Monday, August 15, 2005

A Walk in the Park

Jurassic Park and Lost World by Michael Crichton. How can you go wrong with dinosaurs? And people getting chomped by them? I re-read these as our daughter has become a dinosaur nut and we allowed her to watch the movies. That made me curious to take a look at them again. I thought it very strange that one major character who dies in the first is brought back to life to be the main character of the second. They are fine as adventure novels, but Crichton has a strange mix of being anti-science on the one hand but in love with technology on the other.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Everything You Wanted to Know About Salt...And Then Some!

Mark Kurlansky likes to delve deep into a subject. In Salt he takes a look at something found on tables and in kitchens everywhere...common salt. He is well known for this book as well as Cod. There's also a book about the Basque which appears to be tied into the general themes. I really enjoyed this book, it's a wonderful mix of culture, history, science and salt. Like the book I read last year on coffee, it's amazing how much can be learned about what you think is a simple substance.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Deep Time

This volume by Stephen Baxter is a non-fiction book Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time (Viking/Forge, 2004).

It's hard to believe, but not so long ago (and in parts of the world it is still true) it was generally believed that the age of the Earth could be measured in a (relatively) few generations of man. James Ussher, a famous bishop, spent a considerable amount of time calculating the age of Earth based on the chronology of the Old and New Testaments, plus post-Biblical history, and came up with a sequence of about 4,000 years total.

The problem was, if you looked at the Earth, things did not match with what these learned men (who generally operated in their armchairs, through thought; not in the field and lab, with observations) were saying. How, as Leonardo da Vinci found, did seashells get into mountains? What caused layers in rocks? Why were some rocks made up of the bones and shells of animals?

Baxter examines the life of James Hutton, a man who spent considerable time thinking about the Earth, but also observing the way the Earth seemed to have evolved. Baxter points out Hutton's strengths and weaknesses, and his methods. He also touches on a lot of folks that I'm encountering in a lot of my other recent reading (for example, Hutton's life touches the chronology of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle), so its interesting to get fresh perspectives on various historic figures I've been encountering.

I've had a long interest in geology, which slumbered for a couple of decades. My interest was re-awakened a few years ago by John McPhee's Annals of the Former World. This book fit in nicely with that overview, teaching me more about the roots of the science.

If there's any weakness to the book, it is that it is relatively brief. Baxter spends more of the book talking about Hutton's life than Hutton's theories; I would have liked to have heard more about the theories and what was proven to be true. There is some amusing stuff here about the life of a Scottish intellectual and one laugh-out-loud hint that the French were behind the American Revolution.

A real strong point will of course, have me spending more money. Baxter lists a number of books that he consulted in the course of the writing of the book. I've got a few of the titles (and in fact Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science is among the next books I'll be reading) and no doubt will be spending money for more!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Exiles to Glory

Jerry Pournelle; Exiles to Glory (Baen Books, part of Exiles and Glory omnibus, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-3; cover by Clyde Caldwell).

Sample chapters can be found here.

Exiles to Glory is a young adult science fiction novel by Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle first wrote this in the mid-1970's, as a continuation to several of the stories that appeared in his collection High Justice. It was revised for this edition (Baen Books, 1993). In the spirit of Heinlein's books for young adults, we have a tale of a young man (Kevin Senecal) who gets a job in the Asteroid Belt working for a large corporation. On the way there he survives a couple of murder attempts, and while there he foils a plot combining murder and grand theft. It's not as preachy as some of Pournelle's other works in the field, and its amusing to see some of the areas where Pournelle underestimated technology.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is one of science fiction's best writers. And I'll bet you know diddly about his works.

A Canticle for Leibowitz of the best books in the "post-Holocaust" genre. The book opens some time after an atomic war, when a young postulant in the Order of Saint Leibowitz encounters what might be the Wandering Jew. He is pointed towards some holy relics. The rest of the book (a series of short novels?) leapfrogs us as civilization gets rebuilt, technology is found again. However men still fight and the book ends with the order going to the stars as another atomic holocaust rains down on the Earth. Lots of wonderful characters as well as excellent storytelling on the part of a (alas) largely forgotten author. Miller shows his skills as an author as well as his love of his Catholic beliefs here. I can't recommend this one highly enough!
The Last Call

Man can this man write.

The Fisher King. Tarot. Poker. Gangsters. Tangible ghosts. Fractals, chaos theory and the Mandelbrot Set as a Fat Man. Reincarnation. The Easter cycle. Castles in the desert.

