Collateral Bloggage What passes for thought around here…

5Apr/140

Book Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

I’m not generally given to hyperbole (though it is the BEST THING EVER!!!), but it’s difficult to overstate the awesomeness of Andy Weir’s The Martian.  It’s Apollo 13 meets Castaway, minus Tom Hanks, plus a lot of swearing, with a bit of MacGyver mixed in, wrapped up in Gravity.  What’s not to love?

The story is really quite simple in setup.  During an early evacuation from a Mars mission, on crewmember is injured and loses contact with his crew.  Presuming him dead (because of his biometric equipment being disabled and his vitals showing flat-lines), they end up leaving him behind.

Mark Watney, the eponymous Martian, then has to figure out how to survive until the next mission shows up.  He has some food, due to NASA’s over-preparedness and the fact of the early evacuation, but he must make it last more than a year when the mission was provisioned for a month.  He also needs water, which he can make by burning hydrogen and oxygen.  Which is also known as ROCKET FUEL!!  So yeah, not everything is easy or safe.  Then he has to figure out how to get to the site of the next Mars mission, all without being able to talk to NASA.  Fun!

I first heard of the book on the Science Friday podcast and knew it had to make it onto my reading list for the year.  Library2Go was an easy choice since I prefer to read on my NOOK.  Hold Request came through, and I gave it a leisurely four day read-through. 

It’s fast paced and interesting, verging on geek overload at points, but never straying into Clancy territory for too long.  It’s certainly possible that to the non-engineer types out there it’d be too heavy on the details of how he kludges stuff together, but it was a perfect fit for me (and also got the approval of one of my Pavement Pounder buddies).

I really don’t want to go into much more about the plot, so let me just sum up and give this one a big recommendation.  Seriously, it’s tremendous fun and the kind of book that’d be perfect for a plane trip or anytime you’ve got a few hours you’d like to pleasantly pass.

I guess should point out the book is littered with a lot of colorful metaphors, but I can hardly fault a guy stranded on Mars for cursing a bit.  I’ll be curious if the inevitable film adaptation will cut down a bit on the swearing to hit a PG-13 rating.  I imagine it will.

I mentioned I heard about this book first on Science Friday, but then The Incomparable did a Book Club episode on it and it got a mention on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.  So it’s making the Podcast rounds.  Speaking of which…

The Pavement Pounders Podcast (aka Take Me To Your Reader) is up and running, with two episodes posted and a third in the editing phase.  Head over to our site if you want to see what we’re doing next.  And leave us a comment, will you?  Or a Facebook like.  And here ends the podcast advertisement.

I may write up something for The Fly, which incidentally is the topic of our forthcoming podcast, though I may give it a pass, too.  I’m back to reading Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat, and I just picked up Man in the Empty Suit and Death By Food Pyramid.  So I’ve got some reading to do.  And I’ve got some NOOK money to burn, so I may just pick up Shift.  Who knows?

28Mar/143

Book Review: The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

When I think of cheesy science fiction movies, The Day of the Triffids is always quick to pop up on my list.  Soylent Green is right up there, too, but I remember watching Triffids with my dad and being singularly unimpressed.  But still, it has a special place in my heart because of that connection.

Having recently embarked on a podcast about adapted science fiction, it had to be on the list.  Plus, a blogger whose opinion I trust had recommended the book some time ago.  I still haven’t gone back to watch the movie (or either BBC miniseries adaptation), but the book is well worth a look.  (And we’ll totally do an episode about it as soon as one of my co-hosts gets off his duff and reads it.)

In many ways, it’s the typical post-apocalyptic story: something bad happens, and those left unscathed must learn to survive in the new reality.  In this case, a spectacular stellar event robs those who view it (and practically the whole world does) of their sight.  In the wake of the disaster, though, a highly-advanced and lethal plant begins to take over.  Triffids, ambulatory plants cultivated for their valuable oils and other byproducts, now have free reign of England.  Their deadly stings combined with the obvious disadvantage of their victims turns the tide in their favor.

Obviously, some parts of the book reminded me of Blindness just due to the nature of the difficulty experienced by the humans in the story.  But while that book focused on one sighted woman and her community of blind companions in a quarantine facility, The Day of the Triffids focuses mostly on one man, Bill Masen.  And blindness isn’t really an antagonist in the story.

He wakes on the last day of his hospitalization following a nonlethal triffid strike.  Ironically, his temporary blindness spares him from the effects of the meteor shower, for he wasn’t able to see it.  He wakes to an eerily quiet world.

