Thursday, September 29, 2016

Kepler's Witch, by James A. Connor

This week I'm reading a biography of astronomer Johannes Kepler, who actually isn't terribly well known despite his contributions to mathematics and astronomy. In the introduction Connor makes a point that Kepler has largely been overshadowed by figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Connor points out that while Galileo is held up as a prime example of scientists being persecuted by religion, Kelper was also persecuted for his religious beliefs. Furthermore, while Kepler did not fully create the laws of gravity and integral calculus which are among Newton's chief achievements, he did much of the necessary intellectual groundwork which allowed Newton to create his own work. Not to mention Kepler's contributions to the fields of optics. Connor's hypothesis is that Kepler is simply too mystical a figure, bridging both the medieval and modern worlds, trying to find the mind of god within the workings of the natural world. Connor argues that while Newton had his own mystical streak, he kept it isolated from his scientific research. Kepler, on the other hand, saw no division and freely mixed science and mysticism making him, at least to Connor's understanding, less palatable to modern audiences. Regardless of his mystical proclivities, Kepler is an excellent example of how science is largely an incremental affair with multiple people making gradual progress over time, rather than single individuals making great, intuitive leaps.

The book omits almost all of Kepler's scientific achievements, instead choosing to focus on Kepler's life outside of science. I actually kind of regretted this decision because I don't know much about Kepler's scientific achievements and I really wished they'd been included. The author did include some suggested readings for more information about Kepler's science but it makes the book feel incomplete in a way. The title comes from the fact Kepler's own mother was accused of witchcraft and actually put on trial at the same time Kepler was imperial mathematician. Connor believes this makes a perfect example of many ways how Kepler's life serves as a bridge between the medieval and modern worlds.

So what is the portrait of Kepler that emerges? Connor makes extensive use of Kepler's journals and correspondence to provide information about his life and the image is rather admirable. Kepler, based on Connor's account anyway, is a fairly moderate man who was not very dogmatic in matters of religion. Kepler believed in the supremacy of the personal conscience, as well as the brotherhood of all Christians. This attitude would get him excommunicated from his own Lutheran faith, which he remained faithful to for the rest of his life, and would keep him away from the Catholic church as well. Despite repeated attempts by Jesuits to convert him and the numerous career advantages he might have gained by converting. Kepler appears not overly concerned with fine points of theological doctrine, instead content to measure the stars and calculate the orbits of the planets for the greater glory of god.

If Kepler has any faults, it is his dogmatic belief in Platonic ideals, believing that there are certain geometric shapes in nature which are inherently perfect, and therefore beautiful, and therefore god would use them to build the universe. This sort of mysticism comes up from time to time in Kepler's work, although it's hard to say how much so and Connor tends to downplay it. Connor also makes strong emphasis of the fact that while Kepler did practice astrology, like virtually every other astronomer at the time period, he did not buy terribly much into it and often said the stars would not reveal detailed information about the future, instead general trends or characteristics and the mind of god. And there seems to be enough evidence to suggest Kepler took a half-hearted approach to astrology at best.

I am sort of split on the inclusion of context within the narrative of Kepler's life. The very last years of Kepler's life were embroiled in the first parts of the Thirty Years War, one of Europe's last big religious wars, and Connor goes into some detail about the political machinations behind the war as well as the opening battles. Connor also talks about important figures such as Emperor Rudolf II who first gave Kepler his position as Imperial Mathematician. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage because I know some of this contextual information from studying this period before, an advantage not all other readers would have. But there is some information that feels blatantly like padding, such as the myth about the founding of the city of Prague, which is put in just because there wasn't enough information about Kepler. I feel that including Kepler's scientific work might have been better included.

Overall it's an interesting book and Kepler comes across as an interesting, if underappreciated figure who helped make advances in the Scientific Revolution. The book gets very sidetracked at times, something I kind of wish it hadn't, but the inclusion of primary sources is appreciated. I do have some reservations, wondering if Kepler was cleaned up for more modern, secular audiences, but without more reading I can't say for certain.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This week I'm looking at another older example of science-fiction, and another Hugo Award winner in this case: A Canticle for Leibowitz. This book actually was recommended to me by the same friend who foisted Fitzpatrick's War upon me, and there are some similarities. Both are speculative future histories, although while Fitzpatrick's War covers the lifetime of one character, A Canticle for Leibowitz covers the lives of characters at various points over about twelve hundred years of history. Also Leibowitz is a more traditional narrative and is almost three short stories put together while Fitzpatrick takes a slightly more unique approach. 

A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

For me, the book started off really interesting and then started bogging down in the middle and took a really bad turn for the worse at the very end. So my overall impression was mixed. The plot starts off with a typical mid-twentieth century science-fiction plot. Atomic war has finally happened between the superpowers and it's destroyed civilization as we know it. About six hundred years after the great Fire Deluge humanity is scraping by, but is definitely in the middle of a very long, new and terrible Dark Age. Monks of an order founded by the beatified Leibowitz have been recovering lost scraps of knowledge from the previous age of civilization and meticulously copying and protecting them in their monastery in anticipation of a day when they will be able to be used again. Francis, a novice of the order, stumbles across a bundle of papers he believes belonged to the blessed Leibowitz, causing great commotion in the abbey and eventually leading to Leibowitz's full canonization as a saint. 

