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Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Pink coiled snake with a mint green background.Summary:
In the future when humans have evolved to have much smaller brains and the ability to swim like penguins, a long-lasting ghost from the prior stage of human evolution tells us the tale of how it all went down.  How overpopulation of the old-fashioned, big-brained humans, a very bad economy, and a series of unfortunate (fortunate?) events led to an odd group of humans being marooned in the Galapagos, surviving the worldwide fallout, and evolving into the smaller-brained, fish-eating, natural swimmers we have today.

Review:
I picked this up during a kindle sale for incredibly cheap purely for the author.  I’d read three other Vonnegut works previously: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five (read before my book blog), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (review).  I enjoyed the first two and felt meh about the last, so I was fairly confident I’d enjoy another Vonnegut book.  So when one night my partner and I decided we wanted to read a book together (out loud to each other), we looked on my kindle, both glommed on to the name Vonnegut, and chose this as our first read together.  So my reading experience was a mix of listening and reading out loud myself, which I am grateful for, because I honestly think Galapagos sounds even more absurdist aloud.

There is an incredibly unique writing style to this particular scifi book.  So much so that my boyfriend and I wound up researching to find out if, perhaps, Vonnegut wrote this toward the end of his life when he was perchance senile.  (It was not, although it was published in the 80s, unlike my three prior Vonnegut reads, which were published in the 60s).  Then we wondered if maybe Vonnegut had Asperger’s, although we didn’t bother checking up on that.  Why these wonderings?  Well, Galapagos is a very odd book.  The premise isn’t that odd for scifi — a projected future evolution of humans and telling how we got there.  But the ultimate future is kind of hilariously odd (penguin-like humans).  Mostly, though, the way the tale is told is odd and unique in a way that took time to grow on me.

Beyond the whole odd scenario, there’s the fact that if a character will be dead by the end of the chapter, an asterisk appears next to their name.  And the names appear a lot.  Vonnegut is incredibly fond of naming everyone and everything by their full name every time they appear.  He also loves lists.  (This is the part that had us wondering about Asperger’s).  At first this is grating on the nerves, but with time it comes to feel like the vibe of the world you’re visiting when you open the book.

Similar to the lists and constant naming, there are philosophical asides.  Some of these are worked smoothly into the story thanks to a handheld computer device (similar to a smartphone) that pulls up relevant quotes to read to the survivors.  Other times, though, they are truly random asides that go so far off the path of the story you’re left wandering around in a cave in the woods instead of on the nice paved road.  But then everything comes right back around to the story, and you can’t really be upset about spending some time listening to an old ghost ramble.  For example:

What made marriage so difficult back then was yet again that instigator of so many other sorts of heartbreak: the oversize brain. That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects all at once, and switch from one opinion or subject to another one so quickly, that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up like a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates. (page 67)

Off-topic? Yes. Quirky? Absolutely.  Interesting and fun nonetheless? Totally.

The plot, in spite of being deeply meandering, does develop and actually tell a story.  We learn how overpopulation caused disaster and then how a few humans managed to survive on the Galapagos Islands and evolve into the futuristic penguin-like folk.  Along the way we have some fun side-trips like an Argentinian military man appearing on a talk show and trying to explain that Argentina really does have submarines, it’s just that once they go underwater they never show up again.

Although I did ultimately appreciate the absurdity and the quirkiness, I must admit that I think it was perhaps a bit overdone.  At the very beginning of the book when the list-making and other elements like that were much more prevalent, I was more annoyed and might have stopped reading the book if it wasn’t for the fact that my boyfriend and I wanted to finish the first book we started reading together.  It took until about 60% of the way in for the list-making to ease off a bit and the style of the book to really start to work for me.  I could easily see a reader being totally lost by some of the more annoying elements of the book, and I wonder what the effect would be if the order was reversed.  If the quirks built throughout the book instead of starting that way.  Or even if they were just dialed back a bit.  I think just that tiny bit of editing would have made me love the book.

Overall, this is a fun piece of absurdist scifi that examines evolution from an over-the-top hypothetical situation.  Potential readers should be aware that this book is even more absurdist than Slaughterhouse-Five, so you must be willing to do some more intense suspending of disbelief and be willing to do some meandering and read some lists.  If absurdist fiction is something you enjoy and meandering and lists won’t bother you, then this humorous examination of overpopulation, end-of-the-world, and future evolution might be right up your alley.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Evolution in a Toxic World: How Life Responds to Chemical Threats by Emily Monosson

Bird, bug, butterfly, and frog.Summary:
Monosson attempts to explain both current and possible future impacts of chemical pollutants on humans by examining how life responded to toxic threats in the past.

