Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review - Science, Evolution, and Creationism by The National Academy of Sciences and The Institute of Medicine

Short review: Evolution is science. Creationism is not.

Evolution's true
Creationism is bunk
Laid out quite clearly

Full review: Although it is only seventy pages long, Science, Evolution, and Creationism packs a substantial intellectual punch in its handful of pages. Published by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, the committee responsible for writing and revising this volume is replete with experts in almost every field of science (including Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of my personal favorite public advocates for science education) and the academic weight they give to the project shows through in the finished project. Intended as a basic guide to what science is, why the theory of evolution by natural selection is well-grounded and thus far uncontested science, and why creationism is decidedly not science and has no place in a science classroom, this book delivers on these promises quite handily.

The book is divided into three main chapters plus a brief conclusion. In the first, the basic elements of science are described and theory of evolution by natural selection is explained. In the second chapter, the compelling evidence in favor of the theory of evolution by natural selection is presented. In the third, the creationist "explanations", including the theory of intelligent design, are reviewed, and the fundamental flaws in them are detailed. The chapter also explains why creationism is simply not science, has no place in the science classroom, and includes a very brief overview of some of the legal decisions supporting this view. Finally, in the conclusion, the authors reiterate that science should be taught in science classes, and religious based views should not.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism is an excellent primer on the difference between actual science and creationism. Presented in a straightforward and easy to read way, the book presents the basic facts of what, inside the scientific community is a non controversy (despite what lunatic creationists would claim), and skewers the wild and inaccurate claims of those who advocate teaching superstitious nonsense to children in the form of creationist myths. For anyone who is interested in a clear, concise, and quite accessible account of what science is, why evolution is science and why creationism is not, this is the perfect place to start.

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Review - Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer

Short review: Intelligent design is crap. Michael Shermer explains why it is crap.

And Intelligent Design
Are worthless junk

Full review: It is almost unbelievable that there would be a need for this book in 2010. Given the last 150 years of study in the field of biology and other sciences, and the numerous converging lines of evidence that uniformly support the notion that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the one that best describes how the wide variety of flora and fauna came to exist on the Earth, the fact that there is a noticeable segment of the population that still adheres to the magical world view propped up by Bronze Age mythology is somewhat stunning. The idea that some alleged academics who should know better have trumped up a half-baked theory that is little more than Bronze Age mythology dressed up in fancy clothes is even more perplexing.

We live in a world in which the inexplicable is seemingly commonplace and as a result Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is, unfortunately, a book that is necessary. The book itself, however, is anything but unfortunate, and serves as a powerful antigen to the insidious lies and disinformation spread by groups such as the Discovery Institute and their willing accomplices in dishonesty such as Michael Behe, Michael Egnor, and William Dembski. In his book, Shermer first lays out the basic facts concerning Darwin's theory and the science that has followed from it and then turns to flaying the rotten flesh off of the arguments made by Intelligent design advocates to reveal the utter lack of intellectual muscle or bone supporting them. Ray Comfort and his ilk should truly fear this sort of book, because it exposes the utter foolishness of their positions in exacting detail.

The amount of time Shermer spends explaining Darwin's theory and the evidence supporting it is fairly brief, which some readers may find disappointing. But giving yet another comprehensive explanation concerning why Darwin was correct and marshaling the overwhelming evidence that has been amassed that supports this conclusion is not the point of the book. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of books one could turn to for just such an explanation, many of which were written by much more qualified experts on Darwinian theory than Mr. Shermer. The main thrust of this book is to expose the shoddy thinking behind the creationist fairy tale that goes by the name of Intelligent Design.

Shermer systematically walks the reader through the genesis and promotion of the Intelligent Design theory. First he examines why there are people who, despite the solid scientific basis for the theory of evolution, there are some people who simply refuse to accept it as valid. This section is made particularly powerful because Shermer is connect the thinking of such people with his own thought processes when he was a younger man and an ardent conservative Christian who rejected the theory of evolution. He then turns to evaluate the Intelligent design hypothesis (one cannot call something so weak and poorly founded a "theory" using the language of science), and examines both the arguments made against the theory of evolution and the relatively small number of arguments made in favor of Intelligent Design. In a step-by-step manner, Shermer lays out the arguments made advocating the creationist/intelligent design position, and then clearly and effectively demonstrates why they are completely without foundation.

After destroying the intellectual foundations (such as they are) of Intelligent Design, Shermer turns his attention to the tactics used the its proponents, noting that the primary reason one can tell that they are not advocating science is the way they go about promoting their hypothesis. Rather than, as an actual scientific movement would, conducting research and publishing papers in scientific journals to convince other experts in the field of the correctness of their views, they spend their time engaged in political advocacy, subverting school boards, and trying to get the court system to declare their religiously based ideas to be valid fodder for classroom science. Fortunately for science education, the "cedesign proponentists" movement (a term covering both creationists and Intelligent Design advocates in the wake of revelations concerning the creationist/intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial) has been singularly unsuccessful in the modern era in convincing the U.S. courts to accept their religious nonsense as anything other than religious nonsense.

Finally, Shermer turns his attention to the question of whether science and religion can coexist peacefully, and why Christians should not only not fight against the theory of evolution by natural selection, but should embrace it. As a humorous coda, Shermer provides a rewritten account of the Genesis creation story that accords with the somewhat loony world view promoted by creationist chuckleheads like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind, exposing their buffoonery via a sharply worded satire.

This book is, unfortunately, going to be of almost no value in convincing an ardent cdesign proponentist of the error of their ways. Many people who hold such views are simply immune to logic and reason. Conversely, those who are already firmly in the reality based camp of people who accept the truth of the science revealed by the last fifteen decades of study will also find this book of limited utility, although it would serve useful as a means of arming themselves against the silly arguments they will encounter when dealing with the anti-Darwin lobby. The book is probably most useful for people who are, in effect, fence-sitters, undecided or merely uninformed on the issue who could be swayed by rational argument and evidence. For such people, this book would serve as an excellent first step in examining the evidence and forming an educated opinion. For all but the most ardent of cdesign proponentists, this book is an excellent resource, and well worth reading.

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Review - Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Short review: Humans are irrational, but systemically so, in a manner that can be studied.

When you study them
Humans are irrational
Predictably so

Full review: Traditional economic theory is built upon the idea that people are essentially rational, and upon that foundation it constructs demand curves, supply curves, elasticity functions, and a vast number of other concepts. In recent years, however, a group of economists, often with training in the field of psychology, have begun to test and challenge some of the foundational assumptions of economic theory. This field is known as "behavioral economics", and unlike much of traditional economics, it incorporates field experiments into its repertoire in order to test the questions posed by human behavior. Predictably Irrational is Dan Ariely's enjoyably readable introduction to the field of behavioral economics, and one of the more interesting conclusions that this branch of economic study has to offer: people are not rational, but they are irrational in consistent and predictable ways.

