Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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The Delirium Brief

I don’t make a habit of reading series, especially if they go more than two or three books, mostly because I’m unwilling to make the kind of investment required to keep all the books’ moving parts front of mind. One series I have made an exception for is Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, a trope-busting mishmash of spy thriller, bureaucratic satire, deadpan humour and Lovecraftian horror in which demonology is a branch of higher mathematics and Chthuloid threats are dealt with by a government bureaucracy, with all that implies.

In The Delirium Brief (Orbit/Tor.com, July) the eighth book in this series, the threat is the British government itself. The story picks up in the immediate wake of The Nightmare Stacks (2016), in which an invasion of, well, elves from a parallel Earth has left the city of Leeds in ruins, thousands dead, and the British public suddenly very much aware of the existence of the Laundry, as the British secret agency dealing with occult threats is known.

Thrust into the spotlight to deal with the incipient PR nightmare is—oh, hello again—Bob Howard, back in the protagonist spotlight for the first time in three books. The Laundry, blamed for the slaughter in Leeds, is at real risk of being privatized by an austerity-minded British government, and a private sector group headed by the Rev. Raymond Schiller, back after being seemingly left for dead at the end of The Apocalypse Codex (2012), makes its play. Things spiral downward fast: the Laundry is disbanded without a succession plan, and Bob and his co-workers and allies, many of whom are coming back from earlier books, have to go to ground. Schiller has, of course, grander and more sinister plans than contracting for government services—the means to his ends are much squickier than they were last time around. To defeat him, what’s left of the Laundry are forced to make uneasy, lesser-evil alliances with other villains, also from earlier books, that we thought we’d seen the back of.

This is where Calvin says “His eye twitches involuntarily.”

To a certain extent The Delirium Brief justifies my ambivalence about long series, because I can’t see any way you can follow this book unless you’ve read every previous book in the series. (Hell, I’ve read all the books, and the short stories too, and I had a hard time keeping up, because: keeping track of moving parts, problems with; see above.) This is not an entry point. What The Delirium Brief is, is the payoff book, the one that brings together several previously developed narrative threads, with explosive effect. It is to the Laundry Files what The Avengers is to the MCU: the book in which the team, whose members we’ve seen in action before, gathers to form Voltron deal with the big boss threat.

A thing I appreciate about the Laundry series is that it’s about the approaching darkness but still manages to approach the darkness—it’s not a static situation fit for endless sequelizing. There’s an end point, and in the Laundry universe we’re getting there sooner than we’d like or are ready for. The Delirium Brief is, believe it or not, not that end point: CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is still to come. But it’s necessarily a darker and grimmer tome than previous iterations, but in Charlie’s hands it’s not depressingly dark or grim, or grimdark. Black humour has always been a hallmark of this series, and that’s no less the case here as the bodies pile up and the geopolitical situation implodes. The Delirium Brief ends on a messy note, but then so have the last few books. It’s only going to get worse from here.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Snakes of the Eastern United States

The short version of this review: remember Snakes of the Southeast, the field guide by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, the second edition of which I reviewed last year and thought so highly of? Well, now Gibbons has done the same thing, only covering the entire eastern United States, with (appropriately enough) Snakes of the Eastern United States (University of Georgia Press, April 2017). Go get it.

But maybe I should expand on that a bit.

What impressed me about Snakes of the Southeast is that it knew its intended audience: not scholars, not hobbyists, but the general public. And in pitching itself at that audience, it knew what questions needed answering. As I said in my review last year:

The core of the book, the species guide, is detailed but plain-spoken, and does not drown the reader in scholarly references. It’s beautifully laid-out, with full-colour range maps and photographs of the region’s snakes. Its identification guide eschews the detailed scale counts used by professional herpetologists in favour of emphasizing distinctive traits and other factors more easily recognized by amateurs. And with two additional chapters explaining basic snake biology and exploring the relationship between snakes and humans, Snakes of the Southeast becomes a one-book solution: the book that tries to cover all the bases and answer all the questions about snakes that someone in the region might reasonably have.

Snakes of the Eastern United States follows that prescription down the line, which is no surprise given that it shares an author and a publisher with the previous book. The many virtues of Snakes of the Southeast, above and beyond being a species guide, are now accessible to people from outside that region. I’ve got a book I can recommend to more people.

In terms of its function as a species guide, as well as on field guides in general, though, I have a few thoughts.

