Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

In which the science of Chromomathematics is born.....

S.: What's your favorite color?

S. Jr.: I have three favorite colors, blue, red and green. That's because I'm three.

When I'm four I'll have four favorite colors, blue, red, green and yellow.

And when I'm fivel I'll have five favorite colors, blue, red, green, yellow and brown.

According to Crayola, he's good until he reachs 133....


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Review: Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine

Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine, copyright 2004 and published by Random House.


Ingenious Pursuits is a very interesting series of stories that center on the scientific community in England (and to a lesser extent that of continental Europe) from the mid 1600's to the early 1700's. This structure is both its strength and its weakness. Each chapter takes a scientific topic or set of related topics and explores how the various personalities of the age contributed to the discoveries on that topic. For example, Chapter 1 begins with the sightings of two comets in 1680/1681 and carries a string of personal friendships, rivalries and professional jealousies and ends with Newton's Principia Mathematica, which lays out his work on the science of motion, and on gravity. Various chapters tackle topics in physics, chemistry, biology, medical science and botany. What is lacking is a feel for the "big picture".

My Opinion:

The book is very interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the interactions between the scientists responsible for some of the discoveries underlying modern science. Part of what is most interesting is how most of these people were not just involved in one field, but maintained an intense curiousity about all fields. Robert Hooke, for instance, of Hooke's Law fame (describing the restoring force of springs) was also a major player in the study of the biology of respiration, was an architect and surveyor, and wrote a book describing his studies using a microscope. But despite the inherent interest in the subject matter, I really do feel the lack of a larger perspective handicaps this book. It almost feels like a student paper where the student has done lots of good research, but doesn't quite bring it all together in the end. And yes, I know the author is a professor.

The Round-up:

Worth reading, but get it from the library.


What other people thought about Ingenious Pursuits:

A review at The Reading Nook.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

A finely tuned sense of moral outrage:

S.: Okay, which book do you want to read first, "Curious George and the Puppies" or "Curious George Takes a Job"?

S. Jr.: We should read a different story; Curious George always gets into trouble.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review: Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell

Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell, copyright 2006 and published by Tor Books. I read it on my Kindle, from the free version Tor distributed to celebrate the start up of their new tor.com website.


The story begins very much in a low tech setting, so much so that it wasn't until about halfway through that I was convinced that Crystal Rain was science fiction, and not fantasy. The setting is a continent with a topical climate that is divided by impassable mountains, called the Wicked High Mountains (which made me think of a Massachusetts dialect!). On one side is a Caribbean derived society, where people live with considerable freedom. The people on this side appear to have only local government, and no national institutions, and their national identity seems to be tied up in NOT being of the culture on the other side of the Wicked Highs. On the other is an Aztec derived culture with highly organized and efficient theocratic governments. This land is called Aztlan by its inhabitants, a fact which made me wonder whether or not the lack of a name for the other side was significant or not. On both sides of the mountains the societies have gods which live among the people and occasionally make appearances, though the Aztec gods are as bloodthirsty as tradition would hold. These two sets of gods are at war with each other, and are using the human population as pawns to carry out the struggle.

In this setting we meet John deBrun, a stranger who literally washed up on shore twenty-some years earlier with no memories of who he was. He's currently living a happy life as a fisherman in a coastal village, with a wife and a young son. He occasionally wonders about his previous life, but doesn't let it stop him from being happy. This happy existence is maintained by a military force known as the mongoose men, who man the barricades at the only usable pass through the Wicked High Mountains, thereby keeping the violent Azteca on their own side of the mountains. At the start of the book, the Azteca have broken through the mountains by means of a tunnel they've been digging for centuries under the instructions of their gods, and begin a full scale invasion of the other side, in search of slaves, sacrificial victims, and prosecuting their gods' wars against the other side. The mongoose men are woefully unprepared for full scale warfare, and so the only hope is for John to recover his memories, which seem to be related to legends of long lost technology which could drive the Azteca back.

Most of the book is the story of John deBrun solving the mystery of himself in order to save his family from the sacrificial daggers of the Azteca, at times both assisted and hindered by another mysterious outsider named Pepper, who literally falls from the sky just prior to the invasion.

My Opinion:

A good book. I was a little confused towards the beginning with respect to the background, but that's okay. I suspect that figuring out what the heck is going on is one of the draws of reading science fiction and fantasy. Most of the book is from John's POV, which also adds to the confusion, since he is an amnesiac. In this it reminded me a little of Roger Zelazny's first Amber book, which uses the same device. There are a couple of other POVs, including one of an Azteca double agent on a mission from one of the Azteca gods to capture John (no spoiler here, this is made apparent from the first time the character appears). I think this was thrown in partially to show us that the Azteca aren't just cardboard villains, but to my mind it doesn't really succeed at that goal. The Azteca do seem like eeevvviillll cardboard villains, and I think the book would have benefited from a more shades-of-gray approach to them. The Caribbean descended society (how I wish they had a name by which they referred to themselves!!) are clearly supposed to be the good guys, and do have a moral compass closely aligned to that of today's society. Never having been to the Caribbean, I can't say how realistic the culture seems, though aside from the use of an odd dialect and a few specific Caribbean references, I would not have figured out that this wasn't just more Americans in space.

