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Showing posts from 2021

Bewilderment (SF) - Richard Powers ****

Generally speaking, I avoid anything listed for the Booker Prize as being too worthy and pretentious to be bothered with, but I'd heard good things about Bewilderment , and I have found in the past that genre books that manage to get past the literati ( Wolf Hall , for example) are far better than the average entry. The publisher would probably disagree, but the reality is that Bewilderment is science fiction. I wondered to start with if Richard Powers was dealing more in Lab Lit - fiction with a scientific context but where the science isn't the driver in how people's lives are changed - but this is pretty solid SF. Clearly the book is strongly influenced by that SF classic Flowers for Algernon - in fact, Powers does a couple of open hat tips in its direction. Although Bewilderment isn't as ground-breaking as Flowers , it follows the model of a person's brain being changed by science to deal with an issue, but here it's an emotional problem rather than an in

Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

The year 2021 has seen two SF classics that were considered impossible to film well make it to the screen. What was arguably the greatest SF of the 1950s, Asimov's Foundation , turned up on Apple TV (in highly modified form), while the best of the 1960s, Dune has been filmed (in part) more effectively after the occasionally impressive but generally disappointing David Lynch 1984 attempt. To accompany the movie version, this handsome hardback edition of Dune has hit the shelves. Most SF fans will be familiar with Dune, but if you haven't come across it, what we have here is an impressively wide-scale space opera, centring on the desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, source of a unique spice that is both anti-ageing and, in excess, supportive of a kind of prescience. The planet is occupied by a people strongly modelled on traditional Middle Eastern Arabic cultures and is the subject of political in-fighting between two 'great houses' and an Emperor. The whole thin

The Genetic Lottery - Kathryn Paige Harden ****

Sometimes you get hold of a book, then keep putting off reading it, because it seems like it's going to be hard work. That's what I did with The Genetic Lottery - in a sense I was right. It could have been more accessible in its writing style, but where I was expecting a woke, knee-jerk response to genetics and social equality, what we get instead is a well-reasoned argument for taking a different approach, combined with more in-depth explanation of the traps it is possible to fall into when dealing with the influence of genes on cognitive ability, earning etc. - and how to avoid them. Kathryn Paige Harden has to tread carefully. Any mention of linking genetics and ability is liable to face an instant accusation of resorting Galtonesque eugenics. However, Harden espouses what she calls anti-eugenics. It is not enough, she suggests to be genetics blind. If we really want equity of opportunity, we need to try to level out genetic favourability just as much as we should try to de

Cytonic (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

Updated for paperback The third in Brandon Sanderson's Skyward series is perhaps not quite as impressive as the second,  Starsight , but still packs in enough to make it a good read. Interestingly, where Starsight triumphed in terms of action sequences, the best bits of Cytonic for me were more talky and philosophical - but filled in huge gaps in exactly what is going on in the series, particular in terms of the nature and motivation of the mysterious delvers. Not as action packed, then, but more fulfilling in its revelations.  Broadly we get three acts here - the first is a kind of mission quest across a Roger Dean-like (and surely Roger Dean-inspired) floating islands, the second involving some of the starfighter flying action that Sanderson does so well, and the third the talky bit, which had a touch of van Vogt about it, for SF oldies who might appreciate the reference. (Speaking of Roger Dean's art, the Barbie-like proportions of the central character seem to get more e

The Car That Knew Too Much - Jean-François Bonnefon ****

This slim book is unusual in taking us through the story of a single scientific study - and it's very informative in the way that it does it. The book makes slightly strange reading, as I was one of the participants in the study - but that's not surprising. According to Jean-François Bonnefon, by the time the book was published, around 100 million people worldwide had taken part in the Moral Machine experiment. The idea behind the study was to see how the public felt self-driving cars should make what are effectively moral decisions. Specifically, in a dilemma where there was a choice to be made between, say, killing one or other person or groups of people, how should the car decide? As a concept, Bonnefon makes it clear this is a descendent of the classic 'trolley' problem where participants are asked to decide, for example, whether or not to switch the points so a tram that is currently going to kill five people will be switched to a track where it will kill one perso

