Thursday, March 20, 2008

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, 2008)

For the longest time, in the Pop Science publishing field, there were two camps: the scientists who attempted to enlighten the lay reader on scientifically verifiable concepts, such as Relativity and geology; and those books considered 'wacky', written about fringe subjects such as time travel and telepathy. These latter books were often shelved in 'New Age' sections in bookstores.

But as the new century has dawned, it's turned out that many of these 'wacko' theories, often heavily ridiculed in the scientific community, are now gaining a measure of respectability as new research in fields such as quantum physics (with the advent of super string theory), neurobiology (the emerging ideas of neuroplasticity), molecular chemistry (the manipulation of atoms on silicon wafers), among others, appear to open up new avenues of conjecture about the nature of existence, and the new possibilities of invention.

Michio Kaku boldly steps into the realm between the two camps with Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. The book is an attempt to address the disparity between science and science fiction (into which the fringe theories were often dumped). It's not a defense nor an attack, of these ideas; it simply proposes to explore in an open and curious manner, the 'possibilities' of these theories and technologies existing.

Kaku sets up a classification structure for the 'impossible':

Class I impossibilities
are technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics.

Class II impossibilities are on the very edge of our understanding of the physical world, and they are technologies that might be realized on a time scale of thousands or millions of years.

Class III impossibilities are technologies that violate all known laws of physics. If they were to exist, they would essentially signify a giant shift in our understanding of physics.

With such a classification structure, Kaku then proceeds to explore ideas from pure science fiction, such as phasers, teleportation, starships, antimatter, and robots; and parapsychology and the paranormal such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis.

Kaku's tone is playful and all-accepting, and as always, his distillation of bizarre concepts for the average reader (as in his delightful Hyperspace)is superb. And for that tried and true fan of science books, someone who keeps up with all the science magazines, there will still be a surprise or two.

My only regret is that Kaku's examples for these 'impossibilities' mostly come from film and TV, which in a sense is understandable from the mass audience goal of this book, but I feel that if he'd taken a little more time to investigate some of the more ground-breaking sf literature out there, he could have opened up avenues of further exploration for the casual reader who wanted to better conceptualize these ideas in action, as in the new wave of Space Opera of Neal Asher, Peter Hamilton, etc. and the heady idea-laden works of Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, to name but just a few examples.

Nevertheless, barring such a minor criticism, Physics of the Impossible is an excellent attempt to entertain and enthrall through the combination of pop culture SF and nuts-and-bolts science.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Eclipses, vomiting children, & crowded trains...

The end of a heavy week of work, design, and general trip-planning mayhem culminated in one of the longest days on record for me filled with strange occurrences.

Leaving work yesterday, I managed to catch the cool lunar eclipse altering our skies. It was in the rusty-hazy phase, very ephemeral, and it was still happening when I got off the bus in the neighborhood I live in. I was surprised to see many groups and couples taking note of (and in some cases sitting and watching) the eclipse; like fireworks. It was nice to see people paying attention beyond the drudgery of our lives. Technically and poetically we were looking at our shadows (or the cumulative effect of our shadows), and I waxed philosophically to myself while I prepared for my trip to New York City to visit my girlfriend.
You can read a great piece on the eclipse here.

While waiting for the bus to get me to the airport, I happened to stand next to a couple with a child, who I realized had just thrown up on her stroller. The air was thick with the smell, but what disturbed me was the realization that the parents were high--inebriated, whatever-- and how the child was trying to convey its discomfort, and the parents belated responses, when they weren't bickering with each other. They half-heartedly scraped off the stroller, didn't let her sit in it (that god!) and then got on the same bus I did. I just kept on thinking about the kid growing up with parents who are locked into these vicious little worlds, and what they would teach the child about the world at large, and whether the kid would get to know someone outside of the family dynamic (school, friend, stranger) that would show them there's more to life than this...Anyhow, sweet natured child won over bus riders, even with the suspicious odor floating around.

A pretty benign plane trip later and I found myself on the long trip from JFK airport to Washington Heights on the A train. And this is where finally this post related to BOOKS!

As the carriage crowded up, I stole glimpses of the books people were reading; it's like an addiction for a bookseller, just a bit of the cover or spine, or if one is close enough, the page header... If we don't figure out what the book is, it drives us crazy.
I guess you could say I was Bookspotting on the train.

