Non-fiction


Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation

Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro

In Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation (2019), Terri Favro mixes journalistic research, speculative fiction, and memoir, along with a series of pop culture sidebars to create an engaging if sometimes frustrating look at the history of technology that led to our current hopes for true AI and Jetson-like robot.

Favro uses a relatively broad definition of “robot,” which I confess threw me a bit now and then, though it was easy enough to recalibrate my own pre-conceived concept and go along as she looked at driverless cars, smart refrigerators, and even elevators. Those looking for the more narrow and probably more typical sort of robot needn’t worry, though. Favro hits those as well, particularly in the latter chapters (including one on sex robots).

The memoir strand is ... Read More

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past (2019), by Sarah Parcak, is an entertainingly informative mix of popular science, memoir, and even some fiction. Parcak does an excellent job of bringing the rarified field of remote sensing down to earth, in both literal and metaphorical fashion.

Remote sensing is a relatively new tool in science and, in particular, in archaeology. Parcak dates its use in the field from 1906, when a lieutenant of the Royal Engineer’s Balloon Section used a tethered balloon to take photos of Stonehenge and “a new world had been opened up from on high.” She traces the evolution of the science and engineering through both World Wars (her grandfather, “Grampy,” was a WWII paratrooper who applied his knowledge of aerial photography to forestry), government and private flights, and on into the space era, beginning in 1... Read More

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner

I confess I wasn’t sure just how enthralling a book all about the Greenland ice sheet would be. Interesting, yes (well, to those of us who are the type to pick up a book about the Greenland ice sheet in the first place). But enough to carry an entire book rather than a long-form article? Interesting enough to move into “compelling” or, yes, “enthralling” territory? Hmmm. Turns out though, in the more than capable hands of Jon Gertner, the answer is assuredly yes and yes. The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future (2019) is indeed compelling and even, as the subtitle says, epic. Also informative, entertaining, thorough, well-organized, clearly ... well, you get the idea.

Gertner takes a chronological approach to his sub... Read More

The Moon: A History for the Future

The Moon: A History for the Future by Oliver Morton

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing approaching, we’re seeing a slew of books, films, TV shows, web articles, etc. highlighting what remains one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements. But it would be a mistake to lump Oliver Morton’s The Moon: A History for the Future (2019) in with the retrospectives, for as that subtitle hints, Morton looks forward more than he looks backward in a wide-ranging look at our nearest celestial object.

On a basic level, if you want simple (or not so simple) facts about the Moon itself — what it is made of, how it formed, how cold it gets, etc. — then Morton has you covered and then some, either weaving such facts right into the narrative or adding them as thoughtful notes at the end. (I’m a huge fan of books that have notes as fascinating as the text itself and that’s the case here. In ... Read More

Human Errors: An entertaining tour of our body’s many design flaws

Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents

Human Errors
(2018), by Nathan H. Lents, is a light, quick tour of some of the ways our human bodies are evidence of poor design, from our weak senses to our way-too-fragile ACL to our seemingly constant battle with back pain. Mostly engaging, often humorous, almost always informative if at times a bit sketchy, Lents does a nice job in conveying the way nature works in not just mysterious but often random ways.

Oftentimes, people mistake evolution and natural selection as a targeted means to an improved end. What Lents makes starkly clear is, based as so much of it is on random mutation, evolution is hardly that. It’s instead a groping forward in the dark, lighting on some changes that are an improvement, but landing as well on others that are anything but. Besides detailing those changes and their impact, he also explains why those detrimental effects were “allowed” ... Read More

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Just buy it already

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
(2018), by Robert M. Sapolsky, is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years and, had I finished it last year, would absolutely have gone onto my Best of the Year list. Sadly, because I listened to it on audio over several months of commuting, this review will not do it justice in terms of specific references and examples. But to cut an already-brief review even shorter: if you have any interest in other people, yourself, culture, society, or science, buy this book.

