Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: The Ice People (La Nuit des Temps) by Rene Barjavel

This book was lent to me by a friend, with very little preamble. She knows I like to read and she's French so I can only assume she wanted to introduce me to French authors. The good thing is that it was short (so I felt OK pausing my read of The Winds Of Khalakovo) and by being a "dead-tree" book, I didn't have to turn it off during takeoff for my flight. I finished the book and wrote the review on the same (13-hour) flight and decided to post it today.

Overal Impression
This is a sci-fi romance novel with some really cool concepts behind it, particularly given the inclusion of Lost World genre themes. The tale is told as a frame story and shows the life of an ancient civilization 900,000 years ago. Though the story focuses on the amorous couple, it also touches on the political concepts during that ancient era which resonate with the characters and events in the novel as well as readers both past and present.

The book was initially published in 1968, with the version I have dating to the 1970s. Hence, it may be difficult to find in print. The book carries the imprint of that era: the Cold War and the strong aversion to war, a sentiment that I think still holds true to this day.

The story is told, in part, as a frame story. At first, everything is about the discovery of the ruins, the frozen people, and the global tenstions that rise due to the implications of that discovery. It's interesting, but I feel that the world powers were too civil when confronted with such a situation. I fully expected a world war.

The next part of the story revolves around Elea and her life in Gondawa. The tale of Gondawa is told through Elea's memories, but there is one part where it looks like the author forgets this and tells a small part through Paikan's eyes. This is the main part of the novel and is actually a very interesting sci-fi romance tale. The story ends up rather sad, but has some interesting parallels with the era in which the frame story is set (and the book was written).

The book ended in what was probably the only possible way to neatly end it. A few other ways would have been clearly unrealistic or unsatisfying. The book also very nicely ties together several issues in the frame story, the memories, and real life such as war, political tensions, and student protests. We may no longer be in the Cold War, but the story applies today as it did then.

In the memory part of the novel, the plot revolves around Elea, Paikan, and Coban. The frame story involves primarily Simon and Elea, though other characters like Hoover, Lukos, and Leonova have their parts to play. At the start of the novel, you get too many characters introduced and it can actually be overwhelming, particularly since most are not really that important.

I think Elea may be a tad over-sexualized, especially at first. She's supposed to be the most amazing specimen of women-kind they've ever seen and you get the feeling everyone constantly fantasizes about her. A similar thing happens with the frozen male, but it's brushed off much faster.  However, Elea does develop into an interesting and kick-ass character as she tells her story.

Setting/World Building
The whole premise of the story is that an expedition finds the ruins, and reanimates people, from a civilization that existed 900,000 years ago. It is a very interesting idea, and has been done before/since. The civilization is actually far more advanced than the present day so it feels really cool. I was reminded at first of the video game Chrono Trigger, where the characters travel to an advanced kingdom that existed around 12,000 BC.

The Kingdom of Zeal circa 12,000 BC, from Chrono Trigger. Advanced technology/magic is used to float the landmass above the rest of the surface. Just another example of the Lost World genre in fiction.

There are two prominent nations/continents in Elea's backstory: Gondawa (Antarctica) and Enisor ("Greater" America). They have been rivals for a long time and in Elea's time-frame she sees the Third War which lasts for 1 hour and devastates millions thanks to the earth (ie, atomic) bombs. A treaty is formed and such weapons are banned, but hostilities persist. 

We hear that both nations establish Moon and Mars colonies and that there are also forays into the rest of the solar system. The Gondawans have a more utopian lifestyle combining elements of capitalism and communism, the two great issues of the day. In Gondawa, a citizen gets an annual allotment of credits to spend in whatever manner he or she wants. Since everything is made by automated factories and "universal energy," there is no lack or even a need to work (unless you don't have a "key" in which case you have absolutely nothing and have to beg). Everyone is required to work at least half a day every 5 days, those who don't get slightly less credits, those who work more get a little more. However, there is no accumulation of wealth since credits are reset every year. Although there is no outright birth control, apparently the population is kept in check and couples are matched by a computer at a young age. Enisor, though it has similar technology, uses it to expand and grow rather than to conserve the balance. To (unsuccessfully) control their population they use a form of euthanasia.

The conflict is revealed to be the reason why the Moon is barren without seas or an atmosphere. Presumably this also happened in Mars. As an astronomer, I know this is ridiculous but I take it for what it is: alternate pre-history science fiction.

Final Thoughts
I was surprised I enjoyed the novel given that it would not have been something I selected from the shelf. Despite its classification as a 'romance' there is plenty there to interest all sorts of readers. In particular, I was drawn into the descriptions of the civilization, technology, and culture of the ancient people.