Once again, this book takes an extremely conservative position on snake taxonomy. Rat snakes, for example, are called Pantherophis instead of the old Elaphe, but the traditional subspecies are maintained “because in most cases ratsnakes from particular geographic regions are easily identifiable based on color and pattern” (p. 198). Neither does Gibbons separate out the Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) into separate species, nor adopt the more recent taxonomic changes to swamp, crayfish and milk snakes. One gets the impression he sees these changes as for change’s sake.

Regional field guides have interesting edge cases, especially when they’re defined by political boundaries (a country, state or province) that don’t necessarily line up with bioregions: there’s always something atypical living in the borderlands. Gibbons defines the eastern United States as every state east of the Mississippi, excluding Minnesota but including Louisiana. So in this case we get central and western species like the Western Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis), Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus), Great Plains Rat Snake (Pantherophis emoryi) and Lined Snake (Tropidoclonium lineatum) at the edges of Gibbons’s maps. Illinois is usually the culprit.

(Speaking of maps: the map for the Butler’s Garter Snake [Thamnophis butleri] doesn’t include its Wisconsin range—a surprising omission given its politically charged status in that state.)

Then there’s the question of how the species are organized. This is actually an important consideration when the guide covers a large area or a large number of species. Some guides, simply list them in alphabetical order after sorting them by family (e.g. boas, colubrids, pit vipers) or separating the nonvenomous from the venomous snakes: this is the approach taken in Ernst and Ernst’s Snakes of the United States and Canada, Rossi and Rossi’s Snakes of the United States and Canada (no relation), and Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes. Others, like Alan Tennant in his state and regional field guides, categorize them in some fashion, e.g., small snakes versus aquatic snakes versus large terrestrial snakes.

Gibbons takes the latter approach, which necessitates some odd judgment calls, like splitting the kingsnakes between the midsize and large terrestrial snakes categories, or putting the closely related (and not that different in size) Short-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis brachystoma) and Butler’s Garter Snake in the small and midsize categories, respectively. It’s the edge cases that’ll get you every time.

But these are quibbles, and there are always quibbles in books like these, which involve the compilation of a huge amount of field data, scientific knowledge, photography and text that must somehow come together in a whole that is not only coherent, but readable. This book achieves that end result far better than most.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The House of Binding Thorns

Sometimes the Law of Sequels does not apply. The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, is a better book than its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings (which I reviewed in 2015). It may simply be that book two can get down to business now that the introductions are out of the way, but the characters, setting, motivations — everything seems clearer and in sharper focus. De Bodard has found her groove.

While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.

The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.

The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.

Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.

The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.

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All Our Wrong Todays

Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, the first novel from the Canadian screenwriter, begins in a consciously retro future — a present day as imagined by the 1950s and 1960s, brought into being by the invention in 1965 of a device that generates unlimited clean energy. In the words of protagonist Tom Barren, it’s “the world we were supposed to have.” Barren is the mediocre son of the inventor of a time machine; through that family connection he finds himself training to be a chrononaut alongside far more qualified and less nepotistic candidates. When an accident puts the time travel project on hold, Barren transports himself into the past and, through an entirely in-character act of fucking things up, messes with the past; when he returns, he finds himself in a dystopic world that is entirely his fault: ours.

This is a book to try the patience of experienced science fiction readers. Not for its prose, which is quick and engaging (there are 137 short chapters in 369 pages), or its clever and well-handled plot. But All Our Wrong Todays begins inauspiciously, and sets off many genre reading protocol alarm bells. A retro future that is not immediately ironic — that’s one thing. Barren is, at least at the outset, one of the most annoyingly pathetic protagonists I have ever encountered. He’s a dim bulb surrounded by luminosities, whose motivations are powered in large part by his manpain, which is generated by his own mediocrity as well as the the fridging of two — count ’em — two female characters. It does get better — Barren does learn better — but the book takes its time getting there, and it’s not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable until it does.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between genre and non-genre science fiction (of which this, like Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, is an example of the latter). One that came to mind during a recent sleepless and pain-filled night is subjectivity. A non-genre story will tend to focus more narrowly on its subject, and that subject’s inner life and personal growth, than a genre story might. It will be about people, rather than events or ideas, whereas a genre story, with its adventure-pulp traditions, might have different emphases: the point of saving the world, after all, is saving the world; character growth is a side effect. Which is to say that All Our Wrong Todays seems off-balance in these emphases to the point of profound solipsism. As we watch its self-absorbed protagonist struggle to become a better person as a result of radically changing the timeline, we might be struggling ourselves to give a shit.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Weird Dinosaurs

