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Descent
Descent
by Ken MacLeod
Edition: Hardcover
22 used & new from $23.26

5.0 out of 5 stars warm and engaging, a UFO story that is literary in its ambitions, June 10, 2014
This review is from: Descent (Hardcover)
Sometimes visionary and eclectic sci-fi can be hard going, rewarding perhaps but a challenge to follow and keep up with across readings. However ‘Descent’ covers complex themes of political change, evolutionary conjecture and historical truth and deceit, yet it holds all this together with a robust and engaging plot, interesting characters and credible yet humorous language. MacLeod’s singular ability to transfer pithy Scot’s accents to print is uncanny, his turn of phrase a sign of a writer at the peak of his game. The coming of age journey he narrates is engaging and complete.

‘Descent’ is a UFO novel but much more. The strong rendition of technology, state-of-the-art communication and the human face of political transition represent a significant achievement for MacLeod. This novel must be up for some awards.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 22, 2014 6:16 AM PDT


The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass
The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass
by Robert Hass
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.39
53 used & new from $8.87

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creative insights and leaps of understanding, June 6, 2014
This brief but resonating conversation records a tolerant and explorative exchange of ideas on the forces of biology, the use of poetry to witness the majesty of these forces, and the manner in which they can manifest in society to repay the initial debt to nature. Poetry offers a medium through which to understand, even appreciate, the ‘red of tooth and claw’ face of nature. Poetry also enables its practitioners and readers to make leaps of logic and perception to better appraise nature and ourselves.

Or that’s at least the way I enjoyed this little volume and, like poetry, I am sure interpretations will be myriad. ‘The Poetic Species’ also provides a summary and introduction to some of the works of Wilson and to some of the poets who have beheld nature. That is a lot to offer in not much more than an hour’s read.


Armor
Armor
by John Steakley
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $5.60
136 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars interesting themes, some good characterisation, but patchy, June 5, 2014
This review is from: Armor (Mass Market Paperback)
Many readers are attracted to Armour because of its reputation for realistic sci-fi combat, war themes and a significant plot twist. These claims are valid, although a not an iota of these qualities would be lost if the novel was a hundred pages shorter. Strong characterisations of, for example, Kent the soldier pin-up hero, Holly the geeky technocrat, or Lewis the charismatic drunk make Armour memorable and are woven into the story expertly. These are weighed against by tracts of barely intelligible prose which seem like bad translation (which of course they are not). The sci-fi scenarios are now reasonably common but were less so at the time of writing (with the obviously significant exception of Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers', and noting that Card's 'Ender's Game' picked up the bug theme almost a decade later to great praise).

This novel has a satisfying conclusion, despite many barely explained events. As a standout novel for a part-time writer, perhaps all Armour needed was an extended edit. If the reader overlooks these aspects, Armour is poignant and readable, and offers an interesting commentary on military themes.


The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality
The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality
by Richard Panek
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.08
109 used & new from $0.98

4.0 out of 5 stars an enjoyable account of a key area of modern science, May 29, 2014
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Dark matter and dark energy have been enlisted these dark entities as catch-alls to account for a lot of what we do not understand about the past and future of the universe. "The 4% Universe" is a stylishly written account of the development of these concepts, the researchers, and of the tensions and the politics in astronomy and particle physics that have enabled our present level of incomplete understanding. The dichotomy between theoreticians and experimentalists pales against the one-time rivalry, often intolerance, between quantum physicists and astronomers. Panek's frank and chatty style makes a work of exhaustive research readable and paints a memorable and life-like picture of radio telescopy pioneers, the domestic duty juggling pragmatism and cool intellect of Vera Rubin, through a pantheon of hard-working physicists to the Nobel laureates, Perlmutter and Schmidt. Panek's characterisations are priceless, as are his expositions of the deals and behind-the-scenes lobbying. The Notes, Works Cited and Index are thorough and helpful.

The story of quasars, supernovae, standard candles, the inflationary universe, the accelerating universe, the many phenomena and theories that link astronomy to cosmology: these are all covered by Panek carefully with minimal technical contortions. The historical account is what makes this book, other books may be an easier read to clarify the technical aspects of dark matter and dark energy. It was published before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Schmidt and Perlmutter, but this takes little from the account. It would be a treat if Panek tackled these topics again in a decade or so, even as a revised edition.


