BooksOfTheMoon

Ingenious Pursuits: Building The Scientific Revolution

By Lisa Jardine

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve owned this book for the best part of twenty years, but at some point it ended up being moved from my “to read” pile to the main bookshelves, at which point I forgot about it. I only realised I hadn’t read it when I was browsing the shelves recently. I also have no memory of buying this book, and my edition has no hints of what it’s about on the back cover (possibly one reason I kept ignoring it all those years ago, when I couldn’t just google it), but it turns out it’s a history of the scientific revolution that went hand in hand with the Enlightenment in Britain and across Europe in the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century.

Jardine uses the Royal Society, its members and associates as her touchstone for the discoveries and inventions of this period. She talks about contributions from Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and many others, in diverse fields. She covers the creation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich; the importance of accurate clocks; telescopes and microscopes; and several other topics, that tend to become interrelated by the people involved. Hooke, in particular, is a recurring character, turning his hand to everything from clockmaking to microscopy to blood transfusion.

One thing that the book makes very clear is the level of cross-pollination of knowledge across Europe at the time. Henry Oldenburg, in particular, seems to have acted as a clearing house for knowledge, being secretary of the Royal Society. He received and sent correspondence across the continent, passing papers between people he thought would be interested, even when the corresponding polities were at war with each other, thus ensuring that the knowledge was spread around, and enabling new connections to be made that enable further discovery and invention.

The writing is lucid and easy to follow, something that I was relieved about after reading the introduction, which was denser and, to my mind, more deliberately academic. Jardine doesn’t focus much on the personalities behind the scientists — instead concentrating on the discoveries themselves and the relationships between them, although there are some cases when the personalities overshadow everything else. There are very few women mentioned in the book, possibly inevitable due to the period under discussion, although in saying that, I think there has been much more scholarship reviewing these discoveries and the contributions of women since this book was written.

An interesting book telling a fascinating story, and one that has an important message for today: science is international, and operates best in a spirit of cooperation, where people and ideas can flow freely through borders. Something that builders of walls and those stirring xenophobia would do well to remember.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316647526

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

By Gavin Extence

Rating: 3 stars

This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read, but a friend loaned it to me, saying that she thought I’d enjoy it. Through a series of unlikely events, a teenager ends up becoming friends with an old man, and this book charts their friendship. Despite the differences, it’s hard not to compare this to A Man Called Ove. Both feature grumpy old men whose lives change when they let others in. But this book doesn’t reach the same heights for me as the other. It felt a few times like it was trying too hard to press my emotional buttons, whereas Ove did it without me noticing at all.

Our protagonist here is young Alex Woods, who survived being struck by a meteorite and developed epilepsy as a result. The book does a good job in showing the terrible unfairness of childhood, when you have no agency, any signs of being different is a reason to be bullied, and you don’t have the words to explain your inner life to those around you, especially not to adults.

We get much less of of the inner life of Mr Peterson here, the old gent that Alex befriends. He’s more of a plot device than a character. The same is probably true of most of the other characters in the book.

Spoiler
I had to skip most of the bit with the book in the bus, with the bullies. When he took the first Edition Vonnegut on to the bus I could pretty much write the rest myself. As a book lover, who’s also had some experience of being bullied, that whole sequence hurt.

Despite that, it’s a very readable book, I got through it in short order, and it kept my attention throughout.

Aside: I had to chuckle to myself at the universally horrified reaction to Alex’s (one-off) use of the “worst word in the world”. You should come to Glasgow, pal. It’s almost just punctuation up here.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444765892
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2013

Huns, Vandals, and the Fall of the Roman Empire

By Thomas Hodgkin

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being written in the 19th century, with footnotes in Latin (everyone learns Latin at school, right?), this book is actually fairly easy to read. It does sort of throw you in at the deep end, but that’s at least partially because it’s part of a larger work, so by the start of this book, the Roman Empire has already split into Eastern and Western empires, and the Western one isn’t even ruled from Rome any more.