One of the few problems I had with the book was that descriptions are actually a bit vague: I had trouble picturing some of the settings, especially in Antarctica. I wonder if some of that was lost in translation. Speaking of which: there are no outright moments when I knew this was a translated book.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

While I'm off traveling, here is a review I wrote up last week.
I first heard about Redshirts when John Scalzi read a preview of it at a signing I went to (for Fuzzy Nation, which I still haven't read). The reading was hilarious (he also read the first sentence from The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue).

Overall Impression
I went into this book very excited given all the hype and the song (here) and it quickly delivered. The first half of the book is amazing and you start wondering how the strange events on board the spaceship Intrepid can be happening. Then, things fall flat... You're given an explanation for how things are working and you take it with a grain of salt. It is weird and out-there, but many authors tend to provide a few of these and then completely surprise you with 'the answer' at the end. You only get to connect all the dots moments before the revelation and are left completely satisfied. This book is not like that.

Does that mean this is a bad book? Far from it! The book is hilarious and has some great moments, even the ending is great. However, I kinda wish it was different. The 'big reveal' never feels like it happened and I was left disappointed at such an 'obvious' solution. It's not quite like a Deus Ex Machina, where a powerful outside force suddenly appears and makes everything right, but it feels the same way. Could I have come up with a better way to tell the story? Of course not, but it just didn't meet my expectations.

I would say the plot has two main parts. First, there is a classic space opera which channels Star Trek and other classic TV shows. The crew of the Intrepid go on adventures to explore the galaxy, answer distress calls, etc. It's very fun, especially when the main characters catch on to the unique circumstances behind away missions. Namely, someone always dies on these missions and it is always one of the non-essential crew: the redshirts. The captain, chief officers, and most lieutenants are immune to such deaths and though they can be injured, they always miraculously recover in a manner of days. The rest of the crew knows this and hides in terror when an away mission is announced.

The mystery of why that happens and how it can be solved is the second main part of the plot, and unfortunately it is disappointing. The book goes all meta-fiction at this part, which breaks from the universe created in the first part. It feels like rather than considering a viable, internally-consistent explanation for what's going on with the ship, Scalzi ops for the quick and dirty solution.

The book ends with 3 codas that are related to the second part of the plot. They're somewhat more emotionally charged than the rest of the book. Overall, it feels like book is combining 2-3 stories, but achieving only partial success.

There are several characters throughout the book, but we really focus on only one: Ensign Andy Dahl. He's on the Intrepid and has some interesting skills and backstory that we think will be critical to the story at some point. He feels similar to the main character from Old Man's War in terms of how he approaches problems and the sort of snarky attitude at times. The rest of the characters are a bit bland, though some have their moments to shine. I liked some of the banter and humor between the characters, but other than that they don't stand out that much. The book is really all about the main character and, more importantly, the idea behind the story.

Setting / World Building
The book has two main settings, like it has 2 parts to the plot. The first is neat and space-y, if a bit generic. It's set in the far future, aboard an exploration space ship- the Intrepid. It screams 'Star Trek' all over it. The second setting is far more mundane and takes place in the latter half of the book. The 'down-to-Earth' nature of that setting is jarring when compared to the Intrepid. For someone who likes  the intricate details of fictional worlds, that was a bit disappointing.

Final Thoughts
So in the end, did I like the book? Sure, but not as much as I expected. The story was pretty funny and perfectly in line with what I expect from Scalzi. However, I was very disappointed at the turn of events in the plot. I honestly did not expect such meta-fiction in the book. If you are a fan of Star Trek, enjoy comedy, and like to read a book that pokes fun at itself, then you will surely enjoy the book. It was a clever story, but I prefer it when the fiction stays in the book and doesn't call attention to itself, if that makes any sense.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Morning Mountains

Getting ready to head out for the Cool Stars 17 conference.

Today looks like a beautiful day in Chile, thanks to the bit of rain and wind yesterday. Here's what the Andes looked like this morning:

Looks like Winter has finally come...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Transit of the Earth... from Mars!

Several weeks ago we were witness to one of the rarest, yet predictable, astronomical events known: the transit of Venus. The next such transit will be in the year 2117. You can always catch the next transit of Mercury, though. These are far more common with 13-14 events per century: the next one is May 9, 2016. However, you do need a telescope to see it as Mercury is much smaller.

Perhaps you are now hooked on transits and want to catch an even more exciting event. You may actually have already seen the November 2006 Mercury transit. How about a (near) simultaneous transit of both Venus and Mercury? Good luck: the next one will be around September in the year 13,425 AD.

Perhaps it's best to focus on something that may happen sooner? Enter the transit of the Earth!
If you think Mercury and Venus transiting is exciting, then check out this simulation of transit of the Earth (and Moon!)... from Mars!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Easter Island: Tourism! (3/3)

This is the last of my three posts on Easter Island. Part 1 described the astronomy outreach we did there, part 2 was about the transit of Venus, our main event. This part now describes all the touristy things we squeezed in when we weren't working.