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

Sight isn’t his only advantage, for he is a scientist who is more than a little familiar with triffids and how to deal with them.  The action of the book is his attempt to get to safety with a sighted woman he encounters.

One odd thing about the book is that while the triffids are definitely the titular antagonists, some of the more pressing problems encountered by Bill and Josella involve other people.  And sometimes the antagonist becomes the new reality of the quiet and solitude.

Now I was really on my own I could not shut out the sense of loneliness.  Until then I had always though of loneliness as something negative---an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary….That day I had learned that it was much more.  It was something which could press and oppress could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind.  Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care.  It showed one as an an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly – that was what loneliness was really trying to do ; and that was what one must never let it do….

To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature.  The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it.  But when the herd no longer exists there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity.  He is part of no whole; a freak without a place.  If he cannot hold onto his reason, he is lost indeed;  most utterly, most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.

Did I mention the book is brilliantly written?  Oh, it’s not perfect, but the prose is outstanding as you see above.

Imagine the solitude that would result from the collapse of our society.  Our connected society.  Even though I’m someone who enjoys lonely places and quiet solitude, it makes me shudder a bit to think of our connectedness being removed.

As I mentioned, there’s some interesting social commentary, as they encounter more than one group of survivors with very different ideas of how to rebuild society.  One group wants to chuck out the morals of the lost society and forge ahead with new ones, while another wishes to enforce essentially a theocracy in order to maintain order and civility.  And still another wants to take advantage of the likely global situation to erect a new empire with Britain at the head.

My gripes with the book are fairly minor.  The pace is on the slower side, though not all the way to H.G. Wells or Tolkien territory.  (Yes, I dislike Tolkien a fair bit.)  The book doesn’t lend itself well to reading in spurts, partially due to pacing, but also partially just by the nature of the immersion you need to get the story.  So if you’ve got a few hours available, like a plane or train ride, I highly recommend this book for concentrated reading.

The other issue is that while Bill Masen is an adequate protagonist, for much of the book the action sort of happens to him rather than having him drive the narrative by his actions.  But as it’s a first-hand account, I guess I can’t fault him for not being Jack Bauer.  He just relates what happens, even if it’s unflattering to his potential future as an action hero.

One other minor gripe is the ending, which was substantially different than the one I remember from the film.  I certainly don’t object to things being changed in adaptations, but I think the filmmakers felt they needed more of an ending than that provided by the book.  It’s not really a terrible thing having the ending left a bit open, but I thought I’d warn you.

Overall, I’m definitely filing this under pleasant surprises.  I’ve said in the past that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that the book is always better than the movie.  And in this case, I definitely agree.  (But will reassess once I’ve seen the other adaptations of it.)

(Incidentally, in the review that featured the line “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” I concluded that it’s not always true.  The Princess Bride is the exception.  Tune in to our podcast to see how Farewell to the Master and Planet of the Apes held up against their big-screen adaptations.)

21Mar/14Off

Book Review: All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Having recently embarked on a quest to start a podcast dedicated to adapted science fiction (films from books/short stories), I was interested to learn that the upcoming Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow was based on a Japanese novel with a much cooler name: All You Need is Kill.

(Podcast episode posted!)

I’m curious if the translators of the title went deliberately for something that sounded a bit like a title you’d find on Engrish.com, or if there’s supposed to be a slide from “is” to “kill,” making the title sound like All You Need is Skill.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the latter were true, though I wouldn’t be surprised at the former, either.

This is an interesting book in a lot of ways.  It’s fairly light reading, but not for kids due to your run-of-the-mill salty language typical of fictional depiction of folks in the military.  (Which I understand is probably toned down from reality.)  It’s also quite bloody, which I generally regard as awesome, particularly if I get a bit of an Aliens vibe from the whole thing, which I do.  But it’s also got some smart science fiction in it, or at least smart enough that I could suspend disbelief and just go with it.

The premise is that an advanced alien species sent a xenoforming ship to Earth in advance of an invasion, or perhaps as the invasion (it’s never totally clear).  (BTW, xenoforming is the analogue to what we’d call terraforming, or creating a habitat suitable for Earthborn life on another world.  It’s just done in the opposite direction.  And harmful to human life.  Sort of like the b.s. stuff from Man of Steel that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.)

