Collateral Bloggage What passes for thought around here…


Book Review: Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell

I’ve decided I’m going to start doing combined book/movie reviews for topics we cover on Take Me To Your Reader.  I still, of course, encourage you to listen to the show, because there’s two other perspectives there, and you shouldn’t just take my word for things.

Okay, yes you should, but you should at least pretend to listen to someone else, too.

For our Halloween episode, we decided to go with a written work that led to a scary movie, so we went with John W. Campbell’s 1939 novella “Who Goes There?”  It was selected for a Retro Hugo this year, and it’s been adapted three times, depending on your definition of adapted.

The story is set at an Antarctic Expedition base, where a team is studying magnetic fields and cosmic rays and such.  When they detect an anomaly far from the pole, the team investigates and finds a crashed alien spacecraft.  With a passenger who’s evidently left the ship and been frozen in the ice for 20 million years.  After some debate as to whether they should thaw the alien, it’s decided that it needs to be studied, so one of their number is selected to watch over the slow process.

And then the alien escapes.  The problem is that it turns out the alien is both a shape-shifter an mind-reader.  It’s pretty good at hiding in plain sight.  It’s able to copy a person exactly, right down to the personality.  Paranoia ensues.  How will they tell who’s real and who’s not?  Clearly such a creature must be stopped lest the entire planet be assimilated.

If there’s a fault with the novella, and there is, it’s that there are so many characters as to be hard to follow.  It may be that this was deliberate, but it seriously hampers the readability of the story, at least for me.  There’s also some pretty stilted dialogue, brought into sharper relief by the standout dialogue in the original adaptation.

As I said, the novella was adapted three times, first in 1951’s The Thing, subsequently re-branded The Thing (From Another World) to avoid confusion with the 1982 adaptation.  The first go-round adapted the 10,000 foot view, with a polar expedition (at the wrong pole) and alien spacecraft and alien on ice, but very little else.  It’s still a terrific movie, with brilliant dialogue and good performances, particularly highlighted by Margaret Sheridan, who despite being the attractive love interest in a 1950s horror film, never once screams.  She’s not the lead, so it’s not exactly a feminist dream, but at least she had more to do than look pretty and scream dramatically.

The movie also has a couple of standout action set-pieces, with the first example of stunt-immolation and a couple of awesome jump scares.  The creature isn’t a shape-shifter, but rather a vegetable-based life form that feeds on blood.  So it’s essentially a vampire film that plays out a bit like Jaws.  The paranoia of the book is completely lost, but it’s still highly worth watching.  It’s also notable that James Arness of Gunsmoke fame played the titular Thing.

My view on remakes is that if an earlier film stuck closely to the source, a remake should take things in a different direction.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  The converse of this is that if an earlier adaptation left a lot on the table, it’s done you a favor.  Go back and adapt more of the story.  And that’s exactly what John Carpenter did in his 1982 film, The Thing.  It’s truly a frightening film, with some intense gore and breathtaking practical effects.

The paranoia missing from the original film is back with a vengeance here, played brilliantly by Kurl Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley, among others.  As I said, the alien effects are just spectacular, gross and disturbing in an entirely awesome way.

Interestingly, the 1982 film leaves a bit of story on the table, never showing the alien being cut out of the ice and brought back to camp.  Instead, the characters in this film find out about the alien secondhand, the initial encounter having occurred at a Norwegian outpost.  The ending is also different from that in the novella, but I found it more satisfying in its ambiguity.

Again, this is a Rated-R film for language and considerable gore.  Not for kids, but it’s intense and frightening in all the right ways, and this is coming from someone who isn’t a fan of horror movies in general.  I’ll stretch in the Sci-Fi/Horror direction, but not much beyond that.

So what happened at that Norwegian camp?  The 2011 film functions as something of a prequel, with shades of a remake in it.  Since the 1982 film doesn’t show the initial discovery of the crashed craft and alien, this one picks those things up and runs with them, making nods to the original while going its own direction in a few key places.  It’s a bit more on the action side, but still with a goodly amount of gore and language in it, certainly enough to earn its R-rating. 

The lead this time is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and she turns in a strong performance (incidentally, the film passes the Bechdel Test, with there being no love interest or musings about men even occurring).  The paranoia is still front and center, and the film nicely sets up the 1982 version.  In fact, it could be argued (and is, on the podcast) that the two films really together comprise one adaptation of the novella.

