I don’t think space opera is my favorite kind of science fiction, and I’m also not a huge fan of long book series. So that’s two counts against Leviathan Wakes right off the bat, so it’s probably a tribute to how good the book is that I actually read it. I didn’t exactly plough through it, though, as I diverted into reading a few other things before finishing it. Still, when my library loan expired, I went ahead and bought it for my NOOK, so that’s another good sign.
There’s a lot to like about Leviathan Wakes. The world-building is skillful, dropping the reader into a universe in which mankind has spread out through the solar system to establish colonies on Mars and a number of moons and asteroids (or dwarf planets). There’s even some interesting social commentary, showing the prejudice between Earthers (people born on planets) and “belters,” people born in the Asteroid Belt. There are physiological differences owing to the former maturing in strong gravity wells and the latter in microgravity (the difference in bone density is hand-waved away with a reference to drugs that allow normal bone density for belters).
The central (and two-part for much of the book) narrative unfolds around two protagonists: Jim Holden, executive officer of an ice freighter (water being a precious commodity in the Belt), and Joe Miller, a detective on the dwarf planet Ceres. The preface to the book introduces both narratives, which stay separate for the first half or so of the book and also introduces the central mystery of the story. I won’t delve much into it here because it makes an interesting (if gruesome) reveal.
The rest of the story is part military sci-fi, part alien body horror, part planetary politics, and if it’s not exactly to my taste, I still enjoyed it more than I expected.
The book is being adapted into the SyFy series The Expanse, and I’m genuinely curious how they’ll handle the very prominent idea of the differences in physiology between the belters and Earthers. (Though I don’t get SyFy, so I may have to wait a while.) I suspect they’ll just cast tall people as belters and call it good. But I think it’ll miss out on some of the interesting ideas about differences in body language and customs for belters that made the book so interesting.
Even though it took me a couple of months to actually finish the book, it was really more of a function of having several other things to read the pushed this one down in priority. It’s well-written and never a slog, with some really exciting sequences and, again, some interesting ideas. I especially liked some of the notions of acceleration gravity and “the juice,” a drug cocktail that allows humans to undergo forces that would normally just flat-out (pun intended) squash them. So yeah, good stuff.
All that being said, I’m not anxious to pick up the next book in the series. Too many other things out there to read, I’m afraid. Speaking of which, I’m on the hook for quick reviews of Firefight and Ready Player One. I seriously do intend to write these more frequently, but most of my energy has been going into Take Me To Your Reader. If you’re interested, we recently did an episode about Jurassic World and our next episode will cover I, Robot. And we’re currently reading Starship Troopers, our July choice.
A certain friend of mine has been bugging me to read Steelheart for quite some time, and I finally did. I’d picked it up when it was a couple of bucks from the NOOK store and finally had some downtime (read: swim meet) to read it.
Such a fun book! Oh, it’s not perfect, and I’ll gripe about a couple of things, but it won’t stop me from picking up the rest of the series in the near future. (I’ve already read Mitosis and will move on to Firefight just as soon as my library hold comes through.)
The central conceit of the book is that super powers exist, but everyone who has them is a bad guy. Under threat of these super-villians (called Epics), the civilized order fell rather quickly, with Chicago becoming Newcago, its residents under the thumb of Steelheart, a seemingly invincible Epic with the ability to transmute inanimate matter into steel, along with being extremely hard to hurt, extremely strong, and the long and the short of it is that he’s basically invincible.
The prologue starts quickly and introduces David, a character who was present for the fall of society and has “seen Steelheart bleed.” He hopes to join forces with the Reckoners, a rebel group dedicated to killing Epics, so he can see Steelheart bleed again.
If there’s an obvious flaw with the book, it’s that the title character doesn’t get much development time and is basically a bogeyman, but it’s made up for by the colorful cast of Reckoners and the development they get. As it stands, the book is a quick, enjoyable read with plenty of action and carnage, though staying at the Young Adult level.
