Science, Fiction, Life

Month: February 2016

Book Review: Shaman


If you’re like most people (or at least, most sci-fi fans), you know of author Kim Stanley Robinson for his epic Mars trilogy about colonizing the red planet. So, it might surprise you to hear that among his many other books is Shaman, a story about early humans in Europe 32,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. It is admittedly a different sort of story, lacking the epic scope and huge cast of characters and political maneuverings. But it does have this in common: it’s clear Robinson did a ton of research into the latest science before writing, and then filled in the gaps with plausible speculation to tell a compelling story. And it deals with some similar themes, such as: what would a society look like where you’re starting almost from scratch?

Shaman focuses on a young man named Loon who is being trained to become a shaman by his mentor and adopted father Thorn. There is eventually a quest-type plot, but much of the book is just a leisurely exploration of what life might have been like back then. It’s not especially fast paced, but it is fascinating. This is a time when humans are not the only sentient apes on the planet: neanderthals still exist at the fringes of human territory, sometimes as friends, sometimes as foes. It’s a world where humans are not yet at the top of the food chain, and wolves are not quite domesticated into loyal dogs yet. Heck, humans barely think of themselves as different from animals: Loon doesn’t call his kin group a “tribe”, he calls them a “pack”. And at one point, he refers to his fingernails as “claws”.

But the great thing about the book is that despite the primitive setting, and the “cave man” characters, they are humans just like you or me (except way tougher…I don’t know about you but I couldn’t go out into a winter storm, naked, with no tools of any kind, and come back alive days later with food in my belly and wearing clothes). Yes, they struggle to hunt and gather enough food to survive the winter, something you and I (hopefully) don’t have to worry about. But much of the conflict in the story comes from very familiar difficulties: Does she like me? Will my friend be jealous if I kiss her? What if I don’t want to do the job I am expected to when I grow up? Is the boss making good decisions? Can this stranger be trusted? And the characters are not dumb. One of my favorite characters, the old crone Heather who is sort of Loon’s adoptive mother, represents the potential for humans to figure out the world they live in. She has basically figured out the fundamentals of the scientific method and she uses it to test different herbs for their medicinal properties. There’s a charming scene where she is helping Loon to design a better pair of snowshoes where she explains to him the idea of making and testing multiple different prototypes to find which one works best. But there’s also a poignancy to the book’s exploration of these early hints of technological advancement. At one point this is brought to the fore when a character dies, and in reflecting on their death, Loon laments all the knowledge that person had which is now lost forever. As a modern reader, we know that writing would not be invented for another 29,000 years or so, and almost everything in between, every Heather who has started to figure things out, is simply…lost.

The other interesting thing that the extremely ancient setting allows for is a sort of stripped-down look at human culture, with all of the baggage of 32,000 years removed. I read some reviews of this book that said that it talks about sex too much, but I think their actual complaint was that it is talked about so frankly and openly. Sorry, but humans just think about sex a lot. Trying to hide that under layers and layers of taboos and cultural norms (many of which are more recent than most people realize) doesn’t change the fact. Heck, some of the oldest examples of human artwork are “venus figurines” depicting voluptuous women. It especially makes sense for Loon, a teen-aged boy in a society that doesn’t see sex as shameful at all, to think about it quite a lot.

There are also some great scenes about cave painting, where the author tries to imagine what was going through the artist’s mind while painting the various animal figures that populate the walls of ancient caves. In particular, these scenes do a great job of demonstrating that although the paintings look simple, a lot of thought likely went into them: using the roughness of the cave wall to make the animals appear to move in flickering torch light, adjusting the shading to draw the eye to certain animals. Drawing partial forms or extra limbs to depict motion.

Another major theme of the book is our species’ knack for survival against all odds. Without giving too much away, I will say that a large chunk of the book’s climax deals with a protracted chase, with the protagonists trying to escape from enemies. The chase goes on and on, and the heroes have to keep going despite lacking food or shelter, and despite injuries that would send a frail modern human crying to the emergency room and convalescing for weeks or longer. Even after they escape from enemies, they have to withstand nature as it does its best to kill them. It’s actually exhausting to read, but it does a great job of illustrating how difficult survival was back then. It’s amazing to think that humans are tough enough to withstand what is described, but the truth is we are.

Anyway, overall I really enjoyed Shaman. It’s a little weak on plot, but it is about such a fascinating subject that I didn’t really mind. It does a great job of transporting the reader back to the dawn of modern humanity, in all its brutal and beautiful wilderness, and in the process examines what makes us human.