In the book, Ariely takes the reader through an examination of several of the basic concepts of economic theory, and explains why experimental investigation casts doubt upon the assumptions those concepts are built upon. Tackling topics ranging from how we assess value, to why people may not actually have preferences that make sense, to the effect prices have on our decision-making ability and why and how people cheat, the book repeatedly demonstrates that people don't behave in the tidy, sensible ways that most everyone has always assumed they do, but rather that our decisions appear to be profoundly affected by external factors of which we are only vaguely aware. The most interesting examples come at the corners of the commercial marketplace - the fact that we respond in wholly irrational ways when confronted with something that is presented as being "free", and how our reaction to "free" can change radically depending on whether we evaluate it in the context of a commercial or social exchange; or the fact that our expectations have an enormous influence on our reaction to a particular item or service regardless of the actual objective efficacy of that item or service.

Two of the overarching examinations of the book deal with the question of commercial transactions as opposed to social norms, and an extensive study in the conditions under which people cheat. To a certain extent, these two issues seem to be related - from the experiments into the question of cheating, it seems reasonably clear that the true deterrent to cheating is not the potential commercial penalty of being caught and financially penalized, but the social pressure to behave in an ethical manner. Unfortunately, Ariely doesn't follow his experiments to their logical conclusion in the book and make this connection for the reader. And this omission highlights what may be the only notable flaw in the book, which is that Ariely, probably out of an abundance of caution, does not do much more than explain what irrational behavior people are observed to engage in, but does not follow up to try to explain why people might display this behavior in more than a purely superficial way. To a certain extent this is understandable, since the experiments he described don't address motivations, but rather merely assess behavior (which is probably why they are experiments in the field of behavioral economics). Some people might criticize some of the conclusions the experiments point to as obvious, but the fundamental basis of any field of inquiry must be to establish that the obviously true is, in fact, obviously true and not merely an unfounded assumption. The deeper point is not merely that people make what could objectively be termed as poor choices, but, as is demonstrated over and over in the experimental results described in the book, that people do so in predictable ways that can be replicated and studied.

However, even with this minor (and quite possibly unsolvable) gap in the research presented, the book remains a compelling study into actual human behaviors, and an application of that revealed behavior to the field of economics. Although he does not explain why so many people feel compelled to cheat in small ways, Ariely's studies go a long way towards explaining why cheating in the corporate world seems to be endemic, and, via experimental results, gives some ideas that could potentially be used to deter such behavior. Similarly, while he does not explore why people view social transactions so differently from the way they view commercial transactions, his research clearly shows that they do have these differing views. Ariely's writing style is casual and readable, making it approachable even for someone with a limited background in the academic world of economics, but it is detailed enough that even those with a solid background in the area will find the book engaging and interesting. For anyone who is interested in understanding the nature of the decisions that people actually make, this book is a must read.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol 34, No. 12 (December 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly
Warfriends by Tom Purdom
Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick
Sins of the Father by Sara Genge
Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert
Variations by Ian Werkheiser
Excellence by Robert Reed
The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey

Poems included:
Xenoaesthetics by F.J. Bergmann
Sailor by Mark Rich
Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor

Full review: The December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is, taken as a whole, one of the best issues of the magazine in quite a while. It is one of the best issues of any genre magazine in recent memory. With a collection of stories that are all good, and even a selection of poetry that is strong, the magazine is simply a superior example of one of the most prominent magazines in the science fiction field.

The first story in the issue, and also featured on the cover of the magazine, Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly follows the crew of a cargo ship on its long journey through the asteroid belt. Little more than glorified janitors, the crew is made up of a variety of misfits, including the narrator, a cloned genetically engineered girl who rebelled against the parent who decided she should be optimized for crewing interstellar ships. An accident on the journey transforms the story into an engineering puzzle, but unlike many others, it is a puzzle that cannot be solved through clever sleight of hand. Though the story focuses on the petulant rebellion of an angry teenager, the tragedy in the story unfolds on its own. The story is quite good, and unlike some other recent examples, worthy of being the featured story in the issue.

After a very long dormancy, the setting Tom Purdom created in The Tree Lord of Imeten is revisited in Warfriends. The story fleshes out the long-standing conflict between the two intelligent races of Imeten, and the delicate alliance inspired by the human interlopers that has united them against their common enemy the Drovils. Told from the perspective of the Itji, long treated as slaves by the tree-dwellers, the story highlights the sacrifices made by those formerly held in bondage that keep the fragile coalition together. Though humans are known to the characters, they do not appear directly in the story, which is told entirely from an alien perspective, and told quite well.

Those who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand will probably be disappointed in the darkly sobering Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick. Having abandoned the rigidly controlled cities for the libertarian utopia of unregulated the Russian countryside, the protagonist picks up an all-business hooker looking for a ride, and discovers that a completely free landscape is not exactly what he expected. Sitting alongside Swanwick's story is Sins of the Father by Sara Genge, a thematically very different story about a merman exiled to live among the isolated and heavily regulated remnants of humanity. Rigidly controlled by both social custom and the edicts of the sea-dwellers, humanity and the exiled protagonist struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. In the end, a noble sacrifice is made in the face of a brutal government and a desperate plea issued. The story is a dark vision of a possible future, and beautiful in a cruel way.

Another story set in an all too possible feeling future is Excellence by Robert Reed, in which economic catastrophe has resulted in a world where success in fictitious online games has become of paramount importance to many people. The protagonist, a moderately well-off deadbeat and superlative game player, is approached with an offer too tempting to turn down that promises to make him a wealthy man. The story has some major twists in the end, and the true meaning of the title only becomes clear in its final lines. Overall, it is a good story that makes a strong statement concerning what is necessary to optimize human potential. Also exploring the concept of human potential is The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey, which imagines a future in which human potential has been so maximized that further improvements can only be made with extreme dedication and sacrifice. Set against this level of commitment are humans who have been modified to superiority, either before or after birth, and their devalued accomplishments are contrasted with those of the "natural" humans they regularly outperform. But because their accomplishments are easy, they get no attention compared to the objectively lesser but subjectively superior accomplishments of unmodified humans. The central character wrestles with the decisions that he will be faced with if he does accomplish the virtually impossible task of setting a new world record, wondering whether the sacrifices are worth it, and contemplating the relative value of accomplishments. Overall, it is an insightful and thought-provoking story.

In counterpoint to Excellence and The Prize Beyond Gold is Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert, a story about maximizing the potential of artificial intelligence. The plot of the story is mostly just a framing device to explore the idea of a machine intelligence that becomes sufficiently advanced to contemplate the meaning of beauty, even when its designers don’t intend for it to do so. One would not think that the story of a former child prodigy attempting to deal with the death of his genius father would be thematically unified with the story of an artificially intelligent unmanned drone however Variations by Ian Werkheiser also contemplates the question of beauty, positing a technology that purports to allow one to capture the reality of an artist's live performances, even after he has died. After years of anger, the protagonist of the story finds his own beauty in his relationship with his father, and finds an empty shell at the end of his journey.

Even the poetry in this issue is memorable. Xenoaesthetics by F. J. Bergmann illustrates the longing for art that an alien species that never created the concept feels when confronted by humanity. The poem Sailor by Mark Rich is an ode to a solar sail, while Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor captures the sterility and prison-like feel of a supposedly protective domed city.