As part of the terraforming effort, biologically engineered critters began mimicking Earth forms in order to create foot soldiers.  Mass producing them and making them tough nuts to crack.  Hard to kill.  But they were given a particular advantage that I’ll have to wade deep into spoiler territory about.

This is where the spoilers be.  Read on at your own risk, though if you’ve seen the trailer for the film, you’ll know essentially what I’m about to spoil.

The mimics have the ability to send out a tachyon pulse or something else suitably Star Trekky into the past in order to learn from battles and adjust strategy.  So the battles occur in essentially alternate futures, sort of, but present themselves as hyper-realistic dreams to those affected by the pulse.  So they really don’t take place.  I guess.  It’s trippy, but I bought it.

Our hero (almost wrote hiro, as in Hiro Nakamura from Heroes) is Keiji Kiriya, a fresh recruit with the United Defense Force, hopelessly out of his depth in his first battle.  His friend is killed, and he is confronted by a mimic.  Carnage ensues and…he wakes up the day before the battle.

At first he shakes it off as just a dream, but when it keeps happening, he begins to toy with his Groundhog Day-like opportunity.  He tries to escape.  Wakes up in the same spot.  Kills himself.  Wakes up in the same spot.  Learns.  Eventually he makes contact with another soldier who has experienced the same phenomenon and learns how to break out of it, but that’s the fun part, so I won’t spoil it.

I’ll be curious how the film will adapt the premise, and I can already tell from the trailer that there’s some character consolidation.  Totally cool with that.  If you’re going to have Emily Blunt around, keep her on the screen as much as possible.  Especially since I anticipate being able to connect with her character more than Tom Cruise’s.  Just sayin’.

I’m going to leave it at that and post two reviews back to back.  Next up is The Day of the Triffids, and it’s pretty terrific.  The book, that is, not the titular disaster premise.

21Mar/14Off

Book Review: The House of Hades, by Rick Riordan

At this point, what is there to say about Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series?  The books are still fun and interesting, and The House of Hades is a fine and inoffensive entry in the series, but am I the only one who’s looking forward to the series ending?

Maybe it’s just that if you’ve written a review about one, you’ve reviewed them all, and having written up all the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series (five books) and now four books in the Heroes of Olympus series, I’m basically out of words.

It comes down to this: everything the series as a whole has done right, this book does.  It’s got fun dialogue, interesting characters, fascinating situations and places from Greek mythology and is generally a decent way to blow a few hours of reading.  But the story is still going and it’s basically a cliffhanger.  To say nothing of the fact that I’ve essentially forgotten what happened in the book.

This is coming off negative, and I want to emphasize here that I enjoyed this book as much as any of the others, or at least close to it.  I guess I’m just noticing some diminishing returns.  Which sort of contradicts what I just wrote.  I guess my enjoyment of each book is going down just through sheer repetition.  Yes, different things happen, but they happen in basically the same way.

I’ll still read the final entry in the series, if for nothing else that it should wrap things up and put a bow on the series.  My enjoyment-meter may even tick up a few notches just for the fact of the series ending.

And yes, I’ll probably pick up the next series Riordan writes, though I make no commitment to reading the whole thing, as I left off the Kane Chronicles after one book and don’t really plan on going back to it.

So there’s that.  I’ve actually got another review queued up right behind this one, so I’ll get that posted in a few minutes.  (Gotta give it another read-through.)

12Mar/14Off

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars isn’t my kind of book.  In fiction, I tend to read more in the World is Ending or Things Are Blowing Up sections of the bookstore.  Even my YA reading tends to be in that category.  In fact, I’m trying to think what book with a female protagonist not existing in some kind of dystopia or post-apocalyptic world that I last read.

So yeah, it’s not really the kind of book I’m a fan of.  I am, however, a fan of John Green.  I love his Mental Floss videos; his vlogbrothers stuff is also wildly entertaining, and Crash Course is one of the greatest things to come around since most other things (U.S. History is my favorite).

So a few weeks ago, when I was faced with major amounts of downtime due to the State Swimming Championships, I read three books.  On the last day I was in town I stopped in at the library, thinking that such a weekend would be a good time to just pick something up and knock it out, and since I’d seen so many good reviews of TFIOS, I grabbed it.

Totally worth it.  Disclaimer: this book will likely cause you to weep.  Results may vary, of course.  There may have been slightly-detectable chokedupness in me, though I have a heart of stone and am not normally prone to such experiences.  So it could slay you if you’re prone to, you know, emotions and stuff.