And here we get to the downside.  The effects, while decent, don’t rise to the level of awesomeness of the previous film.  There are some standout practical effects, but they’re lost in a sea of not quite stellar computer effects, which is a real shame.  It actually surprised me how much I enjoyed this film, despite a few quibbles.  I’ve been used to remakes of classic films being rather lackluster (looking at you, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes).

If you want my full ranking of the four expressions of this story, you’ll have to head over to the podcast page and listen for it (actually, the rankings are in the Show Notes, but you should still listen).  But I’m recommending all of them.  It’s nice when there’s no an obvious stinker in the bunch.

What do you think?  Is this worth doing?  I could go back and hit everything we’ve done if it’s well received.


Book Review: The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor, by Joel M. Hoffman

If you’re a Christian reader of my blog, I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another hit-piece about how Constantine or the Illuminati suppressed certain writings in order to forward their agenda.”  No.  No, that’s not what we have here.  Instead, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible is a thoughtful and just tremendous primer on the people, places, and writings that form an underappreciated background to the Bible as we have it today.

Hoffman isn’t out to de-convert anyone from Christianity, though I’m pretty sure he’s not a Christian (apologies if I’m wrong here).  His writing and opinions are extremely evenhanded and, I think, provide his reader with a greater appreciation for the Bible, even while pointing out that it’s not entirely clear or coherent in places.

Some writings were left out for political or theological reasons, others simply because of the physical restrictions of ancient bookmaking technology.  At times, the compilers of the Bible skipped information that they assumed everyone knew.  Some passages were even omitted by accident.  For these reasons and more, your Bible doesn’t give you a complete picture.

To elaborate on what I mentioned above, the book surveys the following:

  1. The history of Jerusalem, crucially important to understanding how the Bible was written and what was going on there at the various times when the writing was being done.  (You can’t really understand the difference between 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Chronicles without that history.)
  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls.  The history of their discovery, the sometimes scandalous way they came to be obtained and translated, and what they mean to biblical scholarship and the understanding of different Christian and Jewish groups in the first century.
  3. The Septuagint.  Why it’s both an important translation and also deeply flawed, and why it’s okay to still hold it as sacred.
  4. The writings of Josephus.  Full of errors and self-aggrandizement, but also very helpful for discovering what life and religion was like in the first century.

At this point you’re probably wondering why, at this point, the author seems not to have discussed much of those “missing” scriptures.  And it’s true.  Hoffman takes his time setting up the environment in which those other works were composed while also pointing out that there’s not some hard and fast rule about how the Bible was written and how some of the other stuff was written.

Of course, he eventually moves into the actual works themselves, including the following:

  1. The Life of Adam and Eve (sometimes called the Apocalypse of Moses, referenced by yours truly here).  What happened to Adam and Eve after being expelled from the Garden?  What was Satan’s problem with them, anyway?
  2. The Apocalypse of Abraham.  How did Abraham become the first monotheist?  How was his new view received by his family, and what consequences did his conversion have?
  3. The Book of Enoch.  Beloved by early Christians, this one was considered Scripture by some of them.  Jude even quoted from it.  What’s the deal with that?

Each of these works sheds light on some question raised in the Bible, and though none of them may have the same authority as Scripture, it’s still interesting to see how people in the past wrestled with theology.  Sometimes I think we imagine that our generation or at least our (Western) civilization pioneered theology, but that’s just obviously wrong.  People have been wrestling with questions since, well, always.  Why do good people suffer?  Why do bad things happen?  What happens when we die?  Yes, there are answers to these questions in the Bible, but those answers were written in particular times and places, and understanding those times and places can help us understand the answers.

I’m reasonably well-read about extra-Biblical writings.  I’d previously read bits of each of the works summarized in this book, but Hoffman’s analysis was illuminating and inspiring.  And again, he doesn’t seem to intend to scandalize anyone or two inspire doubt about the Bible.  Reading his previous book, And God Said, and this one show that he clearly loves the Scriptures.

Instead, he’s trying to broaden the horizons of his reader, to let them know there’s more out there, and some of it is really cool.

What started as an entranceway to the complete collection ended up as the collection itself.  The Bible of modernity is that abridged collection, newly perceived to be the whole thing.  But we now know that there was once a whole museum’s worth of documents.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m giving this one a big recommendation.  In fact, I wish I’d bought it instead of getting it from the library.  The cover is gorgeous and yet simple, and the content is terrific.