The most critical feature of the December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is that there are no weak stories. What pushes this issue into rarefied territory is that many of the stories are not merely decent, but are decidedly above average to very good in quality. From Plus or Minus, to Warfriends, to The Prize Beyond Gold, to Variations, the magazine follows great stories with more great stories. Even Freia in the Sunlight, which is probably the weakest story in the bunch, is a good story that would have been a standout in many other months. Consequently, this issue is strongly recommended.

Note: This volume contains Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Previous issue reviewed: October/November 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: January 2011

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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Review - Coping with Difficult People by Robert M. Bramson

Short review: Difficult people suck. This book will make working with them suck less.

Follow this book and
Difficult people who suck
Will seem to suck less

Full review: Difficult people are a fact of life. Everyone knows someone or several someones who are regularly just impossible to deal with. These are not people who occasionally have a bad day and act out, these are people who consistently display particular types of behavior that engender rancor and anger among those they deal with. In the everyday life one can generally avoid difficult people and the headaches they cause. In the workplace, on the other hand, difficult people are often in positions of authority, or are clients, or suppliers, or are in any number of other positions that make dealing with them necessary. That it is necessary does not, of course, make it any more pleasant. In fact, as the authors of Coping with Difficult People note, one of the primary causes of workplace dissatisfaction that spur people to leave their jobs is the heartburn caused by having to regularly deal with a difficult person on the job.

Coping with Difficult People is one of the rare books offering workplace advice that does not have an overarching theory described in its pages. Nor does the book have any kind of comprehensive advice to plug into your life to maximize your productivity or make your coworkers sing your praises. Instead, the book is about exactly what the title says: dealing with the difficult people you encounter in your life, and specifically the difficult people you have to deal with because your employment depends upon it. Instead, as the book identifies several different types of difficult people, it offers practical advice for dealing with each type, offering strategies designed to use the difficult person's personality traits to your advantage.

The book identifies broad categories of of difficult people: hostile aggressive people, complainers, unresponsive people, incredibly nice people who never deliver, negative people who throw a wet blanket on everything, know-it-alls, and indecisive stallers with a few subtypes described in some of the larger categories. For example, the know-it-all category includes two types - people who actually are experts on something, and people who just puff themselves up as experts with no real knowledge of the subject at hand. The book takes each type in turn, walking the reader through examples of the behaviour displayed by that particular brand of difficult person, showing the reader how to identify exactly what kind of difficult person they are dealing with, and then offering concrete pointers on how to deal with them, defuse their behavior, and possibly influence them to do what you want them to do, or at the very least to prevent them from unloading their nastiness on you.

Of all the books I have read that offer tips on how to make one's working life more tolerable, this is the one that I found had the most immediate practical value. Because the author elected to deal with the problem in discrete segments using individually tailored solutions, rather than trying to come up with some sort of unifying theory to explain all of the difficult behaviors, the advice is detailed and specific, and thus quite useful. Although there will, of course, be outliers who will not respond to the techniques set forth in this book, for the most part, using the methods as presented will probably make one's working life that much easier. For anyone who has to deal with someone who always complains, or tries to roll over them like a runaway tank, simply won't make a decision, or any number of other annoying habits, this book is a must read.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Review - The Leadership Event: The Moments of True Leadership That Move Organizations by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown

Short review: Rah! Rah! Leadership is an event!

Leadership! Huzzah!
It is an event! Huzzah!
Go do it! Huzzah!

Full review: The Leadership Event is more or less a companion book to The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership (read review), also written by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown. At only a 103 pages, The Leadership Event is a quick read, and little more than a summary of the theories outlined in The 9 Natural Laws. In this regard, The Leadership Event is at the same time better and worse than its thematic parent. Because it is so short, the book boils down Blank and Brown's wandering theory of leadership into its essential elements. On the other hand, the brevity means that the book gives some areas a short shrift with insufficient explanation, making it less than useful as a stand alone volume.

The essential element of this book is that leadership is not an attribute that some people have and others do not, but it is rather an opportunity seized at the proper moment by the individual who is prepared to take the risk of stepping forward. The book lays this idea out and then spends much of its pages encouraging the reader to do just that when the opportunity arises, or to support someone who steps forward themselves in order to aid them in their leadership efforts. As a result, much of the book is an extended effort at cheerleading, trying to get the reader excited enough to jump at opportunities and claim their spot at the front of the pack.

While this book is not one that I would recommend as a stand-alone volume, due to the shallow treatment it gives of the subject matter, as a handy reference to refresh one's memory of the ideas contained in the much longer The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership it is worth keeping on one's bookshelf. That way, whenever you need inspiration to jump forward, you can get a quick refresher on the theory and a little bit of cheerleading to pump you up for the leap.

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Review - The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown

Short review: A quirky book that tries to compare leadership to quantum physics.

With natural laws
Leadership's like quantum physics
Well, no, not really

Full review: The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership is one of the many management advice books one can pick up that claim to offer suggestions that will transform the reader from an ineffective bumbler to a skilled leader who will inspire those around them into heroic efforts on the job. Given that the market for such books is so saturated, each new book must come up with some sort of unique element that will set it apart from the crowd. To this end, Warren Blank and Aaron Brown made the rather odd choice to try to draw a parallel between leadership in the workplace and physics. The authors assert that they are not so much creating the concepts outlined in the book as discovering them, much as physicists through history have discovered the laws of the universe, hence they are revealing the "natural laws" of leadership rather than inventing them.

The authors carry the physics analogy even further, stressing a difference between their theory of leadership, which they compare to quantum mechanics and dub "quantum leadership" and the traditional thinking concerning management and leadership which they compare to Newtonian or "classical" physics. One of the central arguments of the book, built upon this comparison of quantum mechanics and leadership, is that leadership is not a continuous attribute, but rather a phenomenon that happens in reference to discrete events. The laws also emphasize that leadership results not from position, but from the willingness of others to follow the person who seizes the initiative and takes the lead. In effect, the theory allows for the book to be of interest not just to people in management positions, but to anyone who thinks that they could be a "leader". A cynic might suggest that this allows for more books to be sold. An optimist might decide that the theory is just that good.

Although I'm not entirely convinced, I lean a little towards the optimistic side of the coin with respect to the strategies outlined in the book. The nine laws, as outlined in the book, generally seem like good guidelines, although some are so trivially obvious that their inclusion seems almost extraneous, and others are phrased in such "New Age" style language as to make them seem silly, such as "Leadership is a field of interaction", and "Consciousness . . . creates leadership". These elements, however, seem to hover on the fringes of the argument, apparently placed into the framework to get to the presumably pleasing number of nine laws. The core argument - that leadership is an event based phenomenon in which one seizes the initiative and inspires willing followers - seems to be a fundamentally sound one.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a failing that seems to plague a lot of management advice books: while it gives a theoretical framework, and a couple of "examples" of the framework being put into action, the people who will be most effective at implementing the concepts from the book in the real world are people who were probably already really good at leading others to begin with. For those who are merely average or actually inept, the book will probably have far less utility, because telling someone that they must take risks and accept uncertainty is very different than giving them concrete strategies for actually doing things that will make them better in noticeable ways. In effect, this book, like so many similar books, is probably mostly effective for elevating good leaders to being great but less useful for changing bad leaders into decent ones. This isn't really a condemnation of the book, so much as it is a failing common to most books on this subject. That said, while I doubt the usefulness of the book will be diminished for those who are not good at leading already, the strategies outlined in the book should be of at least some value to anyone who reads it.