Review:
Allow me to preface my review by saying that although I am not a scientist, my profession is that of a medical librarian, so scientific jargon is not new to me.  I would therefore say my understanding of science is somewhere above average American but below actual scientist.  I had the impression from the description that this book is written by a scientist for public consumption aka the average American.  It misses the mark.

The content is great and informative, but it is couched in such an overload of scientific jargon and an assumption of an above average understanding of how the human body works that it was incredibly difficult to get through in order to glean out the interesting information.  Thank goodness I had the kindle version and could look up words easily as I went, or I would have given up within the first chapter.  Additionally, just when things were starting to get interesting, such as with how DDT impacts development in utero, Monosson would switch topics.  Very frustrating!

That said, I did learn quite a bit from this book.  It was just difficult to get to these understandable tidbits given the writing style and structure.  Here are a few interesting things I learned:

Like some pervasive computer operating systems, p53 is an archetypical example of the unintelligent design and compromise that is inherent in evolution—a multifunctional, multipurpose transcriptional coordinator that has only lately been retasked to the job of tumor suppression in large, long-lived orgasms….At the end of the day p53, together with all our other suppressor mechanisms, fails half of humanity.  (location 1314)

Though two species may share a common ancestor and hence a common ancestral receptor or enzyme, once they part ways on the family tree, the branches evolve independently.  (location 1670)

For a genetically male mammal to come out looking and functioning male, he requires in utero exposure to hormones like testosterone and its more potent derivative, dihydrotestosterone, along with a functioning AR. An embryo lacking either hormones or a properly functioning AR (or exposed to chemicals that disrupt either receptor or hormone production) will take on a female appearance, despite possessing a Y chromosome….work by Kelce, Gray, and others revealed that a metabolite of the pesticide DDT was an even more potent inhibitor of the AR than was vinclozolin. Given the ubiquity of DDT and its metabolites, this was a potentially explosive finding. (location 1716)

If our CYP enzymes are increasingly metabolizing a variety of pharmaceuticals, what happens when we add one more, or change our diet, or breathe in chemicals like polyaromatics bound to micron-sized air pollution particulates? (location 2509)

Ultimately though, although I learned a lot, the reading experience itself was a bit daunting for the average American.  I believe this book would best be enjoyed by a scientist for whom evolution is not their normal research area.  They thus would have an easier time with the jargon, but also not already know what Monosson is talking about.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Fragment by Warren Fahy (Series, #1)

Insectile appendage in front of ocean.Summary:
When the floating reality tv show SeaLife receives a distress beacon coming from a remote island, it looks like their ratings are going to improve.  Henders Island has not been visited since the 1700s, and the scientists aboard the Trident are excited at the possible new species they could find.  Unfortunately, the species aren’t as benign as they thought.

Review:
This was recommended to me by a couple of friends who know I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan as a Crichton-esque reading experience.  I can definitely say that this falls solidly in the hard, plausible scifi genre that has been so empty since Crichton’s passing.

Fahy takes the concept of an island splitting off from the rest of civilization and evolving separately and runs with it.  The creatures he comes up with are fantastic and frightening yet simultaneously plausible, which is part of what makes the thrills so thrilling. Similar to Crichton, there are long passages of science explained at a level easily understandable by anyone with a high school diploma.  Also, there are passages that at first seem unimportant but later are revealed to be connected and important.

The characterization is strong enough for a thriller of this sort, although that of the main characters could be a bit stronger.  Everyone is easy to tell apart, however, and their motivations are clear, something that can be difficult to pull off at the fast pace of a thriller.  In future writings, I do hope that Fahy’s main characters will be a bit more well-rounded, however.

The pacing is a bit bumpy with some passages that remove the previously built-up suspense.  Although this was necessary to explain the science, it does seem that it could have been worked in more smoothly.  The last quarter of the book, however, is paced perfectly with no interruptions and just the right amount of suspense.

One of the highlights of the book is definitely the inclusion of the reality tv show.  It lends it a current real vibe.  Things are recorded as they happen.  The world sort of knows what’s going on, but not quite.  The military has to get involved.  Everything reads as very plausible and realistically connected to how the modern world actually works.  Plus the scenes involving the reality tv producers are just good comic relief.

