The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

This content shows Simple View

Books and Reviews

Review of “Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space” by Paris Arnopoulos

Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer SpaceCosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space by Paris Arnopoulos

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A good faith stab at attempting to consolidate information on a wide-ranging and complex question. How do we set up social structures that will work for the dawn of the real space age… when space is commercial accessible and exploitable by private interests?

However, the perspective is dated and some of the underlying assumptions naive. For example, Arnopoulos assumes that wealth disparity is due purely to the random distribution of resources on the planet and who was able to apply innovation to make use of them. This perspective completely ignores the much larger role that exploitation, slavery, genocide, and predatory monetary policies have had on the distribution of wealth in all human societies to date. Economics in a free market system are not based on people cooperating in rational self-interest, but rather conscious and subconscious xenophobia and the drive to maximize in-group wealth.

These human tendencies are certainly not going to magically disappear just because we will venture out into the solar system. Consider that a private company is now resupplying the space station and has designs on Mars, another private interest is sending a manned (slingshot) mission to Mars by the end of the decade, and still another is planning to mine asteroids in roughly the same timeframe. This is real, and this is now, and not facing the very real social problems we still have on earth will hardly lead us to anywhere sustainable or equitable in space.

While I did glean some useful thinking points from many of the essays, I confess to putting it down halfway through due to its sociopolitical and economic naivete. The fact that the writing gave me the sense that I was perpetually trapped in an introduction didn’t help in keeping me awake.

View all my reviews



Review of “Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction” (Anthology)

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science FictionMenial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction by Kelly Jennings (editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I’ll go conservative and 3 it is.

Here’s the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top of the food chain, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance. Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be 99% of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I’m not one who believes that “speculative fiction” means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a damn good (and explained) reason. Fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by one. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you’d have days or weeks to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You’d have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be difficult to do so. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I’ll leave it there with this one example, but I highlighted close to forty instances.

In several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. Though several of these stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, it was hard to concentrate on the story when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that “we already have robots that could do this… faster, cheaper, and better.” This is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the “knowledge economy.” As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
  • Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet<
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
  • Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists. I wish it were more science fiction than fantastic, but I can’t argue with how much I appreciated it as a work of speculative short fiction.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it’s easy to see how I have this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

View all my reviews



Review of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

The Moon Is a Harsh MistressThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will undoubtedly be branded a science fiction heretic, but I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I can respect Heinlein’s technical proficiency as a writer, particularly the highly consistent dialects and comprehensive rendering of technology. I can appreciate how forward-thinking (in some respects) Heinlein was in anticipating the space era in a novel written in the mid 60’s. I can also see how this novel undoubtedly influenced many writers down the line.

None of these merits, however, makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress either enjoyable, informative, or insightful to the contemporary reader. Its technological futurism is obsolete, its view of humanity mired in a bygone era of chauvinism and nationalism, and its social commentary amounting to little more than Ayn Rand in Space.

I care about none of the characters, because I cannot relate to them — thus it to me fails as a story. Nor does the story bring me to any new understanding of the human condition, because its postulates in this regard are archaic — thus to me it fails as art.

My impression of Heinlein’s masterpiece is something analogous to the Deuteronomic Code: it has its set place in the establishment’s canon, mostly for historical reasons, but ultimately has very little worthwhile to say to contemporary society.

View all my reviews



A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington

Life is simply a long line that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd but those who see the changes are called “idealists” and those who cannot, or who refuse to think, they are the “realists”.

— Joseph Asagai, in Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN.

Last Saturday’s show of Liesl Tommy’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington Theatre marks my first dose of the theatre drug since moving to Boston last June. It was a wonderful experience on many levels.

Clint Ramos and Lap Chi Chu delivered beautifully integrated scenic and lighting designs, respectively. The Younger’s rickety Chicago South Side apartment was constructed on a large circular platform that rotated to expose the various rooms of the house. It symbolized for me the whirl of forces that fling the family from one event to the next. Also symbolic was the fact that the whole apartment was constructed inside of a large grid that surrounded the unfolding story on the sides, back, and top with a black cage of individual warm can lights. The lights were used in patterns to great visual effect.

The actors all did a fine job, but Keona Welch’s rendition of Beneatha Younger was my favorite performance in the production. By having her character deliver potentially sarcastic lines in a naively wide-eyed and serious way, she added a nice layer of humor to the character’s poignant quest for identity.