The biggest problem I have with describing a book by Tim Powers is to simply state what it's all about. Is The Annubis Gates merely the adventures of a modern-day time traveler in 19th century England? Is On Stranger Tides only about zombie pirates in the Caribbean? Is The Stress of Her Regard a tale of female vampires preying on Romantic poets?

On the face of it, Last Call (Avon, 1993) is about the Tarot, gambling, ghosts and the legend of the Fisher King. But the best thing about Powers writing is the way he weaves what must be notebooks full of notes into one vast and wonderful tapestry. You start out the book wondering what the heck is going on, feeling like you're almost in some Van Vogtian dream state of a novel. Eventually the characters grab you (and minor players have a way of building into major players as time goes by in a most wonderful way). Legends drift in, particle physics, bits of popular culture. Suddenly you realize that it's 4:00 AM, you've read half the book, and you really should get some sleep as you have to be up in a bit to get your daughter off to school.

I read the book in about two days. I just couldn't put it down, wondering if Scott Crane would be able to overcome the obstacles put in front of him and win at the ultimate game of Poker. Good stuff. Excellent stuff. If I have any complaint about Powers is that he doesn't write enough stuff. You have to wait 3 to 5 years between books, making the dreck that you encounter labeled as "fantasy" in the meantime seem all that much worse.

There are no "official" Tim Powers sites, that I've come across, but here are a couple of pretty good "unofficial" sites, plus a interview.
Hell Creek

With Hell Creek, Montana: America's Key to the Prehistoric Past, by Lowell DingusI seem to be firmly moving towards one trend for the year in books...books on paleontology, geology, evolution and the like.

Too bad the book wasn't as good as I had hoped. Dingus is a paleontologist who has worked at (among other places) The American Museum of Natural History. He worked on the repositioning of the T-Rex skeleton, for example. I was hoping that in Hell Creek I would get an overview of his experiences as a paleontologist and why Hell Creek was such an important place for the field. Well, at least part of the book was that.

Mostly it is a constant use of fancy phrasing where simple would do. Dingus throws in constant references to mythology, to the point where you feel it is just an attempt to show off. He spends a good portion of the book describing the various conflicts between settlers, the U.S. Army, and native Americans. A smaller portion describes the experiences of early bone hunters" such as Barnum Brown. And one portion describes the town and county (and focuses on a stand-off between the government and a group of ranchers who were trying to avoid foreclosure).

I'd rather have had the book be about his experiences and concentrate on Barnum Brown. If you want to read about Lewis and Clark, there are many better books on the subject. Heck, I wanted to read about dinosaurs!

Titan, by Stephen Baxter, was a re-read for me. I first read it in 1997, when it was published. I decided to re-read it as the landing of the Huygens probe on Saturn's moon Titan (an event in the book) made me think of the book.

The book opens with the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia. Alas, the real destruction of the Columbia did not go as well as the fictional one (in the book, all but one member of the crew survives). In the book, the consequences of the shuttle crash are the shutting down of the International Space Station (something that still might happen in reality) and the planned dismantling of NASA.

Right before the Columbia crashes, Huygens lands on Titan...and signs of life are detected.

This leads to an audacious plan: Send various salvaged equipment to Titan along with a crew to explore and colonize the moon. Using Apollo Command Module capsules, the "display" Saturn V's (a better fate than having them rust away) and a modified space shuttle (Discovery, appropriately enough, as that was the name of the ship in 2001: A Space OdysseyƂ—recall that in the novel version, the mission is to Saturn, not Jupiter), the crew sets out on a multi-year mission that involves gravity assists from Venus, Earth and Jupiter before arriving in Saturn space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth things fall apart. The space program falls apart and planned resupply missions for the Titan colony are cancelled. The ecosystem of Earth crashes. The United States splits into several countries. China asserts its increasing dominance. Eventually, all of humanity dies during a conflict between the declining West and the rising East.

Arriving at Titan, our intrepid explorers have lost one crew member (during a solar storm), have another crew member get injured (during a dangerous crossing of the ring system) and lose a third crew member (during the landing on Titan). They have to work to find local resources (water and various organic compounds) to keep their failing life support systems working.

I'll leave off the details of the final section of the book to avoid spoiling it for those who have not read it. Let's just say that Baxter whips up a finale worthy or Olaf Stapledon at his most visionary. Baxter is both very depressing (after all, humanity is wiped out) and hopeful (life in the solar system does spread to other solar systems eventually) in the course of the book.