The thing I really liked about the early part of the book was just the idea of a community of monks, living out in the desert, keeping scraps of knowledge alive through laborious hand written manuscripts. I've never seen an illuminated algebra textbook, but I'm sure they'd be a lot more interesting than the ones I had in school. There's a major plot point around Francis creating an illumination of a blueprint from Leibowitz himself, creating a beautiful copy over the course of years. But Francis doesn't understand the blueprint at all. Without the necessary context he, nor any of the other monks, can fathom it whatsoever, but they dutifully copy it out to preserve it in the hopes some future generation will. I just found the whole concept kind of neat and vaguely like the Adeptus Mechanicus. Although I have the suspicion the Adeptus Mechanicus was partly inspired by this book.

The second portion of the book jumps forward to when technology and learning are starting to come back to the world, and it looks like there will be a start of a Renaissance, and the third portion includes a highly technological society that's managed to send colonies to locations such as Alpha Centauri. I'm lumping these two together because they definitely have a different tone from the first third of the book. While in the first third there's a real reverence for the items they're collecting and copying out, in the second two thirds the monks have developed serious doubts about technology and while unwilling to hide it from the world they definitely question the wisdom of its use. What follows is an argument about whether humanity should have technology to make the world a better place or if humanity should become good enough to be trusted with technology.

The conclusion is resoundingly bitter. Humanity falls once again to its own hubris and uses technology in new and interesting ways to kill itself. Overall it's a really negative view of technology and I just don't like it. Are there problems with technology? Of course. Everything comes with problems. But that doesn't mean we can't use technology to fix problems. If we wait for people to be responsible with technology we'd still be eating meat raw. It just seemed weird to me that it took an anti-technology bent later on and it bothered me.

I was also bothered by at the very end a debate about the role of pain and suffering in the world. I'm not exactly sure how close it is to modern Catholic theology, largely because I left the church years ago so I'm not up to date on it, but there has in the past been this attitude that suffering is good for you, and doing things to relieve certain types of suffering are bad because it removes divinely-ordained suffering. At least, it feels that way. I'm honestly probably mincing the argument but I was really bothered by some of the arguments at the end of the book, about how humanity needs pain and suffering to keep them from becoming monsters, and I felt like it just wasn't well done. So it really decreased my opinion of the book.

I think I would recommend reading the first third of the book because I thought it was pretty interesting and made a good story. The second two thirds kind of get into philosophical and theological arguments and I felt like they didn't work as well once Miller started wandering into those realms. So it's interesting, but it goes to some really dark places and I don't think it was quite well equipped enough to do so. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rama Revealed, by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee

All right, so I hate to say it but...mistakes were made. I probably should have just stuck with the first Rama book. Maybe the second one. But I should not have gone into this insane tedium that is the rest of the series. I know that sounds like hyperbole on my part, and I am exaggerating but not by a whole lot. Finishing this book felt like a chore more than anything else and I highly recommend everyone avoid this book at all costs.

Plot wise...this book suffers a lot and I think part of it is because it's so goddamn long. This book weighs in at about six hundred pages, definitely the longest book in the series so far, and there's just not a lot going on through the book to keep me interested. Basically the main characters we've been following, Nicole, Richard, and their friends and family, escape from the growing tyranny of the police state of New Eden. Eventually they meet up with the octospiders, who have been in the background for most of the series as a spooky ''other'' that we didn't quite understand. Except now they're all super ethical and nice and a truly advanced species that just wants to be friends with the humans. Which doesn't quite line up with what we've seen them do in previous books, but that's explained away as being a different group of octospiders.

The book then spends a lot of time following the humans as they experience octospider society with all its crazy technology and quaint customs and talking through colors. Sort of typical science-fiction ''hey look, it's the future and it's different, how weird is that?'' It just gets really boring after the first hundred pages or so and I found myself wishing it would end. Also, much to nobody's surprise the humans eventually declare war on the octospiders because humans are xenophobic killing machines. The war continues for a while, then the octospiders unleash a plague as a warning, and then the machines step in and end the fighting by knocking everyone out with crazy sleep gas.

No seriously, that's the resolution. Both sides are made to go to sleep and then the computers resegregate them on another space station until they figure out which pens to put humans and octospiders into. After that there's more humans being asshole xenophobes and then the revelation that this is all part of some lab experiment God's running to create a harmonious universe. Which honestly, after everything we've gone through and how boring it's been, it comes across as a facile answer that wasn't worth the effort. And yes, I'm using a word I went to the dictionary for, but if the author can start throwing phthisic around at the end of the book I can use one slightly easier to pronounce.