The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
by Brian Greene
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.26
116 used & new from $4.80

5.0 out of 5 stars deserving of the praise, May 11, 2014
In order to get a sense of the ‘evolution’ of string theory, I chose to read the first edition of the ‘The Elegant Universe’ for which a later edition, with a new preface and epiloguewhich updates over a decade of theorisation, is available. Greene has long been described as the best expositor of string theory and this, his first book, has also been lauded as one of the better primers in cosmology. This earlier edition does not disappoint on either account.

The early chapters give as good an account of the special and general theories of relativities, and their implications, as you’ll get. Quantum theory is cherry-picked for relevant aspects. Then it moves on to the development of string, brane and super-symmetry theory and the accompanying mathematical concepts of Calabi-Yau shapes. I would contend that, unless of course they are already grounded in string theory fundamentals, it is pretty much impossible for a reader to gain any more than an overview and feel for string theory from this kind of narrative based description. The strength of Greene’s book is that this overview is sufficiently complete and lucid that the reader can launch her or his own investigation. The further reading is good, if now a little dated, and the index, notes and glossary arefine. I now feel in a position to read both Greene’s later books and the work of string theories critics, such as Krauss, Smolin and Woit, to name a few of many.

Greene’s frequent reference in the Notes to the “expert reader” may grate as a short cut precluding more fulsome explanation. I will defend Greene’s need to the need to ‘sing to the choir’ as important in order to put his explanations into perspective. The narrative he employs, partly explicatory and partly historical, makes ‘The Elegant Universe’ one of the best popular science books ever. A review would not be complete without noting some of the fine writing in this book, whether it be a timeless quote from Laplace describing determinism or some of Greene’s own vision on reaching for the stars in the final chapter.


The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.27
492 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars a heady account of plants and people, May 4, 2014
This pleasant review of the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants presents rich accounts of the roles of apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes in our history. The esoteric facts delight and seem for the most part to be accurate. My son who has an interest in GM crops read the chapter on BT potatoes and we were both impressed with its information and lack of bias. Pollan pursues the John Chapman story with journalistic thoroughness.

Pollan introduces a number of personal experiences and perspectives into the narrative, and succeeded in cultivating my gardening desires. Other readers may be stimulated by his Apollonian and Dionysian associations with plants but I must admit my first reaction was to chase up a charming reference to a great scientist and his botanic desires.


The Lives of Animals (The University Center for Human Values Series)
The Lives of Animals (The University Center for Human Values Series)
by J. M. Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.48
148 used & new from $3.44

5.0 out of 5 stars use of the novel as commentary, March 30, 2014
This book tells the story of a family and broader community reacting to an animal rights activist. Though the use of simple dialogue, reactions and portrayal of disparate points of view, it conveys a powerful insight into how views are formed and the tension between ‘rationality’, emotion and hypocrisy. Its brevity and simplicity of plot, together with the familiarity of the issues raised, imbue this story with a fable-like quality. Except for one aspect – it does not preach or attempt to be revelatory. Rather than rounding a simple conclusion, it examines the importance, responsibility and cost of humanity. In doing so, sophist arguments to form convenient conclusions are also cast into perspective.

I’ll be reading more Coetzee.


Quarterly Essay 53: That Sinking Feeling
Quarterly Essay 53: That Sinking Feeling
by Paul Toohey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.99
10 used & new from $17.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Journalism from the thick of it, rounded off with far-reaching and uncomfortable analysis, March 28, 2014
Toohey's reputation as a journalist has been enhanced by the Quarterly Essay format, most recently with another Walkley Award for Last Drinks in 2008. That Sinking Feeling is an apt title for a possibly even greater achievement in term of journalism and analysis. Toohey traces recent Australian governmental initiatives and responses to the asylum seeker crisis from the Indonesian ports and villas used by desperate refugees. Toohey's up-close account characterises the different asylum groups and their tensions, the local fishermen, the police and businessmen, even the smugglers, and in doing so offers the reader a glimpse of the behind-the-headlines reality of what has been happening to so many people so near to Australia. Even as a strange logic of cause and effect becomes apparent, then Toohey relates the chaos and suffering after a packed smuggling boat sinks. Toohey and his colleagues are moved to the point of becoming involved and the results serve to underline the hopelessness and injustice of responses to this humanitarian crisis.