Next up is the surprisingly awesome The Girl With All The Gifts.


Book Review: Exo, by Steven Gould

I was so pumped when I found out there was a new Jumper book coming out!  I hadn’t been paying close attention, and by the time I knew it was coming, it was only a couple of months away.  And yes, I pre-ordered it and paid full price.  Totally worth it.

It’s really going to be impossible to review this book without major spoilers for the series as a whole, and Impulse in particular.  Suffice it to say that while it’s not my favorite of the series, Exo still packs the geeky-fun punch I was looking for.  If you haven’t read the series, I highly recommend it.  (Late teens and up, I think, at least for the first two books.)  From here on, beware the spoilers.

Still with me?  Okay, you may recall that Jumper read almost like a superhero origin story, and as such the plot was almost secondary to the character exploring his abilities.  This isn’t to say it was a bad plot, but at least for me, it was more about Davy figuring out what he could do.  Great stuff.  Reflex had, to me, a more interesting sci-fi premise: how would you control a teleporter?  That’s why on the whole, I prefer Reflex.

Impulse was, in some ways, a step backward, with Cent discovering her abilities, but I also consider it better than Jumper because of the novelty of her approach to her powers, figuring out how to add velocity to her jumps, allowing her to essentially fly and enhance her own strength (though not without a few atomic wedgies and sprained wrists along the way).  I also liked that it was a female superhero we were dealing with.

Exo continues the story of Cent’s exploration, taking things in the direction I hadn’t necessarily considered but that’s completely logical.  Why not teleport into space?  With the right equipment, she could easily get into orbit.  With her ability to add velocity, she could even travel to different worlds.

So that’s part of the awesome of this book.  Nicely geeky.  But then Gould goes full nerd and gets into the tech she’d need to support her in near vacuum, talking about advances in materials science and the future of spacesuits.  (Here’s a link to an MIT News article about a similar technology to that presented in the book.)

Of course, showing up in orbit tends to get you observed by the government, and the Jumper family doesn’t like being on anyone’s, er, radar.  So there’s a bit of drama there, some of it quite hilarious.  Imagine how you could mess with people if you were able to get yourself into orbit?  Really, though, teleporting itself is prank-fodder enough.

It’s possible that some readers might get bogged down in some of the technical details of spaceflight, but I credit Gould for doing the legwork to make it all at least seem plausible.  (I figure he didn’t take much creative license.)

Another sort of weak point, for me, is the love story angle, and I’m not even going to describe it.  I think the book could’ve been just as good without it, but it’s a minor gripe.  Overall, if you enjoyed the rest of the series, this one will be no exception.  I’ll be curious to see if we’ll get another one.

Next up, it’s Joel M. Hoffman’s absolutely tremendous The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor.

By the way, on the next episode of Take Me To Your Reader, we’ll be discussing “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell and the three films titled (at least partially) The Thing based on it.  Feel free to send us your thoughts about it.


Book Review: Rock Breaks Scissors, by William Poundstone

This is a book I heard about on Science Friday, and its subtitle, A Practical Guide to Outguessing & Outwitting Almost Everybody, had me intrigued.  Not that I’m going to take up gambling or try to win my office March Madness bracket (it’s actually against company policy, and I get an enjoyably sanctimonious feeling when I tell people I don’t even follow college basketball), but the book also gives advice on creating stronger passwords and outguessing retail prices.

Really, the book could be summed up in one sentence:

People are lousy at recognizing or creating randomness.

By far my favorite chapter was the one called “In the Zone,” in which the author destroys the notion of the “Hot Hand” in sports.  Yes, basketball players sometimes hit a number of shots in a row.  It’s not really indicative of anything other than that they’re very good at shooting baskets and having a run of luck that a bunch of them are falling in.  The same goes for the idea of “clutch hitting” in baseball.  No, David Ortiz isn’t especially good at hitting home runs in October.  It’s just that he’s very good at hitting, has had a lot of opportunities to knock the ball out of the park, and has had his share of luck.  But in a small sample, it looks non-random.

