Age of Miracles somewhat defies genres. There are strong themes of a coming of age story, a slowly unfolding global disaster, a family drama all weave...moreAge of Miracles somewhat defies genres. There are strong themes of a coming of age story, a slowly unfolding global disaster, a family drama all weaved together and told through the eyes of an pre-teen girl in suburban California.
I was initially lukewarm through the first third of the book. I thought the coming of age theme was a bit too much at the forefront. I couldn't really connect with all of the changes that were going on in the narrator's (Julia's) life: beginning to be interested in boys, relationship strains with her friends and peers, general anxiety about her life. While I am sure many GR members can identify and sympathize with the narrator, she never quite connected emotionally with me in the beginning.
However, as the global catastrophe unfolds and begins to take up more the narrative I felt the elements of the book reached a very nice equilibrium.
The slowly unfolding global disaster, referred to as the slowing, was truly horrifying. The Earth begins to lose its rotational speed, extending days and nights. Eventually the day-night cycle is untethered from our 24 hour clocks, resulting in days lasting several score of hours. What I greatly appreciated about this book was the care the author took to extrapolate what sort of impact this would have on society and the environment. While I cannot speak to the specific impacts this would have in real life, I can set aside my hard sci-fi hat and not demand explicit answers to technical questions because that isn't what sort of book this is.
The more interesting part, to me, of this disaster was the social changes it engendered. Socially people either stayed on the government sanctioned 24 hour clock (and experienced days where the sun never set or rose) or became "real timers" whose activity was dictated by the movement of the sun, sleeping when it was dark and active when it was light. This resulted in a split in society where realtimers (the minority) were demonized and harassed by some of the clock timers, and even formed their own realtimer communities.
Of course the slowing of the earth's rotation also played havoc with the environment. Lots of animals go haywire, the tides become erratic,, earthquakes increase. The two greatest dangers, though, are the long days and nights make growing food difficult to impossible and the slowing of the earth's rotation degrades the magnetosphere which protects up from the sun's radiation. Sufficed to say this caused massive alterations in humanity's behavior, (view spoiler)[forcing us to grow our plants using artificial lights and avoiding going outside during the daylight hours (hide spoiler)].
The coming of age theme moved away from fraying friendships and concentrated more on her budding friendship/relationship with a neighborhood boy. No insta-love/true love mind you, but the optimistic, carefree infatuation of youth. It was nice, sweet, touching, and felt quite natural for the characters. It was well integrated into the larger happenings going on while still remaining narrowly focused on just this particular slice of the world. Walker does an excellent job showing us the relationship instead of just telling us how in love they are. There is no dwelling upon the perfection of either of them and (view spoiler)[their separation due to the effects of the slowing is quite tragic (hide spoiler)].
On top of all this the narrator also has to deal with tensions in her home life. The changes the slowing brings are more than just physical, they are also psychological. Small rips in relationships can be more easily torn wide open under the stress of this slow motion (see what I did there?) disaster. I don't want to give too much away, but through the course of the book Julia discovers the world is not as black and white as most children are led to believe. This is exemplified by the interactions between her parents and how their relationship fluctuates. The family drama is very well integrated into the flow of the rest of the story and nicely reinforces the coming of age narrative while seamlessly working in the effects of the slowing.
The writing and descriptions of this book were also quite excellent. It both reads easily but does not short change the prose or imagery. While the book is told by the voice of an older Julia, it still captures the uncertainty about that time in all of our lives, where we are on the cusp of adolescence but still clinging to the certainty of childhood. We feel the confusion and doubt of the 11 year old Julia while also receiving more objective observations of the older, wiser Julia who has the benefit of hindsight and maturity when assessing all the events that occurred.
All in all this was a bittersweet book. While Julia grows and adapts to the changes in her life, we are consistently reminded of the catastrophe that is engulfing the Earth. For all the triumphs and setbacks she achieves, this fate lurks in the background, threatening to erase everything that humanity has achieved. Sort of a downer, but a beautifully written and articulated one.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
So when you hear the term solar power you probably think this:
Or maybe this:
Or possibly even this:
But the story of humanity's harnessing of the sun's...moreSo when you hear the term solar power you probably think this:
Or maybe this:
Or possibly even this:
But the story of humanity's harnessing of the sun's power probable starts with this:
Doesn't look very impressive does it? Well, these babies (yang-suis) let Bronze Age Chinese start fires just by concentrating the beams of the sun onto flammable objects. Pretty handle when matches haven't been invented yet and, according to modern researchers who recreated these objects, highly effective. These are but the first taste that John Perlin offers up in "Let it Shine".
The book is a very good, if dry, survey of the history of humanity's use of solar energy. Solar energy can be classified into these areas:
-Solar Architecture: the building and positioning of structures to maximize the effectiveness of the sun. Typically this involves large southern exposures coupled with an awning (to pick up a lot of the winter sun low on the horizon and shade against the high summer sun) and little east/west exposure (to avoid the higher summer sun). This technique has been in intermittent use (more on that later) since the ancient Chinese in the east and the Greeks and Romans in the west.
-Solar Water Heating: the use of passive solar energy to heat water over the course of the say and storing the resulting hot water for use throughout the day. Still highly utilized today, especially in countries like Israel and Barbados with little to no natural resources
-Solar engines: Short lived machines that converted solar energy into mechanical motion. These bad boys had huge dish solar collectors that expanded gases that would drive a turbine. They worked pretty well but were limited to daylight hours and were very susceptible to the elements.
-Solar electricity: The generation of electricity from solar energy, either from the photovoltaic effect or by concentrating the sun's beams to heat a liquid that would drive a traditional turbine. Only recently has the terrestrial version of this power become competitive with more traditional power sources. It did, however, make the whole satellite thing we enjoy today actually possible, so it has that going for it.
While Perlin does a very commendable job documenting the history and personalities behind these inventions the book falls into a tragic cycle:
1: "Hey, it is really tough to get fuel out here to achieve positive result X." 2: "Hey, this solar device is quite nifty and allows us to achieve positive result X" 3: "Hmmm, the cost of fuel has dropped significantly and will never, ever, in a million years ever possibly get more expensive. Let's ditch this solar thingamajig for some sweet, sweet fossil fuel action to achieve positive result X"
Time after time solar technology is developed to solve a problem (typically a shortage of locally available fuel for heating or energy) only to quickly be supplanted by another, cheaper, dirtier source. First it was coal, then oil, then natural gas, then nuclear energy. It isn't Perlin's fault he repeats himself, that is just how history rolls.
My key takeaway is that humanity is incredibly shortsighted. We will abandon a sustainable, long-term beneficial practice or technology at the drop of a hat because we found something that, in the near term, is cheaper. We have lived high off the fossil fuel hog this past century, ignoring holistic approaches to such areas as housing, heating, and power supply that would greatly reduce society's reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the disruption to our economy that a fuel shortage would cause.
Some countries, such as Israel, realized when oil became cheap again in the 1980's (AFTER two oil crises) it wouldn't always be cheap. They instituted regulations that required the use of solar water heating in all building with more than four stories. As a result more than 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy instead of natural gas to heat their water. Barbados initiated set of pro-solar policies that saved their tiny island nation hundreds of millions of dollars in avoided fuel costs. When properly crafted "Big Government" policies can create positive economic and environmental outcomes for the citizens of a nation.
America, on the other hand, has a fixation on fossil fuels (in-spite of the aforementioned oil crises). It doesn't help that Reagan never met a renewable energy program he didn't cut to the bone and the modern Republican Party's energy policy is about as nuanced as "Drill, baby, drill". American energy policy heavily favors fossil fuel use and production over renewable sources through a variety of tax treatments and public policies. The result of these decades long policies has been an economic structure that is highly exposed to swings in fossil fuel prices and availability. Only now are we starting to expand our renewable energy base but so many decades have gone by without integrating passive solar benefits to our housing (resulting in higher fuel and electricity consumption for heating and cooling needs), without investing heavily in renewable technologies (but plenty of funds was made available for nuclear power), without seriously contemplating how to structure our economy for a fossil fuel scarce/expensive world.
Even now we are reaping the benefits of cheap shale gas for our industries and power generators. While this has the upside of forcing gigawatts worth of coal generation to retire (a power source that is very damaging to the environment), it continues to added CO2 to our atmosphere and heightens end-users’ to exposure to natural gas price volatility. Shale gas is a finite resource and we should have learned by now that, while the supplies may be bountiful, its cheap price in all likelihood is not. Now is not the time to abandon renewable energy for some cheap fossil fuel as we have foolishly done so many times in the past, but to move forward and make the 21st century a solar century.
Additional notes: -The book is a very quick read as Perlin's is quite liberal in his use of pictures and graphics. I found these helpful in diagramming how the different solar technologies actually operated as well as providing neat looks back on historic documents surrounding the new solar technologies. -There is a fair amount of technical description of how the different technologies work, so if that doesn't interest you give this book a pass. -If you care about renewable energy this book will probably make you made considering how frequently we have discovered and then lost several effective ways of harnessing solar power over the millennia. For instance, the use of large south facing opening and minimized east/west openings for houses was known back in the ancient Chinese and Greek periods. Heck, the Greeks even designed a city on this principle. But this knowledge was lost in the "Dark Ages" only to be somewhat rediscovered in the 19th century. It was then neglected again with the availability of cheap coal and gas fuels for heating. Even into the 20th century people were reinventing the proverbial wheel. Just goes to show you how important a centralized database of human knowledge is (aka: the internet). -For me what cost this book a star was that it was too descriptive, and not proscriptive enough. It did a fine job describing the various solar technologies and the circumstances of their invention/use as well as the personalities behind them, but I would have liked Perlin to have spent more time on policy suggestions. (less)
He'd been told that Xinan, the capital of glorious dynasties, had held two million people once, and that only a hundred thousand or so lived there now, scattered among rubble.
Well, so much for the glory of the Ninth Dynasty we saw in Under Heaven. Turns out civil war will do that to a society. River of Stars picks up Under Heaven's world several hundred years later. It isn't so much a direct sequel, given that all of the characters from Under Heaven are long dead by the time River of Stars begins, but it makes a fair amount of references back to Under Heaven's characters and events. One of them (view spoiler)[ a tree from the Shen family cemetery (hide spoiler)] plays a very crucial role in the development of the plot.
Where Kitai was a vast, dominant empire at the center of the world demanding tribute from its neighbors and importing luxuries across the silk road, in River of Stars it has declined to a regional power that has lost fourteen prefectures to steppe barbarians. The people of Kitai are not ignorant of their past:
It would be entirely possible... to begin to hate the Ninth Dynasty if you spent time here [Xian, former capital]. There is something oppressive, humiliating about how glorious it once was.
There were people about, but nothing like in Hanjin [the current Kitai capital]… Those he saw seemed scattered, like pieces on a game board at the end of a game.
Living in the ruins of a once mighty empire can ruin anyone's self-esteem.
So we find Kitai in a state of decline, sending tribute to steppe barbarians occupying former Kitai territory, referring to said barbarian's leader as the little brother to the Emperor, letting only the most loyal (but typically incompetent) generals lead armies, and stripping the countryside of resources to build the Emperor's perfect garden. Outlaws thrive in the south, barbarians are restless in the north, and the Emperor is kept isolated from the empire's problems by his court.
With the stage set we find a diverse cast of characters to view the world through. Much like Under Heaven Kay populates this book with a few major point of view characters that we consistently return to, and a lot of secondary POV characters that we see through a few times but are still quite important in the narrative in and of themselves.
The two major characters are Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan.
Ren is the son of a government clerk from far west Kitai with dreams of restoring the empire to its former glory. He ends up leading a group of marsh outlaws and then enters army service as part of another characters political machinations. He is not a man to idealize the world and hope for the best. He knows the world is not a back and white:
"There will be no entirely correct answers… We are mortals, trapped on one side of the river of stars, with the Weaver Maid on the other, divided form us. And how shall we hope to cross to her?"
Lin Shan is a very unusual woman. Given an education by her father and extremely talented in musical arts, she is everything a proper Kitain woman should not be (more on that later). She is outspoken, clever, and willing to push propriety if need be (view spoiler)[such as the time she wrote to the court pleading for her father not to be sent into exile (hide spoiler)].
Some other key players include a two former prime ministers, a pair of brothers who ended up on the wrong side of political battle, Ren's right hand man and former imperial guardsman, Lin Shan's husband, and several steppe barbarians to name but a few. All of the characters were imbued with their own unique voice and provided a fascinating perspective of the world around them. They give the reader the opportunity to view the other characters from several different perspectives and humanize what could easily have been cartoonish antagonists. You can understand and empathize each character's life and decisions, creating very rich narrative.
Kay continued Under Heaven's theme of small events have significant consequences:
When the world changes greatly this can occur because of a single dramatic event, or because many small elements, each inconsequential in itself, fit together – like the pieces of a wooden puzzle box, of the sort sold in any village marketplace for a few copper coins.
Much like Under Heaven, River of Stars can best be described as a mosaic with small pieces, signifying little on their own, coming together to create an immense, detailed picture. What happened to one piece impacts its surrounding pieces, rippling out to the entire picture.
Taken on a higher level, I really like how Kay dealt with the societal impact of (view spoiler)[General An Li's rebellion from Under Heaven (hide spoiler)].
"Time's river flowed east, never to return... But there were so many ruins along the bank."
Military leaders became much less trusted in an environment where there was already a massive fear of generals overthrowing the government, resulting in generations of poor leadership and army quality culminating in the loss of the fourteen prefectures. Instead of leading political men cultivating military abilities and physical activities, such activities were disdained in the twelfth dynasty to the point where high government officials were carried around everywhere and grew really long pinky nails to showoff their disdain for physical labor.
On top of that, it became accepted in the twelfth dynasty that the downfall of the ninth dynasty was womenfolk (misogyny: not just a modern development). The Phoenix Throne was renamed the Dragon Throne because the phoenix was a female symbol, women were discouraged from speaking in public or really being anything but objects (be they wives or courtesans), and foot binding started to come into fashion. I particularly liked this development Kay introduced. Not the actual practice of foot binding mind you (which is a horribly barbaric thing), but that because men were carried around everywhere, they had to ensure that "proper" ladies were even more constrained than they were. A famous and highly trained singer that performed for the emperor could not even walk several paces with out (male) assistance due to foot binding.
The plot was quite compelling and I was never sure quite where it would end up. While this book is loosely based on historical events it is still a work of fiction and Kay has a tendency to piss all over Joesph Campbell's theory of heroic archetypes in myths. Plus he is just as much a character killer as George R.R. Martin which helps maintain the tension in the story. Good guys don't always win, bad guys aren't always thwarted, and the real world is a hell of a messy place. Kay is able to weave all his characters into his story beautifully and writing style and choices lets the reader understand why certain decisions were made.
But what really made me love this book was the beautiful language Kay employs in telling his story. It is light, subtle, but extremely vivid. One of my favorite lines deals with Li Shan's husband, who was a bit of an eccentric, spending time and resources collecting artifacts of past dynasties.
"I have been a small man carrying a small torch, looking back, and further back." He had tried to light the road along which they had come. It was not, he thought, a bad way to have lived.
So it is with all historians, preserving the past so that the present might be brighter for their toils, as quite and unobtrusive as they are, beautifully distilled into a few lines.
Another line I thought was elegantly delivered and truly summed up the nature of politics in Kitai, which has a highly formalized set of protocols and unwritten rules:
They understood each other. It was possible to do that, with the right man, without forcing words into dangerous existence. It was sometimes necessary to do that...
And while some books would just end a section of their book as they would a chapter, Kay utilizes some very simple, but evocative imagery to build anticipation of the coming events:
Everything to this point, this night, felt to him to have become a prelude, like notes played on a pipa to tune it, ensure it was ready for the song yet to come.
What the story came down to, in my mind, was the the limits of human agency:
There were consequences, almost always, for what you did or failed to do in life. He believed that. Fate could play a role, and chance, but your choices and decisions mattered.
Just how much freedom do we really have? Your actions have consequences on other people but their actions have consequences on you. A character's choices in life are naturally constrained by circumstances that came before them but at the same time they can take action and, in their limited way, impact their world. We are mutually dependent and impacted by those around us. They both constrain and enable us to live our lives. Societal norms, established generations ago and impressed upon us since the cradle can be just as compelling as a sword to the throat.
The river carves the canyon over the ages The canyon guides the river through its heart to the sea To speak of control is to miss the greater truth Without the river the canyon is stillborn Without the canyon the river is aimless Together there is harmony, unity, purpose.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
On the one hand Servant of the Underworld has a pretty awesome setting. The pre-Colombian Aztec Empire is a c...moreSo I have mixed feelings about this book.
On the one hand Servant of the Underworld has a pretty awesome setting. The pre-Colombian Aztec Empire is a criminally underused setting (along with the classical Arab setting) that is rife with possibilities. Lots of potential for political intrigue, seldom used pantheons of deities, fascinating non-european social and governmental structures. This is fertile ground for a unique story and cast of characters that Servant of the Underworld doesn't quite fulfill.
So, on its face, Servant of the Underworld is about the High Priest of the Dead trying to solve a murder that implicates his estranged brother. Naturally things are much more than they appear, divine conspiracies are set into motion, church and state mix in a volatile manner, and the High Priest must face his own shortcomings and weaknesses to save the world.
The Good: -Awesome, underused setting: Very different from the typical european/Tolkien/D&D inspired high fantasy settings. Aztec society had a very deep mingling of various cults and the government. Priests were influential in the affairs of state and, in this book, wielded blood magic. Warriors are also glorified and are the elite of Aztec society, providing captives to sacrifice to the Sun (which may or may not be needed to sustain the world). The reader is deeply submerged into the various religious factions and interests that populate this setting. -Good plot: I don't want to go in to too much detail about the happenings of the plot, but de Bodard puts together a very nice mystery and weaves it into the contemporary political power struggles. He nicely mixes the competing divine and secular interests of various factions into the mess that the High Priest must wade through if he is to solve the murder and exonerate his brother. -Character development: Specifically the High Priest and his brother. The High Priest, in the course of this story must comes to terms with his own lack of confidence and shame of past deeds. This burden has prevented him from fully meeting the requirements of his station and has harmed his Temple. His brother, born a peasant but raised to the nobility through feats of military prowess in battle must come to terms with his own weaknesses and fears that indirectly brought the events of this story to a head. The supporting cast, while not necessarily having a development arc, are well constructed and added nicely to the book.
The not so good: -Awesome, underused setting: The world that de Bodard paints for us is quite unique and vibrant, but being so underused and explored in literature I didn't always feel like I had the best grasp of how different parties related to each other. I thought that if de Bodard did a better job laying out the structure of Aztec society and religions at the beginning I would have had a better handle on how everything fit together. By the end of the book I had a good idea who all the players were, but without that context in the beginning I did not feel the same type of engagement as I would had this used a more well worn setting. -Not the most inspiring fight scenes: While this is not, strictly speaking, an action or adventure book, there are several fights that I thought were very poorly described. I never got a good impression of the flow of the action or how different people related to each other spatially. Also, and this bugged me for some reason, whenever someone was injured they would end up going down to one knee. Once I noticed this it seemed to jump out of every page of the fight scene. Quite distracting and not helpful with the flow of the scene. -Aztec Magic: So being the the Aztec empire it is not surprising that blood is central to the offerings and wielding of divine powers. I liked that aspect, you do not run across many non-intrinsically evil blood magic in fantasy. My issue with it was the limits or ability of magic was very hazy to non-existent. I did not get a feel for what had to be sacrificed to utilized to achieve a certain magically effect. I prefer my magic systems well defined so that I have an expectation for what they can and can no do, otherwise magic runs the risk of becoming a fix everything button (I blame Brandon Sanderson for this particular inclination). This leads to... -The back story: We get some of the High Priests back story in his family life but little else. Other past events are alluded to (such as his appointment to the High Priest position being political in nature by a third party, not something he sought out and another time he was inhabited by a power divine entity to hunt down a shadow beast) but I never got a good grasp on how the High Priest's life since joining the clergy had impacted life. This also deprived me of learning how the priests in this setting attained their powers and the deeper belief structure of the various cults. The reader is basically dropped into the middle of the High Priests life with some crumbs of his past, making it difficult for me to get a full handle on his motivations.
All in all the good and the bad balanced out. Not a stellar read but quite interesting if you are looking for a unique historical fiction that does a nice job blending Aztec religion with magic and politics. While I don't think I will buy the next book in the series I will probably eventually borrow it from the library since I think this series has a lot of potential.(less)
I have often felt that web-comics (such as Digger) really embody the idea that "If you want to sell something, you have to give it away for free."
When...moreI have often felt that web-comics (such as Digger) really embody the idea that "If you want to sell something, you have to give it away for free."
When I first encountered Digger (I can't recall where), only the first 75ish pages were available for free viewing. At the time I was following plenty of other free web comics and didn't think it was worth paying for. Sure it was a pretty interesting story of a no-nonsense wombat getting magically transported to a land very far from home and her quest to return there, but I didn't think it was good enough to pay a subscription fee for it.
Fast forward several years and I stumble across Digger again, now free to view as the artist (the amazing Ursula Vernon) was closing in on the ending.
Sufficed to say I was captivated by the story, the art, the characters, the message... really everything about it. The black and white art is gorgeous and masterfully used. The characters come alive off the page and feel just as real as any character in a book I have read. The world Vernon has created was saturated with amazing and novel ideas and creations (such as the mythology of the Hyena tribe).
But what I thought was most endearing about the Digger series was the many positive messages it conveyed (loyalty to friends, respect to others, proactive attitudes to solving problems, not to mention a kick-ass female protagonist). I think one of my favorite pages, not just from Digger but from any web-comic, dealt with morality, amazingly and concisely explained.
This series made me laugh, cry, and think. It also made me rush out to not only buy all the books, but also support a kickstarter that got all the books published in one glorious hardcover. Remember what I said before? The only way to sell something is to give it away for free and boy did Digger achieve that with me. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. (less)