Seen: a romance (Nora Roberts);

a book about autism (which seems to have taken over from bad drug addiction stories as the subject du jour amongst nonfiction readers);

"In the Blink of an Eye", a book about film;

"The New Kings of Nonfiction"-- why "New Kings"? Who were the old ones? And why, since there is a female or two in the line-up, pay tribute to a time when most of the paid writers were white and male? If they were going for something hipper than 'New Masters' or 'Best of', why not go for the throat: "The Shit-Kickers of Non Fiction", or, getting in line with the merger of Biz-speak and pop culture: "Future-proof Imagineers of Sense Reporting" (thanks to Office Life for the assist), or how about "Bad-ass Motherfucking Truth Tellers"--that I would read;

and the kicker-- an older gent bundled his way onto the seat next to me (with my bags I left little room for comfort), and lo and behold! Out of all the people on the train that could sit next to me, the conspiracy nut whips out a computer print-out entitled "The Illuminati and the House of Rothchild"... Sad thing is I knew most of this guy's attitudes (and the content of the article) from my occasional forays into fringe culture.

And the best part of all this Bookspotting: nary an Oprah book to be seen!

Friday, January 18, 2008

On Crap

This is an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend, sometime last year. Why am I now digging it up out of its clammy grave? One reason is the surprising (to me) commercial success of the book in question, 'The Name of the Wind" (not to be confused with 'The Shadow of the Wind", which did not suck). The other reason is trickier and harder to pin down. On the one hand, I'm glad and personally grateful for the immense support the science fiction community gives its members. It was that community that gave me hope during my formative years. But if such support is unquestioning, and involves no constructive criticism, the genre which we love and believe in so much will never evolve. We know sci fi and fantasy can be innovative and brilliant and well-crafted; we know we don't have to settle for crap. And while I realize that the following rant, gentle reader, is not actually constructive, I just couldn't help myself.

Why don't people respect fantasy as a genre? This is a question often pondered by fantasy's many bright, articulate fans. The answer lies in such bloated doorstoppers as 'The Name of the Wind', due out from DAW next week. I ended up with an advance copy of this book some months ago. The cover blurb assured me that it was a brilliant first novel, sweeping, original, and blah blah blah. The usual. And it's true, I have (sadly) been unable to quite forget the opening description of the title character - a brooding, worn, but somehow still magnetic man of secrets, who moves, we're told, with the movement of a man who knows a great many things. And there are three kinds of silence. And a pall of shadow hangs over this valley.

I have to confess; I didn't read the whole thing. Mostly I just carted it around, reading choice passages of deathless prose out loud to my roommates. The story is told in flashbacks, taking us all the way back to the Mystery Man's early childhood. Luckily, for the purposes of the plot, our hero is a natural genius with a photographic memory, making it possible for him to know everything about everything, which is very handy for his Struggles with Adversity. Orphaned at a tender age, he makes his way across a typical faux-medieval fantasy landscape, populated by Ye Olde Stock Characters: the tribe of Fantasy Gypsies, plucky bands of thieving children (so popular last year), the wise old wizard (or alchemist, or whatever) mentor/ surrogate father, Dark Riders, etc etc etc. It's a lumbering Frankenstein monster of a book, its limbs cannibalized from books that don't suck. You'll see a bit of Perdido Street Station here, a bit of Lord of the Rings there, a bit of the Farseers trilogy over there.

Even more magical than our hero's staggering genius is the fact that his lonesome, brooding road is strewn with winsome maidens, all of whom find him irresistible. There's the troubled free spirit he meets on the road, the brainy but attractive librarian, the comely student nurse, and even, in a broadminded gesture on Rothfuss' part, an older (but still sort of hot) businesswoman. All of them want to jump our hero's bones, because, as Rothfuss knows, nothing is more appealing to your average female than a teenage boy. Especially one who knows everything in the world. Oh, yeah, and he's on a Quest for Vengeance. Or something.

At 800-odd pages, the book manages to take us, in painful detail, though a whole year of this kid's life. Since he's middle-aged when we first meet him, it's safe to assume that there's a lot of story planned out between now and then. Or at least a lot of pages. A lot of lucrative pages, since this sort of crap seems to sell like mad. For Rothfuss' sake, I hope he is actually being paid by the page, and that he gets to enjoy every penny. Maybe he can take some time off, think a little, and his next book will be a masterpiece. A girl can dream.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Which came first: the Unicorn or the Wizard?

