Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Matchbox that ate a Forty-Ton Truck - Marcus Chown

Originally linked off of BoingBoing, I think this is the best physics book for non-physicists that I've ever read. Chown takes a really nice approach - picking something in the everyday world that you've probably noticed, and maybe wondered about, maybe not, and then linking it to some aspect of physics which we don't have any intuition about. For example, he points out that if you look out the window you can see your own faint reflection in the glass, as well as what's outside the window - because quantum effects are random, and some photons are randomly being reflected by the glass while others pass through. If the world were totally deterministic, then they would all either get reflected, or pass through, but it isn't - it's quantum, and the quantum world is dominated by probabilities.

It isn't all quantum physics. He throws in a lot of information about elementary particles, strong and weak nuclear force, the big bang, and finishes off with aliens. His style of constantly relating unfamiliar things back to the familiar really makes this book easy to read, and not get totally lost in like many popular physics books. Additionally the fact that each chapter stands alone means there's less chance of getting stuck on a concept and having to give up. It is written at a level that anyone with a high school physics education could read it (I think), but there were only a couple times where I felt irritated by unnecessary levels of detail. If you've got a degree in astronomy or particle physics, this would probably be boring, but I really felt like I learned something. There wasn't a lot that I hadn't seen before, but it was put together in a way that was interesting, and helped me make a lot of new connections.

So, if you like popular physics books, I think you'll love this one. If you're scared of popular physics books, you'll probably still really enjoy it. Chown manages to simplify some really difficult concepts without oversimplifying, and communicate them in a really engaging way. I definitely want to acquire a copy of this book if only to lend it around to everyone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fool's Run - Patricia McKillip

I love Patricia McKillip and I've read most of her fantasy novels, but this is the first SF novel of her's that I've encountered. I wasn't actually aware she had written any SF, and while it is certainly SF rather than fantasy, it has a lot more in common with her fantasy novels than with most other SF. Which is to say that her very unique voice plays just as well with space opera as with fairies. Not that this is space opera. I could totally see this same story, or a variant on it, working quite nicely in a fantasy setting, but there are so many elements to it that benefit from being set in a far-future society.

It is a story, set mostly on earth, or in near-earth orbit, of a band called Nova who get contracted to play a gig on "The Underworld", a prison colony orbiting the earth, which is going to be their ticket to fame and fortune. The Magician is the leader of the band, very interested in old-fashioned music, and slightly psychic. The Queen of Hearts is their 'cuber', cubes being a fancy new sort of drum incorporating some interesting visual effects, who is very obviously an enigma, and who subs in for their regular cuber at the last minute. The mystery of her past is unveiled as they reach the Underworld, and she is linked with the prisoner, Terra Viridian, who killed 1500 people 7 years ago for absolutely no reason.

There's a lot of psychic occurrences which give this the feel of a fantasy set in space. People acting on hunches, events converging, odd coincidences which may or may not be coincidental. But there are bits here and there that really benefit from the future tech. The instruments played by the band members are fabulous, as are the visual effects they use on stage. I don't know any other author who could possibly get you to imagine the sound and light show. The access system for the Underworld is quite futuristic and adds a lot. Radio communications is also really vital to the plot - being able to have people in physical different locations but communicating with each other in a semi-public fashion isn't something you can manage easily in a fantasy setting. So this isn't just a fantasy novel set in space, it really uses the technology, but it still manages to feel more like fantasy than SF.

A lovely story, like all of McKillip's other books it actually lets me see the world she's describing and in this particular case, hear it too.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thomas the Rhymer - Ellen Kushner

Reviewed by Jo Walton over on This is a retelling of the fairy tale of True Thomas, and it is just beautiful. It is set in the past - Scotland in the 1300s - and the story is told in four voices. First we have Gavin, an old farmer, telling us about Thomas, the brash young harper who has wandered into Gavin's heart and home on his travels. Then Thomas continues the story as he is taken into Fairyland and lives there for 7 years as the consort of the Queen of Fairyland. Then Meg, Gavin's wife, takes up the tale when Thomas returns from Fairyland and tries to learn how to live life as a man again. Finally we have Elspeth, in love with Thomas before he vanished, and coming to love him again on his return - although this isn't easy as they have both been changed by the passage of time and the events of life, telling the tale of his life as a man unable to lie - and with the ability to see into the future.

The story is beautiful, and the style in which it is told is just wonderful. I love that it doesn't end with Thomas returning from Fairyland, and that the world has not stood still while he was away. People have changed, and Thomas has changed, and adjusting to these changes is not easy for anyone. Elspeth certainly didn't sit around waiting for Thomas to come home. Gavin has a great deal of trouble accepting that Thomas has been in Fairyland and isn't simply making up a new story. The personalities of the four main characters are wonderful, and having them each narrate different portions of the story is wonderful. You get to know each of them, but without the discontinuity of changing narrators every chapter as most stories would do. Thomas's adventures in Fairyland are also fascinating, but not quite as compelling as the rest of the story, however the song he writes while he is there is fabulous.