It just feels like a lot of wasted effort because there are some questions or issues that the authors raise which could have been good storylines, but instead they decide to make one of the more tedious books I've ever read. For example, Benjy's mental disabilities are brought up a couple of times and it's vaguely mentioned he seems to be struggling with the fact that he can see children younger than him learning more quickly than he is, and it's discouraging. And that could have been a really heartfelt and meaningful story. But instead we need to talk about octospider society some more. Oh, speaking of octospiders. So there's all this emphasis that they're a moral and far more developed society than us psychotic apes. (I mean, yes, we are psychotic apes but I feel they take it out on our species too much.) So would someone care to explain to me why they're keeping humans in their zoo? Not even kidding, they keep a human family in their zoo. And when Nicole finds this out she's like, ''I'm going to have some serious questions for the octospiders about this''. And then...she never gets around to asking about it. It's almost like there was this whole plot set up for the octospiders to actually be less good than they initially appeared to us humans, but it got abandoned at the last minute because it was too much work or something.

This is to say nothing about Katie's drug addiction, which is played for drama like so many other serious issues in this book. Whole books have been written about drug addiction, but in this book it's just there to make the book more serious and show how far a character's fallen, rather than making her a more three dimensional character. The feeling more is that it's just there, along with almost everything else that isn't ''Oh man, how great are the octospiders?'' to create something resembling drama. But it's so watered down that the book feels like an uphill slog more than anything else.

So yes, I regret reading this book and pursuing this series. The last book was pretty bad and this one was just incredibly boring interspersed with doses of unnecessary drama or straight up crazy. I might wish this book on my worst enemy, but I'd probably feel bad afterwards.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher

This week I'm taking another look at the Dresden Files series with the third book: Grave Peril. And I will say at this point I'm starting to have some second thoughts about the series and how it's been going so far. I'm reminded especially of my concern with the Hollows series which is very similar but where I was frustrated because Rachel, the main character, wasn't terribly good at her job. And there are points where Dresden is starting to seem not very good at his job either. But more on that later.

Plot-wise, in Grave Peril Dresden and a new character Michael Carpenter, one of the Knights of the Sword, are investigating an increase in ghostly activity in Chicago. Something has gotten the ghosts riled up more than usual and it's starting to bleed into the mortal world. They soon discover that the increase in activity is only part of a larger plot, involving a demon cultist that they defeated some time ago, and some of the less savory parts of Chicago's magical community. The book also ends with Dresden starting a war between the White Council of wizards and the Red Court of vampires, which promises to be a major, multiple book-spanning, story arc.

So, before I get into the things that I didn't like, let me talk about the things I liked. First of all, I liked Michael. And this is probably no surprise to anyone because Michael's basically a paladin, complete with a holy sword forged with one of the three nails from the crucifixion of Christ himself and Michael's holy powers being based entirely on his faith in god. And it's a little neat how things seem to always work out through divine providence for him. True, I found Michael a little too sanctimonious at times and giving the holy knight the last name of Carpenter was a bit on the nose, but he's a paladin with a holy sword and actually goes around dressed in armor and with a crusader cloak. I'm totally on board with this and I hope to see more of him and the other Knights of the Sword in later books.

Since this is an audio book version, I also really enjoyed the voice work of James Marsters because he actually accomplishes a very good range while reading the book. He does a very convincing emotionally distraught ghost, and also does a very good voice for a dessicated, centuries-old vampire. Plus the way that Marsters does Bob, Dresden's magical assistant, is making Bob by far my favorite character in the series. There's just something that Marsters manages to bring to the table and it makes listening to the books a much more enjoyable experience.

As for the things I didn't enjoy, I was honestly kind of annoyed with the way both Michael and another new character Lea, Dresden's fairy godmother. This is something I noticed in the last book as well, where elements of Dresden's backstory are introduced piecemeal into the series with each new novel, without necessarily answering questions raised by what we learned about Dresden in previous stories. Now, how Dresden and Michael met may have been covered in a short story or a tie-in novel that I simply haven't been exposed to, which makes sense. But Dresden's fairy godmother is introduced without much fanfare and there are references made to a bargain made between the two in the past which Lea keeps trying to collect on in the novel. What exactly this bargain entails, why Dresden made it, and so on are only referenced partially and I really wish it had been explained better in this book. I get the feeling we'll run into her again, but I really just want Harry's backstory fully explained by now, rather than adding more bits to it.

I was also kind of disappointed with Dresden and the fact that he made a further deal with Lea to get himself out of a sticky situation, rather than thinking his way out. The kicker is she actually gave him a cryptic clue before he reaffirmed his bargain with her, and using that I was able to figure out the correct solution anyway. And once he made the bargain, Dresden only got another cryptic clue. Granted, Dresden was pretty damn beaten up at the time and probably had some trouble thinking, but I just want my main characters to be smart enough not to make deals with magical entities where the relationship is entirely one-sided. Dresden also is apparently absolutely indestructible because I saw him nearly die several times over the course of this book, and that doesn't count the amount of physical punishment he's taken in previous books. And somehow, he manages to still fight fairies, vampires, demons, and nightmares. It's a little ridiculous.