The book is told in the first person by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenaged girl living with cancer.  It’s funny, it’s brutally honest, and it’s obvious that John Green has met actual people with cancer.  The book is aware of other entries in the canon of Cancer Fiction and rejects the notion that cancer sufferers are somehow more or less human than the rest of us.  They can be happy.  Or sad.  Or angry.  Or all of these.  They may be brave.  They may be terrified.  Or both.  Or neither.

I can’t really say much else about the book that hasn’t been said better by a million other people, so I’ll just say that it’s a tremendously good book even for a stonehearted curmudgeon like me.  There is the issue of premarital sex that I’ve seen brought up, but I really didn’t have any issue with the way it was handled.  The whole narrative felt real to me, and real teenagers sometimes have sex.  There’s also some salty language, but again it never felt forced, and it wasn’t anything like excessive.

If you’re interested, here’s an old vlogbrothers video of John reading the first chapter of the book.  He’s an excellent narrator, actually (takes him a bit of time to get going because he’s doing a live YouTube video):

I’m still planning to get a review of The Cay out if I can convince my son to combine on it, but that could take a bit of bribing or berating to get done.  Probably both.  In the meantime, remember that thing I mentioned about books from the Things Are Blowing Up section?  Well, I’ve got another entry from that category in Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, which is the basis for the upcoming Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow, which is a title that make sense but is substantially less awesome than All You Need is Kill.  The book is also pretty awesome.

I’m also slowly making my way through The Day of the Triffids and just picked up Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat, which totally only applies to the author and in no way to me.

7Mar/14Off

Book Review: Bigger Than the Game, by Dirk Hayhurst

I keep reading about how great The Bullpen Gospels is, and it’s probably strange that I’ve read its two follow-up books, Out of My League and Bigger Than the Game (and the eBook Wild Pitches) before reading the book that started it all.  But if the strength of the other volumes is any indication, I’m in for a treat.

Hayhurst pulls back the curtain on life in professional baseball in such a winning way that it’s hard to do anything but rave about the latest book.  The Bullpen Gospels (from what I know) is set entirely in the various levels of the minor leagues, while Out of My League has him in the high minors and transitioning to the majors.  (His Portland connection was one thing that initially attracted me to the book.) 

In this latest volume, Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, he’s coming off a decent year pitching for Toronto, getting ready for another season in the Bigs when he injures his shoulder.  He’s also coming up on the publication of his first book, which makes him somewhat unpopular with a vocal minority of his teammates.  These two things don’t mix well.

Hayhurst is great at giving us a look at the behind-the-scenes life of a professional ballplayer without throwing anyone under the bus or over-sensationalizing anything.  But the real strength of this book is in his personal story of struggle with depression brought on by the weight of his own expectations of himself, his feelings about being injured, getting paid well to not actually play baseball during his recovery and rehab, and his alienation (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) from his teammates.  The coping mechanisms of your average ballplayer aren’t what I’d call healthy, and Hayhurst doesn’t call them that, either.

How often can you take sleeping pills before it’s a problem?  How much beer can you drink?  Is this actual pain I’m taking these pills for?  At what point should I ask for help?  How will that affect my career going forward?

The structure of the book is interesting, going a bit nonlinear by detailing the injury and the first half of his rehab, his descent into depression and a bit of substance abuse (not addiction, but overuse), and his decision to finally seek help.  As he interacts with the team shrink, the narrative shifts back to the previous season and the nascence of his alienation from some of his teammates.  This is where most of the classic Hayhurst Hilarity shows up, and I liked that it was sandwiched between the more serious bookends of the beginnings of his struggles to their eventual resolution.

Not to say that there isn’t anything funny in the rest of the book, because the part about his social media faux pas with wrestler Triple H is as funny as anything I’ve read since Hayhurst’s last book (though not quite as funny as the Japanese baseball prank from Wild Pitches).

If he keeps cranking these things out, I’ll keep reading them.  I made an exception to my general rule about not paying full price for an eBook for this one, though it was at least slightly discounted, so my rule is totally still intact.  Yeah, that’s it.

I’m a bit behind on my reviewing schedule.  I guess I still need to write up something for The House of Hades, though I’m not sure what I could write that I haven’t written before.  And I recently read The Cay, which is a YA classic.  I’m thinking of co-reviewing that one with the Swimmer Dude as he also read it for class.  And then there’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I’m apparently the last person to have read.  So maybe I’ll hit up one or more of those in the near future.