Deinocheirus mirificus at the “Dinosaures. Tresors del desert de Gobi” exhibition in CosmoCaixa, Barcelona, February 2011. Photo by Eduard Solà. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I tore through every dinosaur book I could find in every public library I encountered. Some of those books were extremely dated. In the 1970s and 1980s books from the 1940s were still in the children’s section, even science books, so nomina dubia like Antrodemus and Trachodon showed up repeatedly, and the art was, in hindsight, anatomically risible. Kids these days have no idea how bad it used to be.

But there was one book — one I actually owned — that stands out in my memory even now: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs by L. B. Halstead. (The paleontology blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs covers it here and here.) Published in 1975, the book was on the cusp of the dinosaur renaissance and is, in Marc Vincent’s words, “an odd, uneasy melding of new and old ideas here, both in the text and in the art.” Some of those ideas were just plain weird, and since disproven: a species of Compsognathus with paddles instead of hands, stegosaurs whose plates lay flat against the body, that sort of thing.

But the weirdest thing in that book, assuming I’m remembering it correctly (I’m pretty sure this was the book I saw it in), was not a dubious interpretation, but a fossil: two gargantuan, eight-foot-long arms, discovered in Mongolia in 1965, named Deinocheirus. The arms were all that was known of the dinosaur.

What did the rest of Deinocheirus look like, I wondered. The arms had claws, so they clearly had to come from some gigantic theropod. But that would make it bigger than Tyrannosaurus and that’s just crazy talk. The mystery preoccupied me for years. In the eighth grade I actually made Deinocheirus the subject of a two-minute speech I was required to give in English class: I gave a junior-high cargo-cult scientific talk in which I speculated that Deinocheirus was a quadruped, a cat-shaped dinosaur predator. It was the only way I could reconcile the size of those arms.

Deinocheirus mirificus restoration
Deinocheirus mirificus restoration. Art by FunkMonk. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

But in 2014 the rest of Deinocheirus was announced to the world, and the truth proved more bizarre than my childhood imagination. It was an ornithomimosaur, but at 11 metres long and more than six tons in weight, one that traded speed for size and mass. It was horse-faced and hunch-backed, toothless and omnivorous, and apparently food for the local tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus.

The story of Deinocheirus, its initial discovery, and how the rest of it was found nearly forty years later, is just one of the stories that make up John Pickrell’s latest book, Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, out next month from Columbia University Press.

Book cover: Weird DinosaursPickrell’s thesis that after decades of relative stability, the field of dinosaur paleontology is changing more rapidly than ever before. Thanks in part to a generation of Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologist, he writes, “”More dinosaurs are being discovered right now than ever before — and not just a few more: the rate of discovery has been increasing nearly exponentially.” If libraries could get away with having decades-old dinosaur books on the shelves when I was growing up, that’s not the case any more. Even a dinosaur book a decade old is out of date.

The title is a little click-baity, especially coming from a university press; Pickrell is at pains to explain what he means by weird in the introduction: “Really, I mean dinosaurs that fall outside existing stereotypes, but dinosaurs are also weird in the sense that they display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” A weird dinosaur, then, is one that upsets that consensus and our expectations.

Pickrell has plenty of examples: Deinocheirus, to be sure, but also the batlike Yi qi from China, the double-sickle-clawed Balaur bondoc from Romania, feathered ornithischians from Siberia and Alaskan dinosaurs from north of the Arctic Circle. Opalized dinosaur fossils from Australia that had been broken up for their gem value before their paleontological worth was realized.

If you’ve been following paleontological bloggers like Brian Switek you’ll recognize many of the species and stories Pickrell recounts.

But Weird Dinosaurs isn’t just about the weird dinosaurs: each chapter is as much about the discovery of the dinosaur, the process and the people involved in the discovery (replete with colourful characters, intrigue and controversy in some cases — there are some great stories here) and the location it was discovered. One of the reasons why these dinosaurs seem so weird to us is that they’re coming from new sites in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Madagascar, Mongolia, Romania — even Antarctica. The fossil record is the tiniest sample of what existed: you can’t extrapolate the Mesozoic from the Cretaceous bone beds of North America.