One trick the author uses to keep things PG is imagined slang/profanity, and that’s another gripe I have. I don’t believe ten years is enough time to allow for language creep such that “Sparks!” would become the expletive of record, or “slontze” a believable epithet. (And honestly it brings the word “slut” to mind. Not sure the author intended that.) I’m fine with made-up slang or pidgin language in books set in the far future or off in space somewhere (though it’s still extremely irritating), but in this setting it didn’t work for me. That being said, it’s a book for young-ish kids, so I at least understand the impulse to use it.
There’s also a ham-handed attempt at humor that’s supposed to result from the main character’s shocking ineptitude at using metaphors, and it was a bit tone-deaf to me. It didn’t make me laugh, and honestly it took away from the readability of the book, as I often had to go back to make sure I’d understood it correctly.
Gripes aside, it’s a terrific ride and certainly the kind of thing a teenaged boy would enjoy. The action scenes are all kinds of entertaining, the twists and turns keep you guessing a bit, and it’s just basically fun. And fun is underrated.
Now I need to try it out on my teenager so I can justify picking up the rest of the series so I don’t have to wait for my library hold to come through.
Speaking of space pidgins, I’m now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the Expanse series, so hopefully I’ll finish that one up soon. Next up on Take Me To Your Reader, it’s Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. (Our latest episode, about Rollerball, went live a week ago.)
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but one of the really cool things about doing the Take Me To Your Reader podcast is getting to know some classics of the science fiction genre, even if only because they fall into the “related works” category.
In a recent episode, we discussed Eando Binder’s Adam Link story “I, Robot,” the lesser-known predecessor of the Isaac Asimov story collection of the same name. I had no knowledge whatsoever of Eando Binder or the existence of such a story. Once I finish reading all the Adam Link stories, I’ll be sure to write up a review here.
From there, it occurred to me to jump off and see what else there was in the Robot canon that I hadn’t read. Which brought me to R.U.R. (stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). The origin of the term “robot” in popular culture. You don’t get more classic than this.
Originally a Czech-language stage play, it can now be found in translation in a variety of places. Here, for instance.
I won’t say that it’s some kind of earth-shattering genius work, but the history of it buys it a lot of leeway for me, and it didn’t need much. The play takes place over the course of a great deal of time, from R.U.R. dominating the market for labor, to the world economy basically collapsing because of the inundation of robots into the workforce, to the robots deciding that they have a right to be free and overthrowing their masters.
It’s probably noteworthy that the robots are nowhere portrayed as mechanical men so much as simulacra of humans. So instead of being the all-metal, positronic Asimovian kind, they’re more just synthetic humans.
Being reasonably well-read in science fiction, I saw all kinds of parallels to subsequent books and films, notably R.U.R.’s declining human birth rate, echoed in The Children of Men. There’s also some shades of political uprising, where the one human spared by the robots is someone who works with his hands. The ruling class were all purged, but the working class were allowed to live.
And of course there’s some discussion about man playing God and sowing the seeds of his own destruction. We’ve seen that a few times in subsequent fiction, haven’t we?
I’m absolutely thrilled to have read this. It’s not long, and I just love the idea of getting in on the ground level of something, seeing the influences such a classic work has had on the genre it helped found. I’m sure this won’t be the only time this happens while doing background research for the podcast.
Next up, it’s my first Brandon Sanderson book, Steelheart. And eventually I’ll have to do a summary review for all the Flash New 52 stuff I’ve been reading.
I’m really not wanting to start any controversy here, but if you’re going to read this, keep in mind this book is about evolution. So if it would freak you out to learn that I’m pretty much in agreement with the author on this one, maybe you should just move along. Or you could read on and talk to me about what I wrote. I’m happy to dialogue about anything here, so long as it’s more friendly chat than fire & brimstone sermon.
I, like many others, watched the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate at the Creation Museum, and like most people, wasn’t swayed from my position by it. I find that most of Ken Ham’s arguments border on the absurd, and his absolute certainty that his position is correct is honestly a bit unnerving.