Overall, the book's okay. I'm a little concerned because each new book seems to bring more elements of Harry's backstory into play without fully explaining what the heck actually happened in Harry's backstory which seems to be a REALLY BIG DEAL. I honestly want to find out what the big deal is and why it's so important. I also kind of go back and forth on Harry because when he has time to prepare and plan, he's actually a really good wizard. But when he rushes into things or ends up on the defensive he actually does rather poorly. But as long as I can get audio books from the library I'll probably keep listening.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Garden of Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee

All right I'm going to just flat out say it from the start: I seriously considered dropping the series because of this book. If I hadn't been stuck somewhere for three hours with nothing better to do with my time, I probably would have abandoned this book entirely and just bailed. This book is...infuriating. At least it starts out so and while it gets more tolerable to read later on, it definitely fails to redeem itself by the end. As I'm this far I'll probably force myself through the last book and then wash my hands of the whole affair.

Before I get into how messed up this book is, I want to detail the plot. So if you've been following the story you know that two separate capsules, referred to as the Rama vehicles, have visited our solar system. At the end of Rama II three cosmonauts: Nicole des Jardines, Richard Wakefield, and Michael O'Toole, were hurtling out of our solar system at relativistic speeds. The three develop a complicated relationship and eventually manage to produce five children before arriving at a facility referred to as The Node. Apparently the Rama capsules are one of countless projects launched by a mysterious race of aliens to catalog the various forms of intelligent space-faring life in the galaxy. Eventually the main characters are included in a plan to send the Rama capsule back to our solar system once again to collect two thousand humans for an ''observational habitat''. The characters manage to return and meet the two thousand humans who have been selected, a significant percentage of them being former convicts. The humans then establish a society in the environment contained within Rama, and then things rapidly go to shit from there because human beings are awful and we kill everything we don't understand. I'm not sure where the series can go other than whoever built the Rama structures deciding to kill all humans as a safety measure.

So where to start? The thing I noticed first was in the Acknowledgements where the authors said this book was about women, especially their thoughts and feelings. And yes, it kind of is that because the first section of the book is Nicole's journal. But it's pretty much entirely about babies. Like, on the one hand I feel I shouldn't feel surprised because the writers were older gentlemen by the time they were writing this in the late 80's. On the other hand it's almost patronizing in assuming the most important thing in a woman's life is her children and her role as a mother. Nicole is supposed to be this super-accomplished scientist, Olympic gold medalist, brilliant doctor, and all this other stuff, but the only thing that matters to her is her children. And this is why feminists are so annoyed. Obviously being a parent is a life-changing event and I have plenty of friends who are going through that adventure right now. But my friends who are moms don't stop having identities outside of being a mom once they had babies. In this case we really only get to see Nicole as a mom and her identity as a mom and while I understand it's meant to be a lovely tribute, it dramatically limits women into one role for their entire lives and nothing else has any meaning.

The book also brings up a bunch of other serious issues, but instead of focusing on just one and developing it, they bring up a whole host of issues and don't really talk about them. Which is almost more insulting because it feels like the authors were trying to be super serious by talking about human issues but couldn't be bothered to do more than just shove them in. And there are a couple of good examples. For example, one of Nicole's children, Benjamin, has a form of mental retardation. This is a very sensitive topic and it can be hard to talk about but people who have various forms of mental disabilities deserve to be treated with respect. But Benjamin's disability is played more for drama than anything else and we never take time to talk about it.

If it wasn't enough for them to try to tackle mental disabilities, they also decide to tackle AIDS. Like, no, I'm not even kidding, they bring in Space AIDS. It's a virus that is transmitted through blood or semen, attacks the immune system, and is ultimately fatal. And humans being humans, there's an immediate panic among the population and an attempt to quarantine the people afflicted by Space AIDS and make them social outcasts. Now, the book kind of sort of talks about how this ostracization is bad and how hard it can be for people suffering from diseases such as AIDS, but it's very truncated because the story jumps forward so much and we end up seeing things happening after the fact rather than watching them develop over time.

On top of this we have a prominent rape case, an attempt at lynching, racism, and actual xenophobia as humans discover aliens in an adjoining habitat and then launch a war to kill off the aliens and take their resources. The result is there are four or five subjects that could be talked about for an entire book, but instead we sort of get to see them and the ultimate impression is, ''Humans. They're downright terrible, aren't they?''

I didn't want to throw the book against the wall at any point, but I definitely think this falls into the wallbanger category considering how many times I put it down and sighed to myself or said, ''That's seriously not okay.'' I think this was a very ambitious attempt by the authors to talk about a lot of serious subjects, but I think they either weren't prepared or just should have spent all their time talking about one or two subjects instead of kind of sort of mentioning a bunch of subjects not very well. We'll just have to see what happens in Rama Revealed, although I don't have a good feeling.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Armada, by Ernest Cline

This week I'm taking a look at Armada, by Ernest Cline which is very unabashedly a reinterpretation or, I guess reimagining would be more appropriate, of The Last Starfighter, a classic 80's science-fiction film. For people who haven't seen The Last Starfighter, I recommend watching it because I remember it as rather enjoyable. But to provide a brief summary here: the plot of The Last Starfighter is that a video game is utilized by a group of aliens as a covert training and recruitment device to find candidates to become Starfighters, who will protect the galaxy. Alex Rogan, an ordinary human teenager living in a trailer park manages to beat the game and gets recruited, eventually saving the day. It's a pretty standard condensed hero's journey, but serviceable.