So to a certain extent, what’s weird is simply what’s new — like an explorer finding something utterly ordinary for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs were always feathered: we didn’t know they were feathered until recently, and it wasn’t until even more recently that we began to understand that many dinosaurs were feathered — that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs may well have been utterly normal.

Weird Dinosaurs is science journalism: it’s not a technical book, but it’s not written at an introductory level either. A certain level of dinosaur knowledge is required. If you know the difference between a saurischian and an ornithischian, and know the general dinosaur groups (sauropods, ceratopsians) and the more commonly known species, you should be fine. But since these are the sorts of facts that dinosaur-mad children have down cold before the age of eight, this should not limit Pickrell’s readership too much.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Perfect Machine

In Canadian sf circles, Brett Savory is best known as half of the husband-wife duo (with Sandra Kasturi) responsible for ChiZine PublicationsBrett — with whom, full disclosure, I am somewhat socially acquainted — recently stepped back from his publishing duties to focus on his writing. Not coincidentally, he has a new novel out: A Perfect Machine, while published by Angry Robot, is very much in the ChiZine ethos of dark and seriously messed-up speculative fiction, inhabiting the crossroads between science fiction, horror and bizarro fiction.

A Perfect Machine’s premise is bizarre enough: a secret society of Hunters and Runners operating on the margins of society, protected by a kind of amnesia that prevents outsiders from remembering what’s going on. Runners, when shot, do not die — they accumulate lead. Henry Kyllo is the first Runner (to his knowledge) whose body reaches 100 percent metal content — at which point, Runners believe, they achieve ascension. What follows is the story of his weird transformation, peppered by violence, intrigue and survival in the gutters.

From time to time while reading this relatively short book I would pause and mutter under my breath, “This is some seriously fucked-up shit, Brett.” Which I’m sure is what he was aiming for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book succeeds, because for me, at least, it didn’t. Its characters are Tourette’s-afflicted cardboard clichés. Its prose aspires to a toughness, a street-level grit, that it does not achieve, with repeated use of sentence fragments as paragraphs that gets old fast. And its transfigurative ending comes out of nowhere, failing to achieve anything other than absurd bathos. It’s quick-paced, but feels rushed — it’s a potboiler with some deliciously messed-up imagery, but it came off the stove a bit too soon. A Perfect Machine is basically a B movie in book form, with all that implies, both good and bad.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Stars Are Legion

Book cover: The Stars Are LegionI’ve read Kameron Hurley’s stuff before — namely her first novel, the Nebula-nominated God’s War (Night Shade, 2010) — so I knew what I was getting myself into with her violent and visceral new space opera, The Stars Are Legion, which comes out next month from Angry Robot in the U.K. and Saga Press in the U.S. and Canada.

A tale of intrigue, war, and betrayal set among a fleet of artificial worlds travelling through space, The Stars Are Legion could easily have been a less distinctive work, but for the fact that the worlds are organic — and, incidentally, dying — and exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans that inhabit them, who give birth to parts that maintain them. That Hurley’s archipelago of worlds is populated entirely by women is, in other words, essential to the survival of the whole apparatus, as well as to the story. But as regular Hurley readers might expect, survival is neither gentle nor pretty: those with body horror or other squicks be warned.

The main protagonist is Zan, a woman who has lost her memory. Sent repeatedly to attack a mystery world, Zan has no idea who she is or what she is supposed to do, though she has conspirators and collaborators who do, including the second protagonist, Jayd, who is given in marriage to the ruler of another world. The intrigue surrounding Jayd’s marriage is one plot thread; Zan remembering who she is, and her original mission, is another. The latter also enables Hurley to pull a Tiptree, viz., “start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” We’re just as much in the dark as Zan is; the shape of the universe reveals itself in starts and fits, as much to us as it does to her. (Though certain McGuffins do appear on obvious mantlepieces, and the reveal can be guessed at.) In the process of finding herself and her purpose, Zan goes on an unexpected journey through unexpected terrain, with scenes that to me are redolent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, that despite the blood, bone and viscera, manage a kind of awe that verges on the Clarkean.