Despite a somewhat strangely constructed framing mechanism that compares the book's theory of leadership to quantum physics, and a couple of less than impressive or useful "natural laws", this is a fairly decent book about leadership. The overall thrust of the book makes a strong statement about what a leader is, and what leaders do. The only real weakness is that it is somewhat less than useful for making a leader out of someone who doesn't already know how to do the things that the authors assert are the components of seizing the leadership moment. However, this book will probably be of great value to someone who has skills but needs to focus them more effectively, and will be of at least some value even for those people who do not and want to try to acquire them.

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Musical Monday - The Unbroken Thread by Symphony of Science

Jane Goodall is featured in this month's issue of National Geographic in an article about her expansive and brilliant career. Consequently, it seems fitting to put up a link to a another video by melodysheep in a song titled The Unbroken Thread in which she is featured using clips from her TED Talk.

Also featured are Carl Sagan using clips drawn from the Cosmos series and David Attenborough using clips from Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, The Life of Mammals, and The Living Planet, among other sources.

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Previous Musical Monday: A Glorious Dawn by Symphony of Science
Subsequent Musical Monday: Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury by Rachel Bloom

Symphony of Science Playlist     Musical Monday Playlists

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 12 (December 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte
Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett
Primum Non Nocere by H.G. Stratmann
The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper
Deca-Dad by Ron Collins
Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick
A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad
Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy

Science fact articles included:
Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler by Shane Tourtellotte

Full review: The December 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a strong issue that is marred by one truly disappointing story. Unlike many issues, there appear to be no overarching themes to the stories that appear in its pages, and this variety results in a mostly good collection of stories that are by and large quite enjoyable to read.

The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte is a subtle time travel story, told from the perspective of a citizen of Rome who meets and establishes a relationship with a mysterious stranger. It becomes pretty clear very quickly that the stranger is more than he seems, and even his origins are only thinly disguised from the reader. The story confronts one of the primary questions of time-travel more or less head on, or at least the primary actor in the story attempts to intentionally do so, but the resolution is ambiguous, giving the story a pathos that elevates it to more than the standard time traveler tale. Connected to the story is the science fact article Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler, also by Shane Tourtellotte. In this companion piece, Tourtellotte describes methods by which a frugal time-traveler could earn a profit by transporting goods back with him on his journey. The article is fairly light on the "science", being mostly an exploration of how prices for luxury goods have changed over the centuries, but it is still interesting, especially in the context of the accompanying fiction.

Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett is a sequel to The Hub of the Matter, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of Analog. All of the characters return to study the mysterious hub, David still seeking to break the monopoly held by the alien Dosperhag, and the Dosperhag still willing to go to murderous lengths to preserve their secrets. Despite this rather dangerous background, the story is quite humorous, with strange alien motivations confounding the human characters at every turn. The story twists and turns until it reaches something of an equilibrium, a situation that the protagonists aren't particularly happy about, but which they are forced to accept. As with the previous installment in the series, the story is enjoyable, and this new tale strengthens and builds upon the previously laid foundation.

Dystopian futures are a classic feature of science fiction, and the dystopian vision of a government that regulates the behavior of its citizens for their own good has a fairly long-standing pedigree as well. Primum Non Nocere by H. G. Stratmann posits just such a world, in which the government, though not explicitly compelling people to eat healthy and exercise de jure, has constructed an interconnected web of incentives and requirements that result in just such a situation de facto. The story is set in a treatment facility intended to rehabilitate those who have managed to circumvent the rules and bring them back to healthy status. The story has a major twist at the end, but unfortunately, the twist only works because Stratmann has played dirty pool with his viewpoint character, an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise strong story.

The issue features two first contact stories, although they are markedly different. The first, titled The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper, is set on a distant alien planet with a failing human colony struggling to survive an environment full of hostile fauna. The protagonist seeks to domesticate the one nonthreatening creature the colonists are familiar with. Things don't go exactly according to plan, and there are some surprising revelations made in the story which lightens a fairly depressing story and makes for a satisfying conclusion. The other first contact story is Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick, which takes a decidedly more comic tone than Cooper's grim tale. A zookeeper at odds with the zoo director in a failing zoo is sent a pair of unusual, and apparently unnatural animals to care for. As with The Hebras, the new arrivals turn out to be more than anyone expected. Although the "twist" in the story is not entirely unexpected, it is still fun.

Dealing with the effects that time dilation might have on future space travelers, the story Deca-Dad by Ron Collins is told from the perspective of an Earth denizen meeting his distant ancestor returning from a lifetime of interstellar voyages. Though divided by time and attitude, the two turn out to be more alike than the narrator believes, and the story ends on a note that I found to reflect my own feelings about the human spirit.

Although it is set in the future, A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad seems somewhat out of place in a science fiction magazine. The reason for this is the central "technology" of the story is a placebo pill that apparently works better than actual drugs. The story hints that this may be due to the homeopathic basis for the pills, which moves the story directly into the realm of fantasy as opposed to science fiction. The story more or less meanders pointlessly until it wraps itself up in a somewhat silly manner. Overall, the story seems like an attempt to do something of a dramedy-type story in written fiction, and for that reason, plus the stupid "science" it features, the story seems to be more or less a waste of pages. Continuing the long-running humor series, this month's Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy also seems set in the future but lacks any real science fiction element unless equal employment opportunity standards run wild could be construed as science fiction. The story is at least humorous and, as usual for Probability Zero segments, quite short, so it is enjoyable nonetheless.

With the exception of A Placebo Effect, which a reader should, in my opinion, simply skip, the rest of the December 2010 issue of Analog is quite good. The remaining stories are all above average to very good, and present a variety of different types of tales that the science fiction genre has to offer. Overall, this is another very good issue of what I would almost certainly classify as the consistently strongest genre magazine of which I am aware.

Previous issue reviewed: November 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: January/February 2011

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Review - The 4-Dimensional Manager: DiSC Strategies for Managing Different People in the Best Ways by Julie Straw and Alison Brown Cerier

Short review: People respond better when you manage them according to their personality type.

Are you Dominant,
Influencing, Supportive,
or Conscientious?

Full review: The 4-Dimensional Manager is a pop management book that relies upon the "DiSC" system to categorize people into various personality types, and then present potential ways to manage them so as to get their maximum effort. The "DiSC" system is, like most social science related to management, only loosely based upon any actual science, and categorizes people by whether they have a "Dominant" personality, an "Influencing" personality, a "Supportive" personality, or a "Conscientious" personality, which is how the "DiSC" profile gets its name (there is apparently no real reason for the "i" to be lower case while the other letters are capitalized, it is just the way that the thing is written). The system also considers that people might be particularly strong in more than one profile area, allowing for a variety of combinations. The book gives an overview of each personality type, describing what typically motivates and demotivates each type, their preferred environment, what they avoid, and how they can be more effective in dealing with others.