First, a map:
Easter Island. The map I used in my activity has a few embarrassing errors (this one is fine).

There are, as you can imagine, tons of moai on the island. These are statues built by the natives of their ancestors many, many years ago and are the most impressive things you will see. Most were torn down and have subsequently been restored, but a few impressive ones are broken.
(Remember: you can click on the pictures to see them larger.)

Broken moai at Ahu Akahanga

All of these moai were constructed at one place: Rano Raraku, the remains of a volcano that now hosts a lake. The rocks on one side of the volcano was carved up into these great statues, which were then transported all across the island. We had with us a friend and guide, Edmundo Edwards, who told us these great stories and taught us a ton about the history of the island.

Moai at Rano Raraku.

The lake atop Rano Raraku.

Ahu Tongariki, picture below, is one of the better known moai sites. This one has 15 huge moai.

Ahu Tongariki

Most moai face inland, though a few, like Ahu Akivi picture below do not. It's not clear to me why this is, but it's an interesting curiosity. Somewhat unusual is that the stones around Ahu Akivi are all river stones, but there are no rivers on the island (they were recently imported from the mainland).

Ahu Akivi

The highest point of the island, Maunga Terevaka, stands at 507 meters and is the tallest mountain in a 4000 km radius. That shouldn't be too surprising considering there is practically no land (just a few small islands) in that area. Easter Island is truly isolated. We climbed this hill at sunset as we were buffeted by the winds. It was a gruesome hike (I may be exaggerating here), but we made it.

Almost at the summit of Maunga Terevaka.

There are two beaches on the island (the rest of the shore is rocky or cliffs). One was supposed to have pink sand, but it wasn't that pink. I've seen better beaches, but this one was still cool. And it had moai!

Moai at Anakena beach

On our last day of tourism we visited the ruins of Orongo. This ceremonial village is located near the south at the edge of Rano Kau, which is picture below.

Rano Kau. The crater is about a mile in diameter.

Orongo is important as it was used for the Birdman Cult on the island which replaced the moai-building period. The birdman cult is present in other islands and is tied to the creator god Make-Make.

Orongo ceremonial village,

There was a ceremony every year in which a champion would go out to swim to the island to gather the first egg laid by the manutara, the sooty tern (a bird). The host of the winner would then become famous as the tangata-manu (the birdman) and would be considered sacred.

Motu Nui, where the manutara would have their nests is the 'large' island more distant in this shot.

And finally, here's a shot of Ahu Tahai at sunset on June 5, 2012 (the day of the transit of Venus).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I interrupt my Easter Island series (the final part will be up this weekend) to post this review for The Killing Moon, which I finished about a week ago. This book is part 1 of N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology (that means 2 books). As Jemisin says on her website, it's an epic fantasy tale with influences from ancient Egypt, Freudian dream theory, and Jung's ideas on collective consciousness.

Overall Impression
The book was very different from what I expected. To be fair, I didn't know what to expect from it too well, but one of my first thoughts upon reading was 'That's not how Tel'Aran'Rhiod works!' Fans of The Wheel of Time will recognize that. I was also interrupted while reading with my Easter Island trip so this broke up the story's flow a bit.

Still, I did find the book engaging and the world was interesting. I expected a bit more given Jemisin's amazing debut with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but this was still a good read. I wouldn't say this is epic fantasy, though it clearly has some elements of that in it. The plot, as you'll read below, is split between the internal and external conflicts and the external one doesn't seem to encompass the scale I usually associate with epic stories.

The plot centers around the political machinations of those in power in order to grab even more power. Though a bit generic, the details are unique and will keep the reader interested. It does, however, take a while to get started. It feels at times like the main characters are moving on short term goals instead of seeing the big picture. That limited scope can give you an interesting look into the characters, but it keeps the reader in the dark about some of the main details for a long time.

In addition to the external conflict of the political corruption and threat of war, there is also the internal conflict of one of the characters, Ehiru, as he doubts himself and undergoes a crisis of faith. That gives a far more personal look into the world and is actually a very interesting plot line. Both plots are woven together and finish neatly at the conclusion. This is a story of achieving peace, both inner and outer:
True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict. - The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin

The plot revolves around four main characters, but given the relatively short nature of the book we only see two in great detail: Ehiru and Nijiri, a Gatherer and his apprentice. Ehiru is the city's most famous Gatherer and he is deeply spiritual and trustworthy. His confrontation with the corruption in the city shakes his faith and drives the personal side of the story. His apprentice, Nijiri, is a young man eager to prove himself and adores his mentor. There's actually a bit of sexual tension between the two, which is not surprising given Jemisin's take on these issues, but nothing overt happens.

