Reviews and Comments

Kelson Reads

Joined 2 years, 3 months ago

Techie, software developer, hobbyist photographer, sci-fi/fantasy and comics fan in the Los Angeles area. He/him.

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Kelly Weinersmith, Zach Weinersmith: A City on Mars (Hardcover, 2023) 5 stars

Earth is not well. The promise of starting life anew somewhere far, far away - …

Accessible and intricately researched

5 stars

Accessible and intricately researched, with scattered humor to keep the reader's interest.

Getting to space is the easy part. Staying there is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone wants to believe. There are plenty of established tropes in science-fiction and among serious space enthusiasts, but a lot of them have major gaps in them when you start pressing for details. What happens to a fetus in microgravity? Can you scrape together enough soil nutrients to supply agriculture for a whole Mars city, or do you need to constantly import fertilizer from Earth? How do you make sure you have enough medical supplies on-hand?

The authors wanted to write about what we know about space settlement. But it turns out it's a really good primer for what we don't know and need to research before we can get serious.

It's also an interesting companion to Under Alien Skies …

Ursula K. Le Guin: Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Three Complete Novels of the Hainish Series in One Volume (2016, Orb Books) 4 stars

Worlds of Exile and Illusion contains three novels in the Hainish Series from Ursula K. …

Interesting to see Le Guin as she's developing her craft.

4 stars

This collection of three early novels in Le Guin's Hainish series initially looks haphazard, as if they were only collected because of writing order and not being as well-known as her later works.

  • Rocannon's World is a serviceable fantasy quest wrapped in sci-fi trappings.
  • Planet of Exile is a tighter story of isolation and people forced together by an invasion.
  • City of Illusions involves a stranger seeking his identity in a post-apocalyptic Earth controlled by unseen alien masters.

But common threads tie them together. Not just her frequent themes like culture clashes, critiquing colonization, challenging racial stereotypes (both in-world and real), and just getting people to communicate. The second and third novels form a thematic duology:

  • A single city of Earth colonists struggles to survive and adapt to a primitive world.
  • A single city of alien colonists controls a primitive Earth they've adapted to their own desires.

And you can …

John Scalzi: Starter Villain (2023, Doherty Associates, LLC, Tom) 4 stars

Inheriting your mysterious uncle's supervillain business is more complicated than you might imagine.

Sure, there …

A fun, fast read, parodying the James Bond Villain archetype. With talking dolphins and typing cats.

4 stars

A fun, fast read, parodying the James Bond Villain archetype. The main character is dropped into the deep end of supervillain society, complete with double-crosses, triple-crosses, assassination attempts, blackmail, framing...and of course the secret volcanic lair, superlasers, talking dolphins (who are really unpleasant and cranky) and a management layer of typing cats (who are much less so, depending on how well you feed and pet them).

Everyone knows he's way out of his depth and wants to take advantage of him. But he knows it too -- and between a background in business journalism and a willingness to listen to people with expertise (always considering that they have an agenda that might not be his own), he's able to manage better than anyone expects.

Of course, the skills that get you to the top of the backstabbing, chaotic world of villainy...aren't necessarily the best for financial stability. Or stability of …

Rosemary Mosco: Birding Is My Favorite Video Game (2018, Andrews McMeel Publishing) 5 stars

Amusing science cartoons about the natural world including animal dating profiles, wildlife wine pairings, threat …

A fun collection of short cartoons about nature (not just birds!)

5 stars

A fun collection of short cartoons about nature (not just birds!) collected from the cartoonist's website, Bird and Moon. Most of them are funny, riffing on oddities of various animals and plants, or on misconceptions people often have, but there are a few serious ones in there about climate change. Some of the longer ones are easier to read online because they've been shrunk down to fit on the small page size.

Some of my favorites from this collection include: - Red-Tail Blues - I've seen crows trying to hassle a less-than-impressed hawk on several occasions! - Attenborough - Ironically, I read this one in David Attenborough's voice. - When I Grow Up - It's good to have goals. - Versus - Monarch vs Milkweed! - Northern Pygmy Owl

Cross-posted from my website.

Thanks to @sohkamyung for inadvertently letting me know about the collection by reviewing it a …

T. Kingfisher: A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking (EBook, 2020) 5 stars

Fourteen year old Mona is a baker but she is also a not-very-powerful wizard - …

Fun and original take on the teenage wizard genre

5 stars

With an immortal carnivorous sourdough starter named Bob (who may or may not count as a familiar).

