Rock Hard Sci-fi

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Pages: 496
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: May 4, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Andy Weir is back with more of the hard sci-fi magic science that made The Martian such a success! Our hero (a scientist of some sort) wakes up in some sort of spacecraft to discover that he is the sole survivor of some sort of desperate mission to save earth from some sort of extinction-level peril. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

The story alternates back and forth between his gradually returning memories and his work toward understanding what is going on and trying to save the world. It is difficult to say much more than that without robbing the reader of the joy (and/or heartbreak?) of discovery as events unfold.

As with Weir’s previous books, detailed descriptions of scientific analysis, problem-solving, and emergency-surviving take center stage (with frequent dollops of wry humor). He doesn’t necessarily tell you all the math involved, but if science bores you this is not the book for you. Of course, this is science fiction so there’s some pretty speculative stuff here too (more so than The Martian). Personally, I loved it!

I would say that this is Weir’s best book yet. The Martian is a close second (let’s not speak of Artemis), but the plot of this book allows for a lot more character development. Something or someone called Rocky is a big part of that, but no more spoilers. Both the more fully developed characters and higher stakes really had me hooked. I usually alternate between 3 or 4 books at a time, but I read this one straight through. I highly recommend this for fans of science, science fiction, and/or survival stories!

PS One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the book was that it had a lower profanity level than previous ones. I know that isn’t a big deal for most people, but I appreciated it (and it made sense in the context of the story).

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord, will covid continue to ravage and divide our world?
              Tens of thousands suffer and die.
              Each human contact must be weighed against unknown risks.
              Those who seek to help are branded fools, cowards, or conspirators.

How long, O Lord, will violence and injustice prevail on the earth?
              Each day brings news of further atrocities
              Justice measures with weighted scales.
              Deceit, slander, and malice fill our communications.

How long, O Lord, will your own people live with divided loyalty?
              We have subordinated the Golden Rule to the pursuit of “my rights.”
              The fruit of the Spirit withers as we embrace outrage and self-justification.
              We value the opinions of politicians and talk show hosts more highly than your revealed Word.

Arise, O Lord! Let your power and righteousness shine forth!
              Our Father, deliver us from distress.
              Holy Spirit, convict us of hypocrisy and empower us to live in love and holiness.
              Oh, Son, Our Redeemer and King, may you return quickly to make all things new.
              In you alone I hope and trust!

Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Oh be careful little fingers what you type…

Title: Posting Peace
Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It
Author: Douglas S. Bursch
Genre: Applied Theology / Social Science
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I appreciate how social media (mostly Facebook) helps me stay in touch with friends and family. However, there are times when I am ready to call it quits and delete my fb account due to the seemingly constant torrent of anger, slander, fear-mongering, misinformation, and other filth. And it grieves me that many of my fellow Christians seem to be just as caught up in the war of words as anyone else. Rather than “keeping in step with the Spirit” by demonstrating godly character and motivations (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23), far too many of us engage in the kind of speech that we are told has no place in our life (bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice – Ephesians 4:31). This timely book addresses these concerns.

The first part of the book focuses on how online communication shapes our interaction with others, with heavy emphasis on the distance it puts between us and the tendency to tribalization. This is followed with advice on how to overcome pitfalls and use social media for good. Throughout the book, the author strongly emphasizes Christians’ responsibility to be peacemakers who make room for reconciliation (among people as well as between people and God).

While I strongly agree with most of the author’s main points, some of his presentation felt muddled and imprecise. Criticism of those who are divisive is followed by admonition to use social media to confront injustice. Triumphalist declarations of how we can use social media to transform society are followed by warning that the task is impossible and full peace comes only when Christ returns. Verses about the Gospel reconciling people to God are used to talk about the social justice kind of reconciliation. None of these are necessarily complete contradictions, but I don’t think that the author explained with enough nuance or provided enough concrete examples to avoid confusion. Instead, I think he relied on discussion questions and writing assignments at the end of each chapter to try to get readers to think it through for themselves. While that approach might be great in a classroom setting, I find it less useful in book form (and, unfortunately, I have been seeing it increasingly often in “applied theology” kind of books).

Overall, even though the book could have definitely used more concrete examples and clearly nuanced explanations, it is well worth reading for Christians who frequently engage with social media. Let’s post peace rather than engage in trolling!

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

A Banned Book

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment

Title: When Harry Became Sally:
Responding to the Transgender Moment
Author: Ryan T. Anderson
Genre: Psychology / Ethics
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

In February of this year, Amazon scrubbed all traces of this book from its platform without explanation (later citing its ban on hate speech). The author maintains that the accusation of “hate speech” is unwarranted and that this ban is an attempt to stifle legitimate debate over the treatment of gender dysphoria. I decided to read it and see for myself what was going on (#ReadBannedBooks and all that…I assume that applies to books banned by both “the left” and “the right”).

Essentially, the author argues that the current rush to transition those who express gender dysphoria (without seriously considering other alternatives) may not be the healthiest solution. He is especially concerned when it comes to the ethics and potentially irreversible impact of transitioning minors. The book explores potential incoherencies in trans ideology, philosophical and medical definitions of sex and gender, anecdotal stories of people who “de-transitioned,” and scientific/medical evidence that he claims is ignored or downplayed during the current “transgender moment.” Overall, I believe that many of his assertions and questions do raise valid concerns that should be taken into consideration, even if doing so is not the politically correct course of action.

