Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

I always appreciate sci-fi with a strong chemistry component, and this has chemistry in spades. As a sequel it's primarily more of the same rather than new ground. Weir's biggest mistake is to try to write a protagonist that he doesn't really understand, and to make that protagonist make choices early on that most reasonable people wouldn't make. There's a gift one character makes to another early on that I thought, "surely that will be used later on in the book," but it's actually just a weird gift. Not sure if I wanted it to be the clich├ęd item that would save someone's life or not, but there's some sort of missed opportunity there. There's also an undercurrent of reducing humans to just one more complex organism that runs throughout sci-fi, but again, that's par for the course. Mostly, you visit Weir's moon colony as a tourist, and it's a fascinating place, but it runs no deeper than that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: God in the Dock by CS Lewis

I remember seeing this book on a shelf growing up and thinking that CS Lewis must really be into sailing if he even saw God in a dock on a lake or something. The title makes a lot more sense when you realize that the "dock" is courtroom stand and Lewis is talking about how God has moved from judge to defendant. This unintentional mistranslation is one of the themes of the book, and of Lewis's whole career. What's Narnia but a translation of classical and medieval ideas into a mythical land? Or the space trilogy but a mashup of Dante and Milton with pulp sci-fi? As an audiobook, this gets repetitive at times -- I heard several of Lewis's arguments several times over -- but it's interesting to analyze. Lewis sometimes sounds like an old curmudgeon (there's even a "get off my lawn" episode talking about the punishments for some kids who stole stuff from his shed), but in a sense this is the unvarnished Lewis, and unvarnished is still pretty shiny. Lewis's ability to unthinkingly translate Aristotle into the argument of an ordinary personal letter is one of his great gifts. What I want to emulate is not so much about the specific arguments (those are up and down as need be) as about Lewis's openness to bring the past into the present as an active mode of thought through this act of translation, and to challenge modernity with the timeless parts of the thinking of the past. Just because someone's curmudgeonly doesn't mean they're wrong, after all.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: Mariner: A Theological Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ever since reading Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern, in which Coleridge provides a solution to the problem of modernity, I have been wondering about this Romantic poet, even to the point of checking out a few biographies from the library. But none of them "took" and I left off, until I found out that Malcolm Guite had just written the book I was asking for. This is a biography and an analysis of Coleridge's most famous poem melded and focused through a theological lens. Guite's most provocative thesis is that Coleridge's life fit the contours of his poem, and that the problems Coleridge faced were the same problems of addiction, environmental degradation, and randomness that we face today. This book is everything it should be, and it shows that Coleridge influenced all sorts of later thinkers, even providing a chapter in CS Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We need more thinkers like Coleridge, the world needs more books like this, and I needed this book at this time. If this book accosts you like the Ancient Mariner does the listener in the poem, take heed ...

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Review: Perelandra

I read Perelandra too early 25 years ago. This month, by happy confluence, I listened to it after I had listened to Milton (and as a 43-year-old rather than a college student). That opened it up so that it no longer seemed long at all. In fact, if anything, it felt too short, and not talky enough. The protracted chase and fight at the end seems needless. It also feels much more problematic to me -- Lewis's extended justification of it feels belabored. (Not that I have a better idea.) The best is at the end, in a part I don't even remember reading before, with a song and dance and a great blessing of creation. Like the party at the end of Prince Caspian, which also comes after questionably protracted conflict, this concluding sequence is the true point of the book, and I entirely missed it previously. This has probably changed from my least favorite of Lewis's fiction to ... not my most favorite, but most appreciated in a new way. It's also the most genuinely imaginative of Lewis's work, and as a book about creation, the fact that it is so creative itself is entirely fitting.

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

This novel is better than most at combining sci-fi apocalypse with a realistic faith community. I'm still not sure it's good enough. The three-act structure of the book as it skips across centuries gives it a lot to say, and leaves a lot unsaid. The focus on an Abbey that preserves knowledge after nuclear catastrophe is a good one, but only in the third act did I start to feel that the faith of the monks was a genuine point of interest on the part of the author. There's not many false elements, either, so I can't complain. I found the details of the preservation and re-emergence of science to be the most interesting part of the book, but the narrative only hints at it, and I disagree with both the pace and the order in which knowledge is regained. One mysterious character is very strangely depicted and feels like a missed opportunity. For all its shortcomings, if standard sci-fi even had half of the respect for other modes of knowing that this book does, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

This is an excellent history of the words "science" and "religion." The way we use them today is not more than a couple hundred years old, yet we constantly talk as if science and religion were always around in the way that we think of them. They. Were. Not. Peter Harrison shows how the ancients thought differently from us, and how and why it changed to the concepts we have today, as the verbal maplines were redrawn. This kind of study across cultures and nations is immensely valuable, and Harrison brings out the value and application to our current seeming standoffs over these terms. What struck me most on this reading is how "scientists" were deliberately created by secondary scientists like Huxley and Spencer, not through intellectual need so much as through political maneuvering and propagandizing. I don't use that last word lightly, but there's no other word for what Huxley and company did to Darwin's legacy, and how the Galileo story was distorted into the dark parable that scientists repeat today. (Don't get me started on Bruno.) Harrison writes in an easily accessible mode, because it seems that much of what he describes is at least known as open for debate among historians, but people outside of history, especially scientists, keep repeating the same old stories using the same old words. We need to both recover the old meanings and forge new ones. As a chemist who wants to do natural history, this book is especially encouraging, because it helps explain why natural history is no longer in vogue -- and how, perhaps, it can be again.

Book Review: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

I picked up this book because I read a review in The Atlantic that described it as "weird" in its intimate combination of faith and longing, the same way an early review called my own science book "weird." If by "weird" you mean it takes faith seriously, and takes its flawed and yearning characters seriously, well, I wish that wasn't so weird but here we are. The book is a paradox. Its dissection of middle age is both harrowing and beautiful. It's not easy to read but I finished it in two days. The drawback for me is that the faith of the narrator is depicted in isolation, and she doesn't seem to miss the community of church. That makes her faith ring false in a few ways, in a book that otherwise rings true. This book delves to the very bottom of the individual psyche, and I found it compelling in both the lyrical and ugly parts. But then again, I'm weird like that.