Of course, personality profiling isn't going to sell many books without giving people some sort of tactic to use the profiles that will supposedly help them deal with the people they work with. So The 4-Dimensional Manager takes the DiSC profile system and tries to give a working framework to apply it for practical use. The book first asserts that people tend to manage according to their own personality profile, and expect to be able to manage others as if they shared their own preferences, a style the book describes as being a "1-dimensional manager". As I'm sure most people can figure out, the book urges the reader to become a "4-dimensional manager" and figure out how to deal with each of their coworkers in a way that will, according to the theory upon which the book is based, result in them reacting favorably and productively.

The book gives directions in chunks, first giving the basics of managing each personality type, then giving specific pointers for how to deal with specific common work related areas: how to delegate to each personality type, how to motivate each personality type, how to give feedback to each personality type, and so on. The book also has some added chapters near the end of the book concerning how to deal with mixed personality types. The only real trouble is that, since few workplaces are likely to test all of their employees, or allow their managers to assess them, those attempting to apply these lessons are likely to have to figure out what sort of personality type they are dealing with on the fly. The resulting potential for less than accurate evaluations should be fairly obvious. The further weakness inherent in attempting to apply these techniques is that it assumes the validity of the somewhat dubious social science underlying the DiSC system, but that is endemic to all management books, and probably cannot be avoided.

The upshot is, if the DiSC system is valid, then this book is a clear, step-by-step guide to how to apply the theory to practical situations and improve one's dealings with the other denizens of your workplace. By presenting the techniques on a topic-by-topic basis broken down by personality type, the book serves as a handy reference that can be used whenever a specific problem arises. The book is quite readable, and fairly short, making it a good starting point for anyone who wants to improve their management skills.

(By the way, for anyone who cares, I tested as a high D/high C personality type. No one who knows me personally was the least bit surprised by this information).

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Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 4 (April 1987) by by Edward L. Ferman (editor)

Stories Included
Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman
Olida by Bob Leman
The Glassblower's Dragon by Lucius Shepard
The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster
Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson
Behind the Night by George Zebrowski
Agents by Paul Di Filippo
Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fact articles included:
The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov
Full review: The April 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is very uneven in terms of quality. While the issue has a number of very good science fiction dystopias, and a couple of appropriately disturbing horror tales, it also has a couple of rather disappointing fantasy stories and an annoyingly intentionally incomplete science fact article.

The issue also features several dystopian science fiction stories. The first is a story that seems to be set just outside of reality, Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman, in which a high school student devoted to actual science struggles in a world in which the school system appears to have adopted creationism as its science curriculum. Even his own science project, hunting for ghosts, has a clear unreal element to it, while he must navigate the familiar teen pitfalls of beautiful women with musclebound boyfriends and a best friend who he really should pay more attention to. The bizarre world surrounding the protagonist is eventually explained to a certain extent, but the story leaves plenty open to interpretation. In the end, the insanity makes a sort of certain twisted sense, and the protagonist winds up in decent shape. The story is funny and enjoyable.

The second piece of dystopian science fiction is Behind the Night by George Zebrowski, which imagines a future in which fertility in the United States has fallen to next to nothing, leaving an aging population rattling around by the thousands in cities originally built for millions. With a depleted population struggling to survive, let alone find a cure, the President must decide how to deal with impending waves of immigrants, choosing either to repel them or accept them. The third dystopian story is a cyberpunk tale titled Agents by Paul Di Filippo in which the world is divided into the "haves" who are able to access the world wide information stream via their virtual agent, and the "have nots" who are shut out of the system. The stories of a desperate "have not", a criminal "have", and a police investigator all flow together and result in some interesting implications for the future of the world depicted in the narrative. Despite the stark nature of both settings, each of the two stories is quite good, and both end on a hopeful note.

The final dystopian story is Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson, featuring a pair of genetically engineered people who, rather than being built as superhuman, have been designed with severe limitations and are regarded as little more than property. While one might argue that making one's living as a barroom floozy is as good a profession as any, the story presents the disturbing prospect of a world in which technology is used to construct and condition certain people specifically and solely for that purpose, regardless of what other hopes and dreams they might harbor. Although the central characters manage to find their way to a kind of happiness, the horrific regime that effectively enslaved them is still in place, giving the entire resolution a kind of Pyrrhic air. Alternately sad, touching, and violent, the story is one of the best in the issue.

The fantastic horror Olida by Bob Leman is set in a rural county dominated by a wealthy family whose members end up confronting the creepy Selkirks, a family of seemingly insane hillbillies that live in the county hinterlands. One of the scions of propriety in the county has become entangled with a Selkirk woman, and the others try to come riding to his rescue. The story draws the central characters further and further into the bizarre and frightening domain of the Selkirks, their own scary mirror image in the hills. The story builds to an appropriate climax, and then takes an even scarier left turn, making for a very satisfying, and yet simultaneously disquieting story. Also creepy in a very disturbing way is the story Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson featuring a daughter obsessed with her dead mother and the father she doesn't think treasures his dead spouse's memory quite enough. Technology allows for her fixation to manifest itself in a way that is both touching and truly frightening at the same time. Though it is quite short, the story packs a lot of punch into its handful of pages.

While I generally like his fiction, The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster seems to be little more than a paint-by-numbers folk tale featuring modern day characters. A bunch of geologists in search of oil venture into the Louisiana swamps and run afoul of a Cajun legend, which is pretty much the sum total of the story. Also disappointing was Lucius Shepard's The Glassblower's Dragon, featuring two people in the midst of a disintegrating love affair. A highly symbolic magic glass dragon is produced, but the story sort of tails off without going anywhere.

The science fact article in the issue is The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov, which focuses first on the discovery and isolation of various chemical elements, and then switches to primarily discussing phosphorous and the development of usable matches. As usual, Asimov presents the history of the development of chemistry quite well, but also manages to make the invention and evolution of matches interesting too. Like many of his science fact articles, Asimov stops at what seems to be about the halfway point of his full train of through with a promise to complete the article in the next issue. While this is probably good policy in a regular column in a monthly publication, it is somewhat annoying nonetheless. In Harlan Ellison's Watching, his regular column about movies, Ellison discusses the then contentious issue of movie colorization (a technology whose fad seems to have thankfully passed). The column is mostly noteworthy for the obvious glee that Ellison takes in correctly thumbing his nose at movie directors whining about how their artistic vision is being violated by the process, pointing out that movie directors have been trampling on the artistic vision of writers for the better part of a century. As Ellison notes, turnabout is fair play, and he has limited sympathy for the wounded pride of movie directors who finally get a taste of their own medicine.

Despite the somewhat disappointing contributions by Foster and Shepard and the maddeningly incomplete article by Asimov, the balance of the issue is full of good stories that are variously creepy, depressing, and hopeful. Add to the mix a column from Ellison that is deliciously full of his sharp-tongued vitriol and the end result is a pretty good issue. In the end, the good stuff outweighs the weak material in the issue, but only slightly, so this edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction gets a modest recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: February 1987.
Subsequent issue reviewed: October/November 1997.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 2 (February 1987) edited by Edward L. Ferman

Stories included:
Saving Time by Russell Griffin
The Dutchman's Ghost Town by Andrew M. Greeley
The Children of the Sea by Patricia Matthews
The Greenhill Gang by Barbara Owens
The Anger of Time by J. P. Boyd
Bitch by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Backwater Time by Matt Corwin

Science fact articles included:
Sail On! Sail On! by Isaac Asimov

Full review: The February 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a passable issue of the publication, with a collection of good stories and a couple of marginal ones. I found only one of the stories in the issue to be below average, but conversely found none of the stories to be particularly noteworthy either. Overall, those who pick up this issue are unlikely to be disappointed by its content, but neither are they likely to be particularly excited by it.

