Monday, March 20, 2023

Scientifica Historica by Brian Clegg

Beautifully illustrated history of science books
Scientific Historica
, published in 2019, is an illustrated history of science books from ancient times to the present. It highlights important and influential science books written and published all over the world. At 8" x 9.5
", filled with color images, this is a sort of mini-coffee-table volume that celebrates the history of science publishing. The author Brian Clegg is a science writer himself, best known for his book A Brief History of Infinity, published in 2003.

Even if you never actually read this book, the images alone are worth the cover price. This book reproduces covers and pages from hundreds of historic volumes. Book collectors and graphic designers will find the visuals fascinating, since the selection of images in Scientifica Historica inevitably presents a historical overview of book design, scientific illustration, and information graphics. The history begins with clay tablets and hand-copied manuscripts before moving into the age of printing. The mathematical diagrams of Euclid’s Elements, the functional planetary charts of Peter Bienewitz’s Astronomicum Caesareum, the chemical hieroglyphics of John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy, and the botanical and zoological etchings of many a 19th-century naturalist are both a visual and intellectual joy to behold. The illustrations get somewhat less impressive as the narrative moves into the late twentieth century, at which point the glory days of scientific illustrations, diagrams, and maps seem to have passed, and the images presented are book covers only.

While the illustrations are very interesting to look through, the writing is often pretty dry. This isn’t really a history of science, after all, but rather a history of science writing. Clegg discusses such matters as how English replaced Latin as the dominant lingua franca of science, or how the field of science writing gradually moved from specialized treatises for highly educated readers to more popular science books for the general reading public. Some of the books discussed are included because they were very important in the history of science, like Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Others, like Audubon’s Birds of America or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, are highlighted because they achieved a level of popularity that allowed them to successfully bring science education to the masses.

Scientifica Historica is a well-conceived study of its subject that manages to be both comprehensive and concise. Although the text isn’t always exciting reading, Clegg does describe the contents of each historic volume well enough for the reader to decide whether he or she would like to read the book in question. An appendix lists the 150 major books discussed in the text (though additional books are mentioned briefly), providing an impressive reading list for those interested in the history of science. About two-thirds of those texts are old enough to be in the public domain, and so free downloadable copies should exist online. For any reader with more than a passing interest in the history of science or the history of the book, browsing through this attractive volume certainly inspires one to seek out and read some of these landmark scientific works of the past. 
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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Out of Their Minds by Clifford D. Simak

Possibly Simak’s worst
I’m in the process of reading my way through Clifford D. Simak’s complete works. With only a handful of novels left, I come to Out of Their Minds, published in 1970. Though I consider myself a diehard Simak fan, I found little to like in this book. In fact, thinking back over the course of his body of work, I can’t recall another book of his that I liked less than this one. From Chapter 1, I found the story boring and silly, and it never improved over the entire length of the novel.

The narrator, Horton Smith, is a minor celebrity due to his career as a radio and television personality. He is taking a break from that career, however, in order to author a book. In hopes of finding the peace and quiet to devote himself to writing, Smith returns to his hometown of Pilot Knob after a long time away. Like many a small town in Simak’s works, Pilot Knob is a slice of rural Americana inhabited by salt-of-the-earth people with conservative family values. Smith expects the town will have changed some during his years of absence, but he is unprepared for what he encounters when he arrives. On a country road outside of town, his car is run off the road by a charging triceratops. Though some farmers residing nearby welcome him into their home, offering him food and shelter, he inexplicably wakes up in a cave full of rattlesnakes. This is but the beginning of a chain of strange phenomena and dangerous situations that seem to arise out of nowhere to threaten Smith’s life.

The title has a double meaning. The phrase Out of Their Minds could refer to persons who are insane, but in this case it primarily pertains to characters and events from people’s imaginations that manifest themselves in physical reality, literally arising out of their minds. Smith believes there is a parallel world of beings who have sprung from mankind’s imagination and developed independent consciousness and sentience. Usually these beings remain hidden in the shadows, leaving their existence a matter of speculation. When a real-world human finds out that they actually exist, however, as Smith does when tipped off by a dying colleague, these beings from the world of imagination try to kill the aware individual in order to protect their concealment.