The reason is that, as I mentioned before, we’re very bad at recognizing randomness.  For instance, if I flipped a quarter ten times, I might see a pattern like this (H for heads, T for tails):


You may be thinking, “Nope.  Not random.”  Sorry, but I literally just flipped that pattern.  But humans will look at that and think that the first four flips look right, and the fact that I flipped eight heads and only two tails means it wasn’t random.  Of course, when you really think about it, if I kept flipping a thousand times, it’d be pretty likely that I’d end up around 500/500.  But that’s just the probability working itself out.  Over a small sample, you’re not guaranteed to see that.  So when asked to generate a random set of flips, be honest with yourself, you’d go for something like this:


You’d be okay with a few repeats, but your intuition would say that after a heads, you’re more likely to hit tails.  This is the reasoning, such as it is, behind the belief that a slot machine is due for a payout, or a football team is due for a win.  And it’s the same reason it can be relatively easy to see when numbers are made up, be they financial numbers on a yearly report, fraudulent expense reporting, or phony scientific research numbers.  We predictably fall into patterns, avoiding certain combinations of numbers, particularly avoiding repeated data because it doesn’t look random enough.

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the chapter on Rock, Paper, Scissors.  Call me remiss then.  I’m not giving away the secret, because I will dominate you with my new knowledge.  (Actually, all three times I’ve tried the author’s advice, I’ve lost.  I’m going with that being random.)

As I mentioned earlier, the bits about outguessing retail prices were interesting, particularly the tidbit about adding something to an online shopping cart, then not checking out and waiting for the likely online coupon that’ll come in to encourage you to complete your order.  Another one was the call you sometimes get from your cable or internet provider, triggered because their data says you’re likely to switch providers soon.  Just the idea that it’s triggered based on data analysis is fascinating, but the author’s advice to turn down the first offer of a discount is definitely worth trying.

No, I won’t be getting rich or becoming the outwittiest man on earth, but if I got nothing from this book but an enjoyable read, that’s quite enough for me.  (BTW, I did get that.  It’s an excellent read.)

Next up, it’s the latest in Steven Gould’s Jumper series, Exo.


Book Review: Crisis on Infinite Earths

I don’t do graphic novels.  Oh, I read a bunch of comics when I was a kid, but I never collected them or visited a comic book store.  And it was mostly Teen Titans and Superman, with a bit of Justice League mixed in.  Basically all DC.  Most comic book nerds I know seem to favor Marvel.  Frankly, I’ve never gotten the appeal.

The fact of my lukewarm comic book fandom has made it easy for me to enjoy nearly all the superhero movies that’ve come out since 1989’s Batman.  (Batman & Robin is an obvious exception.)  I’ve enjoyed being the non-nerd fan.  I was never troubled when a movie strayed from the source material, because most of what I actually knew hadn’t been put to film.

But when I began watching Arrow (which is awesome but a bit soap-opera-y in places), I totally geeked out when Slade Wilson was introduced.  Deathstroke!  Such a great villian from the Teen Titans.  And then Barry Allen?  The Flash, seriously?  So awesome.  Suicide squad?  The Huntress?  Katana?  Squeee!

Anyhow, it took me back to childhood.  So I decided I’d finally pick up DC’s famous Crisis on Infinite Earths, especially since Comixology was giving away the first issue.  The rest I picked up in a softcover one-volume version at my library.

So much fun!  Teen Titans.  Justice League.  Legion of Superheroes.  Justice Society.  The Outsiders.  Sgt. Rock.  Green Arrow.  Green Lantern.  Steel!  Psimon!  Plasmus!  Clayface!  DEATHSTROKE!  (Alas, only a cameo.)

I won’t even delve into the plot, because who cares what happens?  All the heroes are here!  All the villians!

Evidently this series was a way for DC to simplify its increasingly convoluted continuity.  (Say that ten times fast!)  Parallel earths had different heroes, and sometimes drastic shifts like Lex Luthor being one Earth’s lone superhero against an array of bizarro villians like Ultraman, Power Ring, and Owl-man.  Seriously.

I enjoyed this enough that I’m planning to read a few other notable DC Universe stories, starting with The Dark Knight Returns (it was $2 for the NOOK Color/Tablet a few weeks ago).  We’ll see if the nostalgia holds.


Book Review: Extreme Medicine, by Dr. Kevin Fong

I’m a big fan of the Science Weekly Podcast from the Guardian, and that’s where I became aware of Dr. Kevin Fong as a contributor and, for a short time, host of the show.  (The current host is Ian Sample, whose excellent Massive I reviewed a couple of years ago before I knew him by voice.)