The first and longest story in the issue is Saving Time by Russell Griffin, a time travel story involving a pair of university professors and their rather bumbling efforts as they travel into the past. The narrator, an unwilling participant in the journey, is dragged along by his eccentric companion who believes that the best way to impress his girlfriend is to hijack her time travel project and change the past. Needless to say, this does not work out nearly as well as he might have hoped, and the ensuring bizarre events are told with much humor. as humorous as the story is, Griffin never loses sight of the time travel aspects, and the various paradox issues that crop up in such stories are dealt with quite deftly as well. Overall, it is a well-told, although somewhat standard time travel tale.

Normally I'm fond of ghost stories, especially ghost stories that are ambiguous about the supernatural. However, The Dutchman's Ghost Town by Andrew M. Greeley just didn't work for me. Set closely after the end of World War II, a veteran finds a beautiful, mysterious, and possibly ghostly widow that he strikes up an odd relationship with. The story meanders with a dreamlike air while he escorts her about the southwestern United States until it takes an abrupt left turn into a horror film when they visit a ghost town. At this point, the story simply seems to fall apart, as there is no rhyme or reason given for the way events play out, nor was any groundwork laid for them. The story simply feels like two completely different stories that Greeley had lying around half finished and crammed together at the last minute. The other ghost story in the issue seems like it may have been originally intended for one of the many Thieves' World anthologies. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Bitch, a female sorceress who must hide her identity fears she may have been exposed by a magical transformation that turns out to have been worked by a long dead malign spirit. The story is pretty straightforward, and the "big reveal" at the end isn't too surprising, but it is written well and enjoyable to read.

A fairy tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and violence, The Children of the Sea by Patricia Matthews is full of the same sort of bitter romance that one might find in classic tales like Wuthering Heights, but is thankfully free of the maudlin self-flagellation of those stories. Another story of jealousy and violent, The Greenhill Gang by Barbara Owens deals with a very odd collection of older women who have stumbled upon an unusual ability that allows them to take advantage of those around them. The story starts out with an ominous tenor that only increases throughout. It is a tall order to make little old ladies living in suburban Florida scary, but Owens manages to do so.

Given that the first story in the issue is a time travel story, one might expect that the two other stories with the word "time" in their titles might be as well. However, neither The Anger of Time by J. P. Boyd and Backwater Time by Matt Corwin deal with time travel at all. The Anger of Time contemplates a world in which extraordinarily long-lived individuals lurk among the general population, and tells the story of an instance in which one of them takes it upon himself to remind the rest of us "mayflies" that violence is not new, and the destructive tendencies of humankind don't rely upon technology to be realized. Backwater Time, on the other hand, is an odd little fairy tale about a man who has found and captured a fairy. There is little else to the story, making it one of the weaker ones in the issue.

Continuing, more or less, to build upon the discussion concerning antimatter that he began in the previous issue's science fact article Opposite!, Asimov deals with the question of how to power interstellar flight in the science fact article Sail On! Sail On!. After explaining why superluminal flight is an impossibility and discussing various currently feasible (and clearly inadequate) methods of traversing the reaches of space, Asimov turns to fission, fusion, and finally antimatter powered starships. Combining concrete science with well-grounded speculation, the article is quite good, although probably will not offer much in the way of revelation to most science fiction fans.

With a publication as long-running as Fantasy & Science Fiction it is inevitable that some issues will serve primarily as place-holders between other, better issues. The February 1987 issue, although loaded with decent to pretty good stories, seems to be one of those issues. Lacking any truly outstanding stories, this issue is worth reading, and will provide a science fiction or fantasy fan with some pleasurable entertainment, but probably not substantially more than that.

Previous issue reviewed: January 1987.
Subsequent issue reviewed: April 1987.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Musical Monday - A Glorious Dawn by Symphony of Science

YouTube user melodysheep has put together some amazing videos using quotes by scientists combined with the clever use of autotune software. To me, they capture the beauty and power of science and the yearning to explore our universe. The first is titled A Glorious Dawn and features Carl Sagan, using clips drawn from the Cosmos series, and Stephen Hawking, using clips from Stephen Hawking's Universe.

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Subsequent Musical Monday: The Unbroken Thread by Symphony of Science

Symphony of Science Playlist     Musical Monday Playlists

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 1 (January 1987) by Edward L. Ferman (editor)

Stories included:
The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin
The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley
The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson
Salvage Rites by Ian Watson
The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock
Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis
What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young
The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring
Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll

Science fact articles included:
Opposite! by Isaac Asimov

Full review: Science fiction and fantasy, like all other literary genres, are subject to trends. In the January 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the trend seems to have been trepidation, fear, and melancholy. Leavened only by a handful of stories that break the pattern, this issue of F & SF is full of stories that evoke trepidation about the future, sadness for the past, and fear for the present. Despite this theme, or perhaps because of it, this is a strong issue of the magazine, and full of stories that remain as relevant now as they were when they were first published.

The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin is set in what is presumably an alternative version of England during the Napoleonic Wars. A military officer is informed that he has inherited a title and estates when his uncle is unexpectedly killed, but when he goes to claim his inheritance, he discovers that he has been left far more than that. he soon discovers the existence of a secret war that may determine the future of the human race. The story is full of twists and turns, and several characters turn out to be more than they seem to be at first glance. The story is basically a reasonably well-crafted science fiction action adventure with an unusual setting.

The future earth setting of The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley reminded me to a certain extent of the future Earth setting of the Gordon R. Dickson novella Call Him Lord, in which a technologically advanced interstellar civilization keeps the Earth as a non-technological backwater. The most substantive difference in the stories is that this one is told from the perspective of on the the denizens of the primitive Earth confronted by the intrusion of a man from the stars. It becomes clear that the newcomer is not all that he seems to be, and the villagers move from worship to hatred as his layers are peeled away. The action of the story is more or less predictable, but the seeds that the newcomer plants simply through his disruptive presence have far ranging and somewhat unexpected consequences for the protagonist, and it is on this layer that the story truly shines.

After the box office success of Coccoon, it is perhaps inevitable that science fiction featuring aliens making geriatric humans young again would be in vogue for a while. The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson is a decent, if fairly pedestrian story in this vein. Two residents at a nursing home discover a miniature alien spacecraft, help them repair their ship, and in compensation have the aging process reversed. The story doesn't go any further than that, which is a shame, as the patronizing attitude that the nursing home staff have for the residents is fairly well-established and it would have been nice to see some examination made into how they react to two of their charges unexpectedly recovering their health, or some similar plot development in the story. As it is, the story is adequate, but could have been much better.

