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Showing posts from July, 2021

What on earth (or off it) is a science fiction reading protocol?

Those of you who come to this site looking only for reviews of popular science books might be feeling there has been too much science fiction of late. I try to provide a balance of the two, but I confess that during the pandemic, I have found fiction more something I've looked forward to reading than non-fiction - so please forgive me! While not a review, this feature is inspired by a book - a non-fiction title - but science fiction is, admittedly, its topic. Over the years, the number of science fiction books and short stories I've read runs into four figures - and I've even had a few SF stories published. I've also read quite widely on the history of science fiction, but a book title I spotted the other day totally threw me. It's the first time I've ever rushed to buy a book without having the slightest clue what it was about. The title was The Reading Protocols of Science Fiction: discourses on reading SF . To make it more intriguing, the book's blurb, a

The Greatest Adventure - Colin Burgess ***

The history of our space exploration has involved a very small number of people going into space at huge cost and at the loss of a good number of lives - yet it is something that remains of interest to many, and seems to fit well with the human urge to explore new frontiers. Even trivial excursions like Richard Branson's quick skip to 100 kilometres makes big news. There has been some backlash about show-off billionaires (and it's true of some), but this misses the bigger point of the advances being made in our ability to explore the solar system. In The Greatest Adventure, Colin Burgess sets out to give us a detailed history of the space race and our space-going achievements so far. I would say that Burgess largely succeeds with one big hole. Let's get that out of the way first. Over the last decade or so, the nature of the space business has transformed hugely. US manned space vehicles have always been commercially built, but were government funded, planned and controlle

Fire of the Dark Triad (SF) - Asya Semenovich ***

Classic science fiction from the 1950s, such as the work of Isaac Asimov, is rightly criticised these days for lacking characterisation, a tendency to tell rather than show, and an absence of meaningful female characters, even if the ideas were often excellent and the action scenes could be quite engaging. In many ways, this novel takes us back to those flawed classics of the genre. The problem is worst at the start. The first twenty pages or so takes us from prehistory to the future in such a skimpy way that it is tedious to read. This is the telliest opening I have ever seen in a published piece of fiction. It's often little more than a summary, with a key concept for the book covered in little more than a page. Here we discover  that gateways to parallel universes are discovered where variants of Earth aren't occupied by intelligent life, giving a limitless opportunity for colonies to be set up and develop in their own way, eventually becoming a threat the the Earth. The oth

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,

Clarissa (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ***

Having a series of books is nothing new in science fiction, but Karl Drinkwater is taking the interesting line of having a main series of novels accompanied by a set of novellas that fill in history or generally expand the picture outside the main line of the series. In this third 'Lost Tales of Solace' book we get a key piece of the backstory. The main Lost Solace line features military renegade Opal, accompanied by a ship with a powerful AI as she searches for her sister, Clarissa. In this novella we discover how Clarissa became lost when the space liner Solace suffered a catastrophic interaction with a strange phenomenon in this fictional universe's equivalent of hyperspace. In many ways this should be the most important of these supporting novellas so far, but for me it was the weakest. There are number of reasons. Clarissa is ten, and reading a first person account from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old is more than a little wearing. That strange phenomenon the ship enc

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i