Category Archives: Books

Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Just finished reading Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for what must be the fifth or eight time, as it is my favorite novel from one of my favorite science fiction writers.

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Employing obvious parallels from the American Revolution, TMIAHM tells of the fight for independence by Loonies, future penal colonists living on the Moon. A computer technician, a political agitator, and an academic unite to kick off the Moon’s struggle for sovereignty from Mother Earth, which uses the Moon as a dumping ground for ‘undesirables’ and for real estate to grow grain for Earth’s teeming hungry billions.

But the whole thing would have never worked had it not been for ‘Mike,’ a sentient computer that runs the Lunar infrastructure and who has an odd sense of humor. Only the inner three conspirators know of Mike’s capabilities, and they use his lightning-fast intellect and processing power to full effect.

Heinlein spells out much of his libertarian philosophy here: on the Moon, nothing comes free–not health care, not justice, not even air, so “Loonies” don’t expect government largesse in any fashion. Their national motto is TANSTAAFL–There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!

The author also explores alternative family arrangements, notably the “line marriage” of the protagonists. Family units consist of multiple husbands and wives, with new members opted into the arrangement as older ones retire and die off. At any given point children may have half a dozen fathers or mothers–makes for almost no orphans, and family capital can compound over decades to enormous sums, which would come in handy when your family spans a century or more. Must make for interesting sleeping arrangements.

All in all, TMIAHM has revolutionary politics, family dynamics, action, humor, pathos–something for everyone. I can’t rate it highly enough.

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Bill Bryson’s At Home

I just finished Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

I had read it about a year ago when it was released in hardcover, and I enjoyed it so much I re-read it when it was just released in paperback.

So much of history ends up littered on the floor of our homes (figuratively, that is.) Bryson wanders room by room through his own house and asks why things are the way they are where he lives.

Why do we keep salt and pepper on our tables, instead of any of the other of hundreds of available spices? Bryson writes: “I can tell you at once that nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering, and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.”

Why are bricks so difficult to make? “Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the difficulty of making bricks–or possibly the greatest demonstration of single-minded futility–was in the 1810s when Sydney Smith, the well-known wit and cleric, decided to make his own bricks for the rectory he was building for himself at Foston le Clay in Yorkshire. He was said to have unsuccessfully fired 150,000 bricks before finally conceding that he probably wasn’t going to get the hang of it.”

Why was personal hygiene so out of favor in medieval Christendom? “When Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were ‘seething with lice.'”

Bryson fills his book with countless facts and anecdotes illustrating the world inside our domiciles. With rich history informing every object and room we occupy, this book brings a new meaning to the phrase, “There’s no place like home.”

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The Magic of Reality

Richard Dawkins has written a beautifully illustrated book called The Magic of Reality.

I’ll let the book’s own blurb tell the story:

 Magic takes many forms. Supernatural magic is what our ancestors used in order to explain the world before they developed the scientific method. The ancient Egyptians explained the night by suggesting the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. The Vikings believed a rainbow was the gods’ bridge to earth. The Japanese used to explain earthquakes by conjuring a gigantic catfish that carried the world on its back—earthquakes occurred each time it flipped its tail. These are magical, extraordinary tales. But there is another kind of magic, and it lies in the exhilaration of discovering the real answers to these questions. It is the magic of reality—science.

This would be a perfect book for a young person with an aptitude for science, but it’s rich with clear descriptions even for adults. With brief helpful explanations about how genes work, or stellar fusion, or plate tectonics, Dawkins contrasts the myths of ancient (and some modern) cultures with the real story of how things work. The result is a beautiful and informative introduction to this magical place we call reality.

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The Android’s Dream

Here’s another humorous science fiction novel by John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream, being a nod toward Phillip K. Dick’s seminal SF classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Harry Creek is a State Department bureaucrat tasked with smoothing over a trade negotiation snafu with the warlike alien race Nidu.  Creek is a computer geek, war hero, and nice guy in one package with the job of locating a special breed of blue-wooled sheep required by the Nidu for their next coronation ceremony.  But other forces decide that a good healthy war is just what Earth needs to bump up its status amongst the alien races.  So Creek struggles against government assasins, alien marines, and the disciples of the Church of the Evolved Lamb, the one (?) religion that openly acknowledges that it was begun as a scam.

There’s action, humor, and some backhanded criticism of patriotism and religion, all in a fast-paced story.  The central characters seem a bit too good to be true, but the story spins out to a satisfying conclusion.

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The Wise Man’s Fear

I recently finished, for the second time, Patrick Rothfuss’ newest book, The Wise Man’s Fear.  This is Book Two of his Kingkiller Chronicles, in which magic adept Kvothe (rhymes with ‘quoth’) makes his way with wit, skill, and a little bit of luck.

I was thoroughly impressed with the first book, The Name of the Wind, recommending it to fantasy readers at my store.  I describe it as Harry Potter with a darker, more interesting main character.  I have no compunctions to recommend Book One to young and old.

Book Two, however, goes into a different direction, involving more sex than some parents might feel comfortable for their younger readers.  The story is also more episodic, which might frustrate some readers used to the more linear narrative of the first novel.  But for those okay with all things Kvothe, this book is significantly longer, and explores more of his storied past.

I’m a fan, that’s for sure, and I eagerly await Book Three.

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Travel: the great leveler

Nifty quote for your consideration:

No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles.  If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name.  Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass.  A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.

From The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss.

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Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

A reboot of the Hugo-winning novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, Fuzzy Nation is definitely a product of today’s generation. Jack Holloway is a cocky, articulate surveyor for an interplanetary mining company, and Holloway makes two significant discoveries in one day. First, on an uninhabited planet, he finds a mother-lode of a rare crystal that his company will be able to extract, and with his cut will make Holloway a very rich man. Second, he discovers an unknown mammal species on the same planet–a cross between very clever monkeys and cats– that, if found to be sentient, will legally prevent said company from being able to extract the mineral wealth, making Jack both non-rich and the target of powerful enemies.

Scalzi writes fast-paced intelligent science fiction, and has been often compared to Robert Heinlein. Fuzzy Nation  is an easy read comprised of perhaps less than ten characters in all, but the legal wranglings make for fun twists and a surprise ending.

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