I’m uncertain about many things. I’m comfortable with uncertainty. I’m a Christian, but I acknowledge that I could be wrong about the existence of God or the historicity of the Bible (though I also don’t hold as high a view as some in that regard). I could be wrong about my views of creation, about the End Times, about any number of topics. There are virtually no views I hold that I’m not open to reviewing. I care about being correct, so much that I’d actually like to be corrected if I’m wrong. It seems to me this is a healthy attitude.
And then there’s this:
I watched a debate between Dennis Venema (a Christian defending evolution) and Georgia Purdom (a representative of Answers in Genesis) and saw the same interchange. What would change Venema’s mind? Evidence. What would change Purdom’s mind? Nothing.
I don’t see how that kind of rigidity is helpful, honestly.
And then there’s the sloppy science. Ken Ham’s quote that “If there were a worldwide flood, we would expect to find billions of dead things buried in rock layers all over the world, and that's exactly what we do find” is just one example, but it’s a major one. “Billions of dead things buried in rock layers” isn’t what you’d call a testable hypothesis. What kind of order would be predict to find them in? What kind of ages would we expect to find in those rocks? How would those rocks form in a few thousand years? Would you expect essentially a random distribution of dead things?
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation is Bill Nye’s way of venting a bit after that debate, along with providing a passionate plea in defense of evolution and the importance in including it in education. He goes a bit far in saying that children taught creationism would never be attracted to science or succeed in it, I think. But he’s also right that setting the Bible up as opposed to science isn’t a good precedent. One side wins. From my perspective, it’s wrong to throw out either. (Loren and Deborah Haarsma, whose excellent Origins I reviewed a while back, agree with me on this.)
There are a few missteps in the book (and in the debate) from Mr. Nye. He claims that he never undercut anyone’s faith or disparaged religion during the debate, but he clearly did. Several times, he referred to the Bible as an ancient book that’d been written by multiple authors and revised and revised through history.
What’s that you say? That’s a completely accurate statement? Well, of course it is. But that doesn’t make the statement any less of an attack. Like I said, if people are looking at evolution as opposed to Scripture, you get NOWHERE by trying to explain how they’ve got Scripture wrong. Stick to the science. If what you say is seen as an attack on the basis of my faith, I’m more inclined to tune you out. Besides, you’re not an expert in the Bible, Bill. Stick to your stuff.
And in the book, he does, though with one more issue I’ll discuss later.
Nye eloquently points out that the distinction between micro and macroevolution is a false one. Given enough time, it’s all the same. (You may disagree, but I don’t think you’ve got an argument here.) Small changes accumulate over time. Deep time is impossible to conceptualize. Billions of years!
For me, one of the more convincing aspects of evolutionary theory is the concept of Convergent Evolution. The idea is that evolution predicts (a testable prediction) that species occupying similar ecological niches should have similar form. Even if those ecological niches have been separated for millions of years. So as an example, you might find mice in Northern Europe in certain niches. In Australia you might find mice in them as well. But they just might be marsupial mice.
Marsupial and placental mammals have a common ancestor, but at some point it seems the marsupials were largely isolated and diversified along similar lines to the way placental mammals did. So you have placental groundhogs in North America and marsupial wombats in Australia. Placental wolves in North America and marsupial wolves (the unfortunately extinct Tasmanian tiger) in Australia. Placental rabbits in Europe and marsupial rabbit-eared bandicoots in Australia. Evolution predicts this, much the way it predicts that dolphins and sharks should have similar form and function, though one is a fish and the other a mammal. The niche necessitates the form, though the forms may originate from very diverse branches on the tree. You don’t get much more diverse than fish and mammal.
Of course, a Creator could have created similar things in similar places. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s a scientific statement. More importantly, if the flood happened and scattered billions of things in the rocks, why don’t we find marsupial fossils scattered all over the world? Surely some animals would’ve died on the way back from Mt. Ararat to Australia? And by the way, how did they make it back to Australia?
Finding a fossil out of place is the kind of evidence Nye mentioned in the things that could change his mind. The absence of this kind of evidence makes young earth creationism seem scientifically bankrupt.