Having read the book, I think that the author presents these concerns in a respectful and evidential enough manner that the proper response from those who disagree would be a written rebuttal rather than the banning of a dissenting voice. Shouting down or censoring an opponent does not prove that they are wrong.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Mixed Mini-Reviews

Time for some mini-reviews so that my reading doesn’t get too far ahead of my reviewing. No theme here other than that I read them all over the last couple weeks.

Title: The Infinite and the Divine (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Robert Rath
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

This book focuses on the rivalry between two immortal necrontyr (think soulless ancient Egyptian robots with absurdly advanced technology). The conflict between the scholar and the mystic plays out over millenia, making for a slower more thoughtful plot than usual in WH40k (though there are still plenty of action set pieces involving humans, eldar, orks, and more). Warhammer 40k will never be great literature, but this is better than most.

Title: Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth:
12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice
Author: Thaddeus J. Williams
Genre: Applied Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 250 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5

I think that the author did a much better job delivering on the “without compromising truth” part of the title than the “confronting injustice” part. The book was essentially a critique of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related social justice ideas. The author raises valid concerns that Christians should consider before wholeheartedly adopting this way of thinking/acting (without denying the existence and seriousness of racism, sexism, etc.), but I didn’t feel like he offered a fleshed-out, rubber-meets-the-road Christian alternative.

Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Genre: History
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This unusual history book focuses on day-to-day life in Elizabethan England rather than big historical events (though those are mentioned as background, of course). This is by turns fascinating and tedious, depending on what topic is being discussed (some of them go on way too long). The slightly tongue-in-cheek delivery as a guidebook provides added entertainment value. If you’re interested in British history, this is worth your time (though if you listen to the audible version you should bump it up to about 1.3X as the narrator is soooo slow).

Title: The Classic Slave Narratives
Authors: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Price, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs
Genre: Slavery Autobiographies
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Anyone who is tempted to buy into the odious “slavery was a largely benevolent institution” lie (which, for some reason, I have heard floating around lately) needs to read firsthand accounts by enslaved people. This volume contains four of the classics. It is not easy to read about the brutal, hypocritical inhumanity of slave-owners (and their enablers in the North), but those who do not learn from history…

Slowly Unfolding Sci-Fi

Title: Skyward Inn
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Publication Date: 3/16/21 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book grew on me. Our protagonists (Jem and her son, Fosse) both come across as continually sullen and petty, a pet peeve of mine. I give the son a pass because he appears to have some sort of autism spectrum issues, but Jem is just annoyingly sulky, whiney, and contrarian for most of the book. This character type annoys me so much that I almost quit about a quarter of the way through, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

The worldbuilding and slowly dawning realization of what is really going on make this a fascinating book. I can’t say too much without ruining the joy of discovery, but here’s the very basic setting: Some sort of interstellar gate has allowed humans to travel to another resource-rich planet, Qita, which they quickly gain control of due to the passivity of its monocultural inhabitants. Most of our story is set in a part of earth that has chosen to largely withdraw from modern society (very little technology, no space travel, etc.). There, Jem and her Qitan partner run the Skyward Inn, serving a Qitan brew that allows people to experience and share intense memories. The slowly unfolding story explores themes of identity, relationship, memory, and more.

The narration takes some getting used to as it jumps between first, second, and third person. Normally, I’d find this obnoxiously pretentious, but it makes sense in the overall framework of the book. Overall, if you don’t mind thoughtful, low-action sci-fi, this is definitely worth your time.

Mythology by Fry

Mythos

Title: Mythos
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Greek Mythology
Pages: 352 (audiobook 15h 26m)
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Mythology, but I’ve always preferred Norse to Greek. For me, Ragnarok, heroic but slightly doofy Thor, scheming Loki, and the Volsung Saga are more entertaining than the antics of the rapey, skeezy Greek pantheon (not that the Aesir are paragons of virtue). This book didn’t change my preference, but it was a lot of fun!

Stephen Fry weaves the Greek myths into a coherent storyline and recounts them with enough wit and variety that they don’t feel overly repetitive. Listening to the author read his own work adds to the experience as you get both the clever turn of phrase and the humorous inflection.

While Fry makes occasional brief comments on alternate versions, parallels in other cultures, and underlying philosophy/symbolism, he maintains the focus on enjoying these stories as stories. I heartily approve of this approach as that is how I approach mythology (and allows the book to be enjoyed by those whose worldview differs significantly from the Ancient Greeks’ or Stephen Fry’s).

This book covers primarily the early eras of the Greek kosmos, so you won’t find more than a fleeting mention of heroes like Perseus, Jason, Heracles, Achilles, etc. Thankfully, he has written a second book (Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined) that covers at least some of those stories. I will definitely be purchasing it with one of my upcoming Audible credits. This is the most I have ever enjoyed Greek mythology, and it’s a must-read/listen for any fan of mythology!

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