Toohey is a master of being brutally honest while not taking sides. Working from Indonesia as a savvy yet impartial commentator empowers this essay. Toohey pulls no punches about the Australian public's indifference to Indonesia and its national challenges, or about our breathtaking hypocrisy in expecting Indonesia to perform backflips to solve problems that are more of Australia's making, in particular through our involvement in wars that Indonesia did not support.

In the final part of this essay Toohey stands back, supplying a double context to the latest events in the asylum seeker saga: firstly the riots on Nauru and Manus Island and secondly the more Indonesian focused issues of phone-tapping discoveries and territorial waters incursions. Toohey sees evidence that the asylum seeker crisis is abating but accompanied by the worst possible result for Australia. Toohey's evidence is convincing and, if the trend that he has detected continues, Australia has made an appalling and long-term strategic blunder in its region. But I won't spill the beans, read That Sinking Feeling for a complete and highly readable account, surprisingly delivered in the brevity required of the essay format.


Redemption Ark (Revelation Space)
Redemption Ark (Revelation Space)
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.09
176 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars hard science fiction from an expert, March 28, 2014
Redemption Ark is set decades after Reynolds’s Revelation Space. It has been quite a while since I read Revelation Space, but a gentle recanting throughout this novel brought the key points back. It takes about a hundred pages to warm to Reynolds’s third person remote narrative, even when he channels it through the slow-to-grow characters. After that, the cascade of rich vocabulary, the technically accurate contrivances of future technologies and a good plot take hold in a compelling story.

Reynolds is without par at explaining astrophysical scenarios and weaving them consistently into his plot. Perhaps this is slightly at the expense of the development of strong and interesting characters but, nevertheless, I look forward to the next in the trilogy, Absolution Gap.


Quarterly Essay 53 That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution
Quarterly Essay 53 That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution
Price: $8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars journalism from the thick of it, rounded off with far-reaching and uncomfortable analysis, March 16, 2014
Toohey's reputation as a journalist has been enhanced by the Quarterly Essay format, most recently with another Walkley Award for Last Drinks in 2008. That Sinking Feeling is an apt title for a possibly even greater achievement in term of journalism and analysis. Toohey traces recent Australian governmental initiatives and responses to the asylum seeker crisis from the Indonesian ports and villas used by desperate refugees. Toohey's up-close account characterises the different asylum groups and their tensions, the local fishermen, the police and businessmen, even the smugglers, and in doing so offers the reader a glimpse of the behind-the-headlines reality of what has been happening to so many people so near to Australia. Even as a strange logic of cause and effect becomes apparent, then Toohey relates the chaos and suffering after a packed smuggling boat sinks. Toohey and his colleagues are moved to the point of becoming involved and the results serve to underline the hopelessness and injustice of responses to this humanitarian crisis.

Toohey is a master of being brutally honest while not taking sides. Working from Indonesia as a savvy yet impartial commentator empowers this essay. Toohey pulls no punches about the Australian public's indifference to Indonesia and its national challenges, or about our breathtaking hypocrisy in expecting Indonesia to perform backflips to solve problems that are more of Australia's making, in particular through our involvement in wars that Indonesia did not support.

In the final part of this essay Toohey stands back, supplying a double context to the latest events in the asylum seeker saga: firstly the riots on Nauru and Manus Island and secondly the more Indonesian focused issues of phone-tapping discoveries and territorial waters incursions. Toohey sees evidence that the asylum seeker crisis is abating but accompanied by the worst possible result for Australia. Toohey's evidence is convincing and, if the trend that he has detected continues, Australia has made an appalling and long-term strategic blunder in its region. But I won't spill the beans, read That Sinking Feeling for a complete and highly readable account, surprisingly delivered in the brevity required of the essay format.

I read the hardcopy version of this essay and cannot comment on any specifics of the kindle edition.


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