Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Today I'm looking at Hidden Figures, a book you may remember coming out way back in 2016. I was recently able to borrow it from the library and because I had heard good things I decided it was worth reading about. Hidden Figures talks about the history of the black female computers who worked first for the aeronautical research laboratories at Langley Field and later for NASA during the height of the space race. These women, who literally did nothing but math for a living, have been overlooked in official and even unofficial histories of NASA. Shetterly began investigations because her father was a black engineer for NASA and knew many of the computers who lived in their neighborhood. As she continued her research Shetterly discovered that at least fifty black women worked for the Langley aeronautical research labs and/or NASA, and it's possibly a much greater number. This is to say nothing of the white women who worked in the exact same jobs but have gotten only slightly more recognition. Even Shetterly admits that her book only scratches the surface of the history of NASA's black women computers, but it's an important first step so further research can be done.

Today when we hear computer we think immediately of an inanimate object so ubiquitous it hardly bears thinking about. I am writing this blog post on a computer. You are reading it on a different computer. You probably use a computer at work, and so do I. But seventy years ago electronic computers were little better than theory, and complex mathematics had to be done at best with the aid of slide rules and mechanical adding machines. Because this was seen as drudge work, scientists and engineers were happy to pass the difficult task of actually doing the math to female computers.

During World War II, America's quest for air supremacy meant that massive amounts of money were spent on the research and development of new and better airplanes, and the aeronautic studies required massive amounts of calculations. Whether it was refining the SBD Dauntless, speeding up the P-51 Mustang, or getting a little more lift from the B-29, thousands of calculations had to be done to ensure American planes would win the war. But due to wartime shortages in labor, the War Department was looking for anyone with mathematical aptitude to work for their research labs. Thanks to this and an executive order from FDR prohibiting racial discrimination for federal jobs, an entire new set of opportunities were open not only to African-Americans in general, but specifically African-American women. Although they had to struggle with segregation within the laboratories, the black computers confined to a separate computing pool and relegated to a single table in the cafeteria, the ladies of Computing West were undeterred by their circumstances and gave it their all. And like many of their white counterparts, these female computers managed to earn the respect and admiration of their white male colleagues.

Perhaps most astoundingly, what was supposed to be a temporary war-time job, soon developed into a career for many of these women as the arms race and space race of the Cold War continued to feed demand for mathematical know-how. Some women even went on to learn how to program and operate the electronic computers that began replacing the biological kinds in the 1960's.

It is not overall surprising that black women have been overlooked by more traditional histories. Non-whites and women have had a hard time going beyond more than mere token status. But I think this book is an important step into revealing the complex nature of NASA even in the 1950's and 60's and how women of color have been involved since the beginning. As I said, hopefully more research will follow on Shetterly's book and we can learn more about the computers of NASA.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis

Today I'm looking at another Walter Tevis novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. This novel centers around T. J. Newton, an alien from another planet who has come to earth for mysterious reasons. Newton utilizes the advanced technology of his homeworld to establish a corporate juggernaut and pour the money into a special, highly secret research project. Newton's inventions draw the attention of Professor Bryce, a chemical engineer who realizes the technologies Newton's World Enterprises are introducing could not have come from an earthly laboratory because they are centuries ahead of anything current science could create, leading him to investigate.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book is that it tends to meander along, rather than having decent pacing. Granted, there are books that can slowly build and develop, but coming in at less than two hundred pages, I feel like that is a luxury Tevis couldn't have indulged in and this book would have benefited from being more on-point. The characters spend quite a lot of time being drunk and thinking along the lines of ''woe is me'' which just...doesn't make for terribly exciting reading. Maybe there's some sort of niche market for that, I don't know. It honestly feels kind of like one of those ''literary'' novels where everyone sits around and complains about how pointless and meaningless life is, but it's an alien who's doing it instead of regular people.