Armada follows the same basic premise, although with a dash of Ender's Game thrown in. A popular video game called Armada is actually a training tool by the Earth Defense Alliance to train and recruit potential pilots to help repel an alien invasion, and the game has been used to control drones before in actual battles with aliens. Zack Lightman, an ordinary high school student who plays Armada obsessively and is ranked 6th in the entire world, begins seeing alien spacecraft in the sky outside school. He initially dismisses it as a hallucination but is eventually recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance to join the war effort. It seems the aliens are finally preparing for a final all-out assault and humanity will soon be engaged in a final, epic battle for survival.

If the story was just that, I'd honestly think this book would be okay. It takes some long-existing ideas and combines them. I'd say it doesn't really do anything that hasn't been done before in some shape or form, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a serviceable science-fiction story with a hero's journey arc. It's a formula that's worked before and probably will continue to work well into the future.

The problem I have is that Zack Lightman is a character I desperately wanted to punch in the face repeatedly and honestly isn't a protagonist I like terribly much. The reason is because he comes across, especially in the first third of the book or so, as a spoiled brat. Okay, yes, he grew up without his father who died in an explosive accident when he was just a baby, and growing up with just his mom was tough. But he has so many other benefits that any time I hear him complain about anything it sounds like typical teenage whining without realizing how well off they actually are.

I'm actually going to do some comparison to Alex Rogan, the protagonist from Last Starfighter, because the book itself invites the comparison and we have two fairly similar situations. Alex, as I mentioned, lives in a trailer park, which carries the connotation of soul-crushing poverty in America. Zack, however, lives in an actual honest-to-goodness house with his mom so that's advantage number one. Secondly, Alex is desperately trying to get into college so that he can get a step up and try to escape the trap of poverty associated with where he lives, only to get rejected. Zack, who is two months away from graduation mind you, hasn't even bothered to apply to any colleges and isn't really looking into going to college. This is despite the fact his mother has, over the years, saved up enough for him to be able to go to almost any school he wanted and get a Bachelor's and his mother begging him to go to college. The only thing keeping Zack from going to college is his own lack of motivation.

On top of that Zack has an extremely cushy after-school job. Instead of bagging groceries or flipping burgers or any of a dozen other soul-crushing minimum wage jobs countless teenagers have had to do, Zack works in a gaming arcade. A gaming arcade run by an eccentric millionaire who runs the store as a hobby at a loss, rather than as an actual business. As a result Zack spends, in his own words, about 10% of the time actually doing work and the remaining 90% of the time goofing off. As I haven't watched The Last Starfighter in forever, I can't remember if Alex had a job or not, but I'm damn sure it involved far more actual work rather than getting paid to hang out and play video games. And Zack certainly spends an inordinate amount of time playing video games, admitting he's let his GPA drop a full point because of the time he's dedicated to playing Armada.

So honestly, I just want to punch Zack in the face every time he starts whining about how hard his life is. Because it really isn't. He isn't some down-on-his-luck protagonist who's trying to get by but just can't seem to get a lucky break. He's a spoiled kid who's got plenty of support and encouragement and opportunities, and is squandering them to sit on his butt and play video games. I mean, fortunately playing video games is exactly the skill needed to save the day, but there are plenty of other people who are good at video games so it hardly makes Zack special.

And so Zack's what makes me not like the book. The fact that he's a protagonist I simply cannot stand makes me dislike other things that happen in the book. For example, there's Alexis, the obligatory girl for the protagonist to meet, fall in love with, and get as a sort of bonus after saving the day at the end of the story. It's a trope that's existed since before time itself and you see it coming a mile away because you know how the story goes. (There are extreme problems with this trope in general, but if I go into them this will stop being about this book so we'll save it for another time.) So I'm sitting here, listening to Wil Wheaton read this book, and I can see it coming a mile away. And I can't help but think, ''No, Zack, you don't deserve the hot, nerdy goth girl. You haven't earned it!'' Is this annoyingly petty of me? Yes. Very much so. But it shows how much I'm annoyed with the main character.

And then Zack messes up. This is another trope that's been around for forever and it might have a name but right now I can't think of what it'd be called so we'll just go with No Consequences for Heroes. Basically we have our designated hero who does something they shouldn't. In military settings they usually disobey a direct order and the result is that something bad happens. In the case of Armada, Zack chases an enemy drone into a hangar and ends up destroying a stockpile of about five hundred drones, which are badly needed for the coming war with the aliens. Now, normally Zack would be facing a court martial and probably get booted out of the EAD, or possibly even executed depending on how serious the authority figures would be feeling. But since Zack is our designated hero, even though he's made a horrible mistake and should suffer some sort of consequence for his actions, he just gets off with a warning. Again, this has been used before in plenty of other texts, Harry Potter springs to mind, but since I don't like the main character it annoys me far more than it should.

Oh, and did I mention Zack describing his own mother as ''smoking hot''? Because that's a thing that happens too. I certainly didn't want to hear him say that because it's creepy as hell, but it's there. He admits to having a bit of an Oedipus Complex. If you didn't have reason enough to hate him.

