and has a frame story, so it’s no secret that somewhere along the way the world as we know it is destroyed, and most readers will guess how; nevertheless, this is your warning that this review will contain SPOILERS.

Okorafor sets the stage well, with an oppressive dystopian setting and a young protagonist struggling to make sense of it and survive. The first third of the book makes for compelling reading, with a fast-paced story full of danger set in a believable world. But as in the companion book, Who Fears Death, the protagonist becomes too powerful, leaching the story of dramatic tension. Once Phoenix learns that she can fly for days on end, die and regenerate as many times as necessary, and move through time and space in an instant and apparently without limit, the story no longer presents obstacles that really challenge her. She attacks one of the Towers alone and without planning and succeeds, so the long stretch toward the end spent preparing to attack another with a group seems unnecessary and anticlimactic (though from a narrative perspective, it allows some down time and for Phoenix to bond more with other characters).

The end also proved unsatisfying. Phoenix suddenly decides the world is irredeemable and that the goddess Ani – who, mind you, does not appear in the book – wants her to destroy it. This decision made little sense to me: after all, her lover is alive and needs rescuing, and while she did just discover that several powerful and corrupt men have used the Towers’ research to extend their lives indefinitely, there’s nothing stopping her from hunting them down individually. The connection to the writing of the Great Book and the world of Who Fears Death also seems strained, though I enjoyed the chapters of the frame story as an independent short story.

Meanwhile, the characterization is fairly simplistic; reviewers who have interpreted this as intentional due to Phoenix’s chronological age may well be correct, but I have my doubts, as the book portrays Phoenix as an adult woman in her intellectual capacity and ability to form relationships. Likewise, the writing style is simple and sometimes staccato, which suits the dystopian setting fine. The world has texture and is a conceivable outgrowth of our world, an important but often-overlooked element of a good dystopia. On the other hand, some details seem under-researched: the bizarre chapter in which, despite the secrecy in which these projects are shrouded, the only records of ongoing medical experiments turn out to be catalogued and housed in hard copy in the Library of Congress (which apparently will switch to Dewey Decimal in the future?) available for browsing by anyone with ID, has been thoroughly dissected in other reviews.

Overall, while this book has some interesting ideas, their execution proved to be a letdown. Not having thought much of Who Fears Death either, I’m ready to conclude that Okorafor’s work is not for me.

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review 2017-09-22 13:28
Cerebral, disquieting, and addictive
Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

I've become an instant fan of Ted Chiang after reading his book Stories of Your Life and Others. It's such a breath of fresh air to read a really phenomenal collection of short stories such as this one. I had been itching for some truly delicious science fiction and this collection delivered. From the opening story about the Tower of Babel, it is obvious that Chiang is a unique voice in sci-fi and I only wonder at why it took me so long to have him on my radar. While each story is unique, they are all equally fascinating, consuming, and vaguely unsettling. I forgot a few times that what I was reading wasn't actually true which is disconcerting when you're reading about people being blinded on the streets by the sight of heavenly creatures or a drug that when given to patients who are brain dead can not only bring them back to life but elevate their IQ. Suffice it to say, this is a book that any sci-fi junkie (or newbie wanting to get their feet wet) should immediately seek out. Take your time and indulge because this is an author that should be savored and not rushed. 10/10

 

Source: Goodreads

 

What's Up Next: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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