That sounds like a whimsical premise that might offer ample opportunity for some fantastical Twilight Zone plots, but Simak tries to justify these beings of pure thought using Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is a poorly thought-out and ridiculous excuse for the author to indulge in whatever strikes his fancy. Anything goes in Out of Their Minds—cartoon characters, the aforementioned dinosaur, and beings from mythical, religious, and historical folklore all come to life. The lack of rules makes for a nonsensical and meandering story that despite the no-holds-barred abandonment of reality is nonetheless quite boring. There is a Civil War scene in this novel for no other reason than Simak seems to have thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Civil War scene?” Perhaps, but not in this novel, where it clearly doesn’t belong in the same story with gnomes, demons, and dinosaurs.

Simak was a talented and visionary writer in both science fiction and fantasy literature, and he received critical acclaim and awards for his writing in both genres. In my opinion, however, his sci-fi is far superior to his fantasy, and Out of Their Minds isn’t even good fantasy. Though I haven’t quite finished all his books, when all is read and done I suspect that this novel will probably end up being my least favorite of his works.
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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Redburn: His First Voyage by Herman Melville

A sailor’s life told with humor and poignancy
, the fourth novel by Herman Melville, was published in 1849, two years before his masterpiece Moby-Dick. Like Moby-Dick and the handful of novels that came before, Redburn is a nautical narrative. Similar to Melville’s earlier books Typee and Omoo, Redburn bears an eyewitness immediacy that indicates this is likely a semi-autobiographical work of Melville’s own seafaring adventures, though no doubt portions of the work are fictionalized. The adventure in question is not as exciting as that of Typee, but Melville’s skills as a prose stylist have improved quite a bit since his literary debut. Redburn, which reads a bit like Moby-Dick but without all the deep philosophizing, is also a work in which Melville frequently exhibits his sense of humor.

Wellingborough Redburn, the son of a formerly wealthy gentleman, lives in a village on the Hudson River in New York State. After his father undergoes a fall from grace in business and finances, Redburn is forced to work for a living. Unable to find gainful employment in his hometown, he decides to follow his natural wanderlust into a career as a sailor. In embarking on this new life, he must start at the bottom, and he signs on as a “boy” on the ship Highlander bound for Liverpool. Blue-collar workers derogatorily might refer to Redburn as a “college boy” for the airs of intellect and refinement that he puts on. In the world of nautical employment, however, he is a greenhorn and a bumbler. One can sense that Melville is making fun of his younger self when he points out what a ridiculous fish-out-of-water Redburn is in this harsh new environment. As Redburn learns the ins and outs of the sailing life, the reader learns along with him and shares in his embarrassments. While Redburn is forced to live through these indignities, however, the reader has the luxury of laughing from the sidelines.

In Redburn, Melville presents a very interestingly unglamorized view of shipboard life. Once the boat reaches Liverpool, however, the narrative loses some steam. Melville digresses into some extended travel literature critical of the city of Liverpool, of which there’s a bit too much, but he eventually returns to the seafaring narrative. The laughs are not so forthcoming in the book’s latter half, however. Instead, Melville delivers poignancy and pathos through some memorable incidents in the lives of Redburn’s crewmates.

Masculinity is a theme that’s examined throughout the book. Most of the sailors on board the Highlander are of the aggressively macho variety, the extreme embodiment of which is Jackson, who almost resembles the alpha male of a gorilla troop. The more seasoned members of the crew are always ready to point out what they perceive as a lack of manliness on the part of Redburn. The title character gets off easily, however, compared to his friend Harry Bolton, who is described as such a soft and sensitive dandy that he comes across as somewhat of an androgyne. It seems as if a few characters in the book are intended to be gay (including Bolton, but not Redburn), though Melville couldn’t explicitly state that in a work of 1840s America literature. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge homoeroticism as a fact of life aboard ship. Melville makes it none too subtly clear that after long months at sea the macho sailors, tired of looking at each other’s ugly mugs, would vie for the attentions of a comely, effeminate male passenger or crewmate, even if the attentions paid were nonsexual.

