Garrett (garote) wrote,

January reading (clearing out some backlog)

Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane.

The introduction comes across as very pompous, like a mush-mouthed Carl Sagan. It could be chopped right in half and it would only improve the book - which, for the rest of its pages, is a refreshingly up-to-date and coherent tour of ten of the "most innovative" products of evolution - such as photosynthesis, sight, and warm-bloodedness - along with explanations for how those products arose, and sometimes two or three competing explanations.

I learned some things that genuinely surprised me, and even laughed a few times at the author's unexpected sense of humor.

Definitely recommended. But skip the introduction and start right in with the main book. Eight out of ten flagella up.

Discworld 22: The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett

I hadn't read this one in at least ten years, and all I remembered from the first read was some Mad-Max chase scenes in the desert and a bunch of jokes about beer. The book definitely had those, as well as a whole bunch more cultural references to Australia that were a little more poignant now that I've poked around Melbourne and Tasmania a bit.

I enjoyed it all the way up to the end, especially the episodic ramblings of Rincewind in the outback, but the last sentence of the book came and went without answering what I felt was a very important question: Where did the time portal in Unseen University come from? Why was it there?

The portal is found in the bathroom of a University apartment, ostensibly belonging to the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography. According to The Internet, that professorial title belongs to Rincewind. Before they find the portal, the wizards spend a while reading the journals on the apartment bookshelves. Those journals really don't sound like Rincewind wrote them. What's going on? Did Rincewind inherit the position? If he didn't make the portal, why didn't he at least discover it, since it was in his university apartment?

The book was funny and cute. Seven out of ten boomerangs up.

The Science of Discworld: Revised Edition, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen

Ian and Jack apparently decided that the science-and-story first edition needed a whole lot more of the science part, without adding anything to the story part. Even if I wasn't already familiar with almost all of the book's revelations about the formation of the solar system and the evolution of life, I would still find myself impatiently skipping forward to get back to Pratchett's story about Hex and the wizards toying with a quaint self-contained universe.

It's worth a read, if you take it at your own pace. Six out of ten bananas up.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

This book was ruined for me, even though I knew nothing about it going in - not even so much as a plot synopsis. Why? Science. Atwood has claimed in interviews that the book is not meant to be hard science fiction, but instead a kind of cautionary tale or morality play, and I can usually roll with that, but in the case of Oryx and Crake I found that my suspension of disbelief was attacked over and over again, and about halfway through the book it took one too many hits and I just stopped reading.

My problem is this: I've read too many books about evolution and genetics, and even my layman's grasp of the science was enough to tell me that the heinous consequences foretold in Atwood's cautionary tale were, at best, absurdly unlikely, and at worst, total violations of the physics that govern metabolism and the principles of natural selection that govern evolution.

Plus, a huge amount of the book is spent switching between two plots that bear some mysterious connection, and for most of the book that connection - which is the central mystery in the story - is left almost totally unexplained, even outright ignored.

Beautifully realized characters, but too deeply flawed as a work of science fiction for me to finish. Four snowmen out of ten up.

The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins

This is my third exploration of this book in the last five years. Amazon describes it thus: "An exhilarating reverse tour through evolution, from present-day humans back to the microbial beginnings of life four billion years ago." And it is just that. Each time I come back to it, a few more concepts are wedged into my head that managed to drift by me in previous reads.

At this point I've read quite a few books that explore evolution, in theory and in experiment, in the mathematical world and in the natural world, and I can confidently say that whatever misgivings you may have about Dawkins' political shenanigans with atheism, he is a first-rate science writer, consistently achieving a standard of clarity that disappointingly few other writers can match.

I will admit, The Ancestor's Tale is very information-dense, and is not really palatable when read all at once. Pick it up and open it at random, then wait a few months and do it again. ... As long as you're prepared to relinquish two or three hours of your day each time.

Nine out of ten proto-limbs up.
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