The other two characters are Eninket, the Prince of Gujareh and Sunandi, an ambassador from the neighboring country of Kisua. They are also very important for the story, but it feels like they don't get enough page time for you to get a full idea of what they are like. While Ehiru and Nijiri grow and change throughout the book, Eninket and Sunandi remain fairly static (less so for Sunandi).

Setting / World Building
The setting was interesting and unique given the touches from Egypt. The city has flooding cycles similar to what goes on with the Nile river, and the people, the language, and their attire seem appropriate for the setting. Their culture revolves around the moon and dream goddess, Hananja. The Hetawa are priests of Hananja that specialize in healing magic by gathering humors from dreams: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. The combinations of these four substances can be used to repair physical damage or heal mental sicknesses. An interesting take on medical magic.

Dreamblood is probably the most controversial of the substance to extract as doing so kills the person. A subset of priests, the Gatherers, travel at night to collect dreamblood from people selected for that purpose.  The Gatherer enters their dreams, gives them a sense of peace, and eases their passing into Ina-Karekh, their version of heaven. In general, the tithe bearers are the sick and elderly who wish to pass on in their sleep, but not surprisingly there can also be political motivations behind these 'assassinations.' The Gatherers are very spiritual and have a blind eye towards the politics behind their actions. It is only when the blinds are removed that they realize they've been played and things get messy.

The magic at first feels a bit underdeveloped. The Gatherers give so much (they loose the ability to produce dreamblood so must continuously gather others), but don't seem to get any benefits. Sure, they can use narcomancy to put people to sleep or calm them and eventually we see some of the interesting (and excellently foreshadowed) side effects of dreamblood, but it looks like all the dream humors are used for is healing. Only at the end do we see the secrets behind narcomancy and can appreciate its power and subtlety.

There are two moons on the sky and the larger one, the Dreaming Moon, has four bands. I had a bit of trouble imagining this and how it would work until I read her 'interview' at the end of the book. It turns out the 'planet' they are on is actually a moon! The Dreaming Moon is a gas giant, like Jupiter, and is banded by the structure in the atmosphere. I always appreciate some astronomy in my fantasy and I wish I had caught that as I read the story.

Final Thoughts
In the end, I enjoyed the book, but not as much as I had anticipated. I expected a lot more out of the book, and though I got a satisfying read I was left wanting. Jemisin has an interesting style of telling her stories, but it takes a bit longer for me to get into them. Will I read the second part (The Shadowed Sun)? Sure, but I may wait until after I read other authors and their books. Nevertheless, I can still recommend this book as an interesting take on a fantasy society based loosely on ancient Egypt with some cool magic focusing on healing and dreams.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Easter Island: Transit of Venus (2/3)

This is the second of a three part post series on our recent trip to Easter Island. Previously I wrote about the outreach activities we did on the days leading up to the transit. In this post I describe the main event itself: the transit of Venus.

I've previously talked about the transit of Venus (here) and described the math involved in determining the distance (here). Hence, I'll skip the overview and jump right into the details.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Easter Island: Outreach Activities (1/3)

This past week I've been with a group of astronomers on Easter Island to do outreach, observe the transit of Venus, and do some tourism. This is the first of a 3 post series describing our adventures. Part 1 is a description of the outreach activities we did at Easter Island. Part 2 describes our viewing of the transit of Venus along with our distance estimate, and Part 3 is about the places we visited.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Day of the Transit of Venus

Today is June 5, 2012 (for me, for others it will be June 6). This is the day that Venus passes in front of the Sun in a rare alignment resulting in a transit. This is similar to an eclipse, though Venus will only block ~1/30th of the Sun's disk. Unlike an eclipse, a transit of Venus is an extremely rare event. The next one will be more than a century from now: December 2117.

I had previously written about the transit (here) and detailed some of the math (here) involved in estimating the distance to the Sun. My prior post details one of the outreach activities I created as part of the event.

Today, this post is short and intended only to say one thing: WATCH IT!
This is a scheduled post so hopefully it goes out on time (regardless, the transit lasts for 6 hours).

If it's cloudy or you otherwise can't see the event, here's a short list of websites that will provide live webcasts so you can watch this unique event online (unfortunately, Team Hetu'u will not have a live web feed):
If one link doesn't work, try another! For a larger list, see the Bad Astronomy post here.

Clear skies!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Solar System at Easter Island

By now, you've probably heard about the transit of Venus on June 5-6, 2012. I wrote a short post (here) describing it and a second one (here) describing one method to estimate the distance to the Sun using the transit. Although Chile won't see the transit, a group of us will be traveling to Easter Island to watch it from there (technically *have* travelled since this post was scheduled in advance).

We've created a whole outreach plan for our time at Easter Island, which includes a two-day workshop at the local museum (with talks by the astronomers), school visits the following day, observing the partial lunar eclipse, and the transit of Venus itself on June 5.
One of the things I prepared was an activity on the scale of the solar system specifically for the residents of Easter Island.