Although this novel isn’t loaded with symbolism and mysticism to the extent of Moby-Dick, it still ends up being surprisingly profound for a book that starts out as a rather lighthearted fictionalized memoir. More so than the earlier novels in his career, Redburn shows Melville rising to the level of literary greatness one would expect from the author of Moby-Dick
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Friday, February 24, 2023

The Ascension Factor by Frank Herbert

Not the strong finale one would hope for
The Ascension Factor
is the final novel in the Pandora Sequence by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom. Herbert’s novel Destination: Void was a prelude of sorts to the series. He then collaborated with his friend, poet Bill Ransom, on a trilogy of novels set on a planet named Pandora, beginning with The Jesus Incident, which was followed by The Lazarus Effect. The Ascension Factor was published in 1988. Herbert died while the book was being written, and Ransom has stated that for that reason he had a bigger hand in writing this final book than he did for the previous two novels. Even if that’s the case, there is no noticeable change in style or narrative voice in this last installment, but the plot is the least interesting of the series.

While centuries passed between the previous novels in the Pandora series, The Ascension Factor takes place only 25 years after the end of The Lazarus Effect. A couple of characters have returned from that previous novel, but mostly this new book is populated by the children of The Lazarus Effect’s cast. One of the returnees is the recurring character Raja Flattery, the chaplain/psychiatrist of the original mission from Earth. Despite the fact that the astronauts who ventured to Pandora can stay alive for centuries in “hybernation,” this is not the same Raja Flattery who appeared in the previous novels, but rather another clone of the same person. This new Flattery is a tyrant who rules over Pandora with an iron fist, commanding a complex network of intelligence agents, assassins, and media outlets. Fed up with Pandora’s harsh environment and pestered by an underground resistance, Flattery has decided to build a new space ship to migrate humans to another planet where he will re-establish his authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, Pandora’s apex native species of sentient electrokelp, long controlled by humans for its climate-changing abilities, has started to outgrow the rule of its masters, and a legendary human/kelp hybrid messiah has appeared on the scene to challenge Flattery’s dictatorship.

The Pandora Sequence is also known as the WorShip series, after the conscious and omniscient spacecraft known as Ship, whom many humans on Pandora worship as a god. Herbert and Ransom never really followed up with that thread, however, as Ship abandoned Pandora after The Jesus Incident, never to return. The religious titles of the three Pandora novels lead one to believe that Herbert and Ransom might use this sci-fi series to examine religious and theological concepts. That’s true of The Jesus Incident, which contains a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery, but once again the authors pretty much abandoned that idea in the later novels. The only religion that’s really covered in the last two books is the sort of messiah worship that Herbert already explored more intelligently in his Dune series. The Ascension Factor, with its rather simplistic overthrow-the-tyrant storyline, feels too much like a rehash of Dune themes.

In the Dune books, the plots were driven by continuous confrontations between characters. The Ascension Factor, like The Lazarus Effect, suffers from too much going places and not enough getting there. The characters spend so much time in vehicles on their way to meeting each other that you have to wait until the very end of the book for much to happen, and then too much happens. Also plaguing this novel is a return to the technobabble that almost rendered Destination: Void unintelligible. Towards the end of The Ascension Factor, the authors (probably Ransom, mostly) get so bogged down in the technical details of the kelp, submarines, and hologram technology of Pandora that it’s hard to follow exactly what’s going on. Or rather, it’s hard to care when anything goes. Overall, the Pandora series is an entertaining and intriguing sci-fi saga, but it could have used a better finale.
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Thursday, February 23, 2023

On These Wall: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress by John Y. Cole. Photographs by Carol M. Highsmith

The public art of America’s secular cathedral
On These Walls
, published in 2008, is a photography book showcasing the art and architecture of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The subtitle, “Inscriptions & Quotations,” makes the book sound less exciting than it is. It’s not really so much about the quotes and text that adorn the LOC’s walls but more about the visuals that accompany them. This book is chock full of beautiful photographs of the murals, mosaics, sculptures, stained glass windows, and architectural details of the world’s largest library. The images include artworks found in the Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams buildings. The Jefferson building, however, being the Library’s flagship edifice that was lavishly decorated in the late 19th century, is the main attraction and gets the lion’s share of coverage.