Choosing Between Hillary and Bernie: My Thoughts on the Election (so far)


It’s election season in the United States, and as always, I am getting sucked in to what has become the best reality television show out there (can you believe the latest plot twist?). Things have gotten especially heated in the last couple of weeks as primary elections have started happening and we are starting to see votes to go along with all the polling and debates. Given everything that is going on, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down some of my thoughts in an effort to clarify them for myself.

We are told every election cycle that “this election may be the most important one of our time” but this year that really is the case for one reason: the Supreme Court. Even assuming that congress continues to be worthless at getting anything done, yesterday’s death of Justice Scalia has reminded everyone of how significant the next president is going to be in terms of nominating Justices. It’s looking quite likely that, come hell or high water, Republicans in Congress will fall on their swords rather than allow Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia to be confirmed before the election. Already they are making statements about how the voters should have a say in who will replace Scalia (apparently forgetting that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be elected officials, and that their nomination already reflects the will of the people because the people chose the president who is making the nomination). And it’s not just Scalia who may need to be replaced. Anthony Kennedy is almost 80, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, and Stephen Breyer is 77. What I’m saying is that, even if you stop reading right here, you should at least be clear that the next president is likely to have an influence on the Supreme Court that will be felt in the Court’s decisions for decades. For that reason alone, this election is a Big Deal and you should vote and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

That said, let’s talk about the primaries. You will not be surprised to learn that, as someone whose politics were shaped during the Iraq War, the beginning of the recession, and the Republican party’s headlong lurch away from reality (which has a “well-known liberal bias“), and who has spent nearly half my life in college towns surrounded by highly educated, mostly liberal people, my views are quite liberal as well. So I will primarily be talking about the Democratic primaries in what follows.

I think everyone can agree that the Republican candidates are a mess, so I’m not going to say much about them. Along with much of the rest of the country I find it morbidly fascinating that Trump is the frontrunner candidate, with Cruz not far behind, and the “establishment” candidates are in the back of the pack, sniping at each other instead of taking on the frontrunner(s). Here’s what I will say about the fight for the Republican nominee: I am torn between hoping that Trump wins because he is so clearly an awful choice for President that the Democrats would basically be guaranteed a win in November, and being terrified that Trump will win the nomination and then, when the Party closes ranks behind him, he will actually have a shot.

In any case, what has really been on my mind especially since the primaries started is the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nominee. As I said, my peers tend to be young, highly educated, upper-middle class, and predominantly white. Which is to say that my facebook feed is basically a non-stop Bernie Sanders love fest (often verging into blatant propaganda). And I have to say I sympathize. I agree with a lot of what Bernie stands for and he is my clear favorite at the gut, emotional level. I don’t really like the idea of a President Clinton #2 for the simple reason that the idea of political dynasties doesn’t feel right to me. I really like that most of Sanders’ funding comes from small donors rather than wealthy people. I have been known on more than one occasion to speak wistfully about how I wish my country would adopt some of the demonstrably effective policies of certain “socialist” countries, where, yes taxes are quite high but there is universal health care, reasonable paid leave, minimal gun violence, minimal police violence, etc. I think Sanders’ message that income inequality is the biggest issue facing the country is basically correct, and I respect that he has been so consistent over his long career in fighting against it. Sanders also comes across as a genuinely good and honest person, something rare in politics.

But here’s the thing: while the types of changes that Sanders is fighting for would be wonderful and I think they would have significant benefits in the long run, I am (a) not convinced that he could win the general election, and (b) am not convinced that those changes would happen if he were elected. On the electability front, right now Sanders is enjoying a surge of interest after doing well in the first two primaries. If that momentum continues, and his viscerally appealing progressive message continues to connect with voters and drive them to the polls, then yes he might have a chance. But I think it is important to remember that so far he has only been facing other Democrats and despite his long career he is not well known by many voters. His prospects look rosy right now because he did better than expected in Iowa and won a blowout victory in the very friendly territory of New Hampshire, so he’s getting a lot of good press. And Republicans are happy to let him keep doing what he’s doing: they have their own issues to deal with right now, and the turmoil and divisiveness he is causing within the Democratic party suits them just fine. But if we end up with Sanders as the Democratic nominee, you can expect some brutal and highly effective attacks from the right. The guy is a self-described socialist who wants to raise taxes and thinks Obamacare doesn’t go nearly far enough. A Sanders nomination would do for Republican voter turnout in the general election what a Trump nomination would do for Democratic voter turnout.