So what's the result for me? I probably would have thought this book was okay. The plot isn't terribly new or ground-breaking and almost formulaic at points, but that's okay. It works, and that doesn't mean formulas can't be enjoyable. However, because Zack comes across as a spoiled teenager without an ounce of motivation in his body who just wants to spend the rest of his life slacking off and playing video games, I don't really have any sympathy for his problems. Life in suburban Oregon is boring and you wish you could be somewhere else? Well maybe if you applied yourself and got into college, rather than playing video games every night, then you might be finding a new and exciting way out of here. Most of the problems Zack has are his own damn fault and I just have no sympathy for him as a result. And in a protagonist-driven story that's a critical weakness which leaves me with relative distaste for this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Rama II, by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee

So this week we're continuing our delve into the Rama collection and I want to begin by stating I was wrong. According to Arthur C. Clarke's introduction to Rama II, he never meant the last line of the first book to be a sequel hook. However when he met Gentry Lee, one of the chief engineers involved in real-life space exploration, and started collaborating with him on science-fiction novels, Rama II and the following two books were the result. I will say that this book seems to start moving more into softer science-fiction territory rather than the fairly hard science that Rendezvous with Rama was made up of. But when you're dealing with extraterrestrial creatures I think things are allowed to get a little soft.

As I said last week, the biggest problem I had with the last book was the story didn't go much beyond, ''Hey, there's this giant alien spaceship coming into the solar system. That's strange and mysterious!'' And there are elements of that in this story as well. Some seventy years after the first Rama vessel has arrived and since left our corner of the galaxy, a second vessel is detected inbound from parts unknown. Humanity scrambles to get an exploratory mission ready in time so that a proper and more thorough examination of these mysterious vessels can be undertaken.

The thing that kind of bothers me about this book is only partially about the exploration of a mysterious alien vessel and possibly actually learning something about the beings that built interstellar craft and more importantly why they decided to build them. A significant part of the book focuses more on human drama of the cosmonauts who are sent to explore Rama II. And human drama is all well and fine, but there's one character who instigates most of the drama and is quite frankly awful: Francesca Sabatini.

Francesca is a highly intelligent woman, (although all the crew of the Newton, the vessel sent to explore Rama II are extremely intelligent people) and one of two journalists sent along with the Rama expedition. However, Francesca explicitly manipulates people to get what she wants, purposely puts the mission in danger through several actions, and utilizes blackmail to get things she wants from her fellow cosmonauts. An example that really bothered me was forcing an interview from the mission commander by threatening to let information about his schizophrenic daughter loose to the general public. Like...I feel like that should be something that should have expelled her from the mission, regardless of how good she was. Using somebody's family as leverage? That's just super messed up. And this says nothing of David Brown, an astrophysicist who it turns out is an academic fraud regarding some of his most important accomplishments. But by far Francesca was just an incredibly toxic person and it didn't make sense to me as to why she'd be picked to go on this mission.

There was also a comment made by Francesca that literally stated, ''The world doesn't need another half-black baby anyway.'' And I'm okay maybe the authors were trying really hard to make Francesca a despicable character but she had already crossed a line when she was using people's families as leverage to get what she wanted. And this book was written in the 80's by the way. That comment is just inappropriate on so many levels that I really wish the authors hadn't made it at all.

The other thing that I thought was really weird was the detour the book made talking about how the entire world went through a credit and spending binge after Rama which resulted in one of the world's worst economic depressions, called the Great Chaos, that it was still recovering from forty years later. Seriously, there's about two whole chapters that talk in great detail about how the seeds of this crisis are sown and its eventual, traumatic end. On the one hand it's a rehashing of the economic crisis that led into the Great Depression, right down to occurring in the 2130's, and oddly prescient of the crash of 2008, but at the same time it feels really weird to talk about it when it doesn't seem to have terribly much influence on the story. The inclusion of St. Michael of Siena is also kind of weird, although it plays a larger influence on the story than the Great Chaos.

Overall the book's kind of meh. Some of the characters, especially Nicole des Jardins are pretty interesting and at least fun to watch, but Francesca is definitely toxic and causes a ton of unnecessary drama. The exploration of Rama raises more questions than answers, but I guess that's somewhat appropriate as science in the real world often works out the same way. I just wish some of the questions the authors keep bandying about would be answered, but only the next couple of books will reveal if we get a satisfactory resolution.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Race Underground, by Doug Most

This week I'm looking at The Race Underground, by Doug Most, which talks about the history of the construction of the Boston and New York subway systems, at least the initial portions of the subways which have since grown into some of the biggest networks in the world. Most connects these two systems through two brothers, Henry and William Whitney, both of whom were involved in the transportation industry in New York and Boston and were influential in their respective cities in getting the subways built. Although I think Most labors the connection a little too much and it would have been sufficient to talk about the similarities between two large, north eastern cities in the United States who were facing congestion and transportation problems at the end of the nineteenth century.

