Tag Archives: novels

Give the Kids Science (fiction)! review: The Scientific Method, A Wandering Koala Tale

26 Mar

Don’t tell my hipster friends (they’re all engrossed in Proust, I’m sure), but I’ve been on a young adult fiction binge lately.  The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was brilliant–and entirely deserving of its recent popularity.  Catching Fire was a decent sequel, but I took a break with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel of teenage gamers and badass gold farmer unions in China, For the Win, before jumping back into the Hunger Games trilogy with the final book, Mockingjay (brilliant again, and so completely unexpectedly dark that even I, who am masquerading as a grown up, was a little shocked).  Beautiful writing, though–that last chapter gave me chills.

In any case, it is now once again time to get back to the indie authors I’ve been neglecting this month–starting with Jeff Thomason’s YA SF novel (how’s that for gratuitous acronyms?) The Scientific Method, A Wandering Koala Tale.

I think young adult novels are incredibly important–I’m a history student, but I try to proselytize science as well as science fiction to the young’uns whenever I can (somewhere in the multiverse, it’s comforting to think, there’s a version of me studying physics… or cryptozoology…).  Which is why I’m thrilled to feature Thomason’s book here on the blog, such as it is.

Jeff Thomason is a writer, graphic designer, and really excellent cartoonist.  The Scientific Method, a short book with lovely black-and-white illustrations, is premised on this quote, the book’s epigraph:

“No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power.” –Jacob Bronowski, British Mathematician and Scientist

Thomason’s book is an engaging read–starting with a brief prologue on the four terrible and powerful forces driving the universe: gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force.  Of course, when you add humans into the mix, you get the fifth fundamental force: politics.  Here’s the book description:

Wait–what? Scientists aren’t all knights in white lab coats?  Ye gads!  The horror!  Here’s the book description:

He’s done it! Brent Jakes has discovered the Unified Field Theory, the Holy Grail of Physics! It will provide unlimited energy, new medical breakthroughs, and other advances only dreamed of before. There’s just one on catch: it’ll cost one man his fame, another his career, and a third his company.

When politics and science mix, it’s not pretty. Only the intervention of a silent wanderer can stop them.

Thomason’s prose is clean and colorful, but not condescending (the absolute worst mistake a young adult author could ever make).  His dialogue, however, is stand-out.  In fact, I’m pretty sure this brief exchange must come from a real classroom somewhere:

The few students who had paused their games to listen gave him a blank stare.  One went back to playing.

“The Unified Field Theory is like the Holy Grail for science.  Physicists since Einstein have been searching for it without success.”

“Like Monty Python.”

“Not exactly.”

Or this one:

“Benjamin Franklin?  Is he your dad?”

“No, no, he lived hundreds of years ago.”

“So… is he your grandpa then?”

You get the point.  So let’s sum things up:

Recommendation: The Scientific Method may be a dry-sounding title for young adult fiction, but, as the kids are saying these days, the writing is at times LOL, imho.  That means laugh-out-loud, btdubs.  Take it from a selective connoisseur of 8th-grade reading level fiction: Thomason gets my highest recommendation.

Reading Time: 2,000+ “locations” on the Kindle means… 200 pages in paper form?  In any case, this is a weekend read for a college student avoiding academic journals, and 1-2 weeks for the younger set.

Availability: You can find The Scientific Method on Amazon or Smashwords, in ebook (oooh–sciencey!) or physical format.  Here’s the link to the Amazon page, because, as we all know, I’m fully in the megacorporation’s thrall: http://www.amazon.com/Scientific-Method-Wandering-Koala-ebook/dp/B002DGSMSQ (ebook is $3.96)

For the older crowd, I’ll take this time to recommend The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, by Jacob Bronowski (remember the epigraph?).  Maybe he has some scientific insight into the minds of particularly creative indie authors.  Or maybe he’s just that rare individual who was at once a mathematician, biologist, historian, and poet.  Can someone say “Renaissance Man,” please?

Next Up: The Doom Guardian, by Julie Ann Dawson

19 Feb

From the virtual back cover:

For centuries, the Spirit Wall has protected the world from the terrible powers of the undead god Vagruth. But now the Spirit Wall has begun to crumble, and with it the only thing preventing the world from becoming overrun by undead hordes. Nadia Gareth knows all too well the evils that lurk in the hearts of the Vagruth’s minions, the Necromancers.

Nadia walks the land as a dhampir, a cursed thing trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead as a result of the Necromancers’ vile experiments. Yet her curse also gives her the strength she needs to combat the forces that seek to turn everything around her into an undead waste.