I should clarify that I grew up believing in a young earth, and in a literal six day creation. It’s been a process of many years to come to understand that evolution happened, that humans share a common ancestor with all other life on this planet, and that it’s okay to believe that and still be a Christian. But the process was painful. I don’t think it would have harmed my faith to learn these things earlier.
And now to the other misstep in the book. Abiogenesis. Life from non-life. This is not really part of evolutionary theory. Evolution says that after life arose, it increased in complexity by way of many small mutations that conferred selective or reproductive advantage. The question of how life formed in the first place is something else entirely.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon to hear an objection to evolution along these lines: “I just can’t accept that life came from nowhere.” You don’t have to. Believe what you will about the origin of life. But if you look at the science, you’ll find there isn’t a grand conspiracy to cover up the evidence for a designer. The evidence just isn’t there. (I probably offended someone just now. Feel free to object.)
One other interesting point Nye makes in the book is the principle of “good enough.” If creationism were true, you’d expect to see perfect designs everywhere. But what you see are designs that are good enough to get the job done. He cites the backward design of the vertebrate eye as an example here, along with the cephalopod eye as an example of convergent evolution (two fundamentally different structures that do the same thing.)
Ultimately, Nye challenges the reader to embrace science as a way to explain the universe:
…religious explanations are unsatisfactory. They don’t take me anywhere; you either believe them or your don’t, and that’s that. Scientific theories of the origin of life are open to questions, to tests, to revisions, to replacement with new and more insightful theories. One path leads to a dead halt. The other leads to thrilling, limitless forward motion.
I won’t totally agree with him here, as obviously I believe in God. But I don’t believe it somehow makes God smaller to believe that the natural processes He put in place (I do believe in a Creator even if I’m not a Creationist) brought forth the complexity we see around us today. Saying He didn’t intervene in a special way in that process doesn’t make that process any less special. But I’ll understand if you disagree.
I’m sure there are people out there who’d read this and conclude that as I’ve rejected creationism, I’ve rejected the Bible. And they’d be wrong. I haven’t rejected the Bible. I’m still trying to figure out how my new views on science can be reconciled with Scripture, but I haven’t landed yet. I’ve got some ideas, and I’d be happy to discuss them. But the point is I’m open to being corrected if my understanding is incorrect. It’s actually fun! Sure, it’s a bit scary at times, but isn’t that part of the fun?
Changing gears here, I wanted to give a plug for our latest podcast episodes on Take Me To Your Reader. We just covered Total Recall, and we did a bizarro-podcast and covered the novelization of the movie as well. I’ll also be posting a supercut of us sounding like idiots soon, and then we’ll be covering Rollerball.
In the meantime, I’m planning to get a review up for R.U.R. in the near future, and I’ve just started reading The Stepford Wives (also for the podcast).
Lots of the time, books (or movies) about time travel are all about the excitement and danger of traveling through time, and the dangers of creating paradoxes, or about parallel universes and causality loops. Or about the creation of the device.
And then there’s Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell. Suppose you invented time travel and used it to basically observe every key even in the history of the world. What if it just ended up boring you?
What if you routinely saw the future and past versions of yourself? What if some in the near future looked all put together, and others even farther down the line looked like complete wrecks? How would that affect how you approached your life? And what might you do to prevent the seemingly inevitable decline after the peak? Would you try to quit drinking even though you saw that a future version of yourself was obviously a drunk?
In a way, I almost don’t want to classify Man in the Empty Suit as science fiction. There’s no discussion on how the Inventor created his time travel machine. Or how New York City fell into ruin. Technical detail of any kind is almost entirely lacking. Instead, it’s more science philosophy, meditating on selfishness and detachment and inevitability, on love and loss.
It’s certainly a book with atmosphere, and I have to admit it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. But in a good way. It’s not all the way to Primer head-scratching, but there are a few places I had to retrace my steps to make sure I was getting it.
I encountered the book first through Two Book Minimum, a podcast hosted by Dan Wilbur of Better Book Titles. (Be advised that BBT and TBM tend to be explicit.) I actually picked it up from the Library and read a chapter of two before getting caught up in other reading. It was only when we were working on the Take Me To Your Reader episode on Predestination that I decided to go back and finish the book given the similar themes to those in the movie.
