On Pluto

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite PlanetThe Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a 100% Pluto “demotion” supporter. The reclassification of Pluto was based on a new understanding of how the solar system real estate is divided up; it has little to do with the size of Pluto or the fact that it hasn’t “dominated the mass in its orbit.”

I get why children and former children want to cling to Pluto is a planet. It was the smallest planet and kids could relate to it. Likewise, a lot of people don’t have a clear understanding of how science is always improving its facts and refining its terms to better fit reality; so it’s threatening to them that science textbooks have to be rewritten. But that’s nothing new; science textbooks are always being rewritten. Most of the time nobody has anything at stake and they don’t notice.

It’s a big, complicated solar system, and the so-called “planets” are just one chapter in its story. To me, that’s cool.

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Star Maker

Star MakerStar Maker by Olaf Stapledon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a stunning tour-de-force that I took on and was half way through before I realized HOW dated it was. I figured it was written in the mid-1960’s, given the level of knowledge the author possessed about the possibilities of the nature of alien life and the different species of astronomical objects he describes. I was staggered to find out it was published in 1937.

Does it read a little dated? Sure. The language is flowery and peppered with references to “Men” to describe every intelligent race. There is a narrative, but it is all told stream-of-consciousness without dialogue. “It was agreed among our party that we should continue further out into space.”

Reading this is a lot like looking at a painting by an abstract expressionist and shrugging it off until you realize it was painted when those artists were surrounded by Edwardian/Victorian stiffness as a style motif in design and popular art.

Olaf Stapledon was a true visionary–richly imaginative, but also writing a book decades beyond its time.

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Red and Green

Green Mars (Mars Trilogy, #2)Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s said that you can know a lot about a few things, or a little about a lot of things. Well, Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those rare people who knows A LOT about a lot of things. He can shift from any science to engineering to politics to deep psychology to philosophy in a few sentences. And string words together like poetry. IMO, Red Mars is a work of astonishing genius. Probably there are many readers out there who believe this man really has more of an astonishing ability to ramble, and that’s certainly true of Green Mars. The plot is less tight and the characters become stale.

It’s been years since I read these books, and thought Red Mars was clear in my mind, as I re-read Green Mars, it was like I could barely remember it. I may not have actually gotten through the entire thing the first time around. Let’s hear it for audiobooks.

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The discipline of writing not-“hard science fiction”

Stars UnchartedStars Uncharted by S.K. Dunstall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first time I read this, I found the title disappointingly misleading. There was very little exploration or “stars uncharted.”

I just got done re-reading in preparation for the next book in the series. Once expectations can be set aside, the experience is very different. I have been reading a LOT of so-called “hard science fiction” in the interim between now and the previous time I read this book, and was struck this time by how much this is NOT HSF. It doesn’t try to be, and there’s no rule it has to. There is an art to the so-so-called “science fantasy” book that requires just as much discipline as the HSF book. Like actual fantasy books, you have to make all your techno-gadgets, invented-science babble, and any other “natural” or technological infrastructure internally consistent. If these authors don’t have a thick bible of World rules they consult every one sentence, I’ll eat my reader tablet.

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Skyward (Skyward, #1)Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hesitated to read this book because it alone of all its genre popping up in my recommendations had over 20,000 5-star ratings–this for a book published in 2018–when most did well to hit the three figures. It all seemed a little suspicious to me, and that put me off. Now that I’ve read it, I’m still suspicious. It was an entertaining enough book, as these things go, but hardly a five-star jaw-dropper. It leaves me wondering how much it cost to get all those ratings.

Anyway, like I said, entertaining enough. I’ll probably read the sequel.

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How hard sci-fi fails

Return to Enceladus: Hard Science Fiction (Ice Moon Book 4)Return to Enceladus: Hard Science Fiction by Brandon Q. Morris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boy, did this book suck. I am wary now of any writer who claims to be writing “hard science fiction,” especially someone who feels compelled to put that in the title of their novel. It usually means they did their homework in regards to physics, chemistry, and astronomy, and everything else is FAIL. Their story world and characters show they have little grasp of sociology and psychology, their biology knowledge is half-researched, half hand-waved (non-sensical alien species, forex), and in the case of this story series, the artificial intelligence angle is complete FANTASY.

I don’t disagree that someday we might have very human-like and intelligent A.I.s, but you can’t hand-wave how they got that way. You need to give some plausible background DETAILS based on current trends in A.I. and cybernetics. Most especially if you are writing near-future sci-fi. Ignoring the explanation is what makes it fantasy, and bad fantasy at that, because at least fantasy writers follow clear ground rules in their stories regarding what is allowed and what isn’t.

Also? This author needs to jettison the audiobook narrator. He just makes trite material sound even more trite.

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The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 by Garrett M. Graff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an amazing book. Despite the title, it shows a broad range of points of view of the events of 9/11–not just Air Force One, but workers in the twin towers and in the Pentagon, along with first responders, families of those who survived and those who didn’t, and airline employees and families of the plane passenger sand crew who got a glimpse of what what going on inside the planes as they flew to their various dooms.

The reason I am giving this a 4 instead of a 5 is the manner in which the story was told. These are all (with a few exceptions) actual first-person accounts read by actors (which is fine), but instead of getting anyone’s story from beginning to end as I expected, it’s all told in short 2-3 sentence vignettes from the vast variety of people the author interviewed. It ends up telling a complete narrative of each time and place, but in these tiny pieces, like a mosaic. The second you get interested in one person’s story, they switch to someone else’s experience to pick up the story, and the narrative may or may not return to that person whose story you were interested in specifically.

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