But this is one fight that may be too much for her to handle alone. Darseidon Stonecleaver survived the War of Reckoning, and now journeys to the Mouth of Chaos to retrieve the Chaos Diamond, the one thing powerful enough to save the Spirit Wall from destruction. As he enters his Twilight, the aging dwarf knows it isn’t a matter of if he will die, but when. He can only hope to complete his last mission before it is too late.

Nigel Stormthorn just wants to escape town with his stolen gems, but finds himself caught up in events that may determine the fate of the world. As his survival instincts wage war against his meddlesome empathy, he discovers that perhaps his gems are of less value than the secret that resides within him.

I’ll admit–I had to scan that twice before I could get all the Capitalized High Fantasy Terms straight.  But once I’ve finished Whom God Would Destroy, next up on the to-read list is Julie Ann Dawson’s epic fantasy novel The Doom Guardian.  With heroes flaunting names like Darseidson Stonecleaver and Nigel Stormthorn gadding about on quests with dwarves, necromancers, and their ghoulish girls, the summary gives us a glimpse into all the things one would expect from a fantasy novel.  But I’m spending such a lot of time in gender history classes this semester that I can’t help but pick up speculative fiction featuring leading ladies.

A couple months ago, I positively devoured Jonathan L. Howard’s novels Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, and Johannes Cabal the Detective.  Not high fantasy by any means–nor really science fiction–but they gave me a taste for necromancy.  And while I know I’m breaking my own rules here, in Howard’s hands, I actually don’t mind vampires.  So Nadia Gareth being a necromantic dhampir (in Balkan folklore, the spawn of a vampire father and human mother), as much as it sounds like the pedigree of the horrible horrible Renesmee Cullen of Twilight fame (*shudder*), I’m going to read this book.

If you can judge a Kindle book by it’s cover, after all, Nadia Gareth looks pretty badass.

Beyond the Pale (review 2: Pale Boundaries)

7 Jul

The universe is full of bastards, Terson Reilly tells his probation officer.  And in Scott Cleveland’s novel, we meet a lot of them: from the vigilante Reilly to the shady poacher Neil Sorenson to the Hal Tennison, head of the Nivian mafia, Pale Boundaries gives readers a cross-section of an alien world’s underworld.

The second half of the book brings to the fore a character who’s been, until now, perhaps the one reputable, law-abiding man in the novel: Maalan “by-the-book” Bragg (and that’s actually his nickname, albeit from probatee Reilly).  When Bragg becomes a material witness in the murder of Reilly’s wife (oops, did I give that away?), his entire world comes crashing down.  Nivia, remember, is the organized, ordered, regimented and squeaky-clean planet of environmental zealotry and strict population control.  Shiny happy people, all.  But Bragg quickly discovers that the world is not such a civilized place as he imagined–something Terson Reilly’s known his entire life.  Culture is a veneer, and it’s kill-or-be-killed in the Algran Asta bush once more.  Bragg has some trouble adjusting.  Shoot, he gets ill at the thought of possibly killing a man.

Halsor Tennison has no such qualms.  And before I say anything else, let’s get this straight: as much as I’m inclined to call him a badass (okay, fine, I already do), he’s definitely public enemy number one and Pale Boundaries‘s scariest bastard, period.  Terson Reilly might break the law for the sake of survival, but it’s Hal’s way of life–and his is the friggin’ creepiest sociopathic demeanor on Nivia.  Though Hal wins the reader to his side up to the dramatic climax build in the fourth quadrant of the book–convincing me at least that his Minzoku rival Den Tun must be the epitome of scheming evil–Hal’s pretty damn quick to use a needle beam.  The best Hal Tennison, Murderer scene?

“I think that’s all I need,” Hal growled as he raised his arm and put a needle beam through the back of [censored for spoilers]’s head.  The man’s skull vented its contents though his eye sockets, spraying chum across the surface of the pool.  His body fell into the pool next to his son.  Spasms shook his body as he sucked in water, lost buoyancy, and sank.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” Tamara gasped.

“The gaijin betrayed Hal-san,” Dayuki declared approvingly.

Right, Dayuki.  The culture and history of the Minzoku unfolds elegantly through the course of the novel (about halfway through, we get an interesting explanation of the causes of humankind’s “Exodus” to the stars–something a blogger named after Frank Herbert’s diaspora is always interested it) and makes Dayuki a believable character in all her cold counsel and religious fanaticism.  In sum, Dayuki’s a pretty impressive sociopath herself, which is great: no science fiction novel can succeed without a couple seriously creepy characters.