It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like a bit of philosophy thrown into your sci-fi, and you’re interested in a different take on the typical time travel story, I’d recommend this one. (Content advisory: strong language and some sexuality.)
Somehow I wrote this a month ago and forgot to post it. Also, I just haven’t been doing much writing, between work being busy and doing the whole podcast thing. But I’ll try to be better, honestly. In fact, I literally just sat down to write up a quick review of R.U.R., the play that introduced the word robot into popular culture. So maybe I’ll just crank that out while I’m here. Or I could just go do some reading.
It’s probably ironic that the work we chose for review on Take Me To Your Reader this time wasn’t just a book that was adapted into a well-known film, it’s actually a screenplay adapted into a book adapted into a film. Double adaptation!
(BTW, thanks to Rem from The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast for recommending the topic this time.)
One problem with adapting a novel from a screenplay is that by its very nature, a screenplay is a leaner and more streamlined story. So in adapting it to a novel, you’re going to have to expand the story somewhat. There’s an appropriate level of stuff to add, and unfortunately Contact goes a bit beyond that.
I was fine with the extra detail about the decoding of The Message, and with some of the other major differences between the book and movie. The Five chosen to go into The Machine was an appropriate change from what we ended up with in the film (it’s possible the original screenplay had five, for all I know). The deeper background on Ellie and her motivations for being involved with SETI, again excellent stuff. But then there’s the bad side.
Why, for the love of God, did we need to learn the secret history of Ellie’s parents? Why did we need full dossiers on everyone who attended the World Message Conference? Why did we get a detailed narration of what was going on on a computer screen?
This latter one really irked me. Describing, in prose, what’s going on on a computer screen is one thing, and I’m actually okay with that. But putting those words into a character’s mouth is a bridge too far. Yes, it’d work on the Big Screen. But in a novel, it just simply doesn’t go over the same way. Rather than having a character say, “What you’re seeing on the screen is X,” it should have been more like this:
Ellie explained that X on the screen represented yada-yada
Without the visual cues you’d get on film, having a character narrate a computer readout is just plain clunky.
You might be imagining that I prefer the movie. You’d be correct. It’s a leaner story, though it’s of course far from perfect. There are a few scenes we could’ve done without, and some things the book did better. I actually think the book could’ve been adapted into a killer limited series, going into greater detail and doing a lot less Art Major Physics.
And even though it’s a bit of a slog in places, the book is still highly worth reading; I’m just not sure it’s worth re-reading. I think I’d run into the same issues I had re-reading Jurassic Park. Heavy detail is fine for one read-through. On a second reading it just seems excessive. But if you had to choose to either read the book or watch the movie, I'd go movie.
If you’re interested in hearing our podcast discussion on the book and movie, go check that out, too.
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Actually, do all those things, please and thank you.
The simple fact of the matter is that I’m too effusive about books. I use waaay to may superlatives. So when I say What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is freaking awesome, you probably think it’s a Boy Who Cried Wolf kind of thing. Unless you’re my mom, in which case you’re texting me that I really shouldn’t be using the word “freaking.” Noted.
If you style yourself a nerd and you’re not consistently reading xkcd, then you’re basically a nerd poser. Seriously, it’s required nerd reading. Get with the program here, nerd!
The reason xkcd is so nerd-friendly is that it’s written by a nerd for nerds. Randall Munroe is a smarty-pants who used to work at NASA, and his webcomic is full of all kinds of geekish topics. Just take a sampling of some of his comics (with links, of course):
How can you love someone who prefers Xenocide to Speaker for the Dead? (one of my favorites)
But xkcd isn’t Munroe’s only pursuit. He also runs a sub-site called “What if?”, where he takes ridiculous science questions and gives them his best noodling. This book is a compilation of some of the best ones.
What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light? Answer: very bad things. But then there are mind-blowers like how much radiation would you get if you swam spent nuclear fuel tank? (Answer: I’m not spoiling that one, but you can listen to him explain it on Science Friday.)