Let me say that again because I don’t think a lot of liberals appreciate this. You know how you feel about Trump? How you hate everything he stands for? How you almost hope he is the nominee because he would be so easy for your party to run against? That’s how Republicans feel about Bernie. If he becomes the nominee, things are not going to be pretty. Now, I’m not saying Clinton would have a cake-walk in this regard. She has been hated by Republicans forever and will also likely inspire many of them to turn out and cast their “Not Clinton” vote. But I think the difference here is that Republican hatred for Hillary is a known quantity. They’ve already basically thrown everything they can at her. I highly doubt there is anything new that will come out if she becomes the nominee. Sanders on the other hand, is fresh meat.

The downside for Hillary’s electability is that she lacks the emotional appeal. I don’t think she will inspire Democrats to come out to vote in droves the way Obama did and the way Bernie might if he can ride the enthusiasm that has been building. She lacks the simple emotional narrative that Bernie has because she’s the pragmatic choice, and if you’re not going to blow up the status quo, then you have to work with it and it’s messy. Hillary is the choice for incremental progress, for working within the current system. Put another way, Bernie is the Hail Mary, Clinton is the slow, painful ground game. Bernie is the heroic cavalry charge with gleaming sabers, Clinton is trench warfare.

But that gets me to the second point: Suppose Sanders not only wins the nomination, but is elected president on his wave of populist support. How exactly will all the changes he is proposing make it through Congress? His response to this so far has basically been to say that we need a political revolution. People who don’t normally vote need to get swept up in this revolution and drive Republicans out of office across the land such that Democrats can pass the legislation that they really want. I don’t know how else to put this: that’s not going to happen. Yeah, maybe a wave of Sanders support would increase turnout enough to flip a few seats. It might even win back the Senate. But the odds of gaining enough ground to be filibuster proof? Or of taking over the House as well? I’m not holding my breath, and I find it hard to vote for a guy whose plan for getting things done is to count on a political revolution. Not that such a disruption of a broken system wouldn’t be thrilling. I’m just saying I don’t think we can count on it happening. When the other side is dug in for trench warfare, your cavalry charge is not likely to go well.

So okay, what’s a voter to do if they find themselves in the same boat as me, where they like Sanders’ policies but are skeptical of his chances of success? Well, I found it interesting that, when I took the very detailed I Side With quiz (If you take it, be sure to check each question for additional, more nuanced options), my results indicate that I agree with Bernie Sanders on 95% of issues, and that I agree with Hillary Clinton on 93% of issues. 2% is not a meaningful difference in this context. And apparently Clinton and Sanders voted the same 93% of the time in the Senate. That’s not to say that within the 7% of votes where they disagreed there aren’t some meaningful issues. There are. But it does indicate that in terms of policy, they have more in common than it might seem during a contentious primary where they are trying their hardest to seem different. Their bigger differences are more in terms of philosophy and how they plan to accomplish their goals, than in the goals themselves.

All that said, who am I going to vote for? For the primary, I think it will depend on how things look when it’s Arizona’s turn to vote. If the race is close or if Bernie is winning, I will vote for Clinton because I mostly agree with her on policy and I think she’s the most qualified and electable candidate out there for the office of President. If Clinton is already winning, I will vote for Bernie because I think the Democratic party needs to learn from his candidacy that what he stands for resonates with a large number of voters. (If nothing else, I hope his candidacy paves the way for a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren in 4 or 8 years.)

For the general election, I will vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. John Scalzi summed up my feelings eloquently a few weeks ago with this statement:

But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

To all of my friends out there who are on the Bernie train: I get it. I even mostly agree with you! But remember that as contentious as the primary gets, we’re all on the same side in the long run. You need to vote in the general election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

(Obligatory disclaimer: What I post here on my website represents my own personal views and not those of my employer or anyone else.)



Book Review: Leviathan Wakes


One of the side effects of having a day job that borders on science fiction (shooting rocks on Mars with a laser mounted on a nuclear-powered robot) is that I find it’s much harder for “hard” sci-fi to impress me. (“Hard” sci-fi, for the uninitiated, is sci-fi that tries to be scientifically accurate.) Too often it’s full of cardboard characters who are there just to advance the plot to the next point where the author can lecture the reader about the next gee-whiz piece of futuristic tech that they researched.

However, I had heard some great things about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) and the rest of the Expanse series. I even had a brief exchange on twitter with them in which they expressed interest in asking me some questions about Mars (alas nothing ever came of this). So I was cautiously optimistic when I finally was able to get my hands on an ebook of Leviathan Wakes from the library.