7Mar/14Off

Mom: Correction and Comfort

My sister asked for memories about Mom for a birthday book she was compiling, so I thought it’d be appropriate to post my thought here as well as in the print book.  So here it is, slightly updated from the print version, because I remembered something else!

One thing I definitely remember is the whistling.  Mom had a tremendous whistle, one of the only sounds our dog would actually respond to other than “Wanna go for a walk?”  But then there was that other whistle.  The whistle you’d only hear when you were doing something you really knew you shouldn’t do, picking on a sister you knew you shouldn’t be picking on, or just generally being a bad boy when being a good boy was clearly required.

The whistle of the impending meeting between buttocks and that cursed slotted-wooden spoon. 

You never saw it coming, but you could hear it.  That whistle, that smack, and then the slow realization that you had a surprisingly accurate picture in your head of what that welt would look like the next day.  And the knowledge that you so had it coming.

Mom was big on the ambush, and it was effective.  Dad was better at working the dread machine.  Go to your room and imagine your impending doom.  Judgment cometh, and that right quickly.  But not as quickly as you’d like.

Mom was more in the “Behold, I strike quickly” school of biblical wrath.

So maybe my most vivid memories of Mom are of wrath, but my most treasured ones are of comfort.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a sickly kid, but I certainly missed my share of school days, reliably getting strep throat about once a year, mixing in the occasional bronchitis or pneumonia.  But I remember one illness especially vividly.  I don’t know what I had, but it caused me sharp chest pains, which would be troublesome at any time, but I’d recently viewed “I Am Joe’s Heart” at school and was terrified of heart attacks.  I’m no hypochondriac, but I was sure I had advanced heart disease at nine years old.

Mom held me.  Prayed for me.  Read to me.  I remember I was working my way through Gulliver’s Stories, an abridgement of Gulliver’s Travels, for a book report, and counter to my usual technique for writing a book report, I was electing to actually read the book this time.  I’m not sure I’d have actually done it if I hadn’t been sick that day.  Mom and I took turns reading.

Did I mention she prayed for me?  I remember imploring her to pray for me over and over as the pains would take me.  She never refused.  And I lived.  Who can say but that her intercession might have been the difference?  Given my many foolish ventures with fire and heights in the future, the odds get better and better that her prayers were my special armor against the Reaper.

I could go on to other topics, including the buckets of vomit Mom had to clean up on my account.  I guess I’ve always been a chucker, and I always went for style points, puking from the top bunk, or the second row in church all the way to the bathrooms in the foyer.  But who wants to discuss vomit?

So Mom brought me through childhood illnesses with grace, but the waking hours weren’t the only arena in which I challenged her resolve.

It was mom who sang to me when I was scared.  And I was scared.  A lot.  I had recurring dreams of hallways of locked doors and fearsome black labs.  I don’t even want to know what the interpretation might be, because I’ve always loved dogs, and my aunt and uncle had a beloved black lab I never tired of hanging out with.

I also dreamed about death a lot.  Sometimes it was just your standard animal-attack dream not involving dogs (bears and tigers were the usual suspects).  Sometimes it was a drive-by shooting resulting in the death of my dad, leading me to wake up and swear there was a ghostly image of Dad in the room.  Or sometimes it was Dracula or some other monster I’d inadvisedly watched in a movie at a friend’s house.  Lousy less-than-vigilant video store staff, letting kids check out creepy movies!

Sometimes I’d manage to get out of my bed and sneak across the hall, standing in my parents’ doorway like something out of a zombie movie.  Dad would generally stir and tell me to go to the bathroom, and I realized later that this was probably a way of making sure I wasn’t sleepwalking.  Sometimes I was.  One time, I proved it by mistaking the bathtub for the toilet.  A stream of urine makes a surprisingly recognizable sound in an empty tub and causes dads to come running.  Just an FYI. 

But on those times I couldn’t bear to leave my bed lest the monster under it consume me, I called for Mom.  And Mom would come and sing to me that song based on Psalm 34:7:

The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.

When my son was younger and not yet aware that his Dad’s singing was totally uncool, he’d often ask for “the Angel Song” at night.  It’s now one of my most treasured memories of those days.  I owe it to Mom.  Along with my life and probably my sanity.

Thanks, Mom, for comfort and correction.

Oh, and one more thing (this is the thing I remembered to add as I was preparing to post this): I suppose it could be filed under correction, because Mom had a particular technique for snapping me out of a rare blue-funk.  Dancing.  She’d grab my hands and we’d bound up and down the hallway singing, “Shall we dance, pa-pom-pom-pom!”, which was a reference to The King and I.  It always made me laugh, and now I wish I had photos or video, but I suppose memories will have to suffice.