Most of the chapters are absolutely hilarious, some downright terrifying, and others just really surprising. For me, my favorite chapter was also the most bittersweet one: the question of what would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks of all the various elements. It’s a great chapter, extremely informative and also hilarious. And it made me wish I could share it with my dad.
We’re coming up on Dad’s birthday, and I miss him. Actually, the way I miss him most often is when I’ve read something I’d normally talk with him about. But that also means that simply by reading, I’m constantly reminded of him. So that’s a good thing.
Sorry if I diverted into moroseness. It wasn’t my intent. I just miss my dad. I’m sure you understand.
Pick up this book. Talk it over with your mom or dad, or one of your siblings, or just someone you like discussing science with. It’s tremendous, and one of those books you’re a little disappointed at finishing. But the site continues the awesomeness.
It’s been pretty slow-going here, but I’ll try to pound out a few more reviews in the near future. In the meantime, we’ve still been plugging away on Take Me To Your Reader, and we put out two episodes in January: one on the new film Predestination, the other on the 2002 film Minority Report. This month we’ll be doing Contact. I also guested on an episode of The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast, talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Feel free to give any of those podcasts a listen. And like our Facebook page while you’re at it.
In the last decade or so, I’ve had something of a conversion in the way I view science. Perhaps it’s the fact of regularly listening to a number of science and skepticism-based podcasts (seven of them, actually). In any case, I’ve gained a tremendous respect for the scientific process and am now much less likely to believe in scientific conspiracies. Namely, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy to cover up the evidence for vaccines causing autism, or for a young earth and creationism, and I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy to drum up evidence for climate change.
I’m actually not sure if accepting evolution or climate change is more controversial among my more conservative friends, but I know they’re both probably topics I should keep to myself if I don’t want an argument. And yet, here I am blogging about it. On the interwebs.
In much the same way that the Haarsmas’ excellent Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design solidified my understanding and acceptance of evolution (though I was pretty much already onboard), Katharine Hayhoe’s A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions has me fairly convinced about climate change, though again I was already most of the way there.
I know, I’m a dangerous liberal who’s probably headed for Hell. Good thing I don’t really believe in it anymore. Strike three! (Okay, now I’m being deliberately provocative. Really it’s just that I think the traditional eternal fire thing is dead wrong. More on that here.)
What burns me a little is that this book even exists. Don’t get me wrong, because it’s pretty terrific, but why did we need it? I understand many Christians find it hard to accept evolution, so the Origins book is probably necessary, because there’s a faith component to the resistance to what science tells us. But why should we need a book telling Christians that climate change is real and mostly our fault?
And yet here we are. White evangelical Christians, when polled along with other faith communities about the threat of climate change, are the least concerned. We just don’t believe in it. So the book is needed. (Check out her interview with Bill Moyers.)
Not that I know what I’m talking about. I read (and was convinced by) Unstoppable Global Warming and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming. Like I said, I’ve had a bit of a conversion. (I also gave glowing recommendations for some vegetarian manifestos before reading The Vegetarian Myth.) I’m of about five minds about everything.
I guess I should clarify at the end here that my newfound respect for science hasn’t dampened my faith. I still believe in God, and I even think that the idea that he created the world using natural processes is quite beautiful. I don’t see any trajectory leading me away from my belief in God or Christ. Science doesn’t intersect faith in that way. But I’m no longer convinced that my faith requires me to reject science.
I’m happy to engage a bit in comments if you’re interested. Or you could send me a note with the Suggest a Topic form. Please keep in mind that I’m not an expert. I’m not a scientist. Just like the Republicans in the Senate aren’t scientists (some salty language, but funny as heck):
I’m way behind on reviews. But we put up a new podcast this week! I honestly believe it’s our best one yet. Only took fifteen episodes to get it right!
I’ll eventually get around to reviewing Peter Enns’s The Bible Tells Me So, probably further alienating people. Oh well. And I ought to scrawl something about the two Flash graphic novels I read late last year.
But for now it’s all about what I’m currently reading. Randall (XKCD) Munroe’s What If? It’s seriously awesome.