At 9 x 10 inches and a half an inch thick, this isn’t quite a coffee table book, but it certainly isn’t a pocket guidebook either. The paper is of high quality, and the printing is impeccable. The photography is by Carol Highsmith, one of America’s greatest documentary photographers of the 20th century. After taking hundreds of thousands of photos all over America, she donated her entire body of work to the Library of Congress and graciously entered all her images into the public domain. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting photographer for this subject.

The photographs here include very few room-sized interior shots. Almost all the pictures focus on a particular work of art. This is not a comprehensive guide that attempts to document every artwork in these buildings. Instead, it gives the reader a general idea of the decorative theme or scheme in each room or hallway, and then shows a couple examples from each room. The captions provide information on the artists who created the artworks and also describes paintings and sculptures that are not pictured. For example, the text tells you that the Northwest Corridor of the Jefferson Building has nine lunettes (semicircular murals) painted by Edward Simmons depicting the nine Muses of Greek Mythology. It shows you photographs of two of these Muses, then lists the rest, also pointing out that under each Muse is a quotation by Alexander Pope. The photos are so beautiful they leave the reader wishing for more. Perhaps there is a book out there that documents every single artwork in the LOC, but if so it would be a huge and expensive book.

I have an art degree, but I only recognized the name of one artist discussed in this book: Elihu Vedder. Unfortunately, this romantic style of allegorical figurative art from the Gilded Age has since fallen out of favor among art scholars and critics, but On These Walls celebrates these great artists as they deserve. Not only is the art beautiful, but the symbolism is interesting and the subject matter inspiring. The Library of Congress is the ultimate monument to America’s intellectual heritage, similar to the Panthéon in Paris, but minus the tombs. (The art and inscriptions in the LOC actually celebrate achievements of all nations, but with a clear emphasis on European heritage and a predominance of American names.) Each room celebrates great achievements in literature, the arts, sciences, humanities, and industry. Like the cathedrals of Renaissance Europe, the decorative art delivers both an education and a sermon, but in this case it’s a secular sermon, one that champions human intellect and creative intrepidity. That’s a fitting message for an American library, and this is one library, and one book, that will make you proud to be an American.  
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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7 by Gerry Conway, et al.

Three out of Four ain’t bad
Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7
reprints issues #138 to 159 of the Fantastic Four comic book. These issues originally ran with cover dates of September 1973 to June 1975. In addition, this paperback volume of black and white reprints includes Giant-Size Fantastic Four numbers 2, 3, and 4, a one-shot comic called Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, and a crossover issue of the Avengers (#127). Most of the issues in this volume were written by Gerry Conway, one of the better storytellers in Marvel’s bullpen in the ‘70s. The art is drawn mostly by Rich Buckler but with a few issues by the brothers Buscema, John and Sal. None of these artists is quite up to Jack Kirby standards, but they all make a conscious and valiant effort to emulate Kirby’s bombastic, futuristic style, which is appropriate to the Fantastic Four. In doing so, Buckler and company deliver the classic style of Marvel art one expects from this era.

The cover of each issue of the Fantastic Four bore the tagline “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and they weren’t just whistling Dixie. Fantastic Four had two big strengths going for it. The first was its interesting characters and the unusual family dynamic between them. The second was the fact that the FF were the most sci-fi of Marvel’s superheroes and therefore hosted the most fantastical and innovative stories. The pulp-fiction scope of the Fantastic Four’s world was so broad that no genre or strange occurrence felt out of place. Aliens, time travel, alternate universes, mythical beings, magical wizards, lost civilizations, giant bug-eyed monsters, war stories, soap opera romance—just about everything was fair game in the Fantastic Four, and it all works. I think there’s even a bit of Western in these issues. This run of stories from the 1970s is not the title’s greatest hits by any means, but these comics are still exceptionally entertaining because they are built on the solid foundation created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: Doctor Doom, the Inhumans, the Negative Zone, Namor, the Watcher, the Silver Surfer, the Frightful Four—with material like that to work with, it’s hard to go wrong.