Sapolsky wants to explain just why (and also how) we do the things we do, and he structures the book so as to zoom out from what happens in our brains/bodies milliseconds before an action to minutes before to weeks and months, to years, to centuries and millennia before... Read More

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots: A thoughtful and, cough cough, stimulating read

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

I confess that when I opened up Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots (2018) by Kate Devlin, I wasn’t expecting a tour of classical literature: stories about Laodamia, who had “commissioned a bronze likeness of her [dead] husband — an artificial lover that she took to her bed.” Or the Spartan king Nabis, who had a “lifelike robot designed and dressed up to look like his dead wife, Apega.” But as Devlin cautions us, “This is not a book that’s just about sex. Or robots ... It’s about intimacy and technology ... history and archaeology, love and biology.” Though that’s not to say sex and robots don’t appear. They do.

But before we get to the sex robot “Harmony” and an exploration of teledildonics (use your root words, people), Devlin works her way through that classical literature as well as various historical artifacts, such as anc... Read More

Dispatches from Planet 3: A lucid and concise tour of the universe

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak

Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
(2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.

For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-pl... Read More

Astounding: Four men who, despite their flaws, helped form science fiction

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally pinned to the decade from 1939 to 1950, and while a host of people contributed in various ways, pretty much everyone agrees that if one could point to a single dominating figure it would John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the pre-eminent magazine for science fiction at the time. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018), Alec Nevala-Lee explains how Campbell, and the trio of quite different authors who made up his highly influential stable of writers, came to have such outsized influence and then, for Campbell, how it was lost over the decades to follow.
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Never Home Alone: A fascinating look at the creatures who share our homes

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (2018) is a mouthful of a title. Which is only appropriate as abundance is one of the major themes Rob Dunn highlights in this utterly fascinating book. The rich, fecund abundance of life not of the world “out there” (though that, too) but the world “in here,” where we live — our homes. How rich and fecund? How about 80, 000 species of bacteria and archaea, tens of thousands of fungi species, and thousands of species of arthropods, along with a number of rodents. All found in a biological survey of a thousand Raleigh homes. And those are our uninvited guests. Dunn doesn’t ignore the ones we bring in willingly — our dogs and cats (who themselves bring in a host of hitchhikers). ... Read More

How to Love the Universe: A Scientist’s Odes to the Hidden Beauty Behind the Visible World

How to Love the Universe: A Scientist’s Odes to the Hidden Beauty Behind the Visible World by Stefan Klein

In How to Love the Universe: A Scientist’s Odes to the Hidden Beauty Behind the Visible World (2018), Stefan Klein concisely introduces nearly a dozen major physics concepts in brief, engaging chapters that clearly inform even as they often entertain. Due to their brevity, the explanations are relatively simplified, but thanks to Klein’s economy of language and knack for analogy/metaphor, not overly so. Which makes the collection of essays a good primer to modern physics and an excellent stepping stone into longer, more substantive works on the subject.

The theme of the book is conveyed directly in the introduction, where Klein discusses how modern physics “changes our thinking, the way we see the world ... [allows us] to look behind the veil of that which still seems self-ev... Read More

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands edited by Hue Lewis-Jones

Before I get into the review proper of Hue Lewis-Jones’ The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, I have to note up front that my digital copies of the book had major formatting issues so that passages were jumbled up such that one paragraph would end and a wholly unrelated paragraph (one from either earlier or later in the book) would follow. Or the book would just stop, with pages from, say 25 onward, just being a sea of white. These issues arose on both my iPad and my Kindle, no matter how many times I downloaded a new version and deleted the old. I’m assuming the problem is just an artifact of the Advanced Reader’s Copy and won’t occur with purchased versions, but it had, as you might imagine, a bit of a deleterious effect on my own reading experience. Something to keep in mind.

The book itself is a collection of ... Read More

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres


Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres
edited by Dan Koboldt

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres is a collection of brief essays from experts in various fields that originally appeared as part of editor Dan Koboldt’s blog, which he describes in this way:

"Each week, we discuss elements of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in a relevant topic area. We debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right."