By the end of the book we have figured out the broad outlines of John's origin, and how it relates to the rest of humanity out there among the stars (yes, it really is a science fiction book!). I gather that the other two books set in the same universe don't take place on the same planet, and am looking forward to reading those: Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose.

The Roundup:

Buy the book. It features an interesting background with a good mystery to be resolved, and promises more of the same in the subsequent books.


What other people have to say about Crystal Rain:

Donna Royston at Strange Horizons

John Ottinger III at Grasping for the Wind

Rob H. Bedford at sffworld.com

Steven Klotz at Mentatjack

Thomas M. Wagner at SF Reviews.net

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers

Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers, copyright 2008 and published by Solaris Books.


An anthology of original steampunk stories. The line-up follows, with my rating for each story:
  1. Steampunch, by James Lovegrove : bad
  2. Static, by Marly Youmans: OK
  3. Speed, Speed the Cable, by Kage Baker: excellent
  4. Elementals, by Ian R. MacLeod: good
  5. Machine Maid, by Margo Lanagan: bad
  6. Lady Witherspoon's Solution, by James Morrow: bad
  7. Hannah, by Keith Brooke: OK
  8. Petropunk, by Adam Roberts: OK
  9. American Cheetah, by Robert Reed: bad
  10. Fixing Hanover, by Jeff VanderMeer: bad
  11. The Lollygang Save the World on Accident, by Jay Lake: good
  12. The Dream of Reason, by Jeffrey Ford: bad
My Opinion:

My advice, don't bother. There are only three stories worth paying for here, the Baker, the MacLeod, and the Lake. The rest really seemed to be worn-out tales that have been told before, but now wrapped up in retro-Victorian dressing, using themes that have been better done elsewhere. For example, Steampunch is about a mechanic who maintains a steam powered mechanical boxer, and is partially about whether or not such devices can become intelligent. Seen that, watched that on Star Trek 20 years ago. The framing story in Steampunch is actually much more interesting than the story we got. A few others stories deal with similar themes, especially American Cheetah. Other stories are completely dull, like Fixing Hanover, which is about a technician who, against his better judgement, repairs a robot that washes up on the shore near a secluded village he's sheltering in. All buildup, with no real payoff.

The Roundup:

This anthology sounds interesting, but really, save your money and go buy The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, or The Difference Engine by Sterling and Gibson. If you check out some of the reviews I link to below, you'll notice I'm more or less alone in my dislike of this book, for what its worth.


What other people have to say about Extraordinary Engines:

Duncan Lawie at Strange Horizons

Eric Brown at The Guardian on-line edition

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker

Dark Wolf, at Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sidereal's Second Law of the Culinary Arts (and Sciences!)

When in doubt, feed the kids fish sticks. With lots of ketchup. Because ketchup is a vegetable!


Books I read in March 2009

These are the books I managed to read in March 2009, along with some comments. Most of these comments tend to be smart-ass, which is perhaps an indicator of my personality.

Shadow Unit, Season 1 -- Emma Bull et al.: 2/27/09 - 3/06/09

A cross between the X-Files and Criminal Minds, only in this, Mulder is an alien, and Scully has a sense of humor.

Good reading, especially at the price, which is free. Though donations are accepted. I read this on my Kindle using the Kindle compatible file put together by Arachne Jericho, and available through her website and blog. Lots of good e-book stuff there, both Kindle specific and other formats.

Reaper's Gale -- Steven Erikson: 3/08/09 - 3/20/09

The book that ate New York, and New Jersey, and didn't even get indigestion! Seventh in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, weighing in at 1,260 pages. In one book. A good entry in an excellent series, but the extreme length and plot complexity defy my attempts to wise-crack it.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology -- Ed. Nick Gevers: 3/22/09 - 3/28/09

Steam powerd robotz R kool! Blah, skip this book. Will be reviewed in this blog later.

Crystal Rain -- Tobias S. Buckell: 3/28/09 - 3/30/09

Good space Jamaicans vs. eeevvvilll space Aztecs, only everyone has forgotten how to build spaceships and are all reduced to fighting with blimps, swords and spears. I read this one on the Kindle too, and will review it ASAP. Good book.

The Ghost Brigades -- John Scalzi: 3/30/09 - 3/31/09

Superpowered one year olds inhabiting vat grown bodies defend Truth, Justice and the Colonial Way against eeevvvilll aliens who want to eat our children. Good book, building upon and improving upon Old Man's War.

Five books, not a good showing. But in my own defense, I did get injured carrying the Erikson book home from the store and lost a week in a coma.