Clever criminal or cold-blooded killer (too much alliteration there?), loyal second to seriously disturbed consort… these are some of the lines that our heroes (and bastards) cross in Scott Cleveland’s Pale Boundaries.  Beta Continent is one of the gray areas on the borderlands of Nivia’s strict black-and-white morality.  But ambiguity is nowhere greater than in the person of our protagonist himself, Terson Reilly.  He uses the titular terminology in his thoughts about the clash of cultures he represents on Nivia:

Guilt stabbed Terson under the ribs with such ferocity that he flinched.  Ultimately no matter who did the deed or the degree that Virene willingly participated, her death was Terson’s responsibility.  He was the one who led her beyond the pale of her society, made her the target of criminals… he who didn’t protect her when she needed him most.

And it’s not just Terson personally–it’s the entire set of survival assumptions he brings with him that pushes him over a cultural boundary:

Commonwealth law held that self-preservation was insufficient excuse to hazard another vessel or habitat and that doing so subjected the offender to the possibility of capital punishment.  The concept of death through voluntary inaction went beyond the pale of human instinct, but it was pounded into the head of every ship’s crew until their ears bled.

I imagine the very thought made Terson Reilly’s ears threaten hemorrhage.  This is, remember, the frontier man who was shot in the head at such a young age that his skull plates hadn’t yet fused.

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say that the resolution doesn’t disappoint.  But be aware: any book with a title like Pale Boundaries is bound to leave some ambiguity itself.

Asimov and Machiavelli: Go Team Pragmatism!

23 Jan

As his Wikipedia article will tell you, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov’s books have been published in nine out of ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System: everything but the 100s, philosophy.

That’s hardly surprising, considering that he wrote over 470 books.  That’s more than 6.5 books a year, assuming he began pounding on that typewriter in 1920, as an infant.  But you know, considering his resume, I wouldn’t be too surprised about that either.

And so, having finished Asimov’s and Robert Silverberg’s Nightfall this afternoon, I’m compelled to make the argument that Asimov deserves that tenth spot from Melvil Dewey: placed next to Asimov’s Foundation series Nightfall displays a striking similarity, and that in the philosophical realm.

It’s called Pragmatism.

As a formal philosophy, Pragmatism was developed primarily by William James and another Dewey (John)—but it could be argued just as well that Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the very original proponents, all the way back the 16th century.  With his political treatise The Prince, Florence’s most infamous son laid the foundations for political science as we know it.

And while “Machiavellian” has become synonymous for cunning, deceit, and unscrupulous manipulation (also a byword for such as LOST’s Ben Linus and Gormenghast’s Steerpike—look it up; Mervyn Peake needs to get some readers this side of the pond), the ultimate intention of The Prince isn’t to be a guidebook for aspiring megalomaniacs.  It’s simply pragmatic: meaning, basically, that what’s true is what works.

That’s a strange definition at first read.  But the Pragmatist relies on a re-working of what we mean by the word “truth.”  Truth, conventionally conceived, is something we discover in a dusty library perusing ancient documents, or on a mountaintop communing with the divine, or paging through Wikipedia.  It’s something immutable, unchanging, and something that can be determined objectively.  It’s what correctly describes reality (formally, by the way, this is called the “Correspondence Theory of Truth,” but no one really needs to know that unless they have an upcoming dinner party to sound pretentious at or something).

The Pragmatist rejects this concept of truth.  Science shows us, after all, that theories are always being contested, revised, and contested again—it’s why we eschew attaching the word “law” even to the works of Newton or Einstein.  Science isn’t about dogma.  And that—quoth the Niccolo Machiavelli inside the Pragmatist—is why, when it comes to searching for “truth,” we should be more like scientists.  Truth doesn’t come by research or revelation, but rather by experiment.  We test, tinker, and investigate a question until we find something that works.  We’re actors in the world, after all—not passive observers.  The “truth” should facilitate successful action in the world: it has to be practical.

So let’s be semi-scientific for a moment:

Quantum theory is absolutely mind-boggling (at least for a layperson like myself): it confuses cause and effect, posits zombie cats both alive and dead at the same time, and raises the metaphysically bothersome proposition of an observer-created reality—but it works.  The predictions of quantum mechanics have been validated as extraordinarily accurate.  And so, for now, it’s true.

Which brings us back to Asimov (and if you haven’t read either Foundation or the novelization of “Nightfall,” then please be warned: thar be spoilers yonder)—

Asimov’s novels are filled with tough-minded pragmatists making horrifying decisions in horrifying circumstances about the horrifying future of humanity—usually against their deepest convictions and consciences.  The reasons tend to be pragmatic.

