Something different

This picture illustrates the ill-fated expedition to Australia described in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror story The Shadow Out of Time. The images in the montage are edited versions of public-domain pictures, and include this copy of the Necronomicon. The complete image is © Anthony Dekker.

… On July 10, 1934, there was forwarded to me by the Psychological Society the letter which opened the culminating and most horrible phase of the whole mad ordeal. It was postmarked Pilbarra, Western Australia, and bore the signature of one whom I found, upon inquiry, to be a mining engineer of considerable prominence. Enclosed were some very curious snapshots. I will reproduce the text in its entirety, and no reader can fail to understand how tremendous an effect it and the photographs had upon me. …

The “Pilbarra” in this story (and on the map) is presumably Pilbara Road District, an old name for what is now the town of Port Hedland, Western Australia (although the address given by Lovecraft matches a no longer extant street in the nearby ghost town of Cossack). Lovecraft’s story also refers to a precise geographical location: 22° 3′ 14” S, 125° 0′ 39” E. See more on the Australian aspects of the story at Trollunteer. Propnomicon also did some really good props a few years back.


Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).

Lotus Blue: a book review

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks (377 pages, published 2017)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the hot new post-apocalyptic novel Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. I’m a sucker for the genre, and this novel has shades of Dune, Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the works of Roger Zelazny – yet is not derivative. As a fan of the trans-Australia World Solar Challenge, I particularly liked the caravan of solar trucks on the cover. The cover also shows the falling satellite which marks the emergent threat to the world of the novel.

While opening with a solar-powered trading caravan, the novel has a few flashbacks to the three centuries of war that created the dystopian world of the story: “Mighty tankers were on the move, travelling in tight formation grids. Working together, not attacking each other. Not something you saw every day. Those mechabeasts had once roamed wild and free, following their own whims, their own flights of fancy. But something had changed. Something had gotten hold of their minds. Synchronous rhythm locked them into step. For Marianthe, the sight brought on a stream of flashbacks: glory days, when command and strategy spiked through her arteries like a virus. Like a drug. A platoon full of hearts beating in syncopation. You could feel your brother and sister soldiers, know they had your back, your breath, your sweat.” I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but of course that savage past collides with the protagonist’s present, and that’s where the adventure begins.

Some readers seem to have found the world, and the range of characters, somewhat confusing; I thought the level of complexity of the novel was just about perfect. I enjoyed both the characters and the world in which they were set. This book has had a fair bit of revision and polishing before hitting the shelves, and it shows (although a plethora of typos suggests some rather poor final editing). My only real complaint was that, although I liked Star, the 17-year-old protagonist, I would have liked to have seen more of her older sister Nene, the healer (why does Nene just vanish from the story?). With luck, this novel will have a sequel or two.

By the way, a blog post I read recently suggested that the protagonist of a young adult (YA) novel should:

  • Be aged between 15 to 18 years old (Star is 17)
  • Be autonomous from his or her parents (Star is an orphan)
  • Embark on a journey which has to do with coming of age or some sort of rite of passage (Yes, she does)
  • Learn something about who he or she is (Yes, in spades)
  • Have a ‘voice’ that readers can relate to (Yes again)

So OK, this is a YA novel, although it has not been specifically marketed as such. What that means is that it suits the age range from 14 up to and including adult (as opposed to, say, Great North Road, which is written for adults only). Having said that, for the benefit of parents of younger readers, I should point out that there is some bad language, but that the only mention of sexuality is 25 words on page 3: “Remy. Star should never have slept with him. He’d been hanging around her ever since, as if she would ever make the same mistake again.” And Star has quite a clear sense of what is, and is not, the right thing to do.

For me, this novel ended with a “Planet of the Apes” moment, since Cat Sparks has set part of the novel in the vicinity of her home town of Canberra, Australia. Calling one of the fortress cities “Nisn” was a clue I missed first time around – but I could hardly miss the reference to the Brindabella Range. I also finished this book with a strong sense of wanting to read more from this author. Lotus Blue was one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: 4 stars


The Three-Body Problem trilogy: a book review

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin

I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.

The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).

It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).

These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars


Molecules: a book review

Molecules by Theodore Gray

I recently purchased Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray of (this is the sequel to his superb The Elements, which I have previously reviewed). The book is packed with interesting facts about chemistry as it relates to daily life, and the photographs are absolutely beautiful, as this two-page spread shows:

The structure of the book is necessarily a little ad-hoc, lacking the obvious pattern of The Elements. However, it is still well-organised, informative, and compelling. Everyone interested in science should probably have this one on the coffee table too.

I would give this book five stars, except that nothing could be quite as good as The Elements. I should also note that Theodore Gray’s Reactions is coming out soon. I expect that to be worthwhile as well.

* * * *
Molecules by Theodore Gray: 4 stars


A History of Science in 12 Books

Here are twelve influential books covering the history of science and mathematics. All of them have changed the world in some way:

1: Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC). Possibly the most influential mathematics book ever written, and used as a textbook for more than 2,000 years.

2: De rerum natura by Lucretius (c. 50 BC). An Epicurean, atomistic view of the universe, expressed as a lengthy poem.

3: The Vienna Dioscurides (c. 510 AD). Based on earlier Greek works, this illustrated guide to botany continued to have an influence for centuries after it was written.

4: De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1543). The first modern anatomy book.

5: Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The brilliant sales pitch for the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun.

6: Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827–1838). A classic work of ornithology.

7: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). The book which started the evolutionary ball rolling.

8: Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry (1881). Still (revised, in digital form) the definitive reference work in organic chemistry.

9: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein (1916). An explanation of relativity by the man himself.

10: Éléments de mathématique by “Nicolas Bourbaki” (1935 onwards). A reworking of mathematics which gave us words like “injective.”

11: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs by Niklaus Wirth (1976). One of the early influential books on structured programming.

12: Introduction to VLSI Systems by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway (1980). The book which revolutionised silicon chip design.

That’s four books of biology, four of other science, two of mathematics, and two of modern IT. I welcome any suggestions for other books I should have included.


The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science: a book review

The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry

I recently read the 3rd (2008) edition of John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science – an excellent, though very brief, survey (it is 114 pages, not including the glossary and index).

Henry tends to see considerable continuity between the “natural magic” of medieval thought and the emerging scientific viewpoint, which was based on experiment and mathematical analysis. Personally, I think that he overstates the case a little. It is interesting that he never mentions Giordano Bruno, who was one of those who held on to the older magical view (then again, Bruno was not a scientist).

Replica of a van Leeuwenhoek microscope (photo: Jeroen Rouwkema)

Henry also puts emphasis on the emerging use of scientific instruments, such as the microscope and the telescope.

Galileo’s sketches of the moon, published in his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610

I was a little disappointed in the discussion of Galileo, which did not seem quite correct, but the main flaw in this book is its brevity. I’m giving it three stars.

* * *
The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry: 3 stars