As a bookseller, I'm often intrigued by how people decide to portray themselves on their author bios. It's been interesting to note the amount of bios that include photos (it never used to be the case; 10 years ago, you had to become big-time, be on your third book, or have sold the movie rights), and what kind of image it is.
Some images are dignified, some are dilettante-ish come-hither poses. And then there's the spate of silver gelatin-style photos that infuriate me in their pretentiousness. I won't go into details, but it can be a fun excercise next time you're in a library or bookstore.


The point of this post is to bring one particular bio to the attention of the greater world.
For the sake of fairness, I'm deleting the pertinent bits to protect the author, but what is left is truly made of "Teh Awesome".
Renowned wizard (-Blank-) is the author of (-Blank-obviously these books involve wizardry). He rediscovered the long-lost secret of the Unicorn in 1976, and created the first of several living Unicorns, which became a worldwide sensation. In 1985, (-blank-) organized a diving expedition to New Guinea and the Coral Sea, which solved the age-old mystery of the Mermaid, presenting his findings to the International Society of Cryptozoology. He is the founder of the online (-blank-) School of Wizardry.
I have not included the bio photo, but whipped up this replacement--suffice to say that both wizard and Unicorn are prominently featured.
It's amazing, frankly, to see such brazenly mystical, truly in a 1970s prog-rock, Frodo-loving, hippy-childe way, this bio is; in an age where science seems to have driven the seductive and fun shadows of myth and fantasy into tiny corners, we have this wonderful piece of oddness to prove that mankind can't let go if it's mysteries.

And if the Singularity happens, and nanotech and post-humanism come to fruition in the next 20 years, I expect it to look like a bizarre mash-up of Blade Runner, World of Warcraft and Star Trek... And I hope that Spider Jerusalem is there to report on it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

My favorite guilty pleasure, lately, is watching the you tube video of Shakira doing "Hips Don't Lie" at the Grammys. I had heard her years ago, and it's not really my thing, but this year, as I was trolling the interweb, I saw an article about that performance. The writer, entranced, was going on about how she should have her own show, every night, in which she'd just perform that song, and he'd watch it every night forever. So I googled it.

It really is the sexiest thing I've ever seen happen on TV - she's barefoot, with tangled curls of hair cascading around her, dancing as if she's actually dancing, with a wild, unchoreographed edge. And man, it is SMOKING. She looks like a maenad about to run loose on the hills, like a pocket-sized fertility goddess.

It's an intriguing clip for other reasons, too. It's surely the only time a Haitian and a Colombian have stood together on an american stage, on national television, and yelled 'why's the CIA gotta watch us?' as the crowd cheers them on. More than that, it seems to seems to embody my favorite social trend - the latinizing of North America.

I've heard it before, and say what you will about how immigrants will overload our health care and educational systems and flood our low income work force and ect ect ect. I've been unemployed and disabled in southern California; I know what it's like, dealing with doctors so overloaded they wish you'd just take yourself outside and die without fuss. But we have to admit that the American Dream, as our parents and grandparents knew it, is over. Depending on which commentator you prefer, the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is analogous to either the income gap in pre-revolutionary France or that in the US just before the Great Depression. Let's face it: we are going to be poor. Really poor.

And if we're going to be poor, I want my goddamn taco trucks, I want to buy my medicinal herbs in baggies at the corner store, and bottles of cheap moonshine in artfully scavenged bottles, I want tamale carts on the corners, and on Friday nights I want to see teenage boys, stiff and awkward in their brocaded coats, playing off-tempo mariachi music in gas station parking lots. I want to dance in my garden while my neighbor's mambo band practices on the lawn, and afterwards drink shitty beer on the stoop while the warm evening cools into night. I want to be poor with style and grace.