In case that's not enough to convince you:

Teenage assistant baker Mona's only magic talent is with bread. She can make it staler or fresher, keep it from burning, make gingerbread men dance, and occasionally something more dramatic like Bob. (Bob was an accident, but he's quite handy around the bakery.) She wasn't prepared to be suspect number one in a rash of wizard murders, live on the run, or to protect the city from a threat as its only remaining mage.

Fun characters, fun concepts, and a quest that runs through the city's worst slums to the palace. Mona has to navigate both from her comfortable shopkeeper's life, learning what happens when the system she relied on to protect her is turned against her. And how the system can be manipulated against …

John Scalzi: Head on (2018) 5 stars

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and …

Intriguing concepts, fun characters, interesting mystery.

5 stars

The sequel to Lock In is a fast read with an interesting mystery, fun characters, and intriguing concepts. More than the first book, it fully explores the societal impact of both large scale lock-in and the technology used to deal with it.

It continues with the POV of locked-in FBI agent Chris Shane, this time investigating the death of a locked-in athlete.

In this near-future, 10% of the world's population have been locked into their brains by a pandemic. Virtual reality and remote robot piloting enable them to interact with the world, and there are even specially designed "threeps" (named after a well-known droid) for different tasks. Among them: the battle threeps used for a sport more violent than could be played with real human bodies.

Hadens spend most of their lives interacting through simulations or mechanical avatars, which changes a lot about identity presentation, travel, location, disability and prejudice. …

Sue Burke, Sue Burke: Semiosis (EBook, 2018, Tom Doherty Associates) 5 stars

Human survival hinges on an bizarre alliance in Semiosis, a character driven science fiction novel …

Not many books have chapters narrated by bamboo.

5 stars

Semiosis is a fascinating take on space colonization, intelligence, and language. The multi-generational story starts with the founding of a small human colony on an alien world where, as they soon discover, plants have evolved intelligence and use animals for tools. Needless to say, things don't work out the way the colonists intended, and their descendants find ways to adapt to a world where they can't forget that they're only one part of the ecosystem -- and not a necessary part, either. And the plants have their own ideas!

Each chapter picks up a character from a different generation. Burke gives them all distinct voices and attitudes, and while each looks back at the previous narrator from this new perspective, their stories are their own.

I found the middle chapters the most interesting. At this point the colony has established itself, and all the founders have died off, leaving only …

Annalee Newitz: Four Lost Cities (2021, W. W. Norton & Company) 5 stars

Fascinating look at how cities form, live and die

5 stars

Modern archaeology has drastically increased what we can learn from ancient ruins, and Newitz turns this lens on the history of how cities form, how they thrive, and how they die. The writing is engaging and accessible, flowing through what we know, how we know it, how certain we are about it, and the author's first-hand experiences with archaeologists at the actual sites.

The book has added a lot to my understanding of Pompeii and Angkor. Çatalhöyük is fascinatingly weird. And I'd really like to know more about Cahokia. (So would the people studying it!)

Satellites and Microscopes

There's a recurring theme of re-examining what we thought we knew, using either new technology or new perspective. Angkor is perhaps the best example: LIDAR surveys in the last 10-15 years have revealed the remains of building foundations and an irrigation network outside the walled temple complexes. It wasn't a medium-sized …

Phil Plait: Under Alien Skies (2023, Norton & Company Limited, W. W.) 5 stars

A rip-roaring tour of the cosmos with the Bad Astronomer, bringing you up close and …

Fun and informative, melding sci-fi with the science behind it.

5 stars

A fun look at what it would be like to visit other planets or star systems, weaving together sci-fi scenarios, the science behind them, and the history of how those discoveries were made.

It starts with worlds we know the most about -- our moon and Mars, where we have plenty of direct measurements and photos from the surface -- and works its way out through asteroids, gas giants and their moons, and finally Pluto.

The second half of the book delves into more speculative situations. Types of places we know exist, like star clusters and nebulas and different types of stars. Plait links these to specific locations where possible. We know a system of planets exists around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, for instance, and we have a rough idea of how big, how far, and how fast the planets are that we've spotted so far. From there he …

Janelle Shane: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You (Paperback, 2021, Voracious) 5 stars

A fun, accessible introduction to how machine learning works...and how it sometimes doesn't!

5 stars

Still relevant despite recent advances in AI-generated imagery and text, because the new systems still work on the same principles as the ones that were around three years ago. They just have a lot more data and processing power. This also means they have the same limitations and blind spots. What was it trained on? How was it trained? (This is the most obvious way human bias can leak into an AI model.) How well is the goal specified? And of course, did the AI actually latch onto relevant details, or did it notice that all the training pictures labeled sheep had green fields and blue skies, and completely ignore the actual sheep?