I have a bit of a scientific and broadcasting man-crush on Kevin Fong.  He holds degrees in medicine, astrophysics, and engineering, has a terrific speaking voice and awesome accent, and he’s kind of ridiculously good-looking.  So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find his Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century a complete delight.

It’s not easy to write about anatomy and physiology at a lay level, I’m sure, but Fong has a deft hand, and the way he ties advances in medicine into the history of science and technology is fascinating.  He frames the discussion of the advances in medicine around the case of Anna Bagenholm, a Swedish physician who survived being trapped under ice for several hours (she drowned and lived to tell the tale).  How did medicine get from its crude beginnings to being in a place where someone could essentially survive death under the right conditions?

My dad recently passed away after a long fight with congestive heart failure that finally overcame his (and his doctors) ability to fight it.  It’s tragic and terrible and still hurts, and yet the interventions that gave us an extra ten years or so with him were developed during his lifetime.  That still just blows me away.  Up until just a few years before his birth, it was just known and understood that the heart was a black box, an inviolable organ.  Doctors who would operate on it deserved to be shunned by their colleagues.  The progress is staggering.

Fong takes the readers through the history of a number of issues surrounding the development of medicine, including ambulances and life flight, intensive care, anesthesia, and trauma support.  In the later chapters, he takes a look at the kinds of issues under consideration for space travel and exploration.

This is going to be one of my favorite books of the year.  It’s interesting, well-written, and just downright readable.  If you’re interested in hearing more about the book and the author, here’s an interview he did on NPR.  And if you want a relatively quick look at the contents of the book, here’s a condensed YouTube of a lecture he gave on the topic:


Book Review: Enemy Mine, by Barry Longyear

What a difference a decade or two can make.  I had some fond memories of the 1985 film based on Barry Longyear’s short story of the same name, but the reality just does not hold up to the memory.  Different times, maybe.

(Edit: Our Enemy Mine episode went live on 9/30.  Check it out.)

The story and film have the same premise: a human pilot shoots down his enemy and, wishing to confirm the kill, follows his target into the atmosphere of a planet, ultimately crash landing along with his enemy.  The two have to band together to survive, and eventually form a bond that transcends human/alien differences.

The story is pretty terrific, though the ending seemed a bit drawn out for my taste.  It may be that my memory of the movie’s ending (the proper one, not the tacked-on action scene) spoiled the story, but really I think it’s just that the story should’ve ended a bit more abruptly.  It’s actually one of the things I love about short stories.  You can drop the reader into the middle of a scene and we don’t complain.  Likewise, you can go with a good, quick zinger of an ending.  Oh well.

One thing I admire about both the story and the film is the notion of how two people from different cultures might bond.  Sure, the life-and-death struggle brings them together somewhat, but what could deepen the friendship?  The answer: shared culture.

On our recent cruise to Alaska, we visited a Tlingit village, where we were invited to participate in a dance.  I tried to explain to my son what a privilege it was to share their culture, but I’m not sure how effective I was in getting through.  It was really quite a revelation for me, as I had memories of learning about Alaska Native tribes and cultures in grade school and hating every minute of it.  So maybe it was just that I’ve actually acquired some wisdom to go with my bald spot.  (Stranger things have happened.)

But back to the story/film.  The Drac character, Jeriba, has a small book of wisdom called the Talmaan (reference to the Talmud, perhaps?) that he’s constantly reading.  Only after Davidge (the human character) expresses interest in the teachings contained in it (and learning the language) does the friendship really blossom.  So many sci-fi authors just minimize or poo-poo religion and philosophy, that I found Longyear’s portrayal refreshing.

As for the film, I don’t have much good to say about it, other than that it wasted a great performance from Louis Gossett, Jr.  The challenge as I understand it, in adapting a short story, is to flesh out the story, adding a setup and resolution that might or might not exist (sometimes changing things here or there for the sake of improving the original).  None of that happened.  There’s a cursory introduction that does absolutely nothing to establish why we should give a crap about Davidge (in fact, he’s basically unlikeable), and then a ham-handed, tacked on ending that could’ve worked if it’d been executed properly.

I actually don’t have a problem with the addition of the rogue mining ship and its cast of hateful humans, oppressing the Dracs.  In fact, it would’ve made a nice Slave Revolt kind of story if it’d been done right.  Instead it’s a boring action scene featuring Great White Heroes coming down to save the Brown Characters.  (And then they don’t actually really do anything.)