And they are all waiting for us, our long-lost kin, our cousins, our neighbors - for all that the media wants us to fear the barbarians at the gate, a vast alien tide of brown waiting to drown us, they are our relatives; no matter our nationality, Latin America encompasses it. There are Eastern Europeans whose grandparents fled oppression, and French and Irish families descended from the men who came to fight in various wars and revolutions, Scandinavians and Jews and Africans, tied to us northerners by the immutable bonds of blood and history. And no matter how hard the government tries to keep us apart, with walls and towers and guns and barbed wire and checkpoints and helicopters and cameras, the border just becomes ever more permeable and slippery in response, because the gods of borders are gods of trickery and transformation, and will defy the efforts of petty men to impose order upon them.

And someday, when the border implodes and the south rushes north, we will all dance in the streets. We will plants vegetables in our back gardens and flowers in the front and take back warehouses and office buildings and paint them shades of blue and live in them and we will speak something that is neither Spanish nor English but something new and beautiful and fresh.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (Morrow, October 2007)

A while back I picked up an advance copy of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and I got about half-way through before circumstances and other reading commitments made me put it down. I didn't get back to it; wasn't wowed enough (in all fairness, I can't make a final comment on the book without giving it a proper chance).

Months went by and I spied this nondescript black advanced copy sitting amongst the others. A double-take and I realized it was Joe Hill's short story collection. I'd heard about it a while back, during it's original release, in the U.K. by the venerable PS Publishing. But owing to the scarcity of PS Pub.'s editions in the U.S. I couldn't get it. I was curious, still; remembered a certain spark from reading the novel and thought that giving Hill's short stories a spin wouldn't hurt, right?

I read the introduction by Christopher Golden and, not sure where to begin, I went with his suggestion, "Pop Art", which Golden said was one of the best short stories he had read in years....

And he was right.
Man, "Pop Art" is sensational. Here is a perfect example of the true power of the short fiction medium; if this story were an explosive, it would be a fifth of Nitroglycerin. A profound study of adolescence and loss, friendships and growing up; beautiful, concise, not a word wasted.
The whole collection is strong. What Hill does so well is manipulate the various forms of 'horror'; the existential, the grotesque, and the sublime.

Some stories are just plainly 'stories', about life, like "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead"; the title being about the only horrific thing about the tale, which takes place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. And "Better than Home", a hilarious and moving take on parental love and baseball fandom.

Some are graceful, perfectly balanced fantasies, like the title story "20th Century Ghosts"; a love story and love-letter to that magic alchemy that happens between a viewer and the film they are watching.

Some are mean, in that psychological, 'man-that's-fucked-up' sense as in "In the Rundown", about a delinquent teen bubbling with anger at his close-minded small town.

And some are truly, truly disturbing, downright-yes-horrific. I'm not that into horror, feeling that much of the genre revels in the spectacle, the blood-splatter body-count. But Hill shows how real horror is done, the mixture of fear, the dread behind every half-closed door, the throat-gripping moment when a strange sound comes from behind some bushes...

And honestly, "Best New Horror" is so clever, so terrifying, and fun: see how expertly Hill manages to create a literary critique of the genre he's writing in AND scare the pants off of the reader for good measure.

I leave you with a quote from of Golden's introduction, something that helps define Joe Hill's rare talent; Hill needs to be read by people outside of the horror genre--not to legitimize his writing, but people will be simply missing out on one of the most accomplished writers of his (my) generation:
"At his best, Hill calls upon the reader to complete a scene, to provide the emotional response necessary for the story to truly be successful. And he elicits that response masterfully. These are collaborative stories that seem to exist only as the reader discovers them. They require your complicity to accomplish...Far to many writers seem to think there's no place in horror for genuine sentiment, substituting stock emotional response that has no more resonance than stage directions in a script. Not so in the work of Joe Hill."

Monday, September 17, 2007

As a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, I found The World Without Us by Alan Weisman tremendously enjoyable. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what the world would really look like if all of humantity were somehow decimated tomorrow, this careful and detailed book will tell you. It is sometimes hopeful, as when he is describing the wildlife that flourishes in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or how nature is breaking through the cracks of New York City, and sometimes utterly bleak, as when he explores the environmental legacy of our dependency on plastics, or what will happen as nuclear waste dumps and oil refining plants age and shift.

The book’s message is ultimately, though guardedly, optimistic: the author makes a solid argument for our ability to coexist in peace with nature, if we are willing to make deep and sweeping changes. If we are not, the book tells us, we will pass away, and the earth, as always, will abide.