I picked this up mostly because my knowledge of Roman history is pretty weak. The book is split into two sections: a shorter one covering the Huns, and a longer one covering the Vandals. I knew very little about Attila the Hun and the way he swaggered across Europe. Hodgkin is certainly opinionated; he doesn’t try to take a neutral tone at all. He sneers at Attila and the Huns generally, very much giving the impression that he favours the civilised Romans over the “barbarian” invaders. He doesn’t rate Attila’s abilities as a general, despite his obvious accomplishments. This is sort of refreshing, given how used we are to historians trying to remain impartial.

However, I got to the end of Attila’s life, and Hodgkin started setting the scene for the Vandals, and I found myself caring less and less. There’s so many different players, petty politics (some things never change) and armies marching around, that every time I picked it up, I would lose heart after barely a handful of pages.

So I’m admitting defeat. Maybe I’d be better off starting smaller, like with a Wikipedia page summary or something. So despite being well-written, easy to read, I just don’t care enough about the subject matter to continue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853672422
Publisher: Greenhill Books
Year of publication: 1996

Noumenon Ultra

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 3 stars

You certainly can’t accuse Noumenon Ultra of lacking ambition. Picking up where the last book left off, about a hundred thousand years in the future, it accelerates from there, going ever-further into an unknowably-distant future. We start with the AI, ICC, that has held the Noumenon convoy together for so long waking up from hibernation to find itself about a hundred thousand years in our future, and although its humans have long vacated its ships, there is life within it once more. It eventually learns to communicate with the sentient life of the terraformed world that now bears the name of its convoy and later regains contact with the descendants of its crew, and they all have to work together to solve a problem that could threaten the future of the entire universe.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. We pick up characters from Convoy Twelve from the second book, as well as further clones of the crew of Convoy Seven and spend time with the post-humans that most of humanity, other than the remnants of homo sapiens from Convoy Twelve, has now evolved into. We don’t spend as much time as I would have liked with the post-humans, or see more than a glimpse of the way that they interact with their ancestors, but life in the galaxy at large is only tangential to the story being told here.

I enjoyed this book, but I felt it was missing a spark that both the other two books had. While the first one jumped in time quite a lot, there was conflict and drama in each segment. The second one had the parts of the book that followed Convoy Twelve to ground it. While this book had the time jumps from the first and some of the characters from the second, there was little conflict. Everyone was working together for a larger goal, without any great deviation from that or misunderstandings or disagreements on the nature of the work.

In my review of the previous book I complained that there was no closure on the alien megastructures that the convoys had encountered. Hoo-boy is that resolved here. And in an incredibly mind-blowing payoff as well. So while it has a lot of that sensawunda that we often talk about in SF, it’s lacking in the characterisation to truly make it great.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008412852

Under the Pendulum Sun

By Jeannette Ng

Rating: 3 stars

A gothic Victorian themed novel with added fae? Sounds right up my street. In a world where the Fae are real, and their home, Arcadia, can be found (ironically, only by getting lost), England does what it’s always done when a new frontier is opened up (no, not that one, but see below): sends missionaries to convert the heathens to the One True Faith. When Christian missionary Laon stops replying to her letters, his sister Catherine resolves to follow him there and find out what happened to him.

This is a very slow paced book, that works well for the gothic feel that it’s trying to invoke. The mysterious housekeeper is more Mrs Danvers than Mrs Fairfax, and the first meeting between Catherine and Laon, outside the castle of Gethsemane, that has been provided for the mission, is heavily reminiscent of Jane Eyre‘s first meeting with Mr Rochester. There’s more than one mystery around the castle and Catherine has to try and solve them, and to help Laon win his prize from the Pale Queen: access to the interior of Arcadia.

There’s a strong theological bent to this book, which sometimes makes it difficult for someone like myself, who grew up outwith that tradition, to follow the more subtle aspects of the discussion. While I’ve learned the core of Christian theology (partly, you sort of absorb it through osmosis in Britain, and partly, I wanted to be able to argue from an informed point during my Angry Young Atheist phase), it sort of feels like the whole book revolves around aspects of Christian theology that I struggled to follow.