Turns out no caution was necessary: Leviathan Wakes was excellent. Possibly the best hard science fiction I have read since Red Mars. Heck, in many ways, it’s better than Red Mars. Leviathan Wakes is set a few hundred years into a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. Often sci-fi skips over this phase of exploration and just waves its hands and says that humans have colonized the stars and there is faster than light travel so now let’s go fight some aliens. That’s not the case here. Instead of shying away from the messy, slow, complicated process of becoming a multi-planet species, Leviathan Wakes drops us right in the middle of it. Earth is still the cradle of life and is required to sustain the colonies, but only barely. Mars is a sovereign nation with a dominant military presence in space. Ceres and Eros and other large asteroids have been reconstructed into giant space stations, home to millions (artificial gravity provided by spinning up the whole asteroid and building stations such that “up” is toward the interior of the asteroid”). The asteroid belt and outer planets have loosely allied into the “Outer Planets Alliance”.

The book does a great job with the technical details. The main bending of the rules has to do with the propulsion system used by the ships. Other than that everything is pretty good. There’s no artificial gravity fields or “inertial dampers”. Instead gravity is provided by either spinning or accelerating. For high levels of acceleration, people have to strap into padded couches and get injected with a cocktail of drugs to avoid passing out. Combat in space is as much a dance of jamming communications or being dark to radar or detecting infrared signatures as it is about actually firing ordnance (and of course, it’s mostly missiles since the distances involved are usually too larger for ballistic projectiles to make sense).

But while it is good with the technical details, the book doesn’t get bogged down in them, and it has some great characters too. The two point of view characters are Jim Holden, an idealistic captain of a small crew (a bit reminiscent of Firefly) who keep ending up in the middle of unexpectedly significant events, and Miller, a washed up detective on Ceres trying to complete his final missing person case against all odds (bringing a bit of the noir/mystery genre to the book, especially in the first half). The supporting cast are good too: Naomi Nagata (Holden’s highly competent XO), Alex Kamal (a Martian-born ex-navy pilot), and Amos Burton (the hilarious mechanic). Even minor characters have distinct personalities and a role to play in the story.

The future of Leviathan Wakes feels real. It’s not just a bunch of white American scientists and steely-eyed missile men with “the right stuff”. The space stations are huge and messy and multicultural. Kids from the slums of Ceres speak an almost incomprehensible mash up of slang and various languages. The Mormons are at Tycho station, preparing to launch a generation ship to the stars. There are women in positions of authority (head of security on Ceres, admiral in the Martian navy, etc.). Arabic and Hindi are commonly spoken, and many other cultures make cameo appearances in the names of minor characters. This all adds up to a feeling of verisimilitude, like this is a future that could really exist.

To me, that’s one of the best things about this book. It makes it feel possible to colonize the solar system, something that in my line of work it’s easy to get cynical about. I was discussing the book with a co-worker the other day and she said something that I realized really rang true. Not only is it a good book, but it makes me more excited about my job because in some small way I’m contributing toward the future that the book depicts.

So ok, the technical details are good, the characters are good, what about the plot? It’s awesome. This is a long book, but it’s a page-turner. Every chapter ends with something that makes you want to start reading the next one. Cliffhangers can be poorly done, with the reader wondering what just happened or getting annoyed at the author for hiding things. There’s very little of that here. Instead you get the good kind of cliffhanger, where the chapter ends with some new twist or piece of information with such major implications that you just have to turn the page and find out what happens next. I was reminded in the best possible way of Storm of Swords, where the book seemed to have several climaxes because so much happened. A similar thing happened here. I feared I was nearing the end at one point because things were starting to feel climactic, only to check on my kindle and find that I was only halfway finished! I do much of my reading out loud to my wife right before bed and I can always tell if a book is working by how long it takes for me to start to nod off. I’ll just say this: I didn’t nod off very often with this book!

Bottom line? Leviathan Wakes was awesome. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially my planetary science colleagues. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next books in the series. There is also apparently a TV show on SyFy based on the books called The Expanse, so I will need to check that out (once I have verified that it won’t spoil events in the later books).

Other minor thoughts:

  • Reading out loud also means that it’s noticeable when dialog doesn’t feel natural. I’m happy to report that the dialog in Leviathan Wakes reads very well out loud. I imagine the audiobook would be very good.
  • The book deftly incorporates bits and piece of other genres and pieces of fiction that I have loved without ever feeling like a copy cat. I mentioned above that the crew of the Rocinante reminded me a bit of Firefly, and that Miller’s early chapters had a nice noir feel to them. I was also reminded of StarCraft and Mass Effect at times, two of my favorite sci-fi video games.
  • I only have a few negative things to say about the book. It would have been nice to have a female POV character. There were a few times where I lost track of exactly what was happening and why (in particular, the geometry of the inside of the big space stations could be confusing and so the characters’ motivations for getting to a certain location sometimes got fuzzy). And as with any sci-fi, there were a few cases where the rules had to be broken to accommodate the plot.

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