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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell This is the third SF story I've read where a Jesuit priest goes on an expedition to another planet and suffers a spiritual crisis as a result. It's almost becoming a sub-genre. I don't want to call Emilio a whiner or anything - obviously, what happens to him is truly horrible. But, much as I hate to say it, his tragedy seemed lightweight compared to the other two, and I felt disappointed. I was expecting something a little more cosmic in scale.

Of the three stories, the one I found most effective was Arthur C. Clarke's classic short, The Star. They set course for a supernova remnant and find a half-melted planet on the outskirts of what used to be its solar system. There's a deeply buried time-capsule planted by the alien civilization which was destroyed by the explosion. The aliens evidently had plenty of warning, but no chance to escape. This was all they could do. The priest spends a lot of time looking at the records and artifacts, and is greatly moved by them.

They also let the humans get a precise fix on the date of the explosion, which was previously just guessed to within a few centuries. The Jesuit does the calculations, and makes a horrifying discovery. The light from the supernova would have arrived on Earth in 1 A.D. At the end of the story, he is wringing his hands. How could God have destroyed this innocent alien race, just to provide a beacon to shine over Bethlehem?

OK, I found that suitably impressive. And, even though it's poorly written, James Blish's A Case of Conscience is also grandiose enough to justify the SF setting, rather than making it a historical novel set in the colonial era. There's this planet populated by a race of lizard-like aliens. At first, they seem harmless enough. They're kind, peaceful and very civilized. But, if you're prepared to accept the author's loopy theology, the mere fact that they have this perfect society without any belief in God is an affront to the teachings of the Church. Then the aliens also provide living proof of the correctness of evolution, since their young visibly recapitulate all the evolutionary stages after they've hatched. Thus (and I must admit that the details of the argument were a little obscure to me), it follows that the whole planet was created by Satan in order to tempt mankind. There is an apocalyptic showdown, the details of which I shan't reveal, but, even if the book is crap, at least it's crap on a motorcycle.

So, two hard acts to follow. At one point, I wondered if Mary Doria Russell was trying to update the Blish formula, and produce a better-packaged version of it. That might be worth doing. The closer I got to the ending, the harder I found it to see what the payoff could be, and when I got there it thought it was dismayingly prosaic. Did we need to go to Alpha Centauri for this?

Well... I don't want to knock the book too hard. I liked the main characters, even if they were sometimes just too damn nice to be credible, and it was a page-turner. The linguistics and anthropology were well done, and it was uplifting at times. I didn't think it lived up to the advance billing. But I enjoyed it enough that I'll probably read the sequel, which I'm told is better. Stay tuned.


PS This is incredibly geeky, and I know it has nothing to do with the actual story, but I need to share my thought. The asteroid accelerates at 1 g for a year, reaching about 0.93 of the speed of light, or so she claims. Then it decelerates by the same amount for another year, to slow down. To get back home, same procedure again.

Now... whatever can its power source be? Even if you had an anti-matter drive working with perfect efficiency at turning matter into kinetic energy, you'd still use up most of the asteroid as fuel, with all sorts of structural implications. Remember that structural stability was important. And how would you store that quantity of anti-matter? Recall that this is being done a few decades into the future.

Look, she started it. This is what's wrong with an SF scenario. If it had been a historical novel set in e.g. the sixteenth century Amazon rain forest, you wouldn't have to worry about my silly objections. It's bad enough keeping track of the theology, without getting involved in physics too.


PPS And continuing my geeky thought: if the engines are powerful enough to accelerate the asteroid at 1 g, it follows that they could lift it against Earth's gravity. Wow. Those are some engines. I estimate their thrust at around 2 Supermen or 0.8 Powerpuff Girl (say, Buttercup when she's feeling a bit wussy). And we're going to have invented them within the next ten years.

Sorry, sorry, sorry... all totally below the belt, I know. But I'm still blaming her for starting this. She tries to give it a hard-science gloss, but she didn't use enough undercoat.