Anyone who has started yelling at a book or the TV due to some glaring scientific error (we know who we are) will recognize the problem Koboldt’s blog, and now this book, is trying to solve, and more power to him. Putting the Science in Fiction Read More

Beyond the Sixth Extinction: A Post-Apocalyptic Pop-Up Field Guide

Beyond the Sixth Extinction by Shawn Sheehy

It’s the year 4847, over a thousand years since the end of a mass extinction event, caused by human activity, that resulted in the demise of eighty percent of the Earth’s animal species. The Cagoan District, in the area southwest of Lake Mishkin, was long thought to be lifeless, marked only by large ruins of an ancient urban city that flourished from 1837 to 2620. But a landmark survey in the year 4797 revealed that several new, highly adaptable species had developed in the Cago area.

Chief Scientist Willek Muriday has now issued this Field Guide to Creatures of the Cagoan District for the benefit of biologists living in this future world. This guide features eight of the strange creatures that now thrive in the Cagoan District, with three-dimensional pop-up models of the creatures, explanations of the unique characteristics they have evolved, and related illustrations and diagrams. Read More

Evolutions: An odd but mostly pleasing science-in-the-form-of-myth collection

Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World by Owen Harman

Evolutions by Owen Harman is one of the quirkiest popular science books I’ve read, for both good and ill (mostly good). While it’s not the book I’d offer up as the go-to for learning about the history of the universe and life, it’s a lyrical look a’slant at those things in a mythic style (somewhat akin, roughly, to Italo Calvino’s Cosmiccomics) whose different take is worth a look.

Harman begins with a straightforward introduction about myth and science — how they contrast and interact. Myths, he writes, “are humankind’s stories about what we all feel in our guts is fundamental to our humanity but know with our brains can never truly be plumbed.... Read More

The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution

The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles S. Cockell

Watch any nature show and at some point you’re sure to hear the soft-voiced narrator (usually David Attenborough or someone doing their best Attenborough impersonation) marvel at the “boundless variety” of life, of its seeming infinitude of shapes, colors, forms, and its tenaciousness in colonizing apparently every niche of our planet, no matter how harsh or isolated. Or, as theorist Ian Malcolm puts it in Jurassic Park:
If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously ... Life finds a way.
One takes a risk in arguing with the world’s favorite fictional chaos theorist (OK, admittedly, a minor risk), but that’s just what astrobiologist Charles S. Cockell... Read More

An Informal History of the Hugos: A good SF reference work

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 by Jo Walton

Jo Walton has long been one of the more popular bloggers over at Tor.com thanks to a winning combination of literary insight, genre knowledge, and enthusiasm. A few years ago, she published a collection of her posts on rereading some of her personal favorites under the title What Makes This Book So Great. Now she’s out with another collection of blog posts (these from 2010-2013) entitled An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000.

More than just a survey of her personal reading experiences with Hugo winners, An Informal History of the Hugos is a... Read More

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Chasing New Horizons (2018). Sure, a trip to Pluto is exciting and intriguing, and the results that have already come back are thrilling. But I wasn’t sure that a book about devising the actual mission would be — the planning, the meetings, the engineering, the pushing of buttons and waiting while radio signals traveled for hours after which one could push more buttons. But Alan Stern, leader of the NASA mission, and David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist who had some minor involvement, managed to pull it off. I don’t know if I’d call it “thrilling,” but inspiring? Fascinating? Exciting? Tense? All that and more.

The story opens with a phone to Stern telling him NASA had lost contact with the spaceship, this after nine years of flight and only a week befo... Read More

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian

In Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (2018), David Christian ably does what I would have guessed was nigh on impossible — cover 13+ billion years of history from the Big Bang to current times (and actually further since he takes a quick look in the future as well). It’s a smoothly told, incredibly efficient history that mostly lives up to its subtitle.