Happy (belated) Birthday, Mom!

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26Feb/14Off

Book Review: The End is Nigh (Apocalypse Triptych #1)

For as much as I enjoy short stories (a lot), I don’t really read that many of them.  But when I do, I read them in bunches.  Anthologies, actually.  I’ve been enjoying going through The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams, and his latest project is every bit as enjoyable if not more so, mostly due to its genre.  (BTW, Adams is the former co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (podcast), which he recently stepped away from in order to focus on other projects.  Probably this one.)

I was fortunate enough to get an advanced review copy of The End is Nigh, the first volume in a forthcoming trio of anthologies comprising The Apocalypse Triptych.  The series will continue with The End is Now and The End has Come.  As the titles might suggest, each volume contains stories taking place leading up to (The End is Nigh), during (The End is Here), and after (The End Has Come) an apocalypse.

Judging from the first entry in the series, I’d say we’re in for a fun ride.  If you’re a fan of the apocalyptic genre, I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Plus, it’s the kind of quality self-published project I can get behind.The_End_is_Nigh[1]

Co-edited with Wool author Hugh Howey (recall that Wool was one of the best things I read last year), this volume has stories ranging from the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse, asteroid collisions, viral outbreaks, and even non-specific world-ending scenarios.  Some of them are quite amusing, while others are simply heartbreaking.  I’d say I enjoyed probably 90% of the stories greatly, with one or two that didn’t do much for me, but each was compelling in its own way.

The thing I really liked was the variety, and the fact that while some of them had nice, clean structure and satisfying endings, others left me wanting to read further.  I don’t know that the next volume will contain any continuances of the stories in this set, but I’d love it if it happened.  It’s also the kind of book that’d work nicely as a nightstand title, taking the book at a leisurely pace, or as a frenetic weekend marathon.

Rather than listing all the stories, I’ll just give you a few of highlights. 

Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod, by Will McIntosh – A man dealing with his father’s descent into dementia is forced to deal with the new reality of a terrifying paralysis-causing virus.  Hands down my favorite of the collection and one of the most heartrending stories I’ve ever read.

The Balm and the Wound, by Robin Wasserman – A sham cult-leader “prophet” has the misfortune of correctly predicting the end of the world.  Perfectly crafted and brutally hilarious.

The Gods Will Not Be Chained, by Ken Liu – A protective, yet deceased, father looks out for his daughter after the Singularity.  Touching and a unique twist on the robot uprising idea.  I particularly liked the way the father initially communicated with his daughter.  Clever stuff.

Wedding Day, by Jake Kerr – A same-sex couple prepares for marriage as an asteroid impact looms and a lottery is established for emigration to a safer location.  Really a beautiful story of love and commitment in the fact of tragedy.

System Reset, by Tobias S. Buckell – Impossible to describe without totally spoiling it, but a fine twist and re-twist at the end.

In the Air, by Hugh Howey – You knew I couldn’t go without plugging Howey here, right?  This one falls into the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology gone awry, and it’d make a pretty compelling television pilot, I think.  If the ending changed…

Goodnight Moon, by Annie Bellet – An asteroid impact story with a twist: it’s set on the moon.  Another heart-breaker.

Enjoy the Moment, by Jack McDevitt – An astrophysicist makes her mark by discovering a comet.  And it’s headed toward Earth.  D’oh!

Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen are Going to Come Riding Through, by Nancy Kress – A cool twist on the end of humanity and the beginning of something perhaps better than us.  It reminded me of Darwin’s Radio, except I actually liked it.

Spores, by Seanan McGuire – Made me wash my hands.  Like ten times.

Agent Unknown, by David Wellington – Evidently a kind of prequel to a forthcoming zombie novel that I’ll be looking forward to reading.  Gives a compelling reason the zombie apocalypse could perhaps be unstoppable.

If you’re still with me, go pre-order a copy of the book.  (It comes out March 1 from Amazon and a bit later for other outlets.)  You won’t regret it.  I’m just jazzed I got a look at it first!

Next up for me is the latest Heroes of Olympus title, and I’ve just started four other books, one of them Dirk Hayhurst’s latest.  That one’s going to be on my favorites list this year.  Guaranteed.

