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Showing posts from November, 2017

The Joy of Festival

One of the best bits about being an author is the chance to turn up at book festivals (and as a science author, I get a double bite of the cake with science festivals).

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to two very different festivals, each with a very special feel. I've done a couple of the big numbers (Cheltenham and Edinburgh), but for me, small and mid-size festivals like these are far more charming.

The first was Taunton Literary Festival, run in a very friendly, relaxed fashion from Brendon Books, an impressive indie bookshop that mixes new and used books on the shelves with refreshing abandon. As the event was actually in the bookshop, I was expecting a tiny audience, but somehow organiser Lionel Ward managed to cram in a good 60 seats, all of which were filled by an appreciative audience. I've done my Reality Frame talk a few times, but never quite so intimately with my audience. I particularly enjoyed a moment when I was waiting to start, sitting on children…

The Calculus Story - David Acheson ***

According to the back cover 'This little book is more ambitious than it looks.' Apart from a distinct feeling of damning with faint praise, there's an element of truth in this, which proves both a negative and a positive, depending on what you're looking for from a book on calculus.

Let's get the negative out of the way first. To make it a mathematical adventure, as the subtitle suggests, it would need rather more story and rather less calculus. Although David Acheson does get some history of maths in, this is much more 'getting your head around calculus for beginners' than it is 'the calculus story.' So, yes, you will discover, for instance, the battle between Newton and Leibniz - and Bishop Berkeley's magnificently titled 'the Analyst, or a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician' - but only in a few passing lines.

What we get instead is a step by step introduction to calculus from first principles, which builds on Ancient Greek …

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Artemis (SF) - Andy Weir ****

It's impossible to read Artemis and not be reminded of that one-time SF great, Robert A. Heinlein. Not only was what was arguably Heinlein's best book also set on a Moon colony (more on that later), he had a penchant for feisty young female lead characters who were very intelligent but do not make conventional use of their abilities (think anything from Podkayne of Mars to Friday) - a perfect match for the central character of Andy Weir's new novel, Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara.

Artemis is set on a permanent Moon colony of around 2,000 inhabitants. Its bubble habitats are set up a short train ride from the Apollo 11 landing site, which reflects the colony's main source of income - tourism. Jazz makes her living apparently as a porter, moving goods around the colony, but in reality as a smuggler. This brings her into contact with others who will involve her in something far bigger, with drastic consequences.

Told in the first person by Jazz, this is a fairly conventional space …

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

The Future Was Here - Jimmy Maher ***

I discovered the field of Platform Studies with Super Power, Spoony Bards and Silverware on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and couldn't resist the earlier entry in the same series, The Future Was Here, which examines the Commodore Amiga.

I had an Amiga 500 at home at the same time as working with IBM PCs at work, so this was a fascinating trip into the past for me. Unlike Dominic Arsenault in the SNES title, Jimmy Maher chooses to focus far more on the technology, plus a fair amount on the culture, but doesn't give the same business insights. We are repeatedly told how disastrous the Commodore management was (though occasionally this is is presented as a biased view from the Amiga fans), but don't get a feel for what was happening at the Commodore end. This story is driven by the technology, those who created the technology and those who used it.

Apart from anything else, it was interesting to discover the US viewpoint. Apparently, the US end tried to positi…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…

Blowfish's Oceanopaedia - Tom Hird ***

There's always the worry with books that could be classified as 'nature' that they don't really contain any science - they end up more like tourist guides of the natural world. This is fine if that's what you're looking for, but not doing the popular science job. Thankfully, Tom Hird's Blowfish's Oceanopedia is significantly more than a 'isn't nature wonderful?' book - though Hird's boundless enthusiasm for his topic does occasionally take us into 'gee whizz, wow' mode.

Unless you are already a marine biologist (which I certainly am not), you will indubitably learn a lot reading through Hird's collection of bite-sized oceanic and fishy facts. We begin with some information on the sea itself, the nature of waves and the like, then move on to the main course of the assorted denizens of the deep. I certainly had plenty of 'Oh, really? I didn't know that,' moments.

Unfortunately, though, there is a big drawback from the…

A History of the Future - Peter Bowler ***

Having just read What's Next, a book of futurology, it was quite interesting to move onto a book about futurology - specifically futurology in the first half of the twentieth century before it became such a recognised entity in its own right.

It's interesting that in the subtitle, Peter Bowler chooses H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to bracket the periods he is covering, as both are better known as science fiction writers than for their non-fiction. Although Bowler does bring in a number of 'straight' writers on the future, he doesn't draw a hard line between science fiction and futurology, which makes a lot of sense. As he points out, while there have always been SF writers who go way beyond extrapolation to the near future - think, for example, E. E. 'Doc' Smith's wide ranging space operas or Asimov's Foundation series - there has equally always been plenty of science fiction where we are dealing with the near future and science/technology that is bas…

The Algebraist (SF) - Iain Banks ***

One of Iain Banks' chunkier science fiction works, The Algebraist (published in 2004) sprawls over 534 pages. It's a space opera on a grand scale: although it focuses on one solar system, it has the same kind of grand galactic span as Asmov's Foundation series.

The main character, Fassin Taak, is a kind of academic who spends his time dipping into the system's gas giant, where incredibly ancient beings called Dwellers are part of a galaxy-wide civilisation that has lasted 10 billion years. Dealing with them is frustrating and slow - but Fassin discovers hints of a remarkable secret.

At the same time we have an evil despot setting out to conquer Fassin's home system and a bureaucratic and autocratic civilisation which is attempting to oppose the despot. So there's plenty going on.

I did enjoy the book on the whole but it seemed to have three problems. The least important was that the despot, the Archimandrite Luseferous, was straight out of central casting's ev…