Category Archives: Books

The Martian by Andy Weir

9780804139021As a kid, I was drawn a lot more to fantasy than to science fiction, mostly because, in science fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief regarding things that are rooted in science, while in fantasy, that foundation is explicitly thrown out at the beginning. That is, in fantasy, with its magic, dragons, elves, and demons, there was no pretense that the world could exist or was based on some realistic description of nature. Rather, that idea was tossed away and a new world with new rules was built. Science fiction, on the other hand, was meant to be an extension or extrapolation of our scientific understanding of the world and thus, in my mind, required a greater deal of substance to justify the more outlandish places that extrapolation took the author.

That said, there is a genre of science fiction, called hard science fiction, that Wikipedia characterizes as having a much stronger emphasis on scientific accuracy. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an excellent example of this genre.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I imagine many others have. I actually read the book back in the spring, before the movie came out. The plot details the exploits of an astronaut who finds himself abandoned on Mars. For those who haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot any further.

What I will say is that the plot takes scientific accuracy to an extreme, with the protagonist doing everything he can with the equipment he has to stay alive. Weir has been praised for the accuracy of his science by many professional scientists. Of course, there are a few quibbles here and there, but overall, the book strives for, and achieves, a very high degree of scientific authenticity. It is maybe not a surprise to learn that Weir grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

For a book that centers, for the most part, on one man lost on effectively a very remote and very plain island, the plot is fast paced and intriguing. On many occasions, one can’t help but wonder how the hero will solve the next problem he encounters.

If I have one major quibble, it isn’t with the science itself (though I’m certainly not qualified to judge most of it in any technical depth), but rather that one person could be such an expert in so many disciplines. That is a conceit that a novel like this much have, but it is the one place where maybe a¬†suspension of disbelief is really necessary to enjoy the story.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

the-golem-and-the-jinniA jinni and a golem meet in New York… almost sounds like the set up for a bad joke. But, Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni is certainly no joke. It is an exciting story about two mythological creatures who happen to find themselves in the same part of New York City during the late¬†1800s. These two creatures have very different dispositions: the jinni is a fiery hothead while the golem struggles to keep her emotions buried deep within.

Neither creature is fully in control of their fate. Golems, by nature, are created to serve a master while the jinni, as is often the case, has been imprisoned against his will to serve others. By using these two creatures and how they interact both with one another and with the humans around them, Wecker touches on themes of free will and purpose in life that, because of the combined historical/fantastical setting, occurs organically. The story focuses on the fate of these two magical creatures and the people they interact with, but the messages of the novel are much deeper than a fantasy story implies.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

dog-stars.hellerAt first, The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a difficult read. Heller eschews traditional sentence and paragraph structure. Instead of complete sentences, often the narrator of the novel “talks” in incomplete phrases, partial thoughts, and stream of conscious ramblings. Dialog is not distinguished from the narrator’s own internal voice. However, once you get by this odd composition, behind it is a story that is both touching and harrowing and certainly worth the effort.

The Dog Stars takes place in Colorado, in an America, a world, that has been decimated by a plague of unknown origin (though at one point, Livermore is blamed…). Whatever the origin, the current reality is that very few people are left and those that are either roam the countryside looking for supplies to scavenge and loot or have holed up in various compounds that they then defend against the roaming tribes. It is in exactly this situation that the protagonist, Hig, finds himself in. Hig and another man, Bangley, have taken residence in a neighborhood near an airport — Hig is a pilot — which, thanks to Bangley’s meticulous planning and military mindset, they have successfully defended against numerous attacks. However, having a creepy gun obsessed guy as his only “friend” starts to wear on Hig. Hig is lonely. Hig misses his wife. Hig wants more than to fight off a never ending hoard of invaders.

The novel follows Hig’s journey, both internal and external, of self-discovery, of finding what exactly he wants out of life in this new world. Along the way, we learn what it takes to survive in such a place, where all infrastructure is gone, people survive on their wits, and no one trusts anyone. How does Hig find purpose in a world where everything has been destroyed? Isn’t there more to life than simply defending his house, his dog, and his plane? Hig’s journey takes us along a path where he learns what it means to be human again in a world that humanity seems to have abandoned.

If you can make it through the odd compositional structure, the novel weaves a rich tapestry and has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page. However, it certainly isn’t for everyone, as the structure may be too strange to digest for some. But, if you get by that, the novel rewards you with a story that certainly is heartfelt and gratifying.

Artful by Peter David

artful.davidIt seems the vampire and zombie thing is being done to death and Artful, by renowned comic book writer Peter David, is yet another entry into the mix. Focusing on vampires, it takes place in Oliver Twist’s world, shortly after the end of Dicken’s novel. Thus, already, it makes for a somewhat novel take on the whole vampire schtick. And, as the introduction makes clear, this isn’t a world full of emo vampires, struggling with their humanity. As the narrator states:

Watch some television programs, or read some books in which vampyres are heroic and charming and sparkle in the daylight, and then return here and brace yourself for a return to a time that vampyres were things that went bump in the night.

These vampires here are down right evil, with the goal of subjugating the human race, or at least grabbing a good share of power.

Peter David is known in the comic book world for taking characters that have been cast aside and breathing new life into them. Here, he does something similar to the Artful Dodger, the hero of this novel, though certainly not of Dicken’s original take. Artful finds himself in a world of vampires and intrigue where what he once took for granted is no longer what it seems. Artful befriends a young woman, lost on the streets, and their adventure into the world of the vampires begins. Along the way, the son of vampire hunter Van Helsing, a young boy who is very mature for his age, joins the adventure and even Oliver himself makes an appearance.

David’s penchant for dialog shines, which some memorable lines such as:

— bloodsucking monsters known as tax collectors already existed

— Only in death do worthless people have worth.

— the average person, of whom there is an insufferable number in the world

— lack of attention from God is not necessarily a bad thing, as the former residents of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the entirety of the Earth prior to Noah’s construction of an ark would have been able to attest.

— [regarding prostitutes] With how much respect do people treat slabs of beef? Beef is pounded, sates the appetite, and is extended no particular consideration beyond that. The sad truth is that oftentimes the ladies are seen as similar objects in that they are pounded in a variety of ways for the purpose of satisfying certain appetites, albeit unwholesome ones, and the remains are left behind for someone else to worry about.

There is a lot of commentary on society and politics sprinkled through out the novel, mostly from the point of view of a street urchin like Artful.

The novel is great fun, traipsing through Victorian London with numerous references to other literature set in the same time. Artful encounters the Baker Street Boys and even some more historical characters from the time. The action is fast paced, the characterization vibrant, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged.