What a Plant Knows is a very brief survey of research into plant senses and awareness: a bare 120 pages divided into sections on sight, hearing, smellWhat a Plant Knows is a very brief survey of research into plant senses and awareness: a bare 120 pages divided into sections on sight, hearing, smell, touch, proprioception, and memory. A fascinating subject, to be sure, but too shallowly and sketchily treated. The author writes at an extremely introductory level, thinking it necessary to explain things like what a cell wall is*; all these explanations, along with abundant comparisons between humans and plants, plus the chatty style of the writing, scarcely leave room for the real meat of the subject. The important experiments, and what they reveal about plant abilities, are described in oversimplified, incomplete form. At the end of the section on gravity sensing, which has been all about the role of statoliths (tiny stones in cells), the author notes, "The overall mechanism of sensing gravity is more complex than simply statoliths falling within the cell" -- and that's it. So this book is better suited to amuse and intrigue the reader than to truly inform. For that reason, the epilogue, a general consideration of the meaning of plant awareness, may be the best part. It reflects on both the commonalities and the profound differences between how we and the plants experience the world, and urges us to think about the lives they're leading when we see them.
* The author doesn't really have a gift for simple explanations, either. Consider this misleading account of osmosis (a term he doesn't use): "The high concentration of potassium inside the cell relative to the outside causes water to enter the cell in a futile attempt to dilute the potassium." At another place he describes the genetic code, mutations, and such basic concepts, but then goes on to talk about stem cells without saying what they are. ...more
I truly don't like superhero stories, and this one didn't change my mind about that. Nonetheless, Ruth Diaz somehow managed to take a silly setting anI truly don't like superhero stories, and this one didn't change my mind about that. Nonetheless, Ruth Diaz somehow managed to take a silly setting and a dorky plot, and in the middle of them place characters who are warmly human, with appealing emotional vulnerabilities; there's sweet romantic chemistry and children I can actually care about: I call this quite an accomplishment, although perhaps having achieved it in spite of the aforementioned handicaps of ridiculousness makes it seem more of an accomplishment than it is. Another problem with the book is that it's too short, with the women falling into lasting love almost instantly; there's a lack of substance to support anything longer, though. Rated three stars for being far more appealing than it ought to be with all its flaws....more
What an amazing surprise! Kept me puzzling over the layers of ambiguity found in these tales, apparently comic dialect stories framed in the condescenWhat an amazing surprise! Kept me puzzling over the layers of ambiguity found in these tales, apparently comic dialect stories framed in the condescending voice of a white narrator (apparently the white readers of the original didn't always notice how Chesnutt was satirizing this narrator, and nodded right along with him); Uncle Julius, in the stories, has a variety of purposes for his storytelling: the one the narrator notices is a self-interested one (but he is maybe not always right about the self-interested motive he attributes); then there is the appeal to the sympathies of the narrator's wife; then there are subcurrents of connection to the land and the community-building role of magical beliefs and so on... The stories seem to be subversive on so many levels, although Chesnutt's own commentaries on writing them denies much of this subversiveness. ...more
Anyone who's been paying attention to online discussions about science and science fiction will have heard there is such a thing as geek culture, andAnyone who's been paying attention to online discussions about science and science fiction will have heard there is such a thing as geek culture, and that geek culture is extremely hostile to women. Sadly this book is a good case in point. The authors proudly paint themselves, and their readers, as stereotypical geeks who have no social skills, never get dates, and are always pushed into lockers by the bigger boys in high school; in fact they have a bewildering preoccupation with high school given that they, and presumably the audience, are well past that age. Talk about a source of misplaced pride. Emphatically, it is the eternal high school boy that reigns here; they introduce half a dozen hypothetical characters to illustrate physics concepts, and not a single one is female, not even ones that are aliens from other galaxies. When they talk about physicists, they never talk as if they could be female. The only time that women come up are in the occasional sex joke -- e.g. saying that astronomers hope to find life on other planets in hope of finding sexy space babes, or noting that what they particularly liked about the movie Contact was that, by starring Jodie Foster, it gave the impression that astronomy departments might be populated by "smoking hotties" (really, that was your takeaway from the movie?)
All this juvenility and puerile misogyny is not only infuriating in itself, it is sad, because the authors actually are good at explaining physics concepts in clear, understandable ways. They go through modern physics at a good pace, with just enough detail. But in spite of that I can't recommend the book....more
Howell and Ford are excellent storytellers, and here they've recounted one dozen medical investigations in clear and gripping fashion. The cases rang Howell and Ford are excellent storytellers, and here they've recounted one dozen medical investigations in clear and gripping fashion. The cases range from pinning down information about important diseases (such as identifying the mode of transmission of yellow fever) to instances where the mechanism was understood but diagnosis in an individual case was tricky (such as with an incident of cantharidin poisoning). The authors always detail the steps that ingenious and patient investigators went through, giving an idea of the various ways that medical mysteries may be solved, and due credit to innovators, but they pay equal attention to the circumstances under which the investigations took place, how social circumstances could help or hinder, and how the findings fed back into policy and public thought. (In the case of the poisoning of an American ambassador to Italy, the political implications of the investigation are really the entire story, since the diagnosis was easily made.) Some of the chapters provide interesting contrast with each other; for example, the 19th century's very long struggle to get obstetricians to admit that puerperal fever was caused by infectious material transmitted by the doctors themselves is very different from what happened in the mid-20th c. when the introduction of routine supplemental oxygen use with premature infants caused a spike in cases of retinopathy; then, the problem was identified within a decade and hospitals immediately changed their practices, and it's clear that there had been a profound change in the culture of medicine. Not all of these stories were new to me, but even those I'd read about repeatedly, like John Snow's investigation of the Broad Street cholera epidemic, were told in a fresh manner. All in all, quite a fine book. ...more
I'm well aware that putting "greatest stories" in the title is standard publisher's hype, but really, I'd hope that the contents would live up to thatI'm well aware that putting "greatest stories" in the title is standard publisher's hype, but really, I'd hope that the contents would live up to that claim just a little better than this mostly-routine lot does. Starting with my least favorites, there was the painfully bad prose of "In Darkness, Angels" by Eric Lustbader; "The Bat Is My Brother" by Robert Bloch, which induced unintentional snickers by its grandiosity; and "Beyond All Measure" by Karl Edward Wagner, a standard piece which depended on the depiction of lesbianism as depravity for its effects. "Valentine from a Vampire", by Daniel Ransom, is a forgettable piece of silliness. S. P. Somtow goes into the futuristic-satire mode in "The Vampire of Mallworld", using vampirism as a symbol of messy human urges contrasted with sterile, glitzy, mediatized and plasticized culture; I suppose it may be a good story but this sort of thing always gets a shrug from me. On the better side, there was the mildly amusing perspective flip of Roger Zelazny's "Dayblood", and Richard Matheson's clever "No Such Thing as a Vampire" which, however, I don't think would repay rereading after you know the final twist. Dan Simmons's gruesome story of monstrosities lurking among the seemingly ordinary, "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites", carefully controlled its tone and revelations but got a bit strained toward the end I thought. "Something Had to Be Done" by David Drake is a short Vietnam War story in the hard-bitten tone of this military sci-fi writer, not original but competent. Philip K. Dick's "The Cookie Lady" is another fright piece that makes a metaphor literal. Also "Red as Blood" by Tanith Lee, which uses Lee's usual extravagantly lush style to tell a version of Snow White with her as a vampire defeated by Christianity... A bravura piece of writing but I'm honestly not sure if it means much.
I greatly enjoyed "Child of an Ancient City" by Tad Williams -- it is not a new idea to use an Arabian Nights setting for a story about storytelling, and the language of it is of a familiar sort ("Some of the men again laughed loudly, but this time it rang false as a brass-seller's smile"); the conventions are very well used, however. This is a tale where a monster who has lost his humanity is turned aside by taking pity on the humanity of his victims, as revealed through nights of storytelling; a warm-hearted story. "The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady", by Brian Stableford, is a very fine allohistorical story about the discovery of the origins of diseases and the effects that scientific discoveries may have on power relations. The pick of the anthology were Jane Yolen's heartwrenching "Mama Gone", and "The Miracle Mile" by Robert McCammon, a profoundly unease-provoking piece which is partly an elegiac lament for a lost world after a "biological incident" transforms much of humanity, while a man and his family walk among ruins, but the nature of the new world might be different if not seen through his eyes....more
There’s a lot going on in this novel. A young man is sick with tuberculosis, sent to a remote seaside village to recover (or die, though no one mentioThere’s a lot going on in this novel. A young man is sick with tuberculosis, sent to a remote seaside village to recover (or die, though no one mentions that possibility). He’s a would-be artist, experimenting with expression in painting. The life of the family he left behind turns out to be less secure than he imagined. And this is 1937, the Japanese are invading China, he’s Chinese, and he’s staying in Japan -- he’s conflicted thinking about people he knows suffering while the people around him only think of Japanese casualties in the war; and it comes between him and a young woman he’s interested in.
So, plenty of turmoil in the circumstances of Stephen’s life. How will he respond to it internally? While he’s there, he becomes very interested in a different, but equally stressful story that began years ago, involving the caretaker of his house, Matsu, and an epidemic of leprosy, which infected Matsu’s sister and the woman he loves, Sachi. Sachi now lives in a village in the mountains where people disfigured by leprosy, hiding from the scorn and fear of the world, lead a difficult life. The story of how she came to be there, and grow into her present peaceful life, is fascinating. Key to her peace is her garden: all stones, which she rearranges. This is the most important symbol in the novel -- it indicates that art can be made from stones, because beauty comes from within -- Sachi says "its beauty was one that no disease or person could ever take away from me." Matsu, too, is an artist, cultivating a garden near the ocean, which he recreates every time a storm uproots it. Together the two of them survived a lot of heartbreak although some of the people they loved didn’t do as well.
Even though Stephen realizes how helpless he is in the face of the forces of nature and the folly and cruelty of humans, the year he spends in the Japanese village before returning home provides him with the beginnings of a lasting internal stability.
I can only rate this novel three stars because, in spite of the good qualities I highlighted above, there’s something a bit pedestrian about the way it’s written, the dialogue doesn’t always ring true, and it occasionally has difficulty with emotional tone....more
I used to wonder why fiction didn't often use metaphors drawn from modern physics. Mostly stuck to at best the classical concepts, or even totally outI used to wonder why fiction didn't often use metaphors drawn from modern physics. Mostly stuck to at best the classical concepts, or even totally outdated "folk" theories. Well, now I have found a book of 21st-century metaphors; and, not surprisingly, reading it is hard work. (There is one beautiful and comprehensible Newtonian passage: the parabolic trajectory of a life, with weightlessness at the highest point.) If I hadn't just finished The Future of Spacetime I would have struggled even more.
What I can make of this novel is, I think, a success. It is a time travel story, but its time travel is "chronodiegesis", that is the subjective narration of time, that is the memory of the past, the perception of the present, the fear of the future. Its narrator, Charles Yu, has a need for "time traveling" because his present is dominated by not being able to cope with painful memories of the past -- he may not be able to change the past, but he sure needs to change his current attitude. That is simply said, but unpacked at length, it makes a novel with many beautiful moments and a high level of difficulty for the reader. It is an entirely interior, subjective novel: in older works, it would be called a "psychodrama", where characters that the protagonist interacts with are imaginary beings of his own creation; here, they are computer programs created by the "time machine", that is, the mind. I wonder why the author chose to name his protagonist after himself: is he really processing his own issues in fictional form? That would be so personal as to be rather uncomfortable for me.