Take Captain Golan Trevize of Foundation and Earth (who I gleefully lambasted in my very first blog post, so long, long ago):

Trevize is the consummate individualist, something of a space cowboy who might have provided inspiration for the rebel pseudo-criminal Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Joss Whedon’s cult hit Firefly.  Trevize does, after all, kind of steal a Foundation cruiser, and he rejects with every ounce of his being the idea that the course of humankind’s future has been predetermined by the psychohistorical predictions and guidance of the ancient mathematician Hari Seldon and his secret planet of followers.  For Trevize, free will is everything.

The stakes only get higher when he learns that part of that planned course involves a friggin’ creepy galactic hive mind, Gaia.  “A superorganism,” Bantam’s back book cover explains:

“Gaia is a holistic planet with a common consciousness so intensely united that every dewdrop, every pebble, every being, can speak for all—and feel for all.  It is a realm in which privacy is not only undesirable, it is incomprehensible.”

The prospect, for Trevize, is repulsive (as it would be for those of us who abhor the Borg—which, too, was terrorizing one Captain Picard and co. in the mid-1980s, as well as science fiction’s other Cold War kids).  And yet—he picks it.  Trevize alone (by some plot twist I still don’t fully comprehend) can choose or derail this future, and for the sake of species-wide unity in the face of possible extraterrestrial invasion, decides that the horror of total absorption of the individual is better than total annihilation of the species—though honestly, I will seriously debate this point, and I’ve got Mal Reynolds at my back.  In any case, former ideals are suppressed, and Golan Trevize does what he sees as most practical, damn him.

It’s a similar choice Theremon 762 of Kalgash has to face in Nightfall.  The novel, based on Asimov’s legendary short story of the same name—possibly the most famous short story of the entire genre—imagines a world in which six suns in the sky make Darkness unnatural and completely unimaginable, mentioned only in enigmatic texts of a creepy religious cult, the Apostles of Flame.  According to the Apostles, their incomprehensible Book of Revelation, and their steely-eyed leader Folimun, Darkness will descend every 2,049 years—one nightfall per two millennia—when the mysterious Stars will appear to suck out men’s souls.

Naturally, Theremon brushes this off as mystical mumbo-jumbo—even when scientific evidence from multiple academic fields begins to, disconcertingly, back up the Apostles’ claims.  He laughs it off, encourages public disbelief with his vicious rhetoric, and goes completely off the rocker for a couple days when night does fall, civilization does descend into utter madness, and the innumerable Stars unseat him from his cozy little place at the center of the universe.

But our hero’s better off than most—his sanity returns, and he embarks on a quest with a very few other mentally stable companions to reach Amgando, the site of what’s supposed to be a new provisional government.  The goal?  Combat the religious totalitarianism of the Apostles of Flame, who had been preparing for centuries for this apocalypse and are gearing up for world conquest.

Theremon, recall, hates the Apostles.  He hates them with a fiery passion.  He hates them for their mysticism, their anti-scientific attitude, their repressive dogma and creepy hooded robes.  Even if they were right all along.

But still, in a penultimate-page plot twist, Theremon joins them.  “Folimun,” he says of the Apostles’ leader:

“Is a totally ruthless, almost monstrously rational man who believes that the only thing that’s of real importance is the survival of civilization.  Folimun knows that in a time of total madness the best hope of pulling things together is religious totalitarianism.  You and I may think the gods are just old fables, but there are millions and millions of people who have a different view—and now they have an absolute dread of the gods.  The Apostles are in a better position to set up a world government.”

Theremon, for all he abhors the Apostles, can almost admire the “monstrously rational” Folimun.  “I hate the idea,” Theremon says; nevertheless, the most practical route—for the preservation of humanity (or Kalgashity… I’m not entirely sure what they are)—he, not terribly enthusiastically, jumps on the bandwagon.  In a world of logic and reason, science was salvation; but with half the world gibbering lunatics, it’s the Book of Revelation to the rescue.  That’s pragmatism.

Now I don’t know what that says about Asimov’s religious views, but his philosophy’s pretty clear.  So just give him a spot in those 100s, already—okay?

Disclaimer: I am not a Pragmatist.  Really.  I make fun of it all the time here on the Scattering.  But I must admit—I kind of love Machiavelli… him and Thomas Cromwell… and Ben Linus.  Especially Ben Linus.  This a psychological defect on my part, and should not be taken as an indication that I am a Pragmatist.  Alas, alack—how ashamed Ayn Rand would be.