The other problem I had with the book, is nothing to do with Ng or her writing, but purely what I wanted from it. When I read the description, my head immediately went to a completely different place: to the idea that empires of that era sent missionaries and were quick to follow them up with soldiers. I was intrigued by the idea of the British Empire trying to colonise Arcadia, and the way that temporal power was used to back up spiritual. That’s an interesting (to me) idea for a story, but it’s not the one that Ng wanted to tell. And that’s fine, but I still came away a bit disappointed.

Spoiler
It’s definitely a spoiler, so hidden, but I can’t not mention the incest. While the early descriptions had me feeling an usually close bond between brother and sister, when it develops into full-blown incest, that pushed me right out of the story. No matter that Catherine thought she was a changeling at the time, they were raised together as brother and sister. It was important for the plot, in terms of sin being important to the Pale Queen (gotta say, I still don’t entirely follow that), but I still didn’t like it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857667274
Publisher: Angry Robot
Year of publication: 2017

Battle Angel Alita: Holy Night and Other Stories

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 3 stars

This book collects four short stories set in the Alita-verse, two of which feature Alita herself. We open with a story featuring Ido, shortly after he was banished from Zalem and his discovery of a girl who needs his help (sound familiar?). It’s quite a melancholy story, but gives us more insight into Alita’s ‘father’.

Second up, we have Sonic Finger, set during what I think of as a golden period of Alita’s time in the Scrapyard. She’s finished with Motorball and being a hunter-warrior, but is beloved by them and trains them. When someone attacks her with what appears to be a gun, her friends all rally round. There’s a lot more action in this one, but no real depth. We don’t get any character development or even any real reason as to why Sonic Finger was doing it.

The third story is a short one with hardly any dialogue, featuring a Deckman who left the scrapyard, and its encounter with Alita. This one manages to pack a lot of punch into a short, almost wordless story. We see the Deckman learning about the world outside the Scrapyard, playing with children and seeing the beauty of a sunset. All the while being trailed by Alita in her A-1 TUNED phase.

The final story is set after the end of the main series, following Koyomi’s attempts to be a journalist photographer, and her desire to find the rumoured still living leader of the Barjack rebellion again, just so that she can have a purpose in life. Again, not a huge amount of action, but some nice character development for Koyomi.

These are an enjoyable set of stories in the Alita-verse that help round out her world, but are by no means essential.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632367105
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2018

Federations

By John Joseph Adams (editor)

Rating: 3 stars

This is a nice idea for an anthology: stories set in and imagining large-scale interstellar societies. There’s a mix of reprints and originals, and I tended to find the originals tended to match the brief better than the reprints.

There was a mix of stories here. There weren’t any that I outright hated, but I couldn’t remember enough about Ender’s Game to appreciate Orson Scott Card’s Mazer in Prison, set in the same universe, before Ender’s time; and I feel there was some mythology in LE Modesitt Jr’s Life-Suspension that I missed which probably stopped me getting the most out of it. Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy by Harry Turtledove was probably a bit too comic for my taste; while Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason just felt grim, after a hopeful start.

The story I had the most problem with was Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Returned, which is another story abut the brainship Helva, The Ship Who Sang. I was very fond of another Brainship book, The Ship Who Searched in my youth, but this makes me very wary of going back and revisiting it. To put it kindly, there’s a lot of outdated notions of womanhood and ability, not to mention outright rape jokes that really left a sour taste.

On the other hand, there were some great stories as well, including Spirey and the Queen by Alistair Reynolds about two (too-)balanced factions fighting a war in a distant solar system; Mary Rosenblum’s My She about telepaths who form the basis of the communication network between the stars; The One With the Interstellar Group Consciousness, about the conscious Zeitgeist of a civilisation that just wants to settle down and get married; and finally Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy which is a great story that paints a society through wine.

So a great idea for an anthology, but the execution could have been better.

Book details

ISBN: 9781532739941
Publisher: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
Year of publication: 2016

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By Alix E. Harrow

Rating: 3 stars

I’m sort of struggling to write a review for this one, because it doesn’t seem to have made me feel as much as I think it should. It had so much that I enjoy in a book: a feisty heroine, a book-within-a-book, it’s a book about books and storytelling, but somehow, it hasn’t left as much of an impression as I thought it would.