I’ve decided not to do a big “Everything I Read This Year” list, because frankly it’s just a bit of work to put together and I’m unwilling to do it. But it’s definitely worth the effort to push forward some of my favorite reads this year.
Assuming I finish the book I’m reading (The Blood of Olympus), I’ll total 48 books this year, which exceeds my hoped-for 42 (I like to read my age), so that’s cool. I’m pretty sure reading for Take Me To Your Reader contributed somewhat to my increased production over last year (43).
Another cool thing is that when I finish The Blood of Olympus, I will have finished everything I officially started this year, and by officially started I mean anything I added to my online book database or Goodreads. Normally I have a few danglers, books I decided to read and then didn’t finish. I think maybe my thumb-through process is getting better. I suppose it may be that I’m getting older and don’t want to expend energy reading anything I’m not thrilled to be reading. This is also borne out in the fact that I didn’t read anything bad this year.
However, I read a lot of pretty good stuff, so how about I kick things off with a few picks?
Wow. I read mostly science fiction this year. I guess it’s hardly surprising, since I now host a sci-fi podcast, but I seriously only read three fiction titles not in the SFF category? (For the record, The Cay, which is a classic YA title, The Fault in Our Stars, due to my slight man crush on John Green, and Suspicion, which was good but didn’t make my favorites).
The Martian, by Andy Weir
I’m sure this one made a lot of Favorites list this year, and what’s not to like? It’s basically MacGuyver on Mars, and it’s just tremendous fun. And since it’s getting a film adaptation in the near future, this’ll be a podcast re-read. (Strong language warning for the book.)
The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey
This one came out of nowhere and might be my favorite read of the year. Just when I thought nothing new could emerge from the post-apocalyptic genre, there’s this. (Again with the language warning, because despite the title, this isn’t a YA book.)
The End is Nigh: The Apocalypse Triptych #1, ed. by John Joseph Adams
I’m seriously enjoying short fiction these days. And when I said I didn’t think anything new could be written, it’s because this anthology says most of it. All the stories are worth reading, and some are simply breathtaking. Highly recommended. (I don’t have solid memories of the language or other questionable content, but if a story is objectionable, turn to the next one. Okay, there’s some alternative lifestyles featured, but since those actually exist, I’m not sure why they’d be offensive in fiction.)
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
Easily my favorite podcast read of the year, this one has some marvelous meditations on the effects of isolation in a post-apocalyptic world, and the prose is simply beautiful. The “dude wakes up in a hospital as civilization falls” thing has been done to death since this one pioneered it, so it’ll seem pretty familiar, but it’s awesome. And there’s this podcast about it…(get comfy if you’re going to listen, because it’s about two hours long)
Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century, by Kevin Fong, M.D.
This one is a fascinating tour through the incredible advances in medicine during the twentieth century. It’s extremely accessible and interesting, and inspires an admiration for those who push the boundaries of exploration, whether in the traditional sense or the scientific/medical sense.
The excellence of this book is only matched by how lame (and long) a title/subtitle it has. If you’ve only heard of the “burn in flames forever” view of hell, this book is a must-read. It’s far from the only view out there, and just may not be that well supported by the Bible. Once again Steve Gregg steps into some controversial territory but manages to give fair treatment to all views. Unless you’re in the majority view and you didn’t know about the other views. In which case you’ll feel like you’re being ambushed by a heretic. It’s not the book’s fault you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, by Dirk Hayhurst
I’ve now read three of Dirk Hayhurst’s baseball memoirs, and I’m told I skipped the best one, but that doesn’t keep the rest of them from being amazing. This one is perhaps less funny than the others, though it has its moments of hilarity, too, but it’s a very profound book. We tend to look at the lives of professional athletes as charmed and easy. Hayhurst shows us that on the fringes of the big-time, it’s no picnic, and even for those who make it big, there’s a whole lot of crazy that’s just covered up by success.
A quick runner-up here is The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, by Joel E. Hoffman. Just tremendously well-written and engaging, providing lots of interesting info on the history of the Bible and some of the well-regarded but excluded books that even sometimes show influence on the text of the Bible itself.