If you want to hear me ranting about this at greater length, check out the podcast once I get it posted next week.  (Feel free to offer counterpoint here and I’ll gladly read any feedback on the air.)

I’m so behind on book reviews.  I need to just crank a few out.  Maybe I’ll get another posted tomorrow.  I’m just not sure which title to choose…


Book Review: A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

I get myself into trouble sometimes by ragging on Epic Fantasy as a genre, particularly to one of my Take Me To Your Reader co-hosts.  The problem is that I’m just not into world-building, and much of Epic Fantasy delves deeply into it.  So while I recognize the literary value of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and have read it twice), it’s not really my cup of tea. (I’ve read it two and a half times.  I quit midway though the third read-through of The Two Towers.  So.  Boring.)

So it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t an early adopter on George R. R. Martin’s (really, two middle Rs?) A Song of Ice and Fire series.  HBO’s Game of Thrones is a pop culture phenomenon, but one I’ve elected not to partake of, partially because the Honest Trailer description of it as a “medieval encyclopedia/dungeon master’s guide/porno” is precisely 0 for 3 in terms of things I watch.  (Medieval encyclopedia is the closest to something I’d watch.)

And yet, I feel a bit culturally illiterate not watching the show, so I’ve picked the brain of one of my less scrupulous Pavement Pounders (James) and gotten the download on what the show is about.  Still not really interested.

I’ve heard a ton about the books, including that they’re the greatest thing ever, or that they’re totally perverse and filled with wall to wall rape and perversion.  So when I discovered that Library2Go had the first book (and the rest of the series), I put a Hold Request in and gave myself some time to decide if I’d read them.

Well, A Game of Thrones came through, and a couple of things happened.  One, I enjoyed it.  If nothing else, it’s certainly a page turner.  Two, I didn’t find it as offensive as I expected.  I don’t mind some depravity in characters in fiction, which is why I find Christian Fiction so underwhelming.  I liked a couple of the characters and was repulsed (rightly) by a couple of the others.  Three, I finished the book and have no solid intention to continue the series.

It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve read.  In fact, it’s pretty much right in the middle.  But in the middle doesn’t get you onto my list of things to keep reading.  I’ve got so many books I’d actually like to read that there’s almost no way I’ll consider continuing the series.  Maybe you’d like to convince me.  Good luck.

Before I go, I want to gripe about dream sequences.  Seriously, there must have been four or five detailed dream sequences.  The one after a character had a terrible fall and was in a coma I kind of got.  The others just irritated me.  Okay, they all irritated me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a dream sequence in fiction.  It just seems lazy to me, getting that far into a character’s head.  But maybe I’m off my rocker about this.

I’ll say one positive thing before I sign off and start receiving hate comments.  (Actually, as my blogging has fallen off in frequency, so have the comments, so I’m not really expecting much.)  I didn’t fine Martin’s world-building as painful as I have with some other authors.  It all seemed to flow pretty organically from the story and the characters.  So that’s good.  But I also found myself getting characters mixed up, or just not caring much about others.

To sum up: I enjoyed the book.  Sort of.

Next up, Dr. Kevin Fong’s excellent Extreme Medicine.  I also still need to post something about Crisis on Infinite Earths, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Rock Breaks Scissors.


Brief Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

I finished this book in July, and though recent life events have gotten in the way, I can’t say that if things were going along swimmingly, I’d be any closer to being able to collect my thoughts about Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  If you want to just go off and read it and start stewing on it yourself, I’m giving it a big recommendation.  It’s absolutely tremendous.  So you should definitely read it.

I actually didn’t know it was a non-fiction book until I read the afterward, because it’s written in a narrative prose style I normally associate with fiction.  The book takes place in Annawadi, an extremely poor slum in Mumbai, India.  Ironically, the trash pickers and sorters of Annawadi live on a substantial enough wage (still almost nothing) that many of them are considered to have risen out of poverty.  Never mind that an injury could cost them their livelihoods or even their lives.

The book follows several characters through a series of events in Annawadi mostly related to a trial of one of the slum’s leading businessmen: Abdul, a boy of perhaps sixteen who runs a recycling business out of his family’s home.  The reasons for the trial aren’t really important, but the view into the screwy justice system in Mubai was eye-opening.  At every turn, someone was making money in exchange for favors.  The concept of guilt or innocence really didn’t seem to matter to anyone but the accused.