Set in a depressing future in which garbage has become a valued commodity, Salvage Rites by Ian Watson is another story that appears in the magazine that seems to be a little too close to modern reality for comfort. Having emptied out their spare room a couple takes their junk to the local dump, and when they get there they discover that they are expected to donate a little more than they bargained for. A combination of science fiction and horror, Salvage Rites is brutal and riveting, although the ending is pretty much a horror genre cliche. Also set in a bleak future, but with a more humorous bent is Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis, a story which follows an addict on Christmas Eve as he tries to locate funds to fuel his addiction. The story is told in a sort of sing-song slang, and reveals the nature of the dystopian future the addict lives in only slowly until the final punchline reveals just how restrictive the world has become. The story is something of a long set-up for the big reveal at the end, but the writing is good enough that one doesn't mind.

The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock is a Vietnam War inspired look at the application of advanced medical technology to warfare, and how the ability to return wounded soldiers to duty no matter how damaged their bodies might get in the field might take a deadly toll on the mental health of those soldiers. In 1987, this was science fiction. In 2010, where soldiers with prosthetic limbs are eligible to return to active duty and participate in a seemingly endless guerrilla war in the Middle-East, the story seems too real for comfort.

Published after the author's death, What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young is a sad time travel story, told by an old man spurred by the discovery of a strange object on his property into reminiscing about a stranger who lived with his family decades before during the Depression era. Given the title, one might think that the "bleak land" of the story is the cold autumnal landscape of rural America in which the narrator and his family struggle to make ends meet, working long hours for little compensation. The tale takes a turn when one of the children in the family asks their visitor about the classic H.G. Wells story The Time Machine, and the reader begins to realize that the world the characters live in may not be such a bleak one after all. The story is powerful, clearly written by a man facing his mortality, and is laced with melancholy and regret. Sitting at the exact opposite thematic end of the time travel story is The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring, a comic story about a genius from the future chosen to be the first traveler back through time, and whose mission is to meet William Shakespeare. Things don't go quite like he assumed they would, with comical and for the traveler, disastrous results. The story is silly comic relief, and much needed in an issue loaded with weighty and sad stories.

The final story in the issue is the Hitchcock-esque Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll. The story starts with the main character losing his leg while saving his dog named Friend from being crushed by a train. While recovering, Egan meets a crippled young girl in the hospital who claims she gets messages from Friend, and conveying the methods that Friend proposed to thank the narrator for saving his life. The story moves through Egan's recovery and then a love match with his neighbor blossoms. At this point, the story takes a very sharp left turn into territory that would be familiar to those who have seen The Birds. The seeming supernatural elements in the story are just vague enough that one can understand the conflicting emotions Egan has in the final passage of the book, making for a disturbing and interesting story.

Featured on the cover, the Isaac Asimov penned science fact article Opposite! is a brief guided tour through the history of the physics of antiparticles, from the discovery of the 'antielectron" or positron, to the discovery of the antiproton, the antineutron and so on. The article is pretty straightforward, and probably would not have been mentioned on the cover had it not been an Asimov piece. Although Asimov does muse on the possibility of entire star systems or galaxies comprised of antimatter, a possibility that was discarded as an option by most scientists, he engages in little speculation concerning antimatter in science fiction or even whether it might have practical real value. Asimov does state that he intends to discuss practical uses of antimatter in his next column, which will probably be interesting, but it does leave this article as little more than a fairly dry history lesson.

Despite the odd choice for an article to feature on the cover, this remains a strong issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Perhaps the issue is so strong because the editors were unafraid of allowing the issue to be dominated by what most would consider to be depressing stories. These stories are, however, almost all so good that despite the sad topic, they are able to evoke emotional responses int he reader without causing the issue as a whole to drag, which is always a danger when you have numerous melancholy stories in a row. As is expected by those familiar with F & SF, this is a fine selection of strong stories and well worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: November 1986.
Subsequent issue reviewed: February 1987.

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Random Thought - Earth

This is a picture of Earth from four billion miles away. It is the small blue dot hanging suspended in the beam of light that crosses the picture. This is why I dream of other worlds: The fragility and beauty of our own.

"The Earth has a strange property that the further away you get from it, the more beautiful it seems" - Brian Cox

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." - Carl Sagan (from Cosmos).

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Review - Realms of Fantasy (October 2010) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
Cutter in the Underverse by Daniel Hood
Middle by Eilis O'Neal
The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake
Saint's-Paw by Alan Smale
Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child by Euan Harvey

Full review: A genre magazine that has seriously struggled of late (although almost all of the genre magazines seem to have struggled at least some over the last couple years), Realms of Fantasy closed up shop briefly and reopened under new management. Though the format has not changed since the relaunch, subsequent issues seem to have been hobbled with a creeping malaise as the magazine's quality slowly drains away. The October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy seems to have halted that downward trend, but whether subsequent issues can reverse it remains to be seen.

Cutter in the Underverse by Daniel Hood is a decent ghost story about a New York City cop who can see the ghostly world that exists underneath the normal world. The story also throws in a couple of ghostly gangsters seeking to even the score that they left unbalanced in life, giving the story something of a noir feel. The story manages to be gritty while giving the feel of an ethereal version of a 1940s gangster movie.

Middle by Eilis O'Neal, depicting the travails of a more or less forgotten middle child, is what I would imagine Jan Brady's story would be like if she lived in a world where fantasy was real. And Marcia went to sleep for days on end. And Marcia's dreams were visible to everyone. In this story the middle child's name is Jenny, her sleeping sister is Addy, and their younger brother Jake has an invisible were-llama named Clyde for a best friend. Despite the layering of winged puppies, businesses that sell time travel trips, and dreamcatchers, Jenny's problems are the same as any adolescent girl struggling to find her own way in the shadow of her pretty and popular sister. Even asleep, Addy dominates her parent's attention, and Jenny engages in more and more extreme behavior, seemingly hoping to claim at least some of her family's time away from her dormant sibling. Despite the somewhat silly trappings, the story is serious and strong.

The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake is a story of cultural conformity and the need to break those constraints set in a world that sits at the intersection of fantasy and science fiction. A culture of human refugees, seemingly lost on a hostile shore beneath the beautiful creations of their ancestors is content to scrape out an existence on the edge of a deadly sea. Hassan, the protagonist of the story, adopts his deceased grandfather's dream to seek more, and builds a boat using his grandfather's notes as a guide and his grandfather's bones as building material. Hassan's obsession with building his boat and sailing the deadly sea to presumed immortality disturbs his neighbors, who want him to settle down, get married, and become a productive member of their society. The story carefully avoids opining on whether Hassan's assumptions about the profit to be gained from his intended voyage are true or not, allowing the reader to focus on the idea that unfettered ambition is worthwhile in and of itself, despite the consternation it may cause in those around him.

Of all the stories in the issue, Saint's-Paw by Alan Smale is probably the one that follows the most traditional fantasy format. In the story, a curious young girl named Rachel is accused of witchcraft when she decides to see how human bodies work by dissecting her dead father. She seeks sanctuary in a church dedicated to a martyred saint whose only remaining body part is a severed hand kept as a holy relic. As soldiers lay in wait outside, Rachel tries to explain herself to the resident priest, who is, as one might expect, horrified. After he leaves her to her fate, the soldiers try to claim their prize. Rachel, with some unexpected supernatural assistance, has other ideas. Despite its conventional setting, the story deals with the struggle between superstition and knowledge, and the place women should hold in society. Through most of the story it seemed to be almost a paint-by-numbers style fantasy, but by the end it turned out to be much more than that.

