Monday, September 25, 2006

Bryson, Bill. A short history of nearly everything. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2003. 544pp.

I'm a bit of two minds on this book. Really, I almost consider it two different books that I could review separately. The first, a book I really like, that I think is an important contribution to efforts to improve scientific literacy amongst the general population. The second, a book that subtly undermines efforts to improve scientific literacy among the general public by essentially portraying most scientists as lying, egocentric freakazoids.

Let's do the good review first. This book is a fun read, a hard thing to say about most science books, popular or otherwise. Bryson has an engaging style and a good eye for the most accessible stories. And the emphasis is definitely on stories, on the role of individual scientists in the history of scientific discoveries. He comes at the science using the stories of the scientists and inventors, always bringing the knowledge to a human scale and understanding, always giving a good understanding and grounding of the science in everyday life. And, the search for scientific understanding as part of the everyday lives of the scientists. Like I said, the story is king here and Bryson really personalizes science in this book. If scientists often seem a little remote as they are portrayed in popular culture, well Bryson goes out of his way to make scientists seem very human.

What sciences does he concentrate on? Really what we sometimes call the hard sciences: physics and astronomy especially, chemistry, geology, all the earth sciences. The age of the universe, the earth and life (especially human life) on earth is one of his dominant themes throughout the book, so palaeontology, paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, particle physics all play important roles in those big questions and he treats them all engagingly.

I also admire Bryson's resolutely rational and non-supernatural approach to the material. No intelligent design theories here, only a scientific, rational, reality based approach. And a very strong environmental message. Bryson fights the good fight here, with good material on species extinction, pollution and climate change. Another bonus is an 11 page bibliography to get you going on further reading on all the subjects he tackles.

And now for the not-so-good news. The humanization-of-science thing goes a bit too far, and Bryson seems to go out of his way to dig up some unsavoury gossip on virtually every historical scientist he talks about. It's one thing to glorify and sanctify these all-too-human people, but on the other hand, I don't think portraying them all as a bunch of kooks is a good idea either. For example, on p. 357 he tell us how Linnaeus was obsessed with sex and always giving organisms slightly naughty names, such as one genus of plants he named Clitora. On p. 351 he tells us of other scientists who were in the habit of stealing hundreds of specimens from London's Natural History Museum. And on p. 385, he gives us a detailed description of Charles Darwin's mysterious disease, making him seem to be a bit of a hypocondriac. And on and on, these are just a few examples from a short stretch of the book. A bit of balance, please, Mr. Bryson.

Actually, I guess there's a third book under discussion here. The book that includes the stuff that Bryson chose not to cover. The list of scientific disciplines I mention above is pretty impressive, but I think that some areas that he covered excessively could have been trimmed and some areas that were left out could have been added. As I imply above, one candidate for trimming was his very extensive coverage of how we have come to the current age of the universe and the Earth. While interesting and useful, it could easily have been shortened. The areas I would have added, which I think would have made the book even more valuable, are math, computing, a more general coverage of biology and a bit on philosophy of science. First of all, biology. Bryson really doesn't cover biology to the same extent as the earth sciences, and what he does cover in biology is mostly human evolution, ie. paleobiology. Related to paalaeontology and really in the same strain as the earth sciences. So, at least a little more botany, a little physiology and maybe even some expanding the decent coverage of genetics to include the bioinformatics revolution. Math -- it seems to me that most of modern science rests on a foundation of mathematical reasoning and to not even cover calculus and what it means to scientific progress is shortchanging the reader. Mathophobes be damned. "Nearly everything" has to include a bit of math.

Computing -- as we know, computers are ubiquitous in the world today, and that is no less true of modern science. Computational methods are so prevalent in scientific research these days that I think Bryson owed it to his readers to give at least a taste of the growth and development of the computing field and its influence on science. And really, the pioneers of computing have to be at least as colourful as any other discipline.