At the core of Christian’s “Big History” is an ever-increasing complexity: “in special and unusual environments such as our planet ... in these Goldilocks environments, increasing complex things have appeared over many billions” (he is quick to note that “more complex” is not synonymous with “better”). Often, he says, complexity took big leaps forward at various transition points, which he labels “thresholds” and around which he structures the book: “major turni... Read More

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen

At the close of his exploration of the somewhat oxymoronic “urban nature,” Menno Schilthuizen tells us that one of his aims is that “the urban organisms you see on your daily wanderings of the city streets will  become more special, more interesting, worthy of more than a casual glance.” Schilthuizen, I’d say, is more likely to succeed than not in achieving his goal, as Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (2018) is a delightfully informative whose insights are enthusiastically and clearly conveyed.

Schilthuizen loses no time in introducing us to a different way of viewing our noisome, concrete and metal cityscapes, opening up with a description of how:
the inner city, for all its hustle and bustle and thoroughly unnatural appearance, becomes a constellation of miniat... Read More

The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects

The Mermaid Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon

Carolyn Turgeon has followed up 2017’s The Faerie Handbook with The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects (2018), a similarly-themed and -structured guide to mermaid folklore throughout history and around the world, along with stunningly-photographed examples of modern mermaid couture, particularly the bespoke mermaid tails available in a range of colors and styles. And if readers are interested in mermaid-themed cocktails, snacks, or tablescapes for parties, this beautifully-crafted book provides tips and recipes to get anyone started down the right path.

This collection is more about the half-woman, half-fish mermaid concept than anything else, so there’s little about mythical shape-shifting and water-dwelling c... Read More

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán

Oné R. Pagán is a university biology professor and a blogger, and both sides come out in this entertainingly informative look at the various ways life tries to, well, stay alive (i.e. not get eaten). As he says in the introduction to Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life (2018), he “wrote this book with the semi-mythical ‘interested layperson’ in mind ... [so] I will not be excessively technical, but neither will I be patronizing ... I’ve tried to write as if we were having a conversation over coffee.” Thus, like most writers of popular science, Pagán is aiming at that sweet spot where he doesn’t lose his reader to jargon or overly-abstruse concepts or talk to his readers as if they struggled to complete elementary school. And for the most part he hits it, though at ti... Read More

How The Universe Works: An Illustrated Guide to the Cosmos and All We Know About It

How the Universe Works by Chartwell Books

Though not without some issues, How the Universe Works is generally an excellent reference work for a decently wide range of readers young to old (I’d guess it’s targeted at older teens and adults). Elementary school children will feel a little overwhelmed by some of the text, but the wonderful graphics: cut-away diagrams, timelines, etc., will provide them some clear and manageable info. Older young readers will follow the textual information better and the illustrations will serve as enhancement and clarification, while older readers who know some of this information will find the illustrations allow for better visualization while the text will serve as concise reminders.

Chapter One deals with cosmography, opening with a good visual “zoom out” to give a sense of our place in the universe, moving from the solar system to nearby stars, the local groups, e... Read More

Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series

Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series ed. Tim Rayborn & Abigail Keyes

It’s hard to fault an anthology for doing exactly what its title says it’s going to do, and so I won’t. I’m just going to note that Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero mostly focuses like a laser on its three sub-topics, particularly the latter two — trauma and addiction — and so if you are looking for a wide-ranging look at the character/series, one that might have essays dealing with class, gender, race, film techniques etc., this is not going to be that anthology. Personally, I found the sharp focus began to feel a bit constricting and certainly added to some slight repetitiveness/redundancy in the collection, but I’m not pointing to those as flaws, merely as warnings. If you desire a look at how addiction and trauma are portrayed in the series, an exploration ... Read More

Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains

Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (ed: Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, Daniel Fandion)

Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (2018) edited by Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, and Daniel Fandion is a collection of 15 essays examining the Marvel films, in particular how they “represent, construct, and distort American culture.” The essays vary in the level of “academese” employed, and also for me varied in how far they stretched their given premises, but taken as a whole this is an intellectually stimulating and rewarding anthology.

The editors have divided the book into three sections, the titles and descriptions given below:

Section I: The Cultural Context of the Transmedia Universe

“The relati... Read More