The last story in the issue, Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child by Euan Harvey is a series of interconnected horror stories, all involving children or teenagers with names starting with letters that spell the word "Halloween". The individual stories are all quite short, but are all individually fairly scary, drawing upon some fairly standard (and effective) horror tropes. Together they add up to a more or less cohesive narrative that reminded me of a Edward Gorey painting crossed with a George Romero movie.

This issue's installment in the ongoing feature Folkroots is titled Mad, Bad & Dangerous: The Androgyne, dealing with gender ambiguous characters in myth and fantasy. The subject seems like one that could have formed the basis for an interesting article, but unfortunately this is not that article. Seemingly spending about half of its space on the travails of being gender ambiguous in the modern world, and the other half jumping from one example to the other, the article lacks focus, and never gives anything more than a very shallow examination of the androgynous character in folklore. The other feature article in the issue is a bio piece about artist Tiffany Prothero, titled The Magic Is in the Details. I was unfamiliar with her work before seeing this issue, and even after reading the very brief article, I'm still not really that familiar with it, and not sure if I there is any reason to rectify that situation. Of all the elements of Realms of Fantasy that have suffered since the change in ownership, the one that has suffered the most has been the non-fiction feature articles and this issue continues that depressing trend.

With some good fiction, some bad feature articles, and competent movie and book reviews, the October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy is a reasonably good magazine, but not as good an issue as the publication used to turn out. While it seems like the downward trend in quality that the magazine had suffered in the last several issues has been halted, at least temporarily, the jury is still out on whether this situation can be reversed. As, in my opinion, there can never be too many good genre magazines being published, I hope that this marks the turnaround for the magazine, and we will be able to enjoy a revived and reinvigorated Realms of Fantasy in the future.

Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2010.

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 71, No. 4 (November 1986) by Edward L. Ferman (editor)

Stories included:
Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton
Stones Edward F. Shaver
Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler
The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas
The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen
On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller
The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens
Agua Morte by Alan Boatman
The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin

Poems included:
Epicenter by Robert Frazier

Science fact articles included:
The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov

Full review: Reviewing an older issue of a genre magazine is always interesting because of the perspective that the distance of time gives one. In the November 1986 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction one can see the lingering effects of the Vietnam war, and the newly discovered knowledge the Voyager probes revealed concerning our outer solar system. Despite the passage of more than twenty years, the stories contained in this issue have mostly held up, with a few exceptions.

The lead story, and featured cover story is Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler, a sad love story involving two people, a xenologist and a poet, separated from humanity trying to understand an enigmatic alien species. The story delves into what is and is not art, and what a species may or may not value. The tale turns tragic at the end when the protagonist realizes that despite his best efforts he has completely misunderstood his companion and the aliens. The story is a bittersweet story of the cost of success, and is quite good. Another story involving the convoluted path of lover is On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller, which uses the traditional Hawaiian gods as a framing device in a story in which a man discovers that the relationship he has with the woman he loves is not, as he had thought, as satisfactory an arrangement as he had believed. While Face Value is tragic, On the Dream Coast in Winter is hopeful, but is equally as good a story. Another story dealing with the interaction between alien cultures is The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin, in which human explorers encounter something truly alien in a bizarrely mutated human culture on a distant planet. Two different expeditions plunge forward, confident that their technology will ensure their survival without taking into account the wholly alien culture of their hosts, a miscalculation that proves to be most unwise.

The story Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton is an example of "Vietnam veteran" speculative fiction, which one does not find very often these days, but once was incredibly common. The story itself would not even really be speculative fiction, but instead just be an examination of the delusions of a veteran gone crazy save for one element: his twelve year old son sees the supposed delusions as well. And the delusions are threatening: Viet Cong popping up out of nowhere around the struggling family farm as the characters try to kill the weeds that threaten to overwhelm their crop. In the end, one comes away wondering if anything that the veteran sees is real, including the protagonist himself. This is not the best veteran cracking up story I've read, but it is a fine effort nonetheless. Also a story about a man coming unhinged, and billed as a modern day version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Agua Morte by Alan Boatman is more or less that, although it is not anything more. The story is so spare and bare bones that it seems to be lacking, especially in comparison with the original.

In Stones Edward F. Shaver mixes together astronomy and marine biology in a manner somewhat reminiscent of David Brin's Uplift series as the protagonist blindly tries to unravel the language of the whales at the behest of the armed services. Shrouded in fairly clumsily executed mystery through much of the story, the motivation of the military men is revealed at the end, with potential dire consequences for humanity. In a twist unusual for a science fiction story, the sinister looking military men that surround the protagonist turn out not to be the villains, although the story offers little comfort concerning humankind's potential survival when the nature of the villains is ultimately revealed. Stones is a decent story that isn't nearly as good at hiding the mysterious part of the story as it thinks it is.

The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen is a fantasy supposition involving a pious Christianized elf and a drunken not so pious human abbot. The two come into conflict with fairly humorous results. The story is funny, but nothing more than that.

Taking on both telepathy and death, The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens is a story about a woman with the gift to telepathically ease the way for people who are on the verge of death. Set in a strangely warped future in which Portland has become an isolated backwater, she bargains her services for a horse to give to the man who means the most to her. The ideas contained in this story seem to have been reflected in the way telepaths handle people about to die in the Babylon 5 television series, and the timing is such that this story may have served as a partial inspiration, although that is pure speculation on my part. The story has a promising beginning, and develops well, but the ending is a rushed mess that cuts off abruptly.

One recurring set of oddities in genre magazines are stories that aren't actually genre stories, and The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas falls into this category. A tale involving a protagonist who appears to have multiple personality disorder, it is quirky and fun, but lacking any science fiction or fantasy element, it is simply out of place.

The issue also includes the science fact article The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov, focused on the "unmentionable" planet Uranus written shortly after the exploration of that celestial body and its satellites by Voyager II. Asimov begins the article by referencing his own Lucky Starr series of book (a series that I have a somewhat unexplainable fondness for) and noting that not only did he not write a book about Uranus for that series, it was the only planet that he had no intention of writing a book for in the series. he attributes this lack of interest to the then presumed boring nature of the planet, a presumption that the information supplied by Voyager II shattered. Although the information about Uranus discussed in the article will probably be old hat to anyone who is interested in planetary astronomy, but it is an interesting window on how the information was viewed when it was first revealed, and should be interesting for anyone who has not immersed themselves in amateur astronomy for the last couple decades.

Despite the inclusion of one completely out of place story, one story that simply isn't very good, and two stories that more or less fall apart as they near their end, the remaining fiction in the issue is good enough to make the overall issue a serviceable one. With stories that have held up reasonably well over the last two decades, this issue is a reminder of the generally good quality fiction that Fantasy & Science Fiction is known for.

Subsequent issue reviewed: January 1987

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