I absolutely plan on reading Fahy’s future works, and definitely recommend this to fans of Crichton style scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

October 28, 2010 5 comments

View of a city skyline with megadonts in front.Summary:
In this steampunk vision of a possible dystopian future, carbon usage and genetic engineering caused the world to nearly collapse.  Whole nations have been lost to starvation due to exorbitant prices charged by the genetic engineering calorie companies and also due to the rising seas from global warming caused by carbon usage.  Domestic cats have been wiped out by cheshires–genetically engineered cats that can appear and disappear, just like the cat in Alice in Wonderland.  Thailand, through strict military enforcement of calorie and carbon consumption, has managed to hold back both the sea with a sea wall and starvation.  The Thai work diligently to rid their nation of windups–genetically engineered living creatures.  As Buddhists, they believe these windups have no souls.  Within this world we see glimpses of five very different lives.  There’s Anderson, a foreigner from Detroit who claims to be running a factory but is actually a calorie company spy.  His manager, Hock Seng, is a survivor of the Malaysian civil war where Muslim fundamentalists attempted to kill all the Chinese immigrants.  Jaidee and Kanya work for the Environment Ministry, also known as white shirts.  They are the military enforcers of all the environmental laws, but they are struggling against the Trade Ministry that wants to open their borders back up to foreign trade.  Finally, there’s Emiko.  She is a Japanese windup girl.  The Japanese created windups due to a severe lack of young people to care for the old.  She came over both as a secretary and lover of her owner who had to do business in Thailand, but he then decided it would be cheaper to leave her behind than to take her on the return trip.  She now is a spectacle in sex shows in the ghetto of Krung Thep.  These lives slowly intertwine, and through them, Bacigalupi shows how easily civil war can erupt.

Review:
I fully admit that this book was out of my comfort zone.  I don’t normally read books on political intrigue and intertwining lives.  I tend to stick to ones that talk about one individual person, and that’s what I was expecting from a book called The Windup Girl.  That’s why I took the time to write a detailed summary, so you all would have a clearer picture of what this book is about than I did.  This is another one of those books that I almost gave up on early in.  Bacigalupi doesn’t take the time to truly set up the world.  Things have names and are briefly or not at all described, so you have to fill in the gaps yourself.  I think if I hadn’t read steampunk before, I would have been at a loss.  For instance, he never explains exactly what a dirigible is, although we know they are sky ships.  It is not until the end of the book when one gets blown up and a character refers to it as a creature that it becomes apparent that they are living creatures used as sky ships.  This is just one example of many ways in which the world building is sloppy.  It takes until solidly halfway through the book for a clear picture of Krung Thep to emerge.  Additionally, this is one of those books that tosses around non-English words where English ones would entirely suffice.  For example, all of the foreigners are called farang, not foreigners.  It makes sense to use a Thai word where there is no English equivalent, but it’s just superfluous to toss them around when there is one.  Technically these characters are supposedly speaking entirely in Thai.  We know that.  Bacigalupi doesn’t need to throw Thai words in periodically just to remind us.  Still, though, I kept reading beyond the first couple of chapters, mainly because I bought the book on my Kindle app, and I don’t tend to waste money.  In the end, I’m glad I kept reading.

Although the setting and world building is rough, the story itself is quite interesting.  Many perspectives are offered on these issues that potentially could become issues in real life.  What are the rights and roles of genetically engineered living beings?  Is nature the way it’s always been better or genetic engineering the next step in evolution?  One of the pro-genetic engineering characters states:

We are nature.  Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving.  We are what we are, and the world is ours.  We are its gods.  Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it. (Location 6347-6350)

It is an interesting question.  Will our next phase of evolution happen in the traditional manner, or is the next phase actually us using our brains to improve?

The Buddhist concepts sprinkled throughout the text are also quite enjoyable.  The characters struggle to maintain their belief in karma and reincarnation in spite of the issues of windups.  It clearly depicts how religion must struggle to adapt to change.  Additionally, the concepts of fate and karma and how much one can actually do to improve one’s lot in life are explored in an excellent manner through multiple characters.  It reminded me a lot of how the Dark Tower series explores the similar idea of ka (fate).  One sentence that really struck me on this theme was:

He wonders if his karma is so broken that he cannot every truly hope to succeed. (Location 8388-8393)

I was just discussing a similar concept with a friend the other day, so it really struck me to see it in print.

Additionally, the ending truly surprised me, even though it’s evident throughout most of the book that a civil war is coming.  I always enjoy it when a book manages to surprise me, and this one definitely did.

Overall, although Bacigalupi struggles with world building, his intertwined characters and themes are thought-provoking to read.  I’m glad I went out of my comfort zone to read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the themes of fate, evolution, nature, karma, or political intrigue.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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