And lastly, the philosophy part. I'm certainly not advocating that he go into all the gory details of the philosophy of science -- all that postmodern sociology stuff is a bit heavy for a pop science book. But I also think he owed it to his readers to talk a little bit about what the scientific method is and how it works. It seems to me that understanding a little bit about how scientists know what they claim to know is a useful bit of knowledge. With all the various wars on science going on out there, a little bit of understanding of how scientists get around to making their claims will make us all a better informed citizenry, and this book leaves us hanging a bit in that respect. Remember, "nearly everything."

But enough of all the carping. Buy the darned book. It's mostly pretty good and a surprisingly easy read with more positives than negatives. The illustrated version, which I don't have but have glanced through in the bookstores, is probably even easier to get through.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

You're a greedy SOB, Jim.

A quote from a CNN story, via the Retrospectable blog:
If you ask them what still gets them fired up about the late producer Gene Roddenberry's creation after all these years, you get an answer that -- underneath the glibness -- is very telling:


NIMOY: Yeah. The big, the big bucks.

SHATNER: Money. The money gets you fired up.

TOGETHER: The biiiig bucks.


SHATNER: Yes, that was serious. We were very serious about that.


SHATNER: So you want Paramount to say we've made enough money?

NIMOY: Let's stop making money. Yeah.

SHATNER: Yeah, yeah.

NIMOY: The stockholders won't mind.

SHATNER: No, and we've --

NIMOY: We should stop making money.

SHATNER: Folks, we've made enough money, we're walking away --

NIMOY: We're going to take a break --

SHATNER: Yes. It's been a wonderful ride --

NIMOY: We're going on vacation --

SHATNER: And no more money.

NIMOY: Right. Off to an island someplace and just ...

SHATNER: We'll just handle the books in a different way and make it look like we made something.

NIMOY: Watch the sunset and forget about money...


NIMOY: And your investment? Oh, don't worry about it, you know.

SHATNER: It's going to be OK.

NIMOY: We'll get around to that someday.

SHATNER: You'll have some other shows.

NIMOY: Yeah, we don't want to make any more money. No.
Back in my sf convention running days (I was co-chair & treasurer for Montreal's ConCept from 1989-1992ish), I always used to get really exasperated by the media sf fans. They seemed to have this slavish devotion to the actors in sf tv shows and, to me, it just didn't make any sense. What do we love about sf -- the extrapolation, the estrangement, the fun, the effects, the whatever -- and who gives it to us. Well, writers are responsible for bringing us the sfnal thrills in novels and short fiction. So, yes, they are the ones we love for sf fiction. Authors.

Well, who brings us the sfnal thrills in media sf? In the highly collaborative media such as film or tv, lots of people contribute to the thrills. The writers, sure, they start the ball rolling. But also the directors and effects people play a huge part in bringing our sf dreams to life before us. These are the ones who love sf and bring it to us. James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and the effects people whose names we don't necessarily know but who work very hard, yeah, I can go with worshipping them in the same way we worship sf authors. But actors? For the most part they're just the hired hands, the ones who care least about what we, as sf fans, care about. This little bit from Shatner and Nimoy just confirms it. They don't care about us, why should we care about (and worship) them.

Friday, September 15, 2006

McDonald, Ian. River of gods. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 575pp.

This is a big, fat, sprawling, panoramic novel set in India during its 100th anniversary of independance in 2047. As such, its immediately going to beg comparisons to Salman Rushdie's big, fat, sprawling, panaoramic novel of India's independance, Midnight's Children. Midnight's Children was about the children who were born the very instant of Indian independance in 1947 and the magical powers they grew up with, and how these powers reflected Indian society and history. It's a beautiful novel, one of the best fantasy novels ever written, bar none. It's amazing in its complex wordplay and intricate story, endlessly bizarre. At the same time it's funny, warm and human.

How does McDonald's River of Gods shape up? Not bad, actually. It's sf, of course, for a bit of a difference. It's not so much about India per se as it is about the impact of AI on society, focusing on India's impact on the world and the world's impact on India, rural and urban, old and new, history and future. Being sf, it's forward looking rather than Rushdie's focus on the past. On the other hand, McDonald's large cast of characters make the novel a bit too diffuse and confusing at times. It took me easily 150 pages to really get all the various characters and plot strands really straight in my head. As well, by the rather drawn-out finale, I had lost a bit of interest in the plot only perking up again at the very end. But, many of the characters were very vivid and many of the scenes and plot strands were terrifically executed.

