Skip to main content


Showing posts from February, 2022

Paleontology, an illustrated history - David Bainbridge ***

I really wanted to like David Bainbridge's illustrated palaeontology book more than I did in practice. One of the few criticisms I had of Henry Gee's impressive A Very Short History of Life on Earth was its lack of illustrations. Here the illustrations are centre stage. In fact they've taken over the whole show. Much of Bainbridge's text is interesting, but I found the book almost impossible to read as practically every other time I turned a page, the flow of the writing was broken by large captions for illustrations, which felt like they were part of the main text but weren't. Rather than link the illustrations to the main text, many of them were almost standalone spreads. As a result, the design simply doesn't work very well. That's a shame, because the text I did manage to read took an interesting course of breaking the chronologically based chapters into sections devoted to specific palaeontologists, from Smith, Anning and Darwin to Clack and Khudi. (Th

Extraction to Extinction - David Howe ****

In this book, David Howe manages the near-impossible - making geology interesting. Usually, this is one of those dull, earnest sciences that it's hard to get too excited about. It might be a slight exaggeration, but for many of us, when you've seen one rock, you've seen them all. But Howe overcomes this issue with a combination of engaging storytelling and combining information about geology with how we humans have made use of them and the materials made from them - the book absolutely comes alive whenever we move from how the rocks were formed to how they have been used (and abused). That storytelling element captured me from the first sentence: Howe had me at 'I was standing on Alderley Edge when I first wondered about it.' I admit that this is partly a matter of personal identification with the story. I too went to school in Manchester and explored Alderley Edge as a teen - I was a fan of Alan Garner, and even (not entirely licitly) ventured down the copper mines

The This (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

Adam Roberts is easily the most interesting active science fiction author. He is the 21st century's equivalent of John Brunner – endlessly innovative. Though Roberts is more intellectual in style and sophisticated in approach than Brunner was, both have come up with a mix of novels of brilliance and others that push the boundaries so much that they make it difficult to truly engage with them as storytelling. On this spectrum, The This is Roberts’ equivalent of Stand on Zanzibar or The Sheep Look Up – at the boundary-pushing end of the spectrum.  We begin with a chapter located in the Buddhist inter-life concept of the Bardo (I had to look that up), then get a chapter that’s half made up of footnotes that form a kind of electronic stream of consciousness, before getting into intertwined storylines from the near and more distant future. Linking all this (sort of) is what first seems to be a next-step social media system, called The This, but which increasingly facilitates humans b

Odyssey - Tom Chaffin ****

Not Homer, but a detailed description of Charles Darwin's Beagle voyage and what he got out of it, in a biographical sandwich - we get a short life of Darwin up to the Beagle, lengthy coverage of the voyage, and then a short summary of the rest of Darwin's life. As a reader I am somewhat conflicted by this book. I recognise it as providing an in-depth look at exactly what happened on the voyage and how it changed Darwin's view of the world. As such it is very impressive and probably valuable to those with an interest in the fine detail of Darwin. But if I'm honest, a lot of it is rather dull. The reality is that while the famous voyage did sow seeds that would later blossom, very little of what happened on the voyage itself was of scientific interest, and much of what occurred was repetitive, while Tom Chaffin's enthusiasm for detail can be a little wearing. However, I must stress how valuable the book is to get a complete picture of what fed into Darwin's under

Astroquizzical, The Illustrated Version - Jillian Scudder *****

When I reviewed the original version of this book in 2018, I was really impressed by the content and gave it four stars, but for me, putting it into this full colour, fully illustrated format has lifted it to be even better.  Described as 'solving the cosmic puzzles of our planets, stars and galaxies', Jillian Scudder 's Astroquizzical , takes the very positive inspiration of questions asked about the universe on Scudder's blog and helps solve those puzzles in light, readable prose. It's a kind of astronomical family tree with Earth as our parent, the Sun as our grandparent, then the Milky Way and finally the universe. So we work outwards in a genuinely entertaining exploration of our cosmic habitat. The book is pitched a beginner's level - but even though there was relatively little that was new to me as a reader, it was well-written enough to keep my interest. This was particularly helped when Scudder threw in an incentive in the form of a fascinating, quirky

Rockstar Series (SF) - Nicola Rossi ****

Rockstar Ending **** There is something of a noble tradition in science fiction of getting timescales wildly wrong. Think, for example, of the excellent movie Blade Runner that came out in 1982 - set in 2019, it portrays a future that's still in the far future past that date with lifelike androids and interstellar travel. With the Rockstar books, Nicola Rossi provides a similar overestimation of the rate of change, with a total transformation of civil society, ubiquitous self-driving vehicles and robots - all set in 2027, though this book was only published in 2020. Despite this distinct miss, though, the trilogy is engaging and has a powerful theme. In the first novel, Rockstar Ending , we encounter a UK where youth has taken over and living past the age of 85 becomes horrendous. Admittedly this theme has been visited in more dramatic form in the excellent novel Logan's Run , where lives are terminated at 21 (in the distinctly inferior film, the age limit was raised to 30),