I also don't really like how Betty Jo is portrayed as a character in this book. I do recognize that this book was written in the sixties so people had very different opinions about class and gender back then, but it hasn't aged well at all in this novel. Betty Jo is a Kentucky resident that Newton meets when he gets injured in an elevator (long story), and is every bad stereotype of a welfare queen. She doesn't work, just collects checks from a variety of government agencies and uses quite a bit of it to buy gin, which she drinks in copious amounts. And how Tevis uses her in the book...I can't really place my finger on it but there's something that just doesn't seem right about it. Maybe someone more articulate than I can express it better but just how he portrays Betty Jo and her relations with the other characters make me feel weirdly uncomfortable for some reason.

And then the book kind of...ends. Literally the government comes in, smashes some things up, and the book just sort of ends. Aside from some technology having been introduced to earth that didn't exist before, nothing's really changed. We just have a bunch of characters who aren't thrilled with life and drink to medicate their problems away.

Maybe there are people who like this sort of book, but I think I'm just not one of them. It feels like an extended session of people being sad drunks and I've never enjoyed that in real life, nevermind fiction. There may be some greater message to the story beyond a general embrace of nihilism but I'm clearly not getting it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series I'm actually looking forward to continuing when I get the opportunity, The Invisible Library. I ended up enjoying this book very much, although considering it's about dimension-hopping librarians who save books it's hardly a surprise that I'm a fan. Just checking on Goodreads it looks like there are three other books out in this series right now so hopefully the adventures will be just as enjoyable as this one was.

The protagonist of our novel is Irene, a woman raised within the Library which exists out of time and between worlds. Irene is just one of many Librarians, whose mission is to travel across the multiverse and retrieve books so the Library can keep them safe and ensure the books are never lost from reality. Sometimes this is as simple as walking into a story and buying a copy of the book, but more often than not it involves stealing irreplaceable manuscripts from highly guarded locations. And the newest mission for Irene promises to not be an easy one.

Irene is tasked with retrieving a copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales from a universe that has been infected by chaos. Reality doesn't work like it should and more closely resembles the worlds of fiction than properly organized universes. And the Library isn't the only faction interested in retrieving this copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales. A powerful Fae known as Lord Silver and a mysterious secret society known as the Iron Brotherhood are all interested in getting the book before Irene can. Even the Library seems to be working at cross purposes when another Librarian shows up to retrieve the book. And if that wasn't bad enough, Irene's been saddled with training a novice named Kai and as her first act has to bring him along on this mission. It certainly won't be a trip to the local bookstore.

Otherwise, there isn't a whole lot I can say other than that I liked this book a lot. Cogman takes the idea of an interdimensional library and manages to put her own unique twist on it. There aren't any new ideas that I haven't seen used before half a dozen times in other fiction, but Cogman manages to combine them in a manner that makes it a creation wholly her own. It felt like a universe I could totally enjoy climbing inside of and taking a look around. Possibly even staying to work for the library if I could get away with it, although I'm not super great at languages. I found this a very easy book to read and for people who like books, libraries, and alternate worlds this is definitely a great choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Humans, Bow Down, by James Patterson and Emily Raymond

Okay, I'm just going to be honest and admit that I didn't like this book, and I think it was a combination of things not making much sense, everything feeling rather rushed, not being able to care about the characters to the point I was rooting for them to die, and some poor writing choices. The combination is a book that feels like a mess trying to cash in on the craze for dystopian science-fiction novels that have been all the rage for the past few years. There were some opportunities for good plots in this book but ultimately the result was a mess that in my opinion, isn't worth your time.

The plot of Humans, Bow Down, is that ten years ago robots rose up against humanity in the Great War and managed to vanquish all of humanity within three days. Now we live in a topsy-turvy world where humans are enslaved by robots and must do tedious calculations and spot-weld automobiles before being donated to an inner-city school. Okay, not quite that, but you get the point. Resistance, humans revolt, et cetera, et cetera, the dance hasn't changed, only the music.