Underneath the particulars of the production however is the brilliance of the play itself. It is the mark of a true classic that it remains perpetually relevant, and Lorraine Hansberry’s script easily makes the cut.  Hansberry’s depiction of implicit racism and systemic segregation remains an ugly self-reflection of much that is around me here in Boston, and by extension the country and our times. And the side themes of conflicted identity, the nature of idealism, the paradoxes of family, and the value of love in dark times require no particular time and place to show us something about the human condition.

Last week was the first play I attended in Boston and the first time I have ever seen this particular play performed. I am so happy about both!



Review of “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes science fiction fans, you can in fact have it all. Far-thinking ideas, imaginative world-building, hard-SF space combat, deep character arcs, compelling portrayal of AI, strong motifs dealing with human questions, beautiful language, an element of horror, and the most essential component: a well-written story. This novel delivers on all of these components.

Hyperion made my to-read list after appearing on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books, I saw it on a used shelf in the Huckster’s Room at Boskone 50 for $2 and snagged it. Dan Simmons’ novel becomes, so far, the only science fiction novel to hold a five-star rating in my GoodReads*.

Fans of literary science fiction… read it.

(*Note: Neil Stephenson’s Anathem initially held a five-star rating, but was subsequently demoted. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep was a contender briefly, but ended up being rated four stars as well. Both of these novels, though far-thinking, enjoyable, and also appearing on the NPR Top SF/F list, fall just short of five stars on the same count: I don’t believe that they are well-written in a literary sense.)

View all my reviews



Review of “Majesty’s Offspring” by A.J. Vega

Majesty's OffspringMajesty’s Offspring by A.J. Vega

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Entertaining reading for the bus, waiting in line, or whenever you have a minute to kill… but it didn’t really make me think. Plot is mildly interesting but not very complex, characters are on the shallow end, and the dialogue is trite. I really don’t think space opera is my thing.

View all my reviews



Review of “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In terms of interest, the plot is little better than decent. Also, the characters are fairly flat. Why five stars you may ask? Sheer force of ideas — in quantity and quality. Anathem exemplifies one of my favorite roles of science fiction as a genre: to play with the possible and to spur highly intelligent imagination.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, and I’m not going to even try. However, Though knowledge thereof is not necessary to understanding the book, I can recommend Anathem highly if you enjoy any of the following subjects: mathematics (particularly geometry and topology), quantum physics (particularly the many-worlds / world-branching hypotheses), Latin, the structure of religious orders, hierarchies of thought, philosophy, metaphysics, the sociology of religion, cycles in history, individual spirituality, and/or political intrigue.

I think it is destined to enter the canon of Great Science Fiction Novels That Any Self-Respecting Fan Should Have At Least Read.

View all my reviews



Review of “Green Grass, Running Water” by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running WaterGreen Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant.

View all my reviews



Review of “The Big Sleep”, by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Raymond Chandler is the fedora-topped man’s man answer to the trashy romance novel. Full of hard-biting dialogue, dark alleyways and fiery lithe blondes, concealed pistols, racketeers, and cheap cigarette smoke — The Big Sleep is detective pulp noir at its finest. Bonus points if you put on some swanky, slow-paced brass music in the background.

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. I was part of that nastiness now.

Set up on the beach or pour yourself a glass of cheap whiskey and indulge in night of suspense, with zero pretense of being anything close to high-brow literature. Guaranteed to be as ridiculously overdone as the metaphors filling every page.

View all my reviews



Review of “’78”, by Bill Reynolds

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City‘78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City by Bill Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Reynolds dives into far more than a great baseball game in this account of the 1978 American League East playoff game between the Red Sox and the Damnyankees. Here baseball in Fenway Park is placed in the context of the racial, social, and economic divisions ravaging Boston at the time. Reynolds tells the tale of a city struggling to reconcile a view of itself as an enlightened center of civilization against the ugly hatred and violence that was daily tearing Boston apart during the bussing era of school integration. Underneath it all, we see more than racial questions — the story of a suburban elite sacrificing the futures of inner city children like checker pieces, playing the suspicions of the city’s poorest (Blacks and Irish) against each other for the sake of politics.

‘78 seems well-written but poorly edited. The juxtaposition of jumping between a play-by-play of the baseball game itself and the zoomed-out view of the contemporary context is not managed well, and the overall impression becomes one of disorganization. Similes and metaphors are sometimes repeated often enough to get tiresome. The chapters feel less like parts of a whole and more like individual columns pasted together.

Despite my criticisms, I did find it to be an enjoyable read. I was repeatedly brought into the historical foundations for many of the modern fractures I will have to confront myself as a future teacher in Boston’s urban neighborhood schools. I liked getting a look into the past of the Red Sox certainly; but I think more importantly I have taken away a more thoughtful view of the present state of the city.

View all my reviews.




top