However, on another less personal level, this is also a work of philosophy and narratology. I am not well equipped to consider those subjects; I would need to read the book again to tease out the ideas. Please consult a philosopher if you want an opinion on whether anything coherent was said in this novel. I'm not at all sure it was, but I did enjoy the reading experience....more
Is it "fanfic" or the more grecolatinate "intertextuality"? It's clever, anyway. I guess I just didn't find it clever enough to justify its lack of otIs it "fanfic" or the more grecolatinate "intertextuality"? It's clever, anyway. I guess I just didn't find it clever enough to justify its lack of other qualities. It's fannish in that it relies on either recent or repeated reading of Bleak House to find all the shout-outs, and the audience may well congratulate themselves on spotting them (and the ones to other novels and to well-known historical figures). It's geeky in that there is an afterword that explains all that. (I don't think that the author was well-advised, though, in directly co-opting some canon characters and then creating others that are extremely like canon characters but not the same ones, at the same time the original story is going on in the background: there's an unavoidable sensation that London is populated by doppelgangers unaware of each other!) And this novel is intended to be "darker and edgier" than Dickens; but, in spite of the fact that it can talk at length about prostitution and incest, and can include the words "rape", "buggery", and "pregnant", it really isn't grimmer than Dickens's depictions of crushing poverty, in my opinion. And it does oddly little to correct one of the Victorian author's greatest failings, the lack of a middle ground, in his female characters, between comic monsters and "the angel of the house". There are plenty of victims in Tom-All-Alone's, but no fully-developed women with agency. No sooner is a potentially interesting woman introduced, than she either is killed or vanishes from the story -- particularly striking in the case of the protagonist's putative love-interest, who remains shadowy and wholly objectified seen through his eyes, and is apparently forgotten by the author after the plot has advanced far enough that she ends up in his bed. And twenty-first-century myopia probably explains the author's tendency to confuse innocence with imbecility: the girls at the Solitary House, especially Hester (cf. Esther), parody angelic good girls but they are quite literally feeble-minded, and are contrasted with street-smart prostitutes -- no nuanced depictions of sheltered existences here, a lack of trying for real empathy with Victorian girls. The attempt at a "god's-eye narrative" lurches uncomfortably every time the author inserts a comment from modern perspective, and falls far, far short of its goal of matching Dickens's finely-honed moral outrage....more
This was a wonderfully fun read, and as soothing as a warm drink. It fits into an old-fashioned optimistic mode of thinking about human expansion amonThis was a wonderfully fun read, and as soothing as a warm drink. It fits into an old-fashioned optimistic mode of thinking about human expansion among alien species, that surely we are enlightened enough to solve everyone else's problems for them. This was a book that continually brought TV Tropes to mind -- so very genre-typical. Set in a Hungry Jungle on what appears to be a Single-Biome Planet (at least, whatever is beyond the jungle area is never mentioned); it is inhabited by a warlike native species and an enterprising immigrant species (both are vaguely humanoid), naturally in conflict, under the benevolently paternal administration of the Commonwealth, but coveted by the Empire which is led by the reptilian Aan. Just don't think about the Unfortunate Implications of this situation given that most alien species are stated to have fairly uniform personalities whereas humans, explicitly, have a wider range -- no wonder we are fated to rule!
The very best thing about this book is its human hero, Lauren Matthias, a fully-developed female character for a wonder, a mature married woman at that. She is the chief Commonwealth administrator of the planet, dragged into a far more complicated situation than she ever bargained for, to which she responds with guile (including a few actions that ought to be frankly illegal), political and diplomatic savvy, and even a few acts of physical courage, though nothing unrealistic for a plump middle-aged civilian. The author even has a realistic view of some of the problems facing women in authority -- though Matthias relies on emotional support from her husband (a scientist), she can't consult him too much because this would undermine her position. It's an unusual set of gender roles in a marriage, pretty well portrayed. ...more
A beautifully written short tale about an 18-year-old woman's self-discovery through art and love. I know that's by no means an uncommon theme. But whA beautifully written short tale about an 18-year-old woman's self-discovery through art and love. I know that's by no means an uncommon theme. But what distinguishes one such story from another is the writing, and this one is worthwhile, absolutely.
Jousan writes so well about making art and especially music that I have a hard time believing she doesn't do both herself. Mo's summer of love and self-discovery is bittersweet but nonetheless exhilarating....more