The problem is this book starts off confusing and just never quite makes sense after that. Leading the robot overlords are the hu-bots, humanoid robots that look like humans but are insanely strong and lack the capacity for empathy and emotions. The robots conclude this makes them more evolved than the barbaric humans and gives them the right to lord over humanity. Except, within the first few chapters of the book we see the robots doing things which make no sense for evolved overlords to be doing. For example the robots go to church. And not robot church, they go to ordinary human churches but attended and administered by robots. It's never really explained in detail, but presumably the robots just appropriated human religion. If robots were trying to be more human, this would at least make sense in a cargo cult sort of way. But if they're so superior to humans because they aren't bound by human emotions, then why would they involve themselves with religion? Which is inherently an emotional experience.

The same goes for robots eating for pleasure. It's established that the robots gain absolutely no material benefit from eating food. They're powered entirely by electricity so the food only has to be extracted later. And eating for pleasure is, again, an emotional experience and the robots are superior to humans because they don't have emotions. So...why are they even bothering to eat in the first place? It makes no sense to me. Even the title of the book gets incorporated into this nonsense where robots do things for emotional reasons, despite them explicitly not having emotions.

At several points in the book, the robots announce, ''Humans, bow down.'' at which point the humans are expected to grovel on their hands and knees for their robot overlords. The first time this is done is when a general of the robot forces stops in a market square. At which point he surveys the kneeling humans, says something to the effect of how good it is to see humans on their knees, and then drives off. I'm sorry, but what the heck was the point of that? Because as far as I can tell all it did was briefly stoke the ego of some robot guy who, again, isn't supposed to have emotions. It just makes the robots come across as kind of stupid.

The other big problem is that there's simply too much going on in this book. The chapters are all incredibly short and for a book barely over four hundred pages it manages to have over seventy different chapters. And the authors push in all sorts of plotlines with the result being it feels like they were trying to check off every trope possible and shove them into the book, never mind if the plots aren't well developed or even coherent. We have humans imprisoned for minor offences and paraded like animals in a zoo as a lesson to the other humans. We have human characters stealing a sports car, prompting a robot investigation. We have a quantum computer capable of emulating brain patterns and storing memories. We have humans pushed into reservations where their interest largely extends to where they're getting their next high from more than anything else. We have a robot who is apparently transsexual (I say that because the robot in question is biologically male but chooses to dress and appear female. Like everything else in this book the authors dedicate far too little time to it for it to be developed.) and also afflicted with a glitch that makes them feel *gasp* emotions! And we have robots being reprogrammed by both sides in the war between humans and robots, which as far as I'm concerned raises some interesting ethical questions but those are never brought up in the book.

So as you can see, there's so much going on in this book that there simply isn't enough time for the authors to adequately talk about everything. As I usually say in these situations, if they had stuck to one or two threads instead of going all over the place, it would have been a better chance for the plot to develop in interesting ways. Instead, we end up with a storyline with absolutely everything including the kitchen sink tossed in for good measure. The result is the book just doesn't work at all and I think it's not worth spending the time to read it as a result.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Spain in Our Hearts, by Adam Hochschild

Today I'm looking at a history of the Spanish Civil War which specifically looks through the perspective of various American reporters and volunteers, as well as a handful of Brits. Ernest Hemmingway's dispatches from Spain are probably the most famous of these dispatches, with George Orwell's writings definitely in the same weight class. However, Hochschild utilizes the letters and diaries of ordinary volunteers, some of whom never managed to make it back home.

The Spanish Civil War was prompted by the election of a left-leaning coalition government of liberals, socialists, and communists. For years the ordinary people of Spain had struggled under the social and economic domination of the land-holding elites. In addition to the ever-popular topic of land reform, the republican government promoted a series of social and economic reforms that would improve the lot of common Spaniards and reduce the power of the big landowners and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, a coalition of generals, eventually lead by Francisco Franco, led a military revolt against the Republican government and sought to reassert the power of the elites, the monarchy, and the Church. The following war lasted three bitter years, leaving thousands of people dead not only through combat but through disease, starvation, and political executions on both the Republican and Nationalist sides.