Another person who gets a lot of attention in the book is Asha, who hopes one day to become the new slum lord.  The sections about her make it really hard to hope for easy solutions to what’s broken in India.  Maybe we should give more in aid, either at the governmental or personal level?  Fine, but with all the corruption, how do you know your money does any good?  Or maybe sanctions against the corrupt authorities?  Then what happens to those whose livelihood is connected in a tangential way to the corruption, and through no fault of their own?  The easy answers just aren’t there.

   “The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children.  Asha understood plenty.  She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems---poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor---were being aggressively addressed.  Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions.  But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

I hesitate to write much more.  Again, the book is absolutely terrific, though I can’t guarantee it’ll make you feel warm inside for having read it.  I picked this one up on John Green’s recommendation on his vlogbrothers channel.  Here’s his first video discussing it.  He says basically everything better than I do.  He’s John Green:


I'm several books behind in my reviewingses, so maybe next I'll write up some brief words about why I don't really care if I ever read the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series, and then I'll dodge fruit from the internet for a while. And then I'll write a bit about Dr. Kevin Fong's awesome Extreme Medicine, or maybe opine a bit about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or maybe I'll skip straight to writing about the awesome journey down memory lane that was my recent reading of Crisis on Infinite Earths!.


Book Review: Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson

To say I was a huge fan of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse would be a bit of an understatement, I think.  Not that it’s the best thing I ever read, but it just hit so many of the geeky buttons in my brain that I had to go back to it a couple more times.  I picked it up on audio, then re-read it in print (well, Library2Go) in anticipation of its sequel coming out.

So it’s perhaps surprising that I think Robogenesis is superior to its predecessor.  I’ve even already picked up the audiobook so I can enjoy it again, because it’s really quite tremendous.  It’s as if the author said, “So you liked Robopocalypse, eh?  Well, look what else my brain can spew out onto a page for your enjoyment.”

The timeline of the book starts basically the moment the previous book ended and essentially turns it on its head.  What was Archos’s (Archos R-14 in the new book) endgame?  What was the goal? Why was humanity attacked so viciously?  Could it be that Archos had humanity’s best interests in mind?  What would that even look like?  And even if he tells us he was looking out for us, would we ever believe him?

And what would happen to an army consisting of humans, robots, and robotically-enhanced humans after the war was over?  (Hint: kind of what the U.S. and U.S.S.R, did after WWII, but with more actual fighting.)

And with all this is also the overarching question: in a world with true Artificial Intelligence, what is the line between life and non-life?  Are you man? Are you machine?  Is there a middle ground?  What if all that remains of you is your brain, hijacked into a parasite exoskeleton attached to your decaying corpse?  If your brain is still alive, are you still human?

If there’s a major fault to Robopocalypse, it’s the oral-history style.  I certainly found it an effective storytelling technique, but it made the narrative a bit choppy.  In Robogenesis, the broken-up narrative continues, but it’s marginally improved by a shift to strictly first-person renderings, though I’m still not totally clear where they came from.  But it seemed somehow more coherent.

The really great thing about a sequel book (or movie, when done well) is that it takes established characters and moves them forward, allowing the author to explore them further.  And as I mentioned before, that line between human and non-human, machine and non-machine is where the character development really takes off.  It’s easy to see that Nine Oh Two, the Freeborn robot from the previous book, would easily side with other machines.  And yet he doesn’t find it quite so easy to do so.  Whereas Mathilda Perez, with her artificial eyes, finds living among humans difficult and (at times) quite dangerous.

Most Robot Uprising kind of fiction has the idea that humanity steps just too far into creating AI.  One person flips the switch and that’s it.  But this book actually brings forward the notion that when the time comes (if you believe in the inevitability of the Singularity), there could be multiple new AIs to contend with.  (Reminds me a bit of Colossus, actually.  Need to go back and read that for the Take Me To Your Reader podcast…)

I’m thinking there’ll be a third book in this series.  Totally cool with that.  I’ll go back and read the other two before it comes out.  So geeky.  So awesome.

Up next is the mind-blowing Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  I’m also reading at least a few chapters of A Game of Thrones, but I do not promise to either love it or read the whole thing.  Just wanted a peek under the hood.  I had to take Stuff Matters back to my local booklender, but I’ll get it back eventually.  I’m also working on A Climate for Change, so who knows what I’ll finish first.

On the podcast, we’ll be covering The Day of the Triffids next, and you may recall I thought the book was amazing.  The films…well, you’ll have to wait to hear what I think of them.