One disappointing aspect of this period in the FF’s career is that Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, is almost entirely absent from these issues. She and Reed Richards are separated, and Medusa of the Inhumans is filling her spot on the team. Even after Sue and Reed reconcile, she’s still hardly around, only showing up for an occasional brief cameo. Medusa may have amazing hair, but she’s not a character with much personality. The writers don’t give her a whole lot to do anyway, and the stories concentrate almost exclusively on the three men in the team. Marvel may have broken some ground by introducing many female superheroes into their universe, but in the 1970s they were still a long way from feminism.

Nevertheless, there is much for fans of classic Marvel to enjoy in Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7. Deeming these issues “Essential” may be a stretch, but the stories and art are well above average Marvel fare of the period, and this trip down memory lane is a whole lot of fun.  
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Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne

Mediocre mystery in Transylvania
Jules Verne is known as a pioneering master of science fiction for penning such works as From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He did not, however, confine himself exclusively to the sci-fi genre. Of the 50-plus novels in Verne’s series of Voyages Extraordinaires, many of the works are adventure stories in what might be termed geographic fiction. Verne chooses an exotic locale and then creates a story based on the environment, culture, and history of that location. Such is the case with The Castle of the Carpathians, a Verne novel published in 1892. The story is set in Transylvania, now in Northern Romania but at that time part of Austria-Hungary. In his depiction of the region, Verne emphasizes the superstitious nature of its inhabitants, which allows him to dabble in the horror genre. Verne, however, has always been a champion of science over superstition, of the natural over the supernatural, so this venture into Gothic horror feels a bit halfhearted, like a Scooby-Doo mystery just waiting for the ghost’s mask to be pulled off.

Near the Transylvanian village of Werst there lies a massive, spooky castle of rough-hewn stone, resembling a ruin from some forgotten dark age. The owner of the castle, the Baron de Gortz, abandoned the estate 15 years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since, leaving the castle uninhabited. A shepherd in the neighborhood, however, spies smoke issuing from the chimney. Who is it that could be residing in the castle? Has Baron de Gortz returned? Have bandits occupied the castle, using it as their hideout? Could the fortress be populated by evil spirits or perhaps even the devil himself? There’s only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to venture into the castle and investigate, but what brave soul would dare enter this dark and forbidding edifice, the source of so many eerie rumors and ghost stories?

That’s basically half the book right there: the townspeople of Werst talking about how spooky the castle is. It is obvious that sooner or later the reader must be taken inside the castle walls, but Verne certainly makes you wait for it. He introduces a romance into the story and goes off into a Baron de Gortz back story that resembles a romantic opera of the era. When we actually enter the castle, it is a confusing array of passages and staircases. One would need a detailed floor plan to decipher all of Verne’s confusing directions. Overall, the plot spends too much time in the local inn with the chattering townspeople and not enough in the castle itself.

I actually like Verne’s non-sci-fi novels. I chose this book because I was interested in the Carpathians, a region not often covered in literature (at least not in novels translated into English). Verne’s depiction of the region, however, seems rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. It’s possible that Bram Stoker might have been inspired by this novel when he chose Transylvania as the setting for Dracula. Even if that’s true, Stoker took the concept much further and really excels in this genre, more so than Verne. The Castle of the Carpathians is not very successful as a horror novel or thriller. (The giant squid scene in Twenty Thousand Leagues is scarier than this.) As an adventure novel it’s rather boring, and as a science fiction novel there just isn’t a whole lot of science. The ending may have been surprising and innovative for the 1890s, but for today’s readers it’s pretty predictable. Really the only thing The Castle of the Carpathians has going for it is Verne’s inimitable style, charm, and enthusiasm. Fans of his will find this book mildly entertaining but not one of his better offerings.

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