This is a space opera like none other I’ve read, but it nonetheless combines adventure, passion, sound worldbuilding and compelling storytelling with that elusive sense of wonder so highly sought after in science fiction — and, it must be said, seldom found. Those who demand it may not expect to find it here, but find it here they will — that is, if they have the stomach for it.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

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The Glass Universe

The Harvard computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.
The Harvard Computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

On December 25 the American astronomer Vera Rubin, whose discovery that galaxies were rotating too fast given the mass of their constituent stars provided evidence for the theory of dark matter, died at the age of 88. Her obituaries note the challenges Rubin faced as a pioneering woman in an overwhelmingly male field: prevented from doing graduate work at Princeton, she got her Ph.D. at Georgetown in 1954; in 1965 she became the first woman allowed access to the Palomar Observatory. In the June 2016 issue of Astronomy, Sarah Scoles decried the fact that Rubin’s discovery was somehow insufficient for a Nobel Prize, which she will now never win.

the-glass-universeInasmuch as Rubin was a pioneer, she was not the first woman in astronomy, nor the first to obtain a Ph.D., nor the first to be responsible for a discovery that fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the cosmos — nor the first for whom recognition was unfairly delayed. Some of the women who came before her are the subject of Dava Sobel’s new book, The Glass Universe, coincidentally out this month from Viking.

From the 1880s to the 1980s, the Harvard College Observatory amassed a collection of half a million glass photographic plates of the night sky, and catalogued hundreds of thousands of stars’ luminosity and spectra. The work, along with some significant scientific discoveries, was largely done by a group of women known as the Harvard Computers. If you watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, you saw a bit of this in the eighth episode, “Sisters of the Sun,” which talked about the computers, especially Annie Jump Cannon, as well as Cecilia Payne, who used the computers’ data to redefine our understanding of the makeup of stars.

The Glass Universe charts the history of the group, from the bequest by Henry Draper’s widow, to Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering’s decision to hire women to do the work (less expensive), to the achievements and discoveries that followed. It’s not a scholarly work, though it’s assiduously researched, drawing on the correspondence of the principal figures. Nor is it an explicitly feminist analysis, or for that matter strictly focused on the women themselves, as the narrative takes the reader far and wide, to remote stations in Peru and South Africa. Sobel (whose previous work includes Longitude, the story of Harrison’s chronometers) provides context, and a whole history, to help us understand not only who these women were, but what they accomplished.

The sheer volume of data collected — Pickering agonized over losing the irreplaceable glass plates to fire — was the basis not only of the Bright Star Catalogue and the Henry Draper Catalogue (if you see a star identified by a number with an HD prefix, that’s where it came from), but of the discoveries that resulted from the mass of data collection, and the fact that the principals stayed at their work for decades, building up a wealth of experience and perspective at, frankly, graduate student pay rates.

It is a paradox of popular culture that while the women of the Observatory who made these discoveries received credit for their work — first in acknowledgements in Pickering’s own work, later as co-authors and authors in their own right, and in the honours they eventually received from their peers (though not, it must be said, from Harvard University itself) — their names have not penetrated the popular-science zeitgeist to the same extent as, say, Hubble’s, Lowell’s or Tombaugh’s. You might argue that stellar spectra are a more rarefied subject, but I’d counter that (a) we know who Hubble is, and his discoveries are a direct consequence of their work; and (b) I knew what their discoveries were, I just didn’t know who made them.

I knew, for example, about the system of stellar classification based on stellar spectra (“Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me” and all that), but I didn’t know that it was developed by Annie Jump Cannon — as a compromise between earlier systems devised by Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury. Classifying stars was long, tedious, repetitive work — women’s work — but it was vital, and enduring.

I knew what a Cepheid variable was, and how the relationship between its pulsation and its luminosity allowed it to be used to calculate interstellar (and later intergalactic) distances; I didn’t know that this relationship had been discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  And it was Cecilia Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) who determined that Cannon’s spectral classes were a function of temperature, and that stars were mainly made up of hydrogen and helium. These are fundamentals of stellar astronomy, and these women were the ones who discovered them.

I’m trying to reconcile the hostility Rubin faced with the relatively warm reception given the women of the Harvard College Observatory. It’s possible that Rubin’s obituaries and Sobel’s book are each reporting a different side of the same coin: the story in both cases is incomplete. But the women of the Observatory were likely seen as exceptional, which is to say exceptions, and as such less of a threat to the profession. In any case, the field needed their work, their data and their discoveries, and was happy to have it. And in the end, the Harvard Computers, once referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” managed to transcend what in science is called the “harem effect” — the hiring of large numbers of female subordinates at lower pay — to reshape our understanding of the stars.

See also NPR’s review of The Glass Universe and National Geographic’s interview with Dava Sobel.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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