Aside from the toll it took on the Spanish people, the Spanish Civil War is important because of the international attention it received. Most importantly Mussolini and Hitler, eager to test new airplanes, tanks, and tactics, allied with Franco and dispatched troops and material to aid him. As a result the fascist powers gained experience that would prove extremely valuable in the early days of the Second World War, only a few months after the Spanish Civil War finally ended.

While Franco received aid from nations abroad and even the approbation of Pope Pius XII, the Republican government found themselves largely bereft. The western democracies of Britain, France, and the United States were unwilling to aid Republican Spain and often hampered or forbade the sale of arms and ammunition. In fact, the only country that provided aid in any significant quantities of the Soviet Union, and the communists would utilize this control on the purse strings to exert additional political control and launch their own purges within the Republican government. As a result the Spanish Civil War has become one of the great ''what if'' scenarios of the twentieth century. What if FDR had lifted the embargo on the sale of weapons to Republican Spain? What if the French had sent a few divisions across the Pyrenees to aid an ailing fellow Republic? The answer is, of course, unknowable, but it represents a great moment of when things should have been done in history.

Which makes the romance of the International Brigades all the greater. Composed of young men, some anarchists, some socialists, some communists, the International Brigades were forces of volunteers who often made their own way to Spain to fight for a cause they believed was vital. Undertrained and woefully underequipped, the International Brigades were thrown into the worst fighting of the Spanish Civil War and as a result saw the highest casualties out of any Republican units. Despite their doomed cause, the International Brigades represented the willingness of ordinary people to give their lives for their beliefs, even when they could have stayed home very comfortably and probably not be affected one way or the other.

Overall I thought this book was interesting. I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War so this was a useful introduction to this period of history for me. I also appreciate that we got to see perspectives beyond the most famous observers such as Hemmingway and Orwell. I definitely think this book is worth the time to check it out and learn about something American audiences might not know much about.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan

Today I'm finally getting to the last book of the Lady Trent Memoirs series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings. On the downside I think this book and the series in general could have used a lot more development because there are still a lot of questions I have that probably should have been answered. Lady Trent assumes that the readers, members of her world, know things which are common knowledge in her world. While this makes sense and avoids a bunch of clunky exposition, it does leave the series with some questions unanswered.

This book focuses on a later and significant chapter of Lady Trent's career when she goes to her world's equivalent of the Himalayas to investigate a potential new and unknown species of dragon. The problem is that Lady Trent's home country, Scirland, is at war with this world's equivalent of China so aside from the remoteness of the location and the difficult terrain, there are numerous political challenges that have to be overcome as well. However the potential to discover a missing link between ancient dragons raised by the Draconian civilization and modern dragons proves too much of a temptation for Isabella and once Lady Trent sets her mind to something it's basically impossible to stop her, especially when dragons are involved.

The main point of this book is a huge spoiler for not only the book but the series as well, which reveals major information about the Draconian civilization. I will say I'm not sure I'm fully satisfied with how the book ends and I would have liked even more information about the Draconians. I will say it's fairly realistic that we don't have a complete picture for civilizations that disappeared thousands of years ago, which makes the universe feel real, but I felt since this was a work of fiction Brennan could have cheated a little bit to bring more info into the book than what we ended up getting.

My other biggest criticism is I felt like Brennan spends a lot of time on stuff like the scenery to build up the anticipation for the major plot twists. Now, I will admit that this makes sense and Brennan does a good job describing things like village life, the mountains, the difficulties in crossing glaciers, and all the other challenges that Lady Trent and company encounter. I'm sure there are lots of people who enjoy this sort of thing and it's definitely good writing on Brennan's part, but I honestly kind of wished that more time had been spent talking about plot developments than talking about say, how gorgeous the mountains were. But I think this is really a matter of personal taste and I'm willing to admit that I probably have bad taste.