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If I had to name a book that disappointed me this year, I’d probably go with A Game of Thrones. It’s probably unfair, because a.) epic fantasy just isn’t my bag, b.) I read it out of a sense of cultural necessity, and c.) it’s probably the most over-hyped book in the history of history. Apart from that, I just didn’t find it very, well, special. Martin’s prose isn’t anything to write home about, though it has an uncluttered and easy way of world-building that’s to be admired. His over-reliance on dream sequences drove me crazy, as it always does in any book (looking at you, Rick Riordan). But again, it’s not my kind of book, so it’s hardly surprising I didn’t love it.
And that wraps things up for another year. I’m several books behind on book reviews, but with podcasting and stuff, I just haven’t had much time to get them written. I’ll catch up eventually, probably. Maybe I’ll do a combined catch-up review. Hmmm.
It's been an interesting year in podcasting. In our dozen or so episodes of debating the merits of film adaptations of written sci-fi works, two things have become clear:
1. Colin and Seth don't agree on what makes a good adaptation.
Fine, I lied about two things becoming clear. I was just happy we had the one.
In general, Colin wants to see a 1:1 correlation as much as possible between a written work and its film adaptation, allowing for such change as is necessary to the change in medium. Whereas I place the highest value on first making a good movie, getting the story right even if it means straying from the source material. I'm fine with a faithful adaptation, but I also believe an adaptation can be a better version of a story it springs from. So if the movie is good, I'm okay with the changes.
(Colin is, too, but then he'd just say it's not really an adaptation. And then I'd say that adaptation means change, and we'd go back and forth for another hour or so. Rinse and repeat.)
I've actually really enjoyed the conversation, but I think I may have come to the heart of the issue:
Colin is looking at adaptation as an objective thing, and I'm looking more subjectively.
This became especially clear when Colin suggested that the 1999 TNT version of A Christmas Carol was the best version. (BTW, we're covering that story and a number of its adaptations on our next episode. Tune in further down for how you can help.)
In order to better support his assertion, Colin scoped out an outline of the story, marking down mileposts to check any adaptation against. Of course I disagree fundamentally that this is really the way to determine the "best" adaptation of any work. So I countered with my own film-focused checklist, laying out a map of how each adaptation executed the characters, plot, atmosphere, and any number of other things.
But while my method is totally subjective, I'm not at all convinced that my favorite version, the 1984 George C. Scott one, will take the cake. I know it has faults, and yet it's my favorite. So I'm completely comfortable with the idea that either by Colin's reckoning or mine, another version could emerge as a version I'd accept to be the "best." But I can't imagine any other version displacing the 1984 version as my favorite.
Am I off my rocker here? I'd really love to hear your feedback on this.
- Is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol also the one you consider to be objectively the best? Or even subjectively the best?
- Are you weird enough that you've thought about what an objective measure of "bestness" might be?
- Could you be convinced to admit that a different version was better than your favorite?
I think it's possible that if you really pinned me down, I might cave. Because wouldn't I want to recommend the best version to someone who'd never seen it? Would I recommend my favorite or the version I might consider better by some objective standard?
Maybe I would. I can freely admit that the 1984's favoriteness has a lot to do with its technical and artistic qualities, but at least equally as much the fact that I've seen it probably twenty times with my family. There's a lot of history and memory attached to my affinity for that version. And it's true I might be swayed by sentiment to recommend my version over all others.
I guess we'll see after I've watched a few more adaptations. Who's with me?
For those not in the know, we'll be covering the book and at least four adaptations:
- Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim
- The Muppet Christmas Carol
- A Christmas Carol (1999), starring Patrick Stewart
- Scrooged, starring Bill Murray
Even if you don't want to interact with my questions about objective vs. subjective measures for determining the best adaptation, maybe you'd like to weigh in about your favorites:
- What's your favorite bit from the book?
- What's your favorite adaptation? (Maybe a Top Three?)
- What makes it/them your favorite(s)?
Should be a fun podcast, and we'll try and get it posted by Christmas Day.