14Feb/14Off

Book Review: Against Calvinism, by Roger E. Olson

I guess if you knew I attend a Presbyterian church, you might be surprised that I’d deliberately buy and enjoy a book titled Against Calvinism, but then, I didn’t choose my church based their view of soteriology.  In fact, I don’t even think I realized Presbyterians tended to be Calvinists until fairly recently.  And since my church doesn’t teach much in the way of explicit Calvinism, I’m perfectly fine staying there.

Actually, I don’t know that I’d flee a church simply for embracing Calvinist doctrine, though I find it basically repugnant and can’t really see why anyone would be attracted to it.  Actually, I’m fully aware of the attraction of systematic theology, but I think it’s on balance a bad thing.  (But that’s probably a post for another time.)

No, I’ve never been to seminary.  No, I’m not an ordained minister, so everything you read here is completely from a lay level.  And if you’re inclined to dismiss whatever I write as the ravings of an Average Joe veering toward heresy, I couldn’t really blame you.  In fact, I’ve considered writing a post titled “The Heresies I Currently Embrace” or “Let Me Count the Ways I’m Not Orthodox.” 

Calvinism’s core teachings, at least as regards soteriology (doctrine of salvation) can be summed up in the well-known acronym TULIP:

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

These are the famous Five Points of Calvinism, and they actually follow quite logically from one another.  In a nutshell, it goes like this:

Man is totally depraved and incapable of looking to God for salvation.  Therefore, God must elect those he wishes to save.  He is able to save completely those he chooses to save, so the atonement purchased with Christ’s blood was intended only for the elect.  Those he elects, he draws irresistibly to himself, and they will all endure to the end.

You can’t really take any of the points away and keep the system coherent, so you’re pretty much in for a penny, in for a pound. 

I’m not in for a penny.  I’m out on all five.

Yes, I’ve studied Romans.  I did a whole semester on it in college.  I don’t see any of five points in Scripture, and I’ve looked.  And yet Calvinism is enjoying a huge resurgence these days, led by such teachers as John Piper, Kevin DeYoung and Mark Driscoll.  Smart guys, all of them.

I have a way of finding books to reinforce my prejudices, and Roger E. Olson’s Against Calvinism was just what the doctor ordered.  (Actually, I didn’t need any reinforcement here, because I’ve heard the arguments for Calvinism and just don’t find them convincing.  Though I may at some point read For Calvinism.  If my better judgment doesn’t hold.)

The most pressing problem with the Calvinist system according to Olson (and I have to agree with him) is divine determinism.  This is the notion that God controls absolutely everything that has ever or will ever happen.  From his chapter titled “YES to Sovereignty, NO to Divine Determinism”:

In short, the Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty given earlier in this chapter inevitably makes God the author of sin, evil, and innocent suffering (such as the children of the Holocaust) and thereby impugns the integrity of God’s character as good and loving.

The idea of a God who is meticulously controlling everything is strange to me and reminds me of what I’ve read of the God of Islam.  If he chooses to save some and damn others, then rewards those he chose to save and punishes those he excluded, it’s hard to find that either comprehensible or attractive in any way.

Of course, Calvinists claim that only their system is God-centered, and it certainly is.  It’s just that it paints God as basically unloving as far as I can see.  If God will irresistibly draw all those he chooses to save, and if they are all guaranteed to actually be saved, why would he not save everyone?

The plain fact of the matter is that the doctrine of irresistible grace, without universal salvation which most Calvinists reject, leads to the “good and necessary consequence” that God is not good and not loving.

I’m not totally onboard with universalism, but I’m much more attracted to it than the idea that God doesn’t even want to save everyone.  I’m totally with Olson on this point:

Calvinism makes it difficult to recognize the difference between God and the devil except that the devil wants everyone to go to hell and God wants many to go to hell.

It’s harsh, but there’s no getting away from it.  And yes, the obvious answer from a Calvinist might be, “But you don’t think God is able to save everyone he wants to save.”  Of course, it’s simply not true.  I believe God truly wants all to be saved but he chooses to limit himself and allow free agents to resist him.  He could overcome their free will if he wished, but he has chosen to allow humans to choose to love him or resist him.

I’m not going to go on a crusade against Calvinism.  I know some lovely Calvinists.  I may not understand why they hold their beliefs, but I don’t question their sincerity.

Well, I’m sure this won’t anger everyone.  But I suspect it’ll raise someone’s hackles.

