My Correct Views on Everything
↳ March 2012
Leah Bobet’s Above (Arthur A. Levine, 2012) is so strong that I have a hard time believing it’s a first novel. Aimed at readers 12 and up, this book is nevertheless mature and subtle in its handling of its theme. It focuses on a group of outcasts — misfits and mutants, superpowered and disabled — who survive in Safe, a community hidden beneath the streets and sewers of Toronto. When that community is invaded, its leader killed and its inhabitants scattered, the young Teller, Matthew, must find a way to survive in the dangerous Above. Bobet’s use of language is impressive. The novel’s voice is authentic, the emotions very real. The hardscrabble, marginal existence of the characters feels utterly and uncomfortably convincing. A beautiful book, but also an unsettling one.
Christopher Priest has sent the science-fiction-reading portion of the Internet into a tizzy with his screed denouncing the shortlist for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award, which contains all sorts of spleen-venting invective of the sort that (1) British literari seem to excel at and (2) is kind of fun to read, so long as you’re not the target. Charlie Stross, one of said targets, took things in stride and made a T-shirt. Here are some other reactions: Cheryl Morgan, John Scalzi, Charles Tan, Catherynne Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Damien Walter; the kerfuffle also made the Guardian and MetaFilter. Many of said reactions occupy an awkward middle ground between agreeing with some (but not all) of Priest’s arguments and discomfort with the attacks Priest made on other writers. (It turns out that there is much unhappiness with the shortlist this year.)
My first thought was that Priest was auditioning to replace Norman Spinrad’s review column in Asimov’s. (That’s an in-joke. Did you do a spit-take? You’re in.) Nasty literary criticism isn’t something many of us are comfortable with (we’re all fen here, right?), but it does have a venerable tradition; the trick is making sure it’s about the work, not the person. (Quick review. “This book sucks” is not a personal attack. “This writer isn’t trying hard enough” is not a personal attack. “This writer smells and his children are retarded” — that’s a personal attack.)
The search for exoplanets — that is, planets orbiting other stars — is essentially an exercise in statistical sampling. The Kepler mission, for example, looks at more than 145,000 stars over several years to see if a planet transits them; the percentage of stars found to have planets, or more than one planet, or a planet in its habitable zone, can be extrapolated to the entire galaxy, giving us a rough (and invariably mind-boggling) number of just how many worlds are out there.
The European Southern Observatory has done something similar, though from closer to home and at a smaller scale. Their six-year spectrographic survey of 102 red dwarfs found a total of nine super-Earths, including two within the stars’ habitable zones. The implication of this discovery becomes clear when the sheer number of red dwarfs is taken into account: there are tens of billions of rocky planets out there. Not only that: “As there are many red dwarf stars close to the Sun the new estimate means that there are probably about one hundred super-Earth planets in the habitable zones around stars in the neighbourhood of the Sun at distances less than about 30 light-years.” That’s of more than just statistical interest.
(Whether planets around red dwarfs are in fact habitable is a subject of some debate, since red dwarfs are prone to rather lethal flares, and their habitable zones are so close that the planet would be tidally locked, with one side always facing the star and the other side terribly cold.)
Previously: First Habitable-Zone Planet Confirmed.
Here’s a pretty ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop nebula, a supernova remnant a mere 1,500 or so light years away, taken by the GALEX ultraviolet space telescope. Amateur astronomers will be more familiar with those parts of the Cygnus Loop that appear in the visible part of the spectrum: the Veil Nebula. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising is a rollicking, fast-paced thriller set in a near future where the polar ice caps are all but gone, and a scramble for resources is taking place in the rapidly developing Arctic north. UN airship pilot Anika Duncan is shot down while investigating a suspicious tanker that appears to be carrying radioactive materials; the investigation sets off a chain of events that very quickly put the resourceful Anika on the run, forcing her to rely on a series of colourful characters.