The biggest problem I had with this book was it felt very disorganized and almost felt like it was trying to be two books instead of one. Most starts out by providing some necessary historical background, such as the development of transportation in American cities, such as horsecar lines and elevated railroads, as well as London's pioneering attempt at constructing a subway with somewhat mixed results and the curious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a pneumatic subway beneath New York. Most then sort of shuttles back and forth between New York and Boston and the individuals, such as the Whitney brothers, who were involved in construction of the subways.

In a way it makes sense to talk about Boston first because Boston completed their subway before New York even got underway, so I can't fault him for that. But I feel like this was almost trying to be two books at once instead of one cohesive book because the Boston narrative is significantly different from the New York narrative and the connection through the Whitneys is tenuous at best. I almost would have preferred that Most had focused on just one of the cities to keep the narrative more focused.

I also wasn't a fan of the inclusion of biographies of almost everyone tied to the projects, including a brief biography of the first motorman to drive a car into the Boston subway. While it may be a humanizing element I've already completely forgotten his name and whatever special things Most said about him in the book. While it's important to talk about things that relate to the narrative, such as the development of electric motors by Frank Sprague, which made electric-powered streetcars and subways a possibility, I don't know if we needed to go into Sprague's entire career including his time at Annapolis and all the challenges involved in getting electric streetcars to actually work. I think Most just suffered from trying to include absolutely everything when he should have kept a tighter focus.

Overall it's really the fact that the book's all over the place that bothers me the most. I'm somewhat familiar with the development of civic transportation, especially within my home city, so some of the information was a repeat to me, but I still found it interesting. I just think Most shouldn't have gone all over the place with his narrative and jump backwards and forwards through time at points.

- Kalpar

Saturday, September 3, 2016

How the Doubleclicks Saved My Life

This is going to be kind of a weird post because I'm talking about my personal life for once instead of a book or a board game I've played or some other form of media I've consumed. Honestly, it never occurred to me to blog about my personal life because it didn't seem interesting enough for people to want to read about. Especially when there were so many good books to talk about! But over the past year I've had a very powerful and extremely emotional series of events and I feel the need to at least write about them. And I'm well aware the title of this post sounds extremely dramatic but I feel that it's still very true. I've been debating whether I should write this post at all because it feels kind of weird to put all these emotions out there's something important that I feel needs to be said. Even if nobody reads it.

Also, very important warning, this post is going to explore some pretty heavy emotional stuff so it's not exactly light reading.

About a year ago I had some very traumatic life events, including being let go from what was basically my dream job and scrambling to find some form of employment. Although I didn't know it at the time, I also suffered a relapse in the chronic depression I've struggled with since at least my teenage years. I say didn't realize at the time because it's only in the past year I've come to accept I actually suffer from depression. Friends who have known me for a long time can attest I've had a fairly melancholy outlook on life for years and I've definitely struggled with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide since at least high school. But for a variety of reasons I always assumed I just had a grim or fatalistic outlook on life that wasn't depression. And in truth up until about a year ago I had actually been doing pretty well, so any depressive symptoms I had were well in remission. But then about a year ago a lot of those symptoms came flooding back and there were numerous points where I was just....done. I couldn't see any point to keeping up with life for another forty or fifty or sixty years and I was going to die anyway, so why wait? I was ready to die.

So how do The Doubleclicks come into this? Well, I was listening to music by Jonathan Coulton on Pandora, as well as songs by Weird Al Yankovic and Tom Lehrer, all of whom I was familiar with. And then this song called ''Dimetrodon'' came on. And my response was, ''Hey, I like this song. Who made this? The Doubleclicks. I'll have to check them out when I get home.'' After some internet searching I found out a little bit more about the band, listened to some more of their songs, and decided I liked what they did.

The Doubleclicks: Left and in a banana suit, Aubrey. Right and not in a banana suit, Angela.
So stumbling around their website I found a link to a post that Angela wrote about making things while struggling with depression herself, which I found to be very interesting and...I guess I want to say emotionally touching? I write that and it looks completely trite to me but there seemed something sincere and genuine in her writing that connected with me on some level and touching seems the best word for it. Plus, it provided a new insight into some of their more serious songs that deal with things like Impostor Syndrome.

And that brings us to ''Ennui (On We Go)''. I'm actually going to include the video here in the blog post instead of just providing a link because this was the song that gave me an epiphany moment.

Now I had heard this song before and I laughed at it at first because it was different and I thought it was kind of funny. I actually had heard it a couple of times and when I learned Angela struggled with depression I realized it really encapsulated the emotions of that experience. But on this particular day I was walking around, listening to music on Pandora, and this song came back on. So help me for whatever reason at that moment this particular song hit me and I stopped right in my tracks and said, ''My god. This is exactly how I feel. ...maybe I do have depression.''

And from there it just became one of those moments. A moment when you knew with absolute certainty that another human being had experienced the exact same thing as you. You might never get to talk to them but they would completely understand what you were feeling and now you know that you aren't alone. You aren't the only one like this. You may have had a moment like that yourself. Whether listening to a song or reading a book or watching a movie, you came to a part that resonated with you on some fundamental level and you just...understood. For me it was an earth-shattering experience. What I was feeling had a name and more importantly, once I knew what it was I could find a way to fight it.