I’ve finally caught up with my reading list thus far, but I’m chasing a couple of titles for the next few weeks.  Not sure what I’ll finish first, but I imagine it’ll be less controversial than my last couple.  (I just got a copy of The Day of the Triffids, and I’m really geeked about that.)

6Feb/14Off

Book Review: Do You Believe in Magic?, by Paul Offit

I quite enjoyed Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, though it was a bit chilling to see that the dangerous and mostly unfounded paranoia about vaccines is based on arguments that have been roundly debunked basically since they were first put forth, and often more than a hundred years ago. Offit also isn’t a big fan of alternative medicine, and I’ll just give you a capsule summation of his thesis:

In the end, if a medicine works (like folic acid to prevent birth defects), it’s valuable, and if it doesn’t work (like saw palmetto to shrink prostates), it’s not.

In other words, we have ways of proving that supposed cures are actually cures: science.

The subtitle of this book is The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, but I think it’s somewhat misleading, as nearly every argument in the book is in the “alternative medicine is nonsense” category.  Now, I don’t really have a problem with that, and I agree that if a so-called “alternative” medicine works, it’s just called “medicine,” but I really would have liked a little more info on alternative cures that actually work.  But then, maybe that’s the point.  (He does give a good survey of what over-the-counter vitamins are useful and even recommended, so that’s something.)

An oft-repeated argument for alternative medicine is “what’s the harm?”, and so it’s fitting that Offit opens the book with a chapter on the tragic death of a young boy who was subjected to a dizzying and horrifying range of alternative cures for what was likely a very curable cancer.  Curable with actual medicine, that is.  Not coffee enemas, raw liver juice, and laetrile.

It’s true, of course, that many alternative remedies are harmless in an of themselves.  Homeopathic remedies, in particular, are harmless, because they’re typically just water with a fancy label.  They won’t hurt you, of course, because there’s nothing in them.  But if you use them to the exclusion of medicine which actually can help you, the math no longer works.

Offit walks through the reasons for alternative medicine being popular, including the general distrust of modern medicine, the desire of consumers to consume “natural” products, and the cornucopia of pretty celebrities proffering their own brands of remedies.

I’ve read before about scientific reductionism, and it definitely plays a part in the discussion of alternative cures.  Take antioxidants, for instance.  We’ve all heard over and over about how antioxidants seek out and destroy free radicals.  And free radicals are bad.  So consuming large amounts of antioxidants must be good, right?  Well, no.  True, some free radicals are bad, but others contribute to certain necessary biochemical reactions in the body.  So killing them would be a mistake.  In fact:

Studies have now shown that people who take large quantities of vitamins and dietary supplements with antioxidant activity are more likely to have cancer and heart disease and die sooner.

The biggest argument Offit makes is that alternative cures should be subjected to the same scrutiny as traditional cures: scientific rigor.  A Big Pharma company may spend years and millions of dollars bringing something to market, but if it’s unsafe or ineffective, they end up eating that investment.  Only if a drug is shown to be safe and effective can it be released to the public.  The same is not true of alternative remedies, particularly supplements.  Where drugs have to be carefully labeled, with all active and inactive ingredients named and all known side-effects listed, supplements need no such labeling. And Offit also makes the point that many people are suspicious of Big Pharma because of the profit motive, but the Big Supplement industry brings in huge profits.  And those companies don’t even have to prove that a given supplement contains what it says it contains or does what it says it does.  It’s a bit scary, actually.

We hate Big Pharma, but we leap into the arms of Big Placebo

This topic is controversial, there’s no question, so I’m not expecting anyone to quit taking alternative remedies on my say-so.  I’m no expert.  But I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic.  I’ll end with a lengthy quote:

If we’re going to make decisions about our health, we need to make sure we’re not influenced by the wrong things---specifically, that we don’t give alternative medicine a free pass because we’re fed up with conventional medicine; or buy products because we’re seduced by marketing terms such as natural, organic, and antioxidant; or give undeserved credence to celebrities; or make hasty, uneducated decisions because we’re desperate to do something, anything, to save ourselves and our children; or fall prey to healers whose charisma obscures the fact that their therapies are bogus.  Rather, we need to focus on the quality of scientific studies.  And where scientific studies do not exist, we should insist that they be performed.  If not, we’ll continue to be deceived by therapies whose claims are fanciful.

Next up, it’ll either be Against Calvinism (that won’t be controversial) or The House of Hades.  I've also just picked up a review copy of The End is Nigh, an anthology of pre-apocalyptic stories that looks awesome.  If you're interested, check out the website.