This is not Kim Stanley Robinson’s global warming thriller: chapters end with guns pointed at people. Little space is given to introspective reflection: things just move too fast. Nor does the setting play as strong a role as it might. In fact, for a book that is set almost entirely within Canada, there are hardly any Canadians among the very global cast; but for the climate it could have occurred in any archipelago on the planet, which I found a little disappointing. Still: fun read.
In my review of Paul Schenk’s Atlas of the Galilean Satellites I noted that the maps of Jupiter’s four largest moons were actually spacecraft imagery placed on a map projection; there were no non-photographic maps. In that context, the geologic map of Io, just out from the U.S. Geological Survey, is both novel and pertinent. The maps are based on Voyager- and Galileo-derived photomosaics of Io’s surface released in 2006, but they’re maps. ASU news release, Universe Today.
Ian McDonald has been writing serious works of adult science fiction for many years; the first book of his I read was The Dervish House, and I mean to hunt down his earlier work. But now he’s gone and written a young-adult novel, Planesrunner. It’s the first in the Everness series, which may run seven books, and McDonald has gotten things off to a roaring start.
After British teenager Everett Singh’s physicist father is kidnapped in front of him, he comes into possession of a map of parallel universes, which those who did the kidnapping very much want to retrieve. There are a number of parallel Earths in contact with one another, and ours has just made contact with the rest. To evade capture and rescue his father, Everett jumps into another universe, one filled with coal and airships but not computers like Everett’s tablet. Adventures ensue.
Exciting and tautly paced, with excellent characters (Everett in particular is a wonderful protagonist) and packed with brilliant concepts, Planesrunner reads like a particularly vigorous hybrid of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Westerfeld’s Leviathan (only it’s not derivative of either in the slightest). A fantastic book.
Last month Jennifer sprung a Canon PowerShot S100 on me for my birthday. It’s meant to be a replacement for the SD780 that bit the dust last November (sordid details here), which is to say, a compact camera small enough to have with me at all times (that’s something you just can’t do with a digital SLR). Now the S100 is larger than the SD780, which was small enough to stuff in my jeans pocket (with my keys: yes it got pretty banged up), but it’s still extremely portable, which is the whole point of owning one; it just means it’s going in a jacket pocket instead. It’s still smaller than most other compact cameras I’ve seen, and considerably more able.
Ars Technica calls Old Maps Online “the world’s single largest online collection of historical maps” but that’s not strictly the case. When I first read that I thought: what, bigger than Rumsey? Rumsey has 30,000 maps; Old Maps Online has 60,000. But Old Maps Online is a portal, not a collection: it has a damn slick timeline-and-map interface that brings up maps from the online collections of five institutions (so far), including the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and yes, the David Rumsey Map Collection. At first glance it seems like a good place to start if you’re looking for a map of a specific time and place (as I have done on many occasions), and if they add more institutions to their database it will be even more useful.
Fantasy maps have a very specific style that is actually quite limiting. For an example of what would happen if all maps were subject to the same limitations as fantasy maps, have a look at what is described “a map of the United States ‘à la Lord of the Rings’”; it was posted to Reddit and edited there by divers hands. The version above had the gridlines removed and made more “antique.” It does look like the early Middle-earth maps done by Pauline Baynes and Christopher Tolkien. To match the movie maps, you’d have to replace all the text with overdone uncial calligraphy and Tengwar vowel marks, whereas maps in modern fantasy novels would lose the shading on the mountains and have all the text done in Lucida Calligraphy. Via io9.
Over on Ask MetaFilter, someone asks whether her chronically ill boyfriend might be using his illness as a “get out of jail free” card, and how to deal with it. For something with the potential to be so emotionally explosive (this is something I’ve been accused of on more than one occasion), the replies are surprisingly gentle and thoughtful, with lots of insights into what it’s like to be chronically ill and how difficult it is for the healthy to relate to it, and how tricky it can be to tell the difference between illness, fatigue, depression and, well, laziness.
Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, Triggers, comes out next month, but I’ve been reading it in installments during its serialization in Analog. It’s familiar territory if you’ve read previous Sawyer novels, but it nevertheless provided at least one major surprise. It begins in the guise of a fast-paced near-future techno-thriller: a freak incident during a terrorist attack has left a small group of people able to read the memories of one another; since one of the people is the U.S. president, this poses some security risks. After some tension in which the Secret Service tries to figure out who has access to the president’s memories while everyone involved tries to cope with the situation, near the end the scope suddenly broadens and the book veers from spy thriller to Clarkean sense-of-wonder, and assumes the ethical and philosophical mantle that characterizes so much of Sawyer’s work. In hindsight, the book’s concern with empathy for one’s fellow human beings looms large throughout, despite the sometimes workmanlike prose and thriller pace.
This blog could use some enlivening. So here’s Darth Vader in a kilt on a unicycle playing the bagpipes. Not enough? Here’s another video featuring Darth Vader in a kilt on a unicycle playing the bagpipes. Am I making myself clear? DARTH VADER. In a KILT. On a UNICYCLE. Playing the BAGPIPES.
I think this blog is now sufficiently lively.
I had an MRI on Wednesday. I can safely say that they have no recreational value whatsoever.
The MRI was done to confirm the diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. Those of you who have known me for a while may ask: But wait? Weren’t you diagnosed a long time ago? Yes I was: on January 13, 1998, in fact. But I was diagnosed based on criteria — family history, symptoms, bone scan results — that, while sufficient for a diagnosis per se, aren’t sufficient for the purposes of the Quebec government insofar as access to certain treatments is concerned.
I’m a big fan of adding GPS to everything. I also hate having to update clocks and watches every time I travel or there’s a leap year or something. Seiko has announced a solar-powered watch that uses GPS to keep in time, which sounds awesome — but it’s going to cost something like two thousand dollars. Well, hell. Someday this sort of thing will be within reach.
A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski is an important work of SF that won the 1987 Campbell award. It’s an impressive work of biological science fiction and a feminist, pacifist novel of interplanetary conflict in which the all-female inhabitants of the water world, Shora, who call themselves the Sharers, engage in acts of nonviolent resistance that would be very familiar to those who’ve read their Gene Sharp, as Slonczewski herself has. It’s also explicitly a response, the author says, to works like Herbert’s Dune and Le Guin’s Word for World Is Forest: a water world instead of a desert, non-violence instead of violence, pacifists remaining pacifists, and prevailing.
The Sharers are “lifeshapers” — masters of bioscience and genetic engineering. This draws the attention of the rulers of the nearby planet, Valedon, who move to exploit their planet and resources. Meanwhile, Sharers from the water world, Shora, visit the nearby world Valedon and take a young male, Spinel, back to learn their ways. Spinel becomes our window into the Sharers’ world, but he is by no means the only viewpoint character. If anything, A Door into Ocean, while vast in scope, is at the same time too limited; the story is a bit too pregnant for all its possibilities. There are multivolume series with less ambition.
Paul Schenk’s Atlas of the Galilean Satellites (Cambridge University Press, 2010) collects all the imagery gathered by the Voyager and Galileo missions of the four major moons of Jupiter (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, all discovered by Galileo in 1610) and assembles them into global, quadrangle and area maps. But this heavy, 400-page tome begins with a confession. “This Atlas is not what it should be.” The failure of the high-gain antenna on the Galileo spacecraft meant that far less data could be transmitted back to Earth during its nearly eight-year mission than had been planned. Large tracts of the moons are mapped in low resolution; the fuzzy images yield little detail. But until another mission is sent — the Juno probe now en route to Jupiter will not be studying the moons — this is all there will be for the foreseeable future. For decades, in fact.
I know that T. rex gets all the dinosaur press, but this one was too good not to mention. Researchers estimate that an adult Tyrannosaurus generated a bite force of between 35,000 and 57,000 newtons. For the record, that’s about four to six times more force than an alligator’s bite. It’s also more powerful than any other dinosaur’s measured bite, for that matter, including Allosaurus, Carnotaurus and, wow, even Giganotosaurus. Adult bite force was disproportionately greater than that of juveniles, which suggests a shift to different — and much larger — prey in adulthood. Via io9.