book review: flavor

Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.

One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.

book review: our place

Kevin Van Tighem has written about Alberta’s environment, and his concern for it, for over thirty years. Our Place is a collection of those heartfelt, thoughtful, researched essays.

The book is organized by themes so you get fishing pieces together, and hunting ones together, and the whole idea of segmenting up something that is large and whole get put together. This approach means the footnotes can get a little sad, especially when you read a hopeful essay from the 1980s where the hope didn’t really work out.

Even if you are not a hunter or a fisher, his writing about those practices is evocative and persuades the reader to appreciate the attention they reward. But in the end, what I appreciated most about the book was Van Tighem’s sense of the connectedness of all things, how attention and language matters, and how natural gas and tar sands exploitation is costing Albertans their souls.

book review: the collapsing empire

The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s most recent space opera. It takes the tropes of far flung planets and space ships travelling between them and puts some interesting characters doing clever things in those ships and places of power and knowledge. Yup. Good stuff.

The collapsing part of the empire (called the Interdependency because they rely on trade between stars to survive) is that the bits of nonspace that connect these farflung worlds without having to travel actually faster than light (though the effect is pretty much the same in a Traveller-esque fashion) are shifting, and that’s shifting how power will play out on the grand scale. It’s a good ecological metaphor and I enjoyed how humanity has had to build habitats wherever they could connect to each other, rather than on planets that would be suitable for bearing human life.

I’m a bit interested in what will happen when the shifting status quo meets up with either Earth or a generationship kind of thing that didn’t use the networks that are shifting. It’s a series though, so that doesn’t happen in this book. It was a fine light read; a good popcorn book. As far as space opera I’ve read recently I like it better than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but not as much as Leviathan Wakes or The Stars Are Legion.

book review: walkaway

Walkaway is the latest novel by Cory Doctorow. It’s a utopian tale of people who, because of ubiquitous 3d printing technology (that can produce food, drugs, shelter, clothing and whatever else out of raw material feedstock) drop out of the default society that has no place for them apart from working terrible jobs to try and become one of the zotta-rich (since the 1% is now giga-beyond mega-rich).

The story follows a bunch of different walkaways, starting with three who make the decision after a communist party. One of those three is the daughter of a zotta, which fuels most of the plot. Otherwise it’s about how a post-scarcity society based on walking away from the ratrace could work. It’s hugely utopian and I really liked it, even when default society was sending the troops in to destroy these techno hippies.

I have always wanted to live in something like walkaway. Owning nothing I didn’t mind getting stolen and working on things to work on them, not because I need a paycheque to live.

The marketing material stressed how it’s his first Adult novel in years (after doing a run of YA work), but the main difference between this and something like Little Brother is that this has sex scenes. Which are fine, but whatever. It still felt like a YA book and a big part of that is that until the last quarter of the book everyone we see walking away are people’s kids or hipsters or disconnected from the world scientists. No one walks away from their kids, or brings them with them. It feels very adolescent not to deal with the responsibilities you’re walking away from. Or maybe that’s just something I notice more now that I’m more of a boring grownup. The book feels like it’s telling me if I wanted to walk away I should have done it before now. So that’s kind of depressing, to have a novel show you the society you want and say you’re too late for it. I guess that’s just what aging is for though.

book review: will the real alberta please stand up?

A useful tool for my ongoing attempts to get to know the province I’m living in is the Read Alberta eBooks project. Through my library I can download stuff by Alberta writers and not just lament that the government presiding over me funds horse racing more than the arts. Where did I get that nugget? From Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up? by Geo Takach, which is an Alberta ebook. That I read. Following the project’s orders.

The book was not great. Part of it comes from being written 10 years ago, so “the present” was very Ralph Klein focused (but Stephen Harper was only mentioned twice). Part of it comes from the writer being a journalist who wasn’t really interested in any kind of rigour. He just talked to a lot of Albertans and non-Albertans about what they thought of Alberta, then assembled those quotes thematically. That led to it being very much a boosterish kind of thing, with loads of sentiment about the land and an almost total absence of indigenous voices. In that vein you’d think that the first nations people were totally a part of Alberta’s prehistory and have nothing to do with its present. Because it’s just white people it’s all about insecurity around being perceived as rednecks and pointing at historical good things that happened here. And the fucking “individual initiative and volunteer spirit that everyone has to exhibit because they don’t want to fund social programs through the state.

Though it was generally off-putting, I did learn about the province through the book. Mostly about history, including some of the basics of the listener-supported radio station CKUA (which is my favourite thing about living here). There was acknowledgement that the tar sands are kind of bad, but that Albertans don’t really care because everything has to be “balanced” against economic development. Which is the same as the rest of Canada I guess.

But as a book, it was an okay primer that repeated itself a lot. I wouldn’t recommend it.

book review: hidden figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is pretty much what the title implies. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

book review: across the nightingale floor

Across the Nightingale Floor is a story with a medieval “Asian” setting in which a young man is saved from his destroyed village by a noble tragic lord and is taught mad ninja skills to take revenge on the evil lord who destroyed his village (and killed his new noble lord’s brother in a battle years before). It is a pulpy story in which Takeo stops speaking and thus can hear everything happening in the castle because his father he didn’t know was part of the assassin clan that exists. There’s another storyline about a young woman who’s a hostage being used as a bargaining chip by the evil lord. She’s going to be married to the noble lord, even though he secretly loves the head of the only clan allowed to be led by women… Fairly standard samurai/ninja melodrama.

It was okay, but I’m not rushing out for the rest of them. I think most of my problems revolved around how it felt like a nice white person writing an old D&D Oriental Adventures module. A good module, but still. I’d much more strongly recommend Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (which is more of an epic mashup) or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven series (which is in not-China, but a specific-feeling not-China instead of a mashup of feudal Japanese-ish stuff).