These are things to keep in mind as we enter the landscape of generative AI tools like ChatGPT: You can train an LLM to write a book review, and it'll give you a great piece of text …

H. G. Wells: The Time Machine: H.G. Wells' Groundbreaking Time Travel Tale, Classic Science Fiction (2010, Megalodon Entertainment LLC.) 4 stars

The Time Machine is a science fiction novella by H. G. Wells, published in 1895 …

Thought-provoking speculation about the future of humanity

5 stars

Content warning Not sure why I'm putting a spoiler alert on a book that's more than a century old, but hey, you might not have seen either of the movies, and even if you did, they might not have made it clear what was going on with the Morlocks and Eloi.

Katie Mack: The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (2021, Scribner) 5 stars

From one of the most dynamic rising stars in astrophysics, an accessible and eye-opening look—in …

Engaging read for general audiences on what we know about the history and future of the universe

5 stars

An engaging read for the general audience about what we currently know about the history and structure of the universe and what that knowledge -- and the pieces we don't know -- might mean for its future and eventual end. Katie Mack writes in a casual, entertaining style. It's clear she finds all of this absolutely fascinating. And she sprinkles the writing with funny stories and quotes and side notes to get across the basics of quantum mechanics, Higgs fields, high-energy physics and the like without delving too much into the math. But the math, and the measurements, are important, because as it turns out, very small changes in how things work at the quantum level can have major implications on the universe's ultimate fate.

The last time I read about this topic in anything resembling depth was about a decade ago. Since then there've been major discoveries in …

Neil Gaiman, Colleen Doran: Chivalry (Hardcover, 2022, Dark Horse Comics) 5 stars

Another delightfully humorous and sweet fantasy graphic novel adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, …

A beautifully drawn and illustrated, charming tale of Arthurian legend brought into modern times.

5 stars

A sweet, charming take on Arthurian legend brought into modern times, beautifully drawn and painted by Colleen Doran. Worth it for the art alone, which continues the style you can see on the cover: painted scenes and panels, with borders and calligraphy and margin drawings like a medieval manuscript. I've read other graphic adaptations of Neil Gaiman stories that tried to keep too much of the prose, but here the words and illustration are balanced perfectly to serve the story, and again, the art is amazing.

The story is kind of fantasy fusion comfort food. It follows familiar patterns, mixing the magic-item-found-in-a-shop trope with the Arthurian grail quests.

An old widow picks up the Holy Grail at a thrift shop, takes it home and sets it on her mantelpiece. Soon after, Sir Galahad shows up. He's been looking for a long time. He keeps coming back, offering one thing …

Norse Mythology is a 2017 book by Neil Gaiman. The book is a retelling of …

Entertaining, sometimes gruesome, sometimes funny and sometimes sad

4 stars

collection of stories about the gods of Asgard and the elves, dwarves and giants around them, book-ended by the Norse creation myth and the world-ending battle of Ragnarok. It’s a storytelling approach, not a scholarly description. And it’s not the shiny, techno-magical Asgard of Marvel’s Thor, or the ethereal Olympus we’ve come to think of with Greek myths. For all the magic and impossible feats that get tossed around, it’s still a gritty, harsh world with wars, murders, lust, deception and betrayal.

The stories are mostly separate, but a pattern emerges: not just when stories refer back to earlier events, but the slow transformation of Loki from the kind of trickster who steals Sif’s hair, tricks rival smiths into creating fantastic gifts, and generally outwits his opponents (while finding ways to embarrass the other gods if he can) to the kind of trickster who thinks it would be hilarious to …

John Scalzi: The Kaiju Preservation Society (EBook, 2022, Tom Doherty Associates) 4 stars

Jamie’s dream was to hit the big time at a New York tech start-up. Jamie’s …

Escaping the pandemic by learning to survive on a world with gigantic monsters

5 stars

A fun, breezy story about unexpectedly landing a job at a secret scientific base on a parallel world studying giant Godzilla-like animals. Which is about as dangerous as it sounds. Plus, of course, not all humans are interested in the kaijus' welfare, and the KPS has to step up the "Preservation" part of its name.

There's some interesting world-building in terms of what kind of environment and ecosystem would actually support 100-meter-tall animals, what kind of biology would be able to handle the size, the energy, shooting beams of radiation, etc. And what might evolve to protect itself in a world with kaiju. And of course: what role nuclear explosions have in the whole thing, because these are kaiju after all!

It's also weird because it takes place in 2020. Like, real 2020, complete with Covid-19 lockdowns and everything. The main character starts out working for a GrubHub competitor at …