Now, was a Doubleclicks song the only thing that convinced me to get help? No. There were a few other factors that helped convince me to go get help. I had several good friends who asked how I was doing and suggested I go get help because I felt like I was barely hanging on by my fingertips. I had dark days where I thought I'd be better off dead and with the opportunity to step back and analyze it I realized that wasn't a good thing. And then there were the inevitable ads that popped up on the internet raising mental health awareness. But I can definitely say that a song by two sisters in Portland helped me identify what I was struggling with and what I needed to do to fight it.

And things are improving, albeit at a gradual pace. The nurse practitioner I've been seeing has managed to find a medication that's helping me out a lot and the psychologist I've been seeing has been very supportive and helpful in finding specific things I can tackle to help reduce stressors that contribute to my depression. It's an ongoing process and I may live with depression for the rest of my life. But now I feel like I've got a fighting chance and that makes all the difference in the world.

So in a way, yes, The Doubleclicks saved my life because they, along with my friends and other resources, helped me make the decision to go get help. And if I hadn't gone to get help when I did, I honestly don't know if I'd still be here today. Thank you, Angela and Aubrey.

All right, one more song so this doesn't end on a down note.

(More info about The Doubleclicks can be found at their website:

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

Well this month we're doing another Arthur C. Clarke month by looking at the four books of the Rama series. ''But Kalpar!'' my readers are probably already shouting. ''All months have at least four Thursdays in them because of how the Gregorian Calendar works! If the Rama series is only four books long, couldn't you have talked about it any month you liked?''
Well, okay, yes, dear and gentle reader you are correct in that regard. However, I like doing a history book the last week of the month so since September has five Thursdays that means I can do four books and then talk about something historical the last week.

Rendezvous with Rama is a somewhat short novel about the sudden appearance of an unidentified object entering the solar system. Initially it's tagged as a comet, asteroid, or other piece of space debris coming in from the outer edges. However radar arrays soon find out that it's much larger than initially anticipated and it's christened Rama, prompting astronomers to start taking notice of it. Which is when things start getting weird. Scientists realize that Rama a natural object at all. It is without a doubt an artificial object coming from outside the solar system. This of course only fans the flames of curiosity and a solar survey ship is sent on an emergency re-route so that at least some humans will be able to investigate Rama before it disappears from the solar system entirely.

And that's, basically the plot. A mysterious obviously artificial object comes from outside the solar system and humans go and investigate said object and it's...well, weird. This is honestly the biggest complaint I have with the book is that it doesn't go much beyond, ''Man, this object from beyond the solar system. It's pretty weird and mysterious, right?'' Like, there are a lot of ways that Clarke makes Rama look strange any mysterious and a lot of things happen that the human characters don't understand. They compare it a couple times to unearthing a tomb from a lost civilization, which is a fairly apt metaphor. But the plot of the book doesn't really go beyond, ''Hey look, this thing is strange and mysterious.'' 

That's okay for starting a book off, I'll admit. People like a good mystery and I was interested myself in finding out what the heck this thing was and why it came to our solar system of all places. But ultimately the adventure ends up raising more questions than answers. And on the one hand, that makes it very good hard science fiction. For my readers who aren't aware, science fiction tends to get classified as ''hard'' or ''soft'' on a scale depending on how closely it hews to what's scientifically possible. So hard science fiction tends to stick with what's known or possible and usually only invents technologies that are possible or probable, but may not have been invented or developed yet. Soft science fiction tends to take an ''anything goes'' approach and technology indistinguishable from magic is the rule of the day. Although this is really a brief and imperfect summary. 

So Rendezvous with Rama is good hard science fiction. People have to worry about light-speed limits on communications, making interplanetary conference calls difficult if not impossible. The Endeavor, the ship sent to investigate Rama, has to worry about having enough fuel to make its orbits and actually has to steal fuel from other ships to match Rama's orbit in time. Clarke tends to stick very close to what's possible in this story. And honestly, an obviously artificial craft coming from outside our solar system which we decide to investigate? That's probably going to leave us with more questions than answers. Pretty much all efforts at scientific research have left us with more questions than answers, which leads us to further research. So in that way, Rendezvous with Rama is very true to life.

However, I don't know if that makes it terribly interesting to read. Yeah, it's neat to see people out in space doing space things and investigating a mysterious ship, but I kind of wish that there had been at least some sort of resolution to the questions that are raised. Who built the ship? Why did they build it? Why did they send it to our solar system? Those are pretty much the first questions anyone's asking and by the end of the book we're left with no conclusive answers. 

The book ends with a very obvious sequel hook and I was honestly kind of annoyed by that. Yes, I have the other three books set up so that I can see if Clarke actually answers the questions I want answered, but it almost feels like he's deliberately teasing the reader by making them wait until the next book, or even the book after that. 

Overall, this book's okay. It's well-written hard science fiction and Rama's definitely strange and mysterious. But the book doesn't seem to move beyond, ''Oh look, it's strange and mysterious!'' I think I'll just have to see where the series goes from here and if it improves. 

- Kalpar