January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr Locke, whose father is his employee, scouring the world for rare and beautiful objects for Locke’s collection. When January finds a strange book, her world changes entirely.

There’s a lot to this book, with race and racism being pretty high up the list. January is the “Coloured” ward of a rich white man in early 20th century America, and we see early on how his influence protects her, and what happens when that protection is withdrawn. Race is very much on our minds now, in mid-2020, with the Black Lives Matter movement still strong after the death of George Floyd, and this book has a strong treatment of the various characters who are treated badly because of their race, and also their class. In particular the power disparity of those who have money and those who don’t. Locke’s New England Archaeological Society is full of the rich and powerful and they take pride in making it clear just how wide that gap is.

This is also a book about change, and travel. In the book, the Doors are a means of change, of new ideas travelling between worlds, and there are attempts to close the Doors, to prevent change and impose a strict order on the world. On my less good days, I feel that those forces are winning. While I wouldn’t describe the early 21st century as “orderly”, it does feel like moneyed interests (such as those in the book) are very much on top. But as the book reminds us, it isn’t forever. Change is inevitable, and those who try to stop it are eventually washed away.

One final thing, something I discovered quite by accident: the book is Augmented Reality-enabled. If you point Google Lens at the front cover, you get a beautiful little animation, and if you point it at the back, you get a little talk from the author about the book. I really like that, and I hope more publishers start doing something similar.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512464

Transition

By Iain Banks

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being marketed in the UK as an “Iain Banks” (mainstream litfic) book, this is very much an “Iain M. Banks” (science fiction) novel: its core conceit is a shadowy conspiracy whose members can travel between alternate Earths in the multiverse. That seems pretty darn science fictional to me!

The book is pretty odd, and it never entirely worked for me. This is partly to do with the characters: it’s told from a number of different viewpoints, and none of them are really sympathetic. You’ve got the assassin, the corrupt politician and the torturer. There’s the hospital patient, I suppose, but he’s hiding from people chasing after him, and he used to be an assassin.

There’s also not much in the way of plot. There’s very interesting world-building going on but when it comes down to it, the plot is mostly about fighting for control of a bureaucracy. It doesn’t exactly set my heart racing. Mind you, there’s an awful lot of sex in the book that could help with that (that and a somewhat unnecessary section on child sexual assault, albeit off-page).

Spoiler
I don’t really understand the end either. How did Oh get his superpowers? Mrs Mulverhill doesn’t seem entirely surprised, and she’s levelling up as the book goes on too. Is it supposed to be natural? Something that the Concern was keeping from its members? Gaining those powers just in the nick of time seems a bit deus ex machina to me.

So slightly disappointing as the last new science fiction from Banks that I’ll ever read, but an interesting curio in its own right.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349139272

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition, Vol. 5

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 3 stars

In the final volume of Alita’s story (well, her first story, at least), Alita storms Nova’s lab, with only Kaos for backup. At one point, she utters the immortal line “My rage is ultrasonic”, which, I must confess, made me giggle a lot. Meanwhile, since his attack on Zalem failed, Den is making a suicidal charge against the Scrapyard, alone, except for Koyomi.

There’s a lot to enjoy here, especially Nova’s second entrapment of Alita in the Ouroboros program, and Den’s mental battle with Kaos, but I was very disappointed with the canonical ending. It just seemed very abrupt and, frankly, a rubbish way to end Alita’s story.

This is continued with a non-canonical coda, almost, that takes Alita to Zalem and sees her and Nova, along with Lou, confront the master computer of Zalem. This improves a bit on the canonical end, but seems very odd. Nova in particular behaves in very odd ways that don’t seem to follow from his previous actions. Why would he restore Alita like that, and give her that new, nigh-on invincible body?

There’s also a short story set in the Motorball world, not featuring Alita, with a slightly different art style. That was interesting, with quite a melancholy tone to it. The volume finishes with a couple of interviews with the author where, amongst other things, he talks about the end, and how it’s not what he wanted, but various factors converged to force him to end the story where he did.

As for myself, I think I’ll content myself with the non-canonical ending, and not seek out the sequel series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366023
Year of publication: 2018

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