Overall I think this was a good ending for the series. Considering how much time had been spent building up anticipation for the reveal about the Draconian civilization I wish there had been more of a payoff. However, I think Brennan does a good job in creating a realistic world in her novels and making it believable that dragons could be part of an ecosystem. If you're a fan of science and fantasy, these books do a great job of combining the two.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

Today I'm looking at a book that's part biography, part larger history, and focuses around the events of the assassination of President James Garfield just a handful of months into his term in 1881. Despite initially surviving the bullet and clinging to life for several weeks, Garfield eventually died of massive internal infection leaving Chester A. Arthur, a man nobody had expected to be president, in the White House. In addition to talking about Garfield, this book focuses on the life of his assassin, Charles Giteau, who was not a sane individual by any stretch of the imagination. The aftereffects of this assassination are also important to American history both in what happened and what didn't happen as a result.

James Garfield was a politician from Ohio who did not expect to be nominated for president in 1880. To the very end, Garfield remained loyal to Senator John Sherman of Ohio who he had pledged his vote. The 1880 Republican convention was seeking a new candidate, after the ignominy of Rutherford B. Hayes's electoral victory in 1876 and was divided between three candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, although having already served two terms, was supported by the machine politicians but was opposed by James G. Blaine who was favored by those who supported reform. Finally John Sherman brought up the rear for those dissatisfied with either candidate. Eventually Garfield was selected as a compromise candidate, despite his loud protestations that he did not desire the candidacy. Reluctantly Garfield found himself the nominee, and eventually elected as president of the United States.

According to Millard and her sources, Garfield was a highly respected member of the Republican party at the time, even when he was only a junior congressman from Ohio his oratory skills were lauded by his colleagues. Garfield presents a wonderful opportunity of what could have been because of his political skill, his personality, and his desire for government reform and racial equality. Had Garfield been able to serve even just one full presidential term he might be remembered as far more than a presidential footnote.

Guiteau, by contrast, did not lead a very successful life and considering his mental illness this is not much of a surprise. And based on what Millard described, Guiteau definitely qualifies for some sort of personality disorder, although since I'm not a psychologist I can't define it with any precision. Guiteau spent much of his life wandering from place to place, unable to hold down a job, and trying to avoid creditors. Guiteau spent much of his life borrowing money from acquaintances, promising to pay it back once he got a check that was due to him any day now and purchasing many items for a down payment and failing to pay the remainder of the bill, as well as fleeing from boarding houses in the middle of the night. Most importantly, Guiteau suffered from persistent delusions. Guiteau believed that god had designated him for some special purpose and that a speech Guiteau had written (and had never delivered) was critical to getting Garfield elected. As a result, Guiteau assumed that a duly grateful Garfield would appoint him to some high office, first a consulate in Vienna and later as the general consul in Paris.

Garfield and his staff, receiving the letters and visits from a man who they deemed no more than an eccentric and persistent nuisance of an office seeker, simply stalled him until Blaine, now secretary of state, finally grew tired of Guiteau's inquiries and told him to stop asking about the Paris consulate. Guiteau, taken aback by these remarks, turned on Garfield and his administration and came to believe that god had told him to kill Garfield, ensuring a change in administration for which he would be duly rewarded. Finally, on July 2nd of 1881, Guiteau succeeded in shooting Garfield in the back at the Baltimore and Potomac train station.

The most tragic irony of all of this is that Garfield probably would have survived this assassination attempt and, if he had lived in the modern era, he'd probably be up and walking after a few days in the hospital. Although the bullet had shattered ribs and nicked an artery, it came safely to a rest behind Garfield's pancreas and even without the bullet being removed he probably would have survived. However, due to the unsanitary medical practices of the time, Garfield ended up with a terminal case of internal gangrene and quite literally rotted from the inside out.

Immediately after he was shot, Garfield was carried upstairs in the train station and several doctors probed the president's wound. Some utilized their bare hands, and some utilized a variety of probes, but none of these objects were sterilized before being inserted into the president. Germ theory and the process of sterilization had been relatively new developments to medical science and largely considered false by Americans. The idea that tiny, invisible creatures could make people sick and just by washing your hands and instruments in carbolic acid could prevent this seemed fairly suspicious to them at the time. After Garfield's agonizing death, and the revelation that he had died not from the bullet, but rather from sepsis, American medical science quickly began to accept that maybe there was something to this germ theory after all. However it would take the assassination of William McKinley for the American public to begin to think that maybe the president needed some protection and not just anyone could walk right into the White House.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. There are a lot of different tangents to this book, such as Alexander Graham Bell (who I hadn't mentioned in the review) who developed a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet and help save Garfield's life. However, I think they all manage to work together quite well and the result is a satisfactory book. It is interesting to learn about a president that isn't frequently talked about because of the short time he spent in office and Guiteau makes an interesting character by himself. If you're interested in nineteenth century America and learning more about one of the ''placeholder'' presidents or medical science at the time, this book is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Orconomics: A Satire, by J. Zachary Pike

Today I'm looking at a parody novel written by J. Zachary Pike titled Orconomics. This book takes the idea of the standard swords and sorcery RPG like Dungeons & Dragons and explores, at least partially, the economy that would develop around heroes going into dungeons, killing monsters, and bringing back fantastic shares of loot. As it's been argued before in some D&D circles, the sheer fact that high level characters can instantly inject hundreds of thousands of gold pieces more or less instantly into an economy, and yet the economy suffers no inflation. To that end Pike creates a plausible economy of plunder futures trading and other financial derivative products which would help soak up the excess capital. However, Pike covers additional topics which means this is not solely an economically-driven satire.

Orconomics follows Gorm Igerson, a former Dwarven Berserker famed throughout the world as Pyrebeard. Due to a dishonorable incident some twenty years ago, Gorm was cast out of his clan, stripped of his titles, and declared an outlaw by the Heroes' Guild. Ever since Gorm has been scraping by best he can, finding solace in the bottom of a bottle more often than not. But when Gorm decides to get a goblin non-combatant papers he gets caught by Guild Enforcers and is faced with a decision: either certain execution at the hands of the Guild, or only almost certain death on a damn fool mission to aid the prophet of an insane deity. As Gorm puts it, it's not much of a choice at all but almost certain death is marginally better than certain death. Now Gorm just has to get a team including a naive prophet, two mages that can't stand each other, a bard who is almost definitely not a thief, and a washed-up has-been Elven ranger to work as a team rather than fighting each other and there may be a chance he'll actually survive.

As I said, this is partly a parody of a monster-killing and loot-gathering based economy, with traders purchasing shares in dragon hoards and professional unions for heroes, goons, and thugs. However, Pike takes on more standard fantasy tropes in his parody as well, such as the assumption that the ''evil'' races like orcs, gnolls, goblins, and kobolds truly are always evil. True, it's a topic that's been done before but I think that Pike manages to do it rather well in his novel. And there are plenty of other enjoyable moments throughout this book to make it easy to read.

If I have any critiques of this book, I think it's that Pike tries to take on too much in this particular book. As you might have noticed, this is intended to be the first book in a series. (As of writing it doesn't look like he's published the second novel so we'll have to wait and see for now.) It definitely seems like Pike has grand ambitions for his series because he sets up several plot threads, including heroes getting addicted to healing potions, a clan of aggressive weapons salesmen, and a prophecy about the fate of the world all in the first book. It almost feels like he was trying to take on too much at once in one book to get all his plot threads up and running at once. While I appreciate Pike doing so because it gives me a sense of what sorts of plans he has for the series, I feel like he could have saved a couple to be introduced later and gone a little more in depth in this book with a couple plotlines.

Overall though, I thought this book was pretty enjoyable. Maybe not the must subtle of satire or writing, but still a pretty good introduction to a series that has promise.

- Kalpar