Laurie Winkless - Four Way Interview

Laurie Winkless ( @laurie_winkless ) is an Irish physicist and author. After a physics degree and a masters in space science, she joined the UK’s National Physical Laboratory as a research scientist, specialising in functional materials. Now based in New Zealand, Laurie has been communicating science to the public for 15 years. Since leaving the lab, she has worked with scientific institutes, engineering companies, universities, and astronauts, amongst others. Her writing has featured in outlets including Forbes, Wired, and Esquire, and she appeared in The Times magazine as a leading light in STEM. Laurie’s first book was Science and the City , and her new title is Sticky , also published by Bloomsbury. Why science? I was a very curious kid: always asking questions about how things worked. I suspect I drove my parents mad, but they never showed it. Instead, they encouraged me to explore those questions. From taking me to the library every week, to teaching me how to use different tools

Flatterland - Ian Stewart ***

Ian Stewart's Flatterland has been around since 2001, but I've only just come across it. It is, of course a sequel to the famous novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott dating back to 1884. The original Flatland is perhaps the archetype of a book that is based on a brilliant idea, but be distinctly dreary to read. So the key question here is whether Stewart escaped this limitation in his sequel. We start here with the (literally, not metaphorically) two-dimensional characters familiar to anyone who has read Flatland . The original both explored the nature of existing in two dimensions (and how the inhabitants would see a three-dimensional object), and provided Victorian social commentary, with female Flatlanders both physically different to males (lines, rather than polygons) and limited in what they can do by society. Stewart only mentions the social side in passing, but instead focuses on mathematical experiences. Guided by a space hopper (the 60s bouncy toy), the central c

Sticky - Laurie Winkless *****

There has been a suggestion doing the rounds that if you don't get into a book after the first few pages, you should give it up - because life's too short. If I'd followed this suggestion, I wouldn't have discovered what a brilliant book Sticky is. I'll get back to that, but it's worth saying first why Laurie Winkless's book on what makes things sticky, produces friction and grip - or for that matter lubricates - is so good. Without doubt, Winkless is great at bringing storytelling to her writing. She frames her information well with interviews, visits to places and her personal experiences. But of itself, that isn't enough. The reason, for example, I was captivated by her section on the remarkable (though oddly, given the book's title, entirely non-sticky) adhesive qualities of the gecko's foot was really about the way that Winkless takes us through the different viewpoints on how the foot's adhesion works. We get plenty of science and also

Of Sound Mind - Nina Kraus ***

Like most genres, popular science goes through phases - for the last couple of years, neuroscience has been the in thing, to the extent that I tend to think 'not another brain book' when I see one - but for someone who has always sung, the idea of finding out more about the relationship between the brain and sound, especially music, was attractive.  Nina Kraus is certainly enthusiastic about her topic and generally the book is well-pitched (appropriate given the musical connotations) and readable. However, Kraus does occasionally fall for a classic academic's failing of making use of unnecessary jargon. For example, she defines two terms 'afferent' and 'efferent', apparently adjectives for direction of travel. Kraus even points out how easily confused they are - so why use them? This isn't a textbook - there's no need to load the reader with all the jargon. Some sections worked particularly well for me. The chapters on language and sound were very in

Dinosaurs - Michael Benton ***

Books on dinosaurs are sure sellers for the children's market, but it's a tougher prospect for adults. The danger is that a dino book becomes something between a trainspotting exercise and top trumps, listing different dinosaurs' capabilities and characteristics without really telling us anything of interest. It's an exercise in the philatelic end of Rutherford's infamous takedown of science as being either physics or stamp collecting. Having said that, it's not impossible to make an adult book on dinosaurs that is engaging. For example, Donald Prothero's  The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries overcame the problem by driving the book from the stories of the discoverers of the relevant fossils, while Benton's previous book Dinosaurs Rediscovered , while not quite at the same level, managed to do better than the average by focussing on new discoveries like skin pigmentation and feathers while dipping into some topics in detail and taking a charming

Into the Anthropocosmos - Ariel Ekblaw ***

This is a really strange one. The book is subtitled 'a whole space catalog from the MIT Space Exploration Initiative'. I'm assuming that 'whole space catalog' is a nostalgic reference for those of us old enough to remember the Whole Earth Catalog, that 60s/70s oddity that was somehow a crossover between an Argos catalogue and the DIY-eco-world (and whose idea of 'whole Earth' was about as whole Earth as the World Series).  The original was a fun browse, even though it would be hard to imagine anyone ever actually using it to buy anything. This new venture claims to be a 'lavishly illustrated catalog of space technology of the future'. I guess the idea is that if you are a billionaire kitting out your latest space mission, or planning your space habitat, this is where you browse to pick up your ideas. Except when you look through the book it really isn't a catalog (sorry, catalogue). There are no sales links... and no prices. What we get instead i