On balance, this novel isn't as good as I'd hoped, it doesn't quite pull off some of its ambitious goals. But it is still highly recommended for a couple of reasons. When McDonald is hitting on all cylinders, the novel is terrific; it's always exhilarating to see someone reach for the sky, even if he doesn't quite make it. Equally important, sf often ignores non-western societies and this novel very believably gives us a future India; if nothing else, we need to thank Ian McDonald for pushing the envelope a bit.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Lee, Stan and George Mair. Excelsior: The amazing life of Stan Lee. New York: Fireside, 2002. 246pp.

This is the autobiography of the main personality behind Marvel Comics, creator (with Jack Kirby and others) of The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, The Avengers and so many others. We already know his public personna from all those Soapbox columns in all those comics -- brash, crazy, enthusiastic, over-the-top, all that. And his memoirs are more of the same. Funny, engaging, a fast-paced tour through his rags-to-riches life in the comic biz, a story Lee tells with a lot of verve and even a little nostalgic warmth. On the other hand, not a lot of startling revelations or deep insights into Lee's personality. Mostly he goes through the superficial business and creative history of his involvement in Marvel, not much about his personal life, not much speculation about what it all means. But that's ok. This is a fast and fun read.

Like I said about the Polgar book, there remains a definitive book to be written about Stan Lee's contribution to modern culture, but this ain't it. But until that book comes along, this is a great start.

Some of the books I'm going to be tracking down and/or digging out of the archives for more depth:

  • Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael
  • Tales To Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro
  • The Comic Book Makers by Joe Simon
  • Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America by Bradford W. Wright

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book meme

I don't usually do these meme-y things, but this one is more interesting than most. Cribbed from Claude's blog. (Runner up in parentheses, if applicable.)

1. One book that changed your life?

I'll have to put Davy by Edgar Pangborn as this one. It really gave me an appreciation for the emotional as well as the speculative power of SF. (Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop -- turned me on to one of my favourite writers)

2. One book you have read more than once?

I don't usually read books multiple times. Lord of the Rings comes to mind, three times. (Davy, above, twice)

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

Something really thick. How about The Essential Ellison. (If I can have a chess set too, a really thick games collection like 500 Master Games of Chess by Tartakower & du Mont)

4. One book that made you laugh?

Mort by Terry Pratchett. (HHGttG by Douglas Adams)

5. One book that made you cry?

The Green Mile by Stephen King. On a bus, no less.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Easy: another Kane novel by Karl Edward Wagner. In fact, any book by Wagner.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

The Gor series by John Norman. A blight on the world of SF & F.

8. One book you are currently reading?

River of Gods by Ian McDonald. Thick, complex, amazing, very reminicent of Rushdie's Midnight's Children. About 150 pages to go. (Burn by Bill Buford -- just started. Mario Batali uber alles.) (A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Not perfect, but makes science interesting and scientists, cool & funny)

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is next on the list. I've been meaning to read it for a while, winning the Hugo is just the kick in the pants I needed to put it on the top of the pile. (Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson.) (Also a lot of Year's Best anthologies to catch up on.)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Another on the Hugos

Just thought I'd mention the Harlan Ellison scandal from the Hugo ceremony. I'm not going to go into what happened (you can read a lot of stuff all over the blogosphere), except to say that I've always admired Ellison as a writer, that he was one of the first "serious" sf writers I started reading, that his work has always fascinated and intrigued me, both his fiction and his non-fiction. Passion and integrity shone through in his work, especially during his heydays in the 60s & 70s. To say the least, this incident and his lack of a sincere apology certainly tarnish a lot (most) of the good things I thought about the man.

(You can see the Ellison groping Connie Willis at the Hugo Ceremony here. Ellison's pathetic attempt at an apology is here, in a post from August 31st.)